Tomatoes in a bicycle helmet

Thinking, making and doing new things can happen at any time.  It just takes a change in perspective.

As I was heading back out to the lake yesterday from my home in the city, I had to stop in pick up bicycle helmets from the garage and harvest my garden’s tomatoes.  The door to the house was locked so I didn’t have a bag or bowl for the tomatoes.  

I was stopping at the garage on my way to the garden and I picked up my son’s helmet first.  As it hung upside down on his handle bar, I could see the perfect bowl.  So I went to the garden to harvest my tomatoes and put the helmet and tomatoes in the back of my car.

As I walked away from the garden, this logic struck me:

  1. The purpose of a helmet is to protect heads
  2. Heads are precious cargo
  3. Tomatoes are precious cargo
  4. While unconventional, it makes perfect sense to use a bicycle helmut to carry tomatoes
Believe it or not, this is an example of what makes a city tick.
Our economic life – our ability to generate new work – is the force that generates cities.  The development of new work is fundamentally our ability to think, make and do new things. At heart is the ability to take something, say a bicycle helmet, and use it for a new purpose.  Like flipping a helmet upside down to carry tomatoes instead of strapping it around a human head.
One of Jane Jacobs’ main ideas is that all new work takes place on the shoulders of existing work.  New ways of thinking, making and doing new things always use existing work.  Just like using a helmet to carry tomatoes.
To grow cities that serve citizens well, we need to draw on the innovation that cities generate.  To do this, we need to grow citizens that serve cities well.  This requires a citizen practice where we remain open and curious to possibilities and potential.
We need to be forever looking for  ways to make use of our helmets.
_____ _____ _____
Join me and 50 visionaries to re-envision the future of city at the City 2.0 EXPO, September 4-27, 2012.  We are gathering leaders and city-zens the world over for an unprecedented  – and free – virtual conference.  
Join us to dream the future of the city.


Cities need quality feedback from habitat

Figure A - City Dynamic

A city that meets our needs pays attention to three critical relationships within the city’s habitats:

  1. between economic life and social habitat;
  2. between social habitat and physical habitat; and
  3. between economic life, through social habitat to physical habitat.

In the first relationship, between our economic life and our social habitat, we make personal investments to come up with ideas and turn them into new work. Likewise, how we organize ourselves shapes our collective investment in the idea – the labour we put to it, the skills we put to it, or simply the ‘human potentialities’, as Jane Jacobs put it, shape what becomes of the idea.  In the workplace or in a community, for example, new ways of thinking, making and doing new things emerge when welcome; they likely remain invisible or nonexistent if the social habitat is hostile.

At a societal level, sometimes we just are not ready yet for new things until conditions change.  Sixty years ago my home was built with no insulation.  Energy prices were low and the notion of human-caused climate change did not exist.  In contrast, today we have building codes with minimal requirements for energy efficiency and government grants to upgrade older homes.  As our social habitat changes, so does our work.  And as our work changes, so does our social habitat.  Notice the adjustments we have made to life with computers, the internet, social media, etc.

This relationship between our social habitat and our economic life is critical to Jacobs’ refueling principle: “… no matter how efficient a cow may be, if it doesn’t self-refuel, it’s a dead cow.  Self-refueling is so fundamental to survival, and to all other process of life made possible by survival, that conceptions of whether it is a good or bad thing are pointless.”[1]  The ideas that survive in cities (new work) must be applied or used for economic life to thrive.  This is the essence of refueling – capture the good ideas, let new ideas emerge from them, try them out, see if more new ideas emerge.  The more this takes place, the stronger and healthier our economic life.  In our social habitat, we must create the appropriate ‘equipment’ to capture and make use of the ideas, as well as finding additional ways to capture ideas.  The social habitat supports, hinders, or removes our ability to self-refuel.  This is where we demonstrate our tolerance for diversity, new work and change.

The second relationship in the city habitat is between the social habitat and the physical habitat.  This is where we notice our physical conditions and whether they are changing or not.  This relationship is about our receptivity to our physical reality, when we notice how habitat creates us and how we create habitat. An open relationship between our social and physical habitats is exemplified by our ability to take in the good and bad news.

The third relationship in the city habitat, between economic life and physical habitat involves travelling through the social habitat.  Our social habitat creates the conditions for a relationship with our physical habitat and our economic life and between our physical habitat and our economic life.  In this relationship we recognize explicitly that the city affects our work and that our work affects our city.  We boldly look for feedback to link the three spheres.

Each of these relationships involves our social habitat, where there are degrees of mutual support and information exchange.  On a continuum, we are either open to the exchanges between habitats, or closed.  Like a tap, the choice is open with maximum flow, or closed with no flow.  In the middle the tap is open partway, with flow constricted.  And the degree of relationship compounds: the first two relationships must be open in order for the third relationship to take place.  If one is open only partially, the third relationship will also be partial; it is only as open as its constituent relationships.

As a whole, the city is a habitat that encompasses our economic, social and physical habitats.   Our social habitat allows the new work that creates and recreates our cities to take place in the context of our physical habitat.  This means that new work is needed to create a social sphere that allows the necessary data to go back and forth between our physical environment and our economic life.  The quality of the relationship between our economic life and our social and physical habitats dictates our ability to generate cities that meet our economic, social and physical needs.  

This framing reorganizes how we think of balancing the well-being of economic, social and physical factors for sustainable development.   My next post will explore the value of reorganizing these elements.  

[1]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 68

Cites: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat

Figure A - City Emergence Dynamic

To organize ourselves to ensure our species is able to sustain itself, we need to fully contemplate the relationship we have with our work, and our work’s relationship with our habitat.  Figure A illustrates this relationship.

The development of cities is a survival skill.  When I say this, I mean the development of diverse and innovative work in cities is a survival skill.  It forms what Jane Jacobs’ referred to as our economic life – the force that creates and sustains cities.  The work we do creates our cities.  This post begins to articulate further the relationship between our economic life – our work – and our habitat.

Economic Life

At the center of the illustration is economic life – the sphere where we work.  Our work, at a minimum, is to ensure personal well-being of self and family.  It most often involves a relationship with something, or someone else.  If no one did any work, if no one ‘lifted a finger’ we would not exist. There is always work to do.  We have to make an effort to survive; it doesn’t just happen.  

The location of work varies greatly: it can be at home, out in the fields or the barn, on a construction site, in an office, or on a train.  Our work is generally a transaction for something in return.  When times are tight, work may be building shelter and growing food for family.  If the skills to do this are not on hand, we work for others in return for those skills, or do something to barter for those skills.  Moreover, the work done in cities is a transaction that results in money for the worker that is exchanged for shelter, food, clothing.  And, if affluent enough, the worker purchases additional things for enjoyment.  Or we may make work transactions with no money changing hands and instead a service changes hands, such as when we volunteer for a community event or work in our homes.  There are paid and unpaid jobs everywhere.

The common thread in our work lives is a transaction with others.  Very rarely, as a species, do we live alone.  We are regularly in contact with others and we have chosen to live in communities, towns and ever-growing cities, and the source of our contact is in the exchange of work.  Our economic life, the sphere in which we exchange our work with one another, is at the heart of the dynamic from which cities are created and recreate themselves.  But it is not as simple as being in contact with each other.  New work must be generated.

At the scale of the city, our economic life is the accumulation of all our work, combining and interacting, transacting.  Our work creates our social, physical and economic worlds; this is what builds our cities.  We inherit our physical habitat, but our work changes our habitat.  We build settlements, roads, swimming pools and airports.  We all build and create: individually we plant flowers, maintain our homes, build garages; collectively we build highways, schools, and businesses.  The outer ring of the illustration is our physical habitat, which is both the habitat we are given and the habitat that is physically created by our work.

Physical Habitat

The outer ring of this illustration is the physical habitat in which we live.  A city’s very existence hangs on its environmental (physical) context.  Our economic life is very connected to our physical habitat. A settlement begins with the inheritance of a resource.  As I write from Alberta, Canada, I am compelled to notice that my province’s economic life today relies on the oil and gas resources within our boundaries.  As we have developed this resource, our physical habitat has changed along with our activity.   Oil wells, mines, equipment and roads cover the landscape.  We have grown cities and built new cities to accommodate the extraction of oil and gas for cities across the planet.

Our physical habitat also includes the spaces we do not include as traditionally being within the city.  It must include all of the land that supports the city: the land and water from which food is grown and water is provided for citizens.  It includes these resources and others that allow us the life we have: transportation, buildings, recreation, business, government, etc.  It includes the impact of our activity, individually and locally, as well as collectively and globally, on our planet.

At the outset of a settlement, the physical habitat gives us the opportunity to develop new work with a resource.  We have also, historically, created new work to accommodate a changing climate.  New work in the context of our habitat continues to be an operating principle today.  The habitat for most humans is now the city, which generates the conditions for more diverse work, which means we generate more change to which we must adapt.  The physical habitat we build – cities – generates the conditions for more new work, which grows our cities.  In the middle of these two elements is our social habitat, the connective tissue between our economic life and our physical habitat.

Social Habitat

From our African ancestors until now, it is clear that we are social creatures that gather and work together to ensure we do more than simply survive.  Whether implicit or explicit, the reason we gather is that it affords us the ability to create the conditions to find new and improved ways of doing things.  Together, rather than alone, we best face the challenges put to us.  Not only do we physically create cities to face our challenges, but we also create a social habitat conducive to this.  The quality of our social life – our social habitat – has an impact on our economic life and our ability to create the conditions to thrive.  Cities are where we organize ourselves with social structures to create the world we live in, and, of course, be recreated by what we create.  Cities are the world in which we look after self and other.

The City Emergence Dynamic

Our economic life is at the heart of our ability to create and recreate cities that respond to our changing world.  Our social and physical habitats are always in flux and we shift and adjust our behaviour – our economic life – to learn and evolve.  Building cities is a never-ending quest to do much more than survive.   This quest takes place at many scales in the city, in what Marilyn Hamilton has articulated as a nest of city systems (Figure B).  Moreover, our very work to adjust (at any scale) creates new conditions to which we must respond again, and again, and again…  Cities are the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat.  

In this week’s posts, I will explore:

    1. the relationships between economic life and habitat in more detail; and
    2. how these relationships show up at scale (self, neighbourhood, city etc.)





The work we do creates our cities

The development of new kinds of work is a collective survival skill for our species.  It enables us to shift and adjust to the changing conditions of the world.  Cities pay a particular role in this process, as physicist Geoffrey West has found: people collectively become more innovative as our cities get larger.  (See my post Cities are engines of innovation.)  Cities, then, are not just an engine of innovation, but a habitat for innovation.  Moreover, it is a habitat that make for ourselves. We make the very habitat that serves our survivals.

Figure A - Collective Work in City Habitat

In yesterday’s post, Development of cities is a survival skill, I reached the conclusion that a city with a well-developed economic life – where new work is created in response to changing conditions, in relationship with other work at various scales of complexity – is a city that has the ability to adjust and adapt and evolve.

Our collective work in cities, our economic life, takes place within – and in response to – the city habitat (Figure A).  We develop new ideas because we see a need for something different and better to happen.  When we implement new work, it takes hold and expands our economic life.  We choose, consciously or unconsciously, to implement new ideas to address the challenges we face, when the time is right.  A diversity of new ways of thinking, making and doing new things is key for both the development and expansion of economic life.

Cities begin with new work in habitat.  All settlements and cities begin with the implementation of new work with, as Jacobs puts it, at least one useful inheritance from Earth’s past development and expansion.[1]  All settlements and cities begin with new work in response to surrounding conditions, or habitat.  For our African ancestors described by Spencer Wells in Driven to do more than survive, it may have been the use of bone, making a longer lasting hunting tool that allowed hunters to explore.  Settlement at St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada 500 years ago drew on vast cod stocks and a geography that placed the sheltered, ice-free harbour at the Eastern most point of land on North America (ie closest point to Europe).  Within this habitat new work was developed and implemented.  

New work builds on an inheritance of resources, existing work, new work, ideas, etc). The initial resources for settlements’ economies, writes Jacobs, “aren’t earned by export work, but all the same they’re earned in a different way – earned by combining gift resources with human effort.”[2]  A settlement begins with the resource, then subsequently what we choose to think, make and do with it.  The settlement at St. John’s built upon the gifts of abundant fish and geography.  The ongoing health of cities continues in this pattern: we must do something with our inheritance.  What we do with what we receive is critical; if we do more of the same, we stagnate.  If we create and implement a diversity of new work on the shoulders of existing work, we expand.  Exports do not suffice as the driving force for economic expansion: it is what we do with the inheritance, the energy received, before it is discharged as an export. [3]

The relationship between our economic life and our habitat is significant because our city habitat creates the basis for our economic life (our inheritance) and it creates the conditions for us to pursue new work.  Despite any rules or regulations we set up about what can happen where in cities, we self-organize to create habitats for new work.  Stephen Johnson describes this well:  “Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots.  Cobblers gather near cobblers, and button makers near other button makers.  Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross-pollination, ensuring that good ideas don’t die out.”[4]  People look for habitats that will support their desire and ability to pursue their work.  Cities serve us by creating a habitat to both develop new kinds of work and expand a greater diversity of work.

As our work evolves in relation to our physical habitat, it physically changes it.  Our choices every day – our work –  affect our physical habitat.  As we mine coal, or farm, we change the landscape, as we do when we build buildings, roads, parks, etc.  Each generation receives a habitat and each day, month, year and lifetime we continue to create our habitat.  It is given to us and we create it.  And then we create more new work to adjust to the new habitat we have created.  Cities, simply, are the habitat we build to create the conditions for new work and innovation.  Steven Johnson again: “Good ideas… want to connect, fuse, recombine.” [5]

The city is the natural habitat we both inherit and create with each generation.  Our economic life, the relationship between our work and economy, is a force that sparked the creation of, and our migration to, cities.  It continues to do so (see Are people growing cities or are cities growing people?)  New work creates cities and in return the conditions for new work are created again.  There is a cycle: our work creates our habitat (city), which in turn creates new work.  Cities are engines of innovation.  They are also engines of our migration – our evolution – when our innovation is developed and implemented in the context of our habitat.

Today, I am left with two questions:

  1. To what extent is our work, even new work, blind to our changing habitat?
  2. How would we change how we organize ourselves to consciously choose to create habitats for ourselves that serve our present and evolving needs and desires?


[1]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 54

[2]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 56

[3]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 52-53  (preceding sentences in this para)

[4]   Johnson, Steven, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, p. 108

[5]   Johnson, Steven, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, p. 22


Note – For more on the evolution of St. John’s, please see my article, “From the High Water Mark to the Back of the Fish Flakes: The Purposeful Evolution of Cities,” Plan Canada, Winter 2011, Vol. 51 No. 4, p. 26-31.  Digital archive not available.

The development of cities is a survival skill

At the scale of self or the city, economic life is the development of new ideas in response to changing life conditions.  Something changes and either consciously or unconsciously, we adapt our ways of thinking, making and doing.  New work emerges.  This is the force that drives the growth of cities.

Last week’s posts were the first of my efforts to blog my book – Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.  I started out with this question: Are people growing cities or are cities growing people?  I presented the intense proliferation of cities on Earth and our population growth.  In my second post, Driven to do more than merely survive, the work of Spencer Wells is front and center.  Using genetics, he has charted the migratory odyssey of the human population from a small African Village 10,000 years ago to our current population across the planet.  In an evolutionary eye-blink, our population has blossomed.  In an even shorter timeframe the number and size of our cities has grown significantly.   In my third post, Cities are engines of innovation, I reach the conclusion that cities are engines of innovation AND that innovation is an engine of cities.  As we find new ways of thinking, making and doing new things at every turn, we constantly create new work.  This is our economic life, the heart of innovation in cities.

Drawing on the work of nineteenth century embryologists and evolutionists, Jane Jacobs highlights the patterns in the generation of new work, informing us about the economic well-being of cities and how they come about.  The insight I gain from Jacobs work[1] falls into 3 categories:

  1. Habitat
  2. Relationship
  3. Meshes at scale
Figure A - Our Work in Habitat

Our habitat shapes our work, and as our habitat changes, our work changes and adapts with it (Figure A).  When fuel prices rise we become compelled to seek new technologies for fuel efficiency.  When a child is born our work within the family shifts.  When a resource is found, we find ways to extract and make use of that resource.  When the global economic marketplace struggles, we look for new ways to organize ourselves.  New work arrives in response to our habitat – our economic, social and physical contexts of the time and place.   New work does not arrive for the sake of change, but is purposefully in response to something –  known or unknown.

Figure B - Collective Work in City Habitat

New work is in relationship with other new work.  To begin, all new work builds on previous new work that has become conventional, or commonplace (Figure B).  All new work offers something different and may become the next commonplace work upon which future new work can be built.  As Jacobs puts it, new work has lineage and will serve in turn as the basis for new work.[2] The development of new work also depends on the co-development of other new work; there is significant interdependence.  Nothing happens in isolation.

The pattern of the development of new work is not a tidy linear process, but an endless mesh of interconnections that are both seen and unseen, an open-ended process that creates diversity and increased complexity.[3]  When repeated over and over, greater diversity and complexity are created.  Moreover, this pattern takes place at all scales of time and size: at the scale of self, family, city, nation, or planet; an hour, a day, a lifetime or 3000 years.  In Figure B, the work of each individual is included in the economic life of the city.  The self is nested in the city.

Figure C - Hamilton's Nested Hierarchy of City Systems

For Jacobs, the ‘development’  of new work means a qualitative change – new kinds of work, a greater diversity of work, new ways of working.  The cumulative effect of these qualitative adjustments is a world that becomes larger in scale and more complex.  Our world has evolved from a village to a territory, nation, planet and universe.  Each rise in scale brings new understanding and more complexity to which we respond.  And our responses create more complexity to which we respond.  And our responses create more complexity to which we respond, etc.  Marilyn Hamilton, author of Integral City, and Integral  City Meshworks blogger, has caught this phenomenon of cities and scale.  Imagine a nested holarchy of city systems (Figure C), where each holon (circle) is a system responding to its own life conditions.  As Hamilton puts it, “The city as a human system is a nest of systems; one cannot just look at the city as a whole or integral system without recognizing that it is made up of a series of whole systems.”[4]

At the end of my last post, I wrote that growing cities turns out to be a survival skill.  This is why:  A city with a well-developed economic life – where new work is created in response to changing conditions, in relationship with other work at various scales of complexity – is a city that has the ability to adjust and adapt and evolve.  

Cities in particular, where we are constantly changing our habitat, require us to adjust and adapt: develop new work.  For each of us, our work, and our approach to it, adds the necessary diversity to the economic life of our cities.  As Jacobs point out, new work is the qualitative development of economic life, the expansion of economic life is the quantitative implementation of new work.  

In tomorrow’s post, I will examine the word ‘habitat’. and its relationship with the quantitative expansion of economic life.





[1]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, and The Economy of Cities

[2]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p.24

[3]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 17

[4]   Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, p. 65

Cities are engines of innovation

The human journey thus far appears to have been sparked by new ideas.  In yesterday’s post, it distilled down to thinking, making and doing new things.  The spark of new ideas continues.

Physicist Geoffrey West has found that as a city grows, it becomes more innovative.  A city 10 times the size of a neighbouring city is 17 times more innovative.  A metropolis 50 times bigger than a town is 130 times more innovative.   For Steven Johnson, the city is an engine of innovation because it is an environment that is powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion and adoption of good ideas.  His conclusion about West’s work: in one crucial way, “human-built cities broke from the patterns of biological life: as cities get bigger, they generate ideas at a faster clip… despite all the noise and crowding and distraction, the average resident of a metropolis… [is]… more creative.”  (Readers interested in a quick synopsis of Johnson’s thinking on the conditions that create innovation will enjoy this 4 minute you tube video.  A strong connection is made between innovation and cities specifically can be found in his book, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.)

As a species, we have an impulse to innovate, to seek new ideas and new ways of doing things.  We strive to improve the quality of our lives.  It turns out that cities are engines of innovation and, as noted in my May 1, 2012 post, Are people growing cities or are cities growing people, these engines of innovation are running fast.

Consider that innovation is simply new work – new ways of thinking, making and doing new things as described in yesterday’s post.  New work, and the constant generation of new work, is a way for us to adapt to our changing world.  If our work always stayed the same, our species would not have travelled and settled across the planet.  We would not have created agriculture and cities.  New work allows us to evolve.  It spurs our migration to, and the growth of, cities.  In return, cities create the conditions for more new work.  Cities are the habitat we create for ourselves to create the conditions for us to learn and grow, endlessly seeking to improve our lot in life, through our work.

The work we do as individuals, and upwards in scale as a species, is first about our survival.  It is what we do, for example, to make money to pay for housing, to feed and clothe our families and to meet our recreational and material interests.  But our work, when we generate new ways of thinking, making and doing, offers something larger.  Our work offers opportunities for self, family, neighbourhood, city, nation, species, to adapt to the changing world.  I imagine these kinds of work in our ancestral tribe of 11,000 in Africa:  find food, prepare food, provide and maintain shelter, look after children, look after the physical and spiritual well-being of the people, and provide wisdom and leadership, as necessary.  In contrast, the kinds of work in today’s cities continue to evolve.  It includes these and many other kinds of work as we continually seek and find new work.  Yet all of these iterations of new work in cities come about when our basic needs are met – when we have time to explore, invent and pursue our passions.

Work is hard.  It may be drudgery, a grind.  It may be a place, but it is more ubiquitous than that: we work at things all day, every day.  When something succeeds, or functions well, we say it ‘works’.  The truth is, work is a ‘work out’.  To get the results we seek we need to be willing to put in effort and ‘work’ at it.  When we do, presumably, it will ‘work’ better.  We have a desire to ‘work’ things through so they ‘work’ better, perhaps easier.  When we search for new work, it becomes a learning impulse, a desire to find new and better ways of doing things that are of interest to each of us.  Whether paid or unpaid work – it is simply what we do as we make our way through life.

Figure A - Our Work and the World

Our work is what we offer the world, whether to make ends meet or because we love to do what we do.  We exchange our work with others for goods and services in return for things we need.  What we offer and what we receive constantly informs and influences us.  Our work offers knowledge and skills to others, who in turn offer us opportunities to do our work.  If we choose, we develop our work further, looking for new ways of thinking, making and doing.  This relationship is what Jane Jacobs called our economic life (Figure A): the transaction between our work and the world.  This relationship is an exchange – a transaction – that is not limited to money, and is much broader.  It is, simply, a relationship between me and the world – the economy.

Work for me these days includes chairing a series of meetings for the City of Edmonton as a group of employees and stakeholders write a growth coordination strategy. For this work I am paid.  My work life also includes writing, shoveling my neighbour’s sidewalk, taking my turn to get my son and his friends to soccer practice and my share of housework.  While I am paid for the work with the City, I am not getting paid for the other work, but I do get something in return: I have a good relationship with my neighbor who keeps an eye on our home when we are away, my son’s teammates families take turns driving to practices, and my whole family contributes to the physical well-being of our home so we are all able to participate in activities we enjoy.

This dance between self and other, and what we offer to each other, is our economic life.  Collectively, when we add more and more people into this relationship, I can imagine the relationships in a city: our economic life (Figure B).  When we develop and offer new work, we offer something far greater than we imagine: we create the conditions for more people to create new work and follow their passion.   We create a habitat for innovation.

Figure B - Economic Life in the City

The answer  to Tuesday’s post is that people are growing cities AND cities are growing people.  This is taking place because we create habitats for innovation, cities, which in turn bring new challenges for which we need innovation to resolve.  By doing new things we are changing the world around us, necessitating more adaptation and new work.

Cities are engines of innovation and innovation is the engine of cities.   

It turns out that growing cities is a survival skill.

New work generates cities and the capacities we need to adapt to our changing world.  And the very habitat we build for ourselves – our cities – is where we create that new work.

My next post will explore more specifically the relationship between the development of new work and cities.  Another take on Jacobs’ work a few decades later…