Work at scale to serve the city

In Wednesday’s post, Dynamically steering cities into the future, I reached the conclusion that it is only with feedback that we can adjust our path appropriately when needed.  Without feedback, any adjustment is simply uninformed action.  The world is changing in so many ways, it is not even possible to know what is changing and what it will turn into.  The true work at hand is learning how to dynamically steer our cities into the future.  We need to know our destination and then find the adjustments that will get us there.  It means being open to feedback and willing to take action – at any and all scales.  There is lots of work for us to do.

Figure A

The intelligence of the city lays at many scales, and each of us work at many scales in each moment, each day, in each of our lives.  In two posts (The development of cities is a survival skill, and Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat) I have referred to Marilyn Hamilton’s nested hierarchy, or holarchy, of city systems (Figure A).  This is one of four key maps Hamilton uses to chart the intelligence of a city.  This particular map articulates the city as a human system made up of a series of systems that are each, themselves, whole.  (If you would like to read more please explore her book, Integral City, or the Integral City website.)

I recognize each of these ‘wholes’ in my economic life as I work (paid and unpaid) at several scales:

  1. As an individual, I follow my passion and look for people with whom I can exchange my passion for what I need for my livelihood.
  2. As a family, we work together to create a social and physical habitat that will support us, right down to this summer’s project: a new roof.
  3. My extended family goes for a backcountry hike each summer.  This takes a lot of work to organize, and the payoff is time spent with each other and reconnection.
  4. I work as a consultant to a variety of organizations: cities, NGOs, corporations.
  5. I serve my neighbourhood organization as a volunteer.
  6. Much of my consulting work serves the whole city and its well-being.
  7. I am conscious of my actions that strengthen the connection between my city and its eco-region in my consulting work and our spending choices as a family.
There are three additional scales at which I serve cities: I serve as president of the Alberta Professional Planners Institute, a body of 903 professionals serving human settlements Alberta, Nunavut and Northwest Territories.  In a year’s time, I will be serving as APPI’s representative on the board of the Canadian Institute of Planners.  I also serve as a founding member of a fledgling group, the Center for Human Emergence: Canada, part of a global constellation of organizations aiming to create the conditions for human understanding of, and responsibility for, the health of people and the planet, recognizing that everything and everyone is interwoven.
At each scale, I can tease out the size and character of my habitat.  As the scale grows, my habitat becomes larger and more complex.  While the illustration in Figure A conveys that each city system is nested within larger systems, it does not convey that each larger system includes several, many, or thousands, or millions of the smaller systems.  As the scale increases, the complexity increases. Over time, as our cities become larger and larger, they become more complex, but the importance of smaller city systems does not decline.
Our work as individuals remains as critical as it ever was, for this is the scale at which we make our contributions.  The city is only as healthy as each whole system – including each of us – that make up the city.  Our work at every scale matters.
My next post will tie back in to where this first series of posts began – cities and innovation – and conclude this series of posts on the city impulse with these questions (at two scales):
  1. What can my city do for me?
  2. What can I do for my city? 
  3. What can our city do for us?
  4. What can we do for our city?

Dynamically steering cities to the future

Figure A - City Dynamic

In yesterday’s post, I reached the conclusion that 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.  We create cities for the purpose of our individual and collective growth.  We create them to support our evolution.

Feedback Activity

Consider this simplified illustration of the city dynamic (Figure A), where the red center is our economic life, and green and blue are our social and physical habitats.  (For more information on the relationships between these three elements, please visit Cities need quality feedback.)  The feedback between our economic life and our habitat is the information that flows back and forth.  Feedback between our social and economic life is critical, as is feedback between our physical habitat and our economic life.  The more activity between these spheres, the more responsive a city is to the needs of its inhabitants.  For example, the illustration of activity in Figure B is less healthy than that of activity in Figure C in that it offers less feedback.  Less feedback may mean lower adaptation of our economic life to meet the demands of our changing social and physical habitat.

Figure B - City Dynamic (less activity)
Figure C - City Dynamic (more activity)

This perspective of the city’s habitats nests the physical, social and economic worlds.  This understanding builds on the lineage of our current understanding of sustainable development, rooted in the World Commission on Environment and Development’s 1987 report, Our Common Future, often referred to as the Brundtland Commission.  (Two links that might be of interest: the story, the report itself.)  The inheritance offered by this report is the insertion, into our collective planetary consciousness, of the relationship between our physical, social and economic lives.  This is now, rather conventionally, shown graphically as a Venn diagram (Figure D).

Figure D - Sustainable Development

The dynamic of the city habitat as I have described it here and in previous posts rearranges our understanding of sustainable development.  Looking at cities from an evolutionary perspective, our physical habitat holds everything. Within that we have evolved socially to create opportunities for new work, a feature of our economic life that generates cities, and in turn recreates our physical habitat.  The city dynamic consists of endless feedback loops, going in all directions all at once (Figure C).  Each sphere is critical, but with distinct roles to play.  Unlike the Venn Diagram, each element is never fully on its own.  It is all interwoven and interrelated.

The nature of these relationships is such that the healthier the city, the more interactions across and within the layers.  Remember these three patterns about how new work (innovation in our economic life) works (see earlier posts for more on this – development of cities, and our work creates cities):

  1. The development of new work means new ideas in response to life conditions.
  2. The expansion of new work means implementation in response to life conditions.
  3. The link between development and expansion of new work is habitat: life conditions.

These principles and how they behave give us clues about how to organize ourselves, such that we tune into, and be in tune with our habitat.  The interaction between these spheres is where the future lies for our cities.  How we organize our cities to gain this feedback and respond to it is a necessary survival skill.  With feedback, and appropriate responses to that feedback, we can adjust our path; without we can not.

Feedback and Adjustment

We need to approach our city systems in ways that allow for feedback and adjustment.  Brian Robertson, and his work on holacracy, describes this as dynamic steering, where a system receives regular, real feedback and immediately adjusts.  Imagine the system is you riding a bicycle.  As you move along, you start to tip, you adjust.  You see a pothole head, you adjust.  You see what is coming and you adjust, but the truth is you never know ahead of time what will come and what the appropriate adjustment will be.  Yet you are able to do it.

Most systems we are familiar with, such as organizations, operate in predict-and-control mode, where we anticipate what is going to happen and make the adjustment prior to even seeing if the event unfolds as expected.  We also make adjustments after events, assuming that future events will be the same and will need the same reaction.  Predict-and-control mode does not allow for appropriate responses to life conditions because it allows only minimal feedback between the habitats of the city.   Imagine riding a bicycle with arms out stiff in front of you; it doesn’t allow you to be responsive.  We need cities to be responsive.

In our cities, as when we ride a bicycle, our ability to keep our eyes on where we are going matters.  Our ability to notice when we have moved off track matters.  Our ability to choose to get back on track matters.  Our ability to do the work at hand matters.  Our very approach to our work matters.  It also means that we have to have a bicycle that is in good working condition and does what we ask it to do.

In today’s cities, with today’s challenges, we have an opportunity to be explicit about the cities we are creating and how they shape us in return.  We have an opportunity to integrate our economic, social and physical worlds in such a way that will allow us to respond to the changing conditions in our world.  Debating climate change is moot when the world is changing in so many ways.  It is a distraction from the true work at hand – learning how to dynamically steer our cities into the future that allows life to flourish.  Learning to be even more adaptable than we have been is key.  It means being open to feedback and willing to take action – at any and all scales.  There is lots of work for us to do.

The next post will touch on the scales at which we work in our cities.  Does the scale we work at matter?  

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.)





Phew – it’s hard work being part of our cities’ feedback system

Just over two weeks ago I wrote about my decision to slowly release my book, Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, as a blog.  Part of that decision was to post a piece of the book Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday each week, starting Tuesday May 1, 2012.  I have done it for two weeks.  Phew.

Even though I have material written, it has taken a lot of time and focus to turn what I have into a blog post that is remotely cogent and meaningful. It has been useful to condense my thinking.  Most helpful is the insight not to name the post until I am just about done – at that point I seem to find the point of the post.

As I keep doing this, I am mindful that I need to craft accurate invitations to readers.  I aim to pay particular attention to:

  1. A compelling title.  It might be all a readers sees in an RSS feed.  It will also be part of an attractive collection of posts as they become more numerous.  The title itself can be insightful.
  2. A compelling first sentence.  This appears on LinkedIn and facebook, for example.  It must draw readers in.
  3. A compelling personal update.  The title can be used, or slightly modified, for a Twitter/LinkedIn/facebook update.  The words themselves are what will compel a follower to retweet or forward my update and link.
  4. A post that provides links to others’ work.  As I explore, it is important for me to notice, for myself and others, the work on which I am building.  This models how economic life works.
  5. Writing what is wanting to emerge from me. I trust that each of us has a passion that is worth following.
  6. Being part of our cities’ feedback system.  As a writer, my work is, in part, to reflect on cities and how we organize ourselves.  I share what I see.
I have to confess I am looking forward to a break from blogging for a couple days.  But I know I will be itching to post again on Monday.  The pressure is welcome.

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…


The treadmill gets a bum rap

I surprised myself the other day while running on a treadmill.  I have always thought of the treadmill as a metaphor for people who are stuck in the rut of working too hard and they can’t stop.  It finally dawned on me: I can get on or off a treadmill any time AND I can choose how hard I work.

The treadmill is a wonderful metaphor for choice in our world.  Whether thinking of the treadmill in the gym for humans, or the treadmill in the hampster cage, the same principles apply for physical fitness or my work/life fitness.  They also apply to a community’s fitness:

  1. I choose how fast, slow or steep I go. If the going is too slow or too fast, I can adjust. I can slow to a walking pace to relax, or I can bump up the pace to meet the needs of the moment.  I am not required go full tilt all the time.  I am also not required to slack.  The choice is mine.
  2. I choose how hard to work. I make decisions about how fast or how steep the work is, in alignment with my fitness goals.  I recognize that if I work hard and fast all the time, I will not last as long as if I work hard and fast with breaks to slow down.
  3. I choose when to get on or off the treadmill. When I want a good workout, or even a steady pace, I get on the treadmill.  When I have had enough, I choose to get off and go for a snack.
  4. I choose to seek feedback about myself. As I work, I can seek feedback about the toll the work is taking on me.  I can take my pulse, or use the heart-rate monitor on the treadmill, to see if my work is too hard or too easy for my fitness goals.  By welcoming feedback – especially from my own body – I will make better choices for me.  If I don’t seek feedback, the treadmill may just throw me off.
  5. To make the right choices for me, I need to have goals in mind. How fast, how hard, how steep, and when to get on/off are all connected to my fitness goals.  Is there a big event I am ramping up for that requires harder work for a length of time?  Will I need to allow myself a break after that?  Are there other things happening in life that mean I should slow down?  My choices and feedback are intertwined – my goals will determine the feedback I will seek, and the feedback may alter my goals in turn.
  6. I choose the role a treadmill will play in my life. What are my fitness goals for my work life?  What sort of workout do I need at this moment?  How does this workout relate to by bigger goals further off in the distance – will it help me get there, or just tire me out?
  7. (Note: running faster on the treadmill will not get me off the treadmill.)

The bottom line is this – while on a treadmill, I have a choice about how hard and how long I work.  I can also make choices aligned with my goals and intentions.  These principles apply to anyone, any organization or community: intention around pace, intensity, feedback, goals.

It’s up to me to do what I need to do to suit myself.

It’s up to us to do what we need to do to suit ourselves.

The swimming pool strategy for work

My epiphany this summer that I am just figuring out now: I use the swimming pool strategy to find meaningful work.

For a few years out of high school my brother Scott and I worked at the local swimming pool as swimming instructors and lifeguards. Wonderful work, especially in the summer.  A flexible schedule, well paid, new and unexpected friends and a lot of fun.

The challenge was that we were part of a huge pool of casual employees working part-time hours.  Each of us was lucky to get 20-26 hours a week.  When saving every penny for university in the fall, we had our eyes on the extra shifts that came up – some at a moment’s notice, others when we saw an opportunity and took it.

As I reflect on this, I see two strategies that play out for meaningful work – then and now:

Play in the pool

A hot day is a wonderful day to do what you love – play and float around in the pool.  On a hot day the pool will also fill up with hundreds of other people.  There is a head lifeguard whose job is to make sure that there are enough lifeguards keeping an eye on things and make sure everyone is safe.  But since there are not enough lifeguards in the schedule, more will be needed.

When you love your work, it shows.  You are available to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.  Let the head lifeguard know explicitly that you are ready to serve when needed. While it might not be your turn on the rotation, others might not be available and voila!  There you are.  Doing what you love and ready to serve.

  1. The above applies to a hot summer day and an outdoor pool – I have to be conscious of the context each and every day
  2. I will be called on when I am needed.  If others are called, they are needed, or it is simply their turn
  3. When having fun, genuinely, I make myself more available
  4. I show up for work,  even if I don’t know I will be needed, to see what will happen
  5. Play and have fun, splash, float, swim, bob

Do the hard work

We also had our eyes on the work nobody else wanted.   We cleaned the grunge off the waterslides.  We tarred the filter tank.  Crawled into the crawlspace under the pool and then crawled into a 1’ x 3’ hole into the surge tank to scrape the slime off the walls.  Then volunteerd to do it again the next year.  We cleaned the changerooms.  In all of the above, we played music, joked around, and laughed hysterically – usually right when our boss showed up to see how we were doing.  Every time we thought we were in big trouble, especially when our boss found a big blue happy face (the clean part) on the brown floor of the changeroom.  Now we see that we were never in trouble because we were doing the work others did not want to do, we were doing it happily and we were getting the job done. Well.
  1. Volunteering for grungy hard work is an opportunity to do good work
  2. Volunteering for grungy hard work is an opportunity to have great fun with my mates
  3. Do grungy hard work with mates