192021

Richard Saul Wurman, prolific explainer and the creator of the TED conference, is back with a 5-year project called 19.20.21 to try and work out what makes urban environments tick. This is long overdue:  over half the world’s population lives in cities, rising to 2/3 by 2050. By analysing 19 supercities with more than 20 million inhabitants, the project:

“will lead to a common means electronically, in print and real time, to comparatively describe the demographics , economies, health data and environmental data as it relates to the urban world.” (from 192021.org)

The powerful idea at the heart of this is that whereas the world used to be thought of as power struggles between countries, it  is now “A Globe of Cities”:

“today, people think of the world as a network of cities – not a network of countries. We visit London, Paris or Rio de Janeiro, rather than England, France or Brazil. The world is now linked through mass channels of communication and transportation, managed by a patchwork of public and private interests.”

So what?

Cities grow organically and are the product of their host cultures, so it is no surprise that there is variation – in sanitation, transport, health, education, quality of life, crime etc… But how do you describe these differences? The words “crime”, “quality of life”, “public transport” may have literal translations in the languages of the world, but subtle variations in meaning are too much for a simple dictionary entry.  

To understand these factors you need to have lived in both cities long enough to have experienced the right things. Worse, even people who have been fully assimilated in several cities would mostly have experienced them in a deeply personal way. If you spent your primary school years in London, secondary school in New York and university in Mumbai, could you really comment on their respective educational systems?

And even if you could explain the differences on a completely objective level, you’d still have to consider the perspective of the other culture. The exact same meal, maths lesson or knee operation might be seen as fantastic, adequate or deeply disappointing depending on expectations.  

That’s why it’s so hard to answer the question asked by someone from a different city or country: “What it’s like where you’re from?”

19.20.21 = a common yardstick

Getting to the point where applicable lessons can be drawn from the world’s largest cities may take longer than 5-years, but the findings should be fascinating. Hopefully, the outcome will be a set of concrete design patterns which city planners can use to improve the lives of their citizens while reducing the environmental burden of urbanisation. These must do two things. 1) create an objective way to measure the success of a city’s elements, 2) make it possible to transfer these elements elsewhere.

Finding a common scoring system can kick start progress: take the introduction of the Apgar scoring of a newborn’s health, which slashed the mortality rate of babies in childbirth:

The Apgar score, as it became known universally, allowed nurses to rate the condition of babies at birth on a scale from zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good, vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two if its heart rate was over a hundred. Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby.
The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of a newly born baby—into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores—and therefore better outcomes—for the newborns they delivered.
Around the world, virtually every child born in a hospital had an Apgar score recorded at one minute after birth and at five minutes after birth. It quickly became clear that a baby with a terrible Apgar score at one minute could often be resuscitated—with measures like oxygen and warming—to an excellent score at five minutes. Spinal and then epidural anesthesia were found to produce babies with better scores than general anesthesia. Neonatal intensive-care units sprang into existence. Prenatal ultrasound came into use to detect problems for deliveries in advance. Fetal heart monitors became standard. Over the years, hundreds of adjustments in care were made, resulting in what’s sometimes called “the obstetrics package.” And that package has produced dramatic results. In the United States today, a full-term baby dies in just one out of five hundred childbirths, and a mother dies in one in ten thousand. If the statistics of 1940 had persisted, fifteen thousand mothers would have died last year (instead of fewer than five hundred)—and a hundred and twenty thousand newborns (instead of one-sixth that number).

The Apgar score, as it became known universally, allowed nurses to rate the condition of babies at birth on a scale from zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good, vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two if its heart rate was over a hundred. Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby.

The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of a newly born baby—into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores—and therefore better outcomes—for the newborns they delivered.

Around the world, virtually every child born in a hospital had an Apgar score recorded at one minute after birth and at five minutes after birth. It quickly became clear that a baby with a terrible Apgar score at one minute could often be resuscitated—with measures like oxygen and warming—to an excellent score at five minutes. Spinal and then epidural anesthesia were found to produce babies with better scores than general anesthesia. Neonatal intensive-care units sprang into existence. Prenatal ultrasound came into use to detect problems for deliveries in advance. Fetal heart monitors became standard. Over the years, hundreds of adjustments in care were made, resulting in what’s sometimes called “the obstetrics package.” And that package has produced dramatic results. In the United States today, a full-term baby dies in just one out of five hundred childbirths, and a mother dies in one in ten thousand. If the statistics of 1940 had persisted, fifteen thousand mothers would have died last year (instead of fewer than five hundred)—and a hundred and twenty thousand newborns (instead of one-sixth that number). (Atul Gawande in the New Yorker – also a story in his incredible book, Better)

Without a common yardstick, how can you know who has gone the farthest? 

Or what about the impact on trade and industrialisation of common standards for railway gauges, shipping containers or even the metric system itself. In The Box, former finance economics editor for The Economist Marc Levinson explains how “an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible.” From the first chapter:

Some scholars have argued that reductions in transport costs are at best marginal improvements that have had negligible effects on trade flows. This book disputes that view. In the decade after the container first came into international use, in 1966, the volume of international trade in manufactured goods grew more than twice as fast as the volume of global manufacturing production, and two and a half times as fast as global economic output. Something was accelerating the growth of trade even though the economic expansion that normall stimulates trade was weak. Something was driving a vast increase in internationl commerce in manufactured goods even though oil shocks were making the world economy sluggish. While attributing the vast changes in the world economy to a single cause would be foolhardy, we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility that the extremely sharp drop in freight costs played a major role in increasing the integration o fthe global economy.   

What are the equivalent costs of interaction between cities? What stops cities sharing more ideas on how to make urban environments fit both for people and for the planet?

I hope that this project will help identify the ideas which have worked best, and somehow explain them clearly enough that cities of any culture will be able to apply them. As many people as live in the entire planet today will live in cities in 2050. That’s why 19.20.21 matters, and I hope it succeeds.

david-goliath

Another thought provoking article from Malcolm Gladwell – how can you be completely outgunned, outmatched and outnumbered and still win?

If you are willing to break with the unwritten rules of your business, your sport or even your social circles, you can beat opponents who are ten times more powerful than you. 

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.

However, taking a different path is usually incredibly hard work. Even worse, you may be ostracised, as those unwritten rules are also those which bind people together.

The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider. Why did the Ivy League schools of the nineteen-twenties limit the admission of Jewish immigrants? Because they were the establishment and the Jews were the insurgents, scrambling and pressing and playing by immigrant rules that must have seemed to the Wasp élite of the time to be socially horrifying. “Their accomplishment is well over a hundred per cent of their ability on account of their tremendous energy and ambition,” the dean of Columbia College said of the insurgents from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. He wasn’t being complimentary. Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David.

In design, it’s always worth knowing the difference between a real barrier and one that so many people take for granted that it hasn’t been challenged. Take this example from the blog of Josh Kopelman (First Round Capital) on how Paypal managed to get acquired by eBay after beating their own payment service, Billpoint:

eBay understood everything that was needed to build a great payments product.  They were just unable to do so given the risks involved.  Specifically, I believe that PayPal had a better product than Billpoint because they were willing/able to take risks that Billpoint/eBay was not.  For example, when PayPal first launched, it was pretty clear that their product violated the operating rules for Visa, Mastercard and American Express — and violated banking regulations is more than 40 different states.

Man made rules are ripe for picking apart. Sometimes, the most important thing is knowing when to cast them aside.

 

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windosillface-thumb-550x397-20037

More inspiration for interaction designers: Windosill, the Flash creation of Patrick Smith a.k.a. Vectorpark. The game’s sole goal is to find a simple cube in each level which opens the door to the next screen. The point and click puzzles get increasingly creative, making you discover by trial and error the rules and foibles of each little world so you can hold of the key to the next one. The sense of exploration and discovery is brilliant (and well worth $3)

Only have one minute (and 9 seconds) – this video review will show you the premise.

As for why this is worthy stimulation for interaction design, Offworld puts it best: 

…that exploration wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding were it not for Smith’s ability to somehow have teased out (with the aid, I can only conclude, of some dark, black magic) easily the greatest sense of physicality Flash (still, remember, an essentially 2D toolkit) has ever produced. Everything has such a well defined heft and tension, everything responds to your prodding with just the right amount of ‘squishiness’, that even its most surreal concoctions feel fantastically alive.

It’s amusing to think that there are “serious” user interfaces out there that manage to make it both less fun and harder to accomplish your task than Windosill.