What can leaders learn from cities? Read now as Bronwyn Williams unpacks The Life and Death of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.
The Life and Death of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs in the early 1960’s is one of those books that is still as relevant today as it was when it was penned. It is an extraordinary account of Jane Jacob’s personal observations as a resident of (amongst others) the most iconic of them all, New York City as to what makes cities healthy and happy places for their inhabitants and what makes cities fail.
She dedicated much of her life to not only studying how cities really work, but also to lobbing for better models and methods of city planning to improve human life and flourishing in the cities we inhabit. Although Jane herself was a journalist, with no formal training in politics or city planning, her evidence-based observations that placed real life on the city street above lofty academic policy theory, put all too many professional economists and career politicians to shame.
Some of her most important observations, that have implications for businesses and organisations far beyond cities include:
1. Real life on the ground laughs at top-down planning
The pseudo-science of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success. ~ Jane Jacobs
Real life is complex. Human societies and human organisations do not operate within a vacuum; rather, like all natural systems, we are all connected to each other in highly complex ways. This means that all too often, top down planning, by bureaucrats or board members who are dissociated with life on the street (or on the shop floor) tend to miss the detail for the theory.
This leads to making sweeping, generalised decisions that are prone to lead to unintended consequences and, all too often to making the original problem worse than it was before the “solution” was applied. In real life, the best success, when it comes to social experiments, are often emergent, rather than imposed. We should learn to observe and imitate what really works.
The lesson for managers here is to spend time, like Jane did, physically walking your metaphorical streets to see what your customers (or your citizens) really need, rather than assuming you know best.
2. Diversity (real emergent and integrated diversity, not mere planned box-ticking quota checking) is essential for life
The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity.” ~ Jane Jacobs
For Jane Jacobs, the key to a happy healthy city can be found on the side walk. Streets, she observed, should be safe and pleasant to walk down. As to how streets become healthy and happy, she discovered the key is diversity.
Diversity not only in the functions found on the neighbourhood streets, but also in terms of the movements, or timing of the people who use them. Homogeneity kills cities, just as sameness and me-too-ism kills brands and businesses.
For Jane, the best city neighbourhoods are populated with a wide variety of businesses, residences and public services; all of which that attract different groups of people, from different socio-economic backgrounds, ages, genders, and other demographics, at different times; thereby ensuring that there is always someone around.
Overly planned cities that separate their neighbourhoods into central business districts and official “public squares, and segregate residential areas according to race and class are both less pleasant and less safe to live in.
The lesson here is for brands and businesses to understand that diversity is about far more than the basic level of meeting quotas and to embrace deep diversity; diversity that is, not just in terms of staff compliment but also in terms of the products, services and communications you produce. (To give you an idea of what you should not do, have a look at the wryly amusing “Bland Book” project here).
3. Proximity and productivity go hand in hand
By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange. ~ Jane Jacobs
People, all across the world, in space and time, are and have been attracted to cities, even in the remote working era we find ourselves in, urban migration is still a bigger trend for the vast majority of humanity than reverser migration. The reasons we are attracted to congregate in cities is that we are, fundamentally attracted to each other.
Innovation, wealth and success multiply (for both businesses and for individuals) along with the size and strengths of our networks; while networks are strengthened by the number of nodes they contain. Quite simply, you are more likely to accidentally meet someone who can help you find a job or a new client or a new business connection in a big city than in a small town. Our opportunities grow along with the number of serendipitous connections we are able to make.
The lesson here for businesses is to embrace the challenge of nurturing serendipity and proximity even as we are forced to work and live our lives more and more remotely. We must leave space for chance connections.
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