I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my fluid and boundless curiosity.
If you want to know more about my work and how I help senior executives and leadership teams find their way through complexity and change, please visit my ‘uncluttered’ website.
This week: How to build the cities of the future; the EU hopes ‘trust’ will prove to be its silver bullet in global AI battle; how morals have changed over the century; the ‘Airbnb problem’ of Venice during the Renaissance; our misunderstanding of what kind of time machine an old book really is; what a beautiful tiny house in rural Japan can teach us about the health of cities; Holi; the beautiful Chirath Residence; and, finally, why ending climate change requires the end of capitalism.
Reimagining our cities
“The purpose of cities is to bring people together. In the 20th century, we blew them apart,” Robert Kunzig writes in To build the cities of the future, we must get out of our cars, part of National Geographic’s The Cities Issue (April 2019).
Last year, Kunzig and the architect Peter Calthorpe went on a drive through some of the wreckage and talked about how to make cities whole again.
“In Calthorpe’s utopia […] cities would stop expanding so voraciously, paving over the nature around them; instead they’d find better ways of letting nature into their cores, where it can touch people. They’d grow in dense clusters and small, walkable blocks around a web of rapid transit. These cities of the future would mix things up again: They’d no longer segregate work from home and shopping, as sprawl does now, forcing people into cars to navigate all three; they’d no longer segregate rich from poor, old from young, and white from black, as sprawl does, especially in the United States. Driving less, paving less, city dwellers would heat the air and the planet around them less. That would slow the climate change that threatens, in this century, to make some cities unlivable,” Kunzig writes. “To do all this, in Calthorpe’s view, you don’t really need architectural eye candy or Jetsons technology — although a bit can help. You need above all to fix the mistakes and misconceptions of the recent past.”
The Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl has spent decades making sure cities work for people, not the other way around. He is “revered for his simple insights: Architects and urban designers should build ‘cities for people’ […], not cars. They should pay attention to the ‘life between buildings’ […] because it’s crucial to our well-being. Gehl has spent decades observing how people behave in public spaces, collecting data on which kinds encourage civic life and which tend to be dispiriting and empty,” Kunzig writes.
In 2016, Gehl told Fast.CoDesign, “We were created as a walking animal, and our senses have developed for slow movement at about three miles an hour. A good city is something built around the human body and the human senses so you can have maximum use of your ability to move and your ability to experience. That is a very important issue. For many years, we have broken all the rules to make automobiles happy. If you want to point to a place where there are people walking, and it’s a great sensation, where the senses can be used extremely well, look at Venice. And if you want the other experience, go to Brasilia.”
When Gehl started his career in 1960, Copenhagen was choked with cars, like so many of our cities. He “began as an architect in the modernist tradition, designing the kinds of buildings that he now dismisses as ‘perfume bottles’ — sculptural compositions rather than humanistic ones. But he changed course, and so did his city. Copenhagen has committed to becoming the world’s best city for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s working. Two-fifths of all commutes now are by bike.
The point is not that bikes are the answer; it’s that we can be thoughtful about the shape of our cities. ‘Waking up every morning and knowing that the city is a little bit better than it was yesterday — that’s very nice when you have children,’ Gehl said. ‘Think about that … Your children have a better place to live, and your grandchildren have a better place to grow up than you could when you were young. I think that’s what it should be like,’” Kunzig writes.
Gehl also believes there is great confusion about how to show the city of the future. “Every time the architects and visionaries try to paint a picture, they end up with something you definitely would not like to go anywhere near.” The City of Tomorrow — “Ford begins to explore new opportunities, solutions and experiments that could shape the City of Tomorrow” — is one of the many examples of this. It’s the kind of design that New Urbanists call ‘Towers in the park,’ a legacy of Modernist architecture, whose godfather was Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier’s influence is felt especially in the new urban districts that China has slapped up over the past four decades. With its regiments of apartment towers, all identical and lined up on quarter-mile-long ‘superblocks,’ they have something in common with American suburbs, as different as they appear at first glance, Calthorpe explained at last year’s New Urbanism annual meeting. The one unified problem, he said, is ‘sprawl,’ which essence is ‘a disconnected environment.’ “The social and economic fabric is being destroyed” Calthorpe said.
But what makes a city beautiful?
According to Troy Camplin in The Beautiful City (2013), “It’s not its parks and architecture, decorative though they may be. It’s not the mannequins dressed in high fashion, or the creative window displays. A city’s beauty comes from its life, from how its structures keep people teeming on the sidewalks and arterials — pulsing like blood through a body. A city’s beauty comes about the same way all beauty comes about in nature: through the unity of apparently opposing phenomena.
‘Neighborhood accommodations for fixed, bodiless, statistical people are accommodations for instability,’ wrote the great observer of cities, Jane Jacobs. In order for a neighborhood to have staying power, Jacobs thought, the people in it must constantly change. A city only becomes stable through ‘a seeming paradox.’ That is, to get a critical mass of people to stay put, a city has to have ‘fluidity and mobility of use.’ And so the neighborhood itself must change and reorganize itself in order to keep its people there. Fixedness and change. Healthy cities exemplify such paradoxes.”
One apparent contradiction lies in a city’s ability to reconcile the dweller’s desire for both the private and the social. A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around.
“These public places foster weaker social bonds and, thus, create the conditions for a public life,’ Camplin writes. “Weak bonds are the social forces created by private citizens who shuffle and cluster on the neighborhood street. It’s the morning nod to the Bangladeshi man who minds his newsstand each day. It’s thirty seconds of sports banter with the doorman at work. We end up being far more social when our weak bonds dominate our more clannish instincts — such as the bonds that hold together street gangs or let whole nations tolerate ethnic cleansing. Of course family and friendship bonds are strong, but it’s not clear it’s healthy to extend these to the wider society. Because we ultimately choose our bonds, a healthy mix of weak and strong bonds will originate in all the choices cities can provide. And such bonds will change with one’s needs.”
In global AI race, the EU pins hopes on ethics
“As American and Chinese companies dominate the AI battlefield, the EU has pinned its hopes on becoming a world leader in what it calls ‘trustworthy’ artificial intelligence. By ensuring AI applications follow ethical guidelines and base decisions on transparent criteria, policymakers believe they can boost consumer confidence in European AI, providing the bloc with a silver bullet against competitors in Silicon Valley and Shenzhen,” Janosch Delcker writes in Europe’s silver bullet in global AI battle: Ethics.
“Ethics and competitiveness are intertwined, they’re dovetailed,” says Pekka Ala-Pietilä, a former president of Nokia and tech entrepreneur who chairs the EU’s high-level expert group on AI, which hopes to draw up principles that will underpin any future regulation of the technology. “We need to create an environment where the use of AI is felt and seen as trustworthy.” Adding, “If that kind of sustainably leveled playing field is established, that gives a great incentive for companies to create products or services where ethics is part of their competitive advantage.”
The EU’s political leaders agree but not everybody is so sure.
According to Daniel Castro, the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (a think tank whose board includes members from U.S. tech giants including Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft), the EU’s approach to AI is “naive” and will cause the bloc to lose out to the U.S. and China. Consumers care primarily about effectiveness and an ethics-first approach will prevent Europe from coming up with competitive products, he says. Adding, “It’s like any other race: You can have the more ethical race car driver, but if his car is not faster, you are going to lose.”
“There’s no denying the potential for AI to transform entire industries. The technology’s transformative power is often compared to breakthroughs like widespread electrification. Artificial intelligence is set to change the way people work, communicate, treat diseases and conduct wars.
The trouble is that potential comes with significant risks. The ‘deep learning’ underlying many of today’s cutting-edge applications, for example, essentially trains AI systems by seeking out patterns in vast troves of data. The result is often highly effective, but it can also turn programs into black boxes, making it difficult — or even impossible — to discern the logic behind their decisions. What’s more, because AI algorithms ‘learn’ from real-world data, they are vulnerable to incorporating often unconscious biases against minorities and other vulnerable groups,” Delcker writes.
This is precisely what the EU wants to counter with its ‘trustworthy’ artificial intelligence — AI technology that respects European values and is engineered in a way that prevents it from causing intentional or unintentional harm, even when it’s operated by people with little or no technical background.
“In a sense, ‘ethics’ isn’t the goal,” Virginia Dignum, a professor of social and ethical artificial intelligence at Sweden’s Umeå University and a member of EU’s high-level expert group. “We want artificial intelligence to be ethical and socially responsible because we want AI systems to be trusted, and useful for people,” she told Delcker.
But Castro remains doubtful. “This idea of ethics-by-design, it undercuts the idea that at the end of the day, this is still a market-based economy,” he says. “You have to create something of more value than your competitors.” Adding that the European Commission has provided no evidence that consumers are actually willing to pay for that. Dignum, however, is convinced that there will be consumer demand for trustworthy AI once it hits the market, just as some consumers are willing to pay more for organic products.
“There’s one area where European principles have already hobbled the bloc’s AI,” Delcker writes. “The Continent has some of the strictest rules in the world for the use of personal data, reflecting widespread concerns over privacy. The more information a deep learning system is given, the better it becomes.”
These data barriers between European countries “are making it very hard” for entrepreneurs to fully exploit the potential of AI technology, argues Loubna Bouarfa, the founder and CEO of health care firm OKRA Technologies and a member of the EU’s high-level expert group, chaired by Pekka Ala-Pietilä. The EU needs to act fast, and it needs to act now. Time is running out, she warnes. “Europe is falling behind on AI, and we do really need to act quickly.”
Here are two more recent articles, written by Janosch Delcker for Politico, about the EU’s AI strategy.
Europe's AI ethics chief: No rules yet, please
HELSINKI - In a global race to dominate artificial intelligence technology, Europe needs to keep its urge to regulate…
Research done by Nick Haslam, Melanie J. McGrath and Melissa A. Wheeler shows that values such as care, compassion and safety are more important to us now than they were in the 1980s. The importance of respecting authority has, however, fallen since the beginning of the 20th century, while judging right and wrong based on loyalty to country and family has steadily risen.
Although moral psychologists know a lot about how people today vary in their moral thinking, they have largely ignored how moral thinking has changed historically. But as cultures evolve and societies develop, our ways of thinking about good and evil also transform. The nature of this transformation remains a matter of speculation, the researchers write in Changing morals: we’re more compassionate than 100 years ago, but more judgmental too
“One narrative suggests our recent history is one of de-moralisation. On this view, our societies have become progressively less prudish and judgmental. We have become more accepting of others, rational, irreligious, and scientific in how we approach matters of right and wrong. A contrary narrative implies re-moralisation. By this account, our culture is increasingly censorious. More things offend and outrage us, and the growing polarisation of political debate reveals excesses of righteousness and self-righteousness.”
To find out which of these stories best captures how morals have changed over time, Haslam and his fellow researchers used very large text databases to establish how changing patterns of language use may reveal alterations in how people have made sense of their world and themselves (culturomics). The most common platform for examining such cultural shifts is the Google Books database. With over 500 billion words from 5 million books, it’s a rich source of information on the rising and falling popularity of words.
What Haslam and his fellow researchers found was that “basic moral terms (see the black line below) became dramatically scarcer in English-language books as the 20th century unfolded — which fits the de-moralisation narrative. But an equally dramatic rebound began in about 1980, implying a striking re-moralisation.
The five moral foundations [see note below], on the other hand, show a vastly changing trajectory. The purity foundation (green line) shows the same plunge and rebound as the basic moral terms. Ideas of sacredness, piety and purity, and of sin, desecration and indecency, fell until about 1980, and rose afterwards. The other moralities show very different pathways. Perhaps surprisingly, the egalitarian morality of fairness (blue) showed no consistent rise or fall.”
What does this tell us?
According to the researchers, the decades since 1980 can be seen as a period when moral concerns experienced a revival but what has driven this revival is open to speculation.
“Some might see the election of conservative governments in the US, UK and Australia at the start of this period as a pivotal change. That might explain the rise of the typically conservative purity-based morality but not the even steeper increase in the typically liberal harm foundation. Others might point to the rise of social justice concerns — or ‘political correctness’ to critics — as the basis for the upswing in harm-based morality. The surge of harm language during early- and mid-century wartime may point to the late century rise being linked to the so called ‘culture wars.’ Certainly, the simultaneous rise in conservative (purity) and left-liberal (harm) moralities since that time is a recipe for moral conflict and polarisation.”
Despite the research’s limitations, Haslam and his fellow researchers say it points to some important cultural transformations. “How we tend to think about matters of right and wrong is different now from how we once did and, if the trends are to be believed, how we will in the future.”
The five moral foundations
Morality is not rigid or monolithic, and how we should understand changes in moral sensibility is a fascinating problem. The Moral Foundations Theory , for instance, puts forward five moral grammars or foundations, each with its own set of associated virtues and vices. These are:
- Purity-based morality, which is rooted in ideas of sanctity and piety. When standards of purity are violated, the reaction is disgust, and violators are seen as unclean and tarnished.
- Authority-based morality, which prizes duty, deference, and social order. It abhors those who show disrespect and disobedience.
- Fairness-based morality, which stands in opposition to authority-based morality. It judges right and wrong using values of equality, impartiality and tolerance, and disdains bias and prejudice.
- Ingroup-based morality, which esteems loyalty to family, community or nation, and judges those who threaten or undermine them as immoral
- Harm-based morality, which values care, compassion and safety, and views wrongness in terms of suffering, mistreatment and cruelty.
And also this …
“By the 16th century, Venice was the capital of its own huge empire and a major crossroads of trade and travel between mainland Europe and the Mediterranean. At the same time as painters including Titian and Giorgione were making the city a centre of Renaissance culture, the population surged from around 100,000 to nearly 170,000 in just 50 years,” Rosa Salzberg writes in Venice had its own ‘Airbnb problem’ during the Renaissance — here’s how it coped.
“My research has shown how hundreds of ordinary Venetians at this time saw a chance to make money on the side by renting rooms or beds. Many were women who struggled to earn a living in other ways: people like Paolina Briani, who in the 1580s rented rooms to Muslim merchants from the Ottoman empire, in her home a few minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco.
By opening up their homes to migrants and travellers, these accommodation providers — unlike the mostly absentee Airbnb owners of today — shared intimate spaces with people who spoke different languages and practised different religions.”
“There are differences between then and now: in the reasons people come to the city; in the nature of competing urban needs; and in the likely solutions and policies. But it seems that cities can take a lead from Renaissance Venice, and act to promote meaningful interactions between visitors and residents; for example, as Berlin has done, by banning people from renting out entire flats on Airbnb. The Venice of 500 years ago challenges people to think about ‘the Airbnb problem’ in a more nuanced way.”
Brian Morton believes we misunderstand what kind of time machine an old book is. “It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us,” he writes in Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite! “We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.
I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.”
“When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.
If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today.
To take an example almost at random: Most of us rely on technology that can be traced to child labor or even slave labor. We know this — or we should know this — but we don’t think about it much. When we’re texting or using social media, we don’t tend to be troubled by the thought that the cobalt in our phones may have been extracted by 10-year-olds in Katanga working 12-hour shifts for a dollar a day. We don’t stop short, seized by the realization that taking part in the fight against global inequality is more urgent than anything else we could possibly be doing. We finish the text or the tweet or the email and go on with our lives.
If you or I were to write a novel with a passage in which someone takes a casual glance at his phone, how might this strike a reader from the future — someone whose understanding of human interconnectedness is far more acute than our own? I’m guessing that readers from the future might find our callousness almost unbearable, and might have to remind themselves that despite the monstrousness into which we could descend in passages like this, some of what we were saying might be worth listening to.
If we arm ourselves with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of curiosity (those essential tools of the time-traveler), we’ll be able to see the writers of the past more clearly when we visit them, and see ourselves more clearly when we get back. We’ll be able to appreciate that in their limited ways, sometimes seeing beyond the prejudices of their age, sometimes unable to do so, they — the ones worth reading — were trying to make the world more human, just as we, in our own limited ways, are also trying to do.”
“For design lovers especially, architect [Gō] Hasegawa’s picturesque 22-by-3-meter (72-by-10-foot) cedar and cypress building is worth the pilgrimage,” Anne Quito writes in What a beautiful tiny house in rural Japan can teach us about the health of cities.
“Made from 28 types of wood harvested from the area, the plan is based on ‘engawa,’ a traditional structure which extends the interior floor into a porch. This detail is Hasegawa’s metaphor for blurring the boundary between the public and private realms. ‘Every detail of the structure inspires connection to the people of Yoshino and their underlying traditions,’ he stresses.”
“Two years into the project, [Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia] declares the Yoshino Cedar House model a success. ‘We believe other rural Japanese towns can learn from Yoshino by looking at the empty homes they have and seeing possibility in them,’ he tells Quartz. ‘Through renovation and small investment, those homes can also be listed on Airbnb to attract interest from travelers who delight in experiencing Japanese village life.’
Arguably, Airbnb’s greatest contribution to small towns lies in recasting rural ghost towns as idyllic retreats for discerning urbanites. Through its robust tech platform and design-minded sensibility, the company has helped put a new spin on remote areas like Civita, Italy, where guests can sleep in a 13th century stone house or Gurajat, India where they’re welcomed with home cooked meals in local residences and learn folk dances. Its latest scheme involves paying four lucky individuals to live in the hilltop town of Grottole, near Naples, for three months to learn the local culture and participate in village life.”
“Dutch architecture theorist Rem Koolhaas wants to steer scholarship back to the oft-neglected towns. ‘Our current obsession with only the city is highly irresponsible because you cannot understand the city without understanding the countryside,’ he argues. With a forthcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum titled Countryside: Future of the World, Koolhaas, who is considered as the most influential architecture polemicist in some circles, points out that much innovation actually occurs in towns like Yoshino, where citizens are forced to adapt to their circumstances.
‘The fact that more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities has become an excuse to ignore the countryside,’ Koolhaas says. ‘I have long been fascinated by the transformation of the city, but since looking at the countryside more closely in recent years, I have been surprised by the intensity of change taking place there. The story of this transformation is largely untold.’”
Staying in India, in Kerala to be precise…
In today’s world, it is a prevalent trend to add the prefix of sustainability to most things. However, there seems to be very little that is done to represent the concept, Wallmakers, the architects of Chirath Residence say.
“All our earlier settlements have always been made of natural materials. But the sad fact is that, today less than thirty percent of the world’s population live in buildings made of earth, even though it is a more sustainable and durable material ; the blame of which may be solely placed on the advent of industrialisation and a widespread demand for ‘cement houses.’
We, at Wallmakers have devoted ourselves to the cause of using mud and waste as the chief components, to make structures that are both utilitarian and alluring.”
Chirath Residence in Pala, Kerala, is a beautiful example of their architectural philosophy.
“It is increasingly obvious that all [the political professionals’] tactics have done almost nothing except run down the clock, but still they insist that it’s the young who just don’t get it and that things aren’t that simple. They’re the living embodiment of the famous New Yorker cartoon, with a suited man sat in a post-apocalyptic landscape telling his young audience ‘Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.’
This is reality v the vested interests of the powerful. Any meaningful policy has to upset the established power base and the political donor class. Any policy that doesn’t upset these people will be useless. To pretend that we can compromise our way through this while we wait for a magical, technological bullet that will keep temperatures down without costing us anything is beyond wilful ignorance now. It is a question of basic morality.” — Phil McDuff, Ending climate change requires the end of capitalism. Have we got the stomach for it?