Monday, April 04, 2005

The World Is Flat

You can always count on Thomas Friedman to offer important new insight into how the world works now. In his latest book, "The World Is Flat" out this week from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, he makes a compelling case that globalization has collapsed time and distance and raised the notion that someone anywhere on earth can do your job more cheaply. Can Americans rise to the challenge? He's not so sure.

"When the world is flat, you can innovate without having to emigrate.," Friedman writes. "We are about to see creative destruction on steroids."

How did the world get so flat so fast? Friedman says a number of key events and forces converged around 2000:

>> The collapse of the Berlin Wall allowed us to think of the world as a single space.
>> Microsoft Windows 3.0 operating system created a global interface.
>> Netscape went public, triggering the boom, which, in turn, triggered "massive overinvestment in fiber-optic telecommunications cable.
>> "Workflow" -- software applications and standards that connected computers -- produced a breakthrough in people-to-people and application-to-application connectivity.
>> Outsourcing, offshoring, open-sourcing, insourcing and supply-chaining extended the notion of collaboration, as did "informing" -- the use of Google, Yahoo, and MSN Search.
>> Wireless access and voice over Internet protocol put global collaboration on steroids.

"Hierarchies are being flattened and value is being created less and less within vertical silos and more and more through horizontal collaboration within companies, between companies and among individuals," Friedman writes.

He also points to the three billion people who "walked and often ran onto the playing field" -- the Chinese, Indians, Russians, East Europeans, Latin Americans and Central Asians.

It is this convergence -- of new players, on a new playing field, developing new processes for horizontal collaboration -- that Friedman believes is the most important force shaping global economies and politics in the early 21st century.

Weighed down with their investments in legacy technologies, there is nothing that guarantees that Americans or Western Europeans will continue leading the way.

"The long-term opportunities and challenges that the flattening of the world puts before the United States are profound," Friedman warns.

He believes our nation is plagued with an ambition gap, a numbers gap producing too few scientists and engineers, and an education gap.

How will America respond to what Friedman has rightly called a crisis? That is the most urgent question we face.

Read this book.
Smart City Wisdom
Author Dan Pink says we need "A Whole New Mind" and Andres Duany asks designers to "consider the trade"

A Whole New Mind author Dan Pink explained the challenges facing cities today:

“There are three very important forces – giant forces – that are sweeping through the economy that are tilting the scales in favor of ‘right brain abilities.’ Those three forces are Abundance, Asia and Automation.”

“Abundance means that this country is enormously wealthy deep into the middle class. We have a standard of living that is breathtaking. As a result, you have people pursuing meaning, purpose and transcendence in a way that we haven’t been able to in all of human history.”

“The only way to sell your product, service or experience is to have something functional – something that works – but it also has to appeal to these non-material yearnings -- aesthetics, spirituality, emotion.”

“Enormous amounts of white collar work are going over to Asia, but it’s only one kind of white collar work. It’s the work that can be reduced to a set of rules, a recipe, a set of routines.”

“Automation. We’ve seen this movie before. A generation ago, we learned that machines could do things better than the human back. John Henry was replaced by the steam drill. Now, all kinds of white collar professions are being John Henryed by software. Software can do certain kinds of white collar tasks better than we can. As a result, we’re going to have to be able to do things that fast computers and sophisticated software can’t do faster and better.”

“The whole-minded abilities we need to master are design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning.”

Architect and planner Andres Duany, co-founder of the New Urbanism movement, had this to say about development in America today:

“Americans, bless us, don’t like bad news. They get exhausted by the ‘Chicken Little the sky is falling’ rhetoric. Also I find that no sooner do you actually make a proposition that is cataclysmic that somebody else wheels up statistics that prove just the opposite. If I say, petroleum is going to run out in ten years, someone proves it’s going to last 110 years. So the statistical presentation is not one that I think can be sustained.
“So what I’ve been presenting increasingly is a vision of simply living better. This is not only good for you, it’s more pleasant, it’s more intelligent, it gives you more choices. For example, if you can walk to your daily needs, you can retire in the house that you love. You don’t have to leave your suburban house and go to a retirement community just because you can’t drive anymore. You can grow old in your own place amidst your friends and neighbors. So the presentation I make is one about the increase in choice. It is one in which I describe a vision of a more intelligent way to live that happens to be ecological. It’s simply nicer.”

“We build 1.5 million houses a year, and the vast majority actually degrade the landscape. The place was better when it was open space, and that need not be the case.

“You look at many cities in the U.S. – the older, marvelous cities we used to build, the Boston’s, the Charleston’s, the Nantucket’s, the Savannah’s – and you say, this is beautiful enough that I actually prefer it to an open field. Sure we lost an open field, but look what we gained.

“It’s all about the trade. It’s about what society gets and what society loses. What’s happening now is that every time society gets a new subdivision or a new strip shopping center or a new office park, it is a downward trade.

“As long as the trades are downward trades, society will become progressively disenchanted with development.”

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Children and the City

As someone who raised a daughter in downtown Memphis, two articles caught my attention this week.

The first was a "My Turn" Newsweek column by Sally Marshall headlined "A Childhood Without Crickets Isn't So Bad." Ms. Marshall is raising her daughter Coco in Manhattan. "I feel slightly ambivalent about raising our daughter, Coco, in New York," she wrote. "When I moved here from the Midwest, my first impression of New York kids was that they were overstimulated little weirdos. I thought childhoods should be in small towns or the suburbs. I expected that I'd be off to the 'burbs when I had a baby. But my husband believes Manhattan is the center of the universe, and I pretty much agree with him." So they stayed to raise their daughter.

Her observations about suburban child-raising may be unfair (Competition among city parents to get their children into the "right" Manhattan schools has led to prosecutions.), but rings familiar nonetheless. "Anyone familiar with the cliches of urban competitive parents and their resume-clutching, tightly-scheduled children would be surprised at the relatively simple lives we lead. We don't have a car, so we walk or talk public transportation everywhere. We don't have a lot of possessions, because our apartment can't hold much stuff. When I visit friends outside the city, I'm often shocked by how many toys are in their kid's bedrooms, family rooms and finished basements."

Coco and her mother are regular visitors to Metropolitan Museum and Central Park, but "neighbors from [their] building and the librarians at [their] public library chat with [Coco] and know her name."

Based on my own experience and that of Sally Marshall, central cities can be wonderfully rich places for raising children.

But according to a story in The New York Times (3.24.05), "Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children." Using Portland's Pearl District as an example, Timothy Egan reports that America's hot growth cities are experiencing no or slow growth of children. San Francisco has the lowest percentage of people under 18 of any large city. Seattle, "where there are more dogs than children," is a close second, followed by Boston, Honolulu, Portland, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin and Atlanta. New York and Los Angeles are exceptions to the trend because of their immigrant populations.

Egan writes, "Officials say that the very things that attract people who revitalize a city -- dense vertical housing, fashionable restaurants and shops and mass transit that makes a car unnecessary -- are driving out children by making neighborhoods too expensive for young families."

Why has revitalization made cities expensive? Because they have become more desirable places to live, and housing prices reflect that. The sorry state of too many urban schools doesn't help, leading many parents to choose private schools -- and pay private school tuition -- if they choose to remain in the city.

It is an unfortunate development that families with children are not participating in the back to the city movement. Cities and kids are missing out on something special.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Whole New Mind

Just finished Dan Pink's new book, "A Whole New Mind." In it, he makes the case that the social and economic trends of Abundance, Asia and Automation will put a new set of skills in to ascendency. These skills -- design, storytelling, meaning, empathy and symphony -- are associated with the "right brain," explaining the title's reference to the "whole" mind.

Dan created a buzz last year with his claim in the Harvard Business Review that the MFA is the new MBA. "A Whole New Mind" builds on that claim. And it is persuasive.

You can hear Dan on "Smart City" this week.

Friday, March 11, 2005

"The computer jobs are gone. So what's next?"

That's the question one unemployed Seattle worker is asking as long-term unemployment climbed to record rates.

Long-term unemployment, defined as joblessness for six months or more, is at record rates. But as LA Times reporter Nicholas Riccardi found, an unusually large share of those chronically out of work are college graduates.

Because industries are transforming at a rapid pace, skilled jobs can quickly become obsolete while others are outsourced. "Educated workers are increasingly subject to the job insecurities and disruptions usually plaguing blue-collar laborers, but various factors make it even harder for some educated workers to get back into the workforce quickly," reports Riccardi. "Though a college education is still one of a worker's best assets, it's no guarantee that a worker's skills will match demands of a shifting job market."

The Labor Department reports that even with better-than-expected job growth, 373,000 people with college degrees quit job hunting and dropped out of the labor force last month.

"The number of long-term unemployed who are college graduates has nearly tripled since the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, statistics," Riccardi notes. "Nearly 1 in 5 of the long-term jobless are college graduates. If a degree holder loses a job, that worker is now more likely than a high school dropout to be chronically unemployed."

"Even with the national unemployment rate at a relatively low 5.4%, the share of those out of work for more than six months is higher now than during the early 1980s, when the jobless rate was in the double digits, analysts say. The average length of unemployment is also higher now than at any time other than the early 1980s."

Riccardi found several reasons for the growing vulnerability of educated workers to long-term joblessness.

The number of college graduates has risen steadily, so it's natural that more college graduates will also lose work. Tech companies have gotten rid of their "overstock" of workers. And the difference between the wages of those with and without college degrees is at record highs.

In his new book, "A Whole New Mind," Dan Pink argues that the future belongs to creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.

What must change about the work that earns those college degrees to make us more adaptable to rapidly changing business needs?

Empire Coffee Company at Main and Madison in downtown Memphis posted this sign six blocks south of the Cannon Center where President Bush appeared this morning to pitch his plan to privatize social security. Posted by Hello

Saturday, January 22, 2005

America 2011

Run, don't walk, to get your copy of the January/February Atlantic Monthly with Richard Clarke's explosive scenario that projects America into a 2011 future. I finished it Wednesday night then viewed the next day's heavily guarded inauguration ceremonies (to say nothing of reading VP Cheney's warnings on Iran) from a whole new perspective. It is a scary and unpleasant future that Clarke describes. Unfortunately, it is also very plausible.

Clarke's story is not the only worthwhile reading in this issue. Also recommended are James Fallows' assessment of how we are wasting homeland security resources and Stephen Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong's look at the effect our increasingly risky economy may have on America's social cohesion.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Blogging for Dollars

Writing for Slate, Chris Suellentrop reviews the current controversy around "blogging for dollars," payments made by interested parties to bloggers who pose as disinterested parties. It happened in the Howard Dean campaign, with the campaign providing payola to bloggers at Daily Kos and as "consultants" who then wrote favorably about Dean. Suellentrop contends that bloggers are not journalists, and it's the reader's fault for confusing the two.

Reader beware. Read the Slate story at

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Urban Journalists of the Year

Otis White, who runs Civic Strategies and produces a fine e-newsletter for urban enthusiasts, has named the best urban reporters of 2004. Topping the list is San Diego Tribune-Union's Philip J. LaVelle. Rounding out the top five were Rachael Gordon of the San Francisco Chronicle, Mike Tobin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jessica Garrison at the Los Angeles Times, and Lori Montgomery at the Washington Post.

Best urban paper, according to Otis, is The New York Times.

Read the report