The Economy of Cities: Incubating Meaningful Work
Jane Jacobs’ eloquent defense of the life, and death, of great American cities still rings true. As associate director of Architectural Forum in the 1960’s, Jacobs admonished us to remember what really made cities lively and alive—their inherent ability to foster creativity and innovation. Cities that do not add new levels and natures of work stagnate. “More of the Same” is deadening and results in cities that are no longer vibrant.
Yet many cities base their economic development plans on the expansion or recruitment of a cluster of similar businesses as a way to create “synergies.” The modern economic development plan seeks “like” businesses and related suppliers that support them, believing that they can create a center of excellence. This was the idea that Bangalore, India had when it established itself as the world’s premiere call-center. And Dublin Ireland had in pursuing the “computer chip manufacturing capital of the world” title. Both of these cities and others built on the same model are finding themselves in competition to hang on to what they have and in most cases find themselves closing down businesses at least as fast as they ramped them up. Why?
Jane Jacobs told us repeatedly that this type of clustering, amalgamating and aggregating is not a source of growth but of stagnation, and that the creative urge of generating new work is the thing that grows cities. But what does it mean to create new work?
Traditional business development is focused on identifying growing industries, attracting them through tax incentives and resource promises, and maintaining relationships once they move to town so they support the local culture and schools. This is a very good model for accumulating the best of what already exists, but does not add the new levels and natures of work that a city needs to remain lively and to evolve. A better model might be one of creating an “Incubator for Innovation”—a system that evolves true value-adding processes that build both local viability and vitality.
This Incubator would pursue the development of six types of living systems businesses—three that build viability in a community and three that work on its vitality. Viability businesses meet the most fundamental and important needs of a city that, if not provided locally, will have to be imported. Vitality businesses work on the liveliness and energy of a city—the qualities that make people proud and inspired to be part of it.
The key viability processes can be identified as fooding (ensuring the nourishment of the people); sheltering (ensuring the protection of humans and other life forms); and transacting (ensuring that people can exchange goods and services with one another for income). As these needs are met increasingly by local entities rather than by imported goods or services, the community becomes more viable.
Cities also need to experience joie de vivre, the part of life that goes beyond meeting basic needs. They need to feel alive and dynamic, filled with spirit and belonging. This is a different type of value-adding for the incubator to cultivate. It is the work of servicing vitality in cities. Vitality is brought in by businesses that work on adornment, regeneration and communing with one another and with nature.
My proposed Incubator for Innovation would engage in supporting work within all six of these value-adding streams. At the level of fooding, the incubator would work to develop a whole and healthy system of businesses for food—everything from farming to catering to processing to retail sales. (And maybe beyond into compositing businesses that reinvest food remains back into the whole cycle.) The incubator would create learning and development processes that not only stimulate creation of new businesses related to feeding the community but also create stability in local supply.
At the level of sheltering, the incubator would work on building businesses that relate to creating and sustaining homes, as well as eradicating homelessness (as a business in Mississauga, Canada is doing). Another form of sheltering could be sheltering in-door gardens and other business endeavors. Or, sheltering streams and rivers from degradation. All of these sheltering businesses are needed in a community, and the Incubator would work on evolving their presence and capability.
Transacting business development relates to processes and systems required to conduct business transactions, for example, the transportation of goods around a region to distribution locations. Transactional mechanisms need to be created and evolved for transferring funds and borrowing money via banking or microloans. Transacting also includes the transformations of primary material from the earth (in the form of minerals and renewable resources) into useful products.
These first three arenas for new work—fooding, sheltering and transacting—provide the base ability of a community to remain viable in wide swings since these are products and services that all communities need on an ongoing basis. The next three arenas address vitality.
Adornment businesses address the need for beauty and ornamentation in life—everything from architecture to fashion to dance, music, literature and visual arts. Adornment enables us define both belonging and distinctiveness. Art and adornment are important to cities who want to attract both talent and tourism. Not only are these businesses in themselves, they also work synergistically with other business arenas (such as fooding—think Martha Stewart—or sheltering.)
The arena of regeneration of all life, (human, animal and vegetation) is also a part of vitality work—addressing everything from health care to animal husbandry. Value-adding processes for regeneration include education (private and public) and learning in all forms. They also include recreation, if we mean by recreation the means by which we renew ourselves.
Finally, incubation is needed for the processes that enable communing among the inhabitants of a place. Businesses in this arena include those that create events and festivals to celebrate a place, its seasons and transitions through time. Communities of worship and spiritual practice also fall within this arena, as do organizations that help individuals and groups come into communion with nature.
The creation of new work and new types of work is the only way to keep cities alive and prospering. If every city sponsored a business incubator that explicitly sought to develop viability- and vitality-promoting businesses, we would be following Jane Jacobs’ prescription for healthy cities. Curitiba, Brazil institutionalized this incubator process through its Free University of the Environment, which for decades has redefined the fields of urban master planning and economic development. Through education of the public and all city employees, the Free University has served as an incubator of viability and vitality for its city.