Tag Archives: economy

Let's Turn up the heat on Rex Murphy's flawed logic

In his regular column the other week Rex Murphy published a piece entitled Don’t turn up the heat on the West, which also had the great sub title: By making Western provinces pay for adventures in global warming policy we will be playing with Confederation.

For a man that regularly rails against the lack of political imagination in this country it is odd to see him shut down debate and present us with a narrow (Bush-styled) choice he usually loathes: our planet or our country. As a red blooded Canadian the choice for Rex is easy. The costs of climate change can be ignored since they will be born by my children in some hard to quantify future. In contrast, the political costs of acting (which he will witness) are “real” and “reckless.”

What is sad is that we’ve been here before. One wonders what Rex would have said in the 30’s or 60’s about asbestos mining. Here is a mineral for which there was overwhelming evidence that there was a negative impact on miners especially, and citizens generally, that came into contact with it. Indeed as early as 1935 senior executives in two of the largest firms in the industry – Raybestos Manhattan and Johns-Manville – secretly agreed that “our interests are best served by having asbestosis receive the minimum of publicity.” But the growing scientific literature from the 30’s-60’s that suggested asbestos had serious negative side effects didn’t matter. For one there were asbestos deniers (those contrarian thinker-types Rex would love), such as J. Corbett McDonald, a McGill professor who received $500,000 in research funding from Quebec Asbestos Mining Association and determined that contaminants in the environment, not asbestos, cause lung tumours seen in Canadian workers. Phew!

Looking back, we can see now that Asbestos was massively damaging and deeply, deeply costly. Asbestos is so problematic and has created so much exposure to the insurance industry that much of it remains unresolved today. In many countries the government simply had to offer direct compensation packages since the liabilities were too great to be covered. This is to say nothing of site and building cleanups (like out parliament buildings which are currently spending 10s millions to have the asbestos removed from). In total, we are definitely talking about 100s of billions of dollars. Possibly over a trillion dollars in costs over the last two-three decades. And that’s just in Canada.

Of course, back in 1960s and 70s talking about shutting down the abestoes industry would have posed a threat to national unity too. Most of Canada’s asbestoes mines are located in Quebec and so confronting this future risk (that science strongly suggested was imminent) would have required political leadership and tackling regionalism.

Thank god we didn’t. Our inaction spared us having to address the political consequences. Instead we’ve only had to deal with billions of dollars in lawsuits, tens of thousands (likely many more) lives cut short by cancer and other illnesses, and locking parts of our economy into a dying industry which the world was less and less interested in.

What’s most sad? We haven’t stopped. Prime Minister Harper continues to try to block a UN environmental agreement (the Rotterdam Convention) that would list chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substances. His political quote on the issue: The Liberals are being “duped and manipulated by extremist groups,” and that the other national parties are urban-focused and don’t understand regional issues like asbestos. Of course, by blocking the convention Canada can continue to sell asbestos without informing purchasers – especially those in developing countries (one of the few markets left) – that it is hazardous. Yeah us!

Rex flawed logic is summed up when, in his article, he says:

Should some global warming action plan attempt to put the oil sands and Western energy development at significant disadvantage, or draw taxes out of the economies of the Western provinces to pay for adventures in global warming policy, we will be playing with Confederation.

In short, it doesn’t matter how serious an issue is. If it the politics are too difficult – we shouldn’t act. Indeed, I can imagine him using the same logic back in the 70s writing about asbestos, saying something like:

Should some asbestos regulatory regime place Quebec asbestoes mining at significant disadvantage, or draw taxes out of the economy of Quebec to pay for adventures in health and safety policy, we will be playing with Confederation.

Yes, we would have. And it would have been the right call. That’s what political leadership is Rex. I’m sorry you’re not interested in it.

Closed Border, closed economy, closing opportunities

The other day Tim O’Reilly tweeted about this New York Times article. Entitled – Chicago’s Loss: Is Passport Control to Blame? – the piece struck a chord with me since my last two efforts to cross into the United States from Canada have been dramatically unpleasant experiences. Turns out that others – including IOC selection committee members – feel the same way:

Among the toughest questions posed to the Chicago bid team this week in Copenhagen was one that raised the issue of what kind of welcome foreigners would get from airport officials when they arrived in this country to attend the Games. Syed Shahid Ali, an I.O.C. member from Pakistan, in the question-and-answer session following Chicago’s official presentation, pointed out that entering the United States can be “a rather harrowing experience.”

Border-SecurityHarrowing indeed! I crossed the border two weeks ago on my way to French Lick, Indiana, to attend a bio-informatics conference. I wasn’t paid to attend, and had been invited by the founders of OpenMRS to whom I occasionally volunteer some advice and just think are all around great guys who I’d do pretty much anything for. Is a conference work or pleasure? Not really either, but to be safe, I said work. Big mistake. The border security officer said he didn’t care if I was not getting paid, work is work (don’t even bother trying to explain to him what an open source community is) and he was inclined to red flag my passport and take away my TN (work) visa. It was a terrifying experience (and frankly, on the scale of what people can be accused or suspected of at the border economic issues are important but relatively less concerning than political or criminal ones – although don’t underestimate the fear generated by seeing part of ones livelihood flash before ones eyes).

All this is made worse by the fact that there is, effectively, no appeals process. Yes, maybe you can talk to somebody higher up, but the will likely take hours (long after your flight is to depart in 90 minutes) or even days (once the conference or event you intended to attend or speak at has long since ended). You are at the mercy of the person you’re in front of.

All this may sound unfortunate but it has significant implications, political and economic implications. International travel to the United States is down 10% in the first quarter of 2009 – a big part of this is likely related to the economy, but I suspect that fewer and fewer people are choosing the United States as a destination. But vacationers are minor in comparison to the impact on innovation and economic development. Today, it is harder and harder for the best minds in the world to work for American companies and to do graduate work at American universities. This means America’s elite will interact less and less with leading thinkers from elsewhere and its companies will have to rely on American talent, and not international talent, to succeed. 

Already the cracks are showing. Google has employees who are forced to work in Canada since they can’t work in the United States. And Microsoft recently opened a software development facility in Vancouver because US immigration laws made it too difficult to bring in top talent. Indeed, I’m increasingly persuaded that the new convention centre in Vancouver was a smart investment. If you are hosting a conference with Americans and internationals in attendance there is no way you are going to host it in the United States.

Do Americans understand what is going on? Probably not. While some of the above articles have appeared in the news section of the newspaper the Olympic story appeared in the Travel section – hardly the place to raise a red flag for politicians. At least the President seems to now understand that it is an issue:

President Obama, who was there as part of the 10-person team, assured Mr. Ali that all visitors would be made to feel welcome. “One of the legacies I want to see is a reminder that America at its best is open to the world,” he said.”

I hope he’s successful since the consequences of the status quo will be ugly for the United States. A closed border is like a closed mind – over time you become less receptive to new ideas or information and begin to atrophy.

Innovation at the Bottom of the Pyramid: The Olyset Net in Africa

BoP-200x300A few years ago I read C.K. Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, a stunning book about how development can take place and successful economies can emerge even in the poorest of places. Prahalad presents case after case of how companies conducted research and supported innovations at a cost point that helped foster products that could serve some of the desperately poor populations in the world.

The other day my friend John McArthur twittered about this company – which has invented a Permethrin laced mosquito bed net guaranteed to last at least five years (testing shows it often lasts 7). Better yet, it is significantly stronger than polyester nets being both tear-proof, wash-proof and never requiring treatment.

This alone would be a great news story. But it is the economy behind the net that is equally exciting. The manufacturing of the Olyset Net is creating jobs in Africa:

Production in Africa began in 2003 when Sumitomo Chemical provided a royalty-free technology license to A to Z Textile Mills in Arusha, Tanzania. Tanzanian production was further expanded in 2008 when Sumitomo Chemical celebrated the official opening of a 50:50 joint venture factory, expanding our partnership with A to Z in East Africa. From 2009, global production capacity will exceed 40 million nets per annum, with around 50% manufactured in Africa. Furthermore, Sumitomo Chemical has recently committed to expanding production into Nigeria, the African country with the greatest malaria burden. Once production is established in Nigeria, global capacity will be 60 million Olyset nets.

Olyset-netThe news section of the website has still more good news. A Sumitomo Chemical Partnership with an Ethiopian Business will create 300 jobs in Kombolcha, Ethiopia. Is this development? Or is it Foreign Direct Investment creating jobs, feeding the African economy and helping solving one of the greatest scourges on the continent.

If you find this compelling, take a look at John’s newest Huffington Post piece where he outlines the new research and study Masters program he and Millennium Promise are helping create around the world.

The Neo-Progressive Manifesto Prelude (or why Generation M must be remixed)

On Wednesday Umair Haque’s posted a Manifesto for Generation M. The post has received some praise and some serious criticism.

I’d be lying if I said the post didn’t resonate with me on certain level – heck, that is why I remixed it (lightly) on Friday night. Many of the manifesto’s ideas and links – and above all, its message of institutional failure – tapped into the challenges and issues Taylor and I sought to weave together in Progressivism’s End: How the Left is Killing Progressive Politics.

Now, at the end of the weekend, having reflected on it further alone, with friends and with Taylor, there is still lots I agree with. We do face a crisis of institutions and, frankly, there are a large number of people who would like to simply dial back the clock (some 10 years, others 35) and say – that’s it, problem solved. I believe Umair is saying that isn’t going to work. And I agree with him.

So having said that, I’ve got two observations and a final mega-remix to make to the Generation M Manifesto.

1. It Ain’t a Generational Divide

In reading the comments (especially this one) and talking with friends I was reminded how Taylor and I shied away from using a generational analysis like that adopted by Umair. This was an explicit choice. Our piece is about the death of progressive politics and what we believe is emerging in its place – it is the kind of narrative that, on the surface, appears to lend itself intuitively to generational divide. But the divide is not generational. First, let’s be honest, there are lots of Social Darwinian, self-centered, materially driven people in every generation.

Consider Canada, which many falsely believe is broadly immune to such thinking despite producing Mark Steyn. But consider the research in Sex in the Snow by Michael Adams. Drawing from his social values surveys, Adams concluded that Gen X could be divided into 5 “tribes.” Two of these tribes – the ‘New Aquarians‘ (13% of Gen Xers) and the ‘Autonomous Post-Materialists‘ (20%) would probably find the ideas in Umair’s Manifesto (as well as, hopefully, Taylor and I’s piece) resonate with them. However, among the other three ‘Gen X’ tribes, many of the ‘Aimless Dependents‘ (27%), the ‘Thrill-Seeking Materialists‘ (25%) and ‘Social Hedonists‘ (13%) would likely fall along a spectrum defined at one extreme by mild interest and the other by outright hostility. Still more would probably feel complete indifference to either Umair’s Manifesto or our piece.

This breakdown is true among Baby Boomers as well. I suspect that Autonomous Rebels (25% of boomers) and Connected Enthusiasts (14%) would be more inclined to identify with much of the Manifesto while Anxious Communitarians, (20% ) and Disengaged Darwinists, (41%) would be less inclined.

In short, a generational analysis simply isn’t accurate. But that is only the half of it. The other reason Taylor and I shied away from generational analysis because such an analysis is likely to hamper the development of a self-identifying and self-organizing group to champion and implement the ideas we (and Umair) highlight. While the Manifesto will inspire some, it’s analytical lens will, however, also alienate potential allies while simultaneously assuming those potentially indifferent or even hostile to its ideas are in agreement. If there is going to be a movement, it is wise to know who’s in, who’s out, and who doesn’t care.

2. It’s About Values

What is notably absent from Umair’s manifesto is any mention of values. It’s not that they aren’t there – it’s that they are left implicit. The values I see reflected in Umair’s post aren’t new; in fact they are quite old. This is the central piece to Taylor and I’s argument – that progressives have become more attached to the institutions they inherited than to the values those institutions were built to serve:

The rise of industrial capitalism during the 19th century led to a series of tense societal changes. These included the emergence of an urban working class, increasing inequality and the new possibility of total war. In response, three generations of pragmatically driven “progressives” emerged. Opposing both the socialist left and the laissez-faire right, they championed values such as equality of opportunity, meritocracy, government transparency and empirical inquiry.

This is the source of the crisis. It is not that one generation held values that another didn’t. It’s that the institutions we inherited don’t always reflect those values in a world where globalization, technology and social values have altered how we work, play and live. Taylor and I (and I suspect Umair) are frustrated because we see enormous time, money and energy being spent in an effort to architect our economy, our government and our public spaces to serve and preserve these institutions, rather than ensuring these institutions support us and an economy, government and public space we believe are essential for a prosperous and sustainable future.

So the question becomes how to ensure the values of equality of opportunity, meritocracy, government transparency, empircal inquiry – along with human rights, and the environment, get imbued into the policies, institutions, communities and companies we will inherit and create? It feels like the first step is to articulate them clearly. This way, when some of these new institutions begin to change we’ll know it is time to reform, abandon or simply move on.

3. Post-Potter Authenticity; and Where are the Women?

Finally, some quick hits. In a post-Rebel Sell world we need to be really careful about talking about authenticity. Even the “authentic” is constructed…  (If you haven’t read The Rebel Sell – go find a copy. Heath and Potter are brilliant).

Also, where are the women? Umair’s manifesto lists Generation Mers but there is almost nary a women among them. (I only counted one – Flickr had a female co-founder).

Gen M is about passion, responsibility, authenticity, and challenging yesterday’s way of everything. Everywhere I look, I see an explosion of Gen M businesses, NGOs, open-source communities, local initiatives, government. Who’s Gen M? Obama, kind of. Larry and Sergey. The Threadless, Etsy, and Flickr guys. Ev, Biz and the Twitter crew. Tehran 2.0. The folks at Kiva, Talking Points Memo, and FindtheFarmer. Shigeru Miyamoto, Steve Jobs, Muhammad Yunus, and Jeff Sachs are like the grandpas of Gen M. There are tons where these innovators came from.

I’m sure this is a problem that can be crowd sourced – but it had better happen quickly. In our piece, Taylor and I used Tzeporah Berman (Environmental Activisit), Calvin Helin (First Nations Lawyer) and Dan Florizone (Public Servant) as cases. Here I think is another place the manifesto could do with more examples – those doing work in the non-profit and government sector.

A real remix

Again – there are a lot of people who are going to jump on Umair. Indeed on some sites the Law of Fail has already been reached:

Once a web community has decided to dislike a person, topic, or idea, the conversation will shift from criticizing the idea to become a competition about who can be most scathing in their condemnation.

I’m not one of them. I understand why Umair is frustrated. I’m not certain that a generational analysis is the right approach but I do agree that we are not sufficiently wrestling with the question of how we redesign market regulation, democratic institutions, financial regulation, etc… to help foster the communities, environment and economy we want for the 21st century.

So with this in mind I’m going to take another cut at remixing the Manifesto. Indeed, it may be so dramatically different it is simply a re-purposing.  Increasingly, I sense that we’ve got to put values back into the equation and tackle figure out what are the cleavages in our society that do distinguish those opposed to reform from those in favour – in short, I’m going to remix it into a Neo-Progressive Manifesto.

The Generation M Manifesto (Re-mixed v.1)

I’ve always been a big Umair fan and think you should to. He writes about everything Taylor and I were getting at in our piece about The Death of Progressive Politics and the need for a neo-progressive movement.

On Wednesday Umair Haque published The Generation M Manifesto on his blog. In the very best spirit of Generation M he asked others to edit and re-mix the manifesto. I’ve added a few lines (all my edits are in red), removed the reference to “I” (underlying thinking: this is a manifesto for a group), removed the “I thinks” (this is no time to hedge ourselves)

I want to think about this more but here’s my first crack.

Addendum: I’ve actually done a lot more thinking on the Manifesto and re-mixed it more significantly here.

—-
Dear Old People Who Run the World,

My generation would like to break up with you.

Everyday, I we see a widening gap in how you and we understand the world — and what we want from it. It’s been a long time coming but I think we have irreconcilable differences.

You wanted big, fat, lazy “business.” We want small, responsive, micro-scale commerce.

You turned politics into a dirty word. We want authentic, deep democracy — everywhere.

You wanted financial fundamentalism. We want an economics that makes sense for people — not just banks.

You wanted shareholder value — built by tough-guy CEOs. We want real value, built by people with character, dignity, and courage.

You wanted organizations hidden behind a veils of secrecy. We want open institutions, fit for survival, designed to grow and share wealth, that seek to create markets, not own them.

You wanted an invisible hand — it became a digital the sleight of hand. Today’s markets are those where the majority of trades are done literally robotically. We want a visible transparent handshake: to trust and to be trusted.

You wanted growth — faster. We want to slow down — so we can become better.

You didn’t care which communities were capsized, or which lives were sunk. We want a rising tide that lifts all boats.

You wanted to biggie size life: McMansions, Hummers, and McFood. We want to humanize life.

You let citizens be devolve into consumers and users. We want citizens to be hackers, creators and… citizens.

You wanted a culture that is controlled by the past. We want a free culture that builds on the past.

You wanted exurbs, sprawl, and gated anti-communities. We want a society built on authentic around sustainable communities.

You wanted more money, credit and leverage — to consume ravenously. We want to be great at doing stuff that matters.

You sacrificed the meaningful for the material: you sold out the very things that made us great for trivial gewgaws, trinkets, and gadgets. We’re not for sale: we’re learning to once again do what is meaningful.

There’s a tectonic shift rocking the social, political, and economic landscape. The last two points above are what express it most concisely. I hate labels, but I’m going to employ a flawed, imperfect one: Generation “M.” We are pro-ams, we are creatives, we are neo-progressives, we are hackers, we are Generation “M” and we are legion.

What do the “M”s in Generation M stand for? The first is for a movement. It’s a little bit about age — but mostly about a growing number of people who are acting very differently. They are doing meaningful stuff that matters the most. Those are the second, third, and fourth “M”s.

Gen M is about passion, responsibility, authenticity, and challenging yesterday’s way of everything. Everywhere I look, I see an explosion of Gen M businesses, NGOs, open-source communities, local initiatives, government. Who’s Gen M? Obama, kind of. Larry and Sergey. The Threadless, Etsy, and Flickr guys. Ev, Biz and the Twitter crew. Tehran 2.0. The folks at Kiva, Talking Points Memo, and FindtheFarmer. Shigeru Miyamoto, Steve Jobs, Muhammad Yunus, and Jeff Sachs are like the grandpas of Gen M. There are tons where these innovators came from.

Gen M isn’t just kind of awesome — it’s vitally necessary. If you think the “M”s sound idealistic, think again.

The great crisis isn’t going away, changing, or “morphing.” It’s the same old crisis — and it’s growing.

You’ve failed to recognize it for what it really is. It is, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, in our institutions: the rules by which our economy is organized.

But increasingly they’re your institutions, not ours. You made inherited them but you failed to renew them and now they’re broken. Here’s what I we mean:

“… For example, the auto industry has cut back production so far that inventories have begun to shrink — even in the face of historically weak demand for motor vehicles. As the economy stabilizes, just slowing the pace of this inventory shrinkage will boost gross domestic product, or GDP, which is the nation’s total output of goods and services.”

Clearing the backlog of SUVs built on 30-year-old technology is going to pump up GDP? So what? There couldn’t be a clearer example of why GDP is a totally flawed concept, an obsolete institution. We don’t need more land yachts clogging our roads: we need a 21st Century auto industry.

I was We were (kind of) kidding about seceding before. Here’s what it looks like to me us: every generation has a challenge, and this, I think, is ours: to foot the bill for yesterday’s profligacy — and to create, instead, an authentically, sustainable shared prosperity.

Anyone — young or old — can answer it. Generation M is more about what you do and who you are than when you were born. So the question is this: do you still belong to the 20th century – or the 21st?

Love,

Umair and the Edge Economy Community

Chicago's green roofs and our failed stimulus

I was completely floored (and excited) to read this article about how the Sears Tower in Chicago (recently renamed the Willis Tower) is to undergo a $350M green retrofit that will give it a green roof and it’s own wind turbines. This will reduce the energy consumed by the tower by 80% and its water consumption will drop by 24 million gallons.

As this blog notes:

the U.S Department of State estimates that buildings account for an estimated 36 percent of overall energy use, 65 percent of electricity consumption, 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and 12 percent of water use in America. Green improvements to Sears Tower are aimed at reducing electricity use by 80% in just four years, equating to 68 million kilowatt hours or 150,000 barrels of oil per year. The architects firm responsible for the retro-design, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, has also designed a 50 storey highly sustainable tower to accompany Sears Tower on its south side which will draw power from the improved efficiency measures and work as a net-zero energy development.

So this renovation – which is to start immediately (note the shovel readiness of it) this project will:

  • create a more efficient and thus profitable building (benefiting Chicago businesses and the tax base)
  • reduce US consumption of oil by 150,000 barrels a year (reducing cash outflows and helping America’s balance of trade)
  • will immediately create 3600 jobs yo complete the work (in the construction industry, which has been hard hit by the financial crises)
  • help train and provide practical experience to, construction workers, contractors, design firms & others in creating green buildings (position them for the next economy)

This is a stimulus plan that works. Recently I argued we need a stimulus plan that is low of carbs and fat on data… this is just another example of the types of shovel ready projects that leave a legacy. Canada’s plan to date? Pave some roads and build some bridges all so that we can burn more gas moving cars around.

Feeding the next economy – Give us a stimulus that stimulates, not placates

Last December – as the debates over the stimulus packages were just beginning, I wrote a piece on why the wrong stimulus today could fail us tomorrow. Well, today has become tomorrow, and we are failing.

A stimulus package should be an investment. It should create new industries and markets, it should find help create efficiencies and improve productivity, in short, in should help the economy grow in a sustainable manner. In the last depression the government accomplished this by funding infrastructure necessary for the 20th century economy, things like roads and highways for cars and transportation, power stations and grids for cities and industry, university buildings for education. Today, we already have much of that infrastructure and – while some of it needs to be renewed – we need to be focusing on what infrastructure is needed for the next economy – the digital economy – that will carry us out of this recession.

So what powers the digital economy? It isn’t coal, steel or cars and power (although these things are necessary), it’s data and connectivity.

Data is the plankton of the new economy. It seems plentiful, tiny and insignificant. But a whole ecosystem of companies, large and small are emerging to feed off of it and support our next economy. People often fail to recognize that the largest company already created by the new economy – Google – is a data company.  Google is effective, rich and powerful not because it sells ads… but because it generates petaflops of data everyday from billions of search queries. This allows it to know more about our society, and sometimes us individually – the merchandise we like, the services we want, the spam we’ll receive, even if the likelihood we’ll get sick in 4 months – than we know about yourself. Give people access to data and they will use it to become more efficient (freeing up more money to reinvest) and to create new services and opportunities (creating new jobs and profits).

Look no further than the City of Washington DC. It created a publicly available database of city collected and created data and asked local individuals and companies to use it. The result? A $50,000 dollar investment in changing processes and offering prize money has so far yielded $2.3M in value. That’s a 46 times return on investment in one year.

Now imagine that at a national level. Imagine Statistics Canada making all its data available freely (since taxpayers have already paid for its creation). As I outlined in a talk to StatsCan last year, not only would this make them a more important ministry, it could foster billions in savings, investments and new jobs all for a tiny sum. Let’s pick a truly excessive number, say $100M (.2% of the stimulus package) and imagine that’s this would be the cost for Statistics Canada to free all its data and provide in formats usable for webpages, cellphones and applications. Even if such a stimulus were only 20% as effective as Washington’s open data project it would still yield $460M in one year of new (not saved) jobs, and improved economic efficiencies and competitiveness. Over a decade, billions in new wealth would be created.

Compare this to our current course of action. To date much of our stimulus has been spent propping up (not creating) industries that are in death spirals such as logging, newspapers, and the auto-sector. The money spent isn’t about creating new or better jobs, it is simply being spent to keep jobs. Indeed, Andrew Coyne calculates that each auto-job saved cost us just under 2 million dollars. It will take years, if not decades, for such an investment to pay off, if it ever does. Worse still, the Canadian economy will be no more efficient or profitable as a result. While we are at it we might as well be giving Canadians money to buy land-line telephones to stimulate the telecommunications sector.

Oh, and it case you are wondering, the Americans already give out much of their government data for free and they are starting to give away more and more. This is a competitive race we are already losing, and only falling further and further behind.

Canada needs a better stimulus, one that is low on carbon and fat on data. Sadly, I fear our current government lacks the vision and creativity to give us what we need to prepare for the 21st century. So far we are off to an ominous start.

North America and the Auto Sector: The Upside of Down

Anyone else notice how circumscribed the debate over the auto sector has been? Some news outlets have occasionally asked “is the bail out fair?” but the discussion has remained fairly limited. Specifically, pieces on the auto-sector bailouts tends to be restricted to the negative consequences in relation to the costs in jobs: the moral hazard the bailout creates, the (unfair) treatment the bailout affords autoworkers, the concerns over the enormous burden the bailouts imposes on taxpayers, the impact on affected communities. Even within this narrow discourse,few commentators have even been outspoken. Maclean’s has probably been the most interesting. It bluntly outlined the gong show the industry has become  with this set of amazing statistics and its columnist Andrew Coyne published has posted piece after piece where he rightly points out the opportunity cost of bailing out the auto industry.

However, none of the commentary on the North American auto-sector’s dramatic decline has touched on how this change will impact the continent’s political and policy landscape. It interesting because, while it isn’t polite to talk about it, the fact is, there are upsides to the decline of the North American auto sector.

Start wit the fact that we will now only have one or two (smaller) American auto companies and their relative importance to the US economy will be dramatically diminished. It is hard to imagine that the political muscle of this sector will not equally diminish. This is no small matter. Huge swaths of American (and thus, in part, Canadian) public policy is explicitly and/or implicitly focused on ensuring that people either need cars, or that cars are never a burden. (Remember, these are companies that, with political and government acquiescence, bought up public transport companies across the US just so they could tear up the tracks their trams ran on to push people into cars or, if they had to, the buses the car companies built.)

So everything from highways, to urban planning, to emission controls, to business hours… almost everything in our society, is shaped by the fact that cars and the auto-sector were a large and integral part of the North American economy and its social fabric.

And so all these decision, all these debates about how North Americans should structure their society, they are all going to open up again as American auto companies cease to exist or decline in importance. The US congress is much more likely to impose tougher emission restrictions if those restrictions most likely impact foreign companies. If more roads don’t create more American jobs and profits then public transport – not the auto-sector – becomes slightly more appealing to subside.

It is true that Americans (and Canadians) love their cars. But this love didn’t come out of nowhere, it was nursed by decades of social policy and economic planning. Now the incentives that created and sustained that process are potentially irrevocably weakened. The consequences are terrible for those who work in the sector, but they may end up being liberating and renewing for society at large. For cities, citizens and communities the implicit legal, political and policy barriers that have prevented alternatives are already beginning to decay.

At that’s a big upside.

The Open Cities Blog on the Creative Exchange

Excited to let everyone know that I’ll be blogging at the Creative Exchange on Open Cities. I’ll continue to blog here 4 times a week and the pieces I post there I’ll cross-post here as well.

It’s an opportunity to talk about how openess and transparency can/will change our cities to a wider audience.

Wish me luck. Here was my first post.

Creating Open Cities

Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an “architecture of participation,” and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.

Tim O’Reilly

To the popular press “hacker” means someone who breaks into computers. Among programmers it means a good programmer. But the two meanings are connected. To programmers, “hackers” connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants-whether the computer wants to or not.

Paul Graham, Hackers & Painters

Welcome to the Open Cities blog on CCE. My name is David Eaves and I’ve been writing, speaking, and thinking about open, citizen engagement and public policy for a number of years. Most recently, I worked to help push forward the City of Vancouver motion that requires the city to share more data, adopt open standards, and treat open source and proprietary software equally.

Cities have always been platforms – geographic and legal platforms upon which people collaborate to create enterprises, exchange ideas, educate themselves, celebrate their culture, start families, found communities, and raise children. Today the power of information technology is extending this platform, granting us new ways to collaborate and be creative. As Clay Shirky notes in Here Comes Everybody, this new (dis)order is powerful. For the meaning and operation of cities, it will be transformative.

How transformative? The change created by information technology is driving what will perhaps be seen as the greatest citizen-led renewal of urban spaces in our history. Indeed, I believe it may even be creating a new type of city, one whose governance models, economies and notions of citizenship are still emerging, but different from their predecessors. These new cities are Open Cities: cities that, like the network of web 2.0, are architected for participation and so allow individuals to create self-organized solutions and allow governments to tap into the long-tail of public policy.

And just in the nick of time. To succeed in the 21st century, cities will have to simultaneously thrive in a global economy, adapt to climate change, integrate a tsunami of rural and/or foreign migrants, as well as deal with innumerable other challenges and opportunities. These issues go far beyond the capacity and scope of almost any government – not to mention the all-too-often under-resourced City Hall.

Open Cities address this capacity shortfall by drawing on the social capital of their citizens. Online, city dwellers are hacking the virtual manifestation of their city which, in turn, is giving them the power to shape the physical space. Google transit, DIYcity, Apps for Democracy are great urban hacks, they allow cities to work for citizens in ways that were previously impossible. And this is only the beginning.

Still more exciting, hacking is a positive sum game. The more people hack their city – not in the poorly misunderstood popular press meaning of breaking into computers but in (sometimes artful, sometimes amateur) way of making a system (read city) work for their benefit – the more useful data and services they create and remix. Ultimately, Open Cities will be increasingly vibrant and safe because they are hackable. This will allow their citizens to unleash their creativity, foster new services, find conveniences and efficiencies, notice safety problems, and build communities.

In short, the cities that harness the collective ingenuity, creativity, and energy of its citizenry will thrive. Those that don’t – those that remain closed – won’t. And this divide – open vs. closed – could become the new dividing line of our age. And it is through this lens that this blog will look at the challenges and opportunities facing cities, their citizens, and institutions. Let’s see who’s open, how they’re getting open, and what it will all mean.

How not to do generational analysis

I read – and laughed – at Maclean’s latest in a series of Gen Y bashing pieces. This time it was Lianne George, with the bat, in the employment office, in her piece “Dude Where’s My Job?”

The piece said a lot more about Lianne George than it did about Gen Yers (or the Net Gen or, if you prefer, anyone under 30) tinged, as it was, with the bitter happiness of someone celebrating another’s (perceived) comeuppance. If only the analysis had been as edgy, or as fun, the piece’s tone.

The saddest element of the article was its reduction of Gen Yers to a coddled, materialistic and self-aggrandizing cohort who are finally about to taste a dose of reality. This despite the fact that – according to George – 44% of Yers still live at home (many, would likely prefer to live independently) and have large student debts (an average of $5,631 per year in according to her). Hardly the stats of an entitled generation.

She laughs that:  “This is a generation, after all, in which seven out of 10 rank themselves “above average” in academic ability.” The intent is to show Gen Yers are delusional self-aggrandizers. However, Gen Yers ARE above average in academic ability when compared to the population as a whole. The number of people attending university and college has been steadily (and aggressively) increasing. Even compared to 18 years ago, a growing % of the labour force has post-secondary education. This is to say nothing of the huge increase in the number of graduate students. For many Gen Yers maybe one parent, and almost none of their grandparents went to college or university. As such Gen Yers are more academically inclined compared to the labour force. Does this give them confidence? Maybe. But I wouldn’t confuse it with a belief they are inherently smarter or better than everyone else.

It is also problematic to talk about generations. I could easily sit here and psychoanalyze how Lianne George is almost certainly a Gen Xer who graduated at a time when there were no jobs and had to claw herself into a career she enjoyed. As such her article is just an expression of the frustration she (and by extension of course, all Gen Xers) feel towards Gen Y who (after making millions in silicon valley) they hope are finally getting their due and will have to behave more like her generation:  forced by a declining economy to abandon their dreams and hopes and become the prototypical slackers of Reality Bites, mocking life as they resign themselves to dead end job after dead end job. What a wonderful thing to wish on a generation.

The problem is – I don’t think most Gen Xers think that way. Moreover, this type of generational thinking blinds us to bigger and more important problems. Gen Xers were never all slackers and Gen Y is not a single cohort. I forsee something much more problematic and unstable emerging than a bunch of Gen Yers feeling let down by the universe. Recently I read that there has been no decline in the number of job recruiters at UBC this year. I fear that we are seeing the wedging of our economy – a separation between an growing wealthy and opportunity rich creative class, a struggling white collar class and a destitute blue collar class. While already true, I fear the main determinant of who’s asking “Dude, where’s my job” won’t be age, but class. Worse, those who end up asking the question risk becoming part of a structural unemployment problem: insufficiently skilled to enter the workforce, and lacking the capital to change their circumstances. This is the analysis we need from Maclean’s, not cheap snipping at a whole generation.

But then, maybe the cheap shots sell more magazines.