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Links Roundup: Top Innovations, Slums, Artists, and More

+ Kari Kohn

The Top Innovations Since the Wheel and the Need for Assuming Responsibility

Popular culture often lionizes the stars of discovery and invention. A century ago, this meant the Wright brothers, Edison, and the auto pioneers; in the Eisenhower years, Jonas Salk and Wernher von Braun; and in the past generation, first Bill Gates and then Steve Jobs. But about technology’s onrush in general, cultural and political attitudes have been mixed at best. For each writer or thinker or government leader who has enthusiastically welcomed whatever changes technology might bring, there has been a counterpart warning of its dangers. From Blake to Dickens, from Metropolis to Blade Runner, from Upton Sinclair to Rachel Carson, and through a long list of similar pairings, the culture of a technology-driven era has continually played catch-up to correct modernity’s destructive and dehumanizing effects.

Wikipedia's Sticky Norms

In their paper on those findings, the researchers suggest updating Wikipedia’s motto, “The encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Their version reads: “The encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semi-automated rejection and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit.”...When asked to identify Wikipedia’s real problem, Moran cites the bureaucratic culture that has formed around the rules and guidelines on contributing, which have become labyrinthine over the years. The page explaining a policy called Neutral Point of View, one of “five pillars” fundamental to Wikipedia, is almost 5,000 words long. “That is the real barrier: policy creep,” he says. But whatever role that plays in Wikipedia’s travails, any effort to prune its bureaucracy is hard to imagine. It would have to be led by Wikipedians, and the most active volunteers have come to rely on bureaucratic incantations.

Mapping Slums for Inclusion

Slums are often simply invisible to outsiders who lack basic information about who lives there. While Rio de Janeiro’s top-down surveillance raises troubling questions about remote sensing of poor communities, the fact is that slums have much to gain from being documented. Being counted is the most basic act of inclusion—for a slum to assert its rights within the official city surrounding it, it needs to be measured and mapped. Many slum dwellers are taking matters into their own hands and arming themselves with new tools and methods to survey their own communities. Computerized mapping of cities is a half-century-old idea, originally developed by the US military and the census, but the first large-scale efforts to map slums didn’t begin until 1994, in the Indian city of Pune. Led by Shelter Associates, an NGO formed by local architects and planners, “the project was based on the philosophy that poor people are the best people to find solutions to their housing problems,” its founders wrote in the journal Environment & Urbanization. Teaming up with Baandhani, an informal network of women who pool their savings to invest in better housing, the group surveyed slum residents, their homes, and the availability of fuel and electricity. In 2000 the city began funding the effort and in just two years it had surveyed some two-thirds of Pune’s 450 slum settlements, mapping some 130,000 households.

Artists Reimagined

Paul Graham, founder of Y-Combinator, wrote an article a few years ago called Hackers and Painters. He described how people seemed surprised that someone interested in computers would also be interested in art. They seemed to think that hacking and painting were very different kinds of work – that hacking was cold, precise, and methodical, and that painting was more creative. He said both of these images are wrong, that of all the different types of people he’d known, “hackers and painters are among the most alike.

The Limited Use of Best Practices For Cities Given Fiscal Policy Constraints

This “fiscal policy space,” as my colleague Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget Project, and I call it, is unique to each city. The uniqueness of cities, then, is not just in their demographic composition, their geographical and topographical location, their economic engines, or their density and greenspace, but also by the shape of their fiscal policy space. And the reach of best practices is, as a consequence, quite limited.My colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs are in the process of analyzing this fiscal policy space of 100+ cities across the country, delving into reams of data to identify each city’s capacity amid the various constraints, like those above. We’re considering constraints such as the city’s revenue structure, its political culture, economic base, state laws, and other factors. It’s a huge task—on one set of parameters alone we’re doing more than 400 hours of data analysis. We hope that when the project’s results begin to be posted in the next year or so, the profiles can help city leaders make smart urban policy within their own unique set of parameters.

Henry Ford's Invitation from China

The father of modern China once invited Henry Ford to China to create a “new industrial system,” to help the then-struggling country. Sun Yatsen, who founded the Nationalist Party and helped to overthrow the ruling Qing dynasty, wrote a letter in 1924 asking Ford to visit South China, where “much of the intelligence, energy and wealth of this country can be found.”
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