Death and Life of Great American Organizations

Jane Jacobs: possibly 3rd most awesome woman of the 20th century. (Officially beat out only by writer Dorothy Parker and the generally cool Simone De Beauvoir — followed by high-stakes freewheeling spy Mata Hari and Emma Goldman).

Though she’s normally connected with the 20th century counterrevolution against urban renewal through her work the Death and Life of Great American Cities, I was thinking today that alot of her insights aren’t entirely limited to issues of urban design. In fact, though she argues somewhat to the contrary, I think her mode of analysis is more generally applicable to social structures in general — particularly to the problems that organizations face.

For the uninitiated, Jacob’s discussion of the creation and persistence of slums goes something like this:

Good neighborhoods are sustained by the presence of a complex and dense network of social relationships. These create certain self-regulating norms that police against crime, militate against blight symptoms like littering, and provide the basis for effective political action. Certain “street characters” work as network nodes to these web of connections — helping guide and support others. The problem she sees with practices of urban renewal, then, is that they demolish and displace large swaths of people and their associated social networks. This provides the groundwork for crime to take root, which accelerates exit from the slum since weakened social relationships no longer tie residents to the place.

The solution to the slum, then, is not to encourage people to leave, but to make sure that the social enviroment is strong enough that they stay to invest in the community and to help others. This allows resources to flow back into the neighborhood and promotes its regrowth.

What’s interesting here is that the social space of the urban space becomes the linchpin feature of the urban landscape. That is, that there exists no architectual determinism. (She discusses in Death and Life the traditional belief of urban design that parks create positive influences and why that’s wrong).

Which is also cool — because it let’s you remove the “urban” explicitly from the question of “urban design.” When you think about it, we might think of most communities along these lines, regardless of if they are defined by an actual, physical living space. Businesses or places of employment, for example, are a kind of “city.” Internet communities are a kind of “city” in the sense that they both support or provide the space for social interaction.

I have been loving Wikipedia’s vast and mind-bogglingly interesting List of adages named after people recently. One that particularly caught my eye was those that formalize the idiocy of management. Clever examples include The Peter Principle — In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

It’s corralary–The Dilbert Principle — companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to management (generally middle management), in order to limit the amount of damage that they’re capable of doing, and the disputed but clever Martin’s LawThe higher up the (management) food chain you go, the more disconnected from reality you are.

All of these laws are similar in that they draw attention to the problems of promotion. Being promoted tends to create problems because people are raised to the point where they can’t be competent (Peter), or the relay of information tends to increase the “static” as it gets relayed up the food chain (Martin’s), or that they ARE incompetent, and that’s why then get promoted (Dilbert’s).

But if the organization is a kind of city — promotion and the monetary incentives associated with promotion are a kind of urban renewal. That is, they tend to create situations that actively break up social networks that develop during the course of a project. They tend to generate a kind of organizational “slum” that prevents good, effective action. Promotion tends to be destructive not only to the people promoted, but to the people that get left behind. In that case, the entire hierarchical model is screwed, particularly when close collaborative peer production is important.

This tends to prompt new ways of thinking about how to structure incentives and organizing people. How do organizations create enivroments where people stay and “reinvest” in their communities? (a la Jacob’s solution to the slum) Better yet, how do organizations create enviroments where people want to do that?

See Gore-Tex.

It’s pretty wild.


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