A Public Purpose Mandate

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak advocate for new governance structures to help encourage innovation and lead to dynamic growth for cities and metropolitan regions. Katz and Nowak believe that current structures and institutions are inadequate to respond to global challenges that demand multisectoral action, technological innovation, and network approaches to problem-solving.

 

One of the recommendations from the authors is to produce new systems and structures for the effective management, use, and development of public assets. The authors are critical of public management strategies that often lead to politicized decision-making and cronyism. At the same time, the authors don’t suggest that public assets should simply be sold to the highest bidder from the private sector for their own profit maximization. Public assets can play a huge role in city revitalization and growth if managed properly, and the authors recommend that cities and metros look to Copenhagen for examples of better public asset management.

 

The City of Copenhagen has created publicly owned private corporations for the management of public assets and economic development spaces. An insulated private company is responsible for maximizing public benefit through the use of the city’s assets. In regard to transferring this system to cities in the United States, the authors write, “The United States also has to come to terms with the fact that public assets can be effectively managed by the same private systems and principles that build private wealth and productivity, but with a public purpose mandate.”

 

We like to think that there are either public systems, like say the DMV, or private businesses. Our debates and discussions generally center around the pros and cons of each, with people trying to reach an impossible conclusion that one system is inherently better than the other. Katz and Nowak show that Copenhagen took a different path, looking at how a private corporation could be established with public ownership and an ultimate purpose of maximizing public returns rather than private financial returns. The result has been an entity that can think long term, coordinate with both public and private organizations for responsible and equitable growth, and make decisions that focus on improving the city of Copenhagen in a realistic way that responds to actual economic trends, pressures, and forecasts. This blend of public and private is more robust than either pure private development or public management. The result of finding a third path is a new structure that can actually address problems in rational manners and sidestep the pitfalls that are so common in American city governance.

Institutional Reinvention

I have written a good amount about the importance and value of institutions. The systems and structures, both formal and informal, that create appropriate venues for discussion and help shape our norms and rules are crucial to our culture and to the development of society and knowledge. In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss ways in which rediscovering institutions within American cities is leading to a rebirth of metropolitan areas. Large cities are important because they pull people together, unite them around local problem solving, and produce benefits for the entire society to enjoy.  As people have begun moving back to cities and re-creating them to be more livable and social, they are discovering new institutions and new value in places that had been forgotten and previously experienced periods of disinvestment.

 

The authors write, “Placemaking uncovers the inherent value of a community and redefines its potential by integrating its historical identity with contemporary uses. As American cities lost population and dynamism, many of the grand institutions and buildings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fell into decline or disrepair. Late twentieth-century place-making rediscovered what still existed and repurposed it for a new era.”

 

This quote provides encouraging notes about reinventing and returning to valuable institutions, and also a cautionary tale about deserting institutions. When we have physical structures in place and enough people to remember institutions from that past which had served us well, we can always return to those institutions and even find new ways to use them and incorporate them into our lives. However, if we chose not to support our institutions and allow them to decay, they can languish and sit in disregard, becoming more of a headache than a valuable tool.

 

I think this is true for any type of institution, be it a physical institution such as a library, or a non-tangible institution such as a value of equality. For various complex reasons (some sensible like finding clean playgrounds for children and some not so wholesome such as new forms of racial segregation) American cities experienced a period of declining populations as (primarily white middle and upper class) citizens abandoned city centers for outlying suburbs. Katz and Nowak argue that this weakened the institutions that had made cities thriving places and had originally helped them grow and develop. Negative stereotypes of city centers persisted and while they may have been economic engines, they were not the cultural and in many ways not the institutional centers they had once been. New Localism is in some ways a return to the institutions of cities that had been abandoned in the past. As cities gentrify (a challenge in itself that is still tinged by racial disparity) they are becoming more attractive places to live, and the institutions which had once served city populations are being reinvented and reinvigorated.

 

We should recognize the positive in this story and celebrate and strengthen those institutions which fuel progress, improve our lives, and help promote equality and democracy. We should look at the squalor that cities and their institutions were put through and avoid throwing many of our modern institutions through those same tortures. We should remember that our suburbs are valuable as well, and support the populations and institutions of suburbs as people begin to move from suburbs and rural areas back into dense cities. This creates a two (or maybe three) front situation in terms of protecting and strengthening institutions, and the lessons we learned from abandoning and rediscovering and reinventing city institutions can help us navigate this new challenge brought about by New Localism.

Institutional Vehicles

In a public policy class, I had a professor once ask, “What is an institution?” One student responded that another professor once answered that question by stating that an institution was something you could kick. That’s true for some institutions (you can kick the supreme court, the city hall, and the local police department), but not all. We recognize marriage as an institution but you can’t kick it, and you certainly can’t kick equal protection under the law even though you theoretically could kick the actual paper on which the 14th amendment was written. Our institutions are sometimes physical buildings (or housed in them), but they are often processes, ideas, and systemic structures that guide our interactions, thoughts, and societies.

 

Our institutions only exist and function because we chose to place both trust and authority in our institutions. They can only operate when those within them and those who recognize them from the outside are aligned and coordinated together to recognize and legitimize action and outcomes from our institutions. In the book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak explain what this means as problem-solving and initiative-taking move from Federal levels of governance to local levels of governance. They write, “New Localism refers to multi-sectoral networks that work together to solve problems, as well as the institutional vehicles they invent to get things done.”

 

Coalition building is an important part of politics, but it is also just an important part of life in general. If you want your family to go to Tahiti for the holidays instead of Grandma’s house, then you need to build the right family coalition to get everyone to agree. If you want to work on a specific project in the office, if you want to do a job a certain way, and if you want to reorganize the workplace, you need to build coalitions to get people on board to follow your direction. Coalition building is super complex at the national level, but at the local level where a smaller handful of actors can generate a bigger (relative) push, then coalition building is possible and creating or inventing institutional vehicles to move policy can be a powerful tool.

 

Networks are key in new localism because they open the possible avenues for movement via new institutional vehicles. Connections and shared goals behind key stakeholders make new localism possible with coalitions created through networks of like-minded community leaders. Those who have an interest in seeing reinvention, seeing successful policy development, and seeing adaptable and resilient communities can come together to form new coalitions, pulling people from varying public, civic, and private sector organizations. These groups can then think about the structures shaping our lives, our decisions, and our interactions, and how new institutions can alter the status quo to solve problems in new ways that are unique to a given city, metro, or region.

Our Devious Minds

“We now realize,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky–they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible pro-social motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At ever single state [of processing information]–from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others–the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.” 

 

Recently I have been pretty fascinated by the idea that our minds don’t do a good job of perceiving reality. The quote above shows many of the points where our minds build a false sense of reality for us and where our perceptions and understanding can go astray. It is tempting to believe that we observe and recognize an objective picture of the world, but there are simply too many points where our mental conceptualization of the world can deviate from an objective reality (if that objective reality ever even exists).

 

What I have taken away from discussions and books focused on the way we think and the mistakes our brain can make is that we cannot always trust our mind. We won’t always remember things correctly and we won’t always see things as clearly as we believe. What we believe to be best and correct about the world may not be accurate. In that sense, we should doubt our beliefs and the beliefs of others constantly. We should develop processes and systems for identifying information that is reasonable and question information that aligns with our prior beliefs as much as information that contradicts our prior beliefs. We should identify key principles that are most important to us, and focus on those, rather than focus on specific and particular instances that we try to understand by filling in answers from generalizations.

 

A fear that I have is that as we come to doubt the information around us and the perceptions of our minds, we will begin to doubt institutional structures that help us with the flow of information. We should be continually thinking of ways to strengthen institutions that can help us navigate a complex world. At the moment, one of the things I think we are seeing across the globe is that as we doubt information, we doubt institutions which have been valuable in helping human societies advance. We need to find ways to make institutional knowledge more trustworthy and clear so that we can develop institutions which have incentives to provide the most reasonable, clear, and accurate information possible so that we can overcome the biases and misconceptions of the mind.