– What concept is most useful for thinking?

Is congestion pricing fair?

This is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a while. According to Princeton University Professor of Psychology and Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, nothing in life is as important as you think it is. He gives these examples:

Education is an important determinant of income — one of the most important — but it is less important than most people think. If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10%. When you focus on education you neglect the myriad other factors that determine income. The differences of income among people who have the same education are huge.

Income is an important determinant of people’s satisfaction with their lives, but it is far less important than most people think. If everyone had the same income, the differences among people in life satisfaction would be reduced by less than 5%.

I find these insights astonishing and I suspect they throw light on key urban issues too. If nothing else, they emphasise the dangers of focussing on single causes and hence on single solutions. Professor Kahneman is one of 159 contributors who responded to the question: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive tool kit?” at Edge.Org. This site has been setting an annual question and inviting brief responses from thinkers since 1998.

The vast majority of contributors are from prestigious universities and institutions. Many are intellectuals of international stature, including Richard Dawkins (who nominates the double-blind, controlled experiment), Richard Thaler (aether), Jonah Lehrer (strategic allocation of attention), Paul Kedrosky (shifting baseline syndrome), Clay Shirky (the Pareto principle) and Matt Ridley (collective intelligence). This year’s question was set by Harvard psychologist, Steve Pinker, who also makes an interesting nomination (positive-sum games). This is the New York Time’s summary of some of the key contributions. You can read the rest of Professor Kahneman’s short piece here.

I didn’t see anything that was specifically on urbanism (there are contributions by three architects – Stefan Boeri, Neri Oxman and Richard Saul Wurman – although for my money the real value is in the scientists) however there is one by Brian Eno (ecology) and, in particular, another by Matt Ridley that should be interesting to anyone concerned with how and why cities work:

Brilliant people, be they anthropologists, psychologists or economists, assume that brilliance is the key to human achievement. They vote for the cleverest people to run governments, they ask the cleverest experts to devise plans for the economy, they credit the cleverest scientists with discoveries, and they speculate on how human intelligence evolved in the first place.

They are all barking up the wrong tree. The key to human achievement is not individual intelligence at all. The reason human beings dominate the planet is not because they have big brains: Neanderthals had big brains but were just another kind of predatory ape. Evolving a 1200-cc brain and a lot of fancy software like language was necessary but not sufficient for civilization. The reason some economies work better than others is certainly not because they have cleverer people in charge, and the reason some places make great discoveries is not because they have smarter people.

Human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon. It is by putting brains together through the division of labor — through trade and specialisation — that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity and knowledge base of the species. We can see this in all sorts of phenomena: the correlation between technology and connected population size in Pacific islands; the collapse of technology in people who became isolated, like native Tasmanians; the success of trading city states in Greece, Italy, Holland and south-east Asia; the creative consequences of trade.

This is a theme Ridley explores in depth in his book, The Rational Optimist. The importance of trade and specialisation is the key reason why the idea of self-contained urban villages is naive and why the assumption of Melbourne @ 5 Million that “CBD-type” jobs can be generated in places like Broadmeadows and Frankston is, at best, extremely hopeful. There’re a couple more paras of Matt Ridley’s piece on the site. The pieces by all contributors are generally pretty short. It is well worth spending some time scanning the list.

2 Comments on “– What concept is most useful for thinking?”

  1. mc says:

    CDB like jobs are available now in Dandenong, with the ATO. I understand Paramatta has more government developments of this nature. The same is possible in Broadmeadows and Frankston.

    Why not build another Tally Ho on Frankston green belt, or a Broadmeadows brownfield site?

    Besides, with improved telecommunications, the value of a knowledge-based workplace’s physical closeness to anywhere decreases. Soon the value of having multiple white-collar workers in the same building may become very low…

    • Alan Davies says:

      There’s a limit to how many high-skill, high-pay jobs that government’s can decentralise to the suburbs of Australia’s major cities. Most jobs in the CBD are in Finance & Insurance and in Business & Property Services, plus there are corporate HQs in various sectors. What’s needed to populate major suburban centres with “CBD-type” jobs is to attract the private sector.

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