Why Do Cities Work?

It always amazes me how cities just seem to work. Take New York – for example. How the hell does everything a city of nine million needs to continue to exist happen? Cities are perhaps the best example I can think of how complex adaptive systems can work in the real world. They may be the answer to our future as the world becomes a more complex and connected place.

It’s not due to any centralized sense of communal collaboration. If anything, cities make us more individualistic. Small towns are much more collaborative. I feel more anonymous and autonomous in a big city than I ever do in a small town. It’s something else, more akin to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand – but different. Millions of individual agents can all do their own thing based on their own requirements, but it works out okay for all involved.

Actually, according to Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, cities are more than just okay. He calls them mankind’s greatest invention. “So much of what humankind has achieved over the past three millennia has come out of the remarkable collaborative creations that come out of cities. We are a social species. We come out of the womb with the ability to sop up information from people around us. It’s almost our defining characteristic as creatures. And cities play to that strength. Cities enable us to learn from other people.”

Somehow, cities manage to harness the collective potential of their population without dipping into chaos. This is all the more amazing when you consider that cities aren’t natural for humans – at least – not in evolutionary terms. If you considered just that, we should all live in clusters of 150 people – otherwise known as Dunbar’s number. That’s the brain’s cognitive limit for keeping track of our own immediate social networks. It we’re looking for a magic number in terms of maximizing human cooperation and collaboration that would be it. But somehow cities allow us to far surpass that number and still deliver exponential returns.

Most of our natural defense mechanisms are based on familiarity. Trust, in it’s most basic sense, is Pavlovian. We trust strangers who happen to resemble people we know and trust. We are wary of strangers that remind us of people who have taken advantage of us. We are primed to trust or distrust in a few milliseconds, far under the time threshold of rational thought. Humans evolved to live in communities where we keep seeing the same faces over and over – yet cities are the antithesis of this.

Cities work because it’s in everyone’s best interest to make cities work. In a city, people may not trust each other, but they do trust the system. And it’s that system – or rather – thousands of complementary systems, that makes cities work. We contribute to these systems because we have a stake in them. The majority of us avoid the Tragedy of the Commons because we understand that if we screw the system, the system becomes unsustainable and we all lose. There is an “invisible network of trust” that makes cities work.

The psychology of this trust is interesting. As I mentioned before, in evolutionary terms, the mechanisms that trigger trust are fairly rudimentary: Familiarity = Trust. But system trust is a different beast. It relies on social norms and morals – on our inherent need to conform to the will of the herd. In this case, there is at least one degree of separation between trust and the instincts that govern our behaviors. Think of it as a type of “meta-trust.” We are morally obligated to contribute to the system as long as we believe the system will increase our own personal well-being.

This moral obligation requires feedback. There needs to be some type of loop that shows our that our moral behaviors are paying off for us. As long as that loop is working, it creates a virtuous cycle. Moral behaviors need to lead to easily recognized rewards, both individually and collectively. As long as we have this loop, we will continue to be governed by social norms that maintain the systems of a city.

When we look to cities to provide us clues on how to maintain stability in a more connected world, we need to understand this concept of feedback. Cities provide feedback through physical proximity. When cities start to break down, the results become obvious to all who live there. But when it’s digital bonds rather than physical ones that link our networks, feedback becomes trickier. We need to ponder other ways of connecting cause, effect and consequences. As we move from physical communities to ideological ones, we have to overcome the numbing effects of distance.

 

Tempest in a Tweet-Pot

On February 16, a Facebook VP of Ads named Rob Goldman had a bad day. That was the day the office of Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, released an indictment of 13 Russian operatives who interfered in the U.S. election. Goldman felt he had to comment via a series of tweets that appeared to question the seriousness with which the Mueller investigation had considered the ads placed by Russians on Facebook. Nothing much happened for the rest of the day. But on February 17, after the US Tweeter-in-Chief – Donald Trump – picked up the thread, Facebook realized the tweets had turned into a “shit sandwich” and to limit the damage, Goldman had to officially apologize.

It’s just one more example of a personal tweet blowing into a major news event. This is happening with increasingly irritating frequency. So today, I thought I’d explore why.

Personal Brand vs Corporate Brand

First, why did Rob Goldman feel he had to go public with his views anyway? He did because he could. We all have varying degrees of loyalty to our employer and I’m sure the same is true for Mr. Goldman. Otherwise he wouldn’t have swallowed crow a few days later with his public mea culpa. But our true loyalties go not to the brand we work for, but the brand we are. Goldman – like me, like you, like all of us – is building his personal brand. Anyone who’s says they’re not – yet posts anything online – is in denial. Goldman’s brand, according to his twitter account, is “Student, seeker, raconteur, burner. ENFP.” That is followed with the disclaimer “Views are mine.” And you know what? This whole debacle has been great for Goldman’s brand, at least in terms of audience size. Before February 16th, he had about 1500 followers. When I checked, that had swelled to almost 12,000. Brand Goldman is on a roll!

The idea of a personal brand is new – just a few decades old. It really became amplified through the use of social media. Suddenly, you could have an audience -and not just any audience, but an audience numbering in the millions.

Before that, the only people who could have been said to have personal brands were artists, authors and musicians. They made their living by sharing who they were with us.

For the rest of us, our brands were trapped in our own contexts. Only the people who knew us were exposed to our brands. But the amplification of social media suddenly exposes our brand to a much broader audience. And when things go viral, like they did on February 17, millions suddenly became aware of Rob Goldman and his tweet without knowing anything more than that he was a VP of Ads for Facebook.

It was that connection that created the second issue for Goldman. When we speak for our own personal brands, we can say, “views are mine” but the problem always comes when things blow up, as they did for Rob Goldman. None of his tweets were passed by anyone at Facebook, yet he had suddenly become a spokesperson for the corporation. And for those eager to accept his tweets as fact, they suddenly became the “truth.”

Twitter: “Truth” Without Context

Increasingly, we’re not really that interested in the truth. What we are interested in is our beliefs and our own personal truth. This is the era of “Post Truth” – the Oxford Dictionary word of the year for 2016 – defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Truth was a commonly understood base that could be supported by facts. Now, truth is in the eye of the beholder. Common understandings are increasingly difficult to come to as the world continues to fragment and become more complex. How can we possibly come to a common understanding of what is “true” when any issue worth discussing is complex? This is certainly true of the Mueller investigation. To try to distill the scope of it to 900 words – about the length of this column – would be virtually impossible. To reduce it to 280 characters – the limits of a tweet and one- twentieth the length of this column – well, there we should not tread. But, of course, we do.

This problem is exacerbated by the medium itself. Twitter is a channel that encourages “quipiness.” When we’re tweeting, we all want to be Oscar Wilde. Again, writing this column usually takes me 3 to 4 hours, including time to do some research, create a rough outline and then do the actual writing. That’s not an especially long time, but the process does allow some time for mental reflection and self-editing. The average tweet takes less than a minute to write – probably less to think about – and then it’s out there, a matter of record, irretrievable. You should find it more than a little terrifying that this is a chosen medium for the President of the United States and one that is increasingly forming our world-view.

Twitter is also not a medium that provides much support for irony, sarcasm or satire. In the Post-Truth era, we usually accept tweets as facts, especially when they come from someone who is a somewhat official position, as in the case of Rob Goldman. But at best, they’re abbreviated opinions.

In the light of all this, one has to appreciate Mr. Goldman’s Twitter handle: @robjective.

Sharing a Little about the Sharing Economy

In the last week, I’ve had first hand experience with the sharing economy, using both Uber and Air BnB. I – not surprisingly – am a sucker for disruption and will gladly adopt new technologies. I appreciate the rational logic of a well thought out platform that promises to be a game changer. I push my wife’s comfort level to the breaking point, trying mightily to maintain the balance between delightful discovery and that cold stare that means I’ve completely messed up this time. It is in that spirit – and with the admitted bias of being a sample of one – that I share some of my macro-level observations.

Creating an Opening for Innovation

To me, using the term the “sharing economy” doesn’t quite cut it. That only explains one aspect of this disruption – the supply side. What is really happening here is the democratization and fragmentation of a previously verticalized market, where the platform creates a new type of one-to-one market connection. That spreads the market horizontally, which in turn opens a wide door for participation at all levels. And that, inevitably, spurs innovation. When you allow everyone to be creative – rather than just a few within a vertically integrated chain who have it in their job description – the pace of innovation can’t help but accelerate.

Disruptive Platforms and Network Effects

Innovation is a good thing, but there is another side to this. If you allow for rampant innovation and facilitate one-to-one connections at all levels of the market, you are going to have network effects. Markets become more chaotic and less predictable. The rising tide of innovation will eventually raise all boats, but it also means the waters can get a little choppy on the way. Disruptive platforms strip away traditional control systems – corporate oversight, traditional forms of consumer protection and legislative regulation. All faith – on both sides of the market – is placed on the design of the platform to ensure self-correcting regulation. There’s just one problem with that…

Compression of Pendulum Markets

When you depend on self-correction in a dynamic market, you forego stability that typically comes from vertical oversight. Not only do you remove the oversight but you also remove predictability. There are new players entering and exiting the market all the time. And even if the players stabilize, experience has limited value in a marketplace that may not do tomorrow what it did yesterday.

All sharing platforms – Uber and AirBnB included – depend on market feedback to ensure self correction. In these two cases, they have well thought out market control mechanisms but feedback is – by necessity – a reactive rather than a proactive device. You can anticipate with reasonable confidence in a stable, controlled market but you can’t in a dynamic, networked market. All you can do is respond. This creates a pendulum effect. Constant connection to the platform means that feedback is fast, but the physics of a pendulum mean that the volatility of the swings back and forth are greatest at the beginning and stabilize over time.

This creates what I would call the Bubbles and Backlash phenomenon. As markets open up, new suppliers jump on the bandwagon. Some are great, some are horrible, some are mediocre. But it will take the platform and it’s self-correcting mechanisms some time to sort them out. Also, we have to hope the mechanisms are reasonably robust against suppliers who want to game the system. I think both Uber and AirBnB are working their way through this particular pain point right now. I find ratings artificially high on many suppliers which whom I’ve had personal experience. There could be a number of reasons for this, including the psychological bias of reciprocity, but I think most platforms have some tweaking to do before the user ratings provide a reasonable frame of expectations.

Inevitable Gaps in the User Experience

Finally, because the travel market is moving from a vertical orientation to a horizontal one, it leaves it up to the user to navigate her way through the various horizontal layers that stack together to create her individual user journey. When you’re in a layer – taking Uber to the airport for example – you’re probably okay. But it’s moving from layer to layer that places a little extra demand on the user. The previous players who inhabited the niches within the vertical ecosystem are understandably reluctant to share their niches with new, disruptive players. Where, for example, do you catch the Uber at the airport?

But All’s Well that Ends Well

In the end, it comes down to a matter of taste. I am an early adopter, so I will always choose disruption over the status quo. For those of a different bent, the vertically integrated path is still open to them. But for all of us, I believe disruption has created a travel marketplace that is more diverse, authentic and rewarding than ever before.

 

Thinking Beyond the Brand

Apparently boring is the new gold standard of branding, at least when it comes to ranking countries on the international stage. According to a new report from US News, the Wharton School and Y&R’s BAV Group, Canada is the No. 2 country in the world. That’s right – Canada – the country that Robin Williams called “a really nice apartment over a meth lab.”

The methodology here is interesting. It was basically a brand benchmarking study. That’s what BAV does. They’re the “world’s largest and leading empirical study of brands” And Canada’s brand is: safe, slightly left leaning, polite, predictable and – yes – boring. Oh – and we have lakes and mountains.

Who, you may ask, beat us? Switzerland – a country that is safe, slightly left leading, polite, predictable and – yes – boring. Oh – and they have lakes and mountains too.

This study has managed to reduce entire countries to a type of cognitive short hand we call a brand. As a Canadian, I can tell you this country contains multitudes – some good, some bad – and remarkably little of it is boring. We’re like an iceberg (literally, in some months) – there’s a lot that lies under the surface. But as far as the world cares, you already know everything you need to know about Canada and no further learning is required.

That’s the problem with branding. We rely more and more on whatever brand perceptions we already have in place without thinking too much about whether they’re based on valid knowledge. We certainly don’t go out of our way to challenge those perceptions. What was originally intended to sell dish soap is being used as a cognitive short cut for everything we do. We rely on branding – instant know-ability – or what I called labelability in a previous column. We spend more and more of our time knowing and less and less of it learning.

Branding is a mental rot that is reducing everything to a broadly sketched caricature.

Take politics for example. That same BAV group turned their branding spotlight on candidates for the next presidential election. Y&R CEO David Sable explored just how important branding will be in 2020. Spoiler alert: it will be huge.

When BAV looked at the brands of various candidates, Trump continues to dominate. This was true in 2016, and depending on the variables of fate currently in play, it could be true in 2020 as well. “We showed how fresh and powerful President Trump was as a brand, and just how tired and weak Hillary was… despite having more esteem and stature.”

Sable prefaced his exploration with this warning: “What follows is not a political screed, endorsement or advocacy of any sort. It is more a questioning of ourselves, with some data thrown to add to the interrogative.” In other words, he’s saying that this is not really based on any type of rational foundation; it’s simply evaluating what people believe. And I find that particular mental decoupling to be troubling.

This idea of cognitive shorthand is increasingly prevalent in an attention deficit world. Everything is being reduced to a brand. The problem with this is that once that brand has been “branded” it’s very difficult to shake. Our world is being boiled down to branding and target marketing. Our brains have effectively become pigeon holed. That’s why Trump was right when he said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”

We have a dangerous spiral developing. In a world with an escalating amount of information, we increasingly rely on brands/beliefs for our rationalization of the world. When we do expose ourselves to information, we rely on information that reinforces those brands and beliefs. Barack Obama identified this in a recent interview with David Letterman: “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts. We are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR.”

Our information sources have to be “on-brand”. And those sources are filtered by algorithms shaped by our current beliefs. As our bubble solidifies, there is nary a crack left for a fresh perspective to sneak in.

 

The Decentralization of Trust

Forget Bitcoin. It’s a symptom. Forget even Blockchain. It’s big – but it’s technology. That makes it a tool. Which means it’s used at our will. And that will is the real story. Our will is always the real story – why do we build the tools we do? What is revolutionary is that we’ve finally found a way to decentralize trust. That runs against the very nature of how we’ve defined trust for centuries.

And that’s the big deal.

Trust began by being very intimate – ruled by our instincts in a face-to-face context. But for the last thousand years, our history has been all about concentration and the mass of everything – including whom we trust. We have consolidated our defense, our government, our commerce and our culture. In doing so, we have also consolidated our trust in a few all-powerful institutions.

But the past 20 years have been all about decentralization and tearing down power structures, as we invent new technologies to let us do that. In that vien, Blockchain is a doozy. It will change everything. But it’s only a big deal because we’re exerting our will to make it a big deal. And the “why” behind that is what I’m focusing on.

For right or wrong, we have now decided we’d rather trust distribution than centralization. There is much evidence to support that view. Concentration of power also means concentration of risk. The opportunity for corruption skyrockets. Big things tend to rot from the inside out. This is not a new discovery on our part. We’ve known for at least a few centuries that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As the world consolidated it also became more corrupt. But it was always a trade off we felt we had to make. Again, the collective will of the people is the story thread to follow here. Consolidation brought many benefits. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for hierarchies, in one form or another. So we willing subjugated ourselves to someone – somewhere – hoping to maintain a delicate balance where the risk of corruption was outweighed by a personal gain. I remember asking the Atlantic’s noted correspondent, James Fallows, a question when I met him once in China. I asked how the average Chinese citizen could tolerate the paradoxical mix of rampant economical entrepreneurialism and crushing ideological totalitarianism. His answer was, “As long as their lives are better today than they were yesterday, and promise to be even better tomorrow, they’ll tolerate it.”

That pretty much summarizes our attitudes towards control. We tolerated it because if we wanted our lives to continue to improve, we really didn’t have a choice. But perhaps we do now. And that possibility has pushed our collective will away from consolidated power hubs and towards decentralized networks. Blockchain gives us another way to do that. It promises a way to work around Big Money, Big Banks, Big Government and Big Business. We are eager to do so. Why? Because up to now we have had to place our trust in these centralized institutions and that trust has been consistently abused. But perhaps Blockchain technology has found a way to distribute trust in a foolproof way. It appears to offer a way to make everything better without the historic tradeoff of subjugating ourselves to anyone.

However, when we move our trust to a network we also make that trust subject to unanticipated network effects. That may be the new trade-off we have to make. Increasingly, our technology is dependent on networks, which – by their nature – are complex adaptive systems. That’s why I keep preaching the same message – we have to understand complexity. We must accept that complexity has interaction affects we could never successfully predict.

It’s an interesting swap to consider – control for complexity. Control has always offered us the faint comfort of an illusion of predictability. We hoped that someone who knew more than we did was manning the controls. This is new territory for us. Will it be better? Who can say? But we seem to building an irreversible head of steam in that direction.

Raising an Anti-fragile Brand

I’ve come to realize that brand building is a lot like having kids. Much as you want to, at some point you simply can’t control their lives. All you can do is lay a strong foundation. Then you have to cast them adrift on the vicissitudes of life and hope they bounce in the right direction more often than not. It’s a crapshoot, so you damn well better hedge your bets.

Luck rules a perverse universe. All the planning in the world can’t prevent bad luck. Crappy things happen with astonishing regularity to very organized, competent people. The same is true of brands. Crappy things can happen to good brands at any moment – and all the planning in the world can’t prevent it.

Take October 31, 2017 for instance. On that day, Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented truck down a bike lane on Manhattan’s west side, killing 8 and injuring 11 others. What does this have to do with branding? Saipov rented his truck from Home Depot. All the pictures and video of the incident showed the truck with a huge Home Depot logo on the door. You know the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Wrong!

Or take August 11, 2017 when a bunch of white supremacists decided to hold a torchlight rally in Charlotteville. Their torch of preference? The iconic Tiki Torch, which, ironically, is based on a decidedly non-white Polynesian design. Tiki soon took to social media to indicate they were not amused with the neo-Nazi’s choice.

The first instinct when things go wrong – with kids or brands – is to want to jump in and exert control. But that doesn’t work very well in either case. You need to build “anti-fragility.” This concept – from Nassim Nicholas Taleb – is when, “shocks and disruptions make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face.” So, in the interest of antifragility – of kids or brands – here are a few things I’ve learned.

Do the Right Thing….

Like the advice from the eponymous 1989 movie from Spike Lee, you should always “Do the Right Thing”. That doesn’t mean being perfect. It just means that when you have a choice between sticking to your principles and taking the easy way out – always do the former. A child raised in this type of environment will follow suit. You have laid a strong moral foundation that will be their support system for the rest of their lives. And the same is true of brands. A brand built on strong ethics, by a company that always tries to do the right thing, is exceptionally anti-fragile. When knocks happen – and cracks inevitably appear – an ethical brand will heal itself. An unethical brand that depends on smoke and mirrors will crumble.

Building an Emotional Bank account

One of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in my life was the metaphor of the emotional bank account from Stephen Covey. My wife and I have tried to pass this along to our children. Essentially, you have to make emotional deposits with those close to you to build up a balance against which you can withdraw when you need to. If you raise kids that make frequent deposits, you know that their friends and family will be there for them when they need them. The degree of anti-fragility in your children is dependent on the strength of their support network. How loyal are their friends and family? Have they built this loyalty through regular deposits in the respective emotional bank accounts?

The same is true for anti-fragile brands. Brands that build loyalty in an authentic way can weather the inevitable storms that will come their way. This goes beyond the cost of switching rationale. Even brands that have you “locked in” today will inevitably lose that grip through the constant removal of marketplace friction through technology and the ever-creeping forces of competition. Emotional bank accounts are called that for a reason – this had to do with emotions, not rationality.

Accepting that Mistakes Happen

One of the hardest things about being a parent is giving your children room to make mistakes. But if you want to raise anti-fragile kids, you have to do this.

The same is true with brands. When things go wrong, we tend to want to exert control, to fix things. In doing so, we have to take control from someone else. In the case of parenting, you take control from your children, along with the opportunity for them to learn how to fix things themselves. In the case of branding, you take control from the market. But in the later case, you don’t take control, because you can’t. You can respond, but you can’t control. It’s a bitter lesson to learn – but it’s a lesson best learned sooner rather than later.

Remember – You’re In This for the Long Run

Raising anti-fragile children means learning about proportionate responses when things go off the rails. The person your child is when they’re 15 is most likely not going to be the person they are when they’re 25. You’re not going to be the same person either. So while you have to be firm when they step out of line, you also have to take care not to destroy the long-term foundations of your relationship. Over reacting can cause lasting damage.

The same is true for brands. The market has a short memory. No matter how bad today may be, if you have an anti-fragile brand, the future will be better. Sometimes it’s just a matter of holding on and riding out the storm.

 

Watching TV Through The Overton Window

Tell me, does anyone else have a problem with this recent statement by HBO CEO Richard Plepler: “I am trying to build addicts — and I want people addicted to something every week”?

I read this in a MediaPost column about a month ago. At the time, I filed it away as something vaguely troubling. I just checked and found no one else had commented on it. Nothing. We all collectively yawned as we checked out the next series to binge watch. That’s just what we do now.

When did enabling addiction become a goal worth shooting for? What made the head of a major entertainment corporation think it was OK to use a term that is defined as “persistent, compulsive use of a substance known to the user to be harmful” to describe a strategic aspiration? And, most troubling of all, when did we all collectively decide that that was OK?

Am I overreacting? Is bulk consuming an entire season’s worth of “Game of Thrones” or “Big Little Lies” over a 48-hour period harmless?

Speaking personally, when I emerge from my big-screen basement cave after watching more than two episodes of anything in a row, I feel like crap. And there’s growing evidence that I’m not alone. I truly believe this is not a healthy direction for us.

But my point here is not to debate the pros and cons of binge watching. My point is that Plepler’s statement didn’t cause any type of adverse reaction. We just accepted it. And that may because of something called the Overton Window.

The Overton Window was named after Joseph Overton, who developed the concept at a libertarian think tank  — the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — in the mid-1990s.

Typically, the term is used to talk about the range of policies acceptable to the public in the world of politics. In the middle of the window lies current policy. Moving out from the center in both directions (right and left) are the degrees of diminishing acceptability. In order, these are: Popular, Sensible, Acceptable, Radical and Unthinkable.

Overton_Window_diagram.svgThe window can move, with ideas that were once unthinkable eventually becoming acceptable or even popular due to the shifting threshold of public acceptance. The concept, which has roots going back over 150 years, has again bubbled to the top of our consciousness thanks to Trumpian politics, which make “extreme things look normal,” according to a post on Vox.

Political strategists have embraced and leveraged the concept to try to bring their own agendas within the ever-moving window. Because here’s the interesting thing about the Overton Window: If you want to move it substantially, the fastest way to do it is to float something outrageous to the public and ask them to consider it. Once you’ve set a frame of consideration towards the outliers, it tends to move the window substantially in that direction, bringing everything less extreme suddenly within the bounds of the window.

This has turned The Overton Window into a political strategic tug of war, with the right and left battling to shift the window by increasingly moving to the extremes.

What’s most intriguing about the Overton Window is how it reinforces the idea that much of our social sensibility is relative rather than absolute. Our worldview is shaped not only by what we believe, but what we believe others will find acceptable. Our perspective is constantly being framed relative to societal norms.

Perhaps — just perhaps — the CEO of HBO can now use the word “addict” when talking about entertainment because our perspective has been shifted toward an outlying idea that compulsive consumption is OK, or even desirable.

But I have to call bullshit on that. I don’t believe it’s OK. It’s not something we as an industry — whether that industry is marketing or entertainment — should be endorsing. It’s not ennobling us; it’s enabling us.

There’s a reason why the word “addict” has a negative connotation. If our “window” of acceptability has shifted to the point where we just blithely accept these types of statements and move on, perhaps it’s time to shift the window in the opposite direction.