S04 Ep. 13. Joni Baboci - Cities in Flux: from Bureaucratic control to Participatory Ecosystems

S04 Ep. 13. Joni Baboci - Cities in Flux: from Bureaucratic control to Participatory Ecosystems

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Joni Baboci Attempts to make things legible top down typically fail. At the same time, I think making things legible is not negative per se. It's about how you use that legibility to help individuals be more empowered. So when you talk about a network state, and sort of a more connected society, how can we use that knowledge and that interconnectedness, not only to live a better life for ourselves, but also to have a very strong physical impact on our communities, as citizens of both worlds on both the virtual world and sort of the physical world? Continue at 314 We will for sure, always be rooted to the physical, unless we learn how to emulate the physical in a virtual world, upload our brain somewhere in a remote server, and then think that we have a connection to the physical, despite not having it Stina Heikkilä Hello everybody. Welcome to the Boundaryless Conversations Podcast, where we meet with pioneers, thinkers, doers and entrepreneurs to talk about the future of business models, organizations, markets and society in the rapidly changing world we live in. I'm Stina Heikkila. I'm co-host of the Boundaryless

Conversations Podcast alongside Simone Cicero. Ciao Simone. Simone Cicero Hello. Hello. Stina Heikkilä Today we are also joined by Joni Baboci. Joni Babochi is an architect, urban planner and generally describes himself as a knowledge seeker and all around urban enthusiast. He is currently working on getting the web platform getlayer.xyz off the ground, whose mission

is to democratize access to spatial intelligence. Joni has previously been the General Director for Planning and Urban Development for the city of Tirana in Albania, and his previous experiences also include leading groundbreaking planning and architecture startup for the Albanian government nicknamed Atelier Albania. Joni has also worked with the private sector and multilateral organizations like the World Bank and so on. And Joni is basically developing a lot of ideas that very much intersect with the work that we do at Boundaryless and our explorations in this podcast. And he's using cities and urban planning as a special window to look at the world. So welcome to the show, Joni. It's great to have you here.

Joni Baboci Hi Stina and Simone. Great to be here. Stina Heikkilä The first question that we want to explore with you and as an introduction is this idea that if we look at organizing very much at the intersection between physical geography and tools that we have at our disposure, we have this idea that if we try to organize and plan cities, neighborhoods, whatever on geographical multiscaler way, this will help us to better align a sort of system view on how we organize our cities and our space in general. You have developed some of these ideas in some of your writings and so on, so it would be great if you can share this idea of why should we think about a sort of multilayer way of organizing our cities? And why can it be helpful to look at decentralization and distributed organizing as a way to help us move towards the goals we set? Joni Baboci Yes Stina, I think that it's such an interesting topic. Right. I think that the world has really

changed in the past 50 years or so. We moved from a very sort of modernist kind of a different kind of world, both in architecture and planning. But I think basically in every other profession, this idea of being able to deconstruct everything to its individual parts and then the ability of a single human to understand each singular part and then put it back together, that can be a body or a city or a mind. And I think that we have the last 50 years have helped us become much more humble. So I think we have been able to understand that the world is not as simple as we thought 50 or 100 years ago. So this modernist paradigm I think is shifting very, very fast in all fields of life which are a bit complex, people are becoming more understanding of how difficult it is to actually plan things. Especially important

to city planning, for example, which is one of my passions and what I have dedicated most of my career to. When you think about a city and you think about planning, you typically think of where do we put the roads and what should be the height of buildings? So a very sort of static way of thinking and I think that is changing very, very fast. It's becoming much more organic, it's becoming much more bottom up. One of the major works we did that to Atelier Albania almost a decade ago was how could we think of the territory as a set of flows? So our main product was a book which I can share with you called The Metabolism of Albania. And the idea behind it was how could we look at the whole country as a series of flows? So how does agriculture flow, how does water flow, how does electricity flow? And then try to identify in this system what are the key sort of lever points where you have some synergy or you have some conflicts between these different sort of needs. And therefore that's not planning in the sort of original sense, right? It's more like how can we think differently about how this system is working and then what kind of influence we can have of something that is pretty much beyond our control. And I think that's the

main aspect of the mind shift that we're going through not just in planning but again in the major, I think, complex sciences of both organization, which I know boundary Less is very interested in, in societal organization, political organization, in media and social media. So I think there's a big shift in being more humble in understanding the world as a very complex interplay of trillions of variables and our humble role in it and sometimes big, sometimes small impact that individuals can have in such large systems. Stina Heikkilä Looking at the complexity and going away from the modernist idea that we can actually plan and execute. And it's all very sort of linear. In the essay The Deeper Order of Cities, you

also outline some of the ideas on how does this play out then when you try to think about a city that is both partly self organizing itself but you also might have some patterns or some structure to help articulate how that actually plays out in this century. Joni Baboci I think that in that essay I speak quite a bit about this fairly interesting architect planner called Christopher Alexander, who worked for most of the past century. In the 60s and 70s he actually wrote this book called A Pattern Language which was an inspiration to object oriented programming which is a paradigm in computer programming. And it's

interesting how this sort of very modern, very popular paradigm today stemmed from a book about architecture and planning. And in this book, A Pattern Language, Alexander, in a fairly qualitative way, thinks of city making, of planning, of architecture as basically a Lego construction of different patterns and different elements which every individual has to put together by himself or by herself. And I think that the book was very ahead of its time. A lot of the very interesting thinkers of 50 and 60 years ago. When you think about Jane Jacobs, for example, often you think about Eyes on the Street and this idea of the fabric of urbanism, you know, the human aspect of it. And so you often think of it as a qualitative aspect, you know, as an anecdotal aspect. But in her books, Jacobs talks about

organized complexity. She deals with it in a fairly scientific way in terms of understanding that some things are too interrelated and too complex to be actually understood as simple as we try to. So I think that the difference between that time where the ideas were there, they were super interesting, but I think the paradigm was very, very different, was a paradigm that gave us Corbusier and Chandigarh and all of these sort of top down, super planned entities both in architecture and planning. I think the difference today is that technology has been progressing to a point where some of these super interesting ideas about interconnectedness and sort of the role of individual decisions in a larger system are now sort of more possible to actually happen in reality. So it's not just an idea you talk about. Now you can actually

you have quite a bit of tools that you can use to develop and to build these more difficult ideas of multiscaler, multiactor organization. And when we talk about cities, for example, I think an interesting or a set of interesting concepts in a pattern language are the patterns that talk about the organization of communities and then from communities to subcultures, from subcultures to cities, from cities to regions, and then from regions to a world federation, as Alexander calls it. And all of this is driven by that community. He talks about a community between five and 10,000 people as sort of a good size to self organize and to have quite a bit of control over local taxes and sort of make sure that you have skin in the game. You build value within that community. And then from that sort of small element, you start building out a mosaic of more and more elements, all based on this bottom up process of planning and thinking about communities. Now, I think that, again,

in the past, not even 100, but even more than 100 years, this idea of centralizing from the top has been the driving force to development. Centralizing in terms of efficiency in factories, centralizing in terms of politics in statecraft, and the political organization of countries. And I think that we are at an inflection point where there are alternatives to that drive. So I think both through technology, both through knowledge, through AI, for sure, through blockchain, through all of these interesting things that have been popping up in the last ten years, I think there's quite a bit of tools now where individuals can actually think about organizing their individual universe differently than before and actually be able to survive or to actually thrive in the current world in that different way of organization. And again, these are super interesting ideas. And the big challenge is how do you make this practical and how do you move to actually starting to build the long process of making some of these ideas possible in reality.

Simone Cicero The story of the organization, the industrial organization, has been defining for citizens and also for citizens, I would say, modern citizenship. We have been connecting the idea of the industrial organization to the birth of modern cities and the fact that people had to work collocated in one place, first in factories, then in the office. And now it seems that due mainly to, for example, the impacts of technology and the acceleration that we have seen with the pandemic, it seems sometimes that both the city and the citizens have somehow lost their meaning. Right? Because, for example, I was reading a few weeks ago an essay by Dror Poleg called Remote Bureaucracy where essentially he's arguing that it's not that the office is dissolving, it's also that the corporation in itself is somehow going into a process of being unbundled into small pieces. And therefore I think this is extremely

challenging for the idea of the city. As a consequence, at the same time, we are also unequivocally going through this multimeta crisis that is pushing everybody into a paradox of having to recast their priorities and the meaning to sense making on a daily basis. Is the city the place where, having lost its role, it's a traditional role from the last century? Is it the city going to be the place where we prototype these new institutional agreements that are needed for a kind of new development model? And you say we have to make it practical. And I think sometimes I feel there is nothing more practical than

having to reinvent our livelihoods somehow. Right? Joni Baboci I totally agree, Simone. You started by discussing cities as sort of the place where the industrial revolution was concentrated. There's a fantastic planner who wrote this book recently called Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities. His name is Alain Bertaud and among other things, he speaks of cities as labor markets. So the reason why cities exist and why you have innovation happening and you have sort of scale happening in cities is because they allow a labor market to function properly, to be more efficient. They aggregate different

expertises in the same place and therefore they allow for more and more complex things to be born out of it. It's very similar in a way to the idea that Ricardo Hausmann at the Center for International Development, when he talks about national economies, we worked with him quite a bit a while ago here in Albania. When he talks about national economies, he talks about the Atlas of Economic Complexity. He looks at the inputs and outputs of certain countries and then he tries to figure out these are the set of letters we have in our economy and we can build this number of words. So if we want to build more complex words and larger words, we need to add some specific letters and make the whole system a bit more complex. I'm sure this will be part of the breadcrumbs because I think there are interesting

ideas explored in different fashions. But going back to the idea of labor markets, again, cities as labor markets has been sort of the driving force for sure behind cities for a long while. At the same time, I think that while that has been happening, cities have also developed a life of their own. I think that larger cities provide a big diversity of options, optionality in terms of culture, in terms of entertainment, in terms of access to different foods and to different experiences which don't make sense in a market economy for smaller cities. You have two ways to look at it. I agree with you that the huge scale of growth in cities has been driven by the economic model that has been governing the world for the past centuries. But at the same time, I think there's something more to cities

by now. So people choose to live in cities not just because they offer good, interesting work, also because of all the positive externalities that you get when you live in the city. So I think it's going to be, as most things nowadays, a combination of both. It's not going to be

cities or not cities, it's going to be cities and periphery. It's going to be cities and sort of long weeks working remotely from a beach or from sort of a nice mountainside resort. So I think it's going to be a mix of things. I don't believe that cities are going to die. On the contrary, I think they're going to keep densifying and they're going

to keep centralizing. For example, today Tirana, the city where I have lived and worked for most of my life, is basically half the country. It's sort of a major driver of the country's economy and I don't see that trend stopping until the point where the country will stop shrinking. But at the same time, as you mentioned, there's the optionality of now not being tied

to a certain urban environment for your professional life. And that I'm sure I agree with you, it has a lot of ramifications in terms of how our city is governed. And what does bureaucracy even mean anymore in a world where you have different both physical and virtual cities and you can be a citizen of a number of cities at the same time. I think there's a lots of interesting things that will happen there and that a lot of people will have to think very, very hard about. I have worked in the public sector for ten years and I have worked

in the bureaucracy side of the public sector for ten years, so I know it's quite a bit and it has for sure a lot of issues. People complain all the time about how inefficient bureaucracies are and their general reason for their existence and sort of how much they slow things down. But it's important to, I think, also in that perspective, metabolize, that that's their purpose. So the purpose of bureaucracy is to make sure that things don't move too fast. There's a good reason for that. Things can move very fast in a good direction or in a bad direction. And in an age of when we had no computers and no technology

and no communication, the bureaucracy was one way to make sure that individual changes in individual states or cities or countries didn't happen as fast as a very powerful individual might have wanted. At the same time, they provide to a certain degree a sense of standardization, a sense of sort of equality and equality in how citizens behave and sort of interact with the state. So I think there's interesting elements and I think that when you talk about the remote bureaucracy, in a lot of ways, it's still going to be a bureaucracy. It's still going to have to deal with these issues that I just mentioned in terms of standardization. Equality is still going to be even worse than today. It might be a bit more efficient. But

whoever said that an efficient bureaucracy is a good thing, right? It really depends on what you optimize the system for. Stina Heikkilä And efficient bureaucracy might not always be what we need, right? And I think I agree with you that even after the pandemic and some people were thinking, okay, is this the end of cities now finally? Like we had the internet and place wouldn't matter anymore. And of course we saw some of that, right, like people fleeing the cities because they can work remotely or even moving to smaller cities, maybe to have a sort of better quality of life than sometimes the big capitals have become a bit congested and lack of green space. Some of these realizations that came and we kind of were starting to look for other values. But if I can come back to what you were mentioning of this idea of maybe potentially living in several cities, and you have talked previously on another podcast about the idea of a network city. So the idea that you can live in one place but still be connected to cities in

virtual space, how are you seeing this shift? In the sense that people, on the one hand would be connected to their neighborhood, try to participate in some very local processes and at the same time connect to and participate in very global processes. Linking that to what Simone said on livelihoods, do you see that we will build part of our livelihoods and lives very locally and sort of have part of a labor market that is more global or on a functional scale? Joni Baboci The idea of network cities or network communities or network states, there's different degrees of it I think is definitely something that is being explored quite a bit now. I think it's attractive. I mean, it's a very attractive idea. You are able to hang out with like-minded people and talk about things that everyone in a certain community shares. On the other end, there's no need to talk about the benefits. It gives access to people from all around

the world to a network of individuals and opportunities and sort of it definitely has a very important element of meritocracy rather than who you know, what you know and how well you know it. So I think there's quite a bit of benefits to this idea of a virtual organization of I wouldn't call them again, cities, but at this stage, communities. And I think that the benefits are quite understood. I mean, they're the reason why a lot of us participated

in internet relay chat rooms 30 or 20 years ago. So these sorts of communities have been bubbling on the web for quite a while. I think it's new technology and sort of new, and I reiterate blockchain here that allows these communities to actually build something more long term rather than a more ephemeral chat experience. They actually allow people to have, again, skin in the game in terms of financial skin in the game, or sort of investing their time in certain projects. So I think there's a lot of interesting stuff happening in the area. One thing, however, really, really scares me in this field which I really follow

and I like, and that is that typically cities have been generators of social and economic growth and they have been social and economic elevators for the poorest of the poor. If you look at any city in the world, typically it's poorer than the periphery. The reason being that everyone who moves to cities is poorer. And the amount of people who are poor who move into a city actually demonstrates the success of that city of elevating those people and making them sort of live better, making them able to pay for the education for their children, providing hope for their future, better access to health care and so on. So basically, to a certain degree, the more poor people move into cities, the more successful the city is in allowing them to have more opportunities in life. From this

perspective, the network state or the network city is a bit scary because what it's saying is we're going to get the knowledge elite or the most knowledgeable people in the world and they're going to hang out together. And then what happens with the rest of the people in these virtual cities? How do they sort of thrive? Are they given opportunities to grow? And I think that's a big challenge that hasn't been solved yet. It's one of the reasons why I think that those things are going to coexist for a long time. So physical cities

and network cities will coexist and will be parallel entities that will live. I don't see the physical city ending and it being replaced by a virtual city or a network state. I think that those things will coexist for a very long time until we have either solved a number of issues or we have sort of destroyed our society to a point where only a few people are able to live in this amazing potential virtual place.

Simone Cicero First of all, I really like this idea that you brought up the network city as a way to connect with the network state. Balaji Srinivasan is a big idea that everybody's talking about. I was listening to a podcast from The Blockchain Socialist a few weeks ago where they spoke about overthrowing the network state, which I found very interesting. And one interesting thing that they spoke about is that the idea of the network state, according to them, essentially embodied some kind of hetos of disruption and overcoming of inefficient states so that we can reorganize digitally. And as you said, it's more like elites reorganizing in a way so they don't depend on inefficient institutions. Right? I want to connect this with another concept that I have encountered recently. It's from an Italian economist, Dematteis, who speaks about something that he calls the metropolitan mountain. This idea of metropolitan

mountain essentially is a way to represent place not as a mix, as you said before, but more as a synthesis of two aspects. Right? And if I think of Tirana, for example, if I'm not wrong, the city has lots of mountains around and I guess that most of the goods that end up being consumed, the tangible goods, the fundamental goods must come from the mountainous surroundings of the city. I find this mix, this synthesis story between the metropolis and the mountain a very good abstraction of the paradox that our economies and our livelihoods are at the moment entangled within. So the idea that of course we've been going too much into the digital now we really need to start reconsidering a bit of our tangible needs because we have been exposed to supply chain reroutes. In general, I think we are all dealing with climate change and these ecological problems. We are living in Europe at the moment. We have some enormous water supply problems. For example, we have developed this idea that

the fundamentals of our economy are very important and most of them are related to place and township. Do you see somehow in the future of cities a possibility that cities essentially spend an increasing percentage of their time and also get an increasing percentage of their livelihoods by participating in the production of these fundamental economies through institutions which we don't have yet we have to prototype? Do you see this as a part of the future of the city to foster this hatred of participation and responsibility of inhabiting a place and contributing to the fundamentals of the economy? Joni Baboci Absolutely. I mean, you put it so well. It's the crux of the point I was trying to touch upon earlier in this idea of the network state being just composed of intellectuals and everybody else. The mountains, let's say, are not there. And of course the question there is how can Tirana or how can any city live without the mountains, as you call them, without the ecosystem that allows them to thrive? So I think that for sure the physical economy will definitely be I think that one is really ripe for reinvention and for innovation. We haven't really changed a lot of the physical production and the physical making and we haven't really invested any knowledge in creating or incentivizing that interconnection between the urban scape and the rural scape. It's been growing apart for centuries now and there's been a couple of

attempts in different cities around the world. The EU is now thinking about working in functional areas. We have seen local government reforms all around the world. For example, in my city again we moved from a city eight years ago which was just 40 km², just the urban area.

Now to Tirana grew by 25 times. It's 1200 kilometers, includes all the natural and all the agricultural areas around it. So it's the same administration looking at sort of this larger ecosystem and trying to see how it can be interconnected. I think it drives

again at the point of when you talk about this virtual revolution right as DDoS overthrowing the network state through crashing their servers. And I think that at the end of the day most attempts at reinventing things from a Tabula Rasa approach have not worked. So if you look at the history of society, if you look at people trying to design cities top down, of people trying to design countries top down typically we see failure. We see the informal element sort of creeping up and going underground and sort of gaining power and then at some point you have like a big revolution or you have a big informal development explosion or you have a gray economy that is growing slowly. So in different fields of society and civilization you have these informal powers which I think are the roots of humanity in a way. We are not machines. We sort of think very differently of ourselves as individuals and then we think very differently of other individuals as part of society. I think when

you think about law and order and rules, when you think about rules they typically apply to everyone else except sometimes it will apply to you. And that seems from the individual perspective that seems fine, okay, I can do this today, come on, no one is watching and I can sort of break the rules a bit. But when you think about society as a whole it works because there are sort of these rules there but at the same time if you don't have these individual sort of informal attempts at breaking the rules every once in a while you wouldn't have innovation, you wouldn't have sort of progress. As I mentioned before, it's a bit

of both. There's another very interesting book by James C. Scott called Seeing Like a State which talks a lot about these issues in terms of agriculture, in terms of city planning, in terms of political organization. It all drives to the idea that attempts to make things legible top down typically fail. At the same time, I think making things legible is not negative per se, it's about how you use that legibility to help individuals be more empowered. So when you talk about a network state and sort of a more connected society, how can we use that knowledge and that interconnectedness not only to live a better life for ourselves, but also to have a very strong physical impact on our communities as citizens of both worlds, of both the virtual world and sort of the physical world. And this goes back to what I was saying where I think that we will be citizens of different cities for the next centuries and we will for sure always be rooted in a physical city or in a physical even in physical vision. It doesn't have to be like a metropolis but we will for sure always be

rooted to the physical. Unless we learn how to emulate the physical in a virtual world, upload our brains somewhere in a remote server and then think that we have a connection to the physical despite not having it. Stina Heikkilä I would be very curious to bound some ideas around the role that decentralized autonomous organizations and that whole branch. You mentioned blockchain a couple of times but like going a bit more practical on that. You've worked a lot with urban planning also with the participatory

processes, trying to get people engaged in actually co-shaping their cities. We also know on the other hand that there are many other players that are not individuals but are also co-existing like associations, companies, service providers and various different entities that exist at the local level. So what I'm getting at is a little bit on the one hand how can we orchestrate all that, right? What kind of alliances, collaborations can we sort of infuse between the different actors in the city? And how can tools like for instance the Dows and Blockchain help us to improve those processes that we are trying to do using consultation methods and sort of co-creation and things workshops together with citizens to try to engage them. I think it's a little bit about having more skin in the game than

just turning up in a couple of workshops and then you go home. And I know you're also working on tools like your web platform that is a way to help people to actually read the city because you cannot see everything when you just go out on the street. You might need to have a better tool to actually see where the services are available and how do I interact with them. So there are many things here in these questions, apologize for that, but I'm really now thinking about the tooling to organize ourselves and improve the governance and participation and skin in the game at the local level. Joni Baboci Stina, I think that in this sort of transition from these global value chains to more local value loops within communities and within cities, it's very important to think through how these newer technologies can have an impact. I think local government is the apex of democracy

because the issues are physical. There's little politics at local government. Politics in the ideological term it's typically very physical problems. The pothole, the road, the infrastructure, the school. People have skin in the game because they live in the city where they vote and they are looking at much more practical issues than foreign policy or military operations or things that are sort of larger than even countries. So I think it's really important to look at cities with a different eye in terms of how the decision making there can be improved. From a political sense and from sort of a governance sense, there's dows and

there's the potential of having a local government which is much more subsidiary and fragmented than what we currently have. So currently we vote for typically an individual or a council and sort of they govern for a set number of years and it's very difficult to change that once it happens. And you can vote in an artist to make decisions about physics and you can vote in a construction engineer to make decisions about art. Of course they choose their own

advisors and there's staffing around it for sure. But the decisions are typically centralized and the decision making is also simplistic. You choose one individual to take care of everything and you delegate all authority as a citizen to the mayor or to the council who will then elect a mayor. And I think what dows make possible at the local level is a more interactive way to govern where you don't have to delegate everything to a single individual. You can selectively delegate different decision makings to different experts. So if you really

trust a certain architect of the city then you delegate architectural decisions to him. And if you really trust a certain engineer you delegate your stake or your votes to him. And if you think you're good by yourself and you want to make these decisions by yourself, you can also do that. This is an interesting idea. Again, I'm still thinking through the

practical ramifications of making this happen, but it provides for a much more fluid, much more organic way of governing at the local level where you don't have elections once every four years, you're constantly electing and you're constantly making decisions on both expertise terms, but also in terms of geographical terms. Like you might say I want to make my own decisions for my own neighborhoods and then I want to delegate decision making to another neighborhood, to the people who live there. Why should I be the one choosing a mayor who then chooses for some other place in the far corner of the city where I live? So it allows, I think, organizations and governance to scale both at the technical level as well as at the geographical level, which is something that can't really happen today because it would be too complex. It would be akin to try to run a neural network manually through an Excel sheet. The toolkits are super important in trying to give birth to these newer ways

of organizing locally. And as I mentioned before, I think that Christopher Alexander's ideas were far ahead of their time. And only now we're getting to a point where technology is caught up and we could experiment and we could try and sort of see how they would work in real life. And they might fail. But it's an interesting experiment to run. And the thought behind a layer has been sort of similar, so the idea has been okay. Throughout my work at the local level, I have stumbled constantly upon interesting data sets which have sort of global coverage. And we were at some point in 2017, we were sort of rethinking about the planning of the city of Tirana and we were trying to have as many of these interactive ideas. We worked under a concept that we termed bounded flexibility. We didn't want to be

arbitrary, but at the same time we didn't want rules to be so strict that there could be no innovation there. So we wanted rules to be flexible but not arbitrary. So we wanted there to be some level of bounds to what you could do. And the bounds were also regulated, but nothing was fixed in terms of how you could build the city. And I think that in thinking through that and sort of in building up on the experience from the past decade, I thought it might be very interesting for cities around the world to have access to that wealth of knowledge that already exists out there. Often it's geospatial or crowdsourced, so it's not as correct as the sensors would be, but it's updated much more often. It has

a higher resolution, it has global coverage. So basically it allows people from all over the world to have a more interesting look at what's available in terms of data for their own cities. For example, one interesting data point that we have is the difference in night light activity and how sort of that has changed in the past decades. There was some research just recently which I could share, which basically illustrated how if you put night light activity as an indicator for economic development and you looked at countries across the world and you looked at the GDP and you correlated that to the night light activity, you would see that authoritarian countries performed worse when you looked at the night light activity, because they were clearly relying on their GDP performance, on their sort of formal GDP reports that they were making to they were publishing in their sort of official statistics.

So basically there was a way for you to check which country was lying more about their GDP compared to the global average. So again, this could happen at the national level, but I'm more interested at the local level. And what I mean by that is, if you live in Milan and you want to open a new pharmacy because you're a pharmacist, and if you look at the city and you think, okay, where do I open a new pharmacy? What's the best spot today to open a new pharmacy? No one will give you that information. And I think the best way to make the city slowly and organically more efficient is to provide that pharmacist with that ability to make the decision in a more intelligent way. And by doing that singular decision, by doing that sort of singular action in his city, by opening his new drug shop at a better spot than what he was thinking, you're improving very slightly the efficiency and the performance of the city as a whole. If you can improve hundreds or even potentially

hundreds of thousands of decisions that citizens take in their cities at the local level, at sort of at the bottom up level, then you are making the city much better than a planner could at the top down sort of organizational bureaucratic scale. The concept behind the layer is exactly that. You sign up, you have access to some layers initially, we're still working a lot to add information. There's a data catalog. You can see all the data we have. And we're very happy to work especially with educational and research organizations and provide our services to them without any cost to see, to experiment in these fields. But the idea has always been, how can people improve decision making at the most local level that is possible? And by doing that, they might have at scale a much larger impact on how a city grows and how a city thrives than individual planners, technocrats at city hall could ever dream to have.

Simone Cicero I was reading an essay just a few minutes ago by BlockScience called Disambiguating Autonomy, and they have this very good visual way to explain how in any organization you have essentially two aspects of autonomy. One is political and one is functional and essentially the political is the way we decide. And then there is more like an individual activation that mostly deals with the tactical aspects of how we do things. So imagine that an organization, sorry, a city known as defined, let's say collectively the directions where it wants to develop itself. But then you need to have citizens to jump in and to organize and to produce value and produce services. We spoke about the fundamental economy. We spoke about materials flow but I'm also talking about welfare. I'm also talking about education.

I'm also talking about the personal services space that is so important. Do you know of experiments? Or are you maybe planning in your work to do experiments in a way that, for example, a city can create an organization that actively invests into citizens building enterprises where they have their own skin in the game and they can essentially enact the strategic direction where the city wants to develop without this top down approach, but more through enabling constraints, essentially. It can be, for example, investing policies. There can be some tools that you can make available including, for example data on emergent needs right on emergent information on the neighborhoods behavior or whatever. So that's

something I would be interested in understanding. If you have any firsthand experience of this mix between a city and an entrepreneurial organization where maybe both civil servants and citizens can entrepreneurially activate themselves in deciding how to perform the job. The vision that the city has may be democratically constructed. Joni Baboci There's some examples which I have been part of and I think there's hundreds of examples around the world but they're very constrained in scale. I think that's what's missing. How do you scale these examples up? And I think the issue there is a typical issue that you have when you're talking about bottom up. It's very difficult to scale it both in terms of data gathering, both in terms of incentivizing. So in more concrete terms, for example, we

applied a lot of code design. We wanted to implement this network of playgrounds around older neighborhoods. In Tirana we built I think almost 80 or more than 80 playgrounds in four or five years and each of those playgrounds added sort of the basic idea was how can we go to the community and have a talk with them? And you have a designer from city hall and you have a decision maker and then you have people who actually live the area there and they design it together. They have this sort of co-designing process and then of course the city implements it. Now, this is not as entrepreneurial as one might hope but it gives you an example of that interaction between bureaucracy and real people in the city. Another

interesting element which I think has an element of incentive was we had this thing called the community fund and basically you could apply for any community intervention in your building or in your neighborhoods, which had sort of a public sense. So if you wanted to repair a certain street, or if you wanted to plant some trees, or if you wanted to fix the facades, then you would have to pay half and the city would support half of the project if it was successful. And it would sort of co-finance through this community funds, a lot of interesting small interventions around the city. I think in terms of data, as you

mentioned, I think money is super important here. So I think at the end of the day, incentives are all about the financial aspect behind them. And I only talk about this in terms of the city trying to incentivize activation at the bottom, at the bottom level, at sort of bottom up. And you definitely need financial incentive for that to happen. People could have those incentives, they could do it by themselves if they didn't have the financial support and they would have already done it. The fact that they don't is that something

is missing. And typically in cities it's sort of the financial incentive that is offered by a larger organization to make this happen. The other thing that you, I think you touched upon a bit in terms of how can the strategy be cross related to the individual. I think how can the individual have sort of a very small impact on the strategic aspects of a larger city rather than just individual tactics, society sort of strategy. What I was driving at before with the idea of how can cities make their data available to individuals.

So what typically happens is that you have a movement of open data portals now and people are sort of publishing their data and I think that's super important. The idea here, again, being if a city gathers data and they want to use the data to make better decision making, they will not be able to make better decision making because the data is not telling everything. However, I think if the city is taking this data and offering it back to the people, then people can actually make better, smaller decisions. Now the impact that a politician at the city level can have on a city can be amazing or it can be horrible because they hold so much power. So if they have the power of data behind them, these decisions can have even worse

or better consequences. At the individual level, the consequences are limited. It's a much better, more resilient way to experiment when the risk sort of surface is smaller, which is typically the case in communities and in cities. I think these are some examples of how you get that collaboration. But I think it's far away from one thing that comes to mind was when we were working on redesigning the plan for Tirana, we would hold these social public hearings about the work of the plan. We had worked for months in this vision for the city and what we thought were important ideas and concepts to be implemented through the plan. Then we would meet communities and it was like, you know what? These are very interesting, but I'm more worried about the pothole out of my door rather than your vision about an orbital forest around Tirana. So the issues that people typically have were

much smaller, much more community oriented. And I think that this is often lost in governance. People tend to focus on what will get them re elected, what are the big ideas, what are the big visions, the big projects? And they often miss the importance of the smaller interventions, the more community scale interventions. And I think that one place where Tirana has really shined is exactly that. So I think Tirana has been able to strike a very good balance between large scale strategic interventions that can become mediatic and sort of can bring tourism and interest to the city and individual code designed, community funded smaller interventions, sort of an urban acupuncture around the city.

Simone Cicero When you say that people are definitely more interested in community scale issues than in the kind of big projects that may regenerate the city just for the sake of proving the real estate cost, I can feel them. I think the question that comes up from this conversation is there is a process of delegation that somehow the cities need to accept. The city needs to encourage this passage of power and empowerment. That needs to go beyond just participating in decision making or maybe clicking here and there to influence participatory budgeting, but more like having the responsibility as a city. To remove these systemic lock-ins, helping the citizens develop the capabilities of the intimacy, the empathy, the capacity to participate in complex entrepreneurial and communal initiatives, to take a prominent role in developing the future of their cities. A lot of the work that the future of cities

deals with is about, you know, really making this possible, somehow letting go some of the bureaucratic power that, you know, maybe sometimes also in good faith, you know, some, some cities, some civil servants may exert, you know, and maybe again, in good faith, make big mistakes. Right? I think that's really something that is coming up from this conversation and I think we're really looking forward to seeing how your work will play out in the future. And many people can be inspired by your story, I think. Can I ask you a couple of breadcrumbs that you want to share with our listeners that may be influential to their thinking in this space? Joni Baboci Yeah, I mean, I think I mentioned a bit of them during the podcast, so I think there's some very interesting books which sort of connect a lot of dots, or in my experience, have connected a lot of dots for me throughout my career and I mentioned Seeing Like a State by James Scott. I mentioned Christopher Alexander and The Pattern Language. I mentioned Alain Bertauds Order Without Design. There's quite a bit of other interesting books which touch

upon this idea of complexity that has also really, really changed my perspective on how complex systems work and how they're sort of related to cities. A very, very good book. It's called A Crude Look at the Whole by John Miller. There's Worlds Hidden in Plain Sight by David Krakauer. There's Scale by Geoffrey West. I think those books sort of really drive at a hidden order that we can't understand through linear thinking. It doesn't mean it's ununderstandable, it just means that the current tools at our disposal make it very difficult to see. Like when you think of a four dimensional cube, a hypercube, you know, mathematically

can exist. Our mind is not sort of fit to envision it. For a child, it's not as easy to envision a three dimensional object. But we have trained through school, through education. Now we can envision it in our minds. We can do it for things that are a bit more complex. I think one of the big impacts that future cities will have and future citizens will have is understanding. I think this mindshift, this idea of things being sometimes too complex to understand and how can we find their projection and then how can we lever or sort of have our impact in the projection of these complex systems into a complicated world? Stina Heikkilä Yes, thank you so much, Joni. I think you have left us with tons of books on our reading

list and we really hope that you will keep putting your content out there to help make this step-by-step more practical. Like, we also started the conversation with. I think this will really require a step-by-step process. And this idea of maybe having a system of small bets, letting people experiment with what matters to them and in that way kind of introduce the concept of more decentralized ways of organizing and participating in decision making might happen through that door as well. That's kind of an intuition that I got from

your last passage there. Joni Baboci A lot of these ideas and a lot of more breadcrumbs if people are interested, you can find I have like a newsletter which I used to write. I haven't written as much in the past year, but I'll try to fix that in the future. It's called thinkthinkthink.substack.com and I

think there's quite a bit of smaller bite-sized ideas about cities that might be interesting to people who like the field. Stina Heikkilä Absolutely. No, we will put all of this in the show notes. So really thank you for joining us in this conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as well.

Joni Baboci Oh, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. This was super fun and very, very stimulating. My head is hurting a bit now. I have to metabolize the interesting thoughts from you and Simone, and it was very fun to be here. Stina Heikkilä For the listeners, all these books and references and where to find Joni's work, you will find, as usual, on our website www.boundaryless.io/resources/podcast. And you will find Joni's episode there with all the links needed. And thank you, Simone, for the conversation today.

Simone Cicero Thank you. Always fascinating where we can go a bit off the usual tracks. Stina Heikkila So and to our listeners, we catch up soon. And remember to think boundaryless.

2023-04-11 13:48

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