The Weekly Op-Ed: See Jane Do – Complex Disruptors

Jane Jacobs was passionate about cities not because of buildings but rather because of the people in them. Jane was, after all, the undisputed master of citizen engagement and successful calls to action, much to Robert Moses’ chagrin.


Her observations and common-sense approach to understanding why certain urban environments work, why some don’t (and how to fix those that don’t) rewrote the landscape of city livability. Here in #the6ix, I just have to look at Toronto’s thankfully non-existent Spadina Expressway or the now-thriving areas of Regent Park or the Distillery District to see Jane’s vision as a happy reality.

There are many lessons we can learn and leverage from exploring how Jane Jacobs disrupted and innovated urban planning to meet the needs of a diverse, high-density population of end-users.

See Jane Think. See Jane Do.

Jane Jacobs recognized that the value in a city lies in its radial connections and everyday encounters between people. When she looked at cities, she saw places teeming with life, where a diversity of people constantly interacted with each other to create and maintain communities filled with vitality and potential.

With no professional training in urban planning whatsoever, she saw the dangers of the obsession with the sterile ‘tear-it-down’ architectural ethos of the post-World War II era and said no. She saw first-hand the devastating impact of building expressways that destroyed entire neighbourhoods in Philadelphia and New York City, and wrote a seminal work (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961) proving that livable cities and vibrant, diverse neighbourhoods matter, socially and economically.

When Robert Moses and other devotees of the “raze-it” school of development came calling in her New York neighbourhood in 1958, threatening to erase Washington Square Park, Jane Jacobs gathered a coalition of end-users, developed a playbook, successfully deployed a movement to stop the destruction, and wound up reinventing urban planning in the process.

What is Organized Complexity?

Jane was passionate about understanding the problems of “Organized Complexity” – something insurers and reinsurers are intimately familiar with, especially during this time of rapid demographic and technological evolution.

“Organized Complexity” is the non-random, non-accidental interaction between parts that can, as a system, interact with other systems and create things that the individual components cannot produce on their own.

“Cities happen to be problems in organized complexity, like the life sciences. They present ‘situations in which half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.’”

– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, quoting Warren Weaver.

Why is Organized Complexity relevant to you, internet reader?

  • An end-user’s technology changes depending on the conditions in which they live. #HelloSmartphone
  • End-users have to figure out when, where and how to evolve an operations manual to meet their needs. How do end-users actually function in real life? Well, #TheresAnAppForThat
  • End-users must self-organize to succeed, especially when needs aren’t being met. The willingness to team up to solve problems is a significant human skill. Provide the solution or other end-users will organize and unite to build it, freezing you out. #HelloUber

Do we want to get Ubered? I certainly don’t. So understanding the future customer is at the heart of avoiding the taxi service’s unavoidable fate.

What can we take away from Jane Jacobs and her mad disruptor skills?

  1. Don’t be precious about how a product is distributed. Jane believed in mixed-use communities for a reason – they thrive socially and economically. Some people may want to use a sales intermediary; others just want to order online. There’s room for everybody.
  2. Plans have to fit the people, not the other way round. Jane told planners to see how people use their cities today because “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” Just because my dad was willing to have a salesperson over for supper doesn’t mean I am. Like many digital natives, my time is a precious commodity that I guard zealously. If there’s an app for something, I will use it.
  3. A city’s individuality is vital to its ability to prosper; treating it like a torpid project lacking in substance will result in failure. The cult of the individual is strong with this one: Businesses don’t dictate how consumers engage with them, the customers do. Today’s consumers are very much creating and defining their own ever-evolving identities. How they make purchasing decisions is a big part of that. If existing companies – no matter how popular they are -don’t provide the platforms consumers want, someone else will. #BlackberryVsApple

This weekend (May 6th – 8th, 2016) is the centennial celebration of Jane Jacobs’s birth. There are so many wonderful walks throughout Jacobs’ adoptive home of Toronto and the world celebrating her vision and mission taking place.

Your CTA Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It:

Go forth and engage. Walk your city! Think about what you’re seeing and how end-users like yourself are using your city. You’ll be surprised at what you find and what you’ll take back to work on Monday morning.

Click here to find a local Jane’s Walk.


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