Tokyo knows something San Francisco doesn’t. Housing prices in San Francisco and other booming American cities have become ludicrously out of reach for many. Tokyo is booming too, but not the price of its housing (Vox). How’d that happen? Turns out Tokyo tends to issue a whole lot more building permits than typical American cities (Financial Times) — and increased supply keeps prices more reasonable. Both these articles blame local activists in the US for fighting development that could lower prices, and urge us to set pro-building policies nationally, as Japan does. But maybe we shouldn’t aim to cut local residents out quite so fast. Neighborhoods might embrace more construction, and help it happen more organically, if they could trust that new housing would actually bring rents down.
Doing the math on Flint’s water bill. To save $5 million, the city of Flint, Michigan, decided to switch its water supply, with well-known disastrous consequences. The total estimated bill for its error: $458 million — $58 million in direct outlays, the rest in the long-term social costs of lead poisoning via lost productivity, welfare expenses, and costs to the criminal justice system. The Columbia scholar who arrived at these numbers (The Atlantic) says he hopes such data would help decision-makers think more clearly about the costs of action vs. inaction. Typically, taking action now incurs upfront and painful costs, and that gets our attention, while the bill for inaction is easy to ignore and defer — but ends up biting back much harder. That’s a good principle to keep in mind whether you’re making choices for a city, a company, or a family.
Feds’ digital troubleshooters celebrate. The U.S. Digital Service, a “startup inside of the federal government” that aims to make the tech that powers Washington more usable and reliable, marks its second birthday with a 34-point list of its achievements to date (Medium). Whether it’s saving vets applying for healthcare from filling out clumsy PDFs, streamlining procurement systems, or making college-cost data easily accessible, these projects are inspiring. Also, the USDS developers have a sense of humor. They’re proud of the security-boosting results of their “Hack the Pentagon” program; also, of actually getting the Pentagon to accept that name. Plainly, much of the federal bureaucracy’s information systems are still a mind-boggling kludgy mess. But hey, there’s progress, too.
Show them the money. Helping refugees is tough work, often performed by big international organizations following complex rules, and too often the aid is frustratingly inadequate. What if, instead of blankets and food and other goods, we just handed refugees cash (Quartz)? Today, less than 6 percent of international aid gets delivered that way. In Jordan recently, the U.N. refugee commission has begun moving some aid recipients out of camps and handing them money instead. Pluses: It’s efficient (less overhead means more help for those who need it) and it lets refugees make their own choices and feel less like victims. However, the idea raises fears of creating a new, self-perpetuating “global welfare state,” and inspires pushback from the incumbent aid establishment. Empowerment or dependency? Maybe we ought to be asking the refugees themselves.
Utopian communities aren’t just a 19th-century thing. Today, they’re called “intentional communities” or “egalitarian communities.” (You could also think of them as “mission-driven communities.”) Erik Reece visited one in Virginia called Twin Oaks (The Atlantic) and paints a fascinating picture of its organizational design and governance — one that holds interesting lessons for business. For instance: Term-limited planners make long-term decisions for the commune, but there’s not a lot of competition for the job — it comes with tough calls and doesn’t carry much prestige. Mostly, it turns out, egalitarian self-government requires tons of meetings and personal negotiation, and this “relentless socialness” is something participants had better enjoy. Introverts will run screaming to the nearest big city, aka “unintentional community.”
Also in NewCo Shift: From Blogger to Twitter to Medium, Evan Williams has spent a rich career “getting things from one person’s brain into another person’s brain at a massive global scale” — and building companies, from Blogger to Twitter to Medium, to make that happen. NewCo founder and editor-in-chief John Battelle talks to Williams about Medium’s long game for publishing, its experiment with Holacracy, and how cities like San Francisco can grow smarter. And Brian Monahan counts four major benefits of purpose-driven businesses.
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