cities and the future of work

Note: This post is based on several earlier ones. These have been edited and synthesized to a single composition in advance of my sessions in Helsinki on 3 November 2017 with The National Foresight Network and the Prime Minister’s Office where we will discuss the transformation of work and its consequences. This post looks at the roles of cities, and city regions, in a network society.

Tribes & Networks

“According to my review of history and theory, four forms of organization — and evidently only four — lie behind the governance and evolution of all societies across the ages:

  • The tribal form was the first to emerge and mature, beginning thousands of years ago. Its main dynamic is kinship, which gives people a distinct sense of identity and belonging — the basic elements of culture, as manifested still today in matters ranging from nationalism to fan clubs.
  • The institutional form was the second to emerge. Emphasizing hierarchy, it led to the development of the state and the military, as epitomized initially by the Roman Empire, not to mention the Catholic papacy and other corporate enterprises.
  • The market form, the third form of organization to take hold, enables people to excel at openly competitive, free, and fair economic exchanges. Although present in ancient times, it did not gain sway until the 19th century, at first mainly in England.
  • The network form, the fourth to mature, serves to connect dispersed groups and individuals so that they may coordinate and act conjointly. Enabled by the digital information-technology revolution, this form is only now coming into its own, so far strengthening civil society more than other realms.”
    Overview of social evolution (past, present, and future) in TIMN terms, David Ronfeldt

There are strong indicators that society is heading toward a quadriform structuring (T+I+M+N) with network culture dominating in many fields: open source insurgencies, Blockchain financial transactions,  political manipulation through networks, crowdfunding, etc. This is also bringing tensions between the old Tribal, Institutional, and Market forms against the emerging Network form.

“The more entrenched an older form, the more difficult it will be for a newer form to emerge on its own merits: This mostly occurs where tribal or hierarchical actors rule in rigid, grasping, domineering ways; but it may also apply where pro-market ideologues hold sway … Examples may include governments rife with a clannish tribalism, militaries wallowing in lucrative business enterprises, and ostensibly capitalist market systems fraught with collusive, protectionist cronyism. The stronger are tribal/clan tendencies in a society, the more likely are corrupt hybrid designs. A society of myriad monstrous hybrids is likely to be a distorted society, even a mean-spirited one.”
Explaining social evolution: standard cause-and-effect vs. TIMN’s system dynamics, David Ronfeldt

Is tribalism a reaction to our concerns about the emerging network era, which is putting into question our existing institutions and markets developed in previous eras?  Jalaja Bonheim wrote about this phenomenon in Why We Love Trump and describes a potential counteracting force: “A new consciousness is awakening that recognizes our oneness as a global community.” But David Ronfeldt thinks there are small-scale efforts that do not require such global engagement.

“In any case, I am struck so far that many readings about tribalism end up recommending ways to improve interpersonal relations, and/or ways to foster global consciousness. Yet there are intermediate levels that, so far, have been neglected by those who discuss malignant tribalisms.

Consider, for example, ideas about our needing a new social compact, or social contract, or national covenant. As I’ve often argued from a TIMN [Tribes + Institutions + Markets + Networks] perspective, getting the tribal form right is essential for a healthy society. The obvious elements are families and communities. Yet the bright side of the tribal form is also found in social compacts, contracts, and covenants that political philosophers and historians like to discuss.” —David Ronfeldt

Cities: Nodes in a Network Society

The emerging network era is an opportunity for cities. They can provide a safe place where Tribes (families & communities) feel at home and are not threatened. But they can also make connections and provide safe intersections between different Tribes. In addition, they can experiment with new Institutions (e.g. cooperatives) and Market forms (e.g. sharing economy, micro-finance). All of these can be done at a manageable scale. A new social contract can be developed at a more human level. This is a learning city.

“Learning Cities harness their knowledge, social networks, environmental assets and financial capital to facilitate the development of skills, knowledge and values by local people and organizations.” — Janet Candy, Planning Learning Cities, 39th ISoCaRP Congress 2003

The UNESCO definition (2015) of a learning city expands on this definition.

A Learning City is a city which effectively mobilizes its resources in every sector to
• promote inclusive learning from basic to higher education;
• revitalize learning in families and communities;
• facilitate learning for and in the workplace;
• extend the use of modern learning technologies;
• enhance quality and excellence in learning; and
• foster a culture of learning throughout life.
In so doing it will create and reinforce individual empowerment and social cohesion, economic and cultural prosperity, and sustainable development.

We are connecting our cities to the cloud via the internet of things, so that objects share data with each other. With these data, governments, organizations, and companies can sense patterns and make decisions – from traffic control to geographically specific advertising. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg of the real potential of smart cities and digital networks. Learning cities can foster connections and create intersections for active experimentation to develop new social compacts for a healthy network era society. Learning cities can ‘get the Tribal form right’.

An Aggressively Engaged Citizenry

For the past century we have compartmentalized the life of the citizen. At work, the citizen is an ‘employee’. Outside the office he may be a ‘consumer’. Sometimes she is referred to as a ‘taxpayer’. All of these are constraining labels, ignoring the full spectrum of citizenship. As the network era connects people and things, society needs to reconnect with the multifaceted citizen. This is the primary role the smart city can play.

The last century’s division of work and personal life are still evident in many organizations where employees are cut off from their online social networks. Workers are often expected to put their personal lives aside and concentrate on the work at hand for eight or more hours per day. But as we have connected computers and devices, we have made standardized work obsolete. In the emerging workplace, where complex and creative tasks become the norm, work cannot remain isolated from the rest of the world.

Complex work requires multiple perspectives and non-linear processes. While teams still need time and space to get things done, they also have to stay connected to the quickly-changing external environment. The challenge for the modern workplace is to connect external social systems with internal projects, and still remain capable of getting deadline-driven work done. This balance requires organizational systems that enable knowledge to flow, but more importantly it requires workers who are also engaged citizens.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book ‘Democracy in America’ based on his travels in 1831, identified ‘associations’ of citizens to be a driving force in the new democracy. These associations could also be described as communities of practice – self-forming groups of engaged citizens. John McKnight, in The Careless Society, described these groups as having three key capabilities: “the power to decide there was a problem, the power to decide how to solve the problem – that is, the expert’s power – and then the power to solve the problem”. The association of engaged and connected citizens that enabled a functioning democracy in early America is now necessary in the early network era. As de Tocqueville saw how a society could function without an aristocracy, we now must see how companies can function without a managerial elite, and cities can operate without bureaucratic overlords.

Today, the connected citizen must concurrently be the connected worker, as well as the connected taxpayer and the connected consumer, among many other roles. Cities can play an important part in this transition. They are the logical place for citizens to act out their roles on a daily basis. For example, co-working spaces are one way to enable the necessary cross-pollination of ideas and action. Public transportation infrastructure can enable more serendipitous encounters between citizens. Public spaces and walkable communities can encourage citizens to connect. Smart technologies should be designed to enable more connections between citizens.

The smart citizen is connected: to communities of practice, extended social networks, the community, and society. Helping citizens engage intelligently is another role that smart cities can play. In addition to creating space, opportunities to develop skills and abilities should be supported. Cities should be encouraging citizens to seek new connections and knowledge, make sense of these in a disciplined manner, and share their knowledge. Smart cities need smart citizens.

Cities & Creativity

“Creativity is a relationship, one that unfolds at the intersection of person and place.” Thus concludes Eric Weiner in The Geography of the Genius, an enjoyable historic and modern romp through Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and finally Silicon Valley. This book provides no easy answers or simple recipes. The closest Weiner comes to providing a pat answer as to what makes for genius or geographical golden ages is at the end, as a counterpoint to Richard Florida’s 3 T’s (talent, technology, and tolerance).

A better set of attributes, I think, are —and I’ll jump on the alliteration bandwagon here—the Three D’s: disorder, diversity, and discernment. Disorder, as we’ve seen is necessary to shake up the status quo, to create a break in the air. Diversity, of both people and viewpoints, is needed to produce not only more dots, but different kinds of dots. Discernment is perhaps the most important, and overlooked, ingredient. Linus Pauling, the renowned chemist and two-time Nobel prize winner, was once asked by a student how to come up with good ideas. It’s easy, replied Pauling, “You have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.”

As Weiner explores each of the cities listed, we learn how messy and contextual creativity and genius are. It’s also all about timing. Would Michelangelo, David Hume, or Freud have been able to excel in their fields if they had not been born in their specific time and place? Unlikely, it seems. Genius needs a fertile environment, but also one with a certain degree of tension and in a state of some flux.

One thing seems certain though: golden ages do not last.

Every place of genius contains the seeds of its own destruction. The Greeks, I think, were aware of this. While they didn’t know precisely when their day in the sun would end, surely they knew that just as “human happiness never remains long in the same place,” as Herodotus said, neither does human genius.

These are words that should be considered by those who think that Silicon Valley will continue to dominate our current era, with its techno-centric, libertarian perspective. Vanity, thy name is the Valley.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see signs of this creeping vanity in the Valley. Bling has reared its shiny head, and that is never a good sign. You’ll recall that this was the case in Athens, too: the city’s decline can be traced almost exactly to a concomitant rise in luxury, and a taste for gourmet food. When it comes to golden ages, bling is the canary in the coal mine.

Cities should be designed to enable more and better connections between citizens. Learning and innovation are more about making connections than having unique ideas. Eric Weiner concludes that, “Creativity doesn’t happen ‘in here’ or ‘out there’ but in the spaces in between. Creativity is a relationship, one that unfolds at the intersection of person and place.”

Cities can provide the intersections for learning. Here are some of Weiner’s observations of what made cities places for not just learning, but genius. As you can see, there is no unifying theory. Also note that these ‘golden ages’ only lasted for a few decades each.

Athens: simplicity, civic engagement, open competition not for personal glory.
Hangzhou: playfulness, poetry, humility.
Florence: wealth, freedom, uncertainty.
Edinburgh: literacy, empiricism, practicality.
Calcutta: chaos, individualism + gregariousness.
Vienna (1800): web of creators, audience for genius.
Vienna (1900): tension, pressure, intimacy.
Silicon Valley: fluidity, loose connections, experimentation.

Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from these shining examples of learning cities. I would suggest that planners look at the three D’s and see how they play out in their cities. Encourage diversity at all levels and in many ways. Discerning what is appropriate for current circumstances and with respect to economic, political, and technological realities is where art and planning can meet.

Cities should look to the edges for inspiration, particularly the gamers and artists, to see what can add diversity to the current city makeup. Don’t over-control but ensure that things remain somewhat in disorder.


Learning is the new literacy. Personal computers are just one example. We buy new ones every few years. Operating systems change. Programs change, get replaced, or become obsolete. But we often continue with the same habits until something goes wrong. Few of us do the equivalent of ‘looking under the hood’. We learn enough to get our work done, but often do not take time to understand the underlying systems and logic.

By not being active learners we lose the agility to react quickly to changing situations. We have to take the time to keep learning. It’s an effort that too many of us avoid. When was the last time you learned a new computer program? How many books do you read? When did you try to master a new skill? These are things we need to make a priority. If not, we risk becoming obsolete before our time. Aiming for retirement is not a bad thing, but what happens when it is forced on us and we are not ready?

“Statistics Canada estimates 158,400 people aged 55 to 64 were handed permanent layoffs in 2015. Is there any hope of a comfortable retirement for those folks?” –CBC News

When our son was in junior high school he came home one afternoon and said, “There seem to be two types of people, Dad.” “What are they?” I asked. “Gamers, and non-gamers”, he responded. As an active computer gamer, he was comfortable being given a problem with no evident solution. Most computer games do not come with instructions, as learning how to master the game is part of the game. He said that other students who were not gamers did not have any strategies on how to look at the problem they were given, as there was no set-step method provided by the teacher.

How do gamers learn? They try things out and usually fail: lots of times. They learn from these mistakes and look for patterns. If they get stuck, they check out what others have shared, in online forums. They may ask a friend for help. Sometimes they will look for a ‘hack’, or a way around an impasse. Once they learn something, they might record it and share it, so others can learn. What they do not do is look for the rule book.

There are similarities in learning how to participate on the Internet or the Web. Some people just want a formula or procedure so they can get on with their business. Facebook makes this very easy. Others want to have more control. Twitter provides a bit more. But there are others who really want to understand what they are doing. They might set up their own online community using open source software and their own servers. While we cannot all be computer geeks, we live in a computer-driven network age. We ignore automation, the Cloud, the Internet of Things, and surveillance technologies at our peril.

Learning is the only literacy that will enable us to counter the negative effects of digital technologies. This literacy is also social. It is learning through communities of practice and knowledge networks, which we have to engage with to make collective sense. How many of those permanently laid-off workers over 55 have external professional networks that can help them find work or get support? Over the years I have met many people in their 40’s or 50’s who suddenly find themselves without work. Most of them do not have a professional network beyond their organization where they may have worked for a decade or more. Once outside the company, they are adrift.

Being an active learner by connecting with others outside our everyday lives can expose us to a diversity of skills, knowledge, and perspectives. In a creative economy we are only as good as our networks. An effective network encourages us to keep learning. A good community of practice changes our practice. The more often we change, the better we get at it. For example, my Personal Knowledge Mastery framework was developed from the necessity to develop skills to be competitive in the consulting market. PKMastery is one way to push ourselves to keep on learning. There are many other ways to keep up, but active learning in social networks is no longer a luxury.


Artists are like gamers as they too have to fail many times as they master their craft. Today, we all need to think like gamers and artists. But being an artist is not easy. Scott Berkun says that, “it’s a discovery all artists make: the most interesting and bravest work is likely the hardest to make a living from.” There are no simple recipes to become an artist.

The artistic mindset is essential to help navigate the complex relationships of the network era. Artists understand media. The age of print promoted linear thinking but digital media require more divergent thinking. Marshall McLuhan observed that, “Print centralizes socially and fragments psychically, whereas the electric media bring man together in a tribal village that is a rich and creative mix, where there is actually more room for creative diversity than within the homogenized mass urban society of Western man.” Today, the world needs more people with an artist’s perception.

One challenge with thinking, acting, and working like an artist is that the mind-set is not suitable for traditional salaried employment. Most self-employed people would not return to salaried work, knowing the lifestyle would be too constraining. But the lack of constraints also means a lack of stability. Living off of your intellectual property is a challenge. If you are considering an artistic approach to life and work, look for other artists. It is from them that you will learn the most. First find a community of practice.


Employing Network Principles

Given the TIMN framework, how can cities apply network principles to begin to develop network ways of operating? Patti Anklam has identified the core values of a knowledge network, citing three related factors: openness, transparency, and diversity. These three factors reflect several of the attributes of the cities mentioned above.

“Innovation and discovery across disciplines are not possible without the property of transparency. A fully transparent network is visible to all: Its artifacts are public, its decisions (including those on the topics of purpose and value) are taken in plain sight of and with the participation of the whole network, and the boundary between leadership and membership is permeable.” —Net Work, Patti Anklam

At the city level, openness can be promoted through subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity is: “that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution”Wikipedia. Subsidiarity can enable more transparent knowledge sharing. Cities can promote this by providing or encouraging learning spaces, public or private. The coffee houses of London and the salons of Paris are two historical examples of Shaping the Public Sphere (PDF).

“Coffeehouses brought people and ideas together; they inspired brilliant ideas and discoveries that would make Britain the envy of the world. The first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s coffeehouse by the Royal Exchange (now a private members’ club); merchants, ship-captains, cartographers, and stockbrokers coalesced into Britain’s insurance industry at Lloyd’s on Lombard Street (now a Sainsbury’s); and the coffeehouses surrounding the Royal Society galvanized scientific breakthroughs. Isaac Newton once dissected a dolphin on the table of the Grecian Coffeehouse.” —The Telegraph 2017-03-06

Knowledge sharing can foster innovation, especially if diverse groups of people are engaged in active experimentation. Some examples of current network era knowledge sharing and experimental structures are co-work spaces, makerspaces and fab labs. As trust emerges over time, more openness and knowledge sharing can drive more innovation.


In 2008, CEO’s for Cities recommended a more inclusive way of supporting learning in the community. Basically, the city becomes the learning platform, not just for schooling but for other community support activities, such as policing and heath care.

“The current offer is that education is schooling — a special activity that takes place in special places at special times, in a system where most of the goals and curriculum are set for the student, not by the student. Attainment against those standards leads to a system of grading that has a huge bearing on life chances.

The new learning platform [the city?] would offer learning all over, all the time, in a wide variety of settings, from a wide range of people. Pupils would have more say and more choice over what they could learn, how, where and when, from teachers, other adults and their peers. Learning would be collaborative and experiential, encouraging self-evaluation and self-motivation as the norms.

The principles and ideas developed for the redesign of education and learning city-wide could also apply to policing, crime and safety, health and well being, care for the elderly, carbon usage reduction and sustainability, and culture and creativity.” —Remixing Cities(PDF)

Only cities can provide a sense of place. They can connect people. Cities can become learning organizations.

Cities should engage in network weaving:

  • Reach out to be more inclusive
  • Help people find resources
  • Connect people with common interests

Cities can be facilitators of knowledge-sharing:

  • Facilitate meetings
  • Help set up the structure of the network/community
  • Help people find others interested in the same things

On a daily basis, cities should be coordinators, putting networks and communities together:

  • Coordinate working groups
  • Help people work together on projects
  • Help people keep organized
  • Help set up good communication systems & resources
  • Set up training & support for weavers & facilitators
  • Make sure time is set aside for reflection

Cities can support learning at all levels: city staff, communities, social networks, commercial organizations, non-profits, and all citizens. The city becomes more than a learning organization. It becomes the learning platform that enables knowledge-sharing and curates the knowledge of its citizens.

A few years ago, members of UCLG (United Cities & Local Governments) participated in one of my personal knowledge mastery workshops. This was part of the organization’s search for “practical solutions to fulfill the citizen’s demand” acknowledging that “learning cannot be conducted alone but has to be part of partnerships”. One result was an initiative between Mozambique and Brazil that embraced my seek > sense > share framework in a unique way (PDF pp. 44 – 47).

“The methodology used throughout the project and the role of partners is described using Harold Jarche’s ‘Seek, Sense, Share’ learning framework as it seeks to facilitate the sharing of complex knowledge and foster a network built on trusted relationships.

Seek: Identify Partners, Cities, Technical and Political Leaders, and People
“The objective was to bring the actors together through triangular cooperation built around Brazilian cities’ experiences and expertise, European support and Mozambican leadership.”

Sense: Building Content and Results
“This methodology was an eye-opener for many mayors, who thus had a better understanding of the role and work of their technicians, which led to higher levels of trust.”

Share: Disseminate Results and Evaluate the Process
“Additional outreach included a blog to share the results and to connect to other stakeholders; a newsletter; radio interviews provided by Brazilian mayors; and strategic connections to other events and meetings in Brazil.”

Here are points to consider.

  • How cooperation enables knowledge to flow in networks.
  • The need to develop emergent practices to address complex problems by sharing implicit knowledge.
  • How knowledge management in networks is a combination of individuals practicing PKM, self-forming communities of practice, and organizations as curators.
  • How a triple operating system for organizations can help find new knowledge, develop competitive knowledge, and share lessons learned.

A key question is why is this type of continuous learning important for member organizations of this ‘network of networks’. What should be done differently? A smart citizen is a connected one: to communities of practice, social networks, the physical community, and to society. Helping citizens engage intelligently is a role that cities can play. In addition to creating space, opportunities to develop skills and abilities should be supported. Cities should be encouraging citizens to seek new connections and knowledge, make sense of these in a disciplined manner, and share their knowledge. Smart cities need smart citizens, and those in leadership positions should set the example.

The three overlapping circles of the network learning model – social networks, communities of practice, work teams – have been described by Patti Anklam as three network types – connectivity, alignment, productivity. This makes sense, because in social networks we mostly connect, while in communities of practice we strive to find alignment between ideas and practice, and in our work teams we produce something of value. Patti goes on to describe the key tasks for ‘network builders’.

Connectivity Network (social network) – “Weaving — Helping people make connections, increase ease of sharing information”
Alignment Network (community of practice) – “Facilitating — helping people to explore potential shared identity and value propositions”
Productivity Network (work team) – “Coordinating — helping people plan and implement collaborative action”

Perceiving all three of these spaces as networks reinforces the principle that we cannot manage networks, only influence through our interactions. I have noted before that positional leadership in hierarchies is a master-servant, parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee relationship. It puts too much power in the hands of individuals and blocks human networks from realizing their potential.

In the network era, leadership is helping the network make better decisions. It focuses on creating more human organizational structures that enable self-governance. Leadership is an emergent property of a network in balance. Depending on any one person to be the leader will dumb-down the entire network. Viewing all of our work & learning from a network perspective may in the long-run create better workplaces.

One role of the city in the network era would be to enable knowledge-sharing and curate the knowledge of its citizens. Cities should be designed to enable more and better connections between citizens. Learning and innovation are more about making connections than having unique ideas.

3 Responses to “cities and the future of work”

  1. Mac Campbell

    As an historian looking at the same great and prosperous cities of the past, I find three things in common: 1. Innovation enabled via diversity; ethnic /linguistic /religious/cultural enclaves encouraged and protected. (Eg. foreign contractors built King Solomon’s temple complex). 2. Innovation via consistent economic drivers : Welcoming cultural forces consistently drove innovation via economic demand for intellectual product. Eg. the cultural need to move dirt drove adoption of the foreign (Chinese) wheelbarrow, thus revolutionising European economies that previously were limited to buckets. 3. Innovation via Intellectual hybridities (e.g.. Edmund Gunter’s chain, by marrying decimals with the old measurements, enabled auditable surveys, revolutionising capitalism via new land exchange technology). Therefore I conclude that innovation has had these 3 necessary historical conditions, quite consistent with your thesis.

  2. Mac Campbell

    Concerning David Ronfeldt’s TIMN analysis, I take it that it is proposed as an explanatory scheme to help us understand ourselves. It is useful for example, in parsing the differences between tribal drivers of choice and value, and networking drivers. Thus discerning the limitations of Dunbar’s number, (for example: see ). So quite useful. The institutional phase of history (perhaps circa 10,000 years ago) enabled human aggregations via the social technologies of regimentation and specialisation, which enabled large scale farming, settlement agriculture, and cities; via the mix of anonymity and civic subordination that entices people to migrate to safety away from the predation and violence of nomadic life. I find TIMN analysis useful descriptively, because it parses the drivers of decisions in terms of a real time mix of sources of identity, values, attitudes, purposes, hopes and desires. Plus sources of opportunity and threat. So thank you.


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