From the New York Times’ Frank Rich:
Asked in “ Inside Job” why there’s been no systematic investigation of the 2008 crash, [economist Nouriel] Roubini answers: “Because then you’d find the culprits.”
I’d planned out a whole series on innovation and the economy. But after the first few posts, I’m running out of steam. Why? Because what I really want to do right now is bang my head against the places in my framework where I’m blocked. Even though I’ve been spending a lot of time behind the scenes banging my head against the wall, I haven’t been blogging about it because I don’t know how to do it without sounding like a blithering idiot.
So, I’m going to try and experiment. I’m going to carve out time each week to play around with the framework I’ve got so far and see where it gets me, and then post a little summary each Monday. At least that’s the plan — I reserve the right to chicken out.
San Francisco’s innovative project to radically reduce unrecycled waste hasn’t just figured out how to recycle 79% of the city’s garbage. Courtesy of Recology, their waste hauler, it’s also an innovative way of supporting the arts!
Since 1990, Recology has its own artist in residence program, where artists receive a monthly stipend, a studio, and access to as much recycled materials as they can drag away. At the end of the artist’s residency, Recology holds a public showing for them. Recology also has a large sculpture garden that acts as
a reclamation site, a visually pleasing buffer for the families that live next to Recology San Francisco, a place of community involvement and educational potential, a model drought-tolerant garden, and a home for the growing sculpture collection of Recology San Francisco.
How cool is that?
San Francisco has a plan to try to get the amount of unrecycled garbage the city has to haul off down to zero. That sounds crazy, but they are already impressively close:
In 2008, the last year for which the city has data, the diversion rate was 72 percent, up from 69 percent in 2007 and 67 percent in 2006.
How has San Francisco pulled off this remarkable innovation? According to Grist, it all started because in 1989, California passed a law requiring that towns
divert 50 percent of their trash away from landfills. Inspired, San Francisco decided it could do even better.
They began by running a bunch of little experiments to figure out what actually worked for residents and businesses, then followed up with mandates:
The city worked with its exclusive waste hauler, Norcal Waste Systems (since rebranded as Recology) to run a dozen experimental pilot programs, augmented by community outreach meetings and teams dispatched to train businesses and residents. In 2000, a three-stream system was established: blue bins for recycling, green for compost, and black for landfill.
Collecting data about the city’s refuse was key. “We do a lot of analysis of what San Francisco sends to the landfill,” says Recology spokesman Robert Reed. “We look closely at the garbage … and we saw a lot of food, so we designed this urban food scrap collection program.” Following successful tests, home composting was made mandatory in 2009.
And years before they made composting mandatory, they gave folks serious financial incentives to do it:
Customers who reduce their landfill-bound garbage get deductions on their hauling bills, and there’s no fee for additional recycling and compositing bins. By sorting waste, businesses can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars, said Jack Macy.
The city and its enthusiastic residents weren’t the only key. The other critical piece was a crucial business partner: their waste hauler, which saw a chance to do well by doing good.
The city’s success might not have been possible without Recology President Mike Sangiacomo, who was among the first in the hauling industry to push for new recycling and composting technology. At Sangiacomo’s behest, Recology recently joined The Product Stewardship Council to push for packaging reform….
Diverting waste from landfills required new technology and equipment, the cost of which was borne by Recology. The company spends “millions” to provide San Francisco residents with all those bins, and spent $38 million, to build a new recycling plant on Pier 96 in the early 2000s. Recology also spent $2.5 million in 2009-10 to upgrade technology at Jepson Prairie Organics, where they compost food scraps.
Most customers only see the three bins, but behind the scenes, Recology has developed 18 separate recycling programs — more than any city in the country — to maximize diversion.
The payoff for Recology: a ton of free publicity that opens up new markets for their innovative work:
Top city officials from around the world have toured Recology’s state-of-the-art facilities.
In short, a combination of long-term state mandates, the strategy of starting with pilot projects and incentives following up with mandates, and a fired up business partner has created an astonishing amount of innovation and progress.
As we saw Monday, parklets could be an interesting model for thinking about encouraging innovation even in areas where we have lots of government rules. Not even rabid anti-”big government” types want to go back to the days of virtually no rules, when anyone was free to dump whatever they wanted into city streets. But creating some flexibility, some room for experimentation and innovation within the system of rules makes a lot of sense.
Parklets are also an interesting way of thinking about how we can allow for different levels of input or say. Democracy is a good thing, but sometimes it can be a bit… frustrating. Andres Power of San Francisco’s Planning Department, this looser structure made it possible to make progress where they hadn’t been able to before.
Cities like New York have a strong hierarchical structure. We don’t have that in San Francisco. And so when there are differences in opinion between groups or agencies, it can be almost impossible to get things done. The first plaza that went in, at 17th and Castro, had a history going back almost ten years of the community talking about using that space. But making it temporary made it happen.
That doesn’t mean we want to get rid of democracy. Sometimes long, hard deliberations are necessary. And we don’t want the kind of openness we saw in Chula Vista. Letting an oil plant owner ignore regulations and spew toxins into neighborhoods and onto school grounds is not the kind of innovation we are looking for. But we need some balance – some lightness, some airiness, some room for a handful of individuals to just try something out and see what happens.
In fact, parklets worked because they gave people around them other forms of having a say aside from voting (or attending endless meetings). They were done in a way that treated other folks’ needs with respect. And, like markets, they allowed individuals and businesses to essentially vote on whether to keep these projects going via pitching in with their labor or money.
And parklets acted as feedback loops. People got to see the results in action, on a small scale. There was less risk than with the big rule change – if important issues were missed, odds were decent that someone would catch it. I think that’s why Rebar’s latest experiments with walklets have smart touches like leaving the rain gutters unimpeded or being designed so that street sweeping machines can easily maneuver around them. These are the kind of issues that are easy to miss and that feedback in the real world are likely to help you with.
The other smart thing about parklets as a model is that it starts very small and then scales up. In San Francisco, it started with just one group creating a parklet. Then other groups did another cities. Then the city of San Francisco tried creating parklets. And now they are attempting to enshrine the process of experimenting with parklets by providing permits year-round for these experiments.
Obviously, this model won’t work for every project. You probably don’t want to use it to design something as massive and vulnerable to collapse as a bridge. But I think that with experience, we might find there are a lot more types of projects where this approach might work very well.
In short, the experience with parklets is a very different way of thinking about how to encourage innovation and creativity within the rules that we all agree we need to provide security.
Up next week: parklets, race, and inequality.
Once upon a time, people living in cities had a remarkable amount of freedom to do what they wanted. If they wanted to butcher pigs in your apartment and drop the unused remains out the window onto the sidewalk, they could. If they owned a horse they used to get around, the horse could poop in the streets with nary a pooper scooper in sight.
The result was streets and sidewalks that were often smelly and disgusting – and plenty of freedom for other actors, like Mr. Cholera, to breed to their hearts content and kill tens of thousands of people.
Eventually, city governments began to put limits on people’s freedom to do whatever they wanted. Cities became less smelly and more safe.
Over the years, these restrictions got tighter and tighter — sometimes for good reasons that benefited everyone, and sometimes because of games played by powerful interests.
In 2005, a design studio called Rebar decided it was time to test these restrictions. They temporarily turned one metered parking space into a public park — a quick and dirty guerrilla art project to raise questions about how we use our city space. The project was a success, partly because they did in San Francisco and not, say, Dallas, partly because they showed respect for other uses of the street by cleaning up after they were done — no pig remains or horse poop were left behind — and partly because they did it with style.
Over the next few years, citizens, artists, and activists around the globe joined in for what became an annual PARK(ing) Day event. Their mission:
to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat … at least until the meter runs out!
Eventually this innovation inspired officials in cities around the globe to act. For example, New York City closed parts of Broadway and created “pedestrian plazas in Times Square and Herald Square.” The result was a smashing success. Tourists and New Yorkers loved it, and it had other benefits as well:
Advocates for the project said it had vastly improved safety in the area, pointing to a 35 percent decline in pedestrian injuries and a 63 percent reduction in injuries to drivers and passengers, according to city data. Foot traffic grew by 11 percent in Times Square and by 6 percent in Herald Square, and a survey of local businesses found that more than two-thirds of the area’s retailers wanted the project to become permanent…. The Times Square Alliance, a business group, surveyed residents and office workers and found that about 75 percent were “satisfied with their experience” in the area, up from less than half in 2007….
“It’s shifted the paradigm for what a street and sidewalk experience is supposed to be like in New York City,” said Tim Tompkins, the president of the alliance.
Grrrrr. I start taking care of my hands, they get better, then I get sloppy. So, another week I won’t be posting to give them time to rest.
Before we dive in, I think there’s one thing we ought to be clear about: not all innovation is good.
You wouldn’t know that from reading the lit on innovation and the economy. As far as they’re concerned, innovation is like chocolate — more is better.
But sometimes, innovation isn’t like chocolate. Take the flu. We keep coming up with vaccines to get our defenses on high alert. And viruses keep innovating ways around our defenses.
The same is true for Wall Street. Give those clever Boys and Girls half a chance, and they’ll come up with new ways to make gobs of money by screwing over their customers or blowing things up. It’s so bad that last year former Fed reserve chair Paul Volcker Street told a meeting of finance bigwigs:
“I wish somebody would give me some shred of evidence linking financial innovation with a benefit to the economy.”
Mr. Volcker’s favorite financial innovation of the past 25 years? The ATM. “It really helps people, it’s useful.”
Now I’m not talking about all innovations that I personally think are bad. Like, say, 80s hair. Or the Mountaingoat, the furry, horned mountain bike by Sogreni, which describes it as “a unique bicycle where only the imagination sets the boundaries.” I think that’s a little insane, but hey, to each to their own.
(Incidentally, Sogreeni’s website says they are “currently developing a kitchen and bathroom design series,” so if you’ve ever wanted to have a furry horned kitchen, stay tuned)
What I’m talking about are the innovations that actively cause harm to people. Who gets to decide what counts as causing harm? I think that’s a critical conversation that has to take place when citizens in a democracy want a dynamic, innovative economy – more on that later in the series.
Up next: Parklets, walklets, and a different way of thinking about setting rules.