Urban Redesign Mumbai Style

I live in an area close to what you’d probably call skidrow. It’s denizens are beggars, junkies, strung out prostitutes, the homeless, and the mentally ill. Most of these folks own nothing and have no income. And most of them depend on the neighbourhood’s various social services for bare survival. Most Vancouverites shuddler at the thought of coming to Main and Hastings. But despite the area’s deep social and moral problems, it hardly lives up to (or down to) its reputation. Indeed most of these sallow wandering souls are harmless and pass right through you on the street.

My neighbourhood lies right on the edge of a spreading downtown gentrification. Vancouver’s isn’t really the planned-and-scheduled-land-developer-mega-project sort that most cities buy (I saw this in Dallas recently, and it felt about as natural as a snowy Christmas tree in Tucson). Rather, Vancouver’s is a more organic gentrification, the kind that happens as the city’s physical core fills and expands pushing its edges out slightly further with each year.

However my neighbourhood might not be gentrifiable. All of the social service the homeless and desperate need are right here. So it will be very interesting to see how the tension between the homeless clinging to the few entitlements they feel they have and the aspirations of a new neighbourhood wanting to realize its larger, cleaner potential.

I bring this up as a paralell to what seems to be happening in some Indian cities when information age riches clash with stone age poverty over the right to live in the same place. In Mumbai developers who take land to build fancy new condos have started to set aside some of the land to build homes for the shanty dwellers they displace–a strategy that would find more than a few supporters here.

However its not all milk and honey in India’s free-homes-for-the-destitute experiment. The new living arrangements apparently destroy the intimate social connections that grew like weeds in the old shanty–connections that in many ways were the only things of value those people had. Well the old shanty dwellers ain’t exactly thrilled with their new digs as a results.

This is interesting because…

  • its a great lesson in unintended consequences
  • its also a great related lesson in the limits of design and human intentionality
  • and lastly it makes me wonder about how any similar homes-for-the-homeless plans might work out here

Algorithms vs. Humans

There’s an increasing trend I’ve been noticing out here on the net: a growing army of jabbering zombies regurgitating the same slavish uncritical adoration of Google. This level of uncritically always makes me a bit uneasy. Finally I’ve come across a refreshingly different take on Google. Perhaps the great Google might end up being more like the Great Oz. I especially like:

On the Network, The power of people will kick the backside out of algorithms. While computer sciencey solutions are almost always gameable, communities are equally almost always resilient, adaptive, and intelligent.

Philosophically its a very compelling position. Indeed algorithms can necessarily only deal in data (dead letters so to speak). Meanwhile human communities share information, knowledge, wisdom and surprisingly little data. Admittedly wiki’s are not exactly communities of people, their content is socially created and cultivated–no algorithms.

This could explain some of my own personal experience. After reading this I realized that I’m using Google less and less frequently, in favour of Wikipedia. If I need to know something, Wikipedia is now the first place I turn. I still use Google to help me find websites, but for information or knowledge Wikipedia is my engine of choice.

PS.
Here is a visualization of the self-correcting/self-healing properties of social information software like wikipedia. I found this by following a link from peterme.com’s october 12th posting