Why did Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre fail?

Wright believed that technological innovation had rendered centralized city living obsolete. He aspired to build an entirely new urban fabric, decentralized and horizontal, based on a rigid square grid that residents would navigate by car. -Anna Kats and Dion Tan

Frank Lloyd Wright was hell-bent on connecting humanity with the natural environment, and like the rest of us the American architect made his mistakes. Urban anxiety largely contributed to Wright’s 30-year arcological experiment; he spent most of his life developing a manifesto for a decentralized dispersed utopian city called Broadacre.

In a video for the 2014 exhibition, Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal, MoMA curator Barry Burgdoll reveals how Broadacre’s towers aren’t antithetical to the landscape but in fact “a heightened experience of the landscape,” which leads him to believe that Wright viewed the clustering of skyscrapers as the problem, not the skyscrapers themselves.

But what was missing? Or rather, what had the architectural genius failed to predict? The MoMA and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library jointly acquired Wright’s personal archive from his studio in Arizona several years ago. In 2017 the museum will give us a brand new Wright archive retrospective and with it, the answer.

Image: Apprentices looking at the Broadacre City model scanned from the book Communities of Frank Lloyd Wright by Myron A. Marty

Don’t just stand there, move with the target

Advances in complexity science, combined with knowledge from the cognitive sciences, are transforming leadership. -David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone

Contrary to what a certain presidential hopeful’s campaign suggests, the art of the deal isn’t as simple as throwing someone out or letting hubris in. Like it or not, compromise is part of the game.

Leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Leading takes listening, reflecting and responding to ideas that may or may not be popular or logical or predictable. No matter how hard you try, you cannot kill an idea, but only adapt to it. All the world’s vitriol won’t make an idea go away, just like all the fear in the world won’t make a nation’s middle class reappear. Leadership decisions can’t be standardized; perfect vacuums don’t exist and empathy is always already open to change.

David Orban asks, “Is it best to be perfectly adapted to a given environment? Or, rather, is it better to be able to adapt to the changes in that environment or to a completely new one? Adaptability is a more useful characteristic in a rapidly changing world.”

Now that we know traditional “innovation” is risk averse, what if we find that those who profess to innovate are in fact allergic to change? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that. In this article from Harvard Business Review, David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone take us through the new leader’s framework for decision making:

The time has come to broaden the traditional approach to leadership and decision making and form a new perspective based on complexity science. We have applied the principles of that science to governments and a broad range of industries. Working with other contributors, we developed the Cynefin framework, which allows executives to see things from new viewpoints, assimilate complex concepts, and address real-world problems and opportunities. (Cynefin, pronounced ku-nev-in, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand.) Using this approach, leaders learn to define the framework with examples from their own organization’s history and scenarios of its possible future. This enhances communication and helps executives rapidly understand the context in which they are operating.

So in other words, if a moving target makes you queasy and progress seems to sit just beyond the event horizon, don’t just stand there. Move with the target.

Replacing human intuition with algorithms

The Data Science Machine is one of those unbelievable projects where applying cutting-edge research to solve practical problems opens an entirely new way of looking at the problem. -Margo Seltzer, Harvard University

MIT researchers have replaced human intuition with a machine that tracks complex correlations across large datasets in a fraction of the time. The Data Science Machine is a great solution for rapidly growing cities with unwieldy data, but at what cost?

Big Data represents the perfect union between analytic and holistic thinking. On one end you analyze the functions of individual parts, how they interact and what those interactions bring about. On the other you consider the entire system by looking at patterns on a large scale and finding their meaning. For data to be useful, variables must be defined and extracted, a process experts call “feature engineering.” This is where human intuition comes in. But what happens when computers uncover these patterns more efficiently?

Data pioneers agree there is a socioethical dimension to data, given that people generate it. Big Data socialization facilitates cross-disciplinary research that values rules of ethics and social behavior as much as it does the data itself. A promising trend, but we’ll have to reconsider the fundamental economics of analyzing data first if we hope to address what Alistair Croll calls the civil rights issue of our time.

Let’s create a system that sees diversity as fundamental to generating the best insights. If researchers and developers have access to local data in real time, systems can be tailored for local communities, then calibrated to adapt as demographics, economics and other environmental factors change. This will take a holistic approach to understanding data, from inception and collection to analysis and beyond.

Social networks and urban development

Science principles drive the synergy of complex systems. Consider technology, cities and society. Cities are the sites of technosocial inscription, making them great test environments for emerging technologies. In other words, we can use urban spaces to test new engagement and data collection methods to ensure sustainable and inclusive development going forward.

My paper, Local Communities and Socialized Citizens: The Role of Social Networks in Sustainable Urban Development, shows how increased civic engagement can strengthen cities. I’m grateful to Kimse Yok Mu for the opportunity to present at the International Conference on Social Media for Good in Istanbul. Special thanks to David Orban and Chris Worman for their insight, and to Markets For Good for giving added visibility to this important topic. Free download here.

Bringing tech companies and nonprofits together


Devex recapped its Social Innovation Summit with inspiring words on tech collaboration and the future of global social enterprise. As TechSoup extends across the globe, it can better facilitate partnerships between tech companies and nonprofits. Inclusive engagement is key.

TechSoup is the largest not-for-profit provider of technology assistance services to NGOs and libraries everywhere. It’s well positioned to connect those who make the tech with those who use it. In November the organization unveiled its Global Expansion platform, which will enable it to serve each of an estimated 10 million social orgs worldwide.

The platform itself is a result of cross-sector collaboration. “Microsoft, despite building huge teams to work directly with nonprofit organizations, was the launch partner for TechSoup.Global … described as ‘the first fully global tech donation platform.'”

As tech companies and social entrepreneurs continue to align their interests with global development challenges, a new playing field is emerging for shared value partnerships. Bryan Breckenridge (Box.org) says “the next wave” of collaboration between vendors would further demystify joint vendor solutions—a practical example of how a future global economy might benefit from cooperation. Tall order? Maybe not.

While corporate culture in Silicon Valley is known for its ruthless competitiveness, cooperative attitudes are common there, some say pervasive. This reality alone takes substantive bridge building from “possible” to “probable”, given that tech startups and entrepreneurs are concerned with solving problems from a user-centered point of view.

The challenge now is to keep up with innovation, especially as tech companies start collaborating on their own. TechSoup CEO Rebecca Masisak says, “We’re at the intersection of tech and philanthropy, and everything is changing around us”. Very true. At TechSoup bridge building is what we do. And while product donors strive to offer the best, most comprehensive solutions for nonprofits, Masisak reminds us that for NGOs the answer is often a combination of tools.

Which brings us to engagement. Developing the relationships needed to make modular tech solutions a mainstay for nonprofits calls for a first-rate social platform where practitioners from all sectors can share, connect and learn from each other. Right now TechSoup is gearing up for major improvements to its online community and I’m proud to be a part of the process. In October I teleported to Second Life Island to talk about exciting changes coming to the forums next year. See my NonProfit Commons presentation.

TechSoup’s mission is to build a dynamic bridge that enables design and implementation of technology solutions for a more equitable planet. Our product partners are a big part of this, and I look forward to co-creating the inclusive engagement strategies that will help build bridges between companies, tech experts and nonprofits.

Breckenridge says, “To fully bridge the gap that hinders technology’s role in nonprofits, tech companies and funders will need to boost their knowledge of the social sector”. Great news for a platform that understands the needs, desires and experiences of millions of nonprofit organizations worldwide. We want to hear from everyone, and we’re just getting started.

Paul Mason on the future of capitalism

Channel 4’s economics editor Paul Mason shows how, from the ashes of the recent financial crisis, we have the chance to create a more socially just and sustainable global economy (RSA, 6:52).

Mason says reducing work to a minimum (automation, AI, robots) will bring about the third capitalist industrial revolution, but he has “severe difficulty” thinking about how capitalism itself could pull it off. Mason suggests promoting the aspect of the world economy that’s new (“collaborative, modular, shared stuff”) then asking what we need to grow the sector. But business as usual is doing the opposite, and we’ll have to address this sooner than we thought.