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Progress in an Uncertain World

Progress in an Uncertain World

Strong Towns is often accused of offering doom-and-gloom diagnoses of problems but being light on solutions. “You don’t tell us what we can actually DO to fix our insolvent cities,” goes the response. “You’re just so negative all the time.” This is not true, but I also don’t think it’s true that these criticisms are made in bad faith.

Rather, I think we have articulated a vision of what should be done to build Strong Towns, and done so in great detail. But that vision is heavy on experimentation and small-scale risk-taking (with potentially great rewards). It is heavy on civic engagement and grassroots action. And it is notably light on technocratic policy interventions: to the extent we talk about policy, it’s often about what policy makers should NOT do, not what they should.

There is a good reason for this, and those with a technocratic mindset (i.e. that the problems of cities will be fixed by top-down, data-driven policy tinkering) would do well to consider it.

The City as Ecosystem

Chuck occasionally has called mathematician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb the “patron saint of Strong Towns thinking.” I strongly urge anyone who has not read Taleb to pick up his books—Antifragile if you’re only going to read one, but also Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. They are deeply intellectual and cross-disciplinary, but not overly wonky: accessible and entertaining for non-academic readers.

The central thesis of Taleb’s work is that complex systems are inherently unpredictable and prone to “Black Swan” events: unforeseeable and unprecedented cataclysmic changes. It’s not that we haven’t figured out yet how to completely predict their behavior; it’s that it is far from even mathematically possible for us to do so. Think of a natural ecosystem. Global weather patterns. The stock market. The human body. A city.

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