ArchitectureBoston

Design Biennial Boston 2010

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Allandale House by William O’Brien Jr.

pinkcomma gallery, Boston—April 30–June 10, 2010

Download article as PDF

Mark Pasnik and Chris Grimley are two men on a mission. As the directors of pinkcomma gallery and self-proclaimed guides to Boston’s “design underground,” they are dedicated to showcasing a new generation of talented architects and designers in the city. In more than a dozen small and provocative shows since the gallery’s opening in 2007, they have demonstrated that the design culture of Boston is vibrant and energized beyond the walls of the area architecture schools.

Their ambitious and most recent initiative is the first Design Biennial, curated with Michael Kubo, featuring a juried selection of five emerging practices. Highlights of the exhibition include the serenely beautiful geometric study of an A-frame house by William O’Brien Jr., a spatially and materially ingenious back-lot house by Touloukian Touloukian, and a playful proposal to “graft” a community center onto the roof of a supermarket by Carla Ceruzzi and Ryan Murphy of C&MP. Dan Hisel’s Heavy/Light House makes visible the poetic potential of abandoned infrastructure and Gretchen Schneider’s “Making Time Visible” project, which draws the footprint of Scollay Square onto City Hall Plaza, creates a simultaneous understanding of past and present city structure.

A snapshot of the preoccupations of this generation of Boston architects at this moment in time reveals an interest in “smart design” enabled by digital technology, an innovative exploration of craft and the sensual and tactile qualities of building, and a reflection on history concurrent with an enthusiasm for the future. The exhibition presents images from different architects side-by-side, making it difficult to grasp a coherent view of each author’s work. But the pleasure of unexpected visual connections between projects is worth the experiment, as is the introduction of a welcome new event on the city’s design calendar.

Above: Allandale House by William O’Brien Jr.

The Vespa

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

The Vespa

Other Voices

Download article as PDF

It was a typical autumn morning in London. The sky was pewter grey and the air heavy with the expectation of rain. The only sounds I could hear on the narrow residential street were in keeping with its demure Victorian brick terraces: front doors thudding shut; purposeful footsteps of men and women on their way to work; the “slick slick slick” of bicycle wheels moving along the damp tarmac. All was in its rightful place until, from behind me, the buzz of a Vespa scooter toppled my aural order. A Vespa scooter! For one glorious second, I was in Rome with its ochre-colored palazzos, dark cobblestoned streets, and fierce sunshine. Then, as the buzz trailed off into the distance, I remembered that scooter sales had recently exploded in London, a consequence of the exemption of two-wheeled vehicles from the city’s hefty congestion charge. “Mental note to self,” I thought, “erase Italian connotations of scooter noises. The Vespa is now just as much part of London’s soundscape as it is of Rome’s.”

You could call me, I suppose, a “sound hound,” a “collector of audio.” It’s a professional hazard when you work in radio. When I arrive at an interview location, I walk my ears around the place to identify what sounds I might record to give my listeners a sense of being there with me, to transport them out of their cars and kitchens to, for instance, Rome. Vespas, I realized that autumn morning, no longer work in the shorthand way they used to, at least for London listeners.

Hearing is the first sense we acquire as human beings — before even coming out of the womb. Hearing is also, we’re told, the last sense we lose before dying. Sound envelopes us every minute of our lives. There are individual sounds — the ring of a bell, for instance — so iconic that only a few seconds suffice for our brains to flash an image of the place that ring was from, whether a school, church, or door.

Cities are a cacophony of sounds — cars, horns, voices, footsteps. Recording the aural cityscape is a challenge. How can one convey without using words the intimidation caused by the Stalinist buildings of Minsk, the pandemonium of a Manila shantytown or (and this is perhaps most challenging) the modern humdrum of a bureaucratic city like Brussels? My own moment of revelation came at the National Gallery in London. Not because of any painting, but thanks to the variety of its floor surfaces. The soles of my feet still remember the sensation of moving from parquet to marble to carpet. But my ears remember, too. Voices, footsteps, the London buses outside the window — each reverberated differently depending on the floor material. Does a given soundscape, I wonder, affect our artistic appreciation?

Hearing a place is a visceral experience: it is something we can all relate to without thinking why. Recording a person interacting with a space by talking in it and walking through it creates sounds that paint a vivid picture in the mind of a listener. Consider the following radio sequence of just one minute from a documentary about land reform gone wrong in South Africa. The reporter walks into a ruined farmhouse. She describes what she sees and as she does, her voice bounces off the bare walls and her feet scrape against the rubble inside the house. She walks out of the house, and the echo is replaced by the deadened sound of an abandoned garden where she wades through brittle breaking leaves where there were once flowers and vegetable beds.

We share our streets and squares; we share their sound, too. Or perhaps more accurately, most of us still share their sound. Technology, the iPod being just one example, is already changing our relationship with the soundscape. It is a bittersweet irony that the very medium that proselytizes a community of listeners is experiencing a renaissance thanks to devices that shut people off from the sounds of their own cities.

Photo by Morten Rustad.

Wall to Wall: The Digital Landscape

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Graz Art Museum media façade, Graz, Austria.

For better or worse, digital technologies — smartphones, LEDs, social networking — are changing our cityscapes.

Download article as PDF

“Foursquare is all about helping you find new ways to explore the city. Earn points and unlock badges for discovering new places, doing new things, and meeting new people.”

This message greets you when you download a smartphone application from one of the popular online social-networking sites. To increase its functionality, the app links you automatically with your Facebook friends and Twitter feeds. The message encourages you to join a virtual club of urban dwellers and promises exciting new possibilities. By monitoring your activities through your phone’s GPS, the app alerts you when friends are nearby, showing their location. It also helps you to map daily routines, comment on venues, and learn from anonymous contributors. On occasion, it gives you a personal insight into private arrangements within the public realm: Navneet Alang, a Toronto-based blogger for This Magazine, writes about his favorite tip from Foursquare, which suggests asking a waiter at a certain restaurant for “the secret pink menu.” “You could call it a new approach to urban discovery, one that takes the online mantra of ‘by the people, for the people’ and mixes it with happenstance,” he adds.

Digital technology increasingly, and more and more seamlessly, bridges the physical landscape with virtual environments to form visually rich and emotionally engaging narratives. Mobile devices serve as portals to enter and navigate multimodal landscapes. Geographic data, pictures, and brief commentaries merge into a single data-based landscape. The distinction between the actual and virtual, or the permanent and temporal, fades when seen through the screen of a smartphone. Similarly, the distinction between the built and the conceptual is blurred with the integration of LED and projection technologies into architectural façades, effectively transforming previously static façades into dynamic media objects. Landscape becomes a continuous interface between these urban media façades and the ever-expanding use of digital devices with interactive content. Interactions and experiences that in the past were predominantly confined to art-gallery installations or online chat rooms become Main Street events with broader participation and authorship. While perceived by some as invasive and overreaching, media participatory landscapes could also help us to reclaim the public realm and democratize its content.

Green Cloud (Nuage Vert), Helsinki, by HeHe.

Green Cloud (Nuage Vert), Helsinki, by HeHe. Image based on original photo by Antti Ahonen.

Media façades

Media-infused urban spaces such as New York’s Times Square, or to a greater degree the Ginza and Shibuya neighborhoods of Tokyo, expand their content into mobile communication devices and often merge with the online experience. This is not limited to their visual identities or content delivery methods; these urban spaces often redefine a message and authorship within a public domain. By doing so, they create opportunities for, though not necessary guarantees of, greater public participation. Building on the increasing role of mobile devices in people’s everyday lives, many initiatives have attempted to capture this new audience and functionality. A recent ad campaign by Microsoft allowed random users to contribute a short phrase about their use of personal computers to “I’m a PC” advertisements. Each respondent’s photograph and phrase were later displayed on one of the media façades in Times Square, giving the participant 15 seconds of global visibility. This moment of personal visibility was further documented by a webcam, fed into an online gallery, and sent to the contributor in a personalized e-mail. The entire process effectively established a communication loop from mobile device to media façade and back to mobile device. Although this was a commercial campaign, it established an operability that could be easily adapted to social activism and other purposes.

D-Tower interactive public artwork project, Doetinchem, Netherlands.

D-Tower interactive public artwork project, Doetinchem, Netherlands, by artist Q. S. Serafijn and architect Lars Spuybroek (NOX) with Pitupong Chaowakul, Chris Seung-woo Yoo, and Norbert Palz. Photo courtesy NOX.

Architectural responses

Most commercially driven media façades are simple projection or display screens superimposed on an exterior wall without considering architectural design. They often are seen as design eyesores that desperately cry for public attention. Recently, however, more buildings have incorporated media components into their façades in ways that do not compromise design. In the Graz Art Museum, Peter Cook and Colin Fournier introduced “communicative display skin” that features a large, low-resolution media façade. Their design relies on abstract patterns with pixelated text or graphics, treating the media component as yet another building skin and augmenting it with a textural reading. This approach allows media content to enhance a structure’s appearance and to communicate a message or convey a building’s functional content without compromising its design integrity. In other projects, media screens and projection lighting elements change the three-dimensional perception of an immobile object, as seen in works by digital-media firm NuFormer. Temporal façade alterations can inform, entertain, or simply showcase a work of architecture in new ways, continuing a tradition of public artists such as Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Furthermore, media façades create an opportunity to redefine the relationship between a building and the public realm. In contrast with the Modernist dictum of a façade as an expression of the inner functional or structural logic of a building, these projects connect it back to historic practices, which considered a façade as an enclosure of a public space.

Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project, Brussels.

Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project, Brussels, by Magic Monkey. Photo © magicmonkey.net.

Social activism>/p>

Just as graffiti, posters, and handbills have historically appropriated the façades of private structures for public speech, so have media-enhanced landscapes already begun to extend beyond commercial use or aesthetic considerations into the sphere of social discourse and activism. The implications are profound: nothing less than the transfer of the public domain back from corporate ownership to public authorship. Equally profound is the opportunity for individual expression similar to that found in online environments. An example of this form of public discourse is a Dutch project, the D-Tower by artist Q.S. Serafijn and architect Lars Spuybroek (NOX), which maps the emotions of the inhabitants of the city of Doetinchem and expresses them through an interactive art installation. This installation relies on the input of voluntary collaborators; because the data are not analyzed or sampled statistically, the work is purely a subjective form of expression. The “Green Cloud” art installation by HeHe (Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen) confronts contemporary environmental issues, displaying energy usage by Helsinki residents. Exhausts from a power plant are used as a screen for media projections, directly correlating the visual presence of the “green cloud” image with the amount of energy produced. This adaptive installation continues to remind residents of the role they play in energy conservancy. The Green Cloud successfully integrates the ephemeral qualities of landscape with the effective use of digital media. Both installations illustrate social, emotional, or environmental data using an interface that puts residents into the position of active content creators, thus shifting their role from consumption to authorship.

The distinction between the actual and virtual, or the permanent and temporal, fades when seen through the screen of a smartphone.

In contrast to these anonymous contributions to public discourse, the recent Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project by Magic Monkey drew upon the urge to claim authorship of individual expression. “Create your own Shooting Star and share your wish with your loved ones and the millions of commuters!” encourages a Web advertisement for the project, which was installed during the December 2009 holiday season in Brussels. The Shooting Star project allowed contributing individuals to customize their holiday messages, using the Electrabel Power Plant cooling tower as a canvas for the animated LED installation. The response from the public was high, with the project attracting over 5,000 contributions within a 20-day period. The Interactive Power Station project built upon concepts previously developed in two others: Toyo Ito’s “Tower of Winds” in Yokohama, which used light as a masking device for an industrial site, and the “I’m a PC” campaign in Times Square discussed earlier, which incorporated open online public participation.

The need

As digital media, and especially media façades, assume a more prominent role in contemporary architecture, there is a growing need for research and for creative models that demonstrate enriching and meaningful integration of this technology into the urban environment. A number of questions emerge for architects and designers. How can the integration of new technologies with architecture and landscape create spaces that evoke new experiences, touch us emotionally, and help us feel at home? How can media-rich architecture and landscapes provide new answers for the needs of a mobile and globally connected society? These are the issues we need to address in the next decade, or life — in the form of commercial enterprise — will answer them for us. The question is not whether we like or dislike the extension of media content into architecture and landscape; the digital media landscape, in the form of advertisement and corporate identity, is already here. Instead, the challenge is to direct its development toward the aesthetic benefit of our urban environments and the cultural and political benefit of our society.

Top image: Graz Art Museum media façade, Graz, Austria, by Realities:United in collaboration with Spacelab Cook Fournier and ÖBA Architektur Consult. Photo by Peter Pakesch/Landesmuseum Johanneum/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0..

A Bridge to Somewhere

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009

09_winter_roundtable_1

The Case for a National Infrastructure Policy

Download article as PDF

Filling potholes and making trains run on time is not enough.

Elizabeth Padjen: Over the last year, infrastructure has become associated in the public mind with the federal stimulus package and, as a result, the phrase “shovel-ready” has become the measure of good infrastructure or, at least, infrastructure that we’ll support. Which means that timing is the real yardstick for determining what gets built. That is obviously not a good way to make policy, nevertheless it seems to be what’s driving the public discussion right now. Do you detect any real impetus or any real desire to develop a cohesive infrastructure policy?

Jeffrey Simon: The stimulus program is not just an indication of infrastructure policy — it was driven by a different goal: creating and retaining jobs. The decision to fund shovel-ready projects was a means to an entirely different end, the end being getting people back to work quickly. It was completely divorced from whether infrastructure had any inherent value or not. A lot of people say to me, “Why are you spending all this money on a bunch of paving projects?” It’s an absolutely legitimate question for everyone except for the unemployed person who now has a job paving roads. In that person’s mind, that’s a completely legitimate project. But even though this was conceived as a jobs program, each of the projects itself has value.

Hubert Murray: Just as taxes are supposed to be the price of civilization, I think infrastructure is the cement that holds our civilization together. The crisis in infrastructure — the disrepair — is a manifestation of a lack of faith in our public realm, which we had in the past, say, in the 1930s, when money went to the construction of highways and dams and electrical grids. That issue, which is both political and philosophical, has to be addressed before we can even begin to talk about the nature of the infrastructure that we need to hold us together or how to pay for it.

Elizabeth Padjen: A couple of years ago, Sarah, you wrote an essay for The New Republic that I still think is one of the smartest pieces about infrastructure that I’ve read. It appeared right after the bridge collapse in Minnesota and the Con Edison steam pipe bursting in New York. You said, “Infrastructure is one crucial point at which politics and architecture merge.” Nothing’s really happened since you wrote that piece.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: That’s not exactly true; a lot has actually happened. The tagline of my article, which I had nothing to do with, was “Making Infrastructure Sexy.” And now infrastructure is part of the public discussion. But it’s all about putting fingers in dikes — the shovel-ready projects that are connected to stimulus. The Obama administration has lots of good intentions, but I don’t see anyone articulating what steps need to be taken to realize the goals that most people agree are necessary for a humane 21st-century urbanism: denser communities, pedestrianfriendly development, and multiple, overlapping, regional transportation systems incorporating air, fast rail, and automobile.

I think Hubert is right — nobody has faith in the public realm. But a larger issue is that the infrastructure problems we now have cannot be solved by the current political system, which is balkanized into municipalities and state systems and the federal system. Infrastructural problems now are regional: they cross municipal and state lines. That means that discussions about infrastructure must include not only big visions but also concrete plans for implementation.

09_winter_roundtable_2

Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

David Luberoff: “Infrastructure” is a word that really didn’t come into play until the ’80s; before then, we had what was called “public works.” It’s very hard to get people excited about infrastructure, because it’s a conceptual word. But there are elements of infrastructure that people really like: people love trains, people love bridges. We lose something when we talk about infrastructure, although the word does capture the sense of these networks and systems that bind us together.

Sarah’s right that they’re a hodgepodge not only at different levels of government but also between public and private sectors. The telecommunications infrastructure is almost purely private, subject to public regulation, somewhat similar to electrical infrastructure. The transportation infrastructure is a mix — we provide the roads, but the cars are privately owned; we provide airports for private airlines. On the other hand, outside of the Northeast Corridor, publicly owned Amtrak trains generally use privately owned tracks.

Infrastructure is critical to regional economic development, and there’s a long history in the United States of trying to figure out whether this is a national or a regional responsibility. For the most part, we’ve regionalized most of the important forms of infrastructure, such as roads, airports, sewage treatment. But I suspect we’ll never create a cohesive regional infrastructure system, because in the American political system, we tend to solve problems one at a time. So when a crisis emerges, the response tends to be to turn it over to a regional entity, and often to govern it in such a way that is supposed to remove it from day-to-day politics by creating authorities, such as Massport, to run airports, or the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, to run water and wastewater treatment systems.

Elizabeth Padjen: One of the most enduring symbols of infrastructure implemented on the national level is the interstate highway system, which may also represent the last time there was a significant national focus on infrastructure. If we think of infrastructure as providing some kind of public good that will support economic activity and health and welfare for all of the people, are we working off old definitions and an outdated understanding of infrastructure? We now have new technologies that weren’t even imagined when the highway system was developed.

David Lazer: You just said the last big national effort was the highway system, but what about the Internet? Doesn’t that qualify as infrastructure? I’d say absolutely yes. Obviously, it’s revolutionary, but what makes it especially interesting in this discussion is its potential interplay with more traditional forms of infrastructure. For example, it allows us to collect information in a very decentralized fashion so we can use our existing infrastructure more efficiently or develop a new infrastructure that is smarter. We talk about having a smarter electricity grid. Well, one way of dealing with peak load, rather than building more electricity plants, is to program everyone’s thermostats to be sensitive to peak loads so they’ll all turn off when it’s really hot. Similarly, we can now track road use, which can lead to more efficient transportation systems. And the SENSEable City Lab at MIT has developed devices to understand trash flow. There’s a growing effort to apply data-driven processes to the use and design of infrastructure.

David Luberoff: In addition to the Internet, I would mention the parallel construction of the cellular telephone system. It has had obvious implications for traditional infrastructure, but also tremendous implications for where people are in space and time. If we are always connected, that is probably as powerfully transformative as a lot of traditional infrastructure, whether the automobile/highway system or the mass transit system. It’s less obvious because we don’t see it.

David Lazer: That’s right. With an iPhone, you have the Internet and GPS in your pocket. Suddenly people can interact with infrastructure in entirely different ways. They are more actively involved in decision-making on the personal level, such as where to drive or when to turn on the air-conditioning at home, as well as simply reporting information.

Hubert Murray: We need to think about why we are building infrastructure in the first place. The examples you’re giving of modern technology as infrastructure represent an infrastructure that supports individuation. These are centrifugal forces in society, whereas a couple of generations ago, we were talking about bridges, highways, tunnels, even airports, that brought us together as a society. Is it any coincidence that this beautiful object, the iPhone, is blossoming simultaneously with the collapse of our common infrastructure, our bridges and our tunnels and our streets?

Infrastructure both opens up and closes down opportunities. If it’s working well, infrastructure provides equal access to resources. If it’s not working well, it funnels access to resources to certain segments of society and closes out opportunities for other folks. Anne Whiston Spirn FASLA

David Luberoff: I would argue that the bridges and roads were a decentralizing force in their time. There was this new technology — the automobile. The car was the iPhone of its time — the technology that everybody wanted.

Anne Whiston Spirn: It’s not just the focus on the individual cell phone as opposed to bridges and highways, but the focus on the individual cell phone as opposed to the public telephones that used to exist throughout our cities and towns. Have you tried to find one lately? A lot of people can’t afford a cell phone. Infrastructure both opens up and closes down opportunities. If it’s working well, infrastructure provides equal access to resources. If it’s not working well, it funnels access to resources to certain segments of society and closes out opportunities for other folks. We see that especially in communication infrastructure, with access to high-speed Internet in some parts of the country and not in others, and even within some city neighborhoods but not others. Which means that certain kinds of economic activity are not going to occur in the areas that are not well-served.

Elizabeth Padjen: The Rural Electrification Project in this country was at some level a social-justice exercise, providing federal funding in support of a national goal to be implemented locally by private electrical companies. Today we largely leave the new technology networks to private enterprise, in terms of decisions about location, markets, and coverage. I have an aunt who lives just outside Madison, Wisconsin, and has dial-up service. It drives her crazy. Verizon is bringing 4G service to Boston and Seattle — logical rollout cities, from a private enterprise point of view — but when is that ever going to get to my aunt?

Jeffrey Simon: You don’t even have to go that far. Massachusetts has submitted an application under the Recovery Act to bring broadband technology to the western part of the state. Broadband is in place as far out as Route 91, but beyond that, as soon as you leave the Mass Pike, there’s nothing. There’s no G, let alone 4G. It’s shocking, especially when you think about schools and fire and police and hospitals. It’s one thing to talk about promoting medical e-records, but if you have no way to get them, it makes no sense.

Anne Whiston Spirn: The implications for national policy are enormous and the questions are tough ones. Do you subsidize new infrastructure in new areas to the same extent as funding the reconstruction of existing infrastructure that was built 100 years ago or more? Infrastructure by its very nature will structure urban development for years to come. So when we make decisions about how and where to build infrastructure, we are making decisions that are going to affect human settlement forms for centuries, as well as the lives of individuals and the well-being of communities in terms of their access to resources.

David Lazer: The issue is complicated by the simple fact that we are a large country. People like to compare infrastructure here to Europe. But it’s an unfair contest, because Europe is much smaller, with a much higher population density. Speaking very generally, you’re never going to be very far from key infrastructure in Europe, whereas we have vast tracts of rural areas. To some degree, we recognize, and even accept, that rural areas have always had inferior access to certain things. But it’s always been an interesting and important question: what should be the coverage guarantees of infrastructure? We decided, for example, that the postal system would cover everyone, regardless of the cost. And of course, if we subsidize new infrastructure, including new communication infrastructure, in the rural areas, we end up encouraging the very kind of development that many people think we should discourage.

Jeffrey Simon: Where infrastructure tends to be done especially well is where there are constraints of geography or location. I really got an appreciation for this living in Bermuda for a couple of years. Bermuda is 21 square miles: one mile wide, 20 miles long, 750 miles out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In the US, if you need to build an incinerator, people typically say put it out of town, somewhere “out there,” wherever “there” is. You can’t do that in Bermuda. Everything has to go somewhere within that 21 square miles that 60,000 people live on. So the way they approach infrastructure is very different, with a different attitude toward efficiency. They were doing sustainable development out of necessity long before the term had even been created. When all of my drinking water came off my roof, the prospect of running out was not only real but actually happened a number of times. My habits changed very quickly.

Elizabeth Padjen: Your example is a reminder of a profound change in the way we think about infrastructure now, which is sustainability. It’s an overlay that wasn’t really part of the equation 100 years ago.

09_winter_roundtable_3

Ted Williams Tunnel. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

Hubert Murray: I think that global warming and the possible effects of climate change are beginning to seep into the public consciousness and give us a common purpose; and on that common purpose we can build a new infrastructure. That’s an optimistic view. Only three years ago, just before Al Gore released his film, most people were clueless about the issue. Now it’s the constant subject of tabloid newspapers and radio talk shows. A general consciousness is building up, one we have to respond to with the building of an infrastructure that goes beyond the shovel-ready, because it actually needs some thought.

Jeffrey Simon: But if I had to weigh the price of gas against globalwarming consciousness for its ability to get people mobilized quickly in the way that you’re talking about, I would go with the price of gas. You certainly could argue that the best thing we could do is to establish a five-dollar-a-gallon federal tax on gas — all of a sudden you’d find all of the incentives lining up in the right direction. But that has social impacts that are unacceptable.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: Our land-use patterns are the result of social engineering through infrastructure that started in the 1930s and went through to the ’50s and ’60s. Now the discussion should be, can we use infrastructure to create the right kind of new land-use patterns without too much undesirable, class-based social fallout? That is not a discussion that I hear people having. What would those land-use patterns be? How do we get there, what do we use, and how does technology fit into all that?

David Luberoff: The danger of using infrastructure to push landuse patterns is that somebody will inevitably say, “Why am I paying for a thing I don’t want?” because infrastructure investments can create tremendous winners and big losers.

Jeffrey Simon: I think you’re right. Consumers want to see a direct connection between what they pay and what they get. We’re seeing that now with the Big Dig, which has vastly improved the quality of life in the city of Boston, despite the cost. But the decision to pay for it through turnpike tolls led a group of toll-payers, mostly from western Massachusetts, to pursue a lawsuit — they don’t see that the Big Dig is of any benefit to them.

David Luberoff: I recently read the state’s new plan for the South Coast Rail, which would extend the line from Fall River to New Bedford and is being touted as an economic-development project. We know there’s a link between infrastructure settlement patterns and economic productivity. But the South Coast Rail is going to be about a $2-billion project, and the state’s numbers say it will carry about 5,000 people a day, which is 2,500 round-trip riders. For $2 billion dollars, I could probably wire all of western Massachusetts, or make Fall River and New Bedford completely wireless. The communities that the railroads bypassed 150 years ago died. The communities that didn’t get highway ramps 50 and 75 years ago died. Arguably, the communities that aren’t on the grid are going to die. Which form of infrastructure do we think people really need?

Jeffrey Simon: You’re always making a choice. It’s always a tradeoff.

Elizabeth Padjen: But how do you make that choice?

Jeffrey Simon: It’s a difficult discussion because you’re not usually presented with the total cost of A versus the total cost of B. You’re always looking at the margin. The South Coast Rail is a good example of an infrastructure investment that relates to a number of complex issues. For example, is it worthwhile to connect Fall River and New Bedford to Boston? Probably. And it certainly encourages people to get out of their cars.

The 2,500 people who will ride the train daily are the ones who have the most direct benefit, but that’s just one side of the equation. The South Coast Rail is also part of a larger discussion about rail in New England. Governor Patrick has joined with the other New England governors to work on a regional rail initiative and to pursue federal stimulus funding to make that happen.

The communities that didn’t get highway ramps 50 and 75 years ago died. Arguably, the communities that aren’t on the broadband/wireless grid are going to die. Which form of infrastructure do we think people really need? David Luberoff

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: The federal stimulus program seems to be driving a lot of discussion about rail across the country. The administration’s current focus on high-speed rail seems to be the closest thing we’ve seen to an infrastructure policy or vision.

Jeffrey Simon: The stimulus program gets all the publicity, but it’s not the only thing driving infrastructure spending. Massachusetts has accelerated its program to repair bridges — it seems as though you can’t drive anywhere now without seeing some bridge being worked on. Crumbling infrastructure has a huge impact on the psyche of the average citizen. The world isn’t crumbling down in the way that spalling concrete and exposed rebars might suggest, but just seeing deteriorating bridges is discouraging. Conversely, seeing them being repaired not only creates the feeling that things are getting better, but also reinforces the fact that someone cares enough about the public to fix them.

Elizabeth Padjen: Fixing bridges is one thing, welcome as that is, but don’t we really need to fix the system that disinvests in maintenance, that encourages deferred maintenance? We developed the One Percent for Arts program a long while ago. It seems to me there should be One Percent for Maintenance associated with any public investment.

Hubert Murray: The New York Review of Books recently ran an essay by Everett Ehrlich and Felix Rohatyn on the $3-trillion deficit in deferred maintenance that we have across the country. They’re proposing a new way of financing infrastructure, the National Infrastructure Bank. And I think that the new administration is listening.

David Luberoff: When agencies such as Massport that are primarily funded by user fees borrow money for big capital projects, the lenders often require that the agency keep those new facilities in a state of good repair. In contrast, maintenance of highways and bridges often comes out of the general operating budget, which means it’s an easy thing to cut. No politician ever got any votes for cutting a ribbon on a maintained bridge; you only get that with a new bridge.

I recently talked to someone at the Deer Island sewage treatment facility — a huge piece of infrastructure — who said the most striking thing about the facility is not that it was built right, but that 15 years later, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, a user-funded entity that built and operates the plant, is maintaining it right. They have a total schedule of maintenance; they can tell you when things are going to be replaced. What is fascinating here is that this is an agency that has become utterly obscure to the general public, yet has maintained a professional culture that says this thing’s got to keep working.

Jeffrey Simon: You think those two things are connected? I see it as cause and effect. The challenge is to have great professionalism combined with authentic transparency, to have professional decisions made in public and to have accountability for those decisions become the accepted practice.

David Luberoff: Sometimes it’s cause and effect, but sometimes agencies become obscure and then they become ossified.

Anne Whiston Spirn: One thing that we haven’t addressed yet is the issue of amenities. Some of the great landmarks in infrastructure are green infrastructure projects like Boston’s Riverway and the Fens, which were projects that addressed important issues like sewage, storm runoff, water quality, and new transportation routes. But they were accomplished in a way that provided tremendous public amenities.

Hubert Murray: And pride.

Anne Whiston Spirn: Yes, and pride. Which goes back to your comment about the public realm and the notion of finding ways to enhance and elevate projects that need to be implemented for all kinds of pragmatic reasons. The Denver Urban Drainage and Flood Control District is a contemporary example of the Fens and Riverway. Taxes were assessed on individual property owners in proportion to the amount of stormwater they were contributing to the system. These assessments funded the district, which then promoted projects that addressed flood control and storm drainage but also provided parks, trails, and bikeways. We tend to have tunnel vision, addressing one thing at a time and not looking at ways of combining functions. It leads to missed opportunities and frequently to greater expense.

Going back to Deer Island, I would not agree that it was the right solution, even though it seems to work fine now. There were many advocates of a more decentralized approach that would have included protecting groundwater supplies and watersheds in the region. That approach would have been much less expensive, and could have provided other amenities including parks and recreation, as well as the restoration of vacant land in urban neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester.

How do you use short-term money to accomplish long-term goals and do it in a really responsible way? Jeffrey Simon

Hubert Murray: The outcome might be different now. There is growing interest in decentralization, especially in terms of energy infrastructure. Typically you lose 65 percent of the power just in the distribution of electricity; it’s an incredibly inefficient way of doing things, although it is very efficient politically, because one decision-maker can run the show. But Woking, a city just south of London, has converted over the last few years much of its power generation to a distributed energy network, through small neighborhood power stations using alternative technologies. They are small enough that you can individually power housing projects or institutions like schools and hospitals, too. If this model takes off, you can imagine that the structure and the politics of cities will need to change accordingly.

Anne Whiston Spirn: Although maintenance might be a challenge. The one advantage to Deer Island is that it’s one facility to focus on. On the other hand, if something goes wrong, all the sewage in Boston flows out.

Elizabeth Padjen: Where does the leadership come from that can change perceptions or create a value system that is going to support something like the Denver project?

Anne Whiston Spirn: When I stepped back after writing The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design, which is a series of success stories about how cities have adapted to their urban natural environments and ecosystems, I started to look for the common ingredients that made these successes happen. In almost all of them, it was response to disaster. Very few were the result of an idealist with a marvelous vision of what the city could be. Rather, it was a catastrophe that galvanized public support to rebuild and do things right. The Denver project emerged from a series of devastating floods of the Platte River — lives were lost, bridges wiped out, with millions of dollars of damage. So, to answer your question, I would say that every city or region is vulnerable to certain natural disasters. Know what they are and when they are likely to occur, and have a cadre of people who are ready with visions to present to the public as soon as the disaster happens. Because there’s always a lag time. If it’s shovel-ready when the catastrophe happens, then the impetus to rebuild is so strong that it can happen immediately.

Elizabeth Padjen: We’ve talked about private investments, particularly in communication infrastructure, which seems to be largely driven by the private sector. We’ve talked about public investment. Have you seen any innovations in public/private partnerships that have worked?

David Luberoff: In one sense, everything that gets done today is a public/private partnership because, unlike the ’30s when people worked for WPA and were on the government’s payroll, we made a policy decision a long time ago to move to a system of contractors.

Hubert Murray: We’re seeing highway authorities engage in what are called DBOM contracts: design/build/operate/maintain. Firms like Bechtel do this all over the world — public facilities run by private firms for profit.

Jeffrey Simon: What’s happening now is that the privatization of infrastructure is being driven by investment bankers, not engineers. Look at Macquarie Bank coming in from Sydney and buying the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana toll road.

David Luberoff: But the public reaction has not been positive and several deals proposed after the Indiana and Chicago deals have been scuttled. The result is puzzling: we have no problem putting companies like Verizon in charge of the cellular system, but we seem to always want the government to run the roads. Most toll roads have a fairly predictable revenue stream — money that can be used to pay back a large loan, particularly if you assume that tolls will rise in the future. Sooner or later, somebody in government will say, “I could really use a lot of money now, rather than a little bit of money each year for the foreseeable future, particularly if the toll hikes required to support the loan occur after I leave office.” This is basically what Massachusetts did when it had the Turnpike Authority borrow money to help pay for some of the Big Dig.

Jeffrey Simon: There is another way of looking at public/private partnerships, which is to consider how incremental actions or changes in the private sector influence public policy. The focus on sustainability through LEED certification is a fascinating example. No government policy came up with or imposed LEED certification. It was developed in the private sector and then took off as tenants and buyers started to demand it until eventually it was adopted as policy by environmentally conscious cities. The market made that happen.

Hubert Murray: It’s a very good point. I think we’re about to see another example here in Boston, which has some of the highestpriced real estate in the country. It is also in one of the most vulnerable places in the country. If the sea level rises, as it is predicted to do within the lifetime of many of these buildings, they’re going to have swamped basements at the very least. We have a huge impending crisis on our hands; perhaps this relates to Anne’s observation about preparing for catastrophes. Partners Healthcare is addressing this head-on in the development of the proposed new Spaulding Hospital. We anticipate a 24-inch rise in sea level in Boston Harbor within the projected lifetime of the building. So we’ve raised the ground-floor datum and taken all the electrical equipment out of the basement as originally proposed. The term we used for looking strategically at possible disasters is “resiliency.” Every single building on the waterfront has to think in the same way. And if I may say so, the Central Artery Tunnel has to think in that way, because within an 80-year time period, the Central Artery is vulnerable.

Jeffrey Simon: That must have been an interesting meeting. You go in and you say, “We’ve raised all the utilities up to the first floor.” They ask, “Why did you do that?” And you answer, “Well, we think the harbor’s going to rise 24 inches.”

Hubert Murray: We did a considerable amount of research and wrote a protocol that we want to share with the city and the state.

Jeffrey Simon: But this touches on something I think about a lot, which is the long-term implications of what we do. How do you use short-term money to accomplish long-term goals and do it in a really responsible way? And along the way, how can you make fundamental changes to the way state government does business? People who talk about infrastructure now invariably get around to talking about the ’30s. There’s a whole legacy from that period of beautiful work, which we’re not getting out of the current program, because it wasn’t designed with those goals in mind.

Hubert Murray: One of the things that thrilled me about coming to this country from the UK was the opportunity to see the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The quality of design on purely utilitarian structures, and the multi-disciplinary nature of the TVA, transformed that part of the country in a remarkable way. It was something of which the country could be proud, and for which it was known all across Europe. And somehow, we’ve lost that. Coming from Madrid Airport to Logan Airport, for example, is like going from a cathedral to a hovel.

Jeffrey Simon: We have the Zakim Bridge. We haven’t totally lost it.

Anne Whiston Spirn: The fault lies on both sides. Designers have relinquished a role in infrastructure, but on the other hand, architects and landscape architects aren’t the first professions that come to a public agency’s mind when they are planning an infrastructure project. But there’s an optimistic sign: over the past few years, we’re seeing architecture and landscape architecture departments taking on large infrastructure projects as studio projects. At MIT, for example, a collaborative workshop between the department of architecture and the civil and environmental engineering department is in the works.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: Landscape architects right now are doing a better job than architects are of convincing the public that the design of the built environment, whether it be a public monument, a park, a sewage-treatment plant, or the High Line, directly affects people’s quality of life, both in the present and in the future. In general, landscape architects seem to view working for an improved public realm as part of their professional obligations. And the Landscape Urbanists have done an especially impressive job of creating a public profile for themselves, one that could potentially translate into their playing a major role in the public’s views of how the built environment might best be reconfigured.

David Lazer: Maybe design has been left out of the old forms of infrastructure, but it’s certainly part of the new forms. We talked earlier about the iPhone, which is all about design, as is the whole structure — in a very real way, the whole infrastructure — that Apple has built behind it.

Jeffrey Simon: Design gets left out of the discussion because designers let that happen. I heard a designer at a conference complaining about the whole role of the owner’s rep on a construction project. Well, the owner’s rep developed because architects failed to interface with their customers in an acceptable manner. It’s the same with design — the design profession has failed to communicate perceived value in good design. There was a time when the finest design was reserved for public buildings.

David Lazer: The one thing that building infrastructure has going for it is the very fact that it leaves a lasting legacy, which provides an incentive to politicians. When you leave a TVA or even a Big Dig, you get a little touch of immortality.

Caption: Form work rebars for Big Dig/Central Artery. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

Arts & Minds (Part 1 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 19, 2009

artsandminds_Fall09_img3

Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: principal of Fabric Works, Thistle Threads, and Redefined, Inc.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen combines an undergraduate interest in anthropology and archaeology, an undergraduate degree and doctorate in materials science and engineering — work on optical devices and high-tech fibers — with a lifelong passion for needlework and a knowledge of historical embroidery. She operates three companies simultaneously: Fabric Works is an engineering consulting company focusing on product design; she has designed textiles for use by the military, and this year collaborated with Polartec to launch a heated jacket. Redefined, Inc. uses current technology to manufacture “sewing cards,” Victorian perforated papers used for crossstitch designs, which became too expensive to produce at the end of the 19th century. In her capacity as the founder of Thistle Threads, she designs reproduction threads and teaches historical embroidery techniques. She has served as a textile consultant to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and is currently working with Plimoth Plantation.

Deborah Weisgall: You seem to combine your interests seamlessly, as it were: your scientific background, your interest in handwork, your historical knowledge. Expertise in one field flows into the other. How did this come about?

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: My lives converged when I was asked to solve a problem of integrating situational awareness systems, which combine GPS, location of squad members, information about terrain, and physiological monitors into an electronic map, a “heads-up display” that can enhance a soldier’s ability to negotiate the surroundings, possibly using the field of electronic textiles. The natural solution was to route the cables through the fabrics they wore, instead of using plastic cables, which would be snag hazards. This is when I discovered the work going on in the not-yet-named field of electronic textiles. It was a natural for me, as I had optics, materials, systems, and high-tech textile experience. It was my knowledge of Victorian-era millinery that gave us the idea of making textile-based USB cables in a ribbon format; this led to my first manufacturing partners.

Because electronic textiles fuses two very disparate fields, everyone involved was at some disadvantage. As both an engineer and embroiderer, I could understand both technology bases. The engineers respected my ability to thread a needle, and people involved with the textile world trusted me because I could speak their language. I was stunned that when we met with the Army, my colleague would bring up my historic embroidery business as a technical qualification.

I’ve realized that to make true progress when you don’t have a great number of resources at your disposal, you have to make art, science, and business coexist.

And my technological edge has allowed me to distinguish my historical research because few art historians would approach the problems in the way an engineer would. I can sometimes clear my head and look at objects from the standpoint of “how and who” because I have both hands-on experience and the technological means to translate that experience into a new analytical technique.

In product development, you look for short-run manufacturing facilities that can make complex metal threads; I do the same thing — work with artisan manufacturers — in the historic threads area. Often the technique or calculations I do for one area can be immediately translated to the other. It’s important to understand product design and the economics of manufacturing. In the historic embroidery or restoration fields, the people who need new threads usually aren’t prepared to help the manufacturer develop a market that can justify the effort involved in making such a thread. I have founded several outlets for that kind of development, though, so I can help engineer the product and market it for hobbyists. Then I turn around and introduce some of them to the e-textiles field.

Deborah Weisgall: You proceed from the premise that art and science and commerce can coexist and reinforce each other.

Photo by Genie Posnett.

Photo by Genie Posnett.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: I’ve realized that to make true progress when you don’t have a great number of resources at your disposal, you have to make art, science, and business coexist. I don’t see them as antithetical to each other. Let me give you an example: When I have to grapple with the problems of scaling-up and capitalizing a new thread, I start thinking about the inventory costs associated with the range of materials that go into making that thread. Weeks later, I see a piece of complex historic embroidery with as many as eight variants of complex composite threads — threads we have trouble making today — in about 10 color combinations each. Now, historians attribute this embroidery to 12-year-old girls. Knowing that these threads were made of expensive components, I start thinking about a 17th-century mercer [dealer in textiles] and his need to turn over inventory by selling to 12-year-old girls. Something just doesn’t jive. I think, maybe it wasn’t a girl, but a professional. Then I think about manufacturing on demand, and whether a small number of raw materials could be turned into such a large variety by using the spinning-wheel technologies they had available to them. Then I wonder again if we could use such techniques today to reduce the need for a range of reproduction materials by teaching hobbyists to make their own variants from simple components. And that leads me to make short runs of e-textiles threads to try out concepts for antennas in a costefficient manner. So commerce educates history, which, in turn, educates technology development. It’s synergistic, and usually it revolves around the reality of current and past economics.

Deborah Weisgall: How important to the success of your enterprises is the community in which you live — not so much the neighborhood, but the intellectual community?

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: I couldn’t be doing what I am doing if I didn’t live in such an entrepreneurial high-tech area that is also at a nexus of textile history. Many of my clients or producers are remnants of the textile industry in Massachusetts. Living close to them allows me to raise a family while keeping my engineering skills sharp. Also, the two most important collections in the US of the type of embroidery I research are within three hours of home, and England is only an airplane ride away. I often doubleup on business trips; I see a historic collection and research primary sources at libraries when I travel to teach embroidery or visit clients and manufacturing partners. When my husband and I were deciding where to live — we have the dual PhD problem — there were only five places that could support our fields. We chose Boston because we’d both gone to MIT. This fall, I’m guest lecturing at the Media Lab there — talking about 17th-century embroidery to an engineering group. I couldn’t do that type of cross-disciplinary work in most cities. Deborah Weisgall: You have taken what has been considered “women’s work” — though it was not in Tudor England — and added to it a technological dimension. How has that influenced your career? Tricia Wilson Nguyen: Certainly having a PhD from a hardcore engineering discipline has given me a level of credibility when discussing textiles and embroidery — something that has been debased and relegated to “women’s work” in the last 200 years. I try never to apologize for my feminine side. As a young woman, I made it in some of the toughest male-dominated situations: MIT, a PhD program, and leading a grueling military development program. I have my war wounds, and know how to turn someone who makes a snarky comment into an enthusiastic listener by adding just the right amount of serious tech talk. And often the men take my expertise in handwork more seriously than the women.

Photo (top) by Ted Curtin.

Compare/Contrast

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 19, 2009

Borrup_Fall09_web-1

Cities, regions, even entire nations, are pursuing the Creative Economy. What can we learn from Singapore, Glasgow, and Ogulin?

Successful economies have always been creative. Why is this 21st-century Creative Economy any different? Global exchanges and the clashing and blending of cultures have been documented and analyzed for at least 10,000 years. Technological innovations affecting all of society resulting from aesthetic curiosity (or “art for art’s sake”) can be traced back at least as long. Likewise, cultural tourism — people traveling to learn and explore, as well as to trade and exchange ideas — isn’t new either. Nor was Richard Florida, the economist who popularized the idea of the “creative class,” the first to notice that economic prosperity and concentrations of creative people go together.

So what makes this era so special?

In a word, speed. We communicate across the globe at the speed of light. We, and our goods, move across thousands of miles overnight. Global cultures blend daily in the workplace, on the streets, and at the farmers market. Artists and inventors blog, create, and reinterpret in virtual and physical space 24/7. Innovation — the fuel for entrepreneurs — and the drive to find and experience the new have been with us since the dawn of civilization. Now, they are in our faces, at our fingertips, and changing before our eyes like never before.

“New ideas must use old buildings,” wrote Jane Jacobs. However, the Creative Economy requires more than old buildings, artists, bohemian neighborhoods, and tourists. Cities, urban regions, and small towns looking for sustainable creative economies in a global marketplace must also look at their social and community fabric — things that do not change overnight. They need to examine their: clarity and authenticity of place (“brand identity”); civic and corporate cultures and institutions; ability to adapt to constant change; capacity to welcome and integrate new and different people and ideas; and ability to cross boundaries and find synergies between industries and disciplines.

Contrary to many notions and fears around globalization, success is not found in homogenization. Cities and regions that are able to distinguish their brand and build on unique skills, products, services, natural resources, and other assets are more likely to succeed. Creative branding or identity development is increasingly critical for places as much as it has become for products. More than a PR campaign, good branding requires finding widely shared authenticity rooted in the history, people, and evolving story of place.

The Croatian community of Ogulin with its castles, magical landscapes, and local literary figures reasserted its brand based in history and authenticity. Renowned for the fairy tales that were written there, the community has become a cultural tourism destination and has reignited its intellectual and creative energies, thus reinvigorating its self-esteem and its fortunes. In contrast, Hamilton, New Zealand, ignoring its indigenous heritage and agricultural roots, is trying to re-brand itself with the slogan “From Cowtown to Wowtown.” A likely flash in the pan.

Healthy civic and corporate cultures make an enormous difference. Chicago is a city that works — even if its political capital is tightly held. A diverse economy and inclusive civic institutions have kept it growing and stable. Similarly, visionary and effective leadership is credited with reviving the UK’s Newcastle Gateshead area, inspiring citizens, attracting investment, and assembling successful Creative Economy elements. On the flip side, rife with corruption and the inability of their leaders to fully motivate and engage people, are the cities of New Orleans; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Camden, New Jersey — which only look good next to Cartagena, Baghdad, or Nairobi.

Over the past couple of decades, the Scottish city of Glasgow has transformed itself with new industries and trade partners for at least the fourth time in its history. Meanwhile, Detroit and Flint, Michigan struggle massively to adapt to changing conditions. These US cities were literally built around an industry cluster, markets, technologies, and labor strategies whose relevance has waned.

While still a young metropolitan region, Silicon Valley and its urban center, San José, demonstrate enormous capacity to integrate new ideas and people through a cluster of industries that have morphed a couple of times in as many decades. The business and social construct of the “wiki” emerged there not only as a functional tool to incorporate the best ideas quickly from across the globe, but also as a way of re-thinking how business is organized. Welcoming people and cultures from around the world, San José also exhibits one of the highest rates of minority business ownership among major American cities and has perhaps the most diverse mix of small and medium-sized nonprofit arts and culture organizations. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, Creative Economy proponents lament the resistance to newcomers among the native-born and see evidence that xenophobic attitudes have clogged the city’s economic development pipeline.

Creating synergy across disciplines and sectors can be seen in some of the most productive small and large places. Legendary college president and Tennessee Valley Authority architect Arthur Morgan wrote about his small Ohio college town of Yellow Springs in 1953. In addition to one of the most concentrated and active small arts communities in the US, this village of 3,500 spawned businesses producing innovations in aluminum casting, seed hybridization, industrial design, and high-precision thermostats as well as water-monitoring devices, industrial surface-plates, high-stress rubber bearings, and the first-known EMT training program. The remarkable list goes on. Morgan concluded these industries sprouted from a quality of life that included interdisciplinary education in which both art and science were central, inclusive racial and labor relations, and a highly engaged civic community. Morgan was perhaps the Industrial Age’s Richard Florida. By contrast, and on a wildly different scale, Charlotte’s massive banking industry leaves that city in a precarious position in what is essentially a one-industry town.

Cities and regions looking for sustainable creative economies in a global marketplace must also look at their social and community fabric — things that do not change overnight.

A report published in February 2009 by the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts predicted that the creative sector in that country will grow at an average annual rate of 4 percent during the next five years — more than twice the rate of the economy as a whole. It will employ more people than the financial sector by 2013, or as much as 7 percent of the workforce. (Similar data have not been studied for the US.)

Too many US communities hoping to tap this growing sector have fallen for easy solutions. City after city has rushed into a simplified version of Richard Florida’s three Ts, trying to attract Talent and Technology and showing little understanding of Tolerance. But clusters of “creative class” workers and the industries they populate are not enough.

This temptation to oversimplify, and thus misunderstand, the Creative Economy is common. In many US cities, institutional arts interests have dressed up the Creative Economy as a way to garner more money for the arts. A healthy creative community is a necessary ingredient for a healthy economy — as are healthy civic and corporate cultures. However, big symphonies, operas, ballets, and museums full of Renaissance paintings do not necessarily encourage creative behaviors among residents who come from all parts of the world, nor do they excite most young high-tech workers.

Similarly, cultural tourism alone is unlikely to transform an economy — apart from Orlando, Florida, a place dependent on a couple of California-based corporations. While their theme parks are unlikely to go anywhere in the foreseeable future, if and when they do, the region will need more than Ghostbusters.

Looking for quick fixes, some cities have tried to re-package creative industries, promoting “creative clusters.” Others have fashioned or built bohemian enclaves or arts districts to attract young hipsters. Clusters may fuel a raging engine for the short term, but cities that have focused on one product have not fared well over time. Their precipitous declines have been as dramatic as their rising fortunes. Clusters can be significant parts of an economic mix if they operate in a creative and permeable environment and interact vigorously with other industries and sectors.

Still other cities have put all three together — a robust arts community, a “cool city” image, and a cluster of creativity-based businesses. In some places, this has made a difference. A community with healthy self-esteem, where people get along and work together to accomplish civic ends — a community that can pull off this three-part strategy — already has in place most of the needed ingredients and is on the right path.

But an even more sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms that drive creative economies requires an even broader, more holistic view. Two countries, with very different histories and cultures, have recently embarked on initiatives that merit attention. Seeing the need to maintain a balance between strategies and assets, both Sweden and Singapore have articulated plans for nurturing their creative industries. In a nation not well-known for tolerance, Singapore’s National Arts Council prescribes the “5-C” plan to heighten the creativity of this already prosperous nation. Culture, Competency, Connectivity, Capital, and Conditions provide the framework it hopes will ensure a perpetual place atop the economic food chain. A program laid out by Sweden’s Knowledge Foundation has many parallels: Education and training, Research, Industry, Business collaboration, and Arts/Culture. This “ERIBA Model” is based on a circular approach of stimulating creativity and the arts, providing the forums, cross-sector research, and collaborative systems that allow business and industry to gain from innovations and innovative behaviors. Both Singapore and Sweden are thinking in terms of larger systems that embrace all their assets.

This is the challenge that faces Massachusetts today as it considers its Creative Economy. While Boston has reinvented its economy several times by drawing upon its key assets of geographic location and intellectual capital, it has also lost out on opportunities because of its tightly held culture, as AnnaLee Saxenian demonstrated in her 1994 book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128. Boston’s 19th-century business models, rigid proprietary practices, and paternalistic corporate culture, she argued, did not provide fertile ground for invention, risk-taking, and entrepreneurial enterprises. Meanwhile, a very different and open environment took off in Silicon Valley.

But the Boston region, indeed the entire state, is today a very different place from what it was in 1994. The economic growth of the last 15 years has coincided with the expansion of entire industries — biotechnology, videogames, new media — that did not exist a few decades ago, that have brought with them fresh faces and fresh business practices. The corporations that once ruled Boston are largely gone — sold or relocated. Demographics have changed, with a larger immigrant population. Greater Boston is not Silicon Valley, but it is not what it once was, either. It is much better poised to do the necessary work — to examine and promote its identity, functional capacity, adaptability, inclusiveness, and synergies — and to invent the necessary means. After all, what’s a Creative Economy without creativity?

Photo caption: Glasgow is internationally recognized for the success of its strategic focus on the arts and culture to revive a declining post-industrial economy. Since its designation as European City of Culture in 1990, the city’s promotion of arts programs and investments in cultural institutions have built upon its historical and educational assets to transform the Glasgow “brand.” Designated the UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999 and the UNESCO City of Music in 2008, Glasgow today enjoys a healthy, diverse economy. The city’s marketing office reports that Glasgow has been called the UK’s “hippest and most happening city” by Travel & Leisure magazine and “one of the top three business centers in Europe” by Fortune. Photo by Robert Pool.