Friday, February 27, 2015

In the world of our grandchildren

Kubrick's Clockwork Orange. In sci-fi, dystopia reigns supreme. 

In the world of futurist writing, dystopia reigns. Writers populating that world hunt current data and extrapolate to foretell future catastrophe. In Laurence Smith’s The World in 2050 the Arctic melts. In Jared Diamond’s Collapse we trigger our demise by ignoring the collapsing environment. In Gwynne Dyer’s Future Tense we are sowing the seeds of World War 3.

The problem is that the real future obliges the dystopians no more than the utopians. Remember the 1962 book (and later film) A Clockwork Orange about a hyper-violent future? In the 1960s our crime rate went ballistic and Clockwork seemed likely. Yet today crime rates plummet and, contrary to loud and ludicrous media pundits, urban violence is at an all-time low.


The truth is data can predict only human patterns, not human potential. Nor can data predict our drive to survive collapse events. Predicting such things takes foresight, logic and optimism. Enter Jeremy Rifkin’s audacious book The Zero Marginal Cost Society and his story of a new kind of future.

An internationally renown economist and advisor to governments worldwide, Jeremy Rifkin is no stranger to global trends or deep thinking. His book is a tough slog in economic history, but well worth the effort if you want to know why economic systems unfold as they do. Agrarianism, Socialism, Communism and Capitalism - Rifkin dissects the Big Four and in the process rankles both far left and far right.

That alone is reason to read the book!

The trouble with those systems, says Rifkin, is they worked only for a time. Now they are mostly dead. And capitalism, outed by the Great Recession and the looming debt crash, is also obsolete. In its place emerges the Collaborative Commons.


"The Collaborative Commons is ascendant and by 2050 it will likely settle in as the primary arbiter of economic life in most of the world. We are already witnessing the emergence of a hybrid economy…" (Rifkin, page 1)

The Collaborative Commons shows up in Zip Cars, children’s toy exchanges like Baby Plays, 3-D printing, MOOCS and crowdfunding, all early inventions of the new economic system.

Another is the L3C social enterprise corporation, a corporate model unimagined by capitalist theory. Not quite profit and not quite charity, the L3C uses marginal profits for maximum social goals - exactly the kind of thing predicted in Collaborative Commons (SIDE NOTE - I helped co-create a social enterprise for vetting private security companies who contract for public safety).


Collaborative Commons show up everywhere. helps us solve everyday problems by connecting us with neighbors in a real (not virtual) place. Criminology’s most promising prevention theory - collective efficacy - is Collaborative Commons incarnate. Sampson’s book Great American City demonstrates that collaborative, altruistic behavior drives most successful and lower crime neighborhoods, exactly what SafeGrowth predicts.

Zero Marginal Cost is not utopian. It admits, for a time, prolific consumption will continue. Capitalism will survive in a niche to drive innovative technology. Yet its days of dominance, says Rifkin, are numbered. And every time we see the dynamism (and low crime) in community gardens, farmer’s markets, co-housing projects, food cooperatives, and micro-finance, we are reminded that collaboration has long been wired into our civic DNA.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Struggle to find the future

In 1989 an East German official made a public announcement that changed history!

He announced that citizens of the East German communist republic could visit the west unverzuglich. Until then East German citizens, like millions of others in Soviet countries, were hostages behind the Berlin Wall, that icon of the Iron Curtain dividing the world for decades.

The government had intended a program of liberalization and slow controlled visits. An East German radio correspondent asked "what exactly does unverzuglich mean in this context?" The official mistakenly said "it means straightaway".


Citizens everywhere, and border guards, heard those words and within 15 minutes thousands of East Berliners were crossing unencumbered into the west. A half-century of isolation ended in a word. Fifteen minutes earlier they would have been shot!

Within a year the Iron Curtain was gone! Soon, so was the Soviet Union. No one anywhere predicted that. Not political scientists and certainly not intelligence services on either side. The world changed in an instant and no one knew where it would go.

Now we have globalization, escalating policing costs, Ferguson, police militarization, the decline of crime, and climate change. Berlin Walls are everywhere.

Today I finished reading a remarkable book that portrays a future worth building. It is Jeremy Rifkin's The Zero Marginal Cost Society.

Next blog: Part 2 - The Zero Marginal message.

Rifkin's message portrays an unexpected future

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Great Crime Decline - A farewell to arms

Zimring's 2006 book is still the classic explanation - available on Amazon
News of armed regional conflicts around the world distorts the truth of local crime. That truth? Crime in developed countries continues a long plunge into lowly rates unknown for decades.

As Vanessa Barker notes in her research, criminology has no idea why.  Frank Zimring’s book on the The Great American Crime Decline does say why criminologists can't figure it out:

“The knowledge gap in current social science understanding comes almost equally from the unavoidable weakness of a non-experimental discipline and from avoidable provincialism and ideological blinders.”


Crime plummets in places where police are underfunded, like the UK, and in places where police enjoy copious salaries, like Toronto.

Crime plummets before, during and after the Great Recession (kind of puts the lie to the idea that economic downturns trigger it or abundant times stop it). It plummets with or without mass incarceration, like the US versus Canada.

It plummets where security is abundant (vehicle immobilizers, gated communities) and also where security is scarce, like my own city where lighting is poor, gates are rare and burglar alarms a luxury.


The Economist Magazine says the reason crime plummets is that today’s crime-prone cohort, young males between 18- 34, are more civilized:

"Young people are increasingly sober and well behaved. They are more likely to live with their parents and to be in higher education."

Really? Well, in Better Angels of Our Nature psychologist Steven Pinker does suggest something similar he calls the civilizing effect.

The Toronto Star quotes government statisticians who stir new police practices, reduced alcohol consumption and inflation into their causation broth in a frantic search for an answer. Ultimately they have no idea.

Portland revitalizing with Intersection Repair and community paint-ins


Through it all, two social cohesion ingredients persist:

  1. We are aging. Young males commit most crime, what criminologists call the age-crime curve. As their numbers decline so too does crime. Complex statistical models on demographics and crime  don’t show it. But complex statistical models rarely prove anything in social science. No biggie.
  2. Inner city neighborhood revitalization. Not everywhere, of course (Detroit). Yet enough cities around the world from Bogota to Boston have revitalized their inner city neighborhoods to make a difference, especially regarding housing.
The truth is crime has always concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods. It stands to reason improvements in the inner city - better housing, improved infrastructure - magnify the power that neighbors have to control problems through social ties, watching over each other and so forth (the social side of defensible space that Oscar Newman wrote about).

Then add aging demographics together with the civilizing effect and neighborhood redevelopment and you have a workable recipe, a one-two-three punch in prevention practice.

The social cohesion effect is good news in the 21st Century city, especially considering the persistent plague of urban homelessness, gangs and drugs. It’s especially positive for SafeGrowth practitioners and those who practice targeted community development such as LISC. It points the way forward.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

SafeGrowth by pre-teens? Really?

Bus station murals in Auckland, New Zealand  - all photos by Fleur Knight

GUEST BLOG: Fleur Knight is a member of the International CPTED Association and is trained in SafeGrowth. She is a teacher at Murrays Bay School, Auckland, New Zealand where her role involves making learning as real as possible for students. Here she describes a project with teachers to integrate CPTED and Safe Growth into the teaching of 9-10 year olds for which she is gaining national attention.

The social sciences strand of the New Zealand school curriculum states that students are expected to explore how societies work so they themselves can participate and take action as critical, informed and responsible citizens.

While this was the stated goal of the policy, I experienced a deep frustration after teaching activity-based social science that resulted in no external change to neighbourhoods or internal values changes to students.

Pre-teens organize murals. Artist demonstrates skills.
How can we expect them to participate and take action as members of future neighbourhoods if they are not taught, and do not experience, how they can achieve these lofty aims in real life? Obviously there is a need to involve our youth in positive relationships with neighbourhoods.

In June 2014, following SafeGrowth training in Christchurch, I took the learning of students to a new level that involved them not only applying CPTED but implementing SafeGrowth and community development directly with residents to improve a local bus station.

Over the past months I worked with a teacher and students and carried out a Safety Audit of Sunnynook Bus Station using safety maps. We identified issues with access control and signage. Those later became recommendations for improvement including more Braille for the sight impaired and artworks to humanize the station.

Humanizing bus stations through colourful art
Students conducted surveys, CPTED reviews, and interviewed residents about the bus station. Interestingly the artworks idea had traction. Most people indicated they wanted some murals at the station to help make it more inviting and welcoming. A number of residents even indicated they would participate but they didn’t think they had painting skills.

To start the community-building process the students contacted Auckland Transport and a local community centre for help. They also solicited the help of local artists, including student artists at the school, to provide painting skills.

Using data collated from the community they developed artwork that represents changes in Sunnynook from the early 1900s to present day. They then organized a Painting In The Car Park day to activate the community, implement the mural painting and illustrate how SafeGrowth works in action.

The results were dramatic both for the community and the students! Over 30 people turned out to paint murals and transform the bus stop. Seeing the impact, the Auckland Council is now considering replicating this model in other bus stations in the city. Most importantly I learned that integrating real life SafeGrowth projects into teaching curricula is a much more effective way to teach youth how to be critical, informed and responsible citizens.

Students interview residents for project research