New Economy will be city friendly

May 03, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

WASHINGTON -- Consigned to extinction by the Republican Congress, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1995 sang a troublesome swan song. We'd soon be deserting cities, migrating to calm rural places, it predicted.

And why? Computers and modems would free us from offices, let us work anywhere. So why not bow to the inevitable and just spread a thin, sprawling layer of homes and settlements across the countryside?

But now comes the Silicon Valley consulting firm of Collaborative Economics, with a radically different tune for the times.

A "New Economy" has dawned, changing the fundamental way we live and work, assert lead economist Douglas Henton and his colleagues. But it's only accidentally connected to computers or microchips, they assert in their report to the James Irvine Foundation. The point of the New Economy, instead, is a set of tools that industries use to gain competitive advantage -- speed, quality, flexibility, knowledge and networks.

Example: Southern California's entertainment/new media industry, which has added a hard-to-believe 90,000 jobs since 1995. But not the old way, through a handful of mega-studios. The growth now is a complex web of independent producers, writers, directors, artists and technical people who assemble and reassemble around specific projects.

The New Economy lingo is actually pretty easy to understand. The idea is that industries need speed and flexibility to reduce "time to market" and beat out competitors. Firms must be able to change course on a dime. In lieu of one-of-a-kind routine production, they're into "mass customization" (think of Starbucks' infinity of coffee flavors). And they network all the time, alternately competing and collaborating with other corporations.

So what does this mean for workers, and where they work? British management guru Charles Handy describes the "portfolio" worker who carries his skills within him to different jobs. The only difference is that today's knowledge worker, instead of carrying a bag of tools like a craftsperson of earlier times, practices his or her trade with the personal computer. In a throwback to the craft eras, home can again become an important workplace.

But, Mr. Henton cautions, that doesn't mean that people will want to flee to isolated subdivisions, technology parks or plants built on greenfields.

The talk of disembodied cyberspace, he argues, "misses the fundamental point that creative work occurs primarily in face-to-face exchange within teams, where people live and work in close proximity." Electronic communications are important "but not a substitute for the trust, sharing and intense interpersonal interaction essential for the creative process. The heart and soul of the New Economy -- where the action is -- will be tied to place."

And when you talk place, you talk town and city -- places with restaurants, cafes, spacious streets, shared meeting spaces. Already the most creative people -- small software and multimedia firms, for example -- are flocking to places like "Multimedia Gulch" (the once nearly abandoned warehouse-factory district south of Market Street in San Francisco).

All this permits Mr. Henton to argue there's a strong, natural tie between the New Economy and the strong "New Urbanist" and "Livable Communities" movements of recent years -- calls for more inviting town centers and neighborhoods, for easier access to transit and a mix of housing and shops and civic facilities.

Seeking vital centers

Indeed, Mr. Henton argues, corporations large and small, seeking efficiency and competing for knowledge workers, will seek out towns, cities and whole citistate regions that offer beckoning, vital centers, learning environments, and friendly pedestrian environments.

There's debate, of course. How large a segment of the population will truly be knowledge workers, and how many will be left in rote jobs? Won't big franchised operations continue to stamp out local originality? How many corporations care much for urban value? Are America's "Anglos" ready for intensely multiracial urban center living?

Bu the "knowledge" era of flexible specialization that dawned in the '90s is a world apart, argues Mr. Henton, from the "industrial" era of mass production, focused on low cost, standardization and control, that reigned for many decades.

From a workplace of hierarchy, lifetime employment, strict home-and-work separation, we've moved in the '90s (with a strong push from women workers) toward portfolio careers and reintegration of work and home.

The irony is immense: As we move toward the fully globalized, hyper-competitive world of the 21st century, the value we placed on balanced, livable communities through most of human history may be reasserted.

Box store brigade

It's easy to doubt all of this: The forces of standardization, from unthinking zoning to ugle mega-highways to sterile edge cities RTC and box retailing, remain exceedingly strong.

But Mr. Henton is a solid economist whose work on other issues -- economic clustering and the rise of civic entrepreneurs, for example -- has been top-notch. To see someone of his stature project a better future, based not on sentiment but hardheaded analysis of New Economy trends, is itself a heartening sign of the times.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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