Taking it to the Street

Jane Jacobs wrote one of the definitive critiques of central planning in her The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Fifty years on, the work still hits home. In DLGAC, Jacobs starts with the life of the street, arguing that mixed use with many sets of eyes creates an environment of self-governance that provides vitality and protection for residents and strangers alike. Indeed, the presence of strangers is one of the hallmarks of a city in contrast to a town. People coming to a street to do business, or visit, or show off, or adventure, or because they are lost, or to do mischief. This is a life of a city street, not at all the same in a small town.

Jacobs works from street to neighborhood to district to the city itself, at each stage taking aim at the central planners and their blight-creating desire for orderly plans, systematic projects, encasing the life of cities into box diagrams. One of the amazing arguments Jacobs touches on but does not quite come out and make is that a city neighborhood cannot be drawn with sharp boundaries. It is an environment in constant exchange with its surroundings, with overlays of interest of all sorts, with people leaving to work the day elsewhere and others coming in to visit its parks or do business in its shops. One might say, a neighborhood, while a geography, does not conform to a geometric representation. The border is a counterfactual that may not have any particular use in planning. One might think of fuzzy sets as an analogue. But more than that, one has to recognize that a neighborhood is what it is, and our tools of modeling it, or representing it, are only as good as our observation and experience of it. It has no idea form. There is no substitution of a simplistic approximation that still carries the most important elements, because those most important elements are themselves caught up in the indefiniteness of the place. One might say, this is no land for the nomothetic, for the computer programmer seeking always for an algorithmic expression as a proxy for process, or a process in place of social assimilation.

What is all this doing in a blog on research enterprise, though? What does a fifty year old book about mostly east coast cities before the age of low cost intercity transportation have to do with research? Quite a lot, actually. Jacobs starts out “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” If we ask, to what extent is research life an activity of a city, one might recognize much of the discussion becomes relevant. The street becomes the research laboratories, with their mix of storefronts and visitors, residences and strangers. The neighborhood becomes the area of study, both regionally and in terms of disciplines. The district translates the interests and needs of the street in a form that addresses the interests and urges of central planners, university administrators, policy wonks. In this, we see possible roles for activities called by names such as technology transfer or research administration.

Up in the air: is technology transfer going to be a district that articulates the needs of the street to central planning? Or is it determined to be the arm of central policy implementing standard practice on the basis of consistency and fairness, demanding that the street conform to “what is best for it” and after that time, not attempting to change? Perhaps it’s a dichotomy that is too overt. One might see in it the fight of nomothetic against idiographic. Of the desire to regularize and enforce vs the urge to make one’s own way, even if that does not amount to anything, much less service to some for-ordained committee-approved big picture. One might even posit that it is doing what is authentic and not in service of such grand big pictures that is itself amounting to a great deal, repeated over the fabric of research endeavors.

Research enterprise is a rich street culture. It is where inquiry and discovery take place. It is where a mixing of ideas and realizations takes shape and demonstrates what is possible, turning inklings into data. At the heart of research is not the grandly obvious, but rather then search for inklings worth following. It is a search for the rare event, for the epiphany, for the fortuitous observation that opens up an understanding, that creates the possibility of observation, that challenges what we thought we knew, or puts that knowledge in a new condition. Yeah, a lot of things, like that.

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