Slumming and unslumming

I have been reading Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  I find myself taken with her account of the Blighted Dullness of orderly “garden city” planners. Jacobs argues that city streets become vital productive places when there is mixed use throughout the day, short blocks to encourage multiple routes, a mixture of old and new buildings. Orderly systems reasoned out on paper don’t get at the details that make a street a vital place.

Jacobs argues that it is the role of districts to understand the street and interpret its needs with substantial force to the necessary centers of money, policy, and power of city hall. One cannot expect city hall to understand the detail of any particular street in the city. Nor can one expect a street to come en mass to just the right city hall meeting at just the right time to express its common needs. The district plays this role. A neighborhood, a collection of streets, a department, a tech transfer office.

What happens, I wonder, if the district goes over to the politics of city hall and doesn’t voice the concerns of the street, but rather seeks ways of imposing the ideas of city hall on the street, to make things regular, orderly, the way it looks nice on paper? Blighted Dullness! The city creates slums rather than unslums.

Is the university in making technology transfer orderly, compulsory creating its very own technology slum? Jacobs points out that the slumlord sees good business in a slum, while the central planner cannot connect up the orderliness of the plan with its consequences in people’s lives. Put another way: is the university becoming a slumlord to research innovation by claiming ownership of assets that it is unwilling–indeed, not capable of–developing?

What would a university innovation practice look like, if the goal was to be in the ordered domain, on the edge of chaos? If the job of the technology transfer office was to be a district, to articulate the needs of the street–the expertise on the edge–to those with power?

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