Rory Sutherland’s TED Talk

From a TED interview with Rory Sutherland:

Is your advice to Obama that he should sit and have a talk with Paul Romer?

Yes, exactly that. I think so.

It’s a fundamental question about making change happen. In truth, much as people in central government love to issue strategy because it’s what they’re there for, a lot of important change happens from the bottom up. Where Britain’s conservatives have been quite good is in looking round the world for good ideas, in the sense that there are some very good Swedish ideas on education involving starting your own school that they’re currently looking at.

I felt a bit kicked because I just blogged about Paul Romer and charter cities a couple of weeks ago!

If you read the full interview, he mentions a lot of very simple yet through-provoking things about the web – like how face-to-face communication brings some amount of awkwardness to situations, which communicating through the web eliminates, and also how sometimes you just don’t want personal interaction, such as when you’re checking into a hotel in the night after a long flight. I just had that experience myself recently, so completely identified with that bit. All you really want at times like those is your room key, with details to be dealt with later.

On that note if you haven’t seen Rory’s talk at TED Oxford in July, you should. Very inspiring.

Considering Charter Cities

I’ll keep my eyes peeled for news of charter cities, having read this interview in Freakonomics with Paul Romer, who ‘recently resigned his tenured teaching position at Stanford to devote his full energies to the challenge.’ Charter cities are basically ‘special zones within developing countries with better rules and institutions’. I’ve long believed in some sort of privatization of public services in developing countries (not easy I know – privatization still needs to somehow ensure universal access to primary education, for starters, which is tricky), and I think the concept of charter cities in many ways is an extension of what I’ve been thinking of. It’s a very tricky concept, however: one commenter has pointed out that in practice, this will not work in the global South because of its attendant problems of land deficiency in high-demand areas: the poor are forced to give up their land, rendering them homeless, and attempts at compensation rarely work. 

One comment, by someone called Chris, was particularly insightful I thought:

Seems to me this is basically what Federalism is, was and should be. According to the US Constitution states and cities have a large degree of autonomy. Thus various political systems become laboratories. This would be strengthened in this country if the Federal government’s power were curbed. Other nations should also adopt a similar system.

Great sentiment, but again, in practice, it just does not work. A case in point in a country like India which does have a federal (in addition to a unitary) form of government, is the state of Bihar, which is really a failed state.

There are other considerations too: the aesthetics of urban planning, and investment and returns (who funds it and what do they get in return) – Romer discusses very interesting but difficult situations for funding:

In poorer countries that don’t have the same kind of credibility with international investors, a more interesting but controversial possibility is that two or more countries might sign a treaty specifying the charter for a new city and allocate between them responsibilities for administering different parts of the treaty.

Oh, the can of worms that can be opened when multiple countries enter into an agreement like that!

It is a tremendous challenge indeed. As I said, I’ll be watching with interest.