Are Suburbs Ready for Some Old-Fashioned Creative Disruption?

Are cities as an operational system ready for disruptive change on a scale unseen in the history of human evolution? That’s a question city planners probably asked in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. And no one could have imagined then the morphological power such a disruptive innovation like the automobile would have on the shape, use, and economics of the city as system.

A huge number of us really like the auto-enabled, suburban lifestyle. Having a car or two in the driveway of a quarter-acre house means that the city can be turned into your own private TV episode—just jump in your ride, tool down the street and if you don’t like the way one story is playing out just change the channel by turning left or right. Better still, pull into a mall parking lot and take in a double feature of McDonalds with a second feature of the GAP.

But what happens when the disruptive model is, like any technological system worthy of its salt, in turn disrupted? Layering urban disruption on top of urban disruption gets us to a world so removed from what philosophers call an a priori truth that some fundamental human values are bound to be forgotten. Right?

Wrong. What if the next urban disruption(s) are so sublime that instead of putting barriers up between people they rip them down? What if those systemic disruptions allow us to live more sustainable, comfortable lives in city systems that empower us, rather than constrain us?

Are we dreaming?

Last week two researchers became Nobel laureates for their work in Economic Sciences. mathematician Lloyd Shapley and economist Alvin Roth received the Nobel Prize for their “theory of stable allocations and the practice of market design.” Their work frames the kind of new systemic disruptions we’re talking about.

Here is how the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes their work (we’ll explain why it is important to cities a bit later) :

“. . .  In many instances, however, using the price system would encounter legal and ethical objections. Consider, for instance, the allocation of public-school places to children, or the allocation of human organs to patients who need transplants. Furthermore, there are many markets where the price system operates but the traditional assumption of perfect competition is not even approximately satisfied. In particular, many goods are indivisible and heterogeneous, whereby the market for each type of good becomes very thin. How these thin markets allocate resources depends on the institutions that govern transactions.”

Shapley and Roth developed a economic construct allowing non-competitive markets to find the best ways to allocate resources. In effect, how can everyone in a game “win” based on what they have to offer. The city as an institution is such a system. Large parts of its development are based on bull and bear driven competitive forces. On the other hand, the city is also a container for exchanges that are not market driven. For example, what is the best way to allocate classroom spaces to children? Who gets into what medical residency? How is park space distributed in a city matrix? How is the city system balanced to maintain its social equilibrium?

In a MESH City shared resources like water, energy, transit, and access to education are more efficient because the economic inputs and outputs are better managed. The reason? M2M, IoT, Mobile Devices, and a web of other technologies are, in effect, crowd sourcing real-time data. That data becomes the raw material needed for resource allocation algorithms based on, say, Shapley and Roth’s research, to manage city systems.


As fuel prices climb making suburban living less appealing to many, new markets will be there to offer alternatives. These alternatives will be driven by a better-understood hybrid of free market forces and urban institution management. Even better, the new disruptive market technologies will offer alternatives to the suburban, TV-changer  lifestyle well before any energy crisis makes the model unliveable let alone unsustainable.

Tomorrow we’ll offer an example.

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