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2007 04 09
Reinventing The City - The 80/20 Rule
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The City of Winds image from R. Ouellette's Virtual Metropolis John Street Toronto CD-ROM, 1996

I hope all our readers have had as pleasurable an Easter weekend as I have. I was able to relax for a few days and catch up on some of the renovation chores around the house that remained undone. Why is it that when people of all types and backgrounds take on a big task we inevitably fall into the 80/20% rule? You know what I mean. The majority of the work gets done quickly but the remaining 20% takes disproportionately longer.

The phenomenon is so ubiquitous in life that mathematicians have a name for it - the Pareto principal:
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule, the law of the vital few and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many phenomena, 80% of the consequences stem from 20% of the causes. Business management thinker Joseph M. Juran suggested the principle and named it after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of income in Italy went to 20% of the population. It is a common rule-of-thumb in business; e.g., "80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients."

We don't have to make too much of a conceptual leap to see how variations of this rule play out in the way we design our city. The 80% takes the form of all the infrastructure services, roads, background buildings, and initial planning. The remaining 20% is where great cities are made or miserable cities fail. Toronto's long-suffering waterfront is probable one of our best examples of this phenomenon.

Reinventing our harbourfront is taking such a disproportionate amount of time that outside observers could not be faulted if they thought it was a non-issue to Torontonians. Yet, most of us long for a waterfront that has the potential to be among the best in the world. We are getting there but are in that interminable 20% zone that, like my renovation, becomes a "Waiting for Godot" existential experience.

A realistic analysis would say that the 20% component of reinventing our city falls into the realm of political expediency. It seems that generally our political class gets the idea that we have to have functional infrastructure like sewers and water and electricity. Where politicians exhibit their human frailties is in the 20% zone which is seen as non-essential or even arbitrary. We now know, however, that it is in the 20% zone of city design and execution that defines who we are as a culture and a place.

Maybe that's what Meis van der Rohe was getting at with his observation that God is in the details. Every project, no matter how large, depends on the success of the smallest of its components. It is that territory - of smallness - that we really know so little about. It really remains an unknown country, a place that is still foreign to us.

I've argued for some time now that new information technologies will close that 20% gap because knowledge and best-practices will become more evenly distributed and available to decision-makers. We are seeing that happen to a degree but the closer we get to solving some of the intractable design problems that face our city(ies) the more the friction of change slows us down.

Do you want to reinvent the city? Instead of making one or two beautiful buildings tackle the real problem of the 80/20 rule. If you succeed, you may not just change our city - you may change the world.
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 04/09 at 12:32 PM

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