This is my last day blogging for 2012, the last post of new material I will put together until the new year. Part of my own personal discipline for writing (and thinking about these things as well) involves a holiday shut down and reboot period that begins presently. This works out well because not only do I get a goodly amount of time to do some baking and other festive activities, but our audience checks out this time of year as well, presumably (hopefully) do enjoy similar pursuits. For the next two weeks we'll be running a "best of" series of posts and then we'll go dark until January 2, 2013.

I want to thank you all for being the most important part of what we do here at Strong Towns. This entire endeavor started as a blog, my ideas being tossed out to the world in this space. My reaction to professional frustration in my own area brought me to the point where I needed to know if there were others out there that thought like this, others who were struggling to make sense of the world around them. Thank you for being there. It means more than you may know.

I've been astounded by the reaction, the passion for what we are doing, the way this audience has grown and the way our work has been embraced, shared, modified and put to work in an effort to build strong towns. I get a lot of accolades and they are very kind, but all of you are the real inspiration here. Thank you for doing all that you can to make this world better.

I'm in Dayton, Ohio, today sharing our message and, as usual of late with such a full schedule, the Friday piece is not quite done. I'm going to be doing this one as-we-go as my schedule today allows, so check back later if I've not buttoned it up when you read this.

Enjoy the week's news.

  • Next week at noon EST I will be appearing on a CNU Fireside Chat with John Norquist. Serendipity has me in Chicago for the day and so I'll be doing the interview/disussion live from the CNU offices. My understanding is that they have the capacity to take calls and extend the discussion beyond John and I, so tune in and call in if you are so inspired. You need to register to listen in (and they are limited to 150), so make sure and sign up if you would like to be part of it.
  • I finally received my copy of Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder by Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Get yourself a copy. This is the most important book of 2013 (or the last five years, for that matter). Nassim is out of seclusion these days and so I've been thoroughly enjoying the many media appearances he has made. Here's one from this past week that is worth a listen.
  • The NY Times this week ran a fantastic -- and I hope ground breaking -- series that covered the fallacy and fraud of economic development policy in America. On Day 1 they honed right in on the way cities and states routinely make ridiculous and uninformed decisions for handing out money. On Day 2 they actually focused on Texas -- a state with rabid rhetoric for markets and a penchant for cooking the books Enron-style with lots of debt and business subsidies -- to make a larger point that ties in absolutely with our entire ponzi scheme narrative. The state by state breakdown was also stunning. Check it out.

A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid.

“How can you even talk about rationalizing what you’re doing when you don’t even know what you’re doing?” said Timothy J. Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich.

  • And as if on cue with the NY Times, uber-placemaker Scott Doyon this week shared his thoughts on Walmart and their place in this entire economic development conversation. He quite personably builds a bridge between those that (for practical reasons) shop at Walmart and those that yearn for a different model. And, most brilliantly, he points out that the problem isn't Walmart but the systems we have constructed.

If we don’t believe that Walmart (or big box retail in general) is in the long-term interest of our cities and towns — and keep in mind, in many places that remains a big if — we need to stop saying “Stop Walmart” and start asking “Why is Walmart trying to come here? What in our regulations or context or actions is incentivizing their business? What unmet demand are they expecting to fill? And can we retool our thinking — and, with it, our community — to serve that demand in other ways? Ways that provide greater economic opportunity for our residents and keep more money circulating locally? Ways that make healthy food accessible at prices people can afford?”

Over time, in the course of such questions, perhaps a new system will emerge. One where the fulfillment of our price and product needs is better served on a smaller, more interdependent scale, breeding stronger communities rather than weaker ones.

  • My home state of Minnesota continues to face long term structural deficits, but it is not the announcement of another $1.1 billion shortfall that should be of greatest concern. The thing that should give us pause is the fact that our projections for the future contain unrealistic, and groundless, expectations. Why will housing break out? Because it "always" has, of course (even though "always" is a very new experiment in auto-oriented development). For even the most brilliant people, our models simply confirm our biases.

Forecasters predict that the national economy is primed for significant growth, with low interest rates and flush corporate balance sheets. Economists say the housing and auto sectors are "poised for a breakout."

Minnesota's economy already is doing better than many parts of the nation. The state's unemployment rate is hovering around 5.8 percent, about 2 full percentage points better than the national average.

Forecasters say they finally see some encouraging signs in Minnesota's ailing construction sector, which endured the worst of the last recession and suffered the most stubbornly high unemployment rates.

"We are expecting the housing sector to begin to turn around and begin to grow over the next couple years," Stinson said.

  • I learned a new word this week thanks to the wonderful Karja Hansen: scofflaw. Now I want to start a Society of Urban Scofflaw. Karja has said that she is in. Any other takers?

Scofflaw: A person who flouts the law, esp. by failing to comply with a law that is difficult to enforce effectively.

  • When I first started a business I was told I needed a business plan. I bought an expensive piece of software that promised to help me write it. Even worse, I spent hours and hours and hours putting this thing together. Did it reveal some truths to me? A few, but nothing compared to the truths I learned through low risk trial and error. My good friend, Jen Krouse, shared this article from the WSJ with me about business plans. She is genius and so is this. Wish I had met her much earlier in life.

Entrepreneurs treat a business plan, once written, as the culmination of everything they know and believe. All they need to do is add money and magically that five-year forecast in Appendix A will simply happen if they execute to the plan.

It turns out that’s a mistake. A big mistake. A startup is not about executing a series of knowns. Most startups are facing a series of unknowns – unknown customer segments, unknown customer needs, unknown product feature set, etc.

That means that writing a static business plan first adds no value to starting a company, as the plan does not represent the iterative nature of the search for the model.

  • As long as I am pining for my NextGen pals, I might as well add Edward Erfurt to the list. A couple weeks ago, Edward -- as a joke -- recommended the Wheelmate Laptop Steering Wheel Desk, a device that affixes to the steering wheel and allows it to support a laptop. To prove that Facebook has not figured out the entire advertising routine, his "endorsement" started showing up in the ad space on the screen with his jesting quote looking very serious. The most hilarious thing about the Wheelmate is the photos that people have posted on Amazon showing their use of the product; huge car accidents and multi-car pile ups.

  • Oops, spoke too soon. My podcast mate and best pal, Ian Rasmussen, sent me this article about Jeff Bezos' two pizza rule. Again, a brilliant insight simplified down to a concept that can be easily applied. I want a world run by people that think life Jeff Bezos. Oh, and incidentally, you can't feed your average planning commission or board of adjustment on just two pizzas.

You may have heard the joke that asserts a camel is just a horse designed by a committee. The truth behind the humor is that groups suffer from something called "groupthink," which means they tend to lose the benefits of independent thought and just agree with each other. Everyone ends up patting themselves on the back rather than creating something great. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos solves that problem with a two-pizza rule.

According to productivity and ideas blog the 99u, Bezos uses pizza as a metric for choosing the size of his teams. Basically, if a team can't be fed be two pizzas alone that team is too large. The brain can't handle a lot of people, so it's not a surprise that smaller teams tend to work better. If you find independent ideas are suffering in your organization, it might be time to suggest instituting the two pizza rule.

  • What do urbanites do when they don't have the garage or the front porch for packages to be left on? A company named Bufferbox has it figured out, which is why they were recently bought buy Google. 

BufferBox is based in Waterloo, Ontario, and has a network of storage lockers in the area around Toronto. Users sign up for the service and then provide a BufferBox shipping address to online retailers.

Parcels get delivered to the lockers, and users retrieve them with an access code sent via email. The locker can then be used for someone else.

  • I love the church bells in town. This made me sad, not because I think anyone in specific is wrong here. It just made me sad.

  • And finally, from the group that brought us The fight of the century: Keynes v. Hayek, comes this timely versions of some timeless classics. Yes, I'm a geek, but there is some good insights here (and it is kind of funny).

Enjoy your weekend, everyone. While I won't be writing new content, we will be sharing some great stuff over the next two weeks. And I'll still be here checking in with a baking update now and then. Take care, everyone.


If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

 You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.