Jane Jacobs and London’s Old Street area

I’ve been read­ing The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities at a leisure­ly pace since octo­ber or so. (A tem­po that seems to suit the book fine. Jacobs makes me want to slow down and see.) I came across this pas­sage dur­ing a ses­sion with the book this week­end and some­thing about a recent vis­it to Lon­don clicked.

After explain­ing how large com­pa­nies do not need to be in cities because they are to a large extent self-suf­fi­cient and thus do not have to rely on ser­vices out­side them­selves, Jacobs goes on to say:

But for small man­u­fac­tur­ers, every­thing is reversed. Typ­i­cal­ly they must draw on many and var­ied sup­plies and skills out­side them­selves, they must serve a nar­row mar­ket at the point where a mar­ket exists, and they must be sen­si­tive to quick changes in this mar­ket. With­out cities, they would sim­ply not exist. Depen­dent on a huge diver­si­ty of oth­er city enter­pris­es, they can add fur­ther to that diver­si­ty. This last is a most impor­tant point to remem­ber. City diver­si­ty itself per­mits and stim­u­lates more diver­si­ty.

(My empha­sis, by the way.)

The day before Play­ful ’09 I spent some time at BERG, Tinker.it! and Real­ly Inter­est­ing Group. Noth­ing fan­cy mind you. I mean, they lent me a chair and a bit of table, plus inter­net. It wasn’t like I actu­al­ly worked with them (although I’m sure I would enjoy it!) It was a nice expe­ri­ence, but most of all, it was hum­bling. I was struck by the spare­ness of the space they were in, the lim­it­ed facil­i­ties at their dis­pos­al, the lit­tle room they had for all the peo­ple present.

Let me just say it was as lit­tle or less than what I’ve seen com­pa­ra­ble groups in the Nether­lands have to make do with.

And this is the thing. Over here, many of the star­tups I’ve encoun­tered seem to believe they first need more and fanci­er facil­i­ties before they can make it big time. The Sil­i­con Round­about crew I men­tioned ear­li­er make a glob­al splash at a reg­u­lar basis, despite the lim­it­ed (that I observed) resources at their dis­pos­al.

How­ev­er, and this is where the quote from Death and Life comes in, per­haps I was look­ing at it the wrong way. Per­haps the Shored­itch star­tups are more effec­tive than their Dutch coun­ter­parts not just because they do more with less (and because they are, clear­ly, insane­ly tal­ent­ed and hard work­ing, “rid­ing the wave of inno­va­tion, 24/7”, right guys?) but because they are in Lon­don. A city at a dif­fer­ent scale than Ams­ter­dam or for that mat­ter the greater Ams­ter­dam area, the Rand­stad as we call it around these parts. A city with a more diverse ecosys­tem of ser­vices and things, small­er ser­vices, more spe­cialised ser­vices, ready to be employed by com­pa­nies like BERG and RIG and Tin­ker, enhanc­ing their abil­i­ties when need­ed.

The city, in this case, not as a bat­tle suit, but more like a huge drug store stocked with a huge range of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals that aug­ment then this trait, then the oth­er.