Finding Our Place in the World, Part 2: Place in an Onsite-Online World

November 6, 2011

Many of us, having incorporated online communities into our professional and personal lives, reach the moment when we decide that the idea of place is dead—that geography no longer matters.

But it doesn’t take us long to realize we’re wrong. And reading and thinking about Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision in Your Life (2008) drives the point—and us—home. Florida, continuing to focus on the role creativity plays in making communities vital, vibrant social and economic centers, writes clearly and engagingly as he points out how “spiky” the world remains in terms of having peaks of social and economic centers that offer opportunities not to be as readily found in the valleys that exist elsewhere.

“Today’s key economic factors—talent, innovation, and creativity—are not distributed evenly across the global economy,” he reminds us (p. 9). “They concentrate in specific locations” including centers of innovation such as Tokyo, Seoul, New York, and San Francisco (p. 25). There are also mega-regions that continue to thrive, including Boston-NewYork-Washington-Baltimore, Osaka-Nagoya, Frankfurt-Stuttgart, and several others he cites throughout his book.

“More and more people are clustering in urban areas,” he writes (p. 18), and that clustering encourages people “to do more than they otherwise would, such as engage in more creative activities, invent new things, or start new companies—all things that are both personally fulfilling and economically productive…This creates a regenerative cycle: the stimulation unleashes creative energy, which in turn attracts more high-energy people from other places, which results in higher rates of innovation, greater economic prosperity, higher living standards, and more stimulation” (p. 159).

This won’t be news to those familiar with Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and just about everything he has written, William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988), Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place (1989), Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect, or writing colleagues and I have done on the proposed Fourth Place in our lives—the social learning centers that serve as our onsite-online sources of learning opportunities in a world where continual learning is one of the keys to success.

But it does remind us that the geography of place is far from dead—even if it now so clearly co-exists with place as an online construct through the sort of communities and associations I wrote about two days ago to describe my own onsite-online sense of community and professional family through the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

As is the case with so many blanket statements we make and eventually have to recant, the role of place in our lives is evolving to accommodate that sense of place that includes onsite as well as online places. Rather than creating either-or distinctions here, we’ll find ourselves on terra firma and in terra virtual if we see place in a blended seamless way. The place we call home. The places we temporarily join when we travel to work. The third and fourth places in our lives—those coffee shops, restaurants, community centers, and social learning centers which so clearly contribute to our onsite-online place in the world. And the online places that facilitate the connections that matter most to us in terms of making us members of a variety of interconnected world-wide communities of learning, interest, and practice. With a renewed appreciation for all that home offers in this still evolving onsite-online world.


William Whyte, City, and the Spirit of Collaboration

February 5, 2011

For those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, almost anything we read offers something we can bring back to those we serve. And every once in a while, we need to step back from newly released books and return to those which have been around for a decade or two—if not much longer.

If we’re interested in themes such as collaboration and community, we find works including Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and just about everything he has written since then to be essential reminders that certain ideas remain consistent and worthy of our attention.

William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988) is another of those gems, and not just for students and lovers of architecture and city streets—and the way we use them. Whyte’s dynamic work, drawn from 16 years of filming life on the streets of New York, is, ostensibly, a study of what makes cities work; it actually is far more than that. In exploring simple themes including how pedestrians in crowded urban spaces manage to navigate sidewalks and streets without continually bumping into each other, he highlights the larger, more intriguing issue of how we learn to collaborate almost wordlessly and effortlessly with one another. When he explores the importance of well maintained trash receptacles (pp. 90-92) and well placed drinking fountains (p. 87) in making communities attractive to residents and visitors, he reminds all of us to not overlook the elements that make our homes, communities, workplaces, social gathering sites, and learning spaces—onsite and online—compellingly attractive. When he suggests that stakeholders in business districts might benefit from actively seeking new proprietors to provide what is currently missing from those centers (p. 323), he is also subliminally reminding us to actively seek to fill the gaps in what each of us does and provides in our own personal, social, and professional lives.

“It is the asking of [questions] that is the critical step,” he suggests at one point (p. 270), and it is with that simple yet profound reminder that Whyte makes us not only look at the communities of learning we inhabit, but makes us want to question why they are the way they are—and what we can do to make them even better, regardless of whether they are classroom-based or virtual.


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