Institutions

March 28th, 2003 § Three comments

I just finished reading a book called A New Theory of Urban Design, written by the architect Christopher Alexander and several of his students. After they describe their theory, Alexander and his co-authors document an experiment in which a group of students used the theory to redesign a small part of San Francisco. The students paid no attention to zoning laws or bank lending policies. They even ignored the issue of property ownership; they simply grabbed chunks of land as they needed to and proposed things to build on them. The authors acknowledge that existing laws and institutions would prevent anyone from replicating their experiment in real life. Their proposed solution is to develop new institutions, but they admit that they have no idea what sort of institutions might be needed.

I also read Jonathan Schell’s recent articles in Harper’s, in which he argues that many wars could be prevented, if the United States and other democratic countries were willing, by creating a new set of international institutions—not the United Nations, but other institutions with a different character. Again, though, he isn’t sure what sort of institutions are required.

Finally, while I was in Cambridge in October, I bought a book called The Ingenuity Gap, which argues that our ability to create social and environmental problems is outstripping our ability to find ways of solving them. The book touched briefly on the point that our existing institutions (regulatory bodies, resource management agencies, and so on) are inadequate to solve the problems we face. Once again, I don’t think the author said much about what sort of institutions we need, just that we need different ones.

So there are interesting questions underlying all of these problems. How are institutions created? How do novel types of institutions develop—do they tend to emerge fully formed, or do they evolve from existing institutions? Once an institution is created, how does it adapt to changing circumstances?

I’m sure there are raftloads of books and journals that attempt to answer these questions; do you have any recommendations?

Three comments

  • RW says:

    Third world informal lending practices–S.E Asian and Muslim, as I recall. Definitely non-regulated.
    Transitions from existing to new & innovative would be highly chaotic, I suspect–large powerful vested interests in business as usual. Perhaps this in part is why so many attempts have been isolated and utopian in nature?
    Eight or ten years of reading Sociolgy, Economics and Political Science should get you started :)

  • RW says:

    More thoughts re ‘difficulties’–unexpected uses and impacts of ‘new technology’ as a model for difficulties of ‘new institutions’.
    The computer–we’ll only need a dozen or so.
    Interstate highways and urban sprawl.
    Social use of cell phones vs. business use–a phone now equates to a person rather than a place.
    Hydrogen fuel vs. fossil fuel >>>????
    Check out http://www.slowfood.com as an alternative to fast food and for urban support of sustainable agriculture.
    RW

  • Jeff says:

    Yeah, I’m kind of hoping to cut the eight or ten years of reading down to something more reasonable.
    Thanks for suggesting the example of Third World lending practices. It would be interesting to find out how that system began.
    I’m not sure the technological issues are a very good model for the problems of institutions. I would think of those as catalysts for the sort of institutional change that I’m interested in.

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