In Palo Alto

1.

I’m still in Palo Alto, and I’m none the wiser about the street sign program that asks locals to look up and think about the meaning of their city.*  I’ve now found eight different examples, and they’ve started to take on an anxious tone. The whole place feels like it’s worrying about something.

Would you say that things in your city are better or worse than they used to be? Do you ever find yourself longing for “the good old days”?

What sort of people are needed to make a city?

If you had to decide who could live in your city, what sort of people would you choose? Is there a particular sort of person you feel would be a ‘good fit’ for your city?

What, if anything, do you think living in your city says about the kind of person you are?

Thought experiment: replace city with university. University-as-a-city. What if we had to ask these questions as we move around our workplaces? Would this make us more or less likely to notice the people who find our universities inhospitable, difficult places to be?

2.

Would you recommend your city to others?  Do you think of it as a good place to make a living? What sort of jobs do people in your city have? Are there good options for housing?

From the PPalo Alto Weeklyalo Alto Weekly, some answers to these questions. In 2012 the median household income was 33% higher than the rest of the county of Santa Clara in which it sits–rising from a 22% income gap in 2000. Of the 440 new housing units added since 2014, 78% were developed for those on “above moderate” incomes. The cost of a rental apartment is twice the county average. And this is the kicker: the median home price is $2.67 million.

People write in to the Palo Alto Weekly. They attend community meetings. They aren’t sure whether property owners should be able to subdivide and use “infill development” (granny flats) to solve the housing problem. “Granny units come with real live people living a full life in them, noise, social life, their friends visiting, air conditioning units and all.” But on the other hand, seniors who downsize can’t afford to stay in the area at all; and young workers who are living the employment dream find themselves priced out of their home town housing market, and still living at home with their parents.

3.

People seem unsure about what’s causing the housing problem, especially in relation to the abundance of employment. Even young lawyers are leaving town in search of affordable real estate. How is this happening?

“A lot of us work in tech, and we can’t really leave because this is where the tech is.”

But there’s another view of the growth of tech employment around Palo Alto.

“Tech companies that keep importing people into this area, instead of growing in other areas that could use the jobs, are the ones causing the problems. Stop building, and they will stop coming.”

4.

In her keynote yesterday on California’s history and future of technology imperialism at the #icdeunisa conference in Sun City, South Africa (yes, that Sun City), Audrey Watters maps out very carefully what all of this has to do with those of us who work in education, and she’s right that this brackets education technology with the longer history of Hollywood prospecting in foreign markets for profit.

So far this year, some $3.76 billion of venture capital has been invested in education technology – a record-setting figure. That money will change the landscape – that’s its intention.

She also tells a little known story about a proposal to change the landscape in a more literal way: to subdivide California into six smaller states, that would have created the wealthiest state in the US: Silicon Valley.

We in education would be naive, I think, to think that the designs that venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs have for us would be any less radical than creating a new state.

As I read this powerful piece, I find myself wondering about the other stakeholders in this kind of subdivision, the ones on our side of the fence. In any higher education system that prides itself on competitive advancement, there are also those who profit from the concentration of resources, and excuse themselves from having to look at what happens elsewhere when they do. Venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs are their natural kin, and we shouldn’t forget this.

5.

Searching for a grocery store, we meet an older Palo Alto resident using a walker to get about. She seems to have groceries, so we ask her where they come from. She tells us that the seniors’ home takes them all to Trader Joe’s on a special bus. What does it mean that there are no corner stores here, nowhere to pop out and buy a loaf of bread?

In a main street store in Palo Alto there’s a cardigan on sale for $850.

And outside the Apple Store, what looks like a Halloween display turns out to be the most muted form of industrial protest I have ever seen. A smartly-dressed representative of the Carpenters 22 hands out a leaflet explaining that Apple are using non-union labour from Canada to get some things built in the valley, despite explicit promises not to do this. Inside the store, the Apple employees look out at us. There is nothing to see here.

6.

Circuits art piece detailIn the middle of Palo Alto’s leafy, strollable downtown, there’s a large sculpture made of the usually hidden parts of all the stuff that makes it possible for us to do what we do. I’ve been looking at it for a couple of days, thinking about the #dlrn15 theme of making sense of higher education in terms of networks, and change practices.

What circuits isolate us from each other, all those of us who work in different ways in higher education? Can we imagine using this circuitry differently? This evening the first #dlrn15 participants showed up for a small pre-conference World Cafe event, to establish some common touchpoints, some problems and some provisional solutions that are worth thinking about and working towards together.

As I’m partly responsible for encouraging the focus on the experience of working in and with higher education, I was really glad to host that part of the discussion. We heard from adjuncts, students, administrators, professional staff and regular faculty, and we came to rest on a smallish, fixable problem: that it’s genuinely hard for institutions to see small innovative gestures and practical triumphs, and as a result strategic planning misses the opportunity to align with what is already valued and demonstrated to work. This is the question we developed as a starting point, and the always impressive David Jones took us a long way towards an elegant technical solution.

How do we notice and learn from small, continuous changes in the way we work, and feed these into institutional decision making?

Tomorrow we’ll think about how to answer it.

*Update: Paul-Olivier deHaye has found the answer. It’s part of Palo Alto’s wide ranging public art program. The artist is Anthony Discenza, and the text of all the questions is here.

One thought on “In Palo Alto

  1. I looked it up, the questions are part of an art project, an intentionally somewhat ambiguous.

    http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/gov/depts/csd/public_art/default.asp

    (look up Discenza)

    FWIW, I was visiting friends yesterday living in a granny flat. Between the owner wanting to downsize further and them wanting to get a bigger place now that they have a kid, they realise they will need to move, and know that they will be priced out (both engineers). Houses in their current neighbourhood sell for 3M USD.

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