Curious Planning Policies Around the World #1 ‘I Hope its ok with the Elves’

Most of the Icelandic population no longer believe in elves – The Huldufólk hidden people.

A former prime minister believed that in the past Iceland had so few people that its population liked to imagine itself doubled with little people living in rocks at the ends of their gardens.  Icelanders like to build little houses for these people in their gardens.

These beliefs persist.  Rocks associated with faery lore are protected as ‘archaeological’ sites.  For example  In 2004, Alcoa had to have a government expert certify that their chosen building site was free of archaeological sites, including ones related to huldufólk folklore, before they could build an aluminium smelter.

There are many Icelandic folktales about elves and hidden people invading Icelandic farmhouses during Christmas and holding wild parties.

According to the New York Times in 2005 the town planning committee off  Hafnarjordur  considered a resident’s application to build a garage. “One member said, ‘I hope it’s O.K. with the elves'”.  The Chair related that should the council determine that it is, in fact, not O.K. – usually this happens when a local mystic hears from the elf population, directly or through a vision – the town would consider moving the project, or getting the mystic to ask the elves to move away.Recently, she said, some elves borrowed her kitchen scissors, only to return them a week later to a place she had repeatedly searched.  The fun you can have with american journalists.

In nearby Kopavogur, a section of Elfhill Road was narrowed from two lanes to one in the 1970’s, when repeated efforts to destroy a large rock that was believed to house elves were thwarted by equipment breakdowns. The rock is still there, jutting awkwardly into the road.

Until recent times such beliefs also persisted in the faero islands and parts of Scotland.

As little design as possible – new book on Dieter Rams

With a forward by Johnny Ives.


Rams 10 principles to good design

Good design:

  • Is innovative – Rams states that possibilities for innovation in design are unlikely to be exhausted since technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. He also highlights that innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology and can never be an end in and of itself.
  • Makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
  • Is aesthetic – Only well-executed objects can be beautiful. The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products used every day have an effect on people and their well-being.
  • Makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.
  • Is unobtrusive – Products and their design should be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression. Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools and are neither decorative objects nor works of art.
  • Is honest – Honest design should not attempt to make a product seem more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It should not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
  • Is long-lasting – It should avoid being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even when the trend may be in favor for disposable products.
  • Is thorough down to the last detail – Dieter Rams states that nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance in the design of a product since care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.
  • Is environmentally friendly – Good design should make an important contribution to the preservation of the environment by conserving resources and minimizing physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
  • Is as little design as possible – Dieter Rams makes the distinction between the common “Less is more” and his strongly advised “Less, but better” highlighting the fact that this approach focuses on the essential aspects thus, the products are not burdened with non-essentials. The desirable result would then be purer and simpler.

Decision Theory for Planners #105 Bias Bingo -The Cost of Being Wrong

We have a tendency to favour information that confirms our existing point of view – this is called confirmation bias.  For example if you dont like the EU you are more likely to read the Daily Express.

A fun game is to place all of the illogical fallacies and psychological biases used in a speech on a grid and tick them off one by one.  The winner gets bias bingo. This song has a good list.

Rather than searching through all the relevant evidence, people look for the consequences that they would expect if their hypothesis were true,  rather than what would happen if it were false.  Even our memory appears to show this bias.  We even to to cling to some beliefs even if we have seen some evidence to comprehensively disprove them.  We create a bias blind spot in our own minds.  The purpose of scientific methods is to protect us from this, to protect us from ourselves.

The order in which we receive evidence become important for this reason.  If a piece of evidence is presented early rather than later, it will be more likely to be believed than later evidence even if the reason for the ordering of the evidence is unimportant.

The term “confirmation bias” was coined by English psychologist Peter Watson, for an experiment published in 1960.

The conclusions and inferences he drew from this experiment have recently shown to be flawed.  The basis of this critique has led to a new theory on how we test and confirm ideas that fundamentally challenges planning theories on ‘critical rationalism’, and suggest that being rational is more about avoiding the consequences of being wrong than it is trying to be right every time.

In Watsons experiment he challenged his subjects to identify a rule applying to a set of three numbers (a triple).

First, they were told that (2,4,6) fits the rule. Subjects could generate their own triples and the experimenter told them whether or not each triple conformed to the rule.

Watson’s actual rule was simply “any ascending sequence”.  But his subjects had a great deal of difficulty in getting at it. They often announced rules that were far more specific, such as “the middle number is the average of the first and last”.

The subjects seemed to test only positive examples—triples that obeyed their hypothesised rule. For example, if they thought the rule was, “Each number is two greater than its predecessor”, they would offer a triple that fit this rule, such as (11,13,15) rather than a triple that violates it.

Watsons interpretation was challenged in a paper by  Joshua Klayman and Young-Won Ha in 1987.

They argued that the Wason experiments had not actually demonstrated a bias towards confirmation. Instead they interpreted the results in terms of a tendency to make tests that are consistent working hypothesis,  a huersistic,  which is imperfect but easy to compute.

Watson had used the concept of falsification as his assumption as to how his subjects tested their hyoptheses.  This came from the philosopher Popper, and is based on the view that you cannot prove a hypothesis through induction, you can only disprove it with a contrary ‘black swan’ – that knowledge is a process of deduction not induction.

This philsophy, critical rationalism, has been highly influential amongst some planning thinkers.  Notably Andreas Faludi – his ‘decision centred’ view of planning. That planning is about complex decisions. Rules for making complex decisions. ‘A decision is rational if it results from an evaluation of all alternatives in the light of their consequences‘. Clearly a generation of planners educated by this principle framed the way in which the 2004 reforms were implemented, with their exhaustive focus on evidence, justification and alternatives.

I would argue that we cannot hold to this philosophy as a modus operandum in the light of the findings of decision theory. We need a better way.

Klayman and Ha by constrast did not  base their ideas on Bayesian probability and information theory. Put simply how we approach problems based on our prior beliefs and the knowledge we hold and gain through making decisions.

Klayman and Ha argued that when people think about realistic problems, they are looking for a specific answer with a small initial probability. In this case, positive tests are usually more informative than negative tests.

However, in Wason’s rule discovery task the answer—three numbers in ascending order—is very broad, so positive tests are unlikely to yield informative answers. Klayman and Ha supported their analysis by citing a revised experiment that avoided implying that the aim was to find a low-probability rule. Subjects had much more success with this version of the experiment.

Look at this diagram.

If a hypothesis is tightly defined any number of them might fall within the ‘true area’  so a positive test alone will tell us little about the true hypothesis, and a falsification will only tell us if it is false.  We need prior information and a sequence of tests, looking at the problem from different perpectives, to grope towards the truth.  What matters is whether people test hypotheses in an informative way – rather than simple confirmation or falsification.

Psycological explantions on confirmation bias are based on limitations in people’s ability to handle complex tasks, and the need for shortcuts, called “heuristics” to get to the truth.  Decision theory tells us that huerestics are not necessarily irrational if they produce results, results often better than an exhaustive and often impossible process of assessment of every consequence of every decision.  In this view Faludis view of rational planning is deeply irrational. We can avoid confirmation bias with better hueristics.

People do not just test hypotheses in a disinterested way, but assess the costs of different errors.  This ideas comes from evolutionary psychology.  James Friedrich suggests that people do not primarily aim at truth  in testing hypotheses, but try to avoid the most costly errors. A good example is employers asking one-sided questions in job interviews because they are focused on weeding out unsuitable candidates

Yaacov Trope and Akiva Liberman’s have refined this idea, assuming that  people compare the two different kinds of error: accepting a false hypothesis or rejecting a true hypothesis, and the consequences of each one.

This concept has great paralells with the ideas advanced in the 1950s by the economist G.LS. Shackle, who advanced a non-probabilistic conceptualisation of decision under uncertainty. He criticised conventional views of rational choice becuase they did not adequately deal with the issue of ‘surprise’ by events caused by our ‘unknowledge’.

In Shackle’s view, individual choices made in real world (non-experimental) conditions -are non replicable. You cannot undo the decision.

Shackle put forward the concept of potential surprise, the consequces of an action. The potential surprise values of the various outcomes do not add up to one – they are non-additive.

Lets give an example suppose the entrepreneur is asked to make an exhaustive list of the specified distinct events which can affect the value of alternative investments, as required by the application of probability theory and critical rationalism. The entrepreneur, contended,

“will in the end run out of time for its compiling, will realize that there is no end to such a task, and will be driven to finish off his list with a residual hypothesis, an acknowledgement that any one of the things he has listed can happen, and also any number of other things unthought of and incapable of being envisaged before the deadline of decision have come: a Pandora’s box of possibilities beyond reach of formulation.”

Familiar ideas from the opening lecture. Shackle viewed us taking decisions as evaluating a gain-loss pair rather. We focus on the degree of surprise of the loss and gain occurring. We we would be less surprised by a gain of 1000 pounds on an investment that the loss of 1000 pounds we are more likely to make that investment. If the extent of gain is not known, we have probability of it occurring, we are likely to try to minimise risk, minimise losses. With ‘unknowledge’ of future events we cannot rationally make decisions on the basis of expected gains, the evidence we need hasn’t even occurred yet, but instead on the basis of minimising the maximum expected loss. Of reducing the cost of being wrong. This is the minimax rule.

In an uncertain world then, where we cannot pin down probaibilities, we can at least reduce the consequences of getting it badly wrong, which out human tendencies to optimism and confirmation bias might lead us.

Wheat on the Savannah – Capitalisms last frontier #1

Imagine a line sketched across the face of the planet.

On one side of the line lies the world before capitalism, of subsistence agriculture, small villages and the wilderness. On the other side lies food farmed commercially, a world of markets, market towns, of a population that is enabled to work but not farm and hence a world of factories, cities and mass consumption.

This line is known as the ‘margin of cultivation’ – it is likely the single most important concept in the history of economics. Understanding it is key to understanding why whole peoples starve, or thrive and multiply. Why countries grow and how fast they grow, and indeed what the limits to growth are at any one time.

Today that margin, the food frontier of capitalism has swept across the planet. It has conquered Europe and the steppes of central Asia. It has crossed the Atlantic and all our oceans and swept across the United States from coast to coast and in Australia to the dry edges of the outback. In Asia the margins of rice cultivation has krept up mountains, and in almost every realistic place to cultivate. In South America it has pushed back the edges of rain forest, and now in Africa, the last great, unconquered continent, huge swathes of land are being bought and sold by Hedge funds for international export of food. Middle Eastern nations, some like Saudi exhausting their ground water supplies, are pushing commercial agriculture across Africa, as is China, deeply concerned about its food security.

This race for land is a race for food, a second wave of colonialism, as we now have a global market for our most basic staples such as wheat and rice.

Norman Berlaug, who died in 2009, won a noble peace prize for his efforts to improve global agriculture. Though controversial figure perhaps noone else has done more to feed the world – he is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation – through improving the yields of Wheat.

In 2005 he said “we will have to double the world food supply by 2050.”

And in 1997

“Africa, the former Soviet republics, and the cerrado are the last frontiers. After they are in use, the world will have no additional sizable blocks of arable land left to put into production, unless you are willing to level whole forests, which you should not do. So, future food-production increases will have to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before”

Now with food riots in many countries, are we reaching this ‘nightmare’? Have we closed this frontier?

Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist Thomas Friedman writing in the New York Times this week the earth is full quotes approvingly the Paul Gilding of the Global Footprint Network, promoting his new book “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.”

‘You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, …floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?

We’re currently caught in two loops: One is that more population growth and more global warming together are pushing up food prices; rising food prices cause political instability in the Middle East, which leads to higher oil prices, which leads to higher food prices, which leads to more instability. At the same time, improved productivity means fewer people are needed in every factory to produce more stuff. So if we want to have more jobs, we need more factories. More factories making more stuff make more global warming, and that is where the two loops meet”.

This series will test to what extent this thesis is correct. It looks at this concept – of capitalisms food frontier, back through history and how it has been shaped by food crises from the past. How different theories, dismal and hopeful, light up different sides of the issue.  It will show the limits of capitalism, but how those limits have been overcome.

It will be written from a radical green perspective but will thrown up a few surprises, their is hope, their is a way out, we can feed the world, and we might even be able to do some shopping after dinner.

Plummeting Solar Power Costs

From FT subscription required.

Grid parity looks very close with natural gas in places like California and Italy.

Classic example of increasing returns to scale from improvements to technology in a high growth industry.

Energy pay back is now 1-3 years, that is they generate the power needed to manufacture them in that time.  A small rooftop wind turbine will never generate more energy than they cost to manufacture,  Call me Dave might as well be running an electric lawmover on his roof for its contribution to global warming.

If this rate of improvement is happening what is the case for a subsidy price for feed in tariffs, Grid parity will be achieved in the UK anyway within 5 years.  The argument can only be an energy security one, to get that 5 year head start.

National Planning Policy Framework Forensics #9 Assessing Overall Housing Requirements

At first sight the sections on this (oddly split between pages 9-10 and 32) seem like a simple edit job with no fundamental change in methods.  It is the operation of the tools though, by whom, meeting what needs, and to what ends that create uncertainty.

Strategic Housing Market Assessments remain, however the footnote gives an utter non-definition as ‘an important part of the evidence base’.  Annex C of PPS3 was little better, giving a list of items to include in one not what one is for.  No wonder the public and council dispare of the 3 or 4 letter acronym ridden world of planning.

I would suggest a definition and statement of purpose as follows:

Strategic Housing Market Assessment should be undertaken – which are studies to provide evidence on housing requirements for development plans over the plan periods.

They should express the full spectrum of housing of likely need and demand for all types of general market and affordable housing, and any specific housing requirements of  different groups;  as well as the distribution of this across the study area. Where housing market areas cross administrative boundaries joint working will be required.  

The assessments should assess the factors driving need and demand, in particular forecasts of economic growth and change and how this will effect population change (including migration) and changes in the number and type of households.  Any variation from the latest assumptions of national bodies (such as the ONS) should be fully justified by evidence from local and regional observatories.

The assessments should also assess the impact of different levels of housing provision on future house prices and affordability. 

The outcome will be an assessment of the scale and mix of types of housing required in the plan or plans covered.

It will be acceptable to present a range of options providing:

  1. The assumptions on economic growth are compatible with the growth agenda as set out in the NPPF, and in annual ‘Green Book’ Statements;
  2. The assessments avoid unecessarily restrictive assumptions about the availability of housing for workers moving to or from an area for work purposes, and
  3. The levels of housing would be, as far as possible, at least sufficient to maintain housing affordability  at 2010 levels, adjusted for purchasing power parity, over the plan period.

The recommendation or options should be set out as the total number of net additional dwellings required, over the full plan  period, expressed as a housing trajectory.  

This recasting attempts to counter a number of difficulties:

-Better narrative structure, definition up front, outputs at end.

-Whose projections, there is a need to set up a proper medium for negotaiting down from sub-national projections in the absence of regional planning bodies,  This is highly unclear at the moment.

-You dont plan to meet a projection, you plan to meet a forecast.

-The key driver, economic growth, appears nowhere in the current draft section.  The interrelation between the growth agenda and housing numbers is a key point of confusion for many authorities making them wonder if they need to start the evidence loop from the beginning.

-In the absence of the NHPAU the need to assess the impact on housing affordability and prices.  In the absence of the Housing Green paper I have suggested a new 2011 benchmark for housing affordability.  Without such a benchmark there can be no guarentee that the ‘backlog’ of housing requirements will ever be cleared.

-Tenure should not be a planning issue.  Affordability and the freedom to make a choice from a range of innovative housing offers should be.

-It is the spectrum of housing needs that matters, the definition of affordability is secondary.  This is the danger of defining affordability by the latest trendy intermediate tenure.  Developers will want all of that and nothing else, especially if the implied discount on full market price is only 10% and not 50%.

-The suggested section is designed to counter the kind of response some authorities, like Hampshire and Hertfordshire, adopted in the early 90s, a ‘no growth agenda’ designed to reduce housing numbers.  They are also designed to provide clarity on whether or not it is acceptable to present a range of options on housing and economic growth numbers.  Of course you cant assume you neighbours will all take the slack- but I deal with that in a future section on the duty to cooperate.

-Makes it clear that the latest official projections are the basis for forecasts, not 5 year old ‘option a s’

Comparing to the equivalent sections (paras 32-35) of PPS3.  The noticeable ommissions are reference to the NHPAU and RSS.  This of course leaves gaps in translation and interpretation, some of which I have tried to fill above.

The next section will look at site assessment.