A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age by Daniel H. Pink

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Posted 2006-11-02

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

This book looks at how human aptitudes can support an age in which conceptual thinking dominates. I include this book in my readings because I think that cities supporting the human aptitudes that Pink identifies as key to the new "conceptual age" may be more successful economically and culturally. In particular, books such as The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape by Joel Kotkin, American Mania: When More Is Not Enough by Peter C. Whybrow, and Cities and the Creative Class by Richard Florida look at how human thinking affects economic development.

This book's strength is its concise and clear thesis that essentially identifies right-brained thinking as the clear winner in future economic development. Pink's central thesis: people can succeed in the future by engaging in activities that can answer these questions as "no, no, and yes" (p. 232):

  1. "Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
  2. Can a computer do it faster?
  3. Am I offering something that satisfies the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age?"

Pink's argument contends that left-brained (logical, linear) thinking got human beings from the industrial age (machines) to a knowledge-based society (much of the 20th century). Today, he claims, the ability to tap into right-brained thinking (wholistic, artistic) is key to success in the future. The ability to deal with information and facts is not enough--now, a new age requires that people are able to deal with concepts.

It strikes me that considering books such as Kotkin (2000) and Florida (2004), human thinking can influence a city's development. Pink does mention Florida (2002) in terms of the economic ascendancy of the creative class (p. 56). Therefore, I summarize Pink's aptitudes required for this new conceptual age, and include some of my comments on how these aptitudes may relate to the study of urbanism:

  1. Design: the ability to imbue a product or process with aesthetic or emotional qualities that engage the user and add value over competitor produces or services. Pink characterized this mainly in terms of going beyond the "merely functional" (p. 65) to "pleasure, meaning, and beauty" (p. 86). As such, I think Pink may be shortchanging such qualities as usability and simplicity in products and services--qualities that meet the subtler emotional needs for lowering complexity and information overload. However, design that transcends the merely functional and addresses the desire for wonder and beauty can be seen in some notable urban art expressions: Santiago Calatrava's addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and "the bean" (Cloudgate by Anish Kapoor) in Chicago's Millennium Park. The key here is that this art actually delights the public, and is not just bland, off-putting, ugly, junk sculpture. Urban design of beauty like this can capture the imagination of city residents and visitors.

  2. Story: the ability to weave a narrative that ties together events, people, ideas, and places into an engaging whole. Stories can make legal, medical, scientific, or historic facts fit together in a way that adds significance and context. Stories have proven to be a means for transmitting knowledge for thousands of years, and Pink presents the story as a central to human thought (p. 99). In urban areas, Bunnell (2000) shows how weaving historical elements into the urban landscape--essentially making a city's history visible--can powerfully convey a sense of place.

  3. Symphony: the ability to synthesize disparate pieces from multi-disciplinary perspectives into a significant and accurate whole. This skill relates to the practice of "drawing with the right side of the brain" as Pink illustrates in his chapter. The central idea here is that thinking that can quiet sequential, logical, and reductive tendencies and instead focus on relationships, metaphor, and "big picture thinking" can succeed. Indeed Solomon (2003) shows how the linear, functionally-oriented thinking of much of 20th-century architectural dogma dissected cities into miserable, inhuman boxes, the sum of which are the miserable experiences today found in bland suburbia or banal cityscapes.

  4. Empathy: the ability to understand a fellow human being's perspective, struggles, and experience. Pink makes much of facial recognition in his chapter and ties empathetic thinking to feminine qualities (p. 168). I see a much broader application. People must be able to view the world from the perspective of other people, beyond political, cultural, or racial labels. For example, the urban-suburban standoff (see Orum (1995)) largely results from a rift of understanding among city-dwellers and suburbanities. Drew (1998) also demonstrates how the social context and identity of some urban critics may prevent them from even considering the perspective of people in suburban areas and in the Midwest. Eye-ball rolling, elitist dismissal of some human experience may lead to eternal standoffs among people with different living needs and thus, no cohesion or coherence for living spaces--urban, suburban, or rural.

  5. Play: the ability to engage in humor and games. Pink emphasizes laughter clubs (p. 194) and touches on digital games as a powerful economic product (p. 183). Cities are a locus for play--in the form of festivals, artistic events, music, performance, theater, and in the flow of humanity on any urban street (for example, Florida (2002)). Play, beyond its ability to spark human feelings, is a valuable economic product in the form of mass media and Internet-based entertainment.

  6. Meaning: the ability to go beyond meeting material wants and desires toward meeting the need for fulfillment, including a strong sense of life purpose or spiritual meaning. Kotkin (2005) shows how the sacred has played a role in the development of cities. As an ultimate goal of personal self-actualization, a sense of meaning in one's life seems essential to support in cities. Kunstler (1993, 1996, 2002, and 2005) provides ample and dramatic arguments for how the urban form can denigrate human aspirations.
I think Pink's aptitudes can imbue urban design with essential insight into human needs and thinking, and, in particular thinking that contributes directly to the well-being and economic strength of an area. Because of this, I think that future cities that can support a conceptual mindset may very well be in the pink.

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