European Straits
European Straits
Feminist Cities w/ Leslie Kern. America. Rebooting Businesses. Construction.

Feminist Cities w/ Leslie Kern. America. Rebooting Businesses. Construction.

The Agenda 👇

  • Launching a podcast with Laetitia Vitaud. This week’s guest: Leslie Kern 🎧

  • Software will eat construction, too—one day

  • Turning incumbents into tech companies

  • The main difference between Europe and America

  • And no, it’s not about more or less regulation

  • The Family Affairs feat. Mathias Pastor

  • My podcast conversation with Mehdi Yacoubi

🎙 As I announced last week, my wife Laetitia Vitaud and I have decided to launch an English-speaking podcast series together and to syndicate it across a network of newsletters. That includes Building Bridges, the mothership for this series, as well as Nouveau Départ (our French-speaking family media operation, where transcripts will be published in French), Laetitia’s own Laetitia@Work about the future of work, outlets to be launched in German and Spanish, and European Straits, of course, since it’s all promoting a European point of view on global affairs.

  • We have an impressive series of interviews coming up with Laetitia as a host (including with James Crabtree, Vaughn Tan, Bruno Macaes, Mariana Mazzucato, Hilary Cottam, and many others), and I’ll take my turn hosting in a few weeks! Stay tuned 😎

The inaugural episode, which you can listen to by clicking above 👆, is a fascinating conversation between Laetitia and Leslie Kern, a Canadian author whose book Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World (2020) we both found particularly inspiring.

  • Leslie is an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women's and gender studies at Mount Allison University in Canada.

As Laetitia wrote last week,

With the pandemic and much political, economic and social chaos, 2020 generated lots of questions about cities, urban life, and activism. Many people wonder whether cities still have a future. I’m sure they do. But maybe more so if they are “feminist cities”. And that’s why Leslie Kern’s ideas are even more relevant than ever.

She is “proud to call [herself] a feminist geographer”. Twenty years ago, people may have mocked the idea that geography could be sexist or feminist. Today more people understand that urban planning does indeed have consequences on gender equality, and that we need to take more diverse points of view into account to make housing and infrastructure better for all.

It’s a conversation that resonates a lot with topics I’ve been exploring for a long time: urbanization, how jobs concentrate in densely populated areas, why that’s correlated with software eating the world, and why it calls for inventing a new social safety net for all those workers in proximity services. Leslie’s vision of “feminist cities” isn’t that different from the one I developed in my book Hedge, in which designing institutions for service workers in large cities was a central idea.

(Credits: Franz Liszt, Mephisto Waltz, S.514-extract from the album Miroirs by Jonas Vitaud, NoMadMusic.)

💻 Why Software Has a Hard Time Eating Construction 🏘

One promise of the Entrepreneurial Age is that innovation brings better products to more people for lower prices. And yet some industries resist that formula. In an industry like healthcare, that’s because the end user isn’t actually usually in a position to choose or even fully understand their care. In an industry like construction, it’s because there’s a large portion of SMBs in the value chain, with both those providers and end users being quite resistant to standardization.

At one time, I thought that could perhaps be an opportunity for the emerging tech giants. Google’s purchase of Nest back in early 2014 could have been the first step toward a full-stack construction operation, with Google lowering prices by pushing builders into adapting their practices in order to be part of a “Google Builders” network.

Needless to say, that hasn’t happened yet. But startups around the globe are still trying to crack the prefab puzzle, especially now that COVID-19 is playing its recognized part in accelerating emerging trends. There have been labor shortages in construction for years, a situation that’s only becoming more acute during the pandemic.

I got into the details in Why Software Has a Hard Time Eating Construction.

📲 Rebooting Businesses for the Entrepreneurial Age

Back in the early days of The Family, we were always thinking about different ways to kickstart the European startup ecosystem. One idea centered on how to turn legacy businesses with known assets into modern companies using technology to deliver the top-notch services that customers are now accustomed to. We even went through a long due diligence process on a major Paris-based retail franchise to see if it was possible.

The thing we realized, though, was that such an operation actually crosses three different streams in today’s financing world: buyout firms, turnaround firms, and venture capital firms. And since each of those specialities exist independently of one another, it’s not exactly clear how one can acquire the backing to pull off a true reboot.

I was reminded of this while listening to a recent podcast discussion with a prominent value investor who goes by the pseudonym of Modest Proposal on Twitter, where the subject was how to grow tech-driven business models in “heterogeneous services” industries such as on-demand home services.

Read more in Rebooting Businesses for the Entrepreneurial Age.

🛣 Europe Is a Base, America Is a Destination

If you want to quickly see one big difference between the mental picture we all have of Europe vs. the US, just ask yourself one question: How many Europeans do you know who moved away to live in the US for a significant amount of time, and how many Americans do you know who have moved away to live in Europe (or elsewhere)?

If you’re like me, the first number is pretty big, while the second is quite low. And after 30 years of closely studying the US, I think that the concept of a base vs. a destination explains a good deal. Europeans know that they can leave Europe to go pursue opportunities elsewhere, always having a base to return to whenever they want. But Americans have already reached their destination, with internal immigration being the only option available on their mental map.

Still, things are changing. The US is becoming less welcoming to immigration, which drastically changes its historical positioning. It also will affect long-term economic growth, as countries that are less open to new arrivals soon find themselves in a demographic trap. And some of the “escapism” that Americans tend to indulge as a response to having reached their destination is becoming quite alarming, even dangerous as they play the “Trump and an autocratic state” game.

You can keep going in Europe Is a Base, America Is a Destination.

👮‍♂️ Fewer Regulations in America?

One thing that the US certainly doesn’t lack, and which we’re likely to see coming into action in the wake of next Tuesday’s Election Day, is lawyers. And the legal profession is at the heart of a very common misconception, namely that there are fewer regulations in the US than there are in Europe.

In fact, the US simply has produced more lawyers per capita than virtually any other country, and so Americans see it as normal to have a lawyer navigating the maze of regulations for them (a maze that changes depending on which of the 50 states you’re dealing with!).

This wasn’t always the case. In fact, it was in the 1970s, that moment marking the turn toward global free trade, the supposed deregulation of the Reagan era, and financialization when the US began producing more and more lawyers, from the roughly 300,000 who were around in 1970 to over 1.2M by 2010! Needless to say, it would seem that if the US really was a freedom paradise unencumbered by regulations, the country wouldn’t be producing all those lawyers.

I go further into the discussion in Fewer Regulations in America?

Sounds interesting? Subscribe to European Straits and let me know what you think!

⚠️ My colleague and fellow director at The Family Mathias Pastor just announced a new series of talks with inspiring founders, called The Family Affairs. He explained the thinking behind it all and talked about his first three guests in his Substack publication Published Draftshere.

🎧 I was pleased to be invited onto the podcast of Mehdi Yacoubi, co-founder of Lifetizr. We took a look back at why I wrote my book Hedge, the current geopolitical context, the great fragmentation and more —listen to it directly on Apple Podcasts.

From Adieu to Old America (April 2020):

I love the US as a nation and it’s still hard for me to accept the fact that we Europeans and Americans don’t have much in common anymore. Even worse, I have invested quite a lot of time and resources over the past 20 years in getting to know the US better, figuring out how the US and Europe can complement each other, and developing a network on the other side of the Atlantic. So when things happen that point to that whole investment now becoming worthless, I have both losses to recoup and wounds to lick.

All recent editions:

European Straits is now a 5-email-a-week product; all essays are subscriber-only (with rare exceptions). Join us!

From Normandy, France 🇫🇷