The Modern World is a Miracle. But it Needs Fixing.

Blueprint Series #1


"One of the biggest traps for smart engineers is optimizing something that shouldn't exist."  That line from Elon Musk has always stuck with me.

I believe this is universally true. In a world of highly complex systems and processes, it’s easy to become distracted by all of the niche functions required to create the end product. We lose sight of the bigger picture unless it is intentionally, vigilantly, purposefully emphasized. We  acquire a laser focus on the product, the innovation, the tech, the design, the rules, the process… and forget who it's for. That it's people actually using it, whatever "it" is, in the end. And in our case, “it” is the human habitat. How do we want to live?

While our modern world is very good at optimization within a given incentive structure, it is not very good at pursuing a collective vision or zooming out to see the big picture in order to pursue a long term goal. When we simplify a complex world, we isolate peoples' perspectives, and everyone starts performing univariate analysis to solve for their own narrow niche:  

  • The architect, who designs things that can’t be built because they know nothing about construction, engineering or finance.  

  • The engineer, who solves for acute failures like hurricanes, earthquakes and fires, but not for the singular inevitability: decay. Destruction is still the result–it just takes a little longer.

  • The utility departments that require separate utility ditches, which simplifies their jobs, but destroys the potential to build human-scaled neighborhoods.

  • The traffic engineer who is trained to solve traffic problems with one tool alone: wider streets and more parking. When you’re a hammer, everything is a nail.  

  • The city councilor who laments the dearth of “affordable” housing while voting for laws that make it more expensive.

The list goes on!

I'm not critiquing people; I’m critiquing the system. This is the inevitable outcome when professions and roles become too isolated in the name of “efficiency,” and when a broader vision isn't actively cultivated. When the “why” isn't guarded, or even defined to begin with, an individual can only adhere to the rules because there are no higher principles that allow for nuance and creativity.

Rather than the rules serving us and guiding us toward our goals, we serve the rules.

Lack of a broader vision also steals meaning and purpose from the individual because, without a real goal, a noble cause, something to pursue and achieve, work is just a job that comes with a paycheck to help you survive.   

The current human habitat, our built environment, isn't the product of decades-long effort and hard work toward a well-developed vision. It's the product of random, isolated decisions by bureaucrats, outdated laws, industry lobbying efforts, and big finance—with a few good people doing good work in spite of it all. And the results speak for themselves. 

I colloquially refer to these as Sleeping Facilities (houses), Corporate Consumption Centers (strip malls and drive throughs), and Labor Exaction Facilities (office parks).

Does this look like a place to build a rich and meaningful life?  Bursting with beauty, local identity and culture?  A place for family and kids to flourish? A place for connection and community and an integrated lifestyle? A place to be healthy, physically and socially? A responsible use of natural resources?  Does this look like the highest expression of our potential–particularly as the wealthiest and most technologically advanced country in the history of the world? Of course not.


Now I want to be very, very clear. We live in an incredible world. An astonishing world. We can launch rockets into space, stock our fridge with groceries from all over the planet, and literally walk out of hip replacement surgeries. We have extraordinary amounts of cheap stuff that makes our lives better and arrives at our door in 24 hours with a click of a button. The wealth, tech and opportunity all around us is unprecedented in human history. The modern world is truly a miracle.

But does that mean we've gotten everything right? Of course we haven't! Humans are notorious for being wrong. It's the story of the human race. And with so much change in the past 200 years, particularly the past 100, of course we got some things wrong! Everything is changing so rapidly. NO ONE is capable of predicting all the outcomes of a single decision or technology, let alone the infinite complexity of all those changes interacting with each other, over time.

Want to see how confidently but profoundly wrong we have very recently been? Google old advertisements for things like asbestos, DDT, cigarettes and sugar.

Mistakes are an inevitable part of making progress, and I’m not critiquing that.

But I am critiquing our refusal to seriously examine the results of our progress and find out what's worked and what hasn't.

We are so busy defending the current system, building onto the current system, further optimizing the current system, that, like the engineer, we haven't stopped to ask ourselves: should this even exist to begin with?


I'm not advocating for a "storm the castle" or "burn it down" approach. I believe we've built an incredible world, and there are many, many, many things worth keeping. But I also believe we've gotten many things seriously and dangerously wrong, and the alarm bells are going off with increasing fervor. Let’s stop blindly adding layers of complexity to the current system, and take a moment to examine the results: What's the outcome? What's worked? What hasn't? What do we want to keep? What should we get rid of?

In some areas this will require demo work: going backwards to build off a new foundation. This takes humility—it’s tough to admit that maybe we weren’t “right” to begin with. But I think it's essential if we want to keep making progress.

This "Playbook" is not the "definitive guide to building great places." It would be profoundly arrogant for me to think of it as such. Rather, I want to explore how the built environment contributes to many of our cultural problems, how it can also contribute to the solutions, and finally how to execute those solutions in the here and now.

At Building Culture, we are solution-oriented and informed by doing things in the real world. We constantly run experiments:  researching, testing hypotheses, engaging with the system, advocating for changes, growing our network of great people, and trying to solve problems—all while running a real business.  

As one of my mentors says, we work at the intersection of purpose and profits. Profits keep us honest and grounded in reality, but purpose is what drives us. How do we cultivate thriving, beautiful, healthy, life-giving, resilient human habitats that make our lives better over a long period of time? That our great-grandchildren will thank us for? This is the conversation I want to facilitate with the Building Culture Playbook.        


I speak confidently because I believe everything I'm saying to be true. I'm also 100% sure I'm wrong about some of what I say, though I don't know which parts yet. But my commitment to you is that I will pursue the truth, not being right or defending my position. I'm going to put opinions and ideas out there, some more "cooked" than others, and then see where the conversation takes us. 

Just like the isolated bureaucrat, I need to be constantly informed by different perspectives to help me see things more clearly or understand the context better. Sometimes I'll solidify my positions, and sometimes I'll back off of them. As Marc Andreessen says: "strong opinions held loosely." I want to be bold and put my ideas out there—and then be open to new information. It's the fastest way to the truth.

I hope you'll join the conversation and speak up when I miss something, or drop a note when something resonates. I’m listening.

 - AustinBlue

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