If you thought Brexit was challenging, spare a thought for those who had to deal with an existential crisis in cities around the world during the late 19th century.
A London Times headline predicted that within 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of horse manure. New York by all accounts was faring no better. Its work-horses were dropping some 1,100 tonnes of manure on the streets every day.
In addition to the manure problem, many of the horses worked to the bone dropped dead on the street. The cities then had to deal with these abandoned rotting carcases and the congestion, smell and flies that accompanied them. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, New York City alone removed an estimated 15,000 dead horses from its streets annually.
In 1898, the first international urban planning conference was convened in New York to solve the problem.
Seeing no hope for a solution and with no new ideas emerging the organisers abandoned the event three days into its ten-day schedule. They simply packed up and went home.
There are several parts to this story which I find fascinating.
- The fact that the future was seemingly unknowable to the delegates of the conference and, even faced with a crisis which threatened the very survival of industrial civilisation they abandoned hope of finding any solution to the horse problem.
- If the delegates to the planning conference had looked to the fringes of technology, would they have recognised the automobile as part of the solution to their problem?
- How rapid the transition to motor cars happened.
For context here is a picture of 5th Avenue in New York in 1907. As you can see, there are no cars in sight.
Just six years later in 1913, the transition away from horses was almost total.
Translated into a modern context this example highlight many possible lessons we should head. eg.
- The automobile was not unknown to the urban planners in 1898, at the time they were regarded as somewhere between a novelty and a dangerous nuisance.
What technologies do we have at the fringes that the masses would dismiss?
- The then powerful railway lobby in Britain convinced Parliment to introduce a series of laws called the Locomotive Acts or Red Flag Acts. These laws imposed severe restriction on automobiles including a two mph speed limit in towns and the requirement for an escort to walk 50 yards ahead of each vehicle with a red flag. Mostly our legislators act in our best interest, and we should be grateful for the job they do. Lobbying can be an important means for a particular group within society to have their voice heard and their interests protected, but, it is worth observing when lobbying efforts overreach and actively try to block inevitable progress.
- Many people initially protested at the introduction of automobiles on public streets and the fact that they resolved the horse manure crisis was merely a side effect. Most individuals and organisations find change hard; even small changes can sometimes feel difficult to tackle. However, as our digital landscape is evolving, stasis is becoming less of an option. Managed correctly change can provide a great many benefits and opportunities to those who embrace it.
After all, you don’t want to be the last one shovelling horse manure, do you?