Semi-formalism: a new global agenda for “development”?

As you may have noticed, I have been offline on this blog for the past few months. Needless to say, my thinking has been shifting quite considerably on where I see the future of transportation heading and the role of the bicycle within it as a piece of a broader system- not the end objective of a “sustainable” city. I still love my bike, but I’ve been becoming increasingly interested in developments in shared vehicles, multi-modalism and the idea of “mobility as a service”.

I’ve moved to San Francisco and started digging into these issues in some specific startup projects which will be unveiled over time, though one can be viewed in a recent New York Times write-up.

This blog will likely take a new shape (and perhaps a new name) to reflect these changes. In the meantime, here is grand theoretical musing for your reading pleasure to get a sense of where my head is these days. Looking forward to feedback on what is still a somewhat nascent idea.


“Semi-formal” systems should be the new model for global development.

Generally, I see the global north being “too” formal in its development. Formalization can improve health and well being, and reduce societal risks (eg, traffic rules). However, it can also be far too rigid and slow moving and restricts innovation, possibilities and potentialities that do not meet all regulations.

The global south is “too” informal. Excessive informality can lead to corruption, safety and health issues, lack of consumer rights, etc. The north’s development efforts (and funding) largely go to formalization of the south under the premises of “modernization” and “progress” with the north presumed as the zenith. This doesn’t always work for lots of reasons (cultural, political, etc.).

For instance, an experiment in Phnom Penh to put in a bus line failed. Why ride on this thing that only leaves once every 15 minutes and gives a fixed route? Why bother when I can hop on the back of anyone’s motorcycle taxi and go anywhere anytime?

In Bangkok, however, they have what I see as the trappings of a semi-formal system. It’s easy to become a moto taxi but you need to register and get a license, have a helmet for passengers, and wear a special yellow jacket. It’s not as regulated as say the NYC taxi system while still providing some level of protection for consumers. Minibusses and shared cabs, when somewhat regulated, could also provide a semi-formal transport mode which provide the benefits of a flexible system with the safety regulations of a formal system. And why don’t we have any of these systems in more “developed” countries?

What I think we are starting to see (rideshare, carshare, bikeshare, collaborative consumption, etc.) is a move toward a new form of development, a new concept. In my more radical theorizing, we are even moving beyond capitalism. Our means of exchange are in flux, borrowing from older concepts (trade/barter/share) but advanced by some of the securities of new technologies (trust/reputation/accountability).

We will start seeing new monetary systems developed (eg, bitcoin) and new funding mechanisms that are more grassroots and peer-to-peer (eg, kiva, kickstarter). There will be more “money” than ever before in the new economy. We are living in the times of economic deprivation by comparison.

I think the north is becoming less formal as an economic system, particularly as we continue into our fourth year of economic “downturn” with no upturn in sight. What we should be setting as a new target for development globally is something less formal than the north, while more formal than the south. The north should stop presuming it has all the answers and start learning from the south. The south should be reflecting on its own context and develop solutions that grow out of its own needs.

My proposition is that semi-formality should be the new target to be met, putting north and south on equitable terms toward a common, more sustainable global pursuit, hybridizing the best of formal and informal systems. Specific solutions can draw on other models globally for inspiration but should be refined and rethought – perhaps even radically – to be locally and contextually relevant. Collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer carsharing, bikesharing, and ridesharing particularly, are just instances of a much larger trend that I see in the horizon.

Let us build toward this convergence toward a common global aim. The lines between public and private transport will blur. The lines between modern and old fashioned will blur. The future will be better. The future will be semi-formal.

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3 responses to “Semi-formalism: a new global agenda for “development”?

  1. This is interesting — I should note, however, that until fairly recently in much of the Global North what you might call informal hitch-hiking was quite popular – I did it in within Berlin in 1986 and elsewhere in Europe and then a bit later in California and also very recently in the Czech Republic. Ezra, have you hitchhiked in the North? There is some resurgence in a formal form with organized ridesharing, but I don’t know how it compares to the earlier situation.

    • ‘Development’ has generally been considered to be a movement from ‘informal’ to ‘formal’. My argument is that the north is now moving toward a kind of ‘semi-formal’ development integrating modern technology with old practices. I’m proposing that both North and South focus their efforts on this semi-formal growth, rather than increasing formalization.

      I’d consider digital hitch hiking as an example of ‘semi-formal’ transportation in the North. I have hitched quite a bit in both North and South. My biggest trip was Sweden to Italy and back in the late 1990s. Online hitch hiking at this point is all planned, long distance trips. On the street, it is unplanned and spontaneous with only a quick gut-check for trust. Real time ridesharing is a hopeful future but, while many have tried, none have had much success. Avego is perhaps the most recent glimmer of hope but it’s a tough business. Comuto and Zimride (longer distance, pre-planned) are doing better, in particular since they sell white label backend solutions to universities and corporations and do not make money (yet) on the ride transaction itself. We still have a ways to go but I’m hoping the ‘hockey stick’ moment may come soon.

  2. Are you familiar with the works of Jane Jacobs? She wrote about cities developing in a more natural way.

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