Devon Zuegel: Cities as a Superpower

Devon Zuegel: Cities as a Superpower

My guest today is Devon Zuegel, a writer of code and writer of words who spends her time unlocking human potential through incentive design and tools for thought and cities. In this conversation, we jump from coordination problems to urban planning to travel to architecture. We compare cities like Singapore and San Francisco and talk about the power of urban density and architecture to make us happier and healthier. Then, we talk about writing, specifically the three tiers of common knowledge, how to find good ideas, and the concept that Devon calls playing chess with yourself.

One thing sticks out from this podcast and other conversations with Devon. Above all else, Devon lives in obsessive pursuit of high leverage ways to spend her time and energy. In the past, that’s led her to computer science and in the future, I suspect it will lead her to cities and infrastructure. Why cities? Devon offers an excellent answer. Cities are big enough to have real importance in the world and small enough to be nimble and somewhat understandable and there are a lot of cities. You can actually hope to make some comparisons in a way that you can’t really do with countries. 

Please enjoy my conversation with Devon Zuegel.

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2:03 Devon on coordination problems and the problems they’ve caused, such as climate change and housing issues, and how clever solutions to these problems are the reason humans have progressed so much in the past hundreds of years

6:19 Human cognition and thought as it is augmented by media, cities and blockchains and the benefits of this augmentation

8:10 The most classic tool for thought and why it’s such a catalyst for healthy and productive cognition, long term and short term memory function and increased IQ

16:41 Devon’s writing process and why she defines it as playing chess with herself

17:45 How Devon has been able to get her writing to flow and the three categories of topics available to write about, common knowledge, obscure knowledge and the intersection in the middle

20:17 Devon’s theory of on why people in San Francisco are so flaky in comparison to sister cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City

28:16 How Devon chooses what rabbit holes she wants to go down prior to writing an article and how to make most topics interesting by creating a model around the idea

32:25 What makes Singapore so interesting to Devon, in regards to history, culture, GDP growth, etc. and her major observations after visiting the country

47:20 The moment Devon became aware of the effect of architecture and how it can make employees less involved with their colleagues by not promoting micro-interactions

50:53 The five metrics that a house should be described with, that are never used, when being promoted on websites like Airbnb, Zillow, Craigslist, etc. 

57:00 Devon chooses the three metrics that she’d pick when it comes to the city she lives in and the home she’s living in for maximum interaction, convenience and mental economy

1:03:16 Algorithms To Live By and why Devon sees it as the best self help book she’s ever read, despite it not being a self help book

1:05:37 Devon’s opinion on Georgism and how people talk about economics as a spectrum from capitalism to socialism or communism and the third category of economic goods that it doesn’t touch upon

1:07:30 Devon’s changing opinions and her epistemic status placed on each of her blog posts written with a strong opinion

1:10:03 Devon’s philosophy of travel and why she views it as scale free regardless of how many or little places you visit

1:11:51 Devon’s philosophy of productivity and how she writes down dozens of notes and uses long form emails to repurpose her ideas into publishable articles


Quotes

“I am very interested in coordination problems. I think that they explain a lot of the problems that we see in the world, everything from climate change to nuclear disarming to issues in cities to making it so that people can actually live where they are the most productive to housing policy. I could go on and on. The solution to coordination problems is incentive design, and clever solutions that are some of the reason humans have been able to progress to the extent they have throughout the past few hundred years.”

“The most classic tool for thought, and one that I think we tend to take for granted, is writing. Most people think of writing as a way to communicate ideas that they’ve had in their head to other people. Obviously, it does serve that purpose and people sell books for a reason. But, I think it goes way beyond that.”

“In the last year, I have found that writing has gotten a lot easier for me. There’s probably a lot of reasons for this but I think the core is that I realized there are three categories of topics you can write about. There’s the stuff that everybody knows that is trivial to write about because it’s easy. On the other end, there’s stuff that nobody knows yet or nobody around you knows yet, so it takes a lot of time to figure it out and it takes a lot of research. Now, there’s this middle area between common knowledge and really obscure knowledge of stuff that you have a unique perspective on because of where you happen to be in life and you understand it so intuitively that you can just talk, think and write about it fluidly. But, a lot of people don’t know it yet. That’s the sweet spot.”

“For me, it’s very important that I can walk places. Walking is a way to interact with your community in these small ways, every single day. The way people get comfortable in a place and in a social group is not through one really intense interaction, but through a bunch of smaller ones where you see things from different angles. You experience, what does my neighborhood looks like on a sunny day, on a cloudy day, or when I’m tired. These tiny, trivial things help you understand, much better, how things function. You get to know the vibe so much better and you meet people you wouldn’t meet if you were in an Uber.”

“Algorithms To Live By is the best self help book I’ve ever read and it’s not intended to be a self help book, it’s intended to be an algorithmic look at certain problems that people see day to day. But, it helps me frame certain problems that I personally run into in terms of the algorithmic complexity. I realized the stress that I was feeling about certain things I was worrying about, were actually totally rational.”


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To listen to other episodes or learn more about the North Star, you can connect with me directly at perell.com and you can always reach out on Twitter at david_perell. And if you enjoyed this episode, you’ll like the episode with Albert Wenger, a partner at Union Square Ventures. In this conversation we talk about Albert’s fourth coming book, World After Capital, and how technological progress has shifted scarcity for humanity. When we were foragers it was food that was scarce, during the Aquarian age it was a fight for land. Following the industrial revolution, capital became scarce. With digital technologies, scarcities are shifting once more. We need to figure out how to live in a world after capital, where the only scarcity is our attention.