The Ingenuity

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Concluding Pages of The Ingenuity Gap


Just over nine hours later, the 747 touched down at Heathrow airport. I had a twelve-hour layover before my flight to Toronto, so after checking my bags I caught a cab into London to meet a friend in Lewisham, a borough across the Thames from the Isle of Dogs. It was early on a weekend morning, the streets were largely deserted, and the cabby was able to take me right through the heart of the city. Again I felt as if I had hyperlinked to an entirely different reality: from New Delhi with its congestion, heat, grime, and omnipresent poverty to the tidy, modern, wealthy, and weirdly empty streets of London.

After breakfast, I talked my friend into visiting Canary Wharf, since we could see Cesar Pelli's bold tower, capped with its pyramid, from her house. This time, though, I approached from a different direction: we took the Greenwich foot tunnel under the Thames into the Isle of Dogs and walked north through Millwall towards the tower. We passed the things I'd seen on my last visit - the restored loading cranes looking like praying mantises, the newspaper printing plant, and the redoubt of low-income housing surrounded on all sides by fences and walls. In the sun of a fresh, midsummer morning, though, everything looked far more benign than it had in the evening gloom many months before.

Soon, with Canary Wharf now in full view in front of us, we reached the edge of South Quay, a broad stretch of water that blocked our progress. This was where I had crossed that futuristic pedestrian bridge - the one constructed in a long horizontal spiral like a writhing snake. But this time the bridge wasn't there: it had been turned sideways on its pivot in the middle of the quay, so we couldn't cross. According to a local resident out for a morning stroll, the bridge's deck was very slippery when wet, and someone had recently been blown off it in a storm, so the bridge was closed till it could be made safer. Maybe, my friend remarked, a little less architectural finesse, and a little more practical engineering, would have made a better bridge.

Three kids, boys about ten years old or so, were sitting on their battered bikes by the edge of the quay. It looked like they were from the low-income houses nearby, and they seemed to be waiting for the bridge to turn back so they could cross. We talked to them about the bridge for couple of minutes, and they accepted that waiting any longer would be futile.

"Do you know," one of the boys asked, as they got ready to leave "if there's a fountain over there?"

"Sure," my friend replied, "there's a fountain right in front of that big tower."

"Are their coins in it?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Because we want to get some coins from the fountain!" And with that they laughed and rode off down the side of the quay, taking the long route to the tower. Now that was one of life's sharp edges! Three boys from a poor zone of London going to look for coins in the central fountain of a complex of buildings housing the immense forces of capitalism and worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

As the boys disappeared in the distance, we followed them on foot around the edge of the quay, and down the grand, Haussman-like avenue into the center of Canary Wharf. We were now in Cabot Square, in the middle of a bowl of huge buildings, with Pelli's tower soaring above us on one side and with five distinct types of architecture surrounding us on the others. One building recalled nineteenth-century Neoclassicism, another 1920s Modernism, and yet another the dreary utilitarianism of the 1960s. I looked at the tower. "The important buildings," I remembered Pelli had said, "are not in the scale of the body of man, but in the scale of his ideas. St. Paul's was like that, and, I hope in its own way, the tower will be as well."

On my previous visit to London I'd had dinner with an investment banker who worked in these buildings. He told me that, according to a security guard at the complex, two years prior to the IRA bombing on the other side of the writhing bridge, a truck full of explosives had been discovered early one morning parked in this very square. The bomb's detonator had failed to go off. I'd later checked through back issues of London papers to see if there were any references to this event, but found none. While I didn't know whether the story was true or not, it certainly didn't sound implausible. In this confined space, the damage would have been horrific. For a split second an image flashed through my mind - a boiling purple and orange fireball rising upwards, the buildings around us heaving from the force of the explosion, facades disintegrating and floors collapsing on each other, office workers' faces - faces again - shredded by shrapnel of concrete and glass.

There will be more attempts to attack the symbols of wealth and power in our rich societies - attacks by aggrieved people with newly acquired knowledge about the technologies of violence. Because our governments are acutely aware of this danger, very few will succeed. But as the head of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka told me, a terrorist only has to be successful once, while we've got to be alert all the time. And the potential costs of a successful attack could be much higher than we realize: an acquaintance of mine who has closely studied the risks of bio-terrorism argues that a single, large-scale strike on a major Western city - say an attack in New York, Washington, London, or Paris that kills 50,000 people - could send urban property values plummeting in cities around the world, as people suddenly realize how vulnerable they are in dense urban cores. An impossibly apocalyptic scenario, surely - until we remember that groups such as Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo have tried to launch exactly this kind of attack. Our intertwined global economic and financial systems are probably resilient to a wide range of shocks, but a worldwide collapse of urban property values is almost certainly not one of them.

It was peaceful in Cabot Square - a couple of cabs idled quietly at a taxi stand and a family of tourists craned their necks to admire the buildings. The three boys, though, were nowhere to be seen. We strolled over to the fountain and the large circular pool that surrounded it and sat down on the carved low wall of black granite containing the pool. A shaft of sun reached us from high between the buildings. I looked down into the pool, past its rippled surface, and into its cool, dark depths.

There were no coins in the fountain.

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