August 30, 2016  |  permalink

Known Knowns and Unknown Kano

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(I’m proud to have joined the United States Military Academy’s Network Science Center at West Point as an associated researcher. In theory, that means working with NSC senior fellow Daniel Evans on refining social network models to analyze highly ambiguous environments and predict where precise interventions will make the biggest difference. In practice, it means working with Evans and his crew at Storm King Analytics to help publicize this work and to look for non-military applications. This post is drawn from SKA’s weekly newsletters; the first installment is further below.)

Our first few newsletters have focused on what the U.S. Army calls Ungoverned Spaces, which despite the name are neither ungoverned nor spaces — they’re dense, tangled networks of state and non-state actors competing for influence in places where formal governance is weak. In our initial installment, we talked about the four factors driving the emergence of such places: urbanization; globalization; wealthy non-state actors, and technology. Last time out, we visited a place embodying all of these trends — Nigeria’s Emirate of Kano, where a power struggle between four clans to place one of the members on the “stool of power” ended with a surprise succession reminiscent of discarded Game of Thrones subplots.

Why this matters: Ungoverned Spaces like Kano, which sits on the edge of the Sahel along the tenth parallel north, represents the global future of both conflict and commerce. The shadow of Boko Haram stalks the emirate while the city of Kano’s three million residents are only just starting to draw the interest of multinational marketers. To succeed in either endeavor, you need to understand where power truly lies. And to that end, as part of our work supporting the Network Science Center at West Point, we wanted to know whether we could analyze and predict which players would succeed in situations like the succession crisis that consumed the emirate in 2014. So, without further ado…

Dramatis Personae:

Emir Ado Bayero, successful clan and religious ruler who reigned for 50 years before dying in 2014.

Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, governor of the Nigerian state of Kano, who ratifies the selection of the new Emir to square the latter’s status with the state and national power structure. A Muslim, Kwankwaso later ran for president against the Christian incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, but lost to the eventual winner in his party’s primary.

Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the Emir’s grand-nephew who was appointed the Governor of the Nigerian Central Bank in 2009. He was forced to resign in 2014 by Jonathan after alleging corruption in the state’s handling of oil revenues.

The Sullubawa, Yolawa, Wudilawa, and Dambazawa clans. Each family has its own mosque, royal titles, and representative Kingmaker who helps to elect the next Emir, who is traditionally, but not always, from the Sullubawa clan. (Emir Ado Bayero fit this pattern.)

The Emir’s relationship with Governor Kwankwaso was known to be a tense one. It was also common knowledge that Sanusi harbored ambitions to succeed him. Following Sanusi’ departure from the Central Bank, he returned home and was given a traditional title, “Dan ‘Majen Kano,” reserved for “hardworking and courageous princes.”

Following the Emir’s death, the Kingmakers convened and asked each clan to advance a candidate, one of whom was Sanusi. The Emir’s youngest son (and Sullubawa nominee) Nasiru Ado Bayero was presumed by the press and the public as the front-runner — they were wrong.

Behind the scenes, Kwankwaso was conspiring with Sanusi to retaliate against the Bayero family for their warm relations with President Jonathan while strengthening his position for a presidential run. When Sanusi’s selection as the new Emir was announced in June 2014 just two days after Bayero’s death, crowds gathered to protest what they intuitively grasped was a rather… opaque decision-making process. Once it became clear Sanusi would get the nod, his rivals allegedly plotted to kidnap him — a scheme reportedly foiled at the last minute by Kwankwaso’s protection.

Their plan worked. Nasiru Ado Bayero left Kano shortly thereafter, refusing to acknowledge Sanusi’s legitimacy. But that didn’t matter, because he was stripped of his post and family title following Jonathan’s defeat by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. (Kwankwaso lost to Buhari, but later ran for Senate and won.)

That’s the end of our story. But this rather tidy resolution raises a number of questions for a military commander on the ground charged with hunting Boko Haram, foreign companies seeking to do business in a city they can barely navigate, or an investor wondering where power lies: how could we have known Sanusi was secretly the front-runner? Was Kwankwaso destined to outmaneuver the Bayeros and the Sullubawa clan? And was the root of their animus purely the result of religion and presidential politics, or were there other factors at play?

That’s where we come in. We build tools that quantify social capital — a currency measured in connections, reciprocity, and trust — and use them to create multi-layer network models that describe and visualize competing and cooperative actors in a social network like Kano’s. Using statistical tools like Network Kernel Density estimations, we can take these models, compare them to others, and map how they function. The last step — and this is where things truly get interesting — is to choose a goal (do you want to see Sanusi on the stool or power, or Bayero), and use our proprietary algorithms to determine how best to nudge the network toward your desired outcome. In Kano’s case, that means plotting the half-dozen steps necessary to get cozy with Kwankwaso and tip the scales in Sanusi’s favor.

image An example Multi-layer Network

None of this foolproof, of course — unlike chess pieces, people have a mind of their own. Which is why we’ve added the ability to forecast the consequences of our recommendations while taking into account networks that are constantly evolving. Speaking of which, we’re currently mapping the most influential actors in the Horn of Africa and the tribes of the Maghreb for the U.S. government. Using these additional network datasets, we’ll continue to refine our methodology and algorithms.

image Comparing 2 networks using Network Kernel Density. The “goal network” is on the left.

image After running our algorithm for 10 steps the network on the right more closely resembles the “goal network.”

Our ultimate goal is to develop an analytical engine that automates this process for decision makers for both military and commercial purposes. As you might imagine, the uses of a such a tool go far beyond military applications — knowing who to befriend is as much if not more valuable than knowing who to fight.

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August 30, 2016  |  permalink

Probing “Ungoverned Spaces” at West Point’s Network Science Center

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(I’m proud to announce that I’ve been appointed to the United States Military Academy’s Network Science Center at West Point as an associated researcher. In theory, that means working with NSC senior fellow Daniel Evans on refining social network models to analyze highly ambiguous environments and predict where precise interventions will make the biggest difference. In practice, it means working with Evans and his crew at Storm King Analytics to help publicize this work and to look for non-military applications. The first installment of SKA’s newsletter is below.)

In Silicon Valley, it’s not uncommon for self-described disrupters to self-consciously slip the acronym “VUCA” into conversation. VUCA, which stands for “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity,” describes the rapidly shifting landscape on which future competition and conflicts will take place. But it wasn’t coined by product managers at Facebook to describe cutthroat competition in the mobile ad space. VUCA was invented by the U.S. Army War College to instill in commanders that traditional war-fighting doctrine, functions, and hierarchies no longer necessarily apply.

While amateurs talk of disrupting established competitors, the professionals in the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) are wondering what it’s like to fight in places where there’s no establishment at all. In Pamphlet 525-8-5, TRADOC predicts:

Future operational environments will be characterized by uncertainty, complexity, rapid change, and a range of potential threats. They will be marked by various levels of conflict among nations and groups competing for wealth, resources, political authority, sovereignty, and legitimacy. The distinctions between threats will blur for the U.S. These include, for example, the nature of enemies and adversaries, and the multiplicity of actors involved. In addition, friendly and unfriendly actors will attempt to adapt to an ever-changing environment, which may lack a system of governance or rule of law.


The most challenging of these environments, where VUCA rules, are known as Ungoverned Spaces. These are the places where national sovereignty effectively stops — whether on remote mountaintops, in slums, in labyrinthine offshore accounts, or even in cyberspace. Whether emerging from the ruins of a failed state or the hollowing out of national power from within, the world is now littered with Ungoverned Spaces like the terrorist havens of Waziristan and Yemen, the empty quarters of the Sahel and Maghreb, megacities as varied as Rio de Janeiro, Karachi, and Lagos, and most famously the territory controlled by Islamic State.

Ungoverned Spaces aren’t voids but the opposite — places where dense, overlapping networks of local actors compete for legitimacy in the absence of a strong state, NGOs, or multinational corporations. Picture São Paulo drug gangs providing favela residents protection, or Islamic State’s efforts to win hearts and minds by employing “warfare through welfare.” These are places where the rule of law and formal governance is suspended, replaced by a combustible mixture of threats and promises administered through personal relationships opaque to outsiders. Every Ungoverned Space is ungoverned in its own way. But simply knowing that doesn’t help you much.

Which is why our team here at Storm King Analytics have been supporting an Army Studies Program study of Ungoverned Spaces in support of the Network Science Center at West Point. As its name implies, our goal was to develop a multi-layer model capable of analyzing the actors and relationships embedded within and across these competing networks, and once we had done that, identify and assess opportunities for interventions.

In other words, rather than charging into environment we don’t understand, could we subtly tweak the networks to produce more desirable outcomes from a military perspective?

To test this hypothesis, we had to do three things: understand what’s driving the metastasis of Ungoverned Spaces; select one such space for analysis, and make predictions that could be proven over time. For now, let’s stick to why.

Ungoverned spaces are driven by four factors: urbanization; globalization; the rise of non-state actors, and the technology enabling them.

The planet’s urban population is set to double in the first half of this century to more than 7 billion, while urban land cover is poised to triple. The vast majority of this growth will be concentrated in slums and other informal settlements — classic Ungoverned Spaces where services are locally provisioned.

The second trend, globalization — especially migration and infrastructure networks — feeds the first, leading to transnational migrant communities whose inner workings are illegible to their host countries (as seen in the Paris and Brussels attacks plotted from the relative obscurity of the immigrant neighborhood of Molenbeek in Brussels).

Perhaps most alarming is the mounting wealth of non-state actors. Whether it’s Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel or Islamic State (and its oil revenue), their multi-billion dollar cash flows increase the opportunities for state capture through a combination of fear and bribery, or even the replacement of state services altogether. It also potentially expands their reach from local or regional actors into global ones through offshore money laundering and investments.

That’s driven by the fourth factor, technology, which has consistently made the ability to connect, coordinate, and execute hostile activities more easily, efficiently, and invisibly. Three days before last fall’s Paris attacks, for example, the Belgian federal interior minister acknowledged Islamic State’s preference for using the Sony Playstation 4 network for communication. It turned out they didn’t even need encryption.

Ironically, these are more or less the same factors that have emerging markets investors salivating. For instance, in their book No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends, the directors of the McKinsey Global Institute name three of the same four, only electing for aging demographies over non-state actors. Meanwhile, private equity investors like the Dubai-based Abraaj Group have built multi-billion-dollar portfolios in the same markets focused on companies using technology to serve urban customers.

Given the scale and scope of the forces at work, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that one army’s threat is private equity’s next fund-raising opportunity. In the next installment of this newsletter, we’ll introduce you to a place that ticks all the boxes on McKinsey’s checklist and could double as a plot line on Game of Thrones. As it turns out, these things are not unrelated. (Skip ahead if you’re dying to know who plays the Lannisters and the High Sparrow.)

We introduced Ungoverned Spaces and these factors in more depth in a recently published paper. Next time, we’ll visit the site we chose: the Emirate of Kano.

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July 29, 2016  |  permalink

Four Futures of Connected Mobility at the Trapeze Users Conference

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I’ve spent much of the last two years speaking about the future of mobility at the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, Transport for London, UITP, the kickoff event for Dubai’s Expo 2020, the MIT Media Lab’s Disrupting Mobility conference, the American Automotive Leasing Association, the Automotive Fleet Leasing Association, the French Automobile Club Association, the California Transit Association, and many, many other associations.

But I’ve never had video of those talks before now. Yet another group — Trapeze Group N.A., which supplies software to transit agencies — kindly invited me to deliver the opening keynote of their User Conference in San Antonio this past April, and the video has just been posted online. To watch, please click here (or the image above) to be taken to Trapeze’s site, where you will be required to register. (The video is free.) It’s worth it, I promise. Fast-forward to the 9:00 mark for the start of my talk.

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July 29, 2016  |  permalink

The Guardian: How Will You Commute in 2030?

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On July 20, I was invited by the The Guardian to join a Web livechat (they still do those!) answering the question, “How will you commute in 2030?” As you can imagine, I had a lot to say on the subject. Here are a few highlights.

Asked to describe the future of transport in a paragraph, I couldn’t avoid the question of cars:

Globally speaking, I think the biggest change will be: more cars. A LOT more. I’m not excited by this prospect — in fact, I feel the opposite — but having recently studied trends in cities like São Paulo and Manila, the combination of rising middle class incomes and the separate of jobs and housing are driving unprecedented rates of auto ownership. New car sales in Manila nearly doubled between 2013-2015. Nairobi has seen the number of cars on the road double every six years, and so on. (And then there’s the autonomous car hype.) So, that’s the challenge.

But the real driver of change is the two-way communication and coordination capabilities of the smartphone:

“Cities are always created around whatever the state-of-the-art transportation device is at the time,” Joel Garreau wrote twenty-five years ago in his book EDGE CITY. Back then, it was the cutting edge combination of cars and PCs that spawned the suburban edge cities of Garreau’s title. Today, the state-of-the-art in transportation is the smartphone, meaning the ability to discover and coordinate modes is more powerful than any single mode on its own, as reflected in Uber’s $68 billion market cap. How will cities and transport agencies like TfL respond?

On the role of public transport in this brave new world:

Public transport is more critical than it’s ever been, and perhaps more in danger. It’s taken thirty years to evolve from the judgment famously (though falsely) attributed to Thatcher that, “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure ,” toward Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa’s assertion that “an advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.” My biggest fear is that autonomous cars (which will happen because the the tech is maturing and the social mandate to save lives lost in traffic collisions will demand it) and private mobility services will fatally undermine public transport in favor of private mobility services. Public transport operators need to think of themselves as the managers of cities’ total mobility systems, rather than the people who make the trains run on time. (Although that’s still important!)

Sheer physics means cities like London will always need excellent train and bus service — there’s simply no way to replicate their capacity. That’s also true for Tokyo, New York, and a few hundred cities with the density and land-use that works hand-in-hand with public transport.

What can public transport learn from Uber?

People want more reliable, frequent service. Period. You can keep your WiFi-equipped buses.

But I agree with Chris that reducing uncertainty and anxiety should be a primary goal. Maybe Uber’s greatest innovation wasn’t making it possible to summon a car with your phone, but being able to watch the car drive to your location — people find that proposition overwhelmingly appealing. People would be more inclined to use public transport if you could reassure them ahead of time that the system will get them where they want to go on time.

Also, the great selling point of “mobility-as-a-service” or other multi-modal subscription schemes could be the availability of cars in the network. I think people would also be inclined to rely more heavily on public transport if they know there’s a car for them when they need it. It’s a security blanket for commuters.

And what can we learn from informal transit, which is the dominant means of commuting across much of the world?

Elsewhere, I’m intrigued by what we can learn from informal transport, i.e. the 14-20 seat minibuses seen in Manila (jeepneys), Nairobi (matatus), Mexico City (pesero), Mumbai (auto-rickshaws), Bangkok (songthaew) and so on. What would happen if those were networked together?

The question was asked: why don’t we simply commute to someplace closer to home?

A complicated question! While there are certainly opportunities to reduce commutes through coworking and cloud commuting, the fact remains that London and other cities are what they are because of their ability to compress dense social networks of people together in space and time to share ideas. All of our lovely ideas about innovation spring from that.

That said, I think the notion of commuting daily to the same office (which only achieves a 40% peak utilization rate) is rather outdated. It will be interesting if neighborhood work hubs catch on (right now, they’re called coffee shops), and I know that in Manila, Regus wants to open hundreds of new locations so that when the freeway traffic becomes unbearable, you can exit and work from the near branch.

Finally, the moderator asked for the ideal solution for commuting:

The best way to commute remains walking. And I’m cheered a bit by the fact that here in America, there is a growing preference (as seen in rents and housing prices) toward infilling auto-dependent suburbs with more walkable, mixed-use environments. The only way to create a more humane commute over the long run is through significant changes in land uses, and that may take a while.

You can read the entire chat here.

 

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July 29, 2016  |  permalink

Up with Trains! Down with “Smart Homes!”

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I have a pair of mentions in The Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor this morning respectively praising trains and warning about “smart homes.”

The Washington Post’s Dom Philips wonders whether next month’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will be a traffic apocalypse despite last-ditch efforts to open new metro and bus rapid transit lines in time. BRT is a good start, I said, but ultimately insufficient:

Greg Lindsay, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, said that setting up a bus rapid-transit system is less expensive and faster than building metro lines. But the buses carry fewer people – 17,000 an hour compared with 80,000 or more an hour for a metro line.

“The costs are cheaper at the beginning, but maintenance costs over time are higher than rail,” he said. “You need to take BRT routes and eventually turn them into rail.”

Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor asks if Amazon’s voice-activated digital assistant, Alexa, is only the beginning of what will become increasing smart homes. The piece mentions the report I co-wrote and presented in March with the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative on the perils and unintended consequences of such tech:

Panelists at an Atlantic Council event March 31 suggested the lack of guidelines for internet-connected devices in the home could even be used against consumers, as the Monitor’s Jack Detsch reported.

“In the future, if you’re behind [on payments], you could be locked in your house until you pay back your bills,” Greg Lindsay, a senior fellow at the New Cities Foundation, told the Monitor.

We live in interesting times.

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July 20, 2016  |  permalink

New Cities Summit 2016: Mobility As A Service

Last month in Montreal, I attended my fourth(!) New Cities Summit. This time around, I was asked to host the second day’s opening panel on “mobility as a service,” i.e. what happens when we tie car-sharing, bike-sharing, ride-hailing and public transit together into a single service. I was joined onstage by: Timothy Papandreou, ‎director of the office of innovation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (who has since left for Google);  Nicola McLeod, Zipcar’s GM for Canada; Luc Sabbatini, CEO of PBSC Urban Solutions (owners of the Bixi bike-sharing program), and Andrew Salzberg, global mobility policy lead for Uber.

Click the video above and watch as I grill each panelist in turn about whether they would ever play nice with a city-run mobility-as-a-service scheme. (Reading between-the-lines consensus: probably not.)

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July 20, 2016  |  permalink

Forget Autonomous Cars; Say Hello to Autonomous Buses

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(This week, Daimler demonstrated its first autonomous bus in Amsterdam, followed on Wednesday by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk’s promise to reinvent the bus altogether: “With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager. Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses. It would also take people all the way to their destination. Fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops would serve those who don’t have a phone. Design accommodates wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.”

In their honor, I’m republishing an essay originally published on Quartz in Nov. 2014 with Anthony Townsend in which we called for autonomous buses to take priority over autonomous cars.)

The self-driving car has traveled a long and lonely road to get here. Introduced to the American public by General Motors at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Depression-era dream of automated highways has perpetually lagged behind the present in drivers’ rear-view mirrors. But thanks largely to Google, the future once again appears to be gaining on us. A panel of Silicon Valley technology leaders recently polled by The Atlantic expects the first fully autonomous models to roll into our driveways in 2022.

But don’t count on it. The autonomous car will not be nearly as autonomous as its champions would have you believe.

When Google’s car took its first official driving test in Nevada in 2012, it struggled at times to pass—and this was on a course and under conditions of the company’s choosing. According to the state examiner’s log published last month by IEEE Spectrum, the self-driving Toyota Prius needed human help making turns and surrendered control completely when faced with the ambiguous terrain of roadside construction. The car wasn’t tested at all at railroad crossings or roundabouts, and Nevada’s DMV had agreed beforehand not to drive it in snow, ice or fog—none of which the car was designed to operate in.

Of course, self-driving cars will get smarter as computing power increases. But they will quickly encounter another real-world complication: other breeds of self-driving cars. In September, California joined Nevada in granting autonomous licenses, and within hours Audi and Mercedes-Benz squeezed ahead of Google in securing permits. There were merely the first in line. General Motors’ Cadillac division announced in August it would offer limited autonomy by 2017, and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk recently unveiled the Model D, an electric sedan with its own semi-autonomous features.

Further complicating matters will be unpredictable human drivers, who won’t give up their cars en masse. A survey of 1,533 US, UK, and Australian drivers published by University of Michigan researchers in July found that a majority of respondents had serious concerns about riding in autonomous cars—and more to the point, they wouldn’t pay extra for them. It’s taken more than a decade for drivers to seriously consider switching to hybrid and electric vehicles; it will take decades more to achieve a majority of self-driving vehicles on the roads.

As a result, by the time Google’s cars are ready for sale, they will have to share the roads with a slew of models produced by dozens of automakers, each with its own scheme for avoiding collisions. With traditional rules of the road shoved aside by overly cautious computers, one result might be epic gridlock, as they slow to a crawl attempting to work it out. Meanwhile, all the focus on vehicular autonomy has overshadowed the slow progress on essential protocols for car-to-car communications, an essential technology for mass automation of our roads. Drivers can expect years of technical and legal wrangling in addition to incompatibilities and glitches as Google’s and Tesla’s cars try to talk while traveling 60 miles (96 km) per hour. Tough security problems abound and various proposals to shuffle the unique ID of your car—so that it doesn’t become a privacy-compromised tracking device like your phone—have yet to be worked out.

Google knows this game well. The 20-year history of the commercial internet has been marked by brawls between corporate giants over which program or protocol should be the industry standard. Microsoft won the Web’s “browser wars” of the 1990s and ultimately lost an antitrust case because of it.

That said, Google’s greatest shortcoming isn’t its technology, but how it has defined America’s transportation challenge. Our public transportation systems are running near historic highs in ridership, while using technology and business models from the 19th century. We should be upgrading these, not trying to fix America’s auto-dependent suburbs.

Consider buses. These are experiencing a renaissance as cities around the world, from Bogota to Guangzhou to Jakarta, have shown how bus rapid transit can be a faster, cheaper, more flexible and energy efficient way to move large numbers of commuters than either cars or trains. Now what if those buses—like the private automobile “platoons” envisioned by the auto industry—could travel safely only feet apart at top speeds?

This scheme could solve some of the most challenging transportation problems facing American cities. With its rail tunnels in desperate need of repair after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the New York region needs alternative ways of moving commuters across its rivers. According to a recent estimate (pdf, p. 11) by Jerome Lutin, New Jersey Transit’s former director of planning, and Alain Kornhauser, the head of Princeton University’s transportation program, if self-driving buses could maintain a safe separation of just six feet (1.8 m)—well within near-term technological capabilities—the bus lanes of the Lincoln Tunnel, connecting New York City to New Jersey, could accommodate over 200,000 passengers per hour, more than five times today’s throughput.

Google’s engineers may have resurrected the dream of fluid mobility, but they have a lackluster vision of how to implement it. Before we chase the ghosts of yesterday’s tomorrows, we need to think harder about how self-driving vehicles will actually perform in the real world, and more important, how they can be used not just to repair but to reinvent our transportation systems.

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July 15, 2016  |  permalink

The Durst Conference 2016: “New Workplaces/New Workers”

Last month, I joined architects James Sanders and Scott Francisco, along with Cubed author and N+1 senior editor Nikil Saval, to discuss the future of work and workspaces as part of the Durst Conference 2016 — the annual event hosted by Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE). Sanders kicked off the discussion by asking each of us to unpack a word. Nikil’s was “efficiency;” Scott received “technology,” and mine was “innovation” — a subject on which I had no end of commentary.

Video from the entire conference is posted above; Sanders’ opening remarks for our session begin at the 7:40 mark, the panel begins at 24:00, and I appear at 47:00.

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July 03, 2016  |  permalink

“Divining Providencia” in Venice, Rotterdam, and Quito

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One of the highlights of my busy spring and summer speaking schedule (more on which to come) was running into my friend Roger Sherman at this year's New Cities Summit in Montreal. Roger and I met in 2012 while he was dividing his time between his own architecture studio and teaching at UCLA. He'd discovered my role as the policy analyst on Jeanne Gang's MoMA team, and asked if I was interested in helping him design a city from scratch in the Ecuadorean Amazon. (As a fan of Fordlandia and Fitzcarraldo, how I could resist?)


The result was Divining Providencia, an earnest effort to re-imagine Providencia — essentially a truck stop erected on the banks of the Amazon at its westermost navigable point, across the river from the world's richest patch of biodiversity in the form of Yasuni National Park — as an ecological enclave instead.

My contribution to the project was to impress upon Roger that we not only needed to design a city with a minimal environmental footprint, we also needed to invent a new economy as well — one that had nothing to do with commodity exports to China, but would guarantee the integrity of the national park next door. Our ideas included a new national organization devoted to licensing the genetic diversity of Yasuni rather than drilling for the oil beneath it (an idea with precedents in the form of Costa Rica's INBIO and Mexico's CONABIO) as well as a university of indigenous knowledge.

None of our plans came to pass, of course, but I was please to learn the work lives on. Roger is now the Urban Projects Director for Gensler in Los Angeles, and the firm has brought our plans for Providencia to both the 15th Venice Biennale D'Architetura (within the Palazzo Mora as part of the pavilion hosted by the Global Art Affairs Foundation), and at the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), whose theme this time around is "The Next Economy." Later this year, it will find its way to Ecuador itself as part of the exhibits around UN HABITAT III in Quito — the once-in-a-generation conference devoted to shaping the future of cities. From Roger's post on the exhibit:

For the Rotterdam and Venice exhibitions, which are seen by an estimated 250,000 visitors, Gensler joined a team comprised of cityLAB/UCLA (of which I was formerly co-director) and a similar think tank in Ecuador, Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Ecuador (PUCE)—whose work on the project is ongoing, funded by the Provincial Government of Sucumbios and Avina, an Amazon-oriented NGO. Both installations used a table as a more “viewer-friendly” format for relating the story of the project than a conventional wall-mounted display. At Rotterdam—whose large exhibition filled a cavernous former coffee company with 100 tables of identical size and spacing—a dining table calls attention to the worldwide consumption of resources, telling through its place settings, plates, glasses and serving dishes how the design harnesses the shipping trade to instigate local means of production and improve living conditions. Chairs at the table invite spectators to consider themselves “guests,” and to linger and “digest” the project through text, pictures and maps. A tablecloth delineates global trade routes (literally woven into the fabric) as they pass through the Amazon and Providencia in particular. A series of “cake stands” support circular maps of differing sizes, sequentially zooming in to the scale of the Amazon Basin; the larger territorial plan; and the town itself. In each, a series of colors delineate the path of raw products extracted from the rainforest as they make their way from the point of extraction to that of refinement and transshipment. Each color corresponds to a particular Amazon resource of edible, medicinal or craft value, whose eventual product-for-purchase appears on placemats lining the table, along with information about the process and (on glasses) a portrait of one of the micro-enterprise workers involved.
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June 30, 2016  |  permalink

Remembering Alvin Toffler

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(Alvin Toffler, the journalist-turned-futurist who wrote “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave,” has died at age 87. In honor of Toffler and his legacy — he minted the idea that the only constant going forward would be accelerating rates of change — here’s an appreciation of Alvin and Heidi Toffler I wrote for Fast Company back in 2010.)

In the opening minutes of Future Shock, a 1972 documentary based on the book of the same name, a bearded, cigar-puffing, world-weary Orson Welles staggers down an airport’s moving walkway, treating the camera like a confidante. “In the course of my work, which has taken me to just about every corner of the globe, I see many aspects of a phenomenon which I’m just beginning to understand,” he says. “Our modern technologies have changed the degree of sophistication beyond our wildest dreams. But this technology has exacted a pretty heavy price. We live in an age of anxiety and time of stress. And with all our sophistication, we are in fact the victims of our own technological strengths –- we are the victims of shock… a future shock.”

Published in 1970, Future Shock made its author Alvin Toffler — a former student radical, welder, newspaper report and Fortune editor — a household name. Written with his wife (and uncredited co-author), Heidi Toffler, the book was The World Is Flat of its day, selling 6 million copies and single-handedly inventing futurism. The Third Wave followed a decade later, and a third dispatch from the future a decade after that. On the 40th anniversary of the book’s publication, it’s worth asking why the Tofflers’ reputation seems stuck in the 1970s when their prognosis was more accurate than not.

“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time,” the pair wrote. The accelerating changes they predicted included the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities “swiftly fabricated and ruthlessly destroyed,” and the end of blue-collar “second-wave” manufacturing, to be replaced by a “third wave” of knowledge workers. Not bad for 1970.

Their misses included such classic Jetsonian tropes as underwater cities, handing teenagers the keys to the family spaceship, and the doubling of the planet’s population in just 11 years. And don’t ask Heidi Toffler about the paper clothes we’d use once and throwaway like Kleenex. “I was wrong,” she said matter-of-factly at the book’s anniversary conference on Thursday. “But I was trying to make a larger point about a “throw-away society.” How many plastic water bottles did we throw away last year?”

And then there are the Tofflerisms:


“Change is not merely necessary to life — it is life.”

“Technology feeds on itself. Technology makes more technology possible.”

“The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”

And still Heidi’s favorite: “Change is the only constant.” (I bet you’d forgotten who said that. I had.)

Perhaps it says something about the Tofflers’ reputation that while their contemporary Marshall McLuhan was adopted as the “patron saint” of early Wired, the Toffler’s most ardent admirer among the digerati was AOL founder Steve Case, who read The Third Wave while in college and was captivated by the notion of the “electronic frontier.”

“Back then, nobody had PCs, and everything we take for granted wasn’t there,” Case told me at a dinner for the Tofflers Wednesday night, “but I remember reading it and thinking it was inevitable, and that really inspired me to start what became AOL five years later” in 1985. “There’s no question that was a seminal moment for me.”

But the Tofflers may yet find traction with a new generation of aspiring futurists. Parag Khanna, the 33-year-old author of The Second World and forthcoming How to Run The World has sought the Tofflers for advice and still marvels at their track record. “A few things that Toffler got right in 1970 that are still spot on today,” he said Thursday, “include the transience of our relationships with each other and with things, the prediction that people would become as comfortable with virtual and interactive environments as with real life, the genesis of cyborgs and artificial intelligence, the over-stimulation of children, the rise of ad-hocery — a term he coined — in business and horizontal rather than vertical corporate structures, and the prominence of super-empowered individuals. Obviously he didn’t pioneer all of these ideas, and of course didn’t invent artificial intelligence, but the book really shows an imaginative but grounded sense of what the possibilities for these technologies were and the impact they would have.”

One reason the Tofflers seem stuck in the past is that we have yet to take all of their recommendations. “It really upsets me that people say we have to bring manufacturing back,” Heidi said. “We have to re-train people how to think! We can’t compete with second-wave manufacturing, and China is starting to realize it, too. Future Shock is about the process of change, and The Third Wave is about the structures of change. And so far we’ve proven incapable of designing the systems that prepare us for change.”

In that sense, we’re all still as woozy as Orson Welles.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a contributing writer for Fast Company, author of the forthcoming book Engineering Serendipity, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. He is also a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative — a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute.

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