November 18, 2015 | permalink
I was honored to participate in last month’s Abraaj Group Annual Forum, held this year in Singapore. The Dubai-based private equity firm is the largest investor in the Global South outside the BRICs, with $9 billion under management. (Forbes recently published a nice profile.)
One of the Abraaj Group’s central tenets is to invest in cities, not nations or regions, and so I was asked to participate in several panels discussing the growth of cities and the logistics networks needed to serve the world’s emerging middle classes. Several photos from the event are below; the group also published a summary report that you can read in its entirety here. I’ve republished the section on our cities panel below — I’m pleased to say I was the one who argued that cities “are where the magic happens.”
Globally, there are now more people living in urban than rural areas, and by midcentury two-thirds of us will be living in cities. The scale of this shift cannot be underestimated – 2.5 billion new urbanites are expected by 2050, nearly 90% of whom will be African and Asian. Neither should we underestimate the implications for how we live our lives – what values we have, what food we consume, what education we desire, and how we vote. Importantly, the urbanization trend we’re seeing play out today differs from that of previous times – it is accelerated, and is largely taking place in growth markets. Today, it is not just about megacities but notably also middle-weight cities that are increasingly driving global growth.
This megatrend is therefore one to watch – for policy makers, investment professionals and business operators alike. Cities matter for a variety of reasons – notably, they are the economic engines of the modern world, with today’s 300 largest cities responsible for roughly half of global GDP. Cities create a critical mass for businesses to grow; and for government spending to be more effective and efficient. At the same time, cities face enormous challenges. Urbanites need infrastructure, housing, transportation, energy, andsanitation – but frequently encounter a significant demand-supply gap.
Ultimately, cities are about people and responding to urban challenges is about understanding what citizens need and want. How do the different pieces of the urban puzzle fit together? Responding to these questions requires truly engaging with urban citizens. As one participant pointed out, one size does not fit all – youcan’t bring Rio to Kabul. Dealing with cities that have developed haphazardly is particularly challenging and necessitates social engineering and an innovative use of technology.
On the bright side, several participants touched on a developing convergence of policymaking, technology, and the investment community in response to ‘emerging cities’. Policymakers are increasingly focused on private-sector solutions to improving energy, healthcare, education, and other hard infrastructure. Not every country is there but a momentum is building where policymakers realize that incentivizing investment is key to economic growth – and to staying in power. Similarly, we’re seeing an increasing appetite among investors – and different types of investors, in some cases with different motivations – to work together to find ways to buy, build, and deliver infrastructure while making very attractive returns.
‘Smart cities’ were presented as a solution to future waves of urbanization. Starting from scratch allows for careful planning, sustainable solutions, and avoidance of the most typical urban problems – notably the entrenchment of inequality that is so common across today’s cities. Understanding the “nexus” of urban needs is decisive to the success of smart cities– notably how energy, food and water interrelate in the urban ecosystem. Once the nexus is addressed, other practicalities can be solved for. Whilst some participants expressed skepticism about the potential of smart cities, there was agreement that they can provide a useful framework for thinking about what makes up a good city. One participant pointed out that it is about community – “great cities ultimately have great communities”.
Whilst urbanization clearly poses challenges, participants were largely optimistic about the future of cities. Referring to cities as compressions of human social networks in space and time, one participant argued that at the borders of these networks “is where magic happens!” Canny solutions are indeed coming out of cities, often driven by sheer necessity. The idea of a “fun city” was discussed, highlighting the importance of thinking about cities from a human perspective rather than as abstract entities. Cities are not just ‘investment destinations’ or ‘infrastructure challenges’ – ultimately, they are about the people that inhabit them.
November 05, 2015 | permalink
AECOM’s Andrew Laing — the global practice leader for the firm’s Strategy Plus unit, formerly known as DEGW — asked me to contribute the foreword to this year’s Annual Review, which you can download in its entirety here. But I’ve taken the liberty of re-posting my thoughts on the future of work and the office below, some of which might sound familiar…
As someone who hasn’t worked in an office in more than a decade, I possess a unique perspective on the future of work, especially as it pertains to Strategy Plus. You see, I’m an accidental savant who read Frank Duffy’s Work and the City as my primer in office design. When 2008 is Year Zero in your understanding of how to work, the following propositions start to make a lot of sense:
Workspaces create value, not costs. It should be obvious to anyone invested in innovation that realizing complex ideas demands collaboration, that collaboration requires communication, and workspaces shape how we communicate. They’re more important than any org chart. But try telling that to companies obsessed with “wasted” space.
If clients will only manage what they can measure, then measure it. Again, this is obvious. But it’s also maddeningly difficult — how does one prove the value of a coffee machine? Perhaps this is where sensors and “sociometric badges” will come in. The first test of a quantified organisation should be learning how its office works.
Your workspace should conform to you. Someone once demonstrated to me the 500 possible office layouts they’d generated for a client, who would pick one and keep it for at least a decade. This is nuts. Workspaces should continuously evolve to support workers — call it the real-time office.
Ecosystems need membranes, not walls. No enterprise is an island, as it belongs to an “ecosystem” of partners, suppliers, and customers. This is conventional wisdom for Harvard Business Review subscribers, but it rarely manifests in the office. Workspaces should be permeable, welcoming outsiders while freeing mobile employees.
Serendipity trumps efficiency. Those outsiders bring the potential for serendipity, i.e. unplanned ideas or encounters that result from the discovery of tacit knowledge — the hunches and expertise that can’t be written down. These moments and meetings are the seeds of something new and unknowable, and thus can’t be factored into metrics measuring efficiency.
The city is not an extension of the office. That’s reversing the relationship: the office is merely one island in a sea of places to work. Duffy knew in 2008 that we would never realise the full potential of mobile workers without understanding that the scale had changed. Seven years later, we still haven’t.
Free HR, FM, and IT! All of these changes are predicated on radically different roles for what are traditionally powerless back-office functions. Who should be working together, where and how are all strategic questions and should be treated as such.
But then again, you knew this already. What Duffy envisioned in 2008, Strategy Plus is creating today.
November 04, 2015 | permalink
I was delighted to learn that “Workspaces That Move People,” my feature in the October 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review written with Ben Waber and Jennifer Magnolfi, has been chosen for inclusion in HBR’s 10 Must Reads 2016: The Definitive Management Ideas of the Year from Harvard Business Review. You can read the entire essay here; the jacket copy is below:
We’ve combed through the ideas, insights, and best practices from the past year of “Harvard Business Review” to help you get up to speed fast on the relevant ideas driving business today. Revisit these topics now to make sure you’re incorporating the smartest, most up-to-date ideas in your organization, or keep it as a reference so you can access these memorable pieces when you need them most. The collection includes articles on leadership, strategy, and innovation, as well as articles to help you manage yourself and others. A year’s worth of management wisdom, all in one place.
November 02, 2015 | permalink
I had the honor and pleasure of appearing on “Numbers and Narrative” — a weekly podcast devoted to the stories we tell ourselves about the quantifiable — co-hosted by The Fires author Joe Flood. We managed to dissect the promises and perils of the smart city in a brisk 45 minutes. Please give it a listen.
October 28, 2015 | permalink
I’m currently in the throes of the fall conference season, which means traveling 44 hours to-and-from Singapore to spend just 36 hours attending the Abraaj Group’s Annual Forum — and finding time to take MIT’s autonomous car for a spin. Or did it take me for a spin? I’m not sure. A quick recap and preview of my travel schedule follows below, grouped by a few themes. (Not included: my 20th high school reunion.)
The future of mobility. I kicked off September at the Los Angeles office of Gensler with a talk on the future of urban mobility, drawing upon a combination of NYU Rudin’s “Reprogramming Mobility” project, my report for the University of Toronto’s Global Solution Networks, and my ongoing research for the New Cities Foundation’s Connected Mobility Initiative. I revisitied the theme later in the month with both the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) and the Automotive Fleet Leasing Association (AFLA), both whose members are still coming to grips with the implications of mobility-as-as-service. (I sat down with the FIA for a brief chat following my talk.)
At the end of September, I flew to Toronto to present to the transportation task force of the York Regional Council, a body comprised of elected officials representing nine municipalities and more than a million people immediately north of Greater Toronto. The region expects to add an additional 500,000 residents over the next few decades, which has councilors and staff scrambling to implement bus rapid transit and a long-term strategy to densify development, increase service, and lure people away from their cars. I was honored to encourage them to keep one eye on the horizon for how the advent of new technologies and services that help or harm their plans.
From there, it was onto London for the second annual Cities on the Move conference hosted by the New Cities Foundation and Google, where I was interviewed by the BBC’s Gareth Mitchell. I moderated a panel on how cities might start to construct mobility-as-a-service platforms, beginning with Michael Glitz-Richter’s work in Bremen twenty years ago to current efforts to build a seamless transportation mesh in Finland. Next month, I’ll be the master of ceremonies at the Disrupting Mobility conference at the MIT Media Lab, followed by hosting the opening session of the 50th anniversary conference of the California Transit Association.
The future of work and the office. My other great passion besides transportation, this was the theme of my brief remarks at the Municipal Art Society Summit in New York this month, along with several sessions I moderated for the Abraaj Group in Singapore — although I’m afraid I can’t say much more than that. Nor can I say much about the master class I led for a Fortune 20 company on “serendipity engineering.” But next month, I’ll be in Paris for the OECD’s New World Forum, where I’m set to join a panel discussing the future of human labor (versus, you know, the robots).
The future of travel and tourism. In September, I had the pleasure of addressing both the Texas Travel Industry Association and the International Luxury Travel Meetings about the importance of urban networks, policy, and infrastructure in travel and tourism going forward. One idea that had special resonance with both audiences: that convention and visitors bureaus should fund new attractions and infrastructure in the mold of New York City’s High Line or Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park (which was built atop a highway). I’ll have the chance to expand upon this idea next month when I’m back in Dubai to help dream up ideas for a certain World’s Fair on the drawing boards…
October 28, 2015 | permalink
While in London earlier this month for the second annual “Cities on the Move” conference hosted by the New Cities Foundation and Google, the BBC’s Gareth Mitchell kindly invited me back to once again appear on Click, the technology show he hosts for BBC World Service. I can’t seem to embed the audio for some reason. Please click on this link and fast-forward to the 8:00 mark for my high-speed thoughts on mobility-as-a-service.
October 27, 2015 | permalink
(Originally published at Fast Company on October 14, 2015.)
Doctors have just discovered a previously unknown relationship between the long-term recovery of spinal cord injury victims and high blood pressure during their initial surgeries. This may seem like a small bit of medical news—though it will have immediate clinical implications—but what’s important is how it was discovered in the first place.
This wasn’t the result of a new, long-term study, but a meta-analysis of $60 million worth of basic research written off as useless 20 years ago by a team of neuroscientists and statisticians led by the University of California San Francisco and partnering with the software firm Ayasdi, using mathematical and machine learning techniques that hadn’t been invented yet when the trials took place. The process was outlined in a paper published today in Nature Communications, and hints at the possibility of medical breakthroughs lurking in the data of failed experiments.
“What was thought to have been a boondoggle turns out to have great value,” says Adam Ferguson, a principal investigator at UCSF’s Brain and Spinal Injury Center and one of the paper’s authors. Just how much is unclear until trials are conducted in humans, but the finding raises several interesting questions—notably whether scientists should publish their raw data for posterity and whether their time and funding would be better spent poring through old experiments than conducting new ones.
Ferguson’s team began by meticulously reconstructing data from multiple studies comprising some 3,000 animals, including more than 300 from the Multicenter Animal Spinal Cord Injury Study conducted at Ohio State University in the mid-1990s. Rather than draw on only published results, he and his colleagues contacted each researcher and asked for unpublished data and lab notes as well. “They were very cool about this,” says Ferguson. “A lot of scientists in other disciplines wouldn’t be—they’d feel like you were auditing them.”
And perhaps for good reason. A paper published in The Lancet last year estimated less than half of all findings make it into print, with the remainder comprising a “long tail of dark data” that may hold the key to science’s reproducibility crisis. Spinal cord injury researchers are facing a crisis of their own. Twenty years after Christopher Reeve’s paralysis shone a spotlight on their field, there haven’t been any breakthroughs. “There are no drugs,” Ferguson says. “It doesn’t have any real, agreed-upon therapeutic approach. That’s embarrassing. We should have something, at least.”
Instead, they have failures. One reason is the sheer number of variables. Spinal cord injuries are enormously complex and thus still poorly understood compared to other systems. Efforts to isolate simple causal mechanisms have proven elusive, “and that’s a real threat to discovering new therapies,” says Ferguson. So he and his team thought to test old, dark data again, this time using techniques designed for uncovering hidden relationships between large numbers of variables.
Their tool of choice was topological data analysis (TDA), a technique developed by Stanford mathematician (and paper coauthor) Gunnar Carlsson, using concepts from geometric topology—the study of highly complex shapes—to find patterns hidden in large datasets. Carlsson is also president of Ayasdi, the firm he cofounded to combine TDA with machine learning techniques to probe datasets for relationships between variables. (Ayasdi is one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies in Big Data.) Before Ferguson had thought to use it for probing spinal cord injuries, Carlsson and others researchers had successfully employed TDA to find a unique mutation in breast cancers hiding in data sets that had been publicly available for more than a decade.
What sets Ayasdi apart from traditional competitors is its black box model: The software searches for patterns without human supervision (or bias) before rendering the results as a network diagram of variables for further analysis. “It’s the reverse of traditional hypothesis-driven science,” says Ferguson. “We could never have found this correlation with hypertension using traditional tools, because with thousands of variables to test, it would have never occurred to us.”
Does this mean that the process of discovery is over? That all new ideas will come from machines probing data and not from human ingenuity? While he rejects this “end of theory” idea as overblown, Ferguson does believe the first step in the scientific method—observation—has been radically complicated by Big Data and ripe for machine mediation. Or as Ayasdi CEO Gurjeet Singh told me earlier this year, “Traditionally, you have to be lucky, and then you have to have a stroke of insight. But the probability of being lucky is lower and lower over time, so you need these systems to do that work for you.”
In the case of the spinal cord injury data, Ayasdi’s TDA-driven approach mostly confirmed what researchers already knew: The drugs didn’t work. But the discovery of high blood pressure’s detrimental effects on long-term recovery has immediate implications for human patients, namely whether the use of hypertension drugs immediately after their injuries and before surgery could improve outcomes, a hypothesis Ferguson and colleagues intend to test shortly at UCSF.
In the long run, Ferguson believes retroactive data mining is “a worthwhile approach,” especially considering how much less expensive it is to sift old data again than run new trials. “For a little more than a million dollars, we’ve opened $60 million worth of value.”
October 01, 2015 | permalink
The brand consultancy PSFK, in conjunction with the architecture and design site Architizer, kindly asked me to contribute my thoughts to their new report on the trends driving the future of design. I’m in great company with architects Michael Murphy, Vishaan Chakrabarti, and Winka Dubbeldam, among many others. Please page through it above, or download to read at your leisure.
September 30, 2015 | permalink
While at reSITE in Prague this summer, I sat for a brief interview on engineering serendipity, Uber, and much more. Enjoy.
September 23, 2015 | permalink
(Originally published at Fast Company on September 22, 2015.)
I almost didn’t notice I was wearing it, at first. The plastic box strung around my neck was roughly the size and weight of a deck of cards, lighter than I expected. It was only when I spotted the occasional flash of blue light that I remembered this “sociometric badge” was listening to everything I said, where I said it, and to whom—especially if they were wearing a similar device around their own necks. In those cases, our conversations were captured for analysis—ignoring what we said in favor of how long we spoke, and who did all the talking.
I started to turn painfully self-conscious around my first visit to the bathroom: Did the badge know I was in there? Would it listen? Would it freak someone out that I was wearing a giant sensor in the stall next to him? By the time I left the building for lunch, I had zipped it beneath my jacket, less concerned that it was counting my every step than having civilians think I was some new species of Glasshole.
Like Google Glass, sociometric badges were prototyped in Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s Human Dynamics Lab within the MIT Media Lab—a place where his cyborg doctoral students once wore keyboards on their heads and no one thought it strange. Unlike Glass, the badges are still a going concern—five years ago, Pentland and several former students spun out a company now called Humanyze to consult for such companies as Deloitte and Bank of America. Just as Fitbits measure vital signs and REM cycles to reveal hidden truths about their wearers’ health, Humanyze intends to do the same for organizations—only instead of listening to heartbeats, its badges are alert for face-to-face conversations.
For two weeks in April, Fast Company was one of those subjects. (Humanyze provided the badges and analysis for free.) Twenty Fast Company editorial employees—and me, as a visiting observer—agreed to wear the badges whenever we were in the building. Our goal was to discover who actually speaks to whom, and what these patterns suggest about the flow of information, and thus power, through the office. Is the editor in chief really at the center of the magazine’s real-world social network, or was someone else the invisible bridge between its print and online operations? (Or worse, what if the two camps didn’t speak at all?) We would try to find out, though we would be hampered somewhat by the fact that not everyone was wearing a badge, and we didn’t give Humanyze the full range of data, like integration into our email and Slack conversations, that would allow the company to truly understand our work relationships.
More importantly were the questions we chose to not ask: How did these patterns impact performance? Should editors and writers talk less or more, and what did it mean when they talked amongst themselves? Did it result in more posts on Fast Company’s website, or more highly trafficked ones? Demonstrating and understanding these relationships are what Humanyze’s clients pay for; perhaps we were too scared to learn.
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.
Fast Company | September 22, 2015
Fast Company | September 21, 2015
Inc. | March 2015
Inc. | March 2015
Global Solution Networks | December 2014
Medium | November 2014
New York University | October 2014
Harvard Business Review | October 2014
Inc. | April 2014
Atlantic Cities | March 2014
Wired (UK) | October 2013
Next American City | August 2013
The New York Times | April 2013
Fast Company | March 2013
Fast Company | March 2013
Fast Company | December 2012/January 2013
WSJ | November 2012
Fast Company | June 2012
Next American City | May 2012
The New York Times | Feburary 2012
November 18, 2015
November 05, 2015
November 04, 2015
November 02, 2015