February 08, 2017 | permalink
If you’re free in New York on Monday, February, 13th, please join us for the workshop and free public event below:
The Internet of Very Bad, No Good Things
FEBRUARY 13th, 2017
WORKSHOP: 1pm-5pm (invite-only)
PANEL: 6-8pm (open to public)
A/D/O: 29 Norman Ave., Brooklyn NY
Susan Cox-Smith, Principal, Changeist
Greg Lindsay, journalist
What do an army of Russian Twitter trolls, a hotel ransoming BitCoins to keycard-hijacking hackers, and a social media CEO pondering a run for the presidency in 2020 have in common? They all sit in the speculative sliver of a Venn diagram comprised of the Internet of Things, “surveillance capitalism” as practiced by the stacks, and governments unafraid to flex their muscles as far as “the cyber” is concerned.
Reflecting the A/D/O Design Academy’s theme of “Utopia vs. Dystopia,” this special event is divided into two parts. The afternoon is an invitation-only workshop led by Changeist principal Susan Cox-Smith, using the Thingclash framework for considering cross-impacts and implications of colliding technologies, systems, cultures and values around the Internet of Things. The evening is a public discussion moderated by journalist Greg Lindsay of the group’s darker scenarios, and the steps researchers, designers, technologists, strategists, policy makers and citizens can take to think more clearly, comprehensively and long-term about how we create a brighter future for all.
February 03, 2017 | permalink
Never in my wildest dreams while writing Aerotropolis did I imagine airports would become the locus of political protests — especially sustained, passionate demonstrations and occupations that are arguably the strictest test of whether a place is truly “public” or urban. And yet, here we are. The protests ignited by President Trump’s January 27 executive order banning arrivals from seven majority-Muslim nations — an order I vehemently disagree with as well — improbably rallied around the international airports where visitors and legal permanent residents were being illegally detained. Amazing scenes have played out at New York’s JFK, LAX, Washington Dulles, Boston Logan, Denver International and elsewhere as citizens rush to defend our right to free movement and arguably cosmopolitanism itself.
I was honored to be quoted by several journalists writing about the unlikelihood of airports as protest sites. The Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne quoted my doubts that protests could be sustained (and I hope he proves me wrong):
At overtaxed airports like LAX, those spaces are bottlenecks on the best of days. It was precisely that quality, as vessels of public space easily stoppered, that demonstrators exploited.
But that exploitation cuts both ways. Greg Lindsay — senior fellow at the New Cities Foundation and co-author with John D. Kasarda of the book “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next” — points out that the in-betweenness of the airport landscape is not simply architectural. It’s also legal.
“The protests illustrated how effectively various authorities could throttle various choke points to deny access,” he told me in an email. “New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had to order the Port Authority Police to re-open the AirTrain to JFK after they had closed it to limit the arrival of protesters via the subway.”
Who knows? Maybe the airport protests will fade as new White House decisions generate fresh controversies. And crackdowns on dissent, as Lindsay notes, may be far easier to execute at an airport than in the middle of a city.
But something tells me that any smart activist who looks closely at the airport protests will see something of a blueprint.
And Curbed’s Alissa Walker quoted my wonder at how even the unloveliest spaces at JFK suddenly became fully urbanized by protestors’ energy:
At LAX, the Tom Bradley International Terminal had recently been refurbished to add more restaurants and shops specifically to accommodate people who were there to welcome arriving passengers. Last weekend, the renovation provided a bright, welcoming environment with food, seating, and restrooms—much like an actual public plaza.
“It was amazing to see,” said Lindsay after attending JFK’s protests. “These pathways that are almost never used, they became temporarily urbanized in a way that they never had been before. You could start to see JFK operate as a real urban space.”
By Monday morning, after a stay on the order had been issued by a federal court, and some detainees had been released, the large-scale demonstrations were over. But many airports remain filled with protesters, pop-up law offices, and family members awaiting news on traveling relatives. The hashtag #OccupyAirports has also cropped up, signifying that this one-weekend stand could potentially evolve into a movement more like Occupy Wall Street, which took over U.S. public spaces for months.
Whose airports? OUR AIRPORTS.
January 23, 2017 | permalink
(Originally published by Fast Company on January 19, 2017.)
It’s a tough time to be a Davos Man. Even during globalization’s heyday, the World Economic Forum’s annual summit was mocked for being out of touch, and this year is no different, with the spectacle of billionaires debating how to fix the middle class, and using Pokestops to remind attendees about global sustainability goals. The conventional wisdom is that the WEF’s vision of free markets, falling borders, and globe-trotting do-gooders “is at best broken and at worst dead.” The good news? As last year’s summit proved, the “Davos Consensus” is invariably wrong.
Davos will survive, if only as a place to do deals. But this doesn’t sit well with the World Economic Forum’s paternalistic founder Klaus Schwab, who signed off several years ago on a plan to reinvent the organization from within. The Forum of Young Global Leaders, created in 2004, is the 800-strong group of thirty- and fortysomethings who are being groomed to save the world—or at least run it one day. Their ranks include Chelsea Clinton, Ivanka Trump, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, and Noma chef René Redzepi. But as of a few years ago, these youngsters, like their elders, were in it mostly for themselves, the WEF feared. The group’s mission of “improving the state of the world” had plateaued, partly because Schwab was telling them what they should think.
“We’d had some successful projects, but most members were either completely disengaged or only superficially involved to earn kudos,” says the World Economic Forum’s John Dutton, who took over the program in 2013.
Here, in a nutshell, was the paradox of Davos: What’s the point of having a global conspiracy of overachievers if you don’t use it?
So the World Economic Forum turned to a team of artists, designers, and data scientists to reinvent the program. The goal was to transform a clubhouse in the Alps into an incubator for social enterprise. And that’s how Shaffi met Eli.
Shaffi Mather, founder of India’s Ziqitza Health Care, claims to operate the largest ambulance company in the Global South. But that wasn’t enough, so a few years ago, “I started thinking about emergency response in the other 90% of the world,” where his network would never reach. Then at the 2013 Young Global Leader Summit in Myanmar, Mather found himself paired with Eli Beer, founder of United Hatzalah of Israel, which fields a free, motorcycle-riding fleet of more than 3,000 volunteer medics. They were part of a conversation circle including public health experts and VCs charged with creating what Mather had envisioned.
What they came up with is MUrgency, a global medical response network employing any means necessary to get doctors where they are needed the most. “It could be a nurse coming by bicycle, or a doctor arriving by Uber,” Mather says. Three years later, MUrgency’s medics have answered more than 300,000 emergency calls. Indian industrialist Ratan Tata personally invested in the service last spring, and Mather hints at an impending partnership with a “large emergency response organization” with 160,000 branches worldwide.
“I’ve been able to move ten times faster than if I didn’t have this as a platform,” says Mather, referring to his fellow Young Global Leaders.
This wasn’t by accident. Mather and Beer weren’t matched by chance. MUrgency’s cast of characters were selected by software and then stage-managed by a team from The Value Web, a nonprofit network of facilitators who have worked with a who’s who of nonprofits, ranging from UNICEF and the International Red Cross to the Indian government. With the World Economic Forum’s blessing, they embarked on a three-year experiment to rewire the Young Global Leaders from a loose confederation of thought leaders into a tightly wound ideas factory—without the participants barely noticing.
Their secret weapon was the software created in conjunction with one of their teammates, Brandon Klein. Dubbed “People Science,” his tool melds social network analysis and machine learning techniques to probe for hidden interests and connections between people, and then uses that information to generate new teams. That’s how they knew to match Shaffi with Eli.
Crucially, Klein and his colleagues didn’t limit themselves to LinkedIn profiles. Starting in 2013, at the Myanmar summit where the pair met, The Value Web’s team began collecting granular data about the Young Leaders—not just who and what they knew, but how and why. They didn’t limit themselves to careers or hobbies, either—they asked for the intimate details of their friendships, families, faith, and health.
All of this was then parsed by the software, which started connecting the not-always-obvious dots. The obvious thing would have been to create a members-only social network, or at the very least an app. No way, said Dutton. “They have enough apps. I’d rather they’d be present than distracted on their phones.”
So the machine passed along these suggestions to The Value Web instead. Duly armed with this inside information, they began assembling teams with potential collaborations in mind. At conferences, they replaced the panel sessions that their Young Leaders would be tempted to skip (as their elders do habitually in Davos) with ad hoc exercises that fostered bonding. Afterwards, granular surveys asked participants for the names and context of everything they learned and everyone they met, to be fed back into the software once again.
Together, they created a high-tech-meets-high-touch formula for collaboration. Most remarkably, it didn’t feel coercive or manipulative—members were given the space to discover what they had in common.
You can see the results for yourself. A network map at the onset of the program depicts a loosely coupled network surrounded by a sea of disconnected dots. (Interestingly, the best-connected members are objects of suspicion—it implies they’re inveterate schmoozers.) Fast-forward to today, and you’ll find a tightly knit lattice ready to get to work.
January 13, 2017 | permalink
(Originally published by The Guardian on January 13, 2017.)
The perceived wisdom is that Uber has disrupted taxis and that private automobiles are next, but what if we’ve misread what is happening in our cities?
Traditional thinking would suggest that UberPool, which allows users to split the cost of trips with other Uber riders heading in the same direction, will always be inferior to public transport. Sitting in the backseat of a Prius may be more comfortable than standing on a crowded bus or train, continues this reasoning, but carpooling can’t substitute for mass transit at rush hours without massively increasing congestion.
This is wrong. In the last six months, Uber has begun offering shared rides for as little as $1 (81p), introduced optimised pickup points that algorithmically recreate bus stops, and started testing semi-autonomous vehicles it hopes will solve its increasingly contentious labour issues.
Never mind the black cabs; Uber is out to disrupt the bus.
From loss-making to profitable monopoly
Its principal weapon is not renegade AVs or all-knowing algorithms; it’s cash. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest Uber’s passengers pay only 41% of the true cost of each ride – a figure since challenged for mistakenly including now-staunched losses in China.
Still, the figures raise red flags about Uber’s strategy: is losing $3bn annually the sign of a sustainable business, or the product of predatory pricing? “Uber is wildly unprofitable,” tweeted the economist Justin Wolfers, “[which] suggest that prices will rise once they’ve succeeded at monopolising the industry.” Perhaps to his credit, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has never denied this.
The most important question surrounding Uber is not whether it is a platform or a transportation company, or whether its drivers are employees. It’s whether it can only recoup its investors’ billions by building a monopoly (or at least duopoly with Lyft) on the ruins of public transportation – and it may not take much to tear it all down.
In Washington DC a vicious cycle of declining ridership and service on the city’s Metro culminated in last spring’s “Metropocalypse” – a system-wide shutdown followed by a year’s worth of emergency repairs requiring the closure of entire lines for weeks at a time.
Stranded commuters abandoned transit in droves while Uber, Lyft and other services pounced, offering shared rides priced below the cost of a Metro ticket. Unsurprisingly, Metro ridership has plunged, creating a $67m shortfall in its budget.
London’s fare surge
This week’s London tube strike was a harbinger of what comes next, with stranded riders reporting Uber fare surcharges as high as 450%. As a spokesperson explained, “without this pricing, there would simply be no cars available”. Meanwhile, the number of licensed private-hire vehicles in London has nearly doubled from 59,000 in 2010 to more than 110,000 by the middle of 2016.
Ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles could prove to be an especially combustible mix if and when the technology is perfected. The Boston Consulting Group predicts a shared AV carrying three people could cost operators less on a per-mile basis than rail.
Passengers at the edge of the network would presumably be the first to defect for convenience, triggering shocks throughout the balance sheet. Even a modest decline in numbers, BCG argues, could tip well-managed transit systems into the red.
Support for public transport
So what are cities to do about the would-be disruptors tunnelling into their transit systems? First, do no harm. As the US magazine Slate recently noted, cities across America are partnering with Uber to strengthen weak transport links and then using its looming inevitability as an excuse to not improve their own service. Diverting funds to pay for blanket subsidies will only hasten the public system’s implosion.
That said, one of the rich ironies on US election day was voters’ embrace of public transport in sprawling cities such as Atlanta, Seattle and Los Angeles.
While LA Metro builds new rail lines, the city’s Department of Transportation has commissioned its own trip-planning app from Xerox, receives traffic snapshots from Waze and is exploring how best to combine various modes such as buses, bike-sharing and electric car-sharing to build a seamless system greater than the sum of its parts.
Los Angeles’ efforts trail more ambitious experiments in Helsinki, Hanover, Manchester and Birmingham, all of which are dabbling with “mobility-as-a-service” – monthly transport subscriptions combining car-sharing and taxi rides, for example, with unlimited public transport. The hope is to retain riders and woo residents away from their cars (and Uber) by making the whole of these services greater than the sum of their parts.
My own recommendations [pdf] are that simply banning Uber won’t work, and neither will battling its labour practices in court. Staving off disruption will require leveraging every tool at cities’ disposal, including lane access, parking regulations and incentives to shift the peak of rush hours commutes, to create communities that are at their best when served by mass transit – and could never be built around a million Ubers.
January 11, 2017 | permalink
Each year, the architecture, engineering, construction, and services firm AECOM — the people you call when you need an Olympics or an aerotropolis built from scratch — hosts a student design competition named Urban SOS. This year’s installment, held in conjunction with New York’s Van Alen Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, was titled “Fair Share.” Each of the four multidisciplinary finalists grappled with creating a “sharing economy” prototype that lives up to its name — unlike AirBnB or Uber. (Click on the archived livestream below to see me get into it with my fellow judges about Uber around the 50:00 mark.)
After intense deliberations with my fellow judges following the teams’ final presentations on January 10th at AECOM’s headquarters in Los Angeles, we selected “First Class Meal,” a proposal for repurposing closed and underutilized United States Post Offices as neighborhood food distribution centers in food deserts. Created by a team of architecture and public health students at St. Louis’ Washington University, they’ll receive a cash prize and $25,000 of in-kind work from AECOM to make the project a reality. The competition’s official press release is after the jump.
January 10, 2017 | permalink
I’m headed to Abu Dhabi next week to speak at the World Future Energy Summit about sustainable transport and connected mobility. In advance of that talk, the organizers quizzed me at length about disruption, the Law of Connectivity, and whether we need to break up with cars. (Yes.) Our discussion follows:
How do we take practical steps to achieve urban sustainability and to make transport more climate friendly?
One way of framing the question is to think about the future we’re trying to avoid, a future the science fiction author Bruce Sterling once described as: “Old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.” He was alluding to the triple dilemma of global aging, urbanization, and climate change.
This is the future we’ll have to grapple with — how do we help a population that’s likely to grow old before they grow rich stay in their homes leading healthy and hopefully happy lives even as temperatures and sea levels rise?
The first thing we’ll need is more cities — a lot more of them. Where will we build them? The Arabian Gulf is interesting to me for that reason, as it has become the emblem for instant urbanism. But to focus on how to build more ‘Abu Dhabis’ or ‘Dubais’ is to miss the bigger picture, which is that most people will live in slums by 2050 unless we help them build better cities first.
That’s why the real technology breakthroughs won’t be at the high end — but ultra-affordable, modular, humane housing that can be more or less built by hand, with solar panels on every corrugated tin roof powering clean, electric, autonomous tuk-tuks that might replace one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions and air pollution on Earth. (The latter already kills more people in Africa every year than malnutrition and unsafe sanitation combined).
Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is an experiment in building sustainable cities, and we certainly need more of those. But we also need the blueprints for future cities anyone can build if we want to see new technologies adopted in time to make a difference.
The bigger questions will be around governance and finance — who’s going to recognize the right of people to live where they are and to build a home? Who’s going to pay for the necessary infrastructure — plumbing and roads — and ensure they’re public goods rather than private amenities? The opportunities for win-win solutions could be enormous — imagine giving away a house in order to build, own, and operate the panels on the roof?
To what extent can new technology promote more sustainable transport behaviors?
Cities are always formed around whatever the state-of-the-art in transportation is at the time. Today, the state of the art is the smartphone (and the cloud computing behind it). The ability to coordinate and orchestrate multiple modes is more important than any mode itself. Which is how you get Waze, and Uber, and eventually autonomous vehicles — the routing and provisioning of vehicles becomes more powerful than the mode in question. Done right, this could be a powerful force for good in cities — replacing solo drivers with shared, electric, autonomous vehicles supplementing transit would do wonders for reducing carbon emissions, noise and air pollution, and freeing the streetscape for other uses.
The dominant mode of transport in megacities across the Global South isn’t the train or the bus or even the private automobile — it’s an informal minibus like Nairobi’s matatus or Manila’s jeepneys. In Manila’s case, jeepneys — oversized jeeps that cost little but belch exhaust and are terrible unsafe — still carry nearly half the city’s commuters. If we can manage to replace these fleets with clean, quiet, inexpensive electric vehicles, the impact on emissions and quality of life would be enormous. That’s where the greatest gains might come.
Will public transport enjoy a resurgence in the future transport scenario?
I certainly hope so, but I’m not optimistic. Uber is the best-known and most valuable new mobility service in use, and it’s massively subsidizing fares as part of its plan to use the efficiencies generated by network effects to price itself below public transit. The lower costs of autonomous vehicles will only accelerate this trend — the Boston Consulting Group predicts that AVs carrying three or more passengers would quickly destabilize rail ridership — which means it is incumbent on public transport operators to quickly incorporate these tools into their own networks and use them to reinforce mass transit.
In earlier interviews, you’ve talked about the ‘hijacking of natural systems as potential technology platforms’. That sounds quite sinister in intellectual property terms.
I wasn’t trying to sound sinister! It was more of a gloss on Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.” As we’ve already seen in efforts to harvest jet fuel from algae and farm spider silk at scale, I think the great opportunities in synthetic biology will be the creation of new, biological manufacturing platforms. But we should absolutely be worried about the intellectual property implications of this — what would it mean to own the IP on oil, for example? In addition to a code of ethics for synthetic bio and the like, we should also consider creating a civilization commons to ensure no one is paid a licensing fee for the building blocks of reality.
You’ve also spoken about how Virtual Reality could be used as a sustainable alternative to travel. Could you expand on this potential development?
While researching my book Aerotropolis, I coined the “Law of Connectivity:” every technology designed to circumvent distance only increases our need to travel. This law has been observed from the invention of the telegraph to the present. We are travelling more than ever, at every scale — within cities, between them, and across continents. While VR could one day fulfill its early potential as a totally immersive substitute for face-to-face conversations, I’m doubtful — and even if it doesn’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean the law will be repealed.
Which countries are best suited to integrating disruptive transportation models?
The countries best suited to integrating new modes of transport are the ones that already have a rich mix of options with policies to support them. I’m thinking about cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, New York and London — places where shared, electric, autonomous vehicles can supplement, rather than replace, strong transit networks. The Middle East is making great strides toward this, too, with metros in Dubai and soon Riyadh. Having flexible and far-sighted policies are important, too — how we regulate road space and parking in a world of AVs will be critical.
What are the policy imperatives in bringing about more sustainable transport?
I think it’s telling that Los Angeles — the city that invented car culture! — just passed a measure by 70% of voters that will raise more than US$100 billion for transportation projects over the next several decades. That’s incredible. But cities will need to be incredibly smart about policy, and will need to withstand legal challenges from private actors like Uber on their ability to regulate new entrants accordingly. For example, central London’s congestion pricing zone quickly removed 60,000 private vehicles from the streets when it was introduced. In the last two years alone, Uber has put 20,000 vehicles back thanks to a loophole for livery cabs. What will happen when AVs arrive? Without thoughtful and airtight regulation — including thorough congestion pricing — these problems will only get worse.
Does our love affair with the car need to end?
It’s not about trading one’s car for public transport — given the changes we’re seeing with shared vehicles and AVs, “public transport” might well mean a luxury SUV. But if cities continue to optimize development for the car, they will guarantee a city that is navigable only by car. We built those cities here in America in the middle of the last century; trust me, you don’t want that.
How can the possible negative impacts of disruptive technology be managed responsibly?
It’s not about technology; it’s about politics and economics. Take artificial intelligence and automation, for example. Technology itself is not making people superfluous; technology coupled with our current, wildly unequal societies is responsible for that. We need equally disruptive innovations in politics and economics to keep pace with whatever changes are wrought by new technology.
January 10, 2017 | permalink
BLDGBLOG and A Burglar’s Guide to the City author Geoff Manaugh has a deep, deep dive in The Atlantic into LAX’ homegrown counter-terrorism intelligence unit, one designed to both thwart potential threats and collect intelligence on passengers passing through the United States’ single largest entrepot.
Geoff interviewed me for BLDGBLOG when Aerotropolis was published in 2011, and I in turn interviewed him for FSG’s Work in Progress. So he was kind enough to call me for some context on LAX and how it fits into the global network of trade and movement that really defines the world:
Greg Lindsay is coauthor of the 2011 book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, written with University of North Carolina business consultant John Kasarda. Seen through Lindsay’s eyes, aviation logistics takes on near-psychedelic dimensions. When someone looks at a map of the world, he or she might take in superficial details, like the outlines of nation-states, but Lindsay sees tax-free supply-chain hubs, special economic zones, and transnational land deals. Individual airports, he pointed out, are complexly knit together through global-service contracts and preferred air routes that often defy straightforward geopolitical explanations. What’s more, the value of consumer goods that pass through the LAX-to-Tokyo or LAX-to-Shanghai air corridors often exceeds the GDPs of many nation-states—yet those invisible routes, despite their outsize economic influence, don’t show up on world maps.
The fact that an airport such as LAX would begin to realize its true power and economic stature in the world is not at all surprising for Lindsay—nor, of course, is it news to anyone that airports are increasingly terrorist targets. A piece of infrastructure turning into its own intelligence-gathering apparatus, Lindsay suggested, is just “the natural trickle-down effect of when, after 9/11, the NYPD expanded its own intelligence efforts, deciding that the FBI, CIA, and Homeland Security were simply not good enough. They had to project their own presence.” More to the point, they realized, like LAX, just how much there was to protect—and how badly other people wanted to destroy it.
Today’s threats, whether terrorist or merely criminal, are increasingly networked and dispersed; it only makes sense that an institution’s response to them must take a similar form. It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.
January 04, 2017 | permalink
(Originally published at Backchannel on January 4, 2017.)
When siblings Jonathan Smalley and Melanie Charlton began brainstorming a startup in her Annapolis basement in 2014, they were unwittingly following in the footsteps of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the pair who plotted the trajectory of their namesake company, Silicon Valley, and ultimately the zeitgeist from the splendid isolation of their Palo Alto garage. But Smalley and Charlton chose a different path, relocating to Washington, D.C. expressly to join the city’s first WeWork outpost. “We had been working from home, alone,” recalls Charlton. “Once we moved in, immediately everything began to change.”
They weren’t looking to change the world; their firm, Brilliant Communications (later shortened to the vowel-challenged Brllnt) would design the apps and sites and services for those who did. So they set out to meet their neighbors through liberally dispensing help, advice, and round after round of Nintendo’s Mario Golf paired with WeWork’s infamous free beer.
What followed reads like a parody of millennial startup culture — Smalley the salesman in his cutaway-collared shirts; Charlton the chic creative lead; her Shiba Inu, Cinna, starring in the annual “Dogs of WeWork” calendar — but it worked. They met 400 people in the office that year, including nearly half their clients, many of whom sat literally down the hall. They acquired a neighboring three-person firm the next year, began pitching for larger business with a trio of others, and poached WeWork’s own community manager to coordinate their efforts. By last summer, Brllnt had quadrupled in size to 16 people, with another half dozen freelancers on call.
“Like anything else, the space is what you make of it,” says Smalley. “If you want to meet people and forge relationships, you can do that — otherwise, it’s just an office. Our approach all along was to build a community inside.”
Brllnt’s symbiotic relationship with WeWork hints at a much larger shift in how we organize work, and where. The startup’s choice of a host was not coincidental. With more than 80,000 members spread across 112 locations in 32 cities worldwide, WeWork represents something new in the annals of the office: a talent pool with the scope and scale of a multinational corporation whose collective brain is there for the picking. Whether it justifies its $16 billion valuation, it’s already one of the biggest beneficiaries of two trends driving the unbundling — and rebundling — of creative work.
The first trend is how the shared office and the network have replaced the solo entrepreneur in her garage as the incubators for new companies and ideas. “Coworking” didn’t exist a decade ago, and today there are nearly a million people globally working alongside peers who aren’t necessarily their colleagues. Workers in these spaces consistently report making more connections, learning skills faster, and feeling more inspired and in control than their cubicle-dwelling counterparts inside large companies. They also have different expectations from cloud workers content to commute from their couch.
“They want connectivity, they want density, and they want fluidity — the ability to move quickly from role to role,” says Jonathan Ortmans, president of the Global Entrepreneurship Network and a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. “I think all three things lend themselves especially well to shared work environments.”
The second, more powerful trend is the steadily climbing number of freelance, independent, contingent, and temporary workers — more than 53 million Americans at last count, including 2.8 million freelance business owners. Survey research by the economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger suggests that nearly all of the 10 million jobs created between 2005 and 2015 fall under this heading, attesting to the rise of the “gig economy.” This structural change is exhilarating if you’re armed with a laptop, Obamacare, and a high hourly rate; not so much if your family needs a steady paycheck.
This stems from the fact that corporations are quietly hollowing out. A third of the average company’s workforce was contingent or contractual in 2014, according to the supply management firm Ardent Partners, which expects this percentage to rise to 45 percent this year. At the opposite end of the spectrum, solo entrepreneurs have steadily increased spending on freelancers. In 2013 (the last year for which IRS data is available), contract workers comprised 36 percent of sole proprietors’ labor costs, up from 20 percent a decade earlier.
As a result, entrepreneurs have more freedom than ever in assembling talented teams, as Brllnt’s founders would attest. The trick is finding them — then vetting, negotiating with, working with, and ultimately paying them. And this has to happen somewhere — we can’t all be digital nomads.
WeWork and its forerunners literally sit at the convergence of these trends. Rather than going to work at a “job” with your “colleagues” in an “office,” your workplace becomes the local embodiment of what the McKinsey Global Institute has dubbed “talent platforms” — the online exchanges connecting people to projects, talent, and resources. In typical McKinsey fashion, the firm estimates that these platforms — including everything from Uber to Upwork and LinkedIn — could add $2.7 trillion to global GDP by 2025. The next target for disruption is the office itself.
Why is this happening now? The one-word answer is technology. The slightly longer explanation comes from the economist Ronald Coase and his Nobel Prize-winning work on the nature of the firm. When the “transaction costs” of contracting with talent are high — as they were in 1937, when he formulated his theory — companies hire and compensate employees internally, producing post-war behemoths like General Motors or IBM. But when they’re low and falling, due to the rise of the Internet and the collapse of organized labor, you get 50 million gig workers and counting.
One result is that new kinds of organizations appear — smaller, ad hoc teams that are loosely joined and agile — along with new institutions to support them. This is where companies like WeWork come into play, by adding a physical space in which potential coworkers, clients, and partners can cross paths, and by offering services that make it easier for them to connect.
WeWork, it’s worth noting, is neither the world’s largest office space-as-a-service chain nor the most profitable — that would be Britain’s Regus, worth roughly a third as much on paper. WeWork’s great innovation was to convince companies of all sizes that sharing an office with hundreds or even thousands of strangers was an opportunity instead of a liability. Today, a tenth of the Fortune 500 maintains at least a part-time presence there, totaling more than 11,000 members nominally belonging to the likes of Microsoft, McKinsey, Salesforce, and Dell. Once paranoid, corporate tenants have at last grown comfortable rubbing shoulders in the mix.
Management consultants have evangelized for years about business “ecosystems.” As in the food chain, even apex predators are enmeshed in a complex web of partners, suppliers, customers…and prey. But until the advent of shared workspaces, these relationships rarely manifested in the workplace (unless you were a consultant). Today, you might meet a client or investor while pouring yourself a mimosa; tomorrow, she might invite you to work out of her office.
This is already the case in Holland, where one of the country’s largest insurers has taken the unusual step of welcoming strangers inside. A few years ago, Interpolis partnered with the Dutch free coworking chain Seats2Meet to share spaces within its buildings. The first, located inside its headquarters and furnished with vintage carousel horses, has become a popular outpost for visiting customers, alumni, and curious employees. “It’s a place where my colleagues can meet people from the outside and immediately build something with them,” says Bob van Leeuwen, the Interpolis strategist who conceived the project.
Though it’s fun to imagine your future co-founder might be sitting behind you, most of us can’t afford to wait. Which is why WeWork, Seats2Meet, and others are building their own talent platforms to compete with LinkedIn, gambling that curated propinquity will trump the latter’s size (and degrading signal-to-noise ratio). At WeWork, for example, community managers frequently consult the company’s own social network to assist members in finding the right UX designer — which is how Brllnt met several of its clients. As machine learning and social network analysis tools such as Conspire and Collaboration.ai are brought to bear on these networks, it’s not hard to imagine algorithmic matchmakers spotting these latent connections well in advance.
Because as Brllnt’s co-founders will tell you, the value of shared workspaces stems from face-to-face conversations with your peers. “As we’ve scaled our business, we’ve managed to scale our partnerships” with other firms,” Smalley says. “They’ve given us insight into problems we had to later face.” According to one survey of coworkers, 84 percent had consulted with fellow members, 60 percent had created new friendships, and nearly half (46 percent) had “innovated” in collaboration with another member. Working together makes you smarter.
One reason startups and soloists are leaving their garages, basements, and office spaces is the increasing strength and ease of digital workflow tools, which make it possible for one to work from anywhere — thus inspiring them to rethink where they should work. Between Slack, HipChat, Dropbox, and Asana, we’re living in the golden age of hyper-intuitive collaboration tools. But what’s been missing are equally intuitive apps for everything else — negotiating who does what for how much, ensuring the work gets done, that deadlines are met, people get paid, and the tax man is satisfied. That’s especially true of tasks unique to partnerships that dissolve as quickly as they form.
As Stowe Boyd, a consultant and futurist who’s worked with Microsoft, Google, and IBM, among others, sees it, most of today’s collaboration tools are outdated, and leave out key parts of the process. For example, “the trickiest part — negotiation — is handled over email or a telephone call and never captured in the project itself.” Building a platform that does all of that while obscuring enough of the underlying complexity to be useful is a lot harder than writing another chatbot.
The largest such network to date belongs to Upwork, the freelance marketplace created from the 2014 merger of Elance and oDesk. With ten million members earning more than $1 billion annually in gross annual billings (of which they tithe 10 percent), Upwork has invested heavily in matchmaking, monitoring, payment, and managing reputations, gradually compressing its average time-to-hire from three days to three hours. “We’re online dating for businesses and freelancers, except we know what happens after they meet,” says Rich Pearson, its senior vice president for marketing. “We know how many people they hired, what skills they actually used, and what their performance rating was.”
Pearson imagines managing “private talent clouds” on behalf of customers who could bring reinforcements aboard with a click, rather than after a background check. (He’d better move fast — Work Market already does this on behalf of thousands of customers, including Walgreens and Cisco.) The idea should appeal to entrepreneurs and corporate behemoths alike.
Deloitte, for example, is building what chief talent officer Mike Preston calls “bench strength” — a thousands-strong reserve of expert alumni, niche talents, and part-timers who can be summoned in a pinch. Given the churn of a firm its size (225,000 people worldwide), Deloitte has taken the enlightened view that its true workforce extends into both the past and future of its present employees.
Then there’s the question of how to provide benefits to pop-up ensembles of workers. TaskRabbit co-founder Kevin Busque is tackling aspects of this challenge with his new startup, Guideline Technologies. The goal is to first radically simplify retirement plans for small- to medium-sized businesses and then untether them from employers altogether. To that end, Guideline has partnered with Vanguard, the low-fee mutual fund company, created its own easy-to-use app, and added a solo 401(k) option in which workers can sponsor themselves.
Another company angling to reinvent back-office functions is Justworks, a New York City-based startup striving to shoehorn the legal requirements of HR into an app. “Our goal is to become the ‘employment layer’ for Americans,” says CEO Isaac Oates. “On top are millions of businesses, and on bottom are thousands of governments. And in between is a spaghetti of relationships.”
Left unsaid: the company that can untangle that — or at least sufficiently hide it — has a multi-billion-dollar business on its hands. Justworks, Guideline, and their many competitors are all chasing the same grail: an Amazon Web Services-inspired model allowing virtually anyone to run industrial-strength HR and accounting from their phones.
For a firm like Brllnt — which relies on Slack and runs on JustWorks — the flexibility provided by these tools has already influenced how, where, and with whom they work. Rather than obviating the need to cram into a fishbowl, today’s business climate made sharing a workspace that much more attractive. Despite the hype, technology didn’t end up killing the office. It enhanced and reinvented it, instead.
December 13, 2016 | permalink
(Gabriella Gómez-Mont, director of Mexico City’s Laboratory for the City, asked me to elaborate on the idea of cities-as-serendipity-engines ahead of the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders in Bogota in October. Interview by Zoe Mendelson.)
What is “serendipity” in the context of cities?
The original definition described “discoveries, by accidents and sagacity,” of things we are not in search of. Today, everyone remembers the happy accidents and forgets the sagacity, i.e. the latent knowhow and expertise necessary to capitalize on these accidents. Cities are serendipity machines in two ways. One is through the juxtaposition of so many people, elements, and sensations — their tumult naturally increases the chances of a happy accident. The second is social — you are more likely to discover an unsought connection at the fringes of your network, through a friend of a friend or a familiar stranger. There’s a reason young people flock to cities — for serendipitous encounters in life and love!
Why do cities need serendipity?
A decade ago, the physicists Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West discovered an unusual property of cities — they seem to get better as they get bigger. You can measure “better” in any number of ways, including higher wages and productivity. To explain why this happens, Bettencourt (who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Big Bang) argues that cities are neither machines nor natural ecosystems, but stars — “social reactors” compressing dense social networks together in space and time until they fuse at the edges, producing new ideas and relationships instead of light and heat. This meshes well with Jane Jacobs and most economists about why cities exist and why they perform so well. And I would argue the mechanism is serendipity.
Are there certain things cities do that block serendipity?
Anything preventing diverse groups of people and ideas from mixing — racism, intolerance, segregation, concentrated poverty, crime, and so on. How we use and traverse the city matters too: a lack of public and private spaces in which people can meet, converse, and linger; investing in cars and freeways that isolate drivers and then trap them in congestion, and urban districts that lack both texture and a variety of uses. It’s difficult to experience serendipity when there is no one to see, nothing to do, and your very presence is unwanted, if not outright criminalized. For example, the Department of Justice’s scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department highlighted instance after instance of “zero tolerance” policing amounting to clearing the streets of all bystanders. Less egregious (although more insidious) are practices such as spatially discriminatory retail redlining, which starves neighborhoods of places that are neither home nor work for serendipitous encounters with neighbors form ad hoc communities.
How can cities engineer serendipity?
Through encouraging unplanned uses and encounters in public and private space. For example, why are streets given over entirely to cars? Why aren’t we trying to maximize the number of people and activities who can use them? Whether it’s banning cars from city centers, building better blocks through testing different uses, or transforming parking spaces into “parklets,” there are any number of ways to increase their potential for serendipity. In a similar vein, why do we fill the cores of our cities with skyscrapers that are never more than half full at any given moment? We need to blur the line between the office and the street, just as Londoners once did the same by doing business in its pubs, coffeehouses, and “gentlemen’s clubs. In practice, that means propelling work out of the hermetically-sealed office into shared workspaces and other semi-public places, and it also means bringing a variety of new uses into skyscrapers — just as Hong Kong and Singapore have done with great success. We also need fundamental re-investment in public transport to maximize the number of people who can be brought to experience these places. Cities can engineer serendipity through the diversity of their people, the heterogeneity of their places, and the intensity of their uses.
The Las Vegas Downtown Project tried to engineer serendipity. What did they get right and what did they get wrong?
The Las Vegas Downtown Project consciously tried to engineer what its backers call “casual collisions.” But they did several things wrong. First, they gentrified the areas, displacing long-term residents, small business, and people of color to attract young, mostly white people with an interest or background in technology. Then, they began acquiring or controlling land in order to carefully curate the mix of businesses and uses they wanted to see downtown — which increased property values, but discouraged a real neighborhood from forming. What do you expect when literally one man hand-picks the bars, the restaurants, the co-working spaces, and even the grocery store? Where are the surprises in that? Finally, the layout of downtown Vegas worked against them — long, empty streets with destinations few and far between. It’s not a failure, but after having committed $350 million to the project, it’s not a success, either. They had the right ideas, but botched the execution.
Who or what projects are getting it right?
My favorite example is Renew Newcastle, which started in a depressed downtown city in Australia. Instead of buying properties or deciding what the area needed, its creator — an arts festival organizer named Marcus Westbury — borrowed spaces temporarily and invited residents to use them. The project acted quickly and cheaply to use vacant storefronts as intensely as possible, without prescribing how people should use them. The result is a revitalized downtown for a hundredth of the price of the Downtown Project. Instead of remaking itself for an itinerant “creative class” as dozens, if not hundreds of cities have done, Westbury sought to catalyze Newcastle’s latent energy and talent by creating places where people could pursue their passions in public, thus generating a host of new activity around them. There wasn’t a plan or a desired outcome — the project unfolded organically.
This is what I mean by “engineering serendipity.” Cities don’t need to attract outside talent or capital or coffee bars — they need to do a better job of unlocking the buried potential of their places and through them, their people. Platforms like Renew handle the engineering. That particular project isn’t a panacea, but it is the lightest, cheapest, most successful model I’ve seen to date.
We like to roll our eyes at the ideas of the Modern City. What will urbanists be rolling their eyes about two generations from now?
That we ever spent so much time staring at Facebook and Twitter. Social networks will still be with us — in fact, they’ll matter more than ever — but the success of Pokemon Go points toward a future in which our social networks are overlaid and enhanced by the city. A game encouraging us to go outside and meet our neighbors and strangers is a good start.
December 07, 2016 | permalink
In October, I was honored to be the opening keynote guest speaker at AECOM’s annual Global Leadership Conference in Beverly Hills. AECOM is one of the world’s largest engineering and construction firms, with $18 billion in annual revenus and nearly 100,000 employees. It built 1 World Trade Center, designs Olympic Games, and runs America’s national laboratories, among its far-flung activities.
The conference brought together 500+ principals from around the world to learn how to make the company greater than the sum of its many parts. My job was to survey the landscape of a fully urbanized 21st Century, explaining why the challenges posed by climate change, energy, cyber-attacks, and governance would require ever-greater levels of collaboration and cross-pollination. (Hat tip to Keller Easterling’s “The Action is the Form” for the quote pictured above.)
Video of my talk isn’t publicly available online, but I’d be happy to share it privately. Please contact me for details.
Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.
He is also 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, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.
Fast Company | January 19, 2017
The Guardian | January 13, 2017
Backchannel | January 4, 2017
New Cities Foundation | October 2016
Inc. | October 2016
Popular Mechanics | May 11, 2016
The New Republic | January/February 2016
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
February 08, 2017
February 03, 2017
January 23, 2017
January 13, 2017