July 29, 2016 | permalink
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.
July 29, 2016 | permalink
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.
July 29, 2016 | permalink
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.
July 20, 2016 | permalink
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.)
July 20, 2016 | permalink
(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.
July 15, 2016 | permalink
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.
July 03, 2016 | permalink
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.
June 30, 2016 | permalink
(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.
June 08, 2016 | permalink
(Kursty Groves — co-author of the forthcoming “Spaces for Innovation” with Oliver Marlow — interviewed me about the future of workspaces, cities, and serendipity for her book. Our conversation is reproduced below, but I encourage you to order the book, which is currently available for pre-order with a special 20% discount.)
What is ‘engineering serendipity’ – apart from a delightful oxymoron?
GREG LINDSAY: First, a bit of context. For more than a century, large organizations have prized clear hierarchies, ruthless efficiencies and, above all, economies of scale. The office-as-we-know-it, for example, began life as a factory for paperwork. That model clearly isn’t working anymore. Firms are dying faster, innovation is slowing down, corporate returns-on-assets have steadily fallen off a cliff. Hierarchical organizations are suffering from diminishing returns to complexity, and suffering badly. Twenty years ago, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard lamented, ‘If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.’ Even then, the company’s strategic vision was less than the sum of its know-how. After that, the company split itself in two, merged disastrously in a misguided pursuit of economies of scale, and recently split itself in two again (and again).
Meanwhile, companies have hollowed themselves out even as they’ve become more tightly coupled – whether they know it or not, people’s most valuable colleague probably works for somebody else. Yet, we are still slotting ourselves into hierarchies to do the same things we’ve always done in the hope of making them two per cent better. We need to enable unknown connections to happen in order to allow step-change differences to occur. Rather than chasing efficiency, what if we tried to engineer serendipity instead? By that I mean, what if we designed organizations, environments and networks to produce unplanned encounters and collaborations instead of predictable ones? In practice, this means creating more permeable, diverse, collegial workspaces and cities, with social networks steering us toward the gaps in our networks rather than cocooning us in filter bubbles. So what I’m interested in is: what does that world look like and, more importantly, who’s already building it?
What role does physical space play?
It’s hugely important. Even though it’s trendy now to say the future of all knowledge work – or at least anything involving typing on a laptop – will migrate to the iCloud, and there won’t be any offices, only Slack channels. But this overlooks the fact that physical proximity has always defined communication patterns – an iron law MIT’s Thomas J Allen first quantified in the 1970s – and continues to do so, even online (see p.161). You chat most frequently with the people nearest you, no matter the medium. So, if we want to radically increase combinatorial possibilities of a network, we need to bring them together in space, which is why cities exist and firms pay high rents to stack people in them in the first place. But rather than work in the same office every day with the same people, what if you mixed both up? I think this largely explains the appeal of coworking spaces, where one works alongside peers and equals instead of colleagues and subordinates. The fact that members of these spaces uniformly report making more contacts, learning more skills and experiencing greater satisfaction than their cubicle-bound counterparts in traditional organizations means they are learning from each other in ways that a corporate HR department simply couldn’t predict.
And what of technology?
Well, this is where the ‘engineering’ part comes in. We all know intuitively that work doesn’t get done according to the organizational chart, but through informal networks that are rarely recognized and occasionally secret. What if you could map those networks in real-time, sample the flow of information moving across them and use that metadata to tap hidden expertise, discover new coworkers or even suggest someone new to sit with? What if HP knew what HP knows, and could do something about it? That’s the promise of the quantified organization, using various analytical techniques and devices like ‘sociometric badges’ that aim to measure the nuances of every face-to-face meeting and casual encounter. And if the idea of HR rummaging through your emails creeps you out, there’s an algorithmic black box to shield personal data from prying eyes. These technologies put the oxymoron into ‘engineering serendipity’. Serendipity feels like magic because it’s an accident, but that feeling is in the eye of the beholder. We’re already seeing many other attempts to use machine-learning to detect patterns in data sets either too large or too complex for a human observer to detect – a phenomenon the big data start-up Ayasdi labels ‘digital serendipity’. So using a system that is able to pair you with the coworker or information you need at exactly the moment you need them, will also feel like magic.
What are the implications for designing physical spaces for the future?
The biggest is the change from workspace-as-cost-centre to workspace-as-value-creator. If you can’t manage what you can’t measure, then hopefully sociometric badges and other tools will definitively make the case for treating the places where we work as vital to our success. After that, we could start to see real-time offices – near-constant adjustments to eliminate dead zones and other design flaws that would otherwise go untreated for a decade. I think traditional HR and facilities management roles will be superseded (or enhanced) with the addition of community managers whose job it is to help workers make connections, aided by the analytical tools I just described. And most importantly, the idea of the office as one space for one organization will start to go away, replaced by more permeable workplaces with multiple, overlapping communities with a shared level of trust.
What are the biggest barriers that organizations face when attempting to shift from the workplace of the present to that of the future?
Fear, ego, politics. The usual. The history of the office is a case study in how employers can make a hell of heaven, including but not limited to transforming Robert Propst’s liberating Action Office into the soul-destroying cubicle. It’s not difficult to see how managers might try to build a better surveillance state or expel workers to coworking spaces just to cut real-estate costs by another ten per cent, regardless of what it does for performance. But I think it all comes back to the perception that the office is at best a golden pair of handcuffs and at worst a necessary evil, yet never a scaffold for different configurations of social networks. Companies talk endlessly about recruiting talent and cultivating leadership, and then they try to dictate how those talented leaders should interact.
Can you expand a bit on the role of the city?
Cities, of course, are the original serendipity engines. Last year, I toured the Square Mile with Peter Rees, who was the City of London’s chief planner for almost three decades. We popped into pubs and strolled where the Restoration-era coffeehouses once stood, and discussed how the city was an information-processing machine for transforming gossip and speculation into partnerships and profits. DEGW co-founder Frank Duffy also presciently pointed out that coworking chains such as WeWork (currently valued at USD 16 billion) echo London’s Victorian-era gentlemen’s clubs or even Venice’s Scuole Grandi. (He also argued that Samuel Pepys was the first modern mobile worker.) I don’t think it’s an accident that banks remain firmly-rooted in cities and that technology firms are turning away from isolated suburban office parks – because the city offers a greater degree of openness and scale than any single office.
Can you share any other big lessons regarding the spatial context of innovation and/or creativity and how to harness the outcomes of those serendipitous interactions that one might engineer?
A few years ago, I realized I would pay almost anything for an app that could tell me, as I was walking down the street, what I should say to the person headed toward me. That app would require we both own smartphones or other wearable technology with a fine-grained GPS, and it would be able to parse our social media exhaust to the extent that it would not only know what we have in common but why it mattered, and to identify what word or phrase would unlock it in that moment. Imagine this in the context of leveraging connections for innovation. That app doesn’t exist of course (although many have tried) but I remain convinced that someone will crack it, and let’s hope they do a better job of it than Tinder has done for dating!
May 30, 2016 | permalink
(BritishAmerican Business — a membership organization of business leaders in New York and London — interviewed me for the most recent issue of their quarterly magazine. The unedited version appears below.)
Explain the concept of a city that is an aerotropolis, which is an idea “coined” in your book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next? What relevance does it have in cities today?
The thread running through my book and current work is that the shape of cities has always been defined by transportation. Whether London’s docks, Chicago’s railyards, or Los Angeles’ freeways, each was shaped by the state-of-the-art in transportation at the time. So it stands to reason that in a global era, we should start to see cities form around the only mode capable of transporting us around the world — and if you look closely enough, we have. Heathrow, for example, has profoundly shaped the development of west London and the Thames Valley, while Gatwick supporters point to the existence of a “Gatwick Diamond” home to 45,000 businesses. And once we had traced the contours of these airport cities, someone would try to build one from scratch — the “aerotropolis” of the title. And that’s happening, too, in places like Dubai, Doha, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and, of course, China. But I think the lesson for most cities is that they need to be locally close and globally connected — the former to create places with a human scale and quality of life that attracts talent, and the latter to allow that talent to apply themselves anywhere in the world. After all, America’s biggest exports are services.
The rise in prominence in cities has been truly unprecedented in recent years and there is an enormous amount of pressure on the social fabric of the city, including infrastructure and the environment. What do you think are the future solutions to dealing with rapid urbanisation and what approaches are cities taking?
The science fiction author Bruce Sterling once mordantly described the future as “old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.” He was referring to the confluence of rapidly aging societies, mega-urbanization, and climate change. No one has done an especially good job of tackling the challenges posed by any of the three, let alone the wicked problems emerging from all three — such as the Syrian refugee crisis and its political fallout, or climate-accelerated urban migration. In the best case scenario, we’d see the public and private sectors work in concert to re-invest heavily in infrastructure, using carbon taxes to pay for everything from new mass transit to solar micro-grids to technologies that haven’t been invented yet. Barring Bernie Sanders’ promised political revolution, that won’t happen, and we’re going to be faced with the same situation we have today — appeals to the private sector for innovative financing schemes and PPPs to pay for innovations we pray will be silver bullets. The mega-cities of the Global South face an even starker challenge: building (and rebuilding) faster than natural disasters can destroy them. The Philippines, for example, was hit with the three most destructive typhoons in its history in just three years from 2012-2014. We’re going to need lighter, cheaper, faster, and more resilient infrastructure to stay ahead of these stresses.
What is your notion or vision of a ‘Smart City’ and what trends or concepts do you think will be a game changer in terms of improving the metropolitan environment of businesses and citizens?
Let’s never forget that “smarter cities” was an IBM buzzword coined during the nadir of the 2008 global financial crisis to capture a sliver of the trillions of dollars in stimulus spending surely on the way — and never arrived due to austerity. I still have two major problems with the way the phrase is used today. The first is that it’s primarily focused on infrastructure, not people. The idea (which has since become the foundation of the “Internet of Things”) was that everything would be studded with sensors, and the data generated from those points would be used to make power grids and water mains 10% more efficient. That’s fine as it far as it goes, but it’s a prosaic vision at best, and the devil is in the details. The second problem is that it’s based on the same totalizing surveillance as Facebook, Google, Uber, etc. — give all of your data to a single entity in exchange for a service. A truly smart city would be one that helped people find and connect with each other in new ways without the necessary evil of an intermediary, which is what cities have always done. I’d like to see a smart city where instead of Uber, you have stronger public transit (reducing the need for cars altogether) and more local cooperatives. I’d also like to see the traditional office give way to moe shared workspaces geared toward industries and purposes other than tech startups — where people, aided by real-world social networks, could discover new collaborators, clients, investors, etc. faster than ever. A truly smart city isn’t about infrastructure, but people; it’s not about all-encompassing platforms, but small networks, loosely joined; and most of all, it’s not about efficiency, but discovery.
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.
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
Fast Company | March 2013
Fast Company | March 2013
Fast Company | December 2012/January 2013
WSJ | November 2012
Fast Company | June 2012
July 29, 2016
July 29, 2016
July 29, 2016
July 20, 2016