March 08, 2020  |  permalink

How to design a smart city that’s built on empowerment—not corporate surveillance


(Originally published by Fast Company on March 2, 2020.)

Welcome to the city of the future, designed by Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary.

It’s a city where data and algorithms will merge imperceptibly with the physical world. Cameras lining the streets will track and collate objects and people. Heated sidewalks will recognize foot traffic and feed those insights back into retail projections. And a central identity management system will meter usage of basic services such as housing and transportation (while discovering financing and investment opportunities along the way). These exciting new developments supposedly deliver more comfortable, efficient lives for residents, who would probably consider Sidewalk’s harvesting their data a fair trade, as long as they didn’t think too hard about it.

Alphabet is hardly alone in its desire to design, build, and operate cities and neighborhoods from the ground-up. A decade ago, it was technology giants like IBM and Cisco pushing smart cities; today there are entities as varied as Bill Gates, Y Combinator, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, along with a host of more modestly ambitious startups such as Culdesac, Venn, and Cityblock.

Governments are partnering with companies like these to build roughly 1,000 smart cities over the next decade at a cost of trillions of dollars. With fewer and fewer opportunities to monopolize our eyeballs, investors are eyeing cities as the next frontier. Perhaps owning how the world’s urbanites “sleep, eat, shop, ride, work, and live” might yet achieve the lofty valuations they’re come to expect.

Who controls the smart city?
But convenience and efficiency come at a price, one that may be higher than anyone expected. To see a glimpse of this future, it’s instructive to look halfway around the world to China, where 50% of these smart cities will be built. In Kashgar, once a stop on the Silk Road and today the capital of the autonomous region of Xinjiang, home to China’s muslim minority Uyghurs, digital surveillance is total. A single street may have 20 cameras tracking each pedestrian’s movements.

These cameras track, classify, and cross-check objects and faces as well, attaching them to a national social credit system, akin to a credit score for one’s entire life. Used to discipline and punish, transgressions that can negatively impact one’s score include support for Tibet, excessive video gaming, and even jaywalking. Nonconformists may be arrested and sent to reeducation camps such as the ones in Xinjiang, or be denied access to public services—like the tens of millions of Chinese banned from flying, or the hundreds of millions currently locked down due to coronavirus.

Technologies of social control and “digital authoritarianism” are proliferating more rapidly than even the for-profit smart city model. Boise State University professor Steven Feldstein has found that 54 countries—representing 60% of the world’s population—have embraced pervasive surveillance, sourced from a coalition of willing vendors ranging from China’s controversial networking giant Huawei to U.K. arms maker BAE to familiar names like Amazon, Microsoft, and, yes, Google. (Sidewalk has proposed a social credit system of its own.) Customers closer to home in the United States include the NYPD and public housing in the Bronx. Silicon Valley has wasted no time hopping on the trend.

While the authoritarian Chinese context is irrefutably different than Google’s, it nevertheless demonstrates how the smart city centralizes power and control.

In Toronto, where Sidewalk intends to put its ideas into practice, the company has repeatedly asked the government for exemptions on behalf of its technology, despite technically being a mere vendor to a public agency. In reality, major governance decisions–including the collection and ownership of data—were made by Sidewalk, and initially rubber-stamped by Waterfront Toronto (the government entity overseeing the project), which was excited to be in such close proximity to “innovation.” (In an agreement reached in October 2019, the latter has since tried to regain control.) But Sidewalk won’t stop in Toronto; leaked documents reveal plans for Denver, Detroit, and the Bay Area as well.

In Sidewalk’s smart cities, what happens to housing, transit, and healthcare when public goods are no longer profitable? If history is any guide, companies may try to build monopolies and starve consumers of alternatives. The European Commission, for example, has repeatedly fined Google for billions of euros for anticompetitive practices; what happens when it’s a matter of switching your home rather than phone?

The city is not a lab
Companies may try to manipulate our behavior as well. Remember Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to influence voting patterns? Now imagine what its successors could do with the hopes and fears of Amazon Ring owners, who unwittingly share their digital lives with Facebook and Google.

Or these firms may simply decide to pull the plug. Google infuriated owners of Nest’s Revolv home automation hub when it discontinued the product with little warning in 2016, rendering it useless. More recently, Sonos instituted a “recycling” policy that bricks perfectly functioning devices in exchange for a discount. In the not-so-smart cities of the future, you’d better upgrade, or else. Prudent city leaders have a duty to take a step back before unleashing unproven, and perhaps actively harmful, technologies on their stakeholders.

The city is not a lab; it is not the public’s interest to subsidize private companies’ experiments with little to no oversight. (To say nothing of constructing a surveillance state.) Even major consultancies such as Deloitte have found that most smart cities have failed to improve people’s lives, despite costing governments tens of billions of dollars.

For the reasons above, Georgetown University law professor Julie Cohen argues that the struggle for data rights and privacy is not just about the prevention of harm. It’s the foundation for empowerment—the right to experiment and innovate even when more powerful actors disagree with your ideas and actions.

What might a smart city that starts with empowerment look like?
The World Health Organization found that empowerment is enhanced through a few key levers: 1) supportive groups, 2) meaningful community participation, and 3) resource mobilization.

It starts with people and their ability to participate and mobilize—not new technologies offering dubious benefits and incremental convenience, simply handed down to residents. Empowerment-based approaches have helped marginalized individuals—ranging from slum dwellers to low-income workers—build social capital, receive more responsible public services, and improve their health.

Germany’s baugruppen (“building group”) model is one place to understand empowerment-by-design.

On its face, Berlin’s R50 looks no different than a typical apartment building. But its origins diverge radically from a traditional development project.

First, a few neighbors built a supportive “building group.” Their goal: gather enough friends and fellow travelers to pool their savings and commission their own apartments. In the core of this group were architects and artists, who possessed plenty of social capital they could draw upon but lacked the funds to build or buy homes in central Berlin.

Next, this fledgling baugruppen meaningfully participated in the purpose and design of the building. Assisted by their architect, the group met every two weeks for a year and a half, crowding into a cramped office to collectively agree upon a design.

Through this work, the group uncovered their desire to bolster social support as a key goal of the project. To do so, they prioritized shared community spaces and walkways for their families, despite the extra cost.

Finally, the group mobilized a set of internal and external resources to build their development. They purchased shares of the building before construction had started, which convinced Nürnberg’s UmweltBank, Europe’s self-styled “greenest” bank, to provide financing. Their innovative model also allowed them to take advantage of Berlin’s policy pilot to encourage non-speculative development, helping them win a highly competitive lot at a discount.

Within a few years of building R50 and living together, residents noticed stronger community bonds. As one resident exclaimed, “now that people live here and we see the children grow up . . . [the baugruppen] really works in a nice way.” Due to their community-oriented architecture, it’s easy to “pop over to a neighbor’s for coffee . . . [it] becomes more intimate than crossing a hallway.”

Furthermore, the baugruppen model has enabled them to acquire housing—a basic need—more affordably. Without a developer middleman requiring a 10% to 20% return or marketing and sales costs that reach up to 10% of total development budgets, R50’s units are around 20% less expensive than the neighborhood average, even after including the cost of expensive community spaces and walkways.

Cities need technology—as a means, not an end
What makes baugruppen so smart isn’t technology. It’s the combination of support, participation, and mobilization toward a shared goal, in this case housing. Technology can play a part—an important one!—but it should never determine those goals.

In the case of R50, baugruppen, and other so-called “cohousing” schemes, new building techniques such as modular prefabrication or Mosaic’s machine-learning-driven DIY instructions could simplify housing construction to the point where members could build their homes themselves—or at least radically reduce the cost of using an architect.

As groups get bigger, it becomes harder to make decisions. Consensus-building tools such as Loomio and Decidim have been used to speed up and improve the quality of large group decision-making. There remains a huge opportunity to build social networks designed for real-world communities rather than kludging together group chats and Facebook groups.

Once built, maintenance and administrative costs can also be lessened, too. These are a huge source of headache for condos and coops. To help, residents can use property management solutions to streamline cognitive overhead. Active Building’s or Bixby’s self-service platform, for instance, help renters to pay their bills and request maintenance services from property managers. Boodskapper uses artificial intelligence to make the public housing operations, such as maintenance and inspection, more efficient.

To deal with the exponential complexity of records from cooperative pooling, blockchain-powered smart contracts might help. Pilots exist to use this technology to track equity shares, manage titles, and create larger pools of capital through the use of micro-shares, which are otherwise administratively infeasible to manage.

Finally—to bring this discussion of smart cities full circle–baugruppen could form “datagruppen,” or data trusts, like those used in Barcelona. Residents pool data safely using advanced privacy-protecting methods and allow members to collectively benefit from their data. Trusts are widely seen as a vehicle to promote “data democracies” and bring more along for the technological ride—even Sidewalk Labs is a fan (although trusts are no substitute for legal rights).

The limits of empowerment
For one, cooperatives like baugruppen do not require long-term and holistic affordability. Given rising property values around the world, owners may face temptations to sell their units at speculative prices and capture that value privately. To address this issue, community land trusts (CLT) could own the underlying land and restrict resale prices through lease agreements, so hard-won baugruppen units are taken off the market and instead enable greater socioeconomic, racial, and gender diversity. CLT boards also recruit members of the local community to participate, further increasing community power and decision-making.

More broadly, tools like CLTs fit into what Georgetown Law professor Sheila Foster calls the Co-City Framework, which describes the creation and governance of shared and common resources arising out of collective action. Beyond rent, baugruppen could also participate in consumer utility, food, and transit cooperatives to further drive down the costs of basic needs, as proposed in models like Community Cooperative.

Unfortunately, low-income or historically marginalized groups likely have fewer resources to begin with, even with pooling. In order for empowerment methods to not exclude, inclusive leaders must consider bolder strategies.

First, regulatory incentives could increase building group sizes to increase the financial feasibility of these projects. Policies could include density bonuses, reduced minimum lot size requirements, parking waivers, and other zoning exceptions to permanently affordable and empowering housing models, for instance. Like baugruppen, such scoped deregulation could allow developers to use space more efficiently, perhaps inspired by design innovations like coliving and micro-units—involving the sharing of common spaces and amenities or the use of multi-use furniture.

Ultimately, more units can be built and more resources can be pooled, reducing per-unit costs. As a result, lenders will look more favorably upon these projects. Munich, for instance, offers special regulatory incentives to cooperative housing, regularly favoring these cooperative developers in the sale of public land and offering 20% to 40% discounts on those transactions.

Second, tools like crowdfunding allow projects to pool donations or loans from individuals outside of the project to finance it. It’s proven to be a valuable tool for Oakland’s Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, which covers roughly a quarter of its $200,000 annual maintenance budget through sales of cooperative shares to nonresidents, returning a dividend of 1.5% to investors. Furthermore, financing platforms can help social impact investors—including foundations, Community Revitalization Act-motivated banks, pension funds, and philanthropists—quickly search for and fund projects that align with their values. Platforms like Faithify, Small Change, and BlocPower help raise money for nonprofit housing cooperatives and other mission-oriented housing initiatives for vulnerable communities.

Finally, cooperatives can partner with entities with a portfolio of well-performing assets, creating collateral for leverage. Potential allies include community development corporations or real estate investment cooperatives (REICs). One REIC, the Northeast Investment Cooperative (NEIC) in Minneapolis, not only pools money from local residents, but also collectively buys, rehabs, and manages commercial and residential property in the community. Due to its ownership of thriving, income-generating assets, NEIC has successfully obtained financing for more buildings from local banks to scale its mission of developing even more cooperatives.

Ultimately, even with new tools, the empowerment model we’ve offered here is far less convenient and comfortable than the smart city models of today.

And yet, if we want civic or urban tech to truly be “people-centric” and to solve real problems, they must do the hard work of building civic capacity. That doesn’t mean tasks like parking management or trash collection should never be automated—far from it. New technologies have a crucial role to play in automating drudgery and allow residents to spend more time on things that matter.

But that is the “why” and “how.” Diverse groups must have the opportunity to deliberate and act on these questions. This is a task that should never be automated—certainly not by shareholder-dominated companies.

Dan Wu is a privacy counsel & legal engineer at Immuta, an automated data governance platform for analytics. He’s advocated for data ethics, inclusive urban innovation, and diversity in TechCrunch, Harvard Business Review, and Bloomberg. He’s helped Fortune 500 companies, governments, and startups with data strategy. He holds a Harvard JD and PhD. Find more resources on cities, ethics, and tech here.

Greg Lindsay is the director of applied research at NewCities, and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion. He is also a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative; a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab; and a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management. His exhibition Open Collectives—in conjunction with MIT’s Rafi Segal, Sarah Williams, and Marisa Moran Jahn—will premiere at the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale in May.

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February 25, 2020  |  permalink

Supersonic Flight, Drones4All, and Other Bad Ideas


The New York Times’ aviation writer Christine Negroni was kind enough to quote me as skeptical about a number of trends in aviation – most notably the potential return of supersonic flight and the advent of “urban aerial vehicles,” i.e. helicopter-sized drones for all.

I’m fond of saying that air travel is the closest thing to having the power of a god – the ability to bestride the world in a single day. But some god-like powers come at a higher cost than others, including the extreme carbon footprint of supersonic flight:

Reviving these planes during a time of rising discontent with the unbridled growth of air travel has already prompted pushback.

“Bringing back supersonic transport made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” said Greg Lindsay, director of applied research at the urban-focused nonprofit NewCities and a co-author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.”

“It’s a distillation of the promise of air travel that we can be like gods and travel the earth and be everywhere at once. But why do you need to straddle the earth in a single day?”

I am equally skeptical about the reality of UAVs, which promise to scale up the urban inequality of a city like Sao Paulo – home to the larges private helicopter fleet in the world – without solving any of cities’ transport issues on the ground. In fact, companies like Uber Elevate are actively contributing to those problems:

Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate, said his company was committed to working with communities on the selection of sky ports, though the sites would still have to make logistical sense.

“To get off the ground we have to be intelligent and deliberate about how we pick the sky ports,” Mr. Allison said, “connecting buses and public transit and cars to make more mobility and give people options.”

Critics say it’s ironic that Uber is promoting the benefits of air transport over traffic-jammed streets considering the role that ride-hailing services have played in creating terrestrial congestion. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority says shared rides were responsible for a 50 percent increase in traffic between 2010 and 2016.

Mr. Lindsay of NewCities said that escaping to the sky could mean problems on the ground are ignored. He pointed to São Paulo, Brazil, where hundreds of helicopters ferry those who can afford it over highway gridlock.

“That’s not about public transportation, that’s about the very wealthy exiting [to] the sky from the traffic problems on the ground,” Mr. Lindsay said.

Read the whole story here.

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February 13, 2020  |  permalink

Brighter Talks #3: Thomas Deloison

(The third episode of “Brighter Talks,” a podcast series by the German plastics giant Covestro I happen to host, is live — and you can listen to it above. A recap of the episode is below.)

We live in a golden age of mobility — more people are moving further and more rapidly around the world. As much as these developments have simplified our way of traveling, they have also created negative externalities. Right now, transportation is the second-greatest source of emissions, meaning 80% of cities today have air quality below the World Health Organization’s recommended level.

In our third episode of Brighter Talks, Thomas Deloison, Director for Mobility at the World Business Council for Sustainable development (WBCSD), discusses which obstacles we face in developing sustainable transport and how we can overcome the limits of our today’s mobility system.

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January 29, 2020  |  permalink

The Takeaways Podcast, Live From NAIOP Southern Nevada

I was in Las Vegas last week for the NAIOP Southern Nevada Forecast 2020, a half-day conference on local real estate trends. As is my lot in life, I was paired with an economist (in this case Moody’s Analytics REIS’ drolly funny Victor Calanog) to provide pictures and stories to match his charts. On the scene was the MDL Group’s Hayim Mizrachi, who also hosts the Takeaways podcast, which we recorded live before my session. Tune in above at the 23:30 mark for the TL;DR version of my talk.

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January 11, 2020  |  permalink

ULI Triangle Emerging Trends 2019

Back in November, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill chapter of the Urban Land Institute invited me to speak at their annual Emerging Trends conference about millennials, mobility, and cities-as-a-service. A video sneak preview is above – ping me via email or Twitter if you’d like to see more. Vaporware’s Dan Moore and Oak City CRE published their own written recaps of the event as well. Thanks again for having me!

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January 01, 2020  |  permalink

New London Architecture: Future Streets


New London Architecture — a museum of sorts and think-tank concerned with the urban realm of London — has published a report to coincide with its current exhibit on “Future Streets.” I’m grateful to be one of the many smart people consulted as part of the research, and gratified to see a few of my arguments made it into the final draft. To save you the time of searching, I’ve cut-and-pasted them below. The first concerns my long-standing worries ride-hailing will cannibalize transit:

Perhaps the most concerning threat Uber poses is its potential to undercut public transport in London. Some early research from the US suggests that TNCs are moving trips away from public transport, walking and cycling to rideshare services.20 However, another study conducted in London showed that Uber was actually complementing the introduction of the Night Tube. This was on the basis that more Uber trips were being taken from tube stations during ‘Night Tube’ hours, indicating that instead of taking a cab home the whole way, people were now using the Night Tube for most of the journey, and then transferring to an Uber for the last mile.

However, the recent IPO released by Uber states in no uncertain terms that they see public transport as a key competitor and that public transport riders are a key part of the market they seek to win over. Greg Lindsay, director of applied research, NewCities, argues that this should come as no surprise, given that TNCs such as Uber are only profitable in highly dense urban contexts such as central London. He argues that in lower density areas Uber still has to highly subsidise all journeys.

The second involves fears of “privatizing the streets:”

Even if road pricing is effectively implemented for CAVs, Greg Lindsay argues that it potentially puts in motion a dangerous precedent in which every inch of street space is progressively adopted into a market system for the pricing of its use. It is contended that such a model may lead to the unintended consequences of the complete privatisation of all street space in the city. This would contradict the idea that the street is the most radically democratic of all spaces in the city. Moreover, Greg Lindsay notes that it may lead to situations where only companies with greater purchasing power are able to afford the cost of operating on the streets, thus creating a monopoly of service. This might mean that one ridesharing company becomes entirely dominant and therefore able to set the price of rides as they wish.

You can download the entire report here.


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December 08, 2019  |  permalink

Brighter Talks #2: James Timberlake

(The second episode of “Brighter Talks,” a podcast series by the German plastics giant Covestro I happen to host , is live — and you can listen to it above. A recap of the episode is below.)

What does the city of the future look like? That is what several experts are discussing in our series #MyFutureCity. In this essay, American architect James Timberlake explains how our houses will be built – and why we might soon be living in transparent plastic houses.

Protecting the environment is a global priority. World leaders are beginning to take steps to prevent climate change, millions of people worldwide are protesting to demand action on climate change – and in the architectural industry, sustainability has moved to the forefront of the design conversation.

“We need to rethink architecture,” explains world-renowned architect James Timberlake. With 33 percent of the global energy use coming from buildings, and 20 percent of human generated CO₂-emissions coming from energy used in buildings, “this needs to change.”

The main issue: Keeping up with the demand
“We must manage our resources more responsibly,” says Timberlake. “The UN cites that 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, but the current supply of new housing in all market segments does not meet the demand – we outpace our housing needs by nearly 3 to 4 times annually.”

Simply ‘keeping up’ is a mantra all countries and localities face, as “maintaining a supply of affordable, equitable, sustainable housing for all is a complex problem for every country, from the richest and most socially progressive to the poorest,” he adds. To solve this crisis, we need to think both locally and globally.

The hurdles: Collective intelligence
“Codes and regulations are different throughout the world, and each country and local jurisdiction has uneven measures toward quality planning resources.” Universal planning principles for housing placement – for instance, using brownfield sites rather than greenfield site –are necessary to promote environmental ethics worldwide.

Also, a critical part of increasing housing supply is having enough land resources to build upon. Land ownership is different in each country. Open land opportunities are few and shifting with the effects of climate change. Planning and coordination with resource management agencies can help address the proper placement and availability of land going forward.

According to Timberlake, interdisciplinary collaboration is critical to solving the sustainability challenges of our time and even more important in the years ahead: “Specialists in disciplines outside of architecture should be part of every architectural team. We need special skill sets and knowledge for every single architectural project of the future.”

Climate scientists, environmental managers and materials engineers are just some of the experts who will help plan and create buildings sustainably in the future. “With our collective intelligence, we can develop buildings to manage our natural resources more ethically,” he explains, “and reduce our waste – both the material waste and the waste of energy that takes place in a building.”

The method: New materials
Timberlake would also like to see advancements in both materials and construction methods for new housing. Current modular housing materials range widely, from lightweight, low carbon, wood product “spatial” options to higher carbon, heavyweight panelized options, each with their own logistical and supply chain issues.

“Future materials should be evaluated for low-carbon impact, high resilience, life-cycle benefits, and economy,” says Timberlake. Wood is one such material; it can be regrown naturally and sequesters carbon.

“We have used wood often in modular construction, but we have also explored aluminum and various plastics in our buildings.” Aluminum is not only durable, flexible, light, efficient and low-cost, but it’s also recyclable. The sustainable materials of the future might be hybrid combinations of wood, plastics, and metals, optimized for durability and a low carbon footprint.

In terms of construction methods, Timberlake observes, “Planners, architects, developers, and governmental agencies believe that off-site and modular housing, manufactured in plants, with lower time to market, are the way forward. But investors have not broadly embraced this approach. Enticing investors to participate in this market is where true change might happen.”

Examples: SmartWrap and Cellophane House
Timberlake has shown the potential of building with unconventional materials and construction methods: In 2003, he and his partner Stephen Kieran invented SmartWrap, a trademarked energy-generating and lightweight envelope that is wrapped around the frame of a building. “It is made of PET, a recyclable thermoplastic polymer,” says Timberlake, “a transparent, inexpensive, colorless material.”

SmartWrap has several layers to add functions: One layer to moderate temperature. A second one to supply light and allow for information display, as if on a computer screen. And a third, final layer to collect solar energy, integrating all the functions of a conventional wall into a thin, transparent plastic film.

And in 2008, Timberlake developed this even further. His firm KieranTimberlake built “Cellophane House,” a complete five-story house made up of refined SmartWrap envelopes tensioned on an aluminum frame. The refined SmartWrap was made up of four layers: The first one served as a weather barrier, and the second one included photovoltaic cells. The third layer contained solar heat and UV blocking film – and finally, a fourth, interior layer of PET. With this, it was possible to trap heat in winter and vent it in summer. “The different technologies assembled in the envelope of Cellophane House really helped us understand how and where energy loss occurs in a building envelope and how we can improve the design to mitigate the losses,” says Timberlake.

Our future: Learning from the past
Cellophane House was an example of a more sustainable architecture presented at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York for almost six months. Yet it was more than just an exhibition piece: “It was a way to build our ideas and learn from them,” says Timberlake.

He adds: “And it is still only the beginning. Looking to the future, beyond the current models and modalities of living, and beyond the housing shortages, we’ll see an evolution in how people live, what they desire in their living arrangements, and a continuation of diverse options to address those housing needs affordably.”

“We will need to completely rethink our way of living,” he adds, “but we will also need to learn from our mistakes and think about an urban platform that blends our past and our future.”

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December 07, 2019  |  permalink

URBAN-X: Green New Deal Flow

The “Green New Deal” has quickly become shorthand for a last-ditch effort to prevent climate change – one in which technological breakthroughs and market-based solutions take a back seat to public policy. What role does innovation have to play in the fight to save cities and the planet? And are cash-ravenous startups doing more harm than good?

On Dec. 4th in Brooklyn, URBAN-X convened a roundtable of entrepreneurs, environmental justice advocates, and investors to debate the roles of government, startups, and venture capital in forging a path forward, and launch “Better,” Issue 03 of the URBAN-X Zine. Video from the event is above; a list of speakers is below. I moderated the event as my final duty as the inaugural URBAN-X Urbanist-in-residence.

Savannah Goodman, Lead of Modeling and Simulation, Blueprint Power
Shaun Abrahamson, Founder and Managing Partner, Urban Us
Cecil Corbin-Mark, Deputy Director / Director of Policy Initiatives, WE ACT for Environmental Justice

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December 03, 2019  |  permalink

CoMotion Podcasts: Rethinking Real Estate; India’s Micromobility; AI Buses, and More

(CoMotion LA 2019 is in the rear-view mirror, but the CoMotion Mobility Podcast goes on. Here’s what you’ve missed if you haven’t been listening:)

Episode 53. (above) Greg Lindsay chats with Dror Poleg, author of Rethinking Real Estate, about the intersection of mobility and real estate. As autonomous vehicles, drones, and delivery bots become better integrated into our daily lives, the face of real estate will begin to change. As technology advances, the value of real estate assets will fluctuate in new and interesting ways.

Episode 52. Greg Lindsay chats with Aayushi Jain, Director of Policy and Government Partnerships at Bounce. Bounce is a Bangalore-based startup that operates an electric scooter sharing enterprise. These aren’t your Birds and Limes — these are full mopeds that can cover the first mile/last mile of your multimodal transit trip, or be your main mode of transport to/from work or school. Bounce aims to seriously improve India’s devastating traffic congestion.

Episode 51. Greg Lindsay chats with Nexar Co-Founder and CEO Eran Shir and RTC Senior Director of Engineering John Peñuelas about how Nexar’s pilot in Las Vegas is a successful example of how the public and private sector can collaborate to increase road safety. Thanks to Nexar’s City Stream, a connected network of smart dash cameras which can identify road hazards, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada is able to better understand and manage the city’s traffic, especially around construction zones. Greg, John and Eran chat about the pilot’s expansion and issues surrounding privacy and the advent of autonomous vehicles.

Episode 50. Greg Lindsay chats with Roni Floman, the VP of Marketing at Optibus, an Israel-based startup that is using A.I. to build optimized scheduling software for creating the most efficient paths for fixed-route bus services. Greg and Roni dive into how Optibus is working to revolutionize public transit by using advanced computer technology to create better bus schedules to help cities, commuters, and bus drivers to better do their jobs, and get where they’re going. Optibus hopes to use optimization algorithms and A.I. to create new solutions for current scheduling inefficiencies.

Episode 49. Greg Lindsay chats with Richard Bruce, Director of Energy, Technology and Innovation at the UK’s Department for Transport, about how all the simultaneous changes happening in the mobility ecosystem can be leveraged to deliver basic environmental improvements. Richard Bruce outlines the UK’s key strategies for the future of urban mobility and highlights the necessity of modernizing the regulatory framework in order to better embrace new modes of transportation.

Episode 48. Greg Lindsay chats with Andrei Greenawalt, Head of Public Policy at Via, about how shared, on-demand micro-transit can get people out of the private vehicle. Andrei explains how Via is working with nearly 100 cities and transit agencies to provide optimized and equitable first/last mile mobility solutions. Greg and Andrei discuss Via’s numerous deployments, from its recently launched shared autonomous on-demand service in Irvine, CA to its partnership with New York City’s yellow school bus fleet.

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December 02, 2019  |  permalink



As part of my duties as the inaugural “Urbanist-in-residence” at URBAN-X — the startup accelerator founded by BMW MINI — I guest edited the first three issues of its annual magazine. The third and final issue appears this month, with the theme of “BETTER,” as in the startup catechism “…and make the world a better place.” But as the stories in this issue make clear, “better” is a subjective choice at best.

To commemorate its publication, you can download a complete PDF of the issue here, while the editor’s letter appears below. You can also read articles about the URBAN-X startups Toggle and Treau and how they hope to wriggle free of the Jevons Paradox, and a Q&A with Thrilling co-founder Shilla Kim-Parker about why we need to slow down fast fashion and why vintage shopping is good for cities. And don’t miss the artist scientist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsburg on her efforts to recreate the scents of extinct flowers and what it says about our notions of “better” – more of which is in the editor’s note below.

Finally, if you’re in New York on Dec. 4th, please join us at the official issue launch party, featuring a live version of the “Green New Deal Flow” roundtable discussion that anchors the issue. I hope to see you there.


The flower Hibiscadelphus woodii was thought to be extinct until this spring, when the Hawaiian National Tropical Botanical Garden announced it had discovered a few hardy specimens clinging to a cliff. Before that, the artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg had spent a year reconstructing the scent of another long-dead hibiscus, prompting her to wonder which world is better – one where the technology exists to resurrect the scent of lost flowers, or one in which they never went extinct at all? While the answer may seem obvious, in our rush to create better cities she reminds us to inquire: “What is better? Whose better? Who decides?”

Technology promises to solve many of our problems, including challenges that are part of our urban lives. Yet under the premise of greater efficiency, accessibility, enhanced experiences, and betterness, are we really solving challenges or simply creating new ones? Our relationship with the environment is under threat, and while this might be seen as the consequence of a selfish human condition, it’s reflective of our own limitations – nature doesn’t need us, we need nature.

The third edition of the URBAN-X Zine unpacks better against the backdrop of the Anthropocene Era, in which it is fair to question what progress means for climate change. In this issue’s centerpiece about green-impact investing, the German Marshall Fund’s David Zipper notes that the Green New Deal resolution is framed in a vision of social justice, asserting a different notion of better than purely market forces would dictate. We profile URBAN-X Cohort 05 members Toggle and Treau who interrogate the Jevons Paradox, which states that every attempt at better energy efficiency eventually becomes its own undoing. As climate change gathers speed, it is equally imperative to decide what a “better place” is, in order to invest in and invent the technology to achieve it.

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About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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Articles by Greg Lindsay

Fast Company  |  March 2020

How to design a smart city that’s built on empowerment—not corporate surveillance

URBAN-X  |  December 2019


CityLab  |  December 10, 2018

The State of Play: Connected Mobility in San Francisco, Boston, and Detroit

Harvard Business Review  |  September 24, 2018

Why Companies Are Creating Their Own Coworking Spaces

CityLab  |  July 2018

The State of Play: Connected Mobility + U.S. Cities

Medium  |  May 1, 2017

The Engine Room

Fast Company  |  January 19, 2017

The Collaboration Software That’s Rejuvenating The Young Global Leaders Of Davos

The Guardian  |  January 13, 2017

What If Uber Kills Public Transport Instead of Cars

Backchannel  |  January 4, 2017

The Office of the Future Is…an Office

New Cities Foundation  |  October 2016

Now Arriving: A Connected Mobility Roadmap for Public Transport

Inc.  |  October 2016

Why Every Business Should Start in a Co-Working Space

Popular Mechanics  |  May 11, 2016

Can the World’s Worst Traffic Problem Be Solved?

The New Republic  |  January/February 2016

Hacking The City

Fast Company  |  September 22, 2015

We Spent Two Weeks Wearing Employee Trackers: Here’s What We Learned

Fast Company  |  September 21, 2015

HR Meets Data: How Your Boss Will Monitor You To Create The Quantified Workplace

Inc.  |  March 2015

Which Contacts Should You Keep in Touch With? Let This Software Tell You

Inc.  |  March 2015

5 Global Cities of the Future

Global Solution Networks  |  December 2014

Cities on the Move

Medium  |  November 2014

Engineering Serendipity

New York University  |  October 2014

Sin City vs. SimCity

» See all articles


July 04, 2020

Inoculating the Planet: Cities After COVID-19

July 04, 2020

CoMotion MIAMI Live: Ford’s Mark Kaufman

June 15, 2020

Navigating the Noise: Coming Back to Mobility

June 15, 2020

CoMotion LIVE: Life After Lockdown — Learning From Asia’s All-Delivery Future

» More blog posts