March 08, 2017  |  permalink

A Future History of New York: After The Flood


I’m thrilled to join my Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream teammate Rafi Segal and the amazing architects Susannah Drake, Sarah Williams, and Brent Ryan in imagining the next hundred years of New York’s and New Jersey’s climate change-ravaged coastlines on behalf of the Regional Plan Association.

The RPA, in conjunction with the Rockefeller Foundation, has commissioned an ideas competition ahead of the Fourth Regional Plan — the once-in-a-generation long-term vision for the tri-state area. Our team was chosen by an all-star jury including former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Foreclosed curator Barry Bergdoll to grapple with the insurmountable challenges of sea-level rise. From the RPA’s press release:

Rafi Segal A+ U and Susannah Drake have collaborated on several design competitions and taught together at Harvard’s GSD and at the Cooper Union School of Architecture. Together with Sarah Williams, Brent Ryan and Greg Lindsay, will work to design and address key ecological infrastructure challenges and threats posed by climate change to the region’s coastal areas. Their interest in dispersed urbanism and emerging forms of collective housing, along with urban ecological infrastructures, climate change and mobile technologies will allow them to address the pressing challenges of the Bight corridor. A series of future scenarios, from new strategies on managed retreat for vulnerable coastal areas to novel restoration strategies must be developed to manage the continued loss of fragile marsh lands. There is an opportunity to recast and restructure this corridor as an impactful ecological, infrastructural, and community asset, enhancing the region’s ecology and resiliency.

We have until June to propose strategies and tell our stories — wish us luck.

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March 08, 2017  |  permalink

The DFW Aerotropolis

While in Dallas Monday to speak at the annual luncheon of Downtown Dallas, Inc. (more on that later), the morning hosts of Fox 4 News invited me on to discuss the mammoth airport at the heart of the Metroplex, and how I square the circle of the DFW Aerotropolis and the resurgence of downtown Dallas. Short version: the best cities are locally close and globally connected. Watch the clip above for more.

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March 01, 2017  |  permalink

UTIP’s Public Transport Trends 2017

image Last summer, the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) invited me to Brussels to help draft its bi-annual Public Transport Trends report with regards to connected mobility. Detailing the challenges and opportunities posed by ride-hailing, “mobility-as-a-service,” and autonomous vehicles, I forcefully argued against Uber and in favor of public transport bodies launching their own services, or at least partnering closely to extend coverage. (For this, Uber’s participant representative me as a luddite.) The executive summary is available here.

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February 08, 2017  |  permalink

The Internet of Very Bad, No Good Things


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.

[Updated March 3, 2017: Susan Cox-Smith has recapped the event over at Medium:

Watching our participants work through the layers of various Thingclash workshops over the last year, we wanted to add some new levels of thinking for this iteration. In anticipation of this, we decided it might be time to introduce some (extra) chaos into their deliberations. Acknowledging the uncharted circumstances playing out in political settings around the world, we introduced “The State” card, as a final round of play. Delivered in a brown envelope, each team was advised that The State was dissatisfied in some way with their scenarios, and they were asked to fulfill an additional request, or describe how they might negotiate with this unknown external entity.

This new wrinkle led participants to imagine ways to shift or change their Things in new, and increasingly interesting ways. Among other things, the teams better recognized the implications of collecting and sharing user data without permissions, impacts on privacy, and the necessity of clear opt-in, or opt-out processes. Improving a Thing’s usefulness for People and Places was no longer just about UX, or fancier bells and whistles.

In the final round, the teams created fictional stories based on the critical realizations they had made about their scenarios, to share with the other participants. These stories were then presented at the public panel discussion later that evening, and this generated both interesting questions, and lively discussion, about how the IoT has so quickly become deeply embedded into our lives—despite huge gaps in security and accessibility, not to mention the common expectation that users must adapt their behaviors, so designers and developers can ignore the Thingclashes they sometimes create.

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February 03, 2017  |  permalink

Airports: The New Public Square?


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.

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January 23, 2017  |  permalink

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


(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.

» Continue reading...

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January 13, 2017  |  permalink

What If Uber Kills Public Transport Instead of Cars?


(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.

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January 11, 2017  |  permalink

Judging AECOM’s Urban SOS Awards


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.

» Continue reading...

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January 10, 2017  |  permalink

Q&A with the World Future Energy Summit


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.

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January 10, 2017  |  permalink

LAX, the Aerotropolis, and Extrastatecraft


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.

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About Greg Lindsay

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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 Foresight, Strategy, and Risks 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.

» More about Greg Lindsay

Articles by Greg Lindsay

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

Harvard Business Review  |  October 2014

Workspaces That Move People

Inc.  |  April 2014

The Network Effect

Atlantic Cities  |  March 2014

How Las Vegas (Of All Places) May Be About to Reinvent Car Ownership

Wired (UK)  |  October 2013

How to Build a Serendipity Engine

Next American City  |  August 2013

IBM’s Department of Education

» See all articles


September 18, 2017

Here Comes The Flood: New York 2067, Sea-Level Rise, and the 4th Regional Plan

July 28, 2017

Songdo, City of the Future? Or of Our Hopes and Fears?

July 20, 2017

NewCities Summit 2017: Songdo Redux

July 17, 2017

Seedstars, Ananda Urban Tech, and “Cities as a Service”

» More blog posts