June 23, 2010  |  permalink

Having our Kindles and our conscience, too.

Over at The Atlantic, James Fallows has begun connecting the dots of recent events at factories in China:

—-> This same Foxconn, scene of the suicides, is where the newly discounted Nooks and Kindles come from—plus iPads, iPhones, and lots of other stuff. <--- A reader in China wrote just now to ask: Do Americans even think about the connection? Relentless price pressure on Chinese suppliers, all the more so now that, largely in response to U.S. government demands, the RMB is rising again? Relentless expectation of falling prices in U.S. stores? The Foxconn-suicide story is ambiguous, with many hypotheses about the cause. But the price pressure on these suppliers is unmistakable.
The answer is: no, of course we don’t think about. And of course we expect prices keep falling—through the miracle of Moore’s Law and clever 23-year-olds’ software, not manufacturing economies of scale. We want cheaper iPads and “fair trade” iPads, minus the sweatshops, never mind the fact that it’s impossible to move Apple’s supplier base to the US without doubling or tripling the price. The solution, as I’ve pointed out, is to all but liquidate the worst offenders on the Chinese coast and move the factories inland, where wages are low enough to keep factories competitive even with the rising RMB. Everything is connected.
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June 15, 2010  |  permalink

Foxconn Goes West and North

As expected, Foxconn appears to be shifting production to its factories in western and northern China rather than pay the 66% wage increase it recently granted its Shenzhen employees in the wake of ten suicides this spring. The Taiwanese computer-industry trade paper Digitimes (and others) quotes the Chinese-language China Times. From the report:

The Foxconn Group, after announcing wage hikes for employees at two production bases in Shenzhen, southern China in early June, has been shifting a large portion of the production lines from Shenzhen to its production bases in Tianjin, northern China, and Wuhan and Chongqing, western China, according to a Chinese-language China Times report.

The two production bases in Shenzhen currently have 400,000 employees in total and will be combined into one, with only a few relatively profitable production lines to remain, the report pointed out.

As the minimum monthly wages in Tianjin and Wuhan are currently 920 yuan (US$135) and 900 yuan respectively, the moves are to reduce labor costs because Foxconn may not raise wages for workers in the two places, the report analyzed.

According to other China-based reports, Foxconn began to stop recruiting new employees in Shenzhen on May 29.

It’s important to keep in mind that Foxconn was already building or expanding factories in Chongqing and Wuhan ahead of expected wage inflation. The public outcry over the suicides isn’t the cause of the shift so much as the catalyst.

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June 14, 2010  |  permalink

And….. We’re Back.

Hola, amigos. I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but I’ve spent the last few months finishing my book. (Sorry, the Jim Anchower opener was irresistable.) In all seriousness, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next is finally finished (or as finished as any book on current and future events can be) and on track for February publication. In the meantime, I’ve been keeping busy with trips to Beijing, Shenzhen, Chicago (twice), Atlanta (twice) and Las Vegas (for a convention, of course). Along the way, I flew to Wrigley Field and back for Opening Day, spoke at the annual Airport Cities conference, attended the All-China Gaelic Games, moderated matches at the High School National Championship Tournament of Quiz Bowl, was a groomsman in a wedding, partied at the Ace Hotel with Mr. China (pictured with me in the Ace’s photo booth below), and spoke at the Realcomm 2010 conference in Vegas. (CityCenter 2010 = Dubai 2006.)


I also wrote. Fast Company sent me to the 18th Annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Atlanta, where David Byrne talked about bicycles, the directors of the Centers for Disease Control told us the suburbs are killing us, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan swore anyone wanting grants from his department would have to follow LEED-ND criteria, Peter Calthorpe unveiled a plan to save the world and Andres Duany unveiled his own to survive the collapse of complex society after it. (Oh, and Jim Kunstler flew down from New York to bury air travel yet again.)

Meanwhile, the near-future I tried my best to describe in Aerotropolis ever-so-slowly came closer to being the present. I don’t have the time or the space (that you’ll tolerate, anyway) to cover everything that’s happened in the past few months, but let’s catch up a bit.

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March 29, 2010  |  permalink

How To Become An Air Warrior In 25,000 Miles Or Less


I was on NY1 recently explaining the fastest way to get upgraded to First (where I’ll be sitting on my flight to Chicago tomorrrow).

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March 19, 2010  |  permalink

Too little, too late.

In today’s NYT, David Brooks uses the British writer Philip Blond as his ventriloquist dummy to make the liberal’s case for “three big areas of reform: remoralize the market, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor.” Brooks elegantly summarizes the corrosive effects of increasing returns to scale:

Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.

The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.

Blond’s/Brooks’ solution?

This would mean passing zoning legislation to give small shopkeepers a shot against the retail giants, reducing barriers to entry for new businesses, revitalizing local banks, encouraging employee share ownership, setting up local capital funds so community associations could invest in local enterprises, rewarding savings, cutting regulations that socialize risk and privatize profit, and reducing the subsidies that flow from big government and big business.

As a liberal/progressive, politically I can get behind this, but it still doesn’t address the issues of scale. Any industry in the business of producing bits will trend toward scale and consolidation, because it makes too much sense not too. I don’t see how localized consumption—when overconsumption is what got America into this mess—is going to make much of a difference. Disagreements are welcome in the comments.

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March 18, 2010  |  permalink

“Gotta get a ticket for an airplane; I ain’t got time to catch a fast train.”

Tennessee Congressional Representative Steve Cohen hails from Memphis, where he’s climbed on board the local effort to clean up the scrub and sprawl around the airport and build a proper aerotropolis. But I’m much more impressed by his tribute on the House floor to local hero Alex Chilton, of Boxtops and Big Star fame. Click on the link for his succinct summary of Chilton’s musical contributions, or read Craig Marks’ interview with Cohen for Billboard: “There’s cool for a congressman, and then there’s I-bro’d-down-with-Alex-Chilton-AND-Warren Zevon cool. Suck it, Orrin Hatch!”



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March 18, 2010  |  permalink

A Q&A with TRON creator Steven Lisberger

(In honor of the new trailer for Tron Legacy, the nearly thirty-years-in-the-making sequel to Tron, I’m posting my interview with Tron creator/director Steven Lisberger from April 1999, conducted during the inaugural Roger Ebert Film Festival, when a screening of Tron closed the show. Even then, there was talk of a sequel, but it took another decade for it to come to fruitition, and once again, Lisberger—whom Disney once hoped would be its in-house George Lucas directing its own answer to Star Wars—has been marginalized. If the “reboot” of the Tron franchise succeeds, you’ll know whose idea it was back in 1983.)

(UPDATE: For a more up-to-date interview, Harry Jenkins caught up with Lisberger only a few weeks ago. Read his after you read mine to see what’s changed in the last eleven years.)

GREG LINDSAY: I’ve been thinking about The Matrix lately. The Matrix is the first successful cyberpunk film since Blade Runner and Tron. Which means you created the matrix; you created cyberspace a year before Gibson did (in Neuromancer, published in 1984), so one could say he ripped you off. But where did you get the inspiration for cyberspace?

STEVEN LISBERGER: Gibson never ripped me off. The problem that they have is that they think Gibson invented the word “cyberspace.” And we intentionally in 1980 were discussing using the word “cyberspace.” And we decided that it would be interpreted as a Hollywood brain movie. Because “cyber” back then meant anything with brains in it. So, I said, “Look, this is already alienating enough; if we call this ‘cyber-’ space people are going to say ‘This is a horror brain movie.’” So we chose not to use the word “cyberspace” in the script at all and now I have to read how the word didn’t exist until Gibson came up with it.

GL: So where did the idea for Tron come from?

SL: The progression is: Steve Lisberger has an animation studio; Steve Lisberger has friends who are developing computer animation; He keeps track of them from the late ‘70s on, seeing what they’re capable of; one of the principal companies is Magi; one of the other companies is the New York Institute of Technology out on Long Island; where Alvi Ray Smith[?] and Ed [something], who ran Pixar—they’re working with Dr. Schorr[?} out there, and then what I’m interested in is animation. And then what happens is, I look at the Pong game, I say to myself “That’s interesting,” and then what happens is I have an animator named John Norton[?] who’s my left hand man and I say to him “Look, we should try to draw a character out of light because I’m interested in backlit animation. Backlit animation means exposing light through cels and photographing direct light into the lens instead of reflected light. So then what happens is he draws this character out of backlit stuff and he’s like a warrior. We came up with the idea of him throwing a frisbe or disk, and it’s a five-second test. And I say, “Oh, that’s good, we’ve got an electronic warrior.” And then I look at the Pong game, and I say to myself, “Here’s the Pong game, there’s the arena—I’ve always been a sucker for Spartacus—and I say you’ve got an electronic warrior in this environment. Then I meet the computer guys whom I’m getting to know and who I’ve met a couple times, and I start saying “Tell the story of these guys.” And at the time, those guys are really interested in overcoming the IBM uber-company. The mainframe. And personal computers don’t exist and the Internet is the Arpanet—run by the Defense Department—and I start thinking and I meet Gary Guimos[?], who worked with a computer company called Triple Eye[?] and I think these guys are pioneers and these guys are warriors and all these wonderful things come together, and it should be done with computers. And my mother was an artist, and my father ran a factory, and these two things come together and I spend a couple of years writing a script and doing the tests, and it was not such a mystery to me. What was a mystery is that people turned out to take the film so literally. That they actually said “In this movie, they make you _small_. And they put you inside a wire and put you on a computer chip. It never occurred to me that someone would take it so literally. And I guess that was the early resistance to PCs and computer stuff. And so that’s the history. That’s as good a history as anybody’s got.

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March 18, 2010  |  permalink

High-Speed Sprawl

Jason Kambitsis goes ahead and writes what I’ve been thinking about California’s proposed high-speed rail line: the unintended consequence of a line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco would be the suburbanization of the Central Valley. Politics would guarantee stops along the route, and patterns of commercial development would guarantee the creation of vast new subdivisions whose occupants would drive to the stations and ride the trains to work every morning in either SF or LA. Rather than concentrate in walkable communities around the stations—the pattern known as transit-oriented development (TOD)—they’ll disperse into the countryside in searcher of cheaper homes. Instead of “drive until you qualify,” the new Californian dream will become “ride until you qualify.”  (Why didn’t I write about this, if I’m supposedly so smart? Because I already feel like a heretic when it comes to HSR.) From Kambitsis:

The result is our land use patterns are quite different. In addition to making rail a priority, Europe has long supported public transit and multi-modal transportation infrastructure that supports bicycling, walking and other ways of getting around. It has all but taken the car out of the equation and solved the so-called “last mile” problem – addressing how people get from the transit stop to their final destination. Public transit options, along with dense, compact communities built around transit hubs (an approach called transit oriented development, or TOD) has created inherent convenience and in many cases eliminated dependence on cars.

In the United States it is a completely different story. We rarely embrace TOD. This could be a problem with high-speed rail.

Without a rapid transformation of our building patterns and a push to make existing communities denser, high-speed rail could be a conduit of sprawl, not a deterrent. If stations include vast parking lots, or they’re built in remote areas away from urban cores instead of being made a part of the community, it will all but guarantee people drive to the stations and create a system that is only accessible by car. Drivers already comfortable with a commute of an hour or more could move further away from urban centers, drive to a station and ride to work and still enjoy a shorter overall commute time.

“HIgh-speed rail will simply add another layer of access to the far-flung suburbs/exurbs and Central Valley, resulting in more mass-produced subdivisions,” warns Robert Cervero, director of the University of California Transportation Center and author of Development Around Transit.

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March 18, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: Jevons’ Paradox and the Perils of Abundance

(Originally posted at FastCompany.com)

It’s a given among Peak Oilers and New Urbanists alike that the imminent and permanent return of high oil prices will send convulsions through the suburban American landscape. But it’s one thing when professional Jeremiahs like James Howard Kunstler preach this to the converted week after week, and something else when the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers advise commercial real estate investors to “shy away from fringe places in the exurbs and places with long car commutes or where getting a quart of milk takes a 15-minute drive.” Oil shocks will do what urban planners can’t seem to and the government won’t (through sharply higher gas taxes or putting a price on carbon): force people to live at greater densities.

In books like $20 Per Gallon and Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller—both published last year, in the wake of 2008’s real estate bubble-burst—the end of cheap oil is presented as a good thing, a chance to press the reset button on civilization and live more locally and sustainably. Kunstler goes further in 2005’s The Long Emergency and in subsequent blog posts and novels, painting peak oil as a cleansing fire that will burn away exurban places like Pasco County, Florida. Last Wednesday, I drove for hours through the ground zero of Florida’s foreclosure crisis, a scrolling landscape of strip malls, auto dealerships and billboards promising motorists that their stock market losses had been someone else’s fault (and that you should sue them). The apocalypse would be a small price to pay for no more of this.

How else to explain the hostility directed at Amory Lovins by Kunstler and others? Lovins identified the hard and soft paths of fossil fuels versus conservation and renewables thirty-four years ago, and has since written books like Winning the Oil Endgame and Small is Beautiful, in which he called for a massively distributed, solar-powered “microgrid.” But Lovins earned ridicule for his still-unrealized vision of a “hypercar” made of composites and electric drive trains three-to-five times more efficient than existing models. The hypercar, Kunstler wrote, “Would have only promoted the unhelpful idea that Americans can continue to lead urban lives in the rural setting.” (To add insult to injury, Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute is accessible only by car.)


Why unhelpful? In a phrase: Jevons’ Paradox. Nearly a century before the geologist M. King Hubbert began calculating peak oil, the economist William Stanley Jevons discovered, to his horror, peak coal. In The Coal Question, published in 1865, Jevons raised the questions which haunt sustainability advocates to this day: “Are we wise in allowing the commerce of this country to rise beyond the point at which we can long maintain it?” He estimated Britain’s coal production would reach a peak in less than a hundred years, with calamitous economic and Malthusian consequences. The engine of coal’s demise would be the same invention that was created to conserve it: the steam engine. But it made burning coal so efficient, that instead of conserving coal, it drove the price down until everyone was burning it. This is Jevons’ Paradox: the more efficiently you use a resource, the more of it you will use. Put another way: the better the machine—or fuel—the broader its adoption.

A corollary is the Piggy Principle: instead of saving the energy conserved through efficiency, we find new ways to spend it, leading to greater consumption than before. No wonder Kunstler is alarmed that a hyper-efficient hypercar would lead to hyper-sprawl—it’s only been the pattern throughout all of human history. Maybe the worst thing that could happen to new urbanism would be an incredibly efficient new car (or fuel) that allows Americans (and, increasingly, the Chinese) to carry on as before, as an oil glut allowed us to do between 1979 and 2001. Crisis is on their side.

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March 18, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: Demolishing Density in Detroit


(Originally posted at FastCompany.com)

So it’s come to this: Unable to provide basic services for all of his constituents, Detroit mayor Dave Bing is drafting plans starve his city down to a manageable size. Using proprietary data and a survey released by Data Driven Detroit, Bing and his staff will pick “winners and losers” amongst the city’s neighborhoods and seek to resettle residents from the losers, those deemed most unlivable. With Detroit’s tax base withering from the implosion of two-thirds of the Big Three, the housing crisis, and an ongoing exodus, Bing believes he has no other choice.

“If we don’t do it, you know this whole city is going to go down,” he told a local radio station last month. “I’m hopeful people will understand that. If we can incentivize some of those folks that are in those desolate areas, they can get a better situation” in one of the remaining neighborhoods with schools and buses.

Can Detroit really shrink its way back to greatness (or at least stop the bleeding)? Part of the problem is that it’s been hollowing out for decades. A city of 1.85 million residents in 1950, Detroit had just 951,270 as of the last national census a decade ago, and the next—which is key to obtaining millions of dollars in federal funding—is expected to turn up only 800,000 this year. Some believe it might eventually slide to 700,000 before all is said and done. A quarter of the city is nothing more than vacant lots—40 square miles of “urban prairie.” Bing plans to shrink the occupied portions further by tearing down another 10,000 buildings. That should earn praise from economists like Harvard’s Ed Glaeser, who’s suggested similar policies for other Rust Belt cities. And what will Bing do with all of that empty space? Turn over as many as 10,000 acres to John Hantz to farm.

The owner of an eponymous financial services firm, Hantz is prepared to sink $30 million of his personal fortune into coaxing peaches, plums, lettuce, and heirloom tomatoes from the ground (or in hydroponic greenhouses). In exchange, all he’s asking for is free tax-delinquent land and tax breaks on agriculture. The city is considering giving him both. Hantz told Fortune he’s aiming for an average cost of $3,000 per acre, valuing it no differently than outlying farmland. But he also promises to create hundreds of green jobs, grow a surplus of fresh produce for residents, attract tourists, and “reintroduce Detroiters to the beauty of nature.”

Together, Bing’s and Hantz’s plans must sound like a model city for locavores, urban farmsteaders (although Detroit’s are actually suspicious of Hantz) and anyone concerned about the fate of sprawl in the era of peak oil. And that might have been so, were it not for the fact that Detroit doesn’t fall away to the real prairie at 8 Mile Road. The city of Detroit may be a shadow of its former self, but metropolitan “Detroit” and its suburbs still contain 4.4 million people, more than metropolitan Phoenix, San Francisco or Seattle. And while Detroit may be shrinking in area, “Detroit” is doing anything but.


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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also the chief communications officer at Climate Alpha, an AI-driven location-analysis platform steering investment toward climate adaptation and more resilient regions; a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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