December 18, 2014  |  permalink

Influx and Exodus: Two Conversations on Urban Density

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(On December 9, 2014, I moderated a pair of back-to-back panels at the Van Alen Institute on “Influx and Exodus: Two Conversations on Urban Density.” The following description by Jas Singh was published by the World Policy Institute, which co-sponsored the event.)

From Sao Paulo to Lagos, the increasing globalization of the market economy in the 21st century has catalyzed existing rural-to-urban population migration trends. With an estimated forecast of three-quarters of the world’s population living in cities by 2050, this demographic pattern will become more and more prevalent. By contrast, legacy cities of the American Rust Belt are suffering the effects of urban decay as a result of a shrinking industrial sector and declining populations.

In both cases, there are potentially crucial lessons to be gleaned about the social, economic, and political consequences of such dramatic population shifts. To this end, in partnership with the Van Alen Institute, the World Policy Institute hosted “Influx and Exodus: Two Conversations on Urban Density.” In back-to-back panel discussions, the central concern was how city infrastructure and policy can be designed to keep pace with the demographic shifts that accompany rapid economic growth and decline. 

Greg Lindsay, a senior fellow at World Policy Institute and a director of its Emergent Cities Project, moderated both discussions. The first part “Exodus,” featured Alan Mallach, senior fellow at Center for Community Progress; Nadine Maleh, a director at Inspiring Places; and Nick Hamilton, a project manager at the American Assembly and head of the Legacy Cities Partnership. The panelists discussed the best methods for repurposing aging infrastructure and adapting the delivery of fundamental services to the residents living in legacy cities.

Mallach began by focusing on urban planning strategies to tackle the inherent problem of the physical environment that all ailing cities face: a surplus of buildings and ground relative to demand. The simplest and most cost-effective of these was instituted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society through the Land Care Program, which resolved the problem of empty lots becoming dumping grounds by planting grass and trees and installing a simple split rail fence. On the other end of the spectrum, in a far more sophisticated approach, Baltimore used a triage strategy to identify the areas of the city that would generate the greatest social and economic benefits from demolition, housing rehabilitation, and real estate development.

Maleh then discussed the importance of a decentralized approach to real estate design in case studies of Brownsville, NY and Northeast Hartford, Connecticut. Both of these communities can be described as “urban-rural,” as they are urban in fabric but rural in their disconnection from city centers and city resources. Maleh stressed that it is critical to activate resident engagement in the cities’ revitalization efforts as the residents’ needs have evolved considerably over the lifetime of the cities.

Despite their fiscal downturns, Hamilton stressed legacy cities should be viewed as assets given that the aggregate of fifty legacy cities in the United States have a metropolitan economy of $2.6 trillion—larger than that of France. However, given the cities’ limited resources in unlocking their own economic potential, it is important that investments be carefully targeted and clustered to generate the greatest return. Further, multiple actors need to be involved in this effort, from metropolitan areas to the federal government.

In the second part of the discussion, “Influx,” a new panel featured Janice Perlman, founder and president of the Megacities Project and Rachel Peric, deputy director of Welcoming America. The panelists addressed the policies that cities should adopt to adapt to the needs of burgeoning populations.

Perlman emphasized that the consumption and production power of the people living in the world’s informal settlements, whether in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, should not be written off. While currently one billion people live in such settlements without access to urban and social services, this number is projected to increase three-fold by 2050, when one in three people on the planet will be living in settlements unregulated by governments. The magnitude of the social impact of this fact cannot be understated, since 1.4 million people across the world, but especially in the global south, immigrate from rural to urban settings every week.

She further argues that existing programs to address the needs of the informal sector are fraught with problems, because they are not sufficiently localized. Place-based solutions, including 18 national programs, sponsored by the World Bank and UN Habitat, aim to upgrade urban infrastructure without any input from residents and with no mention of social or human services. Frequently, these programs fall behind schedule, exceed budget capacity, and are eventually replaced entirely by bulldozing people’s homes and moving them to public housing, where conditions are usually far worse. Poverty-based solutions, such as conditional cash transfers sponsored by the governments of Mexico and Brazil, are not balanced with purchasing power parity and therefore provide only marginal benefit to urban populations.

In 1988, Perlman founded the Mega-cities Project to advocate an alternative approach to urban reform, one that is youth-led and makes cities youth-participatory. This approach favors scalable, replicable grassroots programming that is supportive of community-based knowledge and expertise. Communities are allowed to decide for themselves what urban reform should mean.

Peric capped the discussion on the domestic front with a focus on how U.S. cities can make themselves more open, inclusive, and welcoming to immigrants in order to revitalize their economies. Citing the example of Nashville, Tennessee, Peric argued that in order to foster a climate of inclusion, cities should implement programming that not only helps new immigrants adapt to new communities but also helps communities adapt to new immigrants. To this end, engagement with local leaders is critical for communities to understand that accepting an influx of immigrants is not only morally imperative but also economically pragmatic.

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December 07, 2014  |  permalink

Stream 3: An Interview with Greg Lindsay

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I’m honored to be included among the subjects interviewed in Stream 3, a biennial doorstop of a magazine published by PCA Architects’ founder Philippe Chiambretta (who also hosted my interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist at this summer’s Venice Architecture Biennale). A link to the full PDF of my interview is below; here’s the introduction:

Greg Lindsay explores the financialization of urban planning since the beginning of the twenty-first century, which is normalizing architecture and has driven him to take interest in the informal forms of urban growth. Running counter to the new, overly technological, urban utopias, he feels that our future resides in what calls “smart slums,” an intermediate form composed of informal and negotiated spaces. Thanks to digital technologies, they are made porous and adaptable in a dynamic process which enables them to maintain the intensity that is the real source of wealth in cities. Considering that the form of cities is shaped by transportation, he also delves into the concept of the “aerotropolis:” new cities shaped by and created for air transport, which he describes as the embodiment of globalization.

An Interview with Greg Lindsay (PDF)

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November 30, 2014  |  permalink

“I’m a Geographer” — an Interview with the Royal Geographic Society

(Britain’s Royal Geographic Society interviewed me for the October issue of its magazine, Geographical. While accurate, the editing of the interview was a bit, um, aggressive. That said, it was an honor to join more deserving figures such as Naomi Klein and David Harvey in the series.

Boris Johnson’s plans to start again with the Thames Estuary Airport scheme are problematic. The Thames Valley area is completely integrated into the global economy. If Johnson’s plans went ahead all those firms would be stripped out. What proponents of the plan hope would happen is that these businesses would move to another area in the UK, but that is fantasy. Businesses would say, ‘Forget it. We’re going to Schipol Airport.’

There is an expectation that in the next 40 years we’re going to have mega globalisation, with increased migration from rural to urban areas. Cities will be in trouble because birth rates will decline. We may be about to see the final global system because soon we will have built all the cities ever needed. The question then becomes how cities will jockey for position.

Air routes reflect this city hierarchy in action. Frankfurt is a perfect example. It’s not the largest city in Germany; it has never been the capital, but it has become Europe’s financial centre. India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, wants to build an urbanised corridor through the country, and airports are a key part of that strategy. Western China needs airports to be joined to the global supply chain. Zhengzhou now has one of the largest airports under construction because that’s where Foxconn has moved iPhone assembly.

There will not be a global capital of 2040 in the way we think of New York in the 1920s. China’s cities will play a larger role than India’s because of its autocratic nature and commercial resources. India still contains both Californian and Afghani levels of wealth and poverty.

What holds Dubai back are a number of problems: the local interpretation of Islam means there’s a limit to the tolerance level in the city; there’s also censorship and the fact Dubai does not offer long-term visas. The city also suffered from the global financial crisis. If Dubai did it right, the city would give away all the unused office space to start ups that want to relocate there. Dubai is the creation of the US and Europe. After 9/11, Europe and the US started to close the borders. If you were a talented Algerian you did not have a chance to go to US or the EU, so where did you end up? You went to Dubai.

There are many cities like Tokyo, which grew slums from scratch after earthquakes in the 1920s. People built slums, but what happened there – and what’s happening now in Brazil – is that these slums became middle class cities. Researchers in Mumbai asked people in areas considered slums, ‘Do you live in a slum?’ People always said, ‘No, the slum is somewhere else. It’s not where we are.’ I used to favour more planning in cities, but now I prefer a more informal approach. There will not be enough time to plan all the cities required. At the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative we try to learn from emerging cities like Mumbai; we think ideas about creating an upwardly mobile slum could be applied to places like Detroit. This is a city with 40,000 empty buildings because of regulation and foreclosures.

Detroit is an example of how the divide between the developing and the developed world has collapsed. In Detroit there’s a group called the Detroit Water Brigade who provide water to residents cut off from the water system. There is an injustice because there are golf courses with water left on to water grass, while ordinary residents cannot get water. The best expert on informal water distribution is the largest NGO in Kabira [a slum in Nairobi], and that is where the people of Detroit turned for help. US cities have slum dynamics because of austerity.

I love New York. I also love Dubai. It’s not a melting pot because the city is very stratified. This is a place where the notion of a ‘city’ is a totally globally dispersed people. Dubai is filled with Indian businessmen and African traders; it’s the new Silk Road.

Detroit is a nightmare city because it is a bizarre alternate version of New York. Detroit’s Michigan Central Station was built by the same architects who built Grand Central Station in New York, but the former was derelict for years. If Detroit carries on its current trajectory, the US will be remembered for creating one of the world’s greatest cities and then destroying it. The poor are being forced out of the inner cities and the suburbs are becoming the centre for marginal groups. This is a new urban crisis where the challenge is to address problems in suburban areas that have nothing in common with inner cities.

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November 17, 2014  |  permalink

Jane Jacobs Forum 2014

I was incredibly honored and flattered to be asked by the Municipal Art Society’s Mary Rowe to deliver the keynote address at last month’s annual Jane Jacobs Forum. (I’d like to think Jane would have approved, but can’t be sure). The video is above — I manage to squeeze a lot into six minutes.

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November 12, 2014  |  permalink

Archiboo: Engineering Serendipity

Innovation doesn’t happen at your desk from amandabaillieu on Vimeo.

On November 11, Amanda Baillieu and NBBJ London were kind enough to host me for Archiboo, a series of talks about the future of architecture and urbanism. I spoke about — what else? — engineering serendipity and the necessity of designing new organizations, environments, and networks capable of generating new connections between people and ideas. Amanda was kind enough to tape the entire talk — please watch.

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November 02, 2014  |  permalink

Medium: Engineering Serendipity

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(Medium has partnered with The Aspen Institute to publish essays based on talks at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival. What follows below was based on my talk titled “Engineering Serendipity,” and was originally published on October 30, 2014.)

I’d like to tell the story of a paradox: How do we bring the right people to the right place at the right time to discover something new, when we don’t know who or where or when that is, let alone what it is we’re looking for? This is the paradox of innovation: If so many discoveries — from penicillin to plastics – are the product of serendipity, why do we insist breakthroughs can somehow be planned? Why not embrace serendipity instead? Because here’s an example of what happens when you don’t.

When GlaxoSmithKline finished clinical trials in May of what it had hoped would be a breakthrough in treating heart disease, it found the drug stank — literally. In theory, darapladib was a wonder of genomic medicine, suppressing an enzyme responsible for cholesterol-clogged arteries, thus preventing heart attacks and strokes. But in practice it was a failure, producing odors so pungent that disgusted patients stopped taking it.

Glaxo hadn’t quite bet the company on darapladib, but it did pay nearly $3 billion to buy its partner in developing the drug, Human Genome Sciences. The latter’s founder, William Haseltine, once promised a revolution in drug discovery: After we had mapped every disease to every gene, we could engineer serendipity out of the equation. Darapladib was to have been the proof — the product of scientists carefully picking their way through the company’s vast genetic databases. Instead it’s a multi-billion-dollar write-off.

Big Pharma is hardly alone when it comes to overstating its ability to innovate, although it may be in the worst shape. By one estimate, the rate of new drugs developed per dollar spent by the industry has fallen by roughly a factor of 100 over the last 60 years. Patent statistics tell a similar story across industry after industry, from chemistry to metalworking to clean energy, in which top-down innovation has only grown more expensive and less efficient over time. According to a paper by Deborah Strumsky, José Lobo, and Joseph Tainter, the average size of research teams bloated by 48 percent between 1974 and 2005, while the number of patents per inventor fell 22 percent during that time. Instead of speeding up the pace of discovery, large hierarchical organizations are slowing down — a stagflationary principle known as “Eroom’s Law,” which is “Moore’s Law” spelled backwards. (Moore’s Law roughly states that computing power doubles every two years, a principle enshrined at the heart of technological progress.)

While Big Pharma’s American scientists were flailing, their counterparts at Paris Jussieu — the largest medical research complex in France — were doing some of their best work. The difference was asbestos. Between 1997 and 2012, Jussieu’s campus in Paris’s Left Bank reshuffled its labs’ locations five times due to ongoing asbestos removal, giving the faculty no control and little warning of where they would end up. An MIT professor named Christian Catalini later catalogued the 55,000 scientific papers they published during this time and mapped the authors’ locations across more than a hundred labs. Instead of having their life’s work disrupted, Jussieu’s researchers were three to five times more likely to collaborate with their new odd-couple neighbors than their old colleagues, did so nearly four to six times more often, and produced better work because of it (as measured by citations).

The lesson? We still have no idea how to pursue what former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously described as “unknown unknowns.” Even an institution like Paris Jussieu, which presumably places a premium on collaboration across disciplines, couldn’t do better than scattering its labs at random. It’s not enough to ask where good ideas come from — we need to rethink how we go about finding them.

I believe there’s a third way between the diminishing returns of typical organizations and sheer luck. In Silicon Valley, they call it “engineering serendipity,” and if that strikes you as an oxymoron (which it is), perhaps we need to step back and redefine what serendipity means:

1. Serendipity isn’t magic. It isn’t happy accidents. It’s a state of mind and a property of social networks — which means it can be measured, analyzed, and engineered.

2. It’s a bountiful source of good ideas. Study after study has shown how chance collaborations often trump top-down organizations when it comes to research and innovation. The challenge is first recognizing the circumstances of these encounters, then replicating and enhancing them.

Any society that values novelty and new ideas (like our innovation-obsessed one) will invariably trend toward greater serendipity over time. The push toward greater diversity, better public spaces, and an expanded public sphere all increase the potential for fortuitous discoveries.

The flip side is that institutions failing to embrace serendipity will ossify and die. This is especially true in our current era of incessant disruption, as seen in rising corporate mortality rates and a surge of unpredictable “black swan” events. (Nassim Taleb’s advice for taming black swans, by the way? “Maximize the serendipity around you.”)

Finally, the greatest opportunities for engineering serendipity lie in software, which means we must take great care as to who can find us and how, before Google (or the NSA) makes these choices for us.

» Continue reading...

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November 02, 2014  |  permalink

Quartz: Forget self-driving cars; we should be focusing on self-driving buses

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(Originally published on November 2, 2014 at Quartz. Written with Anthony Townsend.)

The self-driving car has traveled a long and lonely road to get here. Introduced to the American public by General Motors at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Depression-era dream of automated highways has perpetually lagged behind the present in drivers’ rear-view mirrors. But thanks largely to Google, the future once again appears to be gaining on us. A panel of Silicon Valley technology leaders recently polled by The Atlantic expects the first fully autonomous models to roll into our driveways in 2022.

But don’t count on it. The autonomous car will not be nearly as autonomous as its champions would have you believe.

When Google’s car took its first official driving test in Nevada in 2012, it struggled at times to pass—and this was on a course and under conditions of the company’s choosing. According to the state examiner’s log published last month by IEEE Spectrum, the self-driving Toyota Prius needed human help making turns and surrendered control completely when faced with the ambiguous terrain of roadside construction. The car wasn’t tested at all at railroad crossings or roundabouts, and Nevada’s DMV had agreed beforehand not to drive it in snow, ice or fog—none of which the car was designed to operate in.
Of course, self-driving cars will get smarter as computing power increases. But they will quickly encounter another real-world complication: other breeds of self-driving cars. In September, California joined Nevada in granting autonomous licenses, and within hours Audi and Mercedes-Benz squeezed ahead of Google in securing permits. There were merely the first in line. General Motors’ Cadillac division announced in August it would offer limited autonomy by 2017, and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk recently unveiled the Model D, an electric sedan with its own semi-autonomous features.

Further complicating matters will be unpredictable human drivers, who won’t give up their cars en masse. A survey of 1,533 US, UK, and Australian drivers published by University of Michigan researchers in July found that a majority of respondents had serious concerns about riding in autonomous cars—and more to the point, they wouldn’t pay extra for them. It’s taken more than a decade for drivers to seriously consider switching to hybrid and electric vehicles; it will take decades more to achieve a majority of self-driving vehicles on the roads.

As a result, by the time Google’s cars are ready for sale, they will have to share the roads with a slew of models produced by dozens of automakers, each with its own scheme for avoiding collisions. With traditional rules of the road shoved aside by overly cautious computers, one result might be epic gridlock, as they slow to a crawl attempting to work it out. Meanwhile, all the focus on vehicular autonomy has overshadowed the slow progress on essential protocols for car-to-car communications, an essential technology for mass automation of our roads. Drivers can expect years of technical and legal wrangling in addition to incompatibilities and glitches as Google’s and Tesla’s cars try to talk while traveling 60 miles (96 km) per hour. Tough security problems abound and various proposals to shuffle the unique ID of your car—so that it doesn’t become a privacy-compromised tracking device like your phone—have yet to be worked out.

» Continue reading...

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November 02, 2014  |  permalink

Inc.: Travel Without Tears

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(Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Inc.)

Randy Petersen founded FlyerTalk, the Web’s largest frequent-flier community, in 1995 and sold it in 2007. He now runs MilePoint and BoardingArea—two more sites focusing on the ins and outs of air travel. His advice comes from hard experience, so hear him out. As told to Greg Lindsay.

Go monochrome. My uniform hasn’t changed in 20 years; every time I fly, I’m in Nike, and I’m all in black. I’m the most comfortable passenger the airline industry ever invented. I never worry about someone spilling stuff all over me. And I never have to take off a belt.

Don’t carry receipts. The worst thing is to be slowed down by paperwork. I use an app called Expensify to take a picture of every receipt as soon as it lands on the table. After that, I don’t care if I lose it.

Movies are for kids. Real road warriors get on the plane and just go to sleep. Don’t stay up all night watching movies, or waiting for someone to get upset about a Knee Defender. I’m a big believer in Benadryl. A little dose and I’m drowsy. The next thing I know, I’m where I should be.

Treat yourself. I’ve learned that in your middle years as a traveler, you stop thinking you’re invincible. It’s OK to spoil yourself along the way. Every time I see one of those half-hour massages at the airport—here’s my money, get me going. If I can’t get in a lounge for free, I’m good with spending $50. A familiar environment where I’m not fighting for power outlets is worth it. Cokes cost eight bucks in the terminal, anyway.

Stop schlepping. I still check bags, at least internationally, because you’re traveling with more than a backpack. I don’t like carrying stuff around if I don’t have to. Frequent fliers like me don’t pay $25 per bag anyway, so I might as well take advantage of it. I want to ensure I’m getting the most out of my benefits.

Arrive hungry. On board, food just doesn’t interest me. I’ve never seen it executed well on a long-haul flight, anyway.

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October 24, 2014  |  permalink

Sin City vs. SimCity

(This essay was commissioned by New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management as part of its 2014 research initiative “Re-Programming Mobility: The Digital Transformation of Transportation in the United States.” It is republished here in full.)

Prologue

Las Vegas, 2016: It’s another sunny 103º day in Henderson — and the first of mandatory “dry-outs” without water service after five years of drought. Instead of driving his SUV to work — these days, it’s really just for weekend excursions — the lawyer opens the Shift app on his phone and enters his destination: Zappos’ headquarters. Seven minutes later, a chauffeured Tesla S sedan is ferrying him to work downtown, which has boomeranged from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Nevada to one of the wealthiest, thanks to Tony Hsieh.

Zappos’ CEO invested his $350 million personal fortune in creating an entrepreneurial utopia, perhaps the most ambitious piece of which was Shift — an all-inclusive car-, ride-, and bike-sharing service combining aspects of Zipcar, Uber, CitiBike, and RideScout. Instead of checking traffic or wondering when the bus will arrive, members ask the app for the fastest modes between A and B. The attorney didn’t choose a Tesla today; Shift’s “decision engine” chose for him. And while this trip is a simple pick-up and drop-off, there have been times when he’s been ordered by the app to park his Smart car in a designated spot along the curb and finish his journey on a Social Bicycle (SoBi) chained next to it — locking and unlocking both with his phone. Five hundred dollars per month is a small price to pay for mobility-as-a-service, and he knows it, because the payments on his other car had come to $750 a month before he sold it…

Milton Keynes, 2017: “The pods are naff,” the consultant’s husband had huffed when she mentioned at breakfast she had reserved one for her visit to Milton Keynes that morning. Upon arrival on the train from London, she had to admit he was right. Seeing them lined up empty outside the station, strobing in different shades of neon — looking down at her phone, she saw it was flashing the same garish shade of purple as the third one from the front — makes her reconsider her earlier enthusiasm. Approaching the two-wheeled self-driving pod resembling something out of Minority Report (a film that’s now fifteen years old, she remembers), she opens it with a tap of her phone. After placing her bag in the second seat, the door silently swings shut and then glides smoothly not onto the street, where traffic is zooming by at 70 mph, but onto the Redway pedestrian path — and without her steering.

On her way to the headquarters of Transport Systems Catapult — really, she could have walked, had she felt like traversing parking lots and dodging cars on Grafton Gate — the pod quietly creeps along the path, until it doesn’t. Whenever pedestrians, dogs, and other pods draw too close, it alternately slows, stops, or accelerates, depending on whatever algorithmic rules it silently consults. The ride lasts no more than a few minutes and is pleasantly uneventful, but by the end she’s resolved to use the city’s “mobility map” to hail one of its electric taxis after her meeting — after all, Milton Keynes had been designed for cars….

(Read the rest here.)

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October 08, 2014  |  permalink

Cities, Stars, and Serendipity

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(In June, I was asked to speak at “The Purpose City,” an all-day event hosted by the architecture firm NBBJ. The essay below is adapted from my talk.)

How should we think about the city? Metaphors are dangerous; choose the wrong one, and you’ll wreck them for a century. Le Corbusier thought of the city mechanistically, as a “machine for living,” producing the Ville Radieuse and destruction in its wake. Earlier, Patrick Geddes had thought of the city ecologically, with architects and planners playing the role of gardeners — we should prune them, not tear them out by the roots. Although evocative, neither metaphor was correct.

Perhaps a better one is a star — a metaphor proposed, appropriately enough, by the Santa Fe Institute physicist Luis Bettancourt, who describes cities as “social reactors.” Instead of combining hydrogen atoms under tremendous pressure to produce light and heat via fusion, they compress people in space and time. The fusion of social networks produces new relationships through which new ideas might flow, leading to what Jane Jacobs called “new work” in The Economy of Cities, written before mainstream economists had any language to describe how and why cities exist at all. And the more densely we can compress these networks, the faster and hotter the reaction.

Surprisingly, some of the places that do this best are “informal” ones, where people live and work off the books. We see it today in the slums of Dharavi, in Mumbai, and Lagos’ Kibera. And we saw it in post-war Tokyo or parts of New York City a century ago. All of these are or were places in which everything is an asset to be sold, traded, or rented; every street is more than just a road, but also market, and everyone is an entrepreneur by necessity. When we talk about the “sharing economy” — or the Purpose City — what we are really talking about is a slum economy.

The Mumbai-based architecture collective CRIT investigated what makes these places white-hot social reactors — and what they found was a much more intensive use of public place, especially the street. Peoples’ willingness to utilize every space for any activity — and to ignore the boundaries between the public-and-private and legal-and-illegal — created the conditions in which fusion can occur.

From this research, CRIT identified two characteristics that make these districts special. The first is “the blur,” the compression of living, working, moving, and making into the same place and time. The second is the city’s “transactional capacity,” which doesn’t just mean market transactions, but personal ones — the ability to meet and converse. Slums, of course, are terrifically (and horrifically) transactional, where simply using the toiler carries a price. But they’re places of astonishing productivity as well.

A few oft-cited statistics estimate Dharavi has an economic output of nearly $1 billion each year, and that 85% of India’s jobs are in informal, unincorporated enterprises with fewer than ten employees. Seen one way, Dharavi is a hopeless slum; seen another, it’s the Lower East Side of New York a century ago.

No one wants to live in a slum, of course. But what can we learn from them in order to maximize the blur, and in turn maximize the output of a city’s social reactor? At one extreme is Le Corbusier’s radiant city of high-rises — modernist masterpieces with no blur. At the other is the slum, which lacks even the most basic services and as a result is constantly in motion. Where is the sweet spot between the two? Our goal should be to avoid over-formalizing the city, to create more interstitial spaces where human fusion can happen.

This is hardly a new idea. Jacobs reached the same conclusion when she wrote “new ideas must use old buildings.” Jurgen Habermas traced the beginning of such spaces to the London coffeehouses of the 17th century, his archetypal example of the public sphere. That was the London of Samuel Pepys — the original mobile worker. He worked from home and his office next door, from court and the docks, and from the taverns and coffe houses in an astoundingly blurry city. (Pepys greatest lament — all the time he wasted waiting for no-shows — has at last been solved by texting.)

The challenge facing us is how to build these blurry spaces, especially in a time of austerity, where resources are not forthcoming. We will have to hack the cities we have. For example, Marcus Westbury is an Australian arts festival organizer who decided to help his hometown of Newcastle bring its boarded-up downtown back to life again. What he discovered is that downtown’s landlords were perfectly happy to leave it that way — they couldn’t be bothered to lease their empty storefronts to entrepreneurs or artists because tax laws and leases favored keeping them empty until someone with deeper pockets came along. Westbury’s solution at Renew Newcastle was to deploy a new system of short-term, lightweight permits, hacking the existing regulations to put hundreds of people into spaces, thus increasing the blur downtown. Organizations in other cities are doing something similar, whether it’s New York’s Made in Lower East Side, or London’s 3space, which won the most recent FT/Citi Ingenuity Award.

Through initiatives such as these, combined with the startups of the sharing economy, we’ve taken the dynamics of slums and recreated them using digital networks. This is what post-austerity America looks like — with Airbnb, every home is an unlicensed hotel, and with UberX and Lyft, everyone with a car is a cab driver. And with new apps like Breather, your apartment becomes someone’s office for an hour.

If cities are comprised of social networks moving through space in time, with nodes overlapping and fusing, then those nodes are becoming increasingly visible. Tinder is a crude but telling example. The reason Tinder is the fastest-growing dating app in the history of online dating is because it’s proximity-based — the promise is that if you make a match, they’re close at hand. If serendipity has traditionally been the spark igniting fusion, then an entire generation of apps is trying to engineer it. As we overlay more information, and more legibility on top of cities, we make the blur visible — and actionable. And manipulable.

The real test will be to implement these tools and networks in a place like Detroit, which has tens of thousands of abandoned, but still salvageable buildings, all of which have nominal owners, many of which are in foreclosure, but all of which exist as a purely physical fact — which means they can be occupied, activated, and used to restore the city’s blur. We’ll need new networks that enhances our ability to use these spaces by making them visible and usable — and does so as a public good, not a profit center.

So when it comes to building the Purpose City, what we’re really trying to do is accelerate the speed of its reactions. We’re trying to build new spaces for encouraging serendipity and forging new relationships. We’re trying to create public spaces that increase the density of interaction rather than just people. When we do that, we create a brilliant city as well.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, and speaker. He is a contributing writer for Fast Company, author of the forthcoming book Engineering Serendipity, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. He is also a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute — where he is director of the Emergent Cities Project — a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and a research affiliate of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI).

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Articles by Greg Lindsay

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

The New York Times  |  April 2013

Engineering Serendipity

Fast Company  |  March 2013

Swedish Modern Comes To Town

Fast Company  |  March 2013

Working Beyond the Cube

Fast Company  |  December 2012/January 2013

Imagine Air Travel Without Hassle: Surf Air Can

WSJ  |  November 2012

Jeanne Gang

Fast Company  |  June 2012

That’s So Fly

Next American City  |  May 2012

Chartered Territory

The New York Times  |  Feburary 2012

Designing a Fix for Housing

Departures  |  October 2011

Instant Cities

Travel + Leisure  |  October 2011

The Future of Travel

The New York Times  |  September 2011

Not-So-Smart Cities

World Policy Journal  |  Fall 2011

Thus Spake Nano

Advertising Age  |  September 2011

Ad Age Insights: The Evolution of Facebook Brand Fans

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Blog

December 18, 2014

Influx and Exodus: Two Conversations on Urban Density

December 07, 2014

Stream 3: An Interview with Greg Lindsay

November 30, 2014

“I’m a Geographer” — an Interview with the Royal Geographic Society

November 17, 2014

Jane Jacobs Forum 2014

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