October 08, 2014 | permalink
(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.
September 22, 2014 | permalink
While at Techonomy Detroit last week, I also moderated a session on the future of transportation starring Ford’s Don Butler, Alta’s Jeff Olson, Urban Engines’ Shiva Shivakumar, and Streetline’s Zia Yusuf. What does Detroit look like in a world of seamless mobility? Click on the video above to find out.
September 19, 2014 | permalink
At the Techonomy Detroit conference: From left, Phil Cooley of Ponyride in Detroit, Gabriella Gomez-Mont of City Laboratory in Mexico City and Greg Lindsay of World Policy Institute and Fast Company lead a panel discussion on how technology will shape the future of cities. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)
September 19, 2014 | permalink
(A shorter version of this story originally appeared at Harvard Business Review on September 18, 2014.)
To hear Samuel Pepys tell it, the 17th Century diarist and Royal Navy clerk was the world’s first mobile worker. As the architect Frank Duffy notes in his book Work and the City, Pepys tirelessly traversed London giving and taking orders and trading gossip, whether at the docks, at court, or in one of city’s fashionable new coffee houses. His greatest annoyance? Having “lost my labour” when one lord or another failed to appear for a meeting.
Some things never change, but Pepys’ peripatetic routine underscores just how recent, and how artificial, the modern office is. The notion that a single organization would monopolize a space, often for a single function, is a distinctly 20th century one. The demands of the vertically integrated corporation required tight coordination in both space and time, what Duffy calls “synchrony” and “co-location.” The solution was the skyscraper, and later the suburban campus.
But as workflows and processes moved first into software and then into the cloud, the questions of how and where and with whom we should work are being asked anew. Just as Pepys’ treated London’s coffee houses as an extension of his office, new heterogenous workspaces are emerging that capitalize on these changes. Here’s a short taxonomy:
1. Real-Time Offices
The typical office is designed to last years, leaving teams to struggle against static layouts even as the pace of change and competition accelerates. Real-time offices attempt to flip the script, dynamically reconfiguring themselves to mirror how work actually gets done, rather than forcing workers to conform to its limitations. Facebook will try to do this with the Frank Gehry-designed extension of its Silicon Valley campus — nearly half a million square feet of open space until one roof in which its engineers can rearrange desks at will . But the best example may be the billion-dollar videogame-maker Valve Software, where employees decide to join (or switch) projects by unplugging their desks and wheeling them over to their new team . As a result, very important decision — from who to hire to which games will ship — begins as a choice of who to sit with.
2. Permeable Offices
Instead of retreating into their shells, some organizations welcome other firms and freelancers to work alongside employees in hopes of learning from them. Permeable offices act as a membrane, selectively allowing these strangers inside. Capital One , Rackspace , Steelcase, and Amway have all experimented with this model, but the most successful example may be AT&T’s Foundry network of innovation centers . In those offices, selected startups and entrepreneurs work in cross-company teams with AT&T partners such as Intel, Cisco, and Ericsson along with its own engineers. One of these startups, Intucell, improved AT&T’s call retention and throughput speeds by 10% and was later bought by Cisco for $475 million . In general, Foundry teams have cut the development time of new products from 3 years to 9 months.
3. Office Networks
Behind the current backlash against the open office and its constant interruptions is the dawning recognition that not one workspace fits all. According to Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey , knowledge workers with choices of when and where to work are significantly more satisfied, effective, and innovative than their peers. Taking advantage of this trend, coworking chains such as Work in Progress and NextSpace have begun offering memberships across a range of location, with each possessing its own vibe, design, and clientele. The Santa Cruz-based headset-maker Plantronics uses NextSpace’s Bay Area branches as its satellite offices, with the company’s software division electing to work from San Jose to be closer to new hires and customers .
4. Office Neighborhoods
Realizing the benefits of urban amenities when it comes to wooing talent, some companies and developers are treating entire neighborhoods as an urban campus. This includes Zappos and the Downtown Project’s goal of building a creative class company town from scratch, but also Seattle’s South Lake Union — where Amazon is building its permeable new headquarters — and Forest City’s 5M Project in San Francisco. The latter couples a Yahoo office with a coworking space, maker space, and arts incubator in a single city block — a major selling point to tenants for the 2 million sq. ft. of office space it intends to build on the site.
5. Office-as-a-Service (OaaS)
The consulting and design firm Strategy Plus estimates workspace utilization peaks at 42% during the workday, meaning more than half of all (technically occupied) offices are currently sitting empty. They comprise a ripe opportunity for the so-called “sharing economy” to transform every underutilized conference room, hotel lobby, or even home into a bookable meeting space or quiet nook. AirBnB would appears to be a natural fit for this role, but the company seems content with overnight stays. Enter more aggressive startups such Liquidspace , which not only allows users to search for usable spaces on its network, but also specific individuals — who would you like to work with today?
6. The New Guilds
Company men not only looked to GE, GM, and IBM for a paycheck and benefits, but also for an identity, too. The same can’t be said of an estimated 53 million American freelance workers , many of whom have had those identities — and their benefits — stripped from them during the long recession. Enter a handful of coworking chains and startup incubators to fill the void for those affluent enough to pay for the advantages of corporate scale without the obligations of drawing a paycheck. WeWork offers its 3,500 members discounted health insurance, hosts an annual raucous summer camp , and touts itself as “the physical social network.” San Francisco’s RocketSpace combines coworking with a tech accelerator, matchmaking tenants with hungry venture capitalists who consider their residency a badge of prestige.
September 12, 2014 | permalink
Forget what you know about how to maximize productivity.
That includes knowing which tasks can be breezed through with the help of a playlist, or exactly when to down that cup of coffee (or switch to another beverage) and when to mindlessly surf the web.
According to a new report published in Harvard Business Review, the key to unlock the greatest productivity isn’t necessarily in the hands of the individual employee. Rather, authors Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi, and Greg Lindsay posit that chance and face-to-face encounters are the way anyone working in the knowledge economy is going to improve performance. That’s in spite of technology that keeps us “connected,” even when we work remotely.
Dishman was kind enough to quote me opining on the invisible social networks within organization and how the combination of data and workspace design can reveal and enhance them:
“One thing I’m finding is the notion there are a lot of informal social networks inside of organizations,” says Lindsay. From chat rooms like Yammer and Slack to actual gatherings in a break room, these communication networks have the potential to reveal a lot more about the employees than an org chart.
He cites the work of Ronald Burt at the University of Chicago, who discusses “structural holes” in organizations. By studying informal communication, Burt’s been able to show how people who straddle different groups are actually more powerful than their titles would suggest. “How many years before they redesign [the organizational hierarchy],” he muses.
September 09, 2014 | permalink
“Workspaces That Move People” is my new story in the October issue of Harvard Business Review. Written with Ben Waber and Jennifer Magnolfi, together we make the case that we are finally — finally — able to prove that: a) where and how you work define who you work with; b) who you work with drives group performance to a large extent, and c) we can finally start to map workspace performance metrics to organizational ones.
In a nutshell, it means we’re this close to finally designing (and then constantly redesigning) workspaces that actually help you do your job, rather than struggling against them. The key is deploying a new generation of sensors — in our phones, in our offices, or even worn around your neck (or your wrist) — that can collect the necessary breadth and depth of data. With that in hand, we can start to understand who we should really be working with, where, and why — a milestone that means the end of the office as we know it.
I had the pleasure of writing about Ben’s work in The New York Times and Jennifer’s work in Fast Company last year. I’ve been searching for ways to connect the pair’s ideas, and it was AMO’s Daniel Pittman who suggested we join forces and write an article about it. As with most of my recent work, this piece tries to tease out the implications of how real-time data and social network analysis will map onto physical space. What if you shouldn’t be working with your nominal colleagues, but with different teams at different offices — or even at different companies? Knowledge work has been confined to the office nearly a century; but now we have the means to disperse organizations across cities (which I hope will be as good for the cities in question as for the organizations).
The beginning of the piece is below; ready the entire thing at HBR.org.
In Silicon Valley, the tight correlation between personal interactions, performance, and innovation is an article of faith, and innovators are building cathedrals reflecting this. Google’s new campus is designed to maximize chance encounters. Facebook will soon put several thousand of its employees into a single mile-long room. Yahoo notoriously revoked mobile work privileges because, as the chief of human resources explained, “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.” And Samsung recently unveiled plans for a new U.S. headquarters, designed in stark contrast to its traditionally hierarchical culture. Vast outdoor areas sandwiched between floors will lure workers into public spaces, where Samsung’s executives hope that engineers and salespeople will actually mingle. “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor,” says Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor. The new building “is really designed to spark not just collaboration but that innovation you see when people collide.”
Faith is nice, but do executives have proof that this works? Social space like Samsung’s could be just another in a long line of fads and broken promises in workspace design: The “action office” becomes the cubicle. Cubicles are torn down for open plans, which leave introverts pining for private space. Quads. Hotel space. Couches. Rotating desk assignments. Standing desks. Treadmill desks. No desks. With apologies to Mark Twain, there’s no such thing as a new office design. We just take old ideas, put them into a kind of kaleidoscope, and turn. How do we know whether any of these approaches is effective? The key metric companies use to measure space—cost per square foot—is focused on efficiency. Few companies measure whether a space’s design helps or hurts performance, but they should. They have the means. The same sensors, activity trackers, smartphones, and social networks that they eagerly foist on customers to reveal their habits and behavior can be turned inward, on employees in their work environments, to learn whether it’s true that getting engineers and salespeople talking actually works.
We’ve already begun to collect this kind of performance data using a variety of tools, from simple network analytics to sociometric badges that capture interaction, communication, and location information. After deploying thousands of badges in workplaces ranging from pharmaceuticals, finance, and software companies to hospitals, we’ve begun to unlock the secrets of good office design in terms of density, proximity of people, and social nature. We’ve learned, for example, that face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office. Birnbaum is on to something when he talks about getting employees to “collide,” because our data suggest that creating collisions — chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization — improves performance.
We’ve also learned that spaces can even be designed to produce specific performance outcomes — productivity in one space, say, and increased innovation in another, or both in the same space but at different times. By combining the emerging data with organizational metrics such as total sales or number of new-product launches, we can demonstrate a workspace’s effect on the bottom line and then engineer the space to improve it. This will lead to profound changes in how we build our future workspaces. Here are a few:
Recognize office space as not just an amortized asset but a strategic tool for growth. The consulting and design firm Strategy Plus estimates that office utilization peaks at 42% on any given day. By that logic, the best way to manage cost per square foot is to remove “wasted” square feet. But the data we’re generating reveal that investments in re-engineering space for interactions over efficiency can increase sales or new-product launches.
Design offices to reflect how 21st-century digital work actually happens. The buildings we go to every day haven’t changed as much as have the tools we use to get work done. Merging digital communication patterns with physical space can increase the probability of interactions that lead to innovation and productivity.
Re-engineer offices to weave a building, a collection of buildings, or a variety of workspaces into the urban fabric. The office of the future will most likely include highly networked, shared, multipurpose spaces that redefine boundaries between companies and improve everyone’s performance.
Getting there won’t be easy. It will require collecting much more data to inform new design and management principles while engaging urban planners and municipal governments. It will also transform HR, IT, and facilities management from support functions to facilitators. But if companies can change their spaces to refl ect how people work, performance improvement will follow. Don’t take that on faith. There are data to prove it….
August 31, 2014 | permalink
Three years ago, filmmaker Marc Lafia interviewed me for his documentary-in-progress, Revolution of the Present. At long last, the final cut has arrived (and embedded above for your viewing pleasure). What’s it all about? I’ll let Marc explain:
The hope was that network technology would bring us together, create a “global village,” make our political desires more coherent. But what’s happened is that our desires have become distributed, exploded into images and over screens our eyes relentlessly drop to view.
REVOLUTION OF THE PRESENT examines the strange effects — on cities, economies, people — of what we might call accelerated capitalism. Set against a visually striking array of sounds and images, 15 international thinkers speak to the complexity and oddity of this contemporary moment as they discuss what is and what can be.
Humanity seems to be stuck in the perpetual now that is our networked world. More countries are witnessing people taking to the streets in search of answers. Revolution of the Present, the film, features interviews with thought leaders designed to give meaning to our present and precarious condition. This historic journey allows us to us re-think our presumptions and narratives about the individual and society, the local and global, our politics and technology. This documentary analyzes why the opportunity to augment the scope of human action has become so atomized and diminished. Revolution of the Present is an invitation to join the conversation and help contribute to our collective understanding.
As Saskia Sassen, the renowned sociologist, states at the outset of the film, ‘we live in a time of unsettlement, so much so that we are even questioning the notion of the global, which is healthy.’ One could say that our film raises more questions than it answers, but this is our goal. Asking the right questions and going back to beginnings may be the very thing we need to do to understand the present, and to move forward from it with a healthy skepticism.
Revolution of the Present is structured as an engaging dinner conversation, there is no narrator telling you what to think, it is not a film of fear of the end time or accusation, it is an invitation to sit at the table and join an in depth conversation about our diverse and plural world.
If this film is a dinner conversation, then I’m the guest who’s had too much to drink. I hope you’ll stay for dessert.
August 23, 2014 | permalink
(image ® ennead architects)
One of the perks of writing Aerotropolis was being asked by André Balazs in June 2011 to help him reinvent the airport hotel. The site was Eero Saarinen’s semi-abandoned TWA Flight Center at New York JFK, the last cathedral of the Jet Age. My role as a consultant was minor to say the least, but I was still sad to see the deal with the Port Authority of NY/NJ fall apart — understandably so, given the financial difficulties of making an airport Standard work. I thought our plans would never see the light of day, but ennead architects has gone ahead and posted their renderings of the site. Please click through, and enjoy a glimpse of the coolest airport hotel that never was.
August 20, 2014 | permalink
The Aspen Institute has posted an abbreviated clip from one of my sessions at this year’s Ideas Festival, “Smart City Limits: How Much Can Big Data Really Do?” I was fortunate to have Code for America’s Jen Pahlka, IBM’s Guru Banavar, and the Santa Fe Institute’s Luís Bettancourt discuss the limits of technology and theoretical models when it comes to improving the quality of life in cities. Enjoy.
August 13, 2014 | permalink
The Van Alen Institute has partnered with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) to launch “Future Ground,” a competition to make New Orleans a global leader in reusing vacant land. I’m honored to have been asked to join Adrian Benepe, Toni Griffin, Mitchell Silver, and Stephen Zacks, among many others, to serve on the competition’s advisory board. “Future Ground” will generate flexible design and policy strategies that forecast and accommodate changes in density, demand, climate, and landscape over the next half-century in New Orleans, transforming abandoned landscapes into resources for the current and future city.
Three teams will be selected to participate in a six-month research and design process to tackle the social, economic, and ecological challenges underlying reuse of the most prevalent types of vacant land in the city. Working closely with local stakeholders and national experts, teams will produce implementable, replicable solutions that can be applied to specific sites citywide, and that can help catalyze change in cities around the world.
For more information on how to apply, please visit http://www.vanalen.org/projects/competitions/FutureGround
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).
Harvard Business Review | October 2014
Inc. | April 2014
Atlantic Cities | March 2014
Wired (UK) | October 2013
Next American City | August 2013
The New York Times | April 2013
Fast Company | March 2013
Fast Company | March 2013
Fast Company | December 2012/January 2013
WSJ | November 2012
Fast Company | June 2012
Next American City | May 2012
The New York Times | Feburary 2012
Departures | October 2011
Travel + Leisure | October 2011
The New York Times | September 2011
World Policy Journal | Fall 2011
Advertising Age | September 2011
Open Skies | July 2011
WSJ | May 2011
October 08, 2014
September 22, 2014
September 19, 2014
September 19, 2014