June 08, 2016 | permalink
(Kursty Groves — co-author of the forthcoming “Spaces for Innovation” with Oliver Marlow — interviewed me about the future of workspaces, cities, and serendipity for her book. Our conversation is reproduced below, but I encourage you to order the book, which is currently available for pre-order with a special 20% discount.)
What is ‘engineering serendipity’ – apart from a delightful oxymoron?
GREG LINDSAY: First, a bit of context. For more than a century, large organizations have prized clear hierarchies, ruthless efficiencies and, above all, economies of scale. The office-as-we-know-it, for example, began life as a factory for paperwork. That model clearly isn’t working anymore. Firms are dying faster, innovation is slowing down, corporate returns-on-assets have steadily fallen off a cliff. Hierarchical organizations are suffering from diminishing returns to complexity, and suffering badly. Twenty years ago, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard lamented, ‘If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.’ Even then, the company’s strategic vision was less than the sum of its know-how. After that, the company split itself in two, merged disastrously in a misguided pursuit of economies of scale, and recently split itself in two again (and again).
Meanwhile, companies have hollowed themselves out even as they’ve become more tightly coupled – whether they know it or not, people’s most valuable colleague probably works for somebody else. Yet, we are still slotting ourselves into hierarchies to do the same things we’ve always done in the hope of making them two per cent better. We need to enable unknown connections to happen in order to allow step-change differences to occur. Rather than chasing efficiency, what if we tried to engineer serendipity instead? By that I mean, what if we designed organizations, environments and networks to produce unplanned encounters and collaborations instead of predictable ones? In practice, this means creating more permeable, diverse, collegial workspaces and cities, with social networks steering us toward the gaps in our networks rather than cocooning us in filter bubbles. So what I’m interested in is: what does that world look like and, more importantly, who’s already building it?
What role does physical space play?
It’s hugely important. Even though it’s trendy now to say the future of all knowledge work – or at least anything involving typing on a laptop – will migrate to the iCloud, and there won’t be any offices, only Slack channels. But this overlooks the fact that physical proximity has always defined communication patterns – an iron law MIT’s Thomas J Allen first quantified in the 1970s – and continues to do so, even online (see p.161). You chat most frequently with the people nearest you, no matter the medium. So, if we want to radically increase combinatorial possibilities of a network, we need to bring them together in space, which is why cities exist and firms pay high rents to stack people in them in the first place. But rather than work in the same office every day with the same people, what if you mixed both up? I think this largely explains the appeal of coworking spaces, where one works alongside peers and equals instead of colleagues and subordinates. The fact that members of these spaces uniformly report making more contacts, learning more skills and experiencing greater satisfaction than their cubicle-bound counterparts in traditional organizations means they are learning from each other in ways that a corporate HR department simply couldn’t predict.
And what of technology?
Well, this is where the ‘engineering’ part comes in. We all know intuitively that work doesn’t get done according to the organizational chart, but through informal networks that are rarely recognized and occasionally secret. What if you could map those networks in real-time, sample the flow of information moving across them and use that metadata to tap hidden expertise, discover new coworkers or even suggest someone new to sit with? What if HP knew what HP knows, and could do something about it? That’s the promise of the quantified organization, using various analytical techniques and devices like ‘sociometric badges’ that aim to measure the nuances of every face-to-face meeting and casual encounter. And if the idea of HR rummaging through your emails creeps you out, there’s an algorithmic black box to shield personal data from prying eyes. These technologies put the oxymoron into ‘engineering serendipity’. Serendipity feels like magic because it’s an accident, but that feeling is in the eye of the beholder. We’re already seeing many other attempts to use machine-learning to detect patterns in data sets either too large or too complex for a human observer to detect – a phenomenon the big data start-up Ayasdi labels ‘digital serendipity’. So using a system that is able to pair you with the coworker or information you need at exactly the moment you need them, will also feel like magic.
What are the implications for designing physical spaces for the future?
The biggest is the change from workspace-as-cost-centre to workspace-as-value-creator. If you can’t manage what you can’t measure, then hopefully sociometric badges and other tools will definitively make the case for treating the places where we work as vital to our success. After that, we could start to see real-time offices – near-constant adjustments to eliminate dead zones and other design flaws that would otherwise go untreated for a decade. I think traditional HR and facilities management roles will be superseded (or enhanced) with the addition of community managers whose job it is to help workers make connections, aided by the analytical tools I just described. And most importantly, the idea of the office as one space for one organization will start to go away, replaced by more permeable workplaces with multiple, overlapping communities with a shared level of trust.
What are the biggest barriers that organizations face when attempting to shift from the workplace of the present to that of the future?
Fear, ego, politics. The usual. The history of the office is a case study in how employers can make a hell of heaven, including but not limited to transforming Robert Propst’s liberating Action Office into the soul-destroying cubicle. It’s not difficult to see how managers might try to build a better surveillance state or expel workers to coworking spaces just to cut real-estate costs by another ten per cent, regardless of what it does for performance. But I think it all comes back to the perception that the office is at best a golden pair of handcuffs and at worst a necessary evil, yet never a scaffold for different configurations of social networks. Companies talk endlessly about recruiting talent and cultivating leadership, and then they try to dictate how those talented leaders should interact.
Can you expand a bit on the role of the city?
Cities, of course, are the original serendipity engines. Last year, I toured the Square Mile with Peter Rees, who was the City of London’s chief planner for almost three decades. We popped into pubs and strolled where the Restoration-era coffeehouses once stood, and discussed how the city was an information-processing machine for transforming gossip and speculation into partnerships and profits. DEGW co-founder Frank Duffy also presciently pointed out that coworking chains such as WeWork (currently valued at USD 16 billion) echo London’s Victorian-era gentlemen’s clubs or even Venice’s Scuole Grandi. (He also argued that Samuel Pepys was the first modern mobile worker.) I don’t think it’s an accident that banks remain firmly-rooted in cities and that technology firms are turning away from isolated suburban office parks – because the city offers a greater degree of openness and scale than any single office.
Can you share any other big lessons regarding the spatial context of innovation and/or creativity and how to harness the outcomes of those serendipitous interactions that one might engineer?
A few years ago, I realized I would pay almost anything for an app that could tell me, as I was walking down the street, what I should say to the person headed toward me. That app would require we both own smartphones or other wearable technology with a fine-grained GPS, and it would be able to parse our social media exhaust to the extent that it would not only know what we have in common but why it mattered, and to identify what word or phrase would unlock it in that moment. Imagine this in the context of leveraging connections for innovation. That app doesn’t exist of course (although many have tried) but I remain convinced that someone will crack it, and let’s hope they do a better job of it than Tinder has done for dating!
May 30, 2016 | permalink
(BritishAmerican Business — a membership organization of business leaders in New York and London — interviewed me for the most recent issue of their quarterly magazine. The unedited version appears below.)
Explain the concept of a city that is an aerotropolis, which is an idea “coined” in your book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next? What relevance does it have in cities today?
The thread running through my book and current work is that the shape of cities has always been defined by transportation. Whether London’s docks, Chicago’s railyards, or Los Angeles’ freeways, each was shaped by the state-of-the-art in transportation at the time. So it stands to reason that in a global era, we should start to see cities form around the only mode capable of transporting us around the world — and if you look closely enough, we have. Heathrow, for example, has profoundly shaped the development of west London and the Thames Valley, while Gatwick supporters point to the existence of a “Gatwick Diamond” home to 45,000 businesses. And once we had traced the contours of these airport cities, someone would try to build one from scratch — the “aerotropolis” of the title. And that’s happening, too, in places like Dubai, Doha, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and, of course, China. But I think the lesson for most cities is that they need to be locally close and globally connected — the former to create places with a human scale and quality of life that attracts talent, and the latter to allow that talent to apply themselves anywhere in the world. After all, America’s biggest exports are services.
The rise in prominence in cities has been truly unprecedented in recent years and there is an enormous amount of pressure on the social fabric of the city, including infrastructure and the environment. What do you think are the future solutions to dealing with rapid urbanisation and what approaches are cities taking?
The science fiction author Bruce Sterling once mordantly described the future as “old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.” He was referring to the confluence of rapidly aging societies, mega-urbanization, and climate change. No one has done an especially good job of tackling the challenges posed by any of the three, let alone the wicked problems emerging from all three — such as the Syrian refugee crisis and its political fallout, or climate-accelerated urban migration. In the best case scenario, we’d see the public and private sectors work in concert to re-invest heavily in infrastructure, using carbon taxes to pay for everything from new mass transit to solar micro-grids to technologies that haven’t been invented yet. Barring Bernie Sanders’ promised political revolution, that won’t happen, and we’re going to be faced with the same situation we have today — appeals to the private sector for innovative financing schemes and PPPs to pay for innovations we pray will be silver bullets. The mega-cities of the Global South face an even starker challenge: building (and rebuilding) faster than natural disasters can destroy them. The Philippines, for example, was hit with the three most destructive typhoons in its history in just three years from 2012-2014. We’re going to need lighter, cheaper, faster, and more resilient infrastructure to stay ahead of these stresses.
What is your notion or vision of a ‘Smart City’ and what trends or concepts do you think will be a game changer in terms of improving the metropolitan environment of businesses and citizens?
Let’s never forget that “smarter cities” was an IBM buzzword coined during the nadir of the 2008 global financial crisis to capture a sliver of the trillions of dollars in stimulus spending surely on the way — and never arrived due to austerity. I still have two major problems with the way the phrase is used today. The first is that it’s primarily focused on infrastructure, not people. The idea (which has since become the foundation of the “Internet of Things”) was that everything would be studded with sensors, and the data generated from those points would be used to make power grids and water mains 10% more efficient. That’s fine as it far as it goes, but it’s a prosaic vision at best, and the devil is in the details. The second problem is that it’s based on the same totalizing surveillance as Facebook, Google, Uber, etc. — give all of your data to a single entity in exchange for a service. A truly smart city would be one that helped people find and connect with each other in new ways without the necessary evil of an intermediary, which is what cities have always done. I’d like to see a smart city where instead of Uber, you have stronger public transit (reducing the need for cars altogether) and more local cooperatives. I’d also like to see the traditional office give way to moe shared workspaces geared toward industries and purposes other than tech startups — where people, aided by real-world social networks, could discover new collaborators, clients, investors, etc. faster than ever. A truly smart city isn’t about infrastructure, but people; it’s not about all-encompassing platforms, but small networks, loosely joined; and most of all, it’s not about efficiency, but discovery.
May 22, 2016 | permalink
I was in Leipzig last week as part of the moderator corps for the International Transport Forum Summit 2016 — the so-called “Davos of Transportation” where dozens of ministers, vice ministers, deputy ministers, undersecretaries and their entourages gathered to earnestly-yet-diplomatically discuss issues around transport, especially in light of the COP21 agreement on reducing carbon emissions. My personal highlight was moderating a closed-door session on Big Data and autonomous cars attended by ministers from Russia, Canada, Japan, Korea, Sweden, New Zealand, and a dozen other nations and organizations. I would tell you what they said, but I was too nervous to remember.
I also moderated sessions on innovations in greening aviation — a particularly pressing subject ahead of next year’s ICAO Assembly in Montreal, where a cap-and-trade mechanism for aviation emissions will be hammered out — the impact of TNCs and other disruptive technologies on the transport labor market (spoiler: Uber is winning), and how to grapple with noise, air pollution, and the other externalities of urban transport. A few photos are below.
May 12, 2016 | permalink
(Popular Mechanics commissioned me to write 4,000 words on the jeepney — the most popular form of transportation in the Philippines, albeit reluctantly. The introduction to the story is below; you can read the entire thing here.)
You might think twice about boarding a bus named “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” with the phrase spray-painted in green above the windshield. I don’t, not when the alternative is loitering along the smog-shrouded shoulder of Commonwealth Avenue—the 18-lane highway looping through Metro Manila colloquially known as the “Avenue of Death.” And not when the ride in question is actually a jeepney, the garishly decorated offspring of U.S. Army jeeps abandoned in the Philippines following World War II. You might call it a death trap, but for millions of Filipinos it’s just part of the daily commute.
An app called Sakay.ph told me to switch jeepneys here, on the megacity’s deadliest stretch. Clambering into the back of what amounts to a stretched jeep with a tin roof, I slide down one of the vinyl seats to sit behind the driver, who flips his right palm backward to collect the fare of seven pesos, equivalent to 15 cents. The other passengers range in age from elderly couples to young mothers clutching their infants. Eighteen of us sit knee-to-knee. Everyone covers their faces with a handkerchief in one hand while bracing themselves with the other, and for good reason. Jeepneys have neither emissions standards nor seatbelts nor retirement ages—the eldest have been running since the 1970s. They are the most dangerous and decrepit two percent of traffic, and they generate 80 percent of vehicular pollution.
A speaker mounted on the floor blasts the 1986 hit “(I Just) Died In Your Arms.” Not necessarily what you want to hear while swerving across multiple lanes of traffic at top speeds. Worse is the tangle of wires spilling from the steering column and the plastic jerry can half-filled with gasoline sloshing at the driver’s feet. As we race along the Avenue of Death, weaving between cars, trucks, buses, and “trikes”—motorcycle taxis with improvised sidecars welded on—passengers tap the roof to signal their stop. Every few hundred yards a row of cinder blocks appears, sheltering a few lanes for pick-ups and drop-offs. We pull into one as if entering the pits at Daytona, idling only long enough for the next shift of passengers to hop in. Then we peel out again. Our driver is paid for how many fares he collects, creating the perverse incentive to race between stops when his cab is full or to interminably wait until it is. The only speed limits are those imposed by congestion.
This is what rush hour in Manila looks like: a Mad Max-style ride down Fury Road aboard vehicles with names like “Cold Fusion” and “Soldier of Fortune.” First hacked together more than 70 years ago and manufactured nowhere else outside the Philippines, the ageless, endlessly patched jeepney is both an icon of national ingenuity and testament to its utterly dysfunctional public transportation. Filipinos affectionately refer to them as the “Kings of the Road,” with a mixture of pride and eye-rolling resignation. Nearly half of the capital’s residents take one of its 45,000 jeepneys to work each day, more than double the number riding the city’s buses and trains. Yet it’s virtually impossible to cross the megacity riding just one; a typical commute involves some combination of the three.
But today, Metro Manila has a booming economy and a surging population—the supercity has added 6 million residents since 2000, for a total of more than 24 million. At the same time, middle-class Filipinos are fleeing jeepneys for a quiet, air-conditioned drive in their own vehicles. Cars presently account for less than a third of all passengers on Manila’s roads, but comprise nearly three-quarters of traffic. New car sales have nearly doubled in just the last three years.
The result is the world’s worst congestion, according to 50 million users of the driving app Waze. The average resident’s commute is 45 minutes each way—compared to 35 minutes for traffic-weary Los Angeles—stretching to several hours for those unlucky enough to be traveling from suburbs in the north to the city’s main business districts in the south. (Metro Manila is actually comprised of 17 separate cities; the modern city is squeezed between a lake and the sea, funneling nearly all traffic between the suburbs in the north and offices in the south.)
Solving Manila’s gridlock was a recurring theme in the debates leading up to the May 9 presidential election. Candidates’ plans ranged from building more roads to adding more trains to raising taxes on second or third cars, and a few proposed more extreme measures: One suggested building a new capital just to ease traffic for government employees. Lawmakers regularly call for “decongesting the city,” which in practical terms would mean expelling thousands or even millions of residents to the countryside. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to devolve power to the provinces from “imperial Manila,” likely fueling such talk.
The megacity is already threatening to come apart at the seams. What’s the alternative? Metro Manila has just broken ground on its fourth train, running along the Avenue of Death, but that won’t be up and running until 2020 at the earliest. Manila’s first high-speed bus route was approved in December. Both are too little, too late. Could a cleaner, safer, connected—and maybe even electric—jeepney be the answer instead?
May 02, 2016 | permalink
While at Fordham University last month as the Distinguished Visitor to the Urban Studies program, WFUV’s George Bodarky interviewed me for his weekly Cityscape program on Jane Jacobs’ legacy a century after her birth on May 4. I couldn’t embed the audio, but please click through for a listen. Here’s the program description:
Imagine running a highway through Washington Square Park. That could have happened. Urban planner Robert Moses put the idea on the table in the 1950s. But, then Jane Jacobs intervened. The urbanist and activist led the successful fight against the four-lane highway, as well as other Robert Moses’ projects. Jacobs was opposed to the kind of city planning that involves big development and urban renewal projects that tear down old communities. She’s best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs’ ideas have often been met with criticism from developers and city planners. But, a lot of planning experts agree that her work helped to shape modern thinking about Jane Jacobs would have turned 100 on May 4th. Several activities are planned in New York City and beyond this month to celebrate her life and legacy, including an event called Jane’s Walk. On this edition of Cityscape, we’re exploring the life and legacy of Jane Jacobs.
April 22, 2016 | permalink
Last week, I had the honor and privilege of spending the week in residence at Fordham University’s urban studies program as the 2016 Distinguished Visitor. In addition to lecturing about mega-urbanization, connected mobility, and “latino urbanism,” I also co-starred in a public conversation with New York University’s Bill Easterly and longtime Municipal Art Society officer Mary Rowe on Jane Jacobs’ legacy a century after her birth.
Jacobs would have turned 100 on May 4, and in addition to the worldwide Jane’s Walks happening the weekend of May 6-8, the anniversary has inspired symposia and events around the world. We spoke for an hour about her influence on economics, human development, complexity science, and other fields that have learned painful lessons from privileging top-down planning over local information.
The complete audio from our discussion is embedded above. The Fordham News also briefly covered our event in a larger discussion of Jacobs’ legacy vis-a-vis her nearly mythical rival, Robert Moses:
In the 1960s, Moses eventually met his match in Jacobs, a community organizer and intellectual who halted his effort to create the Lower Manhattan Expressway through Greenwich Village and SoHo. In Life and Death, Jacobs famously wrote of the “ballet of the street” and “eyes on the sidewalk” which espoused street-level knowledge over Moses’ mile-high view of the city.
Jacobs won and SoHo developed—as she had predicted—in organic and sometimes surprising ways, said New York University Professor of Economics William Easterly, PhD.easterly quote
“Jacobs was saying ‘The locals know best, we don’t know how, but somehow they’ll figure out how to make this neighborhood prosper,’” Easterly said.
And as Jacobs was rallying against Moses’ project, artists inspired by influential painter Jackson Pollock were filtering into the area, renovating large loft spaces in which to exhibit their giant canvases. “She didn’t even realize herself at the time that art galleries were moving into SoHo, and that was the beginning of what led to the revival of the area.”
One key benefit of the Moses-Jacobs conflict, said Wakeman, was the creation in the 1960s of community planning boards that give voice to neighborhoods’ concerns over issues such as new construction.
“Jacobs and others like her have created an entirely new fabric for community-based planning,” she said. “Communities came to understand themselves in reaction to Robert Moses, and today we have a far more extensive vocabulary for imagining urban renewal.”
Colin Cathcart, associate professor of architecture, said it would be reductive to portray all of Moses’ contributions as negative.
“There were plenty of bad things that Moses lent his name to but there was also a massive increase in the housing units, access to parks, transportation connectivity, and investment in public works on his watch—and jobs,” he said. “It’s that investment that New York is coasting on even today.”
As for Jacobs? “Her legacy is also being seized upon by proper scientists who have lots of mathematical formulas she never had,” said Greg Lindsay, senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation and Fordham’s 2016 Urban Studies Distinguished Visitor.
Lindsay expressed a concern, however, for “smart city rhetoric” that obscures the reality of services like Uber—which he said is be convenient but which also avoids taxes that would fund public transportation. Services like it are only available to those with a smart phone and a bankcard, he said, thus doing a disservice to Jacobs’ community-based, inclusive legacy.
“If you don’t have those [devices], you don’t have access to the city around you,” he said. “So the worry today is not Robert Moses; it’s the information systems that privilege such access.”
April 18, 2016 | permalink
I’m not ashamed to say that winning Bruce Sterling’s approval for my interview with the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative counts as a career highlight. “We all have to a better job about thinking weirder,” I said. To which he replied on his Wired blog: “Let me opine that this guy is doing a pretty good job along that line.”
(For the non-geeks out there: Sterling is one of the founding fathers of cyberpunk, the co-creator of steampunk, the instigator of the Dead Media Project and Viridian Design Movement, and one of the smartest, funniest people you’ll ever meet.)
April 15, 2016 | permalink
The Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s Strategic Foresight Initiative — where I’m fortunate to be a non-resident senior fellow — interviewed me for my take on the future. Their questions and my answers are below.
What got you interested in looking at technology trends?
We live in a time when technology corporations have more agency than any other nonstate actor — and they’ll even rise to challenge states, as we’ve recently seen in the legal struggle between the FBI and Apple. Starting with the rise of the “California Ideology” in the 1970s, we’ve seen Silicon Valley’s determination to shape policy while hiding behind the supposed inevitability of technological progress. For example, Google reassures users with its credo “Don’t be evil,” while it spends more money on Congressional lobbying than ExxonMobil. Google also created Jigsaw, a self-described “technology incubator that aims to tackle the toughest geopolitical issues,” run by former US State Department official Jared Cohen. Technology on its own doesn’t create the future, but technology companies with tens of billions of dollars in cash have a bigger voice than almost anyone else.
What are the technologies you are following in this field? Why?
I’m most interested in “real-world” social network analysis, i.e. mapping, understanding, and intervening in relationships located in a specific place and time. We’ve done a fantastic job of building global social media networks that are frequently more compelling than the person we’re standing next to. I think that’s a wasted opportunity. Work by the MIT Media Lab’s Sandy Pentland and others have demonstrated how much information hides in communication and idea flows between people, and how that information contains scarily accurate predictive power. I’ve talked informally with folks at West Point, the New America, and very large companies about how to apply these techniques in the office, in cities, and in vulnerable communities — to identify potential collaborators and alliances, not just threats.
What do you think a day in the office in 2030 looks like?
Which office? I don’t think anyone will work from a single office by then. If you’re a cloudworker below the application program interface (API), you’ll work from anywhere you can afford — at home, at McDonald’s, at a long ago big box store — bidding on digital piecework farmed out and stitched together by AI middle managers when they aren’t busy surveilling you using all sort of quantified self-measures. Even if you’re fortunate enough to be a full-time employee, you’ll voluntarily submit to unprecedented levels of workplace surveillance, because it makes you more productive and creative — your data exhaust will help your employers more effectively milk ideas from you. I think we’ll also see the rise of ad hoc micro-firms that incorporate for a project and dissolve after only a few weeks. I hope many of these are worker cooperatives and other alternatives to the classic corporation, but if current political trends continue, we’re going to see the same trends in the workplace that we already do in tech and finance — a frenzy to frack every last bit of value out of people by accelerating the tempo to superhuman speeds.
How will we be moving and using transport in 2030?
Increasingly on foot, I hope. In all seriousness, I hope the trend to ban motor vehicles in city centers for at least one day a week (as in Paris) continues to pick up speed. Everywhere else, we can expect to continue riding in wheeled vehicles — hopefully electric, powered by renewables — of various sizes, from bicycles to trains. And I think it’s fair to say autonomous vehicles will be on the market, still in the upward slope of their adoption curve. The big question is who will orchestrate our urban transportation systems, and for whom? I’d like to think public transport agencies will transform from train and bus operators into “mobility-as-a-service” managers who set the rules and the strategy for safer, more equitable, more accessible transit. But it’s likelier (given the conditions I’ve described above) that someone like Uber or Didi Kuaidi or Google will first build a parallel autonomous transportation system made of private vehicles and then eventually subsume what remains of the public networks. It’s the General Motors streetcar conspiracy all over again, this time with algorithms.
What do policymakers need to get right today for this technology or suite of technologies to take off? What questions should they ask that they aren’t asking?
The biggest one is how long the current data regime can go on. “If the service is free, the product is you.” That’s the logic Google, Facebook, Uber and others are built on, and it’s increasingly absurd and counter-productive. Uber constantly collects data from its drivers whether they’re currently working for the service or not. Facebook demands a license to literally anything created for the Oculus Rift — imagine Apple demanding a license to these words, typed on my Macbook. And it’s barely a stretch to imagine that very soon, we will not legally own our cars or our homes or anything else with enough software to qualify for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, in which case we are merely granted a license subject to the whims of the company that issued it. We need an alternative, whether that means owning our data and licensing it as we see fit for services, or some sort of data commons, or preferably an ability to opt in or out in varying degrees altogether.
What are trend-watchers for this field overlooking?
I recently had the chance to ask National Intelligence Council Chairman Dr. Gregory F. Treverton why the intelligence community had so much trouble being sufficiently weird in its forecasts — the world is a weird place, of course, and getting weirder. His reply, in so many words, is that it’s not exactly a culture that prizes weird personalities. We all have to do a better job of thinking weirder, myself included.
What keeps you up at night?
Wondering which Antarctic ice shelf just fell into the ocean. Rising sea levels is no longer the twenty-second century’s problem; it’s ours. Will we be forced to abandon coastal megacities? Will we manage to wall them off, or float them? The answer is probably “all of the above,” with the wealthiest districts of the wealthiest cities deploying some mix of technological and infrastructural fixes while the rest are submerged. We can only begin to guess at the knock-on effects. It recently occurred to me that the value of my (fated-to-be-flooded?) New York City apartment may just fall to zero in my child’s lifetime. Given the wealth and generational savings embodied in urban real estate, what happens to people’s prospects if that wealth is fatally submerged? What does that do to financial markets?
Top 3 recommended viewing/reading
Having just finished published a paper on “Smart Homes and the Internet of Things” for the Cyber Statecraft Initiative here at the Council, I found Bruce Sterling’s long essay/short e-book The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things to be the best primer on the subject. Tom Slee’s What’s Yours Is Mine is a much-needed antidote to the uncritical thinking around the so-called “sharing economy,” and the scariest thing I’ve read recently is Benjamin H. Bratton’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, which does a magnificent job at tracing the techno-political implications of planetary-scale computing.
April 07, 2016 | permalink
Last month, during the New York International Auto Show, I hosted a press breakfast to kick off Messe Frankfurt’s forthcoming “Connected Mobility” event series. (Messe Frankfurt produces both the Frankfurt Auto Show and the Automechanika shows for the automotive aftermarket.) In addition to my opening remarks, we were fortunate to have AutonomouStuff’s chief learning officer Guy Fraker deliver a short keynote, followed by presentations and a panel discussion with RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser and Dash CTO Brian Langel. Here’s my recap of the event:
The speakers approached the impending arrival of autonomous vehicles from a number of perspectives. Moderator Greg Lindsay began his presentation by underscoring the fact that autonomous cars are not a new idea; they were introduced by General Motors in its “Futurama” pavilion at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. He also listed the trends in mobility shaping the development of autonomous vehicles – including car-sharing, ride-sharing, and “mobility-as-a-service” – and concluded by asking whether the introduction of autonomous features will lead to radical changes in vehicle design, perhaps to the point where they resemble buildings. Keynote speaker Guy Fraker drew parallels between the present and the automotive industry of a century ago, when a confluence of vehicle design, the invention of the assembly line, and the advent of widespread consumer credit made the creation, production, and purchase of millions of automobiles possible. He asked what it will take to create such a moment again, when autonomous vehicles have the potential to upend traditional insurance, tap millions of elderly or disabled potential buyers who cannot legally drive a car themselves, and transform what it means to go from A to B. “We have to decide we want from mobility,” he said. “Because right now, we have the technology to build it.” RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser followed Fraker, arguing we will one day purchase “mobility plans” just as we sign contracts with mobile telephony carrier today. And Dash co-founder and CTO Brian Langel concluded the presentation portion of the program by exploring the implications of the “automotive graph,” i.e. how our attitudes toward our vehicles will change when their performance is easily understood and accessible from our phones.
April 06, 2016 | permalink
My friend John McDermott quotes me in his story for MEL about the scourge of wearing headphones at work:
Greg Lindsay — author of the forthcoming book Engineering Serendipity about designing spaces and cities that encourage innovation — blames the “headphones at work” scourge on the popularity of the open office plan. But now the trend has gone too far, he says. Corporations are using the cachet of an open office as an excuse to cut costs and cram everyone into a confined space “regardless of role, function or work style. In many cases, there’s not much nuance to it.”
Indeed, “the amount of space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010,” Susan Cain writes in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The results, according to Lindsay: “Headphones are the new cubicle walls” — a signal the wearer isn’t to be disturbed. And they might be a necessity for introverts, who might feel particularly challenged by a noisy, open-planned office, as demonstrated by the famous “Geen study” Cain references in her book.
In 1984, researchers at the University of Missouri (led by Russell G. Green), challenged a group of extroverts and introverts to learn the rules of a word game while wearing “headphones that emitted random bursts of noise.” When asked to adjust the noise to a level that was “just right” for them, the extroverts chose a noise level almost 20 decibels higher than the introverts (and ended up playing the game equally well). But when the introverts and extroverts switched noise levels, both groups underperformed, but especially the introverts.
Rather than just give everyone their own pair of noise-canceling headphones to curate the audio environment that works for them, a better, more collaborative solution is to design an office that includes different environments with specific functions — for casual collaboration, an open floor with rows of desks; soundproof conference rooms for small group meetings; and private nooks for intense solo work.
Or your colleagues can find the right balance between productive chitchat and being annoying AF.
“The real answer is an office culture where people don’t feel compelled to annoy you at any moment, so you keep the headphones off,” Lindsay says.
Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, 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 New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative — a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute.
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