Welcome to another annual edition of recommendations for your spooky Christmas needs. (Click here to skip right to the reviews.)
Last year I mentioned the few contemporary remnants of the Victorian-era love of wintertime ghosts, but the linkage between short, dark days and the urge for flesh-tingling storytelling goes back a lot further than that. Shakespeare in A Winter’s Tale (1611) notes “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one. Of sprites and goblins.” Yule logs, mistletoe, the Christmas tree itself — all pre-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice, symbols of a time for gathering in a space where you could only see to the limit of a fire’s flame. And what to do around this fire, huddled close? Tale-telling, naturally. Those tales, as the setting rather begs, historically have been about ghosts and other haunts. This tradition wound its way into Christianity and the modern era, as Colin Fleming notes as a series of
… readings for the season—but not really of the season … a rather more pleasing terror—the ghosts, even when they mean to avenge themselves upon us, also seem to have dipped into the nog a time or two, with their own playfulness in evidence. Sure, they can kill you, but they do so with a joke or two at the ready. These are the short days of the year, and a weird admixture of pagan habits and grand religiosity obtains. There is also booze. People didn’t have TVs: people drank, people got to telling tales, someone told a tale and someone tried to tell a bigger one, and then, lo, we got a whole ghost story Christmas tradition.
Holiday ghosts were fading away by the early 19th century until Charles Dickens famously brought them back as time-traveling tour guides in a grand morality tale. A Christmas Carol is the last major vestige — a tomb marker, if you will — of a tradition that was far weirder and scarier than any of Dickens’ four ghosts. And yet, A Christmas Carol is part of the cultural atmosphere of Christmas, there even when it isn’t in the foreground: scrooge-as-a-verb, being shown how behavior can spawn multiple timelines, the inspiration for the Grinch, and countless adaptations (including this year’s Spirited with Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell — worth a watch). It’s embedded in our childhood psyche in a way unlike any Halloween ghost story.
Here’s my personal proof. Christmas Day, 1982. My siblings and cousins retreat to the basement to create our own adaptation of Dickens’ classic. It was the dawn of VHS cameras, the noonday of wood-paneled suburban decor, and the dusk of my short career as a playwright. This grainy, budget-less masterwork, a Christmas gift to you, will likely be the most disturbing thing you watch as a result of this newsletter.
You may think that Halloween has the monopoly on horror media, but it isn’t even close (at least in the USA). There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of Christmas-themed horror movies from barely watchable home movies (ahem) to legit masterpieces — the true legacy of those bards of yore and their campfire frights. Let me tell you about some.
Friends! I turn 50 years old on August 4. I’ll pause for old person jokes, but please speak up.
50 is an arbitrary milestone, sure, but I got myself a pretty great gift and I’d like to tell you about it. August 4 will mark 1,000 days since I gave up alcohol. It’s been the best thousand days of my life overlaid right on some of the worst thousand days we’ve had as a human species (battling a virus species). That this sobriety milestone happens on my 50th birthday is a coincidence. But maybe there’s no such thing as a coincidence?
The story of my road to sobriety is a long one, one I am happy to share at length with anyone — especially those whose relationship with alcohol is unhealthy. Here’s the short version: I accepted that I had a problem with alcohol — let’s call it what it is without stigma: alcoholism — just after Halloween 2019. Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year and also my son’s birthday. So, naturally, a terrible time to crater. But crater I did, which was exactly what I needed. Went away for help for quite a while … and then the pandemic happened and I came home to a new life. The world was in lockdown, but I felt fully unlocked. It was especially eye-opening time, those early days of sobriety, when the world itself was coming to terms with the lessons of recovery: re-connecting with simple life-affirming things, not projecting too far into an unknowable future, living one day at a time and chalking those single days as victories. It was as if all of society for a brief period was supporting my own early, delicate recovery.
It’s no longer early; it’ll always be delicate I suspect. So’s life. But each day is a great day and that feels better than any buzz ever did. Not gonna name names, but I have received a lot of help and love from family, friends, and then-strangers in this journey. You know who you are and you know how much I appreciate you.
To alcohol I say, no hard feelings. We just didn’t work out, you and I, when I realized I didn’t love you. Totally cool with your relationship with others. Best of luck!
So, yeah, one day at a time adds up. Sometimes it adds up to 50 years (thanks Mom and Dad!); sometimes it adds up to 1,000 days of clean living. I intend to keep adding.
Why am I telling you this before my actual birthday? Because I got myself another gift: this fundraiser for a cause very close to my heart.
The Marhaver Lab — run by marine biologist, science communicator, Georgia Tech grad, and friend Kristen Marhaver — is a research outpost based in Curaçao in the southern Caribbean. The work of Marhaver Lab is aimed squarely at helping solve the problem of declining biodiversity of the world’s coral reefs. This is critical work: coral reefs are foundational elements of our oceans’ larger ecology. When reefs thrive, fish populations thrive. When fish populations thrive, the planet (and humanity!) thrives.
I don’t think anyone gives gifts for a person turning 50, but if you’re so inclined your support of Marhaver Lab would mean a lot to me. More information and tax-deductible donations accepted here.
Thanks for reading! Hope you can donate. On to the next day, with gratitude!
Hello friends! Last year when the lockdown started, I watched a lot of movies. Most of these were what’s considered horror or closely adjacent to it. I wrote about almost everything I watched (and why I think it was as much an immune response to the pandemic as antibodies).
That long post, though, was the summation of months’ worth of biweekly emails sent among friends just sharing recommendations and thoughts on movies we were watching. I loved writing those and was kinda sad when we wound it all down.
Welp, we’re not out of the pandemic and I’m not done sharing short thoughts on horror via email. Like any good monster, the reviews are back, undead. Also like any good monster, you never quite know when it will appear (OK, fine: never more than weekly). Sign up at Buttondown or below. (Need a preview?)
Cityfi? Like Wi-Fi? Or like … unify? Is it a thing or an action? I’m here to tell you it’s a verb. Everything about the work Cityfi does is about motion, progress, and change. So here’s a little update on my movement, as I take leave from this small but mighty company.
July 2016, Before Times: my family and I had just arrived in Denver after a cross-country relocation. It was a fresh start geographically but also professionally. With my friend and former colleague at the City of Chicago, Gabe Klein, we started a new company with the amazing Ashley Hand. It was the birth of the urban change management consultancy Cityfi.
Our hunch that both the public and private sectors could use guidance navigating the rapidly-evolving realms of urban mobility, data analytics and privacy, equitable services, and climate change resiliency (to name just a few) was proven correct. We were off to the races and working with great clients all across the country and globe.
Cityfi is stronger than ever now, coming up on five years in. With the addition of partner Story Bellows and some amazing senior staff, we’ve created a first rate team, a portfolio of work, and most importantly a reputation for responsive, thorough consultancy that seems to be needed more than ever.
There’s never a great time to move on from something you love. (I know this; I left Chicago … just as the Cubs were about to win the World Series.) But now’s my time to step forward from Cityfi.
Obviously this has been a past year of change and uncertainty, but for me the relative slowdown of life — limited physical interaction and travel, whittled-down life patterns — has brought what I think is clarity of purpose, or at least time to listen with less background noise. The signal coming through isn’t completely decoded, but I’ll let you know what it says when it is.
For now, I have a class to teach and a brand new smart cities certificate to help manage at the University of Colorado Denver (as, ahem, a scholar in residence). I remain involved locally as the board chair of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance (an early Cityfi initiative and one of which I am most proud).
While that pride exists for a lot of what we built at Cityfi and I’m confident that its future is bright, the main emotion I feel is gratitude. I am not sure I could have made the transition to a new life in Colorado without the support of my partners. For that I am immensely grateful.
Lastly, deep thanks to the clients, associates, and affiliates who made these past years of work engaging and meaningful. Thank you all for treating Cityfi as a verb. Here’s to your continued movement — healthy, happy, and ever-forward.
I’m a coral nerd and an unrepentant adult fan of LEGO bricks, so I figured why not attempt a completely instruction-free build of a squishy, curvaceous reef out of hard plastic 90° angles.
Certainly I get the irony of making a model of corals from non-biodegradable plastics, but maybe that’s the point (and part of the point of keeping a huge tank of actual corals): the need to create a microcosm of something that’s rapidly disappearing seems more urgent, even if it’s only a creative pastime.
And what a pastime it was. Early on in my musings of how to do this I realized there was no way I could find the bricks I thought I needed just sorting through the 100,000+ loose bricks in the dozens of tubs and bags they were randomly collected in. This launched an effort at organization and general de-crufting that deferred the actual reef project for months.
The sorting itself was, in a way, part of the design process. Touching every single brick we own (in every possible orientation, decontextualized from its originally-intended purpose) gave me a millisecond per brick to consider how it might be used to simulate the crazy shapes that reefs take.
And that was the real challenge; there’s nothing rectilinear about coral. If it isn’t a swaying mass of tentacles, polyps, and pulsing mouths it’s a bleached Iron Throne of jagged, fractal CaCO3. I took a lot of inspiration from techniques for making botanical models (plants, flowers, etc) but also from the advanced facade decorations included in LEGO modular architecture sets. Basically, I catalogued as many of the ways of getting bricks to assume odd or semi-random angles while still being affixed to one another. Didn’t hurt that I could just stare at my own tank of beasties for inspiration when I got stuck.
There is an actual LEGO coral brick, but I ended up not using it much as it’s really a distillation of what we generically think coral looks like. In the end it was far more fun to repurpose minifig hairpieces, radar dishes, trumpets, chalices, carrots and ice cream scoops. Mounting all that was mostly an exercise in SNOT (“studs not on top”) design, using nearly every brick made specifically for that purpose and a ton of techniques culled from the LEGO nerdweb.
There’s a lot going on in this ecosystem. The main subdivisions left-to-right are a vibrant reef section, the marine science and bleached reef middle section, and the “all the things on the seafloor” section which includes a shipwreck, hydrothermal vent, and whale fall. Other items include a transoceanic fiber cable (with repair technician attempting to bring broadband to your continent), wreckage from Oceanic Flight 815, Aquaman fighting Black Manta, a couple shy mermaids, the Antikythera Mechanism, a diver as skeletonized as the whale, human trash in the bleached patch (including an actual broken piece of ABS LEGO plastic), and a steampunk Diver Dan. See if you can find them all. (Here’s the full set of photos at Flickr.)
It’s all now mounted on a lower shelf in my home library, part of a larger cityscape and sea. The ocean surface needs a lot of work, but for now I’m going to turn to the relative comfort and trance-like ease of building a set with actual instructions. Freeform and organic is a lot of work, you know?
A few months ago I embarked on the Sisyphean task of organizing the LEGO collection in our house. I mean, let’s be truthful: it’s my collection, but my children have historically been the happy recipients of sets that I have ultimately folded into the larger pile of bricks over time. And what a long time it has been collecting, disassembling, and pretty consistently enjoying this big mess of ABS plastic.
My first memory of a LEGO set is the Galaxy Explorer from 1979 (which I rebuilt a few years ago). Since then I’ve never consciously thrown any bricks out, though certainly some have been lost and many have been broken. Using weight as a rough approximation for quantity we have well over 55,000 loose LEGO pieces. (Closer to 100,000 if you count pieces actually residing in built sets and MOCs.)
The actual sorting through all that has been fascinating and therapeutic, equal parts mind-numbingly meditative and joyful. But perhaps the most interesting part of this whole process has been sifting out all the junk in the bins that is not LEGO. And there was a lot of it, specifically 8.325 lbs of accumulated detritus of my youth (with some pieces from my kids’ younger days too). Sieving through it was a kind of autobiographical archaeology, a forensics of youthful amusement.
Inspired by Amsterdam’s dredging of a few canals to install a new subway line where they uncovered and displayed centuries of things from everyday life, I thought I’d lay out a small selection of the non-LEGO trove here. It’s an incomplete picture of how I grew up, but a picture just the same.
- metal Gatorade cap from when it was sold in glass bottles
- Native American arrowhead from a felt display box I had from a trip out west — easily my favorite find
- Ace of Spades, mutilated
- Playmobil figures, many balding as I am
- Little Green Men and various figurines of people shooting things
- Play-Doh container cap
- hair barrette and tie (my sister’s)
- toy rings
- magnetic refrigerator letters
- spent toy gun caps
- all manner of broken LEGO
- counterfeit LEGO
- game pieces — I think The Dark Tower is in here, loved that game (which is coming back!)
- puzzle pieces
- hockey playing card — of note, I never followed hockey in my youth
- air hockey puck — also of note, we did not own an air hockey table
- lip gloss — possibly mine, probably my sister’s
- marbles and bouncy balls
- pennies with a lot of verdigris
- tickets (likely from Showbiz Pizza)
- a Paris Metro ticket (huh?)
- cassette tape labels — used, naturally!
- note fragment in what I think is my sister’s handwriting: “Adolescn .. any perio … tends to b … by a group”
- embossed label strip — loved those things
- post-it note w/ scrawl — looks like testing a marker
- a Toys ‘R’ Us tag for $29.99 — wonder what that was?
- various stickers
- a thimble
- lotta crayons and writing implements
- Matchbox car and USAF Blackbird
- toy monorail — transit, baby!
- Nerf dart
- a magnet that has pulled together random metal bits
- an Enter key
- a half-gnawed pretzel stick, easily 30+ years old
- part of a in-ear headphone
- other unidentifiable cruft
Not exactly panning for gold, but there’s definitely a Toy Story-esque nostalgia at play. Literally play, which is the only consistent throughline with all this junk. My youth was certainly filled with electronic gadgets, video games, and computers — but none (or very few) of those have lasted. What remains in this re-assambled time capsule are the simpler items, perhaps the best items. A collection of fragments shored against, if not ruin, then the ruinous loss of innocence. I’m not throwing any of this away.
Last year, as Chicago settled into a colorless, lifeless winter freeze, I decided to take up Scuba diving seriously. Maybe it was escapism, envisioning myself floating above tropical reefs, the very opposite of the blizzardscape outside.
There were other reasons for diving into an expensive hobby I had basically no time for. I suppose I’d finally come to terms with the fact that I would never actually be an astronaut. Diving seemed like a compromise. The sea’s a fairly alien world, as unmapped as the moon, and if you get your buoyancy right diving is about as close to flying (or bouncing around in microgravity) that I was ever going to get.
It wasn’t completely out of the blue. I’d maintained a saltwater reef tank for about three years and had a more than beginner’s understanding of the complexity and beauty of marine ecosystems. Part garden, part science fair project, part sea creature death match arena: my reef tank was the gateway drug to Scuba. I was no longer content to sit outside the glass.
I knew going in I wasn’t interested in great depth. Not so fired up about shipwrecks. No desire whatsoever to jump through an ice hole or into mazy caves. I wanted coral reefs with all their bottom-up symbiosis and toxin-spewing brutality, exotic colors and improbable shapes, undulating tentacles and ship-slicing skeletons.
Through luck, vacation time, and some trips tacked on to work travel I actually got to experience quite a bit this year: a sub-tropical way-stop of the East Australian Current at the tip of northern New Zealand; cliff-clinging life off the Amalfi Coast in Italy; the Crayola box coral gardens off Cozumel, Mexico; the mind-bending diversity of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia; and the playground of endemic species in Hawaii. Even did a wreck dive in the chilly but crystal clear waters (thanks, invasive mussels!) of Lake Michigan. Here’s a map.
There’s no way to make sweeping statements about the health of coral reefs with as (relatively) few dives as I made this year, despite the somewhat globe-spanning locales. But it certainly is true that reefs, like rainforests, are the coal mine canaries of climate change. I have personally wiped out entire ecosystems in my aquarium with two degree temperature changes. The ocean, of course, is far more resilient than a tiny tank, but it is clear that wild reefs themselves are under stress. We’re in only the third coral bleaching event in history and, while I saw some of the world’s best (and healthiest) coral, there was death and decay all around.
It’s a wonderful world under the waves. Here’s hoping you get a chance to peek under them too sometime.
(The photos in this post link to larger versions which get you to fuller galleries. And if you’re interested, dive log details are available by clicking the place name in the photo caption.)
We’re in the market for some help. If you fit the description below or know someone who does, please get in touch.
Busy Roscoe Village family seeks energetic, experienced, self-directed full-time house manager.
Individual should be a non-smoker, have own transportation and mobile device, and be comfortable with email, texting, and web-based services (e.g., classroom websites, school lunch ordering, activity registration) necessary to run this active family. Three children, ages 8, 11, and 13, are in school full-time M-F, but need after school care. Full-time working parents need help managing the house.
Flexibility to run errands, willingness to perform light housekeeping and organize small projects, and ability to maintain active extra-curricular schedules for the kids are a must. 40-45 hours/week, split between time with children (school dismisses 3p, most days) and time to help around the house and run errands.
Daily hours have flexible start time, and parents cover “morning shift” most days. Ability to work longer hours or overnight when both parents are traveling, or entire days (when school is out, or kids are sick) is optimal.
If you fit this description, are available immediately, and can provide strong references we look forward to hearing from you!
A few notes on rebuilding my first LEGO set from 1979.
I set out to build the iconic, genre-defining LEGO Galaxy Explorer. I knew I had the original pieces as I have every brick I was ever given, bought, or bought for my own kids. There are tens of thousands of pieces in several bins full of 35 years of detritus that inadvertantly got mixed into the slurry. Batteries from the 1980’s (long since having leaked their acid), various mementos, trash, thumbtacks, model pieces, indecipherable bits of toys and games, sharp shards of pieces long since stepped-on and cracked. Finding the original bricks was part autobiographical archaeology, part that Russian Roulette scene with the log creature in Flash Gordon.
The LEGO Galaxy Explorer jumpstarted the “Classic” phase of space-themed brick sets. Before dueling factions, before space police, before aliens and whatever the hell Bionicle was, Classic Space was about exploration, period. It’s interesting to read the set as a kind of cultural document for the vision (perhaps a Danish vision) of what spaceflight was or could be in the late 70’s.
Apollo was over. Skylab had just plummeted back to Earth. Salyut 6 still orbited. And the Space Shuttle was in testing for its maiden voyage. Clearly the shuttle was an influence on the Galaxy Explorer: both have fixed wings and separate crew and cargo compartments. But exploring the design of the brick ship suggests that the new NASA orbiter was not its only inspiration.
The Galaxy Explorer is the threesome lovechild of a Space Shuttle, a dump truck and a Harrier jet. How else would you explain the loading ramp in the back which really only works in gravity where you can cart things up? Or that, without wheels, the ship clearly does not take off like a plane. The underside engines are obviously for vertical ascent. And if you got those, why do you need wings at all?
The answer is what makes LEGO such an incredible company: the design of the ship is as influenced by how human beings play with interlocking bricks as it is by actual spaceships. It’s the difference between LEGO and model kits. For one, kids play with LEGO bricks in an environment with gravity. They might fly the ship in their hand through the air, but actually interacting with it takes place on some surface, orbital mechanics be damned. This explains the loading ramp (kid drives LEGO car around on a surface and into the ship) and the vertical take off (kid grabs the ship and yanks it up), and even the wings (that’s how the kid holds it). It’s a very planet-based (or at least surface-based) view of space travel, because that’s how (and where) kids play.
Play as primary design driver is evident in an odd little locking piece that keeps the cargo bay doors from flying open. It is one of the rare instances I know of where a piece is added simply for convenience of real-world usage. The 1×2 flat blue piece has no aesthetic or functional value on the ship-as-ship, only for ship-as-plaything. Take that, fourth wall!
Then there’s the ornamental, gaudy and inexplicable: racing stripes (huh?), logos, vents, fuselage arrows (for ground crews?) and livery numbers. No decals, thankfully. The whole thing was driven by an actual circular steering wheel (something even airplanes don’t use). Maybe the ship never did leave the ground: the minifigs have visor-less helmets and zero protection from the (lack of) elements other than their spacesuits.
It’s the color scheme, though, that defines Classic Space for me. Gray base plates and horizontal surfaces, blue structural elements, translucent yellow windows. Toss in a few computer bricks (oh, the computer brick!), a radar dish, and some green and red see-through 1×3 cylinders — that aesthetic shaped my LEGO creations for the better part of a decade. (Green? There is no green in space.)
But there is yellow. As in yellowing pieces. Though I was fastidious in making sure I found ever single correct piece — never substituting or otherwise being clever — I obviously did not find all the original pieces. The slight yellowing (and relative state of cruft accumulation) on some of the bricks is a dead giveaway. I bet 30% of the ship is original. I kinda like it actually. The original Star Wars showed us how cool beaten-up, dusty and old space could be. My LEGO Galaxy Explorer wears the patina of time well.
If you’ve seen The LEGO Movie you have witnessed the legacy of the Explorer. The character Benny maniacally flies around yelling “Spaceship! Spaceship! Spaceship!” in a craft that is clearly inspired by the original set. It’s over-the-top, but retains the rough geometry, retro rockets, racing strips, and (maybe) the cargo bay. In a nod to dorks like me in the film, the actual spacesuited character is cracked and clearly worn through time.
Sometimes the future is nostalgia.
The city is the most complex machine ever invented. Running optimally the city generates opportunity and provides a platform for interaction, ideas, and improvement. As a concept the city has been iterated-upon, smashed and burnt to the ground, rebuilt, deliberately-designed, haphazardly-organized, and generally resilient for many millennia. But the city is still a human invention and every single one is flawed, many horribly so.
Which makes cities the ultimate problem set. For the engineering-minded and entrepreneurial the challenge of cities has enticed since the first itinerant merchants decided that they were no longer itinerant. Cities for centuries have been the locus of commerce and the crucible of invention (often from necessity). Demographically, they are on a path to be called home to 70% of the world’s population by 2050. If you want a market — or are driven by the moral imperative of figuring out how to get that many people to live in relative harmony — cities are your platform.
And yet some of our most creative problem-solvers — entrepreneurs and technologists who invent the things that have changed our lives radically over the last decade — seem not to grasp what makes cities so dense with opportunity in the first place. There’s a disconnect between the culture of technology companies and what makes for smart urban policy.
Recently SPUR‘s Allison Arieff noted the ways that tech companies have enthusiastically co-opted the language of urbanism — “community”, “the commons”, “town halls”, etc — while not actually embracing any of what that means in the real world. “Why,” she asks, “are tech companies such bad urbanists?”
The answer is that suburbia is in the very DNA of Silicon Valley, which makes it part of the genome of tech culture writ large. Though many of the biggest companies in tech now are less than ten years old, Silicon Valley itself came to be during the boom of late-20th century car culture. (The garage itself is mythical in startup lore.) Anti-density land use, zoning laws that abet sprawl, work-life patterns fashioned around automobile commuting — these traits are as central to Silicon Valley as Stanford, libertarianism and foosball.
Tech headquarters in the Valley (and many other places) are built as simulacra of cities. Corporate campuses sport their own transit systems (some of which venture out into the city itself, altering socio-economics in their path), bike share systems, restaurants, and health clubs. Facebook’s HQ even has a faux downtown, something straight out of a 1980’s shopping mall design handbook. Unlike a mall, though, none of this is open to the public. While “community” may be the buzziest of words in tech parlance, this is community-as-facade, a highly engineered experience that still revolves around automobile commutes and forecloses true serendipity. It would be funny if it weren’t such a problem: For all their embrace of futurism, tech companies in the Valley are merely recapitulating the failures of a bygone age of suburbia.
And yet San Francisco is the preferred place to live for many of these employees. Which is great, except that their salaries — out of synch with the communities in which they live — generate an economic force that skews rents, forces evictions and creates class stratification driven almost entirely by corporations not located in the city. It’s the reverse of a bedroom community. Wealth drives people into cities while keeping the engines of that wealth outside the city.
But this is 2013, not 1960. Today’s tech companies are not stupid. They understand the benefits of the city from a business perspective. (Which is why Amazon, Twitter and Zappos are all building headquarters in the middle of cities.) It is where the talent lives, its many modes of transportation chime with companies’ commitment to the environment and employee health, and cities are very often the conceptual blueprint for social innovation on the web, as Arieff points out. But understanding the benefits of urban life and attempting to create them as self-contained units that simulate a city — as much of middle America did in the latter half of the 20th century with gated subdivisions, office parks, and shopping malls — are two very different things.
Which is more than odd; it’s contradictory. The web itself, fount of so much innovation in the tech world, is the network embodiment of density, diversity and proximity — precisely the characteristics of cities. The sidewalk was the original social network; the corner store the original just-in-time retailer; the town square the original blogging platform. Given this symbiosis one would think more of an effort would be made in tech circles to understand the precepts of urban design.
So how do we change this? What might we do to set the sights of our smartest technologists towards sustainable urban design?
A start would be to remind tech companies of one of their core principles: user-centered design. Understanding city life means living city life. Not just commuting to it or from it and certainly not believing you understand a person’s situation just because you pass him or her on the street from time to time. The best products are those that begin with a user’s motivation and needs. They are empathetic applications. To crack the nut of urban-scale opportunity — and there is a lot of it, just look at the “sharing economy” successes of Uber, Airbnb, and Zipcar — technology must be built amidst the same forces that create the problems it is trying to solve.
And those problems must be meaningful and relevant to cities, per se. Nine times out of ten the first image in an ad or a presentation on the subject of smart cities will be of a traffic jam — as if congestion were the number one problem facing the city. It’s a very suburban view of what an urban problem is.
Is the self-driving car really what our rapidly-urbanizing world needs? Every single one of our ballooning population in their own hermetic cocoons? That too is a suburban view of the problem, a moonshot to an uninhabitable moon.
Vibrant, safe public spaces; shared, multimodal streets; exemplary education systems that propel people from early childhood through post-secondary; affordable housing — these are the issues that make or break cities. Or, put another way, these are the problems worth solving because they are worth a lot. Yes, in economic terms. Venture capital is all about risk and return. That risk (and potential incredible reward) is splayed out in every city in America.
To read certain of the screeds against the city (and responses to Arieff’s column) you’d think no entrepreneur or developer was having any success tackling urban opportunities. But that’s simply not true. We can build upon the success of the work being done at the intersection of technology and urban design, right now.
For one, the whole realm of social enterprise — for-profit startups that seek to solve real social problems — has a huge overlap with urban issues. Impact Engine in Chicago, for instance, is an accelerator squarely focused on meaningful change and profitable businesses. One of their companies, Civic Artworks, has set as its goal rebalancing the community planning process.
The Code for America Accelerator and Tumml, both located in San Francisco, morph the concept of social innovation into civic/urban innovation. The companies nurtured by CfA and Tumml are filled with technologists and urbanists working together to create profitable businesses. Like WorkHands, a kind of LinkedIn for blue collar trades. Would something like this work outside a city? Maybe. Are its effects outsized and scale-ready in a city? Absolutely. That’s the opportunity in urban innovation.
Scale is what powers the sharing economy and it thrives because of the density and proximity of cities. In fact, shared resources at critical density is one of the only good definitions for what a city is. It’s natural that entrepreneurs have overlaid technology on this basic fact of urban life to amplify its effects. Would TaskRabbit, Hailo or LiquidSpace exist in suburbia? Probably, but their effects would be minuscule and investors would get restless. The city in this regard is the platform upon which sharing economy companies prosper. More importantly, companies like this change the way the city is used. It’s not urban planning, but it is urban (re)design and it makes a difference.
A twist that many in the tech sector who complain about cities often miss is that change in a city is not the same thing as change in city government. Obviously they are deeply intertwined; change is mighty hard when it is done at cross-purposes with government leadership. But it happens all the time. Non-government actors — foundations, non-profits, architecture and urban planning firms, real estate developers, construction companies — contribute massively to the shape and health of our cities.
Often this contribution is powered through policies of open data publication by municipal governments. Open data is the raw material of a city, the vital signs of what has happened there, what is happening right now, and the deep pool of patterns for what might happen next.
Kicked off by data.gov and data.gov.uk, the open data movement has been replicated in most major Western cities. There’s no doubt this data has been put to good use by people and organizations outside of government. Chicago’s ecosystem of “civic hackers”, for instance, is unparalleled, generating hundreds of applications and analyses that make the lives of Chicagoans better. School data, lobbyist data, foreclosure, zoning and land use data, health atlases, snowplow-tracking data, real-time transit data, incarceration data, food-borne illness data — all these sets have been usefully translated into applications that change the way the city is used.
Tech entrepreneurs would do well to look at the organizations and companies capitalizing on this data as the real change agents, not government itself. Even the data in many cases is generated outside government. Citizens often do the most interesting data-gathering, with tools like LocalData. The most exciting thing happening at the intersection of technology and cities today — what really makes them “smart” — is what is happening at the periphery of city government. It’s easy to belly-ache about government and certainly there are administrations that to do not make data public (or shut it down), but tech companies who are truly interested in city change should know that there are plenty of examples of how to start up and do it.
And yet, the somewhat staid world of architecture and urban-scale design presents the most opportunity to a tech community interested in real urban change. While technology obviously plays a role in urban planning — 3D visual design tools like Revit and mapping services like ArcGIS are foundational for all modern firms — data analytics as a serious input to design matters has only been used in specialized (mostly energy efficiency) scenarios. Where are the predictive analytics, the holistic models, the software-as-a-service providers for the brave new world of urban informatics and The Internet of Things? Technologists, it’s our move.
Something’s amiss When some city governments — rarely the vanguard in technological innovation — have more sophisticated tools for data-driven decision-making than the private sector firms who design the city. But some understand the opportunity. Vannevar Technology is working on it, as is Synthicity. There’s plenty of room for the most positive aspects of tech culture to remake the profession of urban planning itself. (Look to NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress and the University of Chicago’s Urban Center for Computation and Data for leadership in this space.)
And what about the built things themselves, actual physical architecture? Where is the technology that causes us to rethink our domiciles and places of work, recreation and worship in the ways we’ve remade communications, mobility, and manufacturing in the last decade? Where are the tools that make urban districts as responsive to changing uses as metal and glass have been made malleable by 3D design tools? Where, to put it most like a William Gibson novel, is the “architecture that flickers and buzzes like faulty neon, that is washed with intermittent static like a weak video signal”?
Architect Doris Sung, for example, has begun experimenting with materials that change shape based on external stimuli, much like human skin. And it’s not just materials science, but high technology as well: the increasing instrumentation of cities with sensors and actuators creates a literal platform for designing new experiences. This is what technology startups in particular are good at.
Scientists have a term called “positive suboptimality” which refers to the resilience of systems which are not specialized for a particular use (or which at least weather changes in external conditions without breaking). Most often this concept is used to describe how nature has evolved not with the fittest organisms but with those fit enough to survive changing conditions. Super-specialization means extinction.
It’s a concept that could usefully be applied to cities. Precisely the way cities fall short of perfection is what gives them resilience and opens up opportunity where none previously existed. What appears broken and yet persists in cities may simply be evidence of fault-tolerance, something all technologists strive for with their products.
Molly Turner nails why this so rubs some technologists the wrong way:
[T]ech innovators also like to work on a tabula raza, void of constraints, preconceived obstacles or even the benefit of institutional knowledge. And while sometimes that leads to genius strokes of ingenuity, other times it means unknowingly repeating mistakes of our urbanist past, such as becoming overly reliant on the wisdom of the crowd or failing to account for important social or cultural divides.
Understanding how cities bend but don’t break, understanding how they do indeed break, and understanding how much of where we live influences the solutions we try to fit to problems are the greatest lessons that tech can take from urbanism.
City officials are often asked “how do you turn this place into the next Silicon Valley”? Most smart folks in economic development answer by saying that they don’t want to. They want their city to capitalize on its own legacy, assets, work ethic and skills. For many years that statement was just politicking and boosterism. But it isn’t anymore. Cities are where the problems exist and where the talent is moving. It’s easy to see how this equation sums and time for tech culture to do the math.