Category Archives: The Future

Why Apple will make a car—and probably a lot more

CarPlay screen-1200-80

It has quickly become apparent that autonomous vehicles will change the way we move in the near future. Not only do they promise to give commuters precious hours of their day back, they could do away with the entire notion of car ownership. Cities, built today around automobiles, will reshape themselves to fit this new reality.

Car manufacturers see the writing on the wall, and they aren’t dragging their feet. Mercedes, Audi, Ford, and others have revealed that they’re developing technology to remove humans from the driving equation. Sensing an opening, outsiders want in, like Google, which has been kindling the self-driving fire for years. Even Apple is apparently interested, and that has a number of people asking, why? Currently, Apple doesn’t make anything bigger than a 27-inch all-in-one computer. A car is orders of magnitude larger and substantially more complex.

Some people speculate it’s because the next “screen” for a company to dominate is in the car, and if Apple wants to expand, they need to more aggressively court drivers (or rather, future passengers). Others say that because it is sitting on such a huge pile of cash—and several of its executives are obsessed with cars—why not? One person even thinks that Apple feels pressured because Google’s doing it.

There may be some truth in those hypotheses, but fundamentally, they’re all different degrees of wrong.¹ The one answer that explains it all is that Apple isn’t a computer company anymore. It’s a design firm, the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Back in 2007, Apple dropped the “Computer” from its name, becoming simply Apple, Inc. It happened the day the iPhone was announced and at the peak of the iPod era. Many argued that the company was simply acknowledging that as music became more important to the bottom line, they couldn’t keep calling themselves a computer company.² In reality, there may have been another reason, one that is more philosophical than tangible: The name change allowed them to focus on more than just computers.

In a way, Apple has always been a design firm, just one with a singular focus. Steve Jobs used to push people at Apple to “make a dent in the universe”. That’s how design firms think, not companies that just make computers. They consider a problem and try to devise the best solution. Computers are the solution to a set of problems, but they’re not a solution for all of them.

Few things are in greater need of a solution than transportation. Automobiles account for nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Collectively, Americans waste billions of hours a year stuck in gridlock. And by one estimate, parking spaces in the U.S. could occupy up to 24,000 square miles—as much as West Virginia. Extrapolate those numbers to a global scale and you quickly see why Apple might be compelled to put a dent in that universe.

Good design firms believe that they can not only find a solution to a problem, but that they can find the best solution to the problem. I think that Jony Ive and his team, despite their apparent modesty, honestly think that way. And for a long time, the transportation problem has been staring them in the face. Many on the team commute from San Francisco to Cupertino, and the traffic on that drive can be horrendous. While stuck in gridlock, they’re confronted with ill-conceived conveyances and distracted drivers. Plus, they probably feel some measure of guilt about their carbon footprint.³

Certainly other design firms have offered their solutions to the problem of transportation, and several are quite promising. But none of those firms actually make things. That’s where Apple can make a difference. Apple isn’t just different from other computer makers because of their design-centric attitude, it’s also different from other design firms because they manufacture and sell the products they design in huge quantities. Few companies are as well positioned to not just offer a solution, but deliver it.

Viewed through that lens, it’s not surprising that Apple is designing a car. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the car is released, the company starts looking for another design problem to solve, maybe one a little closer to home.

  1. Apple has CarPlay, which is increasing in adoption, giving it a commanding slice of in-car screens. “Why not?” is a terrible reason to do anything. And Apple doesn’t follow Google on everything, in part because they have vastly different business models.
  2. Remember, back then we still thought “computer” meant desktop or laptop. How quaint.
  3. Granted, if you drive an eight-cylinder Bentley Mulsane and own a private jet, you probably don’t feel that guilty, but I’m guessing it’s crossed his mind.

Related posts:

How self-driving cars will change cities

How far should you live from work?

In 40 years, will self-driving cars send us packing for the suburbs?

In 40 years, will self-driving cars send us packing for the suburbs?


At the end of 2013, the journal Cityscape put the following statement to contributors and asked their opinion of it: “In 40 years, the average person will live closer to her neighbors and farther from the ground than she does today.” This is a critique of one response. More to come…

Most urbanists will tell you that we’ll be living at higher densities sooner than you think. Nathaniel Baum-Snow, an economist at Brown University, is one of them. He cites a handful of reasons why he thinks we’ll all be living closer to our neighbors 40 years from now, including commute times, declining fertility rates, and stalled highway construction. Baum-Snow makes valid points, but many of his assumptions presume that the world 40 years from now, at least technologically, will look similar to today. Given the last 40 years, I’ll be surprised if that happens.

Self-driving cars are one of the biggest threats to the future of cities, and widespread adoption could single-handedly undermine one of Baum-Snow’s most compelling arguments—commute times, which he says will be a driving force behind increasing urban densities. As incomes have risen for many city dwellers—those in the top 50 percent, at least—the value of their commute time has also risen. Given Marchetti’s constant, which says that commute times tend to hover around 30 minutes each way, snarled traffic will force the wealthy out of the suburbs and back to cities. In a sense, we’ve already started to see that.

But self-driving cars could reverse that trend. As people’s commutes are freed up for other tasks, including work, they’ll stretch their daily trips, once again allowing them to live where they want. And as we’ve seen, people want to live where they have more space.¹ Compounding the problem is the fact that most early adopters are likely to be wealthy, the same people Baum-Snow says will be looking to drive less.

Working in cities’ favor, Baum-Snow adds, are declining fertility rates. Between 1967 and today, birth rates have fallen from 0.122 births per woman of childbearing age to 0.065, nearly a 50 percent drop. With people having half as many children, the need for space should decline. But as we’ve seen, that’s not necessarily the case. Between 1973 and 2012, median home sizes have grown from 1,525 square feet to 2,306 square feet, the same time that fertility was declining. In that same time period, median household income has risen almost $10,000 when adjusted for inflation, a nearly 25 percent increase.²

Then there’s the siren song of the suburbs—school quality. Suburban and small town school districts frequently outperform their urban counterparts. Baum-Snow notes that the quality of public schools in big cities has stabilized, at least, but that isn’t quite the same as improving. Plus, even if they do improve, urban schools will have to overcome the stereotype wrought by decades of poor performance.

(There is a simple fix, of course—invest in public education at all levels. Early childhood programs have shown great promise at preparing children of all backgrounds for full-time school, and education is the best chance many of children have to break free of poverty.)

Given these realities, I don’t think the future points to downtown, as Baum-Snow does. It’s true that city centers are the hot place to be, but density numbers don’t reflect the newfound enthusiasm. And trends in technology could shatter the many cities’ recoveries.

Despite that, I think many of us—at least, those of us not in the top few percent—will be living closer together. Not downtown, but in the sprawling inner suburbs that will be indistinguishable from the rest of the city, slogging through long commutes between home—which was convenient to the old job we got laid off from—and our new jobs on the wrong side of town.

  1. Home sizes briefly halted their inflation during the recession, but they’ve started to rise again.
  2. On top of that, interest rates are lower today than in the 1970s. That could change 40 years from now, of course.

Photo by Michael Colburn.


Baum-Snow, Nathaniel. 2013. “Changes in Urban Population Densities Over the Next 40 Years.” Cityscape 15(3).

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Marchetti’s constant, or why the 30 minute commute is here to stay

Population density fostered literacy, the Industrial Revolution

In 40 years, will we live in cities in the sky?


At the end of 2013, the journal Cityscape put the following statement to contributors and asked their opinion of it: “In 40 years, the average person will live closer to her neighbors and farther from the ground than she does today.” This is a critique of one response. More to come…

Two visions. One dystopian, filled with social decay, segregation, and violence. The other optimistic, light, harmonious, and elevated. Jill Stoner, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, offers them both as possible visions of a denser future. While she acknowledges that either is possible, she hopes for the latter.

To flesh out her dark version of the future, Stoner draws on a novel by British novelist J.G. Ballard. Having been crafted by a fictionist, it is captivating in its detail. There’s a new London skyscraper that houses wealthier residents as the floor count increases. Each income segment is buffered from each other in various ways, but they still find a way to wage class war against each other. The novel begins by starting at the end with the culminating event—a doctor eating another resident’s dog. That’s how low things have gotten.

It is, Stoner argues, a caricature of late 20th century views on skyscrapers. Once heralded as a way to save cities, residential towers in many cases ended up destroying much of what made urban areas successful. To Stoner, though, the skyscraper isn’t dead. While she sympathizes with those who favor “traditions of townships, neighborhoods, and gardens planted in terra firma behind firmly owned houses”—arguably the New Urbanists—she sees more promise in building up, way up. Because the idea failed once doesn’t mean it will fail again. In fact, she argues that it has to succeed because we can’t pretend that a neighborhood-centric mid-rise city is the only template.

Her grand vision, less vivid than that of Ballard’s but still reasonably compelling, is a city of towers linked by boulevards some 20 stories above the ground. Below, the ground has gone fallow, if you will, left to return to nature. Sort of a mashup of the aerial walkways of Star Wars’ Coruscant and Tyler Durden’s dream of wild freeways.

How likely is that in 40 years? Not very, a fact which Stoner admits, stating it’s more like 100 years off. But even then, will we all be living in skyscrapers, seldom touching the ground? It’s certainly possible, though I think it would require a transformative technology that we don’t have or can’t envision.¹ Right now, our lives are firmly rooted on the ground—or in software. We walk, we drive, we ride, we chat, we message. It all happens on—or under—solid ground. The comparatively little travel we do in the skies hasn’t exactly fostered density

Unless something radical changes in the next century, it’s unlikely that towers will play as central a role as Stoner envisions. Yes, we’ve inched toward her future in the last 100 years, but we’ve also backed away from it. Our cities—at least here in the U.S.—grow more dispersed every year, and self-driving cars, the current technology that’s most likely to change cities in the coming decades, is likely to hasten that trend. Time will tell, of course, but for now, I can’t see Stoner’s vision coming true.

  1. Those lofty visions of the future that we see in Star Wars and other sci-fi tales imply that aerial living arose because anti-gravity became commonplace. Only then were we able to really make use of the third dimension.


Stoner, Jill. 2013. “High Optimism.Cityscape 15(3).

Photo by z_wenjie

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How self-driving cars will change cities

How to keep the economy growing when our population is not


Zero population growth is a period in future human history that is both hoped-for and feared. If we don’t get to that point, the world could literally become overrun with humans, straining already taxed resources like fresh water and farmland to the breaking point. But with zero population growth, the global economy—heavily reliant on a young and expanding workforce—could collapse. No matter what we hope, according to projections by the United Nations, it’s likely that within the next century, the global population will level off or even shrink.

It’s a prospect that vexes demographers and economists alike, which is a sharp change from the 1960s, when we feared rampant population growth. Now, we fret over the opposite, and for good reason. While stabilizing or declining numbers will certainly ease the burden on the environment, no one knows how society will function in a future with fewer people. Globally, it’s never happened before. Locally, we’re starting to see it in some countries such as Japan, which has been stuck at about 127 million for the last decade. By 2045, it will drop to 105 million, and it’s already affecting Japan’s long-term thinking—some economists are questioning the need for the country’s proposed maglev system if there are fewer people to ride it.

There’s another, more fundamental problem that zero or negative population growth poses, though—the transfer of knowledge. We know that when people come together, they tend to create new technologies, skills, and knowledge. Cities are hubs of innovation, universities are great factories of scholarship, and even smaller groups can inspire people to create wonderful things. Perhaps more importantly, the number and strength of our connections are vital for passing knowledge on to others, two recent studies suggest. Without those connections, our society could fall rapidly behind. Fortunately, the research also suggests a way to escape the declining population trap.

Ed Yong, who covered the two studies for Nature News, pointed out that the papers provide independent validation of the idea that cultural knowledge is tightly correlated with group size and connectedness. They approach the problem from slightly different angles. The first study examined whether group size affected how well cultural tasks—in this case making an arrowhead or a fishing net—were passed down from one group to the next. In every instance, groups of eight or 16 performed significantly better than groups of two or four. Bigger groups also developed better and quicker ways of making the arrowheads.

The second study tested how interpersonal connections affected performance of a task, in this case either duplicating an image on a computer or recreating a series of knots used in rock climbing. In the drawing experiment, which tested the creation of knowledge, inexperienced people started off, going by trial and error. Later generations of participants could watch earlier people’s attempts and use that to hone their skills. Some were given the opportunity to observe five different attempts, others were only given the chance to see one. Those who had access to five examples recreated the drawings more accurately than those who could only see one.

The knot-tying experiment tested how cultural knowledge was maintained. The first generation of participants was trained by an instructor. Later generations watched footage of previous people tying the knots. Those who could watch five examples were twice as good at tying the knots as those who could only watch one example. The more connections, the more faithfully that knowledge was passed on.

Together, these two papers make a strong case for social savvy being the foundation of our complex culture. The first paper—the one with the arrowheads and fishing nets—confirms experimentally what many scientists suspected, that larger groups are both more proficient and more innovative. But the second study really intrigues me. It’s the one that, I believe, offers a way to keep our economy surging when our population begins to level off or decline.

The key to that is social connections. The more connected people were in either experiment of the second study, the better they performed, whether that be for maintaining knowledge or advancing it. Following that thread, it stands to reason that we can successfully decouple economic growth from population growth if social connections continue to increase. So even if our numbers decline, as long as our connections do not, we will at the very least be able to maintain our cultural knowledge and hopefully our standard of living.

To do that, we need to meet three challenges. First, the trend toward urbanization needs to continue. Cities foster connections between people, and the more people that live in cities, the more cultural knowledge we can maintain. Second, the internet needs to be everywhere. As the internet has taken hold, it has connected people in ways never before imagined. It’s now easier to access scholarly articles, stay in touch with friends and family, and partner with peers around the globe, all of which serve to maintain and increase our collective knowledge. Finally, as cities swell, we need to make sure they are physically connected as seamlessly as possible. Large cities can provide a wealth of opportunities, but no single city can offer them all. Being able to zip from one to the next will be vital for our cultural survival.¹

If we can meet those three challenges, and if social connections continue to multiply as population stabilizes or declines, then I think we’ll have a good chance of maintaining economic growth and raising standards of living.

  1. I would argue that this implies that Japan’s maglev system will be even more important if the population declines as is predicted. They’ll need more connections, not fewer.


Derex M., Beugin M.P., Godelle B. & Raymond M. (2013). Experimental evidence for the influence of group size on cultural complexity, Nature, DOI:

Muthukrishna M., Shulman B.W., Vasilescu V. & Henrich J. (2013). Sociality influences cultural complexity, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281 (1774) 20132511-20132511. DOI:

Photo by eioua

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Population density fostered literacy, the Industrial Revolution

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How self-driving cars will change cities

Google self-driving car

Google made big news last year when it announced that its self-driving cars had logged 300,000 miles, all of which were accident free. Suddenly, self-driving cars weren’t science fiction anymore. People began to imagine futures in which they hopped in, entered a destination, and kicked back. We’re not there yet—autonomous vehicles will have to log an estimated 300 million miles before we can be confident they’re as safe as regular drivers¹—but we may be within a generation or two. It’s entirely possible that babies born today will be among the last who feel they have to learn how to drive.

Just as the automobile began reshaping cities a century ago, the self-driving car will change urban areas yet again. But like the advent of the automobile, it won’t happen all at once. The revolution will happen in stages, and we’re already in the first. Cars can now park themselves, keep you in your lane, brake when traffic slows, and accelerate when it moves again. Many expensive cars do all of the above and more. Luxury vehicles are often testbeds for new technologies, and it’s unlikely that full autonomy will be any different. The first fully autonomous car for mass consumption will probably be quite expensive. When the first of its kind leaves the dealer lot—with the only driver input being a destination—we’ll have entered the second stage.

When self-driving cars are the rule, not the exception, we’ll be in the third stage. There’s no doubt the technology will trickle down—perhaps strikingly fast in this case, if the trickling down of today’s electronic nannies is anything to go by. Soon, new cars in all price segments will drive themselves. Purists will howl, but commuters will rejoice.

The benefits of stage three should be obvious to anyone who regularly drives. Parking will be a breeze—the car will drop you off and go find a spot on its own. If automation is combined with a smart parking system, traffic in big cities could drop by 30 percent—the proportion of cars in city centers currently circling for a space. Commuting, too, won’t be half the chore it is today. That time wasted in traffic? Wasted no more. Take a nap, eat breakfast, catch up on reading, text your friends.² You get the idea. Unless energy prices skyrocket, those far flung suburbs will regain some of their luster. The surge in commuting coupled with the higher densities allowed by self-driving cars³ will make today’s crowded freeways seem spacious by comparison.

We can feel pretty confident about these predictions, I think, because they’re pretty similar to how we use cars today. At some point, though, we’ll start thinking about cars differently. If cars can drive themselves around, passengers or not, what’s the point in owning your own car? Why not lease one from a pool? Welcome to stage four. Schedule it for your daily commute—perhaps with a price break for carpooling—and request one on-demand for more unpredictable needs. If wait times are short enough, it’ll be an attractive proposition.

Automakers, of course, have the most to lose and the most to gain. If they navigate this transition poorly, they won’t fare well. People will need fewer vehicles if they’re buying timeshares, and the market for automobiles will plummet. But if automakers can tackle the logistics of a such a system, they’ll make a killing.

At this point, the lines between private and public transit will start to blur. What I described above bears a resemblance to personal rapid transit, or PRT. A dream of the 1960s and 1970s, PRT consisted of small pods, hailed on demand, that whisked passengers to their destinations along monorails or traditional rails. The main difference between PRT and self-driving car subscriptions is that the self-drivers won’t need new tracks or dedicated rights-of-way—they can use existing roads. The efficiencies in this system will be massive. Cars can be delivered and routed as needed, and they can be used more consistently throughout the day, picking up new passengers after dropping others off. Parking lots can be largely eliminated and replaced by central facilities where the fleet will return for refueling and maintenance. Streets can be narrowed, asphalt lots reclaimed.

There is one big difference between self-driving car systems and PRT, though. PRT, as it is typically envisioned, is publicly-owned and maintained. In all likelihood, that won’t be the case with self-driving cars. Automakers and rental car companies are best positioned to take advantage of the self-driving revolution. Both already have portions of the subscription part down—leases and rentals—but the logistics will pose a real challenge.

Regarding privatization, Allison Arieff, editor at SPUR, raises an important point—how will self-driving cars influence social equity? “If you could afford a BMW before,” she writes, “you’ll be able to afford a subscription to BMW’s suite of offerings in this scenario.” She’s absolutely right—there are certain to be varying price points. That’s just how markets operate. But don’t count on the self-driving market looking exactly like today’s auto industry.

The strongest competitor will be the company with the widest network and the highest availability of vehicles. In this regard, the market for self-driving vehicles will be more similar to the cell phone industry than today’s automotive industry. Today, vehicles are sold on the strength of their quality and features. Tomorrow, subscriptions to vehicles will be sold based on the reach and availability of their network. Within each network there will certainly be a wide-variety of vehicles available depending on how much you’re willing to pay. But niche automakers won’t succeed unless they dramatically scale up their network.

There are potential downsides to self-driving cars, of course. It’s very likely that the poor will be left out yet again. Cars are costly to buy and maintain. Will self-driving cars be any different, cost-wise? The poor probably won’t be able to afford plans that provide high availability, limiting their mobility. Companies with the widest networks and most cars will probably attract the most customers. Smaller players will be either forced out or bought out, concentrating today’s highly competitive automotive market; tomorrow’s self-driving car industry could quickly devolve into an oligopoly. When that happens, be prepared for wave after wave of profit-driven price-hikes.

Throughout all this, cities will be adapting. For a brief period, it’s possible that cars will function in cities the way we had always hoped they would—traffic will flow more smoothly, parking be less of a headache. But that will only be for a brief window. Revolutions in mobility have a tendency to decentralize populations rather than concentrate them. Sprawl may become even more acute than it is today.

When people stop owning cars, the line between public and private will blur further. Who will pay for the upkeep of roads, consumers or companies? What about parking spaces? Will private companies be able to take advantage of free parking, as individuals do today? Or will free parking be a thing of the past?

Parking lots may become passé, but there will be a new need for vast facilities to store, clean, and maintain self-driving cars. Given the realities of real estate, those facilities will probably sit on the outskirts of town. Highways would still be jammed during morning commutes, only there may be two pulses of traffic instead one—the first consisting of empty cars fetching their masters, the second ferrying them to work. The added convenience and efficiency of self-driving cars could raise demand, too, bringing even more cars on the road. Self-driving cars can make more efficient use of roadways, but those benefits may quickly be erased. Prepare for another round of highway expansions.

Where’s public transit in all of this? That’s a good question, and one I’m not sure anyone has adequately answered. It’ll probably still exist, though in what form I have no clue. Who will ride it is similarly up in the air, but motivations will probably remain the same—time, expense, and convenience. If mass transit can best self-driving cars at one or more of those, it’ll retain its place in the mix.

Two or more of these stages in the self-driving revolution will probably happen during our lifetimes. Changes to cities will lag, though not by much. When the automobile first caught on, cities quickly changed pedestrian laws, made way for parking, and, within just 50 years of the first mass-produced automobiles, tore down entire neighborhoods to build highways. Will the self-driving car precipitate such drastic changes? Perhaps. We’ll find out soon enough.

  1. Given the behavior of some drivers, that may come as a shock.
  2. Though to be fair, plenty of people do three of those four things on their commute already. I’m sure some have dabbled in the fourth.
  3. If cars can communicate their intentions to one another, they can be driven safely in tighter formations.
  4. Incidentally, BMW is already experimenting along these lines by providing owners of the i3 electric car access to X5 SUVs and other fossil fuel powered vehicles.

Photo by Google.

Related posts:

America’s suburban future

Marchetti’s constant, or why the 30 minute commute is here to stay

When everyone lives in a city

Why hyperlocal won’t save newspapers (and what will)

Stack of newspapers

Newspapers are in a tight spot. Advertising revenues have been declining for 11 years straight, and classified ads have all but vanished in the face of Craigslist and eBay. The move online hasn’t been smooth for them, either. First, they gave away their product, hoping to make it up on volume with increased ad sales. That hasn’t exactly worked—for every $1 newspaper websites bring in, they have lost $25 in print advertising. The only bright spot is subscriptions, which have miraculously held steady. Many papers are trimming their publication schedules—the New Orleans Times-Picayune the most recently notable of them—leading many communities to fear the ultimate demise of important institutions.

Whenever a business or industry falls on hard times, people trip over themselves to propose turnaround plans. Newspapers are no exception, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be left out of the fray.¹ My diagnosis? Too many newspapers have placed their bets on intensely local coverage, or hyperlocal as they call it in the biz. That’s a mistake. To remain profitable, they need to concentrate on a particular topic instead of a geographic region.

That epiphany occurred to me Christmas morning over a bowl of cereal at my in-laws. I was flipping through the Houston Chronicle when I noticed the paper had branded their energy coverage, FuelFix. Not the best name, but it’s a sound idea. Houston is a major hub for the oil and gas industry, and Chronicle reporters have spent years, even decades reporting on it. Who else would be so positioned to cover the industry?

The Chronicle isn’t the first paper to experiment with trade-specific coverage. The New York Times has done the same thing with financial firms and DealBook, to much success. By providing consistent, nearly obsessive coverage of an industry, both papers attract new readers and new advertisers interested in reaching a targeted audience.

Those two data points made me realize that most papers have it all wrong, at least as far as profitability is concerned. Hyperlocal coverage will never be profitable enough. On a local level, there’s simply not enough news worth paying for. Try too hard and you end up with stories like this. Subscribers will never fill the void—there simply aren’t enough people willing to pay for local news, especially when they can get the basics on TV, for free.² Hyperlocal won’t attract enough advertisers, either. The local advertising pie just isn’t that big.

This is where trade publication sections like FuelFix and DealBook come in. Revenues from their higher ad rates (and, yes, maybe even new subscribers) can subsidize the rest of the paper. It’s a new twist on an old model. In the past, classifieds and legal notices kept the rest of the paper afloat. Today, trade sections can serve the same role.

New York and Houston aren’t the only cities with papers that could benefit from a trade publication model. The Detroit Free Press already closely covers the auto industry, but it could do more. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel could dig deep into manufacturing. The Chicago Tribune might look at commodities or financial firms outside of New York. The San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle could step up their tech coverage, too. There’s a lot of competition in that sector already, but it is highly profitable. And if that fails, there’s still a chance for them in biotech. Not all papers can follow this model, but having some survivors is better than none.

With profits from the trade side, newspapers could continue covering the less profitable—but arguably more important—stories. It makes business sense, too. Without the rest of the newspaper, the trade section loses some of its credibility. It would be just another trade publication.

This plan isn’t problem free. Like in the past, advertising-editorial conflicts could scuttle the whole experiment. But unlike other proposed new business models, that devil is well known. Newspapers have managed such conflicts by erecting firewalls between advertising and editorial sections. The same could be done with trade sections by separating the two newsrooms. Even better, papers could spin them off the trade sections into wholly-owned subsidiaries and let the profits flow back to the regular news side. It might be enough to let newspapers live to die another day.

  1. I have my reasons for wanting venerable papers to survive. For one, I worked as a science reporter for Chicago Tribune in the summer of 2008. In my childhood, I spent many mornings and evenings reading the local papers. And as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of print journalism—there are simply some stories better told and better remembered in written form.
  2. I’d be surprised if the other option—providing deep insights on the news—would change the equation, at least on a local level.

Photo by jeffeaton.

When everyone lives in a city

The future?

Here’s a fun thought experiment. Plot the population of the world since 500 BCE. Now plot the population of the 50 largest cities over that same time. If you distill equations to describe the two trends, you’ll notice the lines cross. At some point in the future, your models predict that the population of the 50 largest cities will overtake the world’s population. Clearly that’s impossible.

What those trends are telling you is that cities are growing faster than rural areas, something we already know. But if you take that thought experiment to its mathematical extremes, you’ll see it’s possible that there comes a point when—boom—everyone lives in a city. Rural dwellers—poof—cease to exist. Suddenly, we’re all children of the concrete jungle.

That’s what Michael Batty, a well-known urban planner and geographer, noticed when he ran through those same hypotheticals. Specifically, he calculated that by 2092 all the world will be urbanized according to those trend lines. Of course that won’t happen, and he acknowledges that. The world’s population will, at minimum, be equal to the sum of its cities, and I’m 100 percent certain that at least a handful of people will still live in the country, either by choice or chance. But Batty’s idea bears consideration. What would the world look like when, as he puts it, “all the world’s a city”?

The United Nations currently estimates the world’s population will reach 10 billion by 2100, just a few years after mathematics suggests we could all be living in cities. Now, that’s not to say the Earth would be covered by one massive city. Cities may be expanding outward faster than their population growth would warrant, but 10 billion people spread across all continents but Antarctica would live at a density of about 190 people per square mile (74 per square kilometer). Hardly a city.

But what if our notion of a city changed? A single definition is already maddeningly difficult to nail down. Take New York City, for example. It has about 8.2 million people within the polity, but the greater region has over 22 million. Where does New York really end? Houston and Tokyo, on the other hand, encompass too much. Each political entity contains vast tracts of undeveloped land. It’s clear that political boundaries aren’t adequate. So instead, what if we think of a “city” as a collection of conurbations not connected by geography but by social and economic ties, as Batty suggests? In an age of plane travel and high-speed rail, physical continuity isn’t necessarily a requirement.

With this new definition, it is possible for all the world to be one city. The Earth doesn’t have to be covered in conurbation; rather, everyone simply has to live in urban areas, and those urban areas must be sufficiently connected so as to behave like a single city.

Already metros and their regional governments cross existing political boundaries. New York City is a perfect example. And at the other extreme, there are cases like Tokyo where city governments have essentially absorbed their hinterland equivalents. (We see this all the time in the United States with combined city and county governments—New York City, San Francisco, and Lexington, Kentucky, to name a few.) These mergers grew out of necessity, and it’s easy to see the same happening in a hyper-connected world. As more and more cities join the global cluster, as Batty calls it, the pressure to coordinate will rise.

It’s possible, then, that the first true world government could emerge from this collection of cities. It would be fitting. Already mayors from around the world meet to discuss common problems, and on issues like climate change where national governments have fallen flat, they have taken the lead. But it would still be a shift of epic proportions. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but at a certain point it would be inevitable. Cities could choose to sit on the sidelines, but the benefits of joining the global cluster would be too great to ignore. Eventually, nearly everyone on Earth would count themselves a resident of the One City.

The world as one city would surely be a different place. The relationship between a city and its hinterland would be tested. Indeed, what would become of the hinterland? It would certainly be smaller—although the One City wouldn’t smother the planet, it would still have an enormous footprint. The hinterland would remain inhabited by scattered few who choose to live there, perhaps living their quiet lives amongst robotized farms. A great schism between the city and the hinterland could develop. But there could also be a reconciliation. Governments could reconfigure to cope with the changing landscape, both literal and figurative. Instead tension between the city and its hinterland, there could be cooperation fostered by a sense of shared fate. So goes the city goes the hinterland, and vice versa.

Regardless of how it all plays out, a highly urbanized global population will add nearly 6 billion people to cities that only hold about 3.6 billion today. That’s growth of almost 280 percent in less than a century. Such a percentage isn’t unprecedented—between 1900 and today, the world’s urban population grew by more than 1600 percent—but the raw numbers will be. To accommodate those people, cities will have to remake themselves like never before. It’s a daunting challenge, and as I stated in my last article, we’ll need a science of the city that’s equally formidable.


Batty, M. (2011). When all the world’s a city, Environment and Planning A, 43 (4) 772. DOI: 10.1068/a43403

United Nations. 2011. “World Urbanization Prospects, the 2011 Revision.” Accessed October 8, 2012.

Photo by kevin dooley.

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Marchetti’s constant, or why the 30 minute commute is here to stay

Shanghai Transrapid maglev

“How far should you live from work?”

I pondered that question a few weeks ago after perusing American Community Survey data compiled by Charlie Gardner. It showed that most people in most metro areas in the United States tended to commute about 30 minutes each way to work, give or take a few. That adds up to about an hour of commute time per day. As I looked into it further, I found a lot of research that corroborated the surprising similarity of people’s commute times.

But in all ten research papers I used to footnote that article, I was missing one. Eric Fischer pointed me toward a 1994 treatise—for lack of a better term—by Cesare Marchetti. He posited that one hour per day is as long as people have been willing to travel. Ever. Since the dawn of human society.

At least, that’s what Marchetti hypothesized. He did have some data to back it up, though it wasn’t his own. It was Yacov Zahavi’s. Zahavi was a transportation engineer who consulted for the U.S. Department of Transportation and World Bank in the 1970s and early 1980s. As part of his work for the DOT, he came up with what he called the Unified Mechanism of Travel Model, or UMOT. Zahavi produced a string of reports and papers on UMOT, which he hoped would shake up how transportation planning was done in cities.

In the process of developing UMOT, Zahavi collected many juicy tidbits of data. One observation was that as people earn more money, they spend an increasing percentage of their income on everyday travel, up to about 13 percent. That number seemed to be both a hard ceiling and firm floor once households earned above a certain amount (about $50,000 in 1976). The richer you got, the more you spent in real terms. But the percentage remained the same.

Another bit—the one that inspired Marchetti—was that people in the United States and the United Kingdom traveled about 1 hour per day. (Astute readers will notice that a 30 minute commute to work—the number most studies have settled on as the “average” commute—adds up to precisely that amount at the end of the day.) Zahavi also noticed that even though some people could travel faster—by car rather than bus, for example, they still spent the same amount of time traveling. They just traveled farther to work—a trend which more recent studies have also uncovered.

Zahavi’s data is compelling, but in Marchetti’s hands it quickly became a universal constant. If so many people in Zahavi’s study (mostly in the developed world of the 1950s and 1960s) traveled the same amount per day, Marchetti reasoned that humans must have an innate desire to travel at most and at least 1 hour per day. Boom. Marchetti’s constant.

Zahavi’s data wasn’t the only leg he had to stand on, though it certainly was his sturdiest. Cave men and Greek villages were another. Marchetti pointed out, “Walking about 5 km/hr, and coming back to the cave for the night, gives a territory radius of about 2.5 km and an area of about 20 km2. This is the definition of the territory of a village, and … this is precisely the mean area associated with Greek villages today, sedimented through centuries of history.”

Marchetti—not one to think small, apparently—then used his new universal constant as a jumping off point to explore the future of tomorrow. How fast would a transportation system need to be to serve a city of 100 billion people? An average speed of 150 km/h sounds about right. Can you turn Switzerland into one giant city? Sure, so long as you run maglev trains in sealed tunnels sucked free of atmosphere. What about if you linked Paris and Casablanca with a maglev, too? “[A] woman in Casablanca could go to work in Paris, and cook dinner for her children in the evening.”

Not a man to leave a logical extreme unreached, Marchetti realized that at some point in the future everywhere on Earth will be 30 minutes from your front door. “With mach-7 airplanes and matching Maglevs, a world city is also possible. The assimilation of the technologies in political terms, however, will take some time.”

Details. In the meantime, enjoy your 30 minute commute.


Marchetti, C. (1994). Anthropological invariants in travel behavior, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 47 (1) 88. DOI: 10.1016/0040-1625(94)90041-8

Zahavi, Yacov. 1976. “The Unified Mechanism of Travel (UMOT) Model.”

Photo by Lars Plougmann.

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Responsive urban design


We’ve been planning cities for almost as long as they have existed. Archaeological evidence suggests the ancient Egyptians did so 5,000 years ago. Hippodamos, considered by many to be the father of urban planning, imposed street grids on every ancient Greek city that would let him. Since then, we’ve been busily drawing, revising, and otherwise fussing about how best to design our cities.

It turns out we may have it all wrong. Or at least wrong for today’s cities. Urban areas have always been in constant flux, but we’re now demanding far more of them than before. They’ve never housed, transported, or employed so many people. To cope, cities have been changing at an astonishingly rapid pace. The results can be inspiring—as they are in Seoul, Singapore, and Tokyo—or depressing—just look at anywhere with extensive slums. In some cases, it seems urban planning is up to the task. In others, it’s not.

Where it falls flat, urban planning’s failings aren’t necessarily the fault of the designers. Too often planning is focused on minutiae—ordinances, regulations, zoning, setbacks, and so on. Even when it tackles bigger problems like economic growth, it doesn’t necessarily consider the city as a whole.¹

The solution, according to Michael Batty, an urban planner and professor at University College London, is infusing planning with science. Systems science, specifically, where bright minds and complex mathematical models try to digest the entirety of a system, like a city. It’s no simple task. IBM is just one company throwing billions of dollars and tons of silicon at the problem. What they’ll get out of it is anybody’s guess, but they seem certain they’ll get something. Cities are overflowing with collectable data. It’s making sense of it that’s difficult. The possibilities it presents is what I think is going drive us to rethink city planning.

Urban planning has its origins in the design world, which is both a bonus and a handicap. Architects make natural planners—they design the buildings, why not have them design the streets, too? When those planners are enlightened designers, the results are attractive and livable cities. If they’re not? Well, we’ve all seen what happens when they’re not. But as much as good design has created great cities, I and others suspect it can’t deal with the coming challenges. Not on its own, at least. Good design can solve many problems, but it can’t solve them all. At some point, you need science.

The rate at which cities are growing and changing presents a problem for the traditional design-centric approach. Good design requires a thorough understanding of your problem. But these days, problems are appearing and evolving so quickly that we don’t have enough time to properly observe them.

Urban planning is at a crossroads, much like ecology was 50 years ago.² Planning is still largely descriptive and not very scientific, again, much like ecology was 50 years ago. Sure, cities gather hard data like traffic and sewage flows. Yes, they model projected growth and consider the social factors behind neighborhood demands. But urban planning lacks a unified, data-driven theoretical foundation.

That’s beginning to change. Michael Batty, Geoffrey West, Luis Bettencourt, and others are proposing data-driven theories and testing them, just like Robert MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson did in ecology back in the 1960s and 70s. Though these new urban theorists are trying to shake things up, they’re not trying to eliminate planning as we know it. Their science of cities won’t be a replacement for current planning, but a superset. Think of it as a grand theory to tie it all together, to make sense of why cities have evolved the way they did and how we can coax them to cope with 5 billion people.

The science of cities may be in its infancy, but we can see where it will lead. The first stage, the one we’re in right now, is descriptive. It involves gathering data, assembling huge models, and tuning them until we’re satisfied. Then we’ll apply those models, and see how the real world reacts. There will be some stumbles, but that’ll only give us more data to work with. Eventually, we’ll arrive at a theory of cities that’s universal and flexible enough that it can be applied anywhere. It will be a foundation that will underpin models that grind through piles of data and make sound, timely recommendations which designers can implement.

Getting to that last stage is important, I think. In many cities, it’s clear that we don’t know what to do with all these new urbanites. Even in cities where things appear hunky dory, cracks are beginning to show. Subways are crowded, freeways are jammed, and sewers are overflowing. Throwing money at temporary fixes will only get us so far. We need to dig deeper and develop a responsive urbanism,³ one that’s grand in scale and scientifically focused. We need to listen to what cities are telling us, decide what we want them to do, and plan accordingly.

  1. Enlightened planners out there—and there are quite a few—can take umbrage with my characterization here. But they’ll admit that there are quite a few in their profession that dabble too much in the details.
  2. Though urban planning is behind the curve relative to ecology when it comes to mathematical and theoretical rigor, data gathering is one place where it’s ahead. We already have many data sets in hand along with the infrastructure to gather more.
  3. I’m thinking bigger than pop-up parks, an oft cited example of “responsive urbanism”.


Batty, M. (2008). The Size, Scale, and Shape of Cities, Science, 319 (5864) 771. DOI: 10.1126/science.1151419

Batty, M. (2012). Building a science of cities, Cities, 29 S16. DOI: 10.1016/j.cities.2011.11.008

Bettencourt, L.M.A., Lobo, J., Helbing, D., Kuhnert, C. & West, G.B. (2007). Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (17) 7306. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0610172104

Photo by MagnusL3D

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The last settler’s syndrome

Welcome to the future

As I’m writing this, it’s early in the morning and the mercury is already past 70˚ F. It’s raining here, like it has been on and off this entire week, much to the chagrin of many Coloradans, I’m sure. The rain is probably keeping the temperature down a bit, but once the clouds finish their job, we’re headed to a steamy high above 90˚ F. I’m not alone. A heat wave is currently baking much of the country, though unlike where I live, many regions haven’t been soaked with rain.

Temperature anomaly, June 2012NASA/Jesse Allen

In southeastern Wisconsin, my parents say it hasn’t really rained there since Memorial Day. The prairie plants that dot their front yard—normally verdant even in dry weather—are wilting from lack of water.

Prairie plants withered by droughtPaul De Chant

One local farmer said he would need at least 3 inches of rain to save his crops.

Corn plants withered by droughtPaul De Chant

Then there’s Florida. In in some parts of the state, Tropical Storm Debby has dumped over 26 inches of rain. Sinkholes have swallowed roads, and 50 miles of Interstate 10 had to be closed due to flooding.

Debby floods FloridaDVIDSHUB


Back in Colorado, my sister says she has two reasons to be grateful for air conditioning—it prevents both heat and smoke from suffusing her apartment.

Smoke from the High Park FireDVIDSHUB

Firefighters battling the High Park FireThe National Guard

Aerial view of the Little Sand WildfireU.S. Department of Agriculture

Heat isn’t the only culprit behind the wildfires. This year’s early snowmelt in the mountains—early by two weeks—is also to blame, scientists say. The bark beetles that have ravaged the state’s pine and spruce forests may also increase the odds of fire, but the interactions between bug and flame aren’t entirely sorted out yet.

Aerial support, High Park FireThe National Guard

Scorched earth, High Park FireU.S. Department of Agriculture

Meanwhile halfway around the world in Siberia, wildfires have been raging uncontrolled for six months.

Siberia fires, June 2012NASA/Jeff Schmaltz

Welcome to the future.

Why I can’t move back to Wisconsin


I’ve often wondered if I would ever move back to my home state of Wisconsin. It’s not the logistics that phase me—I’ve lived in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts in the last three years. No, I’ve wondered whether the state could lure me and my wife with promising and satisfying jobs to complement the state’s kind people and bucolic countryside. Yesterday, I learned that will never happen.

It was yesterday that Governor Scott Walker survived a recall election. The contentious recall was spurred by his decision to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights, the majority of whom are teachers.¹ Walker sold the move as a way to balance the budget, but really he was just codifying the shift in Wisconsin’s values that has occurred over the past few decades. It also betrays Wisconsin’s uncertainty about how to deal with the future.

Wisconsin, like many rust belt states, has had a difficult time finding its economic footing ever since off-shoring became de rigueur among manufacturing companies. It’s had a few chances since then, but none more promising than the biotech opportunity that slipped through its fingers. The University of Wisconsin was a pioneer in stem cell research. Had George W. Bush not restricted funding for stem cell research, Madison could have been an incubator for related startups, enabling the state to shrug off its manufacturing past. It was a rare glimpse of an alternate future. The loss of that future should have galvanized public and private investments in education and research to unearth the next big opportunity. Instead, Wisconsin gave up. Frustrated, it turned to a simpler and shorter-term solution—tax breaks.

What the state really needs is a complete economic overhaul. Tax breaks won’t accomplish that. That’s not to say tax breaks don’t have their place. They can entice established businesses to relocate. They can encourage existing ones to hire a few more workers. They can even help fledgling businesses gain a foothold. But they won’t create the kind of daring and brilliant entrepreneurs needed to reshape Wisconsin’s economy.

No one ever started a revolutionary company because of tax breaks. Disruptive companies are founded because someone has a fantastic new idea, not because the state offered them a few thousand dollars. They succeed because they can hire intelligent, well-educated employees, not because they are paid to increase headcounts. Such transformative companies don’t magically appear because of low taxes. They bubble up in places that value education and innovation.

Wisconsin is a state adrift. Where it used to be an agricultural and manufacturing powerhouse, today it is neither. It has no defining industry, no discernible direction. Wisconsin is trying to rediscover its economic muse, but it’s going about it in all the wrong ways.

Wisconsin could still find its way by pouring money into education. That in turn would encourage the sorts of crazy innovation that happens across the street from places like Stanford and MIT. By offering its best and brightest more than just friendly faces and a low cost of living, it could keep them at home rather than lose them to other states. These changes won’t happen over night—Silicon Valley’s success took years, even decades, to manifest—but they could happen.

Yet I know they won’t. Deep down, I know I will never be able to move back to Wisconsin.

  1. Well, some public employees. Police and firefighters retain theirs.

Photo by CindyH Photography.

Farming, circa 2050

Zenderpark, Flevoland, The Netherlands

Farms today look nothing like the farms of 40 years ago. Thanks to market and policy changes along with advances in technology, they’re larger, more mechanized, and more intensive. And while those factors will likely continue to affect farmers, there’s another looming on the horizon—climate change.

Agriculture has already seen the effects of a warming world. For example, in 2011 Texas suffered from the worst one year drought in its history. The parched earth cracked and burned, water holes dried up, and Texas’s iconic ranches lost 600,000 head of cattle. Economic losses topped $7 billion. Images of the drought are horrific. What Texas went through in just one year doesn’t portend well for the future of agriculture.

Farmers aren’t going to take climate change sitting down—they’re going to adapt. But what those adaptations will look like is less clear. A team of agronomists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands tried to predict what farms in one part of their country will look like in 2050. Though the study is region-specific, their results offer a peek at how farms in temperate regions might adapt over the next 40 years and what farmers in developing countries might do to avoid the pitfalls of modern agriculture in a warming world.

The researchers focused on farms in the Netherlands’ Flevoland province. Flevoland is, like much of the country, reclaimed from the sea. It grew out of the Zuiderzee Works project, which separated the inland Zuiderzee from the North Sea with a massive dam. The polders that make up Flevoland were specifically constructed to provide additional farmland. They were completed in three phases between 1942 and 1968.

The Wageningen researchers began by compiling data on various aspects of farms in the Flevoland, including their economic output, farming intensity, degree of specialization, and market niche (production-focused, conservation oriented, or entrepreneurial). They looked as far back as 1986 to see how Flevoland farms have evolved in recent decades and used that information, along with expert input, to tune a model that predicted how farms might change in response to global warming of 1–2 ˚C by 2050.

The model also took into account how the world will react to climate change. That part of the model was based on two scenarios developed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), specifically the A1 and B2 scenarios. The A1 scenario assumes climate change will be dealt with on a global scale. It predicts that globalization will continue, economic output will rise rapidly, technology will advance apace, and economic and cultural disparity between nations will decline. B2, on the other hand, assumes slightly lower population growth, intermediate economic growth, more regionalization, and more disparity between regions in technological advancements.

Under the A1 globalization scenario, the model predicted continued increases in farm size. Entrepreneurial farms—those that accepted tourists, for example—grew in share substantially, to about 24 percent. Farms with a conservation bent disappeared, and Flevoland’s focus shifted from root crops like potatoes to arable crops like wheat or soybeans. The regionalization scenario painted a different picture, in some respects. Farm focus was almost equally divided among production, conservation, and entrepreneurship. Farm size held steady with today’s levels, as did intensity and types of crops grown.

Though this study focused on one province in the Netherlands, it details some potential futures. What type of world we become—a globalized, tech-heavy A1, a regionalized B2, or some other vision of the future—will affect how farms adapt to climate change. Some aspects of the future are not entirely under our control—population growth remains an untamed beast, for example. But others are, like crop subsidies and technological progress. Policy has played an important role in the last 40 years, and there’s no reason to think that will change. That may seem depressing to some people—subsidies have discriminated against small farms, for example—but it can be heartening, too. Policy is something that remains under our control. That means we can still play a role in determining how we’ll get our food in the future.

This study also can also help non-temperate farmers prepare for climate change. By identifying where modern agriculture will likely fall short under certain scenarios, farmers in developing nations can better evaluate whether or not to adopt current methods. Many of them may have missed out on the Green Revolution—especially in Africa—but that may end up being beneficial. Just as some developing nations skipped land lines and went straight to cell phones, farmers unaccustomed to modern production techniques could adopt new methods, approaches that could better prepare them for a changing climate.


Mandryk, M., Reidsma, P., & Ittersum, M. (2012). Scenarios of long-term farm structural change for application in climate change impact assessment Landscape Ecology, 27 (4), 509-527 DOI: 10.1007/s10980-012-9714-7

Photo by Radio Nederland Wereldomroep.

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The last settler’s syndrome

Log cabin

In my mind, my hometown will always be a city of 24,000 people. It’ll also be supported by three major manufacturing companies. And it’ll always have a certain, intangible something. Of course, today West Bend has 5,000 more residents despite the demise of all three manufacturers. And every time I return, that certain something isn’t quite the same either. It’s like waking from a dream I can’t entirely reconstruct.

Geographer Gilbert F. White would say I’ve got “last settler’s syndrome”. To me, the ideal West Bend is the city I remember from my childhood—really, from my middle school days when my friends and I explored every street in the city by bike. White would also say I’m not alone: “Each wants his particular town and country landscape to remain just as it was when he or she arrived. The most recent settler wants to be the last settler.”

One could argue that the settlement of the United States was driven in part by last settler’s syndrome, that the pioneer spirit is just a euphemism for the malady. Pioneers who saw their wilderness fill up with other settlers may have become disillusioned. The Ohio River Valley, for example, wasn’t the same after the first trees were felled. So people picked up and moved on. It instilled a distinctly American habit—moving west for new opportunities.¹ My own ancestors followed that well-worn path, moving from Ohio to Wisconsin in the late 1800s.

Seemingly everything in our lives is touched by the last settler’s syndrome, from our childhood homes to our neighborhoods to our favorite haunts. It can be a powerful, positive force—if John Muir hadn’t been afflicted by last settler’s syndrome, there probably wouldn’t be a Yosemite National Park. But last settler’s syndrome also can be problematic. Neighborhood quarrels can result when new transplants push for change. And while obstinacy can be good in some cases—Muir and Yosemite—it also can be a barrier.

Understanding the last settler’s syndrome—how it affects people, and more importantly, how it affects ourselves—can help us better understand where we live, whether that be cities, farms, or forests. It also can help explain why change is so accelerated these days: We’re a population that moves a lot. As of 2010, less than 60 percent of Americans lived in the state in which they were born, almost 30 percent were born in another state, and almost 13 percent were born in another country. How people defined “the way things were” used to evolve over generations. Today it’s on the order of years.

In an era of constant upheaval—where cities look nothing like they did a few years ago, let alone a few decades ago—we need to consciously disassemble our relationship with places and analyze them in parts. What should we keep? What should we change? What needs to change? It’s difficult to abandon the past, but the future will be nothing like we imagine. Things are going to change whether we like it or not.

  1. Why else is California so populous? I kid, I kid. Or do I?


Nielsen, J. M., Shelby, B., & Haas, J. E. (1977). Sociological carrying capacity and the last settler syndrome Pacific Sociological Review, 20 (4), 568-581

U.S. Census. 2011. Lifetime Mobility in the United States: 2010.

White, Gilbert F. 1986. The Last Settler’s Syndrome. in Geography, Resources, and Environment: Volume 1. Robert W. Kates and Ian Burton, eds. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Photo by anoldent.

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Can crowdsourcing save the city?

The City 2.0

TED is currently in full swing, and the program this year has an entire section devoted to the city. Fitting, given that this year’s TED Prize went to a city-centric project, one that hopes to crowdsource ideas to solve urban problems and reinvent cities. It’s predictably named The City 2.0. The site has a flashy splash page, but the innards still need some work—tapping in my current city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent me to a generic index page that encouraged me to “get connected” with other aspiring urban planners in my area, but responded to my clicks with little more than a broken Google Maps interface and some “COMING SOON” dialog boxes. For now, it’s long on pizzazz and short on details.

The TED Prize website fortunately has more on what The City 2.0 hopes to accomplish:

For phase I, the website ( will focus on helping individuals in forming cross-disciplinary groups to:

  1. determine the issue they want to tackle (i.e. traffic, lack of trees);
  2. determine a solution;
  3. develop an action plan;
  4. work to implement the solution;
  5. share the story of their success or failure with others.

Companies and organizations will be able to offer their tools to site users for use in executing their action plans. Ten micro grants of $10,000, coming out of the $100,000 TED Prize money, will be awarded in July 2012 to ten local projects that have the best hope of spurring the creation of their City 2.0.

To be clear, that’s $100,000 to be equally split among ten groups. Not a lot of money to tackle problems that probably need millions, even billions, of dollars thrown at them. Thankfully, there’s more:

As the site continues to grow and the overall platform grows we expect to:

  1. expand the functionality for individuals to connect and act;
  2. develop and design templates for knowledge sharing between new ideas formulated on the site and preexisting projects;
  3. build out our resource section with new local and global partners;
  4. introduce technology solutions for non-web based communities;
  5. expand our financial incentive program with larger grant offerings for active projects
  6. establish local and/or global gatherings on the City 2.0.

That’s a little better. This part of the project should have a longer-lasting impact than the small pot of grant money. Local civic groups often don’t have the skills or wherewithal to build a connected platform to publish their ideas and solicit feedback. The City 2.0 could provide that. But soliciting ideas is just the beginning. Many other hurdles stand in the way, and from what I can see The City 2.0 doesn’t propose how to address them.

The most obvious barrier is money. The City 2.0 acknowledges that to be successful it needs “companies and organizations willing to offer empowering resources” and “financial support”. It seems to me they are simply hoping companies and philanthropists will step forward and reward the best projects. That’s papering over a big problem.

The next issue is how to choose the best project. The City 2.0 says in its intro video that it will “combine the reach of the crowd with the power of the cloud”. Both crowdsourcing and the cloud are hot topics these days. Crowdsourcing in particular can give people a voice who otherwise may not have spoken up, and it leverages the law of big numbers to extract a handful of singular, stand-out ideas. But the real problem with crowdsourcing solutions for cities is more fundamental than that: Who decides which ideas to implement?

Lior Zoref, a crowdsourcing advocate, gave a TED talk this year about the wisdom of crowds in which he was joined on stage by an ox. After the gasps died down, he asked everyone to guess the weight of the animal and submit it to a website. At the end of his talk, he announced the average of the audience’s guesses: 1,792 pounds. The real weight of the cow? 1,795 pounds.

It is an impressive demonstration, but one that doesn’t sell me on the crowd’s ability to reinvent the city. That’s because crowd wisdom cannot apply to projects like The City 2.0. With the ox’s weight, there is one right answer. The crowd’s wisdom can be unambiguously verified. But with ideas and concepts like those solicited by The City 2.0, there is no right answer. And you certainly can’t distill an “average” idea from them all. Ultimately, a panel will have to pick the winners and losers. Those panelists will have enormous sway over the outcome of The City 2.0. If they are experts in their field, what’s to say the winners will be revolutionary, or even substantially different from their own work?

If winners are picked by popular vote—which I highly doubt—that, too, is no guarantee that the most promising proposals will be selected. People don’t always know what they want. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” Steve Jobs once said. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” There may be wisdom in crowds, but genius is usually confined to individuals.

I suspect it’ll take true genius to remake the city. We’ve been spinning our wheels in recent years, rehashing concepts of the city that have been around for decades, even centuries. Those ideas may have worked well in the past, but they didn’t have to contend with airports, globalization, or climate change. Today’s best solution may be unlike anything we have come to expect from cities.

I’m sure The City 2.0 will fund some great projects, but we won’t really know how they work until we really try them. Not small bits here and there, but big implementations. Trying on that scale takes money, and the only organizations with the money to do it are governments.

Does that mean it’s back to the old way, sitting through planning meetings and zoning boards? Maybe. Crowdsourcing is a great way to gather ideas, but implementing them takes community and persistence and enthusiasm. It’s possible that a website could create that community, but I’m skeptical—most social media tools piggyback on existing, real-world social bonds. I know I sound pessimistic about The City 2.0. I’m not entirely. I hope that the project will uncover a work of genius that would have otherwise been ignored, but I’m not holding my breath.

Photo from The City 2.0.

America’s suburban future

Aerial view of Carrollton, Texas

If you think American cities are sprawling now, just wait until 2025. In that time, the U.S. population will grow by 18 percent but the amount of developed land will increase 57 percent. Up to 9.2 percent of the lower 48 could be urbanized by then. And while that number includes cities and the infrastructure to support them—roads, rail, power lines, and so on—that number does not include land impacted by farming, logging, mining, or mineral extraction.

That 10 percent of the lower 48 could be crawling with people is a stark reminder that our nation—while immense—is not immune to the pressures of development. It’s also acknowledgement that despite years of hearing about the resurgence of American cities, sprawl is still king.

Today, it feels like much of what drove the suburbanization of America since World War II has changed. Incomes aren’t rising nearly as fast as they did in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, incomes have stagnated or dropped in recent decades. Soaring gas prices and congested freeways have stolen some of the automobile’s glamor, too.

Yet two studies show that while the outlook in the U.S. may have changed, our desire for suburban living has not. The study’s results differ slightly—the 2004 paper says we’ll add 25.8 million hectares (64 million acres) by 2025, the 2009 manuscript says 22.4 million hectares (55 million acres) by 2030—but their conclusions are the same. American cities will continue to sprawl, adding more land per person than in the past.

In recent decades, the locus of suburbanization has shifted from the Northeast and Midwest to the South. With its warmer weather and lower costs of living, the South has grown faster than any other region in the U.S. since 1980. Development has been fueled by flat, cheap land and abundant freeways, which has pushed land demands well above the national average in some states.

That boom also meant the South was hit hard by the housing bust in 2008. But that doesn’t mean the market for suburban housing has disappeared. Living the burbs is still cheaper than the city, and since real incomes for most Americans have suffered in recent years, development will continue to chase lower land prices. The recession and housing slump may have put a damper on suburban development, but I’m guessing it’s just a temporary blip.

Another factor that should conspire against suburban development—higher gas prices—also doesn’t seem to have much of an influence. The 2009 study suggests development rates won’t take much of a hit from high fuel costs. To simulate rising gas prices, the study’s authors reduced the forecasted development rate in states where it was highest—primarily the car-centric South. Only 5 percent less land was converted from rural to urban uses.

It’s possible things could change—perhaps fuel costs will rise even higher, or maybe the home downsizing trend that’s in its infancy will mature. But I think we should prepare for a future filled with suburbs. In the South, where most of the development is happening, land continues to be cheap and easy to access. The same warm weather that drew many people there will also keep them in their cars. Nobody likes walking in the South’s sweltering summers, even if it’s just from the steamy parking lot to the over-air conditioned mall.

The question then is, how can we make the suburbs more environmentally friendly? Encouraging compactness would be a good start, even just at the subdivision level. Hopscotch development inflicts ecological damage well beyond its immediate footprint—there are many plants and animals that cannot survive surrounded by a sea of humanity. Dispersing job and commercial centers is another option, helping to reduce the number of miles people have to drive on a day-to-day basis.

In the end, though, we’ll have to push for more ecologically integrated development. We’ve seen small steps in that direction already—most new subdivisions must deal with run-off from rainstorms on-site rather than shunting it to an overburdened creek. It’s a start, but not enough to offset America’s suburban future.


Alig, R., Kline, J., & Lichtenstein, M. (2004). Urbanization on the US landscape: looking ahead in the 21st century Landscape and Urban Planning, 69 (2-3), 219-234 DOI: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2003.07.004

White, E., Morzillo, A., & Alig, R. (2009). Past and projected rural land conversion in the US at state, regional, and national levels Landscape and Urban Planning, 89 (1-2), 37-48 DOI: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2008.09.004

Photo by La Citta Vita.

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Plants rockin’ the suburbs, animals not so much

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