Claim: “The physical environment feels depressingly finished”

As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic considers innovation and Silicon Valley, he includes this paragraph regarding innovation in the physical and urban realm:

And if you look up from your smartphone, progress becomes harder to see. The physical world of the city—the glow of electric-powered lights, the rumble of automobiles, the roar of airplanes overhead and subways below—is a product of late-19th-century and early-20th-century invention. The physical environment feels depressingly finished. The bulk of innovation has been shunted into the invisible realm of bytes and code.

There are several pieces that can be pulled out of this an examined:

1. Has innovation in cities and urban areas slowed? Many of the major changes may have already happened – think the modern skyscraper, the car and all the roads to go with them – but I’m guessing there are some lesser-known changes in the last few decades that have made a major difference. (For better or worst, one would be the global shift toward and innovations in capitalism, neoliberalism, and the finance industry that has had large effects on numerous cities and neighborhoods.)

2. If “the physical environment feels depressingly finished,” does this mean a change in aesthetics or style could alter this? Science-fiction films and shows tend to depict cities as white, gleaming, and move curved than they are today. Think Her which merges city life and technological change. Or, find images of cities from researchers, activists, and architects who imagine much greener cities full of plants and life rather than hard surfaces and cars. Perhaps the problem is not innovation as it is described in this article; one issue is that the look of big cities has not changed much in the fifty years or so (even as some individual buildings or projects might stand out).

3. If the look and feel of cities has not changed as much recently, could “the invisible realm of bytes and code” bring significant changes to the physical environment in the next few decades? In contrast to #2, perhaps future innovation in spaces will be less about collective experiences and aesthetics and more about changed private experiences. Imagine Virtual Reality in cities that allows pedestrians to see or overlay different information over their immediate surroundings. Or, easier access to Big Data in urban settings that will help individuals/consumers make choices.

GE moved to Boston to be near big ideas, disruption, competition

Big companies moving back to big cities is a trendy thing and here the CEO of General Electric describes their recent move back to Boston:

Immelt: You know, we wanted to get to a city. At the end of the day, I think for the company we wanted to get into a place where there was more of an every day where you could get up and be part of an academic setting. So I think it was important to get to a city...

I have to say it’s real. I thought it was a little bit of B.S. initially, I wasn’t sure. And when I looked out the window—when I was in Connecticut, it was beautiful, awesome, great office—but when I looked out my window, I saw nothing, there was nothing going on. I could watch cars go on the highway, things like that.

I’ve been Boston now six weeks and you just walk out the door. You’re in the middle of an ecosystem that quite honestly for a big company, it makes you afraid. You’re where the ideas are. You get more paranoid when you’re doing that and that’s a good thing. So I thought it was—

Isaacson: Only the paranoid survive!?

Immelt: No, no. It’s a good thing. When you’re a big company, it can get hidden but it’s important that you’re in touch with what the next idea is or what the next disruption is. And so I’m kind of a big believer that that’s the wave of the future.

The summary suggests this echoes Richard Florida’s approach to cities. Yet, when people talk about Florida, they often refer to his ideas about employees and the workforce: a talented, diverse, and tolerant workforce that is attracted to thriving cultural and entertainment scenes. Immelt is suggesting something else is also important: competition between ideas. In the suburbs, it is easy to become comfortable and become insulated from cutting edge thinking (and technologies?).

It seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to test this idea: cities produce more innovation and competition than suburban areas. Off the top of my head, it seems like Bell Labs did okay for decades in largely suburban office and R&D facilities. Are the various companies in Silicon Valley hampered by being in more suburban settings (or to put it another way, could they have been even more successful)? Is being in the metropolitan area enough to help spur innovation or does a physical location in an urban core (even opposed to being within city limits but not near thriving areas) near other firms and employees doing these things matter?

Proposed: self-driving cars need to have drivers at the wheel

California is proposing that self-driving cars take their time in becoming self-driving:

The approach California’s Department of Motor Vehicles offered Wednesday in precedent-setting draft regulations is cautious, though it does allow that Californians could be behind the wheel of a self-driving car by 2017.

Among other safety-related requirements, the cars must have a steering wheel, and a licensed driver must be ready to take over if the machine fails…

Before the DMV grants that three-year permit, an independent certifier would need to verify a manufacturer’s safety assurances. Google and traditional automakers advocated for manufacturer self-certification of safety, the standard for other cars.Drivers would need special, manufacturer-provided training, then get a special certification on their licenses. If a car breaks the law, the driver would be responsible.

This is not too surprising given the newness of the technology as well as the potential safety hazards for others on the road. I don’t think any body of government wants to be responsible if the self-driving technology fails and someone is hurt or dies.

At the same time, this article introduces a new wrinkle to the development of this technology: if companies think these regulations are too onerous, why not develop the cars elsewhere? The suggestion here is that Texas might emerge as another option. Could it be better for consumers and innovation if two states work with different regulations and different companies?

Fighting public urination with splash-back paint

Public nuisances can lead to innovation in San Francisco:

The city’s Public Works agency is testing a pee-repellant paint on walls in areas that have been saturated with urine. Anyone urinating on the specially treated walls will get the spray splashed back onto them.

San Francisco’s director of public works, Mohammed Nuru – whose Twitter handle is @MrCleanSF – got the idea when he read on social media about the use of the paint in Hamburg, Germany’s nightclub district to stop beer drinkers from relieving themselves in the street.

The paint, called Ultra-Ever Dry, is sold by Ultratech International Inc and is billed as a superhydrophobic coating that will repel most liquids…

In a pilot program, San Francisco last week painted nine walls in areas around bars and other areas with big homeless populations.

This may be welcome in many places. Yet, the lack of bathrooms in many major cities is a big issue. For example, Mitchell Duneier has a section in his ethnography Sidewalk on the issues homeless black street vendors have in finding facilities. The paint may help deter people – particularly those around bars who could use the restrooms there – but doesn’t address the bigger concerns about clean public restrooms.

CA homeowners looking to use greywater to save their lawns

Californians looking to keep watering their lawns and plants may be turning to recycled greywater:

At the California Water Resources Board’s recycled water unit, chief Randy Barnard is fielding many calls from homeowners desperate to save their beloved lawns and gardens. “If they’ve got a prize fruit tree they’ve been babying for years, they don’t want to lose that tree,” he said.

But for many, he has some bad news to share. Recycling water at home is not as easy as just hooking your shower up to the lawn sprinklers, and recycled water probably won’t save the lawn…

In California, homeowners are now allowed to irrigate with untreated water straight from bathroom sinks, washing machines and bathtubs, as long as — among other requirements — the water lines run beneath soil or mulch, so as not to come in contact with people. That rules out using untreated gray water on lawns, which typically need above-ground spray heads or sprinklers.

Gray water can even go to vegetable gardens like Negrin’s and Friedman’s, as long as it doesn’t touch root vegetables or any other plant part that’s eaten. Tomatoes are fine, but forget about carrots.

The latest plumbing-code changes have enabled families to install these straightforward laundry-to-landscape systems without a permit, sending wash water into the yard with a valve to divert it back into the sewage system when needed. A handy homeowner can do it with no more than a couple hundred of dollars of piping and parts.

Necessity – a drought though perhaps the state’s required water consumption cuts provide the motivation now – leading to innovation. Three additional thoughts:

1. This hints at the lengths people will go to continue watering their lawn and plants. Not everyone want to paint their lawn or replace it with other surfaces besides grass.

2. Doesn’t this pose something interesting safety issues? What if the homeowners do this wrong and contaminate certain things they grow. Who regulates all of this? I can imagine someone complaining about the children who could be affected by this.

3. If this is relatively easy to do, why isn’t this a common feature of homes already? Even if your location isn’t experiencing a major drought, this seems like basic conservation.

Using Chicago as a new big data laboratory

University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park once said that the city was a laboratory. A new venture seeks to use Chicago as just that:

On the heels of the University of Chicago’s $1 million Innovation Challenge for urban policy solutions, today’s announcement that UI Labs (“universities and industries”) will open CityWorks, a private R&D partnership that will be based on Goose Island, sets up the city to be a center for urban studies, technology and innovations. Founding partners Microsoft, Accenture, ComEd and Siemens will operate a bit like angel investors, according to Jason Harris, a spokesman for UI Labs. This project will seek to “level up Chicago as a center for the built environment.” The city’s mix of university and industry partners, government leadership and legacy of architecture and design innovation place it in a perfect position for this kind of incubator, according to Harris.

CityWorks wants to seed 6-8 ideas this year, focused on energy, physical infrastructure, transportation and water and sanitation, Harris says (funding amounts aren’t being released). “Our vision is that we have projects that can use the city as a testbed and try out ideas not being tested in other cities,” he says.

CityWorks will award grants to university and private researchers, with a focus on digital planning and the Internet of Things. Chicago is vying to be an important center for this potentially lucrative field. With the recent introduction of the Array of Things, a cutting-edge system of sensors that researchers and computer scientists are hoping will prove the value of real-time, open-source city data, and the recent opening of Uptake, a Brad Keywell-backed startup looking to bring custom data analytics solutions to businesses, the city is well-positioned to become a leader in the field.

I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this. It sounds like the goal the goal is to use big data collected at the city scale to find solutions to urban business issues. I do wonder if this is primarily about making profits or more about addressing urban social problems.

Some might be surprised to see such a project going forward in Chicago. After all, isn’t it a Rust Belt city struggling with big financial problems and violence? At the same time, this project highlights Chicago as a center of innovation (which requires a particular social context), a place where businesses want to locate, and home to a good amount of human capital (in both research interests and educated workers).

Innovative design in response to social needs and social conditions

The creativity in innovative design doesn’t come emerge from a vacuum: one academic explains how it is related to social forces.

“The ADA totally changed transport, architecture and every area where accessibility is important,” he says. “Design also develops out of a sense of social needs.”…

At a time when Jony Ive’s creations for Apple are as much status symbol as a technological advance, Margolin believes that the discipline’s potential lies in solving big problems and the creation of culture, not just the newest products…

He sees system design and a systemic perspective as key to innovation. Numerous modern inventions, such as Peapod and mobile banking, are built upon pre-existing infrastructure and only work well when they encompass different behaviors and user cases. Failures that ignore these perspectives are apparent every day…

Margolin also believes that innovation on a disruptive scale often requires a concept that creates a community of people around a common cause, such as the American mobilization of industry during WWII, the growth of research laboratories of mid-century American industry or the Silicon Valley of Steve Jobs’ era, inspired in part by the innovations of Xerox’s PARC research division.

This is related to one thing I try to impart in my Culture, Media, and Society course: despite our images of lone geniuses developing great novels, music, art, technology, etc., objects come out of a social process. This is the argument of a number of sociological works on cultural production and includes famous ideas like Becker’s idea of “art worlds.” You can also this in case studies of certain objects that once were not very popular but became popular through a series of events, such as the Mona Lisa whose stature was heightened by theft. Of course, social forces can also limit creativity whether we are talking about Babylonian culture in the first century BC where they were more interested in preservation of their past or in current copyright law that places restrictions on using created works.