Category Archives: Cities of the Future

What To Do With Dead Malls?

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Just when you think you have a handle on the brick-and-mortar retail crisis, the prognosis gets worse. More than 8,600 stores will close their doors in 2017, according to Credit Suisse analysts—a number that exceeds store closures during 2008, when America was in recession. One quarter of all shopping malls are expected to shutter in the next five years, according to the same report.

This downward spiral has severe economic implications, although some are less apocalyptic than they seem at first. In fact, there’s some evidence that automation and e-commerce actually create more—and better-paying—jobs than they destroy.

But there’s one issue that no one has figured out how to solve: what to do with all those vacant stores. And America has more of them than anyone. Retail square feet per capita in the U.S. is more than six times that of Europe or Japan. As our physical stores continue to lose market share to e-commerce, more than one billion square feet of commercial real estate could be gathering dust by 2022. Because blight begets blight, that number could climb even higher.

If these predictions hold, America’s retail landscape could look a lot like the residential landscape of Detroit.

To find a solution, retailers need to face the failings that landed them here. Blaming Jeff Bezos doesn’t change the fact that many companies have spent years with their heads in the sand. Sales have been migrating online for almost two decades, and millennials prefer to splurge on experiences—tasting menus, concert tickets, trips to Iceland—rather than flat-screen TVs. Faced with a crisis, traditional retailers responded by iterating an outdated model. Chains like Sears and Kmart used loyalty programs as Band-Aid solutions. Guess and Payless played a discount game but couldn’t keep up with their online competition.

The industry as a whole needs to accept that the in-store sales of the past aren’t coming back. Consumers no longer spend their Saturday afternoons going shopping, and no promotions or window displays are going to change that. Consumers are looking for places to be—not things to buy—when they leave the house. What’s needed is a radical new approach to sales—one that may not include selling goods in store at all. Smart retailers arerepurposing physical stores to do what e-commerce can’t: offer a memorable, meaningful and multisensory experience. A reimagining of what retail can be is already under way. Only one thing is certain: That old retail mantra—“stack ’em high and let ’em fly”—now applies only to online order-fulfillment centers.

Three Disruptive Approaches to Physical Retail
Nothing to buy but plenty to see: Samsung 837.
Nothing to buy but plenty to see: Samsung 837. PHOTO: SAMSUNG
The Nothing-to-Buy-Here Approach

Samsung 837

New York City

You’ll find plenty of Samsung products at the company’s 55,000-square-foot space in New York City’s Meatpacking District. But the phones, tablets and TVs on display aren’t for sale. Instead of a store, 837 is a “full brand immersion” designed to push customer engagement rather than on-site purchases. In this paradigm, the store becomes a kind of 3-D billboard. “It’s about creating an authentic connection and moments where our technology meaningfully enhances the experience,” says Zach Overton, vice president of customer experience at Samsung and general manager of Samsung 837. In addition to product samples, you’ll find displays that flex the tech giant’s prowess, like an immersive image tunnel that pulls content from your Instagram account as you pass through.

The only thing available for purchase is food curated by Smorgasburg, Brooklyn’s locavore open-air market. For non-Samsung users—who represent the majority of visitors to 837—the message is simple: We’re cooler than Apple.

‘Palm Beach Parade,’ a mural by renowned artist Michael Craig-Martin, will transform the facade of an abandoned Macy’s at CityPlace.
‘Palm Beach Parade,’ a mural by renowned artist Michael Craig-Martin, will transform the facade of an abandoned Macy’s at CityPlace. ILLUSTRATION: RELATED COMPANIES
Culture is the New Anchor Tenant


West Palm Beach, Fla.

There was a time when anchor stores—Sears, Nordstrom, Toys “R” Us—were the beating hearts and financial engines of large shopping malls. But as the big chains have foundered, their sprawling, underperforming outposts havebecome anchors in a more literal sense. At the axis of a once-thriving shopping center in West Palm Beach sits a 110,000-square-foot former Macy’s location, abandoned by the struggling retailer earlier this year. An immersive arts experience is taking over the space in December. World-renowned visual artist Michael Craig Martin will transform the exterior of the entire building with his largest mural to date, and famed sound designer Stephen Vitiello is creating a sound installation that will live in and around the detritus left behind by brands that once called the space home. This experiment by the landlord, real-estate giant Related Cos., aims to transform the struggling shopping center by putting culture front and center—and relegating retail to a supporting act. “It’s all about driving different kinds of traffic to a project,” says Ken Himmel, the president and CEO of Related Urban. “Mixed-use retail developments centered on cultural offerings are outperforming every other type of retail offering by a long shot.”

Drinking before shopping at the Restoration Hardware Lifestyle Store in Chicago.
Drinking before shopping at the Restoration Hardware Lifestyle Store in Chicago. PHOTO: RESTORATION HARDWARE
Everything Under One Roof

Restoration Hardware Lifestyle Store

West Palm Beach, Fla. (coming in Nov.), Denver, Chicago and more

While most retailers are shrinking their physical footprints, Gary Friedman, the chairman and CEO of Restoration Hardware, is thinking big. In 2015, the brand took over the 70,000-square-foot Three Arts Club in Chicago—10 times the size of a normal Restoration Hardware. The space allows for expanded showrooms but also an expansive vision of the brand, including design ateliers, a wine-tasting room and a music venue. “The key to unlocking the value of our assortment has been to transform our retail stores into huge design galleries,” Friedman says.

“Our new galleries generate two to three times higher retail sales than the legacy galleries they replaced.” In November, Restoration Hardware will open a 74,000-square-foot gallery in West Palm Beach, which is turning into a hotbed of experimental retail. An RH-branded hotel concept is also in the works.

Your Next Home Could Run on Batteries

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A combination of solar power and the rise of residential energy storage paves the way for a new kind of cable cutting

A customer inspects a Tesla Motors Inc. Powerwall unit inside a home in Monkton, Vt., in May 2016. Vermont's largest electric utility, Green Mountain Power, in partnership with Tesla Energy, is offering 2,000 customers the chance to have a Powerwall in their home for $15 a month.
A customer inspects a Tesla Motors Inc. Powerwall unit inside a home in Monkton, Vt., in May 2016. Vermont’s largest electric utility, Green Mountain Power, in partnership with Tesla Energy, is offering 2,000 customers the chance to have a Powerwall in their home for $15 a month. PHOTO: IAN THOMAS JANSEN-LONNQUIST/BLOOMBERG NEWS

In the near future, your home could be battery operated.

This is especially true if you live in New York, California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, Arizona or a growing roster of other states and municipalities experimenting with revamping their electrical grids for the 21st century.

You might not even know your lights are being kept on by the same chemical process that powers your smartphone, since the batteries could be tucked into what looks like a neighborhood junction box, or behind a fence in a substation. But now, thanks to efforts by startups and the utility companies they sell to (and sometimes battle), you might get one right inside your home.

The rise of these home batteries isn’t just a product of our collective obsession with new tech. Their adoption is being driven by a powerful need, says Ravi Manghani, of GTM Research: renewable energy.

Without batteries and other means of energy storage, the ability of utility companies to deliver power could eventually be threatened.

Solar power, especially, tends to generate electricity only at certain times—and it’s rarely in sync with a home’s needs. In some states, such as California and Arizona, there’s an overabundance of solar power in the middle of the day during cool times of the year, then a sudden crash in the evenings, when people get home and energy use spikes.

For utilities, it’s a headache. The price of electricity on interstate markets can go negative at certain times, forcing them to dump excess electricity or pay others to take it.

“This is not a long-term theoretical issue that might happen—this is now,” says Marc Romito, director of customer technology at Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric utility.

There’s something ruggedly individualistic and inherently American about having batteries in your home. They’re good for keeping power going in a disaster, as customers of the two biggest firms by sales volume in this field, Sonnen and Tesla, demonstrated in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. And in combination with rooftop solar panels, they free people from total dependence on the grid—a kind of energy cable-cutting that wonks call “grid defection.”

Solar power tends to generate electricity only at certain times and is rarely in sync with homes’ needs. Here, a portion of the Stafford Hill solar power project in Rutland, Vt., developed by Green Mountain Power, in September 2015
Solar power tends to generate electricity only at certain times and is rarely in sync with homes’ needs. Here, a portion of the Stafford Hill solar power project in Rutland, Vt., developed by Green Mountain Power, in September 2015 PHOTO: WILSON RING/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The very real possibility of grid defection is changing the power dynamics between utilities and their customers.

Last week, real-estate developer Mandalay Homes announced a plan to build up to 4,000 ultra energy-efficient homes—including 2,900 in Prescott, Arizona—that will feature 8 kilowatt-hour batteries from German maker Sonnen. It could eventually be the biggest home energy-storage project in the U.S., says Blake Richetta, senior vice president at Sonnen.

The homes, which will come with the Sonnen battery preinstalled, will be part of a Sonnen-managed “virtual power plant for demand response” that could allow the houses to stabilize the grid, lower its carbon footprint and decrease peak load, says Mr. Richetta.

An exterior shot of the Mandalay Homes development in Prescott, Ariz. The real-estate developer announced plans to build up to 4,000 ultra energy-efficient homes.
An exterior shot of the Mandalay Homes development in Prescott, Ariz. The real-estate developer announced plans to build up to 4,000 ultra energy-efficient homes. PHOTO: MANDALAY HOMES

While the Mandalay Homes project is still in the blueprint stage, with only one test home built so far, this kind of radical, battery-enabled rethink of the grid is already happening in Vermont.

In partnership with Tesla Energy, Green Mountain Power is offering 2,000 of its customers the opportunity to have a Tesla Powerwall in their home for $15 a month. The 13.5 kilowatt-hour batteries retail for $5,500, but the utility can afford to put them in homes because they help the company save on other grid infrastructure, says Mary Powell, GMP’s chief executive and president. “Peaker plants,” for instance, are fired up only when the grid is strained to maximum capacity, saving the utility from using one of its most expensive forms of electricity.

GMP also uses batteries from Sonnen, SimpliPhi and Sunverge. Ms. Powell says the larger battle for home battery storage will be over how each of these companies—and dozens of others—differentiates itself, selling different size batteries adapted for different uses in homes, businesses and utilities.

Arizona Public Service’s Mr. Romito says not all of these batteries are created equal—though he wouldn’t name names.

The biggest challenge to home battery storage remains economics. Utilities’ current rate structures don’t charge most homeowners for using excess power, nor do they change the price based on time of day. For the overwhelming majority of homeowners, the payback on a solar power system with battery storage could take decades.

Batteries aren’t the only way to reduce the need for short-order energy, or so-called “demand response,” says Mr. Romito. Smart thermostats, managed by the utility company, can precool homes when solar power is at peak production, reducing load on the grid in the evening.

The Mandalay homes will come with 8 kilowatt-hour batteries from German maker Sonnen. From left, Sonnen CEO Christoph Ostermann and Mandalay Homes CEO Dave Everson pose beside a Sonnen battery.
The Mandalay homes will come with 8 kilowatt-hour batteries from German maker Sonnen. From left, Sonnen CEO Christoph Ostermann and Mandalay Homes CEO Dave Everson pose beside a Sonnen battery. PHOTO:MANDALAY HOMES

This cannot only be as useful as batteries in certain cases, it can be more cost effective. Other possibilities include remotely determining when electric vehicles charge and even shifting large industrial loads to different times of year.

In states where electricity is more affordable, it’s still early days for batteries in homes. But Mr. Romito says users and utilities will continue to move toward them with the inexorable addition of more and more renewables to the grid.

Mr. Manghani of GTM Research agrees. His battery storage adoption forecasts track closely with states and regions where renewable energy is being generated.

Falling prices also help. Battery pack prices have decreased, on average, 24% a year since 2010. Cheaper batteries shorten the resulting payback period, which in turn makes renewable energy more attractive to home owners. In 2016, solar grew faster than any other energy source, according to the International Energy Agency.

At the intersection of these and other trends is a simple fact: For the first time since the discovery of fire, the way humans get energy is set to fundamentally change.

Boeing Deal Targets Flying Taxis

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Proposed acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences could pave way for fleets of pilotless flying taxis

Uber selected the Aurora eVTOL to explore potential flying taxis, with 50 due to be delivered by 2020.
Uber selected the Aurora eVTOL to explore potential flying taxis, with 50 due to be delivered by 2020. PHOTO: AURORA FLIGHT SCIENCES

Boeing Co. BA 0.98% on Thursday said it plans to acquire Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., a maker of aerial drones and pilotless flying systems in a move the company said could pave the way for fleets of small flying taxis.

Virginia-based Aurora is a specialist in autonomous systems that allow military and commercial aircraft to be flown remotely, including technology that automates many functions, and has been working with Uber Technologies Inc. on a new vehicle that would take off and land like a helicopter.

Flying taxi-style concepts have attracted interest and funding from technology and aerospace companies, though face big hurdles including regulations that would allow fleets to operate alongside commercial airliners and other air traffic, as well as batteries to keep them aloft for several hours.

The purchase of Aurora would also expand Boeing’s reach in the new field of electric-powered aircraft.

Flying car concepts and designs have been around for awhile. But some firms are looking to transform the idea and provide a point-to-point passenger vehicle service–or a flying taxi. Graphic Simulation: Volocopter (Originally published June 20, 2017)

Boeing’s venture capital arm also this year invested in Zunum Aero, a Washington state-based startup that on Thursday unveiled its plan for an electric-hybrid regional passenger jet.

“These types of technology are helping pilots today and are a steppingstone to pilotless aircraft,” said John Langford, Aurora’s founder and chief executive, in a live-streamed interview.

Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer, said the work on autonomous systems also had potential benefits for a host of other industries looking to leverage the potential of so-called machine learning, where computers improve from experience.

The proposed Aurora deal marks Boeing’s second acquisition in less than a year involving autonomous systems following last December’s purchase of Liquid Robotics Inc., a maker of ships and undersea vehicles, and adds to a portfolio that includes aerial drone maker Insitu.

Terms for the proposed purchase of Aurora weren’t disclosed. The firm has more than 550 staff and will be run as an independent unit in Boeing’s engineering and technology business.

Aurora also produces composite parts for aircraft and other vehicles. Boeing is looking to produce more of its own parts as part of an insourcing strategy to reduce costs and potential disruption in its supply chain.

Boeing has been considering further acquisitions as part of the push to expand sales at its newly formed services arm to $50 billion over the next several years from around $14 billion at present.

The Rise of the Smart City

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Officials are tapping all kinds of data to make their cities safer, healthier and more efficient, in what may be just the start of a sweeping change in how cities are run.

As city officials across the country begin to draw on data about income, traffic, fires, illnesses and more, big changes are already under way in leading smart cities.

Cities have a way to go before they can be considered geniuses. But they’re getting smart pretty fast.

In just the past few years, mayors and other officials in cities across the country have begun to draw on the reams of data at their disposal—about income, burglaries, traffic, fires, illnesses, parking citations and more—to tackle many of the problems of urban life. Whether it’s making it easier for residents to find parking places, or guiding health inspectors to high-risk restaurants or giving smoke alarms to the households that are most likely to suffer fatal fires, big-data technologies are beginning to transform the way cities work.

Cities have just scratched the surface in using data to improve operations, but big changes are already under way in leading smart cities, says Stephen Goldsmith, a professor of government and director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. “In terms of city governance, we are at one of the most consequential periods in the last century,” he says.

Although cities have been using data in various forms for decades, the modern practice of civic analytics has only begun to take off in the past few years, thanks to a host of technological changes. Among them: the growth of cloud computing, which dramatically lowers the costs of storing information; new developments in machine learning, which put advanced analytical tools in the hands of city officials; the Internet of Things and the rise of inexpensive sensors that can track a vast array of information such as gunshots, traffic or air pollution; and the widespread use of smartphone apps and mobile devices that enable citizens and city workers alike to monitor problems and feed information about them back to city hall.

All this data collection raises understandable privacy concerns. Most cities have policies designed to safeguard citizen privacy and prevent the release of information that might identify any one individual. In theory, anyway. In reality, even when publicly available data is stripped of personally identifiable information, tech-savvy users can combine it with other data sets to figure out an awful lot of information about any individual. Widespread use of sensors and video can also present privacy risks unless precautions are taken. The technology “is forcing cities to confront questions of privacy that they haven’t had to confront before,” says Ben Green, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and lead author of a recent report on open-data privacy.

Still, cities are moving ahead, finding more ways to use the considerable amounts of data at their disposal. Here’s a look at some of the ways the information revolution is changing the way cities are run—and the lives of its residents.

Spotting potential problems… before they occur

Perhaps the most innovative way cities are employing data is to anticipate problems.

Consider the risk of death by fire. Although declining nationally, there still were 2,685 civilian deaths in building fires in 2015, the latest year for which data is available. The presence of smoke alarms is critical in preventing these deaths; the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit standards group, says a working fire alarm cuts the risk of dying in a home fire in half.

New Orleans, like most cities, has a program run by its Fire Department to distribute smoke detectors. But until recently, the program relied on residents to request an alarm. After a fire in which five people—three children, their mother and grandmother—perished, the department started looking for a way to make sure that they were getting alarms into homes where they could make a difference.

FIRE RISK | With census and other data, New Orleans mapped the combined risk of missing smoke alarms and fire deaths, helping officials target distribution of smoke detectors.
FIRE RISK | With census and other data, New Orleans mapped the combined risk of missing smoke alarms and fire deaths, helping officials target distribution of smoke detectors. PHOTO: CITY OF NEW ORLEANS/OPA

Oliver Wise, director of the city’s Office of Performance and Accountability, had his data team tap two Census Bureau surveys to identify city blocks most likely to contain homes without smoke detectors and at the greatest risk for fire fatalities—those with young children or the elderly. They then used other data to zero in on neighborhoods with a history of house fires. Using advanced machine-learning techniques, Mr. Wise’s office produced a map that showed those blocks where fire deaths were most likely to occur and where the Fire Department could target its smoke-detector distribution.

Since the data program began in early 2015, the department has installed about 18,000 smoke detectors, says Tim McConnell, chief of the New Orleans Fire Department. That compares with no more than 800 detectors a year under the older program. It is too early to tell how effective it has been at preventing fire deaths, Chief McConnell says, since they are so rare. But the program did have an early, notable success.

A few months after the program began, firefighters responded to a call in Central New Orleans. Arriving, the fire crew found three families—11 people in all—huddled on the lawn. The residents had been alerted by smoke detectors recently installed under the outreach program.

“That was just one of those stories where you go, ‘This works,’ ” Chief McConnell says. “For us, it’s a game changer.”

Predictive analytics have also been used to improve restaurant health inspections in Chicago. The Department of Public Health relies on about three dozen inspectors to check for possible violations at more than 15,000 food establishments across the city. It needed a better way to prioritize inspections to make sure that places with potential critical violations—those that carry the greatest risk for the spread of food-borne illness—were examined before someone actually became sick.

The data team in the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology developed an algorithm that looked at 11 variables, including whether the restaurant had previous violations, how long it has been in business (the longer, the better), the weather (violations are more likely when it’s hot), even stats about nearby burglaries (which tells something about the neighborhood, though analysts aren’t sure what).

CHECK, PLEASE | To prioritize restaurant inspections, Chicago developed an algorithm to identify eateries most likely to have violations. The darker the pink, the higher the likelihood.
CHECK, PLEASE | To prioritize restaurant inspections, Chicago developed an algorithm to identify eateries most likely to have violations. The darker the pink, the higher the likelihood. PHOTO: CITY OF CHICAGO

With the tool, the health department could identify establishments that were most likely to have problems and move them up the list for inspection. After the algorithm went into use in 2015, a follow-up analysis found that inspectors were visiting restaurants with possible critical violations seven days sooner than before. Since then, its use has resulted in a 15% rise in the number of critical violations found, though the number of illness complaints—an imperfect measure of violations—has been flat.

Sensors on everything

Just as individuals are flocking to Fitbits and other wearables to monitor their health, cities, too, are turning to sensors to track their own vital signs. Through this Internet of Things, sensor-equipped water pipes can identify leaks, electric meters can track power use, and parking meters can automatically flag violations.

As part of a smart-city initiative, Kansas City, Mo., has installed computer-equipped sensors on streetlights along a 2.2-mile light-rail line that opened in March of last year. The city uses video from the sensors to gather information about traffic and available street parking along the corridor. The data is then made available on a public website that shows the location of streetcars, areas where traffic is moving slowly, and locations with open parking spots. It also provides an hourly traffic count in the corridor for the past day.

PARK HERE | In Kansas City, Mo., sensors on streetlights along a new light-rail line gather information about traffic and available parking that the public can view online.
PARK HERE | In Kansas City, Mo., sensors on streetlights along a new light-rail line gather information about traffic and available parking that the public can view online. PHOTO: XAQT

The sensors can even count foot traffic, which could assist entrepreneurs looking to open a new coffee shop or retail outlet, and help city officials estimate the size of crowds, which is useful in responding to public disturbances or in assigning cleanup crews after events like the city’s 2015 World Series parade. Their ability to detect motion also can be used to adjust the LED streetlights so that they dim if no one is around and automatically brighten if cars or pedestrians pass by. The goal is to use data to “improve our efficiency of service and ascertain what services we ought to be providing,” says Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer.

Cities are also putting sensors in the hands of citizens. In Louisville, Ky., a coalition of public, private and philanthropic organizations has provided more than 1,000 sensor-equipped inhalers to asthma sufferers to map where in the city poor air quality is triggering breathing problems. The tiny sensors, from Propeller Health, a Madison, Wis., medical-device company, have built-in GPS that collects time and location data with each puff of the inhaler.

The city is still completing its analysis of the data, but early findings were impressive, says Grace Simrall, Louisville’s chief of civic innovation. For one thing, patients in the program saw measurable improvement, in part by giving them a better understanding of their disease, and their physicians more information to devise treatment plans. And as expected, the data made it possible to show clusters of inhaler use and link it with air pollution.

In one case, sensor data spotlighted a congested road on the east side of town where inhaler use was three times as high as in other parts of the city. In response, the city planted a belt of trees separating the road from a nearby residential neighborhood; the plantings have resulted in a 60% reduction in particulate matter (which can aggravate breathing problems) behind the green belt.

Citizens as data collectors

Using the public as data collectors isn’t new—it’s the idea behind 911 and 311 systems. But smartphone apps, in the hands of residents and city workers, give cities new and more powerful ways to expand their data-collection efforts.

In Mobile, Ala., building-code inspectors armed with smartphones and Facebook Inc.’sInstagram photo-sharing app were able to inventory the city’s 1,200 blighted properties in just eight days—a task that enforcement officers had previously considered impossible with the older paper-based systems of tracking blight. With Instagram, inspectors could snap a photo of a property and have it appear on a map, showing officials where dilapidated, abandoned or other problem properties are clustered.

AIR TRIGGER | Sensor-equipped asthma inhalers in Louisville that collect data on time and place of use have improved care for individuals and helped the city address problem areas.
AIR TRIGGER | Sensor-equipped asthma inhalers in Louisville that collect data on time and place of use have improved care for individuals and helped the city address problem areas. PHOTO: PROPELLER HEALTH

The inventory was just the first step. Mobile’s two-year-old Innovation Team, funded with a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, cross-referenced the data with other available property information—tax records, landmark status, out-of-state ownership—to compile a “blight index,” a master profile of every problem property in the city. This made it possible to identify which property owners might need assistance in rehabbing their properties and which ones to cite for code violations. The city is wrapping up a second survey of blighted properties to measure the net change over the past year, says Jeff Carter, Innovation Team’s executive director. “Instagram was phase one, and we would never have made it to phase two without it,” Mr. Carter says.

Mobile data collection is also helping Los Angeles to clean up city streets. Teams from the city sanitation department use video and smartphones to document illegal dumping, abandoned bulky items and other trash problems. The teams can use an app to report problems needing immediate attention, but what was really noteworthy—especially for a city the size of L.A.—was that they were able to view and grade all 22,000 miles of the city’s streets and alleyways.

The result has been to give officials and the public a better picture of garbage-plagued areas that can be targeted under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Clean Streets program. Data collected by the mobile teams is compiled in a detailed map of the city, with each street segment rated as being clean, somewhat clean and not clean. The city publishes the map online so that anyone can get a color-coded view of how streets rank for cleanliness.

STATE OF THE STREETS | This online map tracks the progress of Los Angeles’s Clean Streets program. Green means ‘clean,’ yellow ‘somewhat clean,’ and red ‘not clean.’
STATE OF THE STREETS | This online map tracks the progress of Los Angeles’s Clean Streets program. Green means ‘clean,’ yellow ‘somewhat clean,’ and red ‘not clean.’ PHOTO: CLEAN STREETS LA

The program, which recently finished its first full year, has resulted in an 80% reduction in the number of areas scored “not clean,” says Lilian Coral, Los Angeles’s chief data officer. The new data-driven approach not only has made it possible to better identify problem areas, Ms. Coral says, but it also has helped to reduce disparities in the city’s cleanup efforts, which previously depended mainly on complaints to identify locations needing attention.

In Boston, meanwhile, the city has joined with Waze, a navigation app from Google that enables drivers to share traffic and road conditions in real time.

The Boston traffic-management center uses Waze data to supplement live feeds from its network of traffic cameras and sensors, getting a more detailed picture of what’s happening on city streets. Messages from Waze users can alert the center to traffic problems—a double-parked truck or a fender-bender—as soon as they develop, allowing officials to respond more quickly.

Waze data also has helped the city to run low-cost experiments on possible traffic changes. For instance, to test how to best enforce “don’t block the box” at congested intersections, the center took more than 20 problem intersections and assigned each one either a changing message sign, a police officer or no intervention at all. Using Waze data, analysts would then see which enforcement approach was most effective at reducing congestion. As it turns out, Waze’s traffic-jam data didn’t show that either approach made much difference in reducing congestion (which may reinforce the view of those who believe little can be done to eliminate traffic headaches).

The partnership, one of 250 that Waze has signed with cities around the world, also enables the city to feed street-closure and similar information into the Waze app, making it easier for drivers to reroute trips before they get stuck in traffic.

“When residents see a problem, sometimes their reaction is to call us, but more these days their instinct is to report it through an app like Waze or Yelp , ” says Andrew Therriault, Boston’s chief data officer. “To be as responsive as possible to the public’s needs, we need to listen to their input through whichever medium they choose to share it.”

Mr. Totty, a former news editor for The Journal Report in San Francisco, can be reached

Appeared in the Apr. 17, 2017, print edition.

Roll With It. “Hoverboards the new electric rides.

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What It’s Like to Have Wheels for Feet: Test Driving the Latest ‘Hoverboards’

With smarts to keep you upright, these electric rides are swiftly becoming a thrilling alternative to walking. We test ride the IO Hawk, OneWheel and RocketSkates

Using sensors and electric motors, the OneWheel, IO Hawk and RocketSkates let you zip around, steering with what feels like mind control.

WHY WALK WHEN you can glide? With the help of motion sensors, tiny computers and electric motors, a new breed of personal-transportation devices (sometimes misleadingly called hoverboards) is creating more efficient and thrilling ways to travel.

These electric-powered devices, which charge via a household outlet, have no clunky steering mechanisms or easy-to-lose remote controls. You pilot them by shifting your weight. Once you get the hang of them, it’s almost as if they’re reading your mind. Look toward your desired destination, lean in that direction and whoooosh.

The OneWheel in actionENLARGE

To help you stay upright, motion sensors feed data to a computer that figures out how to engage the motor. They can sense when a wheel needs to pivot just enough to keep you steady—and when to accelerate.

Learning to ride these is easier than mastering a bike, but good balance is required. Unless you’re a seasoned skateboarder or Rollerblader, plan on inching around your driveway like Bambi taking his first steps. A helmet, as well as elbow, knee and wrist pads, are recommended.

The legality of these devices, such as the three featured here, is murky. Although no law currently prohibits the use of the OneWheel in California, for example, the company lobbied to pass a law, going into effect next year, that explicitly allows it to be ridden wherever bicycles are permitted. The U.K. has banned the IO Hawk, but it’s legal in most of the U.S.

The only other caveat is that these devices are heavy. Lugging them through a train station or the lobby of an office building can be a drag. (The IO Hawk weighs 22 pounds, the OneWheel 3 pounds more; each RocketSkate weighs 7.5 pounds.)

But these gadgets are not meant to be carried. They’re designed to fly. Here are three especially smooth rides.

For Carving Turns | OneWheel


Top Speed: 15 mph

Range: 7 miles

Charging Time: 20 minutes

This 30-inch-long board with a huge wheel suspended in the middle might seem like an accident waiting to happen. But cruising on the OneWheel is not as daunting as it might look, thanks to a gyroscope and accelerometer embedded in the platform. The system not only controls acceleration and braking based on how your weight is distributed—it also helps you stay upright. A smartphone app lets you dial back top speed and acceleration rate.

That said, the OneWheel is challenging to get the hang of. To engage the device, place your back foot on one side and set your dominant foot on a spot marked on the other platform. You’ll feel the system kick in. Then lean in either direction to roll forward or backward.

It took me about two very fraught minutes to get comfortable enough to inch forward on my own. Ten minutes later I was able to make tentative wide turns. Before long, though, I got it. The 11-inch air-filled tire, I discovered, flies over rough road and sand with barely a hiccup. $1,499,

For Ease of Use | IO Hawk


Top Speed: 6.2 mph

Range: 12 miles

Charging Time: 3 hours

The IO Hawk is as easy to master as a Segway—just stand and lean—but you don’t look as dorky on one. Unlike a Segway, the IO Hawk has no dignity-abusing handle poking up. It’s also a lot smaller. (It has celebrity cred, too, for what that’s worth: Justin Bieber and other boldfaced names have been spotted on it.)

A few seconds after hopping on, I was whizzing around with confidence as the electric motor whirred beneath me. Each wheel can be controlled separately (it’s like having two gas pedals), so I had no trouble making tight turns. And since the wheels can spin forward and backward, twirling in place is a cinch. This is what it would feel like to have wheels for feet.

The LED lights in front are bright enough to illuminate any divots in the road. They also draw attention to your futuristic ride. Before long, I was hooked. I’d even look for excuses to roam the office with it. It’s a great way to get to the water cooler and back. $1,800,

For Skating | RocketSkates R10

RocketSkates R10ENLARGE

Top Speed: 12 mph

Range: 10 miles

Charging Time: 2.5 hours

Yes, these self-propelled roller skates were inspired by Road Runner cartoons in which Wile E. Coyote supercharges his roller skates using dynamite. Thankfully, these use 55-watt motors.

After you step into the RocketSkates and buckle them over your shoes, you begin as you would with traditional skates: Push off on your dominant foot. Once both skates are rolling, you can activate their motors by tilting your foot forward. To brake, lean back on your heels.

Sounds easy enough, but it took me about an hour to feel steady on my motorized feet. Two motors is a lot to keep track of—which I realized when my feet would pull in different directions if I went duck-toed. You don’t need skating experience, but it’s definitely helpful to have clocked time at the roller rink.

Like the OneWheel, these have an app that lets you adjust the riding mode from beginner to expert. It’ll also let you tailor the skates’ performance by taking into account your weight and height. $699,

Corrections & Amplifications

The OneWheel is legal to ride in California. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said its use is illegal in the state.

The Internet of Everything Empowers Cities as Never Before

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The Huffington Post

By John M. Eger, Director of the Creative Economy Initiative at San Diego State University (SDSU)


As San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said at the City Innovate Summit last week:

Cities today are the engines of the greatest surge in innovation, creativity and problem solving in human history … and cities that think of themselves as platforms will become stronger, attract better talent and become smarter from the bottom up.

Let’s be frank. The strength of America’s economy and as well as our political prowess in the world are inextricably linked. Cities — not the Federal government — are best positioned to renew and reinvent America for the new, global, knowledge-based economy.

In this new world economy where every nation, every community, every individual is competing with every other, as President Obama said before a joint session of Congress:

We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world…We have to make America the best place on earth to do business.

Increasingly, cities across America are starting to change the focus, deploy technology and prepare our citizens to out innovate, out educate and out build every other community and thus every other nation in the world. It is the cities — not Washington, D.C. — that we need to look to for leadership to reinvent America for the new economy.

Of course, whom we elect as president is important, but whoever emerges in 2016, there role is extremely limited as to what they can accomplish with so many issues outside the domain of the President’s power. Urban scholar and author Neal Pierce observed, that national economies no longer exist; only a global economy and a “constellation of regional economies, with major cities at their core.”


More recently, Benjamin Barber, author of If Mayors Ruled The World, underscored the notion that cities are critical to almost everything we need as a country, and has written:

The nation-state is failing us on the global scale … cities and the mayors that run them, offer the best new forces of good governance… They are the primary incubator of the cultural, social, and political innovations which shape our planet.

Technology, particularly the “Internet of Everything” (IoE), where everything is connected to almost every other thing, is providing cities and their elected officials with the tools to ensure safer cities, better transportation, health care, energy and water conservation, clean air, and environmental services. By installing the broadband necessary for the IoE, cities are also building the platform for innovation.


The new broadband infrastructure coupled with Big Data analysis can serve to make the city government more transparent and also encourage individuals and companies to develop innovative products and services; and importantly, engage the general public to help create “efficiencies that save taxpayer money” and “build trust in the public sector.” That is at the heart of The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data Smart Governance, by former Mayor of Indianapolis and Deputy Mayor of New York, Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and special assistant to both President Obama and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

As IBM, which launched a “smart cities initiative” in the last few years put it:

As cities grow in both numbers and population, they are taking their place on the world’s center stage, with more economic, political and technological power than ever before. Economically, they are becoming the hubs of a globally integrated, services-based society. Politically, they are in the midst of a realignment of power — with greater influence, but also greater responsibility.

Goldman Sachs calls the IoE the 3rd wave, and points out that while, “The 1990’s fixed Internet wave connected 1 billion users … the 2000’s mobile wave connected another 2 billion. The IoE has the potential to connect 10X as many (28 billion) “things” to the Internet by 2020, ranging from bracelets to cars. Gartner research says that this year we already have 4.9 Billion Connected “Things.”

The payoffs are huge.

According to Cisco Systems, IoE could generate $4.6 trillion in value for the global public sector by 2022 through cost savings, productivity gains, new revenues and improved citizen experiences… Cities have the potential to claim almost two-thirds of the non-defense (civilian) IoE public sector value. Cities, they believe, will capture much of this value by implementing killer apps in which “$100 billion can be saved in smart buildings alone by “reducing energy consumption.”

City leaders are awakening to the challengers and the opportunities before them. In just the last few years, over 50 cities have joined forces to create an organization called Next Century Cities. Together they have committed to embracing technology, identifying opportunities to change their current systems of police, fire, safety, transportation, health care, water and energy and more; and finding more ways to collaborate at the state, county and city level, keys to our Nation’s success and survival.

The Real-Time Sensor Networks Building a Complete Picture of Our World

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By PSFK Labs on July 29, 2014

The Real-Time Sensor Networks Building a Complete Picture of Our World

If knowledge is power, then each sensor that comes online offers an increase in human potential and enhanced decision making.

What if your car could monitor the conditions of the road you are driving on and use that information to alert other drivers, as well as road crews to potholes, icy spots, or other dangers? Imagine if the weather information delivered to you each day over your morning coffee arrived with greater accuracy courtesy of crowdsourced data offered up by millions of sensors coming online. Fortunately for us, a world we perhaps relegated to the realm of science fiction is not far off from becoming a feasible reality.

Embedding our objects and devices with more, and more varied, sensors means that collecting and organizing data, can become handled by dedicated systems. These systems organize the information of our world, and then analyze it in ways which help us make sense of the world around us. A ‘Distributed Intelligence’ in this sense, will give us greater freedom by letting us focus our powerful brains, and our precious time, on how it all fits together in the big picture.


Take PressureNET, a project by Canadian company Cumulonimbus, which is a crowdsourced attempt at collecting data from the sensors already embedded in the products we commonly use.

Have you ever left your umbrella at home only to find that the sunny forecast failed to catch those after work showers? Meteorologists make their predictions based on the atmospheric data available to them.

The app leverages the barometric sensor built in to many Android phones so that researchers can have a higher resolution view of weather formations. The more data they have, the more accurate the forecast. Instead of the current system of mostly stationary weather sensors, PressureNET would be a fluid network of data points passively gathering and broadcasting hyper-local atmospheric changes.

Some 18,000 phones worldwide are now contributing around 6,000 measurements every hour. That’s nothing compared to the total number of devices equipped with the right sensors. As more people download the app and connect to PressureNET researchers will be able to translate this data into highly accurate forecasts of thunderstorms and tornados, but smartphones aren’t the only way to add mobility to these networks.


At the individual level, we only increasingly find ourselves being welcomed to participate in the digital murals being painted of our cities.

To crowdsource environmental reporting efforts, the Copenhagen Wheel features a built in hub to its back tire that collects data on pollution levels, traffic congestion, and road conditions in real-time, in effect converting travelers into mobile sensing units contributing to a larger conversation around the health of city environments and key infrastructure.

After debuting four years ago as a conference at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference, the bike is finally available for purchase this year shipping for a little over the cost of a moderately priced road bike.

23 Car2Car communication

Volvo has been a longtime pioneer of automotive safety. It’s no wonder that the company is taking advantage of new technology to improve how we monitor and address unsafe driving conditions.

In a partnership with the Swedish and Norwegian governments, Volvo is putting a fleet of test cars on Scandinavian roads. These cars will be able to detect changes in road friction, signaling potentially dangerous conditions like icy or slippery roads, and broadcast that data over a cloud-based system to local maintenance crews as well as other cars nearby. Volvo hopes to make this technology available to consumers within the next few years.

“When the road administrator has access to information from a large number of cars, the data can be used to make winter road maintenance more efficient,” said Erik Israelsson, Project Leader Cooperative ITS (Intelligent Transport System at Volvo Cars, explained in a recent press release. “The information could help to improve road safety further for all road users. This could also reduce the use of salt when not needed and minimize the environmental impact.”

Of course it’s our cities that will see the most immediate effects of this trend.

Earlier this year Intel and the Dublin City Council announced a joint project to transform Republic of Ireland’s capital into the most densely sensored city in the world. The plan is to place 200 sensor gateways-with up to six sensors each-at key points around Dublin to monitor environmental data such as air quality and micro-climate conditions.

“This is a very exciting development for Dublin and for Intel,” said the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Oisin Quinn.

“People cycling to work or exercising during the day will be able to find the most environmentally friendly routes. In addition there will be the opportunity for smart phones to be used as sensors giving further real time information as to how people are using the city to move ab out and for exercise. I hope that the city will respond by providing better cycleways, more trees and making traffic adjustments to reduce areas where air quality is poor or noise levels high.”

The “what if” question of whether these sensors could help improve our roads, environments, or weather forecasts is now more accurately replaced by “how could”, leaving the bulk of our thinking around what challenges these systems will help us overcome. When each of us has access to such a large quantity of high-resolution data about the world around us we will be able to make more informed decisions.

Armed with the best information available, we can focus on the larger implications of global minutiae, and make the big picture decisions that can change our lives for the better.

In The Real World Web, iQ by Intel and PSFK Labs explore the role internet-enabled technologies will play in connected ecosystems of the future. This series, based on a recent report, looks at the rise of the internet of things and its impact on consumer lifestyles.  

10 tech trends every smart government should know about

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Key Points:

To be truly effective, governments can’t just look at themselves as governments any more. They need to become smart governments. According to technology research house Gartner the ones doing this well, integrate social, mobile, cloud and information into their day-today operations and strategic planning. They use the following approaches:

1. Personal mobile workplace

2. Mobile citizen engagement

3. Big data and actionable analytics

4. Cost effective open data

5. Citizen managed data

6. Hybrid IT and cloud

7. Internet of Things

8. Cross domain interoperability

9. BPM for case management

10. Gamification for engagement




Digital future

If you’re in government, ignoring or cracking down on tech can come at a massive cost. While some have questioned the idea that social media was vital to the success of the Arab Spring, there can be no doubt that it was an important organizing tool. In the Ukraine meanwhile, the one of the first things the protesters who recently overthrew the government did was set up Wi-Fi so that they could continue communicating with the outside world.

Used properly though, social media can help those in government communicate effectively with the people they serve and even be used to address their issues. Beyond social, technology can also help change the way cities, towns, villages and even neighborhoods are run.

To be truly effective though, governments can’t just look at themselves as governments any more. They need to become smart governments. According to technology research house Gartner the ones doing this well, integrate social, mobile, cloud and information into their day-today operations and strategic planning.

“Smart government integrates information, communication and operational technologies to planning, management and operations across multiple domains, process areas and jurisdictions to generate sustainable public value,” says Andrea Di Maio, managing vice president at Gartner.

The research house has also identified 10 tech trends every government should be aware of:

1. Personal mobile workplace

Regardless of how well governments try to categorize the types of devices and applications people use, they will inevitably miss the fact that on any device, personal use will creep into professional use. Governments may have an illusion of control by either providing and managing those devices or issuing well-articulated policies to allow and manage employee-owned devices.

However, the reality is that government employees, like their corporate counterparts, depending on demographics, personal preferences and pressure to improve performance, can decide how much they want to use corporate information and applications versus personal information and applications.

2. Mobile citizen engagement

There’s growing government interest, says Gartner, in providing citizen-facing services using mobile devices. As well as leveraging social software functionalities. This interest is driven by a combination of pressure coming from the political leadership and from opportunities that new technologies present.

The suitability of government services to be delivered over a mobile channel depends on a combination of demographics, frequency and recurrence of use, immediacy and urgency of use, potential level of automation, relevance of location information for service delivery, and how compelling the use of the service is.

3. Big data and actionable analytics

Big data continues to present government with information management and processing issues that go beyond what their IT departments are capable of. Existing practices that selectively evaluate which data should be integrated are being challenged by the realization that all data can be integrated with technologies that are specifically developed to do so.

The adoption of big data concepts and initiatives in the public sector varies widely among jurisdictions and, to date, is limited to specific use cases such as fraud, waste and abuse detection; enhanced security capabilities; public health surveillance; healthcare management; or combining data from IT and operational technology (OT) applications to enhance security monitoring or increase situational awareness. Governments are searching for ways to use big data to gain business process efficiencies and reduce costs, but are having limited success.

4. Cost effective open data

Many tend to equate open data with public data, but Gartner subscribes to the idea that data can be defined as open when it is machine-readable and is accessible through an API. This can apply to potentially any data that needs to be processed: whether it be public, discoverable through Freedom of Information Act requests, or restricted for use by a particular government agency.

This leads to new ways of mashing up data coming from different sources as well as the ability to build new services and processes based on open data. Governments become both providers of open data to each other and to the public at large (the latter just for public data) and consumers of open data coming from other parts of government as well as from businesses, NGOs and citizen communities.

5. Citizen managed data

Citizen data vaults are services that provide people with the ability to access their data outside of a particular government transaction, allowing them much-finer-grained control over when and how data can be accessed, and by whom, within the relevant legal framework that they are subject to.

Citizen data vaults offer significant potential benefits in meeting Internet users’ evolving expectations, providing more transparent control of individual privacy rights on electronic data, easing the task of integrating different government services, and creating conditions for the creation of value-added services from commercial, nonprofit and peer-to-peer organizations (such as social networks).

On the other hand, there are significant challenges to overcome, including, data availability and reliability, credibility and security as well as the size and complexity of healthcare and other target areas.

6. Hybrid IT and cloud

Governments worldwide continue to pursue both public and private types of cloud services, but the focus is shifting from developing internal cloud services to allowing agencies to purchase commercially provided but governmentally restricted services. For example, government clouds from the likes of Google and Microsoft have shifted email service in a number of agencies from public to government clouds.

Meanwhile, more-open public clouds are being emphasized in several countries mostly for non-critical CRM-like applications. The main objectives pushing cloud adoption have been cost reduction, speed of procurement and deployment, and responsiveness to regulations and needs for cost cutting. The public cloud is also gaining momentum as governments seek savings via consolidated procurement.

7. Internet of Things

The internet is expanding beyond PCs and mobile devices into enterprise assets such as field equipment, and consumer items such as cars and televisions. Governments, as well as most enterprises and technology vendors, have yet to explore the possibilities of an expanded Internet and are not operationally or organizationally ready.

Smart city plans in several jurisdictions aim at exploring the ability to process huge masses of data coming from devices such as video cameras, parking sensors, air quality monitors and so forth to help local governments achieve goals in terms of increased public safety, improved environment, better quality of life.

8. Cross domain interoperability

Smart government initiatives depend on interoperable information — data obtained from external as well as internal sources — and networks that effectively integrate planning, performance analysis and business operations. Attempts to do this successfully have been mixed at best.

Programs aimed at pushing through an entire government structure have often failed to maintain momentum over budget cycles or changes in administration.

9. BPM for case management
There isn’t one market for case management because all cases are not the same. Gartner distinguishes two types of cases. In decision-centric cases, the purpose of the work effort is to make a decision about rights, entitlements, payments, enrollment, priorities, risk or some other high-impact outcome.

In investigative cases, the outcome is uncertain; the purpose of the work effort is to identify interaction patterns among data. When the case is created, it often has very little data and structure. As the investigation progresses, data is added and patterns begin to appear.

Fraud detection and criminal investigations are leading examples of this type. Both decision-centric and investigative cases have a heavy dependence on semi-structured and unstructured information.

10. Gamification for engagement

Gamification can be used by government to motivate interactions with citizens or to achieve more meaningful levels of engagement with employees. Humans are “hard-wired” to enjoy games and have a natural tendency to engage when interactions are framed in a game construct.

Gamification for government services, applications and processes can increase user interactivity and change behavior, resulting in greater engagement. Citizens or employees who can have fun are more likely to change behavior, for example, NASA Moonbase Alpha simulates lunar exploration to stimulate teamwork by using a variety of tools, including a lunar rover.

Governments planning to use gamification must however clearly understand the target audience they intend to engage, what behaviors they want to change, what motivates the audience and maintains their engagement, and how success will be measured.

Robots, Drones and the Uncertain Future of Work

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Key Points:

  • A recent Gartner report identified that 60 percent of CEOs dismiss the idea that automated and smart technologies could displace a huge percentage of jobs in the next 15 years.
  • Unfortunately for today’s average worker, finding or inventing a new job is harder than it once was. When economists look back, they see that it was around 1999 when something changed. Productivity kept going up, but where in the past median household income and employment per capita would have also hitched along, they instead diverged. Median household income is on a steep decline, employment isn’t bouncing back strongly after the Great Recession, and a greater percentage of Americans now identify themselves as “lower class” than at any point in history.
  • A study by two researchers at the Oxford Martin School concludes that within the next 20 years or so, approximately 47 percent of all jobs could be replaced by automation.
  • In addition, decoupling means the upper 1 percent gets a bigger piece of a growing pie, Brynjolfsson said, which also accounts for the shrinking middle class. “A lot of these digital technologies have winner-take-all or winner-take-most economics, where you can get a small group of people producing a better piece of software or insight, and once they’ve digitized that, they can replicate it 10 times or a hundred million times, and dominate the market for that,” he said.
  • What the Industrial Revolution did for muscle power, Brynjolfsson said, the second machine age is doing for brain power, and especially so in government.


If machines can do something better than people can, it would be senseless to hold back progress for fear of lost jobs. Finding or inventing a new job, however, is harder than it once was.


by / March 25, 2014 0


At the pinnacle of technological progress, man becomes a god. New machines and software are continually forged in man’s image and taught to do things that once only people could do. A day will come when man’s machines surpass their creators in their capacity to do and to think, and it will be at that technological singularity that the economy will double on a weekly basis and mankind will become peripheral to a new reality and consciousness beyond human comprehension. Conservative estimates place that date at about 100 years from now, but in the meantime, there are smaller fish to fry.


The American middle class is shrinking and it’s technology that’s causing it. It’s not all bad. The gains in efficiency begotten by automation have been great for productivity. And productivity means progress. It always has. Since the Industrial Revolution began around 1760, new technologies have been stealing jobs, and since 1760, people have responded by finding or inventing new jobs that contemporary technologies couldn’t do.


It’s a good system — in the long term, everyone benefits from technological progress, and while the workers losing their jobs in the interim might feel a bit miffed, people have always found a way to bounce back into an ever-adapting economy. Besides, if machines can do something better than people can, it would be senseless to ignore such utility and hold back progress for fear of a few temporarily lost jobs.


Unfortunately for today’s average worker, finding or inventing a new job is harder than it once was. When economists look back, they see that it was around 1999 when something changed. Productivity kept going up, but where in the past median household income and employment per capita would have also hitched along, they instead diverged. Median household income is on a steep decline, employment isn’t bouncing back strongly after the Great Recession, and a greater percentage of Americans now identify themselves as “lower class” than at any point in history.


Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, director and professor, respectively, at the MIT Sloan School of Management, named this divergence of productivity and employment “the great decoupling.” Technology is a broad term: It can be equally applied to a stick being used by a chimpanzee to extract insects from the Earth and to a rocket launching a chimpanzee into suborbital flight above the Earth. Today’s technologies are more scalable and complex than the machines people needed to outsmart in the past, which is a big reason for the decoupling.


Surveying a county road in 1998 meant that a team of workers needed to get into a pickup truck with a government seal on the side of it, drive, take photos and measurements of the area, return to the office and assess the information that was gathered. Researchers at the Michigan Tech Research Institute found in 2013 that it’s much easier to just send a drone. They also developed software that takes the sensory data gathered by the drone and generates a fully characterized 3-D model. People are still needed in the process to make high-level decisions and babysit the technology when things go wrong, but not as many people are needed. And even fewer will be necessary if the researchers’ concept is honed and commercialized.


The trouble is that the guy who once rode along in the pickup truck is now unemployed and he doesn’t know how to design drones or code 3-D modeling software. The average American is looking more and more like that guy. A study by two researchers at the Oxford Martin School concludes that within the next 20 years or so, approximately 47 percent of all jobs could be replaced by automation.


“Technology is racing ahead, but our skills, our organizations, our institutions aren’t keeping up,” Brynjolfsson said. “As they adjust, we will see more of the benefit show up in the economics, but right now there are a lot of technologies with more potential than has been fully realized.” This trend is just getting started.


A lot of economists, technologists and policymakers agree with McAfee and Brynjolfsson, but some say today’s technologies aren’t special — people will find new jobs just as they always have and no intervention is needed. It’s just the recession, they say. To understand why that’s not the case, people need to look closely at today’s technology, Brynjolfsson said.


For example, there are prototypes of autonomous vehicles on the roads. Legislators in Nevada, California, Florida and Michigan have penned laws allowing the vehicles limited public use, and some estimate that almost all vehicular traffic will be autonomous by 2050.


In a recent span of two months, Google purchased eight robotics and machine learning companies, not just because the technology will make cars drive themselves, but because smart robots can improve productivity across almost all of the company’s businesses. The problem with this extremely fast progress is that people are relatively slow. Although it won’t happen overnight, today’s 233,000 taxi drivers and 1.7 million truck drivers aren’t ready to become an anachronism.


In addition, decoupling means the upper 1 percent gets a bigger piece of a growing pie, Brynjolfsson said, which also accounts for the shrinking middle class. “A lot of these digital technologies have winner-take-all or winner-take-most economics, where you can get a small group of people producing a better piece of software or insight, and once they’ve digitized that, they can replicate it 10 times or a hundred million times, and dominate the market for that,” he said. “You can see it in checkout counter software, you can see it in tax preparation software — there are 17 percent fewer tax preparers than there were a few years ago — you can see it in airline reservations. In more and more categories, software is eating the world.”


Software can give legal advice, analyze data and automate data entry, and robots like IBM’s Watson can even diagnose and recommend accurate cancer treatments much better than humans can. One study showed that Watson can diagnose lung cancer accurately 90 percent of the time, compared to a measly 50 percent rate for human doctors. “There’s no economic law that says everyone is going to benefit from technological progress, even if it does make the pie a lot bigger,” Brynjolfsson said. “So both in terms of theory and evidence, I think there’s a potential to be concerned, and I am concerned.”


Amazon spent $775 million buying out Kiva Systems in 2012, the maker of a disc-shaped robot used in warehousing. Today Amazon uses the robots to fetch pallets of goods, saving workers the time and energy of running around to find products themselves. The purchase came soon after a report showing that some Amazon warehouse workers were walking 10 to 15 miles per shift. Most workers are probably grateful that their job is now to pack goods and do various administrative tasks rather than play fetch all day, but on the other hand, Amazon doesn’t need as many human employees now. If technology gets automatic and simple enough, it will eventually just be one guy in the Bahamas running the company from his smartphone. That might seem far-fetched, but it was in living memory that the idea of autonomous vehicles and talking robots were science fiction. Now those technologies border on passé.


Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory are developing a theoretical model and algorithms that would let robots like the ones used by Amazon communicate more intelligently with one another so they can solve logistical problems on the fly and also communicate with other sensory agents in the environment, human and otherwise. Once robots can talk to each other and solve problems on their own, even fewer people will be needed in those warehouses. When robots like Baxter, a $25,000 production line worker with a calm demeanor, get cheap enough, even sweatshop workers will be out of a job.


What the Industrial Revolution did for muscle power, Brynjolfsson said, the second machine age is doing for brain power, and especially so in government. “As you automate and augment a lot of mental tasks, it’s a little less clear whether those technologies will be complements or maybe substitutes for human labor, and that’s one of the things we’re working through now as a society,” Brynjolfsson said. “Government jobs on average tend to include more information processing, and on average the workers in that sector are more educated and doing more knowledge work than in a lot of other parts of the economy. So they, in some ways, are likely to be more affected.”


Today’s robots are very poor at doing some things, such as folding laundry (as one YouTube video confirms), and even worse at others, like offering compassion to a young student, or making a sound moral decision as a police officer. Those traditionally human skills are expected to gradually improve in robots, but in the meantime, data analytics and the Internet of Things provide a waypoint for progress. Facilities like the Domain Awareness Center now being constructed in Oakland, Calif., will make monitoring cities for crime and dispatching help a more efficient process. Likewise, predictive crime software is a rising trend in law enforcement in many cities. Making better use of data and distributed sensor networks means that fewer officers will be needed to cover a given geographic area because officers are better informed and more efficient. Even if it’s not the extreme scenario of Robocop taking over for human police officers, technology finds gains in efficiency everywhere and the cost is usually displacing human jobs.


Some are optimistic about what all this means for the world, and others less so, but to take either position is to accept that technological progress has a foregone conclusion, Brynjolfsson said, and it doesn’t. “It’s been said that the best idea America ever had was mass public education,” he said. “That helped us make the transition from an agricultural economy to one based on industry and services. It didn’t happen by accident; it happened through public policy. We’re going to have to reinvent what education is and focus more on creativity and interpersonal skills — things that machines are not very good at — and less on having people sit quietly in rows, listen to instructions and carry out those instructions.”


Nicco Mele agreed that education and government policy need to be revolutionized and that’s why he teaches future policymakers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Mele is a consultant to the Fortune 1000 and was named by Esquire as one of America’s “best and brightest.”


Modern technology, Mele said, compels us to rethink the assumptions of every discipline. “Look at our health-care policy, look at our retirement policy,” he said. “Those policies are built on this assumption that people have 9-to-5 jobs and stay with one employer their whole lives. That’s profoundly not true for the American workforce and hasn’t been true for well over a decade. A third of American workers are self-employed and another third are contingently employed, which means only about a third of the workforce has a traditional 9-to-5 job. Yet our policymakers and our politicians are building all the policy on the assumption that this is a good way to do it.”


American policymakers are on average older and richer, but they also tend to know less about technology, care less about technology and delegate technological responsibilities to others, Mele said, and this is unacceptable in a world where tech influences everything.


“Imagine a state legislator saying, ‘I don’t think about money. I don’t worry about money, I don’t worry about the tax rate, I don’t worry about the budget. I just let accountants deal with it.’ We’d kick them out of office, right? That’s not an acceptable answer, and we need that same kind of expectation technologically,” he said.


The idea that tech is separate from the rest of the world is rooted in a past era where digital technology was less prevalent. Today, there are remnants everywhere of that old way of thinking that reinforce technological illiteracy in some of government’s most critical positions, Mele said.


“One of the things I hate most in the world is the Genius Bar at Apple because it sets up this dichotomy,” he said. “It sets up this world where they’re geniuses and we have to just do what they tell us.”


People must demand that their leaders be technologically literate, Mele said, because “it’s profoundly dangerous to have elected officials or policymakers who don’t have any technical literacy to evaluate what’s going on.” A recent Gartner report identified that 60 percent of CEOs dismiss the idea that automated and smart technologies could displace a huge percentage of jobs in the next 15 years.


Michael Armstrong, CIO of Corpus Christi, Texas, is not a denier of the second machine age’s power and influence. As a CIO, Armstrong said, the best one can hope for is to influence policymakers.


The coming years will bring incredible new changes, he said. Advances in 3-D printing have applications in medicine and other fields that haven’t even been realized yet. Advances in prosthesis are allowing people to live longer, and there are even philosophical questions being opened up about what it means to be human. The Shadow Robot Co., based in London, spent $1 million building the Bionic Man, a robot composed entirely of artificial body parts and internal organs. Life is changing fast for everyone.


“I think we’re hitting the knee of the curve and things are getting exponential,” Armstrong said. “Make sure that you understand and your leadership understands what is happening in these areas and what the implications are because that’s going to drive social policy and government policy to a huge degree. A lot of this stuff is happening very quietly.


“Government has been shrinking for so long, that’s been an accepted way of doing business. I think this is not going to leave anyone alone. One way or another, it’s going to affect us all,” he said. “In any kind of revolution, we always lose jobs, but there’s always been something to replace all those jobs, and that may not be the case this time.”

Internet of Things can battle climate change

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Interconnected things can reduce waste, save energy, among their other benefits.

Machine to machine communication, or the internet of things, is on the precipice of taking the world by storm. At its very core, machine to machine communication is the ability to connect everything, I mean everything, through a vast network of sensors and devices which can communicate with each other. The possibilities of this technological evolution span an immensely wide spectrum; ranging from monitoring your health through your smartphone, to your house knowing where you are to adjust lighting and heating.

The way that the internet of things could revolutionize our lives can be hard to conceptualize all at once. So today let’s focus on one place where machine to machine communication could have an immense impact: Energy consumption. Not only could this technology make turning the lights on easier, but it could be the key to us effectively managing anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Regardless of your thoughts and opinions on climate change and the scope of how much carbon emissions affects the global atmosphere, we all can agree on one thing: Emitting less carbon is a good thing, especially if it can be done without impeding economic growth. For years, the battleground for the climate change debate has been on the energy generation side, pitting alternative energy options like wind and solar against fossil fuels. The problem with fixating on this side of the argument, though, is that even under the most ambitious outlooks for alternative energy growth, we will never be able to get carbon emissions below the threshold many think is required to prevent significant temperature changes over the next century.

Does that mean there’s no shot at significantly reducing carbon emissions? No — we’re just focusing on the wrong side of the energy equation, and that is where machine to machine communications comes into play. Let’s look at how the internet of things can mean for carbon emissions, and how investors could make some hefty profits from it.

Energy consumption’s overdue evolution

We humans are a fascinating study in inefficiency. We will sit in traffic on the freeway rather than take the alternative route on “slower” roads. We oversupply the electricity grid because we don’t know precisely how much demand is needed at any given moment. It’s not that we deliberately try to do things less efficiently; we just don’t always have the adequate information to make the most efficient decision.

When you add all of these little inefficiencies up, it amounts to massive amounts of wasted energy and, in turn, unnecessary carbon emissions. In the U.S. alone, 1.9 billion gallons of fuel is consumed every year from drivers sitting in traffic. That’s 186 million tons of unnecessary CO2 emissions each year just in the U.S.

Now, imagine a world where every automobile was able to communicate with the others, giving instant feedback on traffic conditions and providing alternative routes to avoid traffic jams. This is the fundamental concept of machine-to-machine communications, and it goes way beyond the scope of just automobiles and household conveniences.

One of the added benefits of this technology is the impact it could have on our everyday energy consumption and the ultimate reduction in total carbon emissions. A recent report by the Carbon War Room estimates that the incorporation of machine-to-machine communication in the energy, transportation, built environment (its fancy term for buildings), and agriculture sectors could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 9.1 gigatons of CO2 equivalent annually. That’s 18.2 trillion pounds, or equivalent to eliminating all of the United States’ and India’s total greenhouse gas emissions combined, and more than triple the reductions we can expect with an extremely ambitious alternative energy conversion program.

How is this possible? Increased communication between everything — engines, appliances, generators, automobiles — allows for instant feedback for more efficient travel routes, optimized fertilizer and water consumption to reduce deforestation, real-time monitoring of electricity consumption and instant feedback to generators, and fully integrated heating, cooling, and lighting systems that can adjust for human occupancy.

There are lots of projections and estimates related to carbon emissions and climate change, but the one that has emerged as the standard bearer is the amount of carbon emissions it would take to increase global temperatures by 2 degrees Centigrade. According to the UN’s Environment Programme, annual anthropological greenhouse gas emissions would need to decrease by 15% from recent levels to keep us under the carbon atmospheric levels. Based on current emissions and the 9.1 gigaton estimate from Carbon War Room’s report, it would be enough to reduce global emissions by 18.6%, well within the range of the UN’s projections.

The internet of things is still very much in its infancy, but it’s taking off fast. The pending boom in machine-to machine communication helps explain why Google (GOOG) shelled out more than $3.2 billion for smart-thermostat company Nest Labs. Its ability allows customers to better manage heating and cooling in households and instantly provide feedback to utilities in order to better manage energy demand during peak load hours. Sure, estimates put the total number of machine-to-machine capable devices in the billions, but for the Internet of things to be truly effective, everything needs to be connected. Estimates for total connected devices around the globe could reach into the trillions. This could lead to an industry with annual revenues of a whopping $948 billion.

The big players in the technology world, like Google and Intel (INTC), will undoubtedly be major players in this fast-growing market. Aside from its investment with Nest for smarter home energy use, Google is also getting into the transportation game with its Open Auto Alliance, a group of automakers and technology companies that will establish common practices such that vehicles from different manufacturers can communicate with each other — the building block for self driving vehicles. With that much money on the line, can you really blame these companies for diving into this market?

The internet of things trend is approaching … fast. For investors, it could be an amazing opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new market with trillion dollar potential, but it is so much more than that. Increased productivity and elimination of wasteful energy consumption through smart devices could be the one and only key to cutting greenhouse gas emission enough to reduce the chances of significant climate change. So go ahead and continue arguing about the use of fossil fuels or alternative energy — the investors who will really be betting on reducing carbon emissions will be putting their money here.