Viewing entries tagged
Transformation

How to Build Something from Nothing

Trying to explain my day job to the American Geographical Society at Geo2050. November 2015.
Everyday I have to give someone a 15 second summary of what I do for a living.  I often have to say it about 3 or 4 times a day, and depending on who I am talking to, the language shifts a little. Also, every year this task gets more difficult because its isn't always clear if I should describe what I've done, what I am doing now, or what I would like to do in the near future. 

These days it comes out something like "I specialize in designing technologies and processes that shift deeply entrenched problems" and then a rambling line with "...  cities...wars... robots... digital ethnography... machine learning... geospatial technology." 

This is clearly a terrible introduction.

In general terms, I solve really hard problems for others, but it is hard to explain everything in 7 seconds because while the problems are constant, their workings change, and in response my skills change at a rapid pace.  In 2010 I was entirely focussed on postwar reconstruction. A year ago I founded a fast-growing technology company that mobilizes breakthroughs in robotics for processing unstructured data.  Today I work with the White House Innovation Fellows as an innovation specialist, ripping through complex public problems from veterans services to cybersecurity with big transformative leaps.

So rather than stumble through a lackluster introduction on skills, these days I tend to summarize all of my work with a single line.

"I specialize in the ability to build something from nothing."


This is not mere urban planning, management, or entrepreneurship. It is a specific skill to create complex entities that thrive from zero or near-zero resources.  More importantly, the things I build do not require my ongoing participation to continue and flourish.  Initiatives I created years ago still exist in far away places, overseen and operated by people who have never heard of me.  Of course doing this isn't easy. Its a carefully considered and honed expertise founded on some core concepts.
  • No Ego. Any given person cannot be central or necessary to the operation of the entity or its continuation.  If you design an entity according to the objectives, emotions, and expectations of one or two people - including yourself- then it will fail to succeed over time because it will forever be limited by the constraints that you alone carry or will carry. You can be a stakeholder in your own work but it should not be about or for you. It should not be designed to serve you (especially if this is to be a profitable business). For successful startups, this is often phrased in an epic mission statement... but it doesn't have to be so bold. It simply must serve others more than it serves yourself.  If it cannot be justified as such, then it is not likely a worthwhile pursuit.
  • Build Psychological Scaffolding. The components of the entity exist as a suspension - not a mixture -so that the tensions are just as critical to the success as the harmonies.  For example, if building a business, you cannot expect everyone to get along, so your odds of success improve if the business is designed to leverage hostilities between people. You cannot expect to like all your employees. You cannot expect to always be pleased by performance or to hire excellent people. So what is the plan?  You can rotate through a constant stream of people, but nothing will grow from this except your own frustration. To build something, you must expect have a range of personalities and capabilities, and many will conflict so build for that conflict, not to avoid it.  Certainly there are times you need to ditch people, but typically, as long as they are reliable enough to show up, you can design the work in relation to their strengths and ask little of their weaknesses while leveraging the internal conflicts into new opportunities for the organization.
  • Resources are Flux. You cannot plan to rely upon any given resource pools, but must draw from finite resources that shift as distributions, compiled from diverse locations, and all resources have expiration dates. If you design and build an entity to rely upon a specific person, idea, model, or finance strategy, and these variables are orchestrated to come together with the expectation of a particular timing, you might succeed once or twice but then it will fail. Don't bother with that. You are wasting resources.  It is at least a great place to start as people are forever the greatest resource. According to "Lean Startup" you should design your product for a specific person with a specific problem - and I agree - that sensibility must drive the initial design. But people change, and you should expect that user to change as your solution is introduced, so you need to design for change over time, and not just for clients but also for investors, partners, and employees.
  • Embrace Suffering.  Do not build an entity with the intention that "all will come together and it will be great."  Instead, design and build it for the  bad times. Imagine the worst possible scenario - what and who do you want by your side to manage that bad time? .If you created pathways for people to manage projects in different ways, to embrace different communication styles, and to maximize agility then you will be in a better position (see psychological scaffolding). But more importantly, seize the pain - its only temporary when it happens but those are the most important moments.  Ben Horowitz likes to talk about "CEOs in times of war and peace." The times of war - budget cuts, lost contracts, massive layoffs - are profound human experiences and it is those moments that define the future of the organization. Build to suffer.
  • Generative Action-Thoughts Win. Often a new risky idea is proposed and someone (sadly the boss) will shut down these new ideas, usually because they fail to understand one of the above principals. Many people also want to talk about a given idea or possibility for a long period of time.  A better tactic - always - is to support a very small and rapid physical experiment on that idea.  A pencil drawing on a piece of paper, a quick survey on the street, or a couple phone calls will typically pull in new information and ways of thinking about the problem. Physical things and processes change the conversation and stupid ideas become radical insights. Always veer toward physical things - not ideas.
These principals appear abstract but there is a clear underlying thread throughout. Maintain a constant respect for others, do more and think less, and care less about the importance of yourself, your ideas, or your values.  Work for the bigger picture and mobilize the assets that come to you.  Obsessing about the right idea, the right execution, or the right result will only waste time and energy. Ultimately, if you want to build something bigger than yourself then you need to remove yourself from it, and it needs to be tangible. Everyday.

The Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems


Last week the number of participants registered with the US healthcare website were released and the results were unimpressive. This could be for many reasons, although personally, I have not enrolled simply because the website, like all technologies, is an iterative process.  Whenever a new operating system rolls out for my laptop or ipad, I'm always excited, but I'm never an immediate adopter.  I typically wait until an update is launched, which is typically about 2 weeks later.  I'm rather excited by the healthcare initiative, but it would be foolish to rush into enrollment.  The website, like all technologies is a work in progress.

The constant media coverage about the dismal enrollment numbers has been paralleled only by NSA scandals which has done much to raise the social dialogue on issues of connectivity, surveillance, and our data driven lives.  In a few previous blog posts I've reflected on the persistence of data beyond communal memory.  This week I've had some time to read some of Anthony Townsend's new book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.  Concurrently I've also been reading Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll.  While both of these texts appear to handle different subjects, I'd argue that their is actually a strong link between these works and the current issues of technology in society.

Within Smart Cities, Townsend begins with a historical overview of urban technology development and describes the evolution of major corporations presently working with these issues such as Siemens, Cisco, and IBM.  He identifies established and emerging systems to contend with urban planning issues of climate change, traffic, and economic growth.  But Townsend isn't advocating for these mega-companies to dominate data-driven urban development.  Rather, he advocates for a more widely distributed net of stakeholders, consisting of empowered everyday citizens who use technology to interface with their governments and businesses to create a bottom-up model of a well designed urban landscape.  

I've met Anthony a couple times and have followed his work for many years.  Last June I sat in the audience at Poptech The City Resilient and listened to his talk on designing a wireless network in New Jersey that will continue to function under threat of natural disaster.  His faith in smart systems is optimistic, yet carefully hesitant, and I believe his argument for the creation of smart cities to be a more democratic process to be on target.   

Yet my own concern about smart cities is less about the actors involved in the creation of the technology and the control of the data, but is more interested in the actual "recipes" used to streamline the city.  When I lived in Cincinnati, I recall it had demographic and economic qualities nearly identical to the city of St. Louis.  Consequently, it was common for these two city governments to simply share or sell each other studies on their own cities (such as research on industrial clusters) rather than conduct the work internally.  If somethings works in St. Louis, then it should work in Cincinnati!  On a different scale, I've also sat in several meetings with members of the United Nations advocating a similar boiler-plate approach to urban development - even if the project failed in the first instance, it would be replicated and applied to the second.  

Consequently I believe that an extensive level of qualitative research must be done before any quantitive system can be constructed and applied to a given city.  Of course this is expensive and methodical mess, so probably not in the interest of companies like IBM.  This is where Anthony and I overlap.  If the work is done by the local communities, then the outputs will likely best conform to the local demands.  

Anthony advocates and hopes for the widespread participation of urban citizens in the creation of smarter cities.  He does well to identify many small organizations working to teach programming and give momentum to local-scale smart city development.  But here we differ again... my outlook is gloomier.

For much of internet history, we have mostly lived under the 90-9-1 rule - wherein 1% of internet users create content, 9% curate, and 90% consume.  In the 20 years we have had the internet, this has improved as online content creation has risen with the advent of social media.   In 2004, The Pew Research center found that 44% of internet users had actually created content on the internet.  Now, Pew has found that number has drifted upward to 54% in 2013. I should add that the Pew Research Center released another study identifying that 15% of Americans are not even online.    I realize this is a a very small snapshot, but does this rate imply that it will take 99 years for 100% of internet users to also become content creators?  But what is a more reasonable number? 50 years? 20?  

If 20 years of global internet access has resulted in only 50% of all internet users to become content creators, how will this translate to more technical processes such as coding?  Yes - there are many high quality online tools today for people to learn computer programming skills for free.  I am personally a frequent user of such tools.  But this stuff is not easy, requires discipline, and is not a skill set available in a readily consumable manner.  More importantly - there is an issue of incentive.

Participation in any enterprise requires an incentive, but the situation darkens when the enterprise has a steep learning curve.  Apparently health care and national security are not a sufficient incentive for most Americans to use a website or forsake personal data.  But in contrast, millions of Facebook users supply very personal details of their lives to the Facebook company for the satisfaction of gossip, shared photos, and adorable cat videos.  What incentives exist for a democratized process of urban systems design?

This is where I feel Schüll's research on human addiction to casino machine gambling might provide light.  Casino machines are highly refined to maximize the amount of time an individual spends on the machine.  Casinos also employ various design techniques to drive customers toward machines and increase time of play.  But many casino's now feature data driven analytics to refine the experience further, to create new machines, and to ultimately derive far higher profits.  An excellent example is the use of rewards cards.

Subscribed loyalty rewards programs encourage repeat visits but they also give customers a reason to share data.  By providing customers with free rooms, meals and tickets to special events - or even paid weekend resort getaways for high rollers - casinos provide a series of convenience and in exchange, capitalize on the windfall of collected data.  Many casinos maintain 90 different demographic categories on each customer, can predict future calendars and budgets, and generate behavior reports to assemble the best package of rewards to offer each individual.  If a customer strays from pattern... for example, a habitual gambler stops making visits, that person will be emailed, snail mailed, and telephone called with enticing offers to return.  

This creepy surveillant system has been of great value to the casino industry.  It works.  But it also appears to be popular with patrons.  According to Schüll, in Las Vegas casinos, "70% of gamblers use loyalty club cards" and the number continues to rise.  Apparently the provision of personal information to a corporation is okay in exchange for a hotel room and a prime-rib dinner.  But website enrollment for affordable healthcare?  Snooze.

A distinct difference between the task/reward systems of the casinos and the healthcare enterprise is that in the healthcare website, an individual must still express a level of work and payment in exchange for the reward.  Whereas in the casino system, it appears to consist entirely of rewards for the user.  The array of losses are behind the scenes.

So returning to the issue of "who" leads the charge in the creation of smart cities, I honestly don't see a great degree of grass-roots design unless the amount of effort is reduced and a direct system of ongoing incentives is increased.   The success of the Citi Bike initiative in New York City is a good example. Users enjoy the convenience of an affordable system, brought about through public-private partnership, and the primary sponsor CitiBank maintains a constant influx on user data with which to capitalize. Perhaps in the end the only real winner will be the bank, but right now it appears as a worthwhile exchange for over 100,000 enrolled bike users. 

Perhaps this rewards model can be applied somewhere as we continue down the road of data driven city optimization.  Maybe a clear system of direct incentives can be provided in exchange for citizens to contribute to the creation of better neighborhoods and the sharing of personal data.  Maybe one day, however, the simple rewards of a safer, cleaner neighborhood will be enough?  

High Impact Development via Product Design

Satellites and Donkey Carts in Mogadishu Somalia. Sutika Sipus 2012.
My goal as an Urban Planner and entrepreneur is to create opportunities for radical urban social transformation according to the interests of the immediate population and stakeholders.  This is no easy task, but urban planners tend to have quite a few tools to affect this kind of change, such as the use of urban design, infrastructure creation, and the creation of new transportation options.  Urban planning in this fashion,tends to focus on modifying the environment in which we live, thereby transforming the context of our actions.  By transforming the context, urban planners hope to inform our daily activities with new levels of meaning, or perhaps to even inspire behavior change.

This is all well and good.  Yet transforming the context of social activity is limited.  There are just as many urbanists, artists, and community organizers who want to create new activities directly, and thus stage community activities in the form of sporting events, street fairs, and public theatre.  But these activities are exceptions to the daily, mundane actions of urban life.  Most of the day people are going to and from work, eating, walking the dog, socializing, kids play games in the street, and perhaps someone is reading a book on a bench.  In these situations, the context is only partially relavent.  As long as the environment is safe enough and clean enough to not intervene in daily life, it doesn't really matter what it looks like, or how it is constructed.

From another perspective, the most radical changes in human settlements over the last few centuries are driven by architectural or environmental.  Cars, flushing toilets, airplane, telephones, and mobile phones have dramatically redesigned the urban lanscape.  Modern houses have indoor bathrooms and attached garages.  Cities are now dotted with wifi-hotspots and carved by multi-lane highways.  It appears that for one to really change behavior, the solution is not to create modifications to the environment, but to create the right product.

Hassani's Wind-Blown Mine Clearance Device.  Source: BBC
One recent product to shift the patterns of human settlements is a wind blown device for mine clearance.  With over 110 million landmines distributed across approximately 70 countries in the world, there is a clear demand for mine clearance.  But the process is slow and costly.  Individuals must scour the ground with detection equipement, square inch by square inch.  The mines must then be delicately disassembled by hand.  With the design by Massoud Hassani, however, mines could be quickly removed by exploding them using a windblown device.  Eventually to feature an integrated GPS chip, clearance can be mapped to facilitate effective coverage.

Hassani's product will make unusable land suitable for farming and habitation.  Wherever applied, it will dramatically change the lives of those nearby as well as the economic productivity of the host nation.  In this circumstance, his solution will also create new problem relating to land ownership and division.  After all,  he did not create a big elaborate policy reform or need to develop the product through complex social processes.  Rather it was a matter of fitting a need with a solution, and while that solution creates new problems, it is generally agreeable that the new problems of legal battles are significantly better than the old problem of human endangerment.

Can we conclude that visionary product design is the most effective way to yield the greatest results for urban development?  I suppose there are conditions in which this will not apply, but the more I look at the factors that have shaped the world around me, the less I'm convinced it is based on the action of architects.  Global change is the result of those equipped with the vision to supply an unknown or unrecognized demand.  Historic change is the result of those products that invent new markets by solving many of our current problems and effectively create new ones.