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Living with the Smart City; and Making Construction Smarter

Have you noticed how the Smart City seems to have appropriated much of what used to be called urban planning? Virtually every city physical function is now a test bed for data driven approaches, often augmented with sensors and controls. All this is mediated by code. This situation squares with Marc Andreessen’s assertion that “software is eating the world.” One interesting result is that IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, etc. have become de facto purveyors of urban design and planning under the Smart City rubric. A further upshot is that metaphorical software “platforms,” public and private, if not actually replacing bricks and mortar infrastructure, have conjoined with their physical counterparts to become the backbones of urban life.

This transformation hasn’t happened overnight and it is ongoing. We can speculate with confidence that over the next couple of decades virtually every societal function and every process related to making things will be digitized, data driven and automated – or at least there will be an attempt to do so. The assumptions are that such initiatives can deliver benefits: cheaper, better, quicker, more socially equitable goods and services than their less digitally enabled urban forbearers. However, it’s likely not all Smart initiatives will deliver the goods on all counts. Privacy and security issues are major considerations, with disruptions to the labor market likely to follow. And some forays into urban automation may simply not work.

In striking juxtaposition to the powerful digital trends transforming urban systems are the conventional, non-automated methods by which cities – infrastructure and buildings – are constructed. The “Less Smart” of the title is no reflection on city builders themselves but an indication of challenges; what is it about construction that so resists automation?

There is a distinction between construction mechanization and automation. The former simply provides an assist to humans; examples are a nail gun and backhoe replacing a hammer and a shovel. Construction automation, by contrast, would imbue machines, robots essentially, with enough intelligence to act on minimal human intervention, self – assembling all or parts of buildings and systems such as roads or other infrastructure.

Why is there such a disjunct between smart city systems and seeming antediluvian methods for construction? Aside from mobile homes and manufactured housing, which are constructed in factories, and which bear some resemblance to consumer goods manufacturing, virtually all infrastructure and buildings are site built and customized. Roads and buildings aren’t cars, more or less identical and built on a stable and controllable assembly line; they must adapt to many specific geographies and physical conditions to be readily standardized like a consumer product. At the human level, construction also requires too much cognitive adaptability, dexterity and spatial mobility for workers to be easily replaced by robots. Even an unskilled laborer must be able to quickly change roles on a construction project, picking up materials, digging, moving an item, etc. Try asking a robot to do just that sort of multi tasking.

Does this situation mean that more automation is forever out of reach in construction? We think that is unlikely. Technology advances wherever there is the promise of benefits. By the way, we’re not arguing that automation in construction is inherently better than more labor intensive approaches. In fact, construction automation may be quite disruptive to the labor markets. There will be winners and losers with this industrial transformation. However, short of a future where fully autonomous robots construct roads and buildings what is a likely direction for smarter construction?

While the assembly process in construction may not yet be automated a closer look at the industry shows that a host of digital technologies illustrated below have begun converge around the process – and people – that assemble buildings and infrastructure. Many of these technologies already exist but their application may only occur in the largest, most sophisticated projects. So the act of placing and fastening building components may not be digitally determined and automated yet, but many of the processing leading up to actual assembly have been digitally implemented.

We can expect that as many such technologies become ubiquitous this will set the stage for greater degrees of automation. Then, cities may hopefully be both built a bit smarter and operate smarter, too.

urban design implications of the smart city – and the cloud

For any given location in a large city in the developed word there are dozens of data points and feeds in the cloud. Some of these information streams fall under the category of Smart City initiatives: street lights reporting themselves in need of replacement, traffic and weather, parking spaces and EV charging stations available, buses arriving shortly, etc.

As an urban designer and member of the Smart City community, I have been thinking about implications of the IoT for bricks and mortar urban design (refer to the attached). Locally, how will it impact Puget Sound cities like Bellevue; especially with Light Rail implementation afoot? I expect the streetscape will evolve; both roads w dedicated lanes, and sidewalks, to accommodate more ride sharing/ride hailing and charging infrastructure.
Online shopping and autonomous delivery will necessitate building accommodations; loading ports and lockers. Conventional small retail will diminish in the face of online sales. In growing cities like Bellevue the trend will be for smaller dwelling units, to keep housing affordable. As a result there will be greater demand for public amenities and “living rooms” like coffee shops, bars and parks for inhabitants of such small spaces. What other interactions between the cloud and built environment can be expected; for example, how will distributed energy resources transform the grid and urban fabric?

the future of Seattle

I recently appeared as a panelist at the University of Washington on the Future of Seattle.  Here are my talking points on the City and the Region – mostly oriented to environment, innovation and planning.

It’s the Seattle/Puget Region, not Simply the City

When we talk about Seattle, the City, proper, usually gets the attention. In fact the City contains only about one sixth of the Puget region’s population of 3.6 million people in several quite densely urbanized areas across 3 counties, with several dozen towns and municipal authorities like Sound Transit, Metro and the Ports of Seattle/Tacoma to boot. Importantly, some of the region’s largest employers, like Boeing and Microsoft lie outside the City. We need to think regionally; outside the Seattle City limits.

My Vision for the Region

Utopian Version:  I hope that Seattle will illustrate a successful experiment; where an innovative low carbon economy, supports an equitable standard of living, a fulfilling quality of life preserving biological diversity; more simply, salmon in the rivers and Orcas in the Sound.

Dystopian Version: I fear for a Seattle with a hotter climate, more sprawling development, beset with traffic jams, greater income inequality, homelessness, water shortages, fewer salmon, no Orcas.

In short the latter scenario sounds something like parts of California. With no offense to the Golden State, the Pacific Northwest shouldn’t be like this. Top it off with a major earthquake and it’s a grim picture.


One way or another we must put a price on carbon. It’s a global issue but we must do our part locally and more. This year the State will address climate related rule making initiated by Gov. Inslee and there will be an Initiative on the ballot to tax carbon. Regardless how the State addresses the issue, clean, carbon – limiting technology should be one of the cornerstones of our regional economy and it represents a great opportunity.


Transit is the framework that facilitates so many public benefits; a smaller carbon footprint, a chance to maintain a more historical climate, connections to affordable accessible housing and workplaces, efficient access to public services, less congestion, shorter commutes. Sound Transit 3 coming up in this election cycle is vital to achieving this objective. This is my top priority.

Prosperity and Economy

A vibrant economy is the engine that powers all things. If Seattle wasn’t prosperous I doubt a higher minimum wage would have been possible. Prosperity funds bond issues; public investments in infrastructure and education. If raising the minimum wage works for the cities of Seattle and SeaTac, why not for other adjacent cities; Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond should be next.


Innovations often arise from taking something learned in one field and applying it to another field.  The coming de-carbonization of the economy represents a huge transformational opportunity for innovation.  In the Industrial Revolution, burning carbon laden fossil fuels, mostly coal, transformed the global economy. Seattle can be a leader in the market transformation away from fossil fuels. Here’s a few examples of the cleantech economy:

  • A Seattle startup, Impact Bioenergy, with a technology that takes food waste and turns it into electrical power and high quality fertilizer.
  • Another, Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies is using naturally occurring organisms to treat seeds for drought and heat resistance.
  • Community solar projects in Seattle on Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill sponsored by City Light partnering with community organizations allow people to participate in solar who may not own their homes or who live in apartments.
  • In Redmond, Helion Energy is developing nuclear fusion to create electric power.
  • Maker spaces are opening in conjunction with schools, colleges and other venues throughout the area, including UW.

Urban Environment; Trees, Parks, Walking, Biking

  • Walking Vast swathes of Seattle’s North and South End’s still don’t have sidewalks. This is a public safety concern and also disincentive to use transit. Many parts of Seattle have high walk scores, yet others don’t.
  • Biking: Geography hasn’t been too kind to Seattle’s cyclists but this is no reason not to optimize north/south routes in the City that tend to have gentler grades.
  • Trees Seattle’s trees, on streets, yards and in parks support healthy ecosystem. But it’s troubling that present tree cover is about 50% reduced from 40 years ago. The forest canopy provides vital environmental services; carbon sequestration, shade and surface cooling, habitat, water quality benefits. We need more trees and this shouldn’t require large investment.
  • Parks For a City so associated with the Great Outdoors Seattle’s parks lag a bit compared to other cities, Portland, Minneapolis, WDC, NYC and SF for several examples. Land acquisition is very expensive. One approach to mitigate the paucity of parks might be to make existing public spaces, like streets, more inviting and park – like. The other would be to offer development bonuses for creating publicly accessible open spaces.


Density matters. It makes transit cost effective, supports services, and facilitates affordability. Not everyone is going to like it but Seattle will continue to grow. As many as a million new residents are expected to arrive in the region by 2040. What is the alternative to density; wall to wall development to the foot of the Cascades and more two hour commutes? We’re moving in that direction now. That growth should occur in concentrated, well planned areas, offering transit and public services. For example, Bellevue’s created a high density housing district downtown and the town has begun to be real city rather than merely a high rise office park and shopping mall.


Here are some useful data points:

Population: Seattle city 662,000 est City of Sea, Seattle region about 3.8 million. Expected growth of about 1 million by 2040. Source Puget Sound Regional Council. http://www.psrc.org/data/forecasts

Transit Score: Seattle ranks about 10th in accessibility similar to Minneapolis. By comparison San Francisco ranks 2nd, after NYC.  Source Walkscore https://www.walkscore.com/WA/Seattle

Walk Score: Seattle 8th compared to SF at 2 and closer to WDC and Oakland. Source Walkscore https://www.walkscore.com/WA/Seattle

Parks Score: Seattle ranks 10th below Minneapolis is 1 with SF and NYC at 4 and 5, source Parkscore Trust for Public Lands http://parkscore.tpl.org/

Affordability: Seattle is an index of about 120 compared to SF/Silicon Valley at 160 and Portland at 110, Source Infoplease  http://www.infoplease.com/business/economy/cost-living-index-us-cities.html

GHG Emissions: Almost 65% of Seattle emissions from passenger vehicles and freight. Source City of Seattle Emissions Inventory http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OSE/2012%20GHG%20inventory%20report_final.pdf

Trees: Seattle’s urban tree cover (canopy) reduced by 50% during the last 40 years. Source City urban forestry plan. http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OSE/2012%20GHG%20inventory%20report_final.pdf

making the cloud of environmental data visible for the Puget region

Seattle is the center of cloud computing. What if we could literally see a little piece of that metaphorical cloud; a part that monitors and describes what’s happening in our local environment? It could help us better understand and manage our region. To this end I’ve conceived a proposed art/science/geography installation called “Transect.”

The premise for the proposal is that science, alone, cannot fully engage public awareness when it comes to local environmental issues. Therefore, the proposed exhibit, called “Transect,” appeals to both the rational and emotional. It draws from the cloud of streaming data; building on the extensive existing network of environmental sensors in our region, presenting data in an immersive and literal cloud of images and graphics. Art and science, married, will create a powerful and persuasive experience for the public. See the slide deck here transect pres ecarlson .

wazzup with houellebecq; the map and the territory

I’ve just finished Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. There’s also a piece in this week’s New Yorker about him and his new book, Submission, which imagines France with an elected Islamist President and has been widely lauded as prescient, given recent events.

But, back to The Map…it is not an elegantly written book. Nominally about the life of a passive, unintentionally successful artist and his marginal relationships with people, the characters are pretty schematic and the story more an interesting concept than a compelling narrative. I say this having read only a translation, but reviewers of the French version seem to agree on the text’s lack of style. The novel reads as more of a platform to expound on the topics below among others, rather than a character or plot driven work. I use bullets following since Houellebecq often seems to attack these subjects as virtually and almost arbitrarily inserted outline items; some apparently lifted wholesale from wikipedia:

  • the business and role of representation in contemporary art
  • police procedure and culture
  • contemporary technology, corporations and cosmopolitan influences in France
  • automobile preferences
  • dread associated with aging and physical decline
  • Parisian – versus French – village culture

Perhaps the least schematic and most emotionally resonant aspect of the story is the sad relationship of the protagonist with his father. All considered, the book wasn’t devoid of interest, if you happen to follow art, technology and contemporary culture and can tolerate a decidedly misanthropic world view. If you don’t, skip it.

geography informing politics; a project retrospective in the mediterranean

I have recently revisited a project completed more than 20 years ago; a Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis of the Mediterranean Basin conducted as a consultant for the World Bank.  In the early 90’s the Bank was intrigued to see if geographic information could help inform a region – wide environmental investment program. I have attached copies of a couple of the maps and notes created for the project here Environmental Program for the Mediterranean; geographic snapshot .

It came as no surprise 20+ years ago to my colleagues and me that GIS analysis reinforced the Med region, particularly the Southern and Eastern parts of the basin, as an area experiencing environmental and demographic stress. To quote Bob Dylan, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blows.”  However, it’s still a bit unnerving to browse a 20 year old geographic snapshot of the region in view of what has unfolded subsequently. For those of us geo – graphically oriented there’s something considerably more powerful about a map delineating, for example, a region with a high population growth rate, water shortages and limited arable land, than merely reading a table tucked into a report. Somehow the geopolitical train wreck of the Southern/Eastern Med just appears so much more tangible when arrayed across the page. Mind you, we had incomplete data in 1991, and our analysis wasn’t all that sophisticated. Also, the geographic limits of the study to the Mediterranean basin left out key areas; Syria and Iraq for examples, don’t figure.

But the takeaway remains that this was a region under stress for a variety of factors; politics being the immediate expression of geography and economics, and the maps showed that pretty decisively. While it would be grandiose to think that wider dissemination of geographic information at 20 years ago would have made a difference in a part of the world that has been so historically fraught, perhaps a lesson here is to pay closer attention to what geography is telling us now about emerging situations in other parts of the world. Climate driven impacts certainly come to mind.

A few observations prompted by Philae and space ventures in general

Until recently the concept of “space” has seemed stuck in time to me, if not relegated to the past. The space station is a relic of the the 80’s/90’s and with no Shuttle, now served by Russian rockets built in the 70’s, even more of a nostalgic 20th Century endeavor. I’ve also viewed space tourism as a pretty self indulgent luxury; marking a decadent, post industrial society rather than a bold step forward. Space has just seemed too esoteric and irrelevant, given the various social, political and environmental issues on our own blue marble.

But, having said this, I’m coming around to see space initiatives much more favorably. In fact, I think in addition to muddling around here on earth with Islamic States, Ebola and Affordable Care, humans really need to pursue something esoteric and transcendent. One might view it as a sort of religious impulse. I see parallels here with cathedral building during the middle ages. That is, doing something really hard and not really necessary; the best minds of the age conceiving and building the 21st Century equivalent of very tall structures to the glory of god by stacking shaped rocks into intricate, gravity defying forms, using nothing but hand tools and human/animal power.

I have an acquaintance here who recently left Microsoft to go to work for Space X, another Elon Musk venture, that is opening a Seattle office. Good career move or just tech job jumping to the next hot thing? And with Jeff Bezos’ commitment to Blue Origin, another local space venture, my initial reaction has been to think of such initiatives as just billionaires’ ultimate baubles, way beyond mega yachts and vintage Ferraris. But I’m beginning to believe that in addition to the outsized ego gratification there is more to it. Yes, we’ve got to address Islamic radicalism and climate change but to survive and prosper as a species we also need to stretch and pursue that transcendent impulse. And space seems to place to do it. I hope that the comet lander can extricate itself from under the shadow of the cliff and we get more amazing images. Even if not, it’s been an awesome feat.

cross laminated timber; a promising new (old) technology

I have recently researched the Washington State market and sketched some scenarios for the environmental and economic benefits of Cross Laminated Timber (CLT). Timber construction has been around forever, but CLT is a contemporary update on an old building technique that can play a significant role in urban construction, while limiting carbon emissions. Read my entire report here. CLT Perspectives_Carlson

Puget Region Not as Green as We Might Think; comparing cities for cleantech innovation

Puget and Six Competing Regions Compared for Cleantech

I have recently mapped the cleantech innovation ecosystem in the Puget Sound region.  More than 250 firms engage in a range of innovative cleantech activities, from green building to renewable energy. The Greater Seattle area has a strong environmental reputation and it should rightfully follow that the region has a healthy green economy to match its social outlook.

Lest we paint too rosy – or green – a picture, how does Puget Sound compare to other US metropolitan areas in cleantech? Is the Puget region any greener, for example, than the San Francisco Bay area, or Portland, Oregon – two locales that also boast strong green credentials? And what about other cities across the nation that might not at first seem  as environmentally – oriented, such as Austin, Boston, Minneapolis and Atlanta?

Using the evaluation methodology originally developed for the Puget region, I queried a national business database for firms in each city metro region corresponding to a variety of key terms associated with clean tech, such as “renewable energy” and “green building” (see the link below for full description). I also interrogated the US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) database of LEED projects for a more in depth examination of green buildings and LEED professionals by city. I normalized all the cities for population and then determined whether the Puget Region exceeded, lagged behind, or had generally an equivalent number of cleantech firms as competitors.

xls table: Puget Innovation compared to six US metro regions

Not as Green as Expected

What do the results show? Not surprisingly, the Bay Area leads the country in cleantech innovation, by numbers of firms. Seattle, a bit more surprisingly, isn’t all that green when compared to Portland, Austin, Minneapolis and Boston – at least in numbers of firms. The Puget region does have a strong green building community, evidenced by a high per capita number of LEED professionals.  The region also has a number of public policies that encourage green development and Seattle is ranked highly on a recent study of Green Cities in North America, commissioned by Siemens.

Room for Improvement; More and Better Innovation Finance Options?

For those of us seeking to grow the Puget region as a hub of cleantech activity what can we learn from this exercise? One telling result of my analysis is the relatively low number of venture capital firms here (see line item Venture Capital on linked table), when compared to more renowned innovation centers such as the Bay area and Boston. As I have asserted in an earlier post, innovation is about more than merely invention; it requires a robust ecosystem of services, including financial support, in order for new technologies to flourish.  While there is no magical way to make more venture capital appear, emerging models for funding new initiatives, such as crowd sourcing investments – pending federal rule making, may offer improved opportunities to grow cleantech in the Puget region. I will be examining this topic in future posts.

mapping the puget cleantech innovation ecosystem

Innovation is about much more than a couple of people in a garage or coffee shop with an idea and a laptop. Instead, researchers have found innovation requires a web of relationships – an ecosystem – of inventors, marketers, researchers, subcontractors, financiers and educators. I have identified more than 250 such entities in the Puget Sound region that comprise the cleantech innovation ecosystem. The graphic here illustrates the areas in which these various entities are active. Contact me for a whitepaper on the topic which will be published soon.


We develop and market energy efficiency strategies and technologies. We focus on the building and transportation sectors, which account for more than two thirds of the energy budget.