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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?

Salish Salmon Survival

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 .

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.

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.

choice architecture and transit

I recently moved to the Seattle suburbs after living more than 25 years on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. My wife and I love the Pacific Northwest’s natural environment but we’re less enamored of the time we spend in the car; especially sitting in traffic. For Seattle, and most solvent big cities, traffic vies for a top spot among the most pressing metropolitan issues. The solution to traffic, we know, isn’t more lanes and freeways, but better transit, carefully planned higher residential density and more jobs within walking distance. Even so, this involves a lot of expensive infrastructure, difficult policy making and ultimately time – generally years. In the meantime while we’re grinding away on big infrastructure, what can be done more cheaply, easily and faster, that can still make a dent in traffic congestion?

This is where behavioral economics and choice architecture enter the picture. Behavioral economics examines the effects of social, psychological and affective factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions. The objective of choice architecture, which is basically an applied subset of behavioral economics identified by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, is to influence outcomes by the way a choice is presented to the the decision-maker. Of course this can work both ways. Advertisers and merchants use choice architecture to get us to buy more, and more expensive, stuff. But choice architecture can also be employed to help us be more healthy, more financially stable, and to increase social/environmental benefits, such as reducing traffic congestion.

Venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla, who has invested in a number of clean technology initiatives, has asserted that he is dubious of initiatives and technologies that requires people to change their basic behavior. Choice architecture’s premise runs counter to that. That is, with the proper presentation and framing of information people’s behaviors can change. In this case the change would be increased transit use.

For example, what if people’s choices about transportation were as carefully crafted as the way Amazon designs, tests and deploys the shopping process on its website? Amazon knows the impact of a menu button change on its sales volume, having previously tested proposed changes in side by side comparisons with existing pages. In the case of transit use, what modifications in the way transit use is presented to the public could result in measurable increases in ridership and concomitant reductions in traffic congestion.

As a prospective example of choice architecture, I received car registration renewal in the mail a few days ago. Along with the new license tags, came a letter from the local King County Metro transit agency offering me 8 free transit passes if I filled out a short form, put a stamp on it and mailed it back. This is a great promotion, but I wonder if the decision could have been presented in more compelling fashion. How many drivers take up Metro on this premium? The promotion is headlined “Free Bus Tickets.” Could another header such as “Save $20″ (the value of the tickets) have been more effective? What else can be done to improve transit use by framing transit choices more effectively, without adding another bus or paving another lane. Should the tickets have been included with the offer; should a postage paid envelope been included? There are a lot of soft variables impacting choices that could ultimately result in less congestion, more productivity, and cleaner air.

The “I” Layer; How Information Transforms Urban Design

The New Information Layer in Urban Design

Conventional urban design has organized and deployed systems of physical objects to create more functional, sustainable and pleasing cities. Now, a multitude of mostly non – physical, information based technologies and applications have added another vital layer to the designer’s toolbox. I call this the “I” layer – for information. Unlike the physically based systems/layers of traditional urban design, the “I” layer is comparatively easy to implement and relies on very little or no physical infrastructure. Both public and private sectors can contribute; building networks that make cities more vibrant and efficient.

A Short History of Making

the promise of additive manufacturing

In the beginning, the consumer was also the producer. People made simple tools and weapons and used them to survive. Gradually, consumer and producer grew apart. Nowadays, many of the objects we use are made half a world away. But, this could change, with the advent of a disruptive technology. Consumers and producers may once again be in close proximity.

Many of you will recognize the pictured item as created with a 3D printer. This technology is also called additive manufacturing, since very thin layers of material are added successively to create a three dimensional shape.  Additive manufacturing promises to transform the way many things are made and in so doing change sizable portions of the economy.

Briefly, this is what additive manufacturing promises:

  • Accelerates product development by rapid prototyping
  • Renders small run and custom parts feasible by virtue of no tooling
  • Makes heretofore impossibly complex shapes and assemblies buildable
  • Shortens supply chains by placing manufacturing closer to the consumer

While not all of these objectives have been fully achieved, 3D printing has become increasingly cheap and ubiquitous. Read other blog posts here to review my experience with additive manufacturing. As with most new technologies, the development path is not entirely smooth, but the upside is huge. The diagram below sketches a short history – and likely – future of making. For a larger printable version of the diagram click the pdf link.

pdf of  A Short History (and future) of Making

Wind on the Cliff; Production Tax Credit in Jeopardy

We hope the coming budget debate doesn’t leave the Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind a victim. Due to expire at the end of the year, the tax credit has been a boon to wind power development. The tax credit has not only resulted in more than 52,000 MW of wind power in place, it has created a domestic industry providing more than 30,000 jobs. At the least, wind should have an equal place at the legislative table as a new tax code is hammered out in in 2014.


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.