Twilight of the Imperial City?


Derek Giovanni | Flickr

High rents close doors. In the 1950s, urban planners thought we had to disperse big-city populations to suburbia to protect them from nuclear attack. Then they assumed traffic and inner-city decay would drive people out to “edge cities.” Then they imagined that telecommuting would empty out downtowns. Instead, of course, we have watched as towns like San Francisco and New York turn into “imperial cities” so popular that most of us can’t afford to live there (The New Yorker). Such cities are no longer where you go to make it, but rather where you go once you’ve made it. More housing would help, but it takes a daunting amount to put a dent in sky-high rents. Yes, entrepreneurs and job-seekers will spread out over time to a broader range of regional centers — but that’s a slow process. The failures of foresight of previous generations of planners suggest how hard it is to intervene and remedy such problems. But it’s tough to sit back and do nothing while our cities, once drivers of opportunity, turn into engines of inequality.

Google’s Waze will turbocharge carpooling. Remember when people called Uber and Lyft “ride-sharing services” with a straight face? Both companies, of course, turned out to be more about ride-hailing — they were new-model, distributed taxi services, and despite efforts like Lift Line, that’s mostly what they’ve remained. Now it looks Google will take a run at a true ride-share offering beginning this fall (The Wall Street Journal). Through Waze, its real-time route-finder, it will help users connect with drivers who are already going their way, and charge them fees that are more like “chipping in for gas” than taxi fares. Uber and Lyft, presumably, won’t stand still. This whole business of using our phones and networks to better organize how we get places still has plenty of twists and turns before we figure it all out.

Are we better off than we were eight years ago? Yes. If you believe the presidential campaign rhetoric, Americans have never been so dissatisfied with the state of the union. Odd, then, that a new national poll from Gallup finds that Americans across the board feel better about their lives today than they did eight years ago, when President Obama took office (The Washington Post). The shifts aren’t massive — 49 percent said they were “thriving” in 2008, and 54 percent say that today — but they are significant. Whites, whose discontent is ostensibly fueling a populist revolt, and blacks, whose lives Donald Trump characterizes as so desperate that they have “nothing to lose,” both reported this kind of satisfaction increase, according to the survey.

When the car becomes the office and the road becomes home. Maybe we’re not thinking creatively enough about this whole self-driving-car thing? If vehicles become autonomous enough that we don’t need to pay attention to what’s outside; if they become safe enough that we don’t need to strap in; if we redesign their interiors with more room to move — then what we end up with might be more like mobile living rooms or conference rooms than the capsules-in-motion we drive today (RealLife Mag). In such a future, “the elimination of the driver will mean the end of the car as a car” — and “the opportunity to multitask while traveling could make the journey into the destination.” Think how much more we could all get done! Still, it’s not all upside: Spontaneity and serendipity could disappear. The deeper you read into this scenario, in fact, the less utopian it looks. Wherever it leads, this exercise will stretch your mind.

Quit that — you’re not Apple. Matt MacInnis, who spent seven years at Apple before founding a startup (Inkling), outlines three ways his alma mater fosters bad habits in people who plan to work anywhere else (Fast Company). “Defaulting to secrecy” is a big one. So is isolation from customers. Also: Eschewing passion projects and side efforts for focused execution. These work patterns may have served Apple’s interests well. But when you’re trying to build something new, they’re too narrow and closed off. Participating in an ecosystem beats splendid isolation every time — unless your name is Steve Jobs.

Featured in NewCo Shift: Blast from the basic-income past. The year was 1969, the president was Richard Nixon, and a proposal for a version of a universal basic income actually passed the House, before stalling in the Senate. George McGovern, the progressive Democrat, ran on a similar but more generous plan in 1972. Long before we worried that robots and algorithms would put everyone out of work, this idea was positively mainstream.

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