Here’s my ideal lineup for navigating NewCo Boston next week
Ah, Boston. Such a wonderful, academic, complicated city, bursting with new kinds of companies worth checking out. Fortunately for us, NewCo’s partner MassTLC has organized a two-day festival that allows anyone to have their pick of scores of amazing organizations — meet the founders, tour the headquarters, and make deep connections.
I won’t be able to visit NewCo Boston this year, but I spent a couple of hours researching the companies I’d have liked to visit if I could be there. Here are my picks:
We’ll figure out how to share technology’s bounty in cities. The British writer Paul Mason has a useful framework for talking about the impact of technology on the global economy. There’s a book-length version, but you can get the outline pretty quickly from this recent talk Mason gave (Medium): Technology today is driving costs for many informational goods to zero, while automating tons of jobs. This could trap us in a “stagnant neo-feudalism,” desperately creating “bullshit jobs” if we don’t change course. Under the rubric of “post-capitalism,” Mason proposes that we instead embrace the collaborative power tech unleashes and use it to move beyond the now-inadequate profit-driven economy. Post-capitalism means actively promoting this platform-cooperativist future, and cities are the best place for that. Unlike whole nations, they’re the right scale for experiments with basic income pans, data-driven decision-making models for public affairs, and broader efforts at liberating data from private silos. It’s the old software-world argument between open-source and proprietary systems, transposed into the realm of urban policy. Mason thinks Barcelona might be a good place to start.
And now for something completely different. Shell-shocked by last night’s debate? Take a sanity break with President Obama’s essay on the economic challenges that will confront his successor (The Economist). Trumpism and Brexit are driven partly by nativist fears but also by more legitimate concerns about inequality, Obama writes. If we’re going to make headway in that realm, we need to shed our allergy to tax-supported public projects, invest in education, enforce trade rules, and respond to climate change. “We have a choice,” he says: “Retreat into old, closed-off economies or press forward, acknowledging the inequality that can come with globalization while committing ourselves to making the global economy work better for all people, not just those at the top.” If the depths of the 2016 campaign have left you dejected, remember that for the next several months at least, the White House still has an occupant who can think and write about what matters.
I am intrigued by the potential that connectivity and sensors can offer municipal governments. There are lots of opportunities to make cities more efficient, and there is also a tremendous amount of data that could really upset the status quo (The deep dive on Palantir’s work in New York City is a good example of this.)
Cities also represent a messy environment to sell systems. The buyers are very cost-conscious and may not be as sophisticated about data rights and ownership as other customers, and there are usually many competing organizations involved in a system installed at scale.
Never mind the disruption — giants run the world. Now more than ever, The Economist writes, colossus companies rule the global economy. Some, like GE, are old-line standbys that have reinvented themselves; others are upstarts like Samsung; others are the familiar kings of the Silicon Valley hills, like Apple, Google, and Facebook. All have become experts at giving customers what they want and improving their lives, often (particularly in the digital economy) for free. But there are two big problems with their ascendancy: First, they’re awfully good at squashing competition, and second, their scale gives them extra leverage to evade taxes and manipulate governments and global bureaucracies. Much of the populist noise you hear from different points around the world stems from resentment at these outsize advantages. If we want to keep such revolts from turning ugly, we need to devise a digital-age update for the principles of antitrust. “The world needs a healthy dose of competition to keep today’s giants on their toes and to give those in their shadow a chance to grow,” the Economist says. Amen.
That census report? It’s even better than you think. Last week’s economic report from the U.S. Census Bureau, with its news of rising household income and reduced inequality, gave cause for cheer. But if you really want to understand the numbers and why they may actually underreport the economic progress we’re beginning to make, read Matthew Yglesias’s analysis in Vox. Yglesias points out a number of flaws and problems with the census numbers: It measures inflation too harshly, it gauges income too strictly (missing out on increases in healthcare coverage), it fails to take into account changing norms in what makes up a “household,” and more. Yglesias’s conclusion: If we corrected for these issues, we’d have an even rosier picture of where the economy stands. In particular, we’d find that median household income has in fact surpassed its 1999 peak, meaning that “The American middle class is richer than it’s been at any previous point in history.” Something to ponder as you listen to the next election-season jeremiad.
These homes were all found in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, all within a mile of my own house. To me, they demonstrate a creative spirit and determination to make a life in this very expensive city.
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.
Stick a fork in the GDP. Much in our world depends on the Gross Domestic Product — the central yardstick by which we gauge whether a nation’s economy is growing or shrinking, healthy or ailing. But GDP is flawed and outdated, and now governments and economists are trying to figure out how to replace it (Bloomberg). The problems with GDP are legion: it misses key changes in income equality, technological change and living standards. It has a hard time capturing the impact of economic activity once it moves online. The GDP numbers that get headlines on initial release are almost always wrong and end up being substantially revised. If this was how you were measuring your family’s or business’s economic well-being, you’d want to replace it, fast. The trouble is, if you threw GDP out the window tomorrow, economists don’t seem to have many ideas of what you could use instead. Fortunately, this is precisely the kind of problem that so many other strong trends today — from deep-learning AI systems to networked sensors to digital cash — ought to help us solve in the long term. For now, when it comes to macroeconomics, we’d better get good at flying blind.
The elusive formula for a downtown renaissance. Some aging Rust Belt cities manage to reinvent themselves as welcoming turf for NewCos, and others don’t. Success “requires more than a good coffeehouse” (Toledo Blade). Toledo, Ohio launched a campaign a decade ago to retain and attract college-educated workers and new small businesses. With new museums and other amenities and a reasonable cost of living, the city has made some progress. But holding on to talented locals drawn by other towns and regions remains a struggle. Cities like Toledo still need to reverse a reputational deficit years in in the making; people need to know that they have, not only good coffee, but jobs, and downtowns that are no longer “dumps.”
Who will watch the algorithms? Companies today often hand decisions off to code, because code can move faster, incorporate more data, and scale better than humans. That’s great, and algorithms are frequently where innovative new players find their edge. They’re the secret sauce — and they’re typically kept secret, because the more they’re documented, the more easy it is for them to be gamed. But secret algorithms are also an open invitation to discrimination and inequity (Pacific Standard). The more we use them in fields like banking, criminal justice, or hiring and human resources, the more important it becomes to hold them accountable — to open them up so individual users can understand why they were refused that loan or job. Ever combed through the errors in your own credit report? Then you know how meaningful such auditing of algorithms and their data can be.
Apps alone don’t make cities smart. The race to wire up cities with real-time data feedback loops promises to make urban life more efficient and manageable on many levels, from transport to utilities to human services. But we should be careful not to turn this application of Internet-of-things tech into a fetish or an ideology (Boston Globe). Boston’s alliance with Waze has helped residents cope with their region’s choked roads. And it’s little wonder that cash-strapped cities might be exploring ditching municipal bus systems for Lyft and Uber (Bloomberg). But a city’s stakeholders can’t delegate tough political choices to an app. If they do, they risk roping off information that should be publicly shared, driving up the price of housing, and promoting inequality.
Massachusetts draws a line in the job-interview sand. The most novel feature of Massachusetts’ new employment law bars employers from asking job applicants how much they made in previous gigs (The Atlantic). Legislators and activists hope to reduce the gender wage gap by breaking the loop in which small initial pay disparities turn into ever-larger inequities over the course of a career. Considering how stubborn the gender pay gap is, and how complex its causes (Vox), this experiment is surely worth a shot. But the law won’t go into effect for two years; it’ll be longer before we know whether it works. Applicants can still voluntarily tell Massachusetts hiring managers what they make, and the law guarantees workers the right to tell each other, too. Can limiting information in the hiring process really help? In the long run, more info is better than less: you can’t fix the system without knowing the data.
Lab keys are under the mat. Airbnb has taken the wraps off Samara, its new urban-planning innovation lab (Fast Company) aimed at “exploring new attitudes toward sharing and trust.” The first project: a communal housing project in Japan, done up in relaxing unfinished cedar, aimed at revitalizing small rural towns. How will these design projects contribute to the company’s bread-and-butter short-term rental business? Samara’s motto offers a clue: “The journey is long.”