ICYMI – Week of July 28, 2017

  • Rising e-commerce sales and advancements in robots is seeing a shift in the logistics and distribution market around the Greater Toronto Area, according to the Globe and Mail. One things I’ve always wondered about is the dwindling amount of employment lands for warehousing and logistics in the region and the increasing demand driven by e-commerce. With robotics, it seems that warehouses are going vertical.
  • Airbnb is rolling out a new feature called “experiences”. Tom Friedman wrote a bit about it in the NYTimes. In sum, it’s a way for Airbnb’s hosts to provide additional curated experiences for visitors. Some good examples are provided in the article, but the gist of it is, not being content to simply take on the hotel industry on the basis of providing accommodations alone, Airbnb wants to be a kind of “hands-off” concierge wherein hosts provide fun and interesting travel experiences to visitors.
  • There’s been a lot of debate about Elon Musk’s new Hyperloop proposal. Geoff Manaugh of bldgblog wrote a great critique of the Hyperloop and similar moonshot ideas for the New Yorker, but I feel as if everyone’s missed the point on this. Musk has no investment in Hyperloop. He pitched the idea 8 years ago and it’s been taken on by 3rd parties ever since. He has, however, put money down on a tunneling company. Musk is using the Hyperloop to sell his tunnel. The tunnel is the main thing here, not the Hyperloop. It’s Musk’s way of sparking the public’s imagination to take care of an age old problem (how can we build more tunnels and improve our transportation infrastructure?).
  • Following up on all the news of different countries or cities phasing out petrol cars in the future, Bloomberg reports that the auto-manufacturing industry will take care of it long before the policies actually come into force. The claim is based on the rapidly declining costs of electric batteries as well as the number of car companies increasing investments in electric vehicles.

ICYMI – Week of July 21, 2017

 

  • Bloomberg reports that London’s housing prices have flat-lined. The article puts forward quotes from several authorities on real estate economics, but the gist of it is that housing prices went well beyond normal ranges in the last few years and are slowing to “normal” levels. In another article, Bloomberg reports that luxury properties are taking a hit as well.
  • In the realm of today’s infrastructure that will be obsolete tomorrow, consider gas stations. We all envision a world of autonomous electric vehicles, so what happens to the gas stations? Likely they’ll be redeveloped and reclaimed by the city, or become electric charging stations, but in the meantime, how about art?
  • Consumer values are crossing geographic boundaries, as marketers are increasingly seeing similar tastes and preferences in demographic cohorts in a globalized world. I suppose this is something new for marketing, but in broader demographic analysis I always found it frustrating how these cohorts/categories are made. “Millennial” preferences really just refer to things young people do, and whether one is young (in terms of tastes and preferences) is increasingly more a product of one’s life stage than age. Single 35-year-olds share more in common with single 25 year-olds than coupled 35-year-olds, and the same applies in the other direction. Tastes and preferences are more influenced by major life events than people realize.
  • The Guardian took a brief look at the “future gazing industry” (that includes people like me) and how it’s grown in the recent past. I really enjoy the process of forecasting and the insights it brings. People mistakenly assume it’s some black-box calculator when in fact it’s just a way of doing research and synthesizing information, together with a healthy dose of probability analysis. Something to really appreciate about this work, though, is how a good forecast has less to do with fancy insights and mathemagic (of the sort pundits become famous for) but more for its ability to build consensus. There’s a lot to say, but I should save it for a separate post.
  • In light of the many measures the Province of Ontario is taking to cool the housing market here, some rather interesting measures are being proposed in California. The state, particularly the San Francisco Area, has seen housing prices skyrocket in the last several years. In the face of a major affordability crisis, homeowners are facing off against municipalities and those who have been priced-out of the market in a battle between maintaining character and increasing densities and housing supply (sound familiar?). This is an interesting echo of what is happening in the GTA, though Ontario is contemplating amending the OMB to give local communities more say, while California is contemplating a fast-track process for affordable housing developments that will circumvent the rezoning process.
  • Not content enough with selling books, electronics, knick-knacks and soon fresh produce, Amazon is allegedly moving into online residential real estate services. The page which tipped GeekWire off has been taken down, but it would be an interesting move at a time when the realtor industry is rapidly digitizing (from searching for properties online to doing property showings on Snapchat and Instagram).
  • More exciting news as Elon Musk tweeted that he has “verbal” approval to start digging a tunnel between New York and Washington D.C. Initial thoughts on it sound like a legitimate test for his tunnel boring project as well as the Hyperloop. I’ve been very skeptical that the Hyperloop really was anything more than a pipe dream, but Musk has accomplished some rather extraordinary things since he got into the transport business, so I’ll remain cautiously optimistic.

ICYMI – Week of July 14, 2017

This week had quite a bit of excitement. We got climate change doom & gloom, smart cities, diners and teleportation!

  • The internets were abuzz with this very scary NYMag article about how bad climate change is. It paints a pretty scary picture of a runaway greenhouse effect from all the different carbon+methane feedback loops that will kick off once the ice melts and turn into another mass extinction event (like the Permian event which killed 96% of life on Earth). It makes for a good, though sobering, read, but it didn’t take long for the less panicked to chime in. Notable is a Facebook Post by Michael Mann, one of the people who proposed the “hockey stick” graph of climate change, stating that it’s a bit much to say all life could end in a hundred years. The Atlantic released a longer critique, calling it “an unusually specific and severe depiction of what global warming will do to the planet.” All in all, it’s not to say that climate change will not severely impact the ability for life to thrive on the planet, but we shouldn’t panic and launch Zero Dawn just yet.
  • One of the urbanism groups I follow on Facebook posted a link to the pwc Competitive Cities report. I have a healthy skepticism of city rankings (particularly livability rankings, largely because if you unpack them, you find out they’re heavily skewed to wealthy places with a high perception of public safety). However, they’re always an interesting marketing/branding tool for cities to draw investment from companies looking to attract young, tech-nomad types.
  • More details on Facebook’s new campus came out. It’s generally been met with a lot of positivity (at least in my feeds, but my feeds skew towards the big tech blogs). It’s on my “to write about” list to look at the history of company towns and how tech campuses are attempting something different (or not). Silicon Valley and many of the larger tech clusters are close to or within major cities, but I’m curious as to whether they will remain that way if the cost of living in these places gets too much for workers once they have kids. Open question, definitely something to ponder.
  • The whole smart cities theme is a big interest (obviously, based on the title of this blog). It’s been fascinating to watch this topic evolve over the years and a draft post is sitting in here somewhere on the evolution of the smart cities concept (I’ll get to it one day, says procrastinator Yousaf). For now, here’s a good overview based on Anthony Townsend’s Medium post:
    • Smart Cities 1.0 – a set of services and infrastructure provided by large technology firms. This is the sort of stuff you hear from IBM’s, Ciscos, and Googles talking about how they’re creating new ways for cities for function.
    • Smart Cities 2.0 – a push towards digital engagement of citizens and service delivery, led by governments themselves. Boston’s Office of New Urban Dynamics and NYC’s Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics fall under this frame. More recently, here’s a fun overview of what Oslo is doing.
    • Smart Cities 3.0 – smart citizens and civic technology. This is where citizen groups advocate for and take charge by addressing technology solutions themselves.
  • Also, check out this cool concept out of the Netherlands letting the elderly manage traffic lights on their phones so they can increase their crosswalk time. The technology relies on the software that already exists in the crosswalk’s hardware, which makes it extra special.
  • I’ll admit I haven’t yet watched the lecture myself, but the premise sounds like it will be a good watch. Maths and the metropolis; or how network analysis can help us better understand how cities function.
  • There was this wonderful article in the Guardian in January about the decline of the British Curry House and another from 2015 on the pub. This week, I came across a NYMag article on “The Death of the New York Diner“. I’d chalk it up as another sad tale in the on-going saga of declining main street retail activities, but places like neighborhood eateries and pubs are different (considering how many mornings of my early-20s I spent at Pratt Diner). Aaron Renn describes my thoughts on it: “the decline of the diner is not just about the loss of a restaurant format – those come and go – but also the decline of shared social space and the increasing alienation between social classes and groups.”
  • Futurology time again! I know when you saw the intro up top talking about teleportation you got excited. Well researchers in China have managed to teleport a photon (a particle of light) from a lab on earth to a satellite in space. The internets were really excited about this but, alas, all those headlines claiming that we’ve finally teleported an object are wrong – the team working on it teleported data, not an object. The article linked here gives some explanation of quantum entanglement, but it’s a tricky concept to grasp.
  • I did a short post on procedurally modelled cities way back when, thinking about how cities might be created for VR or other platforms. Even though we have the know-how and technology to generate endless cities virtually, there’s still the romance of places we’ve physically experienced coming into our virtual realms (part of why I love games like Fallout). This week, researchers from NYU released a LiDAR scan of Dublin (link to data here) and it’s gorgeous.
  • Finally, if you love those high-contrast streetscape maps (a la Allan Jacobs’ Great Streets), Geoff Boeing at UC Berkley wrote a Python code for generating them for any location. Happy mapping!

ICYMI – This Week on the Internet – July 7th, 2017

Some quick thoughts about a few of the articles I’ve been reading and following this past week:

  • Toronto’s housing market is always in the news with the wild swings as the powers-that-be try to gain some control of housing prices. After a lot of fanfare about a number of new measures as part of the Fair Housing Plan (including a foreign-buyer’s tax and more stringent rent-control measures) a first cut on housing sales activity has been released and it’s showing a drastic reduction in sales. However, the initial reports on foreign-buyer activity shows the number of foreign-buyer purchases in the Greater Golden Horsehoe is less than 5% of the market (though John Pasalis at Realosophy did tweet that this figure is an average and it’s likely higher and lower for specific sub-markets). This is in-line with what industry had initially been saying when the tax went into effect. So if the foreign-buyer component is so small, what’s causing the slowdown in sales? The simple answer is that it’s not any one thing. The Fair Housing Plan consists of several measures, including more stringent rent-control rules that also affect domestic investors, and there was an overall sense in the market that the Bank of Canada would be raising interest rates this year. Overall, housing market activity has been incredibly heated over the last two years before slowing down in the summer when policy measures were announced and sentiments towards an interest-rate hike became more certain. On a bit of a side, but related, note: Following on the heels of its foreign-buyers tax last year, which cooled down the market for only a few months before it picked up again, Vancouver introduced an empty homes tax this week.

 

  • Let’s talk a bit more about housing in a broader sense rather than the whacky GTA real estate market sense. One thing that’s striking is that housing prices are soaring everywhere (well, major cities anyway). That’s led to a lot of people proposing different ideas of what constitutes a “home”, as people increasingly find themselves priced away from the traditional notions of home ownership (a detached house with a yard in much of North America). In the thought experiment sphere, a group of young upstarts in the UK are trying to redefine notions of a “house” for generation-rent by unpacking traditional layouts and looking at the functional value not just of space but also of furniture. Following tight on the micro-condo/container housing craze, a developer in Sacremento, California, is testing the MicroPAD (Micro Prefab Affordable Dwelling). The City of Sacremento is hoping to use it as a strategy for providing affordable housing for homeless residents. Modeled on similar prefab housing solutions in Sweden, the modular units are manufactured overseas (China and Poland) and snapped together on site. As a result, a MicroPAD costs significantly less than a similar unit built on site using traditional construction methods (as they do).

 

That’s it for this week.