Helping A City Envision Its Future

There are some interesting developments happening in Winter Park, Florida.
  Established in the late 1800s as a winter haven for the wealthy of
northern states, it is now a city of about 29,000 people in the Orlando
metroplex.  

Although it has a nice quality of life, relative
affluence, other good aspects, etc., like every city, it faces its
challenges.  What makes it interesting is how the city is responding.

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For
many years, a significant part of the city felt that their library
needed to be replaced and brought into the new century.  This effort
came closer to reality with the creation of a library facility task force more than a year ago and, more recently, with three workshops in which hundreds of community residents participated.  

Needless
to say, this is not how the majority of new library building projects
go about planning.  It is an example of the open and collaborative
spirit of ACi Architects, the
architecture/urban design firm that the city retained, which is leading
this effort.  (This is clearly not the exercise in egotism that too many
architects practice.)

In my role as a member of the Advisory Group to the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Public Libraries,
I was invited to talk at one of these workshops about how the changes
in the world and libraries provided the basis for Aspen’s report and how
that report could inform their own plans for a future library.

Since
a good library is very much a part of the fabric of its community, it
is especially interesting that the library planning effort has been
conducted in parallel with a larger “community visioning” project to provide direction for all of the city for the next 50 years.

While
no city will ever achieve 100% agreement on anything, it’s been
fascinating to watch these efforts develop with generally civil
discussion – and visible in real time online to those who couldn’t be
there.  

This picture is from one of the breakout groups during a workshop.

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In
the case of the library workshops, part of the challenge is that the
best site for a new building is in a city park named for Martin Luther
King, Jr. and that there is also a need for what has been a civic center
(community meeting building).  So the design needed is not just for a
library building.

While this complicates things, it also
presents an opportunity to create something new which combines a new
library building and the recreational area around it – an opportunity to
create a kind of knowledge park or knowledge experience.  The library
can offer its services not only inside the building, but on it and
beyond in gazebos around the park – and a new civic forum space.

A
combination library/park/civic space is not common, but not rare
either.  Many large libraries sit in parks, most notably the New York
Public Library in Bryant Park.  But these two public amenities – the
library and the park – are not all that often integrated together.

Recently, WIRED Magazine in its design issue article, “8 Cities That Show You What the Future Will Look Like”,
featured Medellín’s Biblioteca Espana library/park that is “Combining
Libraries and Parks into Safe Spaces for All”, while serving and helping
to upgrade the impoverished neighborhood that surrounds it.

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The
New World Symphony in Miami Beach provides another model of how a park
can be integrated with cultural events inside a building.  With a large
video wall on the outside, it is a natural place for people to sit or
even picnic while listening to great music and seeing great musicians.

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Sometimes the park is jam-packed with listeners.

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Building
a library in a park offers similar possibilities.  Even the always
necessary garage for a library can be turned into a set of display walls
for the projection of knowledge outside of the building – and thus
upgrading, perhaps, hiding its parking function.  For instance, pictures
and text from the city’s African-American history museum could be made
more widely available this way.

Although no two cities are
exactly the same, Winter Park is a good example of an historic, but
relatively small, city that is now striving to re-define itself as part
of a larger metropolitan area in a 21st century digital economy.  For
that reason, I’ll be reporting back on how the residents proceed to set
an example for many other places in the USA and the rest of the world.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/130060753327/helping-a-city-envision-its-future]

Engineering Human Biology

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Although information technology companies get most of the attention in discussions of future trends, it’s worth remembering that biotechnology and medical developments will perhaps have a greater impact on our lives going forward.

The engineering of human biology is already moving rapidly, sometimes in ways that are even scarier than the dystopian visions you can read about future computer technology.

In its August issue, WIRED magazine had a story about scientists creating new enhanced capabilities to reorder genes.  The article was titled “Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.” with this teaser:

“We now have the power to quickly and easily alter DNA.  It could eliminate disease.  It could solve world hunger.  It could provide unlimited clean energy.  It could really get out of hand.”

And

“The end of life as we know it”.

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More recently, in another example, researchers at the University of California San Francisco announced that they have created a way to “print” human tissue on demand.  Their goals in the short run are not as dramatic as WIRED portrayed, but the possibilities are also large.

In another form of biological engineering, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University was given an award several months ago by the Defense Department’s DARPA.  While there have been exoskeletons to help soldiers with limb injuries (or just to take a load off their bodies), these have been clunky metallic models.  The scientists at Harvard are to develop a more comfortable, less noticeable, exoskeleton – a Soft Exosuit as described in this video.

A few miles away, however, other scientists are doing away with the need for such external supports in something from science fiction stories – the Massachusetts General Hospital announced in June that its staff had developed a “transplantable bioengineered forelimb”.  The chief researcher at MGH noted:

“Limbs contain muscles, bone, cartilage, blood vessels, tendons, ligaments and nerves – each of which has to be rebuilt and requires a specific supporting structure called the matrix.  We have shown that we can maintain the matrix of all of these tissues in their natural relationships to each other, that we can culture the entire construct over prolonged periods of time, and that we can repopulate the vascular system and musculature.”  

Of course, before we get to these biological futures, there is already computer technology to help our bodies.   The mental health profession has been one of the early adopters of information technology, so let’s start with that.

Thriveport promises its MoodNotes app:

“helps you to: Track your mood and identify what influences it; Develop healthier thinking habits; Learn about “traps” in your thinking style and how to avoid them; Bring new, helpful perspectives to situations; Increase your self-awareness; [and] Reduce your distress and enhance your sense of well-being”

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Along the same lines, the research staff of the University of Rochester “have developed an innovative approach to turn any computer or smartphone with a camera into a personal mental health monitoring device.”  It analyzes “selfie” videos when you use social media.

The number of physical health apps and inexpensive devices available now is too numerous to be called news anymore.  

But a couple of months ago, Australia’s Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics announced that they had “created a simple, portable and economic biosensing device that allows for immediate diagnostic testing of arthritis, cystic fibrosis, acute pancreatitis and other clinical diseases.”  They built it because

“the device has enormous potential for use in point of care medical diagnostics, particularly in remote or developing areas where professional and expensive research laboratory equipment is unavailable”.

They’ve also made their software available so you can convert your smartphone into a “portable bioanalytical devices”.  

Finally, to keep healthy, you apparently not only need to monitor your body, but also to monitor the environment where you live and work.  So along comes the network-connected CubeSensors, which claims that it will “help you discover how small changes in your environment also affect your wellbeing” by observing factors like air quality, air pressure, temperature, humidity, noise and light.

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© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/129639401278/engineering-human-biology]

The Edgy Post-Industrial Economy

Last week, I wrote about the workforce becoming more freelance and the policies that have been proposed to deal with this change.  In this post, I continue the discussion about work in general and more broadly economic trends.

According to the standard measures, the economy is doing ok.  But there are unsettling, even bizarre, trends that make people feel anxious about their economic future.

For example, much has been made about the shift of jobs to China and India – even in popular culture.  About ten years ago there was a movie, Outsourced, about an American who was sent to India to train his replacements.  

But last month, the New York Times had a story that “Chinese Textile Mills Are Now Hiring in Places Where Cotton Was King”.  As manufacturing costs in the US become relatively competitive again with China, Chinese companies are buying American plants and sending their workers here to train Americans on how to do their jobs – jobs that were once in the USA.

I’ve noted before in this blog that the nature of work life is changing in ways that are more fundamental than whether the work is in the US or China or whether you work as a freelancer or in a traditional job.  Ross Perlin pulled together a list of some of these changes in an article in Fast Company magazine.  Its title: “These Are The New Rules of Work: Forget everything you’ve always known about work. The rules have changed.”

Here’s his list:

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But it’s not just that the nature of work is changing.  Many people worry that old jobs are disappearing and new ones not being created fast enough to replace the old or that the economy is not just changing, but somehow imploding.  

For example, in the cover story of last month’s issue of the Atlantic Magazine, Derek Thompson provided a thorough analysis of these issues in an article titled “A World Without Work: For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?”

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Of course, there are other, more positive responses, to the changes that are happening.

Some workers love the changes, as Karoli Hindriks, who runs a service that identifies global job opportunities, reported in “On-Demand Employment: How Today’s Workers Are Choosing Journeys Over Jobs”.

Finally, and reminiscent of the old phrase “the King is dead; long live the King”, Robin Chase (founder of ZipCar and since then an evangelist for the sharing economy) has written “Bye, Bye Capitalism. We’re Entering the Age of Abundance.  The old model of unwieldy behemoths is giving way to a new one of collaboration. Welcome to the world of Peers.”

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© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved
[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/129214293576/the-edgy-post-industrial-economy]

Freelance Labor Day?

Yesterday was Labor Day and there were the usual parades of union members, although freelancers didn’t have their day in the sun – like this cartoon.

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There were also a few Labor Day discussions on television, mostly featuring people who have nice traditional jobs and who don’t seem to have much understanding of what is happening to the very nature of work in a post-industrial economy.

This will be the first of two posts about how the way we make a living – what used to be called “work” – is changing and how the economy is changing more broadly.  

Let’s start off with freelance work, which is estimated to involve 53 million Americans or more than a third of the workforce and looking more like the way that a majority of Americans will work in the future.  As one reporter noted:

No wonder the polite question to ask these days is not “Where do you work?” but “What are you working on?”

Current Labor Department statistics don’t show numbers as large as a third of the workforce, which may partly explain the failure of the government to focus on freelancing.  However, as a Harvard Business Review article last year explained:

“Why is this? Two reasons, mainly. One has to do with definitions — the BLS standard for self-employment isn’t the only valid one. The second is really about history. We may well be witnessing the rise of a new kind of independent worker … Free Agent Nation is out there, and parts of it are growing fast. It’s just not always easy to find”

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Not surprisingly, conventional institutions are having a hard time dealing with this trend.  

In a poignant description of her own situation, Elaine Pofeldt, a writer and exile from corporate America, reported “What I’ve Learned About Government, Big Banks And Consumerism — As a freelancer, the state made me feel like an economic outlaw”

“The moment you step outside the way people are supposed to work in the U.S. — either because that model doesn’t work for you or because you’ve lost a traditional job — you get cut off from the country’s support systems. Never mind that our culture reveres entrepreneurial heroes like Mark Zuckerberg. Depart the W-2 world, and you become a sort of economic outlaw. You don’t get access to unemployment. But you still have to pay taxes like everyone else.”

“Employment attorneys have told me government historically hasn’t wanted more people to join the 1099 economy. It is easier to siphon taxes directly from an employee’s paycheck than to get independent workers to pay the state later.”

Focusing on freelancers earning money through platforms like Uber, Joe Kennedy, senior fellow at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and the former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce, argued a few weeks ago that “Labor laws are a mismatch with the sharing economy”.  He recommends “Creating programs like these that support valuable new industries is certainly more important than trying to impose an obsolete model on a dynamic market.”

Recently, there have been some new policy proposals that start to address the issues in our new economy.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Sara Horowitz, Executive Director of the Freelancers Union, suggested a way of dealing with the episodic income of freelancers – with accounts for pretax income proportionately made by the clients.  She also asked for easier legal remedies to deal with the widespread late or failure to pay by clients.

Nick Hanauer, venture capitalist, and David Rolf, labor union leader, wrote that “by far the biggest threat to middle-class workers—and to our economy as a whole—comes from the changing nature of employment itself.”  They note that “Our changing economy has given rise to a nation of freelancers and contractors — and the need for a twenty-first-century social contract.”

Among other proposals, they suggest a “Shared Security Account as analogous to Social Security, but encompassing all of the employment benefits traditionally provided by a full-time salaried job. Shared Security benefits would be earned and accrued via automatic payroll deductions, regardless of the employment relationship, and, like Social Security, these benefits would be fully prorated, portable, and universal.”

As Sara Horowitz wrote: “Politicians have been talking about the gig economy using outdated language. They’re not talking about how we work today, and they’re certainly not talking about how we’re going to work tomorrow.”

Whether it’s a shared security account or other policies, it’s time that the nation’s public officials address the way that people have to earn a living in this century, not the last.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

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