Why Being Virtually There Is Virtually There

If you work in a factory or somewhere else that requires you to touch things or people, the COVID shutdowns and social distancing have clearly been a difficult situation to overcome.

But it seems that the past few months have also been very trying for many people who worked in office settings before COVID set in.  The Brady Bunch meme captured this well.  However, to me, that’s something which is less a reflection of reality than a lack of imagination and experience.

I’m in the minority of folks who have worked remotely for more than ten years.  By now, I’ve forgotten some of the initial hiccups in doing that.  Also, the software, hardware and bandwidth have gotten so much better that the experience is dramatically better than when I started.

So, I’m a little flummoxed by some of what I hear from remote working newbies.  First off, of course, is the complaint that people can’t touch and hug their co-workers anymore.  Haven’t they been to training about inappropriate touching and how some of these physical interactions can come off as harassment?  Even if these folks were in the office, I doubt they would really be going around making physical contact with co-workers.

Then there is the complaint about the how much can be missed in communication when conversations are limited to text messages and emails.  That complaint is correct.  But why is there an assumption that communication is limited to text.  If you had a meeting in a conference room or went to someone’s office for a talk, why can’t you do the same thing via videoconference?

(My own experience is that remote work requires video to be successful because of the importance of non-text elements of human communication.  That’s why I’m assuming that the virtual communication is often via video.)

In the office you could drop by.  Users of Zoom and similar programs are often expected to schedule meetings, but that’s not a requirement.  You can turn on Zoom and, just like in an office, others could connect to you when you want.  They’ll see if your busy.  And, if you’re a really important person, you can set up a waiting room and let them in when you’re ready.

There is even a 21st century version of the 19th century partner desks, although it’s not new.  An example is the always-on Kubi, pictured to the left, that has been around for a few years.

Perch, another startup, summarized the idea in this video a few years back.  Foursquare started using a video portal connecting their engineering teams on the two coasts eight years ago.  (A few months ago before COVID, a deal was reached to merge Foursquare with Factual.)

By the way, the physical office was no utopia of employee interaction.  A variety of studies, most famously the Allen Curve, a very large reduction in interaction if employees were even relatively short physical distances from each other.  With video, all your co-workers are just a click away.  While your interactions with the colleague at the next desk may be less (if you want), your interactions with lots of other colleagues on other floors can happen a lot more easily.

And then, despite evidence of increased productivity and employee happiness with remote work, there is the statement that it decreases innovation and collaboration.

Influential articles, like Workspaces That Move People in the October 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review, declared that “chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers improve performance.”

In the physical world, many companies interpreted this as a mandate for open office plans that removed doors and closed offices.  So how did that work out?

According to a later article – The Truth About Open Offices – in the November–December 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review reported that, “when the firms switched to open offices, face-to-face interactions fell by 70%”.    (More detail can be found in Royal Society journal article of  July 2018 on “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration”.

The late Steve Jobs forcefully pushed the idea of serendipity through casual, random encounters of employees.  That idea was one of the design principles of the new Apple headquarters.  Now with COVID-driven remote work, some writers, like Tiernan Ray in ZDNET on June 24, 2020, are asking “Steve Jobs said Silicon Valley needs serendipity, but is it even possible in a Zoom world?”.

There is nothing inherently in video conferencing that diminishes serendipitous meetings.  Indeed, in the non-business world, there are websites that exist solely to connect strangers together completely at random, like Chatroulette and Omegle.

Without going into the problems those sites have had with inappropriate behavior, the same idea could be used in a different way to periodically connect via video conferencing two employees who otherwise haven’t met recently or at all.  Nor does that have to be completely random.  A company doing this could also use some analytics to determine which employees might be interested in talking with other employees that they haven’t connected with recently.  That would ensure serendipity globally, not just limited to the people who work in the same building.

It’s not that video conferencing is perfect, but there is still an underappreciation of how many virtual equivalents there are of typical office activities – and even less appreciation for some of the benefits of virtual connections compared to physical offices.

To me, the issue is one of a lag that I’ve seen before with technology.  I’ve called this horseless carriage thinking.  Sociologists call it a cultural lag.  As Ashley Crossman has written, this is

“what happens in a social system when the ideals that regulate life do not keep pace with other changes which are often — but not always — technological.”

Some people don’t yet realize and aren’t quite comfortable with what they can do.  For most, time and experience will educate them.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

A Budget That Copes With Reality

Five years ago, I wrote about the possibility of dynamic budgeting.  I was reminded of this again recently after reading Stephanie Kelton’s eye-opening new book, “The Deficit Myth”.

Her argument is that, since the U.S. dropped the gold standard and fixed exchange rates, it can create as much money as it wants.  The limit is not an illusory national debt number, but inflation.  And in an economy with less than full employment, inflation is not now an issue.  Her explanation of the capacity of the Federal government to spend leads to her suggestions for a more flexible approach to dealing with major economic and social issues.

Although Dr. Kelton was the former staff director for the Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee, she doesn’t devote many words to the tools used in budgeting.  However, the argument that she makes reminds me again that the traditional budget itself has to change, especially shifting to a dynamic budget.

While states and localities are not in the same position as the Federal government, they also face unpredictable conditions and could benefit from a more flexible, dynamic budget.  Of course, in the face of COVID and economic retraction the necessity of re-allocating funds has become more obvious.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about a simple tax app that is now feasible and also eliminates the bumps in incentives that are caused by our current, old-fashioned tax bracket scheme.   This was not using some untested, cutting-edge technology.  Instead, the solution could use phones, tablets and laptops doing simple calculations that these devices have done for decades.

Similarly, what is now well-established technology could be used to overcome the problems with traditional fixed budgeting.  (By the way, the same applies to the budgets that corporations devise.)

So, what are the problems that everyone knows exist with budgets?

  1. They’re wrong the day they are approved since they are trying to predict precisely a future that cannot be known precisely ahead of time. This error is made worse by the early deadlines in the typical budget process.  If you run a department, you are likely to be asked by the budget office to prepare estimates for what you’ll need in a period that will go as far as 18 or even 24 months into the future.
  2. It’s not clear how the estimates are derived. Typically, there are no underlying rules or models, just the addition of personnel and other basic costs that are adjusted from the last year.  This is despite the fact that some things are fairly well known.  For example, it is fairly straightforward to estimate the cost of paying unemployment to an average individual.  What is harder is to figure out how many unemployed people there will be – and, of course, you need to know the total number of unemployed and the average cost in order to compute the total amount of money needed.
  3. Given these problems, in practice during any given budget year, all kinds of exceptions and deviations occur in the face of reality. But the rest of the budget is not readjusted, although the budget staff will often hold back money that was approved as it takes from “Peter to pay Paul”.  The process often seems and is very arbitrary.

Operating in the real world, of course, requires continual adjustments.  Such adjustments can best be accommodated if the traditional fixed budget was replaced by a dynamic budget at the start of the budget process.

One way of doing this is familiar to almost every reader of this blog – the spreadsheet.  The cells in spreadsheets don’t always have hard fixed numbers, like fixed budgets.  Instead many of those spreadsheets have formulas.

And Congress could also not so much the individual amounts for each agency or program, but their relative priorities under different scenarios.  Thus, in a recession there would be a need for more unemployment insurance funding, but that would recede in the face of other priorities if the economy is booming.

To go back to the unemployment example, the actual amount needed in the budget will change as we get closer to the month being estimated and can be more accurate in its estimates of the number of people who will be unemployed.

Of course, the reader who knows my background won’t be surprised that I think the formulas in these cells could be derived by the use of some smart analytics and machine learning.  Ultimately, these methods could be enhanced with simulations – after all, what is a budget but an attempt to simulate a future period of financial needs?

More on that in another post sometime in the future.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Words Matter In Building Intelligent Communities

The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) is an international group of city, town and regional leaders as well as scholars and other experts who are focused on quality of life for residents and intelligently responding to the challenges and opportunities provided by a world and an economy that is increasingly based on broadband and technology.

To quote from their website: “The Intelligent Community Forum is a global network of cities and regions with a think tank at its center.  Its mission is to help communities in the digital age find a new path to economic development and community growth – one that creates inclusive prosperity, tackles social challenges, and enriches quality of life.”

Since 1999, ICF has held an annual contest and announced an award to intelligent communities that go through an extensive investigation and comparison to see how well they are achieving these goals.  Of hundreds of applications, some are selected for an initial, more in-depth assessment and become semi-finalists in a group called the Smart21.

Then the Smart21 are culled to a smaller list of the Top7 most intelligent communities in the world each year.  There are rigorous quantitative evaluations conducted by an outside consultancy, field trips, a review by an independent panel of leading experts/academic researchers and a vote by a larger group of experts.

An especially important part of the selection of the Top7 from the Smart21 is an independent panel’s assessment of the projects and initiatives that justify a community’s claim to being intelligent.

It may not always be clear to communities what separates these seven most intelligent communities from the rest.  After all, these descriptions are just words.  We understand that words matter in political campaigns.  But words matter outside of politics in initiatives, big and small, that are part of governing.

Could the words that leaders use be part of what separates successful intelligent initiatives from those of others who are less successful in building intelligent communities?

In an attempt to answer that question, I obtained and analyzed the applications submitted over the last ten years.  Then, using the methods of analytics and machine learning that I teach at Columbia University, I sought to determine if there was a difference in how the leaders of the Top7 described what they were doing in comparison with those who did not make the cut.

Although at a superficial level, the descriptions seem somewhat similar, it turns out that the leaders of more successful intelligent community initiatives did, indeed, describe those initiatives differently from the leaders of less successful initiatives.

The first significant difference was that the descriptions of the Top7 had more to say about their initiatives, since apparently they had more accomplishments to discuss.  Their descriptions had less talk about future plans and more about past successes.

In describing the results of their initiatives so far, they used numbers more often, providing greater evidence of those results.  Even though they were discussing technology-based or otherwise sometimes complex projects, they used more informal, less dense and less bureaucratic language.

Among the topics they emphasized, engagement and leadership as well as the technology infrastructure primarily stood out.  Less important, but also a differentiation, the more successful leaders emphasized the smart city, innovation and economic growth benefits.

For those leaders who wish to know what will gain them recognition for real successes in transforming their jurisdictions into intelligent communities, the results would indicate these simple rules:

  • Have and highlight a solid technology infrastructure.
  • True success, however, comes from extensive civic engagement and frequently mentioning that engagement and the role of civic leadership in moving the community forward.
  • Less bureaucratic formality and more stress on results (quantitative measures of outcomes) in their public statements is also associated with greater success in these initiatives.

On the other hand, a laundry list of projects that are not tied to civic engagement and necessary technology, particularly if those projects have no real track record, is not the path to outstanding success – even if they check off the six wide-ranging factors that the ICF expects of intelligent communities.

While words do matter, it is also true that other factors can impact the success or failure of major public initiatives.  However, these too can be added into the models of success or failure, along with the results of the textual analytics.

Overall, the results of this analysis can help public officials understand a little better how they need to think about what they are doing and then properly describe it to their citizens and others outside of their community.  This will help them to be more successful, most importantly for their communities and, if they wish, as well in the ICF awards process.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Working From Home Will Change Cities

Just three years ago, the New York Times had this headline Why Big Cities Thrive, and Smaller Ones Are Being Left Behind” – trumpeting the victory of big cities over their smaller competitors, not to mention the suburbs and rural areas.  At the top of that heap, of course, was New York City.

Now the headlines are different:

A week ago, the always perceptive Claire Cain Miller added another perspective in an Upshot article that was headlined with the question “Is the Five-Day Office Week Over?”  Her answer, in the sub-title, was that the “pandemic has shown employees and employers alike that there’s value in working from home — at least, some of the time.”

This chart summarizes a part of what she wrote about.  As Miller’s story makes quite clear, it is important to realize that some of what has happened during the COVID pandemic will continue after we have finally overcome it and people are free to resume activities anywhere.  Some of the current refugees from cities will likely move back to the cities and many city residents remained there, of course.  But the point is that many of these old, returning and new urban residents will have different patterns of work and that will require cities to change.

While the focus of this was mostly on remote office work, some observers note that cities still have lots of workers who do not work in offices.  While clearly there are numerous jobs that require the laying of hands on something or someone, there are also blue-collar jobs that do not strictly require a physical presence.

I have seen factories that can be remotely controlled, even before the pandemic.  Now this option is getting even more attention.  One of the technology trade magazines, recently (7/3/2020) had a storied with this headline – “Remote factories: The next frontier of remote work.”  In another example, GE has been offering technology solutions to enable the employees of utility companies to remotely control facilities – see “Remote Control: Utilities and Manufacturers Turn to Automation Software To Operate From Home During Outbreak”.

So perhaps the first blush of victory of big cities, like the British occupation of New York City during the American Revolution or the invasion of France in World War II, did not indicate how the war would end.  Perhaps the war has not ended because, in an internet age where many people can work from home, home does not have to be in big cities, after all, or if it is in a big city it does not have to be in a gleaming office tower.

These trends and the potential of the internet and technology to disrupt traditional urban patters, of course, have been clear for more than ten years.  But few mayors and other urban leaders paid attention.  After all they were in a recent period in which they could just ride the wave of what seemed to be ever increasing density and growth in cities – especially propelled by young people seeking office jobs in their cities.  This was a wonderful dream, combining the urban heft of the industrial age with cleaner occupations.

Now the possibility of a different world is hitting them in the face.  It is not merely a switch from factory to office employment, but a change from industrial era work patterns too.  Among other things that change means that people do not all have to show up in the same place at the same time.  This change requires city leaders to start thinking about all the various ways that they need to adjust their traditional thinking.

Here are just three of the ways that cities will be impacted by an increasing percentage of work being done at home:

  • Property taxes in most cities usually have higher rates on commercial property than on residential property. Indeed, commercial real estate has been the goose that has laid the golden eggs for those cities which have had flourishing downtowns.  But if the amount of square footage in commercial property decreases, the value of those properties and hence the taxes will go down.  On the other hand, most elected officials are loath to raise taxes on residential real estate, even if those residences are now generating income through commercial activities – a job at home most of the week.
  • Traffic and transit patterns used to be quite predictable. There was rush hour in the morning and afternoon when everyone was trying to get the same densely packed core.  With fewer people coming to the office every day that will change.  Even those who meet in downtown may not be going there now for the 9:00 AM start of the work day, but for a lunch meeting.  Then there is the matter of increasing and relatively small deliveries to homes, rather than large deliveries to stores in the central business district.  This too turns upside down the traditional patterns.
  • Excitement and enticement have, of course, been traditional advantages of cities. Downtown is where the action is.  Even that is changing.  Although it is still fun to go to Broadway, for example, I suspect that most people had a better view of the actors in the Disney Plus presentation of Hamilton than did those who paid a lot more money to sit somewhere many rows back even in the orchestra section of the theater.  At some point, people will balance this out.  So, cities are going to have be a lot more creative and find new ways, new magic to bring people to their core.

Cities have evolved before.  In the 18th century, American cities thrived on the traffic going through their ports.  While the ports still played a role, in later centuries, cities grew dramatically and thrived on their factories and industrial might.  Then they replaced factories with offices.

A transition to an as yet unclear future version of cities can be done and will be done successfully by those city leaders who don’t deny what is happening, but instead respond with a new vision – or at least new experimentation that they can learn from.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Is It 1832 Or 2020? Virtual Convention Or Something New?

In these blogs, I’ve often noted how people seem wedded to old ways of thinking, even when those old ways are dressed up in new clothes.

Despite all the technology around us, it’s amazing how little some things have changed.  Too often, today seems like it was 120 years ago when people talked and thought about “horseless carriages” rather than the new thing that was possible – the car with all the possibilities it opened.

So it was with interest that I read this recent story – “Democrats confirm plans for nearly all-virtual convention

“Democrats will hold an almost entirely virtual presidential nominating convention Aug. 17-20 in Milwaukee using live broadcasts and online streaming, party officials said Wednesday.”

Party conventions have been around since 1832.  They were changed a little bit when they went on radio and then later on television.  But mostly they have always been filled with lots of people hearing speeches, usually from the podium.

Following in this tradition going back to 1832, the Democratic Party is going to have a convention, but we can’t have lots of people gathered together with COVID-19.  This one will be “a virtual convention in Milwaukee” which seems like a contradiction – something that is both virtual but is happening in a physical place?  I guess it only means that Joe Biden will be in Milwaukee along with the convention officials to handle procedures.

Indeed, it’s not entirely clear what this convention will look like.  In addition to the main procedures in Milwaukee, the article indicates that “Democrats plan other events in satellite locations around the country to broadcast as part of the convention”.  I assume that will be similar.

“Kirshner knows how it’s done: He has produced every Democratic national convention since 1992.”

Hopefully this will be different from every convention since 1832 – or even 1992!

Instead of the standard speeches on the screen or even other activities that are just video of something that could occur on-stage, do something that is more up-to-date.  This will show that Biden will not only be a different kind of President than Trump, but that he also will know how to lead us into the future.

Why not do something that takes advantage of not having to be in a convention hall?

For example, how about a walk (or drive, if necessary) through the speaker’s neighborhood (masks on) explaining what the problems are and what Biden wants to do about those problems?

My suggestions are limited since creative arts are not my specialty, but I do see an opportunity to do something different.  It is a good guess that Hollywood is also eager to help defeat Trump and would offer all kinds of innovative assistance.  Make it an illustration of American collaboration at its best.

This should not be an unusual idea for the Biden organization.  Among his top advisors are Zeppa Kreager, his Chief of Staff, formerly the Director of the Creative Alliance (part of Civic Nation), and Kate Bedingfield, Deputy Campaign Manager and Communications Director, formerly Vice President at Monumental Sports and Entertainment.

Of course, the Trump campaign could take the same approach, but they do not seem interested and Trump obviously adores a large in-person audience.  So there is a real opportunity for Biden to differentiate himself.

Beyond the short-term electoral considerations, this would also make political history by setting a new pattern for political conventions.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved