Gotham Innovation Greenhouse Progress Report

G.I.G. is a group of creative folks from various fields who are trying to establish a 21st century version of the 17th century Royal Society – but with a deeper understanding of how innovation occurs and with the use of today’s collaborative technology.  

A number of people have expressed interest in the progress of G.I.G.  So I’ll be writing periodic updates here, especially after each meeting.

For the next few meetings, at least, people will be presenting various ideas/projects.  Mostly these focus on what is called social innovation.  Partly this is a reflection of the issues that the collaborators are interested in.  Partly this is a reflection of the fact that we have not yet worked out the intellectual property and other economic issues that are part of commercial product innovation.

It was clear from the presentations that there are three types: presentation of an idea for enlightenment or fun (kind of a TED talk); a presentation which asks for feedback, but is pretty much limited to discussion at the meeting; and a presentation which is really an invitation for one or more G.I.G. collaborators to participate in the project being presented.

The second and third categories are much like presentations made by entrepreneurs to panels of venture capitalists or angel investors.  Except in the case of G.I.G., the proposal presenters are seeking the creative ideas and energies of the other G.I.G. collaborators.

So last night, May 22, we had our second meeting, at which the following proposals were presented and discussed:  

  • Leveraging FlexSpace to Power GIG, and vice-versa. This was presented from the beta FlexSpace room in San Jose to the group in New York.  FlexSpace is an evolving set of technologies to enable distributed people to work together.  The solution is designed to facilitate the creative process by enabling virtual post-its, white boarding, co-creation of content and a fascinating blending of physical and virtual space. 
  • A real-time mobile logistics platform: to support on-the-fly coordination of large groups, while mitigating impact on other traffic. While initially focused on a bicycle event, this is potentially generalizable to all kinds of scenarios.
  • Open Line Studio: a collaborative distributed research studio about potential futures of waterfronts in Toronto, New York City, Bremen, Istanbul, and Busan. The project will serve as a proof-of-concept for intensive virtual sharing of physical plans as a way to improve local future-making.

There was also quite a bit of discussion about the process of innovation, how creative people can organize, etc. – all part of giving birth to G.I.G.

Our next meeting is Tuesday, June 19, where we will discuss additional projects/ideas.  

Please let me know ( if you are interested in attending or participating in G.I.G.

We’ll also be working on enhancing the website and including the PowerPoints from this meeting.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


The Electronic Frontier Foundation And Municipal Arts Society In The Same Room?

Monday night in New York, there was a joint reception and remarks from @EFF and @MASNYC.  What would New York’s premier urban design organization and a digital rights advocacy group have in common?

It turns out there were several things in common, from the personalities involved to shared concepts.

First, the personal level.  Vin Cipolla, the President of the Municipal Arts Society, served on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in an earlier part of his career.  And, although EFF is based in San Francisco, Esther Dyson, a New Yorker, was one of its original board members twenty-years ago.  (Ms. Dyson is a multi-faceted eminence in the technology industry – analyst, investor, guru, … )  She too attended and spoke at this reception.

The second reason is that EFF has been very much a part of the Silicon Valley scene and focused there.  As the New York metro region has itself become a new and large center of Internet and technology activity, EFF decided it was natural to ramp up its presence in New York.  

The third reason is the MAS has increasingly recognized the ways that technology interacts with and affects urban life and urban design.  For example, as I’ve noted in a previous post, the MAS Summit last year featured Betaville, online software that enables citizens to collaborate in urban design.

The fourth reason has to do with what is a shared philosophy, albeit historically in different domains of life.  EFF has championed the rights of individuals in cyberspace over those heavy-handed institutions that would restrict their freedoms; perhaps stating this more positively, EFF wants an Internet that empowers the individuals who use it.  

Similarly, MAS has championed the rights of residents to define and make livable their urban environment.  Building on the intellectual tradition of Jane Jacobs, MAS wants urban areas that empower the individuals who live there.

As the virtual and physical world of cities become ever more blended, it will not be so unusual that two organizations – like MAS and EFF – will work together.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Gotham Innovation Greenhouse

Talk about the need for innovation – in all of its various forms – is hard to escape these days.  It comes from the President of the US, nearly every other politician and, of course, most of the CEOs of the Fortune 100.

In response, there have been a number of grand announcements about the building of innovation centers.  Often these innovation centers are combined with attempts to build some kind of business cluster in a narrow field of technology.

Usually, the word “building” is quite literal.  All over the world, major edifices and “parks” are being built to employ people who will somehow manufacture innovation in these specialized clusters.  [Please excuse a bit of sarcasm about manufacturing innovation, but to read some of the press releases that accompany these building plans, you would think indeed that turning out new ideas is like turning out widgets.]

Some of the interest in innovation is due to the publication, in the last couple of years, of popular books on the subject.  There is, of course, Steven Johnson’s valuable book, “Where Good Ideas Come From”.  More recently, Jon Gertner’s book “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” has been a best seller as has “Imagine: How Creativity Works" by Jonah Lehrer, among others.  

The books are good, but I wonder how much policy makers have read them.

An important part of all this study of innovation is that it is not like industrial-era manufacturing.  The process is more organic and unpredictable.  It is social – as Johnson writes:

"That is how innovation happens … chance favors the connected mind.”

Or, in a more jaundiced view, attributed to Einstein:

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Innovation arises not so much as narrow specialists talking to others in their field and delving deeper into their narrow specialties, but in people who can and do talk across disciplines.

While the city government has been pursuing its own copy of the “building innovation center” approach, the New York metropolitan area is filled with creative people who understand how innovation happens.  Too often they are working for institutions that are anything but innovative.

With all of this in mind, several of us have come together in what is initially a virtual experiment in innovation called the Gotham Innovation Greeenhouse – or G.I.G.  The use of “gig” is intentional as that expresses better the impromptu, perhaps not long term, combination of creative people that may lead to innovation.  

Imagine re-creating in 21st century, Internet-enabled New York, the 17th century Royal Society of scientists in London.

The initial instigators of this idea, aside from myself include Carl Skelton, director of the Experimental Media Center of Polytechnic Institute at New York University and Vin Cipolla, President of the Municipal Arts Society.  But the group is larger now and growing.

We are in the very embryonic stages now, but I’ll be posting more information as things develop.  For a look at the concept document, see 

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


3D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing

3D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing

FW: Skills Shortage? Quit Whining

My work on economic growth for the US Conference of Mayors has focused, in part, on labor and how to improve the skills of workers in ways that are not dependent upon the traditionally expensive classroom environment.  

So I found this article by Rob Preston, Editor in Chief of InformationWeek of interest.  Read it at

It has also struck me that the labor market, especially compared to capital markets, is quite inefficient.  Are people working at tasks that are the best use of their skills and temperament?  How much could the economy grow if people were more optimally allocated to the needs of the market?  As with other markets, the Internet may help increase the efficiency of the labor market by providing better information about all players in the market.  It remains to be seen, of course, how exactly this might play out in the future.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Living Long In A Networked Age

This post was started in 2010 in Australia, when I was asked to speak at the biennial world meeting of the International Federation on Ageing ( and the World Health Organization.  They were interested in my early work on socio-economic trends in this networked age.

I don’t like giving packaged presentations and much prefer to talk about things that have some meaning for the audience.  So I did some research on aging and tried to work out in my mind what are the implications of the growing digital network on the way that we live longer.

This post is a summary of that thought process.

First consider the traditional view of aging, perhaps more prevalent in the general public than among experts.  

Basically, as you get older, this view says you will get increasingly debilitated and immobile, have to retire from the work force, become dependent upon government financial support and personal service from others, and spend much of your time in medical facilities.  There is no doubt that some of these things can happen and eventually the body does wear out.  

But is this a necessary picture of aging in today’s world? Not when people can be connected by broadband networks that, increasingly, include video capabilities which really make it feel that you are together with others who are far away.   

First, let’s deal with the dissociation from the work force.  In 1900, 71% of the American labor made goods or food.  This was often back-breaking work, the kind of job that indeed did become untenable for the elderly.

But, by 2000, only 21% of American workers are still in the business of making goods or food.  The rest provide services, increasingly intangible services that are created on computers and delivered over the Internet.  

One of the consequences of this is that many people no longer go to a job.  Their work goes to them wherever they might be.  It is so common that people are working at home or in locations outside of the offices of their employers that many companies have found they need half the space per employee that they did ten years ago.  

So when people are faced with reduced mobility, whether it is due to a skiing accident or the aging of the body, it no longer means that they cannot work and earn a living.

Is this relevant to seniors?  The Pew Internet and American Life Project has found that 41% of those over 65 are online.  Among the next wave of potential retirees,  those between 50 and 64, 74% are online.  

Even a couple of years ago, you could find a story about “Seniors finding social networking exhilarating” (from The Dallas Morning News, October 12, 2009).  And many of us have seen grandparents connect with the grandkids via videoconferencing and social media.

Ok, you might say, that seniors might be able to work, but do they want to or do they wish to just live off their savings and government help?

In an article entitled, “Successful Seniors Who Won’t Retire”,  Business Week featured 105 seniors a couple of years ago who won’t quit, with Jane Fonda as the prime example.

There have been recent research studies about this very question.  Labor force participation by seniors has gone up in recent decades.

In another Pew study, they reported that 12% of current retirees already work for pay.  More than three quarters of current workers expect to work for pay after retirement – 60% because they want to and only 30% because they have to work to make ends meet.  The authors conclusion:

“The latest Pew findings suggest that retirement is a phase of life about which public attitudes, expectations and experiences are in a period of transition.”

This is not just an American phenomenon.  Xinhua News reported:

“About one third of the retired people in Beijing want to keep on working to earn more and to stay in touch with society.”

Although age discrimination is widespread in hiring, it is counter-productive. Other research has found that “Older Workers Had Higher Educational Attainment Overall Than Older Non-workers.”  

Of course, those people, no matter what their age, who have higher education are more likely participants in the knowledge economy – the intangible, digital part of the economy.  Thus the labor force participation rate of those with advanced degrees was about three times that of those with less than a high school education.

But what about the disabilities that seem to be part of aging?

Among those who work with seniors, there has been a movement called “universal design” whose aim is to ensure that every room in a home or other building is designed with ease of use.  For example, look at the work by the NCSU Center for Universal Design (

Their goal for seniors is to prevent accidents, like slipping in a shower.  (The point has been made, of course, that these improvement also help those who are no so old.  Anyone can slip in a shower if it’s not properly designed.)

In this century, we can do more than be careful with traditional physical design. 

There has been much in the news lately about the “Internet of things”, which is a phrase that describes the increasing number of sensors and other devices without direct human interfaces all over the world, including in our homes.  

This enables architects to design a blended virtual/physical environment for seniors that can monitor their safety and health.  For example, it is possible to build in prevention and detection of falls among seniors.

Being always connected can mean always having access to tele-health.  I’m thinking of what exists now.  There are all sort of devices to monitor chronic diseases, which means that doctors can remotely diagnose and catch problems early before they become critical and expensive.  

These devices allow for a range of options for senior, instead of unnecessary commitment to a long-term care facility.

In the future, sensors that transmit from inside your body and that help repair your body will become available and take tele-medicine to an extraordinary new level.

The connectivity of seniors at home can also lead to better health outcomes as was demonstrated in the Vermont Telecare for Rural Health Project.  They ran a successful, multi-way interactive tai-chi exercise class for those over 70 who did not leave their homes.  As the leaders of the project noted:  

“We know that exercise is helpful for senior patients, but we can’t get to them. And we know that Tai Chi helps keep seniors healthy, increases their well-being and balance.“

So even home-bound seniors with chronic diseases can still participate in the economy and the wider society.

Ok, you might say, we can overcome some of the physical handicaps that sometime accompany aging.  But what about the mental degradation? the intellectual stodginess that is part of the common view of the elderly?  Aren’t seniors unprepared to participate in an economy in which innovation is a critical element of competitive success?

In many, these views are misleading or irrelevant in this century.  Let’s start with the irrelevant by observing our own children and how they use the Internet.

Is a quick and expansive memory for details something they cherish, even among themselves, when there is the Internet to look up almost any fact?

Is it necessary to worry about reminders when "there’s an app for that”?

But the misleading part of this view is more interesting, if less well known.

There was a time that it was assumed that only the very young were creative.  However, there has been more recent bio-medical research on the resilience and continuing growth of the brain even among older people.

There was also the interesting research by the economist Galenson who focused on artists, among others.  In a review of Galenson’s work, Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker magazine, asked: “why do we equate genius with precociousness?" 

Galenson divided creativity into two types – conceptual and experimental.  The complete conceptual revision of some domain, be it art or physics, is often associated with the very young.  

The experimental or experiential type of creativity is evidenced by those much older since it is based on the ability to make connections among diverse experiences that only older people have had.  It is also based on a lifetime of experimentation with the world.  

In discussions of innovations in business and in driving future economic growth, it is this kind of creativity that makes the most difference.

But there is a catch, which is why many are misled about this subject.  The catch is that creativity is a collaborative act.  It is not about some lone 20 year old genius sitting on a mountainside.  As Steven Johnson put it in his book "Where Good Ideas Come From”:

“That is how innovation happens … chance favors the connected mind.” 

No matter what someone’s age, if they are not in the stream of new ideas, they will not achieve their creative potential.  Unfortunately, for most people, they are exposed to new ideas and knowledge less and less for each year they are away from college or their last formal educational experience.

Some colleges, for example Purchase College of the State University of New York, have admirably tried to remedy this by enabling seniors to audit classes for a very low fee.  But classroom instruction is expensive and not always convenient for seniors.

The Internet, however, has a vast potential to put seniors back into that stream so that they too can be innovative.  MIT has put its courses online, among other universities.  Carnegie-Mellon is leading an open learning project.  Florida has a virtual reference librarian available 24 hours a day.  There are training videos and tutorials in almost every subject imaginable.  

Especially interesting is the cooperative, free online university for seniors – University for the Third Age (U3A).  

There is just a tremendous amount of scientific and other research that used to be available only on the campus where it occurred or later in scientific journals and conferences.  Now much of that is available online.  And local librarians can help people find this, if it becomes too daunting to search through for an individual.

Public leaders in the 19th century recognized the economic importance of ensuring that all citizens could read and they created the public schools and libraries necessary to achieve that goal.  In this century, public leaders need to ensure that residents of all ages are helped to identify where they can get 21st century learning. 

Another significant socio-economic trend in this century is the increased recognition of the role played by new entrepreneurs in economic growth – and the way that the Internet makes it easier than ever to start up a business.

Thus, there is no reason that this greater entrepreneurial opportunity cannot be grabbed by a 59 year-old as much as 19 year-old almost-college-dropouts.  Apparently, this is something that older people realize.  The Kauffman Foundation highlights its finding ( that the 

“increasing rate of entrepreneurship among older adults has led to a rising share of new entrepreneurs in the fifty-five to sixty-four age group. This age group represented 14.5 percent of new entrepreneurs in 1996, whereas it represented 22.9 percent of new entrepreneurs in 2010.”   

As we enter into the world of ubiquitous communications in this century, we will find that the traditional issues which have handicapped older people are diminishing.  This should generate a whole new way of looking at them and at this part of life – not a phase of debilitation and near vegetation, but an active life despite whatever limitations the aging body may impose.

This new outlook may be represented by a new equation, with apologies to Einstein, e = (mc)²  Enhancement of life experience results from more connectivity which leads to more choices.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Robert Kennedy On Measuring The Economy

Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.“

– Robert F. Kennedy, former US Attorney General and US Senator, March 18, 1968, University of Kansas [Source:]

My comment: Forty-three years ago, Robert F. Kennedy spoke about the inadequacies of our measures of the economy.  The sentiment is even more relevant in the Internet age, where the sales of Encyclopedia Britannica are counted in GDP, but the economic and social value of Wikipedia is not.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


New Competition Between Governments

The speed and accessibility of digital information and services increases everyday.  Whatever a government does online can be viewed by not only its own constituents, but by anyone else.

This building trend is likely to lead to increasing competition among governments.  Competition between governments is not new – we have a long history of wars between nation-states to prove that point.  Even when relations between governments are peaceful, there has been a strong economic (mercantilist) competition to attract (steal) businesses and the jobs their plants and offices presumably bring when they move.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  Instead, what will be at stake is the very loyalty of citizens and the relevance of public leaders to those citizens.

This may seem odd.  Historically, governments – no matter their political ideology – have been about control over physical territory and the people who live within the borders of that territory.  But the Internet is all about breaking down borders between people.  As the Internet increases in use, these borders become weaker.  This is true, as we have seen in some countries last year, even when the government has governed through the use of threats of physical violence and coercion.

We have also seen an ever-larger percentage of people who earn a living by the creation and delivery of knowledge, ideas and other intangible services, rather than the industrial era’s tangible services and goods.  These people can and do take their work with them, instead of going to an office or factory.  They may split their time each year between multiple locations, but they can still be in virtual touch with any place.  

This has two implications for the way they look at government.  First, it sets up a competition for the attention and allegiance of these people.  Which, if any, of these locations is the one they consider primary?  In a way, the governments of these different locations are in competition.

Second, while government still delivers many physical services, like maintaining streetlights, government too is finding that an increasing proportion of its activities are intangible services.  Much of what used to be conducted over the counter or desk, such as filing applications or making payments, is now done on the Internet.  

As society has become more complex, government finds itself also delivering digital information about problems from avoiding insect-born diseases to financial literacy.  For many of these intangible services, a person can look to any number of government websites, not just the website of the nearest government agency.

A few years ago, the Health Department in Westchester County, New York, created a web site on women’s health.  That site received visits from people who lived way beyond the New York area, even as far as South Africa.

So government leaders can no longer take for granted the interest of the people who might physically be located within their jurisdiction.  

This doesn’t mean government will disappear.  There will always be some geographic and physical responsibilities for government, like maintaining roads.  But from a citizen’s viewpoint it may become more like a visit to McDonald’s.  When I need it, I want to find it nearby, to be clean and to have good service, but I don’t have any particular loyalty or interest in McDonald’s beyond that.

While they may not normally go out of business, governments can certainly shrink because the lack of interest makes it hard to raise taxes.  And, of course, some governments have disappeared as when city and county governments have consolidated in various parts of the US.

So what’s a leader to do? To begin, public leaders must recognize that this competition is intensifying and that, like smart executives of consumer products companies, they have to think about market differentiation and market strategy.  As well, to strengthen the brand value of their jurisdiction, public leaders will also have to start to exercise the creativity that has made companies like Apple and Starbucks so successful.

To get your creative ideas flowing, I’d suggest two classic books on innovative strategy: “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen and “Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.

As your thinking develops on this, please let me know so I can share your ideas with others. 

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Misdiagnosing the Economic Problem

This – – is an interesting article, but it misses important aspects of currently evolving economic trend and thus misdiagnoses the economic problems facing Ontario, Canada.

1. Just by itself, the economic development of other areas is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, a general uplift in the world economy can work to everyone’s advantage.  So a narrow focus on comparisons is not helpful.

2. However, too small an increase in the local economy and especially in productivity are important concerns, so Ontario does have reason to worry.

3. If there is evidence of a significant use of the Internet, it may be that some of the economic activity that is going on in Ontario is not being properly measured because it is not monetized.  (Think about how little of the value of Wikipedia is monetized and thus how much of its value is ignored by standard economic statistics.)

4. They do need to step up innovation and the skills/knowledge of the people who live there.  Spending more on traditional educational institutions may not be the best way to do this.

5. You won’t be surprised if I add that “poor functioning of industry clusters, fewer workers living in urban areas” is just a reflection of what is going on elsewhere in the developed world and not something unusual to Ontario.  Economic strategies based on physical proximity will increasing be challenged by virtual connections.  

By the way, the report is much more nuanced than the newspaper story, but unfortunately it is usually only the newspaper stories that get read.

Here’s the link to the report:

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Telegraph vs. Internet: Which Had Greater Impact?

2012 is the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  You may remember just two things about this period from your high school history class.  First, in an act of ignominy for the Americans, the British burned down the capital.  Second, the war ended with the resounding defeat of the British by the heroic General Andrew Jackson in January 1815, in what was the war’s only set-piece battle between the opposing sides.  Jackson eventually rode this victory into the Presidency.

There is only one problem with this battle.  It took place after the war was over.  The previous month, in Europe, the two sides had agreed to peace.  But in those days, communications was so slow that word of the peace didn’t reach New Orleans until February 1815.

Fast forward, approximately forty-eight years later, to the Civil War.  In the period between these two wars, in 1831, Morse thought up the idea for the electronic telegraph.  The Union Army had mastered its quick deployment, so that in 1863 while sitting in Washington, President Lincoln could read almost real time reports from the battlefields many miles away. 

This was a dramatic increase in the speed of communications.  Not all that many decades later, telegraph lines and cables would unite the world.  Yet this did not fundamentally change the way people worked or lived or governed themselves.

So consider 2011, when the US Navy Seals got Osama Bin Laden.  There was a tweet about helicopters within several minutes, but the author didn’t know why the helicopters were nearby.  The first tweet with some confirmation came about forty-five minutes before President Obama made his announcement.

Now think back about forty-eight years before to November 22, 1963 and the assassination of President John Kennedy.  The news was out quickly all over television and radio and newspapers.  Walter Cronkite famously told the viewers of CBS News that the President had died thirty-eight minutes before.

Unlike the 19th century examples, there was no dramatic speed up in the reporting of these two more recent events separated by roughly forty-eight years.  While we may have more sources of information in more places now than in 1963, word doesn’t get out all that much faster.  You could argue that the Telegraph had a greater impact on communications than the Internet.

Yet many of us have the feeling that our world has been changed by this communications.  Why is that?

I think it has to do with the changing nature of the work we do.  In the mid-19th century, more than three quarters of Americans made things or grew food.  In 2011, less than a quarter do so and the rest of us provide services – and increasingly intangible services, including ideas, knowledge, entertainment and the like which is delivered digitally.  Because better digital communications directly speeds up the delivery of these services, we see the impact more.  It’s the increasing availability of high quality communications, in conjunction with these significant socio-economic trends, which will continue to change our lives. 

[picture credit for Battle of New Orleans]

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

It Just Takes Some Imagination

I had the good fortune to be around Miami this past Saturday night as the city hosted Sleepless Night when the clocks were turned back for the end of daylight savings time.  This is part of the international Nuit Blanche network of cities celebrating the arts and culture.  

Of the more than 100 events in Miami Beach, one that attracted a very large crowd was the “vertical dancing” on the glass side of the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, which houses the New World Symphony.  It was performed by Project Bandaloop as “Bound(less)” with Dana Leong.

I posted ten minutes of excerpts from this show at  (There’s a two minute version someone else posted at

Aside from noting how cool this is, as I was watching, I thought how straightforward this was – instead of letting the side of a building just provide a skin for the occupants, this transformed the side of the building into a dance floor.  (The other side of the building is a huge screen that lets people outside see and hear the concerts going on inside.)

It’s simple and, compared to lots of other civic events across the US, it is relatively inexpensive.  All it takes is some imagination to create this kind of Wow! experience in your city.

I realize, of course, that not every city has the large pool of artists, dancers, musicians, etc. that can be found in Miami.  So I’m not suggesting that every city imitate this particular event.  But every city has the potential for interesting experiences, which can be discovered with a little imagination.  

As the broadband-based video communications becomes more widespread and more of what we produce are intangible services and knowledge, there will be an increasing number of people who can make a living anywhere they choose to live.  What a city might have done to attract tourists in the past, it will have to do to retain and attract residents.  

Like SleepLess Night, give them a reason to be there.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


It Just Takes Some Imagination

I had the good fortune to be around Miami this past Saturday night as the city hosted Sleepless Night when the clocks were turned back for the end of daylight savings time.  This is part of the international Nuit Blanche network of cities celebrating the arts and culture.  

Of the more than 100 events in Miami Beach, one that attracted a very large crowd was the “vertical dancing” on the glass side of the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, which houses the New World Symphony.  It was performed by Project Bandaloop as “Bound(less)” with Dana Leong.

I posted ten minutes of excerpts from this show at .  (There’s a two minute version someone else posted at

Aside from noting how cool this is, as I was watching, I thought how straightforward this was – instead of letting the side of a building just provide a skin for the occupants, this transformed the side of the building into a dance floor.  (The other side of the building is a huge screen that lets people outside see and hear the concerts going on inside.)

It’s simple and, compared to lots of other civic events across the US, it is relatively inexpensive.  All it takes is some imagination to create this kind of Wow! experience in your city.

I realize, of course, that not every city has the large pool of artists, dancers, musicians, etc. that can be found in Miami.  So I’m not suggesting that every city imitate this particular event.  But every city has the potential for interesting experiences, which can be discovered with a little imagination.  

As the broadband-based video communications becomes more widespread and more of what we produce are intangible services and knowledge, there will be an increasing number of people who can make a living anywhere they choose to live.  What a city might have done to attract tourists in the past, it will have to do to retain and attract residents.  

Like SleepLess Night, give them a reason to be there.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


Is The Second Economy The End Of Human Labor?

Recently, there have appeared some analyses that point to a shift from traditional human production to machine production.

In a McKinsey Quarterly article (

), W. Brian Arthur, a visiting researcher at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, focused on the “second economy”.  The subtitle of his article sums up the message: 

“Digitization is creating a second economy that’s vast, automatic, and invisible—thereby bringing the biggest change since the Industrial Revolution.”  He continues, “we can say that another economy—a second economy—of all of these digitized business processes conversing, executing, and triggering further actions is silently forming alongside the physical economy… human beings may design it but are not directly involved in running it. It is remotely executing and global, always on, and endlessly configurable.”

A recently there appeared a new book, “Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.  I suppose, as a form of testament to their thesis of an accelerating digital revolution, their book will only be available in e-book form.

The arguments in both the book and the paper are that an increasing amount of traditional human labor is being carried out by machines that are connected via the global Internet.  The idea of machines as the cause of unemployment is not new.  It goes back, at least, to the industrial revolution.  (Indeed, some of the classical Greek philosophers complained about the introduction of writing systems that they claimed diminished the capacity of people to remember – and, perhaps, led to unemployment of those who were the carriers of society’s oral tradition.  How many town criers are left these days?)

The concern about automation has been counterbalanced by the realization that this is a reflection of increasing human productivity, since after all these are our machines that we choose to create and deploy.  In the past, automation has allowed each of us to produce more and thus live better.

The question now is whether the use of technology is so great that it allows only a few people to reap the economic benefits of increased productivity.   The increasing inequality of income and wealth in the US and other advanced economies over the last four decades is often offered as evidence that the benefits will accrue to only a minority.   

However, this trend seems to have been more aligned with changes in redistributive public policies than a result of technology.  After all, even as late as the 1990s, economists (like Robert Solow) were still seeking proof of the increased productivity that was supposed to have come from the massive investment that companies had made in technology.  That productivity seems to have eventually arrived in this century.

It would not seem to make sense to ameliorate income inequality by reducing income as a whole for all of society, but instead it may be time to revisit the role of public policy in sharing the wealth.  The current political climate is not receptive to much of a debate on this.  However, as more human labor is devoted to intangible services and knowledge, which often have the feel of being more like public goods and less like private goods, the question of who gets credit for such goods will become harder to answer – and the idea of sharing the credit and the wealth generated may become more acceptable.

More important, there is an end-of-history feel to some of the arguments being put forth.  It is as if we are all headed to a life of desperate poverty or grand leisure.  Or perhaps something akin to the horrendous future envisioned in the “Time Machine.”

Such a vision, I think, is based on a limited view of what drives people to labor and a failure to recognize the how expansive human desires can be.  As Steve Jobs famously said, people often don’t know what they want until you give it to them.  

How many things that we consider today to be necessities were unknown years ago?  How much new knowledge that we are seeking was considered an unnecessary luxury or even unknowable in previous centuries?

We will not all stop seeking new things and new ideas even if a network of intelligent machines will often replace traditional human labor.  As a society, we need to start thinking about new public and private policies to create employment opportunities around those new possibilities.  At the very least, that should keep us busy for a while 😉   

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


Blending Physical And Virtual Spaces

As part of my work with the US Conference of Mayors on a future-oriented economic growth strategy for American cities, I point out that, in the past, quality of life was traded off for economic growth.  (This same approach seems to have been part of the more recent industrialization of China.)

But in the future, quality of life becomes a part of the economic strategy since it is a way of attracting people, many of whom who can choose to live anywhere.

However, quality won’t just be about the existing physical aspects of a city.  More than that, cities will blend physical and virtual spaces to create new destinations.  So it was with interest that I read this article about how “Augmented Reality Will Make Boring Cities Beautiful” –

The key lesson: 

“Once augmented reality is widespread, the difference between a great and a mediocre city won’t just be its built environment. To some extent, it will also be the degree to which that environment is a suitable tapestry for the creatives who will paint it with their augmented reality brush. Digital artists who learn to re-appropriate the city with the most innovative augmented reality add-ons won’t just bring themselves fame and fortune — they’ll also be attracting others to the places they love.”

© 2011 Norman Jacknis




Real Jobs or Real Income?

Another part of my work on economic growth is focused on how the traditional job in the traditional large corporation is becoming a relic of the past.  It came out of an industrial era in which large corporate bureaucracies were created for reasons of efficiency.  See the economist Ronald Coase’s classic work on the theory of the firm.

The internet, however, has made it easier for people to collaborate in a more informal way and to create projects of great value – such as Linux and Wikipedia.  I describe this as a movement from Coase to Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody).

This role of the Internet has already begun to affect the economy.  So it was with interest that there was some recent publicity on CNBC and MSNBC about the success of Thumbtack and ODesk, which help people find income on the Internet, rather than finding traditional jobs.  See, for example, “Online Work Replacing Full-Time Employment: Record Unemployment, Recession Mentality Lead Companies to Alternative Hiring Strategies” at

The MSNBC interview of ODesk’s Gary Swart was frustrating to watch as he and the reporter kept talking past each other.  The reporter kept saying that these were not “real jobs”.  Mr Swart was diplomatic enough not to argue that those “real jobs” were no longer so real.  Nor did he offer the rejoinder that many of people who use his service to identify sources of income were probably quite pleased to be able to have the flexibility that Internet work provides.  These people also find they make more money than they would make at a so-called “real job” flipping burgers.

Even in an economy with traditional job unemployment measuring at anywhere from 9-18%, most Americans are concerned – perhaps not so much about “jobs”, but about the fact that their real income has gone down, even if they have a real job.  Anything that boosts their income is positive and an indicator of the strategy for the future.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


The Misalignment Between The Economic Success of Local Government and Their Residents

As you can see from some of the other posts here, at the request of the US Conference of Mayors, I’ve been focusing on an economic development strategy that will work in the future.  As a result of that work, I’ve been presenting my ideas in many places and before many audiences, generally including mayors or other senior officials of local government.

Without going into the whole line of reasoning, I discuss the combined effects of (1) a future with ubiquitous high quality communications and (2) the shift of the labor force to providing ideas and other intangible services.  One implication of these trends is the disaggregation of the monolithic big company that would concentrate jobs in a city and, as an alternative, the empowerment of fluid teams of individuals.

To drive the point home, I argue that the true measure of the economic success of a city is the sum (or the median?) of the income and wealth of its residents – and not the total sales of companies that might have a local postal address there.  

In what sometimes comes across as a provocative statement, but isn’t, I put up an equation: economic growth does not equal real estate development.   I say that because a large part of the economic development expenditures of local governments have been about real estate development.

A few times in recent weeks, I’ve met with mayors or economic development directors who understand exactly what I’m talking about and see the future as I present it.  Then comes the response: “We should be thinking about the amount of money in the pockets of our residents, but you’re missing something here.  Our business – the city government – is mostly dependent upon property taxes and commercial real estate is the golden goose that lays most of those tax eggs.  We focus on real estate development because that’s where we get the return in the form of taxes later.”

That’s a fair argument for the year 2011, as far as it goes.  Of course, often what is a key part of the incentive package is a reduced property tax bill.  More important, commercial real estate will have a hard time maintaining itself in the face of the trends that I discuss.  Indeed, over the last ten years, many big companies have found that they need half the square footage per employee that they used to.  Even now, many employees telecommute or operate remotely somewhere out of the office.  So in the long run, this equation between real estate development and economic growth will break down.

This raises a more serious public policy question, though.  How did we get into such a situation where a smart mayor realizes that the economic success of the city government is misaligned with the success of the city’s residents?  And, for the viability of our democracy, how do we align these?

Or, if you want to ask a related and more pragmatic question: if the goose that laid the golden eggs – commercial real estate – is getting ready to retire, what replaces it?  

Either way you look at it, local governments in the United States need to shift away from their dependence on commercial property taxes.  There are various alternatives that cities have been forced to pursue and may have to depend on more.  Some examples: income taxes, property taxes on residences (which the Internet has now also made places of work and shopping) or even sales taxes on the goods/services that are sold directly into residences.  I’m not suggesting that any of these is perfect or even good, but they all share one characteristic – the revenue base grows as the city’s residents have more money in their pockets.

Whichever of these or other possibilities is selected, cities and counties will be forced to align their financial success with the economic success of their residents.  This is a good thing for their residents because their local government will then emphasize the development of each resident’s income potential.  Even from the narrow interest of the government as a business, this is a good thing because government will have a more assured revenue stream that is appropriate for a 21st century economy.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis 


Chattanooga’s Gigabit Network As The Base For Future Economic Growth

I’ve been working on a future-oriented economic growth program with the US Conference of Mayors and we have identified Chattanooga as a location to demonstrate some of these ideas because it has, by far, the largest and fastest deployment of fiber in any metro area in the US — enabling every home and other building to have a gigabit connection.  

I’ve described to them how and why this kind of network changes a city’s economy and should change its economic growth strategy.  I’m also helping them think of innovative uses of their network that will set up their future economic growth for a couple of decades — with particular emphasis on those that are only feasible at these higher bandwidths.  Among other aspects, this includes virtual collaboration among entrepreneurs in the global marketplace, virtual lifelong learning and blended virtual/physical spaces that become destinations for both residents and tourists.  

Last week, I made a presentation about this to the civic and business community in Chattanooga.  

That presentation led to a significant editorial by the Chattanooga Times Free-Press ( as well as a news story (

© 2011 Norman Jacknis