Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fleeting Cities: Burning Man 2011 Timelapse

For something as big and powerful as a city of 50000+ to emerge and then vanish so quickly is proof that our cities could adapt to changing conditions and a cycle of temporality far more than we let them today. That nearly nothing exists there 27 days before the man burns still blows my mind. I love how the exodus appears as late day duststorms that blow away a bit more of the city each night before darkness falls.

With some very dramatic, but perfectly synchronized music, the editing of this video is superb. I love the brief pauses that highlight some the key moments and the ebb and flow of the diurnal cycles really captures the compression and expansion of time and contrast between day and night in Black Rock City. Really well done to whoever hiked the hills and devoted the effort to editing this together.

via Gawker

Embracing the temporary could be liberating, and it would further augment the great spectacles and mutual value we find in living so closely together in the cities we inhabit. What if San Francisco celebrated the transitions of the seasons with spectacles and structures that transformed public spaces like Justin Herman Plaza or Civic Center into celebratory events? Perhaps we should light up Market Street every weekend as a glowing promenade of larger than life vehicles and pedestrians celebrating the end of busy week before returning it to a bustling Financial District of business people every Monday. Maybe everyone in a Pac Heights school could trade places with a school in the Mission for a week-long annual learning exchange that shared what was great about both neighborhoods with one another. Perhaps large fog collectors could unfurl each afternoon in June July and August spanning between tall buildings to collect water before vanishing again before lunch.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Is Anywhere Public Domain Anymore?

Robert Stolarik for The New York Times

The recent Occupy Wall Street protests will likely reach a critical point later this morning when New York Police will presumably remove protestors in order to clean the park, a move that is seen as a front for a permanent eviction.

I like this quote from fellow SFer Travis Nogle in the NYTimes' City Blog: "This is a public park privately held — I don’t even understand what that means.”

I'm confused too.

It's all further evidence that what was once a fundamental right to roam is increasingly limited by a tightening definition of ownership. While I fully endorse the idea privatizing the maintenance of public parks, to suggest that this gives these private companies the right to restrict access to what has been known as common space since the beginning of New York's history is a complete misinterpretation of the law. The commons get's smaller by the day.

Just as bad is the SF Police effort to use the absurd Sit/Lie Ordinance that was bizarrely passed in this city last year to remove protestors' encampments outside the Federal Reserve Building on Market Street. I love hearing in the San Francisco Bay Guardian article by Yael Chanoff about plans to plant a garden within the OccupySF encampment to grow crops for the protestors! What if they stay there indefinitely as a symbol of economic injustice, evolving into a self sustaining subculture, a city-within-a-city? It's an absurd scenario, until you remind yourself that these citizens have no intention of leaving and seem increasingly intent on staying put despite the enforcement of laws that trample on the precedent of the public common space.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

[UPDATE] Virtual-for-Real (More Fun with Babies and iPads)

In more Virtual-for-Real mayhem courtesy of babies, here's a great video that should confirm once and for all that magazines are dead. Software is such an immediately gratifying transformer of the environment we inhabit that it beckons us to modify the physical presence around us. It can't seem to happen soon enough.

When this girl is old enough to write software it will probably be for atoms not bytes.

via SFGate's Hot Topics blog

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Fourth Place: Working Anywhere


My brother Nick and I have recently begun working on another prototype of a project we started quite some time ago, the OpenAire which combines a laptop carrying case, work surface, and chair into a lightweight hybrid that can enable computing anywhere. The system consists of a semi-rigid protective sleeve designed as an ergonomic laptop work surface and a protective shell that also functions as a comfortable seat.

Here is the latest prototype which we are continuing to refine:





We imagine that this concept would enable a Fourth Place for work, atomizing the work experience even further than the recent pervasiveness of semi-public spaces like my favorite, The Summit SF becoming quite common in major cities. Still the infrastructure that would equip us to work in the spaces between office, home and third places has not materialized. We believe this concept really begs for a more robust infrastructure of power and wireless that would be pervasive throughout the city. It begs the question, 5 years after Nick and I began designing this based on the assumption that WiMax or MuniFi would enable mobile working, why haven't we seen these technologies come to fruition? Cloud-based software and file storage is bringing us closer to being truly portable but the utilities necessary for this nomadic workforce still seem a ways out on the horizon. Battery life is also still behind the curve of the development of many of the apps and cloud-based computing that would thrive in a world where we have access to several hours of power. The good news is that most knowledge workers can now work on fast, nimble hardware like the MacBook Air which can process web and email-based tasks for an entire work day, untethered.

Here are the original renderings which were featured in, Business Insider, and several other blogs.






Shared Values: Corporations Adapting To Demand for a Sharing Economy

I am fascinated by the sudden momentum that the Occupy Wall Street movement is gaining in the last few weeks. It confirms the notion for me that technological and cultural shifts have irreversibly altered our global economy and we are currently in a tumultuous in-between state where things have yet to settle into a new economic model that is working for most of the world's citizens. That new model will likely be dramatically different than any form of capitalism that has existed since the Great Depression, and it will likely be a painful transition for many.

The people who are occupying financial districts across the country are angry because the corporations, and too often the wealthy who have profited from corporate success, no longer share the same values as the people who work for and purchase from the institutions that drive our economy. Our governments have stood by and allowed this to happen. There have always been imbalances in the values between companies, their employees and their consumers, but the gap between corporate profitability, particularly in the financial sector, is too wide to be acceptable to the society they depend on for employees and customers.

What lies ahead appears to be one of two choices. Either Wall Street will prove that they have a real sense of worth to the other 99%, or the 99% will create an emergent economy that sidesteps corporations to find common value. The latter scenario will be far from a pleasant experience for either the corporations or those who want to see change.

When thinking about examples of corporations already embracing the shared value they hold with customers/employees, I'm reminded of an article from earlier this year written by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in the Harvard Business Review in which they point to an emerging desire for the larger players in the capitalist system to focus on the greater good in addition to focusing on their profits and shareholders.

As we think about how this relates to sharing economies in the city, what is so striking about the piece, is that until now I was mostly left with small local anecdotes that would support the trend towards a shared value between entities that would yield a greater good, and yet Porter and Kramer have amassed dozens of examples of how large corporations are inching towards this new shift in values. It would be easy to imagine a future where corporations were increasingly obsolete as we moved towards a communal economy of more local peer-to-peer forms of commerce, but the reality is, there are some bright spots that prove that corporations are beginning to except these necessary transitions.

Most relevant to the shared value transformation of cities is Porter and Kramer's "Enabling Local Cluster Development" section of the article where they define clusters as "geographic concentrations of firms, related businesses, suppliers, service providers, and logistical infrastructure in a particular field—such as IT in Silicon Valley, cut flowers in Kenya, and diamond cutting in Surat, India." If you read further it is not hard to imagine a more formalized version of the sharing economy of Black Rock City, the best examples of a thriving downtown commercial district, or on a more micro scale some the emerging "clusters" that we see among entrepreneurs in co-working/incubator third places:

A key aspect of cluster building in developing and developed countries alike is the formation of open and transparent markets. In inefficient or monopolized markets where workers are exploited, where suppliers do not receive fair prices, and where price transparency is lacking, productivity suffers. Enabling fair and open markets, which is often best done in conjunction with partners, can allow a company to secure reliable supplies and give suppliers better incentives for quality and efficiency while also substantially improving the incomes and purchasing power of local citizens. A positive cycle of economic and social development results.

When a firm builds clusters in its key locations, it also amplifies the connection between its success and its communities’ success. A firm’s growth has multiplier effects, as jobs are created in supporting industries, new companies are seeded, and demand for ancillary services rises. A company’s efforts to improve framework conditions for the cluster spill over to other participants and the local economy. Workforce development initiatives, for example, increase the supply of skilled employees for many other firms as well.

Much of the conversation on NewPublicDomain is focused on emergent communal behaviors I've observed in urban environments. These new forms of sharing and communalism may seem more like a neo-Communism to some, but in my experience in San Francisco and New York where some of these behaviors are becoming commonplace, they seem to be bellwether for a prevailing communal nature that will become the predominate force in our society in the near future. A force that will carve a new direction in the design of the most communal terrain we have, the city.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Burning Man and the City

Just returned from this year's Decompression, a party going on right now in San Francisco to wind down after everyone has returned from Black Rock City.

While it's only a fraction of the experience of what it's like to spend a week on the Playa, being at Decompression for a few hours today in the middle of my home city -just a few yards from where I hop on the train for my daily commute- really gave me a sense of what it would be like if cities behaved more like Burning Man . I'll let last year's post-Burning Man post stand as my depiction of what cities can learn from Black Rock City. Decompression doesn't retain much of the gifting economy of BRC, but mapping the positive energy and creativity of the Playa onto the hard industrial streets of Potrero Hill/Dogpatch really leaves an impression of what a rare and magical experience our cities could be, if they were not so constrained.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Virtual-for-Real: Architecture in the Age of Mobile

It seems lately, I can't keep up with all of the ways that the personal technology we carry with us everyday is surpassing architecture as the dominant means by which we navigate and adapt to the urban environment in which we live. When Marc Andreessen says that "software is eating the world" , I feel he should be speaking to architects and planners in addition to the Wall Street audience for which it was intended. How will the built environment evolve to adapt and receive these ephemeral means of satisfying our needs?

A great example of this comes from a NextNature post "Resizing Daddy" via my friend Willem at Google. (I''m especially excited to see Allison Guy's tags "virtual-for-real" and "boomeranged metaphors" which are both probably the majority of the content of NPD.)

A little girl gets angry at her father, and uses her index finger and thumb to make a pinching motion. No, she’s not trying to hurt him. She’s using iPad sign language to say, “I want you to be smaller.”

The baby is seeking the same real time results to her request that she finds in her iPad experience. Essentially, we are seeking the same quick fix In Real Life which we find in software experiences.

Have you ever been working intensely in a program like Photoshop for several hours, and then back in the real world finding yourself thinking "Command-Z" when you want to reverse a mistake? If only it were so simple. But this phenomenon of our psyche suggests that we are frustrated by the snail's pace of adaptation to our evolving needs that is met by our static physical environment.

It's hard to imagine how we will see this software malleability manifest itself in the physicality of urban space. But it is exciting to see how the immediacy of software can potentially be mapped onto the urban landscape. A great example is a project by the phenomenal Graffiti Research Lab France called Laser Knuckles which my amazingly talented colleague Todd Vanderlin passed along.

Laser Knuckles (Prototype) from Evan Roth on Vimeo.

While this first version is bulk it's easy to imagine a future wearable projector attached to our mobile computing devices, and ourselves, transforming any surface of the city into an experience that we can manipulate to satisfy our changing needs.

With so much of what we need to successfully navigate the urban environment fitting in the palm of our hands or becoming part of our apparel, it's easy to imagine a future where the built envrionment becomes a static armature too expensive and too slow to adjust to the dynamic network of software/hardware and people flowing around it. Architectural practice is in a crisis where it seeks to justify itself as the lack of building happening during this financial downturn is leaving the profession wondering how to adapt.

In the coming months I hope to complete a couple of projects that speculate about how the practice of architecture will evolve into a holistic merging practice along with interaction design/ urban planning/ and experience design to transcend the static forms that agnostic of the software and peripherals we depend on in our everyday lives. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

New Adventures in the Temporary

photo courtesy of Envelope A+D via

In my absence during Burning Man and some hardcore hours on 2 side projects that followed, I neglected to note a great piece that Allison Arieff wrote on The Atlantic's Cities Blog titled "Temporary is the New Permanent". In it she mentions some of the constraints of the traditional urban development practice which often forces a certain creativity from those who chose to work around the system. She lists several including 2 that I'm a big fan of, San Francisco's Walklets and the new Proxy site as well a some neighborhoods creatively interpreting local codes to work around some of the absurdities of the pace and formality of local codes.
Best of all she quotes the NPD post about Berlin's Tempelhof Airport from this summer as an example of a non-programmed space being the best solutions for some situations.

I'm always looking for more references to new thinking about temporality and shifting ways of engaging the city, so please pass them along!