Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Internet is Not Triple Play

Five years ago, when I first started focusing on the Internet, I attended a small meeting at the Harvard Berkman Center that was given by the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. I was dumbstruck by the irrationality of what he was saying. And the FCC – which acronym I had previously glossed over with little understanding or interest – became an arm of government that I realized I should care about.

The irrational ideas, so curious and intriguing and yes, dumb founding, to my outsider and newcomer self was that the FCC had special rules for telephone, and special rules for TV, and special rules for data, as if they weren’t all the same thing! Didn’t everyone know that it was all just 1s and 0s? totally interchangeable and free flowing over both the wired and wireless world? That it didn’t make sense to think of telephone as something different from Voice Over IP?

And then of course, I learned that I was the dumb one. The FCC’s structure stemmed from the long history of the evolution of the telephone over the 20th century, which had a lot to do with what was learned from dealing with railroads over the 19th century.

The result is a bureaucracy and regulatory structure that just doesn’t make any sense for the underlying technical reality, but has structured vast ecosytems of companies built to respond to the old reality, and little inclined to change business models and give up existing profit streams (a problem in the energy and transportation sectors too).

I recently signed onto a FCC comment written by Seth Johnson that enunciates the difference between the services and the Internet. The many signers include Steve Wozniak, Clay Shirky, David Isenberg, David Weinberger, and David Reed.

While the FCC letter reads pretty technically, David Reed wrote a beautiful essay that explains in terms that everyone can understand, the distinction between the internet and the services.

To give you a taste:

..the Internet was created to solve a very specific design challenge – creating a way to allow all computer-mediated communication to interoperate in any way that made sense, no matter what type of computer or what medium of communications (even homing pigeons have been discussed as potential transport media). The Open Internet was designed as the one communications framework to rule them all.

However, the FCC historically organizes itself around “services”, which are tightly bound to particular technologies. Satellite systems are not “radio” and telephony over radio is not the same service as telephony over wires.

…The Internet really is “one ring to rule them all” – a framework unto itself, one that cannot be measured against its “wirelessness” or its “terrestriality”...It was carefully organized to incorporate innovations in transport of information, along with innovations in uses of such transport…What would happen if the FCC were to begin to recognize that all communications are to a large extent interchangeable?


What would happen if the FCC recognized the technical and practical reality? Go read David’s piece and become informed in a dramatically faster and shorter period of time than it took me.

The Internet does not equal Triple Play.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Getting an Annual Velib Subscription


Or, how bureaucracy and security norms can kill almost any good thing.

Background: Velib has 20,000 bicycles for hire (free for < 30 minutes at a time) everywhere in Paris. This combined with a fairly bike-friendly infrastructure means that getting around Paris by bicycle is a dream.

In order to use the Velib bicycles you must first purchase a pass, sold by the day for €1 or the week for €5. Passes are purchased at the Velib kiosks and require a credit or debit card with a chip in it. While many Parisians have such a card, Americans do not. (The one exception that I am aware of is American Express Blue, however you must make a special request of Amex to please issue you a card with a chip in it. And note that while Velib will accept an Amex Blue card with a chip, none of the subway or train vending machines will, so it doesn't really do you much good in France.)

How to use your pass:

First check the line of bicycles and select one which is in good operating condition. Flat tires, etc. are common. Don't forget which number it is. Now go to the kiosk and enter your 8 digit pass number and your 4 digit PIN code. Enter the bike number. Press more buttons agreeing to take care of the bicycle. There appear to be some bugs in the kiosk software that result in this process getting short-circuited back to the beginning, so you might have to do the whole thing two or three times.

But, Ho! what's this we see? Some people just come up to the row of bicycles, wave a card over the locking mechanism, remove the bicycle and leave. What magic is this? How did they avoid the rather tedious process of interacting with the buggy kiosk software?

It is called a Navigo card. A contactless stored value smart card which is used for subways, trains, and buses. You charge it up weekly or monthly then just swipe to get through the gates at the stations. Somehow these people have tied their Navigo card to their Velib account. How did they accomplish this? Just a few...ah...simple...um..."steps":

Step -6 (that is a minus sign, not punctuation for emphasis): First you must obtain a Navigo card. Spend lots of time on the Velib website and ask three friends to interpret. Is it saying that you need a Navigo to get an annual membership? And yet there is no link from the Velib.paris.fr site to the Navigo website. Yes, friends say, I need a Navigo card. Go directly to Navigo website. Finally understand that I want a regular Navigo instead of a Navigo Découverte, and make application online. Unfortunately, before I can apply I must:

Step -5 Get a permanent address. Neither Navigo nor Velib will give you anything without a permanent address, so you must find an apartment in Paris. That is a story for another blog (please provide 10 year salary and rental history in Paris for yourself and your personal financial guarantor).

Step -4: Get a Navigo card. Website is all in purple and white. The link to actually get a card looks exactly like a graphic, and not a link at all. I need an electronic passport-style photo. Thankfully I have a camera, take the photo to the special specifications, am able to crop it and upload it. Fill out form online. Push button to send! Ten days later I receive my Navigo in the mail. Excellent! Now I can...

Step -3: Go to the kiosk thinking that I will be able to purchase an annual Velib pass (only €29 for 1 year, I can't wait) at the same kiosks where I can purchase the daily or weekly passes. I assume that it will let me "charge up" my shiny new Navigo card with the annual pass information. No such luck. Annual Velib passes are only sold online or in some train stations (try finding one that will sell you one however, after I stood in a long line, the man behind the counter told me that they definitely did not sell Velib passes) or post offices.

Step -2: From the Velib.paris.fr site I learn that I need a French bank account with RIB code. That Amex Blue card that I told you about before won't do you any good now. Forty-five days after first stepping into an HSBC bank in Paris, I get an RIB code and a bank card with a smart chip in it. (45 days was what it took to open the accounts, transfer lots of money, get phone calls in the middle of the night from New York office even though they know we live in Paris, get email, snail mail, phone mail codes all of which have to put together in synchronized fashion to get my very secure bank account and then, do it all over again to open one in Paris-- impossible to do it all online in 24 hours, as it would be done for a local US bank account).

Step -1: Get my annual Velib membership! Go to website. Link options are down the right side in descending order: "Access my account; Activate my account; Non-subscribers (pre-subscribe). So, now I will "pre-subscribe." I fill out the long form online. I have all the parts (a bank account, an address, a Navigo card number). At the end of the form it says, please print this out, sign, and mail. What's that all about? Someone is just going to have to re-enter all this information on the other end.

Step +1: Still waiting for my annual Velib membership codes to arrive in the mail...

Meanwhile, Velib is wonderful and I am loving riding all over Paris.

Read more!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Cap & Trade Parking Permits


Parking, like carbon and sulphur dioxide, is dramatically underpriced. And, just like CO2, the status quo is incredibly resistant to change, despite the many large environmental externalities. In Boston (and in Cambridge), residents can park for $0 (and $8) per year, while at the same time it costs as much as $3000 a year to rent off-street garage parking. One open air parking space in Boston sold for $250,000 a few years ago. That’s $2000 per square foot!

Every time these cities (and every city) talk about raising the price of residential permits, political firestorms ensue and we end up with no change. No change means as many as one-third of the cars parked on-street aren’t driven in any given week and residents happily drive within the city instead of walking, biking or taking transit because – well, they have a car! And can park it for free!

A friend has been thinking about this problem for years, trying to come up with a market mechanism that would fix the situation. And suddenly, my environmental brain crossed with my transportation policy brain and voila – cap & trade parking! What if:

Starting today, the city issues no more parking permits and those with parking permits were allowed to sell or trade them. Suddenly, the reality that those permits are worth a heck of a lot more than $8 a year is no longer contested. People who rarely drive will have to decide whether it is worth it to them to keep owning that car, or to sell the permit for wherever the market sets the price. Today in both Cambridge and Boston, parking permits allow parking only in certain specified zones. The parking permits would transfer along those same lines. In some neighborhoods, the permits would like fetch $500/year, in others, as much as $3000.

The city could decide to buy some of these permits themselves, and retire them, reducing the number of cars residing in Cambridge, or providing them at reduced cost to new-to-the-city low income families.

What would this plan accomplish? Two things:

It lets permits get to market rate without politicians having to cast votes. It lets every car-owning resident participate in this new market. It gives the city a way to cap and then reduce the number of parking permits issued in the city. Permit ownership could continue to have an annual price payable to the city. The price would cover street cleaning and road repair, as well as perhaps an annual incentive to residents who don’t own a car, or to buy residents turning 16 a bicycle for their birthday. In Cambridge, a $25 annual parking permit fee would result in about $1 million a year.

It would also reduce the number of cars parking in Cambridge, and therefore the amount of driving that gets done in Cambridge. It would or could turn Cambridge into a city of residents that would rather walk or bike for local trips (which is most of people’s trips) and provide the political demand for the bike, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure that supports this way of life.

What do you think? I need some economists to weigh in.

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mom (age 84) Not Driving #3


For the uninitiated, my mom totaled her car about a year ago, and gave it up. I've written a few updates (1) and (2) about her progress creating a new non-driving life.

Today's email from my mom (who lives in Florida):

I had a wonderful day...I went to my Yoga class and my yoga teacher brought me home. She said she admires me as most people would throw their arms up and say "my life is ruined as I can't drive." Instead I have met so many more people because I don't drive.

To-night coming home from Glady's [a shut-in friend who lives 1 mile away that she visits daily by walking there and back], I met the people that restored a junk house and have not moved in yet. I had given them some sweet potato plant and they put the sod on their yard. He was working out and I went up his drive way to say hello, and he said he wife Amanda wasn't feeling well and he wanted me to go in and cheer her up. I guess she has cancer as she has no hair and had a bandana around her head. She also has two dogs that came in with me. I miss my dog so much that I gave them a lot of attention and made friends with them. Then they had a chair or two chairs in the room that has the view and I sat down and we had a fun visit. When I left the man said they go to the grocery store twice a week and would be glad to take me. I felt that I had cheered the woman up some and made friends with the dogs so it was very nice.

And on the way up to Glady's I met two woman I already knew, one is a fireman lady and is 34 years old and the other is a 61 year old beautiful lady whose house reminds me of mine and the two of them will bike over and see me one day. Tomorrow I get a ride to church and then to a party at 7.30. The guests will come here after to see the fireworks.


Bottom line: Not driving has improved her social life and happiness.

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Monday, July 5, 2010

Tapping End User Content (2.0) for Speed & Scale

In the spring I gave a number of talks on how web 2.0 should really be talked about as 2.0 -- platforms for participation that invite and enable end-users to add their own content. Letting people tap into their own excess capacity is particularly potent because it is so low cost. And the platforms mean that this small and local content can be scaled to national and international proportions and influence.

Quickly.

IF you can get the platform right.

The video is a 4 minute edited synopsis of a 20 minute talk I gave at Columbia Unviersity a number of weeks ago for their Brite conference (Brands, Innovation, Technology). I reference chatroullette and couch surfing, both excellent examples of the phenomenon. 350.org does an excellent job of this as well.

Related blog posts of mine:
How Sharing Increases Innovation
Thinking about Scarcity & Abundance

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

I want my PMV! Car-like Motorcycle-like Safe-definitely


Here’s the question: if you currently drive a car to work and for errands, would you prefer to drive a motorcycle-carlike vehicle that is one-quarter of a car? That is, one-quarter the cost, one-quarter the fuel consumption (easily 100 miles to the gallon), requires one-quarter the space to park at one-quarter the cost of regular parking, and pay one-quarter the cost of tolls.

OK, it’s true that its top speed might be 30 mph, with an average speed of 20 mph. But what if you could be traveling only with other lightweight vehicles traveling at similar speeds. [The average speed of cars is most cities is between 10-15 mph. In suburban areas you might be adding 5 minutes to your trip.]

Are you saying yes? Are you focused on the one-quarter the price part? And one-quarter the space to park?

I have this theory that lots of Americans would choose this option. And even more if they access to a second car, owned by them or shared nearby, that they could use on the small percentage of trips where they need a bigger and faster car.

Last week I got to ride (not drive) in one of GM’s eight EN-Vs (electric networked vehicles, pronounced “envy” – what an excellent name).[Video with the trend/business explanation; video with the EN-V/people dance performance]. It was enormously fun. My guess is that this vehicle will not be sold for ¼ the price of their regular cars, but some models could be. So I wondered:

Why would people switch? Because
 63% percent of all trips (and 75% of all work commute) they take are already alone in their car
 they would reduce the 18% of their income they spend on their car today
 they would not be beholden to price spikes in fossil fuels
 they want to find parking everywhere
 they want to be in the uncongested lane

Why do people not do it today?

 Well they do, particularly in Asia
 Here in America none of us relish the idea of going up against truck traffic, SUVs, or regular cars
 Motorcycles, as we know them, are scary (for some) to drive, you get wet and cold, and they are incredibly dangerous (60 times the fatality rates of regular cars – because of speed and the going head to head with much heavier vehicles).

Personal motorized vehicles would address an enormous number of problems associated with today’s cars: cost, congestion, pollution, CO2 emissions, parking. And I think consumer’s would choose them, based on cost, convenience, reliability, autonomy.

The problem lies with the extreme difficulty of enabling transitions. Two suggestions to get us there:
1.Take some lanes or some roads and make them accessible only to light weight and low speed vehicles (bikes too could travel these lanes, and we could split current lanes in half and get as many as 4 times the vehicles (and people traveling) in the same amount of space). These lanes could be used starting today by bicycles, motorized and electric bikes and small motorcycles. Think of all the people who would buy these vehicles and switch to these lanes if we gave them a lane of traffic.

2. Change the regulatory and safety requirements for these vehicles in line with the lesser accident risk. This would mean a lower cost to introduce new types of vehicles that meet the qualifications. And maybe even no driver’s license (!). In Europe today there are small engine electric vehicles that people can drive to get to work when their license is revoked. And in the US, we similarly don’t require licenses for small engine motorcycles.

Are you ready? What do you think? Would you switch?

And for the record, in dense metropolitan areas, it would still be faster to walk shorter distances, and take transit in dedicated lanes or rails, and never ever have to worry about parking.

See here for photos of lots of microcars
And here to take a virtual tour of the microcar museum.

Read more!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cars are like 2-liter Sodas


Two-liter sodas are meant for parties: to be consumed by lots of people on special occasions and in a short period of time. If you buy a 2-liter soda under other conditions, you usually end up drinking too much yourself or letting some go to waste.

Cars are like that. Despite the fact that we usually drive alone, and that we don’t drive 24, or even 12, and not even 6 hours a day, cars are only sold in the big gulp size. And so, we consume them too much in our efforts to get our money’s worth, and lots of our car’s value goes to waste.

Traditional carsharing lets some people consume just the amount of car they want. But small-minded documents (leases and insurance documents) make it illegal to share your own car with someone else for money, or to formally pay an individual to use their car.
If we want to have fewer cars in cities and towns, and fewer cars mined out of the ground, stored on our streets, and returned to landfills, we need to create the insurance and regulatory means by which this kind of just-right consumption is possible.

Ditto for sharing car rides, for which it is also illegal in most countries to pay for the driver’s time and effort in addition to defraying some of his car costs. A California start-up Spride Ride has found a legislator who is trying to address some of these problems, but it is one state, and even that bill isn’t going far enough.

Legislators and policy-makers around the world: realize that some people want single-sized servings of cars and rides – or maybe even the opportunity to buy a 6-pack of individual servings – but only some of us want the 2-liter bottle. And unless you think the government or big business can provide those individual car-servings in every geography and to every desiring population, you’d do best to get rid of those barriers so that some us can serve up our excess car capacity and sell it to our neighbors.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

The inevitability of choosing cars



Infrastructure is destiny. And our insurance, safety, and legal systems, as well as our land and road use requirements are the infrastructure that that pushes us inevitably towards cars.

When we need to travel, most people in most countries have three transportation choices before them:

1. Walk or bike in unsafe conditions
2. Take mass transit that is infrequent, low quality, unreliable, and not point to point
3. Own their own car that delivers on demand, safe, and point to point travel

•These cars must be owned and driven by one person or household; sharing cars or rides for money is not legally allowed nor supported by the insurance industry.
•Commercial and residential real estate developments require accommodation for cars but not for other forms of transportation, and these car accommodations are almost always mandatory, not optional.

Is it any wonder that as soon as people can afford one or are old enough to drive one, the car is the mode selected? This is as true in Delhi as it is in Detroit. Some countries are better than others – the Dutch and Danish for example.

What can be done?

1.Make sure that there are safe walking and biking possibilities. I would further encourage the development of roads that are restricted to low speed and low weight vehicles. We accommodate not only feet and bicycles, but any vehicle that is relatively clean, slow, and light weight – with minimal safety requirements or licensing necessary. It doesn’t make sense that New York City will allow bicycles and pedicabs to use certain streets, but not lightweight and non-polluting CNG auto rickshaws that travel at similar speeds. We would see a boom of innovation and creative vehicles that can deliver more safe, convenient, point to point and personal travel options for this category of roads.


2. Redefine mass transit.
In rich countries today, we have drawn very hard lines between personal and commercial vehicles, with the result that willing people with their own cars can not fill mass transport gaps in exchange for money. Typically this is illegal and our insurance systems won’t support it. I can’t formally pay you $5 to pick up my mom and take her somewhere – even if you are going there yourself. I can’t let you drive my car in exchange for money. Once money is involved – and why shouldn’t it be? – current laws define this endeavor as a commercial one and apply significant safety and legal structures that just don’t make sense. If we want to see more innovation in the transportation sector; if we want to enable more people to satisfy their needs without owning a car, we must let small scale efforts flourish. Once a “small” business becomes a large one, we can apply safety and licensing laws that make sense for large volumes where risk is magnified. At small volumes, these rules are overkill.

3.Change the rules (insurance, licensing, parking) that assume one owner/one adult/one building unit/one car. We need to make sure that people can buy, or rent, or consume fractions of cars and parking spaces. If we don’t change these rules, we are forced to buy, consume, and park whole cars, whether or not that is what we want.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Brilliant Strategy for Transition to Road User Fees

Everybody in transportation knows that we need to move from a gas tax to a road user fee in order to finance transportation infrastructure. Regular people – that is, everybody else – hate this idea and doesn’t get it. A colleague has come up with what I think is a genius political approach that I describe in the second half of this post. The first half describes the problem.

THE PROBLEM.
This is what the public says:

I’m already paying for the roads through my taxes. [Actually, you are paying with 18 year old prices since the fuel tax hasn’t been changed in that long. In the meantime, the costs have increased enormously. And compared to the price and volatility of the gas itself, the taxes are not that significant a percentage. ]

It works great. Why touch it? If the amount of money raised is the problem, just raise the tax. [Well, 1) you can’t just raise the tax, which is why it hasn’t happened in 18 years even though we are experiencing a crisis in our transportation infrastructure which is crumbling and ancient. If you’re lucky enough to do any traveling to Europe, you’ll note that our airports, train stations, trains, roads, and sidewalks are so much worse than what you see there. We are looking like the poor, ragged cousin. And if the fuel tax is broken as a means of raising money, as we move to more fuel efficient vehicles and alternative fuels, it will get increasingly broken.]

Paying by the mile is an unfair and regressive as a tax. What about the miles I drive out of state or on private roads? What about poor people? [Today’s gas tax has all those same problems. Some of the road user fee implementations could correct some of those problems.]

What about my privacy? I don’t want the government to know my every move. [Good point, read this that I wrote earlier]

THE SOLUTION. Here is a strategy that can get political buy-in and offer us a transitional path toward adopting road user fees. I’m thinking it is pretty clever and viable.
Put together a working group of legislators and outside stakeholders to discuss how we pro-actively address the impending transition to electric vehicles. Here is how the logic can proceed:

1. Everyone is willing to agree that EVs should pay their fair share, and that the gas tax system let's them off the hook.

2. It is far better to pro-actively come up with an appropriate solution before there are lots of them. With the tax expectation in place, people can buy EVs with full knowledge, rather than government trying to change the rules after this has become a significant market with a significant constituency.

3. The bill itself should be lightly worded. Owners of electric vehicles need to pay for miles driven within the state according to some referred-to rate plan (which definitely needs to adjust with inflation). The simplest means would be an odometer reading at time of inspection. Other mechanisms that result in the appropriate payment, as approved by the state, would also be allowed.

4. To be fair, any driver/vehicle can choose to opt in to this new method of road user fees, instead of paying gas taxes.

Implications:
We have a platform for experimentation on this new payment method, and working it through the entire system with low volumes. We start with the lowest common denominator for payment (odometer reading) that side steps privacy and technology concerns. However, other technology solutions could come online and be approved by the state (payment with GPS using smart phones, or with other in-vehicle devices – those built in to the car or those retrofitted on existing vehicles). Having multiple payment options will ultimately provide consumers with an array of choices that many people will find more appealing. Some solutions will address the privacy issues. Some will be able to track out-of-state versus in-state miles. Just about every other option could be a preferred choice over the crude odometer reading because it will reduce the distance taxed. As time goes on, there would likely be all sorts of methods for payment and collecting of the data that use a wide range of devices, evolve over time, and take the burden of devices and refreshing them away from the state.

That is the gist. I think it is a brilliant strategy that should have few detractors now, gives a slow easy opportunity for working the new payment mechanism through the collections systems, and opens up the path for any kind of vehicle, to opt into the system.

Read more!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Times Sq Bomb & Crowd Sourced Security #2

I made this same point after the underpants bomber event. While the government can think up new security measures, we need to recognize that the best and most effective defense will be the distributed and ubiquitous eyes on the street. To repeat, relying on people means that you have eyes everywhere and some intelligence and context assessment thrown in. Very hard and expensive to do with just technology.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Transportation, Innovation, & Policy

I will be on a panel with "Ministers and industry leaders" at an OECD forum in Leipzig. As preparation for the discussion, I was asked to answer the following questions about transportation, innovation, and policy.

How can innovation help tackle the key challenges of climate change, energy supply, demographic change, urbanisation, traffic growth, congestion, and changes in the global economy?

I'm tempted to say that it is ONLY through innovation that we will address these challenges. The status quo delivers business as usual, and this leads us to where we don't want to go. Yes, there are many solutions that exist today that will help, and new products, services, and infrastructure that have yet to be developed. We need to think of innovation broadly. Innovation is not just developing alternative fuels. Innovation is also deliver up business models, marketing approaches, and political calculus that can make these existing solutions widely accepted and acted upon.

What innovations are required to get to a sustainable future?

I think a lot about the transition. Many of us have ideas about what the end game should look like, but I think we need more focus on how we get from exactly where we are today, to that future. What is the transitional path? Or at the very least, what are the first few steps.

We need to provide people worldwide, in all their various markets, means that provide them better access and mobilty than they experience today at lower cost, greater convenience, and reduced carbon footprint than they do today.

People are rational. If we provide them that choice, most people will choose the cheaper, more convenient way -- and let us make sure that this choice reduces carbon and congestion.

For me, the heart of the solution is dramatically more options. Today, most people have very few transportation choices: walk or bike in dangerous conditions, take over-crowded and inconvenient public transport, or "take control" and buy your own car to take you point to point. These few options necessarily lead us up the chain to increased car ownership and all the related negative consequences. We have to offer many more options so that cars are not the only solution. And we need to provide these options that suit people at all life stages, and income.

What are the policy innovations needed to allow new technologies and practices to flourish?

1. Stop subsidizing car parking, congestion, and pollution -- both in relationship to individuals as well as in infrastructure cost/benefit analyses about where to make the next infrastructure investment.

2. Allow owners of private vehicles to accept money in exchange for renting out their own vehicle, driving other people in it, or accepting money from people ride-sharing. We need to recognize that sharing cars and maximizing the number of people using each vehicle and getting mobility satisfaction out of each car is vastly preferred over the current single owner status quo.

3. Create a government insurance fund, into which innovators can buy insurance with capped liabilities, can buy insurance for their innovations while experimenting with low volumes. Once the innovation is successful, volumes build and traditional insurers will want to take over.

4. Consider creating low weight/low speed roads that have fewer safety restrictions on vehicles so that innovation and experimentation of vehicle types can flourish (and perhaps motorized and non-motorized transport can co-mingle safely).

5. Make sure that all government technology procurement in all sectors come with requirements for openness: open up data sets (as appropriate while protecting personal privacy) for public transport, traffic, etc., require that government procurements be based on open devices (open standards, multi-purposed), open networks, open standards, internet protocols, and open source. Government funded technology purchases, in all sectors, can then be leveraged and multi-purposed by innovators, providing them with low-cost access to a range of important inputs.

6. Make sure that transportation technology systems are integrated with the technology used in the rest of the economy. ie., electronic payment systems should use established methods; devices and spectrum allocations should not be for transportation use alone.

Read more!

Monday, April 19, 2010

How Sharing Increases Innovation (part 2)


I believe there is a strong tie between sharing and the ability to innovate. This post will walk you through the logic.

Innovation is built on these things:
1. The existence of problems and the desire to solve them
2. The ability to apply new ways of thinking to these problems
3. The cost of the inputs needed to solve the problem (skills, data, resources, devices, networks)
4. The ability to iterate, adapt, evolve and scale.

1. PROBLEMS: Frankly, there is no dirth of problems and some kinds of people really like to think about how to solve them if they have the time. So problem-solving people who have at least some time on their hands try to problem-solve and people who don’t have time, can’t. [Why are there so many fewer historical examples of women doing remarkable innovative things? Well, duh…]

2. NEW THINKING:
The ability to apply NEW ways of thinking, with an emphasis on the word “new.” Problems that are kept hidden in discipline silos don’t get any new thinking applied to them. See all the great work done by Innocentive, that gets problems out of silos and opens them up to a diverse group of solvers.

3. THE COST OF INPUTS. Here is where I want to linger for a bit. There is a whole world of inputs that could come at much lower cost – wherever there is excess capacity, an underused resource that has already been paid for and which therefore has lots more value locked up in it! If only we could get people, companies, governments to “share” more – to make sure that their unused unneeded excess capacity was made available to others to make use of.

Exactly when are we NOT willing to share?
• When we believe that abundance only comes from hoarding and we perceive that everything is rivalrous (see previous post).
• When we have just witnessed a communal sharing debacle (Chinese cultural revolution) or when goods really are rivalrous.
• When things really are scarce, there is just simply not enough to go around and so we hoard to protect our closest family.
• When things are abundant, why bother?

If we look at these reasons for not sharing excess capacity (and thus facilitating a whole lot more innovation), I see lots of room for improvement. We have to stop our rapid and prejudiced assumption that sharing reduces our own personal abundance. There are lots and lots of goods that are non-rivalrous (the new push towards open data for example), and many once-rivalrous goods that can now be shared (cars) thanks to technology. We’ve also come to appreciate that anything with a network effect actually has a much higher value the more it is shared (carsharing, ridesharing, social networks, mesh networks, the internet).

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of writing and talking on this topic of increasing openness.

4. EXPERIMENTATION & EVOLUTION. The ability to experiment, iterate, adapt and evolve. In some cases, even if we deliver up items 1-3, there are some sectors in which we still don’t get much innovation because of institutional or government barriers. The status quo has developed a whole set of rules and regulations to protect existing ways of doing things, as well as protect the health and safety of people. I would put the automotive, housing, and a good piece of the telecommunications sectors into this category.

Sometimes the rationale is good and sometimes it isn’t. In any event, if we are going to see successful innovation, we have to let small scale (some volume) experiments flourish without many of the safety and regulatory requirements we place on large volume sellers of goods and services. Bureaucratic and even well-meaning red tape just make experimentation impossible.

A quote I heard from Tom Watson, founder of IBM: “if you want to improve your success rate, double your failure rate.” And a far less elegant quote from Robin Chase: “if you want to improve your innovation rate, open up more data, devices, networks, platforms, sources, and stuff.”

Read more!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Thinking about Scarcity & Abundance


I keep turning the concepts scarcity and abundance in my head. Mind games are tidier when you think in the purest, most extreme forms. Let's consider the human condition to be constant flight from scarcity and constant seeking of abundance. There are two ways to get to that abundance:

I get some stuff, call it mine, and guard it. Now I’m in control. The more stuff I call my own, the safer I am from a world of scarcity. Just about everybody in America and most capitalist societies can identify with this instinct. And the result is that we are incredible hoarders and have recently doubled the amount of physical stuff we buy, doubled the weight of stuff we put into landfills, and built huge amounts of stuff-storage facilities across our country (see Juliet Schorr’s work).

Our legal systems and corporate protection of intellectual property follows these same instincts. We write patents to be absolutely as broad as possible so that someday, we’ll have access to any future value that might possibly be found in these ideas – whether or not we think up this future value, whether it is in our area of business, whether or not it is in our geography of interest. All ours.

Another perspective on scarcity-avoidance is exactly the opposite. Everything I get, I pool with my community. It is all ours. When things are going good, I contribute. When things are going badly, I am protected by the good fortune of others in my community. We recognize this approach in socialist and communist societies.

It’s curious that both approaches are trying to protect and maximize periods of abundance, and they are exactly opposite from one another.

Academics have refined the idea of stuff to think about “rivalrous” as opposed to “non-rivalrous” goods. Rivalrous goods are ones that we can’t use at the same time, or that get used up. My stash of fancy English toffee is rivalrous. If I don’t hide it, my kids will see it as something available to the “family community” and eat it all up. My abundance quickly becomes my scarcity. Conversely, sitting in the sun on a beautiful spring day: non-rivalrous. Plenty of sun, plenty of space.
Once upon a time, TV viewing was rivalrous. Your oldest brother always got to choose, and that was it. Today, we have Tivo, we have hulu, we have many TVs and PCs. TV-show watching is non-rivalrous.

Zipcar is another example of how we turned what was perceived as a rivalrous good – cars, that I needed to own in order to feel abundance – into a (mostly) non-rivalrous one. There is always a car around the corner when you need it; why bother to own one and have it sit idle much of the day?

So what do I conclude about the Western solution to our search for abundance through ownership?

1. Not everything is rivalrous, even though our knee-jerk reaction is to treat everything this way.
2. There is a lot of wasted value – an enormous amount of excess capacity is going idle because of our erroneous prejudice.
3. Technology can turn rivalrous goods into non-rivalrous ones.

Read more!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mom Driving Update (2)



It is almost exactly one year since my mom (84) totaled her car and began a new life without the driving crutch. I wrote earlier about her path towards acceptance: relief, accommodation, reality sets in, satisfaction.

Here is a quote from an email she wrote me this morning about her day yesterday:

"I have made a lot of wonderful friends since I gave up my driver's license. I am getting out more to movies, eating out and visiting with neighbors."

See! Our lives actually can get better when we drive less and share rides.

Read more!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Does Everyone in America Own a Car?


I got asked to write the 500 word answer to the above question that was going in a US Information Service publication called "20 Answers" (I think). It was a very curious challenge. Anything you write, when limited to 500 words, ends up feeling biased and a bit like propaganda. There are some great paragraphs in there. I like this piece! You can also read it at its source, the america.gov website too.

It is true that 95 percent of American households own a car, and most Americans get to work by car (85 percent). It wasn’t always this way, nor is it likely to stay this way.

Until World War II and into the late 1940s, many Americans did not own cars. People lived in cities and towns, and 40 percent did not own cars but used public buses, trolleys, and trains. Soon after the war, a surge in low-cost, mass-produced houses occurred outside cities to accommodate returning soldiers and their growing families. The new housing pattern was accompanied by the National Interstate Highway System, which was started in 1956. During the next 50 years, 46,876 miles (75,440 kilometers) of highways were built across America.

Americans could live in affordable suburbs in houses built on cheap land, and they could get to distant jobs with cars. Today, only 5 percent of Americans use public transportation to get to their jobs. However, this pattern of life is changing.

It has been 50 years since America embarked on this plan that influenced how we live and travel today, and we have experienced some shortcomings. Car-dependent travel and infrastructure are poorly suited for the dense urban areas in which increasing numbers of Americans live. As in other parts of the world, Americans seek to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and address climate change through alternative-fuel and fuel-efficient vehicles, but we realize these new cars alone will not meet all travel needs of Americans: The young, the old, the poor, and those living in dense urban areas need other options.

In 2001, car ownership peaked (1.1 cars per licensed driver). By 2008, the average number of miles driven in the United States fell for the first time in history, declining 3.6 percent from 2007, and the number of trips by public transportation rose to a 50-year high. It is too early to tell if this change was the result of high fuel prices in 2008.

More people are choosing to live in cities where they don’t need a car. New York City has the lowest rate of car ownership, with only 50 percent of households owning cars. Good sidewalks and public transit and safe bicycle networks are a priority in these cities. In July 2009, New York City completed the first phase of a plan to make the city more friendly to bicycles by adding 200 miles of bike lanes separated from car traffic within the city.

During the past decade American cities have seen the rise of a service called car sharing. Shared cars owned by private companies are parked throughout dense metropolitan areas and university campuses. Members rent them by the hour or day instead of owning cars. The advantage to members is that they pay only for what they use; they don't have to worry about maintenance, parking or insurance expenses, and they can choose a car that fits a specific trip (a pickup truck, four-door, or two-door vehicle).

In New York City, more than 100,000 people are sharing about 2,000 cars. This service dramatically reduces the number of cars and parking spaces needed to satisfy the needs of a large population. Each shared car replaces 10 to 20 privately held cars and is used by 40 to 50 people.

Looking to the future, it is likely we will see a reduction in the number of car trips Americans take and a rise in the number of trips they take by foot, bicycle, public transit, or train. Car sharing will become common, and more people will take advantage of carpooling (many people sharing the same trip).

Wireless technologies and smart mobile phones will make it easy to quickly find different ways to travel; see schedules; compare speed, cost, convenience, and carbon emissions; and choose the best method for each trip. America's transportation picture once again will be highly diversified.

Read more!

Friday, March 19, 2010

A transportation statement heard around the world!


US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announces: "Today, I want to announce a sea change... This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized."


GASP.Pause. A moment of thinking I'm going to faint. And then huge applause!


You can read all about it on his blog (and see videos of the speech). He continues:

We are integrating the needs of bicyclists in federally-funded road projects. We are discouraging transportation investments that negatively affect cyclists and pedestrians. And we are encouraging investments that go beyond the minimum requirements and provide facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.

To set this approach in motion, we have formulated key recommendations for state DOTs and communities:

* Treat walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes.
* Ensure convenient access for people of all ages and abilities.
* Go beyond minimum design standards.
* Collect data on walking and biking trips.
* Set a mode share target for walking and bicycling.
* Protect sidewalks and shared-use paths the same way roadways are protected (for example, snow removal)
* Improve nonmotorized facilities during maintenance projects.


Here is the new federal policy.

Read more!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Web 2.0 is like Yeast: Rampant Growth Possible


I'm preparing a talk and this New York Times interview I found with Andrey Turnovskiy, age 17!!!, exquisitely and quickly explains the components that make Web 2.0 a force to be reckoned with.

Let's deconstruct parts of the interview quickly. I've put it in BOLD so I don't get int trouble about attribution.

Have you always wanted to be a programmer?
No, actually I had no interest in being a programmer. I was always interested in language, I studied English and Chinese and I hoped to be a translator. Then I got a computer and saw that you could write code, so I decided to try it.

How long did it take to build?
It took me three days. I built it on an old computer I had in my bedroom.


First point: we now have the tools available that enable people with little money and discrete skills to build things quickly and try them out. I think of these as "platforms for engagement." They dramatically reduce barriers to entry. Governments should be doing what they can to make sure these platforms exist. This is why I'm advocating open source, open data, open standards, internet protocol, open devices, and open networks for things built with taxpayer money.

Then what happened?
Well, at first I showed it to my friends and they criticized it; they asked why anyone would want to use it. So I went onto a few Web forums and asked people to try the site, and I got 20 people to try it.


He persisted even though people who theoretically knew better thought it was a stupid idea.

How many users do you have now?
Well, after the initial 20 users the site doubled and it continued to double every day since then. Last month [5 months in] I saw 30 million unique visitors come to the Web site and one million new people visit each day. It continues to multiply and I just couldn’t stop it from growing.


I would love to see that growth chart! But if you double every day, starting day one with 20 people, it takes 3 weeks to get to 30 million unique visitors (okay, so ChatRoulette didn't actually double every single day).

Remember that this success was totally unpredictable. This is one of the key reasons we (as a society, company, individual) need to make sure we have made room for easy experimentation and iteration. For every ChatRoulette, there are no doubt hundreds (thousands) of failed experiments. But if you don't open yourself (your company, your country) up to innovation, others will and will pass you by.

Lastly, recognize that the growth was possible thanks to other platforms -- the internet, email, Facebook, Twitter, wired and wireless communications -- that already exist, that make telling your friends really easy and fast. See Clay Shirky's book "Here Comes Everybody."

This speed and scale of adoption of new ideas and behaviors -- newly made possible by the internet and associated technologies -- is what gives me hope about our ability to solve the most terrifying and intractable problems this world faces.

Read more!

Friday, March 12, 2010

More sunlight on cars: Open up the data!


The New York Times ran this OpEd I wrote (and pasted in below). I've appended additional thinking about implications for innovation.

Cambridge, Mass.
IN the wake of the Congressional hearings on the Toyota recalls, we have heard various proposals for countering unintended acceleration in automobiles.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently said the federal government may recommend that carmakers install “smart pedals” that give brakes priority when both brake and accelerator pedals are pressed simultaneously. Meanwhile, Toyota has said that, in contested acceleration accidents, it will give regulators access codes to data recorders — essentially, onboard black boxes being installed in some new cars.

But sometimes the solution to a safety problem is simply more transparency. Indeed, there is a relatively easy solution that would help identify problems before they affect thousands of cars, or kill and injure dozens of people: allow drivers and carmakers real-time access to the data that’s already being monitored.

Current federal law requires annual emissions and safety inspections for all cars. A mechanic plugs an electronic reader into what’s known as the onboard diagnostic unit, a computer that sits under your dashboard, monitoring data on acceleration, emissions, fuel levels and engine problems. The mechanic can then download the data to his own computer and analyze it.

Because carmakers believe such diagnostic data to be their property, much of it is accessible only by the manufacturer and authorized dealers and their mechanics. And even then, only a small amount of the data is available — most cars’ computers don’t store data, they only monitor it. Though newer Toyotas have data recorders that gather information in the moments before an air bag is deployed, the carmaker has been frustratingly vague about what kind of data is collected (other manufacturers have been more forthcoming).

But what if a car’s entire data stream was made available to drivers in real time? You could use, for instance, a hypothetical “analyze-my-drive” application for your smart phone to tell you when it was time to change the oil or why your “check engine” light was on. The application could tell you how many miles you were getting to the gallon, and how much yesterday’s commute cost you in time, fuel and emissions. It could even tell you, say, that your spouse’s trips to the grocery store were 20 percent more fuel-efficient than yours.

Carmakers could collect the data, too. Aberrant engine and driving behavior would leap out of the carmakers’ now-large data set, allowing them, if necessary, to conduct recalls much earlier. And, in exchange for your contribution of anonymous data, carmakers could send you driving benchmarks aggregated from your peers; then your app could tell you how your driving compares with the average of all drivers of the same car.

Having such readily accessible data streaming from your car might raise fears of a Big Brother scenario, in which carmakers would know where you are and how you are using (or misusing) your vehicle. But you would still decide whether you wanted to tap into the data, how you would use it and with whom you’d share it.

Allowing drivers and carmakers access to real-time performance data wouldn’t prevent every future mechanical failure. But it would allow carmakers and entrepreneurs to develop analytical tools to help catch developing problems in both individual cars and entire model lines. Cars would continue to break down and even cause accidents, but it wouldn’t take a Congressional hearing to figure out why.
*******

On the same day, the NYTimes reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) is considering requiring that a black box be installed in all cars. This is an idea that could be either really good or really terrible.

Really good: An implementation that uses open standards, open data, and open devices. That same data and devices could be reused and innovated upon to produce fabulous apps for cars.

Really bad: It’ll be another closed proprietary system that ends up adding to the cost of the vehicle and eventually becomes ancient technology, much like after-market navigation devices and transponders.


Read more!

Friday, March 5, 2010

What’s your plan for $5/gallon gas?


Here are some beautiful maps of why you, personally, should care. These maps show what percent of the average household income is going towards transportation. All those people who live in the pink areas are spending between 20-28% of their income on transportation! and
those dark red areas are where people are spending MORE than 28% of their income!!!!!

Here is what it looks like when gas is $1.63/gallon, as it was in 2000.

And here is what it looks like when gas was $4.18/gallon, as it was in 2008.


Yikes! and wow! and @#$!@#@#$!!!!
Note that households that are car dependent really take a huge hit. The people who are living in areas with high quality transit are doing well. So, back to the question at hand:

If you are a family, what’s your plan for $5/gallon gas?

If you are a town, what’s your plan?

If you are a state, what’s your plan?

If you are the country, what’s your plan?

You can look at these maps for many metro-areas across the US at htaindex.org, and also see what this looks like when the average cost of housing is added in. Now those maps are really scary!

Read more!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Is the gas tax a user fee?


Here is my answer for the National Journal Transportation Blog.

"User pays" was the foundational concept and an interesting one to reflect on. The question notes that current gas taxes inadequately cover even simple maintenance requirements on existing roads, yet the phrase resonates strongly with drivers. They sincerely believe that they have paid for all that is required with their gas taxes at the pump.

If the road user really paid what driving costs to maintain, what driving costs to widen and build new, what driving costs in police forces, emergency personnel and equipment, lifetime effects of accident road deaths and injuries, watershed destruction, groundwater and run-off pollution, excess asthma rates, higher incidence of heart disease and negative effects for those living near highways, congestion, and CO2 emissions (etc, my list is truncated), we wouldn't be in the unfunded situation we are in today.

Also, if "user pays" included all those "externalities" (so many things in quotes), it would seem perfectly appropriate for the gas tax to include pedestrian and sidewalk improvements, mass transit, electric charging stations, and environmental remediation efforts because all of those things are attempts to mitigate the real and costly negative impacts caused by the car-driving users.

At the end of the day, if we take political realities into account, the one thing I ask for is for drivers to truly understand what their fuel tax is actually paying for, and what is quietly and covertly being subsidized by their other taxes. Because we haven't included these costs in the gas tax, we are using local, state, and government money brought in from other sources to cover the difference. When we say we don't have enough money for education, or welfare, or parks, or elderly programs, we need to recognize that this shortfall is in part because we are paying for all sorts unfunded car-related expenses with non-gas-tax dollars.

To read how other experts weigh in on this, go to the National Journal Transportation Blog.

Read more!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Walking & Transit Use up 25% since 2001

This is an amazing, unexpected, and very good trend, and 25% sounds like a lot. And it is, sort of. This means that today, only 82% of all trips Americans take are by car, instead of 86% of trips, which was the case in 2001. Here is the article with the highlights, and here is the original data from the National Household Travel Survey.

Read more!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

NYC launches shared cabs, joins world

I’ve been taking shared cabs my entire life: in Beirut, in Guatemala, and most recently in Calcutta. Here’s how it usually works: the cabs -- often just regular cars but singled out because in any given city they have a particular brand and color -- ply common high volume routes. You stand along the route. Flag down the cab. Hop in and announce where you want to be dropped off. Pay a flat fee when you hop out. They are very much like very small buses.

I’ve never understood why we didn’t have them in the US. Fast, frequent, cheap(er than cabbing, more expensive and comfortable than the transit alternatives). I’ve chalked that lack up to protectionism and anti-competitive behavior among American taxi medallion holders.

Finally, FINALLY, an American city has changed the game.
New York city announced that starting today it will have shared cabs, plying specific routes, for $3 and $4 a ride. Subway fares in New York are $2; regular cabs across town generally are in the $6-$10 range). The cabs will have a sign on them that indicates the route/destination.

The city gets fewer cars and fewer emissions. Taxi drivers get more money. People get cheaper, faster, more convenient mobility. Hurrah!

As small aside: last year I had been shopping doing this same idea using regular people on their usual commutes. Put a device on top of your car. Electronically put in the destination and price “Lexington $3” and then drive to where you are already going. Every person along the route understands what it meant. Challenges are insurance (this industry needs to enable innovation!), regulation (rules about turning yourself into a "livery service" and competing unfairly with taxis). Security and fast payment could be done using smart cards to log in/log out of the trip.

Read more!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Transportation in Calcutta: 9 ways in 8 hours


Calcutta has gotten a bad rap. My robust first-hand research, conducted over a grueling 8 hours in the course of a sunny and dry January day (I'm hoping you're reading the tongue-in-cheek in all this) led me to the following conclusion: Calcutta has an unusually resilient and effect transportation mix and that functions pretty well. Is this true everywhere and for all the people? Who knows, I was only there one day.

Modes of transportation I took:


Walking. On central city roads, we crossed at crosswalks and with pedestrian countdown lights. At one intersection in Dalhousie Square, a traffic policeman tightened and loosened a rope stretched across the intersection in conjunction with the traffic light, to securely keep bicycles, rickshaws and cars from opportunistically sneaking through. On small roads and in back alleys, non-motorized traffic predominates, pedestrians walk everywhere and yield to heavier faster moving rickshaws, carts and the occasional truck).

Ferry boat. Huge ancient metal ferries lumber back and forth across the Ganges at 15 minute intervals, connecting to the Central Train station. Amazingly, everyone accesses the ramp down to the ferry by crossing directly over railway tracks, on which crochety old trains pass every 8 minutes or so at medium speeds.

While we were standing on the metal barge, watching the Ganges flow by, with clumps of water hyacinth and plastic trash, there was a sudden grinding, squealing, and bumping. Everyone jumped back with alarm. What had happened? The tide had turned! Incredibly fast, swift, and abrupt reversal of flow now going upstream. I'd never seen anything like it.

Howrah Bridge.
Sort of a transportation mode. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this is the busiest bridge in the world, transporting a million people a day. How is that possible? Certainly impossible with the Western idea of "congestion", meaning people traveling alone in their cars. Instead, Four lanes of motorized traffic (almost no single occupancy vehicles and many a stuffed bus) and two wide sidewalks that held a steady stream of pedestrians. Many of these people carried improbably heavy loads on their heads, going to/from the railway and bus stations which is at the one end of the bridge. It seemed like an incredibly efficient use of space.


It could use a dedicated nonmotorised lane for the bikes carrying cargo, and I dreamed of some kind of cable pulley that could lighten the loads of all those people heavily burdened crossing the bridge.

Electric Trolley. Once we got over the bridge, and through the spectacular flower market, we took an electric trolley across town. It was ancient, clean, incredibly loud, wooden slats on floor, and not crowded when we took it at midday. Many times people were let on and off without the trolley coming to a complete stop. 4 rupees (10 cents) This is an old photo, but my untrained eye says this is the same exact trolley and the same street as what I took.

Shared Auto Rickshaw. Post lunch, we hopped into a new auto rickshaw. I slid over to the far side, and my guide, Vinay, squeezed up close to me. I was surprised. Then another man slide next to Vinay and a young women sat in the jumpseat up front with the driver. She kept her back to him and faced outwards. A nice safe and modest stance so close to an unknown male. Apparently, these rickshaws ply their way up and down this specific route. 4 rupees (10 cents) per person irrespective of distance. We went about 10 blocks and hopped out. I love LOVE love love LOVE auto rickshaws, when powered by clean fuel. Space efficient, fuel efficient, versatile, fast. Western cities should have them.


Hand Rickshaw.
Woah. Did I really want to be pulled by a barefoot man in his sixties through traffic? It was a quandry. This is his livelihood, and these rickshaws are licensed by the city because of Calcutta's long history with them. Apparently they aren't made anymore and the one I was in was likely close to 100 years old. Vinay and I sat hip bone to hip bone. It could not have accommodated any wider people. Our driver (puller?) had glasses held on by a string around his head (highly unusual Vinay tells me).

Unexpectedly, he runs with the poles held up under his arms, rather than letting the poles hang down with straight arms. And yes, he runs, unless he is stopped. Apparently the human rickshaws (I don't know what you call them) are particularly maneouverable in dense traffic (they can turn in a small radius) and good in Monsoons (no motor to stall).

We traveled about 10 blocks. It seemed fine. Another 4 rupees.

Metro.
Back across town in rush hour. The platform is wide, the train is clean and crowded as rush hour trains everywhere. Middle class people going from school and work to home, as well as the young family we sat near: from out of town carrying their 6 month old to meet his paternal grandparents for the first time. 4 rupees.
Taxi. With suitcase collected from my hotel, we creep through city traffic during rush hour to the airport. One hour for 250 rupees (about $5).


And then of course, plane.You know what those look like.

Read more!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Think Globally, Act Individually


I spent 8 hours walking the streets of Calcutta and talking about the past, present, and future with my guide, Vinay Jayaswal, a historian and social entrepreneur. He told me a personal story that inspires his thinking about the power of one.

On Indian Republic Day, a few years ago, Vinay was taking his morning constitutional in a park when he met up with a friend. His friend remarked with sadness that they had missed a prime opportunity to organize a community celebration of the day. It was 8am.

Vinay told his friend: Let's just do it. You get the bamboo required for handing the flag, and I'll get a flag. He discouraged his friend from telling those nearby of their intentions, eliciting help from anyone else, or doing any further organizing. The plan was to remain simple: you get the bamboo; I get the flag; meet back here in 20 minutes.

Vinay went to the nearby market. He bought a large printed national flag for 30 rupees (60 cents), some small hand-held flags (10), and a bag of marigold flowers (10). They met back up as planned. A young kid walking by, asked what they were doing, and volunteered to dig the holes for the bamboo stakes to hold the big flag. Another bystander stuck the small flags all around. A third wove the flowers into the small flags. At 8:30am, they started the ceremony by singing the national anthem. People gathered and joined. A few gave speeches about what Republic Day meant to them. Everyone cheered and waved the small flags.

By 9am the ceremony was over. 30 people had spontaneously participated.

The moral of the story for Vinay is that people want to help, want to do the right thing, want to improve society. They just don't have the confidence to act and take the first step. They can't figure out the first step; they think the process will be complicated and difficult. They think no one will follow. They expect government to be the enabler.

Just do it, says Vinay. Think globally. His most pressing issues were environment, sanitation, and health -- intractable issues for the common Indian. Act individually. Vinay isn't going to wait for government. He believes individuals can work together to help themselves. His budding budding idea will include a website and hope to spur Indian youth to take action on issues that affect their daily lives.

The "Think Globally, Act Individually" meme was the end result of our long free-ranging conversation. Vinay believes that Eastern religion and culture are driven by the dominance of "we," while the West, thanks to Darwin's survival of the fittest and Christian traditions that relied on personal acts and salvation, focuses on "I." Think globally, act individually combines the benefits of both Eastern and Western traditions.

Read more!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Underpants Bomber & Crowd-Sourced Safety



For all the billions of dollars (and hours of time) spent on airline safety, the actual take down of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was by people in the plane. It was adjacent people, using common sense and common reactions, that foiled the plan.

It occurs to me that we could think of this from the crowd sourcing perspective. It is crowd-sourced safety.

Fifty million people flew last year. That is fifty million potential watchdogs and actors. We could decide that only 10 percent of that population would be competent to act, still pretty good and likely enough.

If you see something, DO something.

Do I really think that civilians should be trained to disarm terrorists in flight? No. But it does seem to me that these passengers are likely one of the best lines of defense. Isn’t this what happened with the plane that was forced to crash into the ground, instead of into a building (the Whitehouse?)in a Pennsylvania field in 2001?

This the similar lesson for emergency communications. After Katrina, we understood that what was really needed was existing on-the-ground communications, owned, operated, and understood by regular people.

The experts aren’t everywhere. In fact, we can know with a pretty high probability that they won’t be where an emergency event is. Haven’t we spent time teaching everyday people how to do CPR and the Heimlich maneuver?

Homeland Security might think about a different approach.

Read more!