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Urban Space: Missed Opportunities and Looming Changes

“We are less productive today than we were 60 years ago,” says Tracy Young, CEO of PlanGrid, Photo credit: Paul Sakuma

Fifty years ago the nation’s leading engineers and urban planners were hypothesizing the cutting-edge cities of the future. In the time since, have we achieved them?

Most certainly not, said Molly Turner, a University of California-Berkeley lecturer on urban innovation at the Haas Business School. The former Airbnb executive delivered a short talk, Disrupting Cities, Monday at Techonomy 2017. In repeating the same mistakes again and again, Turner warned, we have failed to learn our lesson.

“Aerospace engineers had the chutzpah to tell city leaders how to do their jobs,” Turner said, with “grandiose space-age plans” that leveraged aerospace innovation for city innovation. “But where are those space-age cities today?”

The theme of missed opportunities ran through many of the sessions at Techonomy 2017, which examined our urban space from the way we build it to the way we navigate it.

Earlier on Monday, another session looked at automated mobility, including self-driving cars and unmanned aerial systems. Speakers on that panel, moderated by Backchannel editor Steven Levy, said that as autonomous vehicles gain greater acceptance, our commutes will become more efficient, convenient, and safe—but no time soon.

Mark Bartolomeo, Melissa Cefkin, Douglas Davis, Dyan Gibbens, Chris Urmson and David Kirkpatrick discuss the path to autonomous mobility.
Photo credit: Paul Sakuma

Today, the average car is used just 4 percent of the time, said Doug Davis, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Automated Driving Group. Imagine, though, if we could better utilize our vehicles to—as Verizon Connected Solutions vice president Mark Bartolomeo pointed out—transport more passengers, like the elderly, the blind, and the sick?

But the widespread adoption of driverless cars is many years away, the panelists agreed, because of the public’s skepticism and our cities’ infrastructures, which are not fully equipped to handle autonomous mobility.

And, in what has become a recurring theme of Techonomy 2017, the technology is outracing society’s capacity to thoughtfully integrate it.

“What will it mean to have these systems moving about and occupying our world?” asked Melissa Cefkin, principal scientist and design anthropologist at Nissan’s Research Center. “How [do they] integrate seamlessly into the variety of different kinds of worlds we live in?”

Reflections like these give rise to questions of how we can build the worlds we want, brick by brick, or more aptly, prefab module by prefab module—a topic explored in another panel on Monday.

The speakers, moderated by Techonomy co-founder Simone Ross, talked about the opportunities that exist in digitizing construction, which can vary widely from community to community, and from country to country.

Consider the difference between the construction industry in the U.S. and abroad. “There is no ‘stick-build’ in Germany or Japan, but it’s everywhere in the United States,” said Michael Marks, founder of the end-to-end construction firm Katerra, referring to belabored construction that’s done bit by bit, one piece at a time. “

Stick-build” is just one example of how the American construction industry is behind. Today, most of our country’s construction projects, panelists said, go over budget, run over time, and are inefficient.

“We are less productive today than we were 60 years ago,” said Tracy Young, CEO of PlanGrid, a mobile construction software company working to bring better productivity tools to builders. “This is unbelievable.”

But not unexplainable.

While many American industries got ahead through digitization, increased competition from globalization, and process and organizational change, Young said, the construction industry did not move forward. The panel’s speakers said they’re taking a tech-powered approach in an effort to change that.

Turner Construction Company, for instance, is looking at emerging tech like autonomous rovers that can track job sites, said Lincoln Wood, Northern California director of technology and innovation.

These new attitudes toward an old industry have the potential to make our construction sites, and in turn our cities, more sustainable and strategic, helping solve other urban problems—much as the urban planners were predicting 50 years ago.

As with other sessions on health care, government’s relationship to the net giants, and other topics, the missed opportunities in the United States seem tied in large part to a failure on the part of government to keep pace with what tech makes possible. To advance our cities requires pro-active policy interventions that accompany innovation, and smooth and direct its course. Without it, progress remains fitful and often disappointing.

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