Posts tagged with "Tech":

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The origins and perils of development in the urban tech landscape

In most major cities of the world, an urban tech landscape has emerged. One day, we were working on our laptops at Starbucks, and the next, we were renting desks at WeWork. We embedded our small architectural and design firms in low-rent spaces in old factories and warehouses, and then we emerged as “TAMI” (technology, advertising, media, and information) tenants, heating up the commercial real estate market. Friends who could write computer code started businesses in their apartments before moving into tech incubators and accelerators, which then morphed into a “startup ecosystem.” Though a competitive city in the 1990s might only have had one cutely named cluster of startups—New York’s Silicon Alley, San Francisco’s Media Gulch—by the 2010s, many cities were building “innovation districts.” How did this happen? And what does it mean for these cities’ futures?

The simplest explanation is that cities are catching up to the digital economy. If computers and the web are one of the primary means of production for the 21st century, all cities need the infrastructure—broadband, connectivity, flexible office space—to support them. Companies that control the means of production also need raw material—the data that newly “smart” cities can provide—to develop concepts, test prototypes, and market their wares. Local governments and business leaders have always reshaped cities around the businesses that profit from new technology; In the 19th century, they built railroad stations, dug subway tunnels, and laid sewage pipes; in the 20th century, they wired for electricity and erected office towers. Maybe we should ask why it has taken cities so long to rebuild for digital technology.

Inertia is one answer, and money is another. Entrenched elites don’t readily change course, especially if a new economy would challenge their influence on local politics and labor markets. Think about the long dominance of the auto industry in Detroit and the financial industry in New York, both late converts to digital technologies like self-driving cars and electronic banking, respectively.

Another reason for cities’ slow awakening to the tech economy is the post–World War II prominence of suburban office parks and research centers, part of the mass suburbanization of American society. On the East Coast, tech talent began to migrate from cities in the early 1940s, when Bell Labs, the 20th-century engineering powerhouse, moved from Lower Manhattan to a large tract of land in suburban New Jersey. A few years later, on the West Coast, Stanford University and the technology company Varian Associates spearheaded the construction of an electronics research park on a university-owned site of orange groves that later became known as Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley got the lion’s share of postwar federal government grants and contracts from the military for microwave electronics innovation, missile research, and satellite communications. Venture capital (VC) soon followed. Although VC firms began in New York and Boston, by the 1960s and ’70s they were setting up shop in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Valley’s hegemony was solidified in the 1980s by the rise of the personal computer industry and the VCs who got rich by investing in it. The suburban tech landscape so artfully represented in popular mythology by Silicon Valley’s DIY garages and in physical reality by its expansive corporate campuses was both pragmatically persuasive and culturally pervasive. Its success rested on a triple helix of government, business, and university partnerships, defining an era from Fairchild, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard (the first wave of major digital technology companies) to Apple, Google, and Facebook.

In contrast to the suburban postwar growth of Silicon Valley, the urban tech landscape was propelled by the rise of software in the early 2000s and gained ground after the economic crisis of 2008. Software was easier and cheaper to develop than computers and silicon chips—it wasn’t tied to equipment or talent in big research universities. It was made for consumers. Most important, with the development of the iPhone and the subsequent explosion of social media platforms after 2007, software increasingly took the form of apps for mobile devices. This meant that software startups could be scaled, a crucial point for venture capital. For cities, however, the critical point was that anyone, anywhere, could be both an innovator and an entrepreneur.

The 2008 economic crisis plunged cities into a cascade of problems. Subprime mortgages cratered, leaving severely leveraged households and financial institutions adrift. Banks failed if they didn’t get United States government lifelines. Financial jobs at all levels disappeared; local tax revenues plummeted. While mayors understood that they had to end their dependence on the financial sector—a realization most keenly felt in New York—they also faced long-term shrinkage in manufacturing sectors and office vacancies.

London had already tried to counter deindustrialization with the Docklands solution: Waterfront land was redeveloped for new media and finance, and unused piers and warehouses were converted for cultural activities. In Spain, this strategy was taken further in the 1990s by the construction of the Guggenheim Bilbao museum and the clearing of old industrial plants from that city’s waterfront. By the early 2000s, Barcelona’s city government was building both a new cultural district and an “innovation district” for digital media, efforts that bore a striking resemblance to the 1990s market-led development of the new media district in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley and the growth of tech and creative offices in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood.

Until the economic crisis hit, both spontaneous and planned types of urban redevelopment were connected to the popular “creative city” model promoted by Charles Landry in London and Richard Florida in Pittsburgh (later, Toronto). In 2009, however, economic development officials wanted a model that could create more jobs. They seized on the trope of “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” that had been circulating around business schools since the 1980s, channeling the spirit of the economic historian Joseph Schumpeter and popularized in a best-selling book by that title by the management guru Peter Drucker. Adopted by researchers at the Brookings Institution, urban innovation districts would use public-private partnerships to create strategic concentrations of workspaces for digital industries. It seemed like a brilliant masterstroke to simultaneously address three crucial issues that kept mayors awake at night: investments, jobs, and unused, low-value buildings, and land.

In the absence of federal government funding, real estate developers would have to be creative. They built new projects with money from the city and state governments, the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa Program for foreign investors, and urban impact funding that flowed through investment banks like Goldman Sachs. Federal tax credits for renovating historic buildings and investing in high-poverty areas were important.

Though all major cities moved toward an “innovation economy” after 2009, New York’s 180-degree turn from finance to tech was the most dramatic. The bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and 2001, followed by the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and an economic recession, initially kept the city from endorsing the uncertainty of tech again. Michael Bloomberg, mayor from 2001 to 2013, was a billionaire whose personal fortune and namesake company came from a fusion of finance and tech, most notably the Bloomberg terminal, a specially configured computer that brings real-time data to stock brokers’ and analysts’ desks. Yet, as late as 2007, Mayor Bloomberg, joined by New York’s senior senator Chuck Schumer, promoted New York as the self-styled financial capital of the world, a city that would surely triumph over its only serious rival, London. The 2008 financial crisis crumpled this narrative and turned the Bloomberg administration toward tech.

By 2009, the city’s business elites believed that New York’s salvation depended on producing more software engineers. This consensus motivated the mayor and his economic development officials to build big, organizing a global competition for a university that could create a dynamic, postgraduate engineering campus in New York. Cornell Tech emerged as the winner, a partnership between Cornell University and the Israel Institute of Technology. Between 2014 and 2017, the new school recruited high-profile professors with experience in government research programs, university classrooms, and corporate labs. They created a slew of partnerships with the city’s major tech companies, and the resulting corporate-academic campus made Roosevelt Island New York’s only greenfield innovation district. Not coincidentally, the founding dean was elected to Amazon’s board of directors in 2016.

The Bloomberg administration also partnered with the city’s public and private universities, mainly the aggressively expanding New York University (NYU), to open incubators and accelerators for tech startups. After NYU merged with Polytechnic University, a historic engineering school in downtown Brooklyn, the Bloomberg administration made sure the new engineering school could lease the vacant former headquarters of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority nearby, where NYU’s gut renovation created a giant tech center.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn waterfront was booming. The Brooklyn Navy Yard added advanced manufacturing tenants and art studios to its traditional mix of woodworking and metalworking shops, food processors, and suppliers of electronics parts, construction material, and office equipment, and began to both retrofit old machine shops for “green” manufacturing and build new office space. While tech and creative offices were running out of space in DUMBO, the heads of the downtown Brooklyn and DUMBO business improvement districts came up with the idea of marketing the whole area, with the Navy Yard, as “the Brooklyn Tech Triangle.” With rezoning, media buzz, and a strategic design plan, what began as a ploy to fill vacant downtown office buildings moved toward reality. 

Established tech companies from Silicon Valley and elsewhere also inserted themselves into the urban landscape. Google opened a New York office for marketing and advertising in 2003 but expanded its engineering staff a few years later, buying first one, then two big buildings in Chelsea: an old Nabisco bakery and the massive former headquarters of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Facebook took AOL’s old offices in Greenwich Village. On the next block, IBM Watson occupied a new office building designed by Fumihiko Maki.

Jared Kushner’s brother, the tech investor Jonathan Kushner, joined two other developers to buy the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ former headquarters and printing plant on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The developers converted the buildings into tech and creative offices and called the little district Dumbo Heights. By 2015, the growth of both venture capital investments and startups made New York the second-largest “startup ecosystem” in the world after Silicon Valley. Within the next three years, WeWork (now the We Company) surpassed Chase Bank branches as Manhattan’s largest commercial tenant.

All this development was both crystallized and crucified by Amazon’s decision to open half of a “second” North American headquarters (HQ2) in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, New York, in 2018. Amazon organized a competition similar to the Bloomberg contest that resulted in Cornell Tech, but in this case, the contest was a bidding war between 238 cities that offered tax credits, help with land assemblage, and zoning dispensations in return for 50,000 tech jobs that the company promised to create. But in announcing its selection, Amazon divided the new headquarters in two, supposedly placing half the jobs in New York and the other half in Crystal City, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Many New Yorkers erupted in protest rather than celebration.

The amount of tax credits offered to the very highly valued tech titan, almost $3 billion in total, appeared to rob the city of funding for its drastic needs: fixing the antiquated subway system, repairing the aging public housing stock, and building affordable housing. The decision-making process, tightly controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, enraged New York City Council members, none of whom had been given a role in either negotiating or modifying the deal. The deal itself was closely supervised by New York State’s Economic Development Corporation behind closed doors, without any provision for public input or approval.

Housing prices in Long Island City rose as soon as the deal was announced. A city economic development representative admitted that perhaps half of the jobs at HQ2 would not be high-paying tech jobs, but in human resources and support services. In a final, painful blow, Amazon promised to create only 30 jobs for nearly 7,000 residents of Queensbridge Houses, the nearby public housing project that is the largest in the nation.

Amazon representatives fanned their opponents’ fury at public hearings held by the New York City Council. They said the company would not remain neutral if employees wanted to unionize, and they refused to offer to renegotiate any part of the deal. Opponents also protested the company’s other business practices, especially the sale of facial recognition technology to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Yet surveys showed that most registered New York City voters supported the Amazon deal, with an even higher percentage of supporters among Blacks and Latinos. Reflecting the prospect of job opportunities, construction workers championed the deal while retail workers opposed it. The governor and mayor defended the subsidies as an investment in jobs. Not coincidentally, Amazon planned to rent one million square feet of vacant space in One Court Square, the former Citigroup Building in Long Island City, before building a new campus on the waterfront that would be connected by ferry to Cornell Tech.

After two months of relentless, vocal criticism, in a mounting wave of national resentment against Big Tech, Amazon withdrew from the deal. Elected officials blamed each other, as well as a misinformed, misguided public for losing the economic development opportunity of a lifetime.

Yet it wasn’t clear that landing a tech titan like Amazon would spread benefits broadly in New York City. A big tech company could suck talent and capital from the local ecosystem, deny homegrown startups room to expand, and employ only a small number of “natives.”

From San Francisco to Seattle to New York, complaints about tech companies’ effect on cities center on privatization and gentrification. In San Francisco, private buses ferry highly paid Google workers from their homes in the city to the company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, green space and cafes in the Mid-Market neighborhood proliferate to serve Twitter employees and other members of the technorati, low-income Latinos from the Mission district are displaced by astronomical rents—all of these factors stir resentment about Big Tech taking over. In Seattle, Amazon’s pressure on the city council to rescind a tax on big businesses to help pay for homeless shelters also aroused critics’ ire. Until recently, moreover, tech titans have been unwilling to support affordable housing in the very markets their high incomes roil: East Palo Alto and Menlo Park in California, and Redmond, Washington.

It remains to be seen whether urban innovation districts will all be viable, and whether they will spread wealth or instead create highly localized, unsustainable bubbles. Venture capital is already concentrated in a small number of cities and in a very few ZIP codes within these cities. According to the MIT economist David Autor, although the best “work of the future” is expanding, it is concentrated in only a few superstar cities and only represents 5 percent of all U.S. jobs.

Yet urban tech landscapes emerge from a powerful triple helix reminiscent of Silicon Valley. Elected officials promise jobs, venture capitalists and big companies make investments, and real estate developers get paid. Though these landscapes glitter brightly compared to the dead spaces they replace, they don’t offer broad participation in planning change or the equitable sharing of rewards.

Sharon Zukin is a Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College, and is author of the forthcoming book The Innovation Complex: Cities, Tech, and the New Economy.

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New Swiss residential building shows off the latest in efficient tech

A seemingly simple, six-story apartment complex is going up in Zurich, Switzerland, and is putting to the test a number of new technologies that showcase a more sustainable approach to new construction. The project, Hohlstrasse 100, is designed by Dietrich Schwarz Architekten and is rising next to an existing, two-story commercial space that's also being renovated and connected to the new building underground. The firm's namesake principal has written extensively on environmental concerns in architecture and advocates a view of architectural history “from modernism to the ‘one planet society,’” which has manifested itself in projects like the 1996 Solarhaus I and the 2007 Eulachhof "zero-energy" housing complex. Claiming that “architectural and spatial planning” is the cause of greater than 40 percent of global energy consumption, Schwarz has proposed that future structures "will be created in which the building envelope and building service systems complement one another optimally." That ethos is being advanced in Hohlstrasse 100, which is, in part, supported by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy. Loaded with new technology, the residences will be a pilot for a new form of vacuum-insulated glass windows, hot water, and other monitoring systems, as well as new phase-change materials. The windows will also feature unique soundproofing, tested at Empa at ETH Zurich, that will allow them to be opened to the noisy street below for natural ventilation. Hohlstrasse 100 is also testing ground for aerogel insulating technologies, designed in the lab of Jannis Wernery at Empa. While aerogels have been used in many renovations, and also recently at the research-showhome DFAB HOUSE, Wernery says this is first new construction in Switzerland to create a facade entirely using aerogel. The material, an ultralight gel that uses gas instead of a liquid, has incredibly low density and thermal conductivity. Overall, the building is extremely high-efficiency in terms of insulation abilities for its size. The ultra-thin wood, MDF, and aerogel facade make it a primarily a wood structure coming in at just 135mm. Although aerogel is costly, in expensive cities like Zurich the gain in interior square footage (and its attendant profitability) more than compensates for the additional price while providing long-term energy efficiency, according to Wernery. For the architects, this thinness and space efficiency is also part of the building's conceptual conceit. It reads with the “compression” that so distinctly defines modern urban buildings and cities themselves.
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Berkeley is developing its own cryptocurrency to fund affordable housing

As the federal government continues to curtail funding for affordable housing development nationwide, the city of Berkeley, California is moving to create its own cryptocurrency in an effort to potentially replace outlays for affordable housing from Washington with municipally-backed crypto-bonds. The so-called “crypto-impact” proposal is the brainchild of Berkeley city councilperson Ben Bartlett and Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguín, who have partnered with the University of California, Berkeley’s Blockchain Lab and municipal public financing firm Neighborly for the effort. The proposal would create a municipally-controlled blockchain system that would back bonds issued by the city to help fund affordable or supportive housing and other city services, CityLab reports. Explaining the need for the cryptocurrency, Bartlett told CityLab, “The federal government has committed itself to [tearing] us apart, to dividing people by race and gender. And through its fiscal policies, it’s taking away the ability for cities to fund [things like] affordable housing.” Bartlett’s response is to remove some amount of fiscal control away from the federal government and place it instead in the hands of like-minded private investors with digital money. If successful, Berkeley’s Initial Coin Offering (ICO) planned for later this year would make the city the first municipality in the country to enter the risky cryptocurrency sphere. The plan would allow investors to use blockchain—a digital, crowd-sourced ledger that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin—to purchase digital currency backed by city bonds. The program, according to Bartlett would augment municipal services and could potentially be used as a day-to-day currency by residents at some point in the future, as well. The effort comes amid the recently-passed, Republican-backed tax overhaul, which public accounting firm Novogradac & Company estimates could whittle the future production of affordable housing by close to 235,000 units over the next decade, Business Insider reports. The regressive tax bill would exacerbate the regional housing crisis that has overtaken Berkeley by putting a dent in the city’s ability to develop affordable housing. The new tax bill also comes amid growing—and concerning—threats on the part of the current administration to cut off federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities like Berkeley. Bartlett told Business Insider, "We have a jobs explosion and a super tight housing crunch. You're looking at a disaster. We thought we'd pull together the experts and find a way to finance [affordable housing] ourselves." Estimates for how much total funding or how many housing units overall could be created using the proposed cryptocurrency have not been released. It is also unclear if the municipality will change its restrictive zoning policies to make room for more housing units and better instrumentalize the new funding. The risky scheme could potentially play a role, however, in taking advantage of a recently-proposed state law that would loosen density, height, and parking requirements around transit in an effort to boost housing production in the state. The law—still in its draft form—could increase zoning capacity across California to the tune of millions of new housing units. A traditionally-financed $3 billion state-issued bond initiative is currently in the works, as well, as are various municipally-led housing bond initiatives. A committee dedicated to the cryptocurrency scheme is currently working to implement the city’s ICO by May of 2018.
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A preview of ACADIA 2017, where disciplinary boundaries are blurred

On November 2-4, ACADIA will host its annual conference at MIT. Ahead of the proceedings, The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) spoke with one of this year’s organizers, Skylar Tibbits, Assistant Professor of Design Research in MIT's Department of Architecture and director of the Self-Assembly Lab—to get a preview of what to expect from this year’s impressive lineup. AN: The theme of this year’s conference is Disciplines & Disruption. What are the prime disruptors you’ve identified and what types of research are you expecting to see? ST: If you asked this question in previous years, everyone’s attention was on robots. We had a robotics arms race for a moment and robotics has spun off into its own architectural conferences. The submissions this year are more about AI and Machine Learning, Visualization like AR/VR, and advances in HCI demonstrating the wealth and breadth of tools now available and the velocity of technological change. AN: The most disruptive thing is really the acceleration of technological change, is it not? ST: It’s a given that people participate in ACADIA for the latest and greatest research in technology for the architectural field and yet we are struck also by the context. Disruption isn’t about just rapid change in markets but about people, their contexts, and concerns and the feeling of cultural and technological shifts happening concurrently. AN: Can you speak more to these shifts and how you define disciplines in increasingly co-located and overlapping fields of research? ST: Disciplinary shifts look like convergence and hybridization. Boundaries between disciplines shrink and we ask what are the limits of the discipline today. Is ACADIA a Materials Science conference or a Computer Science Conference? Of course, the work comes out of architecture practice, but we need to ask those disciplinary questions in a bigger way. When everyone is a hybrid, you can get quite existential about what you are doing. We have a great line-up of keynotes from Neri Oxman and Thomas Heatherwick to Nervous Systems and Ben Fry that I think embody these hybrid practices. AN: What has changed in the course of ACADIA’s history? ACADIA started back when CAD was a novel idea and now every architecture student uses tools in really advanced ways. The technologies are now so ubiquitous and yet there is always room for innovation. The pressing questions become about testing the limits of the disciplines and how we can understand and elevate the social/cultural/political impacts while we innovate. AN: What makes hosting the conference at MIT special? The organizers and myself wanted to bring the MIT ethos to ACADIA. I want attendees to come away with a sense of the real MIT, not just that we are tight-knit group of techies, but that there are people here looking seriously at the big picture and developing hybrid research practices. ACADIA kicks off this weekend with a Hackathon at MIT Media Lab followed by three days of workshops at the newly opened Autodesk BUILD Sspace. The conference is happening at MIT November 2-4. Visit 2017.acadia.org
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Get ahead and stay ahead at this year's Tech+ Expo in New York City

In 1849, Joseph Monier, a Frenchman, invented reinforced concrete. He didn't do much with it at the time, aside from making a few robust plant pots. Eighteen years later he finally showed off his radical technological innovation at the Paris Exposition of 1867. That year, Monier patented his creation and eight years and four more patents later, he designed the world's first iron-reinforced concrete bridge at the Castle of Chazelet. Thankfully today, the world is a great deal more connected than it was back in the 19th Century. Industry leaders can share their ideas instead of dithering around with flowerpots for decades. The Tech+ Expo is that forum. A hotbed of technological innovation, Tech+ is where you can find the latest advancements in virtual reality, rapid prototyping, smart materials, intelligent building systems, mobile apps, and software platforms. This year, The Architect’s Newspaper and Microsol Resources’ TechPerspectives have combined forces to present a full day program of industry leaders on the innovation stage at Tech+.Ten speakers will be presenting their thoughts and insight on various facets of technology and its role in architecture at Tech+ on May 23 in New York. A list of speakers can be found below:
  • Keynote Presenter: Hao Ko, Principal at Gensler
  • Zachary Aarons, Co-Founder MetaProp NYC
  • Daniel Diez, EVP, Chief Marketing Officer, R/GA
  • Cindy McLaughlin, CEO, Envelope
  • Kerenza Harris, Morphosis Architects
  • Jerrod Kennard, Architectural Designer at KPF
  • Alexandra Pollock, Director of Design Technology at FXFOWLE
  • Robert Otani, Principal at CORE Studio, Thornton Tomasetti
  • Joseph Romano, VP Surveying & Mapping, Langan Engineering
  • Jonathan Schwartz, Co-Founder + CPO Voodoo Manufacturing
  • Zoltan Toth, BIM Implementation Consultant, GRAPHISOFT
  • Luc Wilson, Associate Principal and Director at KPF Urban Interface
More speakers are due to be announced. Tech+ will be at Metropolitan West on 639 West 46th Street in Manhattan on May 23. To register and find out more, visit techplusexpo.com.
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Hear publisher and conference director Diana Darling on a new podcast

Listen to The Architect's Newspaper publisher and Facades+ conference director Diana Darling speak on the latest edition of Everything Building Envelope, a podcast that highlights the latest innovations in the building envelope industry. She discusses the company and its mission changes over the years, which includes the growth of the Facades+ program of conferences and editorial content. You can hear all about the events, who attends, and get up to date on where and when the next big things will be happening. She also gives a sneak peak of our latest project, the Tech+ Expo, a cutting-edge gathering of AEC industry experts and professionals that focuses on how technology is changing how we make and experience our built environment. Check out the latest episode with Diana Darling here.
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Come Hear About Designnear

With an iPhone app already proffering the city that never was, how about the one that is, or is about to be? That is the charming task of Designnear. (That's design-near, not design-ear.) From the fine folks at Hopnear, which also has a cool Artnear app, too, Designnear maps out nearby contemporary buildings of interest, replete with lots of cool photos and renderings and vital info. And forget where that cool, new project you just read about in The Architect's Newspaper is? There's a search, function, too, that'll map it out and let you find it. Better yet, anyone can log-on and submit their own projects—that's you, up-and-coming architect—hopefull leading to a comprehensive iPhone catalog of all the city's nifty buildings. UPDATE: A Hopnear rep emailed us to say that Designnear now has landmarks listed for most U.S. cities, and they're poised for a roll out in Asia and Europe.