Greg Lindsay's Blog

November 11, 2019  |  permalink

All Things Urban Interview: Autonomous Mobility, Twitter and Blade Runner


(All Things Urban’s Anastasia Sukhoroslova was kind enough to interview me ahead of this week’s CoMotion LA. The original interview is here; I’ve reposted below.)

Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker on the future of cities, technology, and mobility. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion, as well as a co-author of the international bestseller Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

In the run-up to the CoMotion LA Leadership Conference, we spoke with Greg about his career in urbanism, what brought him to the field and how he envisions the future of cities and urban mobility.

Your career started in journalism. How did it shift to urbanism?

It’s like the line from The Sun Also Rises about bankruptcy: gradually, and then suddenly. My interest in cities was awoken by the fact that ultimately every fundamental challenge of the 21st century — whether climate change or inequality, mobility or opportunity — are all urban challenges as well. The city is where these problems and paradoxes are made flesh. And so that’s where I found myself trying to make sense of the world.

What was the most exciting project you worked on, and what was special about it?

From a purely intellectual standpoint, it was when I was asked by the architect Jeanne Gang to join her team for a 2011-2012 MoMA exhibition named “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream.” It was an effort to grapple with what had gone wrong before and after the Great Recession and foreclosure crisis, and whether there was anything designers could do about it. It was fascinating for me because, as a journalist, it was my first time sitting on the same side of the table as architects and understanding how they see the world. For me, everything is a story — what is our narrative arc and who are our characters? — and ideas are hung on that framework. For them, it was: what is our site, and what is our program? Meaning: what do we build and where do we build it? In this case, the site was Cicero, Illinois — no longer the hideout of Al Capone but an overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood — and our program was to invent new, more flexible ways of living and working that wasn’t necessarily tied to ownership. In 2012, we didn’t have a name for it, but today you would call it co-housing designed with the needs of local residents in mind. So, I’d like to think we were onto something, even though it never made it out of the museum.

A lot of your work is focused on the future of cities and urban mobility. Can you name three trends that seem most important to you?

Number one is the slow decline of public transport as we know it in the United States, and the causes are both clear (e.g. cars) and complex. On the one hand, a decade-long bull market means a lot of people have bought cars, even though Americans have unprecedented levels of auto debt and the length of car loans are beginning to exceed the length of actually owning the car — seven years, give or take. While that’s happening, bus ridership has declined across America due to disinvestment. (Congestion caused by ride-hailing is making the problem worse.)

The second is mobility-as-a-service, which started as a theoretical means for public agencies to embrace innovative private services while reasserting the importance of mass transit. Instead, the biggest enthusiasts are Uber and Lyft, which are building proprietary “walled gardens” to cross-subsidize operations and build moats around their business. We’re now in an arms race, and I hope cities embracing tools like LADOT’s Mobility Data Specification will swiftly create open standards for public mobility-as-a-service.

Third is autonomy. Not autonomous cars, but autonomy as a general capability that will trickle down to scooters and deliverybots and other forms of robotics that may only vaguely look vehicles. Autonomy will be a lot stranger than most people expect, and I’m anxious to see how cities will regulate them — and whether they will regulate them enough.

What advice would you give to those who are just starting their career in urbanism? What skills will be crucial in the next 5-10 years?

I’m honestly not sure. My core skills are pattern recognition and storytelling, and I don’t think you can go wrong using those to make sense of the world. Find the smartest people you can wherever you can and learn from them. Honestly, the most important tool in my kit is listening to conversations on Twitter.

What are the most thought-provoking books about cities that you’ve recently encountered?

The most thought-provoking book I haven’t read yet is Anthony Townsend’s GHOST ROAD. The best book on smart cities might be Tim Maughan’s INFINITE DETAIL or Bruce Sterling THE EPIC STRUGGLE OF THE INTERNET OF THINGS.

And also BLADE RUNNER, because if you recall the opening credits, the film is set in Los Angeles, November 2019. It’s not the future anymore, but a retro-future, a dystopia-that-could-have-been.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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