November round up!

Since I last posted I’ve been very busy: I wrote about Miyazaki’s Urbanism for Strong Towns

Five pieces in The American Conservative: Better Infrastructure, Not More Infrastrucure, about President Biden’s infrastructure plan; Against Master Developers is about, well, master developers;  New York Should Have A Congestion Charge; Manufacturing Main Streets is about how cities can encourage manufacturing businesses with looser zoning regulations; and Did NIMBYs Save Cities? offers the daring hypothesis that America’s “superstar” cities like Boston and New York revived in part because suburban NIMBYism forced growth and change to concentrate in the urban core, where people were poorer and less powerful.

My review of Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns: A Bottum-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity appeared in The University Bookman in July.

I started writing for Urban SDK, a smart cities technology company. I have pieces about curb management, transportation equity and the infrastructure bill.

How FinTech is Going Green

Everyone loves touting their green credentials these days. Even oil companies make commercials detailing how clean their products are. But there’s still a gap between talking green and going green. The plastics industry lied about recycling, while even venerable organizations like the Sierra Club have advocated for policies that increase people’s carbon footprints and pollution.

As a result, building a green investment portfolio is a fraught affair, requiring a great deal of knowledge, research abilities and ultimately, judgement calls. But financial technology can make it easier, for both individual and business investors, by using the abilities of computers to process and visualize large amounts of data. 

For instance, a company may say that they’re buying a certain amount of carbon offsets to reduce their carbon footprint, but a green fintech would be able to estimate it and compare it to the offsets. Similarly, a fintech could easily analyze the offerings of firms like Vanguard or Franklin Templeton for sustainability or carbon emissions. 

Several companies provide tools that help consumers know the carbon footprints of their purchases in order to help them reduce them. Other fintech firms are planting trees when consumers use them to make purchases, investing in green energy products and using merchant fees to buy offsets.

Financial technology is branching out into cryptocurrency. SolarCoin supports solar energy projects, BitGreen rewards carpooling and other environmentally-friendly actions. Others use technology to reduce the environmental impact of cryptocurrency — BitCoin mining uses a lot of energy and produces a lot of e-waste. The cryptocurrencies fall into familiar groups — either decentralized or run by a non-profit. Some are sponsored by existing companies. 

The future of green financial technology will likely be more mainstream as both sustainability and fintech become more important in the overall economy. Already many conventional financial service companies are rushing to bring out products and services to compete with younger fintech firms. Governments trying to incentivize eco-friendly behavior could also get in on the action. For example, bottle deposits could be replaced with a cryptocurrency. Blockchain-based applications may also finally allow for paperless record keeping without the security hassles protecting people’s data normally causes. Paying taxes, filing forms and the rest could be done securely through the internet. 

FinTech is truly a diverse field for the many different types of transactions, now with environmental sustainability thrown into the mix.

The Three Types of Solar Power Installation

With a low cost that gets lower every year, combined with increasing efficiency, solar energy is currently the big winner in the race to develop renewable energy infrastructure and decarbonize energy. In 20 years, solar power has gone from a curiosity for survivalists and eco-nuts to a major part of the global energy industry. According to the US Department of Energy, the cost of photovoltaic panels has fallen 70 percent since 2014 and one in seven American homes will have rooftop solar installations by 2030.

The solar industry is currently divided into three main segments, each with their own needs: residential, commercial (or commercial and industrial) and utility. Residential and commercial systems are mainly photovoltaic, with familiar solar panels that use the photovoltaic effect, where sunlight striking the panels generates an electric charge. Utility installations also frequently use photovoltaics, but sometimes they also use concentrated solar power, where an array of mirrors reflects light on a container of fluid, boiling it and causing it to move a turbine, generating power. 

If you live in a city, you’re probably most familiar with residential solar. As the name implies, these are usually home installations, often exclusively on rooftops. Many states and even the federal government have encouraged the adoption of residential solar by offering tax breaks and subsidies, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. They can also result in the local utility buying electricity from the homeowner. Utilities often like people getting residential solar, since it can reduce peak loads on power grids.

A residential installation often starts with an analysis of local sunlight and shadows. Things like the direction of the roof, the type of the roof and nearby trees or tall buildings can affect performance. Ideally, energy savings, combined with incentives, result in the installation paying for itself over the years. Many companies lease the systems to homeowners, with the net metering paying for the installation. The panels are mostly installed on the roof, but ground-based panels can also be an option.

Residential solar can also take the form of community solar, where a group of neighbors gets together to pool their resources for a solar installation.

In addition to the PV panels themselves, an installation requires a solar inverter that turns the DC electricity produced by the panels into usable AC electricity. In addition, some people choose to have batteries as part of their system rather than connecting it to the local grid. 

Commercial and industrial installations are in between residential scale and utility scale systems. They make use of commercial or industrial properties and much larger PV panels to generate more power. Self-storage facilities, factory roofs and parking lots are popular for installations. One type of site that’s increasing in popularity is the use of agricultural fields, which can generate extra income for farmers when crop prices are too low. There have also been interesting experiments putting panels on reservoirs, which not only generate power but reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation.  

Utility scale solar can cover dozens, or even hundreds of acres. These require sites with high solar potential and few competitors for the land. Deserts are very popular for them, with their clear weather and lack of competing land use. Utility scale installations are also the main users of concentrated solar power.

Tack to the future: decarbonizing shipping with sail power

As good as local sourcing is, there are some goods that need to be transported long-distances. Whether they are too much in demand and ingrained in the culture or just because a place is not self-sufficient, for example, coffee just doesn’t grow in most of the United States and the one place it does is Hawaii. Many goods need to be imported to Britain or Ireland, as well as other islands. Trade is also good for the world, fostering communication and connection between people and places. 

But moving all of that stuff around is bad for the environment. Cargo ships are big, heavy and often run under flags of convenience, where registration is cheap and inspections can be few and far between. They also spend a lot of time in international waters, where they don’t have to follow many environmental regulations, burning extremely dirty fuels called “bunker fuels”. 

One way to make international trade greener is to revive the use of sail power to move cargo. If it seems a little low-tech, don’t be fooled — any sailing ship is a sophisticated, fine-tuned machine with hundreds of variations from around the world perfectly adapted to local weather, sea conditions, depth and geography and the Royal Navy’s need for ships during the Napoleonic Wars played a major role in developing the Industrial Revolution. 

A sailing vessel

Ships like The Roseway could become a more common sight in shipping.

Steam power only overtook sail power as the means of moving the majority of the world’s cargo in the early 20th century. Clipper ships were competitive cargo haulers until the Suez Canal opened. Modern Diesel-powered container ships, such as the MV Ever Given, which was famously grounded in the Suez Canal recently, is only slightly faster than a clipper and some modern ships are slower. The difference is that a modern vessel will never become becalmed or delayed by contrary winds.

Modern ships have many advantages over their 19th century predecessors. Radio and GPS can help them plot courses around storms or heavy seas, avoiding hazards that claimed the lives of many sailors in the past, while winch systems mean hoisting sails, putting in reefs or stowing them is less labor intensive. In fact, all the infrastructure for transporting cargo on and off the ship can be left on the shore. Because of their small size, sailing ships will not be confined to using the big container ports larger ships do. This will ease congestion in ports, while spreading out port jobs. 

Sail power doesn’t need to be done by replica clipper ships that would be at home in a maritime museum — or a bottle — although a wooden hull and canvass sails are made from renewable resources. Many sail training vessels used by modern navies, such as the US Coast Guard’s Eagle, have steel hulls, as did some commercial sailing vessels.  Today, modern racing boats are made from materials like carbon fiber and feature sails made from artificial materials like nylon and kevlar. Experiments are being made with technologies like rotarsails and turbosails to supplement motors. There are even ideas like “windmill ships” floating around where a ship-mounted turbine is used to produce electricity to power motors, although this seems inherently rather inefficient. 

While there are several companies involved in hauling cargo, at present I only know of one that specializes in selling products shipped sustainable: Shipped By Sail.  

Three Ways to Think About Sustainability

Despite what you might think from the way it’s often used, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword. It’s an actual thing and, if used properly, it can differentiate a business from its competitors, emphasize the value of the product or service, or just save a bunch of money on electric bills. Sustainability for businesses is also something customers and investors are increasingly looking into. 

The flourishing greenery of Acadia National Park is what sustainability hopes to protect.

Acadia National Park

The thing is, sustainability isn’t just one thing and nor is it all about overcoming climate change. Water sustainability, for example, would be important if there were no climate change as aquifers get used up or burgeoning population and industry in the Southwest stretches available supplies. Similarly, solar energy is hugely important to replacing greenhouse gas emitting power plants with zero-emission sources, but the solar industry isn’t really sustainable yet – photovoltaics are made with a lot of glass and compounds that contain toxic chemicals like lead and cadmium, while having short working lives as physicists and materials scientists improve efficiencies and designs. As a result, there is a little known, but very real and growing problem with waste in the industry. Sustainability for businesses certainly should consider climate change, but it’s also much broader. 

Nevertheless, consumers want sustainability and advocates are pressuring suppliers and even banks into taking stands on the issue. Three ways businesses can think about it are 1) life cycle sustainability, 2) Supply chain sustainability and 3) Customer sustainability.

Life cycle sustainability considers the environmental impact of a product or service across its whole life cycle. A good example of this is clothing. Many clothes are made out of cotton, a plant product that must be grown, harvested, processed into fibers, woven into cloth and then sewn and cut into the final garment, which is then shipped to the store to be purchased by the customer. Or, increasingly, it’s shipped to a warehouse of an online retailer and then shipped to the consumer when they purchase it. The consumer then wears it and washes it again and again until it is reduced to rags. Or maybe they wear it once and then it sits in their closet until they donate it or throw it out. Or maybe it survives to be passed down to future generations. Finally, when the garment does finally reach the end of its useful life, what happens to the materials? Is the cotton recycled or thrown away to be taken to a landfill or incinerator?

Supply chain sustainability considers the impact of raw materials and transport on the planet. For example, if the cotton used in the shirt in the first example is grown in Alabama, shipped to Mexico to be spun into thread, shipped across the Pacific to Indonesia to be cut and sewn into the shirt and then returned to the US to be sold in Chicago, supply chain sustainability ideas suggests that the life cycle doesn’t matter so much because of the huge impact on the environment from just transporting all the materials and products around the world. The supply chain is one area where there are not only major gains to be made as far as sustainability for businesses is concerned, since it’s not strictly neccesarry for raw materials to be shipped so far to be processed, but customers will understand it easily because of succesful “farm-to-table” restaurants.

Lastly, businesses can consider the customer’s sustainability. Steps can be taken to minimize the customer’s carbon footprint, by offering home delivery and the product could utilize the least possible packaging, which could all be recyclable. B2B businesses can also provide sustainability advice on reducing waste, recycling greywater, doing transportation demand management to help employees get to work without relying on cars, finding reliable sources of green energy or developing more sustainable product lines. Some lateral thinking can also help: almost 10 years ago the British retailer Sainsbury’s reduced the diameter of the cardboard cylinders used for toilet paper by 11 millimeters, allowing them to ship more in each delivery, saving around 500 truck trips a year. This helped make the brand more sustainable and reduced the cardboard waste the customer had to deal with. 

There are many different ways that sustainability for businesses can work for themselves and their customers. Going green doesn’t have to be a big production or involve lots of very serious statements, businesses just need to decide what kind of processes they want to adopt and follow them.

Cities need to use the data they collect

The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated vividly the need for cities to be able to collect and act on data. Bad information, both about the pandemic itself and its relationship to cities proliferated online and in the media, while a lack of data hampered efforts to combat it. Even when good data was available, cities were slow to act on it. As the number of companies and products in the “smart cities” space proliferates, it will become more important to make the data collected the basis of policy actions, otherwise it’s an academic exercise. 

While the disorganized, half-hearted and even counter-productive efforts of state and federal governments didn’t help, it is possible that better utilization of Covid-19 data by cities could have prevented the need for lockdowns and the long-term disruption of our local economies. The model here must be East Asia, especially Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand. These countries and their cities used Big Data to implement contract tracing and get tests manufactured, distributed and processed rapidly. 

In the United States, meanwhile, cities like Boston were getting analyses of wastewater data showing a massive increase in cases, even before testing. They took this valuable data and did nothing. The lockdowns, however, did dramatically show the influence of the automobile on air quality, as well as how fragile our cities are in terms of needing workers to commute in, as well as where our basic goods and foodstuffs come from. 

Then there’s the data cities already collect, but don’t analyze. According to Strong Towns, few cities know their true financial pictures — not only do they not keep track of how many acres of infrastructure they might own, but they’re often unsure of the taxes each parcel produces per unit of area. This is vitally important data for cities to determine their financial position and outlook.

Unfortunately, even the clearest, bluest skies many people had ever seen failed to make an impact in policy. Transit agencies across the country have been left by Congress with limited funds for the coming fiscal year, forcing drastic cuts in service that will result in more driving. Policy is also fixated on electric cars and driverless cars. While electric cars will reduce some localized carbon emissions, the paint, plastics, tires and batteries continue to be sources of lifecycle environmental damage and the vehicles churn up matter on the roads. Driverless vehicles are still decades away from being a practical reality.

Moreover, neither electric nor driverless vehicles actually solve any of the problems caused by excessive driving. They still take up too much space, promote inefficient land use and require a huge infrastructure investment they don’t come close to paying for. Reducing both driving and future infrastructure commitments by supporting walking, biking and transit and building narrower streets are the strategies supported by the data.  

Political leaders must have the courage to develop policy based on the data smart cities technologies can capture, rather than attempting to justify existing policies as “smart” with special pleading or cherry picking. 

How Smart Cities Can Solve Real Problems

Writing in City Observatory, Joe Cortwright recently raised a good point regarding smart cities: so far, their solutions are neither very smart nor very useful. “Color us skeptical:  It’s hard to see how we’ll make better decisions with even bigger data when policy makers seem to routinely ignore the small and obvious data that’s already well in hand,” he wrote. “The way the ‘smart city’ and technology folks approach it, ‘fixing’ cities and transportation is all about vehicles, as their simulations illustrate.” 

The trouble is not that using sensors to monitor traffic congestion or build autonomous vehicles that can talk to their surroundings isn’t clever, it’s that traffic management software and AVs don’t actually come near to solving the problem of traffic congestion, which is that there are too many cars on the roads. It doesn’t matter how autonomous your car is, there’s a limited amount of space for it. AV companies have thus far ignored this problem entirely and instead proposed a future where cars move at high speeds through cities and never stop. The problem with this is obvious: how do you get in, get out, refuel/recharge  or otherwise practically use a car that never stops?

Being “Smart” isn’t about the amount of information you collect, or the number of gadgets you can cram somewhere, it’s about what you do with that information and those gadgets. Mashable dug up an old render of a hilariously unstable-looking bus thing on two enormous, skinny legs so it could carry passengers down road medians (not unlike the Chinese traffic-straddling bus) and proclaimed it “the future of public transportation”. Sure, it’s shiny and new and well-rendered, but the video doesn’t tell us how it works. By contrast, a public works department can spend a few hundred bucks on paint and make a busway that would carry just as many passengers per hour as those things, using existing technology and infrastructure. It’s elegant and affordable and wouldn’t require completely retraining all the city’s bus drivers. But buses aren’t sexy or new, so they get ignored. 

Still, it’s not as stupid as Elon Musk’s idea that building tunnels for cars everywhere will somehow fix congestion.

This sort of thinking fundamentally misunderstands what a city is. It’s not an obstacle to be negotiated, where success is measured purely in terms of throughput, it is, as Andrew Price put it “a platform of productivity”.

Instead of taking their queues from 1950s engineers whose idea of “urban renewal” was more like urban dismemberment, they should think instead about user experience, process and information feedback.

User experience, or UX, is a neglected part of city life. Often confined to things like the design review phase of a new development, the general consensus is that it doesn’t work. We don’t get beautiful places and beautiful buildings, we get ugly  places and uglier buildings. For a while this was treated as an argument over aesthetics, but recently psychologist Ann Sussman and organizations like CreateStreets have applied data to the issue. They have found that there are measurable and statistically different responses to places based on things such as street width, building height, building design, streetfront retail, the presence of trees or other living things and so on. It’s amazing research and it awaits a clever team to turn the data into a smart cities tool that can be used to evaluate not only building designs, but also streets, parks and other elements of the city a citizen might interact with.

Process is at the heart of many of the fiercest urbanist debates right now. It has become increasingly clear that many of the processes used by cities to evaluate proposals and involve the community are deliberately designed as chokepoints for use by opponents while also ensuring that the whitest and wealthiest stakeholders are overrepresented. Community meetings are routinely held at times when working people are commuting or having dinner with their families, notification laws require that property owners, not tenants, be informed and cities often hold the meetings through the agencies of self-appointed and self-perpetuating neighborhood associations, who are not representative of the community at large. But no one has any ideas as to how they can be done better.

One smart cities company that is working on this fraught issue is coUrbanize, which operates a website that shows the different developments in a city and lets citizens, officials and developers connect on their own time to supplement current meetings. An even simpler idea I was told about once involved distributing PRS devices to meeting attendees — they allow people to express themselves anonymously and it turned out that plenty of people were in favor of development, but were intimidated into silence by the loud hostility of opponents.

Finally the big issue affecting cities that smart city companies can change is the issuer of feedback. For about 300 years the main way people have gotten information about what’s happening in their city has been the newspaper. In the last century they were supplemented by radio and TV. But now newspapers are dying, so in many places it will become impossible to get information about what your city is doing if you have no special connections or the spare time for sitting in on three hour long city council meetings.

Some commentators believe that the end of local news is an existential threat to democracy. The need for a financially sustainable model replacement is clear even if such prognostications are unwarranted. Many cities and towns lack any institutions dedicated to informing citizens of current events and even those that do are more often than not failing to reach younger and newer residents or attracting the ad revenue from local businesses to sustain themselves.

There are many reasons for this, from a driver to centralize operations and consolidate different newspapers to cut costs to the traditional wall of separation between the editorial and business sides of the office that keeps editors ignorant and unskilled when it comes to promoting the paper or attracting readers. There is also a deep-seated reluctance to innovate in the newsroom – editors and reporters love their cliched, interchangeable headlines, they love looking down on web-based initiatives and they love their Walter Lippmann-esque objectivity and public service journalism (which they longer do, really, since the public isn’t paying them any attention). Well, William Randolph Hearst ate Walter Lippman for breakfast back in the day.

These are just a few of the issues where a skilled and creative application of technology by a smart cities company could go a long way to improving the quality of life in cities and probably make some entrepreneurs very wealthy.

Tearing down ‘New Hong Kong’ ideas

As China cracked down progressively more on Hong Kong this summer, arresting more pro-democracy protestors and clamping down on the city’s autonomy, a number of commentators from the intersection of urbanism, policy and tech proposed establishing “New Hong Kong” or “Hong Kong 2.0”, where another sovereign state would cede a small territory, build infrastructure and then invite the people of Hong Kong to immigrate there, establishing a haven from Communist China.

Sounds great, but the trouble is that a city is more than just infrastructure plus population. On top of that, the commentators seemed to miss the point of China’s crackdown and the reasons for the protest: Hongkongers increasingly want to govern themselves democratically, not be a sort of corporate playground. The CCP has no problem with Hong Kong’s capitalism as far as I can tell, it’s things like democracy and freedom of the press and trial by jury and inalienable human rights they’re not keen on. And in a charter city, these are the things that get left by the wayside. We should support Hong Kong because it’s the right thing to do, not hope that it can boost some flagging Western economy. 

And so, I wrote about it in The American Conservative.  

New Personal Finance Articles

What to do when your paycheck bounces and 4 Steps to take when you can’t pay your rent are now up at the Hanscom Federal Credit Union Money Wisdom blog.

While somewhat rare, thankfully, in “What to do when your paycheck bounces” I offer some advice for how to make sure you get the money you earned on time. It involves persistance and calling your state attorney general’s office.

The sadly more common scenerio of being unable to make rent involves going to non-profits, knowing your rights and hoping you have a reasonable landlord with whom you can negotiate a payment plan.