Category Archives: Enviro

Designing the User-Friendly City

What happens when a tech-minded entrepreneur is unexpectedly chosen to lead a big city government bureaucracy? Gabe Klein was an unconventional pick to head the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation when he was hired back in 2008, by then-mayor Adrian Fenty. He’d been a Zipcar executive. He helped found a local boutique food-truck company. He grew up in a Virginia ashram called Yogaville. But he had never worked in government. Over the next 23 months Klein implemented a program of transformative innovation, rapidly rolling out bike-sharing, new bike lanes, streetcar plans and next-generation parking infrastructure. Now Klein is a year-and-a-half into his second unexpected job in government, as the head of Chicago’s Department of Transportation under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Aaron Naparstek rolls the pre-talk film on urban cycling.

Cities are redesigning infrastructure to allow citizens to cycle safely and conveniently. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has put out an Urban Bikeway Design Guide to help urban planners and communities adjust to these infrastructure changes, such as contraflow bike lanes.

Those of us who know and love municipal governments understand that it’s always easiest to change nothing at all. Aaron used to run the famous StreetsBlog, which covers transportation policy around North America. They noticed a handful of transportation officials around the continent working hard to change things, and Aaron sees Gabe Klein as one of these figures.

Klein was Transportation Commissioner in Washington, DC, prior to Chicago, and has also been an executive at gamechanging startup ZipCar. Robin Chase, ZipCar’s co-founder, is here in the audience. The group spent the day checking out the Media Lab’s Changing Places group’s bold transportation inventions.

Drawn notes by Willow Brugh

Chicago hasn’t grown in a decade. The city’s known for pizza, hot sausages, and transportation. At the turn of the 20th century, the city had an entire industry of bicycle producers. The wealthy rode bikes. Street cars were popular, as they were in other American cities, until the 1950’s. General Motors conspired to purchase and eliminate this public transportation to help sell bus engines. This left an entire group of urban dwellers with no way to get around. Buses were introduced, but still have all kinds of downsides. Klein shows us some trolleyporn.

Chicago today is the freight rail hub of North America, the only dual-hub airport in the nation, 24-hour transit services (the El), and a strong bike network.

But the city also competes for worst regional auto congestion. A freight train can get from Long Beach, CA to Chicago in two days, and then take another two days to get through Chicago. Like other American cities, Chicago faces obesity challenges and a drop in pedestrians. CDOT has a budget of $800 million, which is used not just on fun new bike lanes, but also paving and tree planting and viaducts. The department also owns the subway, although it’s operated by CTA.

With Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Klein set some ambitious goals to expand transportation options in the major categories. Klein started in the bike industry, and then fell in love with ZipCar as he saw people using and loving the service. Mayor Fenty invited him to run DDOT, where his business experience and ignorance of government bureaucracy proved valuable in their own ways.

In DC, Klein created not just a government plan, which tend to gather dust on shelves, but also an agenda for enacting the changes. The plan took 8 months, and the execution 16 months. In two years, they rolled out Capital Bikeshare, still the largest bikeshare system in the US. Klein’s proud of the fact that the system is profitable. It made $300,000 in its first year and is on-track to pay back the initial investment made by federal and city transportation innovation funds. He considers this a transit system like any other — a modal system that moves people, without the hurdles of unions or fuel costs. And it inspires – people around the country still write him about the system.

Capital Bikeshare is an example of thinking creatively to get around the status quo. Rather than add yet more buses, the city tried new solutions within the existing parameters. Installing bike lanes on Pennsylvania Ave was a particularly rewarding coup. Our streets are still wide enough to accommodate the streetcars that once

DC used realistic parking pricing as a congestion strategy. The traditional quarter-fueled parking meters were replaced with smart — and pricier — meters that allowed people to pay with phones and credit cards. Parking revenues went up 400%.

Smartphones provide us better data and communication, resulting in better decisions. The world’s changing, and we need to be smarter to populate the Earth at the same rates. Car ownership and use is down among the young. Generation Y and retiring Baby Boomers alike are returning to cities, where ownership is less desirable than access. Fewer young people are getting cars or even licenses.

Klein sees a lot of potential for cities in the next ten years. Digital Public Way links real-time mobile information with public way assets. People with high-quality information on their phones can make smart decisions about how to get places.

Robust multimodal hubs allow bike, car, bus, and rail options. In DC, Klein sees increases in population of 10% and reduction in car registrations by 5% as realistic. New options like Carshare, P2P, Rideshare, and jitney (shared taxis) expand our thinking. Neighborhood tree adoption frees the city from sending people around to water plants.

Klein estimates that restoring streetcars in DC would have cost 11.6 billion in 2010. He sees this as unrealistic, but hopes for a combination of a streetcar system with rapid bus transit.

Modular vehicles like the CityCar let people who want to stay in the city use a vehicle appropriate for that lifestyle.

In Chicago
Safety’s an important issue for inclusion and a robust environment for people to live, work, and play. Put simply, a dangerous city will not attract people. There were 32,000 road fatalities in Chicago last year. Klein sees a combination of analysis, engineering, and education as a solution.

Regional traffic fatalities are down, which Klein attributes to trends like automated enforcement and ever-increasing numbers of pedestrians and cyclists, forcing motorists to change their behavior.

Over 130,000 car crashes per year in Chicago create a ripple effect of costs in terms of human life, police time, insurance rates, and so on. Enacting automated speed enforcement was politically volatile, but is proven to work.

When there’s too much space for cars in a city, cars speed. Klein sees a link between auto crashes and bicycle crashes. From 2005-2010, there’s been a 45% increase in cycle commuters with a simultaneous

Klein sees the daily accident reports, and is astounded that killing someone in a crosswalk with your car isn’t punished unless you happen to be drunk. If you want to murder someone, this is a pretty clear loophole. We lose more people on the road than any of the wars we’re fighting, or most other causes.

Sweden (and now Chicago) are working to change people’s acceptance of dangerous behavior. Citizen opinion has already changed in Chicago around regulating taxi drivers’ aggressive habits. The DOT has tested running over pedestrian crash dummies, and found a pretty big difference between getting hit at 20 MPH and 40 MPH.

The department is also testing 20 or so speeding treatments around schools. Safety zone stencils, speed feedback signs, speed cameras, countdown timers, and high visibility crosswalks are physical changes that may change driver behavior.

Education happens with thousands of safety ambassadors, including school volunteers and Schwinn-sponsored bike camps for kids.

Pedestrians are an important part of the equation. The department measures numerous metrics and have adopted Sweden’s Vision Zero Initiative to aim for a goal of zero pedestrian deaths by 2020. Klein doesn’t see the point in aiming for anything less.

Transportation includes renewal. Many cities are letting maintenance go to skimp on tight budgets, but this ends up costing more in the long-term. Road cracks are sealed in cold cities like Boston and Chicago, adding 3-5 years to the life of the road. Chicago has rebuilt Wacker Drive, a two-level street, to be far more pedestrian-friendly. Some of the city’s subway stations are over a century old. They’re making the stations beautiful, functional, and interesting.

The ultimate goal is to provide citizens with layers of options, depending on the distance of their trip. Walking, biking, and transit can all work, at varying distances. The city’s designing a Complete Streets policy, designing for everyone from 8-80. Klein sees the lack of public feedback loop as one reason that initial public excitement around multiple-use roads sputters out by the time the government delivers something that looks like a highway.

There’s not much space in cities, so all of the modes of transport need to be able to coexist. The key to doing this is slowing down the speed of car traffic. The ideal is downtown Amsterdam, where there might be 8 lanes of transportation, only one of which is automobiles.

Protected bike lanes help cyclists avoid getting doored, but also give pedestrians a shorter distance to cross before the light changes on them. Staggered traffic lights give pedestrians and cyclists a few second head start on automobiles, increasing cyclist compliance with lights. Spoke lines are major cycling routes into the downtown core.

Sandra Richter asks about whether the department has considered adaptive streets, where space is dynamically repurposed based on time of day and other needs. The Fulton Market area is a prime area for this, where delivery trucks need to come in from 5am-2pm, but pedestrians could take over to dine in the late afternoons and early evenings.

New types of vehicles are further stretching use cases. Italian scooters have become more popular. Bike lanes get re-used by rollerbladers and joggers.

The department investigated the neighborhood-friendly Play Streets, started in New York, and found that there’s already an ordinance on the books from 1923.

Bike sharing launches in Chicago in Spring 2012. It’s not the Holy Grail, Klein says, but it’s pretty darn close. Klein has little patience for sitting on hands. If we know younger populations are using more flexible, healthier transportation options, the government should be out ahead facilitating this trend.

Klein considers Jeffery Jump the first step towards enacting Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). A central bus lane loop hopes to improve bus speed from 3-5 MPH to about 12 MPH. The vast majority of downtown road space goes to a very small minority of citizens in private cars, while the many people taking the bus receive very little of this space.

Connecting transportation corridors is another priority. The Western / Ashland BRT would connect two corridors representing 25% of Chicagoans, and likely lead to economic development. This return on investment helps drive support for transportation improvements higher up in the city government.

The city’s new Morgan Street CTA station is a gem. The Chicago Riverwalk is another beautiful public space, a promenade for education and retail. A public theater and other people spaces are popular.

Chicago’s rendition of the High Line is the Bloomingdale Trail, which is out in the neighborhoods between Humboldt Park and Bucktown. Many of these projects have been on the drawing board for 12 years and benefit from Klein and Emanuel’s impatience with shelved ideas. They were able to identify over $30 million in federal funding to subsidize the project.

Klein credits the Sharing Economy as a cultural driver of many flexible transportation trends. Gen Xers, in particular, have adopted these trends, from AirBnb to ZipCar.

CDOT is being proactive about providing information and making datasets available to civic hackers.

The department is also building the densest network of quick charging electric vehicle stations in the world. They also lead the country in permeable asphalt, which allows runoff water to reach water tables below. The Cermak Blue Island sustainable streetscape is a pilot example.

Lastly, the department ensures that all public way infrastructure, from trash collection to bikeshare, is digitally open for hacking and interoperability.

How do you phase and integrate projects, when there are so many of them?
Lining up funding and approvals is essential, so that plans don’t sit on the shelf.

What’s your relationship with other city departments? Does the Fire Department push back against narrower streets and raised crosswalks?
First responders can definitely put a kink in your plans, particularly if they have influence with the Mayor. You need to be really collaborative, and do a lot of outreach. The NACTO summit included first responders and state officials. Comparing your city to New York is also an effective way to trigger hometown pride.

Everyone thinks their transportation solution is the Holy Grail. What’s your department’s view?
Until you integrate all of these solutions, you need to support all of them as much as possible. We support Peer to Peer companies, multiple car-sharing companies, and other private sector options. Over time, you see merging. By 2018, you’ll see some major changes out there.

How to Grocery Shop in Shanghai

Another update from China. Thanks to the Great Firewall, I’m stuck in a Web 1.0 world of email and blogging.

Our group spent the day conducting ethnographic interviews of food sellers and consumers in a wide variety of contexts. We met with restaurant managers, supermarket shoppers, rice shop owners, and sidewalk crab hawkers. We interviewed people from several age brackets, to learn about the unique but also shared habits and concerns regarding food in China.

It’s hard to understate the level of concern around food safety. The elderly we spoke to actively avoid eating outside of the house, at any time, because of safety concerns. People who raise their own chickens and eggs take comfort in knowing that the food is not only fresh, but also safe.

Supermarkets offer a wide range of processed carbohydrates in shiny packaging while promotional specials blare out of speakers. Major brands offer a trusted name to wary consumers. They also offer a range of imported fruits from all over the world: apples from Washington state, bananas from Chile. The supermarkets do not even bother trying to compete with local produce markets, an interesting behavior I’ve also seen in Liberia, where Lebanese-owned supermarkets complement fresh produce at traditional market stalls. Traditional and local crops are fresher and cheaper at traditional markets, and consumers shop at both types of market for to combine their needs. A weekly trip to the supermarket provides a bounty of shelf-stable goods and supplies, while the more perishable items can be found at small vendors closer to home. Given this split in offerings, there might be potential to get some of the local market supply chain into the larger supermarkets, the way Target has introduced fresh groceries, and Walmart and Whole Foods have incorporated local offerings into their national supply chains.

Restaurants signal their quality by posting licenses and certifications at the entrance. Meat and seafood are considered fresh if it’s still alive in a cage or tank at the market. One of our group members said she never sees people buy fish at one market, because it’s already dead, and therefore not as fresh as it could be.

Local vendors are creative in augmenting their offerings. A woman selling live crabs also offers bath towels (which we purchased, to augment our hostel’s offerings). A vegetable seller gets higher profit margins on the fried turnip cakes she cooks while watching over the produce.

We’ve generated a wide spectrum of ideas, and begun to qualify them on axes of potential scale and the amount of time required to implement. We then bucketed them into a handful of themes, which emerged rather organically across our many post-it notes:

  • Markets (the physical place – e.g. a seed market)
  • Distribution of food, to improve the supply chain from producer to consumer
  • Building integration (e.g. vertical farming)
  • Sharing and coops offer communal opportunities
  • Our island’s surrounding waterways, polluted as they are, offer unique food distribution opportunities.
  • The branding of the island and its products in the mind of Shanghainese

Tomorrow we jump into full ideation and selection mode, and begin to tear into a specific proposal.

Designing Urban Food Systems in Shanghai

I’ve joined the Media Lab’s Changing Places group for a week in China to design the future of sustainable cities in Shanghai.

China presents enormous challenges and huge opportunities, all at a dizzying scale. 300 million Chinese, the population of the entire United States, will move to urban areas over the next 20 years. 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in China. Only 1% of China’s 600 million urban residents have access to clean air, as measured by EU standards. Anyone serious about climate change, human welfare, and other challenges of the 21st century must consider China’s role.

We’ve joined up with students from Aalto University in Finland and Tongji University in Shanghai. It’s sort of like the Wizarding Cup in Harry Potter, with three nations of mages converging to meet and work together. Our Powerpoint slidedecks paint similar utopian cityscapes comprised of mixed use city blocks, local food production, and chic cyclists. We’re moderating these dreams with what we learn of Shanghainese culture and the built environment already in place.

Our groups are broken into five areas of urban sustainability:

  • Food systems and urban farming
  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Housing and buildings
  • Macro-scale urban planning

Our worksite is a small banana-shaped island in the Huangpu River, separated from the rest of the city by a canal. It’s essentially a 3.5 kilometer brownfield, full of former and current industrial sites. A shipyard occupies much of the land. Any food we grow here is going to require imported topsoil or aeroponically-delivered mist.

The government has requested that we propose new designs for the island, and is in the process of constructing a subway stop to better connect it with the rest of the city. The subway stop represents new energy, and likely a sharp spike in traffic and land values.

We’re struggling to determine how seriously our proposals will be taken, as well as the degree of freedom we can exert in redesigning the island. It’s certainly not a blank slate, but at the same time, as many as 50% of the existing structures could be torn down to make better use of the land. The island is open for new urban experiments, and the government seems receptive in that these innovations could attract further investment and development to the somewhat dreary existing landscape. Our professor, Kent Larson, is encouraging us to think big, and establish dramatically progressive goals. Perhaps the island will be made car-free, or produce 50% of its food locally, or go completely carbon neutral.

I’ve spent the semester in the urban food systems group. It’s an opportunity to work in several areas of passion, from nutrition to local food to city environments. Our group has investigated a variety of ideas, including aeroponic vertical farming systems, a social network and identity campaign to unite the nascent class of urban farmers, and a buy-one, give-one urban farming kit subsidizing agriculture in informal settlements. But we’re eager to design a realistic urban food system that will scale, and not remain confined to designers’ concept videos.

In true Media Lab spirit, my group is comprised of an extremely interdisciplinary group of designers, venture capitalists, artists, and community organizers. Each of us brings unique skillsets and experience, and also ambitions. Fortunately, we’ve combined enthusiasm with agility, and not become too married to any one proposal, because the local situation is quite different than the LEED-certified condo buildings many popular urban farm concepts take as a prerequisite. Since the beginning of the semester, we’ve kept an eye on those complicating human factors like income, cultural norms, and reaching meaningful scale.

Smarter Cities, Better Use of Resources?

Dr. Lisa AminiIf you’ve read a magazine or traveled through an airport in the last couple of years, you’ve probably seen ads for IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative. Today in our Post-Oil Shanghai course, we got to learn about some of the projects behind the very public campaign. Dr. Lisa Amini is the first director of IBM Research Ireland, based in Dublin. They focus on creating urban-scale analytics, optimizations, and systems for sustainable energy and transportation.

Lisa’s group focuses on transforming cities with:

  1. Sensor data assimilation: how do we ensure data accuracy, and account for the volume of data that comes in from sensors deployed at a metropolitan scale?
  2. Modelling human demand: how do we design a robuest enough model to reliabily infer demand and peoples’ use of city infrastrucure
  3. Factor in uncertainty: we’re talking about humans, here.

Sensor Data
Smarter CitiesWe have a massive amount of diverse, noisy data, but our ability to use it productively is quite poor.

One reason Lisa’s team is based in Ireland is that Dublin shared their municipal data on energy, water, and other core services. IBM wanted to focus on making use of available data, not laying down new sensors. Lisa shows us a map generated by bus data. The data is much more granular at the city center than in the suburban outreaches. And even downtown, the GPS isn’t terribly accurate, and sometimes locates buses smack dab in the middle of the River Liffey. This complicates efforts to infer and improve the situational awareness.

Bus bunching is a major problem in cities. Buses that begin ten minutes apart get slowed down, and end up clustered in bunches, with long waits in between. One goal is to dynamically adjust schedules and routes to compensate for predictable bunching conditions.

Another project looks to improve traffic signalling, not just for public transportation, but all traffic. Scientists are finding links between vehicle emissions and health, and certain urban corridors and certain times see a dangerous buildup of pollutants. Smarter planning could help us at least prevent this buildup from taking place around schools and hospitals.

Lisa talks about Big Data, but also Fast Data. It’s continuously coming at you, and if you can leverage it in realtime, it can be much more useful than a study conducted well after the fact. Her team is working on technology to make use of data as it comes in, and construct realtime models and optimizations. They can see bus lane speed distribution across an entire city of routes and a fleet of a thousand buses, accounting for anomalies past and present.

Sensor data’s great, but what do you do when a segment of the bus route is flashing red? Often, a disruption requires a person going to the scene to find out what’s wrong. The IBM team is experimenting with using Natural Language Processing data to determine if the cause of traffic is a Madonna performance at the O2 Centre. They can analyze blogs, event feeds, and telco data. Twitter isn’t useful for this yet because of the low percentage of Twitter users with geocoding enabled on their tweets.

Congestion is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions, so proative traffic control is becoming an important tool. Europeans are more and moer concerned about the livability of their cities, and even when they’re not, the EU Commission is happy to regulate. Cities are excited to avoid paying heavy fines, and invest in technologies that help avoid such costs.

At the individual level, congestion charging only works if there’s a reasonable alternative to driving. Even then, Praveen notes, it creates equity issues, where the wealthy can afford to drive into the city, and the poor cannot.

Lisa’s team is also modeling coastal quality and circulation patterns. One of the big problems is the treatment of water in waste plants. These plants treat the water to a static chemical index, and then release the water back into the world. Marine life dies, and we have toxins in the water, because
Large rainfall creates road runoff into the wate system. And tidal conditions can push water back upstream and hold the toxins in place, killing marine life. People are deploying sensors across the water systems, which is a huge improvement on annual testing conducted by a diver. But sensors don’t work incredibly well underwater – they’re limited by range and “fouling” of data.

New technology uses light sensors to understand the movement of water, which, combined with other sensors and de-noising models, can produce a cleaner picture of what’s happening across the bodies of water.

Modelling Human Demand
How people move, interact, and how they prefer to consume resources.
They can improve city services by taking advantage of telco data, smart car data, and other private and public information. The findings show a surprising sapital cohesiveness of regions. Geography still plays a huge role in how we look for services, communicate, and travel. Cellphone path data can illustrate points of origin that can better inform the planning of transportation paths. Political lines are a particularly ineffective way to organize services.

In the energy space, two trends have converged: First, we have more and more renewable energies, but they’re only available when the wind blows and the sun shines (efforts to store this energy notwithstanding). Our fossil fuel power plants require careful management, and must be gradually. Ireland could actually use more windpower than they currently do, but it would have adverse effects on the traditional plants.

The second trend is smart meters, which provide much more information on how energy is used. This allows for demand shaping, dynamic pricing, and smart appliances that act based on this information. But the energy companies are structured around predicting national energy demands, and follow very conservative policies that optimize for fulfilling peak demand. Energy companies are learning to forecast energy demands for pockets, rather than huge regions, and to take advantage of reneweable energy sources with pilot projects. They foresee running hundreds of thousands of dynamic energy models, rather than their current one-model-that-rules-them-all.

A project with Électricité de France simulates massive amounts of realistic smart meter demand data to test future scenarios. They’re building additive models based on human events like holidays and residential vs. commercial energy usage. The IBM Research team has build complicated flowcharts to identify compelling datastreams.

Utility leaders are forced to make decisions that are fraught with risk and uncertainty. It’s not just optimization, but social welfare and balancing competing costs. Lisa would like to incorporate the notion of risk into the technological systems. When your phone tells you there’s a 10% chance of rain today, it’s not very actionable information. Medical tests and treatment plans can be equally infuriating in that they fall short of complete predictability. How do you communicate information that carries risk with it so leaders can make decisions?

Interconnected water systems, with water treament plants, households, and geographical features demanding different priorities. Water utilities spend enormous amounts of energy moving water from one place to another, losing between 20-70% of the water along the way. We need to begin considering these systems as integrated, and acknowledge the risk and uncertainty inherent within them. When you start working on any one aspect of city services, you quickly involve other departments.

There have been many studies on providing energy and water information to homeowners to encourage conservation. The biggest change you can make? It’s not laundry or watering your lawn. Fix your leaky faucet.

Culture matters, too. Europeans expect more of their government, and citizens get up in arms when a resource like water becomes metered.

Rather than produce a perfect formula and answer to a question like municipal water demand levels, they have built models that allow for imperfections in data and can optimize for cost or service delivery.

An area of hope is to target non-experts with well-communicated information and visualizations of existing data.

What would you do if you had a city’s worth of data?
Lisa’s team is working to convince the city of Dublin to release more municipal data for others to make us of, following in the footsteps of, Washington, DC, and San Francisco.

The Social City project seeks to better understand the social context of people in a city to better understand why certain groups of people aren’t getting the resources they need. The conditions in which these people live could be major drivers of why


Sandra: Have you thought about incentivizing people, rather than just providing information?
Lisa: Incentives don’t need to be financial. One study found that knowing how other people like you behave has the ability to change individual behavior.

Praveen: Is it feasible to offset the cost of installing smart meters with the energy savings it provides?
Lisa: Right now, it’s still a net loss, because you still don’t have systems on the energy utlity side to take advantage of smart meters. But utilities know their time to adjust is limited, and governments are helping utilities to see that their time is limited.

People like to see immediate changes when they alter their behavior. Anything you can do to show people a change early in the feedback loop can be powerful (anecdotally).

Q: Can we do a better job of choosing sites for our buildings?

Lisa: There’s great data for this, but there are a lot of difference influencers. The telco data and the social context projects, for example, show just how many factors are at play. People may take advantage of a welfare system, but in the data, we often see them pop up once, and then disappear. They may register under different names. Cities know their service centers aren’t meeting peoples’ needs, often because of inconvenience of location.

Zack: There are a lot of policy implications in your work, and new technologies at play. You’re also in a position to educate policymakers and advocate for specific policies. What kind of barriers do you run into talking to those folks?

Lisa: Where it works is when you find some city leaders who are incredibly passionate about trying to do better and fix their city or some aspect of their city. Predominantly, people take these jobs because they do care about the city and services and infrastructure and making that better. The challenge is that a lot of policy and politics and regulations at larger levels that an individual leader can’t work around. Bus drivers’ union leaders were initially upset about the city sharing the Dublin buses’ GPS data. Are you going to spy on my lunchbreak?? Cities have histories and personalities and election cycles. Some people are afraid that the data will paint a negative picture of their work. Lisa compares it to the tide: sometimes you just can’t command it due to its scale. Leaders can’t yet prove a return on investment on a project because there’s so much uncertainty.

Smart Customization vs. Mass Production

Liveblog of Ryan C.C. Chin’s PhD thesis defense at MIT Media Lab

Ryan came to MIT in 1997, and got a Master’s in Architecture, and then at the Media Lab, before entering into the Lab’s Ph.D program. He took leave for 18 months to work on the CityCar project.

Ryan’s thesis examines smart customization, and the scientific differences between mass customization and traditional mass production. Is one better than the other? Is one more sustainable?

The CityCar is customizable on a number of levels: its base design, its adaptability to its environment (city), and its individual parts’ modularity.

Ryan hasn’t only worked on cars; he’s also studied customization of dress shirts. He chose shirts because of their low cost, frequency of use, and relatively easy traceability (see SourceMap).

Ryan started with an online customer survey of nearly 1,000 people. People have three types of dress shirt, with regards to fit: standard, made-to-measure with your measurements, and custom-tailored, designed specificaly for oyu. The average male has 14.2 dress shirts for work, but we don’t wear them all. Very few of us own only custom shirts, whereas 76% of respondents owned only standard shirts.

He then studied how people actually acquire mass customized products vs. mass produced products. 94% of respondents drove to buy their shirt. 63% of us clean our shirts in the washing machine, but mainly because it’s wrinkled, not because it’s dirty.

The main reason we return shirts is that they don’t fit properly. Online, mass-produced shirt retailers see a 40% return rate. That drops to 20% return rate in offline mass-produced shirt stores. Mass customized retailers see only a 5-10% return rate.

Whether it’s sold online or offline, mass produced shirts are made pretty much the same way. But when you order online, the delivery of a shirt to your home by truck produces huge CO2 savings over you driving to the store yourself.

With made-to-measure dress shirts, nothing gets produced until your order comes in, at which point the order goes to a QA center in China, where an electric scooter brings it to the factory. The carbon costs add up as your shirt is flown DHL to the US.

When you get a shirt custom-tailored, the tailor comes to your office to fit you and your coworkers, and then sends the order to Hong Kong. The shirts are made and flown back to the tailors’ studio, which then delivers the shirt and makes additional alterations. This back and forth adds some carbon costs.

The vast majority of the the CO2 involved in delivering your shirt comes in the last few miles, where you drive to a store. The mass-produced shirt ordered online has the lowest carbon count, followed by made-to-measure shirts ordered online.

Ryan also conducted a post-transaction customer use study using two washable RFID chips inserted into the collar stays on dress shirts. What happens after you acquire the new clothing? They built an RFID tracking system and embedded it into the office environment. Subjects would see a green confirmation light when the shirt they were wearing registered with the RFID readers.

The team cataloged a selection of sample shirts and sold them to employees at Fidelity and MIT Tech Review. They collected thousands of RFID reads over the course of the summer and color-coded a grid (or calendar, really) of how often each shirt was worn in the office.

Patterns emerge

People wear their favorite shirts on consecutive days, often in the same order. Ryan calculated an ideal shirt utilization rate: the number of shirts you own divided by number of days you need to wear a shirt. But we favor certain shirts and shun others. Some of us achieve equal distribution, though, working through our wardrobes systematically (“first in, first out”). One man reported that he gets dressed each morning by literally going right-to-left through his closet. Another man saved his custom-tailored shirt for a big board meeting, like a power tie, and felt the desired effect. A third guy wears only his cheap shirts, knowing that he or his children are likely to stain it, while the nicer shirts are never used at all. Others save their nice custom-tailored shirts for out-of-office occasions where Ryan’s RFID readers couldn’t scan them, like weddings and dinners.

On average, we don’t wear about 20% of our shirts at all. The mass production shirts got worn a lot, and were generally considered favorites, even over custom-tailored shirts. Ryan attributes this puzzle to better craftsmanship in mass-produced shirts, and fewer opportunities to wear custom-tailored shirts.

Lessons Learned:

  • We should move goods, not people, as much as we can. 16-ton UPS trucks are 24 times more efficient than a personal automobile for delivering goods.
  • Pull-based marketing dramatically reduces inventory. $300 billion in lost revenue in textiles wasted on stocks, transportation of goods, and heavy discounts. Build-to-order automobiles are only 6% of the US market, while it represents 50% of the European market.
  • Persuasive interfaces help people make the right choices. Showing the environmental effects of fast shipping vs. slow shipping works on us.
  • We need to miniaturize retail environments. The big box stores have become . Apple has begun deploying urban boutiques, where the highlight is experiencing the product, not stacking boxes.
  • Customizable Clones: Take the top 5 shirts you wear, the ones you love and the ones that fit, and make the rest of your shirts like those. These shirts are the iterative product of the trial and error represented by the rest of your wardrobe.
  • Local production is controversial. The labor cost is still about 2.5 times higher, even when you account for transportation costs.
  • Smart materials, like the Apollo Fabric, reduce the amount of energy the textiles require after it’s produced. Few retailers know Ministry of Supply claims to be anti-microbial and wrinkle-free, meaning fewer trips to the drycleaners, and higher shirt utilization.

Responsible Consumerism would allow us to create the ideal wardrobe, at the intersection of our own desires and environmental benefits. Ryan suggests a carbon label, like US FDA’s nutrition labels, showing the consumer the amount of carbon involved in the clothing article’s production, lifetime use, cleaning, and recycling.

How can customization improve the utilization rates of all the things we produce and own? And how do we scale this customization to the scale of a city?

Ryan attributes his inspiration to the late William J. Mitchell, and the huge number of people that worked on the CityCar and other projects.

Is the era of mass customization over?
Ryan points to Joseph Pine’s continuum of mass production, customization, lean production, and craft. All are necessary.
The number of customized things is going to increase, but what’s ideal? Standard, mass-produced goods work for many purposes (like Ryan’s current outfit). But there are huge cost and environmental savings to customization. Whether or not everyone feels these costs and benefits will depend on actual environmental policy. Everyone would love a custom shirt, but the average mass produced shirt is $20, while custom tailor shirts can easily cost $80. Custom needs to become more economical.

Ryan recommends that we receive a copy of the data generated by the full body scans the TSA requires of us. We could use that data for custom clothing, health, and other purposes.

Ryan foresees an “apparel genome,” where all of our clothing is tagged and machine readable, leading to insights about how we choose our outfits, what additional outfit configurations we could create from our existing clothing, and so on. I’ve begun using SuperCook, where I catalog the food in my pantry, and the app informs me what recipes will utilize my CSA-delivered eggplants. It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to consider doing the same for our clothing.

Customized goods fit into the broader trends of rent-rather-than-own, where an increasingly urban population favors access over ownership and proximity over storage space.

Get the gunk out

Day 2: Environmental Working Group – Americans are gradually waking up to the chemical bath that is their daily existence, and EWG is their greatest ally. EWG helps you find out about the nasty stuff in your moisturizers, toothpaste, deodarant, cleaning products, and food. And they’re starting to turn the tide, as even my father, a man whose foreign policy approach can best be described as “nuke them all”, has switched to a lichen-based deodorant rather than the pore-suffocating aluminum in mainstream brands.
They’ve led the way on toy recalls, Bisphenol A, and agricultural reform. Check out their cosmetics database and guide to saving money on organics.

Honorable allies: Wired’s “What’s Inside” section, Seventh Generation, the granddaddy of the clean green category (and still the only green brand, I think, that actually lists their ingredients on the back of the bottle).chemicals

Rise, clear-eyed and alert

Al Gore just spoke to a packed Daughters of the American Revolution hall and challenged America to use 100% renewable energy by 2018. It was a good speech (Full speech text here) and it’s an audacious goal.

Gore argues that a ten year national goal has proven to be the perfect balance of long-term thinking and short-term immediacy. He points to the Marshall Plan, the Interstate Highway System, and of course, the Apollo Project as examples of bold goals that America was able to achieve in a decade or so.

But there are two rather formidable challenges.

The first is a combination of extremely powerful vested interests mixed with the legitimately glacial nature of changing our energy infrastructure on such a massive scale.

The second is that our broken political system allows already-powerful vested interests – we’re talking coal and oil companies here – to run the system. Gore acknowledged this and blamed it for the “baby step policies” that succeed only in not offending special interests, but he fell short of prescribing any political changes that need to happen.

I’d love to think that a few million people on a grassroots email list could make completely upend our energy sourcing, infrastructure, and consumption habits, but I’m afraid it’s going to take a lot more. That’s why I’m working for publicly funded federal elections. I believe that we need to attack the root of this (and many other problems): an electoral system that lopsidedly favors vested interests.

So the question is: Can America still be bold? Can we still achieve an ambitious goal if we put ourselves to it? Moving first on this issue is in our own national interest.

Some fun facts and quotes:

We send $2 billion every 24 hours to foreign countries for oil.

One OPEC official noted that “the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones”

Gore drew the most applause in ridiculing the notion that drilling for more oil and giving more money to oil companies is going to do anything to alleviate our pain at the pump. He said only a dysfunctional system would suggest such a “solution” and that the best way to bring gas prices down would be to stop using gas. The real driver of energy costs is increased energy use by China, India, and others, and this isn’t going to slow regardless of whether we stop funding our own infrastructure with a $0.14 tax.

Some related Onion fun:

We’re Investing So Much In Alternative Fuels, Sometimes We Almost Forget To Pump Oil!

By Tony Hayward

The National Intelligence Council recently addressed Congress to discuss the security threats that need to be considered in the face of global warming. What risks are expected to be aggravated by global warming?

Military protection fails when sun-drenched artillery far too hot to handle with bare hands

Invasion might catch America off guard while it’s cooling down in a movie theater

Glaciers embittered by the rising temperatures may stage revenge “suicide meltings” on innocent civilians

Frozen Mongol warriors may be defrosted and angry

Too muggy to tell if terrorists have attacked

Heatstroke affecting thousands of security officials, allowing millions of 3-ounce gels to enter aircraft unnoticed

Increased precipitation will allow terrorists to conduct activity more surreptitiously under large umbrellas

Natural disaster could occur on 9/11, dividing nation’s patriotic sentiment

Al Gore becoming even more powerful