Category: alternative

I Want An App That [Changes The World]

It’s New Year’s Day 2016. And, in the spirit of this symbolic fresh start, I’ll offer a perspective for a fresh start to problem selection for software. Stay with me here…it gets less geeky…

A few weeks ago, as I was browsing my twitter feed, my eyes fixed upon a rapid series of tweets by a tech writer/speaker named Scott Berkun.

I’ll confess, I’ve never read any of Berkun’s books, nor heard him speak. But, he was among the earlier people I followed on twitter and I’ve enjoyed many of his posts since.

Anyhow, I’ve captured the series of tweets below, because they got me thinking about a topic that I would normally dismiss as bordering on nonsensical. (NOTE: the best way to read them is to scroll to the bottom and then read to the top.)

They first appeared as one of those rants that you sometimes see people fire off, due to anger, frustration, sadness, etc. So, when I read the first couple, my internal dismissive voice said “yeah, right.”

It was quickly followed by my internal logical voice which said “technology is just a tool; those kinds of changes only happen due to the actions of people.”

But then, a third, internal voice of challenge said “but, wait a second; why can’t we demand of our tools that they contribute in a substantial way to these kinds of desirable social changes?”

As the rant illustrates at the beginning (bottom): too often, our design & development efforts are focused on improving the speed or effectiveness of imperfect solutions to problems.

Or, they are focused on applying an “X of Y” adaptation (i.e., the “Airbnb of parking spaces”).

But, we tend to think that problems concerning social innovation and behavioral change are outside of the province of technology. When, perhaps instead, that’s the next frontier of app development.

So, as you plan out your 2016 today and in the coming days, think about how you can help bring to life an app that can change the world.

berkun rant

Mayor Adler’s 2015 Year-End Letter

atx winter 3I looked for an online version of this letter from Mayor Adler but couldn’t readily find it. So I decided to post it.

I don’t know about you, but I think we Austinites have a lot to be thankful for, as we close out 2015. Sure, there’s much more to do. And, we can begin that work tomorrow. But, today, we should reflect on the good things going on.

“Thank you” to the mayor, city council, and the city of Austin (and surrounding city jurisdictions) staff & management, for the leadership and public service provided. Let’s keep working to make the greater Austin area a shining city, welcoming to all.

Here’s Mayor Adler’s 2015 year-end letter – enjoy!

= = =

Dear Rebecca & Steve,

We did it. Thanks to all your help, we were able to find housing for 200 homeless veterans in Austin. Along the way, we created a new way to attack this problem and eliminated the waiting list for homeless veterans to get help. Great cities do big things, and this is a very, very big thing. Good job, Austin.

At the beginning of the year, there were 234 homeless veterans in Austin. When I took up this challenge in May, there were 200 remaining without homes. By Veterans Day, we still needed 118 homes for these heroes. Thanks to your overwhelming support –as well as the tireless work of homeless advocates and the Austin Apartment Association – we found the last of those 200 homes this week.

Before we tackled this problem, homeless advocates never imagined they could catch up to the sheer number of homeless veterans because they were working alone. I want to personally thank the Austin Apartment Association for making this fight their own and helping eliminate the waiting list and getting so many homeless veterans into permanent housing.

And, of course, the biggest thanks goes to the folks who had been trying to house the homeless for so long without much help, most notably Ann Howard, Executive Director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO. We’ve said all along that it takes heroes to house these heroes. The good people who make up ECHO are the secret heroes of this story.

Thank you so much for helping make this happen. I am grateful to be the Mayor of a city that can meet big challenges. We’ve got a lot on our table in 2016 to deal with our traffic and affordability issues, but if we can make real progress on an issue that people used to think was hopeless, then is there anything we can’t do?

I don’t think so, and I can’t wait to get going in 2016. Happy New Year.

Thanks,
Mayor Adler

PS – Housing homeless veterans is not all we accomplished this year. Great cities do big things, and we did a lot of big things this year. In addition, the following actions were taken in 2015:

AFFORDABILITY
•    Created a homestead property tax exemption, saving homeowners a total of $3.5 million, with an intent to increase the exemption to 20 percent over the next few years
•    Cut the city property tax rate from 48.09 cents per $100 to 45.89 cents, saving the average homeowner roughly $14 a year
•    While reducing the tax burden on homeowners, added 50 new police officers, secured $3 million for body cameras for 500 officers, and increased spending for health and human services by $7 million and parks by more than $3 million
•    Increased senior and disabled property tax exemption from $70,000 to $80,000, a total tax cut of $1.6 million
•    Cut utility bills for Austin Energy residential customers by an average of $3.33 a month
•    Increased living wage for city employees from $11.39 an hour to $13.03 an hour
•    Worked with CM Garza to negotiate an agreement with the Pilot Knob Planned Unit Development developer that includes the addition of approximately 1,000 affordable housing units including 650 permanently affordable houses with no additional city spending, setting a new benchmark for the city’s SMART Housing program
•    Established a TIF for Homestead Preservation District A, and, with CM Renteria’s Committee, created three additional Homestead Preservation Districts (B, C & D) with Public Hearings, creating the first homestead preservation districts in Texas that leverage growth to pay for affordable housing in those neighborhoods where growth threatens to displace residents
•    Supported effort by MPT Tovo to strengthen the affordable housing requirements for planned unit development
•    Won a compromise that would make accessory dwellings (AKA granny flats) easier to build along transit corridors, increasing affordable housing opportunities while respecting neighborhood character
•    Initiated legal action to ensure an appraisal process that is fair to homeowners and aligned with the Texas Constitution
•    Initiated development of new rules to assist low-income tenants when developers plan to demolish apartment complexes where they live
•    With CM Casar, passed resolution directing fair housing as part of CodeNext, which will increase the number of affordable housing options for Austinites
•    Passed resolution calling on City Manager to implement permitting recommendations to expedite the review process and streamline approvals, which would make remodeling more affordable and feasible for homeowners and small business owners and decrease construction costs
•    As part of the Spirit of East Austin, ordered a survey of surplus properties to make better use of public resources
•    Recalibrated drainage fees so that utility bills did not unfairly burden renters

•    Leveraged private sector and philanthropy to assist nonprofits in housing homeless veterans

 

MOBILITY

•    Passed CAMPO 2040, a regional, long-range transportation plan that includes investments in new roads, traffic management, several MetroRapid bus routes and commuter rail to get people out of cars on congested roadways and into mass transit
•    Won national competition for Rocky Mountain Institute mobility transformation and named lead implementation city for RMI’s global mobility transformation initiative to find innovative and holistic solutions to congestion
•    Collaborated with Google to establish Austin as first test city for autonomous vehicles outside of their headquarters
•    The City Manager implemented the Traffic Congestion Action Plan (T-CAP), resulting in the following achievements:
  • Among the intersections that were a part of the City’s Don’t Block the Box initiative, there were 5 intersections that experienced a blockage during at least 10% of the cycles with an average blockage of 32% of the time. While officers were station at these intersections, the blockage percentage was cut in half to 16% of the time. The two intersections for which we have after data shows that the blockages percentage increased to 22% after officers stopped enforcement.
  • Retimed a third of the signals, resulting in 15% reduction in travel times and 40% reduction in stops.
•    Voted to approve $20 million to improve the intersection of the 51st Street and IH-35 to increase safety and mobility and reduce congestion
•    Voted for $54.5 million in traffic improvements at IH-35 & Oltorf to increase mobility
•    City of Austin achieved ambitious milestone goal for employee peak-hour commute reduction and now working toward goal of 30% reduction underway.  Movability Austin worked with multiple downtown employers to reduce their employees’ commute trips, or shift them to transit/bike/walk trips; new Transportation Demand Management program launched at ATD; new Smart Trips Program to encourage people to sue active transportation options, being piloted with people in the Rundberg/N. Lamar area.
REFORM
•    Led smooth transition from at-large seats to 10-1 system while increasing public engagement
•    Made appointments to boards and commissions and staff in the Mayor’s Office that reflect the city’s demographics
•    Created the position of Education Outreach Coordinator in the Mayor’s Office to enhance collaboration between local schools and the city
•    Created new City Council committees to allow for more meaningful public discussion
•    Created Council Transition Work group to recommend improvements to the Council committee system
•    Banned dark money in local campaigns to increase transparency in city elections
•    Reformed regulations of lobbyists to close loopholes to increase accountability and transparency in city government
•    Established Departmental Review Process modeled after the Texas Sunset Commission to identify improvements and efficiencies and to increase and deepen Council engagement on the budget
•    Reduced fee waivers to SXSW, saving Austin taxpayers $230,000 over last year, while increasing police presence throughout Austin during the three-week-long festival in 2016
•    Initiated regular meetings with regional mayors to discuss opportunities for collaboration
 •     To make city government more inclusive, printed Spirit of East Austin communications in Vietnamese in addition to Spanish and English.

SUSTAINABILITY

•    In Paris, signed the Under MOU 2 agreement with local governments to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, providing leadership on climate change
•    Authorized with the City Council the purchase of 400 to 450 megawatts of solar power and to solicit bids to purchase or build another 150 MW of solar by the end of 2019. Austin Energy signed purchase power agreements for an initial 288 MW of solar as part of the Council authorization to negotiate for 400 to 450 MW. The agreements position Austin Energy to be among the biggest users of solar power in Texas
•    Passed an ordinance to increase reuse and recycling of materials from construction and demolition projects. Beginning Oct. 1, 2016, the Construction and Demolition Recycling Ordinance will require 50 percent diversion of materials from construction projects larger than 5,000 square feet. In 2019, the ordinance will expand to include commercial demolition projects. Construction and demolition projects generate at least 20 percent of all materials that go to Austin-area landfills. This ordinance takes a huge step toward achieving Austin’s Zero Waste goal by requiring more recycling and reuse of valuable materials
•    Austin Energy surpassed 1,000 MW of wind power with two new wind farms coming online in 2015. Austin Energy’s 1,340 MW of wind power is about 10 percent of the wind power fleet in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, increasing the use of renewable energy in Austin Energy’s portfolio
•    Launched partnership with national retailers such as The Home Depot and Lowe’s to offer point of sale discounts to customers to purchase energy efficient products. The initiative leverages the combined size of the utilities to reduce administration costs and pass savings on to customers
•    Achieved slightly over 64 MW demand reductions, driven by strong performance in GB ratings and energy codes, small business lighting and residential demand response
•    Installed 7.7 MW of residential and commercial solar, providing long-term savings and cutting greenhouse gas emissions
•    Surpassed 1,000 MW of wind power with two new wind farms coming online in 2015, making Austin Energy’s 1,340 MW of wind power is about 10 percent of the wind power fleet in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas
•    Joined the Downtown Austin Alliance, downtown businesses, and Austin Resource Recovery to unveil an expansion of public recycling in the downtown area, an initiative called Recycle on the Go. Starting with nearly 50 new recycling cans this year, recycling containers will be installed throughout the downtown area over the next three years
•    Council approved one of the first energy storage systems tied to a community solar project in Texas. Part of the $3 million cost for the 1.5 MW battery storage system is offset with a $1 million grant received by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
•    Austin Water repaired almost 7,800 water leaks, the third-highest recorded count for the department. Of those, almost 4,300 leaks were Priority 1 leaks and responded to within 3 hours almost 89% of the time
•    Weatherized 520 low income homes; our multi-family program reached over 8,400 apartment units

Unlocking Your Creativity

Have you ever gotten a great idea while working out, or mowing the lawn, or in the midst of some other activity requiring some kind of physical concentration, when your mind was “wandering?”

Or, if you are one who prays as a meaningful ritual of religious faith or meditates as a regular practice, have you ever had an answer to a difficult question emerge from it, with great clarity or certainty for what you should do?

bbv-wilberKen Wilber’s book The Spectrum of Consciousness is the classic book in the field of study integrating psychology and spirituality.

In it, Wilber begins with an oft-quoted remark by William James:

Our normal, waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it – parted from it by the filmiest of screens – there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

We may go through life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all their completeness…

As creatures of habit, which we human beings tend to be, it is a constant challenge for us to integrate a range of stimuli, as well as introduce new ones, into our lives.

When we do, the result can be rich connections to new and different ways of processing our internal thoughts, the world around us, and the connections that exist between everyone and everything.

bbv-prismAt a pragmatic level, the result can be figuring out a new method to solve a problem that you’d previously been unable to solve at work.

Or, it could be a new design approach or creative technique that just wasn’t working in your prior attempts.

There are dozens of ways you can expose yourself to new stimuli, including simple things, like:

  • Cross your arms differently, when at rest
  • Part your hair on the opposite side of your usual part, or vary your morning prep routine in some other little ways, like brushing your teeth first rather than last
  • Take a different driving or walking route to your office or listen to a different radio station, along the way
  • At the office or your co-working space, talk to someone you don’t normally talk with
  • And on and on in your daily routines…

Our bodies are like prisms, with our minds containing a spectrum of knowledge, thoughts, and ideas.

To gain full access to this spectrum, you must find the many ways to experience the world differently. When you do, who knows what creative, new insights await?

I am a Bass Player

Bass ViolinWhen I was a 4th grader, my mom asked if I would like to play an instrument.

I don’t know exactly how I arrived at the bass violin, but that’s the one I ended up with, like the one in the picture.

It could be because I was always tall for my age, reaching six feet at about age 14 or 15.

(After that, I was fairly average height for boys in my high school.)

Playing the big bass, as I refer to it, was fine.

But, by the time I got to 6th grade, I had a six-string guitar and wanted to get a bass guitar, as well.

My first bass guitar was a knock-off Fender Precision bass, similar to the one in the photo.

Fender PrecisionI remember the “action” (i.e., the height of the strings from the neck) was relatively low, which made it easy to play.

But, the lower frets buzzed when played and I could never get rid of it, even when raising the action.

It was a decent bass but I wanted something newer and, frankly, cooler.

Gibson GrabberThen, Gibson introduced a line of rock bass guitars, with the primary models being the Ripper and the Grabber.

The names alone were cool! But, while the Ripper sounded more dangerous (and what skinny, pimply, math nerd isn’t desperate to be perceived as just a little dangerous?!), the Grabber was the cooler looking bass.

Why? Because while the Ripper has a conventional two pickup set-up, the Grabber has this crazy, single sliding pickup that you can move forward (toward the neck) for a bassier sound or backward (toward the bridge) for a treblier sound. Very innovative!

I loved that bass and kept it for quite awhile until I got the pièce de résistance – my Ibanez double neck bass and electric guitar.

Talk about a unique showpiece. The thing was massive and weighed a ton. But, no one else had or played anything like it.

Ibanez DoubleneckAnd, instrumentally, it put me on the same plane as my bass hero, Geddy Lee of Rush.

I ultimately traded that axe in for a brand new, tobacco sunburst Gibson SG guitar. I had always wanted an SG and was going through a serious AC/DC phase at the time. But, it’s a decision I regret to this day!

I only have one photo of me with that guitar – a grainy black-and-white that you can find on my Shadow the Rock Band page.

Fender MustangAnyhow, my best friend Jeff, took pity on me and more-or-less gave me a natural finish Fender Mustang bass, after I had gone for a period of time bass-less.

Jeff and I played many, many a gig together in high school and junior college.

Over the years, we traded guitars, records, new rock music discoveries, and brotherly insults.

In the future, I’ll cover guitars I’ve owned.

MoMA’s Curator Talks About the Future

I’ve been so busy, I’ve not yet had time to share any reflections on the 2015 SXSW Interactive sessions.

Among my favorites was Paolo Antonelli, curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Her keynote, entitled “Curious Bridges: How Designers Grow the Future” was, in my opinion, this year’s example of why I always plan to return to SXSW the next year.

If you wish, you can watch the entire, delightful and borderline provocative keynote, courtesy of the good people at Southby.


Much of her presentation revolved on the notion of “designing for the ‘in between’.” While I may be slightly off in my interpretation of her intent, this phrase seemed to be Paola’s way of referencing the essential role designers play connecting the imagined to the real.

Among the examples that she shared (and there were many) during her remarks, I was especially drawn to the ones that had bio- and nanotech references. This is largely due to one of the Powershift Group projects I’ve been supervising for the past six months, called Nano Global Corp.

Nano Global is focused on nanotechnology-based products into direct everyday consumer uses. These include skin protection, surface cleaning, safe food preparation, water and air purification, and many other practical applications.

Nanotech-based consumer products have the potential to improve the lives of tens of millions around the world. This is an especially urgent need, in the post-antibiotic age we’ve entered, where superbugs and fast-mutating germs are resistant to conventional treatments.

design - 1Back to Antonelli’s Southby keynote, there were several designer-inspired ideas that I found fascinating.

One was the pointy, polygon-shaped structure in the picture that almost looks like a building-sized virus itself.

But, far from being a virus, the structure is coated with nanoparticles that were meant to neutralize pollutants in the air.

In other words, it’s a giant air filter, sucking bad stuff out of the air.

Paola spent a significant portion of her time describing ways that science, design and architecture can work together. Artists want to share their art with the world; scientists want to make their science more useful.

Architecture provides a fascinating third way for these other two to come together in a way that is both pragmatic and beautiful.

design - 3Another more playful example that Antonelli mentioned was Moyasimon’s Tales of Agriculture.

This is a manga story about a boy who passionate about agriculture. In the story, the boy can see and talk to bacteria.

It’s a lovely way to represent what designers are actually thinking about, in terms of harnessing bacteria as worker bees that enable us to build a better future.

design - 2Taking it beyond bacteria, Antonelli closed with examples of the design of living beings.

One example she showed was Autodesk’s design of its own virus, in-vitro.

Another example she showed was MoMA’s latest acquisitions from the Wyss Institute, called organs-on-chip.

design - 4Organs-on-chip are designed to simulate how certain organs work, down to and including the interaction of nanoparticles and the body’s chemistry.

The point of these designs is very real: it is to create new, validated means of speeding new pharmaceuticals through their trials, to get life-saving and other beneficial drugs to market rapidly.

All-in-all, I found it a riveting SXSW keynote that will have me thinking about the possibilities of design, at least until SXSW 2016!

Austin Clean Energy Initiative Reunion

ACE-reunionThis is a photo of Allan (“Chip”) Wolfe and me, taken recently at a reunion lunch of what I liked to call the “Batman and Robin” of cleantech evangelizing in the early 2000s. NOTE: Chip was Batman; me, Robin.

What we’re each holding is the original copy of a modestly historic City of Austin resolution that we were proud to have received.

It says, simply: “Be it resolved by the City Council of the City of Austin: The City Council endorses the Mayor’s Task Force on the Economy’s Austin Clean Energy Initiative, adding the clean energy cluster to Austin’s local economy.”

You see, back in late 2001, it was pretty clear that a virtual neutron bomb had dropped on the economic activity of any US city that had been benefitting from the dot-com boom, what we know fondly refer to as “web 1.0.”

ACE-resolutionEarlier in the year, the Dow and S&P had shown their first sounds of cratering, under the dual weight of ridiculously overhyped dot-com investing and the drying up of Y2K remediation dollars, on which companies had spent billions. Throw in the third blow of 9/11, which happened that dark September day, and what you had was the Austin tech economy in a free fall.

Then, in early 2002, I found myself sitting in my friend and colleague Angelos Angelou’s office who more-or-less said “Hey, I’m going over to IC2 to sit in with some people who are getting together to talk about clean energy technologies. Want to come along?”

Having spent the first dozen years of my professional life growing up and doing business in the oil & gas patch of Houston, Texas, I was intrigued and said “Sure!”

That meeting is where I met Chip. Others I very clearly remember at that first meeting, in addition to Angelos and me, were Richard Amato (the 1st director of ATI’s Clean Energy Incubator), Randi Shade (before she made her 1st Austin City Council run), Dennis Corkran (operating his family business Corkran Energy at the time), and a handful of others.

At the time, I’d been scanning the economic landscape for sectors to invest some time & effort, including life sciences, biotech, financial services, social ventures, and others that were a few steps removed from the hobbling dot-com industry.

An_Inconvenient_Truth_Film_PosterWith this merry band of sisters and brothers, I instantly knew I’d found something. Mind you, this was a full four years before “An Inconvenient Truth” exploded on the scene and made cleantech and its evil twin, global warming, household discussion topics.

But, once we started talking, the group – which we dubbed the Austin Clean Energy Initiative, or ACE Initiative for short – saw with clear-eyed conviction that, not only was the time right, but in fact the Austin and central Texas region had an enormous cluster of industrial, environmental, university, and civic resources already present that made cleantech a natural candidate for entrepreneurial activity.

However, as it is unlikely to surprise you, few business leaders at the time saw things the way we did. To his credit, Will Wynn, Austin’s mayor at the time, did “get it” fairly immediately and became an important advocate of ACE.

But, to win over the rest of the business community, we had work to do. I’ll leave a description of those efforts to another day and a cup of coffee, if you are really interested.

To jump to the end, Chip and I – as Batman and Robin – and the rest of the ACE Initiative team (including a big shout out to Jon Lebkowsky, who I’ll call our “Alfred” of the team, which means he was really often the brains of the operation, but kind enough to let us take some credit!) met with hundreds of city, business, and academic leaders, all around Austin, Texas, and parts beyond, advocating our position.

ACE-reportThe effort culminated in the publication of a major report, commissioned by the ACE Initiative and rolled out at a significant press conference, that convincingly established what we had known — that Austin/central Texas had the resources, people and financial capital to be one of the major centers of cleantech entrepreneurial activity in the country.

We were quite proud of that 100-page report, which you can still download today, and have been pleased at its prescience (in that cleantech, indeed, did become a welcomed part of the entrepreneurial, business establishment in Austin) and its durability, with most of the main arguments researched in the report as valid today as they were at the time.

So, back to the Austin city council resolution, which I had found sandwiched in some old files I was cleaning out over New Year’s day. I hadn’t broken bread with Chip in over a year, so I thought it was time to pass the resolution from Robin to Batman and reminisce about one of my favorite advocacy projects in the 20 years I’ve been in Austin.

Perceptionality

the-treachery-of-images-this-is-not-a-pipe-1948-magrittePerception is reality.

Change is the only constant.

Adapt or die.

The simplicity of these phrases is powerful.  But they belie a greater complexity.

There is perception and reality.

Some things don’t change.

Death, like adaptation, is a transitive state, not a permanent one.

I’m going to write more about this topic soon.  Stay tuned…