What about widgets?

July 2, 2010 at 10:45 pm | In business, creativity, futurismo, green, ideas, innovation | 3 Comments

I go to my local YMCA a lot, and every time I’m there I think about energy use: how much energy I could be generating, how much I’m using, how much others are using.

My “plus” membership entitles me to use the sauna and steam room, and I get towel service, too (yes! – love that, because it means less shlepping and less laundry at home!). I use the steam room regularly – since we’re having an unseasonably cool summer it’s welcome, even in July. However, the ladies change room has poor air circulation, and in the summer (even a cool one like this) it gets hot in there. Furthermore, every time we users open the doors to the steam room or the sauna, the escaping hot air contributes to heating the changing and shower area, and the upshot is that the Y is running additional oscillating fans in our change room.

So, to recap: the steam room uses energy, the sauna uses energy, the blow dryers provided by the Y use energy, and now the fans – meant to give the illusion of cooling all this heat that we’re producing through our energy use, also use energy.

Meanwhile, when I’m upstairs on the elliptical trainer – along with scores of others on treadmills, stationary bikes, stairmasters, and rowing machines (it’s a pretty swell facility!) – I could be generating energy, couldn’t I?

Which brings me to…



I’m in love with shiny new technology products (even if I can’t afford them), and long ago drank the Kool-Aid regarding social media platforms and the importance of ‘markets as conversations.’

But lately those things have begun feeling “bubbly” – that is, not too-too solid enough. Today, the spouse sent along an article by Andy Grove, How to Make an American Job Before It’s Too Late. In my mind, Grove’s arguments tie in with Jeff Rubin‘s criticism of globalization, and they also relate to what bothers me when I’m at the Y thinking about energy use.

It’s all about what we’re making (another social media platform that lets us communicate?) and where we’re making it (if it’s not another Foursquare, is it a widget and who will scale it?). As Grove observes:

Startups are a wonderful thing, but they cannot by themselves increase tech employment. Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up. They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands. Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.

The scaling process is no longer happening in the U.S. And as long as that’s the case, plowing capital into young companies that build their factories elsewhere will continue to yield a bad return in terms of American jobs.

When I think of energy use at the Y, I’m thinking not of platforms that let me tell you what I think about energy use at the Y. I’m thinking of widgets that would make it easy to measure energy use, for example, so that it becomes less risky for individual users (home owners or building managers) to install efficiencies. The next step – staying with Andy Grove’s call to arms – means thinking about what happens after some tinkerer in a garage invents a measuring device. Where does it get manufactured, and who gets to be employed doing so? Jeff Rubin argued that the cost of oil will eventually force countries like the US to re-introduce manufacturing at home because it will just get too expensive to ship raw materials from one continent to another, and the finished product to yet a third.

While I sweat in the steam room, I might think about what it would mean to have efficient “air curtains” installed just outside the steam room and sauna doors – air curtains that capture the escaping heat when doors open, and recirculate that heat for hot water use. But how or why would anyone install such a thing – even if it readily existed, although you could adapt and reverse engineer the air curtains that some stores use – without having widgets or gadgets capable of calculating, predicting, and (most importantly) measuring, to provide immediate feedback to calibrate energy use? If you don’t have the feedback (measurement), it’s just …hot air!

As I blogged a while back in Creating Value Through Sustainability, Eric Hespenheide said it best: “You measure what matters, and what gets measured, gets done.”

We’re desperately ignorant most of the time of our energy use, if we bother to think about it at all. I’m pretty sure I’m a weirdo in taking three consecutive Bikram yoga classes and then stopping because I thought the energy footprint of that type of yoga is outrageous. (And I also thought the hot room was a gimmick.) Doing hot yoga, you need to be clean (showered) before you start (hot water, towels, soap) because even incipient bad BO is going to knock out the others as you start to sweat like mad. After the class, you need to launder whatever you wore (no way you’re wearing it again unwashed) and you need to shower again (more soap products, more hot water, more towels/ laundry). The amount of energy needed to heat the yoga room to the required temperature is crazy, as are the HVAC requirements (unless you very quickly want a moldy building). (And incidentally, where do the Bikramites and others get off doing competitive yoga? Maybe I’m missing something…)

But enough of yoga and sports.

We need to measure what we use. “You measure what matters, and what gets measured, gets done.” To do that, you need tools.

Who’s building the tools? On a big scale?

Manufacturing today takes place elsewhere, not in North America. Grove again:

The job-machine breakdown isn’t just in computers. Consider alternative energy, an emerging industry where there is plenty of innovation. Photovoltaics, for example, are a U.S. invention. Their use in home-energy applications was also pioneered by the U.S.

Last year, I decided to do my bit for energy conservation and set out to equip my house with solar power. My wife and I talked with four local solar firms. As part of our due diligence, I checked where they get their photovoltaic panels — the key part of the system. All the panels they use come from China. A Silicon Valley company sells equipment used to manufacture photo-active films. They ship close to 10 times more machines to China than to manufacturers in the U.S., and this gap is growing. Not surprisingly, U.S. employment in the making of photovoltaic films and panels is perhaps 10,000 — just a few percent of estimated worldwide employment. (source)

I bet any tinkerer in his/ her garage working out the kind of measuring widgets I’d like to see every homeowner and building supervisor have at his/ her fingertips is going to end up getting the widgets manufactured in China, too. Just read Grove’s section on Advanced Batteries to see where we’re heading. He argues that “abandoning today’s ‘commodity’ [battery, or television] manufacturing can lock you out of tomorrow’s emerging industry.” That is, innovation needs an ecosystem – and we’ve got a pretty good one on the social media platform front, but it could be looking better when it comes to widgets. If you drop in on your local gym, you can even see that for yourself.

Tree amenity

June 21, 2010 at 11:24 pm | In cities, green, land_use | 10 Comments

I spent the past week in Boston and noticed that most streets – whether in Boston, Brookline, or Cambridge (the three municipalities I spent time in) – were either relatively tree-less or had undersized trees.

While there are many streets that have some trees, and while there are some neighborhoods that approach leafy-ness, I’ll go out on a limb <…pun> and say that for the most part, the trees are puny or even absent.

Take one of my old haunts, Coolidge Corner, for example, which is mostly built-up with lots of low-rise apartment blocks and is filled with pedestrians going about their business. Its main streets are wide (too wide) and poorly furnished with trees. The few tiny street trees are no match in scale for the road widths, nor does their minuscule canopy provide shade. Lack of tree cover is especially noticeable on very hot days that leave pedestrians fully exposed to the sun. There are lots of cars (and also the Green Line, C train) on those wide roads, however, and it’s clear that in the overall scheme of things vehicular traffic has priority over pedestrian traffic.

One way you can really tell that cars have priority is by the absence of public amenities for pedestrians – and let’s remember that everyone who gets off the T becomes a pedestrian. This means that if a city is interested in getting people out of cars and into public transit, it’s really important to think about the pedestrian experience. Transit doesn’t end until you reach your destination – which invariably involves some walking.

Large boulevard trees are a public amenity that most benefits life at three to four miles per hour – that is, easy to moderate walking speed.

It’s easy to understand destination amenities that are either essentially private (neighborhoods well-provisioned with coffee shops, restaurants, banks, grocery stores, etc.) or public-but-nodal (a destination like a library or community center, for example – edit: see also a PS in my response in comments, below ). But streets rich in boulevard trees comprising a continuous – and contiguous – exposure to nature provide a public amenity that makes density enjoyable in passing – that is, not just as “destination.” This strikes me as an important amenity in low-rise areas that nonetheless have significant density.

In downtown CBDs characterized by “canyons” (high-rise buildings), a pocket park can provide a sufficient amenity. But in low-rise neighborhoods (like the ones I’m pointing to here), lollipop-sized trees planted along roads that obviously favor cars come across as a half-hearted attempt.

I wonder whether the lack of tree cover provided by large boulevard trees in Boston (and nearby municipalities) is planned. Trees cost money to plant, maintain, and replace; they require clean-up (leaf and branch pick up); the leaves clog storm drains, the limbs grow to interfere with overhead power lines, the roots get into storm and sewer lines and other underground utilities; and they raise liability issues when storms bring down branches. But their benefits are huge – if those benefits are ignored, it’s because they just haven’t been quantified. And that’s too bad.

Exceptional, or just top-heavy?

June 18, 2010 at 8:17 pm | In green | Comments Off on Exceptional, or just top-heavy?

This afternoon I went to see Headgear: The Natural History of Horns and Antlers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Interesting exhibition – I was enjoying myself until I wandered into one of the other sections, a special exhibit called Climate Change: Our Global Experiment. I learned a couple of things – for example, there’s a great computer animation that explains Milankovich Cycles (“repetitive changes in the Earth’s orbit over thousands of years that effect global climate”).

But once I sat down in front of a film where viewers were asked to vote on policy decisions, the ideology lost me. For example, viewers were presented with the radical [sic] idea that, while it might cost us more in the short-term, supporting moves toward increased public transportation might be needed. Ok, I’m exaggerating the tone a bit, but the narrator popped public transportation into the conversation as though it were a radical new idea.

Oh my god, what’s next? Bicycles? Unsorting how we’ve sorted?

It got worse, though, at which point I left. The narrator began to speak about China’s contribution to climate change: CO2 output, dirty energy, etc. The solution? More of what sounded an awful lot like American exceptionalism. With total obliviousness of what China is doing on its own to clean up its environment (including in the building sector), the narrator suggested that “we” (America) have to engage in technology transfers and other similar strategies to “help” the Chinese move toward clean energy. Furthermore, “we” (Americans) need to make personal financial sacrifices to enable the Chinese to move toward the (American?) light. Hey, America: how about you figure out how to get over your own huge car dependence and suburban lifestyle first.

And why do we need to remain exceptional like this? So we can keep the globalized economy going. But maybe that’s part of the problem, not just a solution.

The toilets in the Science Center basement cheered me up, though – they’re not focused on American Exceptionalism, they just get the job done (saving water when flushing):

Water-saving dual function handle: pull up for low flush, push down for full flush (green coating on handle is bacteria repelling)

BP-caused oilspill: map overlay lets users relate to scale

June 2, 2010 at 10:22 pm | In green, just_so, scandal | 2 Comments

I think of Canada as a pretty big place. It’s the geography, to be sure, but it must also be because there are so few people here. Take Vancouver Island: my current city, Victoria, hangs on its southernmost tip. We’ve got a few people here (350,000 in the Capital Regional District), and a few more “up island” toward the Cowichan Valley and Nanaimo. But overall, Vancouver Island seems like a vast wilderness. It’s possible to live here for decades without ever getting into its wild reaches.

Now take a look at this graphic overlay of the BP-caused oilspill in the Gulf of Mexico:

The spill covers all of Southern Vancouver Island, but that’s just a bit of it (too bad I can’t rotate the spill – it would slick most of the island): It covers Vancouver, Whistler, all of the Lower Mainland all the way to Chiliwack; it swamps the Gulf and the San Juan Islands, a huge chunk of the Georgia Strait, all of the Juan de Fuca Strait, and the entire southwestern coast of the island, including Tofino and the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Oh, and the Olympic Mountains are covered, too.

Try out the map overlay for your region.

I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the scale of it (see previous tweets about scope, despoliation in Nigeria, and how the current spill is scandalous but also not news …sadly).

And it’s not over.

Growing cities

May 19, 2010 at 7:51 pm | In cities, green, jane_jacobs, land_use, NIMBYism, sprawl, victoria | 3 Comments

The City of Victoria has had a revision of its Downtown Plan in the works for the past …oh, two?, four? six? years (I know that I attended workshops and other public participation exercises on same around four years ago). The plan is finally out (it was pre-released to the media on Monday, 5/17), and for some inexplicable reason it will now be subjected to another six weeks or so of “public participation” before being put to the vote.

One of the city’s media outlets put the whole 183-page document on Scribd.com, which is a blessing. See Downtown Core Area Plan Draft. The original is in PDF, but on Scribd you can, among other things, see a “tiled” version, which lets you hone in on the pages that you think might be relevant – without having to scroll tediously through the PDF itself. (Hooray!)

On the same day that Victoria’s proposed Downtown Plan (which has one or two things to say about density and building heights) was released to the media, I came across two articles on cities, densities, and building heights, which piqued my interest.



One is from Ed Glaeser, an economist who writes about urban economics and development: Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes (New York Times, 5/4/10). The other is from the Globe & Mail newspaper and presents a snap-shot of Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. It’s called How cities grow – up is in.

In the former article, Glaeser argues that Jane Jacobs’s aversion to high-rises was misplaced, and that taller buildings can make a city both more diverse and more affordable. Jacobs believed that lack of diversity and unaffordability went hand-in-hand – which isn’t hard to argue with. Presumably she saw high-rises as luxury (unaffordable) dwellings, which automatically means that they exclude diversity (only a specific class can afford them). Glaeser, on the other hand, argues that high-rises contribute to affordability. I think the key word may be “rental.” Glaeser writes of growing up in a 25-story rental building – and he also describes units that, at 1600 square feet, can accommodate families.

I wish that I could say that I know of tall rental buildings with family-sized units, either already built or under construction. But when I look at what’s going up in Victoria (or in Vancouver – or, I’d wager, in most western downtowns), it’s not rental units (unless the condo owners choose to rent their units out), and it’s not family-sized units either. If anything, the trend is toward small (really small) units that appeal to singles or the retired demographic. That’s not to say that I prefer the alternative (underutilized land, no new buildings), but I don’t see “affordable” and “family-sized” (that is, able to accommodate parents and two kids of opposite sex, which means 3 bedrooms) used in the same sentence when we describe what we’re building in our cities at present. This is a problem.

How can cities attract construction that meets rental demands and is friendly to families?

Glaeser notes:

Restricting supply led to higher prices and a city with space only for the rich. In the 1950s and 1960s, middle-income people, like Jane Jacobs and my parents, could afford Manhattan.  Equivalent families today can’t afford the city, and that’s a pity. By contrast, Chicago, with its longstanding pro-construction ethos, remains far more affordable even in prime locations.

I’d love some pointers to Chicago’s successes, and, if applicable, hints as to how they might transfer. Does the “pro-construction ethos” have to be really longstanding (as in decades), or is this something cities can adopt quickly? Vancouver has been fairly pro-construction lately, but it’s very unaffordable. So what’s the secret?

In his article, Glaeser brings the question back to density, which is surely a big sticking point for many people whose experience(s) with density to date were either negative or shaped by cultural myths and prejudices. Aversion to density is cultural, but that’s not to say that people should learn to accept actual intolerable conditions. Far from it – for if the mix of amenities is right, density is experienced as a convenience and as a good thing. If density is experienced as an intolerable constraint, it means the amenities are missing. Properly designed, density is an affordance, too: proximity to shops, recreation, parks, entertainment, clubs, friends. Shoddy buildings, on the other hand, make density intolerable: if you can hear your neighbor’s every evacuation or sneeze, something’s wrong. But cheaply-built buildings are, well, cheaper to build – which in turn gets back to economics and affordability.

In the Globe & Mail article, the comments board gives readers an indication of how far white, suburban-raised North Americans are from seeing density as an affordance. In most people’s views, it’s strictly a negative constraint, one that mostly affects their individual freedom.

Some commenters go up a level, from the individual to the societal, and focus on waste management. They conjure visions of cities choking on their own trash; or on water supply, warning of depletion of drinking water.

Several invoke Malthusian principles, arguing that we simply can’t grow any more. (Note: I get a bit impatient around this line of thinking – it seems to me that population regulates itself when prosperity rises and women gain equality. At some point thereafter, population settles at replacement levels or drops significantly below that.)

Clearly, the “pull up the drawbridge, we’re full” attitude is very common not just in my city, but elsewhere, too. It’s not exactly possible, legally, to tell citizens they can’t move to a city within their country, so unless we learn to manage growth well (affordance, not constraint), we’ll just get even more sprawl (which is already happening anyway, but why encourage it?).

So, Mr. Glaeser: back to you. We know that Jacobs’s vision of a somewhat quaint Greenwich Village in no way precludes an exclusive (and therefore anti-diversity) gentrification that’s unaffordable for mere mortals. In other words, quaint does not mean affordable or diverse or even friendly. And how, given the realities of economics, do we address another point she raised: the influx of “catastrophic money” (major urban renewal projects or very large civic projects that chew up entire city blocks, creating a kind of branded corporate-land that’s the antithesis of a neighborhood)? Finally, how can municipal governments and planning departments promote high-rise developments that are also affordable and family-friendly, while being amenity-rich and designed to make density an affordance, not a negative constraint?


May 3, 2010 at 11:16 pm | In green, NIMBYism, power_grid | 2 Comments

When the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began, I noticed some bittersweet satirical tweets reporting a windspill. For example, five days ago: “Hope u r ready to help clean up the inevitable windspill. :)” Or, three days ago: “BREAKING NEWS: Massive Windspill at WIndfarm… Residents complain about the breeze!”

By yesterday, Daily Kos published a “windspill” satire, and by today “windspill” made it to The Huffington Post: “BREAKING: Large Air Spill At Wind Farm. No Threats Reported. Some Claim To Enjoy The Breeze. (PICTURE)

It’s one of those satires that’s truly mordant. If only, if only…, we think, as the #oilspill disaster also known as #fuckbp spreads.

But why don’t we have a windspill “disaster”? Wouldn’t it be a stroke of luck, …instead of the mess we really have?

On April 29, Sarah Green, associate editor at the Harvard Business Review, posted From Oil Spills to Wind Farms, From NIMBY to BANANA. In her article, she gets to the heart of that question by pointing to NIMBYist (or BANANAist) obstructionism.

(If you’re not familiar with the acronyms, NIMBY stands for “Not In My Backyard” and BANANA stands for “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody [or Anything].”

Green describes the attempts to get wind farms built near Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, both of which depend heavily on tourism. For the past ten years, residents and other stakeholders have blocked the construction of wind farms, arguing that they’ll destroy the ambiance.

Energy, it seems, is something we can get elsewhere, from a wall socket or from petroleum that’s extracted (and refined) far, far away (in someone else’s backyard…). At home (in our backyard), we can maintain the status quo. The latter may be completely artificial, but it’s familiar and therefore comfortable.

Green asks:

So how will the energy industry — and the rest of the economy, which relies so heavily upon it — move forward when citizens seem determined to maintain the status quo? Politican after politician has espoused the need to create green jobs to revitalize the American economy and put it on a path to the future. The pages of HBR, among many others, have pointed to the necessity of building sustainable businesses to remain competitive in a world where companies will increasingly have to pay the costs of what were once dismissed as “externalities.” But as the local case study of Cape Wind makes all too clear, knowing that something is an economic necessity is very different from actually embracing it when it shows up on your own shores. (source)

Given what the Gulf residents will have to embrace when it shows up on their shores, maybe opposition to the construction of alternative power sources will soften.

(PS: I’m writing this on yet another day with wind warnings in effect for Southern Vancouver Island. While it’s always windy here, the past six weeks have been especially unrelenting. Earlier today, I posted a tweet with the hashtag #surrenderdorothy: it’s so harsh, I expect to see angry flying monkeys sweeping by, ready to take a swipe at us for not harnessing our wind energy here. What’s stopping us?)

Creating Value Through Sustainability

April 20, 2010 at 10:06 pm | In business, green, innovation | 1 Comment

“You measure what matters, and what gets measured, gets done.”

That’s how Eric Hespenheide put it at this afternoon’s MIT Enterprise Forum event, live-streamed at UVic. …And I have to admit I felt a deep admiration for – perhaps jealousy of? – numbers crunchers who can make this real. Me? I’d probably get too absorbed by the numbers font on the measuring tape, and whether it was cloth or plastic… 😉


Here’s what it was: an MIT Enterprise Forum broadcast, Creating Value Through Sustainability, hosted by the Atlanta chapter and streamed to various campuses, including the University of Victoria, courtesy of UVic’s Innovation and Development Corporation in partnership with iGEM Victoria, advertised on LinkedIn, …but very sparsely attended by our local innovators.

On hand in Atlanta: Matt Kistler (Senior VP, Sustainability, at Walmart Stores, Inc.); Paul Murray (Director, Environmental Safety and Sustainability, Herman Miller, Inc.); Ajeet Rohatgi (Founder/ CTO, Sunavi: Ajeet stood in for James Modak, who was stuck in Europe due to travel cancellations); and Eric Hespenheide (Global Leader, Climate Change and Sustainability, Audit and Enterprise Risk Services, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu).

Each man described how his company has adopted the triple bottom line (“people, planet, profit”) to – you guessed it – create value through sustainability. While everyone had lots to contribute, Mark Kistler of Walmart stood out just for the sheer scale of what his company can do.

For example, each executive stressed the importance of engaging employees in finding value through sustainability – which means, actively seeking employee input for ideas on how to save the planet. It’s not a new idea: everyone is smartening up, getting on that clue train, to realize that your staff and employees are your company’s biggest resource.

But when it’s Walmart, it’s just a little …different.

So, for example, when one bright Walmart manager called Pepsi to ask if it would be ok to shut off a particular light on the vending machine in the staff room, that move turned into an almost $1-million saving for Walmart. Turns out it was ok to turn that light off, the idea got passed along, and then every Walmart staff room vending machine’s light was turned off, leading to the windfall in savings.

Ok, you don’t have to be Walmart to save money, energy, and the planet by turning off the lights, but the enormity of the sums involved gives you an idea of what’s at stake when a company of Walmart’s size says, “we want to do it better.” It’s not trivial. (Yeah, you can be a sour puss and say, “Well, the reason they can save so much is because they waste so much in the first place,” but seriously: is that constructive criticism? No? Didn’t think so. After all, if they don’t set an example, who will?)

There was plenty more in Kistler’s presentation, as well as the others. Presumably, the broadcast will be archived and available for viewing later. (Click on links, above.)

In the discussion that followed at UVic, one university-affiliated person (and I didn’t get her name, sorry!) came up with a bright idea. What if, she suggested, organizations put it out there that employee-generated savings would go into a fund, and that employees then had control with regard to how it was used/ disbursed? Wouldn’t that be a great incentive! If the organization (say, the university – or a government department) saves X-number of dollars on account of a sustainability initiative propagated by the employees, the money isn’t simply “disappeared,” er, absorbed, by the organization, but is instead “paid forward” to help another cause. Whoa, triple bottom line win…

As Eric-the numbers-cruncher guy-Hespenheide said, “You measure what matters, and what gets measured, gets done.”


Congestion is our friend

April 8, 2010 at 10:19 pm | In cities, green, johnson street bridge, land_use, transportation, urbanism | 4 Comments

On March 31 Gordon Price spoke in Victoria about what he calls Motordom, or “auto-dependent urban form.” Motordom basically is the generative transportation paradigm that has shaped urban form (and dominated urban planning) since at least the mid-20th century. It’s now perhaps finally coming to an end (albeit with many many loose ends).

I’ve been intending to write a proper blog post about Gordon’s excellent deconstruction of Motordom.

However, … just a quick note today that touches on another transportation-related event I attended on Tuesday night (April 6), Going Beyond Gridlock- Green Party Sustainable Transportation Forum, because it fits so neatly both with some of the points raised by Gordon Price as well as with my concerns around a local issue.

At his March 31 presentation, Gordon noted that congestion is our friend. When roads are congested, the solution to that problem isn’t to build more roads. Instead, let the congestion be the impetus for developing transit and for giving people choices that let them get out of their cars.

At the April 6 meeting, every single speaker agreed that solving transportation problems does not mean building more roads, but rather taking car lanes away: transforming them into cycling or multimodal lanes.

No one at Gordon Price’s March 31 lecture could answer his question (in the photo, above), “Where is there a good example of an urban region that has successfully dealt with traffic congestion by building more roads and bridges?” Especially when he added the qualifier, “A place we want to be more like”?

And everyone at the April 6 Green Party-sponsored transportation forum agreed that building more roads fails to lead to transportation solutions that are sustainable. Everyone instead agreed that taking car traffic lanes out of the urban grid and converting them to cycling, multimodal, or transit lanes was the more sensible thing to do.

The obvious question for the City of Victoria is then: why don’t you apply this line of thinking to solve multimodal transportation issues on the Johnson Street Bridge? Specifically, why not look to Vancouver’s example?

In Vancouver, the city took a traffic lane on the Burrard Street Bridge and turned it into a cycling lane. In Victoria, we could easily try the same approach with our historic Johnson Street Bridge – an approach already suggested by Councilor Geoff Young, but poo-pooed by the Mayor and his friends on council. The latter include Councilor John Luton, who spoke at the April 6 event in favor of getting people out of their cars and preferably onto bicycles or other sustainable transportation options instead. He even made a point of showing images of the Johnson Street Bridge, which he considers a key piece in Victoria’s multimodal puzzle – except in Luton’s mind, only a new, expensive bridge will suffice.

It’s funny that those same politicians will flock to hear Gordon Price, applaud the critique of Motordom, agree with other sustainability experts that the best strategies include removing car traffic lanes from the grid, …yet adamantly maintain that the relatively tiny Johnson Street Bridge crossing has to stay at three car lanes. Come on, people: give your heads a shake. Take a lane out, remove the slippery steel deck, re-deck it with fiberreinforced polymer (FRP), and give it over to bikes. (Note: “Since FRP bridge decks are still considerably more expensive than concrete decks, they are basically competitive where light weight, corrosion resistance, and/or rapid installation are demanded. Accordingly, competitive applications are mainly found in movable bridges, historic bridges, and urban environments.” [source/PDF])

Much cheaper than a new bridge, better for the environment (think of all that new concrete needed for a new bridge, and the steel manufactured in China and brought to Victoria with bunker oil burning freighters – how sustainable is that?), and much better for the local economy (fixing the bridge would employ local people, building a new one would not).

Let’s say you own an airline…

April 6, 2010 at 10:57 pm | In futurismo, green, innovation | 2 Comments

Here’s an interesting question: where are today’s business leaders when it comes to solving pressing social and economic issues that affect our common wealth (and health)?

The other day, Fred Wilson’s post, No conflict, no interest, broached this question by describing a major historical precedent, the creation of the New York City subway system around 1891. Back then, “conflict of interest” didn’t fundamentally hobble participation by business, although that changed during the course of the 20th century:

In this day and age, having a financial interest in something means you’ve got a conflict and your opinion is somehow “tainted.”

But that wasn’t always the case. (source)

The New York City subway system was shepherded into existence by the Steinway Commission, which consisted of a team of differently-minded (and differently-interested) men.

Does that happen any more today, or does “conflict of interest” prevent it?

As it happens, I recently learned about the Carbon War Room, co-founded by Richard Branson of the Virgin group of companies (which includes Virgin Atlantic Airlines).

The Carbon War Room‘s front page states:

Our global industrial and energy systems are built on carbon-based technologies and unsustainable resource demands that threaten to destroy our society and our planet. Massive loss of wealth, expanding poverty and suffering, disastrous climate change, water scarcity, and deforestation are the end results of this broken system.

This business-as-usual system represents the greatest threat to the security and prosperity of humanity – a threat that transcends race, ethnicity, national borders, and ideology.

Maybe there’s some productive and welcome “conflict of interest” at work here. With carbon-based fossil-fuel-burning travel as one of the key pieces in the Virgin group, it seems a risky proposition to declare a “war” on carbon, but that’s the plan at the Carbon War Room.

In the section Strategy & Tactics we read:

The Carbon War Room has identified 25 battles across 7 theaters that are material to winning the war against climate change. Each battle accounts for over 1 billion tons (or more than 2%) of global anthropogenic CO2e emissions annually.

The battles encompass the full spectrum of challenges that must be met to implement a post-carbon economy, from energy to agriculture to carbon storage. Once the determinants of a battle’s outcome are understood, the Carbon War Room plans targeted operations to achieve victory.

Our agents of change are entrepreneurs of all kinds – including business entrepreneurs, corporate intrapreneurs, and non-profit/ social entrepreneurs. Critical to our success, entrepreneurs will be directed to engage all means and tools necessary to disable and replace business-as-usual systems. They will drive the innovation establish new sustainable practices, while unlocking wealth, security, and wellbeing for the world’s inhabitants.

The other co-founders are Craig Cogut (of Pegasus Capital Advisors) and Boudewijn Poelmann (of Holland’s National Postcode Lottery). For more on who’s involved, check out the Executive Team and Executive Board pages.


A featured event listed on the front page is an upcoming summit, Creating Climate Wealth at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Looking through the agenda, it’s clear everyone involves means business.

And maybe that’s just what we need.

(Hat-tip to Guy Dauncey for the initial pointer to the Carbon War Room.)

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