Tag Archives: Digital cities

How Planners Can Rescue Virginia from the Fiscal Abyss

This is a copy of a speech that I presented to the Virginia Chapter of the American Planners Association Monday, with extemporaneous amendments and digressions deleted. — JAB

Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here. Urban planning is a fascinating discipline. As my old friend Ed Risse likes to say, urban planning isn’t rocket science – it’s much more complex. Planners synthesize a wide variety of variables that interact in unpredictable, even chaotic, ways. In my estimation, you don’t get nearly enough respect and appreciation for what you do

OK, enough with the flattery. Let’s get down to business.

toastThis is you. You’re toast. Unless you change the way you do things, you and the local governments across Virginia you represent are totally cooked. … Here’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to tell you why you’re toast. And then I’m going to tell you how to dig your government out of the fiscal abyss, earning you the love and admiration of your fellow citizens.

Why You’re Toast

old_people2Here’s the first reason you’re in trouble — old people. Or, more precisely, retired government old people. Virginia can’t seem to catch up to its pension obligations. The state says the Virginia Retirement System is on schedule to be fully funded by 2018-2020. But the state’s defines 80% funded as “fully funded,” which leaves a lot of wiggle room. The VRS also assumes that it can generate 7%-per-year annual returns on its $66 billion portfolio. For each 1% it falls short of that assumption, state and local government must make up the difference with $660 million. As long as the Federal Reserve Board pursues a near-zero interest rate policy, depressing investment returns everywhere, that will be exceedingly difficult. A lot of very smart people think 5% or 6% returns are more realistic. In all probability, pension obligations will continue to be a long-term burden on localities.

potholesSecond, the infrastructure Ponzi scheme — that’s Chuck Marohn’s coinage, not mine — is catching up with us. For decades, state and local government built roads and infrastructure, typically with federal assistance, proffers or impact fees with no thought to full life-cycle costs. State and local governments have assumed responsibility for maintaining and replacing this infrastructure. Well, the life cycle done cycled, and the bill is coming due. We’re finding that we built more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain at current tax rates, leaving very little for new construction.

accotinkThird, after years of delay, serious storm water regulations are kicking in. Local governments bear responsibility for fixing broken rivers and streams like Accotink Creek, showed here. (Yeah, that’s a creek. It’s having a bad day.) Best guess: These regs will cost Virginia another $15 billion. But no one really knows. And it may just be the tip of the iceberg. I recently talked to Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and she noted that a lot of the storm water infrastructure that developers built in the ‘50s and ‘60s is crumbling. The developers are long gone. Someone’s going to have to fix that, too. Guess who?

property_taxMeanwhile, the largest source of discretionary local tax dollars – real estate property tax revenues – is stagnating. According to the Demand Institute, residential real estate prices in Virginia will increase only 7% through 2018 – the third worst performance of any state in the nation. Don’t count on magically rising property tax revenues to bail you out.

In fact, the tax situation is worse than it looks. Demand for commercial real estate is dismal, too. Consider what’s happening to the retail sector. We’re going from this…

shopping_centerTo this..

amazon_warehouse

Every Amazon.com distribution center represents dozens if not hundreds of chain stores closing. It means more vacant store fronts, more deserted malls, less new retail development. Continue reading

Does Virginia Want to Be a Wireless Friendly State?

cell_towerStates and regions that want to stay in the vanguard of economic growth need to expand their broadband infrastructure. Mobile data traffic will increase 13-fold between 2012 and 2017 by some estimates. To accommodate that growth, the wireless industry will have to build new cell towers, distributed antenna systems (DAS) and other infrastructure. However, permitting and regulation is a big problem in many states, according to George state Sen. Judson Hill.

Writes Hill in The Hill:

New tower construction and collocations of antennas on existing sites helps local economies. New towers typically cost between $250,000 and $300,000, and collocations run upward from $25,000. Moreover, new 4G wireless broadband networks support local job growth and improve economic vitality. Economists Robert Shapiro and Kevin Hassett found in their recent study that “every 10 percent increase in the adoption of 3G and 4G wireless technologies could add more than 231,000 new jobs to the U.S. economy in less than a year.”

Unfortunately, differing, cumbersome and unnecessarily complex local government permit processes have impeded investment and construction of new wireless facilities infrastructure in many states. Denials or long delays in approving permits for new cell towers or antenna collocations have been the experience for countless wireless infrastructure providers. Public safety communications challenges and lost economic opportunities, including foregone job creation, are regrettable byproducts of these denials and delays.

Georgia law requires local governments to issue timely permits — within 150 days — and ends the practice of imposing excessive processing fees. He concludes: “States should proactively pursue regulatory and tax reforms to remove roadblocks to wireless infrastructure facility construction. Greater economic and public safety benefits will come to states that best position themselves to enhance their 4G wireless broadband network build-out.

Bacon’s bottom line: How does Virginia stand when it comes to cell tower permitting? Hill suggests that Georgia, Missouri and Washington are the only states that have addressed these issues legislatively so far — but maybe Virginia doesn’t have a problem that needs fixing. Or maybe it does. Does anyone know?

– JAB

Will Virginia Cities Be among the 600?

wi-fiMadrid-based GOWEX, which specializes in creating wireless smart cities, aims to bring free Wi-Fi connections to 600 cities around the world by 2018 in partnership with Cisco, the American networking giant. (Read details in the “Datamorphosis” blog.)

The Spanish company has an interesting business model. Everyone with a smart phone can get on the Wi-Fi network for free; an upgrade (€8 in European cities) gets them a connection that runs 12 times faster. GOWEX also sells advertising targeted to a person’s specific geographic location. The company charges the host municipality nothing but the city gets a network that can serve as the backbone for such solutions as smart transport and parking, urban safety, traffic management and smart tourism.

Cowex undoubtedly will find its way to the Washington metropolitan area. Will Richmond, Hampton Roads and Virginia’s smaller metros be among the 600? If we aren’t vying for a GOWEX-Cisco solution, is anyone considering an alternative that offers comparable Wi-Fi capabilities? Virginia cities aren’t in the vanguard of change — GOWEX is already in 90 cities around the world, and we’re not among them. Will we at least keep up with the global pack — or will we fall behind?

Is anyone even thinking about these things? All I hear is crickets chirping.

– JAB

Harnessing Citizen Science

thingful

This first section of this post by James A. Bacon is cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog…

Recent years have seen the rise of what European Union officials are calling “citizen science,” a phenomenon in which amateurs, enthusiasts and others acting in a non-official capacity collect data (usually environmental data), participate in the design of projects and subject the data to analysis for public benefit. This trend is gaining momentum as the cost of acquiring environmental sensors drops for everything from CO2 levels to water quality, as mechanisms arise for citizens to share their data online and as activists in one location inspire citizens in another.

Indeed, there is so much activity that the European Commission Joint Research Centre convened a “Citizen Science and Smart Cities Summit” in Ispra, Italy, this past February. The Centre now has published a report, “Citizen Science and Smart Cities,” summarizing the main findings and recommendations.

There often is overlap between municipal smart-cities programs — an increasing number of European cities are setting up sensor networks to measure key environmental quality indicators — and grassroots citizens initiatives. Also, notes the report, there is “increasing recognition in the scientific community that to address the key challenges of the 21st century we need to move beyond the boundaries of discipline research and engage in research that is multi-disciplinary and participatory.”

Unfortunately, there has been little synergy between citizen and municipal initiatives. It is difficult to compare the results of citizen science and smart cities projects or translate findings from one context to another. Moreover, citizen data often disappears after the projects wind down, making it difficult to reproduce results.

The report makes a number of recommendations. One is to map citizen-science and smart-cities projects and generate a semantic network of concepts between the projects to facilitate searches of related activities. Another is to create a repository for data, software and apps so they can be maintained beyond the life of projects and be made shareable.

Bacon’s bottom line. The Euro-weenies are way ahead of most American metropolitan regions (especially Virginia metros) in applying sensors, wireless and Big Data — essentially, the Internet of Things – to the business of running their cities. Admittedly, much of Europe’s activity is top-down, fostered by national-government and European-Union subsidies, but a lot of it — especially the citizen science piece — is bubbling from the bottom-up. I see next to nothing here in Virginia, whether top-down or bottom-up.

The map at the top of this post comes from Thingful, a search engine for the Internet of Things (IoT). Each data represents a data set that someone has posted to Thingful. Follow this link to see the density of published data sets in Virginia compared to that of other cities around the world.

A region’s ability to compete in the global economy depends upon its collective capacity ability to boost productivity and innovation. The IoT is supplying a new set of tools by which to advance those aims. If we snooze, we lose.

While regions in Europe, Asia and even Latin America race to embrace IoT technology and reinvent themselves (the new Indian government has announced its intention to build 100 smart cities), I get the feeling that Virginia’s metropolitan regions are lollygagging along. The Internet of Things is not part of the public discourse. I see nothing written about it in our newspapers and magazines. Whenever I write about smart cities, I get next-to-zero feedback. If the readers of Bacon’s Rebellion aren’t interested — and you are indubitably the smartest and most perceptive citizens in the commonwealth — what hope is there?

The Internet-of-Things Steamroller and the Economic Competitiveness of Cities

by James A. Bacon

Well, I’m a steamroller, baby, I’m bound to roll all over you.
Yes, I’m a steamroller now, baby, I’m bound to roll all over you. …
– James Taylor “Steamroller

The words to James Taylor’s blues classic “Steamroller” have been churning through my mind during the 2014 Niagara Summit hosted by Richmond-based Tridium as I learn more about the constellation of technologies known as the Internet of Things — the ubiquity of sensors, the falling cost of wireless and data-storage technologies, the rise of “big data” and the emergence of incredibly sophisticated algorithms — and the impact they will have on the business landscape and society at large.

The Internet of Things (IoT), to borrow Taylor’s imagery, is a steamroller, a demolition derby, a napalm bomb. It will flatten — or, to borrow the tech buzz word du jour, totally “disrupt” — the business landscape. Most Americans have yet to hear of the Internet of Things. But as the next wave of the ongoing IT revolution that has transformed the world since the 1980s, it is as momentous as the rise of the PC, the Internet and mobile computing. Admittedly, the IT industry thrives on hype and the search for the Next Big Thing. But there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind at Tridium or among the industry illuminati speaking here that the IoT is for real. IBM, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel and other industry giants are all piling into the IoT. Google recently paid $3.2 billion dollars for Nest Labs, a company founded in 2010, that manufactures smart home thermostats!

Tridium, whose Niagara Framework software provides the IT foundation for the building automation industry, announced yesterday its intention to expand into adjacent sectors involving large, complex facilities, including data centers, industrial plants and smart cities. Tridium, the most successful IT company ever to emerge from Richmond, is bidding to carve out a big chunk of the IoT. And, as fluid and unpredictable as the IT industry is, it has as good a shot as anyone at this point of being successful.

I have been blogging the event for Tridium’s blog Datamorphosis from an industry perspective but it is impossible not to think about the public policy implications of the IoT and, in particular, the smart cities movement. Asia and Europe are applying IoT technologies far more aggressively than most American cities. As Carrie MacGillivray, an analyst with research firm IDC, noted yesterday, the city of Barcelona, located in debt- and deficit-ridden Spain, is running a budget surplus. Its IoT initiatives have generated roughly $10 billion in savings. Admittedly, smart city initiatives, many of which focus on energy conservation, deliver bigger savings in countries where the average price of a kilowatt hour of electricity is two to four times that of the United States. But European cities are forging ahead in areas such as water and sewer, garbage and recycling pick-up, and parking and traffic management. 

Whether you call it smart cities (evocative of IBM’s “smarter cities” advertising campaign) or the Municipal Internet (a term I just coined), the Internet of Things is sweeping through local government. There will be a lot of experimentation, a lot of false starts and a lot of bad investment that will prompt a lot of political hoo-ha and blowback. But cities and municipalities will learn a lot along the way and, like Barcelona, the intelligent ones also will make a lot of sound investments that (a) drive down the cost of providing basic services, (b) address chronic problems like parking and traffic congestion and (c) promote citizen engagement.

Anthony Townsend, the author of “Smart Cities” whom I recently profiled (“Tech Insurrection“) spoke yesterday at the Niagara Summit. He made the point that citizens and entrepreneurs operating outside the framework of government-funded infrastructure initiatives also have a lot to contribute. Tapping IoT technologies and accessing government databases that have long languished unused, grassroots movements can make cities more environmentally friendly, more responsive to citizens and just plain more fun to live in.

He gave the example of the Trees Near You app that draws from New York City’s tree census data to provide information about some 500,000 trees that live on city sidewalks. “No one at Cisco is ever going to think this app up,” he said, and if someone did, it would never win corporate approval.

oktoberfest_of_thingsThe “Democratization of technology” made possible by the IoT can become a force for social change as well. Citizens have established networks of sensors that measure ozone concentrations with much greater granularity than is possible in large cities monitoring only four or five sites. Another example of bottom-up innovation is Four Square, a social networking app that provides recommendations from friends and associates on the best restaurants and eateries in town, informs you when friends are nearby and extends deals from retailers near you. Some applications are frivolous or amusing, such as the Oktoberfest of Things, which uses sensors to measure how much drink is left in large beer steins. But there is something to be said for making a city a fun place to live.

Some of these innovations may be taking place in Virginia under the media radar but there is not much sign of them. The Virginia Department of Transportation is investing in IoT technology to upgrade the capabilities of some of its highways, mainly in Northern Virginia. But some of that investment has been squandered. (Maybe I’ll be able to talk about Virginia’s rest stops one day.) The City of Richmond is doing some interesting things with Big Data but it is too early to know if anything useful will come of it. Otherwise, I have heard of very little. If anything is happening, it is due to the initiative of exceptional government officials acting on their own — for there certainly is no groundswell of public opinion, or even of public discourse, here in Virginia.

Cities that adapt the most quickly and intelligently to the IoT revolution will gain an immense competitive advantage in the years ahead — they will be able to provide a superior level of public services at less cost to taxpayers. This is the new frontier of economic development. Virginians need to embrace the IoT or miss an historic opportunity to win the race for livability and the competition for human capital.

The Demon in the Machine

Chris Spencer

Chris Spencer

By James A. Bacon

On Oct. 25, 2013, Chris Urmson, a leader of Google’s autonomous car project, proclaimed that legal and regulatory problems posed no major barrier to the commercialization of Self-Driving Cars (SDCs). When accidents did occur, he told attendees of the RoboBusiness conference in Santa Clara, Calif., data collected by the cars would provide an accurate picture of exactly who was responsible. He shared data from a Google car that had been rear-ended by another driver. The annotated map of the car’s surroundings clearly indicated that it had halted smoothly before being struck by the other vehicle.

“We don’t have to rely on eyewitnesses that can’t act be trusted as to what happened—we actually have the data,” Urmson said. “The guy around us wasn’t paying enough attention. The data will set you free.”

The very same day, Toyota settled a case in which an Oklahoma City jury had awarded $3 million for a 2005 incident in which a Camry driven by 76-year-old Jean Bookout had accelerated out of control. Bookout had said she tried to use the foot brake and emergency brake to no avail. Toyota lawyers had argued that she must have hit the gas instead. At issue was the performance of an electronic throttle control system that replaced mechanical links between the accelerator pedal and the throttle in older models. Siding with Bookout, the jury bought the story that the electronic throttle was flawed.

Google may have data on its side but accident victims sometimes have judges and juries on their side. Toyota had won all previous unintended-acceleration cases and an exhaustive study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could find no flaw in the brake’s computer code, but the judge instructed the Oklahoma City jury that it could find a product defective even if no defect could be identified.

“It opened the floodgates,” says Chris Spencer, a Richmond, Va., attorney who has represented automobile manufacturers in hundreds of cases, including dozens that have gone to trial and reached a jury verdict. “All a lawyer has to do is get his client to say, ‘I did nothing wrong but something went wrong – it must have been the vehicle’s fault.’”

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

Continue reading

Tech Insurrection

AnthonyTownsendSmart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

By James A. Bacon

Anthony M. Townsend, a research scientist at New York University, has made a big splash with his book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” in which he makes the case for a bottom-up, technology-driven transformation of the world’s cities.  But he’s not satisfied with preaching from his academic perch on how a grassroots movement of civic hackers is rewriting the social contract between citizens and government. He is taking active part.

As audacious as it may sound, Townsend hopes to build a peoples’ wireless telecommunications system on the New Jersey coast in place of the ATT and Verizon networks that failed during Hurricane Sandy. He is one of a group of citizen volunteers in the Hoboken area who are patching together a distributed wireless network at very little cost. Paralleling the municipal Wi-Fi movement of a decade ago, each participant contributes a piece of the network. The trick is to tie all the pieces together.

“For $60 we can configure a radio that someone can take to their house and point to our rooftop tower,” he explains. The devices discover one another and, in the fashion of a bucket brigade, pass packets of information from one to another. “We’re putting a network together with our bare hands and spare change.”

The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane. Elevating the network to a level of performance on a par with the incumbent providers will be a challenge, Townsend admits.  There will be gaps in their system. But the plug-and-play, distributed nature of their system will cost a tiny fraction of what the telecoms spend on cell towers, infrastructure and other overhead. “It’s very cheap and easy to build,” he says. “We’ll be a lab to test it in the real world.”

Imagine the same kind of technological disruption applied to the electric grid, mass transit, paid transport services, parking, municipal lighting, water and sewer, education and other municipal systems. Then imagine technology applications that no one in municipal government or the Fortune 500 companies are even thinking about – like citizens collaborating to monitor the environment. Municipal government could become unrecognizable. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, if Townsend’s vision pans out, institutions for providing utilities and local government services will be reinvented on a scale not seen since the early 1900s.

The agents of disruption likely will not be municipal governments themselves, nor even the big technology companies and management consulting firms peddling efficiency and productivity solutions to local governments, says Townsend. The innovators will be tech-savvy citizens – civic hackers – who exploit the rapidly declining cost of sensors, microchips, wireless connectivity and networking technologies to conduct lots of experiments, learn rapidly and disseminate best practices around the globe. Already, he says, “The really transformative things are built by hackers, artists and entrepreneurs that are very end-user focused.”

Needless to say, there is some very smart money – with very deep pockets – that says Townsend is wrong. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM see local government, utilities and infrastructure as an emerging multitrillion-dollar market. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco CEO John Chambers forecast cumulative revenue and productivity gains for the government sector globally to reach $4.6 trillion by 2020. Big Tech promises the ability to monitor things that have never been monitored, collect unprecedented volumes of data and crunch the numbers to identify patterns and anomalies that municipal managers had not noticed. By reducing leakage from water pipes, improving police response times, coordinating traffic signals and reducing power usage by street lights, technology companies promise billions of dollars in savings. Equally ambitious, IBM markets a “decision support system” that accesses vaults of under-utilized municipal data to analyze the interaction between everything from building permits to high school drop-out rates, housing vacancies to commuting times, to help managers and elected officials understand how investing money in one government sector will reverberate through the system to impact other sectors.

In a recent online debate with Townsend organized by the Economist magazine, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a VP emeritus with IBM, argued against the proposition that “smart cities are empty hype,” insisting that top-down governance could work. “Digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” wrote the IBM executive. “These are highly complex projects, requiring considerable research and experimentation. As is generally the case with disruptive technologies, it is all likely to take longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be deeper and more transformative than we imagine.” Not surprisingly, Wladesky-Berger sees the big corporations playing a major role.

Taking the position that smart cities are hype, Townsend raised the specter of tech companies creating proprietary “urban operating systems” and ecosystems of software vendors that extract royalties for “shuttling our money and data around smart cities.”  Worse, he said, “once ensconced, these firms will be nearly impossible to dislodge.” Read more.

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

Coming up: Cars and Traffic Lights that Communicate

audi_displayThere are smart roads, and there are smart cars. The next step in the evolution of the digital city is smart cars that communicate with the smart roads.

As Jennie Xie writes for Atlantic Cities, there is considerable innovation in traffic signals these days. An increasing number of signals are synchronized to accommodate changing traffic flows during different times of day, week and year. Some are programmed to respond to changing conditions in real time. Meanwhile, new cars are rolling off the factory floor equipped with sensors and control systems designed to prevent inattentive drivers from drifting across lanes or tailgating too closely.

What if the traffic signal sent off a message telling cars when the light was about to change? In theory, cars could adjust their speed to reach the intersection when the light was green. If the traffic signals were networked, people could drive a lot farther before encountering a red light.

Automaker Audi is testing such a technology in Berlin and Ingolstadt in Germany and in Verona, Italy. And in Oregon, Texas and Utah, Green Driver is testing a mobile app that uses data from city traffic management systems to offer signal prediction regardless of the car being used.

The technology could well reduce congestion, concludes Xie, but there are safety concerns. It could cause problems if lights start changing unpredictably, if drivers speed up to catch lights, or if drivers pay more attention to the technology displays than to the actual road conditions around them.

Let’s hope that someone deep in the bowels of the Virginia Department of Transportation is paying attention to this trend. The time to pilot-test these new technologies is now.

– JAB

Six Reasons to Feel Good about 2014

2014 -- woo hoo!

2014 — woo hoo!

by James A. Bacon

Despite awakening this morning with a hangover resulting from a fabulous New Year’s celebration last night, I was curiously and uncharacteristically upbeat about the year ahead. I still have grave reservations about the fiscal future of this country and I still believe Boomergeddon is in our future. But for some odd reason, I have been dwelling today upon the positive.

Internet of Things. The next wave of technology innovation, the contours of which are just now coming into view, will be as breathtaking and transformative as the World Wide Web and the wireless revolution and, in fact, represents the extension of those technologies into new domains. It goes by many names but the one that seems to be catching on is the Internet of Things (IoT). Prices are plummeting for sensors, wireless connectivity, data storage and data processing power, with the result that virtually all man-made things will be capable of being connected over the Internet, will be capable of sensing their environment and communicating with other things, and will generate massive amounts of data that can be mined for tremendous gains in productivity and energy efficiency. In so doing, the IoT will spawn a new array of cool products and services. As a bonus, the new wave of innovation will not be as focused on Silicon Valley as previous technology revolutions. The innovation will be more dispersed geographically and the resulting wealth creation will be more broadly shared.

Energy revolution. Say good-bye to Peak Oil, at least for two or three more decades. The fracking revolution has unleashed a bounty of fossil fuel production in the United States that seemed unimaginable only five or 10 years ago. Energy production is booming and the long-sought dream of North American energy independence is fast becoming a reality. The energy sector is spawning millions of jobs, directly in energy production and indirectly in industries that supply the trucks, the pumps, the pipe and, increasingly, the IT that supports energy production.

Manufacturing revival. The Internet of Things, also known as the “industrial internet,” will inspire another wave of productivity-enhancing innovation in the manufacturing sector, while inexpensive natural gas and electricity will create a tremendous competitive advantage for energy-intensive, U.S.-based manufacturers. These tectonic shifts in competitive advantage are occurring at the very same time that rising labor costs overseas are undermining the logic for off-shoring manufacturing capacity. In fact, the “reshoring” movement is gaining momentum. The revival of energy production and manufacturing augurs well for the blue-collar workforce and creates the prospect of increasing jobs and rising wages for a segment of America that has been badly battered over the past 20 or 30 years.

Illegal immigration. The effects of the energy revolution and reshoring movement will be felt even more dramatically in Mexico, which is undergoing the most profound economic liberalization in its history. The combination of a falling birthrate, shrinking labor surplus and unprecedented opportunity for Mexican workers will dry up the largest source of illegal immigration into the United States. Declining illegal immigration is good news for multiple reasons. First, it defuses a contentious social issue and it clears the way for immigration reform that will allow the admission of more legal immigrants, especially those with education and skills that will benefit the economy. Second, plugging the gusher of poor, ill-educated immigrants into the U.S. will mean less competition for low-paying jobs. Wages for unskilled and semi-skilled labor are far more likely to rise, creating better opportunity for the economically dispossessed.

Global warming. How else can I say this? The Global Warming  hysterics have been proven wrong. While true believers still cling to their conviction that runaway human-caused global warming will propel temperatures ever higher and unleash wave upon wave of environmental calamity, it is becoming obvious to everybody else that the worst-case scenario is not happening and will not happen. While carbon dioxide emissions may push temperatures modestly higher than they otherwise would have been, global temperatures have been stable for a decade and a half, confounding computer-model predictions that positive feedbacks in the climate system would lead to out-of-control warming. The most heartening story of the past month has been that of the scientists studying Global Warming getting trapped by Antarctic ice that was supposed to be melting! To explain the non-warming, climatologists have speculated that aerosols from Chinese air pollution are reflecting sunlight and heat or that the heat is hidden undetected in the ocean depths. Either way, the theory must be revised, the science is not “settled” and it is becoming impossible to bamboozle the American people into panicking over impending environmental doom. If calamity is not lurking around the corner, there is no justification for re-engineering the U.S. economy according to the specifications of know-it-all progressives…. which is very good news for the U.S. economy.

Teen pregnancies. There are positive social developments as well. Teen pregnancies, perhaps the primary cause of poverty in the United States, continue their dramatic decline. Teen girls are delaying sexual activity, and they are more likely to use birth control when they do have sex. Delaying motherhood increases the odds that young women will graduate from high school and find jobs that will lift them out of poverty. And it reduces the number of children growing up in households headed by baby mamas who are ill equipped to raise them. If the reservoir of U.S. poverty is not continually replenished through teen births and illegal immigration, eventually, it will become far less intractable. 

I could go on. The genomic revolution portends great advances in health care. Medicine will be increasingly personalized, tailoring treatments to the patient’s genetic make-up. The urban revival is bringing vitality back to the urban core of American metropolitan regions. So many cool things are happening. Just speaking from my narrow personal experience here in the Richmond region, the City of Richmond has much more to offer than it did when I came here 25 years ago — it’s a great place to live. New technology, including online learning, offers the prospect of shaking up our moribund educational system. The coupling of digital technologies or “smart cities” with smart growth and the emerging discipline of fiscal analytics (see “Fiscal Analytics and the Next Municipal Revolution”) portends a golden age for local government.

True, the federal government remains unreformed. The national debt has surpassed $17 trillion and interest payments on that debt will, at some point, become unbearable. The sequester has bought us time, but no one is talking seriously about entitlement reform. Indeed, Obamacare represents a spectacular step backwards — locking Americans into greater dependence for health care upon a fiscally irresponsible federal government that has no chance of keeping all of its promises. Meanwhile, unchastened by their failures, liberals and progressives remain as intent as ever to impose their fevered visions upon a reluctant nation. So, yes, there are many reasons to be pessimistic. But the United States is a great nation. There is much vitality within us. Many things are going our way. We will persevere.

Brace Yourself for the Internet of Things

IoTby James A. Bacon

The “Internet of Things” is one of the hottest buzz words in the global technology sector today. The phrase refers to a phenomenon, the mass proliferation of Internet-connected devices, that is as world-altering as the invention of the personal computer and the rise of the World Wide Web. Economy and society will change fundamentally when untold billions of devices — from cell phones to automobiles, water pipes to street lights, refrigerators to electric meters, wearable apparel to video surveillance cameras — all come to be embedded with computer chips, wireless technology and autonomous intelligence.

These devices will throw off massive volumes of data measured in exabytes (1,000 gigabytes is a terrabyte, 1,000 terrabytes is a petabyte, and 1,000 petabytes is an exabyte). A new generation of algorithms will mine this “big data” for patterns that, in an ideal world, will yield energy savings, productivity gains and greater convenience to power the next wave of economic growth. Given the perversity of human nature, however, the technology will have a dark side as well, leading to abuses by hackers, rip-off artists, organized crime networks, governments and other predators.

Cisco Systems, the networking giant, guesstimates that there are 8.7 billion connected devices in the world today. As prices for connectivity drop, the number of connected things will increase 25% on an annualized basis, meaning that we can expect 50 billion connected things by 2020. Some tech observers suggest that Cisco may be conservative. But if the number is anywhere close to the truth, the trend line is shifting from a linear increase in connectedness to an exponential increase. The Internet of Things will be upon us before we know it.

Virtually every major technology company has identified the IoT as the Next Big Thing — the next mega-market that will drive profits for years to come. You’ve no doubt heard of Google’s work on wearable computers and self-driving automobiles. But that’s just the tip of the data stick. Consider some recent corporate developments:

  • Chip-making giant Intel, having largely missed the mobile revolution, last month unveiled two low-energy chips, the Quark and the Atom, designed for Internet of Things applications as varied as wearable devices, intelligent vending machines and interactive kiosks. Last week, it launched an “IoT Solutions Group.”
  • Industrial titan GE invested $30 million in Quirky, a product-design company that specializes in creating consumer devices for the Internet of Things, with the goal of creating 30 marketable devices within five years.
  • Samsung, the Korean electronics conglomerate that recruited Luc Julia, director of Apple’s Siri project, has unveiled its a voice-activated platform for wearable devices. An immediate goal: to  integrate movement trackers, wearable heart monitors, Internet-connected scales and other devices relating to personal fitness.
  • Verizon, which operates the nation’s largest telecommunications network, introduced a new security solution to safeguard the growing number of Internet-connected automobiles, smart meters and home-monitoring systems from emerging technology risks.

And that was just last week.

While the concept is old hat to the tech community, awareness of the Internet of Things is just now permeating to the cultural cognoscenti. In a recent column, “When Complexity is Free,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described how every major part of a G.E. jet engine, locomotive or turbine comes equipped with online sensors that measure and broadcast every aspect of performance. Inspired in part by a case in which a hacker hijacked the baby monitor of a Texas family and screamed obscenities at a sleeping infant, the Federal Trade Commission has scheduled a workshop to learn more about the Internet of Things.

Like it or not, the IoT is coming. We non-techies and sub-cognoscenti who opine about public policy had better start dealing with it. On the positive side, the potential exists to transform the way we approach transportation and infrastructure. The so-called Smart Cities movement (see Monday’s post), a major current of the IoT river, offers the prospect of less expensive, more responsive government, not to mention more intelligent government decision making. Virginians potentially can save billions of dollars in infrastructure costs.

We also must prepare for the dark side. In a world awash in video cameras, license-plate readers, GPS car-tracking devices and movement-monitoring sensors in office buildings and shopping malls, how do we protect our privacy? In a world in which coins and currency are digitized into electronic bits that transfer with a swipe of the smart phone, how do we protect ourselves from ever-inventive cyber-criminals?

The Internet of Things is coming. It will transform everything around us. Will Virginia’s institutions adapt or will they crumble under the assault? Will we ride this technological tsunami to greater economic competitiveness and a higher quality of life, or will be watch slack-jawed as it washes over us? The decision is ours.