Greetings from Sunny California!

Now is an ideal moment to take stock of our performance, and reorient ourselves in the direction of peace, renewal, introspection, and togetherness.

However challenging this past year may have been for you or your business, we hope that the net effect has been a positive one, not only to your bottom line, but to your and your colleagues’ personal sense of wellbeing. We work to live, and may we all live to make our world a little better – whether through art, commerce, social service, or whatever pursuit gets you out of bed at the beginning of your day!

As always, our firm’s marker for success is how much we were able to learn and grow, in any given year. 2019 was no exception, though it had some unforeseen moments!

Our recent engagements have taken us into a variety of new markets and fields, for which I am grateful. Whether working with the UN Foundation on their “Girl Up” initiative, restructuring a nationally syndicated radio talk show for the podcast era, or celebrating the opening of a new local business venture. Our company’s focus remains on people, sustainability (environmental and fiscal), and innovation.

 

 

Grand Opening of Los Angeles’ Artesano Tamaleria

 

Attendees at the UN Foundation Girl Up Summit

 

Personal commitments prevented me from spending my usual couple of months with our London and Lisbon teams, but more time in the Los Angeles area allowed for greater participation in some local initiatives.

We continue to enjoy supporting the great work done by the film and TV industry’s Green Production Guide team, and I enjoyed spending a day at the Produced By Conference in early June, roaming the Warner Bros lot, challenging the thousands of industry professionals in attendance to rethink and upgrade their approach to sustainable production. Personal engagement remains the foundation stone upon which fruitful change is built.

 

Leaders of the Producers Guild of America Green Initiative

 

Our firm continues to work with and advise a variety of political and educational initiatives and organizations, including the City of Burbank, where we are based. We are passionate about improving the transportation infrastructures and community health of this beautiful city – no small undertaking in an area so slavishly devoted to the automobile! We were thrilled to participate this year in some milestone events and initiatives, including the groundbreaking ceremonies for a bikeway we’ve been working on for a number of years, the continued development of a regional rapid transit system (BRT), and ongoing improvements to the intersections between our regional and local traffic infrastructures (more access for bicycles, pedestrians, and public transportation!). There has been a lot of success in 2019, but, as with all such projects, the movement is glacial and there remains much to be done!

This was a great year for improving the city’s fiscal and functional health, and it’s been a pleasure to welcome new City Manager Justin Hess, while thanking outgoing City Manager Ron Davis for his service. Each person, though cut from different cloth, brings a standard of excellence and service worthy of appreciation. The inimitable Emily Gabel-Luddy, nearing the close of her term, will shortly be succeeded as the City’s Mayor by our other admirable friend Sharon Springer, and I look forward to a period wherein her infectious enthusiasm, love of community, and intelligence will continue to inspire and uplift not only City Staff, residents, and businesses, but the municipalities around us, as California continues to lead the way in facing the challenges and opportunities of our myriad communities.

 

Burbank City Council and Community Leaders at Los Angeles Bikeway Groundbreaking Ceremony

 

A summer opportunity to travel back to Seattle, Washington allowed me to catch up with a previous client, OneRedmond, and the numerous technology and entertainment companies with whom we collaborated during our most recent project in the area. Some very interesting progress has been made, including the establishment of a very promising Public/Private partnership serving the Greater Seattle Economic Development area. This region includes not only Seattle itself, but also the wonderful cities of Redmond, Kirkland, and Bellevue. We were also able to spend a good amount of time with another cherished client, one of the Northwest’s top event and hospitality firms with whom we are developing a growth strategy, as they expand into more strategic and global ventures relating to their already impressive core capabilities.

The Northwest region remains a favorite one, and I’m excited to see its continued growth as a hub of innovation and workforce development. The area’s renowned commitment to sustainability and community makes it an excellent breeding ground for the next generation of purpose-driven enterprises.

 

Back in Los Angeles, I was recently invited to participate in a long-overdue Mobile World Congress workshop session entitled “Women4Tech”. It was inspiring to see and talk with such a diversity of women leaders in the fields of tech, marketing, engineering, government, and creative production. Some of next year’s most compelling innovations from around the world will be coming from women-led enterprises, and we can only benefit from their contributions, guidance, and insights.

 

Women4Tech Conference at Mobile World Congress USA

At the end of last year, I was invited by Al Gore to become a Climate Reality Leader, helping to inform and inspire communities to become more actively engaged in combating the undeniable climate crisis we all face. In addition to giving presentations to schools, local governments, corporations, and community organizations, it was an honor to be asked to establish and chair one of the newest Chapters of the global Climate Reality Project. This proved a mighty and worthwhile challenge! During the course of this past year, we recruited more than 40 passionate advocates for responsible stewardship, and together we have made a marked impact on local, state, regional, and national policy and action. We look forward to helping the organization further consolidate and maximize the energy, knowledge, and commitment of these leaders.

 

 

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been a favorite organization, ever since I was a student at Duke University, helping to set up a chapter of the Center’s then-new “Teaching Tolerance” initiative. I’ve long enjoyed supporting the great work done by this laudable organization, and this year we were offered a marvelous opportunity to spend some time with co-founder Joe Levin, as we reviewed the extraordinary efforts undertaken by the SPLC, on behalf of the disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed members of our nation’s family. I remain in awe of their passionate zeal and commitment.

 

With SPLC Co-founder, Joe Levin

 

While 2019 provided a diversity of opportunities and discoveries, it also unhappily took away important treasures. I was greatly saddened this year to participate in memorial and funeral services for some great people, including my friend, Blake Byrne; an important mentor, David Picker; a previous boss, Michael Lynne; and former colleague and icon, Cokie Roberts. It would be pitiful to attempt here any sort of In Memoriam for such admirable people, so we will instead commit ourselves anew to conducting our professional business in a manner reflecting their integrity, passion, and service. We are sure that each of our friends, colleagues, and clients has experienced the pain of loss this year, in their own unique but equally important way, and we offer each our sympathy. Life is indeed a fleeting gift, the value of which we seem to fail to take full measure, until we find ourselves being ushered toward the exit. To borrow the latest aphorism: KonMari the year ahead, and share the joy you keep!

 

 

The future must always be seen with optimism. We are looking forward to continuing our work with our newest client: an exciting tech & creative startup venture focused on increasing access for the visually impaired to content otherwise out of reach. We’re eager to see what other opportunities and innovations present themselves next year, in markets and industries that will assuredly teach us new lessons and show us new wonders!

My thanks go not only to my colleagues, but to clients and friends alike who have welcomed us this year into their offices and labs, as well as onto the many studio lots and sets! The opportunity to learn from and watch you invent inspires me on a regular basis!

 

 

Wishing you the peace, renewal, and togetherness to which I alluded at the beginning of my post, I close, grateful for a year where the positives outweighed the negatives, and in the hope that this trend continues robustly in the year to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nicholas de Wolff

 

California State Senator Scott Wiener and I communicated with one another several times during his campaign to push SB 827 through the legislature, and I warned very early on during our exchanges that the singlemindedness that gave him the courage and conviction to introduce and champion such disruptive legislation would be the very undoing of its hopes for success.

I do not delight in being proven right in this case, because the intent behind this bill was and remains laudable. Urban zones, especially in California, are in desperate need of increased housing inventory. That said, the housing most needed in many of our cities is not luxury condominiums or lofty apartments for the well-heeled. What is sorely lacking in major municipalities is thoughtfully centralized housing for the people who keep our cities alive: the teachers, city workers, restaurant and store staff, and other citizens presently struggling through daily commutes to work in places where they cannot presently imagine ever being able to live. A healthy community caters to its best and most conscientious citizens, irrespective of their income, net worth, gender, color, or creed. Our cities have lost sight of this dictum. Another element in ensuring the health and well-being of our urban societies is protecting the best core differentiating characteristics of each of these communities. Senator Wiener’s bill did not satisfy its critics on either count. Desperate circumstances do NOT always call for desperate measures.

Senator Wiener made it very clear to me how disdainful he was of early critiques, and his dismissive answers to polite questions in numerous online forums repeatedly undermined his chances at developing transversal support. It was only after a groundswell of opposition presented itself, from such quarters as the Sierra Club and the LA Times, that he begrudgingly agreed to revisit the details of his proposed bill. The damage had been done, however, and he had alienated too many potential interests, who might have proven invaluable in developing a piece of legislation that could have been truly revolutionary, if somewhat more nuanced than the original form.

My hope now is that Senator Wiener learns from this experience. He was not wrong in his general objective. He was incorrect in his specific approach. Credit is due, though, to the Senator: for lighting a match under municipalities whose bureaucracies have for too long kicked this can down the road. The warning bell has been rung, and it would not behoove our cities to meet Senator Wiener’s unfortunate strategy with their own arrogance and hubris. Change is due, and I sincerely hope that when Senator Wiener looks to revisit the matter, he will find that local legislatures will have done the job well enough to both adequately approach his noble aspirations and meet the needs of the community they more knowledgeably serve.

13 years ago, I gave a small talk at the Cannes Film Festival, evangelizing for more measured creative and business growth. I had been working with several startups and noticed a trend toward accelerated scaling that I found worrisome. I encouraged my audience (mostly independent filmmakers) to give themselves time to develop their properties, instead of desperately rushing to sell their idea, fearful that it would be illicitly co-opted by some unknown competitor.

In 2005, I joined a large multinational corporation and noticed that this trend was reflected in the sense of urgency with which budgets and projects were managed throughout business units, and even at the corporate level (usually in response to shareholder demands for the semblance of repetitive short term gains).

Instead of engaging in careful long-term strategic planning and consistent scaling at a manageable pace, enterprises large and small were increasingly (and often retroactively) chasing mythical goals. Business ventures want to convince investors, shareholders, and others that their offering is worth obscene valuation, yet they don’t want to “waste” time actually doing the work of conceptualizing, developing, testing, productizing, marketing, selling, and supporting any tangible offering. It takes less time to make a PowerPoint, it would seem, than it does to make a product. The collateral damage from this mentality continues to be ignored today, by too many people who ought to know better.

Permit me to jump to another topic, for reasons which will become apparent, I hope:

The C-130 Hercules remains the longest continuously produced military aircraft in history. The first flight of the YC-130 prototype was made on this day (23 August) 1954 from the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California. Burbank’s relationship with Lockheed was long and proud, but the city demonstrated a painful lack of strategic planning that left it in dire straits in the early 1990s, when Lockheed left town. The job losses and economic downturn were dramatic, to say the least. Burbank had relied too heavily on one industry, even though the signs of change in that industry had been evident for years. Today, the local economy in this charming SoCal city is once again relying heavily on an admirable and powerful industry. That industry is also showing signs of dramatic change, and Burbank must work proactively – in partnership with its resident businesses from the Media & Entertainment industries – to adapt and evolve, in order to stay aloft in turbulent times, economic, technological, and social.
Cities are growing, as populations increasingly urbanize. Too many of these cities rely on a very few large sources of tax inflow, instead of diversifying their portfolio of revenues. Given that 99.7% of businesses in the US are small businesses, and 48% of US employees are small-business employees, I continue to advocate (with increasing volume!) for municipalities to support sustainable small business incubation: providing for scalable workforce growth, complementary innovations within pre-existing business ecosystems, and more agile infrastructures, capable of adapting to the increasingly explosive nature of 21st century markets, without becoming unduly subject to that same volatility.

The window of opportunity narrows, the closer one comes to a point of inflection. Will Burbank adapt in time, so it is able to manage, rather than be subject to, dynamic market changes? Will the Media & Entertainment industries pull back (even just a little) from the precipice of quarterly performance, in deference to more long-term strategic measurements? Will business ventures invest more thoughtfully in smaller initiatives (subsidiary or autonomous), more capable of adapting to the creative, technological, and economic forces that wait around the corner?

In the words of my close personal friend, Dame Shirley:

“They say the next big thing is here,
That the revolution’s near,
But to me it seems quite clear
That’s it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”

The Actor’s Equity Association (AEA) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and one of its initiatives is to provide members with fancy new gold credit card style membership cards, replacing the former paper-based version. My reaction, when I heard this, was one of disappointment. Every initiative taken by an organization today has consequences and implications that reverberate across multiple sectors. In this case, the AEA failed to take advantage of a priceless opportunity to enhance member services, increase member engagement, and exhibit a very simple but impactful degree of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility).

More than 7 years ago, the Census Bureau determined that there were nearly 1.5 billion credit cards in use in the U.S. A stack of all those credit cards would reach more than 70 miles into space — and be almost as tall as 13 Mount Everests. If this number of credit cards were thrown away every three years, the stack of credit cards would reach almost 43 Everests high after a decade. These plastics do not biodegrade in landfills. Not so fancy.

Actor’s Equity is not a lone offender, though. When SAG and AFTRA merged, the new union had an opportunity to revisit its longstanding use of plastic credit card member IDs, but opted to stick with the short term functionality of plastics, long-term sustainability be damned. The Producers Guild and other industry organizations are equally guilty. My frustration would be less justified if there existed few alternatives. However, companies such as Discover Financial services are offering cards made of BioPVC™ and other biodegradable alternatives; well-established technologies such as mobile apps present a plethora of creative and operational opportunities; and other technologies such as NFC offer yet more potential, as their adoption becomes more widespread. So why the lack of innovation or sustainability best practices? Is it an absence of imagination? Aversion to change? Financially motivated obduracy?

As current Chair of my city’s Sustainability Commission, I have benefited from the past four years, learning about the negative consequences of unsustainable practices (both in business and personal life), as well as about the positive implications of Green and other more sustainable commercial and community options, be it through renewable materials sourcing, alternative energy programs, commercial district redesigns, and many other areas. Many initiatives in sustainability offer up more than a single-pronged benefit or solution. It’s not just about environmental conservation, or clean air, or recycling. It’s about positioning ourselves, our businesses, and our communities for a more environmentally, socially, and financially robust future.

Had the AEA decided to explore options for member identification, other than the current plastic card tradition, all sorts of exciting avenues to member engagement and empowerment might have been revealed. Imagine a mobile app (what actor does not have a mobile phone?) that represents not only the individual’s union identification, but also a resource for direct connection to their credit union, membership affiliate discount programs, health insurance tools, personalized pension and 401K insights, dues status (and mobile payment processing), and much more, besides. The cost savings to the AEA and their members alike would be enormous, the raw materials no longer needed (plastics, papers, etc) would be mountainous, and the ability to connect more dynamically with membership would elevate the usefulness, value and – by extension – collective bargaining power of the AEA.

To those who would argue that they would not wish to entrust such data to a mobile device that might lose power, break, be stolen, or otherwise be compromised…I suggest they note that more wallets are stolen and lost than mobile devices. The Baby Boomer generation may not be able to acclimatize themselves to the notion of a cardless society, but I personally am quite excited by the idea of saving money, time, and materials – simply by aggregating the contents of my wallet into a well-protected, institutionally insured, cloud-based ecosystem that poses no more risk to our identities than we currently face today. The promise that lies in such innovation far outweighs the risks, and I can think of no better collective to act upon this promise than Actors themselves. This opportunity seems to have been missed, but I sincerely hope that other organizations might think a little more expansively about each initiative they take, going forward. The smallest tweak might offer far greater rewards (and savings) than they might imagine.

It’s been almost 2 months since I last posted anything here (I have no interest in blogging for the sake of blogging, and I’m sure you have no interest in reading self-important daily ruminations on the state of social media, society, or Steve Jobs (RIP)).

So, beginning today, I will be compiling – in keeping with my commitment to publish only when I have something worth publishing – recaps of a few of the various things I’ve discovered and shared during the previous month, be it via Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, or whatever other social brand made sense in the moment. I won’t be recapping ALL my postings and discoveries (saints preserve us!), but only those that I think still merit review, one month later. As noted above, I’ll be calling this regular entry “In Case You Missed It…”, and I welcome any feedback or input, as always.  So, without further ado, here is the first installment of this regular publication for your enjoyment, information, education, and perhaps even inspiration! (this first posting will cover a little more than the past month, just to get us all caught up):

Fundraising in the New Economy

As many of my readers know, I have been dedicating a big chunk the past couple of years to supporting a small variety of Not-for-Profit Organizations, helping them to strengthen their brand and financial positions during this economic downturn. Many NPOs are still wasting a lot of time pursuing legacy funding channels that no longer deliver the returns they used to bring, at the cost of other revenue generation opportunities. Crowd-sourced and network funding channels abound now, including ProFounder, Kickstarter, Razoo and others. NPOs need to have a dedicated New Funding Director, well-versed in emerging channels (from text-based through Social, and beyond). In July, Mashable published an interesting article offering some tips for NPO mobile campaigning. It was a little simplistic, but a great way to help NPOs start thinking along the right lines.

21st Century Pop

Later that month, I came across a very compelling site called thesixtyone, where “new artists make music and listeners decide what’s good”. Why it took me so long to check this out, I’ll never know, but I’m glad to see it still going strong, and now there’s another offering, exclusively for the iPad, called Aweditorium, which is similar, yet just different enough to make it worth looking in to. While Spotify, Grooveshark, Pandora, Mog, and Last.fm are hands down the best purveyors of mainstream music over the Net, it’s great to see intuitive, crowdsourced music experience such as thesixtyone and Aweditorium. Kudos to Reid Hoffman and Joi Ito for supporting such truly grassroots musical adventures as thesixtyone, and I’m eager to see what sort of UX the iCloud offers, to mitigate the lousy experience that is currently iTunes.

Gee, Plus or Minus

Also in July, I began using Google+, and I must say I am still struggling to adopt it as a preferred social network. I can see some potential, but it is so specifically reliant on the input of users that one wonders whether “we” are enough to ensure ongoing and continually expanding usefulness, beyond the fraternity of early adopters. This network may end up becoming little more than a glorified techie BBS, which is not a bad thing, just not perhaps what everyone had initially expected or hoped for. I yearn to be proven wrong, though, and see this evolve into a deeply enriching experience for a vast cross section of society, sufficiently differentiated from Facebook that it moves beyond being an “either/or” proposition. Other niche social networks are growing strongly, meanwhile, including photography site 500px (an alternative the increasingly messy deviantart).

Incremental Change

I’ve been waging a more than 2-year battle to have a major residential street in Burbank calmed sufficiently to allow for bicycle lanes, a center turn lane, upgraded signalization, and safe pedestrian crossing experiences. Just a few weeks ago, with the help of many friends and professionals, the battle was won, and we now move on to the next street, in this war (at least, that’s what it often feels like!) to make urban living safer, more manageable, and more sustainable.  My efforts were quiet and diplomatic (for the most part!), compared to the impressive actions of people like Vilnius Mayor A.Zuokas and Ed Begley Jr. While we may not all have the discipline, vision, & commitment of Mr. Begley, wouldn’t it be nice if we each moved an inch further in the right direction? Standing still on the issue of sustainable living isn’t going to improve air quality, landfill overflows, urban heat island effect, & the host of other challenges bearing down on us. Whoever said “ignorance is bliss” was a fool (Hello, Thomas Gray). As for the tank stunt: Is it all staged? Perhaps. Does it momentarily fulfill the fondest wish of many a pedestrian, bus driver, and bicyclist around the world? Definitely. The streets of our urban areas are supposed to be for ALL forms of transportation, not just cars. Does your city have the legislative tank commanders necessary to ensure you are able to get around a cleaner city, however you wish, and safely? Think about it, and maybe one or two more of us can act upon it…

In the meantime, while we fight to make our cities more inclusive, many among us are worrying about how our privacy is becoming compromised online. Facebook is certainly not to blame, if you are stupid enough to post drunken/naked/awkward pictures of yourself on your profile, or otherwise upload sensitive data. That’s all on you, bubba! However, your phone number, real estate records, social content, name, age, and so much more are easy to find on the web, regardless of your Facebook activity, thanks to a host of sites you may never have heard of. Clearing the data can be a bit of a headache, but finding all those sites has recently become a whole lot easier: Unlistmy.info is a free service that helps you identify those sites and remove your personal data from their records.

Speaking of records, the results from the 2010 Census came online last month, and they’re interesting to wander around, during your coffee/tea break… (some intriguing questions arise, such as: if all designated races experienced population decline in Los Angeles County, how did the overall population in that California county INCREASE by nearly 300,000 people?). Explore the 2010 Census here (courtesy of CNN).

Keeping The Fire Alight

More recently, Lots of new techie toys have been coming out: iPhone 4S, Amazon Fire Tablet, Kindle Touch, Samsung Galaxy S2 for T-Mobile and others, a couple of new Android tablets, some more Windows phones…Despite high unemployment, and a gasping economy, our almost unconscious desire for the newest consumer tech bauble remains as healthy as ever. At some point we will suddenly wake up to the fact that all these devices are nothing more than toys or tools, and as such need to be either mightily entertaining or extremely useful…and, in both cases, firmly reliable.

Let that day come sooner, rather than later.

The speculation surrounding the Amazon tablet release was perhaps the most feverish, with claims being made that the “Fire” was a potential “iPad Killer”. Despite press reports supporting this dramatic contention, nothing could be further from the truth, IMHO. As I said in one of my Quora answers last month, the new device from Amazon certainly opens up the market, with a price point ($199) that will bring fiscal fence-sitters into the arena. However, the feature-set on the Kindle Fire make it more like a juiced-up iPod Touch than an iPad. The Kindle Fire has no camera, no microphone, and no 3G connectivity. That said, it has two things that the iPad does not have: Amazon Silk and a vast content library (remember, Apps are not content, per se, they are applications!). The iPad will continue (for now) to dominate the upper end of the tablet market, with its dominant app collection and solid device performance. Meanwhile, the Kindle Fire represents a price and feature challenge to the rest of the market (Android and Windows8, essentially). To go out on a limb, just for the heck of it, I’m going to predict that that Kindle Fire does very well in the short term, while the new Kindle e-readers do astonishingly well, once they come out in November. Amazon may well take 2nd place in tablet market share, but not for long, as I have to believe the release of Microsoft’s Windows 8 tablet OS will force the Android Tablets and applications communities to mature at an accelerated pace. Amazon will take 1st place in mobile content delivery, and will keep it, so long as they maintain focus on their existing core capabilities.

I don’t think Mr. Jeff Bezos and Co. are looking to secure early advantage in the tablet race. Their objective is loftier. Amazon is in the multiplatform content delivery market for the long haul, as evidenced by their Kindle ecosystem. While the HTCs, Dells, Samsungs, RIMs, and Motorolas of the world (sorry, HP, but a jailbroken tablet can no longer be considered viable competition) fight it out in their respectively scrappy fashions, Amazon would do well to stick to its proven methodologies: manage and enhance a world-leading library of diverse content; produce competitively priced, robust, yet simple-featured devices; tying it all together with a superior (if still prone to outage) cloud infrastructure,

Market analysts have claimed that everyone who was going to buy a Kindle has already bought one, but the new touchscreen functionality and very affordable price point now position the Kindle e-reader as the only game worth playing in town. The Nook is in serious trouble (trapped between the Kindle Touch and Fire, yet costing almost as much as both combined). Watch for massive sales of this new line of Kindle e-readers, assuming the interface is solid, and the Whispernet deal (free wireless content delivery) stays equally secure.

The Kindle Fire represents a widening of the market for tablet users, not so much a direct challenge to the iPad (although it may convince Apple to lower the price on their current model, and keep it on the market when the next iPad iteration comes out, all depending on whether there is sufficient differentiation between their current model and the next release. Most signs point to this not being the case).

The new line of Kindle e-readers positions Amazon to garner such a massive and insurmountable lead over all other book distributors, digital or otherwise, that the Big 5 publishers are going to have to come back to the table soon, with their tails between their legs. Although Apple’s iBook may have better UI, the Kindle App gives readers a degree of mobility and flexibility that is unmatched.

Amazon is pursuing software and hardware innovations in full support of their core competencies, and the company will prosper mightily as a result. If AWS can reduce outages, and their Cloud infrastructure is able to handle the load that might come to bear when 50 million (or more) tablets and e-readers and other devices call for content at the same time, then Amazon will be the new leading entertainment studio of the 21st century: in charge and in control of distribution more content to more people, in more places, on more devices, than any other entity.

That brings me to the end of September, and I haven’t even mentioned my Twitter postings (tweets). So I’ll just post a few from the beginning of July below, to give you a taste of what you can usually find there! In the meantime, I look forward to next month’s recap and, if you prefer to connect in a more timely fashion, I encourage you to follow my regular (almost daily) tweets on Twitter, and/or my weekly short posts on Facebook.

A few Twitter tweets of note for early July:

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With economies crumbling, politicians posturing, nations in upheaval, and “Wizards of Waverly Place” canceled, one can’t be blamed for thinking humanity has lost its bearings, and all is lost. However, I believe that nothing could be further from the truth.

After decades of conspicuous consumption, corporate and personal greed, and upended priorities, the double-dip depression (that’s what I’ve been calling it, and I’m sticking by it) is forcing many of us to review our lifestyles, and reconsider what is really important. Statistics suggest that the undeniable financial stresses of late are not increasing divorce rates, but rather reversing the trend (divorce rates are down year-on-year since 2008YE), and families are growing closer, with adults moving back in with parents, resulting in shared costs and shared burdens. The high cost of oil (regardless of recent gimmicky dips) is accelerating the drive toward alternative fuel vehicles (here’s hoping that we blast through the not-so-green hybrid and electric cars currently on offer, and really get it right with 2014 models). Citizens of cities around the world are increasingly clamoring for alternative modes of urban transportation (bicycle, pedestrian, public transport), leading to the exciting redesign of urban landscapes – incorporating  complete streets, more green spaces, pedestrian safety, increased access to local retail businesses, air quality improvements, mitigation of obesity rates, and reduction of urban heat island effects.  The process is slow, sometimes painfully so, but it is at least progressive, and I believe accelerated by the pressures brought to bear by our collective and individual financial woes.

The struggles faced by our society are reinvigorating our awareness of the communities within which we live, work, and play. More to the point, they are humanizing an existence that seemed to be losing itself in an entropic vortex of “technology for the sake of it”, rampant consumerism, and material one-upmanship. Individuals are becoming more aware of the truth of our shared reality. Nobody is in this alone, and this noble cliché seems to be reawakening an almost instinctual urge to share what little we have with those around us. The amount of dollars being given to charity may be down, but the number of people making donations  is up. This drive is manifesting itself in some wonderfully strange ways, a few cherry-picked examples offered her below, as evidence:

Airbnb is trying, with varying degrees of success, to connect private homeowners with regular travelers, for mutual benefit. Have an extra room (or whole residence) sitting empty at any particular time of the year? Offer it up for rental, and airbnb will help find a tenant.  As soon as the service manages to work out how to minimize vandalism and theft, and refine the availability calendaring (hopeless at present), it’s going to be fantastic (then again, the moment it solidifies its value proposition, I’m confident one or more of the VC firms backing it will insist it “pivot” to some nonsensical alternative business model, in the hope that ROI might be accelerated).

Meanwhile, one wonders what the point of grassroots lodging is, if one doesn’t have a clue what to do in the city one is visiting. MyGuidie to the rescue! This service, still in alpha mode, is building a database of professional tour guides offering their professional services to travelers seeking to explore a destination properly. However, the real clincher about this site is the fact that it is ALSO registering volunteer locals willing to offer up a little guide time in return for a cold brew or friendly meal! Salacious potential aside, this is civic pride in action.

Don’t rely solely on your guide, however, when you consider that restaurants, museums, and many other places to see and be seen are actively pursuing ways to connect with their customers, fans, and clients. The obvious Foursquare and Facebook check-in mechanisms are but the proverbial tip of the iceberg, marking the spot in an ocean of opportunity. Underneath these well documented landmarks in communications and interconnectivity lie some very compelling niche programs worth checking out, such as – to give but one example among an increasing horde – the Connections program from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where staff are sharing their personal histories and perspectives on art, and overlaying these worldviews on the more specific  touchpoints offered in the museum’s collections.

While on the subject of taking people out to lunch, or visiting a place of interest, it’s intriguing to note that We&Co, a Foursquare outcrop app, is providing users the ability to leverage the increasingly ubiquitous “check-in” to recognize and thank the people who make a particular moment in our day a pleasant one, be it our waiter, retail clerk, dentist, or tour guide.

These are but a few of the apps, sites, and services cropping up (and growing fast) to accelerate this healthy compulsion many of us are experiencing: now that we have less money, perhaps we’ll focus a little less on building or buying more, and  instead take a little more time to show some interest in those things that truly make life worth living: the people and places that comprise our world. As my close personal friend, Henry David Thoreau, once said: What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

Henry David Thoreau, in 1861.
Image via Wikipedia

Last week’s LA Street Summit was both inspiring and frustrating.

It was great to see over 500 people in attendance at this free one-day workshop and networking session – nearly double the number from last year. It was wonderful to observe several corporate leaders and sponsors making their presence known, and it was great to see so many people committed to the idea of livable urban centers, in a community that has long enslaved itself to the automotive culture. The workshops I attended were informative and energetic, and I look forward to this event expanding its reach, if only to “keep the dream alive”.

My frustration stems from an observation that our communities are long on energy and “foot soldier commitment”, but short on policy-making leadership. The difference -at least with respect to the issue of implementing complete streets and sustainability initiatives – between Southern California and New York (from whence guest speaker Janette Sadik-Khan hails) is largely in how government and businesses function, relative to their populace.

Mayor Bloomberg runs the City of New York, and – but for the possibility of bureaucratic opposition from his own lieutenants (and the inevitability of fiscal cuts), he is largely able to manifest his vision of a more sustainable urban metropolis. This is in no small part due to the intelligence, passion, charm, and drive of his Transportation Commissioner, Ms. Sadik-Khan. What she has accomplished, over the course of the past 3 years, is a success story likely to propel her into President Obama’s cabinet, or at least in to the history books, as an example of policy-making leadership, urban vision, and community spirit.  It is also due to the fact that businesses in Manhattan welcome the idea (albeit sometimes begrudgingly) of making more navigable and accessible the 60% of the city’s real estate that comprises the streets and open spaces. If people can get around more easily, they’ll hang around for longer, they’ll wander around more agreeably and, as statistics are already showing, retail sales will go up, rentals will rise, and home sales will skyrocket. No need to even mention the more obvious social, environmental, and medical benefits.

Meanwhile, back in SoCal, or LA County to be specific (since the OC has made quite a good start, I must admit), policy-making leadership and visionary municipal governance are apparently as welcome in the council chambers of Burbank, Beverly Hills, and Los Angeles (among others) as Universal Health Care Legislation is at a Tea Party Rally. The various municipal councils seem utterly incapable of committing to any endeavor that does not have granular buy-in from 95% of their constituency. They (council members) argue that their role is to represent the people, but I offer the counter-argument that sometimes we, the people, are not in the best position to make and manifest policy. Democracy gives us the right to elect those whose beliefs most closely resemble our own, and to neglect those who do not aspire, or have failed, to deliver on promises which we hold dear. Great change rarely is manifest by a committee, and meanwhile, our streets become gridlocked, our air thickens with smog, our children grow obese, and we increasingly sequester ourselves in our hermetically sealed homes, with our 3 cars sitting in the driveway, and the light from 5 TVs permeating each household.

Yet, we are still far enough from the point of despair suggested by some of my above comments that we – business leaders, political activists, residents, taxpayers, et al – have a great chance to do our part, if we are not doing it already.

If you own a business, have you ensured that it welcomes and supports your employee and customer/client efforts to walk/bike/bus/metro to and from your location? We should focus a little less on building massive parking lots above and beneath our offices, and behind our stores and restaurants. If city ordinances demand it, we must campaign for alternatives. Instead of 3 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet, why not 2 spaces and 12 bicycle stands? Better yet, why not measure and manage community parking spaces from a truly communal perspective. Perhaps metrics should be managed on a neighborhood basis, and not “per-business”…

If you work with, in, on, or within spitting distance of municipal government (especially if you are an engineer), rediscover the joy of innovation! Stop MANAGING the problem of urban sprawl, gridlock, and parking, and start SOLVING it. Putting a lid on a boiling pot of water, does not cool the water, it merely delays, and eventually renders explosive, the challenge.

If you live, work, or play in an urban locale, make 2010 the year when you will (a) ask your employer about alternative transportation options, or offer your employees incentives to explore said alternatives; (b) explore your city’s rail, bus, and pedestrian networks (make it a family adventure!); and (c) challenge your municipal leadership to demonstrate the type of vision and commitment that was so warmly shown at last weekend’s Street Summit.

It needn’t happen overnight. Baby steps. One step at a time. One cycle at a time…but let’s keep moving:

(Links courtesy of lastreetsummit.org):

VIDEO:

AUDIO:

  • Go Play in the Street: New York’s Transportation Commissioner Wants to Re-work Los Angeles (KPCC)
  • Streetscast: Full Audio of Janette Sadik-Kahn’s Speech Last Night (L.A. Streetsblog)
  • Streetscast: StreetSummit Speakers Inspire, Educate and Rally Livable Streets Advocates (L.A. Streetsblog)

 

ARTICLES:

  • A New Route to a Better L.A. (Huffington Post)
  • Sadik-Khan Packs the House, Then Brings It Down (L.A. Streetsblog)
  • NYC Commissioner Says L.A. Should Quickly Move on Transportation Pilot Programs (LAist)
  • Streeeeeet-Summiiiiiiiiiit(Urban Adonia)
  • Carless Streets and Creative Thinking: What LA Can Learn from NYC (Curbed LA)
  • Why StreetSummit was just the 2nd most inspiring thing I saw this weekend (BikingInLA)
  • L.A. Street Summit, The Time Is Now, Let’s Kick Some Ass (Gary Rides Bikes)
  • Janette Sadik-Khan on Changing the Transportation Game (Urbanophile)