Odds are, you’ve pondered off-hand the nature of our shared and individual reality. Am I real? Is anything real? To most mature, sober adults, the consideration seems absurd. But there are some that think this a possibility not only worth pondering, but investigating. Believe it or not, many philosophers, physicists, and futurists think there’s a good chance the answer to both queries is “no.”
You may have heard of simulation theory before. It’s been most notably depicted in the Matrix Trilogy, wherein Keanu Reeves’ Neo discovers that his reality is a computer simulation created by sentient machines that control humanity. Simulation theory is basically that, but without a robotic antagonist and human bodies in pods. If human consciousness can be simulated, the theory goes, we could be all be characters in a virtual reality and never even know it.
The case for simulation
Why on earth(s) would this be the case? This is where the sci-fi element gets a bit more plausible. The first rationality is statistical. Assuming it is possible for humans to simulate reality in the future, post-humans would have the ability to run countless simulations, potentially of their ancestors (us), all at once. Statistically, then, it would be infinitely more likely to be part of one of these simulations than not.
Considering the rate of improvement in video games and virtual reality—by which we’ve gone from “Snake” to photorealistic VR in half a century—it seems unlikely that humans won’t someday reach this point. If you are a technological optimist and think humans can and will create simulations down the line, you’ll have to accept the probability that it’s happened already, and here we are. This belief also lends itself to the theory of nested realities, by which people in simulations create more simulations, forming a chain of virtual worlds.
Some scientists have equated the realization (if it could ever be proven) with Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth moves around the sun. Once you get it, everything else becomes simpler. If we are indeed part of a simulation, it may explain why, against great odds, we evolved from ooze into conscious beings. If this rare and miraculous evolution happened just once, trillions upon trillions could relive it in simulations. It could also explain why the universe is based on mathematical laws, and why objects are only measurable once they are observed.
The hypothesis was first laid out by Oxford philosopher and futurologist Nick Bostrom in 2003, but has since piqued the interest of prominent scientists. Elon Musk, for his part, thinks that there is a billion to one chance we are living in base reality. He also says we should hope we are, because if not civilization could be near its end. NASA scientist Nick Terrile agrees. “If one progresses at the current rate of technology a few decades into the future,” he tells the Guardian, “very quickly we will be a society where there are artificial entities living in simulations that are much more abundant than human beings.”
Is it possible to test such a hypothesis? Two Silicon Valley billionaires, for their part, have enlisted scientists to try and figure it out. Some things to look for would be irregularities, finite points that prove the universe isn’t endlessly expansive, or evidence of a creator “cutting corners.” But perhaps the only real solution would be to succeed at simulating reality and consciousness. In this regard, we have a long way to go.
What it would mean—and should we worry?
The greater question is, if we are to accept simulation theory (or somehow prove it), does it even matter? Is it good for the world, or bad? The revelation might inspire a sense of purpose in some, causing them to do more to make things interesting for the game-maker. This seems like a stretch—personally, I can’t imagine a collectively positive reaction in today’s day and age.
Casting a tidal wave a doubt over the world’s religious billions, for starters, would the extinguish (or at least badly damage) the moral purpose of huge portions of the population. People would question the meaning of their day-to-day lives and struggles, and be embittered by the idea of a mortal creator watching for amusement. If there were concrete proof of a simulation, humanity would doubtless attempt to make contact, or cause enough of a commotion to merit intervention. This would be a recipe for mass anarchy.
Lest I end this on a dark note, it’s worth taking a moment to realize that whether or not we are in a simulation, the odds of us proving it any time soon are miniscule. And there are perfectly good reasons to disbelieve the theory entirely. Simulations rely on physical properties, after all, and it boggles the mind to think of the time, space, and effort necessary to create a perfect, mammoth simulation that grasps the minuscule details of reality so expertly. Think of it this way: if simulated water tastes and hydrates just like water, is it a simulation anymore, or just water? Further, there is no evidence yet that computation can replicate consciousness on any level.
There will probably be no real answer to this question in our lifetime, and simulation theory is in this way kind of like religion. If believing in it drives us to be better people, and strive for an improved, advanced humanity, I may still call it creepy, but I won’t knock it.
If the concept alone drives us to mayhem, well… it wouldn’t be the first time belief in a higher power led to war.
You may not know the term tactical urbanism, but you have probably seen evidence of this recent movement if you live in or near a city. Tactical urbanism can look like a parking space converted into a mini park; handmade pedestrian signs; manmade public spaces, reclaimed from the road; sidewalk gardens; and pop-up markets, to name a few examples. Tactical urbanism is essentially citizens taking city planning into their own hands through small-scale, transient projects meant to enhance their lives and their neighbors’ lives by improving their urban environment.
The movement fits into a pattern of citizen activism and limited civic funds, thanks to the recent economic downturn, while addressing the reality of aging infrastructure. City dwellers have responded by taking matters into their own hands, with the aim of improving matters short term, demonstrating proof of concept, and solidifying changes in the long term through official channels.
Tactical urbanism is iterative, like the agile development processes of many startups and tech companies. Projects are thrown up overnight (in some cases literally), and citizens see what sticks. The tactical urbanism handbook, published by the Street Plans Collaborative, is similarly adaptable. The first edition of the handbook Short-term Action for Long-term Change is credited with helping to popularize the movement by collecting and publishing tried-and-true techniques for other municipalities to replicate. The strategies outlined in the guide have been vetted on the ground, and this may be likelier to succeed long term. The tactics are also assessed through case studies focusing on different cities. While these reforms are scaleable in the sense that they can be replicated, they are by nature community-instigated, they don’t lose their grassroots.
The most recent edition of the DIY urban intervention manual focuses on materials. “The Tactical Urbanist’s Guide to Materials and Design dives into the details of pop-up urbanism: when to use tape or paint or chalk, how to choose the right materials for temporary barriers, and more.” Temporary materials are usually cheaper, and also often the better choice for the job. Tactical urbanism sometimes runs up existing regulations, like traffic lanes, for example. The project might be reversed immediately, so wasting money and effort on expensive permanent materials serves no purpose. Often these projects illustrate a desired improvement to city planners and government officials, who would be responsible for making it permanent.
Although tactical urbanism cannot solve larger issues like infrastructure, it can make cities more livable and comfortable in the immediate future. It also creates an open channel of communication between citizens and government officials, encouraging dialogue with residents about neighborhoods improvements. Some have expressed concern that tactical urbanism can exacerbate inequality: that only the privileged can dedicate time to such projects, and that engaging in activities that skirt the law is riskier for some. In the spirit of tactical urbanism, projects intended to benefit the community must be conceived as inclusive and accessible to all.
New York City is a hotbed of engaged citizens with good ideas, useful skill sets, and activist tendencies, all living in a sprawling urban jungle, where pedestrians constantly wage war against cars. Unsurprisingly, tactical urbanism has already been deployed here to good effect, and sometimes initiated by the city itself. The oasis in Time Square that reclaims street space for pedestrians is an example of a temporary measure becoming permanent after it was well received. Sidewalk gardens, pop-up markets, and other creative city hacks are already a commonplace sight around the five boroughs. Tactical urbanism will undoubtedly continue and thrive here, deepening the dialogue between an engaged citizenry and their local government.
In New York City, the goal to merge innovation with government is apparent on various fronts. This objective has been about a decade in the making, and while we’re only scratching the service of its potential, NYC has made great strides.
For various reasons, the public sector often lags behind when it comes to technology and innovation. While some of such reasons are valid, the tendency can be overcome. Opportunities aplenty lie in wake, especially on a city level where governments have more autonomy.
Partnering with the private sector is the best strategy thus far for bringing innovative solutions to public sector issues. Following are some of the most notable ways NYC’s public sector is bringing innovation into its governing, and what this means for the future of city government.
NYC’s Office of Tech and Innovation
In 2014, New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Tech and Innovation (MOTI) was launched. According to their website, the office “facilitates citywide coordination and collaboration on technology issues, serves as a catalyst for and advises agencies on innovation, and interacts with the wider New York City technology ecosystem.”
The office was started by Mayor De Blasio, who made it his mission to help New York City become the most innovative city in the world. Whether you love or hate De Blasio, this initiative has already made a measurable impact in its creation of tech-driven public initiatives.
The idea, according to the Mayor’s office, is to “expand economic opportunity and reinvent government for the 21st century.” MOTI’s website continues, “We will continue to attract the top talent to New York City, deepen our efforts to grow and foster local talent through education and workforce development programs.”
It should be mentioned that New York City has been leaning into private-public partnerships long before De Blasio. As one example, NYC BigApp competitions have been happening annually since 2009, challenging “developers, designers, and entrepreneurs to create functional, marketable tech tools that help solve pressing civic challenges.”
What BigApp has been accomplishing for seven years is similar to what MOTI is currently undertaking in different city departments. The city puts out calls for innovation (CFIs) and accepts proposals from individuals, startups, and companies.
CFIs are “an open solicitation of ideas and proposals that aims to help define the urban challenges facing our city.” There are currently several CFIs: two from the New York City Housing Authority, seeking solutions for electrical and heating issues, one from the NYC Department of Education, seeking data models for public schools, and one seeking ideas to bring broadband internet to all New Yorkers.
Besides from CFIs, MOTI has over a dozen innovative projects underway already. One of these is LinkNYC, “a system of 7,500+ high-tech public communications structures that….will each provide completely free, ultra-high speed encrypted Wi-Fi service (up to 1 Gigabit in speed) out to a radius of 150 feet….[and] provide free domestic phone calls, free emergency 911 calls and non-emergency 311 calls, and free cell phone charging stations.”
Other projects include the Department of Transportation’s Midtown in Motion, a program meant to improve traffic using sensors and data collection; the NYPD’s IdeaScale pilot project, which allows neighborhood residents submit issues they want addressed by their local precincts; and the Department of Education’s Short Cycle Evaluation Challenge, which lets educators pilot new edtech products.
Looking to the future
As we push further into the future, technology is quickly, and inevitably, following suit. We will all be in good shape is the government stays as up-to-date as possible. When innovation is saturated in both the public and private sector, and the two work together to public benefit, the economy and people will thrive as a result. NYC is a great example of this theory in action, and hopefully other cities will follow its example.
Smartphones have become a crutch–a portable hub–for many users in our permanently plugged-in society. Although they can make our lives infinitely easier, the control and influence they exert over our habits can be alarming. The limitations of current technology (battery life, for examples) impacts us in an exaggerated fashion.
I’m often put out when I see people checking their phones during dinner, for example; it’s as if basic etiquette has been erased by a base desire for connection. It’s true that smartphones have some great qualities improving society and humanity, but they are also driving mass dependence.
Here are five surprising ways in which people rely on their smart phones.
1. Information Directory
Many people use their phone as a kind of external hard drive for the storage of vital information, like phone numbers and other contact information. Your phone may also store passwords and house other critical access information, as phones are often used in money management and health monitoring.
Even something as simple and powerful as your location can be monitored by your phone and used to personalize directions for your convenience. If your phone dies while out and about, you could lose directions to where you’re going and not know what number to call to let your friends know.
According to research by Canadian psychologists published in Computers in Human Behavior, “those who think more intuitively and less analytically when given reasoning problems were more likely to rely on their Smartphones (i.e., extended mind) for information in their everyday lives.” In other words, offloading information to technology erodes our ability to think intuitively, effortfully, and analytically.
2. Internet Access
Some people rely on their phone for internet access, choosing to forgo service from internet providers like Fios, Comcast, or Time Warner in favor of a simple cellular data plan. In this case, your phone serves as a conduit to the vast and increasingly vital data stream that is the internet. Like an umbilical cord, this option makes it almost impossible to disconnect.
Separation from phones, then, can lead to a perceived loss of information. According to Psychology Today, “having virtually any fact available at our fingertips creates an enriched environment that may make it more difficult to process information when we’re cut off.”
Our realities have been so changed by access to the Internet — whether it’s Google or SnapChat — that loss of Internet has become akin to loss of a sense like taste or smell, without which the world is totally different.
For all that smart phones now offer a dizzying array of ways to connect–via phone, video conference, text, email, social media and do on–they also seem to serve as a buffer for face-to-face communication. People rely on their phones more and more to communicate virtually, in many cases minimizing in person interaction. And people are handling increasingly intimate and delicate via these digital channels.
The inevitable impact of this effect is evident but the extent remains to be seen, as does the root cause. Maybe phones offer too many communication options. Or maybe people opt to connect with more people via these channels than they could reasonably do in person. Maybe people prefer these channels because they offer more superficial or deeper connections than in-person meetings.
Whatever the case, the ability to communicate digitally has had a measurable effect on people. The way we talk has changed, and studies have found that mobile communication correlates with an increase in face-to-face social anxiety among school-age children.
4. Digital rather than Physical
Just as virtual interaction has increased with the presence of smart phones, so have the online alternatives to physical chores, like shopping. The convenience of the smartphone makes it easier to order something online than to visit the actual store. Thus, the burgeoning digital network is reducing humans’ physical footprint.
The impact of this is manifold. It may seem like an oversimplification to claim it’s made us lazy, but the sheer amount of mobile services available supports this assumption: people can use their phones to delegate errands, order food, buy groceries, tour houses, acquire movies, music, and entertainment, all without leaving their couch.
That doesn’t mean we’re literally dependent on our phones for these things, but it does make physical shopping feel like an inconvenience.
Although virtual reality is now possible with your phone, looking at everything through the camera lens is its own kind of virtual reality. As phones became an increasingly essential part of everyday life, the camera came along for the ride. Now built into almost every smartphone, the camera creates a filter for reality, a Pokémon Go-like overlay, a digital portal.
With a camera accessible at almost all times, pictures, videos, and live streams became an increasingly important stand-in for real life, fueling the immediacy of social networks. When you go about daily life with a camera in hand, you end up looking through a certain kind of lens that can prevent you from fully partaking in the moment. You may even end up conflating your memories of an event with the media context of event records.
Altogether, it’s clear that mobile technology has become a phantom-like limb with new senses that we’ve become very accustomed to. While in some contexts this may seem like a superpower, we’d all do best to keep in mind that there is more to life than tech — and if our dependence level is high enough, we might be missing it.
This generation and the next have large shoes to fill–and extra work to do–when it comes to maintaining the culture, history, and integrity of cities like New York. As time goes by, any community’s essence can be eroded if it isn’t preserved and enhanced. That doesn’t seem to be the case in New York City, where public initiatives, institutions, and charity projects are encouraging young people to take an active interest in their communities.
It takes a passion for civic engagement, culture, and history to ensure a brighter future and a remembered past. It can be a challenge to light such ambitions in young people, and while many older millennials are already on board, teenagers remain especially difficult to reach.
Getting young people involved and dedicated to their city early on is key. Luckily, it seems we’re already nurturing an active and informed youth that will eventually take the reigns when it comes to the betterment of NYC.
When we think of who is involved on community boards, it’s often an older crowd that comes to mind, and for good reason—one community board in the Bronx, for example, is comprised half of members over age 50. Recently there has been a push for diversity on NYC community boards, and a bill passed to bring down the age limit to 16. Since this bill, five 16- and 17-year olds were appointed in the Bronx, six in Manhattan, and eight in Brooklyn.
Teens bring a unique perspective to the table when it comes to community betterment. They have insight into issues older board members may not, and can bring fresh solutions to the table as well. The hope is that such involvement will not only add depth to the boards, but kickstart young careers in public service.
The problem is that while young people are idealistic and want to change the world, few want to do so through public service. Young people are disenchanted by the political system, and it’s not hard to see why given today’s political climate. Polarization is rampant and hostility high during an election between two historically disliked candidates. Local politics may be slightly better, but numbers indicate that youth would prefer to get involved elsewhere.
We’ll see if the encouragement of groups like Generation Citizen will empower more students to become engaged and effective citizens with bright futures in the political realm.
Beyond politics, young people developing interest in cultural institutions will help keep art and culture in New York City at the forefront of its evolution. As the cultural capital of the country, New York City is defined by its many museums and cultural hubs.
In September, The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs began an initiative to improve the involvement and diversity at the city’s cultural institutions by financing paid internships for students. Many of these kids will be lower-income or minority students, adding even greater sense of diversity into the equation. According to Cultural Affairs commissioner, Tom Finkelpearl, “The idea is not to just expose people in the short term, but encourage the institutions to stay in touch with these young people, foster their growth, and maybe hire them in the long run.”
Cultural institutions and periphery organizations and businesses have been doing their part to get young people involved as well. For example, the National AfterSchool Association partnered with 19 institutions across all five boroughs to sponsor experiential, educational events through a program called Adventures in Innovation. Activities that stimulate curiosity in young minds are good for the future of these institutions and the youth they inspire.
Museums like the Guggenheim are also increasingly courting the Millennial generation as future trustees and donors. By hosting events like the Young Collectors Party, cultural institutions can get young people involved early in a path toward board membership. Says Ford W. Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums, “The generational shift is something a lot of museums are talking about….The traditional donors are either dying, stepping back or turning it over to their children or grandchildren.”
Charities & Volunteering
Lastly, cities like New York will always thrive when its citizens, old and young, involve themselves in charity work. Unfortunately, volunteering rates have been dropping over the years and it’s not clear exactly why.
There are several hypotheses on white might be keeping younger generations from charity work. For one, youth are often financially constrained, which would certainly hold them back from making donations. This is especially true in NYC where cost of living and education high. Secondly, technology and social media have become the new normal, potentially rendering in-person volunteering obsolete and uncomfortable.
How do we overcome these potential issues? Charity has changed, becoming increasingly mobile, so nonprofits that can make digital donations easy will have better luck reaching Millennials. Programs that provide educational and career incentives for volunteer work are also key.
Because younger generations are idealists, they want their contributions to count. As a result, nonprofits are courting young startups, many of which are run by millennials, with partnerships. In New York City, businesses that align themselves with causes attract young talent, allowing young people “give back” in a way that doesn’t interfere with busy work schedules.
All things considered, it appears that New York City’s youth have the ability to step up with the help of some great initiatives. It’s clear that New Yorkers of every generation love their city and want to see it thrive beyond our time–if we all work together to preserve and enhance our communities, there is no doubt NYC will continue to be as rich in culture as it is influential and unique. But youngsters, take note: the city won’t maintain itself.
This article was originally published on Entrepreneur.com
Your entrepreneurial venture can’t be successful in a vacuum. Whether you are a web-based company without local ties, a small business rooted in one neighborhood or a real estate company in the thick of many regions, you can take the lead on contributing to local communities in a number of ways.
Doing so will increase your visibility among potential customers and will also promote social good to enhance the community you are involved in. Investing some of your time and resources into improving the local quality of life can have a ripple effect and be a valuable part of your business mission as your company evolves.
Here are some of the most impactful ways to stay engaged with the local community and enhance the community as a whole.
1. Sponsor non-profit organizations in the community.
Whether you are affiliated with a non-profit organization through your own personal efforts as an entrepreneur, or are simply looking for new ways to give back, consider sponsoring a worthy organization as a company. You could join events, like Startups Give Back, to connect with businesses that need your company’s help.
Many local organizations are looking for company sponsors to cover the costs of major events and some administrative expenses. They will do their part to promote your generosity through their marketing efforts, which can help you get more visibility in the community. You can also promote the organization in your own marketing collateral as a major sponsor.
2. Incorporate volunteering in the company mission.
Make a passion for social good part of your company’s mission so you and your employees can give back to the community together. Whether you are organizing food drives, volunteering at a soup kitchen or building houses, volunteering can create a sense of kinship and also serve as a team-building activity.
Consider organizing group volunteer sessions with your employees and encouraging team members to share their volunteer contributions with the rest of the staff. Encouraging a spirit of volunteerism and giving back within your mission statement – and through ways you operate as a company — can be beneficial to both team members and the community at large.
3. Design a business model that gives back.
If you are in retail or any other type of product sales business, consider donating a portion of the profits of each sale automatically.
If you are in the service business, you could design a business model that gives a portion of the proceeds to a charity or other non-profit organization. The goal is to automate the donation to a non-profit so that all customers and clients are aware that a portion of their purchase ends up with a good cause.
If your business can organically incorporate community enhancement into its ethos, that’s even better. The real estate industry is a natural candidate for such efforts, as developers have hands-on experience with neighborhood development projects and can take input from community representatives.
As your business gains momentum, you should consider branching out to more than one charitable organization or community project to serve as a philanthropist. As writer Annie Pilon explains in this article, “When you give to your community, the community tends to give back to you.”
4. Contribute to the local economy.
Make a commitment to buy supplies and raw materials from local vendors and partner with local businesses for any services and other business-related purchases.
Your purchases and investments will contribute to the local economy and may prompt business owners you work with to recommend you to other contacts or customers. Establish strong relationships with these vendors and partners as you develop and build your company to develop a solid reputation.
Opening new businesses or building new properties or even green spaces, like parks, can enhance a community by drawing in foot traffic and tourism. New visitors will patronize local businesses, stimulating the economy.
5. Promote local businesses.
In addition to being an active participant of the local economy’s ecosystem, you can take the lead on promoting other local businesses through co-marketing efforts or simply through referrals.
Encourage your customers to patronize local businesses that complement your’s, and they may even do the same in kind. The goal is to create a sense of community and camaraderie among other business owners since you are all invested in selling and marketing to the same customers.
Whether you work in technology, real estate or food service, there are various ways you can connect with the local community through your entrepreneurial venture. Showing your support for non-profits and community organizations can help you build value, both within the organization as you encourage a spirit of volunteerism and philanthropy, and with your customers as you show you are invested in your local community’s quality of life and future.
Volunteering can prepare young people for the world, both career-wise and on a personal level.
This article was originally published on Entrepreneur.com
With the weight of the world’s future resting on modern students, young people are bombarded with advice from the get-go on college majors, internships, salaries and beyond. On some level, it’s understandable: this world is a competitive one and we all want success for ourselves, our families, our economy. But what if instead of entering the workforce with money and power as the only goal posts, our careers were informed by developing our more selfless interests, too?
For me, volunteering was not so much a choice I made than it was something I felt compelled to do, partly due to my Jewish heritage and partly due to my urge to make a difference. After joining Dartmouth College Hillel’s Project Preservation, I led two separate trips to Eastern Europe — Belarus and the Ukraine, respectively — where my classmates and I worked to rebuild Jewish cemeteries destroyed under Nazi occupation.
These trips were incredibly formative for me, perhaps more so than any classes I took during my college career. By the time I graduated and moved to New York to start my career in real estate, I better understood my abilities and instincts not only as a businessman but as a human.
Some people are so eager to get out there and start working their way up the corporate ladder that they forget to develop their sense of self. I think volunteering is one way to prepare young people for the world to come, both career-wise and on personal level. Here’s why:
Volunteering gives you a sense of perspective.
It’s easy to have an inflated sense of self-worth as a young person; some may even say it’s natural. But the last thing you want entering the workforce is to preserve this state of invincibility — you are not and never will be invincible. On a similar note, your problems are not the only ones that matter; the world can be your oyster if you want it to be, but it isn’t yours alone.
Volunteering knocked me down a couple of pegs. Knowing — and witnessing, via the destruction of their cemeteries — how the Jewish people suffered under Nazi occupation, my perspective on life was altered. It didn’t matter as much if a teacher, friend, or colleague didn’t like me. I could handle my personal and professional issues with a level head.
Most forms of volunteering involve providing aid to those in need. When you have the privilege to be on the helping side and not the needy side, you realize how blessed you are. This attitude goes a long way when you start your career without a chip on your shoulder.
It helps with time management.
Juggling volunteering with academics, family, and a social life was not an easy feat for me; nor I imagine would it be for anyone. One major reason people don’t volunteer is because they think they don’t have the time.
You could really make this excuse for anything: “I don’t have time to go to the gym,” some say, or “I don’t have time to cook.” True, some people may not have the time for volunteering, let alone other activities, but the truth is most of us can make time if we want to. This takes time management, and a lot of it.
Being able to juggle school with volunteering and an active personal life is good preparation for the workforce. Young professionals often get a grunt of the workload and are expected to handle it if they want to advance. Volunteering teaches you to manage your time in an organized way so that you can balance your priorities and still squeeze in the occasional happy hour.
You develop new skills and passions.
Few people choose organizations to volunteer for arbitrarily. Finding a philanthropy that fits your personality and values can be just as important as finding a career that does and I would make the case that finding the former first helps with the latter.
Through volunteering, I learned how to be a leader; I learned to value teamwork and collaboration. Looking back, I can also see the parallels between my volunteer work and the career I’ve built since then. In Eastern Europe I restored and rebuilt cemeteries to preserve their histories; today, I oversee real estate development and restorations in historic NYC neighborhoods. It’s not the same, but there are overlapping themes about preserving history and community I’d be foolish to deny.
People who volunteer with animals from a young age may find that they want to go into veterinary sciences, or they may simply develop a strong compassion for underdogs. People who help the homeless may pursue careers in government, or they may learn not to judge colleagues by their appearance or income level. Whether a big or small, the impact on your career is almost certain to be positive.
It looks great on a resume.
There’s no denying that for all of volunteering’s personal benefits, it’s also something that can boost your resume by adding experience and depth. Philanthropy helps candidates stand out to employers in a positive way, especially if the company is a socially-minded one looking for a cultural fit.
For me, volunteering was key to defining my professional and personal identity, a link without which the whole of my persona would not stay strong. Whether I knew it or not at the time, my experience became a critical foundation for my success today, defining both who I am and who I want to be.
When it comes to cities, the word sustainable comprises much more than the environmental connotation acquired in recent decades. As any cement-pounding city dweller can attest, sustainable applies to basic living conditions, as well as environmentally-friendly practices. So it makes sense to assess cities’ sustainability in terms of residents. After all, what qualifies a city as a city, if not for the people?
Cities must not only retain but attract people: to persist and grow, to pay for services provided, and even to turn a profit. So it also makes sense to score cities on financial stability.
And beyond its residents and economic standing, cities have to adapt. In the current climate, that urban adaptation often takes the form of environmental policy.
So while cities have been coined green and smart, what really makes a city sustainable?
Recent surveys generally give scores in three categories: people, planet, and profit, according to Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Index, assembled by the London-based Center for Economics and Business Research. No city has managed to perfectly balance these three tentpoles yet. As more and more people gravitate toward urban centers, that sweet spot remains a moving target. Factors like population growth and climate change affect a city’s sustainability score from year-to-year, and though circumstances seem to primarily impact one target, the three are closely intertwined. Hence, the Sustainable Cities Index, intended to reflect a city’s overall health: “not to create a hierarchy of elite cities,” emphasizes John Batten, Arcadis’s Global Director of Water and Cities, “but to indicate areas of opportunity.”
The necessity of comparison brings us back to examination of the term city. Although you can compose a checklist of characteristics that constitute a city, no entity of that name will reflect those characteristics in quite the same way. In a column tracking minimum population, for example, you may see similar numbers, but not the wildly varying demographics they represent.
Again, John Batten puts these statistics in perspective: “‘Cities have unique identities that are heavily influenced by their cityscape, economy and culture. Some cities, particularly established European cities such as Zurich which tops our index, are positioned within a moderate climate and have an economically balanced population which gives them a clear advantage when it comes to their sustainability. Others have to deal with issues including extreme climates, rapid urbanization and lack of financial resources which can hold them back.’”
So, with all these disclaimers about awarding cities of all shapes and sizes with number scores that constitute a somewhat arbitrary measure of sustainability, how can these cities take cues from each other? Specifically, what can the relatively high-scoring New York City learn from the similarly successful Toronto?
The Sustainable Cities Index operates on a scale from 100, and Zurich tops the charts with a score near 75. New York is ranked overall 26th out of 100 cities surveyed, and Toronto comes in at 33rd. However, the cities’ scores are not far off from each other: New York scored 62.9% overall, and Toronto 61.7%. And while New York earned the title of most sustainable North American city for 2016, Toronto held that title in 2015, for the first Sustainable Cities Index report.
The cities’ sub-scores reveal a more detailed makeup: in the people category, Toronto actually beat New York, with a sub-score of 62.3% compared to New York’s 53.4%, placing them 40th and 77th out of 100 cities. They scored similarly in the planet section: Toronto at 68.1% and New York at 66.1%, ranking 28th and 33rd in this category. The profit category explains why New York outranks Toronto on the Index: New York scored 69.3% in this category and Toronto scored 54.8%, leaving them at 8th and 38th in this section.
So if New York is to look to Toronto for ways to improve its sustainability score, the planet and particularly the people sub-scores give some indication. Each city’s rating in the people sub-section is comprised of scores in several sub-categories: education, health, demographics, income inequality, affordability, work-life balance, and crime. The biggest discrepancies between Toronto and New York can be found in income inequality (10.7% > 6.5%); crime (13.2 % > 10.1%); and affordability (7.1% > 0.2%).
The planet sub-score is based on environmental risks, green spaces, energy, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, waste management, drinking water and sanitation. The most significant differences between Toronto and New York here are environmental risks (9.9% > 7.6%); energy (8.6% > 6.5%); and air pollution (13.4% > 12.1%).
Toronto has been especially successful in energy efficiency, waste management, and water. Toronto is one of the top three cities for ensuring a robust, effective, and healthy water supply, while New York’s resources are considered more vulnerable. Indeed, the report highlights some of New York’s perceived weaknesses, including poverty, an overburdened transportation infrastructure, and rising sea levels forecasting more storms, flooding, and other natural disasters.
Toronto, on the other hand, will have to deal with a 25% population increase expected in the next 15 years. “According to a report presented by the city, Toronto has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 25% since 1990 and expects to improve that number to 30% by 2030 even amid the city`s population growth, which has seen the metropolitan area swell to six million as of February 2015.”
Hopefully these sustainability assessments and metrics encourage cities around the globe to learn from each other and the myriad issues faced by such complex cosmopolitan organisms in the coming century.
Coworking is widely considered to be the face of the changing workplace. As The Atlantic reports: “By 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 40 percent of the U.S. workforce will be freelancers, temps, independent contractors and entrepreneurs who single-handedly run their own businesses.” With an increasing emphasis on the “‘workplace of choice,’” the young workforce will inevitably transform what is now considered a trend into the new norm.
An entire industry has sprung up in the past decade to cater to the needs of this young entrepreneurial and independent-minded set. According to The Atlantic, “Shared workspaces first started as informal arrangements: Freelancers with extra space in their garage invited friends to work with them and groups of freelancers leased office space together to make it more affordable.” But new coworking spaces can offer much more than just physical accommodations: services, amenities, digital platforms, flexibility, networking opportunities, and–most importantly–a sense of community. As Tom Lloyd observes in Forbes, “‘Office work is transforming from one dominated by clerical processing to one where making the most of human capital is the ultimate goal. The knowledge economy is fueled by ideas, and ideas are fueled by collaboration.’”
In accordance with this idea, Inc.com notes that “the number of coworking spaces in America has gone from one to 781 since 2005.” The article references a report by the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, which also distinguishes coworking spaces from other startup organizations like incubators and accelerators. There is every reason to believe this growth will continue. Hiring in the tech, advertising, media, and internet industries is increasing one-tenth annually, and these sectors most often make use of coworking space, according to Jason Bram, economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
New York by itself has seen the emergence of more than 50 new coworking spaces to support its entrepreneurial citizens. This is partly thanks to an injection of venture capital–49% from 2014 to 2015, exceeding $7 billion–as well as a population of 4.7 million freelancers and the city’s signature “creative abilities to make the most out of tight spaces.” The explosive growth of New York-based WeWork provides an illustrative example: since it was founded in 2010, WeWork has “leased 3 million square feet in New York City alone, […] enough to fill the Empire State Building, with 200,000 square feet left over.” The number of New York WeWork locations is already in the double digits, not to mention its U.S. urban expansion and international outreach, and it has signed “20,000 tenants in less than five years.”
With widely-available communications technology, the burgeoning freelance economy (driven in part by the fallout of the 2009 recession), and a renewed focus on work-life balance, coworking spaces can offer benefits that traditional companies and office buildings cannot. Shlomo Silber, the founder of New York-based coworking chain Coworkrs, tells Crain that coworking ”’is about hospitality, in terms of focusing and taking care of the needs of our members.’” In fact, even big companies have recognized the perks of coworking spaces: benefits for employees such as networking and innovation as well as cost-savings on property rentals. According to Colliers International, “Fortune 100 companies are increasingly taking desks in temporary facilities, both as a cost cutting measure and as a bridge to attracting and retaining talent by providing environments that cultivate a mix of networking, training, team events, and ideation. WeWork is accommodating tenants with large numbers of employees by offering full floors and modifying space for security, reception, IT, etc.“
This kind of accommodation–as well as the meteoric rise of coworking companies such as WeWork–has led some freelancers and entrepreneurs to ironically label these chain coworking companies as ‘corporate.’ Indeed, several founders of successful coworking spaces have discussed the difficulty of manufacturing community. As Kevin Smith, founder of the Vault–a San Francisco-based co-working space–reflects, “‘Collaboration’ is a word you hear a lot, and it’s this almost-mythic concept. […] You’re supposed to put people in a building, and the collaboration will just happen; but it doesn’t unless someone is there directing the show.’” Adam Neumann, founder of WeWork, also comments in The Atlantic: “‘It’s a science. […] We cannot force community, but we can create an environment that encourages it. We’ve gathered massive amounts of data about how to design a space to foster collaboration.’ WeWork has done research into design questions as specific as the optimal number of couches and the ideal location of coffee machines to foster conversation.”
In the spirit of this collaboration, and as an additional service to members, coworking spaces–particularly chains and franchises such as Grind and WeWork–have developed exclusive digital platforms to connect their members. One user called the WeWork app “‘a real life LinkedIn.’” While the app enables these professional connections to happen in person, they are still digitally arranged, which raises the question of how well a digital overlay enhances community. Physical coworking spaces seem to have sprung up in part to circumvent virtual networks, so a digital platform can almost be seen as the antithesis of the community-centric mode of coworking.
In a period of such rapid growth and expansion, many have begun to try to regulate what constitutes a coworking space. “People like Tony Bacigalupo, the founder of New Work City, are working to codify the principles of coworking so that they are easier to incorporate into new coworking communities. ‘There is a sense in the Zeitgeist that coworking is more of a real estate opportunity.’” Another attempt has been documented by The Huffington Post: “LExC is a network of passionate, like minded coworking space owners with aligned business approaches. Led by Jamie Russo, founder of Enerspace Coworking in Chicago, the organization was formed to define acceptable standards for coworking spaces and elevate the industry as a whole. LEXC gives members the ability to work from any member spaces if they are traveling, and defines appropriate operating levels so visitors can expect similar experiences no matter where they need to work.”
One thing that most of these coworking spaces already have in common, though, is their urban roots. According to CityLab, “Downtown San Francisco now has more high tech startups that suburban Silicon Valley,” the birthplace of the tech start-up. Silicon Valley could not possibly hold all the startups that have arisen in its trailblazing wake, but the migration of start-ups to cities raises some issues. Cities and start-ups have a symbiotic relationship: entrepreneurs tap into urban networks and take advantage of the culture and amenities. Coworking spaces fit right into the sharing economy, a predominantly urban trend.
But startup culture and the coworking spaces that support it do not necessarily serve cities well, at least in terms of real estate. The acquisition of urban real estate in order to essentially rent to businesses that would otherwise find office space could lead to inflation.
San Francisco has famously seen inflation in its rental market and a high cost of living increase due to its proximity to Silicon Valley and its own startup scene. New York is currently evaluating the effect of Airbnb–a startup itself–on its unique real estate market.
For all the growth that coworking spaces can bring to New York City, it might be worth evaluating the impact of this new model and design regulations not only to preserve the sense of community intrinsic to coworking spaces, but also to monitor the scaling of such businesses.
When the historic Hudson Yards project joined forces with Constantine Kontokosta and NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) in 2014, the topic of smart cities came to the fore. Hudson Yards is a real estate endeavor unprecedented in the modern era for many reasons: the land developed is west of Midtown West in Manhattan, home to the some of the hottest real estate on the market; the project spans many city blocks, essentially comprising its own neighborhood; and the complex will recycle organic waste, collect and reuse rainwater, and host a power generator onsite. Add the fact that Kontokosta and CUSP are outfitting the site with thousands of sensors, and you have a truly groundbreaking development, what many have termed a “smart city.” Smart cities powered by “user data” have the potential to be safer and certainly smarter, but the methods and application of data gathering deserve attention.
The myriad uses of this sensor system are still being explored, but certain essential energy efficiency and environmental factors will undoubtedly be addressed with the data gathered: air and noise pollution, for example. Hudson Yards’s emphasis on sustainability as well as “resiliency, redundancy, [and] future-proofing” is in part an answer to natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and to energy initiatives launched by the mayor’s office. In 2009 Local Law 84 came into effect in New York, mandating that larger properties collect and submit information about buildings’ energy and water usage. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to harness that data in the 80 x 50 effort, aiming to cut New York’s greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.
For a developer’s perspective, the Observer spoke to David Brause, president of family-owned Brause Realty: “His firm is comfortable investing in green features that might take 20 years to pay off, because his company’s strategy is to buy and hold long-term. He’s honest though that beyond energy cost savings, the economics of green treatments have yet to be entirely proven. […] For existing buildings, even the economic case for updating systems can be tough to make for building owners who aren’t able to work on a 20-year time horizon like large owners can.” However, regulations like Local Law 84 and initiatives like 80 x 50 make it in developers’ best interests to retrofit their buildings with energy management systems and to design green buildings going forward, especially as New York is not the only city to enact such legislation, and more is likely to come down the pipe in coming years.
A open source project called Array of Things has set out to gather urban data similar to that collected at Hudson Yards. By deploying 500 nodes attached to traffic poles and streetlights throughout Chicago, this project will “initially measure temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, ambient sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature.” Data is transmitted to the Argonne National Laboratory, and measures have been taken to ensure the privacy of passersby.
This issue of privacy, along with security and equality, will need to be addressed in the creation of any smart city. The internet of things – the concept of a network of physical objects collecting data and contributing to a kind of matrix of physical information – is an easy connection to make when visualizing the thousands of sensors placed around Hudson Yards. CUSP brands this idea as a “quantifiable community,” but that raises the question of who can afford to live in the Hudson Yards community, and who may be left behind in the age of smart cities.
An urban neighborhood built from the ground-up, like Hudson Parks – complete with commercial and retail spaces, a school, and a hotel – is almost unheard of, especially in New York City. Most city neighborhoods are deeply rooted in culture and history, even those that undergo controversial growth spurts like gentrification. Even cities that underwent large scale reconstruction, like Chicago after the fire of 1871 or San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, still grew organically, shaped by residents and experiences. Can smart cities be considered “cities” in the traditional sense if they are too engineered, and not by their own residents, but by management companies and city planners with a wealth of data at their command?
Kontokosta emphasizes that personal information about residents’ health and activities will only be gathered voluntarily. Such personalized data could be incredibly useful from a city planner’s perspective, but when does it become invasive or even Orwellian? And how is all the information gathered to be secured against cyber attacks? As Kontokosta admits in this Bisnow article, “There will be a lot of challenges dealing with the fire hose of data this is going to unleash, but we’re hoping this will eventually become a model for how cities think about this type of informatics infrastructure going forward.”
For more information, listen to WNYC’s summer 2016 segment: The Future of the Smart City. Find further reading in Anthony Townsend’s book Smart Cities and in Adam Greenfield’s shorter piece Against the Smart City.