Meeting of the Minds

New York in June was the perfect place for the invitation-only Meeting of the Minds in June. The location underscored the need for change in urban living, a theme of Meeting of the Minds, an organization that brings people together to tackle urban problems.

Street traffic in New York moved like mud, overwhelmed by cars despite its excellent public transit. The host building, the JP Morgan Chase building in lower Manhattan, has a thick core that defeats wireless communications, including cellular phones. It was astonishing to be at a meeting like this and not have wireless networks (though perhaps I paid more attention than I would have otherwise).

Highlights for me were a panel discussion on urban retrofitting, which became a starting point for this six ways to retrofit your city piece in the Boston Globe. The panel featured Jack Hidary, Skytran’s Earl Gales Jr., Susan Zielinski of the University of Michigan, Paul Pelosi Jr. and Ron Dembo of Zerofootprint, which combines three organizations, a energy management software firm, a consultancy and a nonprofit.

One city with an impressive number of efforts underway to develop a more sustainable future seems to be Berlin. Hella Dunger-loper, permanent secretary for building and  housing in Berlin’s senate department for urban development, spoke on a different panel at the event. But one would expect European cities to look more organized, given the government-managed approach to capitalism Europeans tend to take.

I also liked the talk by Bill Reinert of Toyota, which sponsored the meeting. It’s oddly charming to hear a guy say things like “the new Prius does really get 50 miles a gallon. We said that last time but we were lying to you,” and that its solar-powered roof option “kind of works,” said in a rural West Virginia ‘whattayaknow, the company didn’t completely do the wrong thing’ tone.

Reinert, a kind of auto industry rejoinder to Al Gore, has a slide deck full of discouraging data on trends in cars. One notes that hybrid sales fell at a greater rate when oil prices dropped than SUV sales fell when they rose. Another points out that anyone who drives a Prius but goes less than 15,000 miles a year probably saves perhaps 50 gallons of gas over a regular car.

He also talked about why Toyota thinks lithium ion batteries are not yet the way to go, at least unless you’re willing to spend $10,000 to replace the battery pack in your car after five years. Self-serving for Toyota? Absolutely. But a good question to tuck away and ask battery companies.

His bet for the near-term future: Hybrid vehicles that run on 2nd generation low carbon fuels (something like taking municipal solid waste and converting it to biogasoline).

I got invited to this via Zipcar, and Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith was on my second-favorite panel.

Griffith ran through some numbers on Zipcar: after $40 million in private capital and $80 million in debt, Zipcar should be profitable this year, on about $100 million in revenues. It has 300,000 users in 13 major cities and 120 university operations in the US, Canada and UK.

Griffith released a Zipcar study saying that Zipcar users save about $7,000 a year over car owners, and have taken about 100,000 cars off the road.

Then he extrapolated. Zipcar believes that when it reaches the point of being in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, it could have 37 million members and more than $10 billion dollars a year in revenue. That would potentially return $260 billion into local economies (good, since something has to replace the lost tax dollars from car sales). It would also represent 92 billion fewer miles traveled, remove 22 million cars from the road and prevent 40 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Griffiths offered no timetable for achieving this, but at least the company doesn’t need to get that big to be profitable.
Also speaking on the panel was Nicholas You – senior advisor, policy and strategic planning, office of the exec. director of UN-Habitat, Nairobi. His remarks on the shift in assumptions at the UN and elsewhere about the informal economy were interesting, as were his comments about the turn-around of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the Tennessee River once caught on fire (Perhaps if I were a southerner, I would know this story. Instead, I know about the same event occurring on the Cuyahoga River in  Cleveland). He also told a turn-around story in Chengdu, China, and looked at how Vancouver, British Columbia has reduced passenger miles driven over the last decade.

One should beware government officials telling success stories. I was surprised during the Q&A when You talked about how banks were a centerpiece of a UN strategy to work with the poor. He called this “thinking out of the box.” I made a face. African banks have lousy reputations, especially among the poor, one reason cited for the rise of cell phone banking. In Kenya, where You is based, Safaricomm is the biggest bank, its Mpesa mobile currency a staple.

But it turns out You knew his stuff. After the panel I talked with You and he said “Mpesa has a glass ceiling” when it comes to things like mortages. One problem: mortgages take too long to repay to make them viable for cell phone banks. I pointed out that Entelisat, an Egyptian-based cellular carrier, was offering loans via cell phone, and You countered with “Egypt gives massive guarantees for those home loans.” Then I noted that ICICI in India has both regular banking operations and microfinance, and You said that ICICI is blending the models and it might become a viable way to scale the two.  Decoupling land from houses might be another way to make it easier to let poor people buy homes, as well.

The final speaker on this panel was Mario Gandelsonas, director of the Center for Architecture, Urbanism and Infrastructure at Princeton University.

Gandelsonas has worked out some brilliant thoughts about the nature of 20th century ‘hard’ infrastructure and how to bring it forward and merge it into the 21st century’s ‘soft’ infrastructure. For instance, he says all of us are now potential terminals (welcome to Port Michael Fitzgerald!). There still has to be physical infrastructure, but how to deal with the new digital infrastructure is an obvious challenge for urban planners. It’s hard to imagine they are thinking about Port Michael Fitzgerald, or Port Beloved Reader.

Had there been wireless of any sort, I would’ve tweeted these comments, none of which I’d heard before:

“texting and cell phones are the first cause of teenager’s death at this point. (in the u.s.)”

“they [teens] prefer to be driven by parents so they can keep texting with friends. and they prefer texting to talking so they can’t be overheard.”

“The number of licensed 16-year-old drivers has dropped 30 percent in 8 years. They’re not interested in driving. They want to be driven so they can text.”

Yes, Gandelsonas argues that texting and other communications technologies will kill, or at least diminish, the automobile. He has a multipronged experiment to help New Jersey respond to this. It’s very early on, in its first year, but he’s started something in South Amboy, N.J. We’ll see if visionary thinking translates into effective, scalable action.

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