Month: April 2014

Biblio (87) World Urban Forum Medellin

This year the World Urban Forum, a biennial event, was held in Medellin (Colombia).
Equity has become a central issue in the debates. But the conclusions bring more content. And they have launched the Global Urban Lectures, a set of interesting content you can access through the internet.

Maps 2014 (15) Sea currents


The search for flight MH370, disappeared on its path from Malaysia to China, has made clear, due to the “false positives” trying to find remains, that the ocean is far from clean. In fact, what we often draw (from land) as an empty space, is a quite dynamic world in which “gyres” concentrate surface pollution. Today’s map, by Cameron Beccario, shows the sea currents with updates every 5 days; gyres are not visible (not at least in an evident manner), but it is an aesthetical treat (while being base on scientific data). The Mediterranean and other inner seas are not rendered. On the same website you can see a map of winds, again a treat. Notice that you can switch between cartographic projections, a nice feature.

Back of the envelope calculations (4) An hour, six months, food and cars


Sometimes I’ve heard girls complaining that sweets are like “ a minute in your mouth and a lifetime in your waist”. CO2 is a bit like that, but on the other side.
Some years ago we produced a technical paper for the Basque Government on climate change and urban planning. A fast calculation showed that in the current climate context of the Basque Country a hybrid car’s worth in CO2 emissions running at 110 km/h was equivalent to six months of carbon capture by a mature European beech. This back of the envelope figure was in fact more sophisticated, and based on several science documents including specific studies on the growth behaviour of different species and other factors. On the whole of the Basque Country (both a well forested and highly developed area by Spanish standards) forests were worth 2,9 million tonnes of CO2 capture by year, while the global regional emissions were some 20 million.
Back of the envelope calculations must be handled with care in climate change terms, as there are many confuse data, not always based on good will. Concisely, trees absorb CO2 to grow, and this CO2 goes to wood mass and in part to the soil; the metabolism of the plant defines how fast that plant grows, so a given species could have quite different behaviours as CO2 sink in Maine compared to Madrid or to Manila, as climate and soil qualities matter. In the end, buying car enticed by the fact that a tree will be planted to absorb that CO2 seems quite untrue; you could choose to drive just a few minutes a year, but I’m not sure this is the case. In the end, we are not that far from the kind of ad strategy also used for… cakes.

1 sq m wrecks?


Starting where we left it on the last post, on how there are new ideas to deliver internet sales by physical means (drones and other contraptions…) we have in our streets things that, from an economic rationality viewpoint, would be considered by many as wrecks. This wiepoint implies that rationality is a fully objective matter, and that it is shared by a significant portion of the population. We have phone boots (but for a limited number, real wrecks), mail boxes (slightly more used, nowadays when you need one you are in a hard time to remember the last you saw), press kiosks (more in flux and evolution that really dissapearing)… and the clear example that rationality is just subjective: lotery kiosks. The one portrayed is run by ONCE, the Spanish National Association of Blind People, who have been runing a popular lotery for decades. Besides the emotional impact of this particular group, in fact buying a ticket for a lottery is an economically irrational purchase, but one that really happens, usually out of an impulse, and this is made easier by being on a street location. These 1 sq m spots seem quite relevant, it just remains an open issue if they are stronger or not than online poker and other noveltiesin which to risk your hard-earned currency.

WP_001874 WP_001875 WP_001876

Back of the envelope calculations (3) Amazon’s trails: wings vs knees

Taking as a starting point the previous post on the text about the future of employment by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, we can produce some ideas. Home delivery was until now one of those jobs that was deemed as a human task, as the amount of unpredictable situations that could happen made the substitution by machines almost impossible to substitute a person (that anyway earned a limited wage).
Some months ago Amazon, the internet retailer, published some videos about a new ultra-fast delivery system for small loads, Prime air, based on small drones.

The video shows a quite American context: the drone takes off from a logistical base and delivers a small pack by landing on the client’s garden. In a country like Spain, in which most of the people live in apartment buildings, this would have some problems, and the same can be said about other countries in which Amazon operates.
Taking existing drones with a design that seems similar to those shown on the video, as the Parrot AR Drone, the idea of a 30 minute delivery time seems limited: the Parrot cruises at 18 km/h (some 12 miles/h). Let’s assume that Amazon uses twice that speed, so in half an hour you would get as far a 18 km (without considering the time to prepare the pack in the fulfilment centre). This means that if this idea is serious, either Amazon multiplies its fulfilment centres (losing a strategic edge over conventional retailers), or it will limit this system to the areas closest to its 55 fulfilment centres in North America (MWPVL international data for april 2014). The fact is that these centers are in quite peripheral locations, so the population that could be reached would be limited. The following map shows the location of the two Amazon fulfilment centres in the Los Angeles Basin, San Bernardino (open in 2012) and Moreno Valley (to open in 2014), on a heat map rendering of population densities (census 2010), with the road network and a 18 km grid. The idea of delivery on the same day seems much more realistic than 30 minutes delivery, and probably on that time scale the road would be more competitive than a sprawl of fulfilment centres. On the other side, in Madrid the Amazon base is in San Fernando de Henares, just slightly over 18 km from Puerta del Sol, the urban core; in a denser city, a single centre would cover a substantially higher share of the metro population… but as they live mainly in multi-storey buildings drones would have problems.

Delivery by drone raises other issues. Civil aviation regulations are stringent in terms of rules to ensure the safe take-off and landing of aircraft, especially in terms of geometric conditions and electromagnetic interference. It is clearly possible that Amazon could design its fulfilment centres to adapt to those rules, with take-off and landing corridors adapted and without obstacles, which would be easier for choppers. Besides, both LA locations, for instance, are near an airport. However, how do you know if the delivery address complies with such rules? Trees, posts, buildings make a good bunch of potential obstacles. Sure, we have good aerial images, but the problem here is more complex: there would be a need for a good 3D cartography, up to date, with these obstacles, and there is the issue of the liability of a homeowner that by extending his home with a plan-abiding project restricts the air accessibility of a neighbouring property. This would certainly make way more complex volumetric conditions for buildings.
Let’s just go back to the problem: what a deliveryman does today? He comes in a vehicle that the parks (as he can), goes down, and uses the sidewalk to get to the building lot. If the home is individual, he gets to the gate. If it is an apartment building, he must enter a common space, and then use a lift or the stairs. Hard for a chopper. Would Amazon’s idea be closer to Valkyrie, NASA’s robot? At first sight, it seems more feasible, especially in dense cities, but it seems also far away in time. In fact, the most logical solution (even more for denser cities with frequent traffic jams) would be a walking robot… able to run on freeways, passing through cars in a traffic jam and nullifying the parking problem, as it could just go up five storeys of stairs up to any apartment. The issue is to know if this would really cost less (just in economic terms) than to pay a person. This would not touch that much the urban fabric in physical termes, but it would matter in terms of parking… and also in terms of the existing retail basis.

Biblio (86) The future of employment. Will and sensibility

Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, from Oxford Martin School, published in September 2013 an article on the future of employment, looking at the chances that each one of a set of 702 professional categories have to be made redundant by computerisation in the US context. Their conclusion is that machines could displace almost 47% of the current jobs in that country. So we would have to wait way longer for the return of the jobs lost to technology that some say will result from Schumpeter’s creative destruction (a concept defined in 1942, quite far from our current context, and apparently defined with a different vision than the one under which we usually hear about). Such an outcome would no doubt change entirely our idea of the city, at least the “western city” as we know it.
If I was a luddite I would not be blogging; I am rather optimist, but that is a feeling not always supported by data. However, this text has some interesting elements and a coherent line. To begin with, the article defines a methodology to classify the chances a job has to be computerised. These chances are increased as the tasks implied can be defined and execute by algorythms; it is so easier to computerise the control of a not to complex machine than the work done by a physical therapist, that has to face quite diverse conditions, physical as well as psychological.
However, the complexity and growing efficiency of software implies that complex tasks can be computerised. Beyond the promise of autonomous vehicles, a whole set of functions, as the analysis of legal documents, are being digitized. Some skills that we consider specifically human, as mobility and ability to adapt to unexpected conditions, could be substituted by sets of sensors and motors. Some industries, as construction, can be affected by more prefabs, derivations of 3d printing or a greater relevance of refurbishment by DIY; this last is not in itself a substitution of people by machines, but can sure be helped by easily available information thanks to the internet, and would also ultimately mean less jobs.
Human advantage, according to the authors, would rather be the ability to interact with people: care, negotiation, persuasion, art. In the end, will and sensitivity. Contexts in which robots (that the authors see rising) are still far away. Take translation: I write this blog in three languages, but I do not trust automatic translation, as it has (as of today) no ability to convey double meanings I sometimes play with or other subjective elements of the language. On the other hand, I’m fully confident on Word’s spell checking (it is up to you to say if I’m right there…) as individual words, and even sometimes general grammar, are tasks that are easier to integrate into algorithms. I know that, as a native Spanish-French speaker, my sentences in English are sometimes described by Word as verbose, but sometimes I just happen to want to be verbose… just the same with the passive voice, but as you cannot hear me, I consider this more like an accent, I don’t feel ashamed of.
The article integrates a table with the probability of computerisation for 702 job categories. The most “computerisable” job is that of telemarketers. Insurance underwriters rank 698, watch repairers 697, tellers 683… construction and building inspectors are 351. Architects rank 82, landscape architects 133, urban and regional planners 184, and… computer network architects 208 (while computer systems analysts rank 32). Medical staff are usually in good positions (psychologists 17 or less according to category, doctors in general 15), as well as teachers. However, a lesser chance to get your job digitized doesn’t imply a higher wage…
What would a city loosing 47% of its jobs look like? Some activities we currently understand as the core of urban centrality would suffer, as whole categories of retailers (just think of those selling computers on main street, operating now in a market in which the internet is a tough competition). I’m almost sure we will always have some sort of cafés or eateries, but will we have people serving the treats?

Maps 2014 (14) Planea


The ability to consult the urban planning documents that are legally binding is recognized as a citizen’s right by most national laws, but up to the advent of the internet the real application of that rule was tricky. Even today, standards are still not clear. In the Madrid Region the Regional and Urban Planning portal lets you see maps, and, through the “planeamiento” link, the current planning documents for each municipality. Even if some layers are already a bit ancient seem at first sight quite old (the maps on the non-developed land and the built-up areas is from 2005-2006), in fact the real estate crisis has made these plans overall still correct in the broad lines, at least when it comes to urban growth. The time sequence of land occupation maps is specially interesting.

Back of the envelope calculations (2) 32 households


In 2012 each Spaniard spent on average 1.585 euros in food and non-alcoholic beverages, according to INE’s statistics on household expenditure. The average expenditure by household was 4.060 euros. So each week there was an average expenditure of 78 euros. These figures are a national average, taking into account central Madrid and the last rural hamlet, so computing a wide array of costs and expenditure capacity.
According to data from the realtor, there is in Madrid a certain amount of retail spaces to be let at about 5€/sq m, usually in peripheral areas with low- middle-income families.
Taking as a criteria that the rent would be equivalent to 5% of sales, a 100 sq m space with a 5€/sq m monthly rent should sell 10.000 € each month; i.e., it should have 32 households spending their whole food budget each week if you want to be in the food segment.
Those figures must be fine-tuned taking into account location, client conditions, retail strategy or shop format. But they are clearly indicating why retail concentrates, and why it would not be realistic to expect large shop numbers in low density urban areas (but for big-box retail). So density matters a lot.

The full picture: density helps

The full picture: density helps

Back of the envelope calculations (1)

The price paid for each olive influences the survival of this landscape

The price paid for each olive influences the survival of this landscape

The aggregative effects of what we can see as simple things can give us a clue on how the world works. I will try to approach this in the next set of posts.