#firstworldproblems as R&D for solving real problems in the developing world

September 29th, 2014

a while ago i used this space to express my skepticism with regards to delivery drones becoming a major thing in the developed world anytime soon (and also hedged that by pointing to the fact that they may be much more useful and economically viable in developing countries). A couple of days ago i came across an excellent essay (Build cargo drones, get rich) by J.M. Ledgard in which he makes the most convincing case for cargo drones i have come across yet.

donkey station in 2014

While his scenario is entirely focussed on the use of drones (which he calles donkeys) in Africa it is interesting to note that the first step in the scenario that het is working on is exactly the same as an experiment just announced by German logistics company DHL. Here are the opening words from Legards essay:

My goal is to help set up the world’s first commercial cargo drone route in Africa by 2016. It will be about 80 kilometres long and will connect several towns and villages. The first cargo drones will carry small payloads of blood to keep alive children who would otherwise perish.

and here is the relevant passage from DHL’s press release announcing their experiment:

For the first time worldwide, medications and other urgently needed goods will be delivered to the island at certain times of the day by DHL parcelcopter. This research project represents the first and only time in Europe that a flight by an unmanned aircraft will be operated outside of the pilot’s field of vision in a real-life mission.

Aside from the fact that it seems that Ledgard has lost its bid for running the world’s first commercial cargo drone route it is interesting to note that the business case is the same here: Emergency deliveries of life-saving, small things by drone.

This is indeed where commercial cargo drones seem make some sense in their current state. What is happening here should be seen in the light of another recent innovation that started as an expensive solution for a first world problem but dramatically changed the lives of millions of Africans once it became technological mature enough to be commoditized: The mobile telephone. So while he may have lost his bet to be the first, DHL is most likely doing a bit of extra R&D work for Ledgard’s scheme to get rich with cargo cones.

p.s. also notice how both implementation are targeted at rural, non-urban environments. the point i made in my earlier post clearly still holds.

the Homeless house cleaners of the sharing economy

September 21st, 2014

If this NY mag article is to be believed you can hire house cleaners who are themselves homeless via www.homejoy.com a San Francisco based startup that has received $40 million in funding. Guess this says a lot about how out of whack the bay area real estate market is, but that is not what the article is about. Instead it tries to shine light on another issue, namely the fact that many recent startups (many of them falling in the broad (and equally meaningless) ‘sharing economy’ category) offer services that are performed by independent contractors instead of regular employees:

To explain why it’s possible for a cash-flush tech start-up to have homeless workers, it helps to know that the man I hired through Homejoy wasn’t a Homejoy employee at all. That’s because Homejoy doesn’t employ any cleaners — like many of its peer start-ups, it uses an army of contract workers to do its customers’ bidding. To hear Homejoy tell it, it’s simply the digital middleman that allows people seeking home-cleaning services to find people willing to do it. [...] As the Washington Post wrote, “Homejoy is just organizing the masses of people who already offer their cleaning services independently.”

While the NY mag article makes it sound as if this is a fairly recent phenomenon (citing an abundance of startups relying on contract workers such as Uber, Lyft, Homejoy, Handy, Postmates, Spoonrocket, TaskRabbit, DoorDash or Washio) this practice is anything but new.

My first job fresh out of high school was working as a bike messenger for Der Kurier in Hannover. As part of that work i was required to wear a company shirt, a company issued messenger bag and could only work on days that they had scheduled me in. I also had do pay them rent for the radio and 20% of the fares that i earned. At that time this kind of ‘employment’ was common for bike messengers in lots of places (i worked under similar conditions for other companies in Hannover, Berlin and New York). The only place where bike messengers were employed and paid by the hour and not by the delivery was in Amsterdam where i worked my last years as a messenger (at one company we even had a pension plan which means that i will draw a pension of €10 per year(!!) once i am 67).

As a bike messenger i never had a problem with being a contractor and being paid by the delivery (at high-demand times that meant more money and motivation to go extra fast and at low-demand times you could always read a book). But to my mind this construction has always been about limiting the cost of labour for employees. The fact that so many ‘Sharing Economy’ startups are working with contractors instead of employees makes it rather obvious that the sharing economy is much less about sharing ressources and much more about reducing the cost of labor. Or as Kevin Roose notes in the NY mag article:

Require a 1099 start-up to reclassify its workers as W-2 employees, and you radically change its ability to lower prices and undercut the competition — which was, in many cases, a key reason investors were interested in the first place.

Equipopulous Europe

September 14th, 2014

i am strangely fascinated by this map that depicts the European Union as 28 equipopulous member states (although i would rather imagine this as administrative territories rather than as states):

Equipopulous Europe by Alasdair Gunn

Twenty-eight equally sized European Union Member States, by Alasdair Gunn

Of course this is utterly unrealistic as (re)drawing borders has been one of the most destructive activities in the history of humanity. So the only way to improve on the current situation would be to do away with border altogether.

Capital or the erosion of the social farbric of the city

September 5th, 2014

capital by rana dasgupta

This is the second book i have read this year that has the words ‘capital’ and ’21st century’ in its title. While this smells a lot like free-riding on the popularity of the other book, it is not [1].

Capital by Rana Dasgupta chronicles the last one-and-a-half decades of the Indian capital Delhi. It is a mix between encounters (not in the indian sense of the word) with (moneyed) inhabitants of Delhi, snippets of history and more abstract reflections on the city in an globalized world.

It is a fascinating book that describes a city that is torn loose from its history and thrown into the maelstrom of globalization. I have been privileged to vist the Delhi a number of times between 2003 and 2006 and observing some of the transitions that Dasgupta describes. I also spend some time among the ‘bohemian artists and intellectuals’ that he found himself among and who were fueled by the energies unleashed by Delhi’s transformation:

But the anticipation of those years has a much larger scope than the city itself. It sprang from a universal sense: What will happen here will change the entire world.

The people i met were cosmopolitans, and they were delighted to see the walls coming down around india. They disdained nationalism and loved the new riches that reached them via the internet. But true to their own skepticism – and the history of anti-imperialist thought in this part of the word – they were also critical of the economic and social bases of western societies – and the last thing that they wanted from this moment of India’s opening-up was that a similar society be established here, Much of their intellectual inspiration came from Western capitalism’s internal critics: from American free software theorists, from the squatter movement in the Netherlands, from artists in Great Britain who challenged corporate food and property cultures, from Harvard and Oxford legal scholars who imagined alternative possibilities for the ownership of seeds, images and ideas.

Mingling with these people has had an enormous influence on my own intellectual development and the same is true for witnessing the transformation of the urban landscape of Delhi. Compared to what was going on in Delhi at the time, the social dynamics back home felt stagnant. The most obvious illustration of this was provided by the Delhi Metro[2]: When i first came to Delhi the first section of the Delhi metro had just become operational, yet by the time of my last visit at the end of 2006 the Delhi metro was already having more daily riders than the entire dutch railway system.

delhi metro - a dream comes true

During those years I have spend a fair amount of time in the city exploring it by bicycle and i recognize lots of places that Dasgupta describes in Capital (most vividly parts of a hike along the west bank of the Yanuma that he describes towards the end of the book). While i am familiar with many of the localities featured in the book i have been almost entirely unaware of the secluded oases of wealth that Dasgupta describes rather vividly. Reading about them, and the role played by the moneyed business elites explains a lot of what i observed but did not really comprehend back then.

This is also where Capital comes very close to Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Woven through Dasgupta’s book is a recurring theme of how a small business elite is ruthlessly riding the wave of transformation and harvesting almost all the wealth generated by it. In this sense Capital can almost be read as a case study illustrating the effects described by Piketty (r > g) in a turbo charged economic catch-up scenario[3]. In line with Piketty’s main argument Dasgupata recounts how the business elites leveraged existing capital assists (mainly in the form of real estate) to disproportionally benefit from the transformation of the urban economy.

Unfortunately for Delhi and the majority of its inhabitants, this accumulation of wealth is unlikely to benefit the city as a whole. In what is maybe the most important insight provided by Dasgupta he points out that the relationship of Delhi’s elites with the city that provides the foundations for their wealth is fundamentally different from the relationship between the past elites of places like New York, Amsterdam or Berlin and ‘their’ cities. He observes that 21st century elites seem to have stopped to invest in the social fabric of their citie because the incentives to do so have largely disappeared in a globalized world:

Delhi does not hold the overwhelming significance for the super-rich that New York did for the [American elite of a century ago]: it is just a place where the accumulate income, and they have rather little inclination to turn it into an urban masterpiece. They have no personal need of such an enterprise because they have been used to seeing the world’s existing ressources as their own: they do not need to build great universities for themselves because they have already been built for them – in the United States.

Such a feeling is not confined to Delhi. It applies to elites everywhere. members of the Dehi elite are identical to their peers from Paris, Moscow or São Paulo – in that they possess houses in London, educate their children in the United States, holiday in St. Tropez, use clinics in Lausanne and keep their money – offshore, nowhere. That circumstance in which great quantities of private wealth were ploughed back into the needs and concerns of one place, which was ‘our place’, no longer pertains. Not here not elsewhere.


  1. I have to admit that when an internet search for Piketty’s book turned up this one i almost filed it away as click-bait. Only when i noticed the name of the author i realized that this might actually be worth reading.
  2. The impact of the then new delhi metro is beautifully captured in Vivek Narayanan’s poem ‘In the early days of the Delhi Metro
  3. If you trust Amazons frequently bought together feature this seems to be exactly what people doing

the original (fixie) hipster was a cop

August 31st, 2014

from the amazing collection of public domain images extracted from the scanned books of the Internet Archive:

Policeman Bicycle Squad

Image from page 224 of “The Great north side, or, Borough of the Bronx, New York” (1897)

Imaginary suburban futures

August 31st, 2014

Friday morning when we left the cab that had brought us and our newborn from the hospital the mail carriers on their bicycles where swarming out around us (we live 3 houses down from a postnl distribution location where the mail for the neighborhood is transferred from delivery vans to bikes). Having spend some of the waiting time in hospital reading Alex Madrigal’s Atlantic feature on Google’s delivery drone programme this made me briefly contemplate if our daughter would grow up to see a world filled with mail carriers or one filled with flying delivery drones.

In spite of the hype caused by said article which seems to have made otherwise reasonable people abandon their analytic rigor, i am pretty certain that delivery drones will not play a significant role in my or my daughters life anytime soon[1].

Primarily because i can’t really see the economics making sense (certainly not for the silly examples of flying spare batteries or electric drills around) but more importantly because these things have clearly sprung from a suburban mindset that assumes that people have exclusive control over the vertical space belonging to a swath of land. For the majority of people in cities this is simply not the case and as a result they don’t have a place where the delivery drones could land (or lower their eggs).

The answer for the desire to have relatively quick access to things is living in a city. Cities provide quick access to shops and via mail carriers on bikes. If any part of the delivery process will be replaces by autonomous vehicles i would bet on the trucks serving the trunk routes and maybe the those serving neighborhood distribution centers. Autonomous flying delivery drones, may sound like the future, but they almost certainly aren’t, unless we envisage the future to be a version of suburbia that has been perfected so that there is no need to venture out into the world and interact with anyone anymore.

I would certainly hope that the future will look a whole lot more urban.


  1. At least where it comes to the developed world. Madrigal also points to a number of ideas about unmanned arial vehicles as parts of a future distribution infrastructure in Africa, which sound somewhat more plausible.

You cant invade a country and eat its chicken

August 20th, 2014

chicken at Rijssel

Rijsel does the best rotisserie chicken in Amsterdam hand down. Every time a have one of those i am reminded of an interview with a US soldier who served in Iraq in 2006 during the height of the first Iraqi insurgency.

In this interview the solider spoke of how he hated paroling the streets of Bagdad in his armored vehicle unable to step out into an urban environment that was considered to be too dangerous for dismounted operations. His contempt for the Iraqi population was greatly enhanced by the fact that from his vehicle he would frequently see chicken rotisseries on the side of the road that were effectively unreachable to him despite superior equipment.

To me this is remains one of the most powerful illustrations (Islamic State and all related current concerns left aside) why one should not invade and occupy countries that one does not understand: You cant invade a country and eat its chicken

this is wrong on so many levels…

June 12th, 2014

… that it is difficult to decide where to start. I came across this par of adds in tuesday’s paper (the smaller ad on the left hand was on the front page and the the bigger one on the right was on page 7):

volkskrant ad for oma app

For those not able to decipher dutch, this is a an add for a crowdfunding project that claims that ‘an app for granny’ is ‘the solution for healthcare austerity’ and encourages readers to donate toward the further development of the the healthcare-phone app. Apparently this app would allow old folks to get in touch with others and healthcare providers with ‘the push of one button’.

Obviously the overall claim that a glorified telephone is the solution for the problems created by healthcare austerity (fewer people will be eligible less care) is dubious at best. What makes it worse is that this add is run by a crowdfunding platform that is operated by a health insurance company. I have no idea what goes on in the heads of executives of this company, but i would suggest that if they are care about providing the best possible healthcare to their customers they may want to find better uses of their money than spending it on a crowdfunding platform that promotes projects like this one.

Also it does not really reflect well on the people who are running this platform that they are spending substantial amounts of money on buying advertisement space to encourage others to spend money on projects (unless this is a scheme to have the health care sector cross subsidize the newspapers in need). Based on our recent ad buys in the same newspaper i am pretty sure that the amount of money they paid for this ad would help the Zorgfoon-app a long way towards it’s €50000 funding target. They currently stand at €3.6500 which means that either newspaper ads are not really effective in driving contributions or that people are rightfully skeptical of the claims made by this project.

Crowdfunding certainly has it merits where it empowers organisations and individuals that do not have ready access to capital to realize projects or where it is used as a tool to organize collective actions. It becomes problematic when it is used simply because it is ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ by organisations that seem to have no clear sense of purpose.

Local != local (or how not to position urban renewal projects)

April 22nd, 2014

eat local and by local we mean on the couch

earlier today on the A-train

Saturday morning we paid a brief and very disappointing visit to De Hallen, a new multi use space constructed in a former tram depot in Amsterdam west. The entire complex, which is still under construction, is nestled within a dense residential neighbourhood, next to a daily street market. Once fully operational it will contain restaurants, a food hall, shops and workspaces, a branch of the municipal library, a bike parking and yet another upscale hotel. The concept seems to place a particular focus on recycling and local sourcing.

While most of the complex is still under development the library and the central passage that extends from the street market though the entire complex are already open for use. Saturday and Sunday saw the first big event, a Local Goods Weekend Market organized by Pakhuis de Zwijger, platform Made in Amsterdam and Indie Brands.

The Local Goods Weekend Market drew quite a large crowd of hipsters and post-DINK families (we fall into this demographic) which is not that surprising considering that it brought together purveyors of goods that are much thought after in these circles: indie beer brewers (2x), sausage makers, things made from recycled bikes/bikeparts (1,2,3), hand made yoga mat bags, speciality coffee, all-natural handcrafted hot sauces and home made cup cakes. Combine this with a company that lets you 3D print your name as jewellery and an open design outfit that lets you make laser engraved wooden business cards and you have the perfect country fair for the university-educated post financial crisis city dweller.

I am not entirely sure why this hipster circus made me so mad this time (usually i have a fairly high tolerance in for things like this), but i suspect that it was a combination of two factors:

First of all there was really nothing useful to buy at the place. The laser cut wooden business cards and the 3D printed ‘jewellery’ were the icing on the cake in this regard, but even the two beer breweries would only sell you bottles of beer to take at home, and seemed to be content with people looking at the beer bottles with their fancy labels: a social gathering where you can look at beer bottles! Also there was no real food to be obtained, no pork buns, ramen, fish tacos or whatever else is currently fashionable (the only thing to eat were poffertjes from some silly cowboy themed vendor on a bike). Nothing to eat and nothing to drink, but lots of locally produced tit-tat to look at and maybe buy.

The second reason for being being mad is a bit more substantial and has to do with this (long) blog post by Adam Greenfield in which he outlines his current reserach focus on (in his own words) ‘land use, mobility and governance, as they fold back against an [urban] environment and population whose capacities and affordances are increasingly conditioned by the presence of networked computational systems’.

In this post he describes three sites of urban practice that he considers instructional. One of these places (if you are interested in the other ones read his full post, it is worth it) is the the Godsbanen/Institut for (x) complex, in Aarhus, Denmark:

To my eye, anyway, Godsbanen consists of four distinct structures or conditions: the former railyard administration building, now the offices of various public, private and non-profit groups; a long main hall that was formerly the intermodal freight-transfer center, and now shelters the printshop, photo studio, metalshop and so on; a new infill structure (complete with vertiginously climbable roof) by 3XN, that comprises the event venue and canteen, and sinters the other buildings together; and a tumble of trailers, ad-hoc shacks, shade structures and lean-tos that apparently constitute the Institut for (x).

What was wonderful about Godsbanen was seeing men and women both — of all ages, very few of whom were obviously hipsterized — using the available wood-, metal-, clay- and textile-working facilities to make things for their own daily use. It’s this deployment of emergent digital craft techniques to produce things primarily with an eye to their use value rather than their exchange value à la present-day Etsy that so excited me.

But there are other ways in which Godsbanen one-ups the usual makerspace proposition. For example, the site sports a legible gradient of formality and structure, accessible at any point and traversable in either direction; you can literally see the stiff Scandinavian rectitude of the administration building decomposing into particles as you walk further down the rails, with everything that implies for uses and users. Martin pointed out that the complex supports two entirely distinct woodworking shops, one at either end of the gradient: the first (low-cost, but still pay-for-use) furnished with state-of-the-art equipment and on-site assistance, and the other, further down the yard, free but provided with somewhat older equipment and not much in the way of help/oversight. A project could germinate with two or three friends tinkering in the anarchic fringes, and move up the grade as they began to need more budget, order and privacy, or, alternately, a formal enterprise used to the comforts and constraints of the main building might hive off an experimental or exploratory activity requiring the freedom of the fringes. Either way, individual or collective undertakings are able to mature and develop inside a common framework, and avail themselves of more or less structure as needed. This is something that many self-styled incubators attempt, and very few seem to get right.

The further away one walks from the main building, the greater the sense of permission granted by the apparently random distribution of objects around the central space, by the texture of these objects and their orientation. This is of course not at all random: everything you see has been selected with an eye toward a precisely calibrated aesthetic that at times comes perilously close to favela chic, but that does send a very powerful message about the appropriability of the environment, the kinds of things people can do here and the kinds of people who can do them. (Note that this is the same message ostensibly conveyed, but actually undermined, by the “wacky,” infantilized furniture of dot-com and tech-startup offices.)

Having read this description on friday morning, visiting De Hallen for the first time on saturday morning was a huge disappointment. One could vividly imagine (or at least hope for) De Hallen functioning on a similar basis (not least because they are also consisting of abandoned railway infrastructure) but it seems that the developers miss the understanding of social interaction that Adam asribes to the developers of the Godsbanen/Institute for (x) complex. Granted, De Hallen is not fully operational yet and it has some promising aspects (like the beautiful and spacious new public library branch), but the signs that this will end up as some sanitized development that does not communicate with its environment and that does not encourage experimentation are hard to miss.

Maybe the most visible indicator was how the Local Goods Weekend Market was completely unconnected to the Ten Kate street market that is situated on one of the streets connected by the main passageway through De Hallen: There seemed to to be next to no exchange between the two markets to the extent that most of the visitors to the Local Goods Weekend Market entered from the opposite side and then turned around at the end rather than exiting towards the street market. Never has an event that advertises itself as local felt so utterly alien to the locality that it is situated in. I have no idea if this can be fixed, but a good start would probably be to mix the two marktes next time around. That would – at the minimum – fix the absence-of-food problem and with a bit of luck the brewers will actually serve beer next time (i quite like the ones make by butchers tears).

on organisations stunning ability to absorb nonsensical claims about technology

April 20th, 2014

So i have finally managed to finish Adam Greenfield’s Against the smart city (i had lapsed soon after this picture was taken). The book is well worth reading and contains a number valuable insights but there is one passage that stands out for me.

Towards the end of the book (or pamphlet as Adam refers to it) he explains why his method of examining the language of marketing and promotional copy of IT vendors is important even though the same vendors, when challenged on the claims contained in it are quick to dismiss its as mere marking language. This passage is one of the best explanations of how marketing language (and more particular: claims about technology) gets absorbed by organisations (in this case municipal governments):

But refusing to take this sort of language seriously means succumbing to a certain naïveté about the ways in which knowledge tends to be reproduced nowadays, and the processes through which it does its work in the world.

At the launch of any new corporate smart-city initiative, content promoting it and aligning it with the enterprise’s overarching brand proposition is generated by the marketing department, and released into the wild on the global website, where it will be indexed by Google in less than a minute. This initiative almost immediately comes to the attention of the planet’s several thousand technology bloggers, writing for outlets of various provenance, who generally have automated keyword searches set up to notify them whenever an item of interest is published. Because these bloggers are simultaneously under intense contractual pressure to post several times a day, are by definition enthusiastic about technology and are, by and large, unschooled in the arts of skeptical reportage, they tend to take the claims they are offered at face value. (This is true of bloggers writing for the Guardian or the New York Times every bit as much as it is of their less well-positioned peers.)

In a manner of minutes, talking points from the original press release are paraphrased in the blogger’s idiom of choice and bundled into a new post, and this may happen across dozens of competing sites in a very brief span of time. Links to these posts are, in turn, instantaneously produced by automated Twitter accounts, endlessly replicated both on Twitter itself and via other social-media channels linked to it through its API; these in turn spur a wave of response from a far larger number of people around the world who are equally excited at the prospect of living in the future, and within a few hours at most a rich loam of online commentary has been laid down. Very little of this commentary evaluates what is being claimed in any depth, or even compares the item at hand to previous assertions made by the same institution, but the volume of buzz is impressive. And due in no small part to the way Google itself works, this distributed colloquy creates an immediate impression that there is a there there. Over the space of a few hours, a framing or perspective originating in a deeply interested party has simply become an unquestioned part of the fabric of consensual knowledge.

What happens on the receiving end, inside the municipal bodies that constitute the primary presumptive audience for such a marketing campaign? Low-level bureaucrats, pressed for time and starved for insight, stumble onto this thicket of conversation via a cursory keyword search; they copy-and-paste a few lines from the first reasonably credible-looking search result into their PowerPoint slides, unmodified; and these slides then get submitted up the hierarchy. The language propagates across the institution — and, what’s more, it meshes with that found in the hurriedly-downloaded white papers on the subject that someone found on the website of a name-brand management consultancy. The savvier staffers start to feel confident using these terms: speaking in them, thinking in them. While misgivings may in fact be prevalent, there are likely to be relatively few in the bureaucracy who are able to express them forthrightly — that is to say, who are sufficiently comfortable with the technology to understand precisely what is being proposed, familiar with the way their city works to convincingly articulate why this is problematic, assured of their own position to feel safe in doing so and passionate about the issue to willingly shoulder the risk involved. (If, as the saying has it, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, it’s also the case that one may find oneself on shaky ground contradicting something printed straight from the IBM website.) When finally pressed to make a “recommendation as to how the city’s resources should be allocated, the easiest thing for a committee member to do is go with the flow, to at least outwardly agree with the person at the table who seems to know what they’re talking about, simply to bring the drawn-out process of decision-making to a close. 

This sort of thing, of course, happens across the entire range of issues a municipal agency may be asked to face. But it appears to be especially true where questions of information technology are concerned, given the unusual amount of mystification that shrouds even consumer-grade products and services, to say nothing of the degree of intimidation otherwise competent adults routinely feel in their presence. Where there is a decision to be made, a confident point of view being advanced and no party with the necessary bona fides stepping forward to challenge it, the natural, the human thing to do is defer. And so this body of ideas gets reproduced, just as surely as code libraries are when they are downloaded from open-source repositories like Github or SourceForge. And every time this happens, a very particular set of valuations and priorities is reproduced alongside them. What was once merely a sequence of words crafted by a marketing department for their euphony, service to a business model and alignment with a particular set of brand values becomes inscribed in, or as, a city’s official program. 

This, in broad outline, is how a premature and preemptive consensus formed around the desirability of something called the smart city. I should emphasize that the individuals

If you like this passage you almost certainly should read the entire pamphlet which can be obtained here.