A Principled Revolutionary
by Danielle Fong
Laura Schewel, someone who has been a personal inspiration to me, and who has been an amazing friend, has been named by MIT Technology Review as one of the world’s top 35 innovators under 35. She’s accepting her award at this year’s emTech, and I wanted to write here a short letter about the importance of her work, and what it means to me.
Cites have been called the defining technology of civilization.† They are emergent phenomenon, work admirably at an extraordinary range of scales and complexities, incubate our most audacious dreams, are more resilient and long lived than even the hardiest identified organisms, and are on balance, the most scalable, efficient, general purpose mode of human organization that we’ve got. Cities are green, and cities are our future.
Yet for all of their merits, the dynamics of cities remain much a mystery. And traffic, among the most dynamic of dynamics, is among the most consequential.
Access defines neighborhoods and the life of commercial enterprises. And at the city level, we give up a spectacular amount of our cities to pavement and automobile traffic (estimates vary between 30 – 40% of our cities and 50 – 60% of the world’s built surface). The road network layouts of cities are incredibly durable, withstanding fires, earthquakes, floods, the replacement of the entire building stock, even the fall of a civilization.‡ ⩈
City managers want to know which roads will help their city cope. Real estate developers desire what will help their developments grow. Retail establishments want to know who visits where, when, how, and for what. Environmentalists want to know how to shorten and make efficient shopping trips and daily commutes. And citizens want to know why so many transportation improvement projects seem to harm their commute, rather than help.
The questions drive a multi-billion dollar intelligence industry; people are paying for answers, and customers are sophisticated. Fundamentally, however, the field is in a pre-Galilean state of knowledge — flows, impressions, anecdotes, and theories abound, but this there hasn’t been enough data, at a granular enough level, to create and verify models that provide meaningful efforts to specific questions. Guesswork, and linear projection predominate. We can do better.
Laura Schewel is a principled revolutionary. Her extreme bias is to uncover hidden efficiencies in planetary scale infrastructure; work that is among the most pragmatic and impactful that I could imagine. And so, her and her StreetLight Data team combine precise and granular data, gathered by GPS with fleet vehicle and opt-in insurance partnerships, with scientific rigor, world class modeling and simulation, high octane data visualization and analysis, and deep insight in systems thinking and dynamics. They use these tools to provide real answers to specific questions for specific projects for governments, retailers, real estate developers, car dealerships, and economists. Moreover, they provide the tools, perspective, and cognitive framework for each of these customers to play with, learn from, and get a feel for the dynamics of each of their respective systems. StreetLight Data is bringing excellence in systems thinking to our most important organizations.
My cofounder and I have at this point met a large fraction of the strikingly competent beings that comprise the technology elite. Struck by the discrepancy between the ability of startup companies and governments to act, we asked ourselves, who among our friends could we imagine as president, leading our government to ascendance, success and efficiency?
We thought for just a second, and then at once said, “Laura Schewel.”
† – Jane Jacobs, The Economy of Cities, 1970
‡ – Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn, 1995,
⩈ – The 1460 Aztec plat of Tenochititlan defined the principal streets of modern central Mexico City.) Alvarez, Jose Rogelio (2000). “Mexico, Ciudad de”. Enciclopedia de Mexico (in Spanish) 9. Encyclopædia Britannica. pp. 5242–5260.
Firstly let me say I am a big fan of what Lightsail is trying to do with energy storage.. it is a long time since I have seen relatively simple mechanical innvoation (rather than consummer gadgets/software etc) trying to make a big contribution to improving things.
While high ideals are laudable I cannot believe the nievity of this post..as they stand cities are not green they are instrumental in mankind’s increasingly rapid destruction of our planet. God help us if cities are our future.
We have all but destroyed our planet building an urban envirnment to house the ever acelerating human population growth. Yes we need to improve how green cities are, improve traffic flows for efficency etc but we have constructed a fundamental system that forces mostly bad outcomes. Millions are forced to waste both many hours a day of their lives
and huge amounts of resources to get to work because they cannot afford to live near their work. Every problem is seen as a supply problem – there is never any consideration of how to reduce demand.
In the end the only technologies that get developed are those that pay.
rather than those that are good for the planet or humanity. I hope lightsail makes money -becuase that means it will benefit the world.
But that will all have been wasted if humanity is still concreting over hundreds of acres of land a day..and then spreading into the oceans and ultimately other planets. To put it in popular parlance we might all recall the scene in the first Matrix movie when Agent Smith talking to an imprisoned Morpheous defines humans as desease that destroys all before it and moves on to ravish another area….
maybe in the end we are all in agreement and I am just frustrated that these kinds of good develeopments are so little so late and are really only tinkering at the edges. I have children that are more or less adults now and I am ashamed of what we are leaving them…
Thank you for caring.
However, I believe you are reasoning by the drama of the situation. I am trying to reason by the numbers.
One of the best books on sustainability is call Whole Earth Discipline, by the great Stewart Brand himself. He makes a strong case that dense cities are in fact very environmentally sustainable.
They take up less land, produce less waste, and use less water and energy per capita than the equivalent rural situations. And the birthrates are lower!
Most importantly, the rural country is emptying out, and cities will not be repealed. Earthquakes, tsunami’s, nuclear bombs have not eliminated cities. It is a reality, and luckily, it’s a good one.
Yes I take your point that urbanisation is the one thing which longer term will reign in populations growth..
OK so numbers rather than emotions…
Yes the statistics show that as people move into urban/city environments birth rates are falling….though this is largely due to improved child mortality..why becuase the city/urban ‘scape is the place where services that deliver improved child mortality can be delivered more efficiently becuase the people are packed more closely together.
This is why cities work -population density- so yes in many ways they are more efficient and it is easier to sell most things there, so that helps the economy. But that does not mean that they are in the least bit green..yet. Cities are built out of resources and they continually get built and rebuild, generation after generation – they depend upon all kinds of resources being taken from the wider environment – and as majority of this is done by capitalism it all has be done on an ever growing scale, it is not sustainable.
But this measure of efficiency is all based upon centralised grid scale economics not localism- nothing human.
Ignoring the massive human cost of packing us together so densely ( emotions) the numbers mean you have to work to improve the cities because that is where everybody is. Yes all power to anyone trying to do that but my original reactions still stands..you can’t eulogise about cities as they are now,they are broadly based on steel, concrete, internal combustion engines, consumer goods, electric power from non renewable
all unsustainable- that is why things like lightsail need to work..but please don’t make out we are anywhere near where we should be yet – even in an attempt to promote good work that tries to move things in the right direction.
I look forward to a time when I as an individual or perhaps a group of neighbours I can impliment lightsail technolgy at a local level and get off grid rather than it being implimentated at a grid level by the grid companies to profit from. Then maybe I will be able to afford to live in a less densely popuated place and have a better quality of life.
Globally, we have just past the point where most of humanity now dwells in cities. Yet, very few city dwellers have any influence on the urban landscape in which they dwell.
Cities are complex organisms that grow and develop influenced by many factors and feedback loops. The advent of the automobile had significant influence on city growth, notably in post WWII North America. It is hard to imagine living in a city like Los Angeles without a car, yet it is easy to do so in a city like Berlin which maintained its myriad layers of public transit and bike paths.
Schewel’s work is interesting in that. like the banding of birds, she has studied the actual migratory paths of cars. Moving beyond knowing when stretches of freeway get jammed, her data can provide insight into public transit and possible reshaping of the work/live structure of cities as they evolve. Important in an urban centric future as energy costs rise and efficient sensible life considerations are pursued.