Tag Archives: Innovation

Airbnb San Francisco coverage 2008 and 2012
Infographic by Kelli Anderson

As Anand Giridharadas wrote in the New York Times on Friday we are experiencing a resurgence in the informal economy in the developed world facilitated by online platforms that digitally organise informal jobs, house stays or car rentals. I’m not sure if I agree that these jobs can really be called informal as they are facilitated by state registered tax-paying entities, but taskrabbit, airbnb and relayrides are certainly creating jobs in a decentralized and on-demand way that wasn’t possible before internet 2.0. Whilst Giridharadas in his article considers the potentially regressive effect this type of job may have on the labour market- we have been considering what it might mean for city life –  engaging latent value through social organisation generates an increased urban  intensity that Jacobs describes, so we got thinking what it might mean for city public life.

We have observed and documented public space and public life in Chennai, located in the South Eastern state of Tamil Nadu,  India. The unmistakeable street-life in our research has shown is at the very least very well supported by if not generated by the informal economy. In a study of the T Nagar district in Chennai we measured the numbers of people in a street occupied by informal vendors had an average level of staying activity was eighteen times higher in the street than that in the nearby parks. In total it was found that the numbers of people along this street with few formalized shops were equivalent to those found on London’s Oxford street. Whilst these levels of intensity in India are created by the enormous populations, as well as large populations of street dwellers – there is also a strong social culture of it.

Social life in the T Nagar District

Whitechapel high street in London has served as a local informal market place for over 150 years.  First a Jewish market, and now a Bangladeshi market, it continues to attract diverse street life particularly for the newest British immigrants. The culture of the informal economy here has remained long after many other places in the city were formalised and the wide spaces of Whitechapel road and the more intimate space of Brick lane have given lasting form for to this.

In contrast, stands Strøget, Copenhagen’s one mile long pedestrianized shopping street, completely formalised yet also alive with a not dissimilar level of public life. Can the same spatial parameters contribute to the likelihood of either a formal or informal economy arising in the street and providing fertile ground for public life and social exchange.  Both Whitechapel and Strøget are lined with a fine grain building network, with several entrances and a robust building stock that has accommodated a evolving change of uses over time.  Strøget is a 1.5 km route accentuated with public spaces and interrupted only twice by cross streets as it is meanders between 2 key public spaces. While Whitechapel is a traditional high street interrupted regularly by cross-streets and lacks a series of public spaces adjacent to it.

So how do these new types of virtual companies impact and affect the physical manifestation of micro economies, formal and informal in the city? Airbnb lets-out spare rooms to those travelling through the city or working temporarily creating increased densities and variety of people. Relay rides decreases the number of dormant vehicles and makes increased use existing cars in the city. All of these arrangements require a level social interaction and trust between fellow citizens that has been somewhat lacking in our formal economies, but always present in the street and spaces of our cities.  Perhaps we should be looking more broadly, more intelligently at our social condition for ways to generate a ‘healthy city’.  Such a city according to Richard Sennett’s is ‘a city can embrace and make productive use of the differences of class, ethnicity, and lifestyles it contains, while a sick city cannot’ – and in this vain perhaps we need to leave room for informality and explore how it affects public life. We must do more to understand this relationship between the virtual and the physical, between the formal and the informal and work to create spatial frameworks and social conditions that allow this relationship to flourish and mutually reinforce each other.

Strøget, Copenhagen

Whitechapel high street, London
Photo credit, Diamond Geezer

Welcome back to Gehl Institute’s partnership with Untapped Cities in New York, looking at the impact of data, both open and collected, in the design of cities.

On March 7, New York City became the first local government to pass legislation ensuring public access to data. The passing of the bill symbolizes a political embrace of the “open” culture already underway in New York City’s “Silicon Alley.”  City agencies and non-profit organizations in New York are making new correlations between urban conditions and social phenomenon, utilizing crowdsourcing and open data, to support traditional methods of data analysis.

Open Plans, a New York-based non-profit organization with a focus on transportation and urban planning, is an example of such a progressive group. The Open Plans team builds software which enables public agencies and non-profit organizations to crowdsource input from the community. You may recognize their work with New York City’s Department of Transportation’s interactive bike station suggestion map from this past year. In its decade of existence, Open Plans developed open source projects which include OpenGeo, Streetfilms, Streetsblog, GothamSchools, Civic Commons and OpenTripPlanner. According to the non-profit, all the tools serve to facilitate open source software, information transparency and progressive transportation planning.

Recently, Open Plans co-hosted a panel at the American Planning Association (APA) Conference in Los Angeles with Denver-based firm Place Matters, highlighting the challenges to come as we navigate amidst a constant and sometimes overwhelming flow of data. Important questions loom: How do we make sense of the data? With limited resources, should companies focus on making the quality of data better or the analysis tools better?

Publicly submitted requests for bike share stations in NYC

In partnership with Open Plans, the NYC Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) has also embraced this trend towards a more “open” culture by utilizing crowd-sourced information to plan station locations for the soon-to-be-launched Citibank bike share program. Bicycle commuting has increased in the city (35% from 2007 to 2008), but there are still significant challenges associated with bike ridership, including access. The collected crowd-sourced data, submitted via an interactive map on the NYCDOT website, allowed the public to suggest bike share stations for the rollout.

To read the full article visit Untapped Cities

On September 15th we experienced a “method day”. Vannesa Ahuactzin, Cultural Planner at Gehl together with David Carlson, founder of Designboost, planned and facilitated the day.

The method days happens twice a year. They are a meant to bring the Gehl Office together to discuss relevant topics. This method day was about discovering ways to build a mindset of knowledge gathering and innovative practices within.

+Why is it important for office to experience a method day?

We travel a lot and work independently in many ways. This time of coming together to discuss, put our minds on a topic together for a whole day, is very valuable to the people who work at Gehl. It is about pushing the boundaries and developing new ways to gather and approach knowledge.

Beginning the day with Vannesa's beautiful illustrated ideas

+Why explore the theme of knowledge and innovation?

Knowledge is important to our business. We focus on changing knowledge to innovation. The core of the day was to understand how we can find new knowledge, how we work together and apply knowledge to our projects and thinking. Knowledge is a strange thing; it is nothing and everything, it is everywhere and nowhere. In fact it is very much here [we are talking together by the yellow table at the office library], but it doesn’t mean anything until someone uses it. What’s interesting is trying understanding that mental and practical process of changing knowledge to innovation, and by having this method day, we can go deeper into this topic.

Discussing ideas - David is as always very passionate

A group went to the café downstairs to explore and discuss their ideas

+The day was planned as a workshop – Why do you think this structure was fruitful in dealing with this specific theme?

Workshops are about bringing people together to discuss different matters or themes. The success lies in our ability to create an environment of openness that allows the participants to freely express their ideas. But it is also crucial to create a sense of expectation and to push the boundaries of what people already know. When they get tired, they get more honest. From the beginning of the day we made our expectations and gave the participant’s parameters to produce their ideas. We divided the day into smaller working groups, had two working sessions with presentations and discussions. By doing this you take the temperature of the discussion – how is it going? And it gets more dynamic and exhausting J

Gathered after workshops and putting our ideas on the boards

+What came out of it?

Lots of good ideas that we can keep pushing forward. Innovation is like a cake: You are continuously building up the layers. The method day brought a lot of the ingredients and layers, but we are still working on making the rest of the cake. Sometimes the actual answers that come out of the day – the well-worked sheets themselves – are not the most interesting output. It’s was behind them, the interpretations of the presentation, the small comments, seeing how the behavior changes. Going beyond the unexpected.

Emmy: For me the most unexpected was that innovative practices are about the workspace culture. It is about how people at the company work together and how they share their knowledge. Vannesa: It is about how children are taught to share. Are they hiding their findings from each other or are they open? Are they willing to discuss before the unfinished? If you want to be innovative, you must break the practices and change the minds by coming together and pushing the boundaries. Basically creating a culture where people take up something and change it into something new.

Gehl Campus is a new venture. Well, it’s new in the sense that the campus, precinct, quarter, or whatever, is the focus; but orthodox in that it is a logical outflow from the Gehl approach as urbanists of the humanist persuasion.

To us, the campus is defined broadly, as any physical configuration of buildings and spaces, public or collegial, that draws people together into creative networks for learning, discovery and exchange. So a university or the like clearly fits the bill; but so does a hospital complex, or a business precinct, a research and technology park, a cultural complex, a civic zone – indeed any clustering of human functions that share and intermix common roots and values.

The campus, then, is the city in microcosm.

It has all the richness of interaction, the creative tension and, potentially all the living amenity of the city. Many urban campuses are actually part of the city that contains them. They are essential investments of the local economy and increasingly part of the brand of the city in its global context.

And just as there are cities that are lively, safe and engaging – so too are there campuses that have a ‘buzz’; campuses that encourage the sharing of knowledge amongst peers, departments, industry and the broader city, campuses where we want to stay longer.

Over the coming months, Gehl Campus blog posts we will explore some of the ways we might build a culture of exchange on Campus and how public life and knowledge exchange can be designed in to modernize campuses for the way innovation takes place in the 21st Century. Watch this space.

Professor Daryl LeGrew (pictured) and Simon Goddard, The Campus Project.


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