• With complex and highly dynamic interactions, cities are a constant source of inspiration for designers. Much of the design attention around cities in the 21st century has based in creating so-called smart cities via sensor networks and automation. Paris is testing out a solution combining high and low tech to combat the problem of public urination. The device is essentially an outdoor urinal (sans-plumbing) that turns straw, carbon, and urine into compost with internet connected sensors notifying city workers when straw needs to be swapped out. While it's not a pretty problem to think about, it uses a realistic mental models of cities and their inhabitants (warts and all) as a foundation and arrives at an intervention that could be highly effective instead of producing pretty PR fluff. 



  • In the late 1990s/early 2000s much was made of U.S. employment shifting from manufacturing to a service economy. There was a popular notion that outsourcing and automation made the repetitive manual labor of mass production a poor fit for U.S. workers, but that humans would still want or need to interact with other humans when it comes to buying insurance, a car or coffee. But globalized marketplaces quickly commoditized a huge range of goods and the move to e-commerce made us trust (or even prefer) transacting with our devices instead of our neighborhood shops. Add to the that falling costs of sophisticated robotics and we're looking at a coming wave of automation displacing human labor in service roles as well. Silicon Valley is betting on this trend with products like the Cafe X kiosk, a sort of robot barista. While retail based production-side robots have been rolling out for years now (for shawarma, for sushi, for ramen) the CafeX solution is notable for including sales and service functions as well, which leaves restocking and maintenance as the only obvious labor roles for humans to play.  
  • On the software side of adding some automation into the coffee business, Starbucks is testing a chatbot that you can place orders with via voice or text


Building Things: 


Machines for Moving: 

  • Piaggio, the maker of the Vespa, has been running an innovation lab / internal startup in stealth mode for awhile now, and they just revealed their first project: a portly little robot that can carry 40 lbs. and follow you home from the store. It's an interesting and potentially very useful solution to the 'last mile' problems that complicate life for city dwellers. In particular, it could reduce the pain of getting fresh produce for those living in food deserts or help elderly folks maintain a high level of independence. And unlike self driving cars, which may disrupt the urban ecosystem for the worse, this machine fits with existing pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure. 


More next week.