Thursday, April 28, 2022

Post 28: Trends Part 7 - Reinventing Home

 In the final two posts of my “Trends” series, I’m going to take a less global perspective and focus in on the two primary components of modern cities.  As I’m sure you’ve guessed from the title, in this post I will be looking at how our concept of what a home should be is changing.  And more specifically, how that evolving concept will affect the physical form of residential property and the broader urban form of cities generally.  The next post (and the last in the series) will do the same for commercial property.

One of the biggest mistakes made by the city planning profession over the last 70 years is the idea that cities should be neatly divided up into zones and that each zone should be limited to a narrow set of homogeneous uses.  The primary example, of course, being the various single-family residential districts that occupy the vast majority of the zoning map for nearly every midwestern city.  The only form of development allowed in these districts is a single-family home, perhaps interspersed with the occasional church or elementary school.  Somehow planners became convinced that allowing duplexes or triplexes to be mixed with single-family homes would destroy the neighborhood – and we so successfully sold that idea that we have created armies of NIMBYs that howl in opposition whenever an apartment complex or senior living facility is proposed anywhere near their home.

The fact of the matter is that, if appropriately designed, residential buildings of various densities and forms can be blended together in a way that creates a very livable and stable neighborhood.  Probably more stable in the long-run, in fact, than the mono-culture neighborhoods that we have been building since the 1950s.  Our country reacted to the chaos of World War II, racial desegregation and anti-Vietnam protests by building suburban neighborhoods that provided sanctuary from the chaos and virtually guaranteed that we would be surrounded by people just like ourselves.  We are finally learning that it is better for us as individuals and us as a society to have regular exposure to people of different generations, different races and ethnicities, and different economic circumstances.

This development pattern has been slowly disintegrating for the past decade or two due to the societal trends that I have been discussing in prior posts, but that process will accelerate over the next decade.  The very definition of how a home functions in our day-to-day lives has changed and will continue to change, which means that the form of residential units and residential neighborhoods will change as well.

Despite the fact that the changes I’m about to describe may seem substantial, the initial impact on the form of cities will be fairly muted.  That is because the structures we build last for a long time, which means that cities change slowly.  There are more than 140 million residential units in the US housing stock, and we add between 1.1 and 1.3 million new units every year.  We also demolish between 200,000 and 300,000 units every year leaving a net impact of well below 1 percent of the housing stock.  Many of the new residential units will be conventional single-family homes because, believe it or not, many people do not perceive the need for change as sharply as I do.  Thus, the impact of the new residential forms that I will be describing will be modest for at least the next few years.

Modest, however, does not mean trivial.  For example, the number of single-family homes built between 1996 and 2000 averaged about 1.2 million units per year.  Twenty years later between 2016 and 2020, the number was about 840,000 units per year – a roughly 30 percent reduction.  The “American dream” of a single-family home in the suburbs has become a lot less achievable, and perhaps a lot less desirable, over the past 20 years.  I am not predicting the demise of new single-family subdivisions built on the edge of metro areas, but they will continue to lose popularity to other housing forms and to housing in more central locations.  Exurban communities planning on being the next suburban boom-town in their region should rethink their plans.

Climate Change

There are three different ways that residential design will be affected by climate change activism.  The most obvious, of course, is improved energy efficiency.  This is a long standing trend that started decades ago as a way to save homeowners money.  The economic rationale has now become secondary to the goal of saving the planet, but the result is largely the same – every building code update includes higher standards for insulation requirements, air tightness, and efficiency in appliances and lighting.  The result is that residential structures built today are much more energy efficient than those built just 20 or 30 years ago.

For the past several decades (and probably more), the levelized cost of energy saved by more efficient buildings has been cheaper than any form of electrical generation. [1]  That may change as wind and solar generation costs continue to drop, but the goal of reducing greenhouse gasses is likely to continue the push for more efficient homes.  The downside of this trend is that improving energy efficiency has increased the upfront cost of buying a home significantly.  The pushback from affordable housing advocates may some day match the momentum of climate change activists but not quite yet.

The second climate change impact will be through small scale electrical generation and storage.  Homeowners have been putting solar panels on their roofs for years and that market was booming until two things happened.  First, supply chain disruptions due to the COVID pandemic caused prices of both solar panels and battery storage systems to rise for the first time in the past 7 years. [2]  That problem is likely temporary and on-going innovations in the industry will eventually result in falling costs for solar panels once again.  Batteries, on the other hand, are more problematic because of demand from EV manufacturers.  Demand for lithium-ion batteries is skyrocketing and many in the electric vehicle industry say that this will be a long-term problem.

Rooftop solar does not have to be paired with on-site battery systems, of course, but that brings us to the second issue that is holding back residential solar installations.  Utility companies are increasingly active in fighting current “net metering” rules which give energy credits to homeowners when they produce more energy than they use.  In many locations, utility companies are required to compensate residential solar systems at retail rates (the cost consumers pay when they buy electricity).  Utility companies claim (with some justification) that paying retail rates for rooftop solar amounts to a significant subsidy that is being paid by everyone else.  So far, utility companies seem to be winning the debates, and so the long-term economic rationale for individual rooftop systems will become less persuasive unless they are paired with battery storage so that all the electricity produced is used on-site.

What I think will eventually supplant individually owned solar panels on residential roofs will be modestly scaled, community solar systems linked to utility-scale storage systems. [3]   A residential subdivision or apartment complex, for example, could build an array of solar panels linked to a storage system (probably not using lithium-ion technology).  Using a micro-grid approach to connect with the local utility company would allow every resident to:

  1.  save on their electric bill by sharing the power generated from the solar panels, 

  2.  have some emergency power supply from the storage system if the larger grid experienced an outage, and 

  3. eliminate operational and maintenance headaches of solar systems for individual homeowners.

The third climate change impact on residential development will be on location.  As noted above, buying a home on the outskirts of town is becoming less popular.  As home buying shifts to the more climate aware Gen-Z, this trend will accelerate.  Some urbanists will disagree with me on this point, arguing that work-from-home and autonomous vehicles will encourage people to tolerate longer commutes in exchange for the increased affordability and more pastoral character of housing built on the urban fringe.  I’m not buying it however.  Anyone concerned with climate change understands that a 60- or 90-minute commute is not good for the environment even if it is in an electric vehicle and only happens twice a week.  And I don’t care how many emails you get answered, no one wants to spend 60 minutes or more stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic even if the car is driving itself.

The result is that mid-town and first-ring suburban locations are experiencing (and will continue to experience) a resurgence of development interest.  Assuming these areas are willing to allow redevelopment at somewhat higher densities, the older parts of the metro area that were losing population just a decade or two ago could become relative hot spots.  Not every community will embrace this type of change, but those that do will experience an influx of people and disposable income that will create new commercial opportunities and expand tax revenue so that aging infrastructure can be replaced and improved.  Planners will need to find ways to minimize involuntary displacement of lower income households, but the trend is likely to be almost impossible to stop.

The Age of Ideas

A lot has already been written about how the idea-centric jobs of the information economy can theoretically be done from anywhere and how the COVID pandemic forced both workers and employers to implement that capability with new technology.  Now that the work-from-home genie is out of the bottle, it will be impossible for work to go back to the way it was.  The younger generations in particular, are seeing the flexibility of work-from-home as an almost non-negotiable perk. Although 100% remote work seems likely to be fairly rare, hybrid schedules I think will be the new normal.  And while a lot of discussion has taken place about what this means for work, what hasn’t received nearly as much press are the changes to the “home” side of the work-from-home arrangement.

The fact of the matter is that our definition of the activities encompassed by “home” is now much broader and that new reality needs to be addressed by the physical structure of our home.  During the pandemic we not only worked from home, but many families also schooled from home.  Trips to the gym were replaced by exercising on all sorts of new home exercise equipment that gave us the ability to have virtual workout classes from our living rooms.  In addition, the burgeoning field of tele-medicine may turn our home into a clinic.  Our poor guest bedroom now has so many functions to play that actual guests should probably just get a hotel room.

Office buildings, schools, gyms and clinics have all reopened but I think it would be foolish to assume that everything we did during the pandemic will go away.  The convenience offered by virtual Peloton classes is real and while some may return to the gym, others will not.  Schools are back in session for now but the next severe COVID variant, or severe flu season, or even severe snow storm will trigger calls for remote learning rather than simply giving kids a week off.  And if you could trade a 30-minute wait in a disease infested doctor’s waiting room for a diagnostic device in your home and a video chat with your doctor, wouldn’t you do it?

What we haven’t faced up to is the fact that what we tolerated because of the pandemic was far from ideal in some respects and should not be accepted as the new normal.  Setting up your laptop on the kitchen counter for a Zoom call while the kids are eating breakfast is not what work-from-home should entail.  It is not good for your work life and it is not good for your family life.  If all of these new capabilities are really going to improve our lives, then the physical form of our home needs to change.

To begin with, the open plan design of many new homes is likely to take a step backward.  This will be particularly true for larger homes designed for families.  Anyone who is serious about working from home in a professional and productive way is going to have a strong preference for an office space that can be acoustically isolated.  The space does not necessarily need to be large, however, since most office jobs are largely paper-free which means most people will not need printers or file cabinets (and glass doors can make it seem visually larger than it actually is).  The essentials are just a desk large enough for a laptop and a couple of monitors, a high quality office chair, good lighting and perhaps a wireless keyboard.  The other essential is a configuration that allows a wall or shelving to be in the background – tastefully curated, of course, with professional or personal items.  Participating in a video meeting with your bed or closet in the background is so 2020!  

Smaller homes or apartments may not have room for a dedicated office, but designers should be looking for nooks or corners that can be marketed as a home office space and are located away from the hubbub of the kitchen and bathroom.  It would also not surprise me to see furniture makers get creative with “murphy bed” style office furniture that folds away when not in use so that the dining room or guest bedroom can function as an office during the day and yet be transformed to another use when needed.  Finally, apartment complexes may create a co-working space as an amenity for their residents just like having a pool or workout room.

Another thing to keep in mind about the economics of the Information Age is that there is a darker flip-side to the lucrative jobs for programmers, scientists and Fintech geniuses.  Automation and robotics will eliminate many mid-tier jobs or make them so simplistic that they no longer command a good salary.  This is likely to push more and more people into the “gig economy” where they act as solo entrepreneurs or loosely affiliated contract workers.  Many of these people will be based out of their homes and may need specialty spaces.  Examples include many manual labor occupations such as lawn maintenance, electrical work, clothing alterations or handyman services.  But it can also include high-tech work such as 3D printing or laser cutting for prototyping, low volume parts production or various artistic endeavors.

These types of home occupations are not necessarily new, but what I think will be different will be the number of households participating in the gig economy and the scale at which they do so.  Instead of one or two people per block working from home, I think it is conceivable that half of all households will have some type of home-based business – either full-time or part-time.  In addition, some of these businesses are going to grow beyond the garages or spare bedrooms that have traditionally housed home occupations.  Expect to see custom remodels or accessory buildings constructed specifically to accommodate a home-based business, some of which may start to blur the lines between what is residential and what is commercial.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

The final trend that is just beginning to show up in homes now but which will probably be fairly common in 5 or 6 years is a virtual reality room.  Most people are familiar with the exploding world of e-gaming, but are likely to visualize one or two players seated and staring at a large screen with a controller in their hands.  That approach to gaming is going to be quickly replaced by a much more immersive and engaging virtual reality form of gaming where the user wears a headset that controls what they see and hear, and sensors track all of their movements including hand motions, head orientation and body movements.  Full featured systems are already available – such as the Valve Index from Steam or the Vive Pro from HTC – but they are expensive and time consuming to configure.  Given the rate at which the technology is changing, those limitations won’t exist much longer as the boundaries for hardware, software and virtual content continue to expand.

Back in 2006, the Nintendo Wii broke new ground in the gaming world with hand-held wireless controllers that you could swing like a tennis racket or baseball bat.  Playing tennis against the Wii was fun but now imagine standing on Centre Court at Wimbledon, surrounded by cheering fans and facing Roger Federer’s serve.  To make it as real as possible, you will need a room (at least 6-feet by 6-feet, but preferably 15 x 15) so that you can actually shift your stance and swing a “racket” in a way that controls speed, trajectory and spin.  As fun as it might be to play a tennis pro, you might have a more competitive game if you played your neighbor down the street (in their own virtual reality room) or a player across the globe that you meet online.  The point is that virtual reality will take gaming to an entirely new level – a level so compelling that people will gladly devote an entire room (and probably thousands of dollars) to make it happen.

Now imagine playing golf at Pebble Beach or the Augusta Country Club and swinging a golf “club” that is so realistic that you not only see the result but you feel the impact with your hands.  Golf simulators exist now, of course, but they track primarily the path of the club, and the spin, speed and trajectory of the ball.  Virtual reality golf will use far more sensors to give a much more realistic experience, including the ability to putt as if you were actually on the green (and they will do it without needing an actual golf ball to go flying around your house).  Or imagine riding an exercise bike that is articulated to simulate going up and down hills and leaning side to side through turns.  With a virtual reality system, instead of simply watching your Peleton instructor, you could be riding through the mountains with her (and your classmates) on the Tour de France.  Virtual reality is poised to replace both old style “rec rooms'' as well as exercise rooms and home theater setups with a much more engaging alternative.

Impact on Cities

Residential neighborhoods in many cities are already changing.  Several places have revised zoning regulations so that single-family neighborhoods need no longer be exclusively single-family – duplexes and triplexes are now allowed to be mixed in without special approval being required.  Accessory dwelling units (backyard granny flats) and mixed use districts are also becoming more popular.  So the addition of a wider variety of work options or community solar projects may not be a significant change in some communities.

Still, these changes are likely to be controversial in the majority of midwestern cities which means that planners need to start having conversations with community groups about the perceived advantages and disadvantages.  Following those conversations, home occupation requirements will need to be adjusted and code enforcement procedures modified.  The problem is that home-based businesses are likely to start sprouting up in residential neighborhoods whether the city is ready with appropriate regulations or not.  This is what happened with businesses like Airbnb several years ago – dwellings were offered for short-term rental before cities had even considered how to regulate them, let alone had actual regulations in place.

The other major change that I think will follow from the trends discussed in this post (and previous posts) is a change in the way that housing is built, financed and owned.  In my opinion, fee simple ownership of a site-built house financed through a traditional mortgage is destined to decline in popularity for a variety of reasons.  The biggest, of course, is construction cost.  The cost to build traditional housing has gone through the roof (pun intended).   Although lumber prices are likely to decline at some point and rising interest rates are likely to pop some of the “housing bubble” price inflation, I think the long-term trend is likely to continue upward.

At some point, factory production of modular housing is going to have to play a larger role in residential construction.  There are a variety of ways this could play out so I’m not going to make a precise prediction, but the inefficiencies of custom designed, site built housing are ripe for replacement with standardized components and automated production.  In the past, progress has been held back by building codes and inspection practices that favored site built housing, and by the public perception of modular housing as being cheap and insubstantial.  Those things need to change.

I also think that generational changes added to the cost issue are going to foster new forms of home ownership.  In the fourth quarter of 2021, roughly 25 percent of the homes purchased by professional investors were newly constructed residences.  That number is up from less than 5 percent just two years before.  Builders are constructing entire subdivisions with the intent to rent rather than sell. [4]  This enables young families to get into a nice residential unit without having to come up with a large down payment.  It also relieves them from many of the routine maintenance responsibilities – something which, at least anecdotally, they seem less inclined to embrace than prior generations.  The downside, of course, is that families have no control over rising rents and they accumulate no wealth in the form of home equity.

I think that some type of middle ground in the development/ownership/financing model may emerge in the next few years – something in between renting and the current ownership models of fee simple or condominiums.  What I am envisioning is a residential development with a mix of unit types and a developer/investor that retains a long-term ownership interest.  Units would be “sold” to new residents for a modest down payment (perhaps one or two percent of the unit cost) and the resident would make fixed monthly payments that would cover interest, principle and the cost of exterior maintenance and any shared amenity package.  The developer would retain all equity in the unit except as it is purchased by the monthly payments, and would split any appreciation in the unit value with the resident at the time of any future sale.

The advantages for the resident/buyer are the opportunity to build equity (particularly in markets with housing appreciation), the ability to avoid the large down payment and rigorous credit checks of a mortgage, the guarantee of a fixed monthly cost (except perhaps for maintenance costs), and the ability to do interior upgrades and modifications at their discretion.  The advantages for the developer/investor are a resident population that is motivated to maintain and improve the property, a retention of any tax benefits, recurring capital infusions from the down payments made whenever a unit is sold to a new resident, and the potential for asset appreciation over time.

Would something like this ever catch on?  I don’t know, but I think there is room for innovation with new generations of home buyers that are feeling squeezed economically and are not as enamored with the burdens of more traditional home ownership formats. 

Thoughts?  As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at  Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting?  Send me an email with your name and email address.


  1.  American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy; “How Much Does Energy Efficiency Cost?”;

  2. Megan Wollerton; “Should you invest in solar panels in 2022?  It’s complicated”; January 2022; CNet;

  3.  Patricia Price, Alexandra Von Meier; “The Technologies That Could Make All the Difference”; April 26, 2022; The Wall Street Journal.

  4. Will Parker; “Home Builders Find Refuge in Investors”; April 13, 2022; The Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Post 27: Trends Part 6 - Social Unrest and Political Extremism

 I am basically an optimist.  The future certainly holds challenges but, on balance, I think the future will be significantly better than the past.  In the previous posts in this series on future trends, I have tried to emphasize the positive aspects of these trends along with the potential potholes that our society and our cities need to try to avoid.

This post will be different.  The growing social unrest in this country and the rise of political extremism are dark clouds in which I see very few silver linings.  There are foundational causes for this unrest which have little to do with the three “mega trends” upon which this series has been based, but unfortunately at least two of the three mega trends are acting as amplifiers of social unrest.  Although they have the potential to advance social equity and inclusion, they are currently acting more like the problem than the solution.

Some may wonder why I am even writing about this topic.  What do social unrest and political extremism have to do with “the forces shaping the urban form of Midwestern cities'' as referenced by the subtitle of this blog?  Unfortunately, a lot.  Cities are “ground zero” in many political and social movements and this is a prime example.  Although many of the underlying causes are global or national in scope, cities will have to deal with the expressions of social unrest and political extremism even though they have few tools with which to address the basic issues.  Environmental protests, Black Lives Matter marches, tent cities full of the homeless, left- and right-wing political rallies, or acts of violence by white supremicists or other fringe groups almost always happen in cities – and the way we as a society respond will shape how our cities look and will determine which cities move forward and which fall into decay.

The Backdrop

Social unrest almost always comes down to power – who has it and desperately wants to keep it versus who doesn’t have it and desperately wants to get some.  In our nearly 250-year history, this country has won great wars, pioneered new discoveries, and invented institutions that have made life better for people in every corner of the world.  But we have not been particularly good at sharing the reins of power with people who are not white and of European ancestry.  Our history with Native Americans, blacks, and hispanic and asian immigrants is full of examples of violence, overt discrimination, and subtle chicanery.  

To be honest, throughout human history people in power have always taken advantage of those without power, and been particularly ruthless with those who look different or have different religious beliefs.  So it is not a uniquely American failing, but we tend to tout our “all men are created equal” heritage which makes our actions seem particularly hypocritical.

I think we have reached a point in history where recognizing our diversity and finding ways to share power equitably is an absolute requirement, not an option.  After all, our nation is becoming racially and ethnically diverse at an increasingly rapid rate. [1] By 2045, and perhaps sooner, the country will be “minority white.”  Yet despite the obvious facts and the progress of recent decades, there is still considerable resistance to change which means minorities often have to push their way into the room where decisions are made – sometimes sparking violent confrontations.  This is not going to change anytime soon, nor do I see it becoming less contentious.  

Impact of the Mega Trends

I wish I could say that the three overarching trends that I think will shape the future of our cities and our society will be forces for inclusion and equity, thus leading to less social unrest.  At least initially, I think some of them will have largely the opposite effect by underscoring and exaggerating the existing differences that tend to drive us apart.

The age of ideas and the power of scale.  You may recall that the first mega trend was about our changing economy.  The industrial age was focused on making and transporting things as efficiently as possible.  In the current economy however, profits are driven by ideas, data and discoveries.  As a result, the path to huge profits and market capitalizations is based not on the complex supply chains, huge factories and massive workforces of the past, but on the mental and creative output of a relatively small number of highly talented people that is then sold to millions of people around the globe.  Of the five most profitable US companies in 2020, three of them (Berkshire Hathaway, JP Morgan and Alphabet) are not really known for making any physical product at all.  And the other two (Apple and Microsoft) are successful primarily because of product innovations – which are ideas turned into distinctive products.

The result is that idea-based companies, such as Alphabet or Microsoft, make roughly $220,000 in profit per employee while manufacturing focused companies make far less (e.g. GM makes roughly $43,000 in profit per employee).  Due to these outsized profits and due to the fact that an idea-based company is only as good as the latest stream of ideas, the most talented people are incredibly well compensated.  At the same time, globalization, automation, robotics and similar trends are putting a cap on the compensation for the average employee, particularly for those in more “old school” industries.

The net effect is that income and wealth inequality has been increasing steadily for the past 50 years.  For example, the share of US aggregate income taken in by high income households (those making more than 200% of the median household income) increased from 29% in 1970 to 48% in 2018.  Meanwhile, the share of aggregate income taken in by middle income households (80% to 200% of median household income) fell from 62% in 1970 to 43% in 2018. [2]

Household wealth has followed a similar pattern.  According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, the top 20 percent of households (based on income percentile) have two-and-a-half times more wealth than the remaining 80 percent of the population.  And that discrepancy has been growing, not shrinking.  In 1990, upper income households (the top 20%) had 61% of total household wealth, while middle income households (40th to 80th percentile) had just under 29% and poor households (the bottom 40%) had just over 10%.  By the end of 2021, the share of total wealth held by upper income households had increased to over 70% while the share held by middle income households fell to just under 23% and the share held by poor households fell to 7%. [3]

To be fair, total wealth (adjusted for inflation) grew during that time period for all income groups.  But as I’ve written before, perception is just as important as reality and the perception is that the middle and lower class families are losing ground.

Income and wealth inequality is likely to fuel social discontent.  Many people, particularly those in the middle class, are likely to feel that the economic deck is stacked against them and may support extremist political views in hopes of a remedy, particularly on the far left.  Equally important, however, is the negative effect that income inequality may have on the fundamental American belief that talent and hard work will result in economic success regardless of how humble your origins might have been.  Research by Alan Krueger, president of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama, suggests that periods of high income inequality harm the economic mobility of the next generation.  This correlation has been referred to as the Great Gatsby Curve after the last period in US history when inequality was as high as current levels. [4]  If working class families start believing that they are worse off than their parents, and that the economic prospects for their children will be even worse still, then conflicts between rich and poor may reach the point where draconian political steps threaten capitalism and our economic institutions.

Climate change.  Our society’s response to climate change also has the potential to disproportionately impact poor households.  Whether it is an effort to minimize the degree of climate change (e.g. a tax on carbon) or to mitigate the impacts of climate change after it happens (e.g. a seawall for a coastal community), the fact of the matter is that poor families tend to have less ability to deal with unexpected costs and a greater likelihood of being involuntarily displaced by climate change impacts such as flooding.  

Perhaps the poster child for climate change impact in the U.S. is Miami/Dade County, Florida – a rapidly growing city built in a low-lying area with a porous limestone base.  Local communities have already spent hundreds of millions on sea walls and pumping systems which have no guarantee of being effective for more than a decade or two.   Billions more will be needed to deal with tens of thousands of septic systems that will fail over the next 20 years as rising sea levels cause the water table to rise.  At some point, frequent flooding events and a rising (and increasingly salty) water table are going to undermine the aesthetics and structural stability of beach-front property and force relocation to higher ground.  Ironically, much of the higher ground in Miami – known as the Atlantic Coastal Ridge (a whopping 11 feet above sea level) – is already home to several moderately priced, immigrant communities such as Little Haiti, Liberty City, Overtown and Little Havana.  Property owners in these neighborhoods are already experiencing pressure to sell to developers.  Thus it is likely that poor households may be faced with higher taxes to pay climate change mitigation costs and be priced out of their neighborhoods at the same time.

Perhaps equally divisive, however, is the philosophical debate that climate change may push to the forefront of both national and local political races.  The issue is how to balance the potential need for governmental taxes or mandates designed to promote the common good versus the need to protect individual liberties and freedom of choice.

It is easily conceivable, for example, that climate change becomes such a big concern that various levels of government start taking significant steps to alter personal and corporate behavior with the intention of reducing greenhouse gas emissions or minimizing the damage caused by climate change.  Possible actions might include a carbon tax, a ban on beachfront development, a ban on natural gas for heating and cooking in new construction, or a ban on coal-powered electrical generation.  Each of these potential actions has been either enacted in a limited form or discussed as a climate change response and so are not outside the realm of possibility.  It is also likely that each of them would be opposed by a significant segment of the population as an attack on their personal freedom to choose the lifestyle they feel is best.

How best to strike this balance is something that policy-makers, lawyers and academics have been debating for hundreds of years (see, for example, the Mayflower Compact of 1620).  There are strong arguments on both sides and the best resolution often depends on the details of what government action is being proposed and what danger to the public welfare is supposedly being addressed.  Unfortunately, the details are almost always complicated, and the general public is typically unwilling (or unable) to engage in a complex debate.  This opens the door for politicians, pundits and talk show hosts to preempt any serious discussion by substituting slogans and half-truths that appeal to fears and prejudices.  Barry Chudakov (writing about technology change in general, not just climate change) put it very succinctly:

The diminishment of complexity invites tyranny. It is the tyranny of simple-ism and reductionism papered over by happy talk, lies and distortions designed to distract us from real issues. [5]


A recent example of this phenomenon can be seen in the early responses of President Trump to the COVID pandemic, which clearly was more complex than he or any of his close advisors understood.  This led to an abundance of “happy talk, lies and distortions” apparently designed to distract us from what more credible sources such as the CDC were trying to get across.  Trump’s statements that the virus was “very much under control” in February of 2020 or that “it will go away” by April of 2020 had the effect of convincing many people that they didn’t need to take the COVID virus seriously and that local government shutdowns or mask mandates were crazy overreactions.  His later musings about injecting disinfectants as a possible cure encouraged a cottage industry of homemade treatments that were at best ineffective and at worst dangerous.

The fractious nature of our pandemic response, however, should at least be fairly short-lived.  Climate change, on the other hand, is something we may be arguing about for the rest of this century.  Some people dispute the science behind climate change and many more question the severity of climate impacts even if the scientific projections are correct.  Evidence-based challenges along those lines should certainly be taken seriously, but the fact that climate science is not perfect should not devolve into claims that it is a “hoax” (Sen. James Inhofe, et al).

There are two competing, and seemingly irreconcilable, world-views at play here:  (1) that climate change represents an epic crisis of global proportions that can only be addressed through strong and prolonged government action, and (2) government power should always be held in check lest it destroy individual freedoms.  Quite frankly, I don’t see any common ground here and I worry that this will fundamentally split our country in two.

Artificial intelligence and virtual reality.  If there is any hope that technology will help unite our country instead of dividing it, I think it will come from the linked technologies of artificial intelligence and virtual reality.  Unfortunately, there are no guarantees.  After all, both of these technologies deviate from our past experiences enough that they might easily be viewed as weird or even creepy by people who are technologically challenged.  As is typically the case with new technologies, these two are likely to be adopted first by those who are wealthy, young and trendy.  Groups who are traditionally reluctant to adopt new technology – the elderly, the poor, and those living in isolation – may reject the idea of taking advice from a computer or spending time in a virtual world, thus creating a new dimension to the existing technology gap.

On the other hand, I believe that the potential power of both artificial intelligence and virtual reality will be so enormous that their rate of adoption will be similar to that of the smartphone (estimated to now be roughly 85% of the population).  Although it may sound a bit creepy now, I think having conversations and taking advice from a computer with an AI-powered voice and personality will prove to be so easy and useful that the technology will win people over pretty quickly.  If even basic artificial intelligence capabilities can be made available to a large segment of the population, it will dramatically help people make sense of an increasingly complex world.  In a sense, it will help “democratize” knowledge.  The rich will still have the latest and greatest versions, but the gap between the level of information available to the rich and the level available to the masses should shrink considerably.  The decisions you make about your health, personal finances, or career should all be improved by the suggestions from your AI companion.  You might even be able to fix that leaky toilet without having to call the plumber.

Virtual reality, I think, holds equal promise.  Keep in mind that the goal of virtual reality is to immerse you in different worlds.  You might visit one virtual world to play games or be entertained.  You might visit another to learn something new.  Or still another world to transact some type of business.  In all of these worlds, your presence is configurable – in other words, you can appear to be whatever visual representation you would like.  I might want to appear to be a male model like Zoolander, or an ogre like Shrek, or a talking moose like Bullwinkle.  Think how freeing that might be to someone who is self-conscious of their appearance or feels like they are pre-judged because of the color of their skin.  Think of how our society might change if our reactions to the ideas and actions of other people cannot be shaped by our biases about black people, or gay people, or old people.  If I’m debating an issue with a talking moose, I might simply have to base my response on the quality of their ideas and the skill with which they can articulate those ideas.

Neither of these technologies, however, are panaceas.  In fact, technology in general holds as many challenges for humanity as it does opportunities.  Genetic editing, to take a recent example, has advanced to the point where we may soon have cures for many inherited diseases – or we may get distracted and end up using the technology so that the wealthy can have designer babies that are slender, blonde and blue-eyed.  As sociobiologist and the Pulitzer-prize winning author of On Human Nature E. O. Wilson puts it:

“The real problem of humanity is the following:  we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.  And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”  [6]

Impact on Cities

Many Americans are discontented and on edge.  They feel economically squeezed and pessimistic about the future.  They feel inundated with change caused by social and technological trends over which they have no control.  They are adrift and desperately seeking safe harbor.

Most of these Americans view government as part of the problem, not the solution. Rightly or wrongly, they see the federal government as being in cahoots with financial and intellectual elites that are forcing change down their throats. They may understand that most of the issues are at the federal level, but their distrust of government includes every level.

This poorly defined sense of discontent is likely to crop up locally as opposition to some proposal that disrupts the status quo or seems conspiratorial.  National buzz words may get linked to local issues regardless of whether it makes any sense.  In the process of galvanizing the opposition, grassroots leaders may emerge and may eventually run for office.  In many cases, these new politicians will be much better at defining what they are against than articulating what they are for, and the campaigns they run will often promise a “return” to some idealized past or treasured set of values.  Unfortunately, this type of politician is almost always a poor leader because they don’t know how to build consensus for something, only angry indignation against something.  


The distrust of government is amplified by our growing reliance on social media for information.  Many social media sites are more concerned with promoting a particular point of view and maximizing the number of viewers than with verifying facts or understanding the nuances of a particular issue.  People tend to be emotionally attracted to extreme stories, especially negative ones.  This leads to a lot of “news” reports which are sensationalized and exaggerated, and yet trivial in terms of their overall importance.  Consequently, misinformation and distortions are common, and the algorithms that track our online viewing habits tend to reinforce our biases by suggesting new content that is similar to what we have viewed in the past rather than expose us to other points of view.

So what should cities do in response?  

Be as transparent as possible.  Backroom decisions or sweetheart deals for influential people are never good ideas for local government, but they are especially damaging when distrust is so high.  Publicize as widely as possible the issues that are coming up for discussion, the opportunities that citizens have for input, and the ultimate decisions that are made.  Make sure that staff reports explain the issues as clearly as possible, including the likely impacts of various options.  Encourage elected officials and other decision makers to succinctly explain why they are voting a particular way rather than simply casting a vote in silence.  Votes without explanation invite conspiracy theories.  Finally, stream public meetings whenever possible.  Most people will find them too boring to watch, but the fact that they are easily available will make government seem more open and understandable.

Focus on the basics.  Trying to implement grand plans, particularly those with a high price tag, is probably not a good idea when skepticism of government motives is already high unless there is broad community consensus.  Instead, focus on delivering essential services efficiently and promptly.  Plow the snow, pick up trash, fill potholes, keep parks clean, and respond to 9-1-1 calls promptly.  Effectively delivering basic services builds trust in the competence of government – something that will be essential the next time a big project is up for discussion.

Continue promoting diversity, inclusivity and equity.  These types of initiatives have become popular targets for some right-wing groups, but this is no time to back down from efforts to improve how people are treated and how decisions are made.  The vast majority of people realize that this is the right thing to do.  The key will be to set the right environment and tone – educate and enlighten rather than berate or shame.  Support ethnic festivals or other community gatherings, for example, where diversity can be highlighted in fun and entertaining ways.

Expand opportunities for adult education.  The forces that divide our society often prey on our fears and insecurities, which are often based mostly on our ignorance and inexperience.  Particularly when it comes to technology, cities should participate (and perhaps lead) in efforts to educate the public in ways that are neutral and non-threatening.  A community lecture series on trends in technology might sound hopelessly antiquated in the age of online streaming, but combining a speaker who is good at explaining complex issues with cookies and soft drinks might be a bigger draw than you expect.  It might also be an opportunity to build partnerships with local universities, junior colleges, or even high-school tech programs – something that might pay dividends in other ways.

A Final Word

I want to be clear that I am not opposed to technological progress nor do I blame technology for the ills of our society.  Technology is just a tool – one which has generally benefited our society economically and physically.  But as Voltaire (and Spiderman’s Uncle Ben) supposedly have said “with great power comes great responsibility.”  I am concerned that we do not always use the power of technology with the wisdom it deserves.

In particular, I am troubled by the divisiveness, distortion and polarization that characterizes recent public discourse.  Technology has played a role in that degeneration, but I am hopeful that it can also play a role in raising facts, logic and experience as the primary basis for future decisions.

Thoughts?  As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at  Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting?  Send me an email with your name and email address.


  1.  William Frey; “The nation is diversifying even faster than predicted, according to new census data”;  July 2020; The Brookings Institution;

  2. Juliana Horowitz, Ruth Igielnik, Rakesh Kochhar; “Trends in income and wealth inequality”; January 2020; The Pew Research Center;

  3. U.S. Federal Reserve; Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989; March 2022;;series:Net%20worth;demographic:income;population:1,3,5,7,9,11;units:levels;range:1989.4,2021.4

  4. David Vandivier; “What is the Great Gatsby Curve?”; June 2013; Obama Archives;

  5. Janna Anderson, Lee Rainie, Emily Vogels; “Experts Say the ‘New Normal’ in 2025 Will  Be Far More Tech-Driven, Presenting More Big Challenges”; February 2021; The Pew Research Center;

  6. Harvard Magazine; “An Intellectual Entente”; September 2009;