Illustration by Yimeisgreat

Winter 2030: A Metropolis in Transit

The following speculative scenario is the first of four short stories developed in Autodesk’s Office of the CTO (OCTO). The scenario is the outcome of a project exploring how automation will shape the future landscape of our customer’s jobs, industries, and the nature of their work. The greater aim of this effort is to ensure that our nascent perspective on the Future of Work is made as relevant and tangible as possible, so that we can better understand how humans and machines can partner to achieve more than either could alone.

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Research and development of this scenario conducted in collaboration with Jessy Escobedo. Illustrations by YimeIsGreat.

It’s been over 20 years now since Gabrielle Lozano last lived in London. A Los Angeles native, Lozano spent a few years abroad early in her career on an architectural fellowship. At the time, the city was grinding rapidly towards the 2012 summer Olympics. Back then the tension between scarcity and abundance felt mildly debilitating. The fear of too little in awkward equilibrium with the burden of too much. There was a profound anxiety around the impact the Olympic games would have on the City of London, the public transit system, the local businesses and neighborhoods surrounding the city center. Residents feared that the influx of visitors to the city would place added pressure on a public transit system that already often felt like it was one station away from bursting at the seams.

I’m sitting with Lozano on this sweltering hot day in September at a local shop selling used books and baked goods in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. “The books are used, not the baked goods obviously,” Lozano assures me, with a hearty chuckle. Her laugh oscillates almost as much as her hand gestures. As she speaks, Lozano drags her fingers through the air over the table between us, as if filling in an empty frame. Her brain seems to run so fast that words just aren’t enough as she ventures to get her thoughts across.

Lozano insisted we meet here, a couple of blocks away from her office where she leads a team of about twenty Neighborhood Data Advocates. Lozano continues, “If we’re going to be talking about technology and automation, I want to be in a place where I’m reminded of my humanity. Good food and paperback books do that for me.” I come to learn that this isn’t the only reason we’re here. In the early 1900s, back when Los Angeles boasted one of the best metro rail systems in the United States, the local P Line and F Line both had frequent stops in front of this shop. As we sit here now, there’s a staccato-ed beeping in the background signaling the opening and closing of metro car doors on the newly resurrected transit line. It’s just loud enough to disrupt my recording of this interview at intervals, but it’s almost as if the trains are saying, “listen, this story starts and ends with us.” I imagine the noise as punctuation, reminding us both of the role the city plays in this story.

From a drone’s-eye-view the area we’re in looks like a typical suburban Los Angeles corridor one might imagine — pockets of single-family residences, a couple neighborhood daycares, mercados, and other local businesses selling coffee, musical instruments, clothing, fresh produce, and even a high-end specialty boutique (a remnant from a time in the 2010s when transplants to the city began to move into the area due to more affordable rents). A few privately-owned driverless vehicles coast past the window where we are seated, but only public transit vehicles (electric-powered of course), bicycles, and pedestrians are permitted to stop in this congestion-free-zone.

The modern-day Olympics have left a poor legacy when it comes to the impact cities often feel in the aftermath of the events. Following that inaugural event held in 1896, few Olympic host cities have fared well. The Beijing National Stadium, built for the 2008 Summer Olympics, has had a hard time finding events that come close to filling its 80,000 seats, even after re-purposing it for the 2022 events.

London did better than most but efforts to repurpose Athlete’s Village into affordable housing, for example, fell short and tenants ended up getting priced out of their homes a few years after moving in. When Los Angeles won the bid for the 2028 Summer Olympics five years after Lozano moved back to her hometown, she picked up on the same signals of anxiety she had witnessed during her time in London. However, in a city where private stakeholders had historically influenced the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons in the case of LA’s urban development, citizen angst was amplified. “A status-quo approach wasn’t going to cut it,” says Lozano.

Back in 2018, when the city won the bid for the 2028 Olympics, Los Angeles was in the early stages of finally implementing a twenty-year urban plan to revamp its transit network. Originally snarled by litigation and legislation, residents were excited by the prospect of greater connectivity and access across their city. The plan promised an updated and instrumented transportation network and a more sustainable system to replace aging water infrastructure. What the multi-decade urban planning proposal hadn’t considered was a contingency if LA were to host a large-scale event like the Olympics. So, construction plans came to a temporary halt as the Olympics committee re-assessed projects to determine which ones might serve the Olympics events. Lozano pauses for a moment and then starts up again, “The announcement from the IOC went public, and residents of areas like Boyle Heights felt like ‘Here we go again, they’re going to overlook our needs and re-distribute money for the short-term priorities of the Olympics events instead.’” People weren’t just worried, they were angry.

Amidst all of this strain locally, we have to acknowledge the national landscape, the sense of unrest. Headlines were preoccupied with what was at the time clumsily-categorized as “the future of work,” saturated with theories of what automation would do to our jobs, how robots would take over, leaving humans without work and without purpose. Lawmakers were seriously debating the viability of Universal Basic Income. It seems dramatic now, almost similar to the way people described widespread Y2K panic in 1999. But back in 2018, people weren’t just concerned about where they lived, they were concerned about how they were going afford to keep a roof over their heads. In areas like Boyle Heights, residents began protesting. They felt like they were losing out on all fronts, and they most definitely did not trust emerging technologies. It was a mess.

“The IOC quickly recognized that they couldn’t treat Los Angeles like any other host city,” recalls Caleb Gibson who has now joined Lozano and I at the bookshop. Gibson is a Dynamic Resourcing Supervisor who also lives and works in Los Angeles County. Gibson manages a network of construction projects across the greater Los Angeles area. His company was one of the first in LA to begin working with robots on construction projects, seeing the potential to bring much-needed predictability and productivity from the assembly line to the construction site. It was easier to experiment and implement because most of their projects were privately owned and operated. For Gibson, automation has meant that he’s not only overseeing one construction site, but a number of sites that are sensed and connected within a construction ecosystem. Working on a platform rather than a portfolio of products has allowed Gibson to safely and efficiently distribute materials, equipment, and labor across multiple sites based on changing needs; as opposed to discarding unused materials or having a surplus of labor. “It’s drastically cut down the resources wasted on a project and made the city’s pattern of supply and demand feel more symmetrical.”

Gibson and Lozano worked together as part of a new team of experts that the IOC ended up assembling and commissioning to bring the Olympic design and construction process to fruition. “They [the IOC] realized that they needed to incentivize realistic budget planning, increase transparency, and promote sustainable investments that served the public interest,” says Gibson. The Olympics were repositioned as a way to give local leaders the incentive and authority to pursue regional goals in transit and infrastructure and give citizens a voice through better access to data-driven insights. Lozano chimes in here:

“But we were also realistic about the limitations of a team composed purely of humans. I mean, we had less than 9 years to do this…to come up with a plan that successfully addressed programming and capacity issues for the Olympics while reconciling the needs of local residents…factors like changes in population/housing, cost and scheduling, resident access to necessary amenities for the long-term (grocery, water, schools, transit hubs), and visitor experiences that would be integrated into the system.”

Lozano’s team of Data Advocates acted as the bridge between the public sector and private citizens. They were in charge of working with the community, local government, and the Olympics to inform development and “decode the data” for citizens. However, even with this capability and a handful of other domain experts such as Intelligent Retrofit Engineers who leveraged tools to access more information and better predictive analytics to understand the impacts of and resources needed for retrofits, it was a lot to take on. “We were hired to do things differently, so we wanted to make sure we held true to that mission…” explains Gibson, with an unobtrusive sense of pride mixed with nostalgia. At the time, back in 2018 and up through the early 2020s, tools like generative design boasted the ability to manage vast levels of complexity and work in partnership with design and construction teams to explore the entire solution set. So, the master builder team, thought — What better way to test the system than with a problem as big as the Olympics? The team leveraged generative design tools to not only integrate business metrics, but also factor in resource constraints like water shortages, compressed construction timelines, and an adaptive reuse approach to programming where existing infrastructure could be re-purposed for Olympic events, and new builds could be demolished easily — their raw materials redistributed for other projects.

It was early days for the technology, but the decision ultimately paid off. “Don’t get us wrong, it wasn’t completely frictionless. We had to build trust in the system.” Lozano points out multiple incidents where mediating human intuition with computer-aided pragmatism resulted in some ridiculous “solutions.” Lozano recalls with a laugh, “let me just put it this way, say that fire code mandates that there need to be 2 exits out of every room…We humans assume that these will be doors or large windows placed in vertical walls, right? Well, the computer might not always recognize that as a consistent assumption.”

It’s been two years now, since Los Angeles hosted the Olympics, and it seems as though the delicate equilibrium of the city has been left largely unperturbed. The team even came away with a few novel approaches to planning they’ve dubbed anticipatory urban development — a generative design model for urban development that adjusts as new factors arise and local constraints change over time. This flexibility and adaptability mean that second-guessing their way towards sub-optimal contingency plans is no longer needed.

“You see that?” Lozano points to the newly minted metro stop beyond our reflections in the window, as Gibson and I follow her finger to the railcar that has just pulled up to the stop outside of this bookstore again. The familiar cadence of short beeps is clearly audible now. “We would’ve lost that…We would have never managed that on our own. It just wouldn’t have made the cut.” A group of teenagers get off the rail car, their gazes glued to streaming content, the group is followed by a mother with her two young children, and a few commuters who wear their fatigue on their faces.

Some things never change, it seems.

// END

Portions of this scenario can also be seen in the Autodesk University opening keynote for 2018, by Autodesk President and CEO Andrew Anagnost.

To read the second installment in this series, jump to “Spring 2030: Robot Trainers and Small Town Mayors” or jump to “Summer 2030: Microfactories as First Responders,” or “Autumn 2030: Rapid Recovery.”

For more information on this project, please contact: Radha Mistry, radha.mistry@autodesk.com

FUTURES. Unremarkably eclectic. Strategy/Foresight @autodesk. Formerly design-futures @steelcase, @arupforesight, @sandboxers ambassador, @csmMANE

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