The last mile and the invisible asymptote: June 10, 2018 Snippets
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This week’s theme: you knew we couldn’t end a series on cities without talking about the scooters, right? Plus new partnership announcements from Propeller Health and Airmap
Over the last several weeks of Snippets, we’ve been talking about cities: how they’re organized, what makes them tick, and how Social Capital’s partnership with 100 Resilient Cities aims to help cities around the world adopt technology to thrive in the 21st century. This week, we’re going to take a look at one interesting way that cities can partner and benefit from new waves of technology — like all those scooters — in a surprising way.
First of all, one useful concept to understand is the idea of “desire paths”. A desire path is a term we use to indicate somewhere that citizens, customers or users are blazing their own path through somewhere in a way that isn’t what was intended, but in a way that signals their actual needs. An example would be smartphone users taking advantage of the screenshot function to relay pieces of text conversation from one message format to another: not the originally intended use case for screenshots, but clearly a useful one. They represent what customers are telling you with their actions. And they can be very useful for product designers who are trying to get into the mind of the user to figure out what they want.
In cities, one of the original and literal kinds of desire paths are the well-tread routes that city-dwellers carve across, between, and within buildings and other urban superstructures as they hurry to and from their destinations. As the urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote in a classic essay Downtown is for People: “The street works harder than any other part of downtown. It is the nervous system; it communicates the flavor, the feel, the sights. It is the major point of transaction and communication. Users of downtown know very well that downtown needs not fewer streets, but more, especially for pedestrians. They are constantly making new, extra paths for themselves, through mid-block lobbies of buildings, block-through stores and banks, even parking lots and alleys. Some of the builders of downtown know this too, and rent space along their hidden streets.”
Now let’s imagine the opposite of a desire path: rather than what users are telling you by their actions, let’s think about what they’re telling you by their non-actions. What do they refuse to do? What is the barrier to them using a service, performing an action, or engaging in some kind of behavior? The problem with this opposite phenomenon is that, unlike desire paths — which are visible — users’ non-actions are invisible, and hard to know unless you ask carefully. Eugene Wei, in a recent widely praised and excellent essay, describes such phenomena as “invisible asymptotes”. With Amazon, he explains as he recounts his time there, one of their major invisible asymptotes was shipping fees. Customers may have loved the convenience of shopping online, but they hated paying for shipping, to an irrational degree. Even if you showed the customer that the sales tax they’d saved by purchasing out of state outweighed any shipping fees they paid, they still had a mental block against the idea. Part of the genius of Amazon Prime, which solved this problem, was effectively in getting users to “pre-pay” for their shipping, thereby not only encouraging them to purchase more, but also unlocking that crucial mental barrier and freeing Amazon from their invisible asymptote.
What would be an example of an invisible asymptote in a city? The recent tidal wave of scooters descending on LA, San Francisco and other cities might give us a clue. When we think about transportation from point to point in a city, it’s not hard to see that large-scale transportation can take place far more efficiently if riders are willing to walk short distances to and from their origin and destination, in order to reach “trunk routes”, whether it’s a subway, a bus, or even an Uber Express Pool. The problem is that there’s an invisible asymptote here: many riders, perhaps most of them, have a strong aversion to walking beyond a certain distance in order to reach their destination. That distance might vary from person to person, but there’s a threshold past which riders will generally refuse to take on the last mile on their own.
So what do the scooters teach us? I think there’s a lesson here that if you give riders an alternate way of traveling the last mile that’s even marginally faster than walking, they’ll be far more willing to cover last-mile transportation to and from trunk transit routes than they were before. Dockless scooters, bicycles and other personally-powered ways of moving around the cities are great for moving short to medium distances, but they’re even better for large-scale, mass transit systems: they remove that invisible barrier to riders taking far more efficient, grade separated trunk routes for 90% of the distance of their journey, and then hopping out and covering the rest on their own. Part of the reason why we never saw this opportunity, hiding in plain sight, may have been the notion of thinking of alternate forms of tech-powered transportation as competing with public transit and other existing systems, whereas the real consequence may be in them eliminating each other’s barriers to use. There may be a useful lesson for cities here that we can draw from the early days of the Scooter Saga: these tech phenomena may be very useful for city planners and managers, not only as a way of actually getting work done, but also as signals for what citizens need. They may offer real clues as to what your users really want but aren’t telling you. In this case, it’s that people may be far more willing to ditch their cars and take public transit and other non-personalized point to point routes, if you can solve that last mile problem for them. I have a feeling that we’re going to learn a whole lot of lessons like this over the next few years, and for the most part, it’ll be a great thing.
Optimism in energy storage and carbon capture:
As well as in business-utility collaborations around green energy:
Advances in medical points of view:
Books we’ve been reading around the Social Capital office:
Other reading from around the Internet:
And finally, a very special piece of history from Stewart Brand that’s truly worth watching:
In this week’s news and notes from the Social Capital family:
Propeller Health has announced a new partnership with Aptar Pharma, one of the biggest manufacturers of drug delivery devices like inhalers and dispensers in the world. The partnership, which includes a $20 million financing round including Aptar, Social Capital, and the VC arms of two large pharmaceutical companies (Hikma and GlaxoSmithKline) is meaningful for two reasons. First, it establishes another strong connection between Aptar, a device marker, and Propeller’s digital health platform: they’ve already developed a metered dose inhaler for asthma patients together, and this partnership reflects the success of the initial partnership. Second, and more significantly, it represents Propeller’s first foray into digital health beyond respiratory care.
With their partnership and software integration in place, Aptar and Propeller will be able to combine their technology to help patients with chronic conditions of all kinds, including chronic pain and opioid addiction, manage their medication and their symptoms over time. It represents a big step for app-based digital therapies, which have shown great promise clinically and are now taking the next step in deployment to thousands (and soon, millions) of patients around the world.
On the other side of the world, Airmap has two exciting partnerships in the European airspace (and dronespace) in the works: one in Spain, and the other in Switzerland. The first is a collaboration with ENAIRE, the official Spanish Air Navigation Service Provider, and Everis, an aerospace and defence company, to build an integrated unmanned aerial vehicle traffic management system for controlled airspace. AirMap’s platform facilitates two-way exchange of critical safety information between drones and ENAIRE’s traffic system to give all parties, both autonomous and human, a clear picture of ongoing operations and safety in live environments. It’s a major step forward for manned and unmanned aircraft to safely coexist and fly side by side with one another.
The second partnership is a pilot program between the Swiss Postal Service, the drone manufacturer Matternet, and the medical care system Insel Group to employ drones to transport life-saving, time-sensitive laboratory samples and urgent care medication between two medical centers in the city of Bern. Today, these samples are transported via taxi or bike messenger, and drones represent an obvious step forward in safety, efficiency, and reliability for the hospital system. The service is made possible by Airmap’s urban traffic management system for drone traffic. The pilot project, should it be a success, will expand to other hospitals and cities in Switzerland later this year.
Have a great week,
Alex & the team from Social Capital