Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
Redmond 2.0, Microsoft 3.0, iRoads and China.

The New York Times ran an interesting story yesterday about the growing pains at The House Bill Built: Microsoft Is Looking for More Elbow Room. Some particularly noteworthy excerpts:

Microsoft — in the midst of a bitter rivalry with Google and Yahoo — snapped into action this April, saying the company would spend about $2 billion on new technologies to reinvigorate itself. Then last month, Microsoft's chairman and co-founder, Bill Gates, announced that he would leave his day-to-day role at the company in two years.

Easier said than done, at least when you consider that the company, which houses more than 30,000 people on its sprawling campus in Redmond, Wash., suddenly will have to make room for up to 12,000 new bodies. It will spend $1 billion to expand that campus by more than a third, or 3.1 million square feet, over the next three years. That includes new leases and the purchase and construction of 14 buildings. For a modest-size real estate market like Seattle, those are staggering numbers.

"The Redmond you'll see even in a year will make your eyes pop," said Lou Gellos, a Microsoft spokesman. "It's going to be a very different campus."

And, from a bit later in the piece:

Transportation has become the largest issue for the growing region. And for its part, Microsoft has vowed to spend $35 million on transportation improvements in Redmond, including an overpass over Route 520 near its campus, sewer upgrades and turn lanes on nearby roads.

But even a sizable cash infusion would merely be a temporary solution to a problem that has been steadily worsening for years. The area's roads and bridges, some of which are earthquake hazards, already struggle to handle the company's 30,000 employees. The Route 520 bridge, which crosses Lake Washington and connects Seattle to Redmond, was built in 1963 to handle 15,000 vehicles a day. Now, 115,000 vehicles cross it daily. Increased traffic, windstorms, earthquakes and boating and traffic accidents have further shortened the bridge's life and required extensive repairs. State officials worry a strong windstorm or earthquake could damage the bridge beyond repair.

"The economic impacts would be catastrophic," said John Milton, SR-520 project director with Washington's state transportation department. "It's the feeder for two of the major employment centers in the area."

Privately, Microsoft officials bristle at the notion that the transportation burden is theirs. But Microsoft's size makes it a convenient target for complaint among Redmond residents.

I visited Redmond back in the late 90s, and I remember being floored by how cramped for space Redmond had become even back then. Now, as Microsoft moves into what might be seen as its Third Phase (phase one: Windows; phase two: the Internet; phase three: profit a Google-esque Web OS) this new growth stage could be really damaging to the environment – or, it could be amazing.

On the Road: China

This idea is driven home by something I've been meaning to write about for the last couple of days – my 4th of July weekend was spent in preparation for my trip next week to China.

(A beat while I let that sink in.)

Oh. Um. Yeah. Hmm. Forgot to mention that here, didn't I? From July 9th-19th, I'm going to be on a whirlwind trip to China, touring Shanghai, Beijing and maybe to Hong Kong. It's a research trip through MIT; I myself am going to be looking at design and implementation of mobile media, and some of the others on the trip are looking at social networks, fashion, art, and so on. I don't want to say too much about it here since I'm under a limited NDA about what we're up to, but I feel comfortable saying at least this much since all that data is going to be up on the website I've been building for this project... Oh, fark, I haven't mentioned that here yet either. I don't think it's gone live yet, but when it does, it'll be over at Blog, video, Flickr photos, the whole schebang, with a look that's one part my "modern-elegant" schtick and one part the groovy urban style of street artist/designer Vinnie Ray. Good stuff all around. Stay tuned.

Trading Chinese Private Roads and Developing iRoads

China, Inc.
Anyway, where I was going with this: I've been reading up on modern China in preparation for my trip, and my mind has been truly and thoroughly blown by all my research. For starters, I've been enjoying China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World by Ted C. Fishman. Fishman outlines how the last 20-50 years have shaped China into the new "Compatilist" (Communism + Capitalism) force that has the rest of the world scrambling. He talks about the transformation of Chairman Mao into a sort of Colonel Sanders-esque pop icon, he talks about China's explosion of infrastructure and architecture in a tornado of high-speed construction, he talks about how the rural Chinese population is streaming into the cities in droves... It's really fascinating stuff, highly accessible and conceptually exhilirating. The passage that springs to mind when dealing with Microsoft and Redmond, though, is how much of China's new infrastructure is, ironically enough, highly privatized – the roads are a lot like public companies being traded on a stock market. Companies are formed to build, maintain and operate the toll roads, which then pay a certain percentage back to the state for the use of the land. The rest of the profits, from what I understand, continue to belong to the companies and their shareholders – many of which are foreign investors. Imagine having part of your retirement package literally tied up in Chinese roads. It's happening.

This made me wonder about the feasibility of a similar scheme here in the States, only smushing it together with the notion of the digitally-navigating vehicle. The NYT piece talks about how twice a day the Microsoft traffic transforms the Redmond streets into a giant parking lot. What if Microsoft could use the new infrastructure they're building as a test for these digitally-navigating vehicles? It's a technology that's been building for a while; imagine a Mini, an Escape or, better yet, a Smart car outfitted with a superpowered mapping system that could interface with a guidance system built into the road, so that when the driver turned off the main highway and onto a "smart road" (or iRoad, if it were built by Apple instead) the car went into autopilot. Distance sensors on the vehicle could tell it (and the road) how much space existed between the vehicle and the objects around it, motion sensors along the smart road could stop traffic when a deer or a dog does a runner across traffic, and wi-fi or cellular EVDO transmitters along the iRoad could turn the entire corridor into one long virtual extension of the campus. How cool would it be if the last 30-60 minutes of your commute could be spent with checking your email and voicemail while your "virtual chaffeur" handled the driving? You could arrive at work with an empty inbox, ready to tackle whatever is physically waiting for you in your office.

This is the type of technology that cash-flush megacorporations like Microsoft and Google should be building; as Fishman notes in his book, once information technology renders the entire world a valid location for doing business, it's simple stuff like infrastructure that makes one part of the world more attractive for knowledge workers than others. (Well, that and the things Richard Florida outlines in his Creative Class concept – and holy crap, how come nobody told me Florida has a new book? The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent sounds like it's right up my alley...) Once they have the technology down, they can charge tolls (or more likely, a monthly usage fee a la Speedpass) and then turn right around and license that technology to developing countries like China.

All iRoads Lead to iRome the Global Village

At the end of the day, when Chinese factory workers will work for pennies on the dollar, it's not enough for Americans to whine and complain and scream about tariffs. No, I think we have to innovate our way through the solution – we have to invent, perfect and monetize new ideas for the rest of the world. If a globalized commercial ecosystem is to take effect (which it certainly seems like it will), everybody needs to figure out what they do well – and I think we Americans need to play up our innovation and imagination and play down our isolationist tendencies. Americans don't like taxes – who does? – so let's let the state step out of the way of building infrastructure and let the big companies take a crack at it in the best, most innovative way they know how. Hell, while they're at it they can figure out a way to pave those roads with super-industrial photovoltaic cells and use them as giant solar collectors during off-peak hours. Imagine if the entire US highway system was made out of these smart roads: a cross-country road trip without driver fatigue, a massive drop in the number of exhaustion-related accidents, more quality time with your fellow travelers, and shorter trips (for those of us who can sleep in car seats) if you let the autopilot drive all night.

This is the kind of thing that America does well. We've always been a nation of dreamers and engineers. If we're going to continue to lead the world in the 21st century, that's the banner that we should be waving as we go. We'll never have a monopoly on innovation – nor should we – but as the world outsources its manufacturing to countries with lower costs of living and a fierce need for employment, America should strive to become a go-to place for countries who want to outsource their blue-sky thinking. I can see the billboard whizzing by on the side of the iRoad now: "America: Inventing The World Since 1776."

Okay, so the tagline needs work, but it's a start – iRome wasn't built in a day.

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