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Suicides, cities, and the concept of coupling

I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book right now, called Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, and I am intrigued by the chapter on Sylvia Plath’s unfortunate suicide and the concept of “coupling.” The idea behind coupling, which stands in contrast to displacement, is that when someone makes the very sad decision to commit suicide, it can often be coupled to a particular place or context.

Malcolm starts by giving the example of “town gas.” Prior to it being phased out in the 1960s and 1970s, most homes in Britain relied on a form of gas that contained carbon monoxide. And sadly, it became the most popular way for people to kill themselves. When Sylvia Plath took her own life in 1962, the death-by-carbon-monoxide-poisoning stat was 44.2% of all suicides in England and Wales.

The concept of displacement, on the other hand, surmises that if somebody wants to kill themselves, they will eventually find another way. But Malcolm convincingly argues that that is not necessarily or very often the case. As town gas was phased out of British homes, the number of suicides also declined in lockstep. Turns out that many of the previous suicides had been coupled to that particular tool.

Why this is potentially valuable to this blog audience is that this same coupling phenomenon can happen within our cities and to particular places. Malcolm gives the example of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which has been the site of many suicides since it was first erected in 1937. The same, of course, can be the said about many subway systems around the world.

But again, there’s evidence to suggest that if you can save somebody on the Golden Gate Bridge (a suicide barrier was erected in 2018) or on a subway system by installing safety doors, there’s a good chance that many of those people will never actually find another way to commit suicide. In other words, you can save a bunch of lives by having the right provisions in place and not assuming that something is a foregone conclusion.

Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash

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CloudKitchens has spent more than $130 million on property over the last two years

According to a recent Wall Street Journal review of property and corporate records, Travis Kalanick’s ghost kitchen startup, called CloudKitchens, has spent over $130 million over the past two years buying more than 40 properties in about two dozen cities.

Travis is co-founder and the former CEO of Uber and this latest startup provides commercial kitchens to restauranteurs who are looking for a low-cost way to launch delivery-only food concepts.

In some ways, it can be compared to coworking spaces for delivery-only restaurants. Instead of renting a full restaurant space, you lease 200-300 square feet of real estate at a lower cost address. CloudKitchens then handles all of the distribution and fulfillment, effectively lowering the barriers to entry for food startups.

Some of the properties that they have been buying include a vacant restaurant space in Miami Beach for $9.2 million (May 2020) and an industrial property in Queens, New York for $6.6 million (March 2020). They’ve also bought in cities like Portland and Las Vegas.

As you might imagine, now is a pretty good time to be buying some of these properties. And if you think about it, there are some real cost advantages to what they are doing, not to mention some co-working-style arbitrage on the real estate.

The company is apparently going to great lengths to conceal what and where they are buying. But what is perhaps more interesting is their asset-heavy approach. They’re buying lots of real estate, which is inline with what companies like Opendoor are doing, but is distinct from Uber’s asset-light approach.

It is also different from what many other ghost kitchen startups are doing. It seems that most are leasing their spaces. There has to be a reason for this difference.

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Super-prime property transactions in the first half of 2020

This is a chart from Knight Frank showing the average value of “super-prime” residential real estate transactions in 12 global markets between March and June 2020, and versus the same period last year.

Knight Frank classifies super-prime real estate as having a value greater than US$10 million and ultra-prime real estate as having a value greater than US$25 million.

In this particular chart, London takes the top spot with an average super-prime transaction value of US$38 million. This is a big jump compared to 2019 where the average value was US$16.9 million.

Typically it is Hong Kong that takes the top spot in this ranking, but this year it fell to third. Still, Hong Kong had the highest number of transactions with 60 super-prime sales taking place in the first half of 2020. This is down from 155 in the first half of 2019.

Overall, Knight Frank recorded 281 super-prime transactions across these 12 cities in the first half of this year. This is, not surprisingly, a decline compared to last year, which saw 594 transactions over this same time period.

But all things being considered and given some of these price increases, the super-prime market is certainly holding its own.

Chart: Knight Frank

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The Map: Geometry vs. geography

A friend of mine sent me this video today in a brief email that basically said, “you’re gonna love it.” Naturally he was right. It’s great. The 10-minute video is about how creative agency Work & Co rethought and redesigned New York City’s subway map for today’s digital age. Rather than a static map, which is historically how all cities have communicated their transit networks, they created a digital map that changes both as you interact with and as the network itself changes (closures, time of day, etc.). This means that they no longer had to make certain design compromises. They no longer had to choose between geometry (clarity of representation) and geography (accuracy of representation). The system does both.

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A mismatch of expectations

Seth Godin’s blog post this morning, called “I hate this restaurant,” is really excellent. I would encourage you all to read it. In it, he talks about a mismatch of expectations. More specifically, he gives the example of somebody going to a restaurant and not liking what’s on offer, and therefore being upset. It’s not that the food was bad or that the restaurant has failed, it’s just that the person didn’t get what they were expecting. There’s a mismatch. And this, of course, happens all over the place and not just in restaurants. In his view, this failure is caused by a few different factors that ultimately result in us — the people that are involved in everything from the arts to business — having to make a decision about the kind of operation we would like to run. Below is an excerpt of those things. For the full post, click here.

This failure comes from a few contributing factors, all amplified by our culture:

First, you can’t know if you’re going to like an experience until you experience it. All you know is your understanding of what was on offer. And because there are so many choices and there’s so much noise, we rarely take the time to actually read the label, or we get carried away by the coming attractions, or we just don’t care enough to pay attention until we’re already involved.

[And marketers are complicit, because in the face of too much noise, they hype what’s on offer and overpromise…]

Second, because many people are afraid. They’re afraid of the new and even more than that, afraid of change. Most people in our culture would like to be entertained not transformed, lectured at instead of learning.

Third, the double-edged sword of giving everyone a microphone means that we’ve amplified the voices of dissent at the same time we’ve given people a chance to speak up about their desires. This means that mass culture is far more divisive than it ever was before, and it also means that bubbles of interest are more likely to be served.

And so the fork in the road:

You can either turn your operation into a cross between McDonald’s and Disney, selling the regular kind, pandering to the middle, putting everything in exactly the category they hoped for and challenging no expectations…

Or you can do the incredibly hard work of transgressing genres, challenging expectations and seeking out the few people who want to experience something that matters, instead of something that’s merely safe.

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The WRLDCTY 2020 Virtual Festival

This Thursday is the launch of a brand new city event called the WRLDCTY Virtual Festival (vowels, clearly, suck). Presented by Vancouver-based Resonance Consultancy, the “host cities” are New York, London, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Toronto.

The idea is to bring together thought leaders and city lovers from all around the world on a virtual platform for three days. The speakers include people like Richard Florida, Bjarke Ingels, and Dan Doctoroff.

The other thing they’re doing is offering up over 20 virtual urban experiences. Think yoga on Santa Monica Pier, burlesque in Brooklyn, and graffiti art tours in Toronto. It’s clearly no substitute for actual travel, but this is the best we’ve got right now and we’re all trying to adapt.

A general admission ticket is free, but some of the headline events require a pro pass and if you’d like to do some virtual networking and chat with other guests in the “Community Center,” you’ll also need that same pass. Here’s the full agenda.

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

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Billionaire wealth in China grew by 1146% over the last decade

UBS and PwC’s recent report on billionaire wealth highlights some interesting trends about the global economy and global wealth.

  • Billionaire wealth in mainland China is now second to only the United States, having grown by about 1146% from 2009 to 2020, compared to 170% in the US. As of the middle of this year, it was sitting at about USD 1.7 trillion in China, compared to USD 3.6 trillion in the US.
  • Hong Kong remains a force with only 1,105 square kilometers of land (not all of which is developable). Billionaire wealth grew by about 208% to USD 356 billion over the same time period as above. That puts it ahead of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Brazil in total dollars.
  • About half of all billionaires seem to have a significant amount of their wealth invested in real estate. Somewhere between 21-40% of their net worth.
  • At the same time, the report identifies the real estate industry as having the fewest number of “innovators & disruptors.” Only 17% of billionaires (whose wealth is primarily derived from real estate) are classified in this way. The report calls out the sector as being “especially slow to embrace technology to boost efficiency.”
  • Perhaps the most interesting takeaway is that, even within the rarified billionaire community, tech is driving polarization. For most of the last decade, the sector didn’t matter all that much. The rich were getting richer. Now it’s more so the tech rich. And COVID-19 seems to be accelerating this trend.

This is not to say that I think people are particularly worried about billionaires who maybe aren’t getting as rich as they used to. That’s like complaining about being too good looking. But it is clear that tech is driving a bunch of macro shifts in the global economy and this is just another example of that playing out.

Image: UBS and PwC

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Wuhan as tourist destination

Seeing people out at bars and at amusements parks in this WSJ video about Wuhan, China is a little odd given that in this part of the world we are decisively in our second wave. But that is what is happening. In fact, the title of the video is, “Wuhan, Former Pandemic Center, Emerges as Tourist Hot Spot.”

Over a recent public holiday, the city saw nearly 19 million tourists — the most of any Chinese city. And while tourist revenues are still thought to be down by some 30%, Chinese people are seemingly feeling confident enough to get back out and do things.

Based on what the WSJ is reporting, this seems to be supported by a few things. International travel isn’t happening, so it’s becoming a boon for local tourism, which is not that dissimilar from what’s happening in other countries. (Domestic air travel is rebounding faster than international travel when you look at flight volumes across major airlines.)

At the same time, Wuhan implemented what sounds like some pretty extensive testing, which is in turn supported by a national healthcare platform that presumably makes contact tracing easier. These things seem to have given people the confidence to go out again. And I don’t doubt that the same will eventually happen in the rest of the world.

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Everything you need in just 16 square meters

This ArchDaily interview with Gary Chang about nano-scaled architecture is worth a read. Gary Chang is founder of the Hong Kong-based Edge Design Institute and is a pioneer in the world of compact living and small-scale architecture.

In fact, many of you have probably seen where he lives. His place has been widely publicized over the years. Dubbed the Domestic Transformer, Gary has been living in the same 32 square meter apartment in Hong Kong for over 40 years and has been using it as a kind of laboratory for his design work.

Depending on where you live, 344 square feet may not seem like a lot. But this is Hong Kong. And in Hong Kong even this is apparently on the large side for some locals. In his ArchDaily interview, Gary talks about the rise of “nano-homes” in Hong Kong — everything you need, including a wine fridge, in only 16-18 square meters.

Of course, to do this, you kind of have to reconsider how you think about space. Gary refers to it along the lines of time-based space planning. Instead of just focusing on raw space, he focuses on activities and functionality over time.

Over the years, I have been more focused into the notion of time rather than the physical space itself, and in this latest model M-2007 (calling it the Domestic Transformer, the year the first episode of the movie of Transformer was launched), I simply explore a time-based system of living in this apartment; instead of me moving from one room to another in the traditional sense, the apartment transforms for me for different functions. I basically utilize the entire home all the time, a great departure from the conventional definition of a home such as the system in Japan in nLDK (n denotes the number of bedrooms, L for Living Room, D for Dining Room and K for Kitchen).

For the full interview, click here.