architecting communities

From my recent post “on global citizens and avatars“:

A global citizen is not the one that travels the globe rushing from one destination to the next at the furious pace its business demand, but the one that roams the roads of a city or the world open to the opportunities that serendipity will bring, architecting with each moment a fulfilling life devoted to creating value for the communities he touches, combining his skills with the resources available. Such a nice maxim for any traveller, you must be thinking.

It must be a sign of our times that at the peak of my professional career I find myself as a “free agent”, wannabe entrepreneur or as our governments label those in my situation: “unemployed”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m saying this with a very upbeat tone. I do no more than 25 hours of billable work per week, which allows me to devote the rest of my time to really productive ventures that nobody is paying for. Even better: I’m not alone and therein lies the radical change that is happening in our society.

While I keep meticulous track and invoice hours worked for clients, just as many hours are spent in other ventures that don’t pay with money but are perhaps more valuable to the future of the communities in which I live. Building powerful relationships with strangers that share a common goal, mentoring younger talent, building-up my local community, curating the endless stream of information, participating in open source projects or simply making sure that I’m a diligent digital citizen. Most of these task are off-the-record, produce no income, pay no taxes and yet I’m certain in the long run will have the most impact to society. So next time you read those scary unemployment statistics in the newspaper, rejoice.

Lately I’ve been having fun catching up on things like HTML5, CSS3, JQuery, Ajax, mobile platforms and how they have evolved in the context of location technology. Being at the top of my game has also given me a renewed confidence that bigger, more complex problems can be solved with less effort. And not only the technical, but the meaningful kind. For example, I came across Venessa, a brilliant blogger exploring the future of collaboration and with little concern for “getting paid” I devoted an entire session to offer insights based on my recent ethnographic adventures. By the end of it I had realized that although her article was meant as a “vision”, I was reading it as a specification that was technically feasible and within my reach. THAT would probably be very valuable to her.

We commute to work every day without realizing that perhaps the most powerful connections in our network are not those that await for us at the office, but those that we haven’t discovered in our communities. They are not about to offer you a new job or even give you money, but they are very likely to produce long term value.

Trying to figure out how we can alter our behavior to encourage the kind of social interactions that will produce meaningful connections with the potential to create value in our communities sounds like a massive challenge, but I just happen to be at the top of my game and confident enough to make it my next adventure.

a break from travel

I’ve been creating all sorts of technology for the travel space for the last nine years! Most recently I was the Technology lead at iStopOver.com, where we ventured into making the vacation rental process a lot more social. I’m proud to have been part of that adventure and I’m convinced that travel will radically be affected by this and other incumbent companies to the space. Immediately before that I was the Technology lead at PlanetEye.com, a little think tank specialized in pushing forward geolocation technology. We were early to a now very crowded space and had fun solving some of the most complex issues around visualizing location information as you travel.

A collection of map visualizations

As I’m planning my next move, I can’t entirely shake the travel bug (can anyone?) and so I’ve selected a few projects to keep me in good shape. One such project is The Traveler’s Way, which is starting as a traditional travel blog but will soon be the foundation for some pretty amazing experiments involving great travel stories, practical travel information and novel publishing ideas. For the time being, many of my posts on how, why and where we travel, have been republished under that blog:

So what is my next move? I’ll reveal the identity of the project shortly, but if you want a hint take a look at TinyWrld.com. Enjoy the videos.

the local advantage

You’ve been planning your trip for the last 3 months and possibly dreaming about it for most part of the year. All those guide books you managed to skim during your escapes to the local library or bookstore made it a real challenge to synthesize centuries of culture and tradition into a super-efficient, carefully crafted tour that will have you retracing the steps of millions of tourists that have been to the big city before you. I had already written about this common travel trap in I could live here:

One could argue that the splendour of any famous landmark is constantly diluted by the ongoing attack of mass tourism, misguided by a market saturated of travel guides that most of the times reference the same top 10 or 20 landmarks not to be missed, while telling us every snippet of knowledge that travellers must know about these places, cancelling every attempt to make that experience unique.

As if facing the prospect of getting a diluted version of Paris was not bad enough, a recent analysis of the way that tourists and locals experience the same cities reveals that your quest to “experience the french lifestyle” is way off:

Blue represents locals, Red tourists and yellow might be either.  Notice dense blue clusters ignored altogether by tourists.  Courtesy of Eric Fischer.

Blue represents locals, Red tourists and yellow might be either. Notice dense blue clusters ignored altogether by tourists. Courtesy of Eric Fischer.

Imagine being able to tag along whenever you visit a city and follow the average local on a typical evening of fun, culture and social interaction; “holding hands” so to speak, or as professor Yumi Janairo Roth of Colorado prefers, asking locals to share a tiny bit of their local knowledge by drawing a map on their hands.

Prof Yumi Roth asks locals to draw a "handy" map of interesting points.

Prof Yumi Roth asks locals to draw a \”handy\” map of interesting points.

While Prof. Roth’s experiment is interesting, I prefer to learn from travel bloggers that have mastered the process of immersing themselves into whichever cultures they visit. At the top of my list are Lara & Terence from the Grantourismo blog who have made a profession out of mastering the local scene wherever they go in about 2 weeks. Of all the things they do, I find it fascinating how they can connect with locals that will share the best of their cities. Across the blogosphere the Local Travel movement is well represented (special shout out to Vicky of Going Local Travel). Their proponents suggest you should always try to experience a destination by discovering the places and activities enjoyed by locals so you can begin to understand their way of life. But how can you possibly figure out where the locals are and what they do?

If Benji Lanyado can manage to convince the rest of us, all you need is a mobile phone and the right tactics for what he calls Twitter Trips or trips where any plans are forsaken for up-to-the-minute recommendations collected from locals using Twitter. After more than a year of perfecting the practice he is certain that the notion of building a realtime guide based on feedback from locals connected to the same virtual channels you use can lead to more authentic experiences that reflect the zeitgeist of a city as opposed to whatever recommendations found in guidebooks, which may be months or even years stale. Hungry? Send a tweet with your location asking locals to recommend a restaurant nearby. Feeling adventurous? Venture into the city with nothing else but an alert from one of your local “followers” about a great venue.

Of course, not all recommendations have to be anonymous and perhaps the best part of this approach is the possibility of connecting with locals even if you didn’t know them in advance. A simple “loose” virtual connection can become a strong bond once two strangers meet face to face. This could very well be the motto of the new AFAR Connect (currently in private beta), a platform for travellers to define their travel ‘personality’ and connect with like-minded locals.

In the end, our ability as travellers to uncover the side streets where locals gather to buzz around all day, is perhaps the most critical skill to immerse ourselves into a new culture. Tools and tactics will probably continue to get better, but nothing will replace the fact that you have to meet a local, captivate them with your journey and listen to their stories. You should count your travels not by the number of places you visit, but the number of shared experiences with locals, as only these will have a lasting effect on you.

In a future post I’ll summarize a lot of things I’m learning these days about finding the best hosts wherever you go. If you have met a great host or love hosting travellers, please drop me a line to participate in a new project.

the neighbourhood social network

For my last trip to New York City, I approached the planning process in a completely new way: instead of spending hours looking through dozens of sites for deals, lists of hotels, distance to landmarks, comparing prices and star ratings I used one tool: the Livability Calculator from New York magazine’s Neighborhoods issue, which I had just written about in new york’s most livable.

The online tool was designed to help New Yorkers find the best boroughs to live in, so to experience the city the way they do, I figured the best way was to follow them. Using the interactive sliders, I prioritized transit, restaurants, nightlife, diversity and green space over schools, health and definitely slided housing cost all the way to the left. The top choice: “West Village/Meatpacking”.

Meatpacking? Really? From my loyal subscription to Monocle magazine, I’ve learned that a good market can always transform a neighbourhood. Read yourself about the transformation of Cape Town as a result of the opening of “Neighbourgoods Market” by Justin Rhodes and Cameron Munro (Issue 35, pp.145). Not to forget that I spent the last 6 months arguing that St.Lawrence Market was one of the best ways to discover Toronto. Fine, let’s go to the West Village/Meatpacking.

Photo joevare @ Flickr

Photo joevare @ Flickr

The trip was superb in many ways. A few of the highlights included watching a World Cup game among another 30 or so neighbours in an improvised street theatre with a HDTV courtesy of an entrepreneurial bistro, walking the cobblestoned streets of West Village which seem to be rebelliously misaligned from the rest of the grid, discovering the new urban oasis that is the High Line, the quintessential subway adventure which included taking the express two stops too far and hanging out with long lost friends at one of the hottest unassuming Bossa Nova venues in the city.

But the prelude to all this was the firm decision to find accommodation in or around the West Village. There are a few really great hotels in the area, most of them small boutique hotels like Soho House New York or Gansevoort Meatpacking NYC. Even The Standard an iconic building right on top of the High Line could’ve been an option. But as nice as they all are, they have one problem: you’ll be looking at a bill of at least one thousand dollars for a long weekend.

isochelseaInstead, I found a nice single room in a large apartment available for US$65/night, just a few blocks away from my target area and around the corner from a subway station. The short term rental was a in a 6-story apartment building with one of those elevators with double doors you see in old movies. The building was in itself a good indicator of the awesomeness of a mature neighbourhood, as its type is the landmark of urban models that appeared at the turn of the XX century, with “high-rise” promoting density and mix use of the land.

Lately cities like New York and Paris have been trying to figure out the ecosystem of short term rentals (read update at the bottom). Perhaps under pressure from the lodging industry that finds the emerging trend troubling following one of the worst years in terms of occupation. It is ironic that some of the arguments used to counter the trend is the fact that these rentals take away inventory that would be otherwise available for residents to live in. From The New York Times: To Address Its Housing Shortage, Paris Cracks Down on Pied-à-Terre Rentals

Mayor Bertrand Delanoë ordered an agency last year to warn property owners that renting out residential apartments for less than a year at a time violated French law. The move was intended to address the lack of affordable housing in the city center.

“To live in”. The reason why those of us exploring these social networks of short term rentals find them incredibly appealing: they are a gateway to the real lifestyles of locals. No matter how many amenities a hotel offers to their guests, they can’t control the neighbourhood. Just visualize the chaos that reigns around Broadway and 7th at the street level. It is impossible to leave the lobby of any hotel without being approached by a never ending cast of characters inviting you to every imaginable show on Earth.

As Benji Lanyado explains in his recent New York Times Travel feature Europe Without Hotels:

Social B&B networks are a natural next step, imposing an important distinction: money. The new sites appeal to a traveler’s desire to see a city through local eyes (and from the vantage point of a resident’s home)

Better experience at a fraction of the cost? That is not the only reason these sites are finding great reception among the adventurous. They are also a new kind of social network, one where the people you discover in the virtual world become your guests in real life. One where the judgement you pass on the random conversations you have online will likely have a lasting effect on the friendships you develop and one that is certain to get your closer to cities around the world that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. I’ll call it the neighbourhood social network.

I used to spend more time trying to figure out what hotel would offer the best deal, cross-referencing information from various sources, comparing their location on a map, reading countless contradicting reviews… still to be disappointed with the overall destination. In this visit to New York all my research was mostly about the neighbourhood, automatically making the whole experience far more gratifying as I clearly scored some pretty great “insider tips” from the very same people that would be my host.

The night I walked into the apartment, my host wasn’t home, but he left a small welcome note with the WiFi password and a short list of the ways in which he was making me feel home, including his mobile number in case I needed anything, at any time. That was the last on a series of communications that started a few days before my trip. Short questions brokered by the website where I found the listing meant to introduce us and give us an opportunity to decide if this was going to be “the place”. In a way I trusted him far more than I have ever trusted a concierge before.

Update from July 28, 2010: Perhaps I used a very soft tone when I said that cities like New York “were trying to figure out the ecosystem”. A bill that outlaws rentals for less than 30 days was recently signed by Gov. David Paterson. To paraphrase Arthur Frommer: Big hotels win, tourism looses. However, these are trying times. People are digging deep to figure out a way to make a decent living and paying expensive hotels, even if prescribed by law will not do. What lobbyists may have triggered is an explosion of services that will find every possible way to give tourists what they are looking for: better prices, authentic experiences, closer relationships and opportunities to venture into cities that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive in the current economic conditions. Services that are based on hosts receiving guests in their own homes are going to be much more popular as they seem to be immune to the new bill. Other entrepreneurial property owners are likely going to learn fast, so I wouldn’t assume that their inventory will be removed from the market as much as it will be morphed into hosted accommodation.

Disclosure: iStopOver is a client. The trip related in this article was of a personal nature and paid by the author.

experience the neighborhood

My routine for Saturday mornings includes an easy stroll down a street lined up with a few mature trees, to a recently opened patisserie where I can have freshly baked pastries, perhaps a strong-flavoured tea and from there to the bookstore to secure a good dose of weekly magazines in matters of travel, entrepreneurship and technology. There is a good bench just one block up the bookstore that guarantees a good amount of sun on your back while you read, or there is a very large park where the background laughter of kids does well to read with optimism no matter what. I like the flow of these simple events, as each one prepares me to enjoy the next move better. I like the fact that it all takes places within just a few blocks, my neighborhood.

I was reminded of “experience design” while reading a little post by Henrik Werdelin about his stay at a W Hotel:

The other day, I stayed at the W hotel in San Francisco. As I was stepping into the shower I noticed that the bath mat towel used when stepping out on the floor after showing was rolled instead of folded. This meant that I could tap it with my foot just before stepping into the shower instead of bending down and un-folding it. I then turned on the shower and noticed that the shower head had been pointed towards the wall, making the first bit of cold water that is always in the pipes go onto the wall instead of me. Finally, as I went out of the shower, I found the bathrobe next to the shower with the string tied in a way so I could just pull the string and the bathrobe would open instead of having to untie the knot. Future more the string was secured to the side of the bathrobe so it didnt fall down on the floor.

We’ve gotten used to experience design from brands. The example above is perhaps the result of many iterations studying every possibility and intentionally deciding to wow the guest. No wonder W Hotels have such a strong brand. But I now want to be surprised by the same intentional ‘betterness’ design when I walk down the street. Is this the stuff that makes urbanist get excited? Or is it why people engage in local politics? There seems to be a big gap between one and another and in the middle we have all those empty stretches of streets that could result in those Aha! moments. Perhaps a weather-proof magazine rack besides my favourite bench would encourage sharing; or a completely open facade to the coffee shop and an engaging tune would give the street its own soundtrack; or the best gelato in the neighborhood would be strategically placed near the park where kids play and not three blocks away. It seems there are too many opportunities wasted and my Saturday mornings could use a little bit of that continuous experience innovation.

the st lawrence market guide

As I’ve been announcing for a few months already, today we’ve finally launched the St. Lawrence Market guide in collaboration with the PlanetEye team (in case you haven’t heard, that’s my day job). I learned a lot over the last year trying to figure out how to bring this project to life and I’m pretty happy with the results. There are many ideas flowing through my mind about the significance of this project, but I’ll limit this post to brag about the guide itself:

St. Lawrence Market Guide

St. Lawrence Market Guide

How is it different from other city guides? Well for starters is not a city guide, it is a neighbourhood guide. You know that neglected urban molecule that often defines the character of its citizens but it is rarely given its credit.

- Curated content: the fact that we limited the scope of this guide to a very small section of the city, allowed us to be thorough in our research. If you are from Toronto, you’ll find that our features are carefully selected and represent the best this area has to offer. If you have never been to Toronto, you probably don’t need to look any further to organize a nice little stay in our city.

- Great photography: Yes, there are photos in every page and every map. Some of them we took while walking around the neighbourhood and others were organized photo-shoots with pros. All the photos are geolocated and can be expanded so they can be appreciated fully.

- Super useful maps: Every one of the sections in the guide features a couple of interactive maps: one with the features written about, and another with a larger collection of places. The maps are fully functional and will allow you to explore the area without ever worrying about “too much information”. The best part is that the maps are powered by some really cool technology that allow us to continuously update their content as new places appear and others close. You can expect this guide to remain current.

- Essentials: travelling is not only about finding a good hotel, a nice restaurant and a photo opportunity. We tried to include a small collection of essential services that every traveller has needed at least once while on the road. My favourite? Essentials/Working Spaces will show you several locations that provide reliable WiFi or will even allow you to rent a desk for a day.

- Sustainable, Livable: above it all, we wanted to portray in good light a neighbourhood that has transcended the daily routine that is so characteristic of large cities and has created an interesting vital energy that is obvious while walking its sidewalks and crossing paths with the locals. Everything within a few blocks so you don’t even need to worry about transportation in most cases.

If you’re considering travelling to Toronto on business or pleasure and plan to spend more than a couple of days in our city, I can assure you this guide has everything you need for a memorable travel experience. At the end of the trip you may even find yourself thinking “I could live here“.

st. lawrence preview

It is still going to take a bit more time to finish the guide to the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, but I’m so proud of the work that has been done to date that wanted to at least give you a flavour of what is coming.

St. Lawrence Market - our photoshoot

St. Lawrence Market - our photoshoot

I’ll be giving away the guide online under a CC license, but you’ll have to wait a bit longer. If you’re a writer or photographer and would like to get involved in the production of a similar guide for your city, please let me know.

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