016 Farevalue: Successful Failure

Adam Greenfield discusses Project Farevalue which aimed to solve an everyday problem transit riders face: confirm stored value on your transit card. The team produced a working prototype, but with a hazy patent landscape Greenfield decided to abandon Farevalue and his practice, to focus on showing what he believes the future should look like through teaching and writing.




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Guest Bio

Adam Greenfield is a multifaceted professional with extensive experience in design, technology, politics, and culture, primarily focused on their intersection in urban contexts. After a stint at Nokia in Helsinki as the head of design direction, where he felt his impact was limited, Greenfield moved to New York to establish Urban Scale, a design studio aimed at enhancing networked cities and citizens. Residing in London for the past decade, he has written several books on technology and urban life, including an upcoming release scheduled for July 7th, 2024. Greenfield’s work is characterized by a deep understanding of the interplay between technology and urban governance, despite not having a formal technical background.

“I had to shut down the practice and it was the best thing in the world for me, because I got out of a space that I’m not constitutionally very well suited to, and was able to pursue inquiries that were really much closer to my heart. And that has been very generous to me in all the years since I thought I was one thing, I struggled to be that thing, I wasn’t very good at being that thing. The universe told me pretty clearly I was not that thing. And what I’ve turned out to be instead has made me much happier.”


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Episode Outline

  1. Early Career and Discontent at Nokia: Adam Greenfield discusses his time at Nokia in Helsinki, where he held a significant but ultimately powerless role in design direction for service and user interface design. Despite the prestigious title, he felt he couldn’t achieve anything substantial within the large corporate structure and decided to leave, moving back to New York.
  2. Establishing Urban Scale Design Studio: After leaving Nokia, Greenfield founded Urban Scale in New York, aiming to design for networked cities and citizens. His focus was on creating technologies that empowered individuals in urban environments, countering the prevailing smart city discourse that he felt overly emphasized administrative control and efficiency.
  3. Conceptualizing Farevalue: Farevalue emerged as a key project of Urban Scale. Greenfield was fascinated by the potential of e-paper and e-ink technology, particularly their low power requirements. He envisioned using RFID coils, already present in city fare cards, to create a dynamic display showing remaining card balance, addressing a common urban inconvenience.
  4. Prototype Development: Despite initial skepticism from engineers, Greenfield pursued the development of a Farevalue prototype. He collaborated with Benedetta Pientella and her engineering team to create a working prototype, reflecting on this achievement as one of his proudest accomplishments, despite its eventual non-commercialization.
  5. Farevalue’s Potential Impact on Urban Life: Greenfield emphasizes the real-life utility of the Farevalue concept, aimed at easing a common urban pain point – not knowing the remaining balance on transit cards. He viewed this project as a divergence from traditional smart city ideas, focusing on empowering individual users rather than controlling behavior.
  6. Challenges with Intellectual Property Law: The Farevalue project encountered significant hurdles in the form of intellectual property law, ultimately leading to its discontinuation. The project faced potential legal battles and high costs associated with securing and defending a patent, leading Greenfield to discontinue the initiative.
  7. Reflections on the Decision to End Farevalue: Greenfield expresses mixed feelings about ending the Farevalue project. While acknowledging the practical reasons for his decision, he also feels a sense of regret, thinking about the potential impacts had the project been pursued more aggressively and commercialized.
  8. Current Engagements and Perspectives: Thirteen years after Farevalue, Greenfield has written several books focusing on technology in urban settings and moved continents. He discusses his latest book, “Lifehouse,” which addresses climate crisis implications and explores concepts of mutual care and collective power in community-based survival and support systems.
  9. Shift from Criticism to Constructive Approaches: Over the years, Greenfield transitioned from predominantly critiquing technological and urban developments to adopting a more affirmative and constructive approach. He reflects on his earlier role as a critical voice and his recent shift towards proposing and endorsing valuable, actionable ideas and projects.
  10. Conclusion and Acknowledgments: The podcast concludes with gratitude and reflections on the journey, highlighting the evolving nature of Greenfield’s career, his contributions to the discourse on technology and urban life, and the ongoing impact of his work and ideas.

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Transcript

Adam Greenfield: ​[00:00:00] It’s a really elegant way of addressing a minor, but real issue that lots of people have faced. And the philosophy here. Is completely different from anything else that was being articulated in the smart city rhetoric at that time. And then we ran into the buzzsaw of intellectual property law. and I think that’s what brought the project to an end. I had to shut down the practice and it was the best thing in the world for me,

Welcome

JWP: What happens when you get so frustrated at your well paid job that you start your own business to try to bring your vision of humane technology to the urban scale? But then you have to abandon the business because both the products you developed aren’t sustainable. You can either call this a failure, or if you are Adam Greenfield, you take the lessons from this moment and work towards causes closer to your own heart.

And shift from negatively critiquing the world to affirmatively showing what a future could look [00:01:00] like. This is Journey with Purpose, Episode 16, The Success of Fair Value.

Adam, we’ve come a long way since sharing drinks at Temple Bar in Manhattan. Thanks for coming on the pod today. Can you introduce yourself and tell us where we’re speaking to you from?

Adam Greenfield: Hi, Randy, my name is Adam Greenfield, and I’m speaking to you from London where I’ve lived for the past 10 years,

JWP: Okay, so take us back to 2011, when Mike Bloomberg was still New York’s mayor. The iPhone 4 had just come out and you were working on a product called FairValue.

The story of Farevalue

Adam Greenfield: Oh man. In a sense, fair value was one of the two things that I set up a design practice to do. I had been working at Nokia, in Helsinki for a couple of years as what was called head of design direction for service and user interface design. And it was an almost completely powerless position, and there’s also an argument to be made that I, I don’t understand large companies well, I don’t work well [00:02:00] within ecology of a large organization, I just wasn’t able to achieve anything interesting there.

Despite having this, you know, brought to me on a silver platter, this lovely job title, which was ostensibly about the future of network, digital information technologies and the ways in which people would use them in cities. So after a few years at Nokia and having really, you know, just found virtually no purchase for ideas, I thought, okay, I’ve done everything I can do here.

I’ve been paid very well for my time. I’ve really enjoyed living in Helsinki. My partners really enjoyed living in Helsinki, but will hate myself if I continue to do this. I’ll just earn a paycheck and do nothing and resent myself and resent my colleagues. So we made the decision to move back to New York and I set up a design studio called urban scale and the whole idea of urban scale was designed for networked cities and citizens.

There was then and rather amazingly. To me, continues to be a discourse of smart cities, you know, we’re [00:03:00] just going to embed instrumentation in the environment and, and sensing in the environment and computation, and we’re going to deliver the right information at the right time to the right person so that they can make better decisions, you know, whether that’s the managerial posture of the city itself or individual.

And I just thought whole rhetoric was, was really out of balance, that it was about helping city administrators guide and condition behavior more than it was giving people the tools that they need to make sense of, of everyday urban life that was something that I really, really wanted to do with my studio. So there were two projects that I essentially, if we had succeeded in either one of them, I would have considered the entire project a success. Fair value was one of them. The proposition was, very elegant and very simple. I’ve always been really interested in e paper and e ink and its affordances and its qualities.

And [00:04:00] particularly what I’ve always enjoyed about it is the idea that it only requires power at the change of state. And so I should make clear here, I’m not an engineer. I have absolutely no technical background whatsoever. I was just haunted by the idea that you could take RFID coils. Which were already in use in big city fare cards. in what was it, 2011, you know, you already had the example of octopus in Hong Kong and, in, in the soul Metro system, in the Tokyo Metro system, you had oyster in London.

What’s RFID?

JWP: Okay, I’m going to cut in here. So RFID is a fancy word for Radio Frequency Identification Coils. It’s basically a way that you can tap your card on a reader and the card retains some value. Now, if you live in New York, we now have these things called Omnicards. It works on the same principle, except in this case, the Omnicards don’t have this nice E [00:05:00] Ink display like you see on Kindles.

Adam Greenfield: You could take an RFID coil, laminate it into a card and turn the entire back of your fare card into an EA display that would do a neat and run around that situation that Still crops up all the time you get on the bus you get on the tube You don’t know how much money you have left on your card You know, you run straight into the turnstile at full force, and people tail up behind you and you’re frustrated. Maybe you miss that bus. Maybe you miss that train. You know, this is not curing cancer. Let’s be clear about that. But this is a real pain point of urban life, everyday urban life. And it affects a great many people, myself included, , tapping onto the bus in Helsinki was always like, you know, have I, have I run out?

You know, is it past the end of the 30 days that’s on this? So I drew up specification and I took it around to some engineers and I was basically like, is the power [00:06:00] that comes off the RFID coil enough to power the change of state of the E Ink display? And can you magic that down to the ID1 form factor that big city transit cards appear in? initially every engineer I spoke to was like, no, your orders of magnitude off, you know, this can’t be done. Don’t even bother. It’s just not within the envelope of capabilities of this particular set of technologies. I don’t know why, I mean, maybe it is that I, I don’t come from a technical background, but I was looking at specifications online it didn’t seem to me that they were that far apart.

Right. It didn’t seem to me that we were two orders of magnitude off. It just didn’t sound right.

Making the prototype

JWP: So it sounds like you had a clear user need and had a hunch that the technology was mature enough to create a proof of concept. What happened next?

Adam Greenfield: And one of the great things about being in New York was that, our studio was, was on center street and [00:07:00] Lafayette right up the street was ITP and I had friends at ITP there’s a woman named Benadetta Pientella and she ran her own engineering shop.

And they did, custom board fabrication and, they worked a lot with RFID coils. And I just engaged them. I said , look, I want to do a prototype. I want to figure out if we can do this and I’m willing to foot the bill out of pocket, if we succeed, we’ll seek a patent on this and then we’ll see if we can’t license it to big city transit authorities and Benedetta’s practice was brilliant.

We worked together I think really smoothly. And within, oh, a month or two, we had a working prototype which to this day is one of accomplishments I’m proudest of in my life. I mean, it came to nothing, but I have a little Pelican case in the other room. And you open it up. I did. So, you know, the other day we’re moving house.

So I had an opportunity to open up. I hadn’t opened this case in, I’m going to say eight years. And we have two prototype [00:08:00] cards sitting nestled in the foam in the case. And they both have the last value that, they were, decremented to visible right there on the display. It’s a brilliant technology.

So the idea is that, you know, you would have this card. You would tap it. On the reader and whatever your current balance was, whether that was expressed in, increments of currency or in time that would be displayed to you and it would stay that way. You could throw your transit card in your sock drawer.

You know, however long it lasted, it didn’t need power. Once the display had, had, assumed it’s current state. So it’s persistent. It’s a low power technology. It’s a really elegant way of addressing a minor, but real issue that lots of people have faced. And the philosophy here. Is completely different from anything else that was being articulated in the smart city rhetoric at that time.

It was all about returning agency and power to the individual citizen as they tried to negotiate [00:09:00] urban space and the constraints of the urban every day. we got much further with it than we had any right to. I mean, technically I’m very, very proud of this prototype. I mean, given that it did not come out of a big R and D shop, I think we spent maybe 5, 000 on it.

Financial Viability

JWP: Now comes the hard part for any designer or inventor. You have a clear need from people, a working prototype and a clear technology path. Now it’s time to figure out how to make it financially viable. So Adam, tell us what happened next.

Adam Greenfield: And then we ran into the buzzsaw of intellectual property law. and I think that’s what brought the project to an end.

We had been introduced to what I was told was just a very good IP lawyer out of San Francisco. We did get a provisional patent through him and between the issuing of the provisional and the final patent, he basically said, look, you’re going to get. The patent, [00:10:00] but visa has claims, which are, not sufficiently close to this, that you won’t be offered the patent, but they will, you know, they will come after you.

And do you have the 40, 000 that it’s going to take to acquire the patent? And then do you have the wherewithal to defend yourself in court when they, when they come after you, because you’ll win in the end, but it’s going to cost you years and legal fees. .

On the basis of that advice, I decided draw a line into the project.

I just wasn’t interested in doing any of that.

Regret

Adam Greenfield: ​in the years since, I’ve come to regret that decision because what people who are more capitalistically inclined than I am, and people who are more aggressive and more quote unquote entrepreneurial and probably wiser in the ways of this world have said, that’s terrible advice.

, what you have there is a negotiating position and, you take that provisional patent to Visa or whoever, is the, the [00:11:00] 800 pound gorilla in your space. And you say, buy me out, or license this from me, or, you know, let’s collaborate on this with us as , the sole vendor or something people have basically, said if that had been me in your shoes, then this would be a going concern. And I get that but in a weird way I’m grateful, because honestly, between the failure of that and our Urban Screens initiative I had to shut down the practice and it was the best thing in the world for me, because I, I got out of a space that I’m not constitutionally very well suited to, and was able to pursue inquiries that were really much closer to my heart.

And that have been just very generous to me in all the years since it’s like I thought I was one thing. I struggled to be that thing. I wasn’t very good at being that thing. The universe told me pretty clearly I was not that thing. And what I’ve turned out to be instead has made me much [00:12:00] happier. And, and I think a much easier and nicer person to be around.

​I’m really proud that I followed my intuition into an area that I didn’t have any business mucking about in. , I’m really proud that I didn’t let engineers tell me something was impossible when I, had intuition that it was possible.

I’m really, really proud of the work. That Benedetta’s practice and, and my practice did together. it’s a really elegant, lovely little prototype in its case. And occasionally I like to think about, you know, what an alternative future in which big city commuters around the world are still using these cards.

And, and not. You know, having the frustrations that attend running out of, you know, whatever value is stored on your, on your transit card. I don’t really have many regrets around this other than I think it would be a pretty neat thing to see in use at scale. And that that’s just not the world line that came into being, you know, we’re on a different world line [00:13:00] now and you know, the, the poet Adrienne Rich once said that, if you’re at all satisfied with where you are in life you can’t really complain about any of the experiences you’ve had or any of the decisions that you made in the past, because it’s also nonlinear that you don’t know what brought you to the moment you’re in and you can’t undo, a single thread of the fabric without undoing the fabric.

And I think that’s right. You know, I’m in a place that I’m, happy to be in and, God forbid, I would still be in technology and doing that work.

JWP: While it’s interesting to think about the road not traveled, it sounds like while fair value itself wasn’t ultimately successful and the design shop you created to support these products had to fold. It sounds like it was a positive learning experience, which while difficult has had huge amounts of learnings. Can you talk about that?

Adam Greenfield: it’s been an extraordinary benefit to me because the circles that I move in now, while it is true to say that I don’t have a technical background and, , haven’t written [00:14:00] a line of code since I was 16 and having worked in development organizations having worked with engineers understanding a little bit about. APIs, and the stack that, that knits all these things together that puts me miles ahead. Virtually anybody else that I interact with in urban policy or, or urban governance or urban politics , it gives me a great bullshit detector if nothing else.

You know, when somebody comes along with a plan for blockchain governance or something like that, , becomes trivial. To flag when somebody is trying to sell you a big bill of goods on something and. It means that I’m able to be very helpful to municipal administrations that are faced with, you know, some 25 year olds from McKinsey who want to sell them some platform or some combination of technologies that is just clearly , a subsidy for the vendor and, , that they’re going to make a percentage on.

And that just [00:15:00] isn’t very well thought out with regard to some municipalities needs or the needs of their citizens. It means that I’m very often the naysayer in a space which is a role that I’m both constitutionally very well suited to. And increasingly tired of, I’ve spent a lot of my career critiquing things and pointing out why things are sort of shallow or not good value or politically inimical or ethically inimical. Urban scale, so 2010, 2012 timeframe, was the last time that I was able to be affirmative about something and say I spent a lot of time critiquing things, but here’s what I believe the world should look like. Here are some things that I think the world should have in it. it has only been very recently in my most recent book so after a lapse of really 12 years.

That I’ve once again, been able to be affirmative and say, [00:16:00] this is something that I think does have value and utility. And I think people should be investing in, and it’s just a very different frame of mind. Being affirmative is, as unaccustomed to me as it is lovely. It’s, it’s it is a new and unfamiliar position to be in

JWP: So we are 13 years out from fair value. We’re now in the present. You’ve written a series of books about technology in the city between now and then you’ve moved continents. Tell us about your new book coming out, July 7th, 2024.

Lifehouse

Adam Greenfield: Yeah, sure. Yeah. It is now finally called Lifehouse. Taking care of ourselves in a world on fire. It is about the climate crisis, but not focally or centrally. It takes the climate crisis as a given. I try to help people understand that we’re in an awful lot of trouble, and not simply because of global heating, [00:17:00] but because of the second and third order consequences that attend the heating and the kind of cascading and interweaving circumstances that lead to things like, the death of the oceans and depleted soil, fertility and, and, and state failure.

And then say, what can we do for ourselves? How do we pursue arrangements of, of dignity and justice that will help us survive and hopefully even thrive amidst these very, very difficult circumstances. And so I look at some historical examples of times and places where people who have been in an awful lot of trouble have developed systems of survival.

Adam Greenfield: So I start with the Black Panthers, and an aspect of the Black Panthers that, some people may not know about. You know, we have a very vivid impression, many of us, in our minds of these kind of black beret, leather jackets. You know, toting shotguns on the, on the courthouse steps kind of activism.

But what a lot of [00:18:00] people fail to remember is that from 1969, in some cases, clear through to 1985, the black Panthers also developed what they called survival programs, which were like the free breakfast program, the people’s free food program, educational stuff taking people to see their relatives that were incarcerated Really tried to serve the community body and soul,

JWP: What were some of those examples?

Adam Greenfield: I look at mutual aid initiatives like Common Ground in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, obviously Occupy Sandy, which I was a very, very small part of myself in New York City during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. I look at the solidarity networks that have arisen in Greece following what they simply called the crisis there following the imposition of a really, really harsh economic austerity by the IMF on, on the great people and how they developed their own network of solidarity based [00:19:00] hospitals and pharmacies and clinics and, kitchens. from this, I develop a, body of thinking about what I call mutual care. And then finally I say, but all of these things, in the end, either petered out or they were crushed.

So how do we protect the space in which we can perform these acts of mutual care?

, the book ends in a proposal for something I call the life house, which is a neighborhood based disaster relief and recovery hub, but it’s also something a little bit more than that. a consideration of what I call collective power local democratic participatory power that creates a space in which care can be enacted. And book concludes in basically an elaboration of exactly what I mean by that and how I think we can organize distributed network of life houses to keep us safe and sane,

Thank you and goodbye

JWP: thanks, Adam. Have a good one. I want to thank Adam for showing that on a [00:20:00] long enough time period, everything can be a success. I have always been smitten by fair value and the stories. During the development all these years ago, the prototype is beautiful. Take a look at it in the show notes.

I think it’s always hard as an inventor, a dreamer and designer to understand when is the right time. To move forward or to get out of the game. So I really admire Adam story and the whole arc of the last 13 years. This was episode 16 of journey with purpose. Please visit us at JWP dot news for more episodes.

We are running a March bracket called building battle 24. So go at JWP dot news and pick your favorite us canonical buildings on their head to head battle over the next few weeks. As usual, all views on this podcast are of our own and not our employers, but you knew that. We wish you well and see you on the internets.

Good [00:21:00] day.