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Putting "Place" Back Into the Workplace

Q&A with CTO Andy Likuski about presenting at Workplace Innovation Summit in SF!

Some of you may not know this, but a couple of months ago, State of Place scored BIG-TIME! We somehow convinced uber-unicorn, Andy Likuski, who was at the time graciously serving as our technical advisor, to become our CTO!! Having survived the 2000 dot-com bust (when many of our millennial data-geek followers were merely strolling - like, literally - through city streets) and then earning a Masters in Urban Planning (after drinking the City-KoolAid!), he's an invaluable part of helping us fulfill our vision to bring data-driven placemaking to the masses!  He'll be repping us at the Workplace Innovation Summit in SF on November 17th! Read more about his journey from software nerd to urban planning dweeb to data geek below. And find out more about why State of Place matters to workplace innovation (think Amazon RFP!) here.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself and how you developed a unique skillset at the intersection of software development and urban planning?

 CTO Andy Likuski

CTO Andy Likuski

A: I started life as a software developer during the first dot-com boom in 1999. Although I loved the creativity and intellectual challenges of software, I was distraught by the failed land-use in Silicon Valley that forced long commutes to dreary office parks surrounded by asphalt. I became interested in public transit, eco-cities, and active transportation (cycling and walking), abandoning my car and moving to downtown Berkeley to practice what I preached. I realized that urban planning was far more important to me than writing software for e-commerce companies. Luckily, there is plenty of need for software to help urban planning, so I was able to continue software projects as soon as I started my master’s degree in Urban Planning.

Q: Why did you choose to develop in the field of Urban Planning?  

A: My initial plan was to abandon software work and just do urban planning, but my brain and ego were already wired to identify repetitious tasks and find software solutions to help scale them. Urban planning has long been slowed by the work of compiling massive amounts of data and developing plans in the complex context of real places with diverse people, politics, history, and physical infrastructure. Working within a complex context cannot be solved by technology, but software can at least automate a lot of the busy-work around processing data and can also illuminate new solutions by providing design, modeling, and analytics tools.

Q: What are your key learnings from leading the development of UrbanFootprint at Calthorpe Analytics?

Writing software at an urban planning firm brought up a lot of challenges that well-funded software companies generally solve with many hires. This was one reason that we created Calthorpe Analytics, a technology company, from the original planning firm, Calthorpe Associates, so we could attract investor funding specifically for our software product UrbanFootprint and build up a competent team of planners, data analysts, software developers, and project managers. Although we were initially underpowered as far as hired hands, our clients were metropolitan planning organizations (regional MPOs), non-profits like The Nature Conservancy, and other types of municipalities, so I got to write software and communicate with clients who were trying to solve the problems around sustainable urbanism and environmental policy that I most cared about.

Q: What do you love about State of Place (ignore the obviously leading question ;) ) ?

A: What most excites me about State of Place is that we are trying to illuminate the hard-to-identify factors that lead to great public space, which primarily takes the form of the streets we live on. North America has atrociously bad streetscapes and mostly lacks the public squares that are together a fundamental part of life in Europe. I wish that our cities and developers would just do the right thing by themselves -- build streets for public life and not cars, but unfortunately society’s deadly addiction to cars and desire to build at the lowest cost regardless of long-term benefits means that the typical street is built to be choked by cars and marginalize people.

State of Place leverages proven research about what makes places great so that skeptics can see the rationale for planning decisions. The software compares current conditions to any number of potential interventions, whether it’s widening sidewalks, adding restaurants with outdoor seating, adding bikes and transit lanes, or whatever else you can think of, and scores the improvements. This allows decision-makers to quickly explore different options to make the improvements that most align with their priorities or have the most return on investment. And it’s not just about economics, the analysis can potentially feed models that measure public health improvements, natural resource savings, or community health. We can incorporate the output of the software with research in many fields to create valuable quantified results.

Q: What’s the one core problem you have encountered that you'd love to see State of Place solve?

A: I’ll say it again. We want to create streets for people, not cars. Cars are almost completely unnecessary in urban areas if you have great transit, bike, and walking networks. I’ve never driven a car in Europe and had no trouble getting around a dozen countries. My favorite moments have been meeting new friends at the main square or enjoying a drink at a sidewalk café and taking in public life. These things might seem trivial next to climate change, poverty, and war, but they are actually the building blocks of civil society. Great public space allows cultures to intermingle and our lives to approach environmental sustainably, rather than experiencing society as swearing at someone who cuts you off in a car. If State of Place can be part of the movement to marginalize cars in favor of people, I’ll be very happy.

Q: How do you implement innovation within your "workplace"?

A: Although the software writing for State of Place is quite innovative and solves a problem that few or no software companies have ever tackled, the software is just a tool for our work. I wish the software could just automatically do whatever I needed so that I could instead spend all of my time helping our clients make their streets and cities better. The fact that I can have detailed discussions about planning, urbanism, and public policy both with the members of our team and our clients means that there is a constant exchange of ideas navigated by the output of the software. Since we are an international team on two continents and counting, we are able to combine our diverse experiences through the universal lens of urbanism. It’s ironic to be a virtual team working on improving physical space. It means a lot of information gathering from satellites and Google Streetview. However, the diversity and competence of our team (as well as a lot of discipline about using project management tools) gives me great confidence in our ability to do something useful for the world.

Q: How do you see State of Place helping innovate future workplaces?

I was a skeptic of remotely distributed companies, especially since one of my primary interests as an urban planner is strengthening the local community. But it has been a delight to be able to work with an international team led by women. Anna teaches me Russian, I sometimes see Michelle and Alli’s young daughters on the screen, and Mariela shares bits of her Cuban culture, even when she is Shanghai! This is starkly different than the urban planning and software offices of my recent past, and I am tremendously enjoying what technology has enabled for us. Because our work is so location specific, there will be many opportunities for traveling to client sites, in addition to the normal travel for conferences and startup programs. I hope that one of our contributions can be a model company for collaboration of other organizations, especially promoting an environment light on hierarchy and heavy on uplifting one another both intellectually and emotionally without the negativity and even bullying that so often infiltrates office environments.

Q: What are you most looking forward to at the Workplace Innovation Summit and why is State of Place is participating?

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A: The Workplace Innovation Summit is interesting because it is taking a deep dive into the way people in modern companies interact - an oft neglected topic outside of our some of our favorite comic strips, movies, and TV shows. Rather than just something we satire, the changes going on in the workplace are fascinating to watch. Some things, like international video chats, have changed the vibe overnight, while other things, like the curmudgeon boss, seem stuck in the 1950s. My hope is to tap into the way that people are emotionally experiencing work-life, not just how efficient they think they are. In a world where technology and corporate culture obscure the people who are giving their lives to fulfill their passions and paychecks, it is essential that we wholeheartedly explore what is going on around us. Additionally, I am encouraged by the fact that large corporations and SMEs (small and medium sized business) alike are taking a page from the startup playbook and paying attention not only to the amenities they provide inside the workplace (there's only so much ping-pong tables can do to spur creativity!) but the setting within which the workplace is located. Companies have come to realize that their workers want - need - to go outside! They desire to experience the public sphere throughout the day. They don't want to be forced into a 1-2 hour each way commute. They want the ability to take an active lunch. And oh, yeah, these things impact recruitment, retention, and productivity. Happy workers = better bottom lines. Finding places that ensure happy workers (and quantifying that) - that's where we come in. 

Q: Why should people come to your presentation at Workplace Innovation Summit?

A: I’m going to talk about things that are very humanizing. We are a company that is working together in a modern, remote way, with a female-minority led team, to solve the classic problems of creating stronger local community and better places. We use quantitative research and technology that is designed to measure and analyze public space improvements to real places throughout the world. Yet the experience of public space for inhabitants is an emotional one full of subjective qualifications and comparisons. The experience of workplace interaction is similarly an emotional one, even if the product of the company a quantitative software tool. In a world where technology is the dominant driver of our work and much of our cultural obsession, how do we solve a problem like improving the quality of place, where equations and functions do not yield a universal solution, but rather informs a complex process? The way we design workplace culture is actually a clue to bridging the gap created when we try to solve qualitative problems with quantitative tools.

Additionally, I will talk about the importance of better urbanism to many of the largest problems in the world, such as climate change, and how we can use better software and communication technology to augment rather than replace traditional urbanism.