Monthly Archive: September 2015

How Working in Home Automation Inspired One Developer to Rethink Smart Tech

Twist by Astro LED light bulb and speaker

How smart is the smart home if nobody can understand it? That’s the question that drove Shaun Springer to create Astro, a lighting and audio startup that believes smart home solutions should be as simple as screwing in a light bulb. 

After working for one of the biggest names in home automation left Shaun Springer feeling frustrated by the industry’s inefficiences and high cost of entry, he set out to create hardware solutions targeted to urban apartment dwellers. Astro’s first product, Twist, an integrated AirPlay speaker and LED light bulb, is currently available for pre-order. 

At Dwell on Design NY, Springer will join Ted Booth of Honeywell User Experience and Honeywell Connected Home for the conversation “How Smart is the Smart Home, Really?” on Sunday, October 4 from 11:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

Get your tickets now to join us for three days of stimulating conversations and exhibitions. For more info, and a full list of our panelists, visit this page at

How U.S. Cities Are Making (and Spending) Money

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2016 budget includes a $543 million property tax increase over four years to help with billions of dollars in pension and other municipal debt and repair Chicago schools’ low credit rating. (AP Photo/Christian K. Lee, File)

The fiscal health of U.S. cities continues to improve since a post-recession low of 2010, but revenues still aren’t growing fast enough. According to the new 2015 City Fiscal Conditions report from the National League of Cities (NLC), despite three consecutive years of growth, city budgets are still feeling the effects of the recession, and revenue bases are still below pre-recession levels.

Still, the report says that 82 percent of finance officers say that their cities are better able to meet the financial needs of their communities in 2015 than in 2014. (In its annual report last fall, NLC cited “cautiously optimistic” municipal money managers.) Ending balances have reached pre-recession levels, even if revenues have not.

“This level of optimism amongst finance officers is the highest since the inception of the survey and reflective of widespread, incremental improvements amidst an on-going slow and long recovery,” according to the report.

The increase in ending balances is a sign of smart planning. Conservative estimates show that revenues likely won’t return to precession levels until 2024, and more generous estimates have revenues bouncing back by 2020. Neither of these dates looks promising for a total recovery before the next recession hits the U.S., which economists estimate will occur around 2018.

According to the report, revenues increased 1.3 percent in 2014 and are anticipated to grow .31 percent in 2015, not enough to offset the expenditure increase of 1.5 percent in 2014, with continued growth anticipated into 2015. Here’s a look at where the revenue is coming from and where that money is going:

(Credit: National League of Cities)

Currently, the most constraining factors on city budgets are infrastructure needs (48 percent), employee pensions (38 percent) and employee healthcare benefits (36 percent). It may not be news that America’s infrastructure is in desperate need, but the NLC makes sure to note that half of America’s cities identified “infrastructure” as one of the three most challenging issues facing cities.

(Credit: National League of Cities)

And just how bad is the pension crisis? Across the board, the NLC report predicts more challenging times ahead for cities — though some, like Chicago, are being hit harder than others. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, of course, has pushed for a steep property tax hike.

Overall, according to the NLC, municipalities may be in an better position to manage difficult circumstances, but they could still use some help.

“Simply because they are able to manage under difficult circumstances does not mean that it will be easy, or without consequence,” the report notes. “In the years ahead, as cities continue to navigate their roles as fiscal stewards, stronger state and federal partnerships will be critical to enabling the fiscal choices that will allow cities to grow, innovate, and propel our economy forward.”

Can 19 Types of Plants Clean Some of America’s Dirtiest Water?

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, known as one of the dirtiest waterways in America, a place where scientists sampling the water once found gonorrhea in the murk, is currently playing host to something a bit prettier.

A new “floating island” was launched recently in the canal in an attempt to clean the water. Landscape architect and urban designer Diana Balmori calls the project “GrowOnUS,” and the island includes 19 plant species living in metal culvert pipes filled with plastic bottles.

Fast Company reports the structure is layered with bamboo, woody plant material, water hyacinth rope, shredded plastic, coconut matting and oak cork. The structure should act as a sponge that will filter the water, distilling it and collecting it into a reservoir underneath.

Balmori and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy received a $20,000 grant to make the project a reality. “We think of this as being a productive farm that could serve to feed into farmers’ markets and into restaurants,” Balmori told Fast Company.

(Credit: Balmori Associates)

Perhaps the Gowanus Canal should be viewed more as a proving ground than a gross pool. After all, the floating island isn’t the first fascinating de-polluting solution that’s been proposed.

“We picked the hardest,” Balmori told the Wall Street Journal. In other words, if this works there, it could probably work anywhere.

Artist Evan Hecox covers new ‘Terrain’

Evan Hecox is covering new ground in his exhibition 'Terrain' which opens this week at Andenken Gallery in Amsterdam. American artist Evan Hecox is on the move, from his base in Denver, Colorada in the United States to the Netherlands. He’ll be covering new ground, first headed to his exhibition Terrain that opens this week at Andenken Gallery in Amsterdam, and then continuing on an inspirational journey to Utrecht courtesy of The Jaunt.

Inside the Dollars and Cents of Cleveland’s Latest High-Speed Internet Investment

(Photo by Rob Sinclair)

“Rust Belt cities were shrinking markets, not growing markets,” Lev Gonick says.

The former chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, is talking about how, more than a decade ago, the city’s economy was in such bad shape in the de-industrialized-Rust Belt era, that Gonick couldn’t find anyone from whom Case Western could procure a super-high-speed Internet connection. Not one incumbent provider was willing to make that kind of investment in the Cleveland market, Gonick says.

So Case Western and a number of the other large, publicly funded institutions in town, including healthcare institutions, the regional transit authority, public broadcasters and others realized the only way to be sure that they had a digital future was “to chart their own destiny,” Gonick says. As Next City has previously reported, they created their own 100 GB network.

“We took a bet it could actually be a catalyst for Cleveland,” he adds.

Thirteen years and 2,400 miles of fiber-optic cable later, the community’s collective vision got sweet validation earlier this month — in the form of a $50 million private investment in that super-high-speed network they built.

The bigger picture reveals how a community-owned asset has grown up. In a post-industrial Rust Belt, it’s also a Cinderella story with several possible precedents set along the way.

First, the basics: The network started out as a nonprofit known as OneCommunity. With Gonick as CEO, it was a model of cross-sector collaboration.

“It was a unique approach that came from a lot of entities that don’t often talk to each other, agreeing to work with each other,” says Christopher Mitchell, director for community broadband networks at the D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “I alternate between wondering how come we don’t see it more often, and wondering how it happened even once.”

OneCommunity had equity built in from the outset. They sought out universities, schools, hospitals, local governments and other large nonprofits, institutions with a public mission, as their initial customer base. The whole point of the network was to give local Cleveland-area businesses and local governments a competitive edge by keeping a key cost — their monthly Internet bill — relatively stable and affordable.

“If they could start it on their own, they could get together and get that rock-bottom rate,” Mitchell says.

As the network grew, demand started to percolate from customers outside their original mission-driven target market. They eventually accessed seven different kinds of capital to build what became a $200 million fiber-optic network. Online donors. Foundations. Partnerships with universities. Federal stimulus dollars. Bonds issued by the Medina County Port Authority helped build the network. They were among the first to take advantage of federal new markets tax credits. A grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration allowed OneCommunity to upgrade part of its network, allowing Cleveland to become the first U.S. city to offer 100 gigabit per second commercial Internet, the fastest in the country.

As creative as OneCommunity got, and as quickly as they grew, demand for fiber-optic bandwidth grew faster. The deal flow, the need to raise capital, the day-to-day operations took them further and further away from the work of the nonprofit.

“It led us to fundamentally revisit the business model and ask the question, as a nonprofit chartered in the state of Ohio and as a federal nonprofit to build out the digital economy of Northeast Ohio and assess the community technology needs, was actually owning and operating the network the be-all and end-all of that activity?” Gonick says. “It was the right moment to return to our core mission to grow the digital economy, of which the infrastructure is a critical but insufficient condition.”

OneCommunity and its stakeholders agreed in 2013 that the time came to create a for-profit subsidiary, which they dubbed Everstream, to handle the network business.

“In some ways it was ‘be careful what you wish for,‘” Gonick says.

They didn’t anticipate how much demand there would be once they launched into the for-profit space. Cellular service providers became a huge source of demand — they needed big enough “piping” in the ground to connect the proliferation of cellphone towers to the internet. Your Internet might be wireless for you, but that latest cat video has to travel through the ground somewhere before it gets to you. Regional sports teams, big downtown law firms and financial institutions all came knocking on Everstream’s door.

It was only a matter of time before Everstream took on a large investment in order to meet all that demand — and that’s what transpired this month. With a $50 million infusion of capital, OneCommunity becomes a minority owner in Everstream, with a guaranteed share of revenues as well as two seats on the Everstream board of directors.

Two big risks weighed on the decision to pursue the investment.

The single largest risk, Gonick says, was being able to communicate to community stakeholders why they were taking on the transaction at this time. They had to take time to ensure buy-in from their existing core customers of local governments, universities, healthcare groups, large nonprofits and others.

Second, was finding an investor who could fully understand and appreciate just how complicated OneCommunity had been as a nonprofit network operator. Seven different kinds of funding sources went into building the network, some of them with strings attached — particularly the federal sources of money.

“Could we find an investor prepared to get educated on just how complicated we were and still see their way to the opportunity to ultimately see the rate of return they wanted to realized?” Gonick explains. They did, in the form of Boston-based M/C Partners and investors advised by the Private Equity Group of J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

As a result of the deal, Everstream is moving forward as a standalone organization.

“This transaction allows OneCommunity to leverage the fiber network as a catalyst for growth and an asset upon which to shape a civic agenda around community and business technology priorities in Northeast Ohio,” said Gonick in a statement announcing the transaction.

In terms of the worlds-colliding overlap from nonprofit to for-profit, Mitchell says, “I don’t think I have seen a nonprofit spin off a for-profit network company before. We have not seen a lot of nonprofit networks. A lot are co-ops. A lot are government owned and operated, due to necessity and the ability to access inexpensive capital via bonds to build them.”

When I asked Gonick if Everstream might get certified now as a B-corporation, he said it’s up to their management. Everstream’s incoming CEO is Brett Lindsey, the heretofore COO of OneCommunity.

Notably, there was a flavor of community economic development in Lindsey’s statement when the deal was announced: “This transaction also means more jobs in Cleveland, investment in the network and opportunity for our local partners,” said Lindsey.

Iconic Artist Wendell Castle Talks Contemporary Furniture Design at Dwell on Design NY

Above Within Beyond bronze sculpture by Wendell Castle

“Above Within Beyond” is a bronze outdoor sculpture that was displayed at Friedman Benda’s show “Gathering Momentum” in the spring of 2015.

On Friday, October 2, at Dwell on Design New York, Dennis Miller will moderate a discussion with three industry leaders—designers Wendell Castle, Donna Feldman of Dmitriy & Co., and Jiun Ho. Titled “Contemporary Furniture Design: A Dynamic New Era,” the session will be held at 2:45 p.m at Skylight Clarkson Sq in New York City.

Wendell Castle has been a sculptor and designer for more than four decades. An influential artist, his work has led to the development of handcrafted, modern designer furniture as a major art form. His bold pieces are crafted from rare and beautiful hardwoods, plastics, veneers, and metals. Click through the slideshow to glimpse some of his whimsical creations.

Get your tickets now to join us for the show. For a full list of panelists, see this page of Dwell on Design New York’s website.