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A design week in NYC: friendlier cabs, greener gadgets, thick crusts, and disco balls

Having just returned from New York City, I wonder whether I find New York so intense because that's just how it is or because I tend to overbook my schedule, trying to squeeze in an ambitious number of meetings.

New York Times

Having just returned from New York City, I wonder whether I find it so intense because that's just how it is or because I tend to overbook my schedule, trying to squeeze in an ambitious number of meetings, rushing back and forth between midtown and downtown. In almost every cab ride I took on this trip, I noticed that many cabs now have a touch screen infotainment system that lets you pay with a credit card, watch TV, or access local city info (including a GPS tracker). I like the credit card option and the GPS but had mixed emotions about the rest. A colleague of mine sniffed: "This is sad. Of every place on earth NYC has the most eye candy anywhere. There's so much going on around you that the window is the best entertainment ever. Has our entire society caught the ADD virus? I think there should be an info card showing passengers how to play 'slug bug' or 'I spy.'" To be fair, every television has a clearly marked mute button, which "could become one of the most visited spots in the city," as the New York Times commented, assuming that cab TV may not be captivating for everyone.


On Wednesday my employer, frog design, hosted a little bar night for friends and media, and it was great to catch up with everyone. Among our guests was Emily Pilloton, the hyper-energetic incarnation of the "slash" entrepreneur. Emily is the managing editor of Inhabitat / a contributor to Good Magazine / and runs Project H, a nonprofit that facilitates social projects between corporations, design firms, and charities. And if all that was not enough, she helped organize the Greener Gadgets conference that took place at the McGraw Hill headquarters in midtown on Friday. What sounds like an oxymoron at first (the greenest gadget is the non-gadget, no? The comparative -- "greener" instead of "green" -- is thus carefully chosen...), was in fact a clever design competition to promote green innovations. The competition engaged established design firms, emerging designers, and design students to come up with new solutions to address the issues of energy, carbon footprint, health and toxicity, new materials, product life cycle, and social development. The top entries were judged by a panel and the audience, and awards were given out at the end of the night. Here's more about the winners.

While the green design movement, recently propelled by the Designers Accord, an industry-wide coalition of design and innovation firms to promote sustainability, is on a roll, the financial industry is deeply worried about the sustainability of economic wealth. "It's going to be very nasty," as a friend of mine who works at Morgan Stanley said about the looming economic downturn. However, the investors and entrepreneurs who convened on the 36th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel during the OnMedia conference seemed more or less untouched by such woes. Content is king (again), and I met quite a few folks whose ostentatious confidence was reminiscent of 1999. The attitude was not the only deja vu -- the program also appeared to cling to the same old themes ("it's a distribution game now," "the perfect storm of amateur content," etc.) that the industry has been pondering for years now. Most panel sessions consequently occurred in half-filled rooms, as many attendees opted to gather at the buffet to network instead. Many of the start-ups presented in the CEO showcases mirrored the traits of the first dot-com bubble: optimism in abundance, a strong belief in the self-regulatory power of the Internet, and monetization models that are not fully vetted. In some conversations I had, VCs conceded that a consolidation of the "new media typhoon" was inevitable. I, for my part, heard the lines "money follows eyeballs" and "we will initially focus on building a community" far too often. The whole event was also a bubble of its own kind. When I asked someone why he had spent the money to attend, he replied: "to see friends."


En route to JFK on my last day, I met with a correspondent of the German daily FAZ at Le Pain Quotidien, the neatly designed bakery/cafe chain. We talked about the demise of the American empire (the typical topic when European expats meet in the US) and discussed the recent re-design of FAZ (see this story in Monocle) over thick-crusted European bread. There's nothing better than a quality experience.

Oh, and I had one last designer moment on the way home: I flew Virgin America, and after a week of moving and shaking it was appropriate that it felt like a ride on a disco ball.

SF Gate