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The philosophy of driving and why “city” should be a verb

So many “experts” have incorrectly predicted so much for so long that my eyes glaze over whenever I hear warnings about “hacking” or dates for nationwide robotaxi deployments. True experts don’t tell us what to think as much as how to interpret what we know, which is why some people adapt quickly, and others never do.

So when I heard that the elusive Josh McManus, one of the most fascinating and understated characters in the urban transformation space, was willing to join Bryan and me on No Parking to talk about empathy, autonomous vehicles and capitalism, I was over the moon. McManus doesn’t claim to be an expert in anything, but he’s mastered the art of measured thinking, and inspiring others to do the same. I know, because I’m one of them.

For the last 10 years, McManus has quietly moved mountains to help solve our cities’ problems, first as Program Director of the nonprofit Knight Foundation, then as COO of Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, and now as Chief Strategy Officer of Civic, from which he advises companies how to make the most of strategies, content, and cultural interventions.

But I didn’t know any of that before we met. A lot of people I respect respected him. Also, he described himself on LinkedIn as “Call Me Trimtab,” which I recalled but couldn’t place. The source turned out to be one of our shared heroes, American philosopher and inventor Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, creator of the three-wheeled Dymaxion bus, and the Dymaxion House, currently in the Henry Ford Museum.

“Fuller was a fascinating guy who called himself a deliberate comprehensivist… another title that I’ve adopted,” said McManus. “But the Trim Tab thing is really fascinating because he used the metaphor of turning a ship. … There are these things called trim tabs, and if you release a trim tab it creates negative pressure behind the tab which basically, from a physics standpoint, gives you the lowest energy way to change the arc of this giant ship. And so his idea was that in the world, the indentation he wanted to leave was to have been a trim tab, to have positively impacted the arc of humanity.”

Get him talking, and McManus is full of the kind of wisdom one would expect if Mark Twain were alive and working on urban revitalization.

Dressed like a hipster lumberjack, McManus spoke in low tones. The word “city” is a verb, he said—not a noun.

“Americans have this notion of cities with a beginning, middle, and end. When I moved to Detroit 10 years ago, there were people like, ‘Why are you moving there? That place is dead.’ And I’m like, ‘No, cities live on ascending or descending circular life cycles, and the people that live in the city are the mice and the mice always learn the maze.’ You have to be constantly adapting, iterating, moving to whatever the new needs and demands are. And if you think about the city as a noun, that’s where you get into these utopian falsehoods and start building things. How many cities have built mass transit systems and when finally delivered, they don’t at all access the real demand that’s there, either they overbuild or underbuild significantly?”

But some of McManus’ more interesting ideas had to do with how he believes technology, like autonomous vehicles, is likely to spread. When I asked him about eventual deployment, he said something I’d never heard before, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

“People,” said McManus, “will probably have to vote autonomy.”

He’s right. Public support will be a gamechanger for the self-driving industry, whether it’s achieved through politics or commerce. So rather than tell me what to think about autonomy, McManus inspired me to change how I thought about it.

And that’s why this is a great episode. I think you’ll like it, too.

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