Blake Burris (Cleanweb and Urban Mobility)

on .

INTERVIEW WITH Blake Burris (Cleanweb and Urban Mobility)
(Founder of the ‘Cleanweb Movement,’ Chief Hacktivist and head of Developer Relations at Vinli)

Premise

Today the Internet, social media, and mobile communications are becoming an essential part of our life. Most of our daily activities (from waking up, to getting to the office and working activities) make a large use of Information Communication Technologies (ICT). It is a matter of fact that ICT, with its ever-more sophisticated devices, is changing the way we live, the way we consume resources, relate to the world and interact with each other and society at large. In one word, it’s making our life ever-more ‘connected.’

As a result, a growing number of people and companies are wondering if ICT can be used as a key factor to make business processes, our daily activities and the whole society greener and smarter in the use of resources; heading for what is defined as ‘Circular Economy,’ (an economy where ever-less resources are wasted and ever-less waste is generated). The challenge is big – like a vast overhaul of the global economy and supply chain, but there is a ‘movement’ that is gaining growing worldwide importance which is addressing it: the ‘Cleanweb Movement.’ Born in 2011, this movement brings together software developers, social entrepreneurs, and environmental activists in deep collaboration to create new solutions, apps and entire new businesses to make cities greener and smarter. Unlike prior green or “environmentalist” movements, the Cleanweb Movement is not against capitalism; rather, it takes advantage of capitalism to encourage entrepreneurs to create a better future and a better society for all of humanity (there is a certain equality aspect which has been incorporated into the DNA of many new cleanweb companies – something known as a “B-corporation” in the U.S.).
 
But what exactly is the Cleanweb Movement? How does it work? What is and what on either happens at “cleanweb hackathons”? What notable   progress this movement has accomplished and what are the main companies which have emerged from it? Blake Burris, co-founder of the Cleanweb Movement and The Cleanweb Initiative, answered  these and other questions via email and Skype calls conducted recently from Texas. First, a bit of background on him (from his LinkedIn bio):
 
 
Blake Burris: Blake is a visionary and thought leader on future mobility and connected car; both as Chief Hacktivist and VP of Developer Relations at Vinli and a advisor to startups and Autonebula, a connected transportation incubator in India. He is also a leading expert on evangelism and the creation of grassroots innovation communities and has extensive international experience and network. As the founder of The Cleanweb Initiative, he grew a blog post into a global movement of entrepreneurs spanning 25 countries; including the US, UK, Europe, Russia, Israel, and China. Blake is a co-author of "The Smartup Manifesto,"​ a joint collaboration led by DEMOS Helsinki which defines a new breed of startups innovating at the confluence of big data, sensor tech, cleanweb, urban tech and the sharing economy. He has spoken internationally at conferences and events on topics ranging from cleanweb, sustainability, urban tech to future mobility and connected car.
Follow Blake on Twitter @blakeburris.
 
 
INTERVIEW - (April 2016)
The interview was made in March 2016 and published in April 2016 
Subject
: ITC and Sustainability, the Cleanweb Movement and Sustainable Urban Mobility


 
 

Highlights 

  • …today, many of the environmental problems are caused by inefficiencies in processes and matching of producers to consumers… Using IT to solve such inefficiencies will clearly play an increasing role in solving the environmental crisis.
  •  The Cleanweb Movement was born in March 2011; then “The Cleanweb Initiative (the organization) was later founded in 2013 to catalyze the interest in cleanweb and to organize nascent communities of ‘believers’ arising globally.

  • Very frequently we launch an event, we call it a ‘Hackathon,’ which takes place in a city which has articulated particular environmental problem (being it pollution, traffic congestion, food waste, solar adoption, etc.)…
  •   …the Cleanweb Movement is not anti-capitalist! It sees in capitalism a lever to solve environmental and social problems.

  • The Cleanweb Movement is something like an ‘eco-system.’ It’s not just about one community or one company. It brings together entrepreneurs, developers, investors, municipal leaders, global non-profits and academics.
  •  While it didn’t emerge from an hackaton, I’d like to talk about Uber as the quintessential cleanweb example. Uber provides a private car transport service using a mobile app which connect directly the driver with the passenger. It is now valued at somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 billion dollars! ….but the core of what they do is a core concept of the cleanweb: using IT to better allocate resources… 

  • More in general the car system should tend toward what Stefan Heck, Co-Founder and CEO at Nauto, in his book Resource Revolution calls ‘ACES’ or Autonomous, Connected, Electrical, Shared mobility…
  •  …the notion of cleanweb has been superseded by the newer notion of "urban tech" – that is technology for improving the urban environment.…the notion of cleanweb has been superseded by the newer notion of "urban tech" – that is technology for improving the urban environment.

  •  For me, cleanweb and urban tech are tools for achieving the vision of both a sustainable planet and a sustainable humanity as put forth by Papa Francesco in his widely acclaimed encyclical, "Laudat SI"

 
 
 
Question 1: Welcome Blake Burris and thank you very much for being with us. In 2011 you gave birth to the Cleanweb Movement. Can you explain to us what is the ‘Cleanweb Movement’ and how does it work?
 
Answer
Well, it all started in March 2011 when, working for Dynamo Labs, (the 1st recipient of Facebook's fbFund in 2008), a startup focused on consumer energy efficiency,  I realized there were some potential for intersections between Information Technology (IT), social mobile web and the environmental question. At the time (and still now) IT was on the rise and, more importantly, started to change the way we live, the way we conduct our daily activities.
 
At the same time I was tinkering with ways to apply consumer web and social networks to solving for consumer energy efficiency, I got introduced to Silicon Valley investor, Sunil Paul, who ironically had just penned a blog post, “What is the Cleanweb?” which made the proclamation (as I best recall) that “IT could become the biggest lever available to entrepreneurs to address environmental and resource issues.” I knew upon reading those words that I must meet Sunil ASAP! Cleanweb was instantly gospel to me. Why? Because today, many of the environmental problems are caused by inefficiencies in processes and matching of producers to consumers. The inefficiencies lead to vast waste, pollution, congestion and other ills plaguing our modern world whether in Roma, Houston or Los Angeles.  Using IT to solve such inefficiencies will clearly play an increasing role in solving the environmental crisis. The Cleanweb Movement was born in March 2011; then “The Cleanweb Initiative (the organization) was later founded in 2013 to catalyze the interest in cleanweb and to organize nascent communities of ‘believers’ arising globally.
 
So, what is and how does the Cleanweb Movement work?
 
Cleanweb began as ‘a grass-roots movement’ and continues to be so; much like open-source. It brings the voices of entrepreneurs together and expresses their willingness to take on heretofore insurmountable challenges. If I had to use one word to describe the operating model of the Cleanweb Movement I would choose ‘empowering’ as we've traveled the globe spreading the gospel of cleanweb, inspiring entrepreneurs to dedicate their creative energies to solving local challenges that could then scale regionally, e.g., across Europe or India and the U.S. cities. Inspiring new approaches to  resources and environmental problems is the leitmotiv of the movement.
 
How does we work?
 
Very frequently we launch an event, we call it a ‘Hackathon,’ which takes place in a city which has articulated particular environmental problem (being it pollution, traffic congestion, food waste, solar adoption, etc.). The term  hackathon derives from the words ‘hack’ (used in its positive meaning to find a solution) and ‘marathon:’ during the event, a community of entrepreneurs, computer programmers (hackers) and entrepreneurs or others fluent and knowledgeable in local issues come together in the selected place, to take part in the challenge (a sort of marathon, generally lasting around 54 hours). The participating teams are incentivized to create innovative and demonstrable solutions. Prizes are awarded to the developers of the best solutions.
 
We work with entrepreneurial communities in more than 20 host countries; one of which has been Italy where three hackathons have occurred in Rome with the collaboration of Roma 3 University, the  U.S. Embassy and Ambassador to Italy along with the participation more than 20 supporting firms and organizations.
The first hackathon was launched in September 2011 in San Francisco. Since then over 2 dozen have been launched with very interesting and concrete results…
 
 
Question 2: What makes the Cleanweb Movement different from other traditional “green" or environmental movements?
 
Answer
As I said before, our main mission is to solve problems in communities, and, in doing so, we differ a lot from other more traditional green movements; several of these movements see the main threat in capitalism. On the contrary, we create  big entrepreneurial opportunities: the cleanweb movement is not anti-capitalist! It sees in capitalism a lever to solve environmental and social problems, such as waste, food waste, water, air pollution, traffic congestion and so on…
 
 
Question 3: What are the subjects involved in the Cleanweb Movement and in the cleanweb hackathons?
 
Answer
The Cleanweb Movement is something like an ‘eco-system.’ It’s not just about one community or one company. It brings together entrepreneurs, developers, investors, municipal leaders, global non-profits and academics. So, in laymens terms, the Cleanweb Hackathon is a ‘collaborative effort’ that promotes sustainable cities, growth, clean energy, pollution reduction, and better standards of life for all.
 
 
Question 4: Can you give us some examples of successful hackathons?
 
Answer
Yes. Since 2011, we have launched many hackathons:  in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Austin (Texas); we also held several in Rome with the presence of the U.S. Ambassador, Thorne (see his speech during the convention in Rome, November 30, 2012).
 
Among the most successful hackathon, I’d highlight New York  City held in January 2012, where about 150 people broke up into teams. After 48 intensive hours of work, they came up with inventive new apps. The winner was a team with an app called Econofy. Their website allows consumers to compare appliances by their energy efficiency ratings. Another winner, nycbldgs.com (A project of Honest Buildings team), uses energy data created by the city of New York to put together a map of all the municipal buildings, ranking them on energy usage and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Such apps allow us to identify buildings that can be retrofitted and converted to micro-power plants with state-of-the-art green design and energy efficiencies.
 
 
Question 5: Can you mention some of the most important companies that have emerged thanks to a cleanweb hackathon?
 
Answer
First of all, let me say that it is very difficult to choose… Too many companies and apps have been born out of cleanweb concepts and various communities. While it didn’t emerge from an hackaton, I’d like to talk about Uber as the quintessential cleanweb example. As you know Uber is a multinational company based in San Francisco which provides a private car transport service using a mobile app which connect directly the driver with the passenger. It is now valued at somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 billion dollars! Which is inexplicable when compared to the valuations of many companies and the GDP of many smaller countries! ...but the core of what they do is a core concept of the cleanweb: using IT to better allocate resources; which in Uber's case means rides and unused cycles in millions of vehicles and drivers willing to drive.
Look at the winners from the 2013 Boston cleanweb hackathon last April. The winner, Bulbtrip, described itself as ‘Zappos for residential lighting.’ Catchy. But today it does not exist. The same is true for second-place GreenCaptcha, third-place JCube, and the judge’s favorite, Open Buildings Initiative.
 
 
Question 6: So one of the hot topics in cleanweb today is urban transportation and  “smart mobility” as we in Europe like to call it. What do you think is the best way to make urban mobility greener?
 
Answer
Efficiency, safety and accessibility. This is our mantra for entrepreneurs and innovators. The biggest problems in urban mobility are congestion, safety and pollution, not to mention all of the valuable real estate which has been given over the automobile.  Almost every person in a city today must rely on a car. That means urban pollution, loss of time and poses safety hazards to ourselves and other. So what’s the basic solution? 1) Getting more and more people into public transportation, more efficient use of the available fleet of vehicles and cycling or walking as appropriate, 2) make cars more efficient and connected via 4G/LTE networks.
 
What about electric vehicles?
 
Of course having electric cars instead of fossil-fuel cars on circulation would represent a big improvement in mobility. More in general the car system should tend toward what Stefan Heck, Co-Founder and CEO at Nauto, in his book Resource Revolution calls ‘ACES’ or Autonomous, Connected, Electrical, Shared mobility. That is, cars will be: 1) shared (currently most are idle 96% of the time), 2) electric 3) connected to link to one another and to city infrastructure 4) and soon autonomous to be able to pick up the next passenger(s) rather than parking altogether. This indeed opens up enormous opportunities for people (less costs and congestion), businesses (new needs to satisfy will emerge) and the environment (less pollution). But let me make clear again that mobility needs are changing and cars (at least as they are thought now – owned/inefficient/costly/polluting) are going to evolve as a part of the overall system  of urban transportation in our cities.
 
 
Question 7: What are the most sensitive countries to the theme of sustainable urban transportation?
 
Answer
Interest in urban mobility is of equal appeal to cities in both developed and developing countries due to congestion, pollution and equitable access. In Asian markets which are experiencing rapid urbanization such as China, India and SE Asian markets... as well as developed markets of Europe and North America where the cost of infrastructure is exorbitant and urban trends are dictating a demand for multi-modal options; including bicycling, car sharing and transit. Stockholm where the city is moving to ban vehicular traffic in the urban core…In Paris, the mayor has famously taken back the streets along the Seine during summertime for what he's calling ‘Paris Plage’: installing an actual beach with sand where cars previously sped along is now enjoyed by the citizenry. Singapore is considering how autonomous cars could drastically reduce the number of vehicles needs to move its entire population around the nation state efficiently; thereby freeing up lots of real estate for other purposes and beautifying the city in the process as a result. In India, in addition to concerns about congestion and pollution, they're looking at ways to avoid every middle class citizen trying to put two automobiles in their garage as happened in America over the last 100 years (this would obviously be disastrous). And even in the Middle East, authorities in cities such as Dubai are thinking holistically is making moves to provide  efficient and safe urban mobility system. 
 
 
Question 8: The Cleanweb Movement started in 2011. How much progress has it done since then?’
 
Answer
The success of the Cleanweb Movement must be attributed to its own principles: 1) put together people;  2) find concrete solutions; 3) make life in communities better and greener. The number of participants to our events has grown since the first Hackathon, and the number of sponsors have increased. In 2013 we set up the Cleanweb Initiatives in cooperation with Facebook, the Sunil Paul Foundation, the American Clean Sky Foundation and a few other corporate sponsors. But the best validation of our work comes from successful companies (born of the cleanweb movement and ideals) like Sidewalk Labs (an Alphabet (Google) company); it also comes from the huge investments that one of the biggest companies in the world, Google, is making in trying to improve urban life through technologies.
 
 
Question 9: What about the future of the Cleanweb Movement?
 
Answer
As for the future, I have to say that now, about 5 years later, I think the notion of cleanweb has been superseded by the newer notion of "urban tech" – that is technology for improving the urban environment. Combined with the movement towards smarter cities, it's very fitting and increasingly bandied about. I like the ring of it personally and am for whatever will accelerate our progress towards clean, safe and sustainable cities for all.  For me, cleanweb and urban tech are tools for achieving the vision of both a sustainable planet and a sustainable humanity as put forth by Papa Francesco in his widely acclaimed encyclical, "Laudato Si."
 
Sidewalk Labs a new company in the Alphabet (formerly Google) is very much about this new focus and trend increasingly called "urban tech." Stay up with the exciting developments by tracking the hashtag #urbantech.http://www.sidewalklabs.com/
 
As for cleanweb itself, in several markets such as Sand Francisco, London and Boston, active communities exist and continue to produce monthly programming and periodic hackathons. This is the beauty of the open-source approach Sunil and I put into motion back in 2011 so that no one person or group could hold back the innovation and energy that naturally seeks to manifest in creative new ways. Long live Cleanweb. Viva Cleanweb!
 
 
 
 
 

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