Futurist Jerry Paffendorf Mulls Detroit As Model for Obsolete Cities

When Jerry Paffendorf came to Detroit in 2009 to start LOVELAND Technologies, a software and mapping firm focused on developing tools to democratize access to property information, the city had not yet filed for bankruptcy and Kwame Kilpatrick has just left office.  Paffendorf, now 32, had been working in tech startups for several years in DC, Brooklyn and San Francisco after completing a Master of Science in Studies of the Future at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Before that, he lived in Portland as an artist after dropping out of high school in New Jersey and then getting a BFA.

Over the past two months, LOVELAND has partnered with Data Driven Detroit on the Motor City Mapping Project, a $1.5 million dollar project commissioned by the Detroit Blight Task Force and funded by a variety of foundations, public and private sector entities.

The purpose of the project is to survey every single parcel of land within the City of Detroit (there are over 385,000) to evaluate condition and potential for demolition. The survey uses technology developed by LOVELAND called “blexting”—blight + texting—in which volunteers use tablets to snap photos and fill in digital survey forms.  The information is immediately beamed back to the project’s nerve center at Tech Town Detroit where additional volunteers perform live quality control.

The project was featured on the cover of last week’s New York Times; also last week FastCompany named LOVELAND on its list of the  “World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Local.”

LOVELAND is already rolling the technology out to New Orleans, New York, and Chicago, and projects $2.5 million is revenue this year, according to Crains Detroit Business.

Shareable met with Paffendorf on a frigid, snowy January day at the height of the Motor City Mapping project. Paffendorf, tall, rail-thin and sporting a thick blonde beard and a baseball cap, moved easily amid a room packed with volunteers and tangled wires.  Although a futurist by training, he is clearly grounded in the here-and-now, helping staff and volunteers deal with the nitty-gritty details of the project.

The following interview is lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Shareable: How did your background as a futurist lead you to Detroit?  

I went to a graduate program at the University of Houston Clear Lake in Houston, Texas called Studies of the Future. I went there because I went to art school, and was never scientifically or technically trained growing up, but I was always attracted to that world.

I had read Ray Kurzwell’s Age of Spiritual Machines, and I thought it was totally amazing and compelling. He paints a pretty damn compelling case that information technology does exponentially develop, and its already moving so fast and doing so many incredible, hard-to-believe things right now, that to look ahead five, ten, or even unthinkably more than 25 years at what will be possible in the world is difficult. It's hard not to be convinced that that there is something going on we need to pay attention to. And that’s what I was curious about. I was looking for a place I could go as a nontechnical person to learn about technology and think about how technology will continue to shape the world.

I actually think the future as we think of it now is not a very old concept, because in the past, the world didn’t change that much while you were alive. You knew people were going to die and maybe you thought about religion, maybe there would be a political revolution while you were alive, or some weather event or earthquake that could change things, but otherwise, everything pretty much stayed the same.

And now, more and more people live in this consumer, Apple two-year upgrade world, where you never know when your job is going to become obsolete, and you’re not entitled to anything.  So, the question of how you think about and navigate that intelligently was what really drew me to that program.

I’m not a huge philosopher of the future. I am more of a right-brained creative person who really enjoys working with software engineers and developers to build technology. I haven’t had an education to do it myself, and I don’t write the software on the team, but I’ve developed a great rapport and work in a way to define problems that technical talent can respond to, and they enjoy solving the problems that I help them define. So it’s a little more of the Steve Jobs to Steve Wozniak-style relationship.

Shareable: How did that experience influence your decision to come to Detroit?

I’ve been in Detroit five years now, and it had something to do with seeing there was more to the problems you could work on with technology than needing to be in San Francisco or New York, which are kind of the currently established places where you are supposed to go with certain prescribed steps you are supposed to take; meet a venture capitalist and solve a certain set of problems for a certain set of people.

Detroit became very attractive because it was clear there were so many big, interesting, important and hard problems in a city like Detroit that could be assisted by information technology, and that no one was thinking about solving in that way. With all of Detroit’s issues—economic change, population loss, landscape change, inefficient city services—it was amazing to me that no one was really looking at it through an information technology lens and asking, “does anyone really know what’s going on here?” and admitting, “no, we really don’t, we can’t manage what’s going on here because no one can really define or stay on top of the problem.”  We don’t know how much money we are making, we don’t now how many people are here, we don’t know how many vacant buildings there are, we don’t know anything.

Shareable: What has it been like, having iived on the east and west coasts, to come to Detroit?

I feel pretty jumped in now, but it took a little bit. I grew up in rural New Jersey on the edge of the Delaware River—hick country with an urban New York background.  But I’d never seen a place like this where the city and suburbs have this super-bizarre antagonistic relationship. It feels like a time capsule, like out of an era shift, like things are closer the seventies here in a lot of ways.

Shareable: So, as a futurist, you came to a place that’s sort of stuck in the past.

A little bit. It’s not all like that here, but there’s an element of that, and I didn’t understand the city at first when I came. I thought there was more stuff going on and I could just run around and talk to people about projects at a high volume, but people weren’t interested, this was their small town, and it was surprising to me at first. But I feel more at home now and understand how it works. It’s sensitive, a sense that newcomers or outsiders don’t know what’s going on.  It speaks to how culture works, and once you’re in it and you start to become it. I’ve caught myself saying, “oh that person lives in the suburbs” or “oh that person doesn’t get how it is here.”

Shareable:  Is there a movement to permanently tilt the economic playing field in Detroit toward ordinary people?

I don’t see a huge movement toward alternative cooperative ownership structures so far in Detroit. An honest observation about the city is that there are a lot of people doing things because of this unusual situation where you have a lack of formal city services and regulation and vacant land and open buildings, and no functioning formal economy. So you hear bits and pieces and use your imagination to fill in the gaps.  You might read a snippet and think, oh, there are thousands of people who have figured out incredible innovative ways to use space and feed communities, and cooperative economic systems, totally off the grid, with best practices that can be applied elsewhere. In my experience, you can find examples of people doing things that are pretty normal.

I think I went through a phase of, like humans do, porridge too hot, porridge too cold; when I came here I was sick of money, not that I ever had it but I was sick of being around it, thinking we can do everything from the ground up and grassroots. And then I actually realized that it’s just the way of the world; you need money to get stuff done. You do need funding and you do need to be professional in your financials, and that if you want to have impact on your city or your neighborhood or your place, you can’t exclusively do it through volunteerism, prayer, platitudes, and your own sweat. It takes efficiency, it takes funding, it takes something that can create jobs for people and allow them to rest, in addition to working their asses off, and to have clear incentives and rewards.

For a time the city had no capacity to enforce its own laws, so as the city comes back online and turns the spotlights onto itself and discovers that hey while it was offline, you people got into some weird stuff—there’s like 3000 houses that are art projects. So there is something interesting as the city increases its capacity to enforce these informal economies—how do they manage something now that it has become a part of the culture?

Shareable: What are some of the trends you see unfolding in Detroit that aren't talked about in the media?  How do the media get the story wrong on Detroit?

People tuning into Detroit really don’t understand there ‘s a big difference between Detroit, the legal definition of the boundaries of Detroit, versus things that happen in metro Detroit, and the jobs that have migrated to the metro region. I still don’t feel people have an accurate picture.  Not to harp on demographics, but people don’t understand how black Detroit is, and how white the suburbs are.

That was crazy, the Patterson quote (referring to the New Yorker’s profile on suburban Oakland County’s executive L. Brooks Patterson, in which he was quoted as saying “What we’re going to do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.”), I was like what century is this? I don’t think people get how choked off by its own region the city was. Some really dark stuff went down here, it wasn’t just Japanese automakers makers outcompeting Detroit, there’s a lot missing from the picture.

Why is Detroit an ideal place for LOVELAND?

I get bored in New York. When I am in Detroit, I feel like something’s happening here and I am excited. I don’t exactly know what that thing is.

We’re in America, but we are not as young as we used to be, and we find ourselves in this situation where some of our original cities have outlived their original purpose. European countries have gone through this already; they have ruins, they have cities that were built for one purpose and have been repurposed for something else, and now life goes on there differently.

We are now many decades beyond World War II and the 1950s when we won the world, and we are now trying to come to terms with the fact that we’ve outlasted parts of our original purpose; the stuff we built doesn’t have the same reason to be anymore.

Detroit is the biggest, most important example of that; it doesn’t have a reason to be anymore.

One of the most interesting challenges is to figure out what to do next, and the cultural and human components of that are really interesting. It’s hard to talk and think about; it’s very emotional for people.

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