Global Innovation Forum
22 June 2010
Presentation | Dr. Wendy L. Schultz
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this prestigious event. I am
honored to share this afternoon panel with the eminent Prof. Ni Peng-
fei, and I thank him for his comprehensive review of urban
competitiveness in today’s economy. My assignment, as a card-
carrying futures researcher, is somewhat different: to consider possible
futures, and ask you to consider what may be competitive in very
different possible future contexts.
Why explore our possible futures? Why bother to think through the
impacts and implications of change – change we ourselves are
creating? Global insurance giant Zurich asked, and answered, that
very question in a recent ad –
And the answer, of course, is that change happens, is happening all
around us, and that fortune favors the prepared mind. Also because
the children alive today will reside in one of those possible futures –
they are the beneficiaries of either our carelessness, or our
thoughtfulness in addressing change and evolving futures. Our
courageous and competitive decision-making lays the foundation for
their better tomorrows.
Now, Prof. Ni has the advantage of me: as an econometrician, he can
build his argument on observed facts. Alas, I cannot. We can’t go into
the future to observe and gather evidence; and straight-line
extrapolation, or extrapolation based on experience, is often laughably
wrong. And unfortunately, from the perspective of both the historian
and the futurist, we can’t rely on the present and ‘business as usual’ –
as mortgage lenders, bankers, and investors learned to their grief – and
ours – in September 2008, there really is no such thing as ‘business as
Much of what I do, as a futures researcher, is search for emerging signs
of change – especially change that might undermine current working
assumptions, or transform our present paradigms.
Horizon scanning – also known as environmental scanning – is a formal
research strategy for hunting emerging changes –pockets of possible
futures observable in the present. Emerging changes cause
turbulence, and so generate risks, conflicts, and opportunities. They
often challenge current ways of thinking and infrastructure systems that
may no longer be fit for purpose in a constantly evolving context.
A quick question, then, for you all to consider: what are YOUR current
working assumptions about cities and urban regions, and what makes
Let’s quickly consider five example assumptions about the present: ag
land only contributes 2.8% to South Korean GDP; patterns of housing
remain the same or improve; globalization’s advantages continue;
human values are hardwired into us as primates; and people’s
behavior drives markets.
Now consider some possibilities raised by horizon scanning: What if bio-
engineering moves refineries from industrial plants to GM crops –
pharming and plastics and new materials produced from plants and
animals (see biomimicry paradigm) bump ag land’s contribution to the
South Korean GDP from 2.8% to 10%?
What if aspirations go from “a chicken in every pot and a car in every
driveway” to an allotment, a wind turbine, and a ground-sourced heat
exchange – consequently houses, apartments, condos, housing
developments take up considerably more space?
What if, between peak oil (high cost of fossil fuels, low availability) and
carbon concerns, international jet transport were highly curtailed or
rationed and international shipping were also much more expensive,
considerably heightening the transport cost of food? Related effects
would also include heightened costs for fertilisers, and embedded
water accounting. This could, of course, raise the value of local
agricultural activities, amplifying 1), above, and also reinforces drive to
self-sufficiency, amplifying 2), above.
What if the human-machine interface becomes more permeable and
people commonly use bio-engineering to optimise human
performance? This produces potential for new sets of hardwired
‘values’ and points of view.
The students and faculty at Singularity University forecast the imminent
(within fifty years) creation, by technology, of artificial, greater-than-
human intelligence. These AIs may have completely alien points of
view and value sets, and also be very powerful actors in decision-
making and resource allocation. What will be their role in ‘market
activities’, if any? Just think about the unexplained stock market dip in
April 2010, due perhaps to competing stock software.
As part of exploring emerging change, I also collect people’s images
and ideas about what futures are possible. Images, pictures, stories
from our imagination are important: ‘dream it, then do it’ -- what we
imagine can drive what we do and what we create as a result.
As a example, take Thesis.Ex, an exhibition by graduating architecture
students at the National University of Singapore. The main theme of the
exhibit is "a re-thinking of the way cities function today in light of
urbanization over the past century and its detrimental effect on our
planet, which has resulted in rising sea levels, food and housing
shortages, excessive consumer waste and rising demands for energy".”
Which is a nice bridge to the fact that many forecasts and many
related images of the future today arise from the fact that our current
assumptions and ways of working are slamming us up against limits
across a wide variety of systems. This table represents a collection of
paths to the ‘end of the world as we know it.’ That doesn’t necessarily
mean a collapse, of course; it can just mean a completely
transformational change of perspective and paradigm. A
corroborating perspective may be found in the three dark ‘Future of
Cities’ scenarios produced by Oxford’s Institute for Science, Innovation,
and Society, and in a multitude of other scenario sets.
In the last half of my presentation, I want to quickly bundle some
emerging issues of change into three different possible ways the world
as we know it – business as usual – could come to an end. The three I
will discuss are the ‘Transform’ future, the ‘Fade’ future, and the
Twenty years ago, the ‘Transform’ high tech future seemed outlandish
science fiction to many; now it is in many ways the future that South
Korea’s digital economy and industrial innovation is creating for itself
and the rest of the world. It is the dream society, the experience
society, where bandwidth has multiplied and so has the hunger for
content. It is the future that ‘Singularity University’ in California teaches
as a given to aspiring entrepreneurs and business innovators: a future
of virtual digital worlds; of embedded electronics and brain-machine
interfaces; and of advanced biochemical tinkering with the human
mind and musculature. All of which could significantly change human
performance and potentially what our definition of human is.
This human transformation will be amplified by the evolving intelligence
of our surroundings, in terms of the ‘mind-reading robots’ that are one
goal of Japanese innovation, and the robotic automobiles DARPA is
encouraging. Coupled with ‘smart roads’, the individual transport of
the future may look more like a mobile, autopiloted living room or
office, flocking with others to form ‘road trains’.
Of course, by 2018, the internet will have a million times as many nodes
as the human brain, and it will have senses, courtesy of the cameras
and microphones and compasses and accelerometers built into our
cell-phones, not to mention the internet of things, all supported by
Hewlett-Packard’s ambitious CeNSE project to build a planet-wide
sensor network. This combination could perhaps result in artificial
intelligence by evolution rather than by explicit design. Finally, to really
push the boundaries of the high-tech, always-on, AI-autopilot
singularity world, consumerism could reach its apotheosis with the
wide-spread availability of home fabbing: the ability to print anything,
from furniture to food, at home.
Now, let’s move onto system limits, and cities that may be
foreshadowing the future path of other urban areas: the Fade future.
Patrick McIlheran, a Milwaukee journalist, recently asked the question,
how comprehensively wrecked is Detroit? This much: The city has finally
scraped up enough money to rip down 3,000 abandoned buildings this
summer. But that’s only a start, as Detroit has about 90,000
abandoned and vacant buildings. About 30% of the city's housing is
vacant. Neighborhoods with vacancy rates of only 20% are considered
stable. And not only are live people of all ethnicities now fleeing the
city, dead people are, too, as relatives disinter loved ones from city
cemeteries for reburial in some other place not so doomed.
The government is looking at expanding a pioneering scheme in Flint,
one of the poorest US cities, which involves razing entire districts and
returning the land to nature. Dan Kildee, a local civil servant, believes
the city must contract by as much as 40 per cent, concentrating the
dwindling population and local services into a more viable area.
Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election
campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US
government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he
has learnt to the rest of the country. Mr Kildee said he will concentrate
on 50 cities, mostly in the US ‘rust belt’, as potentially needing to shrink
substantially to cope with their declining fortunes: Detroit, Philadelphia,
Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Memphis, among others.
Creative and humorous suggestions as to how fading, sprawling middle
class suburbs might be re-envisioned and recycled to recreate
themselves economically and environmentally were offered by
designers in Inhabitat/Dwell’s ‘Re-Burbia’ design contest. Ideas
included using airships to create more coherent mass transit systems in
sprawling conurbations; building new housing above the roadways in
between the existing suburban fabric; recycling out-of-business ‘big
box’ stores into urban and suburban greenhouses; abolishing zoning
laws to create a community of entrepreneurs who transform inefficient
single-family dwellings and purely decorative landscape spaces into
intelligent home-based businesses; or transforming vacant
‘MacMansions’ at the edge of cities into Living Machines: micro
wetland ecosystems that purify water and support wetland wildlife.
And of course, even if we do nothing to recycle our decaying urban
environments, nature will happily do the job for us.
Which provides a nice bridge from coping with Fade to evolving
Sustain. I use the phrase ‘parsimonious cities’ because parsimony, a
design ethic and aesthetic that gets the maximum benefit from the
minimum input, is both an elegant and competitive attribute: it makes
good sense no matter what side of the global climate change debate
you follow. It is Nature’s own design aesthetic.
Sustain, as an image of the future for cities, is enjoying a boom in
adherents: eco-city initiatives, transition towns, metropolitan agriculture
research groups are connecting globally to discuss strategies. Some
involve a focus on designing ‘green’ homes, or recycling resources –
like this example of a shipping container apartment complex – to
address inequities in housing availability. Many attempt to incorporate
the idea of ‘ecosystem services’ – internalizing the economic value of
the support services the local ecosystem provides human communities.
But for just three assumption-busting changes, let us look briefly at
transformations in food production; in the blurring boundaries between
the urban and the rural; and in decentralized energy generation. Food
production may increasingly minimize both the soil and the water used,
as advocates of aeroponics – raising crops in nutrient mists – suggest.
Two MIT students created a design concept for a ‘food printer,’ and
PETA has offered a million-dollar ‘X-prize’ for the first team to develop
commercially successful in-vitro meat production.
Blur is a key concept for the future – ‘Transform’ suggested a blurring
between human and machine; ‘Sustain’ blurs boundaries between the
natural and built environments with ideas like ‘pooktre’, or
arborsculpture, of city amenities like playgrounds, and blurs boundaries
between the rural and the urban with ideas of vertical farming and
One of the greatest challenges we face is peak oil, and transforming
our energy infrastructure. It fascinates me that both innovators and
designers more and more are building the capacity for energy
generation – often at very micro scales indeed – into almost
everything: small-scale solar rechargers; piezo-electric floors and
surfaces that generate electricity via the pressure of movement; nickel-
sized nuclear batteries; audacious schemes for solar roadways and
railways; desalination innovations that simultaneously purify water and
generate electricity; and advances in renewable energy storage that
mimic photosynthesis and store solar and wind power as hydrogen.
Sustain is really a biomimetic future. Biomimicry is an emerging
scientific research paradigm that borrows from nature’s rules for
design: run on sunlight; use only the energy you need; fit form to
function; recycle everything; reward cooperation; bank on diversity;
demand local expertise; curb excess from within; and tap the power of
limits. Are these rules of the game for robust competitive strategies?
And to further challenge our assumptions about economic
competitiveness, economic models themselves are changing:
communities and regions are experimenting with their own local
currencies; investment is decentralising from the city to the crowd; and
community ownership schemes are eroding private property concepts
for some commodities. So in what economic paradigm are you
planning to compete?
Will your city be competitive in the future? – answer that by considering
how it might compete in any of these possible futures. Remember that
you can leverage some emerging patterns of transformation:
• printing everything;
• nets of everything;
• economies of grid;
• the home as a micro-state;
• and biomimicry and parsimony as design aesthetics.
How are you prepared to support a culture of creativity, challenge,
innovation, collaboration, and entrepreneurship across these shifting
And remember surprises: how would your city have fared had
Eyjafjallajokull set off Katla, its larger sister volcano, and both erupted
for two years straight? Consider the potential disruptions to global air
In conclusion: None of these images are predictions: they explore
possibilities emerging from innovations and design ideas in the present.
In the end, the future our actions create will be framed by how we
answer five basic questions:
• DEFINE: What new concepts, ideas, and paradigms will emerge
to help us make sense of the world?
• RELATE: How will we live together on planet Earth?
• CONNECT: What arts and technologies will we use to connect
people, places, and things?
• CREATE: As human beings what will we be inspired to create?
• CONSUME: How will we use the earth’s resources?
To answer, observe emerging change; explore its evolving implications,
and challenge your assumptions.