Future Outlook on Urban Competitiveness


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The narrative of my 22 June 2010 presentation to the Global Innovation Forum in Seoul, sponsored by the Korea Economic Daily. Please refer to PDF of slidedeck, above.

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Future Outlook on Urban Competitiveness

  1. 1. 1 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 usual.’ 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.
  2. 2. 2 A quick question, then, for you all to consider: what are YOUR current working assumptions about cities and urban regions, and what makes them competitive? 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.
  3. 3. 3 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 ‘Sustain’ future. 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
  4. 4. 4 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
  5. 5. 5 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 vertical ecologies. 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
  6. 6. 6 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; • blur; • 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 paradigms? 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 traffic. 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. Thank you.