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ETech 09: Urban Futures

Chris Luebkeman from Arup. One of the first presentations on Wednesday at ETech 09. It was an interesting presentation, and he was a great talker but… I still don’t know what the point of the presentation was. It all felt like an introduction to something that we never reached:

Practical City Magic

Designer Matt Jones, recently gave a presentation at the New Zealand conference Webstock called ‘The Demon Haunted World’. It’s a good read if you’re at all interested in “the rising urbanisation of the planet and the rapid digitalisation of that urban fabric”. The presentation covers three themes, to quote it:

Over at one of the Well’s public conference topics, Bruce Sterling is doing his annual discussion on the State of the World. It’s a long read — currently three very long tediously mono-spaced pages — but worth it if you have the time.

Challenging apartments


At Conceptual Trends and Current Topics Kevin Kelly discusses a Wall Street Journal article about pranksters such as Improv Everywhere.


Danny O’Brien has an interesting post about Seasteading — creating small autonomous states that can exist on platforms at sea, independent of existing governments.

The Pro-Am Revolution

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A couple of weeks ago UK think tank Demos published The Pro-Am Revolution: How enthusiasts are changing our economy and society, a report available for free as a 70 page PDF. As the blurb says:

Toffler on non-linear change

A good Alvin Toffler quote over at William Gibson's weblog:

Public fragrance ban

Banning smoking in public places is becoming more common, and in places where there is no ban it's a common topic of discussion. Drinking alcohol is banned in some public places. What's the next step in making cities more pleasant/bland (depending on your point of view)? Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada is discouraging the wearing of fragrances in public because the chemicals in them can make some people ill. A couple of places in California, USA have also banned fragrances in some situations. Will it become more common?

Life caching


has a piece on "life caching", poorly-naming the trend for collecting and displaying personal media items: blogging, photos from cameras, online photo albums, iPods. Matt "Brian Hacks" Webb disagrees that this is a trend, saying that we've always collected things and this current phase is just a temporary manifestation of the obsession.

Report on British census data


An Observer story on information gleaned from the British census shows growing polarisation between rich and poor segments of society, and a disintegration of "established forms of social cohesion - chiefly the family."

Long distance commuters

Saturday's Guardian had a story about commuters from London starting to commute from furthe afield -- in this case, Spain -- thanks to Europe's cheap flights. I found the story interesting for three reasons:

A long but interesting interview with economist Bernard Lietaer who discusses complementary currency systems around the world. Everything from being able to buy food with Air Miles to the Japanese time bank system of caring for the elderly. I've been aware of LETS schemes for years but Lietaer certainly makes it sound like non-monetary currencies are more widespread than I imagined. He also discusses the different "flavour" such currencies have and how they can help alter society for the better.

User innovation networks

Clay Shirky* links to an interesting paper by Eric von Hippel from last year describing a model for diffusion of innovations that doesn't rely on businesses. The open source software movement is his primary example of an arena in which innovations are developed, ideas are shared, and products are freely distributed, all at the user level. I then came across MIT's User Innovation website which links to a whole pile of fascinating-looking papers on all this Lead User kind of stuff.

Rem Koolhaas' future

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I finally got round to reading the June issue of Wired, a large chunk of which is edited by architect Rem Koolhaas. There are some interesting, but extremely short, articles about global trends, all shoehorned into the vague theme of "space."

Sim Mafia and other gaming news


This Mercury News article describes a mafia-like organisation emerging in one of the The Sims Online cities. Apparently, an attempt to create some order in the shape of a shadow government got out of hand and resulted in a rather less benevolent "family." I tried to find out more about this, but after a lot of digging I only turned up the website of Mia Wallace, the city's most popular character -- and capo di tutti capi -- referred to in the article. The only other online references to the affair appear to be dozens of weblogs linking to the Mercury News article.

An interesting paper about how Chinese DJs, musicians and music-lovers are using the internet to get hold of the latest music from around the world. Obviously, music-sharing is relatively old-hat to us but it's more interesting in the context of the Chinese authorities' attempts to control the population's access to foreign culture.

Customised billboards

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Some billboards in California, USA, are going to have the advertisements they display determined by the radio stations car drivers are listening to, according to this San Francisco Chronicle article. A device picks up signals from car radio aerials and works out how many people are listening to which stations. The video-screen billboards can then display adverts chosen to fit the consumer profile of the most popular station(s). If only this kind of ingenuity was put to good use.

Citizens plotting problems


The City Scan project uses hand-held computers, digital cameras and GPS to allow citizens to pinpoint instances of problems such as graffiti, holes in road, etc. This data is then used to generate reports and maps that officials can use to decide how best to tackle problems. It's currently on trial in Connecticut, USA, and sounds good, although the front page declaring it aims to "encourage citizens to behave as customers" seems odd to me -- is being a citizen not good enough? I also hope it's not too tied in to Microsoft's proprietary technology.

It reminds me of a scheme in the UK which is being expanded after successful trials (sorry I can't find a link to this anywhere, despite having read/seen it at least twice). Villagers are given hand-held speed cameras to get information on vehicles speeding through their villages. This information is passed on to the police who issue a warning to the drivers. Is it a good thing to be passing these tasks on to citizens? It seems to be working but something about it, which I can't quite put my finger on, feels wrong.

New words

I'm using some of the dead holiday time to catch up on emails, one of which included a link to Word Spy. It's like Wired magazine's Jargon Watch only including lengthy citations, background, and links to related words. Quite, quite fabulous. (Thanks Anthony.)

This is quite a fun site about population growth, and features this stunning graph of population growth over the past 10,000 years (via Seb's Open Research). No matter how many times I see graphs like that they still stop me in my tracks.

Ray Kurzweil on living longer

An interview with Ray Kurzweil on his plans to be cryogenically frozen and to put that off as long as possible by eating healthily. He has a book on the topic coming out. (via Boing Boing)

The Telegraph has a story about how "an American team has used a pioneering genetic method to help convict an American doctor of deliberately infecting his former girlfriend with Aids." The story grabs one's attention by suggesting people could be open to legal claims for passing common colds to others but later suggests this may be completely impractical in practice; these kinds of air-transmitted virii would be difficult to trace. Nevertheless, this does open up the possibility. If nothing else it could lead to people staying at home when ill, rather than heroically staggering to work. Or there could be insurance against such lawsuits, cold-prone people confined to relative isolation, masks and gloves worn to prevent germs travelling... (via Metafilter)

Flu as a wild card

I'm forever catching up on reading old Future Surveys and the June 2002 has a run of books on health issues, including Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections by Madeline Drexler (Amazon US and UK). The summary of this includes this paragraph:

Health insurance from eBay

I always thought it interesting that there are people who make their living selling things on eBay. Something about the Internet enabling a new kind of person-to-person commerce that was stable enough to provide people with a livelihood. Now, eBay are hoping to offer health insurance to their biggest sellers. It seems like the next step in a less-formalised economy, one in which relationships neglected by the disintegrating life-long-employer--employee relationship are fulfilled by other means. (via Plastic)

There's been a sharp rise in the number of Americans reporting "no religious preference" in the 1990s (up from 7% to 14% after decades of little change). Apparently this does not signal a doubling in the numbers of American athiests, however. The researchers claim the figures are due to more christians distancing themselves from the church, rather than people rejecting belief entirely. Even so, it's worth bearing in mind when current news is weighed down with religion-heavy stories.

DNA databanks without consent


The state government in South Carolina, USA, have been keeping DNA records of all babies since 1995 without the consent of parents. Some of this data has now been passed on to a genetics laboratory and the State Law Enforcement Division despite previous reassurances by state officials. There won't be much that's still private soon... (via Politech)

I love this, whether its statistics are meaningful or not. Players of Sony's online game EverQuest spend a lot of real world money on transactions such as selling game assets via eBay. Edward Castronova at Cal State Fullerton University, USA, has written a report on the value of this world, placing it somewhere around Bulgaria in the list of the world's rich list. (via FUTUREdition)

How to avoid CCTV cameras


The Institute for Applied Autononmy have developed a very pretty program that allows a user to identify a route between two points that will take them past as few CCTV cameras as possible. The data for the New York map is provided by the New York City Surveillance Camera Project which is just as interesting. Perhaps we'll see wider projects aimed at helping people avoid being monitored by public and private security bodies. (via Nettime)

A brief discussion of the potential effects on how building and city design might change following the destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorists. It would be interesting to read something more in depth on this (jump to the third and fourth pages for the looking ahead). (via Haddock)

A RAND report on the Net twenty years out, and particularly America's place within it: "American ideals, with modest refinements, would write the constitution of a global civil society, even as the American state itself would lose its primacy." (via Telecom-Cities)

Some are claiming that the concentration of gays in a city (or, more broadly perhaps, the level of acceptance of alternative cultures) could be a leading indicator of future economic booms. Cities with the highest concentrations of gays are currently experiencing tech booms. Tenuous, but possible. (via Telecom-Cities)

The future of English

A look at why our frequent assumptions about English becoming the world's common language may not be so certain.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Future

A series on BBC Radio 4 in the UK, hosted by Douglas Adams, looking at the futures of music, broadcasting, publishing and the effects of technology on society. (via Gorjuss)

Computerised bicycle loan schemes

Adshel, the street furniture company, is planning a system of bikes free for loan in Cardiff, UK, similar to a current system in Rennes, France. Each user has a card that identifies them when they check a bike out of one of the docking stations throughout the city. (via Gorjuss)

Community Mobility System

A report on Frog Design's system based around a golf-cart-sized electric car. Talks about neighbourhood hubs for delivery and collection of goods ordered online and links to a number of international car-sharing schemes.

Los Angeles is the future

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A look at the "L.A. School" of urban theorists who see Los Angeles as an alternative look at the future of urban development. Contrary to the usually cited course of events, the city is not de-industrialised, but re-industrialised and many of its suburban areas are in fact very densely populated. (via Arts & Letters Daily)

Worms' lifespan boosted by drugs

A team at the University of Manchester, UK, has boosted the lifespan of "microscopic worms" by 50% by using drugs. It's the first time any animal's life has been extended by the use of drugs.

No borders

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We often hear about the increasing mobility of populations, and the numbers of people on the move (refugees, immigrants, etc) is increasing. This Disinfo article talks about campaigners focussing on borders and the treatment of illegal immigrants. As ever, a big collection of links on the topic, such as Kein Mensch ist Illegal. Nettime also had some posts on the topic recently: A report from a camp on the Ukrainian-Slovakian-Polish border and details of a future event in Tijuana (and longer, in Spanish).

Progressive Insurance is offering drivers in Texas, USA, lower insurance costs if they allow their driving habits to be monitored by GPS. If the car is used less often, and at quieter times of the day, the monthly insurance bill can be lower. This is interesting not so much for the technology but the fact people are willing to allow their everyday movements to be tracked in exchange for saving money.

For the first time in its thirty year history the International Union Romani is demanding recognition for a non-territorial nation for the Roma people. Links in to the whole demise of the nation state concept. (via Haddock)

Life in 2020


A report from a Next Twenty Years discussion, with Paul Saffo and others imagining what technology will be like in 2020 and how society will cope. (via Matt Jones)

The Japanese government is planning to ban research into human cloning, with offenders possibly facing jail time. A spokesman for its science and technology agency said "Human cloning may pose a threat to the maintenance of social order, the foundation of which is the family."

The softening of opinions on drugs takes two big steps: Cleveland has become the first police force to suggest considering "the legalisation and regulation of some or all drugs" and a Police Federation report recommends that ecstasy should be downgraded and classed as a soft drug like cannabis.

1999 saw a large increase in the use of industrial robots around the world. The increase is attributed to the decreased cost of robots (40 per cent cheaper than 1990), and higher labour costs and labour shortages in the developed world. Significant automation of sectors other than the car industry (which was a major driver of the current increase) is expected. (via Moreover)

Perhaps an oversimplistic comparison of the state of the Internet in the world's largest countries, but interesting nonetheless. The Chinese government has closed 127 Internet cafes in Shanghai, in the same week the Delhi government launches its first cybercafe, undercutting the prices of local private enterprises. (via Moreover)

Nearly one third of 20-35 year old males in the UK are living with their parents, up from 25% in 1977/8. The later age of marriage and difficulties in entering the housing market are possible reasons. The article, citing a Social Trends survey, also mentions 62% of schools are online, up from 17% in 1999.

Man sees with artificial eye

A 62 year old blind man can see 100 specks of light thanks to a device wired into his skull - enough vision to allow him to walk around and identify simple objects. He had the device implanted in 1978 and scientists at the Dobelle Institute in New York, USA, have been improving the software ever since. (via Haddock)

UK building societies converting to banks tend to close branches in the poorest areas. This leaves many people without access to financial services and other businesses often begin to leave the area. People "become social lepers excluded from mainstream society."

Shirt monitors vital signs

Lifeshirt plan on selling a shirt in September 2000 which monitors the wearer's vital signs and sends the data to a secure website. This can then be sent to the wearer's doctor. $250 for the shirt, $30 per day for monitoring costs. (via Slashdot)

More than 16 million have died from Aids-related illnesses, with 2.6 million (a record) in the past year. "Life expectancy in southern Africa is expected to fall from 59 in the early 1990s to 45 between 2005 and 2010." "The number of infected people [in Russia] rose by more than a third in 1999 to reach an estimated 360,000." 25 million people died of the Black Death in the 14th century, admittedly out of a far smaller total.

Call centres boom

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In the UK "call centres employ over 400,000 people, a figure predicted to rise to over a million by 2004."

The middle classes delaying childbearing until later in life will be able to provide very well for their kids, while children born to younger, poorer mothers will be far worse off. The increasing amount of elderly will drain resources from paediatric care.

Homeless going online

The homeless are taking advantage of Net connections in libraries and special cybercafes set up for them. Free email, classifieds, resum

Computer schools for Rio's poor

In 1995 Rodrigo Baggio started a computer school in a Rio de Janeiro favela with computers donated from C&A. Now his Committee to Democratise Information Technology has set up 107 schools in 13 states. A school was set up in Rio's maximum security prison where "demand was so great that the 25% illiteracy rate disappeared over the year as inmates prepared to do the course."

Longer life through a missing gene

A team at the European Institute of Oncology in Milan have found that mice live up to a third longer if they're missing a certain gene. "It's really the first time that anybody has intervened to extend the lifespan of a mammal without extracting some cost." Results are only confirmed on one strain of mouse.

Legoland in space

The creators of the UK's Legoland are working on a project to build a hotel in space and expect to have it running by 2017. It will be built mostly of scavenged orbiting rubbish, will offer spacewalking excursions to the moon and will cost a lot.

Service industry robots

A look at how robots will become more common outside factories over the next 10+ years, in industries like meat packing (second highest accident rate after construction), shops, households.

17 million people depressed in US

Depression is the country's most common mental health problem.

Iowa, USA, to test Internet voting

Iowa is
testing voting over the Internet alongside its conventional election. Voters receive a unique ID number to enter, and their vote is encrypted and "read anonymously" at a computer clearinghouse. Washington and Virginia have already conducted successful and secure tests and California has commissioned a large study. The article mentions plenty of concerns about the possibilities of lack of technological access disenfranchising people.

A new estate in Hertfordshire, UK, will be "smart homes", with operations like adjusting heating, lights, alarm from any Net connection. Webcams point outside the house and videoconferencing facilities are built in. Being able to switch on the coffee machine in the kitchen from the bedroom is cited as a great benefit. The houses have all been sold, some before completion.

British life in 2010

Generally unremarkable report on a report about Britain in 2010: Continuing wealth divide, ageing population, end of youth culture dominance, less childhood, virtual offices and education.

Thin, flexible computers and displays

A Cornell University group is working on flexible, thin computers: a layer of polymer-based transistors bonded to a sheet of silicon. Effectively a computer and its screen in a single sheet, "as large as meters on a side." The article seems to think this makes them "disposable." The difficulty, and what their research grant is for, is bonding the polymer and silicon layers together.

UN says robots will be as common as PCs

Report on a survey by UN Economic Commission for Europe (co-authored by the International Federation of Robotics) which expects domestic robots to be taken up by the wealthy, to be integrated into their fully wired homes.

Report on a United Nations Population Fund report saying the world's population will be about 8.9 billion in 2050. This is down from an earlier prediction of 9.4 billion; a third of this gap is due to HIV/Aids which is spreading faster than expected. "In Botswana, where one of every four adults is infected, life expectancy has fallen from 61 years in the late 1980s to 47 today, and is expected to plunge to 38 by 2005-2010. Nevertheless, the population is still expected to nearly double by 2050." "Of the 4.8 bn people in developing countries, nearly three-fifths lack basic sanitation. Almost a third have no access to clean water."

Withered brain cells restored to health

Researchers at University of California, San Diego managed to revive cells in monkey brains which had previously been thought dead due to age, using gene therapy. Although the cells appeared to be physically back to almost normal, they haven't tested to see if they actually work yet.

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