What will be the first “city of the future”?

Multiple efforts are underway around the globe to construct new kinds of cities. Here is an overview of some of this work:

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Telosa is set to be built on 150,000 acres in either Nevada, Utah or Arizona, and 50,000 “diverse” people will call it home by 2030, according to newly released details from Lore — a serial entrepreneur who sold Jet.com to Walmart for $3.3 billion and the parent company of Diapers.com to Amazon for $545 million.

“We’re not just building a new city — this is a new model for society,” Lore said at a Telosa “town hall meeting” in July, adding that he wants his new city to be “sustainable and equitable to all.”

It’ll be governed by a principle he calls “equitism,” which seems to be a mashup of democracy, capitalism and socialism…

Floating City in the Maldives is envisioned as a large cluster of hexagonal structures that rise and fall with the sea, with room for up to 20,000 people. It’s set to be completed in 2027

Toyota Woven City is a company town being built in the foothills of Japan’s Mount Fuji. The proposal calls for a 2,000-person city where Toyota “will test autonomous vehicles, smart technology and robot-assisted living,” per CNN.

Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is a “master-planned eco-complex designed to show off the UAE’s commitment to sustainability,” Bloomberg has reported.

Net City in Shenzhen, China, is another company town being built by tech giant Tencent. It’ll be a Monaco-size metropolis for 80,000 workers, CNN reports.

Several other projects are briefly mentioned in the article. Across all of these proposed communities, there are several patterns:

  1. Created by the ultra-wealthy or corporations.
  2. Incorporating sustainability or new technology.
  3. A limited population.

It strikes me that we now have a good sense of what megacities are around the world: they have a certain population and share common traits regarding land use, economics, and social life. Such cities are relatively new in human history but now they are common. So then what exactly needs to be different for a new community to be a futuristic city? A different aesthetic? No cars or limited cars? Much greener? Smaller in scale? Different social arrangements?

Thinking about probabilistic futures

When looking to predict the future, one historian of science suggests we need to think probabilistically:

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The central message sent from the history of the future is that it’s not helpful to think about “the Future.” A much more productive strategy is to think about futures; rather than “prediction,” it pays to think probabilistically about a range of potential outcomes and evaluate them against a range of different sources. Technology has a significant role to play here, but it’s critical to bear in mind the lessons from World3 and Limits to Growth about the impact that assumptions have on eventual outcomes. The danger is that modern predictions with an AI imprint are considered more scientific, and hence more likely to be accurate, than those produced by older systems of divination. But the assumptions underpinning the algorithms that forecast criminal activity, or identify potential customer disloyalty, often reflect the expectations of their coders in much the same way as earlier methods of prediction did.

Social scientists have long hoped to contribute to accurate predictions. We want to both better understand what is happening now as well as provide insights into what will come after.

The idea of thinking probabilistically is a key part of the Statistics course I teach each fall semester. We can easily fall into using language that suggests we “prove” things or relationships. This implies certainty and we often think science leads to certainty, laws, and cause and effect. However, when using statistics we are usually making estimates about the population from the samples and information we have in front of us. Instead of “proving” things, we can speak to the likelihood of something happening or the degree to which one variable affects another. Our certainty of these relationships or outcomes might be higher or lower, depending on the information we are working with.

All of this relates to predictions. We can work to improve our current models to better understand current or past conditions but the future involves changes that are harder to know. Like inferential statistics, making predictions involves using certain information we have now to come to conclusions.

The idea of thinking both (1) probabilistically and (2) plural futures can help us understand our limitations in considering the future. In regards to probabilities, we can higher or lower likelihoods regarding our predictions of what will happen. In thinking of plural futures, we can work with multiple options or pathways that may occur. All of this should be accompanied by humility and creativity as it is difficult to predict the future, even with great information today.

How Census questions muddle race and ethnicity for Latinos

Sociologist Richard Alba explains how the Census does not accurately capture racial and ethnic change:

Sticking with the two-question format means that the great majority of young people with mixed Hispanic and white origins will be categorized only as Hispanic — and therefore as “nonwhite,” in census terminology. This classification will often contradict how they perceive and experience their identity, and how they’re treated by the world around them.

And it is sociological nonsense. A growing body of data reveals that individuals from mixed families look more like whites than they do like minorities — except for those who are partly black. The exception demonstrates, it should be emphasized, the persistent and severe racism that confronts Americans with visible African heritage.

 

And these measurements then affect projections for the future as well as political reactions:

And classifying those from mixed Hispanic and white families as “nonwhites” results in Census Bureau population projections of a majority-minority society by the mid-2040s. But such projections are grossly misleading because of the binary thinking that undergirds them and the misclassification of individuals who are partly white and partly minority…

In the 2016 presidential election, according to research Michael Tesler has reported here at The Monkey Cage, President Trump appears to have gained many votes from whites because of their anxiety about a rapidly changing society that would soon leave them as part of a minority.

At the least, we should keep in mind that racial and ethnic definitions can and do change over time due to a variety of factors: understandings within particular groups (self-understanding), understandings from other groups in society (pressures from the outside, particularly dominant groups), and how race and ethnicity are measured.

This could also raise questions about forecasts for the future of society – especially decades out. On one hand, we want to be able to prepare for changes and trends. On the other hand, demographic trends and shifts in behaviors and attitudes are not set in stone. Both researchers and leaders need to be flexible – or in terms of one of the current buzzwords, resilient  – enough to adapt.

Black Mirror portrays a future in sleek, modernist structures

In watching episodes of Black Mirror, I noticed a pattern in the buildings and streetscapes depicted on the show: they are often modernist. There could be multiple factors behind this:

  1. This is how Western society often portrays the future: in contemporary structures comprised of glass and steel and with sharp lines and minimalist decor. This trend goes back decades with modernist architects and culture producers from the early 1900s to today exercising a significant influence on what we think the future should look like.
  2. This particular vision of a future in modernist buildings also allows the show to hint at the problems with future technologies. While everything may look impressive, these modernist spaces can be perceived as cold and unwelcoming. When discussing the show’s title, creator Charlie Brooker said, “The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
  3. Many of the episodes are set in England. Perhaps the architecture there is indeed different than what is found in many American locales. Perhaps local residents and organizations are more open to modernist architecture. I’ve argued several times before in this blog – here is one example – that average Americans tend not to like modernist architecture for their own dwellings.
  4. The plot lines for the episodes tend to involve futuristic technology created by tech companies. Tech companies in modernist buildings seems to make sense. The campuses of Silicon Valley, such as the new Apple headquarters, as well as their retail locations, such as the new Apple store on the riverfront in Chicago, reflect these design choices.

Could you have a show about futuristic technology that takes place in older homes and buildings? Would this seem too anachronistic? For better or worse, much of the near future (think at least the next few decades) will take place in structures built decades before the Internet, smartphones, and driverless vehicles. Indeed, some people may want to live and work in these older structures because of their character and history even as they also enthusiastically embrace the modernist dictates of new technologies to be thin, sleek, and modernist.

Using Chicago skyscrapers as inspirations for spaceships

“Jupiter Ascending” may not be very good but some of the spaceships are based on Chicago architecture:

When Hull came to Chicago, the Wachowskis began peppering him with reference photographs of Chicago buildings, facades, landmarks, ornamental detail and infrastructure. “Of all the directors I have worked with, they are by far the most architecture-minded,” he said. “They wanted a very decorative vision for the ships, almost Louis XIV-like in places, existing alongside this other aesthetic, far more gothic and less feminine.”

Indeed, the Wachowskis, who started a small construction company and worked as carpenters before becoming filmmakers, wanted the two warring ships at the center of “Jupiter Ascending” to somewhat reflect Chicago itself. “I like how the great curling femininity of the Frank Gehry (Pritzker Pavilion) is juxtaposed against the weight of those harsh, more severe buildings on Michigan Avenue,” Lana said. “I liked that tension in Chicago, that something as elegant as a big river can curl through so many grandiose statements. When we were looking at the design of the ships, we kept exploring this, placing almost baroque, exuberant levels of detail on one end, while on the other, contrasting a rigorous, rational logic.”…

“But also I really love the top of the Carbide & Carbon Building (on Michigan Avenue),” Lana said. So its lighthouse peak informs the back of Titus’ ship, while the front is, well, a play on the flying buttresses that shape the top of the Tribune Tower. “But I often wasn’t flamboyant enough for the Wachowskis,” Hull said. So the gold-green design along the facade of the Carbide building is mirrored on the outside of the ship. And inside: The ceiling of the ship’s loading dock is reminiscent of the dense mosaics in the Chicago Cultural Center ceilings; the long, vaulted chapel is vaguely similar to the reading room of the Newberry Library. “Which was a sanctuary for me as a kid,” Lana said, “where I went when I cut school.”

Balem, played by Eddie Redmayne, is the imperialist, the severe, ominous bully. His ship, therefore, is gothic, less curvaceous than Titus’ ride. The front end, its T-shaped bow, has some inspiration in the terra-cotta faces that watch from the facade of the old Tree Studios building on Ontario Street. And there are hints of the former Midway Gardens entertainment venue in Hyde Park, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (torn down in 1929). “His ship is more of a towering, hard-looking, Albert Speer-ish brutalism,” Hull said, “but it would be too on the nose for his designs to just reflect that, to not suggest Balem wouldn’t want some ornamental embellishment to his world.” So, his boardroom has touches of the latticework beneath the Loop “L” tracks.

An interesting source of inspiration for objects – spaceships – that we might typically think are otherwordly or something completely different. Additionally, buildings are pretty static, even if they are involved in dynamic social settings, while spaceships have incredible mobility. But, as noted in this earlier post about The Hunger Games, it is difficult to make something completely new. Human creativity rarely involves completely innovative ideas that have never been expressed before but rather often involves taking existing forms and objects and doing new things with the mix. So, in trying to imagine the future, why not draw some on the past while also adding potential changes?

This is also a reminder that Chicago architecture is influential. If we do get to an age of large spacecraft, would Chicago still be a major inspiration? Could we have competing fleets based on different global cities?

Teaching student tech designers to treat users more humanely

Here are a few college classes intended to help future tech designers keep the well-being of users in mind:

The class, which she taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and the MIT Media Lab, attempted to teach a sense of responsibility to technology inventors through science fiction, a genre in which writers have been thinking deeply about the impact of today’s technologies for decades. “It encourages people to have that long-term version that I think is missing in the world of innovation right now,” she says, “What happens when your idea scales to millions of people? What happens when people are using your product hundreds of times a day? I think the people who are developing new technologies need to be thinking about that.”

Students in Brueckner’s class built functional prototypes of technologies depicted by science fiction texts. One group created a “sensory fiction” book and wearable gadget that, in addition to adding lights and sounds to a story, constricts the body through air pressure bags, changing temperature and vibrating “to influence the heart” depending on how the narrative’s protagonist feels. Another group was inspired by a dating technology in Dave Eggers’s The Circle that uses information scraped from the Internet about a date to give suggestions about how to impress him or her. They created an interactive website about a friend using his public information to see how he would react to the idea. A third group imagined how a material that could transition from liquid to solid on command like the killing material “ice-nine” from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle could be used as a prototyping tool…

Neema Moraveji, the founding director of Standford’s Calming Technology Lab and a cofounder of breath-tracking company Spire, has a different approach for teaching students to consider the human impact of what they are designing. His classes teach students to create technology that actively promotes a calm or focused state of mind, and he co-authored a paper that laid out several suggestions for technology designers, including:

  • Letting users control or temporarily disable interruptions, the way that TweetDeck allows users to control from whom to receive notifications on Twitter.
  • Avoiding overload through the number of features available and the way information is presented. For instance, a Twitter app that opens to the least-recent tweet, “gives users the sense that they must read through all the tweets before they are done.”
  • Using a human tone or humor
  • Providing positive feedback such as “Thanks for filling out the form” and “You successfully updated the application” in addition to error alerts
  • Including easy ways to interact socially, such as Likes and Retweets, which allow people to interact without worrying about how they appear to others.
  • Avoiding time pressure when not necessary.
  • Incorporating natural elements like “soothing error tones, naturalistic animations, and desktop wallpapers taken from the natural world.”

These sound like interesting ideas that may just help designers think not just about the end goals of a product but also consider the user experience. Yet, I still wonder about the ability of tech designers to resist the pressure their employers might put on them. For example, putting these more humane options into practice could be easier when working for your own startup but would be more difficult if a big corporation is breathing down your neck to push the bottom line or end product. Think the Milgram experiment: can individual designers follow the ethical path? Perhaps some of this training also needs to happen at the executive and managerial levels so that the emphasis on protecting the user is pervasive throughout organizations.

Sociologist: China to have the most Christians in the world by 2030

In another indicator of the shift of Christianity from the West, one sociologist predicts China will be home to the largest number of Christians by 2030:

“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule…China’s Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken those of countries more commonly associated with an evangelical boom. In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.

By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.

This could lead to a lot of change in China – and change in the United States where many Christians see China as a less-than-Christian country as well as consider their own country to be a (the?) leading Christian nation. Of course, there is some time before this prediction can be assessed and a lot could happen between now and then…

Portraying a broken-down Chicago in Divergent

The new movie Divergent takes place in a dystopian Chicago:

And instead of a vibrant, healthy metropolis of canals and glass towers downtown, the Lake Shore Drive bridge at the Chicago River has collapsed; a few skyscrapers have fallen into jumbles of stones; a few are heavily damaged, the outcome of some unnamed catastrophe; and many more stand dormant and dark. There don’t seem to be any cars, and there don’t seem to be any people. A little water remains in the main branch of the river but not that much. And everywhere, vegetation runs riot…

Throughout the spring and summer last year, while the movie crew of “Divergent” shot around Chicago, production designer Andy Nicholson, who had recently finished work on the technologically innovative “Gravity,” often found himself driving through potholes. Every day he drove to the set, he said, and every day he would notice “a lot of Chicago roads needed resurfacing or seemed about to be resurfaced or were in the middle of resurfacing. You saw a lot of neglect in Chicago.” And when the crew ventured into old steel yards on the South Side, Nicholson noticed overgrowth not unlike what he pictured for Michigan Avenue in the film…

Said Haller: “They wanted to know what Chicago would look like 20 years in the future so they could then show its decline from there out. I told them: More tall buildings. And we don’t envision any new districts, but probably more expansion west. And we’re sort of slaves to transportation systems, so everything would continue to converge on the Loop.” He also told them about the city’s flood-fighting Deep Tunnel Project (in the film, one of the factions is headquartered in a network of massive underground tunnels). “I didn’t mean to sound optimistic,” Haller said, “but, barring ecological collapse, our dystopian possibilities are mitigated.”…

Despite seemingly intractable problems that would suggest it is a perfect 21st-century dystopian setting — perpetually heavy-handed government, gun violence, profound inequality — Chicago is, in fact, such a prosperous place that it’s likely new installments of “Divergent” will not film here. (The sequel, “Insurgent,” will shoot in Atlanta, and it is unclear what Chicago’s role will be.) The city is too expensive. Said Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office: “Filmmakers understand it’s a thriving place, which makes it difficult to push everything aside to film. Chicago can read, in places, as a city in decline. Yet, sitting next door, you’re also looking at some of the highest-priced real estate in the country.”

Predicting what cities of the future will look like is difficult for many films, whether projecting American cities will look more like Chinese cities in Her or creating all new cities in The Hunger Games. It sounds like the plan for Divergent was to try to “naturally” project what a decaying Chicago might look like in a few decades. It is interesting how they looked for inspiration to some of the older industrial area of Chicago, places that once housed more businesses and people but were left behind by a shift away from manufacturing. All major American cities likely have some areas that are like this, not all that far away from the glittering downtowns where business and political leaders try to funnel tourists and businesses. In fact, this is one of the more fascinating features of modern cities (since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution): there are parts humming with culture, business activity, and sparkling features of modern life and then there are places that literally seem of a different decade or century.

At the same time, the presence of potholes in the midst of one of the worst winters on record doesn’t necessarily foretell a dystopia in the near future…

Baseball stadiums of the future to be more integrated with surrounding cities?

Urban baseball stadiums became all the rage after the early 1990s (the new Comiskey Park in Chicago was the last of the old models) but one projection regarding baseball stadiums of the future suggests they will be even more integrated into the surrounding cityscape:

Looking forward, there’s no need for the high-arching concrete and steel that separate today’s stadiums from the city around them. Mirakian anticipates “transformative stadiums that will really build a community.” The glass structures horseshoed around Living Park, for example, aren’t just premium seating, but also serve to combine the city and stadium. A street front on one side that hosts everything from offices and apartments to retail and restaurants turns into a stadium portal on the backside, offering stellar views onto the field. Instead of rising out of the city, the stadium sinks into it.

Trending data suggested increased urban densification, giving Mirakian the idea to create a linear park environment that allows the building to play as the central theme—a place activated during a game, but where the community can gather at any time, during either the season or offseason. In this case, the building itself is defined by the edges of the city, acting as a window into the building on game days. There’s no need for fanciful facades, as the stadium instead flows with the park and city…

You’ll still find a traditional seating bowl tucked below premium glass-enclosed spaces, but with the future of team revenue not as reliant on gate receipts, designers can offer new types of space. A city park overlooks rightfield—a riff on Fenway Park’s famed Green Monster, but this time with a green roof—and an enlarged berm beyond leftfield gives the stadium community-inspired life and public accessibility 365 days a year…

Getting to urban sites often proves tricky, so Populous brought the public transit line straight through Living Park, giving transit users a free look at one of the most stunning views in the city. Mirakian called it a “pretty distinct” element of the design.

Sounds like the goal is to make the stadium more of a lifestyle center than just a place where baseball games are played 81 home dates a year. This may require owners to open their park up more to the community and other events, which should appeal to them in the long run because there is an opportunity to generate more revenue from other events. Think of recent efforts to have football games, rock concerts, and hockey games in baseball stadiums. (The owners of the Chicago Cubs have followed this plan in recent years with Wrigley Field.)

While this kind of park sounds appealing, another aspect of the experience is not addressed in the article: what are the costs for all of this? Can the average fan easily attend a game at this new stadium? Some of the new features may make attendance cheaper – we attended a game a few years ago at Petco Park in San Diego and they had a good number of cheaper tickets in their outfield lawn area. Yet, if the Padres were a better team, those prices might be a lot higher. Additionally, in bigger cities with more ticket demand, prices are higher: the cheapest seats at a summer premium game at Wrigley Field start at $25 (more like $34 when you factor in all the fees and taxes).

Note: although it looks less sexy than the Populous projection, the Lansing Lugnuts, a Class A team, are trying to bring in more residents into the ballpark itself:

The Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts and the city that owns their ballpark want to take a page from Wrigley’s book and construct perhaps 100 apartments literally inside of the stadium. By way of a $22 million project split down the middle with public and private funds, the Midwest League’s Class A club for the Toronto Blue Jays and the city seek to expand and upgrade Cooley Law School Stadium in downtown Lansing, the state capital.

The plan, called the “Outfield,” would be part of a bigger plan to upgrade parts of downtown as a whole. It’s a similar concept to what Fort Wayne, Ind. has done with its pro team, the Tincaps, and the Harrison Apartments beyond the left field fence.

I wonder how much of a premium such apartments inside, or very near, a minor league baseball stadium in the Rust Belt can command.

Monorails as a vision of the future

“What I’d say?” “Monorail!” “What’s it called?” “Monorail!” “That’s right – monorail!” I was reminded of this classic parody of The Music Man when I ran into this brief review of a new book looking back at Seattle’s attempt to build a monorail:

“Rise Above It All” by Dick Falkenbury (Falkenbury Enterprises, $14.36). The Seattle resident writes about his effort to establish a 40-mile monorail system. He describes it as a cautionary tale about “a city that once led the way.”

Read an overview of the Seattle Monorail Project here.

While all of this seems quaint – as does the monorail that takes you from the Disney World parking lot to the front gates of the Magic Kingdom – it is always interesting to consider what people in the past thought the future would be like. A quiet and elevated form of mass transit was an exciting possibility in the post-World War II era. Or perhaps we should have flying cars by now (everyone seems to remember this idea) or life should look like that of The Jetsons. But, what do we now think about the future that will look similar absurd in a few decades? The key to these follies doesn’t seem to be whether the technology is possible but whether it is worthwhile to put the new technology into widespread use. Monorails are not that difficult to build but aren’t necessarily much better than other forms of transportation. Flying cars are doable but can they be practical? It might be Google Glass or space elevators or driverless cars.