Future, here we come! Towards Eutopia!

Get your tools and prepare to embrace the challenges ahead of us — for a neo-homo-urbanus

Credit crunch, climate change, deforestation, haphazard urbanisation, environmental migration; the gap between rich and poor, between north and south, between generations; the digital divide and societal transformation. Enough food for science fiction doomsday scenarios, but the future is already here. With all these uncertainties ahead of us, many questions arise: how will we tackle challenges which range from climate change to failed economy? Will we be able to adapt to all these changes? Will we find the right tools for a future that is still unknown? Are we in the middle of a transformation?

Mankind has made huge progress in combating disease and prolonging life expectancy. We are fighting illiteracy, we can go to space, but we cannot agree on what to do with our nuclear waste. We discovered we could do amazing things using oil, but started digging our graves with that. We created an amazing thing called the internet, giving access to information and sharing our knowledge, but instead of making the world a more democratic place, we created a digital divide between those who have access and those who don’t. A few big companies govern the internet, joining authoritarian regimes on deciding what citizens are able to do. Science and Technology are our biggest source of hope in these times of climate change and economic failures. But how — and this is the most challenging part — can we make the change in ourselves that we wish to see in the world? Is it the right time to change our hedonistic lifestyles towards a new altruism, to care more about others, to care less about profit maximization? Naomi Klein was hardly the first to point out that capitalism is not a good companion. New role models and alternatives for economic greed have to be developed.

Shared economy is about abundance instead of greed

The good news is that more and more people feel the same frustration and discomfort about the past century’s economic and ecologic downward spiral. While the old economic system created values based on scarcity and thus satisfied human greed, a new economic model is appearing: the shared economy. According to Ariane Conrad, co-writer of the bestseller The Green Collar Economy, it is created around abundance: there is enough wealth for everyone, it just hasn’t been distributed equally. Initiatives like car-sharing and crowd-harvesting in common agricultural fields reward the better part of human nature. Conrad explains that more and more people are expressing their willingness to be part of a solution like, “the sharing universe”. Open government and citizen participation is being implemented widely. Seoul, for instance, has become the first city worldwide to be called a sharing city. “The Mayor of Seoul erected a big ear in a square in Seoul into which people could speak their messages”, Ariane retells, “These would then be directly broadcast to the mayor’s town hall — like a landline to the mayor.”

For her upcoming book The Care Shift, which she is co-writing with human-rights activist Ai-Jen Poo, Ariane spoke to social entrepreneurs about the ethical and economic aspects of caregiving work. “The current economic and financial crisis makes it very clear that the system that we have is not sustainable, and thus it is the right time for us to change the ways we do business and build them in a new way.” Conrad explains, ”A new model of business has to be created, a social enterprise. A social entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily forsake making money, but social entrepreneurship is the process of pursuing suitable solutions to social problems, creating and sustaining social value. Where business entrepreneurs typically measure performance in profit and return, social entrepreneurs take into account a positive return to society, fostering broad social, cultural, and environmental goals.”

Green thinking and the economics of sharing have resulted in new species: changemakers and social entrepreneurs

One of the major players dedicated to social change is the Ashoka Foundation. Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi banker, who won the Nobel peace prize for his work on the micro-credit system was an Ashoka fellow. Since its founding in 1981, the Ashoka Foundation has been dedicated to changemakers and social entrepreneurs, and creates a strong network between them and political institutions.

Brando Crespi, a former serial entrepreneur and creator of wealth with the launch of Rodeo Drive, now calls himself a serial Eco-preneur. The founder of two NGOs created the first Sustainable Luxury event 1.618, and is now dedicated to philanthropism.

In an interview with Jpeople, Brando Crespi explains: “We are losing half the bee colonies in the west due to our ruthless former agricultural production methods. The potential damage is in billions- no fruits, no vegetables, nothing! We are going to have to shift our economic systems and the way we measure our own well-being — you cannot consume air, water, land and not put a price on it.”

Brando, who recently explored ethnobotany and authored the “Geostrategic implications of Global Warming” for the Italian think tank, “Nomisma” thinks that, “we are in the middle of an enormous shift; we know now the system that we are in doesn’t really work. We just haven’t come up with an alternative that is attractive enough.” He agrees with Ariane Conrad when he claims that “we need new ethics of shared prosperity, where the focus is not going to be on denial, sufferance and pain. But the good news is: going green doesn’t mean suffering anymore — it means sustainability!”

With his sustainable luxury brand 1.618 he wants to change the behaviour of consumption. “At the individual level there has to be an awareness that consumer choices are political choices, that by no longer buying cheap stuff you will stop fostering mindless industrial processes and exploitation in manufacturing countries.” Surprisingly, he also blames the fashion industry as a whole, including luxury fashion brands, for manufacturing in countries where exploitation and cutting costs is a daily bread.

Regain your time!

This is easier said than done for most. Brando, himself a count says, “Wellness and happiness are not connected to the amount of money we make. Of course, we need money to survive but we can also take care of the basic needs we have by sharing housing or co-housing; we can grow food on our rooftops or in communal gardens; we have enormous power on an individual level through conscious choice.” He advises what some of us have already discovered but haven’t fully realised, “Regain your time, don’t rent it out to corporations for very little money and security. We have to realise that we have a lot of choice and freedom, and we have to apply them to the way we use time and money.The good news is that you can really change your living environment and your own pursuit of happiness.”

A whole new generation is already pursuing another path of life. They search for a different lifestyle than the former generation and look for a model based on justice, participation and equality; A model that furthers a sustainable lifestyle in an ecological and economic balance.Some of them become catalysts in exploring new socio-cultural trends. Often they become social entrepreneurs. People who want a different kind of world with an economic mindset that fosters sharing and contribution to society, reviving and fostering social change, searching for solutions to societal or environmental problems, and instead of relying on grants or donors develop an appropriate business model in order to gain financial independence and sustainability. Social entrepreneurs are often inspired by grassroot movements.

One of these is fighting for human rights. The Irrepressible Voices platform, a social startup based in Berlin, is developing a community platform to which anyone can upload videos about human rights issues and crowdsource proposals for solutions. This is funded by media and other companies who foster social change. Public funding is also important in sustaining the hybrid model. “We want to empower people with our platform. They can decide from the bottom up what they want to talk about” says Linda Walter, “but they do not only want to raise awareness of issues, they also want to foster social change.“ Linda works on Irrepressible Voices with a team of journalists, documentary filmmakers and social scientists. “People can connect to each other in a secure way on our platform. They can propose solutions, and we then connect them with appropriate partners and NGOs to implement them. These crowd-sourced solution proposals are participatory and democratic, and give people the opportunity to address their issues” explains Linda. “A recent study of the UN shows, more people have access to mobile phones than clean toilets”says social scientist and internet expert Stephen Hedley, who is also part of the team. “The video is therefore the medium of the social media age, allowing us to discover stories from all over the globe and is thus perfect for enabling change.”

Changify.org is another social enterprise which uses a bottom-up approach. Social interaction designer Priya Prakash, formally responsible for smooth interaction on Nokia’s mobile devices, created Changify.org as a platform to design a better neighbourhood. Her motto is ‘using design for social change’.

The idea is simple. To change something like a pot hole in your street, a neglected park full of rubbish, or a malfunctioning urban plan, which results in betting shops opposite cash loan shops in poor neighbourhoods, one can enter the website and easily start a campaign. “After spotting it you can share the issue and thus raise awareness” Priya explains. The platform has already counted several successful missions, from installing bike stands to constructing cycle paths. “It engages the local neighbourhood to create something together, to solve a problem and look for a solution themselves in areas where the state is failing” Priya says. The solutions are backed up by local businesses who help to raise the money needed. Small changes made on a local level can help form the perfect city of the future.

So how will the cities of the future look?

“A city has to be generous and heterogeneous!” declares Sebastian Schlüter. “What we need to understand is that increasing diversity in the cities is a great opportunity. Thoughtful urban planning which involves and engages local communities is the key to a successful city.” Schlüter, a geographer and urban researcher, is writing his doctoral thesis about the role of religions in an urban environment. He is also co-founder of a magazine about contemporary urban phenomena called Stadtaspekte. “Cities of the future will become even more complex and more diverse. We have to learn how to handle demographic constriction and how to benefit from diversity, especially in religious and ethnic terms.” Opines Schlüter. Within the concept of the city, an important factor will be to leave enough room for social innovations.

So, can technology inspire not only artists and scientists but also generally help improve life and thus create a more sustainable lifestyle? “Future technologies will set the stage for a resource-efficient lifestyle. What is needed are technological innovations to establish cities on the most sustainable possible grounds. But this is only possible with an open, democratic and responsible urban policy that understands the city in multiple dimensions. Hence, we need the right incentives.”

However, urban planning can be the fruit of a confused and business-minded concept.

The “G-word” gentrification, often associated with, so-called, creative cities like London, Berlin, Toronto or New York, is not far away when you think of urban design or urban planning.

Gentrification was a term coined by Ruth Glass in 1964 to describe the displacement of a working-class urban population by the middle class. Even the TV series Mad Men has touched on this theme, with its depiction of middle-class whites “returning to the city” as a part of their rejection of their parents’ suburbanism in favour for the excitement of urban life.

This argument still echoes. Recently Guardian editor Matt Bolton asked whether art is the driving force behind gentrification and, to some extent, to blame. He writes, “The opprobrium hurled at anyone who could be called a “hipster” indicates a belief that it is the choices made in consumption by such reprobates: vintage clothing, expensive coffee and a questionable taste in music — that is the driving force behind the spatial transformation of cities.”

However that may be, art is not to blame for gentrification. It is possibly more attributable to the man who established a whole business around it. The idea of moving back to the city to follow one’s ‘lust for life’ has been usurped by a man with a business-like formula for literally ‘whitewashing’ entire boroughs. Richard Florida, a less praised than cursed urban planner, established his concept of the Creative Class and their impact on urban-regeneration. He devised his own ranking systems that rates cities according to a “Bohemian index,” a “Gay index,” a “diversity index” and other similar criteria.

Florida’s theory asserts that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of the so called, “creative class” — such as technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men, and a group he describes as “high bohemians” — exhibit a higher level of economic development. In his mind, the “creative class” fosters an open, dynamic, personal and professional urban environment. This environment, in turn, attracts more creative people, as well as businesses and capital. He suggests that attracting and retaining high-quality talent would be a better primary use of a city’s regeneration of resources for long-term prosperity than focusing on amenities like shopping centres, sports stadia or iconic buildings.

Education is the key to responsible urban planning

However, his theories have been widely criticized as being elitist and researchers have also questioned Florida’s methodology. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser came up with a similar critique, contending that education levels are more strongly correlated with metropolitan economic development than the presence of bohemians or gay people.

Mitchell Joachim, an urban researcher and resident of hip Brooklyn, with an architecture studio Terreform One, demands that, ”Urban planning needs to be more thoughtful. Cities have to let artists sign contracts that last longer than 5 years. Artists have been abused to “renew” cheap empty spaces in formerly run down areas: city governments have used them to clean out the area and then, afterwards kick them out. Look what has happened in New York, Soho and in too many cities: first they brought in artists, then came the galleries and designers with significantly rising rents and when high end fashion arrived, this resulted in the death of the area. No one can afford to live here anymore. Its a dead area.”

Smart cities

But what would the perfect city look like? “Smart cities!” This is another suggestion from Mitchell Joachim, who lives in one of the greenest city in the US because of its low energy consumption: New York City. He also has been working on methods of building the self sufficient city of the future. ‘Wired’ magazine listed Mitchell Joachim among the 15 smartest people to whom President Obama should be listening to. Joachim is a pioneer in the field of urban planning and design. Within Terreform ONE, he works on ensuring that principles of ecology and socio-ecology are applied to city development, transport and environmental planning. Jpeople met the visionary mind at the TEDxBerlin conference to talk about his vision for the future. “A smart city is something like a meme with a shifting definition: everybody understands it differently”, admits Mitchell, “but we all define it as social, equal, just, networked and intelligently linked and embedded, ecological, green smart, providing and living from its own resources, with urban rooftops and locally produced food.”

Grow your own house

His idea is incorporating everything — from food and energy production to land planning and the design of social infrastructures. This so called permaculture is not only sustainable, but also self-sufficient and based on ethical principles. One of Mitchell’s visions is to grow one’s own home. “A home completely comprised of living materials and nutrients, this is our idea of the Fab Tree Hab.” explains Michell. It is not about building one’s house, but about growing it. What may take only a few years in tropical areas might be a bit slower in northern regions. Mitchell laughs: “If we can wait for a good whiskey to become 12 years old, why shouldn’t we do the same with our own house? We will live with and in it every day. It’s worth waiting for that.”

Mitchell refers to himself as an ‘urbaneer’, a term which describes a new multi-disciplinary occupation that takes into account many diverse abilities, skills and experiences with the shared goal of creating the sustainable City 2.0.

Another urbaneer would be Carlo Ratti, professor at MIT, the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is researching how new technologies are changing the way we design and live in cities.

A senseable city

His idea, rather than a smart city, is a senseable city — a city with senses. Its citizens will be agents of change. So how does technology change our relationship to the city? Are we creating another digital divide?

The answer may lie with big data and the so-called internet of things, where objects previously ‘dumb’ are made ‘smart’ through connections to each other. A network of sensors will provide a host of data about how a city is performing. This will allow systems to join up and ultimately work more efficiently. Technology companies such as Siemens, IBM, Intel and Cisco believe that the cleverest cities will be those that are hooked into the network.

Many cities want to start by making traffic systems smarter. Traffic is often stress factor number one when it comes to living in cities. From the Google Car to Hubcaps in New York, many labs are researching ways to reduce traffic and Co2, and make transport smarter. The Boston MIT Lab of which Carlo Ratti is the director has collected data for a better understanding of how traffic works, and why its related problems at peak usage times occur. They consequently developed a ‘road frustration map’.

“Cities cause stress! They can drive us mad. Traffic is one of the biggest stress factors in cites and we have to be aware that stress impacts health.” Mazda Adli, a psychologist, half jokingly calls himself a “neuro-urbanist”. Initiator of the World Health Summit and creator of the “Stress and the City” forum , Adli explains that our brains are not well designed for living in dense and overcrowded metropolises.

“Cities are related to increased stress exposure and other mental illnesses”, he explains. “The larger the city you grew up the higher the risk of schizophrenia — it increases it like cannabis does.” In his research he found that instances of depression were 40% more frequent in cities than in rural areas, so, urban environments can cause mental illness.

“Urbanization is as great a challenge as climate change, and density is a stress on the social order we live in. But stress is an unspecific physical and psychological reaction to a challenge ahead of us, and the combination of density with social isolation evokes social stress.”

Adli explains that our amygdalae are more stimulated in cities. He also found that the limbic system is more activated in those who grew up in a city, but that the emotion control function is reduced. That might explain why drivers stuck in traffic often blow their horns and scream at each other. Consequently, Madza Adli advises urban planners to minimize density and provide opportunities for social contact in order to minimize social isolation, particularly in high risk populations.

Towards a neuro-Urbanism

Do cities drive us mad? “Yes, in a way they do.” confirms Madza Adli. “But on the other hand they are also good for our emotional well-being, providing education, possibilities for development and personal freedom. We have to increase urban health awareness. So I proclaim: towards a new ‘neuro-Urbanism’.”

That matches Carlo Rattis ideas about the role of ‘citizen 2.0’. “People have to be cross-disciplinary and collaborate together. This is when data can be used effectively.” says Carlo Ratti. “Now we collect digital data and use it to better understand how communities work.” Everywhere, new technologies are entering urban spaces. Traffic, energy consumption, water usage, and many other fields of the city are changing due to the conversion to the world of bits. Technology offers opportunities for a more sociable and interactive city, and distances are already blurring between private and public — from car sharing and co-housing to traditional libraries and community gardens.

Carlo Ratti is convinced that digital components can help us run our infrastructures better. But are we creating another digital divide? “No”, says Ratti. “Lets look at mobile phones. They have spread so rapidly that now in almost every country of the world you have cell phones and people being brought closer together. Here you can see that technology is even building bridges.”

Ratti`s ideal city cannot yet be viewed on a tablet. “Oh, my perfect city? It would have to have the climate of Naples, the geography of Prague, the fusion cooking of San Francisco, the bars of Hong Kong, the nightlife of Rio de Janeiro.”

Mark Elsberg also sees the downsides to smart cities. In his recent science fiction novel Blackout he depicts a scenario in which the electricity supply fails for several days or weeks. “Once a tree fell onto a powerline in Switzerland. Half Italy was left in darkness for 24 hours. On another occasion a cruise ship from Germany touched an underwater cable, and left half of Europe without electricity for several hours.” Mobile phones, computers and flashlights are some of the obvious devices that would quickly run out of battery power. But even toilets need power to be flushed, and most hospitals’ generators would probably run out of fuel after a day. “What I wanted to show with my novel is modern society’s interdependencies and vulnerabilities.” Eisberg explains. “Everything depends on electricity nowadays, and moreover everything is interconnected. In my book a hack attack against European and US power grids is followed by the dramatized consequences of a week long blackout.”

It is frightful indeed to think about such a scenario. That there is science behind the fiction has been proven by the novel’s award of “Science book of the year 2012” from German science magazine Bild der Wissenschaft.

As smart cities move from concept to reality, Ovum analyst Joe Dignan has a word of caution for those hoping to grab a piece of the action. During an interview with the BBC reporter Jane Wakefield on “Tomorrow’s cities” he says: “Companies produce videos of glass houses of lovely people doing Minority Report-style stuff, but how will this help people sitting in their council flats 20 storeys in the sky?” His words echo those of American author and urbanist Jane Jacobs, who warned several decades ago that, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Those building the cities of the future may do well to heed that advice. This is also Carlo Ratti’s advice on how to use technology: “It’s best when technology disappears, so you can concentrate on what you actually really wanted to do and be social.”

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Some of the interviews have only been possible thanks to the generous support of TedxBerlin. A big thank you for your courtesy and making this feature possible.

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