Illustration by Yimeisgreat

Summer 2030: Micro-factories as First Responders

The following speculative scenario is the third of four short stories developed by Autodesk Research in the office of the CTO. The scenario is the outcome of a project exploring how automation will shape the future landscape of our customer’s jobs, industries, and the nature of their work. The greater aim of this effort is to ensure that our nascent perspective on the Future of Work is made as relevant and tangible as possible, so that we can better understand how humans and machines can partner to achieve more than either could alone.

Research and development of this scenario conducted in collaboration with Jessy Escobedo. Illustrations by YimeIsGreat.

Catastrophic events are rarer than disasters, predisposed to wage tragic levels of destruction of lives and infrastructure over a large swath of land. Most of the built environment, if not all, is destroyed in a catastrophe.

Thirteen years ago, Hurricane Maria made landfall just south of Yabucoa Harbor in Puerto Rico. The storm boasted maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour. It was almost a Category 5 (defined as any tropical storm with winds 157 miles per hour or higher). The island saw 30 inches of rain in one day. Winds were strong enough to destroy the Weather Service’s sensors in the territory, forcing meteorologists to measure the storm entirely by satellite. The storm knocked out power and communications infrastructure to much of the island, with initial reports claiming that 80–90% of structures had been destroyed. Residents were left without access to clean water, shelter, food, and medical aid.

Twelve years before Maria, in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina mercilessly pummeled through New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. The storm made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane. With winds clocked at 125 miles per hour, the city’s storm resistance safeguards couldn’t withstand the high winds and severe surge. Levees breached, flooding areas with 8 to 10 feet of water and even 20 feet in some parts. By the end, around 80% of the city was underwater. The storm was considered one of the costliest in US history.

Last Friday Hurricane Gaston, a Category 4 storm, hit a constellation of small islands in the tropical Atlantic. Residents on one of the larger islands broadcast reports of strong winds, storm surges of 15 to 20 feet, pelting rains, and flooding in some parts of the islands. But they did this from the safety of high ground, and under the cover of sturdy shelters. There was one casualty, a co-bot. From the drone’s eye view, this was one of the best possible outcomes for a storm of this scale.

Last Friday was, thankfully, not a catastrophe.

The increase in average temperatures of the world’s atmosphere and oceans over the last decade has only added to the frequency and intensity of catastrophic natural disasters like hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones. As warmer temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more moisture, rising sea levels have made coastal cities more vulnerable to flooding. Islands off the coast of North America are already beginning to implement measures to guard against flooding as experts warn that residents of some of these islands could soon become some of the first refugees due to the impacts of climate change.

When Fabian Correa decided to publicly release his boat/shelter kit for production, he had no idea that it would go viral in the way it did, or that anyone was really even paying attention in the first place. What he did know, however, was what impact the storm would have on his island town in the Atlantic. “I’m a Climate modeling analyst, or climatologist, by training. I work with data gathered from our smart infrastructure network to explore the impacts on regional infrastructure and develop climate preparedness projects.” Even as Correa describes his day-job, you can see in his expression or lack thereof, that his passions lie elsewhere.

When Correa first got into his field, he liked the thrill of connecting the dots, unearthing clues from incomplete data sets to deduce what was going to happen in the epic tale of our planet’s climate. By 2022, however, cities that were deemed “vulnerable to climate change” began adopting more robust climate and environmental monitoring technologies to forecast meteorological changes more rapidly. Changes in universal building codes also meant that new buildings and infrastructure projects had to be instrumented with sensors to abide by safety and performance measures. “There were fewer dots to manually connect, fewer gaps in the data, it was a good problem to have, I suppose,” recalls Correa.

Overtime, much of Correa’s role has become automated. But he doesn’t mind. “I’m a maker at heart. I love to create things and put them out in the world.” Correa’s face becomes more animated with this statement, his eyebrows move up and down, as if joyfully following the cadence of his words. “This all really started because I wanted to restore my grandfather’s boat…Knowing nothing about boats or how they’re made, really. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Correa began teaching himself how to use design tools but admits that really the tools taught him. Incrementally, through task-based missions that were curated for his learning style and competence level. Through generative learning tools and design missions, Correa was able to retro-fit and re-design his grandfather’s boat given material constraints and contemporary fabrication techniques. “I wish this was how I was taught in college, via smaller hands-on missions versus just pursuing a major. I would’ve done so much better at school.”

The other piece Correa gained in the process was a strong community of fellow makers, via a Virtual Makerspace. “My day-job can be pretty isolating at times. So, it was nice to be around people, at least virtually, who had similar interests but brought diverse expertise to the table.”

Correa is what I would describe as a reluctant luminary. “So how do you get from restoring you grandfather’s boat as a hobbyist really, to designing something that saved so many lives?” I ask him this, having no other way of getting to the point, but realizing that the attention and verbal accolade most likely has made him recoil a bit with shyness.

“Well it definitely wasn’t just me,” Correa credits his collaborators via the Virtual Makerspace community for helping with the design and production. “One of the women in my community is a Nomadic Disaster Relief Architect in Nepal at the moment, for example, and was able to provide insight on the most efficient means of constructing a shelter. And some other aspects just fell into place, like the production part.” Outsiders also often forget that the island has a long history of manufacturing. In the last decade, factories in the area were retrofit to be virtually re-configurable. They were also instrumented with sensors during the early 2020s climate preparedness efforts. Those same sensors used to measure the conditions of climate, it turns out, are also really great at determining which factories (or network of factories) can still manage a complete production cycle when others in the network are down or under water.

“It’s probably easier if I break this down for you sequentially,” says Correa after a couple minutes of determining how to best bring me through his story. Below is Correa’s timeline of events leading up to Hurricane Gaston, and its aftermath:

Monday, July 22, 2030 — 12 days before landfall. Local and regional climate data reports indicate a trough of low pressure is developing in the tropical Atlantic. The Hurricane Center believes it will strengthen in the days to come. There’s plenty of ocean heat for the cyclone to suck up, and little wind to tear it apart.

Correa infers that if a storm hits the island, it will be no weaker than a category 4 hurricane. He knows that the island does not currently have adequate emergency safety measures in place to withstand the impacts on infrastructure, only a Category 3.

Thursday, July 25 — 9 days before landfall. The trough is still in the open ocean, several hundred miles east of the Islands. But it has begun to form convective bands around its center.

The Hurricane Center believes this may be “a dangerous major hurricane.”

Correa feels like he has to do something. He consults his maker community online. Two things need to happen if aid doesn’t come to the island in time (similarly to the fate of residents of Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria; people need to be able to get to higher ground and find shelter.)

Working with some of his local and virtual peer-network, Correa and the team are able to leverage their expertise and generative design to design foldable boats that can be repurposed as shelters.

The design process takes into consideration local material constraints and manufacturing processes.

Saturday, July 27 — 7 days before landfall. Correa releases the plans for the boat/shelter publicly. Linking them to the local network of configurable factories. The factories begin to churn out boats, and people come to pick them up in vehicles or by foot.

Correa begins to worry, it doesn’t seem like the boats are being processed fast enough.

Tuesday, July 30 — 3 days before landfall. The Hurricane Center has officially named the storm, Tropical Storm Gaston

Its winds are gauged at 50 miles-per-hour

A voluntary evacuation has been put into effect for residents in lower-lying areas of the island

Thursday, August 1 — 2 days before landfall. The Weather Service bumps up the time of the storm’s landfall. The storm’s maximum wind speed is 90 miles per hour, but quickly goes up to 120 miles per hour over the course of the day.

Correa’s boats are now in high demand. Residents have been advised not to leave their homes so drones are delivering boats to other neighborhoods when they can find steady flight paths.

Saturday, August 3 — Landfall. Hurricane Gaston makes landfall at 6:27am. It’s gauged as a Category 4 storm, with 25 inches of rain, and storm surges of up to 18 feet.

Parts of the island are already flooded, and residents are using Correa’s boats to paddle to higher ground and make shelter.

Sunday, August 4 — 1 day after landfall. The rain and wind gusts continue. There are reports from other parts of the island that people are still stranded in their homes.

Correa works with his remote collaborator team to tap into the network of factories on the island. Production of boat/shelters have halted because some of the factories are flooded. Because the buildings are instrumented with sensors, Correa and team can virtually see which factories are still above water and online. The production sequence begins again, bypassing those factories which are out of commission.

Tuesday, August 6 — 3 days after landfall. The rain has begun to dissipate. Additional boats/shelters can now be delivered via drone to get people to safer ground or provide them with shelter closer to their homes.

Word about Correa’s boats gets out, beyond the island. Government agencies, corporations, and private citizens alike are captivated.

Thursday, August 8 — 5 days after landfall. Government wide disaster relief agencies and defense departments finally get to the island with additional supplies and shelter.

Saturday, August 10 — 7 days after landfall. A fleet of drones supervised by the Nomadic Architect’s team surveys building damage, informing her of what homes need retro-fitting, which areas need to be completely rebuilt, and where more resilient neighborhoods can be developed.

I had originally intended for this piece to demonstrate how putting trust in technology could help save humanity. But after meeting Fabian Correa, that doesn’t seem like an appropriate ending. Correa most likely won’t like how I conclude this piece, because the attention will be on him one more time, but as our interview comes to a close, he offers a provocation I can’t seem to let out of my mind “Can you imagine when, sometime down the line, the factories would just know a storm was coming and start producing and delivering boats for people, before we even had a chance to worry?”

Imagine that.

// END

If you haven’t already, read “Winter 2030: A Metropolis in Transit” and “Spring 2030: Robot Trainers and Small Town Mayors”

More on Autodesk.com

For more information on this project, please contact: Radha Mistry, radha.mistry@autodesk.com

FUTURES. Unremarkably eclectic. Strategy/Foresight @autodesk. Formerly design-futures @steelcase, @arupforesight, @sandboxers ambassador, @csmMANE

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