Greg Lindsay's Blog

January 10, 2017  |  permalink

Q&A with the World Future Energy Summit

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I’m headed to Abu Dhabi next week to speak at the World Future Energy Summit about sustainable transport and connected mobility. In advance of that talk, the organizers quizzed me at length about disruption, the Law of Connectivity, and whether we need to break up with cars. (Yes.) Our discussion follows:

How do we take practical steps to achieve urban sustainability and to make transport more climate friendly?

One way of framing the question is to think about the future we’re trying to avoid, a future the science fiction author Bruce Sterling once described as: “Old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.” He was alluding to the triple dilemma of global aging, urbanization, and climate change.

This is the future we’ll have to grapple with — how do we help a population that’s likely to grow old before they grow rich stay in their homes leading healthy and hopefully happy lives even as temperatures and sea levels rise?

The first thing we’ll need is more cities — a lot more of them. Where will we build them? The Arabian Gulf is interesting to me for that reason, as it has become the emblem for instant urbanism. But to focus on how to build more ‘Abu Dhabis’ or ‘Dubais’ is to miss the bigger picture, which is that most people will live in slums by 2050 unless we help them build better cities first.

That’s why the real technology breakthroughs won’t be at the high end — but ultra-affordable, modular, humane housing that can be more or less built by hand, with solar panels on every corrugated tin roof powering clean, electric, autonomous tuk-tuks that might replace one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions and air pollution on Earth. (The latter already kills more people in Africa every year than malnutrition and unsafe sanitation combined).

Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is an experiment in building sustainable cities, and we certainly need more of those. But we also need the blueprints for future cities anyone can build if we want to see new technologies adopted in time to make a difference.

The bigger questions will be around governance and finance — who’s going to recognize the right of people to live where they are and to build a home? Who’s going to pay for the necessary infrastructure — plumbing and roads — and ensure they’re public goods rather than private amenities? The opportunities for win-win solutions could be enormous — imagine giving away a house in order to build, own, and operate the panels on the roof?

To what extent can new technology promote more sustainable transport behaviors?

Cities are always formed around whatever the state-of-the-art in transportation is at the time. Today, the state of the art is the smartphone (and the cloud computing behind it). The ability to coordinate and orchestrate multiple modes is more important than any mode itself. Which is how you get Waze, and Uber, and eventually autonomous vehicles — the routing and provisioning of vehicles becomes more powerful than the mode in question. Done right, this could be a powerful force for good in cities — replacing solo drivers with shared, electric, autonomous vehicles supplementing transit would do wonders for reducing carbon emissions, noise and air pollution, and freeing the streetscape for other uses.

The dominant mode of transport in megacities across the Global South isn’t the train or the bus or even the private automobile — it’s an informal minibus like Nairobi’s matatus or Manila’s jeepneys. In Manila’s case, jeepneys — oversized jeeps that cost little but belch exhaust and are terrible unsafe — still carry nearly half the city’s commuters. If we can manage to replace these fleets with clean, quiet, inexpensive electric vehicles, the impact on emissions and quality of life would be enormous. That’s where the greatest gains might come.

Will public transport enjoy a resurgence in the future transport scenario?

I certainly hope so, but I’m not optimistic. Uber is the best-known and most valuable new mobility service in use, and it’s massively subsidizing fares as part of its plan to use the efficiencies generated by network effects to price itself below public transit. The lower costs of autonomous vehicles will only accelerate this trend — the Boston Consulting Group predicts that AVs carrying three or more passengers would quickly destabilize rail ridership — which means it is incumbent on public transport operators to quickly incorporate these tools into their own networks and use them to reinforce mass transit.

In earlier interviews, you’ve talked about the ‘hijacking of natural systems as potential technology platforms’. That sounds quite sinister in intellectual property terms.

I wasn’t trying to sound sinister! It was more of a gloss on Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.” As we’ve already seen in efforts to harvest jet fuel from algae and farm spider silk at scale, I think the great opportunities in synthetic biology will be the creation of new, biological manufacturing platforms. But we should absolutely be worried about the intellectual property implications of this — what would it mean to own the IP on oil, for example? In addition to a code of ethics for synthetic bio and the like, we should also consider creating a civilization commons to ensure no one is paid a licensing fee for the building blocks of reality.

You’ve also spoken about how Virtual Reality could be used as a sustainable alternative to travel. Could you expand on this potential development?

While researching my book Aerotropolis, I coined the “Law of Connectivity:” every technology designed to circumvent distance only increases our need to travel. This law has been observed from the invention of the telegraph to the present. We are travelling more than ever, at every scale — within cities, between them, and across continents. While VR could one day fulfill its early potential as a totally immersive substitute for face-to-face conversations, I’m doubtful — and even if it doesn’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean the law will be repealed.

Which countries are best suited to integrating disruptive transportation models?

The countries best suited to integrating new modes of transport are the ones that already have a rich mix of options with policies to support them. I’m thinking about cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, New York and London — places where shared, electric, autonomous vehicles can supplement, rather than replace, strong transit networks. The Middle East is making great strides toward this, too, with metros in Dubai and soon Riyadh. Having flexible and far-sighted policies are important, too — how we regulate road space and parking in a world of AVs will be critical.

What are the policy imperatives in bringing about more sustainable transport?

I think it’s telling that Los Angeles — the city that invented car culture! — just passed a measure by 70% of voters that will raise more than US$100 billion for transportation projects over the next several decades. That’s incredible. But cities will need to be incredibly smart about policy, and will need to withstand legal challenges from private actors like Uber on their ability to regulate new entrants accordingly. For example, central London’s congestion pricing zone quickly removed 60,000 private vehicles from the streets when it was introduced. In the last two years alone, Uber has put 20,000 vehicles back thanks to a loophole for livery cabs. What will happen when AVs arrive? Without thoughtful and airtight regulation — including thorough congestion pricing — these problems will only get worse.

Does our love affair with the car need to end?

It’s not about trading one’s car for public transport — given the changes we’re seeing with shared vehicles and AVs, “public transport” might well mean a luxury SUV. But if cities continue to optimize development for the car, they will guarantee a city that is navigable only by car. We built those cities here in America in the middle of the last century; trust me, you don’t want that.

How can the possible negative impacts of disruptive technology be managed responsibly?

It’s not about technology; it’s about politics and economics. Take artificial intelligence and automation, for example. Technology itself is not making people superfluous; technology coupled with our current, wildly unequal societies is responsible for that. We need equally disruptive innovations in politics and economics to keep pace with whatever changes are wrought by new technology.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative  — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.

He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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