Monthly Archives: juli 2017

It’s a smart city after all

By | Algemeen | No Comments

Smart cities: two words which suggest a glittering future of technology and progress, where digital technology will help out with everything from getting bins collected to ensuring your drive through the city is as smooth as possible. Or, alternatively, an Orwellian nightmare where the poor are tossed out of our shiny new cities in favor of the upper classes, while governments use new smart technologies to track our every move.

Ours world is a city-powered planet. Our urban areas grow by 3 million people a week. Metropolitan and urban areas are the engines of the global economy, producing some 70% of its output, with some individual metro regions accounting for as much as a third of their national economies. Most important, they are home to just under 4 billion citizens who live, love, and contribute to their society in innumerable ways. Cities are powerful and dynamic engines of growth. They are growing in importance and impact.

Technology has always been a critical force deeply intertwined with the evolution of cities. From the first human settlements millennia ago to  today’s 4th industrial revolution, technological breakthroughs have impacted the buildings we use, the way we get around, and how we live, work, and play in the urban space. Cities are beginning to, and will continue to, integrate technological dynamism into municipal operations, from transportation to infrastructure repair and more. The back ends of these systems are not always apparent to the end user – but as the integration of smart cities technologies becomes more visible in our everyday lives, we could begin to see large scale changes in our cities.

Now, as we are on the cusp of further rapid shifts in cities precipitated by technology, it is worth imagining what the connected smart city of the future will look like – and the associated impact it will have on our everyday lives. Cities can be the sources of innovation and creativity, bringing people together in new and unexpected ways and spawning the cultural quarters, the digital invention, the start-ups and connections that enable modern growth. Urban places where independence flourishes, where identity can be reinvented, where people can flourish, the place where our human ingenuity and our capacity to support each other flourishes. Cities can be places where we can be ourselves, liberated from some of the more stultifying aspects of small town life, and even, occasionally, our own families.

But cities can also be places of isolation, of poverty, and of misery. Places where innovation and creativity are driven out. Where the bonds of social engagement are attenuated and where solidarity is fatally eroded, where poverty is locked in. Places where progression and development is limited, where people without the support of family find alternative social networks impossible to access. Cities where the more vulnerable are shunned and ignored are cities of fear, not to mention huge potential costs. Cities where everyone is too busy to interact breed loneliness and despair. Cities where automation has made every interaction a soulless one, driving out human contact in the interests of speed and efficiency.

Technocrats think that clean, well marshalled data can solve everything. But the real data that powers social capital is often messy. It involves a close and detailed understanding of the web of relationships that keeps any city (and their neighborhoods) alive. Knowledge – real, informed, current knowledge – is vital to the development of social capital. Interventions that are rooted in how people really live – the ethnography of the city– are part of the modern skill set. Social capital comes from within.

Social capital is not an optional extra for a city. It is as fundamental as the financial capital and the skills base of any successful city. It is the depth and the breadth of social capital in cities that distinguishes the creative, lively, bonded city, from the miserable dystopia as painted above. Social capital is not formed in a vacuum. What happens is shaped by our external environment, and what is happening around us is different from that previous generations have experienced. Social Capital is in real peril. The labor market has changed, and changed fundamentally. At the bottom end of the labor market our current economy produces part time, insecure and poorly paid work. People doing multiple jobs just to get by is becoming the norm, and increasingly the much vaunted ‘gig economy’ is actually producing a group of people who, while technically self-employed, seem to me to have many of the working conditions of the 19th century casual laborer. At the bottom end of the labor market people lead poor and insecure lives, faced with higher costs and constantly managing debt. Work is undoubtedly for many of us the best route out of poverty. If the work is insecure, and has no progression (and four out of five people starting in low paid work are still low paid 10 years later) it does not provide a secure route.

Today, we face a revolution as profound as anything the nineteenth century pioneers had to contend with. We live in a globalized world in which the pace of change, and the sheer volatility of it all, sometimes simply feels too much. A world in which work is becoming faster, more demanding, and frequently much less secure. A world in which housing is a fragile asset, not a platform on which to build a secure life. A world in which mass movements of people can both enrich and strengthen, but can too often be experienced as threat and division. A world in which the distance between generations can seem overwhelming.

In this world there is more need than ever before for the conscious fostering of social capital.  Modern social capital will need to foster skills for living as well as for working. It will enable and encourage the small acts of kindness that enable us all to survive. But it will also connect people across generations, and across faiths and nationalities. It will be built on the power of relationships, not on transactions. It will almost certainly be made up more of networks than of organizations. A more adaptive and informed social capital may look more like a set of movements than an institution. It will be more democratic, providing a platform for the dispossessed as much as tending to their needs. It will not be afraid of anger and of division – because social capital is messy, just like social change.

To this end, we must be deliberate in the development of smart cities and imbue equity as a primary goal so that the city of the future is a city for everyone. How do we ensure that our cities continue to catalyze social mobility, generate new ideas, and provide economic return without becoming brittle, unsustainable, or simply fake? How do we avoid the mistake of early smart city efforts which focused almost solely on optimizing the physical city without much thought at all to the experience of the actual human beings who live there? The exclusion of poorer citizens from the smart cities of the future – has come to the forefront in recent debate.

But no matter when we’re talking about smart cities we often do so in terms of individual systems or projects. Search the web for smart city and you’ll find no lack of top ten lists of projects that promise to improve your metro. But often these projects are so tied to specific new technologies that they will either fail or be obsolesced by the volatility of technological change. Most of all, this city would be a data-gathering machine. Sensors would adhere to every surface, monitoring air quality, foot traffic, crime, water use, and even how many insects were flying around. Algorithms to optimize everything in the city, routing traffic, stationing police officers — or planting trees to draw insects away from schoolyards.

It all sounds lovely in theory, and the idea has now leapfrogged out of the corporate R&D zone, into academic research and enthusiastic pop science books. But cities are ever-changing; the dynamism of the urban environment is a microcosm of the societal interactions that we have built throughout history. The problem is that making a city smart could also crush everything that makes it a city. Cities have a logic all their own, which is based on chaos and diversity. Making them smart and subjecting their citizens to the logic of algorithms, could be more like authoritarianism than freedom.

At the end of the day, technological developments will enhance our urban experience – but they also risk leaving more people behind. Though the idea of a smart city is appealing, it’s crucial to keep the dark side perspective in mind.

 

SILENT EXTERMINATION

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Finally, after years, it has got the attention. The sixth mass extinction. The loss of biological diversity is one of the most severe human caused global ecological problems. Hundreds of species and myriad populations are being driven to extinction every year. From the perspective of geological time, Earth’s richest biota ever is already well into a sixth mass extinction episode.

Existing ecosystems are the legacy of a biotic turnover initiated by the onset of glacial–interglacial cycles that began, 2.6 million years ago, and evolved primarily in the absence of Homo sapiens. Today, rapidly changing atmospheric conditions and warming above typical interglacial temperatures as CO2 levels continue to rise, habitat fragmentation, pollution, overfishing and overhunting, invasive species and pathogens (like chytrid fungus), and expanding human biomass are all more extreme ecological stressors than most living species have previously experienced. Without concerted mitigation efforts, such stressors will accelerate in the future and thus intensify extinction especially given the feedbacks between individual stressors.

As a species, Homo sapiens has either already arrived or will shortly arrive at a fork in the road, and the route we choose will determine what sort of world our species will occupy. One road leads to a relatively biodiverse future in which a significant majority of today’s non-domestic species persist. The other leads to a future in which the majority of today’s non-domestic species are extinct. Our species has already experienced and, to a considerable extent, contributed to a significant extinction event, so both prehistoric and historic human actions have already shaped global biology. At issue now is the extent and direction of ongoing human effects on global ecology and evolution, including the probability that our species will be a long-term or short-term component of global biological communities.

The claim that Earth’s biota is entering a sixth mass extinction depends on clearly demonstrating that current extinction rates are far above the background rates prevailing between the five previous mass extinctions. A growing body of evidence indicates that current species extinction rates are higher than the pre-human background rate, with hundreds of anthropogenic vertebrate extinctions documented in prehistoric and historic times. Modern extinction rates have increased sharply over the past 200 years (corresponding to the rise of industrial society) and are considerably higher than background rates.

Mass extinctions shape the history of life and can be used to understand the current biodiversity crisis. The five largest mass extinctions of the Phanerozoic had profoundly different effects on the structure and function of ecosystems, although the causes of these differences are currently unclear. There is a clear need to understand the dynamics of future biodiversity loss and ecosystem change. Mass extinction, in the conservative palaeontological sense, is when extinction rates accelerate relative to origination rates such that over 75% of species disappear within a geologically short interval—typically less than 2 million years, in some cases much less. Extinction involves both rate and magnitude, which are distinct but intimately linked metrics. Rate is essentially the number of extinctions divided by the time over which the extinctions occurred. One can also derive from this a proportional rate—the fraction of species that have gone extinct per unit time. Magnitude is the percentage of species that have gone extinct. Because rate and magnitude are so intimately linked, a critical question is whether current rates would produce Big-Five-magnitude mass extinctions in the same amount of geological time that we think most Big Five extinctions spanned. The answer is yes. Current extinction rates for mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles if calculated over the last 500 years (a conservatively slow rate) are faster than or as fast as  all rates that would have produced the Big Five extinctions over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. This emphasizes that current extinction rates are higher than those that caused Big Five extinctions in geological time; they could be severe enough to carry extinction magnitudes to the Big Five benchmark in as little as three centuries. During times of normal background extinction, the taxa that suffer extinction most frequently are characterized by small geographic ranges and low population abundance. However, during times of mass extinction, the rules of extinction selectivity can change markedly, so that widespread, abundant taxa also go extinct. Large-bodied animals and those in certain phylogenetic groups can be particularly hard hit.

Population extinctions today are orders of magnitude more frequent than species extinctions. Population extinctions, however, are a prelude to species extinctions, so Earth’s sixth mass extinction episode has proceeded further than most assume. The massive loss of populations is already damaging the services ecosystems provide to civilization. When considering this frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization, one must never forget that Earth’s capacity to support life, including human life, has been shaped by life itself. When public mention is made of the extinction crisis, it usually focuses on a few animal species (hundreds out of millions) known to have gone extinct, and projecting many more extinctions in the future. But a deeper glance presents a much more realistic picture: they suggest that as much as 50% of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, as are huge number populations. Furthermore, this analysis is conservative, given the increasing trajectories of the drivers of extinction and their synergistic effects.

Hypotheses to explain the general phenomenon of mass extinctions have emphasized synergies between unusual events. Common features of the (Big Five) early extinctions suggest that key synergies may involve unusual climate dynamics, atmospheric composition and abnormally high-intensity ecological stressors that negatively affect many different lineages. This does not imply that random accidents like a Cretaceous asteroid impact would not cause devastating extinction on their own, only that extinction magnitude would be lower if synergistic stressors had not already primed the pump of extinction.

More rigorously formulating and testing synergy hypotheses may be especially important in assessing the sixth mass extinction potential, because once again the global stage is set for unusual interactions.

While some cosmic constants re­main, such as the cycles of day and night, the moon’s influence on the tides, the date of the solstices, and the length of time the Earth takes to go around the sun, many other patterns and rhythms of earth’s phenol­ogy are undergoing major change. Synchronicity and timing are all important; and when species tied to locked in global rhythms and patterns fails to coin­cide (trophic mismatches) death and extinction follow.

Even taking into account the difficulties of comparing the fossil and modern records, and applying conservative comparative methods that favor minimizing the differences between fossil and modern extinction metrics, there are clear indications that losing species now in the critically endangered category would propel the world to a state of mass extinction that has previously been seen only five times in about 540 million years. Additional losses of species in the endangered and vulnerable categories could accomplish the sixth mass extinction in just a few centuries. Although we cannot say precisely how many species there are, or exactly how many have gone extinct in any time interval, we can confidently conclude that modern extinction rates are exceptionally high, that they are increasing, and that they suggest a mass extinction under way.  It may be of particular concern that this extinction trajectory would play out under conditions that resemble the ‘perfect storm’ that coincided with past mass extinctions: multiple, atypical high-intensity ecological stressors, including rapid, unusual climate change and highly elevated atmospheric CO2.

Even as it has not happened yet – we are on the edge of an extinction and little disagreement that humans are driving an unprecedented ecological crisis. We are effectively undoing the beauty and the variety and the richness of the world which has taken tens of millions of years to reach. The huge difference between where we are now, and where we could easily be within a few generations, reveals the urgency of relieving the pressures that are pushing today’s species towards extinction.

From an ecological or evolutionary perspective, few events are good or bad in absolute terms: they simply favor different organisms. In some respects, the human future will be very different from the human past. For now, the full ecological and evolutionary consequences of these extinctions remain unknown, although the greater the magnitude of extinctions, the higher the likelihood that they will negatively impact human life.

Gone are the relative stability and predictability of the past twelve thousand years, as the established patterns and regularity of Holocene phenology begin to fall into chaos.

We are deciding…which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.

No other creature has ever managed this, and it will unfortunately be our most enduring legacy.

(Elizabeth Kolbert 2014)

 

I have fed species greater than you, and I have starved species greater than you. My oceans. My soil. My flowing streams. My forests. They all can take you, or leave you.

By | Algemeen | No Comments

For the past 12,000 years, human beings lived in a geological epoch called the Holocene, known for its relatively stable, temperate climes. It was, you might say, the California of planetary history. But it is coming to an end. Recently, we have begun to alter the Earth so drastically that, according to many scientists, a new epoch is dawning. After the briefest of geological vacations, we seem to be entering a more volatile period. The term Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek word anthropos, acknowledges that humans are the major cause of the earth’s current transformation. The Anthropocene is not only a period of manmade disruption. It is also a moment of blinking self-awareness, in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. The term Anthropocene suggests that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the Holocene. We are also the only species to have a geological age named after us. (Of course, we are the only species with enough consciousness to actually name geological ages in the first place.) Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita. No matter the discussion on a formalized Anthropocene -the idea/concept did not arise from geology, there is simply not enough physical evidence for it as strata-. The fact that we know that we are effecting the Earth System is clear and the Anthropocene is based more on the future than on the past, more a part of human history than the immensely long history of the Earth is fine by me.

Humans are part of ‘the system’.

We are not the only species to have shaped the Earth’s environment. The only reason humanity could even arise is because microscopic single-celled proto-photosynthesizers used sunlight to split water and liberate oxygen, providing air for us animals to breathe. But we are the only species to knowingly alter the state of the entire globe, by continuously burning the corpses of earlier photosynthesizers.

The Earth System refers to the suite of interacting physical, chemical and biological global-scale cycles and energy fluxes that provide the life-support system for life at the surface of the planet. The Earth System, is beyond the notion that the geophysical processes encompassing the Earth’s two great fluids—the ocean and the atmosphere—generate the planetary life-support system on their own. Biological/ecological processes are an integral part of the functioning of the Earth System and not merely the recipient of changes in the coupled ocean-atmosphere part of the system. A second critical feature is that forcings and feedbacks within the Earth System are as important as external drivers of change, such as the flux of energy from the sun. Finally, the Earth System includes humans, our societies, and our activities; thus, humans are not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system but rather an integral and interacting part of the Earth System itself.

Underlying global change are human-driven alterations of  the biological fabric of the Earth, the stocks and flows of major elements in the planetary machinery such as nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, and silicon; and the energy balance at the Earth’s surface.

Global change in this perspective means both the biophysical and the socioeconomic changes that are altering the structure and the functioning of the Earth System. Global change includes alterations in a wide range of global-scale phenomena: land use and land cover, urbanisation, globalisation, coastal ecosystems, atmospheric composition, riverine flow, nitrogen cycle, carbon cycle, physical climate, marine food chains, biological diversity, population, economy, resource use, energy, transport, communication, and so on. Interactions and linkages between the various changes listed above are also part of global change and are just as important as the individual changes themselves. Many components of global change do not occur in linear fashion but rather show strong non linearities.

The phenomenon of global change represents a profound shift in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.

The Anthropocene biosphere is characterized by four unique physical components: (1) a global signal of marine and terrestrial neobiota that in many cases have displaced indigenous forms, that have often taken advantage of the modified anthromes of humans, and that have reset the structure of many terrestrial ecosystems and that are profoundly modifying the marine realm; (2) a single species, Homo sapiens, dominating the net primary production and energy flow; (3) the human directed evolution of plants and animals; and (4) the increasing interaction of the biosphere with an ever more rapidly evolving technosphere.

The good and the bad: a scary mass extinction of species (its confirmed that the sixth great extinction had already begun) and alarming signs of climate change, a general call to abandon false hope in the toxic, cannibalistic and self-destructive system of carbon-based capitalism, but also a number of promising revolutions in sustainability, manufacturing, biomimicry and nanotechnology. But humanity presently lacks the political institutions to act collectively on a global scale,  hope arises that new politics will be democratic in the double sense of thoroughly politicizing nature’s future and recognizing the imperariseative of political equality among the people who will together create that future.

We need to realize that the Anthropocene is changing the co-evolutionary pattern between humans and the environment- from an emphasis on local interaction to a coevolution of humanity and the planet as a whole. Such trends and patterns are the results of underlying drivers and societal dynamics, and require a shift away from deterministic single trajectory of future thinking towards exploring multiple trajectories and futures. Understanding trends and impacts, underlying drivers and societal dynamics, and in particular the interactions, trade-offs and synergies across temporal and spatial scales, is required. In terms of transition and transformation towards desirable and novel futures, a better understanding of multi- and cross-scale inter- actions is critical in bringing about systemic, structural change. While recognizing that there are diverse and competing views of the potential for humanity to engage consciously with purposeful systemic change as well as preferences on the degree and direction of purposeful intervention, renewed attention to the science of social change is required. The future of Anthropocene will be the outcome of today’s collective choices, and science has a strong role to play in guiding such choices. To fulfill this task, science needs to have closer and different relations with practice, where science is co-designed and co-produced with societal stakeholders, and where science not only informs practice but also learns from practice. It is time for the sustainability debate to focus more on new opportunities offered by plausible and novel futures, including societies’ abilities to deal with risk and emergencies, rather than on how to share burdens to ensure the continuity of the present.

The realization of the Anthropocene provides an opportunity not only to reconsider the power and consequences of human actions, but also how to channel the transformative and creative potentials of human society towards desirable and novel futures in the Anthropocene.

‘Anthropocene’ is a powerfully integrative concept. It draws together our thinking about specific aspects of Earth System disruption — like climate change or biodiversity loss or ocean acidification — to focus on their interconnections and their cultural drivers. By directing our attention to whole system dynamics, it encourages us to see the Earth as a single socio-ecological system.

The Anthropocene concept has far-reaching ethical implications. It challenges us to accept an expanded understanding of collective responsibility that reaches beyond conventional human scales measured in multiples of human lifetimes, to consider the consequences of our collective actions on planetary and geological (or deep time) scales.

Today we stand poised on the cusp of a historical transition, most likely extending over multiple generations, in which human societies must find ways to adjust to radically different environmental conditions and accomplish far-reaching social, economic, political and cultural changes.

The globally dominant industrial growth economies operate as if reality is about organizing inert matter in efficient ways to satisfy human needs and wants and generate surplus value. This cultural ‘operating system’ couples our everyday taken-for-granted assumptions about the world to an ideology of dead matter, human utility and perpetual growth. The fundamental challenge of the Anthropocene is to restore a commitment to the vitality of life in all its forms on this planet as the basis of our institutions and professions. This is the cultural renaissance the Anthropocene calls forth.

Human beings are part of nature. Nature is not dependent on human beings to exist.

Human beings, on the other hand, are totally dependent on nature to exist.

The growing number of people on the planet and how we live here is going to determine the future of nature. And the future of us.

Nature will go on, no matter what. It will evolve.

The question is, will it be with us or without us?

There are plenty of troubling things about the Anthropocene. But to my mind, one of its most troubling dimensions is the sheer number of people it fails to trouble.