Friday, August 28, 2020

Mad Scientist Blog: "Three Futurist Urban Scenarios"

This is stuff the U.S. Army pays people to think about.
And one thing they think about is the urban landscape.
Here are a couple of the scenarios, from the blog of the U.S. Army's Mad Scientist Laboratory, January 19, 2019:
[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist welcomes back returning guest blogger Dr. Nir Buras with today’s post.  We’ve found crowdsourcing (i.e., the gathering of ideas, thoughts, and concepts from a widespread variety of interested individuals) to be a very effective tool in enabling us to diversify our thoughts and challenge our assumptions.  Dr. Buras’ post takes the results from one such crowdsourcing exercise and extrapolates three future urban scenarios.  Given The Army Vision‘s clarion call to “Focus training on high-intensity conflict, with emphasis on operating in dense urban terrain,” our readers would do well to consider how the Army would operate in each of Dr. Buras’ posited future scenarios…]
The challenges of the 21st century have been forecast and are well-known. In many ways we are already experiencing the future now. But predictions are hard to validate. A way around that is turning to slightly older predictions to illuminate the magnitude of the issues and the reality of their propositions.1 Futurists William E. Halal and Michael Marien’s predictions of 2011 have aged enough to be useful. In an improved version of the Delphi method, they iteratively built consensus among participants. Halal and Marien balanced the individual sense of over sixty well-qualified experts and thinkers representing a range of technologies with facilitated feedback from the others. They translated their implicit or tacit know how to make qualified quantitative empirical predictions.2
From their research we can transpose three future urban scenarios:  The High-Tech City, The Feral City, and Muddling Through.

The High-Tech City
The High-Tech City scenario is based primarily on futurist Jim Dator’s high-tech predictions. It envisions the continued growth of a technologically progressive, upwardly mobile, internationally dominant, science-guided, rich, leisure-filled, abundant, and liberal society. Widespread understanding of what works largely avoids energy shortages, climate change, and global conflict.3
The high-tech, digital megacity is envisaged as a Dubai on steroids. It is hyper-connected and energy-efficient, powered by self-sustaining, renewable resources and nuclear energy.4

Connected by subways and skyways, with skyscraping vertical gardens, the cities are ringed by elaborately managed green spaces and ecosystems. The city’s 50 to 150-story megastructures, “cities-in-buildings,” incorporate apartments, offices, schools and grocery stores, hospitals and shopping centers, sports facilities and cultural centers, gardens, and running tracks. Alongside them rise vertical farms housing animals and crops. The rooftop garden of the 2015 film High Rise depicts how aerial terraces up high provide a sense of suburban living in the high-tech city.5

On land, zero-emission driverless traffic zips about on intelligent highways. High-speed trains glide silently by. After dark, spider bots and snake drones automatically inspect and repair buildings and infrastructure.6
In the air, helicopters, drones, and flying cars zoom around. Small drones, mimicking insects and birds, and programmable nano-chips, some as small as “smart” dust, swarm over the city into any object or shape on command. To avoid surface traffic, inconvenience, and crime, wealthier residents fly everywhere.7

Dominated by centralized government and private sector bureaucracies wielding AI, these self-constructing robotic “cyburgs” have massive technology, robotics, and nanotechnology embedded in every aspect of their life, powered by mammoth fusion energy plants.8
Every unit of every component is embedded with at least one flea-size chip. Connected into a single worldwide digital network, trillions of sensors monitor countless parameters for the city and everything in it. The ruling AI, commanded directly by individual minds, autonomously creates, edits, and implements software, simultaneously processing feedback from a global network of sensors.9
Metropolis by Fritz Lang was the first film to show a city 
of  the future as a modernist dystopia. / Produced by Ufa.
The High-Tech City is not a new concept. It goes back to Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Fritz Lang, who most inspired its urban look in the 1927 film Metropolis. The extrapolated growth of technology has long been the basis for predictions. But professional futurists surprisingly agree that a High-Tech Jetsons scenario has only a 0%-5% probability of being realized.10
Poignantly, the early predictors transmitted a message that the stressful lifestyle of the
High-Tech City contradicts the intention of freedom from drudge. Moreover, the High-Tech megacities’ appetite for minerals may lay waste to whole ecosystems. Much of the earth may become a feral wilderness. Massive, centralized AI Internet clouds and distribution systems give a false sense of cultural robustness. People become redundant and democracy meaningless. The world may fail to react to accelerated global crises, with disastrous consequences. The paradoxical obsolescence of high-tech could slide humanity into a new Dark Age.11

The Feral City
Futurists disturbingly describe a Decline to Disaster scenario as five times more likely to happen than the high-tech one. From Tainter’s theory of collapse and Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead we learn that the cycles of urban problem-solving lead to more problems and ultimately failures. If Murphy’s Law kicks in, futurists predict a 60% chance that large parts of the world may be plunged into an Armageddon-type techno-dystopian scenario, typified by the films Mad Max (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).12
Apocalyptic feral cities, once vital components in national economies, are routinely imagined as vast, sprawling urban environments defined by blighted buildings. An immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, rule of law has long been replaced by gang anarchy and the only security available in them is attained through brute power.13
Neat suburban areas were long ago stripped for their raw materials. Daily life in feral cities is characterized by a ubiquitous specter of murder, bloodshed, and war, of the militarization of young men, and the constant threat of rape to females. Urban enclaves are separated by wild zones, fragmented habitats consisting of wild nature and subsistence agriculture. With minimal or no sanitation facilities, a complete absence of environmental controls, and massive populations, feral cities suffer from extreme air pollution from vehicles and the use of open fires and coal for cooking and heating. In effect toxic-waste dumps, these cities pollute vast stretches of land, poisoning coastal waters, watersheds, and river systems throughout their hinterlands.14
Pollution is exported outside the enclaves, where the practices of the desperately poor, and the extraction of resources for the wealthy, induce extreme environmental deterioration. Rivers flow with human waste and leached chemicals from mining, contaminating much of the soil on their banks.15
Globally connected, a feral city might possess a modicum of commercial linkages, and some of its inhabitants might have access to advanced communication and computing. In some areas, agriculture might forcefully cultivate high-yield, GMO, and biomass crops. But secure long-distance travel nearly disappears, undertaken mostly by the super-rich and otherwise powerful.16

Futurists backcasting from 2050 say that the current urbanization of violence and war are harbingers of the feral city scenario. But feral cities have long been present. The Warsaw Ghetto in World War Two was among them, as were the Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood in the 1960s and 1990s; Mogadishu in 2003, and Gaza repeatedly.17
Conflict and crime changed once charming, peaceful Aleppo, Bamako, Caracas, Erbil, Mosul, Tripoli, and Salvador into feral cities. Medieval San Gimignano was one. Spectacularly, from 1889 to 1994 the ghastly spaces of Hong Kong’s singular urban phenomenon, the Walled City of Kowloon, provided a living example.18