Bullets that can move around objects in air, self driving vehicles, drones filling the sky, a neural interface connecting your mind with the internet, and farm equipment that can be sent out to work your field while you are on vacation. These all seem like ideas from a fiction novel, but many of them will be realized by the year 2050. As a planner, I often look twenty years in the future to make predictions and make plans for the best possible growth patterns. The book, Mega Tech edited by Daniel Franklin, looks out more than thirty years to suggest what the future could hold.
The book is a series of short essays by leaders in numerous fields, all affected by advancements in technology. The interesting twist is a few short stories at the end of the book that imagine these technologies at play in a fictional world. One story gave the main character a second chance at life controlling a robot body with her mind after an accident while her real body laid in a hospital. Another gave hope to the idea of technologies that could destroy harmful chemicals and waste that destroy our water sources. It also provided the solution to global warming in the form of a genemod aerosol sprayed into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight and cool the Earth.
Among these stories however are real technology being developed that over time can either create serious threats to our safety or make life easier and equitable. Advances in weaponry have the potential to create invisible killers, able to hit targets from thousands of miles away and not necessarily in direct line of sight. This is good news, but only in the hands of a responsible government. As the author of the essay points out, it can create hopeless feelings for the troops on the receiving end.
Positive technology receiving most media attention today is automation. The ability to complete tasks without having to monitor the activity is a highly sought after commodity. Already vehicles drive the road with a certain degree of autonomy. I imagine that by 2050 they will be taking over cities, changing the way we develop. I look forward to moving parking lots and garages to the periphery of cities and building less infrastructure, but will we produce even more carbon as a result of cars driving us all over?
My favorite quote from the book is from W. Brian Arthur, an economist who said "problems are the answers to solutions." The summary at the end of the book drives this point home. Technology has always been an answer to a problem created by another advancement. We are constantly trying to fix the negative aspects created by someone else's solution. An example of this in cities was the creation of massive housing projects in the late 1940's and 1950's. They provided much needed housing, however by the 1960's they were being demolished in favor of low density projects and housing voucher programs. Planners realized that concentrating an entire sector of the population into a few large towers created a problem from an initial solution.
The desire to invent and advance society has always been around, but the technology we have available today has sped up the process, allowing us to create change at a much more rapid pace. What took an entire century before can happen in a few short years. We should always look to the future to see what is on the horizon to prepare our cities for the advancements that will inevitably come.