When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

Paul Raven @ 10-10-2011

I’ve been writing here at Futurismic for well over five years, now. It feels like longer, somehow, but it also feels like I only just started. I’ve learned a lot of things, not least of which is the fact that, the more you learn, the more you realise remains to be learned.

One of the things I’ve learned is that there is a not entirely unwarranted mistrust of folk who call themselves “futurists”. The etymology of the word doesn’t help, of course, but the core criticism is captured well by Jamais Cascio; when people hear “futurist”, they see some guy who gets paid a lot of money to go to conferences and make bold sweeping predictions about what’s going to happen in the next few decades… predictions that either play to the audience’s desires, or that fail to come true, or both.

The more time I spend looking at social, political, economic and technological change, the less certain I become about what tomorrow will look like. The only lingering conviction – the one that strengthens every day, while the others fall by the wayside – is that, as a species, we face a growing number of challenges and threats to our survival. Caught between the rock of a uncaring universe and the hard place of our primate-origin psychological legacy systems, we nonetheless somehow keep escaping sudden extinction or rapid decline. Eventually, of course, we’ll fail an important saving throw, and our game will be over. But we can strengthen our stats and broaden our skill-trees against the probability of having to make those rolls of the dice, building up our character sheet as the campaign continues. But where should we spend our XP? What tools, weapons and armour should we buy?

I don’t think any one person will ever produce a satisfactory or useful answer to those questions. I remain convinced that a sustainable human future depends on our ability to work together to secure it. To accomplish that, we need to combine the speculative foresight component of the futurist’s discipline with achievable and practical solutions to the most pressing of problems. It’s a fine thing that we can conceive of and work towards a future where technology liberates us from scarcity, mortality and the lingering psychology of otherness; my status as a cautious fellow-traveller of transhumanism remains unshaken. But I’m also convinced that there are many short-term problems to be overcome on the way to that future… and with that awareness comes a sense of frustration, a feeling that sitting around and flapping my lips on the internet isn’t really achieving much. Conversation is valuable, sure, as is raising awareness… but if I’m so convinced that there’s real work to be done, surely I should put my money where my mouth is, get my hands a bit dirty? Otherwise I’m just being a sort of low-rent version of those futurist pundits, the technological equivalent of the scraggle-bearded guy wandering the town square with a THE END IS NIGH OMFG sandwich-board.

So I’ve been searching for a way to make a difference, or at least to try to make a difference: some sort of practical application of my largely impractical skill-set. There aren’t a lot of jobs like that around, it turns out.

But I found one. And I landed it.

As of today, I am an employee of the University of Sheffield’s Civil Engineering department; my job title is “Research Assistant in the Future of Infrastructure”. I’m going to be working on projects intended to analyse the infrastructures that hold our civilisation together, and find ways to make them more efficient, more fair, more resilient, more unified. Energy production and consumption is already a hot-button topic, and with good reason; the internet’s rapid ascent from novelty telecomms application to ubiquitous civilisational support system means that the availability of bandwidth is already being mooted as a basic human right; changes in climate and population patterns are placing our limited supplies of potable water under increasing load, and the commodities traders – not content to play casino games with the price of the food we eat – are starting to look at water as the last great tradeable asset. Most importantly, these utilities don’t stand in isolation: they are interdependent. Terrifyingly so, in fact.

It feels good to be putting my efforts where my mouth is, helping people smarter than I to apply their knowledge in useful ways to a troubled world. It feels good to have a job that lets me feel like I’m putting all the stuff I’ve learned to practical use. And it feels good to have a job, full stop; I know a lot of people are struggling without one at the moment, and I’m damned privileged to have one.

The funny thing with confirmation bias is that understanding the concept does nothing to change its power. The last year of my life looks, on reflection, like the coming together of numerous threads which I never assumed would ever be connected. Today also sees me starting my Masters degree in Creative Writing, where I’ll be learning how to tell stories that connect with people on an emotional level – stories like the ones that opened my young mind to the possibility of worlds other than the one outside my window.

It’s an exciting time for me, and a bit of a scary one, too. But here I am, with a job title that sounds like it leapt from the pages of a science fiction novel, working in a world that increasingly feels a few page-turns away from dystopia or disaster. I can’t write the future on my own, of course; nor can anyone else. But by putting my efforts in alongside others, maybe I can help keep the plot from going off the rails. That seems like something worthwhile for me to be doing.

As far as Futurismic itself is concerned, things will proceed pretty much as they have been over the last six months or so: my posting schedule will continue to be irregular (and probably a little less frequent), but this here blog is too big a part of my thinking process to be mothballed. Plus people keep asking me to write about interesting things, and here seems as good a place to put them as any.

Futurismic is also the thing that has brought me into contact with a vast range of smart people with similar outlooks on the future, some of whom are probably reading this right now. So to those friends, sparring partners and fellow travellers, I’d like to say thanks, and ask you to keep reading and stay in touch – especially if your own adventures turn up something you think might connect to my research topics!

Without you and your engagements with what I’ve done so far, I’d not be writing this message at all. So please, keep the pressure on me. 🙂

Thank you.


Smart Grids == Spy Grids?

Paul Raven @ 04-06-2010

We’ve talked about smart grids before – infrastructure networks for basic utilities that incorporates all sorts of networked active monitoring technologies to make our use of energy and water more efficient. Sounds like a win-win situation for consumers and utilities companies alike, doesn’t it?

That altogether depends on how worried you are about extensive data on your lifestyle and consumer choices becoming easily scraped up by your utility suppliers

It knows how often you use your microwave, how many loads of laundry you do every week, what kind of television you own and even how often you shower. It can tell how many people live in your home, what time they go to bed and when the house is empty. All of this information and more is gathered by smart grid meters…

[…]

The information could be used in all kinds of ways, legitimate or not, from cities seeking broad information about how well energy-efficiency programs are working to burglars looking for expensive electronics.

Law enforcement agencies want to use smart meters to spot potential marijuana-growing operations or the location of an underground sweatshop. Companies hope the data will help them target marketing to consumers.

Where there’s data, there’s money… and you can’t always trust organisations who promise never to sell your data to third parties to actually keep their word. AMIRITE, Mr Zuckerberg? Smart grids will be a boon to our increasingly energy-hungry planet, but they’ll also be another battleground for the privacy war that’s slowly lumbering its way into the Now.

But hey, think positive: there’s an upside to the fact that utilities companies monitor their grids. If you get lost in the middle of nowhere without a cellphone, you can just cut down an electricity pylon and wait for the repair crew to arrive[both links via John Robb]


How to encourage frugality: make it a contest

Paul Raven @ 06-02-2009

sad face and happy faceThe New York Times reports on an intriguing – and apparently effective – method of encouraging consumers to curb their energy habits. A Sacramento utility company printed comparisons of energy use on their bills, and rated the consumers by comparison to their neighbourhood’s averages and best figures, labelling their success or failure with a happy or sad face respectively.

When the Sacramento utility conducted its first assessment of the program after six months, it found that customers who received the personalized report reduced energy use by 2 percent more than those who got standard statements…

Some clients complained and the utility stopped deploying the frowning faces, but the idea has apparently been taken up by other companies elsewhere. It’s interesting to note that this method is apparently more effective in encouraging efficient energy habits than emphasising the financial benefits or environmental impacts.

But of course, it’s playing on the urge to conformity, and there will always be those who react against such angles of attack. And while the end in this case is benign, it’s a strong reminder that anyone with a psychology (or marketing) degree has a lot more power to manipulate you than you might suspect. [story via WorldChanging; image by Emmaline]


What the hell is a ‘smart grid’, anyway?

Paul Raven @ 03-02-2009

electricity pylonOne of President Obama’s first actions has been to announce his intentions to build a ‘smart grid’ for the US energy infrastructure. WorldChanging explains the concepts behind the buzzphrase, and I’ll paraphrase their five broad categories here:

  • End-user smart metering to use energy more efficiently
  • Systems to integrate electricity generation with electricity storage
  • A communications network that shares data on performance, demand and availability of power
  • An ‘application platform’ that allows third-party utilities to connect the above systems together in useful ways
  • Monitoring and controlling systems that allow the grid to respond to service interruptions in a self-healing manner

In other words, it’s a lot like an internet for power, if you will – not to mention a far cry from the crude lacework of cables and substations we have at the present time. There’s a lot of work to be done, but the benefits of investing the time and money promise to be immense. I wonder what our lot in Whitehall are doing about the UK grid at the moment? [image by C P Storm]

If you’re interested in seeing the sixty odd discreet technologies that break down into the five groups above, the US Department of Energy has made a big old PDF report on smart grids.


Boulder, Colorado – smart grid city

Paul Raven @ 20-03-2008

electric ultility pylon What the hell is a “smart grid city”? [via Worldchanging]

Well, maybe you could call it “Infrastructure2.0”, but whatever you call it, it’s a new (and hopefully more sustainable) way of looking at the issues of providing utilities to urban areas. According to Xcel Energy:

“The next-generation electricity grid will allow our company to better meet growing demands, address environmental challenges, maximize available resources and optimize the entire energy system. Ultimately, a “smarter” grid helps us serve our customers by creating more options for managing personal energy use, habits and costs.”

All hot air and sales jargon, you might be thinking. Well, Xcel seem to be walking the walk as well talking the talk – they’re going to make Boulder, Colorado into their first Smart Grid City, with the first phase predicted for completion this August. [image by tanakawho]

I’m pretty pleased to see the energy industry acting on these sorts of ideas instead of just paying them lip service, and I hope something similar starts appearing over here in the UK. Perhaps where Xcel leads, others will follow and surpass.