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Transportation Futures

Urban_Colonies.jpg"Infrastructure" is a painfully wonky word for an utterly necessary concept. Infrastructure is the pathway for a society's flows -- of traffic, of information, of power, and so forth. Infrastructure is as necessary to civilization as blood vessels and nerves are to a body. And as with our body's systems, many of us only pay attention to infrastructure when it's showing signs of collapse.

That's why I am particularly heartened to find the new results from a large-scale scenario project looking at the future of infrastructure, run by the UK government's official Foresight Directorate. (And, as an aside: just how cool is it that the UK government has an official Foresight Directorate?!?) The project, entitled "Intelligent Infrastructure Futures" (PDF), offers four possible scenarios for how changes to energy, environment, and society will change transportation systems in the UK over the next 20-50 years.

The four scenarios, "Perpetual Motion," "Urban Colonies," "Tribal Trading," and "Good Intentions," give us different takes on how social attitudes and technological developments combine to shape how people travel, and why. The four futures will be familiar to any student of scenario planning -- you have the "way too-fast-paced" world, the "socially-aware but kinda boring" world, the "things fall apart/the center does not hold" world, and the "today, but worse" world. None of them would be precisely the WorldChanging world, but WorldChanging-style ideas pop up, to varying degrees, in all of them.

Most readers would probably find the Urban Colonies world the most appealing -- especially if some of the funky tech from Perpetual Motion slipped in by the side door:

In Urban Colonies, investment in technology primarily focuses on minimising environmental impacts. In this world, good environmental practice is at the heart of the UK’seconomic and social policies; sustainable buildings, distributed power generation and new urban planning policies have created compact, sustainable cities.
Transport is permitted only if green and clean – car use is still energy-expensive and is restricted. Public transport – electric and low-energy – is efficient and widely used.
Competitive cities have the IT infrastructure needed to link high-value knowledge businesses, but there is poor integration of IT supporting transport systems. Rural areas have become more isolated, effectively acting as food and bio-fuel sources for cities.
Consumption has fallen. Resource use is now a fundamental part of the tax system and disposable items are less popular.
[...] Perpetual Motion describes a society driven by constant information, consumption and competition. In this world, instant communication and continuing globalisation have fuelled growth: demand for travel remains strong.
New, cleaner, fuel technologies are increasingly popular. Road use is causing less environmental damage, although the volume and speed of traffic remains high. Aviation still relies on carbon fuels and remains expensive. It is increasingly replaced by ‘telepresencing’ technology (for business) andrapid train systems (for travel).

What makes this project particularly appealing to me, even without a full-blown Bright Green scenario, is the level of detail and research that went into the set of worlds. The scenario document runs over 80 pages, but there are over a dozen sub-reports covering issues including materials technologies, the role of complexity and emergent behavior in transportation, the psychology of travel, the use of data collection and RFID-style tags, and multiple approaches to environmental sustainability in transportation.

Generally speaking, the four scenarios read like reasonably plausible extrapolations of many transportation and energy/environment-related developments over the next twenty years or so. Vehicles are (generally speaking) greener and use more computing power, but there are no radical differences between now and then. The problem is, the scenarios run to 2055 -- and it's really hard to believe that the next fifty years or so won't have a few more surprises in store for us than the Foresight Directorate is willing to accept.

Of course, coming up with reasonably plausible visions of the next fifty years is damn hard. The problem is that many of the key technological developments that look possible but not predictably inevitable -- such as full-scale molecular manufacturing, functional machine intelligence (issues of "real" sentience being secondary), radical longevity, and, with far fewer benefits, super-empowered "global guerillas" and catastrophic climate shifts -- would lead to such fundamental changes in how we all live that nitty-gritty discussions of vehicle technologies and train schedules get lost in the glare of social transformation.

My suggestion is to go for the transportation scenarios but to stay for the supporting material.

(Thanks for the tip, Eric Boyd; for further discussion, see Soft Machines and False Positives)


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Comments (2)

I agree to the statement. After a year or more, infrastructure will do exist as been said that it is necessary to civilization of the future. But the big Q is.. Is every one ready?

"The Foresight Directorate" might be the name of my next band.


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