Big Questions About the Future – Futurists Twitter Chat Thursday 4:00-5:00 EST #apf #futrchat

The Association of Professional Futurists (APF) is hosting its fifth twitter chat   on Thursday, 22 February, 2011 from 4:00 – 5:00 p.m. EST. hashtag: #futrchat. You can find information about the first four here  . (education, money, work, transportation)  

  • The topic is: What big  questions  do we need to ask about the future?

Do we need to wonder about Big Questions?

Initially, I was not a fan of this question for a twitter chat; it’s too unruly, too vague, too, well, BIG, to be addressed in a twitter chat. I discounted its 140 character potential.

Then I read Australian futurist Maree Conway’sblog post. “We need to go to a sort of future space, where we move beyond our knowledge of what’s happened and what’s happening now to explore what’s possible.”

Maree calls this future space the realm of “what if.” Those possibilities, instead of problems which assume something is missing or wrong. “What if’s” imagine alternative futures and open our minds to transformational change. By inquiring about the future in a curious and exploratory way, we see beyond today’s realities.

That’s an exciting proposition that promises to expand my futures images. Count me in.

Jugular Questions About the Future

Arno Penzias, Nobel prize winning physicist, says, “I went for the jugular question.”


What is a jugular question? Those are the most powerful questions, the why’s and what if’s, not the litanies of everyday life. For example, it’s not what you had for breakfast but


  • in 1930, you had bacon and eggs
  • in 2000 you had whole wheat toast and a banana
  • in 2040 you may eat hydroponic oranges; bananas for breakfast are a distance memory.

The Big Question would be: What values and conditions will shape food in 2040?

Big Questions address how things change, the meaning and purpose, the sweep of social change manifested in our lives. Jugular questions matter; they are systems and values, strategic questions about ethics, choices, and consequences that expose biases and assumptions. Who cares and why? Rather than who’s to blame or what’s wrong.


Big Questions create ripples.

Marilee Goldberg says it’s “when a question is asked inside the current paradigm that can only be answered from outside it.” Big Questions break open our assumptions, and create new sets of ideas, ripples in the water.

Maree details avery clear list of characteristics. Big Questions make us think differently about the future. They stir things up. And they are memorable; they stick with us and haunt us.

We’re not talking about today or even this year. What Big Questions should we ask about 2020, 2030 or 2050? What questions open our minds to future possibilities? Try to imagine you live in 2075, looking back to those years.

  • What Big Questions would we need to ask?
  • What is your jugular question about the future?

Please Join Us – an open tweet chat

You are welcome to join the APF #futrchat and voice your views about Big Questions. We’ve hosted chats on the future of education, the future of money, the future of work, and the future of transportation. These chats are fast and intense. I always learn enormously, like scanning futurists’ brains.

Maree Conway and I will co-host, asking the formal questions and follow ups. Please ask questions that come to you, add links (if they pertain and are not promotional ads), and teach, inform, persuade, thrill, or terrify us.



What do you think are the Big Questions about the future?

Join us on Twitter by searching for #futrchat. Please use #futrchat in your tweets, and the Question #, as Q1, Q2, Q3 etc. 

As alternative to, you can use tweetdeck and search for #futrchat (as I do). Or here are two sites where you join the chat.

21st century cities: D is for Disasters

This month, I’m writing a series: the ABC’s of 21st Century Cities. In previous entries, I explored Artificial Intelligence, Backward Futures  and Co-creation. Today is disasters.

and Brazil are suffering deadly disasters; I hope you recover rapidly and fully.


One year ago, Haiti was devastated by a 7.0 earthquake. Over 300,000 people were killed. The core of Port-Au-Prince was virtually leveled. One year later, less than 5% of the rubble has been removed. One million people remain homeless, living in tent cities.

The first disaster happened on January 12, 2010. The second one is ongoing. It’s a double crime – unsafe construction and terrible response.

For 21st century cities, disasters are a way of life

Do you have a nagging sense that there’s an uptick in disasters? It’s true. There are four times as many natural disasters as twenty years ago. The trend is still climbing.

No one is immune. Fifty poorer countries led by India will suffer the most deaths. A recent report estimates we will see one million deaths a year by 2030 . Industrialized countries will pay more in economic and infrastructure loss, estimated at $157 billion annually.

Disasters are reshaping our human geography.

  •     Over one billion people  in over 100 countries are at risk of becoming climate refugees; 98% live in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Middle East (pictured Lilypad2 Refugee Floating Island).
  •     The current number of climate refugees is 50 million people, mostly displaced by flooding. By 2050, the UN estimates as many as 200 million climate refugees.
  •     People will migrate to places with food, water, security, education, health, and jobs, away from floods, disease, famine, drought, and conflict.
  •     In the US , the predicted hurricane damage on the gulf coast by 2030 is $350 billion , equal to a Hurricane Katrina every 7 years. New York and Miami  hold the highest risk for massive infrastructure damage.
  •     NBC news reporter Ann Curry’s tweet helped doctors and medicine land at a Haitian airstrip.  Is twitter a robust grassroots communication network ready to serve in disasters?

Have you been caught a disaster?

If so, were you ready? It’s more than just individual procrastination; we even vote to avoid fixing infrastructure.

  •     Elected officials get cheered and then re-elected when they respond to a disaster, as they should. But amazingly, when they beef up infrastructure, they lose elections. For every $1 spent in preparation, we save $15 in recovery.

“The benefits of prevention are not tangible; they are the disasters that did not happen.” Kofi Annan

  •     Nature or humans? Imagine if Haiti’s construction had been quake-resistant? In New Orleans, Katrina wasn’t the killer, a failed levee was. The two are so deeply intertwined, it’s always both.
  •     Mississippi and Alabama, each devastated by Katrina, refuse to enact building codes. Florida suffered 40-50% less damage and fewer deaths.
  •     Some recoveries take half a century, like Berlin. Others leap forward, like London. Still others take centuries and even millennia, like Rome.
  •     Flooding may steal the great coastal cities from future generations; there may not be future “Romes” to serve as historic markers of today.

Can we rebuild better than before?

Some cities revitalize and thrive after a catastrophic event. Others collapse, becoming a shadow of their most robust past. Jared Diamond believes collapse occurs when a society fails to adapt to new ecological or economic environments.

In other words, to recover, a city has to clearly imagine a revitalized future in a dramatically altered landscape and have the capacity and resources to act.

  •     The best time (if there is such a thing) to experience a major disaster is when your country or region is on a growth cycle. The worst is when your city’s in decline already.
  •     Will disasters become the reality tv of tomorrow?
Rotterdam is a miracle of resilience
After a catastrophic flood in 1953, Rotterdam leaders decided to rebuild beyond anyone’s imagination. Forty four years later, the Maeslant Barrier opened. It is an engineering marvel, designed to withstand a 10,000 year flood event.
  • Gumption. Building on Boyd’s OODA decision-making loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act),Vinay Gupta identifies Drive as the missing link between orientation and deciding to act, in other words, leadership and vision.
  • Wrong-mindedness. The most difficult problem is not inaction but wrong-minded action. Is New York rebuilding a 2050 future or a 1950 rehash?
  • Mindfulness. In contrast, after the 1989 earthquake destroyed the massive Embarcadero highway, San Francisco tore it down and re-established access to the bay from the adjacent neighborhoods. They chose a new, unique future.
  • A future of parity. For New Orleans to build a levee system for a 500 year flood event the estimate is $70 billion. The current repair to the levees is costing $15 billion for a 100 year flood. The entire city’s future remains unstable.

Images of the future

A number of organizations are fully mobilized such as the UN’s Resilient Cities program and Architecture for Humanity. Here’s a few still in the future.

  •     Communication networks include our mobile phones. Flying disaster relief robots support a local network.
  •     Video games can aid in preparation and emergency response training.
  •     Sensor networks provide real time data on locations of people and resources.
  •     Mobile hospitals will be flown into remote locations, such as solar airships.
  •    Temporary housing is being designed as prefab or created locally with salvaged materials.
  •     Future housing will be created on-site via 3d printers.
  •     Modular solar power enables off the grid energy.
  •     Geoengineering attempts to turn back atmospheric change to avoid the most extreme consequences of global warming.
  •     Sensors for emergency alert systems continue to improve

 Disaster-ready future cities

Several trends help: localism for food, distributed power especially the use of solar energy, walkable and biking neighborhoods w/ shops and services, DIY initiatives for making things, bartering/trading/sharing networks, communication networks such as twitter and other mobile devices, and so on.  A global push for city response plans, strengthening infrastructure, implementing building codes, and building higher and away from oceans is critical.

  • The 9/11 Report described New York as a failure of imagination. Can imagination help us?
  • The strongest efforts come from within a community. Someone steps up; some vision captures hearts and minds. People begin a million small actions towards recovery.
  • If a catastrophic event hits your city, are you ready? Is your neighborhood? Your family? How will you be safe? How resilient is your city?

Disasters destroy normal. Many cities and communities find their true mission, and rebuild even better. It can be a moment of deep reflection and learning, committing, and inspiring.

The next post, E is for Education. I am failing at my goal to post daily so I will try some new strategies. Thank you for reading, tweeting, commenting!

Images: Disaster historic statistics, Haiti tent city, Rotterdam Maeslantkering, Pakistani flood refugees, Lilypad2 floating city, flying disaster relief robots, video games.


Giving thanks for imagination, creative genius, and flow. #letsblogoff #architecture

In tribute to November’s annual eat-fest, the Let’s Blog Off  gang asks: What makes us thankful? You can read my blogging friends’ thoughts on Thanksgiving here . They will make you laugh, cry, remember, relate, and even get organized. I am thankful for people who dare to imagine and push boundaries. Maybe people like you?  


One of my very closest friends knew a lot about imagination. You could say

 Gordon was a creativity guru or a midwife to ideation. He used metaphoric stories to reveal the mysteries of originality and release the visions you hold deep inside.

For instance, a cow chewing its cud for hours performs the miracle of making milk. Creativity is like that. The imagination needs freedom to gestate. You can’t measure it, you can’t see it, and you sure as hell can’t sell it until the idea is ready. That peculiar work of invention frustrates bean counters no end. Yet new ideas depend on wandering, experimenting, failing, and recreating, on linking thoughts and images in strange wondrous ways and allowing explosions.

I live for the moments of feeling that rush of ideas, the joy of inspiration, being in the flow. It’s an out of body time where I may not notice food or drink and surely not time passing. I’m the cow in the field imagining a world that does not yet exist.

Every day someone is creating something so startling that you can hardly breathe when you see it. Your body reacts, prickles on the neck, tears of pure awe. You feel their genius. Yet few seeds of brilliance ever escape the womb of the imagination. We forget them before we can draw or write. The sketch doesn’t fulfill the vision. Others throw up roadblocks; it’s too large, too small, too bizarre, too too too many lines. Who knows, someone says it’s just too… And it will never be built.

Revelations 2010

This year,ultra towers,kinetic structures,new towns,urban agriculture, andflying security robots transformed our images of 21st century cities. A few are absolute revelations. I am thankful for the spectacular ideas and courageous acts of imagination and fortitude that survived the maze of barriers and naysayers. 


1. The Seed Cathedral reframes architecture as sustainable and ephemeral – a new paradigm beyond theCrystal Palace and theblur building. 60,000 shimmering filaments carry Millennium seeds that will give birth to a future bio-diverse forest. 



2. In the aftermath of the catastrophic Haiti earthquake,Architecture for Humanity bypassed the usual routes of bureaucracy and organized working communities of Haitians toenvision a vibrant future, starting with new housing and schools. 

3. Living City Design Competition recognizes cities that are making extraordinary efforts to envision a socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative civilization. Can your city meet the challenge? Submissions due in February.



4. The secretive

Underbelly Project flaunts the work of street artists on subterranean walls of an abandoned New York subway station. Watch an inspiring short video via the NY Times. 



5. Outside Mexico City,

Container City adapts lowly shipping containers into a miraculous mixed use village. Imagine what we can do with junk.



6. Non-Sign II near the Canadian border conveys a simple message of… air.

7. Of the hundred-odd books I devoured, a few absolutely blew my mind. Do not miss:The Original Green by Steven Mouzon (drawn from deep knowledge, a manifesto on society, sustainability, and architecture),Cartographies of Time by Rosenberg and Grafton (stunning images of ancient to contemporary timelines reveal belief systems through the ages), andThe Watchman’s Rattle by Rebecca Costa (has innovation outpaced our brains?)


What sparks your imagination?

Do you look for people with purple hair, unexpected shoes, carrying a tube or drawing tools, or walking with a different gait? They hold some particular energy, the bodacious ideas churning in their gut, planning to capture the thing before it disappears. Perhaps that person is you.

It’s a bit of madness, by some standards. We all have it. We may camouflage it, forget it, fail to cultivate it, but we surely flung it around as children. Back when we wore fuscia boots, finger painted, and skipped. Someone somewhere told us our drawing, singing, dancing were not good enough and bang!  The imagination snapped inwards, afraid of further castigation. Is yours still hiding, damaged by thoughtless words, snooty looks?   

Gordon’s final lesson: you have a masterpiece inside you. If you go to your grave without painting it, it will not get painted. No one else can paint it. Only you. 

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the ideas that you share and the miracles you create. 

What makes you thankful?

    • Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.

      You might say, “The world outside is vast and intricate.

      There are wheatfields and mountain passes,

      And orchards in bloom.

      You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up

      In the dark with eyes closed.

      Listen to the answer.

      There is no “other world.”

      I only know what I’ve experienced.

      You must be hallucinating.  –Rumi

Images:Imagination Allows by Gaping Void Hugh McLeod; Lead Pencil StudioNon-Sign II, Blaine, WA;Container City, Mexico;Seed Cathedral at Shanghai Expo by Thomas Heatherwick;The Underbelly Project, New York City;Boatanic Floating Farms, Amsterdam 

Extreme Travel: Would You Visit the International Space Station? #letsblogoff

Today’s #letsblogoff asks: Where’s your slice of heaven? A group of design, architecture, and construction related folks are sharing ideas about heavenly travel spots. Here’s alist of brilliant people  that posted.  ok… four, three, two, one…


Why Do We Travel?

While my home is a small slice of heaven, it is just that, a slice. To see the world, I have to leave these aggregated comforts, conveniences, and familiarities. Why do it? Travel to different places opens my mind and feeds my spirit. I love architecture, cities, nature, visiting people, and new experiences. I come home with fresh insights, renewed purpose, and a greater sense of the world. Travel changes me.

To boil it down, I want to experience places that are shaping the world. Moreover, I want to see ideas most likely to change the world dramatically.

In other words, I want to see the future.

You might say that’s two dimensions of travel – space and time. We do it all the time in our travels backward – ancient Egypt, Rome, China. Boom, we see, touch, walk on the same stones and shapes someone built several millennia back. A drive through town is a bit of time travel, if you think about it. Time is jam-packed in cities.

I travel to see forward too.

The Extreme Future City

Given this brave thought experiment of “travel heaven,” I imagine: What is the ultimate future city built today? Hands down, it’s theInternational Space Station .

Here’s why.

  1. It is the ultimate act of optimism. Sixteen countries collaborated to design a place and explore new territories. When does that happen?
  2. It is the ultimate act of fear. Why would anyone leave Planet Earth for cold, cruel outer-space? Is it fair to say that we will only leave permanently if we have to?
  3. It’s the first and only place that people live off of the Earth. The first. Imagine that. How long will we say that?
  4. It’s travel on a new scale. An outpost. A place to go to the next place, other solar systems, and perhaps at some point, to find a sweet alien planet.
  5. You meet some really smart people, the ultimate brainiacs camp. In one week, I bet the bonding matches an entire lifetime of ordinary encounters. High risk survivals and overcoming fear does that.
  6. You get to float. And maybe even space walk. Enough said.

  7. The journey itself is truly an adventure, an extreme blast off from earth. Remember your first plane flight? Surely a flight to space will be life altering.
  8. You get to see earth as a whole. The blue marble. Whew.
  9. We are creating a new way to live. Every small act is an invention.
  10. The space station is the most pure expression of a high tech tomorrow. Tell me, do you think we would ever build a space station the shape of a house?

Will we populate the nightscape with more space stations? I bet we will. Private corporations see profit reasons to explore and inhabit outer space. Our lives revolve around space travel inventions, like satellites and microwaves. Space engineering is the last mega-physical frontier. That challenge alone will attract the Richard Bransons of the world.

Bottom line, I want to know what we do at the ISS. What do space station visitors believe? How does living on a space station change your perspective? Upon my return, assuming that I do return, how would I see Earth differently? What would I think of people and our place in the universe?

Because I think that if you see life in perspective, that’s the ultimate travel experience.

Behind Curtain Number One

If you were given ticket to the International Space Station, would you take it? Or trade it for a week in more earthly places? 





What Is Geo-Engineering? Cool, Clear Images

These images complement my last article: How Technology Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Geo-Engineering, which was a bit skimpy on pics, heavy on narrative.  Here are four more illustrations. One diagrams options, two rank them in cost-benefit analyses, and one does both.

The one that both diagrams and analyzes: New Scientist gave the most comprehensive version with a 3D image of options with rankings. Space mirrors (or reflectors, shields) rank highest overall and most expensive. Aerosols, cloud seeding and afforesting are shown as good options for less cost.




A diagram only: The University of East Anglia (on Next Big Future) created a simple illustration of solutions.


A cost-benefit analysis comes from the impressive report by The Royal Society. Aerosols come out best and surface albedo (light, reflective surfaces) either in cities or on the desert rank worst. Space reflectors or shields also rank high in efficacy but are not affordable. (I featured this one in a September post Heres the full report: 




Another ranking of the solutions: As presented at an October symposium at MIT (on CNET), Phillip Boyd of University of Otago rated five categories of climate engineering based on four factors. The researcher considered all options a minefield of social and political factors. The symposium participants voiced a great deal of skepticism and caution, with far more testing and life cycle costs analysis recommended before any action is taken. To which I say, amen!




Geo-engineering is no panacea for climate change; sustainable development and practices plus mitigation efforts are essential, necessary steps now. The conversation and testing on geo-engineered remediation picked up pace this year. We need to be informed and proceed cautiously b/c errors could be devastating. Public debates and global negotiations are beginning, and should be openly transparent. See my original analysis for more detail.

Check out my delicious bookmarks on geo-engineering too.