A good time to be alive

By Robert Hickson 08/10/2015

It’s a good time to be alive, on many counts.

BBC’s Horizons show looks back on the progress of some of the technology developments that they covered over the past five years.  That’s great, because often we only hear about the hype and hope at the start of a new development, and not what transpires later as it attempts to enter the real world.

The series of short videos they have posted follow up on a range of technological developments.

The Lifesaver® water filtration system is now being deployed in developing communities and communities before or after natural disasters. You can even order some for yourself. Although the costs are high, your investment will probably be priceless following a severe earthquake or storm. Not your usual stocking filler, but Christmas isn’t far off.

The Lifesaver illustrates that the future isn’t all high tech and shiny. A range of these relatively simple inventions, including insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets, are already having big impacts in poorer countries.

Horizons also look at how LED lights are being used to grow veggies . “Vertical” farms appear to be getting closer, though the economics of them still need work for large scale production. However, a Japanese firm thinks that adding in robots will allow them to produce 10 million lettuces a year, and more cheaply than traditionally grown ones. What if schools and community gardens adopt this higher tech approach (without the robots perhaps) and could provide most of their communities fresh fruit and vegetables year round?

Biofuels from microalgae, while promising at small scales, still face challenges. The company Horizons looked at – Solazyme – is now diversifying into also producing oils for food, personal care, and industrial applications to try and become viable across a range of markets.

Artificial leaves coupled with bacteria for energy production also still have a way to go.

Of course it isn’t all fabulous now. Refugee crises, child abuse, and suicide are just a few of the societal challenges we face. And despite Ray Kurzweil’s optimism, the future will not be perfect.

Consequently, it was good to see the book edited by Shapiro and Morson includes a question mark – The Fabulous future? America and the world in 2040. Listen to the interview on Radio NZ National. As Prof Morson noted, prediction is often more useful when viewed as a means to shine a light on today’s world and attitudes, rather than being confident in what the future will bring.

The nature and pace of change now, and the complexity of some of the challenges facing societies, mean that doing well in the future isn’t about replacing one technology or widget with a new one. It requires thinking about how to change the systems that have developed and accreted around them, as the case of power utilities illustrates.

It is great to have Lifesaver® jerrycans and mosquito nets being delivered to impoverished communities, but that’s just a start for their fabulous future. What else will they require? And, if we want to wean ourselves off oil and gas, what else do we need to change in our social, transport and industrial systems?