Robert Hickson

Robert Hickson has evolved from an evolutionist, looking backwards, into a futurist. Many of the skill sets are the same; looking for patterns, making sense of them, and trying to fill in the gaps. He's of the view that in New Zealand we don't do enough forward looking. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent the views of his current employer (if any), or Charles Darwin.

Cities of the mind - Ariadne

Nov 01, 2017

Metropolis, the Jetsons, Blade Runner. Imagining cities of the future is a popular past-time. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has just announced his vision of the mega-city of the future – Neom. With web site. And the price tag too (half a trillion dollars in case you missed it).     This struck me as more ego that eco. A “continued domination of nature”, to borrow from architect Anthony Thistleton. Technologies used to transform the environment. Limitless rather than limited. A totally different approach is Arcosanti in Arizona’s Sonoran desert. A “city” in the making for the last half century. Built to be “part of the landscape, not in spite of it.” It comes across as a desiccated Hobbiton. But it is about transforming consciousness of what … Read More

The future of labour - Ariadne

Oct 24, 2017

Not the party, the activity. Labour day in New Zealand is when a few remember and (mostly) celebrate the improvements in working conditions over time, while many just enjoy a day off. However, there has been much angst recently that, thanks to increasing automation, many of us will soon not have the experience of paid employment. Reflecting what seems to be a common view, the US’s Pew Research Center report on automation notes that respondents while not too worried that their own job is at risk are concerned overall about the effect of automation on jobs. Is this likely to become reality, or is it, as Nesta suggests, “false alarmism“? You can pick your opinion pieces to support whatever view you adhere to. The journal Nature has just published a set … Read More

Tomorrow really never comes - Ariadne

Oct 10, 2017

In Zeno’s philosophical paradox Achilles can never overtake the tortoise. Similarly, it sometimes seems that future technologies never arrive. Grace Ballenger and Aaron Mak writing in Slate highlight the “Goldilocks” zone of technological predictions – the next big thing is neither too close to be here by Christmas, nor too far away to become purely fictional. The technology is nearly always just “five to ten years” away from becoming mainstream. Flying cars, jet packs, fusion power, household robotic servants. Ballenger & Mak give 81 examples of predictions that use this phrase over the last 20 years. Most haven’t eventuated even after ten years (though some of their examples are predictions made within the last five years). Their point is not that predictions are snake oil, just that we usually under estimate how long it takes to get … Read More

Peak State? - Ariadne

Oct 06, 2017

Are we approaching “peak State”, where the power of diverse nation states starts to decline back toward greater power being held by large cities or culturally or religiously more homogeneous regions? Catalonians and Iraqi Kurds voted in independence referenda this last week. In contrast to Scotland’s and the UK’s Brexit referenda a few years ago neither of these has the support of their State governments. Cameroon too, has had a violent independence riot. Other cities and regions have expressed an interest in seceding from their countries. Some groups even want to establish their own micro-nations off-shore, away from meddling governments. And, as we are seeing in the US, some states are taking the initiative when they see their federal government failing to … Read More

Thinking beyond capitalism - Ariadne

Sep 24, 2017

Joey Eschrich, writing in Slate, suggests that the futures industry has a “dearth of imagination”. He contends that futurists pay too little attention to “post-capitalist” futures. “As we fret over the future, we worry about rising sea levels and robotic job-snatchers, but the economic and political supremacy of the capitalist market doesn’t seem to be up for discussion.”   He makes some valid points. Futures projects often consider the implications of changing geopolitical environments, but changing economic systems aren’t often explicitly considered in the same detail. Some look not at replacing capitalism, but “re-imagining” it. Rising inequality and economic insecurity are widely recognized in futures discussions, although there is a tendency to jump to a form of universal basic income as a solution, whilst retaining the current economic system. However, he’s wrong that … Read More

The once and future farmer - Ariadne

Sep 16, 2017

In our own cultural memory New Zealand used to have the best farming system in the world. No more, according to some. Two recent articles about the Netherlands illustrate how we are falling behind in some ways, and can provide a stimulus for how we can do better. National Geographic highlights the Netherland’s sustainable agricultural system in this month’s issue of their magazine. “ Almost two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since 2000, van den Borne and many of his fellow farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock … Read More

Electric avenue - Unsorted

Sep 08, 2017

Where to with electric vehicles? Christchurch is introducing a fleet of electric cars, for business and public use. That’s adding about 100 new electric vehicles (“EV”) cars to the existing 3,000 in NZ. That’s less than 0.1% of the over 3.5 million light vehicles registered here. Source: NZ Transport Agency   The more significant point with the Christchurch cars, though, is that they are intended to be shared.   Trends It seems reasonable to assume that prices for electric vehicles will decline, and that their range will increase over the coming years. so more people are likely to buy, lease, or share them. The NZ government is encouraging electric vehicles to some extent, through policy and investment in some charging infrastructure, as well as not applying road user … Read More

Crafted bots - Ariadne

Aug 31, 2017

We are getting used to seeing sleek, industrial robots. (I’m looking at you Air NZ). And previously I’ve noted some animal-inspired machines. From these and other technological developments we can tend to expect the future to be shiny, hard-edged and efficient. A different approach is being explored with “Blossom” (and others), a DIY soft robot intended for social situations, such as helping autistic children.     An interview with one of it’s designers on IEEE Spectrum is an interesting read. It is intentionally quirky, imperfect and customisable, to elicit social connection. Soft robots can’t do many of the tasks that more typical robots can do, but as with creating more organic cities they are an important signal that harsh industrialised sci-fi visions won’t necessarily be reality. As Michael Winikoff … Read More

Smarter, spongier cities - Ariadne

Aug 25, 2017

There is a great deal of interest, and investment, in developing “smart” cities (and here, here, and here). That is, creating sensor networks to monitor human activities, traffic, waste, water, and environmental conditions to optimise city services and make cities more pleasant places to be in. But there is more to (re)designing cities (and towns) than remaking them simply as computers or sensor networks. As we have seen here recently, managing inundations can be a big problem, and may get worse if “extreme” weather events become more common. Putting in more, or bigger, pipes to handle storm water will be expensive, slow, and disruptive. Berlin and other cities are taking an ecological track to make the urban environment better able to absorb and … Read More

Hopeful futures - Ariadne

Jul 15, 2017

A few weeks ago I gave a conference talk about using stories to look at the future. I focused on the need to pay more attention to creating stronger story lines and characters. That’s because it is more important to stimulate the audience to explore a range of possible futures than to try and predict what you think may happen. I got a very good reaction to that. However, since it was an information technology-focused conference one of the questions afterwards was “what are the technologies to keep an eye on?” That, and the “What next” series on TV, got me thinking again about our level of sophistication in thinking about the future. I’ve written before about the less asked “why?” futures questions. “What?” type questions can be too deterministic, or narrowly focused. It … Read More