We have to switch off oil and gas. Renewables are cheaper and better and will stop us destroying our only planet.



..I’m sorry, you want more from this episode of Unsee The Future? ..Really?

Eesh, well. I mean, what more is there to say?



..Really, you don’t just get that one point? That sums it all up?




Well, okay. I suppose there might be a tad more too it than that, but really, if you have things to do you could run with the headline and skip the rest and… okay.

In this episode of Unsee The Future, I’ll be looking at what it will take to power the human-planet future. The component part of our complete plan that will light up all the others, as it were. Or certainly enable them. Without energy, the modern world goes out overnight – and half the world has an emotional breakdown realising there is no more 24/7 human contact through eyes-decicating blue light and arthrihtic thumbs… only outside. And the neighbours. And you’re worried about sea level rises.



While shortages of everything seem to feed the fears of many future predictions, some today are talking of abundance. And while others of us today can’t afford to put the heating on or cook dinner, the big energy companies seem to be still making squillions in profits, while also nursing their own existential worries. And all while streets clog with life-shortening fumes and the atmosphere everywhere begins to warm enough to change the balance of life on Earth.

How do we eradicate fuel poverty while rolling back from the carbon red lines around the world? And just how can we practically feed civilisation’s voratious appetite for energy without burning everything we have?

The question we face together is: What price power? All depends what we really value – and yes, how we charge the chargecard.



It’s all a wind-up. The climate crisis, the Green lobby, clean future energy. Well, I for one wish it was. When Trevor Bayliss invented his wind up radio in the early nineties, I think we all imagined the future would be clockwork. But if it really was the beginning of a ‘personal gen’ revolution, based on some brilliantly un-masstransmitional thinking, it didn’t translate into devices all around us being crank-driven and energy tarrif-free quite like we hoped. And that’s because a sensibly-sized geared tortion spring can only store so much energy. Imagine scaling up a clockwork car to Sainsbury’s run size and walking past a fully wound one in the car park – that amount of tension relying on No Sudden Explosive Brake Failure would give anyone a nervous headache. Be like Tina’s daughter’s wedding all over again. Would be a good work-out recranking the thing every half a mile, mind. As you watched bikes zipping past.

But, as Bayliss Brands explain, its eponymous founder did spawn a quiet revolution in ways to create microgeneration in tricky parts of the world, inspired as he was by a documentary on the spread of AIDS in Africa in 1991. Getting simple things like radios and torches working without plumbed political or constant-cost battery power supply would simply make hard living very slightly easier. And he went on to spend so much time developing the technology for his African markets he got to present a radio to Nelson Mandella himself. It’s an oddly poignient image, Treveor Baliss with Nelson Mandela, holding a wind up radio together.

Image from article: Mark Southern interviews Trevor Baylis

In fact, the thinking has spawned so many other products today, that there is a burgeoning market world wide for personal-scale micro generation in lots of forms – from wind-up battery chargers, to kinetic power cells to micro solar arrays and gravity power and, well, so many things you can crank to life while traveling or camping, as Wind-Up Battery.com can help you explore better than the back pages of a Sunday supplement mag.

But in domestic life, our attitude to energy is rather different from the savvy trail riding of backpacking or far-flung field work. We take it for granted. Energy seems to us in the modern world like a commodity that just flows out of taps and sockets and accelerator pedals dependably – but the truth is, harnessing it is at least as tricky as generating it predictably in the first place. If the power goes out at home, you would not want to be sailing a kite in a thunderstorm to try to charge your iPhone X.

Now, before you say it, there is a difference between energy and power. You paid attention in Physics, but most of us have forgotten how things actually work. Energy is the capacity to do work, while power is the rate at which energy is used doing it. Energy is measured in Joules and power in Watts and 1 x watt = 1 x joule of energy per second converted into power. So two mighty watts of raw sound majesty uses two joules a second to play your dad’s Aerosmith compilation reedily through your budget bluetooth iPod speaker. In that way you do just to annoy him. Which means your budget bluetooth speaker had better be able to store a good 5,000 joules of energy if you are to get to Lightning Strikes from the reissued Greatest Hits before it conks out.

Electrical energy to power your dad’s classic Technics hifi in the lounge, and to recharge your budget bluetooth speaker, has traditionally come from dirty great power stations dotted around the country, transmitted expensively across leafy dale and wild moor to reach the substation at the end of your street through a massive infrastructure of cables, pylons and No Kite Flying signs, looked after in the UK by the National Grid. Energy generation, distribution and transformation that for years has started with burning sheer tons of coal or natural gas or by splitting atoms of Uranium 238 and 235 into gigantically radioactive fission reactions, all to turn tons of water into tons steam to turn turbines to turn generators to turn your lights on and your dad’s amp up to eleven.

These days, the country is typical of reasonably infrastructurally robust nations by having a mix of types of energy generation to keep everyone’s lights, air guitar parties and dialysis machines running without interruption. According to Energy UK, the 2018 mix of energy sources for my home country is split between fossil fuels, nuclear and renewables, with some imports from other countries. Those pipelines we imagined we were depending on Putin for rather worryingly.

Well, the current proportions of those fuels today are interesting to note. In 2016, according to their figures, 42% of the UK’s power came from burning natural gas, and 9% from coal. 21% of our energy here is nuclear, while renewables, including wind, wave, marine, hydro, biomass and solar made up 24.5% in the same period – and today is generally a third of all Britain’s power. And while we’ve been net importers of power in recent years, our imports come from dedicated supply networks with France, The Netherlands and Ireland, and it’s designed to regulate capacity between us as neighbours in both directions and we export much to them as well. So no nafarious global power players quite have the UK’s off switch on their desk yet.

The headline there is, of course – crikey Charlie, green energy, man. And as Utility Week reports, a new report suggests: “Renewable energy will account for more than half of the UK’s power supply by 2026”. But. Can renewables really save us from the warming of our atmosphere that is the inevitable and measurable effect of so many fossil fuel power generation plants and factories burning all day and night? Or are there problems with rolling out the green alternative?

There are problems. Not least of which, resistance. And crossed wires.



Australia. It’s been hot, lately. I know, you look up from cupping your tepid chai latte and then dispondently out of the rain speckled window you are sitting photogenically close to and give a shivery sigh of seasonally affected “whatever.” But for many Ozos, it’s not been all Christmas turkey on the beach and Olympic volleyball practice. Temperatures hitting the forties have returned this year, putting a strain on many aspects of health, infrastructure and wildlife, and highlighting one particular problem the country is labouring under all year round. An energy crisis.

More than a year ago from when I write, in September 2016 down under temperatures soared… and the lights went out. A rolling blackout across South Australia put thousands of families in the dark for the evening and many more for more than 24 hours. Virtually the entire state was knocked out from tea time and metropolitan Adelaide only came back online by ten pm. Bit of a bugger, to say the least. But warnings of more ‘load shedding’ blackouts were issued at the time for wider Australia, including New South Wales.

As News.com Australia reported, SA’s Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis said then: “The problem that is occurring here is coming to a city near you on the eastern sea board soon”.

Doesn’t sound like a very robust modern bit of infrastructure going on there, does it. Or bon homme between neighbour states. And the problem hasn’t gone away since then. So what is the Australian power problem?

Mr Koutsantonis supposedly put is bluntly: “A massive catastrophic failure of the national electricity market.” Ah. Well that’s good to be clear on.

“There is a problem of generation and the way the market operates in this country,” Charis Chang reported him as saying. “That is, we have an oversupply of generation, yet the market is unable to dispatch that electricity to sufficiently meet our needs.”

Nine months later a remarkable open letter to the country’s government, signed by an interesting cross section of business, basically demanded a resolution to the ongoing crisis. Not yet sorted out. In an interview with ABC News in October last year Innes Willox of the Australian Industry Group, one of the signatories, says: “Autralia should be an energy superpower. We should be the nation the rest of the world looks on with jealousy”.

He estimated that Australian energy bills over the last couple of years had seen at least a 170% increase which, as he puts it: “For many businesses this is just not sustainable.” And, by all accounts, simply many households, with increasing numbers of people reported sliding into health-threatening fuel poverty around the nation.

The blame for blackouts and clog-ups in the market was laid by some loud voices at the foot of renewable energy.

Coal and gas have driven Australia’s power for decades, of course, but forcasted demand for power in the country hasn’t panned out quite as imagined in recent years – falling, in fact. Partly simple economic flatlining but also significantly because of the uptake of domestic solar power. Also in play is the RET – the Renewable Energy Target. A subsidy to bolster greener energy systems that’s supposedly supported by both major political parties in Australia, in the country’s stated climate crisis commitments. Problem is that the shortfall in general energy demand has meant that renewables haven’t so much made up the difference in power needs but begun to push old power out of the picture.

As ABC News reports, add to this the fact that the country’s fleet of coal power stations is retiring almost en masse, and that the gas production of Australia seems to be heavily contractually tied up with exports, rather than domestic electricity production, and you have a system simply not delivering reliably to ordinary homes and businesses.

South Australia has a significant percentage of wind energy in its base supply mix, which you can see in jolly live data on SA.GOV.AU’s fact page. Just looking at this live snapshot, you can see that of it’s comparatively modest almost 1100 megawatt usage, some 210MW are made by windfarms, with 870 of it coming from gas. But that doesn’t cover it entirely, as it has a degree of battery power feeding the grid as well – and, according to the government, over 20,000 homes now generating their own PV power. Rooftop solar.

You should see New South Wales and Queensland by comparison. More than 8,600MW and 6,300MW respectively of dirty coal energy being used at half ten at night as I watch the graphs flicker. A modest squirt of hydro and wind top up NSW with nothing renewable visible at all on QL’s bar. Strike a light, mate. And that’s just an average Thursday night at the back end of summer.

South Australia’s public dependence on wind marked it out for blame when the first black-outs hit. The accusation was, the capricious nature of renewable windy-blowy who-knowsy-when-it-willy couldn’t regulate demand in a crisis.

Well – no, actually. Turns out, those particular major blackouts happened because of a freak-scale storm that brought down distribution infrastructure – bent pylons – that effectively tripped out a system that couldn’t regulate wider flow because of a combination of an ailing network and market politics. In the rows about it in the days afterwards, the conservative Liberal government treasurer  Scott Morrison actually broke the parliamentary No Props, Puppets Or Puppies In Your Show rule and waved a lump of coal around the dispatch box, telling people not to be scared of it. Well, Scott, voters can be funny buggers, sometimes scared of technology – though, if pushed, I would personally rather place my fears in the blackened hands of lungs-destroying nineteenth century technology.

Now, while this was a weirdly obtuse willy waggle at the oppostition, the Labour party in Oz may talk of the need to increase green energy across the country but they actually reportedly  push with less conviction than it might seem, tied as they are to unions that rely heavily on coal jobs. Hmmm. So it sounds like there is very little appetite for renewably futury energy technology amongst the ordinary Australian electorate. Especially at the moment.

Enter two billionaire wundertechers in a very public Twitter exchange about the issue.

When Elon Musk tweeted thoughts about the potential of modern battery power to save Australia’s supply problems, Mike Cannon-Brookes called him out on a claim that he could “Solve SA’s supply problems in 100 days”.

“How serious are you?” he asked. “If I can make the $ happen (& politics), can you guarrantee the 100MW in 100 days?”

Musk replied that he’d supply it free if they hadn’t got it done in time. Then when to check with his team they really could.

The result is the world’s biggest battery project, just outside Janestown in South Australia. 100MW, driven by wind. Just done. But that wasn’t all. It showed the appetite in Australia for new energy thinking, as 60 minutes reported at the end of October.

Having called out Musk, Cannon-Brookes apparently did some catch-up homework on renewables generally and discovered much more support than he expected.

“I got multiple unsolicited offers,” he told the programme. “I think we added it up to a hundred million dollars in offers that came in. It was amazing. It was inspiring. As an Australian. To see people wanting to solve these problems in a real and meaningful way and I think they’re just sick of the politics on all sides.”

Scott Morrison was, on behalf of the government, mocking. “Have the world’s biggest battery, have the world’s biggest banana” he said. There’s another prop he could sneak into parliament.

Environmental writer Tim Hollo, on the other hand, told The Real News that the Tesla 100MW battery was “Just one of many game changers we’re seeing coming one after the other at the moment around the world in the development of renewable energy.”

When asked: “Are the coal companies floundering?” he replied: “Yes. The really big problem that they have is that renewable energy lends itself to decentralisation and therefore to democratisation of the energy grid.”

Hugely profitable control, as he calls it, gets harder to maintain, in other words.

In a Guardian article he refers to the Climate Institute’s Climate of the nation 2017 report which showed that over 70% of Australians are actively pro renewables. As he summarised, the report showed that: “..the vast majority of Australians want to see more renewable energy, do not believe that renewable energy is driving price rises (correctly identifying mis-regulation, privatisation and other corporate price-gouging as more to blame), and don’t think renewables need fossil fuels to back them up in the long term.”

Ah. Interesting.

The practical truth is that around the world coal is a dying industry. Been doing so for decades, of course, with investors in the technology today disappearing like choking swallows near a Rotterdam refinery fire. Natural gas is still a big player to keep the lights on but is still fundamentally a leaky, flammable fossil fuel. Making nuclear, for many people, the most viable heavy lifting contender to get us going greener. Despite slight hickups like Fukushima in 2011, which suffered a power outage to its plant cooling generators after the tsunami on the 11th March which, as the Wikipedia page puts it: “..led to three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air explosions, and the release of radioactive material in Units 1, 2, and 3 for four days” and more. Oh, and the cordoning off of half of Ukraine for 30 years after the Chernobyl emergency training proceedure that went a little off course in 1986. The only two Level 7s on the International Nuclear Event scale, disaster pub quizz fans. Let’s not even mention whether there was or wasn’t a ‘secret’ recent event elsewhere in Russia causing alleged radition level 1,000 times the norm over there somewhere or other. Shhh.

The point is that Nuclear is getting old. Like elsewhere, the UK’s once-groundbreaking atomic powerstations are getting to the end of their working lives, with as Energy UK says, “all but one expected to stop running by 2025”. Replacing them might simply turn out to be prohibatively expensive today.

So what is the state of the world’s challenge with any kind of new energy, then?







The Global Goal for energy aims to: “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

Its targets include trying to ensure universal access to modern energy, trying to increase the share of renewable energy in the global mix ‘substantially’ while doubling energy efficiency outputs, while generally trying to get all countries upgraded to more sustainable power infrastructure.

As it says in its opening statement: “Renewable energy solutions are becoming cheaper, more reliable and more efficient every day. Our current reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable and harmful to the planet, which is why we have to change the way we produce and consume energy. Implementing these new energy solutions as fast as possible is essential to counter climate change, one of the biggest threats to our own survival.”

Which is all fairly epically hopey-changey and a little woolly. What are the actual possibilities?

I’ll just bet you want to get into some epically incomprehensible figures first to go with it, right? Well, if you want headlines, the International Energy Agency’s Key World Energy Statistics report for 2017 has some handy graphs and pie charts you could chew over nicely for a bit, but it shows up front overall planetary energy supply has gone from 6,101 million tons of oil equivalent – or Mtoe, which sounds like an unpleasant wardrobe malfunction to me – to over thirteen and a half Mtoe by 2015. In 1973, oil formed nearly half of all of that directly, it being the most equivalent thing to oil there is,  with coal making up virtually a quarter and natural gas 16%. Surprisingly, biofuels and waste made up more than ten percent. Hydro power was double that of still fledgling nuclear which barely makes it discernably to the pie chart at 0.9%. But by the middle of this decade, not only had total global power production more than doubled, the mix had changed weirdly. Less oil, down to 31.7%, but more coal, at 28.1%. Nuclear had grown to almost five percent of all global energy supply, but biofuels, for all the talk of a brief revolution in putting plant oil into cars ten years ago, had reduced to less than ten percent.

By far the biggest regional growth in the energy market was Asia, in sheer volume as well as percentage – gone from less than thirty percent of the world’s power consumption to all but half today. Europe was the biggest user of power back when I was a toddler but today it’s actually contracted as a market, As have the americas, interestingly.

Greener sounding power like solar and hyrdro has been massively the preserve of your OECD countries – ‘developed’ nations.

Interestingly, according to these figures, we used rather less power than we produced, as a planet. A good 2,000Mtoes in 1973 and over three and a half thousand Mtoes in 2015. That’s a lot of over supply. Especially when you consider how dirty most of that energy is – and oil for road makes up essentially half of all total oil consumption, which stands at 3,8040Mtoe. That is a LOT of dirty, burn it once fuel for getting about in cars, lorries and road public transport. Might want to note this mentally for later.

International Energy Agency 2017

I really should try to translate all units of energy and power – Joules, terraWatts, Mtoes – into the more modern universal metric of the kiloWatthour, the kWh, so that we can begin to stand a chance of understanding the equivalents of value going on here. And also so I never have to say the word Mtoe ever again.

But whatever the units, where are renewables relatively in the mix today?

According to the same report, hydro has more than tripled in four decades, wind energy increased by a factor of eight and solar has ballooned by more than SIX THOUSAND PERCENT. But that’s hardly surprising as solar energy technology in 1973 was little more than a shiny tin lid to cook street food on in rural desert country. And anyway, all of this growth still represents a small fraction of what we actually need.

REN21 has it’s own report dedicated to the renewables sector in 2015, as a handy companion, which has plenty to wade through on a cold February night with your thermostat turned right up. And it’s headline is simply that 78.4% of total final energy consumption globally was still fossil fuels, with nuclear contributing 2.3% of total – and combined renewables making up 19.3%, growing together at just over the rate of demand so far. It’s registering, but it’s hardly turning the tide.


As Madeleine Cuff reported for GreenBiz in November, a different report form the International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2017 “..tells the story of an energy industry on the brink of a seismic shift, as it struggles to deal with the twin pressures of decarbonization and rising energy demand.”

GreenBiz summarises this more strategic report into ten headlines that open with the trend forcasts that both carbon emissions and energy consumption are only set to go up over this year – possibly looking at “another India and China” added to the consumption by 2040. Riiight… But while they consider coal’s days to be waning dramatically, with the US currently the biggest peddler of all fossil energy, China on the other hand is a world leader in green energy generation and facilitation and renewable energy is set to double by 2040, with electric vehicles dramatically helping to reduce the still serious global problem of pollution.

Many greens are hoping, Cuff says, that the IEA’s will turn out to be, as it often has been, a little pessimistic in the rollout and effect of renewable technology into the energy sector.

But, as a McKinsey Energy Insights report claims: “Despite the accelerated development of renewables, electrification across sectors, and efficiency developments, we expect 2050 energy-related CO2 emissions to be 1.5-2.0 times higher than the level necessary to meet the 2° Celsius target.” As they outline, despite electricity demand predicted to grow four times faster than all other fuels between now and 2050, and the dramatic cheapening of renewable tech, they imagine we’ll still be using a lot of fossil fuel and driving climate change thirty big years from now.

As a big global business consultant very used to working with the oil and gas industry, you might be tempted to cynically imagine, you old greeny, that McKinsey & Company would be a little generous in its interpretations of fossil fuel consumption predictions and optimistic in its CO2 level predictions. But the tone of their report is flatly inclusive of all energy sectors and concludes with the essential challenge that we are currently on course one way or another to be about half way through our great energy revolution opportunity when the world finally catches fire. ..I think I may be interpreting a little there.

Less dramatically, Utility Week‘s article on the BNEF report appears to grasp the nettle in many critical thinker’s minds when it says of the UK’s energy trends: “By 2040, almost two thirds (63 per cent) of power will be generated from renewable sources… and at “certain times” wind and solar energy alone could meet total power demand in both the UK and Germany” but that “at other times, there will be “entire weeks and months” where solar and wind will produce “little energy”.”

Base Load, mate. It’s the hefty controlable wallop we need constantly to regulate national energy demands. And renewables just don’t work like a power plant.

The late, brilliant, Sir David MacKay gave a TEDx talk back in 2012 from principles in his influential book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air. He was good at helping people focus on the real numbers involved in our energy needs.

“One coal-fired power station equals 2,000 wind turbines,” he said to Leo Hickman of the Guardian when the book was published almost ten years ago. “When we retire a technology, we must know we have made the right choice.”

What will it take to really make up our power needs with cleaner alternatives? Numbers, facts, universal power terms, he says. But such clarity seemed to be his main agenda, not politics. As he says in his talk, quoted from the book and by everyone who’s met him since, I suspect: “For the record I am not pro-nuclear or anti-wind. I am simply pro-arithmetic.”

He uses the metric of watts per square meter to show density of power demands around the world, and the fact that renewables tend to need a lot of land to add up to the output of concentrated power plants. In other words, as he said back then in his 2012 talk, where will we put all the wind turbines and solar panels we will need to get our huge output?

He concludes that all we have to work with when ‘people hate everything’ – both worthy green and dirty fossil – is numbers. And that to make the numbers add up, we will have to combine a lot of different elements at once. But, he implies, it’s not just worth a shot. It’s worth everything to try.



My longest-standing close mate Mike is very useful for a getting different perspective on things. He might be essential to any team planning something, because he is likely to have a thoughtfully incredulous alternative take on whatever hype you are enthusiastically talking yourself into – which could be put to good use helpfully early on in whatever expensive process you are budgeting your way into. When you zag he’ll ask why you even want to use such hoary old marketing guff.

“Elon Musk” he said to me on our latest carousal around Southbourne’s pleasant social establishments on Friday night. “Takes the world’s greenest sports car and straps it to the world’s most expensively unenvironmental propulsion system in history.”

My smile dropped.

“And all to create another bit of space junk. Not even space junk that had a practical purpose to be in space in the first place” he added incredulously, upending the Malbec bottle into our glasses.

You see? Perspective.

He’s right to keep us looking at the reality of our cosy green endeavours. And he’s qualified enough to ask such awkward questions because he’s a journalist, he’s always been a curious techy tinkerer and he’s someone who knows only too well the hard work and planting savvy it takes to work with nature, working as he and Emma do an impressively productive allotment.

But the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy on that very morning was a bit of a wake up call to the world for what’s possible. And while the fan girls and boys of SpaceX and Tesla and Musk’s whole attitude were alway likely to woop the theatrical chutspah of Rocket Man, the truth is such theatre helps get attention. And that’s what’s needed right now – some dramatic new storytelling.

There is something happening around you today that is nothing less than a revolution. And encouraging it may be the Trojan horse of change, for it is the thing that may change your outlook, and so possibly the world’s during our lifetimes. The electrification of everything. It may be our greatest domestic hope.

Not simply because it is greener sounding to dishonest socialists like me who consider spending their money on their pompous public conscience, but because the nature of the technology as we will use it will begin to change how we see things. How we value things.

Erik Fairbairn of electric vehicle charging infrastructure company, Podpoint, gives a fascinating presentation to Robert Llewelin in his online EV channel, Fully Charged. And his starting point is that the UK government’s recently stated aims of all cars being electric by 2040 is rather less than ambitious. In fact may be an aim lagging way behind the technology.

Electric vehicles? I made a bet with an old friend of mine rashly over dinner after a decent couple of glasses of his Bordeaux back in the summer. A bet I am going to lose. But not by as much as my friend Ian currently imagines.

As a doctor and consultant, Ian is not only a bit of a wag he’s a solidly factual chap and so laughed with scornful derision right in my face when I said more cars than not will be electric in ten years time on British roads. I naturally swigged more of his wine in defiance and shot back: “I’ll bet you”. He said: “You’re on!” with an immediate snort of disbelieving opportunity, reaching across the table for my hand enthusiastically. I had the scraps of wherewithall to say: “ten pounds” before the flesh was pressed.

Bet you think similarly to him. EVs are a bit of a joke, right? Or are you just beginning to come round? You may be. But Erik Fairbairn’s little presentation may have you looking again at what you think you know about the coming revolution in automotive design.

This is one little bit of Unsee The Future that will definitely be amongst the swiftest to sound out of date, I imagine, so rapid may the pick up of EVs be in the coming two years alone. But currently, says Erik, there are five barriers to people actually committing to electric wheels instead of bang-pop push ones – cost, range, charging, choice and performance. But if these barriers get deconstructed, the road will be open to the EV.

Cost? Well, there’s no super-affordable mass-produced option on anyone’s forecourt currently. But the cheaper day to day cars like the hugely successful Nissan Leaf are comparable with other pretty boring small-to midsize runabouts, while BMW’s i3 and VW’s eGolf both tackle the kind of quality hot hatch price bracket. These options alone seem well within the monthly means of an awful lot of car leasing commitments across Europe and America. And the resoundingly successful and loved Tesla S at the £80,000 bit of the market may not seem like a car for the people but you see those suckers everywhere. I saw a whole fleet of them operating as taxis in Amsterdam.

Between them, actually, the Tesla S and the Nissan Leaf arguably changed the game. Because they made commercial success out of electric, in rather different price brackets – Tesla with imagination-grabbing showbiz and style, and Nissan with quiet, fussless useability. And this has helped people increasingly discover that performance really isn’t a problem – an electric motor delivers power instantly, like only a massive engine blocked V8 can without a turbo. Torque, mate – EVs can easily have seat-squeezing buckets of it.

Range anxiety is the biggest barrier facing the potential EV customer today, I think. Coupled with infrastructure concerns – finding sufficient charging points. But the truth of your average motor is of course that it spends most of the time sitting idle, or pottering just a few miles. Which means it doesn’t need much range between massive charges while it squats on your drive overnight or outside work all day. And as more cars coming onto the market increase ranges nearer to and above 200 miles, there is a sort of magical “Oh, okay” that drivers suddenly feel and figure this is fine.  Rapid charging is turning up more and more in motorway service stations where you’ll need it, and this will top up your battery sufficiently enough in a wee and coffee break. If you ensure you always have coffee after your wee you’ll ensure you have to stop again in 200 miles – see? Integrated thinking is key to sustainable tech.

Honda Urban EV Concept


The real game changer will be choice. Because if you don’t get excited as a car geek about what all the majors have planned for the next couple of years, you haven’t been paying attention – the range of cars coming will give something for everyone. And in designs that will take the whole experience of driving and the class of design of cars forward in leaps not dragged out of a foetidly stagnant car market for decades.

And remember, the EV will be a lot cheaper to run. Right now, the cost of charging and using one seems to be about half that of petrol prices. A wildly broad figure but loosely enough to take in here. But there’s also the lack of vehicle tax here in the UK. Green car, innit? Then there is the significant reduction in maintainance. If you consider that the average petrol car has some 3,000 moving parts and the average EV has fifty… that’s a lot less to go wrong. We can talk about what my neighbour Jon will do for a job as a mechanic in 2050 another time – he’s not bothered, he feels he’s likely to have retired by the time we’re both 80 – the point here is: Cheaper To Run. Less To Go Wrong. And then there is the sliding graph of battery production getting cheaper even faster than predicted, rendering the EV significantly cheaper to buy in the coming years. Oh yeah. And no more kerbside poisoning of our children and grannies. Or adding to global warming through the tailpipe.

As Erik says simply: “It’s going to get to the point where you will have to have a seriously good reason to choose petrol.”

But Fairbairn’s real winning explaination is his sliding scale chart. And I can only say study it for a bit. It’s gently amusing and very enlightening – the take-up curve of EVs between now and 2040. Short headline is: That curve lifts fast.

©2017 Podpoint courtesy of Fully Charged


They predict 42 percent of all new cars are electric by the mid 20s. But, as Erik points out, Norway is to that degree already and more. “By 2030,” he points out, “it will likely be impossible to lease a petrol car. Because the residual value on them will be so low, who are you going to sell it to afterwards?”

Crikey. I have to say that ever since I started looking into EVs – yes, with a mind to finally say goodbye to our old TDi and go the full family Sinclair C5 – I’ve walked past local used motor dealers and thought… oh. Hmm.

In 2018, you likely don’t get it. This sounds pipe-dreamy. In five to seven years time I think it will be obvious.

Does it matter that much? I think yes. Because EVs will score a lot of wins at once. They’ll address the air quality crisis directly. They’ll give users cheaper driving. And they may be the single most effective thing at actively engaging ordinary twerps like you and me with environmental thinking. We don’t ‘alf love our cars.

Now yes. Road haulage. A massive diesel problem. But it’s far from unlikely that battery and motor design will scale quickly to truck sizes. Tesla have already done it. And many bus companies have been running electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for years. It can all add up. Germany even unveiled a test rig of a hydrogen train, to help get rid of the diesels on unelectrified lines.

It can all add up.

The single biggest travel problem that dwarfs all others is of course, air travel. And it’s why many models and commentators seem to think we can push to get a long way by 2030 – even 80% renewables globally if we really focussed – but that that last 20% will take another twenty years. Jet air travel is massively terrible for the environment, and there’s no quick fix for that kind of propulsion. But, hydrogen power is being played with seriously in this arena and electric light aircraft are just a thing now, scaling bit by bit.

The appetite to push is much more from certain business sectors and from many ordinary nobodies on the street, rather than politicians. The trick will be breaking the political cycle of “Hey nobody likes change or asks for green stuff, the Greens are just a bunch of dishonest socialists and deluded hippies, right guys?” to encourage more political voices to feel it’s a vote winner to push for green energy. But it can happen.

As Tim Hollo says in a Guardian article: “Often politics deals in ephemeral ideas, subjective ideas, ideas about how well off we are, how confident we might be about the future, how safe we feel. Decades of political focus on the dismal science of economics has enabled this. Politics can become a confidence game. But sometimes politics comes up hard against reality.” The Tesla mega battery event in Australia was just one such in renewables history. And it all chips away at the established thinking and political ruts.

What our sustainable future energy make-up will have to look like is much like all sustainable thinking – a quiet revolution in total outlook. Namely: Lots of small effects being consciously added together.

Firstly, as David MacKay said in his TEDx talk, we essentially have six big levers to pull around to manipulate our future energy sector – six options for making up the power we’ll need with dramatically less CO2 emmission: Our own renewables, other people’s renewables, nuclear power, more efficient transport, more efficient heating and insultion and… meter reading.

And this last one illustrates the point I am feeling is becoming fundamental to a hopeful, sustainable outlook for humans in everything. Knowing what’s actually going on. Metrics, in other word – live data, brought to us much more easily with modern technology, like apps and sensors. You may already be used to reading your smart meter, and it will, I am sure, have changed your energy consumption. With your meter no longer spinning it’s little wheel frantically in a cupboard under the stairs behind all your paint tins while you fall asleep on the sofa with the thermostat turned up, but displaying a few big numbers on your kitchen work top when you potter in to make tea, you are more conscious of what you are using. Of what you are doing.

“Reading my meter changed my life” said MacKay.

This is a significant cultural reason why EVs may help change the world. You have to drive them consciously. ..Admittedly, even this will change when AI takes the wheel in autonomous vehicles and you can actually have a nap on the drive to work. But the immediate point with beginning to use an electric vehicle is that you have to drive them aware of every mile, as you work out how far you can travel in a world not yet easily fully geared up to support you driving around with carefree entitlement wherever and whenever you please. It’s a technology built on energy awareness, knowing how much power the car uses and how long it takes to charge.

Just imagine integrating that with your household energy use. And your thermostat controls. And some IoT gubbins for your lighting and food consumption. And, why not, along with a little photovoltaic energy from the roof, buffered nicely in a house battery. You would have, after your intial investments, some domestically free energy to live and travel locally. But you’d also have a much better idea of what energy it takes to move your life around.

That’s going to transform your outlook, isn’t it? To not simply give you more affordable freedom, but a much greater sense of oddly empowered responsibility – awareness of the real value of things. Despite it being cheaper.

That kind of outlook can changes the world, I might suggest.

For me, the whole impending EV phenomenon is not really about cars. Much as it might actually make cars fun again. Erik Fairbairn says simply, while looking at his take-up curve of EVs: “You cold probably do another graph, a bit like this, talking about how we move from centralised energy generation today to decentralised energy generation” and he goes on to site emerging statistics that the cost of solar energy generation is getting cheaper now than the cost of simply distributing electrical energy from our big power stations to our homes. Just the distribution. So if you can build Hinckley Point for free and generate all its electricity for free you can begin to compete with the potential roll out of solar to every domestic home.

I know, I’m being obtuse. It’s also the emerging market reality. While I as PM would expect to keep large simply guages with flickering needles on my desk to know we always had GB’s lights on, it may turn out that we simply can’t afford to start again with Nuclear. That ship may be realistically sailing as we wave hankies on the dockside, contracts or no. At a time when national finances appear to be threadbaring apart many social fabrics that hold the nation together, tying us to a huge bill with France and China, to hand the global economic superpower another key chunk of sovereign infrastructure – to say nothing of a dastardly EU member state in a post B-word England – while also creating a single massive cyber security target… well, it seems a mis-strategy to me. In today’s world.

Something in my water is telling me we should use the impending energy crisis of decommissioning old power stations to ramp up a world-leading roll-out of renewables and energy efficiencies to the people. Like it’s a war campaign. Which it is. A conflict with our own destructive economic culture.

And where shall we put all those PV cells as we install for victory? I’d simply say, how many buildings have a roof?

Of the current £20billion cost of a new nuclear plant in Somerset, what if we scrapped it and took half for an aggressive investment in dissipating our energy demand to more localised networks of thinking, including some R&D to help rival Tesla’s development of the PV rooftile? And the futury potential of transparent PV – turning windows into microgen. I leave that there.

Of course, even with the momentum of the microgen market as its already unfolding, without a sudden fundamental cultural turn around from a Conservative UK government, or a toxically-minded US leadership, the next ten to fifteen years will be crucial. In overcoming the challenges as much as establishment cultures.

Jean Kumagai reported for engineering and science body IEEE’s Spectrum magazine back in 2014 of the ambition of Fort Collins, Colorado, to become a net-zero energy district. While her article’s standfirst lays out the engineering goal – “Smart and agile power systems will let every home and business generate, store, and share electricity” – she goes on to summarise one significant technical challenge in fundamentally changing technical demands: “Today, every time a homeowner installs photovoltaic panels on the roof and begins spinning the household electricity meter backward, every time a plug-in hybrid owner decides to charge up the car batteries, and every time a new wind turbine starts to turn, it perturbs the grid. Though those individual perturbations may be slight, as they begin numbering in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, the strain on a grid not designed to handle them will become potentially disastrous.”

The purpose of home generation in a sustainable context is not to adopt a middle of Montana idea of bunkering in and going off grid. It’s to change the grid into an exchange. An ebb and flow. A relationship between your car, your house and the national supply. Giving and taking. It’s a hell of a headache to adapt the big infrastructure to, but in the end it will create a much more robust national energy system – instead of a few massive single points of security and supply, the grid will be a dissipation of millions of tiny links. I can’t think of a more symbolic summation of a positive 21st century outlook.


That 60 Minutes‘s report on the Australian energy challenge captured a perfect penny-drop moment to illustrate the very obvious point about all this. It visited a couple who had agreed to trial one of Tesla’s house batteries with a solar array, Michael and Melissa Powney. They’d already had it installed before the great power cut of 2016 that knocked out 90,000 homes in SA. Melissa said this simply:

“I suppose I didn’t realise the impact of the power cut until we got home that night. I think we confused the neighbours because our lights were the only ones on in the street.”


We may as well remember in all this, it’s not like the culture of the oil and gas industry is winning over ordinary people beyond its paid staff. As widely reported in the UK autumn, the big six energy suppliers to the country made a profit of £1bn between them last year, increasing their market share in recent times “despite losing millions of customers to challenger firms” as Adam Vaughan puts it in a Guardian article. Playing the tarrifs confusion game, according to the Ofgem report that highlighted it. Where is the human mindedness in that kind of business model of future energy? Sounds like a fundamental part of the problem to me.

And why we need to push for a renewable future. It’s not simply the need to try to save a workably normal relationship with our planet’s environment, it is our opportunity to tackle the short circuit at the centre of modern human culture – the way we habitually ignore the true cost of powering our hopes. At home, at work, in industry. I suspect that changing our outlooks domestically will simply begin to infect our thinking in everything, as our generation evolves how we do even the biggest energy intensive things, like flying around the planet or manufacturing steel or… making cars.

Is it possible? Well, many businesses are banking on it, in an interesting natural mix of business intent and human intent. It’s the combined outlook that will save us.  The not seeing a difference between them.

Boss of Good Energy, and sustainability champion Juliet Davenport, simply has this tweet pinned to the top of her page: “2018 Renewable wish list: – let’s go; – on every roof; – for onshore wind; – no price cap; – battery in every home and business. Now that really could then keep us on track for 2018!”

The more they look into it and consider it and explore the possibilities, the more people there appear to be lit up by the idea of a truly progressive global energy system.

In a supremely symbolic note, it might be worth taking a final bit of inspiration from a small country no one’s really heard of. The tiny Kingdom of Bhutan. Less than 800,000 souls living in the remote Himalayas, all but disappearing between India and China. A place its prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, says has sometimes been called Shangri-La. But, he says, it’s not.

“The reality is we are a small, under-developed country doing our best to survive.”

But this small, under-developed country is pledging to remain carbon neutral for the rest of time.

In a TED talk from a couple of years ago, Tobgay says his country takes a holistic approach to life within its boundaries, having mapped out a kind of attitude to growth – leadership that has, he says, worked tirelessly to balance economic growth with social deveopment with environmental sustainability with cultural preservation. Something they collectively call Gross National Happiness.

They say GNH is more important to them than GDP – “development with values”. And it got applause from the super-rich audence at TED.

He says they manage their resources so carefully, so fundamentally, they can afford to give free education and free healthcare to all. But he talks in very cultural terms – celebrating their architecture, their festivals, their colourful heritage, including national dress. The more I watch him, the more I fancy getting a Gho for round the house.

Notice, his starting point is culture – identity. Outlook. Before getting into any environmentalism. Like a healthy relationship with their historic environment is just a natural symptom of a healthy relationship with themselves. Just, a conscious one.

72% of Bhutan is under forest, and the country’s constitution protects most of it. It means it is in good shape and richly bio-diverse – but it also makes the country a net carbon sink, with capacity to sequester more than three times the 2.2mtons of CO2 the country creates annually. That means it is helping its neighbours in cleaning up their emissions. But, Tobgay says, they export most of their hydropower, meaning they technically help to offset 6mtons of CO2 in their neighbourhood and are set to increase productivity of clean energy to almost triple this by 2020.

It was hydropower that revolutionised the economy of Bhutan thirty years ago. The challenge for the country going forward is to diversify its energy mix and its jobs market. Especially given the shrinking glaciers feeding its chief industry. A symptom of a climate crisis the Bhutans can understandably claim to have had little to do with causing.

To try to remain carbon neutral, the country is attempting to invest in new infrastructure to help everyone minimise the damage of their living – free electricity to rural farmers, green public transport and EV investment, paperless government, cleaning schemes, planting schemes. Joined up endeavours to find the next chapter of a sustainable nation. They’ve even linked their national parks with biological coridors to allow wildlife to roam as freely as possible. This is a nation that does the best impression I’ve ever seen of understanding its connected environment.

But they talk business reasonably well too, working up development investment for outside partners to help them ramp up an internally sustainable financial model. Kickstarting the future, you might say. Even as a comparatively still underdeveloped nation. Prime Minister Tobgay suggests that now is the time for larger nations to learn from their tiny Kingdom’s lessons, including its partnerships in its region.

“For we are all in this together,” he says simply. “Some of us may dress differently, but we are all in it together.”

Sounds a world away from the United Kingdom, and from United States. And from the massive challenges of mega nations in the developing world. Except, some states in modern Europe have not disimilar ambitions to a more holistic, healthy lifestyle like Bhutan’s. And Bhutan knows a thing or two about being small, uninfluential and struggling to raise development. Yet they might serve as one of the single greatest inspirations for outlook on Earth today. They prove, outlook can change anything.

In our energy supply perspectives, in all our perspectives looking forward, I’d suggest the time is now for many of us to plug into a collective volte face. It could be the most energising switch in our view of the future we have ever made.

Discover the UN’s take on the future of global power supply


Flip through Good Energy’s look at the old energy system

Read the REN21 data on the state of green energy globally

“Today, a fifth of the world’s electricity is produced by renewable energy… The infirm nature of the clean energy power supply will require smart grid management at scale.” >

Read the World Economic Forum’s analysis of key trends for renewable energy 2018


Read The Future Laboratory’s insights into the new filling station

Watch live data from SA.GOV.AU energy output

Read Thomas Frey’s thoughts on public transport electrification


UNSEE THE FUTURE, Episode 8: Cities, part 2

In episode seven, we opened our initial look at the challenges of city life in the twenty-first century, by acknowledging that not all our grand visions of future urban living have quite worked out, even when they’ve been inspiringly beautiful. And the mettle of city planning is already being tested with the rise of more and more megacites across our planet – a trend that has tipped us past the point where more of us today are living in the concrete jungle than are not. What can we learn from the language of our place and the images of how we hope to live in the most resource-challenging time in human history. Are there any principles to point us towards something more hopeful than endless poorly-serviced slums, townships and favelas?

I’m Timo Peach.





What might we learn from our tomorrow stories of the city? One of the biggest, and most cared-for, cinematic future stories of the past few months is the nervously-awaited sequal Bladerunner 90210. Sorry, 2049. We all know the Bladerunner world, from Ridley Scott’s entrancingly envisioned bitter future fairytale, conjoured from Philip K Dick’s original novel. The rain. The neon. The misery. The artful dereliction. The rain. The beautiful deadly robots, as jaded with their fake humanity as all the humans. And Denis Villeneuve was positively reverent to this visual language in his return to this world. And it feels like we can imagine in its viscerality the coming urban future of humankind – a badly evolving artificial mess. But how clearly does it speak to us about now reeeally?

In the Future Cities Project, Doctor HJ McCracken suggests this film is essentially continuing down the ‘fork’ of the original world, and the in-world truths supplant a wider relevance to us in 2018, leaving, as he puts it, little room in its theatre to imprint our current worries. It attempts simply to nod at them. “Pervasive surveillance and the effortless execution of miscreants by remote-controlled pilotless drones (whilst the operator gets a manicure) makes a showing,” he says, “and as a counterbalance we are allowed a marginally hopeful scene involving bees. The Pacific Ocean is kept at bay by an enormous seawall, and weather conditions seem to change faster than you could switch channels on TV… the world-melting disaster presented here drives humanity to desperately invent advanced technologies to survive, but the end result is to merely exaggerate existing power structures” he suggests. The looming dark corporate power. The rain. The lack of rain. The endless miles of tomato cloches.

It doesn’t aim to give us any templates of the urban human future, and we should be careful not to infer them too specifically. The film explores what makes us human; its cityscape is a tonal backdrop to this. To look forward, I’d suggest it’ll help to first look backwards, and meet someone who defied the projections of the future of her own time.

Jane Jacobs. Ever heard of her? Ruddy legend, basically. If you’re a sustainable urbanist hippy, which I seem to be becoming these days. Because she wasn’t just a public realm community visionary, her convictions shaped the heart of modern Manhatten. By saving some of its most thriving, characterful (and now expensive) districts from expressway bulldozers. She came to prominence in the middle of the last century in a very public series of spats with New York City planning tzar Robert Moses, beginning with his plan to run a big road through the middle of Greenwich Village in 1955. He, the embodiment of modern, state-heavy, Knock Down All This Old Shite And Start Again development progress, derided her as ‘just a housewife’ and her cause as “supported by nobody but a bunch of mothers.” It was a different age.

What Jane Jacobs advocated was recognition of the human realities found in successfully thriving communities. And it wasn’t neat zones of different functions and disconnected highways blocking out the sun. It was diversity. Levels of use all at once. She coined the evocative phrase the teeming city and her masterwork, The death and life of great American cities, published as her notoriety spread with her socially-mobilised successes against the massed ranks of corporate interests, has become an urban design cornerstone. Even I have read it.

As Anthony Paletta says in an article for The Guardian: “This broadside against the prevailing scientific rationalism of urban planning extolled diversities of usage, old buildings and the organic structures of cities: “Why have cities not, long since, been identified, understood and treated as problems of organised complexity?” It was a powerful call in an era in which any such complexity was the very thing that planners were looking to organise out of existence.”

, in a very telling personal anecodote, says that she actually got to meet Jane in the early nineties, when giving a lecture on something or other to do with urban planning. Poor sap. Because Jacobs was in the audience, and she was first to put up her hand afterwards:

“The first hand up – sharply so – belonged to this elderly person. How wonderful, I thought, a citizen who has never stopped being engaged. What came out of her mouth, though, was one of the sharpest critiques of my way of analysing the city that I’d ever heard – and probably ever will. She pursued a line of questioning quite different from what I usually get. She continously returned to the issue of “place”, and its importance when considering the implementation of urban policies – notably the loss of neighbourhoods and erasure of local residents’ experiences.”

Place making. It is the core phrase at the heart of why my own wife, the lovely first lady of Momo, goes to work in her job. Somewhere along the progress line of modernity, we lost the fascination and understanding of complexity that makes a city tick – we wanted to neaten it all up. Badge it and park it and contain it. But life doesn’t work that way. As Sassen says, Jane Jacobs: “would ask us to look at the consequences of the sub-economies for the city – for its people, its neighbourhoods, and the visual orders involved. She would ask us to consider all the other economies and spaces impacted by the massive gentrifications of the modern city – not least, the resultant displacements of modest households and profit-making, neighbourhood firms.”

I remember bobbing about in the sea somewhere in southern Italy with Mrs Peach a good decade ago, having just pinched her copy of Great American Cities while on vaykay. There’s something about its calm intonation that is compelling, even in its thoroughness; there is a lot to inspire talking about somehow. And we did. Bathed in glittering holiday sunshine, surrounded by nature, we were obsessing over how streets worked in the urban environment. I don’t know what happened to me when, exactly, but it seems fascinating to me as an obvious implication of architecture.

A key thing that stayed with me from the book is the principle of ‘eyes on streets’. The observation that a community high street works because of the layers of people using the space at the same time. All hours of the day, for many different uses at once. Something that, when it works, does so partly because it plays into the sociological truth of human relationships – that we all need different levels of them. A handful of true family, a ring of good mates, a network of likeable colleagues and gym buddies, a background of recognisable regular faces at the shops. All these positive radiations of connection move around us everywhere we go, with our phone signals, like Match of the day post-goal analyses of the players. And these radiations enmesh and link like a hive. Meaning you can ask the butcher to keep an eye on your bike for a few moments without worry, but without having to attend his son’s bar mitzva either.

Natural surveilance, all hours of the day. And rather more. The poetry of possibilites.

Jacobs puts it evocatively in this extract:

“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”


In his article re-appreciating Jacobs’ most famous work, Ned Beauman says the book was a wider hit than you might imagine. “For a rigorous and polemical manual of urban planning, it achieved a remarkably wide readership, perhaps because it’s such a rare joy to read a book about cities written by someone who actually seems to appreciate what makes them fun to live in.”

Well, I mean, talk about authenticity. She walked it. Lived it. Didn’t just stand on the demonstration line, she organised it. And not from some grand culture of protest – from specific conviction. She was officially unqualified – and worse, a woman – who had the temerity to use just her eyes and intelligence and honest feelings to engage with the human environment around her and ask questions about how it worked. What was good for the humans making it up. And she appeared to have no qualms about standing up to very hefty cultural power in New York at the time to do it. And the power of those convictions won – all of Moses’ later schemes for highways were eventually dropped. Try to imagine Manhatten missing Washington Square Park, half of Greenwich and most of Soho and Little Italy. She defended them all in the name of proper street culture.

Now think about the relocation of families in London during the clearance of the slums. The need for new housing was desperate, but the community life in the streets of those prefabs was dismantled and put in separate apartments in highrises. A psychology of living that seemed sinister to some from the gleaming, progressive beginning – JG Ballard’s High Rise imagines the aspirations of the elite turning the compartmentalisation of human life into a grotesque psychosis. The irony of London high rise living may be that by the time the buildings are less than gleaming, they may be starting to function a little more like communities. The Grenfell tower stands to this day as a symbol of community, well, betrayed. By soulless economic separatism.

Now picture your highstreet. If it’s in the UK, there’s a good chance you are picturing something worse than forlorn. Depressing. Empty shops and homeless people. The great out of town retail boxes and the illusion of ‘free parking’ tempting everyone to drive there, rather than catch the bus into town. And that was before the internet threatened retail as we know it.

It is a struggle, even in a comparatively attractive place like my home town, to get people loving their town centres and using them. If people aren’t living there, and served with all the means to truly live there – food, shopping, entertainment, yes, but human scales of walking and permiable routes to get around and plenty of interest at ground level and safe feeling green spaces, integrated nicely into the natural flow of the streets – people will vote with their feet and never show up. What we’re talking about here is really… heritage. Can we feel any potentially life-wedding identity in the form and fabric of where we live, and has it been smartly channeled, amplified and connected to work better in modern times than when the olden days were first built?

It’s a question of ownership. Not simply, who does? But what does it mean. And how do we implement it with sufficient human nowse that we can scale it to the megacity’s great needs, and great opportunities?



Door knobs. They matter. The more there are at ground level on a street, the more people are likely to find a reason to hang around and maybe try one. The blocks that have flat office glass to the pavement tend to see people hurrying on as though they don’t belong there. The psychology of the built environment. Humans, eh? Knobs.

Somewhere that has a lot of door knobs is Amsterdam. And it has an awful lot more than that going on at street level. The old city’s layout goes back to the fifteenth century when the canals were first dug and the boom in its trading life blossomed into the characterful leaning townhouses and Dutch-gabled former warehouses, and funny little steps, and cute little bridges, and cheerful potted flowers and puttering glass-topped boats we know as tourists today, more than three hundred years later. It’s beautiful and its inviting. Somewhere you want to just hang out, man. Even with the tourists. And the regular gag of hemp. But if you find yourself wandering around this miracle of drainage management wondering what a little old town apartment here might cost you, it’s likely because it pushes a lot of human brain happy buttons.

Being old, it’s people-scaled, so you can walk it easily. Being flat, you can bike it healthily even more easily – and what looks like trillions of bikes festoon every inch of public space like a mechanical spore explosion as a result. Bike lanes are intrinsic to the rapid flow of connectivity around the city, with an integrated tram, bendy bus, metro and ferry network linking all the environs easily. Trees, water, wonky old buildings, the warm whine of electric public transport, art galleries and modern architecture, gently playful exploration around every corner, cosy coffee shops, funny sculptures, a little urban wildlife, a lively vibe at a sedate pace, people standing in windows in their pants. It’s got all the eurocitybreaklove you could want.

Sure. It could be Brugges. Bits of Berlin. Definitely channeled some Strasbourg here and there. A good dollop of Copenhagen. I dunno. It’s all lovely to me, organised and apparently values-shaped as the whole modern flow of such cities appear. They make me feel good. But are they the future of the city, these heritage-bound seats of old colonial power?

Amsterdam is planning for the future. We went to look at it on a trip last week, tromping through the rain to a building site as we do. Houthaven is essentially a brand new district all going up at once to the north-west of the old horseshoe of the city, which the city planners say will be “100% sustainable”. And they have a pretty integrated take on this, including the wide retconning of old properties up to much more efficient energy standards, the heavy investment in locally-generated clean energy, and the richer implementation of circular economic thinking. All jolly good. Despite the brooding headquarters of Shell staring at it all across the Ij. If they’ve got any sense, they’ll be investing in it.


But Europe’s future city problems aren’t just about the potential of millions more refugees piling up from North Africa in the next decade.

“Every EU Member State has cities that are shrinking within its boundaries. Current estimates suggest that 40% of all European cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants have lost significant parts of their population in recent years and that many smaller towns and cities are also affected”says a report from Hans Schlappa and Uwe Ferber. Population growth is not the only people-numbers problem societies are facing. Rather like the true miniscule percentage of Britain technically concreted over, our view of the world is shaped by the challenges right in front of us personally. It’s not exactly a hopey changey thing so much as a new perspectivey thing – but this is as valuable in shifting how we see the problems around us. They are usually not the single issue frighteners we like to fixate on.

How might the city, at any scaled, get fitter for the future? Plans like the Dam’s surely sound good, at least, and most of our challenges will be about refitting old infrastructure, not sweeping clean and starting again. Especilly if we want to tap into what already works about the heritage of our streets. But it’s worth considering the principles of how to make a city ‘smarter’.

Now don’t roll your eyes. While techheads love to fixate on digital connectivity, not least of which because digital living is essentially changing what it means to be human, but the real future health benefits of any tech will lie how it finds its place in wider human environment – physical, social, emotional. Consultancy Sustainable Amsterdam sites six key elements to measure a city against to place it in the Smart charts: People, governance, environment, economy, mobility and living. As they say: “These elements are used to evaluate a city’s human and social capital, participative democracy, natural resource management, economic competitiveness, transport and quality of life”.

They look for “high levels of social capital, flexibility and tollerance” with a “spirit of innovation” and cultural adaptibility. A good engagement with the local political process and a transparency to warrant it. Decent air quality levels and sustainable energy and waste practices. Great public transport. And “high levels of safety and social cohesion” supported by good access to housing, culture and social services. It all sounds a bit utopian, but such a model banks on the virtuous circle of investing in feel good.

What’s interesting here is that none of these principles are tech-dependent. What the digital can do is amplify and unlock the opportunities they collectively present.

Innovation lab Future Cities Catapult reported back from Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona at the end of November with a headline list of recommendations they feel came out of this meeting of future city minds. And to build your smart city will take the usual tough things – strong leadership advocating skills development, collaborative planning and partnerships and keeping an accountable handle on your funding, while trying to build that budgeting into existing statutory frameworks. I know, all the fun just went out of it. Especially if there’s still no city WIFI. But the key thing is engagement – taking the public with you. As Singapore managed to get right in its transformative sustainable water initiative, as we saw in Episode 5.

The technology can help pull together audiences with stories and different partners with accountability. And with a lot of tech impending, having a strategy for integrating it will matter. From vehicle automation, to smart systems upgrading all manner of municiple functions, to telecoms infrastructure, like the 5G rollout or trustable public WIFI, to the massive potentials of augmented reality lighting up the ordinary world around us. Not just with spaceship attacks but helpful live information.

What none of this swish sounding technology will do is fill in the gap of the essential job always at hand: placemaking. All this brilliant stuff is tool – ways to help us go with the human grain much more easily in a modern context. You first have to outline your story before you tell it. And the story to tell has to be something tapping into truth – the heritage of place. Who lives here and how have they shaped it? Amplify that, encourage and adapt that to modern needs, and you’ll find emotional flow. Y’know, people voting for what you’re doing.

When people feel that the place around them knows itself, celebrates itself, that its visible champions recognise what everyone else does there, you have some momentum to surf, I’d suggest. And when people discover at every turn a place that looks like it’s leaders have always gotten there ahead of you, thought of it properly before you need it, it creates a warm fuzzy appreciation. Like writers of favourite scifi franchises really earning the suspended disbelief of their viewers – I don’t need to see the loo in Captain Picard’s ready room but knowing it’s on a deck plan of the Enterprise helps me believe she’s a real ship carry real people leading real lives. In space. City planners build in love for their developments when, behind the scenes, they build it nerdy. And all the flashy special effects are driving the story. Properly connected, and properly recognitional. Respectful.

Not just the immediate interface of an app screen, but the useful information it unglitchily connects you straight to. Not just the modernness of the public space you’re entering, but the readability of it – how lost and uncomfortable you don’t feel. How at home, you do. How safe. How interested. Like every square plate or door handle or window dimension sings from the same more formal architectural design sheet of Charlie Corby’s Radiant City, the function of a modern city’s core amenities and comings and goings should surely feel somehow part of one intention. But without killing the richness of the cultural possibilities with an overtly heavy hand. The teemingness of the city. It doesn’t all have to be neat and tidy, but it does have to be engaging. Urban planning should be planning for the freely complex living of multiple human experiences at once, but they should be helping ordinary folk find simple ways to navigate the essentials of enjoying it. And tech can help many things work together better.

It’s firstly metrics, mate. Data – telling managers just what is being used or accessed at any time, to help efficiently manage the resources, and helping the rest of us know easily where to go to find anything. Helping us see past the chaos or the simply alien as a visitor, and helping us live more smoothly as a resident. Connect. But all this works especially when it’s built on good physical and emotional thinking.

Transport is, in essence, the true lifeblood of a successful city – the easier it is for people to get about its landscape, across all its communities, the healthier its economy seems to be. The less ghettos are likely to remain truly ghettoed. But there is transport and there is transport. And while this is a whole separate episode of Unsee The Future to come, the truth is that the motor car is a brilliant as it is terrible for human living. And this has shown itself in our cityscapes.

It’s likely no coincidence that Jane Jacobs’ movement saved much of Manhatten from the massive ten-lane autoroute dreams of Robert Moses and his culture, and today’s Manhatten has much about it that is richly interesting and working for its inhabitants. Yes, there’s no escaping the historic truth that the city basically went bankrupt in the 70s and gangland violence was a bitter reality in the Bronx and elsewhere as racial inequalities boiled over. I mean, just re-watch Freidkin’s The French Connection. Good lord, that city looks rough. But for all its ups and downs, the not demolishing of much of its heritage has come good in many ways on the other side. Pottering around Hell’s Kitchen today isn’t all superhero gangland punch-ups, it’s coffee shops and Hudson-glimpses and interesting old buildings and The Daily Show studios. And such potterability has been reclaimed successfully elsewhere in the world. Plus, the grim seventies in New York gave us classic hip hop, so culture wins in the end.

Seoul, South Korea, is right up there with the megacities for scale. But in 2003, the city’s mayor, Lee Myung-bak, took the big decision to remove its super highway. As Kamala Rao says in Grist, what the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project accomplished “— tearing down a busy, elevated freeway, re-daylighting the river that had been buried beneath it, and creating a spectacular downtown green space, all in under two and a half years — is nothing short of amazing, not because it actually worked (there was plenty of evidence from other cities to suggest that it could), but because they were able to get public support for it. It’s the stuff urban planners dream about.” he says.

As Alissa Walker says in Gizmodo: “It seems counterintuitive, right? Rip out eight lanes of freeway through the middle of your metropolis and you’ll be rewarded with not only less traffic, but safer, more efficient cities? But it’s true, and it’s happening in places all over the world.” And she goes on to site schemes in San Fransisco, Portland, Madrid and Seattle that all seem to prove the same point.

“It turns out that when you take out a high-occupancy freeway it doesn’t turn the surface streets into the equivalent of the Autobahn. A theory called “induced demand” proves that if you make streets bigger, more people will use them. When you make them smaller, drivers discover and use other routes, and traffic turns out to be about the same.”

Cars are humanly positive to us as drivers, and humanly negative to us as communities. They’re both personal havens and isolation pods; easy and flexible direct transport and air quality wreckers. But whether I love my little old Audi TDi or not, the practial truth is that the efficient traffic flow of the car through the city usually gets in the way of other forms of getting about. Other more community connecting and bodily healthy means of getting about. But we do need different scales of transport – the future isn’t all bikes or walking. The point is, it isn’t all anything – the successful future city will be shaking down the best grades of transport for the right jobs.

Across Africa, most people today still live in some kind of rural communities, but the rapid urbanisation of the continent’s cities is the big story of the next few years, happeing as it already is. But it’s not simply turning into more township misery. In the Ethiopian captial, Addis Ababa, a rapidly intensifying urban life – in contrast to some of the country’s climate change-challenged rural regions – is leading to some interesting planning developments, including the opening of a new light transit railway connecting across city and a more integrated transport policy emerging. As Julia Bird and Simon Franklin say for the International Growth Centre: “Greater efforts to provide affordable housing, better transport links, and investments in infrastructure around Addis Ababa have shown tremendous promise in helping shaping the city into a more productive, inclusive, and liveable space for the new waves of urban dwellers.” It’s certainly something to watch, I’d suggest.

As FastCompany explored its article looking at the top ten cities of 2013 “leading the way in urban sustainability”, taken from the C40  sustainable megacities organisation, Bogota’s urban transportation, Melbourne’s energy efficient built environment, Copenhagen’s carbon measuring, Mexico city’s air quality improvement, Rio, New York, Tokyo… the big cities of the world have been trying to be seen to develop ways to address human living against the coming challenges. There’s a lot to go find out there about it. And it’s more exciting to think about from a city level point of view than a government one, as they say interestingly.

“Take all of the best qualities of these municipalities – effective road management, cap and trade, sustainable energy, excellent public transportation, a zero waste program, and so on – and you have an urbanist’s dream city. That dream city may not be a reality yet, but the first step to creating one (or many) is learning from cities that already excel in specific areas.” Because, the conclude thoughtfully: “while the United States may have a hard time adapting resilience lessons from Japan, New York City might be much more willing to learn from Tokyo.”

But it’s Tokyo that may be a good final illustration of the possibilities for the future city. It is the largest city on Earth by a good long way and has significant density. So you’d imagine it’s just a mess of polution and ghettos. But it’s not quite that. With the 2020 Olympics looming, the city has had an aim to become dramatically more sustainable and to do so has laid out a pathway to getting there, which is proving to be a useful plan for other cities to learn from. If the daddy megacity of them all can make progress, there is hope and example for the planet.

As Sustainable Business Toolkit reports, Tokyo released its ten-year Climate Change Strategy in 2007 and its aims were to shift the whole expectation of CO2 use in relation to lifestyle, to build greater efficiency of renewables, tap into much smarter use of passive energy around the built environment, to encourage a greener sense of city lifestyle, and to target a ‘carbon minus’ strategy across the board. To do it, they did much to encourage private enterprise and the business community to get stuck into the challenge, while encouraging private homes to face the same awarenesses domestically. And they proposed to get serious about vehicle emitions.

It’s no simple thing at all. Idiosyncracies of culture throw up some interesting results around the world, and here that includes a booming property sector that barely increases housing stock, because of the reportedly rather disposeable view of home design, a likely result of both a playful culture and an earthquake zone. Today, the city has evolved its aims into a new campaign snappily suggesting they want a “New Tokyo – a safe city, a diverse city and a smart city.” They aim, they say, to make the place resilient to disaster and a place that “embraces diversity and is full of kindness and warmth, where everyone can lead vibrant lives and be active in society.” Sustainable, successful and demonstrative.

If Tokyo works at all today, it’s because it is transit-rich. Rail networks across Tokyo-Yokohama are extensive and modern, to say the least. And that sense of pride in achievement and technology is, you better bet, going to take the country forward into the future. Though I’ve yet to wander wide-eyed through the megalopolis myself, I understand it is a gently awesome experience, a sense of something very considered running through it’s rushing arteries everywhere. With a massive challenge still to manage its waste alone, the likely future successes of Japan’s cities can bank on the country’s economic energeticness. This is a productive place, committed to progress. And the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster has put a huge new emphasis on backing renewable tech development. There’s no runaway success here exactly, it seems, but there’s no runaway disaster either. And in a city of heading towards forty million people, there is a lot to watch about Tokyo.

The great story of our time, when it comes to successes in city living, will be – and are – where innovations combine naturally, and enhance human habits. That’s what our grand architectural visions should be expressing and encouraging, I would suggest.

As Edward Glaeser says in an FT article, Niemeyer’s great, visionary Brasilia has many good human lessons to learn from, in it’s successes and its failures.

“He built using inexpensive, highly durable materials such as reinforced concrete, which helped make height affordable. He was always engaged in a dialogue between past and present and excelled in connecting the short and the tall. And his buildings tend to seem Brazilian even though they are part of an architectural flow that started with Chicago’s skyscrapers and then coursed through Europe. But when we consider the city that success eventually allowed Niemeyer to build, it should also serve as a warning. The modernists were good at designing functional and striking structures, but far weaker at understanding how those structures fit together to form a city. Le Corbusier’s own vision of skyscrapers surrounded by grassy spaces seems utterly ignorant of the streetlife that powers urban interactions. Cities are complicated organisms that thrive when they are messy and filled with mixed uses; the jumble enables people to experience the changing mix of urban marvels.”

What Glaeser says he disagrees with Jane Jacobs about is scale. While she says it is the local high street that works best for humans, he says, Glaeser thinks that the pursuit of that dream in new district developments has lead to urban sprawl and the depowering of density. Something we can’t afford in the cities of the future.

Personally, I think they’re singing from the same hymn sheet, it’s simply that Jacobs’ Greenwich Village in 50s New York looks less dense than the kinds of city developments we should be envisioning for the 21st century – but the principles are core. The green city looks like the future in most people’s minds at the moment, conjouring as the phrase does a general sense of healthy efficiency in urban living. But there is still currently a fly in the ointment, as John W. Day and Charles Hall say in America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions: Surviving the 21st-Century Megatrends. It may sometimes be touted that New York is perhaps the greenest city on Earth, when its density and carbon footprint and general fluidity of movement are analysed together, while more rural states in the US have higher CO2 scores, but the truth is the more oil-producing states are producing it largely not for themselves but elsewhere – noteably the resource-hungry cities like New York. Are they so virtuous?

And so perhaps this is where we first arrive at something that will turn out, I suspect, to be utterly transformative to our dialogue with our planet in the coming two decades. The viable switch off of oil and gas for renewables. And with it, a fundamental mindset change. Micro generation – local generation.


The green city will be truly so if it can produce its own fuel for getting about easily, living comfortably and eating healthily. Not simply by producing it in cleaner ways, but facilitating doing so on site. Not transporting power across vast distances from massive single-point generators.

The many solutions, not the few. Encouraged together cleverly.

If there’s one place that’s not been known for it’s green credentials OR its sense of place, it’s Emerate of Dubai. A miracle of money determination, flowering glass, steel and SKIING in the desert of the Gulf, it is, forgive me for saying, a soulless place. It’s not, on the face of it, built on local heritage at all – it’s all so new, and depends so much on oil money to keep its aircon units thrumming. But… it may be in the early process of achieving  the turn around of both these dehumanising problems in one falcon swoop.

As Robert Kunzig says in National Geographic, in Dubai: “The temperature outside can get close to 50 (122°F) in summer. The humidity is stifling then, because of the proximity of the sea. Yet it rarely rains; Dubai gets less than four inches a year. There are no permanent rivers. There is next to no soil suitable for growing crops. What kind of human settlement makes sense in such a place?”

What turned this tiny fishing port into a megatropolis supposedly sporting the third busiest aiport in the world that is, even to city soul-seekers like me, undeniably impressive, was oil. But not just oil. Dubai has boomed because it threw open its doors to business and other travel, not just the oil industry. As a result, it caused a property boom that has, in the relentless desert heat, snowballed. It looks at first glance like a place built on confident determination and a certain chutzpah. But I know from my friends and visits to the region that people living in the Gulf are quietly very aware of their place in the oil world, and their almost complete dependency on it. And for them, it’s linked to environmental responsibility as well as sheer economic survival; a number of green initiatives and clean energy projects pepper the countries neighbouring Saudi Arabia and there are many folk who see it positively as the future. Expressed impressively in one concentrated location in Dubai – Sustainable City. No mucking about, we call it that.

Sustainable City has a very telling opening statement on its website when you first land: “Our vision began with a calculated optimism that sustainability is achievable while maintaining all of the societal comforts we have grown accustomed to.” No kidding. If an oil state such as Kuwait can give all its citizens a subsidy just for staying, and offer thousands of well-paid jobs in sprawling municipal departments because of one massive tentpole economic driver, you’d better have a hell of a plan for removing that tentpole, right? Thankfully, Arab communities don’t just know a thing or two about oil and gas technology, or city building and business development. They still know a thing or two about tents.

The site is a community of 500 villas built to achieve carbon neutrality, through a system of PV microgeneration – there is, after all a LOT of sun in that location – and building efficiencies. It is, they claim: “a working model of what the future could look like… a modern application of social, economic and environmental sustainability in the built environment. Achieved through innovative design, stakeholder engagement and future monitoring to sustain itself. The first operational Net Zero Energy city in Dubai, and is modeled to become an international showcase for sustainable living, work, education, and recreation.”

Interestingly, the project doesn’t simply talk about do-ish green energy technology. Up front it says it aims to: “encourage communities to adopt sustainable and healthy lifestyles”. It spells out its conscious aim to face the climate crisis, stating flatly: “The response we must all embrace to this pending adversity is to adopt a lifestyle that accommodates the future. We are at a crux point where the decisions we make now determine the well being of our planet – never have the stakes been so high.”  Going on to conclude rousingly that together: “we can broach the frontier of a new era, laying the foundation for generations to come.”

Like all ‘green’ ideas, it sees an inherent integration in all types of wellbeing and success. In one of your charmingly curmugeonly moments you might remind us to be wary of such directive sounding utopianism – more dishonest bloody socialism from trendy toddlepots. Well, keep up the wise circumspection – I do like to get carried away with hopey changey things and I’m more naiively comfortable than most humans on Earth currently, so good point. But I don’t don’t know if you’ve visited a Gulf country. They’re not your typical socialists. And I don’t care about the badge, I’m just interested in whether the approach honestly bloody works for us.

Situated as they are in the baking bleeding heat of Dubai, the homes themselves are all oriented north to get as much shade into the experience of living there as possible, and help reduce aircon energy – backed up by all being coated with UV-reflective paint. Running up the spine of the layout is a series of eleven bio domes, surrounded by meandering water features, trees and other greenery – the farm. Growing all manner of edible produce, its fed and cooled by grey water from the homes, via the fountains and pleasant Hobbiton-esque landscaping that employes some natural bio filtering of the water with papyrus reeds, with the wider planting producing lots of harvestable goods, like dates and pommegranate and papya. They’ve even turned some of the construction materials from phase one into public art.

The site as a whole can produce 10 megawatt-hours of its own energy a day – and 3 of those are from the car parks alone. While much of the thinking in the design of the place aims to be integrated, neat and tidily laid out as it is, the cars are kept deliberately zoned away from the community’s human traffic, parked together cleverly and simply under shades that are all entirely solar panel covered – energy generation that directly feeds all the municipal power needs like street lights and water pumping.

As director of the innovation centre, Karim El-Jisr says: “When you plan sustainably from the beginning – not an afterthought, an afterthought is expensive – when you plan it right from the begining building somewhere like this is no more expensive.”

In talking to part time mechanoid Robert Llewelin on Fully Charged, he goes on to claim that, where the average global citizen today produces more than 7 metric tons of CO2 per year, their own estimates for residents of their community have rather more than halved that. Despite commutes to the rest of the city in gas-guzzling monster cars.

“Every country has its opportunities,” he says, “but we want to be future-ready. That’s what we say. Meaning the climate is changing, things are getting more difficult and we all have this responsibility to bring down our footprints, so we try to personalise both the problems and the solutions.”

Sustainable City looks rather pleasant, in a newy-new kind of way, but then, virtually everything in the Gulf is newy new and a long way from bedded in over generations, and this community has a slightly more cared-for and nature-encouraging sense to its design than the simple glass, polished granite and steel that can predominate elsewhere around the region. The project is, currently, essentially just another isolated endeavour. But such is the nature of early R&D. Test beds. Illustrations of what’s possible. And voices questioning the status quo. Even in a status quo-starched culture like the Middle East. Even… in the heart of oil and gas power. And the voices are being listened to.

It is the smart combinations of things that will facilitate healthier living in growing cities of the future. From AI managing much analysis and driving new more flexible urban transit, filling in public transport gaps more affordably, to AR and playful reachability, to green, local energy and electrification cleaning the air, to vertical farming, street community, green nodes as well as grand parks, the rebalancing of road use to the more grades of human flow and naturally encouraging the health benefits of exercise, to the way tech can help people engage with the very planning system itself, encouraging ownership and political accountability. And this last one is the real activator, and perhaps our biggest cause for hope. Because if all these things aid the teemingness of the city in the 21st century by plugging together, one new technical development will begin to flick the lights on.

The blockchain.

This obscure sounding digital ledger system, touted by arch early adopters and digiwunderkinds as futurism nirvanna, may be the emergent element that will light up all the other new developments in combination. And it is a truly massive opportunity – for economies, communities, professions ..and cities. Because it will promote the very thing cities arguably need above all else to make them work. Engagement.

The way to promote engagement isn’t simply to make something more playfully interactive, as Augmented Reality will certainly bring to a whole new level of life, just on its own, soon. It’s something else psycological –accountability. The disalusionment with community always ends up essentially a political thing – people don’t think the leaders of a community are doing a good job. Listening to people. Perhaps being transparent enough. Opaque working and even the whiff of corruption are criticisms of local governments that are rarely too far away in people’s minds, and regardless of political ideologies, it’s probably most to do with the sheer beaurocracy of government. Who is ever going to wade through even public access PDFs of documentation, especially as they’re likely still written in civil service-ese and stultifyingly hard to understand excitedly if you DID find the right documents. It puts us off. And when we’re miles from knowing who is doing what running our town, we can easily allow in all manner of grumble and suspicion. People are often quickest to moan about “duh caahnsil” and probably parking fees than maybe anything else in humdrum life. Definitely where I live.

Now imagine an open, online system of always, unalterably verifiable data, outside any government or corporate system, built as a transactional chain of ordered records, timestamped by a string of peer-to-peer servers with no editorial middle man. That’s the blockchain. And it doesn’t matter that you and I will need a few goes at digesting ways of understanding what it is before it sinks in. The headline here is that it means the ultimate accountability. To such a degree, those in the know describe it as the second generation internet – the internet of values, not just information.

Why? Because it means you can trace the source of any transaction. No more being in-hoc to solicitors’ mystical searches when you buy a house, for example – the blockchain for any property will, over time, grow to have everything ever recorded about it all linked in one place. Not locked up in separate PDFs on different people’s computers. And this isn’t just a technobabbly new bit of efficiency. It’s going to lead to a post-document world.

Now imagine all council comings and goings, all land registry information, all political decisions, all public information, linked to one block chain for your town centre and built into an augmented reality 3D model. You could find out a complete story for any part of town wherever you were. It sounds just sort of techy, but the human implications are of being less and less easy to hide things, and more and more easy to put knowledges together about, well, anything. When it’s easy to see a more complete picture about something, it’s much easier to start to feel interested. And – oop! there you go – you’re engaged. From simple navigation of a new high street, to finding out key information for an aspect of community development, the blockchain will simply diminish dodgy ducking and diving by people connected to the land and building use of a city, as interest turns to confidence among locals.

Ronan O’Boyle explains in an article in June 2017’s The Planner: “With each transaction, we build up more and more comparables and real-time information” implying that more and more people, a bit like using Wikipedia, will find themselves looking for blockchain threads to find out things and be sure of what they’re finding out. And he sites Dubai, amongst other places, as declaring an intent to get serious about it.

“Smart Dubai recently announced that it wants Dubai to be the first blockchain-powered government in the world by 2020” he says, with the complete conversion of all official documents to blockchain on the cards. “The Dubai governement estimates that blockchain technology could save 25.1 million hours of economic productivity each year, while reducing CO2 emissions.”

You can always bamboozle with big numbers, of course, and there is an interesting thread of thought out there that the blockchain is currently not very green, as it takes so many more servers humming away around the world to verify all the data. But that’s not the point here – regardless of how soon we improve the green energy to and the power efficiency of every computer core on Earth, the blockchain is going to revolutionise how handle everything we know – ultimately not just making everything easier to find, but crucially to cross connect. And so, inevitably – and profoundly – to stimulate human engagement with the issues around them more.

And with engagement comes ownership.

Ownership. That’s belief. In not just institutions, or even cities – but people. It will help us know who is on the other end of a decision in our community. Or of anything. Just when the world’s connected crises are demanding one thing above all from us – taking increased personal responsibility. Easily accessible data, to new levels of understanding, will simply enable us to do this. And it won’t be techheads doing it, it will be ordinary schmos like you and me – and that is where technology is going to turn out to be the genius keystone in our bridge to the future. The foundations have to be in the heritage of who we are, but the final connection to a whole new side of the river will be the new emotional responses unlocked by the real potential of a digitally networked human being.

Because, above all, it may be about representation. Everyone – everyone – has to see something of themselves recognised in where they live. And when none of us can hide in disconnected ghettos, either feeling powerless to challenge what happens behind closed doors or able to get away with feathering our own prejudices… well, we unlock the potential of the great human hive computer. Don’t we? A truly living organism – the sustainable future city. As dense in possibilities as people. As rich in understanding as engagement. A place shaped much more by everyone who makes it up.

I’ve swan-dived off the hopey-changey highboard here, haven’t I.

Good intentions or idle daydreams don’t spirit away human suffering. But if the implication of the gathering stormclouds of combining crisis today is that we are all simply going to have to wake up much more and take much more responsibility for our awareness of how everything fits together… we’ll all simply be looking for ways to make sense of and interact with those fearsome challenges. To survive. And we’ll likely find ourselves reaching for these new tools and getting on with it. My growing conviction, from the quiet instinct that was the original purpose of Unsee The Future, is that the more we can individually, as ordinary nobodies, grasp how all this fits together – true human mental wellness with economic story with environmental challenge with technological opportunity – the simply more excited more of us will get. Even if waking up may be like waking up from addiction or an operation – painful, at first.

What eases the pain for every human, no matter what it is, I think is finding one’s place. A place to fit. In the modern world, this doesn’t have to be one geography. But the truth is, once we’ve made place in our mind – with who we are – it will affect where we live. And absolutely should. Because, as we all do this, the change combines and amplifies. And may even begin to see the world around us resemble the one we truly began to believe in, in our heads.

As Saskia Lassen says when thinking of Jane Jacobs’ view: “Why is it so important to recover the sense of place, and production, in our analyses of the global economy, particularly as these are constituted in major cities? Because they allow us to see the multiplicity of economies and working cultures in which regional, national and global economies are embedded. But Jacobs went much further than this. What she showed us, crucially, is that urban space is the key building block of these economies. She understood it is the weaving of multiple strands that makes the city so much more than the sum of its residents, or its grand buildings, or its corporate economy.”

I remember, without any of the pertinent details of names and places and times, a story that has stuck in my mind for years. Of a man searching for a new level of understanding in his religious beliefs. A Christian writer, I think, who had looked up to some great zealous speaker in his own younger years as a source of great Godly inspiration and zappy snappy displays of hopey-changey spiritual certainty. So he tracked him down years later and more or less doorstepped him, I think. Found him in a very unglamourous little town in middle American, far from the big city lights and from book tours and speaking engagements. There he was, kind of just running a little farmstead or something. The searching man asked him: “After all your years of exploration, what’s your one bit of advice to me?”

The other bloke looked at him and said: “Find some place and settle down.”

Wish I could remember who it was. But it’s a story not about rural living versus metropolitan life; it’s not a yearning for simpler times, looking backwards. It’s not even about never traveling or mixing it up. It’s about being fully where you are. And that is what builds a community, wherever you are. Living like that means you are never just a number in a crowd. And neither is anyone else around you. Even when there are forty million of you.

Successful human city life, I’ve come to think, richly reflects successful biological life. Lots of motion, lots of mixing, lots of unforseen possibilities from the absence of stagnant separation. The more local individuals see themselves in where they live – the more we each feel recognised in the system of our city – the more we will own where we live, and so shape it. Helping together to work out the right mix of clever solutions to grow with the grain of where we live. Eating away at the impossible-seeming problems. Sharing the spaces. Sharing the placemaking. Feeling like co-architects in the quality of our lives.

The future will be saved, built and about the many, not the few.


An actual musical about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses:

Sustainable urban living in Tianjin >

Rema Hanna writes for Project Syndicate >

Andy Spence writes for the RSA >

Emily Badger writes for Citylab >

Discover some high-level ideas for the future city >


UNSEE THE FUTURE – Episode 7: Cities, part 1

Remember to tap in and out.

More of us than not are living in cities. This is new. It’s a history first. It’s a tipping point into the new human reality – a species living in an entirely self-made landscape. What will this mean for our wellbeing? And where the story of how we got here goes from here. Is the future going to look very overcrowded, with privacy a thing of the past, as both digital life and physical life noose tightly in around our living? And will this comprehensive seeming ‘artificiality’ seal the fate of the climate crisis, as dwindling numbers of our massed selves have any direct relationship with the land and our planet’s natural processes?






Is the future Bladerunner‘s toxically dark Los Angelles, Judge Dredd‘s concrete police state Mega City One, Goddard’s AI-controlled Alphaville, Logan’s Run‘s plastastic euthenasio-topian DC dome city, Akira‘s neon, semi-sentient living robot organism Neo Tokyo or simply Asimov’s entirely artifically built-over planet Trantor? Or will today’s mega cities of Central and South America simply fall into sprawling total favellas with offshore utopias where all the urban designers and elite computer coders get to live, a la Netflix’s 3%?

Is my own lazy dream of the leafy European city-break lifestyle the last undivested fantasy of a privileged class? Quite possibly. Or did the great city planners of my own continent, during the lusty, arrogant but admittedly do-ish days of emperial centuries past, work out some good thinking that can yet echo forward into our resource-hungry future? And is the pattern of human living in the public realm and private life have to end up looking the same everywhere?

Cities are where all the problems of how humans live pile up into obvious challenges. Nowhere to hide them. Like the rubbish. It’s also where difference is more likely to become normal – diversity as everyday life for everyday folk. So could the urbanisation of humanty really be the cosmopolitanisation of us? Or just the ghettoisation.

Are plexiglass travelpod tubes and latex onesies the future of the city? Or single-speed bicycles, roof gardening and hemp shirts? Slum latrines and water shortages? Or cathetas, nutrient lines and VR headsets? What will the skyline of tomorrow be overshadowing?

Jeepers. Charge up your travel card. Let’s take a spin around the sustainable urban future.



Architects. What ARE they doing for seven years at university while not becoming qualified medical doctors?

It’s a question I have asked often over the years. So far not at any RIBA cocktail parties. Now, as someone who diffidently throws around the job title ‘creative’ I like to imagine I have a handle on design – especially when there isn’t one. Our kitchen looks super stylo with just recessed grooves everywhere and I care not a jot that it can be a little faffy to open the cupboards with wet hands. So, in my completely confident working ignorance of architecture, I imagine I am making a roundly sound point when I ask this opening question. Because it does seem to me that SEVEN EARTH YEARS at college learning how to do buildings, ought to have one module or two on, oh I dunno, understanding how to actually build them, how to actually live or work in them and how the jolly heck they will actually work in their contexts.

But then, I’m essentially jealous. Of creative work that shapes nothing less than brand new elements of human environment – the fabric of our experience of being alive.

Architecture, to the outsider – even the sympathetic fashion glasses and rollneck-wearing outsider – does appear to have positioned itself over the years rather closer to art – and God – than town planning. It doesn’t help that town and country planning does also appear to have positioned itself over the years a very long way from any actual planning either, massing most of its professional bodies on the burning barricades of development management. Certainly in my home country, the land-addicted UK. So who is actually planning the urban environment we all live in… and will all ever increasingly be living in?

In the age of great visioning, the early-mid twentieth century, we had no shortage of grand pompous planning ideas for the future of our non-rural living. And the biggest names of modern architecture, like the progressive jazz stars of their day, have become almost mythical in their artistic stature. And I can see why.

The lovely first lady of Momo and I made a couple pilgrimmages while on a road trip around France a few years back. Climbing a small hill just outside the Burgundy village of Ronchamp, the Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut immediately captures your vision from the rolling landscape around it. It’s confidently un-grand. Sort of friendly but striking. Flowing curves of whitewashed moulded concrete meet sharp angles of straight lines, peppered in places with almost Kandinskyesque window forms, in a Catholic chapel that feels like a sculpture from an artistic vision. A vision of some alien dwelling emerged through quiet temporal glitch into the fecund traditional bread basket of France, yet weirldy loving towards it. The effect inside is cloistered and calm, with dappled geometries of light very carefully puncturing the darkness. It’s beautiful. In a catagorical rejecting of centuries of church typology. Such creative confidence attracts, I suspect, more pilgrims of design than any other today, almost sixty-five years after it was completed. The work of twentieth century architecture titan, Le Corbusier.

You’ve got to have a fashion moniker for a name if you really want to go big, right? He was Charlie to his mates, I’m sure. But he’s arguably a shaper of 20th century urban form with no rival. 17 Unesco world heritage sites are his. Leaving a body of work as inspiring as salutory.

Later on the same road trip, some way south, we explored the bustling port of Marsaille. And we did what we always do – just walked. While the swiggling, turning, huddled medieval heart of the city was as casually perambulous as most old city hearts – built to human scale, in other words – we attempted to walk the hurtling dual carriageways and stumbling, sun-baked, half-forgotten pavements around the busy port to reach our particular sight-seeing goal: La Cité Radieuse.

From a distance, it looks like a modernist sideboard. A sort of long box on short legs with a couple of vases on the top. Regular window forms winking primary colours between them. The sort of thing that divides opinion. For it was, in many ways, the beginning of what we now call Brutalism.

Concrete. A lotta concrete. And a determination in density. As ArchDaily describes the whole project, first dreamed up by Le Corbusier in 1924: “Designed to contain effective means of transportation, as well as an abundance of green space and sunlight, Le Corbusier’s city of the future would not only provide residents with a better lifestyle, but would contribute to creating a better society.”

That’s not a faint-hearted ambition, is it? It sounds a world away from the demur place of worship we’d reverently stepped around two hundred miles north. But such was the work of modernists, seeing their work as almost brazenly revolutionary in their aim to “anihilate tradition” at every scale. And they were hugely influential in shaping all our dreams of tomorrow’s cities.

“Though radical, strict and nearly totalitarian in its order, symmetry and standardization, Le Corbusier’s proposed principles had an extensive influence on modern urban planning and led to the development of new high-density housing typologies.”

When we think of the great housing projects of post-war Europe and of communist Asia, it’s impossible not to see the hard lines and brutal simplicity of modernism at work everywhere. Made possible by the affordable formability of concrete, and of lots of cities to rebuild from bombing in a hurry. And Le Corbusier has come to embody the style in history’s mind. Which means he is linked as much to the great sense of failure about concrete and density and cities in the sky as he is to beautiful architecture. Too many of London’s highrise solutions to the housing crisis at the time were coming down in dusty plumes of forlorn demolition within twenty years of construction. And the same is apparently true of all the global imitators of The Radiant City.


The main project in Marsaille’s suburbs was never realised. But the key building itself still stands – and is consciously valued by proud residents. Why? When we nosed around it, to begin with up close it looks like a sort of sideways tower block in grey concrete with a great unused space for parking underneath. But the more you spend time with it, the more it grows on you in the details. Then we went inside.

It is almost a gesamptkuntswerk – a total work of art. I can’t imagine Charlie Corby approving of Wagner’s pompous oppulence but Cité Radieuse is just as confident a vision as any nineteenth century opera. The difference, apart from style, is that this is designed for living in. And it works because the whole is built by a thousand daily details of dimension, proportion, style and functionality that all feed the same idea. An oddly isolatory experiment, you might think, with a double-heighted ‘street’ of work units on the first floor and other communal ammenities. A complete human vision, is function as well as style, all components aligned. Sitting up in the exquisite restaurant on the top, even the plates and cutlery were oblong. It sounds cold in description, more ordering that orderly. But it doesn’t feel that way. The waiter told us one or two residents were still living in their high-ceilinged, huge-windowed appartments since buying them off plan in the fifties. This is a building loved for its vision and execution.

I had a similar experience on a visit to the Barbican in London.

I met a woman, while I was loitering at a shop window in the Chamberlin, Powell and Bon-designed icon of brutalism, who clearly just wanted to chat about living on the estate. And as truly brutal as the dark colour of the pitted concrete environment’s visual language around us surely was and is, here was a woman proud of where she’d lived since being one of the first to move in, in 1969. “My husband worked for the architects,” she said with coy pride. “We had to winch my grand piano all the way to the top of the Shakespeare Tower.”

In the arts center at the other end of the huge quadrangle, was an exhibition on the building of the project, right in the heart of financial London. And every sink, tap, door handle and lampshade was built to fit the aesthetic. Admittedly, that rough concrete finish wasn’t the glittering smooth result originally envisioned by CP&B but, when London council laughed in their budget’s face, they chose a deliberate-looking deliverable alternative. And the end result has integrity to this day. That magical ingredient that makes people wed themselves to something. See themselves in something.

The lovely first lady of Momo said she’d consider living on the estate just because it looked like something from Logan’s Run.

When modernist forms work well, it’s because they are in harmony with the way people actually tend to operate, artificial as such style starkly appears compared to the rustic happenstance in form and materials that is your average straw-mud barn. Tradition, mate; don’t knock it. Buildings of any type work well, I suspect, when they draw a little, accidentally or deliberately, on the ancient world principles of The Golden Mean – the idea that nature has perfect proportions for things that just oddly resonnate well with us, as products of said nature.

I have no idea if he had any such notions in mind, but the job of planning the rebuild of France after the second world war fell to Auguste Perret, a chap with whom Charlie Corby had worked at some point, but who was seen as a little more conservative. Less of a diva, you might infer. As a result, I wonder whether this subtle invisibility of the architect made for better architecture.

One of the clearest fruits of his commissioning is the port of Le Havre. It too is a Unesco site, and an oddly encapsulated bit of modernist perfection. I know! You had any idea? A whole quarter of the city built to within a millemeter of its life to exacting straight lines and design principles steeped in forget all that wiggly old crap. A style that would to this day really put off some, and really attract other saps like me. We always stay in a hotel there that’s the former finance ministry building, which gives enormous floor-to-ceiling windows and square taps and square everything in the rooms overlooking the straight, square canals. To me it’s a joy.

One pilgrimage I am yet to make is perhaps to the daddy of them all, however. Oscar Niemeyer‘s Brasilia. And it maybe encompasses the problems left behind by modernist star-chitecture, still echoing in the isolated thinking of too many pretty schemes landing on planning tables today.

It’s gorgeous on the lens, by all accounts. And the forms of the new Brazillian capital go beyond Le Corbusier’s strict straight forms and push concrete’s limits to make organic shapes in amongst the hard contrasts. It’s almost philosophical in its balance and shapes. And no one doubts the beauty of the buildings. As a BBC article quotes Norman Foster, current daddy of all architects: “There’s a wonderful optimism and beauty and light about them. They make life richer for everybody who uses them,” he says, describing some of the structures as “hauntingly beautiful” and “absolutely magical”. Bet I’d say the same. Bet I’d delight like a art college boob in the sweeping aesthetic vision of such a place.

But that doesn’t make the city a total success. For, for all those delightful, clever, human… artistic statements of living writ in building, the complete city is, by all accounts, apart from anything else, hard to walk around. Built for swooshing motorway routes – the car.

“It just doesn’t have the complexity of a normal city” says Ricky Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics, Chief Adviser on Architecture and Urbanism for the London 2012 Olympics. “It’s a sort of office campus for a government. People run away on Thursday evenings and go to Sao Paulo and Rio to have fun.”

Disconnection. Everything neatly engineered into tidy boxes and predictable flows. Lord knows I get it; I’m a bit of a pencil straightener myself. But if our grand visions haven’t delivered the goods quite yet – not least of which because developers do tend to think last about commercial access – then how the space are we going to manage a future of sprawling, haphazzard megacities? A future that’s already here, and looking anything but manicured, graceful, dazzling white in the hopeful sunshine of tomorrow.




“The world’s population is constantly increasing. To accommodate everyone, we need to build modern, sustainable cities. For all of us to survive and prosper, we need new, intelligent urban planning that creates safe, affordable and resilient cities with green and culturally inspiring living conditions”

The Global Goal for sustainable cities and communites aims to make urban living and all human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, the UN states. What exactly does this mean?

The headline is simply ‘safe and affordable housing’ – attempting to piece together enough of it for absolutely everyone. Upgrading all our living to include at least the basics across the board – sanitation, shelter, functioning amenities and at a cost that doesn’t cripple tennants. We haven’t managed to do this in the UK yet, and it runs the fifth largest economy on Earth. A significant element of making everyone’s living healthier, however, is simply transport – being able to get around easily, affordably and safely. Especially if we’re vulnerable. Transport vitally helps a city economically breathe.

And that’s a pertinent choice of words. Because breathing is downright dangerous in many cities today. And while you might think of the surreal smogs of Bejing or maybe LA, Londoners are all too aware that before the end of its first month, 2018 had spent its EU air pollution limit for the capital. Nitrogen Dioxide levels and air particulates are reportedly breaching guidelines for health in some 44 out of 51 towns analysed in a WHO report on the UK at the end of last year. It’s currently recommended that fine sooty particles as they’re known, or PM2.5s, should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air. Glasgow, former European City of Culture, tops the list at 16 with far too many of Britain’s major cities also in the teens, not far behind. It’s alarming that even my ‘health and beauty’-founded seaside town, Bournemouth, makes the list with a 9 – all but on the safe air limit, despite being on the coast and steeped in trees. There may be scrutiny to be applied to how these readings were taken, exactly, but it’s enough to know our obsession with getting everywhere in the entitled internal combustion engined personal car is wrecking even a quite outdoorsy resort. Pulchritudo et salubritas, mate.

The goal in this regard oddly doesn’t major on air quality exactly but sees it simply as part of the overall ‘environmental impact’ of city life, to include waste management. A simple aim that gets to the heart of the daunting problem: Where do we put everything? While it’s laudible and properly future-facing to put as much emphasis as the Goals do on developing planning systems, their scope, co-operation, function and general inclusivity, to say nothing of better disaster management planning across the board, the immediate problem is cleaning up the way we do things now.

To build spaces for humans to live in that are much higher in their density while much more efficient in their resource use, while still managing to improve quality of life living there… well that’s the challenge, isn’t it. Especially when you consider how cities tend to evolve.

Insurance giant Allianz rounds up the top twenty megacities of today with a few essential stats. And in at number 20, it’s the West Bengali capital Kolkata with 14.6 million people living in an eye-wateringly, anti-perspirant-challenging 12,200 bodies per square kilometer on the equatorial eastern border of India. Thailand’s Bangkok is just a little larger at 14.9 million souls packed into the country’s business-booming capital in a very flood-vulnerable elevation on the Chao Phraya River delta. Los Angeles, Cairo, Dhaka, Moscow and Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto nudge us up through the 16 and 17 millions, with Mumbai, Mexico City and Sao Paulo getting us up towards and over 20. New York is up there with similar numbers. The big Chinese urban hitters of Bejing and Shanghai have 21 and 24.3 million inhabitants respectively, with Pakistan’s Karachi, India’s Dehli and Korea’s Seoul all pushing the mid twenties. But it’s Jakarta that takes a big leap up with over 30 million people living in the Indonesian capital.

And the planetary top slot? Tokyo-Yokohama. Little old Japan. Nearly 38 million people live in the greater urban area swallowed up by Tokyo – the largest urban agglomeration on Earth currently. Japan doesn’t half look like the future, with all those people colliding with all that technology, in such a small bit of land. Gotta wonder if this observation is going to pay off later on in this blog, hmm.

It’s a far cry from most leafy European cities. While London and Paris top the Eurostat figures for the continent’s populations at both around the 12 million mark today, Madrid as the next biggest people centre tops out at around 8 million and all the other major cities are around the five million level. Europe may be comparatively small in continental scales, but in human living levels it’s comparatively roomy. The UK manages to be the densest population (half-) in Europe while still not living in most of itself. As the UK National Ecosystem report established a few years ago, while 80% of Britons live in cities – blimey, that’s a hipster bike goldmine – the figure for as precise an estimation we have for how much of the county is no longer green in one form or other is… 2.27%. Yes. You read that right. As Mark Easton reports:

“According to the most detailed analysis ever conducted, almost 98% of England is, in their word, natural. Elsewhere in the UK, the figure rises to more than 99%. It is clear that only a small fraction of Britain has been concreted over.”

I know you. You flatly won’t believe it, but do go check out the numbers, it’s enlightening.

Which is all very well for weary would-be gardeners, the Brits. If they want to leave their jobs and lifestyle in the metropolitan centres. Which clearly most of them don’t. And who does? It’s why we have the numbers we do.

Mark Swilling writes that the major problem in rapid urban growth has been the nature of it – not a simple densifying of the original footprints of cities, but the dreaded urban sprawl. What this tends to eat into, in a combined rush to cash in on the need for new homes, is building on the type of land that first helped attract settlements to the location in the first place – land we can grow stuff to eat in. In short, he says: “Continued urbanisation in its current form could threaten global food supplies at a time when food production is already not keeping up with population growth.”

This sort of development, he suggests, has had a particular cause in more modern decades.

“A key determinant of rampant urban sprawl – especially in North America, where it is a particularly serious problem – has been the existence of cheap oil. When oil prices reached record highs in 2008 and exacerbated the global economic crisis, the people who travelled furthest tended to be the first to default on their mortgage payments.”

In a visit to Detroit at time of writing in 2016, he says he found that of the city’s: “300,000 buildings, 70,000 currently stand empty – and mostly derelict.”

The effect was to draw people out to the suburbs and depopulate the core of the city. Not helpful ahead of the big slump in its almost tentpole industry, cars.

The model of growth that happens in the more rapidly developing parts of the world, is one that has the same effect of sprawling the footprint of cities outwards, but for much more ancient world economic reasons – the influx of poor looking for work and kind of getting stuck at the city gates. Slums. The interesting phenomenon in India appears to be that the slums evolve right in the heart of cities, juxtaposing middle class and poor with fewer illusions, but in most rapidly growing cities there are rings of more haphazard, less efficiently designed communities radiating from the urban centres and eating land.

Slums and favellas aren’t just bad sounding places for health and comfort. They are a waste of – and even block – resources their people need. And the more people flock to them, the exponentially worse that combination of problems gets.

But. Is the high minded intention to clear away slums and rehouse people always the right one? Are there, at least, things to learn from these communities that might have something to say to the whole notion of the city?



“Finding silence in a favela is like trying to stay dry during the monsoon” says Nathan Bonnisseau in Rio On Watch. “Top volume telenovelas compete with powerful sound systems. Evangelical liturgies clash with the shouts of merchants. Residents bluntly exchange anecdotes from their respective kitchens. These communities are alive with sound and movement, but they are so much more than that.”

Culture. What is it? It is expressions of living that grow out of a community, like blossoming tendrils of bindweed, and tie it together into an identity. A mentally held idea of who you are. It’s born out of habit, ritual, rhythms of life wherever its happening that I guess usually start from a shared need – we’ve all turned up at the same place, and find ourselves needing to do the same things. Before long, we are at least identifying as people who share this experience, possibly sharing songs and jokes about how rubbish the experience is, if not actively helping each other to work it. And like bindweed, your culture can both hold the soil of your identity together and choke blooms of individuality. Identifying our id is a bit of an uneasy dialogue as we’re growing up, working out which bits give us a core of confidence and which bits are suffocating us. Trying to recognise how many cultures, in fact, are always in our personal melting pot. Such is human. But we need culture – because no settlement lives without it. The question, if you’ve been paying attention, is always: how do we encourage the more healthy versions of our cultures? The more confidently curious, sustainable, helpful. Go on, say it. Hopeful.

Well, in a hipster age of authenticity for those of us starting up coffee indies in beautifully graffitied old shipping containers in gentrified dockland districts, the idea of the cultural nobility of the slum isn’t hard to picture. It might be blown up on the back wall of your Cargo Mondo Café with the logo of your favourite blend on it. It’s always in slo-mo, through a creamy-lit lens, to the right music. And the fact that I am taking the pizzle out of the commodotisation of such poverty porn doesn’t actually remove from it the kernal of truth that we do want to recognise our humanity in the world. Even in our suffering. It’s an emotional pressure valve to all the hopeless intractability of many cultural sufferings. But the truth day to day is that in the compartmentalised modern economic world, ghettos seem a lot easier to create than cultural melting pots. Which means a lot of really cool stuff, where you live, you don’t know about.

The favelas of Brazil’s big cities are not quiet. They make so much noise, in fact, that their culture has escaped further than people who live there will feel daily that it has. When suburban boobs like me in rainy Britain can say that the soundtrack to Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s 2002 film City of God is among the coolest they’ve ever enjoyed, then maybe your noise is carrying. It’s being appropriated into the life score for less colourful rich people, yes, but there’s an echo of your culture on some alien person’s coffee table now. So it seems especially weird from far away to consider that the colourful noise doesn’t seem to reach its immediate middle class neighbours in Rio. Because suburbia has an awful lot to learn from such community life.

Bonnisseau asks of the favelas packed human landscapes: “What is it that makes these spaces so culturally vibrant?”

He quotes Jorge Barbosa, Director of the Observatório de Favelas and manager of a project that maps cultural groups in the favelas (Solos Culturais), who says: “the streets, the alleyways, the stairs are cultural scenes that are in fact very close to real life.”

There is energy in the mix. Human life so piled up on itself may create some chaotic-seeming problems, but it also generates vibrant collisions of ideas. Everything happens within earshot, everything happens in public, everything is part of everyone’s daily, habitual life. The apparent chaos of biological life’s evolution is how human cultural life best creates the unexpected – cross pollination and mutation. And in such an intense mix, however much there must be times extended family drives you mad, that energy of ideas gets into your blood. Your outlook. Your identity. The favelas have often been a watchword for gangland violence, but it’s never so boringly simple.

The point is, that irresistable funk of the City of God soundtrack is more than just a splendid groove. It’s not emptily cool, whether it’s the classic period funk of the story’s 70s setting, or the contemporary beats shaking the steps of Vidigal today. It is an expression of revolutionary energy. One that people in other parts of the city don’t seem to like. Music artist Anitta’s hit video Vai Malandra – go on, bad boy – illustrates the point. It’s provocatively sexed, and the beads of sweat on your dad’s brow will testify to how much it looks like more male gaze cash-in and ‘not proper culture’. It was a hit, and so polarises opinion between its empowerment and representation of black female energy, taking back the the power in the expression of body moves, and the simple objectification of women, blacks, street culture. The point though, is not this one record. It’s its cultural context – the favela.

“Funk and passinho are, first and foremost, art forms created in favelas that communicate daily life, hopes, dreams, and fears, and which draw from but constantly modernize age-old rhythms, steps, and messages” says Lucy McMahon choreographer, dancer, Human Rights lecturer. She highlights the just splendidly named Casa Do Funk school of creativity, which teaches young people the moves and the music of the favela as steps, beats and words of empowerment and identity. As she explains, the Rede Funk community: “celebrates and teaches ‘conscious funk,’ a style that tells of the violence, pain, joy, community, and rebellion of artists’ everyday lives.”

But the recognition of culture tends to be the problem across connectivity gaps. While perhaps rather ‘whiter’ parts of cultural town set up actual groups like Funk Is Trash – with posts saying things like: “criminalise the funk, a favour to society!” linking it to violence against women – is too right on to imagine how many in the favelas might echo McMahon: “Funk offers a chance of social mobility that is entirely self-created, emergent, and independent of any top-down social project, whether the mobility of the music from the favelas to other countries and into middle class homes and universities, or the mobility of dancers and MCs to positions of success and influence. It has the potential to threaten the racial and class hierarchies on which the Brazilian status quo is built on” she says.

Culture empowers and culture divides. And its always there, bringing empty buildings to life in one way or another and making them communities.

Interestingly, the connectivity gap may often still be old fashioned physical – transport. Getting from home into the Asfalto is, Barboso says, too easily prohibitive: “The priority is not equipment, it is the territory,” he said. “Having a place to realize oneself, to live together and exchange, this is what potentializes an entire community.”

The favelas illustrate the richness of human life in their own cultures, and the serious challenges of spreading the different types of wealth and opportunity across a whole city. But there are some physical principles at work in our psychologies.


Next time on Unsee The Future, we’ll be concluding our outline look at the challenges facing urban life in the 21st century, as more and more people flock to the city. Such a massive subject, I’ve opted to slit it across two episodes. And Episode 8 is still a meaty one – and still manages to barely even begin to interrogate all the key things in play in our built environment challenges looking forward. But in it, we make a start to grasp some principles that may come in handy when tackling human community development designs. All as just one part of our connected outline of the potential plan for the more hopeful human-planet plan.



NIEMEYER’S BRASILIA: Does it work as a city? >




Go on, you’re faking it.

“Me’ol nan smoked like a chimney all ‘er life and lived till an’undred. Twinkletoes was dahn at the gym six nights a week and dropped dead of an’art attack at forty-three, din’ee?”

Health is an interesting phenomenon in the West, because here humans have turned the idea of being well into a sort of novelty. A lifestyle ..not for the faint of heart. An entire industry of supplimentary medication and behavioural regimes and dietary solutions to make you feel better. From all the ‘feeling better’ that the junk food, booze and sex industries first promised to comfort you with. And you say you’re not high maintenance.

But when we get to issues connected with human wellbeing on the planet’s grand future-building To Do list, the bullet points of goals can quickly run off the bottom of your page – not simply because there are so very many ways of Being Not Well, but because as hard as aid agencies and researchers are working to treat the basics of sickness and death in struggling parts of some nations, everyone in the countries with all the basics in place seem to be willfully making themselves sickness statistics. And this despite cumulatively spectacular progress in medicines, treatments and understandings of how the human vehicle works. So how well do we feel, as we consider the future of human fitness? And does all of it have rather less to do with our hairy paunches and more to do with another bit of us altogether; the flabby bit between the ears.




For humans on Earth in the early 21st century, you could say that the health of our species is under attack from two main sharp-ends at once – both forged in our own brains by the relentless hammers of habit: Toxic political cultures and sick consumptional cultures. As a health champion today, you’ll either be sparring war and corruption to get essential lifestyle infrastructure set up, to arrest some very basic issues of sanitation and nutrition, or you’ll be jabbing wearily at the apparent impossibility of not eating tons of debilitatingly terrible crap every day.What you’re least likely to be doing is having a spa treatment.

Health is hard. But let’s see if we can ingest some fortifying essentials to make it all around the hill of it before tea time. Think of this episode of Unsee The Future as the Kendle Mint Cake of your quick yomp around the challenge of being well. And yeah, if you hate the idea of a worthy sounding hike anywhere then, ah, we have even further to go, man.

Let’s push past the flab and try to take a truthful general look at what’s ailing us. Without having to mentally add units to your declared weekly intake like your GP does.



“Living so healthily was killing me.” So quipped writer AJ Jacobs after completing his wellness marathon to spend a couple of years living by all the health fads he could. But in his interview with Men’s Health not long after supposedly hurling himself off the health wagon with the completion of his book Drop Dead Healthy, he concieded that one of the things he learned was what you can’t squirm out of – the basics. Because it turns out the an awful lot of scientific consensus on that – despite the regular reports of regular red wine or blue cheese or extra-marital action doing away with the need to ever get out of your chair. You want the French lifestyle, but the truth is you can’t drive it.

“I was like, ‘Hey, maybe I can not exercise and be the healthiest man alive,’” Jacobs says. “But no, the basics are gonna stay the same—that you need to eat whole foods, you need a lot of sleep, you can’t stress out, and you do need to keep moving. The sedentary life is a killer. Those will always stay, I don’t see those being overturned in any way in our future.”

He discovered, of course, plenty of fads. And like all worthy causes, a lot of these fads and solutions have a quick knack of deploying passive agressive guilt if you don’t go all out on their view of purity. Yoga parties don’t appear to be much of a thing in popular culture. Being super-healthy often appears to mean bipassing your sense of humour, and often seems to involve embracing pain. Whether its the floor-strengthening ache of clenching in a veggie curry nifter as your class moves into a malasana pose, or the agony of relaxing your wallet.

Getting attention by horrified tabloids and others at the start of this year is the apparent new ‘craze’ for raw water. As Vox outlines, it’s a belief that all the accidental hormones and deliberate fluoride in your tap water is at best killing your gut’s natural biotic balance and is probably a brain-washing commie plot to boot – which you can neatly side-step for just thirty-five bucks a pop with products like Live Water – untreated natural H2O.

Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned quite soberly since embarking on my own accidental quest to the future these past couple of years it is that my Western culture has kind of brainwashed me to laugh at hippies. To see the counter culture as not so much planting the seeds of modern organic wisdom in an honest cry of the human heart from the bowels of the soulless social machine but more like a bunch of work-shy, sock-eshewing scruffy bean eaters and hemp dealers. But I do know that there are an awful very lot of water-born bacteria that are not so much pro-biotic as prolapsing-botty in their health effects on humans that are a thing of the incomprehensible past in modern life because of all the treatment. And I suspect too that my very lovely dentist would echo the sentiments of a 2014 Public Health England report that simply said the fluoridation of public water services was: “a safe and effective way of preventing tooth decay” and she might even go as far as agreeing with the Centres for Desease Control and Prevention in the US that flatly states: “Because of its contribution to the dramatic decline in tooth decay over the past 70 years, CDC named community water fluoridation as 1 of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.”

Depends who you believe.

And belief is a massive thing in health.

As Professor Alia Crum explains in a 2016 TEDMED talk, the power of the placebo effect is so marked, it would be canny of medical science to start using it more consciously. She sites a wealth of evidence that the body’s digestive system, edocrine system, immune system, nervous system… like, basically all the systems can produce chemical reactions to things a person’s mind believes is happening. Often even when they also essentally know they’re taking a sugar pill or a pretend capsual or even undergoing a fake surgical procedure. Eric Mead, in his less authodox talk on the placebo effect, suggests its power has a hierarchy – capsuals work better than pills, and syringes work best of all. And you laugh at new age rituals.

Belief. Ritual. Fad – we embrace a very wide spectrum of comforts in our bid to feel good and fight death. And the list of worthy things you really must look into in 2018 if you’re serious about wellbeing yourself ranges from the fanciful to the sensible to the technical. According to Good Housekeeping, tumeric is the new avocado, jackfruit is the new kale, maca powder the new drinking from the holy grail and ‘lab-grade equipment’ the new fitbit. The Guardian pictures super-charged vitamin pills and streamed versions of your mum’s (or your dad’s) Jane Fonda workout videos but emphasises the growing demand to just blot out the noise. The ‘digital wellness escape’ is now a thing, you’d better believe. And are you surprised, they imply:

“Those passive-aggressive “Talk to people!” chalkboards in cafes with no free wifi? The thin end of the wedge. Expect social media fatigue to peak over the next 12 months, with more Trump-weary tweeters committing to digital detoxes, and more pubs and cafes actively discouraging mobile phones.”

If turning off your phone and adding kale to your Ginsters lunch still seems a bit edgy for you, then you might consider getting over your laughable greenertia by leaping right off the health fad high board. And if you’re looking for just the thing to jolt you into the hippest pre-dystopian high fashion food, be of good cheer because there are some super developments in the celebrity salubrity lifestyle world for 2018 – and surely it’s time you embraced the whole Mad Max chic and tried cricket. Not the crack of leather on willow, but of teeny tiny little dessicated legs snapping.

Entomophagy. Insects. Global nutritionists have been coughing the idea behind their hands for a few years, in the face of the looming food supply crises. But… wait, what? I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be eating invertibrates for fun, but Charlotte Payne of Cambridge University says boldly that she’s a particular fan of locust: “Lighter than meat and heavier than seafood, they’re delicious. Each one of these plant-loving insects absorbs the taste of your chosen seasoning and adds a satisfyingly crunchy texture.”

..Why. Why oh why. Well, many insects are high in calcium, zinc, iron and protein, she says, and farming them would create a fraction of the greenhouse gases of livestock. They’re already eaten in larval and adult form in many parts of the world anyway and there’s, y’know, a good supply of bugs.

If that doesn’t light your insense stick then The Art Of Healthy Living goes straight for fashion body-mass nirvana with wabi-sabi, stress pebbles, standing and kindfulness. Well, sure. Sign me up for a namastaycation.

There are some interesting themes infusing these stories, truth be. But ritual and belief alone has not healed the world so far. The global detox is going to have to go a bit deeper.







The UN’s Global Goal of Good Health & Wellbeing opens with a statement: “Over the last 15 years, the number of childhood deaths has been cut in half. This proves that it is possible to win the fight against almost every disease. Still, we are spending an astonishing amount of money and resources on treating illnesses that are surprisingly easy to prevent.

Its aims cover the spectrum of human wellbeing, from planning ever better responses to global health risks and fighting comunicable desease, to reducing deaths from lifestyle accidents in various ways, including addiction and simply tobacco use. It also advocates some kind of world-wide healthcare coverage by 2030. It’s a massive task, when put all together. But it shows a suitably rounded view of what we’re facing to give a whole planet of people a fighting chance to live to their potential.

The basic headlines of health are a mixed bag of remarkable progress and consequently even more appalling-seeming problems today, as we look forward. The reduction of disease in many countries is, if we stop to think about it for a second, astonishing. Life expectancy today is somewhere around seventy years globally on average, when for centuries until around the turn of the last century it was somewhere in the mid thirties. I’d be a grand pater by now. No, I’d be dead by now. From not being able to get any kind of job whatsoever in pre-AppleMac Merrie England. Africa’s life expectancy, meanwhile, always was and still is at the bottom of the pile according to Our World In Data with Europeans conversely these days living easily into their 80s. Japan seems to top the list always. Interestingly seeming to demonstrate that the Japanese commitment to playful environment, bonkers pop, zen gardening and merely-neatened fresh seafood outweighs the stresses of their cultural obsession with excellence and propriety. Life seems to sit well with being tidy. But everyone’s lives have gotten longer. Giving us more time to get ill.

But not any more with some diseases. One main human disease in history has been labelled actually eradicated – Smallpox holds the distinction, with, as The History of Vaccines says, the last case of wild smallpox occurring in Somalia in 1977. And thank goodness. A disfiguringly pustulous, highly contageous disease with humankind for thousands of years, it killed an estimated 300million people in the 20th century alone, and got everywhere nastily. It’s also said the Spanish took it as an accidental biological ally when conquering the Americas as the peoples of the new world had never had it before and it spread hideously. Now it’s gone. I’d call that progress.

Meanwhile, many other previously deadly killers are being effectively eliminated locally around the world. Polio, Rubella, Measles, even Malaria is being beaten back. Through effective combinations of biological research, systematic vaccination campaigns, and public awareness practice campaigns. And the scourge of medieval history in Europe, the plague? Well, Yersinia pestis has far from gone away, with outbreaks of plague popping up in various places this century. But while outbreaks of it recurred in Europe for five hundred years when it arrived on the continent in the 1300s from burgeoning Asian trade routes, killing tens of millions and decimating populations, it’s not the haunting terror of our imaginations it was to my ancestors, thanks to much improved hygiene and pest management. Lifestyle changes.  As a new study suggests, the evidence is the real spreader of the Black Death was not rats and rodents but human body lice. Bad bathroom regimes. So yay for power showers, exfoliating mits and manscaping.

Even the modern disease of HIV/AIDS is showing decline in almost all parts of the world. While some 36million people today live with HIV, the numbers of new infections is dropping. West Africa still struggles the most with it and it is still a big problem, but it’s no longer the leading cause of death on the continent, and drug treatments are extending lifespans for carriers thankfully much beyond what they were.

Where disease spreads badly today is where sanitation, nutrition and practical social hygiene are more of a challenge. Recurring biological assailants include Hepatitis in its various forms, Cholera, Meningitis, and of course Influenza – something that plagued Europe again much more recently. Chikungunya, Dengue and the hideous Zika affect 50 to 100 million people each year and, as an ECDC report from the end of 2017 says: “in the past decade, all three diseases have been reported across an increasing number of countries.”

And I’ve not scared you with talk of birds. Chickens giving you flu. It’s the basis of many science fiction panics – viruses mutating across species. But while this looms in the mind of health bodies around the globe, it’s far from top of the list.

TB is the leading disease to deal with currently. The WHO says 0.4 million people fell ill with TB in 2016, and 1.7 million died from the disease then. Along with influenza, pneumonia and bronchitis, tuberculosis is part of what makes lower respiritory diseases the deadliest communicable disease challenge still on Earth.

But while great pandemic outbreaks may grab the chilling headlines, making you eye your parrot wearily, it’s not the biggest problem facing us. Not by a long chalk.



One study suggests causes of death today are topped by bad blood pressure. Followed very closely by “poor diet”, tobacco use and air polution. According to this particular global disease study published in The Lancett, one in five deaths worldwide are poor diet related, claiming as part of this statistic that 11% of the world’s population were undernourished in 2016. The World Health Organisation says overall our biggest health challenges are with heart disease and stroke, followed then by TB.

In the world of medical accademia, University College London has highlighted seven priorities in its own Grand Challenge on Global Health, and it puts ‘migration and health’ at the top, interestingly. With non-communicable diseases second and mental health third. It may be in no particular order, but its interesting. Following up for them are antimicrobial resistance, the health impacts of climate change, the growing challenges of an aging population and finally… actual communicable disease. Catching something nasty.

The American nurse’s forum Scrubs reduces the medical care challenges of 2018 to four headlines – a shift of emphasis to “lifestyle related” illnesses, the continued spread of HIV/AIDS, worldwide antibiotic-resistant diseases and what it calls simply “the sanitation gap”.

The World Health Organisation each year manages to pull together a handy single document on the working status of human wellbeing, outlining all the ongoing challenges all over Earth. Just in case some wealthy passing alien life fancied a quick survey report on their potential new real estate aquisition. Think we’d all be grateful if they took it on for us, it’s become a bit of a fixer-upper as we’ve really let the place go in recent centuries. The WHO 2017 report lays out six systemic endeavours the organisation believes can be chased down in order to really get some weight under any progress. Besides talking about encouraging innovation and research technically, they include trying to help healthcare systems gear up to provide universal health coverage, promoting more sustainable health financing and helping different sectors work together better to actually make progress on things. And they talk interestingly of health equity – “leave no one behind.”

The specifics on the WHO’s agenda are a sort of fascinating collective To Do list. It includes maternal deaths in Kazakhstan, viral hepatitis in Cambodia, early deaths due to alcohol in the Russian Federation, malaria in Papua New Guinea, suicide in the Republic of Korea, fighting the tobacco industry in Uruguay and many others. But the headlines this last year appear to be very organisational – trying to implement the understanding that solutions are never isolated. Things cross-affect – just as much for good as for bad. It’s almost hopeful in its cool-headed analysis of such a huge, unfinished task. But it bears out the global themes of our times.

In Davos, where all the big power-players of the world get together each year, to compare Bugatti Chiffons or whatever they are, presumably, health challenges are seen as economic challenges, understandably. But the theme circling global strategic grown-up conversations at the moment is how to widen out what ‘health’ even means and how to begin to bring together many structures, bodies and ideas that have traditionally been thought of more separately. Because bigger in the minds of people in these rooms than the key challenges of basic nutrition and sanitation seems to be the swelling pressure balloon of Non Communicable Disease – chronic conditions. IE: personal ailments that continue over lifetimes that need lots of ongoing treatment.And interestingly, of course, so many of these you could describe as symptoms of bad lifestyle.

At a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum 2016, entitled Shaping the future of health, Francis Collins, an amiable seeming chap moderating the forum who headed the National Institutes of Health in the US at the time, said: “I wish that we could say that all of us are rational actors in every space, but we know that doesn’t always apply. And even in situations where resources are fairly plentiful, people make bad decisions about their health.” While we don’t want turn into Big Brothers or nanny states, we do want to come up with ways that encourage good health decisions to be the easy decisions and not the hard ones.”

Long term suffering, non-communicable disease, is the largest burden on the human-planet system today. As the World Economic Forum puts it elsewhere, NCDs are: “the price we pay for economic development, prosperity and major achievements in healthcare, which bring us longer, less arduous, but perhaps more stressful lives.”

As Prof John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England is quoted in a Guardian article: “I don’t think people realise how quickly the focus is shifting towards non-communicable disease [such as cancer, heart disease and stroke] and diseases that come with development, in particular related to poor diet. The numbers are quite shocking in my view”.

At the same WEF panel discussion, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, Chief Executive Officer of health culture leadership organisation, the Robert Wood-Johnson Foundation, said: “As has been said many times at this conference, health is essential to having a healthy, resilient economy and population.” Well, yeah. What she feels this means is making sense of our health challenges in as broad a context as possible: “At our foundation we like to say that health exists where we live, learn, work and play. And so to achieve health we have to think more broadly than the healthcare system or disease states”. Our social life and geographical home are significant factors in how well we are, in other words. Trying to build health equity for the whole planet will mean addressing the challenges facing people in these regards as much as getting access to the basics or to the right medicines.

Coronary heart disease, diabetes? They sit alongside mental wellbeing as symptoms of modern life. The stuff we’re putting into ourselves every day, as consequences of our culture. It comes out again. The real challenge to our living well is the consequences of how we’ve begun to live with more. And if you’re homeless in the west, you will have all possible health issues to deal with at once, surrounded by wealth. All of this the true cost of our economic life, you might say. Which includes the pan-emotional effect of globalisation – worlds colliding.

Racism is bad for your health. And not simply if you are a victim of a bodily attack. As David R Williams describes with calm conviction there is much evidence for the simply shortened lifespans and medical wellbeing of black Americans compared with whites. It’s quietly shocking, even though you’re kinda not surprised. And he suggests that the problem is not so much a mystifying epidemic of racist cops but an endemic outlook gently marinading minds growing up in the background culture of the States. All taking its toll on everyone, in the end.

And then there is the real silent killer. Lonliness.

Announced just this week as I speak, the UK has just appointed a Minister For Lonliness. ..That is now, people. Such is our modern life. Tracey Crouch aims to take up the batton of social campaigner the late Jo Cox and calls it a “generational challenge”. But it’s not simply because more of us are living longer and so spending more time at the end of our lives alone – half of us over seventy, it’s estimated. It’s the young as well. As The Day quotes 30-year-old Kylie from a 2016 BBC doc The Age of Lonliness: “Nobody puts on Facebook — I’ve just spent a week indoors eating Hobnobs’.  But they do. I have a significant number of dear friends across age ranges who separately try not to feel crushed by the sheer emotional weight of lonliness every day.

Mind estimates one in four people in the UK are suffering with mental health issues. And as we are coming to know, it’s been the hardest to get taken seriously. Especially because we don’t even want to talk about it, let alone find treatment, such has been the social stigma. Even getting diagnosed with dyslexia has taken many people half a lifetime, with the burden of ‘stupidity’ clinging to them for far too long, just because their brain is a bit chancey with pattern recognition. And that’s possibly one in ten of us. For others of us with Asperger’s and forms of attention disorder, getting recognition is like coming out. Being told you’re essentially normal, as a human dealing with your condition.

But issues to do with lonliness, anxiety, depression and learning challenges seem to be talked about today more than ever swirling around and between us all, all of us honestly able to testify to something of it. This too feels soberly like a kind of progress.

The comforts we seek to cope with everything rather easily become part of the problem. When we talk about sexual health in 2018, we’re not simply talking about avoiding STIs or worse, we’re much more talking too of mental and social health here – behaviours. What is acceptible? What is good for us? Me. You. As we have rolled open new social, sexual freedoms, we’re all trying to shake down how most healthily to enjoy them. The digital tidal wave of easy-access porn, for example, is damaging some of our real-world sex lives and relationships. As the BBC reports, psychosexual therapist Angela Gregory says she has far more young men, not just older chaps, referred to her with problems connecting with their partners, because on-screen action has eroded their normal sense of connection with flesh and blood. An affect that is quickly not English cheeky seaside postcard at the lido so much as cheerless broken libido. Comforts quietly taking us away from each other.

Then there is simply the ultimate mental health statistic. Suicide. And the significant social health metric that in the UK in 2016, three-quarters of all cases were men. Talking and connecting is still a big cultural problem for too many of us, it seems. The largest percentage of men taking their own life in this time were in their early forties. The largest percentage of women doing so were in their early fifties.

In a time of unprecidented prosperity and scientific improvement of health outcomes, we are unwell. All over the world. Collectively getting over our bacterial challenges, we are now trying to deal with our perceptions of the world. That’s a heavy challenge. Something many in my country, the UK, wish the greatest public healthcare system in the world could do much more to cope with. But the NHS is by many accounts woefully underfunded and fragmented in its approach to mental health support. And just when more British people are waking up to their mental health needs, their national health service looks like it’s on its knees.

This is because the NHS was set up wrongly from the start.



If you live in my country, you’ll have heard many stories this winter of the crisis in healthcare. Again. Of A&E departments looking like refugee departure points, spilling over with patients on trolleys in coridors while nurses flee from the whole public profession. Again. Still. Yet the NHS is one of the most resonnant rallying cries of identity across modern Brittons. To such an extent that Danny Boyle made a huge feature of it in the most genuinely patriotic experience I may have personally experienced – the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony. Ah, the days when London became a haven of goodwill and peace on Earth. Rumour has it, Cameron’s Conservative government really wanted Boyle to take it out.

I personally owe the NHS unrepayable debts. And that’s me as an almost offensively lucky person in health. But while my lolling frame has carried me around with very little fuss for forty-seven years to date, those I love have had their lives transformed by it’s essentially ‘free’ world-class expertise. Which means my life has been. From the various new joints and years of care and drug support my father and mother have had, to the essential fact that I would be pushing the lovely first lady of Momo along Bournemouth prom in a bath chair with a tartan blanky over her knees today if they hadn’t replaced both her failing hip joints in the last three years. A person who is otherwise strong and fit and committed to the wellbeing of activity would be old and invalid by her mid forties in another age. And living with horrible pain. She would be suffering with depression.

And come to think of it, I’d have a dicky eye without the NHS too. I had a squiffy one as a kid and they turned it straight again. Much as Marty Feldman made an asset out of his, er, look, I’m not sure I’d have liked to be sporting two cheeky stares at once.

Yet, while everyone half knows the NHS is being despatched in pieces to private firms because it is creaking under its own weight, public debate here is very stalled on the matter. Full of heat, but like a car in a ditch still revving loudly and going nowhere. But something that sounds borderline offensive were I to call in and ‘reckon’ it on LBC, comes from a boss of the BMA. The NHS was set up wrongly in the first place.

Dr Kailash Chand is honorary vice president of the British Medical Association and recalls that before the NHS’s establishment in 1948 by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, “the have-nots feared ill health.” Because they had no way to pay for treatment.

“The fear of ill health gripped the poor before the creation of the NHS. The creation of a universal healthcare system, free at the point of use, was Britain’s greatest post-war achievement.”

But writing in The Guardian, Dr Chand says this:

“The NHS made an error from the start: building services around treatment rather than prevention. We see the ramifications of this today. By seeking to treat ill health rather than tackling its causes, successive politicians have lost sight of the path to securing an affordable NHS.”

He goes on to suggest that there is a big over-reliance on drug presciption and surgery that, added to wider social infrastructural problems adds up to an NHS annual bill of: “billions that it does not have”.

With social care in the UK “in a state of paralysis” as he puts it, ‘lifestyle’ illnesses like type 2 Diabetes and obesity looking like an epidemic in 2018, economic worries and pressures bearing down on families in multiple ways and mental health services alone cut dramatically from something arguably inadequate in the first place, GPs are overloaded and A&E’s in “a permanent state of chaos”. Concluding simply: “The fear of getting ill that gripped Britain in the past has returned.”

Target culture. Many would say it is the real tyrant of our education system as well as our public healthcare in the modern UK – the demand for accountability that promotes higher standards of delivery turns into something more desperate – competition, won by numbers. Not emotional outcomes. Anything but accountable, ironically. It’s simply massive encourager of ill health – driven by a healthcare system that’s trying to kill its staff, some of them feel. From the stress it puts people under, promoting not just rushed decisions and inadequate time responses at work but poor cooking, quick food fixes and increasing comfort eating and drinking in private life, to the sheer fact that many NHS workers believe managers are hired more than clinicians and carers – to be seen to be responding to government drives. Politics kills.

“The NHS must move from a treatment model of care to one of prevention” says Dr Chand. “Decisions made at the health service’s inception created the problems we see today. Social care was never integrated with the NHS, and domiciliary care has always been left to a mixture of private companies and local councils. The NHS’s unique strength has always been that its large purchasing power and economy of scale make it more economically efficient than its international comparisons. But a lack of joined-up thinking fails to make the link between people aged over 75 presenting at A&E departments and cuts to social care funding. Our political discourse has not helped. Pressurising councils to freeze council tax at the height of austerity has compounded problems.”

Prevension. And personal ownership of the health challenges we all face. While existing healthcare systems might need to return to some basics of how to organise the effective delivery human care, the principle that everyone on Earth should have access to healthcare without fear is a constant theme in global health strategies today. And perhaps no sector has proven more than the health sector the principle that smarter, more connected thinking saves lives.

Thankfully, there’s never been a better time to equip ordinary shmos like you and me with the tools and the awareness to build a healthy life.



Pulchritudo et Salubritas. Do you know what this means? It’s the motto of my home town, Bournemouth. “Health and beauty.” It’s an interesting combination of words to describe wellbeing.

The Victorians, who founded my home town, loved a bit of lifestyle. And cooking. And technology. If they’d not built their whole outlook on hogging all the pie, and skewering whomever’s pie it was in the first place, such thinking might have helped a lot more people. As it was, they did help me, as they built their seaside retreat on the principle of its restorative airs, mixing sea air with pine, building a remarkable perambulatory ornamental gardens in its town centre, where the affluently ill could convalesce agreeably. A sort of sauntering wellbeing I still try to channel while living here to this day.

Of course today, we live in an age of incredible medical advances over the early medical industry market of the Victorians. And there’s a lot more coming.

From growing organs for transplant to order in labs, to simple exoskeletal support for the paralysed or more sophisticated mechanical limb replacement tapped into the patient’s neurocontrol centres, life is getting more and more of a helping hand from human health development. Robotic surgery is now a thing and 3D printing of not just infrastructural equipment in medical challenge zones but technical componentry and even biological elements for surgical procedures is going to become some kind of normal. Attempts to restore sight, hearing and nerve activity in paralysed limbs continue on multiple fronts, and even simple medical procedures will be made much easier, such as VeinVeiwer Vision2, which “uses near-infrared light to generate real-time imagery of patient’s veins”. Helping your med student not pincushion you while trying to get a line into your arm. Liquid biopses, meanwhile, could significantly improve the treatment of cancer with non-invasive analyses of progress and just as I write a whole new cancer blood test that can look for eight types of the disease at once, including the tricky pancreatic kind, has been unveiled by scientists at Johns Hopkins University.

Of course, we’re already blurring the lines between technology and human today. Pacemakers and permanent defib units and replacement joints are generationally normal now, living inside our bodies with out us thinking about them. But as humans move on in their expectations of longevity, we will inevitably want to keep ‘upgrading’ ourselves – and we’ll manage it.

The biggest gamechanger of our age may be the mapping of the human genome. Actually being able to edit the genetic information that grows you into you and me into me has brought us much closer to the chilling Gataca future of designer babies and a perfectly symetrical genetic overclass, no doubt, but with the latest CRISPR developments of this, we really could be seeing genetic diseases rolled back. As The Medical Futurist puts it: “CRISPR now seems to be re-imagining everything in genomics. It could cut non-desired elements out of our DNA, add new features to the DNA of animals, plants and even humans, and cure previously incurable diseases such as Huntington’s disease.”

Perfect tomatoes and perfect blonde children. If that’s what you want.

Alongside the more hands-on human tools of VR and computer modeling, ours will increasingly not be the only intelligences involved in our treatments, fo course. The Medical Futurist suggests, though, that if we are to integrate AI into our healthcare systems, we might need to tighten up some of our procedures to cope with it. Machine and deep learning algorithms can still be fed medical biases and how legally culpable is HAL when he misdiagnoses your meningitis?

One of the medical trends to reach us sooner in the home, however, will be diagnostics and body sensors in daily personal life. We’re already addicted to Fitbit metrics, counting steps obsessively and there are plenty of apps in use by billions of us to monitor heartrate and sleep cycles. It’s normal. But shrinking sensors will mean ever more accurate, detailed data for your daily fitness targets and the array of medi-wearables on show at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was bigger than ever. As CNET rounds up, there were sleep devices and heart monitoring watches a-plenty at CES2018, alongside electromagnetic pulse emitters like the Oska Pulse to ease chronic muscle pain – presumably fitted with a limiter so you can’t blackout your whole neighbourhood – and smart mirror’s like the HiMirror Mini which tells you how saggy and ill you look while you stare at yourself in it. But the kind of future I envisage definitely has Foreo’s sonic Luna Face Brush in it, the first “smart mask treatment.” The device offers 90-second facial treatments that combine LED light therapy, thermo-therapy and “T-Sonic” pulsations.” Yeah. Space-cleansed.

But what all this really paves the way for is something key to a better global health report. And it’s not technical. A more connected outlook. As much as digi-tech guff loves to gadget-trap us into imagining the word ‘connected’ is just part of some mobile comms iStock advertising eu/dys-topia, it’s a principle that the tech can really help us practice into a wider experience. A more helpfully human one.

That 2017 report by the WHO makes clear it sees the connectedness of all the sustainability goals – and how they pretty much all affect health.

“It is clear that responsibility and accountability for health in the context of sustainable development extend well beyond the health sector. [There is] a real opportunity to place health in all domains of policy-making, to break down barriers and build new partnerships, and to bring coherence to policies and actions.” Health, in other words, gets positively affected by putting other things right in our human-planet system right. As they site: “health stands on common ground with social inclusion and poverty alleviation, and efforts to move towards universal health care contribute directly to public security. In addition, ending hunger and achieving food security and improved food safety and nutrition are vital for health and development, while the provision of clean water and sanitation could substantially reduce the hundreds of thousands of deaths each year caused by diarrhoeal diseases.” Yup.

You and I can pick up the slack from national health services by joining our devices to our bodies and becoming more consicous of what our bodies are doing, if this helps us do so. Facing how we’re living. Something getting easier to do than before, if we didn’t fancy going to the quack’s. But the aim must be prevention. Right in line with the view at the high strategic level. Taking responsibility for ourselves a little more, bit by informed bit. And as with every other element of Unsee The Future’s exploration of the components of a complete, sustainable human-planet tomorrow, being aware of how this bit of our little lives fits into the greater whole is, I think, empowering. Emboldening. Helpful to us making little appreciable differences to, well, how we live.

And there’s one aspect of our health across the planet that might focus our thinking effectively.

Paul Bulcke, Chief Executive Officer of Nestlé, quoted something at a Davos panel that he attributed to a Chinese saying: “The best medicine is food.”

Now, you old cycnic, if you’d spotted that he or anyone else from his company also appeared on a panel that year entitled Health is wealth you might quickly say: “It bloody is for Nestlé, mate”managing as the largest global food & bev maker does to be “one of the most hated companies in the world” thanks to a list of accusations against various parts of its production practices around the world over the last decade or more, as ZME Science summarises interestingly, if you want a grim catch-up on the history of that one.

But Paul Bulcke’s quote here might quietly remind us that amid corporate global human culture, the personal human story is never so simple. Because his point is still valid – nutrition is a central, vital part to our wellbeing.

Dr Gunhild Stordalen of EAT spells this out in a TEDMED talk, and suggests that while just about everything going on around us affects our health, in fact, the way to pull many of our sustainability endeavours to heel at once is to properly tackle something else – our world of food.

Eat mostly plants, eat real food, and eat just enough, while aiming to waste none. These three approaches combined, just to begin with, would eat into our culture of waste and bad nutrition. We’d begin to shift the market emphasis away from unconscious bad eating to more mindful, aware, healthier eating, if these were our conscious consumer aims. But the food system as it stands has failed us, she suggests.

“We’re not dumber, lazier or less considerate than our parents,” she says. “But in just a few generations our food environment has changed dramatically. The modern food system has succeeded in giving us more to eat but it has failed us in three significant ways.” Accessibility, affordability and convenience. It’s simply too hard to find good food, too often, never mind afford it – so often outpriced is it by junk food, frankensteinly designed to outlive healthy food by significant factors too. And because of this, it’s a lot easier to get unnutritious artificial foods into remote truckstops and motorway filling stations than it is handmade quinoa salads. Crap is convenient virtually everywhere.

“Why? Why did the food system fail us so badly?” she asks. She suggests it is how un-joined up are all the players in the food chain. All working to their own ends rather than one big end. She calls it a “massive systemic failure” of departments and companies working against each other with very different goals. What Dr Stordalen is implying is that the whole circle of our ingestion and activity should work together. Do we have nutrient balance habitually? How much comfort are we reaching for, and in what forms? There is, she suggests, a growing movement asking and exploring this. “But,” she says, “just imagine what would happen if we could connect the dots – the speed and the scale of this movement if we could connect the facts, the players, the money and the great ideas?”

Putting the science together with the policy makers together with the business models… together with our individual food minfulness.

When it comes to considering the future of health, Dr Stordalen  says: “If we look too far out on the horizon, we may miss the solution that’s right in front of us – food. Because food can fix it. Even small changes can make you healthier and happeier, protect the planet and help make a better future not just for millions but for billions of us.”

I think of Singapore’s water supply reinvention, where they put together the utterly linked but mysteriously separated departments of sanitation and drinking water management with a holistic, socially-mobilised vision of how the whole could work. And applying this to the food industry could propel many of the goals of the health sector.

How do we value our wellbeing? If water is life, what’s it worth, for example? And when good ol’ Nestlé talk about putting more value on it to dissuade wastage, what is their mechanism of value? If it’s only money, we’re still missing the point of how we build a healthy tomorrow for us all.

The secret word behind health is the word care.


The separation of Britain’s care system from both the rest of the health system and human goals of emotional outcomes, in favour of financial ones, is leaving a generation of sick, elderly and lonely people adrift. One practical systemic truth that illustrates the wider one – disconnection breeds unwellness.

I’d suggest our context is crucial to our wellbeing. Those Victorians didn’t need telling that beauty was part of health. Ask Oscar Wilde. If you have hours to spare. And a time machine. But they knew that our physical environment is an important factor in our wellbeing – which is why I bang on often about the despairing nature of the UK’s current housing stock, devoid of wellbeing thinking in the building sector’s design of new homes as it is. Public realm, like private home, changes how we feel. And how we feel always changes what we do. Our behaviours.

It’s nothing new in architecture or urban design of course – or any design. But these days, it sounds niftier if we can wang some sciencey metrics in there. The Future Laboratory reports, among its other trends of 2018, on the splendid idea of Wellness Architecture: “In the past few years a lot of research has been done into the relationship between spatial design and its effect on the human brain” they say.

They quote Eve Edelstein, research director of the Perkins+Will Human Experience Lab: “Our studies of light, colour and intensity showed that heart rate variability, a sensitive indicator of mental engagement and health risk, changed with only 15 minutes of different electrical light conditions in a controlled space”. The point being, I suppose, that the good scientific principle is: prove it. It’s one thing to kinda know it feels cool, yeah but it’s more useful to know why.

Where we live affects how we feel about ourselves, our health, the things that have happened to us. Many of us work hard to afford a nice home to come home to after a stressful day, earning all that money to afford the home. A circle of living that constantly reinforces the kind of health issues facing most of us today.

“Burnout is the disease of civilisation” says Ariana Huffington. And she should know. As Becker’s ASC review reports, the founder of the Huffington Post once collapsed with exhaustion and fractured a cheekbone. “Is this is what success looks like? By the conventional definition of success I was, but by any sane definition I was not” she apparently said. “Defining success in just terms of money and power is like sitting on a two-legged stool – sooner or later you will fall off.”

Personal wellbeing and health is the third metric of success, she decided, and now reportedly embeds this in her businesses, opening much-used staff nap rooms in her offices, banning devices at meetings and committing to make vacations a proper self-restoring experience.

I’ve said often, through the experiences leading me to begin Unsee The Future, that what’s going on around the planet is a product of our shared mental outlooks. And at the moment, so much of this is not well at all. We live in a pandemic of mental health challenges. But what if this itself needs a new perspective? Not simply that of opening up about how we feel, unlocking more relief with more honesty. I mean on what it is we are really dealing with.

In an extract from his new book, Johann Hari talks about his experiences taking anti-depressants.

“I was a teenager when I swallowed my first antidepressant” he says. “I was standing in the weak English sunshine, outside a pharmacy in a shopping centre in London. The tablet was white and small, and as I swallowed, it felt like a chemical kiss. That morning I had gone to see my doctor and I had told him – crouched, embarrassed – that pain was leaking out of me uncontrollably, like a bad smell, and I had felt this way for several years.”

His doctor told him this was essentially a chemical imbalance. And a pill would rebalance it. And it did. For a few weeks.

“A few months into my drugging, something odd happened. The pain started to seep through again. Before long, I felt as bad as I had at the start. I went back to my doctor, and he told me that I was clearly on too low a dose. And so, 20 milligrams became 30 milligrams; the white pill became blue. I felt better for several months. And then the pain came back through once more. My dose kept being jacked up, until I was on 80mg, where it stayed for many years, with only a few short breaks. And still the pain broke back through.”

He began to look into it as the years went on. And discovered a drug-prescription culture that had grown in the GPs’ surgeries dealing with depression because of pharma studies evidence, backing up the efficatious nature of the chemical support. Except it wasn’t. Some of them were, he says, but the much greater majority of studies on antidepressant drug effects showed no improvement. Studies that were, he claims, hidden by the pharma companies.

Today he suggests, there is a huge number of people on regular antidepressants not effectively enough benefitting from them. Hari is at pains to make clear he doesn’t think they have no place at all, or that everyone should come off them. But something else is at work in the mental mix here, surely, he says.

“So, what is really going on? When I interviewed social scientists all over the world – from São Paulo to Sydney, from Los Angeles to London – I started to see an unexpected picture emerge. We all know that every human being has basic physical needs: for food, for water, for shelter, for clean air. It turns out that, in the same way, all humans have certain basic psychological needs. We need to feel we belong. We need to feel valued. We need to feel we’re good at something. We need to feel we have a secure future. And there is growing evidence that our culture isn’t meeting those psychological needs for many – perhaps most – people. I kept learning that, in very different ways, we have become disconnected from things we really need, and this deep disconnection is driving this epidemic of depression and anxiety all around us.”

Meaning. We are wired to need it. And if the Gallup pole Hari quotes is correct, this most exhaustive survey of life at work supposedly carried out to date, between 2011 and 2012 found that only 13% of us love our work. The rest of us, to varying degrees, are ‘disengaged’. With this activity that fills our waking ours and our worries, that keeps us from loved ones and from fun and from beloved hobbies and so many instances of “what we really want to do” and upon which the global economy depends.

Freedom. Feeling like we have some control over our lives, and the work we’re doing matters. It’s like magic to our minds. And most of us don’t have it.

Perhaps it’s something I’m wired to notice, or value more. I have clearly put a cash value on freedom and creativity over career influence and money. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried hard to have some savvy balance to it all, personally, and most of my earning life as a creative has been around topics I wouldn’t normally have any interest in. But working for myself, as I felt circumstancially forced to do fifteen years ago, began the healing process of cracking apart with a lack of meaning. One I’d been kind of faithfully adhering to while doing the day jobs, ironically. The crisis of getting nowhere ate into my mind over a period of time. And it wasn’t pretty. I knew what I wanted to spend my time doing, but I couldn’t work out how to be able to get on and do it. Getting out of where I felt trapped was like a weight leaving me. And while it took some years to leave the shadows behind, I eventually really did. And the new freedom let all kinds of empowering new experiences quietly fortify me.

All of which means, I don’t know about chronic and recurring mental health issues. Not across a short wavelength at least. I recognise. But across the measure of my life, I carry my vulnerability with me everywhere now and it is maybe my most meaningful qualification.

For me, finding the beginnings of new purpose did it. And Johann Har’s findings suggest that we should look upon depression not simply as faulty wiring to compensate for – even though this very diagnosis was meant to help you feel normal. Like a simple brain disfunction. Actually, he suggests, for millions of us it may be more of a context malfunction.

He says he wished he could go back to his young self and say: “This pain you are feeling is not a pathology. It’s not crazy. It is a signal that your natural psychological needs are not being met. It is a form of grief – for yourself, and for the culture you live in going so wrong. I know how much it hurts. I know how deeply it cuts you. But you need to listen to this signal. We all need to listen to the people around us sending out this signal. It is telling you what is going wrong. It is telling you that you need to be connected in so many deep and stirring ways that you aren’t yet – but you can be, one day.”

How can we encourage the more hopeful, healthy, human tomorrow? It’s by putting together our world view. And including each other in it. Recognising that so much of our unhealthiness is symptom – symptoms of something wrong that our mind is simply resonnating against. There can be nothing simple about dealing with this possibility, but we should learn to listen to it. In ourselves and each other.

In his book, Drop Dead Healthy, AJ Jacobs says his two biggest conclusions of living two years on health regimes were these – noise and joy. Lose much of the former, and invest in the latter.

That wierd new health fad for 2018, Wabi Sabi? Hmm. Wabi apparently means ‘transient beauty’ and sabi means ‘to see through appreciative eyes’. It is… the philosophy to embrace imperfection.


Acceptance. The central tenet of mindfulness. Plus something more that is perhaps released by it – finding beauty in everything. How can we help each other find more beauty in life? Because it’s worth knowing, apparently studies have shown that the placebo effect works by far the best in the nice social context.

Pulchritudo and salubritas. It’s no fad. It’s the healthy full life of the future.




Read the World Economic Forum’s headlines for making cultural differences to wellbeing aims.


Read Johann Hari’s moving and insightful introduction to his book




Don’t say Kevin Costner.

If you want one conveniently portable – or potable – thing to worry about for the future, you may as well pick water. It’ll fit efficiently into your busy lifestyle. And your manbag. Our technological revolutions, our economic politics, our convulsing climate? They all seem way too complicated and fearsome to properly get upset about unless you really commit to it, the causes and effects and systems of those challenges seem so very unsearchably many. Like topping-up Freeview channels. But a glass of water? That’s as simple to picture as it gets – turning on your tap and getting nothing but a dry squeak and a faint gasp of air is easy to imagine being a bit of a problem.

And all the very actually more, let me say slowly, when you learn that the biggest challenges of water supply all basically boil down to one or two massive single problem points. Binary deciders of how many of us will be gasping, moving and fighting for a drink across our watery world as the century moves through.


In our attempt to piece together a motivatingly more complete view of the challenge facing the human-planet future, here exploring the UN’s Global Goals as a starting point, where water challenges are concerned binary is the way to put it. Because it is a story of extremes looming in a very basic problem. One that leaves predictors wondering if we are entering the age of drought or flood. And, in fact, of water scarcity or water abundance.

I’d sit down. You might want a drink to go with this. Ice? Let’s dive in.


Yarlung Tsangpo River on the Tibetan Plateau, the highest river in the world. Pic: Tibettravel.org


Es Paradis. It’s one of the oldest clubs in Ibiza. And what it’s famous for is it’s water parties. This is why, you might suspect, it looks like an 80s swimming pool with a space cabaret theatre in it. Actually, it’s because Pepe Aguirre’s club, first open in 1975 on the white isle, was originally a garden. Enclosed by the artist Lluis Güell with a giant pyramid in 1989 when enough of the neighbours asked them to turn dahn the ruddy disco, mate! In polite Spanish, presumably. All I know is that on my first ever visit to the island, my age was showing that summer as, when not channeling the energy patterns of the universe to rapturous shared delight through my moves, I spent the time analysing how the hell they flooded a place full of electrics regularly.

The DJ booth is suspiciously high up, I observed.

There are so very many festivals of water around the world. Especially across far southern Asia, in places like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Taiwan and Thailand and parts of China, often celebrating their mid-April new years. Which is hardly surprising as the humidity in this part of the world can be so intense you soon dream of being hosed accross the street by strangers.

Cambodia’s Bon Om Touk actually takes place in November and celebrates the bounty of the sea with lots of boat races. Thai Songkran is celebrated in April and has turned a festival of solemn purity into boysterous water fights in city streets, as the Telegraph tidily describes. Thingyan in Myanmar happens at about the same time and has its own special Budhist roots but is basically also open season on passers by and for water pistol sellers. The Dais in China take the trouble to dress up in their finest clothes, supposedly, before solemnly engaging in their water splashing ‘cermony’.

In Europe, they only veil their water fights with religious tradition thinly, as in the Fiesta del Agua y del Jamon – or ‘festival of water and ham‘ – which sort of supposedly celebrates John The Baptist in its 20,000-strong street-brawl of pressure hosing tourists in Lanjaron, Spain. Why it’s not called the festival of water and locusts, I don’t know. But people seem to get off their heads on water. ..Unfortunate phrase for John The Baptist fans there, I suddenly realise.

Then there are the festivals that just don’t pretend anything. Like the 2013 Seattle attempt to stage the world’s largest water balloon fight. Watch a clip of the video – you’ll quickly get the point.

On every continent, people celebrate all that water has done for them. Simply bobbing about in it in infinity pools in irrigated Gulf hotel complexes, swirling through eleborate fake landscapes of flumey play in Centreparcs, or plunging into icy outdoor health treatments in Scandinavia – you know we just enjoy being around the most boring and essential drink in the world.

But water has long been a symbol of a lot more than play. Water is often power. And the challenges facing us in the 21st century are likely to make this a truly daunting new struggle for fluid influence.



It’s almost stupendously ironic that a planet with over 70% of its surface covered in the life-essential chemical H20 should hold quite so many problems finding drinkable water for its thirsty species. That its former west-African ape creatures have struggled so much to shape its landscape with water course-diverting infrastructure over the centuries testifies that this is the case, however. And what all that concrete and engineered determination really testifies to is struggles of power.

As essential as the massive ocean systems of Earth are to the whole web of life here in this corner of the solar system, it’s fresh water mammals need to drink. Especially us mammals, humans. To say nothing of the plants we all eat. So settlements across human time have sprung up as much near rivers and lakes as they have near the trading gateways of the sea. Supplying daily fresh drinking water is sort of Job#1 on community founding day and being able to guarantee it in irregular rain zones is a big political gold star. The Romans did famously like a big (straight) aquaduct, but before them, the ancient Mesopotamians turned the tide of humanity significantly towards civilisation by developing a complex system of canals, leves and gated ditches.

At the same sort of time, a little further south west: “In ancient Egypt, the construction of canals was a major endeavor of the pharaohs and their servants” as Water Encyclopedia puts it. “One of the first duties of provincial governors was the digging and repair of canals,” they say, “which were used to flood large tracts of land while the Nile was flowing high. The land was checkerboarded with small basins, defined by a system of dikes.”

What’s interesting to us here about this is that these systems were developed in areas that had practical problems with both irregular rainfall and flooding. The Mesopotamians built defences and supply systems to shore up their essential survival to water’s capricious nature in their region at the time, between modern day Syria and Iraq – but in so doing, found they could regulate the planting of crops much better. So around 10,000 years ago we sort of accidentally invented systematic agriculture, just by trying to protect against flooding and drought. And both civilisations went on to create dynasties that shaped famously the ancient world. Cheers!

The control of water in decadent circumstances became a definite thing among many of history’s glory-seekers. The very existance of the glittering international Emerate of Dubai today, with its greened public realm and its fountains and sprawling airconned malls is testimony to some serious economic showboating, built as it is in Gulf desert that was largely nomadic terrain until the discovery of oil put a financial rocket under its development in the mid sixties. The very reason the rich of the middle east like to plant lawns in the desert is to show they can. A defiance of the challenges of sandy dry heat for purely cosmetic reasons – that itself is born of a traditional moneyed aesthetic in Europe.

Why do YOU have a lawn? Louis XIV is why. The Sun King himself supposedly started it – because while swooningly fertile France has no problem growing green things, the labour it took to maintain something as fastidiously finicky as a manicured lawn could only have been managed by the stupidly rich in the 17th century. That kind of muscle and time had to usually go on crop tending, not decoration to impress a foply gossiping court. So you’re still a slave to your Flymo to still attempt to keep up with the dandy aristos, mate. Except you’re clearly not, are you – I’ve seen the state of your garden.

Today, though, in a global age of sloshing water festivals and pool parties, millions of us don’t think of water as power. But it certainly is. Ask Nelson Mandela. For he ordered troops into a neighbouring sovereign nation because of it.

Lesotho is a little landlocked state oddly surrounded by South Africa. It happens to be the only country in the world that exists completely more than 1,000 feet above sea level. It’s people are not rich, depending mainly on family farming and South African jobs. But as its Wikipedia page puts it simply: “Water and diamonds are Lesotho’s significant natural resources.” You’d think that would be your Mayfair on the global resources Monopoly board. Not least of which because, though it depends on South Africa enormously in its economy, South Africa slightly depends on it too. For that little country is its surrounding neighbour’s water tower.

In late summer 1998 elections in Lesotho appeared to throw up a few irregularities. Some say the idea of a coup trying to overthrow an iffy-looking election result is an overstatement. But by the end of September, Mandela’s government had sent in 700 SADF troops to capture the country’s capital Maseru and ‘restore order’. They stayed for seven months and left the city half derelict. As the New York Times reported then, the SADF didn’t expect much opposition but Lesotho soldiers rebelling against the governement made more of it than predicted. Thirty people died in the fighting on the first day alone. More prosaic reports, such as Green Left‘s from October that year, put the death toll at well over one hundred in the first three days of the intervention, and the blame on Pretoria’s propping up of an autocratic ruler it felt it could control better.

South Africa’s water challenges have been steadily increasing. While it is, interestingly, the only nation on Earth to officially enshrine in its constitution the right of its citizens to have fresh water, it’s struggled to get it working in the townships. And sanitation is, by many reports, going backwards, as more people use the rivers to deal with waste.

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project was signed into its opening stages between SA and its little neighbour in 1986. Planned to give Lesotho hydroelectric power and South Africa fresh water, it designed a network of pipeways and dams to bring additional water from the Drakensberg Mountains, from where the Orange river already flows, across the border. One little country, on which the millions in an adjacent state increasingly depend for the most basic substance of life.

A basic principle echoed by the most significant potential water challenge on Earth in the coming decades. One that will affect most of Asia, where for Lesotho, you can read Tibet.



“All civilizations have been shaped by the struggle to control water, ..because no one – absolutely no one – can escape the power of water.”

Professor Terj Tvedt of the University of Bergen spends his three-episode documentary from 2008 standing in front of water all over the world. Showing now on Netflix, The Future of Water takes the good prof to some 25 countries by helicopter, motor launch and some terrifyingly fun looking hand-pulled cable car in the remote Himalayas to flashpoints (if not flash flood points) of water politics as he’s identified them in a career specialising in water’s place in human history. And he explains a complicated network of problems facing Asia in the coming decades.

The New Globalist neatly sums up the strategic importance of Tibet neatly. It’s not simply that it is a great defensive buffer to the rest of Eurasia.

“Located at a high altitude on an average of 4,500 meters, it is richly endowed with fresh water contained in its oxygen deprived vast glaciers and huge underground reservoirs. It is in fact the largest repository of freshwater after the two poles, Arctic and Antarctic, thus claiming the sobriquet, the ‘third pole.'”

Crucially, Asia’s most significant rivers flow out of the Tibetan Plateau — including the Yellow River, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Sutlej and the mighty Brahmaputra. And just about everyone that relies on them needs more water. And has plans. Rather seriously conflicting plans.

As Prof Terj intones with supreme Norwegian understatement in front of countless massive surging water locations, there’s a bit of a balancing act going on in everyone’s need for water between Pakistan and old Burma.

Meltdown in Tibet



India needs more water. Every year its monsoons bring floods to various parts of the country and the rest of the time water shortages loom everywhere. According to The Water Project, this second most populous country on Earth can get proper sanitation to only 33% of its people. Think of that. It’s a third the size of the US but has three times as many people looking for the loo in it every day and barely a third of them can find a regular flush. That’s a lot of thirds. Is it any wonder 21% of all disease reported in India are reportedly water-related?

With a still blooming population, middle class wealth has not reached half the country today, so it’s a typical BRIC economy of extremes – significant knowledge bases, wealths, opportunities, and significant poverty. As someone once said of Turkey, not dissimilar, it’s a country with parts that virtually skipped modernism and went straight to post-modern society, with other parts of the country looking pre-industrial. But as The Water Project puts it flatly: “India’s water crisis is often attributed to lack of government planning, increased corporate privatization, industrial and human waste and government corruption.”

While there seems to be a growing consciousness of rotational, ley and general organic farming in India, big plantation farms produce a lot of single cash-cropping which doesn’t tend to be the most efficient for water use. In such an irrigation-dependent region, I doubt that’s been exactly helpful to water reliability on its own.

But India all alone illustrates how water challenges may strain countries internally. Attempts to move water from wetter regions to more arid didn’t meet with national largesse. The building of the Satluj-Yamuna Link canal which began in 1981 which planned to move large volumes of water from Punjab to Haryana and Rajasthan contributed to unrest in the region for the rest of the decade – and the project never did get finished, with everyone squabbling over it to this day. Such internal division is not an Indian thing – Spain is already dealing with the same basic struggle as it looks forward to the desertification of its southern half.

The Indian government is attempting to do something about all this with a massive infrastructure project – the Inter-Linking of Rivers plan, or ILR, which, as New Scientist puts it, plans to: “link large rivers in the Himalayas and Deccan Peninsula via 30 mega-canals and 3000 dams. When the work is finished the water network will be twice the length of the Nile, the world longest river, and it will be able to divert water from flood-prone areas to those vulnerable to drought.”

There are a few teeny tiny problems with it. Like the fact that Bangladesh is all but begging it’s neighbour and ally not to do it. And the fact that it could be the thing that tips them into nuclear war with Pakistan at last. All before anyone can be sure what changing weather patterns will do to water and sediment flow just when engineers are beginning to fettle with it banking on no pattern changes at all.

Plus the fact that it might pee money up the wall right before China diverts most of all that water from everyone anyway.

The ILR will get water to the desert state of Rajastan, for example, by taking water from the Brahmaputra via Bhutan and Kashmir – but this does rather pit desert state against water state, with Bangladesh claiming disaster downstream, as the reduced waterflow diminishes the encroachment of the sea. Itself a country under water by a good third every single year, the irony is that its hard to irrigate a flood-plane sensibly. Never mind one turned saline.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has a lot of canny canal work going on to try to make the most of its own wanting water supplies. The Indus Peace Treaty of 1960 is a cornerstone of its Not Actually Going To War with neighbour on the far bank, India. But the Indus itself is a river so tapped and dammed it doesn’t even reach the sea any more. With the source of the river in disputed Kashmir, the ‘war in heaven’ idley ticks on every day as the region and the opposing country take pot shots at each other to gain better control of the glacier that feeds the river. And basically all of the rivers.

China’s grip on Tibet since it’s anexing of the country in 1960 is well-founded. It’s not vanity that keeps them holding it so tightly, so forcefully. As Circle Of Blue descibed it even ten years ago: “The Tibetan Plateau is an oxygen-scarce landscape of enormous glaciers, huge alpine lakes, and mighty waterfalls – a storehouse of freshwater so bountiful that the region serves as the headwaters for many of Asia’s largest rivers… According to studies by the United Nations and several prominent global environmental organizations, almost half of the world’s population lives in the watersheds of the rivers whose sources lie on the Tibetan Plateau.”

And China is about to green-light its own plan to build a typically massive 1,000km tunnel to divert the Brahmaputra river, known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in China. As The Times of India reports: “The plan involves diverting water from Sangri county in Tibet to the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang.”

If sheer cost and environmental concerns about smashing through mountains don’t stay their hand from such a heavyweight political and infrastructural move, half the population of the world could be turning up on Bejing’s doorstep with water bottles.

But you are astute. In all this geo-historic plumbing, you noticed the key word where Tibet is concerned. Glaciers.

And we all know what that means. China’s pipework war might be piddling in the wind of something far larger than puny political ambition.


Ice bucket.

It’s melting. Fast. The roof of the world. Unprecidented avalanches in 2016 demonstrated serious changes to an iceflow system stable for thousands of years up until very recently. As Voice Of America reported a couple of years back, Tibet’s temperatures are rising supposedly four times faster than anywhere else, thanks to the climate crisis.

“Because of the impact of climate change, the glaciers are retreating rapidly, grasslands are shrinking as desertification expands, regional precipitation has become irregular, water levels are dropping in major rivers and the permafrost is thawing. The melting of Tibetan glaciers, the largest mass of frozen fresh water outside the polar regions, is linked to many environmental consequences both locally and globally, including heat waves in Europe, according to some studies.”

Crikey. There is your glass of water. With ominous little vibrations in it.

The challenges of a warming planet are making other water issues around the globe today worse, of course. From the massive politics of the Nile delta, with modern Egypt still facing the challenges of its ancient narrow fertile strip-based super power but with ten other countries all pondering different new levels of intervention at various stages of up and down stream. To the ultimate national water baby, the Netherlands, discovering its permanent pumps are not going to keep up with rising sea levels and everyone there had better get used to the idea of permanent barge holidays.

And that’s all just infrastructure. The truth of water is health. As Water Aid simply reports, more than 700 million of us currently have inadequate access to fresh drinking water. And the shuddering majority of 2Billion of us do not have adequate sanitation. The UN’s goal of Clean water and sanitation spells out the combined challenge we have to make our water-scarce world work at all in the future – getting everyone clean drinking water and hygenic sanitation, reducing worldwide pollution from our industrial waste and “substantially increasing water efficiency”. Then there is the protection of fresh water parts of our connected ecosystem.

As Prof Terje said in his documentary, future planners across governements and business don’t know quite whether to plan for a century of flooding or drought. And how the predominance of either will truly affect communities around the world, and the balance of all our water needs.

What Stockholm International Water Institute’s World Water Week concluded at its annual conference last year was this, summed up by Executive Director Torgny Holmgren: “With increasing scarcity, we must recognize the many values attached to water, be it economic, social, environmental, cultural or religious. I believe that by re-valuing water, we will develop a deeper understanding and respect for this precious resource, and thus be better prepared for more efficient use”.

Revaluing water. Interesting phrase. Seeing it differently… stop me when I become a broken record about such things, won’t you.

But is that what the luxury water market has already done? Where does the market for water costing $400 a bottle come from? Well, the makers of Kona Nagari may have lowered their sites a little with Kona Deep these days, but this is still quite a sell when, as they point out boldly: We add nothing.

This has to be the place for the hopey-changey bit.



We are 60% water. You and me. That’s a lot of waddling fluid. So it’s a wonder we don’t feel more conciously connected to the spinning swirl of H2O, that is our planet Earth. There is a theory that the early proximity of the moon to Earth gravitationally churned the primeval oceans like a blender until the rue source of life suddenly began to thicken. The trick is always to not wander away and leave it on the hob but patiently keep stirring. As with everything, we might begin to see our problems differently – and so make better roads into solving them – if we had more daily awareness of the ingredients we share with our planet.

To begin with, during the UN’s Water For Life initiative, they stated this:

“Water scarcity is both a natural and a human-made phenomenon. There is enough freshwater on the planet for seven billion people but it is distributed unevenly and too much of it is wasted, polluted and unsustainably managed.”

So, once again, there is enough, but it’s no simple matter to get it to everyone sufficiently.

It’s generally estimated that 99 freaking percent of water on Earth is effectively inaccessible to us for fresh water uses. I mean, that’s just cruel, isn’t it? As USGS explains, most water is in the oceans. Duh. 2.5% of water on the planet is fresh water and of that almost 70% of it is locked up in glaciers and icecaps, with the other 30% hidden in groundwater deposits. Lost in the middle of those numbers is a tiny percentage – 1.2% it’s estimated – that is fresh water on the surface. And of that, almost 70% is ground ice and permafrost.

Eesh. That sounds like barely a puddle left for all our spas and infinity pools. But as with every future problem facing us, you might say, the solution >wrinkles nose< will likely lie in a wise combination of connected knowledge, smarter efficiencies and new uses of technology. And interestingly, a good example takes us back to southern Asia.

Alisa Ferguson shared with The Huffington Post her experience of visiting Singapore. A thriving modern city state on the tip of Malaysia with over five million people crammed into it and very few natural resources to draw on – including access to fresh water. A place that surely knows about the challenges of water scarcity. And yet, Alisa observed a place sloshing in almost decadent-looking H20, built into the public realm in nothing short of abundance.

As Wikipedia flatly puts it, in Singapore: “Access to water is universal, affordable, efficient and of high quality.” So how?

Alisa says: “Singapore has tackled its water challenges with a deep understanding of the water scarcity challenge and a robust commitment to research and development to solve it. Through public-private collaborations, strong support for university research, and disciplined planning and management, Singapore is literally innovating its way to a more abundant future.”

It’s a practical understanding that only a holistic solution will cut it. No single silver bullets. A strategy that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. And for Singapore this looks like a water management system that combines reclaimed water use, the protection of urban rainwater catchment, and freshwater storage in estuaries, with a little technical progress in desalination. Not unlike the principles behind modern electricity generation, capture, storage and efficiency designed together can drive down the amounts you need and put it all to better use, until the magic plimsole line appears and you are afloat with all you need. Engaging new technologies with new ways of seeing what you’re even wanting. Resourced by committing private and public resources to combined targets of success – practicing a shared new culture between everyone using water in Singapore.

They did it with a good sense of ‘crossfading’ as I might put it. Starting with a proper, wide-eyed assessment of where they were as a state, as dependency on wobbling water imports from Malaysia forced a bit of a crisis of thinking. From this, they made some housekeeping efficiencies in the way water was managed across the state by combining the agencies that handled drinking water supply and waste management. Then they looked into how much water they could begin to supply with better reclaimation of it. Like they have to totally on the International Space Station, but without having to poo into a hoover bag.

With research technically progressing a little, Singapore opened its first reclaimed water plant, so suddenly adding something to its previous water supply methods – but at the same time, launched a population-wide creative campaign, supported publically by political leaders, to get people thinking about how they used water, including opening a visitor centre.

Then it opened its first de-sal plant. While expanding its reservoirs. By the time its historic water agreement with Malaysa expired in 2011, Singapore could simply let it expire. Today the state is supposedly a leader in water technology research.

It’s not just tech innovation. It’s tech innovation born of or delivered into an integrated understanding and practice of specific locational challenges. But a bright spot in the middle of this is the possibility that we might be making progress in one key area for water needs – desalination.

The problem with it, although we’ve been doing it around the world for years, is that desal is not desperately efficient – environmentally dodgy from both a power useage and waste perspective. Which all means expensive. But globally we are, of course, entering an age of much more affordable renewable energy, while desal filter technolgy may be freeing up from old inertias in development. And this together could help us turn a corner worldwide.

The XPrize is one of the grand sort of Super Massive Change initiatives that are trying to attract big money and influence to make fast progress on key global issues, in this case by commisioning research competitions. And it has an optimistic one for desalination progress. They hope to build on the momentum already growing behind efficiencies in energy, cost, waste management and materials in desal, as illustrated by MIT in a little look at the Sorek plant in Israel which has been running at full capacity now for a couple of years.

Desalination may yet suddenly look like much more of a thing, viable in the mix for our water supply. When little start-ups begin to tout something about as a business venture, that also tends to be a good sign. Start-ups like the Ramgopal’s development of mobile desal.

But like any good sustainable view of solutions, local combinations of resources and relationships will unlock any possible water abundance. The idea that Greenland may become a hydroelectric global leader because of its unprecidentedly melting glaciers is more than a joke, it could help energy needs globally in a time of crossfading our resources. Which I admit sounds a little like setting fire to your raft to keep warm out at sea, but isn’t quite as daft as that; Greenland even considered melting some ice deliberately in the 1970s as a new national resource in hydropower. Now they say they don’t, ah, need to do that.

As Torgny Holmgren, Dr. Anders Jägerskog, Jens Berggren and John Joyce reported in The Guardian, one of the keys to changing water practices is to firm up its value. Making it a more clearly economic commodity – but holistically. As they put it: “water is not just another commodity. It is both a public and a private good. It is a resource which produces local as well as global benefits and its availability varies, sometimes dramatically, in time and space. This unique and irreplaceable resource moves around our planet constantly with no regard for man-made borders. In order to ensure water use is efficient and equitable, water needs to be attributed with its true economic, environmental and social value.”

Some 50% of all accessible water today is, they say, trans-boundary. Like all those rivers in Asia. And they reckon that two thirds of those supplies lack proper trans-boundary agreements between their neighbours. But, they observe something positive, despite the predictions of conflict that seem inevitable in such circumstances:

“The water wars that were feared a decade ago have fortunately not materialised” they say. “Water is more often a source of cooperation, even in situations of political tension. India and Pakistan have worked together in the management of the Indus River despite fighting three wars during the last fifty years.”

Though writing five years ago now, the principles remain the same: “There are a host of benefits derived from cooperation in transboundary regions: economic, environmental and social. Climate change adaptation and mitigation, flood and drought management… (and) many more are in reach. The management of ecosystem resources, production of food, generation of energy, and the supply of water to municipalities and cities are also accessible through cooperation. There is also a suite of less tangible benefits as a result of cooperation: trust building, avoided conflict, trade and the integration of markets within regions.”

Representing the Stockholm International Water Institute as these four writers do – a body that recognised Singapore’s PUB with its 2007 Stockholm Industry Water Award – they conclude that there are real possibilities if the world progresses the shared sense of marketplace and resource where water is concerned.

“SIWI believes that by increasing the incentives for using water more wisely, it is possible to double global water productivity by 2030 – an important step towards the realisation of a water wise world.”

Engaging the business community alongside the state will help mobilise the economic sense of opportunity. But the push and pull of our global cultural evolution must become – and is already becoming – a better sense of business. Of what success for it and us all really is, in the new context of interlinking global-scale crises. Like water scarcity.

As James Dalton from the IUCN put it to his biz readers: “For water, sustainability practices have to be relevant to people other than just business – because the challenges that really matter are not internal anymore. They are outside business borders in the river basins that provide you with water, and which you supply, operate and sell to.”

And if the local human community can put pressure on the business community to evolve its outlook and practices – by ever more admitting they are different aspects of the same community – busines can put pressure on governments to change their strategies.

Crisis can often induce facing the impossible. And while the water crisis seems as likely as any desperate fight for survival to induce conflict – and likely will – I can’t help wondering if the sheer scale and integration of challenges emerging into world powers’ imaginations will force co-operation gradually more and more. As the economic benefits are seen where co-operation’s worked, and as nations nudge past certain ingrained cultures at odds with their neighbours, water could become the wellspring of hope in more connected practices.

In a water-wise world, we might yet find ways to connect our taps to abundance. Once we begin to recognise the real value of water – it’s capacity to draw us together.

After all, we are now living in the age of Aquarius.

As the Deacon said: “I’ve had a vision so great, as it came to me I wept.”