Tuesday, December 09, 2014

For ICN2 to Succeed, We Need a New Food System Paradigm

By: Marc Van Ameringen

Executive Director, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition


By 2050, the world's population will reach 9 billion -- and all will need nutritious diets. Yet despite the intrinsic relationship between the food we grow and the food we eat, the agriculture and nutrition sectors are only just now beginning to overcome decades of mutual isolation. The high rates of malnutrition among farming communities are a stark reminder that the link between agriculture and nutrition is not as it should be.

Today, we are starting to see the divide between agriculture and nutrition begin to close. But it's fair to say that our food system is broken. All the time, money and effort spent on trying to make it work still doesn't make the food system deliver everyone an optimal diet. Today, up to 805 million people are hungry and 2 billion are malnourished -- and 70 percent of them live in rural areas, with many rapidly moving to already swollen cities.

At the same time, 1.4 billion are overweight and obese, fuelled by Western-style diets that are damaging the planet and our health. Climate change is increasing food insecurity -- particularly for rural populations which are most vulnerable to erratic weather patterns and unpredictable planting and harvest cycles. And despite many not having enough to eat, globally we throw away a staggering 1.3 billion tons of food each year.

Dietary diversity is among the key components of a healthy diet. In an ideal world everyone would have access to diverse diets, with a mix of fruits, vegetables and whole grains that provide the nutrients we need to live productive, healthy lives. That ideal, however, is still some way off.

Across the entire agricultural value chain there are opportunities to make food more nutritious at each stage. From seed choices and growing techniques to processing food and bringing products to market, innovations and individuals are making the food system work better. We are building the evidence base to better understand where nutrition is being woven into the agricultural chain, and how we can scale up these innovations.

But questions remain. How can we deliver better, more nutritious seed? Is there a better way of measuring impact? What do we need to do to enact the right policies to sustainably support agriculture and nutrition and keep this dialogue moving? With world leaders coming together at the second International Conference on Nutrition in Rome next week, we have a historic opportunity to advance the policies the nutrition community knows can work and to make our food system more responsive to human needs.

The food system won't self-correct. We need more ambition, more innovation and more leadership to create a food system that delivers affordable, healthy diets to everyone in the world. For the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, that amounts to a food system that generates demand for nutritious food across the value chain; increases agricultural yields as well as the nutritional quality of foods; and acts as an incubator for innovative ideas, while recognizing the importance of proven interventions that improve the nutritional value of food such as large-scale food fortification.

We need to support sustainable solutions, and open a dialogue on what an optimal diet looks like. We must encourage the development of a global food system that leapfrogs bad diets so that we solve malnutrition without inadvertently exporting an obesity crisis. In Africa, the huge investment in cellphone technology has put a mobile phone in every household, leapfrogging landlines. We need to ask whether it is possible to do the same for a nutritious food system.

It's only by coming together to focus on the obstacles and opportunities that we will succeed in building a better food system. Conflict, humanitarian crises and climate change will take their toll on the most malnourished and exacerbate nutrition and food security challenges over the long term.

The Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) is a critical opportunity to develop a sustainable food system that delivers healthy, nutritious, affordable food to those that need it most. If we are to become the generation that ends malnutrition nothing short of a new food system paradigm will do.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Predict Your Own Thanksgiving-Snowstorm Travel Misery

By: JOHN METCALFE and originally published here
The National Weather Service has an experimental new tool that shows the weather hazards along your journey, including predicted snow accumulations.
Foul winter weather is moving over the East Coast. (NASA/GOES)
A swollen storm with lousy timing is lurching toward the U.S. East Coast this Thanksgiving, and the implications for travel are worrying. With 1 to 3 inches of snow predicted for the I-95 corridor by Wednesday night (and up to 6 inches farther west), it's easy to gnaw fingernails over a possible commuter ant-crawl, littered with stalls, wrecks, airline delays, rage, and all the other fun ingredients of a mass-migration kerfuffle.

The National Weather Service office in Philadelphia says to "expect flight delays" and trouble on the roads, and is advising people finish their journeys "before 7 AM Wednesday morning." (Meaning if you haven't left yet, better get cracking now). "Conditions will be quickly deteriorating Wednesday evening,"adds the agency's bureau in Gray, Maine. "We anticipate travel will be very difficult around that time." New York cuts right to the point with this: "THE SNOWFALL WILL SIGNIFICANTLY IMPACT HOLIDAY TRAVEL... MAKING DRIVING DANGEROUS AT TIMES."
Here's a forecast of accumulations from the NWS Weather Prediction Center, with pink-and-red the areas having a high probability of getting two-or-more inches of snow from this storm:

How could this nasty weather affect your holiday commute? To answer that question, you might want to check out an experimental travel tool the NWS isnow promoting. The "Enhanced Data Display v4.3.2" allows you to plot a road trip from Point A to B while giving the expected conditions at intervals along the way. For instance, here's the route a driver might take to New York departing from D.C. at 2 p.m. Wednesday:

Hover the mouse over the weather icons inside the tool itself and a window pops up with worst case-scenario forecasts and warnings. By the time the motorist gets to Baltimore, there could be 2 inches of snow on the ground, wind gusts nearing 20 mph, and a visibility of 2 miles. Arriving on New York's doorstep in Union City, New Jersey, the motorist might find conditions have worsened to 3.3 inches of snow, 29 mph gusts, and a Winter Weather Advisoryin effect.

Being a prototype, the tool isn't perfect: Its "forecast valid" data are, for now, shown in Coordinated Universal Time (though the weather predictions are displayed correctly in local time). And its estimations of arrival times are wildly optimistic for a snow day—there's no way in icy hell that drivers will get from D.C. to New York in under four hours Wednesday afternoon. Still, as a means to glimpse the suffering this storm could sow across the region, it makes a pretty nifty crystal ball.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Choose One, Millennials: Upward Mobility or Affordable Housing

The paradox of the American Dream: The best cities to get ahead are often the most expensive places to live, and the most affordable places to live can be the worst cities to get ahead.

Salt Lake City, pictured, is the one of the rare cities that scores highly on two separate measures of housing affordability and upward mobility. (Wkimedia Commons)

So what'll it be: Dayton or San Francisco?

Alright, so that's not the most common choice for young people getting ready to start their lives. But it's an instructive question.

Dayton is the most affordable housing market in the United States, according to Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko, while San Francisco is the least affordable place to live in America. But the San Francisco-San Jose area has a better record of social mobility than just about any region in the country, according to Harvard economist Raj Chetty. In other words, a variety of factors make it the best place for young person to work his or her way into the middle class and beyond. As for Dayton and other Ohio cities, they account for four of the 12 worst cities for that same measure of upward mobility.

The Dayton-SF dilemma isn't about Ohio vs. California. It's about a broader dilemma for young workers and, in particular, young couples looking to buy a home, raise children, and achieve the American Dream. The cities with the least affordable housing often have the best social mobility. And the cities with the worst social mobility often have the most affordable housing. When good jobs for the middle class and affordable homes are living in different cities, it represents a slow-motion splintering of the American Dream.

In 2013, Chetty and a phalanx of economists produced a one-of-a-kind study on intergenerational mobility—that is, the odds that low-income households can work their way into the middle class and above. Comparing social mobility by metro area, they discovered that the American Dream is alive in many cities, such as Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and San Jose. But it's dying in others, particularly across the southeast and the Rust Belt, where cities are spread out, segregated, and blighted by bad schools and broken families.
But most young people aren't choosing to move to a city because they've heard that a Harvard economist said it was really good for intergenerational mobility. They move for more short-term financial reasons. They want to live affordably. As Kolko explains, "the five most affordable markets are in Ohio, Indiana, and upstate New York... the South is relatively affordable, too."*

But now look what happens when you compare Chetty's map of economic opportunity (red is bad) ...

Economic Opportunity, by Location


with Kolko's map of affordable housing by city (red is still bad).

Percent of For-Sale Homes That Are Affordable With a Median Household Income


Climbing the income ladder is easiest in the West and Northeast. But finding an affordable home is easiest in the South and the Great Lakes/Appalachian region. California, home to six of the seven least-affordable housing markets, has four of the 11 best cities for upward mobility.

If you plot the 50 largest metro areas by Kolko's affordability metric and Chetty's absolute mobility metric, the inverse relationship is unavoidably clear. Upwardly mobile cities have more expensive homes.

Percent of Homes Millennials Can Afford vs. Social Mobility

The X-axis includes the names of only some of the cities recorded here. The graph does not include the three outliers discussed in the next paragraph: Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, or Minneapolis. (Kolko/Chetty)

There are the only three cities in the United States with (a) at least 50 percent of houses affordable to middle-class Millennials and (b) a top-10 finish in Chetty's mobility calculations. These are the outliers: Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City.
In the graph below, I've isolated the 10 best cities for upward mobility and arranged them by affordability to give you a sense of how steep the drop-off is after our trio of outliers. Less than half of all homes are affordable to middle-class Millennials in Boston, NYC, and across California's major metros, all of which are sterling cities for working your way into and past the middle class.

Top 10 Cities for Social Mobility, Ranked by Affordability


Here are the 10 major U.S. cities with the worst upward mobility by Chetty's measure. I've arranged them by Kolko's affordability metric again. What stands out immediately: More than half of the houses in all of these cities are affordable for young families. (These are all major metros, and the worst places for upwardly mobility could well be in exurban and rural America.)

Bottom 10 Cities for Social Mobility, Ranked by Affordability


Lots of graphs, lots of colors, but this is a pretty simple conclusion. The American Dream begins with a good job and place to live that you can afford. But today, those two halves of the American Dream are living apart. The good jobs and high wages are in unaffordable cities. The affordable homes cluster in the cities with lower wages and less upwardly mobile families.
Kolko offers a sensible explanation:
High-income households bid up home prices, and high prices push out lower-income households. In addition, higher-income metros tend to have less new construction than lower-income metros do. As a result, high-income metros such as San Francisco and San Jose are among the least affordable, even after taking income into account ... Bucking the trend are Washington, D.C., and the Bethesda metro next door, where incomes are high and more than 60% of homes are within reach of the middle class.
Until more rich coastal cities find ways match the income growth of their residents with more housing development, the best advice for young people seeking the American Dream isn't "Go West, young man" or "Go East, young woman." It's "Check out Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City."

*Kolko calls a house affordable when "total monthly payment, including mortgage, insurance, and property taxes, is less than 31 percent of the metro area’s median household income" for Millennial-headed households. Millennials is defined as adults under 35.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Death of the American South

August 19, 2014 from http://sustainableatlantaga.com/

Great Smoky Mountains gettysburg.edu
Great Smoky Mountains
Over the next 45 years rapid urban sprawl will dramatically affect the American Southeast, possibly altering the very essence of what the South represents both socially and environmentally. The South, for many years now, has served as a refuge from the blunt, fast-paced Northeast, offering all the charms of the city at a much more leisurely pace. Instead of a house next to an abandoned factory in Rhode Island, the South offered a house under the canopy of some of the most diverse forests in the world. Unfortunately, the South is about to become a victim of its own success.

The massive urban sprawl predicted for the Southeast could eviscerate that leisurely lifestyle, that southern hospitality, and that beautiful forestry that has come to define the region. The entire area stretching from Atlanta to Raleigh will likely become one huge paved suburb, unrecognizable from any other generic suburb within the next 40 to 50 years. The South is well on its way to recreated the entire Northeast megalopolis that stretches from DC to Boston, except with even more inefficient land use patterns. This will likely create pollution, traffic, and stress much worse than what people were escaping when they first came to the South.

Urbanization 2009 (top) vs. Projected Urbanization 2060 (bottom) A, Terando, plosone.org
joint study between the US Geological Survey and North Carolina State University released last month shows urban sprawl increasing throughout the Southeast by between 110 and 190 percent by 2060. This sprawl is largely at the expense of agricultural and forested lands as farms and forests make way for cul-de-sacs and tract housing. The area between Atlanta and Raleigh (called the “Piedmont Region” by the authors) will experience the greatest sprawl, changing from about 10 percent urbanized to nearly 30 percent urbanized by 2060. This is followed closely by an area bounded roughly by the middle and northern part of the Florida up through Savannah (the “Florida Coastal Plain”), which will increase from about 15 percent urbanized to nearly 30 percent urbanized by 2060.

This reckless shift of land uses for purely economic purposes will create many negative externalities ranging from the decreased quality of life to the degradation of the environment to higher infrastructure costs (aka taxes). Let’s start with the least controversial, most objective externalities and move to the more debatable one.

Sprawl and infrastructure costs are positively correlated; as sprawl increases, infrastructure costs increase. This makes sense just thinking about it: if people live farther apart then the cost to run pipes, electrical wires, streets, etc to all of them increases. Luckily, we don’t have to think about it because people get paid to do this research. In addition to necessities, the cost to provide adequate fire and police coverage also increases as more stations are needed to allow emergency vehicles to provide reasonable response times.  This additional cost could be directly passed on to the user (you pay fees for the city/county to pave a road to your far-away house, run pipes, wires, etc) or could just be included in taxes and the entire community supports the sprawl. Either way, it’s expensive.
Synchronous Fireflies in Great Smokey Mountains firefly.org
Synchronous Fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains
Another less controversial externality is the destruction of the environment. More roads and houses equals less natural environment. Not only does the road or house actually displace the natural environment, but it then goes and affirmatively harms the environment with runoff from lawns and roads. While this is sad wherever it happens, it’s particularly sad in the Southeast since our forests are some of the most diverse in the world. Ninety-two percent of all bird species in the United States reside in the South. Yes, 92 percent! That goes along with 69 percent of reptiles and 57% of mammals. Recently researchers discovered a group of synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is significant because prior to this discovery only one other population of fireflies (in Siam/Thailand) exhibited coordinated flash behaviors. Since then a number of other firefly populations throughout the Southeast have shown this behavior. Perhaps one of the most magically diverse forests in the world is more important than comforting ourselves by making sure we can safely see another Waffle House while sitting inside a Waffle House.

Comfortably Eat Waffles While Gazing at Another WH Within Just 1000 Feet! At GA 53 and GA 400 in Dawsonville.
Quality of life is always controversial because it’s clearly subjective. Unlike the quantifiable costs of running pipes greater distances and ecological destruction, quality of life cannot be easily quantified. Sure we can cite data, but this data is always circumstantial evidence of the happiness of people. Data showing how long people sit in traffic, the rate of heart disease or diabetes, the crime rate, pollution levels, weather, or anything along those lines may suggest that people should feel some way, but it obviously isn’t necessarily an accurate gauge of how people actually feel. It’s important and informational data nonetheless.
SE Cities
After Creating Such a Beautiful City in Savannah, Are We Destined for Generic Sprawl? prettyhouses.savannah.com
While the authors’ note that their predictions do not take into account the various ways in which land could be developed into urbanized areas, the likelihood is that most of the development will be low-density and auto-centric. Typical suburban development, characterized by leafy suburban development where everyone pretty much has one or two roads as their only options for commuting in any way, has already proved to cause more traffic than denser areas and to contribute to less-healthy lifestyles. This includes health issues related unsafe walking conditions, increased chances of being in a car crash, and other issues related to sedentary lifestyles due to auto-reliance. As violence in cities approaches historic lows, the gap between crime in cities and suburbs continues to dramatically narrow, and as motor vehicles continue to be the leading cause of death for those between the ages of 16 and 25, suburban development is quickly losing the safety argument.

More sprawl creates more traffic and more traffic usually creates more stress and more stress usually makes people less happy. While many different researchers have reached many different conclusions on whether or not suburban or urban residents have longer commutes, there’s really no debate over whether building more roads reduces traffic: it doesn’t. The idea of induced demand dictates that as you build more roads, more demand is created and eventually traffic remains stagnant or gets worse. If the Southeast is destined to create auto-centric, low-dense land use patterns then we are destined to continue to run into the induced demand principle. The Southeast will simply follow Atlanta’s lead and run itself into a negative loop of building more roads to solve traffic problems only to find that traffic just gets worse.

In addition to traffic and health problems, sprawled development increases living costs by tipping the housing/transportation balance. While a house in the suburbs may cost less, the costs associated with transportation more than make up for the difference. Residents in the core areas of cities generally have access to cheaper transportation options, including public transit and walking, which lowers their overall cost-of-living compared to suburban residents. The key here is that alternative transportation choices need to be made available.
A City in the Forest http://atlurbanist.tumblr.com/post/59007978743/no-waterfront-or-mountainscape-this-city-has-trees
A City in the Forest
The laid-back lifestyle, hospitality, and abundant environment has come to define the South. People grow up here proud to know that this is what their region represents. People move here seeking refuge from stressful environments; hoping to discover the many beautiful things those who grew up here already know and love. Our connection to the environment must account for something. Our cities and towns have  grown up as an extension of nature, seamlessly intertwining the built and natural environments into one living unit. Our largest and most cosmopolitan urban environment is the City in the Forest. Nature most certainly created this relationship from the very beginning with its incessant need to strangle any human development, but we’ve grown with it. Perhaps this relationship with nature is the South. Our constant connection to the environment has allowed us to enjoy the simple, important things in life and not stress about the complications of human society.

While in the past we may not have had any choice; nature was going to exert its will and we built our communities based on its demands. Today we could simply pave over it. Eventually it would reclaim the land, but not for many years. This is the choice we face. Our region has grown up in a relationship with nature and that relationship has helped foster the culture and essence of the South. The land has made us who we are. It’s defined the culture of the region for thousands of years. While we want to grow as a region, we want to grow in a smart manner. We need to use our land wisely and not waste it on endless parking lots and cul-de-sacs. The region should grow, but it should take into account smart growth principles such as alternative transportation choices, green spaces, natural spaces, mixed-use, and denser development. Let’s not simply repeat the same mistakes others have made in a way that will destroy almost everything we love about this region.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A closer look into “Vestibule+”, a Folly 2014 Notable Entry

by: repost from bustler

Woojae Sung and Kyuseon Hong turns the vanishing point into a tangible idea in their proposal, "Vestibule+", which won a Notable Entry title in the popular Folly 2014competition. Playing with the concept of the traditional architectural folly, the competition invited young architects and designers worldwide to create an original folly installation to be temporarily built at the Socrates Sculpture Park in New York.
Check out the details behind "Vestibule+" below.

"Vestibule+" by Woojae Sung and Kyuseon Hong. Image courtesy of project authors.

Project description:

Vestibule +

"A vestibule is a lobby, entrance hall, or passage between the entrance and the interior of a building." 

"Looking at the gate on Broadway a few blocks away from it, we already knew the park was there. Seeing through the gate over the park at the end of the road, we felt the park had come to us too fast and naked. The thin gate was standing still there whispering very low that we were about to cross the intangible boundary. We trespassed. Everything happened so fast and painless. Thinking about Folly, we imagined a never realized vestibule that should have captured the grand moment of entering into the park."

Image courtesy of project authors.
Image courtesy of project authors.

"SITE: SOCRATES PARK: The site sits right behind the gate at the intersection of the extension of Broadway and pedestrian path within the park. Broadway, the visual corridor, guides people towards to the park’s gate even from a distance. The gate converts visual stimulus into physical experiences. This change of phase happens sudden even though the existence of huge gate which is clearly visible couple of blocks away."

Image courtesy of project authors.
Image courtesy of project authors.

"GATEWAY TOWARD SOCRATES PARK: When you visit the park, you can first confront with the Gateway with billboard on top. Since 1999, this 10Õ by 28Õ sized billboard has changed its face once or twice a year showcasing what’s happening inside the park. Comparing to its simple gesture toward the city, this had been performed very important role regarding to activation of the park   and its events inside.  Not only because the proposed site is located right next to this gateway, but also due to its importance in the park, we want to focus on this component for this competition.

How can we celebrate this honest, straightforward entry process to make the Socrates park a more special place to visit for everybody?"

Image courtesy of project authors.
Image courtesy of project authors.

"Vestibule toward Socrates Park: Socrates park is a not only publicly, but also spatially open space in the city. For this reason, like most of other parks, it doesn’t clearly define the entry sequence as an unique architectural component. It rather symbolizes the gate as a simple gesture which reminds us the essence of post & lintel system."

Image courtesy of project authors.
Image courtesy of project authors.

"This proposal is trying to tackle this aspect of the site. Comparing to the displayed sculptures & events, the frontality of the park is not strong enough to stimulate the things happening inside. Therefore, we propose vortex like entry feature which can fascinate the people passing by and absorb them into the park as active agents. And we want to   call this as a Vestibule+"

Image courtesy of project authors.
Image courtesy of project authors.

"PROCESS: The gate projects to the site and reshapes the site. A vestibule floating somewhere in between the two captures head space for a person entering in and out of the park. The initial projection is pinched in toward to the vestibule, then again modified to accommodate pedestrian path to the park. Series of ribbon spanning between the frames of the gate, site and vestibule visualize the projection."

Image courtesy of project authors.
Image courtesy of project authors.

"BUDGET: The project consists of three major parts; galvanized steel pipes, tension cables, and polyethylene tapes. Steel frame at both ends are secured back to the gate and ground. Tension cables hold the vestibule frame up in the air. And densely spaced polyethylene tapes span in between frames. Because the dimension of each corresponding edges of   the frame differs from each other, it naturally creates wrinkle and twist visualizing the effect of convergence. Tape can be either one with different colors on both side or one with demarcation pattern.

VESTIBULE + VIEW POINT: You can just pass by or you can step inside. This is an intermediate space between the park and the city. Are you in the Socrates Park already?"

Images courtesy of project authors.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Is Google Glass a Newton for Millennials?

by: William A. Aultman

So today, and today only, the US public can, under the moniker of an "Explorer", go online and buy Google Glass (or is it "a Google Glass", wtfe...) for the not-so-meager price of $1500 plus tax. This effort by Google to create an air of exclusivity and temporal urgency in this "one day only" release seems more like a marketing ploy than a real, beta-type release aimed at making the product better for the masses. 

This brings us to my big question: What does Google Glass really do?

The answer, as best as I can tell, is "Not much my iPhone doesn't do, I just wear it on my face." 

Now we all (this is about to be a very assumptive blanket statement) have dreams of the day when our technology is fully and seamlessly integrated into life and lifestyle. The day when screens and buttons give way to projections and gestures, but I just don't see Google Glass as being the next big thing... quite yet. 

Here's why:

1.)    We want to look cool. Technology has never made someone cool who wasn't a little bit cool to begin with. Period. Frankly, the photos and videos of Sergey and other people wearing Google Glass I have seen makes them look either pompous or disabled, and that is just not going to fly with the "selfie" generation. Well, maybe the pompous thing for a bit, but like their latest "meme" t-shirt, that will not last long.

2.)    Google Glass is over twice the price of the most expensive smartphone and it does not even function as a phone. It will tether to your phone with a Bluetooth connection, but that ultimately makes it just a really, really expensive Bluetooth earpiece and we all gave those up a long time ago. Well, except for the 40-something DB in accounting that still wears Polo Sport cologne and always talks about how he's gonna "give it" to Kim from receiving one of these days. Don't be that guy.

3.)   Things you wear on your face tend to be: easy to lose, fragile and detached from your person fairly quickly. Everyone who has bad eyesight or likes nice sunglasses knows the sheer panic and frustration of broken or, even worse, lost eyewear. It is not a question of "if" it is going to happen, but rather "when". 

Also, if I may indulge, the world is a tough place. There are probably a number of people within a few hundred yards from where you are right now that might have lost a recent sports related bet that was "gonna get em out of the hole", or is a tattooed drug addict with the nickname Mr. Softy, or is a reclusive technophile that combs the internet for free patterns to make that "skin-suit" they have always wanted but, until now, have not had the courage to kidnap and kill for. Well, that last one is a stretch but regardless, for these types of people, bumping into you on a side street while you are preoccupied sending a SMS from your face is a win-win! The point I'm trying to make is that wearable technology attracts attention, good and bad. You might as well tape 15 one-hundred dollar bills to your forehead and stumble around on a self guided tour of the underpass down by the river.

In the end, there are many reasons to want Google Glass, but I really think there are so many more reasons NOT to want Google Glass. Now don't get me wrong... I see the workplace applications with these nifty yet dorky headsets to be infinite and damn well ingenious. The list of possible applications for public transit operators, police and fire personnel, professional musicians, tour guides, public officials, etc. goes on and on but much like the Apple Newton, the ill fated predecessor to the PDA/smart phone device, it is just not the right time or the proper human interface to gain widespread public use. Not that we as technologically aware consumers will not get there, but I think this technology would be more fitting and useful in the not so distant future when we are making our almost-supersonic commute in a hyper-tube to meet with our World Industry clients to take a cruise in their solar-powered airship to survey the new location for their algae-power generation fields. One day soon, right?

Until then... don't be that guy. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Our Fragile Emerging Megacities: A Focus on Resilience

The number of megacities is expected to double over the next decade, and many of these growing cities are far from resilient. The solution: frugal engineering and local knowledge.
Colin Crowley / flickr
Unless you have been hibernating, you have heard about urbanization trends and have spent time reflecting on what this might hold for the future of communities, cities, nations, and the planet as a whole. The world’s total urban area is expected to triple between 2000 and 2030—urban populations are set to double to around 4.9 billion in the same period. On average, the rate of urbanization in the developing world will be five times that of the developed world. Depending on the estimate, the number of megacities (i.e., cities with populations over 10 million) is expected to double over the next decade. Most of the growth in megacities is expected to occur in resource-poor and highly fragile regions of the globe. Cities with over 10 million inhabitants are emerging in Asia, South America, and Africa.
Presently, cities that are transitioning into megacities are far from resilient (seehere for my previous post on resilience). Many of them are highly fragile and unstable. When faced with crises and disruptions, whether they are due to natural, economic, or political factors, these environments are put under severe stress. They lack the capacity to respond to these stressors and often crumble under pressure. They also lack the ability to predict and plan for upcoming events. For example, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines on November 8, 2013, resulting in untold devastation and the loss of 1,774 lives. Troops and aid agencies battled blocked roads, rubble, and debris to search for survivors. The Philippine government currently estimates that 2.5 million people are in need of food aid as a result of the crisis. Typhoons are extremely dangerous; this disaster could have been militated against by increasing the resiliency of coastal cities in the Philippines.
Unfortunately, even when faced with “normal operating conditions,” the physical, economic, and political infrastructures and processes of our future megacities cannot adequately deal with the loads placed on them. Emerging megacities generally have large youth populations that are frustrated with the status-quo. Issues such as immigration and inequality in wealth and economic opportunities tend to fuel and prolong insecurity. We witnessed these dynamics playing out in the Middle East during the “Arab Spring” and today we get to see it live in Kiev, Ukraine.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one billion people live in urban slums; 170 million people do not have access to bathroom facilities, and nearly 1.2 million people have died from air pollution in China. Such tenuous conditions in urbanized areas are met with more demands for public services and stronger governance. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by the year 2030, there will be 68 Indian cities of more than a million people, 13 with more than 4 million, and six megacities with populations of 10 million or more. More than 30 million people will live in Mumbai and 26 million in Delhi. This unprecedented growth directly effects development, growth, and support for public institutions. In India, inefficient governance systems and fragile infrastructure will be put under greater strain as a result of the impending population explosion.India’s bureaucratic system is the one of worst in the world. Excessive red tape, “fickle” regulations, and the willingness of India’s bureaucrats to accept bribes have a devastating impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of government. Transportation gridlocks, mass shortages of drinking water and food, burgeoning population that lives below the poverty line in slums, and the failure of public institutions are just some of the calamities that result from such conditions. Mumbai and Delhi are projected to need one trillion dollars in infrastructural improvements to effectively manage population growth.
By 2015 there will be 33 megacities, 27 of which will be in the developing world, where the population explosion is challenging already fragile infrastructures. Megacities create record quantities of human waste and wastewater, adding to the strain on sanitation services. About two-fifths of the world’s population does not have access to adequate sanitation. Dhaka has a population of 15 million and is one of Asia’s fastest growing cities. Nearly two-thirds of Dhaka's sewage is untreated and left to leak into waterways and the ground. Waste is dumped directly in waterways. The few public toilets that exist are neglected and extremely unhygienic. Unsurprisingly, tens of thousands Bangladeshi people die of cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, and other waterborne diseases each year.
Open water in Dhaka slumDhaka faces poor sewage sanitation, waterborne diseases. Image via Flickr bySuSanA Secretariat
We face a dire situation if we do not find ways to increase the capacity for resilience in our megacities. Our de-facto model is not sufficient—when a major crisis (e.g., earthquake, flood, political unrest, etc.) hits a megacity in the developing world, the developing world and NGOs respond by flooding it with personnel, supplies, and resources to deal with the aftermath. As soon as the immediate response and recovery is complete, the various organizations begin to exit. The local environment goes back to a state of fragility, and we wait for the next disaster, only to respond again, and again, and again. Not only is this model ineffective, it is also inefficient. Billions are spent to deal with an event in the near-term with limited investment and thought into making lasting interventions that either 1) lower the chances for the environment to face similar shocks going into the future or 2) increase the adaptive and resilience capacity of the local environment, people, processes, infrastructure, and governance systems to handle extreme events in the future.
Regardless of whether you live in the developed or developing world, none of us are going to be to immune to the effects of extreme events that take place in one part of the globe. The planet is nondiscriminatory. We are all connected and interdependent, and our level of connectivity and interdependencies is intensifying. Cities in the developing world cannot afford expensive technologies. They do not have infrastructure at a level of maturity where traditional solutions make sense. Many cities lack basic infrastructure and resources necessary for basic survival needs and cannot invest the time, energy, or resources to purchase and implement glamorous technological solutions being sold. These innovations are not what these cities need. These cities need a sustainable capacity to develop innovations using their own internal resources and capabilities given their economic, political, and infrastructure realities.
Frugal Engineering + Leveraging Local Knowledge = Resilience
We need to build a resilience capacity from within these difficult environments—to this end we need to focus on frugal engineering and leveraging local knowledge. Frugal engineering is a new method of development that assesses the needs of the market as well as what the market can spend to respond to growing demands and tighter budgets. Through the “Reinventing the Toilet Challenge,” a grant program from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, California Institute of Technology Professor Michael Hoffman and his team invented a solar-powered toilet that can safely dispose human waste for five cents a day. The toilet uses sun to power an electrochemical reactor that breaks human and water waste down into fertilizer and hydrogen, which is then stored in hydrogen fuel cells and used as energy. The toilet systems do not use septic systems or outside water sources, so once the water is treated, it is reused to flush the toilet or for irrigation. Other winners of the challenge invented toilets that produce biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water and other toilets that sanitize feces and urine. The utmost concern of frugal engineers is to meet the functional needs of the consumer. Robust products that can stand up to erratic supplies of electricity and harsh environments are needed. Mobile phone provider Nokia, for instance, knew that low-income agricultural workers were increasingly investing in cell phones. Researchers at Nokia noticed that phones were harder to use outdoors due to humidity and dust. Frugal engineers developed phones that could resist damage from dust and arid climates and removed “fancy” features from the phone—only phone calling and text messaging capabilities were included. These are good examples of frugal engineering. But we need more than frugal engineering. We need the ability to mobilize and leverage local knowledge to empower residents to build resilience solutions.
A focus on indigenous knowledge is important for creating solutions that make sense within emerging economies. SABMiller produced just such an example by developing beer made from cassava and sorghum crops to market and sell in Africa. Through the use of locally-sourced materials, the company makes an affordable high-quality product for those who would otherwise be drinking informal or illicit alcohol. Indigenous knowledge is essential for survival among the rural poor. Indigenous knowledge evolves throughout communities and cultures as natives are forced to cope with the various stresses and challenges around them. Globalization and modernization brings with it many important developments but can also systematically silence indigenous knowledge.
Frugal engineers in India had the need to construct affordable refrigerators that could withstand likely power outages in rural India and have a significant amount of portability for a very mobile population. India’s Godrej Appliances created a small, portable refrigerator called the ChotuKool. Significantly defeaturing a conventional refrigerator by removing unnecessary features, the ChotuKool has no compressor—instead it has a cooling chip and fan that can run on a battery to aid in power outages. In contrast to a normal sized refrigerator, the ChotuKool has 20 pieces instead of the 200 plus needed operate a conventional refrigerator and is priced at $55.
Frugal engineers have to contend with infrastructure gaps that make traditional development of products and services challenging. Using leapfrog technology, engineers are adopting their technologies to unreliable or nonexistent infrastructure. For instance, the Indian mobile phone industry has managed to make mobile phones widely available despite limited, fixed-line infrastructure. India is the world’s second largest mobile market, with approximately 900 million mobile connections. Mobile broadband adoption in India is set to significantly expand over the next five years, from about 35 million mobile broadband connections to a potential 400 million mobile broadband connections by the end of 2017. 
Frugally engineered products have low variability and have a one-size fits all principle to keep costs down. When selling identical products, efficient service eco-systems are necessary to support the needs of consumers such as repair and financing. For instance, Selco produced simple, low-cost systems that combine solar panels and storage batteries. Selco’s lighting system has been installed in 100,000 homes in rural southern India and costs around 10,000 rupees ($200 USD). Because most rural Indians could not afford to pay for the systems upfront, Selco assembled an aggressive financing package with rural banks that provided financing to 85% of their customers. Additionally, service support personnel visited customers every three months during the first year to collect batteries for recycling and to check the systems functioning, creating a network that supports the product as well as the consumer.
While the most successful cases of frugal innovation have happened in India, other countries are starting to make similar innovations. German technology company Siemens’ SMART (simple, maintenance-friendly, affordable, reliable, and timely-to-market) product portfolio aims to develop devices 40-60% cheaperthan the cost of the usual available devices in the market. Siemens developed a Fetal Heart Monitor that used a cheaper microphone technology instead of costly ultrasound technology. A Chinese company, Haier, introduced the Mini Magical Child, a washing machine alternative to large, expensive washing machines. In Kenya, millions of residents rely on M-PESA, a service that enables them to save, spend, and transfer money using their cell phones without having a bank account.
A client uses SAfrica Standard BankUsers learn how to use South Africa's Standard Bank on their mobile phone. Image by Mike Hutchings/Reuters.
Crowdsourcing platforms bring together the concepts of frugal engineering and local knowledge. Using a creative approach to problem solving, Spatial Collective and Map Kibera—a company and a nonprofit, respectively—have begun to map Kenya’s mega-slum, Kibera. The problem both organizations are working to solve is the notoriously unreliable and inaccurate nature of maps in many areas of Africa. Maps are oftentimes obsolete and do not reflect recent changes. Additionally, common footpaths are not recognized on maps leading Africans to use informal landmarks such as bars or gas stations to navigate the landscape. That condition is worse in slums, where many areas are displayed as blank expanses on international maps such as Google Maps. Using a crowdsourcing approach, locals were invited to add landmarks such as schools, pharmacies, bars, and water taps to an open source map through the Internet, SMS messaging, or by attending community workshops. Spatial Collective then created maps using the crowdsourced information and official data. Map data has provided viable locations to build new public toilets, and community-reported crime data helped World Bank officials decide where to place street lamps for safety. With each problem solved, the maps are helping to make the Kibera safer and more livable for residents.
Emerging Megacities and Resilience
To build a smart and resilient planet, we must focus on the challenges and opportunities in our future megacities. Frugal engineering is not charity; it should make sense in the market. Although frugal innovation assists the economically poor, innovations are made to be sold. Given the resource constraints associated with frugal innovations, a business model is necessary to succeed. Unless a viable business model exists the innovation will not be scalable or even sustainable in the long-run. The private sector has a critical role to play in ensuring that we build a capacity for resilience in our future megacities. As the examples above have shown, opportunities based on frugal innovation and tapping into local knowledge and expertise of the populous is crucial towards getting the private sector to contribute. Removing the wasteful or unnecessary aspects of products or services drives frugal innovations. Frugal innovations also create other important advancements for developing countries such as institutional and social advancements.
When a frugal innovation is developed, value is not just created from that innovation; it is also adding value to society’s institutional and social standing. Consider the innovations created for the aforementioned “Reinventing the Toilet Challenge,” for instance. If taken to scale and deployed nationally and/or internationally, the most immediate impact would be the amount of adequate toilet facilities people would have access to. In addition to the most immediate value, other institutional value such as the country’s public health system, sanitation system and sustainability would all be affected by this new innovation. Socially, the value to society would include improved health outcomes, more opportunities for sustainability and more time not concerned with sanitation concerns to spend on personal and community needs. Ultimately, I believe that solutions generated by leveraging local knowledge in a manner that makes sense to the local context has a better chance of increasing resilience, economic vitality, and the quality of live in our fragile megacities than brute-force importing of solutions from the developed world.
An important aspect of frugal innovation is that it doesn’t wait for markets to fit the particular model innovators have in mind; instead it adapts to the realities of society and the market. In a time when many large companies are shying away from entering emerging markets due to instability and corruption, frugal innovations that are developed with the local consumer in mind are helping to make developing countries more resilient. By not waiting for the optimum circumstances and working to serve the consumer directly with what’s available, frugal engineering is placing development in the forefront and creating new options for megacities to grow on.
Kevin C. Desouza is the Associate Dean for Research in the College of Public Programs; an Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs; and the Interim Director for the Decision Theater in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University. His research interests are in the areas of information and knowledge management, innovation systems, and strategic management of information systems. For more information, please visithttp://www.kevindesouza.net. He can be reached via email atkev.desouza@gmail.com