How smart does a “Smart City” make us?

Source: Intel

Thanks to the marvels of technology, we’ve managed to give life to inanimate objects. Our homes can now tell us it’s too warm, refrigerators remind us when we’re running out of eggs, and our cars can call in an emergency when we’re unable to do so. What I’m talking about is this rising phenomenon called the “Internet of Things” (IoT). By installing all sorts of sensors imaginable, we can take real-time measurements on properties such as energy usage, weight, temperature, etc. This constant stream of data is then processed and analyzed along with countless other streams of data and then well-informed decisions are made – most of the time automatically. It’s this network of objects “talking” to each other that makes up the “Internet of Things.”

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The Confluence: Milwaukee Transitioning into a World Water Hub

A few months ago, my brother referred me to a friend of his who was writing at article on Milwaukee, WI and it’s position in the world of water. I answered a few questions and managed to get quoted in the piece. It’s a great article and serves as an excellent overview of Milwaukee’s many water initiatives as it strives to reinvent itself (but first, they need to re-design their flag).

You can find the article here. It’s written for The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and students and faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Source: wikimedia

An Irrational Request

(C) Luc Schuiten

As a fan of the fantasy genre, I have always been attracted to the concept of tree architecture. Almost every fantasy world has some magical city hidden in the forest, where the branches intertwine into canopy walkways and the trunks serve as dwellings. Belgian architect Luc Schuiten has taken this idea and applied it to the urban space, imagining sprawling cities made of twisting trees and illuminated by bio luminescent leaves. His drawings seem both fantastical and futuristic. I highly recommend you check out his work.

 

Schuiten is not the first architect to imagine the use of trees in urban design. Mitchell Joachim of Terreform ONE developed the Fab Tree Hab as a home that operates symbiotically with it’s surroundings.

(C) Luc Schiuten

It would be my wildest dreams come true if any of these ideas were to become a reality. There is an art known as tree sculpting that can shape trees into desired patterns and structures. However, the key obstacle to any of these designs (among many) is that trees take quite a long time grow to a usable size. Trees often outlive humans, so any endeavor would require humans to plan far in advance and be well-invested in the future of the species (and we all know how hard we struggle with that).

So I am putting a call out to the genetic engineers of the world – figure out a way to accelerate the growth of trees. I don’t know how you’ll do it, or if it can be done, but I assure you, if you can do it, you would drastically change the world as we know it today. We could have the amazing cities we read about in books. This is the irrational part of my brain speaking, and it’s really only for the aesthetic purposes, but please, make it work.

New Solutions to Old Problems

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Source: Pixabay

Never before in our modern society has water been such a priority for individuals, cities and nations, and it will only continue to grow in importance. However, even with such increased presence and general acknowledgement of the problems at hand, there seems to be a lack of public understanding of the issues at stake and what is (or isn’t) being done to address these issues. So in this blog post, I’ve set out on the daunting task to give a summary of the water-related problems our world is facing and the what is being done to address these problems. Water has been used for the functioning of societies ever since the rise of the agrarian life-style, and as such, has been viewed as a well-understood phenomenon and a natural process under the full control of human technology. We’ve learned how to produce drinkable water, drain and create entire lakes to grow food and even to divert or reverse the flow of rivers to prevent floods. Our mastery of water seems to be self-evident and there seems to be no need for improvement. But current issues prove that this is a false assumption resulting from technological hubris. There are still many advancements that can and must be made in regards to water – advancements that require not only political will and social education, but technological innovation. Technology still has a very large role to play in the search for water solutions, and the role of the environmental engineer is essential now more than ever.

The goal of this post is to give the everyday reader a basic but nuanced understanding of water issues and to explain why one should care about them. This post will explain the importance of engineering/technology in searching for and implementing solutions. Additionally, I will also talk about how water engineering is not some ancient, well-understood field that only requires by-the-book implementation of old technology, but one filled with state-of-the-art opportunities to expand knowledge and advance humanity.

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Should I stay or should I go?

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I knew it was a movie that I wanted to see. It was a simple trailer in terms of special effects and action, but it spoke deeply and directly to the audience. When the first trailer came out, there was very little information on the plot, but I knew it had to do with space travel, and took place in a bleak future. I was especially struck with the line “The world doesn’t need any more engineers. We didn’t run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food.” This line cemented my desire to watch the film – I was excited to see a science fiction film rooted in science fact, and I was also worried that this movie would give off the wrong impression of what engineers do to the public.

I won’t give away the plot of Interstellar for those who have not yet seen it (and if you haven’t yet, I highly encourage you to go). I just want to talk about my thoughts on the themes presented in the movie, mainly space exploration and engineering and science.

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Musings on the Current Education System – Maintaining Perspective and Inspiration

In education, as in life, there will always be challenges. There will be times that we question what we are doing, why we are doing it, and if any of it matters. And these times – while the scariest – are also the most valuable, the most important, for they reveal what truly matters to us. No one gets through challenges simply because we are told to do so, but because we choose to do so. I strongly believe that there are two major things we need to tackle challenges: perspective and inspiration – perspective to help us understand where we are, what we know and do not know, and why we do not know it; inspiration to understand where we want to go, and why we want to go there. The source of our perspective and inspiration comes from the realization that we are not alone, that where we are is defined by our relation to one another and to the greater universe, that our motivation comes from our family, friends, mentors, the beauty and mystery of life. It is humility and ambition combined.

When you find yourself questioning why you are doing problem sets, or attending classes, or going to work, remind yourself of your current perspective and inspiration. I say current, because these things can and will change throughout your life. What you do should grow your perspective and inspiration, and your perspective and inspiration should motivate what you do. Without perspective and inspiration, the work you do quickly loses meaning and the cycle is broken.

What troubles me is that the current systems that surround us do not address these two things, instead they construct additional challenges that make us lose our perspective and cloud our inspiration. Instead of being sources of inspiration and perspective, the education system tends to suck these things out of our lives. We are given goals to strive for without the reasons why, we are told to take tests because they will increase our academic standing, we are told we need to be the best out of a tiny percentage of a privileged population because…why? When that happens, we stray away from challenges, letting difficulty or fear of failing be our excuse not to do something. We lose the will to pursue challenges, to work hard.

At the moment, it is up to us to maintain our perspective and inspiration. Please don’t lose it.

The Art and Engineering of Infrastructure

In a previous post, I brought up the idea of making our city’s infrastructure more aesthetically pleasing. Infrastructure – almost by definition – is hidden, buried underground or constructed in a far-off area away from the central city. By making our infrastructure aesthetically pleasing and placing it at the center of attention, the public has a better chance of appreciating the complex systems that support our modern lifestyle. There’s a good chance that our relationship with our built environment can rapidly change when we begin to appreciate the beauty of the systems in place.

The Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), has this exact goal in mind. According to their website, LAGI wishes “to advance the successful implementation of sustainable design solutions by integrating art and interdisciplinary creative processes into the conception of renewable energy infrastructure.” This requires the collaboration of architects, urban designers, landscape architects, scientists and engineers all working together to create a work of art that generates physical and emotional value.

Every two years, LAGI holds a design competition that combines a major infrastructure sector with public art. In 2012, the competition centered around New York City’s Freshkills Park, drawing 250 submissions from around the world to redefine waste management to the public. This year, 2014, the project description was to design a public sculpture that also continuously distributes clean energy into the electrical grid, proving that our energy infrastructure can be both essential, and beautiful.

The first place winner was designed by Santiago Muros Cortés. Titled, “The Solar Hourglass,” this sculpture acts as a solar central receiver, concentrating solar energy through the use of flat mirrors to heat up a steam turbine and generate 7,500 MWh/year. Aesthetically speaking, the sculpture is quite elegant, consisting of two simple pieces that mirror each other, with the bright glow of the sun at the center (whether this would be a danger to eyesight remains to be seen). It certainly looks like something that should come out of a science fiction novel.  You can find the other winners and submissions at the competition website.

Source: landartgenerator.org

What attracts me to this competition is the idea that both science and art can be blended seamlessly together to create a product that could not have existed without this collaboration. I’m glad there are organizations like LAGI who strongly believe in the benefits of this intersection. The built environment inherently contains character, and this character must be expressed in order to garner full appreciation. Additionally, the built environment must also support the livelihood of the people that inhabit it. This requires design guided by scientific principles and engineering thinking. As I learned recently, architecture that does not consider engineering cannot fully unlock its full potential, and engineering without art cannot truly connect with the people.

By making our infrastructure the center of attention, our entire perspective regarding the built environment changes. It may not be easy to see at first, but consider how our line of thinking and behavior would change if we were cognizant of the many systems that support our way of life. A greater appreciation for the built and natural environment develops, and we are more aware of our place and effect we have on our surroundings. It may take a little more money to hire an architect to design something like a power plant, but consider the added benefits it will bring. What a world it would be if there were children pulling their parents by the hand, saying “Let’s go visit the garbage plant!”