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Artist's concept of what a livable city with autonomous vehicles might look like.
Artist's concept of what a livable city with autonomous vehicles might look like.

Of Doughnuts and Smart, Livable 21st Century Cities

It's an age-old saw that "a picture is worth a thousand words," but in the case of this "smart," livable city illustration, it is worth more than that, a lot more. In fact, there's an entire book out called "Doughnut Economics" that can point the way.

I've started reading Kate Raworth's "Doughnut Economics - Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist" this weekend on the recommendation of George Monbiot in an article he wrote back in April in The Guardian. Kate's premise as an Oxford-trained economist who's worked hands-on in developing countries and many years at Oxfam, is that we need a new economic mindset, a new picture of how an economy on a planet soon to be home to 10 billion homo sapiens works for the benefit of all, including the flora and fauna. What she visualized was a doughnut, though she confided to me in a Tweet, she originally wanted to use the metaphor of a life preserver (lifesaver,life ring, etc.), but there were too many different terms for it, whereas "doughnut" is universally understood by all peoples.

Kate's doughnut is a sort of socioeconomic version of a solar system "Goldilocks" zone -- too close to the sun - a la Mercury -- and life is impossible, too far away and it's too cold. Earth inhabits our sun's perfect "Goldilocks" zone; Venus and Mars are marginally borderline, but likely harbor little if any life beyond extremophile level.

In Ms. Raworth's "picture worth a thousand words" doughnut, there is a level below which no human should be forced to exist, but several billion of our fellow humans do. On a planetary level, there is also a limit beyond which we cannot push Earth's ecosystems or we risk destroying the very life support system we all depend on. The challenge is to find an economic system that safely allows all of us to reside in our planet's economic "Goldilock" zone - the doughnut.

What struck me about the above "smart city" illustration, which clearly involved many hundreds of hours of research, deep thought and CGI drawing time, plus no small degree of artistic talent, is how hopeful it is. The air is clean, the streets are clean, the people are well-dressed. None appears obese. Note the absence of homeless people, police or anti-terrorism street barricades. There's green space for families with children, and senior citizens. Most of the people are either walking or cycling on manual pedal bikes or electric versions. The city has provided bike lanes on both sides of the street, lanes open to a wide range of light electric vehicles including foot scooters, as well as manual bikes.

Of the approximately sixteen motor vehicles in the image, only one appears to be driven by a human. The rest are either autonomous car share vehicles or similarly self-guided shuttles, and half of those are parked awaiting renters. There's a subway entrance in the park and curiously, from Quikbyke's perspective, what appears to be an electric bike parking tower, presumably from which you can rent an e-bike to reach destinations beyond the subway when you don't want the expense of renting a "Car4You" EV.

The interesting thing about this picture is that it comes at the end of an article in Automotive News by David Sedgwick, entitled, "Jocking for Future Mobility Position - Supplier, Automakers, Others in Hot Pursuit of New Tech". Sedgwick writes,

"A great upheaval is taking place in the global auto industry. Not just because the vehicles, parts, technologies and key players are changing, but also because those players are no longer certain about who will do what in the future."

Unprecedented opportunities are beckoning. But the unanswered question is, whose opportunities are they?

The more important question is how do we create an economic system that makes this hopeful vision possible? As some of us are starting to realize, and Kate's voice is just one of many, the current economic model illustrated by Paul Samuelson's famous "plumbing" diagram just isn't cutting it any longer. When he created it after World War Two as part of his Econ 101 text book, the planet was home to just over two billion people. Today we're past 7.5 billion and headed to 10. The no-limits-to-growth model is literally overheating the planet with known consequences and many unknown ones.

On top of the ecological crisis we're creating, we're also setting the stage for an economic crisis of unparalleled dimensions. Those autonomous cars in the illustration are powered by artificial intelligence that will do more than put taxi cab and bus drivers out of work. We need to quickly figure out how we're going to deal with the resultant upheaval. Samuelson's model simply can't deal with it. Kate Raworth's just might.

Check out Ms. Raworth's TEDtalk on Doughnut Economics.

Posted By: Bill Moore [26-Nov-2017]