In the morning of the last day of the sessions, I attended a session on Designing Sustainable Cities. The reason I went to this one is that I thought that Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, would be one of the workgroup facilitators. I also thought that Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, who I met the night before at Claudia Schiffer’s Global Warming party was going to be there. Neither was there, Ken due to family commitments and Gavin due to family problems?, but this ended up being a truly multi-disciplinary session.
There were people who designed new cities in China, architects from the major architectural firms, product design people like Tim Brown, Hermann Requart, CTO of Siemens, and some of the Technology Pioneers, who have great ideas, but would never be involved in a session like this. The session had experts from firms who advise governments on how to design cities and upgrade old ones. One odd comment that one of them made was that Dubai was an example of a city that won’t be there in 50 years let alone hundreds. We broke up into groups around areas such as transportation, power, governance, housing and resources.
I went into the breakout group on transportation. What else would someone with a background in IT do? I did study renewable energy when I went to Berkeley, but that is so old. It turns out that Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, thought the same thing. He studied the area of transportation when he was working on his PhD in Computer Science at Stanford. Tim Brown was in my group as well and I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say. Our group decided to start a city from scratch and imagine what was possible from creating entirely new cities as is being done in China now.
Once Larry started talking about how Google was designing a new $1 Billion facility, that some dub GooglePlex, everyone would shut-up. Of course, when a powerful, super-smart billionaire talks about how he is going to solve some of these problems, one would shut up. The amazing ideas that came out were: when we want an item like a tomato, we should be able to get it with a few minutes and the transportation system should be designed around that; battery technology will evolve to the point where a battery will have enough power to move anything; ultra-light aircraft are the most efficient means of people moving from one place to another and that computers will be able to deal with safety issues; the Google complex was designed for efficient movement of people and things to the point of eliminating walls and other obstacles.
We then traded ideas with other groups in an idea of using “speed-dating” between groups. The idea is that each group splits in half and exchange people so that half of one group goes to the other area and half that group comes to yours. You exchange ideas on how things are inter-related. Obviously energy and transportation are inter-related. What I learned in this section is that Ultra-Light Rail is the most efficient form of transportation. Also pneumatic transport of goods and even people can be a very efficient form of transport. Sharing an infrastructure between transport and power can be cost effective, but one expert suggested that we have no wires going in and out of buildings, since it is possible to create completely energy self-sufficient buildings. (Yeah, right. Try doing that in England.) We thought we should also trade ideas with the group that handled buildings, but we ran out of time.
I learned quite a bit about these types of session in this one. I won’t name who, but someone in the planning business just took control of the pen to further their own agenda. Doing stuff like that is why Sharon Stone was not invited to Davos this year. Also, getting this diverse a group of people is fantastic and with the sort of energy that gets generated, you can solve just about any problem. However, two and a bit hours is nowhere near long enough to do anything about it. The rule of the game should be to blue sky given you can really think out of the box, but it would also be interesting to see how we can solve problems like those in London with such brain power. Finally, the conversation needs to extend beyond the Davos event to really take advantage of all the collective thought that has been created.