Monthly Archive for October, 2009

Nebulae, Cities and Innovation

The Orion Nebula captured through NASAs Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Orion Nebula captured through NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Just yesterday I was reading an article at physorg.org describing the remarkable discovery of an explosion within the Orion Nebula considered to be the youngest “star nursery” ever discovered. A star nursery – that phrase really stuck with me in a way it hadn’t before, and I think it must all be in the context of work.

That same day I came across a 2006 TED Talk by the inimitable Stewart Brand, who founded the Whole Earth Review back when the Internet was a glint in Bob Metcalf’s eye. It wasn’t even ARPANET (I don’t think). Anyway, Stewart Brand in his TED Talk was describing the explosive rate of growth of our cities, and how they represent one of our greatest hopes for a future without poverty. He said – and still does – a lot of provocative things in his TED talk back in 2006, and one of them is that cities, especially slums, are nodes of problem solving and innovation.

London at night, as seen from space and captured by American astronaut Donald Pettit

London at night, as seen from space and captured by American astronaut Donald Pettit

And then he did something remarkable – at least I thought it was remarkable – he played a video clip of the earth in dark. The camera slowly pulls away from the East Coast of the U.S. and its dense, nebula-like cluster of light. We see the dark expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and then London comes into view, then Paris and Cairo and Berlin and Istanbul and soon the entire surface of the earth is shining with these clusters of light and he says something breathtaking: “For the first time, the earth is shining back at the stars.”

Star nurseries. The Internet. Cities. Innovation. Changing perspective.

This is what I’ve been dreaming about for more than a year – the creation of a place where innovative ideas are born and carried forward, an global incubator for “invention as public service.” A place where the worldwide talent of MIT students, alumni and their collaborators can be directed toward some of the great opportunities of our time – from energy production and storage to innovations in international health and sanitation. Agricultural production and processing to new approaches to education and communication delivery.

These are some of the challenges we face, and it is my deepest hope that the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge can be an incubator of some of MIT’s new humanitarian stars.

Shanty Towns Are the New, Green Pioneer Cities

So says Stewart Brand.

During a recent talk at MIT, the urbanist scholar Anthony Flint said, “Cities are the greenest form of human settlement humans can aspire to.” Taking an aerial view of Los Angeles in the ’80′s, one might have been less than certain. Today, with an ever growing number of people living in “megacities” (those with more than 10 million inhabitants), one might be even less certain.

With an energy-intensive lifestyle and panoply of diversions, the truth of Mr Flint’s statement is hardly self-evident.

Broadly speaking, “green” is shorthand for the concept of “ecologically friendly.” In other words, little to no harm is done to the environment through the process of extraction, production or distribution of goods and services. Applying the concept of “greenness” to cities is no small feat.

Large concentrations of human settlement by definition have a more visible, intense impact on the environment than dispersed populations. Whether through resource consumption – for example, the construction of housing – or waste generation – and its necessary incineration or other means of disposal – large concentrations of people are by definition *not green.*

So what gives?

Continue reading ‘Shanty Towns Are the New, Green Pioneer Cities’