Lessons from Aspen

aspen leaf pic“Take from those who can pay and give it to those who can’t, this is the real Aspen way. Transit is funded by parking, Electricity is funded by Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, Affordable housing is funded by real estate tax…”

No, that is not Karl Marx talking, it was Dan Blankenship, the CEO of Aspen’s Roaring Fork Transport Agency. And yes, I did nearly fall over.  Aspen’s experience over the past forty years of becoming one of the great tourism towns of the world has given them reasons to work very hard to preserve a community – at huge cost.  I was recently part of a sister city delegation to that fabulous town to figure out what we in Queenstown could learn from their experience.  Heaps, it turned out. I loved being there, I loved the frankness of their people in talking about what’s happened and how they’ve coped and mitigated.  Here’s my  Full Aspen report  for those who are interested.

So where to from here?  We in Queenstown share major issues with our sister city, and I’m sure other NZ towns are following suit as tourism becomes New Zealand’s main economic driver (more about this later, it’s not a good thing).  I’ve listed the issues most important to me and where i think we’re at in addressing them:

Housing for our residents.  How do people who serve our major (only) economic driver – tourism – buy or rent housing when the median income is $35,100 (source: stats NZ) and the average house price is $842.000 (source: QV in this stuff story) .  That’s 24 times the median income. If median household income is 77,000, it’s more than 10 times the median household income. Housing is considered affordable at 3x the median household income. Source for both of these last figures is interest.co.nz.  This is an issue not only for those who can’t afford to buy a house here, but for everyone.  I’ve outlined in my Aspen report the troublesome spin-offs from this state of affairs. Next issue is, who’s job is it to solve it?   In my mind, it’s not the local council’s job to provide housing for those who are working for local employers – those employers own the problem of not paying their staff enough to live here – not the ratepayer. Here’s an article I wrote about this for our local paper.

A WEEK in Aspen as part of the sister city delegation included the opportunity to study their response to severe housing issues. Aspen’s – 30-year experience of complicated market interventions, including development of a two-tier market, is regarded as highly successful, but the gap between supply and demand continues to widen. An average house price of $US4 million means even high-income earners like doctors and chief executives need affordable housing.There are undesirable consequences.

Residential neighbourhoods now sit empty for much of the year along with what were small, mid-price hotels which now house only billionaire families occasionally. A small army of workers commute hours each day to do the gardens and otherwise care for these energy-expensive, empty houses. Wider consequences reach beyond employee and visitor accommodation — every sector is affected and the vitality of the town is threatened as retail, hospitals, police and schools follow the year-round residents down-valley. This puts a handbrake on economic development and compounds other issues such as traffic congestion and environmental impacts.

Aspen is many years further down the road than we are but the story is uncomfortably familiar. There is much to learn from our friends there. I’d like a direction correction that starts with acknowledgement that decent housing in our region is unavailable to most. Few living in Queenstown or Wanaka can earn enough to rent or buy a decent house without some other source of income. If we want an inclusive, diverse community, without the issues Aspen now faces, we need to work on solutions.

  1. Start nationally. Ask the government to implement a broad, capital gains tax to contain the market
  2. Get serious about urbanisation and good place-making, include standards for rental accommodation
  3. Investigate a ‘vacant’ tax to dis¬incentivise empty houses
  4. Cut red tape around renting rooms or houses
  5. Incentivise land owners to release residential-zoned property
  6. Support the Housing Trust by revisiting up-zoning contributions for community housing with strong retention mechanisms

Aspen has fought hard to house many of its people in town. This expensive work includes a superb transport strategy and system and strong environmental focus. Like our Aspen sisters, we value a healthy community of people who live here year-round. Our future is not as a play area for the wealthy, serviced by employees from a bedroom community an hour away. Let’s face this issue while we still can.

Transport.  We are way behind the 8 ball on this.  This issue is driven partly by the housing issue – when people are driven out of town by price, but still need to get to town to work, they’re in their cars and as we are geographically constrained we now have congestion.  Aspen has not increased its traffic movements since 1993.  They’ve done this by installing a state-of-the-art public transit system and linking an awesome set of bike and walking trails.  The transit system took 10 years and $100m.  Get ready people.  This is a local government issue along with partners NZTA and the Otago Regional Council.  We’re on it, the wheels are grinding painfully slowly,  it’s not that pretty and it won’t be quick.  Here’s our strategy  for the Queenstown Town Centre (Frankton and Wanaka coming soonish) and a summary.

Environmental protection.  We are of course entirely dependent on our environment, sadly many only recognise our environment as something separate and beautiful and so  as an economic driver of our tourism industry.  More importantly our environment at the head of a glacial valley provides fantastic natural systems that clean our water, air and soils and provide us with energy to live from.  Much much more work needs to be done in this space to maintain these systems and to ensure we respect our position as being at the headwaters.  We have a great waste minimisation strategy but as yet, implementation isn’t happening. Council is working on this now and I think we’re committed to delivering it.  And that’s just the start – we need to work with the regional council on clean air and protecting our waterways among other things.  Again, Aspen is ahead of us on this score.  They’re already mitigating for climate change and looking to a future of less snow (and skiing) and how their community might adapt. While in Aspen, I met Auden Schendler – the sustainability director for Aspen Ski Company – who gave me his book ‘Getting Green Done’ which I’ve read and bookmarked dozens of pages.  An excellent, light read for anyone interested in these challenges.



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We have to put the eco back into economics’ – David Suzuki

Connectivity is a major theme in my Masters work.  Right now I’m thinking about how we connect the exponential disruption we’re facing in the digital space, with our most urgent need to reconnect with what we really need, clean air, clean water, clean energy, clean soils.

But Suzuki (in his updated book The Sacred Balance, 2007) brings us back to real issue: without clean water, air, energy and soils, economics and everything else is superfluous. He says that environmental issues are often framed incorrectly – the environment identified as somehow separate.  We are in fact, “intimately fused to our surroundings and the notion of separateness or isolation is an illusion.” [pg 18]

In his introduction to the new edition, he takes us back some helpful definitions.

““Eco” comes from the Greek word Oikos, meaning home.  Ecology is the study of home, while economics is the management of home. Ecologists attempt to define the conditions and principles that govern life’s ability to flourish through time and change.  Societies and our constructs, like economics, must adapt to those fundamentals defined by ecology.  The challenge today is to put the “eco” back into economics and every aspect of our lives.”

So, we need to reconnect our terms – Eco is home (our planet, our environment) eco–ology is the study of it, and eco-nomy is management of it.  Maybe this management isn’t going so well. How did economy move from management of our home/environment to domination of our home/environment with consequences we now all understand? I’m not going to head into this right now…but I think the definition is helpful.

As I think about reconnection, I’ve been listening to podcasts and learning about the indigenous way of looking at how everything’s connected – I recently listed to Robin Wall Kimmerer – a bryologist (virtual chocolate fish to anyone who knows what that is) – and Native American.  She talks about how our vocabulary must adapt to acknowledge our connections – like, who is that mountain rather than what is…  Everything is animate if it hasn’t been made by humans, the rocks and water have lifecycles too – loved this discussion on On Being where Robin outlines the intelligence in all kinds of life.

Suzuki talks about this too. And he points out that if we need these connections scientifically proven, look no further than the human genome project which identifies our genome as nearly identical to that of the Great Apes and proves that we “carry thousands of genes identical to those in fish, birds, insects and plants, a revelation that we share genes with all other life forms to whom we are related by our shared evolutionary history.”

He believes the separation and reductionism that’s resulted from isolating ourselves from our environment has led us to think we can escape the restraints of nature and worse, led us to think that the services our environment supplies are little more than a function of economy.

“It is nature that cleanses water, creates air, decomposes sewage, absorbs garbage, generates electricity and produces food, but … these “ecosystem services” are assumed to be performed by the workings of the economy.”

Our troubles come from the explosive (exponential) speed of both growth and technological development which means we are expanding beyond the capacity of our environment to support us.

All of this rings so true to me – connection with nature has been a major force in my life and it is how I regenerate and certainly re-create.  I’ve never understood the attraction of a swimming pool over wild ocean waves (though I’ll take the pina colada thanks).

My recent understanding of the exponential nature of technological growth also brings home our failure so far to harness that technology to use in bringing us back into balance and reconnection with our true nature. Technological advancement – now exponential – has so far been mostly used to increase our ability to exploit our environment. (Often with disastrous consequences such as Biomagnification, a process that sadly wasn’t recognised when DDT was invented.) So how do we turn this around so that technology is used mostly to regenerate our environment and so that in future the unintended consequences of exploitation are avoided?

I think these concepts need to underpin all discussions about sustainability.  As Suzuki points out, the human bottom lines are: clean air, clean water, clean soil and clean energy and these are ecological processes, not economic.  He also points out that science, in its reductionist thinking (linear, looking at parts of systems in isolation, failure to recognise that sum of parts is often very different from what all parts together actually add up to) fails to examine whole systems and so complexities and dynamism are often overlooked, as are the interdependencies that mean a minor change to one part can have major effects on the whole system.

These concepts are wonderfully communicated in this talk from George Monbiot where the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has not only re-established a population, it’s also changed the course of the rivers (now I’m being reductionist – this one action of reintroducing a wolf population has had so many previously unidentified consequences, finally altering the entire environment… – watch the talk!).  It demonstrates beautifully the interconnections of everything – and in just 4 and a half minutes.  For a more indepth discussion, check his TED talk.

If we start thinking about interdependency and connectivity in terms of biodiversity and species loss – who knows what risks we run or what opportunities we face. We know so little, yet amazingly we do now know how to rewild – re-establish wolves for example, and there’s a movement in Britain dedicated to regaining biodiversity – check this article from The GuardianRewilding Britain plans to restore many of the islands’ long lost species in a bid to reconnect people to their natural environment and regenerate the ecosystems that support our lives.  And it’s not simply repopulation of threatened species, Rewilding Europe is working on bringing back the Auroch, a creature extinct since the 17th Century from ancient DNA.  So this work can be done.  The key is our own preparedness to rediscover our place as part of the ecosystem, connected to everything within it, to study our home – ecology – rather than continuing to assert exploitative dominion over it.



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Connection and wheel reinventing

A recent podcast explained that offline or online will become redundant in our language because we will soon be always online, connected through tiny devices… ok this isn’t news, most of us understand we are heading towards singularity – the place where humanity and technology meet, and that technological connection will continue to evolve as we move in that direction.

Listening to this, it occurred to me that we are developing a human-made system that is already present in nature. Aren’t we?   If we accept that we, and everything on the planet, is all connected – is it just about our ability to use, leverage or become conscious of connection? Why are we reinventing the wheel of connection?  Why don’t we learn how to connect properly then we won’t need to fill our selves with inferior man made connections?  It’s like how we used fossil fuels for energy instead of harnessing that which is freely available from the sun, wind and water movement.  Causing degradation, pain and separation as we re-learn the natural way…

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Exponential change

How can it be that a 4% growth rate means a doubling in 20 years?  How can it be that if 1% of a market starts adopting something, that 100% will adopt it within half the time that the first one percent got there?    Wikipedia is a great first stop for understanding – and here’s the formula for Exponential Function.

exponential function

So, as x increases, b is increasing to the power of x.

hockey stick graph

This translates as slow takeoff until a tipping point is reached, then major acceleration. We understand this slow takeoff to tipping point from a marketing and branding perspective (and whipping cream – you whip for ages and ages and then suddenly, it thickens and can go too far in a nanosecond), but I’m now realising it applies to many things and doesn’t sit well with our largely linear thinking brains (what happened yesterday informs what happens today). I note that worryingly, the graph looks a bit like the hockey stick graph that has caused so much controversy in the climate change discussion.

climate change hockdy stick

Exponential growth in anything will always reach a tipping point that causes a graph to swing wildly upward.  We have exponential growth in terms of our population, technological development, our resource consumption and even in changes to our paradigms or world views (Hawkins (1983)).  Our consumption doubles every few years as indicated in the picture below from http://saravanan.org/exponential-threats/.

Saravanan's image.png

Saravanan is an engineer from India whose blog has a great overview of the threats to human survival on the planet.

Science fiction is heading towards science fact as the digital age progresses and exponential growth in computing technology (Moore’s law) continues apace.  Futurists such as Ray Kurzweil believe we are headed for a singularity – the place where human and artificial intelligence meet.  Ray postulates that our minds (software) will become downloadable and our bodies (hardware) upgradable.  In his book The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil argues that artificial intelligence will augment human intelligence as the next stage of natural evolution. He predicts a merging of human and machine that will allow humans to transcend biological limitations to the point where the singular (augmented) human will be immortal by the end of this century.

Hilbert and Lopez discuss the exponential nature of the world’s technological capacity. This from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity (retrieved Jan 2, 2016) referencing this February 2011 article from Martin Hilbert and Priscila Lopez.

“Between 1986 and 2007, machines’ application-specific capacity to compute information per capita has roughly doubled every 14 months; the per capita capacity of the world’s general-purpose computers has doubled every 18 months; the global telecommunication capacity per capita doubled every 34 months; and the world’s storage capacity per capita doubled every 40 months.”

Futurist Gerd Leonhard says we’re at the pivot point, or the tipping point of exponential technological change and that this will cause humanity to change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300. This analysis is rooted in the exponential formula outlined above.  Gerd says that despite our knowledge of exponentiality, we still vastly underestimate the sheer velocity of change. We are facing exponential change in so many areas, that he’s coined a term – combinatorial – to describe multiple areas of digital change. Gerd’s slides available here

The ramifications for every area of our lives are massive, almost unfathomable.  Our responses now are what’s important – let’s not do an EMI records or other big names from that industry (forgotten what they were!)- and try to stop the tide.  You’ll die, as they have. Now after a period of time in the doldrums the music industry has found a new business model, but the profits aren’t going to the old record companies, it’s Apple, Google, Youtube, Spotify and Pandora that are making the cash. These tech companies have entirely disrupted this and other industries.  Google thinks of the new reality as an ‘ecosystem of intelligence: software, devices, the cloud, objects, things…and people’. (Gerd) . That looks like some serious change and serious disruption.  My sense is that every industry or organisation needs to start thinking about where exponential change might take it.  And one thing’s for sure…

In times of change, the greatest danger is to act with yesterday’s logic – Peter Drucker


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So, what is disruption

Disruption’s become a bit of a buzz word sadly – but as a result of exponential change and several tipping points being reached at once, we’re now facing disruption – stuff that fundamentally changes how/why we act in most areas of our lives – hence the buzzing of the word so to speak.  When I started my masters, disruption was one of the themes I identified as central to my career so far. In music, disruption happens constantly – some call it a mistake, others call it jamming or improvisation – whatever you call it, its results are either disaster or brilliant innovation.

This following definition of disruptive technology is from whatis.techtarget.com.


“A disruptive technology is one that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry.

Here are a few examples of disruptive technologies:

    • The personal computer (PC) displaced the typewriter and forever changed the way we work and communicate.
    • The Windows operating system’s combination of affordability and a user-friendly interface was instrumental in the rapid development of the personal computing industry in the 1990s. Personal computing disrupted the television industry, as well as a great number of other activities.
    • Email transformed the way we communicating, largely displacing letter-writing and disrupting the postal and greeting card industries.
    • Cell phones made it possible for people to call us anywhere and disrupted the telecom industry.
    • The laptop computer and mobile computing made a mobile workforce possible and made it possible for people to connect to corporate networks and collaborate from anywhere. In many organizations, laptops replaced desktops.
    • Smartphones largely replaced cell phones and PDAs and, because of the available apps, also disrupted: pocket cameras, MP3 players, calculators and GPS devices, among many other possibilities. For some mobile users, smartphones often replace laptops. Others prefer a tablet.
    • Cloud computing has been a hugely disruptive technology in the business world, displacing many resources that would conventionally have been located in-house or provided as a traditionally hosted service.
    • Social networking has had a major impact on the way we communicate and – especially for personal use – disrupting telephone, email, instant messaging and event planning”

Tech disruption is nothing new… you could head back to the 1400s and consider the invention of the printing press as disruptive technology – suddenly everyone had to become literate to stay current in the world – everyone worried about youth head down in their books rather than working in the fields. Or how about the industrial revolution?  Or even Henry Ford’s model T?  Disruption that has changed everything isn’t new, it’s just happening now faster than ever before and on more fronts.

It’s the power of disruption that interests me – just incredible how fast we can and will change and adapt when we have good reason to, or when we understand the benefits of doing so. That’s exciting when it comes to sustainability (I use the Natural Step conditions of a sustainable society  as a definition, to be clear). We can and will adapt to ways of doing things that support our ability to live as part of this environment, and will surely even regenerate our surroundings to better support ourselves as soon as we understand the benefits of doing so and find it easier, sexier and more convenient to do so. Maybe sustainability is really a design issue…?

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