Queenstown traffic woes- lessons from Oslo

Published at Pure Advantage on March 8 2019

Many in Queenstown envisage a relatively car free town centre – see the Town Centre Master Plan – to allow maximum room for, and better quality experience of interaction, business and recreation. Congestion, lack of parking and general difficulties in getting from A to B are well known in the town and have been a focus of local discussion for many years now. It’s a hot discussion point in regional and national media as traffic on the main roads has increased by 45% over the past 3 years reducing once clear, serviceable roads to a slow, grinding crawl, and funding woes for solutions continue to delay progress agreed and planned by the local and regional councils. 

Queenstown doesn’t look like much of a city yet, it’s better known as a tourism resort.  But, if you add permanent residents (about 20,000 in the urban areas) and the daily average visitor total (about 50,000) it is well into both city numbers and characteristics as defined by Statistics NZ.

‘A city is defined in the Local Government Act 1974 as an area that must have a population of at least 50,000 people, have a mostly urban character, be a distinct entity, and be a major centre of activity within the region.’

From a practical viewpoint, the area has a serious traffic issue with all of its major access roads either over, at, or close to capacity. It has a fledgling public transport system – so far only bus, but also some water based potential.  It has highly regarded recreational bike trails, but these fail to connect as commuter trails.  So, young people and old who are no longer driving, are often stranded in suburbs, which, because of a housing crisis, can be far from places of work, study and play.  This makes almost everyone heavily reliant on private cars for transport, whether or not they can drive.

Queenstown has a plan to improve.   

The Queenstown Integrated Transport Strategy proposes several moves at a cost of around $500m. Who pays for this remains moot – the town expects the New Zealand Transport Agency to fund 80% of the plan, but so far, the agency hasn’t come to the party.

It’s an ambitious plan. Despite population and visitor number growth averaging probably 2.9% per year, this programme needs to deliver 7% fewer vehicles per hour down the busy SH6A known as Frankton Road by 2025. A road that has all but reached its theoretical capacity and vehicle numbers continue to grow – strategy or not.

The recommended programme is expected to improve the transport system through improved transport choice and level of service for all modes. Key outcomes by 2045 include:

• 30% Alternative mode share (up from 15%)
• 329 public transport passengers per hour (Frankton to Queenstown)
• 223 Fewer vehicles (7%) per hour (Frankton to Queenstown)
• 16 minute reduction in travel time (Frankton to Queenstown)
• 3 minute travel time variability during the morning peak hour.

It’s generally accepted that the strategy cannot be achieved without some serious mode shift.

To achieve mode shift we need to create other possible ways of moving about and to nudge people away from private cars with moves such as making it harder to use the car than take a bus or bike.  This is a big system and lots of actions are needed at a variety of intervention points.  One of those intervention points is the creation of pedestrian-dominated town centres.  This begins by firstly nudging people away from parking in town by making parking far more expensive than public transport or cycling.  This is a starting point for Queenstown that needs to be followed by gradually removing almost all private vehicle parking off the inner town streets.   Removing parking has several other benefits to other strategies as well – Town Centre revitalisation and liveability and climate change mitigation are examples.

Let’s consider Oslo’s experience:

A progressive political alliance elected in October 2015 promised a greener more liveable environment in the city – it faced massive growth projections and was keen to reduce its carbon footprint. (sound familiar?).  39% of the city’s CO2 emissions came from private cars (61% from all transport).

The government first tried to ban cars from its centre, but the backlash was so strong it did “the next best thing: it banned parking…”

Inner city residents were not happy when they were told their parking would be removed and be replaced with bike lanes. Nor were the conservative politicians – it’s worth hitting the translate button on this story to feel the real anger and concern in this 2015 article.

The conservative right considered the move ‘a declaration of war’ against a planned highway.

The strategy bans private cars but caters for ‘soft’ road users – people on bikes, public transport, goods delivery, emergency services, transport for disabled.  It recognises the need to immediately use freed up space so this is turned into cycle ways where there was on-street parking, food courts and theatres where there were parking buildings.

Even electric private vehicles were banned. “The goal is that there should be no more space for cars, and an electric vehicle still takes up space,” – a quote from Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, a Green party politician and the city’s vice mayor for environment and transport in the Guardian story.

Oslo residents had not been known as great cyclists – mode share for bikes was just 8.3% and as the city got busier since 2001, the injury rate for people on bikes had drastically increased. Bike paths were not well connected and it basically wasn’t safe to ride unless you were very competent and even then risks were high.

A plan to change that was backed up by incentives to literally, get on your bike:

“For those put off by Oslo’s hills, the council released 5 million Norwegian krone ($NZ860,000) to help citizens purchase electric bikes. This year, they’re targeting families with another money pot for cargo bikes.”

Oslo has had to make this change.  Since the mid 2000s it’s grown faster than other European cities and it largely dodged the financial crisis.  It has little space, and congestion has been increasing at high rates – travel time has increased by 30% across the network since 2008.

So how is it going, how are they tracking towards their goals?

This Fast Company story says it’s been a huge success.

A few [parking] spots are left, converted into parking for disabled drivers or EV charging, and some streets are open for delivery trucks for a couple of hours in the morning. Emergency vehicles still have access.”

Oslo is not an Amsterdam or a Copenhagen, it’s not flat, its climate is at best, inclement. It was, previous to 2015, a city dominated by the private car and suffering the pollution and disconnection that that brings.  A critical step in their strategy was to upend the transport hierarchy, placing pedestrians at the top, then people on bikes and public transport, with private cars right at the bottom. This commitment was backed up with massive improvements to public transport and by making cycling safe and comfortable.

Business concern about drops in patronage have been unsubstantiated with the pedestrianised areas becoming the most popular parts of town.  The city is trying to make it easy for people to live without private cars and this is reflected in new developments – these have little or no car parking on-site. 

Hanne Marcussen, Oslo’s vice mayor of urban development is quoted in the Fast Company article…

“I am absolutely certain that in the future, the private car will take up much less space in the cities, I hope that other cities will be inspired by us to create their own car-free city center. I think this will become an increasingly important issue as we see more and more clearly that letting private cars take up so much of a very limited space within city centers is just not very efficient. At the same time, we are learning more about how pollution affects those of us who live in the cities, especially children. A couple of decades ago, it was perfectly normal to smoke cigarettes inside. Today, very few would do that. I think it’s the same with cars in the city center: One day we will look back and ask ourselves why we ever thought that was a good idea.”

But it’s not been easy, and the city has not been able to implement its entire plan; it was just too fast and there was too much opposition.  The car free zone is smaller than envisaged, the bike lanes not as good as hoped, and biking still isn’t as safe as it needs to be.  However, the forward momentum has traction and the doom predicted by the nay-sayers has failed to come to pass.

So, what can Queenstown learn? 

  1. That it’s possible and can be achieved in 4 short years given commitment
  2. That we need to truly invert the transport hierarchy
  3. That we won’t have full support, business community and residents will fight, but we need to hold firm in the knowledge that the alternatives, even if possible, will not fulfil the vision we have of connected, clean, engaging town centres.

And while we’re at it, let’s pop a wee bit of research in here.  A 2017 Norwegian peer-reviewed study showed that “access to private or reserved parking triples the likelihood of car ownership.”

So if we want to reduce cars, reducing parking is a great step.

In Queenstown, we also need to:

Get the Otago Regional Council fully engaged with our direction and, as the agency responsible for public transport, to provide a much, much quicker response to the demand. Unlike Oslo, Queenstown doesn’t have self determination over its transport – it has to work with ORC and NZTA which makes things slower and harder than they need to be.  Some would argue we need those checks and balances – I like checks and balances, but not hindrance of an agreed vision.

Recognise and empower the Queenstown Trails Trust (declaration:  I am the Queenstown Lakes District Council appointed trustee of this organisation) to secure the easements and the funding it needs to build the trails. Funding needs to come fromNew Zealand Transport Agency as the financier of our national transport (not just roads) network and MBIE as support for visitor impact.

More about Oslo and its suitability as a model:

The first thing I’d note is how similar in layout the centre of Oslo is to the centre of Queenstown.

This is Oslo




This is Queenstown




Figure 1 Queenstown Town Centre Pg 19 

We have many of the same drivers of change – rapid growth, congestion, deteriorating journey time, deteriorating environment and high levels of polluting, inefficient private car use. 

Queenstown is ready and poised to achieve its vision:

    • We have a new Government Policy Statement (GPS) around transport that is orientated to modeshift.  Its strategic priorities are Safety, Access, Environment and Value for Money. It envisages a transport system that increases mode shift from private vehicle to walking cycling and public transport.
    • We have a Town Centre strategy that lines up with the GPS in that it reflects mode shift.
    • We have a council committed to moving away from dependence on private cars.
  • We have a proven trails trust that wants to connect recreational trails with places people work/study and play to create a wonderful, joyful commuter network.

So can we please just get on with it?

The barriers as I see them:

    • A rudimentary bus system that isn’t locally controlled and is taking years to upgrade.
    • A national, contestable funding system that’s out of our direct control and takes us huge effort and cash to influence through lengthy and insufferable business case processes.
    • A remnant but noisy culture of car owners trying to protect historical rights to pollute and park.
    • A District Plan that still frets about where residents will put their cars.
    • A subdivision consenting system that still plans as if cars are the way of the future.
    • A transport hierarchy that fails to put pedestrians and cyclists at the top.
    • A failure to focus on how the young (under driving age) and the old (who may have lost either licences or confidence to drive) should be able to enjoy transport independence that is safe and designed for them to move independently.
  • A real commitment from our agencies to buy in with real money and real expertise

Oh, and btw, if we committed to smashing those barriers, we wouldn’t be alone. Lots of cities and towns are emulating Oslo as they work towards car free centres and futures. Here’s a story about 12 of them.

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Talking noise boundaries

Queenstown Airport Corporation (QAC) is discussing the extension of airport noise boundaries that will enable it to meet much, but not all, of its forecasted demand for flight capacity over the next 27 years.  QAC is asking for community feedback on its first step – extending noise boundaries to allow for more flights.

QAC’s plans have been presented on a special website and at several community meetings, of which I attended three. As I see it, QAC has forecast demand and then put together a plan to accommodate the majority of that demand. QAC is a corporation. To do this is its job.  We are the community and majority owner and our job is to provide feedback and offer clear direction on what we want, including the level of growth we feel we can support.

30 years of growth, bar a few years around the GFC (when growth continued, but slowed to under 2% a year) has been exhausting.  Globally, tourism is exploding and demand for the world’s least damaged places is insatiable.  Overbooked was my background read to understand as best I could the global issue and I’ve kept up with news reports of the unwanted consequences of over-tourism, specifically its cost on communities and environments around the world.

I am also concerned about the cost/benefit ratio of our tourism industry – low wage economy in a high cost district isn’t viable for the long term, indeed the cracks are already showing specifically in housing and employment issues. It’s high time we had the discussion about growth and tourism, but this should be led by the community not the airport.

In the meantime, the issue in front of us is noise boundaries and we need to make sense of the impacts that an extension might have on our lives.  I’ve started with thinking about what we might lose when living, playing and educating inside those new noise boundaries.

At home in lower Robertson St, our family lives within the new proposed outer noise limit boundary. Currently we are affected daily by flights from the 7am alarm of the first plane taking off through til the last landing late in the evening. The current noise levels at home don’t concern me, although when we are outside, or have windows open, we cannot converse over a plane taking off to the west which can be annoying.

The QAC proposal is for noise boundaries that would allow for 41,600 scheduled aircraft movements a year by 2045. We currently have nearly 16,000.  That is a very big difference and will mean a take-off or landing every nearly 4 minutes in a ‘busy hour’.

Life in our well insulated, double-glazed living area with its outdoor flow to a north facing back yard will be very different – untenable I think – under the proposed noise boundaries. The easy out-going Central Otago lifestyle currently enjoyed will be lost for those in this house by 2045 and also for the vast majority, if not all, of the 3800 plus other homes similarly affected. It is not possible to adequately mitigate noise effects through insulation and mechanical ventilation – that can only help while people are inside with doors and windows closed and that is not the lifestyle we now enjoy. Research tells us that exterior noise levels should be the primary consideration when thinking about noise boundaries.

“With regard to new development, noise insulation should be regarded as a measure of last resort. It is not a substitute for good land use compatibility planning in the first place. Exterior noise levels should generally be the primary consideration in evaluation of proposed land uses, especially residential development and other land uses where noise-sensitive outdoor activities are normal and important features.” Source: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/nr/rdonlyres/0a678bdd-2be6-43eb-840a-768557c4f469/0/appendixbnoise100504.pdf

I walk and/or bike past Remarkables Primary School every day, I live opposite the Frankton Kindergarten and pass other child care and education facilities in the area most days. Research shows that outdoor school activities will be not only untenable for those within the new 60dB boundaries, but also actively damaging to learning.

“Exposure to 50 dB(A) in the daytime (outside) is associated with relevant learning difficulties in schoolchildren.”                                                                                          Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2696954/

I am a great admirer and user of the Queenstown trail network and am a representative on the Queenstown Trails Trust. Today as I commute from Frankton to Queenstown on my bike I’ll pause or rewind my audible book 2 – 3 times in the 20 minute journey at certain times of day. In 2040s I most likely won’t be able to listen to it at all in a busy hour.  Nor will I be able to wander the trails talking to others.  Vast tracts of our trails will become generally unusable and highly unattractive for recreation and for commuting. Our emerging biking destination reputation is likely to be seriously harmed, if not lost. Frankton Beach where thousands play in spring, summer and autumn, is likely to be practically unusable as will all beaches both sides of the Frankton Arm.  Is this what we want?

“Aircraft noise is the most significant cause of adverse community reaction related to the operation and expansion of airports. This is expected to remain the case in most regions of the world for the foreseeable future. Limiting or reducing the number of people affected by significant aircraft noise is therefore one of ICAO’s main priorities and one of the Organization’s key environmental goals.”     Source: https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/Pages/noise.aspx 

Residential activity is identified in the Airport’s plan as an ASAN (Activity Sensitive to Aircraft Noise) The proposed noise boundaries would have negative impacts on the property rights of all 3800 houses because living in those boundaries is an activity sensitive to aircraft noise. How many people is that?  The airport wants to ensure that every one of those properties considers the airport’s needs if they want to renovate, or build a granny flat.  It will work to limit any community aspirations to densify living on prime land within the noise boundaries.  This means much of the sun-drenched Kelvin Peninsula and Frankton Flats will be off limits for higher density living despite their proximity to town, amenities and transport hubs.

To provide some balance to this perspective, we should consider some of the advantages of extending the noise boundaries.  Combined with technology that makes airplanes much more efficient, it will allow many more flights into Queenstown by the most efficient possible use of the airport’s limited space. If the noise boundaries are expanded, we will enjoy more choice of where and with whom we fly, we will likely get even cheaper flight air-services concentrate on this new regional hub, we will definitely have more visitors as barriers to reaching Queenstown are steadily reduced.  QAC notes  we may even have fewer people on our regional roads to Queenstown as more flight services become available.

In this blog, I have pointed out how the new boundaries will impact our community and how we live.  I have focused on those who will be in the new outer noise boundary. However, this is only part of the story, many many more people will be affected adversely.  In the far reaches of our basin people hear and experience rumbling from jet takeoff and landings that are tolerable now, but unlikely to be in the future.  A friend noticed annoying noise levels as she climbed Queenstown Hill recently.

I haven’t talked at all here on the wider impacts of the growth that would be enabled by the enlarged noise boundaries, but these too will be immense as we look to provide for more people and understand how to provide and pay for infrastructure such as transport, sewerage and waste systems for example.

As I go through this listening and consideration process, I am careful to listen to all viewpoints and to avoid any predetermination.  The guidelines for Local Government decision-making is here.  My thinking above is based on reviewing all the information in front of me, including that provided by the airport, research sent to me by community members, my own research, and conversations in the supermarket.

At this point, we are being asked our views about extending noise boundaries, the above represents my view on the consequences of such extension given current understanding. As always, I am open to questions, suggestions, challenges and information. You can contact me at alexa.forbes@qldc.govt.nz, https://www.facebook.com/councilloralexa/?ref=bookmarks or on 021 2964255

More reading

This article points out the issues faced in Auckland by increasing aircraft noise enabled by NextGen or performance based navigation (which has also made QAC more efficient) https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11867690

This research shows noise annoyance is associated with depression and anxiety http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0155357

More research about the negative impacts on children of chronic aircraft noise https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/chronic-aircraft-noise-exposure-stress-responses-mental-health-and-cognitive-performance-in-school-children/0C77FCC4B56A8DB4E5506A13BF8536F5

DOC research on the impact of aircraft noise on recreators and wildlife https://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/science-and-technical/sfc314entire.pdf

And if you’re super keen –  this book has several authors and heaps of case studies.


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Small words, poor context, email battle

UPDATE 1/11/17.  I had a call today correcting me on my accusation against the original reporter and it’s fair enough.  The original reporter had made corrections to the original story.  The ‘quote’ I was later upset somehow survived that process but I most likely could have had that removed if I had checked the corrections at that time. 

I’ve written this mainly to apologise to friends and colleagues in Aspen for embarrassment or confusion caused by reporters (x2) misrepresenting the report I wrote for Council following our sister-city visit in April 2016.  I’ve also written it as a reminder to myself and anyone else, to always correct poor reporting and ensure the on-line trail is corrected, even when it’s minor, otherwise the error keeps on keeping on.   Continue reading

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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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