Archive for April, 2015

Seven things you need to know about sustainable smart technology

April 21st, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Seven things you need to know about sustainable smart technology” was written by Marcus Alexander Thompson, for theguardian.com on Friday 17th April 2015 11.41 UTC

1. What is a smart machine?

It’s a cognitive, contextually aware computing system capable of making decisions without human intervention. Smart machines use machine learning and data catchments to perform work traditionally conducted by humans. They are supposed to boost efficiency and productivity, and are being pegged as a major component in building a sustainable future.

2. The range of possibility for sustainability applications of smart machines is endless …

But, like all burgeoning technologies, the limits of sustainability within this future are not yet clear. Much will be based on which smart technologies society adopts. What we do know is the smart tech revolution is the first industrial movement that holds sustainability at the forefront of its development, and that’s a good thing.

3. We don’t need to kill the forest to save a tree

Replacing manual services with smart tech is expected to significantly reduce energy consumption. But the energy required to develop, build, run and service smart technology products must be considered. This video about two men cutting grass demonstrates the redundancy of overcapitalising on technology and the dangers of manufacturing a dependancy on regressive technology.

“While I believe, in general, that we’ll save energy by incorporating these machines into our lives, we have to be mindful that they themselves consume energy”, says Marshall Cox, founder and CEO of Radiator Labs.

4. Will smart technology make us stupid?

The successful integration of smart technology will see the enhancement of creative thought. The workforce will need an increasing skill level as more and more mundane work is overtaken. There are concerns that through automation and algorithm technology, human development could be stunted and lulled into complacency. It’s important to be aware of this threat. That said, there were similar fears heading into the industrial revolution and we work harder now than ever.

Philip van Allen, interaction designer, educator and creative technologist says: “There’s a lot of potential here, smart doesn’t always mean super intelligent. If our systems can understand our context, and have access to a lot of relevant information, they can present us with interesting options.”

5. They took our jobs! What are the implications of smart machines in work?

Reducing the human workforce to subservient drones isn’t in anyone’s interest, but it’s unlikely that progress will spiral out of human control. The aspirational focus is for smart machines to enable us to be more productive and flexible. By using them we can make more efficient, sustainable use of our resources.

“From a workforce point of view, smarter machines make us more productive and this allows us to focus on value-added activities”, says Maria Hernandez from Cisco Systems.

6. Technology makes errors, but so do humans

Performance failure is raised as a frequent concern whenever smart tech is involved, especially when we are looking at self-driving vehicles and other sectors where human life could be directly affected by smart machines. There is an argument that the systems should be intelligent enough to work out areas of poor performance and correct themselves. But nothing is fail-proof and it would be naive to think smart tech will be. There will be bugs in the beginning, but hopefully the collateral eggs in this omelette are minimal.

In the best-case scenario, we’ll combine smart technology with the agility of human decision-making to make sustainable and safe decisions. For example, says Chris Bilton, director of research and technology at BT, “The machine provides you with real-time information and you have the choice as to what action to take. This makes you think actively about your behaviours”.

7. It’s coming. Evolve or move aside

Hate it or love it, be prepared for smart technology to become a much bigger part of your life. It offers unbounded potential to improve our lives and enhance sustainability from all angles – home, health, manufacturing, work, transport, energy and leisure. But we also need to address issues such as IT security, skills and labour market problems. At the forefront we need to ensure that smart machines are enabling devices and not controlling mechanisms.

“The intelligence needs to be implemented in a way that augments our creative thinking rather than replaces it, and we need to consider where those boundaries lie,” says Stephen Barker, head of energy and environmental care at Siemens.

In the end, human capital must always remain dominant. “One might say that our humanity is found in what lies between a 1 and a 0,” says Jeff Wilson, dean of Huston-Tillotson University and “professor dumpster”. “That ‘in between’ is not within a machine’s capability. To me that ‘in between’ space will be ours”.

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Tiny apartments: a small solution to a big sustainability issue

April 9th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tiny apartments: a small solution to a big sustainability issue” was written by Alison Moodie, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th April 2015 17.29 UTC

For decades now, the residents of Tokyo have been coming up with novel ways to save space – tiny apartments, skyscrapers stuffed with miniature living quarters and hotels where rooms contain little more than a pull-out shelf with a bed. Now, the rest of the world’s big cities may need to start doing something similar.

Growing populations, coupled with housing shortages, are changing the way urban planners, architects and builders are thinking about living spaces. And in the US, one solution lies in modular fabrication.

Modular structures use pre-manufactured units – homes, apartments or offices – that are built in a factory and transported, usually fully built, to the building site, where they are assembled using a crane. Proponents say these “mods” could offer big cities a sustainable path forward.

Building homes in a factory instead of on-site, the theory goes, can yield more standardization, offering potentially safer and more energy efficient – and environmentally friendly – construction. But the extent to which modular buildings offer long-term sustainability solutions to environmental and social housing issues remains unknown.

New developments such as the My Micro NY and Atlantic Yards projects in New York City are the first examples of modular communities: small apartment units made in factories that, once completed, are stacked readymade at the building site, much like Lego pieces.

“[Modular buildings] will be an important innovation that spreads to many urban markets with high real estate values,” said Elisabeth Hamin, department head for landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

When My Micro NY was announced, the mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, highlighted the environmental benefits of the new building. “Modular construction is faster, less expensive, allows for high levels of quality control and significantly reduces waste and truck traffic,” he said. “It’s also safer for workers as construction is done inside in controlled environments.”

Modular construction isn’t a new concept. A version of it has been used in the US as far back as the 1800s; a century later, American families could order a house from a catalogue and assemble it themselves, Ikea-style. But what is new is putting completed units together to form towering high-rises in big cities.

According to the Modular Building Institute (MBI), a nonprofit trade organization, the modular construction of lodgings – including condominiums, apartments, hotels and housing for workers – grew by 31% between 2012 and 2013.

“Demand for multifamily is very high currently,” said Liz Burnett, communications manager at MBI. “Young people are moving out of their parents’ houses, and older adults are seeking smaller homes with less upkeep.”

Millennials are looking for smaller, more affordable and more sustainable living spaces, Hamin said. But in expensive cities like New York, few affordable options exist for those who live alone. And with the city’s increasing housing shortage, condensing more units on one site makes good business sense.

“[Modular construction] is a realistic option for both creating more units in the always-in-demand real-estate market of Manhattan, but also as less costly approaches to affordable housing in the outer boroughs,” said Jorge Mastropietro, a partner at Jorge Mastropietro Atelier in New York.

“Because of the nature of cities like London, Mexico City and Tokyo, for example, people are willing to live in smaller spaces so long as they are maximized for efficiency and have other desirable amenities.”

The My Micro NY Project is the city’s first micro-unit apartment building, consisting of 55 units measuring between 270 and 350 square feet. Currently, each prefabricated apartment is being constructed offsite at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by a company called Capsys Corp, and will be assembled in early June in the Kip’s Bay neighborhood.

Tom O’Hara, a director at Capsys, said he has seen an increased interest in modular construction in the last four to five years.

“We have been contacted to review and explore dozens of projects from many of the city’s most prolific developers,” he said.

The structures are built off-site in a carefully controlled setting, which can result in less construction waste and air pollution, as well as quicker – and less expensive – construction.

Prefabricators like Capsys are capable of producing one module per day, or 35,000-square-feet per month, from their assembly lines, according to Petr Vancura of structural engineering firm Gilsanz Murray Steficek. A building that would otherwise take 24 months to complete through typical construction might take only 15-18 months to deliver using prefabricated modules.

Modular high-rises could also go some way to alleviating New York’s housing shortage, and could help current mayor Bill de Blasio towards his goal of building 200,000 affordable units over the next decade.

“I believe such units may relieve pressure at the lower end of the market and improve communities by allowing lower income households to have a presence in the inner cities again,” said Oliver Grimshaw, UK sales manager at Hanse Haus GmbH, one of the largest builders of pre-manufactured homes in Europe.

“As a result, it would reduce emissions from commuting, increase quality of life and enrich city life.”

However, New York’s ambitious Atlantic Yards project calls the efficiency of modular housing into question. The development, recently renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn, is envisioned as 16 modular apartment blocks. But work was stalled in August on the first building after a bitter disagreement over costs between the complex’s developer Forest City Ratner and its partner, Swedish company Skanska.

Forest City announced last month that it would resume construction on the 32-story tower called B2, but the project may take four years to complete, and not two years as originally planned. The next towers will likely be built via conventional construction, instead of modular, Forest City said in announcement made last spring. Forest City CEO and President MaryAnne Gilmartin said in a recent interview that modular is “an ongoing experiment” that “needs to be validated with a standing building”.

While modular buildings may make green sense during the construction phase, their long-term sustainability is less clear, especially in urban areas. The main issue is adaptability, said Renee Chow, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley.

“They are difficult to fix over time, they don’t hold changes in lifestyle well nor do they accommodate changes in uses,” she said.

In a city like New York, famous for its continual reinvention, modular buildings might not allow people to remain part of a community as their lifestyle changes.

“Think of all the cities we like that have endured yet still hold modern ways of living and uses,” she said. “Will the modules do the same?”

The technology and innovation hub is funded by BT. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “brought to you by”. Find out more here.

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