We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Optimal City Population Size

With the astounding pace of urbanization throughout the developing world and decline in popularity of suburbia in the developed, it is time to search for a golden middle of population size within a given area.

Is there a rough scientific population sweet spot for a city within a certain area or is it all just personal preference? If there is one it would have to be an optimal point between economic-energy efficiency and psychological well being. Sure, a million people can theoretically be crammed into a few square blocks with each block having a hyper efficient residential skyscraper. But our intuition tells us that this ant colony-esque arrangement may run into major psychological roadblocks. If restlessness and boredom often characterizes an isolated hamlet and stress characterizes a super cramped and futuristic megapolis then a search for a compromise is essential. A rapidly urbanizing society that figures out optimal population to land area ratio is then most likely to attract and retain human capital going forward as well as solve multitudes of problems facing it more effectively.

For those thinking that a city size can't be planned, even with incentives, and that a city size is determined by relatively mysterious organic migrations of people, the fact is that in the next 40 years we wont have much of a choice but to plan from the start. With 2 billion people soon to be added to world's population and countries like China adding a million people to its cities every week, having at least a population ceiling for an area will be crucial. Recent rapid formations of unmanageable mega slums throughout the developing world shows that peripheral "organic city growth" needs to be legally limited. In addition, infrastructure built has to be protected from population related strains from the start. Even well off Western cities like Austin Texas have quickly seen their populations nearly double with formerly solid road infrastructure simply failing to mathematically accommodate. Infrastructural failure may be hard to spot but being stuck in traffic for 2 hours every day in Los Angeles or Moscow is a sign that it is already happening.

Chinese example of orchestrated urbanization to the developing world.

China has been having relative success with accommodating breakneck urbanization via 1) rapid city construction with multiple neighborhoods built simultaneously (the current "ghost city" real estate bubble concerns notwithstanding as even so called ghost cities will be filled eventually since there isn't such thing as having too much shelter for humans) 2) having some idea of the total final capacity, urban density, and transport loads when laying infrastructure 3) having long term multi-decade regional plans encompassing clusters of new cities and linking the clusters by high speed regional transport network.

The Chinese approach with all its pitfalls has been the best given the difficult circumstances. Beijing is currently also developing and testing concept 80,000+ strong satellite green cities (where everything is 15 minute walk away) that can be scaled up as necessary if successful. State orchestrated urbanization will be the name of the game throughout large swaths of the planet as these methods are emulated and improved upon. That is why urban theorists need to start formulating an idealized population cap for areas so we don't one day find ourselves in a future we're not exactly comfortable living in.

Lets start with psychological essentials.

Space colony studies have shown that a human needs at the very least 40 sq meters (430 sq feet) to him or herself to be in a stress neutral state (in addition to olfactory, visual, thermal, air quality factors). This absolute minimum for avoiding neurosis should automatically be increased to 50 sq meters (538 sq feet) as a criteria for city housing. This would compensate for the effects of overcrowding in public spaces and provide common sense leeway since absolute space habitat standards are obviously restraining on earth.

In addition, every time one human goes within 0.5 meters of another, the amygdala triggers a stress response in reaction to this encroachment on personal space. Thus, we see that a city environment needs to allow at least 50 sq meters within a private dwelling and numerical minimization of unwanted personal space violations when outside it.

Beyond this, come the recent scientifically proven benefits to having a city as populous as possible. Physicist Geoffrey West has shown that:

"In city after city, the indicators of urban 'metabolism,' like the number of gas stations or the total surface area of roads, showed that when a city doubles in size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85 percent. ... the average Manhattanite emits 14,127 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide annually than someone living in the New York suburbs."

In addition to universal mathematical proof that larger cities anywhere in the world are simply more efficient in resource management (something that many already knew for decades with more localized data), West shows that economic and innovation benefits accelerate in an identical manner due to increased human infrastructure of social networks:

"every measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits, increases by approximately 15 percent per capita"

It's not just better sustainability and greater numbers of patents. Negatives are also represented by these laws describing cities in their current modern form:

"After a city doubles in size, it also experiences a 15 percent per capita increase in violent crimes, traffic and AIDS cases"

So far no city has shown a certain maximum point in population after which rise in population shows increasingly diminishing and then negative returns. Neither has any megapolis shown population related rises in neurosis, anxiety, stress, crime, or NYC level of income inequality reaching a point where the city begins to collapse. The flight from American cities in the 60s and 70s into suburbia is not a historical demonstration of such a point. Post-flight population decreases in many cities and corresponding economic downturns prove West's laws. Obviously race related tensions or violence can cause a population to decline but population rise in itself did not cause the flight into suburbia. Many cities currently are far larger in population than they were in the 60s.

Largest, densest cities currently create the most wealth most efficiently and this points to a certain future. One where cities don't just dominate and are the hearts of national and regional economies but also dramatically increase their political power to be sorts of mini countries within countries.

How can then we talk of "ideal city population size"? Isn't the sky the limit? Why not say that the ideal size is 5 or 10 million so we can more effectively drain the countryside of people and create sustainable engines of economic growth. Perhaps the rise in neurosis/stress can be collectively dealt with and crime and traffic managed the way Singapore and London do it? London copied Singapore's experience of charging cars more money the closer they drive towards city center for instance. And with the highest per capita CCTV camera rate in the world it's not hard to envision cities like London eventually turning into an oriental style police state where dropping chip bags on the sidewalk nets you an automatic and severe penalty. Taken to greater extremes, anti-anxiety prescription drugs can of course help segments of population most susceptible to stress inducing effects of overcrowding.

This points to another reason to search for optimal city population size. Namely, to not have a population so large that it now suffers from attempted solutions that deal with ills of overcrowding. It may be possible to turn a 30 million person megapolis into a super clean, regimented, policed, artificial mall like environment but which now suffers from new issues. Issues such as those 15% economic benefits from city doubling now partially neutralized on constant quality of life expenditures to combat neurosis and issues of new psychological ailments of living in a cramped artificial environment. Anomie, lack of sense of community, and alienation do not really disappear if densely cramped megapolis is scrubbed clean and has a policeman on every corner. For all the declining homicide rate in NYC, the city is more socially fragmented than ever.

For the purposes of this topic, we're discussing an optimum population city that has a relatively sharp cut off boundary with the surrounding countryside. 

This means not a dense urban core transitioning to less dense layers that ultimately transition to endless sprawl. Having written about sheer energy inefficiency of suburbia before and how experimental satellite cities tend to be positioned within nature (so inhabitants can walk from the urban core and find themselves in a surrounding forest), it makes sense to view an ideal city population size as being within an area that excludes sprawling low density edges. That is not to say that a city should not have a core of some sort but just that if a core is 5,000 people per sq kilometer then the city remains at 1,000-2,000 people per sq km at the edges and does not drop to village level of 200 per sq km. The actual layout can vary greatly. It can have a main core or be decentralized from the start by having multiple cores on the city edges as well as in the middle to more evenly spread the population. The lay out would of course be determined by the city's planned purpose if it has one (creating a purpose during initial city planning stages can aid in control of total population as well as help in achieving larger societal goals such as reindustrialization through science cities).

Migrations into cities and growth in their size is driven primarily by economic reasons and not by land scarcity or overpopulation reasons (see figure 1). People always underestimate how much livable land is on the planet's surface. That is not to say that we need to re-invent the suburban sprawl so everybody gets a shot at a backyard (which is theoretically possible albeit with a planetary ecological collapse likely given current resource management). What's essential to keep in mind is that ant hive cities of 10+ million do not necessarily have to be a part of necessary future development for all the world's people. Developing societies with favorable human to land ratios like Brazil and Nigeria may do well with clusters of 250,000-500,000 planned green cities. China appears to understand this even as it accommodates growth of dozens of 1 million + cities a year. Whichever techniques Beijing pioneers (for preplanned green city development) will then be readily copied by countries a lot more pressed in need for them such as Pakistan, Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh.

Figure 1. Overpopulation is a myth

Problems in political governance as a population ceiling.

So far we still got more pros pushing towards larger city sizes. Larger population making a city a more efficient engine of economic wealth generation and development sounds like an argument most people will side with at the end of the day. It seems hard to argue against the inertia and emulation of urban centers like London and Paris on the basis of psychologically uncomfortable overcrowding. This leaves more intangible values of effective political management and feelings of political empowerment.

So far the best governed countries in the world appear to be less than 10 million people each and primarily clustered in Northern Europe. They also have the best standards of living in the world and make a strong case that populations of entire sovereign countries should be limited to 10-20 million people. Their largest cities of Helsinki, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Zurich all fall under a million people and consistently rank in the top of livability indexes for urban areas. Obviously when you got a population of Sweden crammed within an area on which NYC sits, the people will not exactly feel a connection to their government. What use is an urban core being an efficient generator of wealth if that wealth is poorly managed and just flows through or out of it? Local governments are the last bastions of peoples will in the Western world and a city of under a million still allows some expression of it. National governments have become too distant, inaccessible, and corporately controlled for most populations of the planet and will remain increasingly so until technology allows some form of direct democracy later in this century.  This leaves the city as a political unit that can still be sort of managed from below. Population size comes into play here as a limiting factor to how much simple people can accomplish and communicate to the authorities.

In 2006, for the first time more than 50% of world's population lived in urban areas and when we hit 80% in the decades to come, city government will become as important as national one for large swaths of the planet. Having both layers of authority distant, alienated, and unmanageable is not something we'll want considering multitudes of other issues that need management. The brunt of this problem solving will be split between supranational blocks and cities on the local level. With this in mind, The Pragmatist makes a suggestion of optimum national sizes to be 10-50 million, optimum city size of 1 million and below for most major cities in a country, and exception for largest national city at no more than 5 million. These offer good middle points for manageability and quality of life. Actual area in square kilometers is not yet determined as major struggles between car ownership and public transit continue in both Western and developing regions.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Resource Based Economy Requires Electric Grid Modernization First

Those wishing for serious political change should take a look at electricity technology infrastructure. Major investments into smart meters, public energy ownership + storage, HVDC transmission cables, modernized electric grids, and a digital network to manage it all.

Let's provide a bit of context for advocacy of something as seemingly dull sounding as digital electric smart meters.

Conceptualizing and verbalizing political alternatives to current socioeconomic stagnation is widely understood to be preferable to mere critiques. As important and vital as a critique is, it has little power without provision of an alternative to fill the vacuum. Critiques are now a booming mainstream industry with today's internet enabled resurgence of muckraking journalism. Provision of serious socioeconomic alternatives is in the early stages of becoming a major trend as well. Online video debates and video replies to recorded educational speeches are a modern example of 18-19th century political debates via pamphleteering.

Similarly, provision of an alternative is toothless without certain technological infrastructural components to make it viable and workable. Tangible investments into physical precursors that make any major political alternatives possible ought to be focused on more than ever. All of the above 3 approaches to social change (critique/alternative/technology) gain maximum power when conducted in parallel with certain emphasis on actual technology induced physical change on the ground. For example, a political faction ought to focus on energy production and distribution regardless of whether the group advocates more political decentralization, more centralization, or a novel hybrid of both for different areas of societal management. Precise vast storage of energy, transmission of it over large areas, and precise computer tracking of production and distribution of vast quantities of electricity is needed to make each different political concept work.

For the most part, specific policy proposals currently are not often tied to technological solutions but rather monetary incentives and disincentives (there is currently an elite driven trend towards soft paternalism). This carrot and stick approach to prod the herd into an even more technologically complex society in the 21st century is inefficient. Considering that economics is an engineering challenge, there is a better way. Government ownership of electric generation used to be more widespread in the United States and contributed to rapid regional development from 1930s to the present. Surviving remnants of it such as the Tennessee Valley Authority are the best examples of a wide scale public system of beneficial power management.

It is immediately clear how ability to manufacture, transmit, and monitor electricity directly affects ability to provide a life artery to any policy proposal in raising human standards of living. The only discussion here concerning public ownership of a sophisticated electrical smart grid (acting as a sort of "skeleton" on which developmental and social projects can grow) is whether ownership is at the municipal, state, regional, national level, or a federated sharing combination. For instance, if a city owns a fission reactor and produces a megawatt of power, does it reserve 20% of it for use by its regional and national neighbors? Or conversely, does it receive a stipend of additional 20% of power from a regional outside authority? Does the city sub-network just continuously release surplus power into the larger grid or is it collected in local large scale energy storage facilities? [You may begin to notice here and in later articles that electric power achieves certain characteristics of money such as liquidity which can be taxed and redistributed as needed.] Various economic projects involving housing, employment, healthcare, and general infrastructure will require for municipalities to figure out their energy generating and energy sharing arrangements. For them to do so, they first need technological components to make futuristic power management possible.

This cannot be stressed enough. Vast majority of what The Pragmatist suggested over the last few years is not possible without the above. Electric smart grid (and overlapping digital data grid to monitor/control it) is the distilled essential for any future society. We can call it various colorful names to promote it (circulatory and nervous systems of a society for instance) but after much deliberation it is clearly the primary step to take. Even if a high tech liquid direct democracy is achieved, it will not be able to accomplish as much without public energy accounting that the grid allows. People's will and political will is shaped and checked by underlining physical technological realities. A lot of current political and social projects would not be possible in a society at a 19th century level of technological and electrical development. In this way, much like economics is an engineering challenge, so is politics and popular consciousness.

Resource based economy and resource accounting is not possible without very effective energy accounting first. Smart Meters and grids give rise to possibility of technocratic governance.

During the hay day of America's Technocracy movement in the 1930s, the main piece of literature (explaining the functioning, goals, and reasons for an empirically managed society) emphasized the need to measure the total amount of electrical generation on the North American continent in real time. This was to understand exactly how much power various extraction, production, and distribution industries use in order to drastically reduce inefficiencies in the national economy and to have the highest possible load factor at all times. This type of informational awareness was obviously not possible at the time especially considering the additional energy accounting complexities that Technocrats advocated (such as energy certificates to be issued to each individual).

Figure 1. Click to Enlarge
As of 2014, North America is covered by a handful of regional wide area synchronous grids (Fig. 1) that are themselves in the gradual process of merging into a continental Unified Smart Grid as mentioned in the previous article. The backbone of the Technocratic vision is thus forming. Potential susceptibility of smart grids to cyber attacks and infiltration necessitates public involvement for security reasons. As the most vital infrastructure component in the country, government authorities have a responsibility to ensure safe, constant, and reliable functioning of the grid as a whole. Military grade encryption will also be required here to ensure that this "Energy Internet" is free of outside disruptions. Subsequently, public control of the energy industry allows public leverage over all other heavy industry. "Security reasons" are a good way to market technocracy to groups in society which may not otherwise be as open to it.

The energy usage of machines that dig up, process, turn raw resources into finished product, and transport it to your locality can now be tracked accurately. The flattening of production and distribution chains that has occurred in recent decades under the guidance of such multinationals as Siemens and Wall-Mart already allows careful monitoring of the entire process. A two way directional energy grid further enables the measurement and control of energy usage of every piece of hardware within this chain. Efficient public industrial and infrastructural policy is now possible via these precise assessments of non-monetary costs. Currently, the cost of any project is measured in money where many blind spots, inefficiencies, and corruptions can be found (such as bloated overhead, middlemen, and undue distortions from non-physical financial sector.) Smart meter management software allows projects of the future to have a transparent real time digital record of the entire process on the physical level. This enables audit of records at any time and subsequent rapid corrective actions.

This ultimately will result in ever increasing representation of technical experts in governmental bodies at all levels. Fusion of technical cadres with governmental cadres is the smoothest way to gradually and peacefully replace the latter. Government cadres increasingly filled with greater and greater proportion of electrical and software engineers is by definition a growing technocracy. This may not exactly be 1/3 of the national legislature staffed with technical experts and scientists like in France but the necessity of greater physical efficiency in government puts us on the road towards legislatures staffed like that.

HVDC cables allow regions, provinces, and counties to act like metropolitan areas

With rapid projected urbanization for most people throughout the world, it may look like very large cities will inevitably become dominant political actors that leave scattered towns, small cities, hamlets, and villages between them increasingly economically and socially isolated. This doesn't need to be the case as hundreds of towns and/or entire counties can band together via efficient high powered long distance transmission HVDC cables and function as singular large cities. Much like diverse energy sources of various strengths can join together into a virtual power plant, local governments can collectively function as one unit without actually politically merging. For example, rather than the economy of New York State being dominated by New York City, counties in upstate New York may use the smart grid technology to work together to manage their energy, resource, and development needs. Hundreds of small spread out populations and political units can thus create a decentralized entity with population, economic size, and political bargaining power similar to a nearby metropolis. Additionally, being able to see precise electrical data for any sized political unit allows municipal role modeling behavior, emulation of successful technical projects, mutual learning, and rapid adaptation of what works. There is no need for small city mayors to wait for urban sprawl from nearest two large urban centers to swallow the town so large infrastructure projects can begin. Distributed generation of electrical power on a regional scale finally enables them to collaborate and pull resources together on projects larger than would otherwise be possible. A highly spread out region of 5 million people can create a similar concentrated economic focus as a densely packed and compact city of 5 million.

First resource based economy (RBE) experiments will likely be conducted in smaller cities. Their success will not only depend on their ability to generate their own power independent of the larger grid but their ability to trade surplus power to the larger grid as well as cooperate with fellow resource based economy settlements via HVDC smart grid network. As mentioned earlier in the article, regardless of whether one's policy requires more municipal autonomy/localism, municipal collaboration, or centralization, these emerging electrical platforms facilitate any proposal. However, our focus here is infrastructural ability of say, 10-30 small RBE cities to act in a synchronized political unison even if separated by hundreds or thousands of kilometers. Much like transnational corporations achieve certain critical mass with economies of scale, smart grids will allow spread out political experiment social units to reach economies of scale with collaborative energy use.

Regardless of where a person stands on the political spectrum, it appears that a political faction that makes best use of modernizing the electric grid first will begin to dominate in the market of ideas.

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