WorldWideFuture Weblog

the future of education, politics, science and art

Education Gone Wrong?

The students of Carleton University here in Ottawa, like most universities in Canada, run a fundraiser campaign for Cystic Fibrosis research, called Shinerama, during orientation week (Shinerama has been run annually since 1964, includes 35,000 students in 60 university and college campuses). This week, the Carleton University Student’s Association controversially voted to pull out of the fundraiser because they said the disease “has been recently revealed to only affect white people, and primarily men”. The rationale was that they decided their efforts should be more “inclusive” and be directed to a more “diverse population” (CBC report).

Of course, their information about the disease is untrue. They found their information “on the internet”.

This example of a lack of academic integrity highlights some problems with our education system which does not bode well for the world wide future. First, how can a group of university students, (arguably brighter ones probably heading for a future in politics, public administration or business leadership), base their decisions on erroneous information from the internet, without any further research or even contacting the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Association, StatsCan, or local medical establishments? Isn’t the declared reason for universities supposed to be to provide academic scholarship in training future citizens? Secondly, how far can “political correctness” go in affecting rationale decision making? (The lone student voting against the measure called it “political correctness gone horribly wrong”). Aren’t universities supposed to teach their students to critically consider information sources, to carry out research and debate ideas based on facts?

Maybe this is all making mountains out of molehills, but it is a story on the national stage, and I believe, just another example of an education system gone wrong. After all, this is a group of students making a deliberate decision that did not happen overnight. We may be seeing many examples of an education system wrongly rooted in the past: from business leaders or governments that seem to have never learned basic accounting (think Enron et al or the recent global economic calamity), to engineering mistakes that cause bridges to collapse from basic design flaws to very bad decisions concerning the environmental crises (think ethanol from food sources).

The question of the day is: how can we expect the right decisions to be made by politicos and business leaders when we can’t depend on tomorrow’s leaders having the right stuff to critically consider complex issues in an accelerated future? How do we know that decision makers will have the necessary scientific and technological literacy to make the right choices for the world wide future?

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November 28, 2008 Posted by | education, future | , , , , , | Leave a comment

A call to arms for change in education

We live in a scientific and technological world…one affected daily by innovations in manufacturing, transportation, medicine, communications…every facet of our lives. In order to survive and thrive in today and tomorrow’s economy one must be scientifically and technologically literate. Scientific and technological literacy is about understanding how technology affects our society and our lives, and is about learning the skills to utilize technology effectively. It is about being better-informed consumers and producers; it is about finding one’s role in the infrastructure that makes our society run; it is about ensuring our economic future.

The consequences of a scientific and technological illiterate population are profound. Governments and corporations can “pull the wool over your eyes”, can obfuscate facts and get away with lies and misrepresentations. Look into any political campaign, and you will find loose facts and catering to the uninformed masses. The media can either be fooled, or can fool us, as to the workings of society, government and the planet. A looming environmental catastrophe can be glossed over a la whispering Jedi knight style: “There is nothing to be seen here, move on”. Statistics can be used and abused in endless ways; the daily news is full of so-called facts that the untrained eye or ear might not pick up. Look into the recent political campaigns in the US and Canada, once the ill managed banks and brokerages broke down everyone scrambled to play messiah…we will bring jobs! It is all about jobs! We will fix the [name your crises here]. Hard not to be cynical.

Without scientifically and technologically knowledgeable citizens, industry and businesses cannot find skilled employees. Without skilled and knowledgeable managers and administrators, companies lose direction or are misdirected. Money is wasted or lost, jobs are lost, and the economy suffers. Innovation goes elsewhere, and the best and the brightest goes where innovation lives. The right talent is not connected with the right career. Opportunities for the young in all destinations disappear; society lacks the means to maintain and grow.

Society has a role to play in preparing young people to be successful scientific and technologically literate citizens. (And yes, it is society, not just education that needs to play the role. If industry and business needs strong workers, then get involved and help teach, provide opportunities for experiential learning.

Through a strong and sustainable technological and scientific education, we can strengthen and build the human infrastructure of our society, and ensure a strong economic future. The old Industrial Age model of education, the well-oiled cookie-cutter stamping machine called public education has to finally go and be replaced by a future-thinking, adaptable, multi-pathway and experiential approach where learning the tools of inquiring science and technology is not optional.


Great grandmother and grandfather

My great grandfather, school headmaster Robert McAlister of Balleyclaire, Northern Ireland. Would he understand the needs of today's student?

We must take the necessary steps to ensure that all students have the opportunity to participate in a robust, consistent and sustainable technological and scientific education. A bright future for tomorrow’s leaders will be the result of concerted effort to provide a 21st century education that teaches today’s student to be adaptable, to be discerning, to be inquisitive. (Just ask the tigers and dragons of the east what that entails).

At least in America they have a “change they can believe in”, (we here in Canada have another 2-4 years of the same old story). Hopefully soon we will have a President Obama making the Dramatic Difference. Will it happen? Will the west return to historic engineering and heroic science? Will we go to the moon or remain stuck in the sands of the desert?

November 14, 2008 Posted by | education, future | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 21st century can begin now

The Americans finally got it right. It seems that for a long time now we have lived in a world of deception and greed and suspicion and dirty tricks. The Bush years should be known as the Fortress America years. It felt like intelligence crawled under a rock and the sun was going to be forever hidden by cloud. But did you hear that? It was the collective giddy excitement felt around the world: the Americans got it right and elected someone we all felt they never would, an African-American clearly not of the ol’ boys club and a man of vision and hope for the future.

Remember the questions: “where were you when Kennedy was shot?” or “where were you when the planes hit the towers?” We will be saying “where were you when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States?” I have to beg forgiveness if it all sounds over-dramatic. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but in talking to people one comes away with the feeling that the world has suddenly shifted. Only this time it suddenly radiated hope that the future is going to be brighter.

I envy the Americans and their history. Born in revolution against the rule of empire and a history lived through a spirit of individualism and freedom, their story is something to marvel at. But their recent history…the cynicism and pessimism of Nixon’s Watergate and Vietnam, of Clinton’s executive privilege and especially Bush’s unjust and unjustified war in Iraq had dimmed Liberty’s torch. It seemed to signal the end was at hand for the American century, and it was only a matter of time before a new world order, a dark one at that, would be taking over.

Obama ran a positive campaign of hope and promise, not once stooping to the negative sarcasm that characterized the Republican’s messages. Some people never learn. Whether Obama can live up to the image and the promise remains to be seen of course. But the tears in the eyes and the cheers worldwide and the joyful look of the people of Chicago that night in November said it all… at least for now we can all imagine the heavy weight has been lifted and the world-wide future awaits in anticipation. Perhaps we can now see the promise of the 21st century.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

– Barack Obama November 4, 2008

Bravo Barack!

November 7, 2008 Posted by | politics | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Electrifying the Road

It’s not that I am a firm believer or a devout champion of the cause..I still need to be convinced…but I find the history and the growing future of electric vehicles fascinating. I posted previously about the Canadian built Zenn and electric car proponent Shia Agassi, but there is interesting developments right here in my own backyard (Ottawa Ontario). I have worked with the folks of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa (EVCO) for the past couple of years with our National Capital Electrathon electric car race. (Pictures soon at photowagon.ca). This is an annual event (except for last year) where high school students design and build an electrically powered non-recharged car in a race for the number of laps in a given time period (one hour). (You run a single 12V car battery until it dies…it is a design exercise of engineering efficiency).

Collage from EVCO

Collage from EVCO

Anyway, the EVCO folks were featured on a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp) news item. The EVCO guys and gals take beat up cars, strip out the gasoline engines and replace it with an electric motor. A true hacking experience, you have to admire these back garage pioneering entrepreneurs. Perhaps these Mad Max creations won’t go very far on a charge, and won’t be featured on a NASCAR track any day soon, but you gotta admire the perseverance and the ideology. Their creations might not be the direct answer to the problem of transportation in the world wide future, but then again, one never knows where the next Henry Ford will come from.

Check out the EVCO folks at evco.ca/, and see about the CBC coverage at evco.ca/site/CBC-24jun2008

October 26, 2008 Posted by | education, Environment, future, transportation | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Puffins poop, lipstick smears and we all lose, again

I started this blog because I was concerned about “future crashing into the present” as described by Alvin Toffler in Future Shock. I hoped that my blog would be a means to keep myself actively informed and perhaps help me bring insight into a bit of the future for myself and my fellow netizens. Well, now it is election season in North America, a.k.a. the theatre of the absurd. The Americans, of course, have been at it for what seems like eternity. We here in Canada are just beginning our spectacle (well, it seems we have been at it forever too, with an ineffective minority government). The election ritual makes me ponder the impact and implications of democracy on the world wide future. First, can we hope that we will have a leadership that is informed enough about true scientific and economic factors to govern a complex society; and secondly (and more universally), does democracy in its present form work in a global economic situation? Can we hope that politicos will forego the usual self-preservation pandering to portray the future as it really needs to be?

Lessons can be learned from the current political theatre both in Canada and the US, where in the case of Canada, puffins poop and in the US lipstick hides the old guy. This is blatant pandering to the masses if there ever was one.

We live in times where we, the people must make hard decisions to secure a viable future for the next generation and beyond. The cracking of ice sheets are sounds that should be heard around the world as the dire warning they are. But is the environment even creating a single bubble in the water cooler? At least in Canada it is an issue, though clouded. In the US, the supposedly “leader of the free world”, you can hear the tumbleweeds blow by the whole issue.

In Canada, our Liberal party, currently in opposition, has come up with a plan to tax the wasteful and encourage future thinking (called the Green Shift). On first read, it looked like yet another tax grab that will never disappear (wasn’t income tax a temporary measure to pay for WWI?) But at second read it makes sense for the future if enacted as described (increase taxes on wasteful high energy consumption, decrease income taxes and tax relief for sustainable energy use). However, the Conservatives, now dressed in cozy blue sweaters, heap scorn on the plan by portraying puffins pooping on the Liberal leader Stephan Dion. The Conservatives, who used to have the word “Progressive” in front of their party name and have rightly stripped it off, have not addressed a single issue regarding the environment. They even lead a futile attempt to keep the Green party from the upcoming televised debates. Boy, we aren’t moving ahead very far, aren’t we?

Elizabeth May, head of Canada's Green Party

Elizabeth May, head of Canada's Green Party. Can the green message ever be effective in today's political theatre of the absurd? (Photo by Michael Scott, taken at Orleans town hall meeting March 22 2007)

Meanwhile, back in the US, the party of George Bush has resorted to the blatant attempt to hide any real issues by hiring an unknown woman (Sarah Palin) to run as the VP (a gun toting, bible thumping one at that!) McCain had to go all the way to Alaska to find anyone who will detract from the disastrous last eight years of their ruling mandate. I haven’t heard the word “environment” even mentioned once by the media since who knows when…the story of the day is about lipstick on pigs.

The quandary for democracy is that the hard issues…paying more for services, scaling back to cover debt or increased costs, making sacrifices for protecting the environment, making long term plans for a more sustainable future, are in direct conflict with saying the right things to get elected. The result is bowing to the lowest common denominator, while lies, deceit, clouding the issues, pandering to special interests, spending sprees (real or imaginary) and empty promises. We, the people, lose. We need to take a cold hard look at democracy and how it really works in a much more complicated, globally connected world. One just has to watch with a cynical eye any of the commercial ads by politicians to understand that we will not be served by the current crop of politicians.

There is a problem with our electoral system that precludes a true democratic process, and yet it is easy to fix. At present, if one was disenchanted and disillusioned with the political process one can either spoil their ballot or not vote at all. But either method is meaningless…the statistics just get melded into the apathetic or mistaken pile. What we need, for the furtherance of democracy and to send a clear message of distrust and disgust for the empty rhetoric of party politics is a line on every ballot: NONE OF THE ABOVE. Simply, if one is not in favour of political party pandering, deceits, false promises, empty rhetoric or hidden agendas, then one can send a message to the system to rethink and come back again with a realistic and responsible government. NONE OF THE ABOVE. We need a way to say: a successful sustainable future requires clear honest messages and serious planning that goes beyond the politics of the past. The future has crashed into the present, and has highlighted the need for a systematic retooling of our society’s infrastructure. We need to start fixing the way society is run by looking at the way people are hired to make the decisions if we want a bright world wide future.

September 15, 2008 Posted by | Environment, future, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Shai Agassi…meet Zenn

I read with great interest the cover article “Driven” by Daniel Roth in Wired Magazine (16.09 Sept. 08, page 118). The cover says: The Future of the Electric Car” and that seems just about right. In the worldwide future, design is more than just coming up with a product or service. Design must consider the entire scope, enterprise and life cycle of a designed solution. A designer of a product or service must consider the entire enterprise, or how it connects with the entire infrastructure of society. Consider how the world has changed since Edison invented the light bulb: even improving on the original design (for example: compact fluorescents) brings about a whole new set of problems (questions about the actual lifespan, the use of dangerous chemicals, disposal, environmental costs of manufacturing vs. incandescence, the list goes on. (My quote from teaching design: Design is what you do when you don’t know the answer…or the question).

The electric car is a case in point. Zero emissions are a noble goal, but how much will that car cost the consumer, or the environment? What chemicals will have to dealt with in manufacture; or in disposal? What do you do when your battery quits taking a charge? How much will a replacement cost? How much will it cost to build the infrastructure to support electric cars? I really would like to know the answers to these questions, especially from GM, who has been advertising its ephemeral Chevrolet Volt for some time already as if it already exists.

Shai Agassi, a young entrepreneur, has come up with an idea for building a sustainable (key word!) business (Better Place): an electric network that will support a new age of smart electric cars. Agassi’s idea is that you essentially lease the car and battery, and pay for its use through metered electricity. (Like the free cell phone paid for by usage or, going way back to that prime example of Chris Anderson’s Zero Economy, the King Gillette’s disposable shaving blade). The benefits are that you don’t have to buy an expensive car or more importantly, an expensive battery that will need replacing after so many charges. The car is provided to you, you pay for it by paying for the consumable portion: the electricity. The company develops the charging stations and the retailing infrastructure. If you need a fresh battery for a long trip, you just go to the charging station where they swap in a new battery in 10 minutes. You don’t need to worry about the cost of ownership and replacing worn out batteries. You pay for what you use, which is the way everything should be.

The idea is there, and Roth’s story outlines the process Agassi has been going through in finding a place to do trials, and a manufacturer to produce the vehicles and stations. A single car has yet to be produced. Brought to my mind our own (Canada) home grown electric car that is sold through out the world by the Toronto based Zenn Electric Company. Seems to me Agassi, you have a solution…Zenn already has the cars, and better yet the world wide license to develop electric vehicles using EEStor’s innovative high capacity battery system (three times the storage capacity of lithium ion). And, Transport Canada has finally allowed (just barely…they do need a kick in the ass) the use of these cars here in Canada.

Zero Emissions No Noise

The Zenn: Zero Emissions No Noise

Agassi…meet Zenn. Is this the solution we have been waiting for?

September 2, 2008 Posted by | Environment, future, transportation | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Of cardboard boats, flugtags and the competitive spirit

Watching the Beijing Olympics one can’t but be but drawn in by the spectacle, the drama and the enthusiasm of participants, observers and even nations. It seems the whole world stops to watch their fellow citizens perform in high-tension excitement.

Consider the amount of money and effort that went into hosting the Olympics. Consider the amount of money and effort and time that was invested in training the athletes. Consider the enormous amount of money and effort and personnel that went into broadcasting and reporting on each nation’s attempts at the coveted medals. Obviously, there is something to sports competitions; and perhaps to the spirit of competition itself.

St Peter High School entry in the annual National Capital Elecathon electric car race

St Peter High School entry in the annual National Capital Elecathon electric car race

Competition plays a big part in art and engineering as well, and has an important place in education too. Witness the soapbox derby races, the technical skills competitions, even fun events like the Red Bull Flugtag, each event creating opportunities to showcase and compete on one’s technical skills and abilities. Having played a part in several types of educational competitions, I can attest to the usefulness of the concept of competition to learning, and to the world wide future.

Fun at athe annual Skills Canada-Ontario Cardboard Sled Race in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Fun at the annual Skills Canada-Ontario Cardboard Sled Race in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

What skill competitions give to a person or an organization is the opportunity to yes, showcase their technical prowess, but more importantly, it gives one the impetus to work harder, work smarter and move skill sets forward. The competition event gives one a goal and a target to strive for, a mastery learning opportunity, and a benchmark in which to gauge one’s needs for improvement for excellence. There is a lesson somewhere when Olympic and world records are broken on a continuing basis. (Can we imagine where records no longer are broken? Are we already where Olympians are freaks of nature?)

Annual Orleans Soapbox Derby in Orleans, Ontario Canada

Annual Orleans Soapbox Derby in Orleans, Ontario Canada

I remember when I first entered the teaching biz (1992) there was a call for banning of school competitions (other than sports of course) because it supposedly hurt the egos and self esteem of those that don’t excel. Perhaps we witnessed this in the Beijing Olympics…for a while it looked like Canada was going to be medal-less, and we had to watch our athletes apologize profusely to the camera for not getting a medal (never mind they were Olympic caliber athletes and missing medals by 100s of a second!) Competitions need to be framed properly. Competitions need to be designed as fun activities with the understanding that it is a growth activity, not an end-of-the-road, make it or go home event. Students need to understand that it is activity to help them achieve a goal for themselves, and that it is all about learning to do one’s best.

Who would have guessed...a race of cardboard in water during the annual regional Skills Canada-Ontario Cardboard Boat Race in Nepean, Ontario

Who would have guessed...a race of cardboard in water during the annual regional Skills Canada-Ontario Cardboard Boat Race in Nepean, Ontario

Here in Ontario, we have Skills Canada events such as cardboard boat races (and in Ottawa we have the cardboard sled race) that are the best examples of the spirit of skill competitions. They are fun if not downright hilarious, and it has been amazing to see the level of ingenuity and engineering skill it has engendered each year. The annual regional, provincial, national and international skill competitions are perhaps more serious, but the skill levels demonstrated are unique goals that any student can strive for.

Cooks do their best at the annual Skills Canada-Ontario provincial skill competitions held in Waterloo Ontario

Cooks do their best at the annual Skills Canada-Ontario provincial skill competitions held in Waterloo Ontario

Soapbox derbies, electric car races and other similar events have their serious competitive side, but there is the fun element that allows anyone to be part of the excitement and more importantly, the learning. I think the Red Bull Flugtag is a prime example of the necessary spirit of competition…no one seriously enters to be a winner, just to be there and have fun. Can you imagine if we had three legged potato sack races, hot dog eating, and apple bobbing competitions at the summer Olympics? Yeah, bring it on!!

Doh! The Grat Beavertail Cookoff entry from Ottawa does it's flying thing at the Ottawa-Gaineau Red Bull Flugtag In Ottawa Ontario, August 3rd, 2008
Doh! The Great Beavertail Cookoff entry from Ottawa does it’s flying thing at the Ottawa, Ontario, Canada Red Bull Flugtag on August 3rd 2008

Note: All photographs © Michael A. Scott photowagon.ca 2008. All rights reserved.

August 30, 2008 Posted by | education | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dreaming along Michigan’s Woodward Avenue

I just returned from the 14th annual Woodward Dream Cruise 2008 in Detroit Michigan. This is the largest celebration of car culture in the world, with two weeks of events leading to the 16 mile Saturday cruise down Woodward Ave. from Detroit to Pontiac Michigan. Over 1.4 million people lined the street to watch an estimated 30,000 cars go by and to take part in a wide variety of car culture events. This year we brought our 1991 Nissan Figaro, a Japanese import, into the heart of the American Motor City. I was looking forward to doing the cruise for quite a while. While every city has its “Woodward Avenue” (for me, from Windsor Ontario, the Canadian Motor City, it was Tecumseh Road), this one is special since it occurs where American automobile history began and was made.

Car fans lining Woodward Ave. Detroit Michigan August 16 2008

Car fans lining Woodward Ave. Detroit to Pontiac Michigan August 16 2008

I guess I was taking a chance bringing a Japanese import into the heart of a struggling Mecca of American iron. Only one person called me a traitor (!), but many, so many more were genuinely interested in this highly unusual car among unusual cars (unusual at least for us here in the middle of North America). People everywhere wanted to know…what is that? It was a great pleasure answering questions and posing for pictures. The reactions from people when they suddenly noticed it was right hand drive made the trip from Ottawa worthwhile.

My Nissan Figaro on Woodward

My Nissan Figaro on Woodward

My ride is a 1991 Nissan Figaro, one of only 20,000 made for the domestic Japanese market, and only made that one year. It is powered by a 75 bhp, 998cc 4 cylinder turbocharged engine, and gets about 38mpg or about 4-5L/100km. It is a one-of-a-kind design by the Pike Factory, a special design team at Nissan in the late 1980s – early 1990s. It is a retro styled car, based on 1950-1960s Italian and British sports cars. It was announced at the 1989 Tokyo Auto Show as “Back to the Future”, and you had to win a lottery to by one; 250,000 applied. To me it represents a very unique and radical exercise in small footprint automotive design, and it is a hit wherever it appears. I have taken it to many local auto shows, as well as MicroCarNorth in Orillia, Ontario; Boston for Gould’s Annual MicroCar Classic; and now the Detroit Woodward Dream Cruise.

Cruisin' the Dream Cruise 2008

Cruisin' the Dream Cruise 2008

While I was always interested in cars, I got interested in small footprint micro and mini cars after seeing some of them at our Ministry of Transportation’s fuel economy test facility in Ottawa. The facility had examples of Smart Cars (including a four seater!), various diesel and ethanol cars, and more importantly, a Honda Beat and some Japanese micro-trucks. There is so much more going on in the Orient and Europe in regards to high mileage and economic vehicles. I think that small footprint cars represent the future, and there is something to be said for doing more with less when it comes to engineering and innovation.

One of 30,000 cars along Woodward

One of 30,000 cars along Woodward

What does the Dream Cruise represent to the world wide future? In order to understand the future, we all know one must study the past, and the present. It was fascinating to see 100 years of history represented by the cars burbling along Woodward, both lovingly restored or customized. It was also fascinating to see the interest the automobile has on us here in North America, and it was most interesting to see the workmanship and pride of ownership of engineered machines represented along Woodward. It might be big business and big engineering that produce the vehicles, but the automobile truly comes alive when an individual customizes, restores or resurrects the machine. The automobile, though a mass market machine, represents the individual and individual freedom when put in the hands of the automobile enthusiast. Despite the rational arguments from mass transportation supporters, the automobile will never lose its appeal, and with some real innovation and futurethink, has an important place in the future.

SpongeBob surfin' Woodward

SpongeBob surfin' Woodward

What will become of the automobile in the future? For one thing, I don’t think the love of machines and of history will ever leave us. I don’t think that the lessons in innovation and engineering represented by the automobile will ever disappear. There is a direct link from Henry Ford’s 1908 assembly line to every device we now use, and will use in the future. Perhaps some of the future engineers who will design the 21st century were sitting there along the curb of Woodward Avenue, holding on to their Hot Wheels or dolls, waving to the men and women in their machines, dreaming of the day they too will have the opportunity to drive their passion down that long stretch of road.

More Dream Cruise Info:

Official Site for Woodward Dream Cruise

Detroit Free Press coverage

AutoBlog pictures

Keegy Canada coverage

My images at the photowagon

Fotos by Design Images of the cruise (with my Figaro in the lineup)

August 21, 2008 Posted by | education, future, transportation | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Smaller is in!

I have just posted my images of the 2008 MicroCarNorth and Gould’s MicroCar events on my photographic website at photowagon.ca, under Automotive World. Both events are where micro and mini car enthusiasts gather to celebrate their passion for these tiny orphaned cars…MicroCarNorth is held in Coldwater, Ontario, Canada and Gould’s annual event is held in Newton, Massachusetts (outside of Boston).

The Nash Metropolitan...what is not to like?

The Nash Metropolitan...what is not to like?

I am quite enamored now by the engineering aspects of micro and mini cars, and of the people who lovingly restore and maintain these orphans of the automotive world. There is a lot to be said of the future of transportation demonstrated by these cars in the past.

Jeff Upton's Messerschmitt...a post war beauty

Jeff Upton's Messerschmitt...a post war beauty

The media is filled with stories now about the rapidly diminishing business for the auto giants such as GM, Ford, Chrysler, etc. as consumers realize that oil is becoming a precious commodity in a rapidly expanding global marketplace. It is not a new story of course; witness the 1930s depression, the early postwar years in Europe and even the 1970s oil crises. What does the worldwide future hold? More people, rising global middle class, growing need for more oil can spell only one thing: the future is smaller.


The 1958 Heinkel...beautiful example of the "bubble car"

The 1958 Heinkel...beautiful example of the "bubble car"

We here in North America of course have been pretty pampered by cheap gas. Most of us here can’t imagine what it has been like to live in Europe where gas has been much more expensive than we have been griping about. Many are oblivious to the changes in lifestyle that are about to slam us here. Already we have been experiencing the closing of plants and laying off of workers in the auto industry, as consumers begin to realize they need to abandon the 2-3 ton vehicles they are using to go to the convenience store. Of course, the auto industry has always experienced boom and bust cycling. I can attest to the cyclic nature of the auto industry as a previous autoworker myself (Chrysler Engine plant in Windsor Ontario, Canada’s Motor City across from Detroit). Back in the early 1970s I remember the farmers fields around the city filling with unsold cars. I never knew what became of those cars, (I heard they were shipped offshore) but what a symbol of excess and consumerism. The changing business model is as interesting…can’t sell big cars or trucks anymore, used prices dropping, profit margins skydiving. There must be a limit to growth, and eventually western consumers will be pitted against the growing middle class in Asia for limited resources. Perhaps this is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. With the successful introduction of the Smart Car in the US, the impending flood of Nanos in India, and finally an announcement that low speed electric vehicles will be allowed in Canada (albeit with too many restrictions), we may be seeing a resurgence of the small car. Perhaps we will also see a resurgence of interesting engineering demonstrated by yesteryear’s microcar.


The Vespa 400, an image of the future?

The Vespa 400, an image of the future?

The microcar is generally a vehicle built in the years from the 1930s to 1960s with three or four wheels, with small single to four cylinder engines (some from motorcycles), with the overriding effort being to make cheaply to allow more consumers with limited budgets to obtain basic transportation. They were made in response to the Depression or in post war Europe where resources were difficult to obtain and fuel and taxes were excessively expensive to most. Nowadays, these cars are popular with car fanatics who like the contrarian, or quirky nature of these machines. Perhaps cars like the BMW Isetta or the Messerschmitt KR200 or the Fiat 500 or Bond Bug will give us a view into the future.


My own 1991 Nissan Figaro...back to the future from Japan!

My own 1991 Nissan Figaro...back to the future from Japan!

The Bruce Weiner Museum has a great web presence listing many of these totally unique cars (the Peterson Museum in LA has a good description too). They are quite the sight on roads these days, especially now amongst the bland rolling boxes of today. It must have been quite a sight to see the streets filled with these things, as some folks have described to me. While they might not have the safety crash protection or the emissions standards we have legislated today, the lesson is that you don’t need much to get form A to B, really. Ralph Ranalli from the Boston Globe got it; he explains in his report of the Gould’s MicroCar Event in Newton Massachusetts that “mini and microcars might actually be relevant again in the once-SUV-crazed US”. He describes the Gould’s meet as “rare chance to glimpse both the past and the future in one place”.


A Fiat 500 taxi anyone?

A Fiat 500 taxi anyone?

The ingenuity shown by these vintage cars is outstanding. What do we see today but each car virtually indistinguishable from each other. We see bloated sheet metal and plastic overpowered engines. Imagine, someone thought a BMW or a Mercedes SUV was a good idea! Nothing uglier. You ride in today’s cars, not drive. I am not saying that the vintage microcars are better than today’s, but when you drive something different, everyone else is just a citizen.

An Isetta, Bantam and Figaro at Gould's MicroCar in Netwon Mass.

An Isetta, Bantam and Figaro at Gould's MicroCar in Newton Mass.

What are the lessons we need to teach our youth? We need to teach them about ingenuity and engineering design focused on practical application of ideas to solve problems, not cosmetic design. We need to teach them that their world will require innovative thinking and unique solutions. We need to teach them enjoyable ways to solve engineering challenges. The world wide future is smaller, in more ways than one. And that will be a good thing.

(For more info on microcars, check out the Vintage MicroCar Club, Gould’s Bubbledrome, and Ralph Hough’s MicroCarNorth.)

August 8, 2008 Posted by | education, Environment, future, transportation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Can China lift the Olympic sized smog?

I was blown away by the dark cityscape imagery in Bladerunner, the 1982 movie by Ridley Scott (and one of my favorite movies of all time). It’s one vision of the future world, notably the constant rain and fog and sea of humanity bumping into each other as floating advertisements blare out to the city below. The imagery was brought back home to me when I saw a picture in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper of a couple of people standing a few meters away from the Birds Nest and the Water Cube. The problem was, you could barely see the two normally stunning buildings through the smog. (See a similar picture at Australia’s ABC or at the BBC, also see most recent article on BBC).

Cajoling merchants on my trip to China 2003

Cajoling merchants on my trip to China 2003

Now, smog and air pollution is not just a Beijing phenomenon of course, I remember coming home to my hometown of Windsor Ontario one year and noting the unique electric purple haze at sunset over the cities of Detroit/Windsor. Many city dwellers can relate I am sure. Of course, with the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, a city notorious for its traffic jams of over a million cars a day, we will be deluged with endless reports on air quaility. (I think we will also be amazed at the herculean efforts to curb air pollution the Chinese will be demonstrating). The important lesson for us is: what will the world wide future bring if we can’t breathe the air (or have potable water for that matter), in our spreading urban centers? And, why does the media rarely comment on the real reason for our burgeoning problems of pollution and climate change: an ever increasing and rising population of humans stressing the ecosystem beyond sustainability? How can we adapt to the rising population/shrinking biodiversity systems?

I know the issue is being brought up that “why should the rest of the world have to reduce their footprint when the West has brazenly used up theirs?” Interesting problem. How can we in the West call for others to forgo the trappings of wealth when we have done little to reduce our own? How can we also teach our students to forgo the collecting of material possessions when the previous generation thought little or none about that concept? What do we teach students beyond the usual ‘recycle garbage and turn out the lights’ gig? Can we turn things around and act locally/think globally?

I don’t think it will happen overnight, and I don’t see the hard choices even discussed within the curriculum. Our outdated Industrial Age education system is slow to respond to the acceleration of change so ably described by Alvin Toffler as the future crashing into the present. I haven’t really seen the hard lessons taught yet, though they are trying to tell students to forgo the fries and consider the healthy choices (yet they still offer the fries).

Pretty soon all the talk of climate change and doing piddly little things like recycling and turning out the lights and turning down the thermostat will irritate rather than resonate and just like in the 1970s we will go back to our material consumption ways. Maybe. Maybe disruptive change will force the issue. Who knows? I will be watching the summer Olympics in Beijing with my big screen TV in my air conditioned house while sipping on Mexican beer and cherries from Malaysia.

In the world wide future, we need to talk and teach in every curriculum area about consumption and footprint. Now.

July 28, 2008 Posted by | education | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment