Equivalent progress for technology and human institutions

“The humanities are far more powerful than most people believe,” writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in response to Donald Trump’s plans to cease all funding for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I couldn’t agree more with Kristof’s sentiment — and I’m an engineer.

Civilizations may indeed be built up from the resources and materials that constitute the technologies, industries, and cities within it, but I would argue that this infrastructure is really just an outward manifestations of the ideas, beliefs, and values that are embedded within the minds of its people.

Not only do we need the arts and humanities now more than ever, but we will need more of it in the future. The advent of powerful new technologies like artificial superintelligence, for example, will demand that its creators first be able to think clearly about (or even solve) some very old problems in moral philosophy.

As someone who understood this quite well once remarked, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.” These words of wisdom were, in fact, voiced by a U.S. president, but it certainly wasn’t the current one. These were the words of Barack Obama.

The future is urban

The future is urban

Around the turn of the 20th century, public imagination turned to what life would be like in the year 2000. In newspapers and magazines, writers and artists illustrated visions of a society replete with personal flying machines, pneumatic tubes, moving sidewalks, entire cities enclosed beneath glass domes. From today’s vantage point, these predictions are all too cliché. But take a step back from these specific predictions and you’ll discover a unifying assumption that these futurists got right: the future would be urban.

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Terror lives here

Re: Manchester suspect latest second-generation citizen to attack European city

It is absurd, naïve, and wholly insufficient to place blame for the Manchester terrorist attack on a “feeling of cultural dislocation”, particularly when the suspect in question was a British citizen who was born, raised and educated in Manchester. Cultural dislocation is a genuine phenomenon, no doubt. But to connect it to the coordinated and preemptive slaughter of innocent people is the height of intellectually dishonesty.

Like many jihadis before him, the Manchester bomber was a middle-class, university-educated, soccer-loving European citizen. These facts alone prove the point that Islamist terrorism isn’t a matter of poverty, education, or lack of economic opportunity. Rather, it is the direct result of a person’s specific beliefs about specific doctrines, particularly those related to jihad, martyrdom, and Paradise. Furthermore, the jihadis are themselves telling us this, ad nauseam.

Until this fact is fully absorbed, any attempts to counter Islamist terrorism will be futile.

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Note: An edited version of this appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail

In Nepal, a chance encounter showed me the value of trusting strangers

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[Note: This essay appeared in The Globe & Mail Travel section.]

Hello, my friend!”

“Ugh,” I groaned under my breath.

“Friend!” the voice came again.

“Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact,” I repeated to myself after realizing that the cheery enthusiasm was indeed directed specifically at me.

This may not be the type of response you’d expect to such a kind invitation. I fully acknowledge that. But it was the last thing I wanted to hear at that moment.

I was on my own, happily exploring the central plaza in Patan, the third-largest city in Nepal. This is a region where many people rely on tourism to make a living. It’s not uncommon to be hounded to buy a trinket, ride a tuktuk, take a tour. I was generally stoic about the whole song and dance. I accept that it’s all part of travelling abroad, a kind of social contract. But having to continually (and politely) decline such solicitations – as I had been for the previous few weeks throughout northern India and Nepal – can be fatiguing.

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Health, wellness, and experience in the built environment: From green buildings to Conscious Cities

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1. Health, wellness, and experience as core elements of green buildings

The concept of Conscious Cities has been defined as a new field that proposes to replace the focus on efficiency in the built environment with a focus on human health and well-being. It is a concept that “arose in reaction to the widening gap between our potential to design with the human experience in mind, and its lack of application in practice.” Although by no means substituting efficiency, there has recently emerged within the green building industry a complementary focus on human health, wellness, and experience.

This refocusing of priorities stems from the recognition of a failure of humanism in the way we design, building and operate the built environment, Modern humans have essentially become an indoor species, with people in the industrialized world spending almost 90 percent of their time inside buildings. Many of modern society’s chronic health issues related to lack of physical activity, stress, and poor diet, can be directly or indirectly linked to the architecture of buildings and cities.

And yet, the humanistic element has been systematically overlooked by many in the industry. This is not to say that those in the industry have completely ignored it. Building codes, for example, have dictated performance requirements related to indoor air quality, ventilation rates, and thermal comfort. And while health and wellness considerations have also been integral to various green building rating systems, it has often taken a backseat compared to other environmental criteria such as energy performance, water management and material selection.

Consideration of the human dimension in green buildings has gained momentum in recent years. The World Green Building Council noted in 2015 that “a new market demand is emerging within the building industry: to more intentionally address human experience, health, and wellness as core elements of green building practice”. Similarly, the American Institute of Architects predicted that “by facilitating greater collaboration with the public health community, there is an opportunity for green buildings to move past the premise of “do no harm” to a focus on holistic health promotion.”4

This development partly arises from economic considerations. On average, 90 percent of typical business operating costs are employee related (salaries and benefits), while nine percent goes to rent, and only one percent to energy. Therefore, even a modest reduction in sickness or absenteeism can lead to a meaningful reduction in overall operating costs.

To continue reading, visit Conscious Cities Journal No. 2

Why travel

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“The reason to travel: there are inner transitions we can’t properly cement without a change of locations.”
– Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

The most intriguing part about traveling is how it changes your idea about that place. Before you go somewhere, you have in your mind’s eye an image, a visual impression, however vague or jumbled, of what it will be like. It’s usually a visual impression by default since we live in a very image-dominant culture.

But once you actually go to that place, all of these preconceived ideas are erased. Thereafter, you can never quite remember what you used to think of it. No matter how hard you try, your actual experience will forever tint the preconceived ideas you had before you went. Your impression will have been “upgraded” not only with the actual sights of the place, but also the smells, noises, and general feeling you had while there. You can never again gain access to that naive pre-visit impression.

In a few hours I’ll be flying to India. I’m told that as soon as I arrive late at night the next day, I’ll be assaulted by noises, chaos, sights and smells (mostly the smells) of a sort that you’ve never before experienced until you’ve actually been there to experience it. Culture shock will most likely set in even before I reach the ‘hotel’ in Old Delhi where I’ll stay for two nights before venturing further into northern India and Nepal. (The quality of this particular two-star hotel? Let me put it this way: I read the Trip Advisor reviews and wish I hadn’t.) It’s been reported how air quality in New Delhi has been particularly horrendous lately. Even still, I didn’t expect for the weather forecast to be “Smoke”. (Is that even a proper meteorological term?) 
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Don’t talk

Re Saudi, Canadian Meeting Draws Criticism (Nov. 3): It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia is a pariah state. It practices institutional apartheid (against women and non-Muslims). It violently suppresses not only free speech but also free thought; in 2014, it brought in laws that equate “atheist thought” with terrorism, which is punishable by death.

For Canadian officials to have met with a Saudi state-backed “human rights” commission on Parliament Hill, and to have flown the Saudi flag, is an affront to liberal values.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail.