One of the benefits of supervising research students is that you can read a large number of scientific papers by proxy. In other words, my research students read more papers than I would ever have time to read and then they write reviews of the scientific literature that allow me to quickly gain an understanding of research in a particular field. Every now and again, a student refers to a paper that raises my curiosity to read it for myself. One of these was a paper published by Waldo Tobler in 1970 in which he describes the computational modelling of urban growth in Detroit, Michigan. Although, I used to live in Michigan, it was not the geographical connection that interested me but his invocation of the first law of geography: ‘everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things’. Professor Tobler was writing from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor which he used in an example by highlighting that the population growth in Ann Arbor from 1930 to 1940 depended not only on the 1930 population of Ann Arbor, but also on the 1930 population of Vancouver, Singapore, Cape Town, Berlin and so on. Perhaps if he had been writing in 2020 he would have suggested that the rate of infection from coronavirus in Ann Arbor depends not only on the number of cases in Ann Arbor, but also on the number of cases Taipei, Milan, Toulouse, Dublin and so on.
At the Airbus PhD workshop that I attended a couple of weeks ago [see my post entitled Making Engineering Work for Society on September 13th 2017], Axel Flaig, Head of Airbus Research and Technology, gave us an excellent opening presentation describing their vision for the future. Besides their vision for the next generation of passenger aircraft with reductions in CO2, NOx and noise emissions of 75%, 90% and 65% respectively against 2000 levels by 2050, they are also looking at urban air mobility. We have 55 megacities [cities with a population of more than 10 million] and it is expected that this will increase to 93 by 2035 [see my post entitled ‘Hurrying Feet in Crowded Camps’ on August 16th, 2017]. These megacities are characterized by congestion and time-wasted moving around them; so, Airbus is working on designs for intra-city transport that takes us off the roads and into the air. Perhaps the most exciting is the electric Pop.up concept that is being developed with Italdesign. But, Airbus are beyond concepts: they have a demonstrator single-seater, self-pilot vehicle, the Vahana that will fly in 2017 and a multi-passenger demonstrator scheduled to fly in 2018.
Soon, we will have to look left, right and up before we cross the road, or maybe nobody will walk anywhere – though that would be bad news for creative thinking [see my post on ‘Gone Walking’ on 19th April 2017], amongst other things!
Five years ago I wrote about the potential ‘Population Crunch‘ [September 15th, 2012] that could lead to a large increase in the size and number of cities – perhaps upto 1500 new cities emerging over the next few decades as the global population rises from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050 [see UN revised report, 2017]. It is a significant challenge to provide an acceptable quality of life to the citizens of these new cities as well as existing ones. People have been concerned about the density of population in cities and its impact on individuals for more than a century. In 1910, W.H. Hudson in ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ [Penguin Books, 1910] wrote, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, about London: ‘Some over-populated planet in our system discovered a way to relieve itself by discharging its superfluous millions on our globe – a pale people with hurrying feet and eager, restless minds, who live apart in monstrous, crowded camps, like wood ants that go not out to forage for themselves’ Nothing seems to have changed!
Tim Butterfield receiving his prize from Incorporation of Hammermen Deacon Professor David Harrison
A few weeks ago I wrote about tag-lines for promoting engineering [see post entitled ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd, 2015]. A young undergraduate student, Tim Butterfield from the University of Sheffield has produced possibly the best one that I have come across: ‘Engineers sustain society’ in his outstanding video made to complement his awarding winning essay on the subject ‘Can engineers make a beneficial contribution to society?’ It won first prize at the 20th Anniversary Student Awards of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council last month.
Prince Philip wrote on almost the same subject earlier this year in the New Scientist. He said that ‘engineering has made a greater positive difference to human life than almost any other human endeavour’. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration but then I am biased. So, ‘engineers sustain society’ is a good paraphrase.