Government, energy & environment

Web 2.0 Politicians

Just in case you’re been living in the middle of nowhere for the past few years, Web 2.0 is the phrase used by digital natives to describe the way that the Internet is becoming a very large conversation. In particular it describes the way that ordinary people are able to participate in the creation and distribution of information and ideas. Social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Youtube, Wikepedia and Flickr are all Web 2.0. Given the scale of some of these websites it’s not surprising that politicians have started using the Internet to campaign, raise money and run ads.

The importance of e-democracy can hardly be exaggerated. For example, the Huffington Post is thought to be the most widely read blog in America and, according to its founder, Arianna Huffington, Barrack Obama would not be president, without the help of the Internet. One lesson from the recent US election is that politicians can successfully use Web 2.0 tools to run ads on YouTube, gather micro-donations via PayPal, use mobile phones to organise instant protests, or use virtual worlds to hold virtual rallies. Indeed, if the medium of television could be said to have created JFK, then the new medium of the Internet is perhaps responsible for Mr Obama. Whatever your political persuasion, this has to be good news. The Internet means that supporters can now organise and campaign effectively without the need for expensive television ads or direct mail campaigns.

It also means that political parties are less reliant on large donations from wealthy benefactors, be they left-leaning unions or right-leaning business people. In other words, Web 2.0 means that individuals historically ignored or drowned out now have a voice. Anyone can make an ad and screen it on YouTube. As a result they are more effective than traditional, paid-for advertising. Crucially, the Internet may also be forcing politicians to be more honest. Gone are the days of saying things to small audiences ‘off the record’ in the full knowledge that a remark would not be captured by the media. Nowadays, thanks to mobile phones and digital cameras, the media is always present. This means that ordinary voters can check the accuracy of politicians’ promises against past promises and claims and alert fellow constituents to dishonesty, fakery and spin. This is by far the best development in politics for more than a generation. Politicians have become masters at manipulating facts to gain or retain power. The media, especially television, encouraged this. Politicians could hide behind a manipulated image and edited remarks. Not any more. The Internet demands authenticity and promotes transparency. This is something we will all have to get used to.
Ref: Herald Sun (Aus), 15 November 2008, ‘Web joins the conversation’, R. Watson,
See also The Economist (UK), 16 August 2008, ‘Flickering here, twittering there’,
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Web 2.0, politics
Trend tags: Connectivity

Is Cyberwar the Future of Non-State Conflict?

Back in 2007, Estonia (a member of the NATO alliance) was attacked in cyberspace. No perpetrators were found and nobody subsequently claimed responsibility for the attacks. Cyberwarfare is thought by some to be the future of war, although attacking a countries communications infrastructure is hardly a new idea. In 1862, men from a Union ship landed to cut telegraph lines belonging to The South that were located between Fredericksburg and Richmond in America. The idea of radio jamming goes way back to 1905. But is such an act an act of war and what is the best form of defence or response? The fog of war clouds these questions, like questions surrounding definitions of terrorism. The general consensus is that cyberwar differs from online vandalism or hooliganism when an attack is deliberate and causes widespread harm rather than temporary inconvenience. An attack on a power station or a hospital, for example, could be deemed an act of war, especially if it is accompanied by other (physical) attacks. However, even then there is the issue of finding the ‘enemy’. The idea of a large, co-ordinated attack – a kind of digital Pearl Harbour if you will – has been around for some time but so has the idea that modern warfare has shifted from centralised, state-directed warfare to informal, self-organised non-state and interstate conflict. There is no roadmap as to where all this will go but you can bet that the term cyberwarfare is something we’ll be reading about a lot more in the future.
Ref: The Economist (UK), Technology Quarterly (UK), 6 December 2008, ‘Marching of to cyberwar’.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: War, conflict
Trend tags: Internet

The Future of Water

Forget oil and forget food. If the world is facing a resource crisis it’s most likely to be water. Most people drink about 2 litres of water each day but they consume over 3,000 litres if agricultural food production is also taken into account. Agriculture is responsible for 70% of water use globally. Moreover, as the world’s population increases and people become richer their diets changes towards water-intensive foods such as meat. According to the International Water Management Institute, a research body, global water demand is therefore expected to grow by 25% by the year 2030.

This is bad news for regions such as Northern China (70% of Chinese cities are already descried as ‘water stressed’), Southern Spain, Australia and western parts of the US. The problem isn’t really a lack of water (the system is a sealed system) but water in the wrong places, together with inefficient use and waste. Farmers, for example, waste an enormous amount of water due to evaporation and leaky irrigation but it is unlikely that governments will crack down on this particular group (of voters) any time soon. The solutions, however, are actually quite simple and cost-effective. Drip irrigation, for instance, is far cheaper than desalination. Giving farmers (or households) fixed allocations of water has worked in the past and so too has recycling and the use of small rainwater tanks. So what’s next? Expect to see water theft emerging as one of the defining crimes of the 21st century and also expect to see a shift in agriculture towards crops that are less thirsty. Indeed, we may even see social action to make the eating of certain types of foodstuffs socially unacceptable in the future because of the way these crops squander what is, after all, the most precious resource on earth.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 20 September 2008, ‘Running Dry’. See also The Economist (UK), 11 October 2008, ‘A shortage of capital flows’.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Water
Trend tags: Resource shortages

Vertical Farms

What if ‘eating locally’ meant buying food from a local supermarket that had a 30-story farm above it? What if the Hanging Gardens of Babylon became the hanging vegetable gardens of Brooklyn? Pumpkin pie in the sky? Perhaps not. Dickson Despommier, a Professor at Columbia University in the US, had the idea of vertical city-farms back in 1999 and the concept seems to have captured the imagination of numerous cutting-edge architects around the world. By 2050, 80% of the world’s population (estimated to be around 9 billion people) will live in cities. Given the need for land and the pressure to reduce transportation (due to future oil costs and urban congestion) high-rise farms will perhaps be built in the middle of cities such as London and New York.

This will satisfy the need for fresh local produce but should also reduce carbon emissions and energy costs because cities are generally warmer than the surrounding countryside. It is estimated that a pilot project would cost in the region of US$20-30 million, with a few hundred million extra to build the skyscraper – but such a building could feed around 50,000 local people. The farms would ‘harvest’ water and heat from the local environment and could make a positive contribution to the environment. One final thought. NASA has done a considerable amount of research looking at growing vegetables using hydroponics, so if man does ever colonise the moon this idea could have had a good earth-based trial run.
Ref: New York Times (US), 15 July 2008, ‘Country, the city version: Farms in the sky gain new interest’, B. Venkataraman.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Food, farms, farming
Trend tags: Urbanisation, localisation

Education Trends in the UK

At its best a national education curriculum can capture a national identity or spirit – or create one. Not in Britain. Spending on education has doubled in the UK over the past ten years but the overall result seems to be confusion and an over-reliance on measurement and testing.

For example, a generation or so ago pupils took just two public tests. There were O levels at age 16 and A-Levels at age 18. In 1998 the government of the day introduced something called Key Stage Tests at ages 7, 11 and 15 and replaced O-Levels with GCSEs. A Labour government then added another test at age 5 (you read that correctly) and then spilt A-Levels into two (AS exams and A2 exams). The end result is a disaster.

Teachers are drowning in paperwork, schools lack autonomy and pupils are stressed out by both the endless array of testing and these constantly-changing government initiatives. Moreover, the government, in its infinite wisdom, has mashed subjects into six catch-all areas in an attempt to address a variety of societal ills ranging from obesity to teenage pregnancy and voter apathy. History, for example, has now been replaced with ‘human, social and environmental understanding’ and it seems that running around outside (no exam required) has now been replaced with ‘Understanding physical health and well being’ (which is rumoured to include lessons in happiness too). Perhaps this will work. It certainly needs to. 20% of British kids currently leave primary education unable to read or write properly.
Ref: The Weekly Telegraph (UK), 3-9 September 2008, ‘Pupils at English schools are among most tested in world’, A. Simpson. and The Economist (UK), 13 December, 2008, ‘In praise of facts’, ‘Please, sir, what’s history?’
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Education, schools, tests
Trend tags: Measurement