Southwest England is Britain's first official UK "low carbon development zone". The region has an amazing technology legacy - think Roman Baths, Georgian Cities, Brunel, SS Great Britain, Concorde. It's got great coastline, a strong surf culture, hilly, beautiful cities and green icons like The Eden Project. It's also the part of Britain most closely linked to the idea of the permanent traveller - the South West is Britain's leading hippie region. If it had good, flexible flows of investment capital and more inward and outward migration I'd almost call it Britain's California.
I argued to the audience that while the car industry is working out how to replace combustion engines with electric motors and batteries, it's worth asking whether in twenty or thirty years' time it's what we'll need. Are they simply servicing a declining market, while something else altogether different happens outside the window? Rather than being about electric powertrains, could the real answers be related to something else - how we live and work?The dangers of designing for a false future
The writer Hamish McRae once told me (in the Hole in the Wall pub in Waterloo) that "the future of how we move is entirely connected to the future of how we work", and his thought has shaped my thinking ever since. Those British and French engineers built Concorde for politicans concerned with national prestige and jobs, and for airlines who where, in the early 1960s (Concorde was launched in November 1962), in the middle of a jet-age boom fuelled by postwar technology and wealth. This had seen tremendous wartime advances in aircraft design and propulsion take us on an incredible performance curve from 1940 through 1960. For context, remember that Concorde was only launched four years after the first transatlantic jet services were launched in 1958 between London and New York. It seemed reasonable back then to believe that speed would dominate as business people would want to be in London for a meeting in the morning and then an evening reception in New York.
Of course, aviation's development curve took on a different path. Instead of getting ever faster flights for an elite, minority "jet set", the 1973 oil shock and the flight of creative engineering talent in the early 70s from mechanical to information technology meant supersonic became a step too far. The reality of work and leisure took over and the world embraced flights for the masses. In the 1960s, airliners replaced ocean liners and airports supplanted seaports (Britain effectively moved its main passenger ports from Southampton and Liverpool to Heathrow) and subsonic airliners went on to redefine flows of migration and underpin and expand globalisation through the '70s, '80s and '90s. Boeing, while getting government funds to develop an SST, cannily developed the 747 as an insurance policy. Pioneers like Juan Trippe (who led Pan Am and is why we have the 747) eventually moved over and people like Freddie Laker and then Herb Kelleher, Richard Branson, Stelios and Michael O'Leary created today's air travel reality. Today we have incredibly low cost flights for the masses supporting migration, everyday business travel and leisure (unfortunately all still powered by 1960s-era engine designs).Norman Belle Geddes and the 1939 New York Expo
I remind you of the above for context - about how technologies and visions developed in one era often only really create massive change in another one - and how some distract and others define what comes next. Which brings me back to cars, home and work. Today, the majority of people outside the centre of cities live a lifestyle that was first showcased at Futurama, the General Motors' pavilion at the 1939 New York Expo. Americans (and everyone else) were dazzled by designer Norman Belle Geddes's vision that people would live in communities linked to highways, using their own fantastic vehicles to flow smoothly and comfortably from one place to another. We would finally face the death of distance.
Lots of people and businesses loved Futurama. It helped the car industry find a way forward from a Fordist world of slightly dull, standardised mass-made cars, and it influenced the entire world's concept of what urban development should be. The economics of vehicle manufacturing could scale to meet it, property developers loved it, and it suited employers who could access a bigger workforce pool, all addicted (often through debt on car and house finance) to perpetuate the lifestyle. Yet the reality of the cost and blight of the resulting highway infrastructure, congestion, high energy costs, pollution, and the enduring draw of dense, sociable old pre-1940s cities undermined Futurama in fundamental ways.
So in 2009, 70 years on, with General Motors just bankrupt and great tracts of suburban America covered in unwanted repossessed, stripped out McMansions, are we facing the end of Futurama as a blueprint? Has it literally stopped being sustainable?
Hamish McRae's wife is Frances Cairncross. She wrote a book in 1997 called "The Death of Distance". Written 12 years ago, that's as good a place as any to start working out what comes next. It explores how the communications revolution - the internet and mobile phones - will change our understanding of, and response to, distance.
And perhaps the ultimate irony here? Norman Belle Geddes, architect of Futurama, was the father of Barbara Belle Geddes. Some of you will remember that Barbara played Miss Ellie, the epicentre of the Ewing family, in the 1980s TV series Dallas. The one all about the excesses and lure of '80s capitalism, and the power of American oil.
It's ok. My head hurts too.Mark Charmer is founder and managing director of The Movement Design Bureau. Images: Futurama exhibition. Source - Wikimedia Commons Update. I added Southampton as a key passenger port. Northern bias, overcome. 19/1/10