Thursday, November 29, 2018

May they fail

Times Square echoes Bladerunner - hyper-commercialized,
electronic billboards in every direction

by Gregory Saville

The writing on the shop walls and the floating billboards was Anglo-Chinese. On the street, the cityspeak combined English, Chinese and Spanish, a vernacular that served the homeless, the marginally employed and the unfortunate. Pollution and environmental collapse led to constant clouds and pelting rain. The affluent traveled to off-world colonies on Mars and elsewhere, leaving the rest of us behind. Bio-engineered, human-like robots called Replicants used their artificial intelligence and rebelled.

That was the horrific world described in Philip K. Dick’s book that became the 1982 sci-fi classic, Bladerunner. I blogged on Bladerunner architecture last year. When I watched Bladerunner in the 1980s it seemed like an impossible future. And it was set for such a long way ahead – 2019!

That's next year! With only a month left, how close is that future?

No escape - walls of electonics


It doesn’t take much imagination to see a Bladerunner vision unfolding. True, we are nowhere near that specific dystopia. We still don’t have flying cars (but we have self-driving ones!). Yet, one wonders...

This week I watched NASA’s exciting landing on the planet Mars. Space X CEO Elon Musk says he’ll get people to Mars within six years. How long before off-world colonies evolve?

This year I watched the fruits of some incredible advances in artificial intelligence and bio-engineering, including the world tour of the remarkable Sophie, the first thinking and speaking robot to attain citizenship. Sophie tells us not to worry; real robots are not like Bladerunner.

Then there is the decades-long Chinese economic miracle or the environmental mess we watch with increasing regularity in hurricanes, wildfires, species extinction and climate chaos.

Philip K. Dick, it seems, was on track.

How might we derail that particular future? The usual formula is to rethink geo-politics and create new macroeconomics. Nevertheless, the maxim ‘think global, act local’ has special relevance here. Take, for example, Philadelphia!


Over the past few years, we brought SafeGrowth to Philadelphia. We now have some great advocates working for the neighborhood association, HACE. This year they began implementing their latest 10-year 2025 Neighborhood Plan.

For years HACE and friends have been diligently working to transform the blight, drugs, and crime into a greener, socially connected, economically vibrant neighborhood. Now their new, SafeGrowth-infused 2025 plan is underway and they’ve been making strides.

They installed new, clean walking trails where garbage was once strewn.

The HACE Trail project in Philadelphia

They instituted Philadelphia’s first SafeGrowth Livability Academy, a collaborative workshop with 30 neighbors and police during which they developed problem-solving strategies for their neighborhood.

The HACE plan envisions greener areas, community gardens, better resourced neighborhood hubs, safe intergenerational and affordable housing. HACE has already built over 200 units of affordable housing and leveraged over $100 million in redevelopment and improvements. A host of community-building strategies are already underway.

Neighborhood bridge now cleaned and repainted

For example, they, and their partners shut down a drug infested, homeless camp along a railway underpass. That naturally displaced addicts to street level, resulting in a public outcry (after decades of inaction). Ultimately, that led to a more coordinated city response to treat drug users, expand homeless beds and increase shelters.

HACE built affordable housing
There is a long way to go and resources and shelter beds are still scarce (one estimate suggest Philadelphia has 50,000 opioid addicts, many of whom end up here). But at least action is finally underway.

That is the hard community-building work that cuts crime, improves livability, and gets neighbors engaged in shaping their own future.

In spite of successful resident-based projects, cities like Detroit
fund expensive CCTV technology to cut crime


Too many mayors get caught up in a fear-based echo chamber that makes them vulnerable to peddlers of security technology and promises of a bright, high-tech future.

Too many city leaders act as obsequious errand-boys for the technologists, embracing the faint promise of hostile architecture, public CCTV, automated security robots, predictive algorithms seeking crime, and audio software to track gang gunfire. (Wouldn't it be better to prevent the gunfire in the first place?)

They do this with the ill-informed hope that technology will prevail. But in doing this, they snatch defeat from the hands of successful action-based community projects right in front of them.

They invite a Bladerunner future. May they fail.