Amazement as a constant force for change

Engineering consultancy Sweco interviews Richard van Hooijdonk
Industries: Interviews

Richard van Hooijdonk is trendwatcher and futurist. In his passionate webinar for Sweco on Thursday 18th June about the city of the future, he discussed all the technological, ethical and social aspects of the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands. From biotechnology and urban farming to social campfires for fostering connection. The resident of the city of the future faces many changes. We spoke to Richard about that transition and the impact on urban life, which is exactly what makes our profession so interesting.

Everyone is trying to make predictions – to crack the code – about the city of the future. Digitisation, other forms of mobility, robots. But we have to ask ourselves – is technology the key? What to you think? Man or machine?

Technologically, a lot is already possible. And much more will be possible in the future. A world in which technology can control, create, build, and change everything for us should be our starting point. What comes to mind, for instance, is the example of ‘adaptive roads’. Despite these developments, we ourselves determine our role as human beings. As far as I’m concerned, that role is about making sure ethics coexists with technology. I will give a few examples: many older people are struggling with their health. But our systems aren’t equipped for people going to the doctor every day. So we look for solutions, such as monitoring your own health. Technology also helps this target group with these matters. Or take self-driving cars. Some people prefer that and others would rather use public transport.

Human skills such as empathy and humour are important and are generally appreciated by all. Technology doesn’t have those qualities. We must be alert when machines and technology overstep people’s values. Then we pay attention, protest, and ask ourselves whether it is possible, and whether it’s not being abused.

We are transitioning towards a situation where technology offers us a nice and comfortable life. We ourselves determine to what extent technology encroaches on our lives. How far will we allow it to provide our comfort. On the one hand, this means going along with technology, but we need to keep having a say ourselves. We ourselves are responsible for the balance between people and machine and we need to develop skills for this. We need education for this, such as philosophy and anthropology. New skills are important so that we can deal with this new normal. That, for me, is the key to get a grip on technology. We need to learn to understand it.

To prevent technology to overtake us or seizing control, we will have to adjust that it in a certain way. Apply environmental variables like we do with traffic control systems. The system is allowed to make decisions regarding traffic, but not regarding people. We need to implement ethical rules for this and ensure that we deal with it smartly. How far will we allow criminal law to go? To what extent can, for instance, a municipality, use available data? With good rules in place, we can prevent a judge from having to judge these kinds of issues.

The past couple of years mark a new phase. Is the new normal really the new norm, or are we falling into old patterns? What are the new good & bad habits?

This period is also somewhat seen as the end of prosperity. We have drifted far from nature. We don’t appreciate nature. I think it is a good thing to adopt a more vulnerable approach where this is concerned. In our private lives as well as at work. In my opinion, examples of good habits are humility, back to basics. By removing busyness we create the time and space to do other things. Things that add value in a different, human way.

On the other hand, I also see that many people are struggling to escape isolation. Especially people who are not self-enterprising stick to bad habits. The difference between the ‘glass half full ’people and ‘glass half empty’ people is getting bigger. The current COVID-19 situation forces you to be a self starter. To take a step towards what you want and can do.

The world is urbanising. Space, greenery and fresh air are scarce. Climate adaptation leads to many good things. We can make combinations that allow us to move smoothly with all these changes. Yet we literally need to make do with less. Our behaviour has to change. How can we motivate and encourage people to do ‘more’ with less?

We’re heading towards a major crisis, and that crisis will become the new normal. Having to do more with less money makes us more creative. Things that didn’t seem possible at first are now being explored. Everything becomes a possibility and can be discussed again. I think that’s a positive development. A friend of mine lives in a commune without running water, but they do have WiFi. Another friend went to Thailand just before the corona crisis to slow down, break with how things are going here. A good habit is the ability to question everything. The trick is to hold onto that.

We can motivate humans to do more with less by showing how things can be done differently. As prosperity increases, so does the call for simplification. The past period has been very good for that. Bonuses are being rolled back, companies and organisations are increasingly becoming people brands. Timon de Jong also calls it the ‘nursing mentality’: we will be focusing more on taking care of the things and people around us. And that also applies to more and more companies and governments.

Thailand and WiFi only, do you think we need to go to these extremes to restore balance?

At critical moments we have to take each other to a different world, a different perspective. When the water boils, the time is right for change. And that time is now. In crisis situations, we become more open to other ideas, more willing to change things, to touch people in their hearts. We need less and with simple means we can also achieve a lot. I think the water has now reached that boiling point and we can get started. There’s  opportunities waiting to be explored. All the big companies of the past few years originated in times like these, from Uber to Spotify. So there is opportunities for Sweco, too. Show what you stand for and pull it towards you. The domain, the city of the future and all underlying challenges, they are the perfect reason.

You yourself choose change, crisis or no crisis. You have the means to carry on with your business, to innovate, to have chips implanted into your body. That does not apply to everyone. What space is there, then?

Social cohesion in the neighbourhood is very important. Pay attention to each other, take care of each other. The municipality can mean a great deal in facilitating that social cohesion. That’s where the key lies. You need locations to do that, which is another great opportunity for Sweco. Design it in such a way that you stimulate sharing and meeting. This creates connections and new opportunities.

As a trendwatcher, your focus is turned forward. What things do we bring from the past that determine our future? What is your vision?

The greatest innovations and changes have occurred in recessions. Things change when shit hits the fan. That’s the time to implement change for the future. The general direction is one of growth, prosperity and happiness. That will just continue. Human strength is incredible, we have amazed ourselves every time. That’s what we take from the past into the future.

Sweco, together with Urban Insight, examines the world of tomorrow. And we see 6 major challenges. Which ones do you see?

There are ethical matters from the application possibilities of technology that we have to learn to deal with. That requires awareness. And for me, ethics are linked to culture. Cultural awareness is needed to create space for that. And we need to take to the streets if we disagree. Set  boundaries and put a fence around what we deem acceptable. Another challenge is digital knowledge. ‘Digital first’ is how things will be, but our knowledge is still so limited.

What can we wake you up for?

I’m preparing for a brain chip now. I already have a chip in my hand and now we’re going for my head. It intrigues me. Merging my brain with technology. Will my intelligence reach further? How far will I be able to go? Where does human intelligence reach and to what extent can you intervene? Yes, I find that exciting.  

When do we let go of the notion that humans have all the knowledge and how do we want to integrate technology and ethics into it? Think of quantum computing, that’s the key to a new phase of unparallelled knowledge where everything – abundance – will be within our reach. What will we, as humanity, be doing then? Let’s look again at that ‘campfire’, the heart of people. It’s the essence that matters. And it becomes even more interesting when you talk about what makes your heart skip a beat. What amazes you? Those are nice discussions.

Industries: Interviews
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