Last week General Motors (GM) unveiled a hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered version of its Chevrolet Volt concept, a family of electric cars that get a portion of their energy from being plugged into the electrical grid. The first version, announced in January, married plug-in electric drive to a gasoline or ethanol generator that can recharge the battery.
The car is remarkably similar to a regular vehicle, except for a small computer screen on the dash that provides a detailed diagnostic readout on the hydrogen fuel cell stack.
That's my colleague Mike Liebhold of the Institute for the Future behind the wheel.
Two moments in this trip bring home the pace of change here. Sunday morning, 8am, I wake up in the Zhongshan Park section of west-central Shanghai. Head out into the backlanes of the superblock behind the hotel and construction on a high-rise gated apartment building is already at full tilt. Two other construction projects intitimate in my life... a dorm across from our apartment in Manhattan, and a restaurant next to the Institute in Palo Alto, are definitely not on the same aggressive shifts.
Next moment, Wednesday evening 11:18pm at our hotel in Pudong, I glance out the window before bed and see a line of cement mixers 10-12 deep waiting to unload at the construction site across the street.
I'm in Shanghai this week conducting workshops for two of my Fortune 500 clients looking at the future of mobility in the Shanghai region and Chinese cities more broadly. If you've never been to China, get on a plane now and come here. You will never think about cities or urbanization the same way again.
Shanghai has created a city larger than Manhattan in less than 20 years, and is set to create another in the next 15. The earth literally sags under the weight of the new buildings, as they push the former rural swampland into the earth.
About two years ago, after teaching a course at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program on "Digitally Mediated Urban Space", I wrote an article for the architectural design journal Praxis that sought to do do two things: 1) make sense of the wide array of digital technologies that are being deployed in urban space, and 2) present a couple of places that I thought exemplified good and bad "design" of digital public spaces.
Recently, my research on context-aware computing - computing based on sensors and artificial intelligence - has led me to revisit this piece. Around the same time, I got a call from Lucas Graves, a friend who writes for Wired, and was doing a piece on technologies that are "perpetually around the corner". Lucas was mainly interested in things like videophones, but it coincided with a turn in my research to the applications side of context-awareness: smart cities, smart places, smart homes, and smart objects. As an urban planner, I immediately gravitated to thinking about smart cities and smart places, but wondered in the back of my mind - is this something that is really happening, or just another one of those technologies that are perpetually around the corner?