Q: What about solar on the southward
walls of buildings to power the build-
ings? Some cities are already doing this.
Sure, south-facing walls are another place for photovoltaics. But there’s
competition for that valuable real
estate—urban agriculture. Technologies are cresting toward where future
cities may require new buildings to
recycle their organic waste through
vertical farms that purify water while
generating either industrial algae or
else much of the food needed by a metropolis. With so much of the world’s
population going urban, no technology could make a bigger difference.
The pieces are coming together.
What’s lacking is a sense of urgency.
Pilot programs and tax incentives
should encourage new tall buildings
to utilize their southward faces, nurturing this stabilizing trend during
the coming decade.
Q: You’ve also spoken about apps sys-
tems that turn your smartphone into
an intelligent sensor. Can you say how
this supports resiliency?
Cellphones already have powerful
cameras, many with infrared capability. Soon will come spectrum-analysis
apps, letting citizens do local spot
checks on chemical spills or environmental problems, and feeding the
results to governments or NGOs for
modeling in real time. The Tricorder X
Prize showed how just a few add-on devices can turn a phone into a medical
appraisal device, like Dr. McCoy had in
“Star Trek.” Almost anyone could use
such apparatus in the field with little
training. Take a few measurements,
and a distant system advises you on
Infrared sensors, accelerometers, and
chemical sensors could provide a full
array of environmental awareness systems by turning citizen cellphones into
nodes of an instant awareness network.
(I describe this in my novel Existence.)
Such a mesh is already of interest to
national authorities. But the emphasis has been hierarchical—
authorities send public reports down to citizens after gathering and interpreting
data flowing upward. The hierarchical
mind-set comes naturally when you
are an authority with protective duties.
But this can blind even sincere public
servants to one of our great strengths—
for recovery. What can we do to preserve
our ability to communicate?
On 9/11, passengers aboard flight
UA93 demonstrated remarkable resilience when they self-organized to stop
the terrorist plot to use that plane as
a weapon against their country. If we
want that kind of resilience to work on
a large scale, we need resilient communications. Alas, our comm systems are
fragile to failure in any natural or unnatural calamity. One step toward resilience would be a backup peer-to-peer
(P2P) text-passing capability for when
phones can’t link to a cellular tower.
Texts would get passed from phone to
phone via well-understood methods of
packet switching until they encounter
a working node and get dropped into
the network. Qualcomm already has
this capability built into their chips!
But cellular providers refuse to turn it
on. That’s shortsighted, since it would
be good business too, expanding text
coverage zones and opening new revenue streams. Even in the worst national disaster, we’d have a 1940s-level
telegraphy system all across the nation,
and pretty much around the world.
All it would take to fix this is a small
change of regulation. Five sentences
requiring the cell-cos to turn this on
whenever a phone doesn’t sense a
tower. (And charge a small fee for P2P
texts.) Doing so might let us restore
communications within an hour rather
Many efforts have been made to
empower folks with ad hoc mesh networks, via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi webs, and
so on. None of these enticed more than
a tiny user base—nothing like what’s
needed for national resilience.
Q: It appears that solar power for
homes and offices is at a tipping point
as more people find it cheaper than
the power grid. Localized solar power
should also bring new benefits such as
ability to maintain minimum electrical
function at home during a blackout. Is
independence from the electrical grid
good for resilience?
It would be. One can envision a mil-
lion solar-roofed homes and business-
es serving as islands of light for their
neighborhoods, in any emergency. But
there’s a catch. Under current regula-
tions, almost all U.S. solar roofs have
a switch that shuts down the home or
business solar system when the electri-
cal utility has blacked out. The purpose
is to prevent spurious home-generat-
ed voltages from endangering repair
linemen. This is a lame excuse for an
insane situation. Simply replace that
cutoff switch with one that would still
block backflow into the grid, but that
feeds from the solar inverter to just two
or three outlets inside the home, run-
ning the fridge, some rechargers, and
possibly satellite coms. Just changing
over to that switch would generate ar-
chipelagos of autonomous, resilient
civilization spread across every neigh-
borhood in America, even in the very
worst case. A new rule requiring such
switches, and fostering retrofitting,
would fit on less than a page.
Across the next decade, more solar
systems will come with battery storage.
But this reform would help us bridge
the next 10 years.
Q: What about protection against elec-
tromagnetic pulse disruption?
Much has been written about danger
from EMP—either attacks by hostile
powers or else the sort of natural disaster we might experience if the Sun ever
struck us head-on with a coronal mass
ejection, commonly called a solar flare.
These CMEs happen often, peaking
every 11 years. We’ve been lucky as the
worst ones have missed Earth. But some
space probes have been taken out by direct hits and a bulls-eye is inevitable.
The EMP threat was recognized over
30 years ago. We could have incentiv-ized gradual development of shielded
and breakered chipsets, including
those in civilian electronics. Adoption
could have been stimulated with a tax
of a penny per non-compliant device,
with foreseen ramp-up. By now we’d
be EMP resilient, instead of fragile hostages either to enemies or to fate.
Alas, our comm
systems are fragile
to failure in
any natural or