Neil Holt, Julie Davis, Andrew Holik / MEDILL REPORTS
What do you think the future holds? Is that a silly question? Let’s rephrase it. Where do you see yourself in five years? 50 years?
While imaging the future may seem best suited to science fiction writers, it has real bearing on work being done today. The quote, widely attributed to sci-fi author William Gibson, seems apt: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
The seeds of what will become our daily reality are in the minds and on the desks of those thinkers, inventors and planners at work today. These are some of the people who make it their job to shape the future.
A new way to eat
Homaro Cantu, the inventor and chef and owner of the trendy molecular cuisine restaurant Moto, believes the indoor farm can offset future agricultural needs of a major metropolis like Chicago. “In the farm we have the greatest LEDs, capturing all of the heat and carbon dioxide found in the kitchen,” he said.
Cantu said the farm creates $4,000 worth of monthly produce while avoiding packaging, refrigeration and shipping costs.
“I realized the definition of sustainability was to create anything ultra-locally,” he said.
Cantu said the farms might be available for mass distribution sooner than later, citing microchips that once cost millions in the ‘60s and now are cheaper and widespread.
He also backs the miracle berry, a sugar-free African fruit, Synsepalum dulcificum, that when put on the tongue makes anything taste sweet.
Obstacles to the berry’s popularity are its classification as a food additive by the Food and Drug Administration and its current inability to be incorporated in food. Instead, it must be put on the tongue prior to eating food.
“Once we roll out the first smoothie and it’s completely sugar free, that will be the catalyst that’ll jump start competition,” Cantu said.
The indoor farm and miracle berry are just a couple of the ideas that may change eating. Cantu said while there will always be a demand for fat and sugar, it can be replaced.
“I think your food is going to be very familiar,” he said. “Your food will still look like mom’s apple pie, but healthy.”
Cantu said technology in food is changing exponentially and doesn’t see that stopping.
“We need that out there so we can continue to innovate,” he said. “At the end of the day we have to understand science, and as long as it’s organic science, it’s okay.” It’s in the details
By 2040 Chicago’s population will have grown from 8.6 million to 11 million. Those additional people will have huge impact on housing, transportation, jobs and government. Yet within those challenges the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning envisions a future where Chicago area residents spend less on housing, have shorter commutes, and live healthier lives through greater access to parks, opportunities to bike and walk, and sustainable food options.
The agency calls this “sustainable prosperity” and is working to make it possible through their Go To 2040 plan.
Go To 2040’s aim is to prepare for major projects while allowing the seven counties and 284 Chicago area communities to be flexible in setting their own goals for the future.
As Bob Dean, local planning executive director, puts it: implementation will look differently when you are planning in Crystal Lake verses planning in Chinatown.
For example, Go To 2040 recommends that communities emphasize development patterns that that work well with public transit. It then allocates resources for transportation projects like a proposed extension of the redline that would cut commute times by as much as 20 minutes.
Not all projects proposed in Go To 2040 are large-scale – in fact these larger transportation projects account for only 3 percent of the budget. Dean said smaller projects, such as adding bike lanes or bus rapid transit, are key.
“This is a big challenge actually, in the field. Everyone likes to talk about the major projects. At the end of the day the small stuff that we do is so much more important.” Connecting our resources
Go To 2040 works together closely with another plan, one aimed at changing the way we think of our natural resources in the urban environment. Chicago area environmental groups are planning for the future with their Green Infrastructure Vision.
The Green Infrastructure Vision maps the area’s natural resources , identifying specific key zones for conservation or environmentally conscious development. The team meets with planners at the community level to help them understand the resources present in their community.
The planners are calling these resources “green infrastructure,” encouraging communities to think about them as a complement to “grey” or man-made infrastructure, like sewers, in their communities. They want communities to start thinking of natural resources as a system, not a series of isolated parks or waterways.
“If you build a mile of road that doesn’t go anywhere, its pretty much not a road,” said Nancy Williamson, manager of the Green Cities Campaign for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “If you don’t look at your streams, begin to buffer them, begin to protect how they function in the first place, pretty soon the streams become nothing but a detriment.”
She said that the natural cycles in the Chicago area include periods of rain and drought. She said plants that evolved here are able to deal with that cycle. “It’s not vacant land … the land is performing a service.”
With this in mind the team created a region wide map, first in 2004 then updated in connection with the Go To 2040 planning process. Now they’re working with smaller towns and counties to create more detailed maps for their areas. For communities that are not extensively built-up, this mapping process allows them to set aside space around key resources, such as rivers and streams, to preserve the functions.
With the map on the table, city leaders can begin to see the connections between communities and plan strategically around natural resources.
“The stories that come out of it are fascinating, when you bring people together around a big map. Sometimes, for the first time, it allows communities, even though they may be linked like Lincoln Logs next to each other, sometimes it’s the first time they’ve been in a room doing any kind of planning together,” Williamson said.
Looking backward, looking forward
Projecting the future is an inexact science. In 1968, Business Week wrote: “The Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.” Last year six of the 10 most-sold automobiles in the U.S. were from Japan.
Neil Steinberg, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist/reporter, who recently wrote “You Were Never in Chicago”, said he doesn’t believe in predicting the future due to too many variables and uncertainties. “If you look at projections, when we predict the future we’re projecting our anxieties on the future,” he said.
Steinberg, who has lived in Chicago for 30 years, said adaptation was a crucial point for Chicago overtaking St. Louis as the major Midwestern city.
“All these changes are happening, and you can either fight them or go with,” he said. Steinberg referenced the use of video cameras that helped catch the Boston Marathon bombers. “Pre-1990 it’s an Orwellian nightmare,” he said, “but so far they seem to actually be a crime-fighting tool.”
Steinberg said technology has always been a point of anxiety in society, but that the people who predict invention has stopped are always wrong.
“I think there’ll be wonders aplenty, because that always happens, but I have no idea what they are,” he said.