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Predicting technological advances a mug’s game

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TORONTO —- When I was a boy, my sister’s boyfriends paid me to disappear with old copies of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. Man, did I get excited about what the future held for all of us: mail delivered by rocket ship, flying cars, robots cleaning our homes and driverless atomic powered cars on smart highways.

Imagine my disappointment to find out that these old magazines were predicting that these innovations would be in place right at the time I was reading them. Imagine my disappointment to find that none of these great things had come to pass.

A decade or more later the late Joe Bodolai captured my disappointment in an article with a great title — something like The Future that Never Was.

More decades later and I often feel as if it’s "back to the future." But I remain hopeful. The current predictions for making our cities better are probably being written up in science magazines. Predictions are certainly appearing on the news on my flat screen TV.

Canada Post may be going out of the business of door to door delivery a little prematurely. It and other organizations could soon start using drones to deliver little packets of envelopes, Amazon books, gifts and other items right to our door. I’d watch out for the blades of the drones and keep the kids away, but this is as good a prediction as I’ve ever heard.

Google is developing a driverless car, 60 or so years after it was first predicted in my old magazines and almost as long before Google was invented. Think of the implications for our cities.

Right now I can call up an underused limousine using an "Uber" ap on my smart phone. Instead of this car idling idly, waiting for a fare to the airport or club, it takes me on a more modest trip to a restaurant or appointment. It’s about 20 per cent more than a cab and well worth it.

Take away the driver and keep that car on the road 24/7 (minus repairs and tune ups) and the price would surely plummet. Do the math. Please — I don’t want to. But wouldn’t cars operating 24 hours a day reduce the number of cars needed by at least two-thirds? Wouldn’t that cut down on traffic? If we all could order up the kind of vehicle we want or need — limo, van, station wagon, multi-passenger van — wouldn’t that cut down on the number of vehicles we feel we need to own? If the vehicles are on the road most of the time, that cuts down on parking spots and parking lots. If all these vehicles went underground, out of town or in car elevators when they needed to be parked, that would cut down on parking lots and spots even more.

Then we could harness the wisdom of the crowd. What about when we all agree to allow our smart, hand-held devices (or those worn on our wrists) to be monitored? As we walk into stores a robot can direct us to the sale items we prefer — known because of our buying history. As we enter emergency rooms a hospital computer could scan our medical records. Our devices could vibrate when another compatible person entered the bar. At networking events, the vibration could signal a potential business deal in the making.

Clip this article. Put it in a time capsule - behind sheet rock or in a book. Read it in a few decades and laugh. Then go shovel out your driveway and boost the car.


Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our times on five continents for 25 years. He loves cities and his latest book will be titled Safe Cities.



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