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Visualizing Change
Vastly different predictions about the future are influencing innovations in homes, products, transportation, and cities. Can technology really correct our green imbalance? Are we headed for climate change disaster, a low-tech “future primitive,” a techno-topia, or something else altogether?


One of my favorite abandoned home developments to visit is a couple of thousand years old. It’s in northwest Florida, an ancient shell mound left behind by now-extinct tribes of early Americans. Archeologists have pieced together the way the Timucua tribes in the region lived—building sturdy, post-style homes on low hills, thatched with palmetto leaves and braced atop enormous mounds of discarded conch and oyster shells, the remains of millions of seafood dinners. Forests have since grown over these long-abandoned sites, which are now home to an entire ecosystem of birds, small mammals, and reptiles.


Surprisingly, a modern American home, abandoned to the elements, would eventually make the same complete journey back to nature— at least according to author Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us.” Things left exposed to rain and rodents soon fall apart, Weisman notes. What about the stuff left behind? Lead paints have been banned. Urea formaldehyde is on the way out, and asbestos is long gone. Maybe entropy isn’t such a bad thing. Of course, a few new products bring new toxicity issues: CFLs, smoke alarms, mercury thermostats, computer circuit boards, flat screen TVs, and synthetic furnishings. It would be a stretch to call our homes biodegradeable.


But material usage in home construction has never accounted for their high environmental toll. That cost to the Earth comes later, when we extract and burn the fuels that make a house habitable over its useful life. Should we just walk away from 100 million units of poorly performing housing and start over?


Probably not. With middle class incomes shrinking, most people won’t go deep into debt to build a new home. Instead, the shelter sector must get creative with affordable innovations to transform our existing stock from the red—energy and material wasters—to the grey (neutral) and later on, into the black (as net energy producers).


To better understand how technology can serve the cause of sustainability, I re-visited the annual “Build a Better World by Design” conference in Providence. This event tends to attract some of the best minds on the planet to talk about sustainability through innovation.

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