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Wednesday, April 17, 2013


The Vision

In the just-published book The Nature of the Future, Dispatches from the Socialstructured World, Marina Gorbis, executive director of The Institute for the Future, describes a scenario in which individual citizens participate directly in government, shaping their own future via a forum called the "New Agora".  The fictional character in this vignette, Rosa, is getting ready to participate:
"In preparation for her first session in the New Agora, Rosa had gotten an online orientation ... She had feared she would not be able to comprehend all the data, but it was presented in a very intuitive and visual way, plus there was an online simulation that demonstrated the many complex effects of different budget decisions.  Throughout the proceedings, New Agora members would have access to these online simulations ...[which] allowed users to see the impacts of budget decisions on particular groups and regions, the environment, and so on."
My goal when I started working on Footprint USA three years ago is cogently captured in Gorbis' scenario.  I want to empower all of us to understand the world we live in now, and mindfully choose the future we want.  Visualizing data in Footprint USA paints a picture of the world we live in today (at least the United States).  The What-If? simulator allows us to envision the future.

The What-If? Simulator

The What-If? simulator allows you to experiment with more than 80 variables - ranging from where we live to what we eat, from how we spend our time and money to how we generate and use electricity,  how and where we travel, how we educate ourselves, and what we put back into the environment.

The image below illustrates the interface to the simulator, which is organized into 25 individual models.  By tapping on any individual model, you access an interface with parameteras to explore.  The image below shows the options for electricity generation, where you can shift the mix to whatever you like.

When you select a model, lines connect it to the other models that influence it (to the left), as well as the models it influences (to the right).  In the case of electricity, it is influenced by homes, personal travel and manufacturing.  There are additional indirect influences captured in the model.  For example, using more fertilizer in agriculture drives the manufacturing of more fertilizer, which generates a need for more electricity, as fertilizer production is energy intensive.  

This comprehensive aspect of the What-If simulator enables the exploration of interesting questions, such as 'What is the impact of biofuels on electricity use, compared to electric cars?'

The electricity production model influences solid, atmospheric, and hazardous waste, as well as water, land and fossil fuel use.  The waste models have further "downstream" influences in the simulator, such as health.  The What-If? simulator does not yet cover the effects of global climate change, but additional models will be added in the future.

When you make changes to any parameter, the effects ripple through the model and a Footprint Score is calculated.  This allows you to compare the future you are designing to the present day, which has a score of 100.  You also see the individual components that contribute to the Footprint Score, as shown here:

While it is easy to create a rosy (or should I say green) future clean energy scenario, the picture changes when you include the population growth expected by 2050:

I encourage you to explore the What-If? simulator and experience first-hand the ways in which the things that shape our lives are interconnected, and what kinds of options we have in designing our future.

By the way, another use for the What-If? simulator is to calculate your own personal Footprint Score.  Set the variables for how you live today - how big your home is, how much you travel, how you spend you time and money, etc.  Are you above 100, or below?  Where would you like to get to?  What one step could you take today towards getting there?

What's Next

The What-If? simulator in its current implementation is designed to help us chose a way of living we'd like to work towards.  It reveals the interdependencies, the total systems costs, and the areas that can provide the greatest return on quality of life.

But it doesn't tell us tell us anything about how to achieve the future we want.  For example, if we wanted to switch to renewable energy production it would be a very big investment.  According to The Conundrum, by David Owen:
"Suppose we agreed on the goal of capping atmospheric CO2 at 450  parts per million - 15% higher than today and consistent with a 2 degree C rise in global temperature.  This would require freezing global energy consumption at current levels despite a projected increase in global population from 7 to 9 billion people.  It would also require the equivalent of all of the following:
  • 100 square meters of solar cells, 50 square meters of solar thermal reflectors, and one Olympic-sized swimming pool of algae for biofuel, every second for the next 25 years. 
  • One 300 foot diameter wind turbine every five minutes
  • One 100 megawatt geothermal-powered steam turbine every eight hours
  • One 3 gigawatt nuclear power plant every week"
If we did do the above, or its equivalent, what would we have to give up instead?  Would it be more practical to focus the change on decreasing consumption?  A combination of both?

These how questions will be addressed in future releases of Footprint USA.  And the vision is for much more than just a simulator.  I want to connect all of us who are interested in creating our future, through shared experiences in designing scenarios, debating the goals, and improving the models.

This first version of Footprint USA is just the first step on this path.  Your purchase of this app will fund the next steps.  I hope you will join me on this journey!

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