Before We Let Robots Reclaim the Sahara . . .

With the fast pace of modern technology, it’s no surprise that serious attention has been focused on how it might be applied to reclaiming some of the millions of square miles of non-polar desert which comprise approximately 13% of the Earth’s dry land surface.  It’s not a new idea, but previous attempts have been hampered by the lack of reliable water sources to sustain new plantings.  Yet this may be changing.  The expense of desalinating seawater has fallen – at least, for locations near a coast – and the capability exists now of extracting water directly from even the driest of desert air.  Importantly, both these methods avoid diversion of the already stressed existing groundwater supplies.  With water available, a desert region could be methodically planted, beginning from its green fringe and working outward.  Such a process may at some point be automated, according to a Dutch engineer writing in 2015:  in the future, robots can be developed that will not only grow plants, but also maintain and monitor the new growth as it stabilizes and gains a foothold at the new edge of the desert.

One welcome benefit of reforesting a great desert such as the Sahara would be in the international cooperation it could foster.  It’s happened before:  nations from Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east have coordinated efforts over the last ten years to contain the further spread of the Sahara southward.  However, much of the work, done by hand, was very labor-intensive.  Perhaps the use of autonomous machines for these tasks would supplant the low-skill human workers, but it would also create the opportunity for the nations to train and employ the many technicians needed for the robots, which will likely be there for a long time.  Perhaps historical rivalries between the regions could be channeled productively into competition for which country or district can average the greatest annual reclamation acreage from sand to farmland or forest.

Yet the slow expansion of plants will mean not only opportunities, but raise some difficult questions, too.  How much of the new growth will be allocated to forest use and how much to farmland?  How will wildlife be managed, as animals move into the new areas, especially as new waterholes form and existing oases expand?  Will existing Saharan mammals (which tend to be small, reducing their surface area water loss) be subject to overwhelming predation by larger animals moving in with the new treelines?  In Africa, as in many other less-developed areas of the world, land is often unregistered and ownership unclear.  Will it be a foregone result that the newly productive land will routinely fall into the hands of cronies working for the local Big Men?

In any case, as the effort gains momentum, education will be necessary for the local indigenous population in interacting with the re-greening robots.  After all, the large-scale use of such autonomous systems could be thought of as introducing an entirely new species to the local ecosystem.  Like natural organisms, the robots would be creatures deeply connected to their environment, and they would remain in a re-forested location for probably many years – if not indefinitely – to monitor and care for the new growth, to assure its success.  Caution may be needed as their activities begin to encrouch on the traditional lands and nomadic culture of the Berber and Bedouin peoples of North Africa.

Finally, in evaluating the progress of such efforts, the global ecological implications shouldn’t be ignored.  Existing evidence has found that the forest of the Sierra Nevada region of the US receive valuable nutrients in dust originating from the Gobi desert.  Similarly, the Amazon rainforest benefits from dust blown across the Atlantic from the Sahara.  A shift in weather patterns above and around new-forested areas will likely also result, with the possibility of corresponding climate change elsewhere.

As we can see, leveraging technology to change the environment, ostensibly for the better, can be easily visualized, but to really make it plausible, one must be ready to consider and address the social, political, and wider environmental aspects as well. — Kurt Callaway

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Is Space the Final Frontier for Molecular Gastronomy?

Chefs who specialize in molecular gastronomy around the world dedicate their lives to food in pursuit of flavor through the use of science and art. They are constantly studying and experimenting with food to push their boundaries. Like a chemist, biologist or physicist, they have a lab. It is a kitchen you would usually imagine with tools you use such as: stove, oven, grill and etc. However, their kitchen may also include items from a science lab like syringes, liquid nitrogen, enzymes, centrifuge, or thermal immersion circulator. They are able to produce food that looks like something out of a science fiction novel. What you get from these experiments are transparent ravioli, edible menus and s’mores spaghetti, just to name a few.

In 2011, Ardbeg Distillery with the help of NASA sent some of their whiskey into space to age.  As a result of orbiting space for three years, it was determined that gravity does have an inherent effect on organic compounds. The flavors found in the whiskey from space carried notes of flavors that are not found commonly in their whiskey. As the development of commercial space travel develops, this could lead to a new wave of experimentation for the culinary industry. The future of food could be in the hands of Astro-chefs. Just think, we could finally have Astronaut ice cream that is actually from space. David Nguyen



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Forest Futures: A Bionic Leaf: An Unsuspecting Hero? you may remember and was a fan of the 1970s-television series The Six Million Dollar Man, in which actor Lee Majors plays Colonel Steve Austin, an astronaut turned cyborg-like superhuman following a catastrophic accident, who uses his nuclear-powered bionic limbs and implants on behalf of the US government to battle evil for the good of mankind. As the rebuilt “bionic man” embodying costly new technology (back then) that made him “better, stronger and faster than he was before”, Colonel Austin was the unsuspecting hero who always saved the day. Fast forward 40 years into the future, to the 2010s, when it may delight you to learn that the once fantastical made-for-entertainment realm of bionics has been turned into real-life practical solutions for the developing world, with the creation of an artificial “bionic leaf”.

The initial inception of the artificial leafdubbed “bionic” because it is a biological system interfaced with an inorganic catalyst—by Harvard Scientists in 2011 was for application in the energy sector in its use as a biomanufactured system that converts solar energy into liquid fuel and electricity. The more recent focus of the Harvard scientists relative to the next generation bionic leaf is its prospective application in the agricultural sector in its use for making fertilizer. Ongoing and evolving technological development of the bionic leaf and its multi-application use has thought-provoking implications for forest futures.

As an efficient energy-producing fuel source, the artificial leaf, comprised of a photovoltaic cell sandwiched in between two thin metal oxide catalysts, mimics photosynthesis in that it absorbs sunlight to produce a chemical reaction that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen gas. The artificial leaf paved the way for development of the bionic leaf, which joins the “water-splitting catalyst” with a metabolically engineered bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha that consumes hydrogen and takes in carbon dioxide to produce a versatile liquid hydrogen fuel. The bionic leaf stores the liquid fuel, and has potential use in fuel cells. In these applications, the bionic leaf proved to be a low-cost, “portable renewable chemical synthesis platform“ with even wider applications.

In a later application involving the production of fertilizer, the bionic leaf was designed to use a different type of bacteria, Xanthobacter, which consumes the hydrogen produced by the leaf, while also taking in carbon dioxide from the air to create a bioplastic. The bacteria stores the bioplastic as fuel and uses it to produce ammonia, “a nitrogen-hydrogen compound that forms the basis of fertilizer”.

In soil, this bionic invention pulls nitrogen from the air and uses the bioplastic to “drive the fixation cycle to make ammonia for fertilizing crops.” The effectiveness of this technology is evidenced by five crop cycles of radishes that weighed 150 percent more than a control group of radishes—an indication of its super-efficiency and promise for farmers in developing countries, who could use the bionic leaf to produce fertilizer that improves crop yields.

Ongoing research involving scaled-up experiments for the production of carbon neutral fuels point to future application of the bionic leaf for mitigating climate change.

For fans of the super-efficient bionic leaf, it’s no stretch of the imagination that it could be adapted for application to forests, which certainly raises two thought-provoking questions and implications for consideration.

  • First, could/should this technology be adapted by forest services and used to produce carbon-neutral fertilizing biomass? An implication for its use in this way are trees that grow better and stronger and possibly at much faster growth cycles than its non-use.
  • Second, would forests filled with trees grown using bionic leaf technology be more sustainably equipped for mitigating climate change? The implication in this respect is the need for long-term research, beginning now, with specific application of this technology to forest trees.

Perhaps the bionic leaf might just prove to be an unsuspecting “real” hero for forest services, and save the day for the good of all mankind. — Kimberly Daniel

(image 1 source:

(image 2 source: Nocera Lab, Harvard University,


Coming Home to the Forest

The Roman historian Tacitus recorded how Julius Caesar once interviewed men who had journeyed for two months from Poland to Gaul (France) without ever once glimpsing sunlight.  Since those days, however, it seems like civilization has been measured largely by how far the forest eaves could be pushed back from the farmland and the city walls built by humans.  But recent decades have begun to see a reversal to that way of thinking.

From the rooftop gardens of the wealthy, the idea of forests coexistent with modern cities has taken hold and suggests a variety of ways to introduce significant greenery back into cities, not just as dedicated horizontal parks at ground-level, but as an integrated approach to sustainable urban design.  Forested stretches of old elevated rail lines are already a reality in New York City, with other “high-line” parks in the works around the world.  Forests entirely indoors have been proposed:  in Belgium a huge abandoned industrial complex may become just that sort of multi-level, multi-use “green haven”.  In Asia too, the first steps of reversing that long trend of cities encroaching on green space have found a place as China (whose capital Beijing is badly affected by air pollution) plans new buildings constructed from the ground up as “vertical forests”.

Although the upward greening of the world’s cities won’t happen overnight, we can still ask what might be some of the advantages of this new trend.  Besides encouraging biodiversity, the ascending concentration of planting will help improve air quality, reduce the need for expensive street-level space, and provide a welcome, even personal, environment for the human residents.  Indeed, perhaps in time people might decide they have little need to visit a “real” forest located so inconveniently far away.  Cities which used to compete to raise the highest skyscraper might instead vie to offer the most verdant and pleasant green cityscape.

Of course, urban forests may also result in unintended consequences as well.  Some cities, struggling to provide enough water for their human population, might find themselves having to make difficult choices in allocating that precious resource.  While the forests should bring the return of many long-absent species, such as songbirds and bees, they may also exacerbate the problem of urban pests:  those already entrenched in the city (rats, mice, raccoons, and ants), as well as new ones, such as ticks, beetles, borers, and moths.

Still, the positives remain.  We can imagine businesses hosting bird-watching expeditions around the newly-verdant skyscrapers of Manhattan.  These leisurely aerial tours, in the comfort of solar-powered blimps or in personal drones, might give visitors an exciting view of the growing population of eagles nesting on the heights of downtown high-rises.  While the lower East Side has already been known for over half a century for its many smaller raptors, it is only with the rise of the vertical forests that the increasing availability and abundance of prey species, has allowed the establishment of colonies of the largest apex predators.  Perhaps visitors will even be able to disembark on the roofs of selected buildings for a closer look, though perhaps on such tours patrons should be discouraged from bringing along pets or very small children.

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Alum Jason Siko: How Tech Is Revolutionizing Education


Jason Siko, Assistant Professor at Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) College of Education and a University of Houston Foresight alum, recently gave his insights about the significance gamification, design thinking, and technology on education on the Rapid Growth website along with several other industry experts.

He explained an innovative, human-centered approach to problem solving has provided technology education with new ideas and options, most notably in educational game design.

“When you think of educational games, you probably think of some apps that are basically drill and practice, or some sort of Jeopardy review game,” GVSU’s Siko explained in his interview. “Those are just kind of review-based drill and practice games. It’s necessary, and it’s helpful, but it’s not necessarily transformative.”

However, when other variables and a narrative are added to the games, transformational change can begin to happen. He said, “The video game industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with programmers, designers, and storytellers. And part of what makes game design a different form of learning is the fact that you’re not only learning different kinds of content, but also doing things like writing across the curriculum, putting an element of creative writing into science.”

Before joining GVSU, he received his doctorate in instructional technology from Wayne State University. Before that, Siko earned his masters in foresight from the University of Houston. He told Rapid Growth the trends indicate the future may see less technology in the classroom, or at least fewer devices.

Siko observed the world is moving toward a convergence in media. “We’re getting to this point where we just have one device for everything. You see this with our communications, our televisions, our media. We’re going from desktops, to laptops, to tablets, to phones,” Siko added. “There’s this big push to kind of converge everything into one device that you may even be able to plug into a screen just so you can have access to something larger if you need to.”

He also helps contribute to GVSU’s Technology Showcase website that shows how innovative emerging technologies can enhance teaching and improve student learning. To learn more about Jason Siko, you can read the interview here. — Dave Ramirez


New Spring 2017 Foresight Students

As the semester draws to a close, we’d like to highlight and thanks our new Spring students who agreed to be profiled for the blog [Better late than never!]

Keri Christensen

Keri has 20+ years as a market research professional. In her current role at Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, she is the Market Insights Manager. In her role, she supports the C-Suite for US and four Specie Marketing & Sales Organizations with market insights to uncover unmet customer needs, forecasts new product adoption, drives brand strategy, and develops new communications platforms. Keri also acts as provocateur and truth teller to reveal when organizational blinders and “accepted wisdom” are blocking innovation and understanding of customers’ evolving business. She also is responsible for market share reporting, primary market research and competitive intelligence. She has a 13 year old daughter and a 7 year old Portuguese Water Dog. Keri’s passions outside of work are Bikram hot yoga, mountain biking and travel.

Sarah Finchum

Sarah absolutely loves a challenge and expanding her knowledge of every subject she applies herself to, including her decision to return to school to begin a Master’s degree in Foresight at the University of Houston. The leadership skills she learned through various retail positions—and continue to improve upon in and out of the classroom—and her love of meeting and beating goals makes her an invaluable player in a business that is always seeking new ways to improve, whether front of the house or back end operations.


Donna Harris

Donna teaches business and career development at two veterinary schools. In addition, she handles consulting projects for veterinary associations in the finance and student debt area.

Karen Rosenthal

Karen Rosenthal, DVM, MS, has an impressive professional history, from being Director of Special Species Medicine at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by years focused on Avian and Exotic pets at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. She is now Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at St. Matthew’s University in the Cayman Islands, British West Indies.

Karen is the associate dean of Academic Affairs at the St. Matthews Veterinary School, located on the Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. Her veterinary career includes serving as associate professor, and founding director and section chief of Special Species Medicine at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Previous awards include the Daniels Award for Excellence in Small Mammal Endocrinology and the Exotic DVM of the Year (2010).

She writes on numerous scientific topics and speaks at national and international veterinary conferences. Additionally, Karen is a reviewer for many scientific journals and associate editor for the Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine. Rosenthal was a founding member of the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians and the Small Mammal Program Chair for the North American Veterinary Conference. She also served as president of the Association of Avian Veterinarians from 2008 to 2009.



Good Futures Work Agenda!

Friday April 21 


Dinner    Goode’s Tacqueria   (4902 Kirby Drive; 713.520.9153) (link)


Drinks     Axelrad Beer Garden TBD    (1517 Alabama Street 713.597.8800) (link)

Saturday April 22

8:30-5:00 University of Houston, Isabel Cameron Bldg, 4235 Cullen Blvd, 77204  (link)

8:30-9:00 Breakfast

9:00-12:0o Working with Systems Scenarios, Christian Crews & Laura Schlehuber, Kalypso Foresight

12-1:00 Lunch provided

1:00-2:30 Dave Bengston, US Forest Service,  Implications Wheel Exercise

2:30-5:00 Mini-Cases (15 minute sessions) Topics & speakers: 2:30-2:45 Break; 2:45-3:00 Eric Kingbsury, Foresight Games; 3:00-:315 Oliver Markley, Intuition in Foresight; 3:15-3:30 Mark Sackler,  Futures Podcast;  3:30-3:45 Sean Daken, Foresight & Entrepreneurship; 3:45-4:00 Bo Roe, Scanning Source ID;  4:00-4:15 Lee Shupp, Foresight student work; 4:15-4:30 Katherine Prince & Jason Swanson, Framework Adaptation; 4:30-4:45 Peter Bishop, Combining Uncertainties into a Manageable Number of Scenarios

5:30 pm-????: Dinner (pizza & beer/wine) & Pool Party  The Hines home, 714 E 9th St, Houston, 77007   directions

Questions: or text/call 832.367.5575. — Andy

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Reality is about to encounter the next big thing!

Technology continues to move at blinding speed.  In less than 5 years, it is projected that the “latest and greatest” of trends, virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR), will see world-wide revenues of over $160 Billion. In 2016, that figure was $5.2 Billion!  This increase in revenue is reflective of a technology that will shape current markets and create new ones seemingly overnight.  In many ways, we are at the dawn of a new age.

As this technology opens new and exciting doors for everyday users, it will also create unique business opportunities.  Many new VR and AR based businesses will be created.  Meanwhile, existing and traditional business models will need to discover ways to utilize VR and AR to retain and attract customers.  Much as the internet revolutionized commerce, VR and AR will do the same.

As with the internet, the dangers associated with the spread of VR and AR technology will not be initially understood.  The massive amounts of data being generated and captured by this technology will be rich targets for hackers and cyber-terrorists.  As a UH foresight student, who works in the cybersecurity industry, the signs of the impending storm are as ominous as dark clouds over the prairie! Companies will need to understand the risks of embracing this tech before fully deploying it to customers.  Cybersecurity, however, has traditionally been reactionary in nature.  New foresight based approaches to these issues are needed to ride out the storm.

Can the cybersecurity lessons of the past be enough for companies to adequately prepare to protect their customers’ data before jumping into the pool of VR and AR?  Are we ready for the new reality? — Mike Ivicak


After Brexit, Whither Europe?

After months of anticipation, the United Kingdom triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty this week, marking the beginning of the end of its membership in the European Union. As an aspiring futurist living in England, I had a front-row seat to last year’s “Brexit” referendum – and it’s unexpected outcome. Thankfully, I had already contemplated the future of the EU in one of my University of Houston foresight courses, and realized the breakup of this bloc is but one of several plausible scenarios:

EU Unraveling: “Brexit” may inspire copycats, as other EU members demand concessions, threaten to leave, or even eject underperforming states. In this scenario, the Schengen agreement would likely break down as border controls are restored amid social, economic, and security concerns.

Continental System: A chaotic “Brexit” would offer a cautionary tale for Eurosceptics, as the EU balance of power shifts back to Germany and France, potentially leading the way to closer integration. If EU leaders find a way to address security concerns and refugee flows through closer cooperation and burden sharing, and the Eurozone improves economic performance through greater fiscal union, progress towards a federated EU “superstate” could eventually resume.

Europe à la Carte: A “never closer union” is the most likely scenario, with core EU members committing to case-by-case integration while others opt out or are left behind in a “two-speed” Europe. More policy areas would be subjected to intergovernmental control, relaxing Schengen and Eurozone commitments to preserve political consensus, while the European Commission and Parliament further decline in influence.

After Capitalism: Zero Marginal Cost Society

N0 jobs? No ownership? No capitalism? No problem. For Jeremy Rifkin, a post-job and post-ownership future will propel humanity to a next level of humanity: the Homo Empathicus. Rifkin’s promise is that technology will liberate humanity from its material pursuits, so we can better focus on human relationships.

The title of the book is inspired by the massive economies of scale provided by digitization: once software or a digitally recorded film is uploaded to the internet, the cost of reproducing the file is essentially at zero marginal cost. Rifkin envisions an ambitious reorganization of society, as he predicts that “zero marginal cost” will be applied to other areas:

  • Free renewable energy to power local communities.
  • Free products made by free labour (automation & 3D printing), designed for free (open source), and powered by free energy (renewable)
  • Free communication via the internet for humans and machines (Internet of Things)

Free is perhaps a generous hyperbole, but what Rifkin argues is that the cost associated with these three components have been reaching lower and lower towards zero marginal cost. The decline in cost will allow each community to become self-sufficient, paving the way for decentralization and the return to a society centered around communities.

Rifkin’s vision, of course, is neither far-fetched nor entirely unique. We already have Wikipedia to Coachsurfing and nascent IoT systems to solar power microgrids in Germany. His vision builds on various “new economies” ideas that are well known, such as the blockchain, sharing, collaborative, and open source economies.

Energy Sources & Human Consciousness?

Rifkin attempts a sweeping narrative of human history, where energy is the main paradigm that drives human development and even humanity’s social consciousness. From wind power to coal, Rifkin sees energy behind the drive towards urbanization (windmill power), formalized religion (hydraulic agriculture), and so on. Free energy via renewables is the next step to the next stage of human development.

Such view of history strongly echoes Don Edward Beck’s “Spiral Dynamics” concept, which describes a deterministic view of humanity’s sociocultural evolution from selfish individualism to emphatic collectivism. In Beck’s Spiral Dynamics, the end goal of humanity is reaching “collectivism” and “cosmic spirituality.” Along similar lines, Rifkin calls the end state of humanity the Emphatic Civilization, where humanity becomes globally connected as networked collectives, communalized in resource allocation, and emphatic in human behavior.

Ambitious Ideas, Many Assumptions

The book makes vast and generous assumptions of human behavior. Rifkin assumes that post-abundance – a world of free labour and energy – will turn humanity into an “Emphatic Civilization”. However, it could just easy turn into a Wall-E scenario where humans, emancipated from the demands of labour and survival, enjoy permeant distractions of materialism and vapid media consumption.

There are also the practical questions of who will pay and own these new systems of energy, IoT infrastructure, and manufacturing automation robots. It is not a given that it’ll be run by communities or cooperatives. Jason Lanier, a researcher at Microsoft, argues that the current titans of technology– from Uber to Google and Amazon – are pushing us towards corporate centralization of control. Lanier warns us that whoever owns the servers controls the world. This does not enable the Emphatic Civilization that Rifkin envisions.

Much Needed Optimism?

When reading Zero Marginal Cost Society, it is tempting be distracted by Rifkin’s cheerleading enthusiasm and ambitious, yet awkward, attempt to cobble together a grand narrative of human history. Yet, as a work about the future, Rifkin is successful in surveying our current era of technological upheaval, connecting them together, and extrapolating a plausible, better humanity. Indeed, given the global sense of uncertainty today, Rifkin optimistic vision of how humanity can move forward is a welcome contribution.

Note: This is part of the series of discussion at Houston Foresight on the topic of After Capitalism. — Daniel Riveong