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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2011
DOI: 10.5062/F4C8276M

Book Reviews

2030: Technology That Will Change the World

Kitty Porter
Reference Librarian
Stevenson Science and Engineering Library
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tennessee

Copyright 2011, Kitty Porter. Used with permission.

Rutger van Santen, Djan Khoe, Bram Vermeer. 2030: Technology That Will Change the World. New York, Oxford University Press, 2010.

As a librarian, I am used to seeing reports telling me what the top X trends that will affect my life in the next X years will be. I enjoy reading them and learn a lot from most of them.

At first I thought 2030: Technology that will change the world would be another of these. But it is much more ambitious. The book grew out of a survey of future developments the authors put together in 2006 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. Since that time, the world has had to contend with crises that are global in scope. As scientists, the authors have seen technology improve the lives of many people, to the point where some say innovations are no longer needed; but they have also seen it lay the groundwork for the globalization of disaster. As it has been a part of the problem, they say technology should also be part of the solution. So they talked to other scientists, technological experts and visionaries around the world, asking them to look at the kinds of research that will be needed to create the world they would like to see in 20 years. Out of these discussions has come the realization that problems don't exist in isolation nor do the solutions. Scientists have begun to realize that they live in a world of complex systems where small changes can have huge effects. These complex situations can be seen as networks. The application of the tools of complexity science and networking to these situations provides a new way of viewing both problems and solutions. These two themes are woven throughout the book, reinforcing the ideas of authors and experts in area after area.

The book is divided into seven sections: Basics, Needs, Earth, Tools, Humans, Communities, and Vision. In Basics, they describe their approach and begin to lay the groundwork. The following sections discuss some of the most pressing problems facing life on this planet. They cover topics like food and water, climate, energy, communications, medicine, quality of life, clean manufacturing, education, finance, and cities. Each subsection takes a problem and traces its development and the role technology has played in that development. Then the authors present some possible solutions and outline technological advances that will have to be made to get where they want to go. They point out pitfalls that must be avoided. In some cases, solutions to problems in the past have actually made things worse so they want to prevent this from happening again.

The authors and their experts see the necessity for lots of data gathering to inform actions, the development of flexible networks, and the ability to make rapid changes. Other ideas include increasing network decentralization and local approaches to problem solving.

A good example that includes most of these issues is the question of the electricity grid discussed in the Energy section. Its rigidity constitutes a major obstacle to change. Central power generation has been the goal with the resulting power being transmitted by a network of lines over long distances. A disruption in one section can have major consequences as we have seen several times in recent years. Smart networks with many sensors keeping track of problems could lead to rerouting of power in times of stress and prevent major disruptions. As more and more people begin to generate their own power locally, even as far down the chain as each household, the networks will have to become more flexible.

The same ideas are repeated in the sections on manufacturing in the automobile and chemical industries, communications, food production and distribution to name but a few.

The chapter on Energy represents their approach well. The authors work through all forms of energy proposed to substitute for fossil fuels: the sun, water, wind, geothermal and nuclear power; the potential limits of each, some of which are common knowledge, others of which make one think; the benefits; and the problems that must be solved before each becomes a useful replacement for fossil fuels.

Some of the subsections in the chapters on Humans and Communities are less expected than the ones on traditional areas like energy, climate and communication. Chief among these are the ones on finance, quality of life, peace, maintaining identity, and the prospects of cities. But, given the authors' idea that there is a centrality underlying nearly all aspects of life, it makes sense to include them and to discuss the ways that they are related to the more prominent questions.

The final section on Vision talks about the interconnectedness underlying everything. Solutions to these global problems are going to have to be global and developing them will take hard work. People and countries will have to make hard choices based on a firm understanding of the complexity of the problems, of technology and of society.

There are other books listing problems and making dire predictions. In some cases, you read impatiently hoping for some answers, only to find none. This book is different. The authors present doable solutions for each problem. The book is easy reading and has notes, sometimes extensive, to buttress the discussions and conclusions. At the end it leaves you feeling both hopeful and depressed. So much of the discussions going on around us these days have so little to do with the really important matters that Van Santen, Khoe, and Vermeer have laid before us. Answers are there, but we have to make some changes and get down to serious global collaborative work to find them.

You would expect to find this book in science libraries, a case of preaching to the converted. But the clear writing and non-alarmist presentation makes it something that could appeal to generalists and public library patrons as well.

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