Science fiction scenarios

“Reality out-crazied us by 10 to 15%”, says Adam McKay about the script of Don’t Look Up, which I watched on New Year’s Day to ring in 2022 in style. I am totally with Catherine Bennett and her thoughtful review of the reviews of the film.

While cinematographically a bit of a mess like most of McKay’s films, I was left breathless — also because I had to think of Peter Kalmus’s opinion headline while watching the film (he says it’s the perfect allegory to climate change inaction).

Condescension, unbelievable characters, etc. – all these attacks ring rather hollow amid the real mess that we find ourselves in these last couple of years. Craig Mod’s thoughts on the film also reverberated, did Branko Marcetic’s review on Jacobin.

I have never cared much for science fiction except for a soft spot for all things Star Trek since I am a teenager. Having said that, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson was one of the best, if not the best book, I read in 2021.

The novel on –yet another!– UN organization (this one set up to fight global heating) must have been a very difficult one to write. Its plot does not extend far beyond the present and tackles current affairs head-on, slippery slope for science fiction I believe. It makes the bureaucratic/scientific fight against climate change accessible though, and against the odds, leaves a hopeful aftertaste.

I’ve started Saad Hossain’s Cyber Magea more out-there novel based in 2089 Dhaka. Extreme population density has become a lifesaver, for nanotechnology has enabled biologically-transformed people to create temperate zones of survival on a very hostile planet. A wild ride so far and I look forward to exploring more of this new world of science fiction once through with this.

The reason I wanted to jot these observations down: My former employer Shell is / was one of the pioneers of creating long-term scenarios and using them as an input to their operations. I came across that team’s work while in the asset management arm of the company. (The irony of global heating and Shell is not lost on me.)

I read that Dr. Cho Khong, who I have had the pleasure of meeting a few times, has now left Shell for a Fellowship at Oxford’s Said Business School. He had been around for a long time establishing political analysis as a cornerstone of the scenario work at the oil major.

The last couple of years have made long-term thinking harder no doubt. The scenario folks will respond that their work has become ever more important as a result. I agree to an extent, especially if that work is done properly.

It is certainly helpful to expose the methodology to the rigor of peer review and other academic due diligence – as too much of the global scenario industry lives within the limitations of Powerpoint slides and short corporate attention spans. Or in “The World in 2022” predictions littering the papers at this time of the year.

Science fiction writing seems at least as, if not more, elegant to conceptualize the future. The creators tend to be more creative. And because reality will out-crazy us anyway, why not go out on a limp even more to delineate the possible margins of our future? We might find out that our imagination has looked tame in comparison to the realities we will one day wake up to.

Science fiction?

OAG article

When I prepared the slides for the OAG talk I gave in June this year, I figured I might as well use the momentum to write them up for the monthly bulletin of the organization. It was a great experience penning that long a piece in my native German. And thanks to the editors, it has even become readable. So to all those readers out there who prefer reading auf Deutsch, here’s your last excuse gone not to acquaint yourself with the years of my blissful library solitude in Tokyo.

Bangkok – Mumbai

For the lack of better photography, but in need of some color on this page, this tree from Bangkok photographed during a nightly stroll

I am trying to put together a comparative paper on slums in Mumbai and Bangkok, which draws some inspiration from my work on Tokyo. It is basically about comparing the spatial distribution of slum populations across the cities. Some thoughts following the jump. Continue reading

For the record

This blog has been a true companion for much of the last decade, but it has been strangely difficult to express myself here during the last 24 months or so, two of the most difficult and eventful years.

For me COVID-19 coincided with major personal upheavals, or should I say caused one another. All this has made regularly updating this blog, beyond the usual professional tidbits, a lot harder. (Lack of) time was only one factor.

There used to be a more innocent time in which I posted travelogues here, anecdotes from around the world, as well as other reflections. My mind is brimming with these as usual, but putting them down to paper has just proven one effort too much lately.

This has created a personal precedent – for the first time in all these years, I have left little in the way of digital memory, something which I had grown so accustomed to — think of it as the annual scrolling through the year’s travails and finding pride and direction in it. Blogs are vanity projects after all.

This was brought home to me to today when my wife needed a stock photo from Myanmar for her work, and we easily found one on the archives here, taken on a trip we took a long time back.

So this blog really has really become a record of my (and her!) life. Why has this crazy recent period got such little airtime but will, in hindsight, prove so transformative? is a question I don’t want to leave unanswered.

A series of changes to my life (one of the major ones being that we are moving to Australia this December!) will allow me to “close” the preceding chapter, with some personal blog posts about to be written. That’s before I find a new professional focus, be it a new book project or whatever will keep me occupied down under.

OAG talk

I gave a talk to the “Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Natur- und Voelkerkunde Ostasiens” (OAG, German East Asiatic Society) yesterday. After 20 years of living abroad, this was a great opportunity to translate some of my research into my mother tongue German. I spoke for about an hour, which allowed for quite an in-depth tour of the various themes that I have also explored over the years on this blog. The presentation can be downloaded here. I also translated it into English.

FIRE

I rarely write on anything else than Tokyo on this blog anymore. But I have previously used this blog to reflect on some more personal financey topics, especially in this fiery treatise arguing against our real estate obsession which got a good deal of clicks.

Other posts in this category included those on impact investing and the state of economics education, among others. Anyway, this just to refresh my mind and gather some courage to stray from the all-too-familiar Tokyo and Yangon posts this blog has seen over the last few years.

FIRE (short for “financial independence, retire early”): First off, I am not among the initiated, and do approach the movement with some skepticism. I hope that such transparency upfront creates some goodwill among the believers. Continue reading

ARCH+ Contested Modernities

I wrote an article for the current issue (#243) of ARCH+, a German magazine for architecture and urbanism. This special issue is entitled “Contested Modernities” and about the development of postcolonial modernisms in Southeast Asia.

My contribution recounts the works of Raglan Squire and Benjamin Polk, who left their mark on Yangon’s built environment and ought to be rediscovered today. I have written about their work and my research on this blog before.

The edition is in German and has an impressive list of authors, covering a wide geography and breadth of topics. An English edition will be published in the fall.

Space egalitarianism

The latest paper drawing on my PhD has now been published with the International Journal for Urban Sustainable Development. It covers one of the main threads of the dissertation, i.e. decreasing intra-urban inequalities during Tokyo’s rapid growth phase between 1955-1975. The two anonymous reviewers’ comments made me change the final section quite considerably, and their feedback was highly appreciated. Get in touch if you need the full paper. What follows is the abstract.

Intra-urban inequalities during rapid development: space egalitarianism in Tokyo between 1955-1975

This paper demonstrates empirically that Tokyo’s rapid post-war growth coincided with decreasing intra-urban inequalities in the special ward area, both in terms of private and public living standards. This phenomenon has not received much attention to date because Japan’s income inequalities were generally very low during this period. However, megacity growth of this kind is normally associated with growing segregation. This paper develops the narrative of ‘spatial egalitarianism’. It attributes low intra-urban inequalities to Tokyo’s homogenous urban form, equal economic structure of its neighbourhoods, and a redistributive intermediate layer of government that took a hands-off approach to urban planning. The implications are of relevance to today’s developing megacities in Asia and beyond.

Describing “Emergent Tokyo”

Drawing on my AAS presentation (already recorded, to be aired at the end of March 2021) I would like to write up another journal article on the “Tokyo model”. This would mean that all of my dissertation has been “used” and published in some form or another. For the sake of self-inspiration I will sketch out a skeleton of the article after the break.  Continue reading