charlie stephens

Future of Suburbia: Report from Cambridge

In the United States, over 69 percent of all residents live in suburban areas. Across the globe many other developed countries are primarily suburban, while developing countries are increasingly suburbanizing. By 2050, an additional 2.7 billion people are anticipated to live in metropolitan regions around the world, and suburbs are a significant portion of this urban expansion. Over the past two years, 150 experts from numerous, diverse disciplines contributed research that explores this contemporary global phenomenon – and on April 1st their work was showcased at the MIT Media Lab for the Future of Suburbia conference.

The “Future of Suburbia” was chosen as MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism biennial theme in order to shed light on the growing role suburbs play in our lives and how they may be improved for the future.   Suburbia is an often polarizing issue that should no longer be ignored by the fields of Planning and Design.

The conference is just one of three products the Center for Advanced Urbanism created for its biennial research theme. An exhibition, located on the ground floor of the MIT Media Lab included infographic mappings, a 22ft x 8ft dynamic model of a 3 million population polycentric region in the year 2100, and aerial footage of global suburbs. The third product, a publication entitledInfinite Suburbia (Fall 2017), brings together 50+ authors and about 700 references, providing groundbreaking research on our low-density future.

Each of MIT’s five schools were represented at the conference, spanning twelve key fields. Attendees also included students from Harvard and Chapman University, and speakers in demographics, entrepreneurship, history, urban design and media production. The findings were presented within four design frameworks, including heterogeneous, productive, autonomous and experimental, which were explored through a variety of fields; including design, architecture, urban planning, history and demographics, policy, energy, mobility, health, environment, economics, and applied and future technologies.

The conference centered on the question, how might suburbia be upgraded to better suit our needs? Can new suburban models be created for developed, but also developing, countries? What challenges will suburbs face in the future? Despite such a large and complex topic, enlightening data, opinions and predictions were given regarding suburbs and their role in a sustainable future.

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Step Into a Near Future Where Londoners Withdraw From Reality

Why gawk at Big Ben, take a stroll in Kensington Gardens, or ride the underground if you can get more from a screen?

With VR headsets set to roll out to markets in the next few months, the gaming experience is on the verge of a revolution. What more, the way we experience our surroundings is also transforming, and new technologies mark a period of increasing social isolation. In Away from Reality, two artists and a photographer comment on the changing nature of our society by envisioning a future London where the virtual eclipses reality.

The project was led by London based artists Tayfun Sarier and Guus ter Beek along with Instagram influencer Mr. Whisper, and depicts people engulfed in their own virtual worlds. Cut off from the surrounding environment, Londoners are blind to the historical landmarks, cultural experiences, and urban greenery that make up the city’s vibrant and emotional character.

Described by the creative team as our “modern day phenomenon,” Away from Reality (AFR) isn’t so much different from what’s already taking place in cities today. We might find ourselves absorbed in our phones or blindly obsessing over the perfect selfie, and it becomes easy for us to lose sight of the physical beauty and subtle intricacies of our surroundings. And while immediate information and entertainment is gratifying, people still seem to walk away unfulfilled.

\Rather than mock the future of technology, the pictures seem to act as a paradoxical PSA, urging us to take caution in how we let new technology into our lives. VR is unlocking new imaginative worlds but strapping on a headset is isolating in nature. And no matter how realistic or social the VR experience gets, we’ll face obstacles in making these digital experiences meaningful, and satisfying for our physical and spiritual selves.

Whatever deeper meaning or artistic intention we may take from the images, the project clearly plays off modern technologies and urban experiences. Our society is increasingly becoming divided by digital and physical realities, and its ultimately up to us how we decide to balance this dynamic in every aspect of our lives.

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The Sociology of Fear

As part of its annual Survey on American Fears, Chapman University has tried to identify what Americans fear the most. A team of professors and students teamed up to retool last year’s survey tool and dig up American’s deepest horrors. In total, a random sample of 1,500 adults across the country wereasked about 88 different individual fears, in which they were to rank questions accordingly. Last year Americans were worried about walking alone at night and identity theft. But with the presidential elections just around the corner, it wasn’t surprising to see that corruption of our own government officials topped this year’s results.

Sociology of Fear

Nobody has ever cracked the code of human emotions. Our feelings are rooted within the depths of our physiology, but our cheers and screams are also products of our environment. Put insociological terms, “fearfulness in varying degrees is part of the very fabric of everyday social relations”. This is bad news for those who thought the pursuit of happiness would be all fun and games.

Director of the Fear Survey Chris Bader recruited a group of interdisciplinary students to join the semester long course to help retool last year’s survey and to provide fresh perspective on what American’s Fear. But when the student researchers involved in the project (including me) arrived at the first class of Sociology of Fear, we weren’t completely aware of what would be a grueling month of debate, passion, and even tears.

Our class conducted multiple rounds of survey testing with friends, family and strangers to get feedback on additions made to last year’s survey tool. The most common fear amongst us twenty something college students facing the brink of graduation was “not living up to our potential”, and we considered this when evaluating the current state of American fears.

Rapid communication and transfer of information creates the perception that our peers are having more fun and being more productive than us, and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) was brought up numerous times during discussion. But our personal explorations did not interfere with the macro-level research conducted for the project, and in the end, the fears that rose to the top of the list were cross-generational.  After all, the survey was on American fears, not millennial anxieties.

The course was a growing experience, but it was the work of the research faculty and project leaders that transformed this experience into excellent insights on the current American situation.

Biggest Fears Today

The survey explored four categories of fear: personal fears, natural disasters, paranormal fears, and drivers of fear behavior. The top American domains of fear averaged to be man-made disasters, technology, and government. Given the political transformations and technological developments taking place today, the results seem spot on.


In order of most feared to least, the environment, personal future, natural disasters, crime, personal anxieties, daily life, and judgment of others came in next on the list. Makes sense – I’m sure most of us have some concern about how we’re perceived by others, but this sentiment doesn’t quite stack up to a 8.0 earthquake or creepy government spying.

As for the top individual fears, 58% of respondents were afraid or very afraid of corruption of government officials. Perhaps Americans are on to some of the fishy things going on in Washington at the moment, or are simply sucked into the negative rhetoric commonplace in some opinion outlets.  Meanwhile, only 30% of Americans are afraid or very afraid of global warming impacting their lives.

Following behind fear of government officials, 44.8% of Americans are afraid or very afraid of cyber terrorism. 44.6% are afraid or very afraid of corporate tracking of personal info, and 44.4% of terrorist attacks. 41.4% where afraid or very afraid of government tracking of personal info, and 40.9% of bio-warfare. The remaining top fears surrounded financial and personal issues, with identity theft coming in at 39.6%, economic collapse at 39.2%, running out of money in future at 37.4%, and credit card fraud at 36.9%.

The survey also found that these fears are actually driving our actions. Fear has the strongest impact on our voting patterns. About one third who have an above average fear of government reported having voted for a particular candidate due to their fears. Even more alarming is the fact that “of those respondents who have an above average fear of the government, over 15% have purchased a gun due to fear.” Eight percent of people with an above average fear of the government send their children to private school out of fear. 


As if gun control and education reform weren’t complicated enough, we can say that emotions will play some role in how policy is shaped in the coming years.

A society of hope or fear?

That fact that Americans fear government and technology is not surprising, given the individualist basis on which our nation was founded and the exponential technological growth we’re experiencing today. The Internet is forcing institutions and businesses to be increasingly transparent in everything from product sourcing to internal communications, and the watchdog power that citizens now have is both empowering, and frightening.

It’s easy to be blinded by fear, as our emotions are the most mysterious, yet powerful forces behind our decisions. But for every 58% who are afraid of government corruption, there is 42% who isn’t. For every 44.4 percent who are afraid of terrorism, there is 55.6% with no worries. Surely, there are preventative benefits that come with healthy skepticism and insecurity, but too much diminishes any hope for societal progress. Can we keep this in mind as we go about our business, citizenship, and personal lives?

The things that make us afraid can be dealt with. Some of them are opportunities, others are threats, and a good deal of them are complex issues and events that require brave souls to challenge them head on. This being said, we can all use a little inspiration to give us light in the face of darkness.

Nelson Mandela told us quite simply, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” Emerson’s advice was a bit more menacing, perhaps more appropriate given the nature of this survey. “Always do what you are afraid to do.”

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Research and Design House is Decoding How Phones Impact Our Humanity

With a vision for human-oriented solutions, Vinaya explores human connectivity through philosophical inquiry and smart product design

Technology makes us more efficient, expands our social networks and feeds us more information, but at what cost? This November, a team of scientists, designers and engineers will begin working together to answer this question.Vinaya is a research lab and design studio that explores the relationship between humans and technology, and seeks out the balance that will lead us to happiness.

Along the way, Vinaya is pioneering a human-centric approach in product development. In a three-story building in Shoreditch, East London, a team of philosophers, anthropologists and neuroscientists will conduct extensive research on the human condition.

Their research on human connectivity, stress, tranquility, and creativity will be compiled and used in the design process, where designers and researchers will work on creating mindful consumer technology for the public.

Founder and CEO Kate Unsworth has already ventured in the world of mindful technologies with Kovert Designs, but the new Vinaya brand will develop an ecosystem around an existing and evolving set of products with the support of a recent $3M in seed funding from an impressive list of all-female investors—most notably, Carmen Busquets, the well-known major investor in Net-A-Porter.

Already, Altruis—Vinaya’s line of designer wearable tech—reduces our dependency on smartphones by silencing unnecessary notifications. The rings, bracelets, and necklaces pair seamlessly with your device to let you know when you really should look at your phone. With the launch of Vinaya, a software-based application and a new men’s line are expected to start rolling out in the next two years.

In an interview with PSFK, Unsworth also explained that the lab will publish a quarterly journal on their research as well as conceptual product ideas. While research is typically done on the back end, Vinaya will make their scientific findings available to the public, partnering with universities and academics to create articles and blog posts that are both scholarly and easy to access for the typical reader.

In a fashion similar to the socratic discussions of Ancient Greece, the building’s top floor will be home to a weekly lecture series and public experiments. Here, researchers, product developers, and consumers will come together to exchange ideas and learn from each other. It’s an innovation district on a micro-scale, a cross-functional space where face-to-face interaction will fuse theoretical and practical knowledge.

Vinaya’s operations will run on the basis that the right technology, paired with a theory of happiness, can help users explore and achieve a state of ‘ataraxia.’ Coined by ancient greek philosophers, this “lucid state of robust tranquility” is surely a condition to strive for. But thanks to our phones and the distractions they can bring, it’s a feeling that often eludes us.

For this reason, Vinaya will focus particularly on how our relationship with our smartphone negatively impacts our ability to be human. But rather than dismiss technology and the obvious benefits that it brings, the lab hopes to use it for a new purpose. That is, to reach a philosophically sound, yet technologically enhanced, state that will facilitate meaningful human experiences.

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