Who is Melissa Sterry?
For our second interview in the Back to the Futurist series, we interview an old friend of Urban Times Melissa Sterry. Melissa is a futurist and design scientist specializing in emergent and future sustainable innovation in the built environment, design, manufacturing, materials, publishing, media and communications.
A PhD researcher at the Advanced Virtual and Technological Architecture Research group at the School of Architecture, Design and Construction at the University of Greenwich, she is developing The Bionic City™: a sustainable smart city it transfers knowledge from Earth’s ecosystems to a blueprint for a metropolis with resilience to extreme meteorological and geological events. A Visiting Fellow and Assembly member at University of Salford, Melissa is a Visiting Lecturer and Guest Critic at universities including the AA School of Architecture. A member of the scientific committee of the International Bionic Engineering Society, she is published in over 50 international titles, including Sustain magazine, of which she is an editorial board member.
A director of Earth2Hub.com she was the founder of catalyst for rapid innovation in sustainable design NEW FRONTIERS™. An inductee of the Global Women Inventors and Innovators Network Hall of Fame, Melissa has been the recipient of several national and international awards including the Mensa Education and Research Foundation’s International Award for Benefit to Society 2010 for exceptional commitment to enhancing intelligence which benefits society.
Follow Melissa on Twitter @melissasterry.
Which futurists past and present inspire you and why?
Arthur C. Clarke, Buckminster Fuller and Leonardo da Vinci, each of which was a polymath extraordinaire who combined equal parts intellectual and creative genius with hands-on practical skills. The original thinker doers, all three of these individuals didn’t just imagine it, but made it too. While many futurists can ‘scenario build’ using models, relatively few have the combination of technical skills required to assess the practicalities involved in taking an idea from paper to reality. While it’s true that building some of the very most futuristic concepts is beyond humankind’s current capacity, the best futurists will generally be able to mentally walk through the build of an idea, working out the how’s, what’s and why’s – using this process to discern between what will remain science fiction and what could become science fact.
Which recent developments in science, engineering and design do you consider the most significant to the future?
Modern civilization is essentially built on the assumption that the Homo sapien is the most intelligent of all species, not only on Earth, but Universally. This human-centric perspective of reality perpetuates the notion that everything, near or far, is humanity’s for the taking.
Reality check – the known Universe contains an estimated 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, which sit in a cosmic soup abundant in the building blocks of life. “Life finds a way”, said the character of Dr. Ian Malcolm in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. We now know that life can thrive in places we once considered inhospitable, including the sides of hydrothermal vents, the Earth’s mantle at depths of 2.2 miles below and the ocean floor at depths of 7 miles deep. Life has the capacity to freeze and unfreeze, to survive fire, radiation and even, in the most extreme known case, to survive a direct asteroid impact, as illustrated by a species of bacteria that thrives in the crater’s such collisions create. Add to this the fact we now have the technology to uncover potentially inhabitable Earth-like planets like Kepler-22b and the penny drops that we’re almost certainly not alone.
School textbooks teach children that humanity’s evolution has followed a neat and orderly growth curve that sweeps in an upturned arc along the X-axis up the Y-axis. Not so. A growing international collection of archeological finds illustrate a very different past – one that involves Homo sapiens – the last remaining member of the bi-pedal hominid family, facing challenges of truly colossal proportions, including such phenomena as super eruptions that caused volcanic winters lasting several years, dramatic shifts in climate that led to sea level rises of up to 70 meters that re-shaped coastlines worldwide, droughts so severe they brought entire civilizations to their knees and Ice Ages that forced migrations of continental proportions. We’ve also realised that not only are challenges of such proportions relatively cyclical, but that a good few of them, notably eruptions on a scale of VEI 6 and above, are statistically speaking, possible any time herein.
A field of science that I’m particularly interested in involves bringing together archeologists, paleoclimatologists, paleoseismologists, paleovolcanologists and genealogists to exam the possibility that ancient stories, that are classically categorized as ‘myth’, may in fact relate to real, not fictional events. Through interdisciplinary research projects, enabled not only by wide-ranging expertise, but also by state-of-the-art sensory and computing systems, we are now able to turn back the clock and, with the help of CGI, recreate the past. When anthropologists and cognitive scientists come to the table we can start to make sense of ancient belief systems and practices, such as the possible origins of worshipping deities.
These and other relatively recent scientific discoveries are reframing the context of our existence – our place in time, space and the Universe. Our consciousness is expanding from local to national to global, from the here-and-now to deep time, wherein we no longer make decisions at the individual-level, be that a person, a company or a nation, but instead make them at worldwide scale and within an historical context. However, our ancient ancestors looked above and beyond events at a planetary level: to the furthest reaches of physical and metaphysical reality. Any and all discoveries that question humanity’s fundamental understanding of its existence are significant, be it that they relate to our past, our present or our possible future, because these are the foundations of our emergent reality; paradigm 2.0.
What expertise and tools are critical to your trade?
Expansive real-time knowledge across one’s particular fields of expertise ranks at No. 1 in my list of critical skills and tools. I believe that knowledge should not only comprise technical skill, i.e. a fundamental understanding of science, design, engineering, technology and economics, but also robust historical knowledge, so as to be able to contextualize current and possible future events. Facilitating that knowledge requires outstanding research skills and an extremely curious, inquisitive and committed nature that persistently drives one to dig deep into subject matter. The ability to rapidly solve problems and puzzles is likewise key, because this is what enables one to quickly and seamlessly spot connections between events that may span different epochs, continents and disciplines. Creativity is paramount, as are strong communication skills, both written and verbal, because an inventive, innovative and expressive mind is required to visualize and communicate events that may happen in both the near and the distant future. Beyond this connectivity is key, in particular the support of a global expertise network that one can draw upon to participate in futurism projects.
From a technical perspective there’s a fair amount of lingo, theory and methodology to futurism, so if you’ve set your heart on a career in the field I advise a course of study, be it formal or informal. However, if you’re feeling blinded by science, remember that there are no hard n’ fast rules to the discipline, in that you can apply all the terminology and process you like, but, if when all’s said and done you have no natural talent for it, you’re wasting your time. On the other hand, if you’re bursting with enthusiasm for the future and know you can spot a potentially world-changing trend at several hundred paces then go for it, because now, more than ever before, humanity needs to think long and hard about the road ahead.
Are futurists catalysts for change in themselves?
That very much depends on which futurist you’re talking about. Some futurists have little, if any real impact on the future, while others have a truly profound impact that radically shifts thinking in one or more sectors. Generally speaking the futurists who act as catalysts for change in themselves are thinker-doers that go beyond merely speculating on future events and actively build new inventions and innovations. How the thinker-doer futurist manifests his or her work varies from doing so physically (i.e. running a future-led design, architecture or media studio, as does Mitchell Joachim) to conceptually (i.e. by writing science fiction and/or science fact works for the publishing and film industries) or a bit of both. However, in all cases, the most influential futurists have the capacity to endow others with insight into possible future scenarios that involve not one, but a chain of events in order to manifest.
Of the past predictions that never became a reality, which are your favourite and why?
Many a futurist has visualized future cities endowed with flying vehicles of one variety or another, be it cars, airships, jet packs or spaceships and, as I suspect many others do, I often imagine how wonderful it would be to fly from A to B. However, in reality I suspect the advent of flying vehicles, particularly privately owned ones, would spell havoc – havoc for birds unable to cope with vehicles crossing their flight path, havoc for councils, businesses and homeowners as flying vehicle pilots flew wherever the fancy took them, under-hindered by the infrastructure required for ground-level transport, amongst other adverse scenarios. While a range of emergent technologies in other fields could possibly mitigate such problems, all factors considered, an alternative solution such as the Maglev, is probably a more practical solution, though not nearly as exciting as a flying car!
Many of the most high profile futurists are men. Why are there so few female futurists and do you think it’s likely more women will enter the field?
While I’ve never previously given the question of why there are so few prominent female futurists much thought, I strongly suspect the same driving forces that result in under-representation of women in positions of authority in other sectors, is applicable here. However, women are becoming increasingly prominent in the field and I see the future of futurism being gender-balanced, because when it comes down to it we girls can do ‘geek’ as well as the next guy!
What do you think is the most significant futurist prediction of the past 100 years?
It’s a close call, but on balance I’d say satellite telecommunications, as envisaged by Arthur C. Clarke in 1945; a technology which has enabled up-to-the-minute tracking of meteorological, ecological and geological events worldwide, while simultaneously providing us with access to communications in even the very most remote of places on Earth, not to mention supporting the ilk of GPS navigation systems for every genre of transportation system. Where would be without satellite communications? Personally, I’d probably be lost without my SatNav!
Of the futurists using Twitter, which do you recommend following (aside from @urbnfutr)?
Michio Kaku @michiokaku
Popular Science @popsci
Gerd Leonhard @gleonhard
Rohit Talwar @fastfuture
Patrick Dixon @patrickdixon
Rachel Armstrong @livingarchitect
Radical Future @radicalfuture
Cindy Frewen Wuellner @Urbanverse
Watch the full Earth 2.0: Initialization.