Even in the Face of Adversity

Las Vegas

29 August 2019

Back in October 2017, the US Consumer Electronics Association (CTA) was on an outing in Napa Valley. The scenic north Californian wine county was the setting for the organisation’s triannual board meeting. On the agenda: the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES), one of the world’s largest tech fairs, which takes place in Las Vegas every January and is organised by the CTA. When the board members woke that morning, however, the power had gone out. “Most of us thought there was something wrong with our hotel rooms,” recalls Gary Shapiro, president of the CTA. But then the phone service died. “It turned out that the wildfires had really enveloped the area,” says Shapiro. Some from the group tried to get information on their car radios. Others ran into town. “We didn’t know whether to evacuate or not.”

In the end, they didn’t. The board went ahead with its meeting as one of the deadliest, costliest and most destructive firestorms in California’s history raged around them. No light, no phones, no Powerpoint presentations – and no coffee. “How do you do a meeting without coffee?” exclaims Shapiro, throwing up his hands. It’s a brief moment of levity. “For many of us it was a changing experience,” he says. “That in conjunction with climate change and all the disasters that seem to be occurring more frequently around the world. CES is about exposing our attendees and the industry to new things and new trends. It’s about innovation and making life improve in all areas. But you also have to have a life saved.”

CES. You’ll know it, even if indirectly. It’s the annual week-long tech extravaganza which, since 1967, has supplied us with gadgets that we may or may not need. The first-ever home VCR player, produced by Philips, launched at CES in 1970. Apple’s failure-prone Newton was showcased there with much fanfare in 1992 and 93. In the last 20 years, CES has had its permanent home in Las Vegas, where it has grown into the mega-convention it is today, showcasing some 4,400 exhibitors and attracting almost 200,000 visitors from the US and abroad. It has also become something more than a consumer electronics showcase, with the latest speculative takes on driverless vehicles, AI, and robotics increasingly taking centre stage. Earlier this year, Wired’s Lauren Goode described CES well when she evoked its “blinking smart lights, liquid-looking displays, hovering drones, yogic phones, driver-free vehicles, newfangled wireless protocols, and intangible technologies that all come with the promise of making life better”. CES is a particularly concentrated encapsulation of 21st-century consumerism.

The catastrophic 2017 board meeting in Napa Valley presaged further calamities. A few months later, CES 2018 kicked off with a freak downpour, ending a 116-day stretch without rain in Las Vegas with what became its wettest day on record. Flash floods choked the city’s streets, forcing outdoor booths such as Google’s “giant funhouse” to shut on the Tuesday, CES’s first day open to the public. Then, on the Wednesday, a major power outage threw the north and central halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center – one of CES’ main venues – into darkness for two hours. “All the flashlight vendors at CES are like, ‘Now it’s our time to shine!’” someone quipped on Twitter. Another attendee posted a video of a woman playing the violin at Intel’s booth while visitors waited for power to be restored. “#CESblackout,” it read. “This is some titanic level shit,” a retweet shot back.

It’s hard not to see the metaphor: CES as a behemoth too big to fail, beset by powers even greater than its kaleidoscopic arsenal of human-made ingenuities. For what use is a smart kitchen when it’s flooded? What’s a new VR headset in a wildfire? What can any of these things do for you, really, without power? Such questions seem to have prompted a press release issued by the CTA a few months later. “Resilience to be New Part of CES 2019,” it announced. The next iteration of CES, it said, would feature “a new conference program and exhibit area focused on Resilience and resilient technologies”. Resilient technologies are technologies that help “keep the world healthy, safe, warm, powered, fed and secure,” the statement explained. “Even in the face of adversity.”

IMAGE Olaf Otto Becker.

I’m hovering somewhere over the Grand Canyon, due to land in Las Vegas within the hour. Below, the darkness soon gives way to the first twinklings of the city’s famed neon lights. Some months earlier, I had convinced my editor that I should write a story about the new Resilience section at CES.

I’d had some reservations initially. Resilience sounded an awful lot like a buzzword. The sheer breadth of its applications – healthcare, security, power, food distribution – seemed to void it of any concrete meaning. There was an irresistible circularity, however, to the sense of reckoning that accompanied CES’s announcement of its new section. The tech world was waking up to the realities of climate change, it appeared. Tech’s solution: to throw some more tech at the situation.

Now, looking down at the approaching lights, my initial reservations flare up. The new section on Resilience remains maddeningly vague – the latest information I have from CES is that it will feature only 11 exhibitors (although “we are still growing the space,” a press officer has assured me). Some exhibitors, such as the US emergency communications network FirstNet, appear to fit what I understand the Resilience bill to be. Others seem wedged in. The conference programme looks more promising, with its panel discussions on resilient cities, crisis prevention, food and water shortages, and cyber security. I’ve been to enough such events, however, to know better than to pin my hopes for any kind of journalistic insight on talks called things like ‘Tech for Good: Driving Impact at Scale.’ I am, frankly, a little worried that Resilience might only be so much hot air. Also, I think, wincing as we touch down, I’m the ass who has just taken a Boeing halfway across the globe to report on it.

In the last decade or so, Resilience has become a popular term within academic, public and private bodies working in the field of disaster preparation and response. It is the purview of new research departments such as the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute at the University of Illinois and the Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. It is what initiatives such as the World Bank’s City Resilience Program, the US National Disaster Resilience Competition and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities aim to foster. Rebuild by Design, a competition for urban infrastructure launched in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, mentions Resilience three times in the ‘About’ blurb on its website.

“The power of the term resilience lies in the sheen of hope it offers,” writes academic Ashley Dawson in his 2017 book Extreme Cities. “In addition, resilience is no doubt attractive because of the many meanings that can be attached to [it].” Resiliency initiatives are responding to a terrifying world in which unchecked global warming means that extreme weather events will continue to devastate cities, coastlines, island nations, arable farmlands and water supplies around the world with increasing frequency and intensity. International efforts to curb carbon emissions are proving catastrophically ineffectual: as a recent report from the Global Carbon Project showed, global emissions were on course to hit a record high of 37.1bn tonnes at the end of 2018 rather than showing signs of abating. “Its message is more brutal than ever,” climate scientist David Reay said of the report. “We are deep in the red and heading still deeper.” The idea that there might be design solutions that could, at the very least, help protect communities from the most immediate effects of climate change- related disasters is certainly appealing.

Rebuild by Design might be called a typical Resilience project. Run for the first time in 2014, two years after Hurricane Sandy and its storm surge caused major devastation along the US’s eastern seaboard, the competition called for new designs that would “holistically examine and address [the] interconnected physical, social, and ecological vulnerabilities [of the New York and New Jersey shoreline] to respond to the region’s complex needs”. The first contest yielded ten finalists, six of which are on track to be built: these include an offshore barrier island chain for New York Harbor; a system of levees for Hunts Point, a south Bronx peninsula that serves as a hub for the region’s food supplies; and a sea berm by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) that will protect Wall Street. Rebuild by Design is a private-public partnership between the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Rockefeller Foundation, and a host of other companies and organisations. Since its inaugural competition, it has continued to oversee a number of resilience-oriented projects around the country.

Rebuild by Design ought to be applauded for its wide-ranging efforts to undertake serious adaptive measures in the face of climate change. But it has also drawn criticism. BIG’s sea berm, which has been given the on-brand name of BIG U, for instance, poses a number of gnarly questions. “Berms such as those that form the backbone of BIG U are famously problematic in that they keep some communities dry while displacing water to surrounding communities,” Dawson points out in Extreme Cities. “Where will the water that the BIG U turns aside go to?” It is likely, he argues, to cause greater damage to poorer adjacent areas, such as Brooklyn’s Red Hook. While BIG initially looked into flood defences for Red Hook as part of its research, these did not make it into the final proposal. “It should not be particularly surprising that defence of Wall Street garnered more attention and funding,” notes Dawson. “With any initiative that promises greater resilience, it is wise to ask whose resilience we are talking about.”

Then there is the charge of short-term-solutionism. In the present proposal, the BIG U will be built to the height of 5m, which corresponds to the sea level rise currently projected for the year 2050. That’s only three decades away. Then what happens? As several reports from the International Energy Agency in the last decade have suggested, we may well be underestimating the speed and severity of the climate crisis, with 6°C of warming – rather than the upper 2°C limit set out by the 2015 Paris Agreement – looking increasingly likely by the end of the century. This means that sea levels could rise significantly faster than currently anticipated. The BIG U could, therefore, result in communities being put at even greater risk. “As the sea level rises, you need ever smaller storms to overcome [the berm],” climate scientist Klaus Jacob has pointed out. “It’s exactly New Orleans’s problem during Katrina [in 2005]. People think, ‘We have this Big U, we’re safe.’ But you’re building up risk behind the U until it becomes dysfunctional.”

These criticisms might be taken as indicators of the wider problems associated with Resilience as a concept. Deriving from the Latin for “rebounding”, the term seems to imply that, with enough technical ingenuity, cities, communities and individuals will be able to bounce back and keep on, well, keeping on, much as before. As a short-term solution, this is reassuring – at least for those who have, historically, been considered worthy of protection. In the long term, Resilience might be more akin to a Band-Aid for a flesh wound; a mop for a deluge; a garden hose for a wildfire. Or, if you will, a Paris Agreement for catastrophic environmental breakdown.

IMAGE Olaf Otto Becker.

It’s a crisp January morning in the desert and CES 2019 is about to open to the public. No firestorms, no floods and, if Twitter is to be trusted, no power outages. I’m on the Monorail, Las Vegas’s diminutive public transit, which zooms up and down an elevated four-mile stretch, connecting the city’s many mega-resorts, casinos and convention halls. The train is packed with bleary-eyed CES attendees wearing lime-green Sony lanyards. I’m wearing one myself.

“Hey Google, how tall is the Las Vegas High Roller?” a chirpy woman’s voice pipes into the carriage as we pass the world’s largest Ferris wheel near Harrah’s/The Linq station. The Monorail’s Tannoy ad space has been bought by Google for the duration of CES and the company is aggressively plugging its voice-activated Google Assistant, a rival of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. An exchange about the High Roller commences between the woman and the android as we shudder along the track. It’s 550ft, apparently.

Wow!!” says the woman in the ad.

Most people file out of the carriage when we get to the Las Vegas Convention Center, one of the central hubs of CES. (There are three: ‘Tech East’, ‘Tech West’, and ‘Tech South’, each a cluster of convention centres and resorts.) I get off at the following stop, Westgate, which is where the Resilience conference will take place over the next two days. As the Monorail swooshes off, I see that it is plastered with a big “Hey Google” decal.

In the Westgate conference room, an audience has gathered for the first Resilience panels. Among the speakers this morning are Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, the initiative launched by the Rockefeller Foundation around the same time as the inaugural Rebuild by Design competition; Martin Powell, an environmental consultant who used to advise Boris Johnson when he was London mayor, and who now works for Siemens; and three entrepreneurs who will speak about ‘Building Companies out of Resilient Technologies’. Berkowitz, the moderator, asks for a show of hands. “Who here is from government?” One hand.1 “Industry?” An overwhelming number. “NGOs?” One.

“What does [Resilience] really mean?” Berkowitz opens by asking. “Quite simply, it’s a capacity that an individual, a community, a system, a city, [or] a nation has that allows them to survive and thrive in the face of uncertainty and disaster.” Resilience responds to immediate threats, “whether that’s Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, or a refugee crisis.” It also aims to tackle “slow burning” stresses, such as unemployment and social inequality. “We know that equitable cities have higher levels of resilience,” explains Berkowitz. Further qualities that make communities resilient include their being “reflective, robust, resourceful, inclusive, and integrated”. So far, so general.

Talk of “megatrends” follows. Urbanisation is one: “Right now, 50 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities,” says Berkowitz. “By the middle of the century, that’s going to be 70 to 75 per cent. Cities are going to need $2tn of infrastructure [investment] per year to keep up with this, according to the World Bank. We’re talking about a massive opportunity.” Another megatrend, Powell argues, is figuring out what to do with overladen grids and other central distribution systems. In the next 30 to 40 years, he says, we will be running 10 times the current energy load through our grids. “As we’re going to have an increasing amount of extreme events, this grid needs to be able to respond before, during and after an event.” Connected to this megatrend is data. Linking critical infrastructures such as water, power and wifi into responsive networks, says Powell, is going to be the next step forward: “It’s now very easy to do. You can lift the data onto a common platform and understand how you can improve each underlying piece of infrastructure.” The “you” in this sentence, I realise, refers to the tech entrepreneurs and investors who largely make up the audience.

The introduction has been heavy on praiseworthy ambition and light on specifics, but I soon begin to get a clearer sense of what types of investment opportunities the speakers are talking about. There are independent community grids, for example, such as Oakland’s EcoBlock and Brooklyn’s peer-to-peer Microgrid, in which participants don’t have to sell the excess energy generated by their solar panels to the central grid but can instead trade with each other using blockchain technology. “It’s a fantastic way of thinking of the future,” says Powell, “especially as you begin to put more electric buses, cars, trains and planes [on the grid].” Another example is Zero Mass Water, an extraordinary technique developed by the scientist and entrepreneur Cody Friesen. Like energy, water is a resource that relies on ageing and inefficient distribution systems. Because of this, global freshwater supplies have been dwindling at approximately 1 per cent per capita annually in the last 20 years. Friesen’s solution consists of solar hydropanels that pull potable water out of thin air, even in extremely arid locations such as Dubai. It’s all about “leapfrogging infrastructure”, Friesen explains.

This seems to be a recurring motif in the morning’s panels. The critical infrastructures on which we rely – many of which were originally publicly funded – are old, inefficient and crumbling under chronic stresses. Rather than attend to bolstering these infrastructures, it’s tempting to bypass them entirely. But does this approach actually address the causes of those stresses? As if in response to this question, one of the speakers, Jay Iyengar from the multinational water-technology company Xylem, offers some figures. “We’re overdrawn on our freshwater credit card,” she says. Around 70 per cent goes into the agriculture sector but, at 20 per cent, tech and manufacturing also swallow up a substantial amount. “To make one microchip is about 10 gallons of water,” says Iyengar. “If you’re looking at a plant which makes about 20m microchips a month, you’re looking at 200m gallons of water being used on a monthly basis.” That seems an awful lot, I think, but no-one on the panel comments. The obvious follow-on question seems to be: might we not just be producing too many microchips?

During lunch, I wander into the Las Vegas Convention Center next door. I stop at a booth and look on as an exceedingly enthusiastic man explains that, while he’s preparing chicken on his smart hob, the device can communicate with his smart fridge and tell him which of his wine bottles will best suit his meal. I move on to a stand that showcases VRFoetus, a technology enabling you to experience your unborn baby in virtual reality. “Baby faces from various different angles live,” boasts the display. Further inside the central hall is the robotics section, where I queue up to play ping-pong with an Omron robot that looks like a giant mechanised Louise Bourgeois spider. It knocks me out in a sequence of terrifyingly precise moves. I scribble “fridge sommelier; VR foetus; ping-pong robot” in my notebook. I think about all the microchips and all the gallons of water.

Back at Westgate, the conference continues. The afternoon is a spectacle of rousing promotional videos and panel discussions. I learn about Freight Farms, a company that has developed a compact container farm, or GreeneryTM, where communities can grow produce on a subsistence scale regardless of access to arable farmland. I learn about a collaboration between the World Bank and Amazon that has resulted in an AI tool that can help governments predict where and when famines might happen. I learn about Google’s Loon blimps, which provide wifi without reliance on grounded routers. In the final segment, I discover PledgeLA, an alliance between the city of Los Angeles and its venture-capital community. Participants promise to “improve equity, diversity, and inclusion at all levels of our organizations and in our investment decisions”, but, as one of them professes during the session, her motivation as a venture capitalist is primarily to get “really, really rich”. The audience chuckles appreciatively at the sentiment.

It’s been a long day and the eight-hour time difference suddenly hits me like a smack in the face. I mull over the day’s events while heading back to my hotel on the Monorail.

“Hey Google,” the woman in the ad interrupts. “How tall is the Las Vegas High Roller?”

I feel a little closer to understanding the concept of Resilience, I think as I try to shut out the familiar prattling. However, I’m still not entirely sure what the tech industry intends to do with it. “Get really, really rich” is still ringing in my ears.

Wow!!” the Tannoy says.

IMAGE Olaf Otto Becker.

A brief note on the modern history of the term “resilience”, courtesy (mostly) of Ashley Dawson.

The current use of the term can be traced back to the 1970s, when the ecologist C.S. Holling published an influential paper titled ‘Resilience and stability of ecological systems’ in the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. In it, Holling broke with the then-dominant view that natural ecosystems exist in a state of equilibrium, to which they can return after repairing themselves following occasional disruptions. Instead, argued Holling, nature is resilient because it assimilates to interferences, morphing and adapting along the way. Resilience “is the capacity of a system to absorb and utilise or even benefit from perturbations and changes that attain it”, he wrote.

According to Dawson, who is a critic of Holling, this notion of resilience was swiftly put in the service of industry. “Researchers like Holling were interested in finding ways to sustain yield from ecosystems that were experiencing conditions of extreme instability,” writes Dawson, “like the Atlantic northwest cod fishery.” Decimating fish stocks could be justified by a theory positing that ecosystems are capable of enduring – even gaining from – extreme forms of disruption, such as commercial overfishing. Holling’s theory of ecological resilience quickly took hold.

Enter Friedrich von Hayek, the Anglo-Austrian economist sometimes called the “father of neoliberalism”. In 1974, he won the Nobel Prize in economic sciences for his “penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena”. In what was to become the economic dogma for the next four decades, Hayek argued that central planning and predictions of the movements of the market are useless: to him, the most efficient and sustainable economic model was free-market capitalism. Hayek dismissed the idea that this set us on course towards the ultimate depletion of Earth’s finite resources. We simply can’t know, let alone control or mitigate, such potentialities, was his argument. “The curious task of economics,” Hayek once wrote, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

At this stage of his career, Hayek’s method drew widely and impressively on fields such as neuroscience, psychology and biology. In the latter discipline, he took particular note of the work of Holling, who, by this time, had begun to argue against preservation efforts that sought to protect threatened ecosystems by eliminating predators. Such an approach, Holling argued, could unintentionally undermine the resilience of the ecosystem in question. Drawing a neat parallel from ecology to economy, Hayek insisted that any external interventions to markets – the practice of bolstering failing sectors, for instance – were bound to have a crippling long-term effect on the economy as a whole.

“Today,” writes Dawson, “these arguments, once considered marginal, are central to neoliberal discussions of resilience, where the role of the state is to create optimal conditions for individuals and companies to operate, rather than trying to achieve centralised control.”

IMAGE Olaf Otto Becker.

Tannoy contains the word annoy, I muse. I’m on my way to the second and final session of the CES 2019 Resilience conference, learning about the High Roller again. It’s never quiet in Las Vegas.

If yesterday was about leapfrogging infrastructure, these final sessions delve into the role of tech in improving existing systems. “Most of the infrastructure that we’re riding on today was built before most of the people in this room were born,” says Chris Rezendes from Spherical Analytics. “Whether it’s energy or wastewater or transportation, this layer of infrastructure[...] might be the oldest, the weakest, the most brittle. It’s a scary thing to uncover.” Where tech can make a difference, Rezendes says, is in the “cyber physical” realm: the monitoring and control systems that undergird physical infrastructure. The ways to make these infrastructures more Resilient, according to many of the speakers, is to loop them into responsive networks, such that data collected from the sensors in, say, local flood defences, can communicate with smart homes and their alarm systems. There’s only one hitch: after 2018, a year in which analytics scandals and data-privacy breeches have dominated the news, consumers and lawmakers are sceptical of tech’s data-aggregation practices.

“I think we in the tech community need to re-learn humility,” says Rezendes. “Because no-one in their right mind [will] share the data that’s going to save lives if they don’t trust that the fire department, the local insurance agencies, or the other stakeholders aren’t going to try to lever [that data] the way too many technology companies have levered [it] by capturing all [of it], putting it behind walls and using it for their own ends.” This mea culpa strikes me as interesting. CES is still, largely, a convention for tech hardware, but as the gadgets presented become increasingly smart – i.e. connected – questions of data privacy and cyber security have become more urgent. “I’ve been coming to CES for over a decade now,” says one panellist, Suzanne Spaulding from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “[Previously] I would go up to the exhibitors: ‘Has anybody asked you about cyber security of this wonderful networked home in the last three days that you’ve been here?’ And [I’d] get blank stares. No idea what I was talking about.” But in the last year or so, she says, “that has gotten better”.

Clearly, then, there are problems associated with companies operating resilient technologies for profit. The idea that such initiatives should mainly be driven by private interests is, however, never challenged. As soon as Rezendes acknowledges the erosion of consumer confidence in tech, he anxiously overstates his position: he’s not suggesting we return to “the tyranny of the commons”, he assures the audience – twice. He wants “new marketplaces where data is traded” because today, “data is more valuable than gold or oil.” What he’s suggesting is “not socialism, not communism”. Not, he concludes, in a flourish that would give Mary Poppins a run for her money, “free-loving-spotted-owl-tongue- kissing-pinko-tree-hugging liberal[ism]”.

My final day at CES is spent speaking to exhibitors in the new Resilience section of the trade fair itself. There aren’t many and, as expected, the emergency communications network FirstNet seems to be the only one out of eleven that fully responds to the topics raised in the conference.

“Resilience means many things to different people,” says April Ward, a spokesperson I meet at FirstNet’s booth. To FirstNet, it means giving first responders access to a special mobile spectrum that operates separately from regular commercial networks. “Say you’re at a soccer game,” says Ward, “your phone’s buffering, [but] a first responder on FirstNet wouldn’t buffer because they’d be on our network.” This is crucial during emergencies, when commercial networks get heavily congested.

FirstNet is the product of a piece of legislation passed in the US Congress in 2012. The bill established a public-private partnership between AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunications provider, and the US government. “Since March 2017, AT&T have been building additional towers to provide additional airwaves,” says Ward. Now, it’s beginning to become possible for individual states to opt in. “[The 2012] legislation set aside $6bn, which is not enough to build out a nationwide network. So AT&T are bringing resources to the table.” FirstNet benefits AT&T as it actually helps expand its own commercial network. “Because it’s a joint venture, AT&T consumers are on our airways. But if public safety needs it, it’s theirs,” says Ward.

This seems to be the state of Resilience as presented at CES 2019: the ideal model proposed is one in which government provides the conditions for private enterprise. FirstNet is a successful example that offers mutual benefits for AT&T and for first responders. Other initiatives presented at the conference, however, seem more concerned with tipping that balance in favour of tech companies.

In the end, CES is a strange place to go in search of technologies aimed at mitigating catastrophes that are, to a great extent, caused by humanity’s overconsumption of technology. The small scope of the exhibition area – of actual concrete initiatives presented – should come as no surprise. On the shop floor, the lofty claims and ambitions of the conference seem to have evaporated, replaced by something much less committal.

“Resilience?” says one exhibitor. “I don’t know about Resilience. I thought we were in Smart Cities.”