The multiple meanings of the word of the decade
By Ben Iannotta|February 2024
The facts in this issue settled into a theme across diverse topics, even though we did not intend that. That theme is sustainability, but in more ways than you might be thinking.
The cover story, “Supersonic travel: Dead on arrival?”, uses the term in the usual way. Can a healthy atmosphere and ecosystem be sustained if the supersonic transportation market takes off as advocates hope? By probing that question, the story shows us that advocates face a “wicked problem,” a term coined in 1973 by University of California, Berkeley professors in the context of city planning, infrastructure design and societal needs.
In a wicked problem, “there is nothing like the indisputable public good,” the authors wrote.
Running with that idea, the need for speed is not an indisputable public good. Likewise, you’ll find disagreement over how much environmental damage, if any, should be accepted for the right to get where you want to go faster than the speed of sound.
On one hand, if all of us had zero tolerance for environmental damage, economies around the world would be paralyzed. On the other, the benefits of a proposed technical development might at some point be outweighed by the environmental costs in terms of dollars and quality of life, defined to include being at peace with one’s personal and generational legacy. Therein lies the wicked problem for advocates of supersonic flight: Is that the case for this technology?
I suspect we’ll see a mix of creative solutions proposed in an attempt to solve this wicked problem. That mix could include engines that emit fewer nitrogen oxides, fuels from replenishable sources, altitude and route management, and maybe even a quota on supersonic kilometers traveled in a given time period.
Also on the sustainability front, I’d point you to “Democratizing flight,” our examination of where matters stand on personal air vehicles. Single-person electric aircraft would whisk the occupant about cleanly. If the revolution really takes off, as futurist Dennis Bushnell predicted it will in the October issue (“What’s next? A personal air vehicle revolution”), it’s also possible that some roadways could be returned to nature. Others could be taken down, as in Boston’s Big Dig project from 20 years ago, but without the digging. There will still be some policy dilemmas, for sure. Where will these aircraft be permitted to fly? Will a hiker have a close call with a low-flying one over the next ridge?
Sustainability can also mean maintaining a certain rate of progress. In our Q&A with former astronaut Tom Jones, we touch on sustainability in that sense: How to tap the lessons of the space shuttle to sustain the expansion of human presence in space. In a similar vein, our Engineering Notebook piece, “Collision avoidance for air taxis,” examines technologies for avoiding calamities that could slow, if not outright end, the promised electric air taxi revolution.
So consider this our sustainability issue, in more ways than one.