All members of the FPS community are invited to share their preferences for the upcoming Topics. These will be the topics for the Northern Hemisphere’s 2023-2024 season and the Southern Hemisphere 2024 season. At least one topic from each of three general themes will be included – Business/Economics, Science/Technology, and Social/Political. Five topics will be identified to be used for each of the five problem solving rounds; Practice Problem 1, Practice Problem 2, Qualifying Problem, Affiliate Problem, and the International Conference. Voting will remain open until March 31, 2022.
Below are the proposed descriptors for each topic. They introduce key concepts of the topic, and offer questions to consider when researching the topic.
The science of cultivating plants, animals, and other life forms for food, fiber, and fuel is the basis of the agricultural industry. For thousands of years, farming practices have evolved with respect to the land, the crops, and the technology used to yield results. Today, small farms are increasingly rare, as most of the world’s food is produced on an industrial scale. With industrial agriculture comes high-yield crops which often require extreme land exploitation and increased chemical applications. Gone are the days of small farms, with farmers caring for the land and the inhabitants therein. The high yield crops of industrial agriculture have made food more affordable, making nutritious food more cost-friendly and accessible. However, as the world’s largest consumer of water and land, agriculture must seek sustainable farming practices to ensure its survival. What factors influence where and what can be produced? And the profits earned from it? How will the agricultural industry adapt to feed the world’s growing population? How can we make farms profitable while protecting the environment and natural resources?
Retail is the sale of goods and services to consumers, from physical goods such as pharmaceuticals, electronics, and personalized merchandise to services, such as auto repair and cleaning services. It is a complex and diverse field that reaches across many sectors. The increasing integration of smart technology into the retailer and consumer experience has accelerated a change in the way people make transactions. The ease and accessibility of this technology has led to the growing online retail sector. As the popularity of online shopping rises, even today, we’re seeing the demise of brick and mortar stores, and the renovation or demolition of those spaces for non-retail uses. Will the rise of online shopping change the importance of a physical retail space? What are the ramifications of reduced physical retail space for wholesalers, retailers, consumers, and the societies they serve? How will this impact local economies?
Tourism not only benefits host locales but those on holiday. Travel enriches their lives, expands their understanding of people and cultures, as well serves as a respite from daily life. The economic stability of such destinations depends on the sustainability of their tourist trade. As the popularity of such destinations grows, international corporations and developers typically flock to these growing places, trying to capitalize on the financial possibilities. There is money to be made in building hotels, restaurants, and in developing an area’s growing tourism industry. As outside groups seek to attract tourists and the revenue they generate, locals often struggle to maintain their location’s unique appeal and ability to support local venues. As this build-up occurs, local people can have their cultures exploited, lands destroyed, and their local businesses put in jeopardy. As the tourism sector grows and expands, we are seeing the expansion of the Special Interest (SIT) market – tourists wishing to match their vacations with their interests (e.g., ecotourism, wellness tourism, event tourism, ancestry tourism, etc.). How will changing forms and trends of tourism impact tourists and hosts alike? How can the advantages of expanding tourism be balanced with the protection of destinations?
Advancing infrastructure and technological developments, combined with increased urbanization, are rapidly changing transportation needs, desires, and realities. Often areas of production are at an increasing distance from consumer and distribution centers. As modes of transportation continue to evolve, increasing levels of complexity and efficiency are pursued. As humans continue their
pioneering quest for the next frontier, how will we get there? Will expanded digital interactions impact physical travel? The significance of transportation goes well beyond the movement of people. Cargo or freight transport is integral to most people, though they often remain in the background. How will the transport of people and goods impact societies? How will the speed and efficiency of vehicles affect the development of transportation, on land and sea, in the air, and possibly space?
Universal Basic Income
A universal basic income (UBI) is a flat sum of money paid to every citizen regardless of employment, status, or other requirements. It is designed to ensure that all citizens are capable of obtaining food and shelter. Many see a UBI as an opportunity for people to start businesses or join start-ups with some income security. Some see it as a way of tackling poverty, unemployment, and addressing the increasing cost of public health. Proponents argue that a UBI would encourage a dynamic economy, individual responsibility, and break dependency cycles. As new AI technologies increase automation, some feel that a UBI is necessary to offset the loss of employment by citizens. Opponents see the introduction of a UBI as expensive, inefficient, and potentially regressive. They think the cost would be unaffordable, and the prices of popular goods and taxes would increase, causing the neediest to be worse off. Many are convinced it would remove the incentive to work and strive in the labor market as people could be penalized for working more. As economies and employment practices continue to shift, many governments have begun to implement UBI programs. What challenges would emerge by instituting a UBI? What effect will a UBI have on economic stability?
Air pollution is one of the most severe environmental problems facing civilization. 98% of low to middle-income cities with more than 100,000 people have higher than acceptable levels of air pollution. Air pollutants get into our bodies through the respiratory tract and lungs, where they potentially get absorbed into our bloodstream and circulate through our bodies. Alternatively, contaminants may become lodged in the lungs and can cause long-term health problems such as asthma, chronic respiratory disease, a range of cancers, and immune system defects. Indoor air pollutants can also damage human health. Air pollutants can travel long distances and affect the environment, food supplies, and economies. Sources of air pollutants can be natural (volcanic eruptions and bush fires) or anthropogenic (mining and smelting, industrial processes, construction, transportation, and agriculture). How might technologies and civil engineering adapt to monitor and reduce the level of air pollutants? How might air quality influence technology, health, and everyday life in the future?
Antarctica, the highest, driest, coldest continent, has no permanent population and is governed by a collection of agreements between 54 countries. The Antarctic Treaty System designates the entire continent and surrounding waters for scientific endeavors, bans military activity, and promotes environmental research and preservation. Although Antarctica remains the most remote place on Earth, it is highly regulated and heavily impacted by activities around the globe. Parts of the continent are polluted by sewage, discarded machinery, fuel products, and rubbish. Antarctica is thought to be rich in minerals and resources, though an “indefinite” ban on mining is in place through 2048. Without a consistent population or a sovereign state, Antarctica possesses a unique space within political, economic, and environmental crossroads.
The development of autonomous vehicles, which operate without human intervention, continues to increase exponentially. Autonomous cars ‘learn’ by utilizing artificial intelligence to access vast amounts of data and surveying their environment with 360-degree ‘vision.’ They need to be able to learn since all possible scenarios are not programmable. Autonomous vehicles can deliver on-demand, refuel, park, and store themselves. Cities will change dramatically. Car ownership may become a thing of the past. Autonomous planes are even more common than autonomous land transport, and autonomous container ships are being tested. Autonomous vehicles will have significant impacts on industries from real estate and manufacturing to shipping and travel. The expansion of autonomous vehicles of land, sea, and air will alter many existing professions. How will autonomous vehicles cope with unexpected risk situations? Can autonomous vehicles make the same ethical decisions as humans? In what ways will autonomous vehicles impact jobs, industries, and lifestyles?
Sea level rise is caused by two processes: thermal expansion (ocean water expansion as it heats up), and additional water flows into the oceans from ice that melts on land. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) finds that sea levels have risen by 0.19m since the beginning of the 20th Century. Sea level rise will continue for centuries, if not thousands of years after greenhouse gas concentrations are stabilized due to long lag times involved in warming of the oceans and ice sheets’ response. Historically human civilizations have responded to the risk of sea levels rising with retreat and adaptation. As our cities have become more permanent in modern times, a strategy of defense has developed. The modeling and projections of sea level rises are uncertain, with a 20-30cm rise expected by 2050 and 30cm-1m by 2100. King tides and storm surges that currently occur every few years are likely to occur every few days in 2100. The adequate protection of low-lying regions and coastal cities from flooding, land loss, water-logging, and groundwater salinity is both costly and technologically complex process. Small island nations are most vulnerable with the relocation of coastal communities already occurring.
From rich black volcanic and river soils to poor red desert soils, humanity relies on soil to grow plants and raise animals. However, over one-third of the Earth’s land area has already been degraded through human activities, impairing the land’s capacity to support agriculture and horticulture. The impact on quantity and quality of food production is severe. Mechanization, the building of roads and cities, clearing land for farms, and damming rivers all lead to soil loss. The overuse of fertilizer and herbicides can cause the soil to restructure. Taking too much water for irrigation can cause desalination, making large tracts of soil infertile or lacking micronutrients that are important for human health. Deforestation also impacts the quality and fertility of soils. The most severely degraded soils are located in developing countries in Asia and Africa. Increases in human population and increasing agriculture and horticulture have placed a tremendous strain on the world’s soil systems. How can humans combat soil degradation, not only for food security and ecological health but also for the guarantee of global sustainability?
Accessibility to buildings, products, or environments for all people, regardless of age, ability, or other factors, is widely accepted. Such accessibility is often the result of awkward arrangements and makeshift renovations. Despite increased legislation and unparalleled tools to pursue universal design, diversely-abled individuals often struggle to participate in public spaces. How are schools, transportation, healthcare, and businesses impacted by a lack of accessibility? While extensive legislation has passed, many areas are unable to implement and enforce necessary adaptations. Though accessibility modifications are dominated by physical architectural design features such as ramps, demarcations, and handrails, there are growing efforts for increased accessibility to websites, software, and other technologies. What would accessibility look like if functions and features were part of the original design? How can accessible designs impact individuals and societies around the globe?
The need for humanitarian and development aid is a global phenomenon. Following natural disasters, people may need assistance rebuilding their homes and securing basic needs like food and water. At other times, aid is sent to impoverished places to improve living conditions and create jobs in developing countries. While there are many ways assistance can be deployed to those in need, governments and charities traditionally favor using cash grants and low-interest loans. In what ways is the distribution of aid dependent on what organizations’ and governments’ motives? Unfortunately, such aid does not always reach its intended recipients. Resources may be diverted because of a lack of infrastructure, inappropriate distribution methods, or corruption. When aid allocations are inconsistent with economic needs, the political motives of donors are often called into question. What is the best way for policymakers to give aid? Providing for the most vulnerable is a moral imperative, yet how to best accomplish this remains unclear. What is the best way for policymakers to give aid? In what ways does the distribution of aid matter depending on what organizations and governments want to achieve? Most importantly, is aid helping those it is intended to help, or are alternative solutions needed?
Citizen journalism involves citizens engaging in the production of news using digital technologies. The use of digital technologies for investigative and reporting activities also allows for many cases of spontaneous reporting by those “who happen to be at the right place at the right time” with no journalism experience. The immediacy of social media and the ability of anyone to post their take on events as they happen means that not everything is well written or reported, nor is everything accurate. All reporting is influenced by personal views or bias, but citizen journalists are often participants in the story itself. What is the role of the media, and how is it different from citizen journalists? Traditional journalism is often steered by the interests of their corporate ownership. Citizen journalists can select their stories without these limitations, but they also lack procedures for verifying of sources. It is important for a responsible citizenry to promote social and political justice. How can individuals determine the reliability of sources – either citizen or professional journalists? How will citizen journalists impact the dissemination of information and its impact on society?
Education for Employment
Basic academic competencies will always be needed—language skills, computation, analysis, and civic education. In today’s global and high-tech economy, the education students receive no longer has the shelf life it once did. University graduates struggle to find jobs as the skills they learned are quickly outdated by the rapid evolution of knowledge. Predicting individual jobs and skills and aligned training will require constant rethinking, evidence building, and adjustment. Partnerships with industry will be essential so that education can stay connected to emerging skills and employment opportunities. Research shows that people will have at least three careers in their lifetime. How might education systems adapt to provide societies with the necessary educational opportunities? As the classroom and the workforce evolve more quickly than ever, how might education become more personalized? Will the days of exams be pushed to the wayside for field assessment? Will the role of mentors outpace the role of teachers? What might a reimagined educational path be from education to long-term gainful employment opportunities? How will societies provide ongoing educational opportunities to maintain productivity as long as possible?
Today nearly half the world’s population lives in an urban center. By 2050 that number is expected to reach 70%. Cities and their large population often hold power over governance, economic development, and international connectivity. Urban residents consume more than their rural counterparts. With proper planning, urban centers can provide educational and economic opportunities to residents not found elsewhere. However, they can also easily give rise to slums and exacerbate income inequality. And they must address tough questions: What qualities in society should be valued most? What is fair and equitable? Whose interests will be served first? Planners must balance the speed of decision-making with the need for thoughtful, well-considered programs for development.