Thursday. 23/1/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Ben Rylan

Rail against the machine

Attendees at the World Economic Forum certainly know how to make an entrance: nothing takes the chill off an icy alpine day like touching down on board a private helicopter before sneaking into a waiting black saloon with heated leather seats. But there’s an even better way of travelling to Davos that is (arguably) more comfortable and certainly more efficient: the humble Swiss train.

Switzerland is a global leader when it comes to rail travel. Zürich’s light-rail network is used by everyone from bakers to bankers (as well as this columnist) and, with climate change on the minds of everyone in Davos, its smaller carbon footprint makes it an easy choice. And while the world has been tying itself in knots over the rise of autonomous cars turning our highways into a scene from Blade Runner, the automation of rail has quietly become a reality. “For so long, artificial intelligence was grounded in the idea of things that were going to happen in the future,” says Rahaf Harfoush, a digital anthropologist and author. “People were just not open to how much of that technology was already embedded in the devices, as well as the companies and services, that we use today.”

There’s a good chance that you’ve already stepped on board an autonomous train when using Paris’s Ligne 1, London’s DLR or the monorail at Disneyland; Switzerland recently began testing driverless rail too. But while the benefits might be obvious, there are hidden costs. The popularity of trains isn’t just about ease and efficiency; it’s also a question of trust. Drivers, on-board crew and station staff take pride in their work, which encourages passengers to appreciate the system. Rail operators should always look for ways to improve their services but, as Switzerland’s trains remind us, the experience on board is just as important as the destination.

Society / USA

Street wise

Thousands of volunteers will make a final push as the County of Los Angeles completes its annual count of its homeless population today. Much rides on the outcome of the three-day audit: city and federal officials rely on such counts to allocate funds, improve services and offer more targeted housing. “Last year the homeless count showed an increase in senior citizens experiencing homelessness,” says Lex Roman, a homelessness advocate in Los Angeles. “That information motivated the government and our local nonprofits to focus on the root cause as well as target some specialised services for this population.” The county has one of the highest numbers of homeless in the US, with an estimated 60,000 people of no fixed abode, though Roman says that the actual figure might be double or even triple that. Funding to tackle the issue has been under threat, prompting a war-of-words between California governor Gavin Newsom and Donald Trump, who has implied that the funds are a waste of money. LA officials will be hoping that future funding allocations reflect the numbers being finalised today – not the whims of the president.

Media / Canada

Two sides to every story

It’s no secret that the way in which we read news is changing, threatening traditional media firms, particularly those based in towns and small cities. But the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) CEO might have hit upon an idea to stem the tide. Catherine Tait (pictured), who became the organisation’s first female head in 2018, explained to a gathering of business leaders in Toronto how Canada’s national broadcaster is stepping in to support local news outlets. “The coming of the internet has entirely changed our business,” she says. “And if we’re to remain relevant we have to reflect that reality.”

The initiative includes partnerships with local-news outlets. In Winnipeg, for instance, the CBC now shares weekend reporting duties at the Winnipeg Free Press, meaning that many of the paper’s stories will find a national audience on the CBC’s platforms. “The dream is a little bit different now but there is no other national institution that holds the nation together like we do,” says Tait. Perhaps other national broadcasters can learn a thing or two from the CBC’s approach.

Culture / Venice

Divine intervention

Ever since flooding caused extensive damage to St Mark’s Basilica last year, Venice has been seeking solutions to keep the water surrounding it at bay when, inevitably, the next acqua alta strikes. The latest proposal presented to the municipal department for safeguarding the city’s historical heritage consists of building a 1.2 metre-high glass wall around the church. The city says that the transparent structure wouldn’t obstruct the view and would be relatively easy to erect in time for the next flooding season in November. At a cost of €3.5m, it’s a smart and rapid fix but it should remain a temporary measure. The city’s long-delayed plans for a huge tidal barrier are still unfinished; if Venice is to ensure that it has a future, the city needs a long-term vision that looks more than a metre ahead.

F&B / Japan

Fishing for tourists

Tokyo’s main fish market – the world’s biggest – drew crowds of tourists to its original location in Tsukiji. But since its move to a new home in Toyosu (3km away) in 2018, city officials have struggled to attract visitors, mainly because the new venue lacks the charm of its previous home. Tomorrow the Tokyo metropolitan government will green-light a new section of 21 shops and restaurants at the Toyosu site. Officials are hoping that the addition will provide the much-needed boost they’ve been looking for. Led by developer Mitsui Fudosan (whose successful Coredo shopping malls have revived Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district), the new Edomae Jokamachi wing will feature sushi counters, grilled-seafood vendors, a farmers’ market and shops selling dried fish, tea and kitchen knives. The idea has potential but it’s only intended to be temporary; it will close once a larger complex – with shops and restaurants, onsen hot springs and a hotel – opens in 2023.

M24 / The Entrepreneurs

Heights

Dan Murray Serter is the co-founder of London-based Heights, which manufactures a multivitamin aimed at improving brain function. Heights came about as Dan struggled with insomnia and his previous venture, the mobile-shopping platform Grabble, was failing. Dan tells us how he convinced Grabble’s investors to refocus on Heights.

Monocle Films / Spain

Creative Mallorca

Palma has kept its charm for young creatives despite its tourist-trodden streets. We meet the people keeping this city alive.

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