November 2012 issue

Date:1 November 2012 Tags:, , , , , , , , ,

Forget pole dancing. Let’s celebrate can-do

Popular Mechanics has always celebrated home-grown ingenuity, as evidenced by our regular flow of articles on South African inventions and innovations, not to mention our well-received PM Inventors Conferences in 2009, 2010 and 2011. This month’s issue offers more of the same, showcasing the hard work and painstaking attention to detail that distinguish the dilettantes from the real deal.

Greg Raymond, creator of Xtreme Multicopters, clearly belongs in the latter category. Working out of his Germiston home, he designs and custom-builds his own brand of exquisitely engineered multicopters for aerial photography, surveillance and other interesting applications. When associate editor Sean Woods visited Greg’s high-tech workshop, he was stunned. As he recalls: “I’ve visited many can-do individuals working from home, but what I saw hidden behind the back of his house blew me away. We’re talking industrial-grade spark eroder, CNC lathe, milling and routing machines, and an enormous programmable injection moulder.”

Here’s the interesting bit: none of this is visible from the outside. The concrete floor and ceiling of his workspace have been reinforced to handle big loads, and all the walls are soundproofed, so Greg can run his machinery through the night without bugging his neighbours. As he says: “I can make virtually anything.” Definitely our kind of guy.

Moving along, some of you may be a little puzzled by our decision to publish a 12-page feature in this month’s issue titled “Urban legend: Detroit 2025”. Why on earth would you be interested in the “reinvention” of a sprawling metropolis that most South Africans are unlikely to visit? Can you even locate Detroit on a map?

Actually, the metamorphosis of America’s legendary Motor City, once the poster child of the Great Recession and an ugly reminder of what can happen when local authorities take their eye off the ball, is more relevant to us than you may think. Consider some of South Africa’s larger CBDs, where government and private-sector investors are making valiant efforts to overhaul long-neglected facilities, rebuild crumbling buildings and generally improve conditions for commerce as well as for the people who live there. At the risk of sounding negative, they’ve barely made a dent in the problem of urban decay.

In Detroit, as writer Bill Morris tells it, the collective energy of local authorities, architects, car companies, visionaries and ordinary citizens was channelled into an urban revival plan that transformed the city from a dump into a model of urban life in a remarkably short space of time. Blighted buildings were demolished, waterways were cleared and beautified, and individual residents partnered with non-profit organisations to plant tens of thousands of trees. As a result of these and many other initiatives, the city’s population has rebounded dramatically, start-ups are flourishing, people are moving into once neglected downtown living spaces, and the mood is decidedly optimistic.

We last visited downtown Detroit about 15 years ago, when the decay was already apparent. In fact, we found it a grim place… dangerously quiet streets, too much concrete, too many soulless sports bars and fast-food outlets. When we asked our hotel concierge to recommend a classy evening show, he directed us to a windowless dive 20 km away where the entertainers writhed around a pole and pretended they really liked the customers. (I lasted all of 20 minutes, then spent an agonising hour chatting to a psycho in the security guard’s hut while I waited for a cab to collect us.)

Is there an inspirational message here, and a lesson for South Africa in terms of investment, sweat equity and can-do mindset? Of course there is: read the article and let us know what you think. Oh, and choose your concierge carefully…

– Alan Duggan aland@ramsaymedia.co.za