RETHINKING THE FUNDAMENTAL OBJECTIVE OF OUR URBAN FUTURE AND THEIR DESTINIES.
ENTERING THE AGE OF UNCERTAINTY
The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic.
We live in times of certain endings and yet uncertain possibilities. It is easier to imagine the end of the world due to climate change than the measures that could avert it. Meanwhile, the artificial permeates symbolic and natural systems, revealing an infinite horizon of possibilities. Familiar reference systems by means of which we evaluate logics of action are no longer sufficient in this tension to provide guidance for averting the worst, for sifting out the less worse from the possible, and for aligning our actions accordingly.
The idea of entering the Anthropocene has sounded many alarm bells about the human impact on the environment. Humanity is described as a force that can modify Earth’s systems and define a geological epoch. The moral argument derived is that we as humans are destroying the environment in which we live, and in order to preserve it for future generations and other species, we need to change course. The Earth system has co-evolved with life phenomena (i.e., the evolution of atmosphere chemistry). The Anthropocene is the recognition that Earth is a complex system, that is maintained in a unique state far from thermodynamic equilibrium through the co-evolution of its biotic and abiotic components by maximizing the entropy production (a thermodynamic imperative).
Modern human societies exhibit an enormous coupling with technology and for the first time in human history technology has the potential to modify the very core processes that drive Earth System dynamics. Technology must be considered as a new dimension of coevolution with life and particularly human beings.
Urbanization is widely recognized as a relentless trend at the global level, projections show that the urban population will increase up to 68% by 2050 on an ever-growing denominator, which is expected to approach 10 billion by this time. The socio-economic-ecological supply might not be able to keep up with this pace. In fact, today, urban systems rely on abundant resources, goods, and technologies flowing in from other regions, thanks to a combination of economic, geopolitical, and sometimes military conditions. Cities are not self-contained entity but are inter-urban geographies of flows of people, information and innovation, finance and goods between cities; a city in a system of cities.
The city and the urban as a chaotic, anarchic, and disorganized locus of activity, creative potential, the economic activity, but also the alienation, poverty and neglect that urban environments seem to foster. The urban environment as a collection of an incredible variety of interrelated elements both human and physical in a continuous flux of change. The designed and built environment of cities, being connected to these dynamic settings, is -or should be to keep up with continuous change- likewise be constantly in flux.
Adaptation, regeneration and evolution are natural occurrence in any form of life. Biological organisms evolve and adapt, assembling complex and strong structures from a mainly weak, simple entities. Self-organization is the process that procures the internal organization of these biological systems without any input of an external source. These systems display some form of emergence when the assemblage reaches a certain threshold of diversity, organization and connectivity. These natural systems behave in seemingly complex and adaptive ways. A thorough understanding of these biological principles can be converted into the methodology in designing adaptive, flexible spaces that possess a multi-performative capacity.
Architectural design, in the same spirit, frequently explores ideas about the living world, the body and nature through various approaches to the construction and choreography of space. Yet, most buildings, infrastructure etc are constructed according to industrial paradigms based on inert materials, or materials that were formerly, but are no longer lively, but materials that are processed into inert forms obedient to top-down design processes. We are currently entering an ecological era in which we are increasingly viewing reality as a hyper-complex and interconnected, open system with constant fluxes of energy, matter, and information.
The focus shifts from the principles of the industrial era to conditions and instruments for ecologically sound human development. This leads to a new interplay of different disciplines, actors, material flows, processes and reinforcements that together form a choreography of form space. A space in which a more sustainable way of living together can be explored
This shift has become an everyday reality which has allowed us to transgress previously irreducible divides of geography, culture, politics, matter, and identity. Yet the ecological era does not concern the greening of things, or simply substituting an object-centered view of reality with a process-oriented one. Rather, it requires us to develop technical systems that speak to the principles of design and engineering with living systems. The innate properties of lifelike systems exceed the expectations of traditional approaches of construction and invite the development of an ecological approach to architectural practice that invokes the cultivation of building materials. This approach is predicated on the dynamic adaptability, regeneration and variation implicit in living systems, and it shifts away from the traditional view of architecture as a static, form-giving subject that is centered on making a building, infrastructure, but rather moves towards developing alternative ways of choreographing matter in relation to populations and sites.
The contemporary urban context is characterized by globalization, transculturalism and increased converging technologies, which simultaneously change the everydayness, usage and perception of urban spaces and architecture. New networking phenomena occurring on informational, communicational and spatial levels transform the city and its architecture into constant processes of flows. The dynamized network, based on continuous processes of flows – flows of information, traffic, money, energy – dematerializes its qualities into fluid, variable character. Fluidity is the main conceptual phenomenon in a contemporary urban context, where the notion of flow becomes the new main determination of spatial use and design.
Change is the only permanent phenomena, and as changes occur in the natural world so does changes occurs in human society. No human society is relatively static for too long as social change is a ubiquitous and inevitable phenomenon.
The increasing complexity of the policy making landscape is evident from the above. The diversification and at the same time increase in complexity of technologies, trends and both their manifestation at the societal level and direct impact on individuals, families and communities makes policy making fraught with concerns of how to achieve stated goals in a fair and balanced way that holds up to scrutiny. Policy makers need to decode both the impact and the trajectory of these technologies and trends on their core constituents. Merely comprehending the bits and bytes, nuts and bolts is simply not enough.
The context for working in the field of urban policy, design and planning is influenced by the pace of change; uncertainty; and massive transitions. With increasing urbanization, cities have become particularly dependent on imported flows of food, water, energy, and materials, which are brought into the urban system and consumed whilst ensuing waste streams are sent back out of the city to treatment, landfill, and as emissions and environmental contamination. This linear model has allowed urban regions to develop environmental footprints which outweigh their natural bio-capacities and has weakened the resilience of cities. The impacts of consuming ever-dwindling raw materials at a rate outpacing nature’s ability to replenish them and reach new equilibriums is a matter of serious global concern. The intensity of human activities within cities, where socioeconomic systems and natural systems interact constantly, has considerable implications for natural environments. Cities vitally impact global water, energy, material, and nutrient cycles such that revising current paradigms will be essential to global regenerative development.
In the contemporary context of the information age and global interconnectedness, the city becomes a complex system of flows within the networks, comprising architectural, infrastructural and social spaces, where the permanence of change leads to changes in the physical foundations of our everyday experience, perception and apprehension. The city as a complex adaptive hybrid system and this implies that adaptation, resilience and anti-fragility of the city can be discussed as core characteristics. The city’s dynamics and complexity lies in the intertwined network of feedback relations among its elements (physical, infrastructure, political, social, economic, ecological), influenced by external forces (geopolitical, resources, ecological tipping points, etc). Interacting and influencing this intricate maze of human activities are governmental and non-governmental bodies at all scales (local, regional, national, global). Nevertheless, these social, political and economic activities operate not in a vacuum but within the physical and built environment with its opportunities and constraints.
Any attempt to characterize the city’s complexity must take into account how the feedback network acts as a driver of self-organization, following patterns of operation that are intrinsically systemic, and thus may exhibit counterintuitive or non-linear behaviors difficult to predict. Rather than only responding to change by coping with it, urban environments can actually become stronger than before through their response to stresses and unpredicted events (shocks). This concept is called anti-fragility. Anti-fragility is defined as a convex response to a stressor or source of harm (for some range of variation), leading to a positive sensitivity to increase in volatility (or variability, stress, dispersion of outcomes, or uncertainty, what is grouped under the designation disorder cluster, and offers interesting opportunities.
A future avenue to increase the strength of the city is to create anti-fragile environments, which grow under influence of external impacts. Applying stressors in the conception of antifragile strategies necessitates a systemic view of the built environment. The entire designed and built environment consists not only of constructional and technical systems, but also includes a fluid design of living space with complex spatial, social and economic interaction and its comprehension calls for a systemic approach. A systemic view includes an understanding of the environment that assumes interacting systems with dynamic relationships to everyday reality.
Our lives are surrounded by constantly changing forces of nature and the environment. Everything is in a constant state of flux, with varying degrees of dynamism. Our lives too, are always in motion.
TIME SPACE EXISTENCE.
The main question how to design (from policies to building) from linear change terms to how to engage with exponential change where things multiply so that the change is experienced as slow at the start but then rapidly takes off. The nature of exponential change is challenging, but what if we understand cities primarily as a process and the physical infrastructure of cities as temporary manifestations or footprints of that underlying process. What if we begin to explore the potential of cities to contribute to the health of individuals, communities, ecosystems and the biosphere? Architecture, buildings, infrastructure have a multitude of functions to perform and a range of conditions to adapt and respond to. The design and development of our urban physical environment is transformed from being functional to intelligent and must be able to anticipate and adjust to changing requirements of the time. Society is a constantly changing parameter and architecture needs to modulate and change with it, too. Time is the integral factor continuous change in design.
What if we consider the build environment as a system that anticipates and adapts its behavior to information acquired about its users, its surroundings and its changing environment. Urban design as an adaptive and transformative rather than a static product. Changing eras, social forms, economic support, user needs, and environmental factors, the constant force of changes contribute to local context specific design and morphologies. Anticipative and responsive design as the interaction with the continuous in time changing physical context of culture, society, economy, ecology, technology and sense of community. Time, space and matter can fuse together in great architecture to allow for deep human experiences.
Let’s look-ahead for this decade (and beyond). There is little doubt that this will be a decade of technological, economic and societal change unlike anything before. Engaging anticipatory design at possible futures in multiple ways. Exploring different horizons, including the ones you do not like.
The (near) future will be increasingly diverse; however, such diversity does not simply involve the inclusion of human beings from different backgrounds. Thanks to its profoundly technologized, cyber-physical nature, society will be able to incorporate into its societal structures and dynamics of a bewildering array of highly sophisticated social and emotional robots, embodied AI, nanorobotic swarms, artificial life, self-organizing and self-directing computer networks, artificial agents manifesting themselves within virtual worlds, and other artificial types of intelligent cyber-physical social actors. It will change the way we live. But the most buildings, houses, infrastructure for 2050 are already built. So we have to re-imagine our designed and build environment: hybrid life, high tech, high nature.
In the context of increasing digitalization, the need for symbiosis between nature and humans, and the demand for proactive intervention and action, the concept of techno-biophilia is a useful guideline to recognize the reality of urban life and the symbiosis between nature and humans and how it is an techno-biophilia can contribute to the design of sustainable symbiotic communities.
Biomimicry proposes to copy or be inspired by nature to produce more efficient solutions. Beyond biomimicry, a field entitled biomimetics aims to not only be inspired by nature, but translate biological principles into mechanisms, technologies, or other technical systems. In an age of biotechnology, new ideas, materials, and technologies enable us to consider life itself as a technology and to not only manipulate life’s fabrics, but also use life’s systems themselves as the technical intervention. Transposing the technical competencies of biological systems from the nano- microscale to the architectural-human scale is challenging. The issues of scale can be addressed, in an architectural context, by seeking technological convergence and coordinating metabolic materials or agents in space. Such matter is not inert or passive, but exhibits living behavior that can be organized in different ways. The coordination and choreography of this process can be seen as a kind of natural programming and offers an alternative view of how we interact with the living world and to improve and work with matter in a different way.
The staggering convergence of nano-info-bio-cognitive science and specifically advances of the past decade in the life sciences, particularly in biosciences, physics and metabolic engineering, where the realm of the born – all that is nature – and the realm of the made – all that is humanly constructed – are becoming one. Potentially, these synergies could be harnessed heralding a new age in the design and engineering of living things and sets the scope for next-generation living systems at an architectural scale.
A ‘natural’ city, living and breathing structures operate as a seasonally adaptive collective of interconnected and interdependent unity of shape-shifting, color changing, intelligent buildings, infrastructure. A dynamic architecture, that is sensitive to the surroundings, fused to form a complex adaptive system in sync with the Earth’s natural processes, economic, social and technological dynamics. The city’s relationship with nature would be hand-in-glove, wherein ecosystem services and man-made bionic technologies engaged in symbiotic relationships spanning from the molecular to the metropolis in scale. Layers with different lifespans, which includes the facade and primary fit-out walls, finishes, with its own energy systems (micro-wind, solar PV paint and algae facade for producing biofuels). A building membrane to convert CO2 to oxygen; heat recovery surfaces; materials that phase change and repair themselves; seamless integration with the rest of the city. The exterior membrane, inspired by the qualities of transpiration and resistance in nature, allows the controlled passage of natural air and light to the interior complex, creating a micro-climate and contributing efficiently to the general flexibility and stability of the complex. A ‘transformation of experience’ is taking place, in which direct nature experiences are replaced by indirect, digital nature experiences. Buildings as an interactive environment, mixed (augmented, virtual, assisted) realities. Connected ‘things’ in artificial systems, AI at the Edge and scaling of 5G with machine to machine communications and the development of intelligent devices
Designing and developing this bio-ecological urban structure is based on flexibility principles and biological structures, its height, capacity and use can be adapted to the different economic, environmental and social conditions.
These buildings have a dynamic network of feedback loops characterized by intelligent materials, sensors, data exchange, and automated intelligent systems that merge together, virtually functioning as a synthetic and highly sensitive nervous system.
As techno-urbanism extends its dominion, imposing mechanized regimentation on all modes of experience, what about human nature and living sustenance, the life-enhancing conditions for expressive self- development, humans in the megamachine become self-alienated rather than self-actualized. The world as mechanized market-place: calculable market-values almost entirely replace experiential values (revering, loving, wondering, feeling). The individual increasingly perceives herself as a commodity to be trained and sold to the highest bidder.
The dehumanized cheerful robot, whose stunted sensibility is an adaptive advantage in competitive commerce, may thrive — but the unique, all-round, developed human being is threatened with extinction. What about the whole individual, uniquely autonomous, does not want be conformed to the increasingly standardized and overspecialized regime of technical expertise. A city with progressive atrophy of fragile modes of feeling and relating, human-machine symbiosis increasingly exhibits an affectless, calculating, technomorphic mentality and spontaneous human expression becomes pathologized.
Revitalization of one’s desiccated humanness first and foremost requires a renewed contact with the web of evolved life. Designing the techno-Anthropocene can be a moral imperative, but it needs protective boundaries. These are the inscription of basic individual human rights as the precondition to redefining the world in which we live and our place in it. Since the relationship that we have with new technologies has become unbalanced, it needs to be readdressed using moral imagination.
If we want to help shape the future, we will need to adopt a different way of thinking. After all, how do you imagine what does not yet exist? Futures thinking and futures literacy are necessary for solving the complex challenges our society is facing from a proactive rather than reactive stance.
Design will be employed to speculate on future socio-technological and ecological implications to provoke debate, facilitate engagement, and discuss possibilities. Critically analyzing technocentric, human-centric and, even, post-human approaches to futures by considering social and cultural, ethical and legal, health and environmental, political and economic issues related to emerging technologies.
By conducting in-depth discussion with leading thinkers in the field, we dive into the difference between ‘urbanism and urban planning’, the tension between idealism and the urgency to act versus realism, complexity. The needs for a different mind/skillset/methodologies required in order to face future complexities and to be able to connect design creativity with process sensitivity in short- and long-term periods and at small and large scales.