21st century cities: D is for Disasters

This month, I’m writing a series: the ABC’s of 21st Century Cities. In previous entries, I explored Artificial Intelligence, Backward Futures  and Co-creation. Today is disasters.

and Brazil are suffering deadly disasters; I hope you recover rapidly and fully.


One year ago, Haiti was devastated by a 7.0 earthquake. Over 300,000 people were killed. The core of Port-Au-Prince was virtually leveled. One year later, less than 5% of the rubble has been removed. One million people remain homeless, living in tent cities.

The first disaster happened on January 12, 2010. The second one is ongoing. It’s a double crime – unsafe construction and terrible response.

For 21st century cities, disasters are a way of life

Do you have a nagging sense that there’s an uptick in disasters? It’s true. There are four times as many natural disasters as twenty years ago. The trend is still climbing.

No one is immune. Fifty poorer countries led by India will suffer the most deaths. A recent report estimates we will see one million deaths a year by 2030 . Industrialized countries will pay more in economic and infrastructure loss, estimated at $157 billion annually.

Disasters are reshaping our human geography.

  •     Over one billion people  in over 100 countries are at risk of becoming climate refugees; 98% live in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Middle East (pictured Lilypad2 Refugee Floating Island).
  •     The current number of climate refugees is 50 million people, mostly displaced by flooding. By 2050, the UN estimates as many as 200 million climate refugees.
  •     People will migrate to places with food, water, security, education, health, and jobs, away from floods, disease, famine, drought, and conflict.
  •     In the US , the predicted hurricane damage on the gulf coast by 2030 is $350 billion , equal to a Hurricane Katrina every 7 years. New York and Miami  hold the highest risk for massive infrastructure damage.
  •     NBC news reporter Ann Curry’s tweet helped doctors and medicine land at a Haitian airstrip.  Is twitter a robust grassroots communication network ready to serve in disasters?

Have you been caught a disaster?

If so, were you ready? It’s more than just individual procrastination; we even vote to avoid fixing infrastructure.

  •     Elected officials get cheered and then re-elected when they respond to a disaster, as they should. But amazingly, when they beef up infrastructure, they lose elections. For every $1 spent in preparation, we save $15 in recovery.

“The benefits of prevention are not tangible; they are the disasters that did not happen.” Kofi Annan

  •     Nature or humans? Imagine if Haiti’s construction had been quake-resistant? In New Orleans, Katrina wasn’t the killer, a failed levee was. The two are so deeply intertwined, it’s always both.
  •     Mississippi and Alabama, each devastated by Katrina, refuse to enact building codes. Florida suffered 40-50% less damage and fewer deaths.
  •     Some recoveries take half a century, like Berlin. Others leap forward, like London. Still others take centuries and even millennia, like Rome.
  •     Flooding may steal the great coastal cities from future generations; there may not be future “Romes” to serve as historic markers of today.

Can we rebuild better than before?

Some cities revitalize and thrive after a catastrophic event. Others collapse, becoming a shadow of their most robust past. Jared Diamond believes collapse occurs when a society fails to adapt to new ecological or economic environments.

In other words, to recover, a city has to clearly imagine a revitalized future in a dramatically altered landscape and have the capacity and resources to act.

  •     The best time (if there is such a thing) to experience a major disaster is when your country or region is on a growth cycle. The worst is when your city’s in decline already.
  •     Will disasters become the reality tv of tomorrow?
Rotterdam is a miracle of resilience
After a catastrophic flood in 1953, Rotterdam leaders decided to rebuild beyond anyone’s imagination. Forty four years later, the Maeslant Barrier opened. It is an engineering marvel, designed to withstand a 10,000 year flood event.
  • Gumption. Building on Boyd’s OODA decision-making loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act),Vinay Gupta identifies Drive as the missing link between orientation and deciding to act, in other words, leadership and vision.
  • Wrong-mindedness. The most difficult problem is not inaction but wrong-minded action. Is New York rebuilding a 2050 future or a 1950 rehash?
  • Mindfulness. In contrast, after the 1989 earthquake destroyed the massive Embarcadero highway, San Francisco tore it down and re-established access to the bay from the adjacent neighborhoods. They chose a new, unique future.
  • A future of parity. For New Orleans to build a levee system for a 500 year flood event the estimate is $70 billion. The current repair to the levees is costing $15 billion for a 100 year flood. The entire city’s future remains unstable.

Images of the future

A number of organizations are fully mobilized such as the UN’s Resilient Cities program and Architecture for Humanity. Here’s a few still in the future.

  •     Communication networks include our mobile phones. Flying disaster relief robots support a local network.
  •     Video games can aid in preparation and emergency response training.
  •     Sensor networks provide real time data on locations of people and resources.
  •     Mobile hospitals will be flown into remote locations, such as solar airships.
  •    Temporary housing is being designed as prefab or created locally with salvaged materials.
  •     Future housing will be created on-site via 3d printers.
  •     Modular solar power enables off the grid energy.
  •     Geoengineering attempts to turn back atmospheric change to avoid the most extreme consequences of global warming.
  •     Sensors for emergency alert systems continue to improve

 Disaster-ready future cities

Several trends help: localism for food, distributed power especially the use of solar energy, walkable and biking neighborhoods w/ shops and services, DIY initiatives for making things, bartering/trading/sharing networks, communication networks such as twitter and other mobile devices, and so on.  A global push for city response plans, strengthening infrastructure, implementing building codes, and building higher and away from oceans is critical.

  • The 9/11 Report described New York as a failure of imagination. Can imagination help us?
  • The strongest efforts come from within a community. Someone steps up; some vision captures hearts and minds. People begin a million small actions towards recovery.
  • If a catastrophic event hits your city, are you ready? Is your neighborhood? Your family? How will you be safe? How resilient is your city?

Disasters destroy normal. Many cities and communities find their true mission, and rebuild even better. It can be a moment of deep reflection and learning, committing, and inspiring.

The next post, E is for Education. I am failing at my goal to post daily so I will try some new strategies. Thank you for reading, tweeting, commenting!

Images: Disaster historic statistics, Haiti tent city, Rotterdam Maeslantkering, Pakistani flood refugees, Lilypad2 floating city, flying disaster relief robots, video games.


21st century cities: C is for Co-creation

Here’s my January series: the ABC’s of 21st Century Cities. In previous entries, I explored Artificial Intelligence  and Backward Futures. Today is Co-creation.

“People don’t want to consume passively; they’d rather participate in the development and creation of products meaningful to them.” Toffler

What is Co-creation?

Co-creation is so new to city applications that we have to cobble together multiple terms to frame it.

  •     According to Bernd Nurnberger  (@cocreatr), co-creating is “a capability and willingness of a team member to shift roles as driver or passenger, so that the team does reach shared targets.” Future co-creation emerges from open communities where interaction and improvements occur spontaneously.
  •     Collective intelligence   is defined as “the capacity of human communities to evolve towards higher order complexity and harmony, through… variation-feedback-selection, differentiation-integration-transformation, and competition-cooperation-coopetition.” Design charrettes and Gov2.0 such as Open Cities and CityCamps are formal community development efforts and employcrowdsourcing.
  •     Collective wisdom considers “multiple opinions and forms of intelligence. Wisdom in groups is demonstrated by insight, good sense, clarity, objectivity, and discernment rooted in deep caring and compassion.” We connect on political, social, and economic strategies and understand psychological, spiritual and cultural roots.

Co-creating and collective intelligence/wisdom are forming a hybrid movement, a calling to reclaim our participation in groups as positive, useful, healing, life affirming. We alter the way that we see the world in order to solve problems together.

Have you ever considered your city as a place that feeds your soul? And the souls of everyone? That is the mission of co-creation.

What is co-creation for cities?

Design professionals and planners have explored public participation methods for decades, without moving into co-creation.  Co-creation in cities is grounded in two fundamental theories, systems and anticipatory learning.

  •     From Draper Kaufman’s rules for complex adaptive systems: “Everything is connected to everything else. Real life is lived in complex world system where all subsystems overlap and affect each other. You can never do just one thing.”
  •     Anticipatory action learning begins with questioning and is open, inclusive, environmentally sensitive, dynamic, reflective, and occurs in real time. It aims at deep authentic understanding of issues and points of view and frequently leads to transformative change.

How will it work?

Christopher Alexander calls emergent forms of design and construction the timeless way of building. “It is the process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves; it cannot be attained, but it will happen of its own accord, if we will only let it.” Designing a city can be like creating a story; then make a city that fits, not the other way around.

  •     Co-creation depends on new models based on networks, flows of ideas and resources, connections, places, and people. Furthermore, the process is emergent, generative, analytical, dynamic, and reflective.
  •     Co-creation blends human dimensions with technological innovation.
  •     Initially, you will play with virtual representations of cities in data-rich, learning, self-improving game-like virtual environments.
  •     Future co-making and co-constructing, as done in the past and in informal developments now, will be based on adaptive quality of life solutions and responsiveness to people’s needs and aspirations.

How can it happen?

According to Chris Anderson, when rival dance teams challenge each other via Youtube, “crowd accelerated innovation” creates “an upward spiral of invention.” The dancers form a global laboratory of continuous innovation and self-improvements.

Although city development is a long way from dance teams, can you see how the pattern works?  From a collective imagination, designs are grounded in place, drawn from and by the community and experts. As you design, you publish, and others build on it, constantly improving locally and virtually.

Several urban trends fuel this paradigm.

  •     New urbanism and transect patterns reshape urban patterns reduces gaps between buildings. The city assumes a more organic feel.
  •     Prefab and self-constructed cities take the movement one step further. Cory Doctorow illustrated this scenario in Makers.
  •     Automation, social technologies, resource limitations, prefabricated and self-constructing parts, and the huge collective global imagination will make formal processes obsolete.
  •     Cities need to attract people. We will comparison shop different cities and know the differences.
  •     We are more aware of the consequences of lifestyle choices in part due to sustainability debates and will insist in more responsive development.
  •     Some cities will continue to build in formal patterns and structures.

When co-creation creates better cities, makes designing cities better, developers, bankers, experts, and government officials will agree. Eventually traditional processes will be seen as too cumbersome and slow. We will clamor for a simpler way. Successful cities will employ all their resources to become exceedingly beautiful, responsive and charismatic including the killer app: co-creating.


Lessons from slums

Informal developments or slums grow like herds of wildebeests racing across the landscape of Rio, New Delhi, and Lagos. A sanctioned construction site creates discontinuity. Then one informal dwelling begins, then another and another. Soon a mass of dwellings swarm across the terrain. And once there, they stay.

Dharavi slums in Mumbai have tightly woven patterns with frequent open social spaces.

  •     The community is vibrant, dynamic, interactive, and constantly tinkering with built environment.
  •     Like Venice centuries before, the density of the place creates its own emergent form that only its residents know.
  •     While the Mumbai slums are terribly dangerous examples of life safety and few formal rights, the architecture is feeds the community.

In contrast, public housing in LA does nothing to spark social life; you might say the same thing about traffic congestion, strip malls, and bland subdivisions. When we supply unhealthy boxes for people to live in, they lose their sense of worth and connectedness.

  •     The key to co-creation is weaving together resources of users and experts. We all constantly adapt and improve. No building is ever done.

“To use a building is to make it, by physical transformation or by inhabiting it in ways not previously imagined or by conceiving it anew.” Jonathon Hill

City stories and other radical acts of reclaiming place

Like the informal development in emerging markets, DIY/co-created cities reveal people’s concerns and their solutions. Daniel Pink calls this phenomenon “high concept, high touch.” In the modern, information era, people used their left brain, rational thinking. In the 21st century conceptual age, we tune into our right brain, creative ideas.

We need to put storytelling back into our cities.

  • Underbelly Project, New York City artists took an abandoned subway and secretly created artwork on the surfaces. The installation was open for one night to a select few.
  • German Guerrilla Bench appears to be a transformer and opens into a bench.
  •     Sydney Opera House Media Façade portrays the future of media installations. With a projector, you can add messages and images across the face of a building.
  •     Guerrilla Gardening in median strips and other unclaimed spaces beautifies forlorn streets.
  •    Container City stacks shipping containers into a stunning mixed use village.
Would you want to co-create a neighborhood or district?

Is a co-created future one that you would welcome? On the one hand we just want our cities to work well for us, to live  in an area that is beautiful, healthy, and suits our lifestyle. Yet seeing a group of people around the world improve cities again and again. Having the city, designers, and developers working as partners would be thrilling. A constantly better place to live. When we see the city as a whole, we begin to understand deeply grounded interconnections. We stop wasteful development patterns and use limited resources including ourselves towards the greater good. Far from a Pollyanna approach, it’s survival. In our healthiest, most sustainable, life affirming forms, cities and people will be constellations of connections, linked through unanticipated discoveries.

Next article, D is for Disasters.

Images: VM Mountain Dwellings by BIG on ArchDaily; Give a Minute Chicago Civic Engagement Project on Sustainable Cities Collective. More reading: participation,co-creating.



21st century cities: B is for Backward Futures

Here’s my January series: the ABC’s of 21st Century Cities. Yesterday I explored the Artificial Intelligence. Today we’re moving onto B.


I love Venice Italy. It feels like it’s made by its people. Far more than shelter, the city was their outerwear. They embodied it, creating hidden niches and twisted routes, commanding and confusing outsiders.

When there, I feel like I am living in a dream. I am immersed in a distinctive urban experience filled with tactile, sensory experiences. Yet it’s real. Venice exists. How did they build a dream?

Backward futures draw upon the sensory life, the connection between people and place, and the art of crafting things that existed before intensive automation. The engine and the computer chip fundamentally changed us and how we make, use, and know cities.

The value of resourceless

During the Depression, global unemployment sat at 25% for most of a decade. People learned lessons that created the Greatest Generation. According to Strauss and Howe, the next generation will develop a similar philosophy. The conflict that pulls us out of this high unemployment may be the way we develop cities and our lifestyles.

  •     Instead of only growth, many developed nations including Europe, China, and some American regions will be shrinking and aging. Frugality lessons will abound.
  •     For the past seventy years, cities have prospered by strong growth. For the next fifty years, quality is key, an important topic I cover in more detail in future posts.

Slow cities

Inspired by a similar movement in slow food, Citta Slow and the Slow Movement reject fast food, fast highways, and fast living in favor of mindfulness and attention. They aim to reassert mindful living and connection to the land, food, and other people as an anti-dote to stress.In bioregionalism and localism (similarly permaculture), people buy local, organically grown food, shop in locally owned stores, and connect to a regional identity based on indigenous resources and historic patterns (reference Alexander ‘Timeless Way of Building’ and Mouzon’s ‘The Original Green‘).

They create community economic development (CED) collectives to build networks for education, housing, health, and environmental needs.


Cities for people

Jan Gehl calls this back-to-the-future approach “cities for people.” His aim: lively, safe, sustainable, and healthy cities. He cites fewer streets and highways like San Francisco, bike paths like Copenhagen’s, better streets like Melbourne, and pedestrian paths like Venice. He says cities are meeting places “by the people and for the people.” Rather than cities based on streets for cars, we have life between buildings.A people-first strategy is obvious in highly walkable cities like Zurich, New York, and San Francisco.

  •     Encourage people to stay, not take the fastest route out of the city.
  •     Make cars uncomfortable by mixing them with other traffic.
  •     Increase congestion rather than decrease it.
  •     Have lovely attractions like restaurants, shopping, public spaces and interesting streets.
  •     People like to be where there are people. Create places for sitting and watching.

Simple cities

Who knows the life of walking, biking, and carriage rides more than the Amish? What do you imagine cities would look like based on their principles?

  •     Primary uses within walking distance
  •     Narrow shaded streets to accommodate horse carriages, bikes and walking
  •     Lower scale buildings that house work and living spaces
  •     Gardens growing food, barns with farm animals, chickens, etc
  •     Making things – furniture, food, clothing
  •     Community spaces for meetings, events, entertainment and education
If we add scale to the buildings, broadband, lightrail, solar and wind power, the simple city would likely reduce our eco-footprint to half that of typical urban westerners. And still be fitting and livable for contemporary lifestyles.

End of the suburban development pattern

New urbanism re-introduced the values of traditional neighborhoods as an anti-dote to suburbs: mixed use, tight lots, increased density, walkable streets, excellent public spaces, smaller retail/residential, cars to the back, front porches, and extra dwellings at the rear. As sustainable development interests grew, the two movements found common ground in compact growth.


While this back-to-the-future solution solves walkability issues, cars still dominate, detracting from the original aspirations. In town centers, parking lots fill the land. In the residential blocks, people come and go in cars. Only when cars become a second, third or even fourth transportation option (after walking, biking, and buses/transit) do energy, livability, and health metrics improve.A long list of trends reduce the role of the car: communication technologies, business practices from hierarchies to networks, changing job patterns, increased energy costs, carbon emissions, desire for better lifestyles, health concerns, aging, and extended families that can relieve daycare trips.

  •     Models for refurbishing suburban neighborhoods are slowly emerging. The Sprawl Repair Manual makes unused space functional. Streets and sidewalks are connected. Residential and commercial infill large yards and parking lots.
  •     Car-free or limited-car developments are increasing.
  •     Rather than houses and buildings as expenses, make them into producers – energy, farming, home office, day care – much as the family farm or shop once serve as the center of income.
  •     Transportation shifts from auto-dominated to a mix of walking, biking, transit, and cars including car sharing.

B stands for buses and biking; both are useful backward futures.


The untech city

I didn’t write this post as a balance to yesterday’s high-tech AI, although perhaps subconsciously I did. While AI, IT, and augmented reality extend our knowledge and experience of places, they also filter our connections to the sensory experience of place.In the backward future city, we can be more present, more mindful, more attentive to our whole self, and actively spatially engaged while frequently AI favors the brain and eyes.

For example, do you find that you sit too still when you’re at a computer? When I draw by hand, I stand and move. At a keyboard, I am in a frozen position, only my hands and eyes moving.

Cities, buildings, and work spaces should make us move. And they should fit like outerwear. Like Venice.

Next, C is for Co-creating.

Images: Copenhagen, Venice, Amish County, PA, Suburban fix from The Sprawl Repair Manual, Shrinking populations 2050


21st century cities: A is for Artificial Intelligence

Yesterday, I introduced a January series: the ABC’s of 21st Century Cities. Today’s the first letter A.


What does the term artificial intelligence (AI) make you think of? How about singularity? These innovations represent a holy grail for many technologists. An exclusive institution called the Singularity Universityoffers an intensive summer grad program. The teachers and staff rank among the best thinkers in the world, including some of my friends and colleagues. In their first few years of operation, they have shined a bright spotlight on the idea of super-human intelligence.

What is AI?

AI is generally defined as machines that are smarter than human intelligence. The Turing Test, the primary bellwether, simply asks a computer to conduct a conversation without the human knowing she/he is talking to a computer. In urban terms, an AI system perceives its environment and responds to successfully complete a particular job.

For cities, the most intriguing are networks of machines that aggregate data, respond, and adapt without our intervention. The machines seem self-aware and learn, the technological singularity . Machines surpass our ability to understand or control them.

Ray Kurzweil believes that by 2020 or so, computers will reach human brain capacity and by 2045, they will self-invent, no longer dependent on our creativity or intervention.


The Singularity University identifies three tracks divided into specializations: technology (robotics, nanotech, computers, biotech, and medicine/neuroscience), resources (futures, law, finance), and application (space and energy). Technology and innovation, the engine of business, are the heart of AI.

Should we fear super-intelligent self-improving machines the size of a city?

Do you remember HAL9000, the computer in Arthur C. Clark’s Space Odyssey and the film 2001 Space Odyssey? The fear of AI is the human fear of all machines: they will own us. Collective super-intelligence the size of a city will be the most potent weapon and/or collaborative experience ever invented.In Zuboff’s In The Age of the Smart Machine, she analyzes the qualitative differences we experienced when we moved from a society of artisans to button pushers.We are particularly clumsy at seeing the long-term consequences of innovations.

  •     It’s possible that machines will supply ideas, but that we will still be the makers, even more than we are today, through co-creating and DIY. Six billion brains will still be the largest form of intelligence on earth. Technology weaves that collective capacity even more tightly.
  •     We trade our freedoms and privacy every day for access to something else. A few voices will try to protect our sovereign rights but they will go largely unheard because we are only being protected from ourselves.

Will AI control transportation?



Computers already control our traffic systems. We drive our cars over a buried sensor and it switches the traffic signal. Or a set of sensors time our highway progress and notifies other drivers of travel times. Are they AI? Not really. That’s fairly simple analysis of historic behavior not anticipating or adapting. Airplanes and trains have long been controlled by autopilot computers. Google, Stanford, and MIT have road tested autonomic driving, or self-driving robotic cars. Our cars are already robots in terms of automation. Computers are rapidly making cars smarter and better drivers than us from self-parking to crash avoidance. Frankly, based on 40k US deaths/year, we desperately need their help.

  •     Cars are well on their way to becoming one big swarm more concerned with each other than with us.
  •     Eventually, rather than competing modes of transportation, light rail, buses and cars may have more in common than not.
  •     Mobility freedom is not only control but also access, representation in decisions, and choice.

Big brother may not be the power company; it may be you and me.If we are generating and capturing energy to share and sell others, the AI/smart grid becomes our partner, the tool for a new source of income. However, if we are at the mercy of power company electricity, we can look forward to brown outs and black outs. At the rate of new technology adoption, power loads just keep rising. Appliances and computers may not run during peak hours. And worse – you will know when your neighbor is hogging power and vice versa.

  •     Will we be shamed into energy conservation? Or we will simply be controlled through rations.
  •     Control and privacy are forefront in a world of limited shared resources and AI. How data gathered thru AI is revealed is up to our collective agreements.
  •     More energy efficient buildings, better batteries, low energy use appliances will eventually reduce our power needs.
  •     Real time urban data will be gathered from people, buildings, and things to create useful knowledge about how we use cities that will inform design and user decisions.

AI Design Build

At long last, design and construction are becoming data-rich. Next they will become self-improving, then self-assembling, and finally self-designing. Yet self-expression is a human talent, not a computerized algorithm. Creativity as well as the relationships, communication, and decision-making require humans.

Following in the wake of manufacturing, construction is being automated. First with material deliveries, then tools, and finally with self-constructing buildings. Experiments with robots have reached demonstration levels. Consumer goods distribution centers have hesitated on robot investment because they have peak seasons and the robots sit idle otherwise. Construction operates project by project to maintain a steady workflow, only slowing for economic cycles. Without too much trouble, a city will be self-constructing, particularly useful for infrastructure and repetitive projects.

  •     Without human intervention and oversight, cities will become dull and cookie cutter. Our job will be to alter the cities before we learn to hate them. We require imperfection to love a place.
  •     A full accounting of all materials and resources in a region will enable local distributions, recycling, adapting, and re-allocating of supplies and scheduling maintenance.
  •     Dominating those asset allocations will make or break various urban areas. Urban negotiations open a whole new field.

Will AI cities like us, be our friend?

The self-aware, self-improving, sentient city will adopt the patterns of the existing city. Machines are purely rational. Humans are intuitive, emotional, and imperfect plus we are culturally determined. A machine can only copy or replicate these characteristics, which might be flawless. That’s the problem with the conversant computer. It does not know how to improvise, make errors, be human.

We love our houses, favorite shops, parks, even our cars. These attachments will become exponentially deeper. They will remember key dates and react on cue. They will know our habits and when we break routine. If your house can talk to you, play scrabble, fix you meals, layout your clothes, wake you up, start the coffee, prepare your shower, order the groceries, complete your reports, and sing you to sleep, will you believe it cares for you?

  •     We will need retraining on the meaning of artificial.
  •     Will we ever be able to move? Will we strip the house-friend of its knowledge and mourn its death?
  •     Will AI computers strive for self-preservation? And to self-replicate? Will they hoard or aggressively acquire materials to create their projects?
  •     Will they share our most precious secrets? Doesn’t Facebook do it every single day? We won’t need to report our sins; the shaman and tax officer and probably your mom, daughter, enemies, and neighbors will already know.

The city’s brain

As we build swarms of self-improving intelligent machines, we will need a meta-AI to monitor and coordinate. That’s HAL9000. Will we be able to control it? I rather doubt it. Furthermore, how safe will that concentrated power be? Imagine the cyber attacks and security threats when so much power is held by one entity.

  •     When all the machines are hooked together as an army of super-intelligent computers, are they controllable?
  •     Moreover, will we become part of the super-intelligence? Notice that Singularity U includes neuroscience. Later, we will look at transhumanism and our active participation in collective intelligence.

Cities will be smart. They will be more beautiful, more exquisitely made in parts and more assembled ad hoc in other parts. More resourceful and more transparently knowable. Unlike today’s “dumb cities” that sit like the dead materials that they are, future cities will be alive in a Biomimicry sense, evolving, learning, and growing. The caveat is huge. A city as a functioning extension of the people may be the most intoxicating experience we can imagine. The most creative and potentially invasive intelligent computers will work in partnership with people. We have to be able to let go, opt out. Increasingly, it will be impossible unless we demand it.

Tomorrow, B is for Backward.

Images: Robotic construction in NYC on ArchDaily, Ford Sync Destination Eco-navigation system and New Songdo in Fast Co, automated road trains on Crunchgear, PlanIT Masterplan, Geminoid robot.

ABC’s of 21st century cities: January series

As an architect, what intrigues me about the future is the fact that we are constantly imagining and shaping it. Other than our own brilliant new buildings (she says modestly), we usually think it will be a lot like today– only more. Architects are project-oriented. Space is our domain; we think in terms of a particular situation.

As a futurist, what intrigues me about the future is the fact that we can freely replace one future with another and fearlessly explore decades, even centuries, ahead. Futurists are large-pattern, context-oriented. Time is our domain; we think in terms of decades more than years.

I marry these two methods to try to understand where our cities are headed. This month, I offer you an alphabet of future cities, twenty-six slices that reveal, explore, and imagine what we might build and how we might live, work, and play in 2020, 2030, or 2050.

Sound like fun?

Tech in the city

If you track urban development, you hear a lot of the same concepts. Walkable, livable, quality of life (QOL), redensify, green/LEED/BREEAM buildings, green cities, smart cities, smart growth, smart grid, new urbanism, mixed use, complete streets, car-free, bike highways, bus rapid transit (BRT), transit oriented design, transect zoning, multi-modal transportation. Rather than being “the future,” these ideas are happening in some cities today, so-called ‘used futures’.

  •     Our most advanced, high performing cities are technology-intense. In these gazelle cities, people believe innovation is part of their DNA. They aim to show the rest of the world how to build, more specifically, how to live. New transportation, environmental, and communication methods take root. Hi-tech companies and creative people flock to these Meccas.
  •     On the other end of the spectrum in African, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian cities, people wish for indoor plumbing, clean water, fresh air. The same enemies that London and New York conquered in the 1800s strangle the people of Lagos and New Delhi today but at a mind-boggling scale.
What happens is a massive urban divide. The greater our technological advances, the greater the gap. Somewhere, some city will still be fighting to supply basic services with primitive solutions while cities with the highest levels of tech reach further and further, stretching the extremes.

It’s not all about resources and technology.

The urban divide occurs inside of countries too. Portland, Oregon began a green revolution in the late 1970s resulting in a dense, mixed use, transit oriented city. Dallas continues to bank on more highways and low density perimeter sprawl. The varied approaches reflect different priorities and offer radically different lifestyles. Over time, these bets will pay off or they will cost the cities and their residents dearly.

Paradoxically primitive sometimes works better than intensive technology. The current generation may be the first to employ just-right-tech or even un-tech. As a new form of intelligence, future gens will know when to switch off. Similarly for cities, high-rise, high-speed tech is not always the most livable, functional, beautiful, or viable response.

What will we do?

In the next forty years, the world population is likely to grow by two billion people. Nearly all of those people will live in

the cities of emerging economies, half in slums and nearly all in poverty. In contrast, western countries are faced with aging infrastructure and older populations. America is expected to grow by as much as one hundred million people, one-third as immigrants.

It’s said that this is the century of urbanization. In 2007, for the first time in history, the majority of people live in cities. We built American cities according to what we knew in 1950, just as Europe built cities with technologies and lifestyles of prior centuries. Now we know more.

  •     Unlike any other time in history, cities and buildings are ready to be more than a roof and four walls. They can expand our quality of life or destroy it. Beyond shelter, buildings and cities can feed our spirits and replenish the environment. Or they can be a curse, a deathtrap, a monstrous albatross.
26 significant, provocative, intriguing ideas

In ten, twenty, thirty years, how will you build, work or live differently? What will it mean to your children or to their children? Will your city, your neighborhood, your home feed your soul or anger you?

Imagine if you were suddenly transported to 1950. Would you support the Federal Highway Act? The Urban Renewal Act? Removal of trolleys and cable car systems? All of these decisions shaped how we live today. In hindsight, what would you do?

Standing in 2011, we have equally momentous choices. Maybe even bigger. January 1, let’s begin: A is for Artificial Intelligence.

Images: Urbanization on TriasWiki, Portland Street Cafe, Singapore kids, Urban Population chart.