Seeing the Big Picture: Cities of the Future. #architecture #eco

For the first Urbanverse guest blogger, I am very pleased to  welcome Ana Maria Manzo, an architect practicing in Valencia, Venezuela. Thank you, Ana, for this excellent inaugural contribution on future cities.

by Ana Maria Manzo


I remember hearing that when designing a park, the best way to define the route that would follow the trails, was to put a group of people in the area and observe the paths they followed, the places where they stopped to take breaks.

When I think of how to design future cities, it always comes to my mind that idea I heard once. From my point of view, it is people, those who will be the inhabitants of the cities of the future, who hold the key to show us the way toward a better life.

To create successful cities, we must begin by reviewing what we have, the way we live, what people want and need, and evolve from there.

Architecture should be made by people and for people, and not for architects. We must remember that not everyone in the world are architects, therefore, not everyone has the ability to visualize things that have not been created yet, because they have not been trained for it, unlike us. Accordingly, not everyone will easily accept the idea of feeling comfortable in a place so different than the one they are accustomed to living.

An architect who faces the image of a city of the future may think it is impressive and exciting; can feel drawn to it and compelled to find ways to make it real as soon as possible; live the change, experience the differences.

Proposals such as the one presented by the Venus Project makes us dream and believe that change is close.

Part 1:

Part 2:

But it is precisely this type of change the one that comes to my mind when I write about non-architects not being able to visualize and relate easily to; drastic changes that erase what we have, eliminating cities and creating new ones. It is possible that this is the best solution to create a better future, but the truth is that there are many people that we must convince first. And the best way to do it is by identifying their needs and then designing based on them.

Big changes are already happening in some countries.


Masdar, Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.



Dongtan, China



BedZED, London, U.K.

These are some examples that show us that it can be done; but there are still many skeptics.

For non-architects, or at least for some of them, the images of these cities of the future they find online, are a crazy fantasy; many may even get afraid when seeing them, fear of change, of the unknown. And, as a result of this fear, rejection appears.


(I think this picture is scary even to me)

That is why I think change should be gradual, at least in the most skeptic countries but, above all, should be made thinking of non-architects. We must think of the best way to reach people, to sell to them our futuristic ideas which have to be created based on their own needs so they can relate to them. I think the most important thing is to take one step at a time so as not to frighten these countries with an absolute transformation, in one fell swoop. Small changes are easier to digest, therefore, are more likely to be accepted quickly and can be seeing come true in the short term, unlike what would happen to big changes.

We must see the big picture, dream big and go after that dream; and sometimes the best way to do it is by making small positive changes which will gradually turn into big changes for the world and its inhabitants.

Let´s observe the paths that people follow and change the world one small change at a time…

Ana María Manzo

I am a Venezuelan architect who has devoted the last nine years to developing residential, commercial, industrial, and interior design projects. I have designed for Chrysler, Kraft, and Lucky Strike, among others. I recently started writing, which has been my passion for years. An eternal daydreamer, always looking for happy thoughts.

twitter: @anammanzo

blog:the place of dreams

Images credits

Scary future

The Venus Project





Note to America: #Architecture and the Future Matter #design #worldexpo


The Biosphere: A powerful statement of the future

Recently Bing featured a stunning image of Buckminster Fuller ’s design for the US Pavilion at the 1967 World’s Exposition in Montreal. When I opened it, I literally gasped; the still futuristic image seemed to float above normal terrain. The Biosphere put a new stamp on the future and epitomized the Space Age.

Fuller joined the forces of architecture, engineering, and technology to express a new way of living. And through his genius, he inspired a generation of Americans; in fact, of the world. Bravo, Mr. Fuller!

USA Pavilion for the 2010 World Expo


Fast forward to today, the

US Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai featured two wings in the shape of leaves, joined by a cone. What is that? The makers call it an eagle. Huh? A logo made into a building? No strong statement of design, environmentalism, or humanitarianism comes to mind.

What does it stand for? a design-numb Corporate America. (yes, some US corps understand good design; MIA here.)

This structure looks like a poor stand-in for what should have been an image of the American Dream, an architecture of the future. Where is the hope, the vision, the statement of who we are as a people or where we are going?

No one had any doubt that America led the world in innovation in 1967. If anyone is looking to us for vision or inspiration based on the 2010 American pavilion in Shanghai, they would be severely disappointed.

Has that day of 1967 passed?

If you think that the age of inspiring world expo pavilions has fizzled into the history pages, just examine the UK Seed Cathedral pavilion or the Swiss and Spanish pavilions.


Yes, it’s true; I have a nearly delirious case of pavilion envy. Those buildings are remarkable! They not only sing the praises of the architects and the countries; they offer a glimpse of what we might experience down the road.

In other words, the reason we build these outlandish structures like the Eiffel Tower and the Space Needle is to influence and shape things yet to come. That’s the whole purpose. To shine a bright light on the path to the future. And to inspire through the power of that vision.

Come On, America

Hey Americans, if we think that this average architectural statement offers the best of the best, we should be very worried. Because boxes shaped like leaves and cones never moved anybody to dream, much less to act. That disappoints me; no, it really makes me mad. The people that built this pavilion are saying – nothing’s new, nothing special’s going to happen, it’s just more of the same. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

We are living in one of the most enthralling, mind-numbing, exuberant times in history, a virtual windfall of daily discoveries. Yet without an urgency to design the future, to visualize the world ahead, to roll the dice on a seemingly impossible idea, we are already dead. We lose our capacity to aspire, transcend ordinary life, and stretch our imagination.


We can do better. Look at Jeanne Gang’s

Aqua Tower, Holl’s Nelson-Atkins Museum Addition, Bohlin Cywinski’s Apple Pavilion – all capture the spirit of our future selves. While there’s no such thing as one true American architecture, these buildings clearly express visionary futures designed by exceptional American architects for forward thinking clients.

Maybe the burden of “American Pavilion” confused some literal minded deciders. “We’ll make a building like an eagle. That’s American.” Pshaw. Our standards for excellence, our design aspirations, must surely seek a higher standard.


Architecture Futures

We need a pavilion that dares to venture beyond sure thing; explores crevices of materials and shapes never seen; surprises, no, it bamboozles us with its energy. It’s a revelation. From that moment on, our lives are changed immeasurably; we see the world through new eyes.

Next expo, let’s build architecture that matters, that transports us to the future, stretches us beyond the ordinary, and willingly risks everything to do it. In fact, that capacity to dream – unforgettable, life-changing dreams – proves we have a future. 


Images: Biosphere on Montreal Attractions, USA Pavilion, Swiss and Spanish Pavilions on ArchDaily, Aqua Tower and Nelson-Atkins on New Yorker, Apple on Galinsky.  

Extreme Travel: Would You Visit the International Space Station? #letsblogoff

Today’s #letsblogoff asks: Where’s your slice of heaven? A group of design, architecture, and construction related folks are sharing ideas about heavenly travel spots. Here’s alist of brilliant people  that posted.  ok… four, three, two, one…


Why Do We Travel?

While my home is a small slice of heaven, it is just that, a slice. To see the world, I have to leave these aggregated comforts, conveniences, and familiarities. Why do it? Travel to different places opens my mind and feeds my spirit. I love architecture, cities, nature, visiting people, and new experiences. I come home with fresh insights, renewed purpose, and a greater sense of the world. Travel changes me.

To boil it down, I want to experience places that are shaping the world. Moreover, I want to see ideas most likely to change the world dramatically.

In other words, I want to see the future.

You might say that’s two dimensions of travel – space and time. We do it all the time in our travels backward – ancient Egypt, Rome, China. Boom, we see, touch, walk on the same stones and shapes someone built several millennia back. A drive through town is a bit of time travel, if you think about it. Time is jam-packed in cities.

I travel to see forward too.

The Extreme Future City

Given this brave thought experiment of “travel heaven,” I imagine: What is the ultimate future city built today? Hands down, it’s theInternational Space Station .

Here’s why.

  1. It is the ultimate act of optimism. Sixteen countries collaborated to design a place and explore new territories. When does that happen?
  2. It is the ultimate act of fear. Why would anyone leave Planet Earth for cold, cruel outer-space? Is it fair to say that we will only leave permanently if we have to?
  3. It’s the first and only place that people live off of the Earth. The first. Imagine that. How long will we say that?
  4. It’s travel on a new scale. An outpost. A place to go to the next place, other solar systems, and perhaps at some point, to find a sweet alien planet.
  5. You meet some really smart people, the ultimate brainiacs camp. In one week, I bet the bonding matches an entire lifetime of ordinary encounters. High risk survivals and overcoming fear does that.
  6. You get to float. And maybe even space walk. Enough said.

  7. The journey itself is truly an adventure, an extreme blast off from earth. Remember your first plane flight? Surely a flight to space will be life altering.
  8. You get to see earth as a whole. The blue marble. Whew.
  9. We are creating a new way to live. Every small act is an invention.
  10. The space station is the most pure expression of a high tech tomorrow. Tell me, do you think we would ever build a space station the shape of a house?

Will we populate the nightscape with more space stations? I bet we will. Private corporations see profit reasons to explore and inhabit outer space. Our lives revolve around space travel inventions, like satellites and microwaves. Space engineering is the last mega-physical frontier. That challenge alone will attract the Richard Bransons of the world.

Bottom line, I want to know what we do at the ISS. What do space station visitors believe? How does living on a space station change your perspective? Upon my return, assuming that I do return, how would I see Earth differently? What would I think of people and our place in the universe?

Because I think that if you see life in perspective, that’s the ultimate travel experience.

Behind Curtain Number One

If you were given ticket to the International Space Station, would you take it? Or trade it for a week in more earthly places? 





Architects, Cities, and Virtual Reality at #AIA2010


Thanks to the WorldViz booth, architects at the American Institute of Architects Convention in Miami can experience virtual reality through heads-on display goggles. I have extreme virtual/augmented reality envy! (thank you Lira Luis @liraluis for the twitpic!)

Virtual reality creates a whole new world – such as Second Life. Augmented reality overlays digital images and data in the real world.

We will love these functions, I think. Imagine the things you can see on your computer screen but now they will appear as overlays in real life. Eventually, the headset will be smaller, lighter. In the future, you’ll just wear glasses or contact lenses.

So don’t imagine wearing a clunky headset when you visit a job site. That  s purely 2010.

I did a presentation for London architects and engineers on augmented reality; here’s my slideshow  . Notice there’s several ways to experience augmented reality, from using mobile apps to heads-on display. There’s even rooms where the images create the sense of space, they surround and envelop you. For instance, your body actually believes going down stairs.

Yesterday, Design Observer   featured a two part article titled “Sense of Place: A World of Augmented Reality.” It’s a theoretical look at the changes AR makes to our understanding of cities.     

BTW, I have more than a passing interest.  I am researching and writing a book on social tech, architecture and cities that will feature augmented reality. Already people are using Layar and other apps to change their experiences of cities.

How soon will we be using it in our offices? Good question.

WorldViz says it’s today. Universities look to be a target market with discounted pricing. Large firms and early adopters can jump in.  

Think of VR/AR as more than a presentation tool – it’s an experience. We can involve people instead of making them spectators at our table. Truly, a technology to celebrate.

Image Credit: Lira Luis @liraluis twitpic at AIA convention

Design Thinking: What If We Built Cities As Prototypes?


A lot of talk about design thinking is circulating, particularly on broader uses in organizational and social change.

I got to thinking about how design thinking is used by architects compared with other types of designers. Last year I participated in a panel hosted by the Association of Professional Futurists at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena that included people from industrial and gaming design, plus architect Neil Denari and me. Yet only now am I deconstructing how what we design affects our thinking.

Industrial designers learn from prototypes and mass produce success. In contrast, architects create each building brand new, unique to its situation.

Industrial designers* usually make products for mass production. Experimental by nature, prototypes are expected to fail initially and push boundaries in order to improve the ideas in the long run. Products are far more carefully designed and detailed because of this process. To mass produce, they have to be as finely tuned as possible so pushing hard and finding limits are critical.

The rule of prototype design is: fail fast and often.

Doing it wrong once is ok and frankly, there’s a positive kicker – you’ve found a flaw. Doing it wrong a thousand or a million times is a product recall and wildly expensive. Bad products can hurt people. Through improvements, surprises are essentially designed out, re-tested and fixed. Even final products are considered temporary. That is, eventually they will be replaced by the newer model or used as a vintage edition.

On the other hand, architects typically create one-of-a-kind solutions. The only full scale prototype is the final building; we see it for the first time when it’s built. Consequently, I have always been surprised by something during construction and I bet other architects would say the same thing. Some are incredibly exciting; others are a headache or a missed opportunity. Once people move in, they come up with even more lessons.

Failing is penalized with the fear of enormous penalties.

There’s professional, legal, financial liabilities. People can die or get sick. Cities are diminished. Clients can sue. The entire planet gets damaged.

Instead we try to learn from drawings and models. But representations lack in reality, the experience of material space. It’s a system fraught with danger that ultimately does not allow us to test and improve through fast and frequent failures. We move onto the next project, wiser from that experience but not necessarily sharing our newfound knowledge in any systematic way.

What Can Architects Learn from Industrial Design Prototyping?

Why can’t we build buildings, neighborhoods, and even entire cities with more finesse and refinement? If you look at a car or a computer, the attention to detail is astonishing (although not always in a good way, but that’s not my point.)

We are approaching a time when prefabricated and preengineered buildings will likely become a greater part of the urban fabric. Are we prepared to learn from industrial designers about how to use prototypes to improve our work?

If we can’t always build prototypes – many projects will remain uniquely constructed – then maybe we can learn from each other?

Think of each building as a prototype for others. A supply chain of building knowledge that creates each project as a prototype for others. Call it a learning chain that makes an entire network of lessons learned.

While we haven’t had the tools and metrics in the past, BIM and social media are changing that.

Rather than building a project and moving on, we can readily share data on building systems, costs, and lessons learned. Each building, street, or district become prototype designs with clearly measured efficiencies, narratives of experiences, and definite contributions to the city. Every project builds on the rest.

1) To create more regionally distinct, sustainable cities, track the architectural characteristics, environmental qualities, local materials, and building technologies into a design database.
2) Develop metrics to demonstrate how efficiencies and environmental qualities improve the bottom line for businesses in terms of productivity.
3) Over time, we will develop greater knowledge, using one completed house or building or detail to create a more refined version next time. The database and our collective intelligence will grow.

Eventually, if we interconnect our ideas, knowledge, case studies, lessons learned – our individual experiences – we could have a connected brain of information that would improve our work, our buildings, and our cities in a continuously interactive process. Building users, owners, contractors, and designers can contribute to the virtual database. Over time, a virtual twin will emerge where we can experiment, fail, and try again.

Rather than a rigid, dead city, we make one very large, continually tweaked prototype – granted, a city makes a truly gigantic model.

Excellent references on design thinking: The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley; Change By Design by Tim Brown (both of IDEO).
Architizer is essentially creating a design database that is completely open source; a BIM database would tie together all planning, building design, and construction fields.

*Designers specialize in all types of objects from architecture to products, games, vehicles, clothing, furniture, graphics, web sites, and so on. I use industrial designers as a general type and the one most closely related to architecture.

How Social Technologies Are Changing Cities for Small Business


As a special treat, today I talked with Kelly Scanlon, Thinking Bigger Business Media, on Talk Radio 1510 AM. We covered social media for the first 15-20 minutes and social technologies and cities for the second. It was a lively, enjoyable, and I hope informative, conversation. Whew, the time flew! 

Heres the recording:  

In terms of social media, I am strictly a user, an architect who avidly uses social technologies. Folks at the Social Media Club of Kansas City like Lisa Qualls @lqualls, Jeff Smith @jeffisageek, and Shelly Kramer @shellykramer are my generous and brilliant teachers. I shape the info I learn from them and many others so that it works for architects and small business.

My rundown, in brief:

Regarding social media and networks:

  1. The key term is community. Social networks are engaged participation. You don’t just push promotions; you become part of a community, or actually, many communities. They eliminate geographic differences.
  2.  Three sites dominate the business side of social networking: Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In. 
  3. Facebook, the motherlode site, is a huge reunion of all your family and friends all mashed together from birth to present time, each sharing photos, life details, and items of interest. You will find people you lost track of and keep up with folks you don’t  see every day. As a business or as a government agency, you need to set up a fan page and tell all your business associates so they can become your fan as silly as that may sound. It will take a few hours and then requires daily checking, commenting, and regular posting. 
  4. Twitter is the pulse of news and information  around the world. You  find people and ideas; every day I talk to people on at least three continents, probably five. They have recommended me, engaged me to speak to groups, put me in contact with key folks, and shared a mountain of information; I reciprocate.  I have helped people get employment, new business, new contacts, and information. For me, it’s a search/research site with a multitude of friendly expert guides. Use Addictomatic for intensive searches. Alltop supplies constant updates on most topics, and its founder Guy Kawasaki and his team tweet at an insane pace. Twitters a wide open field a completely public space. Kelly and I chatted about a couple of famous business faux pas on Twitter. Youll find me on twitter most days.
  5. Linked In serves two functions for businesses. First  off, it’s a  business card. Many folks will look you up on Linked In after you meet or even before a formal meeting in preparation. Its essentially an expanded business card, close to a resume. Secondly, the special interest groups host discussions for various industries and issues. Youll meet other folks in your area of expertise. Linked In is more private because you have to know someone or be connected or introduced to them to become linked.
  6. To get started, set up contact information on these 3 sites twitter takes about five minutes, the other two a couple of hours. Make connections which will take initially some more hours and then you will maintain it. and figure on daily checking. A cross section of people from your business should represent your company. The point is, its marketing and business development communities, yes. But its also building technical communities and areas of expertise. Business owners want to meet other business owners. Architects want to meet other architects. And then we also want to meet other people in different fields. For example, I follow a lot of scientists. And they also follow what I do because of my work in futures and forecasting.
  7. Bottom line on social media for business: its essential. And its not just a one-time event. Its a new way of knowing your industry, your city, and where you and your business fit.  Look up my tags on delicious, at  key word: socialmedia, socialmedia+, twitter, facebook, twitterbiz, and a personal favorite: twitterstories. Youll find hundreds of links. I know, you want just one. Start with ReadWriteWeb, Mashable, ChrisBrogan, and Problogger.

Regarding social technologies and cities: I gots to go folks, so will return to summarize key points on second half. Friday eve festivities have started. In the meantime, I hope youll listen to our conversation. It begins a few minutes into the recording. 

And what did I really seriously forget? As an expert, blog. Period. It another amazing tool that will get you in touch with so many people and ideas. You can begin with Posterous, as I did, to get your blogging legs so to speak. As a business, you need to add it to your website as soon as you are ready to use it regularly either you or your smartest and brightest people. Just identify who is talking for the company; its not a monolith, for goodness sakes. It’s the best of all of you grouped into a business. That’s transparency and people will find your business far more engaging if you are open.

Kelly is an amazing resource, heres a brief bio: “Eye on Small Business” is a weekly radio show that highlights successful small business owners and small business issues and resources. Broadcast from Kansas City, host Kelly Scanlon interviews small business owners who share the secrets behind their success. She also talks with business experts who share tips that help small businesses grow to the next level. Kelly Scanlon is the owner and publisher of Kansas City Small Business Monthly, Inc., a media company that connects growth-minded business owners with the information and resources that can take them to the next level. Delivery vehicles include a monthly magazine, an annual resource directory, three Web sites, a weekly e-newsletter, a weekly radio show, an annual awards gala and educational workshops and networking events. 

Images of Future Cities: Courtesy of Makers by Cory Doctorow


While reading Makers, you get caught up in the lives of Lester, Perry, Suzanne and the rest. There are villains and heroes, celebrations and catastrophes. Doctorow gives an addictive read; my thumb rapid-clicked the Kindle page button to move the words faster and faster.

While I was captivated by the story, that’s not my focus here. I’ll save the story for you to read – no spoiler alert required.

The wealth of new images in Makers lets us peer into one scenario for 21st c cities. In this future, we live on a whimsical, resource-limited planet that I might love but also fear, particularly as an architect.

What Can Makers Teach Us About Possible Futures?
Here’s nine intriguing images, all plausible enough, and a few that scare the bejeezies out of me.

  1. New Work. “Capitalism is eating itself.” In the “New Work” program, big corps fund small teams of inventors, build production and distribution systems, and reap profits for a few months till the copycats undercut prices. An entire product line evolves from bright idea to obsolete in 6-9 months.
  2. DIY Inventors. While the idea is not new, garage inventors play a far more significant role when innovation and production move at light speed. These 21st c mechanics twist left-behind appliances, toys, computers, ie, today’s consumer goods, into adaptive reuse products and environments.
  3. Dead Malls or Ghost Malls. Abandoned big box retail and indoor malls called dead malls and ghost malls become hotbeds for creative start-ups and shanty towns. In Makers, even shelter evolves from found objects.
  4. Shanty Towns. Homeless folks flock to former suburbs and build elaborate slums, rather than living crammed into urban doorways or under bridges. The construction style seems born from the squatters villages in Mumbai or Delhi, except apparently with better infrastructure and code compliance. Structures reach 3-4 floors and sport skywalks and whimsical shapes. Shops occupy first floors with residences and restaurants above. Children play in streets and community order is maintained through ad hoc leadership. Idyllic? Yup.
  5. Transportation. Crowded planes sound more like today’s bus travel experience, but otherwise seem unchanged. Corp jets sit idle and are cast off for parts. Fewer people have cars, taxis still exist, and walking 30 minutes to get lunch is normal. The main characters’ vehicle consists of two Smart Cars mashed together for more interior space.
  6. Cities and Architecture. Reused malls, poorly maintained public streets, crowded airports all sound feasible, although a bit frightening. It’s today’s cities only dirtier. New forms of architecture include the shanty towns described in quaint, organic terms. Coffin hotels sound a lot like Tokyo’s capsules.
  7. Robots. As an early example in the book, Boogie Woogie Elmos are reprogrammed to drive a stripped down Smart Car. A synchronized Elmo-robot team operates pedals, wheel and gear shaft, and responds to voice commands. Other robots rearrange and construct theme parks in response to visitors’ feedback. If you like something, just rate it with your joystick, and it moves forward in the exhibit; hate it and its banished.
  8. 3D Printers and Scanners. This equipment produces anything from a doll to a car part to a door. Once programmed, 3D machines and robots do all the heavy lifting; really they are the Makers in this book. Seemingly, theme park exhibits transform completely for our satisfaction – and so I imagine, why not the real world? Sure to send quivers into any AEC pro.
  9. Goop. The raw material inserted in the 3D printer, referred to as a type of Silly Putty, becomes a high-tech commodity. 3D printers can be programmed to only accept certain types of goop, much like printer cartridges today. Free printers are loss-leaders while profit comes from selling goop. Goop can be made of recycled materials melted down and mixed with epoxy. The key ingredient for all products, whether assembled by robots or extruded from 3D printers, is junk.

What Do I Love and Fear About Makers’ World?
Innovation celebrated, freedom from big business, robots constantly building cool things, rides that reinvent instantaneously, handmade cities with lively communities – what a fantastic world!

OTOH grand gestures seem completely missing in action. No mention of beauty other than humans and some of the Disney experience. The rest sounds like Frankenstein cities, assembled from cast-offs and gerry-rigged to new uses.

Architects and engineers would be part of the design/build crew – making, remaking, and programming robots. The rapid-fire change means we would learn from failures faster, do it better tomorrow. That’s fantastic, actually.

Does Makers Include Architects, Engineers or Contractors?

As it is now, we fear our mistakes since a botched design can live for decades. Or as Frank Lloyd Wright said: we plant ivy.

Frankly, some lessons are not at all clear until a place is built and used. On every project, the designer says “drat!” about something, “aha!” about something else. We live and learn with regrets; find joy in happy accidents. But we rarely get to fix problems. A missed opportunity is just that; gone.

With assembled structures and swarms of construction robots, we could improve a space constantly. Need a bigger assembly space? send the bots. More doors or windows? Better shading devices? Fire up the 3D printer. Thinking on your feet and working with existing resources become a new form of modeling at full scale. Thrilling! Design/build as performance art.

I would truly welcome this world, even though the pressure to perform would be enormous. Imagine, nearly instant turn-around!! Lag-time would disappear.

Yet, I bet architects, engineers, and construction folks would be far less useful or common. The concept of citizen inventors extends to citizen architects and builders too.

Those Professions Formerly Known As…
In this low-scale, robot-constructed world, expertise may be nearly worthless in design and construction. Computer models would set design parameters for spans and fire codes, even for functional uses and types of experiences. Want quiet and peaceful, pick Option 21058; workspace for call centers, pick Option 84205.

Instead, in the Makers world, we survive by the worthiness of our ideas. Buildings are built and perhaps rebuilt or modified in a day. We design, hit the send button, and then boom, it’s built by robot swarms and 3D extractions.

Services are shortened to schematics and oversight. Explaining what is needed, and what is possible will be accompanied by robot-built models. Presentations might be daily events, so gear up communication skills.

While knowledge of the field is essential, with automated design and construction processes, the number of people working at each role could be substantially reduced. Innovators, synthesizers, folks who can think across platforms, communicate ideas, and know how things fit together would be at a premium. Production jobs in today’s world and folks that make it happen may be less essential.

Picture cities as anthills, emerging from a million small actions instead of grand schemes orchestrated by experts.

How Much of a Stretch?
I’ve taken Doctorow’s ideas and asked: what would this mean for entire cities? If we had this technology, these sensibilities and resources, how would we make buildings? Furthermore, what would it mean for those of us that love to make cities? I hope the author is tolerant of my stretch.

Imagining the future is the best way to shape it and the only way to prepare ourselves.

Makers presents a scenario that is far from an architect’s dream. It’s a tough environment for engineers, planners, and contractors as well. Even city leaders and developers would have to step aside for this tsunami of citizen action.

Just as content and media platforms have become free for publishing, if materials and real estate lose their economic clout, and design/build processes are automated, active users will create cities.

Would you choose to live in Makers world?

You can buy it here:
You can

What Is Geo-Engineering? Cool, Clear Images

These images complement my last article: How Technology Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Geo-Engineering, which was a bit skimpy on pics, heavy on narrative.  Here are four more illustrations. One diagrams options, two rank them in cost-benefit analyses, and one does both.

The one that both diagrams and analyzes: New Scientist gave the most comprehensive version with a 3D image of options with rankings. Space mirrors (or reflectors, shields) rank highest overall and most expensive. Aerosols, cloud seeding and afforesting are shown as good options for less cost.




A diagram only: The University of East Anglia (on Next Big Future) created a simple illustration of solutions.


A cost-benefit analysis comes from the impressive report by The Royal Society. Aerosols come out best and surface albedo (light, reflective surfaces) either in cities or on the desert rank worst. Space reflectors or shields also rank high in efficacy but are not affordable. (I featured this one in a September post Heres the full report: 




Another ranking of the solutions: As presented at an October symposium at MIT (on CNET), Phillip Boyd of University of Otago rated five categories of climate engineering based on four factors. The researcher considered all options a minefield of social and political factors. The symposium participants voiced a great deal of skepticism and caution, with far more testing and life cycle costs analysis recommended before any action is taken. To which I say, amen!




Geo-engineering is no panacea for climate change; sustainable development and practices plus mitigation efforts are essential, necessary steps now. The conversation and testing on geo-engineered remediation picked up pace this year. We need to be informed and proceed cautiously b/c errors could be devastating. Public debates and global negotiations are beginning, and should be openly transparent. See my original analysis for more detail.

Check out my delicious bookmarks on geo-engineering too.

How Technology Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Geoengineering


In October, I covered a list of 20 items from The Futurist magazine’s Outlook 2010 (Nov-Dec 09 issue that will shape 21st c cities.×84 Now I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. I addressed megacities, water, robotics, and whole cities in the first four. This article considers a significant new technology: geoengineering.

Science Fiction or Global Mandate?
While climate change and global warming remain controversial, arguments about solutions elevate tensions exponentially. One option under consideration, geoengineering or intentional climate manipulation, makes scientists and engineers sound like science fiction fanatics. Simulated volcanoes? Ocean algae? Flying mirrors? Consequently, people arrive at the negotiating table in polar-opposite camps, lines in the sand, as either evangelists or naysayers.

Yet undeniably, we have been practicing geoengineering unintentionally at least since the birth of industrialization. Now we are faced with engineering the planet’s climate intentionally and cooperatively. As Stewart Brand, environmental pioneer, says: We are as gods; we might as well get good at it. Moreover, we have to get good at it.

We, Not Us Versus Them
Among the most vexing issues is coordination among nations. On geoengineering, we act for the whole planet and everyone is a participant. Already people and nations commonly practice local weather experiments. Last year, China openly seeded clouds to reduce the chance that the Olympics would be interrupted by rain.

None have attempted to implement climate change on a global scale, yet the commotion surrounding options grows daily, which makes action increasingly likely. This week, the US Congress held hearings and undoubtedly similar talks are taking place in every country. In just a few months, geoengineering has moved from a sci-fi fantasy to a necessary global conversation.

Where Does Geoengineering Fit?
Geoengineering necessarily begins with a slate of options surrounding climate change to figure out if we can avoid it all together. Possible solutions focus on three types of intervention, according to Jamais Cascio. We can prevent, mitigate damage, and remediate or reverse global warming.

  1. Prevention in terms of cities and buildings is part of the goal of sustainable, or green, solutions. Reduce use of fossil fuels that emit carbon by switching to alternative energies and by conservation. Conservation involves energy efficient buildings defined by USGBC’s LEED program and the UK’s BREEAM assessment.  Changing the built environment occurs one building and one district at a time and will take decades. More immediately, changing behavior could happen immediately, yet in fact, social change also takes years, if not generations. Consequently, prevention is just a portion of the wedge solutions and other options are needed.
  2. Mitigation refers to reducing catastrophic threats, such as protecting coastlines, (see 21st Century Cities: Water, modifying agricultural practices, and conserving water to decrease resource conflicts. These solutions do nothing to prevent progressively worse problems of an increasingly warm atmosphere.
  3. Remediation attacks climate change head-on by slowing or reversing global warming. Geoengineering is at the heart of remediation and also considered in the menu of wedge options. The effects to temperatures can occur within a year although transforming the planet’s ecology may take decades or longer. Therein lies one of the risks; we won’t know the results in real time.

Prevention is the rallying cry for most environmentalists, me included. Building owners, government agencies, the public and AEC professionals increasingly mandate sustainable development. Regardless of remediation, prevention is an entry point for long-term stability, good design, and healthy lifestyles.

Are We Ready?
Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 Indonesian tsunami indicate that most if not all countries have enormous mitigation problems. The massive costs of preemptive change are dwarfed by the images of these destructive events and the loss of life. Yet investing in huge infrastructure projects for future possibilities falls far behind the needs of today’s crises. The question is: how many people and cities are we willing to sacrifice? Close to home most would say, none at all.

Consequently, while geoengineered remediation initially strikes many people as “you have got to be kidding me” and then as, “no way we can control the side-effects,” the fact is that we – or someone – will attempt massive geo-engineering climate change. We need to be experts for protection and most likely for proaction. That essentially is the debate. And it’s a debate that is past due.

Geoengineering Options
The types of geoengineering approaches fall into two categories, according to The Royal Society.

  1. Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) or long-wave approaches pull CO2 out of atmosphere to slow global warming by capturing and burying or by allowing it to escape the atmosphere. Includes reforestation, bio-char production and storage, air capture or carbon capture at source and carbon disposal, and ocean fertilization e.g. plankton or algae blooms.
  2. Solar Radiation Management (SRM) or short-wave increases surface reflectivity (albedo) or blocks sunlight. Options include space shields e.g. giant orbiting mirrors, stratospheric sulfate aerosols, cloud seeding, and cloud brightening with seawater.

Stratospheric aerosols (such as simulated volcanoes or aerosols released from airplanes) are the best investment although it requires continual implementation while urban surface albedo (light colored cities, deserts) is the least effective. In general, CDR/long wave is considerably less effective at quickly altering temperatures than SRM, although has better efficacy over time. (Lenton & Vaughn 2009)

What Will It Mean to Us?
In terms of the built environment, lighter, more reflective surfaces are part of sustainable design, both LEED and BREEAM. Over time, cities should become lighter and greener with less solid, dark surfaces. Some geoengineering solutions may be built into the fabric of the city and highly visible, such as one proposal to create reflective artificial trees along roadways. If that option became as prolific as say power lines, our urban landscapes would be substantially altered.

Environmental changes would also affect us. Dimming sunlight could have massive implications for our experience of place and the effect on plant life. Aerosols will lighten the sky, change sunrises and sunsets, and could damage the ozone layer. Changing deserts or fertilizing oceans could be a difficult if not disastrous ecological option. Reforestation reduces farm land, which affects food production and livelihoods. Yet these options warrant full consideration including open debates about possible consequences.

In addition, unintended consequences could include increased humidity, drought, and possible health implications of various aerosols. All of these risks are potential, not pre-determined.

I considered the ethics of geoengineering and outlined ideas in these posts:  We need to continue with prevention and mitigation full-speed while we fully weigh geo-engineering.

How Do We Choose?
The difficulties of agreeing on the best options, determining risks, and measuring the impact, especially given the 20-30 year time lag for climate change, makes geoengineering thorny. Moreover, the mandate of “do no harm” and allowing reversibility increases our struggle 1000-fold. Implications must be considered in systematic terms, the potential consequences are enormous, and frankly, we still won’t be completely certain.

According to Lenton and Vaughn, our choices depend on how quickly and drastically we act.

By 2050, only stratospheric aerosol injections or sunshades in space have the potential to cool the climate back toward its pre-industrial state, but some land carbon cycle geoengineering options are of comparable magnitude to mitigation “wedges”. Strong mitigation, i.e. large reductions in CO2 emissions, combined with global-scale air capture and storage, deforestation, and bio-char production, i.e. enhanced CO2 sinks, might be able to bring CO2 back to its pre-industrial level by 2100, thus removing the need for other geo-engineering.

A future of a healthy atmosphere will only occur through a combination of changes to behavior, building and city choices, mitigating possible damage, recovery after catastrophes, and, yes, large-scale global engineering solutions – intentional, beneficial, accidental, and sadly, even malicious.

Looking Ahead
In fact, it is possible that only a few of these geo-engineering options will be necessary. Furthermore, the entire budget may be less than $10 billion, a relatively small global investment. The questions are: which options, who pays, who is liable for failures, and the extraordinarily sticky issue of who controls the projects. Furthermore, the risk of geoengineered terrorism is quite likely.

In other words, geoengineering will be part of everyday life and responsibility will fall on every country and individual, just as other security and environmental issues do today. New fields will emerge in geo-engineering, science, business, military, geo-ethics, and if there is to be solutions at all, in global diplomatic security and negotiations.

In the next article, I’ll look at more technological influences on 21st century cities. The goal here is 10 additional city-shaping ideas, and this is the fifth in the series. Thanks for reading and retweeting. Questions, comments, and ideas welcome!



How Robots Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Constructing and Using Cities


Last week, I covered a list of 20 items from The Futurist magazine’s Outlook 2010 (Nov-Dec 09 issue that will shape 21st c cities.×84 Now I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. The first article outlined three comprehensive topics, The Great Urban Divide, Megacities, and Poly-Centric Region, and the second one focused on water and cities.  This article will cover robotics and cities, which, like water, deserves an entire article.

Extensions of Humans

Marshall McLuhan, renowned for “The media is the message,” also invented the notion of technology as extensions of humans. Every technology extends our bodies or minds. Therefore, the hammer extends our hands, the car extends our legs, and the computer extends our minds.

The robot promises to extend our capacity in continuously surprising ways. Furthermore, robots threaten us because unlike other machines, they act autonomously. Their potential raises significant questions: Will robots someday replace, harm, or even overthrow us?

Sixty years ago, in anticipation of the potential threat, Isaac Asimov created the three laws of robots: 1) They must not harm us. 2) They must obey us, except where they do us harm. 3) They must protect their own existence unless it conflicts with laws 1 or 2. With great foresight, Asimov framed our moral dilemma when robots were still just an idea. Yet his laws have been broken already in the field of military weapons, spurring debate by robot-ethicists. 

These questions become increasingly complex with the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), also called singularity.  Ray Kurzweil anticipates that we will see robots with human intelligence in the next few decades. The singularity moment is defined by the Turing test. Can a machine engage in natural conversation?

As robots invade every aspect of living and working, its definition evolves. The University of Texas Robotics Research Group defines a robot as: “An automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human.”  Which begs the question, when is a machine a robot? For example, is a car a robot?

I would make the distinction that a machine becomes a robot when it is able to perform its primary function – such as transportation – without human interaction. For example, the Lexus car that self-parks is operating in that function as a robot car.

I consider robots and cities in three areas: construction, mobility, and daily functions.

1.      Constructing Cities and Buildings

While cars have been built with robots since the 1980s, retooling manufacturing plants and labor practices has taken three decades. Building cities with robots will even more complex. The first step is constructing buildings as prefabricated mass-produced buildings. Making parts or entire modular sections in a shop or factory lend itself to stationary industrial robots, which has been in practice for decades. More interesting are robots that function on site, such as for improving safety.  Or for aiding carpenters. Small caterpillar-like robots climb tall poles and perform checks, thereby protecting workers from dangerous tasks. At some point, I believe that workers will demand robots on-site, just as I imagine that soldiers look to drones as first responders to bomb threats. In the future, robots will build many portions of buildings at construction sites, such as this demonstration model that builds walls. 

2.      Mobility or Where’s My Flying Car?

We have used elevators for over 100 years, and escalators and moving walkways are nothing new. Trains and planes have autopilot functions. Imagine if our cars could be automated at that level, especially without tracks. London Heathrow Airport is building a personal rapid transportation system to open in 2010 with whiz-bang futuristic cabs. The privacy unavailable in public transit or safety problems of private cars is solved with electric zero-carbon system. Completely autonomous vehicles are being tested. Beyond the self-parking Lexus, the next step for these vehicles is sensing devices that monitor speeds and space cars properly, or stop accidents. Automated highway systems or intelligent highways would work with the cars to control traffic.

The Segway promised to revolutionize mobility, a highly over-estimated claim that merely demonstrates the difficulties of transforming transportation. New tech is just the first step; widespread adoption means changing regulations, urban design, and ultimately behaviors. This year, the company teamed with GM to add a Segway car, which promises to raise similar issues. Where do these vehicles belong – with cars, bikes, or pedestrians? It is a beautiful little vehicle that operates more like a golf cart than a car and seemingly would be at home in slower paced districts without congestion to minimize conflicts.

Flying cars already exist, the Moller being the closest to a true example Much like the Segway, they lack a good fit in cities. We have to ask: How do we create order in the air to enable wayfinding and minimize crashes? How do we keep them out of commercial fly zones? Furthermore if you have mechanical failure, you have a crash landing instead of simply a stalled car. The safety and congestion problems of thousands if not millions of personal flying vehicles require far higher technology, training, and attention than we put on automobiles.

Finally, some of the most intriguing mobility devices are in eko-skeleton concepts. Strap them on and traversing a mile becomes a far simpler matter, both faster and easier. Pedestrian distances to conveniences could be revolutionized by these various robots and transform how we use cities.

Here are a number of robots that we may see in coming decades. 

3.      Daily Functions Using Buildings and Cities

You have probably heard of refrigerators that track your food and place grocery orders, or appliances that respond remotely such as digital recordings or coffee machines. Robotic vacuum cleaners (roombas) have been in use for over a decade, and lawn mowing for the past few years.  (Today HuffPo imagines these seemingly tame devices may try to kill us. – a joke or too close for comfort?) Maintenance technology is expanding to street cleaning with the Scarab, a sort of Wall-E for streets. 

Swarming robots the size of a finger nail can carry small solar films and supply power on-demand. They may sense room comfort, provide light, heat, air flow, or convey images from one space to another. Why go visit the boss when you can send a swarm? Furniture also looks to be smart and flexible, such as modular parts that re-assemble for chairs or tables. Smart technology which uses reading sensors, codes objects with rfids and can automate our energy grid or transportation system is related automation on a massive scale. Robots and the Internet of Things will do for cities and buildings what Gameboy did for board games.

Furthermore, how we use buildings and how we assemble and make things can be made easier with robots. Industry is constantly finding new ways to use robots, such as this Gap warehouse. Cleaning, organizing, maintaining a house will become ever more automated. Robot, read me the headlines now.   

Looking Ahead

Robots will immerse our cities with automation and change how we live and work, no doubt, even who we are. For example, I might say I am not a robot, but my arm is, or my eye is. Transhumanism is reshaping how we define machine and human. We will work with robots, and yes, I think even grow attached to them. Some will emulate humans or animals, and others will be strange forms or geometric shapes suited to some particular task. Robot as a term has been useful as a machine of the future; at some point, we will need far more specific descriptions. Building them, maintaining, updating, using, and teaching robotics are specialized career paths. Eventually, Robots 101 will be a basic course.

You can find more robot references on my delicious site (cindyfw).

Next I focus on more technology that will shape 21st century cities: geo-engineering and nanotechnology.

photo credit: Hallucigenia Project, IATSS Research 28.1 (2004) by Shunji Yamanaka, Automotive Transportation Gallery, U of California Library, Berkeley