Hilarious Cities: Do You Live In One? #letsblogoff

This week’s lets blog off  creators want to know:  What Makes You Laugh?  A troop of brilliant blogging buddies aim to make you giggle today. You can link to all of our posts here. and I posted the most recent list at the end of this post – a laugh-fest! 

Do you see funny things around your city? How often do you smile or even laugh out loud in your daily travels? A chuckle here, a smile there means you get it: yeah, that’s funny!! 

Does your city make you laugh? 


This little cherub on the Country Club Plaza always makes me chuckle. Bet he’s made more people laugh than most comedians!


And the parking structure for the downtown Kansas City Public Library is a row of … gigantic books! Surely the architects wanted to make us laugh?


A lot of public art cracks me up. This fellow eating a shoe with eyes and ears covered stands blatantly in front of the (believe it or not!) the KC Communication Center.


The Shuttlecocks make the venerable Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art their badminton net. Fantastic art/architecture joke.

Let’s face it, cities are hilarious! And not in just one way; we have a whole toolbox of humor.

Funny words and pictures

A rare few city forefathers invented some rib-cracking names – down the road from me is Peculiar, Missouri, and a little further is Versailles, named for its proud French ancestor. Now that’s not so funny, except we call it “Ver-say-alls.” (Apologies to France!) What if you were from Accident, Tightwad, or Middelfart?


Some sign

-makers have a terrific sense of humor.




And some graffiti is silly funny….



Architecture humor

If architecture is the mother art… who is the dad?? Heh.

If at first you don’t leap over tall buildings in a single bound… build shorter buildings.

Ok, did I mention I can’t tell a joke? Ill just stick to images!

I love those hotdog stands shaped like a hotdog. Guess what the owners of this building, the Longaberger Company, sell?



This serious building, the Ontario College of Art and Design, looks a bit like a game board.



Road fun

Maybe the most fun is on the road. You can watch for riotous vehicles like low riders, Model Ts, and trucks with longhorns or funny bumper stickers. I found a hummer converted to a horse drawn carriage – that’s imaginative!! Or there’s accidental humor…


And finally, the best laugh goes to lunatic driving. The rowdiest 10 secs of driving you’ll ever see.

Cities – Why be funny?

Now that you think about it, arent cities funny? No doubt, cities are very serious places. But sometimes, you just got to have some fun.

Humor makes cities more human, more relatable, and sparks everyday life. Kids in a park, dogs chasing birds, monkeys in the zoo, a cherub statue peeing, or a big book building make me laugh. Pink flamingos make me cringe-laugh, thanks to an oldJohn Waters film. Still some folks find them joyful. Laughter shakes off our troubles, lightens the load.

Who wants cities full of dark and gloom? That says someone didnt care enough to make us laugh, to charm us, to brighten life. A city with humor opens communication and creates moments for sharing something good – laughter.

Come on Cities, show us some heart. Dare to make us smile or even laugh out loud. Thats the gift of common ground, a shared moment among strangers. We can’t be angry when we’re laughing. We can’t hurt anyone, or rob a store.

Ok, we might have a bike or car accident if we laugh too hard. Watch out!!

Can a city add a laugh track?

You bet.

  • What cities, fountains, places, buildings make you laugh?

Enjoy many more witty blog posts, and some quite serious, from the extraordinary ”lets blog off” community.  

Blogger Twitter Blog Post Link
Veronika Miller @modenus Modenus Community
Paul Anater @paul_anater Kitchen and Residential Design
Rufus Dogg @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog.com
Becky Shankle @ecomod Eco-Modernism
Bob Borson @bobborson Life of an Architect
Tamara Dalton @tammyjdalton Tamara Dalton Design Studios
Sean Lintow, Sr. @SLSconstruction SLS-Construction.com
Amy Good @Splintergirl Thoughts of a Splinter Girl
Tim Bogan @TimBogan Windbag International
Steve Mouzon @stevemouzon Original Green
Madame Sunday @ModernSauce Modern Sauce
Saxon Henry @saxonhenry Roaming by Design
Jane Frederick @JaneFredArch Low Country Architect
Andrea Wolper @AndreaWolper Spin the Wheel
Denese Bottrell @Denese_Bottrell Thoughtful Content
Betsy De Maio @egrgirl Egrgirl’s Blog
Allison A. Bailes III @EnergyVanguard Energy Vanguard Blog
Ami @beckami Multifarious Miscellany
Christian McLean @chirn9980 ChristianMclean.com
Barry and jb @BMoxieBMore Building Moxie


Calf at Bike Rack; Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto by Wil Alsop,Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto by Wil Alsop,Hummer Coach,Longaberger Company Home Office, Newark Ohio,Bird Sign and Portapotty;Bristol graffiti ;gargoyles at Notre Dame Cathedral, Modern Communications” by Terry Allen, Nelson AtkinsShuttlecocks by Oldenburg and van Bruggen,Book Parking Garage at KC Central Library;town signs.

21st Century Cities and Architecture Need Possibilianism #sustainability #poptech


Have you heard of PopTech? Some say it’s TED for brainiacs, arguably more cutting edge, always looking for emerging thinkers. Andrew Zolli, lead curator, attended the same Futures Studies masters program in Houston I did (and where I teach), although our paths unfortunately never crossed.

PopTech is posting the best videos now; here’s one worth watching.   


Cowboy up or geek out?

The annual PopTech event was held in Camden, Maine last week. Neuroscientist and fiction writer David Eagleman gave one of those rare “don’t miss” talks about a notion he’s devised called: Possibilianism. Rather than simply “anything goes,” he says that science allows for any possibility that can be proven using the scientific method. In other words, we need to think of many alternative hypotheses and then apply the tools.

Approach ideas with an open mind. Rather than firmly committing to a single answer or “cowboy up” with a certain solution, we engage in active exploration. For the largest questions in the universe like dark matter and how the brain works, we don’t even have any good answers yet. So we need to “geek-out” until we have the needed data. Be comfortable to multiple possibilities. That’s what he means by possibilianism.

In short: Praise uncertainty.

I think it’s very clear that we made mistakes on cities and building design. We use too much energy, overheated the planet, and created cities of haves and have-nots where some parts are nearly unlivable and others are sadly ugly, lacking beauty or lovability. Plus sitting all day at work and in cars makes us unhealthy. That’s not to say all cities or all parts of cities fit this image but let’s face it, it’s enough that we need to make some serious changes.

Think about it: What else could we have done?

We need a heavy dose of possibilianism.


Here’s a wild thought: What would happen if tomorrow you woke up and your car was gone? Your neighbors’ cars and the pickup trucks were missing too. There were no taxis, only large-haul trucks and delivery vehicles too busy to carry passengers. Boom, you were caught with your feet and an old bike as transportation. What would you do?

I bet you would call into work and say you couldn’t make it. You would cancel all other appointments and walk your kids to school. Soon you would be taking the bus or rail and walking or riding your bike for shorter trips. Delivery trucks would replenish your kitchen pantry.

Over time, you would become physically fit, your wallet would be a little thicker with cash, and you would know people that share your routes. Plus, since transportation emits 28% of greenhouse gases, cities would immediately experience an impressive leap in sustainability. 

Cars are so deeply embedded it’s truly a challenge to imagine car-free lives, isn’t it?!

Car-fee cities


We don’t start completely from scratch. Several urban theories and their flagship examples lead the way on car restrictions, specifically,

CarFree Cities, New urbanism, Eco-towns in UK, and to some degree, the Slow City Movement

Many sections of cities and islands, most famously Venice Italy, are fully pedestrian.

  • Freiburg Germany (pictured) reclaimed the center of the city for pedestrian uses.
  • Curitiba Brazil created one of the most efficient networks of buses (BRT) in the world.
  • Bogota Colombia employed a combination of BRT, bike paths, and pedestrians-first policies.

A few new towns will be zero carbon, reduced-car developments for environmental purposes.


No doubt, we will not go gently into that good night of car-free cities. Too much has been invested, particularly in America and in perimeter development globally, China being the most eager recent adopter. Cars have the obvious benefits of convenience and security, and have long been status symbols (now not having a car shows status among some groups).

Plus, honestly, given an open road, cars are a blast! Dont all addictions begin with pleasure?

Two options – with and without cars – is bogus!

If we’ve learned one thing from the crazy world we live in, it’s that choices are not black and white, either/or; they are both/and. An entire constellation of possibilities waits for our imagination to ignite.

My car-free fantasy is a game of “what if,” a thought experiment played to its extreme. Imagine the possibilities, what would that option solve and what would it destroy?

That’s where possibilianism leaps in.

If you were designing a brand new city for you and your loved ones or making radical changes to your city, what would you choose? How would you create vibrant, thrilling, beautiful places to live? What would be your criteria? How many options can you imagine?

How would that new place be better than how you live now? How do you envision your better life? And how can you bring some of those possibilities into your real life?

Think about it: Are you a possibilian?


Related lists: “Green cities: Where to travel green” compiles 6 lists of top green cities.

Images:EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector;Freiburg Germany;Tongzhou China,Tjibaou Cultural Center in Noumea, New Caladonia by Renzo Piano Workshop


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

Architects, Designers, Planners, Are You Change Agents? Lessons from KCMO School District


Perhaps you’ve heard of the Kansas City Missouri School District’s decades of struggles? This spring, the district leadership shocked the nation when they announced the closure of twenty-one schools. Despite dozens of desperate public school districts in America, none ever closed 21 schools at once. The last students walked out this week.

Eight of the closed schools are mine. Around twenty years ago, my architecture firm designed, renovated, or added to eight schools now closing (8 others are still in use). A sad day indeed.

Where Architects Messed Up
In the 1980s under a deseg order, KCMSD adopted a theory of magnet schools to curb the tide of white flight. Create buildings that match the suburbs with unique programs to attract white students. Does that make sense? The district spent one billion dollars in capital improvements.

They didn’t ask architects to think strategically. We were technical experts and designers, not experts at learning environments in the broader sense. Not offering was our fault; not being asked reveals the limits of our siloed profession.

Human-Centered Design Process
We shape buildings and then they shape us, right? It’s Churchill’s famous quote.

When we design, build, and use an environment, we participate in an ongoing interactive process. Imagine a constant state of design; we change the place, it changes us, and so on. So long as we engage with a place, it remains relevant and vital. When we stop, it dies, becomes a relic, an historic artifact.

Buildings are relatively straightforward to construct; difficult but we know exactly what it takes. Communities are not; they’re dependent upon the right mix of people sharing enough commonalities to cohere. Building excellent cities means we know how to develop both synchronically. If we want to be consulted on comprehensive decisions, then we must think beyond technical and design issues. We have to think full spectrum in terms of integrated holistic systems, cultivate our beliefs, and articulate persuasive narratives.

Are You A Change Agent?
To create human-centered solutions, the most important questions you have to ask are not “What to build?” but “Why build?”

1. Who is being served? Who should be?
2. Are you trying to build a legacy or serve an immediate need? Which dominates?
3. How will your work transform the community? The neighborhood? The city?
4. Are you building a completed project or will it grow with the students and community?
5. Are you leading the process or performing a duty as requested?
6. Does this solution figure into larger learning systems? And larger community needs and beliefs?
7. Is the solution student-centered, community-centered, building-centered?
8. How will you define excellence and failure? How long will you wait to claim victory or defeat?
9. How risky is the solution? Does it meet, stretch expectations, or redefine ideas?
10. Are you willing to make mistakes? Does the community allow mistakes?
11. Will you challenge their beliefs and assumptions?
12. Are you prepared to share your beliefs about learning, education, city and community building? Can you articulate excellence?
13. Do you care about the long-term future of the community? And the building?
14. What does the solution say about the students? The community? You?
15. How will the story of the project be told?
16. Who cares about what? Who cares about whom? How does your solution address, extend ideas of, cater to or engage these constituents and their affiliations?
17. How do you imagine the future in five years? In twenty years? Does that match, stretch, or diverge from the community’s?
18. How will your solution change the students’ lives? How will you know?
19. Are you prepared to grow and change with the project? What ideas are you willing to shed? Are any absolute?

Why Build?
Frequently architects move directly into programming using a linear process, missing out on the overall question of “Why Are We Building?”

Have you been asked to imagine ideas before there’s a defined building project? Have you developed knowledge and articulated philosophies beyond technical and design domains? Are you considered a trusted advisor regarding social systems, cultural beliefs, political alliances? Or the larger issues of learning and education? (Fill in the project type.)

Are you engaged in the community and/or project type so that others will seek your advice early? What do you and your team bring to the table?

In short, what questions are you asking?

So Long, Old Friends
Goodbye to: Moore Elementary 1916, Pinkerton Elementary 1931, Woodland Elementary 1923, Franklin Elementary 1961, Longan Elementary 1955, Kansas City Middle School of the Arts 1993, Douglass Early Childhood Center 1952, and Fairview Alternate School 1957. Best wishes in your next life.

Kansas City and its most beleaguered neighborhoods inherit a gaggle of empty buildings. If folks focus on vitality and communities, then these buildings again become relevant.

Ten Ways to Build Strong Communities – Notes from Free State Social

Last week, three hundred people experienced an energy tornado at the Free State Social. Thanks to the hard working Ben Smith and Whitney Mathews, folks from Kansas, Missouri and points beyond spent a couple of days with social media geniuses.

These folks blew me away. Two days of cyclonic SM. If cities used this gale of ideas, our communities would be knit tighter than Mayberry. Here’s my top ten for cities.


Jeremiah, Ben, and Chris

1.       Brogan’s Be Nice Club. Shawna Coronado, green gardening guru and author, said that’s all the advice Chris Brogan, New Marketing Labs, gave her. Be nice. Not just a feel-good platitude; it’s the core belief of social. The seed in the center of the fruit. “Do Something.” Don’t wait for people to ask. Go find them. Then give them whatever they need, tools, ideas, words, to make it happen. Communities flourish with hyper-focused, big-hearted nice. Contagious.

2.       Blog early and often in multi-media. Make your posts short and fast (whoop, that’s advice I need!) Shawna says accessible words, shorter sentences and paragraphs, with personal touches. Then parlay one idea into two, three, even four posts, using texts, pictures, podcasts and videos. Mix it up. Ramsey Mohsen’s (Digital Evolution) video of the opening of the first downtown KC grocery story in recent memory attracted his most viewers and was picked up by the news media. Community videos tell the story of people and place.

3.      Live and die by your database. Chris says don’t just know their business address; know everything you can about who they are, what they like. Jeremiah Owyang, web strategist with Altimeter Group, says future growth is tied to CRM (Customer (for cities, say Citizen) Relations Management); his “New Rules” details strategies. Knowing people as individuals turns a city into a community. You can give them what they need. Connect people with common interests. That’s the magic of turning cities into highly engaged communities.

4.       I know the greatest (fill in the name). Promote other people’s stuff 12 times as much as you talk about yours. That’s Chris’s rule for stirring up a storm of connections. Twelve times! Here’s how it works every day. If we have two hours for social media, spend 30 minutes replying to others’ blogs, 30 minutes on twitter or another networks, and 60 minutes on your own blog. Half content, half networking. Communities who look after each other first forge long-term bonds.

5.      Propose boldly. PR expert Sarah Evans, Sevans Strategy, leverages would-be water cooler conversations into watershed promotions. Within two hours of Chicago’s rare earthquake in 2008, Sarah had tweeted and blogged a sensational story, “sounded like a train,” with fact links that landed her and her company on CNN and the front page of the New York Times. She of course sent her blog to folks she already knew from SM. Similar deal: Shawna sent a proposal to Mexico government for a green eco-tour and got a week’s vacation for her family. They were ready, at the right place, saw an idea, and submitted a proposal. Cities, communities, each of us can leverage our assets, be ready, engaged, and then ask. Miracles happen.


Sarah and Shawna, being good sports.

6.      Create something useful. Sarah invented #journchat that brings together experts on twitter for high speed conversations. Last March, she made a twitter follower list of Academy Award nominees that was picked up by news services globally. She is sourced regularly by big media. Jeremiah asks for people’s career changes and regularly publishes the list. Under his Freemium business model, he shares his major research as free reports. Zena Weist, H&R Block, co-founded the Social Media Club of Kansas City and generously introduces folks better than anyone I know. We connect to Sarah, Jeremiah, and Zena because they are unbelievably warm people who make friends readily and generously share knowledge. They create value that builds communities.

7.      New location rituals. Social media is rapidly invading our every move via rich touch screen mobile devices. Scott Raymond, Gowalla, saw a parallel in Samoa greetings. Not “how are you?” They ask, “Where are you coming from?” and “Where are you going?” Location is key. Ellyn Angelotti, Poynter Online, says Four Square helps folks track shorter ticket lines at stadiums. We have immediate local information from a trusted source. No longer are we traveling alone; we carry our entire network in our pocket, per Jeremiah. Every hungry traveler shares the same information as the native. Every city becomes our stomping grounds. We adopt new places; places would be smart to adopt us.

8.      The one-two punch: causes and money. The blog posts that say how to save money and also be green get far and away the most views, Shawna found. Good cause and frugal. For #beatcancer, Sarah helped raise $160,000 in three weeks! Ramsey hosts an annual Ugly Christmas Sweater Party that has raised thousands of dollars for KC charities. SM and causes are like peas and carrots. People grow enormously generous in strong social networks.

9.      Be the provocateur. Tony Botello’s contrarian views make his blog the highest read in Kansas City. Commenting on the Free State crowd versus the Hispanic community he writes for, “There’s a lot more laptops here than in my Westside meetings.” Shawna called her book “Gardening Nude” with a photo of her… yup, in her birthday suit. She catches our attention to sell books; I remembered her immediately on twitter, it works. Communities can distinguish themselves and attract others by creating a unique, memorable perspective.

10.     Where Do We Want This All To Go? Make It Simple. Chris’s last advice closes the deal. Figure out the GPS of your community, business, yourself. Can you say where your community is going? Do you know what you want out of your city? Where do you want it to be in 10 or 20 years? Is that where you will be? Give directions – make it simple.

Are you a community builder? How do you do it?


Free State Social has a blog, bios, and links.

Ben Smith @benasmith shared his pics.

Eric Melin at Spiral 16 posted an excellent recap.

Jeff Smith @jeffisageek gave insights and speakers videos.

John Kreicbergs @patchchord gave his excellent “firehose” synthesis.


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.

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. http://bit.ly/QYQKb
  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: http://bit.ly/5rw5gH
You can read more at http://craphound.com/makers/

Trends Shaping 21st Century Cities: Whole Cities, Living Buildings



Last week, I covered a list of 20 items from The Futurist magazine’s Outlook 2010 (Nov-Dec 09 issuehttp://bit.ly/xFR5C) that will shape 21st c cities.http://bit.ly/154×84 Now I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. I addressed megacities, water, and robotics in the first three.http://bit.ly/2CZkcS http://bit.ly/4Cmu32http://bit.ly/1TGe4T This article considers the city as a whole system.

The Whole City

We see the modern, industrial city in parts. One segment is for houses, another for industrial, and entirely other areas for shops and offices. Consequently, we drive or take public transit from place to place. In the mid 21st century city, we will use and create whole cities and buildings differently than we did industrial cities.

Several forces are causing cities to change shape. First of all, commutes in cars are expensive, dangerous, and time consuming. No one likes to sit in congestion for hours every week but they do because their jobs and their families are separated by miles. In the past twenty years, new ideas such as New Urbanism and walkability emerged to change that, which will become evident in the next few decades (see Living Cities below). Second, women in the workplace increased reasons to have home and work closer. In addition, higher energy costs, aging population, and environmental problems influence new urban patterns, as will virtual and augmented reality. 

Perhaps most significantly, cities are now seen not just as machines for moving people and produce but as places for living. The Project for Public Spaces looks at how to create engaging public spaces that focuses on distinct places (see diagram).http://www.pps.org/ People seek higher quality, diverse urban experiences and engaged communities.  

I consider how looking at whole cities shapes 21st century built environments: the Living Building Challenge and Living Cities.

1.      The Living Building

The Living Building Challenge by Jason McLennan pushes the idea of sustainable building beyond energy efficiency; instead, structures or districts generate more energy than they use. They return energy to the grid to be used by others and are measured on six performance areas: Site, Energy, Materials, Water, Indoor Quality, and Beauty and Inspiration.http://bit.ly/3Nd8l2

An earlier model called the triple bottom line also accounts for the quality of life in terms of: people, planet, and prosperity; or sometimes referred to as: social equity, ecology, and economics.http://bit.ly/bR2cX  I worked on a 3,000 acre adaptive reuse of a former naval base in North Charleston SC called Noisette with BNIM and Burt Hill architects that used the triple bottom line approach.http://www.noisettesc.com/ The developer, John Knott, went to great effort to incorporate a whole system approach to build a community, not simply bricks and mortar, and subsequently was recognized by ULI and ASLA for urban design excellence. Ecology, heritage, and arts as well as economics drove decisions.

Clearly, the push to consider social equity, wellness, experience, education, social justice, etc in measuring the impact of building choices will reshape future cities. We are beginning to frame questions about cities not in single terms such as congestion or real estate values. Instead, the city is seen as a place of distinct experiences for building communities.

2.      Living Cities, New Urbanism, Smart Growth

Larger questions concern the shape of the city. How will peak oil affect cities? How do we attract growth, jobs, and new residents? Do we continue to invest in new infrastructure and abandoning existing districts? Boulder and Portland have zoning regulations to control growth at the perimeter. Brookings Institute is one of the major proponents of contained development, called Smart Growth.http://bit.ly/4yDOGp

A number of models and theories support various cures for industrialized, car-based cities, and clearly I shouldn’t even try to summarize it too briefly. My point is simple (and hopefully not overly simplified): these ideas have certain commonalities and compatibilities, although not always creating precisely the same impact on cities.

The New Urbanist movement promoted the first major concept for post-industrial cities in terms of public spaces, pedestrian-oriented, and mixed uses so that major services were within walking distances.http://bit.ly/fhGhg  Related patterns emerged as walkability, density, green cities, compact cities, traffic calming, and even slow cities, which are based on the idea of slow food and a less frenetic pace.http://bit.ly/4hshXh All of them address anti-dotes for industrial cities, and have by and large compatible intentions.

Each concept relates to the idea of the quality of life, the experience of the city, and reconnecting life and cities.

Furthermore, the idea of the agile, resilient city, the adaptable city is emerging. In other words, while modern cities traditionally are planned, infrastructure built, and development begins, new cities may emerge in a more flexible way. Any city that relies chiefly on cars as transportation will continue to be dominated by transportation systems, an extremely costly, rigid form. Similarly, fixed rail system creates a very obdurate infrastructure.

In reverse, if some elements become more transient or mobile, others may become increasingly durable. For instance memorials and cultural institutions may represent the citys heritage, thus making gps devices even more necessary for wayfinding. Every change creates a counter movement. In this case, some buildings may be assembled, and easily moved, while others may be built to last. (see posts on augmented reality http://bit.ly/1y7rqI.)


Looking Ahead

To create completely new urban shapes, many elements come into play: technology, demographics, sustainability, economics, and attitudes. Furthermore, while these trends address positive actions, cities are also places of decline and sometimes complete societal collapse. 

While I previously said I would write about geo-engineering and infrastructure in this post, I saw that to think of those topics comprehensively, whole cities came first. Technology including geo-engineering will be next.

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 issuehttp://bit.ly/xFR5C) that will shape 21st c cities.http://bit.ly/154×84 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 Regionhttp://bit.ly/2CZkcS, and the second one focused on water and cities.http://bit.ly/4Cmu32  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.http://bit.ly/3VKhF0 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. http://bit.ly/HkQLO 

These questions become increasingly complex with the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), also called singularity.http://bit.ly/oxKV1  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?http://bit.ly/xVoh6

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.”http://bit.ly/3VKhF0  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.http://bit.ly/1Xihx6

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.http://bit.ly/2kFqGW More interesting are robots that function on site, such as for improving safety.  Or for aiding carpenters.http://bit.ly/3AQA2l Small caterpillar-like robots climb tall poles and perform checks, thereby protecting workers from dangerous tasks.http://bit.ly/1FeUGj 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. http://bit.ly/11Xyf6 

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.http://bit.ly/1BTP6Q 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.http://bit.ly/4APQZN 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.http://bit.ly/35mQ0T

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?http://bit.ly/avzDu 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 http://bit.ly/22rAXQ. 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.http://bit.ly/wuyUb 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.http://bit.ly/8jEcx 

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.http://bit.ly/4pPWLY – a joke or too close for comfort?) Maintenance technology is expanding to street cleaning with the Scarab, a sort of Wall-E for streets.http://bit.ly/1j2W8Y 

Swarming robots the size of a finger nail can carry small solar films and supply power on-demand.http://bit.ly/2DrFn 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.http://bit.ly/oWsmf 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 http://bit.ly/XfDIw 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.http://bit.ly/19WpHr 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. http://bit.ly/41qWQs 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). http://bit.ly/21qCK0

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

How Water Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Floating Cities, Wave Power, Coastal Protection


Last week, I covered a list of 20 items from The Futurist magazine’s Outlook 2010 (Nov-Dec 09 issue http://bit.ly/xFR5C) that will shape 21st c cities.http://bit.ly/w1po5Now I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. The first segment included The Great Urban Divide, Megacities, and Poly-Centric Regions. http://bit.ly/2CZkcS This article covers three ideas involving water and cities.

Dry Mouths, Wet Feet
Water makes a claim on people and cities that is both undeniable and paradoxical. Both people and the planet are largely composed of water, and while we need it to survive, we tend to either be dehydrated or flooded, sometimes simultaneously. In fact, 900 million people are without clean drinking water today with estimates that 1.8 billion will suffer by 2025 and 2/3rds of us will be under severe water stress. http://bit.ly/46PnLY Water scarcity threatens not only the developing world but also parts of the United States in California and in the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins. http://bit.ly/4dEjPa Last year, Atlanta was on the brink of disaster. http://bit.ly/2QJOXW Furthermore, in the US, residential water costs have doubled in the past ten years, even as streets are flooding. It defies common sense.

A brilliant civil engineer told me that if you took the peak waterfall in an area, say 6-12 inches in a day which is an extraordinary amount of rain, and managed to hold it in place for a 24 hour period, you could solve the problems of urban flooding. Imagine a holding place on your property that could handle that run-off, use it for landscape or gray water, and you’ll save your city tremendous problems and lower your water bills as well. http://bit.ly/1bs00F

For buildings, we are concerned with conservation and net zero water buildings (from the excellent Living Building Challenge). http://bit.ly/1axHS9 For cities the problem is more complex. Water is part of the infrastructure for both water in (to drink, irrigate, etc), and water out in the form of sanitary sewers and storm water systems, including many cities which unfortunately combine the two. Where ground water is depleted, subsidence affects many cities dramatically with sink holes increasingly common. http://bit.ly/3Fpqoq Flooding and drought represent two other forms of disaster, witness the devastation of New Orleans and last month found Sydney in a red dust storm. http://bit.ly/htF7h

In short, we have over-engineered and misunderstood the magnitude and significance of water. With dryer, hotter climates and more people, sustainable water management needs to be built into our lives. To nourish 9 billion people, we will be modifying cities and learning new habits. Three exciting ideas may come into play: floating buildings, wave energy, and barriers to rising oceans.

1. Floating Structures
While floating houses have been common for decades if not longer, the thought of floating cities has intrigued designers with few successful installations. The Citadel floats on a polder which is part of the natural tidal plain of the Netherlands. http://bit.ly/w2YSv New Orleans Arcology Habitat (NOAH), a mega-structure city, houses a population of 30,000 people on a pyramid-like form. http://bit.ly/mofah The Lilypad by Vincent Callebaut is specifically planned for climate change disasters and would shelter 50,000 refugees. http://bit.ly/2DR7xZ Smaller scale temporary architecture offers immediate inspiration with this elegant wooden hotel in Helsinki. http://bit.ly/3oCzAJ Far-thinking visions of mid-century architects such as Bucky Fuller and Paolo Soleri are revived in these floating designs.

2. Wave Power
Wave farms could hug the coasts of major cities and supply energy for the massive populations. Numerous proposals consider how to harness tidal waves into electrical power; some are visually elegant. Last year, Portugal opened the first wave farm but it has already been closed. The Sea Snake is an invention of Scottish company Pelamis Wave Power. http://bit.ly/4grUz5 Biowave power is under consideration for the bay of San Francisco. http://bit.ly/2vd1Vi

3. Protecting Coastal Cities
In coming decades, cities will grapple with rising oceans, threats of flooding, and increased storm events. http://bit.ly/17dHjw Beyond emergency planning for storm events, cities must prepare for chronic high water. Change should occur gradually (not like those crazy disaster films) unless the city sits truly below sea level as is the case of New Orleans, which places a city at risk of levee failure. Options include raising the ground elevation, allowing submergence by waterproofing such as a pool or submarine, abandoning facilities, floating as in item 1, or barricading between sea and city. Most would prefer the last option because it represents maintaining normal life except at the perimeter. Consequently, an era of expensive, elaborate sea walls, dykes, levees, seagates, and so on is coming. The Rising Tide competition to save San Francisco from higher oceans illustrates the need for adaptation, invention, and resiliency. http://bit.ly/3um1Ta For Chicago, UrbanLab invented the eco-boulevard to grow water resources in a closed loop system. http://bit.ly/2yZIKi

Looking Ahead
Water represents so many possibilities and problems as we aim to use it, but not drowned in it, and leave it for next generations. We have seen water problems emerging since the Great Depression and they continue to spread and multiply. Amazing inventions have accomplished huge steps forward yet we have not solved anything entirely. Sustainable water management and net zero water exist today; therefore I placed them in my descriptions of the present conditions, not in the future. Yet most places have not adopted these practices and we remain at the mercy of poor, aging infrastructure.

As it’s said: the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. (William Gibson)

Next I focus on two high tech areas that will shape 21st century cities: robotics and geo-engineering.