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Twisting the script: the future (of our cities) is now

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Abstract

Essay on the role of planning and design for the future of urbanization.
Twisting the script: the future (of our cities) is now
Many of you are most likely familiar with the expression ‘the future is now’. Perhaps fewer know
the short documentary with same title, first broadcasted in 1955. Based on a script by Burton
Benjamin, the documentary provides a tour of government research facilities to review some of
the most important technological advances of the time and to showcase the ways they will
ultimately shape everyday lives. The predictions proved fairly accurate, since those kind of
innovations currently power some of the most dynamic sectors, as it happens with information
and communication technology, alternative energy sources, or robotics. By now, they have a track
record of being societally relevant.
Such accurate predictions are commonly asserted to be the result of top-down, systematic design
and planning. Each blueprint in the making links a host of challenges to exercises of anticipation,
whereby the designer or planner develops a script for future use and action. The entire process is
vision-bound, meaning that the objectives situated in the more immediate or distant future
inform present decisions on the resources that matter most in achieving impact. Consequently,
the resulting script is always political. It assigns functions and tasks to various actors, it includes
some resources while excluding others and, in doing so, it seeks to create opportunities that steer
development along specific guidelines. When all these conditions are met, the script should, at
least in principle, turn into a predictive framework. Yet, there is a problem. More specifically,
there is a problem with scaling.
Despite all sorts of claims, there are always critical factors overlooked by design and planning
processes. As soon as a banal handrail, an iconic building, or even a masterplan enter the public
domain, they seldom conform entirely to the original script. A safety feature in the public space,
the banal handrail can deliver a lot of excitement in a rather unsafe way to skateboarders and
traceurs. A popular skyscraper like the Walkie Talkie in downtown London can turn from one day
to another into the very unpopular Walkie Scorchie, throwing ‘death rays’ at passers-by and cars on
nearby streets. On average, more masterplans fail in achieving their objectives than the ones that
prove successful. Think of the Olympics! Once blown-up to full scale, blueprints enter a strange
world, where they are routinely challenged beyond the wildest thoughts of their creators. The
undesigned and the unplanned take their toll in rather dramatic ways, all over the world. Zoom
out, and it will become even clearer why the future of urbanisation is flagged as one of the grand
societal challenges of the century.
If the undesigned and unplanned represent the problem, then better, more effective design and
planning tools are urgently needed. Or even a scientific theory of cities, as Santa Fe theoretical
physicist Geoffrey West suggested in a TED talk
1
a few years ago. Scholars in complexity science
have been busy trying to unpack the scaling patterns of cities, aligning those to the laws of
biology. There is mathematics and complex modelling behind the ambitions to unravel the
‘universal’ laws underlying the evolution of cities. Thus, one of the most interesting questions to
address was if cities evolve just like large organisms do. And the findings indicate some very
interesting contrasts in growth patterns. While in the case of living organisms the scaling of
metabolic rates is sub-linear, meaning that with any doubling in size only 75% extra energy is
required to sustain vital functions, in the case of cities the scaling is supra-linear. This translates
into super-exponential growth, i.e. unsustainable growth. As West indicates, this is a feature of
systems bound to collapse. Provided the unprecedented population growth in cities worldwide,
there are good reasons to take these findings seriously.
The latest United Nations reports estimate that by 2050 the urbanization rate will reach 80% in
Europe and more than half of the world’s countries. For a clearer indication of the magnitude, at
the current growth rate, there will be an extra million people moving each week into cities
worldwide. Modelling for that should be possible given the latest technological advances. The
current Big Data revolution, the Internet of Things, or even the widespread use of Artificial
Intelligence platforms will allow us to predict more accurately the scaling requirements to
accommodate that growth. Such a predictive framework would prove of great added value, yet it
will not be enough to tackle the challenges of future urbanisation. To avoid collapse super-
exponential growth requires an ever increasing capacity to innovate, and as West contends, we're
not only on a treadmill that's going faster, but we have to change the treadmill faster and faster.
But how to script for faster innovation cycles? Better design and planning tools? More creative
people? More resources? Other resources?
Across history, major cities endured despite all sorts of vicissitudes. The megacities of tomorrow
will do too, because the accumulation of increasingly complex challenges is only matched by the
accumulation of creative potential. The main issue here is not whether cities will endure, but
rather how and at what cost? As many scholars in urban studies have stressed so far, cities pack
an outstanding creative potential still poorly understood, where creativity, entrepreneurship or
innovation afford as many meanings as the daily routines of struggle for recognition and survival.
Zoom in. If creative-cultural districts are obviously creative, so do often deprived
neighbourhoods, slums and favelas. Anyway we twist that, the takeaway message is pretty clear.
Solutions are always confined to the way problems are formulated, as in a script for future use
and action. The undesigned or unplanned might not represent the problem then, but instead a
resource which provides opportunities to learn and rethink how we can twist the script for better
places to live in. Emergent technologies can play a role in that too, provided that we revisit every
once in a while Cedric Price’s provocative statement: ‘Technology is the answer, but what was the
question?
As Colin McFarlane suggests in one of his papers
2
, it might be useful to think of the city as a
machine for learning, unlearning and relearning urbanism. If we really want to make a difference
for the future of our cities we need to start now. The future is now!
I. Barba Lata, 2017
Essay in the Almanak van Studievereniging Genius Loci der Landschapsarchitectuur en Ruimtelijke Planning.
1
TEDGlobal ‘The surprising math of cities and corporations’:
https://www.ted.com/talks/geoffrey_west_the_surprising_math_of_cities_and_corporations#t-911150
2
McFarlane C (2011) The city as a machine for learning. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(3): 360376.
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