Urban Futures

long term design-oriented perspectives on urban experience

Michael Bell, Columbia University
Chris Ford, Stanford University
Michael Shanks, Stanford University

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A research initiative and network

By 2050 three-quarters of the world will be living in cities. How might we make future city life better for more people? We find enthusiasm for policies to ensure sustainability and resilience, for smart cities, introducing more pervasive information-communication technologies, an internet of everything driven by big-data and AI, and with robotic mobility, the technology driving autonomous vehicles, an icon of such vision. While there are also calls for social and cultural inclusivity, we find much less enthusiasm for policy and planning that emerge directly from empathy with the urban dweller.

Urban Futures holds that we can markedly improve our understanding of cities. We are pursuing, seeking out and promoting research that focuses on the experiences of urban living. From the perspective of an urban dweller, what ought life be in the city?  From the perspective of stakeholders beyond the urban dweller, how do we make it so? How do we make our understanding design-actionable?

There are three well-established foundations to our conviction that such design-actionable research will facilitate better decisions in anticipating, managing and planning the future of cities: design thinking; strategic foresight; process-relational research.

human-centered design thinking

Human-centered design, design thinking as it has come to be called at Stanford and beyond, researches people’s experiences, their needs and wants, the workings of human ecologies, understood as the entanglement of people, artifacts, places. Synthesis of research findings, framing in terms of design-actionable goals and challenges, and creative ideation connect research with action and delivery, with interventions such as products, services, or experiences, with planning and policy recommendations. Design thinking is action oriented.

Design thinking has received little application in the field of urban planning. We hold that the process of project management represented by design thinking and the associated skills and competencies of handling complexity and uncertainty offer considerable potential for putting people first, reframing the way we understand the challenges facing urban planners, and delivering innovation.

Example. Much urban planning and development today can be argued to be driven by specific interest groups and ideologies, rather than through constructing a comprehensive understanding of people’s needs. Tech companies might advance their products and services as part of peer-momentum towards smart cities, without finding resonance with urban-dwelling end users.  “Tech push” is too common.  However, in a human-centered mindset and protocol for research and design, the demonstrated needs of urban dwellers are prioritized over the projected need for a company to sell their tech products and services.

strategic foresight

Strategic foresight connects hindsight, knowing where we have come from, especially perspectives on long-term change, with flexible anticipation of uncertain futures, in terms of research-based insight into ongoing challenges, such as urban planning.

Rotterdam’s “Manhattan on the Maas”

Foresight methodology complements human centered design by focusing on skills and competencies for turning research into actionable insights. Its tools are collaborative and transdisciplinary, delivering insight into key factors affecting organizations, teams and communities, tracing waves of change, navigating dynamic complex scenarios, identifying and convening expertise, and for developing coherent vision, plans and objectives.

We emphasize the capacity of foresight to situate design challenges, policy and decision making beyond short-term perspectives of what has happened in the last five years and what’s coming up in the next.

Cities now dominate human inhabitation. In terms of human experience, cities are very recent phenomena, only five thousand years old, and only undergoing expansion in the last two hundred. The key components of urban dwelling have been configured in this time frame. If we wish to gain orientation on urban futures, we will do well to incorporate research which takes this into account. This is not to call for an historical perspective that knows what has happened in cities over 5000 years. Evidence-based research into the spectrum of benefits and liabilities of urban dwelling is of increasing value to urban stakeholders. Foresight offers a genealogical and archaeological perspective and tool kit, where changes are tracked through time insofar as they affect our current understanding, and so helps us make better preparation for wholly uncertain futures. 

Thessaloniki, Modiano Market – long-term perspectives on urban dwelling

Example. Long-term archaeological perspectives on urban dwelling over 5 millennia offer alternative insight into how we might understand urban dwelling through the next 30 years. The administrative apparatuses of ancient cities in the Near East and Mediterranean always worked in tension with devolved heterarchical agencies, looser forms of association; this suggests we need to better understand the historical and foreseeable reach of government planning and intervention. The management of the citizen communities of Graeco-Roman cities offers a wealth of comparative information on capacity for innovation, just as headlines in the current pandemic of 2020 demonstrate the significance of intersecting forms of agency, governmental and non-governmental, and at different scales, global to household.

Markthal Rotterdam. Architects – MVRDV.

process-relational research into the complexities of human experience

Process-oriented paradigms of research focus on complex dynamic energy systems that constantly redefine constituent components in specific contexts, processes and events. Rather than focus on definitions of urban form, function, society and culture, we might look as much at processes and connections that constitute what get called cities. As much as on features such as houses, roads, businesses, public facilities, amenities and infrastructures, we might research flows and calculations, accumulations and mobilizations, concentrations and dispersal, processes and functions that may involve many changing components. Rather than environments and locales where things like politics and economic transactions happen, cities are, under this conception, emergent phenomena, built in and through active processes. 

This outlook addresses the complex and fluid character of human experience, the central feature of our orientation in design thinking: urban life as a (s)teaming cauldron of impressions and performances, transactions and engagements, encounters and flights. We are prompted to consider how we represent and deal with such complexity, how to describe such experience in ways that are design-actionable. This challenge has been taken up, for example, by some human geographers as well as in some complementary strands of social and political thought (consider science studies and complexity theory). 

Example. As well as seeing housing as residential architecture, we might also understand vital connections with financial markets and infrastructures, with the negotiating of cultural identities, and houses as primary generating nodes in futures energy systems (subsequent to further development of storage of renewable energy sources).

As a summary of the possible components of such a process-oriented understanding of the experiences of urban dwelling we offer the following diagram, based upon research into early urbanism in the Near East, Egypt and the Mediterranean.

Processes that constitute urbanization