The Future is Now – A Letter to Arup by Rachel Armstrong


This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional)

Response to The Under-imagined Future of Transport by Susan Claris

I don’t agree that the importance of forward-thinking long term planning is over sold! What I do think is over-sold – is the productisation of very specific solutions to challenges that are not well characterised and we don’t yet know how to face. The current economic & political system only deals with short term-ism (returns and period in office) so investment in research and development that deals with decade or more kinds of solutions does not exist to properly support the strategic development of implementable solutions. In other words, realistic future solutions are ‘evolved’ not ‘born’. So, in my view the ‘over selling’ stems from a contemporary set of expectations and restrictions where some/one is going to profit handsomely from investing in an immediate sole solution, wrapped in IP and patents, which cannot evolve on the basis of this legal bondage and whose benefit to society is ultimately of secondary interest!

In fact, the future is very poorly invested in and governments are currently slashing funding for basic science which underpins technological and economic developments. Central funding is becoming increasingly focussed on promoting near-ready-for-market research or bolstering established industry-research partnerships.

As for the issue of under-imagining, I don’t think that there is a crisis in this capacity at all!

An example of how an alternative future has been well imagined and is being developed in the form of international collaborations between design, engineering and science is the field of synthetic biology applications for the built environment. This research has excited a great deal of public and commercial interest with high profile papers in Nature, CNN and a recent blog series in Wired outlining the necessary strategic approaches (Week 3) with very little central investment and has thrived on open innovation and creative ways of funding key projects. Synthetic biology, of course, is not a cure-all for every challenge that cities face but it is a strategic tool that, if properly developed, could indeed increase a portfolio of approaches to the grand challenge of Megacities and harvesting energy – and will, as a result, impact on our ‘future’. In this CNN article on buildings that ‘eat’ carbon Dick Kitney notes the real ‘challenge’ for developing new approaches and products is in making the transition from academia to industry where not only the technology needs to be scaled up, but so does the funding underpinning the often, shoestring budgets that researchers work with.

So the alleged scenario of ‘under-imagination’ suffers from the same root cause of ‘over selling’ the future as a product, rather than as a systemic approach, building teams and developing skill sets that may help address the challenges appropriately – the kinds of ideas presented to industry are ones are productised and are immediately recognisable to particular markets and pander to our immediate concerns and expectations. After all, thought experiments and sharing ideas are only part of the innovation process … the challenge is putting them into practice and this is where the methods and strategic approaches are vital to enable solutions to be identified based on research, not presumptions, which can change with experience and time (an evolutionary process).

Take for example, NY architect Mitchell Joachim’s vision of a ‘blimp’, soft car system for the city of New York – a well imagined scenario where if one of the proposed vehicles ‘runs over your sister’ (heavens forbid!) that is will only ‘tickle’ her [Archinode].

So no, I don’t accept that the future is over-sold : it’s productised an as a result it’s over constrained by our current ways of thinking and immediate practices …

And no, I don’t accept that our innovators are under-imagining at all: they’re being asked to make products rather than provide systems and methods that underpin change. They are grossly under supported in forging the necessary networks and partnerships that can help us make the transition from practices embedded in our current reality to new approaches that we can all benefit from …

If we do want solutions that evolve to meet the needs of our rapidly swelling populations then we need to seriously think systemically, rather than industrially. This also needs to be a symbiotic partnership rather than a battle of ideologies! I cannot stress the importance of the amount of work that we need to do right now to find the appropriate infrastructures to provide people with basic resources in increasingly urbanised environments. If we don’t invest in creating evolvable (rather than sustainable – which preserves the status quo) practices then humanity itself will meet stark extinction scenarios in the middle of this century rather than making decisions based on evolutionary-style challenges …

The future is now … it’s not a fetishistic obsession or architectural style … building a city for 2050 should have started 50 years ago – we’re already late for managing our human investments – so let’s not make it too late!

Real budgets are needed for open research & development. Investment is needed in long-term (in today’s manner of thinking), joined-up, interdisciplinary, international teams of innovators from industry and academia to be able to do more than imagine, but act and build and re-evaluate ways of generating evolvable cities … We need to invest in people, not just products, which are the byproducts of the human imagination!

I do not think that we can be too creative or too visionary when it comes down to grand challenges – such as, transport for this century – but let’s stop productising the future and evolve our solutions using open platforms, invest in people – more than we do in gadgets – and enrich our problem-solving practices using the connectivity that this particular epoch has bestowed us with!

Dr. Rachel Armstrong
Senior TED Fellow
Senior Lecturer
School of Architecture & Construction
University of Greenwich

Image: Mitchell Joachim. TERREFORM1: BlimpBumperBus

  • Melissa Sterry

    I second every word. Rachel has raised issues that are not only critical to built environment and infrastructure innovators, but to leading edge scientists, engineers, architects and designers of all disciplines. 

    Many a firm is talking about collaboration and innovation – which were arguably the buzz words of the sustainability sector in 2011. However, all too few truly understand what it means to innovate and collaborate in the 21st Century. The root cause of the problem is exactly that which Rachel has so eloquently spot-lighted – a focus on short-termism and products, not people and the long-term.

    For anyone to suggest there is a lack of imagination in respect of future transport is utterly absurd and illustrates a gross lack of awareness, not only of events in our own time, but of the historic context of leading edge innovation. 

    It’s common that the public are aware of great artists whom lived impoverished during their lifetime, only to be hailed a great master upon their death. However, it’s less common that the public understand that many of the most pioneering innovators in architecture, engineering and science likewise fall into this category. Many an innovator has to waste time and energy trying to find funding routes – nothing new, after all Buckminster Fuller once found himself bankrupt, ditto Steve Jobs and the only time Da Vinci found financial security was when he was a few years from death and a visionary patron recognised his great genius. Arthur C. Clarke was one of the most visionary men of the past century, yet I note not a single corporation has stepped forward to fund the proposed Arthur C. Clarke Centre that would continue his legacy.

    Since the 19th Century many a leading edge innovator has found a safe haven in Sci-Fi – illustrating their visions in books, films and other media. Little has changed, today, as two centuries ago, the most visionary futurists and other innovators continue to hub in this space. While the Sci-Fi community are most supportive and encouraging of innovators, there was a never a more pertinent time for groundbreaking and potentially world-changing ideas to enter the mainstream. 

    Evidence is abound that we have crossed critical environmental tipping points – the mainstream media may not present that fact, but many of our most informed scientists – James Hansen, John Holdren et al, are clear, we are headed to a 2+ degree future. Their warnings could not be more dire, to quote Prof John Beddington we are headed to ‘The Perfect Storm’. Therein, this is most certainly not the time to employ unambitious short-termist, product-centric ideas, because while incremental changes and ‘low hanging fruit’ may have their part to play, they cannot deliver the scale and speed of impact we need to meet the challenges we face.

    It’s time to tool up our most able future-thinking innovators – to give them the best odds of delivering solutions substantial enough to tackle the scale of challenges we face. The current scenario is sadly the opposite of that – as research budgets from government hit the floor and as sponsorship from corporates goes South. The notion that we can rely on foundations and other charitable orgs to support research is naive, for ‘charity’ can supply nothing like the scale of funding we need, ditto crowd-funding and other genres of micro-funding.

    Our forebears, from the most ancient times to just a century or two ago, had the capacity to think long-term. They didn’t think in terms of years, or even decades. They thought in terms of centuries and millennia. We are the first generation to look to our shoes and not to the horizon. Humanity needs to remind itself we don’t own Earth – not even those things we consider our ‘possessions’, we are this planet’s temporary caretakers and to only consider the impacts of our actions upon ourselves is to neglect our duty of care to future generations. 

  • Rachel Armstrong

    The problem with ‘the future’ – is that is is actually not the future at all – it is a version of now.

    At a very real and practical level when we talk about ‘the future’ – we are not addressing  an evolving, changing, unpredictable set of causes and effects – but predetermined, concrete concepts that already exist. Yet we fool ourselves that somehow we can either know ‘the real future’, or can style it in such a way that suggests that today’s ideas and solutions belong to a time yet to come.

    This approach is the backbone of science fiction – in other words – taking elements of something that we understand today and weaving narratives around it. This approach served to explore, in a thought experiment, how an imaginary timescale might change the way we see ourselves today – through technology – and perhaps persuade us to make different choices in the here and now. Science Fiction is an engaging model of reality but it is not realty – it addresses an imagined future. 

    In order to design and build ‘the real future’. We need systems, strategies and teams of people that can respond to a constantly changing contexts. We need real technologies that can cope with unknowable outcomes. These technologies exist – this is exactly what life does – and understanding the way that living things persist and adapt to their varied contexts holds the key to positive human development. 

    Appreciating that the future is fundamentally unknowable – and therefore cannot be productised – raises some unique research questions that can offer strategic approaches to dealing with uncertainty.

    For example:

    How do we design with emergence?

    How can we effectively engage with constantly moving targets?

    How should we design our economic infrastructures that appreciate the risk involved in this evolving scenario?

    How do we build to deal with inevitable change?

    Right now we make a prediction based on certainty that in itself is extrapolated from something that his happening now. By the time we actually implement the solution to these abstractions e.g. The Thames Barrier – the interventions are already out of date.

    If we really are interested in dealing with the future, we must start to address the fundamental challenges in new, systemic ways. These issues that affect the humane development of our cities are not exclusive to the construction industry and affect all of us in one way or another.

    From an operational perspective, a critical factor in maintaining the status quo of human development is the short-termism that has been cultivated by the prevalent economic model, which values harvesting natural resources but refuses to attribute real value to investing in them. Whilst there is no easy fix, or overnight solution to our predicament, it is vital to engage industry-wide long-term management strategies to find productive new approaches. These conversations need to happen – NOW!

    Many of us are already making a personal investment in finding ways to address the complex set of underlying conditions that are the root cause of the toxic environmental symptoms of our time.
    Many of these investors in our shared future – cannot imagine what the exact ‘profits’ of their enterprise will bring, nor do many of them expect material rewards. They also appreciate that their inaction is a bigger risk to their humanity than not being able to predict their investment returns in economic terms. Yet, these investors will enjoy great riches in their lifetimes because their investment in ‘our shared future’ is based on a value system that is estranged from commerce and appreciates the value of culture, shared vision, tradition, a conversation between generations, an expanded worldview, discovery, exploration and a common goal – to leave this planet in a better condition than the way we found it. None of these qualities are valued by our current markets because each of them are priceless. 

    So I would like to thank This Big City, Melissa Sterry and the Earth 2.0 team for championing this petition for change and to starting the longest conversation that I hope we’re going to have!

  • Johnverdon

    Thank you I agree whole heartedly. Some of the problem with institutionalizing foresight in
    productive way arises from the nature of the systemic incentives embedded in
    organizational architectures. For example the career path itself, has deep structural
    incentives that can shape individual behaviour (despite the intentions of
    people). The structure of the career path in a hierarchical organization seems
    innocuous and inevitable. The systemic consequences of the career path as an
    incentive structure for generating excellence seem incontestable in any
    organization founded on the principles of merit. However, under certain
    conditions even the principles of merit can produces dysfunctional behaviour
    within an organization. This is especially salient in times of rising external
    complexity and rapid change. I call the potentially unintended negative
    consequences inherent in a career path as a systemic incentive structure within
    a hierarchical organization, the SOM Syndrome: 

    SOM Syndrome – Systemic Organizational Munchausen’s Syndrome by

    This syndrome exacerbates the pressures people feel to have
    measurable positive impact on an organization whether focus is operational or
    administrative. Briefly Munchausen’s Syndrome is when a person gets sick in
    order to get attention. Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy is when a parent makes
    the child sick in order to gain attention. Systemic Organizational Munchausen’s
    Syndrome by proxy refers to the emergence of dysfunctional systemic incentives
    within structure of an organization’s career path that become evident in times
    of high external complexity and rapid change.

    The career path demands that an individual navigate a career (or
    have their career managed) through many different organizational positions, each
    for a limited period of time. The career ‘ladder’ is generally not easy nor
    straight, forward or upward.

    In the framework of a career path, significant actions (involving
    significant resources) aimed at the prevention of problems that may potentially
    arise in the long term, is not well suited to measurement. As a result it is
    very difficult to reward adequately especially in a person’s performance review
    (demonstrating that initiative prevented costly misfortune as opposed to
    demonstrating costly initiatives with no actual ‘product’ as a result – this is
    different from cost saving initiatives). In essence if one truly ‘prevents’
    something ‘bad’ from happening one will literally have nothing to show other
    than the claim that expending time and resources prevented something from

    In the same vein, long-term strategy is very difficult to
    implement because rewards are usually given for harvesting fruit rather than
    planting seeds or nurturing someone else’s seedlings. Thus in a sense, the
    incentives within an organizational career can create an ‘allergy’ to
    prevention and long-term strategic initiative.

    On the other hand, solving problems and handling crises is much
    more visible and measurable (even if today’s band-aid is tomorrow’s infection –
    this will provide a career opportunity to demonstrate leadership for the next
    incumbent) and thus much easier to reward and recognize on a performance
    review. This in turn can encourage a type of organizational ‘addiction’ to
    problems and crises, in that it both feeds an action oriented culture and
    produces easily visible and rewardable results.

    The SOM Syndrome amplifies a type of careerist and leadership
    mythos that requires leaders to be visible in leading change as the basis of
    reward and promotion.

    In essence SOM Syndrome entrenches an organizational allergy to
    prevention and long-term strategy and feeds an addiction to problem-solving and
    crisis management.

    John Verdon

  • Adamgill63
  • stoweboyd

    I bet you meant ‘if we want urban solutions that evolve to meet the needs of our
    rapidly swelling populations then we need to seriously think
    systemically, rather than industrially’ not ‘if we want want’.

  • NigelReading|ASYNSIS

    From Sustainable to Evolvable development, great initiative…Evolution’s new geometric
    paradigm: Asynsis principle-Constructal law must also be urgently, directly
    mapped to our civic geometry by making the right to sustainable development a
    fundamental human right. So to break a law of nature will be to also commit crimes against both nature and therefore also against humanity. This way, by using binding legal force – we create a scenario where: to not evolve – by behaving unsustainably, by not following the new paradigm of evolution, any stakeholders’ positions will rapidly become untenable with the consumer/electorate. This feedback-led self-regulating, optimising process is based on the fundamental behaviours of design in nature, on our new classical-scale theory of everything; on how self-organisation and self-regulation in nature evolves, analogically and optimally – from entropy.

  • NigelReading|ASYNSIS

    Indeed Rachael. Less short-termism, more long-now vision 2 solve global problems with global solutions.

    “I do not think that we can be too creative or too visionary when it
    comes down to grand challenges – such as, transport for this century –
    but let’s stop productising the future and evolve our solutions using
    open platforms, invest in people – more than we do in gadgets – and
    enrich our problem-solving practices using the connectivity that this
    particular epoch has bestowed us with!”
    For the latest on Constructal law-Asynsis principle behaviours and
    geometries and the implications for migrating a law of nature towards a
    new design paradigm for society itself – please refer to:
    Cosmomimetic Design in Nature&Culture – Asynsis Principle-Constructal Law Seminar: ShanghaiUniversityNantesEcoledeDesign via NigelReading|ASYNSIS
    New Green ToE Asynsis principle-Constructal law: Law of Nature 2B Law of Man solution 4 Rio+20 SustDev goals:

  • firstblood

    no one will say that we wouldent have any of thease problems if we controlled the amont of people on the planet!! less people = less hunger,poverty ect ect. as well as the facts that we have taken our selfs above the food chain and are continuasly getting better medicin so we are even going against the naturall order and yet every single one of us abuses this. including me… we are the gods! the aliens. we have the power not to change the world but the universe. when we figure out how to travel in space we wont be over populated ect but its a goal we all as a race need to work towards not spacific goverments or people. put all the mony and resourses in one pot and progress the human race forward!! above mony ect…. our lifes if we dont start getting off the rock there wont be a life..

  • Algore

    This is somewhat strange. A really long reply written as an argument to a short, uncontroversial original article.

    Rachel Armstrong seems to wrap relatively simple common sense ideas up oil big confusing words and unnecessarily complex sentences.

    The original article basically says the future doesn’t change as fast as it should because corporations like to keep things the same. This reply basically says, the future doesn’t change as fast as it could because of corporations like to keep things the same because they like to make money. Isn’t that sort of implied in the original article.

    After that, well I don’t really know what she’s talking about. Something about saving humanity through open source and investing in people, not products. And this whole, the future is not the future, but the future in the next now. So how does this account for things like the new oil find in Australia? In a span of time of the oil company announcing one of the largest oil discoveries ever, the need for new forms of alternative energy has been delayed for maybe the next 50-100 years. And who knows, there could be another oil find even bigger tomorrow.