Image via Flickr: Amorphica
At this point in the series we return to our original question:
If scientists and designers find a way to see eye-to-eye, if truth and purpose can be united, what kind of city emerges?
In earlier articles we explored the historic dialog between design and science, considered the emerging body of work in Urban Science, and examined the changing role of the planner in a data-driven age.
Does Urban Science have a future? If so, what might that future look like and what actions can we take to ensure a positive outcome?
Every generation has its zeitgeist—a moment where the world collectively turns its head towards the fascinations of a robust youth who shape their concerns in the shadows of the previous generation’s failures. Sometimes, these trends define an era of thought, sometimes not. The next generation of urban designers and planners are currently championing their own zeitgeist: parametricism. Mind you, parametric solution seeking and “complexity thinking” has permeated a variety of fields including industrial design, business and even military engineering. In the urban design context however, parametricism has applications across scales, starting with experiments at the city, building and materials scales.
At the city scale, we’re looking to uncover consistent trends across observable patterns (land use, conflict, development) to find hidden rules and relationships that underpin urban phenomena. At the building and neighborhood scale we tinker with pre-programmed parameters to uncover the effects of decision-making on the urban fabric through simulation. At the façade scale we think about how surfaces can adapt to changing environmental conditions and uses. Broadly speaking, these trends point to a compelling synthesis of biology, computer science and design thinking, with an apparent focus on parameterizing adaptation in the name of sustainability. In a way, we’re building upon the previous generation’s concern for sustainability, only we grew up with Tommagachis.
One critique of the analytical approach to city-making is that it fails to account for the nuances and complexity of actual human behavior. It is our ability to surprise and create that distinguishes our humanity and makes us at times, pleasantly unpredictable. Models and simulations fall short of being able to anticipate how people will actually behave in response to intervention, which debatably has lead to drastic errors in planning policy and architectural design.
Behavior-shaping through architectural and urban design depends on the idea that our behavior is not predetermined. Understandably, urban designers often find algorithms of human activity disturbing because such tools can rob the designer of his ability to create a novel human experience. However when used to describe natural systems, algorithms never indicate predetermined states, instead they are signals of constraint. Put another way, life operating within constraint generates patterns that can be described with algorithms. Is it not the designer’s task to problem solve precisely within this domain?
If parametricism becomes one of those zeitgeists that changes how we think for the long-run then the designer should prepare for her role to become less prescriptive (vis-a-vis the comprehensive master plan) but equally if not more masterful: designing a system that evolves its own solutions to complex problems. This in part, is what is so appealing and challenging about Skylar Tibbits’s work. Here, physical material is programmed to respond adaptively to novel problems. I find that his role as a programmer of this design-process does not rob him of the ability to create beautiful and functional work. Instead, I see great power in the subtle authorship of a working system.
Of course it’s scary to think of buildings or cities as programmable entities, and a lot of important questions about ethics and power easily bubble to the surface. It’s my opinion that we should address these questions sooner than later, and that this defines the role of today’s urbanist. Future designers and planners must hold the public good in their conscience as they choose what kinds of ideals define the parameters of adaptive urban systems. Therefore, it is important that we declare a distinctly human purpose for our parametric work before embarking on a radical series of amoebic land-use patterns. We need to think about the organic qualities that make cities happy and healthy, and keep these close to our hearts. We may be a long way off from programming real life Sim-cities, so let future generations build using a solid moral compass we can begin crafting today.
Post by Emily Royall, a Master of City Planning student in City Design & Development at MIT DUSP.