Graphic of cogs superimposed over a map of the world: "We imagine the world through machines. We problem-solve using the machine as our metaphor for understanding our environment and its resources." (Source: iStock)

+ The monoculture of machine-inspired innovation means that we have effectively been building our cities for machines, not humans.

If it were possible to make a time-lapse film of the earth we would see that it was constantly moving. Yet when we build, we design as if the world were static. 

This is because we imagine the world through machines. We problem-solve using the machine as our metaphor for understanding our environment and its resources. This approach has served us so well that we now almost exclusively use machines to solve all our problems. The monoculture of machine-inspired innovation means that we have effectively been building our cities for machines, not humans. People are not machines – we are living systems that radiate into and receive from our environment. We respond to on-going changes in our surroundings, sometimes in surprising ways. Because of the environmentally belligerent principles that underpin machine thinking, and the scale of development that has been possible through industrial practices, the recent global explosion in human development has resulted in extensive ecological damage. 

Yet rather than using completely different ways of thinking, we have only attempted to modify what already exists. Many formal practices that offer ‘sustainable’ solutions continue to rely on machine thinking, re-inventing the present, whilst marketing it as the ‘future’, which is described in ‘Cradle to Cradle’ as ‘fine tuning a fundamentally flawed system’. For example, the Beijing National Stadium (Bird’s Nest) by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron Architekten, the China Architecture Design and Research Group and Arup, boasts of natural ventilation while being the world's largest steel structure, using 26km of unwrapped steel. Current sustainability narratives avoid dealing with completely new ways of making, and adopt incremental substitutions in practice instead. Consequently the built environment is not designed to accommodate the potential impact of disruptive innovations, since the way we imagine the future is simply a linear extrapolation of the present. 

The way to break this imagination gridlock is to use different frameworks through which we can imagine the world differently. This is not easy and requires practice. However, once we have grasped some basic ideas about the assumptions that currently constrain us, we can start thinking differently. 

Twenty-first century society draws from a world that is less determined by objects and increasingly shaped by connectivity. Clear either/or distinctions are being replaced by a more fluid understanding of the world. Complexity underpins our ideas about cities, nature and human bodies that may be imagined through the framework of an ecology. But the mapping of complex systems cannot tell a researcher how a network arose, or how it will behave in the future. (The changing behaviour of complex systems over time is also complicated by the phenomenon of emergence.)

These changes may be grasped by studying a range of processes that can be broadly described as ‘evolution’. Yet thinking differently alone is not enough to bring about game changing practices. Paradigm shifts in urban development are only possible at a confluence - when new infrastructures support the propagation of novel technologies and are available to city residents. 

Over the last twenty years we have reached such a confluence through the condensation of a variety of cultural, technological developments. We are witnessing the bloom of a first generation of 'digital natives', the proliferation of low cost manufacturing platforms and knowledge exchange over networks that span cultures and disciplines. This series offers a few examples of developments that collectively offer the possibility of disruptive innovation within an urban evolutionary melting pot - where bottom-up forms of organization possess the capacity to 'radically transform' the city landscape.

However, it does not propose to tear down what exists but to discover new forms of economy, social organization and symbiotic relationships in which new solution spaces can be transformed into real-world solutions. Importantly, these new approaches will need to remain open and adaptable to the possibilities of our discoverable future through the development of nurturing infrastructures.

While modern infrastructures follow populations - the fabric of future cities will anticipate and perhaps even encourage specific kinds of settlements. In this way our cities will be participatory in the global challenges of environment, population and resources that we face. They will co-evolve with us to underpin positive human development. 

This series of Arup Thoughts, From sustainable to evolvable, for which I am guest editor, explores the idea of ecology, as a metaphor and technology that underpins the practice of complexity, to create a qualitatively different experience of the city – one that can change and adapt to altering circumstances. We have invited experts from different disciplines to take a view on how our current machine-like cities could behave more ecologically. 

Thought leaders in thinking differently (Stuart Kauffman) (Arne Hendriks) (Koert Van Mensvoort) (Peter Head) offer new perspectives on possible futures. The importance of supportive infrastructures are proposed in the work of (Bruce Sterling) (Neil Spiller) (Steve Jurvetson) within which new technologies (Jan Wurm) (Ricki Tsui) can thrive. The resultant possible future cities venture beyond the closed loops of sustainability and are open to changing contexts - not only in terms of their economies and organisational frameworks (Hannes Kung) but also in their materiality. Ultimately these cities will be agile, evolvable and have the capacity to deal with the unforeseen – just like nature can.