I love it when people take ownership of the places they inhabit, co-evolving them with their native environment in the same way that nature creates all its niches. So in this short piece I want to share what I think will shape the future of places, where people, buildings and nature co-evolve their future. 

I hold what some may consider to be an irrational optimism for the future of communities. This is because I believe that, with a little help, the sprawling DIY culture will overcome the desert of meaning that so many places have become. I am referring here to the countless high spec developer dreamlands whose influence is toxic, particularly to old cultures of the developing world that are ingesting modernity with deadly enthusiasm.

Modern life has taken nature’s staggering creativity for granted and now we have to figure out how to heal our societies and ecosystems at the same time. The good news is that the regenerative qualities of the natural world seem to be limitless and we are now finally developing better habits of emulating ecosystems materially closed loops.

In the modern world, community is a word that seems to have lost its depth and meaning. Yet, even in this age of Facebook and virtual reality, we still crave a sense of belonging that survives our technophilia and desire for individualism. In pockets of cyberspace new fusions of Barefoot College thinking and Singularity University ideology are forging a new form of digital communitarianism. This promises radical technological innovation that may disrupt our industrially sterile habits. 

Until the industrial revolution, buildings were built from local resources and the sweat of their community. Then the agrarian revolution created inequalities between residential areas and open land for farming. Landlords organised communities into groups and neighbourhoods with refined applications and relationships. Industrialisation drove a wedge between urban and rural lifestyles, and now, in our post-industrial, post-material information society, nature has been almost completely assimilated into the industrial machine.

Yet being globally connected has distinct advantages. The advent of low cost, autonomous, decentralised production units raises the possibility of integrating and connecting things that were previously spatially segregated. Diverse, distributed manufacturing practices are springing up everywhere and harnessing the vibrancy of nature.

The fusion of residential and commercial spaces is a consequence of this new material and information convergence. But it is just the beginning. I believe firmly, especially in infrastructurally poor communities, that urban spaces will become completely integrated. People will live, work, grow, manufacture, harvest, produce, and create all in one place – bypassing the inertia of central regulatory agencies.

Another important trend is that of living building experiments, where architecture appears to shake its legacy of inertia. In a recent conversation with Vinay Gupta, the inventor of the Hexayurt, it occurred to me that his open-source construction system is one of the strongest examples of a maker-style self-build relief shelter. It’s viral success amongst maker-types and is a testimony to communities’ desire to make their own buildings quickly using the lessons of software engineering.

There are many other agile solutions for building semi-permanent structures that are linked to this self-sufficiency movement, such as Markus Kayser’s Solar Sinter, maker labs in Milan Design Week and modular container communities. Their likely convergence with a new materiality promised by the living building technologies explored by Rachel Armstrong, Mitchell Joachim and many others, are setting the scene for radical disruption in the practice of the built environment

In my work I come across a lot of new companies that explore alternative neighbourhood planning approaches using participatory frameworks that often originate from the design thinking and social storytelling fields. They help mend broken communities through re-empowerment, bringing tasks that would normally require big machines and expensive processes within the reach of enterprising minds.

Dougald Hine’s Space Makers agency gave new life to a Brixton marketplace that was destined to become a bland shopping mall. Kenny Ausubel from the Bioneers helped rethink a whole state’s approach to food and energy with the Dreaming New Mexico plan. John Thackara gave the UK Design Council a social engagement flavor with Dott. And Francois Jegou’s 27th Region is giving the French Government a virtual region to help reinvent public services and institutional design.

It is hard to measure happiness, and what we can measure contains very little of what is worth living for. Participation is the richest sense of place that any community can experience. I have seen how a new found sense of ownership empowers neighbours, the environment, and stakeholders equally.

With the right mix of responsible design with local identity and character we could quickly improve the market penetration of living building technologies. And with communities co-evolving their urban environments using ecological practices that connect with natural systems, the productivity of cities could increase without the proliferation of unnecessary infrastructure.

If we can seize the opportunity to act upon the convergences taking place in our cities – which are the transformers of human endeavour – then maybe we will co-author a more abundant future for everyone.