Fountains in Barcelona. Credit Rachel Armstrong.

+ To move from sustainable to evolvable cities, the biggest challenge is not of substance or approach, but time.

It’s been an exhilarating month working with the Arup Thoughts team, inviting experts from diverse backgrounds to share their views on future cities. Taken as a whole, the various perspectives held remarkable synergies.

The overall view of cities was that they function as catalysts for change by bringing people and resources together. Steve Jurvetson noted their ‘combinatorial’ potential. And this suggests that Stuart Kauffman’s observation that cities evolve unpredictably owing to their ability to act ‘beyond’ physics would ensure their future as centres of radical innovation. This raised an important, unanswered question: if cities are emergent and acting in unpredictable ways then how can we realistically plan for their evolution?

Yet the experts generally welcomed vital, new kinds of practices that could preserve humanity in the face of exponentially swelling cities. They considered that the living dynamics of the urban environment enables cities to evolve with their populations – notably through the actions of communities and nature. Bruce Sterling reminded us that people are a city’s greatest resource and Thomas Ugo Ermacora noted how the citizen-driven DIY cultures are already bringing about a unique, subversive urban transformation that empowers its citizens by turning consumers into producers.

Hannes Kunz reflected on cities in an energy-conscious future. And his post attracted a passionate response from a young person who argued optimistically for a new kind of ‘green’ practice by which young people could reclaim their future. Rather than ‘making do with less’, he argues, cities should combine values and practices from ecological ways of thinking to create positive new kinds of urban lifestyle. Neil Spiller urged us not to be puritanical or conservative about our ambitions for future cities. He called for even more radically creative possibilities that were not subjugated by LEED® standards, iconic shapes or carbon counts.

Surprisingly, despite current predictions for denser living, there was an overwhelming view that there was space for nature to play an important role in our future cities. Indeed, natural processes were regarded as a new species of technology with the potential to transform urban environments. Koert van Mensvoort observed the melding of nature with technology and regarded this fusion as a powerful new ally in design and engineering practices. And Peter Head offered a pragmatic approach to nurturing this relationship more effectively in the built environment.

Underpinning a transition to a more nature-integrated city were ‘wet’ technologies such as the bacterial and algal processes proposed by Simon Park, Ricky Tsui and Jan Wurm. Yet Markus Schmidt, Mark Goodman and Arne Hendriks also cautioned about the need to make careful choices in changing current practices – that we should consider the longer-term implications of disruptive innovations.

These new biology-based solutions were viewed as working symbiotically with existing building technologies. But it’s my contention that natural systems require special technical considerations, and that they offer learning opportunities for schools and universities to start to understand the implications of designing with natural systems and the use of biotechnologies.

From where will we recruit biotechnological engineers who can work between ecology and traditional building practices? And how do we acquire trans-disciplinary skills to keep these kinds of refreshing exchanges open? Indeed, the whole learning process of working with natural systems in urban spaces demands an open innovation process that does not lend itself easily to Intellectual Property (IP) agreements or patents.

Technological changes also raise a deeper consideration of their economic impacts – not simply in terms of profitizing inventions but also the risks and benefits they will bring. In an age of productised solutions and near-term profits, this degree of radical openness is a major challenge.

So overall, then, I’m left feeling excited about the future of cities. With the potential for radical innovation the most important thing we can do is to think differently when finding urban solutions and be prepared to experiment.

Perhaps new ways forward lie in keeping urban environments as ‘open’ solution spaces in which buildings are not fixed ‘objects’ but a network of flexible infrastructures. These may be forged through new kinds of distributed manufacturing practices that work synergistically with natural systems.

Yet perhaps our biggest challenge is not of substance or approach but time. We understand that urgent action is needed to remediate the damaging impacts of industrialisation on the natural world. Instinctively, we seek quick fixes to existing challenges, to meet centralised targets and building standards. But truly sustainable impacts evolve in longer timeframes and are shared over generations.

Could the idea of a building in continual evolution offer a new paradigm for the practice of the built environment? And how do we keep youth meaningfully engaged in a vision of a longer-term development in which cities and people co-evolve towards a common goal?

Answering these questions will mean thinking differently, and thinking differently is hard. But it’s worth it – particularly when your thoughts are shared, as they have been when working with Arup.

So I’d like to thank the Thoughts team, those who have been following these posts and all the incredible people who have given their time freely to make this journey from Sustainable to Evolvable an enjoyable and transformative one.