Thursday, August 16, 2012

Things to Come - an exercise in preferred futures

At the urging of my insightful better half, I recently indulged in a bit of back-casting, the particularly useful preferred futures tool I have recently been exposed to. In essence, it involves describing a the place you want to end up, then working backwards to now, with the goal to build a path that might get you to that destination in time.

So far I've had a go at the first bit, which I'm sharing in the hope of working through the second bit. It is framed from a career perspective; however the vision I have for my work life is a fractal of a bigger picture I believe is important to meet some of the challenges we face in our urban environment.

The picture is tri-partite - a three-legged stool of sorts - each 'leg' a theme which has typically stood alone, but which could/should be integrated for a more holistic approach to cities, and a more satisfying work life.

These three 'legs' are: Design, Education and Research.

Of these, the weakest link in the context of future cities is the one between design and education - which is where I'd like to make a professional home for myself. Both also need to be underpinned by research though, asking new questions of urban infrastructure and the built form.

I have explored many of details of the three legs in previous posts: trans-disciplinary design (here), thresholds of critical mass for urban density (here) and alternative infrastructure for African cities (here) among others.

When I look at the things that bring me the most joy in work, there can be no question that they are interactive design in a team of specialists responding to a resilience brief; and teaching people about sustainability and design. In both, the joy of telling a new story, of creating a new path and bringing people along on the journey is paramount.

I want to spend the majority of my work time either teaching or designing. Where possible, I would like to teach and design in an environment where the experience contributes to a transformation in the way we all look at the world and our place in it - experiential design.

And all of this must be partnered by strong ties into research... The challenges for our urban spaces are changing and growing at a rate that our conventional knowledge transfer mechanisms are insufficient. We must have new institutions that allow us to nimbly adapt design and education to relevant research... Eudaimonic institutions (economist and blogger Umair Haque has written extensively on institutional reform to support lives ‘lived meaningfully well’, or ‘Eudaimonic’ institutions – an excellent post is here, and I’d recommend reading his book “betterness” too).

So what do these new institutions look like?

My immediate response was to look for the cities research institutes at leading universities (UCT African Centre for Cities is my local example) and find a teaching/research post with the freedom to provide design advice too. Another might be to work within the consulting engineering sector and partner with research and education institutions. Yet another might be a start-up offering new approaches to design such as Biomimicry? I've considered all of these at one time or another, but they all seem to be locked into our existing, failing institutions...

And now I prefer to think that the answer is a combination of each of them: pulling together the best of our design consulting, research and teaching institutions, and packaging something more agile, useful, resilient... meaningful. I'd like to start some crowd-sourcing on what this institution might look like in more detail and who might want to come along for the ride.

Please share specific questions or lead-in points to the discussion in the comments.


  1. Richard, sign me up.

    I share your thoughts that we can no longer look at focusing our personal efforts and talents on one area of the current business, educational or institutional arena. A more holistic approach, by its definition, needs professional chameleons working in an open and more balanced space.

    From a consulting business perspective, step one is to start to decouple end year profit as the overriding metric of business success. Time and effort is required to create this open and balanced space that could enable fresh thinking and develop collaborative partnerships - my experience is that much of this time and effort is spent on chasing the illusive typically unattainable and usually poorly devised profit target.

    Step two is trust. Trust that you have something to offer this space, and that those willing to jump in equally have much to offer and should be given the freedom to do so. Trust is at the core of collaboration.

    Step three is time. Time to create a space and system for collaborative thought investment. And then the time to ponder, stretch and recycle the thoughts and visions together and offline in your own time and creative space.

    Step four is thought leadership and guidance. To deliver on the promises of effective and creative thought collaboration adaptable leaders shall be required to guide the delivery of the vision.

  2. Richard, I think that you're on the right track here. The first thing that jarred me though was the word 'institution'. I am a ‘words’ person so I consider the terminology and vocabulary we use rather important because it informs how we think about the topic. But if not institution (or establishment for that matter), then what? I think that an experiential hub or centre would befit the nature and function of what you’re proposing but let’s not split hairs about that presently, let’s engage with your tri-partite concept.

    A key aspect for me within the educational sphere, for this concept to be actualised, is that education needs to be both technical and contextual. What I mean here is that while technical knowledge is important, there needs to be practical application in the social sphere. Imagine projects that applied acquired knowledge to social issues (sanitation in informal settlements and housing solutions that took into consideration multi-generation households, public spaces and community etc). These projects may be implemented and could bring about change. The iShack in Enkanini comes to mind: a master's thesis that has been adopted by the Gates Foundation and they are funding the roll out in Ghana and Tanzania. This is the type of teaching and learning that should inform education systems. Then what if practical case studies were presented to students by working professionals? This could potentially bridge the divide between theory and practice, and as this forms part of category two CPD credits, it is a win-win situation.

    It is also clear to me, that working professionals need to rethink the ways things are done. There has to be a move towards innovation, tweaking and refining. There are many standard solutions that may suffice but whether they are better solutions for the context must come into play. Of course, this is stated knowing that many professionals do their best within their circumstances and are brave with their design. The importance of design reflecting, addressing and pre-emptying social (and environmental) conditions and needs means that designers (be they planners, engineers or architects) need to be informed about the context they are working in.

    I strongly believe that the research is available for those willing to find it. There is a lot we know needs to be done but enacting it is where the issue lies. But then that is an issue within itself; research centres need to find a platform to present their findings and promote implementing it into design. If designers could access relevant research in the initial design phase, a lot of social ills could be mitigated and addressed.

    There is a lot more to be said about this and so many counterpoints to be made but I suppose starting the conversation is important.

  3. Thanks Noelle - good points all...

    Have a read of Umair Haque's stuff on institutions - it's incredibly insightful, and takes some of the bitterness away from the word: institutions aren't bad by nature, we just have dysfunctional institutions at present.

    One dream of mine is to have an experiential design centre... :) one day... :)

    Research is available, but the time-constraints of professional design mean it seldom gets into the implementation side of things... And research institutions are notoriously bad at proactively sharing their results, or allowing practicing professionals to inform their research questions... So while it is 'there', it is seldom actually there on projects.

    Thanks for the comment...