An Interview with GBN

I recently did a Q & A for the Fall 2010 issue of the GBN Bulletin (pdf here). Here is an extract from the PDF, in which I talk about crowdsourced scenarios, urban change, design & strategy.

I’ve added links and re-inserted a few of references and shout-outs that didn’t make it into the final edit, marked in italics.


Q: You’ve worked in urban planning for most of your career. What led you to it?

A: I was studying social anthropology and became interested in what gave cities their meaning and patterns of behavior. Why did some places feel so special and others so bland, cheap, and temporary? This led me to think about the relationship between design and experience, which ultimately led me to urban planning. But mostly I blame Stewart Brand. My parents were flower children; I was literally conceived in a geodesic dome, built by my dad, on land he carved out of the forests of Virginia in an early effort at sustainable living. I spent my youth reading their old books, like Bucky’s “Critical Path” and the Whole Earth Catalog, and helping my dad build dry masonry walls, passive solar houses, grow rooms, and the like. One issue of the Co-Evolution Quarterly had a particularly big impact on me. It was about space colonies; it was filled with stories by people like Gerard K. O’Neil and [GBN Network member] Rusty Schweickart and beautiful illustrations of life inside a space colony. The colonies were so complex and fascinating—and such a contrast to the bland, wasteful suburbs starting to devour the American countryside. I thought, “This is it! This is the future!” That’s how my fascination with cities and urban strategy began.

Q: Of all your urban planning projects, which stand out for you?

A: Working on the planning for the 2012 London Olympics was a highlight (with Space Syntax Ltd). Part of the challenge was to design a physical infrastructure so that all its components—the layout of transport connections, the concentration of different activities, all the security layers for the Games—contributed to a synergistic whole. But that whole also needed to be a real urban place that would continue to thrive after the Games. One of the most nerve-wracking moments of my career was arguing against the demolition of a huge informal settlement in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (also with Space Syntax Ltd). More than 100,000 people were scheduled to be relocated and 1,000 years of history destroyed, basically for malls and short-term profit. In the end, we managed to demonstrate that they could create more long-term value through a careful, almost capillary approach to redevelopment. The approach was based on fractal relationships and network theory— pretty out-there stuff for private developers in that market. But it was very successful and set the stage for the much longer-term evolution and growth of the city.  (There is a full academic write-up of the process, here.)

Q: Why the switch from urban planning to scenario planning?

A: I found myself working on many projects where the key assumptions about the future were already outdated by the time the design consultants were hired. I saw private developers and policymakers making long-term investments—yet at the same time turning away from the changes already happening around them. The cognitive lock-in at this level is amazing, especially on big ticket, politically sensitive items. I thought there had to be a way to help decision-makers be more realistic about change and uncertainty. I’d read “The Art of the Long View” and had followed Stewart Brand’s work for a long time. There is also a subset of designers and academics who are interested in futures methods, particularly from a cognitive and behavioral bias standpoint. So I started exploring these connections and I’ve been lucky to meet amazing colleagues and mentors along the way who trained me in different approaches to futures work. It all just flowed naturally from there. (I am grateful to mentors such as Napier Collyns, Graham Leicester, Pam Hurley, Wendy Schultz, Andrew Curry, Tony Hodgson, Mike Flaxman, Olivier Barreteau, Angela Wilkinson, Ulf Mannervik, Louis van der Merwe, Thomas Chermack, and many, many others for their influence over the years).

Q: What is an urban planner’s reaction to a future in which the majority of Earth’s population will live in cities?

A: Everything gets much faster and more sensitive. More innovation, more productivity, more collaboration—but also higher stakes, greater volatility, and more intense competition. It’s like adding processing power to a computer, linking it to a really high-speed network, then giving it the source code to upgrade itself; it sparks a feedback loop. Cities have always been the center of innovation and political power, but their durability and inefficiency also made them resilient to rapid change. That’s changing now. Just look at what happened in Australia last year: the government paid to insulate everyone’s attics to save carbon, a couple of untrained electricians zapped themselves to death, and a whole government department got scrapped in the backlash. Just imagine what happens when the sewage grid crashes, or the Ukrainian spam mafia gets a hold of the city tax database. We’re in for a wild ride, and cities will be at center stage.

Q: What got you interested in creating and using online tools and crowd sourcing platforms to generate scenarios?

A: I think people have a yearning to participate in the way the world is going—now more than ever. So I wanted to find ways to extend the benefits of scenario work to a larger number of people. More people means greater diversity of opinion and experience than you could get otherwise; it also means greater engagement, greater impact, and potentially better scenarios. Crowd sourcing isn’t just about t-shirts and logo designs. Done right, it can be a vast analytical platform—like a massively parallel processing system for the mind. The tools for doing this are still evolving, but they’re just around the corner. Imagine how powerful that will be for corporations or governments. Instead of getting just the C-suite and a few subject matter experts involved, everyone in the organization or across regions could contribute. So could customers, suppliers, or even competitors. The meta-data that emerges is fascinating; you begin to see all the different, competing visions that influence people’s decisions. Maybe your U. S. employees think the future will go one way while your people in Europe think it will go another. We’ll see an explosion in these tools in the next few years, and I’m happy to be playing a part in that (with colleagues Nathan Koren, Wendy Schultz, Dave Snowden, Anab Jain, Jon Ardern, Zhan Li and others, as well as with inspiration from people such as Alex Pang, Jamais Cascio, Jane McGonigal, Vinay Gupta, Daniel Gronquist and more).

Q: What does living in a world of great uncertainty mean for our ability to plan everything from strategies to whole cities?

A: It means rethinking what we mean by long-term planning. It means learning how to perceive and reorient to new circumstances quickly and developing the skills and capabilities to become more proactive and agile. This is where design comes in. Rapid iteration, experiential simulation, red-teaming, ubiquitous sensing, greater participation—these will all change the way we plan in the coming years. Also, creating social experiences that help us make sense of the “conceptual emergencies” we face, as Network members (and IFF co-founders) Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara put it, will be just as critical as developing strategic awareness and tactical flexibility. Staying creative and positive in the face of disruption will be the key challenge of the twenty-first century. That will be the real competition advantage of tomorrow.

The full PDF with this an other interesting interviews (including Dan Ariely) can be found here.

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  1. By Back to the Futurist: Noah Raford | URBNFUTR on January 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    […] “Future of Cities” @ the Harvard GSD View more presentations from Noah Raford Other interviews with Noah Raford Tags: future cities, singularity, social, societal change, urban futures Previous postBack to […]

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