Skip to Content


An insurance-company billboard over the Massachusetts Turnpike promises that “the first person to live to 150 is alive today.” This bit of actuarial forecasting is something to ponder while you’re hurtling down the highway burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Who is that person who will live to 150? Could it possibly be me? What would I do with all that time? It takes a minute for the hubris to subside and realize that by the laws of probability, the first sesquicentenarian won’t even be from the United States.

If demographics is destiny, it seems we have a rendezvous with China and we’re already late. Half of all the constructed space in the world over the last 15 years has taken place in China, a country with 170 cities of more than 1 million people and 11 of the 200 tallest skyscrapers on earth. The Chinese government has announced plans to create — from scratch — 20 brand-new cities a year for the next 20 years. That’s a lot of opportunity.

On the other hand, the growth has been so pell-mell that huge swaths of new development remain eerily vacant, and pollution is so bad in northern China that — according to a new study co-authored by an MIT economist —  life expectancy there has been cut by five years. Maybe the first 150-year-old won’t be from China after all.

This issue of ArchitectureBoston examines what’s “Next” — trends in fabrication, materials, economics, and demographics, and how architecture can respond to these changing conditions. Designers are naturals for this kind of future-casting; it’s no coincidence that ideas of exploration, opportunity, and the unknown are embedded in the architectural term “prospect.”

Stories about the future of the built environment tend to fall into two broad categories: high-tech and low-tech (or maybe “post-tech”). Among the former are those cyberutopians who envision driverless cars with magnets that allow for regulated traffic, bacterial buildings wrapped in bioelectronic envelopes, and shape- shifting homes that change dimensions based on energy or privacy needs. They’re the ones making statements such as “Data is the new oil,” and overusing the word “lab.”

Post-tech futurists are more likely to be promoting societal change: the sharing culture (think Zipcar, Linux, couch-surfing), microunit living, biomimicry, and the reclamation of abandoned spaces. It’s a DIY tomorrowland of beekeeping, backyard chickens, mushroom farming, green roofs, and the end of cars — or at least of the combustion engine.

The one thing these seemingly disparate visionaries have in common, of course, is their youth.

There is a dark side to design prophecy as well. When November strikes the soul, it’s hard to avoid thinking up scenarios of overweening surveillance, environmental collapse, or resource scarcity —  a Malthusian dystopia of too many people and not enough water, food, housing, or space.

Luckily, architects are perhaps uniquely situated to address these challenges. Collaboration, problem solving, thinking in three dimensions — this is training for the long view. As Yale professor Michelle Addington says elsewhere in these pages, “The wonderful thing about architecture is [the] propensity to ask, ‘Did you check this out? Were you thinking about that?’ You begin to think about a problem that has rippling consequences across multiple domains.”

The trouble with too much gazing out at the horizon, however, is that it is an acceptable form of procrastination. Change can happen only in the present. If architects and designers want to shape a more sustainable, ethical future, the work is here now. As a wise Cambodian monk once said: “The present is the mother of the future. Take care of the mother, and the mother will take care of her child.”

Time to get started.