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What If?

It’s a question that begs a degree of guesswork, opinion, or clairvoyance. If we could look into a crystal ball, what visions of the future might come into focus? How will trends in demographics or materials shape architecture and design? We asked five soothsayers who spend time forecasting in their fields to daydream with us, to envision the horizon, to provide a measure of informed prospect.

Venturing into the next realm

by Henry G. Beer

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb’s seminal work on the unpredictable, the author opines that those things that are predictable are of little consequence. They will not be game changers. All one needs to do is pick up a copy of Popular Science from the 1950s to see just how unpredictable the future really was/is/will be. The things that shaped our world since were catalyzed by changes that simply could not have been anticipated. The Internet, genetics, nanotechnology, and Angry Birds were all black swans that have profoundly altered the course of our cultures, our institutions, our enterprises, and ourselves. Yet they were at the time of their discovery invisible to all but a few science fiction writers and the odd savant.

There are profound risks inherent in predictive work of any kind. Still, here are some places to look when hunting for “Next.”

Next breeds at the edges.
The new often emerges at the confluence or convergence of disciplines, fields of study, or areas of expertise. Innovation occurs where two or more seemingly unrelated events, realities, or phenomena rub up against each other. Velcro was discovered at the intersection of botany, materials science, and the market.

Next rarely occurs in an orderly sequence.
Next is often a radical detour from what to others appeared to be a linear or sequential procession. Next comes as surprise, like the punch line in a joke. The story was going one way and then, wham: an utterly unanticipated outcome delights and amazes everyone.

Next speaks to us in qualms and figments.
It is critical to stay in the moment when there’s a stone in our shoe about what others are saying about the future or when we are convinced that there must be something else around the corner. Listen carefully to that inner voice when there’s a fragment of a notion of what might be possible with a different stance or point of view. Like changing the station point in a drawing — it’s a whole different prospect. The physicist Richard Feynman’s relentless search for a different way of looking at the space shuttle Challenger disaster led to an unexpected analysis of the cause, ultimately chasing the problem down to the failure of the craft’s lowly O-rings.

Next rewards the biggest prize to the curious.
How can we see around the edges of disparate disciplines if we aren’t indefatigably and insatiably inquisitive? Next is what happens after the creativity’s over. Linearity is necessary, but only after the nonlinear insight or leap of reason has shocked or stunned even us. Next can occasionally live among the numbers, too, as author Nate Silver has shown us. He writes: “Good innovators typically think very big and they think very small. New ideas are sometimes found in the most granular details of a problem where few others bother to look. And they are sometimes found when you are doing your most abstract and philosophical thinking....”

Next is often disguised as impractical, unreasonable, or stupid.
Most of us see what we want to see, what we’ve been programmed to see, and what others say they are seeing. Confirmation bias blinds us to Next. Next often requires subjecting oneself to ridicule, embarrassment, or worse. Above all, Next takes courage, because in the end, we really can’t know what’s Next.

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Curating new lives and communities

by Sean Brennan

As a Gen-Yer — that segment of the population more likely to have the Internet in our pockets than cash — I like change, collaboration, and creativity. When I try to envision the future, I look for cultural shifts, and this generation, also known as the Millennials, offers the best clues. I think of them not as a demographic but as a mindset. Envisioning is imagination with a clear intent, and Generation Y expects the customization and ease of their digital lives to occur in their physical realm. My job is to build scenarios where culture, technology, and business collide and benefit from one another. In the next decade, three clear trends will affect architecture and design.

Living Smaller
My team at Continuum (we’re called NXT) has been talking about a trend we’re calling “Living Smaller.” We’re noticing this change in the aspirations of Gen-Yers, the first generation expected to do worse, financially, than previous ones. They can’t afford to live bigger. They take pride in being different from their parents. They don’t think they’ll be able to afford what they want, so they’re scaling back before they even try.

Our culture is beginning to value experiences over material goods. What matters are things we interact with in a meaningful way, every day: electronics, clothes, homes; but we opt for small, with all the upgrades. Technology will allow us to migrate into the digital realm. We spend a lot of time there already, so living without physical manifestations of things is becoming the norm. Look at what happened to DVDs — the same will happen with décor. It’s about recognizing what’s unnecessary and curating our lives. The same approach will determine with whom we choose to live: We will assemble social networks, buying homes in groups, creating microcommunities.

Climate Control
As the conversation switches from “climate change” to “climate control,” there will be architectural tradeoffs to consider. Some of the most desirable properties may become uninsurable. Will we build disposable structures or fortresses against nature? With sea-level rise, geographically favorable locations will shift. People will look for places without forest fires, flooding, or tornadoes. Safety and environmental stability will be key drivers.

We will use architecture as a way to filter nature, pulling it into our homes rather than walking out into it. We will insist on maintaining our relationship to it — we don’t want fake — and drive our architecture to give us the best of nature within our defined spaces.

Everyone will be a tastemaker in the same way that iPhones and Instagram made everyone a photographer. People will talk about the effort that went into choosing the right materials, colors, and styles for their surroundings. They won’t mind that they’re confined to a small square — they’ll see it as a hive of innovation. They won’t even care that they don’t own their creations; they already own nothing.

The future of architecture is in developing tools for people to design and curate their space so they can express their creativity. There might be a million options, but there’s only one that’s right for Generation Y. Middleman platforms such as Pinterest put the tools of designers (mood boards, material samples) into the hands of everyone. You can (virtually) create a collection, squint your eyes, and start seeing the bigger picture while you get set for change.

That’s what I like about the process of envisioning: you can begin designing a world people want to live in. Architects should help these tools evolve and create new platforms for collaborating with clients, who can then say, “I made this.”

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Reshaping urban scenarios

by Rami el Samahy

In 1900, Ladies Home Journal sought out experts to predict what “will have been wrought ... before the dawn of 2001.” While the projections seemed at the time “strange, almost impossible,” many were surprisingly prescient (for example, “photographs will be telegraphed from any distance”). Some were close (“350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America”), and others were just plain wrong (“no mosquitoes nor flies”).

As an urbanist, I was intrigued most by a forecast predicting the disappearance of vehicles on city streets. “All hurry traffic will be below or high above ground when brought within city limits.… Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises.” It is interesting to consider that at the dawn of the 20th century, at least one expert had already presaged Le Corbusier’s ideas for the new city, for better and for worse.

I am drawn to this article not so much for what it got right or wrong, but for its willingness to make bold assertions about the future, addressing issues of technology, ecology, and demographics that would undoubtedly affect 20th-century cities. When we consider the future from our vantage point more than a hundred years later, many of the same themes apply, and the impact on cities has only intensified.

It is clear that technological advancement (the growing ubiquity of information technology, the increased reliance on automated processes, the remarkable potentials of nanotechnology) will affect the way we live. But will the cities of the future look much like the ones we live in today, or will these advancements necessitate more substantial alterations? Over the past two decades, technology has fostered profound change but has been absorbed almost seamlessly into the existing city. However, the last 20 years represent the tip of the iceberg: From sentient walls to driverless cars to biomorphic surfaces, our entire infrastructure is set for radical change.

From an ecological point of view, the picture is less rosy. Temperature surges, desertification, sea-level rise, and melting polar caps are all now mainstream predictions. Yet each of these potential disasters offers design possibilities. How (if at all) do we occupy our coastlines? Can we halt the spread of deserts while increasing the land available for agriculture and habitation? Whether adapting to bleak future scenarios or attempting to mitigate them, designers can lead the charge in presenting creative ways forward.

Most statisticians now believe that the world’s population will stabilize around 10 billion inhabitants, but they will not be distributed evenly. Many developed cities will likely shrink while the cities of the developing world will grow precipitously, both densifying and sprawling. As a result, a universal solution to the world’s urban problems will become even less likely. Neither Andrés Duany’s New Urbanism nor Rem Koolhaas’ Generic City adequately addresses the future realities of the burgeoning cities of the South or the depleting cities of the North.

Rather than relying solely on past precedents or erasing the distinction of location, we need a new methodology that incorporates what is already known and layers it with what is imagined, thereby creating a flexible set of responses to questions that begin with two simple but exciting words: What if? Given the variety of possible futures, and the complexity of the determinants, scenario planning offers designers an opportunity to do what they do best: speculate. Perhaps, if our speculations are bold enough, we might even shape the thinking of the next hundred years.

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Sketching delectable visions

by Barbara Lynch

I detest trends. Since I was young, I’ve always been interested in doing things differently. Perhaps that’s partially due to what some might describe as a rebellious spirit, but I have always found it much more interesting to take a right if everyone else is taking a left. So when it comes to dreaming up culinary concepts and deciding what my next project will be, I have always relied on instinct and challenged myself to think outside the box. I have been told countless times that ideas were too risky or too crazy. When I decided to open Drink, Sportello, and Menton in Fort Point, I heard all of this, but I persevered and trusted my gut. It was exciting and proved to be smart to be a pioneer in the Innovation District — the city’s new frontier.

Since I began cooking in my 20s, I have kept countless notebooks that I fill with sketches, quotations, and ideas collected from travels, books, museums, and nature. While I purposely avoid paying attention to what other chefs are doing or what industry publications predict will be the next “hot” thing, I find endless inspiration in beautiful, puzzling, and brilliant things — from the sleek design of a hotel in Berlin to clever food packaging I always seem to find in Milan or Rome. Of course, for every idea that has been pursued and developed, there are probably 50 that stay in the notebook, but it’s my free space to dream and wonder “what if.” For me, a fully realized — and ultimately successful — concept starts with big dreams, a clear vision, and a good sketch of the experience. The only way to imagine the future and anticipate wants and desires is to have a space to record these ideas and play with them.

At its heart, a dining experience is a very personal thing. We literally nourish guests, and if we do it right, we provide not only incredible food and drink but also comfort; entertainment; education; and, above all, a lovely escape from reality. For this reason, all my concepts have been inspired by something personal: a memory, a craving, a dream. I’ve always believed that you can walk into a restaurant and immediately know whether or not it has a soul — and the memorable ones always do. I opened B&G Oysters because, like clockwork, I found myself yearning for briny oysters and a crisp Chablis at the end of each long New England winter. The Butcher Shop is my tribute to seemingly disparate memories: the myriad shops throughout Italy I discovered in my early days as a chef, where I could have a glass of wine and read the paper while a butcher sliced an array of salami, prosciutto, and mortadella; my trips to the market with my mother in South Boston as a child, where she always ordered Land O’Lakes cheese sliced “#4” from the butcher, who would hand me an extra slice.

My goal, whether I am conceptualizing a restaurant or a product, is to create something that has never been done before yet is recognizable. Forecasting the future means looking within and sometimes going back in time, reimagining classics, pushing boundaries, asking “what if,” and creating a space and an experience both absolutely unique yet comfortingly familiar.

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Getting out of tomorrow’s way

by Chris Luebkeman

I spend half my life traveling, engaging with those who are crafting the physical world as well as with those who are attempting to peer through the haze at the bucking bronco that embodies the forces of change around us. I speak to taxi drivers, waitresses, hotel clerks, teachers, nurses, and students. I seek the insights of policy makers, chief executives, builders, and pretty much any citizen to fully understand the wishes and hopes we, as a global society, have for the built environment.

Although I believe deeply in the potential of digital connectivity, I have yet to find a digital method that matches the power of personal interaction. In my travels, I have the opportunity to look into the eyes of change makers, listening intently to the concerns they voice — and to those things they are not talking about. It is through these conversations, because of these handshakes, that I am able not simply to be in a place but to experience a context. Participation shapes our world.

I am fortunate that Arup has 11,000 passionate individuals spread around the world in almost 150 offices from Brisbane to Boston to Beijing. Each place has a different context that I work hard to understand. I love having breakfast with the 20-year-olds in our offices. Their view of the world often diverges significantly from the views of senior leadership. Their “normal” is quite different from my “normal.”

They have never used a Mayline or even seen a Rapidograph. Most assume that if you can model it, you can build it, rather than the inverse. They assume that they will never own a car, will be sharing their “excess capacity,” will not keep one job for more than three years. They think nothing of renting their apartment to a complete stranger or doing the reciprocal when they travel. They assume they will need to be able to write code to manipulate digital tools, but most could not sketch out their ideas without pixels as the interface.

I get inspired by their thoughtful concern about the change they see around them, and I look forward with cautious optimism as they confront the mountain of challenges ahead. Pearl S. Buck said, “The young don’t know enough to be prudent and therefore they attempt the impossible — and achieve it, generation after generation.” We need to get out of their way so that our next generation can indeed do the impossible.

The future is fiction. None of us can foretell the future, yet we are all authors of the story of tomorrow, which we will write together. We often co-create stories of plausibilities — of what could be. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come “… are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?” The ghost is silent. “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” says Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

What course are we on? What might cause us to depart from it? What factors are influential enough to change the ends? This is what we study.

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