Dec 20, 201312:08 PMPoint of View
Toward Resilient Architectures 5: Agile Design
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As humanity progresses into an increasingly technological 21st century, we are confronted with a historic and alarming paradox.
Over the last two and a half millennia, our species has made historic progress in achieving (partially but substantially) ancient ideals of democracy, human rights, justice, and equality. Our institutions of science and technology have made brilliant advances, while the global economy has created unprecedented wealth. Billions of people around the world are healthier, better educated, and more empowered to shape their own lives and futures.
And yet, as many are well aware, we are entering an era of growing existential threat — caused, ironically, by our very technological successes. We are depleting our resources at unsustainable levels, and creating unprecedented damage to the critical Earth systems on which prosperity and even life itself depend. Our own technology — including our economic technology — is triggering an interacting, cascading series of unintended consequences that degrade quality of life, and now threaten to become catastrophic. The most notable example (though by no means the only one) is anthropogenic climate change.
Closely related to the malfunction of our technology is the malfunction of our institutions that are critical to learning, governance, regulation, and reform: politics, economics, journalism, law, and others. Worrisome evidence is growing that those institutions are unable to address the real problems we face — dangerously degraded by unintended consequences and perverse incentives, fragmenting and confusing the essential processes of an intelligent culture. This is a formula for sure disaster in the years ahead. (Hence the clear warning of the great urbanist Jane Jacobs’ final book, Dark Age Ahead).
A case in point is in the professions of architecture, planning, and development. Research in environmental psychology reveals a huge gulf between what most people judge to be good quality development, and what architects, planners, and developers actually build (and celebrate through relentless and effective group indoctrination). The chasm is so large that it’s common to hear ordinary people, un-bewitched by marketing, remarking on the ugliness, strangeness, or inferior quality of most new development [see "The Architect Has No Clothes” in On the Commons magazine].
Those perceptions are also backed up by research into the actual performance of these places — even highly touted “green” ones built by world-famous architects. As we have written previously, many of the claims to sustainability and resilience are disproven by remarkably damning post-occupancy evaluations.
These lessons remind us that the problem is not simply that we need to be a bit more efficient with our resources, or to recycle more. That will only buy a small amount of extra time. To survive and prosper, we will need to change our fundamental relationship to the planet’s resources, and the ways we go about extracting, structuring, and transforming them.
Among other things, this means a fundamental re-conception of what it is to design — that is, how we transform resources into the structures of our world. We must recognize that our current conception of design is bound up within a pathological form of growth, which relies upon unsustainable levels of waste and debt. A fundamentally more sustainable, more resilient kind of growth — more like the evolutionary, cyclical growth that occurs within biological systems — could save us. This in turn will require a different, intrinsically resilient kind of institutional system.
Crucially, this new kind of growth must occur within our systems of settling and inhabiting the Earth: the architecture of our cities, towns, and countrysides. This “ecologically resilient” architecture, in the words of resilience pioneer C. S. Holling, must be able to withstand chaotic, non-linear events, beyond the narrow parameters of “engineered resilience.” More than that, our technological growth needs to become, as political economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb has termed it, “antifragile” — able to learn, and even to gain from disorder.
What sort of profound institutional changes will be required? A key insight comes from software design, and the methodology known as “Agile.”
(L) Hundreds of thousands of gated communities and privatized pseudo-public spaces have arisen around the world, such as this isolated, car-dependent community in Argentina. (R) Contrast the continuous open, walkable network of great cities like Rome, shown in the famous Nolli plan. This network structure has profound economic implications.
Photo by Alex Steffler, Wikimedia
Generate, don’t specify
Some years ago in the world of computer software, programmers recognized problems with increasingly “cluttered” computer code. Its unpredicted interactions produced unacceptable malfunctions — much as we are experiencing in other forms of technology today. One of the most effective responses came to be called “Agile.” As software pioneer Ward Cunningham described it, specifying the desired behaviors always required elaborate definitions and standards, while, paradoxically, generating them often only required the identification (through a process of adaptive iteration) of a much simpler set of generative rules.
It turns out that many biological systems work in just this way. The complex pattern of bird flocks, to take just one example, is not created out of a kind of rigid blueprint, specifying the complex shape at any given instant. That would be an overwhelmingly vast set of instructions. Rather, each bird has only a few simple rules for maintaining its position relative to its leader and neighbors. From the interaction of these simple instructions, the beautiful complex geometric patterns of the flock are generated.
As we have noted previously, the beauty of such patterns is closely related to their capacity for resolving problems (such as the complex challenge of flock migration). We humans add other layers of structure into our designs, including symbolic, artistic, and abstract components. But it is mistaken to think of these as fundamentally different. Each aspect of structure, in its own way, helps the complex function of a living process.
An “Agile” approach helps us to resolve the challenges created by our own technologies. Instead of adding more “bolt-on” gadgets to address each of the malfunctions we encounter, we make an “agile” transformation of the system we are dealing with, which allows it to adapt better to the living function. Often this is a surprisingly simple change, in a surprising part of the system.
Simple “Agile” principles can be applied to the older, more entrenched systems of designing our buildings and cities. The needed reform is not simply to make further bolt-on additions to the current “operating system,” in the form of additional regulations, laws, and restrictions. Those are what one immediately thinks of in such a discussion, but they have proven ineffective at best. Such additions are likely to increase the problem of unintended consequences and perverse outcomes, and not actually remedy the problem.
A central principle, as with Agile Methodology in software design, is that the operating system should be re-written, not to specify the behavior desired, but rather, create the conditions in which that behavior is most likely to be generated. This “generative design approach” — employing complex adaptive transformations, engaging economic processes, and exploiting Agile self-organizing capacities — is emerging as the key to resilient design for the future.