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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Future perfect?


What will our towns and cities look like in the future, and what can housing learn from the natural world? Design scientist and futurist Melissa Sterry outlines her theories ahead of her session at Homes 2013.

3D printingFor some time now, I’ve been researching the resilience our natural ecosystems have against devastating events - for example, how a forest might respond to a hurricane.  I’m talking about worst-case scenarios, where habitats are hit by natural disasters, everything is destroyed, and on the surface of it there’s nothing left.

I’ve been looking at how nature reorganises itself and will touch on that in my seminar. It involves looking at how ecosystems behave, picking out principles and trying to identify patterns – then asking, how can we apply that to the built environment?

The position I’ve got to now is quite radically different to where I started out from, but there is a huge community of people in the built environment who have gravitated towards the idea that buildings are going to become more ‘life-like’ – so we have self-repairing buildings that take on an organic nature.

Things are changing so quickly.  If you think back to before we had mobile phones or the Internet, when they first arrived some people thought they would be a flash in the pan – they didn’t grasp how fundamental the change would be or how quick.  Some people within the built environment community think the idea of the smart city is quite new, but pioneering architects and technologists were talking about it more than 40 years ago.  Not just one person, but a handful, were imagining things that didn’t yet exist and describing them very accurately. If you take the example of 3D printing, a couple of years ago only researchers and hobbyists were tinkering with the tech, now high street stores sell basic 3D printers, so there’s no reason to think we couldn’t be commonly using a scaled-up version in the built environment by 2025.

Future city discussions tend to assume that the future is the exponential expansion of the present – that cities will get bigger, that populations will get bigger and that buildings will get bigger. But it’s not necessarily the case that things keep going along the same track. So in my seminar I’ll also be touching on some of the things we may not see. Many illustrations of future cities are essentially carbon copies of commonplace concepts of the 1960s and 70s - with lots of high rise buildings and maybe a few trees here and there. All this really does is regurgitate a model that, if we are to be critical, can be associated with a lot of social problems.

In fact, I don’t necessarily think the future will be about density and skyscrapers. I think we will instead see less homogeny not more, with architecture becoming more bespoke to the topographical, social, cultural and economic circumstances of the region, as was the norm in the past. Istanbul is a good example of a real mish-mash of architectural shapes. Buildings don’t have to be boxes, and there are new technologies emerging that will facilitate more interesting and dynamic aesthetics than previously possible.

All this change will not necessarily come from the top down, from governments or architects –  citizens will be able to get a lot more involved. At the moment DIY is sticking a shelf up, but we are beginning to see a more hands-on culture re-emerge. For the better part of civilisation, with the exception of the very wealthy, most people would have built their own homes, and whether or not they had a trade, would have multi-tasked about the house, in possession of basic skills in carpentry, gardening, cooking and such like. We appear to be going 'full circle' - post industrial revolution reverts to cottage industry - but empowered with new science, new technology and new thinking. 

For housing associations, you might begin to see tenants - and the community about them - fixing things themselves, rather than simply reporting problems, i.e. becoming part of the maintenance infrastructure, not apart from it.  One place where this is already happening is in healthcare. For example, some people that can’t afford the medical bills attached to having professionals build and fit their prosthetics are instead creating their own, and it looks like this is part of a major global shift toward citizens having more control over their healthcare needs and wider wellbeing. Necessity is the mother of invention - that which is needed will evolve. The people that will drive that change with the greatest vigour will not necessarily be those professionally charged with the task, but the very people that need the change the most. 

Melissa’s seminar Self-repairing cities: when retrofit becomes redundant takes place at Homes 2013 on Wednesday 20 November from 11.30am-12.15pm. Find out more

Image: The application of a system found in nature to 3D printing, presented in Biomimetics: Learning from Life by Melissa Sterry, a chapter in the forthcoming McGraw Hill Publishing title the Global Science Innovation Handbook.

Follow Melissa on Twitter @Melissa Sterry


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