Future Cities: Combined Advanced Technologies and Flexible Urban Infrastructures by Rachel Armstrong

Future Cities: Combined Advanced Technologies and Flexible Urban Infrastructures

Rachel Armstrong

Mapping the landscape for agile design

The 20th century convinced us that the future has a linear trajectory that progresses incrementally – so that tomorrow is exactly like today – only a little bit different. Anything that deviates from this predetermined path is obviously fiction. Sometimes we call it science fiction because although we rationalize its potential – the outcomes don’t seem likely when we the issues are considered incrementally.

But if we pay heed to the predictions of science fiction and the trajectory of evolutionary history itself – as evidenced by biology through the strangeness of the natural world and its archive – the fossil record – we should not be surprised – at being surprised by the future.

We already know that the speculative narratives of Science Fiction authors have the uncanny ability to ‘come true’. At the 2011 Virtual Futures II conference – cyberpunk author Pat Cadigan famously declared that George Orwell’s 1984 dystopian reality wasn’t even the oppression of surveillance on everyday life – it had become ‘just a ****ing game show’ [1]

But even in the sciences we also appreciate that the future, is more than just a different kind of today, which is underpinned by real world processes – even if we don’t fully understand them.

In 1972 Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge championed the idea of punctuated equilibrium – which predicts that a lot of evolutionary change takes place in short periods of time and is tied to speciation events – the diversification of life. Punctuated equilibrium is an alternative evolutionary process to Neo-Darwinism, which actually embodies our industrial model of technological change – by proposing a set of incremental changes in genetics that are selected for by the environment. Yet punctuated equilibrium exists as one of the stranger approaches in nature’s creativity portfolio – such as, symbiogenesis – the radical re-synthesis of living things, championed by Lynn Margulis.

Our reality is – that the world we inhabit is strange, disobedient and not at all homogenous.

So how do we design with all this inconsistency?

Surrealists – like Neil Spiller – draw inspiration from intangible influences that shape our world and enact them through traditional modes, using subversive methods. The Communicating Vessels for example, use symbolism (baguettes, baronesses and lobsters), rare materials (gold, holy grease, amber), psychology (dreams, optical illusions) and theatrical delivery methods (chicken computers) to gain traction on the slippery world we inhabit in a manner that is Sur-real – above the (Enlightenment) real.

Today new technologies can provide the kinds of tactics that surrealists employ and engage with real world revelations that continue to shock and provoke us.

For example, electron microscopy exposes the ‘forbidden mating’ taking place between two completely different kingdoms – a cyanobacteria and fungus .[2] Although it’s not clear what the blobs of shade and light represent – I understand that there are bits in places they shouldn’t be and that the act itself is unspeakably profane.

Also, it was once assumed that there were only female Anglerfish – until scientists realized they were looking for males in the wrong place. The pressure-proof bathyscaphe, remote controlled robots and biotechnological analysis revealed the shocking dynamics of the Anglerfish partnership. Young male Anglerfish, once lithe and free swimming, become parasitic on their giant female mates. They literally sacrificing their freedom to live off the female’s blood supply and shrivel to little more than a nubbin of sperm-producing flesh.

Advanced technologies have served to remind us that Nature itself – speaks not of predetermined function and propriety – but demonstrates proclivity for abundance and excess.

The impact of advanced combined technologies on the built environment is unsurprisingly very much part of the research agenda of AVATAR – the Advanced Virtual And Technological Architectural Research – group, which Neil Spiller set up in 2004, which organized this particular event.

I’m going to take this opportunity to look at the assumptions that underpin the idea of an obedient world that we can instruct – as the premise on which we have founded the practice of building cities – as a way of opening up the potential radical transformation of design within a landscape, which we think we already know and have already set about constructing.

a) Thinking differently – dynamic materials
b) New infrastructures – potential for growth
c) New technologies – convergence to transformation


Where does this idea of an obedient material world come from? One in which we can shape and bend matter to our will.

Architectural design practice is trapped within the framing of the Enlightenment. It is implemented in a Cartesian reality – situated within a Newtonian universe. The ‘natural law’ of the Enlightenment is based in geometry and mathematics and persists to rationalise our strange world. We neurotically test our preconceptions of our rational engagement with matter – through incessant measurement, as we no longer trust our senses.

The consequence of this framing of the material world in this manner – results in the notion that matter is inert, operates at a particular scale, is unaltered by its context and needs rational instruction. It is typified in the machine worldview, made up from component parts of fundamental particles, called atoms.

As measuring devices got better, science started to observe that at very small scales, notably at the atomic scale, Newtonian rules did not always apply. Quantum mechanics provided a different framing of matter through an appreciation of the qualities that made up the atomic substance – rather than its geometry. The consequence of this new perspective enabled the possibility of a new kind of materiality – one that was unpredictable, lively and even entangled with the measuring equipment. Ilya Prigogine, who introduced the notion of time irreversibility into the laws of physics, noted that ‘the role of the observer was a necessary concept in the introduction of irreversibility, or the flow of time, into quantum theory. But once it is shown that instability breaks time symmetry, the observer is no longer essential.’ [3]

Pioneers of complexity theory such as, Gregory Bateson also framed their approach to materials differently to the Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm and described matter in terms that looked at the relationships between things that lead to complex phenomena.

As Prigogine observed – ‘We need not only laws but also events that bring an element of radical novelty to the description of nature.’ [4] (My emphasis)

The scientific re-framing of the material world provides an opportunity for designers to challenge the ‘brute’ materiality of the machine – and set out a cultural framework that can incorporate this possibility and speak of material agility.

Jane Bennett has coined the phrase ‘vibrant matter’ drawing inspiration from Bruno Latour’s notion of ‘actants’ – bodies that can exert influence and effects on their surroundings that may or may not be human – and may or may not be alive. Non-human actants have a relatively weak influence on the human experience but their effects are amplified through recruitment.

For example, as Mark Morris pointed out earlier, if there is wisdom in crowds – then non-human ‘intellects’ may have persuasive purchase in an entangled reality – (hence the possibility of biological ‘augury’ to inform us about the significance of events on an expanded scale as a kind of collective human/non-human consciousness)?

Bennett uses Deleuze and Guattari’s term ‘assemblage’ to describe the cumulative pressure that materials or bodies can exert independently from, or participating within, the human realm. Although matter is not autonomous – as it depends on other actants to exert its effects – it becomes creative and convincing through bottom-up forms of interaction, whose outcomes – according to the laws of complexity – can be surprising.

Bennett’s proposition enables material to operate in a lively manner, which escapes the Newtonian dictum that materials are dumb and therefore require rational instruction. This is the principle through which current forms of manufacturing operate.

Lee Cronin’s group at the University of Glasgow, AVATAR collaborators, have published a paper in Nature this week – in which a one step manufacturing process was possible – that fused the environment and the participating chemistry in a single step – using a low end printing technology [5].


So, if materials are lively – then specific qualities relevant to heterogeneity, entanglement and vibrancy need to be incorporated into a practical design approach – to underpin the evolution of our cities.

Of particular consideration are:

Scales of interaction – while bottom up forces cater for the environment – human concerns are frequently met through top down notions of control. The optimum design approach is to select at which scale the participating actants interest meaningfully.

Context – matter has various conditions under which its actants participate more than others.

Time – matter works with directionality on different time scales to human experience.

Hubs – are organizing centers for complex entities and provide a portal through which influence can be exerted. This results in a system that is not possible to completely control but is incompletely influenced.

Control – working with dynamic matter engages with an established tradition of design practices that are something similar to gardening or cooking, in which the designer is a co-author of a process.


We can only go so far by appreciating the dynamic capabilities of materials. Something else needs to happen for their liveliness to continue. Infrastructure provides the context in which dynamic systems can keep away from the equilibrium and also in which their materiality can become organised or even persistent. For materials to perform according to their complex and quantum potential, they need organised proximate environments to complement or augment their innate abilities.

In recounting the conditions in which matter became lively, William Bryant Logan observes that ‘the sea was the proto-soil, where Earth, air, water, and the solar fire met for the first time. It was an inverse soil; you might say, with the liquid element providing the matrix for the mineral soils and for dissolved gases, a role that the mineral elements would later come to play. But from a certain point of view, all Earth’s later history is a consequence of that first mixing. In that sense, life is the story of bodies that learned to contain the sea.’ [6]

In a complex system, this primal flow and exchange between actants, driven by time’s arrow, underpins the organizing forces and gives rise to its dynamic nature.

Yet the infrastructure of today’s cities follows, rather than anticipates the needs of its dynamic population. Resource scarcity is the condition in which our megacities are expected to rise – and as Arne Hendriks noted, will serve to close down the possibility of these environments to respond to increasing demand to the point at which the surroundings can no longer change and impacts profoundly on its inhabitants.

Indeed, the proliferation of infrastructure is a necessary precondition for evolutionary adaptation.

A recent (2011) paper by Field and colleagues [7] reported fossil evidence to underpin the dramatic explosion in plant evolution during the Cretaceous period. They proposed that the density of veins in the leaves of non flowering plants (gymnosperms) enabled the delivery of water then the fixing of carbon to enable speciation and give rise to more complex forms of plants that could bear flowers and fruit (angiosperms). Without the necessary infrastructure the transition from simpler to more complex and diverse forms of organization would not have been possible.

The importance of adequate infrastructures is taken seriously by corporations such as, Arup, which is now looking more agile [8] infrastructure for cities by creating modular, small-scale infrastructures to deal with processing vital substances such as, grey water. Yet, keeping up with existing demand is different to anticipating increases in it. If nature’s strangeness and potential for disruption appears is associated with a condition of abundance, rather than careful conservation, then how may it be possible in resource-constrained environments to create this kind of excess?

In his recent book ‘Abundance: The Future is Better than you Think’ [9] Peter Diamandis notes that our resource challenge is not about the absolute amount of stuff available for us to make things with but of discovering new ways to access and engage with resources.

While appreciating that there are strong counter views – such as, Thomas Malthus (1798) and Donella and colleagues (1972) that contest we have reached our limits for growth – is it possible that the search for of abundance within the built environment actually lead to the discovery of resources that have previously been overlooked?

One possible approach is to look at different scales for access to resources, something that Mark Morris explored in his essay ‘Dream A Little Dream’ in Protocell Architecture AD. He notes that ‘architecture … represent(s) culture and link(s) the small- and full-scaled worlds in a dynamic temporal relationship. The materiality of this architecture is a bit of a mystery.’ [10]

A biological example may help reveal how these mysterious spaces could be made accessible.

Modern cells may appear to be continuous blobs of mixed-up stuff but they are highly organized units that are riddled with channels called an endoplasmic reticulum. This interior chemical superhighway produces a maximum surface area within a minimum volume on which biochemical reactions can take place that keep the cell entity away from equilibrium. This incredible folding of linear space into a three dimensional volume produces creates channels that spans different scales and are separated by time.

This microscopic organized distribution of matter through time and space underpins the most vibrant forms of materiality and are necessary for life itself.

William Bryant Logan notes of soil, which might be considered as earth’s ‘endoplasmic reticulum’ that redistributes matter in time and space that, ‘The difference between a desert, a fertile field and a swamp is not the presence of absence of water in the subsoil, but its availability. Free loose exchange from depth to surface – is the best recipe for a fertile soil. [11]

Today matter is usually manufactured as a solid material – which is in a configuration furthest away from ‘free loose exchange’.

By changing the lens of analysis from brute Cartesian geometry to the heterogeneous actants of complexity and considered an apparent volume – as the potential for creating a maximal surface area, rather than containing it by squeezing it into a minimum one – then matter is freed to act – perhaps as a site to filter pollutants, or facilitate chemical reactions to create deposits such as, carbonates that might provide the basis for a self-healing building material. Perhaps these new undiscovered spaces are microenvironments in which the opportunities to create the conditions of excess in which innovation and disruption can flourish can exist.

Yet the framing of our design realities itself does not need to be homogenous. There is value in understanding where different frameworks and infrastructures can intersect with each other.

For example, highly porous, synthetically active materials could be used strategically synergistically with existing structural building components. The merging of Cartesian geometry and relations of Complexity could help produce new conditions of abundance that provide fertile substrates in which new technologies can be meaningfully sown and woven into the architectural landscape.


Once a nurturing landscape that speaks to abundance has been identified, another layer of organization needs to come into play. Technology, operating at different scales, through their unique portfolio of actants – might persuade hubs of organization to adopt according particular configurations if we speak the right design language to them.

Kevin Kelly proposes technology itself is not just a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies. [12]

Certainly the infrastructure favours a more dynamic understanding of technology. Following a generation of Digital natives, the advent of cheap manufacturing platforms (as we saw earlier with the Cronin Group), the blossoming of networked knowledge-sharing communities (such as TED) and Diamandis’ assertion that in the next decades we will see another 3 billion minds online, then disruptive change within our urban fabric, facilitated by the technium is increasingly likely in the coming decade.

With the appropriate infrastructures supporting them, combined technologies can form qualitatively new kinds of engagement between buildings and the megacity environment. New kinds of technology are on the horizon and are even accompanied by a new kind of scientific thinking.

A NSF (National Science Foundation) sponsored report has been particularly influential in precipitating a new kind of scientific approach suggesting unification of the sciences as a common goal through converging NBIC (Nano, Bio, Info, Cogno) technologies with a brief to greatly benefit humanity and industry. Centrally supported funding initiatives are encouraging traditional scientific disciplines to adopt this more openly speculative approach to scientific research in ambitious “sand pits” of expert exchange. An example is the ‘cyberplasm’ project that combines synthetic biology and robotics to produce a programmable device with a metabolism [13]. Hybrid scientific disciplines are emerging from these fertile environments of shared ideas, such as Morphological Computation, designing with emergence, where fresh forward-looking perspectives are effectively dealing with an empirically un-testable future: the traditional strong-hold of science fiction.

This has opened up new avenues for further exploration as research groups from non-scientific disciplines share equal stakes in the outcomes of these new fusions. For example, the architectural research group AVATAR in collaboration with scientific laboratories, such as the protocell research that we’ve been doing with Martin Hanczyc and knowledge exchange with Sustainable Now Technologies. Industry partners such as Autodesk and Arup are creating the conditions in which new approaches, tools, and materials are likely to be produced as a direct result from these open innovation platforms that will lead towards more dynamic and responsive cities.

These condensations and fusions of approaches such as those that will follow this meeting today, are leading towards the discovery of new ways of underpinning human development through design and the built environment. The challenges are not trivial and the solutions are not near at hand but that’s the point. Building community, extending the envelope of possibility is part of creating narratives and visions that will need to go beyond today, and tomorrow and is shared by the next generation of architectural designers.


We live in a world of definable probability – in which life and matter evolve continually. When we appreciate the full vitality of matter and its power, through actants, to shape our proximate environment then we can begin to practically engage in the design of experiences that are evolved, not made.

The grand vision of achieving positive human development in the 21st century will require effective coordination between disciplines, institutions, cultures, and geographical regions. The pressing concerns that affect us all are many and varied—and would require humanity to perform at its very best to secure a long-term partnership with this unstable earth that is our home. The Katerva organization, the world’s largest sustainability innovation network that fosters disruption, is reaching out to grasp this potential.

The magic of our reality is not that absolutely anything is possible – but that there is a great deal of untapped potential that already exists. By framing our understanding of matter we may be able to get a whole lot more from it, not as a dead things to be controlled or consumed by machines, but in partnership in co-evolving our cities and our future with us.

Indeed, the re-invigoration of matter is our survival strategy.

Matter is dead.

Long live matter!

-Source: IEET: Institute for Emerging Ethics & Emerging Technologies
-Images Source: Terreform: Brooklyn

Tags: , , ,

Categories: Biomimetics, Technology, Theory, Urban Planning


studying: architecture design


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One Comment on “Future Cities: Combined Advanced Technologies and Flexible Urban Infrastructures by Rachel Armstrong”

  1. February 12, 2015 at 2:18 am #

    Your style is so unique in comparison too other
    folks I have read stuff from. Thanks for posting when you have the opportunity,
    Guess I will just book mark this blog.

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