Looking to the year ahead, diverse are the ways in which we can expect to see the shift towards systems thinking within design and architecture play out. As the sustainability equivalents of emperors without clothes are exposed, an increasingly number of PLCs recognise the need to more comprehensively interrogate environmental and social issues that are of both direct and indirect relevance to their businesses. But, while external experts will play a hand in delivering new insights and ideas, intrapreneurship and internalisation more generally [i.e. creation of in-house labs, events, and training] is on the rise. Additionally, all fields with the prefix ‘bio’ are beginning to boom, but with no bust in sight, because from biodegradable to self-repairing materials, biocomputing [i.e. DNA storage] to biomimetic robotics and engineering, and much more, not merely do these fields offer compelling possibilities as may address mounting global problems, they also remain in their disciplinary infancies. In my own research and practice, having first forayed into systems-led design in the early 90s when, a fledgling designer, I explored syncing the cycling of textiles with environmental processes [i.e. biodegradable apparel which, inspired by the leaves of deciduous trees, was to be discarded not to landfill, but to the compost heap at the end of a fashion season], since 2010, both through my recently completed PhD and biodesign, biomimetics, and biological systems for the built environment R&D platform Bionic City®, I’ve explored the question, “how would nature design a city?”. Endeavours that have enabled me to examine biological and other Earth systems through transdisciplinary works spanning the sciences, arts, humanities, and design, my advice to they looking to expand their own understanding of these fields is to be not reductive in your approach and methods, instead ensuring to look through not one, but multiple disciplinary lenses. Also, both spatially and temporally, think beyond the human scale, for example, consider how the materials you use are influenced by their molecular composition, and how this may change over time, and relating back to vertical forests, be sure to really understand the systems you seek to mimic, because if you don’t, numerous are the unintended consequences that may result from your works.
On the surface of it, 2018 was a relatively uneventful, if not somewhat disappointing year for design and architecture, for all too often consumed with quantity not quality of conversation, the sectors’ print and digital press tended to circulate one too many out-dated, unoriginal, and in some instances, fundamentally flawed projects. For example, umpteen articles that read straight off a press release touted the idea that tower blocks of which the balconies are populated by pot plants constitute ‘vertical forests’, which, according to their proponents provide solutions to climate change, biodiversity loss, and more. Holding the hand of scientific scrutiny to this notion, forests are not mere collections of individual plant specimens, but highly connected networks of specimen populations – of species assemblages – and of which the integrity and resilience [i.e. ability to withstand drought, heat waves, diseases, storms, etc.] is enabled by, amongst other things, the exchange of information and nutrients across what may be construed as the ecological equivalent of an ICT urban network: their root and mycorrhizal systems. Within a forest, different ecological functions tend to operate at different strata [i.e. at the ground, surface, or canopy level], wherein, a product of both environment and evolution, species are both physiologically and behaviourally adapted to accommodate for very particular spatial relations. Hence, shift those relations [i.e. arrange flora across not the horizontal, but the vertical plane] and species capacity to maintain critical biological processes, such as reproduction, dispersal, and symbiosis, likewise shift. For these, and more reasons besides, that vertical forests of the tower block kind are sustainable in the medium, let alone long term is highly questionable. Worse still, carbon-based, plants are flammable, yet not a single vertical forest proposal has yet acknowledged, let alone quantified, thereon explained how any fire risks inherent in the concept may be mitigated.
What the above example typifies is the fact that complex problems are rarely, if ever solved by linear solutions, and not least when those problems exist within open systems. Even whereupon a tower block was encased in a controlled environment [i.e. a habitat that, akin to an in vitro experiment, was wholly enclosed] now numerous scientific studies, such as they conducted at Biosphere 2, make evident that such systems reside not in a state of balance, let alone stasis, but of change, and often times unpredictable change. In other words, there are limitations to the extent to which we, humans, can control nonhuman systems. Conceptually, design and architecture that works with not against ecological and other Earth systems is nothing new, for though, until the historically recent, generally absent from the thinking, research, and practice of the Global North, the approach is central to both indigenous and Eastern vernacular styles. But, based on the false premise that humanity had the indefinite capacity to control its environment, therein unlimited access to land, water, sand, and innumerable now fast-dwindling resources, Western design and architecture became increasing conceived in oblivion of its surroundings both near and far, now and in the future. However, though presently, both as relates to vertical forests and to umpteen other concepts, linear thinking looms large within the wider design and architecture community, systems thinking is central to the foremost pioneering research and practice projects within academia, industry, and both government and non-government organisations worldwide, and one by one, profession by profession, the dots are being joined, and this, fundamentally, is not merely the biggest development of this past year, or several, but of our time: a paradigmatic shift in the truest sense of the term.