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The Future of Design

The Future of Design

    I’m fascinated by trends that creep along in an unremarkable fashion until a tipping point is reached. One such trend is that governments will create more laws, codes, and regulations, until almost nothing useful can get done, and societies strangle themselves. We aren’t there yet, but with every act of Congress, we get nearer.

    Meanwhile, computer simulations are improving daily. An architect can build a 3D rendering of your future home or business and “fly” you through it so you can experience the space as if it were real. It’s a cool technology, but on a scale from one to ten, we’re probably a two compared to where that technology can go. Those 3D simulators will get better every year.

    Another technology that is improving daily is online project management. You can sit at home anywhere in the world with an Internet connection and manage a project with participants anywhere else. But that process is still somewhat primitive compared to what project management is likely to become.

    My prediction is that at some point we’ll be able to create virtual projects that invite people to live in, and continuously improve from the inside, virtual cities. Let’s assume these imaginary cities are floating on the sea, free from traditional governments. Once a project is formed, the participants will be able to design and modify their own virtual homes and businesses, design streets, schools, hospitals, public facilities, and new forms of governments. If we assume lots of similar projects are started all over the world, and they all monitor each other and borrow the best bits, these virtual worlds will evolve to become far better than the real world in terms of efficiency and quality of life. Then we can build the real world version based on the best of these cities, having thoroughly tested everything from the sewer system to the traffic flow in the virtual realm.

    There are a number of projects underway to design cities on the sea. Some of them might be terrific. But how much difference might there be between an architect-led design and a crowd-sourced design that has evolved to perfection as a simulation? I’m guessing the difference will be huge.

    To be fair, the crossover point will not be clean. The first real city based on its virtual model is likely to be a disaster. But what we learn from those mistakes will feed back into the simulations. In a few decades, I expect all cities on the sea to be projections of virtual cities that have proven themselves in simulators.

    Imagine a virtual city in which participants can be simulated crooks just to test the police system. The crooks would ply their trade, and the simulated city would respond with ways to prevent similar crimes in the future. I’ll bet a simulated city could reduce crime to nearly zero without giving up too much in privacy. Or to put it another way, I think the virtual residents of the virtual city would learn that privacy is overrated unless they plan to commit crimes. In the real world, I would be terrified to register my DNA and fingerprints with the government while allowing them to install a tracking chip in my arm. But I can imagine a futuristic form of government that has such a small likelihood of abusing that trust that I’m willing to trade my privacy for reduced crime. You can argue with that point, but that’s exactly the sort of thing the simulations would help settle.

    Banking and insurance would no longer be big abusive business models. Both would be reduced to computer programs managed by the government, which itself would be mostly tech support. Food would come from local fish farms and gardens. There would be few bugs at sea, and the city would locate to wherever the climate was best. All of the farming facilities would be attached to the city, so food would be organic, fresh, healthy, and inexpensive. Schools would follow the best known practices. And the city would train residents to fill jobs as it created them.

    I also imagine a city on the sea especially for old people, free from the laws of traditional nations. These oldsters will have access to any mood-altering drugs they want, and doctor-assisted suicide will be a respectable option. But if you design the city right, the old people will have no interest in either mood-altering drugs or suicide. They will have plenty of entertainment in the form of communal pets, audio books, Skype visitors, and water jet wheelchairs to zoom around the city canals until an administrator remotely guides them back for their meds or meals. Someday, being old might mean feeling awesome and having all sorts of freedom.

    If you imagine that the future continues to be designed by traditional teams of architects and engineers, you can only imagine incrementally improved lifestyles in the future. But if you imagine that the entire process for designing cities improves too, and the ocean provides us with a blank canvas, the future looks marvelous, at least for the people who can escape to the sea.

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