FutureStructure: A Different Approach to the Usual Problems

FutureStructure is a framework for thinking through and solving the challenges in building socially and economically robust communities.

by John Miri / December 4, 2013

Human beings are not meant to be isolated. We’re terrible at it. Even the  basic blueprint of our lives, our DNA, is composed of a complex and interwoven tapestry  of individual strands. Left on their own, these building blocks would be lifeless, inert  and useless. But knit together in this powerful yet peculiar way, DNA base pairs somehow quicken with the spark of something infinite and wonderful.

Shouldn’t our communities — our cities, states, provinces and countries — be the same?

FutureStructure is the idea that the same pattern that defines us as individuals also connects us to each other in living, breathing communities of people. Strictly speaking, FutureStructure is a framework for thinking through and solving the challenges in building socially and economically robust communities. The enthusiastic reception that greeted our first special publication on FutureStructure, in which we introduced this concept, likely stems from a reaction to the over-specialization that has plagued modern public policy and obscured this foundational operating principle.

Don’t get us wrong: Specialization is a good and healthy thing for public policy and for communities writ large. It makes no sense for one person to do each and every job. The very essence of a community is that it brings the different together, whether that means different skills, different people or different infrastructure components. But in our quest to squeeze every last post-industrial-era bead of sweat out of our already optimized business processes, we’ve let our focus become too narrow. We’re solving small, specific problems without a regard for the coherent, expansive whole.

The reason why this matters — and matters more than ever — is clear when scanning the day’s news on our favorite online media. Our fascination with the unfolding drama in Egypt, for example, as successive governments and perpetual revolution appear to set in, goes beyond a simple concern for American interests or foreign policy. As a nation, we are transfixed when we hear stories of how Médecins Sans Frontières, a.k.a. Doctors without Borders, was forced to evacuate from a failed state like Somalia or when we read about how a banking crisis nearly destabilized the civilian government in Iceland. The reason we can’t tear ourselves away from these stories is a deep and abiding fear that the structure of our own first-world communities is more fragile, more complex and more at risk than we would like to admit to ourselves. And we’re right.

FutureStructure involves doing something about it. It’s about connecting people and ideas, and putting the systems and infrastructure in place that provide people with the opportunity to lead better lives. The bottom line of FutureStructure is the bottom line for our communities: We need true, long-term livability along with sustainable community growth. We need more and better citizen engagement. We need infrastructure that brings diverse neighborhoods together — like the metro subway, or “T,” did for Boston’s blue bloods, Italian immigrants and south-side Irish. This effort is not just about sustainability, although sustainability has much to do with it. It’s about resiliency, and, ultimately, humanity.

To recap, and to introduce those new to the movement, FutureStructure has three basic tenets. Many different instances of each of these things form the DNA base pairs of our community. The art and science of FutureStructure is about thinking boldly and decisively about how to best combine them. They are: soft infrastructure, hard infrastructure and technology infrastructure (see graphic above).

If we are to initiate positive change in our communities, then we cannot content ourselves with merely establishing or articulating these core principles. The vision of FutureStructure only comes alive when it is put into practice. The value of a tool or concept is found in its application, not in itself. The pages of this issue — and the collected wisdom of some of the nation’s leading thinkers, strategists, activists and practitioners — will apply FutureStructure to the challenges of transportation and the built environment.

By “transportation,” we mean something very large: all of the means, public and private, by which people and goods move from source to destination. And by the “built environment,” we refer to those physical artifacts wrought on the landscape by the efforts of human beings and the use of capital — buildings, roads, power plants, parks, reservoirs, airports and even the humble hike-and-bike trail.

One leading thinker contributing ideas to FutureStructure is Stephanie Pincetl, Ph.D., an institute director and professor-in-residence at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Pincetl goes beyond past work in urban dynamics to consider a new urban metabolism: a method for understanding an urban community along much the same lines as one would study a living organism. To her, urban metabolism “allows a comprehensive accounting for the energy and materials inputs and outputs of different community systems within a comparative framework.”1 Pincetl’s research dovetails nicely with the concept of the city as a system that we described in our first publication on FutureStructure.

“I really started my career interested in why we use land the way we do,” Pincetl says. In her view, “Contemporary society is very resource extractive, and we don’t have a good understanding of the relationship between how we live, what we build and what we consume.” Pincetl advocates looking at resource flows and infrastructure lifecycle of a city as a system, using deep and meaningful “cradle to grave” analysis. The analytical framework of urban metabolism details “how energy flows in, how it is used and how it flows out,” providing, “a very powerful way to understand that linkage, that supply-chain-type of linkage, between us and, say, the Congo’s rare mineral deposits,” says Pincetl.2

To envision her community as a system, Pincetl was funded to develop an urban metabolism map of Los Angeles County. The goal was to take the abstract concept and make it much more granular. After her team’s analysis, Los Angeles County could visualize resource flows of energy, water and more over its landscape, including its linkages to embedded infrastructure. 

“The age of the building, the size of the building, the shell of the building, the road infrastructure — all of these things have embedded energy and resources,” says Pincetl. “That infrastructure itself leads to what my colleague Mike Chester calls ‘emergent behavior.’” Emergent behavior is the collected decisions of community members that arise from infrastructure choices, or are at least heavily influenced by them. The urban metabolism map provided for Los Angeles County will help enhance policy and improve land-use decisions with real, tangible data. This is especially exciting, since the stakes are so high. As Pincetl notes, “Once you transform land, you can’t take it back … that is very, very difficult.”

While we take full advantage of the hard-data, number-crunching predilections of the planet’s brightest think tanks, research institutions and journalists to make the case for FutureStructure, the best summation of this idea might come from popular culture. The dreams, aspirations and fears of a generation are perhaps most evident in its pop culture, specifically in how people envision the future.

Back in the 1950s, we envisioned the future as a world of brushed stainless steel, atomic power, clean architecture and form altogether following function. But now, in the 2010s, we are the actual people who live in that world. As we — the people of yesterday’s future — look ahead, what do we see? Is it simply more of the same?

The biggest difference in our present conceptualization of the future is that it is altogether more human, and more of a living community. The futurists of today envision a world where technology is viewed less like a weapon and given a more human face. We want our car’s GPS and our smartphones to talk to us in a lifelike voice. Many of us bristle at wearable computers that make our faces look creepily robotic. The future of our imagination is different from that of our predecessors. It’s more human. And that’s why we need FutureStructure.