arch-peace editorials

16 December 2009

Future Gazing in the Context of Climate Change

This editorial emerges out of a recent conversation between several Architects for Peace members on the topic of the Australian 2010 Venice Biennale proposal ‘Now and When’. For the ‘When’ component, creative directors Ivan Rijavec and John Gollings sought expressions of interest for ‘the design of a future Australian city 2050 +’ (1). Successful entries are to be exhibited in the form of a projected image at the Australian Pavilion. Unfortunately due to time constraints we were unable to pull together a submission on behalf of Architects for Peace; however, the email conversation resulted in some interesting ideas that are worth unpacking here.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about imagining the future is that it forces us to critically question our current condition. For me, the future is a somewhat intangible and elusive construct that necessitates looking back, as much as looking forward. Looking back 40 years, rather than forwards, we can gain some interesting insights. One of the most significant events of 1969 was the first landing on the moon by Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 team. Millions of people sat glued to their television sets to witness this momentous occasion, which appeared to herald a future ‘space age’. Science fiction continues to imagine this ‘other worldly’ future, and yet 40 years on, our feet are still firmly grounded on this planet earth.

A second, and less well-known, event from this year was the transmission of the first data over the ARPANet (The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the forerunner of the modern day Internet. Although this event did not excite the popular imagination in the same way as the ‘space race’, today it is hard to conceive of our world without the Internet. It has transformed the way that we live and work and (at least for a younger generation) it continues to redefine our social interactions (for better or worse).

To return to the present and its projection into the future, how do we know what events and technologies will be significant? Are we focussing on certain, more visible, issues at the expense of more fundamental concerns (the quintessential missing the wood for the trees argument)?

In particular, I am concerned that we have a tendency to focus on objects (specifically technological objects) rather than processes, social conditions and politics. To cite two other milestone ‘events’ from 1969 - female workers at the Ford Motor Company won their demand for equal pay and trouser suits became acceptable everyday wear for women. Somewhat laughable now, but it seems absurd that as a society we had the vision, will and technological know-how to launch ourselves into outer space and yet were only beginning to skim the surface of the injustices within our own world. Reflecting again on the situation today, I don’t think it has improved much, and arguably it is even worse …

It would seem that ‘seeing’ the present is as important as and necessary for imagining the future. The two are of course interconnected. Climate science informs us that to a greater or lesser extent, the future of global warming is already written. As a recent report from the Australian Government states:

“There is little doubt that Australia will face some degree of climate change over the next 30 to 50 years irrespective of global or local efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions. The scale of that change, and the way it will be manifested in different regions is less certain ….” (2)

Predictions vary, but moderate estimates suggest a likely scenario of a 0.4 - 2 degree Celsius global temperature rise by 2030 and a 1.0 - 6.0 degree Celsius rise by 2070 coupled with an 18-59cm sea level rise by the end of the century (3). Only a handful of climate sceptics will fail to recognise that the extreme climatic events – hurricanes, droughts, bushfires, floods, hailstorms – that we are experiencing are current indicators of a changing climate. Yet we appear to have our collective head in the sand and there remains widespread distrust of the future climate projections.

Of course many predictions have proved ‘false’ (notably the doomsday scenarios of the 1970s) but in other cases the inaccuracies have swung the other way with actual impacts far exceeding expectations. For example, a 2005 Victorian government study predicted a decline in water supply in the range of 3 – 11 per cent, whereas in the 3 years following the report, water supply dropped almost 50 per cent below average. More recently, in October 2009, the NSW Government released a Sea Level Rise Policy Statement based on ‘worst case’ predictions of a 90cm sea level rise by 2100 which has received fierce criticism from the property development sector (4). It seems Governments will be dammed if they do, and dammed if they don’t.

Even accepting these future climate predictions, there is continued controversy over the appropriate response in the here and now – should we be focussing on climate mitigation or climate adaptation? According to the IPCC 2001 Assessment report, both are required; however the two approaches can lead us down different paths. In the context of urban design, the adaptation argument has challenged the dominant sustainability imperative of urban densification. This point was illustrated in the recent memo from the Australian Institute of Architects National President, Melinda Dodson, citing the views of CSIRO analyst Dr Graham Turner, who states “denser cities may marginally ease environmental pressures, but potentially be more susceptible to impacts”. (5)

Turner argues that less compact urban forms are more resilient since they support local self-sufficiency. I can see his point, but then again gazing into the future, this could be both productive and destructive. On the one hand, it supports a communal social ideal of divesting control from the few to the masses, but on the other it could reinforce the culture of individualism manifest in the home as defensive castle. Of course these are utopian and dystopic projections of the same scenario and neither ‘extreme’ is likely to emerge. While supporting the notion of resilience, I remain cautious of this position and have long had similar doubts about the promotion of autonomy as a sustainability objective (at the scale of the privatised block rather than the community). Evidently for me, the dystopic lens on this scenario is more focussed and I see fences (both ‘real’ and socially constructed) rising around individual properties, gated communities and national boundaries supporting a ‘fortress Australia’ mentality. Nevertheless, I do think it is worthwhile questioning entrenched views, including the dominant sustainability imperative towards densification. Interestingly, the Biennale expression of interest document assumes densification as inevitable by asking how, not if, our sprawl will be densified. (6)

The utopian and dystopic perspectives, while extreme, are useful devices to challenge our current assumptions. Much of our Arch-peace Biennale conversation focussed on the tension between the dark/likely versus the bright/unlikely futures. Generally we agreed that the focus of Arch-peace should be positive, inspiring action rather than instilling fear. Utopias are powerful forms of counter discourse that can be seen as ‘agents of change’ (7). As Beatriz Maturana noted, the issue of change (rather than adaptation) is a key issue that is commonly overlooked, sidestepped or ignored in the search for quick-fix solutions to sustainability ‘problems’. (8)

Nevertheless, the representation of these affirmative alternative visions is problematic. Utopias are widely dismissed as na├»ve, universalising narratives. A more moderate position of ‘ambiguous utopia’ has been advanced by Levitas, who conceives it as a fragmentary and inconclusive critique of the present (9). This has parallels with Tony Fry’s concept of ‘defuturing’ as a process of imagining but not predicting the future, of change but without certainty (10). Alternatively, as Arch-peace member Darko Radovic suggested, a dialectical approach may be required involving “sketching the extremes between which we trace the actual development ‘path’.” (11). Rather than a super highway between present and future, the path(s) can be seen as tenuous tracks that lead in multiple, surprising and often contradictory directions towards uncertain futures.

It is possible to imagine the communication of these ambiguous utopias or dialectical sketches as a form of narrative (I am reminded of Calvino’s seminal ‘Invisible Cities’ here). However, the articulation of such complex ideas in the confines of the Biennale submission, which must be (primarily) contained within one (punchy) graphic image, is more difficult. There is an interesting resonance between these intangible and fragmentary ‘projections’ of the future and their re-presentation as digital ‘projections’ in the Australian Biennale Pavilion. Furthermore, an image can speak a thousand words, or so they say. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen what ‘thousand words’ the selected images will speak … I look forward to seeing the successful entries.

I would like to thank the following Architects for Peace members for their contribution to the lively discussion on the Biennale submission: Beatriz Maturana, Darko Radovic, Sidh Sintusingha, Ian Woodcock and Kamil Muhammad. Although the views represented in this editorial are my own and I do not purport to speak for the other members, their insights have been invaluable in the writing of this piece. It has not been possible to cover the full range of issues discussed in our email conversation and I apologise if I have in any way misrepresented or omitted information that others feel is important.

(1) ‘Now and When: Australian Urbanism’ Expression of Interest for the Australian Exhibition 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. See
(2) ‘Climate Change Risk and Vulnerability: Promoting an efficient adaptation response in Australia’ Final Report for the Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Heritage, Australian Greenhouse Office,,March 2005, Allen Consulting Group, p.vii.
(3) ibid.
(4) NSW Sea Level Rise Policy Statement, Deputy Premer and Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Carmel Tebbutt and Minister for Planning, Kristina Keneally, October 2009.
(5) ‘Sustainability Challenges and Urban Development’ by Melinda Dodson, in Memo, Newsletter of the Australian Institute of Architects, September 2009.
(6) Now and When: Australian Urbanism.
(7) Levitas, R. (1993) 'The Future of Thinking about the Future' in Bird, J., Curtis, B., Putnam, T., Robertson, G. and Tickner, L. (eds.) Mapping the Futures. London: Routledge, p.257.
(8) This point is exemplified the Metropolis ‘Next Generation 2010’ competition for ‘One Design Fix’. See
(9) Levitas, 'The Future of Thinking about the Future'
(10) Fry, T. (1999) A New Design Philosophy: An introduction to defuturing. Sydney: UNSW Press.
(11) Personal communication.

Ceridwen Owen
Architects for Peace, December 2009


beatriz said...

Great point about focusing on technological objects v/s social processes and supported by a great examples. You could write an essay just on that notion! The end of the same paragraph “I don’t think things have improved much, and arguably they are even worse …” made me think of COP15, where much of the barriers to an understanding and agreement seem to hinge on the split between rich and poorer nations (agree, not much has changed).

Regarding Dr Graham Turner, who states “denser cities may marginally ease environmental pressures, but potentially be more susceptible to impacts”, I heard something a bit different coming from and attendee to COP15 UN. Apparently some manager of the World Bank Institute claimed that urbanisation should not necessarily mean more carbon intensity.
On your comment on Dystopic scenarios, again, the opening of COP15 had a dystopic future scenario (girl being blown away by tornado and more calamities).
I enjoyed your rather ‘skeptic’ acceptance of the idea of a punchy graphic images, “or so they say”. It is a type of question mark, the conversation continues—I like it.

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