What if?


Al - Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. Satellite image data acquired July 19 2013. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

On 21 July 2020 I gave a (virtual) guest lecture at UC Berkeley for a summer program directed by Gabriel Kaprielian called Design and Innovation for Sustainable Cities (DISC). The program theme for 2020 was 'Postcards from the Future', and students were tasked with envisioning speculative futures in their home cities to tackle issues of social justice, urban health, and climate change. I had been invited to talk about my book, Provisional Cities and the intersection between climate change, architecture, and speculative futures.

The lecture picked up on the talk I gave to ACAN in May: No More Business as Usual and the challenges to architecture, and built environment practices more generally, to rethink responses and responsibilities in the context of climate crisis. This involves paying attention to thinking about the future, whereby scenarios – configured around the question what if? are considered as having potential as infrastructures of collaborative and interactive citizenship or infrastructures of care.

This is an extract from the lecture.

Provisional Cities: What if?

Scenarios are configured around the question: what if? – so scenarios are also propositions, projects, prototypes, so familiar to architecture and design practices. But scenarios are also fundamentally stories of change and are understood as a way of coming to terms with uncertainty. Stories can change and they can also provoke change – stories are both malleable and transformative. The pre-eminent scenario for our troubled times has been the Anthropocene — with its world-ending warnings and its undermining of everything the anthropos has ever stood for. Faced with a world falling apart, ‘it matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories’ (Haraway, 2016). The way a society imagines its future matters, and who gets to do the imagining matters.

And if radically changing environmental conditions – wildfires, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, drought, extinctions & pandemics – threaten valued ways of living, what does this mean for Earth citizenship? What does an exposure to the human-provoked turbulence of Earth systems mean for questions of responsibility or hospitality? The challenge of architecture is one of imagining and shaping new modes of co-existence. Rethinking the meaning of ‘temporary home’ in the transitional moment of the Anthropocene means re-imagining how we can co-inhabit an increasingly fractious world. We all live in provisional cities.

How do we go about imagining and constructing live-able, response-able, equitable & just cities in the current crises? How do we tell stories about these changes? In the context of today’s environmental transformations, more urgent than designing sustainable, or smart futures, or future-proofing for future climate change is recognizing how, for the majority of people in the world, the current situation is already unsustainable, it is many emergencies, interlinked emergencies, looming emergencies, slow emergencies, actual emergencies, escalating emergencies.

Paying attention to a troubled world requires thinking and storying all of these emergencies together. It demands a stretching of the imagination backwards and forwards over timescales much vaster than we usually think in, and traversing scales through the viral, domestic and planetary, and over the incommensurable negotiations and arrangements of settlements – including the political, ethical, economic. Disorienting as this is, it is also an invitation to extend our sense of response-ability (in Haraway’s terms as accountability of co-inhabitation) and acknowledge ‘matters of care’ (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017). It is a provocation to redouble our efforts for social and environmental justice, not just for present- day Earth inhabitants but for those who come after us – including generations of humans, and other species who will be living in a world we can’t visualise, on terms with a ‘nature’ that we can barely begin to comprehend. We might anticipate that valued ways of living will have to be frequently re-negotiated in the face of radically changing environmental conditions. Most of these changes have not happened yet; but if we have the capacity to anticipate them, should we also be obliged to prepare and design for them?

This is not a scenario about maintaining a state of perpetual crisis management whereby an infrastructural imaginary, of smart, resilient, interacting cities is ready to respond to any change, unexpected event, disruption or trauma. Tapping into the rich cultural potential of stories and improvisation, scenarios could rather be explored as the space for alternative ways of engaging with an urban context in transition – a s well as a way of working out what next. Scenarios are not simply future visions but could instead be considered as the anticipatory infrastructure for collaborative ways of dealing with the complexities of urban societies – including the sometimes-irreconcilable differences, values and priorities therein– and developing new intuitions about a future yet to be made.

The potential of collaborative scenarios of urban futures is thus as both a shared and necessarily contested cultural endeavor. This requires the development of strategies for an interactive scenario-making that does not simply deliver future city blueprints but instead is recognized as an interactive and experimental practice that can inhabit the space between everyday matters of concern and future urban infrastructures– social, ecological, physical. It is also about re-imagining better lives as well as the advocacy, practices and enterprises that make them possible. Thinking and practicing the future otherwise involves re-considering responses, responsibilities and obligations — legal, ethical, and political — in the present day, with the prospect of climate-changed futures and the troubling realities of an increasingly damaged planetary home.

The challenge is to rethink scenarios as a mode of collective and speculative storytelling for the present, and a way of ‘staying with the trouble’ (Haraway, 2016). Scenarios could then invite more plural and provisional ways of ‘thinking the future otherwise’, that have the capacity to respond in surprising ways to living within conditions of planetary turmoil and unsettlement.

What if?