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Planning an Ecological Operating System vs. Planning a City

Leaders, planners, and residents of cities across the United States and around the world are faced with a decision: will they remake their city in order to restore its capacity to support the creation of jobs, spaces in which to live, and a broader culture? Will they do so in a manner that takes past failures into account and arrives at a viable solution?  Moreover, will they do so in such a way that the result is equally effective and profoundly influential as past innovations in urban planning?

The ability to address this question rests on being capable of seeing and evaluating the city via the relationships between parts – material, mechanical, and human – and the capacities that result.  To do so would be to look beyond the specific material configuration of the machine in order to evaluate the system of programs that support the ultimate appearance of the city.  The result would be to reconsider the arena in which planning has occurred for the last century and for many years prior.  The focus might shift from the page on which the spatial and programmatic requirements are outlined and on which plans are drawn to the design of the programs themselves, the stakeholders who are willing to invest in them, and the relationships between these programs and investors.  It would only then be the case that we might consider the material city that results. 

While this shift has been happening since the late work of Le Corbusier, it has yet to arrive at a point where the designer is free to explore programs and support systems for a space in conjunction with framing the type of space, financing, and end-user who will be called for.  Even in cases where master planning begins with total freedom to imagine what should be built, the assumption of what is possible remains tied to a collection of typologies, building systems, and financing structures that the planners believe that the city and real estate developers are willing to build.  If a genuine shift were to occur, such planning would begin with examining the potentialities of systems that exist prior to the existence of these typologies that have already been imagined and exhausted.  The result would be a process that began with the various sectors and services that are going on already, examined services that are popular and well-capitalized, explored the ways that these services might relate, considered the associated spatial requirements and capacities, and created a new container for this intersection as a new typology built in the world. 

This shift moves the moment of design prior to spatial parameters imposed by a developer, the city, or the community.  This shift does not, however, preclude involvement of these groups.  It actively encourages their input by allowing for a broad group of stakeholders to determine how energy and power informs the world at an early stage and fundamental level.  It would allow this group to come up with a strategy by which these underlying forces might be conceptualized, visualized, and controlled.  In doing so, a broad range of forces that go into shaping the city might move from being associated with particular historic typologies controlled by particular urban planning and architectural tools to being associated with a new interface that accounts for and shapes the city in a much more direct and efficient manner.  This shift would eliminate incongruencies between the substance that is trying to be controlled and the interface that does so.  It would accurately account for the production of space via energy and capacities that result.

In this sense, we are no longer interested in planning a city, but planning an ecological operating system (EOS).  The use of these terms in inspired by its capacity to manage the environment, represent and control an underlying hardware or material reality, support community life, and be integrated with cutting edge digital technology.  An ecological operating system would serve the purpose of the historic city through new means that allow the city to move beyond its historic reason for existence as a capacity to support life, community, and transcendence. 

The means required to create such an operating system, however, cannot be analyzed and organized on traditional urban planning terms.  We no longer can focus on a specific tract of land, how it might be zoned, community members that might provide input, and the architectural spaces and styles that create a structure for the desired programs.  Instead, we must focus on the entities required for economic, ecologic, social, and cultural viability, stability, and sustainability irrespective of specific location or communities.  Through a carefully formed logic, a coalition of investors can be assembled in order to then confront an ideal system with the reality of a specific situation in order to tailor and scale the system so that it fits a specific locale.  By assembling those with capacity to produce change in advance, we will begin to overcome the planning fatigue that so many disinvested communities experience while ensuring maximum flexibility that will support input from the real community as the system takes on material form.

Deploying and tailoring a general system within a specific location is not new.  The Romans used such strategies to found and control cities across their empire.  International Style architects used a similar kit of parts to spread symbols of capitalism across the globe.  Our approach, however, is distinguished by inviting a coalition of stakeholders from test communities to participate in codifying what a stable system means.  Further, instead of deploying a set of fixed styles or building an infrastructure that support a fixed set of programs, we are deploying a set of programs that can be combined and housed in various manners, a flexible building system derived from ecologic performance rather than external appearance, a set of companies and services that define the city and the quality of life within, and an interface that allows for the entire process – inclusive of energy input / output – to be represented and controlled.

In this sense, planning an ecological operating system will require us to consider how various entities that define our day are currently combined based on a set of structures and interfaces, what this current combination allows for, what is missing from this system, and how it might be altered to increase both efficiency and happiness.  In this context, a community’s cultural legacy, connections beyond the community, jobs within and beyond the community, the way in which the community is mapped, specific preferences for how members live, the civil services that are available, the personal and public communications systems that are used, the security systems that are employed and degree of safety that results, the general systems that are used to control the environment, the systems that maintain the infrastructure, the housing systems that are prevalent, the quality and control of the land and the air, the specific nature of the local market and how it relates to global markets, the methods used to transport people and goods, the specific types of personal vehicles that are common, the extent to which new ventures are supported, the energy that flows in and out, the preferences for specific types of entertainment and transcendence, the output of the system, and the images that exist of the future will all influence and become part of an ecological operating system.  The result of coordinating these entities will be a comprehensive understanding and control of the space that we inhabit, the systems that control it, and the opportunities that we have to change it.

The entities that make up a complete ecological operating system can be easily understood through a series of sub-systems that filter aspects of the broader system.  Such filter process reduces the active components and can be used as a planning tool when addressing a specific problem.  The health of these subsystems is essential for the existence of the ecological operating system overall.  The first potential filter that organizes these various entities and that creates investment opportunities for specific stakeholders is the economic system.  It is comprised of five sub-systems: modular building system, farming system, community organizing system, entertainment system, and recreation system.  The specific ways that the entities that comprise a complete ecological operating system define these systems is a primary planning challenge.  The manner in which they do so will define the specific quality and quantity of the products that these systems produce and ultimately how the systems and the products are situated with respect to a specific spatial condition.  Generally speaking, however, the economic system accounts for art, stories, jobs, manufacturing, food, space, time, skills, networks, energy, and wonder.  Each of these elements is produced by a sub-community and is essential in supporting a high quality of life in the city.  These products and such a high quality of life is supported by the broader system that exists beyond everyday experience at the level of virtual networks of people, bits, and infrastructure.  Determining which sub-system produces each product, who the companies are, what technology is used, and how the system is situated in relationship to local people and experience, is the chief task of the planning process.  It is largely contingent on the scale at which the system is deployed ­– i.e. urban, suburban, town, regional, or national – and the demographics that will be served.  I have explored these questions in Planning and urban, suburban, town, regional, or national Ecological Operating System.

The modular building system includes the physical elements that build the other systems.  Each element, however, is a system in its own right.  They bring together various technologies in order to increase the capacity of the elements to function and for the system as a whole to function.  In particular, these elements are designed to be ecologically sustainable, integrate digital technologies that increase their efficiency, be flexible such that they can support different programs and styles, and be built locally in order to support new jobs and a sustainable economy.  Moving from the roof to the basement, they are comprised of solar panels, drainage systems, support for solar panels, specifically designed ceilings, decking, standard ceilings, circulation and utility cores, joints connecting the frames, floors, panels, structural frames made of a variety of materials, delicate frames that extend off larger structural frames and off which things can hang, lighting, moulding and decorations that trace the past, partition walls and screens, storage, furniture, panels that can be any material and carved or perforated in any way, added structural support, walkways, structural support systems that draw on the existing condition and are site specific, gardens, and cisterns.  The result of the system is an efficient and flexible manner of building that can be used to build new structures as well as to retrofit existing structures.  The primary planning challenges will be determining the most efficient manner by which these elements can be combined, locating moments when other systems interact with and support this system, locating moments when other systems can be accessed, understanding the opportunities in specific neighborhoods for deploying this system, educating the community on these opportunities, and scaling the intervention appropriately.

The farming system is spread below and around recreation, housing, creative commerce, and the gathering typologies that are the physical containers of the urban operating system.  It is supported by the input of local labor and the output of earned income and food that can be consumed or sold for additional income.  It provides goods for a market through a virtual support system that organizes management of the land and the distribution of the products.  The system is characterized by an ability to plant either indoors or outdoors.  Planting can be used as part of the recreation and entertainment systems.  Paths through the fields of agriculture will make it possible for everyone to interact with and even take advantage of food that might be offered for free.  It will be integrated with civic analytics – jobs, data, labor, housing, ecosystem, health, economy, etc... – that will lead to understanding the gross productivity of the neighborhood.  Ultimately, it will yield a crop that is coordinated with local, city, and national demand.  The chief planning challenge is coordinating with existing companies that are engaged in food production, overcoming challenges to soil and growing conditions, overcoming challenges imposed by city regulations, and balancing the production of food for local residents with the distribution of food to external outlets in order to drive income.  Exploring the ownership structure of this agricultural system and how this ownership is related to local residents will be crucial.

The community organizing system is comprised of civic, social, cultural, economic, and ecologic data streams that are accessible within the various typologies that house the ecological operating system.  By extension, it includes those organizations that generate this data as they serve the community.  The result of the system will be a new capacity to understand the forces that go into making a city, increasing the efficiency of how these forces interact and support particular goals, and an ability for local residents to take direct stock of the state of their city, change the city, and reap benefits.  It is an interface that allows residents to control the space that they share with other residents through consensus rather than individual preference as might be the case with their home.  In this sense, it will take dashboards that have been developed by companies pioneering smart city technologies and position them as a public entity around which people can gather as well as an application that each resident can carry with them.  The primary planning challenge will be to integrate the data streams of the various agencies already providing data on the city, engaging with civic leaders to understand how they can use this system to engage their constituents, understanding the specific information and tools these constituents want to be able to access and use, and coordinating this digital system with infrastructure, the modular building system, and the other typologies and operating systems.  In order to do so, it may be beneficial to bring representatives of these organizations together under one roof in a centralized location.

The entertainment system is comprised of a series of stories rendered in different media – including theater, film, music, art, dance, architecture, cooking, etc… –  that members and visitors to the community can access in a variety of manners.  These stories are told via a number of public and private screens that support individual and collective encounters.  During the course of these stories, one will find moments of exception that take the participant beyond the here and now.  The result of the system will be a landscape that is animated by meaning derived from the history of the neighborhood, the process of transformation that occurs as an operating system is installed, and the flights into fantasy along the way.  This capacity will make the neighborhood exciting and interesting.  It will allow stories to come off the screen and enter the world.  The primary planning challenge will be to understand the types of stories a particular neighborhood responds to, the best structures of conveying those stories, the capacity of a neighborhood to learn about new stories, the extent to which a neighborhood is comprised of those with free time to participate in these stories, the boundaries that must be established between fantasy and reality in order to ensure safety, the extent to which and manner that built physical traces of these stories are integrated with other typologies and with the plan of the neighborhood more generally, and how the results of this participation is recorded and disseminated beyond the limits of the neighborhood.

The recreation system is comprised of activities that support the health and wellbeing of the human body and mind.  This system helps residents organize around particular activities and goals.  Of all the sub-systems, this system is most firmly established at the present moment, albeit in a largely fragmented and unorganized manner.  The result of the system will be an increased capacity to coordinate with friends and others interested in specific recreational events, the ability to keep track of those events over time, the ability to learn more about those events, and the ability to increase interaction with a particular type of event.  This system will support a local cultural network that will ultimately link to a global cultural network of those men and women who drive the entertainment system.  The primary planning challenge for this system is to prioritize recreational activities that community members are interested in, secure sufficient land on which such recreational activities will occur, and integrate the recreational system with the entertainment system.

Planning an ecological operating system will allow us to create a neighborhood within a city that becomes a model for the rest of the city and cities in general.  When actually planning this ecological operating system, we must not only look at the big picture by understanding the services and systems that are available and profitable, but must take concrete steps to ensure that the ethereal planning process is constantly aware of the eminent materiality and form the system will lead to.  In this sense, as we plan the overall system, we must engage in experiments that give this system a real presence in the neighborhood that we hope to make more productive and inhabitable.  These experiments will help us understand how the system might be scaled to a particular environment and what materials and styles are appropriate.  Such experiments will not reflect a complete system.  Instead, they will offer real data that will provide feedback on assumptions made during the planning process in order to lead to a more robust system over time. 

Such a cycle will allow for considerably more feedback than a planning process that created a master plan to be implemented.  The flexibility that makes the process affective and the time that allows for in-put of real experiments that test planning assumptions requires a considerable amount of guidance in order to concentrate an initial focus of current and future stakeholders, those with knowledge of past planning and design techniques, and the end-user.  It will be important to sustain this focus long enough so that the process does not stall before the process is complete.  It is in this context that Naught Company will play a critical role.  In order to do so, we propose the following ten guidelines for planning an ecological operating system as an alternative to planning a city:

I.

The guidelines for creating an ecological operating system have already been formulated by scholars.  Many of these strategies remain behind the walls of the academy.  In a few cases, concrete deployment has occurred.  Most of these examples can be found in Europe – Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain in particular.  In this sense, a playbook already exists – albeit in a fragmented form – that will help us to negotiate the complexities of the process.  In particular, we should look to The Endless City, Ecological Urbanism, Make_Shift City, and Sentient City for guidance.  At the same time, it is important to begin with local urban planning knowledge.  Past designs of plans and the community are essential to understanding what might be desired in the future.  They trace the culture of a community.  They help us to understand the failures of planning primarily through space and infrastructure and the inability to intervene at the level of what makes and destroys space to begin with.  In this sense, we must begin by acknowledging that no ecological operating system can thrive without a cultural operating system.  One way of doing so is to begin with artworks that explore and ground the emotional engagement with the space and its transformation.

II.

Faith must be placed in creating a broad and overarching strategy.  The existence of this strategy cannot be confused with an “ivory tower” approach to planning.  Our broad plan affects the existential experience of current and future residents.  It not only determines the fundamental parameters of how the space is produced, but a strategy by which that spaces becomes productive.  Our goal should be to offer an outline of such a plan and various pathways to implementation.  First, we design the structure of interest, then the promise, and ultimately the return.  We must be willing to engage as many conversations with as many different type of stakeholders as possible along the way.

III.

The programs that are necessary to propel an integrated and sustainable economy and ecology should drive planning.  We should be very optimistic in the programs that we explore and consider attracting to the site.  We should place a great deal of faith in the experience and new capacities that will result from the intersection of these new programs.  Ultimately, the planning process should rest on attempting to achieve a balance through total local employment supported by jobs that are required to build this new community and that are sustained by exporting the system to other neighborhoods and cities.  This process would be sustained by offering access to capital that exists at a great distance from those people it supports and the land on which they live.  Ultimately, it will allow residents to reap more benefits by investing in tangible goods and services.  This capacity already exist for the extremely rich who are able to invest directly in the fabric of material reality via commodities, minerals, energy, equipment, risk, and debt.  Extending this capacity through a new investment and legal framework that reduces the scale of investment and increases the proximity to plots of capital would have tremendous benefits for the economy and society.  Members of the neighborhood itself could purchase shares when the system matures and is released to the public in order to create an opportunity for the public to take ownership.  In order to do so, we must understand how these programs drive the economy and how they define the productivity of a space.  This process is often supported by the surfaces of space that can be enhanced through shrewd investment that relates the surface and space in order to create enhanced value.

IV.

The various systems should be broken down in terms of the stakeholders that are required to create them.  The structures, products, and services that result should be sold individually as well as combined with other systems in order to create a unified product as a functioning ecology.  This process should correspond to the development of particular political alliances that support each other and reinforce the overall operating system.

V.

The new capacities that result from these commitments must be codified.  Timelines must be formulated and various options must be rendered.  Through accounting for and capitalizing upon these commitments, the value of collaboration will become apparent from the very beginning of the planning process.  Moreover, these commitments, the collaboration, and the capacities that result should set the formal and spatial parameters of what is possible as the system takes concrete form through experiments in the world that lead to a fully built set of typologies that contain the system.

VI.

The coalition of new collaborators and stakeholders should create a series of events that support the planning and design process.  These events should be indicative of generosity and tied to a celebration of the past and future culture of the neighborhood.  They should be used as opportunities to share plans, as demonstrations, and as opportunities to work together on a particular task that will enhance the community.  Socially engaged art practices are an ideal guide for these events.

VII.

We should focus on building models that provoke and are the result of this design process rather than focus on drawing plans that cover the entire neighborhood and propose specific locations for interventions.  We should allow the plan to evolve organically.  Such organic evolution will ultimately allow for a precise codification of the demographic in order to determine the specific nature and phasing of the build out.

VIII.

A coordination between public and private individuals and organizations should be encouraged.   Each type of stakeholder should be able to bring their talents to the table and share in the profits that result through coordination.  We should rely on the Alderman and City to organize support for the plan.  This organization of support for particular stakeholders should be propelled by a broader coordinated media campaign as an extension of the urban entertainment system.  It will ultimately offer such stakeholders the possibility of participating in broader scaling of the operating system that might lead to new opportunities for direct involvement with the new industries that result as well as broader political recognition.

IX.

We must be intimately aware of the role that social networking and the media play in how people imagine where they want to be and how they judge where they ultimately live.  In this sense, we should insist that style and desire – of the end-user rather than of the designer – must play an essential role in how the space is conceived and sold.  It should be a story from the beginning.  Opportunities to enhance the story should be recognized and pursued.  The density of interest that results will sustain the returns for the investors.  Recognizing the role that imagination, stories, and ultimately wonder plays in the planning process will ultimately support input from a variety of other disciplines.  Such disciplines might ultimately be brought together at a conference that would consider and enhance how the ecological operating system is being formed.

X.

The history and current state of the systemic problems that result in the conditions on the ground that merit attention toward planning initiatives cannot be ignored and should be included when conceiving of how a general ecological operating system is deployed in a specific location.  In many cases, this is to recognize the history and current state of racial, social, economic, political, and legal discrimination.  At the same time, an attempt to address the crisis caused by prejudice should not be addressed on these terms alone.  Doing so might only serve to sustain the debate, the livelihood of those invested in the debate, and ultimately the underlying condition.  In this context, we should deal with prejudice the same way we deal with the city: at a level prior to its manifestation as a material or existential condition in the world.  This approach will allow us to explore how the crisis might be addressed through the novel and experimental planning tools that we bring to the area rather than attempting to patch the problem – ultimately only reinforcing the problem in doing so.  It will allow for a future oriented perspective that doesn’t take deficiencies as the first point of consideration.  We won’t begin with trying to solve a problem of a blighted condition.  Instead, we will begin by understanding the real value and functionality of the existing condition.  From this perspective, we will understand how the systems and resources can be offered with generosity to a group who has time and again found that there are only short sticks to draw.  In doing so, we will connect a particular group of investors with groups of people who they might not directly support.  Ultimately, we should strive to make these groups owners of their own operating system. 

During this process, the function of Naught is to educate the community of those interested in the future of the city.  In doing so, we will teach the most contemporary way of thinking about the city to those actually in charge of changing it.  This will involve condensing an unimaginably large amount of knowledge into an easily grasped set of points that are related to action that can be taken and a coalition of stakeholders who are poised to act.  In this sense, we are engaged in a process of translation.  This process is no longer one between a representation of an idea on the page and a structure presented in the world, but between a structure of people oriented towards an idea and spaces that gradually take on material form over time.  It is a process by which the process of planning an ecological operating system crystallizes as a community and organizations that lead to interfaces, services, and new material space that builds capacity to invest real value and generate positive return on investment to stakeholders, the local community, and the broader city.