VEIL and Urban ‘Eco-Transformation’

The need for a rapid transformation for cities in the face of climate change is now alarmingly clear. The embedded dependence on large flows of fossil fuels poses a significant challenge for the future of cities in industrialised countries, particularly so in Australia. International agencies, from the IPCC to the IEA and the World Bank, are calling for an urgent and radical program of transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies and a rapid reduction in the energy intensity of our economies in order to contain global warming. Cities must be a major focus for that transition – they currently account for around 75% of global energy demand and 75% of greenhouse gas emissions.

For Melbourne, with its profligate fossil fuel usage evident in all facets of the city’s infrastructure, economy and culture, a radical and rapid transition will not be easy. Changing climatic conditions and extreme weather events will make that post-carbonaceous transformation even more challenging. Climatic shifts have already exposed the brittle nature of the city’s historical infrastructure when confronted with heat-waves, drought and floods. In parallel with ‘decarbonising’ the life and the economy of the city we will have to reduce its vulnerabilities and increase its adaptive capacity or resilience.

This rapid transformation of urban centres and cities presents perhaps the most critical of all wicked problems. The fundamental systems of provision of the city – energy, water, food, transport and shelter – are tightly interconnected. Each of those systems involves particular dependencies on energy and climate and the form and degree of those dependencies has evolved over time, shaping the city’s physical infrastructure, its life-styles, culture and economy. The city is in every way a tightly integrated and complex socio-technical-(bio)physical system that reaches far beyond what we somewhat arbitrarily define as its boundary. Trying to address the transformation of the city one system at time is bound to fail – the system interconnections mean that new (and often unexpected) problems are likely to arise in other dimensions.

A transition to a resilient non-carbonaceous city demands a creative whole-system re-conceptualisation – it is in every sense of the word, a design challenge. The principles of resilience suggest that rather than seeking one ‘grand re-conceptualisation’, a sustainable future is more likely to involve a diversity of reconfigurations of built human ecologies each of which respect the historical conditions of a city (its geography, its physical and cultural fabric) as well as the projected challenges of its emerging future. As a design process, the transformation of the city will require multi-disciplinary collaboration, needing to widely engage all its citizens if its projected visions of the future are to be seen as sufficiently plausible and desirable that they shape future development.

As with all design activity, the project of reconceptualising the city requires relocating the boundaries between the ‘thinkable’ and the ‘possible’ (to use Manzini’s terminology), opening up new, hitherto unthinkable, potentialities for the shape of future urban conditions. Manzini’s caution has to be acknowledged: thought is not merely the acceptance of known limits; the great successes of design have involved the creation of something new that re-defined the boundaries of what had hitherto been accepted as possible. However, contrary to an unfortunately prevalent economic response to the science of climate change, the re-conceptualisation of the city has to accept that  “politics cannot trump physics”iii. The challenges that now threaten our future derive from an arrogant disregard for the limits of our (bio)physical world in the creation of economic wealth; the conceptions of future possibilities must be freed from similar hubris. The design re-conceptualisation of the future city must take place alongside some form of ‘what-if’ modelling of the real physical limitations of projected changes.

Finally, it has to be expected that no process of creative design and modelling of future possibilities will be able to achieve more than to suggest new plausible configurations of infrastructure and lifestyle that could work. Given the complexities of socio-technical-(bio)physical interactions in urban life, the only real hope for successful transformation will come from extensive experimentation in the real, messy, living world. A rapid transition to a resilient post-carbonaceous urban future suggests the need for such experiments on a grand scale. These ‘living labs’ could do much more than simply confirm (for the process of re-conceptualisation) what will or wont work – they could become the catalysts for true transformative innovation and change, especially if the successes and failures of  experimentation are made transparent through wide understanding and communication.  This is becoming an important new domain of research and engagement for universities.

All of the six current design-research-action projects of the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL) are described here, are guided by the above thinking. They are categorised as visioning (re-conceptualisation), modelling or living labs.