REPORT | Design Futures workshop on the ‘Urmadic City’

Posted on 16/04/2010


On the weekend, as stated in an earlier post, I participated in another of Tony Fry’s design futures masterclasses; this one addressed the ‘urmadic city’ and the challenge of developing a ‘rhetoric of sustainment’. Interestingly, I’d been reaching back into some writing about rhetoric and communication theory of late. For me, having worked in various media and communications contexts, I’d felt I had lost the richness of that body of knowledge and practice. Plus, I increasingly find people are dismissive of communications (conflating communications, media, technology and power in ways that really have nothing to do with meaningful connections and exchanges between people). Our communication has become as strange as the weather and recent seismic events. There is such complexity in meaning and understanding in communication, which cannot be separated from behaviours and style. So, in a way, when we talk about a rhetoric of sustainment, I am wondering if that means there might also be behaviours and styles associated with that rhetoric.

The first point of contact in the workshop was to introduce ourselves, though not our ‘economic functionalist’ selves (i.e. our jobs and role in the economy). Instead, Fry asked for something more ‘edgy’, something about us. Fry introduced himself as ‘angry’ about the failure to seriously address the excesses of production and consumption that has wrought such disaster in this world and in the lives of its peoples. My own introduction was more modest, attempting to convey a quietude, shifting subjectivity and desire to connect, and so … “I don’t have grandiose statements to make or epiphanies to share. I believe in people and community and the power of creativity and co-creation. I’ve drifted from project to project and job to job in my life – experiencing and learning things, doing things and most of all writing things. I’ve changed things too – set up women’s, community, political and cultural initiatives and I keep doing that. It’s hard sometimes not to lose faith (perhaps I mean ‘a sense of purpose’) in the face of resistance to better or other ways of living.” At a fundamental level, in any changemaking endeavour, people are the substance (the matter, the material, the medium) of and reason for that change (that’s my opinion, not necessarily Fry’s opinion).

Despite that introduction and its intent and despite my continued involvement in these workshops over the past year or so, as I struggle through a planning postgrad that I despise, Fry challenged my alleged status as a ‘mainstream planner’. Funny really, because I am not a planner and never set out to be a planner. I have simply pursued a postgraduate course in planning with the intention of ‘learning’ about cities (in that rather normative or perhaps ‘education in error’ way – it’s about understanding the disempowering nature of that system) and participating in conversations about cities, perhaps even writing about them. I have, to some extent, become aware that planning processes tend to reproduce the status quo (i.e. more of the same), particularly in that highly governmentalised way. I was recently described as  ‘good at planning’ and I felt insulted, as though I had, in fact, committed a betrayal. Planning is nothing to believe in.  Having participated in a planning process that, in a fundamental way, reproduced more of the same to the point of entrenching disadvantage, the possibility of a reflexive or ‘redirected’ planning seems quite remote. Planning for privilege is bereft of any moral or ethical intent, yet it seems to prevail. However, as Fry entreats, we must try the impossible. Planning itself needs transformation; what exactly that might be is hard to say. For all its impotence, planning seems to wrest much power from people – perhaps that’s the point. So it’s always interesting to see your life choices and pathways distorted through the fractured lens and partial views of another’s stance or misapprehension. Perhaps we are all just surfaces for others to project their ideologies, ideas and aspirations onto, to write or inscribe their own interpretations, to reflect a partial view, to score their own power. The point is made; we all must be aware of how we are implicated in the systems that reproduce ‘the problem’ – whether that’s developing and selling user pays education products like postgraduate programs, whether it’s designing unnecessary products for unnecessary consumption, whether it’s playing chicken with the whole question of sustainability or whether it’s working in planning, design or media contexts in ways that ‘defuture’. Importantly, however, such complicity may not always be as it seems given Fry’s notion of platforming by which “a change platform is built within an existing organisation” (see Design Futuring, p 126 – 127).

For Fry, there is a need to change design and to change our understanding of design. The workshop presented Fry’s take on how we might think, act, design and future for sustainment. He says, ‘we dwell in our thinking’. One of the things I have relished most about these design futures workshops is the circling around and into the idea of ‘dwelling’. I understand this concept through the Greek ‘oikos’, which is the root for words like ecology, economy and ekistics. It tends to be translated as house or habitat. Fry refers to the writing of Heidegger to draw out ideas of ‘dwelling’. In terms of developing a rhetoric of sustainment, this idea of dwelling is pivotal. In addressing the words, the sound and image of sustainment, Fry points out that there is the danger of collapsing into rhetoric, into empty language. And we see this already in the corporate proclamations for sustainability (another process that Fry says produces more of the same i.e. sustaining the unsustainable). This is a core pillar for Fry’s conceptualisation of sustainment – it is not about utopia – which must be a realisable vision or possibility. Given this, in an interesting and somewhat discomforting choice of words, Fry says ‘sustainment has to be a dictatorship’ and he sets out six rules of sustainment. While the language is jarring, the point is simply that societies create rules and ‘freedom’ exists as a result of those rules and within those rules. Societies also produce transgression but that’s another trajectory. Before I can absorb this, I must first overcome the religiosity of this moment in which the world is (re)created through the metanarrative of design with a new set of rules to live by being handed down:

  1. You can’t sustain anything unless you can sustain yourself i.e. in both body and mind
  2. You cannot sustain without risking your life (i.e. if all you want to do is value/protect your life, you would do nothing).
  3. Undertake the impossible
  4. Design in time
  5. Educate against error
  6. Development technological alienation

In that room, there is little or no disagreement about this – the workshop participants all understand the intent is a fundamental transformation of design and the way we live. From there, the framework for the design task was set out, with the imperative of ‘thinking design as futuring action’ focusing on the ‘urmadic city’ – and this is one of Fry’s poetic neologisms used as a platform for investigating the coming/emerging epoch of ‘unsettlement’. So the ‘urmadic city’ is a consideration of the idea of a nomadic city, a moving city. Fry’s attack on mainstream planning is well founded. He states that the mechanisms that planning relies on, such as containing sprawl and creating greater density, simply seek to maintain the status quo and create a ‘perpetual present’. In other words, such approaches will not address the problem. He calls for a comprehensive transformation, stating that practices have to be ‘retrofitted’ for transformation to be possible. There is a need to be able to think about the city in a different way and to think about the afterlife of the urban or the post-urban. The impacts of climate change and the resulting unsettlement of people and populations will mean a need for new kinds of cities – cities than can and do move, populations that move. Perhaps such a city is chronically diasporic as well. The challenge for those who participated in the exercise was multifold: to design in a way that told the story, to turn the concept of the urmadic city into a concept that can be scripted and to redesign one’s own thinking about designing.

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