[Y]our future, according to Chris Luebkeman

How do you design for something that hasn’t happened yet? Predicting how the world will look in the future and shaping buildings, parks, streets — really everything — accordingly seems impossible. But in reality, it’s both achievable and absolutely critical. Consider global warming: if we don’t start forecasting what extreme weather will do to our cities and designing with this in mind — creating building façades that consume noxious gases, say, or streetscapes that absorb water  — we’ll suffer dire consequences down the line.

As leader of Arup’s global Foresight + Research + Innovation team, Chris Luebkeman spends much of his time thinking about how to build tomorrow’s cities today. Functioning as the company’s internal think tank and consultancy, his group is tasked with understanding megatrends shaping the future of the built environment: inequality, demographic shifts, technological advances, and changes in governance, for example. But understanding the broader context is only half the battle; Luebkeman says the challenging part is convincing people to act on this information now. After all, it’s so much easier to kick the can down the road than to reach down to pick it up.

I spoke with him about two megatrends that much of the group’s recent work has focused on: aging and global warming.


Tell me about the relationship between aging and the built environment.

Challenges around the aging of our global population have been creeping up on us for the past 50 years. I call it the quiet giant in terms of demographic impact. Our aged do not have a very loud voice compared to the millennials, the Generation Xers. But they make up a growing proportion of urban populations.

We tend to oversimplify aging: you retire, you get old, and then you die. But this doesn’t reflect reality. There are now many more phases and degrees of activity in this part of our lives. It can mean a transition from one job to another, or to a new role in life; most baby boomers expect an active, not passive, lifestyle. It’s a whole new complexity.

For example, for the first time in history, we can have four different generations present in the same office simultaneously. What a 20-year-old, a 40-year-old, a 60-year-old, and an 80-year-old expect in the workplace environment are radically different. You have different levels of acceptances of activity, of noise, of light, of furniture styles. The same goes for city parks, restaurants, streetscapes. How do you make those places accessible to different ages and abilities?

What also fascinates me is anticipating the needs and desires of this aging population. As you get older and your friends start dying, feeling alone becomes a real challenge. It can literally kill you. So we need to look around at alternative types of living situations. Like the Scandinavian cohousing model where you might have our elders living not in a care home, but in apartments, almost like a dorm. It’s all about envisioning different types of living for different ages.

Challenges around the aging of our global population have been creeping up on us for the past 50 years.

Let’s take another huge trend: global warming. You’ve talked about how we can use data to design for the future. How does that relate to global warming?

Unfortunately, as of now, almost all building codes are built on retrospective data — looking backwards at data, not forward. The assumption is that we know what has happened in the past, so then we know what will happen in the future.

Well, we know that our climate is changing, so why would we not design a building with that in mind? We should be designing for the average change that we know is coming — temperature, wind speeds, precipitation, etc. — rather than looking backwards with dreamy eyes of what used to be.

We’ve started doing that at Arup and started suggesting to clients that they really need to take a look at shifting weather patterns, designing to our changing environment. One of our clients asked us to design a building which would be fit for purpose for a hundred or two hundred years. It was a great challenge and one that led us down this path of thinking.

Another important thing — we shouldn’t be building in certain places anymore. We know that we’ve got more flooding. We’ve got higher rainfall in certain places. We shouldn’t build in places where a one-in-a-hundred-year storm is coming every 30 years.

flooding in nashville

2010 Nashville flood

This is where policy comes into play, using data to determine where we should and should not build. Those are data points which are accepted as real and valid in the scientific community, and yet codes take a long time to change.

This is our collective dilemma: a fear of change.

So our cities will inevitably become grayer; the planet will inevitably get warmer. But how cities adapt is the not-inevitable part, right? How do you convince cities that this is happening whether they like it or not?

Cities are made up of people, right? A city doesn’t exist by itself. Cities are made up of governments and businesses and citizen groups, and those are made up of people. So what we really need to do is humanize the challenges so that people understand that we have to invest in a metropolis that will survive the test of time.

My team likes doing this. We work hard to help groups understand the changing state of tomorrow and to prepare for it.

The good news is, I think we’re seeing action all over the globe. Granted, it’s happening in pockets, but we are seeing movement to design to shape a better world rather than continue to destroy the one planet we have.

How do you see this kind of communication, this kind of humanization, happening? Aging and global warming are such huge, complicated issues. How can we make them easier for people to wrap their heads around?

With diplomacy and humor. We have to be talking about the future not as a place to be afraid of, but as a place of opportunity, a place that we want to get to. It’s very important not to deny the challenges we’re facing — water shortages, energy shortages, deforestation, ocean acidification, etc. — but we need to have a vision of where we want to end up. That has to be a more equal, cleaner, verdant world for everyone. As we hold these visions, we then need to continue to evolve viable paths to get there — and perhaps most importantly, take steps in the right direction.


Questions or comments for Chris Luebkeman or Peter Moskowitz? Contact chris.luebkeman@arup.com or peter.moskowitz@gmail.com.

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