Designing for the year 2030

Global cities will be laboratories for new design innovation

In the face of a growing number of complex and interconnected global problems, more and more people within the architecture and design community are finding ways to leverage design to make a difference in the world. Alejandro Aravena’s 2016 Pritzker Prize win is a good illustration of the increasing appetite for this kind of approach within the field, and architects around the world are taking up the challenge of designing solutions that address complex issues such as climate change, population growth, rapid urbanization, economic development and human health.

As a firm that is deeply committed to people-centered, experiential design, we find this bourgeoning movement within the field exciting and overflowing with potential. Through embracing the forces that are shaping today’s world, I believe that the architecture and design community has a real opportunity to design a better functioning, more prosperous, sustainable and healthy place for everyone.

I recently presented on this subject during a panel on global city building at the MIT Center for Real Estate’s World Real Estate Forum, and related the topic to Gensler’s mission as a firm — making the world a better place through the power of design. Our panel discussion centered on five major megatrends impacting global cities: demographic and social change, shifts in economic power, rapid urbanization, climate change/resource scarcity and historic technological breakthroughs. Benchmark International CEO Bassim Halaby was moderating the panel, and he used the opportunity to drive home the idea that these trends are breaking down historic boundaries between cultures, geographies and economies to open up an era of radical new possibilities.

Consider the fact that, as of 2012, more than “60 percent of the area projected to be urban by 2030 had not been built,” or that 60 percent of urban dwellers in 2030 are projected to be under the age of 18. With 1 billion people projected to migrate to cities by 2030, we are on the verge of the largest mass migration in human history. Beyond these astronomical urbanization projections, the year 2030 is also the year when global leaders agree that worldwide greenhouse gas emissions must peak to stave off the worse impacts of climate change. Even looking at these two forces in a vacuum makes it clear that the next 14 years will present massive challenges with huge social, economic and environmental implications that will reverberate for many decades to come.

But these challenges can also be viewed as a series of unprecedented opportunities leading up to what is probably a once in a millennium opportunity to re-design a better world, and to make an impact on a truly massive scale. Current projections mean that cities, which already account for 60 percent of global GDP and 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, can serve as the ultimate laboratories for testing our collective commitment to things like addressing the climate change crisis and creating real workplace equality for everyone (among many other things). At Gensler, we take these opportunities very seriously, and they have served as a major catalyst for our investment in a broad based design research program that is paving the way for exciting innovations across our global footprint.

A good example of the design innovation coming from our research is our recent work around climate change. As an organization, we have been concerned by the outsized impact that the built environment has on the pace of climate change for many years, but our participation in the COP 21 negotiations in Paris last December helped us to recognize a major gap in our industry’s knowledge about the real impacts of sustainable design. To close this gap, we published a study showing how green buildings were performing in the aggregate across a large and diverse portfolio.

In Gensler’s recently published research report on climate change, Impact Through Design, we start by acknowledging the daunting task architects and designers are facing: buildings represent 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and we will need to reduce the buildings sector’s environmental impact by 77 percent by mid-century to stave off dangerous levels of global warming. We also have some truly remarkable and positive results to share — by 2030 our green building portfolio will be saving enough energy to remove 150 coal fired power plants (about 30 percent of the U.S. total) for an entire year. Our 855 million square feet of LEED buildings are saving enough water to serve a city of about 450,000 people for an entire year — that’s roughly the size of Atlanta.

Another concern that our research program has been examining is how to effectively reposition entire cities in an era of mass-urbanization. Building on our prior research into ‘hacking’ buildings, i.e. repositioning existing building stock into multi-purposed, mixed-use properties designed for a mobile and globalized creative class, our research team developed new research on ‘hackable cities’ that follows the same logic.

We view ‘hacking’ as a culture, not a technology. It’s a holistic approach to the adaptive reuse and renovation of existing building stock, infrastructure and urban spaces in ways that maximize principles like density, social and economic connectivity (what economists refer to as economies of agglomeration) and innovation in order to develop spaces that serve diverse social and economic needs. We are learning to think about and design cities so that urban spaces function more like interactive platforms than static, single purpose locations. As a result of our work on hackable cities, we’ve gathered and documented our research to create a website (www.hackablecities.com) through which we, and the broader public can engage the hackable cities model and draw broader connections across geographies.

Finally, our research team continues to make innovative breakthroughs in workspace design that help individual workers and entire organizations achieve increased levels of innovation, engagement, and satisfaction. In our 2013 Workplace Survey, Gensler discovered that U.S. Workers have been struggling to work effectively and that to counteract this trend, workers need effective workplaces that balance focus and collaboration. Through increasing the amount of worker choice in the workplace and letting individual workers make decisions about where and how to work, we found that organizations can help drive higher levels of innovation and performance.

As we prepare to release of our 2016 Workplace Survey this July, we are again looking at how we can help design spaces that enable everyone working in an organization to be engaged, successful and innovative through design.

As our research program continues to expand, we expect to discover new innovative solutions to pressing challenges like these. Through keeping our practice focused squarely on the needs of people, we hope to play a major role in designing solutions over the coming years that will have significant social impacts for generations to come. This is what designing for 2030 means — harnessing the radical and transformative power of change to positively impact the future.