Sustainable utopia and automation
Which church has understood that it can be saved by heresies?
A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without dimishing the prospect of future generations
In the book Utopies réalisables , Yona Friedman elaborates an axiomatic theory for the realisation of feasible utopias. Friedman declares that an utopia can be realised under three conditions: the existence of a collective dissatisfation, the availability of a known solution to the problem and collective consensus.
The current environmental crisis confronts us with a challenge that is already redefining the way we inhabit the planet, questioning the production and consumption of resources in our modern market economies. The widespread dissatisfaction for the insufficient response to this crisis has taken the protest to the streets but failed to coalesce into propositive actions. The field is divided on what solution should be implemented.
Our utopia for a sustainable ecosystem, both social and natural (if such distinction can still be claimed), is endangered.
At the heart of Friedman’s theory lies the concept of the critical group, which is described as the largest set of elements (people, objects and connections between them) that can guarantee the functioning of a given social structure and, in turn, the seeking of its utopia. Social cohesion and ease of communication are, in fact, essential factors and can only occur within a group that is restricted in size. Alienation, on the contrary, would occur from an information overload - more people than we can communicate with, more objects than we can control.
It derives that only small communities can realise their utopia and the city is its locus.
The communication of a small community is also constrained by the rule of the critical group. Years ahead of social media, Friedman argues that the global communication is inadequate to convey new ideas. While the Modern consensus was based on a mono-directional one-to-many mechanical media, the post-modern communication is based on a bidirectional many-to-many  digital media, where there’s no difference between the opinion of a scientist and that of a troll.
Now more than ever, a sustainable utopia needs an objective non-paternalistic language whose members can understand and contribute to.
In this view, society and environment are inseparable as people and objects are linked with one another. The properties of each individual are objects and, as such, they need to be stored and accessed at will. When not used, objects are stored occupying valuable space. At the same time, a person never occupies more than 40m3. From these considerations we have that people could densely live in a fraction of the extension of the city whereas the rest of the space could be used as storage.
This vision aims at the utopia for a non-competitive society, which will only emerge in a state of natural or artificial equilibrium of goods and subsidy products (abundance of resources). Here, the property is regulated by a social contract where things/objects: a) can be used by everyone, b) don’t require permission, c) can be transferred without consent.
In these terms, the systemic relationship between people and objects in the organisation of the city deals with the densification of the urban fabric and the accessibility (to people and objects) through logistic infrastructures.
TOWARDS A NEW ECOLOGY OF MIND (AND MACHINE)
Ecology is the mechanism that makes a set of objects and people work together in a relation of mutual interdependency. Any alteration to the ecologic system has direct (or delayed) repercussions to the elements or the people that form an ecosystem. Moreover, the distinction between natural and cultural can no longer be claimed and any ecological approach that refuses to embrace this simple reality is doomed to fail.
However, as we know from biology, the equilibrium of an ecosystem is always dynamic. In nature, the ability to change and adapt is a necessary condition for the successful fit of an organism within its environment. In nature, it is through the specialization of (initially) marginal tasks that, through evolutionary processes, living organisms adapt to unpredictable future circumstances.
On the contrary, architecture and the city are still very much conceived and designed as a static, lifeless entity. Instead, they should be conceived like a living organism whose survival in the hostile environment depends on their possibility for change and adaptation within the context of a conservative use of resources . The built environment, to remain current and ‘future-proof’, needs to constantly adapt to its internal and external pressures.
The paradigmatic shift introduced by computation together with the innovation in material sciences and fabrication technologies opened up new ways to approach environmental design: from context neutral to context-aware design. Today, planetary-scale computation can be described as main pervasive infrastructure redefining our relationship with our ecosystem. It can be argued that the very idea of climate change is a product of our pervasive computational infrastructure .
At the turn of the Century, the first digital revolution has challenged the Fordist serialised mass-production in favour of a new paradigm where mass customisation could be achieved (file to factory). The introduction of digital machine allowed for the production of different object at no additional cost so that the production of services and good through an economy of scale, a pillar of industrialised capitalism, was rendered obsolete.
In a world without scale, the very role of the nation-state -its regulations, protocols and standards etc- can be challenged and possibly replaced by city-state or compact-cities apt to host small resilient communities.
Automation is by and large concerned with infrastructural logistics. Similar to the Amazon’s Fulfilment Centre, where automation is at play to choreograph the logistic distribution of goods into delivery crates, we can imagine a future in which these infrastructure will become part of our cityscape.
The planetary-scale computation favours a new economic model characterised by peer-to-peer activity of acquiring, providing, or sharing access to goods and services facilitated by a community-based on-line platform. Sharing economies allow individuals and groups to profit from underused assets that can be rented out when not in use. In this way, physical assets are shared as services.
The utopia of a sustainable and non-competitive society might be closer than we think.
- Yona Friedman, Utopie Realizzabili, Quodlibet
Mario Carpo, The Second Digital Turn, The MIT Press
- Pierce, Structure in Nature is a strategy for design, The MIT Press
- Benjamin Bratton, The Stack, The Mit Press