Futures Thinking in Urban Design: Shaping Our Communities, Economy, and Mental Growth

In the 19th century, departments of economics were absent in American universities. By 1880-1890, however, every American university had established a faculty of economics, reflecting the rapid societal changes brought by the industrial revolution, the rise of the market economy, international trade, capitalist debates, social change, and labor movements.

Today, we are experiencing a similar rapid transformation due to urbanization, space constraints, and the emergence of AI. This necessitates the creation of urban spaces that are mindfully designed for the benefit of people, aligning with the new, creative life in cities.

Global business model innovation trends are equally relevant to urban design. In our knowledge society, we desire not only the satisfaction of basic needs but also the fulfillment of cognitively higher-level needs. the change in urban planning, business models and our way of life is heavily and exponentially influenced by the growth of AI. This evolution demands more sophisticated work, socializing, and consumption patterns.

Networking has revolutionized communication, making it almost free, a stark contrast to the situation 35 years ago. Reduced transport costs and the rise of hybrid work models have led to a rediscovery of society in both physical and virtual worlds. The maintenance of soft skills is a growing shortage in our societies.

Urban centralization, especially in lower-cost regions, is driven by resource inflow, with people gathering in cities to perform better together. In a turbulent world, people seek a sense of belonging and refuge, longing for kindness, happiness, and life satisfaction. Our choices shape our memories and, by extension, our future.

The population growth and the desire for a better life strain available resources, affecting business model innovation from sustainability and ethical perspectives. We are downsizing housing space and shifting towards experiential living over material consumption.

In pluralistic societies, the quest for individual identity remains strong despite seamless telecommunication networks. Safety concerns, whether due to natural disasters, geopolitical turmoil, or conflicts, increase the demand for related services and business models. Tiny housing and well-planned urban spaces offer safety and inclusion.

Contrasting globalization, local themes like slowing down and de-economics are gaining traction. We see companies de-merging and more people engaging in city gardening, farming, home-cooking, and collaborative environmental care.

The construction industry, largely unchanged over the last 50 years, must adapt to meet global housing demands. Over 1 million people move to cities weekly, and a significant portion of the global population lives in substandard housing or is homeless. The economic and socio-demographic environment has evolved, rendering century-old planning laws outdated.

Futures thinking is about creativity and diverse perspectives on the future. It involves envisioning and preparing for various potential future scenarios, such as the development of modular, adaptable housing communities that can evolve with changing demographic, environmental, and technological trends.

Understanding and creating the future requires a diverse imagination, utilizing different methods and perspectives. Anticipation, a human characteristic, is crucial in this process. The way we think about the future and deal with learning and change profoundly affects the future we create. The key to survival and happiness lies in developing the skill to observe, understand, and actively shape the mechanisms around us.

Written for my participation in Estonian Business School 35 Anniversary Seminar urbanism panel on 7 December 2023

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