In 2011, I watched an epic TED Talk video, given by physicist Marcin Jakubowski about his team’s “open-sourced blueprints for civilization.” No, it has nothing to do with a political system, the string theory, a new religion, or even a stellar community-based plan. Rather he tried to break down modern civilization into 50 objects: 50 tools which help make our lives safer, more prosperous, and more enjoyable. Probably to the surprise of many, there was not one mention of an iPhone…
These 50 tools form the base of a modular, DIY, open-source platform called the Global Village Construction Set. The tool kit gives detailed instructions for the (relatively) easy, home-made fabrication of industrial equipment including tractors, brick-makers, drill presses, and 3D printers, just to name a few. With a base of these 50 items, one person (or a community) could recreate many of the comforts of modern civilization virtually independently of civilization itself. And this is not some ethereal what-if concept, Jakubowski and the team are actually prototyping this stuff, building it, and then field-testing it. You can follow the team’s exploits at the Open Source Ecology blog.
So how does this relate to planning and cities?
Many of the tools from the Global Village Construction Set are based on farming; food and feeding oneself being a kind of big deal in regards to self-reliance. While urban agriculture is rapidly being accepted into our cities, we are still quite a long way from being agriculturally self-sufficient, especially if it requires larger-scale farm equipment as the Construction Set suggests. As well, I honestly believe many city-folk take pride in specialization and our ability to rely on neighbors for services and products. Although you may have heard what science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein thought about specialization:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” -Robert A. Heinlein
But isn’t specialization the reason we love going to museums, eating out at Michelin-rated restaurants, and wearing designer fashion? It is true, urban self-reliance is gaining in popularity with the resurgence of home-brewing, backyard chickening, knitting on the subway, and canning classes at the local co-op, but modern cities were based on the industrial revolution and, more specifically, specialization.
As we hurdle forward into the 20-teens and 2020’s, I see people becoming really really good at really really specific things. Now stay with me for a second… this specialization is something that I believe fundamentally ties the Occupy Wall Street protestors and Tea-Partiers together, Indian protests against private seed companies, Chinese villagers protesting displacement by dams, Bolivians protesting against World Bank-funded mines, and the broad western appeal of suburban development: a want or need for the perception of self-reliance (or the perceived loss thereof), which is counter to specialization. It has taken a billion years for humans to evolve into the predominant species on this planet, in part because we were able to learn and adapt multiple skills to many situations, just as Heinlein said. One billion years of human evolution is hard to replace with a mere 100 years of industrial specialization, and people are probably a little confused.
Can urban planners help create self-reliance without damaging the city?
Assuming city-dwellers will never be fully self-sufficient, and the Global Village Construction Set cannot be fully implemented in our City, then perhaps aspects of it can be. The Set is currently made up of six categories: Habitat, Agriculture, Industry, Energy, Materials, and Transportation. Current designs in the Transportation, Habitat and Agriculture categories are pretty specific to non-urban environments, you need a lot of land, and there is little mention of waste management and mass transit applications. However urban economic self-reliance speaks directly to the other three: Industry, Energy and Materials.
The City as the center of the Digital Industrial Revolution
Rapid-prototyping and digital fabrication are all the new rage in urban economic development. While few policies have been published in regards to this emerging trend in New York City, the NYC Economic Development Corporation and the Mayor’s Office have both publicly announced these fields as potential growth sectors. Open Source Ecology, the group behind the Global Village Construction Set, sees an economic and socially responsible future in prototyping and digital fabrication, too: they call it flexible, decentralized, cheap, customizable, and of having the potential to empower the poor. With locally designed and interchangeable parts, many self-replicating, these systems allow for not only consumer production, but also for economic self-sufficiency.
Unfortunately, New York City land use regulations are somewhat outdated and many of the new materials needed or produced by these digital fabrication tools are not recognized. Production and industrial activities have changed greatly since the 1960’s and will most likely continue to evolve exponentially, forcing land use planners to adapt and envision a future with extreme specificity. For example, New York City has no use group for extruded, slip-cast, and molded rice slurry production (a potential rapid fabrication material), yet we have a use group for open coal storage. Even if we added all the materials we know of today to our zoning resolution’s list of allowable use groups, the list would probably be out of date by the time of their adoption and publication. And this does not even consider the role of Performance Standards in measuring and regulating urban production. For another option in planning for industry, check out this previous blog entry on proximity vs. speed.
One of the reasons I became an urban planner was because of the varied skills and perspectives the field encourages. Many of my colleagues come from disparate professional and educational backgrounds, further adding to the sundry perspectives of my fellow urbanophiles. I am not saying that urban planners are the ideal human specimen, but this broad perspective, the human ability to excel at multiple skills and tasks, is what has helped humans adapt and thrive. Learning about and encouraging self-sufficiency tools’ entrance into the urban environment will be difficult, and may even require a new way we zone and regulate our cities, but could go a long way in quelling our innate human need for self-sufficiency and solve some of our economic and environmental woes as well.