Big Changes Are Happening: Arup Forecaster Predicts Global Trends & Issues

Globalization has intensified local aspirations. How can architects and designers keep sight of the larger problems we face?

Illustration by Sara Andreasson

Research has been at the core of Arup since the early days, when we had to write our own software because it simply didn’t exist. We have three strands in determining what we research: foresight, the subjects we need to know about in the future; business, where our businesses around the world bring up ideas that will give us an edge; and skills, where our leaders propose issues that they are confronting in practice.

This past year, we published pieces on the future of railways, highways, building design, and landscapes. We are also exploring the future of aviation, the Smart City, and the impact of autonomous vehicles. With our businesses and clients, we are trying to postulate what these will look like because they impact us in a profound way. Highways aren’t the same in Sydney, Shanghai, and Johannesburg—while they might all be made of concrete or asphalt, the ways they are used are quite different.

We never pretend that we can foretell exactly what is going to happen, but we do propose possibilities and we are very keen on the experience of the citizen and trying to understand all stages of their lives. We like to help others understand what these might look like tomorrow, because they are dependent upon the context of place and culture.

We are now a globally urbanized and connected society. This means that ideas are more fluid today than they were 25 or 30 years ago, changing the way we see ourselves in the world and how we approach solving problems. The profile of the urban environment has been raised across the board. People of all ages and positions are becoming more aware of the quality of their own spaces and places. Digital access has enabled a fluidity of information, which has allowed all generations access to exemplars of places, spaces, services, and lifestyles that they don’t have at home. This awareness of “what could be” is having a profound impact in some places of the world. For example, citizens from Dubai who have traveled the world and experienced the walkable and bikeable city firsthand are bringing these ideas home.

“Architects haven’t gotten their heads around resource scarcity.”
And yet, certain concerns don’t receive enough attention: Architects haven’t gotten their heads around resource scarcity. We still see so many designs that are incredibly wasteful in both construction and operation. In addition to reducing our impact, the circular economy will become very important for all of us to understand and embrace. How can we not?

Climate change has gone a bit off the global focus, but, as with many things, it will come back. Designers need to be ready for when the world is interested again—not just in the challenges, but in the solutions. We all need to be acting on that in our own ways. When we are talking about the built environment, we are not talking about a singularity. The American model of city creation is on the decline and I’m not quite sure what the new models will be—which is intriguing.

There are also massive demographic changes afoot. Some nations are getting younger while others are getting older. We have to understand what it means when a nation has a population with more people aged over 60 than under ten. The infrastructure required for such a population is very different—America does not yet have this.

Nor can we deny the migration of the global economic center of the world. It migrated rapidly West a few hundred years ago from Indochina and hovered over the North Atlantic. It is now moving back East at an increasing speed. Most people aren’t yet waking up to the implications of this—there is a different set of “norms” and behavioral patterns that have to be learned.

There are big changes that are happening right in front of us. We have a very important responsibility to coauthor our tomorrow and not abdicate that power of creation. Designers and architects are beautifully placed to create our stories of tomorrow so that we can all get behind them and make them real.

Dr. Chris Luebkeman is a fellow and the director for Global Foresight, Research, & Innovation at Arup Group.

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