Design Strategies for Uncertainty

I am always interested in new methodologies or working structures that affect how we conceive of, plan or build our spaces differently and so I’m kicking off a post series that culls together research I’ve done on design strategies for contexts in which uncertainty is high. In building projects in particular, and in projects that have complex clients or intervene in larger systems uncertainty is usually quite high: We don’t know how our project’s context will change, how our users needs will evolve, or what inputs of maintenance or outside impacts our project will face.

In recent years in my field, a large number of ambitious urban projects have been developed that address issues of interlinked ecological, social and economic focus including Fresh Kills in New York City on the large-scale end, and smaller, more ‘acupunctural’ projects such as San Francisco’s ‘Parklets.’ These projects are performance-based, in that they rely on design interventions to use vegetation, water, hardscape and programming to create “returns” of positive ecological change. Due to their projective nature, projects like these often heavily rely on assumptions about how conditions for complex ecological systems can be catalyzed. These projects fundamentally include time-based components, aspects of the project that will unfold over time, aspects that fundamentally cannot be predicted.

Theoretical Underpinnings: The Rise of Post-Normal Ecology
Ecology underwent a major paradigm change in the twentieth century as it moved from a steady-state paradigm–in which ecosystems were seen as complex machines with all parts ‘in balance,’ to a model of constant dynamic change and periodic upheaval. A description of the forces and factors in an ecosystem is now understood to be a snapshot of dynamics at one particular time instead of an ‘idealized’ state.

This shift has sometimes been referred to as the rise of ‘postmodern’ or ‘postnormal’ science. This paradigm shift, is of course, in many ways an affront on the rationalist modes of investigating, knowing and planning that underlie many of our scientific, business and planning practices, and is the cause of much controversy in the scientific community

Design for Uncertainty: Nascent Methodologies in the Field
In response to the need to develop design methodologies for ‘post-normal ecology’ methods of landscape architecture and environmental planning have developed new visualization techniques to represent complex interrelated realities. New books such as Projective Ecologies edited by Nina-Marie Lister and Chris Reed explore some of these emerging visualization tools. Yet while these changes are important, they are only one element of what must be a larger framework of change in designing for uncertainty, a framework which draws on both traditional methods and methods, inspired by new technologies and other fields.

In this post series, I am pulling together a set of nascent strategies I’ve found from both within and outside of the spatial design fields that start to illustrate this important issue. Through a discussion of precedent projects and a critique of these strategies, I’ll show how these ‘nascent’ and preliminary strategies could be expanded upon, and suggest a more robust way to address issues of uncertainty and ecological performance in design.

Image adapted from wikimedia commons.

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