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Bruce Mau is president of Bruce Mau Design, based in Toronto. He is author of "Life Style" and collaborated with the architect Rem Koolhaas on the book "S,M,L,XL" and with Frank Gehry on various projects, including Disney Hall. Mau’s most recent book/exhibition is "Massive Change," a collaboration with the Institute Without Boundaries.

By Bruce Mau

TORONTO — The historian Arnold Toynbee once said that the well-being of a civilization depends upon its ability to respond to challenges, human and environmental. Are we up to the challenges we face today,from global warming to the renewed spread of malaria in Africa?

There have beenmany practical advances, from cycle-to-cycle manufacturing to biomimicry, from off-the-grid urban planning to biotech body parts,that suggest we are indeed up to the challenge.

In fact, I'm surprised that optimism is so controversial these days. I've found a general mood of pessimism, and even cynicism,among those very people sitting on the throne of power in their own lives who have convinced themselves they are powerless, that they don't have the capacity to change anything! But their capability, for example in the areas I mentioned, are unmatched in the history of mankind. In many ways, this is the best time in history.

This pathology, I realized when teaching at the University of Toronto Architecture School, extends even to students. When asked to do a project about the health care system in Ontario, one student came up with this absurd post-structuralist spiel about cutting incisions into the government health building. I told them, "Why don't you go inside and talk to them?Discover the incredible advances in medicine taking place instead. You are in graduate school. Never before in the history of mankind has society invested in its youth as much as we have, and this is what you come up with?"

The problem is that our civilization has developed extraordinary capacities, but we are unable to see the image they produce. It is as if that image has been cut up into the billion pixels of everyone's contribution, and we can only see the pixel that we are working on, never the image as a whole. What we at the Institute Without Boundaries have tried to do in our design project and book entitled "Massive Change" is reassemble the pixels into an image of our age. We are documenting the massive change that is happening, unapprehended, before our eyes.

I agree that the next 50 years, as the philosopher E.O. Wilson has said is a "bottleneck." Jared Diamond, author of "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," also believes we have a 50-year horizon to change course, or else. During that period population will continue to increase to something like 9 or 10 billion, then start to decline. And it may come down sooner if women everywhere are educated and liberated. That makes the most difference in the rapid decline of birthrates.

In other words, the problem won't be with us forever. We just have to get through the bottleneck. So much depends on the potential speed of change.

A core realization of the "Massive Change" project is how, when you take all these practical advances I’ve mentioned together, we have escalated our capacities as a civilization because of cross-fertilization. As Internet connectivity combines with new energy sources, you can get unprecedented efficiency; as information processing combines with genetics, you can get regenerative medicine. Suddenly, change speeds up and spreads rapidly.

In the end, it is all a matter of galvanizing and committing resources. In the past you needed to galvanize resources from the top. Now that can happen from below. Resources follow cultural commitments. If you put out a vision for a new approach that is effective, the resources you can direct to it are staggering. It is not that resources aren't there; the only question is what they are committed to.

The question today is this: Now that we can do anything, what will we do? Massive resources are being directed every dayalready in phenomenally effective directions. Recently, I was at a small gathering of doctors who agreed, nonchalantly, "to end malaria." They were totally committed. And they are totally confident because they know it can be done. It will take a lot of sustained energy, but they have no doubt it will happen.

In order to discover what our global culture is committed to, we need to look at what is so widely acknowledged that it is almost unspoken. For example, everyone today, from the Ford engineer to the tinkerer in his garage to the scientist to the energy company to the oil sheik, knows we have to move toward sustainability. If we don't, the damage will be too intense.

That doesn't mean everyone is acting yet to bring about sustainability. But the first step is a shared cultural assumption. Resources will then sooner or later follow.

In the face of my optimism, some point to the rigidity of consumer society: People just don’t want to give up accumulating more stuff. This consumer, however, belongs to a certain demographic that is fading. It is not the new sensibility. Kids today are totally conscious of the long term. They are all aware of global warming. This "installed base," to use a software analogy, will inform their day-to-daypractices, lifestyles and choices of technology.

So, don't be blinded by the present when trying to imagine the future. In the timeframe we are talking about — 50 years— Europe transformed without fanfare. You couldn't breathe in Los Angelesa few decades ago; now the air is usually decent. Who would have imagined even 20 years ago that entire cities of millions of people would recycle their wastes, taking the time and effort to divide everything up into plastic, glass, paper, organic, inorganic and so on?

Of course, there are short-term vested interests who don't want change and will try to block it because their operating system is the installed base of another era. They will be outmoded and inoperable when the new version takes hold.

The important challenge is to maintain the visibility of accomplishments — the whole image — so the momentum toward massive change grows.

For massive change to take place, it doesn't have to cross the classical, formal political threshold. The single biggest difference between the past and the future is that the capacity to affect change is distributed. A new social and political ecology is evolving where individuals or groups don't have to go up the tree of political authority only to come back down again and make something happen. That is inefficient. They can do it on their own, through interconnectedness with others.

Look at what happened with the tsunami relief for South Asia. The response was massive, global, spontaneous and widespread, driven from Web sitesreaching across the planet from Sweden to India. The ruthless self-interest of the consumer didn't hold people back.

This distributed capacity to act will change the way we live in the course of the years and decades ahead. For most of history, civilizations changed very slowly, operating the same way, with the same tools, the same concepts, the same methods and the same ideas of political and cultural authority for centuries at a time.

Now, all of that is changing. We've crossed the line. Everyone can get involved in designing solutions to our civilizational challenges. That is what massive change is about.

(c) Nobel Laureates Plus
Distributed by Tribune Media ServiceS INC. (5/3/2005)