Today's date:
Spring 2005

Massive Change: Now Everyone Can Design Solutions

BRUCE MAU, the famed designer and collaborator with Frank Gehry, is co-author of Massive Change. His firm, Bruce Mau Design, is based in Toronto. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels recently.

NPQ | Your book Massive Change begins by citing the historian Arnold Toynbee's remark that the well-being of a civilization depends on its ability to respond to challenges, human and environmental. Are we up to the challenge, particularly that of sustainability?

BRUCE MAU | There are many 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. To my surprise, 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. They 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, but never the image as a whole. What we've tried to do in 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.

NPQ | In his new book, Collapse, Jared Diamond also argues that whether a civilization survives or not depends on its response to a common set of challenges, including self-inflicted environmental damage and climate change as well as changes in trade patterns and enemies. The Mayan civilization, for example, succumbed to the degradation of its own environment while Tokugawa Japan reforested and renewed itself.

Diamond sees the world now on an environmentally "non-sustainable" course as a result of global warming, deforestation, soil degradation, water shortages. "They are like time bombs with fuses of less than 50 years," Diamond says. Environmental problems will be resolved, pleasantly or unpleasantly, "within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today."

How does your optimism fit in that time frame?

MAU | I agree that the next 50 years, as E.O. Wilson has said, is a "bottleneck." 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.

Another core realization of the Massive Change project is how, when you take all these practical advances 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 get regenerative medicine. Suddenly, change speeds up and spreads rapidly.

NPQ | Still, will the practical advances you document in Massive Change be realized on a large enough scale and soon enough to make a difference within this five-decade time frame?

Some advances-grid computing or research in biomimicry, nanotechnology or tissue engineering-take place entirely outside a political context. But others-urban planning, transportation, recycling, energy, clean water, poverty reduction-require political mobilization and power if they are going to be realized.

I had to laugh when I read Rick Smalley, the Nobel chemist, say "there is at least one good, clean answer to how we can provide the energy we'll need for about 10 billion people on the planet by 2050. I suspect that over the next ten years we will be able to get a major research program of the magnitude of the Apollo Space Program to make this come to pass."

Hello? What planet is he living on? The United States has trillion-dollar deficits and is spending $100 billion a year on Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of America's dams are in dangerous disrepair, having existed beyond their designed lifespan. Fixing the old infrastructure alone would require hundreds of billions, and this is not even being done.

MAU | Yes, 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 could direct to it are staggering. It is not that resources aren't there; the only question is what they are committed to.

The question Smalley was addressing is a fundamental question for massive change: Now that we can do anything, what will we do? Massive resources are being directed every day already 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 that resources will then sooner or later follow up.

NPQ | Going back to our 50-year window, sooner or later makes a big difference. Time, after all, is an ethical dimension. My concern is that our consumer democracy is a drag on change, not a facilitator. The consumer calculus is self-interest; the horizon is short term. We have created a DietCoke civilization in which we may profess to want to conserve, but only without having to give up consuming just as we want a sweet drink without the calories of sugar. That is not a cultural commitment but wishful thinking.

The main problem in consumer democracy is there is no way to remember the future. Thus every small act of the consumer in the present-driving an SUV in California, not to speak of a few hundred million Chinese each buying a new car-creates big problems for the future, global warming. It's retail sanity, but wholesale madness.

MAU | You are partially right, of course. The consumer you describe, however, is 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 day practices, lifestyles and choices of technology.

So, don't be blinded by the present when trying to imagine the future. In the time frame we are talking about-50 years-Europe transformed without fanfare. You couldn't breathe in Los Angeles a 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.

NPQ | European integration was possible, as the first EU president Jacques Delors has said openly, because it was done through the back door by technocrats. It was mostly concluded in conferences, not referendums. It makes me wonder if Japan could have been reforested in the 16th century if it was a consumer democracy instead of a feudal shogunate. If it was up to the local farmer instead of the feudal lord who saw his interests tied up with that of the whole community, the choices might have been different.

My skepticism of majority support is whether a consumer democracy can reach the political threshold of majority support required for massive change? Or, perhaps politics just gets in the way.

MAU | 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 websites reaching 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.