“Man may perish by his own explosive and insidious inventions. For an adjustment to them he leaves himself precious little time, and progressively less as his technological wizardry runs wild and rushes on. If he is to survive at all, it cannot be through slow adjustment. It will have to be through design more subtly considered and circumspect, through more cautious planning in advance.”
Richard Neutra, 1954
The current anthropogenic domination of earth systems cannot be overstated. Once we as a species acknowledge our moral and environmental imperative to carefully and thoughtfully manage our planet for the health of all component earth systems and grapple with the ethical issues of geoengineering, we can move away from accidental, poorly-planned geoengineering and into an era of conscious geodesign at a global scale. A GIS-based framework offers the best approach for understanding and addressing the breadth of climate change science issues in a holistic manner. Aggregating complex physical, biological, and social data and models within a unified framework will give us single view of the whole earth system and provide us with the tools to manage—and ultimately design—our future in the most effective, efficient, and morally defensible way.
Landscape architecture and urban and regional planning have taught us to analyze alternative development ideas in a broad environmental context, and GIS tools were a natural outgrowth of this technique; but to date these design concepts have yet to be fully applied at a truly global scale to help us to understand and respond to climate change challenges.
Mature Concepts, New Focus
“Design is the first signal of human intention … What is our intention as a species and how do we go about thinking about that?”
William McDonough, 2009
Michael Batty states that “(a) narrow but suitable definition of design as it pertains to geographic systems … is the process of generating physical artefacts which meet ‘agreed’ human (social and economic) goals pertaining to specific points or periods in time and space.” He goes on to describe the design process as increasingly evolutionary, where human-initiated or -influenced systems grow and evolve in a manner and fashion similar to biological systems. This growth and evolution is in response to ever-changing environments and their associated assemblages of constraints.
Reasoned design and management in the age of the anthropogenic earth is our moral imperative, but the biggest obstacle to our success is that we are not yet set up to work, or even think, in this way. Brad Allenby notes that “(w)e lack solid data and analytical frameworks to make assertions about the costs, benefits, and normative assessments of different . . . practices”. GIS and the emerging field of geodesign are critical to the success of approaches such as earth systems management and engineering (ESEM) and other logical and rational models for dealing with the environmental and planning problems of ours and future generations.
Design considering place was at the core of Ian McHarg’s beliefs, and it is the basis for current research and development efforts in the emerging field of geodesign. Geodesign borrows concepts from landscape architecture, environmental studies, geography, planning, sustainability, and integrative studies. Much like GIS and environmental planning before it, geodesign takes an interdisciplinary, synergistic approach to solving critical problems and optimizing location, orientation, and features of projects at local, regional, and global scales.
Geodesign may be a new term to some people, but GIS and design have a long history together. And whether they realize it or not, over the last 40 years, many GIS professionals have been involved in geodesign projects primarily in the fields of environmental, regional, and urban planning. To a certain extent, this is already done today by numerous GIS practitioners in fields like urban and regional planning and environmental management. But geodesign makes this easier by making it an integral part of the workflow, both shortening the cycle time of the design process and improving the quality of the results. With a debt of gratitude to Steinitz, the geodesign framework also lets us design and test various alternatives, helping us make the most educated and informed decisions about the best possible future.
When we talk of designing our future, we believe that combining the wealth of data available about our world with sophisticated analysis and management tools is the prescription for understanding and shaping the future of our planet—an anthropogenic future where advances in human society, technology, etc., are carefully designed in close collaboration with nature, resulting in the best of possible future worlds. Moving forward, there are some guidelines we can follow to help leverage geospatial technologies in support of global design.
Guidelines for Global Design
“To live in a world subject to purposeful, planetwide change will not, I think, be quite the same as living in one being messed up by accident. Unless geoengineering fails catastrophically … the relationship between people and their environment will have changed profoundly.”
Oliver Morton, 2009
A geodesign framework will provide a robust set of tools for design professionals to support the design of alternate future for our earth and its systems. And the need for such tools has never been greater. We live in an ever more complex world, where our impact on the natural environment is massive and can no longer be ignored. People are starting to recognize the importance Richard Neutra placed on the inseparable relationship between humans and nature and to realize Ian McHarg’s vision of design with nature, and they want to act. Matt Ball notes that “(t)here is now a growing interest in combining design functionality with the broader geographical context that geospatial tools offer in order to engage more deeply in land-use planning.”
- Establish Geodesign as a Field of Study. To what extent are the fundamental spatial concepts that lie behind GIS relevant in design? To what extent can the fundamental spatial concepts of design be addressed with GIS? Is it possible to devise a curriculum to develop spatial thinking in both GIS and design? To begin developing answers to such questions, a specialist meeting on spatial concepts in GIS and design was held December 15–16, 2008, in Santa Barbara, California. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the potential for integrating design more fully into GIS, as well as the development of curriculum in spatial thinking. Spatial design is concerned primarily at project- and regional scales, while geodesign is concerned with similar issues but also at a global scale. Further discussion is needed to fully develop these concepts and build a curriculum around them.
- Differentiate between Unconscious and Conscious Global Design. Until recently, development projects and other programs and policies affecting the environment have been mostly short-sighted, project-based, and exclusive. We need to focus on longer-term issues that are global in nature and inclusive of multiple factors. The primary difference is intent. Conscious geodesign—carefully and thoughtfully manage our planet for the health of all component earth systems–lets us control the fate not just of the human race, but of the entire planet and all of its systems.
- Develop Robust Design Tools for GIS Environments. The experience GIS developers have gained while developing CAD integration tools and sketching tools has led to an appreciation of the power that could be derived by associating drawing tools, symbology, data models, process models, and other design tools into a single, integrated framework for performing geodesign. Having “back of the napkin” design sketches available for immediate analysis and feedback should be a primary area of research and development over the coming years for geospatial application developers.
- Promote GIS as a Foundational Design System. Integration of design tools with existing GIS functionality is important, but it’s only the first step. Ultimately, we need to expand the application of GIS to the point that it is a foundational design system. As Richard Neutra did with architecture in the 1950s, we need to advance a framework for design and planning that not just incorporates but also embraces technology; science; and, ultimately, nature in a system that helps us design and choose the best alternative futures.
“We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it.”
Stewart Brand, 1968
As humanity comes to grips with its overwhelming impact on the natural world, we are also gaining a much better appreciation for our inextricable link to nature. And with that, of course, comes an enormous responsibility—a responsibility made all the more gargantuan by the fact that we still have a long way to go toward fully understanding the dynamics of the various systems and developing a robust suite of comprehensive models and other tools to support these activities. An GIS-based framework for global design offers the best chance at gaining a true, scientific understanding about earth systems and for making thoughtful, informed design decisions and proposing alternatives that allow humans and nature to coexist more harmoniously.