In order to meet today’s planetary challenges, Rachel Armstrong argues for ‘Black Sky Thinking’ as a model of speculation that can deal with risk and uncertainty
Modern architectural paradigms regard the environment as a constant. It is assumed Earth’s resilience can be guaranteed to overcome the impacts of harmful industrial processes, so that we can continue to get away with practices that inevitably damage the planet. But what if we could not take our natural systems for granted? What if we had to design and construct our ecosystems from scratch? How might this alter architectural design considerations?
Such a radical departure from mainstream thought requires a different approach to the traditional programmes and tactics used by modern architects. We use ‘blue sky thinking’ as a way of innovating by pushing at the limits of possibility in existing practices. For example, we may invent concrete mixes that have a reduced environmental impact that avert the need to use kilns, or incorporate natural materials.
At first, such approaches seem like key advances in architectural practice but in fact, the outcomes tend to remain recognisable and unsurprising because blue sky practices carve out solutions from what is already possible. Because deterministic models are, by definition, completely predictable − no matter how pragmatic they are − they can only create frameworks that control rather than reveal the future.
But what if we want to develop a completely different kind of approach to the ones we are familiar with? Even posing such a question is professionally challenging as we are by definition unequipped to deal with unknown futures. Like singularities − those tipping points where one set of conditions becomes something completely different − these conceptual blind spots cause deterministic models of reality to break down as they try to simultaneously deal with many complex variables. Yet, if we are to reach escape velocity from our current deterministic conventions and venture into new design spaces beyond the singularities that prevent us from working in radically different ways, then we need to embrace risk.
Author Neal Stephenson observes that we have relied on deterministic models of reality, which shape modern methods of prediction, so much over the course of the 20th century that we try to eliminate all risk. However, working creatively with risk may help us deal with the unknown, in ways that produce completely new and unanticipated types of encounter.
Black Sky is a term used by the space industry to refer to ventures into the unknown implying existence at the edge of possibility. Black Sky Thinking is a method for producing new kinds of future that enable us to move into uncharted realms with creative confidence − rather than reckless abandon. It uses many different perspectives to discover the character of a new space, which disarms us of what we already think we know, so that we can freely work afresh in a brand new arena. Black Sky projects have no fixed character but they are easy to recognise, as they are rousing and challenge our expectations on many levels.
An example of a Black Sky project is Persephone, a mission to catalyse the construction of a fully crewed worldship to be orbiting the Earth within a 100 years. Supported by the research organisation Icarus Interstellar, Persephone aims to create the living interior of a vessel, whose material systems function as an alternative kind of nature. By taking a propositional approach to the question of ecological design, Persephone creates a context for investigating questions through a range of perspectives in ways that are relevant to today’s global environmental challenges. For example, Persephone supposes that ecological design actively promotes lifelike events rather than the current convention of assuming that something that is ‘good’ for the environment simply consumes it less, or more considerately. This requires us to better understand how inert systems become lifelike, which is the study of ecopoiesis.
In planetary terms, ecopoiesis investigates how we may boot-start a barren planet into one capable of supporting life. Once the process has begun, it may then be possible to further modify the specific material exchanges in this primitive environment by modifying its atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology and tune them to become more similar to Earth’s biosphere in a secondary process called ‘terraforming’.
Ecopoiesis is critical when thinking about how to reverse desertification on Earth, or create life-bearing surfaces in our megacities. Yet answering this question is not about solving a chemical equation − but demands complex spatial considerations.
Physicist Erwin Schrödinger observed that living organisms are remarkable in that they do not decay towards equilibrium. Organic cells possess something called the ‘endoplasmic reticulum’, which moves chemicals around inside an organism preventing it from becoming inert. Accordingly, Persephone also resists entropic decay by using soils as technology. Soils are the basis for all life on earth. They may be likened to a giant, environmental endoplasmic reticulum and are an amazing, yet largely overlooked, natural technology which has formed the fertile conditions and material foundations on which our greatest cities have been built.
While Earth’s planetary systems continually receive matter from space and energy from light, Persephone has to work harder at maintaining a materially rich system by feeding on space junk, asteroids or electromagnetic radiation from stars that can be converted into soil-making substances. Although Earth’s soils have spontaneously evolved over many tens of thousands of years, Persephone cannot wait that long and therefore uses advanced technologies to make sure that the materials that she harvests and distributes through her soils are fundamentally life promoting.
This approach flies in the face of design conventions through history, because we generally assume that our material substrates, such as a block of marble, are closed and their surroundings are at equilibrium. Persephone creates the opposite conditions for design where ecologies and environments are not sets of already defined elements that require hierarchical organisation but are materially open, dynamic systems − co-designers of our living spaces. The project is a probabilistic melting pot for today’s ecological challenges that creates the conditions for the production of life-promoting architectures, where architects are invited to promote vibrant, thriving cities by investing in the production of urban soils that reinforce the action of local ecosystems.
Blue sky thinking promises innovation in architectural design but it is little more than a tool for industry and commerce to incrementally expand or improve through existing conventions. While blue sky solutions stretch current practices to the limits of their commercial comfort zone, they do so by minimising risk. Yet climate crises and unknown future challenges know nothing about human acceptability, profits and losses. They demand an expanded set of approaches that more fully equip us for dealing with unforeseeable events. Black Sky Thinking projects lend themselves to more radical approaches in producing new conceptual spaces for creative collaboration. Indeed, Black Sky Thinking is an attractor for change agents, who are coming together around common challenges to generate a whole range of new possibilities. By their very definition the exact outcomes of Black Sky projects cannot be predicted but their potential is exhilarating. Watch this space.
About the author
Rachel Armstrong is a TED Fellow, co-director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) at Greenwich University and a sustainability innovator who creates materials that possess properties of living systems