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The Why Factory City Shock: Planning the Unexpected

James Pallister discovers why The Why Factory is planning for black swans

Scott Lash, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Gidden’s concept of Risk Society could nicely be summarised by Oscar Wilde’s saying: ‘To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect’. What they call Late Modernity is characterised by the risks and problems – climate change, banking contagion, terrorism – enabled and caused by Modernity’s developments. Fear and instability replace optimism and predictability.

A new book from Dutch think tank The Why Factory builds on that premise. In the foreword to City Shock: Planning the Unexpected, the authors write that ‘urban planning leaves no room for the unexpected [… yet] disasters, technological breakthroughs, management experiments, pandemics – can turn the fate of a city upside down overnight’.

Fear as motivator can have a mean, dispiriting effect on city design, yet it can also generate positive engagement with potential catastrophe. The authors cite the Deltawerken, the large-scale systems of dikes, bridges and waterworks built between 1953 and 1998, prompted by the devastating North Sea floods of the 1950s; the building of a large new rail system and the doubling in size of Rotterdam Harbour in the 1980s, prompted by fear of losing Rotterdam’s status as a worldwide distribution hub; and the 1996 Vinex policy, which corraled developments around cities, driven by fear of sprawl. They argue that trend-based forecasting, which uses past events as its guide, is inadequate to anticipate what author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls ‘black swans’. These events exhibit ‘rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability’. The 10 theoretical shock scenarios which follow (Olympic Games cancellation, bovine influenza; the building of a ‘space lift’) act as both taster and provocation. The aim: to make us live a little more easily with unpredictability.

Tead City Shock: Planning the Unexpected, by Winy Maas and Felix Madrazon, with Pablo Roquero and Jeronimo Mejia, The Why Factory, nai010 publishers, 2013

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