Imagining Christchurch of the future

What if Christchurch became NZ's capital?

PHILIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 05:00 13/10/2013
Stuart Candy
FUTURIST: Stuart Candy

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Thinking about the future is both harder and more important than ever, visiting futurist Stuart Candy tells PHILIP MATTHEWS.

This is tomorrow calling. In a way, it literally is that. Australian thinker Stuart Candy is in Toronto on a Monday evening in autumn, talking into his mobile phone as he strolls around town. His interviewer is in Christchurch at noon on the following day.

The future calling? Actually, the future is coming the other way, down the line from the day before in Canada.

Candy is assistant professor in the faculty of design at OCAD University in downtown Toronto. He teaches and researches in strategic foresight and innovation. He has also been a foresight and innovation leader at the global engineering firm Arup and an adviser to the Future We Want project for the United Nations Rio+20 Summit.

His job is to predict and speculate on our behalf. He is a futurist. Which means what, exactly?

"I won't pretend to speak for all futurists because people use the label and travel under it doing all sorts of different things," Candy says. "What I do is help people think more rigorously as well as creatively about the futures that they could be facing in order to prepare for them now and navigate more deftly from the present."

He sometimes quotes artist Edgar Degas's line that "art is not what you see, but what you make others see". He is a facilitator, the future's midwife.

He studied under Jim Dator at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Dator was one of the early futurists, teaching in the field since its emergence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To look backwards for a moment, Candy explains that one source of future studies was the United States strategic planning and war gaming world. You had Herman Kahn - said to be the model for the title character in the movie Dr Strangelove - promoting his belief in a winnable nuclear war.

"So, mad genius scientist who was thinking about the fate of the world in terms of being poised for thermonuclear conflict," Candy says. "It's not a very happy tradition to come from. But it was the beginning of a certain assumption of public responsibility for the scale of change that we are involved in."

A second strand, ideologically different to the first, was the birth of the environmentalist movement. The Limits to Growth report in 1972 was a key moment.

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"That was one of the first statements of the finiteness of the planet. It fuelled as well as reflected an interest in the fate of the world."

You could say Candy's tradition has been a mixed bag. Public intellectuals think about long-term scenarios, sometimes for governments and the military, sometimes for private corporations and sometimes for the common good.

"It has a very pragmatic, hard-nosed and ideologically driven origin. That also applies to the corporate adoption of scenario planning as a way of thinking about change of whatever business you are in. But the more time you spend in that setting, the more you realise that the ideals that inform that initial uptake might themselves be subject to question."

Nicely put. He has a catchy slogan that sums up the moral dilemma: Innovation without foresight is dangerous and foresight without innovation is pointless.

"I'm motivated by the development of a cultural capacity for foresight more than anything else. What gets me out of bed every morning is the sense that this is something humanity really needs, collectively."

This is something that Christchurch needs. Since February 22, 2011, the city has been desperate for new ideas. What will this city - or any similar-sized city - look like in 10 years, 50 years? How will our work change? How will living change? How will shopping change? How will education change? How will transport change?

We have been going over these questions for 2 1/2 years, at both institutional and community levels. Candy has been around for some of that. He came to Christchurch last year and the year before. He returns next week to speak at a TEDx conference and will stick around for the second Festival of Transitional Architecture (Festa), which launches on Labour Weekend.

He is in a relatively new category of visitor: he had never visited before the earthquakes. His entire experience of Christchurch is as a post-disaster city.

"In a way, it takes a massive feat of imagination for a visitor to reconstruct in their mind how it must have been before. How did this place look and feel and work?"

Candy often talks about "experiential futures", which is the presentation of possible futures. The Christchurch paradox is that it is probably harder to imagine the lost past.

Based on visits and thinking, Candy has some observations. He says he would not be so presumptuous as to call anything he has to offer advice.

"But as an outside observer with enormous goodwill, there is an opportunity that is the flipside of the tragedy," he says. "I'm not the first person to have that observation. There is a way of having a public conversation that is fundamentally imaginative and invites a collective inventiveness about how things could look over the long run.

"That way of having a conversation is not yet common. It's more common for people to plan for the present, to look around at the way things are now and extrapolate what they see going on indefinitely into the future and to hold everything constant."

The Share an Idea expo in 2011 was a great example of a forum that felt imaginatively "safe". More than 106,000 ideas were presented and, for a moment, cost and pragmatism were not considered.

But the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) plan that followed a year later felt to some like a straitjacketed, top-down version of the Share an Idea's looser, egalitarian vision. Many believed that consultation was taken from them.

Ideas that seemed almost utopian at first, such as the green "frame" on the eastern side of the central city, turn out on closer inspection to be less a park than a property development.

Around the edges, events like Festa offer a different opportunity, Candy says. "Festa is a really interesting and laudable effort to use temporariness and the transitional moment as a lever to make different kinds of things imaginable. I think we can get really stuck on the idea of permanence and forget that in the meanwhile, life is happening."

In Australia last year, Candy was in a team which came up with the idea of a roving capital for a design competition and exhibition to mark 2013's centenary of Canberra.

They wondered if a capital needs to be permanent or even a city? You could pull apart a capital's functions and delegate them to a place for a period of 15 years or so, and "use that as a way of rejuvenating the place as well as having that place inform a national conversation".

In their submission, they settled on Currumbin, a hot, sleepy beachside community on Queensland's Gold Coast.

Candy is quick to point out that this was "speculative design thinking" rather than a concrete proposal, but there were some interesting outcomes, as the design team learned when it flew north from Melbourne to take a closer look at Currumbin.

A short video that was part of the submission almost resembles a Daily Show-style parody. Bemused locals meet the big-city designers who ask them if they would like their city to be Australia's capital.

People in Currumbin would see their values taken up at a national level. The country's power brokers would think beyond the Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra beltways. But the video shows that Candy's team learned something else.

People in Currumbin were perfectly happy with their town already. Did they need others to tell them what it could be or should be? Would they risk losing all they liked about the place?

That also has implications for post-quake Christchurch. But it suggests an interesting thought experiment: what if Christchurch was made capital of New Zealand for the next 15 years? What attention would then be focused on the rebuild?

"You need a safe space in order to have an exploratory conversation about the future," Candy says. "Most political environments don't provide much safe space. These ideas might be proposed for the sake of seeing where they take you but they can be shot down by a overly pragmatic reception that closes down the conversation prematurely.

"The experiential interventions that I find most interesting seek to carve out space, even if it is unsolicited. Even if nobody has commissioned it. It is part of the prerogative or the duty, even, of citizens who care about the places they live in to try to have those conversations."

When Candy talks about an overly pragmatic reception, he means sectors of the media and politics that would immediately deflate imaginative plans by talking about costings or feasibility. They are the political pragmatists who call popular community ideas "nice-to-haves".

"I'm not suggesting that bottom-line considerations should be ignored but they need to be suspended at least for a time in order for anything new to grow," he says. "I don't own a newspaper but if I did, I'd probably report from the future."

At TEDx next weekend, Candy will talk about "the emerging practice of experiential futures and the contribution that can make to opportunities for public imagination". He will also pop over to Canberra and deliver the Walter Burley Griffin Memorial Lecture, marking 100 years of the Australian capital.

"I have the honour of giving that. It's the first time they've asked a futurist. That's because it's an anniversary and they have wanted to look forward as well as back."

For most of us, looking forward is a fraught proposition. Is it superficial to look at the futures that movies offer and notice that it's almost consistently bad news? Children of Men, I Am Legend, Elysium, Wall-E, Minority Report. One dystopia after another.

"On closer inspection, there is more than entertainment going on there," Candy agrees. "There is a whole cultural conversation about what options are available to us and as you spend more time thinking about it, it does appear that many of the narratives in our 'imaginary' are negative ones. It's pretty alarming."

Back in the 1950s, Dutch sociologist Fred Polak wrote The Image of the Future, in which he analysed stories about the future that were operative in different cultures throughout history. "He found that the image of the future that a culture had, corresponded to what would happen," Candy says.

"It's simplistic to say that it predicted the future but he found that, when the image of the future was in full bloom, things were going well but, when a culture's ability to imagine a positive future for itself began to decay, then that is what would unfold historically too.

"That invites us to take stock of the landscape of images of the future that we are circulating at the moment and ask, what are we telling ourselves? More importantly, what are we not telling ourselves and how might that change?"

A futurist group called the Long Now Foundation argues it has become harder to think clearly about the long-term future, because of the increasing amount of information that surrounds us. Looking ahead is more difficult and more important.

Candy agrees with that. But he reminds us that any imagined future is only one of a range of possibilities. He talks about an optimism of the will, an awareness of how things could be different. Which brings us to "experiential futures". Scenarios of possible worlds are turned into "tangible artifacts and immersive encounters". This involves a futurist working at an intersection of art, design and science.

In 2010, Candy and futurist Jake Dunagan set up an installation at the California Academy of Sciences titled Our Plastic Century. Plastic debris in four large water coolers let visitors compare ocean pollution between 1910, 1960, 2010 and ahead to 2030. They hoped to trigger "the wisdom of repugnance".

At a "Hawaii 2050" event in the same year, Candy, Dator and Dunagan presented four possible futures. Different political, economic and environmental outcomes for Hawaii were extended from the present day.

In both cases, the future was no longer abstract but became a "living reality" to affect how people think and behave now. Candy saw another great example in San Francisco six years ago, when the Bay Area Red Cross put up a two-sided billboard showing possible earthquake damage to recognisable buildings on Market St. A likely disaster is introduced into the midst of everyday life and people must ask themselves if they are prepared.

Christchurch could have used such an intervention before 2010. But the future we now inhabit was in almost no-one's imagination then. Would it have seemed fanciful? Three years later, we could do worse than prepare for or imagine other futures that might lie in wait.

TED EXPLAINED

TED describes itself as "a non-profit organisation devoted to ideas worth spreading". It began as a four-day conference in California in 1984. Thinkers of various kinds are invited to speak for 18 minutes and their speeches are made available for free online.

TEDxChristchurch: Curiouser and Curiouser, a day-long event at the Aurora Centre, Burnside, on October 19, will be the fourth TED day to be held in Christchurch since 2010.

Besides Stuart Candy, speakers include toxicologist Ian Shaw, architectural historian Jessica Halliday, entrepreneur Selwyn Pellett, satirist Ben Uffindell, adventurer Ellis Emmett and Daniel Walker, founder of an initiative to combat human trafficking.

- The Press

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