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  • Michael Mehaffy

Why the next industrial revolution must be an ecological revolution – and why livable cities will be at its heart

While many focus on industry’s negative ecological impacts, few recognize the transformative promise of more fundamentally ecological forms of technology, including city-making technology

Poundbury, UK, the venue for the 59th IMCL conference, and a pilot project in seeking a new and more ecological generation of cities, towns and suburbs. Does it go far enough? That can be debated (and was debated at the conference).

NOTE: This essay highlights one of the topics that will be explored at the 60th International Making Cities Livable conference in Newport, RI USA, 26-28 April, 2024 (

Most of the discussion today around the so-called “next industrial revolution” involves artificial intelligence, the knowledge economy, Smart cities, and related technological innovations. These are certainly powerful and potentially transformative technologies. But they overlook an even more fundamental tectonic shift, transforming the very concepts of industry and technology.


Most of us are well aware of the history of industrial revolutions: the first brought the era of manufacturing powered by fossil fuels, followed by the era of electric power and the inventions it made possible, and then, in our own time, the era of computers, the Internet, and increasing robotic automation. These changes have transformed the world in ways our ancestors could not have imagined, for better and worse. 


But there is a reason to think that the next industrial revolution will be quite different, in fundamental and qualitative ways.


For one thing, it will have to adapt to a new reality of global crises, including crises caused by industrialism itself: pollution and contamination, resource depletion, environmental devastation, climate change, and less obvious but perhaps even more dangerous, the slow but steady erosion of cultural and political systems, caused by unbridled forms of technology that are not sufficiently disciplined towards positive human ends.


Some think industrialism will generate all the answers needed: clean energy, zero emissions, efficient technologies for better living. But it seems less likely than ever that the answer to the problems of technology is more technology – particularly if that technology has not reckoned fully with its own failings. 


In that sense, industrialism, and the technology by which it is powered, will have to adapt to the new knowledge about its own natural limits, and the evident superiority of many biological systems in solving problems and developing robust forms of sustainability. Much of this knowledge is emerging from the sciences, including a new understanding of the complexity of evolution, the dynamics of web-networks, the mathematics of fractals and symmetries, and the power (and pitfalls) of language and abstractions. 


Most fundamentally, the very idea of technology will be due for a reassessment: away from the pat abstractions of a commanded and “dead” machinery, “out there,” and back to the natural actions of human beings, as they (we) evolve their (our) own knowledge of making – the original meaning of the Greek term, techne + logos. We must reckon with the postmodern idea that human nature (and other natures too) cannot be reinvented, as artificial social constructs to be manipulated by digital technology at a whim. It seems that as we are a part of nature, so too, we have a nature.


In particular, we are seeing signs that quality is re-entering the picture, formerly exorcised by the Age of Reason but stubbornly reappearing in fields as diverse as neuroscience, medicine, psychology, and the science of the mind. Human beings are dependent on their environments and the qualities they offer, in ways that are far more profound than we realized. Our well-being, our health, and our ability to enjoy life, are bound up with our experiences of our world, and our interactions with it as creators, and (too often) as “passive” consumers.  


What does this have to do with livable cities?  Everything, perhaps. For it is in cities (and towns, and suburbs) that we move about, consume and deplete resources, produce emissions, create wonders, and generate most of the other impacts we humans make on planet Earth, for better or worse. It is on the surface of the Earth, and in particular our settlements, that we play out our destiny as a species.


It is for this reason that the characteristics of our cities are far more important than we usually recognize. Churchill’s memorable phrase, “we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us” is all the more true for our cities and towns. We are creatures of urbanism: we make it, and then it makes us, for better or worse.


Under the current regime, “livability” is considered a luxury – I get to live in a nice livable neighborhood (for which I may pay extra), but you must be happy with your merely “functional” one. But it is increasingly clear that livability is closely related to sustainability. All of the qualities of livability, including walkability, compactness, vibrancy, diversity, economic dynamism, and ecological beauty, are closely related to qualities of durability and resilience.


Beauty, too, is re-entering the picture, not as a subjective experience, but as an objective brain activity amenable to the studies of neuroscience and psychology. It is also increasingly a factor that we understand to be linked to our well-being. For we find beautiful those environments that are most likely to be conducive to our health and safety, and we find ugly those environments that are most threatening, from disease or disorder. In turn, the experience of beauty can lower stress levels, and promote “restorative” processes of body and mind. As UCL Professor of Neuroaesthetics Semir Zeki says, “beauty is not a luxury, but an essential ingredient in nourishing the emotional brain.”


Once again, there is a direct connection to sustainability and to the protection of ecology. Those environments that we find beautiful are also those that we are most likely to love and care for, whether natural or human-constructed. Furthermore, as the neuroscientists are suggesting, those environments that we find beautiful are also those that have enduring qualities that appeal to our shared neuroaesthetic tastes – coherence, pattern, symmetry, and forms that are intuitively well-adapted to human need and comfort. We find those natural environments beautiful that are most conducive to our security, comfort and delight – think of a beautiful meadow or valley – and the same is true, it now appears, for human environments.     


Jane Jacobs famously wrote about the parallels between cities and ecological systems, and she especially emphasized the importance of diversity in both cities and ecological systems. She also noted the link between coherent visual order (and what she called “organized complexity”) and a healthy, livable city. The role of art in the city is not to take us away from reality, into futurist fantasies or abstract sculpture galleries, but to illuminate and enrich the life of the city and its inhabitants. When it comes to cities, art has a kind of job to do: to support life, and not to supplant it. 


Jacobs made another important point about the nature of cities: through their very structure, they promote human and economic development. They bring us together, not in random ways but in specific web-networks, and especially the web-network of the public realm, and its connected network of adjoining private spaces. That is the arena of “propinquity and serendipity” – the happy accidents that can occur when we are closer to one another. It turns out that economic expansion relies in large part on the “knowledge spillovers” that occur, not in the home or the workplace, but in the “third places,” and the public ream to which they are all connected.  This is the secret to cities’ so-called “agglomeration benefits” – and it is also the secret to cities’ remarkable efficiency when it comes to producing more human benefits with fewer resources.


This was for Jacobs a basic distinction, between the capital of land and resources, which is in limited supply, and the human capital of invention, cultural creativity, which is potentially infinite. She was known to be working near the end of her life on what she called “the age of human capital” – where we would re-focus our technological economy on creating more human benefit with fewer resources, rather than the current emphasis on consuming and depleting resources, with diminishing human benefit (and indeed, ultimate catastrophe).


What we have been doing, in effect, has been to pull the world apart into little bits, and re-assemble it using high levels of energy and resources. We pull our houses far apart from our shops and workplaces, and then re-connect them all with automobiles. We pull our food sources far apart, and then re-connect them with fertilizers, refrigerated trucks and aircraft. 


This is a “depletion economy,” powered by digging and stripping and burning and consuming. It is ultimately driven by “consumers,” and so it is essential to persuade them to consume ever more, without regard to the level of satisfaction or quality. A great deal of the media environment is full of these manipulative messages, and they are effective. We have built a staggering economy on this model – but it is not sustainable.       


This is not how nature operates, of course. Nature manages the neat trick of a “repletion economy,” wherein resources are not only re-used, they are also regenerated anew. Instead of declining quality and gradual self-destruction, natural systems manage to grow ever richer over time, by recycling and compounding the quality of their resources. 


We humans have done this too – for example, in the way we have compounded the richness of our cities, the beauty of their public realm, and the cultural treasures they produce and accumulate within them. This is the “human capital” that Jacobs wrote about – the structures that promote quality of life, health and well-being, instead of merely promoting consumption for consumption’s sake. 

A corollary is the idea that, while we have become very good at economies of scale and standardization -- making vast numbers of standardized products and components -- we have not been so good at economies of place and differentiation. That is what natural systems do, and it's how the structures they produce become differentiated and well-adapted to their place within a sustainable ecology.

Of course, nature also uses economies of scale and standardization -- for example, vast numbers of seeds, each of which uses the standardized components of the genetic code (each of which is built upon only four molecules). But natural systems balance their economies of scale and standardization with economies of place and differentiation. We humans are, by comparison, dangerously out of balance.


When it comes to the technology of city-making, we can now see the need to re-align our systems and their feedbacks, away from pure quantity and back toward quality – away from a “depletion economy” and back toward a “repletion economy”, complementing economies of scale and standardization with economies of place and differentiation. Other technological and industrial systems will need to make similar reforms.

Rather than ever more sleek electric cars, we will need more good walkable places. Rather than ever more fast food, we will need more slow food, and food worth savoring. Rather than ever more sprawling, freeway-fast cities, we will need slow cities – no less worth savoring, for their durable, sustainable delights. 


That is the very promising foundation for a new “ecological industrial revolution”.




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