William Stewart Photography

We know that the world for which we design and build is changing rapidly. But, thinking far into the future is not always a fruitless exercise. Recall the the Pan Am shuttle that takes passengers to the space station in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, commercial flights into space don’t seem too ridiculous any more, as government space agencies have ceded a lot of ground to the private sector. Just ask Richard Branson how well things are going.

As architects, we have to dare to imagine the future, because it will be the future that decides the value of what we do today. So how do we build the kind of flexibility needed into stone, metal, and glass, so that it that will bend to tomorrow’s needs?

We already know a lot about what we could see in the future: accelerating urbanization, population growth (a staggering 7 billion people globally by 2015), the aging populations of industrialized countries, climate change (or, in Thomas Friedman’s words, “climate weirdness”), the increasing expense and scarcity of fossil fuel, globalization, and so on. Every one of these factors is relevant to the direction of future practice. But I’d like to focus on a few current trends that can broaden an understanding of the value that we bring to our clients and the public.

Wellness. Several years ago, the AIA Board of Directors invited Dr. Richard J. Jackson to serve as a public member. The invitation was extended not simply to gain an outside perspective (which is certainly valuable); the co-editor of Making Healthy Places was invited because he clearly grasps the connection between health and what we build. Architects understand this connection; but not many physicians do, and such knowledge is even scarcer among the public. As the cost of providing healthcare continues to accelerate, voices such as Jackson’s will help bring architects to the table where the discussion shifts, as it must, from treating illness to keeping people well (and giving them the tools to keep themselves well).

Nature. Increased urbanization could mean diminished understanding of how we are connected to nature. We have a role to play in integrating knowledge of nature into the way that cities are shaped. This goes deeper than providing islands of green spaces: It means working on the whole urban canvas, addressing everything from ozone to stormwater to wastewater. Rising to that challenge means greater collaboration between architects, urban planners, landscape architects, and engineers, each of whom holds a piece of the larger puzzle.

Place-making. Although the public will continue to marvel at and be inspired by singular works of genius, there is a growing hunger for connections, for rootedness, for places that are special and not interchangeable. Architects have always done this, yet I wonder if we are guilty of encouraging the media to discuss “design” as a noun rather than a verb, as a beauty contest rather than a way of thinking that heals the fracturing of human experience. That has to change, and I assure you that the AIA will be leading that change.

There are of course more opportunities to expand our awareness of design’s potentially positive impact. Wherever such a discussion leads, by making the effort to look forward—and acting on those insights today—we’ll be more likely to be partners with (and not casualties of) the better future that’s struggling to be born.

Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President