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ASU collaborators use scenarios to explore future of Phoenix

Futuristic Corporate Campus in Phoenix
February 26, 2014

What will the future of Phoenix look like? Will more and more giant corporate campuses that run on solar energy and recycled water provide safe and convenient places to work, live and play? Will alleys become high-tech parks blending private and public space as many homeowners take down their backyard block walls?

Both scenarios are plausible given the historical trajectory of Phoenix and the technologies that are emerging as you read this. How will Phoenix’s future urban spaces emerge? What might these scenarios mean for environmental, economic and social sustainability?

Visualization scenarios, the product of a unique collaboration between the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU (CNS-ASU) and The Design School at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, offer a new way to envision how a city’s future might play out and to help answer those questions.

On Feb. 28, Darren Petrucci, architect and professor in the Design School, and Rider Foley, postdoctoral scholar with CNS-ASU, presented in Washington, D.C., at the “New Tools for Science Policy” breakfast seminar, hosted by ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO).

Many forces underlie technology’s interplay with urban evolution, including competing societal desires – such as economic growth, access to clean water, safety and security, and sustainable use of natural resources – as well as a city’s history and personality. An attempt to capture the complex interaction of these influences, scenarios are an alternative to traditional cost- and risk-benefit analyses.

“Technology doesn’t just have costs and benefits. It’s the values that people place on the technology that are at the center of these scenarios,” says Foley. A sensing technology, for example, could be used to detect and treat disease sooner. Or, it could be used to deny someone health insurance or a job. “It’s still just a sensing technology,” says Foley.

The scenarios project began with CNS-ASU creating four plausible, day-in-the-life narratives of a future Phoenix based on available and emerging nanotechnologies. The narratives were then given to design studio students, who consolidated and transformed them into two divergent scenarios that capture technical, cultural and aesthetic influences in a cohesive visual design.

“Designers are system integrators,” says Petrucci. “Design can work as a great collaborator among engineers, researchers, and natural and social scientists.”

The design students began by mapping the trajectory of how Phoenix became Phoenix. “From there, we could begin to extrapolate where the urban form and growth might go,” says Petrucci.

The first scenario follows the trend of large corporations, like Google, developing large swaths of land into sustainably-run mega-campuses, where employees can both work and live. “It’ll probably be the most sustainable development in the city,” says Petrucci. “But if these campuses are available only to those employed by the corporations, then the disparity between the haves and have nots will be great.”

The second scenario depicts more equitable, integrated neighborhood development, but it’s messier. “Neighborhoods would take control of their own environments and develop them, but that requires an enormous amount of difficult collaboration, and development would be slower and fragmented,” says Petrucci.

The design students chose video to portray the two scenarios because it provides “a succinct way to illustrate the simultaneity of what goes on in environments,” says Petrucci.  The video, however, doesn’t promote one scenario over the other. “The intention was to make both scenarios seem inevitable, and to have both positive and negative aspects,” says Petrucci.

Instead of encouraging the audience to choose one scenario over the other, the goal is instead to get the audience thinking about how their current decisions are influencing future urban landscapes and, in turn, future social dynamics as well. These current decisions involve not just questions normally associated with urban development, like tax breaks and zoning, but also questions about investments in scientific research and development as well.

The DC CSPO breakfast series aims to showcase tools that can help reconcile scientific research supply and demand. To see a list of upcoming seminar topics and dates, see the CSPO website.