There is no doubt that, as our built environment has transformed from a local phenomenon to a global one, we are now confronted with more pressing social, technological, economic, environmental and political change forcing us to a local mindset – on a global scale.

There is no doubt that, as our built environment has transformed from a local phenomenon to a global one, we are now confronted with more pressing social, technological, economic, environmental and political change forcing us to a local mindset – on a global scale. The rally cry of UN and other global environmental initiatives, “Think globally – act locally,” coined in 1972 by philosopher and UN advisor, Rene Dubos, has, in thirty-plus years, become more than an empty slogan; it has become an urgent plea, and, for many designers and architects, a way of life.

The world’s structure and infrastructure is increasingly developed using materials from across the globe; just about every region of the world touches each other in one way or another, every day. In an increasingly interconnected world, what defines our built environment? What will determine what we build and how we build it? And how does all this affect our immediate environment?

The World is Shrinking

Containerized traffic comprised 23.8 percent of the world’s traffic in 2004 and countries like the US are carrying excessive trade deficits in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The World Trade Organization (WTO) established in 1995, with 144 member countries, accounts for over 90 percent of trade in the world. Since 2002, 162 regional trade agreements (RTAs) have been in force, with over half coming into existence after 1995. The WTO estimates that over 300 RTAs will be in effect by 2007.

NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is perhaps one of the most important examples of trade blocs, in which both high-income industrial and developing countries are equal partners. Bloc design stems firstly from competition and scale, and secondly from trade and location. The WTO and global trading blocks account for vast majority of world trade; more than a third of world trade now occurs within these blocs. These global networks of trade mean that isolationism is no longer an option; changes, upheavals, shifts and conflicts abroad trigger shifts at home, regardless of where home is and regardless of age or class.

Populations are Expanding

Improved living conditions and advances in health care technology are reducing instances of infant mortality, prolonging life, and creating a massive design (planning, governance, and construction) dilemma. By 2020 the 60+ age group will reach a count of one billion. Seventy-five percent of this group will live in the developed world – 16 percent will be US American; 20 percent will be German; and 27 percent will be Japanese.

Less developed countries of the world have witnessed an unprecedented increase in populations in the last 50 years, 90 percent of which has been in urban areas. The next 50 years will be no exception, as the global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Not only are populations of developing countries increasing at an alarming rate, the populations of developed nations are ageing, and shrinking at just as alarming a pace. What this equates to is a significant design and social network quandary (or opportunity) as resources to support these burgeoning population clusters become increasingly scarce.

Considerable shifts in population centers in areas historically considered troubled from a perspective of resources, and political stability are occurring across the globe. Sub-Saharan Africa and western Asia are the fastest growing regions of the world. Fertility – average births per woman – ranges from 1.2 in Italy to 8.0 in Niger.

Nationalism is on the Wane

Shifts in population densities, unmet needs in agricultural, service, and other industries equates to what could be perceived as a global nomadicism, massive groups of skilled and unskilled labor shifting population centers in search of employment. Economies rely on these international migrants in unexpected ways: Remittances for countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua have, historically, accounted for more than 60 percent of the total foreign currencies obtained through the exports of goods and services.

How do people identify with a single nation when one in every 25 people in the world is an international immigrant? Perhaps the trend is towards multinationalism, as the isolationist principals of nationalism command less importance than global economic prosperity. With Europe now home to the largest number of international migrants, followed by Asia and North America, are we now becoming people of the plant earth rather than Americans or French, Chinese, or Czech?

Many European nations to learn foreign languages, stay in school longer, and enter the work force later. Seventy-seven percent of EU students can speak a foreign language well enough to take part in a conversation. Pupils in countries like Greece, Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Cyprus, and Estonia learn, on average, two or more foreign languages at International Standard Classification Level 2. Yet, can language express the ever pressing need for conservation of increasingly scarce resources? Will transient populations recognize that the opportunity for “the good life” is rapidly depleting with each passing year?

The Potential for Scarcity

That “good life,” the dream of developed nations, the life so many developing regions of the world desire, cannot remain the model for existence. The model of consumption and trade, with little concern for scarcity and non-renewable resources, is ill able to maintain the current setting without a radical reevaluation. The US, the largest importing economy in the world, accounts for nearly one-fifth of world merchandise imports, equivalent to half the global trade expansion in 2002. The US trade deficit, up 17 percent from 2002, was US $489.3 billion in 2003.

And trade of goods is only a portion of the equation. Nearly 50 percent of the CO2 emissions in the UK are caused by building, maintaining, and occupying buildings. For emissions in non-residential use, heating fuel is 52 percent; lighting is 25 percent and water heating is nine percent. The consumption of non-renewable resources, and their subsequent environmental impacts are becoming increasingly popular in our global culture, yet change, despite awareness, is slow to arrive. In 2003, the United States, China, and Japan were the three leading global consumers of oil, with the United States exceeding China and Japan’s combined consumption by nearly 15 percent. The purveyors of the good life need to lead the way, not in consumption but in conservation.

Trouble Where We Tread

Forty-seven percent of a global footprint source comes from fossil fuels; 29 percent from cropland; nine percent comes from forests; six percent from fisheries; and five percent from the built environment. Conservation begins with lifestyle, a lifestyle that has alarmingly overstepped its boundaries. The average world citizen had, in 1999, an ecological footprint of 2.3 global hectares; there are only 1.9 global hectares of biologically productive space available per person on the earth. The footprint per person of high-income countries was, on average, three times greater than the earth’s biological capacity and six times that of low-income countries.

Urbanism’s Ceaseless Growth

Cities occupy less than 2 percent of the Earth’s land surface but house almost half the human population. Almost 180,000 people are added to the urban population each day. Growth will occur in less developed countries where the urban expansion is expected to reach 50 percent by 2020. As more and more people fill out the urban areas, and sprawl continues to consume arable land and force increased consumption of non-renewable resources, we need to ask: Where will everyone go? Where will the food come from and how will it get to the city? We have a considerable design and infrastructure dilemma on our hands when, by 2015, 23 cities in the world are projected to hold over 10 million people – all but four of which will be in less developed countries – and sixty percent of the world population is expected to be urban by 2030. Sixty percent of this increasingly urban population lives in Asia.

Asia on the Rise

Growth will continue, and the balance of power will shift, where population and economies of scale take hold. Thirty-two percent of the world’s languages are from Asia. Economic growth in the past decade was fastest in the developing economies of East Asia and Pacific (averaging 6.7 percent a year) and South Asia (5.5 percent). Leading this growth were China and India, each accounting for more than 70 percent of its region’s output. China now accounts for 11 percent of US imports and has replaced Japan as the biggest Asia market for both Asian and EU exporters. China is now the third largest importer of developing country exports after the United States and the European Union. There are 874 million native Chinese speakers; 355 million people speak Hindi; and 207 million people speak Bengali. The impact of groups of this scale is alarmingly apparent.

Hopeful Trends

Population shifts, increasing scarcity and the wanton consumption of arable land and natural (renewable and non-renewable) resources, amount to what could prove to be a significant global dilemma, a dilemma of disastrous proportion. Yet, trends in design and an ever-increasing focus on conservation and environmental issues, suggest that we are headed for a collective change. Progressive, developed, local and national governments are taking the initiative and setting examples of sustainability from a governance standpoint. Iceland, for example, is poised to become the world’s first all-hydrogen economy; two-thirds of its power already comes from either geothermal or hydro-electric sources.

Research in design and the life sciences has also made a considerable shift in emphasis and research focus. Writer and renowned life-science scholar, Janine Benyus, has observed a shift from the “hard” disciplines of physics and chemistry towards a biology-oriented state of innovation. Paths to biomimicry (Benyus’ coined term) include quietening human cleverness, listening to nature, echoing nature, and protecting the wellspring of good ideas through stewardship.

Stewardship of Ideas

Leading organizations are targeting innovation and working to enhance the dialogue of conservation, consideration, and sustainability. ARUP, the global design and engineering firm, has devised “Drivers of Change” cards to provide 50 concisely worded ideas of change, 50 filters through which we can analyze our built environment, our lifestyle, and our life choices as we age, grow, and become increasingly embroiled in a global society.

What these cards attempt to do is foster discussions centered around Sir Ove Arup’s “total design” approach to creating a more sustainable global future for all. This “total design” attests to the increasingly interconnected world, in which resource consumption, economics, and sustainability are all connected, and all are vested. No longer can a major change effect only the countries implementing these changes. The seemingly most benign cultural changes have a ripple effect across all countries, all economies, and all people.

The Drivers of Change STEEP framework includes: Social (ageing population, communication, education for all, fear, future households, holistic wellness, identity, literacy, personal productivity, population distribution), Technology (atomic engineering, biometric identification, biomimetics, biotech society, connected communities, energy infrastructure, preventative care, radio frequency identification (RFID), smart dust, wearable computing), Environment (aviation, consumption localization, disposable quality goods, ecological footprint, endangered species, energy use, travel, urbanization waste, water), Economic (airport shopping, containerized cargo, China trade, consumer debt, democratization of luxury, digital currency, global trade, migration, outsourcing, wealth gap), Political (Asianization, compensation culture, ethical investment, global governance, food legislation, pensions, strife, surveillance society, trading blocs, the vote). Chris Luebkeman, Director for Global Foresight and Innovation at Arup, says: “These 50 cards continue Arup’s thought leadership work by challenging both us and our clients to consider the implications of global issues. For instance, as a society we recognize the ageing of our population, but what are the effects of an ageing workforce in industry?

“What we’re concerned about at Arup is helping to raise awareness, and the drivers of change series give us an opportunity to stimulate thought and create conversations around the world.” Since 2003, the Foresight & Innovation team has conceptualized and facilitated over 60 workshops worldwide – with groups as diverse as lawyers, politicians, schoolchildren and Fortune 500 directors. These workshops explore the potential impact of leading drivers of change on the future of business and society. Over the years, the workshops have involved over 4,000 participants, including those from business, from education, from politics, and individuals from all walks of life. All have contributed to Arup’s assessment of these emerging trends and technologies.

As isolated issues, or from a “total design” perspective, these drivers of change, detailed by Arup’s Foresight & Innovation team, assure that radical transformations are afoot. Humanity is situated at a tremendous turning point and the design community is uniquely positioned to guide this turn in the appropriate direction. Alarming as it may seem, and as doomed as the data may lead us to feel, there is still a chance for a sustainable, interconnected culture; a world aware of the impact of every day decisions in tune with the infinitely positive potential of a global marketplace; a world of positive effects; a world of change and deliberate design.

Dr. Chris H. Luebkeman is Director for Global Foresight and Innovation at Arup. Chris is tasked with exploring and synthesizing the trends affecting society’s development. He uses this knowledge to inform the strategic thinking of Arup and its clients, bringing about a better understanding of the way these drivers can be incorporated into more effective business strategies. In 2004 Chris was named a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council.