TED Conversations

Rachel Armstrong

The University of Greenwich


This conversation is closed.


This Live Conversation with TED Fellow Rachel Armstrong will open on February 8th, 2012 at 1pm EST, 6pm UK time.
Join the conversation as Rachel discusses her view on ecological humans and city 2.0.

We are not machines but Ecological Humans. We depend on our networks for survival, like an oak tree in the forest, being made up of highly interacting and interdependent systems. For example, eating is not simply consuming ‘fuel’ to feed our body-machine but is a mutual relationship shared between our gut bacteria, our food and our bodies (which, in turn, are highly interconnected assemblages of specialised tissues). The way that we see ourselves influences the way that we operate through the world in all aspects of our lives - from health, to business and even space exploration!

Ecological Humans, imagine the City 2.0 as being grown from the bottom-up by its communities. It is underpinned by highly interacting and interdependent networks, which use dynamic fabrics that behave in life-like ways. These buildings can be described as Living Architecture that are capable of responding to the changes in our dynamic cities as only real ecologies can.


Will The City 2.0 be qualitatively different to modern cities? Or pragmatically, can the transition only be made as a series of incremental changes? What can we do to facilitate this transition?

What does being an Ecological Human mean to me? Can it help me find new or more effective ways of working?

Can we rely on biology to provide all the answers when it comes to sustainable building solutions? Is life a technology - and should we exploit it in the pursuit of more sustainable ways of building?


Closing Statement from Rachel Armstrong

Thank you so much everyone for joining me today and taking time to comment and share your thoughts. What an amazing set of discussion threads have begun! I am excited about how the TED Prize winner City 2.0, will turn out - which is the event that inspired the context for this discussion. Perhaps, beyond the immediate context of near-future cities - the idea of being an Ecological Human may help us imagine ourselves and the world around us differently. Maybe we can use this way of imagining the world so that we can find truly sustainable solutions for the places we live in. We could possibly also use this approach to help others understand what being 'ecological' might mean. Perhaps this way of looking at the world may have applications in other areas of our lives such as, in the workplace. So, again - a really warm 'thank you' everyone for taking time out to share your thoughts with me and offer your perspectives. If you would like to find out more about Living Architecture you may like to buy my TED Book http://www.ted.com/pages/tedbooks, which is available from Amazon.com, Apple's iBookstore, and is also on the Nook platform.

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    Feb 8 2012: Is it possible – given that cities are complex, therefore unpredictable – to generate any kind of impact (whether initiated by a 'wish' or any other kind of action) - on what is a conundrum and constantly moving target? Moreover, cities possess durations longer than a life span and inevitably outlive the jurisdiction of politicians and company heads who may be in any kind of meaningful position to oversee sustainable change.
    • Feb 8 2012: Fantastic questions! I definitely believe humanity can coevolve into a beneficial structural and functional force in living systems and the Panarchy. With us evolving into an urban species, cities are the key!
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        Feb 8 2012: Josh - thank you for raising the subject of Panarchy - I'd like to hear more about how you think that this approach - which fundamentally engages with the ideas of complexity and ecology that are so important to us right now - can actually work for people living in cities.
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      Feb 8 2012: Dear Rachel, thank you very much for providing us with a platform to share our ideas for the city 2.0! I think to generate an impact, the most important thing would be to make everyone feel like being part of something bigger than the sum of its parts. I live in Paris, but I don't *live* here, which means that I don't interact with my neighbors and that Paris doesn't care whether I am here or not. Yes, a city is constantly moving and evolving, but friendships made in a neighborhood -- or simple things like having a BBQ together -- or great things, like creating a park or painting the walls of a building -- can last forever and beyond the borders of the city itself. Everyone should be able to get involved with the city's changing shape -- but in fact, I wouldn't even know how, because the link between the inhabitants and the city / major / administration is missing.
      • Feb 8 2012: Simone, your post makes me think of the challenges faced when we see only the material aspects of a city. The type of social relations and bonds you detail are the life force. How do we create ways to ensure that these relationships and bonds are supported by the material system of cities?
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          Feb 8 2012: Felicia - this is a beautiful question. Machine thinking banishes our own souls and the life force of our cities from any notions of value. A wonderful city to live in does not have a material worth, unless it can be materialised in some way - through real estate. My deepest concerns are not even for our immediate spiritual well being but for our long term visions, goals and values. How can we in a secular, global society find ways of transcending the 'trap' of the material realm. Surely I understand that finance generates a certain infrastructure in a city experience but what really makes a great city are its people and how they live their dreams.
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          Feb 8 2012: I think art is a great facilitator for materializing visions... Look at JR or Banksy, they are transcending material borders... well, by using them for something else! It sounds stupid to say it, but painting the walls of a whole city and adding plants would -- at least for me -- transform it into a living space to which everyone would contribute. Grey walls, massive skyscrapers, and abandoned places always make me wonder why and how it could have come to this and what we can do against it.
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        Feb 8 2012: Simone, I think this is a great and wonderful observation. How do we maintain our sense of belonging, cultural diversity and participate in truly international cities? There are profound questions here about identity, politics and our living spaces. Indeed, as you note our cities are more than materials - they are its people and their communities - whether local or globally located. What concerns me is how this great spirit of humanity that is embodied in our cities can thrive when the forces that regulate our cities are so materially based ... working through the machines of industry and operating according to solving 'known' issues. Cities are subversive - how can we harness this spontaneity to grow truly fertile cities in the near future?
      • W T 100+

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        Feb 8 2012: "....painting the walls of a whole city and adding plants would -- at least for me -- transform it into a living space to which everyone would contribute...."

        If those responsible for planning cities would realize the value of green spaces in and around a city, painting walls would not be necessary.....Here in South Florida, you can tell where greed took over a city....buildings and cement everywhere....and where the planning commission took their time...bike paths, open spaces with lots of trees and green areas around the industrial zones. I think it comes down to who is in charge of city government.

        Some, sad to say have to call the police around here because neighbors try to knock down the trees that provide much needed shade, in order to put in a stamped concrete driveway worth thousands of dollars....they call this "progress"....I call it stupid.. Trees vs cement....trees win hands down.....but not everyone sees it this way.
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          Feb 8 2012: Mary, That is indeed totally heartbreaking to hear - there are some very deep issues about value that are so necessary to have when it comes to the nature of our cities. I agree with you in how topsy turvy our environments have become when inert surfaces are considered more desirable than living ones - mainly by property developers rather than civic communities I will also add. After all - we do not live 'in nature' but in architecture - this is our local environment and as Darwin observed, these intimate niches have a real effect on our well being. Again this raises issues about who is planning the long term for our cities. What is the long term vision for the places that we live in and how are we engaging our children and our grandchildren in helping us achieve these long term visions. I simply do not trust the 'market' to make any decisions that have any real impact more than a 3-5 year product cycle away. Leaving everything to the marketplace has simply productised the future - and it's not a real future - it's just a drawn out version of our present.
        • Feb 8 2012: This is also true when looking at the economic impact of the housing crisis -- everything has relied on building more & more, buying bigger & bigger, further & further out. So many lost jobs that didn't exist just a decade or 2 before. Media reports have you believing the only way back to economic security is for the construction industry to rebound! But for whom will they build? & sell? & profit? We need an economy that relies on more than "selling people new things" to survive. In any case, even solar energy projects are being proposed hundreds of miles away, instead of on the buildings that have room for, & the need for, these more sustainable solutions.
    • Feb 8 2012: Rachel - great initiative. Cities are indeed at the very heart of a better tomorrow. However, I am slight;y confused when you talk of 'conundrum and constantly moving targets'.. regarding the UK for example, these are not moving as they have been passed through both Houses and today the Carbon Budgets are UK law.
      Furthermore, all cities in the C40 have a Climate Action Plan: http://live.c40cities.org/cities/
      There is still a lot of work to be done (obviously!); a lot of which involves getting transitional/developing countries such as 'ChIndia' on board who, for all our sakes, must not make the same industrial centralising; closed systems thinking mistakes that we have made over the past generation.
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        Feb 8 2012: Antoine - I agree that measures are being taken to address carbon counts but the big picture is that this kind of legislation is simply buying us time whilst we look for a real paradigm shift in ways of making - that invert the current situation from being damaging or neutral for the environment to being actually beneficial to it. I cover a few of these ideas in my book http://www.ted.com/pages/tedbooks
        ... which I am referring to for want of time :) However, the conundrum and constantly moving targets are twofold - the obsolescence of buildings - that once they are built are no longer ideally fit for purpose or have already outdated technology/solutions AND the ever changing nature of the public in terms of employment, the use of public space - dynamic things that aren't measurable in carbon credits that have an impact on the experience and design of cites. However, I do concede that making positive efforts to use energy more carefully efficiently and resourcefully is something to be actively celebrated and pursued. It's not not the whole picture of a thriving community or a successful city.

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