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Have we designed our way to disaster? An interview with U design dean Tom Fisher

Looking ahead, Fisher says, “The companies and cities that are the most diversified in their thinking will have an advantage. Those systems that are both efficient and full of redundancies will prosper.”

The collapse of the I-35W Bridge got Tom Fisher to thinking about other critical fractures in the world. And the more he explored the more alarmed he became.

There was the single levy breach in New Orleans that flooded the whole city after only a moderate hurricane. There was the BP oil platform explosion and spill that couldn’t be fixed. There was the H1N1 pandemic that failed to kill millions worldwide only because the flu strain was relatively mild. There were the systematic failures of the housing and financial markets that rapidly engulfed the entire economy. And there are the ongoing trends that portend larger disasters: a disparity in wealth that the world has never seen, and a singular reliance on fossil fuels that pose huge risks to almost every aspect of life.

Fisher, who’s the dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, sees a common thread running through all of these failures or pending failures: It’s hubris.

More specifically, it’s a post-World War II-era, technology-driven faith that has led us to design systems — from bridges to levies, from health care to credit default swaps — that seem efficient and innovative when actually they’re the opposite because they lack the anticipation of failure. And so, when something goes wrong it goes terribly wrong.

He showed diagrams to illustrate his points about exponential increases in worrisome trends (from world population to natural disasters to temperatures to income inequities), describing all of these as systems heading for smashups.

“We believe that our technology has made us invincible, but we’re wrong,” Fisher said one morning last week while discussing his new book (his sixth) due for publication next year, “Fracture Critical: How We Design Our Way to Disasters.”

Tom Fisher
Tom Fisher

“I’m not saying we could achieve a perfect world,” he added. “But we must rediscover the resilience that we used to build into our thinking and our designing.”
“That’s a lot to have for breakfast,” one listener told Fisher as he finished his talk at the Cunningham Group architectural firm in Minneapolis. I had to agree. Fisher’s message was a plateful, so I asked him to sit down for a second cup of coffee and a few more questions.

Seeing the world through a designer’s lens
I’ve known Fisher for more than a decade. He’s not a gloomy man by nature, but cheerful, boundlessly curious and artfully articulate, the kind of public intellectual that universities cherish. In just 15 years, he’s transformed the U’s architecture school from an excellent technical training ground to a kind of integrated launch pad that applies design to nearly every human pursuit. To my eye, his designer’s lens offers a keen view of the world’s problems, a view that hovers between art and science. A good designer sees the challenge in stark terms (building a house on a slope, for example), then applies creativity to the solution (planting as much ground cover as possible to keep the soil in place). Designers are optimistic by nature, and that makes Fisher’s analysis less scary than it first seems.

“We live in an incredibly exciting time,” he tells me. “We’re at the cusp of a renaissance, but we don’t know it yet.” Old hierarchies and compartments are breaking down, he says, and we’re discovering that everything is related to everything else. The world, he says, is less like a conventional machine than like an ecosystem — or like the Internet, made up of infinite connections. Innovation is something that’s bound to happen, he says, as long as we come to terms with the flaws in our past thinking. 

Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

MinnPost: I find politics nearly unwatchable these days, less because of the pettiness than because so much of the rhetoric is irrelevant to the real problems at hand.

Tom Fisher:
Exactly. The problems we face in the 21st century are so profoundly different than those we faced just a few years ago. We don’t realize that the meltdown of 2007-2008 has brought us into an entirely different era while the political arguments remain the same. Take the issue of taxes. We’re still arguing about whether we’re for them or against them when the real question is about what we’re trying to accomplish with taxes. I constantly hear talk about redesigning government. But I don’t hear any specifics other than squeezing the current system. You can’t just cut without putting everything on the table and asking fundamental questions, like: Why does our military spend twice as much as all of the world’s other militaries combined? Who are we fighting and why? We don’t yet realize the world we’re in. This is no longer about managing situations. It’s about finding leaders who will tell new stories about the reality we’re in.

MP: And what would those stories be?

We still view government as a machine that you can control by switching a few levers. The world is now more like the Internet, where nobody has levers to turn. On the web you just move around obstacles, sort of like the way people are moving around government. We’re a human ecology. The question isn’t whether we’re part of the animal kingdom or not. We are. But we operate as if we’re still in an age of survival of the fittest, of competition, of setting up political enemies and polarization, about Democrats and Republicans, when the real world now depends on mutual support and cooperation.

MP: How do you interpret the incredible anger you see in politics?

There’s some connection between inequality and anger; studies show that correlation. But there’s also a sense that the old solutions aren’t working. The Tea Party is popular because people think it’s new. I’m skeptical because it’s funded by those who want to perpetuate the inequalities that make people angry and to perpetuate the old ways.

MP: Aren’t people also frustrated because the future we thought we’d have may not arrive in quite the same way? For example, coming out of the Great Recession, how different will our communities and our lifestyles be?

Space will shrink. We will live more compactly because we can’t afford McMansions anymore. There may be no market for large segments of the suburban landscape. Cities will be more diverse and have smaller footprints, and we’ll realize that we must do everything we can to accelerate innovation. And that means a lot of face-to-face contact and interaction because that’s how ideas flow.

MP: Does that mean the office park as we know it is dead? In the post-World War II era, it was the way business was organized. We were insular. We had lunch at the company cafeteria and rarely talked to anyone outside the company.

That style has proved detrimental to innovation. It’s a monoculture. The Big Three automakers were an example. They were all in one city. They didn’t see change coming. They chose the Hummer instead of the electric car when they might have selected both. The companies and cities that are the most diversified in their thinking will have an advantage. Those systems that are both efficient and full of redundancies will prosper. The human brain has both. The World Wide Web has both. That’s the new model. This is a shift of the kind that comes every 300 or 400 years. This is equivalent to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. It’s a whole new reality.

MP: Some people thought that Obama was going to be this change.

Yes, but Washington turns out to be this incredible trap of old thinking. All institutions are like that, even universities.

MP: So, returning to the question of cities and their need to diversify: Is zoning obsolete?

Zoning, if it means separating the uses of land, is absolutely obsolete. There ought to be many functions going on on the same block, as there once were. So-called “form-based” codes get us part way there. But they’re too concerned superficially with how buildings look. The important thing is experimentation. Let different communities try different things on a limited basis. One neighborhood might want to do farming.

MP: Is the office building over? What about the high-rise?

The office building as we think of it is finished. But we will find increasingly multi-use, mixed-use-towers that include mutually supportive functions: offices, hotel rooms, condos. High-rise construction will continue because of its efficiency and its ability. There will be new arrangements for work, as well, including working at home — and certainly working closer to home. We’ll see a densifying of suburbs. There will be many nodes, with downtowns being just one of many. The region will be like an ecosystem with an emphasis on local.

MP: Aren’t you worried about protectionism and the break down of global trade under this intensely local scenario?

Well, I think we’ll travel less and there will be less trade and more emphasis on local economies. We’ll be physically more local but increasingly connected digitally. We’re not going back into a feudal, medieval world. There’s no reason to become intellectually isolated. It will be more important than ever to learn from other people far away.

MP: Your argument seems skeptical of both big industry and big government.

Yes. This is about experimentation. You try something. If it fails you try something else. We’ve developed big systems that amass power in a few people. Those systems are averse to innovation. They will eventually go down the way Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns went down. Wal-Mart will go down when gas prices reach $10 a gallon. Its model is absolutely unsustainable.

MP: How much of my inability to grasp what you’re saying comes from the fact that I’m embedded in the post-World War II era in which I grew up?

There is a generational component to all of this. My students instinctively understand these things. In fact, our grandparents and great grandparents might understand them better than we do because, in some ways, the world is returning to something like their time. We’ve been living in an aberration. We’ve seen the rise an fall of fracture critical phenomena in our lifetime, and it’s hard to understand why it failed and why we can’t go back to what we think of as the glory days.

MP: And so the world is full of angry deniers.

Yes, but I don’t think it’s right to portray this as a loss. It’s a different kind of gain. I firmly believe that this new world that we’re already in will be better than the one we left. But it will be profoundly different. And we don’t know yet what to call it.