This week’s new article will have to wait an extra day or two; we’ve had no electricity or Wifi since Wednesday thanks to Hurricane Isaias.
I finally managed to get a generator, in hope of spending the evening and morning writing. But it looks like more rain and thunderstorms are coming and I have to turn the generator off (it’s outside without cover…). So, I’m scheduling this email for tomorrow morning and will go read a book with a flashlight!
In the mean time, below an article from 2017 that draws lessons from science fiction about the future of cities.
I will send this week’s new article as soon as electricity returns, hopefully during this weekend.
Do Landlords Dream of Electric Sheep?
The book behind “Blade Runner” offers important lessons about what humans want from their cities. And it isn’t flying cars.
Architects havelongbeenfascinatedwith Blade Runner, an 1982 film that offered a vision of urban life in the 21st Century. Technologists have obsessed about the likelihood of flying cars, humanoid robots, outer space colonies, and making love to holograms. The original film was described as a “crystal ball for cities”, triggering a “fascination with space and place”. Its sequel was designed in consultation with professional futurists and NASA scientists.
Today, it is already clear that the original Blade Runner did not paint an accurate picture of life in 2019. The sequel, taking place in 2049, is an extrapolation of the original vision and does not aspire to describe the future of our own reality. Meanwhile, the book that inspired the Blade Runner franchise offers insights about the future of humanity that every builder and designer should keep in mind.
Below is a short introduction of the book, a few of its most pertinent quotes and insights, and some perspective from business theory and our own reality.
The original Blade Runner film was based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, a 1968 book written by Philip K. Dick. The book describes a future in which it is nearly impossible to tell humans and machines apart. Dick, a prolific sci-fi writer, said the original idea for the book occurred to him after reading about a Nazi officer who complained about not being able to sleep due to the screams of babies being murdered outside his window. This led Dick to write a book about empathy, which he saw as the single quality that sets humans apart from intelligent machines.
That’s deep, and dark. But what does it have to do with real estate? Here are a few planning guidelines.
1. Seeing other people
“You have to be with other people… In order to live at all… You can’t go back, he thought. You can’t go from people to nonpeople.” (page 204)
As we become more isolated, our yearning to see other people grows. The interactions that were unavoidable in previous times will become special occasions; receiving service and attention from another human will be a luxury. People will need to see and feel that other people are nearby.
This does not necessarily mean that everything will be shared. Perhaps even the opposite — human interaction will become so awkward as to require the orchestration of tactful planners. Like in a busy intersection in Tokyo, people will long to occupy the same space, but might find it difficult to start a conversation with a stranger.
2. Less things
“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s [newspaper]. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.” (page 65)
Things will become oppressive to a metaphysical degree. One of the most wonderful ideas in the book is “kipple”, a word that describes useless things and decay, as well as the tendency of such things to multiply once we let our guard down. In the age of abundance, the struggle to have less will be critical for those who wish to be truly alive. And since the outside world will be increasingly chaotic and stimulating, our homes, offices, and hotels will be where the battle for no-things will be waged.
3. Silence, in moderation
“Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls… It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it — the silence — meant to supplant all things tangible… The silence of the world could not rein back its greed… Better, perhaps, to turn the TV back on. But the ads… frightened him.” (pages 20–21)
Silence will become the rarest of things, both desirable and terrifying. Humans will want to tune out of the noise, of the stream of personalized messages telling them what they’re not, but they would also find it difficult to bear the silence, focusing them on what they are. Designing environments that will keep these two in balance is a worthy challenge.
“He thought, too, about his need for a real animal; within him an actual hatred once more manifested itself toward his electric sheep, which he had to tend, had to care about, as if it lived.” (page 42)
Do androids dream of electric sheep? They sure do. In the book, real animals are the ultimate status symbol. Most people can’t tell the difference. In the future, natural things will be increasingly valuable — materials, light, air, sound, that which is organic to the point of feeling like it hasn’t been designed at all.
“The tyranny of an object, he thought. It doesn’t know I exist. Like the androids, it had no ability to appreciate the existence of another.” (page 42)
Humans will not only long for “real” things, like an animal or a piece of wood. They will also need to be constantly reassured that they themselves are real . They will need reassurance that they really exist. And we only exist if others can see and acknowledge us. Humans will flock to where other humans are. But it is not clear how they will interact.
Where do we go from here?
Traces of the future described in the book are already apparent in our own reality. We mentioned Tokyo above. The set design for Blade Runner was inspired by Dotonbori, Osaka’s historical shopping district. But in the 35 years since the movie was released, Dotonbori evolved in the exact opposite direction. Its busiest shopping center, Namba Parks, is designed as a “sloping park” with an “open-air ‘canyon’ path that reinforces the connection with nature”.
Colin Nagi of Skift, a publication tracking hospitality and corporate travel trends, recently coined the term “Permanxiety” to describe the “near-constant state of anxiety“ that modern professionals experience and seek to escape. In a recent column, Nagi chronicles the increasing digitization and automation of hotels and travel destinations and his instincts about travelers wanting “exactly the opposite… a refuge from too much technology… a place where the human quotient needs to be upped, not eliminated.”
But humans are not the only ones feeling anxious. The buildings themselves should be worried. The fundamental components and specifications that used to set them apart — construction quality, elevators, HVAC systems, fire alarms, ceiling heights, layouts — are increasingly standardized. Most office and residential spaces are now good enough to satisfy the needs of most users. Even location is no longer a clear differentiator. As a result, buildings are becoming commodities.
As Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen et al pointed out in 2004, once a product becomes a commodity, value shifts to other parts of the value chain. To use a recent example from real estate, once the fundamental hardware of office spaces became standardized, differentiation between buildings shifted from the space itself to “soft” factors such as flexibility, interior design, and community.
Christensen explains how “value chains reconfigure to support an industry’s [new] basis of competition”. Meaning, the market rewards those who have the deepest understanding of end-users’ needs.
Ironically, now that buildings are good enough, differentiation can shift towards what individuals find valuable. The future might belong to humans after all.