Design solutions by truly understanding how humans use tools

The Futurama exhibit from the 1939 World’s Fair, although pretty in exhibition form, looks like a terrible place to live. It’s a world of machines, concrete, and efficiency. How boring! Futurists have always imagined the “what can we do?” scenarios. They’ve never really asked the questions:

  • What should we do?
  • What do people want that would make them feel more alive and more happily human?

Jane Jacobs, in her excellent book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argues that communities that don’t grow organically, don’t survive and thrive. In fact, our nation’s 11th “largest” city, California City, CA, has only 14,000 inhabitants:

In 1958, Nathan Mendelsohn, a Columbia University sociology instructor turned developer, acquired 82,000 acres of desert in eastern Kern County, 100 miles from Los Angeles.

Today a mere 14,000 souls call California City home. Most are clustered at one end of the massive tract. It’s a sleepy outpost with its own school district and public bus service but no hotel or chain grocery. The police chief is also the director of parks and recreation, and the Rite Aid is the busiest place in town.

The rest of Mendelsohn’s eccentric dream unfurls to the east, some 185 square miles of mostly unpaved streets — a ghostly monument to overreach that, from above, looks like a geoglyph left by space aliens. Only Los Angeles and San Diego leave a bigger footprint in the state.

We must design solutions by truly understanding how humans use tools, form communities, live, move, engage with friends, and love. If we don’t we risk designing California City’s and digital ghettos.

We face massive problems today. How do we design health systems that deliver healthcare to 300 million people? How do we design communities that maximize physical activity and real relationships? How do we understand the sequelae of a generation that’s getting married at an average age of 28? If people are getting married later and having children later, then those children will have parents that die sooner. How will children whose parents die when they are teenagers deal with having no parents as twenty and thirty-somethings? What will come of kids who grow up with no grandparents?

What do we do about the prediction that 70% of the earth’s population in 2050 will live in cities and, even in the best of circumstances, the new age of the megacity might well be an era of unparalleled human congestion and gross inequality?

The real questions are:

  • Do we want the future?
  • If not, how and when are we going to rebel against a future we don’t want?

Humans are an amazingly adaptive and protective species. When something is uncomfortable, we chase comfort. Does concrete make us happy? Do little pockets of trampled green grass in megacities make us happy? Is there any amount of technology that can change this? Can we build technology to help people marry earlier? Or maybe we can build technology to help us connect better with friends?

Do these kinds of technologies actually make our lives better and more fulfilling?

We believe a rebellion is beginning in our culture. We’re longing for simplicities. We want local food. We want corner shopkeepers, not faceless corporations. We want less information coming at us. We want to log off. We want small and manageable. We want the comfort of real relationships. We want less choice, and more curation.

How do we design small, curated, organic solutions that arise based on need, desire, and authenticity … not what futurists think we can do. But what should we do.


Jay Parkinson is a pediatrician and preventive medicine specialist and founder of The Future Well. He blogs at his self-titled site, Jay Parkinson + MD + MPH.

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