Did you ever hear of quantum computers, and do you know how they work? Yes – great, then you can skip this paragraph. If not – here is a little explanation: Normal – binary computers know two stages: on or off. In their microchips millions of transistors do exactly that – they switch on or off and depending on the pattern that several of them create, one can store information. Every of these switches are representing one bit. Quantum computers work differently. They have q-bits and – unlike the binary computer logic, a q bit can have several settings – not just on and off. They even can be on and off at the same time. To imagine that often the experiment of Schrödinger’s cat is being used. Imagine a cat with food and water is put in an opaque solid box. Also in the box is a bomb with a random ignition that explodes at an unpredictable moment. When the box is closed, then the one that states that the cat is alive is right, just as the one that states it is dead. One does not know at that moment. Only when you open the box again, you know.
Today’s spatial design problems are increasingly wicked. There is no always right or always wrong any more. To give you an example: The City of Amsterdam has decided that 30% of a building has to be built in wood. Great idea, one might think, since wood is a carbon sink and is renewable. But – trees do not emerge suddenly. They have to grow and – since the Netherlands are a country with little forest coverage – the wood comes from elsewhere – often Northern and Eastern Europe. In Estonia – a country with a lot of wood – people are seeing forest disappear and ecosystems being destroyed to feed the wood exporting industry that also serves the Dutch market. Similar discussions can be had around trees on buildings or the use of electric cars. With CO2 as an omnipresent currency of climate change that is directly or indirectly embedded in any material, any product or any movement, we have reached a point where we have to find a new way of understanding the question we are being asked. No single design problem can be solved any longer, just focussing on the spatial implications.
This is where things become complicated. We are not used to this way of thinking. Most of the spatial designers have been born, raised and socialized in a modern world with an exploitative market liberal economic model. Natural resources were available in abundance, and their exploitation did not have a feelable effect on the Earth’s ability to serve as our life support system. Our entire living environment ‘breathes’ this socialization, and we have found ways of solving problems by simplifying the questions: a housing design provides housing for humans – no more, no less. We usually do not think about all the other species, what a building does to the soil and what materials we use, where they come from and what the impact is of making and transporting them. We do not think of the bigger impact our ever-growing per capita floorspace demands result in on a global scale. But – to comply with what climate change and other agendas demand from us – we have to change that very way of thinking.
We have to unlearn the old way of defining and simplifying problems and embrace a total understanding. We have to see the wider effects of decisions and the links they have. The problem here is, that an individual cannot know everything to be able to entirely and in all its aspects see through a question. We have to start thinking like quantum computers calculate. There is no general right or wrong, but it all is situational. There is no total knowledge, but there is a hunch or there is experience that a particular aspect is relevant, and we have to include it into our equation.
One could define this as Quantum thinking. Quantum thinking is not my invention. It has been introduced by Nick Szabo, a computer nerd and suspected to be the inventor of cryptocurrency. It is a conceptual answer to the complexity of reality as it presents itself today. The likelihood of simple answers it little to no – if we really want to solve a complex problem and not shift the problem elsewhere. We have little choice but accepting this, since shifting has become less and less possible without major consequences.
But what does this mean for us as designers?
I see four fields where we have to change the way we think and design:
First: I think we have to change our understanding of the questions we are being asked and frame the problems we are addressing much broader and over much longer time periods.
Second: We should refrain from using the same standards of analysis and creating the design baseline. Instead, we have to tailor them to the broader problem in question and the aspects that are relevant to a solution. We have to identify the critical path anew, time and time again.
Third: We should not try to solve conflicts and contradictions upfront but allow for discussions and a competition of ideas and thoughts for as long as possible, and we should not rule out that the best possible solution is somewhere in the middle between extremes.
Fourth: We should design in such a way that the oppositional arguments we identified can still both manifest them in what we are creating. For buildings, this means allowing for the same structure to have different uses and appear more neutral. The way they are put together should allow for easy changes. For cities, a similar paradigm applies. They should allow for flexibility and changes in uses, densities, typologies. What remains a challenge is infrastructure. Here quantum thinking will ask for lighter and less centralized systems and the better and multiple use of systems whose functioning depends on them being centrally organized.
None of these thoughts are completely new, but embedding them in a coherent methodology of how we design things from now on is imminent. Quantum Design come up with solutions that really meet the complex reality we are in.
cover image Gerd Altmann