With the federal government finally proposing regulations, self-driving Uber’s in Pittsburg, and autonomous taxi’s in Singapore, there has been a lot of media about autonomous vehicles recently.  And like so many other disruptive technologies, the news is both exciting and compelling.

But why is this important?  As much as cars take up a significant amount of space, time, and money when it comes to planning and design, it may be that what is important are not the cars themselves – but how we design for an unknown future.

While there is no way to know what the future of personal transport will really look like, there are many good theories and lots of smart people working hard on this issue. However, if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it’s that we won’t know the future until we are living it.  That is neither a complaint nor a knock on the quality of the prognostication; it’s just the nature of disruptive technologies and change.

The fact that we don’t know what the future will hold makes designing for it more interesting. Perhaps the challenge is how to make places and buildings that have an inherent flexibility.  True flexibility would allow what we build to be able respond to ideas that no one’s thought of yet, and whose implementation is likely to have profound impacts on how we live, work, and play.  These may come from materials like carbon nanotubes and grapheme. Or, they could come out of healthcare, changes in the speed of our communication, or how we store and produce power.

We simply don’t know which technologies will pan out and which will be passed by quickly; does anyone remember the paperless office? What we do know is that change is not just coming, but happening constantly, and will not stop.

Our job as architects and planners is make places that are timeless and well suited to change with the needs of their users.  I doubt that Olmstead was thinking about Shakespeare in the Park, or joggers (let alone cars and taxis) when he came up with Central Park, but the genius of that place is how we can transform it with each passing generation, and the way the people are always finding new and wonderful ways to inhabit it.

In Boston, some of our greatest and most valuable buildings are old warehouses that were designed to house cotton and food that came by ship to the harbor. Today, they are prized for their beauty and flexibility to be almost anything; homes, work spaces, restaurants, even parking.

I’m not arguing that we should make undefined, undifferentiated spaces that can be used for anything; that’s been tried and it failed.  Nor am I arguing for complex, highly specific solutions like movable furniture or plug-and-play mechanical walls.  But I would argue that at a time of limited resources, the most sustainable things we can make, both environmentally and fiscally, are those which are designed to change with time and society and technologies unimagined.

What should a parking garage be at a time when many of us believe that the age of the individual car is coming to an end? How can it be designed to easily and sustainably change when that future arrives?  How do we make sure that housing can easily accommodate the changes in family sizes and structures that have occurred over the last 50 years and seem likely to continue?  How do we design our workspaces to accommodate not just new technology, but also styles of working and the needs of the ever changing demographics of the workforce?

These are just some of the interesting questions we face and are working on every day.  Autonomous vehicles?  They’re just today’s most in-our-face example.

Topics: Technology