What might education be like 10,000 years from now? That’s the sort of question that would interest those involved in the Long Now Foundation. Founded in 1996, the Long Now Foundation was established to foster long-term responsibility. As someone involved in, for example, an educational building project, long-term responsibility has to be part of what you think about. It may not be that ‘what might education be like in 10,000 years’ time’ is a direct concern in your project but 30 years or 50 years from now the products of the project may well still be in use. Imagining how education might have changed even in the relatively short time of 50 years is hard. It’s hard because we don’t know – if you think of the period between 1990 and 1995 and the impact that technology, and the web in particular, has had on society and in its turn on education in that period of time we could not have predicted it. Even Berners-Lee, credited with the invention of the web, couldn’t have predicted what would happen with it. The only safe thing to do is to make sure that the future is not disabled by what we do today. But how do we balance that uncertainty of rapid change, largely fuelled by technology and our long-term responsibility?
In the ‘Clock of the Long Now’ Stewart Brand talks about the presence of fast and slow components in systems. For example he describes a coniferous forest as a spectrum of scale from pine needle, to tree crown, patch, stand, whole forest, and biome. These components are both scaled in terms of size but, more importantly, in terms of time from the eternity of the biome through the decades of the patch to a short lifetime of a year or less for the pine needle. This idea is developed, by Brand, into a series of ‘layers’ for civilisation itself:
This is not a hierarchy but each layer has its own value, and speed of change. The layers interact at their interfaces and operate at their own ‘pace’ from fashion/art which is busy, fast, constantly changing through to nature which is enduring. Brand developed this simple idea in his book ‘How Buildings Learn’ with buildings having the pace layers below:
The concept of pace layering (Brand 1994, Morville 2005) sees a building as a series of layers that have differing life spans. The site itself has an eternal life, whereas the building structure might last 50 to 100 years. Other layers such as the external cladding of the building or the interior walls might have a life of 20 years with internal design, decoration and furniture lasting for 5 to 10 years. In a rapidly moving world it makes sense to locate the capacity for change in those items with the potential shortest life span and avoid, if possible, creating some layers, such as internal dividing walls, that have a medium term life span and are a potential barrier to accommodating changing activities.
A key theme coming from our uncertainty about the future, and also clearly suggested by the Building Schools for the Future programme and the documents from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is flexibility in building design. Pace layering helps us to think clearly about where we can locate flexibility.
Continuing with the example of ‘technology-rich learning space’, thinking about what is enduring in your building and what will be changed in a relatively short time scale is an essential part of ensuring long term useful life for the building. Clearly, open flexible space keeps options open but there may be a need for temporary structures that play to human concerns about privacy, noise, and the range of activities possible in such open environments. Pace layering can also help when considering factors that influence behaviour such as graphics, colour, signage, lighting and sound.
Brand, S. (1999). The Clock Of The Long Now – Time And Responsibility. Phoenix.