An interview with Cindy Frewen
Cindy Frewen FAIA PhD is an urban futurist and architect. She consults, speaks and writes on the future of cities, and was, until very recently, the Chair of the Association of Professional Futurists, a position she held for seven years. She lives in Kansas but as far as I know does not own a dog called Toto.
"I remember after the big stock market crash of 2008, they later looked at the situation and said that part of the problem was that there had been too much testosterone in the room. All one has to do is have some amount of women and it changes the whole dynamic. That's pretty bad public shepherding or leadership to say that you would risk a whole institution like the stock market by locking women out".
We're discussing the fact that whilst there are many female futurists, as much as 40% within the APF, there is still less visibility and lack of presence on panels and platforms. And Cindy is pointing out that whilst some women boycott panels where they are the only woman present, she doesn't:
"I don't ever do that in my business – the design and construction industry. I don't ever say I won't go on a panel unless there's more than one woman. But I always say, 'Oh? have you spoken to so and so?' or 'have you considered so and so?' "
Already, one can see how aware Cindy is of creating an environment, an environment in which ideas and people can thrive. But how did she get here?
" I had my own architecture firm for about 25 years. We were doing larger and larger public projects but I started to feel we were making some decisions rather arbitrarily...you have to remember that 20 years ago sustainability - that the environment was an important issue - was still seen as a radical view. So, I decided to sell the company and see what else there was, in order to do better what I was trying to do in the first place. And that was to build better cities and build better places for people. In the process, I got engaged with the ideas of sustainability and communities and a lot of other issues that fed into a long view."
She wanted to know how to deliver something for the long term through architecture but says, "it turns out you need to know more about time, not just about space".
Cindy looks further out than most. She does 100 year scenarios because of the nature of cities and because many of her clients already think they know what they are doing in 2040, a typical time horizon for urban planning.
We talk about futures events and conferences and Cindy points out that whilst some are going beyond just technology or just social change, to encompass futures and foresight in a broader sense, not that many are going deeper in terms of time: "I think the most interesting thing we've seen in the last 10-15 years is how things have gone deeper, for example how you look at cultural values, how you look at causal layered analysis, and how you make better conversations. I think those are the things we care about as women. But it's also about time, the length of time and how you take things further out."
So what changes does Cindy think will follow as a result of having a more diverse, balanced, interesting mix of people (in many cases, women) working in the futures field?
"I hope that we'll have more human-centred futures. And I hope that they have a sense of caring and of people in them. I do a lot of stuff with personas. And trying to get people to imagine what their life might be and then not shy away, like having them do guided imageries. I think those are interesting tools. Some people, women included, hate them, 'please don't make me close my eyes'...they are very uncomfortable with it. But I can do it online with them, in virtual classes, right? Because you don't know if they are closing their eyes or not. It's one of the things you can do better virtually, than in person maybe."
"But women do conversation well. And conversations are how people change their minds. I think how you get to people, you'll get to more people through different ways than just always going one way. And then if everybody's the same you can't help but to start thinking a little too much in consensus on how to approach other people. So, I think it'll make it more accessible, more part of the daily way of thinking, when men and women are involved."
Our conversation turns to the depiction of future cities and to the latest cinematic example, Blade Runner 2049: "In Blade Runner they are cartoon cities, they are not real cities" she says.
"And they're pretty flat. It's kind of a flatland. It's not very deep thinking because there's so much similarity. And it's bleak or bleaker. These kinds of sci fi movies kind of vie for what can be the worst way they can destroy our urban settings. They take them apart. And yet you can see that in fact when you quit building things, when you quit maintaining things, it all goes back to nature. It becomes very beautiful and growy. Ruins are quite compelling. But that's not how they depict it at all. It's all smoke and dark and dirty and gritty".
Like a war zone, I ask?
"Like a war zone. It looks like it's all just been bombed. As opposed to letting nature come back, which that Alan Weisman site about The World Without Us is really good at depicting about places. And there's a couple of other apps you can get where you see what the city would look like if we quit maintaining it. It's green. I mean Detroit is showing this. They have 80,000 empty houses. And those houses are getting run over with weeds and vines and trees. And eventually they go back to the Earth. Only the chimneys remain. The stone pieces and concrete pieces remain. The wood goes back pretty quick. So they become very biodegradable. It's the humans that are kind of at risk on those scenarios, not the environment. It's very resilient."
When Cindy says this, I feel like I'm going to cry. She has made me really feel the kind of future city we ought to show, the kind of future city that is the opposite of a war zone. It's strange. But it makes me realise why she's so good at Visioning.
We talk at length about how these films always seem to have an obsession with decay. I personally hate a future city rubbish tip scene, it's so lazy, but now I come to realise that why I detest it so much is because it's robbing us of an alternative future city that is more natural, the kind Cindy has just spoken about. As she points out, "it's always mechanical remnants, not the plants, which is what the planet is really about."
We talk about the future for futurists, and where now for the APF:
"My contribution is 7000 hours to my favourite futurist organisation, and now the next thing is to build a better learning path. Both internally and externally. Blurring the edges of who we connect with. Now that we have a pretty strong core, we need to keep building to that deepness. We need to be connected to like-minded groups so that it doesn't get a wall around it; so that it's more of an ecosystem".
Cindy uses the word 'build' a lot, she's a place-maker even in her everyday language.
And she is extremely concerned about the public services in certain places today - how government labs are being destroyed, and about how people, how communities, will need to become resilient in the face of the state stepping back. And her message is:
"Solar is good for that. Wind power is good for that. Sustainable agriculture is good for that. Community building is good for that. That's my message....What do we do with our dying communities? Get people thinking about what's good about what they do".
So, 100 years from now, in the 22nd Century, what does Cindy think the biggest change for women will have been?
"Maybe it's being this public voice, I think it's not primarily being the internal head of the family anymore. And so, because families shrink so much in the 22nd century and aging becomes so prominent when you get past peak populations and going to slow growth mode. And which is what Europe has seen for years, right?....
"The continents are one by one going into a steady state or shrinking model. And the women's role changes significantly in that scenario, instead of this macho kind of progress movement. Instead it's building the strength of the community. And so the whole outlook and the whole way you talk about things has to change when you're in that self-sustaining mode and community-building mode.... I like to use the example of the Indonesian tsunami from 2004 to point out the differences between the communities that failed and those that had some survivors out of the 240,000 people that died. And the ones that had those survivors also had stronger community networks that were able to say "Go up. Get to the top of the hill. Get to the high points. Go now". because they could see the animals moving, they could see the things changing that were subtle in the environment, things that other communities didn't have, that knowledge from the past".
"And so will our community network be enhanced by all kinds of drones and things like that, that will help us out? Maybe, I hope so. I hope technology does make all that possible... I hope we can send power down to places like Puerto Rico before they hit complete devastation like what we're seeing in Haiti and these places that can just get wiped out by big events, which will happen more and more and more in the last half of this century. There's 50 island nations that are just sitting there wondering if they're gonna exist in a 100 years, and where will they exist? Do they exist in a different place? Are they gonna have to create floating islands of themselves that are no longer attached to the island they're used to? And those are real questions for those 50 countries".
"So many people are living in exposure to the climate change that will become much more real at the second half of this century and change women's roles, once again. So yeah, I think that's it probably, it's that communities will be out of this progress probably - not so much of the progress - more of the prosperity and happiness scenarios. And where do you find that? With their women".
What is the lesson for women from Cindy? Well there are many but one takeaway is that you have to be able to survive given the situation you find yourself in - the geography, the economy, the technology...you can figure out a way to survive and make the best of what you have, and what you know, today:
"You have to get out of the hospice care business for cities and towns... and say 'this is not us!' "
But change can take time too. And as she says, it takes 20 years. It takes a generation to have an impact. It's a long view, but the long view always pays off.
So, whilst Elon Musk is busy trying to populate Mars, Cindy is working to make what we already have more happy and more human, building something with existing neighbourhoods here on planet earth. There are many futurists - many female futurists - I know who are on board with that.