Citylab 2050

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How do you get a banker, a fashion designer, a foresighter (is that a word?!) a digital innovator, a resource manager, a social scientist, a city strategist, sustainability experts…and others to meet for breakfast in Antwerp on a sunny June morning?

And more to the point – what happens as a result?

I found out the answer and also numerous questions, when I was invited last week to set the scene at Antwerp Citylab 2050. Conceived as a means to explore our changing urban and wider ecological landscapes, Citylab is creating experiments with practical, simple, radical ideas that can flow and come to fruition across a range of timescales from now to 2050.  Through the cross referencing of different perceptions that come from a range of perspectives, it seeks to prepare the city for future prosperity.

Antwerp is an apt place to be foregrounding design through fashion as a contributor to this endeavor, as its legacy in its trade and education take us back to the Middle Ages. From nuns stitching millstone ruffs, through myriad examples of textile weaving and the creation of its distinctive black dying techniques, it also has 500 years experience of ‘turning’ garments to adjust them to make the most of unworn panels of valuable cloth.

An enduring present context of fashion and Antwerp is probably best known through the quietly magnificent work of Dries Van Noten and his contemporaries, Anne Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene etc, whose collections each hold very different manifestations of the qualities of this city of cyclists, ultra modern galleries and chicken laying claims on public space (helped by the residents of Bar Panier).

So, as part of developing ideas around fashion, sustainability, and cities, a project I’ve entitled Habit(AT), I traversed the journey from London to Antwerp (very easy by train). My overall ambition for the project is to find, from a number of ‘fashion locations’, if we can connect Cities – the single most complex products of the human mind, with Nature – the single most complex products of life.

The project started with the realisation that as the world is changing, one of the most visible manifestations of change is our migration to cities. With already over half of humanity living in cities (a change from only twenty percent a hundred years ago), to an estimated three quarters of us living in cities by 2050, the conditions of humanity are visible changing. A question of what is lost and what is found in this migration was the subject of our CSF field day in December.

This project has also taken me to Ahmedabad, thanks to an AHRC fellowship and the support of the British Council, to take part in UnBox 2014, a two week lab exploring future cities with a team of designers, architects, planners, and others from across India and the UK, based at the National Institute of Design.

Various parts of the Habit(AT) project are being mapped to see where and how we can play out the ambitions of the centre’s work to date these include

Engage Citizen Participation – Live Memory Project at Unbox
Be A Voice for Change –Being Human Festival which we will be taking part in November
Radicalise Practice and Challenge Conventional Aesthetics – Fashioning the Future Summer School last July
Dream with Your Eyes Wide Open – The Creative Hub project where we are working with designers in our own fair city over the coming months.

As cities become humanity’s main habitat, our challenge is to create conditions that are conducive to social energy creation, ecological balance, and economic resilience.

The starting point for breakfast in Antwerp that spiked curiosity around the table, was the ambition to link ways for individuals to develop and apply skills for resilience, for communities to recognize their interconnected diversity, and for governance to frame the organizational capacity of its businesses to breathe fresh life into all of the city’s parts.

The recent World Economic Forum’s Global Risks report has found wealth inequality, fiscal imbalance, GHG rise, and water supply crisis as the most likely world threatening risks. Fashion’s relationships and artifacts therefore are in need of radical re imagining. We know that this is more than just an artifact creation problem; we need to facilitate positive feedback loops between social habits, technical efficiencies, and models for economic viability and aspiration for reciprocation. This means involving the whole fashion shebang!

So what did happen at breakfast? Some of the ideas are under wraps whilst in incubation, but what can already be said is that second and third dates have been set in September and October as lab days, and that Bruno Pieters, seated to my left, and an inventor, seated on my right, have already set in motion the beginning of what could involve you, me, and multiple others in the creation of new fashion circles that are not just about knitting!