In my interview with Phil Allsopp, co-founder of Transpolis Global, Inc., I asked him to provide a vision for the future of the Gila River Indian Community as well as similar communities he has been working with, touching on the role technology might play in the design of human habitat. The following is his response in this final segment of this article series.
Tice: Perhaps you could offer a vision for, we might say a 7-10 year old child who has been living in this environment and who doesn’t know how to dream. They don’t know what it looks like to be somewhere else. Could you paint a picture of what that environment might look like in the future as this child grows, and what this child could have in their life as a leader and a community involved person?
Allsopp: Well, I think that the vision I have is that we shift our educational focus to liberate the creative genius that resides in most children. Yes, it’s important that they understand math, writing, reading…as all are absolutely critical. But how many children are actually told or encouraged to think of themselves as future leaders, as future inventors, as the people that could colonize Mars, for example, as opposed to perhaps what they see around them each day. The ability to interact with children in a way that enables them to dream is important. Technology can do that.
The laser scanning that you were doing this morning with 2 local Native American citizens, the younger one is a remarkable student of physics. I said to his mother that, if his class is interested, why don’t we give a little show and tell/science lesson about what we did [with scanning] out here. Simple. The kids are surrounded with the technology all the time. They probably know more about their mobile/smart devices [than the average adult], so let’s put that to work to see how they might use their skills in arts and sciences to restore and reshape the world that they are surrounded by.
My vision of a future for your hypothetical 7 year old – who was a Jesuit, I think you said (laughs), goes something like, "Show me the boy at 7, and I’ll show you the man." (Famous reference of movie series called ‘Seven Up!’ [Produced by Granada Television – 1964].) These children had dreams then. Some of these children have actually achieved those dreams. Some haven’t. To me, the environment that is going to get a child to dream, does involve technology. However, it also involves a different way of interacting with them in terms of what teaching is about. Teaching the basics such as how to read, write, perform mathematics…is all very important, no doubt about it. And, what about the other things that are…about life. Perhaps children could start seeing their time in school as a time to start laying the groundwork for other things. I think if they see excitement in that, they may end up learning more about the basics that they are required to learn about in the first place.
Tice: Tell me what brought you to the point where you decided to have a career in architecture and public health. What was your inspiration as a child?
Allsopp: My inspiration was a character from a comic strip in England called "The Eagle." His name was "Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future." The artist who [illustrated] the first issue inspired me because of the images of a future that was so ‘together’, so technological, and so exciting; much more so than the world I lived in. I lived in what one might call ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ I never knew my parents weren’t wealthy as I had a very abundant childhood.
So reading the Eagle, absorbing its artwork and thinking about the future as a real place that could be designed, just sort of pervaded my being as a kid. I did well academically and was the first person in my family to go to University. Really at the heart of it was Dan Dare. I remember being interviewed for admission at Kingston University in London School of Architecture – there were 7 kids including me assembled for a group interview by some faculty. The head of the school asked one young lady in our circle what got her interested in architecture? She said, "Well, my father’s an architect and I’m really interested in following those footsteps." Another student said that their father was a banker and used to work for architects and builders…I was thinking, "Hmm, my father is a bus driver and my mum’s a seamstress, what the heck am I going to say?"
So when they got around to me I decided to say what was really in my heart which was that Dan Dare was my inspiration. I went on to describe the artwork of Frank Hampson and Frank Bellamy, telling them my story and my interest in shaping a future world…and that’s how I got into architecture.
As for my path in the public health field, it came at the time I was working in Oxford at the Oxford regional Health authority as a senior research architect. Our group was involved heavily in designing and building BIM systems with Applied Research of Cambridge (UK)…It was back in the Bronze Age (laughs), and I got interested in the [concept of] what kind of decisions precipitate the need for a complex building like a hospital. So my boss, Malcolm Jones – a great man who was the Regional Architect at the time – suggested I apply for one of two Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Fellowships that were being awarded that year. So I did it. I think it was Mark Twain that said, "With a combination of ignorance and enthusiasm, anything is possible…" And so, I took that to heart, wrote my application, which was accepted, and went on to Columbia to study health services planning and design. On graduation I was offered a US Public Health Service Fellowship working in Washington D.C. for the office of the Surgeon General and the then Health Care Financing Administration.
Tice: Thank you Phil – What does Transpolis mean?
Allsopp: It means ‘Trans-disciplinary’ and ‘polis’ is the idea of ownership in the place of city. We tend to look at things from a multi-disciplinary perspective because if one looks at today’s problems, there is a tendency to look at these problems and throw lots of resources at them from funding sources tailored to the perceived specialty that that problem belongs to.
I tend to think about these problems in this way; imagine a large billiard table representing the scope or extent of the problems we have to deal with today. Our society today tends to view problems by staring at them down tubes whose range of vision is constrained by the perceived boundaries of that specialty. If I were to stare down the tube of psychiatry, I would see the world through that viewpoint. If I look at it as an architect, I see it as another problem; a behavioral health worker another, and economist yet another. But in fact, the nature of the problems that we are now dealing with as a society have in fact leaked out of all those specialty areas covering a large area of that billiard table like some gradually-spreading amoeba. So unless we give ourselves the capacity to view the entire table, we are never going to understand a) the extent of the problem we have and their underlying drivers and b) how the problems might be solved by different, possibly more effective means with better systemic results.
The Obesity epidemic, for example, isnt only about the food we eat and the quantities we ingest. Its about a way of life that is more active. Suppose we planted more shade trees and built properly protected bike paths. How many more people might bike to work or to school thus attacking obesity from a different direction than medication or diet? In this little example, the deliberate design of human habitat can have a positive and systemic effect on a problem once thought to be more nutritional and medical rather than anything else. Its for these reasons that we refer to ourselves when pressed – as a multi-disciplinary group of system-thinking designers and planners.
**I want to thank Phil Allsopp and the staff of Transpolis Global, Inc. for this in-depth interview. I especially wish to acknowledge the community Members, Elders and tribal leaders of the Gila River Indian Community for their continued efforts to improve the quality of life and community for the people and to provide new opportunities for rewarding and fulfilling lives. Perhaps this is the story of our collective human condition – to create positive, places – Human Habitats that nurture our spirit and help us to shape and sustain a better world for future generations.
"The question is…whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speech, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral, and dignified human "I,"…