We are bad at thinking about tomorrow

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP | Llewellyn van Wyk, B.Arch; MSc. (Applied), Urban Analyst

“Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger.  The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place, we are entering a period of consequences …We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now…” 

Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

The irony of the coronavirus pandemic is that it is both a devastating global disaster and a defining moment for our species. No-one knows how it will end, even as we shudder at the unimaginable, and growing, the scale of the suffering, especially among poor communities.

At the same time, however,  the pandemic has given us a unique opportunity to open ourselves to the possibility of a global and personal transformation as a giant leap towards creating new social mores and values which are focused more on the planet and our place in it.

As George Swingler, an Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Cape Town in South Africa puts it, this is a wake-up call like no other – one that has caught our attention in a way that the climate crisis has never succeeded in doing. It should also starkly expose the malignant roots Covid-19 shares with the climate crisis namely our unsustainable and unjust economic system based on unrestrained industrialisation and a singular obsession with GDP growth in the face of finite planetary resources.[i]

As he notes, “We face a systemic crisis that will remain after the virus risks have passed. We live as part of a system and it’s high time we start speaking about how to go forward as civil, reasonable people choosing ‘less bad’ options in the near term while considering inspired choices for the future post-crisis. In answering, “What to do?” there are two timelines: 1) What do we need to do right now to navigate this crisis, and 2) Longer-term policy/behaviour/cultural changes to work towards and adopt after the crisis is passed.”

LET US NOT WASTE THIS CRISIS

How did two of the most advanced countries in the world, the United States and Great Britain, both rich in technology and expertise, fail to recognise the crisis as it unfolded? A final answer will only come with hindsight and numerous public inquiries, but there are many known psychological processes that cause individuals and organisations to miss the signs of a coming emergency – even when it is staring them in the face.

In 1980, psychologist Neil Weinstein published the first study of what has come to be known as ‘optimism bias’ in which he found that people are unrealistically optimistic about their own prospects. [ii] Short-sightedness is another reason: according to Elke Weber, a behavioural scientist at Princeton University[iii], “We are evolutionarily wired for taking care of the here and now: we are bad at these decisions that require planning for the future.” Therefore, he argues, climate science, which deals in future probabilities, is “hard to process and hard for us to be afraid of.” As with climate change, our collective ability to confront the pandemic is shaped by our brains, and we have seen the lack of attention paid to Covid-19 in the early stages of the outbreak.

As Davis Spratt and Alia Armistead from the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration put it in a recent discussion piece “modern society has been quite good at dealing with frequent, low-impact disruptions, but bad at managing infrequent, high-impact threats.”[iv]

In short, we are bad at thinking about tomorrow.

Charles Mann, in an essay submitted for a 2013 National Magazine Award, relates a story of how Lynn Margulis, a researcher who specialised in cells and microorganisms and one of the most important biologists in the last half century, used to teasingly say that the problem with environmentalists is that they think conservation has something to do with biological reality.[v] Questioning her placing of humans as just part of another part of a larger ecology, he enquired whether humans were not, in some way, special. Her response is critical to how we view a post-Covid world:

Homo sapiens, she said, might be interesting for one thing, they are unusually successful. But, she added, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.

It was Goergii Gause, author of a book recognised as a scientific landmark, The Struggle for Existence, published in 1934, whose experiment of the relationship between food resource and the growth of an organism, generated a graphic depiction of the fate Margulis alluded to. In the graph, time is on the horizontal axis, and the number of protozoa on the vertical axis. In the beginning the growth in the number of protozoans is slow, and the graph line ascends to the right. Then the line hits an inflection point, after which it suddenly rockets upward in a frenzy of exponential growth. The frenzied rise continues until all the food is consumed, at which point there is a second inflection point, and the growth curve levels off again as bacteria begin to die. Eventually the line descends, and the population falls toward zero.

All living creatures have the same purpose: to make more of themselves, ensuring their biological future by the only means available. It is natural selection, as Darwin argued, that interferes in achieving this goal. It snips back almost all species, restricting their numbers and limiting their range. In the human body, P. vulgaris is checked by the size of its habitat (portions of the human gut), the limits to its supply of nourishment (food proteins), and other, competing organisms. Thus constrained, its population remains roughly steady.

Sometimes, either by luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits – for a while at least. These are Nature’s success stories: their populations grow exponentially; they take over large areas, overwhelming their environment as if no force opposed them. Then they exterminate themselves, drowning in their own wastes or starving from lack of food. In his essay Mann writes that this is the reason why, to someone like Margulis Homo sapiens is one of those briefly fortunate species.

With unhindered access to planetary resources and with almost no surviving biological competition, humankind has grown its population from around 1 billion to 7,803,873,131 in the past two hundred years, with a few billion more projected in coming decades.

Escalating up the growth curve, human beings so dominate the earth that in 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen, christened our time the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. Mann points out that if we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time, we will have consumed or degraded, or both, the resources of the planet.

THANK THE GODS FOR BEHAVIOURAL PLASTICITY

I could conclude this think-piece right here, were it not for a concept called behavioural plasticity, one of humankind’s greatest attributes. The term, coined in 1890 by the pioneering psychologist William James, is defined as “the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” Behavioural plasticity, a defining feature of Homo sapiens’ big brain, means that humans can change their habits, almost as a matter of course. It is this plasticity, Mann writes, that is the hallmark of our transformation from anatomically modern Homo sapiens to behaviourally modern Homo sapiens—and the reason, perhaps, we might be able to survive.

Our ability to change ourselves to extract resources from our surroundings with ever-increasing efficiency is what has made Homo sapiens a successful species. It is our greatest blessing or curse. Which of those two it will be, depends on how we answer the following question:

How can we provide for ourselves without ruining the natural systems on which we all depend?

Students of sustainable development will recognise the sustainability mantra in those words.

So here is the thing: changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, which human psychology tells us is we are not wired to do. Ironically, in the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something strange, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth (at least in some ways).

Is this even possible? As Mann notes, to biologists like Margulis, who spend their careers arguing that humans are simply part of the natural order, the answer should be clear. All life is similar at base. All species seek without pause to make more of themselves—that is their goal. By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny. Seen from this perspective, the answer to the question whether we are doomed to destroy ourselves is yes. It should be obvious.

Should be—but Mann suggests it is perhaps not.

In his essay Mann uses slavery to suggest why the answer is not necessarily yes. He notes that slavery was the norm from one end of the world to another. Forced labour was everywhere, building roads, serving aristocrats, and fighting wars. Slaves teemed in the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and Ming China. Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands happily exploited slaves by the million in their American colonies. Few protests were heard; slavery had been part of the fabric of life since the code of Hammurabi. Then, in the space of a few decades in the nineteenth century, slavery, one of humankind’s most enduring institutions, almost vanished.

The sheer implausibility of this change, Mann suggests, is staggering. In 1860, slaves were, collectively, the single most valuable economic asset in the United States, worth an estimated $3 billion, a vast sum in those days. Rather than investing in factories like northern entrepreneurs, southern businessmen had sunk their capital into slaves. And from their perspective, masses of enchained men and women had made the region politically powerful and gave social status to an entire class of poor whites. Slavery was the foundation of the new social order. Slave owners saw no wrong in this, considering it instead “a positive good.” Astonishingly, just a few years later, a part of the United States set out to destroy this institution, wrecking much of the national economy and killing half a million citizens along the way.

What is more, the tide against slavery was not restricted to the United States, but to slavery itself. Great Britain, the world’s biggest human trafficker, abolished its slave operations in 1808, though they were among the nation’s most profitable industries. The Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal soon followed. As Mann puts it, like stars winking out at the approach of dawn, cultures across the globe removed themselves from the previously universal exchange of human cargo. While slavery is, regrettably, by no means over, in no society anywhere is it formally accepted as part of the social fabric.

Many reasons have been provided by historians for this unnatural transition. But one of the most important, Mann suggests, is that abolitionists had convinced huge numbers of ordinary people around the world that slavery was a moral disaster. An institution fundamental to human society for millennia was swiftly dismantled by ideas and a call to action, loudly repeated.

This extension of human rights, to which historians assign multiple causes in this shift in the human condition, is both rapid in time, and staggering in scope. But one of the most important, Mann suggests, was the power of ideas—the voices, actions, and examples of activists, who through decades of ridicule and harassment pressed their case.

Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself as in the Gause experiment would, Mann writes, require a still greater transformation—behavioural plasticity of the highest order—because we would be pushing against biological nature itself.

Mann concludes his essay by noting that even though past successes are no guarantee of the future, it is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it. To send humankind to the moon but fail to pay attention to the earth. To have the potential but to be unable to use it—to be, in the end, no different from the protozoa in the test tube. It would be evidence that Lynn Margulis’s most dismissive beliefs had been right after all. For all our speed and voraciousness, our changeable sparkle and flash, we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species.[vi]

CONCLUSION

Society’s response to the Covid-19 shutdown is an example of behavioural elasticity.

Kingsley Davis refers to the increased individualisation and specialisation caused by urbanisation and questions whether it is possible to construct new social mores and standards under those conditions. Seems like Covid-19 has provided the answer – yes, it is.

Here, too, are lessons for our ability to confront the virus. Precisely because we are bad as individuals at thinking about tomorrow, economists and psychologists say it is more important to have leaders enact policies that enable us to protect ourselves against future risk.

As Leo Murray points out, there is one type of intervention that jumps out of the behaviour-change research as unusually effective: targeting “moments of change” like moving house or job where our patterns of behaviour are disrupted and we cannot simply rely on habit. In such moments, individuals are required to make new, active choices and subsequently may establish new patterns of consumption in the future. Intervening strategically at these moments can help steer people into a lower carbon consumption pattern more seamlessly than trying to prise them out of their existing habits and bring about more lasting reductions in lifestyle emissions.

The coronavirus pandemic represents an utterly unprecedented global “moment of change”, in which the regular patterns of hundreds of millions of people’s lives have been forcefully interrupted, not just as individuals, but as part of local and global communities. This mass instance of “habit discontinuity” is most pronounced in personal mobility, precisely the area of consumption behaviour that has so far proven most difficult to shift.[vii]

This is the collaborative opportunity of our time. Let us not let this crisis go to waste.


[i] Swingler, G. 2020. “Amid the devastation wrought by COVID-19 lies a glimmer of hope for the planet.” Available from: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-14-amid-the-devastation-wrought-by-covid-19-lies-a-glimmer-of-hope-for-the-planet/. Downloaded: Thursday, 16 April 2020

[ii] Marshall, M. 2020. “Why we find it difficult to recognise a crisis.” Available from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200409-why-we-find-it-difficult-to-recognise-a-crisis. Downloaded: Friday, 17 April 2020

[iii]Sengupta, S. 2020. “Climate change has lessons for fighting the Coronavirus.” Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/climate/climate-change-coronavirus-lessons.html. Downloaded: Tuesday, 07 April 2020

[iv] Spratt, D. and Armistead, A., 2020. “COVID-19 climate lessons: unprepared for a pandemic, can the world learn how to manage the bigger threat of climate disruption?” Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, Australia.

[v] Mann, C. 2012. “State of the species.” Available from: https://orionmagazine.org/article/state-of-the-species/. Downloaded: Saturday, 04 April 2020

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Carbon Brief Staff, 2020. “Coronavirus: What could lifestyle changes mean for tackling climate change?” Available from: https://www.carbonbrief.org/coronavirus-what-could-lifestyle-changes-mean-for-tackling-climate-change. Downloaded: Friday, 10 April 2020

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The power of architecture: Covid and the built environment

By Andrew Brose

A new model of architecture is needed to move us beyond neutrality, sustainability, and human-centrism and into an era of carbon positivity, social equity, and planetary health. Our current global crisis presents us with an unprecedented imperative to begin this transition.

Covid-19 has revealed how deeply our health is intertwined with each other and with the health of the ecosystems our extractive practices have continued to encroach upon.

This global pandemic has reinforced what many in the design industry have been advocating for years: the way we live in our cities needs to change to avoid a tipping point in the health of our planet. Now is the time for us to respond to the needs of our communities and push for critical decisions within the planning and design of the built environment which demands a healthier outcome for humans and our planet.

As we begin the injection of capital for job creation, production, and manufacturing in an attempt to revive the post-virus market multi-disciplinary voices are asking to heed the call for a ‘green economy’ and an equitable economy1. Epidemics and disease “roar through vulnerable communities all the time, this time it just happens to be roaring through the entire world” attracting the focus of all our attention, and unless we make critical changes now, we will see these types of events multiplied2.

Cholera Treatment Centre by MASS.

MASS Design Group was founded over a decade ago in response to an epidemic disease — extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis — whose airborne transmission was exacerbated by spatial conditions of hospital wards and waiting areas. Over the past decade, MASS has partnered with organisations working on the frontlines of the world’s major health challenges, from responding to acute epidemics of Ebola in Liberia and cholera in Haiti, to addressing the chronic injustices of structural health inequities around the world. When Covid-19 began to escalate, we saw its impact on our partners and the communities they regularly serve

In the healthcare industry, this is especially pronounced as the space of the hospital itself will continue to facilitate nosocomial (hospital-borne) infection, unless infection control protocols are established and adhered to. As validated protocols designed to prevent Covid-19 transmission do not yet exist, hospitals are having to implement spatial redesigns on the fly, doing their best to learn from protocols based on other diseases. Until we can better understand the virus’ pathways, we won’t be able to confidently redesign our existing spaces to adhere to new and higher standards of infection control guidelines.

In the meantime, hospitals will continue to repurpose and convert their spaces ad-hoc to meet surge demand – adapting idealised infection control protocols to non-ideal spaces and situations. This means healthcare workers and administrators must quickly adapt inflexible spaces, recognising that the resulting adaptations may put healthcare workers and our communities at risk unless we can quickly create site-specific guidelines that are adherable and implementable based on the best available knowledge. While we need research to understand who is at increased risk for complications of Covid-19 and to develop effective vaccines and best therapies, we also need research that identifies how spatial design and awareness can mitigate risk.

This response effort takes root in our work addressing inadequacies in the built environment to aid those working to detect and treat infectious diseases. Just as institutional, sterile spaces may evoke fear, dignified, human-centered spaces can instill trust and hope.

With professionals responding to Covid in various ways through their own practice, what we need is a commitment to humanity in this time of uncertainty.  We have the resources to advocate for basic changes and adaptations to our built environment. Buildings often play an outsized role in the spread of infection — and redesign efforts can play a key role in stemming the tide of a pandemic. Whether it’s providing ample, clean airflow to decrease the presence of contagion, building effective systems to separate waste from water, or designing spaces conducive to infection control, architecture can and should do its part to fight pandemics.

The diagram, from a rapid response study conducted by MASS and Ariadne labs, highlights different interventions that were made to turn an adult ICU wing into one that could treat patients who have tested positive for coronavirus.

Radically simple actions can include making design accommodations for operable windows and doors for increased airflow, easy to clean surfaces, frictionless entries, and decentralisation of HVAC systems. Reciprocally, these strategies have environmental implications and the connection between designing in response to human health is not far afield from many of the green building guidelines currently in practice.

We have seen architects playing an essential role in the here in South Africa and across the world, not only in responding to the immediate needs of temporary tents and retrofits, but in directing resources towards the production of personal protective equipment, rethinking our public spaces, and considering long-term solutions for infection control beyond this pandemic.

Urgency has a tendency to privilege temporary solutions, but one thing we’ve learned about Covid is that the recovery process is long, and thus, people will be staying in these spaces not for days but for weeks and even upwards of a month, with no access to nature and minimal access to the outside world, which can have debilitating effects of their own.

Thus, we need to design with these emotional and psychological factors in consideration. Besides, leading experts are saying that Covid-19 may be a seasonal occurrence and permanent infrastructures adapted to deal with the epidemiological outcomes of this health crisis may be the new normal for the foreseeable future.

A new world

We are all going to have to navigate the world in a new way when we leave our homes. Many of our fundamental understandings about public space will change as a result of Covid-19, in ways we can only begin to imagine. Some are thrilling: what if we kept the cars off the road? What would it mean to rethink our means of food production and distribution? Can we take on climate change with the same all-in vigour that we are demonstrating now across the world? Others will be less optimistic. There will be fear – fears for our future, fear of each other, fear for our livelihoods and economy, fear of gathering, fear of the ideas of community that have sustained us for so long. Architects and designers can play a large role in rebuilding systems of trust through the design of safe and healthy environments.

The construction industry accounts for more than half of annual global GHG emissions and have brought us indirectly into a short-term health crisis and directly into the long-term climate crisis. Can we leverage a slowing down of globalisation to begin establishing more transparent, interconnected, and regional systems of knowledge, labour, and material supply? Can we emerge with a model of practice that understands a building, a landscape, or rail line to be interconnected with all of the ecological systems it engages?

One Health

Seventy-five percent of new or emerging infectious diseases originate in livestock or wildlife, resulting annually in millions of people’s deaths, and billions of dollars of economic impact3. The root causes of those diseases are human in origin, including global trade, changing land use patterns, extractive agricultural practices, unplanned urbanisation, and unprecedented human migration, all exacerbated by a rapidly changing climate. This is One Health: the concept that human, ecological, and animal health are inextricably intertwined.  Covid-19, HIV, and Ebola are examples of the increasing trend of environmental origin pandemics, which will only continue to increase with population and pressure on ecosystems. The science of how One Health systems interlink is clear. We need a new playbook to apply it to the built environment.

At MASS we use the One Health principals as our model to respond to alimentative outcomes. One Health emerged through an interdisciplinary approach to disease prevention uniting medicine, public health, veterinary medicine, agriculture, and ecology4. Mapped onto design practice this holistic approach provides the tools for architects to understand our decisions in their totality, expedite a demand for transparency in our supply chains, and empower a full accounting of short-term and long-term socio-economic, ecologic, and carbon impacts. Environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, climate change, and rapid urban expansion are creating conditions for coronaviruses and other zoonotic diseases to cross over into human populations. These risks, rooted in the landscape, are further exacerbated by socio-ecological factors such as social inequity, occupational exposures, and food insecurity. 

Designing for One Health, or holistically responding to all possible systems of health through design, places us on a path towards carbon positivity, social equity, and planetary restoration. The current crisis has unveiled the fragility to which our regional systems have been thinned down to by relying on highly complex globalised exchanges. We must utilise this opportunity to emerge with practices that account for the full extent of material supply chains, value all forms of life, and replenish our ecological systems. Disrupted routines have presented gaps in the systems of our cities and this disruption gives us the chance to make propositions for radical change towards a more sustainable future.

We believe in the power of architecture to either hurt or heal. If spaces can be purposefully designed, they can assist in the prevention, containment, and treatment of infectious disease, including Covid-19. The spatial decisions we make now will also have long term implications in how we respond to and prepare for the next epidemic. Our work is predicated on the important focus on dignity, and designing for people, not just against pathogens.

As the world continues to grapple with the outbreak, the need for a unified approach for a healthier and more just planet has never been so pronounced. The pandemic has highlighted the inadequacy of the design profession to respond on its own merit, requiring the humility and understanding that our build environment can heavily influence the trajectory of our lives whether due to our proximal connection to infectious disease or the results of a degraded planetary environment. 

Endnotes

  1. Fiona Harvey. “World Has Six Months to Avert Climate Crisis, Says Energy Expert.” The Guardian, June 18, 2020, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/18/world-has-six-months-to-avert-climate-crisis-says-energy-expert
  2. Barocas, Josh,  MASS Design Group, “Architecture Can Heal – Adapting Healthcare Spaces in Response to COVID-19”. Webinar, Boston, MA, May 12, 2020.’
  3. Asokan, G. V., and R. K. Kasimanickam. “Emerging Infectious Diseases, Antimicrobial Resistance and Millennium Development Goals: Resolving the Challenges through One Health.” Central Asian Journal of Global Health 2, no. 2 (October 1, 2013). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5927746/
  4. Queenan, Kevin et al. “Roadmap to a One Health agenda 2030.” (2017)

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Pathways to transformation: The Covid-19 pandemic crisis and emerging lessons for repurposing our cities

Covid-19 has impacted on contemporary society in ways that would not have been contemplated even six months ago. No-one would have considered locking down half the world’s population as remotely feasible in January of this year. Unsurprisingly, much has, and continues to be, written about the current Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts on our lives.

By Llewellyn van Wyk, Infrastructure Policy and Development Analyst, New Zealand

Many of these contributors and writers have also argued that Covid-19 provides a critical moment for societal transformation – an opportunity, as it were, to replace the dysfunctional economic, social, and environmental systems that have accumulated over decades. This collective writing is contributing to the building of a new body of knowledge on how pandemic crisis impacts on our lives, and how governments and people did and can respond to its challenges. The value of these lessons should not be underestimated: never have we had a single pandemic crisis impact on so many people almost simultaneously at this scale. As Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand keeps on reminding us, “there is no playbook for this.”

It just may be that after Covid-19, if there is an after (more on this anon), it may well be possible to construct such a playbook.

BACKGROUND

The opportunity to contribute to such a playbook dawned on me as my mailbox began filling with contributions from writers and thinkers from around the globe. Perhaps among the collective contributions, some lessons could be gleaned that would offer pathways to transformation. It may be argued that trying to create potential lessons from an event that has yet to run its course is premature at best, foolish at worst. After all, a post-Covid-19 could look quite different from what is being currently widely speculated.

Notwithstanding this risk, there seems to me to be a unique opportunity to distill lessons from the many commentaries on the subject especially while passions are still so high. No doubt the learned studies will follow, and these two views – a before and after, spontaneous and considered if you like – will, in and of itself, be enlightening.

Thus, I began a process of curation hoping that these curated insights could help leaders in the public, private, and social sectors overcome the crisis—and remake the future. This has allowed me to draw on some of the wealth of material produced since the outbreak of Covid-19, utilising some of the 300+ articles that came into my inbox. This curated collection represents some of the best I have read; no doubt, there are other excellent contributions that I have probably missed.

What follows is a collection of think-pieces – missives written in the heat of battle from the frontlines – from a wide array of contributors over a period of four months. As to be expected, there is a personal bias in the recording since what enters my email inbox is predominantly invited and firmly grounded in progressive thinking and delimited to placemaking. Given the delimitations of the data collection method (both source and topic bias), I have systematically collected and collated all contributions as they appear daily. From these puzzle pieces, a general picture has emerged as one would expect from the adoption of a grounded theory approach in research. Not surprisingly, many overlaps emerged as well, and they are most likely attributable perhaps to a growing collective awareness and shared philosophies.

PRELIMINARY FINDINGS

What struck me, in the beginning, was the uncertainty surrounding the nature and by implication, the solutions needed to manage the crisis. This reminded me of a scene in the 2011 movie Margin Call. There is a scene in the movie where, at a senior partners meeting called at 4 AM to discuss the potential financial collapse of the company, the CEO, John Tuld (played by Jeremy Irons), following a briefing by a young risk analyst to Tuld on the nature of the problem, replies: “So, what you are telling me is that the music is about to stop, and we are going to be left holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of…..capitalism.” The movie is of course fictitious, although based on the events of the financial crisis of 2007-08 and indirectly referencing the actions of Goldman Sachs at the time. But it is the subsequent dialogue which is of relevance where Tuld sums up the situation as follows, “I’m here for one reason and one reason alone. I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more. I’m standing here tonight I’m afraid that I don’t… hear… a thing. Just…. silence. So, now that we know the music has stopped, what do we do about it?” 

We do not know whether Covid-19 has stopped the music or is just slowing it down. It is too early to say. However, the music has elicited a huge amount of commentary on all social media platforms with responses varying from “hoax” to “overreaction” to “mythical moment for humankind” and everything in-between.

What we do know is that the Covid-19 crisis is a human tragedy and, in that sense, a clear lesson for humanity to not overestimate the resilience of our global society to external shocks.

In the beginning of the pandemic’s spread out of China, the commentary focused almost exclusively on the nature of the virus itself, and potential threats it posed. Very soon, however, as case numbers increased and nation-wide shutdowns started, the topics covered in the commentaries broadened.

Commentators were quick to seize on the opportunity to use the pandemic as a moment to change our consumption and production patterns. Many argue that the underlying systemic weaknesses in our socio-economic structure create the enabling environment for Covid-19-type crisis to flourish. Similarly, questions are asked about our seeming inability as a specie to think about tomorrow. Despite much finger-pointing at the tardiness with which some countries responded to putting containment measures in place, the overall sentiment is one of hopeful optimism that some good can come out of it.

This notion that we are poor at thinking about tomorrow suggested that a short history of epidemics and pandemics was required to assess whether there has been a time or times in the past when we did better. The answer, regrettably, is no.

Changing our consumption and production patterns inevitably means revaluing our relationship with the natural environment and the impacts it causes. This argument is strengthened by early suggestions that the virus spread from a wet seafood market associated with the trade of wildlife. There is significant evidence that links past pandemics to the same source.

Commentators also took the opportunity to draw parallels between fighting climate change, and our response to Covid-19. On this subject, opinion is divided as to whether governments and the electorate for that matter, will connect the dots.

What also emerges very clearly is the implications of global socio-economic and political links. These links are not only founded on the movement of goods and people but also the dependencies that global outsourcing creates together with the lack of a globally coordinated response.

One of the earliest axioms to come out of the sustainable development movement in the 1980s was to “think globally, and to act locally”. This is a timely moment to unpack this notion again in light of the current crisis. The state of national preparedness – or absence thereof – features prominently in this narrative. The state of healthcare and its ability to respond quickly and effectively is perhaps the most poignant question asked, and extensive reviews will need to be done to recalibrate this critical service.

All the above takes us firmly into the study field of human ecology being the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary study of the relationship between humans, and their natural, social, and built environments. Human ecology theory considers the interactions of humans with their environments as a system. This systemic scrutiny provides an appropriate platform from which evaluate Covid-19 and its broader socio-economic and environmental impacts.

While there is considerable commentary on the Covid-19 impacts and lessons for the social and natural environments, it is the third environment i.e., built environment, and its interaction with the natural and social environments that is my real field of study. While commentaries did emerge on possible lessons and impacts on placemaking, they tended to focus on a priori textbook urban design and planning interventions rather than on what the emerging Covid-19 data i.e., planning commentaries are based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation. The empirical observation uses a wide enough lens to encompass all the commentaries and observations made to explore and propose a raft of possible responses capable of enriching while repurposing and futureproofing our built environments.

Covid-19 is highlighting numerous structural shortcomings in the way we live as a species.

While they touch on almost all aspects of society some notables include human impact on the natural environment, consumption and production patterns, health care (or lack thereof), infrastructure fragility, and the quality (and absence thereof) of public places. All of these are and will increasingly continue to be severely tested by climate change too. Covid-19, therefore, grants us a unique moment to measure our resilience to forecasted climate change impacts and, if we choose, to recalibrate our adaptation and mitigation instruments.

Over the course of the ensuing months, I will unpack many of the above themes in greater detail and expand on the lessons learned. Without pre-empting the many lessons, there are three standout messages: first, how unprepared governments were (and continue to be) to deal with severe disruptions; second, how fragile many of our systems are; and third, many structural fault lines were already active – Covid-19 has just exposed them.

Now, more than ever, is the opportunity to fix our many broken systems.

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Building the future: how technology is advancing sustainable design worldwide

Technological advancements associated with human development have often been perceived as contributing negatively to the depletion of resources and the gradual destruction of our planet. But how are modern technologies now being harnessed to design more sustainable human environments that will reverse the environmental impact of our built environments?

The building industry, and the operation of buildings in general, is now recognized as being one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions, resource depletion, and waste products. Great strides are being taken to make these sectors more environmentally sustainable worldwide. Several modern technologies are now available to assist in the design stages of more responsive buildings. Others can assist in reducing the impact during design and construction phases by, for example, enabling global collaboration without air travel and the associated emissions. We look at a few examples of technologies that are changing the shape of the industry.

Building Information Modelling (BIM)

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a process developed to improve the digital delivery of building construction project information. It may harness a variety of software packages but always operates in a 3D environment. Dewlene Africa, BIM manager at an architecture firm, SVA International, explains that BIM has been gaining more traction locally. At the start of a BIM project, consultants will outline the goals and principles for the process. By applying these, Africa explains, “one will ideally improve project collaboration, coordination, analysis, visualisation and efficiencies”.

There are currently three levels of BIM, defined by the type of information included in the models. South Africa mostly operates between level 1 and 2, when BIM is utilised. Locally, its usage is usually consultant driven, while internationally, level 2 is often the minimum and is mandated by clients. The efficiencies and analysis potential are particularly useful to the process of designing more sustainable buildings. There are also the advantages of going largely ‘paperless’ and being able to collaborate without being in the same place.

Collaboration and Clash Detection

Advances in software and cloud sharing technologies allow collaboration on projects from nearly anywhere in the world, saving on time and money and reducing the carbon footprint attributed to travel.

Autodesk BIM 360™ is one such platform that has started to be used more locally. This cloud-based Common Data Environment (CDE), not only allows staff in different offices to work on the same model, but it handles document management, design collaboration, model coordination, project insight, site tools, and more.Clash Detection software, such as Autodesk Navisworks™, enables all the consultants’ models to be linked into a common environment where clashes between services are highlighted automatically. This ultimately aids design and avoids costly changes on site. Dewlene Africa feels South Africa lags slightly in this arena as many of the consultant disciplines are not yet operating at this level of BIM.

Building Performance Analysis

Advances in software have allowed energy analyses and building performance calculations that would once have taken days, to now be calculated in minutes, often with a multitude of different options factored in.”

Autodesk Insight™ is one such tool. Its advanced simulation engines harness the power of machine learning to infer information not provided. It can be used at all stages of design, from concept to detailed models. Using cloud computing capabilities, it can generate building performance analyses, even with various design options, in a fraction of the time a desktop computer can.

Parametric Design Analysis

Climetric, a Cape Town-based company, offering consultation on sustainable design strategies, is one of many specialist companies who can assist in developing a sustainable building design. They explain that traditional ‘Simulation Analysis’ would look at one aspect of a design at a time, as the window overhang, for example. If any aspects of the design changed, the entire analysis would need to be redone.

Conversely, ‘Parametric Design Analysis’ can adapt quickly to changes in design input and can run many designs simultaneously, offering results that can be compared to select the best options. This is extremely time- and cost-effective and produces complex graphs that can easily be filtered to highlight specific information. Insight into temperature comfort levels, energy costs and optimum passive design elements is quickly available, enabling the ability to adjust designs accordingly.

Environmental software

There are also various software plug-ins that work with parametric modelling packages and calculate environmental factors and how they relate to building designs. It is now much easier to design more comfortable and environmentally responsive buildings. Some of these are only beginning to be used locally. Ladybug, for example, can bring in sun paths, climatic data, radiation studies and various other calculations into your model in order to analyse a design. Honeybee™, a sister product, runs radiance, thermic, and energy model analyses to aid in sustainable design.

Visualisation packages

Visualisation software is becoming more and more accessible and easy to use. While there are still some very specialist programmes for photorealistic renders and videos, there are now several programmes that can produce realistic images and walk-throughs in a relatively short time and with no specialist knowledge.

Now that many projects are already authored in 3D packages, loading them into a rendering package and defining finishes, sunlight, landscape, and other environmental factors is much easier. Apart from being easier for clients to understand, it enables a better ‘experience’ of a space and can inform environmental design decisions.

Immersive technology

Paragon Group is known to push the boundaries when it comes to their buildings and the cutting-edge technologies they use to create them. Emile Maritz, Paragon’s 3D visualisation manager, explains that the terms Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are often, erroneously, used interchangeably in the architecture industry. He explains that AR is when digital elements are overlaid in a real-world setting through software and hardware such as mobile phones or tablets (think Pokémon Go). VR is when a viewer can be completely immersed in a created three-dimensional environment using software and specific hardware and equipment designed for the purpose.

Paragon uses VR extensively throughout the design process. Early on, it allows the designers to interact with the spaces and iron out difficult details without physical mock-ups and costly changes on site. It also allows clients to fully explore their buildings from every angle before anything is built. Created realms can be viewed on mobile phone with Samsung Gear™ or as a fully interactive walk-through using an HTC VIVE™ headset. Viewing and collaboration can happen from anywhere, provided you have the required hardware.

3D Tours

3D Tours, a Johannesburg based company use state-of-the-art technology to scan existing spaces in detail and create photorealistic, self-navigation walk-through tours that can be viewed in any internet browser or, for an immersive experience, through VR goggles. While this is not strictly a design tool, it is used by interior designers, the hotel industry, retail industry, construction industry, and galleries to allow potential clients or guests to experience their space without travelling to it.

Information can be embedded in the tour so that a viewer can click on an object and read relevant details or watch an embedded video. This technology can also be used as a valuable building management resource as rooms and spaces, including plant and machinery areas, can be scanned and accessed virtually. Maintenance information for specific elements can be embedded in the virtual space, making it easier to access the right information for each element.

Experience a tour of the GBCSA office by scanning the QR code.

3D printing

Locally, 3D printed concept models, display models, and detail mock-ups are already being used to save time, money, and materials by being able to test technical details without physical mock-ups. Special printers are utilised to create three dimensional objects, using a digital diagram, by building up layers of a base material into a required form. The materials, and the level of detail or colouring, can vary, depending on the requirements and the printer available. Objects can be created using plastics, resin, rubber or metal, among other things. Because it is an ‘additive’ method, there is virtually no material waste in the process.

Internationally, the same technology is being used to create real building elements or moulds for custom objects, and even entire buildings. Several prototypes of 3D printed buildings now exist in different parts of the world. Some use raw soil and rice production by-products as the base materials. Among the companies leading the way in this field is ICON, the first company in the USA to secure a building permit to 3D print a permanent house structure. The house, in Austin Texas, is a prototype for a system that they plan to roll out as a low-cost housing solution, starting with a community project in Latin America.

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