Design Prose

Creating a Smarter Planet: City by City, Talk by Rashik Parmar


The Urban Roots of Financial Crises: Reclaiming the City for Anti-Capitalist Struggle

Posted in Research and Analysis, Sustainability, Urbanism by designprose on December 20, 2011

The assault on the environment and the well-being of the people is palpable and it is taking place for political and class, not economic reasons. It is inducing, as David Stockman has very recently noted, a state of plain class war. As Warren Buffett also put it, ‘sure there is class war, and it is my class, the rich, who are making it and we are winning’. The only question is: when will the people start to wage class war back? And one of the places to start would be to focus on the rapidly degrading qualities of urban life, through foreclosures, the persistence of predatory practices in urban housing  markets, reductions in services and above all the lack of viable employment opportunities in urban labour markets almost everywhere, with some cities (Detroit being the sad poster child) utterly bereft of employment prospects. The crisis now is as much an urban crisis as it ever was.

Full paper, here, by David Harvey, professor of Anthropology at CUNY.

In The Bubble: Designing in a Complex World by John Thackara

Posted in Books, Built Environment, City Scapes, Sustainability, Uncategorized by designprose on November 10, 2011

John Thackara of Doors of Perception book named In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World is the book which I cherished page by page as it unfolded various design challenges, questioned my perception and provoked me to think deeply as a designer who would claim to design part of spaces, built environment in tomorrow’s world. Book does not provide any packaged solutions but it did not claim to do so ever. It provides a perspective, a different one and perhaps a little more and challenges all of us in this system to critically understand where we are in terms of time and technology from where we were few decades ago and how all this will impact the design world of future.

In the initial chapters he explains,

I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing life of action, over a life of consumption.

Urban planners need to pay as much attention to social networks as soft infrastructure as they do now to the hard infrastructure of roads and railways.

After the initial exuberance its now clear that wireless communication networks are an additional layer of infrastructure- not a replacement of the physical city.

He talks fair amount of what resulted through industrialized model of education and enforced standardized testing of skills that have come to fail, even to a current system.

There is a kind of mismatch between the kind of learning prescribed by these enlightened experts and what many employers perceive to their short-term needs. As a result, of this mismatch, the school to work transition has become increasingly difficult phase, and many employers now take their own training measures. They tend to be heavy on applied skills- light on metacognitive ones. We might reject the narrow focus of much corporate education but its partly our own fault as a society. We have filled our world with such unstable technology and clunky systems; these need to be looked after by people with limited horizons who do what they are told and don’t ask too many questions. Call centers- to name just one of among a thousand support functions in our technological culture- don’t recruit people with metacognitive skills who look at the bigger picture. They need drones.

Stuck inside organizations that perpetuate divisions between domains and that isolate knowledge from the context in which it is to be used, we become less competent at tackling complex and multidimensional social questions. If our connections to the edge are inadequate, we find it hard to figure out what people really need and end up pushing products that they don’t.

This explains our dependency and interrelated nature of existence and why monoculture emphasis will be myopic in its results and often short-term. He goes on to explain,

What we have now come to appreciate is that the more diverse an ecological system is- be it a swamp or a city, the richer it is. Sprawling monocultural suburbs, multilane highways, golf courses, airports and the like are impoverished contexts. Our speed culture fosters particularly barren contexts. Very large grids, very big global hubs and the massive flows of people and matter in between them are functional but not nourishing.

That is why application of ‘high-concept’ design to contexts we barely understand is irresponsible and probably counterproductive.

Because designs based on accelerated time-frame, bloated massive sizes and our fascination towards large and fast may not be addressing the core needs of the human ecology and perhaps not connecting with ourselves internally. In such cases, we might be experiencing things externally but not feeling them internally through variety of emotions.  As Thackara puts it,

Trust accrues through time and is built during encounter and interaction between people; it cannot be digitized and it cannot be rushed.

And thus spaces designed mechanically ignoring the subtle sensitivities of human nature and interactions miss their expansive fertile nature of minds which inhabit them. And much of these office designs still continue to deal with interrelated aspects of materials, flow, adjacency, digital artifacts and much more of digital facilitation of work but puts human beings not as front runners but as a backdrop. So the prime intention becomes a useful backdrop but not the prime subject to be built from or around.

This book opens multiple opportunity of dialogues and triggers you to think carefully as designers and consumers to things and services that we make use of and how it alters our relationship and behavior and system as a whole. It nudges you to be careful and sensitive in our everyday choices, be cognizant of patterns as consumers to passive participatory witnesses and consumers of events and how it all might impact this system as a whole.

Building Social System Based on Human Capital

Posted in Built Environment, Ethics, Sustainability by designprose on November 4, 2011

Imagine a society based on maximizing and leveraging human capital to the core. In such a system, all human beings will be all inclusive, along with their skills, services in their natural form than that is not based on conditioned environment as a produce of accelerated infusion of technology, globalization and homogenization. In such a system, individuals exist in their natural form and nurture the skills and talents that come to them naturally, from their inner spirit, and the same is offered to a social system for consumption as well. This system eliminates environment build around financial capitals and gains and diminishes importance of paper money significantly. Experiments based on such thinking are already underway and one such example is Time Banks whose mission states:

The mission of TimeBanks is to nurture and expand a movement that promotes equality and builds caring community economies through inclusive exchange of time and talent.

Their core principles are outlined as:

Assets: No more throw-away people. Every human being has the capacity to be a builder and contributor.

Redefining Work: No more taking the contribution of women, children, families, immigrants, for granted. No more free rides for the market economy extracted by subordination, discrimination and exploitation. Work must be redefined to include whatever it takes to rear healthy children, make neighborhoods safe and vibrant, and care for the frail and vulnerable.

Reciprocity: Stop creating dependencies; stop devaluing those whom you help while you profit from their troubles. The impulse to give back is universal. Whenever possible, we must replace one-way acts of largesse in whatever form with two-way transactions. “You need me” becomes “We need each other.”

Social Capital: No more dis-investing in families, neighborhoods and communities. No more economic and social strip-mining. Social Networks require ongoing investments of social capital generated by trust, reciprocity and civic engagement.

Now imagine, with this paradigm shift what kind of societies might emerge. How will it affect industries, with people included in it, in technology, built environment, human ties, human anxiety and the related aspects. The example that I can immediately think of from this is the way health care built environments will be affected. Its current subconscious intention of producing industrialized model of hospitals which encourages healthcare farms, sea of beds and numerous scarcely understood treatments devoid of individual care and need that it might need to heal the actual problem than fueling the giant pharmaceuticals multinational agenda, which ultimately, no matter how much its been denied, is based on dollar figures growth charts and profitability. Think about it.

Evolving Work Culture and its Impact and Implications on Workplace Solutions

Posted in Built Environment, Sustainability, Uncategorized by designprose on September 22, 2011

There is a paradigm shift on the horizon, shift geared towards exploring different work culture, one which is enabled by technology and which is enabling employees and employers to exploit a model different from a traditional model of 8 to 5 desk work environment. Workforce is increasingly getting geared with smart phones, laptops, tablets. It enables them to adopt a more suited model with a flexible schedule and frees one to be bound with the physical geography of office.

Human ecology plays an important role here and suggests us via research that we may never be fully devoid of human interaction achieved through face time. There is certain credibility attached and associated to build a professional relationship through face-to-face meetings. Perhaps our brains are more traditional in functioning towards that aspect. Although, it certainly questions the model of all the employees being present, all at the same time, all in one location to be most productive. Mobility granted to workers with the help of technology adds a dimension which is redefining the work culture we imbibe. Meetings can be effective via video-conferencing, information is transferred and shared accurately and in a  much faster way. And these techniques can enable effective collaboration for resources located in different parts geographically.

With that, alternative model for workspace is critical to explore. One that saves time, energy consumption in traveling and yet be as or more effective in achieving what the workforce team is set out to do. Successful business models are not solo achievements so effectively leveraging all the members potential and teams put together is both essential and critical.

Many companies are already exploring alternate models based on hot desking, office hoteling, virtual offices, alternative offices, laterally stacked scheduling for allocating essential office space and necessary equipments. What this does is that, it dramatically reduces the need for permanent, personalized office space. Reducing the burden of carbon emissions is the direct tangible impact with this practice. It also stresses facility managers and space planners to verify the effectiveness of space allotted. If the space leased is unoccupied or used less effectively, it adds a cost burden on rent and can be a negative spin-off to real estate.

There is a need to have checks and balances in this approach, a need to analyze the user needs and an urge to suggest a model that is best suited to work effectively and space allocation to best achieve this and yet not make us robotic in our approach and temperament.

Migration: A Force in Defining and Shaping Urbanism

Posted in City Scapes, Ethics, Human Rights, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Urbanism by designprose on August 22, 2010

Consider city of New Jersey without Indians, Phoenix without Mexicans or Bombay without Parsis. All these cities have had strong presence of these migrated communities and have, in the process, contributed to the urban landscape in form of their settlements, cultures, rituals, religious practices,

festivals, celebrations and preferences. Migration remains a strong

force in ways urban spaces react and amalgamate these evolving identities. More often than not, migration has no specific predictable pattern and reasons can vary from conquest, to exploration, to access to improved economic opportunities. And settlements are dynamic and take several years or centuries to evolve. Such is the evolution that transformation is a combination of what migrants bring along with them and what they adopt from locally. This architectural adaptation is often an organic process and makes itself clear only with time and the mode of progression or degression of communities cannot be predicted with a definitive foresight.

Urban identity is defined by it’s inhabitants and is largely contributed by different degree of migrants. So while, city of  Mesa, in Arizona remains largely symbolized to Hohokam and now with Mexicans, it remains an emerging urban dwelling often dotted with vernacular architecture amidst growing affluence through economic development and Mesa Arts Center and several business centers make up for a promising growth. Opportunities created through these developments will attract migrants for a newer identity to, once a dilapidated city. Neighboring cities like Phoenix, Tempe have had more vibrantly diverse settlements and this primarily has been contributed through diverse student population from Arizona state university and large IT sectors currently housed in Phoenix and Chandler. This being said, Mesa will benefit by virtue of being in second degree of separation from these Cities.

The scenario is quite different in a city like Bombay, the financial capital of India. Bombay has remained a culturally rich and truly metropolitan in nature but at the same time has managed to attract maximum number of distressed migrants. Distress because these migrants leave their place of origin in desperation in search of livelihood and means to survival. In the process, they contribute richly to the thriving economy, by keeping the cost low. This is mainly offered in the form of cheap labor, low cost of settlements, low wages. This works well for the already affluent class to keep the business operative cost low but in the process it abuses this entire generation of migrants and compromises contribute to exploitation. This presents the governing bodies to regulate in form of policies but that area is still under transformation and dramatic changes. Whether cities like Bombay will be able to address these issues in time will be an interesting study. Although, what it does to the urban landscape in a scenario like this that you see extreme form of disparity in settlements. Compare a dwelling which uses common toilet and water supply shared by many to the fancy sky-scraper within a stone throw distance.

The transition between the two is a knee-jerk one and brings the non-uniform, lop-sided policies too much in to your face. Accelerated migration and uprooting people from their place of origin has seen ghastly impacts and is evident in everyday living in the form of sub-standard infrastructure, poor sanitation, compromised resource allocation, dilapidated, over-populated buildings and much more and much worse. In effect, the city does not speak to it’s dweller in unison or cohesion. It becomes a classic case of inebriated organic development without a conscious foresight of what future expectations should be from the City.

Just like we cannot predict and plan migration in totality, we cannot build a canvas perfect artist impression of the building or urban settlements either. As that impression is devoid of dynamic forces like culture and economic growth. But what we can do is have a critical eye towards capitalism of resources and demand more distributive allocations. Hoarding of economic growth will benefit only a selected affluent few that will sow the seeds of a future uprising and a nasty rebel when this dis-balance will topple itself. Too much poverty and too much affluence cannot co-exist peacefully for a long time, sustainably.

Great City, Terrible Place

Posted in City Scapes, Sustainability, Urban Planning by designprose on April 9, 2010

This is an expression coined by Charles Correa on his impression of City of Bombay. Charles is a renowned architect, activist and a thinker of contemporary architecture and urban planning. In his essay, Great City…Terrible Place he outlines his views on cities and their evolution and how they work occasionally and sometimes fail miserably. A passage quoted below is from the above mentioned essay which captures the essence of underlying urban forces and fabricated sense of ecstasy which is often misrepresented in expressions like great spirit of Bombay or the City that never sleeps.

This is true of Bombay. While it is getting better and better a city, and disintegrating (very rapidly and quite unnecessarily) as environment…perhaps what we are experiencing in the last burst of energy…the spastic twitches before the end. Living in this city we wouldn’t notice it ourselves.

If you drop a frog into a saucepan of very hot water, it will desperately try to hop out. But if you place a frog in tepid water and gradually, very very gradually, raise the temperature, the frog will swim around happily…adjusting to the increasingly dangerous conditions. In fact, just before the end…just before the frog cooks to death…when the water is exceedingly hot…the frog relaxes…and a state of euphoria sets in (as in hot-tub baths). May be that’s what is happening to us in Bombay. As everyday we find it is getting to be more and more of a great city…and a terrible place.

This holds true for the most talked about city of Bombay in a developing India and perhaps this has worked negatively and has brought Bombay on the brink of explosion. Bursting with people, diversities, cultures and its related social implications and grappling to find its identity and some sense of order in all the chaos and confusion. An attempt to create this Utopian  city which will accommodate every Indian and his or her dream and offer squalor and confusion garbed in hopes and misery and a drive to keep fighting in just one single city is a failed strategy. It has become a hub for almost every upward bound economic engine with an exception of Bangalore and Hyderabad which brings migrants in extremely large numbers. Not all migrants want to leave their place of origin if it provided access to basic needs and means to empower themselves and sustain locally.

We need multiple hubs spread strategically around the map of India which will give more even spread of population. So, need for evenly distributed development is not just a humanitarian call but a practical solution for city to sustain. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty will not be able to live too peacefully in close proximity and extreme forces from both ends will create imbalance as we have seen in the case of Bombay’s class divides. One will find people commuting from farthest northern suburbs to work in southern commercial hub. Attempt to redistribute the work force and organize work and housing locally in short distance have been made in places like New Bombay, Bandra-Kurla complex, Lower Parel and Andheri but it hasn’t changed things dramatically and commute still remains a nightmare for residents. Roads remain congested, traffic unruly, urban spaces heaped with garbage littered everywhere and more importantly the complacency and civic sense of people remains questionable.

Lack of planning and unorganized spurts of development remain chaotic and confusing. Dynamic forces like diversity, migration, cultural clashes,  disparities are not given enough consideration & research and it amounts to solutions that do not seem to be working. Thus Bombay remains a place for constant chase, unsatisfactory living conditions and unfulfilled, unrequited sense towards excellence.

Factoring in Green and Beyond: Footprints in Buildings

Posted in Green Architecture, Sustainability by designprose on February 20, 2010

“Green” is probably here to stay and a premise that should have never lost its consideration in built environment, interior or exterior. The way we live and where we live are consumptive in nature and to nature. Consider these, what we eat, what we wear, where we move, where and how we live and all the activities that are essentials in community civilization. All these considerations and choices based on them are critical if we have to make our development sustainable. Sustainability is another buzz word which is here to stay if we have accept the finiteness of resources available on earth. Trees, sand, ores, minerals, petroleum, clay, water, are all finite unless we constantly work in cyclic movement of products reducing the wastage to zero or almost zero. Do examples like, lighting the spaces with natural lighting during day time, using recycled wood, steel, paper in construction and natural ventilation to reduce air-conditioning to save electricity and energy come to mind?

Building and construction sector has tremendous impact on the earth and environment. Here is how. Buildings consume more than 30 to 40% of our energy and 60% of electricity while the water consumption remains at alarming number of millions of gallons. Sensible sustainable buildings play a role in reducing negative environmental damages. Better construction practices and attempt to conserve and recycle materials and resources can reverse this impact. Let me focus on materials and resources and wiser attempt at using them in construction. I will focus on other aspects like water usage, sites, energy consumption in future in different posts.

Materials and resources are intrinsic  to build but are critical if they have to become sustainable design because it will call for extraction, mining, hauling, processing, packaging, transporting and storage during the construction. Are we disturbing the natural habitats or contaminating water and air and depleting resources which cannot be replaced to their original form and quantity?

Next comes the waste generated through construction and demolition and how reusing, recycling and salvaging them will have to be an important and intrinsic design practice feature towards scoring points on sustainability. Usage of local materials and reducing transporting of materials from far-off places will challenge the architects to innovate the design process to adapt to regionally obtained and manufactured materials.