Optimism, collective action and sustain-ability

06 luglio 2022

© Mika Baumeister

Climate change, the pandemic, wars. We are being impacted by dire, apparently uncontrollable phenomena that overwhelm us and generate deep concern. It seems to be hard to find global responses and strategies. But many of them are already possible and are right before our eyes, and events on design can become an opportunity to reflect on and to discuss these themes. This is what happened at NeoCon, the international fair held in Chicago for the commercial interior design industry, which this year offered an interesting program of talks. One of the protagonists was Shashi Caan, architect, founder of the New York-based studio The SC Collective (2002) and of the international education collective Globally We Design (GloWD). She urges an optimistic approach that could overturn our viewpoint: to be proactive, to foresee phenomena rather than submitting to them, thanks to the power of great visions, based on sharing of interdisciplinary knowledge. It is “like passing,” Caan explains, borrowing a title from the New York Times, “from climate change to climate optimism.” And changing the very concept of sustainability into the idea of ‘sustain-ability,’ empowering ability thanks to collective action.

[Also see the futurologist Matthias Horx, “Blautopia: when rebirth is blue”]

Sashi CaanShashi Caan

The society of the near future: the complexity that lies in store

In 2050 the over-80 population will triple in size (426 million inhabitants – source: UN), and 9 countries in the world (USA, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Indonesia and Egypt) will account for about 50% of worldwide population growth. “We are already in this scenario,” Caan says, “these are not projections. But it is growth that – as in the case of climate change – we are not coping with, but undergoing.” Speaking of the impact of population growth on work, for example, Caan emphasizes that only 10% of organizations are prepared to govern a multigenerational workforce in which, in 2025, the Millennials will account for 75% (source: Deloitte). “These generations have profoundly different attitudes, expectations and values connected to work. But the inclusion of diversity (age, background, ethnicity) is still not a basic concept of governance strategies.” Then Caan analyzes the skills most in demand, already in 2025, for the world of work: critical and analytical thinking, innovative thinking, complex problem-solving, abilities of leadership and social influence, ease of interaction with technology and data processing (sources: Forbes and Ivanti). All characteristics still to be acquired or updated among 40% of the present workforce.

The world of work will be governed by technology. The next 'top jobs' will all be in a technological context, in an industry the constitutes 35% of the total global labor market in 2022. And it is estimated that in 2030 the Artificial Intelligence market will reach a level of 15 trillion dollars. At the same time, only 63% of the world’s population currently has access to wi-fi. To cope with this situation and to be ready for change, we need to enable local communities, starting with their opportunities for education.” This is why Caan, in 2015, co-founded GloWD, one of the first international non-profit groups to bring together interdisciplinary professionals to activate educational programs all over the world, now including 40 schools, a similar number of faculties, and over 400 students.

Visione aerea di Central Park a New York. Foto Patrick T. KindtAerial view of Central Park in New York City. Photo Patrick T. Kindt

The power of great visions

About 40% of greenhouse gases are produced by the construction industry; but why don’t architects and developers play a part in political decision-making? Only projects approached in a strategic and multidisciplinary way, as early adopters, can lead to great visions, namely scenarios that bring together the complexity and potential of the project, in multifaceted, detailed analysis, which would otherwise not be perceptible. To convey this concept, Shashi Caan uses two virtuous examples

Central Park was opened in Manhattan in 1859 after 15 years of construction. It has a length of 4 km and a width of 800, for an area of 840 acres, of which 770 are owned by the municipality of New York. When it was built, the population of the city was about 3 million (now 8.5 million), and the city did not extend beyond 14th Street – so the area of the part was in the open countryside. Nevertheless, five entrepreneurs convinced the municipal government to set this area aside for citizens, demonstrating farsighted vision regarding urban growth in relation to health, equality and prosperity, though in the context of an operation of speculation. 

Edilizia storica nel centro di Ithaca, oggetto di riqualificazione energetica. Foto Ty FinckHistoric buildings in the center of Ithaca (New York State), now being renovated to optimize use of energy. Photo by Ty Finck

Also in New York State, the city of Ithaca, with a population of 30,000 inhabitants, is involved in a major project on an urban scale of electrification and decarbonization of existing construction, about 6000 buildings by 2030, which will lead to revaluing of real estate and services – hence a financial benefit – together with reduction of Co2 emissions of about 40%, and the creation of 400 new jobs. The project is led by BlocPower, a climate tech start-up, and involves both private and public investment.

“This is an example,” Caan says, “of sustain-ability: collective and proactive vision for the future. It is a case that demonstrates the fact that the solutions, like the technologies, are already there, but have to be applied in a systematic way. There are trillions of dollars made available by the Green New Deal; but in the United States only 180 million dollars have been allocated, because they are applied only to certain fields, such as that of technology. If architects can be capable of interacting with local politics, forming interdisciplinary work panels on specific problems, grasping the necessities, objectives and values behind any intervention based on its own scale, then we will be able to understand the potential of great visions.

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