Rebuild through redesign

Since the beginning of 2011 most of the Australian state of Queensland, large parts of northern Victoria and the outskirts of the western city of Perth have suffered from severe natural events – flood, cyclone and fire – with disastrous consequences for those involved. During the writing of this essay, severe earthquakes have destroyed much of my childhood home of Christchurch and the seaboard of Japan. At times phrases such as 1 in 100 or even 1 in 200 year events have been used to describe the magnitude of the impacts.

Naturally first efforts are to protect and restore but now the focus has turned to rebuilding. The inital instinct is to try and put back what was there. But is this really smart? Might it be that the attempt to rebuild what was, locks the community into a range of sub optimal outcomes that undermines resilience and future adaptability? What happens if these events (not including the earthquakes), as dreadful as they have been, are symptomatic of a climate changed future? This paper proposes consideration of some subtly different end states in the rebuilding process and the use of different design principles as reconstruction starts. It is intended to enrich conversations in the thinking about such reconstruction rather than be prescriptive.

Design with the end in mind. In an ideal world, our environment, infrastructure, communities, people and economy should be sustainable, resilient (capable of withstanding future shocks), increase their ability to adapt and above all be future focused. While this truth may seem self evident, the history of rebuilding would suggest that many of the conversations, projects and outcomes (end states) fall far short of this ideal. These four end states though should be central and almost unconditional. Indeed, where they have been applied new and different communities have been created. One of the most notable of these was Greensburg Kansas. Here a little town, utterly destroyed by a tornado, decided that it would reinvent itself as the ‘greenest little town’ in the USA. The consequence has been a revitalization and growth that would not have been possible if they had simply tried to put back what was.

Shock proofing. For some communities, like Tully, in far North Queensland, resilience is becoming increasingly important. This town and the sub region around it are now living through the nightmare of a second cyclone in just a few years. Others endured shock after shock in the space of just a few months. Moreover, they face a future where the likelihood of future severe events is both possible and probable. This clearly becomes a problem for communites where the fabric and infrastructure, was established in a world where they were poorer and probably simpler than they are now. This is important where the cost of replacement is often far higher, or takes longer than the community can bear. If the future is more disruptive and potentially environmentally violent, it is vital that future investment conforms to one of two central principles. The first principle is to design and establish standards that ensure a level of robustness and resilience that will withstand anticipated extremes. If this is the preferred path, then perhaps wisdom and guidance of those who live with such extremes as ‘normal’ should be sought? The Florida Keys come to mind as one such place The other principle is the exact opposite. Some things might be reconceived and rebuilt in a way that they are easily disassembled and reassembled when the threat has past. Circus infrastructure in a sense provides a potential model for such rapid assembly and disassembly.

Being chameleon. Resilience and adaptability are closely linked ideas. In the redesign process, there is the opportunity to create infrastructures and communities that are more adaptable. This adaptability might include rethinking of how utilities are positioned and connected. It might for example include the installation of electrical networks that can easily adapt to a future of smart grids, water systems that allow the communities to live with the water that falls in that catchment (water sensitive cities and regions) and of course the creation of infrastructure that makes future broadband, fixed or wireless, possible. However, adaptability might go further. It could include a rethink of tourism infrastructure for a climate changed and energy starved world, the development of regional systems that are less oil intensive and economic and social infrastructure that builds vibrant 3rd spaces. It might provide the platform for rethinking the whole structure of how we farm. Simply watching failure after failure might also lead to a major rethink of ‘learning’ and ‘wellness’ fabric. Just as a few of us would not buy a 60 year old car, why do we continue to build schools and hospitals based on designs firmly anchored in the 20th century? The drive to create such 21st century societies needs to be carefully managed. It requires different conversations with communities. It demands a clear demonstrate, for it is that value that provides an easy path to adaptability.

Treading lightly on the planet. All of what we have witnessed is forcing us to confront the ‘Sustainability’ question in all its dimensions. An intense focus on sustainability might be described as a way of ensuring that the best value is obtained for the resources that are used. This is a definition that goes beyond the concern about carbon or water to a wider understanding that our footprint (the stuff we use) is far past the capacity of the environment to support us over the medium term. Large scale devastation is an opportunity to retrofit communities in a more sustainable way. This is not just about housing and green technology. It is about rethinking and repositioning utilities, how industry, living and recreation interact and thinking through new investments so that they reduce community exposure to things like rising oil prices. It might be described as the point where transition towns meet the future.

Escaping sub optimal futures. All communities need a sense of self, an identity that they can relate to. Identity is what makes us as people, families and communities what we are, albeit that the ‘consumer society’ has blunted that need somewhat in recent times. If the old identity has been for the most part destroyed, as is currently the case in Christchurch NZ, then the quest must be to find a future view of what might be. A new identity which transforms and transcends the old while being respectful of the history, is often what is required. While there is no doubt that after such extreme events the natural grieving cycle will click in, at some time early in the recovery process, each community needs to think soberly about this identity; what they might look like 10 years hence. To do this, they need to understand the range of environmental and energy system shifts confronting us all, which assumptions are no longer valid and where they need to reach beyond where they are now. In developing this future focus, the art of story telling is more than useful as a device. Just like Greensburg Kansas, every community needs a narrative it can subscribe to. Such narratives drive true hope, inspire innovation and act as a ‘strange attractor.’ It provides a framework in which many small transactional efforts can make sense. When viewed through this lens, the sameness of our ‘cloned’ suburbs, retail complexes and resource intensive utilities is truly cause for concern and the opportunity that crisis provides, however hurtful, is much greater than appears to be the case at the outset.

21st Century Design Principles. While it is clear that in many debates about reconstruction smart futures are often articulated by respected doyens, such views often get lost and are overwhelmed by dialogue and effort focused principally on transactional futures, for in recent times the transactional option has always been the preferred pathway to change. For better futures to emerge, therefore there needs to be a different set of design principles. These include the following; facilitating conversations that transcend transactional outcomes, designing in an integrated and systemic way, creating new synergies through rethinking how societies might work, harnessing the power and innovation that the networking technologies afford and ensuring that what is intended and what actually occurs accelerates the restoration of the ‘five capitals’ of the city or region in question.

Orchestrating conversations. At the core of the debate about restoration is a question of focus. How we answer this question requires careful facilitation. While in times of tragedy it is hard to think about it as a time of opportunity, some consideration needs to be given to the scope of what is possible. If transactional futures are preferred then what emerges are a range of short term value for money solutions that essentially reflect most of what we do now. If, however, there is interest in different futures then the assumptions that need to be rethought must be identified and stories and models of transformational and going beyond today developed. This rethinking then provides the context for very different design conversations which then feed into a very different transactional pathway. By way of example, think of Apple’s future (circa 2004) as a computer company as a transactional future and its future as an online store as its transformational future. The facilitation of this conversation is not about picking winners, although it is about getting clear what we might stop doing. In an ideal world this kind of facilitation is about creating the conditions for a new diversity. It requires some new language and the ability to let go, it requires looking out at that which is hard when the first instinct is to look inwards and it requires leadership that goes beyond short termism This kind of leadership stands like a beacon signalling the option that there is a safe harbor beyond if only we wish to navigate to it.

The community as an ecology. During the 20th century cities and regions actually had design and planning frameworks, which for the most part wasn’t true before then. These tended to separate out ‘living’ from ‘working and recreation.’ In short, since the advent of the motor car and cheap oil promoted suburbia as we now know it, we have planned and built socities where many of the key elements required for modern lifestyles were separated and isolated one from the other. In the process, we allowed and even promoted, development where many of the ongoing costs are born by the community at large without much thought to where benefit truly lay. In the process we subconsciously created a fabric that reflects the mechanistic principles that underpinned the technologies we deployed. This separation however has had both benefits and costs, as the morning commute testifies. Now, as we enter a phase of more expensive energy, the costs are beginning to overwhelm the model. Perhaps in times of rebuilding, we need to rethink the framework for planning; we need to think about communities as ecological systems where the design of one part of the system impacts on the other. Inside these new ecological communities must be some new DNA which has, at its core, a reduction in oil based energy use, for to do otherwise seems unwise. In 2010, the Chinese hosted a world trade expo that was systemic in design and reflected many of the possibilities currently available. The expo presented a glimpse of a world where utilities were integrated into urban fabric, where waste systems were enclosed and green spaces on roofs and walls substantially moderated local environments. Most air conditioning was delivered through means other than electricity, many buildings mimiced the best designs nature has on offer and open spaces were more than accommodating for the 500,000 that visited every day. What was interesting was that for the most part, the technologies used were well known. What was different was how they were integrated into a holistic system. The challenge therefore in the restoration process is to create a set of policy and planning settings that allow for this kind of systemic rethinking and for the realization of the benefits of emergent technologies.

A new symbiosis. In the strongest ecologies, the parts act with one another in a way that reduces or modifies the resources and ‘waste streams’ so that each derives or creates benefit for the other. Using symbiosis as a platform for design is very different from the individualistic competitive meme that has underpinned the planning of most modern socities. Such closed loop thinking not only reduces the costs and volumes of resources and services used, but it allows new possibilities. Symbiosis as an idea relies on new collaborative relationships and works best where there is geographical proximity. Indeed many local high streets, where they still exist, are evidence of such symbiosis. As was mentioned earlier, symbiosis should underpin the redesign of our utility systems. It makes no sense to position utilities far away from those they are required to serve. Thinking about how such symbiosis might occur at a local level has two key benefits. Firstly, it reduces the level of resources used to value created by, in most instances, a factor of four. This often not just enhances but redefines local viability. Secondly, it builds opportunities for a very different kind of prosperity, while strengthening the sense of identity at the same time. This ability to change the resources value dynamic is seen as the key to future ‘competitive advantage’ and is without question critical to the end states discussed earlier. Through symbiosis we can decouple ideas past there use by date ( how we travel and work come to mind) and look for ways to strip complexity and complication from the benefits we all want.

Our networked world. In recent disasters social technologies have clearly demonstrated that the way we communicate to ensure safety, find people, seek help and provide direction has fundamentally changed. We have gone well beyond the mediums of the 20th century and indeed some consider that these emergent tchnologies are as profound for our society as the Gutenburg Printing Press was to the 15th century and the Renaissance that followed. What we might now consider, is how to rethink and redesign our social fabric and institutions so that it both reflects and enhances these technologies and others that form what are often termed location based services. This requires us to understand what a Web 3.0 learning or wellness fabric might look like, to use virtual and visualization technologies for planning and management, to build some form of intelligence into all parts of the fabric we put back (roads that can tell us their state of repair!), to make sure that restored utility services are on the path towards what are broadly termed smart grids. Ubiquitous broadband and wireless must be axiomatic. What these technologies require us to do is to leave behind the command and control models that were part of our mechanistic world. For some this will be hard as the language that is used here seems foreign. However, in times of rebuilding the opportunity should not be wasted.

Five capitals for the 21st century. In the process of creating durable communities five ‘capitals’ are critical. These are environmental, reproducible (infrastructure & man made), social, human and financial capital. The reality is that the legacy of the 21st century was that both environmental capital and social capital were being rapidly eroded by the consumption society. Further, our reproducible capital was rapidly becoming obsolescent through shifts in technology and for some, their skills were becoming rapidly outdated. What this essay has been arguing is that through care and design, all the capitals must be in focus. It is unacceptable to make all the capitals subservient to financial capital as in the end it creates a society that will collapse like a house of cards. Further, it contends that hitherto neglected environmental and social capital can be greatly enhanced and that a fabric suitable for our future post carbon society can be created if the right kinds of conversations are had. Indeed suggestions for redevelopment that pay scant attention to any kind of capital balance should be seen to be unacceptable. For to do otherwise is to create a debt by this generation to the future; a series of follies that would add up to a legacy that none of us would wish to be remembered by.

The new normal. What great disruption does is that it removes our sense of normality and propels us into a vortex of uncertainty. For some it clearly signifies that the old normal can never be again. In the rebuilding and reconstruction process a ‘new normal’ must be created. This ‘new normal’ must be sufficiently different and attractive that is subsumes interest in trying to rebuild what was. Ideally it must be a bold step towards the post carbon world that we know we will have to create and inhabit, sooner or later. It must provide us with a pathway out of uncertainty to a place which gives us much more than we had before. If this can be achieved, then all the heartache and suffering has some purpose. To think otherwise is really not worth contemplating.

Mike McAllum, a New Zealander by birth, is a futures architect based in Torquay, Victoria. As a writer, facilitator and commentator, he works with organisations, communites and institutions, mainly in the Asia Pacific region, to rethink how they do things and design better futures.

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