Friday, March 21, 2008

Ecological Architecture - some thoughts

By Patrick Crehan, Director, Club of Amsterdam, CEO, Crehan, Kusano & Associates sprl

Thoughts about the event about the future of Ecological Architecture

1) The term ‘ecological architecture’ is not well defined it refers to something that lies beyond green or sustainable architecture. It demands more in terms of environmental and human performance.

2) Existing standards for sustainable/green/ecological/good architecture are inadequate. They set the bar too low in terms of performance. They are ineffective in that they attenuate the aspirations of building owners when commissioning. Owners who want to achieve a certain rating or certification with respect to a recognized standard, feel no need to go beyond the highest rating, even if this could be done at little extra cost.

3) The building is one of the basic units for architecture. The challenge of ‘ecological architecture’ exists at many levels – building, urban environment, city, country or planet. Question: Do standards exist at these different levels? How do they interact?

4) Though technical, the issue of measurement is important for the reason that you cannot manage, compare or improve what you cannot measure. Question: What are the dimensions of performance for ‘ecological’ architecture’? … at the level of the day-to-day running and maintenance of the system? … over the life-cycle of a ‘project’? … at different scales?

5) High performance architecture (at building level anyway) does not have to be expensive. It is possible to build ‘zero-energy’ or ‘autonomous’ buildings at no extra cost. The cost structure will be different from conventional approaches in that some items cost more but are off-set by savings elsewhere.

6) To have a real impact there is a need to educate people and help them make appropriate changes to the way they live.

7) The real issue for large scale adoption under current conditions is the retro-fitting of existing buildings. Making high-performance buildings from green-field sites is relatively easy. Question: Is there a role here for standards to be required of landlords or of government in public procurement?

8) One of the challenges of adopting ecological architecture is resistance to the substitution of consumables. The ‘radiator’ is an old consumable, often not the best solution to a problem, but other solutions are possible such as in-floor systems for heating and cooling. This has been possible for many years, but take-up has been low. Another example is in the design of sun-screens. Those that roll from the bottom to the top are much more efficient than those that go from the top to the bottom, but they are generally not employed.

9) Governments have no incentive to reduce the energy cost of buildings. Energy is taxable and ecological architecture ultimately means the loss of a source of revenue. The enemy is not ‘government’ in that governments need taxes to run society. But they need to recognize an alternative. The same force is at work in the case of alcohol and tobacco. Question: What would happen if overnight all taxes of energy, alcohol and tobacco disappeared? What would this mean in terms of loss of revenues for taxation to pay for healthcare, social security, school and hospitals? What could be done to replace these revenues in an ageing post-petroleum society? What would such a society look like and where would it generate the taxes to cover its own cost of social infrastructure. Maybe the real revolution is not in building standards, but in a whole new vision for organizing society that includes a new model for taxation?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Economic Storm

Interview with Martijn Aslander by Jorrit Timmermans
(translated into english by Rodien de Maar)

About transformations to a Network economy
The storm is a metaphor for the changes happening in our world. Changes with impact and results that are incalculable. They are also happening within the economic world. Many of our old patterns have had their longest time. We are richer than ever and have more capabilities than ever. But the consequences of this growth in our world are slowly but unmistakeably felt by everyone.

Thankfully storms settle down and give new energy and chances. Martijn Aslander knows what the possible consequenses are. Martijn, who lives off networking and connecting people, is involved in more than a 1000 projects on yearly bases. He does this by following his heart. He turns all the available information technology into value for himself and others. His attitude to life is best described by the scouting law which he learned at an early age. A scout goes into the world with the other to discover this world and make it a better place to live in. He is honest, loyal and never gives up.He is economical and sober. He is a go-getter, cares for nature and respects himself and the other. You can definitely count on him.

The economy is the sum of all the transactions and barter mechanisms that keep our society in place. Untill now the focus has been on collecting as much profit and capital goods as possible. But now that seems to be changing. We seem to be asking ourselves whether more money is needed, useful or valuable. On account of frequent usage of scarce resources, striving towards maximum profit often fails. Also companies have the tendency to waste the talent of many people. The well known rat race in which employees carry out their limited tasks day after day, restricts the enormous worth that people could actually bring into the economy. Martijn quotes futurologist and trend watcher Justien Marseille by stating that our society is making a jump from maximisation of profit to one of maximising usefulness. This simply means that you do the thing which you are good in, in the place at that given time which makes for optimal worth. Talent as an important impulse for the economy, that’s new.

How is it possible that individual talent suddenly has the room to grow? Until now, we were restricted by means only available to organisations to be able to produce. This was certainly true when our economy relied on agriculture. With the coming of mechanisation and industry, this became more amplified. Later, when the computerization was a fact, it brought us the home computer and the internet. After this, the individual had meaningful tools at their disposal. With the home computer, everyone is able to write their own book, produce a movie or compose their own music. And the internet is our direct link to the whole world and thus the market. At the same time, the costs decrease so fast that everyone can join in to show their talent and offer their products.

This development gives us the freedom to ask ourselves what on earth we are doing. And whether we might actually want to do it differently. There are still so many people that are not satisfied with what they are doing. Information technology gives us the opportunity to do things that were impossible in the past. Dependent on our talent we seek and find the necessary knowledge, information and contacts on the internet. This leads to an economy driven by networks instead of companies. And money does not seem to play the biggest role. The new barter system seems to be one of talent, knowledge and information.

Critics say it's impossible to make a living this way. So Martijn decided to test this theory and take on the experiment of not asking any money for his work. Soon he found that he either had a lot of money or hardly any money at all. But he always had just what he needed that at his disposal just. A computer, an overall subscription to public transportation, insurance, an office and indeed just plain money. Because if you can offer something that is valuable to many, then people are more than willing to donate in order to keep it coming. Martijn let go of all pretences and trusted that he would be fulfilled in all his needs at all times. Seeing this was a success; he began thinking of what we really need in this world.

Evolutional movement
The answer that he found is not directly a logical one. What we really need according to him is movement. Evolution makes us constantly adapt to our environment. And adapting means movement. With those kinds of dynamics our nature makes us search for ways to do things in a different but foremost better way. It makes us want to learn, to try, to create and to innovate. A natural process which unfortunately is discouraged in our present school system. While the bigger problems in our society – social cohesion, innovation, care system, education, competition with other countries like China and India – scream for our capacity to adapt.

How this natural movement can be started is something Martijn knows all about. Every year he organizes a large festival in the woods in Drenthe, a province in the Netherlands. In three days a whole village is built where people can even pay electronically. While normally a festival of this scale would cost a couple of hundred thousand euros, Martijn and his enthusiastic and talented crew do it for less than 12.000 euros. And no script is even used. The circumstances in which this project can develop is mainly dependent on something Martijn calls swarming. A varied and motivated group gets together for a certain project. From within their own skill, everybody participates a little which means that the pressure all round is kept low. Because of the joint exchanges everybody learns from everybody. And after the project is over, everyone goes their own way again or starts on the next project.

Super functional cooperation
What is happening is, it’s using the network as a business. It groups together around a certain project and organizes that which needs to be organized. Then afterwards, it falls apart again. At first glance it seems more chaotic than businesses as we know it now. However, nature knows only how to use this form of non-organization also called the organic fluid pattern. A swarm of birds, a school of fish, a termite hill, these are all examples of a super functional cooperation in subtle tuning with each other. It is this coherence that spontaneously comes up in a network driven by a mutual goal. The internet and the ease with which like-minded people know how to find each other, makes people act as one organism, one species working together on this planet more than ever before.

Web 2.0
Martijn is an insider when it comes to the technology used within the network economy known as Web2.0. This is the term used for a collection of useful tools which the internet offers for free. Tools for project management, file-exchange, marketing, information sharing. The sourcecode for these tools is accessible to everyone (open source). The unwrittenrule in the open source community that is Web 2.0 is that in exchange for using the tools, you have to make your own improvements and adaptations available under the same conditions. A much talked about example is the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia: it's content is freely accessible to anyone and everyone can contribute. The accuracy of Wikipedia is nearly on the same level as the renowned Britannica Encyclopaedia. And the number of topics is many times larger. Small contributions by a large group of enthusiastic users make for the open source mentality in which products become better and extend fast. See the power of the economic network grow.

The Holy Trinity of Dynamics is the term used by Martijn to describe this. It describes a new consciousness of information. Ideas are important.We already knew this. Also the connections between people are important. But information is the key between the ideas and the people. With information you pull people towards you. Information is necessary to create an idea, to carry it out and to talk about it with others. Consciousness about information in our society has not yet taken a leading role.

We have to be nice
Besides the technological tools that are available to make the most of the network economy, there are some personality traits that come in handy. Martijn mentions a fast working and flexible mind, an open attitude, curiosity and courage / guts. And the most important part of all, is being nice. He realises that you need the other as much as he needs you.

The distant sound of the hippies can be heard in his approach. "I still have a bone to pick with them" Martijn says jokingly. Their enthusiasm and ideas appeal to him a lot. They just didn't have the means to execute them. Martijn does. And that he has a point is something you see for example in the opinion of the Belgian top economist Bernard Lietaer. This great thinker is a true believer in complementary economies, where regional currency and bartering play a central role. To rely on a monetary economy alone is much too instable. A disaster like the one of 9/11 makes the dollar collapse and looses our faith in the economy. While it says nothing about the productivity or creativity of people. The revival of true value is the core of the network economy. Besides, says Martijn, a monetary economy can only grow by locking your money away in a bank so interest can be collected on it. Social capital on the other hand grows when you give it away and share it freely with others.

Information is the new currency
It is an interesting thought that giving leads to growth. You can only spend money once. Then it is gone. Ideas, information and access to your network are something you can give away over and over again without loosing anything. The reverse, keeping your information to yourself, leads to being excluded eventually. And without connections you loose all worth. In the network economy, information and networking are the new currency. It is valuable and exchangeable. And it stipulates that you should behave yourself. Only in a goodrelationship with the other there is room to exchange talent and value. It means that we have to become human again instead of taking on a role in which we perform transactions for money. It is obvious that we are in need of a redefinition of the economy.

Instead of profit maximisation we are moving towards optimisation of usefulness. Value creation wil happen better and faster in a networked environment instead of in bricks and mortar companies. As a direct result social capital shall become an important factor. The relationships between people will be more important than the transactions. Having faith in the value of the other and opening your own knowledge and network guarantees you can join in. Status will be decided by the ease with which you have flexible access to information and the connections with others. Perhaps the main change will be finding our humanity again in everything we undertake.