To Design So As To Sustain

On 16 February 2018, I was invited to deliver the opening note for the conference track “Design and Sustain” at the 361 Degrees Conference in Mumbai on “Resilient City: Design, Build, Sustain”.  This is what I said.

We have gathered for this conference track to reflect on how to design and sustain.  I will start by repeating a quotation that I have used to begin almost every talk I have given on sustainable design over the last few years, for it has remained a favourite.  It is from William McDonnough who said, “It is not enough to be sustainable.  If you were to ask someone about how their relationship with their spouse was, and they answered ‘sustainable’, it is not very hopeful.”  This has coloured my approach to the subject.  To explain this approach, I will not show a PowerPoint presentation, which is a deliberate choice.  Rather than placing before you an idea represented by an image on a digital screen, I felt that the case I wish to argue is better served by taking on the challenge of trying to turn on the projector that lives inside each one of you.  For my goal is to touch hearts rather than explain an idea, because I would like to introduce this track by arguing that sustainability is first a state of being before it can be viewed as a system or structure of knowledge.

This is not how we have tended to approach the challenge.  As architects, we have conventionally approached the challenge of sustainability as a knowledge problem.  We argue that the profession is badly trained, and unaware of the ecological impact of the mode of design that constitutes the mainstream of architectural production.  To fix this problem, we feel it necessary to proselytise about sustainable design.  So, we seek to build awareness on issues such as climate-responsive and low-energy design, recycling systems and technologies, materials and products that promote sustainability, renewable energy, ecology, the water cycle, etc.  We propagate rating systems on sustainable design such as Griha, LEED, and Bream.  And we attend conferences such as this where we can hear enlightened speakers who are at the cutting edge of design and research on sustainability, expecting their work will offer us precepts that will light the path to be followed.

Now, I cannot make any claim whatsoever that this is wrong.  It is necessary, but as the logicians say “necessary but insufficient”.  It will take us only along the first few steps of our journey, and the major part of the journey requires attitude rather than knowledge, a personal relationship with the natural environment rather than knowledge about it.  The reason why a knowledge-based path is insufficient is that sustainability involves natural systems, and natural systems are inherently non-linear rather than linear.  To make a simplistic differentiation between these two kinds of systems: a linear system is one where the output of the system is directly proportionate to the input, whereas in a non-linear system the output is not proportionate to the input.  In a linear system, a huge input has a huge impact and a small input has a small impact.  But in a non-linear system a small input can have a huge impact and a huge input can have a small impact.

A knowledge based system is inherently linear, for knowledge is rational, and rationality rests on the linear links between cause and effect.   The knowledge-oriented education we all receive schools us into believing we inhabit a linear world, where if we know something, and act based on that knowledge, we will produce a certain result, and that is the motive for choosing what we know and how we act.  We think of the result we want – a sustainable world – and believe we may move toward that if we learn about sustainability, and implement that knowledge in our design process.  Action rests upon conceptual models of cause and effect, built through scientific research and rational analysis, subsequently applied in practice, and modified gradually through the feedback loop of practical experience.

But what happens when we inhabit non-linear systems where the relationship between cause and effect becomes fundamentally elusive to the point that it becomes difficult to construct reliable foundations of conceptual models?   A classic example of a non-linear system is the weather, which is why meteorologists have such a difficult time in being accurate in their forecasts beyond the extremely short term.  It is also why on an issue like climate change, despite getting warnings from most of the scientific community, it is still so difficult to get people to change their behaviour.  Because of the complex non-linearity of climate, one cannot draw logical connections between input and output – one can at best draw statistical correlations.  This not only gives sceptics a space to operate, it also becomes difficult to incentivise changes in behaviour.  Even a scientific expert who has ascertained that climate change is happening, cannot give you any concrete assurance that a specific change in your behaviour today will produce a definable result tomorrow. So how can you convince a person to radically change their lifestyle without any assurance that this great effort will produce a tangible and worthwhile result that can be visualised today?

Implementing a system that is dominantly linear usually involves what is termed the “last mile problem”.  Taking an electricity distribution system as an example, one can easily implement the backbone of the system, but the myriad number of final connections are the most difficult to implement.  In contrast, the stumbling block in implementing non-linear systems is a “first mile problem”: how do you get people to take the first fundamental steps when there is no clear conceptual model that facilitates giving any rational assurance on where those steps will lead them.  One can create some change through new knowledge and legislation, but if we rely only on this, change will be slower than what we need.  More significantly, our knowledge base may remain out of sync with the world to which it is to be applied.  We need to get people to fully appreciate what it means to inhabit a non-linear system, and how to seek harmony with it; to transcend our dominant reliance on linear logic, and supplement it with network logic.  What does this entail?

The first inherent property we must recognise in non-linear systems is that they exhibit the capacity for emergence.  An emergent system is a system characterised by fundamental properties that did not exist at all in an earlier state of the system.  One of the most cited examples of an emergent system is a termite’s nest.  To plot its equivalent on a human scale – a medium-sized termite’s nest can be equivalent to a human mega-structure that is two kilometres wide and three to four kilometres high.  Within this is incredible order and sustainability: there is functional zoning, traffic hierarchy, climate control, recycling, efficient waste disposal, graveyards, and so on.  For a long time, biologists wondered how this order was created, thinking there must be a special class of termites: leaders who directed how this order is to be created.  But experiments and observation failed to yield any such class of master-planning termite.  Then it was discovered it was a system that evolved without leadership or top-level control.  Every termite, as it moves, exudes a trail of a chemical classed as a pheromone – and there are different kinds of pheromones that result from different kinds of behaviour or intent.  When a termite moves, from the pheromone trail it can discern the pattern of termites that have moved before it.  Termites are genetically programmed with a set of simple rules that say things like “if you smell a pheromone trail like this, then place a piece of mud like that”.  And that is how the wonderful order of the termites’ nest emerges.  From this we can see the conditions for emergence:

  • High-synchrony and frequent moment-to-moment interaction
  • All actions leave a trace of themselves.
  • All traces are in the public domain and visible to all parts of the system.
  • There is an inherent tendency toward pattern recognition in the traces, usually involving specific responses to specific patterns
  • Most significantly, there is low preoccupation with grand design, and the focus is on immediate experience. Steven Johnson, whose book on emergence is a wonderful introduction to the subject, points out that the human brain is an emergent system that would cease to function if each neurone sought to be individually sentient with its own grand vision.  It works because each neurone just focuses on making connections with others, and patterns emerge from the connections made.
  • An emergent system develops from the bottom up toward higher states through iterative evolutionary spirals.

If we feel that emergence is a mode of functioning that is distant from us, that conclusion would a product of our education’s bias toward linear logic.  If we reflect on how we intuitively live, we find that we are, by nature, beings who live spontaneously by the principles of emergence.  Take the example of friendship.  We know that if we set out to find friends primarily through a knowledge or philosophy of friendship we would never have friends.  We have friends because when we meet for the first time them we focus on the immediate engagement, what we say to them, what we hear them say, the way their eyes light up, and not on an eventual goal or system of knowledge.  Then we recognise traces (memories of our engagement) and patterns in those traces (the empathy of shared likes, dislikes, and points of view).  Gradually the core of our friendship emerges, a property that was not present when we first met.

We have lost an emergent relationship with the natural environment.  This is because our knowledge bias has schooled us to view nature as a scientific fact, and this socialises a perception that creates a distance between nature and ourselves at several levels.  And I talk here largely of people whose profile dominates those present in this auditorium – people who are born, brought up, and currently living in urban environments.  The scientific perspective encourages us to delegate an understanding of nature to specialists such as scientists, and this distancing reduces nature to an aesthetic spectacle.  William Cronon writes on this in “Uncommon Ground”, the title essay in the collection edited by him, pointing out that we tend to recognise nature only when the visual spectacle is at a scale powerful enough to evoke wonder in us.  This happens in wilderness when we are moved by the majesty of a mountain, ocean, or forest; awed by being within a presence far greater than us.  When it is closer to home, we need the vantage of water or hills, or the presence of a strikingly colourful sunset to feel wonder.  Come down to the routine and mundane scales that most of us inhabit, and we think we are in an ordinary and fallen place distanced from nature.  Wonder hardly stirs within us when we look at the natural everyday: the shrubs in our backyard, the weeds in an empty lot, the call of urban birds like the crow or pigeon, the routine movement of sunlight, or the presence of rain and how the water flows away.

With this distancing, we lose the ability to read the signs of nature from which we may recognise the patterns to build an emergence in which we can participate.  Consequently, and perhaps biased by the origin of cities as ringed by fortified defences, we build an imagination of the city as a bounded entity, where the boundary designates a separation of the city within from nature without.  The only nature recognised within is that which contributes to the aesthetic spectacle of the city, recognised through a predictability enforced by straightjacketing it into recognisable geometry, or disciplining it with the mower or pruning shears.  We should, as John Thackara suggests, reimagine the city as a sponge; for the sponge has a defined shape as well as a porosity that allows flows through it.  Similarly, there are always natural flows moving through a city, and we need to be able to recognise and read their signs: a continuous daily reading that is necessary to develop the resilient adaptability of emergence that thrives on local richness without seeking to force it into conformance with predefined silos of ego and expertise.

This is something that must be learnt experientially: it cannot be constructed from knowledge.  Knowledge crowds our perceptions, so we become obsessed with the abstract reflective turn that will win us fame or fortune as creative innovators, and we lose sight of the experiential turn to careful listening to our environment with non-judgmental alertness of eyes, ears, nostrils and fingertips.  Knowledge leans toward an abstraction that shifts us toward a disembodied existence in the world: a disembodiment that has become enhanced in recent years where our existence is increasingly mediated by digital screens.  Knowledge preconditions the patterns we recognise, and this recognition blinds us to the potential that lies in the emergent patterns we may glean through our experiences in an environment to which we humbly offer a sensitive and perspicacious awareness.

We need to remember that we are more than intelligent beings, we are also conscious beings.  And our relationship with the environment is one that exists most vividly at the full range of our consciousness, transcending intelligent understanding to also cover one’s entire sense of being, as a living breathing organism inhabiting a world that is also alive.  For this reason, Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, argues, in a TED talk, that while we may aim at an artificial intelligence we will never achieve an artificial consciousness.  Seth, through his rigorous experimental research, convincingly demonstrates that the reality we perceive is not a direct product of our perceptions and intelligence: it is a set of rational hallucinations produced by our brain through a process that is shaped by our experiences of consciousness.  And these experiences also embrace what flies below the radar of intelligent recognition, including the sensations of one’s own body: the sound of breath, the rhythm of heartbeat, the energy and freedom of muscles.  This is a cohesiveness of existence that can only be felt by a living being.

If we feel this as living beings, we must discern and appreciate that the natural environment we inhabit is also alive.  Maybe, not reflectively sentient in the way we are, but alive nonetheless.  When the richness of our own living consciousness expands to connect with this wider consciousness around us, we construct what the philosopher Morris Berman calls “a participating consciousness”: one that participates in the wider consciousness around to seek harmony with it, a far cry from the personalised consciousness that we currently worship and pursue.  A participating consciousness recognises that the signs of nature are subtle, and rigorous practice is required to recognise them.  We must become like the woodsman, who even when deep within an unfamiliar forest, is never lost and knows how to navigate his way out because he has the experience to recognise and read the angle of the sun, the position of the stars, the feel of the wind on his skin, the direction and range of noise, or the smells of the forest.  With this kind of experience, conversations of friendship emerge.  Our everyday world, apparent to our perceptions, picks up two conversations.  One delves inward into the self, into the inner aspirations of our souls.  And the other turns outward to the primordial rhythms of the natural world.  Two friendships develop, and the epiphany of sustainability occurs when it dawns on us that all conversations are with the same friend, for the conversations have led to an inextricable intertwining of the memory of the people and the memory of the land.

Our ancestors held such a participating consciousness, and many traditional communities in India today still do: that is the natural order of things, and it is only the recent abstractions of modernity that has displaced it from our lives, distancing nature from our perceptions to the point that sustainability has become a serious and urgent challenge.  This is not to romanticise ancient or traditional life as perfect, for it is deprived of a lot of things that are of paramount and indisputable value.  But today, modern urbanism has deprived us of this type of consciousness that is fundamental to the processes of life.  Without a participating consciousness, all the new knowledge and techniques that we pick up will have limited reach in serving the cause of sustainability.  Sustainability will happen only when the authenticity of one’s own inner being wholeheartedly feels it is an inseparable component of the web of life within which it is embedded.

I began with a quotation, so let me move into my conclusion with one.  This one is from the Celtic philosopher, poet, and one-time priest, John O’Donohue “I think that one of the things that humans have done, and especially Western consciousness, is that we have hijacked all the primary mystical qualities for the human mind; and we have made this claim that only the human self has soul, and everything else is de-souled or un-souled as a result of that.  And I think that is an awful travesty of presence, because I think that landscape has a soul, has a presence.  And I think that landscape, living in the mode of silence, is always wrapped in seamless prayer.”

So, in listening to the speakers today, be aware that you see only the tip of the iceberg, and do not think that the primary purpose for being here is to pick up the direct lessons they offer so that all you need do is go back home and apply them.  Use the lessons they offer wisely, but remember those lessons need to rest on a bigger foundation: one that responds to the call of a non-linear world.  We will attain a sustainable world only when each one of us transcends the linear world of knowledge to commit every day to a rigorous contemplative and emergent practice that jettisons filters of judgment to pay homage to the soul of the universe.

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One thought on “To Design So As To Sustain

  1. Non linear; enviably well expressed and lucidly too,perhaps one could,refrain from western thinkers thoughts,Indian expressions from perhaps aeons ago ,were non linear,methinks?

    Like

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