Category Archives: Philip Serif

Philip Serif

Incentives for Modification

Decision making nowadays, on an economic level, has changed greatly from what it once was. Global thinking has taken center stage as the main driver for change and sustained thoughtfulness when regarding the well being of our society as well as alternate societies around the world. All differ on the most basic levels, which of course creates cause for well-informed discourse when attempting to make the important decisions. Energy, water and food remain the general topics and it is critical for us as architects to be able to find the active value in our work in the respective contexts, which we may find ourselves in.

Disparities between the many countries in the world are greater than ever, and the few of us believing we actually benefit from this could not be more mistaken. Economical welfare does not equate to individual financial well being. The refinement of the global economy is necessary to maintain the current state of prosperity few of us are experiencing, as well as extending this prosperity around the globe. This will help us redefine the exponential, all consuming, state of growth we are currently experiencing, into a more efficient entity.

Resource efficiency is of paramount importance, seeing as the constantly growing population as well as the never-ending cycle of renewal and invention of new technologies are, and have always been, interconnected. The prospect of running out of a certain resource or reaching its effective/efficiency peak creates incentive for rethinking our approach. It forces the question of the value of what you could/should be doing were you to drop everything you are doing presently. In other words considering alternatives is highlighted by scarcity constraints. This is the fundamental and most powerful driver we have ever encountered, forcing us to think rationally and considerately about the environmental degradation we are undoubtedly driving on.

Exploring our preference structure, and perhaps dialing back a few of the aspects flowing into said structure, will build on the current understanding we have of the economical foundations we have laid. Growth and happiness are seen as going hand in hand; therefore influencing our present economical foundations in certain ways may alleviate many of the problems faced today.

Without a doubt any architect enjoys creation on a monumental scale, however the benevolent dictatorial behaviours in us is not the true way forward. The origin of much that we do wrong can provide the path to the roots of what we do right, and perhaps even the means to change this aspect of the phase that humanity is experiencing. Furthermore, us as architects, engineers, urban planners etc., are missing the larger picture; creating sustainable buildings is all nice and good, but the population making use of these designs (hospitals, libraries, museums, etc.) is still separated by certain boundaries. Travelling/commuting is a daily reality for most of us, whether by plane, car or train, however it may make more sense to rethink these connections in a wider context. Taking more of the contributing factors of degradation into account (unnecessary travel times, other extensive and resource consuming aspects of life) we may find more incentives than we anticipated, elevating the necessity of life changing decisions as well as permanent alterations to our current state to the highest level of global importance.

Resource consumption and resource production/extraction do not run on the same track or at the same speed. A transition of the energy market may yet be necessary sooner than many of us may have thought. Lessening usage of resources may be aided by smarter thinking when designing. Sewage, drainage and water-flow are almost non-existent in the EU, causing soil-fixation/setting. Through emulation of natural functions, existing natural techniques can be utilized for greater efficiency, seeing as nature is the most efficient machine. Transferring these ‘occurrences’ in nature (recirculating waste water, energy) will hopefully lead to literal self-sufficiency, taking a great load off the world environment. Conversely the main driver of such changes will be the incentives people carry with them, wherever they may be, bringing us back to the beginning, where world disparities are at an all time high. This may be problematic in terms of the extent of change the individual communities can achieve.

Incentives for change are not difficult to come by. Every location on earth has problems needing to be addressed, however the issue lies in spreading the incentive among the subjects. Disparities make this a difficult task to accomplish, not only this but also the fact that certain places may be content with their current situation (Barcelona). The incentive does not exist as extensively in those areas as in others, hence the general stagnation of development/movement forward. On the other hand certain other locations have an inherent need to improve and modify their direct surroundings, due to various and greatly varying reasons (Madrid, traffic). However there exists a further problem when addressing ‘development’. Soon after successful strides forward are made, inactivity sets in and the population finds themselves at peace with the juncture they have reached, falling into dormancy and the ceasing of creative, forward-thinking motivation. Therein lies the mistake. Continuing the careful understanding and production of ever more versatile and quality enhancing methods should be carried forward, and essentially should never stop but be a continuous flow of constant adaptation. Quite a feet to accomplish.

Design can contribute much more than simply creating a sustainable environment; it can go far above its expected boundaries with enough incentive. As afore mentioned, adapting to the environment is the first step, supporting it is the next step. Much like with cities and their individualistic drivers/incentives, global congruity is necessary for immediate and effective alterations. Much like the first ‘step’ for a city is to improve the immediate environment, the first step on a global scale is to mitigate stagnation, and encourage change. We have been actively trying to do so however have been becoming idle in the wrong moments, when we should not have been thinking about the need to adapt our lifestyles but actively attempting to morph our behaviour in a positively acting way on a global scale.

Incentives lie with the neglected and forgotten, they lie with the ‘undeserved’ and underdeveloped, these are the places we should be looking to. To have a tangible impact on the whole, one has to start with the majority.

Having resided in Vienna, Austria, for 9 years now, I have had first hand experience in the case of social housing and living conditions in general. Living conditions in Vienna have been world class the past four years, with the city even winning ‘most livable city in the world’ online award a couple times. Even though one does not necessarily realize the benefits provided when right in front of them, they do become apparent once you leave the country/city.

Social housing in Vienna is one of the main fronts the city council is ‘battling’ on. They have realized that if the working class is not satisfied with their conditions of life then most of the infrastructure will not function properly. For example, leaving housing on the side for now, every person in Austria has a right to a medical card (e-card). They also provide public transport of the greatest quality and at an exceedingly affordable price, allowing most anyone to use it daily (with the yearly ticket costing 365 euros, which is 1 euro a day, to use the entire public transport system; metro, bus, tram). As well as this, prices for basic amenities (food, water, electricity, heating) lie at well affordable rates for almost everyone.

Using good quality, but cheap, housing techniques Vienna has been able to transform itself into a well oiled, functioning and self-sustaining (in economic terms) city. Having been almost not even touched by the economic crisis in the past years, it is one of the few places in Europe to have made strides forward rather than regress due to the cacophony of issues countries like Spain, Greece and Italy have had to deal with. Having taken the working class under the magnifying glass and providing them with greatly improved housing (including services for renovation, moving, rebuilding after extensive damage and many more), while also locating these housing units close to other basic needs, such as metro, shopping centres, supermarkets and entertainment localities.

This added value for the majority provides incentive for them as well as most other people, to keep working towards their goals and beyond. Seeing as Vienna is constantly working on its infrastructure (now building a new General Hospital in the 21st district), the incentives for the community as a whole remain at the forefront.

However the roots for any quality, sustainable and constantly forward moving developments lie with the happiness of the inhabitants, bringing us back to the social housing conditions. The majority of the housing is in a decent state, nothing special, but occasionally there are blocks that are executed with exceptional quality. These units are provided for the new middle class. In my eyes this highlights the fact that Vienna is actively moving forward, bringing lasting benefits for its inhabitants as well as opportunities for self-development. Therefore the application of such a social model/idea is proven, at least in Vienna’s case, to aid the city as a whole to move forward continuously.

The unremitting activity will likely go on for a long time; even so there are imperfections just like in any city. Public transport benefits do connect the city in an efficient and time saving manner however the problem of separation still remains, even with the city taking steps towards equality among all districts. The center is still the commuting point for most workers, and this brings forth the problems of economic wealth spread as well as general pollution due to the commuting masses. Albeit the fact that the majority of the city prefers to use the public transport system when travelling, therefore lessening the automobile pollution, the use of this very system puts great strain on the environment.

Furthermore the cities public transport systems are being extended, which is in part a good thing, nevertheless eliminating any potential for effectively altering the urban fabric. In order to have widespread, lasting change the incentives of the inhabitants have to also change, which is unlikely to happen now with the well-rooted infrastructure system in the existing districts. It may be possible however to take advantage of certain factors involved in the existing arrangements. For example in Japan pressure pads in metro stations harness minimal amounts of energy from people stepping on these pads throughout the day. What may seem minimal in one instance becomes a relatively large amount of energy when coupled with the hundreds of thousands of people passing through these stations daily. Seeing as most of Vienna is there to stay, and not change too much in the near future, it may be an option to take advantage of the public, who actually prefer public transport, to produce useful energy. Translating this technology to the center and the streets where cars pass through every day may also be an option (Germany currently working on autobahn technology which harnesses frictional energy from car tires on concrete).

The unlikeliness of structural change on Vienna’s part is also marginally down to the phenomenon of gentrification. The city may be a prime example of integrating social classes and maintaining general equality and benefits for most but the gain and spread of wealth cannot be hindered. This causes many movements among outlying districts, with some even falling into ‘disuse’, or being neglected, hindering any further benefitting development in that area.

The causes for this apparent disclosure are many and diverse, however the city does have its own ‘habits’, therefore perhaps preferring to take certain well-known ‘routes’ rather than other newer methods towards a better future (Old habits die hard). Perhaps this is also down to the fact that the incentive to change the way of thinking and development does not yet exist there due to the fact that with whatever they are doing, they have managed to avoid many distresses that other EU countries have not been able to.

So the demand for permanent change in the ways of development has not yet surfaced, however the demand for constant development and increase in quality of living conditions for the masses has and always (hopefully) will be there. This can also be traced far back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its gaudy and powerful monumental architecture. The city is a hub teeming with culture and cultural activity. Not only in the museums, theatres and operas but also the physical buildings. The structures remind one of the power once enjoyed by the nation, and the nation wishes for this image never to disappear, generating incentive to constantly renovate areas. Preserving not only the physical attributes but also the aesthetic and picturesque qualities of the city, which now play a huge role in attracting tourists, carries greater benefit than potential loss/failure. Again this hinders any widespread infrastructural updates.

Vienna can be proud of many things that others may not have been able to do, however the city is still guilty of certain measures it takes, or does not. The old fashioned ways have been sustaining the economic wealth of the area, but in the coming times the necessity to change the way we look at things as well as the way we do things will arise. The idea is not to keep doing the same thing, even if it works well, but to rethink the approach to be able to actively impose positive changes on the constantly morphing body of issues in any city. Therefore it is exceedingly important to be able to, but also want to, address arising problems, following change, with increased vigor and new innovative processes, as to secure the greater potential such thinking potentially can bring forth in the future. The incentives are there, however will they be ceased and built upon?



Gonzalo Delacamara, Lecture Series on Economics of Sustainability

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