“How we respond to disasters tells us a lot about our future”

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The world urgently needs architects and designers to start prioritising humanitarian projects, writes Cameron Sinclair as part of our Designing for Disaster series.

What is humanity? From the Latin word “humanitas” we find the definition “human nature” and, within that, our unique and innate ability to love, have compassion and be creative.

If you look at the state of the planet, it is easy to feel like we’ve lost “our humanity” and our ability to love the place we collectively inhabit. From man-made conflicts to our inability to rebuild after natural disasters, it appears we spend more time justifying destruction than investing in tangible solutions.

Our future depends on how compassionate we are to our environment and how creative we are at successfully adapting to the changes that are happening all around us. The world desperately needs thoughtful and impassioned builders who believe in construction, not destruction. We need to train and empower a cadre of humanitarian designers and architects.

We will see more frequent and ever-stronger natural disasters. These cataclysmic events take only a few moments to tear apart a community, but generations to recover from. How we respond to disasters tells us a lot about our future.

The true disaster is often not the consequence of the natural destruction, but the man-made mistakes that can happen in the process of trying to rebuild communities. With climate collapse inevitable, we have allowed a bitterly divided public discourse and politics to dictate our future as a sustainable species on the planet. Let’s be perfectly clear: the planet will not end, we will.

We are ill-equipped to deal with the coming design challenges

Our world is changing due to the impact of our species upon the fragile ecosystems of our once-thriving planet. Instead of confronting this new world, we are distracted by rapidly accelerating technology and are addicted to digital and alternative realities. The more we disconnect from our humanity, the more we ignore the real-world changes facing our planet. We are in a moment of absolute urgency and we must work together to design a way forward.

Now more than ever, our associations, representatives and leaders must work together to invest in our collective future. If they don’t, it is imperative we create an alternative. One that goes beyond manifestos and ideation, but tangible solutions and new systems to implement projects. One that is willing to take on the politics of stagnation and hold our leaders accountable – not with protests but with solutions.

To do this we not only need to train and empower a cross-disciplinary army of building professionals, we need to call on academia to refocus curriculums for the future we face. We need to move from human-centered design to humanity-centered design. Three per cent of the world uses the services of an architect and there are many incredible schools of design and architecture that will train you for those clients.

For the other 97 per cent of the world, we are ill-equipped to deal with the coming design challenges. A few courses in passive-house design and net-zero building is not enough. For students that might be reading this, you do not work for your professors – they work for you. It is their role to prepare you for the future you will face.


Architects reflect on Tōhoku earthquake community centres ten years on

Revolution in schools of architecture has happened before. In the 1960s, students from schools of architecture shut down campuses in the name of civil rights and social justice. The most well-known was in 1968 and the role of the Columbia University school of architecture in response to the Morningside Park gymnasium debacle. Some of those same radical activists who protested to force change to the curriculum are now the reluctant tenured professors and deans today.

Reflecting back, we have failed on the mandate to “design like you give a damn”. On a personal level, I am more at fault than many of my colleagues because in October 2013, I stepped away from the industry. Reasons aside, what followed was a self-imposed 10-year exile after a dark period of serious and deep depression. Having lost my faith in humanity, I had lost faith in my own humanitas.

It took years to rediscover the desire to embrace design as a vehicle for change.

During conflict or after any disaster, I often receive emails or texts insinuating that I am the reason we don’t have a system in place to respond. There are a litany of things I failed at with Architecture for Humanity, the humanitarian design non-profit that ran from 1999 to 2015, but the system we built was always an outlier; it was never meant to represent or supplement the responsibilities of the design or architecture industry. It was meant to exemplify the value of embedding ethics in our practice and that, when it comes to humanity, our industry has the love, compassion and creativity to respond.

It is my hope that the world’s designers can come together collectively to amplify the best of humanity

Being in the wilderness taught me that the problem with humanitarian design wasn’t the need, it was the lack of opportunity and support for thousands of design professionals who are not willing to watch the world burn or obsessed with designing habitats for inter-planetary colonizers.

The world is now more unstable and disjointed than it has ever been. There are a number of groups and organizations that are doing incredible projects around the world but it’s clearly not enough. Currently, humanitarian design is like the Dutch boy holding back the dike, except the villagers are not coming to help and the dike is about to break.

This summer, we quietly launched Worldchanging Institute, a research and development institution focused on design solutions to humanitarian crises. The organization is empowering designers and architects to circumvent the partisan quagmire that emboldens the status quo. It is leading a series of site-specific projects in addition to expanding Design Like You Give A Damn to become the world’s largest database of humanitarian design projects.


Ramboll uses bamboo to build earthquake-resistant housing in Indonesia

Additionally, we are focusing our attention on areas of the world that are at the frontline of these crises. The atolls and islands of the Pacific Ocean have only a few decades to figure out their future, and for the past year we have been working alongside a partnership of local organizations to support communities with a series of participatory design initiatives.

In 2024, Worldchanging Institute will take some of the lessons learned to host a series of programs to engage architects, designers, engineers and an array of creative individuals to tackle imminent challenges within these austere environments.

It is a very small effort within a monumental task, but we must start now. Whether it is through the Worldchanging Institute or another group, it is my hope that the world’s designers can come together collectively to amplify the best of humanity in a time when we are needed more than ever. In 1999, as a naive young designer, I begged for an evolution of the profession. With the world at the precipice, there is no time to beg; we need a revolution. For the future of our species, our choice is clear: design or die.

Cameron Sinclair is founder of Worldchanging Institute, an Arizona-based research organisation focused on architectural and design solutions to humanitarian crises. He also advises family foundations and NGOs on responding to disasters.

The photo is by Saikiran Kesari via Unsplash.

Illustration by Thomas Matthews

Designing for Disaster

This article is part of Dezeen’s Designing for Disaster series, which explores the ways that design can help prevent, mitigate and recover from natural hazards as climate change makes extreme weather events increasingly common.

The post “How we respond to disasters tells us a lot about our future” appeared first on Dezeen.

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