22 February 2014

Announcing After Growth

Students studying on the Master in Environmental Building Design (MEBD) program at PennDesign are organising a symposium entitled 'After Growth: Designing the Environmental Settlement'.

After Growth: Designing the Environmental Settlement

What will our settlements look like in an era where "growth" may no longer be the norm? The industrialized era led our cities towards patterns of perpetual growth, upwards and outwards, but in our post-industrial state, is bigger always better? Global populations are forecast to plateau in the not-so-distant future and our once cheap fuels are becoming more expensive. Reimagining the future of our settlements demands radical changes across society that will shape how we move, work, and play. Existing narratives of environmental design fail to tackle the complex, interconnected social, economic and environmental realities of the present, let alone the future. As a species we are collectively striving to increase our power and prosperity, while reducing ecological risk; this should be the starting point for new narratives.

Instigated by students of the Master in Environmental Building Design (MEBD) program at PennDesign, this Chautauqua will speculate on the future of our settlements, after growth. On April 11th 2014 a wide spectrum of ideas, theories and practices, will be debated. A range of invited speakers, from the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and historic preservation, will explore what shape environmental settlement could take in a post-growth world, what can be achieved to progress positively to this condition, and what challenges lie in wait.

Further details will be announced shortly. Tickets are free but registration is required and is available now through Eventbrite.

20 February 2014

PennIUR: Expert Voices

The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Sustainable Cities elective in Spring 2014.

2014 marks PennIUR's 10th anniversary.

To mark their tenth anniversary the Penn Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR) has asked a number of “urban experts” to reflect upon the role of the city in shaping the remainder of the twenty-first century, with particular focus on “sustainable growth”. (1)  Penn IUR is “dedicated to advancing cross-disciplinary urban-focused research” (2) and this is reflected in the diverse background of the eighteen invited ‘experts’. That such a wide range of disciplines are represented, from a range of organizations, (3)  is illustrative of the fact that urban issues require collaboration between not only architects, urban planners or government officials but a variety of professionals and, most importantly, ordinary citizens themselves. (4) The nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be characterised by the increasing disconnect between these various ‘stakeholders’ however urban dwelling has always been an amalgamation of multi-variable problems, and is reassuring to see that the silos between disciplines are finally being broken down to provide multi-variable solutions.

This ‘new’ expanded field of urban study aims to bring a “holistic” approach to issues of human habitation in the built environment and is one which Eugénie Birch identifies as having been missed from earlier discourse. Alongside this language of holism a series of interrelated themes—resilience, social justice, inequality, inclusivity, public goods, infrastructure, scale, and environmental justice—are threaded through each opinion piece so that central ideas are repeated, albeit with each different voice bringing something new to the discussion, describing a future that is recognisable in outline but blurred in detail. The majority of the authors are optimistic about this future; the city is seen as a creative force for good, full of opportunity, and the only viable solution to the threats facing mankind. Some authors though are more sceptical, and caution against placing too much faith in all cities and urban centres, including David Hsu, who states: “Some cities will help, some cities will hurt, and we need to know the difference.”

Another commonality among the pieces is the emergence of cities as complex entities that have moved beyond the traditional confines of national frameworks and instead now sit within complex global networks; echoing Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley in The Metropolitan Revolution. (5) These new ‘city-states’, with their ‘activist mayors’, are seen as being more responsive to rapidly changing global situations and better positioned to deliver the public infrastructure required to ensure a more socially equitable future for all. This represents a paradigm shift in how long standing challenges of equity might be dealt with however, given that these challenges have been so long standing and that cities have always been portrayed as creative incubators of human innovation, one must question why, so far, they have been unable to meet this challenge.

In the absence of a concrete definition for “sustainability” readers are left to infer their own interpretation of what it means to be “sustainable” from powerful statements and one-liners. (6) For example, to Richard Weller it implies redesigning a problem at its source, while for Mark Alan Hughes it involves “a resilient use of resources”. The boundary of the discussion is never firmly set. Furthermore, little attempt is made to question whether or not the concept of “growth” is indeed appropriate going forward. The idea of urbanity is firmly tethered to the idea of progress, and by extension growth, but if we are indeed entering a new paradigm even this age-old relationship must be challenged.


The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Sustainable Cities elective in Spring 2014.

1. Penn IUR, ‘Expert Voices 2014: Penn IUR Celebrates 10 Years’ [Online] No date. Available at: [Accessed: 22nd January 2014]
2. Penn IUR, ‘About Penn IUR’ [Online] No date. Available at: [Accessed: 28th January 2014]
3. There is a slight bias, perhaps understandably, towards the University of Pennsylvania and other institutions from the North East of the United States. Other institutions represented include the World Bank, University of Pretoria and University of Southern California.
4. That Charles Branas, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, is a contributor, perhaps best illustrates this. It is is something easily forgotten in design school where often only the views of the architect or city planner would seem to matter.
5. Bradley, J. & Katz, B., The Metropolitan Revolution (2013), Brookings Institution Press.
6. Given the diversity of the voices I would challenge anyone to not find a line or statement that resonated with them.

3 January 2014

The Death of the Architect in the Nineteenth Century

The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Architectural Theory elective in Fall 2013, taught by Professor David Leatherbarrow.

The milieu of architectural practice, over two thousand years of documented architectural history, has oscillated between a series of positions that are “unique and in flux, but underlying their uniqueness [they] share certain structural characteristics”. (1) These structural characteristics are often traced back so that the contemporary architect is read as a formation of renaissance ideals, operating in a profession designed in the 19th century, within construction processes formulated in the 20th century, attempting to meet the demands of the 21st century. (2)

One such structural characteristic that persists today is the “artificial schism between creation and execution”, signified in the modern era by the design and executive architect. (3) While it is difficult to locate the exact moment in time that the construction process was fractured into two, to some extent there have always been two parallel professions—the artist and the craftsman. If history though has been largely defined by two different professional strands, that of the artist (relying on ethical knowledge) and the scientist (relying on technical knowledge), since the end of the 19th century a third category, that of the socially engaged architect (relying on theoretical knowledge) has been present. To quote Sir David Chipperfield: “It is not an unreasonable presumption that the aim of good of architecture is to serve the public good and that most architects work with that intention” (4) however this in itself has not been a universally held ambition of the architectural profession since its’ inception.

In this paper the notion of an 'architect' will be followed from “two supremely eminent theorists in the history of European architecture—Leon Battista Alberti and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc”. (5) To further quote John Summerson, these two figures “constructed towers of thought—the lighthouses, let us say—at points in history where such towers were very particularly needed”. (6) Further architectural treatises will be drawn upon where necessary to further elucidate the changing attitudes of the architectural profession. It is hoped that in so doing it will be demonstrated that, in the 19th century, as the Enlightenment ended the new architectural profession that emerged was one that was barely recognisable from the 15th century it claimed as its antecedent.

The birth of the architect

The profession of architecture, as it is understood today, was formulated as recently as the 19th century, however its routes can be traced all the way back to antiquity. As Spiro Kostof observes, “the presence of architects is documented as far back as the third millennium before Christ” whilst “graphic conventions of architectural practice make their appearance even earlier [in] the seventh millennium [BCE]”. (7) These original architects, as documented by Vitruvius, were not concerned simply with erecting buildings but also astronomy, magic and healing; in the words of Plato they “contributed knowledge, not craftsmanship”. (8)

The Ten Books on Architecture
(Dover Publications, 1998)

On Architecture (De architectura, 20 BC) is the most influential text ever written on architecture and is the oldest surviving written record on the subject; its influence is in part applicable to the interpretation of various different translations throughout history. As McEwen points out "Vitruvius was looking at a rather larger picture” but that: "If Romans eventually came to view the entire world as the princep's temenos (to recall the terms of Dio Cassiu's fictitious debate), it was because of architecture. Not architecture in the modern sense that, conventionally at least, limits its references to building. It was, rather, because of the tripartite whole of Vitruvian architecture—building, gnomics, and machines.”(9) 

Within De architectura Vitruvius “creates a portrait of the architect as a person of broad learning and various talents … [and] All subsequent theories of architecture’s basic values have been obliged to grapple with the simple wisdom of Vitruvius’ statement." (10) While certain advice presented by him is too antiquated or prosaic to service contemporary demands—for example, examining the livers of slaughtered cattle to determine the suitability of a proposed site—one assertion has exercised a tenacious hold on the architect: he set in place a triad of commodity, firmness and delight, which remains to this day “even if [they] have been updated to reflect contemporary concerns with use/function, technology/tectonics, and aesthetics/beauty”. (11)

The hands of the architect

According to Rykwert, when Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) set about writing On The Art of Buildingin Ten Books (De re aedificatoria, 1452) he was “consciously setting out on a fresh enterprise." (12) In the books, Alberti does not simply prescribe a set of conditions upon which all architecture must be formed based solely on descriptions of the past or the immediate present as Vitruvius does in De architectura but instead he sets out a new future for architecture. This is not to say that he does away entirely with Vitruvius. On some points Alberti “echoes Vitruvius…almost word for word”, (13) he too sets out a broad skillset that all architects must master, and he still writes about machines of war, timepieces and city planning, just as Vitruvius did. (14) It is perhaps unsurprising that Alberti would demand that architects demonstrate command of such a wide knowledge base, being the “quintessential renaissance man” and author of books on not only architecture but also on painting, sculpture, a topographical account of Rome, the monuments of Rome, poetry and two books on mathematics. (15)

On the Art of Building in Ten Books
(MIT Press, 1991)

With our modern mindset, reliant on classification systems that subdivide and order information, (16) it is at times easy to forget that when Alberti was writing, buildings were not placed into particular epochs or styles. Rather there was a continuum of buildings and building projects; just as there were a series of renaissances throughout history, not just the commonly held belief that there was a singular renaissance. As such, while we are perhaps more comfortable depicting Alberti as a Classicist—in much the same way that Viollet-le-Duc is classified today as a devote follower of Gothicism—for him there could be no distinction between the ancients and the “moderns”. To think he prioritises the “ancients” is a mistake, one as profound as thinking that Viollet-le-Duc had no interest in the works of ancient Greece or Rome. (17) Perhaps the similarities between Alberti and Viollet-le-Duc run deeper than it would first seem, especially if you were to reduce them to stereotypes that favour one style of architecture over another. Summerson writes that Viollet-le-Duc was the first to show that the modern architect must “analyse the masterpieces of the past, reduce them to a process of argument, then apply [that] argument to his own problems" (18) however it may be that this claim is in fact owned by Alberti.

There are of course differences between the two authors; the separation of over four hundred years makes it almost impossible for there not be. Chief amongst these is the fact that the two men were writing for two very different audiences. De re aedificatoria is aimed at the “respected families” who make up the clients and patrons of architects operating in the fifteenth century, whereas Viollet-le-Duc’s Lectures were intended for a captive audience of students interested in architecture (and whom presumably wished to pursue it professionally). In both cases these were educated audiences, interested in the liberal arts, however for Alberti these liberal (gentleman) “arts” were very distinct from the “art” of building. (19) Furthermore, as De re aedificatoria is written for clients it can be assumed that Alberti is attempting to construct an argument wherein architecture is an idealised profession that is key to all building work and that patrons, upon which architects depended for their living, need to employ architects, not simply skilled craftsmen. The message is clear: undertaking a building project in the 15th century, as it is today, is not one that a client should take lightly, or else their reputation could be severely damaged.

At the start of De re aedificatoria Alberti makes it clear that there is a distinction between the architect and the carpenter (the craftsmen or builder): “the carpenter is but an instrument in the hands of the architect”. (20) This is quite possibly the earliest example of a “them” and “us” relationship being established between architects and builders, or other professions, a position that still plagues the built environment and construction industry to this day. In making this distinction Alberti inadvertently sets up a power relationship wherein the “hands of the architect” (the workmen) are seen as being secondary to the mind of the architect that guides them. For Alberti these “hands” are participatory, part of a collaborative act of building. He makes this clear when describing how a building is a form of body, and that this is the product of thought (dependent on the “power of reason”) and Nature (dependent on preparation and selection), both of which,  on their own, “would not suffice without the hand of the skilled workman to fashion the material according to lineaments”. (21) Design may be prior but this does not give it primacy over construction methods, materials, location or a raft of other important considerations when undertaking the act of building.

To think then that Alberti prioritises the architect over the carpenter is to make the same mistake that assumes he prioritises the ancients over the moderns. Nevertheless within 50 years the architect was placed upon a pedestal atop the construction tree. This is best epitomised by the adulation showered upon Michelangelo Buonarroti (14751564), who was referred to as being “divine” during his own lifetime. Of course Michelangelo was a universal man of the Renaissance—there is an argument to say that he was the exemplary Renaissance man—but he denied competence in anything but sculpture. Ascanio Condivi observes that “for all that Michelangelo had no equal in all these matters [architecture], none the less he never wished to follow the profession of architect." (22) This is not to say that he did not devote himself to the pursuit of architecture, as demonstrated by his works. He was not content to simply understand “the principle branches of architecture” but he was interested in “everything that might in any way serve the profession, for example making tie-ropes, scaffolding or platforms, and similar things; and in this way he was good as those who have no other profession”. (23) It is perhaps easy to overlook how he was interested not only in the design of architecture, but also its’ execution, and that if it wasn't for this dual interest he would never have achieved what he did.

The interest in the execution of buildings continued beyond Michelangelo, with Francesco Borromini's (1599–1667) curious ‘book’, The Full Relation of the Building of theRoman Oratory, which presents a full account of every room, including their function, design, construction and appearance. Chapter Four, “Of other very necessary matters”, is of particular interest as it gives a detailed account of plumbing systems designed by Borromini, including his wider ambitions for a comprehensive waste management system that were not completed, due to a lack of funds. (24) Borromini acknowledges that this forthright approach may be unusual when he writes: “Excuse me reader, if I have sullied your ears…places that are otherwise worthy of esteem are rendered impracticable through the lack of such care." (25) Borromini’s book presents a modest view of the architect, as someone who is simply the hand of the client who must “serve a congregation of souls so humble that they [may hold] back [his] hand in adornment; consequently in many places [he may have] to obey their wish more than [his] art”. (26)

In opposition to this we can place Borromini’s contemporary, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) who, in 1665, “was invited to Paris by Louis XIV to work on the Louvre, his fame travelling before him, in one of the earliest examples of an architectural star system”. (27) The foundations of this system were arguably the misread power relationships of De re aedificatoria, written 213 years earlier, and would persist for centuries; today architects are still struggling to come to terms with a diminished position of authority.

The artistic heart and the scientific mind

If the Renaissance was characterised by a body of knowledge resting in an individual, the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries witnessed a “body of knowledge” that was interdisciplinary in its concerns, with the redefinition of classical knowledge categories. Writing in his Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns (1683) Claude Perrault (1613–1688) states that “There are three kinds of architecture: ancient architecture as taught to us by Vitruvius, ancient architecture as we study it in the works of the romans, and modern architecture as we have it in the books that have been written for the past 120 years." (28) Perrault, who also achieved success as a physician and an anatomist, brought a scientific mentality to the study of architecture, with his comparative analysis of ancient buildings and application of other 16th and 17th century scientific and philosophical observations on the profession. In presenting a set of guides for column types (and their subsequent ‘styles’) Perrault is part of a wider trend from this period wherein architects began to shed their reliance on technical requirements, viewing this technical knowledge as something which is universally held, and is in fact reliant on common sense.

Etienne-Louis Boullée (1728–1799) goes further than other architects of this period and does away completely with Vitrvuius’s definition of architecture as the art of the building, claiming that “there is a flagrant error in this definition. Vitruvius mistakes the effect or the cause." (29) Whilst Boullée does acknowledge the importance of technical knowledge, in particular the necessity of building safely before building attractively, for him: “In order to execute, it is first necessary to conceive." (30) The late 18th century and early 19th century brings to a climax a slow but violent separation within the architectural profession that sets design and execution in conflict with each other, not collaborative partners as intended by Alberti. All that remains for architects is the ethical knowledge, that of beauty, however this is highly dependent upon the prevailing attitudes of the day. As such, architects can be seen retreating to grand projects and country homes, where art can reign supreme, and a position that would remain until the work of figures such as Tony Garnier and Le Corbusier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (31)

“The turn away from Vitruvian tradition by nineteenth-century rationalists, which subsequently evolved into modernist functionalism," (32) is best depicted by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1979). Often painted as a highly rational figure of the 19th century, it would be more accurate to describe him as a man of contradictions. He was undoubtedly a great and progressive theoretician, but there is no escaping that his built work was, in the words of some architectural historians and critics, ordinary at most, failing to live up to his own ambitions. He was also a highly emotional figure, quarrelling with the institutions of his day throughout his entire career. “Although [for some] his excessive rhetoric is best discarded, his passion for buildings is not" (33) and this is clearly on display in his Entretiens sur l’architecture (Lectures on Architecture), released as two Volumes in 1863 and 1872.

Lectures on Architecture
(Dover Architecture, 2011)

Early on in his Preface to Volume I, Viollet-le-Duc describes a 19th century professional landscape that is not at all unfamiliar to that of the 21st century: “In the present day “specialities” alone are recognised. … Each is confined within a narrow sphere, beyond which he cannot pass without losing a great part of his importance in the eyes of the public." (34) The architectural profession must take some responsibility for this narrowing, as seen in the shedding of the technical knowledge by Perrault and Boullée.

The origins of architecture as a formalised profession in Europe can be found in the wake of considerable economic growth in the 18th century and the emergence of both new building typologies and larger buildings. At this time the aristocratic patrons of the previous era were being replaced by building committees of “middle-class laymen”, in turn forcing architects into more clearly defined roles, and forcing them to sell their ideas in direct competition with their peers. (35) Furthermore, the skills required to erect these buildings were “too diverse and technical for the old habits to deal with” so new specialists began to emerge alongside a new breed of general contractors and professional builders. (36) At the forefront of the specialisation in building were figures including SirWilliam Chambers (1723–1796) and Sir John Soane (1753–1837). (37) Soane, in particular, put it that “the business of the architect is to make the designs and estimates, to direct the works and to measure and value the different parts; he is the intermediate agent between employer and the mechanic”. (38)

The death of the architect

By the time that Viollet-le-Duc is writing and practising the narrowing of professional spheres in the eyes of the public—the clients and real paymasters of architects—was well underway. It something he clearly resents, claiming that “it is evident that my range seemed too wide, seeing that it has been so vehemently contested." (39) He would perhaps cite this is one reason for his professional struggles and clashes with the various different institutions of his day. Viollet-le-Duc maintained a “belief in the chantier or building site, as the centre of the architectural process, encouraging direct collaboration between architect, builder, craftsman and client in order to create a built environment responsive to individual and social requirements, has obvious present-day implications." (40)

Viollet-le-Duc’s frustrations are repeated in the 21st century when: “Those who argue that the individual architect determines what the building will be, and all such issues of practice, clients, and collective action concern how the design will be implemented, are simply separating content from method, form from means, while overlooking the integral balance necessarily struck between them.” These are very different frustrations to those which are found in the architectural treatise’s of Alberti, Borromini or Perrault and would seem to signify that the position that follows the 19th century is something different, and that the old ways of doing things are no longer relevant, despite the protestations of figures such as Viollet-le-Duc. An architect operating in the 19th century may be recognizable to one from the 15th century but only in outline and shadows, the core of what they do and what they believe in has changed. (41)

Architects today are still living with this legacy. The method that is often seen as being the ‘salvation’ of architecture, but to which momentum is constantly moving away from, is “design as social construction, or design as negotiation" (42) wherein the built environment “emerges from collective action”. (43) It is this which Alberti is describing in De re aedificatoria and to which architects have been trying to find their way back to for the past two hundred years.


The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Architectural Theory elective in Fall 2013, taught by Professor David Leatherbarrow.

1. Dana Cuff, Architecture: The Story of Practice, (1992). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 157.
2. Butcher, L., The Architecture of the Profession, (2011). The University of Manchester.
3. Joshua Prince Ramus, “Building a theatre that remakes itself”, TEDxSMU2009, Dallas, October 2009. TED, Joshua Prince-Ramus: Building a theatre that remakes itself”, 2010 [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 15th December 2013]

4. Sir David Chipperfield, “Searching for Substance”, Royal Gold Medal Presentation & Speech, 10th February 2011. RIBA, Royal Gold Medal Website, 2011 [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 15th December 2013]
5. John Summerson, Heavenly Mansions and other Essays on Architecture, (1963). New York: The Norton Library, p. 135.
6. Ibid.
7. Kostof, S., The Practice of Architecture in the Ancient World: Egypt and Greece, in Kostof, S., (ed.) The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, (2000). Berkley, CA: University of California Press, p. 3.
8. Plato, Politicus 360 BCE cited in Ibid.
9. McEwen, I., Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture, (2003). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 299-300.
10. Spector, T., The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice, (2001). New York: Princeton Architectural Press, p. 35.
11. Till. J., Architecture Depends, (2009). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 28.
12. Rykwert, J. Introduction in Alberti, L., On the Art of Building in Ten Books, (1988). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. ix.
13. Spector, loc. cit. Henry Wotton, in his 1624 Elements of Architecture took up a similar position: “The end is to build well,” he wrote “Well building hath three conditions: Commoditie, Firmenes, and Delight … the place of every part, is to be determined by use.” Following Wotton, Sir William Chambers, in his 1791 A treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture, “expressed much the same idea, arguing that beauty should be justified in terms of the utilitarian benefits it bestows on man’s well being.” Ibid., p. 39.
14. City planning remains the last of these three that architects demonstrate some sphere of influence, however the emergence of city planning as a separate discipline for architecture in the later 19th and early 20th century is rapidly diminishing this role.
15. Rykwert, loc. cit. The Vitruvian description of an architect would easily describe Leon Battista Alberti.
16. Once we have ordered information we then find it easier to rank it and discard what we see as being least important.
17. Benjamin Bucknall, in his Preface of his 1877 Translations of Viollet-le-Duc’s Lectures on Architecture, makes this clear when he writes for that Viollet-le-Duc “…none of the various forms of Architecture can lay an exclusive claim to artistic excellence.” Viollet-le-Duc. E., Lectures on Architecture, (1987). London: Dover Publications., p.1
18. Summerson, Ibid., p. 141.
19. There is a difference though in saying that the two are distinct, rather than separate.
20. Alberti, Ibid., p. 3. He goes on to add: “Him, I consider the architect, who by sure and wonderful reason and method, knows both how to device through his own mind and energy, and to realise by construction, whatever can be most beautifully fitted for the noble needs of man, by the movement of weights and massing of bodies. To do this he must have an understanding and knowledge of all the highest and most noble disciplines. This then is the architect.”
21. Ibid., p. 5.
22. Michelangelo, Life, Letters, and Poetry, (1987). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 65.
23. Ibid., p. 64.
24. This book appears to offer an honest summation of the difficult processes involved in executing a building in the 17th century. The legacy of a text such as this can be found today in books such as Witold Rybczynski’s The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum.
25. Borromini, F., Borromini’s Book, The Full Relation of the Building of the Roman Oratory by Francesco Borromini and Virgilio Spada, (2010). London: Oblong Creative, p. 95.
26. Ibid., p. 65.
27. McNeill, D. The Global Architect: Firms, Fame and Urban Form, (2009). New York: Routledge, p. 1.
28. Perrault, C., Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns, (1993). Santa Monica: Getty Center, p. 72.
29. Boullée, E., Essai sur l’art, in Rosenau, H., Boullée & Visionary Architecture, (1976). London: Academy Editions, p.83.
30. Ibid.
31. Also important when considering Etienne-Louis Boullée is that his Essay on Art is one of the first examples of the “Public” being explicitly mentioned. This arises in a discussion on the careers of young architects: “Let us imagine now that a young Architect makes some progress and begins to make a name for himself and to win the confidence of the Public.” Ibid.
32. Spector, op. cit., p. 39.
33. Ibid., p. 45.
34. Viollet-le-Duc., op. cit., p.5.
35. Wilton-Ely, J., The Rise of the Professional Architect in England, in Kostof, S., (ed.) The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, (2000). Berkley, CA: University of California Press, p. 195.
36. Saint, A., The Image of the Architect, (1983). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 57. It also reflects a wider societal trend wherein the Arts and Sciences are separated, or better defined as various different sub-categories.
37. “They stand at the head of a vast diversification and fragmentation in building organization which has gathered pace from that day to this.” Ibid. Whilst professional builders like Thomas Cubitt offered early versions of ‘design and build’ services. Osborne House, built directly for Victoria and Albert in 1845-50 by Thomas Cubitt, is one example which used these ‘design and build’ services without an independent architect. Other professional builders included William Cubitt and Company, C.J. Freake and William Willett. They ran “capable” architectural offices within their businesses. Ibid, p. 60.
38. Ibid., p.  1. Soane is often recognised as the first ‘modern’ architect however that title could in fact go to Inigo Jones who was operating in the 16th to 17th centuries. “Significant as Jones is as the first true architect in the modern sense, his career is unrepresentative of the general current of English architecture until the later half of the 18th century, when the idea of a single figure, responsible for both design and supervision, began to be widely accepted. Until then the architectural scene was characterised by the continuing importance of the gentleman-architect.” Wilton-Ely, Ibid., p. 183.
39. Viollet-le-Duc., loc. cit.
40. Architectural Design Profile: Viollet-le-Duc, 1980. London: Rizzoli. p. 1
41. It is perhaps tragic, particularly from the perspective of architects, that just as the profession of architecture was beginning to explicitly embrace the notion of ‘society’ in shaping its’ goals that arguably the role of the architect entered into a quickening death spiral that would result in its’ diminished position today. There is limited mention of society in De re aedificatoria: “what part of the state, what class of citizen owed more to the architect, since he is responsible for every comfort: was it prince or private citizen, religious or secular institution, business or leisure, or individuals as opposed to mankind as a whole?” Alberti, op. cit., p. 5.
42. Cuff, op. cit., p. 10.
43. Ibid., p. 13.

13 December 2013

Review: Big Data

The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Systems Thinking elective in Fall 2013.
"We’re going to find ourselves in the not too distant future swimming in sensors and drowning in data." (1)
For Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, authors of Big Data: A Revolution That Will TransformHow We Live, Work, and Think, the “revolution” that is currently shaping the contemporary world has the potential to create fundamental transformations in the way in which society operates, on a par with the introduction of the Guttenberg Printing Press in 1450. They point to the fact that "In less than a person's life span, the flow of information has changed from a trickle to a torrent" (2) and that throughout history people have always “opted for more information flows rather than less." (3) The book sets out to describe big data, (4) defined as “the ability of society to harness information in novel ways to produce useful insights or goods and services of significant value", (5) as a theoretical and practical construct that will continue, and greatly accelerate, this trend.

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We
Live, Work, and Think (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)

The co-authors, an academic and a journalist, share common research interests in areas surrounding Internet governance and technology, recurring themes throughout Big Data. Considerable time is spent dealing with the Implications, Risks and Control (Chapters 7, 8 and 9 respectively) of big data, which is perhaps a testament to the fact that Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is the Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the University of Oxford, and in 1986 he founded Ikarus Software, a company focused on data security. (6) With other interests surrounding innovation and intellectual property rights (both touched upon in Big Data), Kenneth Cukier is currently the Data Editor of The Economist, having previously been the paper's technology correspondent. (7)

Setting out their intentions for the book early on, the co-authors intend to “explain where we are, trace how we got here, and offer an urgently needed guide to the benefits and dangers that lie ahead." (8) Judged by these criteria the book is fairly successful, providing a comprehensive yet accessible overview to both the benefits and the risks of big data. It should be noted that early on in the book they describe themselves “not so much big data's evangelists, but merely its messengers”, however at times Big Data does come across as evangelical in its praise of big data’s virtues. (9) Whilst this is tempered by discussions about the risks associated with its adoption, which widens the discussion beyond issues of privacy, the tone nevertheless falls firmly on the side that big data is good and that it is here to stay. (10) When asked in an interview about the likely trajectory of big data over the next five years Cukier predicted that it will unfold in much the same way as the Internet, with widespread adoption of big data “around all corners of society”. (11) Big data’s ‘breakthrough moment’ may already have happened, with Cukier drawing comparisons between “the birth of the Web at the Netscape IPO” (1995) and the Facebook IPO in 2012: “It is a $67 billion company with very small revenues and small earnings and all the value of its share is in the promise of what its data holds." (12)

Datafying, then digitizing, big data

The term “big data” emerged during the 2000s, with an ‘explosion’ of data in sciences such as astronomy and genomics; it has since migrated across disciplinary boundaries “to all areas of human endeavour." (13) Today big data “refers to things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more." (14) This relies on a dramatic increase in not only the amount of quantitative information available but also the expertise and the tools to properly utilise it. However, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier go to great lengths throughout the book to explain that whilst “changes in technology have been a critical factor making it [big data] possible, something more important changed too, something subtle."(15) This subtle shift is a change in mind set about data itself and how it can be used; this is the “revolution” Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier are referring to, not the machines. (16) An initial quantitative change (technology) has produced a qualitative change, comparable to the difference between a photograph and a movie: “by changing the amount, we change the essence." (17) Furthermore, today data is no longer “regarded as static or stale, whose usefulness was finished once the purpose for which it was collected was achieved” but is instead recognised as “a raw material of business, a vital economic input, used to create a new form of economic value." (18) To put it another way data is “the oil of the information economy" (19) but whereas oil can only be used once, data can be used again and again.
That big data is often conflated with issues surrounding technology is not surprising when you consider that “The amount of stored information grows four times faster than the world economy” and that this process is only speeding up with further technological advancement, to the point where “Everyone is whiplashed by the changes." (20) This conflation is further aggravated by the fact that big data is “described as part of the branch of computer science called artificial intelligence, and more specifically, an area called machine learning … [but] Big data is not about trying to ‘teach’ a computer to ‘think’ like humans." (21) Regardless of this it is difficult not to argue that technology, and particularly digitization, has not had an important role to play, even if “it is important to keep them separate." (22)

Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier trace the building blocks of big data back far beyond the realm of the digital age. (23) Ancient civilizations attempted to collect census data for entire empires but the difficulty in the analogue world was that this was both costly and time consuming—the intrinsic value of large datasets was never in question. The work of Matthew Fontaine Maury in the 1800s is used to demonstrate “the degree to which the use of data predates digitization”. (24) Alongside his dozen “computers”, Maury revisited old logs to extract and tabulate valuable information on temperature, wind speed, and time, which had been discarded, and from it draw new navigational charts. (25) There are then two prerequisites to ‘datafication’: having the right set of tools; and a desire to quantify and to record. (26)

Whilst mathematics gave new meaning to data in centuries past, the shift from information no longer being stored in atoms but in bit has resulted in much larger transformational effects. (27) However, “The act of digitization—turning analogue information into computer readable format—by itself does not datafy." (28) The differences between datafying and digitizing are epitomized, for the co-authors, in the differences between Google’s Book Project and Amazon’s Kindle, surmising that: "Perhaps it is not unjust to say that, at least for now, Amazon understands the value of digitizing content, while Google understands the value of datafying it." (29)

Valuing more, messy, correlation

At the core of the principles underlying big data are three major, interconnected, shifts in mind set, each serving to reinforce the others position. The first is the ability to analyse vast amounts of data, without the restrictions of smaller sample sizes. Second, there is a “willingness to embrace data's real-world messiness rather than privilege exactitude.” Finally, causality is replaced by correlation as the driving force. (30) 

Historically, we have “relied on to the barest minimum” when collecting information; this was (and still is) “a form of unconscious self-censorship … an artificial constraint imposed by the technology at the time." (31) Today the ‘codified practice of stunting’ is no longer necessary because "The shortcomings in counting and tabulating no longer exist to the same extent." (32) This data is also increasingly temporal but its’ chronological contingency is less relevant because newer data is always being gathered by passive measures, from GPS to Twitter, replacing the outmoded data set. (33) Of course all of this requires "ample processing and storage power and cutting-edge tools to analyze it” but with these now accessible the cost of comprehensive data collection has fallen dramatically. (34) Furthermore, just as the Lytro Camera “records the entire light field instead of a 2D image” enabling the viewer to refocus pictures after they are taken, data can be revisited for entirely new reasons and purposes. (35)

The issues of dependency, messiness and exactitude are explored through descriptions of various translations devices that have been developed. It is argued that previous failures at translation software can be accounted to their design being based on a predilection with exactitude, an obsession which is “an artefact of the information-deprived analogue era." (36) To discard, or at least lessen, the importance of exactitude relies on embracing that we are never able to collect perfect information; therefore “as long as it is imperfect, messiness is a practical reality we must deal with." (37) Previous statisticians relied on imperfect information in the form of sampling, in the hope that the accuracy would make up for the limitations of the sample size, but today we can work with much larger samples that seem to iron out any errors produced by inexactitude. (38)

Having embraced having more, messy data, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier present a new “pragmatic approach” wherein with big data “Knowing what, not why, is good enough." (39) The pursuit of one single version of the truth is seen as a distraction, things are far “more malleable than we may admit”, (40) and as such causation is less important than correlation. The work of Daniel Kahneman is used as a demonstration of the human obsession with causalities, painting causation as a fast-thinking activity that jumps to conclusions far too quickly. (41) Whilst, correlation does not bring about certainty, only probability, when “a correlation is strong, the likelihood of a link is high." (42) The advent of machines capable of more powerful computations means that the limits of traditional linear correlation can be discarded in favour of more complexity, identifying non-linear relationships among data. (43)

If these three mind sets are fully adopted then, "in the age of big data, all data will be regarded as valuable, in and of itself." (44) This is because information is a “non-rivalrous” good, that doesn’t wear out and as such “The crux of data's worth is its seemingly unlimited potential for resuse: its option value." (45) In order to unleash the option value of data three methods are presented:  basic reuse; merging datasets; and finding "twofers." (46) Wilst each of these strategies is relatively straight forward, it is when they are applied to “data exhaust”—the by-product of people’s actions and movements in the real and digital world—that the greatest option value can be obtained.. (47) As seen by the valuation placed on Facebook, data as an intangible asset is now as valuable to a company as its brand, talent and strategy. (48)

Implications and controlling the risks

Currently companies can be differentiated into three broad categories based upon the data, the skills, and the ideas they offer, although some, such as Google, benefit from "vertical integration in the big-data value chain, where it occupies all three positions at once." (49) According to Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier the skills to succeed in this new big data workplace are shifting and “Today's pioneers of big data often come from disparate backgrounds and cross-apply their data skills in a wide variety of areas." (50) The breaking down of traditional silos and the cross-fertilisation of ideas amongst disciplines is not a trait unique to big data however the co-authors go one step further when discussing the possible demise of the expert, due to big data practices. They point to a change in the way in which knowledge itself is valued, and that expertise, like exactitude, is only appropriate for “a small-data world where one never has enough information, or the right information, and thus has to rely on intuition and experience to guide one's way." (51) In this new landscape the middle of an industry will be squeezed, so that firms will be either very large or small and nimble, recasting traditional sectors as diverse as city planning, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and financial services. (52)

If these are the wider implications for a new big data world, there are three categories of risk that we will all be faced with: issues of privacy, propensity and the fetishization of data. (53) This is the dark side of big data; it “allows for more surveillance of our lives while it makes some of the legal means for protecting privacy largely obsolete … [it] renders ineffective the core technical methods of preserving anonymity ... [and] there is a real risk that the benefits of big data will lure people into applying the techniques where they don't perfectly fit". (54) The three core strategies of individual notice and consent, opting out, and anonymization, are no longer effective in the big data age and as such Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier  "envision a very different privacy framework for the big-data age" (55) wherein there is “a regulatory shift from privacy by consent to privacy through accountability" (56) They are keen to stress the importance of maintaining individual responsibility within these new systems and that the more we attempt to reduce risk in society by relying on “data-driven interventions” the more we devalue that responsibility. (57) They propose a new caste of professionals, big data auditors or Algorithmists, who “would take a vow of impartiality and confidentiality", as a means to ensure human agency remains amid computer driven predictions. (58)


Each of the measures set out in the book are designed to put big data in its place, as nothing more than a tool and a resource. (59) Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier talk about a new world that is taking shape now, “already sketched in faint traces that are discernible to those with the technology to make them apparent." (60) To them this is not a world built on "ice-cold … algorithms and automatons” rather there is “an essential role for people, with all our foibles, misperceptions and mistakes, since these traits walk hand in hand with human creativity, instinct, and genius." (61) The question then is if big data is happening all around us, how is it shaping our lives beyond the invisible infrastructures and business systems with which the book is primarily concerned and for whom the co-authors view as its most advanced users. (62)

Aside from fleeting references to sensors being fixed to bridges and buildings, (63) to grey infrastructures, such as roads and vehicle tracking, (64) or manhole inspections and illegal conversions in New York City (65) (this is not to say that these are not important activities) there is little tangible evidence presented in Big Data with which a built environment professional can grapple.  This seems odd given the assertion that the new mental outlook of big data “may penetrate all areas of life” so that the world is seen as information, with “oceans of data that can be explored at ever greater breadth and depth”, and that this in turn “offers us a perspective on reality that we did not have before.” (66) It is seems curious then that the book is lacking in any references to the smart city concept, described by Adam Greenfield as either “urban-scale environments designed from the ground up with information-processing capabilities embedded in the objects, surfaces, spaces and interactions that between them comprise everyday life” (67) or the broader “drive to retrofit networked information technologies into existing urban places.” (68)

Perhaps there is something to be drawn from the examples of European car manufacturers given in Big Data (69) or the business model of Rolls-Royce, (70) which could possibly be replicated by companies specialising in building components or systems, such as façade packages. Would this lead to large scale transformation of society? Probably not. It may alter procurement or operation and maintenance procedures but as for the wider public, they would likely see little difference. These ‘solutions’ have more to with the enthusiasm over the Internet of Things (IoT) (71) or the ’smart’ offerings of IBM, Cisco and Siemens, that Greenfield calls into question, than a revolution. (72)

If smart cities are ‘missing’ it is perhaps not surprising that there is also no mention of Building Information Modelling (BIM). (73) As recently as June 2013, The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London hosted a conference on big data and BIM. At the conference, Andrew Hudson-Smith, Director of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at The Bartlett, stated that big data is the medium through which to join Building Information Modelling (BIM), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Citizen Science and the Internet of Things together. (74)

As successful as Big Data is in painting a picture of the new big data age, when it comes to the built environment the brush is broad and the detail lacking. Those concerned with how big data is shaping the built environment must instead turn to others.


In a trilogy of papers, published between 2011 and 2013, Nick Dunn re-imagines digital space as a new terrain within which architects and urban planners can operate. Whilst this in itself is not a new approach, finding precedent in Archigram’s Plug-In City (1964) or Instant City (1968-70) and Archizoom’s No-Stop City (1969), or more recently UNStudio’s Time-based Urbanism (1997), MVRDV’s Datatown, Sector Waste (1999), and Asymptote’s New York Stock Exchange (1999), Dunn brings the discussion into the physical world. He describes the overlaying of digital technologies upon extant physical situations as a “multi-layered landscape”, (75) noting that “the city as we understood it … has now changed." (76) Whilst the emergence of new city models predates the digital age, it is clear that “The transformation of the physical landscape towards an increasingly incoherent set of urban conditions and the corresponding flows of endless data into an apparently infinite and united system has implications for what we might consider to be public domain." (77)

For example, the Sensity (2004-09) project by Stanza provides the public with “access to invisible but important qualities of the city” and “offer[s] a rich platform across which we [might] better understand our urban landscape”. (78) It is part of a much longer lineage, which includes the Nolli Map of Rome (1784), in providing new representations of public and private domain. Mapping exercises such as Stanzas are important to Dunn because they describe “the ecological mutuality between digital and physical landscapes, especially with regard to social behaviour and patterns." (79) Furthermore he is critical of the position that posits “digital networks and physical conditions are distinct, as opposed to integrative” and challenges designers to “to develop greater instrumentality that affords thick descriptions of scenarios and enables us to develop appropriate design strategies and responses” to deliver these multi-layered landscapes. (80)

With or without architects a new “intelligent terrain” is emerging, based on a framework of “community-led digital platforms that are easily accessible, robust and responsive to their citizens." (81) Projects such as Open Raleigh (82) or Data Driven Detroit, which has produced the D3 Toolbox, “envisioned [supporting] communities with the data necessary for them to take action in their neighbourhoods." (83) Large scale data collection has always been the purview of the state, (84) and whilst private enterprise may now be collecting their own big data, “Recently the idea has gained prominence that the best way to extract value of government data is to give the private sector and society in general access to try." (85) The future production of space and place will be dependent upon new interfaces, with built in feedback mechanisms, that enable the general public to not simply read a dataset but to get involved in it; this new “connective tissue, i.e. our sociospatial relations and experiences [and will] result in a useful territory from which to develop responsive tactics to urban space from places that are both socially constructed and personally perceived." (86)

It has not been possible to go into the various claims that Adam Greenfield makes against the smart city, however central to his argument is that the ubiquitous off-the-shelf products being sold as ‘smart cities’ are designed for “abstract, featureless terrain” and not “actual places”. (87) He is calling for work which is “technically sophisticated and [can] take every advantage offered us by emergent ways of doing and making." (88) I would posit that it is the “realistic hybrid of top-down and bottom-up systems” described by Dunn that Greenfield is arguing for, “rather than the illusion of an always on, always ready, always connected, networked society" (89) (a description that seems to aptly fit the new world traced by Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier).

Today then “our cities are already densely and intimately linked with one another, bound together by their own citizens in a constant and mutually reinforcing traffic in atoms and bits." (90) Finally, in the age of big data the scale of the city no longer matters, it is scale of the data that is important. (91) However, it is important to remember that “we are the network and [we are] the data”. (92)


The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Systems Thinking elective in Fall 2013.

1. Magnuson, S., ‘Military ‘Swimming in Sensors and Drowning in Data’’, National Defense [Online] January 2010. Available at: [Accessed: 26th November 2013] This quote first came to my attention through Kumar Navulur, Director of Next Generation Products at DigitalGlobe, during his keynote address at PennGIS Day 2013, University of Pennsylvania, 20th November 2013, entitled “The New Spatial World – A Vision for the Future”.
2. Mayer-Schönberger, V., & Cukier, K., Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (2013), New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 171.
3. Ibid., p. 172.
4. Throughout the book Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier refer to the term as ‘big data’ and ‘big-data’ interchangeably. For this paper I will be using the un-hyphenated version.
5. Ibid., p. 4.
6. ‘Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford [Online] 25th November 2013. Available at: [Accessed: 25th November 2013]
7. ‘Biography’, Kenneth Cukier [Online] No date. Available at: [Accessed: 25th November 2013]
8. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit., p. 18.
9. Ibid., p. 7.
10. It would seem that I am not alone in questioning the evangelical spirit with which the authors approach their subject matter. Press, G., ‘What’s to be Done about Big Data?’, Forbes [Online[ 11th March 2013. Available at: [Accessed: 25th November 2013] Sentences such as “The data can reveal secrets to those with the humility, the willingness, and the tools to listen” do not exactly help Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier case. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit., p. 5.
11. Press, loc. cit.
12. Ibid.
13. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit., p. 6.
14. Ibid., p. 8.
15. Ibid., p. 5.
16. Ibid., p. 7.
17. Ibid., p. 10.
18. Ibid., p. 5.
19. Ibid., p. 16.
20. Ibid., p. 9.
21. If big data is not concerned with teaching machines to think like humans it is at least creating more intelligent systems with feedback mechanisms designed to “improve themselves over time, by keeping a tab on what are the best signals and patterns to look for as more data is fed in." Ibid., p. 12.
22. bid., p. 77.
23. Ibid., p. 78.
24. Ibid., p. 76-7.
25. “Computers” was the job title given to those who calculated the data. Ibid., p. 74-5.
26. Ibid., p. 78.
27. Negroponte, N., Being Digital (1995), New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
28. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit., p. 83.
29. Ibid.,, p. 86. On Google they add that: "The company understood that information has stored value that can only be released once it is datafied." p. 83.
30. Ibid., p. 18.
31. Ibid., p. 20.
32. Ibid., p. 26.
33. "The presence of the old data diminishes the value of the newer data." Ibid., p. 110.
34. Ibid., p. 27.
35. Lytro, ‘You’ll never think about pictures the same way’, Lytro [Online] No date. Available at: [Accessed: 25th November 2013] This is discussed in Big Data Mayer-Schönberger, V., & Cukier, K., Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (2013), New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 28.
36. Mayer-Schönberger, V., & Cukier, K., Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (2013), New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 40.
37. Ibid., p. 41.
38. Although not stated directly in the book, there is an implication that whilst the sample sizes may be ‘x’ times greater, with digital methods, the order of inaccuracy is not ‘x’ times greater as well. The importance of accuracy is still highly relevant though for some big data disciplines, such as GIS, where accuracy is king.
39. Ibid., p. 52.
40. Ibid., p. 48.
41. Kahneman, D., Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013), New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
42. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit.,, p. 53. Of course, there is the danger that “when the number of data points increases by orders of magnitude, we also see more spurious correlations” p. 54.
43. Ibid., p. 61. This is taken one step further with the suggestion “in a big-data age, the argument goes, we do not need theories: we can just look at the data." p. 71.
44. Ibid., p. 100.
45. Ibid., p. 101-2, 122.
46. Ibid., p. 104.
47. Ibid., p. 113.
48. As with all intangible assets the difficulty lies in placing a stock market valuation on them. One possible solution to further extracting the value of data is the idea of licensing the data to third parties. Ibid., p. 120-1.
49. Ibid., p. 132.
50. Ibid., p. 131.
51. Ibid., p. 142.  The authors continue “In such a world, experience plays a critical role, since it is the long accumulation of latent knowledge—knowledge that one can't transmit easily or learn from a book, or perhaps even be consciously aware of--that enables one to make smarter decisions."
52. Ibid., p. 148. "Smart and nimble small players can enjoy ‘scale without mass,’ in the celebrated phrase of Professor Brynjolfsson. That is, they can have a large virtual presence without hefty physical resources, and can diffuse innovations broadly at little cost." p. 146-7.
53. Ibid., p. 152.
54. Ibid., p. 170.
55. Ibid., p. 173.
56. This vision will require technical innovation to help protect privacy in certain instances. Ibid., p. 175.
57. Ibid., p. 177.
58. Ibid., p. 180.
59. They describe big data “as a tool that doesn't offer ultimate answers, just good-enough ones to help us now until better methods and hence better answers come along.” Ibid., p. 197.
60. Ibid., p. 195.
61. Ibid., p. 196.
62. Ibid., p. 97.
63. Ibid., p. 59.
64. "Tracking individuals by vehicles also changes the nature of fixed costs, like roads and other infrastructure, by tying the use of those resources to drivers and others who "consume" them." Ibid., p. 89.  Whilst the book is solely concerned with the implication for the highways industry, there is far greater potential here for how all people interface and interact with a wider range of public goods (infrastructure), such as schools and parks. If it is not inconceivable that the fixed cost of consuming a road is tied to its use, why not extend this to these other infrastructures, with the cost reflected in the taxes a person pays or how taxes are proportioned.
65. Ibid., p. 69.
66. Ibid., p. 97.
67. Greenfield, A., Against the smart city (The city is here for you to use), (2013) Do projects (Kindle Edition), Loc. 77-8.
68. Ibid., Loc. 119-20.
69. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit.,, p. 69.
70. Ibid., p. p. 146.
71. "The enthusiasm over the ‘internet of things’—embedding chips, sensors, and communications modules into everyday objects—is partly about networking but just as much about datafying all that surrounds us." Ibid., p. 96.
72. Greenfield, op. cit., Loc. 159-60.
73. In reality this is hardly surprising given that it is very much a ‘niche’ industry compared to the mass-market audience this book is aimed at, even if Mayer-Schönberger lists ‘learning about architecture’ as one of his interests in his spare time.
74. Hudson-Smith, A., ‘Big Data, Sensing and Augmented Reality – New Directions for The Crowd and Industry’ [Online] September 2013. Available at: [First Accessed: 25th November 2013] This is a copy of his keynote address given at the Pedagogy meets Big Data and BIM: Building environment education and information management Conference at The Bartlett, 24th – 25th June 2013. On his own research he states that: “We explore various augmented reality systems and conclude that the next decade will see the fall of the smart phone and the rise of electroencephalograph embedded devices with information sent directly to our retinas – this is, we argue, the future of big data, sensing and augmented reality in relation to the built environment”.
75. Dunn, N., Infrastructural Urbanism: Ecologies and Technologies of Multi-Layered Landscapes. In: Spaces & Flows: An International Journal of Urban & ExtraUrban Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2011, p. 87-96.
76. Dunn, N., The end of architecture? : networked communities, urban transformation and post-capitalist landscapes. In: Spaces & Flows: An International Journal of Urban & ExtraUrban Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2013, p. 67-75.
77. Dunn (2011), Ibid.
78. Ibid. The project is described by Stanza as “A series of artworks based on connecting city spaces. The results are visualisations and sonificications of real time spaces.” ‘Sensity’, Stanza [Online] 2006. Available at: [Accessed: 25th November 2013]
79. Ibid.
80. Ibid.
81. Dunn (2013), Ibid.
82. ‘Open Raleigh’, City of Raleigh [Online] No Date. Available: [Accessed: 25th November 2013]
83. Dunn, Ibid.
84. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit.,, p. 20.
85. Ibid., p. 116.
86. Dunn, Ibid.
87. Greenfield, op. cit., Loc. 1438.
88. Ibid., Loc. 1446-1449. He cautions: “But equally, it ought to remain profoundly informed by our understanding of the values and processes that have enabled cities to serve as vital engines of opportunity, platforms for personal reinvention and expressive creations in their own right for over seven millennia.” I would counter that we must beware forgetting that ideas about what a city is and should constitute do change, they are “engines of opportunity” precisely because they have never remained static.
89. Dunn, Ibid.
90. Greenfield, op. cit., Loc. 1417-9.
91. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit.,, p. 146.
92. Dunn, 2013. Ibid.

27 November 2013

Review: Reinventing Fire

The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Systems Thinking elective in Fall 2013.

Could the United States of America realistically stop using oil and coal by 2050? And could such a vast transition toward efficient use and renewable energy be led by business for durable advantage? (1) It is these two questions that the “Reinventing Fire initiative”, launched by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and spear headed by Amory B. Lovins, set out to answer.

Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the
New Energy Era (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011)

The research was published in 2011 in the book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, however this is simply a distillation of a much larger body of research, disseminated through a variety of other channels including digital media, presentations, conferences, and other research papers. The majority of information is accessible through a comprehensive website and online presence, including a number of open-source tools that can be downloaded and a raft of methodological reports and technical summaries. This paper is primarily concerned with the research as it is presented in the book. Necessary additional insights have been gathered from these other sources.

Reinventing Fire

The book, like the research project, is concentrated around four themes, broken into three sectors—transportation, buildings and industry—that have the potential to “make possible shifts in how electricity is made." (2) An entire chapter is devoted to each of these four themes, with demonstrations of how oil and coal, as well as natural gas in the long run, can be saved. Despite the dynamic interconnectivity of each theme, each chapter can be read as a standalone piece, complete with its own introduction, case studies and conclusions.

Opening with an ‘origin story’ in the Preface, the metaphor of fire is immediately evoked by Lovins. The primeval memory of groups gathered around a fire is a powerful one. Fire not only nurtured our ancestors but also enabled the development of western civilization, however “nearly half of our fellow human beings still live in that medieval world." (3) Of what energy we do currently use globally, 80% is the result of burning the rotten remains of “primeval swamp goo”, or to put it less colloquially, fossil fuels. (4) Furthermore, quoting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Joint Force Quarterly, Lovins explains that whilst “Energy is the lifeblood of modern societies and a pillar of America’s prowess and prosperity … [but it] is also a major source of global instability, conflict, pollution, and risk." (5) For the RMI team none of the current problems associated with fossil fuels are necessary, either technologically or economically. They go so far as to say that “We can avoid them in ways that tend to reduce energy costs—because technological progress has quietly been making fossil fuels obsolete." (6) The solution posed is that “we just need a new fire", (7) one that allows us to be safe, secure and durable in the future. Here once again the metaphor of fire is used in a powerful and positive manner; just as a forest fire can be seen as productive reallocation of resources, instead of a destructive force, so shall this new fire.

This new fire comprises two intrinsically linked approaches: using energy very efficiently; and getting that energy from diverse and mainly dispersed renewable sources. A “twin transition” is described, one that isn’t restricted to “the old what—technology—and the old how—public policy”, but is instead increasingly about “the new what—integrative design that combines technologies in unexpected ways—and the new how—novel business models and competitive advantages." (8) The two pairings are seen as enhancing one and other, allowing for greater efficiency and diversity in energy solutions. The book’s aim is to show that in each of these four areas “important innovations are converging to create perhaps the biggest flood of disruptive opportunities ever seen, with effects as pervasive as those of the Information Age but even more fundamental." (9)

Before proceeding any further the book is interrupted by two Forewords, the first by Marvin Odum, President of Shell Oil Company, and the second by John W. Rowe, Chairman and CEO of Exelon Corporation. The inclusion of these short pieces are no doubt crucial to achieving the buy-in of any major business heavily indebted to the current energy network, although they extent to which Odum and Rowe ‘buy-in’ to Lovins argument isn’t exclusively clear. (10)

Returning to the central argument of the book Chapter One, Defossilizing Fossil Fuels, sets out the ‘bigger picture’ of a U.S. economy built on cheap oil and coal. (11) Today U.S. gasoline prices are about half to one-third the “normal” price in other industrial countries and this in turn “has helped to create a pervasive pattern of inefficient vehicles and settlement patterns that maximize driving, causing a massive treasure transfer from America to oil exporting nations." (12) In 2008 America’s Oil bill came to $0.9 trillion but $388 billion went abroad (approximately 43%). (13) The total cost of oil dependence, including U.S. military expenditures for Persian Gulf forces, and minus the cost of the oil itself, equates to approximately $1.5 trillion a year, or 12% of GDP. (14) Early on Lovins relies on twin tactics, the use of empirical data and ‘shock and awe’ statements. For example, “A Pentagon study found that a handful of people in one evening could cut off three-fourths of the oil and gas supplies to the eastern U.S. without even leaving Louisiana." (15)

Energy consumption in the U.S. economy, 2010-2050.

The energy economy of the U.S. is complex, with a myriad of uses for the energy generated, however Lovins believes that the application of three basic principles—do more with less, modulate demand, and optimize supply—can, if applied holistically, rid the U.S. of its fossil fuel dependency. (16) However, this weaning is limited to coal and oil, natural gas is still seen as part of the energy mix in 2050. Nuclear Fission is also removed, on the basis of its hazardous waste and a link between nuclear power generation and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. (17)

Lovins goes on to outline how the proposals presented in Reinventing Fire show efficiency savings—doing more with less—can be used to achieve a larger economy, by 2050, with half the delivered energy, with less risk, and for $5 trillion less (in net present value). (18) Evidence for these efficiency savings trends is found in current data, not projections, wherein “By 2009, America was making a dollar of real GDP using 60% less oil, 50% less energy, 63% less directly used natural gas, and 20% less electricity than in 1975." (19) RMI’s proposals are aimed at accelerating these trends.

Reinventing Fire U.S. Energy Consumption in 2050.

Chapter 2, Transportation: Fitter Vehicles, Smarter Use, tackles the first key theme, setting out to show how we by 2050 we can “drive superefficient vehicles fuelled by a flexible mix of electricity, hydrogen, and sustainable biofuels (and, if desired, some natural gas for trucks), and we’d use those vehicles far more productively." (20) Just as the wider economy will derive its energy from a mix of sources, so will vehicles. In the case of biofuels this equates to an equivalent of 3.1 billion barrels of oil today, less than five times of volume of today’s U.S. biofuels industry, which provided 3% of 2010 mobility fuel. Lovins acknowledges that there are substantial challenges to overcome, most notably the inertial drag of current transportation industries and will require the buy-in of all stakeholders. (21) Three critical ways for business to lead this transformation are proposed: drive the transition to superefficient vehicles; invest across technologies and fuel types; and support policies to speed the transition to radical vehicle efficiency and productivity. (22)

Buildings are the focus of Chapter 3, Buildings: Designing for Better Living. Here the challenge is scaled up because “Building a few million ultralight electric cars seems almost trivial compared to retrofitting or replacing everything from double-wides in a trailer park to high-rises in San Jose.” (23) Furthermore, building-based solutions “require every single American to make different choices." (24) If enough societal change can take place “efficient buildings can become the foundation, and efficient vehicles and factories the pillars, of the vastly different U.S. energy system we’re already starting to build—less risky, probably less costly, and far more robust and resilient." (25) The end result is that by 2050, despite a 70% increase in floor space, buildings will use 13-55% less electricity and 24-68% less natural gas than compared to 2010 levels. Remarkably this could be achieved without using any onsite renewables, simply relying on efficiency savings. (26) “Transforming America’s building sector will demand national attention and action, an intensive ramp-up of investment and innovation, and broadly targeted policy enhancements and changes.” (27)

"Where does the money go?" Average annual consumer expenditures in the U.S.

While Lovins argues that the experienced practitioners already do know what to do, there are six main imperatives that should be driving this sectors transformation. (28) First, there is a need to attack buildings’ inefficiencies with trans-disciplinary insight and entrepreneurship. Second, energy use must be made more transparent. (29) Third, provide easy-to-access financing, priced commensurate with energy efficiency’s exceptionally low risk. Fourth, train and educate a high-quality workforce. Fifth, upgrade to next-generation building efficiency policies and align utility incentives. And finally, begin overhauling how building design is done, taught and built.

The final sector analysed, Industry: Remaking How We Make Things, is the focus of Chapter 4, and by now a common theme has emerged wherein Lovins surveys the existing situation, proposes changes, presents some concluding remarks, and ends with a table of recommendations for the key actors in that sector to pursue. Lovins focuses on the idea of creating resilience in industry, “the ability to survive in hard years and flourish in good ones, learning from stress to become ever more adaptive." (30) He draws parallels between rainforest and industrial ecosystems, stating that a different, longer-term view is required by business, one more akin to “a rainforest than of a chainsaw operator." (31) The key concepts to achieve “startling efficiency” in industry are summarised as: invest in factories and in the people on the factory floor; innovate to guarantee long-term competitiveness; and incentivise the right behaviour. (32) The environmental references continue with talk of “Obvious evolutionary pressures to make industry more robust and resilient, to work like an ecosystem” perhaps most importantly “properly pricing the commons into which things get thrown “away”, whether gunk in our water, junk in our landfills, soot in our lungs, or carbon in our air." (33)

It is argued that the lack of respect for the commons (34) has created “deliberately false price signals, subsidies, and other lopsided policies that handicap the whole economy." (35) This in turn has put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage compared to Germany and Japan, where the “more truthful prices” are driving bigger efficiency gains.

Having established the possibilities of these three key sectors, Chapter 5, Electricity: Repowering Prosperity, proposes a “hybrid of centralized and distributed renewables, integrated by advanced communications and controls that securely choreograph supply- and demand-side resources nearly in real time". (36) Central to this argument is the convergence of 21st century technologies and business models with 20th and 19th century cultures and institutions. As in the previous chapters, several lessons and core actions emerge: one, it is about choosing a system that can best exploit the full range of supply- and demand-side options in an integrated, least-cost fashion; two, the economic and technical challenges are much smaller than the needed institutional shifts; and finally, energy consumers will choose whether and when to adopt new technologies, inform their choices, change their behaviours.

The final chapter, Many Choices, On Future, brings the discussion to a close with a fictional account of what the U.S. might be like if the Reinventing Fire strategies are implemented. The future is not too outwardly dissimilar to the U.S. of today: “The coffee smells the same and the view out the window of the house onto a quiet neighbourhood looks fairly similar." (37) The tone is positive, however whilst the ‘interface’ may be the same, the underlying systems look remarkably different; this attitude recalls the “hedonistic sustainability” championed by some architectural practices, such as BIG (38) Lovins though puts it along these lines: “Energy can do our work without working our undoing." (39)

Difficulties, Risks and Barriers to Change

In Chapter 6 Lovins touches upon the political ‘hot potato’ of fracking and shale gas, he admits that “It will probably take a decade to resolve fracking controversies, reform bad operators, and build a stable regulatory engine that earns public confidence." (40) Nevertheless, natural gas is seen as a key transition fuel to assist with the process of removing coal, oil and nuclear but is still part of the energy consumption mix in 2050. It would seem then that the U.S. cannot fully shake its fossil fuel dependency by 2050. (41)

Despite this difficulty, Lovins suggests that the risks to the Reinventing Fire vision are limited, and although it “includes some technological advances based on aggressive learning curves, especially for carbon fibres, batteries, and renewable technologies, the accelerating advances in material and biological sciences suggests that [their] assumptions might be conservative." (42) There are of course “problems” (read risks), however these lie outside of the technological and economic arguments; these are referenced throughout the book and have resulted in efficiency and renewable technologies not being adopted as quickly as the Reinventing Fire path would need them to be." (43)

The range of barriers includes: active or passive resistance by incumbents; knowledge and culture; financing; value-chain complexity; unclear value proposition; lack of long-term leadership; policy and regulatory structures; and entanglement with partisan politics. (44) However, the main barrier is “slow adoption rates, not inadequate technologies." (45) Each sector also faces individual challenges, for example, the slow-turnover in buildings, industry and electricity. “If these sectors don’t reach roughly 40% adoption rates by 2030, later years’ adoption is unlikely to make up for those early delays." (46)

Business solutions for the United States of America

Whilst Lovins and his contributors may suggest an expanded world view throughout the book, this is first and foremost a book about the U.S. and the new energy era—a more accurate title would be Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the United States of America in the New Energy Era—and as such a nationalistic rhetoric runs throughout. These statements often rely on fall-back position that glorifies America’s past achievements and that “The real underlying fuel of America and of modern civilization is innovation and ingenuity." (47) The question is posed that “As the greatest transition in industrial history unfolds, will America lead this transformation or trail behind others, condemned by old thinking and bad politics to lose the opportunity?” (48) There is an implication here that America has lost its way in the world and that it needs to carve out a new space by striving “to be the sort of society others admire, emulate, and want to do business with." (49)

When other countries are introduced into the discussion it is often to highlight the lack of action being taken in the U.S. For example, “China invested $54 billion in clean energy in 2010—60% more than the U.S. (and 139% more in relation to GDP)”. (50) Other examples have already been highlighted, including the “oddly persistent” myth “that a country can best compete in the global economy by keeping energy prices low.” If this myth were true “America, the current world capital of cheap-energy policy, would have no trouble beating countries like Germany and Japan". (51)

The what and not the why

I would argue that the single greatest achievement of Lovins and the RMI team is not the way in which they are able to re-frame the boundaries of the energy question facing the U.S., rather it is their ability to shift the focus from the why to the what, whilst still demonstrating the how. “Amid the energy cacophony, the swirl of conflicting opinions and agendas, this simple approach bears emphasis: if together we focus on outcomes, not motives, that’s good enough, because the actual things to be done are the same no matter whether we each care most about national security, profits and jobs, climate and environment, or something else." (52) The approach of proposing “bold business solutions” in the title of the book underlines this; surely business leaders will be more receptive to the what than the why.

This then is not a book about Climate Change, the why that is typically at the core of any discussion today on issues surrounding energy. As Lovins describes: “For you to welcome this book’s thesis and embrace its recommendations, you needn’t accept the global scientific consensus on the reality and severity of the risks of climate change." (53) The Copenhagen climate conference (2009) is highlighted as an example of how “pricing carbon and winning international collaboration are hard if policymakers, pundits, and most citizens assume climate protection will be costly.” To go further, ever since the Kyoto Conference (1997) “most efforts to hedge climate risks have made four main errors: assuming solutions will be costly rather than profitable; insisting they be motivated by concerns about climate rather than about security, profit, or economic development; assuming they require a global treaty; and assuming U.S. business can do little or nothing before carbon is priced." (54) Chapters 2 through 5 aim to demonstrate that these assumptions are wrong; instead the conversation should turn to issues surrounding “wealth creation, jobs, and competitive advantage”, ensuring maximum buy-in from a maximum number of stakeholders”. (55) To borrow Markusen’s (2003) analysis of the term ‘sustainability’ I would posit it that Lovins relies on “fuzzy concepts” throughout the book. (56) Whilst he seeks to avoid the “linguistic slippage" (57) afforded by terminology such as sustainability, arguably because it has “emerged as a catchall term for many of humanity’s diverse environmental concerns and responses, so that it now acts as a point of identification and belief for many”, terms like ‘wealth creation’ or ‘competitive advantage’ are equally ‘slippery’. (58)

It is of course hard to escape from so-called ‘green wash’ today, wherein ‘green issues’, are used to smuggle in other outcomes. Penelope Dean demonstrates the potential for ‘green’ ideas to be “used as a Trojan horse to both recuperate a sociocultural design project for architecture and urbanism and to smuggle back into the disciplines those things that have ultimately been left behind”. (59) Lovins argument highlights that ‘green’ may not always be the most appropriate cover under which to smuggle our agendas, and as such the power of the dollar should not be undervalued in this respect as a tool to leverage a more socially durable position. This is not to say that the dollar is any more of a false idol than green is and we should always be aware of such blunt ideological instruments.

The limitations of the printed word

It is virtually impossible to separate the book from the entire Reinventing Fire project, whilst it is undoubtedly an integral part to RMI’s strategy for disseminating their findings; it is only one element from a project with a much broader scope because the issues it tackles cannot be solved by one book alone. Immediate comparisons can be drawn between the Reinventing Fire project and the EU Roadmap 2050 proposals that emerged in 2010. Road Map 2050 is an initiative of the European Climate Foundation (ECF) and was developed by a consortium of experts to “provide a practical, independent and objective analysis of pathways to achieve a low-carbon economy in Europe, in line with the energy security, environmental and economic goals of the European Union." (60) The research was never presented in one definitive book, rather the ECF chose to publish it in three separate volumes: Technical and Economic Analysis; Policy Report; and, Graphic Narrative. (61) The benefit of this is that the different data streams can be parsed for their respective audiences, whilst sharing a framework in the methodology and technical studies. As with Reinventing Fire a raft other digital media is also available through a website. Whilst the two messages share some commonalities they are different in their approach, in Reinventing Fire the emphasis is on business-led change, in Roadmap 2050 individual governments of the nation-states take a more prominent role in the transition to a carbon free economy.

An interactive iPad App was launched to help promote The Metropolitan
Revolution project. It is updated with new case studies on a regular basis. 

Lovins and RMI may have invested their time more productively by establishing a series of separate volumes, aimed at different audiences, rather than attempting to design a catch-all book that arguably ends up leaving the reader over whelmed by its breadth of scope. The columns, the long chapters, and the use of sidebars leave it slightly confused, at times it reads like a text book, at others like a set of financial accounts. Producing a narrative volume, similar to Volume III of Roadmap 2050, may have better disseminated what is a highly important message to a larger population. The use of the word ‘narrative’ does not necessarily mean a fully representative account of what this future might look like, but rather a more concise, better illustrated analysis of the present and the paths to that future. For example, the renderings presented in Roadmap 2050 are not highly polished but they still succeed in conveying a message that different audiences can understand. Lovins may not have wanted to depict exactly what this future would look like, despite his description of it in the final chapter, and yet an important opportunity is missed by not doing so.
Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s work on The Metropolitan Revolution, whilst not necessarily a research initiative in the same vein as either Reinventing Fire or Roadmap 2050, documents the growing trend wherein “Across the nation, cities and metropolitan areas, and the networks of pragmatic leaders who govern them, are taking on the big issues that Washington won’t, or can’t, solve." (62) This ‘projects’ primary means for disseminating its message is through a book (with the customary lecture circuit to accompany it), however unlike Reinventing Fire and Roadmap 2050 the Brookings Institute have chosen to release a free iPad App that “brings examples of the revolution to life, with video interviews, infographics and data visualizations." (63) This allows them to develop their case over time, adding new cities to the app as more research is gathered, and extends the message beyond the lifetime of the book, which is after all produced at a frozen point in time. It seems highly unusual that RMI have not gone to similar measures with Reinventing Fire and the website is too reliant on words. That RMI are capable of better distilling their ideas is not in doubt, as demonstrated in their short YouTube videos, but it does seem strange, given the importance placed on the Information Age and social media in the book that these have not been exploited to their full potential.

Sustained transformation in the built environment industry

Throughout the book Lovins repeatedly returns to the economic argument that “Some $5 trillion in savings over 40 years may seem small in a $15-trillion-per-year economy. But it’s the opposite of the economic collapse that some pundits predict." (64) However, it can been demonstrated that sustained effort pays off: California shrank greenhouse-gas emissions per dollar of GDP by 30% between 1990-2006, whilst Denmark shrank its energy intensity 39% and its carbon intensity 50%, made its electricity 28% more renewable and three-fourths micropower, and created a world-class renewables industry between 1980-2006 (65)

In describing the world post Reinventing Fire clear references to issues affecting all disciplines in the built environment industry are made. A future where “we organize our communities around people, not autos, we drive much less because the places where we live, work, play and shop are nearly all in easy walking distance” has obvious implications for the way our architects and urban planners of the future must operate." (66) Furthermore “The old zoning rules that ended up segregating housing by income level, causing isolation and dispersion, and requiring that you have a costly private car to get anywhere, are long repealed." (67)

Today cities are no longer considered as two-variable (density and open space) problems but instead as complex entities more comparable to the emergent behaviours witnessed in ecology. The world post Reinventing Fire is the same, with urban and industrial ecosystems where what waste is generated becomes food for another part of the system. (68) The Kalundbord Eco-industrial Park, Denmark, is a prime example of this happening today. A process of “industrial symbiosis” allows a network of regional companies to collaborate, use each other’s by-products and share resources. (69)
If there is one ‘hero’ in the world of Reinventing Fire it is not one person but an idea—integrated design—that will enable this post-fossil fuel U.S. to come to fruition. It is curious that at the same time that the ‘old fire’ began to proliferate, during the Industrial Revolution, that the proliferation of specialists took place and everything became de-integrated. Not only does two hundred years of energy structure need to be transformed but a milieu two hundred years in the making must also be reshaped. “To turn dis-integrated design into highly integrative design, architectural and engineering pedagogy needs reform, in-practice design professionals need mental retreads, clients need to value and require integrative design by experiencing its benefits, and incentive-aligning approaches like performance-based design fees and integrated project delivery need to become the norm." (70)

I would like to leave the final word not with Lovins but instead with Belgian architect Julien De Smedt. I believe they are describing very similar futures when, in 2010, De Smedt, wrote: “As young architects, our generation must enthusiastically embrace new ideas about sustainability, questioning inherited doctrine and forging new trajectories. We are the first generation of architects for whom sustainability was embedded in our education—what could in the near future come to be known as the post-sustainability generation. We believe architecture must shift its focus from sustain to ability, abandoning the ambiguity , guilt and compromise characteristic of too much sustainable design today, and demanding instead precise, beautiful, and systematic instigations for change." (71)


The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Systems Thinking elective in Fall 2013.

1. Lovins, A., Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era (2011), White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, p. IX.
2. Ibid., p. IX.
3. Ibid., p. XI.
4. Lovins, A. ‘A 40-year plan for energy’, TED Talks [Online] February 2012. Available at: [Accessed 13th November 2013]
5. Lovins, A., (2011), op. cit., p. XII.
6. Ibid., p. XII.
7. Ibid., p. XI.
8. Ibid., p. XIII. The use of italics is my own.
9. Ibid., p. XIII. The use of italics is my own.
10. Ibid., p. XVI. In his piece Rowe highlights that “carbon is not the only harm that comes from burning fossil fuels. Burning coal emits sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulates, mercury, arsenic, lead, hydrochloric acid and other acid gases, dioxins, and the other toxins that are harmful to human health.” He also points out that “Natural gas, an abundant, inexpensive, domestic resource, will play a key role as the bridge to whatever energy future prevails.”
11. Ibid., p. 3.
12. Ibid., p. 3.
13. Ibid., p. 3. This is equivalent to a 2% tax on the whole economy, without the revenues that would generate.
14. Ibid., p. 4. This is far greater than the total U.S. energy bill.
15. Ibid., p. 6. In the modern, digital age, we are often bombarded by information Lovins is still able to ‘shock’ us with the majority of his revelations.
16. Ibid., pp. 11-2.
17. An interestingly paradox could present itself here when dealing with nuclear energy, as Nuclear Fusion is discounted due to the lack of viable energy production currently and the substantial work required to reach a point where it can add For recent developments in Nuclear Fusion see Rincon, P., ’Nuclear fusion milestone passed at US lab’, BBC News [Online], 7th October 2013. Available at: [Accessed: 13th November 2013]
18. Ibid., p. 11.
19. Ibid., p. 13.
20. Ibid., p. 69.
21. As always his argument is that this is easier than not doing anything and having to deal with those consequences.
22. Ibid., pp. 70-1.
23. Ibid., p. 118.
24. Ibid., p. 118.
25. Ibid, p. 118.
26. Ibid., p. 119. There is obviously a big difference between saving 13% electricity and 55% electricity, the target is to achieve the higher figure and is perhaps reflective of the challenge societal changes present.
27. Ibid., p. 117.
28. Ibid., pp. 117-8.
29. Ibid., p. 117. This is a real possibility through “Cheaper sensors and monitoring technologies, cheap and ubiquitous telecommunications, the dawn of the smart grid, and rising customer demand are creating momentum, capability, and markets for high-quality data collection and application."
30. Ibid., pp. 158-9.
31. Ibid., p. 158.
32. Ibid., pp. 161-2.
33. Ibid., p. 159. Other “pressures” include: desubsidizing fuel; mandating producer lifecycle responsibility; allowing and encouraging waste-heat recovery and reuse; removing distortions that favour virgin over recycled materials; and letting business expense energy-saving investments against taxable income rather than having to capitalize them.
34. This is a direct reference to ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.
35. Lovins, op. cit., p. 159.
36. Ibid., p. 222. This would use “islandable microgrids as necessary to ensure resilience."
37. Ibid., p. 229. This is markedly different to the world described in the utopian novel of Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (1975).
38. Ingels, B., ‘Hedonistic Sustainability’, TED Talks [Online] January 2012. Available at: [Accessed 13th November 2013]
39. Lovins, op. cit., p. 232.
40. Ibid., p. 233.
41. There is no reference to what could be seen as the clever marketing of the word ‘natural’ in ‘natural gas’.
42. Ibid., p. 234.
43. Ibid., p. 234.
44. Ibid., pp. 246-7.
45. Ibid., p. 247.
46. Ibid., p. 248.
47. Ibid., p. 228.
48. Ibid., p. 228.
49. Lovins adds: “What better way to be a moral beacon and reinvigorate our own aspirations than helping lead the world to the cleaner, safer future this book envisions?" Ibid., p. 241.
50. This is more than the world’s entire clean energy investment in 2004. Ibid., p. 243.
51. Ibid., p. 239.
52. Ibid., pp. 250-1.
53. Ibid., p. 238.
54. Ibid., pp. 238-9.
55. These issues can also “sweeten the politics so much that any remaining resistance can melt faster than the glaciers.” Ibid., p. 238.
56. Markusen, A., Fuzzy concepts, scanty evidence, policy distance: The case for rigour and policy relevance in critical regional studies, Regional Studies 37 (2003), p. 702., in Gunder, M. Sustainability: Planning’s Saving Grace or Road to Perdition?, Journal of Planning Education and Research (2006), p. 211. Markusen defines a fuzzy concept as something that “posits an entity, phenomenon, or process that possess two or more alternative meanings and thus cannot be identified or applied reliably."
57. Gunder, M. Sustainability: Planning’s Saving Grace or Road to Perdition?, Journal of Planning Education and Research (2006), p. 213. Gunder adds that “Planners regularly use these ambiguous terms, often as justification for their professional actions…” The term ‘Planner’ could just as readily be swapped with the term ‘Architect. Ibid., p. 212.
58. Ibid., p. 209. Gunder adds that it is not just professionals working in the built environment who require “ideological concepts of belief and identification to be fuzzy”, but that the wider “socio-political processes” would not function without them. p., 213.
59. Dean, P., ‘Under Cover of Green’, in Cuff, D, and Sherman, R., ed., Fast-Forward Urbanism: Rethinking Architecture’s Engagement with the City (2010), New York: Princeton Architectural Press, p. 65.
60. Roadmap 2050, 2013, Roadmap 2050 [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 13th November 2013]
61. Volume I: Technical and Economic Analysis was prepared by: McKinsey & Company; KEMA; The Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London; Oxford Economics and the ECF. Volume II: Policy Report was prepared by: E3G; The Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands; The Regulatory Assistance Project and the ECF. Volume III: Graphic Narrative was prepared by: The Office for Metropolitan Architecture and the ECF. Each of these volumes is available digitally and at the time they were made freely available in print form too.
62. The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (2013), Brookings Institution Press [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13th November 2013]
63. iPad App (2013), The Metropolitan Revolution [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13th November 2013]
64. Lovins, op. cit., p. 235.
65. Ibid., p. 239.
66. Ibid., pp. 229-30. Lovins continues “Sprawl is no longer subsidized either: developers pay all the costs they impose on public infrastructure and services.” For further discussion on the changing role of the suburbs in the U.S. see Leigh Gallagher’s recent book ‘The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving’ (2013).
67. Ibid., p. 230.
68. Ibid. p. 231.
69. Kalundborg Symbiosis, 2013, Kalundborg Symbiosis [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13th November 2013] This arose unintentionally through market forces, over fifty years, making it a model of private planning and initiatives that Lovins is advocating. Of course this network has a coal-fired power plant at its centre which wouldn’t suffice in the world post Reinventing Fire.
70. Lovins, op. cit., p. 118. The challenge of performance-based design fees presents the largest challenges here, in part due to a lack of research-based practice within the built environment professions.
71. Mostafavi, M. and Doherty, G., Ecological Urbanism (2010), Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, p. 122. The use of italics is my own.