Five ways to ensure that models serve society: a manifesto

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  • Mind the assumptions: assess uncertainty and sensitivity as their role in predictions is substantially larger that originally asserted
  • Mind the hubris: complexity can be the enemy of relevance; there is a trade-off between the usefulness of a model and the breadth it tries to capture; complexity is too often seen as an end in itself. Instead, the goal must be finding the optimum balance with error
  • Mind the framing: match purpose and context; no one model can serve all purposes; modellers know that the choice of tools will influence, and could even determine, the outcome of the analysis, so the technique is never neutral; shared approaches to assessing quality need to be accompanied by a shared commitment to transparency. Examples of terms that promise uncontested precision include: ‘cost–benefit’, ‘expected utility’, ‘decision theory’, ‘life-cycle assessment’, ‘ecosystem services’, and ‘evidence-based policy’. Yet all presuppose a set of values about what matters — sustainability for some, productivity or profitability for others; the best way to keep models from hiding their assumptions, including political leanings, is a set of social norms. These should cover how to produce a model, assess its uncertainty and communicate the results. International guidelines for this have been drawn up for several disciplines. They demand that processes involve stakeholders, accommodate multiple views and promote transparency, replication and analysis of sensitivity and uncertainty. Whenever a model is used for a new application with fresh stakeholders, it must be validated and verified anew.
  • Mind the consequences: quantification can backfire. Excessive regard for producing numbers can push a discipline away from being roughly right towards being precisely wrong; once a number takes centre-stage with a crisp narrative, other possible explanations and estimates can disappear from view. This might invite complacency, and the politicization of quantification, as other options are marginalized; opacity about uncertainty damages trust (…) Full explanations are crucial.
  • Mind the unknowns: acknowledge ignorance; communicating what is not known is at least as important as communicating what is known; Experts should have the courage to respond that “there is no number-answer to your question.”

Mathematical models are a great way to explore questions. They are also a dangerous way to assert answers. Asking models for certainty or consensus is more a sign of the difficulties in making controversial decisions than it is a solution, and can invite ritualistic use of quantification. Models’ assumptions and limitations must be appraised openly and honestly. Process and ethics matter as much as intellectual prowess. It follows, in our view, that good modelling cannot be done by modellers alone. It is a social activity. The French movement of statactivistes has shown how numbers can be fought with numbers, such as in the quantification of poverty and inequalities (…) We are calling not for an end to quantification, nor for apolitical models, but for full and frank disclosure. Following these five points will help to preserve mathematical modelling as a valuable tool. Each contributes to the overarching goal of billboarding the strengths and limits of model outputs. Ignore the five, and model predictions become Trojan horses for unstated interests and values. Model responsibly.

Saltelli, A. et al., (2020). Five ways to ensure that models serve society: a manifesto, article available here

On design and politics

Excerpts of the Wouter Vanstiphout interview to Rory Hyde (MVRDV) for the Australian design review in 2011. Full article available here

If you really want to change the city, or want a real struggle, a real fight, then it would require re-engaging with things like public planning for example, or re-engaging with government, or re-engaging with large-scale institutionalised developers. I think that’s where the real struggles lie, that we re-engage with these structures and these institutions, this horribly complex ‘dark matter’. That’s where it becomes really interesting (…) I do believe that architecture and design as a combination of pure speculation, rhetorical poetics and technical capacity, could play a role in politics. It could re-shape certain discussions and therefore create its own inevitability (…) I don’t think architects have to shed their visionary status, their ‘good’ arrogance, or their speculative powers, if only they would realise that things are contextual! Acknowledge the fact that the deepest meaning in what they do is directly related to the context in which they do it.

Wouter Vanstiphout is member of Crimson Historians & Urbanists and professor of Design as Politics at TU Delft

THE SECOND GLOBALIZATION DEBATE, An interview with Antony Giddens (29/01/2000)

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(…) Globalization is not primarily economic. It’s not solely driven by the global marketplace. It’s actually about what we’re doing now. The driving force of the new globalization is the communications revolution (…) one mustn’t think of these things as solely driven by technology, and one mustn’t ever imagine that technology drives itself, and one mustn’t imagine particularly that technology is unilinear — that the future will always be more of the same as the present. History moves dialectically; it takes us by surprise. The future is not linear. You will get many different kinds of reactions to these technologies, some of them hostile, some of them producing new technologies, many of them unpredicted (…) I still write about risk because it’s deeply, deeply involved with technological transformation, obviously. What’s happened in our lifetime is a transformation from one type of risk environment to another (…) It’s only when you have a future-oriented world that you need the notion of risk, because the notion of risk is a confrontation with the future, essentially. It’s about future time and the management of future time. What’s happening now is that we live in the most future-oriented society that has ever existed (…) What we have to deal with is a very, very interesting thing, which is very crucial to scientific innovation, which is exploring the edge between the positive and negative sides of risk (…) Now, when scientific innovations happen they impact on our lives very directly (…) tradition and custom, and nature itself, no longer structure our lives like they used to do (…) Now we know that whenever you drink a cup of coffee or you stick to water as you’re doing there, you’re calculating risk there (…)  You can’t just turn to experts to give you an authoritative opinion in many situations, particularly in innovations, because they disagree. Therefore, you must have both a public debate and political and legal decision-making about these things. This is particularly true when different people say completely the opposite things, even though both seem to be equally eminent scientists. I’m not saying that in the end they wouldn’t find some agreement, because they might after years of research, but you have to deal with it now, plainly (…) You must restrict the role of the market in human life, and you must try and create a form of political thinking which is no longer half-theory. 

by John Brockman

Full article available here

The Amsterdam City Doughnut

 The Amsterdam city portrait was created by Doughnut Economics Action Lab, in collaboration with Biomimicry 3.8, Circle Economy, and C40. Photograph: Doughnut Economics Action Lab/ Image available here

The Amsterdam City Doughnut is intended as a stimulus for cross-departmental collaboration within the City, and for connecting a wide network of city actors in an iterative process of change, as set out in the eight ‘M’s: mirror/ mission/ mobilize/ map/ mindset/ momentum/ monitor/ mmm!

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The Doughnut’s ecological ceiling comprises nine planetary boundaries: ozone layer depletion/ climate change/ ocean acidification/ chemical pollution/ nitrogen & phosphorus loading/ freshwater withdrawals/ land conversion/ biodiversity loss/ air pollution in order to identify Earth’s critical life-supporting systems and the global limits of pressure that they can endure.

The classic image of the Doughnut; the extent to which boundaries are transgressed and social foundations are met are not visible on this diagram. Graphic via Wikipedia.com/ Image available here

The inner ring of her donut sets out the minimum we need to lead a good life, derived from the UN’s sustainable development goals and agreed by world leaders of every political stripe. It ranges from food and clean water to a certain level of housing, sanitation, energy, education, healthcare, gender equality, income and political voice. Anyone not attaining such minimum standards is living in the doughnut’s hole. The outer ring of the doughnut, where the sprinkles go, represents the ecological ceiling drawn up by earth-system scientists. It highlights the boundaries across which human kind should not go to avoid damaging the climate, soils, oceans, the ozone layer, freshwater and abundant biodiversity.

Between the social foundation and the ecological ceiling lies a doughnut-shaped space in which it is possible to meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet – an ecologically safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive (…) The Doughnut’s social foundation, which is derived from the social priorities in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, sets out the minimum standard of living to which every human being has a claim. No one should be left in the hole in the middle of the Doughnut, falling short on the essentials of life, ranging from food and water to gender equality and having political voice.

The scheme was based on the concept of doughnut economics as explained in 2017 Kate Raworth’s book: “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.” Raworth, who is part of the team responsible for this initiative commented: “Who would expect in a portrait of the city of Amsterdam that you would include labour rights in west Africa? And that is the value of the tool.”

References

The Amsterdam City Doughnut, full report available here

Amsterdam to embrace ‘doughnut’ model to mend post-coronavirus economy, full article on Guardian available here

Notes from Peder Anker’s ‘The closed world of ecological architecture’

Whole World Catalogue Magazine, editor Stewart Brand, a firm believer in colonizing space. The image of Earth as seen form outer space allowed the ability to it as a whole. Image available here

astronauts’ cabins as models for environmentally responsible landscape design and architecture/ space colonization has been the underlying ethic/ living in harmony with Earth’s ecosystem became a question of adopting space technologies, analytical tools and ways of living/ their aim was to escape industrial society/ life in a future ecologically designed world was focused on biological survival at the expense of wider cultural, aesthetic and social values of the humanist legacy/ their work was based on diagrams of energy flows as input and output circuits in a cybernetic ecosystem/ construction of self-efficient closed ecological systems within submarines and underground bomb shelters/ the turn towards space ecology emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the light of of alarming reports such as The Population Bomb (Paul Elrich, 1968) and Limits to Growth (Club of Rome, 1972) reinforced by the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo/ a way of designing which fed on its own ideas and gradually closed itself off
from developments in the rest of the architectural community. Its followers sense of self-sufficiency resulted in a sect-design for the believers whose
recycling of resources and ideas led to a lack of interest in an outside world simply described as ‘industrial’ and thus not worth listening to

ecological design is inspired by a biologically informed vision of humankind embedded in an Arcadian dream of building in harmony with nature

Chermayeff/ Alexander, Community and Privacy (1963): advocated for self contained ecological capsules, ecologically autonomous buildings to stop exploitation of natural resources/destruction of natural scenery. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969): cabin ecology as a model for understanding life on earth/ Earth as a huge mechanical ship travelling in space/ Doxiadis, Ecumenopolis: humanity was heading towards a universal city/ Ian Mc Harg, Design with Nature (1969): science-based modernist architecture and planning with respect for nature/ ecological crisis was caused by reckless laissez-faire economy, industrialization, greed chaotic urbanization, social structures fragmentation and lack of planning/ he pointed to the holistic ecology of the ‘Orient’, human would build and settle in a space buoy located between the Moon and the Earth/ one should make an ecosystem inventory of an environment, investigating its changing processes and then attribute values to the ecological aspects and determine a. what changes would be permitted and prohibited and b. identify indicators of stability and instability/ (influenced by) John Phillips, Ecology in Design issue of Via Journal (1968): holistic approach to architects and region planners/ they ought to include all forms of life in their designs/ John Todd & William McLarney, New Alchemy Institute and From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design (1980/ 1984/1994): how to survive an impeding catastrophe, closed ecological life boats that would keep afloat/ New Alchemists aimed at solar-heated and wind-powered greenhouse-aquaculture buildings/ Grumman Corporation, Grumman Lunar Module (1960s): they also developed other household system prototypes: a waste disposal system inspired by space recirculation technology, a sewage system inspired by the astronaut’s lavatory, and an energy efficiency system for homes that incorporated solar cells/ Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in California also developed related technology/ Integral Urban House (1972)/ BioShelter/ Alexander Pike: austerity in place of plenty/ his aim was to use ambient solar and wind energy, to reduce energy requirements, and to utilise human household and waste material/ Brenda &Robert Vale, Autonomous House, a shelter for the coming doom/ Kenneth Yeang: by imitating processes in nature, architects could find new environmentally
friendly designs for human life/ biological analogies for optimum survival/ a building was to be sealed off both environmentally and culturally from industrialism/ Phil Haws, Biosphere 2 in Arizona (completed in 1991): the first fully enclosed ecosystem, tested for a period of over a year

Grumman Lunar Module. Image available here

Anker, P. (2005). The closed world of ecological architecture. In Journal of Architecture, Vol. 10, no.5. DOI: 10.1080/13602360500463230

Rehabilitation as reconciliation

Delfgauwse Weije in Delft (regeneration plans: Hank van Schagen), image available here

Rehabilitation refers to developing new architectural designs which are coherent with the existing architecture. The analysis of the design is primarily concerned with the required program changes, ie. the construction of the shell. But it is also concerned with the changes which have to be made in the way in which buildings connect with their surroundings. If the design aims to accept the past then you have to develop a positive relationship between the old and the new, and illustrate the continuity between them. In that case we are not rejecting what exists, instead we see it as a necessary step towards the future. It is an attempt at reconciliation. Two moments of creativity touch -they can coexist (…) Rehabilitation respects the history of the use of a building; if changes are required then these are based on the continuity of the architecture. That is transformation without alienation.

Lecture by Henk van Schagen for Delft Design, 7 October 2004. Retrieved from Hielkje Zijlstra, Analysing Buildings from Context to Detail in Time: ABCD Research Method, IOS Press (2009)

Martin Cherry’s statements for listing 20th century buildings

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There is a misconception that listing freezes buildings. Changes have taken place. We have to be concerned about managing change rather than fossilising buildings. It is an inherently flexible system which flags the architectural and historic character of buildings in order to ensure that it is fully taken into account when changes of demolition are proposed (…) it does not necessarily mean that a building must be preserved whatever it costs (…)

opposition to listing revolves around four principal premises: statutory protection unreasonable erodes private property rights; listing is inherently anti-democratic; it inhibits much-needed development; the fear of terminal decline and the creation of a museum culture (…)

protection of recent buildings raises further issues: objectivity and distance (cooling off period); public perceptions; understanding of historic buildings; intrinsic character and use of materials; economic viability; listing affects building value; procedures needed interests of the owner and the wide community; listing does not occur when there are proposals for change (…)

Ingredients in a successful conservation policy are: the selection of buildings is safe and sound based on rigorous research and that designation is appropriate; public support must be secured through debate and education; planning environment must facilitate sound management and reduce unnecessary delay and uncertainty.

Cherry, M.(1996). Listing twenty-century buildings: the present situation, in Susan M. Macdonald (Ed.), Modern Matters. Principles and Practice in Conserving Recent Architecture, 7-14

Bes, the Italian system for measuring well-being

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The Italian initiative (2010) on a multi-dimensional framework to measure equitable and sustainable well-being” (Bes is the acronym in Italian) is among the experiences quoted by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It was developed by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat), together with the National Council for Economics and Labor (CNEL). In 2018 Istat published the 6th edition of the Annual report on well-being (Istat 2018) that contains information at national and regional level on 130 indicators that are considered to be able to represent this complex phenomenon. Measuring well-being can be seen as a three steps process:

  • the first step concerns the development of a shared definition of progress in the Italian society, by identifying the most relevant dimensions of well-being;
  • the second step relates to the selection of a set of high-quality statistical indicators that are representative of the different domains;
  • the third step consists in communicating the results of this process, informing citizens of indicator values, trends and differences among different groups of population.

(…) a sample of 45,000 people aged 14 years and over, representative of the population resident in Italy (…) The results of the consultations identified a total of 12 domains (…) The 12 selected domains are divided into 2 typologies, 9 of them are defined as outcome domains: health; education and training; work and life balance; economic well-being; social relationship; security; landscape and cultural heritage; environment; subjective well-being; (…) the remaining 3 domains are defined as drivers of well-being: politics and institutions; innovation, research and creativity; quality of services.

Excerpts from: Bacchini, Fabio, Barbara Baldazzi, Rita De Carli, Lorenzo Di Biagio, Miria Savioli, Maria Pia Sorvillo, Alessandra Tinto. “The Italian framework to measure well-being: towards the 2.0 version.” Growth Welfare Innovation Productivity (GroWInPro) Working Paper (2019), available here

CLIC: Circular models Leveraging Investments in Cultural heritage adaptive reuse

Info derived from the website: CLIC’s is an EU funded program currently running between 10 countries and 15 different partners. Its aim is to implement a European model of circular economy and circular city-region centered on the regeneration of cultural and natural capital. CLIC is a trans-disciplinary research project whose overarching goal is to identify evaluation tools, implement; validate and share circular financing, business and governance models for systemic adaptive reuse of cultural heritage and landscape. Among its many objectives is to develop and test innovative governance tools; to analyze hybrid financing; and to contribute to the operalization of the management change of the cultural landscape. For more click here

Akwé: Kon (“Ahgwégoh”) or “everything in creation”

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One of the main achievements of COP-7 was the adoption (decision VII/16 F) of the Akwé: Kon guidelines, the voluntary guidelines for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessment regarding developments proposed to take place on, or which are likely to impact on, sacred sites and on lands and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous and local communities. The Guidelines, which were named with a Mohawk term meaning “everything in creation”, provide a collaborative framework ensuring the full involvement of indigenous and local communities in the assessment of cultural, environmental and social impact of proposed developments on sacred sites and on lands and waters they have traditionally occupied. Moreover, guidance is provided on how to take into account traditional knowledge, innovations and practices as part of the impact-assessment processes and promote the use of appropriate technologies.

Full text available here

Booklet in English available here

What has happened after LA21?

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1998: International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) identified five principles that were seen to characterize the LA21 initiative worldwide:

  • environmental objectives are linked with economic and social objectives
  • all groups in society are to be involved
  • measures and projects are based on ling-term objectives
  • impacts of local on global are measured
  • utilization of natural resources is based upon the rate at which new resources are formed
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1994: At the European level, the Aalborg Charter (emanating from the that year’s European local government LA21 conference in Denmark, at which the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign was established) The commitments also represent a statement of intent by the signatory municipalities to work towards local sustainability. Municipalities both participate in the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign, and adopt the 13 Commitments of the Charter

  • Notion and principle of sustainability
  • Local strategies towards sustainability
  • Sustainability as a creative, local, balance-seeking process
  • Resolving problems by negotiating outwards
  • Urban economy towards sustainability
  • Social equity for urban sustainability
  • Sustainable land-use patterns
  • Sustainable urban mobility patterns
  • Responsibility for the global climate
  • Prevention of eco-systems toxification
  • Local self-governance as a precondition
  • Citizens as key actors and the involvement of the community
  • Instruments and tools for urban management towards sustainability