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Time is now for Urban Eco-Systems activism, says expert panel

Time is now for Urban Eco-Systems activism, says expert panel

by ROB McMANAMY | Sep 10, 2015

Be the change that you want to see --that we all hope to see-- in the built environment.

That was one passionate takeaway that attendees left with after SmartWorlds: Urban Eco-Systems, the latest installment of our popular Future Cities Conversation Series.

John Tolva

John Tolva

Said panelist John Tolva, president of PositivEnergy Practice and formerly the City of Chicago's first CTO, "The beauty of our democracy is that the major lever in it is not actually government; it is built by private developers and the clients of people in this room, the AEC community... So I would urge all of you to interject yourselves into the conversation, whenever anybody says 'smarter this' or 'smarter that'... We all need to be more vocal in the conversation about smart design," he urged our audience.

That SRO crowd had gathered to hear from Peter, Paul and John, our #SmartWorlds advisors, gathered on the BW stage for the first time. Peter, of course, is architect Peter Ellis, founder of Peter Ellis New Cities, and an award-winning alum of both SOM and CanonDesign. Paul is technologist and Smart Cities expert Paul Doherty, president and CEO of The Digit Group and founder of the AEC Hackathon, which debuted in Chicago last spring, hosted by BW.  Serving as moderator for the evening was up-and-coming heavy hitter Susan (Ringo?) Heinking, AIA, director of high-performance and sustainable construction at Pepper Construction, and previously a sustainability leader at both VOA and HOK

 Susan Heinking

 Susan Heinking

For her part, Heinking led off the Q&A with the concepts of "resilience" and "pre-covery". States, cities and other agencies, she noted, all are now competing for billions in federal dollars to help prevent flooding and storm damage that are essentially caused by natural phenomena. "So, what would nature do?" she asked. "In what they call the 'internet of nature', fungi will transfer nutrients to trees or plants, as needed. How can we learn from that to have this 'system of systems', buildings and infrastructure communicate with each other to sustain whole cities holistically?"

In answering, the trio actually objected to the term "resiliency". Said Ellis, "That is really just too reactive. It's looking in the rearview mirror at natural disasters and asking how can we prevent them from causing damage. How can we keep nature out? But the question we should really be asking is, 'How do we let nature in?'"

  • 'Future Energy', the next #SmartWorlds event is September 23. For info, click here.
Peter Ellis

Peter Ellis

Based on his experience designing the privately funded Jaypee Sports City from the ground up in India, Ellis said, "We discovered that we could save 50% of the water we used and 50% of the energy just by designing with natural systems... We used parks and green spaces to capture all that rainwater from the three months of annual monsoon season, essentially creating an urban sponge. The  water is driven down into the aquifers and then reused and recycled through treatment plants."

He also stressed that enormous opportunity for change exists right now in most U.S. cities. "We already have to dig up our streets now anyway to replace pipes and tunnels and other infrastructure that are decaying," he noted. "How about we do it right this time, by applying 21st Century solutions to systems introduced in the 19th Century? In Chicago, how about we truly fulfill the Burnham Plan and make every fourth street a green one?"

Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty

Doherty added an even broader global perspective, having just returned from China in time for the event. With Smart Cities projects ongoing or still in development in China, India, Saudi Arabia, the U.K. and the U.S., the energetic AEC tech ambassador expressed broad optimism about all the positive trends currently pushing the built environment forward in more sensible, sustainable and safer ways.

"The idea of LEED certification in design is a good example," he said. "Good designers now are not just designing to code. They are starting at that point and designing from code."

Doherty also noted that this is an extraordinary time, full of challenges and opportunities that should excite us, not cause panic. "This entire SmartWorlds series is really interesting because there are too many people out there pontificating now about Smart Cities," he said. "But they are all only touching one part of this very large elephant... So this is an awesome opportunity now for all of us to actually have this conversation, because we are all pioneers now."

From driverless vehicles, data-collecting beacons, and urban farming to labor-saving robots, communal charging stations and 3D-printed drones (okay, that one doesn't exist... yet!), the future in many ways is already here. But buckle up, because much, much more is on the way. 

"There will soon be exotic financial instruments that measure the performance of buildings," noted Doherty, prompting Tolva to add that the City of Chicago will able to do that next spring. And once that happens, progress becomes measurable and performance a factor in commercial competition. "Not only will building owners be able to see these measures, but large tenants will, as well," said Tolva.

And that very well could be a game-changer in a public race for the top, rather than the bottom.  

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For the entire compelling conversation, and more, watch the BW University video below:

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