The human dimension at the heart of the scientific sustainable approach

Emna Bchir and Carlos Zeballos
Co-Directors, UIA Sustainability Commission

The multiple crisis of water scarcity, energy prices, pollution, biodiversity loss looming strong, climate change represents the most crucial challenge of our times, catalysing a significant societal shift which influences every aspect of human endeavour all over the world. Secretary-General UN António Guterres, declared on 25 April 2023, that “Halfway to the deadline for the 2030 Agenda, we are leaving more than half of the world behind. The SDG Progress Report shows that just 12% of the Sustainable Development Goal targets are on track. Unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda will become an epitaph for a world that might have been.”

Furthermore, the alarming figures of demographic growth show that today, 50% of the population is urban and by 2050, 70% will become so. This poses concrete urbanisation issues with a long way to go for cities not only in developing countries but also for megacities all over the world, requiring to look at the connection between the different layers in our cities.

At the UIA, a step back is needed to reflect on how to address these challenges. As Co-directors of the Sustainability Commission, we are responsible for spearheading a thorough analysis of sustainability during the 2023-2026 UIA. This will allow the organisation to better position itself and get ready for the UN’s post-2030 Agenda. This reflection will be further enhanced by the upcoming 2026 UIA white paper on cities and the Urbanisation Charter. It will be influenced by the discussions held with experts on sustainability from different perspectives including:

  • A philosophical viewpoint which aims to discuss sustainability: what shall we sustain? How do we address reflection? How can design strategies evolve to develop dynamic cities adaptable to future change?
  • A cultural perspective: How can culture be implemented to be a driver for sustainability? How can we integrate the values of the past into a contemporary time? How can this be implemented as an efficient tool fighting against poverty on one hand and universalisation on the hand?
  • A scientific standpoint: We will collaborate with specialists in various subject matters to identify and seek for concrete solutions to the social and climate issues.

An interdisciplinary approach at the Sustainability Commission

At the Sustainability Commission, we strive for an interdisciplinary approach that dismantles silos and leverages knowledge from a variety of complimentary fields, including architecture, engineering, sociology, economics, urban planning, architectural history, urban and architectural landscape. This strategy is key to addressing a number of topics, such as urbanisation, culture, climate change mitigation and sustainability/resilience. At the same time, in order to play our part in developing sustainable cities in response to crises caused by climate change, pollution, and loss of biodiversity, it is important for architects to think within geographically varied, economically disparate and historically diverse contexts.

A lot of work has to be done in many domains to address climate adaptation. This has led to the emerging of technical aspects such as net-zero, low carbon, thermal dynamics and energy in addition to cultural factors such as conservation/preservation, modernisation and universalisation as well as the urbanistic perspective such as active and soft mobility.

A series of interviews, each one more fascinating than the other, was initiated in November 2023. Thus, the journey began with the initial identified topics: the scientific standpoint highlighting the paradigm shift going on.

Standby consumption and Mass customisation with Masa Noguchi

The revolutionary advent of big data has expanded the scientific approach and empowered scientists to move from an objective methodology to a subjective one that accounts for human nature, and from multidisciplinary into interdisciplinary research that emphasises the interrelation between disciplines, allowing a broader vision than simply the physical dimension of sustainability.

The world renown Japanese scholar Masa Noguchi, who is based in Melbourne Australia, emphasised how scientists are now focusing more on the human factor in the building sector, and can thus take subjectivity into account thanks to big data. The idea he advocates is to incorporate the human dimension as a top priority of the sustainability approach, highlighting people’s choices and making them stakeholders. If we consider the energy sector, it is proven that 3 to 10% of domestic energy tends to derive from standby consumption. If millions of people just switch off their devices when sleeping, it will allow a huge amount of saved energy. The concept of mass customisation, introduced in housing by Stanley Davison in 1987, aims to deliver quality affordable housing by controlling the use of household appliances, and thus energy consumption.

Mass customisation constitutes a good alternative as it accommodates social, human and economic dimensions of sustainability, while zero energy accommodates the environmental dimension. It is an interesting concept because on a large scale, we do not need to spend too much money in reducing energy. It is all about education. But this implies that governments need to has to take the lead because policy development comes from the top.

It is interesting to note that Masa aligns with the French philosopher Edgar Morin, positioning the human dimension at the heart of any “complex approach” and sustainability is a “complex approach”. But this will be the subject of another fascinating interview with the mathematician Carlos Moreno.