Janis Birkeland

By Tina Perinotto

12 October 2012 – Author and academic Janis Birkeland is quietly spoken, calm and with a soft delivery. It’s your brain that registers the shock, as the meaning of her words starts to rattle your preconceptions.

The message is astoundingly simple, as the best revolutionary ideas tend to be.

Birkeland is gentle at first and confirms something we all instinctively must have known –  that the design of the built environment has the power to change the world.

But just in case we might feel a creeping sense of hubris, she soon adds:  “Any social problems you have you can trace back to the design of cities and buildings.”

And many other problems besides.

In fact, “the only thing not made worse by the built environment are meteorites and volcanoes,” Birkeland says.

More provocatively, she points out that ­we should not fool ourselves  – economic efficiency belongs in the economic bottom line, not the ecological.

And social sustainability that eventually pays for itself is another economic gain.

According to Birkeland sustainability has been corralled by everything that created the problem in the first place: payback periods, costs, a paradigm focused on negatives, and that the best we can do is to minimise these by concepts such as zero carbon.

“You can’t fix the thing by using the system that broke it in the first place”, Birkeland says.

Speaking to an audience at Customs House in Sydney last Thursday morning, Birkeland, who is professor of Architecture at Queensland University of Technology and professor of sustainable architecture at University of Auckland, had teamed with Caroline Pidcock, interim chair of the Living Futures Institute Australia, presenting on the theme of the positive development at an event organised by  Mark Thomson for the Australian Green Development Forum.

In Birkeland’s view the topic is spot on. We need to rethink the sustainability agenda. The paradigm of sustainability is an impediment to sustainability.

Let’s not think of the built environment as a series of negatives we need to minimise, Birkeland says, let’s think of it for its potential to be a “positive contribution to our ecology”. Which, after all, is the thing that sustains our lives, our work, play and economy.

In Birkeland’s view the Brundtland Commission had the best of intentions, but strategically “it put us back into the economic paradigm”.

The problem is that after Brundtland everyone applied traditional tools and metrics to sustainability.

What tends to happen is that we allow things to happen because it’s under the economic efficiency line. The solution, says Birkeland, is in design, which is too often seen as decoration, but is in fact a decision system.

“Design has caused a lot of our economic problems and it can create a lot of the economic solution.

“Everything traces back to systems design.”

The other answer is to measure the positive impact on the eco system. It’s possible and Birkeland has the model.

We hope to hear more from this radical thinker.