TECHNE 20 (2020): Time and architecture

The time of the earthlings

Teodoro Georgiadis
Istituto per la BioEconomia CNR, Bologna, Italia
Published September 18, 2020
How to Cite
Georgiadis, T. (2020). The time of the earthlings. TECHNE - Journal of Technology for Architecture and Environment, (20), 39-44.


«Sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow» (Rifkin, 2011).

Looks like we have a problem. Our problem is time. It is an ancient human problem to want to predict. We want to know what will happen, what will become of our life, and time, in its various meanings, is the variable for which we try to invent increasingly complex models to understand its evolution.

Today the main problem of understanding what will happen is related to the question of how long we have. We know very well that our time is limited. It is because our star is a G0 type star and it stands in the middle of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram (Fig. 1) which determines the life span of a star: our Sun has still a lifetime estimated at 1750 million years then, due to a series of internal reactions to the star, our planet will no longer be habitable. In this period, there are about seventy million successive human generations and we do not even have the terms to be able to define in what degree of relationship we will be with the last man who will see the Sun explode.

This is therefore not our problem but only an astrophysical curiosity. Our problem is much closer in time and rests on an indisputable evidence: the resources of our planet are limited, that is, the terrestrial system, which is not a closed system because it receives energy from the Sun, requires long times to restore its own resources.

In other words, it still does not seem a problem, the problem clearly emerges if we consider the population growth curve as we have taken the indication given in Genesis very seriously that says «bloom, become many and fill the Earth».

We are in the presence of an inflection around the 1940s. It is the result of a multiplicity of factors among which there is also the good part of population growth, i.e. the scientific-technological progress that has allowed the survival of newborns like never before in human history.

Thus, if we go back to our system, not isolated but with slow “reloading” of resources, on the one hand we have the planet that acts as a mine, and on the other we have a growing population that possesses, being made up of humans, the wonderful gift of having of expectations. It is wonderful because it allowed, for example, the writer to be here to bore you with these concepts at an age that only in the year of his birth (Fig. 2) represented the statistical limit of the median. Leaving the staff and expanding the discussion, the expectations of a better life represent for the most economically developed part of the world a conquest that is now treated as an acquired right, often forgetting that most of the world experiences profound problems of inequality and access to well-being, happiness.

The awareness of these differences has not been fully metabolized by homo oeconomicus, or rather a rational fool (Sen, 1977) who pursues his interest by maximizing it.

This hypothesis would have had strong implications on the development model up to the present day and on the exploitation of natural resources. The same semantics of the representation of the world brings trace of this approach using terms such as “developed countries” and “third world”, the latter now referred to as “developing countries”, or “emerging countries” if they can demonstrate a growing GDP.

It is in 1987, with the Brutland Report (WCED), that the paradigm changes and the issue of resources begins to go global. A few years later, 1990, l’Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, produced the FAR (First Assessment Report) on the state of the climate and, also taking up part of the vision of Our common Future, connects the problem of the development model and the consequent emissions from the production processes to the modification of the composition of the atmosphere and, consequently, to climate change.

Over time, these evidences of a direct relationship between resource use and climate change become more evident. The processes and the models of development are starting to be questioned and attempts are made to define the strategies of mitigation and adaptation (UNFCCC, 2020). These conferences have hardly achieved the set objectives. Economic reasoning and direct disbursements by the acceding countries underpin everything.

We now come to the initial problem: time. In the IPCC Special Report (2018), the policies for keeping the heating below 1,5 °C of average temperature increase on the planet are identified with great accuracy. Here the time is represented by a graph, unfortunately misunderstood by many, where different development models are represented which lead to different projection results (Fig. 3). Misunderstood because it is customary to take the trend of the business as usual model as if that were the inevitable trend.

The energy paradigm is perhaps that of the concepts of human development, which has undergone the most profound changes. Man has built his own development and well-being on fossil fuels. Civilization, as we know it today, is the arrival point of the discovery and use of fossils.

What we have discovered over time is that the use of this energy source had a defect in altering the average composition of the atmosphere. At first, it was highlighted major impacts could be generated on the quality of the air, as in the cases of the great air pollution of London (1952) and Los Angeles (1940). Furthermore, it was found that part of the Sulphur contained in the fuels gave rise to another environmental problem, which took the name of acid rain. Much of the damage to forest systems was attributed to this phenomenon.

In the post-war period, a new energy source was considered and developed even if its use was originally war-devoted, with the great hope that the chemical composition of the atmosphere would not be altered for the future. Nuclear power has this characteristic, and the development of nuclear power plants was very rapid in the world. However, history reminds us of several accidents in nuclear plants and in particular those of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986). This latest incident generated a great mass mobilization that in fact led to a vast reduction in the use of this alternative source to fossils. The two great slogans that mobilized an entire generation of young people can still be remembered today: atomkraft nein danke and the equally famous not in my backyard (NIMBY).

First the Sun and then the wind became, in particular the first, emblems of a movement of thought, also very unrealistic in the capacity of proposing real solutions. Then, with the progress of technical knowledge from a first hippy approach, methodologies that are more robust were developed during the course of time, which induced in these sources, defined as renewable, a valid integration of traditional ones.

«The sun does not always shine; the wind does not always blow» is what he wrote in his book on the Third Industrial Revolution Jeremy Rifkin (2011) recalling his conversation with Romano Prodi. In that conversation, Rifkin answered a question by Prodi identifying the problem but also, not the solution, the way to explore for the solution of the problem. Traditional sources are polluting but have an enormous competitive advantage for an industrial system: they are continuous. The production system can count on a seamless energy supply ensuring the maintenance of existing industrial processes. Renewable sources are affected by a large intermittence. In his chat, Rifkin identified the possible turning point towards a world driven by renewables precisely in the need to develop new forms of energy storage.

We have therefore seen in this decade the increasingly massive development of new technologies based on storage that have then seen different fields of application up to electric vehicles.

There is, however, another problem not developed during that conversation by Rifkin, and it is the further need to have a strong energy density in industrial processes. Natural cycles are sustained by the Sun but over long periods, the same applies to its conversion to industrial use, i.e. the power density required can hardly be provided by a solar system imagined according to the concept romantic of the first movements of opinion. To have what the industry needs, large areas of conversion of solar energy into electricity is due. However solar panels develop high heat in their vicinity and the subsequent disposal of the same, which contain metals that “doping” the substrate.

Around the wind issue, there are perhaps even greater problems. The identification of the sites in our country is very problematic because few areas of the territory have the necessary characteristics to produce quantities of energy that justify the investments, often these contrast with landscape protection guards, the end-of-life disposal of the shovels made with carbon structures are not simple and highly polluting. Offshore use could be a solution, but the economic returns of this type of plant are questionable.

All this said today, but time changes things. What is true today surely will not be true tomorrow and Europe, in fact, has decided resolutely on the transition towards renewables that are currently promoted through incentive mechanisms to overcome the economic gap compared to the cost of the conventional, and definitely aims to a conversion project within a few decades. This means not only a substitute-wait but also the introduction of pro-active mechanisms supported by a scientific-technological effort. This concerns the mitigation chapter, which however we know is not the only chapter of current policies.

The other magic word of the transition to this renewable world is adaptation. Adaptation means to accuse the blow of change but in a condition that allows us to absorb it. Calati juncu ca’ passa la china (bent rush that passes the flood, an old arab-sicilian motto) is the best representation of how adaptation works, the ability of a system to restore functionality. Where to apply it and why it becomes easily understandable considering still a characteristic human factor: the urbanization process, which has marked man since the beginning of his time. Social animal has always resolved its weaknesses in the community system. From the cave to the village, from the village to the city, and from the city to the megalopolis, the development of man has always tempered the idea of the place as aggregation.

Urban science has always sought to solve the problem of the city model. Problem never solved and perhaps now abandoned. Curiously, and it is always a joke of the time, in this time the need for a general city model is becoming more pressing. The great debate that involved giants such as Mies Van de Rohe, Le Corbusier, Gropius and others, thrown to the brim, seems to be reborn today in the face of a unifying factor such as that of climate change. This is because in the large megacity the fragile factor is the human being. The city that grew up around itself centralized work as a unifying element and generated the expectations of a different and richer life, which turned out to be the attractive mechanism towards it. This time of change requires a new paradigm that sees a new centralization mechanism that solves the problem of fragility by putting the human being in the focus of urban policies.

Policies must guarantee accessibility, in a general sense, and well-being to the population. Accessibility and wellness are broad concepts that would need an appropriate analysis. For brevity, we will consider with accessibility the possibility for all sections of the population to be able to use the services, just as wellness will be used in the sole sense of physical wellness, bearing in mind that in this way the psychological and social dimension that deeply affects the structure of cities (the problem of banlieu, for example) will be missing.

In the city, there are different fragilities: the children, the elderly, and the sick that need to be protected are precisely the most sensitive to the effects of climate change.

Another meaning of time, in this meteorological case, determines our future again. 

In the urban area, climate change operates through two major effects linked to the intensification of extreme phenomena: variation of the thermal regime and that of the precipitative regime.

Heat waves, more and more recurring and persistent, coupled with the heat island of the city generate situations of great drama, as in the case of the heat wave of 2003 (Fig. 4), and capable of generating thousands of deaths (Georgiadis, 2015). The other aspect of extreme gravity in the urban area is intense rainfall, which often arises from the formation of self-regenerating storms, as in the case of Rimini in 2013 (Georgiadis, 2019a).

Urban planning, however, is potentially able to solve the problem.

We have new materials, new modelling tools, and ancient resources available, which are vegetation and water. We can intervene on the construction of the city, without prejudice to the constraints, seeking in the design the configuration that maximizes the physiological well-being of people. We will not completely overcome the weather, but we will drastically reduce its impacts. The functionality of the project, following a rationalist point of view, must put the resilient objective before other canons, that is to say, amalgamating with these without prejudice that the centrality of the person is the fundamental focus. This can take away from the designer the pleasure of leaving his own pyramid to posterity, even if resilient projects show that beauty is not excluded, and if anything happens, we will get over it.

The new tools work on a basic concept linked to surface energy balances, that is, they solve the balance equation by means of a fluid dynamic modelling that allows evaluating the well-being index in a given urban-architectural element and can solve the problem up to size of a neighbourhood, if not a city (Georgiadis, 2019b). The city of Bologna is introducing these concepts into its own PUG and the Urban Planning Regulations will see the inclusion of the study of well-being in the tools necessary for planning, identifying an index of climate fragility that will guide urban interventions.

The energy problem or the incapacity for economic reasons of access to energy, either for heating, or for air conditioning, is described in the book published by K. Fabbri “Urban Fuel Poverty” (2019) together with the role of buildings in the origin of the poverty. We have seen in recent winters how energy poverty has led to the use of wood stoves, during inversion weather conditions, to aggravate episodes of acute urban pollution.

Regenerating the city by protecting the weakest means protecting everyone. Protection and access to services of this population also means reducing social and health costs.

The application of NBS (Nature Based Solution) allows the design of a resilient, adaptive and inclusive city, which reduces risk and increases accessibility. These solutions also are often called blue-green and gray, i.e. based on green, water and technological solutions to be included in the urban system (Climate KIC, 2015; REBUS, 2019). Using the techniques described in the references, urban routes can be built where, and as for example, people with diabetes, extremely prone to thermal imbalances, can face the city by accessing services and medical devices during their daily lives (Fig. 3). It takes time but the solution to problems is within our reach.

Time has run away, and this brief review is ending. It has been shown that the future could be better than someone wants to see it. Of course, if we mentally feel about the remaining seven and a half years then everything would become vain, but that is the worst-case scenario in a much wider range. Time, which according to a popular saying is a gentleman, has shown that the worst-case scenario almost never occurs. However, we have to work on that almost starting immediately, crossing our knowledge to regenerate the world. The bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich (1980) was won by the first, $ 576,07, because scientific-technological progress allowed the necessary advancements, therefore not for abundance but for research results, and winning a new bet is always possible through the incredible capacity of humankind to renew itself. But and we continue with the sayings, those who have time do not wait for time, and the time to act is “now”, because the «Sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow».