No! I don't want to read another opinion piece on how COP27 was a disappointment and "we must" do better. I know. We all know. Attending COP27 was a deeply depressing experience. I heard nothing I hadn't heard a million times before and even though I'd have been drunk under the table if I'd taken a sip every time someone said "breakthrough", I heard nothing of any actual breakthroughs.
I'm not saying that no action on climate change is happening, or that there isn't powerful thinking opening up universes of possibilities for better futures going on all around us – there are! But until these international forums give themselves permission to consider transformative social and economic policy, we're not going to get anywhere.
I'd have been drunk under the table if I'd taken a sip every time someone said "breakthrough"
One anecdote to make this point if you'll bear with me: at a panel in the Buildings Pavilion, one of the attendees asked for ideas from the panel for retrofitting the mobile homes of low-income residents in the US.
The panel bent over backwards to try to address this within their remits. Their frankly preposterous answers included things like creating district-wide projects that might convince investors that they can clinch a worthwhile profit from the scale of the work, showing investors that they can get a higher rental income from green buildings, and the "uberization" of construction. Nobody said anything about tackling the crippling poverty constraining these people's access to resources (from food to insulation), or the redistribution of wealth (financial wealth and housing wealth) that could address this.
So long as we're only allowed to use the tubes of paint marked "return on investment" or "profit motive" our vision of the future is monochrome. COP27 delegates were acting as if there wasn't a rainbow of solutions to choose from. Hand me a gorgeous bright "equity" and some effervescent "deliberative democracy" and I'll paint you a kaleidoscopic future. Meanwhile, is there anything worth learning from COP27?
Maybe it's because I'm an architect, but the surprise take-home for me was a rekindled fervour for the importance of designing healthy, comfortable spaces. I attended the conference as part of the RIBA delegation during the second week, joining round tables and speaking on panel debates in the "Blue Zone". What I experienced was that the COP27 campus of temporary buildings was not conducive to the expansive imagining and radical collaboration needed for a transition out of the climate crisis.
The COP27 campus of temporary buildings was not conducive to expansive imagining and radical collaboration
On the one hand, I hate to pile on the requirements: not only do we need to worry about energy use, water consumption, whole-life carbon, and, and, and, but now I'm also saying we need to design spaces that will facilitate the conversations needed for climate action – that's a bit much isn't it? It is a lot, but on the other hand, isn't this what we've been training for? Advocates of "Good Design" have been arguing for impacts on learning outcomes in education settings, for productivity in office buildings, on health outcomes in hospitals and so on for a long time.
There's a wealth of literature out there. I've seen John Zeisel's Inquiry by Design inhabit numerous bookshelves in video call backgrounds over the last couple of years. Since the WELL Building Standard launched in 2014, more and more clients and design teams have focused attention on the ways that the buildings we design can enhance our health and wellbeing.
I'm not sure what the designers of the COP27 site had on their bookshelves, and I doubt they were given the scope and time and resources to go beyond a minimum viable conference centre. This is not a dig: we've all done less than our best work for difficult clients in difficult circumstances. But it's still worth learning from a bad experience.
The complex consisted of several large temporary buildings: the brood that might ensue from a love affair between a wedding marquee and an airport hangar. Difficulty navigating the site was the first stressor. The buildings all looked the same with almost identical supergraphics and in a layout that didn't appear to align with the maps.
I went on Google Maps while I was on site to help me get my bearings where the printed isometrics let me down and could see that the spot had recently been a bare bit of desert. Microphones from the various pavilions were competing with the thunderous aircon, each other, and various videos on loop.
The existential threat of the climate crisis provides enough doom and panic without turning the screws through the design of our negotiating spaces
Pavilions had numerous doors but no ceilings. My acoustician colleagues would have cried. The lighting was also challenging, with most pavilions opting for the slightly dressed-up cousin of the site light, oriented directly at the stages and audiences like every cartoon of an interrogation. It was too cold, and my portable VOC monitor (okay, my nose) detected high levels of off-gassing from the carpets, furniture, and the inhabitable 3D pdfs that passed for pavilions. Thanks to the Australian pavilion that kept us in coffee, I know it was the smellscape and not caffeine withdrawal maintaining a continuous low-grade headache.
All of this is to say it was always going to be a challenging few days, but the built environment didn't help to manage this – instead, it added to my levels of discomfort and stress. The existential threat of the climate crisis provides enough doom and panic without turning the screws through the design of our negotiating spaces.
Many of us headed to COP armed with statistics of how bad things are today, together with bundles of reports setting out how we have the solutions for reducing carbon emissions, energy use, and resource use. We were met with what we're always met with: "tell me how this is going to make me money and we'll talk". Well, we're not going to profiteer our way out of climate change, I'm sorry.
It's clear we need to be having a different conversation. Is it naive to suggest that a different space might help us have that different conversation? Am I clutching at straws or grasping the nettle?
There's a lovely (and sometimes not so lovely) comments section below. If you know of examples of projects where a space has been created to facilitate working together to imagine social justice or transformative futures, please share it! What was done differently and how were the outcomes different?
Smith Mordak is a multi-award-winning architect, engineer, writer and curator and the director of sustainability and physics at British engineering firm Buro Happold.
The photography is by Kiara Worth via Flickr.