Impact Living

Impact Living

Be a part of nature instead of being apart from nature

Per Cromwell and Lars Lyberg talked with Sinus Lynge about new ways of thinking, living, and building future cities.

Effekt is the Danish word for impact. Sinus Lynge is a founding member of EFFEKT, an architectural collaborative based in Copenhagen, Denmark, operating in the fields of architecture, urbanism, and research. Believing that architecture and urbanism are about creating a lasting and positive impact on our surroundings and our planet, EFFEKT measures projects based on their impact. The aim is to create a lasting social, economic, and environmental effect, thinking of projects in a local, regional, and global context and creating a societal value beyond brief and client.

Photo: EFFEKT
Photo: EFFEKT

The Free Lunch: Do you map out expectations and the impact on the environment and surroundings when approaching a new project?

Sinus Lynge: We try to identify the root questions and potentials of any project to find out how it can propel positive change. So, we start with a constrained analysis of surrounding areas, looking at the kind of resources that will become part of the building project. Our approach is to map out challenges and potentials. We expand the scope of interests when we investigate building and urban projects. Our strict methodology when entering a new place allows us to appreciate the unique opportunities in every place.

TFL: Has one basic thing changed in the last 13 years of your work?

Photo: EFFEKT
Photo: EFFEKT

SL: When we started, we focused on the sociocultural, the human side of things. That focus has now expanded to a much wider understanding of the context, including the ecosystems and the biosphere that we all live in and are part of. It's an expansion of our perspective, incorporating a context that we have not been aware of, as our civilization has outgrown the planetary boundaries.

TFL: Let's talk about the ReGen Villages, a good example of combining empathy, curiosity, and generosity. What were the initial challenges, how did you approach it, and what was the result?

SL: ReGen Villages is one of our early research-and-development projects. It started with meeting a Stanford professor who wanted to make self-sufficient real-estate development.
We started by researching what a self-sufficient family home would demand. We found that the technology you need to produce enough food, energy, and water, and to manage your own organic waste onsite isn't all that extensive. The facilities needed could easily fit on a normal suburban plot, and you could order most of the technologies needed on the internet.

We were surprised because usually our engineers would suggest solutions where energy and water would be supplied off site at district level, like waste management and food supplies. But as we started asking new questions we came to new answers.

Understanding what was needed, we started looking at the community scale. What would it take to make a 25-home community? What became important was making the community reflect a new lifestyle that people would aspire to live. We imagined a community of greenhouses for the shared food production as well as for residential buildings, with all homes covered with glazed winter gardens. What if food production was at the heart of the community rather than shipped to the local supermarket? What if we could reconnect the community with the food systems we all rely on?

It became an aesthetic investigation too, into how food is key to the way we live. The production, preparation, and consumption of food is deeply rooted in civilizations around the world. It defines cultures and communities. So, we conceived a community, with food as a core identity. A community of 25 individual homes with a center of shared organic food production.

We were invited to launch and exhibit the project at the Venice Biennale in 2016, and then, something amazing happened. The project went viral. After a few months, millions and millions of people across the world were sharing it and talking about it. Major newspapers around the world were publishing this new vision of how we can live together in regenerative communities.

We learned that envisioning new ways of living is the first step to realizing new ways of building. And we learned that if you share the right ideas, there's a big global audience.

TFL: It's fascinating how the parts of ReGen Villages are things you can buy from the internet. But when you combine the parts, people think it's amazing. Is it possible to retrofit and to implement these technologies in existing cities? Or do we need to build newer and smarter to meet the challenges of the future?

SL: We need to do both. To quote the sci-fi author William Gibson, “The future is already here – it is just not evenly distributed”. As architects it is our job to implement technological benefits into the built world, and the result is this amazing mix of historical and modern solutions that make up our cities.

If you look at it from a global perspective, we are expecting a demand for 3 billion new homes in our cities by 2050. That almost doubles the amount of homes already built.

Those new homes are expected to be built in regions where we will see explosive urban growth. Regions mostly in Asia and Africa. In Europe, however, we had our big building boom in the 60s and 70s. Here we have the building stock that we need, so in our part of the world, we need to smartly retrofit our buildings so they work for the environment and not against it.

We did a research project for Ørsted, a world-leading producer of offshore windmill farms. They asked us to come up with solutions that could help their end users, Danish homeowners, to become more sustainable. We started looking at ordinary homes and their resource consumption. To our surprise, we found that an average roof of 140 square meters in Denmark receives around 300 liters of rainwater per day. That could potentially cover the consumption of an average family. Also, conserving the water would mean storm water doesn't go into the sewer, which has become a problem in most Western cities because heavy rainfall is more common.

Sometimes, the solutions are right on our doorsteps. Buildings of yesterday are made to reflect sunlight, wind, and water when these are the resources we need to collect and use to resolve the biggest challenges of our cities. We have a huge opportunity to transform our cities and help them become self-sufficient.

Photo: EFFEKT
Photo: EFFEKT

TFL: Technology for sustainability is already here, but when people talk about ecological sustainability, it's usually about climate and emissions, not social and economic sustainability. How does this fit into your concepts and ideas?

SL: The social aspect is key. The green revolution isn't going to be driven by technological progress, because we have most of the technological solutions at hand. What we need is a cultural revolution, a change in mindset from being apart from nature to being a part of nature. That may sound simple, but it is a radical paradigm shift. 

Design has a role to play because design allows us to create aspiration. Human evolution is shaped by cultural and social aspirations. So that's the big potential for design. It can make these aspirations available for the global community.

It took only eight years from when the first iPhone was presented by Apple until half the world were using smartphones – eight years for this technology to be adopted by half the global population. So with the right solutions and with the right design, we could fast forward the speed of adoption.

TFL: Very few technologies you mentioned earlier are new. Why are they being implemented so slowly?

SL: That's a profound question. I believe it ties back to the fact that the change we need is also a change of mindset. The goals we currently set out for ourselves as individuals and as society. Our society is not currently programmed to prioritize a balanced evolution as we keep on depleting the natural resources and ecosystems we need to survive. If we can manage to change our mindset to reconnect the human communities with the natural world I have no doubt that we could build thriving rich, healthy, and diverse human communities in balance with surrounding ecosystems.

TFL: This disconnect leads us to “from Ego to Eco.” What's this concept about?

SL: The Ego to Eco concept is about changing our perspective from the human centric “ego” perspective to the much wider ecosystem perspective in which you see humans as a part of the bigger ecosystem that makes up the biosphere. That change in perspective entails an empathy beyond the human race, including all the other living systems that surround us. Historically we have changed our perspective from being empathetic within small groups of hunter-gatherers to villages, then to city states and on to entire cities, and then nations. The next step in this progression is to stretch our sense of empathy to the global community, as well as to other living organisms, to understand that this is something we're a part of and need to protect.

TFL: Looking to the future, what needs to change? Cities are already here, so what's needed for these cities to be sustainable, if we take Copenhagen, for instance?

SL: The benchmark for our future cities should be to perform as well as or better than ecosystems that were there before the cities. It's a high ambition, but it's the right goal to set for ourselves. Our cities need to provide services, not only for humans, but also for surrounding habitats. We use ecosystem services as a term to describe the synergetic exchanges that make up ecosystems. Can cities support biodiversity by accommodating habitats for plants and animals? Can cities help clean the water, filter the air, and renew the resources they consume?

We need to make a transformation toward cities that synergize with nature rather than depleting it. In this regard, we need to turn the picture upside down. Rather than talking about doing less bad, we need to start doing more good. The term sustainable is no longer enough. We need to go beyond sustaining. Instead, we should ask ourselves how we can go from degenerative to regenerative. How can we be of service to our surroundings? How can we give back more than we take?

Photo: EFFEKT
Photo: EFFEKT

TFL: Can high density cities solve this? Is the density of cities a problem?

SL: Not necessarily. We'll have dense cities in the future, too. For these cities, we need to consider the real footprint, which also includes the supporting areas. Today, our cities have a footprint of only 1 or 2 percent of the total land area. But agriculture takes up almost 40 percent of the global land area, and it has become the biggest source of biodiversity loss. We need to start looking at our footprint in a more holistic way to build civilizations and cities that are of service to their environments.

We need to decrease the area we use for agriculture or find better ways to integrate with nature. A simple way to do that would be to end or reduce meat eating. Around 70 percent of agricultural land is used for meat production. There are many ways to start this transition. We should design our habitats with food, water, energy, and resource systems that integrate and synergize with the surrounding biosphere. Nature evolved over the last 3.8 billion years into a complex network of rich and diverse ecosystems with an abundance of examples of balanced and synergetic coexisting. 

Human civilization must learn to tap into that mindset over the next decades. To develop the next generation of diverse ideas and solutions that are regenerative and circular, opening up new opportunities.

We are in a weird place in time. Never before have we faced larger threats to our continued life on the planet, but we are in the midst of a technological revolution, offering more opportunities than ever before to resolve those threats. The main barrier is the mindset of yesterday and the belief that we can keep on with business as usual. If we can manage to change that mindset, inspire and empower people to embrace change, a world of new opportunities lies ahead of us.

That's the silver lining.

Photo and Illustration: EFFEKT
Photo and Illustration: EFFEKT

Sinus Lynge is the head of creative direction at EFFEKT, alongside the firm's cofounder, Tue Foged. Sinus has vast experience in managing a large number of projects, focusing on social and public spaces, including GAME Streetemekka in Esbjerg and Viborg, Denmark; Kildevæld Culture Center, Copenhagen; Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn; VW Autostadt, Germany; Carlsberg Plant, Copenhagen; and others.

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