Schooling without schools and other lessons from 2020

This piece also appears in the Independent Schools Association Magazine of July 2021 and The Herald on 3 May 2021.

I must admit that I had only a passing interest in the 2020 Matric results released last week.  I have been busy with other things and I refused to be drawn by those who would like to entangle me in pointless political discussion and develop an opinion on whether these results serve as evidence that the government is doing a good, bad or average job. I can tell you though that what did catch my interest is what I did not see.

St Dominics Priory – Probably the most beautiful school in the world!

What struck me, in fact, was the absence of a widespread collapse of the matric results in spite of the fact that for the most part of the 2020 school year, those preparing for matric were not able to make use of the very expensive buildings we have come to think of as essential to the education system. Rather, what we  saw was the incredible resolve of ordinary learners and ordinary parents and ordinary teachers doing whatever they could with whatever they had, to overcome what was by all measures and extraordinarily terrible year.

Architects (and others in the construction industry) found to their dismay perhaps that the sad fact that school buildings could not be used for the most part of 2020 did not seem to devastate learning and teaching. You see, Architects are generally blessed with very large egos and it is very hard for us to come to terms with the fact that the buildings we commit our lives to creating are not the centre around which the universe revolves! Besides, we are still reeling from the blow to our sense of worth dealt by the #FeesMustFall campaign of 2017. Let me explain. I remember being an external examiner that year for an incredibly talented group of final years in the Nelson Mandela University Masters degree in Architecture. For much of 2017 these students preparing for the exam could not get to campus. They could not access the library, the studio or the labs. When it came to the exhibition and examination, that was the climax of their year, they were prohibited by those threatening violence, from using the Architecture department’s studio space at NMU’s south campus. Seemingly unperturbed, the clever leadership at the NMU Architecture department made arrangements and transformed the City Hall in Govan Mbeki avenue into a very comfortable (and in fact memorable) examination and exhibition venue. I found to my surprise that other departments and faculties had made similar arrangements in public buildings throughout the city to ensure that their students were able to safely and comfortably continue with the examinations programme. I was left wondering that year if the very successful response by the NMU leadership to the #Feesmustfall campaign’s attempt to deprive students access to the campus meant that we no longer needed university buildings? In the same way, I am now left wondering if the acceptable Matric 2020 results mean that we no longer need school buildings. But after having given this some thought over the weekend, I can tell you that, no, I don’t think so. We do need these buildings. But I do think that the events of 2020 (and of 2017) help us see that we have significant spare capacity in our building stock. There is spare capacity in middle class houses that allow schooling to continue in the case of a COVID lockdown and there is notable spare capacity in civic buildings throughout Nelson Mandela Bay that will allow even large institutions like the NMU to run a complicated and sophisticated examinations programme without the use of its campuses.

So what is this truth telling Architects and the construction industry? No, the message is not that we don’t need any new buildings ever again. I think rather the clear message is that we need to design and plan for flexibility. We need to design and plan for the inevitability (not just the possibility) that our buildings will need to be re-purposed many times over in their lifetimes. The one thing that we know about the next crisis is that it is very unlikely that we will be any good at predicting it and therefore very unlikely that we can make any specific plans for it. What we do know though is that we can make ourselves ready for change. What this means practically in the built environment is that we need Land Use Management systems that allows repurposing to happen effortlessly and organically. We need a Land Use Management system that allows and promotes continuous tinkering and tweaking of buildings to meet what is very likely to be the almost continuous environment of change that we will face for the foreseeable future. Gone are the days when we can cut and paste the zoning schemes, by-laws and regulations that limit and give shape and form to our city. This kind of cut and paste thinking will not do in politics, it will not do in business and it certainly will not do in the built environment. Our future success demands constant tinkering with and re-purposing of our political institutions, constant tinkering and re-purposing of our business institutions and constant tinkering with and re-purposing of our built environment. This is the only way in which our economy and our society will continue to evolve new strength and the only way in which we stand any chance of surviving the next crisis that we know will come.

The Independent Schools Association of South Africa Magazine – Winter Edition 2021

noh’s Tim Hewitt-Coleman Talks to University of Cape Town final year Structural Engineering class.

Tim spent some time this week speaking to the Final Year class of Structural Engineering students at UCT ….. the Theme of my talk : “Toward a Multidisciplinary Approach to Design in the Built Environment.” – Perhaps you too may find this interesting.

https://youtu.be/f6m_dNilYX4

Towards one world, one government

This Piece first appeared in The Herald on 15 April 2020

I know that there are a great many people that are experiencing intense discomfort and suffering right now during this COVID 19 crisis. I, though, am in the very fortunate position to say that I am not one of them. I am not ill. My family and loved ones are all well. I am safe and I have enough bully beef and two-minute noodles in my kitchen cupboard to last me till the end of lockdown. (and probably a quite a little beyond) I have been very fortunate be able to continue working. You see, I was very lucky to be able to quickly relocate my little household to the flatlet at my sub-urban office. It’s actually very comfortable and it gives me the ability to be at “mission control” while my exceptional team have continued almost seamlessly to work from their rapidly established home offices via, VPN, Email and WhatsApp (and of course our new friend, Zoom)

Strangely though, I see that in spite of these longer working hours, (that “home office” arrangements tend to result in) I am finding much more time for reading, meditating and reflecting. I suppose it’s the simple nett effect of spending less time running up and down.

In fact, I was reflecting just this morning (over a luxuriously drawn out, yet mediocre, cup of coffee) how true it is that in times of crisis we come to see what is of value. To me it is clear as day that there is great value in remaining connected, in having loved ones to care for and to be cared for by and in having a curious mind. But there is also a whole list of things that I can now see that have no value and that I’ve been doing simply out of the force of habit and not because I’ve thought them through. In this list I include, meeting reps, commuting, mindless meetings, daily shopping and even my morning fix at Seattle Coffee shop! But in addition to the personal stuff, my mind begins to wonder about what it is that we have been doing habitually on political scale, that we can now begin to see makes no sense at all.

There can be no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis is making it abundantly obvious that the world’s political systems are not designed (if they are designed at all) to be able to address any of the significant threats that face our species. As we speak, governments, presidents and sovereigns around the world are attempting to combat a global pandemic with political mechanisms and tools evolved to deal with the challenges and threats at a state level. This will simply not do!

From what I can gather, it seems that over the last 200 000 years or so, our species has formed itself into groups of varying size in order to deal with the prevailing threat of the time. In that way genes were passed down that gave the ability and inclination to function as a family unit where the duties of food gathering, child rearing and protection could be shared, thus warding of the ever present threat of starvation or attack. As time went on larger communities begun to make more sense. If the warlike clan across the river from you had 150 strong men, then you better be sure that you had 160 strong men in order not to be annihilated by them in times of scarcity. Historians tell us, that larger and larger competing political systems arose over the centuries so as to defend themselves against continually growing threats. This pattern has continued to the point where, by the time World War 2 came around, states had such large armies that they could (and did) cause the deaths of over 26 million people. It is the various parliaments, military councils and royal houses of the exact same type that engaged in World War 2, that, to this day, still take decisions that are meant guide our precious planet.

When I think of it, I struggle to find one single problem of any significance that our species is facing that is in fact not global in scale. Climate change is a global problem, nuclear proliferation is a global problem, human trafficking is a global problem, as are poverty, population, migration, water scarcity and habitat destruction.

The threats that we face as a species right now require that we take immediate action to move to the next logical step in political organisation. This is of course the incredibly complicated step of forming a new and overarching global government. This is where our energy should be focused. Debating and discussing what this kind of government should look like and what its powers should be. The discussion must start now, ahead of the next crisis, that we know will come and whose shape we know we are notoriously bad at predicting. We need to know that the conspiracy theorists, the flat earthers and the anti-vaxxer types will have a lot to say about a “return to colonialism” and the illuminati lizard people taking over. We will need to rationally and calmly weather this storm. Each of us will need to take to the streets (or to Twitter) and make our voices heard in what will surely be a brutal fight toward One World, with One Government.

We may, with time, come to see this pinnacle of all achievements as the lasting legacy of this terrible virus.