‘The Living Breakwaters’ is a design proposal for ‘Rebuild by Design’ by Scape Team for Staten Island. Rebuild by Design Flickr

Risk: A New Driver to Reshape Our World

An interview with Henk Ovink on how risk can pioneer new ways to design, fund, and implement a resilient future among cities

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An interview with Henk Ovink

An interview by Felipe Rodríguez

From the complexities of the world with an increasing vulnerability a new soil for design thinking is emerging. The current scale and shape of civilization and the increased levels of understanding of our context interdependencies are creating a panorama of big and complex challenges for humanity called risks. If accepted, these complexities are also the drivers to create a political and design agenda and to rethink our physical world. In other words, a way to move forward.


Henk Ovink is the Principal behind the 'Rebuild by Design' initiative as a Senior Advisor of Secretary Shaun Donovan, HUD / Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. Rebuild by Design was conceived as a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) competition to respond to Superstorm Sandy’s devastation in the United States’ northeast region. It is an approach to risk that is pioneering new ways to design, fund, and implement a resilient future among cities. Before he performed as a Director for National Spatial Planning in the Netherlands for the Ministry of Housing Spatial Planning and Environment.
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I would like to start with politics. You say that a discussion about art should involve politics, that all discussions should involve politics first. Could you expand this idea of politics involved in everyday life? Even in this interview.

You look at the world and the issues at stake is to find out what is the reason behind them, and this isn’t abstract, this is real, but what I’ve found both in politics and design is a disconnection with what is happening. If you look at the relationship between water and urbanization, what you see in a lot of places is that water in its complexity, scarcity, safety and quality is affecting 20% of the GDP. In 2050 2 billion people will be affected by water, in 2080 4 billion people, and we don’t understand this complexity. Urbanization in Africa is speeding up in places that are at high risk, is driving emancipation and education of the population, but water is driving that the opposite way around. The dependency on water is like the Maslow triangle, water is at the bottom. If we don’t have water, we die, so do our agriculture and our industry. If we don’t manage and understand that complexity we will take wrong measures, policies, projects and processes disconnected from this larger question, and this will deliver a failing society.

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Transformed Landscape in Ayutthaya. Aerial view before and after tsunami flood. Satellite image 2011CC

Putting together the experience of working in the Netherlands and then in the US, how was the process of risk management influenced?

In the U.S government fragmentation is as complex as international complexity, but let’s focus on risk management. There is an interesting World Economic Forum report that shows that the likelihood, frequency as well as the impact of all our future risks is increasing, this is climate change, water crisis, extreme weather events, man made environmental catastrophes, but also unemployment, economic risks, terrorism. If we do the analysis this is the urgency of the world, impact and likelihood of risk increase. The good side is that at a regional scale you see a clear interdependency between risks and their impacts, that means that there is a way forward, we can adapt, mitigate­ or both. Risks have an effective physical impact, as much as sociocultural, ecological and economic changes , so there is an opportunity for designers, planners and politicians to interact in the physical domain and mitigate those risks ahead. The U.S is a risk averse society, but to be able to mitigate or adapt, you have to go through a process of understanding what the risks are, invest in getting a clear understanding of risks and connect them with needs on a regional scale.

‘Rebuild by Design’ showcases that there is a possibility of connecting all the dots, the social, cultural, economic, ecologic dots, not in one solution but in an approach

Because of the lack of long term regional comprehensive thinking and working, there is a lack of sustainable resilience strategy and solutions. You have to create adaptable approaches. Planning and design are totally capable, if related to society and politics, to deliver those adaptable, flexible, resilient and redundant strategies on a regional scale that will have a set of interventions to address those risks over time. That mix in the U.S. was possible because there was a tension between doing something and drafting rules and regulations to prevent future risk. In that scene I jumped in and said, ‘I know what to do!, let’s call it ‘Rebuild by Design’.

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The reverse Aquarium. Part of ‘the big U’ design proposal for ‘Rebuild by Design’ by BIG on Manhattan coast. Risk as an education devise. Rebuild by design press gallery Flickr.

If you make a forecast on how design and cities should perform in the future based on these processes?

In 2007 I became the director for National Spatial Planning in the Netherlands, I started to build up from scratch a whole design and policy research agenda strengthening the connection between design and politics, and by doing that strengthening the position of design in the societal needs. With that approach we deliver products to showcase what the meaning of the role of the designers was, developing a new architecture and design policy, a long term strategy and policy for ‘Randstad 2040, an Olympic strategy 2028 with a clear positioning of design.

A big objective for today is to build that same agenda within the collaboration between government, business and universities. Once you bring back politics into the academic world, it will lead to better designers appearing and those designers will be positioned better. This answers part of your question. The second part is something that ‘Rebuild by Design’ shows: it became a movement on the edge of government, business, design, academia, NGO’s, funders, community groups, leaders and politics„ interestingly enough that place made it possible to create the tension needed for design to flourish.

Design teams were tasked with guiding the process and delivering. The research process was design driven and built up with coalitions of partners moving towards a clear agenda connected to local and regional needs, risks and vulnerabilities and that foster their capacity to move forward. We know that the issues at stake are urgent and complex but we cut them all in pieces that we can handle and forget they actually interact. We come up with silos and fragmented solutions that fail in the complexity of the real world.The design process that we develop with ‘Rebuild by Design’ showcases that there is a possibility of connecting all the dots, the social, cultural, economic, ecologic not in one solution, but in an approach that entailed a lot of interconnected solutions.

To address this interdisciplinary and assume the challenges of the contemporary world, design needs to be a science. You mention this in your lectures by putting an example of Jacoba Muiler being ashamed for not wearing her ‘white coat’ at a design process. Could you explain this notion of design as a scientific matter?

The complexity of design makes it hard to force it. It should be a community process and a political decision making as much as a science. Design has the capacity to blend, do research and merge disciplines, have collaborative process, do extrapolations and scenario processes, exercise the future in the full width and broadness of disciplines, and get seductive conclusions that you can call interventions.

The complexity of design makes it hard to force it. It should be a community process and a political decision making as much as a science

In that sense the scientific or more academic track of design is the key. If we come up with a research agenda that feeds the design world at the level of process, as well as at the level of strategies, regional approaches, scenarios, intervention or projects this could highly impact anything that we could come up with. Strengthening the academic world means strengthening their position outside the academic world, but what you see happening is the opposite process where fear of corruptness, involvement or influence is not growing but weakening the academic strength, and it increases their absence in the real world.

You have had several academic experiences, a recent one is the GSD studio ‘Design and Politics: Managing risk and vulnerabilities’. What do you think about the outcome of this academic experiment on the combined design and political agenda?

What I wanted were three things, knowing that the potential of such academic track is the opportunity to be far more reflective. I wanted an interdisciplinary studio to have architecture, urban design, landscape architecture and planning so students could experience what interdisciplinary actually means. When we started ‘Rebuild by Design’, one request for the teams was to define interdisciplinarity. Demanding the teams before they sign up to think what interdisciplinary means was a key to get the best teams, and also a key for the GSD students. The other request was to be reflective on the process we follow and adjust that process within the studio, using ‘Rebuild by Design’ as an underlying mechanism for them to build on, and propose interventions in the process that could enhance the strategy.

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Blue Dunes: new approach to coastal protection’ is a design proposal for ‘Rebuild by Design’ by WXY+West 8 for NY region. Rebuild by design Flickr

And thirdly I wanted them to exploit their academic position. If you are working in New Jersey or in New York , the local and political conditions are also limiting, I wanted them to be as free as possible and reflect where the design teams went or didn’t, and all three levels paid off. The first for the students and the staff of GSD to understand the complexity of interdisciplinary but also the importance of it, the second is the start of a new research on how you do these processes, and the third brought this richness of presentations and possibilities that students came up with at the end of the studio.

What is interdisciplinary for you and how do teams that are built on this idea work?

We easily think we put together designers, urban designers, landscape architects, architects, planners and it will bring an interdisciplinary approach, which is, of course, not true.

If you look at the risks and needs of a region, and this could be Deli, the Delta in Bangladesh, the New York region, you will find out that there’s a cultural aspect in interdisciplinarity. This approach will bring you to the ground with community groups, leaders, individuals as much as groups, local businesses, people that suffered the disaster, people that were brought in by the disaster. Then you have all the experts and engineers from the field of design at the edge of their capacity, people that understand governance, decision making, finance, investment, and economics in the social aspects. And thirdly you have politics, the complexity of governance in the political realm, with the different faces of bureaucracy and real elected officials. As well as interdisciplinary depends on the situation. Most of the time there is an uncertainty, the process you design is open and inclusive, and in that sense very collaborative. But is also a growing and progressive process. This means the team you bring in could not be the same you end up with. 

Interdisciplinarity depends on the situation, but is also a growing and progressive process

How do you measure and evaluate the vulnerability of a context in order to inform the process?

We have a very old fashioned idea on cost benefit analysis. The problem with vulnerable needs is that they are always very hard to address in the economic sense, they become empty posts in cost benefit analysis. We’ did cost benefit analysis addressing all the risks that come with water safety, as well as the economic and ecological opportunities that come with it. The longer, the more complex the issue, the bigger the scale, the harder it is to get to a comprehensive cost benefit analysis,. As an example for the Olympics Strategy we came up with a model that changes every year if research and findings determine that it needed to be adapted. An adaptive model of doing research and cost benefit analysis for political track is very hard, but design can help again, if we merge it with politics all of a sudden that message does not become a hollow sentence but actually a very substantial approach. The moment we are able to present this message is the moment when design and politics merge.

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The Living Breakwaters’ is a design proposal for ‘Rebuild by Design’ by Scape Team for Staten Island. Rebuild by design Flickr.

As you mention cities in Africa are the most fast growing cities and have deep vulnerabilities. How do you think this method could perform in such context?

The Rockefeller Foundation with the USAID asked me to help out with the Global Resilience Challenge Program. It is a resiliency collaboration via initiatives and they wanted to start a challenge and I helped them. This challenge is for the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and the South East Asia, all three places that have key aspects of urbanization, quality of water and safety. The idea there is simple on the level of process but very complex in reality because what you see happening now is AID money coming from the top and at the end line of every dollar only 10 cents touch the ground. We turn this around. If your objective is to reduce costs and deliver better solutions you have to start with two things. One is get the understanding of what the real need is, two is do that in collaboration with local partnership. Find the local and regional interdependencies, vulnerabilities,risks and opportunities. There is a match between big issues and local aspects.

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Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge: A Comprehensive Strategy for Hoboken’ is a four part comprehensive urban water strategy design proposal for ‘Rebuild by Design’ by OMA based on ‘Achieving effective resiliency through a risk-​based approach’. Rebuild by Design Flickr.

You invest little money and have a dozen ideas on the table that you can fund, so the AID money goes directly to the project. The only thing you need for that is a well defined process and well defined critical steps that guide and guard it, and this isn’t different in Colombia, Senegal or Kenya. I’m not saying things never go wrong, on the contrary, I do think things go wrong, but I am also sure that by taking an optimistic approach and by knowing the risks and vulnerabilities it is actually possible to change the world. I am very optimistic, because this is the only way I survive, and I am proven right most of the time.

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