Climate Change, COVID, and the Built Environment
A Q&A with Kassandra Huynh
Kassandra Huynh is a rare blend of scientist and creative mind. The Minnesota, USA native is now a biodesigner, creative consultant, and future tastemaker based in Potsdam, Germany. We were fortunate enough to have a conversation with Kassandra to get her take on climate change, COVID, and how the solutions to our built environment just might be found in nature.
Overlap: First off, what led you to pursue a career in this field? And what brought you to Germany?
Kassandra Huynh: My background is in custom furniture and product design (circular design), human-centered/user experience design (design thinking), and nature-inspired innovation (biophilia/biomimicry). Design is interesting to me because it’s a scientific bridge to creativity. And now that sustainability has become so important to both producers and consumers, it’s creating a whole new set of challenges to solve. As for Germany, I’ve always had a strong affinity for both Scandinavian and German design. Germany--particularly the Berlin area where I live--has an exciting scientific and engineering scene that is producing sustainable solutions for the fashion, technology, and health science industries, to name a few. I call it the “sustainable silicon valley.” It’s an up and coming place.
O: What kind of projects do you work on?
KH: For the last five years or so, I’ve consulted value-driven organizations with life-centered design. This means I’ve helped organizations imagine, develop, and navigate future scenarios for their products, processes, and systems. I’ve consulted on furniture, architecture, material science, textiles, fashion, aerospace, conservation, health, and technology. I’m focused on the social and sustainable impact of an organization at all scales. My role specifically is to bring in new thinking, questions, and insights on how to address the needs and desires of stakeholders. I take a holistic approach to solving complex problems (such as climate change and Covid 19) by looking at it from a human-centered and nature-centered perspective.
O: Tell us more about climate change and what you refer to as “nature’s solution to the built environment.”
KH: Climate change, as we understand it is a recurring phenomena in the evolutionary timeline of the planet. Before there was a stable level of oxygen in the atmosphere, it was full of carbon, sulphuric acid, and other volatile compounds from shifting continents making it uninhabitable for most of life. That’s why life in water was idyllic for so long. The Ice Age was also really harsh in terms of climate conditions. The historical patterns of climate change are predictable to a certain extent over thousands, if not millions, of years.
However, as climate scientists point out, it's the rapid timescale at which the change has been exacerbated by human impact, particularly the residual effects of unchecked, intensive land forming that is putting the comfortable planetary conditions which have enabled people to thrive into crisis mode.
Nature’s solution can mean biomimicry (mimicking nature’s forms, processes, and systems), circular design (mimicking nature’s material cycles), biophilia (mimicking our affinity to patterns in nature to build connection), or indigenous wisdom and traditional ecological knowledge (highlighting locally attuned cultural connections and generational adaptations to place). In short, nature’s solution is our human interpretation of our relationship to nature and ourselves. It is evidence of 3.8 billion years of life’s evolutionary strategies to successfully navigate the planet’s harsh conditions.
The built environment is our human footprint on the planet. It is a reflection of our human ingenuity to form microcosms (from products to buildings to cities) which enable us to thrive safely and securely. As much as it is our signature to be ecosystem builders, we are equally capable of being ecosystem destroyers.
O: What kind of climate change-related projects have you worked on?
KH: I’ve worked on helping a biomaterial start-up design a closed-loop product cycle; assisted an architecture firm to create a site-specific, zero waste, ecoresort highlighting local ethnic culture and native ecologies; and I’ve researched the future of food, specifically looking at modern agriculture’s effect on soil and marginalized groups living in food deserts.
All of these projects were at first challenges to the built environment, but after applying a regenerative systems view and taking into consideration the socio-enviro-economic factors, the core insights always came back to the need to shift human mindsets, behaviors, and relationships.
O: Where do you see Covid come into play with climate change and the built environment?
KH: I think people’s perspective on Covid is similar to that of climate change. Because these two phenomena occur at such massive global scales both in time and space, it's something almost invisible and foreign to the human scale. Climate change is something that happens over the course of decades or longer. Like the lifespan of a tree or an insect, our sense for time outside of what we know is hard to grasp if we’re not paying attention to the signs.
The Covid-19 virus is something that is at the micro scale, happening inside us. Because it's virtually invisible to the human eye without the assistance of technology, it's difficult for some to stretch their imagination to something that they cannot physically experience or relate to themselves. People have different entry points of adoption to new information and trends. A few are early adopters and more flexible, but most will be at the median point. Then you also have your deniers who don’t want to flex at all. People have different styles of navigating change, despite it being a predictable and constant factor in life.
The built environment is our way of trying to create control where and how we can. It's a symbol of stability and predictability that enforces security. Nature is dynamic, constantly changing and adapting; people are too. Overall there are cycles of predictability, such as the weather, time of the days, and seasons. But if we only design for this--and not for the other side of the coin such as predictable flashes of unpredictability--the scales are imbalanced. And right now, built environments are much too rigid, as if we are swimming upstream, when it's much easier to go with the flow of the current.
O: What kind of projects have you worked on related to Covid?
KH: Earlier this year I had the opportunity to help an aerospace engineering company explore the future of travel, particularly Covid’s impact on flying and in interior spaces. Our focus at the time was to think about solutions that could be implemented in the near-term (1-10 years). Although primary tactics to ward off spreading the virus had been focused on surface sterilization or social distancing, our research focused on the impact of aerosols. So our priority was looking at redesigning the air quality in itself by retrofitting and revamping current systems such as the HVAC system within public spaces. With the help of nature’s solutions, we were able to come up with some fresh perspectives on how to build trust with users on their travel journeys as well as look at novel approaches in nature for dealing with air purification.
O: Do you foresee Covid having a long-term effect on climate change and nature’s solution to the built environment? Will the effects be felt on a global level or will it be in more isolated regions?
KH: I think the scales have been tipped too long to one side. Climate change and Covid are nature’s checks and balances to remind people of their place, as part of the cycle of life. Our built environments are somewhat like fortresses, bubbles that shelter us from the local and global happenings. And because the current strategies have been quite good at being a catch all, withstanding most that comes at it, we as a species are really good at replicating what works. The problem is this isolation and confidence has desensitized us to the point of being numb to the faults of our own designs. Industry has operated on massive scales with a very slow feedback loop, and we’re only now, after the industrial revolution, feeling the ripple effects of those decisions.
Despite technological prowess and the comfort the middle class has experienced on a global scale, there’s been neglect at the local level and human level. I understand the resistance to designing for long-term resiliency or adaptation, especially when being in nature and being aligned with the planet meant arduous struggle and survival for most of history. And with the instantaneousness of everything, I honestly think we’ve forgotten that there’s more to life than instant gratification. So to me, the long-term impacts of Covid on people is more about our behavior. Covid and climate change are magnifiers of our inherent disconnect of what it means to be human. Both are a wake up call to our isolation and perpetuation of negative behaviors. What we know from evolution is that adaptive strategies happen at the local level. Even from one region to another, the context conditions are so varied that the strategies look different. So it starts with change at the level which we can control, first ourselves and our mindsets, which then trickle out into our relationships, designs and spaces. If we have a global awareness of our interdependencies and interconnectivities, but act locally, a global emergent phenomena of change towards the future we want can happen. It's shaking up everything we know, and I think it's rightfully so because the way we’ve been living is imbalanced and controlled by very little. We need diversity and the expertise of everyone if we want any short-term change. We also need contemplation, reparation, and intergenerational building for the long-term at the systems and process levels if we want to stand a chance of surviving this wave.
O: With climate change and Covid being factors, how do you anticipate the built environment changing?
KH: Climate change and Covid has put people and the built environment on high alert. As a species, humans have thrived due to our immense adaptability and general skills in various environments. Responding immediately, using what we have on hand and what is abundant to retrofit and protect ourselves from the uncontrolled factors is already being put into action, particularly in Asia and Oceania. The social immunity mindset has demonstrated the effectiveness of swarm intelligence. From responsiveness to retrofitting, the next wave will be renewal and creativity. People are really clever, but we need lived experiences in order to learn what works. We learn through imitation, play and trial and error. Right now we are in trial and error mode and imitation. Play will be the next level in which we can really design for near-term and long-term solutions that will make us more resilient and adaptable for the next wave.
This next level is the space I’m most used to navigating. I believe this whole-systems life-centered view helps us slingshot to the past in order to find answers about the future. We need this global lens in space and time to understand more quickly how to respond more wisely. In biomimicry we have this tool called Life’s Principles. It's a dissemination of principles that all of life has turned into and followed in order to thrive. There’s so much wisdom here in nature and in our ancestry and in evidence with the people that are closest to this intelligence. Ethnic and indigenous groups, biomimics, innovators--they are the translators that can help embody life’s principles to help designs that were once rigid be more locally attuned, embody resilience, be modular, replicate strategies that work, and adapt to changing conditions.
O: What are you hoping will happen? Will people be able to make the necessary changes?
KH: I hope that one, people’s behaviors shift towards social immunity/interconnectivity/interdependency and two, “think global-act local” will be reflected in the designs of the built environment. We must balance short-term with long-term thinking and be proactive in designing for the futures and scenarios that we want. We need to learn how to slow down and be more contemplative, intentional, and impactful with our designs.
O: Does change happen within the community and private sector or is it the responsibility of the government to help steer and mandate policy?
KH: Thinking about Donella Meadows 12 leverage points to intervene in a system, I think it would be helpful to think of these points as points on a 3D sphere. We need to approach all of these points and problems at every level of the system.
From the most deep and impactful levels of transcending paradigms, mindsets and systems goals; to the most shallow or easy entry points of changing parameters, taxes, material flows all need to happen at once; with each its own value. Ultimately I do believe that the governing systems at the global level have the largest and most unchecked effects. We know the trickle down effects of this can really enable large scale change, but we also see that building from the bottom up--a prominent pattern in nature--demonstrates the effects that the power of people can have.
O: Any parting words? What would you like readers to walk away from this article with?
KH: I would like people to not see the world so black and white. I want us to remain hopeful. Life is beautiful and dynamic, even as it is tumultuous, consuming, and unpredictable. But being creative and tapping in to what makes us uniquely human (we’re social, connected, adaptable, creative, have the power to remember and have foresight), we can take heart and know that this is what got us through hard times in the past. It will surely get us over this as well.
To learn more about Kassandra Huynh and her work and current projects, check out her website! With Overlap, you can easily connect your business with Kassandra and sustainability experts alike. Overlap takes the work out of finding and booking pre-vetted and qualified sustainability experts from around the world - all on one easy to use platform. Take your business' sustainability game to the next level, learn more about Overlap today.