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ZERO. Numeracy Narratives for Urban Resilience at COP27
A conversation between Stephanie Sherman and Diana Ibánez López on Zero, a 24-hour broadcast on numeracy taking place in Cairo during COP27.

Diana Ibánez López and Stephanie Sherman from Central Saint Martins (CSM) London - in partnership with Ain Shams University - discuss their pedagogic and intellectual involvement in this year’s COP27 and climate change action through radio broadcast and a podcast. Their project Zero, indeed, explores how math, numbers, counting, and data affect climate change, urban transformation and social equity. It does so by involving students and featuring voices from Egypt, London and across the world who will discover, discuss, propose and learn about climate adaptation methods related to net zero and net negative. In this conversation they also extend their reflections on the urban conditions of Cairo, but also their hopes for this year’s COP and the future of our planet.

KoozArch proposed an initial set of questions as guidelines for the conversation:

1. Where do you see the biggest points of convergence between COP’s debates/set topics and architecture or urban design? How and to what extent will architects contribute to the debate on the climate emergency?
2. Resources’ sustainable and ethical management along with collective action seem to summarize the more-than-human and human components of the debate. Which design solutions or principles you believe will frame new, ethical and climate-conscious actions in the built and natural environments?
3. The transnational dimension of the debate and the growing centrality of African countries in the current debate on climate change is becoming increasingly evident. What do you think will emerge from this extended, non-Western synergy of intents and collaboration? What are your hopes for COP27?

DIANA We are here in Cairo setting up a 24-hour marathon radio broadcast for SpatialRadio.live with radioee.net and in collaboration with Ain Shams University. Let's start by introducing our respective project ambitions and what brought us to participate in COP27. We could start with Spatial Radio, the main project we are working on. Although it connects to our courses, it connects to a wider climate forum at Central St. Martins (CMS), as well as being embedded in the curriculum.

STEPHANIE Spatial Radio is a project that was set up last year and it was seated as a collaboration between the MA Narrative Environments, the course I run, and MA Cities, which Diana runs, and intends to bring in people from across the Spatial Practices department at CSM - we have a small department of our two courses, along with MA Architecture and BA Architecture - and Spatial Radio was really conceived as a platform for both in curricular and student-run projects using the radio and sound, more broadly, as a way to explore and intervene in environments and spaces that they might want to challenge or investigate. As a platform, we think through different pedagogies, this implies both the technical aspects of streaming and broadcasting, internet radio (which is a medium we are really excited about because of the liveness and the simultaneity with listeners from all over the world), as well as sound production, project production, coordination, audio skills, interview skills, live and performative ethnography.

Spatial Radio was conceived as a platform for both in curricular and student-run projects using the radio and sound, more broadly, as a way to explore and intervene in environments and spaces that they might want to challenge or investigate.

DIANA Another important aspect it is that this format lets you talk about the built environment, spaces, visually represented spaces, mediums, processes, situations, projects through other mediums and one of those is the spoken word, as well as the idea that it is dialogical, through interviews, and it brings the listener into an imaginative space. So some of the research and the technical learning, but also challenges of the built environment we are discussing and foregrounding. In the context of COP27 we were really interested in numbers and in numeracy and in the specifics - sometimes bureaucratic, sometimes scientific, sometimes also the political or comms use of numbers, the historical - that might become almost a caption or side-line behind the bigger headlines.

STEPHANIE It is a collaboration between British institutions and Egyptian institutions in tandem with COP27 and Ain Shams. Diana lived in Cairo for many years and I had collaborators at Ain Shams that worked on a previous project about urban artificial intelligence and the role that AI might play in transforming the city. We applied for a grant and we thought that we wanted to reintroduce the radio as a contemporary medium into the Cairo landscape and give students broadcasting tools. We also thought about it as a podcast, so that our broadcasts (we just simply record the live marathon and then cut it up into segments) could trace the journey and the different issues that we currently address on the show. Zero and numbers came about because Net Zero has always been the most popular subject of conversation. We were also thinking about the ways in which zero is not enough in the climate conversation, that we want to get to negative carbon or carbon removal from the system and that the history of zero is also the history of negative numbers which played an important role in the region and the discovery of zero. It became a historical starting point and conceit for asking questions around numeracy and narratives. Coming out of an art and design school is very often the case that narratives emerge around numbers and counting as a violence or a reduction of the world around us. We are then interested in an alternative starting point where numbers and counting are the foundation of stories as well as infrastructure. Much of our social infrastructure, in terms of what counts and what can be counted, is an important part of how we allocate resources, how we distribute and account for carbon impact and how we understand the world around us, both human and non-human.

We are interested in an alternative starting point where numbers and counting are the foundation of stories as well as infrastructure.

DIANA This reticence to engage with numbers, or this slight fear of them, is embedded in the history of these places. The first conception of Zero begins in Sumerian times with a gap or a nothingness. It exists also in Mayan and Inca cultures and many others, but then in the Arabic numeral system for the first time zero is given a place, and it points towards the possibility of the negative, which was not possible, for example, in Western thought. For about 300 years after it was introduced as a concept into the West there was still suspicion and reticence towards it, which then continued with the invention of calculus that you could divide by zero and begin to predict or model change. You could look at forms of change that felt really uncomfortable and even heretical, mathematically. So we are interested in the equivalent of that today.

STEPHANIE Also we knew that COP27 was going on in Sharm el Sheikh, which is a luxury resort town, but our interest was actually on Cairo as a mega city. We knew that the effects and the conversations that were happening in Sharm would be, in some ways, most relevant to or directly felt by Cairo. We have some researchers and members of our team who are going to record and engage in the conversations at COP and we will fold that into our broadcasts. We are also quite aware that COP is an exclusive environment, and one in which conversations take place but it is hard to understand what the ramifications of those conversations in the everyday lives of the people are, following the decisions taken there. We really wanted to look at both sides of the story, the official narrative of COP and the much more grounded and expansive narratives of how the issues being discussed are actually playing out in the city.

Photo taken during the radio workshop that took place in October at Central Saint Martins, London, in collaboration with the partners based in Egypt.

Our interest was actually on Cairo as a mega city. We knew that the effects and the conversations that were happening in Sharm would be, in some ways, most relevant to or directly felt by Cairo.

DIANA It is about the opportunity to look at the biggest city in Africa - it has been indeed the biggest for 2000 years - and thinking about the real specifics of what we might change within the industry, what we might think about in terms of mobilities and what is not being measured within the policy discussions as well.

STEPHANIE There is an easy example here. We are in Cairo and looking out of windows we see just cars covering the city, both in terms of taking up the amount of physical space as well as the auditory space. It is extraordinary the impact of these oil-sucking machines on the landscape, on health, on the urban environment. The opportunity of something like COP and the discussion around climate change goes beyond just simply replacing one broken system with something else like electric cars. As we take climate into account, whether that is through economic, social or philosophical mechanisms, we think much more deeply and structurally about the geometries of how much space a car takes up, the land use of cars and so on. All this data, the prediction analysis that is part of the speculative infrastructure - 40 new bridges and elevated highways have been built in Cairo in the last year - all this building is being predicated on a system that is not the deep challenge that we need to face. We then think about this broadcast as an opportunity to dig deeper into some of the underlying questions behind these systems.

We are quite aware that COP is an exclusive environment, in which conversations take place but it is hard to understand what the ramifications of those conversations in the everyday lives of the people are.

DIANA I speak of education, knowledge exchange, but also how do we distribute this knowledge? How do you question it while distributing it? And how do you broaden the base of who is involved in holding and sharing that knowledge? This opens to this project's aim to seed a student radio here in Cairo and continue that conversation across generations. We see it as a student-led project that does not just absorb and digest the communication coming out of COP, but begins to take a granular, sighted, specific approach that can be applied anywhere in the world, in even less dense built environments. It also helps thinking about the policies and the conversations that happen at planetary (often financial) scale, the exchanges and negotiations between countries that can apply to buildings, cities, and professions as well.

STEPHANIE To build on this, we really think about the radio as a platform for deep research through live action. What we hope is that through these conversations, as Diana said, students might start asking different questions about the projects. We also introduced progressive or more extensive questions that they might be asking to the guests that they bring to the Radio table, guests who come from different disciplines such as engineering, science or policy. Having students and youth asking deep questions might have an impact on their practices in different ways.

We really think about the radio as a platform for deep research through live action.

DIANA This brings us to answer question one: Where do you see the biggest points of convergence between COP27's debates and architecture or urban design? How and to what extent will architects contribute to the debate on the climate emergency? I would encourage readers to tune in to SpatialRadio.live on Thursday and Friday, 8am to 8pm GMT, that is 10am to 10pm, Egyptian time. I think it is not just about architects, it is a broad range of topics, but also scales and environments that COP addresses, whether we are looking at youth voice in relation to climate change, whether it is about carbon credits and reparations, all of those lines of enquiry land within the professions of city making, storytelling, creating narratives, of creating datasets and addressing these issues in a specific material setting.

STEPHANIE What we love about doing the radio is that it is an opportunity to operate across multiple scales at once. We are currently operating at a hyper-local scale, which is where the radio is broadcasting from (in this case, the university one day and the river another) and asking questions about the landscapes that we are encountering, the digital infrastructure that those landscapes have - because they're required to have wireless internet wherever we are - and also the very tangible architectures at that scale. Of course, all the projects are situated quite locally within a city - we will be broadcasting in Arabic and English fluidly and we can come back to how that will work and why that is important - and we are weaving local voices (local as to the cities or the broader region). We will then host voices from Sharm el Sheikh but also our partners in London. The reach of the radio is planetary, because through our social networks people from all over the world will be able to listen, to leave messages that we can then play back on the show, contributing to the conversation. This is, in some ways, the introduction of a scale at which we think architects and designers also need to consider. They should be able to think across scales as they design, from more traditional aspects like choices of materials to the social and political aspects that the design of any space or environment takes on. But it is also a question around architecture in terms of digital infrastructure, architecture as software, as a medium for organising information and the ways that we use space and time. This is clearly being necessitated by climate change as a planetary condition.

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The reach of the radio is planetary, because through our social networks people from all over the world will be able to listen, to leave messages that we can then play back on the show, contributing to the conversation.

DIANA Maybe rather than contributing to the debate, it is about contributing to the action and the changes in processes and how each of those processes is linked both to climate change and to increasing climate action. Question two asks: Resources, sustainable and ethical management, along with collective action seem to summarise the more-than-human and human components of the debate, which design solutions or principles you do believe will frame new ethical climate-conscious actions in the boat and natural environments?

STEPHANIE We spoke about this briefly when we mentioned the car example, because it is so obvious that what we do not need is more cars; we need more trains, vans and buses and solutions that organise the geometry, as I was saying, in different ways. Parts of what founded this project, like algorithmic intelligence, are incredibly useful in terms of pivoting from a single-user, single-owner system of the car to a much more efficient and effective transit system that accounts for time, energy, consumption, but also the need for mobility - which is, in some ways, such an important part of the human condition from the beginning.

DIANA I think it is also thinking about how we create space for change, because some of the changes that are needed in supply chains, for instance, are slightly less glamorous; whether it is around management itself (of natural resources and human resources and processes) and being able to question the minutiae of some of the embedded systems and networks that we do use. So it is not about just looking at the source or the final product, it is about processes or actions, there we can truly operate change. It is also about recognising the less visible or less glamorous processes that might not be discussed at COP27. We are hoping to dig into them in the radio show.

Onto question three: The transnational dimension of the debate and the growing centrality of African countries in the current debate on climate change is becoming increasingly evident. The choice of holding COP27 in Egypt probably reflects such changes. What do you think will emerge from this extended non-Western synergy and intense collaborations? And what are your hopes for COP27?

Concerning transnational dimension, not just of the debate (because it is a form of international relations which is always transnational in nature), but the potential transnational collaboration which Zero radio is, is about building on already existing transnational thinking and pedagogy, along with the conversations, the languages, the culturally embedded approaches and the different built environments that contribute to previous radio shows and to the work that we do on both courses. So that transnational dimension of climate change, as well as the knowledge exchange that we are working on, feels clear.

It is about processes or actions, there we can truly operate change. It is also about recognising the less visible or less glamorous processes that might not be discussed at COP27.

STEPHANIE I do not have a lot of faith in COP27. I guess what we have seen from all the other COPs is that there is a lot of symbolic action and negotiation. The hopeful outcome is if this discourse continues to be on the radar and on the table - with growing diversity of perspectives from all nations. That there will be a much stronger geopolitical understanding of the role of planetary governments in this conversation, that nations can no longer be acting in isolation in terms of climate-related decisions, because the climate itself is not operating that way. In terms of this particular COP, there is a lot more verbal reference to climate than actually action. I think that our interest lies in understanding what some of these conversations might translate into, both in real time and in real space, so that we could involve more the next generation, students and youth voices. We are hoarding over depleted resources and it is the opportunity for that generation to understand and figure out what is possible and how they are going to solve the incredible set of challenges we all face.

DIANA I have a local hope, I think Cairo is a really interesting city for COP27. How might the future of this mega city be, that has been, since mediaeval times, dense and complex? These are the spaces of greatest urbanisation in the last and in the coming 20 years. These landscapes are going to see incredible changes in terms of productive potential, in terms of flooding and in terms of impact on their incredibly dense and fast-changing built environment. I am wondering how we might work with the students and the audience we will engage with in expanding the research about some of the conversations happening at COP, specifically related to Cairo in urban terms. That is not really a hope for the conference, it is just something I think we hope to see across the industry and across cities.


Listen to the 24-hour broadcast live from Cairo on the 10th and 11th on November, at this link.

Bio

Stephanie Sherman is a director, strategist, writer and producer working across design, technology, architecture, and culture. Her work reprograms and reorganises outmoded systems as collaborative platforms, leveraging surplus, story, and speculation to design socio-technical transitions.She currently directs the MA Narrative Environments at Central Saint Martins London, is a researcher at Autonomy (a think tank on the future of work), runs Radioee.net (a nomadic translingual radio station) and spatialradio.live, and leads the Automation team at the UC San Diego Design Lab.

Diana Ibánez López is an educator, curator and urbanist working at the intersections of spatial practice, policy and place-based research. She leads MA Cities, the newest course on the Spatial Practices Programme at Central Saint Martins, and co-founded spatialradio.live. Diana has been a Visiting Professor at HfG Karlsruhe’s Product Design school, an associate of The Why Factory and taught Architecture MA studios at the Royal College of Art, Kingston University and TU Delft. Until 2021, Diana was Senior Curator and co-Artistic Director at Create, an arts organisation dedicated to making projects that are useful to society. She has also worked in the public sector, a tech start-up, at MVRDV and at Phaidon Press.

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Published
09 Nov 2022
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15 minutes
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