Principle #3: Existing Knowledge / by Deland Chan

[deland chan]

A VISION FOR THE HUMAN CITY #3: Existing Knowledge | Seeking new from the old

Sustainability is not only about technological adaptation; it’s also about enhancing social fabric, the patient extension and augmentation of our mutual connections, and our ability to function as a society. It’s about weaving change with what people know instead of venerating it as a disruptive, violent force. We can incorporate new narratives into landscapes shaped by oppression.
— Damon Rich
Architecture should be based in dialogue with local conditions and lifestyles. It should be a product of that dialogue, a reflection of those conditions.
— Li Xiaodong

When entering a site that might be unfamiliar to you, it can often be an overwhelming and humbling experience to grasp context. Who do you talk to? Are you talking to the right types of people who represent the community? Who exactly is the “community”? What would you do with this information?

Places consist of multiple layers of history, social networks, and culture that have long existed before you entered this site. Just because you are discovering a place for the first time— and that it may be new to you— does not mean that you have to invent everything from scratch in order to be innovative.


Instead, seek inspiration from unlikely places. Those unlikely places may mean searching deep into the past and learning from the existing ways that people have been already doing things for a very long time. Perhaps there are good reasons why these methods have endured for decades or even centuries.

Innovation does not have to mean shiny, new, and flashy. In fact, something that is new to you is likely to be old news to old timers who have lived in the community and seen a few things in in their lifetimes. Take the time to slow down and ask questions. Take an inventory of what you know and what you don't know. The list of questions from the latter will be much longer. From there, start finding those answers. Talk to everyone from all walks of life. Talk to people who are very different from your background, and talk to people you normally do not talk to. Learn from their point of view and how they see the world. Find out how things have been done in their community over time: what has been tried, what failed, and why it failed. Understand the minute processes and characteristics that make certain communities tick.

Seek inspiration from unlikely places— open yourself to a broader universe of possibilities and variables that are part of the larger whole. If you do not see the whole picture, you may miss out on a critical piece.

With this information, you can innovate from past stores of knowledge. You do not need to re-invent the wheel in order to be innovative. Instead, what is innovative might be a new way of framing an issue, a new process for leveraging existing assets in a community towards a purpose, or drawing connections from unlikely places and reassembling the existing pieces to introduce something new.