Eco-visionary Dr Antwi Akom speaking at 2019 NZILA Conference

One of the international speakers at the upcoming NZILA Conference is Dr Antwi Akom, named by former US President Barack Obama as one of the world’s top innovators.

Dr Akom has many accolades to his name. He’s the director of the Social Innovation and Urban Opportunity Research Lab — a joint research lab between the University of California San Francisco’s Centre for Vulnerable Populations and San Francisco State University. He also co-founded Streetwyze — a technology and human-centred design firm. Boffa Miskell is sponsoring Dr Akom’s keynote address, and Landscape Architecture Aotearoa has interviewed Dr Akom about his upcoming visit.

LAA: Your publicity says you’re an “eco-visionary on urban and rural acupuncture” – what does that actually mean?

AA: I think being called an eco-visionary means having an ecologically and just sustainability approach to the challenges facing the built environment.  I think being an eco-visionary means recognising that human-beings environmental destruction of planet is affecting the planets natural balance, and causing climate collapse and climate chaos in ways we’ve never seen before.  It also means that the racialisation of space and spacialisation of race (source: Lipset) is impacted by climate change in terms of who gets access to institutional resources and privileges.  Additionally, eco-visionaries must recognise and challenge landscape architects to incorporate equity and just sustainability approaches when they are attempting to seamlessly integrate landscaping and architecture into one discipline and to use an indigenous co-design process to ensure that we are incorporating the voices of the most marginalised people throughout every stage of the design process from idea to implementation.

 LAA: What is urban and rural acupuncture?

AA: Urban acupuncture is a theory about how to build transformative and equitable spaces and places.   It was made popular by the former Mayor of Curtibia Jaime Lerner in his book Urban acupuncture (2003).  To me urban acupuncture is also a way of life.  What makes it unique is that it combines urban—and increasingly rural design—with principles of traditional Chinese acupuncture, Buddhism, African, and indigenous philosophy.

The Big idea is twofold: first it suggests that by using small scale interventions we can transform the larger built environment; and 2) it argues that by focusing on very narrow pressure points in cities—just like a human body—we can catalyse a positive ripple effect for the greater society.  For example, some spaces in communities are sick and unhealthy both figuratively and literally and to heal them requires pinpoint interventions that can be accomplished quickly, release energy, and create a positive ripple effect. I believe that architecture in general and landscape architecture in particular can incorporate this kind of medicinal magic into it’s practice in order to relieve pressure points in cities and communities that are sick, forgotten, marginalised, or have been written off as terminally ill.

Put simply, an urban acupuncture approach is like the difference between a holistic healer and a hospital — it takes a holistic approach to healing a community that centres the voices of the people that are most impacted; to listen and learn in such a way that the community is a partner in the healing and the design process.  Urban acupuncture encourages architects, designers, developers, and engineers to work with communities in different ways in order to co-create more culturally and community responsive spaces and places where people’s local knowledge and the living breathing ecosystem are the primary inspirations behind the design process.  For example, the first question we ask is: What is the social history of this place, what is the environmental history of this space, and what is your vision of the future?  The second questions is: If the ecosystem could talk what is it saying to you?   If you could listen more deeply what is it telling you?  In other words, how can we take our ecosystems into account in this design process?  Our third questions is: How are people using this space now?  How are ecosystems being utilised? Our fourth question is: How would you like to see people use this space beyond the proposed development?  And the fifth question is: How can we help co-create a space that is more culturally and community responsive and more ecologically using land appropriate to meet your everyday needs?  Questions like this enable us to let people’s everyday needs and experiences inspire the innovation in landscape architecture and beyond.

LAA: What are you doing that changes lives for the better?   How do you go about it?

AA: I am the Co-Founder and CEO of Streetwyze.   Streetwyze is a human-centred and participatory technology design social benefit company that helps cities and communities enhance their use of community-generated data, location-based data, and Big Data to improve services, inform local decision-making, and better engage local residents. Streetwyze has been used to identify and prioritise green infrastructure and to help landscape architects develop and evaluate civic and Green investments.  Our multi-disciplinary team believes that the built environment has a strong physiological, cultural, and spiritual connections with nature.  As a result, we’ve been part of project teams that seek to combine people-powered place-making, bio-mimicry social equity, and cutting-edge digital engagement platforms and processes to the fields of architecture, urban design, data visualisation, land-use, health, housing, urban, rural, and regional planning.

By blending the best methodologies from the past with the most innovative technologies of the present, Streetwyze lifts up the power of local knowledge, making it accessible within and outside of resiliency planning processes by creating two-way feedback loops, digital story-maps, and data visualisations between neighbourhoods and cities. By integrating community-generated data with Big data and predictive analytics, cities and community leaders are empowered with forward-looking knowledge that can track equity indicators, identify hot spots and cool spots for equitable development, and predict future trajectories to achieve new standards of affordability, sustainability, mobility, and economic opportunity for all.

In 2016, Streetwyze was named as one of the top innovations in the world at President Obama’s Frontiers Conference, and in 2019 we received the Pioneer Innovation Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Over the years our work has been written about in the Atlantic CityLab, The Root, Tech Republic, Green Biz, the European Union, and the Knight Foundation’s Smart Cities as a state-of-the art platform and process that revolutionises the flow of information between people, places, policies, and systems in ways that were previously unimaginable.  This work is the leading edge of a new “science of cities,” designed to accelerate communities use of data and evidence to improve people’s everyday lives—in order to improve cultural vibrancy, health, and restore the long-term resiliency of course communities—so that people do not have to leave their communities in order to live, learn, work, and thrive.

LAA: What is it about your work that you think will resonate with New Zealand landscape architects?

 AA: New Zealand Landscape architects are increasingly facing challenges that other landscape architects and urban planners around the world have been grappling with for decades: increasing urbanisation, housing shortages, gentrification and displacement, sovereignty and indigenous rights, growing transportation networks, and protection of New Zealand’s breathtaking landscapes.

My work directly addresses the most pressing issues of our lifetime: climate change, income inequality, finite resources, food security, energy demands, and the intersection between race, space, place, and waste.  My work is part of a new paradigm shift in our approach to the built environment.  If we want to move from surviving resiliency to thriving resiliency and develop places and spaces that can thrive in a world of limited resources, we have to develop more culturally- and community-responsive, appropriately-scaled, locally-relevant strategies for the hard infrastructure — food, water, energy, transportation, electrical grids — as well as the soft infrastructure–community connection, social cohesion, social capital, and social connectedness.  My work brings these divergent fields together so that we can have integrated strategies for landscape architecture and resiliency planning.

And I think New Zealand landscape architects will be excited about these innovations and applying lessons learned to their own work.

 LAA: What’s the key message you’ll be delivering at the conference?

AA: In November, I will bring a message of building a community-driven data revolution to New Zealand, with an explicit look at race, power, environment, gentrification, displacement,  opportunity, and promoting what the former Chief resiliency officer of Oakland CA Kiran Jain refers to as “digital resiliency.”

Digital resiliency understands that if landscape architects are going invite community to the equity table as equal partners in the planning and decision-making process, they are going to have to learn how to use mobile, mapping, and SMS apps like Streetwyze to democratise data, democratise decision-making, and reveal hidden patterns in order to be more culturally and community responsive to, and predictive of, past, present, and future ecological, environmental, and community change.

In addition to the above I will most likely address the following key topics:

* How landscape architects can help dismantle racism and reverse climate change

* New visions for building more equitable, just, and sustainable communities by using by using community driven technology and data visualisation with New Zealand most vulnerable populations.

* The importance of a good community if you want to move from survive climate change.  In other words explain to the audience that we need many more landscape architects and architects to address the most pressing issues of our lifetime:  climate collapse, finite resources, food, energy, etc.  “ The famous architect  Richard Bukminister Fuller said: Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting.  We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.”  I want to discuss the value of so called “disposable people” and “disposable waste.”

* Finally, I’d like to talk about the importance of social infrastructure and hard infrastructure if were are serious about moving from surviving to thriving during climate chaos.

Dr Akom’s most recent TEDx Talk is called Innovation Out of Poverty.

24 July 2019