Aisha Ajmal Wahab

Nomadic Researcher – HKU Common Core

At the onset of APRU Sustainable Cities & Landscape Programme Hub’s conference held at the University of Hong Kong in early September 2018, as a nomadic researcher I was beyond excited to learn and experience to the best of my ability all the exciting ideas to explore within the working groups offered at the conference, covering a spectrum of issued ranging from landscape and human health to urban water and sanitation. The opening ceremony was buzzing with global energy- jet lag had taken a back seat and the energy was very motivating for someone who had zero background in the architecture field.

Despite being nervous about possible technicalities that may arise in discussion and to what extent delegates would be inclusive of a nomads ideas, I took a deep breath and stepped into Vulnerable Communities working group, which was an inaugural working group at this year’s conference. While I took my place in an insignificant corner of the room, I was received with big smiles and a warm welcome by Kian Goh, Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA in Los Angeles who signaled a seat at the table.

I had a thorough plan of how I wanted to split my time between working groups and get the most out of the conference and socialize with delegates- but the reality was far from that! I spent the three full days of the APRU conference with the vulnerable communities group as the discussion was so stimulating and was a great learning curve and I was somehow unwilling to the leave discussion room as it was full of energy, ideas, disagreements, solutions and learning- an academic utopia. Since this working group was the first of its kind at the conference, for the longest time we were trying to find a consensus on what we call a “vulnerable community”. The group consisting of delegates from Australia, America, Thailand, Philippines and Korea had very diversified views on this same concept- “vulnerability”

Here are some first hand insights from the working group on the mere definition of vulnerability:

“Vulnerability to me is dependent on how fast a group can recover from disaster”

“I think the modernist paradigm is in fact creating greater vulnerability”

“I guess we have to look a the scale of discussion when speaking of vulnerability….what is vulnerable to me may not be to you and vice versa”

“The biggest problem when speaking of vulnerability is being unaware of assigning victimhood…we have to be cautious and sensitive about this especially in the 3rd world where some people are happy to be in their current conditions and will only be perturbed once we impose on their status quo”

As the mere definition sparked much controversy, we slowly moved onto a big issue about how everything we were discussing was assuming capitalism as the norm-why were we doing this? Is it the norm? Should we accept it? We no longer live on the planet, but are rather subject to an “abstraction of capital”. This immediately brought up in my mind Ulrich Beck, the German philosophers idea of ‘risk society’- who spoke of modern society becoming a risk society in the sense that it is increasingly occupied with debating, preventing and managing risks that it itself has produced. The changing nature of society’s relation to production and distribution is related to the environmental impact as a totalizing, globalizing economy based on scientific and technical knowledge becomes more central to social organization and social conflict. Despite theorized in the 1900’s, it is still seems relevant in this context.

The intersection of architecture with vulnerable communities was very fascinating to me – coming from a background in geography and philosophy, this was completely new terrain, but extremely eye-opening and realized how imperative architects are in protecting the livelihoods of local and indigenous communities in the development of modern cities. The term sustainability not only considers the environmental aspects, but we have to look at sustaining livelihoods as well. Many remarks were made that modernist architecture increasingly ignoring natural phenomenon and should instead pay attention to indigenous design. Some communities rely on floods to bring in certain nutrients for their crops, fishing and provide them with a livelihood- so architects have to be sensitive to imposing flood prevention measure in such areas, where it could create economic vulnerability for such communities.

Although I was unable to move around working groups as expected, I was reassured by our chief nomad, Professor Grey,that “sometimes nomads too settle for longer periods of time”. That being said, the entire APRU conference to me was a completely transdisciplinary experience the way it was designed and executed. During the sessions in which we all came together, we realized that there was much intersection between working groups as vulnerable communities can be a part of smart cities, urban biodiversity and even urban-rural linkages.

The next step for our working group will be to conduct a series of skype interviews with each member of the working group for the APRU final publication. I would like to thank Professor Pryor for the wonderful opportunity to allow our wondering selves to find refuge at the conference. The delegates and field school students and their personal stories were the highlight of the conference and the realization that we are all nomads in this world was beautiful…..hoping to see you all in Sydney 2019!