Monsoon Assemblages

I heard yesterday that my research proposal ‘Monsoon Assemblages’ has been “retained for funding” for a 2015 European Research Commission Starting Grant, pending conclusion of the grant agreement with the University of Westminster.  I am hugely excited about this – it will, if all goes ahead, fund two Post Docs, two Phd students, an administrator (most important!) and my M.Arch Design Studio to work with me on the South Asian urban monsoon for five years. I will be advertising for these positions next year once the agreement has been singed and the project is set up.

This is the abstract of the proposal as submitted:

The ambition of this cutting edge research project is to deliver a ground breaking, interdisciplinary design-driven inquiry into the impacts of changing monsoon climates in three of South Asia’s rapidly growing cities. This will be undertaken at a time when climate change and urban development conspire to produce unlikely futures for urban survival. Extreme weather events, all attributed to the monsoon’s capricious nature, are resulting with increasing frequency in water shortages, power failures, floods, out-breaks of disease, damage to property and loss of life. In responding to these events, the project will challenge the dominant view of the monsoon as a natural meteorological system outside of and distinct from society. Instead it will propose that the monsoon is a co-production of physical and social dynamics entangled within historic lived environments that can be analyzed, worked with, shaped and changed. To do so, an unconventional interdisciplinary team will develop a novel research methodology around the new operative concept of ‘monsoon assemblages.’ This will bring together the spatial design disciplines with the environmental humanities to advance research of lived environments as indivisibly natural, social and political and to propose models for intervening in them through design.

The project aims to shift conceptions and understandings of the monsoon as a natural meteorological system; to deliver a ground breaking new approach to the design of cities by treating the monsoon as an organising principle of urban life, not an external threat; to assess the potential impact of this approach for urban policy, planning and infrastructure investment; to assess the new political, theoretical and aesthetic agendas for the spatial design disciplines and the environmental humanities this opens up; and to engage critically with the climate change adaption paradigm through the innovative idea of climate co-production.

This was the presentation I  gave at an interview in Brussels in September as part of the second stage selection process:

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The context of the proposal is the confluence of changing monsoon climates and rapid urbanisation in South Asia, focused on 3 cities, Chennia, Delhi and Dhaka. This has resulted in accelerating rates of stress, such as flooding, disease and water shortages for urban residents, particularly the urban poor, and climate models predict that extreme precipitation events and weak monsoons are very likely to increase across the 21st C.

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Responses to these challenges come from all sectors of society. In the disciplinary fields my proposal brings together, state of the art is the work of political ecologists Gandy, Kaika and Swyngedouw and the spatial design practice of Mathur and da Cunha, Turpin and Holderness, amongst others. Monsoon Assemblages will construct a new team from these two disciplinary clusters, around the novel concept of climate change design, with a methodological focus on assemblage theory, vital materialism and computational design. I am not aware that this has been attempted before.

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I am uniquely positioned to lead this unprecedented project. I was awarded a DSc.Arch in 2009 after a career break in city government and academic administration. I bring an extensive track record of independent thinking and achievements beyond the state of the art to the project. This includes my award-winning book on Johannesburg, my creative, interdisciplinary research on the Indian Ocean, and my acclaimed experimental design studios. The proposal will bring together the urban and the oceanic, the analytical and the speculative, and the teaching and research aspects of my work together in a highly original way.

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The premise of the proposal is that extreme monsoons events are not natural disasters, but disasters by design. They are consequences of the ways in which urbanisation has altered people’s relations with urban water. It these relations that the project will research, analyse, and through design, recompose, around the operative concept of Monsoon Assemblages.

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To undertake this ambitious project, I have designed a rigorous, interdisciplinary methodology to analyse how the monsoon enters the fabric of socio-political life in the city and how human relations with the monsoon are imagined and practiced. To do this, key members of stakeholder communities will be identified in each city through existing institutional arrangements. Monsoon related risks and hazards will be identified and how they are produced, experienced and managed analysed. Computational design techniques will be introduced into this analysis and used as tools to shift urban imaginaries and reshape urban practices. On-going documentation will provide evidence of the difficulties encountered and the agendas opened by the process.

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I will lead the project team, which will comprise two post-docs and two PhD researchers, one from each disciplinary cluster, and an administrator on a 50% contract. One of the unique aspects of the project will be the alignment of my Master of Architecture level design studio with the project for three years. This will serve as a way of testing and evaluating the design methodologies the research team will develop. The project team will be guided by an international advisory group with whom it will meet formally once a year. The project is well located at the University of Westminster in that ties in with a number of existing research initiatives and is actively supported by its Vice Chancellor who is President of the British Hydrological Society.

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The research will be structured into five annual work packages, each with culminating events and outputs. In Year 1, literature and computational tools will be reviewed, data sourced and research methodologies tested; the first design studio will be conducted and the phd students will be registered. In year two, fieldwork will be conducted in one of the cities and research, analysis and design piloted. After evaluation and adjustment, this will be rolled out in in the other two cities in years three and four. The first three years will conclude with research symposia and published proceedings. After year 4, the project will be presented at stakeholder workshops in each city. During year 5 it will be evaluated at a scientific conference in London, accompanied by an exhibition and a book and its proceedings will be published.

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The project will deliver cutting edge, interdisciplinary analysis of how human relations with the monsoon have been disrupted in three cities and ground breaking, computationally driven design proposals to reimagine and reconfigure these. On-going engagement with key members of stake-holder communities will test these and contribute to policy-making at local levels. The new international research network created by the projects’ activities will become the foundation for setting up a Monsoon Assemblages Research Unit. In the longer term I intend to apply for funding to consolidate and extend the approach of climate change design, initiated by this research project, to other cities in the global monsoon world.

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