Tagged : questions

Juan Enriquez - Ted lecture - Genomics

Mr. Gene: Juan Enriquez

What happens when we’re capable of copying nature and create life ourselves? Or what if we can fix everything that’s wrong with us, thus create the perfect human being? And what if all food we eat would be perfect? These questions, and some more, popped into my mind after yesterday’s lecture by Harvard fellow Juan Enriquez, which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend.

Juan Enriquez is recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on the economic and political impacts of life sciences (yep, that’s a mouthful). In short, he knows a lot about economy and genes. And he’s quite famous. I mean, this guy teaches at Harvard and spoke at TED four times, his talks have been watched by millions of people… Nonetheless, I didn’t know this guy at all. Until today.

Animals, tomatoes, car fuel

Juan Enriquez spoke about how bio-science begins to affect the way we live, work and do business. As an example, I already knew scientists are able to clone animals and genetically enhance food like tomatoes. But did you know scientists are already capable of growing their own liquid car fuel by using gene-technology?

In short, you’d buy a single bag of liquid gen-enhanced fuel. Then, this liquid multiplies and multiplies again, which goes on and on for ever. There’s no need to buy fuel anymore. Anyone can grow their own unlimited supply of fuel, which will dramatically change the entire oil industry (thus the world economic and political stability) in a single day. Do we still need the Persian Gulf? What happens to Russia’s economy? What are the (positive?) impacts for the environment? What happens when millions of oil-related jobs disappear?

This example makes it obvious that gene-technology could have a huge impact on our lives.

Grow your own teeth

Something unrelated to car fuel, but still a game changer; Juan Enriquez told us about growing teeth. We’re not born with teeth (which our mothers should be grateful to). Instead, while being a child, somehow teeth grow. Then, they fall out and grow again. But why can our teeth only grow two times? What if, by using gene-technology, we can grow our teeth a third and perhaps even fourth time? No more false teeth, but instead we all have the ‘real’ deal. This will change the entire dental industry for sure.

Juan told us another interesting development. As it turns out, scientists found a way to store digital data in living cells. I really don’t know how this works. But it’s fascinating for sure.

Should we try to copy nature?

After Juan Enriquez’ lecture, I wonder… Should we try to copy nature? Should we cure every incurable disease we know? Do we really need perfect teeth? Is the gen-perfected tomato that much better compared to an old fashioned tomato? And, what if everything else we eat would be perfect as well? Would that really increase our happiness and improve our way of life? Or is this just a way to make things more perfect, which enables us to control even more aspects of our own lives? After all, humans love to be in full control (and I’m no exception). On the other hand, no more diseases and an unlimited supply of car fuel. How cool is that?!

Truth to be told, I don’t know what to think of this gene-development. For now, let’s just say I had a fascinating lecture and lots to think about.

A new capital for Australia, part 1

A while ago, a friend and I participated in an international architecture competition. The task: Design a new capital for Australia. Unfortunately, we didn’t win (oh well, it was a longshot anyway). Nonetheless, I’d like to share our thoughts about this new capital with you.

Why does Canberra look the way it does?

It’s not that hard to figure out which factors influenced the 1912 design of Canberra. Old design documents mention the capital should “suggest grandeur” and “effectively symbolize a national capital”. Which makes sense. After all, back in 1912 Australia was a new country with little to no history (apart from the Aboriginals). They were in need of something that would unify them. A capital possibly?

The leaders of Australia hoped their new country would be a perfect democracy, a perfect country. They tried to reflect this on the nations capital, because this city could be the symbol for their new nation. This is exactly why Canberra is a perfect master planned city with plenty of parks and lots of public services. Ironically, because of its master planned characteristics, many Australians view their capital as a city unlike the rest of Australia. This is something which could be fixed with a new capital.

Does Australia need a new capital?

Tthe not-so-good feeling many Aussies have about Canberra doesn’t justify a new capital. Instead, there’re more compelling reasons, like the rise of the Internet, global warming, terrorist attacks and a global economic crisis. These are factors which influence our daily lives in a big way and couldn’t be more different than a hundred years ago (when Canberra was founded). This new reality brings new challenges and prompts questions like:

– Can Canberra be transparant and terror-proof at the same time?

– What does the rise of the Internet mean for government?

– Government grows bigger, while individualism is on the rise. How can a capital bridge this ever growing gap between individuals and the (mega) government?

In a way, the current Australian capital represents the old (check out the Canberra mega parliament building below). But times have changed. This all leads to a single question: Is a conventional capital like Canberra even capable of fulfilling her duties in this modern age? One could argue that a new capital is needed to represent the new and modern Australia.

What is a capital

OK, so we might need a new capital (without the need for a new capital, there wouldn’t be an architecture competition anyway). But what’s a capital exactly? In my view, a capital is just a city… a place where a lot of people live, work, study and relax. But there’s one major difference between a capital and any other city. The capital is a symbol. A symbol of power and, for western countries, democracy. It’s the symbol for what a country is or wants to be. For western countries, this symbol is embodied by a parliament building, a home for democracy. Since Australia is a democracy, a parliament building should be the centerpiece of this new capital as well.

But this home for democracy can be more than ‘just a building’. It’s much more powerful when it embodies the era in which it’s built. Which is true for buildings like the US Capitol and the German Reichstag.

US Capitol (1811)

This parliament building embodies the era of democracy, which started just after the US became independent from Britain. Democracy is the reason why the US Capitol is built on a hill in the exact center of the city, thus visible throughout Washington DC. It shows everyone that the people are in power. Which is also why the US Capitol is much bigger than the White House, residence of its head of state (bigger = more power). Until then, this was something unheard of in other western countries. It’s not surprising why people regard the US Capitol to be a symbol of democracy.

Reichstag (1999)

The historic Reichstag with its new glass dome symbolizes the era of unity, and not just for Germany. Instead, it symbolizes the unity of the entire western world. Inside, graffiti from both Nazi and Communist soldiers is preserved, thus reminding everyone Germany won’t forget its history. The glass dome, which tops the Reichstag symbolizes the long wished for transparency of government. And, not coincidentally, it was designed by a British (!) architect, Sir Norman Foster.

These two examples illustrate the era’s in which these parliament buildings were built. Currently, we live in the era of the Internet, which changed everything we know, including politics. Which prompts the question: Why not create a parliament building which symbolizes this era?

Where should the capital be located?

Well, that leaves us with one final important issue. Where to locate this new capital? That’s a tough nut to crack, since the size of Australia’s land surface is incredible. Still, the country is one of the most urbanized in the entire world. An incredible half of the population lives in just four (!) cities. Let me repeat that: Half the population lives in four cities! For the new capital, this could be an ideal situation. Why not situate the capital near these four cities, which allows the city to serve at least half of the countries population. And it’s easily doable, since there’s only 4000 kilometers separating some of these cities… hold on… did you say 4000 kilometers?

I guess that’s not gonna work.

Another option is to locate the capital in the exact middle of the country (near Alice Springs). However, this results in a natural barrier of thousands of kilometers for almost the entire population. That’s no good as well.

Let’s go unconventional

Apart from the everything mentioned above, constructing a new capital involves more than just erecting a parliament building. For a new, conventional, capital, an entire ecosystem of houses, offices, stores, entertainment and public services is needed. It takes some time to build, but ultimately this new city won’t be that different than Canberra. No problems will be solved, but a lot of money is wasted.

This is why we believe a conventional capital is not an option. Let’s go unconventional.

End of part one.

History, we know, is apt to repeat itself

Why does history continue to repeat itself? And, more importantly, why don’t we learn from the past to solve our current and future problems? It’s a question I ask myself regularly but find impossible to answer.

I wrote about putting the fun back into shopping and the end of the nightclub. In both cases history could solve a problem because it already happened in the past. Nonetheless, most people (in these cases retailers and nightclub owners) fail to learn from the past. They don’t see the solution, lack courage for big changes or hope their businesses won’t be affect by, let’s say, the rise of the Internet and/or economic crisis.

Even though I know (or believe) history repeats itself, I find it surprising to read articles which date back many years, but could be written today. Here’s an example. A couple of days ago I studied the phenomenon Niketown. At a certain moment, I came across an article describing the courage Nike had to open stores during a crisis. But the author wasn’t describing today’s economic crisis. He wrote the article twenty years ago. Nonetheless, the article remains so true, even today.

Because of the many similarities between their (Niketown) situation and the situation many retailers find themselves currently in, I want to share this 1992 article from CNN Money. It’s an interesting read. And pay attention to the last paragraph. Recently, a Dutch newspaper wrote about smaller Dutch cities having trouble attracting (a large number of) shoppers. Nike shows it’s possible to attract large numbers of shoppers despite being located in a ‘remote’ or ‘less-important’ city, in their case Portland.

Nike, it seems, is on to something. ”Today’s shoppers want to be entertained,” reports Madison Riley, a retail specialist for Atlanta-based management consultants Kurt Salmon Associates. ”Niketown is theater,” says Riley, ”and for retailers, that’s a key to the future.” Niketown is putting the fun back into shopping, and that, along with a commitment to first-rate service, is why it is our [CNN Money] Store of the Year.

Nike is bold in its timing and almost unique in its positioning: it has launched the store while the retail industry is faltering — U.S. retail sales have fallen from $186 a square foot in 1980 to $161 today — and showing no signs of rebounding. Most other retailers are offering consumers no-frills, find-it- yourself outlets or lookalike, cavernous concrete warehouse clubs. As with most fancy packages, though, this one carries a pretty price.

While athletic shoes and gear are widely discounted elsewhere, Niketown customers always pay full retail price. Nothing goes on sale — ever. Niketown is designed to dazzle you into paying $100 or so for athletic shoes, $120 for a nylon running jacket and $500 or more for a total ensemble that puts you in matching socks, pants, top and sweatband. ”Niketown combines the fun of Disneyland, the museum quality of the Smithsonian and the merchandising of Ralph Lauren,” announces Gordon Thompson, the store’s 31-year-old designer, who also worked on set ideas for the 1989 movie Back to the Future II.

There are signs that other retailers are following Nike’s lead. For example, outside Minneapolis, real estate developer Melvin Simon is building what will be the biggest shopping mall in the world — a combination entertainment and shopping center dubbed the Mall of America. Simon is betting that millions of shoppers every year will be pulled in by the pizazz.

Niketown’s popularity has been overwhelming, especially considering its location. ”Portland is not exactly the crossroads of the retail world,” quips Nike chairman and founder Philip Knight, 53. In the year since the store opened, an estimated 1 million people have shopped there.

You can read the entire article here.

Coop Himmelb(l)au Q/A part 2

Currently, Coop Himmelb(l)au is one of the most frequently used search terms to find this website. So it’s no surprise to me people want to learn more about this Vienna based architecture company. Back in July, I answered several questions about this internship at CHBL. Today, it’s time for part two. This time I’ll answer Antonio’s questions (which I received via email).

What are tasks interns usually do?

This totally depends on the team and status of the project. If you work on competitions a lot, this could involve model making. In my case, I worked on a project which was in the preliminary phase. So I made many diagrams, presentation books, et cetera. In other teams, the tasks can be more technical. Coop Himmelb(l)au assigns you to a team based on your own experiences/qualities and the job interview you (probably) had.

Were there many interns and young people besides you?

Yep. Coop Himmelb(l)au hires many young people. When I was in Vienna, I joined a group of interns who usually teamed up for lunch and/or spend evenings together.

What was the most remarkable thing that happened during your internship?

Hehe, good question. This probably is the evening we had an important deadline. We worked with about six people on a design which had to bee finished before 8AM (yep, 8AM, not PM). Halfway through the evening Wolf Prix joined us. Although he spoke German the entire time, I understood everything he said. Which surprised me, since I’m not so fluent in German. After a while, he made a joke so I joked back… in German. He looked at me… and asked an architect who I was. She told him I was an intern from the Netherlands. After which he spoke to me in a language I didn’t understand. It sounded a lot like German, but it just wasn’t. And he left. So I asked the architect what Wolf Prix said. She told me he imitated my Dutch accent by speaking weird German…

How many hours did you usually work during a typical day?

In the example described above, I worked from 8AM to 3AM the following day (so 19 hours in total). But that only happened once. Mostly I arrived at 9AM and worked until 7 or 8PM.

Are they flexible in general? I mean, decisions, schedules, etc…

You can do many things besides your daily tasks. And the office/team can be very flexible… As long as you meet your deadlines. Sometimes the partner-in-charge has a meeting with a client (which mostly happens abroad, since it’s a very international company). In my case, the main architect was in Azerbaijan a lot. During those days our team played catch-up or relaxed a bit. After two or three of those days, the architect would return. And with him, many new tasks and project changes we had to take care of.

What was the best experience you could say that you got from here?

I did several internships in the past. Each of those internships differed completely from this one. Why? It’s the size of the company (about 150 employees), the number and size of projects abroad and their own invented architecture style (Deconstructivism). Also the fact that founder Wolf D. Prix still works at this company adds something special to the experience (as described above). And perhaps I should mention Vienna is a beautiful city and great to live in. But this all gets trumped by the people. Imagine 150 creative people trying to design the most awesome, craziest and sometimes weirdest projects possible. In my first week, I met people from Germany, the USA, Azerbaijan, Greece, Turkey, Britain, China, Denmark, Portugal, Spain… should I go on? It took me several days to meet the first native Austrian employee… So meeting all those people with completely different backgrounds and learn from them (while having fun) was the best experience I got!


Coop Himmelb(l)au Q/A

Sometimes readers of this blog ask questions about previous blog posts and my previous experiences. This time it’s a question about me being an intern at Vienna based architecture firm Coop Himmelb(l)au. I could answer the inquirer by email, but by answering his questions on this blog I might help other people. Here’s our Q/A…

How’s the experience?

In one word: Fantastic! In the past I worked for several architecture firms. But non of them employed over 150 employees (which is pretty big for an architecture firm!). And none of them had projects all over the world (ranging from the United States to China and from Azerbaijan to Albania). Also the fact that one of the founders, Wolf D. Prix, still works at this company adds something special to the experience. Wether you’d agree with his design philosophies or not, it is awesome to learn (first hand) from such a worldwide renowned architect! And to quote a colleague: “It is fantastic to work for a company who invented their own architecture style”. And this is actually true (check Wikipedia!).

How’s the work environment?

Very special. Each project will comprise a small team of 5-10 people. Within such a team you’ll make friends really soon. Since stakes are high, people sometimes often make long days, but are thoroughly motivated. This adds to the ‘energy’ inside the office. There are models, concept renderings and drawings all over the place!

What kind of projects did you work on?

Big projects! That’s all I can say. I’m sorry! Everyone working with Coop Himmelb(l)au has to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Since my projects aren’t even mentioned on their website (or anywhere else on the web), I’m not allowed to tell you a single thing about the projects I worked on.

What software did you use?

AutoCAD and Rhino for the 2D and 3D drawings. Also I used Photoshop and InDesign a lot.

To conclude: Perhaps the best thing at doing an internship at this (or probably any other) company is you’ll get the chance to meet so many interesting and fascinating people. And you’ll work on fascinating projects worldwide, while you live and work in the old and classic city of Vienna.