The value of unconventional approaches to design

Systemic vision, knowledge exchange and resilience

In February and March 2018, Contemporary Urban, the creative architecture, landscape and design workshop founded by Mauro Panigo and Alberto Zavatta, hosted the cultural review Shaping The Unconventional – testimonies from representatives of culture and society able to inspire and orientate ways of doing, behaving, working and living urban spaces and cities with post-modern, unconventional approaches. Fourteen people from architecture and engineering, finance and culture, research and communication shared their points of view with the public on a provocative topic (How can ‘being unconventional’ be a differentiating factor and generator of new areas of thought and action?).

Mauro Panigo’s interview of Stefano Susani, AD of NET Engineering, can be found below. The discussion centres on the mobility of the future, sharing mobility and the sustainability of transport and then closes with a reflection on a recent, alternative approach which takes a systemic look at infrastructure design and makes resilience one of its guiding principles.

M. Panigo: Stefano, it’s a great pleasure to meet you at Contemporary Urban for Shaping The Unconventional. What does being at the helm of a group that creates and constructs mobility projects integrated with the environment and area mean today? What are the new transport development models able to innovate our society, land and towns?
S. Susani: There’s a truly radical change taking place in mobility. We talk about a mobility ecosystem because it’s no longer simply a company or a technological context but an ecosystem with our way of living, producing and interacting within it. The changes have been around some particular elements; the first, digitalisation, can be seen by everyone. The user has become the centre of mobility and this makes an enormous difference because, before, the user was transported, now he decides where to go. This is a significant difference made possible by digital technology, the use of smartphones and the platforms that have changed the passenger’s approach to the travel experience. However, there’s also been a significant change from the technological point of view because we no longer just talk generally of mobility. The technology that is changing the way of driving a car, for example. The increasing integration that there must be between road and rail, apparently two banal words with two completely different transport management systems behind them, is also generating interesting transformations in Italy. There’s been a regulatory revolution in all regions which have led to mobility agencies at the centre of integration between road and rail. Just think of the transformation taking place in the State Railways Group, which is integrating the whole mobility system. And that’s exactly what’s required.

MP: Contemporary Urban is a multidisciplinary platform that unites professions and heterogeneous views of the world, integrating them and trying to network and create skill sharing. How do the system engineering for infrastructure and research method of NET Engineering relate to an approach centred on the exchange of knowledge and ‘know-how’?
SS: In the last two years, we’ve introduced a revolution in our way of designing, generating the project and offering it to the customer that sets out the use of the now well-known Building Information Modelling (BIM). We use an approach in line with the latest philosophical interpretation of BIM that sees the tool not just as a three-dimensional design but also as an information management process that starts from the conception of the infrastructure and goes through to the management of the asset. Thus, there is information management from the time that I design and conceive the infrastructure as I start to collect all the elements that are also needed to manage it, maintain it and, if necessary, relaunch it when it has to be rethought after its life cycle of 50-60 years. So BIM doesn’t just help us design but also gives the customer an ideal server with the project that contains all the information concerning that infrastructure.
We’ve also embraced the framing systems like Envision, launched by Harvard University a couple of years ago. This is holistic framing of the project that forces us to look at all the disciplinary components together and, where we can’t do this by ourselves, in partnerships. This has changed our method of approach to the project.

MP: You’re concerned with slow mobility, green mobility, and sharing methods of transport with your team of professionals. From your privileged observation point, how do you think that energy, environment and urban and mass transport can have a non-conflictual discussion?
SS: This is the key to the evolution of the infrastructure project so it’s an essential aspect because there’s no longer any sense in looking at it without thinking about the flows behind it. The infrastructure is overtaken by the person using it and, if you look at it as a flow, you have to see it as a flow of energy, people and sustainable integration with the area. The word sustainability has been abused and mistreated for many years but it’s a very deep concept that requires the three dimensions of sociability, the economy and the environment to be put together and integrated. From the operational point of view, there are now tools that force us to see the project from the point of view of energy consumption and use of resources, and this obliges us to consider the scarcity of those resources, such as land or water, and so suggest solutions that try to resolve this conflict.

MP: Will the new NET Engineering International course embrace ’unconventional’ approaches and methods? In other words, what’s your view and that of the company on ‘Shaping the Unconventional’?
SS: Being able to look at things systemically and not in detail makes the difference between a project and a little analysis. What I find in Contemporary Urban is the ambition to look at the systemic aspect of the project and not just the architecture or particularist ones, and this is essential. Recently, we’ve embraced a concept called resilience which has become fundamental. It means looking at the ecosystem trying to ensure its ability to respond to unexpected events at the time when it’s changed by the construction of new infrastructure. The classic example made in these terms is to think of an earthquake. If the earthquake strikes a non-resilient context, it generates devastation which is difficult to recover. If an earthquake strikes areas or countries that are organised differently, such as Japan, the impact is notably reduced.
So how is resilience achieved? Resilience comes from thinking multi-systemically, i.e. looking at things on two different scales. I have to think of my context looking at it on a larger and a smaller scale, making them work together; it means favouring the diversity that ecosystems typically have within them, promoting multiple approaches and points of view; it also means intermodality because a resilient approach brings all the systems together instead of working on each of them.
And then I also like the aspect of the polycentric nature of governance, an approach that sets out teams with many different skills centres that meet together in a flexible and creative way from project to project. That’s resilience.

Stefano Susani

CEO of NET Engineering International S.p.A. and Managing Director of NET Engineering S.p.A.