Author: Charlotte Edmond, Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
The vast majority of us own a smartphone – and inside each one are metals and minerals that could help the environment.
This is an example of urban mining -.the practice of extracting materials from waste – which is a key part of the circular economy.
Other materials that could be saved from landfill and incineration include waste from demolition and construction.
The number of smartphones in use hit 6.6 billion in 2022. That means the vast majority of the world now owns one. And inside each of those phones is a pinch of multiple different metals and minerals, some of which are rarer and harder and more damaging to extract than others.
But each of these phones also has a limited life – how many people have an old device sitting unused in a drawer somewhere? One piece of research estimates that there are around 7 million unused phones in Switzerland alone, with $10 million worth of embedded gold in them.
It is exactly issues like these that make it so important we get an urban mining system up and running in a sustainable and cost-effective way.
What is urban mining?
Urban mining is the idea of extracting valuable materials from waste, much of which would otherwise go to landfill or incineration. This can include common metals and plastics as well as rarer but valuable elements.
Urban mining allows us to salvage materials of which there is a finite supply, and limits the environmental impact of their disposal. Crucially, it also avoids extraction of additional materials, which damages ecosystems and can cause pollution, among other things.
It forms a key part of the circular economy, which promotes a more sustainable use of resources by keeping them in use for as long as possible.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?
Electronic waste (e-waste) like phones is a prime candidate for urban mining, where products cannot otherwise be repaired.
There are a growing number of companies which offer to buy back and resell unwanted devices, as well as a wave of repair cafes emerging. But these devices are still not routinely considered an economically viable secondary source of materials like gold, silver, copper, lithium, or cobalt.
Once you factor in the environmental costs of extracting these materials, however, the scales tip in favour of urban mining, research suggests. Many of the participants in the Swiss phone study mentioned above said they would be willing to sell their old phone for less than $5. The market value of the metals within them is under $2, but when you factor in the external costs of extraction the cost of the materials is around $18.
Today, the role of an architect extends far beyond creating aesthetically pleasing structures. They are at the forefront of the green building movement, integrating sustainable materials and energy-efficient designs into their projects. Rather than contributing to urban sprawl, they are repurposing existing structures for new functions, minimising the need for additional resources and energy. What’s more profound is that they are contributing to the development of sustainable cities — prioritising pedestrian-friendly designs, green spaces that boost well-being and ensuring efficient public transportation.
Hence why beyond the conventional confines of design and aesthetics, architecture degrees are fast becoming catalysts for change. These are more than just paper qualifications but a crucial means to solving complex problems that span everything from environmental sustainability to social inclusivity.
The architects these universities aim to produce go beyond the traditional boundaries of their profession, recognising the interconnectedness of the built environment with broader societal and environmental issues. Armed with a holistic understanding of the world’s challenges, graduates from these institutions are poised to revolutionise the way we build, live, and interact with our environment.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Situated in a globally influential Bi-city region, the School of Architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) offers students the chance to explore the socio-spatial challenges of a rapidly transforming urban landscape of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. From dense high-rise districts to tropical country parks, over 200 islands, and heritage sites, this is a vast living laboratory of diverse architectural contexts.
CUHK’s MArch is the second part of a two-degree sequence in professional architectural education. Source: The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Location aside, the school also stands out for its dedicated infrastructure. Housed within CUHK’s expansive, green 138.4-hectare campus, it is the only division of its kind in Hong Kong with a purpose-designed building solely devoted to the study of architecture — the 7,700-square metre facility provides students with unlimited access to state-of-the-art resources and a conducive environment for an impactful education. The school operates within the Faculty of Social Science and is uniquely positioned to address issues of Asian urbanism, drawing students passionate about driving social and environmental change.
For aspiring undergraduates, the Bachelor of Social Science (Architectural Studies) provides a solid foundation, instilling creative skills for crafting solutions that seamlessly blend cultural nuances, physical contexts, and cutting-edge environmental technologies. It’s an effective pathway to the School of Architecture’s accredited Master of Architecture (MArch), which prepares students for advanced research, design thinking and speculative spatial practices. Its aim is to evolve learners into leading architects at the heart of social, urban and rural innovation to create solutions for environmental challenges. The Master of Science in Urban Design is just as impactful, a gateway to mastering the art and science of creating vibrant, sustainable, and socially just cities.
All three programmes are accredited by local and international professional institutions. In true CUHK fashion, all three programmes emphasise small group settings, community engagement, and close ties to the booming industry of architecture, offering students unparalleled opportunities for professional and personal growth.
Students at the Department of Architecture in ETH Zürich (D-ARCH) in Switzerland are designing for a different world. Guided by high-quality teaching and informed by research, they are exploring the issues of future cities, energy, climate change and sustainability – and putting their own stamp on them.
The Department of Architecture of ETH Zürich is currently home to 2,120 students. Source: ETH Zürich
Faculty here are diverse and highly skilled, with expertise ranging from the development of new construction systems to conservation, from the use of robotics to historiography and sociology. Working in close proximity with students and with the protection of academic freedom, they encourage students in both bachelor’s and master’s programmes to join the search for creative solutions in the field of tension between construction, the satisfaction of living and working needs and the preservation of a livable, designed environment.
The institutes of D-ARCH are: Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (GTA), the Institute of Technology in Architecture (ITA), the Institute of Historic Building Research and Conservation (IDB) and the Institute of Landscape and Urban Studies (LUS). Within each lies many opportunities to excel in teaching, learning and research.
Each is closely linked with the design studios through the interdisciplinary definition of task, with research findings funnelled into teaching. Further collaboration with other divisions of ETH Zurich – such as the humanities, social and political sciences, as well as the material, environmental and engineering sciences – complement this.
The University of Melbourne
Located in Australia, The University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning is producing the next generation of architects through a multidisciplinary approach that allows them to become innovative leaders in the field.
The Faculty’s multidisciplinary approach prepares students to advance into the world as leading, adaptable professionals in their fields. Source: The University of Melbourne
For example, Bachelor of Design students are given the flexibility to combine in-depth study in a particular area with subjects from other disciplines in design. Master’s programmes equip students with knowledge across a wide range of disciplines and practical learning opportunities to apply real-world knowledge.
The faculty also has a strong international reputation for graduate research, where students and professors focus on the latest debates and engage with industry professionals, policy-makers and the community in analysing and solving complex problems in architecture.
The National University of Singapore (NUS) is a leading global university based in Asia, powered by a mission “to transform the way people think and do things through education, research and service.”
In the QS World University Rankings 2023, the NUS Department of Built Environment is ranked seventh. Source: National University of Singapore/Facebook
Its School of Design and Environment (SDE) stands apart with its diverse offerings in two departments — Architecture and the Built Environment — and one division — Industrial Design. Since its inception, SDE has remained the sole faculty in Singapore to provide a comprehensive and integrated approach to teaching and research across various disciplines, including architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and design, project and facilities management, building performance and sustainability, as well as industrial design.
“We provide world-class multi-disciplinary graduate-level courses and research programmes related to design and the built environment,” says Professor Wong Nyuk Hien, Vice Dean (Research), School of Design and Environment.
The conflict began in the early morning of October 7 2023 when armed Hamas fighters launched a surprise attack against Israel, killing at least 1,400 Israelis and taking more than 200 civilians hostage.
Israel responded to this attack by launching an assault on Gaza beginning with a relentless aerial bombardment and continuing now with a ground offensive. According to the Gaza health ministry, at least 10,000 people – mainly civilians – have been killed in Gaza in the month since the conflict began, including 4,100 children.
A further 25,000 people have been injured and hundreds of thousands have been displaced within the Gaza Strip, unable to leave because of the blockade imposed by Israel.
Israel’s massive bombing campaign has unsurprisingly led to a disastrous humanitarian situation. The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, has described the situation in Gaza as a “godawful nightmare”.
This has led the UN and other countries to pressure Israel for a “pause” in the fighting to at least provide temporary humanitarian relief to the people of Gaza.
A number of resolutions calling for a ceasefire or some form of truce have been raised in the UN security council, but on each occasion they have been vetoed by one or more of the permanent members. A non-binding resolution passed the UN general assembly on October 27, but this has been ignored by the Israeli government.
A humanitarian pause
Gaza has no access to basic humanitarian aid due to the siege and blockade that Israel has inflicted on the strip. Even before the beginning of the war, Gaza had been subject to a 16-year blockade after Hamas took political control of the strip in June 2007.
After the October 7 Hamas attack, the Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” on Gaza, which included cutting off supplies of electricity, food, water and gas. These shortages have put the country’s health system at risk – hospitals are now being run on power from electric generators and with severe shortages of vital medical supplies.
According to the UN, a humanitarian pause is defined as “a temporary cessation of hostilities purely for humanitarian purposes”. It is carried out for a certain period of time and in a specific geographic location.
The pause allows civilians trapped in conflict areas to safely flee, access assistance or receive medical treatment. It also enables the passage of essential supplies such as food, fuel and medicines.
An ambulance carries an injured Palestinian evacuee to a hostpial in Egypt after passing the Rafah crossing from Gaza, November 1. EPA-EFE/Khaled Elfiqi
Nonetheless, some argue that using a humanitarian pause to provide a temporary halt in the bombing of Gaza is not enough. In a report calling for a general ceasefire, Oxfam said its experience is that such pauses can even put civilians at a greater risk, as there is usually less clarity involved about safe zones and the duration of pauses.
“Rumours and misinformation spreads that this road or that ‘safe zone’ has been declared a demilitarised area, but that is often not true, leaving people walking into a warzone believing it is safe,” the report said. At the beginning of the war, routes that were thought to have been designated safe passages for evacuation from Gaza were bombed.
As a result, the only true humanitarian solution that appears ideal is a complete ceasefire.
A ceasefire: roadmap for an end to hostilities
A ceasefire is a political process rather than simply a humanitarian one. It urges parties to come together to find a political solution to the conflict.
It is meant to a be a longer-term process than a “pause” and should apply to the entire geographical area of the conflict. In this case, it would mean the whole of Gaza strip but also all others affected by the conflict such as the south of Lebanon where Israeli troops are battling with Hezbollah.
In the context of Gaza, a ceasefire would mean a complete stop of fighting on all sides, and the eventual release or exchange of hostages. It would not only mean the end of the bombardment of Gaza, but would also obligate Hamas to stop its attacks on Israel.
It is important to note that, like a pause, a ceasefire is not a permanent peace agreement. That said, the aim would be to create the conditions for a permanent settlement.
Meanwhile, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza continues. AP Photo/Hatem Ali
Reaching a ceasefire would likely require the involvement of a third party mediator, such as the US, Qatar or Iran.
In the previous Hamas-Israel war in 2021, both parties eventually managed to reach a ceasefire after 11 days of destruction which left more than 200 people dead. In that conflict, Egypt played a major role as a mediator.
Since the latest conflict began on October 7, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has resisted all calls for a humanitarian pause and a ceasefire.
But the US and other allies of Israel continue to press Netanyahu for at least a pause in Israel’s assault. He insists that while “little pauses” might be arranged to allow for the exit of hostages or to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid, a longer halt in hostilities is not possible until all hostages taken by Hamas are released. And so the killing continues
Since the beginning of civilization, buildings have served as humanity’s stamp on time. From Neanderthal caves and exquisite hammams, to the boundary-pushing buildings in the Middle East, architectural innovations capture the zeitgeist; embodying the hopes and ambitions of the moment as well as the underlying technological prowess that points to the future of our built environment.
Backed by a searing ambition to fashion a new image for the region (and in many cases, funded by the deep pockets of sovereign funds), buildings in the Middle East have, in the past 15 years, achieved the impossible: They have quite simply raised the bar for architectural and structural innovation around the world. The journey hasn’t been without criticism: design purists have nicknamed region an architect’s Disneyland and eyebrows have been raised about the Middle East ‘buying’ design cred. And whilst that is true to a certain extent, it is also offering designers from around the world the infrastructure – and the funding – to imagine future icons.
“The Human Right to the Environment affirms the right to life itself. When humans protect nature, they are also securing human health and wellbeing.” An article by eminent environmental lawyer Prof. Nicholas A. Robinson sees the recognition of the Human Right to the Environment (HRE) as a first step in a long process of restoring a healthy environment for people and the planet.
Professor Robinson’s article is published in a special issue of the Journal of Environmental Policy and Law on The Human Right to Sustainable Environment. In the preface Editor-in-Chief Bharat H. Desai, PhD, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Centre for International Legal Studies, stresses the essentiality of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, the importance of which is increasingly evident in the wake of the Political Declaration adopted at the SDG Summit (New York: September 18-19, 2023). This called to “act with urgency to realize its vision as a plan of action for people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership, leaving no one behind. We will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.”
“The progressive attainment of Sustainable Development Goals will require investments of time and effort beyond the target date of 2030, but momentum has begun and can be sustained,” according to Prof. Robinson, JD, Executive Governor, International Council of Environmental Law, Kerlin Professor of Environmental Law Emeritus, at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law of Pace University.
Prof. Robinson continues: “These past 50 years, virtually all states have neglected to enforce their environmental statutes. Scientific studies confirm that harm to public health and natural systems has escalated during this time. The right to the environment will breathe rigor into the governmental enforcement of environmental protection norms. This will not be easy, as business as usual and inertia retard change. It is past time for making peace with nature.”
When the United Nations General Assembly adopted its landmark Resolution A/76/300 on July 28, 2022, entitled “The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment,” a new human rights framework was launched. The UN Environment Program described environmental crises of climate change, biological diversity loss, and escalating pollution of the planet as the triple threat to human civilization, calling upon all states to “make peace with nature.”
The human right “to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” is already being implemented. The UN General Assembly recognized that this right is related to other rights and international law, and that the vast majority of states have already incorporated the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment into their national laws. However, in most countries this basic right is not yet being enforced in courts. The UN General Assembly urged international organizations, commercial enterprises, and all relevant stakeholders to share best practices and further build capacity “to share good practices in order to scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all.”
The article in Environmental Policy and Law highlights one such example of international collaboration: the Global Judicial Institute on the Environment (GJIE), which is an independent association of judges launched in 2016 with the assistance of the World Commission on Environmental Law of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the UN Environment Programme. Not all countries have judicial institutions to provide continuing judicial education of judges and court personnel. There is no inter-governmental international service to assist courts. GJIE is a network by judges for judges, filling this gap in international cooperation.
The addition of the “Green Amendment” to the New York Bill of Rights and its implications are also highlighted in the article. New York’s Constitutional Bill of Rights now guarantees the liberty that “each person shall have a right to clean air and water and a healthful environment.” In the first year under the new Bill of Rights provision, there are now four lawsuits pending in New York courts.
Prof. Robinson elaborates: “Campaigning to secure adoption of the ‘Green Amendment’ in New York took more than 15 years. Inertia is a powerful force, and governmental frameworks tend to perpetuate past arrangements. Business as usual is not the status quo, it is regression. Failure across any and all sectors to adapt and embrace the Human Right to the Environment places the life, liberty, and property of each person in jeopardy. Slow reforms themselves are insufficient, in light of the destruction of wildfires, floods, droughts, and heat waves on land and under ocean waters. ‘Scaling up’ requires systemic and profound change. Notwithstanding all their problems, courts are the one authority that can oblige the public and private sectors alike to respect the right to life.”
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Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
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