It’s an essential component of the design process, where spatial ideations are translated into built form – the design of the prototype. Architectural projects, throughout history and in contemporary practice, have been prototyped to carry out both technical and aesthetic tests, where further insight is gained into the integrity of the design. It’s the blurred line between the experimental and the practical.
Antoni Gaudí’s 1:25 and 1:10 scale plaster models of Sagrada Família can be defined as architectural prototypes, and so can the wooden model of Filippo Brunelleschi’s Florence Cathedral dome. But these are investigations conducted on a smaller scale. It can be argued that architectural prototypes are most effective when built out 1:1, from which further architectural interventions based on the prototype have the security of a design attempt that is not a scaled-down version of the finished product.
But the making of these prototypes is a protracted endeavor – necessitating the complex maneuvering of resources, labor, and capital – for a structure that aims to merely lay the foundations for how similar designs should be approached in the future.
When scrutinized from the perspective of the Global South, this dialogue is complicated further – in countries that have been historically over-exploited and are currently under-resourced, are full-scale architectural prototypes wasteful if they don’t immediately function as a working building? Is it right for these prototypes to simply exist as say, explorations of new materials without serving as a structure that will be in constant use from its inception?
In colonial Africa, architectural experimentation was commonplace, from Fry and Drew in West Africa to Guido Ferrazza in Libya. This experimentation included that of French industrial designer and architect Jean Prouvé, who in 1949 developed Maison Tropicales – prefabricated, modular housing prototypes constructed out of aluminum designed to be easily transported, assembled, and disassembled.
The design problem that the Maison Tropicales had to solve was climatic – as France’s African colonies faced a shortage of housing and civic buildings. The prototype was designed for the equatorial climate, including a veranda with an adjustable aluminum sun-screen. Internally, walls were made of a combination of sliding and fixed metal panels – as glass portholes provided protection against UV rays.
But despite this resourceful, ingenious response to the tropical climate, the Maison Tropicale as a prototype failed. It was no less expensive than locally constructed buildings, and the French colonial bureaucrats did not warm to the industrial appearance of the house. The prototype, ultimately, was a colonial project built for French administrators. A prototype built for the colonial class that proved unpopular with them, and that instead of being widely adopted, was resigned to be a traveling object, making frequent appearances in design exhibitions. This prototype of the African Tropics became a design object that to most, was known outside of its intended context.
But contemporary practice in the Global South has offered up more substantial prototypes, where investigations into materials are coupled with substantial usage. Senegalese firm Worofila’s Ecopavillon in Diamniadio, constructed in 2019, is one such example. Commissioned by the Ministry of the Environment of Senegal, it is built with earth and typha – a type of water reed found in the Senegal River. Woven typha panels provide sound insulation, and when mixed with adobe bricks, provide thermal insulation.
As the prototype is part of the Senegalese government’s initiative to build a new city to ease congestion in Dakar, its usage is still in its early stages. The intention, though, is clear. The Ecopavillon will allow the monitoring of how the building’s materials behave, and performance can be assessed. the behavior of materials and to measure the performance of buildings. Furthermore, it can act as a training venue for craftspeople, where local knowledge of energy-efficient materials can be further developed.
The most tangible example of a living prototype in the Global South, however, is arguably found in Bangladesh, in Marina Tabassum Architects’Khudi Bari. It is a modular mobile housing unit, with an area of 128 square feet. Its light footprint and elevated form mimic the architectural vernacular of the Bengal delta, but more pressingly, it responds to climate change.
In an area with high instances of flash flooding, the raised second level acts as shelter for occupants as they await the receding of the water. In the Chars of Bangladesh – low-lying islands naturally formed by silt from rivers – the spaceframe structure is a crucial response, low cost, durable, and easily assembled and disassembled with minimum labor.
The true success of the Khudi Bari project can only be measured by what happens after the housing modules are built. A pilot project initiated by a non-profit organization affiliated with Marina Tabassum Architects in conjunction with private and governmental donors aims to establish at least 80 to 100 “Khudi Bari” modules in the flood-prone communities of Bangladesh by May 2023.
More crucially, March 2021 saw the first three homes built in collaboration with families, with some adapting their modules, with the vision for the future being that people involved in this pilot project will then become part of the training collective as the modules are initiated in other areas.
Perhaps this is how architectural prototypes built in the Global South should function – as bold, inventive assemblages, that are not only for observation and display, but instead examples of architecture that is dynamic, in use, and living.
What is the MENA countries’ Soft Power Ranking? According to the latest Global Soft Power Index 2022, a nation’s ability to influence, whether through attraction or persuasion, the behaviour and preferences of different actors on the international scene, including political regimes, businesses, and communities. That is nowadays labelled “Soft Power.”
So, here is the MENA countries’ soft power ranking
Certain countries of the MENA suffer from a loss of influence on the international stage. They are dangerously retreating in favour of several small countries that manage to acquire a much more powerful brand image.
The assessment of the strength of the national brand is based, among other things, on data from the “Soft Power Index” as compiled by Brand Finance.
Fifty-five thousand people from more than 100 countries were asked about the reputation of countries and their influence on the international scene.
According to Brand Finance, countries with high overall ratings are suitable for investment. They also have an easier time marketing their brands and products.
Founded in 1996, Brand Finance, an accounting firm touted as the world’s leading independent brand valuation and brand strategy consulting group, is present in more than 20 countries and is at the service of Marketing, Finance, Tax & Legal departments as well as Business Leaders. It is the first brand valuation US consultancy to join the International Valuation Standards Council, an independent, not-for-profit, U.S.- incorporated, private sector standards organization headquartered in the United States with its social headquarters in London, United Kingdom.
For several years, the Global Soft Power Index (GSPI) has measured the power and influence of all countries worldwide. For this 2022 edition, Algeria has retreated on the international scene to find itself in the 75th position out of 120 countries.
The GSPI considered Algeria less influential than countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jamaica and Malta.
According to the GSPI, Morocco is considered much more influential, ranking 46th globally. Algeria is also far from being able to compete with Egypt, which ranked first in Africa (31st), followed by South Africa (34th).
In the MENA region, Algeria ranked barely 8th among the 15 listed countries, after the United Arab Emirates (15th globally), Israel (23rd), Saudi Arabia (24th), Egypt (31st), Kuwait (36th), and Morocco (46th). Algeria (75th) is only better than Tunisia (76th).
The GSPI 2022 does, at the same time, not include Mauritania and Libya because of their chronic weaknesses that exclude them from this world ranking of the most influential countries.
The UAE is ranked as the top country in the MENA region in terms of global influence; as a small country of fewer than 10 million people located along the Arabian Gulf, it rose to tenth in this new ranking of 120 countries in the world. The UAE is one of the ten most influential and powerful countries worldwide.
UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 aspires to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. But in Africa, around 600 million people continue to live without access to electricity. Seeking to reach as many of these people as quickly as possible, African governments are signing agreements with foreign firms to deliver off-grid solar products to millions of households.
British firm Bboxx, for example, has an agreement with the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to deliver solar home systems (SHSs) to 10 million citizens by 2024. SHSs consist of one or more panels, usually installed on household roofs, capable of providing up to 300 watts of power. This is sufficient to power laptops, televisions, LED lights, and – in certain models – refrigerators and cooking.
Underpinning this process is the belief that expanded access to off-grid solar can drive economic development by strengthening household income. According to the African Energy Commission, the process will “lift hundreds of millions of people” out of poverty.
Do these claims stand up to interrogation?
Increased income, increased risk
In a recent study, Patrick Lehmann-Grube, an independent researcher, and I reviewed 56 papers that focused on how access to off-grid solar energy impacts household income in Africa. Initially, the available evidence appears to provide strong support, with almost all the papers finding a positive effect.
This was largely based on the finding that SHSs enabled local stalls and kiosks to stay open longer by operating beyond nightfall. The testimony of a Kenyan fruit and vegetable seller is typical. After the addition of a SHS, she reported being able to add “two more hours of trading each day”. Across the studies, additional work hours allowed household income to increase by around US$20–£40 (£17-£33) per month.
Workers’ greater capacity for self-exploitation
Existing studies generally cite working longer hours as a marker of economic progress. Yet this finding is ambiguous since increased income here is achieved through a greater capacity for self-exploitation. Given the physical limits to the length of a working day, these observed increases can only lead to a limited economic gain.
For economic development to be strengthened and sustained, it must be incorporated into a process of increased productivity. This should be achieved by an increasing output per unit of labour time – not simply via people working longer hours or more people working – and supported by an accumulation of capital.
Existing studies tend not to focus on these dimensions, leaving the true economically transformative nature of off-grid solar products unclear. The low energy capacity of SHSs should, nonetheless, caution against any great enthusiasm that they can generate such transformative economic progress.
Short-term gains, long-term losses?
The shift of energy provision via SHSs away from centralised public governance and towards a privatised model has in many instances also shifted the financial burden of maintenance onto local communities. Several studies noted that the maintenance costs for off-grid solar products often surpass what rural households and communities can afford.
Yet most studies focus on the short-term impact, usually within a couple of years of a household or firm gaining access to off-grid solar. Short-term income gains will prove fruitless in the future, however, should communities be unable to assure maintenance of the equipment.
Several studies also documented the recent introduction of a pay-as-you-go model. The model aims to extend low-wattage solar products to income-poor rural African households, who are often unable to afford the full upfront cost. Already, pay-as-you-go solar firms are beginning to push a range of other products to their clients, such as irrigation pumps and appliance leasing.
This strikes a further note of concern, as studies on financial technology (or fin-tech) services have demonstrated their frequent association with rising indebtedness. Indebtedness constrains rather than liberates households, a process hardly conducive to economic development.
Can off-grid solar still drive economic development?
One solution to the limited economic impact of increased access to SHSs would be to focus on the provision of mini grids. Capable of powering entire rural communities or urban suburbs, research demonstrates that they support a far larger range of activities, extending into productive and industrial use.
Another avenue will be through developing domestic capacity in the design and manufacture of off-grid solar power. This carries the potential to generate productive employment and help stimulate a shift towards industrial development.
Existing studies have proved adept at identifying households who appear to have financially benefited from access to off-grid solar through increased income. But they have been less well attuned to the downsides.
Alongside rising indebtedness, these include the more general processes of polarisation, marginalisation and exclusion that inevitably accompany any process of capitalist economic development.
If, as Brazilian economist Celso Furtado once wrote, capitalist development is “a process of reshaping social relations founded on accumulation”, future research would do well to focus on how social relations are being reshaped by off-grid solar expansion – and with what consequences.
To attract more tourists from all over the world in the coming months, Discover Qatar, destination management company of Qatar Airways Group, will expand the Stopover programme.
“Featuring an outstanding and comprehensive portfolio of hotels, excursions, transfers and activities, Discover Qatar (DQ) has made noteworthy strides in highlighting and promoting Qatar as a global tourist destination,” said the Qatar Airways Group Annual Report 2021-2022 released last month.
It said that the company welcomed again its first visitors to Qatar from the MSC Virtuosa Cruise ship, and has since provided tour services for over 10,000 visitors to Qatar. “The focus for the upcoming financial year is on expanding the Stopover programme as well as facilitating transit tours.”
The report said that the new programme will allow passengers to experience tours through Discover Qatar “as soon as transit visas are opened again”.
“Discover Qatar aims to become the go-to brand synonymous with excellence in operational delivery for Meetings, Incentives, Conference and Events (MICE), for world-class sporting events and for educational tourism in one of the safest environments in the world,” it added.
According to another recent report, Qatar Tourism (QT) is also ramping up its strategies to drive more tourists in the country by capitalising on Stopover campaign together with Qatar Airways. This is one of the six key strategies QT is focusing on upping the tourist numbers in Qatar which is set to welcome over 1.5 million visitors for the World Cup from November.
COO of Qatar Tourism Berthold Trenkel said last month that according to their data, Qatar has been a transit airport, “people arrive, people go, no one gets off – so that’s one thing for us to change.”
The report says that with its customer-first approach, DQ is committed to fully respecting Qatar’s heritage and culture, its stakeholders and the broader community by providing products and services with an unwavering focus on quality. “Discover Qatar offers its services to the world through business-to-business (B2B) retail and corporate relationships, and in Qatar through the Discover Qatar website.”
It added: “Discover Qatar plays a key role in promoting Qatar, working closely with Qatar Airways and Qatar Tourism, and supports initiatives to host influential tour operators and travel professionals to experience the best of Qatar through memorable tours and exciting excursions.”
It further revealed that during the financial year 2021/2022, DQ revised and relaunched its Ground Services programme, now offering nearly 30 land and water-based tours and experiences, meet and assist services at HIA and transfers, enabling a superior end-to-end service for all customers from arrival to departure.
Connectivity, not oil, will drive the Middle East’s future
The above-featured image is A general view of Tanger-Med container port in Ksar Sghir near the coastal city of Tangier, Morocco. (Reuters)
The region’s start-ups attracted nearly $1 billion in the first quarter of this year, a doubling of last year’s tally.
On the very day that US President Joe Biden lands in Saudi Arabia Friday, nearly 200,000 containers will be making their way to ports from Tangier to Dubai, hundreds of thousands of airline passengers will transit through the region’s airports, millions of dollars in remittances will be flowing from the region to the developing world and countless American companies will be selling their wares to a growing Arab middle class.
Oil and gas, once the main draws for the West, will almost be an afterthought. In other words, it will be just another day of business in the Middle East and North Africa.
For too long, the United States’ regional policy has focused almost entirely on the triumvirate of security, geopolitics, and oil. It is time for the US and the broader Western world to widen its vision and see the MENA region for what it is, and not a caricature of what it was in the 1970s.
But while the term itself is dated, the countries that the term encompasses do have much in common, including strategic commercial geography. They are more Middle World than Middle East and the real dividing line for future success will be connectivity to the wider world, not religious sect or geopolitical alliances or form of government.
Consider the region’s air connectivity. Most of the Gulf Arab states and Iran have cities that are a four-hour flight to one-third of the world and an eight-hour flight to two-thirds of the planet.
To capitalise on this enviable air geography, Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and also Istanbul, have created air hubs, with considerable success. In 2014, Dubai International Airport surpassed London Heathrow as the busiest international airport in the world. It is a similar story with supply chain and trade connectivity. Several North African states have enviable Mediterranean coasts and easy air and trade access to Europe. Morocco and Tunisia have become key parts of automotive and aerospace supply chains in Europe and Egypt’s Suez Canal sees some 30 percent of the world’s container trade pass through its waters annually.
The author and journalist Kim Ghattas, in her excellent book, “The Black Wave,” reminds us of how consequential 1979 was in shaping the region. That year witnessed the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, events that empowered both Sunni and Shia Islamist radicals for a generation and cowed Saudi rulers into a policy of soft-pedalling and co-optation of its own extremists.
Those days are now over in Saudi Arabia, witness the social transformation of the kingdom in recent years. But if we go back to 1979, there was another less-heralded event that is also worth remembering: the opening of Jebel Ali port in Dubai, today one of the busiest ports in the world. With stacked containers as far as the eye can see, Jebel Ali is both a symbol of globalisation and an example of local leadership in action. The port and associated free zones leveraged a never-depleting resource, Dubai’s geography, to build a major trade and shipping hub.
Saudi Arabia’s investments in the infrastructure of connectivity, airports, rail, seaports, are also supporting regional and global recoveries. A recent World Bank report listed King Abdullah Port in Jeddah as the most efficient container terminal in the world.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is pumping billions into its own aviation sector, aiming to more than triple the number of passengers that fly through its airports by 2030. Before the pandemic, the global travel and tourism industry accounted for one in ten global jobs and more than ten percent of global GDP. Today, the region’s airlines, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and Saudia, are leading the global recovery in this sector, too.
More broadly, GCC countries are contributing to economic connectivity through remittances and aid. Remittances far outpace foreign aid and direct investment and are the largest source of foreign currency earnings in low and middle-income countries. Over the past decade, hundreds of billions of dollars have flowed from Gulf Arab states to the developing world, most notably South Asia. Those remittances are a vital part of the development story.
Finally, a rising tech entrepreneurial class has become a top source of economic pride. Biden would do well to step beyond the palaces and meet people like Fadi Ghandour, the Jordanian business leader who founded the FedEx of the region, Aramex and who today serves as an angel investor for the women and men creating and building new start-ups from Amman to Abu Dhabi. The region’s start-ups attracted nearly $1 billion in the first quarter of this year, a doubling of last year’s tally.
While this rising connectivity offers hope, there remain spectacular failures.
Exhibit A is Lebanon, a country of talented people held hostage by craven politicians, currently experiencing one of the worst economic meltdowns of the modern era. It is a similar story in Iran. The region’s non-oil states, meanwhile, are facing stubbornly high unemployment, rising energy prices, supply chain disruptions and a global slowdown.
But these challenges should not obscure a broader opportunity. The MENA region is blessed with a resource that never depletes: strategic geography. The countries and cities that leverage their geographies will be well-suited to compete into the 21st century. Those that fail will remain regional laggards, part of the old “Middle East,” rather than the emerging Middle World. That is the story Biden should be watching and supporting.
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and editor and founder of the Emerging World newsletter.
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