Charming and often disarming, Danish-born architect Bjarke Ingels was long considered the enfant terrible of his field, reaching international success in his thirties with radical ideas coupled with a sense of levity. But one decade and fifty built projects later, he’s getting serious and thinking bigger than ever: his firm BIG’s Plan for the Planet hopes to shape a collaborative global effort toward truly sustainable living.
Architect Bjarke Ingels has a plan; his biggest one yet. Plan for the Planet—a multi-hundred-page body of research outlining concrete strategies for humanity to create a sustainable, carbon-neutral, renewable-energy-driven world—is certainly one of the most ambitious master plans an architectural firm (or anyone, really) has ever attempted. This blueprint to sustainable living imagines a planetary power grid running on renewable energy (and not locally dependent on, say, wind or sun) and a vast network of recycling plants and waste incinerators. And much, much more. It’s also a work in progress, initially conceived in the early days of the pandemic.
We had a Eureka moment, says Ingels, taking a break from meetings in Copenhagen, his home town and the original headquarters of his firm, Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG. When the (COVID-19) pandemic came, we all went into remote working, and we suddenly realised that the machines in our model workshops could be used to manufacture face shields and ventilator tubes, he explains. We managed to fabricate 25,000 of these in the first six weeks to help the area’s hospitals with medical equipment.
The lesson: it’s possible for planetary problems to be solved starting with local solutions, with what’s on hand. As he often does, Ingels started thinking bigger. Why not go up in scale and apply the methodology and the rigour and tools of architects and planners at the scale of the planet, to address what is probably the biggest challenge we’re facing now: how to get to a sustainable human presence on Earth?
So far, Plan for the Planet is based on the architectural master plans that urban planners, developers and politicians use to shape districts and neighbourhoods over the long term by identifying problems, proposing relevant solutions and creating an image of the future that everyone works to fulfil. A historical example is, of course, George-Eugène Haussmann’s complete revamp of Paris under Napoleon III; a more current case is the ongoing update of Berlin’s smaller-scaled Museum Island according to a master plan developed in 1999 with David Chipperfield Architects; modernisations are slated to be finished in 2025–6. An urban master plan takes 20 to 30 years, explains Ingels. We are now less than 28 years away from 2050. So for sustainability’s sake, we need real, tangible plans in place to be able to get there by 2050.
Basing its research on the 173,000 terawatt-hours of energy that all human activity on Earth uses now, BIG set to work. The team delineated ten categories. Five of these—energy, transport, industry, agriculture and waste—address greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation of their effects. The other five—biodiversity, water, pollution, human health and urban habitat–relate to human presence on Earth. BIG’s team dug up quantifiable information relating to complex problems and, in the process, began understanding the planet’s current multiple problems more and more clearly. We started with all the publicly accessible information out there, says Ingels. We also decided to use only existing, implementable, scalable technology. We planned for ten billion people on Earth in 2050, giving them all the same quality of life as in Denmark. But what does that really mean?