1/04/2013

A response from Maurits Ruis about my review on Special Economic Zones

I received an email from Maurits Ruis, the author of Special Economic Zones, the ebook I reviewed yesterday. I sent him an email to discuss the origin of the ebook, a possible continuation, etc with him. He kindly responded to my questions and I decided to share his response with you as a response to my review.

Dear Annick Labeca,
The Anatomy of Special Economic Zones is not as much an eBook as it is a report, which explains the concise nature of the document. It was written for a private investor that was so kind as to grant me permission to publish the report independently. The report is a briefing document that seeks to identify best practices for the development of Special Economic Zones. The focus thereby naturally gears towards China, which has been most successful in the application of SEZs worldwide.
The report pays little heed to the architecture and urbanism of Special Economic Zones. There is little information available on the conceptual drivers behind SEZ masterplans, but at face value it seems no distinctive typology is being used, and SEZ masterplans pretty much seem to follow the trends as in masterplan developments worldwide. In that sense they are very much a product of the International Style, or if you prefer, a representation of [Rem] Koolhaas' Generic City.
In terms of typology, the Special Economic Zone seems not to have evolved much from the Export Zones it started out to be, i.e. a single enclosed factory with an exempt legal status. In effect, the modern-day Special Economic Zone is nothing more than a factory on steroid that continues to serve the only goal it has ever served: the generation of foreign direct investment.
As is the case with any investment in the urban hemisphere today, SEZs entirely depend on the 'trickle down effect' for their success. This concept states that money invested in established and dominant market players (read: the rich and the powerful) will eventually trickle down to the masses through the generation of jobs. The validity of the "trickle down effect" however is "supported neither by economic theory nor by empirical evidence", says for example Cornell scholar Robert H. Frank.
The result of this approach are SEZs that only answer to one-dimensional reality of the financial market, a reality that reduces the places where people work and live into spreadsheet exercises, made in financial centres far away. These developments have little to do with the sustainable environments that architects and urban planners traditionally pursue; environments that include not only economic considerations, but also social, cultural and environmental ones (remember the sustainable adagium of people, planet, and profit). Hence the devaluation of architecture as a profession.
The evolution of the SEZ has shown that a one dimensional approach driven by profit has led to health hazards, social unrest and political unrest, among other things. It has also shown that a consideration for locality has produced a greater profitability, and better returns in the longer term. As urban developments worldwide are driven by the same principles you could say that a study of the Special Economic Zone is also a case study of the city at large.
Attention to urban and architectural typology seems futile when a brief has not yet been established that all parties can subscribe to. Investor, developer and designer first need to be in accordance of the principles underlying any development before proceeding with design and construction, form follows function after all. This report hopes to present evidence that can establish such a brief, build consensus and persuade investors to not only focus on short term returns, but also take into consideration the wider picture, as it ultimately contributes to their ultimate goal of return on investment.
The report thus is a critique as well as an analysis. There are many avenues yet to explore that branch off from this study, and urban and architectural typology certainly is one of them. My immediate aim however is to understand how our cities were hijacked by market forces, and how they were turned into financial instruments to generate a profit for the few, rather than into tools in the pursuit of happiness for the many.
Maurits Ruis

I recommend to read my review of Special Economic Zones posted yesterday.

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