A Shining Light of Innovation in the Syrian Civil War

A Shining Light of Innovation in the Syrian Civil WarInnovation practitioners sometimes complain about the interruptions of daily life that make our jobs of developing creative new ideas challenging.  We bemoan full inboxes of emails arriving daily or a calendar stacked with back-to-back meetings with no time available to think deep (and hopefully great) thoughts about whatever problems we are trying to solve.  We complain about the traffic jams in our daily commutes or the inconveniences of air travel to client meetings.  Yet I recently read a new book from a young Syrian architect that reminded me of the power of innovation in the human soul and showed that even in the most horrible of circumstances, there is a spark of creativity that shines above the chaos and confusion, even in a war zone.  The book is The Battle for Home by Marwa Al-Sabouni and it chronicles the experiences of Al-Sabouni as she struggles day-to-day to survive in Homs, Syria, while pursuing her PhD in Architecture.  Al-Sabouni proposes an astounding thesis that traces the roots of the Syrian civil war in her government’s architectural decisions made in the last half century.

Some of the challenges faced by Al-Sabouni as she pursued her PhD defense while raising two children included having to traverse a dangerous route to get from her home to the University (there was only one route), dealing with a committee and Department Head who did not want her to succeed and stalled her PhD defense for over two years, reading and writing by candlelight during extended electricity outages, lacking water and heat for a week at a time, and printing out materials in shops with only generator power and shortages of paper and ink.  Despite these trials, Al-Sabouni eventually completed her PhD defense during the war and currently runs a private architectural studio in Homs.  She also finds time to manage the only online media site dedicated to architectural news in Arabic (www.arch-news.net) and has told her story on a recent TED talk.

In The Battle for Home, Al-Sabouni leverages the powerful theme of the wisdom of the ancients in reminding her fellow Syrians of how the structure and function of the metropolis played a critical role in enabling diverse communities to live alongside each other without conflict.  Her analysis of the past provides a vision for the future in a war-torn land, and the fact that she is able to promulgate these ideas in the midst of chaos and destruction is, in and of itself, a sign of hope for the future of Syria.  As Roger Scruton, a prominent British philosopher and professor of aesthetics, notes, “[t]his book is the moving record of one person’s effort to stay loyal to her homeland, at a time of great suffering and personal distress [… and it is] the expression of a beautiful soul, who comes to us out of a confused and dreadful battle with a message of hope.”

Marwa Al-Sabouni began studying Islamic architecture at the age of 17.  During that period of her education, she faced professors of architecture who “wouldn’t accept any suggested functional solutions or zoning other than the settings they already had in mind [and a]ny attempt to break with these would be met with a failing grade.”  Thus from the outset, Al-Sabouni faced a direct challenge to innovative thought processes in her work, and she found that fellow students in this environment would simply “copy the outlines of celebrated international projects from magazines” then match the internal functions of the structure to the professor’s original assignment.  Al-Sabouni refused to follow this pattern and sought to develop her own creative solutions, though she noted that her workload was higher and grades lower as a result.  The lesson for the innovation practitioner here is in assigning tasks to colleagues as part of an ideation exercise, it is important not to put so many constraints on the participants that they become like the students who take an innovative but hollow shell and fill in the void with pre-defined components.  Allowing more freedom and creativity may lead to better results.  As Al-Sabouni observes, her fellow students who were copying other designs were not aware of “any engineering or other challenges that might have been overcome to reach the final result, let alone any criticism or theory behind the work.”

Before the Syrian civil war, Al-Sabouni observes, “Syrian communities were united by a shared approach to life [and …] were generally fairly tolerant and were historically used to variety, accommodating a wide range of beliefs, origins, customs, goods, even climates and food.”  One reason for this was the architecture of Syrian cities, and she states that “[t]here is an inescapable correspondence between the architecture of a place and the character of the community that has settled there.”  “Our architecture,” she continues, “tells the story of who we are.”  Some of the attributes that made buildings in her hometown of Homs, specifically in the old city area, more amenable to a cooperative social ethos include the “moderate heights” and “low wide doors [that] welcomed every visitor humbly into their warm and simple interiors [thus rendering them …] instruments of reconciliation between communities.”  Mosques and churches didn’t compete with each other in displays of grandiosity.  The front doors of mosques faced the front doors of churches, and minarets and church towers “raised their praying hands in unity above the rooftops.”

This side-by-side nature was perhaps best exemplified by the souks, or marketplaces, in the old town, where shops and services of all sorts had to co-exist in tight, narrow alleyways and spaces.  Professional offices and other stores congregated around the souk, but the soul of the city was that busy and vibrant commercial exchange that took place on a daily basis.  As Al-Sabouni notes, the souk “enhanced the old city’s micro-culture and was the artery of the life of Homs.”  This artery began to be cut with decisions by government officials to “upgrade” or “modernize” via urban planning and the replacement of historical structures with modern buildings (or even parking lots) that did not adhere to the aesthetic of the ancient city.  Al-Sabouni recognized that the vibrancy and tolerance facilitated by the old city began to fade away.  From an innovation standpoint, one should follow Al-Sabouni’s model and think about ways to derive new thinking from what many call the wisdom of the ancients.  There was an unseen or unwritten purpose to the way in which the old city and souk evolved, and that evolution met multiple needs of the community.  Although progress towards modernity is always important, the true innovation for architecture in Homs would have been to leverage this understanding of how the arteries of the old city functioned and to produce designs that made those arteries even stronger.

Al-Sabouni relays a fascinating story about the cohesive power of the souk in the city of Aleppo, location of what some consider to be the world’s first shopping mall (city market, or souk al madina):

“The merchants of Old Aleppo believed on religious grounds that you are blessed by being good to your neighbours, and that you earn your place in the community – such is what true belonging consists in.  This is exactly what was perpetuated by the architectural configuration: facing and adjoining shops, a shared route under one ceiling that united them, and one sky above them all.  The merchants had small chairs to sit on outside their shops once they opened in the morning.  When a merchant had sold his first item, he would bring his chair inside as a sign.  When another customer entered, he would then stretch his head out over his wooden counter to see if any chair remained outside.  If he saw one, he would direct the customer towards it, so as to benefit his less fortunate neighbor.”

For the innovator, this anecdote reminds us of the importance of informal processes in generating larger social outcomes.  Something as simple as a chair outside a vendor’s stall can have far-reaching implications on the cohesion of a city, and the innovator should strive to look for these types of examples to develop new thinking that leverages these experiences.

One of the tenets of Al-Sabouni’s thesis is that the building of “concrete blocks lacking the least aesthetic sense or architectural vision denies the city its character and deprives its citizens of a congenial environment.”  New arrivals to the city of Homs, she notes, “failed massively in social integration: indeed they enhanced social stagnation and introversion, since they created no shared identity or attachment to a place [a]nd this architectural failing helped to inflame civil war.”  She cites the example of the great cities that lined the ancient Silk Road and the fact that so many of these cities became “radiant centres of civilization.”  This was not due solely to their accumulation of wealth but, rather, “because of the openness that was taught by seeing new faces, talking different tongues, and knowing that there were others in the world around you, and that you were compelled by mutual interest to learn how to live with them, do business with them and to keep together in harmony.”  The innovator should understand how flows and interactions among individuals can lead to better outcomes even if those flows and interactions are not the basic intent of an entity.  That is, the cities on the Silk Road were commercial hubs, not deliverers of peaceful human interaction, but the net result of their functioning was often peaceful coexistence.

Moments of breakthrough thinking for famous innovators often come at unexpected times.  For Al-Sabouni, that moment was watching on television the demonstrations in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, with memorable images of people crowding Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011.  Al-Sabouni was particularly struck by the interactions between the crowds of angry protestors and the stern-faced riot police in their uniforms.  She wondered how the interactions might be different if the guards were not wearing their bullet-proof vests and helmets.  Her “Eureka” moment was a mapping of those interactions on the street to the way that architecture impacted individuals in the city as a whole.  In other words, Al-Sabouni realized that she “wanted to study the way in which people react towards Islamic architecture as those Egyptians reacted towards that guard.”  The people of Cairo saw the guard as “representative of a fixed idea,” which may not necessarily have been the case.  In the end, she notes, “the collective action was motivated automatically by the appearance of the guards,” just as would be the case with Islamic architecture driving interactions among the residents of a city.  Al-Sabouni took what could have been a source of intense anger and frustration – the experience of the rioters in Cairo – and channeled it into something productive – the thesis for her dissertation on Islamic architecture.  For the innovation practitioner, this is a great example of the value of leveraging emotional experiences to drive insights, channeling anger into creative thinking rather than simply succumbing to the frustrating aspects of the experience.

Another of the fundamental insights that flows from Al-Sabouni’s thesis is the well-known concept of the wisdom of the ancients – insights derived from thousands of years of human experience that manifest themselves even today.  Al-Sabouni mentions an old Syrian saying: “[o]ne who has no old has no new,” and observes that the evolution of architecture in pre-war Syria away from past “points of departure” meant that “we have no longer been able to ‘orient ourselves towards the world.’”  Architecture has a critical role to play in how we align with our past, present, and future.  The philosopher Roger Scruton writes that “[o]ne does not learn about medieval theology from Chartres [Cathedral]: but one does learn what it is like to believe in it, what it is like to see and feel the world as the people of Chartres once saw and felt it.”  Al-Soubani summarizes: “The perceiver has a key role in the architectural experience.  Aesthetic characteristics are latent in a building, and have to be activated through ‘imaginative perception.’”

There are two examples of the wisdom of the ancients that warrant exploration in parallel with Al-Soubani’s work.  The first comes from David Roberts, an author and historian who spent years exploring the thousand-year-old Anasazi cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado.  In his book on the Anasazi, Roberts notes that the famous cliff dwellings demonstrated a superior understanding of the value of different aspects of terrain as they relate to the alignment of the sun across the seasons.  In addition to being easy to defend because they were perched on top of a 500-foot slope, the Anasazi dwellings were able to “gather the heat of the sun in winter, and in summer the overhand provided cooling shade.”  Roberts states that his father, himself an avid explorer of the region, designed a sunroom at his house in Boulder, Colorado to match precisely the angle of the rock overhang that sheltered the Anasazi cliff dwellings.  Much to the astonishment of visitors to the house, the “living room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows facing south, was full of sun in December, cool and shadowy in June.”  What the Anasazi found as part of nature and adapted their living space to leverage turns out to be something that the modern architect can use to solve current challenges of efficient climate control in a structure.  In fact, a home recently built in Utah leverages this precise concept.  Architects John Sparano and Anne Mooney built a computer model of lot and house and oriented the home to maximize solar alignment so that “in December, when the sun is lower at midday, the house is positioned to capture the maximum light and warmth [whereas in] summer, when the midday sun is higher, the rays are blocked by the 6-foot-wide roof overhang,” just like an Anasazi cliff dwelling.

A second example of the wisdom of the ancients comes from Jeff Iliff, Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.  In a TED Talk, Iliff cites the work of a medical researcher named Galen from 2,000 years ago in which Galen proposed a theory of how the brain functions.  Galen postulated that while a person is awake, the brain’s “motive force” flows out in liquid form to the rest of the body, helping the person function through the day.  At night, during sleep, this liquid flows back into the brain to restore and rehydrate that important organ, resulting in a refreshed mind.  To the modern scientist, this sounds like an absurd explanation for how the brain operates, but in terms of the general human experience, we know that getting a good night’s sleep refreshes our mind, just as missing sleep leaves us in a cloudy state.  Iliff notes that recent research has started to bear out the possibility that Galen was on to something in his analysis.  Scientists have identified a large pool of “clean, clear fluid called cerebrospinal fluid [CSF]” that is present in the brain.  Waste materials that form inside the brain flow into the CSF and then into the blood to be processed.  The fascinating insight is that this process occurs only while a person is asleep.  In fact, brain cells shrink during sleep to clear more space for the CSF to flush out waste products, and the brain is the only organ in the body that clears its waste in this manner.  Iliff and his team of scientists have applied their findings to try to understand Alzheimer’s disease and have noticed that the waste product in the brain that is flushed by CSF, amyloid-beta, tends to build up and aggregate in the spaces between brain cells of patients with Alzheimer’s.  This buildup is an early step in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, so Iliff and his team are focusing their efforts on better understanding the process to see if they can figure out ways to slow the onset of the disease.  This example reminds the innovation practitioner that great ideas and new thinking can come from old thinking applied to solve modern problems.


The Syrian civil war continues unabated.  The city of Aleppo, one of the oldest in the world (dating back to 5,000 B.C.), is ground zero of the current conflict and suffers from non-stop fighting between the factions.  According to one journalist, “[a]erial footage shows pockets flattened and buildings so damaged they look like melted candles [and…t]he destruction has claimed large parts of the city’s ancient souk, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and severely damaged the 12th-century Great Mosque and the 13th-century citadel.”  Unfortunately, the damage being done is leveling the elements of the city that once engendered more peaceful coexistence and interactions.

Yet Al-Sabouni remains hopeful that emerging from the wreckage can be “a new way to build, which will also emerge from the old way, so that places like Syria regain what they have lost, which is cities that are homes to their people, and civilized environments where the communities live in peace.”  She posits that one can build cities for the Middle East “by making a livable home for both rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, owner and tenant, adult and child, in which parts, localities, functions and businesses are woven together in a continuous fabric, and in which a shared moral order emerges of its own accord.”  Her thesis can be the foundation of a new architectural approach that can be taught to future students.  “[I]f that happens,” she concludes, then “something good will have emerged from all our suffering.”  When we think about innovation in a time of war, those innovations tend to focus on more effective ways of causing death and destruction.  It is refreshing for the innovation practitioner to realize that innovation in warfare can also be focused on how to make things better for the inhabitants of a war-torn region once the fighting ends and our collective focus shifts towards restoring civilization.

Image credit: businessinsider.com.au


Marwa Al-Sabouni, The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2016)

David Roberts, In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

Raja Abdulrahim, “Death Toll Expected to Rise in Siege of Ancient City,” Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2016, A14.

Nancy Keates, “A Home with a Sunny Outlook,” Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2016, M5.


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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden

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Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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