Real-time design in the “world as spread-sheet”

An interview for the October 2002 edition of Domus Magazine with Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UN Studio

For thousands of years, most buildings and products were designed for a single purpose – but our task is becoming more complicated. We are confronted by the need to design hybrid environments that encompass space, place, time, and interaction. We have filled the world with complex systems and technologies – on top of the natural ones that were already here, and social-cultural systems that have evolved over thousands of years. These systems are, by their nature, invisible – so we lack the clear mental models that we might otherwise use to make sense of the bigger picture.

A new change is now under way: pervasive computing. Pervasive computing has many names: ubiquitous computing; ambient intelligence; the disappearing computer; things that think; things that link; smartifacts. The buzzwords describe the ways we are suffusing the world with not just with sensors, but also with responsive and smart materials and actuators. There are already hundreds of microchips for every man; woman and child on the planet, and most of these chips will soon talk to each other, in languages such as ‘Bluetooth’. Nobody knows what the consequences are going to be, except that these chips will find their way into most of the objects that surround us – buildings, airplanes, doors, door handles, clothing – even our bodies.

The US army is a big spender on wearable computing, for example. The military is also driving developments in the use of sensors, tags, and remote monitoring in the physical world. John Gage of Sun Microsystems anticipates that we will soon sprinkle “smart dust” over battlefields – clouds of tiny wireless sensors, thermometers, miniature microphones, electronic noses, location detectors that will provide information about the physical world, and the people crossing it, to battlefield commanders. Military-funded researchers are developing an operating system for smart dust‚s self-organizing sensors and effectors; these tiny devices, that can manipulate matter, will be able to form wireless networks without human intervention.

Meanwhile, in business, companies are wiring up digital nervous systems that connect together everything involved in their operations: IT systems, factories and employees, as well as suppliers, customers, and products. Their aim is to be able to monitor everything important in real-time. Companies are developing ‘dashboards’ that will measure key indicators and compare their performance against goals – and alert managers if a deviation becomes large enough to warrant action. Control-obsessed firms, among them GE, the world’s largest – aspire to convert their information flows into a vast spread-sheet creating, as Ludwig Siegele put it in The Economist, not a new economy but a “now economy”.

This new wave of technology push confronts us with a design dilemma. The design of Large Technical Systems, pervasive software, and the inaptly named ‘ambient intelligence’, is an almost unimaginably complex process. To be effective in such a context, design needs to be renewed, and transformed. But in what ways? And how? During the 1990s, we were told that complexity was ‘out of control’ – too complex to understand, let alone to shape, or re-direct. But out-of-control is an ideology, not a fact. Flows can be designed.

The design agenda for flow has two parts: designing ways to perceive flows; and re-designing the design process itself. Firstly, in order to do things differently, we need to see things differently. We know, for example, that buildings consume a lot of energy – but we don’t see‚ heat flying out of the windows. If we did, our behaviour would probably change. We therefore need ‘dashboards’ for cities and buildings, not just for big companies. We need to experience the systems and processes on which we depend, in order to look after them.

Designing these experiences will not be easy. Systems and flows are, by their nature, invisible, and we lack evocative metaphors or mental models to help us make sense of the bigger picture. But many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times: physicists have illustrated quarks; biologists have mapped the genome; doctors have described immune systems in the body; network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. And as Malcolm McCullough points out, geodata industries are exploding.

The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside – it is to enable action. The second challenge for design in the space of flows, therefore, is the transition from designing things, to designing systems – and from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. Systems and processes never stop changing, so neither can design. A continuous model of design is increasingly the norm in information technology, and in management consulting. Architecture as a service, rather than an art? Now there’s a thought.

UN Studio

Many of these trends are evident in the work if UN Studio. Its principals, Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, have particular expertise in the design of transport interchanges in projects that can last years. These have become epicentres of extraordinarily complex spatial and building design processes. Increasingly, in the design of these complex places, high-tech simulations and physical structure influence each other. The design of multi-modal, multi-functional, multi-temporal transport intersections is particularly advanced in the Netherlands, where van Berkel and Bos have been ‘designing inside diagrammes’ since the mid 1990s.

“The diagramme functions for us as a sort of mediator” van Berkel explains; “we see it as an external element, in between the object and the subject, which we use to introduce other themes and organizations into a project with the aim of escaping from pre-existing typologies”. Right now UN Studio use diagrams two ways. First, for what they call the “the proportioning” of information – representing visually, and where possible in real-time, variable phenomena for a specific location such as climate, budget, construction processes, orientation, and activities.

The aim is to have a generative, proliferating, unfolding effect on the project…not only during its development in the studio, but also afterward, in its public use”, explains Caroline Bos.

A project like Arnhem Central exemplifies this convoluted type of public construction. The high-density project concentrates 160,000 m2 of mixed programme (transfer hall, underground car park for 1,000 cars and 5,000 bicycles, tunnel, shops, offices) on a 40,000-m2 site. Six different transport systems converge on the station area. Every weekday 55,000 travellers move through the location as they transfer from one system to another. Movement studies [PICS] are the cornerstone of UN Studio’ design proposals: the analysis of the types or movement on location includes the directions of the various trajectories, their prominence in relation to other forms of transportation on the site, duration, links to different programmes, and interconnections. The “Klein Bottle” diagramme [PIC] served as a reference for the spatial transformation of a surface into a whole.

Van Berkel and Bos describe as “deep planning” the process by which they scan a site for its flow structure. “These scans reveal its real problems and potentials,” says van Berkel; “the flows of the physical movements of people and goods reveal the relations between duration and territorial use”. The typical product of deep planning is a situation-specific, dynamic, organizational structural plan, using scenarios, diagrams, parameters, formulas and themes, that encompasses the mapping of political, managerial, planning, community and private relations.

Recently, van Berkel and Bos have looked outside architecture for inspirational images and diagrams. “Francis Bacon called his paintings diagrammes”, recalls van Berkel, adding that Gilles Deleuze was fascinated by the ways Bacon transformed the human figure into abstract forms. “Diagrams are instrumental”, he emphasizes; “they refer to something. They are kind of map. Maps may look abstract, but they always point at something. Diagrams are maps that point at organization – which can be the organization of space, or time, or movement, or any abstract but no less real phenomena.

Diagrams are also a way to involve clients in the design process, and to modify the way a building is used through time. “When designing for people are in these perpetual motion environments”, says Bos, “ it’s a matter of combining circulation, with experiences they may have along the way. It’s not enough to design for pure movement: you have to build-in spaces, activities and intersections where people will leave the flow”. Pure movement is indeed bad for business. I recall an anecdote by Jan Benthem, master architect of Schiphol Airport, in which the commercial guys insisted he remove an area of seating to make way for another corridor of shops. The result was the opposite of that intended: revenues per square metre in the new shops, and in existing ones next to them, actually decreased. It transpired that the re-design had created a kind of canyon through which passengers rushed like white water in the Rocky Mountains – too fast to stop and shop. The seats were put back.

UN Studio pay attention to what they call “kaleidoscope moments” – the turns in flows where movement is tighter or more compact, or where you cross over other flows. “We are beginning to realise that obstacles to flow can be functional and add value, too” says van Berkel.”We work closely with infrastructure and traffic managers” adds Bos; “who usually have deep expertise about the possibilities, but also limits, in reconfiguring the flows of large numbers of people” Bos recalls a typically arcane piece of advice, that the heat generated by 20,000 people in an art gallery can damage paintings.

For their project to develop a pier in Genoa, Italy, UN Studio have transformed a 23,000 m2 harbour pier into a three-dimensional piazza. Four main clusters each address a different theme: entertainment, well-being, technology, and commercial experience. The design uses time-based planning represented diagrammatically as a circle of experience. Programmes in the piazza are organised around clockwise activities clustered on the basis of views, time of day, and time of year. Coffee can be taken in the morning sun with a view towards the sea; midday shopping offers shadow; evenings are spent watching the sunset. [PIC 24-hour distribution of active programs].

Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, principals of UN Studio in Amsterdam, are among the speakers at Doors of Perception 7 on the theme of Flow. The conference takes place in In Amsterdam on 14,15,16 November 2002.

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Design and Local Knowledge (Service design conference, Oslo, 2002)

spark.oslo.png
When traditional forms of work and daily life disappear from a locality, what is to take their place? In Spark!, multi-disciplinary design teams from five countries, together with local officials and citizens, conducted design scenario workshops in five very different European locations: Narva-Jõesuu in Estonia; Cray Valley in London; Forssa in Finland; Val d´Ambra in Italy; Nexø in Denmark. Here are the main design scenarios and other outcomes from the five locations The concluding conference in Oslo asked: What kinds of value reside in a locality? What tools are available for mapping communication flows, and for the notation of local knowledge? What are the success factors for design projects in real-world situations? Spark! was co-produced by Doors of Perception and UIAH (project leader, Project leader Jan Verwijnen) for Cumulus, Europe’s association of design and art universities.

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Real-time design in the “world as spread-sheet”

In which John Thackara talks to Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UN Studio in an interview and article for the October 2002 edition of Domus Magazine.
For thousands of years, most buildings and products were designed for a single purpose – but our task is becoming more complicated. We are confronted by the need to design hybrid environments that encompass space, place, time, and interaction. We have filled the world with complex systems and technologies – on top of the natural ones that were already here, and social-cultural systems that have evolved over thousands of years. These systems are, by their nature, invisible – so we lack the clear mental models that we might otherwise use to make sense of the bigger picture.
A new change is now under way: pervasive computing. Pervasive computing has many names: ubiquitous computing; ambient intelligence; the disappearing computer; things that think; things that link; smartifacts. The buzzwords describe the ways we are suffusing the world with not just with sensors, but also with responsive and smart materials and actuators. There are already hundreds of microchips for every man; woman and child on the planet, and most of these chips will soon talk to each other, in languages such as ‘Bluetooth’. Nobody knows what the consequences are going to be, except that these chips will find their way into most of the objects that surround us – buildings, airplanes, doors, door handles, clothing – even our bodies.
The US army is a big spender on wearable computing, for example. The military is also driving developments in the use of sensors, tags, and remote monitoring in the physical world. John Gage of Sun Microsystems anticipates that we will soon sprinkle “smart dust” over battlefields – clouds of tiny wireless sensors, thermometers, miniature microphones, electronic noses, location detectors that will provide information about the physical world, and the people crossing it, to battlefield commanders. Military-funded researchers are developing an operating system for smart dust‚s self-organizing sensors and effectors; these tiny devices, that can manipulate matter, will be able to form wireless networks without human intervention.
Meanwhile, in business, companies are wiring up digital nervous systems that connect together everything involved in their operations: IT systems, factories and employees, as well as suppliers, customers, and products. Their aim is to be able to monitor everything important in real-time. Companies are developing ‘dashboards’ that will measure key indicators and compare their performance against goals – and alert managers if a deviation becomes large enough to warrant action. Control-obsessed firms, among them GE, the world’s largest – aspire to convert their information flows into a vast spread-sheet creating, as Ludwig Siegele put it in The Economist, not a new economy but a “now economy”.
This new wave of technology push confronts us with a design dilemma. The design of Large Technical Systems, pervasive software, and the inaptly named ‘ambient intelligence’, is an almost unimaginably complex process. To be effective in such a context, design needs to be renewed, and transformed. But in what ways? And how? During the 1990s, we were told that complexity was ‘out of control’ – too complex to understand, let alone to shape, or re-direct. But out-of-control is an ideology, not a fact. Flows can be designed.
The design agenda for flow has two parts: designing ways to perceive flows; and re-designing the design process itself. Firstly, in order to do things differently, we need to see things differently. We know, for example, that buildings consume a lot of energy – but we don’t see‚ heat flying out of the windows. If we did, our behaviour would probably change. We therefore need ‘dashboards’ for cities and buildings, not just for big companies. We need to experience the systems and processes on which we depend, in order to look after them.
Designing these experiences will not be easy. Systems and flows are, by their nature, invisible, and we lack evocative metaphors or mental models to help us make sense of the bigger picture. But many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times: physicists have illustrated quarks; biologists have mapped the genome; doctors have described immune systems in the body; network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. And as Malcolm McCullough points out, geodata industries are exploding.
The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside – it is to enable action. The second challenge for design in the space of flows, therefore, is the transition from designing things, to designing systems – and from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. Systems and processes never stop changing, so neither can design. A continuous model of design is increasingly the norm in information technology, and in management consulting. Architecture as a service, rather than an art? Now there’s a thought.
UN Studio

Many of these trends are evident in the work if UN Studio. Its principals, Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, have particular expertise in the design of transport interchanges in projects that can last years. These have become epicentres of extraordinarily complex spatial and building design processes. Increasingly, in the design of these complex places, high-tech simulations and physical structure influence each other. The design of multi-modal, multi-functional, multi-temporal transport intersections is particularly advanced in the Netherlands, where van Berkel and Bos have been ‘designing inside diagrammes’ since the mid 1990s.
“The diagramme functions for us as a sort of mediator” van Berkel explains; “we see it as an external element, in between the object and the subject, which we use to introduce other themes and organizations into a project with the aim of escaping from pre-existing typologies”. Right now UN Studio use diagrams two ways. First, for what they call the “the proportioning” of information – representing visually, and where possible in real-time, variable phenomena for a specific location such as climate, budget, construction processes, orientation, and activities. “The aim is to have a generative, proliferating, unfolding effect on the project…not only during its development in the studio, but also afterward, in its public use”, explains Caroline Bos.
A project like Arnhem Central exemplifies this convoluted type of public construction. The high-density project concentrates 160,000 m2 of mixed programme (transfer hall, underground car park for 1,000 cars and 5,000 bicycles, tunnel, shops, offices) on a 40,000-m2 site. Six different transport systems converge on the station area. Every weekday 55,000 travellers move through the location as they transfer from one system to another. Movement studies [PICS] are the cornerstone of UN Studio’ design proposals: the analysis of the types or movement on location includes the directions of the various trajectories, their prominence in relation to other forms of transportation on the site, duration, links to different programmes, and interconnections. The “Klein Bottle” diagramme [PIC] served as a reference for the spatial transformation of a surface into a whole.
Van Berkel and Bos describe as “deep planning” the process by which they scan a site for its flow structure. “These scans reveal its real problems and potentials,” says van Berkel; “the flows of the physical movements of people and goods reveal the relations between duration and territorial use”. The typical product of deep planning is a situation-specific, dynamic, organizational structural plan, using scenarios, diagrams, parameters, formulas and themes, that encompasses the mapping of political, managerial, planning, community and private relations.
Recently, van Berkel and Bos have looked outside architecture for inspirational images and diagrams. “Francis Bacon called his paintings diagrammes”, recalls van Berkel, adding that Gilles Deleuze was fascinated by the ways Bacon transformed the human figure into abstract forms. “Diagrams are instrumental”, he emphasizes; “they refer to something. They are kind of map. Maps may look abstract, but they always point at something. Diagrams are maps that point at organization – which can be the organization of space, or time, or movement, or any abstract but no less real phenomena”.
Diagrams are also a way to involve clients in the design process, and to modify the way a building is used through time. “When designing for people are in these perpetual motion environments”, says Bos, “ it’s a matter of combining circulation, with experiences they may have along the way. It’s not enough to design for pure movement: you have to build-in spaces, activities and intersections where people will leave the flow”. Pure movement is indeed bad for business. I recall an anecdote by Jan Benthem, master architect of Schiphol Airport, in which the commercial guys insisted he remove an area of seating to make way for another corridor of shops. The result was the opposite of that intended: revenues per square metre in the new shops, and in existing ones next to them, actually decreased. It transpired that the re-design had created a kind of canyon through which passengers rushed like white water in the Rocky Mountains – too fast to stop and shop. The seats were put back.
UN Studio pay attention to what they call “kaleidoscope moments” – the turns in flows where movement is tighter or more compact, or where you cross over other flows. “We are beginning to realise that obstacles to flow can be functional and add value, too” says van Berkel.”We work closely with infrastructure and traffic managers” adds Bos; “who usually have deep expertise about the possibilities, but also limits, in reconfiguring the flows of large numbers of people” Bos recalls a typically arcane piece of advice, that the heat generated by 20,000 people in an art gallery can damage paintings.
For their project to develop a pier in Genoa, Italy, UN Studio have transformed a 23,000 m2 harbour pier into a three-dimensional piazza. Four main clusters each address a different theme: entertainment, well-being, technology, and commercial experience. The design uses time-based planning represented diagrammatically as a circle of experience. Programmes in the piazza are organised around clockwise activities clustered on the basis of views, time of day, and time of year. Coffee can be taken in the morning sun with a view towards the sea; midday shopping offers shadow; evenings are spent watching the sunset. [PIC 24-hour distribution of active programs].
Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, principals of UN Studio in Amsterdam, are among the speakers at Doors of Perception 7 on the theme of Flow. The conference takes place in In Amsterdam on 14,15,16 November 2002.

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Design-recast: the world as spread-sheet

A lecture given to the Design Recast conference organised (by Jouke Kleerebezem) at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht.
Trying to get a grip on design is rather like trying to grab hold of a shoal of herring. Orca whales do this by blowing upside-down funnels of air bubbles from underneath the shoal – somewhat like a martini glass – and then gulp the whole lot down in one go as the shoal swirls helplessly round. After the last couple of days, I can’t decide whether I feel like a herring, or the whale…
Architecture and design have to change faster if they are to be effective, or even meaningful, in today’s context. We have filled the world with complex systems and technologies – on top of the natural ones that were already here, and social-cultural systems that have evolved over thousands of years. We live in world of human, natural, and industrial systems whose complex interactions are hard to comprehend. These systems are, by their nature, invisible – so we lack the clear mental models that we might otherwise use to make sense of the bigger picture. The design of Large Technical Systems, pervasive software, and the inaptly named ‘ambient intelligence’, is an almost unimaginably complex process. To be effective in such a context, design needs to be renewed, and transformed. But in what ways? And how?
In recent years we were told that these systems were ‘out of control’ – too complex to understand, let alone to shape, or re-direct. But ‘out of control’ is an ideology, not a fact. In architecture, in particular, this ideology fostered a kind of cultural autism, an absorption in self-centered subjective activity, accompanied by a marked withdrawal from reality.
But there is something we can do. It’s called design: the “first signal of human intention”.
If you look at the mainstream of architecture, the prospects for change look bleak. Many design professionals have retreated into denial and narcissism. Their projects deal mainly with appearances, and are fashioned to enhance the celebrity of their creators. More insidious are those designers who have adopted the language of complexity and networks – only to become craven servants of what Manuel Castells calls “The Automaton” or Alasdair Grey, in Lanark, “The Machine”.
Exulting in forces ‘too big for us to control’, this second group has taken it upon themselves to amplify, to accelerate, the powerful forces unleashed by neo-liberal values (or the lack of them) and new technology. These designers don’t just go with the flow, they speed it up. The result is the glorification of fast cities, of extra large cities, and of 24-hour cities – a big interest in fast trains, and in high-end shopping – but little attention to social quality, learning, innovation, or sustainability.
Things are not much better in communication design. We do not know how to design communication. We know how to design messages, yes: the world is awash in print and ads and packaging and e-trash and spam. But these are all one-way messages, the output of a point-to-mass mentality that lies behind the brand intrusion and semiotic pollution that despoil our perceptual landscape. I’ll return to this issue later; right now I want to focus on two missing communication flows that need to be designed: social communication, and ecological communication.
That sad picture, for me, is the empty half of the bottle. But the bottle of design innovation is half-full – and rising. Profound change in design is already underway. Being bottom-up, and outside in, these changes are barely visible on the official radars of architecture – its media, schools, and professional bodies. But these changes are real.
I will focus on two axes in this transformation of the design process. The first axis concerns the understanding and perception of processes that shape today’s shifting urban conditions. The second axis is about modes of intervention – exploring new kinds of design moves in which we are blind to the precise outcome of particular actions – but militant promoters of the core values I mentioned above: social quality, learning, innovation, and sustainability.
Design for legibility
The emerging model of architectural and urban design incorporates what we know about the behaviour of biological organisms, the geometry and information processing systems of the brain, and the morphology of information networks. In order to do things differently, we first need to see things differently. We need to re-connect with the systems and processes on which we depend. We need to understand them, in order to look after them.
Many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have described immune systems in the body, and among communities. Network designers have mapped communication flows between continents, and in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. So far, these representations have been used, by specialists, as objects of research – not as the basis for real-time design. That is now changing. Real-time representations are becoming viable design tools.
Representations of energy flows, for example, are now achievable. And a priority. All our design processes should aspire to reduce the ecological footprint of a city. Man and nature share the same resources for building and living. An ecological approach will drastically reduce construction energy and materials costs, and allow most buildings in use to export energy rather than consume it. Natural ecosystems have complex biological structures: they recycle their materials, permit change and adaptation, and make efficient use of ambient energy. Real-time representations of energy performance can help us move closer to that model in the artificial world.
I emphasize that I am not talking about simulations, here, but about real-time representations.
We should also visualize connectivity. Many of us here, I am sure, enjoy charts that map the number of people connected to the Internet, or the flows of bits from one continent to another. They make really sexy infographics. But I am not just talking about information as spectacle, or as porn. An active intervention in the architecture of connectivity means mapping communication flows in order to optimise them. We need to understand overlapping webs of suppliers, customers, competitors, adults, and children – to identify communication blockages and then to fix the ‘plumbing’ where flows don’t work.
We also need to investigate change processes at a ground level. In a recent issue of Hunch, edited by my friend Jennifer Sigler at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, I lauded a project called Wild City which mapped the interactions between non-regulated processes (street traders) and existing city fabrics (the green market, or a department store). I’m not convinced that the researchers’ initial research hypothesis was proved: they set out “to point out the undiscovered potentials of specific locations” – but, for me, that was not the main point. The Wild City project delivered new notational tools for perceiving ‘actors’ and ‘forces’ that previously did not figure – to use a fusty architectural term – in urban design notation.
A further design challenge would render more of these process representations visceral. Maurice Merleau Ponty, an early critic of blueprint thinking in architecture and design, said that we need to move beyond “high altitude thinking… towards a closer engagement with the world made flesh”. And Luis Fernandez-Galiano, in his remarkable book Fire and memory, argues that we need to shift our perceptions “from the eye to the skin” – to develop not just an understanding but also a feeling of how complex urban flows and processes work.
Architects are not famous for being in touch with their feelings, so I do not anticipate fast progress on this particular front.
Sense-and-respond design

Evolution operates without prior knowledge of what is to come – that is, without design. But culture does not. The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside. It is to enable action. We need to develop a shared vision of what we need to do, together, and how. We need to re-discover intentionality and learn, once we can read them, how to shape emergent urban and industrial processes.
A first step is learning how to think backwards from a desired outcome. To identify the things that need fixing, and to foster creativity in the search for new questions, we need to become expert at a process called ‘back-casting’ .We learned a lot about this technique during the 1990s at the Vormgevingsinstituut in Amsterdam. The trick is to develop scenarios of everyday life in the not-too-distant future: for example, a city in which 90 per cent of food is eaten within 50km of where it is produced; or a community in which fifty per cent of the teaching in a local school is done by people living in the area; or a health system based on peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing among hospitals, doctors, and citizens, enabled by the web. [The best book I know on such scenarios, by the way, is David Siegel’s Futurize your enterprise. Our own book Presence: new media and older people is also pretty good].
We put these scenarios into workshops with professionals from mixed backgrounds, and asked them to work the consequences through backwards from then, to now. On that ‘backwards’ road, we developed the capacity to spot opportunities at the juncture between physical and virtual networks, and to imagine relationships and connections where none existed before (in much the same way that processes were visualised in Wild City).
Back casting and scenarios are neither fantasies, nor a new variety of theoretical onanism. Design scenarios are about the real world. We need to use as design tools, as the basis for real-world interventions to ‘steer’ complex urban transformations. Scenarios can help us connect an understanding of urban genetics with real-time actions to nudge ‘self’ organising systems in a desired direction.
[I should mention that design scenarios are quite different from autonomous or so-called intelligent design tools, such as genetic algorithms and cellular automata. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) community has shown that it is feasible to design self-generating code that can plot the lines of complex shapes, such as a boat hull. It was once thought that ‘intelligent’, generative design tools might help architects design the processes or codes, the ‘rules of the game’ or ‘shape grammars’, by which forms are generated, rather than the end product itself in detail. Researchers continue to look for ways to harness the formidable power of computers to do prototyping, modelling, testing and evaluation, thus compressing the time and space needed for products to evolve. For researchers like John Fraser this means designing the overall system: “you design the rules, rather than the actual individual stylistic detail of the product”.
But neither shape-generating algorithms, nor self-replicating software viruses, are appropriate for the continuous intervention in continuously evolving urban systems – for three reasons. First, because urban processes are not shapes. Second, because self-replicating software does not allow for sense-and-respond feedback. Third, because intelligent design tools are just that: tools. They can and do exist independently of the physical and social context without which a sense-and-respond design process is impossible.
In biology, they describe as choronomic, the influence on a process of geographic or regional environment. Choronomy adds value; a lack of context destroys it.
The irony is that while city and building designers have been flirting with semi-autonomous, evolutionary design processes, the most advanced software designers, who call themselves ‘extreme programmers’, are headed in the opposite direction – back towards human-steered design. Extreme programmers prefer to do it, than watch it. They have come to value individuals, and interactions among them, over abstract processes and tools. They find it more important to engage directly with working software, than to labour at the design of self-organizing systems. These principles are the basis of a new movement in software called The Agile Alliance.
As designers, we all need to be Agile. Our best intentions – for social quality, for sustainability, for learning, for play – will remain just that – intentions – until we complete the transition from designing on the world to designing in the world.
Natural, human and industrial systems are all around us – they are not below, outside, or above us. In design, if we are to take this new subject-object relationship seriously, we need to shift from a concern with objects and appearances, towards a focus on enhanced perceptions of complex processes – and their continuous optimisation.
We need to think of ‘world’ as a verb, not as a noun. We need to think of rowing the boat, not just of drawing it.
The transformation from designing for people, to designing with people, will not be easy. Anyone using a system – responding to it, interacting with it, feeding back into it – changes it. Complex technical systems – be they physical, or virtual, or both – are shaped, continuously, by all the people who use them. Think of Netscape, or Napster. In the world as a verb, it won’t work to treat people as users, or consumers or viewers. We need to think of people – of ourselves – as actors.
As designers, our role is evolving from shaping, to steering; from being the ‘authors’ of a finished work, into facilitators who help people act more intelligently, in a more design-minded way, in the systems they live in.
Our business models in design also have to change. The idea of a self-contained design project – of ‘signing off’, when a design is finished – makes no sense in a world whose systems don’t stop changing. Design’s project-based business model is like a water company that delivers a bucket of water to your door and pronounces its mission accomplished. We need to evolve new business models for design – models that enable design to operate as a continuous service, not as manufacturing process.
One scenario, which we are discussing next week at a workshop on new business models in Ivrea, is a design economy based on service contracts, such as those used by big management consultancy firms.
Someone told me that every lecture should end with an answer to the question: what do I do with this information on Monday morning, when I go back to work? It’s a reasonable question, but I can’t answer it directly. Italo Calvino, however, tells a wonderful story – so I’ll tell you his.” Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later, the drawing was not begun.” I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu.The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect ever seen”.
For Calvino, literature was a search for knowledge.” My work as a writer”, he said, has, from the beginning, aimed at tracing the lightning flashes of mental circuits that capture and link points distant from each other in space and time”. Might we not think of design in a similar way?
Maastricht April 2002

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Flow: from the new economy to the “now economy”

A preview of the Doors 7 conference written for Form magazine in Germany.
Chris Pacione did not set out to be the designer of a wireless service. On the contrary: the co-founder of BodyMedia took a communication design course at an engineering school – Carnegie Mellon University – and fully expected to become a product designer “But as soon as we started BodyMedia” says Pacione, ” it became clear that our object was only one part of a bigger picture. We had to become service designers – and after that, business model designers – in order to survive”.
BodyMedia’s product is a hybrid of hard and soft features. What you see on Pacione’s arm is a wearable computer, with wireless capability. But that object is just one part of the story. The company develops and sells wearable body monitors and software that collects, stores, analyses and displays continuous and accurate physiological and lifestyle data, such as energy expenditure (calories burned), level of activity, sleep states, and other important physiological data – anytime, anywhere. A website shows you charts that compare your body’s performance to average or ideal charts, thus enabling you to see at a glance if you are taking enough exercise, sleeping too much, or eating too many calories. As well as object design – the industrial design of the object on your arm, its shape, weight, materials, engineering and so on – Pacione and his colleagues had to design the appearance and organization of information on the website. They also had to design the ways people would buy the product, and pay for it; they have had to adjust the company’s business model continuously. At first they thought consumers might obtain the product free-of-charge, and pay for a “wellness monitoring service” – in much the way that we sometimes get a satellite dish, or TV set-top box, for free, and pay for programmes by a monthly subscription. But the marketing costs of that business model were too high, so BodyMedia switched to selling the product to sportsmen and women as a high-tech training aid. This did not work – the unit price was too high – so, now, BodyMedia sells its hybrid product-and-service to insurance companies and health-care providers in a business-to-business model. Says Pacione, “we never stop designing the object, the way it’s used, the way the information is presented, and the way people pay for it”.
Service and flow

BodyMedia’s story is paradigmatic of the way traditional ‘thing’ design is evolving into a complex hybrid called service and flow design. We are in a transition from an economy of transactions – selling and buying things – to what Paul Hawken in Natural Capitalism calls “an ecology of relationships and contexts”. Advanced companies such as Bodymedia are focusing on the innovation of new services, and new business models, rather than on new technology by itself. As Hawken explains it, a service and flow economy is based on a shift from the acquisition of goods as a measure of affluence to “the continuous receipt of quality, utility, and performance that promotes well-being”.
The context and infrastructure for the emerging service and flow economy are provided by a new technological paradigm, pervasive computing. Pervasive computing (it is also known as ubiquitous computing; embedded computing; the disappearing computer, things that think, things that link, connected appliances, smartifacts, or ambient intelligence) describes the ways we are suffusing the world with not just with sensors, but also with responsive smart materials and actuators. There are already hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet, and most of these chips will soon talk to each other. These chips will find their way into most of the objects that surround us – buildings, airplanes, doors, door handles, clothing – even our bodies. And they will speak in languages such as Bluetooth. (Bluetooth was the nickname of a Danish king called Harald who, through his impressive communication skills, united Norway and Denmark in the 10th century; an industry consortium named its wireless standard Bluetooth because it allows users to unite through communication).
The military is driving many developments in the use of sensors, tags, and remote monitoring in the physical world. John Gage of Sun Microsystems anticipates that we will soon sprinkle “smart dust” over battlefields – clouds of tiny wireless sensors, thermometers, miniature microphones, electronic noses, location detectors that will provide information about the physical world, and the people crossing it, to battlefield commanders. One company, Graviton, builds ever-cheaper sensors using MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) – tiny sensors that convert analogue data about anything physical – pressure, light, gas – into bits and bytes, which they communicate wirelessly to a network. Another company, WhereNet, has developed a system of matchbox-sized wireless tags and readers that allow objects to be located within about 3m making it much easier to keep track of them. (It is reported in The Economist that American Airlines has installed the system in its huge cargo facility at Dallas Fort Worth).
Soon, radio frequency identification tags (RF Tags) will replace today’s ubiquitous barcodes; groceries, for example, will no longer have to be scanned in individually. With 60,000 product lines in an average US supermarket, one quickly sees why the global market for such sensors is predicted to reach $50 billion in 2008 (according to Intechno Consulting in Basle, Switzerland).
These sensors will generate a phenomenal amount of data, “raising the spectre”, as The Economist, said recently,” of a new level of information overload”. Researchers are therefore developing novel information architectures, such as an operating system for smart dust that lets sensors and actuators form wireless networks without human intervention. Jakub Wejchert, who manages the EU’s Disappearing Computer programme, says that such self-organizing technology might make another dream come true: sensors will combine their skills with effectors, tiny devices that can manipulate matter, making it possible to create ‘smartifacts’ – smart materials and intelligent artefacts. http://www.disappearing-computer.net
Unfrozen music

Inspired by Goethe’s comment that “architecture is frozen music”, the writer Malcom McCullough has describes then ten steps by which pervasive or ubiquitous computing begins to “melt” traditional buildings and products: “1 sites and devices are embedded with microprocessors; 2 sensors pick up what is going on; 3 communication links form ad hoc networks of devices; 4 tags identify actors; 5 actuators close the loop; 6 controls make it interactive; 7 display spreads out; 8 spatial information becomes available, useful, and necessary; 9 agents act; 10 tuning overcomes rigidity”. Pervasive computing thereby confronts us with a design dilemma. We are filling our world with complex technical systems – on top of the natural systems that were already here, and social/cultural ones that evolved over thousands of years – without thinking much, if at all, about the consequences.
That’s why the concept of service and flow is so timely: it provides us with the context and infrastructure for a service and flow economy. Service and flow among a crop of new business metaphors that all describe a shift from fixity to fluidity – in business processes, as in products. As Ludwig Siegele explained in The Economist, “companies are wiring up digital nervous systems that connect together everything involved in their operations – IT systems, factories and employees, as well as suppliers, customers, and products”. In processes described dryly as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Enterprise Resource Management (ERM) or Supply Chain Integration (SCI), companies aspire to monitor everything important in “real-time”. Companies are trying, says Siegele, “to collect data from any point In space or time where a customer ‘touches’ a company – such as a store, a call centre or a website – and develop “dashboards”, that will measure key indicators, compare their performance against goals, and alert managers if a deviation becomes large enough to warrant action”. Some of the world’s biggest companies want to convert their worldwide information flows into a vast spread-sheet creating, not a new economy but a “now economy”.
Design agendas for flow

Two design issues are common both to a small start-up like BodyMedia, and to a giant multinational like GE: first, the necessity to design ways to perceive flows; and secondly, the need to move from a product-based, to a continuous model of innovation.
Firstly, in order to do things differently, we need to see things differently. We need to re-connect with the systems and processes on which we depend. We need to understand them, in order to look after them.
Many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have described immune systems in the body, and among communities. Network designers have mapped communication flows between continents, and in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. So far, these representations have been used, by specialists, as objects of research ˆ not as the basis for real-time design. That is now changing. Real-time representations are becoming viable design tools.
Representations of energy flows, for example, are now achievable. And a priority. All our design processes should aspire to reduce the ecological footprint of a city. Man and nature share the same resources for building and living. An ecological approach will drastically reduce construction energy and materials costs, and allow most buildings in use to export energy rather than consume it. Natural ecosystems have complex biological structures: they recycle their materials, permit change and adaptation, and make efficient use of ambient energy. Real-time representations of energy performance can help us move closer to that model in the artificial world.
I emphasize that I am not talking about simulations, here, but about real-time representations. We should also visualize connectivity. Many of us here, I am sure, enjoy charts that map the number of people connected to the internet, or the flows of bits from one continent to another. They make really sexy infographics. But I am not just talking about information as spectacle, or as porn. An active intervention in the architecture of connectivity means mapping communication flows in order to optimise them. We need to understand overlapping webs of suppliers, customers, competitors, adults, and children ˆ to identify communication blockages and then to fix the ‘plumbing’ where flows don’t work.
We need dashboards for cities and buildings, not just for big companies. We need to re-connect with the systems and processes on which we depend. We need to understand them, in order to look after them. Many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have described immune systems in the body, and among communities. Network designers have mapped communication flows between continents, and in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. So far, these representations have been used, by specialists, as objects of research not as the basis for real-time design. That is now changing. Real-time representations are becoming viable design tools.
We know, for example, that buildings consume a lot of energy – but we don’t ‘see’ heat flying out of the windows. If we did, our behaviour would probably change. Designing these experiences will not be easy. Systems are, by their nature, invisible, and we lack evocative metaphors or mental models to help us make sense of the bigger picture. But many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times: physicists have illustrated quarks; biologists have mapped the genome; doctors have described immune systems in the body; network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. Representations of energy flows, for example, are now achievable. And a priority. All our design processes should aspire to reduce the ecological footprint of a city. Man and nature share the same resources for building and living. An ecological approach will drastically reduce construction energy and materials costs, and allow most buildings in use to export energy rather than consume it. Real-time representations of energy performance can help us use buildings and places in new and more sustainable (and cheaper) ways.
These process representations need where possible to be visceral. The philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty, an early critic of blueprint thinking in design, said that we need to move “beyond high altitude thinking… towards a closer engagement with the world made flesh”. And Luis Fernandez-Galiano, in his remarkable book Fire and memory, argues that we need “to shift our perceptions from the eye to the skin – to develop not just an understanding but a feeling of how complex urban flows and processes work”. Architects are not famous for being in touch with their feelings, so I do not anticipate fast progress on this particular front. “The role of design in these places becomes making visible that which is invisible. – creating seismographs, ways of reading the flowing surface realities of both digital and analogue data. Ways of reading them, as they will surely read us”, says the writer Rob van Kranenburg.
Sense and respond

The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside – it is to enable action. The second challenge for design in the space of flows, therefore, is the transition from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. We need to shift from a concern with objects and appearances, towards a focus on enhanced perceptions of complex processes – and their continuous optimisation.
We need to think of the world as a verb, not as a noun. Natural, human and industrial systems are all around us. They are not below, outside, or above us. “As computational processes disappear into the background, into everyday objects, both the real and the subject become contested”, says the writer Rob van Brandenburg; “the environment becomes the interface”. Products of a company like Netscape evolve continuously as thousands of users interact with its designers on a daily basis. We can learn a lot in this context from the most advanced software designers, who call themselves ‘extreme programmers’. Extreme programmers have come to value individuals, and interactions among them, over abstract processes and tools. These principles are the basis of a new movement in software called The Agile Alliance. The Agile Alliance is not anti-methodology but, as their website explains, they want to restore credibility to the word methodology. “We want to restore a balance. We embrace modelling, but not in order to file some diagram in a dusty corporate repository. We embrace documentation, but not hundreds of pages of never-maintained and rarely used tomes. We plan, but recognize the limits of planning in a turbulent environment”.
As designers, too, our role needs to evolve from shaping, to steering – from being the ‘authors’ of a finished work, into facilitators who help people act more intelligently, in a more design-minded way, in the systems they live in. This transition from designing for people, to designing with people, will not be easy. Systems and processes, services and flows, never stop changing – so neither can design. Anyone using a system – responding to it, interacting with it, feeding back into it – changes it. Complex technical systems – be they physical, or virtual, or both – are shaped, continuously, by all the people who use them. In “the world as a verb”, it won’t work to treat people as users, or consumers or viewers. We need to think of people – of ourselves – as actors.
Peter Bogh Andersen, an interaction design researcher at the University of Aalborg, compares interacting with dynamic environments to navigating a ship, and gives maritime instrumentation as an example.” When I started teaching human-computer interaction in the 1980s,” he recalls, “the ideal was that the user should be in control of the system. The system should not act unless the user asked it to do so. On process control, however, the situation is quite different. Here, physical processes are running independently of the user whose task is partially to control them. The art of navigation is similar: it is to pit the controllable forces – rudder, propeller – against the uncontrollable ones to achieve ones purpose”. Andersen describes as “an adversary”, the sea and the wind, that thwarts your intentions, and says you have to be skilful and smart to win the battle. “In such areas, design guidelines that assume an essentially passive system are no longer valid, and new ones must be formulated”. This raises three design issues: First, how can we support the changing information needs that occur during a voyage? Second, how to present the basic conflict, between the controllable and uncontrollable, in a clear way? And third, how can we make the ship system understandable so that the proud old maritime tradition of self-reliance can live on in the electronic world?” As designers, our role in society is evolving from shaping, to steering; from being the authors‚ of a finished work, into facilitators who help people act more intelligently, in a more design-minded way, in the systems they live in.
Our business models in design also have to change. The idea of a self-contained design project, or of ‘signing off’, when a design is finished, makes no sense in a world whose systems don’t stop changing. The project-based model found throughout the design world today is like water company that delivers a bucket of water to your door and pronounces its mission accomplished. Or think of your own website: it needs attention constantly, like a child, or a garden. We need to evolve new business models for design as we transition from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. Not as manufacturing process that delivers finished products. One scenario is service contracts, such as those used by big management consultancy firms.

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Architecture, spectacle, performance

A chapter for the catalogue of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2002, edited by Deyan Sudjic (who was also overall Director of the event).
A few years ago I met a woman in Bombay who was completing her PhD in social anthropology. She had just returned from her last field trip to Rajhastan where she had spent time with a group of travelling storytellers. This particular group went from village to village, unannounced, and would simply start a performance in the village square. Although each story would have a familiar plot the story telling tradition dates back thousands of years ˆ each event would be unique. Prompted by the storytellers, who held up pictorial symbols on sticks, villagers would interact with the story. They would be part of the performance. I commented to the woman that with that depth of knowledge about interaction, and the combined use of words and images, she could get a job with Microsoft tomorrow. ‘What’s Microsoft? ‘, Was her reply.
This encounter confirmed my prejudice that we have forgotten how to design for communication and interaction. We know how design messages, yes: the world is awash in print and ads and packaging and e-trash and spam. And we know to design one-way-communication buildings: hundreds of sports stadia, museums, theatres, science and convention centres have been built in recent years. Most of these buildings do an adequate technical job in delivering spectacles to passive crowds – but they are all about one-way messages. In the open air, as in the Indian villages my friend described, people cluster around a speaker. Children wriggle through to kneel at the front. As the crowd grows, the more distant and adventurous will seek a higher vantage point tree, rock, wall, or balcony. The courtyard form of theatre evolved from there and remains the root form for most later theatrical development. It simply grew in size and sophistication. Today’s monumental, overblown and inhospitable theatre and arena architecture is the creation of a point-to-mass mentality that lies behind the brand intrusion and semiotic pollution that despoil so many of our perceptual and physical landscapes.
A lot of the push towards a post-spectacular culture – perhaps surprisingly – comes from business and technology. The chicken breasts in my supermarket have started to bear a photograph of the farmers who rear the birds, plus a little story about their place. Globalisation promoted ‘anytime, anywhere’ as a value – but attention is shifting back from space to place. Even telecommunication companies see location as the next big thing. The new business thinking is that mass things – mass production, mass communications, and large public spectacles – are relatively easy for upstart competitors to copy. Abuzz with talk of closed and open systems, large firms now believe that the best way to compete is by making things more complicated, not less. Complex services, and customised experiences, will be harder for newcomers to imitate. Business has decided that there’s money to be made in customisation and authenticity. The idea is to make a real-time ‘now economy’. Vivek Ranadive, author of the power of now, has a rather precise vision of what he calls the “event-driven firm”. Business is also responding to spectacular erosion in brand loyalty, which calls into question the fundamentals of modern marketing.
A similar change of mood is evident in the traditional worlds of performance. In theatre, for example, big is over. Big concepts, big-ticket productions – and the big marketing budgets needed to make them pay – are out of favour. Tony Graham, Director of the Unicorn Children’s Theatre in London, looked at more than 100 buildings in London before deciding to commission a new theatre on the River Thames. “Scale is crucial in theatre” he says; “300-400 people is the maximum size at which you can be both epic and intimate, and we simply could not find a space that would allow us to those in the way we need to do”. A 1500 person audience creates a differerent sense of what theatre is about. Prosaic issues to do with access play an important role: where do coaches park, how far is it to the tube, and so on. But. Graham’s brief to Theatre Projects, who lead the functional design of his new theatre, was to move away the proscenium arch model, with its picture-book illusion of looking into a room. “We are moving back to the amphitheatre model which thrusts the stage into the body of the audience”, says Graham; “audiences today don’t want trickery, special effects and illusion. They want to see things as they are, without artifice”. The amphitheatre model favoured by Graham “heightens the human figure and strips things back to the minimum”.
Many in the theatre world question whether new buildings are needed at all. Big theatres, in particular, tend to sap energy out of productions and money out of their producers. Some producers have taken literally to the streets in so-called ‘promenade’ and site-specific theatre. In these Chaucer-like journeys, players and audience move together around cities, through forests, up mountains, or into resonant but abandoned or found spaces. The significance of place, and the localisation of knowledge, is now taken as seriously by companies as by theatre people. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid emphasize in The Social Life of Information, a lot of what we learn is remarkable local: History. Agriculture. Politics. Art. Geology. Viticulture. Forestry. Conservation. Ocean Science. For the writer Charles Hampden-Turner, too, we learn through participation in collaborative human activities. “Knowledge as it grows is necessarily social,” he writes, “the shared property of extended groups and networks”.
What matters most in a post-spectacular world is activity, not architecture. As the director Peter Brook once said, it is not a question of good building and bad; “a beautiful place may never bring about an explosion of life, while a haphazard hall may be a tremendous meeting place. This is the mystery of the theatre… studying what it is that brings about the more vivid relationships between people.” In biology, they describe as choronomic the influence on a process of geographic or regional environment. Choronomy adds value; a lack of context destroys it. We all deserve to spend time in safe, pleasant and comfortable surroundings, rather than their opposite; but, beyond that, most buildings will surely do – for performance, for learning, for all forms of social connection.
Given that more space is needed for shared learning activities, many involving performance and interaction, where will it come from – and who will pay for it? Happily, large, expensive, centrally located informal environments, suitable for learning and performance, already exist in most cities in the form of museums, science, and media centres. The majority of these facilities were conceived and are now run as leisure facilities, spectacles for public and tourists who only ever visit them once. These buildings are therefore ripe to be commandeered and re-purposed as sites of informal learning.
Some of their Directors are eager for such a change. James Bradburne, for example, Director of the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Frankfurt, despairs that exhibition design ever since the 1950s has been “obsessed with the message – the storyline – and has seen itself as one of the broadcast media, reaching out to the masses with its messages”. The apotheosis of this approach is the Guggenheim, whose director, Thomas Krens, turned the Guggenheim into a theme-park-like franchise operation and that now competes with Disney for the property and leisure developer’s dollar. The word ‘exhibit’ is at the heart of criticisms of the museum and science centre model where, once again, a point-to-mass model of communication prevails.
Instead of looking at the design task as creating exhibits, modernisers like James Bradburne have shifted their focus from the exhibit as an end-in-itself to the exhibit as a setting for interaction between and among participants: discussion, dialogue, debate are the goal. Just as with theatre. At NewMetropolis in Amsterdam, where Bradburne’s ideas were first implemented, the emphasis was not on science and technology, per se, but on being human beings in a world rapidly being transformed by science and technology. “Our aim was to foster skills of experimentation, abstraction, collaboration, and systems thinking”, says Bradburne, who led the design team there before moving to Frankfurt. Puzzles, challenges, simulations and role-playing games were at the heart of his design strategy. “Our goal was to stimulate self-initiated exploration, encourage sustained engagement, and repeat use, and provided a framework in which competence demonstrably increases”. Bradburne uses the metaphor of the piazza – in contrast to the arena – to describe this kind of museum as a resource to be used, rather than visited, or looked at.
The best collaboration environments provide the opportunity to meet, share ideas, discuss, and learn from each other’s experiences. Seen in this way, anyone who plays a role in shaping a learning or performance environment – whether they are by training a researcher, a teacher, a multimedia specialist, a programmer, or an industrial designer – is a designer. Design must allow the user the shape her experience. “Design doesn’t end with the opening”, says Bradburne, “it begins with the opening”.
Theatre and museum people are not alone in their search for a more rooted, animated context in which to work. Richard Sennet once complained, „When public space becomes a derivative of movement, it loses any independent experiential meaning of its own. On the most physical level, these environments of pure movement prompt people to think of the public domain as meaningless… It is catatonic space‰ The word catatonic is horribly apt as a description of the way many great modern spaces make us feel – arenas and stadia designed for passive crowds, as much as airports and hub wastelands such as Eurolille.
The problem is not new. Throughout the twentieth century artists intervened in a variety of ways into man-made space: futurism, cubist collage, Duchamp‚s ready-mades, Dada, constructivism, surrealism, Fontana‚s spatialism, Fluxus, land art, arte povera, process art, conceptualism: in all these groups the deadness and catatonia of modern public space were perceived to be both as a rebuke, and a challenge. They prepared site-specific installations and events whose meaning was to be gathered by the viewer over time. (Performance art itself was born in a fistfight in 1910 between Italian Futurists and Venetian townspeople reacted in anger when 800,000 manifestoes “Against Past-Loving Venice” were scattered upon them). The tradition has persisted that, in Marinetti’s words, “there is no artifice here: this is happening now, in real-time”.
Today, even real-time is mediated. In the age of the rave, street-level events have become big productions. Festivals, concerts, corporate events, church pageants, and fashion shows vie with each other tin the quality and sophistication of their production. The supply and use of technology for live performance is a large speciality business in itself: hundreds of companies specialise in every conceivable variety of lighting, sound systems, staging, video walls, and endless special effects. The rapid evolution of digital media, advanced materials and other technologies has further opened the way for technology to penetrate live performance. The design and evaluation of alternative musical and lighting controllers is currently the leading edge of an ongoing dialogue between technology and musical culture
It is not just real-time performance that is mediated. So is “here”. With the advent of broadband video, satellite and wireless, and fixed networks, live performance has entered the realm of the reproducible and in the words of one critic, “barriers between the televisual and the performative are breaking down”. The human actor who shares the same space and time with a body of spectators can now, to a degree, share other spaces and other times with different actors – in so-called electronic arenas in which spatial technologies, especially multi-user virtual environments, are coupled to new forms of artistic content and an understanding of social interaction.
But even in virtualised, networked contexts, the cultural drive is to support interactive performance and interaction, not passive spectacle. A European project called eRENA, for example, investigated a range of inhabited information spaces in which participants would be mobile and socially active. Audience members as well as performers and artists would explore, interact, communicate with one another and participate in staged events. Through concepts such as ‘dynamic crowd aggregations’, the aim was to support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous participants, bridging the gap between current small scale, real-time communication technologies such as video conferencing, and current massive-scale non-participative broadcast technologies such as television. The Erena consortium brought together digital artists, experts in multi-user virtual reality and computer animation, social scientists, broadcasters, experts in expertise in CAVEs and other projected interfaces, networking expertise, spatial technologies and novel artistic content. Avatars, both as individuals and in potentially large and dynamic crowds.
The point-to-mass age of big ticket spectacles is ending. We are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture in which performance environments will be judged by their capacity to foster interaction and learning. The trend is towards spaces, places, and communities in which complex experiences and processes combine in new geographies of learning and experience – while also exploiting the dynamic potential of networked collaboration. A division persists between designers who believe that experiences can be systematically designed, and those who feel that the designer can only set the stage for what is experienced – but the consensus is clear: we are all actors now.

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Architecture, spectacle, performance

A chapter for the catalogue of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2002, edited by Deyan Sudjic (who was also overall Director of the event).
We have forgotten how to design for communication and interaction. We know how design messages, yes: the world is awash in print and ads and packaging and e-trash and spam. And we know to design one-way-communication buildings: hundreds of sports stadia, museums, theatres, science and convention centres have been built in recent years. Most of these buildings do an adequate technical job in delivering spectacles to passive crowds – but they are all about one-way messages. In the open air, as in the Indian villages my friend described, people cluster around a speaker. Children wriggle through to kneel at the front. As the crowd grows, the more distant and adventurous will seek a higher vantage point tree, rock, wall, or balcony. The courtyard form of theatre evolved from there and remains the root form for most later theatrical development. It simply grew in size and sophistication. Today’s monumental, overblown and inhospitable theatre and arena architecture is the creation of a point-to-mass mentality that lies behind the brand intrusion and semiotic pollution that despoil so many of our perceptual and physical landscapes.
A lot of the push towards a post-spectacular culture – perhaps surprisingly – comes from business and technology. The chicken breasts in my supermarket have started to bear a photograph of the farmers who rear the birds, plus a little story about their place. Globalisation promoted ‘anytime, anywhere’ as a value – but attention is shifting back from space to place. Even telecommunication companies see location as the next big thing. The new business thinking is that mass things – mass production, mass communications, and large public spectacles – are relatively easy for upstart competitors to copy. Abuzz with talk of closed and open systems, large firms now believe that the best way to compete is by making things more complicated, not less. Complex services, and customised experiences, will be harder for newcomers to imitate. Business has decided that there’s money to be made in customisation and authenticity. The idea is to make a real-time ‘now economy’. Vivek Ranadive, author of the power of now, has a rather precise vision of what he calls the “event-driven firm�. Business is also responding to spectacular erosion in brand loyalty, which calls into question the fundamentals of modern marketing.
A similar change of mood is evident in the traditional worlds of performance. In theatre, for example, big is over. Big concepts, big-ticket productions – and the big marketing budgets needed to make them pay – are out of favour. Tony Graham, Director of the Unicorn Children�s Theatre in London, looked at more than 100 buildings in London before deciding to commission a new theatre on the River Thames. “Scale is crucial in theatre” he says; “300-400 people is the maximum size at which you can be both epic and intimate, and we simply could not find a space that would allow us to those in the way we need to do”. A 1500 person audience creates a differerent sense of what theatre is about. Prosaic issues to do with access play an important role: where do coaches park, how far is it to the tube, and so on. But. Graham’s brief to Theatre Projects, who lead the functional design of his new theatre, was to move away the proscenium arch model, with its picture-book illusion of looking into a room. “We are moving back to the amphitheatre model which thrusts the stage into the body of the audience”, says Graham; “audiences today don’t want trickery, special effects and illusion. They want to see things as they are, without artifice”. The amphitheatre model favoured by Graham “heightens the human figure and strips things back to the minimum”.
Many in the theatre world question whether new buildings are needed at all. Big theatres, in particular, tend to sap energy out of productions and money out of their producers. Some producers have taken literally to the streets in so-called ‘promenade’ and site-specific theatre. In these Chaucer-like journeys, players and audience move together around cities, through forests, up mountains, or into resonant but abandoned or found spaces. The significance of place, and the localisation of knowledge, is now taken as seriously by companies as by theatre people. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid emphasize in The Social Life of Information, a lot of what we learn is remarkable local: History. Agriculture. Politics. Art. Geology. Viticulture. Forestry. Conservation. Ocean Science. For the writer Charles Hampden-Turner, too, we learn through participation in collaborative human activities. “Knowledge as it grows is necessarily social,” he writes, “the shared property of extended groups and networks”.
What matters most in a post-spectacular world is activity, not architecture. As the director Peter Brook once said, it is not a question of good building and bad; “a beautiful place may never bring about an explosion of life, while a haphazard hall may be a tremendous meeting place. This is the mystery of the theatre… studying what it is that brings about the more vivid relationships between people.” In biology, they describe as choronomic the influence on a process of geographic or regional environment. Choronomy adds value; a lack of context destroys it. We all deserve to spend time in safe, pleasant and comfortable surroundings, rather than their opposite; but, beyond that, most buildings will surely do – for performance, for learning, for all forms of social connection.
Given that more space is needed for shared learning activities, many involving performance and interaction, where will it come from – and who will pay for it? Happily, large, expensive, centrally located informal environments, suitable for learning and performance, already exist in most cities in the form of museums, science, and media centres. The majority of these facilities were conceived and are now run as leisure facilities, spectacles for public and tourists who only ever visit them once. These buildings are therefore ripe to be commandeered and re-purposed as sites of informal learning.
Some of their Directors are eager for such a change. James Bradburne, for example, Director of the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Frankfurt, despairs that exhibition design ever since the 1950s has been “obsessed with the message – the storyline – and has seen itself as one of the broadcast media, reaching out to the masses with its messages”. The apotheosis of this approach is the Guggenheim, whose director, Thomas Krens, turned the Guggenheim into a theme-park-like franchise operation and that now competes with Disney for the property and leisure developer’s dollar. The word ‘exhibit’ is at the heart of criticisms of the museum and science centre model where, once again, a point-to-mass model of communication prevails.
Instead of looking at the design task as creating exhibits, modernisers like James Bradburne have shifted their focus from the exhibit as an end-in-itself to the exhibit as a setting for interaction between and among participants: discussion, dialogue, debate are the goal. Just as with theatre. At NewMetropolis in Amsterdam, where Bradburne’s ideas were first implemented, the emphasis was not on science and technology, per se, but on being human beings in a world rapidly being transformed by science and technology. “Our aim was to foster skills of experimentation, abstraction, collaboration, and systems thinking”, says Bradburne, who led the design team there before moving to Frankfurt. Puzzles, challenges, simulations and role-playing games were at the heart of his design strategy. “Our goal was to stimulate self-initiated exploration, encourage sustained engagement, and repeat use, and provided a framework in which competence demonstrably increases”. Bradburne uses the metaphor of the piazza – in contrast to the arena – to describe this kind of museum as a resource to be used, rather than visited, or looked at.
The best collaboration environments provide the opportunity to meet, share ideas, discuss, and learn from each other’s experiences. Seen in this way, anyone who plays a role in shaping a learning or performance environment – whether they are by training a researcher, a teacher, a multimedia specialist, a programmer, or an industrial designer – is a designer. Design must allow the user the shape her experience. “Design doesn’t end with the opening”, says Bradburne, “it begins with the opening”.
Theatre and museum people are not alone in their search for a more rooted, animated context in which to work. Richard Sennet once complained, �When public space becomes a derivative of movement, it loses any independent experiential meaning of its own. On the most physical level, these environments of pure movement prompt people to think of the public domain as meaningless… It is catatonic space� The word catatonic is horribly apt as a description of the way many great modern spaces make us feel – arenas and stadia designed for passive crowds, as much as airports and hub wastelands such as Eurolille.
The problem is not new. Throughout the twentieth century artists intervened in a variety of ways into man-made space: futurism, cubist collage, Duchamp�s ready-mades, Dada, constructivism, surrealism, Fontana�s spatialism, Fluxus, land art, arte povera, process art, conceptualism: in all these groups the deadness and catatonia of modern public space were perceived to be both as a rebuke, and a challenge. They prepared site-specific installations and events whose meaning was to be gathered by the viewer over time. (Performance art itself was born in a fistfight in 1910 between Italian Futurists and Venetian townspeople reacted in anger when 800,000 manifestoes “Against Past-Loving Venice” were scattered upon them). The tradition has persisted that, in Marinetti’s words, “there is no artifice here: this is happening now, in real-time”.
Today, even real-time is mediated. In the age of the rave, street-level events have become big productions. Festivals, concerts, corporate events, church pageants, and fashion shows vie with each other tin the quality and sophistication of their production. The supply and use of technology for live performance is a large speciality business in itself: hundreds of companies specialise in every conceivable variety of lighting, sound systems, staging, video walls, and endless special effects. The rapid evolution of digital media, advanced materials and other technologies has further opened the way for technology to penetrate live performance. The design and evaluation of alternative musical and lighting controllers is currently the leading edge of an ongoing dialogue between technology and musical culture
It is not just real-time performance that is mediated. So is “here”. With the advent of broadband video, satellite and wireless, and fixed networks, live performance has entered the realm of the reproducible and in the words of one critic, “barriers between the televisual and the performative are breaking down”. The human actor who shares the same space and time with a body of spectators can now, to a degree, share other spaces and other times with different actors – in so-called electronic arenas in which spatial technologies, especially multi-user virtual environments, are coupled to new forms of artistic content and an understanding of social interaction.
But even in virtualised, networked contexts, the cultural drive is to support interactive performance and interaction, not passive spectacle. A European project called eRENA, for example, investigated a range of inhabited information spaces in which participants would be mobile and socially active. Audience members as well as performers and artists would explore, interact, communicate with one another and participate in staged events. Through concepts such as ‘dynamic crowd aggregations’, the aim was to support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous participants, bridging the gap between current small scale, real-time communication technologies such as video conferencing, and current massive-scale non-participative broadcast technologies such as television. The Erena consortium brought together digital artists, experts in multi-user virtual reality and computer animation, social scientists, broadcasters, experts in expertise in CAVEs and other projected interfaces, networking expertise, spatial technologies and novel artistic content. Avatars, both as individuals and in potentially large and dynamic crowds.
The point-to-mass age of big ticket spectacles is ending. We are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture in which performance environments will be judged by their capacity to foster interaction and learning. The trend is towards spaces, places, and communities in which complex experiences and processes combine in new geographies of learning and experience – while also exploiting the dynamic potential of networked collaboration. A division persists between designers who believe that experiences can be systematically designed, and those who feel that the designer can only set the stage for what is experienced – but the consensus is clear: we are all actors now.

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Does your design research exist? JT’s top tips for potent presentations

An internet sage once said that a web page never accessed does not really exist. Does the same logic apply to your design research? If nobody ‘gets it’, when you present your results, has anything been achieved?
I frequently see years of work by design researchers almost wasted because they do not communicate well. Here are a couple of stories about such near-disasters, plus 15 highly-opinionated tips for design research presentations at the end.
In Amsterdam, I attended the seventh bi-annual exhibition of Young Designers and Industry, (www. ydi.nl). The show’s sub-title – “the unknown meets the unknown” – turned horribly true. Thirteen European companies, ranging from Heineken to Forbo Linoleum, had given research projects to groups of talented young designers from all over Europe. Their task was “to conceive of new concepts for products, services or strategies of the future”. A fascinating brief, good partnerships, plenty of time. How could they fail?
Here is how.

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Creativity and the City (International conference on ‘Creativity and the City’, Amsterdam, 2002)

An international conference on ““Creativity and the City” was held in Amsterdam’s former gas works, Westergasfabriek. Westergasfabriek is the latest urban project to transform a former industrial site into a public and cultural amenity, and it wanted to share the lessons it has learned, and bring together comparable projects from around the world. Doors of Perception supported the event with speaker suggestions and advance publicity; John Thackara gave a keynote lecture, “The Post-spectacular city” which has been widely cited.

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