...observations on design practice and the technium...

Note: This post contains excerpts from my keynote presentation delivered at the 2011 ACADIA Regional conference at the University of Nebraska. The word "technium" is term coined by Kevin Kelly to describe a macro view of technology in the context of human development…

1. Tools

"…we make our tools and they make us…"
Marshall McLuhan

The compass, a tool for describing circles and arcs, has transformed through time. In medieval times, the compass was a tool for 1-1 construction of architectural details by builders. Modernization shifted the compass's use in the building process to a production instrument for the creation of 2D drafted drawings.

CAD fully abstracted the compass into a representation within the machine code of a computer program. This latest transformation completely eliminates the material and physical quality of the compass and transforms the tool into a information-driven processing device with inputs and outputs.

Information itself is the material for design…

2. Ubiquity

…In the course of evolution every technology is put to the question of what happens when it becomes ubiquitous? What happens when everyone has one?…
Kevin Kelly

It is my view is that the effects of our information-driven, networked, global communication systems have yet to be fully felt in the context of the AEC industry. While CAD, 3D modeling, and BIM are nearly ubiquitous in conventional practice… the adoption of these new(ish)technologies are incremental steps in direct support of older processes and conventions. many of our design and delivery processes have fundamentally remain unchanged for decades.

We have become more efficient in our production… but where is the touted promise of industry-wide transformation? While computational architecture is the hot topic right now… what about the other domains…

  • Computational Engineering?
  • Computational Materials?
  • Computational Sustainability?
  • Computational Construction?
  • Computational Management?
  • Computational Contracting?
  • Computational Clients? (AI will need shelter, too!… but will humans be its architect?)

3. Volume (of information)

…Throughout history, measurement has been the primary method used by architects to conceive, describe, develop, and control their work. It is crucial….
Tristan d'Estre Sterk

Our digital tools enable us to measure nearly anything with amazing speed and precision. The measurement of dynamic effects (wind, solar) is as common place as the process of dimensioning a wall opening. The continuous measurement of design has thus resulted in an unprecedented volume of information about any given project. The manipulation and editing of information takes on a new level of importance well beyond our ability to generate it.

What information is important? What are the new ways we can represent design information?

4. Uncertainty

Garbage in-Garbage out GIGO A trusted scenario for information processing… the value of our outputs is directly dependent on the value of our inputs.
Value in-Garbage out VIGO A black box scenario… how do we know if our outputs can be trusted if we don’t fully understand how our inputs are being processed?
Garbage in – Value out GIVO A counter-intuitive scenario…Can seemingly useless information have value if it is processed in a new way?

While we have the capabilities to continuously measure design, we are also left with increased uncertainty about the information we generate. How was the information generated? Can it be trusted? How can we evaluate it?

The rules for evaluating our inputs and outputs are no longer obvious…

5. Simultaneity

It seems strange that an industry dependent on coordination still has yet to find a tool that enables the simultaneous transmittal and sharing of design information. Even our purportedly more advanced coordination tools (Revit, Navisworks) deal with transaction-based models of information management… Current information is checked out. Shared information is out of date.

What does a simultaneous model for collaboration look like in the context of design?

6. Open Source (collaboration)

…Only wimps use tape backup: real men just upload their important stuff on ftp, and let the rest of the world mirror it…
Linus Torvalds

When we take a macro look at the processes that enable collaboration within a project design team, three things become apparent: 1. The process is complex 2. The process grows in complexity and 3. the process works best when design information is shared openly.

The processes for generating the design must be coupled with processes for managing and sharing the design across a team. Given that most common design tools, with exception (Rhino), try to maintain a stake on the information they generate, a truly open source design scenario is difficult to achieve without a high degree of workflow customization.

Open source collaboration looks not at the design tools themselves, but at the systems for linking tools together for the free movement of information between participants.

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