Design Beyond Objects. Affordances for the 21st Century

One of the topics that currently dominates public information is the complexity of technology (in particular the one that learns) and the human capability to keep track of it. Since the origin of the word, technology has been developed in symbiosis with the human species. This is for the capacity to develop and create something capable of fulfilling a particular human need.  Nonetheless such relations is increasingly changing; society is growing fear of what technology can “think” and “do” without any advise from any human peer.  This is not a minor problem for the effects it channels; technological developments are hitting the very basic structure upon which society has been layered upon so far, which is the skills people can offer, learn and share to their communities.

In this complex relationship there is design, which role up to this point has been mediating the dynamics between human and technology through shapes and materials that facilitate/direct interaction and communication. Design is then the process of formal, sensorial and operational actions that mediate human decision-making with objects that deliver a particular technology. In the current scenario, where technology takes on independence from its users, this straightforward relationship has being broken. Objects “shell” tech of which the public has little idea; this tech designs invisible infrastructure that connects and shares information to other peers. Technology is no longer something that takes place locally, it is a networked structure of which objects are the gateways. Whether the public can still appreciate materiality and forms, there is little understanding of the purpose the object has been designed for that keeps people engaged. A kettle is not simply a kettle as well as a hover is not only a hover. As many others their functionality has been “augmented” of parameters that are little known to the majority of people. Even though these objects still perform familiar functions, like boiling water, they don’t provide the public of any knowledge regarding the technology they are designed for.

It then comes the question of what we are designing and what is design in the age of responsive technology. Can we still apply the parameters we used in the past or do we need to create new parameters that manage the relationship people have with today’s technology? What if user-centred design is something that no longer revolves around the object and the use people have of it, but thinks “at a top level” to help people help themselves. This piece of design is supposed to communicate that it is safe to trade cryptocurrency. Is it “safe” delivered through the materiality (steel like)? Does it communicate well what cryptocurrency is? What is the real safety that needs to be communicated? Is, perhaps, the public’s awareness of cryptocurrency? How can this object help people understand what they are facing when logging in? These are some of the questions I believe we should start to address to understand how design can support a new symbiotic relationship between human and technology. The question can be addressed through formal language, which directly engages people to develop a clear understanding of the object’s capabilities. Can design help people dialogue with complex systems to raise awareness and responsibility?

How that communication happens in terms of design, it is a matter research. An investigation in this area can perhaps include parameters designers and people are familiar with to develop a strategy that fosters a better understanding of the key infrastructure that runs our decisions and behaviours. The process of engaging materials, memories and the sensorial relationships people have with objects can be both strategy and form, as both mediate and deliver complexity through communication/experience. Design can foster a code of ethics; this is not for designers but for the extended community that use design.

Moving away from the cloud, design can open a new chapter where the cloud is back to planet Earth and people are more aware of the roles and personal responsibilities they have/play in a society structured upon increasingly complex systems.

 

Advertisements

The Infrastructure of Safety

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, cities moved away from open spaces. If before the barbaric attacks being next to a river would guarantee florid commercial exchanges, with the new historical conditions open spaces turned into an exposed easy target. Unaccessible natural areas became the most popular locations to guarantee the population’s security. Middle Age cities were indeed enclosed spaces surrounded by walls (or water in the case of Venice) and permanently guarded by soldiers. Through the cultural progress started in the Renaissance cities started their way out of the walls and slowly opening up to XX century Modernist urban design , were walls turned into archeological locations to visit.

The topic of the wall is back to our society (XXI century), even though people links through digital social networks that make the whole global population closer. Digital infrastructure is for us what rivers and streets were for Ancient Roman society: it enable connection for personal or business reasons and make people learn diversities of cultures, ideas, habits, lifestyles. Nonetheless the topic of the wall is trendy again. Besides the wall between the US and Mexico’s border, for which there are competition winners (believe it or not – I probably suggest to give a look at Manfredo Tafuri’s books, Antonio da Sangallo might be of help), wall is an urban and architectural “accessory” back to fashion on the topic of urban safety.

In north Italy a new residential suburban area in Treviso has been built within the perimeter of a wall to defend its community from crime. Interestingly enough Treviso is also the land where Palladio built his villas, which were one the first examples of unwalled architecture.

Recent events put attention on people’s security in public space. Nice, Berlin and London’s attacks targeted crowed spaces. The reaction to Berlin attack was to fortify pedestrian area accesses around Europe with concrete barriers. Historic and central areas became mini fortresses surrounded by police, in a similar style medieval castles were guarded by soldiers. Is this the answer? Do we need to fortify our spaces for safety reason? Do we want to go back of hundreds and hundreds of years? Walls belong to the past, together with fortified architecture and urban design (please keep Sangallo and his fellows to architectural historians not to designer). Walls don’t belong to our society and I don’t think that built infrastructure can give any answer to the problem we are currently facing. Besides the economic and unsustainable cost, people are smarter and dynamic. People adjust, while the wall, and any fortified solution, is there for ages with no possibility of change.

The approach I would go for is creative thinking. This article written by Patrick Dunleavy makes an interesting point around the way our security forces around the globe should focus; approach to security changes people’s behaviour, which is the one that can guarantee the safety of urban communities. A ban has limited impact; a way of thinking creatively, analyse data, patterns behaviour can lead to dynamic solutions with longer impact, which also adjust to changes. What I am proposing is a dynamic infrastructure of ideas that can be shared around communities and networks to learn solutions that adapt to local cultures. What I am thinking is an infrastructure of safety, that people from different cultures, background and with different expertises create to collaborate on making our neighbour, city or nation safer. As Dunleavy suggests, one of the 9/11 attacks didn’t reach its destinations; people reacted. I do hope we can prevent to put people in a danger that leads to sacrifice lives. The understanding of how we can create systems that make people prepared to react and act to save lives looks to me a solution that belongs to our time, our way of thinking and our social progress and innovation.

Piazza 3.0

The brand new AmazonGo is a great metaphor of the state of our the real, digital and physical. The detail that Amazon caught quite well is that, indeed, the physical and the digital look as part of the same “whole”. When we describe our interactions with the digital we quite often make a distinction from the physical. AmazonGo represents that this is not true; our interactions with technology tell a different story. To be in the digital is equal to be in the physical; from social interactions, jobs, getting things done, etc. The Seattle based company found, and well combined together, the technological infrastructure to make this happen.

Amazon understands that humans are made of bones, and they like stuff; stuff you can show, share, touch. Even though you make your shopping online you do like the thing. There is not any VR that can generate the same satisfaction of buying a very cool brand new pair of trainers and show them to friends in (at) Instagram or at the pub. The bound we have with stuff is ontological. I don’t believe there is any technology capable of replacing such bound. Even though VR engages the body by simulating other senses – like smell and touch – our physical relationship with our stuff wins. Maurizia Boscagli’s book “Stuff Theory” frames quite well such relationship.

On the other hand the possibility that AmazonGo opens relates to the way we interact with people and space. What can the retail world learn from this? Is it only about retail or it can also extend to our house, place we work, exhibitions we visit, etc. ? What is the opportunity that our everyday space can take from it?

The reason why I used the word ontological to describe our relationship with stuff is because we associate a “human” value to the things we own. Once we get possess of our stuff, whether home or shoes, we assign a value. Value is not universal and it’s not about the stoke market. It is the literal human quality things have for us. It is related to the memories we associate to the object, the kind of experience the object represents to us. There is an embodied process of events encoded in the objects we own. I think it is not projected, as Walter Benjamin described in the Arcade’s Project. What does this mean for our everyday infrastructure? What does it mean for our experience of the physical/digital world? What can the AmazonGo model trigger and generate in terms of the physical experience we have with humans and things? Which consequences are related to the use of technology to smooth, and blur, our digital/physical interactions with humans and things? I believe these are questions to address in order to generate new forms of social opportunities. Where “people” should be?  Is it about a special meal you want to cook for a special occasion? Is it about joining a talk of a new book?

The over celebrated model of the Italian piazza was at the beginning a market. People met for a reason. There was an embodied system of exchange that called other factors, which over time became what we know as “piazza”. What is the piazza3.0?

 

The Architecture of the City: Content Maps, Data, Space and Design

Last May I gave a talk at the Scene Gallery in London, which I called “The Elegy of Public Space”. The talk looked at spatial effects in physical space as drawn by the language of “Content Maps”. I called “Content Maps” those GPS maps that display the city under specific themes. Uber with its drivers, Airbnb with the available places, Foursquare and Yelp with leisure or Zoopla and Rightmove (among many) for housing hunt. Under “Content Maps” the city is a collection of themes whose adjacency constitutes what we once called city. “Content Maps” flat the complexity and intricacy of urban space (with its pedestrian, square, benches, lights, green areas, etc..) for rendering the city as clusters of cloud information.

Where is urban design? Well design is the allocation of new private space to be managed according to a specific theme. Once established, then streets, bus stops, facilities, and so on, come along.

The top of this trend will be reached once Google, or Apple, will put on streets driverless cars that will possibly introduce a new infrastructural revolution to the way we (pedestrian users) will experience urban space.

In this post from Dan Hill argues about the lack of design in contemporary cities. Cities are data clouds that network companies manages for third agents. My last slide at Scene Gallery represented the London Garden Bridge as the effect of current urban politics, where general public assumes that physical space is private as much as the digital one. It is a big kind of Facebook piazza owned by private companies. To some extent we are already going there.

The lack of architecture in the space of the city is result of different interwoven factors. In my view there is a general lack of understanding of data.  Data, beyond their use for scaling up and down stuff (utilities, square, infrastructure) and beyond infographic representation of phenomena, have a valuable urban design role. The flexibility of understanding real time behaviour is an element that can be integrated into the analysis and design of the urban fabric, where with urban fabric I intend the space that citizens  dwell everyday. I do agree that the kernel is not the building but the network , which constitutes the contemporary urban tectonic of exchange points. In other words buildings  are terminal, or interfaces (if I can borrow words) that enact urban behaviour.

When thinking about the city scale is the first element thats should come in mind. We don’t have the scale of screen, i.e. apps that can understand the territory, but architecture that displays urban life.