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A flux of ideas from Amsterdam
Published in Ottagono, Feb 2003, pp70-3.
Doors of Perception describes itself as 'a conference, website, knowledge network, and cultural accelerator'. It aims to enrich understanding and use of the design process among innovators, entrepreneurs, educators and designers from over fifty countries attending who want to imagine alternative, and sustainable futures - and take steps through design to realize them.
Flow, the design challenge of pervasive computing, Doors' 2002 three-day conference in Amsterdam, examined how design could facilitate the flow of information and relations between people. "If we don't set the agenda", Doors director John Thackara, said, "other forces will do it anyway." Thirty four speakers - among them designers, artists, authors, educators, curators, architects, computer scientists, and musicians - gave individual perspectives on the context of flow, that is, an ever-changing ecology of relations. Can this actually be designed, or should we give up delusions of control and opt to make fields more adaptive and responsive to flow? Lars Erik Holmquist, leader of the Future Applications Lab at the Victoria Institute in Sweden underlined the importance of building prototypes of new concepts, "...testing them with with real people", so that they can be easy to use.
Computing has now become social infrastructure, as Malcolm McCullough, author of Digital Ground, said. Being pervasive - or ubiquitous as some speakers preferred - it cannot be switched off. Not only is it in some ways a frightening tendency going too fast, but it raises the question of who is in control, as editor-in-chief of Archis Ole Bouman and many others stated. The challenge is cognitive flow management, where the built environment becomes a kind of processor; the risk in a world of pervasive computing is that we lose our instincts. As MIT Media Lab researcher Neil Gershenfeld pointed out: "You wake up, and your house has crashed". To date, "...computer science has been separated from natural science, but it's here in the interstices where the deepest challenges lie."
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How can we encourage this emergent second nature to interact with us in satisfying ways? People and places are already being connected in ways that were previously unforeseen. "We've had the digital revolution", Gershenfield went on, "now the task is in personalising the physical world... the future of personal computation is personal fabrication". Marko Ahtisaari, a director at the Insight and Foresight Unit of Nokia, wanted different ways to help people recognise "...here is where I will have connectivity": 'digital fountains', and other environments supplying new forms of messaging. But do we, as one delegate remarked, "need all these 'tiny smart things' that tell us how our plant feels?"
As Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry, pointed out, "We are at the evolutionary point where we are trying to match ourselves to our context". The borders between the physical and the non-physical have faded: we need to continue to try, in this context, as Ole Bouman said, to reduce the awkwardness of our material order.
Benyus was one of two speakers, along with designer Axel Thallemer, who took cues from nature, advocating that instead of designing like machines, we designed like a living system, learning from similar solutions in nature. The natural world, for instance, has excellent filters: sea, light (lots of fibre optics), earth, and air all sweeten the biosphere. For architect Luis Fernandez-Galliano, our awareness of complexity must transcend a 'modernist, discrete view of reality' by looking at the clutter of the systems and technologies and 'finding patterns'.
Being 'flow'-literate means being a good environmental designer, and adjusting computing applications to new social uses. Computing, as Jakob Wejchert, coordinator of the EU's Disappearing Computer project explained, has been based on books and libraries - know what, in other words, rather than know how. Ubiquitous computing can improve on this by showing how, rather than what - as in intelligent devices which replace manuals for instructing us on putting furniture together, or a weight sensing table, where it becomes a sensor, for example. Felix Stalder, a researcher and director of Openflows, suggested design artefacts, for instance, personalised trainers, for which you asked not, what is the design made out of, but what does it interface to? 'The sum of qualities of technological forms of life emerge from their interaction'.
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The fountain of ideas, prototypes and processes came from the fields of design, architecture, art, music, software development, biology, physics and critical theory. Effective systems will use a range of sensing, acting and processing abilities to show 'ways how', to possess high useability, be convenient, sustainable, create value, be adaptable by the user - and responsive to their cultural environment. Jussi Angesleva wowed the crowd and jury into awarding him first prize in the Grand Prix of proposals with Body Mnemonics, a meta tool for portable devices that enhances their useability, and makes them more responsive to their cultural context. Possessing a heightened outlook on bodies on which they are worn, with associations to different parts, they are proprioceptic, responding to the stimuli of human movements.
Shona Kitchen and Ben Hooker, members of the Interaction Design Research Studio at the Royal College of Art were runners-up with their proposal for ways to interface through a synthetic ecology with the complex virtual flows of electronic data - created by sensor data, computation and information flows - that run through the city so that they can be experienced as an enriching contrast to other, more 'natural' phenomena. Marco Susani, a strategic designer for Motorola, pursued the meta-social shapes of the different forms of flows in complex networks - mobile, wireless, social and networked. Susani described the different social structures in terms of natural species, for instance the jellyfish and the carousel. Such representations make us think about the stratified nature of flows, and the dynamic ecology of processes within physical and virtual networks. As Malcolm McCullough observed, "Where steady crossovers between flows occur, places emerge". This is a question of architecture and environment (Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos from UN Studio, Stefano Boeri and Phil Tabor presented inspiring papers, in Tabor's case about an architecture of 'charged mental/physical spaces'), architects will do well to consider navigating. As McCullough said, in the proposition of the digital ground, "context is the subject matter".
© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
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