Inclusive Data

Outlook on regaining societal relevance with data-harvesting for the architectural scale

Abstract. The emerging generation of young architects is prone to endanger the societal role as mediator and risk a de-evaluation of its profession into a technocratic service task. However, contemporary approaches which combine distributed sensing systems with context-rich social data, hold huge potential to re-implement lost relevance for the architect. This paper examines the historical momentum in architecture and applications of data-harvesting processes. The concept of Inclusive Data is introduced and elaborated, exemplary case studies are examined and implementations proposed. Finally, the illustrated projects are critically evaluated and further recommendations given.

Keywords. Rich Data, Smart City, Responsive Architecture


1.1. Hypothesis
The strategic approaches and results of contemporary architectural production – both, in industry and academia – seem to be increasingly out of touch with social, cultural and environmental realities and their qualitative properties (Gehl, 2010). The emerging generation of young architects are prone to endanger their societal role as architects and risk a de-evaluation of their profession into a technocratic service task. However, contemporary advances in computing systems hold huge potential to re-implement lost relevance for the architect. Research projects and case studies have showcased that new data harvesting models can capture mass as well as individual user specifics and influence the new fabrication and maintenance systems at hand (Ratti, 2014).

Based on a brief historical analysis and a problem statement resulting from contemporary practice, the concept of inclusive data will be introduced and elaborated. Illustrating the current paradigm shift in reading and representing the human habitat with digital technologies, early adoptions of novel data-driven processes will be shown and different applications examined. Finally, examples of state-of-the-art research will be given, to support a twofold strategy for implementations in architectural scale. Conclusions will critically reflect about these examples and overarching recommendations given at the final paragraph.

1.2. Historical Momentum
During the last decades the so called avant-garde design research laboratories with a mere focus entirely on technological advances developed an expanding blind spot regarding qualitative properties (Gehl, 2010) of our urban habitat. They produce vast technocratic data landscapes (Graafland, 2006) for programmed inhabitants executing controlled commercial activities. Consequently, mayor achievements of urban planning research focusing on qualitative living conditions are ignored as well as large parts of society excluded. Furthermore, due to a continuously advancing technological environment, the human habitat as multi-layered ecosystem of interactions, is undergoing a paradigm shift and socio-economic changes can be observed in developed countries, which are related to a transitional phase into the information society (Picon, 2010). Graafland is deepening this thought and links it to personal as well as communal disembodiment and a dissolution of cultural identity in a digital society, which challenges the way we design our environment.

The lack of addressing contextual transformations is deeply rooted in the contemporary architectural practice and symptomatic for the discipline’s historical development. We can observe similar paradigmatic gaps in younger history i.e. within the critique on Neo-Classicism during the late 19th century. At that time, architectural design as eclectic ornamental treatment was opposed by the advancing technological context at the dawn of industrial revolution and mass fabrication systems. Later on, after many failed realities of post-war utopias with their production of homogeneous urban environments and mass-produced living spaces, times demanded again new answers from urban planners and architects to respond to this crisis. The utilized strategies and techniques at hand were not synchronized with the demands of living standards and vital urban communities.

Subsequently, the technoscientific paradigm predominant after WWII, with its fascination of technological solutions and a systemic interpretations of flows and networks fuelled into projects of Archigram and Buckminster Fuller (Katsikis, 2014). This reconstruction of our environment as interrelated sets of anthropic flows of resources and development was complemented soon in neo-materialist philosophy by the likes as Deleuze and Guattari. It depicts a reality of constant re-stratifying matter-energy flows which are animated from within by autocatalytic self-organizing processes (Delanda, 2000). This perception puts architects and urban planners in a huge advantage position taking into account the mastery of evolving digital toolsets to simulate and harness insights to this dynamic systems. Once again, a paradigm shift is well underway with technological, societal and philosophical interrelations.

1.3. Contemporary Relevance
Today architects are relinquishing their societal relevance due to the practice of contemporary building industry, retreating state governance in planning and a resulting political dominance of financial stakeholders. In the following part, a few words will be spent on these three domains and why they are of importance in the bigger picture.

Firstly, we can observe a dominance of a slow adopting building industry which leads to an inflexible and outdated way we evaluate building performance and efficiency. Constructors think within the heritage of modernist mass-production and distinguish discrete catalogue elements. In reality however, every multi-layered facade design is interpreted as heterogeneous material system and can be hardly judged in standard categories. State of the art supply chain methods, file-to-factory, non-standardization as well as novel fabrication systems such as dynamic robots and large scale additive manufacturing lead to predictions that a paradigm shift is near (Gramazio Kohler, 2014). However, these advances also need to be embraced by legislative governance and update the toolset to measure and communicate building performance.

Secondly, shifting power relations and the general role of the state changed, with extensive effects on real estate development. With the decline of the welfare state in the western societies in the 1980’s, the neoliberal economic approach of the early Chicago school transformed the political agenda with the primary goal of loosening restrictive standards and protective mechanisms for a free market economical model. Coupled with the complexity of investment-relations of Globalization, the finance industry became the golden vessel and lobby for the demolition of protective mechanisms and involvement of the state as regulator.

Consequently (and thirdly), real estate developers enjoy nowadays an almost unparalleled freedom in executing their profession. Today investment and buildings of unprecedented speed and volume are generated. Hereby, an interconnected system of trust by a global finance industry is encountering communal planning authorities who sell their properties under few to no conditions at all. The redevelopment of the European city shows local successful examples such as the “slow urbanism” approach applied in Antwerp or new public-private-development strategies in Rotterdam (Bauwelt, 12/2014) but the general tendency is giving highest priority to attracting investors.

1.4. Vision
Recent architectural research created manifold improvements to liberate practitioners from the aforementioned systemic restrictions. Parametric and generative design tools, building information and communication management as well as robotic self-organized fabrication systems are escaping the grip of predefined industry solutions. However, in order to regain a communicative and mediating role in society, architects need to embrace the possibilities to infuse user specific dynamics into their design process through the concept of inclusive data. The infrastructure for this step is already out there: it is our smartphone, sensors and distributed microprocessors tracking, evaluating and harvesting information. Although access to these technologies is (not yet) granted to all parts of society, ubiquitous computing is entering every aspect of our life, including clothes and devices, buildings and cities. It changes the way we interact and understand ourselves. Consequently, contextual rich data (besides environmental, energy, economic etc.) needs to integrate the human actors in its ecology to inform the way we design and program our buildings.


2.1. Data-rich Environments
Since the Mid-20th century we have seen a tremendous development in the core disciplines of GRIN (Genetics, Robotics, Information-, Nano-) technologies. Early predictions of advances in the field of integrated circuit capacities (as reference to advancing computing power) based on models of exponential growth such as Moore’s law are now complemented by more optimistic theories, i.e. the law of acceleration returns (Kurzweil, 2005). Limitations of i.e. thermodynamic nature will ought to be solved utilizing principles of miniaturization and material engineering in nano-, atomic or even sub-atomic level. Consequently, as a side effect in this race of scale, we experience a broad range of this novel technologies being integrated into the human habitat.

Surveilling, measuring, optimizing: under the current paradigm of quantitative performance, integrated RFID-chips, sensors and microcontrollers are entering the private sphere in form of consumer products such as IT-devices and clothing. Self-optimization as lifestyle product invites the consumer to overlook all relevant personal health data which is gathered in form of wearables, smartphone apps or implants. With alone an ordinary smartphone model comprising around 10 different sensors, our environment is producing tons of valuable raw data in real-time. Private companies as well as national agencies are seizing huge potential right at their fingertips to gain access to information about their peer groups. The Social Data Lab at UC Berkeley under Andreas Weigend searches for new ways to harness the advantages out of big data sets to inform infrastructures of retail, payments, work and education. In recognizing consumer centred information as a product which can be monetized or exchanged against other valuable information, the research group with close ties to the marketing industry forecasts a “social data revolution” (Weigend, 2015).

2.2. Analytical Applications
As outlines above new concepts of understanding system complexity in the sciences and philosophy placed urban planners and geographers into an advantage position to understand the underlaying non-linear dynamics in settlements and urban agglomerations. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) were the early implementations of bringing different contextual data in relationship to each other and reveal dependencies in striated maps (Tomlinson, 1968). GIS spatial analysis includes today a wide range of technologies which are extracting, interrelating and mapping geo-spatial data with various data outputs and display techniques and are utilized in government, business and industries such as real estate, public health, crime mapping, sustainable development, archaeology and climatology. The spatial and temporal information of these applications are also widely used in urban and regional planning. Novel approaches which are interfacing bottom-up urban realities and community specifics with geo-spatial information management systems are including participatory data harvesting and aim at multi-actor communication on spatially defined questions. Participatory GIS (PGIS) has been defined as an emergent practice in its own right at the Mapping for Change Conference in 2005. Furthermore, it tackles the fusion of approaches to planning, spatial information and community management through granting availability to broad (sometimes disadvantaged) groups in society and further enhance them to generate, manage, analyze and communicate spatial information.

The project Social Glass at the Hyperbody research group at TU Delft examines the possibilities for a framework of understanding cities in fusing available geo-spatial and sensorial with personal data of social network platforms. Through crowd-sourcing and human computation, information is created, integrated and analysed in urban contexts. Each stakeholder, public or private, receives a custom tailored information landscape which contains threshold indicators for required action and decision making trajectories. Finally, these packages can be used in dynamic urban scenarios to facilitate spatial reconfiguration for i.e. large scale public events, environmental monitoring of air, water and soil qualities for exposure to inhabitants as well as transportation network adaptation (, 2015).

2.3. Commercial Applications
Large IT businesses and corporations are vigorously working on numerous examples of technical case studies to implement hardware infrastructures in urban contexts and data management systems. IBM’s advisory research staff member Francesco Calabrese outlines four domain-specific categories for application: Intelligent transport, telecommunication, resource management and safety (Calabrese, 2011). Within their smarter cities initiative, his team investigated possible infrastructures and management systems on the example of Dublin, focusing on research goals to understand human behaviour, predict context-specific needs and creating adaptive systems input. Another big player, Cisco invests in several global cities to implement different data-harvesting systems and management tools. Within their Internet of Everything approach (IoT), they borrow heavily from the terminology which is originally rooted in the maker movement. The (re-) appropriation of technology in gathering contextual data of ubiquitous computing reveals here an enormous commercial wealth. In cities such as Chicago, Amsterdam and Malmö, Cisco cooperates with private stakeholders and the city council, to interface domains of infrastructure, safety and communication with data management of distributed sensors, geo-spatial information and communication as well as social network activities of residents. Another initiative in Songdo, South Korea depicts here the ideally modelled textbook example: a complete newly planned district, comprising a romantic mixture of the world’s most favourable cities features, built upon a comprehensive technological infrastructure and management system which is provided by one company alone. The ultimate postmodern Cisco city. Pronounced goal of these projects are optimization and increase of (energy) efficiency, sustainability and finally liveability within the city. However, after first very sobering attempts of this kind of engineered urban environments at scale in Masdar or Tianjin, the question arises how many degrees of freedom, which a good city offers, can be sacrificed for comprehensive control.

2.4. Contextual Applications
A more punctually integrated approach in existing urban and social fabrics is investigated by Carlo Ratti’s Senseable City Lab at MIT. They differ from aforementioned commercial visions by embedding flexible communication systems into existing urban ecosystems and therefore dismiss the ambition of crafting a completely new rather top-down engineered model and instead harvest knowledge from unbiased realities. In several research projects, the group showed ready-to-implement solutions for urban sustainability applying concepts of pervasive computing, crowd analysis and network theory. In their exhibition Towards the Sentient City, the group unravelled the often obfuscated ways our recycling systems are following. They aim at understanding the removal-chain to the same extend as the supply-chain in order to not only optimize infrastructural processes but moreover make these dynamics visible and promote behavioural change. Another impulse project for the self-reflective urban dweller illustrates the Copenhagen Wheel. In this case, a compact upgrade device was developed for transforming standard bicycles into hybrid e-bikes and mobile sensing units at the same time. Consequently, the product not only optimizes the vehicles performance in storing and releasing dissipated energy from breaking intervals, but also maps pollution levels, traffic congestion and road conditions in real-time, available on mobile devices. A sharing community helps finally to create a rich-data set about their environment for improving energy footprints and living quality collectively.

2.5. Inclusive Data in Architecture
Future impact of implementing user-specific data-driven processes can be outlined twofold: firstly informing the planning and secondly programming the behaviour of buildings.

2.5.1. Design Communication and Fabrication
The newly arising possibilities for architects resulting from ubiquitous computing, distributed sensors and rich-data landscapes from social media networks will doubtlessly borrow concepts from the pioneers in this field: geographers and urbanists. As a matter of fact this interdisciplinary exchange between different scales in already happening in the domains of sustainability, energy and resource management as well as infrastructure. Furthermore, from neighbourhood to community level, much peer group information can be collected, filtered and processed, approaching significant strategic questions in residential design proposals. Namely, how do we want to live, how to (re)define social structures and our relation to them as well as social bonds? How does work spatial-temporally interfaces the private sphere of housing and finally to which extend can these boundaries be blurred and intersections allow for sharing and communal engagement? Hereby, the digital workflow of architectural project design phases which fuses together and manages a great amount of objectives (energy, sustainability, costs, structure, building regulations etc.) holds the potential to further implement available data sets from these societal relevant resources.

Furthermore, novel state-of-the-art fabrication techniques make a wealth of custom tailored solutions available in productions of scale. Autonomous dynamic robotic assembly systems allow for high degrees of geometrical flexibility and variation by coherent integrity of programmed construction logics (D’Andrea). Bottom-up, context- and self-aware routines enable an almost informed self-assembly process which can solidify into user-specific configurations based on data analysis. As director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, Skylar Tibbits elicits novel modes of material intelligence by studying and engineering processes of self-organization and self-assembly, focusing on responsive behaviour performance based on instruction logics and energy inputs. The emerging capabilities in fabrication management of integrating such an unprecedented high resolution of information prepares the ground for extensive customization routines based on inclusive data principles.

2.5.2. Behavioral Management Systems
Unsurprisingly, the most popular early visions of responsive architectural systems date from the cybernetic phase reflecting on advancing computational power and non-linear philosophy in the 1960s – an era of new contextual challenges and paradigm shifts mentioned earlier. Among many of them, outstanding examples such as Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace” and Yona Friedman’s “Étude de la Ville Spatiale” can be named here. In these explorations, the authors showed first outlooks on utilizing the computer and data resources as dynamic drivers in architectural design (Picon, 2010). Many later examples can be found, predominantly in the domains of small scale experimental installations or prototypes of megastructural fragments.

In his project “Hylozoic Ground” for the Architecture Biennale Venice in 2007, Philip Beesley presented a responsive ecosystem composed of a “geotextile” mesh with material-inherent sensors and actuators which are responding with kinetic breathing motions. The complex jungle-like installation registers individual presence while processing collective resonance based on data flows. A similar example in scale is the “Open Columns” project by Omar Khan and his students at the University of Buffalo (Kahn, 2010). In utilizing composite urethane elastomers, their responsive spatial system senses human presence through measuring carbon dioxide levels and reacts with deployable columns to reconfigure and pattern spatial zones.

Furthermore, Carlo Ratti developed some interesting responsive prototypes in architectural scale such as the “Cloud Cast” project in 2015. Here, motion tracking is employed to provide users with local cooling zones via ceiling-mounted misting elements. This example of location-based temperature control infrastructure is part of a larger array of interactive embedded systems research. In his contribution to the Zaragoza Expo 2008 the “Digital Water Pavilion”, Ratti shows another application of managing the behaviour of a building by “cladding” the facade with a waterfall of digitally controlled droplet curtains, which generate media messages, patterns or access voids. This list of projects could be endlessly continued and just highlights some examples. This wealth of design research shows the rich potential of possibilities to program building behaviour besides the obligatory building services infrastructure.

2.6. Conclusions
The impact of ubiquitous computing and distributed sensors which are generating rich data landscapes have fundamental consequences on the way we perceive the human habitat. It is outlined above, how early adopters utilized these technologies and the concept can be broadened to encompass user-specific social information. Inclusive data – as an approach to enrich the contemporary computational workflow of architects and urban planners – is elaborated in various domains. Hereby, the shortcomings of large scale top-down commercial visions are addressed and a recommendation for integrative hybrid solutions expressed. An inclusive strategy grounds not only on the amount of data but as well its qualitative properties. The question of access and openness plays an important role here, including methods of hacking, improvising and re-appropriating. Finally, only an unbiased perspective on a community’s dynamics grants insights to enrich their environment. The task of utilizing inclusive data in architecture within the twofold approach of making and programming buildings can draw experience from a rich history of explorations and shows promising potential.

Finally, as outlined above, the approach to a heterogeneous and accessible urban environment is an assemblage of political climate, historical and cultural momentum. However, the architect as mediator between stakeholders and executive industries has now access to technologies which hold the potential to manage and integrate communal dynamics which extend beyond exclusively commercial footprints. The definition of the social realm needs to be defined not only by consumer behaviour in order to enable a vision beyond marketability and tackle profound challenges of our built environment such as adaptive energy performance, spatial and functional optimization for human-centred qualitative environments which foster communities of social interaction.

The goal of an architectural project utilizing inclusive data can be raising awareness through response to interconnected realities: our own, the surrounding social sphere and society as well as global ecology. By harnessing the dynamics of these relationships and programming the materialization and behaviour of buildings, behavioural patterns could be influenced towards responsible and self-critical attitudes. Finally, the concept of inclusive data grounds on the challenge of rethinking the mediating role of the architect and the urge to orient the digitally enriched workflow towards a more socially aware discipline.

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Comment 1

  1. George says on April 6, 2016

    Interesting long read. Finally, the question remains if the over-application of “smart” technologies will contribute to the built environment in beneficial ways. Issues of privacy and stimulus filters are of concern here. However, a debate is needed to prevent Cisco alone to decide on these technical advances.

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