The new architecture of Carlo Ratti

carlo ratti

Who is he?

An italian architect and “urban change agent”[1] who divides his time between Carlo Ratti Associati, the innovation and design studio he runs from Torino, and SENSEable City Lab, the research laboratory he leads out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. Ratti’s design and research work overlap significantly, both focussing on the transformative effect of new technologies on our built environment and daily lives.[2] The scope of his projects is incredibly wide, ranging from drone-based wayfinding to experimental furniture to citywide data mining.

Ratti was in Melbourne last month for a week of programs courtesy of the International Specialised Skills Institute. We attended the lunchtime seminar he presented at the University of Melbourne entitled, Decalogue for a [smart] SENSEable city. It was hosted in conjunction by the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning and the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

What did we think?

Ratti began his seminar by quoting controversial American activist, George Gilder, who in 1995 claimed that “cities are leftover baggage of the industrial era… We are headed for the death of cities.” More moderately, fellow MIT scholar, Nicholas Negroponte, wrote in 1996 that “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time.”[3] Far from the death of cities however, Ratti observed that the past twenty years have instead witnessed their unparalleled prosperity. Global urbanisation is more widespread now than at any other time in history, with just over half of the world’s 7.1 billion population living in urban areas.[4]

Cities are thriving, but so is the penetration of digital technology into their fabric. “The digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither did it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way.”[5] Evidence of this physical and digital conversion – the cyberphysical – is everywhere: from the 4 billion smartphones in circulation globally and the infiltration of social media into daily work habits, to the proliferation of remotely controlled security systems and transport infrastructure.

For Ratti, the exciting extrapolation of this process is our ability to use digital technology to learn from cities in order to improve them. Many of his projects involve crowdsourcing tiny fragments of data that are in themselves meaningless but when gathered together form very large sets of useful intelligence. He seeks to convert the city into a realtime control system, with inbuilt feedback loops that improve its economic, social and environmental sustainability. A difficult undertaking with a simple justification: while the physical layers of the city – roads, buildings, services – are expensive to build and respond slowly to change, the digital layers are cheap to implement and able to evolve very quickly to changing circumstances. In essence, Ratti wants the digital to allow us to better use what we already have of the physical.

Ratti structured his presentation around a series of diverse themes of urban engagement, including Smart phone smart cityi-MobilityNew universities, and Living together. The projects employed a compelling cocktail of skill sets, involving among others architectural design, graphic design, algorithmic computing, electrical engineering and web app development. Intervening in the emerging overlap between the physical and digital space of the city, they convincingly capture Ratti’s inexhaustible inventiveness and hunger for urban change.

Though Ratti covered a lot of ground during his hour-long seminar, we will focus here on three projects only, the ones that struck us as most clearly demonstrating his multi-disciplinary approach to urban problem solving.

hubcab overall170 million annual taxi trips in New York City

hubcab journeyJourney from West 15th to East 54th Street

HubCab
www.hubcab.org
Project video via YouTube
i-Mobility
2014

HubCab is an interactive visualisation that allows users to explore every taxi trip taken within the City of New York in a year: a network of journeys that leave no lasting trace but nevertheless stitch the whole city together. Like many of SENSEable City Lab’s projects, the seduction of the visualisation masks an extraordinary backend algorithm processing vast quantities of information. According to the HubCab website, the basis of the project is “a data set of over 170 million taxi trips of all 13,500 medallion taxis in New York City in 2011. The data set contains GPS coordinates of all pick up and drop off points and corresponding times.”[6]

Employing an efficiency concept developed by Ratti’s team, shareability networks, the data set is analysed for potential redundancies i.e. whether a taxi trip travelling from point A to point B can be combined with a second trip travelling from point C to point D, thereby eliminating one trip entirely. When we click on a nominal trip, say from West 15th to East 54th Street (see above image), we can see that it forms part of a route with annual savings of $3.1m, 1.6m kilometres and 445,000kg of CO2. Ratti explained that employing shareability networks within a large, dense city like New York has the capacity to reduce the number of taxi trips in a year by a staggering 40%.

isochronic singapore
Map of Singapore where the scale is not measured in kilometres but travel time

formula one city
Maps of central Singapore comparing mobile phone usage on typical days (left) and during the Singapore Grand Prix (right)

LIVE Singapore!
www.senseable.mit.edu/livesingapore/
Project video via YouTube
Public engagement 2.0
2010

LIVE Singapore! is an exercise in citywide mapping, establishing “a feedback loop between people, their actions, and the city.”[7] It gathers useful information like temperature, mobile phone usage, rainfall, taxi availability and traffic, and maps them with localised detail in realtime. The project team curated the mapping process, for instance juxtaposing taxi availability against rainfall, or mobile phone usage against a popular sporting event.

The selection of information types and process of juxtaposition reflect the true agenda of this project: “giving people visual and tangible access to realtime information about their city enables them to make their decisions in sync with their environment, with what is actually happening around them.”[8] If traffic congestion mapping can accurately tell us how long it will take to get somewhere, we can leave early enough to arrive on time. If we know that taxis are likely to get snapped up whenever it rains, we can take the train (or authorities can ensure greater supply).

trash trackThe tracking device used in TrashTrack

trash tracking map
Movement of waste after two months

TrashTrack
www.senseable.mit.edu/trashtrack/
Project video via YouTube
Waste tracking
2009

This project asks the question, “why do we know so much about the supply chain and so little about the removal chain?”[9] It suggests that our interest in the supply of local produce does not extend to waste processes in large part due to our lack of awareness of them. TrashTrack seeks to highlight the movement of our waste products from household bins to final destinations.

Using a simplified version of technology found within mobile phones, Ratti’s team developed a tracking and broadcasting device that could be attached to pieces of waste. The team then invited 500 volunteers to tag regular pieces of household rubbish, 3,000 items in total ranging from old sneakers, to empty cans, banana peels and dead batteries. Once the volunteers went home and threw out their tagged waste items, the tags started reporting their locations and establishing tracking vectors of their movement.

The tags, or smart dust as Ratti referred to them, established a network of tiny locatable electromechanical systems. The video of the mapping process is astounding: items of waste found their way from Seattle to every corner of the United States, in the case of some alkaline batteries not coming to a rest for two months.

What did we learn?

To understand Ratti’s work, we must consider the way he views the major forces affecting contemporary urban environments. The rapid growth in global urbanisation is his first and perhaps most important influence: Ratti does not deny the decentralising tendencies of digital technology, but attributes the city’s survival despite these tendencies to our deep need for social contact: people want to live together. His works are inherently social, interested in enhancing the connections between people and their environments. Rather than permitting digital technologies to alienate the inhabitants of a city, he wants to empower them with new and unprecedented control.

Second, and essentially the core area of Ratti’s interventions, is the aforementioned and ever-expanding blanket of networked digital elements. He is impatient with the slowness of hard infrastructure, far more interested in the opportunities presented by new digital technologies: data, networks, connections and apps that have the power to reach and affect millions of people at a time. He reasons that a city is not such a big place nor such a mysterious creature to understand, not when millions of people are already walking around in it, already absorbing and transmitting data about their environments.

For us, we are most impressed with the clear DNA of Ratti’s projects. They tackle issues of environmental sustainability, quality of life, resource use, cultural engagement and social spaces. If these questions seem familiar it’s because they are: they’re the same questions architects face. What the architecture profession traditionally addresses via urban and building design, Ratti addresses with digital, scaleable technologies. His is an exciting new world, one where the practice of architecture retains its worldview, but expands to encompass whatever tools and skills are necessary to get the job done.

This thinking has been recently manifested in a project not discussed by Ratti in his presentation but already receiving a lot of attention online and now available for pre-ordering, the Copenhagen Wheel. An electric motor that attaches to the rear wheel of a bicycle, it “transforms the bicycle into a hybrid e-bike that also provides feedback on pollution, traffic congestion and road conditions in realtime.”[10] This project is an exciting development within Ratti’s work, one that shifts his practice beyond demonstration into application. We look forward to seeing more of it.


Footnotes:

  1. Carlo Ratti in Melbourne; ArchitectureAU; 13th March 2014
  2. Studio synopsis; Carlo Ratti Associati; accessed 20th April 2014
  3. Nicholas Negroponte; Being Digital; Hodder and Stoughton; 1996
  4. In 2011, 52.1% of the world population lived in urban areas. By 2050, this is projected to grow to 67.2%. Source: World Population ProspectsPopulation Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat; 2011
  5. Carlo Ratti; Digital Cities: ‘Sense-able’ urban design; Wired; 2nd October 2009
  6. Project description; HubCab; accessed 27th April 2014
  7. Project description; LIVE Singapore!; accessed 27th April 2014
  8. Ibid.
  9. Project description; TrashTrack; accessed 28th April 2014
  10. Project description; Copenhagen Wheel; accessed 29th April 2014

Image credits:

  1. Carlo Ratti. MIT Technology Review, author unknown.
  2. Annual taxi trips, for HubCab; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; New York City; 2014
  3. Journey from West 15th to East 54th Street, for HubCab; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; New York City; 2014
  4. Isochronic Singapore, for LIVE Singapore!; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; Singapore; 2010
  5. Formula One City, for LIVE Singapore!; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; Singapore; 2010
  6. Trash tag v2.0, the tracking device used in TrashTrack; SENSEable City Lab, MIT; Seattle; October 2009
  7. Trash tagging map, for TrashTrack; SENSEable City Lab, MIT; Seattle; October 2009

Bad architecture drives out good

sir thomas greshamSir Thomas Gresham by Anthonis Mor van Dashorst (1565)

What is it?

A paraphrasing of Gresham’s Law, an economic principle proposed in the 16th Century by adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Thomas Gresham. The law, bad money drives out good, described the devaluation of the precious metal content in circulating coins. When new, low precious metal content coins were issued by the Queen, Gresham observed that older, higher precious metal content coins quickly disappeared: either hoarded by the public as a primitive form of savings, or retained by the government to melt down and create more of the new.

We first came across the principle in 2004 while studying The Political Economy of Design under Professor Paolo Tombesi at the University of Melbourne, a subject and a teacher we recently discussed here. Now only offered sporadically within the Master of Architecture program, the subject “seeks to position and discuss architecture in relation to the world of production, economic interests and community benefits, at a local and global scale”. As evidenced by this article, written nine years after we took the subject, it has imparted lasting influence over our interests and values.

If you are a student at the University of Melbourne and The Political Economy of Design is offered in coming semesters, it would be a crime for you not to enrol in it.

Gresham’s Law may be a simple observation, but it has sophisticated ramifications that describe the devolution of production in almost any corner of industry, architecture included. The analysis that follows owes much to Michael Benedikt‘s excellent article on the subject, Gresham’s Law and the Logic of Efficacy.

Bad architecture drives out good, an illustrated story

A house comprises 1,000 qualities, set N, which collectively enable it to function. These qualities include things like bedrooms, insulation, robustness, waterproofing, solar orientation and timber benchtops. Each quality costs its builder $1,000 to produce, equalling a total construction cost of $1,000,000.

total qualities

As is true with any product the world over, the purchasers of the house are cognisant of fewer qualities than it contains, set n. The qualities of which they are not aware are hidden from their layperson’s sight, like the thermal mass of its concrete slab, the anti-rust properties of its stainless steel hinges or the acoustic insulation in its internal walls. The precise size of set n varies between purchasers, however in all cases n < N. If there are say 600 qualities the purchasers appreciate, each worth $1,000, they are prepared to pay only $600,000 for the house.

appreciated qualities

Thus the builder of the house faces a dilemma: the gap between its total and appreciated qualities, N – n, represents a financial shortfall. While the house costs him $1,000,000 to construct, its purchasers are only prepared to pay $600,000.

quality gap

So how does the builder address the financial shortfall? According to Benedikt, there are two basic solutions.

Builder #1 pursues the first and simplest: the strategy of contraction. This strategy reduces the number of qualities built into the house so as to reduce its construction cost. By eliminating the 400 qualities unappreciated by the purchasers, he need only spend $600,000 in production and will thus recoup all costs upon sale.

quality contraction

Builder #2 pursues the second and more complex: the strategy of education. This strategy maintains the full number of qualities built into the house, but seeks to inform the purchasers of their importance. Once the purchasers appreciate all 1,000 qualities, they are prepared to pay the $1,000,000 production cost and, once again, he will recoup all costs upon sale.

quality expansion

The two strategies do not promise equal success. Contraction enables builder #1 to reduce the cost of production up front, diminishing his financial risk. It also permits his house to be sold more cheaply than the house of builder #2, an easy and effective marketing advantage. In contrast, builder #2 must bear the risk of a more expensive production cost, together with the additional cost of educating potential purchasers. Further, there is no guarantee that once suitably educated, they will indeed purchase his house.

This imbalance is magnified when extrapolated over time. The strategy of education is a long-term approach, with better educated purchasers interested in houses containing all 1,000 qualities at best a distant benefit. The strategy of contraction promises much faster returns: the cheaper house of builder #1 attracts more purchasers more often. Soon enough, the market is saturated by his houses and the better quality houses of builder #2, unable to compete, disappear from circulation.

It doesn’t matter that the purchasers benefit from the 400 discarded qualities, nor are disadvantaged by their absence, only that they don’t appreciate them. Presented with two houses side by side, with nothing discernible to distinguish them, the cheaper house inevitably wins. Ultimately, Gresham’s Law prevails: education is expensive, risky and time-consuming; contraction is cheap, virtually risk-free and fast. Bad architecture drives out good.

What do we think?

Our contemporary built environment has been shaped over recent decades by no force more influential than Gresham’s Law. We see it everywhere. It is the reason volume housing, which represents around 95% of all new housing construction, is of poor quality. It is the reason for down-skilling in young tradespeople. It is the reason that the majority of new building systems and materials substitute quality for efficiency. It is the reason that McMansions exist; that housing estates are filled with poor-performing, flimsy buildings.

A commercial timber window fabricator told us recently that his company abandoned solid timber jambs in favour of finger jointed pieces around 3 years ago when his competitors made the change first. It doesn’t matter that solid timber offers a more uniform finish and superior durability to finger jointing, only that the purchasers not know this. Since the downgrade, not a single customer has complained.

Gresham’s Law is also the reason that architects and boutique builders are incapable of competing with volume housing construction rates. We regularly encounter potential clients who weigh up our bespoke design services with the contracted services of draftspeople or products of volume builders. Despite our strident efforts to explain the unevenness of this comparison (in which we make ample reference to the analogy of the suit), we find ourselves on the losing side of an ongoing and long-lasting battle. One recent potential client was outraged that our proposed fee could possibly be 6 times more expensive than that of a draftsperson. No amount of frank discussion explaining the services we provide could sway them: we missed out on the commission.

Our experience is evidence of the depressing but not surprising truth that the Australian public does not appreciate the value of good architecture. Gresham’s Law has been at work for far too long here, the lure of cheap houses having displaced for decades the benefits of true quality. One need look no further than any of the new housing estates springing up on the fringes of Melbourne to see the truth of this.

merndaMernda, a Metricon community 30km north-east of Melbourne

Dear reader, can you imagine one of these houses, or any of the thousands like them, serving generations of inhabitants in the way that the worker’s cottages of the early 1900s have? Can you imagine them being renovated and updated for changing tastes through the decades, but being essentially retained? No? How about the idea of them being demolished in 10 years, dumped unceremoniously in landfill and replaced?

This is the legacy of almost 500 years of Gresham’s Law, and it all started when the Queen discovered that a coin with negligible precious metal contact can be worth its face value simply because she said it was. Translating this concept into the realm of architecture reveals that marketing and spin are more important than the truth, that the Australian public desire quantity over quality and precious few can tell good architecture from bad.

What can we do about it?

Opposing the relentless forces of contraction is a time-consuming, expensive and risky undertaking. Asking individual architects to do this within their practices is an almost impossible task. The sheer numbers are against us here: 140,000 new houses are built each year in Australia, but architects are involved with only 7,000, or a mere 5%. One cannot fight cancer one damaged cell at a time.

Gregg Pasquarelli observed in his recent Dean’s Lecture at the University of Melbourne that the most environmentally sustainable action available to an architect is to “create buildings that people love, that don’t get torn down every 10 – 20 years.” This is certainly a significant part of the equation, but it is a philosophy most architects are already practicing. Perhaps in areas of dense architectural involvement, specifically the city and inner suburbs, this has already translated into an appreciation of good design. Such is not the case the further out one travels however. How can we pursue the difficult strategy of education amongst the vast majority of people – from Mernda to Caroline Springs – who are ignorant of architecture and disinterested in its value?

We have three suggestions:

Media advocacy. In public forums and across all forms of media, advocacy provides the opportunity to talk to people about architecture. The Architects radio show on Triple R is a shining example of this approach, as are Houses magazine, Melbourne Open House and the Robin Boyd Foundation. The most striking shared quality of these enterprises is their appeal to laypeople. 70% of attendees at the Robin Boyd open days are non-architects, while the MOH weekend last year recorded 135,000 visits.

As such, a key quality of successful advocacy is accessibility: it is not avant-garde theory or collective back-patting; it is a concerted effort to engage the public with their built environment. Despite its mandate that asserts otherwise, the Australian Institute of Architects is not good at advocacy. It expends great effort in lobbying government but neglects popular media. Every time Jon Faine discusses an issue concerning the built environment, an AIA representative should offer an opinion; daily newspapers should provide more visibility to the AIA and seek quotes as a matter of course; and television shows about design should involve architects more heavily and celebrate them in the way reality-TV cooking shows do chefs.

Beyond design. We came across a blog article recently noting that in the past 50 years only one United States federal politician was an architect.[1] The article associated the marginalisation of the architecture profession with our conspicuous absence from roles of public office and common interest. Having government architects at state and federal levels is a good start, but we need to step up into positions of wider responsibility: in politics, universities, major institutions and company boards. In our practices, we seek creative solutions that are long-term, wide-ranging and socially responsible. If this rare paradigm can work for buildings, why can’t it work for government portfolios?

Perhaps our undoing in this regard is, ironically, our love of architecture. Being an architect is so rewarding that we are not prepared to leave it for elections, committees and policies. Certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest we love the practice of architecture sufficiently to put up with being paid terribly to do it. Nevertheless, public office is a serious responsibility in which we are obliged to take part: more of us need to accept its burden.

School education. Finally, the education of young minds. Every individual in his or her life will engage with architecture more frequently and meaningfully than he or she ever will with calculus, sound waves or organic chemistry. Why then is architecture not taught at school level? Why does every student not graduate from high school with a basic knowledge of sustainability principles, the history of Australian architecture and the innovations of the Sydney Opera House?

A number of years ago, we successfully introduced a term of architectural design into Year 11 Visual Communications and Design at Caulfield Grammar School. Though we are no longer involved, we believe the subject is still running. Looking back on the experience, we realise that an arts subject is not necessarily the best place to learn about architecture: after all, our agenda is not to create more architects but to inspire more interest in architecture. If we are to reignite our teaching involvement at school level, we will aim to do so not just through the arts, but science and history also.

With an entire socio-economic framework founded on the principles of Gresham’s Law, it will be no small task to reverse the status-quo of architectural ignorance. Working as individuals, we cannot afford the time to educate every potential client that walks through the door, nor accept the risk that once educated he or she won’t go elsewhere. If we are to have any success at all, we must work together as a profession. We must also realise that our design work is not in itself sufficient to affect fundamental change. To do that, we’ll have to step well beyond our comfort zones and accept positions of responsibility in the wider community.


Footnotes:

[1] We able to discover two, Richard Swett, a Democratic congressman from 1991 – 1995 and Eric Johnson, a Republican senator from 1994 – 2009. Not since Thomas Jefferson has a President of the United States been an architect.

Sublimely utilitarian: The T-1000

t-1000

The objective:

This is the sixth in a series of posts showcasing the sublimely utilitarian. To qualify, a product must understand and address its purpose perfectly, must comprise nothing that isn’t essential. But it must also go beyond the expected – it must suprise, pleasure and delight. It must respond to this great saying: “Only do something if it is necessary, but if it is necessary, do it beautifully.”

The product:

The T-1000.

Its qualifications:

  1. The T-1000 is difficult to detect. Made from mimetic poly-alloy, it can assume the form of other objects or people of equal mass. It can disguise itself as a policeman, a tiled floor or your foster mother.
  2. The T-1000 is close to impossible to destroy. It has no central brain, power source or other weak spot for potential targeting. It can recover from shotgun fire, liquid nitrogen attack or an exploding truck. Any part of it that you shoot off can convert to a liquid state and via self-propulsion reunite with the central mass.
  3. The T-1000 can instantly extrude blade-like weapons from any part of its body.
  4. The T-1000 is fast, strong, intelligent, adaptable and persistent. It will not rest until it has hunted you down.

Our verdict:

Regularly included in lists of greatest movie robots of all time, the T-1000 is a unified, holistic entity. It is not overly large, has no inbuilt projectile weapons or lasers, and cannot transform into a fighter jet. It needs none of this trickery: the poly-alloy that allows it to shapeshift also provides all the weapons it needs. It is the perfect close-range killing machine.

Sublimely utilitarian: Kitchenaid stand mixer

The objective:

This is the fifth in a series of posts showcasing the sublimely utilitarian. To qualify, a product must understand and address its purpose perfectly, must comprise nothing that isn’t essential. But it must also go beyond the expected – it must suprise, pleasure and delight. It must respond to this great saying: “Only do something if it is necessary, but if it is necessary, do it beautifully.”

The product:

Kitchenaid stand mixer.

Its qualifications:

  1. The mixer has extraordinary durability, lasting decades without servicing.
  2. There is only one switch to control both power and speed – simplicity at its most elegant.
  3. The tilt-up head is neatly synchronised with the shape of the bowl, when down poised precisely millimetres over its base, when up providing access to its contents while ensuring no drips beyond its rim.
  4. Like any modern classic, its design has retained its integrity through the years. Our unit is exactly the same as our parents’.

Our verdict:

The form of the Kitchenaid mixer maintains a perfect balance between simplicity – each part is precisely shaped for its purpose – and sculptural expression – the unique silhouette is instantly recognisable, much copied but never equalled. It is solid, close to indestructible, and a pleasure to use.

Gamma testing

What is it?

Once upon a time, there was a dedicated team of medical researchers developing a new drug. To make sure the drug cured what it was supposed to cure, and was safe while doing so, the team subjected it to a battery of tests, first on animals then on humans. After many years, the tests were finally complete and the team was satisfied the drug was both effective and safe. The drug was released onto the market, perfectly formed.

Once upon a time, there was a dedicated team of car designers developing a new car. To make sure the car performed powerfully and was durable, the team subjected it to a battery of tests. They tested it while driving down cobblestone roads, they tested it in wind tunnels and they tested it in car ovens. After many years, the tests were finally complete and the team was satisfied the car performed powerfully and was durable. The car was released onto the market, perfectly formed.

Once upon a time, there was a dedicated team of software designers developing a new computer game. To make sure the game played smoothly and was free of glitches, the team subjected it to a battery of tests. They undertook alpha tests in-house, assessing the game against a long list of performance objectives. Then they undertook beta tests, nudging the game out into the world, where it was required to survive the handling of its first batch of strangers, and live or die based on their criticism. After many years, the tests were finally complete and the team was satisfied the game played smoothly and was free of glitches. The game was released onto the market, perfectly formed.

But recently, something strange happened. A game was released onto the market, though it was not quite perfectly formed. There were features yet to be added, expansions to the game world yet to be designed, balances between characters yet to be tweaked. The core product was complete, but its future shape had not yet been determined.

What followed next, we call the gamma test.

What do we think?

The gamma test is a new approach to software design that is changing the way we, as consumers, engage with our products. Facilitated by widely accessible, high speed internet and online software markets like Apple‘s App Store, the release of a program onto the market no longer necessitates that it be complete.

The previously distinct phases of development and use are significantly blurred. Bug fixes, patches, entirely new features can all be incorporated into a program after it is already in use. Technically, this is achieved via centralised control – a game whose software resides not on users’ computers but online on the developer’s own servers; an online App Store that acts as a gateway between users and regular software updates. Experientially, this blurring is in fact integrating development and use with hitherto unachievable interactivity.

For example:

Version 1.0 of a game is released and users start to play. Within days, the first discussions about bugs and glitches appear on online forums. Version 1.1 is released, correcting the imperfections of its predecessor. As users rack up more game time, they discover imbalances in character strengths – more discussions appear, not only identifying the imbalances, but suggesting myriad ways of rectifying them. Version 1.2 is released, following some of the more creative proposals. Users running unusual hardware come across a few more bugs. Versions 1.2.1 fixes those. Yet more discussions appear as users begin to imagine all manner of improvements to the game and expansions to its gameplay. Version 2.0 responds to the most popular ideas, improving the user experience and adding many more months to its longevity.

The gamma test moves beyond the traditional boundaries of development, shedding discrete objectives and deadlines in favour of a crowd-sourced approach that allows the users of a program to dictate its future development.

This process provides access not just to the hardcore enthusiasts willing to sign up for the controlled environment of a beta test, but to every user every day. The user reviews on the App Store not only furnish potential customers with previous users’ opinions, they are a mechanism via which developers can obtain free and honest feedback from their users. The gamma test is ongoing, limited only by the preparedness of a developer to follow its customers’ suggestions.

What should we learn?

We would love to see this approach find its way into our practice of architecture. As the creators of one-off projects, we are almost never presented with the opportunity to tweak an element of our design to align with unexpected usage patterns. Our designs must emerge from the page and into the world complete, perfectly formed.

Only through the adoption of prefabricated processes and repetitive detailing are we able to challenge this paradigm. Through prefabrication, we force a continuous feedback between design, production and use. Similarly, though more subtly, repetitive detailing from project to project enables us to refine an aspect of a project – a typical handrail for instance, or a bathroom vanity – gradually improving upon it across decades of design.

Compared to software development, compared really to almost anything, architecture is a slow undertaking. Any incremental changes will be similarly slow. We must learn to be more proactive in seeking feedback from our clients, even when that feedback might be negative. Only an architect prepared to risk hearing his design is terrible can possibly learn how good his work really is.

Just in time

The Model T Ford, the first vehicle mass-produced on an assembly line

What is it?

Just In Time (JIT) manufacturing is an approach to manufacturing that reduces the stockpiling of parts and products to an absolute minimum, instead fabricating them only as required. This methodology necessitates a tightly integrated workflow of all aspects of production, yet reduces the cost of carrying unsold goods, increases the efficiency of production and ultimately increases profits. First used in the late 1950s by an engine supplier to Ford, it is now used extensively throughout modern manufacturing processes.

The key benefit of JIT manufacturing is clearly its ability to reduce costs: when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s, the company “had more than two months’ worth of inventory sitting in warehouses, more than any other tech company. As computers have a short shelf life, this amounted to at least a $500 million hit to profits.” Apple now maintains a JIT manufacturing process with as little as two days’ worth of stockpiled product.

However, there is also a significant drawback to the JIT approach, best demonstrated by its recent appearance in the Australian news.

When CMI Industrial, a car parts manufacturer for Ford, stopped paying its rent, then failed to meet the terms of an agreed payment plan, and eventually tallied up a backlog of over $100,000 in unpaid rent, the landlord took matters into its own hands and last week locked CMI out of the premises.

The next morning, the 80 Campbellfield employees of CMI arrived at work only to be informed the factory had been shut down. The day after, the Dana Australia factory, via which the CMI parts make their way to Ford, was also closed. With no parts coming in, the day after that, so too were both the Broadmeadows and Geelong factories of Ford itself. All up, almost 2,000 employees were stood down.

What do we think?

The drama unfolding right now in the lives of 2,000 Ford employees provides an unsettling mirror through which we can see all of modern civilisation. More than anything else, our systems of production, consumption, politics, education, the environment, even war, have one thing in common: co-dependency.

Ford cannot make motor vehicles without CMI Industrial supplying the components. Dutch tourists cannot travel without a sky clear of volcanic ash over Iceland. Melburnians cannot eat at restaurants without functional gas plants in Gippsland. A child cannot study anywhere in the world without Google’s million plus computer servers. We cannot go to war in Afghanistan without the eyes of military satellites hurtling through space.

Nowhere is this enmeshing of parts better exhibited than in our cities. So finely tuned are a city’s systems, and so reliant on them are its inhabitants, the city is the canary in the coal mine, the place to look for the first signs of impending failure.

It doesn’t take much: a broken down car on the Monash Freeway causes a traffic jam on Dandenong Road. Carlton and Essendon play at the MCG and the entire city grid of mobile telecommunication networks is clogged. A deluge of rain causes stormwater drains to overflow and streets to flood, while a string of hot days in summer causes rail lines to buckle and hundreds of train services to be cancelled.

Day after day, without even realising it we test the limits of our infrastructure. What will happen when something truly catastrophic occurs?

In our global civilisation, our reliance on one another, and on barely-understood processes run by invisible organisations, is greater than it has ever been before. We are so tightly co-dependent that when any part fails, the entire system crashes. The cascading closure of Ford and its parts manufacturers reveals to us just how precarious our comfortable existence is, how little buffer we have between us and utter chaos.

A Day Made of Glass

What is it?

A short film released a few years ago by Corning, speculating on how a day in the near future may look, if it can be augmented by the interactive capabilities of high-tech glass. Corning is the manufacturer behind Gorilla Glass, the high-durability glass that fronts approximately 600 million iPhones, iPads and other digital devices.

What do we think?

The film is intended to suggest future possibilities of interactive glass, all of which are mesmerising. However even more exciting is the realisation that within the glossy, futuristic world proposed by Corning are a whole array of ideas and technologies that already exist.

What follows below is a chronological list of those technologies, tied to the time code of A Day Made of Glass.

0:21 Photosensitive glass is used by Transitions for eyewear that automatically adjusts its opacity to suit the ambient lighting conditions. Quantum Glass manufacture privacy glass that can be switched between clear and frosted states via the application of an electrical current.

0:27 Sony Bravia LCD televisions use LED backlighting to achieve screens less than 30mm thick.

1:09 Induction cooktops by Fisher & Paykel use magnetic pulses to heat saucepans, permitting the instant temperature control of a gas cooktop. Other than transferred heat from the saucepan back to the cooktop, the glass surface does not heat up while cooking.

1:24 The electronic interface on Fisher & Paykel refrigerators permits fine control of internal temperature settings, including a rapid chill function for bottles of beer.

1:39 The iPhone introduced the world to smartphones dominated by a glass-fronted screen. The traditional hardware buttons of old phones are replaced by a touch-sensitive screen with adaptable software keyboards that reconfigure themselves to suit the application.

1:49 The iPhone used to sync with its parent computer only when the two devices came into close proximity. With the advent of iCloud and full integration across computing, tablet, television and smartphone devices, all are synched continuously and seamlessly.

2:07 Audi vehicles come with Comfort Key technology that permits keyless entry and engine ignition. If this technology has not yet been further adapted to permit automatic driver recognition and preferences configuration, it can’t be far off.

2:12 Garmin produces devices that utilise various satellite navigation capabilities for automotive, fitness, hiking, marine and aviation applications.

2:25 The Maybach range of limousines offers an electrotransparent glass roof that incorporates photovoltaic cells and an inner glass layer that can be electronically darkened.

2:36 Though primitive, notification screens populate the Citylink, Eastlink and freeway routes, informing drivers of predicted travel times, collisions and scheduled roadworks.

2:46 Yarra Trams’ tramTRACKER is an iPhone app and website that uses realtime positioning technology in each tram to predict the arrival times of the next three trams at any stop within their network.

3:25 Digital Interactive Table produces a horizontal work surface with multitouch-sensitive screen. The technology is in its infancy, though is becoming more advanced and affordable all the time.

4:02 Location-based services in airports and cinemas push advertising and notifications to customers’ smartphones upon entry.

4:12 The ongoing Prada In-store Technology project by OMA explores active technological applications in the flagship New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco stores. Applications include mirrors in change rooms that show customers video feedback from multiple angles; interactive displays that provide information on garments; and screens embedded into the fabric of the store that play branding, advertising and sales content.

4:30 Samsung are rumoured to be releasing the Galaxy Skin later this year, a smartphone that incorporates a flexible LED screen into its design.

5:01 3D projections may be a while off production, but many new televisions, including the Sony Bravia, come 3D-enabled and are capable of showing the same films produced for 3D cinema.

5:09 e-Book readers like the iPad and Kindle may not yet have flexible screens, though already they are to the book industry what the iPod was to the music industry: an entire library on your bedside table.

The future is closer than we think.