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Thursday24 July 2014

Something in the air at RIBA Futures debate

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Technology experts discussed how wireless data flow will change how we use buildings at a event hosted by RIBA Futures to kick off its latest research project.

On a warm Thursday evening in London last week a small and quite unusual group of people gathered at the back of the Apple shop on Regent Street to discuss your future.

Among them were Rachel Armstrong, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) senior fellow, medical doctor, science fiction writer and Bartlett tutor; Ben Hammersley, editor of Wired UK magazine; architecture professor and head of Research into Environmental Design (RED) Susannah Hagan; Juliet Davis of the LSE Cities Programme and Usman Haque, founder of Haque Design & Research and Pachube.com and CEO of Connected Environments.

The event was a debate hosted by RIBA Building Futures to kick off its latest research project. And RIBA Futures gave the debate a particularly juicy title: Data City: Doom or Boom – Are pervasive digital devices and open data changing the way we interact with the city? The general consensus was, perhaps a little obviously, that the answer is yes.

Nevertheless the debate is a timely one. No one really knows how innovations like social media, smartphones and other wireless technologies will really affect how we live and work in the built environment. Or how this will alter our expectations of the buildings we use everyday.

“Of course technology changes our relationship to our cities. Cities accrete technology, and technology is a manifestation, and definer, of social relationships,” says Usman Haque.

“The ’internet of things’ is coming – it’s clear we’re going to be inundated with cities replete with sensor networks and all sorts of weird, wonderful and worrying data systems. But what concerns me most is how we, all, can be part of the process of defining what that data is, how it is collected and what is done with it.”

Most practices already use existing technology, or create their own, to meet government targets. Companies like Space Syntax have carved out a place in the market by collecting and processing data and turning it into valuable information for urban planners. Even on individual buildings, surveillance cameras, tracking devices and energy performance meters are all becoming familiar parts of a design brief.

Which is why this event marked the beginning of a wide-ranging new research project by RIBA Futures, which aims to investigate not only the practical application of technologies we are already familiar with, but the social mores and policy drivers that are making them increasingly ubiquitous.

“We’re looking at social media – Twitter, Facebook and blogs, the information flow around society and the introduction of smart phones,” said RIBA Building Futures manager Elin Gudnadottir.

People can access information and knowledge from anywhere, so what does that mean for experts like planners and architects and people who hold knowledge?

“In the context of the planning process, how can you use these technologies as a way of consulting with people and how do people use them to be more proactive in the way that they want to shape the built environment?”

Among the policy drivers the project will examine are the low carbon agenda and the demand for increasing levels of security in new developments and public buildings, for which there is already a supplementary planning document.

Also key to the project is the concept of wireless power – if we can charge our appliances anywhere, what does that mean for the infrastructure that you have to plan into the environment? And then there is reality mining, a new form of data harvesting that uses information from people’s phones to work out wider patterns in movement and the spread of information among other things.

If change is inevitable and already happening, as the speakers at the debate argued, then projects like this will create an invaluable resource for architects who are increasingly finding themselves floating in a sea of data, guidelines and targets. No-one can really predict the future, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

Original print headline - Something in the air

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Data will always be a transient nonentity, whereas the human sense will remain as they have for thousands of years.

    Thats my prediction anyway.

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