Crowdsourcing: The Future in Design Research?

This past week, internationally renowned French architect Jean Nouvel was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession's highest honor. Nouvel's practice, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, has completed and engaged in various projects worldwide. The studio is perhaps most known for designing the Arab World Institute in Paris, and has recently unveiled its design for a new 75-story tower next to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Unlike other famous architects, including several previous winners of the Pritzker Prize such as Frank Gehry (1989), Zaha Hadid (2004) , and Thom Mayne of Morphosis (2005), who have very particular, unchanging, individual styles despite the various contexts of each of their projects, Nouvel's architecture is articulated in numerous ways and addresses a range of issues. He explains that this is a result of his belief that it is critical for analysis to influence and drive design, "I research every project. I talk to a lot of people. Every building has a relation to the climate, to the wind, to the colors of the buildings around it. I arrive at a concept with all the parameters in place. When I have all these constraints, I begin. "Nouvel continues that when architects do not research and respect surroundings, "You go around the world, you see all the same buildings, and you feel like you're in the same place."

Another previous Pritzker Prize Laureate, Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands (2000), takes a similar approach to architecture with his firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), which is arguably the leading international architectural practice. Like Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Koolhaas' practice also engages in rigorous contextual analysis, but in addition, OMA presents and publishes its graphs, charts, diagrams, and compositions (example pictured above) in books. Recent and current publications include Al-Manakh (September 2007) and Lagos: How it Works (November 2008), studies on the history and architecture of the Gulf region and on West African urbanism, respectively. But while Nouvel and Koolhaas are current examples of leading architects that fight the global homogenization of architecture through in-depth analysis, their careers began around 40 years ago and were rooted in the concepts, cultures, and technology of that time. What then, will research minded architects and designers whose careers are based in our contemporary information society grow to become? Compared to traditional strategies that have been used for research such as simple computation, observation, and surveying, emerging technologies can record, organize, and visualize data at exponential rates, scopes, and amounts. These technologies, which use crowdsourcing, or the outsourcing of a task (such as research) traditionally performed by one person or a small group to a much larger body of people in an open source method. For example, while encyclopedias were traditionally developed by singular companies such as Merriam-Webster and Brittanica, Wikipedia, today's version of the encyclopedia, is written and constantly updated by anyone who can access the internet.

Among the many methods of research that are currently developing, Evernote, Here are our Journeys, and Dash Express are three projects that incorporate new technologies and crowdsourcing with methods of data collection and analysis. Evernote (pictured below), a mobile technology based software application, pitches that although people are battered with information on a daily basis, its program makes it possible for users to remember everything. Those that integrate Evernote into their lives can capture information, either by copying and pasting on a computer or by photographing with a camera phone, which is then organized into a personal database for later search and use. Evernote has not yet been fully released and is currently in beta testing, but Scott Gilbertson, author of Wired.com's blog Compiler, has confirmed in a recent review that with Evernote "there are a nearly limitless number of ways you can get information," which once collected becomes "fully searchable and accessible". Another application in the works is Here are our Journeys, a final year project of Matt Collins, a Multimedia Technology and Design student at Brunel University in London. Collins has developed a program that connects the music people listen to with the routes they travel. The project innovatively amalgamates various different types of data into one place. As Collins explains, data from GPS units and music players is logged and is then represented "online bringing together content from Yahoo Maps, Flickr, and YouTube." Dash Express uses GPS technology as well, but it is a fully developed product. Networked through the internet, Dash Express is not the typical in-car device; it collects live information, including car speed and traffic density, and calculates what is truly the shortest route to take. While it is particularly aimed at facilitating driver navigation, the design serves as a prototype for tremendous possibilities. Because it accumulates information on a network, explains Engadget's Nilay Patel in a product review, "the more users there are, the better it's going to get." For example, if units like this were widely used in a society, researchers could analyze countless urban patterns, such as where people are at what times of the day, what routes people take, how much time people spend at specific places, and so forth.

Each of these three projects integrates current technologies with research to allow for unprecedented data sourcing. If architects and designers could use data logged from these innovations in contextual studies of communities, and then organize the findings, which is perhaps the most difficult task, they could begin to understand the real-time and current existence of cities and societies at much more personal levels. Perhaps practices could collect, develop, and broadcast information all in one place. Instead of publishing findings in a one-way medium, such as the books of OMA and AMO, architects and designers could present their research, in addition to collecting data, through mobile technology interfaces and the internet programs. This way research and design would be reciprocal. What I find most intriguing, is that by using crowdsourcing, these developing practices of research not only can affect the design of a product, building, or environment, but entire cultures at large. These methods depend on public participation and input, and thus work better if more people use them and if quality information is provided. This encourages societies that are more open as well as more willing to engage and share.

1 comment:

KC said...

As someone who has had very little experience in the field of architecture, I found your post to be surprisingly fascinating and relevant. Before reading your blog, I had never even heard of the term "crowdsourcing". It is amazing to see how technology has advanced in the past few years. I like how you were able to connect the inventive work of Nouvel to the innovative changes in technological research occurring in this day and age. It is something both exciting and also somewhat overwhelming. To think that a program like Evernote can really allow you to remember everything is actually a little scary. Some things are better left forgotten sometimes. But I think Dash Express has great potential to assist architects in construction and design like you suggested. I feel that it would be a valuable tool for building communities sustainably, something that I find to be of utmost importance in our society. If this smart technology allows for architects to construct in a more intelligent manner that has a positive impact for both the human inhabitants as well as the surrounding area, I am whole-heartedly in support of it. However, I wonder if this growing reliance on computers and the Internet is hurting those who were trained in the analogue age of architecture. As an architect major, do you feel that opening up the field to more computer based research and data organization essentially opens up the profession to those uneducated in the basics of architecture? Does it take someone with a strong architecture background to effectively run these programs, or can anyone with superior computer proficiency complete these tasks. If it were the case of the latter, wouldn't the entire architecture field of study and profession suffer? As I said before, I am no expert in this area. However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. I believe you provided your readers with great insight and information in a topic that many are unfamiliar with. My only suggestion would be to perhaps include more of your own personal thoughts and opinions. My favorite part of the post was toward the end when you began discussing the potential for all this new technology as it would pertain to your field. More of this would have made your already strong post even better. Well done.

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