What is design in the age of data?

News - 11 October 2022 - Communication BK

Georg Vrachliotis argues for reflection on new technological conditions

How can architects and urban designers embrace and embed in practice challenges and opportunities posed by an increasingly data-driven society? As Theory of Architecture and Digital Culture professor at TU Delft, Georg Vrachliotis intends to increase data literacy among students and professionals. “We’re just entering a new phase in a continuing process.” On 28 October he will give his inaugural speech.

“Architecture is quite a romantic discipline”, says Vrachliotis, “we love our pencil and paper and our physical models and we want to make the world a better place.” Nevertheless, designers have been faced with technological shifts time and again. Some have wrestled with these changes and some have eagerly explored or even contributed to the development of new working methods such as computer modelling of the built environment. Now that applications of artificial intelligence, based on the availability and processing of large datasets, are opening up new prospects on experiencing and designing interactions between space, people and the various elements that make up and shape the built environment, designers need to be pragmatic, he says. “How are they going to reconsider and utilise these technologies in the face of a growing demand for socially just and environmentally sustainable concepts?”

Reinvent optimism

Mainstream debates about new technology such as artificial intelligence tend to highlight negative aspects, which makes it something of a challenge to maintain an unbiased position. “Of course we need to stay critical of new technologies”, says Vrachliotis, “but I would suggest that of all people designers should start from, or perhaps reinvent, optimism. This faculty with its inquisitive and hands-on design tradition is the place to do so.” One way of achieving this, he believes, is by considering buildings as intermediaries between technology, citizens and environment. “How can we rethink building concepts in the age of data and use data on the scale of buildings whilst maintaining basic values such as privacy? How do we redefine the idea of access or revalue the need for certain functional indoor spaces in the coming decades? What is a relatively safe and sound living environment under extreme weather conditions? These are fundamental questions I would like others to debate.”

Design data literacy

This implies that designers are well connected to advancements in computer technology and data science. “As a generalist the architect needs to acquire a new design literacy. This is all about collaboration between people and intelligent machines in such a way that they can design better. Be it with regard to the sustainable use of materials, dealing with the effects of climate change or preventing negative social impacts of spatial planning. Artificial intelligence has the potential to help establish these connections in a manageable way. For instance by integrating and learning from large datasets that concern widely different aspects of the built environment.”

As a generalist the architect needs to acquire a new design literacy.

Georg Vrachliotis

Not surprisingly, the teaching of a form of data literacy to design students is high on Vrachliotis’ agenda. “The present generation is apt at navigating the digital realm. More apt than their teachers are probably. But they need to be pointed in the right direction and to step out of their comfort zone.” So when a student is asked to design say an inner city square, there are all kinds of open datasets available to him in the public domain, ranging from demographical statistics to mobility studies. “Or he may have access to modelling tools that for instance assess health effects of climate adaptation measures.” Digital twins of buildings, cities, and infrastructures are already available, Vrachliotis says. “There is so much going on at the moment. Take, for example, the development at this faculty of the 3D BAG open dataset with building models in the Urban Data Science group,or the development of a digital twin of the Dutch electricity grid at this university.” TU Delft also runs an Open Science Programme and various AI labs “The world is full of data. So why not use them?”

New Open

How open data can be utilised to the utmost is at the heart of the faculty’s flagship programme called the New Open. Vrachliotis is heading it. “Of course, for designers the word ‘open’ is significant in so many ways. It implies physical access and public space as well as transparency and social inclusivity. But it also implies the blank space, the opportunity to create.” Now data, he contends, can be as much as an architectural drawing. “That’s visual information, right, which can be processed and analysed? Datasets from design practice can be input for machine learning. The principle of reusing resources effectively also applies to data, you see.”

Nowadays, of course, phones, cars and houses are gathering data all the time. “Phones hold huge amounts of environmental data that can be used for the public good.” This data density will only increase and all this latent information, Vrachliotis reckons, can be used for the better by designers. “Researching how they can achieve this goal, considering technological and institutional preconditions and the involvement of multiple stakeholders, is what this programme is all about.” He points out that the The Limits to Growth report was published exactly fifty years ago. “And that was all about statistics. So half a century ago data drove sustainability thinking and awareness forward. We’re just entering a new phase in a continuing process.”

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Header image | Credits: Vadim Bogulov – Unsplash