In 2009, I joined the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. It was a riveting experience working for such an iconic firm and I still have a sincere respect for the incredible work and people of the firm. After two years, I remember thinking that there was something that as architects and designers we were not addressing – technology. At the time, I had a bulky Nokia phone that had such terrible 3G technology that I only used it for calls and text messages. Yet, Foursquare was starting to become popular in NYC, with both Airbnb and Uber in their infancy. The way in which we interacted with each other, and the way in which we interacted with our environment, was changing materially.
Two years later I joined the MIT Senseable City Lab. I worked with biologists, computer scientists, and experts in robotics on a series of projects focused on health, perception, and our environment. As an architect, I always thought of the digitalization of space through parametric design and the notion of responsive environments, yet, while collaborating with Nick DePalma from the Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group, I noticed that people in robotics called it something else: Ambient Intelligence (AmI)(2). The term resonated with me – it implies that technology not only is a part of the background, but also is something that amplifies and enables the experience of a given place. It also made me think differently about the potential future evolution of robotics: instead of something anthropomorphic, mechanical, with a high degree of complexity, we could indeed be speaking about miniature embedded sensors and actuators, with highly distributed intelligence.
As a designer, the notion of Ambient Intelligence presents a key question: how to design for massive interdependence? We are no longer designing discrete objects, but a series of relationships that can potentially learn from each other, and that have effects well beyond an intended functionality. We have to learn to design for memory, ethics, relationship building, cognitive capacity, and for forgiveness, and disruption. At an urban scale, it means that many of the types of infrastructures and services that had been established since the XIX Century are meant to be rethought. In front of that, Cedric Price’s famous quote from 1966 seems inevitable: “Technology is the solution, but what is the question?”
During my time at MIT, the acceleration of innovation also became readily apparent. While new technologies were being developed faster, their exponential applications struggled to catch up with the opportunities at hand. I remember that five months after some of my colleagues at the MIT Senseable City Lab published a paper on taxi redundancy networks, Uber launched its new service UberPool in San Francisco. The gap between science research and market implementation is shrinking with a fertile ground of startups testing the space in between.
This led me to start FIELD, my own practice in Barcelona focused on urban technologies. We partnered up with different organizations to spin-off solutions that had to do with connected infrastructure within the public realm, civic engagement and social currencies.
Interactive garden (left) and Active walkway (right), two spaces of F.C. Barcelona Experience, a digital masterplan for Camp Nou Stadium’s design competition. Project by FIELD, with ARUP and Taller Bofill Arquitectura.
So when Urban-X Managing Director for MINI Micah Kotch offered me the opportunity to join the team, it seemed like an opportunity that all my work had been leading to. I believe that URBAN-X has the capacity to become a major agent for change: it can accelerate and test ventures in markets, it brings entrepreneurs and public forces together, and fosters a critical eye on what the future of friendlier and more inclusive cities can be. URBAN-X exists within that fertile ground that brings to life what Ambient Intelligence can be at an urban scale: an ecosystem of distributed intelligence, where different solutions coexist, where they build on one another, where they are tested in a market setting, and where they exist not for disruption for disruption’ sake, but for a positive impact on people’s lives. It is also a place where design is pushed forward through active discussions, prototyping and implementation.
In these past few weeks, I have realized that design and entrepreneurship have one core feature in common: optimism. The optimism of having the capacity to build something that others will want, and the optimism of creating change for a better society. As startups tackle the many challenges of urban life, not only will they need this optimism, they’ll need the power of design and citizen engagement in order to succeed and scale.
- Parametric design is a process that defines and encodes algorithmic-based relationships between design intent and design response.
- Ambient Intelligence was first defined by Simon Birrell and his team at Palo Alto Ventures in 1998 and refers to a vision of the future where electronic environments are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people.