[Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood. Fun Palace promotional brochure, 1964]
Our reality is saturated with data, but data by itself does not possess agency. To become useful feedback, data requires synthesis and design.
Recent technological progress means that feedback is now exchanged between human users and machines at an unprecedented speed. Highly specialised companies use smart technologies to track our social interactions, purchasing habits and biometric data. This information is fed into to the design of our stores, our transport networks and even our toilet seats. This begs us to question how we can better use feedback in our built environments.
Architects and planners were once highly engaged with the study of cybernetics and systems theory. In 1964, British architect Cedric Price, pioneering cybernetician Gordon Pask and theatre director Joan Littlewood collaborated on the Fun Palace. This project was a provocative response to increased leisure time in the post-war era. More a meticulously conceived matrix of responsive feedback loops than a static built form, the Fun Palace could adapt to the changing desires of its inhabitants at the touch of a button. Although never built, the project demonstrated that architecture could be conceived of as an adaptive system driven by user feedback. What form might a contemporary Fun Palace fuelled by our data-saturated present take?
Increasingly, architects and designers are concerned with implementing the outcomes of data collection. But before it can be implemented physically, data must first be aggregated. Even data derived from the most mundane sources―the disposal of waste, for example—can have immense implications. Projects like MIT Media Lab’s “Trash Track; The Plastic Cone” can inform our behaviour and encourage us to challenge traditional building typologies. What role might the museum, library or archive have in this context? By designing sophisticated feedback loop interfaces, can deeply-ingrained societal habits be changed?
The potential to integrate feedback extends beyond the physical into the fields of virtual reality and simulation. For example, GSAPP Cloud Lab founders Mark Collins and Toru Hasegawa utilise virtual reality headsets to provide real-time visual and haptic feedback that amplifies sensory experiences. The AA Component Membrane project incorporates feedback into the preliminary design phase—effectively integrating data into the built form itself.
Ethical questions naturally emerge regarding how this information will be collected and utilised within our environment. The interior spatial organisation of Amazon warehouses is dictated by complex algorithms. The daily movements and interactions of Amazon employees are effectively ‘Taylorized’—reduced to an efficiency calculation. Furthermore, surveillance and analytics are used to improve their productivity. Here, the occupant’s experience is secondary to the corporate demand for profit. How can designers better address the ethical consequences of technology’s incursion into our built environment?
Price believed that the benefits generated by technological advancement should be returned to society. If our built environment is to better engage its end user by soliciting their feedback, we should also consider who that end user is. How do we cast a wider net and ensure a more diverse group of people have agency in the design of our built future? To succeed here, designers must be able to suspend their collective and individual biases. Although the use of data might imply objectivity, the way we analyse and implement data can still be subjective. An algorithm is only as good as its initial parameters, just as a self-learning neural network also bears the mark of its creator. Who will possess this authority and what sort of ethical framework will they operate within?
The richness of data available to architects, landscape architects, urban designers and planners enables new methodologies for these professions. Existing collaborative design processes can be enriched by a more nuanced understanding of occupancy centred on qualitative feedback. But the correlate question is how much of our current professional authority do we abdicate? The expertise of the architect and planner might be under question but should we continue to yield our responsibilities to other bodies? What active roles could designers play in facilitating, parsing and utilising user feedback?
Inflection vol. 5 invites academics, students and professionals to consider the practical, moral and technical implications and implementations of feedback.
We welcome and invite both academic and practice-oriented written pieces, visual essays, interviews and fictional works that engage with the theme of feedback in relation to architecture, design and related fields.
We look forward to your contribution!
All text is to be formatted according to the Inflection style guide and submitted in .doc format, with referencing according to the Chicago Manual of Style. All images to be formatted as .tiff, CMYK and 300DPI. Contributors are responsible for obtaining copyright of graphic material where appropriate.
Please submit abstracts of maximum 300 words to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday 09 December 2017.