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Christopher Alexander and “A Pattern Language”

Great post about Christopher Alexander’s work and influence via The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, originally published at the Metropolis website, which followed up with posts on “The Sustainable Technology of Christopher Alexander” and “The Living Technology of Chrisopher Alexander.” The authors emphasize Alexander’s emphasis on patterns, context and a whole-systems vision. He was writing as an architect, but his influence has been more widespread.

an earlier generation of computer programmers, organization theorists, design theorists and many others, were struggling then to figure out how to generate and manage the large new design structures of that era — computer software being one prominent example. Alexander gave them some very helpful conceptual tools to do that…. In essence, the tools were patterns: not things, but relations of things, which could be identified and re-combined and re-used, in a language-like way.

The article goes on to say that Anderson’s work has “…amounted to a kind of technological critique, revolving around the observation that we’re doing something wrong in the way we make things. We’re substituting an oversimplified model of structure-making — one more closely related to our peculiar hierarchically limited way of conceiving abstract relationships — in place of the kinds of transformations that actually occur regularly in the universe, and in biological systems especially.”

Ours is a much more limited, fragmentary form of this larger kind of transformation. The result of this problem is nothing less than a slow unfolding technological disaster. We know it as the sustainability crisis.

That’s where this discussion touches on what’s happening today — economically, ecologically, and culturally. Growing numbers of people do recognize that we have to get our houses in order. But whose house, to what extent, and in what way? That’s the big question of the day.

What Alexander argues is that we have to make some very fundamental reforms — not only in our specific technologies, but in our very way of thinking about technology. We have been isolating things, as mechanical sub-entities, and manipulating them. That works quite well, but only up to a point. As any systems theorist or ecologist will tell you, the context, not the thing, is the key.

So it seems that we have ignored an incredibly important aspect of natural systems — namely, the fact that every structure is embedded in a larger structural context, and ultimately, in the entire structure of the cosmos itself. What Alexander offered was not just the recognition of this truth, but the basis of a new technology that could incorporate it.

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Innovation is Madness

Genius architect Pliny Fisk of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems is featured in a GE Focus Forward short film contest semifinalist, “Innovation is Madness.” “This whole idea that I am a mad scientist essentially comes from the fact that I have created a situation where madness can happen safely…”

Innovation Is Madness | Mark Decena from Focus Forward Filmson Vimeo.

INNOVATION IS MADNESS is a Semifinalist in the $200,000 FOCUS FORWARD Filmmaker Competition and is in the running to become the $100,000 Grand Prize Winner. It could also be named an Audience Favorite if it’s among the ten that receives the most votes. If you love it, vote for it. Click on the VOTE button in the top right corner of the video player. Note that voting may not be available on all mobile platforms, and browser cookies must be enabled to vote.

Pliny Fisk III was one of the founding members of the green building movement. In 1975 he co-created the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a non-profit education, research, and demonstration organization specializing in life cycle planning and design. Shooting a video series for the US Green Building Council, we were introduced and subsequently fell in love with Pliny and his merry band of crazies. CMPBS has not only become a collaborative model for invention, but a physical space for innovation to happen. It’s time for the inmates to run the asylum.

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How to Build a Better Block

Fabulous talk by Jason Roberts of “The Better Block: A Living Charrette”, presented at TedX Austin. You should watch this… twice. These guys don’t wait around to make the world better.

(Incidentally, if you want to know more about the charette concept, the book below is a good reference.)

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Forward thinking about the competitive workplace

Earlier this week I attended a breakfast panel sponsored by Gensler (http://www.gensler.com), an architecture, design, planning and consultation firm that focuses (among other things) on effective workplace environments, consulting for companies like Google, HP, Yahoo and Facebook. The title of the panel was “Designing your workplace for a competitive edge.”

Here’s my set of notes from the panel:

Evolving workplace:

Version 1.0: Move fast and break things. Emerging culture. Workplaces built for speed, transparency, flexibility.

Version 2.0: 8×8, 1:1. Cubic farms on vast floor plates. Cube dwellers. Butts in seats. Embedded hierarchy.

Version 3.0: (Now). Activity-based era. Changing work process. Mobile, remote work. “We” spaces, not “me” spaces. Support for collaboration. Drivers: faster pace, distributed teams, lean and mean. Changing work processes (from waterfall to agile). Closed to open. Get products to market faster. Multiple space times for multiple work modes. Coworking. Workers not tethered to one company.

Panelists
Derek Woodgate, The Futures Lab: futurist perspective
Eden Bruckman, International Living Future Institute: sustainability perspective
David Bumgardner, HP: real estate acquisition and management perspective.

Bumgardner’s job is to maximize HP’s real estate portfolio. He has to consider how employees work and what kind of environment is conducive to productivity, at the same time maintaining standards across the global HP properties. He focuses on optimal use of all properties, noting that the workforce increasingly consists of mobile employees who require no office or desk. The need for consistent standards is so that wherever the mobile employee goes to an HP facility, the work environment is fairly consistent. Other factors: environmental sustainability, affordability.

A green and sustainable workplace environment can be a competitive edge: some of the most talented employees will factor environmental impact into their decisions about where to work.

Google is another company that focuses on sustainability. The focus is authentic, no greenwashing. Google wants to move beyond LEED, looking through the lens of the Living Building Challenge (https://ilbi.org/lbc).

The build environment is an extension of who we are. We see increasing interest in building bio measurement and feedback into environments. China is looking closely at metrics in building 20 megacities.

Community will no longer be a matter of who’s aggregated in any place, but also how they share and manage resources.

Health and well-being is the new perq for employees; it’s no longer about having a corner office or other sings of hierarchy.

At Zappos, the number 1 priority is company culture, feeling that if you get that right, the rest will happen naturally. How does the built environment impact that culture?

The contemporary work environment needs spaces for energizing and spaces for discharging that energy.

Technology is moving fast, but the build environment is inherently slow.

HP created the Halo Room (http://www.humanproductivitylab.com/archive_blogs/2007/08/28/hp_halo_releases_hp_meeting_ro.php), a set of global networked technology-mediated remote conferencing environments. As these kinds of environments proliferate, travel requirements will decrease. “You’re not going to see that people interaction go away. You’re going to see better ways to get it.”

Increasingly building sustainability into design standards, which may have to vary for different (non-U.S.) contexts. Striving for a zero effect (carbon neutral). Changing densities.

Currently workers don’t feel the same commitment from companies as before, and vice versa. Companies are reducing the numbers of employees and relying more on contractors. We’re creating a world of experts (consultants).

Future workers (currently under 25 years of age) are growing up with a different set of assumptions. Their world is a world of peer groups, not authoritarian hierarchies. It’s a world that’s saturated with technology, especially for communications. For the first time ever, we’re starting to see multiple generations of employees working together in the same office.

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Infinite Games

Via Flemming Funch, a review of “Finite and Infinite Games – A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility” by James P. Carse: “A finite game is a game that has fixed rules and boundaries, that is played for the purpose of winning and thereby ending the game….An infinite game has no fixed rules or boundaries. In an infinite game you play with the boundaries and the purpose is to continue the game.”

All finite games have rules. If you follow the rules you are playing the game. If you don’t follow the rules you aren’t playing. If you move the pieces in different ways in chess, you are no longer playing chess.

Infinite players play with rules and boundaries. They include them as part of their playing. They aren’t taking them serious, and they can never be trapped by them, because they use rules and boundaries to play with.

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Flip it!

Daniel Pink has a smart article on flip thinking, a trend in innovation. It’s a matter of rethinking sequence logic: for instance, a math instructor finds that it makes more sense to work on problems in class, and follow with the lecture (uploaded to YouTube, where students watch as homework). You experience the tension of the problem first, and get hands-on guidance from the instructor. Having learned your way around the problem, you see the lecture that contextualizes that learning.

While the idea is great, and Pink offers excellent examples where turning sequences around might work, the more compelling lesson is about creativity: we should rethink our habits and routines, and consider re-engineering our processes, as a matter of course. It’s too easy for ruts to form. We avoid disruptive innovation because it can be painful, but it’s productive pain. [Link]

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Roadrunner

This is what you want to find under your Christmas tree – the hypercool Roadrunner trike, “designed to ride on the tarmac [and] that can carry up to 25kg of load.” It’s pedal-powered with a secondary electric motor rear wheel. [Link]

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Jeanne-Claude

Farewell to Jeanne-Claude, who with her husband and collaborator Christo produced high-concept major-scale aesthetic works in public places. [Link to the artists’ web site] [The Umbrellas] [The Gates]

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Thames Town

Thames Town is part of Songjiang New City, in Shanghai, China. Modeled on traditional urbanism, it’s “only one enormous block of an entire new city of enormous developments, most in the Chinese style of giant aligned slabs…” [Link]


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Open Architecture Products

Andrew Lippman on “open architecture products,” and viewing customers as partners who will contribute to the evolution and design of the products they buy and use.

The stability that we associated with products is gone. And so if you try to base your business on a product that you think will last a long time, then I suspect you’re likely to be in trouble — because society will change more rapidly….The young are not satisfied with products. They’re satisfied with things they can build into their own products. And so the challenge is to build those as open-architecture products. (From MIT Sloan Review)

www.hsmglobal.com

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That buzzing sound…

Geographers are researching buzz, according to this New York Times article (thanks to the phenomenal Oliver Markley for the pointer). They’re creating a study and an exhibit, both called “The Geography of Buzz,” and in the process finding that buzz is hard to define explicitly. “Rather, like pornography, you know it when you see it.”

As a digital guy, I looked for the tech implications:

… the geo-tagging represents a new wave of information that can be culled from sites like Flickr and Twitter. “We’re going to see more research that’s using these types of finer-grained data sets, what I call data shadows, the traces that we leave behind as we go through the city….They’re going to be important in uncovering what makes cities so dynamic.”

“People talk about the end of place and how everything is really digital. In fact, buzz is created in places, and this data tells us how this happens.”

The geographers have some very cool buzz maps.

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A law of evolving patterns in living systems

Constructal law can predict patterns in living sysems. [Link]

“Our finding that animal locomotion adheres to constructal law tells us that – even though you couldn’t predict exactly what animals would look like if you started evolution over on earth, or it happened on another planet – with a given gravity and density of their tissues, the same basic patterns of their design would evolve again,” [Penn state biologist James] Marden added.

The law, which [Adrian] Bejan started describing in 1996, is the principle that flow systems evolve in time to balance and minimize imperfections, reducing friction or other forms of resistance, so that they flow more and more easily in time. He is fond of using illustrations to make his point. For example, he has used images ranging from the branching symmetries of the lungs, river basins and trees touching top-to-top.

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End of the Viridian era

Added Bruce Sterling’s “Last Viridian Note” to the Viridian Design web site and to Worldchanging. It’s kind of like simple living/voluntary simplicity, but that’s not what he’s thinking:

Do not “economize.” Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It’s melting the North Pole. So “economization” is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less. Voluntary simplicity is, furthermore, boring. Less can become too much work.

It’s not so much about how to live in the new economy as how to live despite the economy, which is a wonky abstraction tethered to an unstable and unsustainable conceptual base, a manifestation of a centuries-long bubble that’s exploding slime on every main street parade. Despite that, we find energy and volition and keep on keeping on. As we move from a linear supply model to a network supply model, from resource extraction from knowledge extraction, we transform and are transformed, and move on.

And get good tools. In fact,

…get excellent tools and appliances. Not a hundred bad, cheap, easy ones. Get the genuinely good ones. Work at it. Pay some attention here, do not neglect the issue by imagining yourself to be serenely “non-materialistic.” There is nothing more “materialistic” than doing the same household job five times because your tools suck. Do not allow yourself to be trapped in time-sucking black holes of mechanical dysfunction. That is not civilized.