Mobility Studies: Affordance

In tonight’s session of “mobilities: cities on the move” Professor Sheller introduced this video of a young scotsman, Danny MacAskill, filmed imaginatively navigating his environment and shaping it to suit his purpose. He clearly tests our understanding of an environment’s affordance while demonstrating that how we move through space alters our perception of a space and the creation of place. Early in the video Danny manipulates his bicycle along the tops of iron fence-posts, what would be a barrier for most of us, and as he jumps, flips and drops across the city he challenges us all to better explore our environment and to not simply accept the tried and true methods for moving within our environment. Throughout the video Danny demonstrates such refined control over the bicycle that it becomes an extension of his body. More than an instrument in the hand of a practiced athlete the man and bicycle become one entity moving through space, adapting to its environment  in ways that are reminiscent of parkour. The performance is beautiful to watch and truly challenges our understanding of mobility.

Passions, Priorities and Perpetual Motion

These last few months have been a blur for me. I started a new full-time position with a planning department. I wrote an intensive application for a graduate scholarship. I began a number of graduate school applications. I hung out with friends. I went on some dates. I ramped up my work on Drexel Smart House. And at no time, until these few moments I am stealing, did I pull back from all the activity in order to assess and to reflect upon what I have been doing, learning, accomplishing. In these few borrowed minutes I think I see a dilemma that I am about to run into head on. Passions, Priorities and Perpetual Motion.

I am incredibly passionate about my own education and research , the development and evolution of Drexel Smart House into a sustainable organization, becoming a professional architect, and creating an excellent design company.

Luckily some of my passions are also able to be my current priorities. Unfortunately Drexel Smart House and the job that adds to my professional training are leaving me little room for anything else. My thesis work is receiving a few hours every two weeks of production time (of course I think about it everyday), my NCARB/IDP process is stagnating (I haven’t touched that stuff in months), my graduate applications and GRE are afterthoughts at the end of the day, and I can’t even find the time to schedule a hair cut, let alone sit down to eat good meals each day (I’ve seriously a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter underneath my desk at work).

And then there’s the perpetual motion. On a good day I’m getting 6 hours of sleep. In general I’m floating around 4-5 for most working days of the week. Why? Because I find myself insisting on celebrating what could well be my final year in Philadelphia for some time. Requests to grab a drink at a bar or to come over for dinner certainly are not falling on deaf ears. Of course such celebration is also a cause for my concern. I have to be careful that I don’t over do it all. I feel I’m a hockey puck gliding swiftly across the ice. If I don’t stop sometime I think I’m going to come crashing down.

All that said, what is really nagging me is “what comes next” and being ready for it. I absolutely want to continue on to graduate school for urban planning. But, will all the great things I am doing that are strengthening my character and honing my professional and personal skills also beginning to cut too deeply? Will I let them stop me from being ready for moving on?

I guess I’ll find out soon enough. Until then it’s all about balance.

The Future of Our Built Environment

According to the Center for Built Environment Research in the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast:

“Modern built environment research combines innovations in materials, interaction of people with the built environment, meeting social needs of housing, simulation studies for energy efficiency in the built environment, and the use of space, light, energy and acoustics.”

It strikes me that we are now entering a decidedly modern era in the creation of the built environment. In many ways repetitive, yet wholly new, today’s obsession with efficiency has the potential to machine out the very humanity that has traditionally been inherent in the formation of the built environment. Like a ouija board’s planchette, man seems to only see that which is in view, remembering and at time salivating over where we’ve been, obsesses with anticipating where we are going, and always not quite getting it right.

A few of the Center’s 2008 research topics:

  • Inclusive design
  • People-oriented Interaction
  • Innovative materials and their use
  • Building performance and evaluation
  • Sustainable housing studies
  • History and theory of architecture
  • Digital media of architecture
  • Architecture technology

Look to your team for your greatest strength

I recently read a synopsis of a seminar that discussed the evolution of the human brain. The seminar, sponsored by the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Felloships, brought together members of diverse disciplines like anthropology, archaeology, biology and neuroscience.

Essentially, the attendees said that our brains have developed through our social behavior, and not due to any drive for reproducing DNA as previously posited. So, if we aren’t acting on our ‘selfish’ genes and survival of the fittest individual and are actually acting on group interaction to promote the fittest group; then how are our past ‘selfish’ oriented philosophies altered or cast in a new perspective?

Should we toss out all our books that discuss rigid heirarchies, empire building, and other acts that glorify the individual over the group?

When I think of this, I recall an interview I saw earlier this year. In it Lebron James stated that he believed his greatest strength was looking to his teammates, always looking for ways to work with them and to make them successful. Perhaps in addition to his amazing athletic abilities, this is another reason many perceive him as one of the greatest basketball players of the last decade.

Still, even if our brains develop through interaction, we can’t escape our history and our past (well, really still) emphasis on the individual. It will be a good first step when we begin understanding the intrinsic nature of our shared values and seek to always work well with others.

Thanks to Michael Fitzgerald for the informative first article.

Now is a Good Time to be a Designer

Tim Brown of IDEO recently wrote that “much of what we are able to do with design is dependent on the context in which we ask our questions.” After all, as he understands it “an innovatoris someone who is able to ask a question that no one else has thought to ask.”

Even better, one of the most critical pieces to innovation is timing and I agree with Brown; thanks to the message of President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, “today the context in which we get to ask our questions has changed.” It has certainly changed for the better. Now, we are recognizing the power of the time we are beginning to enter. Thanks to the economic fears that we are breathing, like the smog of an industrial city, society is beginning to truly seek the answers to questions that designers have already asked.
This is why I wholeheartedly agree with Brown’s conclusion that “this is a good time to be a designer.”
As for making the best of the current situation. I think there are  few methods, with which all the designers out there need to begin experimenting. It is a truism that most ideas have been had by one or more other(s) and ditto with the asking of questions. When we innovate, we are not alone. So, for those seeking to succeed within this current window of opportunityreach out to others and find those who are just as passionate as you in answering the question you ask. Then, you must execute, and execute better than others to see your answer become a positive and continuing reality.
Thanks to the development of the web that is now connecting all those with a computer or a mobile device, more and more of the innovators in our world are now accessible. Get out there, find them, begin talking. At the best you will find a new partner for collaboration; at the worst, you will have some feedback for better developing your answer. Either way, all the rest of us will be benefiting. So, thank you.

Why We Study

Tonight I had a brief and thoughtful conversation with a mother. This weekend, I watched over her house, her dogs, and her two sons. I’m not sure how we got on the topic, but it might have started with the topic of her children not having any homework for the weekend or her one son doing his homework on the bus ride home. Either way, we began discussing what happens when developing children are under-stimulated. It seems that like me (at that age and now), her youngest son, does not have what one might call the “best” studying habits.

Studying habits, what a great topic. Why should we study? How should we study? What should we study? Where should we study? Hell, should we study?

One of the key points she made was that there were times that her son lost points on exams simply because he would provide the answer without showing his work (perhaps because he just sees the answer … perhaps not). As I told her, I can understand his reasoning. As a youth I would often simply provide the answer to a problem, not understanding the need to demonstrate my methods for reaching the correct conclusion. Only later in life (and still) did I begin to understand the various reasons for keeping a record of the method. It is good to keep track of your work to be able to walk through it should you reach the incorrect answer (find where you misstepped) or to help others to see new ways for solving a problem. Most have seen this in the realm of science and mathematics, but because of my field of study, I have experienced this with my visual/spatial problem sets.

These “processes” tie back in to the idea of homework because homework is intended to stimulate our minds as we are developing. Should the teacher provide the same problem set to all the pupils then there will be a spectrum; some will find it terribly hard (over stimulating); some will find it moderately hard (stimulating); and, some will find it terribly easy (boring). As one of those who more often found myself in the later grouping, the only recommendation I can make for the system is to stop teaching to the middle. Nor can we segregate ourselves, because so doing is just as detrimental to development (as a society) as we tend to provide the best with better resources. If there is one problem in the realm of education that I wish to see resolved in this century … this is most certainly it.

Out with Analog

I have always wondered if we are going in the right direction with all of our technologies.
Today, many seem to be contemplating the difference between an analog world and the digital.
Either way, they are both rather indicative of the advanced technologies of their times.
Today’s digital world is rather encompassing and pervasive. When riding the train or bus, the person sitting next to me is often writing an email or an sms using his mobile device. Hysterically, there are times when the message is to me. When driving a car, it often comes with (or I can add) a device to tell me the path from A to B. No longer must I worry about stopping to ask another human for directions. If that weren’t enough, my phone now does this also.
Perhaps this helps to explain why I feel I am handicapped when without my mobile phone (to say nothing about my laptop computer). Adding to this feeling, my colleagues expect me to answer calls, sms, and emails all the time because I own and operate a mobile telephony device, which they feel should always be on and always be at hand.
With my computer, and now with google’s document management, I see thousands of photos flooding my hard disk and at times my company file server. When I pause to think about the data intesivity of the contemporary world, I often wonder if the benefits outweigh the costs; after all, there are obviously benefits to the technology.

But, are we slipping? In our use of the technology, are we letting it control us as opposed to our controlling it? How often does the technology dictate our actions rather than our actions dictate the technology. Perhaps this is the constant struggle of being human. Some ask if we are becoming more robotic and less human? Are we becoming more secluded and less social?

Asking these questions makes me daydream of (and long for) when I didn’t have to worry about my personal data sitting in some place out of my control; when, I could breath fresher air; when, I didn’t need to worry about not having enough fresh water or electricity; when, my creativity was nurtured rather than being dampened by dictated routine.

I think we will soon see a reaction. We will begin to collectively ask our technology begin to help us to be healthier, to relax, to read a good book or poem, hear a good song, and have a good conversation. Perhaps it is already doing these things (we just need to see how). The layerings of our society are becoming more and more interconnected. We should embrace it, and make technology work for our common good.