Arup Thoughts: How should we design for a networked world?

With data collected about our online activities comes enormous insight and influence over human behavior and a great potential to more intelligently cater to individual needs.

By DaeWha Kang, Arup July 27, 2016

We are entering an era where digital information increasingly impacts our physical lives. With the social networks that we use to connect with one another, the search engines that provide us with the information we seek, and the online services that quickly and conveniently fulfil our needs, a massive amount of data is being collected about our digital lives.

With this data comes enormous insight and influence over human behavior and a great potential to more intelligently cater to individual needs. As designers, we should leverage these new ecosystems of information and analytics to shape a better and more intelligent world.

At present, much of this data still exists as pure information within our phones and tablets and computer screens. One potential use for this wealth of information is to drive virtual reality (VR) experiences, and it is no accident that Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are investing heavily in VR.

But back in the physical world, it’s estimated that the "Internet of Things," a new generation of networked devices and appliances, will add trillions of pounds to the global economy in the coming years. This market prediction foresees a future where a network of everyday objects is increasingly responsive to our digital activity in new and compelling ways.

As architects and engineers, we have traditionally focused our efforts on the material world of structured space and physical communication. The design possibilities of a digitally connected world became quickly apparent at an infrastructural scale, with smart meters and intelligent transport strategies as obvious gains for engineers.

But as sensor and microcontroller costs continue to drop, our highly networked world can start to influence not only urban design, but also architectural and product design. These new combinations of technology, networking, and design pose many new and interesting questions to designers.

Our office’s work on Heart of Arup, the summer 2016 installation at Arup’s No.8 office, has been a foray into the complex intersection between spatial design, interaction design, social networking design, and analytics. The amount of effort involved in engaging with all of the different disciplines required to deliver such a project has raised as many questions as it has answered, and we would like to share some of those questions:

  • Do we need a new language of design to bridge the territory between the digital and physical worlds? If so, what might be its most salient characteristics?
  • Where is the most obvious commercial value, and how can design unlock it?
  • What are the conceptual, philosophical, and ethical frameworks that we need to structure our thinking as designers in a networked world?
  • Is this an optimistic vision for the world? Or are there dystopian elements to the vision as well? What are the risks?

-DaeWha Kang is a designer and architect in London. He established DaeWha Kang Design in 2015 to focus more intensely on the synergy between outstanding design, long-term sustainability, and societal well-being in our built environment. This article originally appeared on Arup. Arup is a CFE Media content partner.