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Reconciling humans and machines with nature

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How can we make technology work for humans? Eleni Papadonikolaki reflects on what the built environment could be like if we asked a different set of questions.

Reconciling humans and machines with nature

'Tunis: section of the bridge-town above Medina' variant with colour from 'La Ville Spatiale' projects by Yona Friedman (1959).

Credit: Yona Friedman / www.yonafriedman.nl

Many architects and thinkers of the post-World-War-2 era envisioned the intensive development of technology as a means to creating a better human and to radically transforming their lives.

To coincide with our Bartlett 100 exhibition, The Next 100 Years, we’re running a series of seven pieces by researchers at The Bartlett that offer speculative responses to the statement: ‘The built environment in 2119’. Writers have been invited to interpret it in whichever way they like, with the aim being to explore questions at the heart of how we shape the world we live in over the next century.

​07: Reconciling humans and machines with nature

An interview with Dr Eleni Papadonikolaki, Associate Professor in Building Information Modelling (BIM) and Management at The Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management

In the triad ‘nature-human-machine’, it is the machine that is constantly pushing its boundaries and transforming, says Dr Eleni Papadonikolaki, but humans’ daily lives operate almost at the same rhythm as they did 100 years ago. Quantitative indicators of human life, rather than qualitative, are our primary measure of success and considerations of the natural environment, sustainability and climate change are still absent from much of what we make. In this interview, she reflects on what the built environment could be like when asking a different set of questions.


Can ‘digital transformation’ mean something different than the way it is often talked about today?

We typically don’t discuss how we can make human lives better. What I mean by that is, despite all of the technology around us, we don’t understand how we can improve the quality of human life – only how we can make it more efficient: how we can reduce our commutes or automate our emails, for example. The way that we organise work, and the very nature of ‘work’, aren’t really changing. So I’m wondering to what extent we can repurpose or re-channel all of the time and energy that we spend developing new technologies for efficiency, into changing the ways that people interact with nature and one another to create societies.

Have we always been asking the wrong questions of technology?

Many architects and thinkers of the post-World-War-2 era envisioned the intensive development of technology as a means to creating a better human and to radically transforming their lives. Yona Friedman designed and wrote about how architecture and space could be designed, built and used by citizens themselves. He looked at architecture as a participatory process where all humans could build something – anybody could do an ‘architectural act’ – they could shape the environment around them in order to be happy. He had a down-to-earth and inclusive view of architecture driven by constant curiosity and playfulness.

Takis Zenetos’ ‘Electronic urbanism’ envisioned connected flexible, modular, nature-friendly and human-centred structures, with ubiquitous telecommunications networks to connect humans and provide them with time and space. This was opposed to top-down systems; he believed it would allow for bottom-up communities to emerge.

Zenetos and Friedman were both creating what they called flexible superstructures, where nature is an integrated part of the built environment, not something separate.

What can we learn from these theorists to adjust our end goals?

When I was studying architecture in Greece, I was very intrigued by Zenetos’ work, because it was so forward-looking and unlike anything I had ever seen or read. He was essentially creating architecture in order to create more leisure time and better work satisfaction for citizens. A school that he designed in Athens – it’s known as ‘The Building that Fell to Earth’ – is unlike anything else that exists in the city. His concept was focused on how to mobilise the various communities from around the school neighbourhood, how it could prepare students for a different type of adult life, with more participation in the community and with a better relation to nature.

Zenetos and Friedman were both creating what they called flexible superstructures, where nature is an integrated part of the built environment, not something separate. They also saw themselves as designing for a different type of person, a different type of human that they hadn’t seen yet. To do that, they were asking different questions of architecture: ‘What makes people happy?’; ‘How do humans connect with one another?’; ‘What supports people and transforms their lives, without compromising nature?’

So do we have the wrong goal for work today?

Our focus today is on how can we use technology to help us do things that we’re already doing. We have not revisited the concept of leisure or the concept of work, say, in the way that Zenetos did. These are more or less the same as they have been for the last 100 years. The one word we hear all the time in conjunction with digital technology is ‘productivity’. My interpretation of our concept of ‘increasing productivity’ today is ‘increasing profits’. That might be a benefit of what we do, but it shouldn’t define it. What if we looked at job satisfaction and asked people, ‘how can we help you be really proud of your work and your daily routine?’

Reconciling humans and machines with nature

'Tunis: section of the bridge-town above Medina' from 'La Ville Spatiale' projects by Yona Friedman (1959).

Credit: Yona Friedman / www.yonafriedman.nl

Could a technology like BIM deliver benefits other than productivity if we ask the right questions of it?

The term ‘BIM’ (Building Information Modelling) creates an image in people’s mind that it’s software or a tool. But this software-centred view doesn’t actually help us understand how we can challenge the traditional way of doing things. BIM is not just an add-on that we can plug in and get more productivity; it is an opportunity to change people, organisations and supply chains, to improve the quality of the work we do. And that relates to benefits that are rarely discussed – how we can make people in the industry happier with the products and projects they are creating, more content in the daily interactions they’re having. These could then bring an increase in productivity.

What about technology as a tool for collaboration?

The arguments for collaboration, they’re relevant arguments, because at the end of the day, tools help people develop teams. Digital tools help people develop trust and share information and build relations. So, this is one of the benefits of technologies like BIM, because projects are essentially endeavours where we need different expertise to come together.

Most of my research career was in the Netherlands, where I spent four years looking at supply chains and how they were using BIM in their projects. What was interesting to me was how they used it to better understand the needs of their business partners, who they called ‘co-makers’. So it wasn’t just about delivering a project faster or more efficiently, they were using it to understand the daily work challenges of other firms they were working with. Now, it’s a smaller country, so the scale is smaller than in the UK, but nevertheless this was an important lesson for me – the use of digital tools to make use of better informal relationships among firms in the supply chain.

It was nice to hear them calling their partners ‘co-makers.’ This togetherness is very important because it gives people a sense of ownership. Teams need to have a mutual goal and if the goal is just to make profit and increase their productivity, this is not about togetherness.

I’m optimistic that people will get out of this tool-oriented view of digital.

Will organisational change produce different spaces?

Yes. Because organisational changes happen not only within existing firms but across whole sectors. In construction, we see many firms coming into the market now from areas that are completely alien to construction. So, when we hear that Amazon, wants to enter construction and use its supply chain and logistics capabilities to deliver buildings or how WeWork is using space to create new models of work, this is proof that things are changing, essentially.

Many construction firms are also looking at agile methods of working on projects. Agile is a software development methodology for working in iterative circles of continuous improvement. This is something that we’re not very familiar with in construction – this need to constantly improve the skill set, to constantly learn new things, to constantly question the processes. I think this is very hopeful, in a sense, for the construction industry.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I’m optimistic that people will get out of this tool-oriented view of digital, and use it to improve human relations and change how people are organised in firms and on projects. That’s the direction we’re heading towards very slowly. This can be extended to our communities and there’s an argument that caring more about people and relations should be integrated into the way we use digital technologies to design and build.

The School of Construction and Project Management is an international centre of excellence in the teaching and research of project management and economics. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/construction

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