Unlimited: Smart Cities Master Class

I participated in the ‘Smart Cities master class’ which was based at the Edge last weekend. Here are some of my thoughts and experiences during the workshop:

The master workshop was outlined as a 32 hours ‘live studio experience’ where participants would work in different groups and design proposals for hypothetical future smart city sites. The workshop was run by CJ Lim, Professor of Architecture and Cultural Design at The Bartlett School of Architecture in London. In his keynote, CJ introduced Smart Cities as a concept of “an ecological symbiosis between nature, society and the built environment; perhaps not a full return to balance, but an innovative response to imbalance and problems facing cities of the future” (http://unlimitedap.com/2010/09/smart-cities-master-class/).

The workshop was primarily aimed at addressing contemporary urban issues such as city growth, as well as exploring opportunities and reshaping our thinking of urban environments towards green and sustainable habitats. The presented scenarios included urban farming, urban forests and wild-life experiences.

Around half of the participants were undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students from various fields such as architecture, landscape architecture or urban planning, and some exotic background folks like myself from urban informatics. We came from different universities, mostly RMIT/Melbourne and QUT or Griffith from Brisbane. The other half of the participants were young professionals, mostly working in architecture and urban planning. After CJ’s introductory presentation, he divided us into 5 groups of 10-12 people, each group with a mix of professionals and students with different background areas. Each group was assigned to a preselected case study, which comprised regions all located in the surroundings of Brisbane, such as Port of Brisbane or Yarrabilba/Gold Coast.

The design challenge started as a race against the clock. After two hours we had the first milestone presentation, where each group presented their first concept ideas to CJ and the review panel (a mixed group of senior professionals and academics). The second milestone presentation was held in the afternoon, and required a more refined concept and factual support for the selected scenarios. Again, each group got individual feedback from the review panel, and then went back to work. It was already 6pm, and we essentially had 18 more hours to amend and polish the proposed concepts, which were due on Saturday noon (optimally we would also need to squeeze in some sleep;)

I personally went home at half past midnight, and almost felt bad as there were still plenty of people sitting and working on their concepts. The Edge would be open 24h this day and I was wondering how many would actually stay awake all night;) Our group met up again at 7.30am the next day, and we had a very very work-intense morning. Basically, we finished our last presentation slide at 12:28pm and were really lucky that the presentation deadline was extended for half an hour shortly before.

Overall, the end presentations showed pretty amazing results and truly innovative concepts. These were 32 intense hours indeed, but definitely worth the experience. Coming from a computer science background, I mostly appreciated working with architects and urban planners, people who I learned tend to think in a totally different way. Very abstract and very very high level. Words and facts don’t count too much at the beginning. Everything is about sketches and drawings. Quickly putting first ideas on paper is high priority, regardless of potential constraints and barriers. Those would be considered at a much later stage. I think architects rather think as they draw, unlike engineers who generally prefer to think first. Well, our team, a mix of architects and engineers somehow managed to meet somewhere half way. The final presentations were far from concepts that one could implement tomorrow (this would actually be the kind of thinking that I am used to in my field, i.e. develop a concept, design a prototype, translate it into lines of code, and eventually produce a tangible artefact or piece of software). But this workshop was not about creating tangible stuff, it was about creating ideas and scenarios, especially in order to provoke and to make people think.

Some general observations:
What was interesting to observe is how the Auditorium of the Edge was set up according to the purpose of the master class. Big white curtains hanging from the ceiling almost to the floor, transformed the naturally large hall into a smaller, more comfy, yet wide and open shared working space. Seven huge round tables with surrounding chairs provided individual working areas for each team. The white wall at the very end of the Auditorium was used as a presentation area for the teams’ milestone as well as final presentations. I almost could not recognise the Auditorium as the same room where I visited the Brisbane Web Designers Group meeting a couple of weeks earlier (http://edgeqld.org.au/blog/2010/08/31/brisbane-web-designers-group/). Back then it appeared to me much more spacious, and with a designated stage, projection screen, speaker podium and around a hundred chairs for the audience, it was very similar to a huge university lecture room or cinema in some sense.

The allocated group desks in the Auditorium were heavily used throughout the two days. Most of them were a huge mess of paper drafts, idea sketches and concept diagrams, hidden under or covering laptop computers, in between dozens of pens, markers and other working material.
Though, some individuals and also entire groups would sometimes migrate to the window bays for a while. Our group, for example, needed to plan the final presentation after the second milestone. This required a team discussion to establish a common understanding of our overall structure and storyline, so we decided to move to one of the window bays, as it is a bit smaller and the bay curtains would allow us to work more isolated and undisturbed from other groups. After a while, one group member started to tape our preliminary slide drafts and action titles onto the window. The group continued to discuss the ordering and eventually we would turn our mess of various concept diagrams and preliminary paper slides into a storyline. We have only spent around two hours in the window bay, but got a lot of work done. I felt it facilitated stronger group dynamics and a much more efficient team work, especially as the vertical window surface allowed us to structure our slides collaboratively. Furthermore, we could still use Wifi to research relevant background information and email individually completed work packages to the team leader who would collect the material for the end presentation.

Find more pictures of the master class at http://www.flickr.com/photos/unlimitedap/sets/72157625165953322/with/5082599380/

2 replies to “Unlimited: Smart Cities Master Class

  1. rutger

    I teamed up in this masterclass as well. Although it was very intensive, as Mark describes above, coming from Melbourne I must congratulate Brisbane on having access to these amazing facilities in the city. During the short breaks that we used, we encountered others in different workshops and events; very motivating! Also amazing were the 24hr access to facilities, not limited to relatively fresh coffee and tea, fruits and refreshments. Even during the small hours various people peeked through the windows and/or showed interest in the workshop. Can only wish for a non-university aligned space like this in Melbourne. just great!

  2. Wendy Jean

    I am not an architect. I am not a landscape designer or computer scientist and I’m not even sure how I ended up on this site. However, I have taken part in many seminars and workshops for educational facilators and this space would have been far more invigorating to work in than most I have seen used. Then there is the topic… what I wouldn’t give to sit in on such a wonderful piece of real life theatre – I could feel the energy in your writing. Let’s hope it translates to improve and smarten our cities. You all have a creative energy in your own field – a gift – the real gift is in sharing the gift of the experience with others. Keep seeking – for the worlds needs more smarter places.

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