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Radical Openness at TED Global

Espousing a radically open future, the annual TED conference was ironically closed to most journalists. Here TED insider Rachel Armstrong reports for the AR on the implications for architects

What is the role of the architect in a world of  ‘radical openness’? Exploring this theme, the annual TED (technology, entertainment and design) conference in June, TEDGlobal, challenged established notions of community, design interaction, manufacturing and even the way that cities are organised. The non-hierarchical, distributed, cooperative forms of social interaction set the scene for a global community in which the status of architects could be critically diminished. From the profession’s perspective, radical openness is a way of countering the industrial age’s bureaucratic systems, which have subsumed practice and impinge upon creative and ethical freedoms.

Although design has been the least well represented of the TED pillars, the programme content was certainly pertinent to architects. Massimo Banzi, the inventor of Arduinos, enthused about a growing open source ‘maker’s movement’ where low cost, simple platforms and recycled materials could create ‘something great’ like smart cat feeders and errand-running quadcopters. Banzi’s turbo-charged DIY community of non-specialists were creating a bottom-up innovation platform to shape the interaction design of devices, homes and public spaces to forge a ‘maker’s paradise’ in which plants communicate with citizens via Twitter accounts.

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Massimo Banzi, physical computing guru, speaks during Session 2: Tinker Make Do. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Clay Shirky revealed how the power of decentralised cooperative actions can overturn powerful hierarchies through the story of Martha Payne. This nine-year-old girl diligently recorded her school dinners in a food blog called ‘NeverSeconds’ and discovered one day the local council had censored her. The ensuing public outcry from her thousands of followers not only reinstated Martha’s school dinner journal, but as Shirky reminded us, also went against the logic of ‘all of human history prior to now’.

Perhaps the strangest and most memorable talk was ‘Eyeborg,’ Neil Harbisson’s incredible story of being born in a greyscale world. To enrich his experiences he began a collaborative project in 2003 to create an electronic eye using a digital camera, and learned to ‘hear’ different sounds that were equivalent to the spectrum of visible light. Harbisson’s personal ‘radical openness’ about his most intimate experiences of digital synaesthesia not only revealed intriguing ‘sound portraits’ of faces but also provided a taster of how private and public domains might be shared through augmented reality.

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The only architect of the session, Michael Hansmeyer, talked about using an origami-inspired process that exploded volumetric space into single surfaces to make organic-looking sculptures. These were on display during the conference although most TEDsters (TED attendees) didn’t actually know what they were until after Hansmeyer’s talk, and many commented that they appeared difficult to clean. ‘Radical openness’ had almost exclusively focused on digital rather than ecological design platforms, so you speculate whether Hansmeyer’s process could become genuinely ‘organic’ by encouraging the rough digitally manufactured surfaces to collect dirt. Perhaps, then, the installation would bloom with indoor micro flora on these architectural soils as a living component to the production process. Sadly no bacterial films or mouldy growths began to colonise the pillars and I wondered if NASA’s Jonathan Trent, who demonstrated an ingenious approach to algae wastewater treatment using permeable plastic tubing, could find a range of ecological uses for Hansmeyer’s convoluted surfaces.

But TED is more than its main stage presentations and hosts a couple of pre-conferences over several days running up to the official TED conference. Specifically, the TED Fellows programme provides a platform for the coveted fellowship recruits of young innovators from around the world, such as architect Mitchell Joachim, who talked about how his New York ‘urbaneers’ explored guerrilla best practices in tackling issues as diverse as waste, communication, sanitation and education − which seemed a more radically ‘open’ architectural gesture than form-finding. Additionally, the TEDU (TED University) programme showcases projects solely from TEDsters. My talk on how the chemical sensors of Hylozoic Ground − a collaboration with architect Philip Beesley for the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale (a version of this installation is currently being exhibited at the Sydney Biennale) which used life-like chemistry to literally grow functional architectural materials − was accepted for presentation among others, such as Manu Prakash, who demonstrated how to make a working laboratory microscope out of paper and democratised access to the microscale world.

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Neil Harbisson, sonochromatic cyborg artist, speaks during Session 5: Shades of Openness. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Of particular architectural interest is this year’s TED Prize, which was awarded in February to the idea of the City 2.0 for projects around the world that would make a difference to their urban communities, such as an open-sourced WikiHouse and a mapping project to improve sanitation, and therefore preventing cholera, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Yet although these projects were very ‘open’, locally engaging and fundworthy, City 2.0 missed important opportunities to use TED’s incredible global platform of committed activists to galvanise its community around a project as important as our urban futures. At its best TED has the potential to create the kind of momentum that the TEDx (independently-organised) events have generated, but the lack of curation diluted out the available resources and lost its focus around an ‘idea’ rather than a ‘person’. This made it hard for the audience to see exactly what or whom they should rally around.

Perhaps City 2.0’s flaws are the biggest positive message for architects. That, even with the advent of ‘radical openness’, the profession has a critical role to play in an age of megacities − ‘radically open’ sprawling urban environments that spread from the bottom-up like weeds. But it is not in the pretty details of these sprawls where architects have the greatest role to play, but in their capacity to shape the ‘big picture outcomes’ in concert with urban communities to find ways of creating social coherence. TED’s real value to architecture is as a barometer of change in the ways we relate and learn about one another, as the world becomes interconnected. In a radically open world the future of the architect is a visionary role that transcends its current servitude to the property markets, regulatory bodies and construction companies − and curates, agitates, enables and provides consultation for communities on many scales to become avatars of our urban futures.

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