Architecting interactive environments

As our environments become increasing connected, architects must reinvent their roles and become hybrid designers.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt by Erin Rae Hoffer from our recent book Designing for Emerging Technologies, a collection of works by several authors and edited by Jon Follett. This excerpt is included in our curated collection of chapters from the O’Reilly Design library. Download a free copy of the Designing for the Internet of Things ebook here.

We spend 90% of our lives indoors. The built environment has a huge impact on human health, social interaction, and our potential for innovation. In return, human innovation pushes our buildings continually in new directions as occupants demand the highest levels of comfort and functionality.

Our demand for pervasive connectivity has led us to weave the Internet throughout our lives, to insist that all spaces link us together with our handheld devices, and that all environments be interconnected. Internet-enabled devices creep into the spaces we inhabit, and these devices report back on spatial conditions, such as light, radiation, air quality, and temperature. They also count the number of people stopping at retail displays minute by minute, detect intruders and security breaches, and enable us to open locked doors remotely using our mobile devices; they allow us to modify the environments we occupy.

The space that surrounds us is transforming into a series of interconnected environments, forcing designers of space to rethink the role of architecture and the rules for its formulation. Similarly, designers of emerging technologies are rethinking the role of interfaces and the rules for creating them. During this period of experimentation and convergence, practical construction, and problem solving, architects must reinvent their roles and become hybrid designers, creating meaningful architecture with an awareness of the human implications of emerging technologies.

Architects begin with a human need and develop solutions through inspiration and information — human, social, natural, economic, and technological. The architect is charged to envision a new reality that addresses explicit and tacit needs, to create an expansive solution set that suits this vision. For millennia, architects have been given the task of imagining spaces to support people and human interaction, describing design intent, and producing concrete instructions for realizing designs as objects in the physical environment. Admittedly, many spaces are designed by builders or lay people, not by licensed architects. Whatever the professional and academic background of the creator, a building design stems from centuries of traditional practice and refined interaction models.

Upon encountering a device for the first time, a user or occupant builds a conceptual model about it. The same approach plays out when humans encounter new environments. To design a space, an architect makes assumptions about the building’s future occupants. As cognitive scientist and design critic Donald A. Norman has pointed out, good design is a communication between the designer and the user. This manifests through the appearance of the device (object or space) itself. In terms of the built environment, Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani observes that the dialogue between an architect and an occupant of a space occurs through a system of communication without commonly understood rules.

Over time, architectural problems have become increasingly complex, driven by economics, technological innovation, and changing societal needs for buildings to support new functions and offer innovative features to improve efficiency and safety. Practitioners rely on a body of design theory that influences the products of architectural design and highlights the duality of a profession whose aspirations are to create artifacts that serve practical needs at the same time that they encode meaning for individuals and communities.

The pervasion of Internet-enabled elements into the physical space of everyday life and work forces us to rethink both the requirements of our world and the way we design it. Today’s consumers can connect a smartphone-enabled door to a system of security; comfort-focused devices sense and adjust temperature and lighting. As interactive environments proliferate and these choices expand in the future, designers must expand theory to apply these new modes of interaction and meaning to our most pressing objectives.

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