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Betting on the Future

An ‘internet of things’ might make the flow of resources much greener.


By Nadav Malin.

Bruce Sterling is an American author, journalist, editor, and critic. He is best known for his science-fiction novels, including the 1986 Mirrorshades anthology, which defined the cyberpunk genre. In the late 1990s, Sterling established the Viridian Design movement (www.viridiandesign.org), which seeks to address climate change through art and design. The grassroots organization focuses on infusing environmental issues into key social areas. His 2005 volume Shaping Things lays out an argument for the future of sustainable product design and manufacturing processes.

Bruce Sterling
Photo courtesy of Bruce Sterling
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GreenSource: In Shaping Things you offer a provocative vision of the evolving relationship between people and objects and the role designers can play in promoting a more sustainable future. How does this vision apply to buildings and the built environment?

Bruce Sterling: My book is a speculation about “ubiquitous computing in the service of sustainability,” the central notion being that an ‘Internet of Things’ might make the flow of resources greener.
The one thing that unites modern building designers is that they’ve all got computers, and they’re all on the Net. They all share a certain platform now: that’s a tremendous change, it’s a revolution. It seems plausible that the digital network will move out of virtuality and into physicality: ambient computing, the 3D Web, physical computing—the idea is so obvious that it’s been reinvented and renamed many times. 

Still, nobody knows how today’s professions would go about dividing up that frontier and developing it or what would be left of today’s professions if they succeeded at such a thing. Basically, it’s a question of who’s-more-advanced-than-thou. Some professions were faster at finding and leveraging the early Web than others, but the race is by no means always to the swift.

GS: Shaping Things describes scenarios in which a virtual representation of an object is more useful than the thing itself. In architecture, a trend toward building information modeling (BIM) design tools promises that someday designers will get instant feedback on the energy loads and other performance parameters of their buildings while they are still virtual models. How might this trend change the design and performance of buildings?

BS: That trend is about metrics. It’s very hard to improve what you can’t measure. If you do have metrics, you can tweak them and watch the results. You can do rapid prototyping of virtual buildings. You can generate thousands of virtual models and search them for top performance. When it comes to the management of the built environment, by using metrics you can see if there are sweet spots in the system. Are people on the top floors too hot, throwing open windows, sucking cold air in the ground floor and causing the people below them to turn up the heaters even higher? If you have instant feedback on energy loads you can see things like the “chimney effect.” You can design and construct and sell buildings that give their inhabitants a higher quality of life. Not just cheaper or greener or safer but higher. The point isn’t to make them more like a Windows operating system; the point is to make them more like buildings.

GS: In comparing building materials, designers would like to be able to rely on the field of environmental life-cycle assessment (LCA), in which environmental inputs and burdens associated with a product are quantified. But LCA is currently hampered by concerns about inadequate data and unreliable (biased) data sources. Will LCA data become ubiquitous and reliable?

BS: A life-cycle assessment system has to be a work in progress. It has to be a live thing, like Wikipedia. It’ll never be a Chinese-menu check-out system where the choices are cut and dried. Asbestos used to be considered a major health benefit: asbestos stopped people from catching on fire. You look at asbestos a little longer, you figure out, hey, it’s not a great idea breathing that stuff. If your LCA system is cast from solid litigation-proof pig iron, you will never be able to advance your profession. You’ll be forever stuck with yesterday’s limited answers. What we need is not a final textbook answer on what’s safe and allowed, but a better general interface for advancing tech development.

GS: In green buildings, there exists a tension between those who advocate low-tech, natural, or indigenous materials and those who believe in high-tech solutions for low-impact buildings. Is one approach better for the future?

BS: Knowing more is always better.  Deliberate primitivism wastes time and has never succeeded. I have no problem with high-tech strawbale and adobe. Straw is a tremendous industrial material. Cellulose is a biomaterial that’s full of promise. Just because we’ve used straw for 10,000 years doesn’t mean we understand it yet. Adobe’s mud, which we don’t understand either, though it’s plentiful and plentiful is good.

GS: Unlike many objects, buildings relate to a specific place. Some argue they can serve an important social, cultural, and ecological role by enhancing the connection between people and place. Do you see a value in place-based design?

BS: I’m not sure I’d approach it in quite that way, but there’s no question fine signature buildings like Guggenheim Bilbao can bring a whole lot of cachet and cash flow to previously dismal places. The world is increasingly interconnected, but its physical substrate is increasingly obsolete. It’s the brownfield, the rust belt, the hollowed-out industrial base that is the new architectural frontier. Tell the powers that be that you can turn a dead urban eyesore into a living badge of civic pride, and it pays off in five years flat, tops. You do that and pull it off, you don’t have to quote Reyner Banham and Frank Lloyd Wright, you can just write your own ticket.

GS: Can well-designed buildings contribute to a positive future?

BS: We’re an urban species now, with more than half of us living in cities. We need to create a method for renewing cities where our children don’t spit on our graves for blowing it. We’re not doing a very good job at it, because the ocean is acidifying, and there are pieces of ice the size of Texas missing off the North Pole.

Well-designed buildings allow us to sustain ourselves so we can have a future. The future is a process, not a destination. If we solve the ugly problems we have today, our reward will be a better set of problems tomorrow. 

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This article appeared in the July 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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