AUTHOR: Dimitrie A. Stefanescu (@idid)
In order to better understand the issues of design communication, stakeholder network fragmentation and how they reflect on the complex process that is the production of the built environment, we propose to ground and inform our approach to the problem by looking into why and how our environment has evolved towards a high degree of social (and technical) complexity.
There are several research strands that weave together a comprehensive picture of the contemporary world, that even though they do not share terminology, they nevertheless have a high overlap of concepts and share similar conclusions. Sociology scholars reveal how and why our current society fragmented into specialised expert systems, and continues do so, while Science and Technology Studies (STS) look at the network of interactions that are necessary to be traced in order to to properly define & understand a problem. This is closely followed by scholarly work that initially came out of the realm of planning and policy, where today’s multifaceted problems were first coined as “wicked problems” and studied in a rigorous way. Management & organisational studies subsequently analyse the friction that arises when these expert systems need to interact in a productive (profitable) way to tackle these problems, and outline some key approaches that facilitate progress.
1. Modernity & Expert Systems
The transition from the traditional to the modern world has often been discussed in terms of “functional separation” or “differentiation”. This process is used to explain the transition from a primitive hunter-gatherer society, to an agricultural one – which enabled the first “professional” separations and the evolution of social structures that led to “modernity”.
Giddens describes expert systems, the result of functional differentiation, as “systems of technical accomplishment or professional expertise that organise large areas of the material and social environments in which we live today” (Giddens, 1991). Expert systems – such as architecture, medicine, law, safety regulations, etc. – provide “guarantees of expectations across space and time”, thus removing social relationships from context.
Expert systems address challenges that require a high degree of specialisation and in-depth knowledge, and they lie at the base of the mechanisms through which we continuously enrich our knowledge about the world. Furthermore, they develop their own proprietary language, values, tools and practices which are often incomprehensible to the non-initiated. While this allows them to pursue with greater efficiency their field of study, it also introduces a key requirement to their correct functioning in society: trust.
Giddens considers expert systems as one of the two key “disembedding mechanisms” that lie at the basis of modernity (the other one is currency). All disembedding mechanisms imply an attitude of trust. Trust is vested not in individuals, but, in the case of expert systems, in abstract capacities: the capacity to build a house, the capacity to correctly treat a disease, the capacity to drive a car. We trust an expert system to perform and deliver a certain abstract or material service or good, without being intimately aware of its inner workings. As such, the main symbolic token of interaction of late modern societies is trustworthy knowledge, or interpreted and contextualised information.
2. Trust & Transparency
Trust can be seen as a given ingredient in the functioning of modern societies. On the other hand, Tsoukas reveals that trust can actually act as a systemic cost to the functioning of the expert system society. In his essay The Tyranny of Light (Tsoukas, 1997) he argues that all late modern societies are dependent on knowledge for their operation, knowledge which resides inside expert systems. Contemporary rational management of problems depends relies on a transparent, information-producing society.
Consequently, expert system need to be transparent in order to be relevant and retain the trust that is placed in their knowledge. Herein lies the paradox of modern society, as identified by Tsoukas: the act of making an expert system transparent undermines the trust necessary to maintain its efficient functioning (Tsoukas, 1997). Why? Because there will always be a knowledge gap between the observers of the system (outsiders) and those participating in it, and both parties are bound to attach different interpretations to what their statements refer to. Essentially, “the more information on the inner workings of an expert system observers seek to have, the less they will be inclined to trust its practitioners; the less practitioners are trusted, the less likely it is for the benefits of specialised expertise to be realised” (Tsoukas, 1997).
As such, one can identify a worrisome trend: a society’s greater diversity and greater functional differentiation enables a richer body of knowledge and a greater understanding of the world, but at the same time incurs a greater cost in communication and trust-building in order to correctly function. G.B. Shaw, as quoted by Rittel and Webber, said that “every profession is a conspiracy against the laity” (Horst Rittel, 1973).
Countering the inner tension stemming from the paradoxical nature of modern society has been studied in the fields of social sciences, policy planning and, in what we could call a normative way, organisational science. A common thread that traverses all domains above agrees that problems have, during the evolution of modern society, evolved in scope and size. They are now complex assignments that can no longer be solved by the traditional linear (waterfall) approach of (1) collecting, (2) analysing data, (3) formulating a solution and (4) implementing the solution. Instead, the observed and encouraged approach is a quasi-heuristic one that slowly converges on an outcome while, at the same time, redefines the original problem. In 1973, Rittel and Webber coined this typology of problems as “wicked problems” (Horst Rittel, 1973).
Wicked problems, according to both Jenkins and Rittel (Horst Rittel, 1973; Conklin, 2005) share a set of characteristics, most notable of which is the fact that the understanding of a problem is directly dependent on the solution which is proposed. Because of this, they have no definite stopping rule: there is no one optimal solution as the problem’s solution contributes to the problem’s definition and thus both are locked in an infinite feedback loop.
The main dilemmas associated with a pluralist and socially complex environment revolve around the difficulty in countering the fragmentation forces that are invariably attacking any project of sufficient complexity (Conklin, 2005). Social fragmentation and wicked assignments, coupled with technical complexity, act as centrifugal forces that are pulling projects apart. Jenkins coined this forces as fragmentation, and he goes on to propose a countering force, namely coherence. Coherence amounts to shared understanding and shared commitment amongst the involved parties. While shared shared commitment is largely dependent on social skills and other factors, shared understanding can be encouraged through a curated transparency: revealing the inner workings of the stakeholder’s group values and inter-relating them into a coherent system.
It is important to mention that shared understanding does not imply agreement between parties, but just sufficient apprehension of each other’s values so that intelligent dialogue can be had on the different interpretations present, thus allowing for the application of the group’s collective intelligence. These ambivalent relationships are still based on trust, which is seen as a key ingredient in creating a cohesive trans-disciplinary work environment. Strathern deplores the fact that often “the language of accountability replaces that of trust” (Strathern, 2000), nevertheless Lewicki & et al. argue that relationships are generally multifaceted and, as such, trust and distrust often coexist. In the context of dynamic “multiplex relations” trust and distrust are not opposite ends of the same continuum, but rather they are two separate dimensions. Their coexistence is a prerequisite for the emergence of a productive environment.
4. Design Communication & The Role of the Architect
The contemporary context involves a growing number of stakeholders from various backgrounds that, through their interaction, enable the definition and subsequent solving of design problems and assignments. Collaborative working and multi-disciplinary teams are the norm in the way the built environment is being produced, at all levels – from planning and policy down to humble single-residency designs. Brian Lawson argues that nowadays, “most architects spend more time interacting with other specialist consultants and with fellow architects than working in isolation” (Lawson, 2005).
Architecture, as a discipline, has either given birth to or interacts with various other expert systems in order to meet its goals and match its own ambitions and those of the context it serves. Tracing the history of design, one can remark that it has followed a trend of speciation characteristic to the modern age. From the centralised role of “master builder” in complete control of all aspects of design, from ideation to materialisation, the architect is now just one of the many stakeholders involved in the design process. In other words, the designer’s privileged position in coordinating the production of the built environment has devolved into a subsidiary role surrounded by regulatory bodies, construction managers as well as private funding bodies (Jenkins, 2010).
Brian Lawson notes that a usual process is for the architect to curate his creative process into a coherent narrative composed of several snapshots that describe, justify and lead his audience towards the result of his creativity (Lawson, 2005). These narratives vary and change as the audience does (i.e., the narrative for the developer is different from the one for the council). In the contemporary context, this introduces a huge stress and cost, as the amount of “stories” that need to be envisioned grows linearly with the number of stakeholders. Most importantly, it severely limits simultaneous dialogue between different stakeholders, thus preventing shared understanding from emerging among the group.
Within this context, we can argue that “the current albertian notational paradigm does not address the need for a flexible and interchangeable language that would allow the designer to enact his negotiator role” (Stefanescu, 2016), mainly because design communication is restricted to a finite number of static instances of information (graphical, numerical or textual).
5. Complex simulation based design
Nevertheless, the new digital media that have permeated architecture provide a fresh influx of possibilities for design communication. Complex simulation based design is embodied and/or enabled by parametric modeling (PM), which has become an ubiquitous practice in a modern design environment. Complex simulation based design allows space, objects, forms to be defined in an associative way by interlinking a set of parameters in an articulated construct.
PM allows for virtually unlimited flexibility, restrained only by the user’s scripting knowledge (which can be used to extend the tool to process virtually any kind of data) and the computational power of available hardware platforms. Furthermore, PM has the capability to bring together an impressive amount of expert systems in a common framework and comes impressively close to realising the vision of “Total Design” as described by Ove Arup (Tonks, 2012).
PM, due to the fact that in allows the designer to describe space and form in a precise, but also abstract way, enforces a certain transparency on the design process. Essentially, the designer authors a solution space, comprised of both design parameters (design space) and performance measures. Consequently, PM has evolved to embody a vast amount of domain specific knowledge and, as such, captures well the dynamics of a creative design process.
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The main shortcoming of parametric driven design lies in its exclusivity as a tool & methodology which is directly related to its implementation in software packages that cater mostly to a technical process. The accessibility of PM outside the expert systems of design and engineering is low and, without exception, requires specialist software to be available. Parametric models, even though they can embody a rich palette of values relevant to any stakeholder from any expert system, have rarely been seen as a negotiation platform that could lead towards shared understanding. In short, even though a parametric driven design process has a certain dynamic associativity that could foster greater transparency, the impossibility of communicating this dynamism due to the limitations of the medium can be seen as a limitation of digital design communication.