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April 2, 2014
by Melissa Marsh
Campbell Hyers, CEO of Control Group, was the first speaker of this year's "Transforming Architectural Practice" series.Credit: Camila Schaulsohn
A full house attended the evening's event.Credit: Camila Schaulsohn

Some came to hear about the future, some came to complain about the past, everyone was excited to listen as Campbell Hyers, CEO of Control Group, presented a range of technologies, implications, processes, and opportunities at the first of five conversations that comprise this year’s “Transforming Architectural Practice” series. Hyers’ thoughtful conversation during “Emerging Technologies, Transforming Environments,” combined facts, anecdotes, product highlights, media, and movie excerpts to tell a tale of rapidly evolving products, opportunities, and expectations.

Hyers, who described his rapidly growing company as “not an advertising or consulting or engineering firm,” confessed that it has, at times, been a challenge to speak with potential customers about the emerging intersections of the digital and physical world. This connection has become more clear now that there is an increasing portfolio of examples to point to, including an office of the future for Brookfield recently featured in Fast Company, and the arrival of touchscreen subway maps in NYC, as reported by Gizmodo. He described a range of customers from those who don’t get it (“Can we just have screens on all the walls?“) to those who do (“Ahh, you are an applied R&D firm and we are going to invent something together!”).

As this was Hyers’ second appearance in the Professional Practice series, speaking almost exactly one year ago, audience members commented on the changes they had seen both in technology and in examples of the blend of physical and digital environments that emerged in just the past 12 months. There was much debate over what the most critical messages were for architectural professionals to take away from the conversation. In honor of this response, and in hopes of enabling further discussion, I have organized this summary in a Top 10 style, counting down to the potentially most impactful of the many topics revealed during this presentation:

10. A bit of doubt can be a good thing. Clients often come to us (technologists and architects) looking for solutions. A critical early step can be in demonstrating the unknown conditions, or calling into question the assumptions.

09. A meta-design phase is a great first step towards innovation. Hyers described the initial process of defining the problem through deep engagement with clients and potential user groups. The problem comes first for Hyers. Beauty is a given, but the initial conversations and investigations need to be about the problem. What he calls “use cases” or “customer journeys” are a primary mechanism for personifying typical users, and building a solution around their requirements. These profiles can then also be used to test solutions.

08. Insist on iterations before solutions. Hyers warned that the “waterfall” method of design and delivery is a trap, based on historic perceptions of project efficiency. We are so often driven by the single answer and the single solution that we neglect to develop iterative ways to test along the way. Prototype, prototype, prototype!

Hyers described clients who are “very thoughtful about where and how they present new solutions. Getting feedback from their best customers first,” and rolling out one implementation at a time, learning and adapting for the next installation.

07. Big (and little) data is friend, not foe. Whether or not we know it, designers (technologists and architects alike) are at the forefront of those whose work stands to benefit substantially from increasingly available data. While recognizing the trepidation some may have, Hyers sees the long-term benefits of more available information about customers and occupants as a source for better design and more engaging experiences.

06. The best technology may be what we don’t see. For a long time “screens everywhere” seems to have been the default solution for those seeking the appearance of a high-tech environment. However, with increasing expectations and savvy customers who have a wide range of choices, this is no longer the solution. Rather, environments that anticipate your presence, thank you for coming, and simply make work or life easier are the next generation of “invisible” technologies that will make a difference.

05. Build to last. At one time, almost any technology implementation would likely be so unique that the hardware and software were inextricably linked, and therefore not repurposable – think Steelcase’s Room Wizard. But increasingly, Control Group is using off-the-shelf (consumer) hardware and then building software and infrastructure for much greater flexibility and reuse – think booking a room on an iPad. This increasingly apparent separation between software and hardware means that built-in devices are multipurpose and reprogrammable.

04. Design with science. From complex to seemingly simple questions, there is ever more scientific data to bring to design decision making. For a “Virtual Balconies” project with Royal Caribbean cruise lines, Control Group engaged cognitive science and motion experts from Harvard and MIT. Research and implementation testing confirmed the importance of synchronicity between the digital view from a stateroom window and the actual motion of the ship, as well as the value of sound to reinforce the visual experience.

03. User experience is multi-sensory. Hyers articulated an increasing demand for user experiences that are multi-sensory, paving the way for greater collaboration among design and engineering disciplines. Successful design requires a broader vocabulary than just bricks and mortar or only screens and apps; the future is having both of these working together in completely new ways. These blended experiences of physical and digital – sight, sound, and even scent – will require new design approaches.

02. Technology is a material, not a method. A provocation implied by Hyers, but taken further by debate, was the potential for architecture to adopt technology as a medium or material, rather than a tool or method. This became the second most talked about theme of the evening. What if we stopped thinking of our relationship to technology exclusively as supporting faster drawing, prettier renderings, or more accurate thermal assessment, but we considered technology a material, like steel or wood with many properties and forms, ours to know, discover, and master?

01. Monetization strategy is a prerequisite. “Almost any technology solution must be maintained, and many require thoughtful high production content,” Hyers explained. His projects recognize that maintenance, upkeep, and even evolution in situ require a plan from the outset, and that this is all part of the initial problem statement. Without a plan for how the design, product, or solution will make money, there is no viable technology solution. Every design inquiry is simultaneously a discovery process around experience, and how the solution will generate revenue.

But Hyers goes further, describing this monetizable platform as the mechanism for R&D (research and development) as well. This “monetization creates a platform for exploration and learning.” When we solve simultaneously for day-one implementation and long-term revenue, we follow clients and learn with them, and there are no singular projects. Case in point, although Control Group-designed MTA touchscreen maps were just installed and have a primary focus on navigation, their robust platform could accommodate future uses such as an interactive advertising billboard that appears to respond to the arrival of a subway train.

Melissa Marsh is founder and CEO of Plastarc, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm serving tenants and owner-occupiers, and collaborating with architecture and design firms. Plastarc is a portmanteau of Plastic and Architecture representing a focus on engaging architecture to be more flexible, dynamic, and fun through social research and analytics. Melissa is a regular contributor to e-Oculus, and can be reached at melissa@plastarc.com.

Event: Transforming Architectural Practice Series: Emerging Technologies, Transforming Environments
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.10.2014
Speakers: Campbell Hyers, CEO, Control Group; and Melissa Marsh, Founder and CEO, Plastarc
Organizers: AIANY Chapter Professional Practice Committee, AIANY Technology Committee, and AIA New York Chapter

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