MIT’s Media Lab: innovation maker space

One of the first things that strikes an Australian visiting the Media Lab at MIT’s Cambridge campus is the homage paid to Australian architect and urbanist, William J Mitchell who was the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning until 2003. Mitchell is referenced regularly.

The Media Lab is a research centre under the School of Architecture and Planning. Not Engineering or physics. Architecture. And planning.

Having said this, it’s fervently cross-discipline so electrical engineers and designers work together; educationalists and biomechanics majors work with LEGO on creative learning environments; tools games and techniques. The Media Lab’s sponsors include GM, Samsung, LEGO and many others. Companies often embed their researchers in the Media Lab, or vice versa – researchers can also spend time in-house with sponsors. Either way, the Media Lab’s work is about creating new economic value through a synthesis of research, product innovation, design and private enterprise.

There’s no Australian equivalent of this research-rich, industry-centred, maker-focused lab. It’s housed in one of those knockabout spaces Dan Hill writes about, and certainly seems to have cracked the problems experienced by ‘think tanks’ (which ultimately fail to produce anything, according to Blair Ruble). Except, the Media Lab doesn’t seek to engage the public – other than in foyer displays which blow your mind, and in the glimpses in to ground floor workshops – but it has a clever model that both embeds and sets rules around industry partnership. Another kind of public.

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I’m there to satisfy curiosity but also to gain some insights for a new kind of research centre being designed in Adelaide right now, the Stretton Centre.

The Stretton Centre aims to help transition old industries to the new economy; arm todays workforce with the new skills it needs, and consider the urban implications of cleaner, more advanced manufacturing distributed across the city. Named after Hugh Stretton, it’s already working with policymakers, researchers, designers, and business leaders in a more public way than universities alone can generally manage.

So what type of physical environment does an organization like this need? Not the boxed office space and endless hallways of yesterdays university fiefdoms.

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An exhibition in the Media Lab’s foyer includes a suite of prosthesis that allows amputees to be as mobile and agile as fully able bodied athletes. There’s a power assisted ankle and Oscar Pistorius’ running blades. There’s a folding plug-in scooter and a “four wheel research platform” (a folding buggy that can turn on its own footprint). There’s the remarkable 5m diameter silk pavilion – an experimental structure using a combination of digital fabrication to produce a sort of complex superstructure, and 6,500 active silk worms who provided the ‘cladding’. All this reminds you of the powerful role architecture and city planning could play in Australian manufacturing if we moved beyond the insular world of architectural tectonics to embrace the whole human experience by using projects as research in to better ways of living, moving, working, and adapting our environment to us. And us to our environment.

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I read Mitchell at university and the City of Bits is one of the foundational texts of the smart city believers. Much has been written recently about the promise and problems of smart cities, but Mitchell’s leadership at the Media Lab sought to integrate design and technology in to the slipstream of everyday life. The Media Lab is outcompeting many in the ‘smart city’ movement by applying knowledge to actual things. Prototypes. Objects. Products.

Prototypes are everywhere and ask that you touch them or move them about.

A giant canvas with tiny glowing paper flowers invites you to pick up and reposition them anywhere along an arc of conductive paint. Twinkling infrastructure, inviting interaction.

Walking in to the Responsive Environments group, a small red box with wires and a screen is taped to the glass next to the conventional card swipe. Two tiny microphones in the corners of the device means it’s built to spatialise a voice, explained guide and fellow Australian, Dr Zoz Brooks. A past prototype that hadn’t yet been taken down.

A hairy soccer-ball-like droid (called ‘Tribble’) hangs in a frame and purrs as you pass it. “You’ve cast a shadow on it,” Mark Feldmeier, a research affiliate, and founder of openmusiclabs, tells me. Tufts sprout from octagonal plates. “You can pat it”, Mark urges. Plates change colour as my hand arcs over it. Mark explains that it’s an experiment in distributed computing. Processes ‘learn’ from each other and respond depending on proximity to my hand. The bristles are connected to piezoelectric flex sensors, so they sense touch. It’s a project of Josh Lifton, founder of CrowdSupply (everyone in the Media Lab has founded something – it’s one of the great heroic traits of Americans).

Having watched ex-Bugatti designer Daniel Simon’s gorgeously streamlined styling of ‘Oblivion’ in the plane over the Pacific, the cantankerous white droid balls come to mind. Learning, adapting their commands to environments.

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Applying this self-awareness to facades or clothing implies self-organzing patterns that flex to environmental conditions – allowing a material to close, open, repel rain, admit sunlight or stiffen to resist weather, or support a muscle joint, hold a fracture in place or act like ‘spanx’ to give us a better body shape.

This energetic thinking, making, testing, showing and showmanshipping (there’s a bit of this, too) all happens in a series of spaces designed by Fumihiko Maki  & Associates. The building inside reads as a series of double height spaces around which offices and open work spaces are arranged to peer over. Height allows transparency across and between floors, into other research groups and glimpses to the long stairs that snake up through the entry foyer and main common space in which Media Lab’s online conversations are streamed. Where height can be a problem for maintaining anything out of reach, each void is served by light duty hanging rigs for lights and large objects under fabrication.

That’s a fairly pedestrian description of Media Lab’s physical form. For a deeper analysis of the meaning Maki places on voids, relationships and the use of screens to calibrate transparency, Brendon Levitt explores Maki’s interest in designing for an unattainable state of perfection. It’s a kind of underlying acknowledgement that Media Lab’s innovation quest is ongoing, never fully realised. The void as a device for exchange and collaboration, but also a reminder of the endlessly unfinished nature of the work.

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Maki’s Media Lab – and the way the building is used by its occupants – offers up some lessons for productive maker places hooked on intelligent research with impact;

Design for the non prescribed. In a thriving place like Media Lab, unprogrammed space gets used. In fact, it’s highly valued. In Media Lab’s case, this means the double height voids and areas adjacent to the long, single run stairs connecting floors. Generous landings allow people to congregate at the foot of stairs (important when a few researchers are hanging out trying to get the attention of a senior fellow). Voids are hung with light-duty rigs to suspend things easily, and to keep services off the difficult-to-access soffit above.

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Easy on the fixed partitions. Let the furniture provide the separation. Work teams are fluid and so the fixity of spaces can’t be allowed to get in the way. In Media Lab’s case, this is simple desk/shelving and not an elaborate ‘work station’. The desk needs to fit the task. For Media Lab this is a 900mm deep work surface with shelving at the rear to 1800mm high. Shelving is open so sightlines are possible, but space is still demarcated. This works for the researchers because they make things; play with simple circuits and sketch books, basic prototypes and discarded models. Often independently (an under-valued trait of successful collaboration which they seem to curate well). Think design studio back at uni, not high style office fitout. You can’t help thinking that the classic laminated office workstation might channel people to manage emails and gravitate to screen-based work, rather than the invitation issued by a large worksurface to be creative and make something.

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Programme for exchange. A series of programmed talks helps bring people together across the research groups. At Media Lab they momentarily distract people from their own research burrow and allow the cross fertilisation to happen. They bring in new, visiting minds. They communicate the work to the outside world and grow the online inventory of speakers, links and products – all helpful in building the presence and brand of a dynamic think-and-do place. Some of this occurs informally in the voids, or more formally in one of two small auditoriums higher in the building.

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Design a model, not just a building. Media Lab’s business model includes 80 sponsors that fund research, but importantly funds and research interests aren’t dictated by sponsors. Sponsors contribute to a consolidated research fund, in return for the first bite at research output. Applying the research can be done in partnership (say, Samsung embeds a researcher for 12 months), or separately in the sponsors own lab (they’re free to develop an application away from Media Lab too if that’s their preference). Regular ‘sponsor week’ events showcase where research is at. Sponsors are invited to come see, hear, try and meet. Central to all this is what Media Lab admit is the ‘smell of success’. They work hard to communicate a kind of ‘winners circle’ feel (get on or get left behind). Certainly what I saw suggests there’s substance behind the style.

Play your own patient. This isn’t the first building to claim it’s a demonstration of research and experimentation. But it walks the talk better than most. Media Lab is wired with sensors linked to a 3D model called Doppel Lab. The building is rendered in a gaming engine and is being used to test alternative uses and servicing of the building. Hundreds of sensors monitor temperature, humidity, people movement and social interactions. The four level entry foyer is strung with them at each level to account for thermal dynamics in a four storey high glazed space. Fusing Doppel Lab insights with MIT campus facilities management resulted in the Media Lab team finding a dozen serious ‘breaks’ in the AC system (dampers not responding, curious variations in temperatures between rooms). The result was an 80% saving in AC in these spaces. Media Lab is happy to play it’s own patient.

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Australia’s R&D efforts seem to struggle to develop the same productive, product-driven research outfit like Media Lab in the built environment, engineering or social sciences. Centre’s like Prof Tanya Monro’s IPAS housed in BVN Donovan Hill’s The Braggs comes close with links to defence and medicine.

The Co-operative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living promises to mature its model in this direction too; powered by a partnership between Universities and major industry partners like Brookfield Multiplex, Bluescope, AECOM, Hassell and smaller partners like Nova Deko. By being a part of the CRC, these companies are investing in research and innovation to fuel the development of new products, materials and technologies, better processes and expertise.

Industry can’t hold research captive. The incentives to react to short term crises are too great. Media Lab understand this. But most of the funding models for Australian research appear to rehearse the tradition of engaging industry as a signatory with observer rights, not partnership in a longer trajectory of research around prototypes.

Of course, a building designed for this partnership, expertise and collaboration won’t deliver success on its own. But it is an essential part of success. Here’s hoping for more maker-style, prototype-focused research in Australia sometime soon.

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