Solving California's Meta-design Problems Through Information Technology

By Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

San Diego, Calif., March 12, 2009 — Often, information technology is spoken about as if it existed in another realm — in the "cloud," in the "pipes," in some vague notion of a subterranean virtual space. 

Benjamin H. Bratton, an associate professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, envisions IT as "an essential building block of the world itself, a substance with which we design, and not something that simply supports design."

Bratton Presents Computational Equivalent of LEED Guidelines at ETech Conference 

Computation and architecture factor into another of Benjamin H. Bratton's projects for Calit2: An effort to establish public guidelines for open, pervasive computing in buildings and cities. 

The guidelines will be the ubiquitous computing equivalent of the Green Building Rating System known as LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Like LEED — which provides a suite of standards for environmental design — Bratton's guidelines will encourage architects to build "socially sustainable, economically innovative, technologically open and culturally appropriate" structures within the world's computational ecology. 

"Software and computation are becoming increasingly pervasive, and not just something that sits on top of the architecture," Bratton explains. "Given that they're the fundamental building blocks of public space, they need to evolve as an open platform.

"We know why open systems with software work better than closed systems with software, and we need to apply that to the design of urban computing as well," he continues. "The design of the open political sphere is dependent on the design of the open cities that is, increasingly, dependent on the design of open software. The guidelines that we've developed will provide open pervasive computing standards, and will also have strong implications for the larger Calit2 design initiative."  

Bratton will present his guidelines at ETech, the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, which takes place from March 9-12 at the Faimont San Jose in San Jose, Calif. Bratton's session, titled "Undesigning the Emergency: Against Prophylactic Urban Membranes," begins at 5:05 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, in the hotel's Gold Room.

But Benjamin H. Bratton, an associate professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, envisions IT as "an essential building block of the world itself, a substance with which we design, and not something that simply supports design."  

Bratton is the principal investigator of a new (as yet unnamed) design initiative at the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). The initiative will examine the design implications of Calit2's many projects in next-generation supercomputing, ultra-fast wireless technologies and super high-resolution information visualization. It will also look at ways that information technology can be incorporated — from start to finish — into new infrastructure models for transportation, city planning, agriculture and beyond.  

"Right now, California is the eighth largest economy in the world, and many of its public and private industries are based on the work that comes out of places like Calit2," Bratton notes. "But the future of California is also a design problem. If it's going to remain the eighth largest economy, the transfer of innovation between Calit2 and California needs to be faster, more direct, more experimental and at the same time more practical."  

"What we're looking at," he continues, "are ways to close the 'technology transfer loop' between Calit2 and the California economy so that we can directly prototype and develop solutions for the meta-design problems that the state faces. For us, meta-design problems are ones that demand the integration of multiple disciplines and expertise at once."  

The first meta-design problem that Bratton and his consortium will be tackling is the planning of California's proposed $9.95 billion High-Speed Rail project, which was approved by California voters last November with the passage of proposition 1A. Calit2, along with collaborators such as the Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci-Arc) and Pritzker Prize-winning architecture firm Morphosis, will work with the California High-Speed Rail Authority to design not just a transport system, but "mobile architecture."

"In other words," Bratton explains, "it's not just about designing trains, but rather understanding how they should function as a place to work, as a place to meet, to communicate — how they should function as moving technological infrastructure in their own right. We need to consider, for example, the kinds of wireless standards that might be used in order for the trains to communicate with the tracks, for the tracks to communicate with cities, for cities to communicate with the riders."

Ramesh Rao, director of the UCSD division of Calit2, says the design initiative is in accord with Calit2's vision: To be a galvanizing force for addressing large-scale societal issues by bringing together multidisciplinary teams of the best technological minds.

"We tend to be mesmerized by technology, but design is an important part of that equation," Rao points out. "You can't just push technology at people — you have to find out what they really want, and you turn heads by incorporating great design.

"There's nothing better than having a professor with expertise that transcends computing and incorporates the urban realities we are all facing," he adds. "Benjamin is just such a professor. He goes from bits and bytes to bricks and mortar seamlessly."

Bratton predicts that in addition to its impacts on future meta-design projects, the High-Speed Rail will have an enormous effect on the cultural, social and economic viability of California. "For the first time, it will be truly feasible for someone to live in Los Angeles and work in San Francisco. If we think of this system as a mobile architecture rather than as a only a dumb train, we'll be able to better understand its impact on the lives of the people who use it, and the cities it runs through. To me, that's what self-governance is: It's a way for Californians to produce their own public goods and services."

For the High-Speed Rail project, the design initiative's consortium will bring together academic, corporate, public and private sector experts in transportation design, interaction design, urban planning, computer science and electrical engineering to design prototypes of the rail system as a mobile cyberinfrastructure. Their hope is that, when operational, the rail system will incorporate a number of supercomputing capabilities, including remote sensing, large-scale data processing, large-scale visualization and superfast wireless data transfer. 

Explains Bratton: "If we think of the rail system as a large-scale mobile computing platform, we want it to be as computationally intelligent as possible so it can respond to the unanticipated conditions and systems that arise. Large datasets will be part of the design process and the administration process before the tracks are laid, but we're also looking at things like its ability to actually generate energy as opposed to only absorbing it, and to the extent it might work as part of a high-end freight system. "

Bratton says the consortium will function as a driving agent for all of these design institutions to come together. Calit2's innovative visualization facilities — such as its super high-resolution HIPerSpace display and the 3-D immersive StarCAVE virtual reality environment — will be a crucial lynchpin in the design initiative's research. The institute's remote teleconferencing capabilities will also play a major role in driving the statewide collaboration. 

"Importantly for Calit2, it will be a very large-scale public application of the pervasive and ubiquitous computing models that people have been working on here for several years," Bratton notes. "I take Calit2's mission as a public institute very seriously, and I think its role as a leader and as a platform for that consortium is very important to this mission." 

Bratton, a cultural theorist and formerly a member of the Cultural Studies faculty at Sci-Arc, says he's always been interested in the marriage of computation and architecture. Last year, Bratton and Calit2-affiliated Visual Arts Professor Lev Manovich devised UC San Diego's Software Studies Initiative, the first formalized academic effort to understand how software shapes the world. Bratton says his research into  "software society" has implications for the high-speed rail project as well as other the planned pursuits of the Calit2 design initiative, which include forays into agriculture, water management, and even border policy. 

"The traditional model is that capitalism produces globalization which uses software as mechanism to drive itself," he explains. "In this model an economic system produces a social system that's enabled by a technology system. But you could think of it the other way around. You could say that the discovery of computation has, in the past 25 years, certainly been the driving force of globalization and produced many different kinds of capitalism. Now physical objects are constructed, regulated, monitored and managed as if they were data objects.

"Software and computation are not just tools — they've become models for thinking, models for societies and how societies make themselves."   

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

Related Links

California High-Speed Rail Authority

Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci-Arc)


Software Studies Initiative

O'Reilly ETech Conference