Technology should improve design

21:20, Jan 28 2014
Walkie Talkie building
DESIGN FAILURE: The Walkie Talkie tower in London reflected sunlight at such intense levels that it warped panels and melted mirrors on cars parked nearby.

What do the following have in common: Brunelleschi's Dome in Florence, the Empire State Building, and the Mercedes-Benz Gullwing and Jaguar XK sports cars of the 1950s?

Well, quite a bit, actually. All were formidable engineering achievements of their time. All were technically and aesthetically brilliant. All look stunning, even today.

But what perhaps amazes me the most is that these disparate human achievements and inventions were all produced before the age of computers.

Humans have managed to design beautiful architecture and products just by using their imagination, a pencil, and a blank sheet of paper.

More than 160 years ago, settlers from the other side of the world embarked on a perilous sea journey and built a new model city. A port, roads, houses, shops, factories, commercial buildings, schools, and churches took shape rapidly. A rail network was built linking the outlying towns and provinces.

How could people, without computers and far fewer technical resources than today, achieve all this?


Today we are constantly told that computers and information technology are transforming society.

And yet it seems we are unable to satisfactorily plan the future shape of Christchurch, schedule repairs, or improve transportation.

We are told, for example, that building a commuter rail network won't work - even though most of the lines are already there.

Many buildings remain abandoned, and sites strewn with rubble. The rebuild, in parts of Christchurch, has stalled. It all seems too hard.

New buildings, at least some of them, can look ugly and utilitarian, little more than slab- like warehouses.

Our brave new world is clearly not here just yet, although Christchurch does not quite resemble an apocalyptic scene out of Blade Runner.

Does technology seduce us with false hopes? We may have more gadgets, but software has become more complex. Does it distract us from the big picture?

Technology has huge potential that is being under-utilised. Surely we should be using it better to design and rebuild a future city and society. Above all, we should use it to harness imagination and creativity.

Here are some ways technology could help:

Sharing Ideas: Yes, we have done that before, but how about permanent Share An Idea booths in the city, as well as a website? The internet is wonderfully, even dangerously, democratic. But mindless criticism leads nowhere; a forum needs to have focus, a clearly defined aim, and a timeframe to produce results. And authorities need to listen and act, not ignore or alienate people.

Listening to the experts: It's called "crowdsourcing". Not only does the internet let the great unwashed public have a say; it also lets experts, all over the world, analyse and assess plans - sometimes for free.

Real world modelling: What if you put a building here or close a road there? For example, a fascinating German software program shows the effect of increasing traffic density and red lights. (In Christchurch, add orange cones and potholes.)

Tracking repairs: You can bank online, book a flight, or shop around the world, so why can't you keep track of your insurance or EQC claim online?

Better internet: Compared with some countries, New Zealand's internet can still be slow and expensive. Data caps are a hindrance. Free wi-fi in more places would be welcome.

Designing better buildings: In some cities, new buildings lean on weird, impossible angles and yet stand up. There are quite a few in China. They are designed to look different, and computer technology lets designers get the angles right. In theory. Sometimes they get it wrong. One building in London, nicknamed the "Walkie- Talkie" building was later dubbed the "Walkie-Scorchie" building because its glass acted like a lens, focusing intense heat and melting objects on the streets below. Bizarre but true.

Rather than using technology to produce gimmicky shapes, engineers and architects can use it to design stronger and safer buildings that are better able to withstand natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods.

By analysing data on climate and materials, technology can help us to design more energy-efficient buildings.

Sometimes, proven techniques like passive solar design and thermal mass, just work.

Japanese temples, built hundreds of years ago, withstand earthquakes because of their flexible timber construction.

However, computers can still help by analysing how buildings behave so designers can make improvements. We, the users, can monitor their performance and save money.

On my desk at home I have a Current Cost monitor, which shows how much electricity our house is consuming. On a big scale, savings would be significant.

As for ideas and aesthetics, it all still comes down to imagination, and what you can write or sketch, either on a computer screen or with pencil and paper.

One thing technology cannot do alone is improve human behaviour or make organisations more competent.

The Press