Posted February 17th 2014 at 4:48 pm by
in Uncategorized

Coming Out as a Scientist in the Designer’s World

Image from litldesign via flickr (creative commons)

Image from litldesign via Flickr (Creative Commons)


I came to planning school from a biology lab. While learning how to use a 6µm pipette tip to administer artificial action potentials into living rat brains was fascinating, I often found myself contemplating less about the petri dish below me, and more about the window in front of me framing an equally complex and beautiful system—the city.

Biologists have a certain way of looking at the world. We believe it’s very difficult to actually know something, so we spend a lot of time working at very small scales in order to demonstrate that we might actually be able to know something about anything. Historically, this approach rested on causality: examining how certain isolated variables are correlated to observed behaviors. Trial and error, and causality are what much of modern science depends on, and this is how we formally interpret our world…baby steps. Boring. “But, designers are different!” I thought from my swivel chair on the bench: “Designers are liberated by a creative license for reality, promising in exchange subversive and sexy solutions to the world’s problems!” I wanted to be a designer. I wanted creative control.

So I came to planning school and discovered that designers often describe their work in scientific terms. With all this talk of “constraints,” “taxonomies” and “typologies,” I was beginning to feel like a lab rat all over again. Yet while design borrows topical language from elements of the scientific method, incomplete information and biased decision-making often corrupt design and planning practice. If scientists must rigorously justify claims made about small, inert and often unconscious systems, how can designers implement their work without fully understanding its impact on human lives? The prospect remains abysmal to me.

And yet, many in the design world are quite critical of scientific data-analysis as applied to design problems, claiming they fail to account for nuances of the human element; culture, community, justice. The designer alone can account for these complexities by engaging communities in practice, on the ground. The quality of information gained through forms of public engagement, designers and planners argue, is far greater than what can be captured by big data, metrics, models or mathematical analyses. And under ideal circumstances, they are absolutely right. The expert designer’s skill is the art of improving user experience through navigating local, real-world constraints with the best information at hand.

As Charles Eames said, “One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.” It occurs to me that design is method in pursuit of purpose. Science is method in pursuit of truth. Many find these to be mutually exclusive, but I believe that acknowledging the truth about a problem is key to identifying the right purpose for a design solution.

As a scientist, I am trained to pursue truth in any system of study. The pursuit of truth often prioritizes rigorous analysis over the communicative quality of data. I’ve learned that part of the designer’s task is to present incomplete information in a meaningful way in support of a story or vision. This interpretive art makes me profoundly uncomfortable when applied to urban design, in part because I never perceived the city as an isolated work of art. Instead, I’ve always felt cities to be every bit as alive and complex as the people living within them. To me, the city emerges from the complex behavior of its components, planned or unplanned, ever evolving and innovating. I’m not sure it’s possible to have creative control over any aspect of the city, as I had once romantically envisioned.

Strikingly, analogies between cities and observations of nature have lurked in the literature for ages. The notion that generative laws underlying the diversity of natural form could inform a design process is certainly a recurrent interest of planners and architects throughout history. Leon Batista Alberti’s de Statua argues the designer’s fundamental purpose is to imitate nature, as reflected in his 15th century architectural work. D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form and Le Corbusier’s plan for Chandigarh also reference the organic qualities of an ideal urban form. Experiments are also underway at MIT’s Media Lab.

But simply mimicking nature in architecture and urban design is a static intervention that doesn’t address how urban systems actually behave. Scientists are increasingly in pursuit of fundamental laws that describe the physical, social and economic patterns observed in metropolitan areas. Studies of network dynamics, self-organization, and processes of Complexity Science trending in the early 1990s prompted a generation of scientists and architects alike, notably Juval Portugali, Nikos Salingaros and Christopher Alexander, to develop a comprehensive body of work in the field of City Science. Contemporary planner Michael Batty incorporates and expands upon their findings in his research on Complex Cities. From slime mold models of transportation systems to self-organization in participatory action, we are beginning to surpass the analogy— and appreciate urban systems for what they really are.

As cities generate more data than ever, it may be possible that our historic intuitions about living cities can be qualified and understood by scientific means. If designers and scientists find a way to see eye-to-eye, if truth and purpose can be united, what kind of city emerges? The objective of this series is to evaluate that question, and provide key resources to bridge the gap.

So taking cue from Poetics, we will “follow then, the order of nature, and begin with the principles which come first.”


More about Emily: 

Emily is a first year Master of City Planning student in City Design & Development in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.


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