On Saturday, April 29, the IABSE Future of Design 2017 conference was held in New York City. The Form Finding Lab was well represented, with Victor Charpentier in the organization, Professor Adriaenssens as a speaker and alumnus Professor Ted Segal (Hofstra University) leading a design workshop. Demi Fang ’17 summarized the main ideas of the speakers and panelists:
The Future of Design NYC conference kicked off with a vibrant set of “10 + 10 Talks,” in which structural engineers paired up with professionals in a field slightly different from their own. Each pair gave a joint presentation on their thoughts on the “future of design.”
Throughout the five presentations and the Q&A that followed, several recurring themes unfolded.
Technology can be leveraged as a tool to enhance, rather than compete with, the creative human process of design.
Glenn Bell (SGH) and Antonio Rodriguez (LERA) began with a presentation titled “Disruptive Influences as Opportunities, Not Threats.” Rodriguez gave a personal anecdote of a mentor who once warned him against entering the engineering field with the argument that computers would soon take over engineers’ work. Rodriguez explained how he has found that some engineering decisions do, and always will, require human judgment. That’s not to say that technology should be considered a competitor; rather, technology can play a key role in enhancing those creative processes that are best executed by humans.
Bell quoted Chris Wise of Expedition Engineering from a talk at the 2015 IStructE conference in Singapore: “Which bits of the engineer’s life are really human and which should we let go to machines?” Many presenters touched on the importance of this distinction, especially with the rise of digital drawing tools that easily allow for technology to “take over” the design process. Rodriguez made the distinction by identifying the processes at which computers do best, such as repetitive tasks and optimum searches. The use of these technologies “free designers to do what they do best: solving human problems.” He went on to conclude that the “future of design depends on how technology is used to enhance people’s skills, facilitate collaboration, and improve relationships.”
This approach was whole-heartedly echoed in the following presentations. Eric Long (SOM) cited Frei Otto’s scientific explorations of soap film as an example of how “technology inspires design.” As a firsthand example, he cited SOM’s partnership with Altair in topology optimization; fittingly, his presentation partner was Luca Frattari of Altair, who emphasized the fundamental role of these technologies as tools, or “a complicated pencil.” Sigrid Adriaenssens (Princeton University) presented some of her engineering projects such as Dutch Maritime Museum courtyard roof and the Verviers Passerelle from her practicing days in the Belgian structural engineering firm Ney and Partners. With a nod to David Billington’s principles on structural art, she used these examples to note how “using optimization tools efficiently can allow for efficient, economic, and elegant systems.” Her presentation partner, Bill Washabaugh (Hypersonic), also shared stunning sculptures that utilized engineering technology to not overshadow but recreate motions of nature, such as the rippling reflection of a tree over water, the murmuring of a sea anemone, or the flight of a flock of birds.
With increased levels of collaboration in the design process, broadness and diversity in education can help prepare engineers well for future challenges.
Bell pointed out that the drive towards resource efficiency and sustainability has led to the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration in the design process. He described his perception of the structural engineer as a T-section, with the “flange representing a broadness in education, and the stem representing a fundamental expertise in structures.” As one of the few educators presenting, Adriaenssens answered one of the last questions squeezed into the end of the Q&A session: what educational approaches should be taken to prepare the next generation for the future challenges of design, which differ greatly to the challenges of the older generation? Adriaenssens shared her conviction in bringing students with different backgrounds into the field of engineering in order to supply a diverse workforce to face these interdisciplinary challenges. “Many of the students I advise are excellent in other fields – they are superb athletes, musicians, or dancers. Asking an 18-year-old to focus on one particular field limits their potential.” She mentions courses at Princeton that bridge engineering with other fields such as the arts, explaining that “aside from the traditional engineering courses, we also need courses that focus on interdisciplinary training,” supporting Bell’s previous statements.
Guy Nordenson (Princeton University) reinforced his colleague’s comments with statements on a more specific type of diversity: “I think Sigrid is a manifestation of where we’ve come and where we’re going,” not just with her more creative and innovative approach to engineering, but also her presence as a female in the field. “Looking out at the audience, it’s great to see that there are a lot more women in the field than when Glenn and I were students. We can do a lot to improve diversity in education starting as early as high school.” Continue reading “Reflecting on the Future of Design at the IABSE conference”