Architecture in the Social Data Era

Architecture is increasingly shaped by social data, which is being produced all the time through social media, sensors and other technologies. We must harness these data to create a built environment that better accommodates occupants. — Melissa Marsh

In 2000, while in grad school at MIT, my pursuit of new methods for understanding, analyzing, and incorporating user behavior in the design process drove me to a summer internship with the Arup R&D team in London. There, we studied the unexpected wobble of London’s then new Millennium Bridge. This failure prompted us to think differently about measuring buildings, people, and their interactions.

Along with engineers from a variety of disciplines, I spent several months exploring ways to discover what made this pedestrian bridge sway: the collective weight of crowds? Walking speeds? The density of the group? And, of course, monitoring structural results of acceleration.

Analyzing data from recording devices on walkers’ ankles, we discovered that a slow-paced, sauntering crowd eventually synchronizes its gait, inducing the collective force that excited the bridge. Arup engineers designed and manufactured a damper system to stop the wobble, and I discovered what would become the basis of my career. Since then, my passion for people, architecture, and measurement has informed diverse projects, ranging from campus master planning to global workplace guidelines. In each instance I work iteratively using data, discovery, testing, and design. The PLASTARC team has expertise in sociology, anthropology, data visualization, environmental psychology, urban studies, organizational design, and knowledge management.

Looking forward, I expect the next 15 years to be an era of optimizing architecture for human factors (physical, social, cognitive, and neurological), much as the last two decades have focused on learning to model ecological and environmental factors.

Adapted from Architecture in a Social Data Era, Oculus Spring 2015, Melissa Marsh