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Robotic Fields: Spatializing the dynamics of corporate organization
Patrik Schumacher 2002
Published In: Designing for a Digital World, edited by Neil Leach.
Based on the conference E-Futures: Designing for a Digital World
"Robotic fields" is a chapter within a 3 year design research effort "Corporate Fields" conducted at the AA Design Research Lab(1). This research experiments with architectural responses to emergent forms of corporate organisation.
With respect to recent patterns of corporate management a number related tendencies stand out that concern our
attempt to offer atrchitectural translations:
1.The enormous increase in communication density translates into an insatiable need for spatial connectivity and points toward deep, porous spaces.
2. A momentous accelaration of organisational restructuring translates into an insatiable request for flexibility with respect to the spatial distribution of domains and activities, pointing towards kinetic systems.
3. The tendency to move from management by means of command and control to strategies of self-organiation implies an open, under-determined environment, that allows for an ongoing aleatoric play of interpretation and appropriation.
4. A new level of organisational complexity calls for strategies of super-position, hybridization and multiple affiliation.
Architectural solutions to these challenges might be enhanced by robotic capabilities. The possibility to augment architecture by means of electronic intelligence has been investigated in the context of the overall expansion of spatial repertoires that emerged from the discourses of deconstruction and folding in architecture. For example: an under-determined and formally excessive "space of becoming"(2) might be further "virtualized"(3) by means of augmenting various architectural elements with an electronically engineered kinetic spontaneity which allows the variously activated spatial features to participate in the aleatoric play of (re-)appropriation. One of the three projects to be introduced below - "Learning Environments" - has been exploring this possibility of mutual play and learning between users and kinetic architectural elements. Another project - "Intelligent Fields" - took on the quest for self-organisation to establish a level of organisational complexity that might not be achievable on the basis of human concepts of order. Complex patterns of flocking/clustering are computed on the basis of profiles
administering multiple project affiliations. A third project - "Office Life Game" - has been steering emergent
organisational patterns on the basis of local rules of association.
Before elaborating these projects a few general remarks outline the socio-economic setting and the overall
intentions that have been guiding the research.
Identifying an emancipatory project: non-hierarchical work patterns
We live in a period of political reaction. The political areana has been eroded by the frustration of national politicies in a globalised world.
The eighties suffered the neo-liberalš reversal of earlier social reform programmes. This continued in the nineties combined with a further erosion
of civil democracy. The co-optation and disintegration of any organised left opposition implies that an architectural commitment to progress and
emancipation can no longer be guided by a straightforward political agenda.(4)
But while politics proper stagnates, one can identify progressive tendencies within the process of corporate restructuring. The modern strategy of rationalisation based on the rigid segmentation and routinised specialisation of work within clear-cut functional hierarchies is failing today in respect to the complexity and dynamism of the overall socio-economic process. New ways of organising the labour-process are emerging in organisation-theory.
A glance at the booming literature in management theory will suffice to capture the ongoing frenzy of restructuring:
"Welcome to the Revolution", "The new Paradigm for Business", "Liberation Management - Disorganisation for Nanosecond
Nineties", "The Postmodern Organisation", "Deconstructing Organisations", "Catching the wave", "The One Minute Manager",
"Thriving on Chaos", "The Complexity Advantage", "Competing on the Edge Strategy as Structured Chaos", etc.(5)
Although the word democratizationš is not among the slogans circulating around the management 'revolution',
democratization seems the repressed logic of recent (and future) productivity gains, a necessity for the corporation
to be able to cope with permanent re-orientation and innovation. The renunciation of command and control is forced upon
the capitalist enterprise by the new degree of complexity and flexibility of the total production process within which it
has to function. The more information-based, the more dependent upon research & development production becomes, the less
can it proceed autocratically. These hard facts of production - more than ever seem to confirm left intuitions about
the effectiveness of radically democratic, participatory relations on an advanced level of socio-economic complexity.
The left wing organizational paradigms (e.g. the rhizome), which Deleuze & Guattari elaborated in the late seventies, in dialogue with the new left forms of revolutionary struggle and organisation (6), seem to become the very paradigms of corporate restructuring: Deleuzian de-territorialisation (7) is dissolving the rigid departmentalisation of competencies and the aborescent pyramid of classical corporate organisation is mutating towards the rhisomatic plateau upon which the leadership is distributed within a permanently shifting multiplicity of latent centres.
Today there is no better site for a progressive project than the most competitive contemporary business.(8)
Spatialising organisational knowledge
Contemporary business processes are more about the generation of knowledge than about producing immediate material values. More and more work takes place in the realm of ideas and information rather than immediate physical production. Thus the structure and pattern of economic activity in general is assimilated to the processes of science. This is the hallmark of the new economy as knowledge economy.(9)
As an organisation shifts from being straightforward manufacturer or provider of a standard service to become a creative
innovator, it no longer just utilizes a given knowledge, but needs to operate as original producer of knowledge. The new
discipline of knowledge management takes account of this situation. Management theory offers concepts like "the learning
organisation"(10) or "the intelligent enterprise"(11). Here learning, knowledge and intelligence are attributed to
organisations rather than individuals. For us this is just the first step towards the further expansion of the notion
of organisational intelligence to include the various spatial systems that structure and facilitate the vital
communication processes within the business.
Knowledge becomes the most precious resource within the organisation. But this resource can not be bought in from outside
like energy or labour. It can not be aquired readymade. Knowledge involves much more than information, it is the right
information employed at the right time and place, evaluated and adapted within a complex praxis. Organisational knowledge,
again goes beyond individual knowledge. Organisational knowledge resides within the organisational pattern itself, in
the corporate system of communication and collaboration, i.e. in the distribution and dynamic integration of competencies,
in the mechanisms, forms and modes of interaction between the various knowledge workers. The spatial distribution and
the nuanced articulation of territories, boundaries and spatial interfaces has an important role to play here.
Those architectural patterns contribute to the constitution of the collective intelligence that transforms information
into vital operative knowledge.
One might ascribe intelligence/knowledge to every organisation that integrates a series of individual intelligent
agents/knowledges into a larger, more complex intelligence/knowledge. Within a beaurocratic hierarchy all
organisational knowledge is condensed and fixed within the proper procedures to be followed at every specific position
within the administrative machine. Here learning can only take place at the top in the form of adjusting and re-writing
the system of rules. Within a non-hierarchical network organisation the system of rules can evolve only if the
organisation is at the same time based on self-organisation rather than a fixed constitution. The organising and
orienting spatial structures, i.e. team-spaces, have to co-evolve alongside the determination of the social system of
collaboration, its temporary division of labour, its groupings and channels of communication. The potential advantages
of kinetic systems and the attendant possibilities of utilising artificial intelligence - in the form of life-game rules
or flocking scripts ect. - are to be investigated with respect to specific corporate scenarios.
In contrast to the hype about the supposed collapse of space and the end of architecture in an age of tele-communication
our working hypothesis is that the desired production of operative knowledge can be catalysed and sustained by built
architectures which remain the indispensible spatial substratum of organisational life.(12) Architecture increases its
impact as the content of corporate production undergoes a process of progressive dematerialisation. This hypothesis does
not deny the increase of tele-communication. Rather it assumes that this increased capacity of communication is swamped
by an exponential demand for business communication that can only be adressed by means of new levels of spatial complexity
and connectivity - further augmented by kinetics and electronic intelligence embedded within the spatial organisation.
From (animated) diagramme to (animated) space
The translation of organisational patterns into space utilises the organigramme as a spatial (2D) medium of articulation
that architecture shares with organisation theory and the practise of management consultancy. The graphic repertoire
employed determines the scope of organisational patterns that the consultancy business is able to work with. This
repertoire is currently limited to two-dimensional Venn-diagrammes operating with boxes within boxes and network
diagrammes operating with lines connecting nodes. The combination of the two formalisms is utmost of complexity that
has been achieved within the domain of corporate organisation design. Therefore graphic representation does not really
play an innovative role within this discourse.
In contrast, the expansion of graphic diagramming repertoires has been a key aspect of our research. This includes
the systematic incorporation of layering, the articulation of gradients, the employment of morphing to produce
morphological series and matrices of similitude, the move to complex three-dimensional diagrammes and the computer
animation of 4-dimensional time-figures. These time-figures are geared to capture, model and manipulate the dynamics
of organisational life on various time scales: the daily patterns of movement and commmunication within the company,
the formation and re-formation of team-structures across the cycle of a project, as well as more long term corporate
Each design language is dependent on a given or chosen formal a priori, i.e. graphic language or "design world"(13): a
certain set of graphic primitives and attendant rules of aggregation and transformation. While the computer expands
available repertoires it nevertheless represents a strictly bound design world, further constrained by the choice of tools
and specific ways of building up the formal structures in each project. While this reduction of complexity is
unavoidable it is all the more important to choose on the basis of comparative exprimentation with various formal
systems and to be aware of the contingency of any argument/result upon the initial formal choices. For example: when
it comes to articulating an organisation in terms of the grouping of individuals various formalisms might be considered.
One might start with rectangles next to/within rectangles to express relations of division and subsumption.
Alternatively one might operate with circles next to/within circles. At first sight these too formalisms might seem
functionally equivalent. But the formalism on the basis of circles has a number of important
iconographic advantages: The circular system allows the hierarchical level of a domain to be read off locally from its
radius and the distinction between inside and outside can be read off the difference between concave and convex while the
orthogonal system remains mute in these respects. In the case of overlapping domains the orthogonal intersection between
two rectangles might be read as just another rectangle, while the intersection of various circles can not be mistaken for
just another circle. It clearly reads as a domain of intersection, revealing as well the number and size of the
The move from 2D to 3D, from intersecting circles to interpenetrating spheres has the further advantage of allowing for
the articulation of a more complex pattern of overlap than can be managed within a two-dimensional plane.
At an even higher level of complexity the diagramme might have to resort to deformed 3-D blobs to avoid
This comparative evaluation demonstrates how formal decisions might be rationalised within a functional context that poses the semantic dimension of architecture, i.e. orientation through articulation, to be crucial. This also shows why - once an articulate level of the visualization/spatialisation of organisationsal relations has been achieved within the diagramme - the directive for the translation of the diagramme into an architectural space can only be: as literal as possible in order to maintain the orienting features of the formalism.
If this slogan is applied to the animated time-diagrammes which claim to model and articulate the temporalisation of organisational complexity as an essential component of the organisational system, then the literal translation of the respective time-figures into robotic fields is called for. The hypothesis is that animated, kinetic spaces will have a critical advantage with respect to facilitating and orienting the dynamic life of the organisation.
Layers of transience - furnishing the dynamic of social communication
The first step in making this vision of an animated architecture tangible is the recognition of the total mass of
furnishings - fixed as well as mobile as the crucial space-making substance rather than regarding it as an accidental
filling of an already constituted space. The dichotomy of space versus furniture is dissolved into a layers of transience
that start with the most ephemeral flux of light or images on computer screens, the movement of people and paper across
the space of the office, files, mobile chairs, trollies and the semi-mobile swarm of light-fixtures, the more stable tables, shelfs and cabinets, the semi-fixed partition walls ect. all the way to the supposedly permanent structural shell and external envelope. The tendency of our design research has been to blurr these typologies and to aim for an overall increase and acceleration of transience and mobility within all of these strata (including structure). On the other hand the attempt is made to increase the space-defining power of each system with the result of dynamising what is phenomenologically recognised as the space. Once the substance of spatial articulation is thus put in motion the electronic augmentation and steering of the behavior of these substances can be elaborated. The invention/refinement of behavioral patterns and their dynamic spatial coordination is the challenge of this new paradigm of animated design. The consideration moves from mere form to morphology in relation to behavior: types of movement, modes of transformation, and the agglomeration into collective organisms.
The organisational function of corporate headquarters depends heavily on interior furnishings, both in terms of the
diversity of types as well as with respect to the coherent inter-relatedness of the various typologies. A closed semantic
universe is constituted subject to a complex matrix of differentiations: formal informal, fixed flexible,
individual collective, demarcating connecting etc.
There is an immediate configurational as well as material engagement with the human body and its close range activities, both individually and with respect to the formation of groups and patterns of collaboration. In the final analysis it is the speculation about new social configurations and patterns of communication that we are concerned with.
The following projects are embedded in the general research agenda of corporate restructuring within the emerging knowledge economy. Each successive year one project was marked out to investigate the incorporation of robotic capabilities into the spatial construct. In this sense the following examples of "robotic fields" are special cases of the "corporate fields" explored within the AADRL.
Each project team was working with a quasi-client: DEGW, Ove Arup, Razorfish - companies that exemplify the general tendencies of corporate development discussed above. These companies and their organisational strategies served as a concrete point of departure for the development of experimental spatial scenarios resulting in proposals for the respective London headquarters of these enterprises. On a more general level these scenarios attempt to translate key concepts and stratagems proposed within recent management theory.
Office Life Game DEGW
AADRL 1997/98, Kevin Cespedes, Chin Jung Lin
DEGW (14) is an internationally operating space planning firm, integrated into a larger management consultency business.
Its expertise coincides with our overall research agenda: spatial organisation as tool of corporate restructuring. DEGW
has used its own corporate space for a radical demonstration of the organisational potential of a system of multiple
de-personalised work settings, regulated by occupation protocols. The DRL project radicalises this approach through the
idea of space making protocols conceived in analogy to life-games producing emergent global patterns from local rules.
Such an indirect quasi-control leaves each individual move indeterminate.
A number of entangled ambitions has been pursuit and balanced:
1st ambition: the creation of a feasable kinetic system with a sufficiently large universe of possibility/difference.
2nd ambition: the search of temporary protocols that restrain and order this universe in harmony with certain social
3rd ambition: the rules should nevertheless leave a large margin of free choice for the users, i.e. the social order is
perceived to emerge on the basis of freedom.
Here the solution is a system of circular intersecting tracks which allow the movement and aggregation of a small
number of modules (concave/extrovert, convex/introvert, chiasma/transition) into a suprisingly rich diversity of
configurations. A series of dramatic transformation of the global space is possible: from a nearly isotropic
distribution of individual fragments, to a number of strongly articulated, separate circular domains, to a single
large congregation for special occasions that involve the totality of the firm.
Social and spatial oscillations are investigated in exploring the idea of a corporate office landscape that
re-emerges every time according to the geometrically installed rules of a space-making game. It is an attempt to
create a spatial life-game through latent territorialization and moveable space-fragments that would temporarily
capture and fix a distinct spatial order out of the fluidity of potential collaborative relations. The moving pieces
are semi-enclosing furniture units which also engage in multiple sectional relations and share their essential formal
features with the fixed spatial envelope in order to allow the more transient layers to appear quite substantial in
each of their temporary states. The mobile elements in effect extend and transform the otherwise fixed conditions.
Learning Environments - Ove Arup Partnership
AADRL 1998/99 - Theo Lorenz & Anna Sutor
Artificial life elaborates the concept, geometry and aesthetics for a new computer based form of spatial malleability.
The aim is the formulation of a generalised logic widely applicable to any working environment requiring dynamic social
patterns of collaborative grouping and re-grouping in space.
The point of departure for this research project is the modelling of the spatio-temporal rhythms of team working
scenarios within the Ove Arup Partnership via animated time-figures.
These time-figures find their translation on a number of different scales from the overall spaceframe that operates
without any fixed members through to shifting and folding floor surfaces and a series of robotic, self-deforming
The building is conceived as an interactive territory almost as flexible as the interface available to a computer user.
Embedded touch-screens would become the interface to lead operations and changes not only on the screens but also within
the physical space surrounding the employee, letting his/her environment be transformed and modelled like objects in a
The integrated family of transformable elements populates a space-frame which in turn displaces its structural members
and thus constantly redistributes the structural voids that are possible within the system.
The system of furnishings generates dynamic configurations constantly subject to further transformations through the
individualšs intervention. The overall environment will thus be subject to cumulative changes generated by multiple
local interventions. The environment operates symbiotically with the users co-producing an artificial intelligence where
users and robotic elements mutually engage in a process of collective learning. The furniture pieces produce spontaneous,
randomized self-deformations which act as suggestions to the users who might either pick up on those suggestions, thus
learning new uses and reward the element or otherwise intervene and re-model the piece as well as the local configuration
between pieces. The pieces will "remember" the respective correlation of movements by adjusting the statistical
likelihood of the respective correlations for its future suggestive behavior. Strict determinations are excluded and a
measure of random mutations remain at play for further evolution. New social tropes and communicative situations emerge
through the aleatoric play and mutual learning between furniture and employees.
Intelligent Fields Razorfish
AADRL 1999/00, Marcel Ortmans, Markus Ruuskanen, Ivan Subanovic, I Yu
In contrast to the universal formalism of the animated folds of the previous project this project operates by way
of articulating discrete and diverse creatures with distinct behavioral capacities. However, these discrete creatures
are nevertheless derived from a number o base modules and tectonic/kinetic principles and exhibit certain geneological
The project investigates the thesis of structured self-organisation by means of computer programming robots within
an overall techno-ecology. The fluid and complex patterns of project and skill affiliation that should determine the
distribution and grouping of people (i.e. individual workstations) and resources (e.g. meeting rooms) are tackled by
means of the robotic mobilization of all workstations and facilities. Each element is scripted with respect to their
temporary project assignments which in turn are programmed as fields of attraction engendering the re- positioning of
individual elements. The various workstations are differentiated according to skill category and developed as distinct
species in terms of morphology and behavioral pattern: Moth, Walker, Stalker, Silverfish, Whale ect. the beginnings of
a veritable techno-diversity. The temporary script or profile of the robotic species establishes its weighted sensitivity
to the various fields competing for resources. Fields are either fixed around project foci (static fields) or emerge
from the mutual attraction of affiliated individuals (dynamic fields). The human agents are guided by the intelligent
flocking patterns of their robotic chairs, worktops, meeting tables ect. while maintaining the power to override,
redirect and even "enslave" or chain their robotic resources to their own movement. Individualised elements have the
potential to couple, embrace and cluster into larger assemblages and collective organisms all the way to camouflaging
and blending into the overall living structure.
The space populated by the robots is conceived as a differentiated fitness landscape that produces its own peculiar biases: stepped versus ramped sections, bottlenecks versus wide access ect. In relation to the various creatures and their capability - rolling, walking, gliding, hanging these biases and their dynamic manipulation (tightening of bottlenecks, flattening of ramps ect) act as functional equivalents (material computing) to the eclectronic scripting of attractions/repulsions
The technique of scripting allows to define temporalised functions between the properties (position, movement, deformation, transparency ect.) of any set of objects. This opens up a new paradigm of design speculation: Each architecture creates its own dynamic universe, complete with itšs own ontology and quasi laws of nature.
Notes & references:
1. The DRL is the MARCH course at the Architectural Asocation School of Architecture, London. For a summary of the research agenda Corporate Fields see:
Schumacher, Patrik, Business - Research Architecture &
Steele, Brett, Data(E)scapes.Design as Research
In: Daidalos 69/70, The Need of Research, December 1998/January 1999
2.Eisenman, Peter, Processes of the Interstitial, in: El Croquis 83, Peter Eisenman, Madrid 1997
3. Massumi, Brian, Sensing the Virtual, Building the Insensible, in AD: Hypersurface Architecture, London 1998
Rajchman, John, The Virtual House, Any Magazine No. 19/20, 1997
4.The current wave of anti-capitalist protests - gathering momentum around occasions like the G8 summits or the annual meetings of the World Bank - is united only on the basis of a diffuse rejection of the status quo without yet achieving sufficient levels of programmatic resolution to orient a progressive research effort.
5. Cannon, T.: Welcome to the Revolution - Managing Paradox in the 21st Century, London 1996
Ray, M. & Rinzler,A.:The New Paradigm for Business, L.A. 1993
Peters,T. : Liberation Management - Necessary Disorganisation for Nanosecond Nineties, N.Y. 1993
Peters, T.: Thriving on Chaos, N.Y. 1987
Bergquist,W.: The Postmodern Organisation - mastering the art of irreversable change, New York 1993
Kilduff,m.: Deconstructing Organisations, Academy of Management review 18
Blanchard,K.& Johnson,S.: The One Minute Manager, New York 1982
Bower,J.L.: Disruptive Technologies - Catching the Wave, Harvard Business Review, Jan./Feb.1995
Kelly, S. & Allison M.A.: The Complexity Advantage, New York 1998
Brown, S.L.& Eisenhardt, K.M.: Competing on the Edge Strategy as Structured Chaos, Boston 1998
6.Deleuze and Guattarišs philosophy relates to the radical Italian "autonomia" movement.
See: Italy: Autonomia - Post-political Politics, Semio-text(e), N.Y.C.1980
This discourse entered architecture in the form of the philosophical abstractions propagated by Deleuze and Guattarišs 'Thousand Plateaus', the main source of inspiration for the formal strategies of "Folding".
7. Departmentalisation/sub-departmentalisation as the structural principle of the bureaucratic mode of organisation is a perfect instance of Deleuze/Guattarišs concept of "territorialization".
8. This serves here as a hypothesis, even if one has to acknowledge that the corporate reality remains suspended within the contradiction of participatory production and divisive distribution and the promised "liberation management" remains constrained by the strictures of class-society.
9. A number of fundamental economic laws have to be rewritten as the logic of knowledge production/consumption increases its weight with respect to the determination of economic rationality: In contrast to material production the cost of re-producing and disseminating a knowledge product is negligible in comparison to its research and development component. In contrast to material capital like raw materials or machinery knowledge resources appreciate rather than depreciate with employment. Utilization gathers rather than consumes value - here in the form of contextualising information products.
See: Wilke, Helmut, Systemisches Wissensmanagement, Stuttgart 1998
Steward, Thomas, Intellectual Capital. The new wealth of organisations, New York 1997.
10. Senge, Peter, The Fifth Discipline, New York 1990
11. Quinn, James, Intelligent enterprise. A knowledge and service based paradigm for industry. New York 1992
12. The ongoing tendency of spatial concentration in places as Wall Street and the City of London seem to confirm this thesis. See: Sassen, Saskia,
13. Mitchell, William, The logic of Architecture, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1990
14. DEGW: Duffy, Eley, Giffone, Worthington
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