And I’ll take the Low Road: Innovative Online and Maker Space Design

Research and Innovation4 Comments

I am curious that a number of architecture books have been very influential in online design. These include the classic A Pattern Language and more recently Dan Hill’s Dark Matter and Trojan Horses. Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn is one such book. This fortunately became a BBC television series, curiously the first ever digital television show, with a quaint analogue looking clock that counts down the beginning of every episode. My favourite of the 6 in the series is the one on low road building and architecture.

The basic low road design idea, is that a lot of architecture is too fancy to be practical. Conversely many buildings that seem to be the opposite of good design, actually do a better job of providing quality living, creative, or in our case, learning space. The ultimate example of low road architecture is the shipping container, used beautifully to create a new mobile city centre after the Christchurch earthquakes. Shipping containers are so versatile in that they are, rectangular, modular and cheap. They can be mixed and matched and, if you want to add a window, no problem, just cut it out. There are also examples of the low road in large buildings such as the MIT building 20, Stewart Brand’s favourite low road building. “Built quickly during World War II, the 250,000-square foot wood building hosted the development of many ground breaking research disciplines from Chomskyan linguistics to the new style of computing promoted by early hackers. “The only building on campus you can cut with a saw,” according to another building 20 admirer. Building 20 was above all else flexible and adaptable and it belonged to no one school or department or person.

There are also a number of examples of low road design for online education. Google Cardboard, for one, does a great job of providing an easy and super low cost entry point into VR and 360 degree imaging.

One of my favourite online examples is Google Sites. Google Sites enable the building of a simple website in a relatively fast and easy manner. They can be private or public and often provide an easy entry point for an online portfolio, as the School of Art have so effectively demonstrated with the uptake of Sites for student eportfolios. Sites are like the “gateway drug” to web literacy with many students graduating from the Sites experience into more sophisticated self managed online portfolios in WordPress, Squarespace and other platforms. Sites have been problematic in that they are not always intuitive or easy to begin with and they have not been mobile friendly. Hopefully the new Google Sites, coming soon, are more friendly in this way.

Recently the DSC Innovation Incubator has been exploring Maker Spaces and I think the low road design applies to this because of the way it supports innovation. Staff from the DSC School of Education approached the incubator wanting to learn about 3D printing, as student teachers are having to go into schools with 3d printers and other STEM technologies. We decided to link them with current maker space and 3D printing activities across RMIT colleges and Melbourne more generally. A personal observation was that two of the maker spaces seem to be operating semi-successfully. One is the free maker space at the Docklands Melbourne public library and the other is the fablab at RMIT Brunswick campus. Both seemed under utilised in some aspects. Partly this is a dimension of maturity – each is still relatively new. In part each is still adapting to the restrictions of the building design in which they are housed. Not all areas and functionalities in each space are fully utilised. In the Brunswick case the maker space facilities are dwarfed by an enormous machine used by fashion design, for the cutting of fabric in bulk. While an enormously useful facility for fashion students, it is hard to imagine the innovation possibilities, if any.

In part my reservations are because I have seen a more mature space in action. On a recent visit to New York,  I was lucky to be invited to the NYU Tisch innovations lab which benefits from both maturity over 20 years, as well as low road contexts. There is a sense of confinement and everything being thrown together with a constantly flexible and frequently reiterated space.



There were some common principles to this space that allow for adjacencies and creative exchange:

  • All tables on wheels
  • All cupboards have glass doors
  • Corridors are valuable workspaces
  • Semi-permeable boundaries. Meeting rooms have glass walls. The VR area was just curtained off with black fabric, temporary workspaces are created with wire shelving that are see-through and not soundproof
  • Stuff is allowed to hang from ceilings anywhere
  • And, most importantly, the aspect that I suspect is a challenge for most large universities to provide, everything is in the one place! The wood shop, the powerful computing, the audio visual hire, the 3d printers, laser cutters, audio and VR equipment. And beside this space is the student and staff enterprise start-up space, similar to what is envisaged for our long overdue and still yet to start RMIT Activator.

During our visit to Tisch we met a couple of students, one from Australia doing a bio-hacking art project injecting light-emitting bacteria into people. The other student I met, working right beside her, had developed a 360 degree video streaming platform, something Youtube has also recently announced. This is something that those of us working on VR and 360 imaging in the DSC Innovation Incubator would love to trial, given a suitable camera, a powerful enough computer and enough bandwidth! Imagine streaming a class activity where virtual students can look wherever they want.

Students at NYU start with programming simple robotic devices such as arduinos and are encouraged to expand from there.  The advantage NYU has is maturity in evolving over 20 years. In discussion with RMIT Library there will be the opportunity hopefully to contribute to the proposed maker spaces in the RMIT Melbourne New Academic Street development, as well as for future spaces in RMIT Vietnam. It would also be great to see an older style space with flexible adaption capability made available for future innovation spaces.

What would you include in your innovation lab?

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Leigh Blackall
4 years ago

I reckon there’s another book that expands on the “low road” observation: Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich. Illich is one of a few authors cited by Alexander and co’. such as in their 18th pattern, a Network of Learning.

Leigh Blackall
4 years ago
Reply to  Leigh Blackall

“…work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city, professionals willing to take on the young as helpers, older children teaching younger children, museums, youth groups travelling, scholarly seminars, industrial workshops, old people, and so on. Conceive of all these situations as forming the backbone of the learning process; survey all these situations, describe them, and publish them as the city’s “curriculum”; then let students, children, their families and neighborhoods weave together for themselves the situations… Read more »

Leigh Blackall
4 years ago
Reply to  Howard Errey

But it seems to me we rarely do.. do we? “…work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process…”