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The “I” Layer; How Information Transforms Urban Design

The New Information Layer in Urban Design

Conventional urban design has organized and deployed systems of physical objects to create more functional, sustainable and pleasing cities. Now, a multitude of mostly non – physical, information based technologies and applications have added another vital layer to the designer’s toolbox. I call this the “I” layer – for information. Unlike the physically based systems/layers of traditional urban design, the “I” layer is comparatively easy to implement and relies on very little or no physical infrastructure. Both public and private sectors can contribute; building networks that make cities more vibrant and efficient.

A Short History of Making

the promise of additive manufacturing

In the beginning, the consumer was also the producer. People made simple tools and weapons and used them to survive. Gradually, consumer and producer grew apart. Nowadays, many of the objects we use are made half a world away. But, this could change, with the advent of a disruptive technology. Consumers and producers may once again be in close proximity.

Many of you will recognize the pictured item as created with a 3D printer. This technology is also called additive manufacturing, since very thin layers of material are added successively to create a three dimensional shape.  Additive manufacturing promises to transform the way many things are made and in so doing change sizable portions of the economy.

Briefly, this is what additive manufacturing promises:

  • Accelerates product development by rapid prototyping
  • Renders small run and custom parts feasible by virtue of no tooling
  • Makes heretofore impossibly complex shapes and assemblies buildable
  • Shortens supply chains by placing manufacturing closer to the consumer

While not all of these objectives have been fully achieved, 3D printing has become increasingly cheap and ubiquitous. Read other blog posts here to review my experience with additive manufacturing. As with most new technologies, the development path is not entirely smooth, but the upside is huge. The diagram below sketches a short history – and likely – future of making. For a larger printable version of the diagram click the pdf link.

pdf of  A Short History (and future) of Making

Wind on the Cliff; Production Tax Credit in Jeopardy

We hope the coming budget debate doesn’t leave the Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind a victim. Due to expire at the end of the year, the tax credit has been a boon to wind power development. The tax credit has not only resulted in more than 52,000 MW of wind power in place, it has created a domestic industry providing more than 30,000 jobs. At the least, wind should have an equal place at the legislative table as a new tax code is hammered out in in 2014.

creating a maker oriented science center

We recently completed a conceptual design and programming study for a maker oriented science center in the Mid Atlantic region. Informal education venues, such as science centers and museums, will be increasingly important nodes in a national network for STEM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The proposed concept puts hands on activities and making front and center.

A Longer and More Winding Road to Personal 3D Printing?

A Mixed Bag of Making

I have touted the prospects for digital fabrication and more specifically the economic benefits of the additive manufacturing revolution enabled by 3D printing. Great strides have been made to bring 3D printing out of computer lab and into the R&D shop. Thousands of firms now use printers costing from $15,000 to the millions to create rapid prototypes and finished parts. But beyond the computer lab, hacker space and R&D department how does printing fare when released in the do it yourselfer’s shop?

Options for 3D Printing

While it’s quite easy to print readymade files and use fabbing service bureaus to outsource prints, my preliminary verdict from personal experience and some frustration – is that there is a ways to go yet before personal 3D modeling and printing is simple, effective and ubiquitous. I suggest the situation with 3D printing is a bit like personal computing about 30 years ago and I’ll explain why this is and what’s needed to transform the industry.

First let’s look at the Maker’s options for 3D printing assuming you don’t work in the rapid prototyping industry or a computer or fab lab type of environment that has access to experts, high end software and hardware. Let me also note that you don’t have to be creating your own models and printing them on your own printer to be involved with making. However, many, if not all creative types will at some point want to create and print their own 3D designs, if not in their own office or shop, then somewhere local that may not possess a high level of expertise.

Fabbing Options Now (also see diagram above):

  1. Existing Model Printed at Service Bureau: Find an existing free model on the Internet and send it to a fabrication service like Shapeways or Ponoko (or local fab lab) who will print and ship the finished product back to you in a couple weeks. There are thousands of models available. Presumably as the inventory of models grows there will be ones that meet many aesthetic and functional needs.
  2. Existing Model Printed Locally: As with method above download a freely available model and print it on your own printer or at a community fab lab, where you might get some help.
  3. Create Model and Print with Service Bureau: Create your own design with 3D software and send it off to a local or cloud based service bureau. This assumes your model is valid for printing. Some services like Ponoko and Shapeways are willing to help evaluate and repair a printable file for a modest upcharge or subsciption.
  4. Create Model and Print Locally: Design it and make it on your own studio/shop’s printer. I assume many makers want to do this; personal expression drives making. And this is where things get tricky.

Not Quite a Personal Factory – Yet

Wishing to investigate the personal end of 3D printing I  purchased a fully assembled Makerbot Replicator www.makerbot.com and it was delivered about a month ago. Makerbot has been the poster child for 3D printing and has been featured in dozens of publications and TV shows during the past year. The new Replicator model is a vastly improved over the version I purchased and built from a kit about two and a half years ago. I took the Replicator out of the box and printed a preloaded 3d model file from a supplied SD card in less than an hour. Alternatively, I could have downloaded a free prepared model file from the Internet (www.thingiverse.com) and printed it from the SD card that slides into the Replicator’s SD slot. Once you have a model file you don’t even need a computer to run the Replicator – an on board touch pad and LCD display the necessary menus for printing. This is all pretty easy.

But what if you want to make something of your own design? Curiosity, self expression and problem solving drives creative types and inventors They want to solve a unique need they’ve identified or express their own creativity; not just copy someone else’ model. This is where 3D printing becomes considerably more complicated. Printing a unique, freshly minted 3D design still takes considerable effort and most likely a lot of trial and error.

Is It Like 1982?

I’ve previously suggested that the current status of DIY 3D printing may be like that of the personal computer 30 years ago. In 1982 you could buy an IBM PC or an Apple but it lacked a graphic user interface and a mouse. Word processing software existed in a couple of text only applications such as Wordstar or Wordperfect and Visicalc was the only spreadsheet. Printing was a rudimentary, dot matrix affair. The introduction of the Mac in 1984 began to revolutionize the situation, with graphical user interface, mouse and well integrated word processing and other applications. We know how quickly things changed after that.

The fundamental problem with 3D printing now is that it’s not a simple process to get from the model to a printable file. The model file needs to be translated into a fully closed triangular mesh. Imagine you must represent a solid volume, your model, with many small triangular shaped pieces of paper that are cut and glued together, creating an exterior shell of your solid object or assembly. The resulting construct, called a stereolithography (stl) file, should be a “watertight” model or it can’t be parsed in many thin layers and printed.

The opportunities for holes and other errors not readily apparent to the eye become rapidly clear in such a construct when considering any shape more than a simple box or sphere. And fixing the holes can be a confounding job. I, still, have not been able to create printable files from two models of my existing portfolio, after many iterations and the deployment of a program designed explicitly to find and fix such problems. I expect more research and effort on my part will resolve the problems, but if the personal printing industry is to explode then these problems need to be addressed with innovative products.

What’s Needed

While a number of good 3D modeling applications are available, in both the paid and free categories, none I’ve come across offers a completely smooth and foolproof workflow from model creation to print file generation. Some helper applications offer model file fixes but from my experience, they still overlook issues that turn up when compiling the code (G code) instructions for the 3D printer. There’s no doubt I need to become a better modeler for 3D printing. However, the Maker world of the near future should give me the option of printing my objects as simply as sending this page to the printer.

the retail end of the smart grid; consumers first!

EnViz Residential Demand Response

The smart grid has been promoted as key to this country’s energy future; an intelligent network tying together power production, transmission, distribution and consumption; reacting in real time, matching supply and demand. At the residential, “retail” end of the smart grid, conventional marketing wisdom has it that a utility installed smart meter will facilitate home energy management as well as responding to system wide peaks through voluntary curtailments, known as Demand Response DR).

Under this rubric, using the smart meter, the utility, with the consumer’s permission, will be able to curtail non essential electrical loads as needed, benefitting the customer with less electric consumption and a smaller electric bill while helping the utility by reducing the need to construct expensive new peak generating capacity or to purchase power off the grid at costly peak rates. Despite considerable corporate marketing efforts and some positive publicity, smart meters have nevertheless experienced consumer resistance, due in part to skepticism of utility motives, ratepayer equity issues, privacy concerns and also what may be a libertarian streak among homeowners who don’t like the idea of a utility telling them when they can do their laundry. Furthermore, the build out of smart meter enabled service areas will at best, take as much as a decade, and even then likely leave out sizeable sectors of residential consumers.

Given this situation, should consumers and other stakeholders with an interest in DR simply bide their time until the smart meter and its associated home management system arrive? Not necessarily. There are other promising routes to residential energy efficiency and demand management. Electric utilities might wish otherwise, but today with multiple communication and control techniques now available, residential electric energy management systems aren’t restricted to pathways running exclusively through the electric meter, such as the smart meter systems described.

We believe DR makes sense, but it also has to put consumers, not the utility, foremost. As an alternative to utility directed demand response, we envision a consumer driven home energy management system. Based on increasingly popular and proven wireless communication protocols, cheap sensors and microcontrollers, such a system could connect and control key residential loads without resort to communications via the electric meter and the utility. Every residential electric consumer in the country can benefit. E2C2 LLC is developing such a solution, known as EnViz. The diagram explains it.

the priority for sustainable cities

I was recently asked what could be done to advance the concept of a sustanable city. I replied that as much as I like cars as interesting mechanical devices, ultimately, and at almost every scale, demography and  geography a city that can reduce its reliance on private automobiles will be a more livable place – with a better chance at sustainability.  Short of concerted measures to the contrary, in the future most cities of any size will ultimately face grid lock due to private automobile use if they have not arrived at that troublesome destination already.

It’s an unavoidable fact that cars facilitate personal mobility up to a point, and are an aspiration for millions – now billions of the world’s inhabitants. This said, over and above their energy and climate ramifications, the infrastructure to accommodate cars simply takes up too much space, money and ultimately results in too much valuable time lost in traffic congestion.  

Therefore, if I had a few billion dollars to distribute to cities around the world for sustainability I would put them into schemes to reduce reliance on cars. I would distribute funds to commuter rail and trolley systems, better transit plans and bicycle infrastructure. I would also encourage land use schemes that integrate working and housing and promote congestion pricing and subsidies for public transportation.  Fewer cars would also deliver ancillary benefits, including cleaner air, safer streets, not to mention a quieter environment.

will “seeing” our travel and transactions make us smarter consumers and commuters?

travel and transaction week map

I chatted with a computer scientist colleague last week about an open transaction platform he’d like to build that would bypass the major vendors and give consumers and small merchants alike access to the type of data retail giants now use to sell us even more stuff. One of the benefits of this open platform, among others, would be that we, as consumers, could see current records of our transactions on our handhelds by category. Moreover, I have been thinking, what if we could also place these transactions in geographic space. Would a picture of our goings and purchases make us smarter consumers, and more energy conscious, perhaps. I’ve recently read Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book, Nudge http://nudges.org/, and have been thinking how some of the precepts of behavioral economics could be applied to more thoughtful energy use.

As a test of the hypothesis that “seeing” a record of transactions and travels might make me more thoughtful about them I logged my commerce and movements here in Washington, DC for part of this past week and built the 3D model of them that you see at left. I think this tells quite a lot about me - perhaps more than I might want a vendor to know. But  it also shows me I could be more considered in my use of transportation. For example, a couple of my car trips could have been accomplished using the subway and walking – but I wanted to save time; the age old conundrum involving time and or money.

weatherviz video now showing

weatherviz debuts in seattle

We live in soup of streaming data. Weatherviz is an experiment to capture some of that data and make it more tangible through the medium of kinetic art. The weatherviz system has gathered radar images from very recent weather events throughout the territorial United States. It then employs these images to drive a large, kinetic sculpture.

Using the metaphor of a song, weatherviz has compressed recent selected weather events, which have occurred over several hours, into a series of short animated performances, approximately three minutes long. Commonly recorded weather parameters are represented on – screen in an animated visual display and by components in the moving sculpture: precipitation, wind, temperature and reflectance (overall storm energy). The four moving apparatus’ of the sculpture correspond to the individual weather parameters sampled from the Internet. Extending the song metaphor, the weatherviz sculpture is like a four piece band playing a series of tunes.

As visitors watch a storm event play out on the sculpture, they are challenged to figure out which apparatus/instrument represents each weather parameter. The first demonstration of weatherviz occurred July 31st in Seattle. Watch the video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixHjcsXxFNA

About the Artists:

Eric Carlson, weatherviz creator, is a cleantech consultant, architect and artist based in Washington, DC and Seattle. He has worked throughout the U.S and around the world on sustainable development programs, exhibitions and media.

Alexander Jones is a computer scientist and artist from Washington, DC. He has a particular interest in the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to embedded hardware.

Contact: Eric Carlson, AIA, LEED AP


We develop and market energy efficiency strategies and technologies. We focus on the building and transportation sectors, which account for more than two thirds of the energy budget.