The HP Design Summit saw a healthy exchange of ideas that could benefit our tech-savvy world

There is no escaping the fact that we live in a tech-driven world. Being such an ingrained human pursuit, innovation has given us technological solutions with the promises of a better — and faster — life. As much as we ought to celebrate these advances, we also need to step back and map its true, holistic potential. The HP Design Summit proved to be just the platform for this; it was a celebration of innovative new solutions and an opportunity to brainstorm how civilisation can best respond to technological growth.

Held at ITC Grand Central, Mumbai on January 11, the event gathered architects in a discussion on the state of architecture today, and how innovation and technology is shaping our world and the positive change it could initiate. The evening began with Neil Westhoff, director & GM, APJ for DesignJet business, HP, delivering the opening address on stage. “For us, it is key to innovate,” stated Westoff as he highlighted how HP is constantly responding to consumer needs. He then chalked out some of the “mega trends” one needs to consider, mainly rapid urbanisation, changing demographics, hyper globalisation and accelerated innovation.

How can we appropriately respond to these mega trends with technology? The summit had the privilege of witnessing Anupama Kundoo, principal, Anupama Kundoo Architects, indirectly answer this question through her presentation – wherein she offered her views on modern advancements, and how she tries to balance the low-tech with the high-tech. Titled ‘Upgrading the human: innovation and technology towards a sustainable future’, the talk challenged the audience to not become “the tool of the tool“. Kundoo invited everyone to contextualise the development taking place in digitalisation.

“We’ll have to go back and face the [fact that] pollution is analog. All the mess we create and we are going to throw away is going to be analog. We cannot escape into a virtual space…How are we going to use technology to bridge the gap rather than to widen the gap is my question,” the architect declared. “I don’t want to be a passive person, and just say ‘digitalisation is happening, how will it impact me. I’ll analyse it’. No, I prefer to put it the other way around and say, how do we navigate the advances in technology to our advantage?”

When talking about innovation, design technology, building the future, Kundoo shared that innovating with the material should be the starting point – “a one-to-one contact with materials cannot be underestimated.” As an architect, she would like to preserve the methodology which requires thinking with the hands. “The physicality of innovation, which is very much in the material, will need to make space for analog interventions. Only together with both of those will we achieve affordable sustainable solutions which are also beautiful. Beauty not only for the elite – but for all, everybody needs that. It’s a human need to live in a beautiful space, not just an affordable space.”

Time is one of the most valuable resources at our disposal, and for Kundoo it means spending it wisely to fight for the smart citizen who will have a good quality of life. “We need to take time and contextualise; architects are very good at that. We know how to synthesise different things into a holistic thing. In this age of rapid urban transformations, I would rely on architects more than anyone else to work on that synthesis and the holistic picture – and not put the cart before the horse.”

Depend on human intelligence and learn to use available solutions wisely and in context, Kundoo suggested. “Just because we have the technologies, we cannot afford to become more stupid. Because the computer can decide so many things for us, doesn’t mean we can afford to not know how to spell and not know basic things which our ancestors knew very well,” she added. “The need of the hour is to negotiate between high-tech and low-tech to our advantage, [to negotiate] between handmade and machine-made.”

Kundoo assured her enthralled audience that there doesn’t need to be a polarity between people who are high-tech or low-tech. If we are willing to adopt other ways, embrace the other, it could lead to solutions that are holistically good for all. “Architecture can be more effective if you remain in context to the rest of society instead of becoming incestuous and remaining and hanging out with yourselves only,” she expressed. In the end, Kundoo advised that we have to use technology diligently, and drive these advancements with human wisdom. “I’m not saying hold, put the brake on. I’m saying, accelerate on the human intelligence,” she concluded.

Panel Discussion
Following these presentations and the HP product launch (see box), a discussion on ’Building the Future: Lead by Design, Innovation & Technology’ was held, with a dynamic panel of eight architects. Nilesh Gandhi, who moderated the session, steered the conversation, covering aspects like the impact of digitalisation in the design process, architects’ receptivity to data-driven innovations, the culture of digital engagement in the construction sector, and opportunities for cross-sector collaboration in the industry. Sachin Goregaoker was quick to note, “It’s really magnificent to see how things are progressing and CAD (Computer Aided Design) has actually transformed the architecture all around, completely.”
Ayaz Basrai pointed out that there is a place for analog and there is a place for digital – the trick was to find the right tool for a specific task. “Take Grasshopper (software), for example; you can create forms that you cannot visualise with an unaided mind, because it’s an algorithmic base, it’s self-frequencing things which the human mind cannot process,” he explained, adding that some tasks are better fulfilled digitally and some others manually. “If you ask a human to compute the square root of a million or the six digit number, [it would be] floundering. But if you try to teach a computer to pour a cup of coffee, you have the same problem.”

Technology has altered the competitive nature of the profession, as architect Swapnil Sawant pointed out, stating that Pinterest has become the new competitor. Besides, the architect is also competing with other consultants, “who have proved themselves more important than us.” Sawant went on to add, “That’s the challenge. We are giving just an envelope. And in the entire scenario, the contribution of the architect has become less, because he’s not digitalised to that extent. A client can live without an architect, but he needs an air-conditioning guy, a security person, building management services.” Keeping abreast with all the technological demands of a project has become as paramount as the design of the structure itself.

“It’s not an onslaught, it’s the future. We need to work with what’s happening,” was Kalhan Mattoo’s response. “The ability of the computer to do what a human mind can’t, is incredible. Unfortunately, we’re only limiting it to the aesthetic elements mostly. We just see very seductive renderings.” Mattoo also questioned the practice of working in silos, with no healthy exchange of ideas. “I think parametric computational design will essentially allow individual studio’s systems to create their own little bits of code to solve some elements of problems that are out there.” A banking of knowledge, of skill could be the future of tech-enhanced design.

Coming from a collaborative environment, Rajiv Parekh expressed, “Frankly, there are enough studios which we collaborate with for different projects, different scales, different skill sets, because we don’t claim to have all of them ourselves anyway.” Agreeing with Basrai, he opined that there is a right software for the right kind of practice –— since most studios differ in ideology. “You don’t need to buy the fancy high-end machine, just buy what’s right for you. Figure out where your heart is and what makes you tick. Lots of people are doing good work, but in different ways,” he shared. The only limiting factor however, is often the cost of the software, “and that’s the sort of hurdle to be crossed along the way.”

Devang Karia of HP Inc. India responded, “Any given technology which is an enabler in any form of overcoming a challenge, will get immortalised over a period of time – and the eventual reality is mass adoption. Over a period of time, the ways and means of acquiring technology could change. So it could be a buyout, it could be a rental model, it could be pay-for-use. There are many, many different ways of looking at this. The question is, how important is that need to do things differently, and how can technology help you.”

For architect Chirag Jain, the biggest advantage of technology was that it has compressed the time period within which a project can be delivered. He also cautioned that professionals needed to make appropriate distinctions between what technology to use, and where to employ it effectively. “In some places, a hands-on approach may be more conducive, a constant switching between the two approaches may also be required. Otherwise, one of the challenges is that the human mind can become lazy and, if technology makes you lazy, then you stop thinking – and that’s a trap to avoid. It is quite challenging sometimes to even make sure that, in the studio, people don’t get caught in that kind of a trap.”
Nirmal Mangal reminded everyone that we still need people for technology to work, especially human creativity. “If you put all the instruments in a room, would they, by themselves, create music? No,” he stated. “What Grasshopper allows us to do is explore shapes – which was not possible before. What Frank Gehry did for Los Angeles Philharmonic, wouldn’t have been possible if he wasn’t using the software which was a tool for aircraft design.” But the innovation and the thought process finally comes from the architect. “If you punch data in the computer, it’s telling you: yes, it (the structure) is stable – but it is not designing by itself.”

Moderator Gandhi finally invited the architects to predict the future of architecture in terms of technology and innovation. Basrai put it very succinctly: “It’s retarded to be in a kind of paradigm of ego-driven iconic sort of architecture, because our cities don’t need more icons. Make technology accessible. It’s not about being prescriptive or shoving (technology) down someone’s throat. Just make it accessible, and offer it as one of the many tools that one can use to design better cities.”

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