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ILP Institute Insider

September 15, 2014
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Soft Design for a Sustainable World

“Around the world at unprecedented rates, people are moving from the country to the city,” says Sheila Kennedy, Professor of the Practice at MIT’s Department of Architecture. “But this rapid urbanization is not a one-way movement — there’s an increasing level of mobility and an inevitable permeability between the borders of our natural and urban environments.”
Sheila Kennedy
Professor of the Practice
Department of Architecture
Her research seeks to answer the call of this global trend with innovative buildings and infrastructure that minimize demands on energy and environment. “My group at MIT is working on the design of soft infrastructure, or resilient infrastructure,” she says. “We’re trying to think about a synthetic approach to design that includes natural ecologies, the built environment, and the movements and cultures of people.”

“With soft design, we think about materials that are resilient: earth-abundant materials, materials that are biodegradable and new materials that can be made with very low-carbon or no-carbon manufacturing processes,” Kennedy explains. “We then try to radically transform these materials with software, using computation to alter the form of materials that are affordable and prevalent. We can customize the form to different manufacturing circumstances and different needs.”

Getting buy-in for low- or no-carbon energy use is a critical theme throughout her efforts. “With soft policy and soft design, we try to shift the culture of energy in such a way that it becomes compelling and people really want to use the new technology,” she emphasizes. “Technology isn’t much good if people don’t want to use it.”

Scaling-up Soft Infrastructure
Among its recent projects, Kennedy’s design firm, Kennedy & Volich Architecture, has completed a public ferry terminal on the East River in Manhattan that is “the first project in the United States that has taken a low-carbon approach to public infrastructure,” she says.

Connecting commuter boat passengers with the New York subway, the bike sharing program and taxis, the terminal “also provides a new kind of public place,” she notes. “We’ve created the first soft tensile roof canopy system in the United States, and that allowed us to build this building without a lot of steel, and to build it offsite in pieces and bring it to the site in a very efficient manner.” Additionally, the roof canopy features an interactive display for information about river currents. “It’s like an eye into the river, showing people what’s going on in that ecosystem,” she says.

Another example of soft infrastructure is Minneapolis’s RiverFirst initiative, in which Kennedy and her colleagues work with dozens of organizations to revitalize miles of degraded industrialized riverfront. “We need to find new ways to bring people to the river,” she says. “We’re developing a systematic trail system with bridges and public trails as well as a new park that will have sustainable development within it, bringing new value to this blue and green lifestyle that will be the future of the city of Minneapolis.”

On a still larger scale, she partners with industry and non-governmental organizations on a new approach to clean energy in South America. “Rather than having solar panels that are made in China with a lot of carbon expenditure in the clean rooms, in the manufacturing, in the waste and in the global shipping, we’re trying to develop a system within Brazil where we can make solar panels,” she says. “We can integrate electronics to create a very small scale but very high impact portable clean energy network, which allows people to have renewable light and also power to charge a cell phone.”

Changing Material Culture
Her MIT group also investigates the use of materials that are either carbon-negative or very low-carbon use, and this includes redefining the set of materials used to make buildings and the systems, furniture and other objects within them, Kennedy says.

One example of rethought materials is the Soft House, a set of row houses in Hamburg, Germany. The project has won many international design awards, most recently being chosen as one of the top 20 most impactful real estate developments in Germany by FIABCI, the International Real Estate Federation.

The Soft House began with a simple building structure, assembled by a traditional local soft wood construction technique. “The walls are solid wood and they become very long-lasting and enduring,” she says. “The domestic infrastructure, the lighting and the energy, becomes much more mobile, replaceable and configurable, like furniture. The infrastructure is literally soft because we use textiles to harvest energy and distribute light and low-voltage DC power.”

Following up on the Soft House as a model for low-carbon development, Kennedy and her co-workers will soon break ground on the Chrysanthemum Building, located in a dense urban neighborhood in Boston’s North End. The building will use sustainably grown wood studs both for standard construction and for elevator walls and the party walls that abut buildings on either side. This construction approach will employ very little steel and no concrete blocks, helping to keep costs down. The mixed-use project will have a variety of different units, including very small apartments with all-wood infrastructure that can be taken out or replaced and changed, as well as large flexible urban lofts for families.

“It’s a smart building in a very simple way,” she adds. “We’ve developed a mobile phone application that connects residents with the already existing green systems in the city.”

Advancing Flat-to-form
Her research group has been extending a fabrication process called flat-to-form, “which basically enables us to take ordinary flat sheets of building industry materials and transform them into almost any form or any shape via computation,” Kennedy says. “You can think about flat-to-form as self assembly, where the energy that goes into the system is human energy.”

Customizing existing materials “really allows our group to transform the building industry from within,” she says. “We might look at an Industrial Liaison Program partner’s material and shift it from one market segment to another. We also might think about just radically transforming or reimagining the material product or piece of infrastructure.”

For example, her group is interested in rethinking the form of refrigeration. “Today a solar refrigerator, which is one of the most important pieces of domestic infrastructure in the developing world, has over 300 parts, and none of them are particularly sustainable,” she points out. “Could we make foldable paper refrigerators?”

Her group already has created lights that combine an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) with all-paper parts. It’s also developing flat-to-form designs for solar streetlights, one of the most important and rapidly growing kinds of clean infrastructure worldwide.

“Another project is thinking about ways to deliver sunlight deep into a building,” Kennedy says. “Sunlight comes in through windows, but it doesn’t come in very far and it doesn’t come in all the time. So imagine a very lightweight, foldable mirror system, perhaps made out of paper, which could adjust during the day so that no matter how dense an urban block you might live in, you could always have direct sunlight coming right into your kitchen or your room or your bedroom.”

She emphasizes that bringing such innovations into widespread use requires tight collaborations with companies and other partners. “As an architect, I work in the world every day. My group at MIT has been fortunate in that we’ve worked with many outstanding industry leaders. The most important requirement for partnership is a real commitment and desire for innovation, and a desire to make change.”

“We’re particularly interested in collaborating with manufacturers to create designs and to create resilient soft infrastructure that works not only here at home but also in the developing world,” she adds. “We can get ideas from working in the developing world and bring them here at home, and vice versa. In the end of the day, it’s really only one world.”

Research News

September 15, 2014

Bound for Robotic Glory

Speed and agility are hallmarks of the cheetah: The big predator is the fastest land animal on Earth, able to accelerate to 60 mph in just a few seconds. As it ramps up to top speed, a cheetah pumps its legs in tandem, bounding until it reaches a full gallop.

Now MIT researchers have developed an algorithm for bounding that they’ve successfully implemented in a robotic cheetah — a sleek, four-legged assemblage of gears, batteries, and electric motors that weighs about as much as its feline counterpart. The team recently took the robot for a test run on MIT’s Killian Court, where it bounded across the grass at a steady clip.

MIT Sloan
Management Review

September 8, 2014

Who’s Winning With Analytics? A Look At Analytical Innovators

As analytics becomes a common path to business value, many companies are changing how they make decisions, operate and strategize.

Whether they are just getting started with analytics or are seasoned practitioners, organizations are being challenged to step up the way they use data in decision-making. The implications for industry competition are clear: companies that incorporate analytics into their culture are finding success in the new digital era.

MIT Sloan Management Review and SAS Institute Inc. conducted a global executive survey that had 2,037 respondents from around the world. The survey also involved interviews with more than thirty executives. The report based on the research, “The Analytics Mandate,” is available online and as a downloadable PDF.

Among the statistics cited in the report:
  • Investments in business analytics expanded from 2009 to 2013, with an annual average growth rate of 8.5%.
  • The vast majority of survey respondents, 87%, want their organizations to step up the use of analytics.
  • The ability to manage information is developing slowly even though the pressure to use more data in decision-making is intense. Only 55% of respondents said their organization is using insights to guide future strategy “somewhat” or “very” effectively.
  • Culture is the key factor that enables companies to achieve a competitive advantage with analytics. An analytics culture unites business and technology around a common goal through a specific set of behaviors, values, decision-making norms and outcomes.
  • More than 90% of Analytical Innovator organizations — those companies that are most successful with analytics — are open to ideas that challenge the status quo. This is a far higher percentage than in other companies, which fall into the categories of Analytical Practitioners and Analytically Challenged.
  • The majority of Analytical Innovators (51%) strongly agree that their organizations treat data as a core asset. Only 15% of Analytical Practitioners are in that camp, and only 6% of Analytically Challenged companies are.
  • As well, Analytical Innovators are four times more likely to “strongly agree” that analytics has changed the way their organizations conduct business than Analytics Practitioners.
  • Some 78% of Analytical Innovators report that even though they are relatively further ahead of many other companies in using data to make decisions, there is the pressure on staff to become more data-driven and analytical. Only 43% of Analytically Challenged companies report the same kind of pressure.
“Organizations that are successful with analytics continue to invest in their analytical skills and technology to stay ahead of the curve,” says the report. “But perhaps the key point is that they foster the right analytics culture, are open to new ways of thinking and change the way they do business.”

In addition to featuring statistics drawn from the global survey, the report also includes examples of companies that have succeeded at using data effectively. Those companies include Entravision Communications, a Spanish-language media company based in California; State Street, a Boston-based financial services firm; StyleSeek, an online fashion recommendation platform; WellPoint, the largest for-profit managed care organization within the Blue Cross Blue Shield umbrella; and Caesars Entertainment, a global casino and hotel operator.


This article draws from “The Analytics Mandate,” a report based on a global executive study and research project conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review and SAS Institute Inc. The report was written by David Kiron (MIT Sloan Management Review), Pamela Kirk Prentice (SAS Institute Inc.) and Renee Boucher Ferguson (MIT Sloan Management Review) and was released in Spring 2014.