Cyborg Ecologies


Cyborg Ecologies is a current research project at the Responsive Environments and Artifacts Lab (REAL) at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The project explores the interface between dynamic landscape systems and responsive technologies including sensing, monitoring, and actuation. The research expands the application of responsive technologies to investigate indeterminacy and dynamics in contemporary landscape architecture. The lab is developing models that can be accessed by designers which focus on the realtime manipulation of landscape systems. The Cyborg Ecologies project specifically attempts to develop the tools and methods that would enable the fabrication of these dynamic and complex landscapes.

The profession of landscape architecture inherently engages a dynamic, biological medium through the manipulation of soils, vegetation, and atmosphere. The implementation of responsive technologies requires frameworks that not only engage landscape at the scale of object but also acknowledge the territory and interconnections of ecological systems. These frameworks are not imagined as overarching methods of control but instead express a relationship between sensing and processing that is predicated on learning. As a methodology, the project directly addresses the need to develop a form of “distanced authorship,” (Charles Waldheim, “Strategies of Indeterminacy in Recent Landscape Practice,” Public 33 (Spring 2006): 80-86.) that deconstructs methods which activate natural processes such as succession, accretion and remediation as the agents of change in the environment. This approach privileges the dynamics of ecology over static constructions as a method to design landscape systems.

Cyborg Ecologies postulates a fabrication that engages dynamic landscapes, not as a generator of architectural form but as a fluid medium. The project regards fabrication as a process of addition and subtraction that is driven by contextual cues. An agent unto itself, it creates a relationship with the environment, evolving its operating logics as information is digested. While the concepts of customization and complexity are present, the project extends a line of research that assumes the machine (fabricator) is continually tuned and the resultant “form” is a product of this tuning. This mode of inquiry is complemented by computational methods that sense and engage real-time conditions through representations that more accurately reflect the dynamics involved in the professions of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design. As a method of fabrication, the system proposes to utilize the entropy of ecological systems to construct incrementally evolving forms that are the product of coordinated curation and choreography.

There are several examples of similar emerging design methodologies employed to imagine forms of landscape and infrastructure that engage ecological processes:

FIN, a project by Tyler Mohr and Andrew Boyd, creates an array of flow diverging “fins”, intended to investigate the possibility of forming unique and potentially influential landforms by having the fins react to different variables. The fins adjust themselves in response to a multitude of variables that could include flow rate, water temperature, sediment load of river,salinity, or hypoxia.

SYNTHETIC DIATOMS, a project by Rawan Alsaffar, Natasha Polozenko, Jia Hu, looks at the ability for sediment to bind and create a productive benthic layer. This involved both water quality sensing and active response to the water fluctuations. Salinity sensing was used to find the range of zones that would need biotic augmentation.

Responsive Hydro-ecologies, attuning sediment transfer through activating the river bed, is a project by
Ricardo Jnani Gonzales Ramirez that examines the potential of soft robotics to build aggregate surfaces that promote sediment dispersion.

The POD MOD proposal addresses issues of sedimentation, dredging for navigation and optimized land building at the mouth of the Atchafalaya Basin near the Gulf of Mexico. Essentially the proposal contends that by creating sediment ballonets that can be floated from the top of the Atchafalaya down the river it would be possible to use this method to more efficiently rebuild barrier island and land for coastal protection. The proposal was developed by Charlie Pruitt, Brennan Dedon and Rob Herkes.

Project VEG or Vacuolar Effluvia Genesis looks at technologies that facilitate the sequestration of ecological processes that are detrimental to the Atchafalaya ecosystem. The proposal was developed by Josh Brooks and Kim Nguyen.

The Sediment Printing projects by Bradley Cantrell, Prentiss Darden, and Justine Holzman are a precursor to the Cyborg Ecologies research that helped to develop the nascent methods that are explored in more depth through the current fabrications systems.

These examples portray an extensive range of applications for this methodology to further the design of process based landscape systems. Currently, the REAL is pushing this agenda through tools, methods, and speculations which creates a rich series of case studies.


To explore this agenda, the lab is using a geomorphology modeling table to simulate processes of river formation and sediment flow. In developing methods for tracking of elevation changes, sediment depth, velocity, and conductivity—real-time visualizations are used to understand performance and dynamic relationships. The data extracted from the model is used to develop simple robotic interrupters, illustrating the potential for discrete interventions to affect the performance of ecological zones. These interventions range from small dams with depth and range controls to salinity agitators.

The current scope focuses on the development of a sensing system for a fluid modeling table and an accompanying graphical user interface (GUI) titled the GEOcorder. Built by easily accessible software and hardware like Processing and Arduino, the GUI can consistently be expanded, rebuilt, or contracted as varying landscape agendas might dictate.The GEOcoder investigates how data can be streamed, collected, and organized in a compelling visual production of real-time landscape models. As design inquiry, the model exists as an abstract landscape constructed within a Little River Em2 Geomodel, equipped with sensors that feed seemingly instantaneous electrical signals into a custom GUI. Less concerned with the scalability to specific real world conditions, the model is a critical tool for developing laboratory techniques to eventually be applied and scaled to multiple landscape scenarios. The feedback loop facilitated by the GUI between the geomodel and its operation is controlled by a particular agenda and greatly influenced by the methods of data collection. This responsive method of authoring landscape change challenges singular goals associated with precision and efficiency and opens up opportunities for complex and competing goals more aligned with ecological systems.

The base for the geomorphology table is the Little River Em2 Geomodel on a tilt table. A single pump pushes varying volumes of water though the model while a vertical plastic tube on the low side controls the total volume of water in the model. The tilt table controls elevation changes from front to back and side to side of the model. The model basin is filled with three types of sediment varying in color and size. This off the shelf model is augmented with custom GUI software, hardware to run sensors, and an aerial gantry to carry sensors and cameras.

The GUI was designed using the coding language Processing, a simplified version of Java. The interface has three sections: controls, surface visualizations, and data. The controls section has switches that will turn each of the sensor systems on and off. These switches also include some data displays that describe the movement direction, and exact position of some sensors. There is also a webcam input that provides a constant image of the table, allowing for future remote operation or varying types of raster image analysis based on sediment colors. The second section of GUI, surface visualizations has a large central screen that currently displays a surface DEM from a Kinect. Additional tabs will display a surface visualization based on lofted sections. Below that area three sections are drawn constantly, as long as the sensors are turned on, fading as the sensor moves across the model, privileging the most current data in bright white. The data section along the right side of the screen visualizes raw sensor readings. In the upper portion of the column a boundary representation of the geomodel indicates current sensor locations. Below, four gauges display readings of the geomodel’s temperature, light, sounds, and water flow.

The sensors for the model are run by Arduino UNO microprocessors. Three Banner sensors mounted on individual custom gantries glide back and forth on bearings across a steel rod capturing a cross section perpendicular to the inflow. A rubber belt connected to a stepper motor drives the gantry. The motor takes 30,000 steps to cross the table, and 30,000 steps back. Three light sensors and three temperature sensors supply data to a second Arduino to monitor the changing atmospheres around the geomodel.

To generate additional analysis such as aerial imagery and digital elevation models, an overhead gantry carries a Microsoft Kinect, DSLR camera, and the webcam. This gantry is actuated from within the GUI to move stepper motors moved back and forth. These units are plugged directly into the workstation’s USB ports, bypassing the microprocessors.


001 / How does this project exhibit a form of fabrication?
The project is comprised of both physical and software fabrication. We have used several methods of physical fabrication such as laser cutting, 3D printing and machining of metal and wood components. Our software Fabrication is comprised of both Arduino and Processing, working back and forth between analogue data and its extrapolation and visualization. We are interested in the gathering of data, but also how the visualization of data becomes accessible and insightful to larger user groups.

002 / Who would benefit from the methodologies developed in this research?
The research of the Cyborg Ecologies project is intended to demonstrate initial hypotheses of landscape systems such as water dynamics and sediment patterns. Findings from our lab through live sensing and automated interventions is intended to provoke existing engineered systems and their operation. Our research benefits the scientist, engineer and designer looking to re-think human interactions with the surrounding ecological environment.

003 / How can the research in this lab become applicable in the field?
The research in this lab demonstrates a smaller scale of how live sensing and intervention systems could work in the field. Our aim is not to attain an accurate data set but instead to show the possible ranges of information that can be sensed and acted on within a certain landscape typology. We present the possibility that augmenting environmental realities on a small scale can have large scale effects on the environment.

004 / What software programs are you using to develop your work?
We are working simultaneously with the Arduino and Processing IDE. The arduino allows us to obtain live analogue data that is remapped into processing to create an interactive visual interface.

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