Residenziale Est in Ivrea, Italy—also known as the Typewriter Building, 1971 by Iginio Cappai & Pietro Mainardis. Ivrea was the headquarters of Olivetti, and the location of the former Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. The building is marred these days with graffiti, sadly, but the interiors are modular and fascinating. Perhaps this is a smart building in a smart town of a different sort of age. Or a contemporary age: the Arduino board was invented here. Via “Moderno Vivo” in L’Architetto.

AI & Culture: Buildings, Cities (and Infrastructures, and Beyond…)

Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Prof. Molly Wright Steenson, Fall 2018 (second mini)

We’ve long heard a lot about smart: smart homes, smart cities, smart grids, and more. It’s blowing up even more, with a lot of talk about AI these days. It’s all over pop culture, whether in tv, film, books, sci-fi, music, games, and internet memes. What might we learn from looking at the pop culture of AI where it intersects with the world around us—in our buildings, cities, infrastructures and beyond? In this class, we’ll survey the pop culture of AI and smartness, read texts and articles to help us theorize it, bring in a variety of experts and visitors to ground our knowledge, and generate our own creative responses. If we do it right, this class will be a fun but insightful exploration into AI and the built environment.

This class is small enough for us to be adaptive to your interests, so the readings may shift accordingly. (I had enough material for a semester, if not a year!) We are also scheduling a number of visitors and may need to shift schedule to accommodate them. I will give you as much warning as I can.

Readings are directly linked online or are on Box (as marked):

Week 1, 10/22 & 10/24: INTRO & SMART HOMES

Monday: Introductions

Who are you, who am I, what are our interests, what is this class?

Wednesday: Smart Homes: A History.

  • Please read: Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Smarter Homes: How Technology Will Change Your Home Life, 2018, chapters 1 & 2. [Box]

Michael, Danny, Justin & Emily launched us into a great design exercise on bad smart home interventions: each team came up with possible bad smart interventions. Conversation ensued about women and home engineering in the early 20th century, robotics and replacement parts and marketing today, gendered marketing for home purchases and a move toward family marketing, the kitchen as a collective lab to cook better.

What is the design language? Who does it appeal to, and how, in purchasing decisions?

What came up in our discussions and your bad smart home designs:

OMA Prada In-store technology, New York store. Beautiful store and technology designed with IDEO… but the smart dressing room sometimes ended up being not-so-smart and exposing semi-clad customers.

Supawat asked: whose body is the Frankfurt kitchen designed for? This is what Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky did time-motion studie said:

“The problem of rationalising the housewife’s work is equally important to all classes of the society. Both the middle-class women, who often work without any help [i.e. without servants] in their homes, and also the women of the worker class, who often have to work in other jobs, are overworked to the point that their stress is bound to have serious consequences for public health at large.”

Have we change the notion of what a laboratory is? What about the data that we’re giving up to big tech companies?

The Bristol All Electric House

Week 2, 10/29 & 10/31: SMART CITIES

Monday: Smart cities [MOVED TO WEDNESDAY 10/31]

We’ll get introduced to the notion of smart cities. (Anthony Townsend is traveling and can’t join us.) Erik, Emek, and Gauri will lead our discussion.

  • Please read: Anthony Townsend, Smart Cities, Introduction & Chapter 1. [Box].

Discussion: from Emek, Erik & Gauri, discussion leaders:

Potential Future Investment

Reinier de Graaf — Smart Cities of the Future Conference at TU Delft. “A critical view — What is a smart city?”

Saskia Sassen — Building Smart Cities at TED. “An alternative approach — Can a city hack technology?”

Questions we can discuss:

  • What do you think about the rising interest of the tech/business world on cities and city-making?
  • What kind of powers and capabilities do these companies hold? What are their limitations in this context?
  • 21st century city is claimed to become smarter through the integrated technologies.
  • How does it differ from the city of the 20th century?
  • Similar to what de Graaf asks: Are the cities we have built so far dumb?
  • One could speculate that technology is becoming the prevalent domain in city-making with the increasing level of engagement by the tech companies. Parallel to what Sassen asks: What could these companies / technologists learn from the existing cities?
  • What kind of powers and capabilities do architects and urban designers hold? What has been their limitations in city-making?
  • Based on the existing model in the global market, does the “smart city” and “smart tech” businesses create equal opportunity (both for businesses and for public)?


A look at the history of the urban dashboard, with some reading of Foucault (at Harsh’s request) to help us frame the discussion. We’ll read our first article by Dr. Shannon Mattern, professor of Media Studies at the New School in New York, and a prolific writer and researcher on media, cities, and infrastructure.

Please read:


Two separate classes. On Monday, we’ll discuss films. Please watch Hunger Games and the 1966 release of Fahrenheit 451. (Films made available in class). On Wednesday, we’ll have Prof. Red Whittaker visiting our class, a robotics expert with a fascinating career.

Monday, 11/5: Two dystopian films

Please watch both of these movies on your own before Monday’s class. We’ll discuss them both.

But then what about the questions of the mass media? Yi-chin, Yixiao, and Jeffrey brought us Noam Chomsky’s “5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine.”

Wednesday: A visit from Prof. Red Whittaker, CMU Robotics Institute

Prof. Red Whittaker the Fredkin Research Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute & the Director of the Field Robotics Center and Chief Scientist of the Robotics Engineering Consortium at CMU. He leads the CMU Google Lunar X Prize Team. Currently, he’s involved in projects for Robotic Search for Antarctic Meteorites, robotic tour guides, unmanned grain harvesting, excavation and earthmoving. He’ll be talking about Pioneer, “a mobile mapping and reconnaissance machine for structural assessment of the damaged Chernobyl nuclear power plant.”


Monday, 11/12: Bryan Boyer of Dash Marshall (in house)

Bryan Boyer is partner at Dash Marshall, where he leads the design and innovation practice focused on American Cities. He’s developed the Global Atlas of Autonomous Vehicles with Bits & Atoms (the consultancy led by Anthony Townsend, whose work we read in Week 2). He was a member of Sitra: The Finnish Innovation Fund in Helsinki from 2009–13, and holds a M.Arch. from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Bryan Boyer will be giving a Design the Future Lecture Monday, 11/12 at 5 pm in the School of Design. Please plan to attend his lecture.

Wednesday, 11/14: Google Sidewalk with Molly Sauter (Skype visit)

  • Molly Sauter, “City Planning Heaven Sent” [Box]
  • Molly Sauter, “Google’s Guinea-Pig City,” The Atlantic, February 13, 2018.

Molly Sauter is a Vanier Scholar and PhD candidate in Communication Studies at McGill University, where they research the politics of disruption in networked communication technology. They‘re the author of The Coming Swarm: DDoS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. They hold a masters degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, and have held research fellowships at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, and New America.

Week 5: 11/19: WEWORK: WHAT’S UP?

Monday: We’ll take a look at the business and business model of WeWork. Why WeWork? Because of their financial models and the fact that they’re hiring many computationally-oriented architects. We may also be joined by someone from WeWork (virtually).

Two articles by Ellen Huet:


Week 6: 11/26 & 11/28: AUTOMOTIVE FUTURES

In each of our classes this week, we will be joined by automotive and autonomous vehicle experts. While they’ll be talking about cars, it’s worth noting that 2-wheel infrastructure is the locus of much VC interest. What will your signals entail?

This week, we will also choose roles for the zine project.

Monday: Michael Robinson (via Skype from Italy).

Michael Robinson is an automotive designer from the US and based in Italy. He was Design Director at Fiat and Lancia, and has also worked with Ford and Volvo. He’s in the Hall of Fame for car design at the Turin National Automobile Museum. Robinson holds a long view of what design means in the future of automotive when people are no longer driving cars themselves.

Wednesday: Chris Urmson, CEO of Aurora (via Skype from California).

Dr. Chris Urmson is CEO of Aurora. He has nearly 20 years of experience in self-driving cars and robotics, and was previously CTO for self-driving cars at Alphabet. He holds a PhD in Robotics from CMU and was a faculty member here, and helped win the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.

Week 7: 12/3 & 12/5: CONCLUSIONS

There may be other visitors this week, tbd.

Monday: Shannon Mattern, “The City is Not a Computer,” Places Journal

Wednesday: Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams. This is a book, but one that doesn’t take long to read. Give yourself a headstart on reading it—it’s a lovely book and you can read it in little bites—and we’ll use it to close out our class.

Design week project & zine celebration, date TBD (12/10–12/14)

Objectives, policies, grading


  • Explore pop culture representation of AI as a means of challenging myths
  • Expand your understanding about AI, smart cities and architecture, infrastructure, and more
  • Develop critical thinking and writing skills through weekly written responses
  • Explore creative approaches to AI and smart cities to share


Are located online and here:

Complete the readings or watch the films (or other material) in time for each class. The date for which the reading or film is listed is the date that we will discuss it.


  • Signals in Medium as reading responses, 200–250 words: 25%
  • Creative final project: 30%
  • Zine project: 20%
  • Participation: 15%
  • Discussion leadership, 1 week: 10%

Signals: 6 over the course of the class: 25%

(Borrowed from Anthony Townsend & NYU and the Institute for the Future with permission):

Each Sunday by 5 pm, you will submit a “signal” of a recent development in intelligent cities, related to the reading and the upcoming week’s topic. You will post them on Medium, and then bring them to class with you for discussion.

A signal is a news item, research paper, photograph, video or other content that represents a direction of change or emerging trend. Each signal should contain a pointer to the document (a URL, or APA-style citation) and a 200–250 word (1 page) synopsis highlighting the key development(s) in the signal, and your interpretation of its significance for our class.

You should choose and document the signals so that they are building on each other rather than being a random collection of links. In successive weeks, draw connections back to what you submitted in earlier weeks. Basically, you should think of this process as research and note-taking and idea refinement.

You can and should be creative in your Medium posts. Incorporate images and video into them. Have fun with them! Your reflections on the prompt will take the course material into consideration. Email Molly when you’ve posted the signal.

Leading discussion & conversation: 20%

Each week, a group of discussion leaders are on hand to lead conversation about signals and help guide sessions with our visitors when we have them.

As you put together your approach for the session, start with an end in mind. Where would you like to end up and what kind of questions will get you there? Good questions tend to bring in the how and the why, and are more effective than making a statement and asking the class what you think. You might consider activities or debates you might like to do. You may want to turn a discussion on its head, or play devil’s advocate, or choose a contrary position. At the end of the class, you’ll conclude and summarize the discussion to see us out.

Zine project & publication: 20%

We will all construct a zine composed of your best signals. As a class, you’ll create the layout & cover and determine the order of content.

Creative project: 30%

Taking everything we’ve done and the things that you’re most interested and curious about, you will put together a final creative project. You could write, make a podcast, do a video, code a demo, build a robot, make a game, develop a simulation, bring us into your own uncanny valley… it’s up to you. This project is due the last week of class and we will celebrate your work then.

Participation: 5%

I expect you to complete the readings, bring in homework, take part in discussion in small and large groups, arrive on time, and not miss class. If you’re shy about speaking out in class, that’s okay too, your participation in small groups and being a good listener counts too.

Medium accounts

To start a Medium account, click the Getting Started button in the upper-right hand corner of After you’ve started an account, you can start a new story by clicking your avatar or image of yourself in the upper-right hand corner, then choosing Start a New Story. This will bring you to a blank page where you can immediately start writing. Be sure to include images or video (see above and below).

Medium’s help page is quite useful for getting started on Medium. You may want to refer to it as you get started with your posts. You’ll notice ways to write and comment (publicly and privately). To start a new “story” (post),

Medium is particularly good for incorporating images and embedding video. You might look at for images that are free to use. If you are grabbing images off the Internet, you need to cite your images.

Academic integrity

The point of this class is to develop and situate your own ideas in a broader discourse — and in order to do that properly, you need to cite your work. No form of academic dishonesty will be tolerated. When you use words, images, videos, or even ideas and thoughts that are not yours and that you do not credit or properly cite, you are guilty of plagiarism. It is better to ask for more time on a deadline than to plagiarize. If you have any questions, ask.

Do not cut and paste from other sources, even into your own notes, without keeping some system that tells you exactly where your work came from. Get in the habit now of taking good notes. We will discuss plagiarism and steps to avoid it, and we will be using Turnitin, a web-based plagiarism detection program, for the papers that you hand in.

Attendance policy

Absences of any kind are strongly discouraged as your learning and work will be adversely affected by the information and activities you miss. Be punctual, arriving just before the class start time so we can begin sessions promptly, and stay for the duration of each class. If you are five minutes late or leave class early you will be marked as absent. Two absences may cause your final grade to drop a letter. Three absences may earn you a failing grade for the course. Please schedule doctor’s appointments, interviews, etc. for times other than class sessions. In the event that you encounter a health or life issue that requires you to miss class (such as a physician providing you with instructions that necessitate your quarantine) please notify me as soon as possible to provide an idea of the severity of your illness/issue and the length of time needed for recovery. Keep in mind, you are responsible for information you miss through absences or lateness. (Note: If your illness/issue requires recovery time that exceeds the absence policy for a passing grade, a leave of absence may need to be considered. If this becomes the case consultation with university resources on how best to support you may be necessary.)

Please bring academic timing conflicts to my attention as soon as possible and do not make travel plans before verifying the date of the event with me.

Take care of yourself

Remember that we — your professors and your classmates alike — want you to succeed and thrive. Stress is real. Emotions are real. Depression is real.

Please take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle this semester by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep and taking some time to relax. This will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress. All of us benefit from support during times of struggle. You are not alone. There are many helpful resources available on campus and an important part of the college experience is learning how to ask for help. Asking for support sooner rather than later is often helpful. If you or anyone you know experiences any academic stress, difficult life events, or feelings like anxiety or depression, we strongly encourage you to seek support. Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) is here to help: call 412–268–2922 and visit their website at Consider reaching out to a friend, faculty or family member you trust for help getting connected to the support that can help.

K&L Gates Associate Professor of Ethics & Computational Technologies @ CMU/School of Design. Author of Architectural Intelligence (MIT Press 2017).