Lynne Deninger
Lynne Deninger
Andrea Baker
Andrea Baker
May 12, 2020

How AI and Robotics Will Evolve Architecture and Design with Dr. Mahesh Daas

Lynne Deninger
Lynne Deninger
Andrea Baker
Andrea Baker

With an academic career spanning 23 years at four universities, Dr. Mahesh Daas, DPACSA, ACSA Distinguished Professor, is President of the Boston Architectural College (BAC), a published author and editor, and notable leader in the design community.

Dr. Daas recently spent time with us discussing his role at the BAC along with predictions for the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on architecture and design.

Your career has taken you in some unconventional directions. As the BAC celebrates its 130th anniversary, you’re describing fundamental shifts in the way we design. Can you say more about your vision for the future of architecture?

My life and educational experiences as a first-generation student and first-generation immigrant resonate with the experiences of many of the BAC’s students. Being an immigrant is at once humbling and liberating―and fundamentally entrepreneurial. It is like running a start-up: you start with a vision and a few resources. In my case, I arrived with a suitcase and a few hundred bucks in my pocket. It is definitely an entrepreneurial journey.

Having worked in practices and different institutions in Illinois, Kansas, Indiana and Texas as well as having gone through a mid-career doctoral program at University of Pennsylvania while holding a full-time job in Indiana, I benefited from a sense of liberation by experiencing multiple organizational and disciplinary perspectives. Architecture and design can be inclusive of many things. In addition to being important professions, they are about different ways of seeing the world, engaging the world, making the world, and facilitating life as it unfolds in extraordinary ways.

A broader approach to design connects with the BAC in an interesting way because it is also entrepreneurial. We recognize design not just as professionals, vertically, but as a way of thinking, horizontally connecting all aspects of life and work. Design is becoming the new liberal arts. At the BAC we can facilitate that shift, by recognizing design literacy is as important to the society as preparing design professionals.

And now there are fundamental shifts in the way we design. Design is about understanding human needs at the individual, institutional and societal levels. Understanding technology enabling us to live in a particular way is essential to the future of humankind. Design is synthetic in the way it connects and brings together diverse bodies of knowledge such as humanities, arts and sciences.

In addition to creating great products and buildings, design creates value by driving innovation. Some of the greatest companies in the world today, such as Apple, Tesla, Amazon, and Airbnb place design at the center of their value proposition.

Can you describe how you see robotics and artificial intelligence influencing the built environment?

Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are rolling into all walks of life and all corners of the world. They represent the next technology to transform the fields of architecture and design.

The past decade’s surge towards more computationally defined building systems and highly adaptable open-source design software has left the field ripe for the integration of robotics―whether through large-scale building fabrication or through more intelligent and adaptive building systems. Through this surge, architecture has not only been greatly influenced by these emerging technologies, but has begun influencing other disciplines in unexpected ways. I envision the BAC will play a role in educating the future generations in these technologies―making them accessible and credible.

Part of the fear is a world where people are excluded; where biases would be built in unchecked, and there could be problems of social justice. That is a perspective not often addressed adequately in discussions about robotics and AI. We can shape these technologies by being at the table, being entrepreneurial and sketching visions of the future for a critical, livable society with liberties.

In your most recent book, you explore the broad question “How we will ensure that we build a better world?” What is the architect or designer’s role in creating solutions?

We need unprecedented solutions for unprecedented problems; this cannot occur if we are only relying on past paradigms. Solutions to novel problems always lie in the future. In that sense, “thinking wrong” is more important than “thinking right” if we are to find solutions to new dimensions of problems at the intersection of the unknown and the uncertain futures.

We build a better world when we educate people to be creative thinkers ready to reframe the problems and find solutions using new paradigms of thinking and making. The COVID-19 crisis is demonstrating this point quite clearly, emphasizing the value to design and design thinking as important strategies for a resilient, inclusive, and sustainable future.

When you think about the City of Boston – what are the greatest design opportunities for Boston in the decade ahead?

First, we need to rediscover the idea of Boston. By that I mean, when we talk about Boston…at one time, it was a cradle of liberty and a place for democracy to flourish and herald a new world. We had that strong idea; now we need to redefine the idea to provide a conceptual framework to permit the city to unfold.

Photo Credit: Cody O’Loughlin/BAC)

Boston is a very complex geography and society. It is very diverse and clearly built on borrowed ground. With climate change, we must look at how Boston can become more resilient. We are looking at aspects such as transportation, housing, equity, and inclusion in everything we do. It is the education capital of the world and the question is, how can we almost make it an inclusive, livable city through design and innovation? That’s why I go back to the idea of Boston. Liberty by design. Design and designers can and should participate in political decision making of the city. And I encourage the city to reach out and incorporate design experience in decision-making at every level.

What piece of advice do you offer someone just beginning their career in the design profession?

For those beginning, the first thing is: it’s not just the vertical (a profession) in which one can pave the path for one’s career―look across and create horizontals. Embrace entrepreneurial opportunities. Design education is such a valuable and empowering skillset and a body of knowledge. Its application and utility in society is not to be limited to any one particular sphere or arena. Chart an adventurous path of discovery or leadership, do not assume one linear pathway in one’s career and life. Go start up something. Do not be hesitant―be open and seek out adventure.

At the BAC we are not just preaching, we are practicing. The BAC is planning to have a formal way to support our students’ entrepreneurial aspirations. We are planning to create an incubator for students, faculty, and community to come together. We are in the middle of our strategy process. It is “BAC to the future.”

Our educational model is concurrent education; also practice- or work-integrated education. It is absolutely unique. Our students are simultaneously learning in a work setting and in an academic setting. This is where we include students who are normally excluded from education institutions. Our College was the first to start online 2006 accredited architecture degree program. And, during this current COVID crisis, BAC was able to quickly pivot onsite learning to a high-touch, high-impact online experience to all students―regardless of location. Through online learning, we are continually promoting our mission to diversify the design professions around the globe.

Our graduates are gritty, which is one of the most important predictors of success. Most of the students who come to us have one or two careers behind them, they have work experience. They come with a sense of discovery, entrepreneurship and passion. They are steeped in work and they are valued, and their value is reflected in their starting salaries. The GradReport rankings have just come out, the BAC graduates earn the highest among architecture graduates. The BAC is ranked number one, the Best Graduate School in the country, for earning potential, followed by Yale, UC Berkeley, Columbia, MIT and Harvard GSD. [Editor’s note: see GradReports list here.]

If I need a dose of inspiration, all I need to do is walk down the hallway. I will share one story: one graduate already had a career in administration at MIT, and in her 50s she decided that she wanted to become an interior designer. BAC was the only place where she could enroll and graduate with a professional degree. After graduating from the BAC, she started her own business, now employing many people and is doing wonderful work. And she is an immigrant. There are many such inspiring stories all around our College!