The Illustrated Principles of Nuovo Abitare

The Principles of Nuovo Abitare shown through case studies and projects

Salvatore Iaconesi
13 min readAug 15, 2021

Some time ago we have published the Principles of Nuovo Abitare (here on Medium: in italian and in english), as a way to start a discussion together with other researchers, artists, designers and others (for example policy makers, citizens and everyone curious about the ways in which technologies change our lives).

Today, we go one step further, by illustrating the principles as they are now through some practical case studies: things that have actually happened somewhere, so that we can study and evaluate the results.

So let’s begin! (For your reference, remember that you can read the full version of the principles here in italian and in english)

1. Enormous quantities and qualities of data and computation are necessary for our survival

In today’s hyperconnected and globalized world, even the most simple things and processes correspond to global phenomena.

You switch on a light in your apartment and a geopolitical map is activated, with millions of subjects, organizations, supply chains etc. This is true for food, medicines, technologies and all the things we have around us.

Our senses are not enough to perceive and understand these levels of complexity, which can only be described in terms of enormous quantites and qualities of data and through the computation needed to process it.

Not having access to data and computation currently means not being able to read and understand the world we live in (as if you were blind, with no assistive technologies or with nobody around to help), not being able to benefit from our fundamental rights and freedoms, and not being able to confront (individually and as a society) with phomena of our near future such as Climate Change, or of our present such as the COVID pandemics.

The case study:

  • Obiettivo, from the Datapoiesis project, is a pulsating red light which will never stop shining until the number of people in the world that are in conditions of Extreme Poverty will fall below 500000. The light is controlled by continuously harvesting data from organizations such as the United Nations, OECD and the World Bank (for example through their reports and open data sets). Obiettivo brings this data directly to our senses through a pulsating red light that is an alarm which we can’t ignore; a totem around which we can gather to decide what to do.

2. Data is no longer what it used to be

Some time ago, in the industrial age, everything was linear — assembly lines, time, factory turns, the 8/8/8 lifecycle of work/leisure/sleep … — and data was, too. For this reason, data was important because you could count it: 10000 apples, 1000 trucks.

Now, in the age of networks, data is important mainly for its interconnections and relations: because you can find shapes in it, and recurring patterns. That’s the whole deal of AI.

The case study:

  • HUB — Human Ecosystems Bologna is a project that was developed with Bologna’s city administration in 2015. In the image you can see citizens interacting onlife around the themes of collaboration in the city — one of Bologna’s principal political strategies at the time. The different colors and clusters show how communities aggregate and express. By observing these shapes we can discover nodes, isolations, hubs, influencers, connectors and bridges. The most revolutionary part of the project was to bring this capacity for self-observation out in the community, where people could see what it looked like, a novel tool for awareness in complexity.

3. New alliances with computational agents

As human beings, we don’t have any sensibility of capacity for all these data and information we need to survive.

Possibly the most interesting opportunity in AI and data is not to automatize what human beings do, or even to simulate or replace human expression, but to be able to establish new alliances with computational agents, in their difference, to survive with dignity in the years to come.

The case study:

  • SAS — Smart Archive Search — at the Polo del ‘900 in Turin is the project in which we added artificial intelligences to the archives of Polo del ‘900. At first, reactions were nervous: will AI steal our jobs? The intent, instead, was to completely transform what an archive can be, esablishig its new possible roles in society and the relationships that come with it: the new alliances. A set of example activities were desiged through AI in which:
  • the elderly could become natural experts about ‘900 using natural interactions and in intergenerational ways;
  • the archive can become a participatory game or workshop;
  • the archive can be used to read the present through the past by searching for recurring schemes in the memories and stories in the archive;
  • the archive could be accessed in completely new ways, by color, shapes, image similarity etc;
  • trough AI, other people could simply develop other applications and interactions on the archive, for school, research, entertainment, art and more.

4. Data as common ground, computation as translation, forming new relationships

Something peculiar is happening in our relational ecosystems: unexpected actors are starting to express themselves and to have agency.

Anything from buildings, forests, plants, neighbourhoods, objects, water and air can generate data and — through computation — have agency — meaning: making things happen. In this type of condition, we can form new types of relations and interconnections.

The case study:

  • In 2020, during the COVID pandemics, we created Data Meditations. While data was being used to separate us all through millitarized communication strategies, we invented a new ritual of meditation through data. For a week, an international group of artists, designers and researchers generated data about themselves, as an autobiographical expression, and shared it with their “Other”: an anonymous member of the group. Everyday we would come together for the ritual: to meditate while listening to our and our Other’s data transformed into sound and visualizations. At the end of the week, a new type of empathy formed in the group, and among ourselves and with our Other. While all over the world militarized use of data was separating us, this data united us and extended our imagination: we can easily imagine that the next data meditation could be performed plants, forests, oceans, or our neighbourhood, instead of only with humans, through the data they generate and the agency expressed through computation.

In Data Meditations data becomes a common ground in which to express and establish new unexpected relationships with the new actors in our relational ecosystems.

5. From extractive models to generative ones

Currently, data is among the largest extractive phenomena on earth — the “new oil” –, and shares with the other ones all the unsustainable consequences for the phisical, social, psycological and relational enviroment.

It is possible to imagine and explore different models, based on generativity, expression and collaboration.

The case study:

  • UDATInos was born in Palermo in 2020–21. It’s a digital plant where the data collected to study the health of river Oreto is transformed into sounds, colors and lights. To collect these data, we could have simply positioned sensors along the river, to have data extracted from the environment. Instead, we did someting different: we imagined a new social role together with the students, researchers, citizens, activists and with Ecomuseo Mare Memoria Viva, the Custodians of the Water. They have sensors and they have started a new ritual with the river: just like you once went to the river to wash the laundry or to get water, the Custodi go there to get data. The digital plant, as all living things, is fragile: if nobody feeds it with data the lights and sound fade away, until they stop: the plant will die.

UDATInos is mortal technology: just as us it needs relationships to survive.

To design techology that is fragile and vulnerable may be the beginning of a possible relationship between us and the environment which is not based on extraction and separation, but on generativity and expression.

6. Data and Computation Cyberdiversity

Just like in physical ecosystems, the concept of diversity is of fundamental and substantial importance for data and computation.

For example, a single definition of what AI is (some form of deep neural network, no matter how deep) corresponds to saying that all our AI systems depend on a single computational DNA and, thus, share all the fallacies, shortcomings and limitations of this single model of intelligence.

The presence of a single model of intelligence exposes all the human and nonhuman systems which it interacts with to the same fragilities and to a scarce capacity for resilience: if something fails, everything fails, just like for agricolture. This concept is valid for data as well: how can we take in consideration different DNAs, or cultural DNAs, for what we call AIs, or algorithms, or data? There are ways.

The case study:

  • In the Antitesi project, we created an AI that evolves slowly, like a plant, in which there is never a moment in which the AI is massively trained. This AI, just like plants, is distributed and has a “modular body”. This brings substantial differences. For example, the possibility of this slow, progressive growth, and the AI’s modularity completely transform the possible relationships and alliances that each member of a community that interacts with this AI. Also, the computational, power and energy requirements are completely different, as each node requires less power, and can be fitted onto a small device powered by a tiny solar power, instead of being in the cloud, melting glaciers. And the differences continue. This is what we call Queer AI and Community AI: an approach based on a diverse ecosystem in data, computational agents and their relations.

7. Fragile and sensible technologies, that can suffer and have experience of limits.

“The greater the exposure of subjects to systems and technologies that cannot suffer, the greater the probability that it will be the users of these technologies and systems that will suffer.” (Aldo Masullo, here and here How is it possible to establish new forms of alliances with computational agents, and even relationships and generative relations instead of extractive ones?
Different technolologies are needed: sensible and able to have experience of limits; able of experiencing “suffering” and, eventually, of “dying”. Only in this way they will be able to develop new forms of empathy with biosphere that, by definition, is that which dies (because it lives).
We’re not talking about a “militarized” relationship (as, for example, Tesla’s annoucement has been, when they declared that their robots can be overcome by a human). Instead, this principle deals with a necessary capacity for sensibility and limitedness.

The case study:

  • In the Udatinos project, if participants do not feed the digital plant with data, it will eventually die (meaning that the lights and sounds will progressively fade away and it will not be possible to turn them on again).
  • This apparent limit, is a great opportunity. As you will be able to imagine, nobody wants to cause the artwork’s death: not the museum, not the community, not the visitors. This gives everyone involved a sense of spontaneous responsability and of empaty towards the digital plant, as they know and understand suffering and death.
  • This is also a concept which helps us escape the “abundance” which is typical of the digital discourse. If something is rare and limited it is of higher value. Life, time and the ecosystem are such things. Having experience of limits helps us to better understand value.
  • On top of this, “digital” is not “abundant” at all. Meaning that it is not at all disconnected from the limited lives of our ecosystems and environment. Digital corresponds to energy, materials such as lithium, rare earths and multiple metals, waste, global warming, etc within limited ecosystems.

8. New conception of Identity

The concept of Digital Identity brings forward multiple opportunities. Sadly, we are not using any of them consistently as a society, because what governments and companies are calling in this way is a mere bureaucratic/administrative version of some form of digital identification (which is profundly different from identity), like some form of ID card, passport or certificate.

Instead Digital Identity can be at least anonymous, individual, collective, temporary, transitive, or even a remix of all these.

On top of that, not all Digital Identities are human.

With the appropriate techology, thus, we can all imagine establishing meaningful relations with people, companies, buildings, communities, forests, oceans, objects, and who knows what else. This thing alone can potentially and radically transform the profile and essence of our relationships with society and the environment.

The case study:

  • When we introduced IAQOS in the Torpignattara neighbourhood in Rome we didn’t introduce it as a new service of some sort. Instead, we introduced it as a new neighbour, experimenting with new forms of kiniship, relationships and remixes between human and non-human. A new neighbour across the street is an AI. What roles can it have in our family, in our condo, in our school class, in our street? What stories can it listen to and tell? What forms of collaboration and communication can it bring that wouldn’t otherwise exist? What happens when a new computational neighbour arrives?

9. End of Human Centered Design, beginning of Ecosystemic Design

Human beings are not at the center of anything.

When humans believed such a thing, one of two things systematically happened: either they found out they were wrong, or horrible things started happening, including genocides and climate change.

Instead, human beings are part of planetary networks with other humans and with plants, animals, organizations, AIs, viruses, elements, and all the other actors of the ecosystem. This is that what we should design for: Ecosystems.

The case study:

  • Antitesi, again, a love story between plant an AI: when AI detects climate change by observing its beloved plant, it gets really angry and starts investing in the stock markets.

10. The role of Art: senseability

Art is not a decoration. It’s a way of knowing. It makes people, scientists, designers, artists, doctors, patients and everyone else become sense-able.

Art is a strategy: it can be used to reposition knowledge in society and to materialize unexpeccted, possible worlds.

The case study:

  • BodyQuake is a work on epilepsy which draws from an autobiographical experience: my brain cancer from 2012. In 2017, we went back to Neuromed, the research center where I had surgery, which is also a european center of excellence and a big data hub for the study of epilepsy.

Speaking with the researchers there we discovered how each seizure corresponds to about 7 meters of EEG traces. This means that, to study 1 million cases, you have to deal with 7 million meters of linear trace. Together with artists and designers, we started using the ways in which it is possible to transform data into artistic representations: AI, colors, 3D visualizazions, sounds. Visualizations were more effective: they used immersion and sonification to overcome the limits of linearity, and AI to highlight recurring patterns or differences. Researchers started using these representations to observe the millions of datasets on epilepsy, for example through sounds: a note which is out of tune or a change in rhythm can allow you to instantaneously pinpoint a phenomenon, either by hearing the dissonance or because it repeats.

The same visualizations and sonifications — in a more aesteticized way — were also used in a performance in which Francesca Fini, the performer on stage, wears the data of an epileptic seizure through body videomapping techniques, which become the visuals and sounds of the scenography. Members of the public can also wear and feel the data in synch with the performance, through a wearable device: a glove in which data become tactile waves.

In this new context, epilepsy is not a condition of separation anymore, but, rather, a shared phenomenon which we can all feel, share and discuss.

11. Data and computation are the greatest cultural heritage produced by humanity

Data records our cultures, traditions, beliefs, behaviours, artistic expressions, emotions and more, in ways which are accessible across multiple cultures, times and locations.

Computation transforms data into cultural artefacts: visuals, sounds, publications, objects, services, art and more.

They are the greatest cultural heritage produced by humanity.

The case study:

  • Human Architecture , created for Venice Architecture Biennale, brings data in digital and physical public space about the relationship, in Venice itself, between the temporary and permanent citizens of the city. Possibly the most scandalous topic in the city (the relation between extractive tourism, the global events, and the rest of the city), throughh data and computation, becomes an artwork, used as a common good to experience the poliphony of this beautiful and fragile city, bringing citizens and toursts together: through workshops, aesthetic experiences, generative poetry, immersive visualizations, open datasets for research, educational experiences and through new ways to co-design possible futures for the city.

NOTE: this article was originally under the form of a keynote talk for the recent Cumulus international gathering in Rome: Design Cultures.