The Driverless Future Challenge

said by: Caroline Bozzi

In the spring of 2017, Professor Udo Greinacher taught a graduate research methods class and motivated the class to practice systems thinking through the prompt provided by The Driverless Future Challenge. After the class concluded, Udo and one of the graduate students in the class, Lauren Whitehurst, submitted a three-minute video, Urban Currants, to The Driverless Future Competition sponsored by Blank Space, a platform known for hosting architecture competitions themed around storytelling. What started as a prompt in a graduate research methods class grew into one of twelve big ideas for The Driverless Future Challenge awarded by Blank Space. As stated on their website, "The Driverless Future Challenge sought proposals that would actively shape the city’s response to driverless cars. Entries from more than 25 countries proposed everything from driverless food carts and a fully-autonomous MTA transit system, to enhanced use of NYC’s 311 system as a driverless dispatching center, and Link NYC Wifi stations that become stops for autonomous micro-busses." 

Udo admits, “I thought if I turned you guys lose on it, then you guys would actually do it. Turned out that if you want to kill something, make it a class assignment. I guess I was pretty effective in killing the excitement around that topic by asking the class to wrap their head around it.” So although Udo states that one of the reasons he did the competition was because “none of you [the students] did anything that would prevent me from doing it,” I am inclined to believe that maybe there is more to it. 

In the DAAP Café, Udo and Lauren led Jamie Ferello and I through their process of deciding to do the competition, how they approached the competition and their thoughts on film and the future. Udo and Lauren were thoughtful and jovial, weighing their words but laughing any time they saw the possibility of pretension. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.

Caroline: Can you give a little bit of background to the Blank Space Driverless Car Competition and how this collaboration started? 

Udo: I was simply looking for what I thought would be a really interesting project, a competition to do as a research project just to get the students' feedback and use that as a vehicle to figure out how can we actually do research in a more visual arena because everything that has been written about research and research methods is primarily focused on the traditional academic research. And yes, it applies, but only to a certain degree. It leaves a lot of things unsaid and a lot of stones unturned. So I thought: hey this is great. This has interested me forever. When I saw that Blank Space was doing that competition, and even has the 3 minute film submission component, which is the other one of my loves. My loves are film and future. It was a godsend. 

The other reason was that after two years in administration, I was really hungry to do a competition. I noticed that my design skills have gotten kind of old and stale. I never thought that you could lose it, but you can, especially when working with the computer. It was great for me. It was very timely and I had an awful lot of fun with it. Then the great advantage was that Lauren was still game. 

Lauren: I was certainly interested in it but there was no way to work on that competition while working on a studio and while researching for an independent thesis to start the following fall. I think I was excited by the opportunity to work on something about, not only the idea of the driverless future, because I think it’s coming and it’s here in some places, but the idea of working on a problem that is about the future in general.

C: I found your entry so intriguing because I was continuously fascinated that there was a new problem, and then a new problem and then a new problem. The dystopia that you set up, felt very close to our reality. Udo, I know that it is your M.O. but I wanted to ask, is this your natural mode of storytelling or are you consciously telling this story? 

U: It's acquired. I don't think I am a natural storyteller, but I try. I practice it and I practice it especially when it comes to film. The reason why I started getting into film was the students' fault. Meaning, it was the horrible F16 animations that were done once we could do digital animations of buildings. And they were just so incredibly bad. Everyone knew they were bad but nobody had any idea what to do. How do we make them better? That’s when I started talking film classes at Raymond Walters and videography classes to learn how to do that with a real camera, and then all I had to do was translate it to the CGI environment. With that came course the major requirement of storytelling, having the story arc, having the hero, having the mishap, having the accident, having playing with the emotions to keep it somewhat interesting. Actually I think what we did was, what you described as "oh yeah, there was another one, and another one, another one,” but actually I find this is so much more realistic because quite often we think we have it fixed. We think there is an easy answer. I think we fool ourselves, especially in architecture. Whatever we are designing there are no easy answers. Second of all, I think it gets really stale, so you have it fixed. Ok. Problem solved. Check. Move on. That’s not a good story, I think.

The storytelling was really important to me because I thought the future has to be interesting and the future for me is sci-fi of some sort, heroines and heroes, and culprits and villains and whatever. Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And these single-minded answers that we propose these days to the urban environment, not only are they shallow and unsatisfactory, but I think they are wrong. We don't fix Cincinnati with a 200 million dollar little choo-choo train. 

I was pushing more of the narrative and Lauren was pushing much more the design. That’s why it worked so well. While we collaborated, we each had our little systems.

L: I think another thing is how to present something though a video or through film and in this case we elected to animate instead of filming. In a way it speaks to how people today are taking in information, even if you look at social media. Everybody wants this quick little blurb and then they are done. I think recognizing that and thinking about how we present architecture or design in this context is fascinating. If you can communicate, in a simple way, what architecture is through videography, perhaps the people you are designing for will have a better understanding of what architecture even is. That was another component of looking at a competition where the submission was film or video-based.

Jamie: In that light, it was interesting watching your film versus the other ones because the other ones were incredibly boring. (everyone laughs) It is a question of the “one size fits all kind of solution.” They didn't have a story and they were simple graphics and illustrations. The medium in your video was very different and didn't directly respond to the prompt. Did you read the prompt and then discard it and decide to make your own thing?  

L: We both read the prompt separately. When we came together to talk about it, at the first meeting we had to discuss what we might do, I learned that Udo's interpretation of what the prompt was very different than what mine was. I read into it as you have to design this product that is sellable, that is marketable and then the prize is that we are going to give you the resources and the tools to enact that idea. I read that. And Udo did not read that at all. And at one point I thought maybe it is better to put that portion of it aside and address the actual question. I am speaking for Udo now, but he was much more fascinated by the idea of the question. And I think it was better to approach it through Udo’s lens than the one I was trying to very clearly follow. 

C: I think there is a direct correlation between this marketable product and those cookie cutter illustrator graphics. That is what they went after. It related to something one of our visitors last year stated, "you want to be disqualified from the competition or winning the competition." Maybe that’s part of it - don't read the twenty-page prompt. 

U: But they might be wrong. 

L: Well in this case they were asking for a very specific solution to a question that perhaps didn't need that specific directed solution.

U: My questioning comes from having been teaching too long. I think pretty much every assignment that we give students in the studio is already way too formulaic and way too figured out. For me it is really a question. It might lead to one direction but why would I give that to tiny people if I wouldn't assume that there are twenty ways of looking at it. Then I would just say, "why don't you all work together and do the best you can. There is one right answer and whoever doesn't get the right answer will flunk." That’s not what we are doing. In everything we do, we assume there is a huge bank of possible solutions. And some we like better than other. Some might work better than other. Some might be less expensive than others. Or more beautiful or whatever. It is a broad field. It is not...there is one product that you can take away. And usually when you have that one product, I think it is usually a product you are already familiar with. So it has been done already. That was the other disappointment. Their production values were better in some cases. They had wonderfully composed animations and whatnot, but nobody had a story. They all had one idea and they were kind of “been there done that.” They were too timid, especially when we are talking about driverless future. The question was not “figure out how to reduce 5% of automotive traffic in NY.” That was not the question. So if you have this giant question and then you get these timid kind of things, it doesn't get me very excited. I was very disappointed because I didn't learn anything from it. By looking at the others I didn't get a sense that I should have done this or that or that’s how I can improve myself in my own work. I think that’s what I expect from the winners, that they give me something in return for losing. 

C: Did you have a favorite entry? 

L: Next question. 

U: There might be one or two that I haven't looked at yet because I can't stand them anymore, but not really, no. It was interesting that some did aspects of what we did. I thought ours was so much more involved but...

C: What about the choice to use the recorded voice over your own?

U: Well we have two voice talents, none of which wanted to be it. That’s number one. 

L: And we talked about how it played into the future idea. Technology. Talking for you...or to you...or for you...or at you... There are services where you can pay people to read for you, but I think we just thought why would we spend the money on that when we can have Siri do it. It gave something to the story that a human voice would not. 

Udo: You have to add some characters to slow it down. She slurs some things. She talks over sentences or whatever. It took me a long time to find out what characters in the text I had to introduce so that Siri would take a break. I did then actually add more breaks in the editing software because she was so fast. When you do one of those you watch it over and over because you make sure that the frames are right. I watched it about a hundred times, maybe more. And if you have to listen to your own voice, it drives you absolutely nuts. It was not going to be me.

C: Can you speak to animation specifically, as opposed to video? There are moments where you guys obviously has to make decisions about the speed. How many images am I going to flash in front of the audience? Do I have enough time? You were making hierarchical decisions which is directly related to the way that we design. 

L: And then how much content needs to be in each of those images that are going to be scene for literally a split second. How much do you need to tweak or change? How fast does that need to happen to capture an audience but then also communicate an idea. 

U: It's funny to listen to you talk about how it moves really fast. I think what it does is slow it down because when you do an animation, you have your start point and maybe a few points along your path and then the end point and that’s it. And you need five seconds of whatever. You don't really pay any attention to what happens between your chosen points. They are just what they are unless you run into a column and the column separates or whatnot. But the way we did it, pretty much every frame had to be generated. It was slowing us down in a way, and we paid more attention to the in-between. I had never done that before. So that was a novel way of doing things for me too. It was very interesting. Way more interesting than the typical start and end. 

C: What’s next? 

U: I haven't found one [a competition] yet that I like. I am going to continue to work on the future. I am going to do a studio in the spring: the end of work and what it means for the city. It's like driverless, only its even bigger. It is the city. It is everything. We don't work anymore… so what? what happens? I am curious how that is going to fare. 

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