M. Hank Haeusler

By giving them intelligence, we can improve the function of buildings and keep them for longer, just as we do with a software upgrade on our phones
To cope with larger populations, future cities will need to incorporate artificial intelligence. Hank Haeusler is designing smart infrastructure that will optimise city function by learning from human behaviour.

You arrive at the bus stop, which is equipped with a smart screen embedded into the wall. It tells you the bus is running 12 minutes late. 

Instantly, the touch screen calculates alternate routes to your destination, and offers you phone numbers for taxis – just in case. When you decline those options, it gives you another: through the apps in your smartphone it knows you’re a coffee drinker. The smart screen tells you that, not only do you have time to grab a takeaway cappuccino; the café across the road is offering a 50% discount. 

It’s a futuristic scenario, but one that’s not outside the realm of possibility, as smart screens become more ubiquitous, and the so-called Internet of Things connects a plethora of new, everyday objects and structures. If realised, a technology-enabled built environment would unquestionably help us and our cities run more smoothly.

“There is no reason a responsive smart screen at a bus stop can't perform the same tasks as your smartphone,” says Dr M. Hank Haeusler, who leads the Bachelor of Computational Design at UNSW’s Australian School of Architecture + Design.

Haeusler, who is recognised as a thought leader in the fields of media architecture and responsive environments, is looking at how smarter architectural features might be best designed and incorporated into the fabric of our cities.

The way we upgrade the software in our phones ought to be a guide, Haeusler says. The hardware lasts longer and software upgrades keep it current. Any building, or other typologies in the built environment such as bus stops or street furniture, should be viewed in the same way. 

“In its traditional form a building might have had light bulbs embedded into its skin to communicate,” Haeusler explains. “Then it became more about LED technology. But in recent years installing a media façade in combination with electronics such as sensors and cameras, has been possible, hence extending a building’s capacity to capture and communicate data.”

This is not only more useful, and potentially more visually appealing, but it also means the building can transform into an autonomous system, like a robot, Haeusler says.

“The building can have some sort of intelligence and analyse how people use the space inside and outside,” he explains. “And buildings can communicate with each other to optimise how a city can work.”

Perhaps the most exciting result is that technology like this can extend the life of each building, meaning less frequent knockdowns and rebuilds.

“It’s called ‘asset sweating’, meaning you can extend the operation of your building – a train station, for example – a little longer because it has new intelligence,” Haeusler says.

"By giving them intelligence, we can improve the function of buildings and keep them for longer, just as we do with a software upgrade on our phones."