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5.2 The Pandora Project

“Pandora” is the name of the fictional world imagined by James Cameron for his film “Avatar”. In this film, Pandorás ecology forms a vast neural network into which the indigenous humanoid species can connect and cooperate to gain shared objectives. The choice to use this name for a new building at VEGA is not a coincidence, as Vianello writes[1]:

A while ago, VEGA, the Venice science and technology park, still had some spare buildable land available on its site.

So VEGA commissioned its professionals to construct an environmentally sustainable building covered with solar panels, with minimal energy consumption, and with waterrecycling capabilities. A whole floor was envisioned as a garden. They scoured the market for the most innovative materials, including nanotechnology components and aerogels. In short, it was to be an environmentally virtuous building with futuristic architecture and components; a zero-emissions building. The result would have been a smart building, if the VEGA people had allowed themselves to be satisfied with the commonplace and gone ahead with the mooted design. But satisfied they were not. They believed that a building can be conceived as a barometer of environmental sustainability, as a living organism. But this dream can be achieved only if people and objects are allowed to dialogue with one another through the internet, if knowledge can be shared and spread, if a building can communicate with other buildings and with the surrounding environment, if an edifice becomes a means of displaying data. Their vision was not to settle for the ordinary but to imagine a different future, in the form of the Pandora project, a prototype building for intelligent cities. In the process of devising the Pandora design idea and selecting a name for the project, the cultural influence of James Cameron's superb film “Avatar” proved inspirational. As anyone who has seen the film will know, planet Pandora is a unique living organism, for its various different inhabitants interact together organically. The Pandora building is a single brain fed by the data generated by people, plants and things. Hence the idea of a “building-organism”. Such a building can be conceived to accommodate a new generation of nomadic workers. Why limit yourself to constructing a building for generic office uses, albeit intelligent ones? This thought led to the idea of a structure where the rooms are unpartitioned—non-rooms—where internet connectivity is ubiquitous, where there are no desks, where shared spaces predominate, where space and time acquire a new dimension. Naturally, a culture imbued with a people-centred concept of work and with the use of social networking pervades the entire building. Thus, the sentiment-analysis data on the satisfaction of “Pandorás inhabitants” can be seen through the flutterings of the little Twitter birds. Above all, Pandora is the place of “flexible interactions” between people and between people and things.

So how did the Pandora concept come about? It arose because the VEGA management decided to depart from convention, because they wanted to dream, to go beyond the obvious, to do something completely different from the surrounding environment, even from the buildings in the science and technology park.

Porto Marghera is a place of rigid, heavy-industrial interactions, a place based on

Fordist principles of working, a place where production has a major environmental impact. Porto Marghera is, in the popular sense, the emblem of twentieth-century methods of working and production.

Pandora is the opposite: it is environmental sustainability; it is knowledge networks; it is

flexibility in spatial and human relationships.

This story is drawn from the Michele Vianello's book titled “Smart Cities” (2013, pp. 112–114, my emphasis). I quote it extensively because this excerpt describes very well Vianello's vision, when he was Director of the VEGA. This project was designed by Vianello and his team with a group of researchers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The smart infrastructure was designed starting from a new idea of work as people-centred, nomadic and socially networked. The Pandora project is, at the same time, a symbol and a developmental plan. Describing the Pandora building, Vianello talks about a new infrastructure generated by the existing one (VEGA) where social and material factors converge. In order to enable innovation, the working spaces were imagined as unstructured as much as possible (“non-rooms”) and easy-fitting for the tenants. This “building-organism” was technologically advanced and open to social relationships, reflecting the idea of innovation as a dialectical process.

Among the remarkable amount of documents uploaded by Vianello on the web, I found two presentations[2] (slideshare.net/michelevianello; accessed 19 November 2013) of the Pandora building. It is sketched as a “flexible, light and eco-friendly building, based on an interactive architecture”; it is designed as “a creative laboratory, a mobile, changeable and plural space” and “a place that adapts to the characteristics of those who work inside, such as knowledge workers who treat numbers, images, symbols”. Pandora is “a place with Internet-based sharing and sales systems” based on “new approaches to support learning, co-working and team working”. These characteristics reflect the principal requirements of a generative infrastructure able to enact learning and knowledge processes while bootstrapping itself.

VEGA achieved the authorization to build Pandora in January 2013. However, the necessity to manage a growing economic loss threatened the park's development.

  • [1] By courtesy of Maggioli Editore and the author, Michele Vianello
  • [2] “Il VEGA, l'innovazione, il riuso del territorio” and “Pandora un organismo vivente a Marghera”
 
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