Data — the fuel for creating knowledge, cultural value and critical thinking

“Earth Bits — Sensing The Planetary.” Dotdotdot and Maat’s exceptional work unravels the climate crisis’ complexity with the European space agency (ESA)– International Energy Agency (IEA) and EDP Innovation’s scientific support.

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The museum role in contemporary complexity

We have more than 15 years’ experience and work in close contact with cultural institutions, designing temporary and permanent exhibitions, interactive installations and narrative journeys. The museum is a “machine” for creating, processing, and delivering knowledge to benefit collective growth.

An exhibition and interaction design studio’s work makes knowledge accessible through new languages, constructing stories and giving them form in space. This is done through interactions which are often conveyed by technology and which communicate ideas and stimulate the imagination and thinking process.

The museum is not merely a knowledge repository, but an open space that welcomes, stimulates and involves visitors in forming multiple levels of critical thinking — intellectual, sensory, physical.

Society’s speedy evolution makes it vital to open up perspectives between past, present and future. The museum cannot be just a tool that performs functions and contains information, but a living space that changes grows and transforms while inviting visitors to follow.

The Lisbon Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, MAAT’s new executive director, Beatrice Leanza, is transforming the museum into an open platform that invites the public to participate actively while questioning the way we live and plan our future.

Paraphrasing one of her statements — At MAAT the creative tools with which “we imagine (through art), inhabit (through architecture) and create (through technology) the world,” have become tools for spreading an in-depth understanding of our time’s complexity and liquidity.

“This is the goal I am pursuing: to turn MAAT into a facilitator. A shared platform, a meeting place, to be accessed to show us how to deal with complexity. The museum must provide tools to navigate the complexity of the present we live. It must cooperate with the ‘managers’ of the present, and it must invest in the community… The museum must be understood and experienced. This responsibility starts from the pragmatism of what a museum possesses and must be defended and disseminated to make it a binding and generating force to graft partnerships, research, and development. This ensures that it becomes “a base to navigate the present.”

Beatrice Leanza, executive director MAAT, Lisbon (interview for Elle Decor, 2019)

Data as a new form of knowledge

Leanza’s desire to transform MAAT can be seen in the construction of a semi-permanent exhibition tackling a vital issue of our time — the climate crisis. The exhibition does not suggest solutions to the problem, but provides a focus for a more in-depth understanding based on scientific evidence, to comprehend the constant rise in temperatures, natural resource impoverishment, and the daily environmental repercussions we are witnessing.

It was necessary to put in place partnerships and an exchange process with research centres and scientific partners, to understand the complexity and transfer knowledge to the general public on a scientific basis. EDP Innovation and EDP Sustainability are EDP — Energias de Portugal divisions who handle environmental research, development, change, and sustainability, and it is the company of whose foundation finances the maat museum.

For more than a year, we have been dialoguing with the EDP Innovation scientific management to understand the climate crisis complexity based on a scientific approach. We deduced information and structured a storytelling to transfer it into the exhibition, starting from their research and data. Under the MAAT curatorial supervision and artistic direction, we designed a journey based on objective data to be explored with all the senses, to gain knowledge and critical thinking about our present and most desirable future. All this was only made possible thanks to the unprecedented involvement of prominent partners such as ESA — European Space Agency, IEA — International Energy Agency, with whom we created the contents of two installations from scratch.

“The journey unfolds in space in a narrative climax that starts from becoming aware of the seriousness of the environmental crisis (Power Rings; 24 hours — The ecology and energy of our flux), to understanding the impact of our choices on the planet, as citizens and consumers (The Co2 Mixer). It concludes with a perspective leap on a cosmological plane that offers a contemplative global vision of the impoverishment of the Earth at the humanity’s hands (Planet Calls).”

Federica Mandelli, Storytelling and Communication Manager Dotdotdot

Through four digital and interactive installations, Earth Bits — Sensing the Planetary stimulates reflection on the relationship between science, humanity, nature and technology. It makes technology an extension of the human capacity to help understand and preserve our planet rather than a tool for domination.

Science and technology are continually gathering information to monitor our relationship with the world, offering an objective and more in-depth knowledge.

One of them is the European Union’s and ESA’s Copernicus Earth observation programme, which provides scientific data to improve environmental management and mitigate climate change effects, ensuring global civil security.

The ESA Copernicus programme, whose data we used to design the Planet Calls installation, generates 12 terabytes of data per day from six satellites called Sentinels. The Sentinels scan the earth and release open data to provide accurate and timely information on our planet’s health.

It has been undeniable for a decade now that we live in an era of incredible data production, and if it is true that data is considered the new oil (C.Humby, 2006) then, it can also be regarded as a new form of knowledge.

We daily produce is more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, and this pace is only accelerating with the growth of the Internet of Things.

In the last century, science was based on empirical processes of calculations and mathematical formulas that humans could manage. Today, the use of technology is essential to handle the immense amount of generated data. It is increasingly necessary to use algorithms based on artificial intelligence to manage the mass of information and provide statistics.

We can say that Kepler was the first researcher to make a data-driven scientific discovery from data collected by the astronomer Tycho Brahe on the planets’ position. In Kepler’s time, the problem was to make sense of the data, which was still humanly manageable. Today, data is too complicated and in vast qualities. It has become obscure and distant if it is not reworked and “processed” before being made available to people.

Data is paradoxically esoteric. Without technology, science would not be able to become aware of data today, make decisions or discover things from it. We have reached a point where scientists need to be “helped” to manage the mass of data by artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, whose processes are far from being precise and controllable.

Data holds a vast amount of potential value, but no value can be created if the information is not extracted and translated into knowledge, brought closer to people and made accessible.

Designing to translate information into an experience

This is where design plays a key role, and an example is a process Dotdotdot put in place in designing the Earth Bits exhibition for MAAT using the unprecedented support of scientific partners for data analysis to provide scientific information understandable to people through an exhibition journey.

Our role as designers was to facilitate the flow and translation of scientific data as an engine to create knowledge, cultural value and critical thinking. Not by merely transferring information or providing solutions, but by creating a new grammar to communicate the coordinates needed to read the complexity of our time, raising questions about the future through multimedia languages that work on our multiple learning levels.

MAAT Visitors are invited to explore and experience knowledge with all their senses through digital installations, graphics and animated videos, created thanks to EDP’s data and scientific support. An interactive station allows visitors to mix IEA data like a DJ to understand the impact of their lifestyle and the consumer industry on the world. They are further guided by data sonification and generated soundscapes. A digital wallpaper “painted” with data from the ESA’s Copernicus programme Sentinels helps understand the historical correlation between the increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and the increasing occurrence of environmental phenomena such as floods, droughts and fires.

It is a data-guided narrative journey which shapes space and becomes knowledge in a story where multimedia and transmedia contents become emotional and teaching material, allowing extensive use and immediate understanding.

Designing narrative experiences based on scientific evidence, such as Earth Bits, uses the museum vision to stimulate critical thinking by going beyond the simple staging. Instead, it constructs a story to be explored through innovative languages to decode complexity, it creates a structural thought and knowledge that opens a dialogue between science, culture and society.

There are infinite ways in which data and scientific research could improve our awareness, and there is a dire need for cross-collaboration between science, design and institutions to make sense of the data and make it accessible to people.This fulfils the museum’s role as a living place to disseminate in-depth and acute knowledge of our time and the near future.

Laura Dellamotta, co-founder and General Manager Dotdotdot

Alessandro Masserdotti, co-founder and CTO Dotdotdot

We are a multidisciplinary interaction design studio founded in Milan in 2004, in which experimentation is at the core of innovation.