Avery Shorts Live ••• Tuesday, July 14, 2020 ••• Climate Action by Software? ••• Amelyn Ng

    From BIM to CAFM to digital twins, modeling software appears as a global medium that cuts through the thick managerial strata of buildings, teams, environments, and cities – seemingly conjuring entire worlds with network ease. It is Keller Easterling’s “active form,” a catalyst of infrastructural proportions that could shift the terms and conditions of the planet.[1] Given its ubiquitous power (supported in reality by mouse-clicking workers around the world), might software be counter-speculated for climate action?

Tactics of the Database[2]

    These days, BIM is no longer used just for buildings but also for resource extraction, streamlining mining operations and equipment manufacturing.[3] If environmental extraction is so tightly organized, standardized, and deployed, might it also be subverted (or at least delayed) through those very channels? Just as the speed of Amazon’s randomized inventory system depends entirely on the organization of object barcodes, BIM’s vast object database relies on accurate, searchable file names in order to work. What tactics might the subversive BIM worker employ? Mislabeling all fossil fuel–related object file structures, for example, could disorient the high-carbon BIM library. Beyond “users,” digitally dissenting designers could dislodge environmentally or socially troubling projects from their screens.[4]

 Terms and Conditions

    Imagine if activist software developers or leaders at Autodesk® revised their Terms and Conditions in acknowledgement of the climate emergency. Carbon audits and updated environmental criteria could at least be built into each new version of Revit® and BIM 360 Ops. Automated material take-off schedules in BIM could acquire default minimum standards for construction labor costs (e.g. $15/hour), parameters for fair work (e.g. unionized), and ceiling limits for emissions (e.g. zero tolerance for toxicity). As operating systems elaborate, and as more BIM building models are fed into facility management interfaces, the “enduring ephemeral” of successive software upgrades could be rerouted from an endless frontier of speculation toward the critical path of planetary life itself.[5]
    If we want to halve emissions by 2030 and make zero carbon a reality, the status quo conducting the construction industry has to be quickly and radically interrupted. Somewhere, a lever needs to be yanked in another direction. Software may well be one of those levers. Rather than merely clicking “accept,” reimagining “immaterial” software practices can be part of the activist/user’s repertoire in this digitally enabled/encumbered age of technological blind faith.[6]


[1] See Keller Easterling, “Active Forms,” in Fast-Forward Urbanism: Rethinking Architecture’s Engagement with the City, ed. Dana Cuff and Roger Sherman (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011), 210–225. Under crisis conditions, software’s cunningly soft power may infiltrate society in moments of “shock” after large-scale disasters. In a recent reflection on coronavirus-induced disaster capitalism, Naomi Klein sees a new shock doctrine dystopia unfolding, namely in Silicon Valley’s bid to integrate proprietary technologies into all realms of public health, education, and domestic and civic life. See Naomi Klein, “Screen New Deal,” The Intercept, May 8, 2020.

[2] “Tactic,” as defined by Michel de Certeau, is an opportunistic “art of the weak,” which tweaks power conditions from below, within the rules of institutional power. See Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, (University of California Press: 1988), 36-37.

[3] Global infrastructure firm AECOM has invested in standard BIM component libraries for client use across multiple mining assets. See McGraw Hill Construction, “BIM in Mining,” in The Business Value of BIM in Australia and New Zealand: How Building Information Modeling is Transforming the Design and Construction Industry, SmartMarket Report, 2014.

[4] BIM is getting more impervious to subversion. In Autodesk® Revit® 2019, renaming files or folders from the host library, while disorienting for the placement of new objects, no longer seems to break the link for existing embedded ones. The above statement is a provocation for practiced BIM designers to test their knowledge in reverse, to find holes in the putatively airtight system.

[5] See Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 1 (Autumn 2008): 148–171. See also Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge,” Grey Room 18 (Winter 2004): 26–51.

[6] Ned Rossiter calls for the political reconsideration of a techno-overdetermined reality: “[The] question [is] how to collectively design strategies of intervention that identify increasingly obscure and often invisible systems of control… [W]hat, seriously, can one do other than submit and click accept?” In our case, the intervention is reversed; “clicking accept” would mean opting into climate action. See Ned Rossiter, “Imperial Infrastructures,” in Software, Infrastructure, Labor: A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares (New York: Routledge, 2016), 139.


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