Layering the Built Environment – A Cybernetic Perspective

In March 2023, we visited The School of Cybernetics at the Australian National University in Canberra. Across a day of sharing research, work and ideas, we recognised how aligned cybernetic approaches are to the ideas behind Integrative Briefing. Layering, pace and change, concepts that originated through Frank Duffy’s (DEGW) work and built on by Stewart Brand are useful lenses to explore the built environment as part of a cybernetic system encompassing humans, technology and environment relations. This was observed through the System of a Sound installation which was on display at the school, and a version is also accessible online. In this guest blog, Josh Andres, discusses cybernetics and the System of a Sound installation.

The built environment, with its architectural structures, infrastructures, and embedded technologies, can be framed as a cybernetic system comprising the interdependency between humans, technologies, and the surrounding natural environment in complex ways.

Cybernetics emerged in the 1950’s to study human, technology, and environment relations through experiments that reveal how information is processed, how feedback occurs between multiple parts that come together as a system, and how a system’s behaviour could be regulated. Today, cybernetic thinking provides exciting and challenging opportunities to think about how we conceptualize our relation to the built environment; how we imagine future built environments that are sustainable, inclusive and responsible; and how we might design built environments as a harmoniser between human activity and the natural environment [1].

To begin our exploration of mediating the built environment, through technology, as a cybernetic system and reflect on our relation to it, we started from the idea that built environments shape human practices and frame our notion of time. A workplace with its daily hours, weekly sprints and quarterly rhythms frames humans as resources, skills and social relations. Libraries and museums operate under more open-time rhythms that frame opportunities for wonder, leisure, and discovery. We wanted to frame the built environment beyond a containing space, to one where people could gain a more-than-human perspective to experience the built environment as an evolving system.

We selected the Birch building at the Australian National University [2], home to the School of Cybernetics, as the built environment to explore. We are inspired by the architectural wisdom of the Pace Layers concept by Stewart Brand [3], who gained inspiration from the Shearing Layers of Frank Duffy [4], to frame buildings as complex systems that comprise Layers that change at different rates. The Layers descending from the highest and fastest to the lowest and slowest are Fashion (referring to fast moving trends), Commerce, Infrastructure, Governance, Culture, and Nature. Each layer depends on the stability and reliability of the layers below it. The model suggests that a system can be resilient and adaptive when it balances the need for change with continuity in each layer.

Shearing Layers of Change (Brand, 1994)

We started by carefully selecting a data stream for each pace layer and processed its data in real-time using a large language model powered by artificial intelligence. Then, we asked the Birch building occupants to label a collection of expertly crafted and produced sound compositions based on the emotions and visions they evoked. This resulted in a dataset that captured human emotions expressed through music. To create an evolving audio-visual stream, we used a generative artificial intelligence music engine that combined the interpretations of the pace layer data with the human emotion dataset. Inside the installation, a human can interact via gesture to actively participate in the audio-visual composition, which represents the systemic pulse of the Birch building.

The installation is called, “System of a Sound”, an online version can be accessed on Preliminary results suggest the installation can support people in developing a greater systemic sensibility by experiencing the systemic pulse of the built environment, inviting people to move with it, and, in a way, align human activity, the built and natural environments into a dance. 

This installation was commissioned by The Australian National University School of Cybernetics to Music Technology Company Uncanny Valley. The artwork was co-created by Uncanny Valley, The Interaction Media Lab UNSW and the Australian National University School of Cybernetics.

The team: Josh Andres, Rodolfo Ocampo, Oliver Bown, Charlton Hill, Caroline Pegram, Adrian Schmidt, Justin Shave, and Brendan Wright.

Read more about this work:
Using GPT-3 to Achieve Semantically Relevant Data Sonificiation for an Art Installation

The Human-Built Environment-Natural Environment Relation – An Immersive Multisensory Exploration with ‘System of a Sound’


  1. Adaptive human bodies and adaptive built environments for enriching futures
  2. Celebrating the refurbished Birch Building and School of Cybernetics
  3. Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning
  4. How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – “Shearing Layers”

Dr. Josh Andres is a human-computer interaction (HCI), interaction design, and user experience researcher and educator. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in the School of Cybernetics at the Australian National University (ANU), investigating the design, experiential dimensions, and futures of emerging technologies, especially interactions with and enabled by intelligent computation such as AI, ubiquitous environments, human-machine co-pilot experiences outdoors, and experiences to support wellbeing.  

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