Engineers Could Learn a lot from Dance When Designing Urban Transport

Foreword from Listen To The World

Dance and engineering – at first glance they don’t look like they have anything in common. But if one digs under the layers, there are plenty of similarities, more than what we have come to believe.

Dance enables human the freedom to express, yet mastering dance techniques meant mastering the way of moving around space (and with each other) with certain patterns within constraints – not only of the human body itself, but also the inherent traditions of each dance genre.

Engineering is the cornerstone of human evolution: applying science, empirical evidence, social and practical knowledge to improve, invent, re-invent, and innovate how humans live and interact, not only with each other but also with nature. Advancement of technology is aimed at making our lives “easier”, well, at least that was the initial goal.

Designing for human should be based on, well, human; what motivates us, what affects us, how we think, and how we feel. How we move through, in, and around space, and around each other. Since the ancient times, humans have had to navigate their way around space, structures, and each other – and in doing so have developed patterns within nature’s and man-made constraints.

Sound familiar?

The article below specifically discusses how the engineering of urban transport might benefit by applying the thinking and designing process used by choreographers in dance – but if we look at the bigger picture, most  modern disciplines (and everything else actually) are interconnected. If we take a look back, way back in history, we will see that what we have come to know as modern science and technology, started simply as an attempt to understand nature, and in the process, figuring out ways to live and coexist with it. It should be fitting then, that the application and study of these ‘modern’ disciplines, should always bear in mind human behavior, and how it has resulted and evolved from how humans respond to internal and external stimuli – including nature.

Perhaps it is time that we rethink how we learn, and how we view learning. Learning is a never-ending process in human life since we know so little in relation with what nature has to offer. In Sacred Bridge Foundation’s view, the keyword is not learning but rather the ability in learning how to learn. Innovations and inventions to come up with better ways to live can only result from our continuous attempt to understand how we interact with each other, and with nature. If we are not capable of learning how to learn, there’s no way we can do that.


Engineers Could Learn a lot from Dance When Designing Urban Transport

John Bingham-Hall, UCL

There is little more important for the sustainability of cities than the ways we move around them. With transportation estimated to account for 30% of energy consumption across the majority of the world’s most developed nations, reducing the necessity for energy-reliant vehicles is fundamental to addressing the environmental impact of mobility.

But as cities become the predominant habitat for most people in the world, it is important to think about other kinds of sustainability too. The ways we travel impact our physical and mental health, our social lives, our access to work and culture, and the air we breathe. Engineers are tasked with changing how we travel round cities through urban design, but the engineering industry still rests on the assumptions that led to the creation of the energy-consuming transport systems we have now: the emphasis placed solely on efficiency, speed, and quantitative data. We need new approaches in order to help engineers create the radical changes needed to make it healthier, more enjoyable, and less environmentally damaging to move around cities.

And my colleagues and I think that dance might hold some of the answers. That is not to suggest everyone should dance their way to work, however healthy and happy it might make us. But rather that the techniques used by choreographers to experiment with and design movement in dance could offer engineers with tools to stimulate new ideas in city-making. To test this out, a project led by Ellie Cosgrave at UCL is bringing planners and engineers designing systems for urban mobility together with choreographers to see how their practices could enrich one another.

Ellie Cosgrave with Scatter, The Place’s adult dance company. Hayley Madden, Author provided

From reality to blueprint

Sociological theory about the nature of work can help us to understand why choreography might help. Richard Sennett, an influential urbanist and sociologist who transformed ideas about the way cities are made, argues that urban design (including, we would argue, engineering and planning as much as it does architecture) has suffered from a severance between mind and body since the advent of the architectural blueprint.

Whereas the medieval builder improvised and adapted construction through their intimate knowledge of materials and embodied experience of the conditions in a site, building designs are now conceived and stored in media technologies that detach the designer from the physical and social realities they are creating. The “disembodied design practices” created by these technologies are essential for managing the technical complexity of the modern city. But they simplify reality in the process.

To illustrate, Sennett discusses the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, a development emblematic of the modernist approach to urban planning prevalent in the 1970s. Peachtree created a grid of streets and towers intended as a new pedestrian-friendly downtown for Atlanta. This, according to Sennett, failed because its designers had invested too much faith in computer aided design to tell them how it would operate.

Peachtree Center, Georgia. Connor.carey, CC BY-SA

They didn’t understand that purpose-built street cafes could not operate in the hot sun without the awnings common in older buildings, and would need energy-consuming air conditioning instead, or that its giant car park would feel so desolate as to put people off from getting out of their cars. What seems entirely predictable and controllable on screen has unexpected results when translated into reality.

The same is true in transport engineering, which uses models to predict and shape the way people move through the city. Again, these models are necessary, but they are built on specific worldviews in which certain assumed forms of efficiency and safety are privileged over other experiences of the city. Designs that seem logical in models appear counter-intuitive in the embodied experience of their users.

The guard rails that will be familiar to anyone having attempted to cross a British road, for example, were an engineering solution to pedestrian safety based on models that prioritise the smooth flow of traffic, guiding pedestrians to specific crossing points and slowing them down through staggered access points. In doing so they make crossings feel longer, introducing psychological barriers greatly impacting those that are the least mobile, and encouraging some others to make dangerous crossings to get around them. These barriers don’t just make it harder to cross the road, they sever communities and decrease opportunities for healthy transport. As a result, many are now being removed, causing disruption, cost, and waste.

If their designers had the tools to think with their bodies, and imagine how these barriers would feel, could there have been a better solution in the first place? We think so. In order to bring about fundamental changes to the ways we use our cities, engineering will need to develop a richer understanding of what motivates people to move in certain ways, and how it affects them.

Dancing through cities

Choreography may not seem an obvious choice for tackling this problem. Yet it shares the aim of designing patterns of movement within spatial constraints.

Dance notation. Wikimedia Commons

Choreography is an embodied art form developed almost entirely through instant feedback between improvisation of ideas with the body, and tactile feedback from those ideas. It uses models and forms of notation to plan movements that dancers will make, with qualitative as well as quantitative information. Choreographers have an extremely rich understanding of the psychological, aesthetic, and physical implications of different ways of moving.

Observing the choreographer Wayne McGregor, cognitive scientist David Kirsh described how he “thinks with the body”. Kirsh argues that by using the body to simulate outcomes, McGregor is able to imagine solutions that would not be possible using purely abstract thought. This kind of embodied knowledge is given great value in many realms of expertise, but currently has no place in formal engineering design processes.

The value of all this for engineering is currently hypothetical. But what if transport engineers were to improvise design solutions and get instant feedback about how they would work from their own embodied experience? What if they could model designs at full scale in the way choreographers experiment with groups of dancers? What if they designed for emotional as well as functional effects?

The ConversationBy comparing the techniques and worldviews of choreography and engineering, we aim to find out.

John Bingham-Hall, Researcher in Urban Design and Culture, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article


Recycling Air Pollution to Make Art

Startup’s system captures particle matter from diesel exhaust and turns it into inks and paints.

Rob Matheson | MIT News Office

On a break from his studies in the MIT Media Lab, Anirudh Sharma SM ’14 traveled home to Mumbai, India. While there, he noticed that throughout the day his T-shirts were gradually accumulating something that resembled dirt.

“I realized this was air pollution, or sooty particulate matter, made of black particles released from exhaust of vehicles,” Sharma says. “This is a major health issue.”

Soot comprises tiny black particles, about 2.5 micrometers or smaller, made of carbon produced by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. Breathing in the particles can lead to lung damage, cancers, and other conditions.

A 2015 conference paper presented at a meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science estimated that in 2013 more than 5.5 million people worldwide died prematurely from air pollution. In India alone, air pollution has been linked to anywhere from 1.1 million to 1.4 million premature deaths over the past few years, according to various studies.

Back at MIT, Sharma set out to help solve this dire air-pollution issue. After years of research and development, Sharma’s startup Graviky Labs has developed technology that attaches to exhaust systems of diesel generator chimneys to capture particulate matter. Scientists at Graviky then treat the soot to turn it into ink, called Air-Ink, for artists around the world.

So far, the startup, which is commercially piloting its KAALINK devices for use on diesel generators across India, has captured 1.6 billion micrograms of particulate matter, which equates to cleaning roughly 1.6 trillion liters of outdoor air. More than 200 gallons of Air-Ink have been harvested for a growing community of more than 1,000 artists, from Bangalore to Boston, Hong Kong, and London.

“Less pollution, more art. That’s what we’re going for,” Sharma says.

Recycling Soot

KAALINK is a cylindrical device that retrofits to the exhaust systems of vehicles or diesel generators and relies on static electricity, a phenomenon in which energized materials attract particles. Inside the device are cartridges filled with a high-energy plasma. An applied voltage triggers the plasma to attract soot particles flying by, ridding the air of roughly 85 to 95 percent of particles without affecting the exhaust system.

A KAALINK device can stay on an exhaust system for about 15 to 20 days. Users then empty the disposable cartridges into special Graviky Labs collection units, where they are sent straight to the startup’s lab for treatment. This system — co-invented by Nitesh Kadyan and Nikhil Kaushik — removes heavy metals and toxins to create usable Air-Ink.

Similar soot-capturing processes exist, Sharma says, but they capture the soot by dissolving it in liquids, which makes the treatment process complex and expensive. Graviky, on the other hand, captures the particulate matter in its basic dry form. “Other processes convert air pollution into water pollution, and essentially generate more waste,” Sharma says. “We minimize the process and create a recycling stream from particulate matter waste that would have otherwise gone into our lungs.”

Currently, KAALINK isn’t a consumer product. Graviky primarily sells the filter to companies and organizations in India for capturing soot from the diesel generators that help power hospitals, malls, schools, apartment complexes, and other buildings. Companies have also sought to retrofit diesel generators with KAALINK to make them carbon neutral. Graviky later buys back the captured particulate matter from the owners of these engines to incentivize pollution capture.

Spreading the Message

Posted all over Graviky Lab’s Facebook page today are photos of art made from the Air-Ink and paint, including portraits, street murals, body art, sketches, and clothing prints. In London, an Air-Ink mural was featured for several weeks in Piccadilly Circus, and the city’s Museum of Writing has a permanent exhibit on Air-Ink.

One Boston artist using Air-Ink is Sneha Shrestha, a native of Nepal who paints mantras in her native language, meshing Sanskrit and graffiti styles. She has been using Air-Ink for “handstyles” (a unique graffiti artist signature) and has received requests from galleries worldwide to create art using this ink.

Using Air-Ink, a product made and shipped out from Bangalore, also holds personal significance for the artist from Kathmandu. “I am taking waste collected from a place close to my hometown and I am creating something beautiful out of it,” says Shrestha, who is also founder and senior advisor of the Children’s Art Museum of Nepal. “My work is inspired by the culture and native language of my hometown and Air-Ink added another layer of connection to where I am from.”

Air-Ink, she adds, could be a valuable tool in raising awareness about air pollution globally. “Air-Ink makes the concept of pollution more tangible for a wider audience,” she says. “When you can see what polluted air looks like in a tangible form, it definitely raises curiosity and start conversations about pollution.”

A successfully funded Kickstarter campaign over the summer sold out on various Air-Ink markers and decorated T-shirts, postcards, motorcycle helmets, and shoes. According to Graviky, each ounce of Air-Ink — about enough to make one marker — offsets 45 minutes of air pollution generated by a vehicle.

But the aim wasn’t always to create art. “I started with the general question, ‘What are the things you can do with carbon that’s collected?’” Sharma says of his early days designing the technology in the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group with Pattie Maes, a professor of media technology and academic head of the Program in Media Arts and Sciences.

The initial prototype for the device, developed in 2012, was actually a printer that sucked in carbon and filled an ink cartridge, and would be used strictly for paper printing. But the printer wasn’t scalable, so Sharma refined the bulky device into an exhaust retrofit that could go “beyond the lab and have real-world impact,” he says.

In 2013, Sharma launched Graviky headquarters, ready to release the product in heavily polluted India. “It’s pretty dire here,” Sharma says. “Primary schools have been shut down because of air pollution. It’s a catastrophe. I wanted to create technologies that are new and can have a large social impact, and that brought me back here.”

At first, there was still no specific application for the ink. Then, about a year ago, the startup decided to find new ways to further spread its mission. It chose to do so through art. “Art helps us raise awareness about where the ink and paint comes from. Artists are spreading the word that this is a very special ink that makes a difference,” Sharma says.

In March, Tiger Beer reached out to Graviky to create a large campaign against air pollution. For the project, Graviky gave 150 liters of Air-Ink — or, roughly 2,500 hours of air pollution, according to Graviky — to artists in Hong Kong, known for its high air pollution, to create murals. This effort won the startup several awards, including a Gold at Cannes Lions for outdoor impact innovation.

Now, as the community of artists using Air-Ink grows, Sharma hopes Graviky’s message gets heard worldwide. “Air pollution knows no borders,” he says. “It’s in India, Boston, and places all over the world. Our ink sends a message that pollution is one of the resources in our world that’s the hardest to capture and use. But it can be done.”

Reprinted with permission of MIT News

Muhal Richard Abrams, “The Renaissance Man” of 20th Century Music

Jazz lovers all over the world mourned the loss of a music legend, Muhal Richard Abrams. The New York Times reported that Abrams, 87, was found lifeless on his Manhattan house, October 29, 2017. Dubbed the “Renaissance Man” of 20th century music, Abrams’ roles in nurturing grassroots music through AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) has been widely recognized by critiques and musicians alike. He was known to possess deep understanding of music theory and interest in other disciplines such as spiritualism. He devoted much of his time studying Joseph Schillinger system, a music theory that departs from a mathematical geometry. Perhaps that what made him such an exceptional musician.

Together with Phil Cohran, Jodie Christian, and Fred Anderson, Abrams co-founded AACM, a non-profit organization with a mission to cultivate the next generation through music and education.  The organization is still striving to this day because its members have faith in AACM’s culture and core mission. The organization is central to its members. As Anthony Braxton put it, AACM has become the medium for musicians hungry for new approach, to explore and improvise.  Since its establishment in 1965, AACM has changed the face of the neighborhood, alleviating poverty that once overwhelmed the streets by giving people education. To this day, AACM still manages to produce quality individuals.

AACM’s continuous existence shows that this organization has been aiming at defining the meaning of life. It is free-willed and has been struggling against the mainstream culture by providing people with music education.

As the result, it has produced many outstanding musicians and forward thinkers, such as Anthony Braxton, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Henry Threadgill. Braxton is a soulful, unique saxophonist and composer of modern jazz who earned The McArthur’s “Genius Grant”. The Art Ensemble of Chicago is a free-jazz band that immersed itself in counter-culture movement. Lastly is Henry Threadgill, a prominent bass player, composer, and a winner of Pulitzer Prize. These individuals are the proof of AACM’s success in educating society through music.

Left: Art Ensemble of Chicago, Center: Anthony Braxton, Right: Henry Threadgill.

Abrams was a prolific music writer. He had been composing music throughout his life, producing a number of masterpieces. According to Discog, he had released albums from 1968 to 2016, ranging from solo, group/orchestral, and re-mastered albums. He also wrote many commissioned projects for big names such as Kronos Quartet, American Composer Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

One thing that we must learn from him is his tenacity. He may not be a famous musician; his pieces may not be easy-listening ones, but he couldn’t care less about it and continued to be do what he believed. This attitude should serve as a salient reminder for us today, when music industry is mainly geared towards money-making and less concern for the arts. Abram’s spirit of putting his art first should inspire the new generation of musicians.


  1. AACM Panel Discussion.

2. (2014 )NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony & Concert, Part 2 (Anthony Braxton).

3. Muhal Richard Abrams, 87, Individualistic Pianist and Composer, Is Dead.(NYT).


Gabon’s Political Force is its Thriving Hip-Hop Scene

Foreword from Listen To The World

Everyone knows that Hip Hop was born in the South Bronx, United States, but we’re not too sure if this historic birthplace still matters to most Hip Hop artists today. Since its emergence in the 90s, the studio style has dominated the Hip Hop scene in the US and later spread to many regions across the world such as East Asia, Southeast Asia, Western Europe, South America, and Africa. This popular studio style, like it or not, has overshadowed the true form and purpose of Hip Hop.

‘Breaking’ (the precursor of Hip Hop), founded by Kool Herc in the mid 70s, was a movement to address street-gang wars and socio-economic injustice manifested in a “battle” form of art (see “Music is Art because it’s Political”). It was far from being a, sorry to say, “commodity” like the mainstream Hip Hop music we are listening to.

Being mainstream or commercial is not a bad thing, as long as it is not out of context. There’s an interesting event that has happened in Gabon, Africa. Over there Hip Hop was initially treated as a trendy fashion. The so-called ‘bling-bling’, the offspring of studio style, was the first type of Hip Hop introduced in Gabon. It became so popular so it was exploited for political campaign. Over the years, Hip Hop in Gabon has transformed into a social movement and a vehicle to challenge any political unjustness.

The important point here is that the commercial-turned-political Gabonese Hip Hop is a complete reversal of what has happened in the US. From a historical perspective, an art form has always been born out of socio-political context. There was never an art form that was developed from being a commercial goods first. That’s why what has happened in Gabon is an anomaly. Maybe because this is Africa?

Let’s have a deeper look at what happened with Gabonese Hip Hop below.


Gabon’s Political Force is its Thriving Hip-Hop Scene

by Alice Aterianus-Owanga, Université de Lausanne

In Gabon as in other African states, rap has become instrumental in constructing political identity.

On August 17, Gabon celebrated 57 years of independence with a massive free concert in the capital, Libreville. The aim: to promote national unity in a festive fashion. An impressive lineup of local hip hop stars – including Ba’Ponga, Tris, Tina and Ndoman – were invited to draw in the younger crowds.

The celebrations held particular significance in light of another, darker anniversary. Last year on August 31, a shockingly violent crisis erupted following President Ali Bongo’s contested electoral victory.

One year on, the country is still feeling the social, political and economic effects, as is its rap scene.

Violent demonstrations

In the early 1990s, Gabon’s government was shut down by violent demonstrations and a general strike. It forced dictator Omar Bongo, who had been in power since 1967, to set up a national conference reestablishing a multiparty system and granting greater freedom of expression.

‘African revolution’, one of V2A4’s first hits, explicitly mentions the misappropriation of public funds.

Against the backdrop of this popular uprising, the youth of Libreville began writing rap music. Inspired by American hip hop artists like Public Enemy and NWA, and French rappers like NTM and Assassin, they expressed their need for escape, freedom and change.

Si’Ya Po’Ossi X bluntly describes daily life in the ‘mapanes’, poor urban areas where the majority of people live.

Yet this subversive scene hasn’t been totally exempt from the kinds of ties between music and politics that have existed since the onset of African independence in the 1960s. In fact, some protest rappers have links to the “system” through family ties with political elites. V2A4, for example, is made up of the son of the Interior minister (a close relative to former president Omar Bongo) and the child of a local businessman. Both study in France and live off the wealth of the “system”.

Bling Gabon style

From the 2000s on, inspired by gangsta rap, video clips have started to feature more gold chains, souped-up cars, women in suggestive poses and virile displays of masculinity.

The rapper Kôba is an icon of bling culture in Gabon.

Ushered in by bling style rapper Kôba, a new generation of rappers began to write songs that deviated from the protest-driven hip hop of their predecessors. This trend was encouraged by the appearance of new record labels, with close ties to the government and elites, further reinforcing the link between music and politics.

This fusion between music and politics reached new highs during the 2009 election. Presidential candidate Ali Bongo used the popularity of rap artists to attract youth support and distinguish himself from his father, Omar, who had died in June that year.

Presidential candidate Ali Bongo on stage with rap stars from Hay’oe, who supported his campaign.

Following his election in 2009, Ali Bongo brought new faces from the world of hip hop into the government. Due to these kinds of affiliations, Bongo’s semi-authoritarian regime has exercised particularly tight control over the hip hop scene, in particular via the media.

Without jobs

Right from the start, Bongo’s first seven-year term in office was marked by a decline in living standards and social infrastructure and continuing high unemployment levels – more than 20% of the population, and 35% of young people are without jobs. This, while the Bongo family’s spending has reached outrageous highs.

Censorship and the co-option or silencing of opposition have become increasingly common. Dissenting hip hop artists now have to find alternative ways to spread their messages.

Most subversive rap is now produced abroad, with several well-known Gabonese rappers making their music in China, South Africa, the US or France. These artists-in-exile form a highly political network. Their songs reach the streets of Libreville through social media, becoming calls for political debate and action.

The title ‘Mister Zero’ was recorded in south of France by rapper Saik1ry who condemned Ali Bongo’s disastrous record, now an anthem at opposition demonstrations.

Back home, many artists continue the fight in spite of censorship. In 2015, outspoken rapper Keurtyce E became the first to release a song openly opposing the current regime.

Keurtyce directly threatens the President in his song ‘We’ll make a fresh start’

Beyond the lyrical content of these songs, Gabonese artists ingeniously use the musical arrangements to subversive ends.

Clever use of sampling

Sampling, cutting and looping allow artists to anchor their music within the local context, by using samples from traditional instruments or famous local songs, for instance. These techniques also carry political meaning, with artists mixing in lyrics, musical samples or slogans from activist musicians who they see as their ideological forebears.

Pierre-Claver Akendengué, for example, an icon of 1960s pan-Africanism and resistor to the authoritarian regime during the one-party system, remains a major source of inspiration for Gabonese musicians today.

The chorus from Movaizhaleine’s song ‘Aux choses du pays’ (To the stuff of our country) is adapted from the music of Akendengué

Rapper/producer Lord Ekomy Ndong recently demonstrated another means of subversion. In a new song in which he samples excerpts from a speech by President Ali Bongo, juxtaposed with the words of social media activists, to condemn corruption and misappropriation of public funds.

Subversion through juxtaposition by Lord Ekomy Ndong.

Flareups on social media

During last year’s election, a great rift appeared in the rap scene between supporters and opponents of the president. A series of flareups on social media and diss-and-response songs deepened the divide.

Bongo had his praise singers:

On the one side, rappers aligned with the Bongo family, involved in rallies and producing songs to support the incumbent party.

But Bongo’s opponents were as vocal:

On the other side, protest rappers, denounce increased corruption and poverty since Bongo has taken office.

Rappers who had previously cooperated with Bongo joined opposition movements to demonstrate their disappointment with government failures. It intensified after troops opened fire on demonstrators following the release of the election results. Several people were killed and numerous others disappeared.

Just two months after this crackdown, Kôba, former poster boy for the system, released the song “Odjuku”. The title is a reference to Bongo’s supposed Nigerian biological father. The rapper reignited the controversy surrounding the president’s origins and joined other artists in declaring “On ne te suit pas” (We don’t follow you).


Forgetting the quagmire

One year on, the government is trying to make people forget its quagmire with events such as the massive August 17 free concert.

Yet, the protest movement is still active: demonstrations continue within striking government departments and at Libreville University. In the streets of Paris and New York, Gabonese expats rally together.

LestatXXL/Lord Ekomy Ndong ‘Sur mon drapeau’ (By my flag)

Through their songs, rappers like Lestat XXL and Lord Ekomy Ndong, commemorate the sorrowful anniversary of the 2016 repression:

Here no one will forget. We’ll hoist up the flame…
No red on my flag. Nothing will ever be the same.

Alice Aterianus-Owanga is the author of “Rap Was Born Here! Music, Power and Identity in Modern Gabon”, published by Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, September 2017.

The ConversationTranslated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.

Alice Aterianus-Owanga, Postdoctoral researcher in Anthropology, Université de Lausanne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.