Research Statement

Roxana Karam

PhD candidate, The University of Edinburgh


Research area and approach

My primary research is in the area of urban informatics, data-driven innovations and social sustainability. Following the industry 4.0 and the emergence of internet of things (IoT) and cloud computing in smart city planning, there is an emerging demand of robust infrastructure and new approaches in architecture and urban studies addressing the constrains as well as the possibilities in the data-driven societies. On the one hand, the second digital turn and the customized digital processes has changed the design thinking through data affordances. On the other hand, digital economies such as blockchain have provided a democratic platform for value constellation and value transaction across multiple scales from monitory to immaterial and from products to services and spatial making. Establishing new approaches to tackle real-world design issues considering these changes is getting serious attention in both practice and academia.

Investigating the principles underpinning the implementation of such systems is the general goal of my research. Transparency, trust, social and ethical vulnerability issues as well as technical, interpretational and precision is going to be addressed in this research through in-situ investigation, data analysis and customization of design narratives using digital tools and triangulation of methods. Top-down, Bottom-up and practice-led strategies are going to be implemented through a design scenario with and for people. The importance of interconnectivity between people, designers and stakeholders is going to be emphasized in my research through multi-stage problem-solving process using user-centred design schemes (UCD).

Past research

In my PhD I have been investigating various data sources in relation to the built environment and urban matrix from the environmental and structural to the local and citizens’ dynamics using geo-tagged public and online data streams. The main focus was to understand the data in architecture using biosemiotics to theoretically justify the data streams as sign systems considering the city as a living organism which is in constant self-regulation and adaptation processes. I have used the theories from the real-time city by Carlo Ratti as well as following the ongoing project: the future cities Glasgow by Rob Kitchin and the Edinburgh Living lab. I have addressed the big data and thick data in my PhD research through underlining the constrains and possibilities of data-driven strategies in the urban realm. My main question for the PhD was: how can we define new design thinking methods using data-layering/mapping to inform semi-autonomous spatial units which is sustainable, responsive and more integrated with the digital societies. I have been successful in developing a system of habitation units following a real-world spatial concern on mobility and migration. For this method I have been involved in 2 major collaborative research working with data gathering and data analysis tools. I have developed approaches in informing design from data sources through both practice and research.

In the final stage of my PhD I have tested my methods through supervising a unit and developing a design brief for a Masters course: Digital Media Studio Project[1]. Tutoring two groups in another course: Design with Data and reflecting on the data-driven design narratives and approaches dealing with datasets has also been useful in testing data-driven methods. In both of these cases, the method was tested with students from the background of design, design informatics and architecture in the academic environment of the ECA (Edinburgh College of Art). Reflecting and recording the processes from data analysis to design were the crucial stages in these activities in order to underline the gap between data resources and designers through value propositions. In both cases, the overall theme of research and practice methods were through both narrative articulation and prototyping. This experience provided design thinking propositions using data repositories in design.

In another project, I have extended the idea of data driven schemes to organize a workshop in the festival of creative learning under the tile of: 3D Blockchain[2]. This activity followed by co-organizing the DataVisFest[3] provided insights in identifying methods in communicating data representations with the public and the data holders.  In both workshops, the participants were invited from across the University of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh city to illustrate the values and the system of data interpretations. In the 3D Blockchain workshop, the 3D output of the workshop represented interpretations of material and immaterial transactions through utilizing Blockchain technology as a method of tackling the potentialities of such systems in addressing transparency, trust and efficiency. The DataVisFest output was also a physical prototype developed using 3D printing city maps and light to communicate the data on inequality and inclusion. This workshop was very successful in bridging the gap between data holders, designers and the public.

Future research directions

I envision my future research to span across interconnected areas of decentralized and distributed networks systems in the context of smart and sustainable cities. The unifying theme of the research will be conducting and running collaborative events within the academic environment of the university, the public sector and the city authorities addressing various dimensions, constrains and possibilities in relation to data, smart cities and the future societies. In continuation of my current focus in customizing design approaches in data driven innovations, my near-term plan is to work on research concerns include the following:

  • Identifying data sources, stakeholders and users in 3 areas of smart cities scheme; education public transportation and short-term accommodation in Edinburgh. These areas have been carefully identified based on my academic activities during my PhD in the University of Edinburgh
  • Developing interdisciplinary collaborations and practice-led methods in documenting and staging the process of design. This will include organizing workshops and activities between design researchers, stakeholders and the public. Each event will be documented, reported and exhibited within a feedback loop process.
  • Addressing concerns and issues around data i.e. ethical, social, political, reliability of information and technical, in establishing new methods and approaches for future designers and researchers in the area of architecture and urban studies
  • Addressing social and environmental sustainability in designing with Geo-tagged data as well as real-time recording information from the community and governmental resources
  • Further developing more research and insight in the interdisciplinary area of networks and the system of scales ranging from transport network to social interaction network and biological signal network