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‘The best library in the world’

Indian industrial design student Aditya Pawar had a uniquely Dutch experience during his recent graduation project, working together with Delft’s DOK public library and Gemeente Delft on an innovative concept to bring the library to the people in public spaces.

“During this project I also interacted with marginalised people, such as those who couldn’t speak Dutch, the homeless and elderly.”

In this age of one click information access, libraries are trying to reinvent themselves by reaching out to the general public through participatory activities and co-creation. By collaborating with different organisations and disciplines, libraries are striving to redefine their relevance to society. One of these collaborations resulted in the graduation project of Aditya Pawar (27), a recent MSc design for interaction graduate of TU Delft’s faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. His interests in working with socio-cultural institutions led to him pitching a project to DOK - Delft’s award-winning public library - which led to the library sponsoring his graduation project. Pawar’s idea takes the library out of its static building and into the city’s public spaces, or co-locations, through introducing a new service, which would help the library become a more prominent, local-communal institution, supporting the development of civil networks and relationships in Delft.The future Delft city hall’s (to be built by 2020) waiting room was proposed as a model co-location. The developed concept was a system that allows the public to browse through Delft-related stories while waiting for appointments. The stories consist of multimedia content - films, pictures, audio, text - about inspiring personalities, special events, ‘day in a life’ stories, and general infotainment topics related to Delft. The multimedia content was rendered accessible to the public through a Microsoft multi-touch surface (MS Surface) interface, making accessing information fun, intuitive and low threshold.

Your project was quite a ‘native Dutch’ experience. How was it working with Dutch people on a uniquely Dutch project?“It was an enriching experience. I worked largely with DOK’s Innovation department, but the project also involved the Gemeente Delft municipality, the Delft Spoorzone development committee and Mecanoo Architects. This collaboration was valuable, as we wanted input from all stakeholders, such that we could implement the concept at the future Delft city hall. During this project I also interacted with marginalised people, such as those who couldn’t speak Dutch, the homeless and elderly, to understand their context and concerns.”

Gemeente Delft must be one of the most prototypically Dutch institutions one could ever work with here. “Indeed, I found them very regulatory in their approach, always keeping to the rulebook, but what I really liked about them was their attention to detail.”

Did you notice any differences between how municipalities function here compared to back home in India?“In Indian municipalities, democracy is of a different nature. People in India speak much more freely, are less concerned about being politically correct. And no one is judged by the quality of their feedback as much as here. To give an example: I wanted to pitch a concept of open-source democracy (like Wikipedia) to Delft municipality, in which any citizen could give them feedback, but I realised that model wouldn’t fit in a Dutch society that relies more on experts to run the show.”

What makes DOK special?“DOK is all about experimentation and creating a symbolic environment. DOK can best be described as a media centre that combines Music & Film, Literature, and Art. These three components make DOK much more than an ordinary library. DOK is one of the best libraries in the world, and they’ve also won the ‘2010 Best Library of the Netherlands’ award.”

Do libraries have a viable future in our Internet Age?“Libraries are emancipatory institutions, as they encourage the soft values in society, like freedom, equality, social cohesion and quality. Hence, they’ll never go out of business, although the technology medium will change, for example, with increased use of iPads instead of books.”

And one can assume that since DOK is a publically-funded library, all had to be done on a shoestring budget?“Indeed, I greatly admired their quest to create new ways of engaging people, yet doing so without much financial support; in fact, their grants are being reduced each year. Yet at this moment in time, when everyone is questioning the library’s relevance to the society, DOK’s trying to redefine the library experience and make it more valuable to the community”

Has the experience changed your cultural view? “Yes. DOK made me more sensitive to issues of community participation, development and how the society works in European countries. This is very important for me as a designer, because now when I work and design I am better able to empathise with the local community.”

Does India, as an emerging country, offer opportunities for Dutch and international industrial design graduates? “Industrial design in India is booming out of proportion right now. One of the world’s best design consultancies, IDEO, has just opened an office in Mumbai. Previously, design work was outsourced, but now there’s an emphasis on setting up fully functional design studios and research centres in India. I believe that in the next few years there will be more opportunities for designers in India than perhaps even in Europe.”

Would you recommend that TU Delft’s industrial designers reverse your experience and head to India?“Western people should definitely have a work stint in Asia, especially in India. It’s important for them to enrich themselves and become more culturally sensitive to the eastern world. There’s a real need there for designers/technologists, where their work will make a significant difference. Comparatively, the work in western countries is more or less re-inventing and recycling past developments. The key would be to encourage cross-pollination of the best of different cultures.”

Any tips for success if they go?“Many Westerners go and try to set up their own systems and setups, but fail because the local culture is very different. One must understand the people, the cultural milieu, and adapt oneself accordingly, which they usually don’t do and consequently fail. India’s a great country for developing products, because it has an amazing range of production capabilities, from hand-made traditional to industrial. Moreover, western designers can look at the Indian context from a different perspective and come up with innovative ideas that might not occur to natives, because we take them for granted.”

So you’re now a committed multiculturalist?“I can definitely vouch for intercultural human exchange. I came to Holland to study and understand the culture, and now there should be more people from Europe going to the other side of the world in search of enriching and life changing experiences.” 

Like so many other technical novelties, mega-floaters or floating islands were first described by Jules Verne in his 1895 novel ‘L’ile à hélice’ (or ‘Propelled island’). Fast-forward a century and the same dream is now called 'Freedom Ship', whose website describes a floating city that dwarfs the Queen Mary. The structure would be 1.5 kilometres long, 250 metres wide and more than 100 metres high. It would house hotels, shopping malls and leisure facilities, all topped by a small landing strip.

Enough of dreams, for floating superstructures have already been built. The largest so far was a kilometre-long floating airstrip in Tokyo Bay. At 149 million dollars, it was a costly experiment to see how well a floating airstrip would perform. Experiments performed after its completion in 1999 showed that there were no significant differences between a land-based runway and a floating one. Quod erat demonstrandum. Afterwards, this structure was dismantled and parts of it are still in use as car parks, fishing piers, fair grounds and an information centre.

PhD student, Jan van Kessel (cum laude Maritime Engineering, 2004), thinks that thus far mega-floaters have been rather conventional. He points out that breakwaters have always sheltered large floating structures from the waves.  In his thesis, entitled ‘Aircushion supported Mega-Floaters’, he presents and calculates another form of floating entirely. Not an immense barge, but rather a bottomless box, floating on a ‘cushion’ of encapsulated air. Think of a shoebox without its lid, turned upside down and placed in the water.  Van Kessel shows that the forces on a floating shoebox structure are about half of those on a conventional closed barge. Besides, he argues, the use of aircushions to make things float offshore isn’t new. Forty years ago, gigantic oil storage tanks in Dubai were constructed on land, lifted by pressurised air and towed to their offshore locations, eventually sinking on the spot.

In his thesis Van Kessel develops a method to calculate the dynamic behaviour of mega-floaters in waves. His numerical model calculates how the waves pass under the floating structure and how the air pressure varies. He then compares the outcome of the calculations with tank tests using a bottomless barge measuring 2.5 by 0.7 metres, and concludes there is a fitting correspondence between theory and test. What’s more, the aircushion-supported barge performs better than a conventional closed box. The roll and pitch motions are smaller (the waves can pass more freely underneath the structure) and the wave-induced bending motions are halved.

Ships are assumed to be stiff by conventional hydromechanics, and incapable of being deformed by wave-induced forces. But mega-floaters are so large that one can no longer assume that the whole structure will retain its form. Van Kessel therefore repeated his calculations for a flexible barge - a box that could bend with the waves. With an impressive array of matrices, summations and numerical hydroelastic calculations, Van Kessel shows that aircushions reduce the vertical bending of the structure (in comparison with a closed structure), but they also move the spots of the highest bending from mid-ship towards stern and bow. The torsion of the (flexible) structure caused by incoming oblique waves may be too large, but – according to Van Kessel – that can easily be fixed by adapting the design.

Now let’s get practical. The most logical mega-floating structure needed in the near future is an offshore airstrip, Van Kessel argues. At 3800 metres, its runway would be as long as Schiphol’s longest runway. The most plausible place for this airstrip would be off the coast of Singapore, since it is a densely populated city-state that has little else to extend to other than the seas. Taking the local wave regime into consideration, Van Kessel shows once more that the bending moments on the structure in the open seas would be reduced by two thirds if the builders would simply leave out the bottom of the barge.

Jan van Kessel will defend his thesis on February 1, 2010.

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