The last few decades have seen the increasingly pervasive use of the term ‘smart’ when it comes to technologies and the built environment. Technology is the material backbone and sustainability a significant aspiration for the designers and organisations developing and occupying ‘smart’ built environments. Allister Hill’s project aims to address the relationship between materiality, space and sustainability in what may be considered a ‘smart’ building – RMIT’s ‘Swanson Academic Building’ (the SAB). The SAB, located on an inner urban university campus, is a 5-star Green Star rated, multi-award winning and hailed as a successful example of a technologically innovative and sustainable building.
The project encompasses an ethnographic study, employing multi-methods, to examine how sociomaterial relations are enacted in the SAB and endeavouring to reveal the messy, taken-for-granted and hidden dynamics of organisational sociomateriality within a smart building. The immersive ethnographic approach is facilitating a closer examination of how the SAB’s infrastructure entangles with and scripts the performative aspects of teaching, studying, working and other everyday organisational practices. With the SAB located within RMIT’s city campus and the City of Melbourne there may be possible insights, from this microcosm of RMIT, into the patterning of organisational practices on campuses, cities and smart and sustainable built environments more generally. Smart and sustainable encompassing a broad set of systemic built environment considerations such as governance, system management, digital and analogue ways of teaching, working and learning (including teaching pedagogies) and durability of usage over time. Not forgetting more traditional sustainability concerns, such as reducing or limiting resource use and other consumption considerations.
The investigation sits within the nexus of research focusing on sociomateriality, organisational practices and infrastructural assemblages. A practice lens, that probes the performative aspects of sociomateriality (the constitutive entanglement of the social and material), is a constructive way to assess the activities and tools of organising, as it ensures that material agency is an active component of considerations rather than obscured behind human agency. Materiality is integral to organisational life, as ‘everyday organizing is inextricably bound up with materiality’(Orlikowski 2007). An explicit consideration of the entanglement of the social and material, that is a ‘sociomateriality sensitivity’, can then foreground reflexions on the sustainability of the resultant organisational practices in smart built environments. As Bennett (2005) reminds us, thinking of infrastructure as assemblages, highlights how humans and their intentions are often less influential actants in these assemblages, than first thought, and that, no matter how fixed they seem, infrastructural systems are open-ended and emergent.