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Rachel Armstrong: We should not consider knowledge as being a realm for academics only

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Research is produced by academic institutions but belongs to the public. To be meaningful it needs a broader reception than an exclusively academic audience – says Rachel Armstrong, experimental architect, TED fellow and the author of ‘Vibrant Architecture‘, open access book published by De Gruyter Open.

Your profile description on Skype says: “The biggest threat to our survival is our resistance to change in an unstable world.” Is your research work an attempt to find a path towards a more stable world?

No, it’s the opposite! For last two millenniums we were operating within a paradigm that imagines reality as series of hierarchically ordered objects in equilibrium. With the advent of Internet era, and with the growing ecological awareness of society, the system which seemed to be stable, started to erode in a very intimidate way. The Internet allows us to see multiples of different points of view, and reality for us became much more dynamic. Thanks to ecological awareness we can now see that the state of the planet is not a constant. So our image of world transited from being at equilibrium to one that is far from equilibrium. It requires a whole new set of tools, methods and materials to effectively work with this set of ideas. We have a tradition spanning two millennia of working on idea that our world is equilibrium, and this slogan about resistance to a change stresses this fact. The ecological era has little to do with the greening of things. It has much to do with how we take existing knowledge and combine it with new ways of understanding the world. It is about generating new frameworks for practices etc. and dealing with constant change. It is a strategy for producing alternative futures for ourselves. We need to learn how to deal with instability and also with competing and conflicting interests. We cannot eliminate risk. So we have to manage it. We have to spread our skills and abilities among many participating bodies so we are all invested in a condition of peace. So my work is about developing new experimental tools that can employ these new ideas.

What is the role of architecture in this process?

Once when we realize that liveliness and instability is part of Nature, we can ally our technological platforms with the natural world. In the third millennium technology and Nature are no longer in opposition. They can work together. Sometimes they are inseparable. Soil for example, works as a metabolic engine producing a horsepower of energy every day. The question is how architecture may tap into this generative capacity? We may even increase our chances for survival if we learn how to codesign and even compute with natural systems.

Could you tell me a little bit about your path to becoming interested in synthetic biology and living materials?

I was looking for materials and techniques that can deal with continuous change. I am interested in self-repairing or growing building materials, but they don’t need to be alive. In fact ethically speaking it is an advantage for to work with non-alive materials. However, these materials are not inert, they possess some of the same properties of living things, such as movement, growth, sensitivity and self-repair. Yet, they may not have the full status of being truly alive.

You gave a TED speech, are active on Twitter and published several interviews about your work in popular media. Is communicating your work to the general public important to you? Why?

I could sit in an ivory tower, thinking that my ideas are great and enjoy myself! But it important for me is to explore whether my questions are relevant ones. How might my research be meaningful? Where may my ideas become confusing, and how can I generate more clarity? I am always looking to open up my experiments to others and start new conversations.

My communication strategy is not to tell people how to think. I am much more interested in dialogue. How might my research be interesting for people working with issues of sustainability? Or for schoolchildren considering which subjects to study? How it might be useful to the broader community. Of course, my work is not relevant to everyone, so I like to understand who considers my ideas interesting and who thinks they’re irritating.

My Facebook Friends share in my experiments. If people are curious about what I am doing, I will respond to their questions. Social media allows people to observe and continually criticise my practice. Through our discussions they can freely enter into the realm of scholarly thinking. I feel very lucky that people on my Facebook and on my Twitter account contribute to my work. Social media is not simply about disseminating my ideas, but in refining my approaches, which are informed by a diverse network so that my work is increasingly relevant to those with shared interests.

Issues like climate change and our relation with Nature affect us all, not only academics. At my university we see ourselves as having a responsibility for civic engagement. We have an obligation to make our work and ourselves accessible and critically respond to questions that may arise from our practices. Social media generates a platform in which people feel that they can contribute to our work.

Do you think that the academic community in general does enough to communicate with general public?

Communicating with public is a hard challenge. To be more open we have to learn new rules of communication that are more conversational and less formal. Probably the academic community doesn’t do enough, but also there are limits to research practices – budgets, time, and resources. Also, sweeping statements about ‘academics’ are not universally meaningful. I am just doing what is helpful for my work and it is hard for me to say what others dealing with different problems should do.

What changes in scientific communication might be good to make this environment more conversation based?

I think that we should not consider knowledge as being a realm for academics only. If we are interested in public engagement, we need to build specific partnerships. For example, the maker community, amateurs with specialist interests, entrepreneurs and DIY-enthusiasts, are non-academic groups that are informed enough to have a meaningful dialogue with academia. I think it would be good to analyse current forms of dialogue, so that we can search for those networks that this kind of open communication strategy may benefit now, and in the future.

Why did you decide to publish “Vibrant Architecture” in open access? Do you think that public access to your work is necessary? Who can benefit from it?

Research is produced by academic institutions but belongs to the public. To be meaningful it needs a broader reception than an exclusively academic audience.

Thank you very much!

Image credit: Dr. Rachel Armstrong giving her presentation at the LIFT 13 Conference on Feb. 8, 2013 – CICG, Geneva, Switzerland by Ivo Näpflin – liftconferencephotos (source), cropped, with some filters added, licensed under CC-BY 2.0.

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  1. Great interview! I think Rachel Armstrong is hugely inspiring. She is so non-judgemental and respectful of her peers but at the same time says something along the lines of ‘this is the way I rock ‘n roll, it seems to work well for me and my work…’ Utterly humble and yet massively, massively talented. I genuinely believe Professor Armstrong is going down in the history books – which is ironic, given that she is a futurist of sorts, her work is so varied and far-reaching.

    Brilliant photo too! We are seeing a breakthrough generation of science communicators I think and Professor Armstrong is right at the forefront.

    Thank you to the writer of this interview and thank you to Professor Armstrong too – I enjoyed this piece!

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