The Social Firefly light installation

+ The artwork is an expression of patterns that emerge from complex social networks.

In creating the Social Firefly – an artwork of 50 autonomous light robots featured in the 2011 Arup Design Yearbook – my Arup colleagues and I took on the role of the artist. It was an unusual and interesting position for us to be in, and one I believe firms like ours can learn from.

When we proposed our concept for Social Firefly to the organisers of the Vivid Sydney festival, we weren’t realising someone else’s dream; we were creating our own. As designers this gave us the chance to shape every aspect of the artwork, from the rationale and aesthetic to the choice of materials and interaction.

Working in this way requires a certain comfort in the unknown space of design – it’s important to be agile enough to experiment, fail quickly and to learn by doing. To create our vision, we designed no less than 15 iterations of the laser-cut internal structure, and perhaps 30 different versions of the software which defined the interactive and emergent qualities of the artwork.

Is this design mentality something firms like Arup could learn from? As my colleague Steve Lennon recently wrote, Arup’s strong design culture and multi-disciplinary ethos encourages us to tackle challenging projects. For Social Firefly, I know we achieved much more because we were supported by many highly knowledgeable people from many different disciplines who could see the same problem in many different ways.

For me, the exciting thing is the opportunity that this design mentality gives us. It’s a chance to not only seek the answer to questions, but to pose them upstream of the design process and truly shape the broader goals of a project. It’s an approach we’re using in the urban informatics team I work in – looking at the way digital connectivity and information affect our experience of the built environment.

Taking on the role of the artist on a project like Social Firefly was a chance to free our imagination and create something which inspired many people, in ways we never could have imagined. And who wouldn’t benefit from a little more inspiration?