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Personal profile

Research interests

Ben Sweeting's research is part of the contemporary resurgence of cybernetics and systems thinking amongst designers, contributing to the emerging practice of systemic design as an approach to complex multi-stakeholder situations. Ben's work explores topics such as how design might contribute to ethics as well as vice versa; the role of place and epistemology within systemic crises; historical intersections of architecture and cybernetics in the works of Gordon Pask and Cedric Price; and the development of unconventional methodological approaches to design research inspired by cybernetics’ original trans-disciplinary agenda.

Supervisory Interests

I am interested in supporting doctoral research that addresses how design disciplines work within and for complex systemic contexts, especially those that raise challenging questions regarding ethics, the role of emerging technologies, place and identity, or the status of professional and scientific knowledge. I am especially interested in approaches that relate design to systems thinking and cybernetics, whether in relation to current practices such as systemic design or through historical or theoretical studies. I have experience with creative, theoretical and historical research and have examined doctoral research internationally.

Scholarly biography

Ben studied architecture at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, and then at the Bartlett, UCL. Ben has taught at Brighton since 2007, first as a visiting lecturer (2007-2008) before being appointed to a lectureship (2009-present). He has previously taught at the University of Greenwich (2010-2012), Kingston University (2008), Central St. Martins (2010-2011) and London South Bank University (2008-2009) and held a research assistant position at The Bartlett, UCL (2006-2007).

Ben teaches across undergraduate and postgraduate courses in architecture and design. He leads Research Practices for postgraudate students in MA Sustainable Design, MArch Architecture, MA Architectural and Urban Design, and MA Interior Design, and coordinates Research and Practice Specialisation for MArch Architecture. At undergraduate level, he contributes to BA(Hons) Architecture in design studio and architectural humanities, and has previously served as Course Leader (2014-2019) and as coordinator for the second (2011-2016) and third years (2014-2017) of that course. Ben's students have received recognition from the RIBA, with Ollie Riviere winning the Serjeant Award for Excellence in Drawing, and in Brighton's cross-discipline Nagoya University prize, with honorable mentions for Eve Olsen and Katerina Demetriou.

Ben completed his PhD by architectural design in 2014, supervised by Neil Spiller and Ranulph Glanville at the Bartlett, UCL, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This explored epistemological and ethical questions in relation to architecture through ideas from second order cybernetics and radical constructivism and a distinctive approach to drawing. Following this, Ben was appointed as Mellon Researcher at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal (2014-2016), as part of a collaborative research project. In this work, which was presented at the 2016 Lisbon Architecture Triennale, Ben conducted archival research on Cedric Price and his collaboration with cybernetician Gordon Pask on the influential Fun Palace project. Ben is a member of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC), the UK Cybernetics Society, and the Systemic Design Association. He was awarded the Heinz von Foerster Award by the ASC in 2014. He has guest edited a number of journal special issues and is a frequent peer reviewer for international conferences and journals.

Approach to teaching

I understand knowledge as something we make - something we create and construct for ourselves, rather than a commodity we passively receive. This is to see knowledge, not just education, as a process, and so in terms of knowing as opposed to knowledge. This is especially evident in design, which is concerned with creating new possibilities rather than with learning how to replicate existing ones. Because we each experience and construct differently, and understand these experiences in different ways, there is always a difference between my understanding and a student's understanding.

As is reflected on in cybernetics (e.g. in Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory), these differences between our understandings do not separate us. Instead they are what make it possible for us to interact and converse with each other. This interaction in turn helps us to learn and to explore. A conversation in design studio is always moving on, driven by the difference between my understanding of the student and their understanding of me (and my understanding of their understanding of me, and so on). We cannot know in advance where it will end up.

Conversation is widely regarded as an educational paradigm because of the way it allows students to actively direct their own learning. In design education there is a tradition of using a conversational format. This includes conversations between tutors and students around a drawing or model (such as those documented by Donald Schön) and also conversations amongst students themselves, whether casually in the studio space or more formally in peer reviews. This is partly because conversation is in itself a powerful way of teaching and learning, but also because the thinking that designers do and the methods they use to support this are themselves conversational. This can be seen in the way that designers explore situations through developing and reflecting on proposals rather than through exhaustive analysis, and also in how core design activities such as sketching can be understood as a conversation that designers hold with themselves via pencil and paper. 

It follows that in design education the content of what is being taught and learnt is similar to the format in which we teach and learn. The conversations that I have with students are not in order to explain what they should do. Rather, it is to help sustain the exploratory conversation that they hold through their own work, playing out the sort of conversational thinking which students gradually learn to carry out for themselves.

Learning through listening - ethical challenges in design

The word conversation literally means to “turn about with”. Originally this has the sense of “living with” and suggests a connection to ethical considerations. We live with each other in conversation, continually turning between the roles of speaking and listening. We live with our ideas as we converse, turning them around as we explore them.

Architects design significant parts of other people’s lives, but often cannot meet, let alone consult, those they design for (consider the future user of a building, or the passer-by). Part of the significance of design’s conversational structure is that through it designers put themselves in place of others and so consider those who cannot be present. This is part of what students learn to do through the conversations they hold with their tutors, each other and invited guests. Tutors play the roles of the other stakeholders that need to be considered (planners, engineers, clients, users, future users, passers-by...). In peer reviews students learn to help others with their projects, as they will in practice.

An important, but sometimes neglected, part of conversation is that of listening. Without listening there’s no conversation to turn around, just two monologues passing by each other. Listening is the creative part of a conversation, both one that is face-to-face and also the sort we hold with ourselves in drawing. When we take our turn to speak in a conversation we usually know what we are going to say. But when we take our turn to listen, what we hear is new to us and we create our own understanding of it. Similarly, when we draw a line we usually know what we are doing in advance. When we take time to look at a drawing, especially when we return to it after a break, we see possibilities in it that we did not intend.

Similarly, in teaching it is important to listen to everything students want to say. As a tutor, you can sometimes say too much in the effort to help. This can get in the way of the student constructing their own explorations and of learning how to do this.

Education/Academic qualification

PhD, University College London

… → 2014

External positions

Research Assistant, University College London

20062007

Keywords

  • NA Architecture
  • Cybernetics
  • Ethics
  • Systemic design
  • Radical Constructivism

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics where Ben Sweeting is active. These topic labels come from the works of this person. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

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cybernetics Social Sciences
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phenomenology Social Sciences
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Research Output 2007 2019

Applying ethics to itself: Recursive ethical questioning in architecture and second-order cybernetics

Sweeting, B., 1 Apr 2019, In : Kybernetes. 48, 4, p. 805-815 11 p.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Open Access
File
Questioning
Cybernetics
Discourse
Methodology
Commonplaces

Guest editorial: Resilience and ethics in social systems

Baron, P., Fantini van Ditmar, D., Griffiths, D. & Sweeting, B., 1 Apr 2019, In : Kybernetes. 48, 4, p. 666-671 6 p.

Research output: Contribution to journalEditorial

Open Access
File
ethics
social system

Place as a reflexive conversation with the situation

Sweeting, B., 2019, (Accepted/In press) Emerging Architectural Research 2009-2018. Butcher, M. & O’Shea, M. (eds.). London: UCL Press

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapter

Why design cybernetics?

Sweeting, B., 31 Jul 2019, Design cybernetics: Navigating the new. Fischer, T. & Herr, C. M. (eds.). Cham: Springer International, p. 185-194 (Design Research Foundations).

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapter

Cybernetics
Intimate Relationships

Radical constructivism and the decolonisation of epistemology

Sweeting, B., 15 Jul 2018, In : Constructivist Foundations. 13, 3, p. 326-327

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Open Access
File
decolonization
constructivism
epistemology
conversational teaching
curriculum

Activities 2007 2019

Change by Design 2019

Ben Sweeting (Participant)
28 Nov 2019

Activity: EventsConference

The Generator as a Paradigm for Systemic Design

Ben Sweeting (Presenter)
Oct 2019

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation

File

Kybernetes (Journal)

Ben Sweeting (Reviewer)
Aug 2019

Activity: Publication peer-review and editorial workPublication Peer-review

A Recursive Ethics for Systemic Complexity

Ben Sweeting (Presenter)
1 Jul 2019

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation

Cybernetics and Spatial Experience

Ben Sweeting (Presenter)
Jun 2019

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation

File