Can technology enable site-specific knowledge? A studio examining transformations in rural China tests the limits of remote ethnography

Last March, the option studio I led with Kathryn Firth and David Rubin, Taishan: Designing the Rural Cosmopolis in China, suddenly found itself on the forefront of a design research challenge. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, classes became virtual seemingly overnight and research by necessity became remote. But when research is based on site-specific knowledge of a place and pedagogy requires deep immersion and understanding of a local transformation, how could we draw strong conclusions from so far away?

In lieu of their scheduled trip to China in March, students enlisted a suite of new tools to help them research developments in Taishan. Through the use of survey apps, video chat, and online mapping tools, student teams were able to conduct remote ethnography in a way that allowed Taishan citizens to voice their perspective and students to integrate real scenarios into their design proposals. As design challenges continue in the studio, our daily lives, and abroad, how can connections afforded by technology offer unique opportunities to innovate, connect, and continue collaborating?

Elaine Kwong is a Chinese-American urban designer based in Los Angeles. She directs DESAKOTA and teaches architecture and urban design. Elaine is currently a faculty member at Harvard University, Graduate School of Design and University of Southern California, School of Architecture.