Dimitris Papanikolaou

Doctor of Design Candidate, Harvard GSD
M.Sc. 2011, MIT Media Lab
S.M.Arch.S. 2008, Design & Computation, MIT School of Architecture & Planning
Dipl. Arch. Eng. 2004, National Technical University of Athens

I am a Doctoral candidate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) and a fellow at the Graduate Consortium on Energy of Harvard University's Center for the Environment (HUCE). Previously I studied and worked at the Smart Cities and Changing Places groups of the MIT Media Lab and earlier at the MIT Design Computation Group. I hold a Master of Science (MSc) in Media Arts and Sciences from the MIT Media Lab, an MSc in Design Computation from the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SAP) as a Fulbright scholar, and a Diploma in Architectural Engineering from the National Technical University of Athens.

I explore how technology, policy, and design create ecosystems that expand our limits of learning, making, and doing. My work draws on a diversity of skills including digital design & fabrication, physical computing, (reverse) game theory, experimental economics, programming, data visualization, and complex systems simulation to invent mechanisms that leverage on how people make decisions over limited resources. At the Media Lab I co-developed Mobility on Demand (MoD), a vehicle sharing system of electric foldable cars that allows users to make point-to-point trips on demand, claimed by Time magazine as the best invention of 2007 and winner of the 100K Buckminster Fuller Award in 2009. My MSc thesis, The Market Economy of Trips designed and studied a self-balancing operation model for MoD systems that uses dynamic pricing to incentivize users to rebalance the fleet, causing some trips to be expensive while others to pay back. At Harvard, my doctoral dissertation, Governing the Commons of Mobility, uses Boston's bike sharing system as a living laboratory to compare the potential efficiency of a social mechanism based on dynamic pricing to the limits of efficiency of truck rebalancing. As part of my research I use designing, making, and playing of interactive strategic games as novel frameworks for both learning and teaching systems thinking.

I am also interested on how democratization of knowledge and technology transforms the industrial ecology of DIY digital making and digital doing. At the MIT Design Computation Group, I worked on a method to design, fabricate, and assemble custom irregular building forms from interlocking planar-parts with unskilled labor. My MSc thesis there, developed a method to assess which CAD models can be assembled, how their assembly complexity may affect their production, and how such knowledge can improve design decisions in early stage, a problem that so far designers can only approach empirically.

Currently I work with Prof Jose Gomez-Ibanez from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Prof Jeffrey Schnapp from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and Prof Spiro Pollalis from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Previously I worked with Prof William J. Mitchell and Kent Larson from the MIT Media Lab, Prof John Sterman from the System Dynamics group of the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Prof David Parkes from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I have also collaborated with Prof Martin Bechthold from GSD, Prof Larry Sass, and Prof Dennis Shelden from MIT.

Besides my research I frequently organize talks, panel discussions, and conferences, I curate exhibitions, and I serve as jury committee in contests around design, technology, and innovation. I like biking, windsurfing, and waterskiing. You can download my CV, see more about my research, teaching, and design work, or contact me at dimp[at]dimitris-papanikolaou[dot]com.


Peer Reviewed Conference proceedings
Books & Journal Articles
Edited Conference Proceedings
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Presentations & Invited Talks

Conference & Symposium Presentations
Invited Talks
Research presentations (Demos)
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My work at Microsoft Research, explored how objects with frequent bodily contact can enhance emotional connectedness by communicating implicit traces of human activity. Furthermore how tactile and kinesthetic modalities can inform design strategies for richer tangible interfaces. I created a pair of interactive seats that can capture and exchange the “bodyprints” of their users as live gestural expressions through the Internet. Analogous to a footprint, a bodyprint manifests a person’s sitting posture as a distribution of the pressure that their body and limbs exert against the cushions of the seat. Most works in similar areas concentrated on retrofitting existing designs with sensor arrays with significant computational complexity during their signal analysis. My approach instead was to rethink the form and function of a seat in order to minimize the number of sensors and simplify their input analysis. Each BodyPod consists of a flexible surface of six pressure-sensing pads that adjust their shape to the body anatomy, ensuring consistent contact with the sensors during body movements. By rethinking the form and function of the seat, BodyPods easily detect eight postures and gestures with only six sensors. Future directions of this work include tangible gestural interfaces, game controllers, and medical applications.With AJ Brush and Asta Roseway, Computational User Experiences Group, Microsoft Research, Redmond, WA

Link to Video

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Governing the Commons of Mobility

My doctoral dissertation investigates the limits of efficiency of self-governance compared to those of enforced governance (centralized control) in intelligent urban resource allocation networks. Using Hubway, Boston’s bike sharing system, as a living laboratory, I combine advanced simulation methods to determine performance of truck rebalancing with an interactive strategic experiment to empirically assess the performance of a social mechanism design (with Prof Jose Gomez-Ibanez, HKS, Prof Spiro Pollalis, Harvard GSD, and Prof Jeffrey Schnapp, Berkman Center of Internet and Society).

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Bike Sharing Economics

A cost-benefit analysis of the bike sharing industry that compares the marginal operational costs based on trucks, employees, infrastructure capacity, and rebalancing rate, to the marginal revenues based on usage fees and utilization rate. Case studies included Boston, Washington DC, and Paris, combining publicly disclosed datasets with original data from web scraping methods and personal interviews (with Prof Jose Gomez-Ibanez, HKS, Prof Spiro Pollalis, Harvard GSD, and Prof Hans Pfister, Harvard SEAS).

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The Market Economy of Trips

A new operation model for MoD systems based on a double auction market where cost-minimizing users are both buyers and sellers of trip rights while profit-maximizing stations are competing auctioneers that trade them. Trip rights are priced relatively to the inventory needs of origin and destination stations causing some trips to be more expensive while others to pay back money to the users. MIT Transportation Program Award (with Prof William J. Mitchell, Kent Larson, MIT Media Lab; Prof John Sterman, MIT Sloan; Prof David Parkes, Harvard SEAS)

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An intuitive graphical user interface that uses dynamic contour map display for communicating location based price information to users. Color zones describe areas with same price indexes. Like navigating through a price landscape, climbing from valleys to hills is expensive, while descending from hills to valleys is rewarding. Traveling between locations of the same level is neutral (with Prof William J. Mitchell, and Kent Larson, MIT Media Lab)

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A series of interactive data visualization tools that allows researchers to explore mobility patterns in bike sharing systems. Tools include: a dynamic distribution chart that allow researchers to scroll in time and comprehend allocation of vehicles in statements such as "80% of bikes are parked in 40% of stations" and so forth. And a network analysis application that allows researchers to overview how origin destination links between stations change during time (with Prof Hanspeter Pfister, Harvard SEAS
More info here, and video here

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Real-Time MBTA

A data visualization tool programmed in Processing that tracks position of all subway trains in Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and displays them in real time on an interactive map. Users can observe individual trains as they move on the map and access information about their next destination, expected time of arrival, and speed (with Prof Hanspeter Pfister, Harvard SEAS)

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Multiagent Simulation of Bike Sharing Systems

A multiagent (stochastic) simulation model in NetLogo to study how the demand pattern of origin-destination trips affects the performance (service rate) of the system by causing several stations to deplete from vehicles while others to deplete from parking spaces. The user of the model can control the number of the pickup stations where new commuter agents head to and the number of the drop-off stations where travelling vehicles head to. Service rate depends on the correlation of the stocks of awaiting users and idle vehicles at the stations.

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Vehicle Dynamics

A computational stock-flow framework, modeled in System Dynamics, to study the efficiency of truck rebalancing methods in maintaining service rate in the system, based on number of trucks, carrying capacity, and operation time windows. The framework helps researchers study the dynamic behavior and equilibrium conditions in Mobility on Demand systems (with Prof John Sterman, MIT Sloan).

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Mobility on Demand (MOD)

An integrated proposal for sustainable urban mobility in dense cities that consist of a fleet of lightweight rechargeable electric vehicles, a network or rapid-charging stations, and an intelligent fleet management system that provides seamless point-to-point personal mobility. We created 3 vehicles: the City Car (now HIRIKO), a foldable electric car; the RoboScooter, a foldable electric scooter; and the GreenWheel, an electrically assisted bicycle wheel. All vehicles deploy modular, drive-by-wire, in-wheel motor technology which allows their chassis to fold and minimize parking space. MoD has been declared as the best invention of the year in 2007 by TIME magazine and won the $100K Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award in 2009 (with General Motors, Denokinn, Smart Cities, Changing places, Prof William J. Mitchell, and Kent Larson, MIT Media Lab)

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Cloudcommuting Game

An interactive strategic board game and educational tool that explores decision making and self-organization in dynamically priced resource allocation networks. Two players complete origin-destination missions by relocating their pawns between stations. Players can choose between a fixed-priced and a variably-priced transportation option. A third player (the computer) controls the pricing of picking up and dropping off at the stations based on demand and supply. Players have limited time and money resources, therefore they must choose the optimum combinations to win. The game uses an array of RFID sensors to track pick-ups and drop-offs. Sensors send messages to a central computer through the Internet each time a player picks up or drops. The computer updates a pricing visualization scheme, which is then projected back to the surface of the game, influencing the decisions of the players.
More info here

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DIY Toy Product Design

A hands-on workshop for designing, fabricating, and assembling, toy cars for the DIY community. Cars consist of three parts: wheels, chassis (lower part), and shell (upper part). The wheels must rotate, the chassis must be firmly supported on the wheels, and the shell must snap-fit to the chassis. Each student in a team was responsible for designing and fabricating a part, negotiating with her teammates about how parts interlock. Thus the decisions of each student both affected and depended on those of her teammates. Students must negotiate what they can design, design what they can model, model what they can fabricate, and fabricate what that they can assemble. The challenge was conceived to balance design and engineering complexity with team and time management skills. More information here.

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Understanding Planar-part Assemblies

Why certain geometric models can be assembled while others cannot, and why can't such problems be perceived during early design stages with traditional CAD tools? 3-axis CNC milling in combination with advanced CAD modeling is currently the standard digital fabrication method for producing irregular geometric forms from interlocking planar parts. Despite these advances in technology, understanding whether a CAD model can be assembled after its parts are fabricated is mostly a trial-error process. CAD models represent the final state of the assembly but not the process of putting parts together. Designers and builders use physical mockups to test constructability but with significant losses in time, cost, and clarity of understanding the solution to the geometrical problem. Studying assembly is a matter of understanding the liaisons' topology and the constraint delivery between parts. My SMArchS thesis developed a rule-based method that used graph theory and network analysis to identify incompatibilities in free-form designs of interlocking planar-part assemblies. Furthermore a simple system dynamics model to simulate the assembly sequence and estimate the expected time and effort for materializing a design. This work addressed analytically a complex problem that so far designers mostly approached empirically. (With Prof Larry Sass, MIT, and Dr Dennis Shelden, Gehry Technologies).

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This project advanced a method to digitally fabricate irregular structural envelopes from plywood (demonstrated by MIT at NYC MoMA’s Home Delivery exhibition) by retaining grid continuity across adjacent walls while maintaining perpendicularity of connected parts. This technique allowed standardization of joints and facilitated assembly
With Prof Larry Sass, MIT, and Dr Dennis Shelden, Gehry Technologies.

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Fabseat is a chair that can be parametrically customized, fabricated, flat-packed, and delivered to customers for assembly, on demand. Customers can parametrically adjust the design, and send it for fabrication to a local machine shop. Fabseat has been featured in: DWELL magazine, COOL HUNTING VIDEO, and has been a finalist at BILLES PRODUCTS design competition in New Orleans.

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A DIY toy-car made in a laser cutter and manually assembled with snap fit flexure joints that bend and spring back to install parts and prevent disassembly. No adhesives or fasteners required. Fabcar uses 3 differentials gears to unevenly distribute torque to each of the four wheels based on their individual resistances. Torque applied to the main shaft is transmitted through the central differential to the front and back differentials and from there to each of the four wheels. The design consists of 234 parts that can be cut in a laser cutter and manually assembled easily with no skills. Fabcar has been showcased in Guatemala by MIT Prof Meejin Yoon as example of cross-disciplinary design work. Part files available upon request.

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Customizable Cement Blocks

A method to design and fabricate building blocks that can be easily casted out of cement using low-cost molds. Furthermore the project developed a technique to fabricate molds out of layered plywood sheets that can be cut in a 3-axis CNC mill. The technique can rationalize a broad range of input geometric forms and decompose them into fabricatable and assemblable block units. During this research a number of small-scale and one large-scale prototypes where constructed and assembled (with Prof Larry Sass, MIT Digital Fabrication Group).

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A study for developing low-cost colorful plastic consumer products. Colorcos consist of 3 parts that are casted in Smooth-Cast® 325 liquid plastic in two-part rubber molds that are in turn casted from OOMOO® 30 silicon rubber in molds that were milled in high-density rigid foam in the ShopBot. Colorcos were initially designed to provide the chassis for a sensor network application, however they can be enjoyed as individual ready-made products.

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Talking Tiles

Wired translucent tiles that can communicate and transmit light-coded messages serially through a simple TX/RX communication protocol. Each Talking Tile has a unique ID address that can be called by a central controlling computer. Talking Tiles can be used as a low-cost sensor network application for interactive art projects. A computer can periodically request sensor measurements from each talking tile by calling its individual ID.

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An autonomous programmable robot that is capable of navigating into a labyrinth using a web cam and computer vision; avoid obstacles using infrared (IR) proximity sensors; locate, collect and carry red balls; and finally score points by passing the balls through special doors. MASLAB (Mobile Autonomous Systems Laboratory) is MIT's most intense IAP robotics competition (with Si Li and Rachelle Villalon, MIT).

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Magnetically snappable interactive blocks that can be assembled and create distributed communication networks. Each block has a custom-made LED matrix for output, and a touchpad for input, made from an acrylic surface supported on four button switches. Each block uses four pairs of TX/RX magnetic contact pads to both snap and communicate with neighboring blocks. Polycubes can be used as a self-guided assembly kit: an assembly sequence can be boot-loaded in a root block. Then, each block can indicate where the next block must be connected to. PCB design is modular consisting of four layers: 2 I/O layers, one layer for the microcontroller, and one layer for communication (with Prof Neil Gershenfeld, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms

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Fab Electronics

This project explored the use of FabLab equipment to make a linear position-measuring device that uses digital optical encoding detection. The device consist of a head that slides on two metal rods over a perforated encoding plastic sheet, integrating two IR photo transistors, two IR LEDs, and the microcontroller unit. By analyzing the pattern of On/OFF of the phototransistors as they slide over the holes of the encoding sheet speed, direction, and position can be inferred.

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A low-cost programmable personal device for storing, carrying, and displaying messages to people. A custom-made 5x5 LED matrix display consists of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) and is controlled by an ATtiny44 microcontroller chip. The LED display uses Charlieplexing, a method that utilizes the tri-state capability of microcontrollers to reduce the amount of required Input/Output pins to only 5 for controlling 30 LEDs.

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A lightweight, low-cost and easy to assemble, 7.5 ft. stitch-and-glue whitewater kayak chassis made from 1/8 marine plywood and zip-ties. StitchYak chassis can be easily covered with fiberglass to provide a durable watertight custom made kayak tailored to your needs. StitchYak design has a highly efficient structural form, following the principle of synclastic surfaces, without requiring many structural ribs. StitchYak is milled in a ShopBot, and can fit in two 4x8 ft. plywood sheets. StitchYak’s form can be customized to your needs due to the parametrically modeled file in Grasshopper and Rhino. Part files available upon request.

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A small pedestrian tensile bridge that was designed, engineered and assembled during a construction workshop at NTUA. The deck is supported on two composite arches, which were assembled from jointed wooden beams and then post-tensioned with cables. The two arches are inclined one away from the other to handle cross-sectional shearing distortion. Materials: Wooden beams (50x50mm, 50x80 mm), plywood, wirecable, Iron casted junctions (with Prof Dimitris Papalexopoulos, NTUA, and K. Poulopoulos, E. Pontikopoulou, K. Sandris, K. Pantazis, E. Economopoulou, and G. Tsolakis).

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A sustainable school proposal consisting of four entities (primary school, secondary school, kindergarten, and administration) clustered amphitheatrically in a natural pit of the landscape and sheltered by a tessellated roof. The design strategy serves two goals: first, to express the european spirit, uniting students from different cultural backgrounds and ages under one ideological shelter. Second, to provide environmental protection and increased energy efficiency (with Aristodimos Komninos, and further assistance by Slobodan Radomman, Tarek Rakha, and Karen Noiva).

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A design proposal for a sustainable housing complex in Valverde island, Spain, consisting of 60 units organized into six clusters that balance individual privacy and community collectiveness. The six clusters are connected to the city by a public esplanade that contains the social and commercial life of the community. Each cluster connects through a local grid to the island’s newly planned hydroelectric power plant and will act as energy storage buffer harvesting energy during off-peak hours and distributing energy back to the village during peak demand hours.

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Junction & Disjunction

An urban redevelopment project at the port of Piraeus in Greece that links programmatically two docks with a foldable floating pedestrian bridge, two container-based public markets, and a multipurpose building. The connection allows the passage of ships (with Prof Tasos Biris, National Technical University of Athens).

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Jeongok Museum

A museum for prehistoric findings consisting of multiple excavated rooms in the natural landscape, sheltered by a tessellated canopy (with Tasos Biris, Sofia Tsiraki, and Angelos Angelou).

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FWD talks

A series of fast-pacing talks followed by discussions that present breakthrough ideas at the intersection of design, technology, and policy. Talks last 25min followed by another 25 of QA and discussion. FWD Talks focus on communicating innovative ideas/technologies in a critical point of view (through strong visual material) rather than showing off interesting work. Speakers must include 5 slides with the following keywords in their presentations: WHAT, WHY, HOW, DEMO, NEXT. What idea are you talking about? Why is it important? How does it work? Demonstrate a case. Tell what's next with it. FWD TALKS brings together a cross-disciplinary audience from GSD, MIT Media Lab, and Harvard HBS/MIT Sloan.

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FWD TALKS is a series of fast-pacing talks followed by discussions that present breakthrough ideas at the intersection of design, technology, and policy. FWD TALKS are organized into 3 thematic areas: new objects, new systems, and new methods. Talks last 20-30min followed by another 20-30 of QA and discussion. Presentations are brief to emphasize discussion and engagement with the audience. FWD TALKS are video recorded and published online. Talks focus on new ideas/technologies in a critical point of view rather than just showing interesting work. This is done through a strong emphasis on visual material. FWD TALKS are organized in a WHAT, WHY, HOW, CASE, NEXT thesis format: What idea are you talking about? Why is it important? How does it work? Show us a case. Tell us what's next with it. We ask speakers to include 5 slides with the above keywords in their presentation to organize the flow of their talk. FWD TALKS brings together a cross-disciplinary audience from GSD, MIT Media Lab, and Harvard HBS/MIT Sloan.

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GSD.6475 Lifecycle Design

The design of sustainable buildings has long focused on reduced energy needs during the operational phase, largely disregarding energy and material consumption as well as emissions associated with the construction, maintenance, re-use, and demolition. Designing building products from the recycled stream may open entrepreneurial avenues using materials that would otherwise be disposed of at significant cost. This lecture/workshop presents the broader issues of lifecycle design, with a special interest in performative components and assemblies for the building envelope. The course introduces the fundamentals of product development and prototyping, manufacturing processes, market research and economic analysis.
Various methods for analyzing material flows and processes are used to guide the evaluation of existing components as well as enable the creative development of new ideas for products that create value from waste materials. In the first part of the course students work individually and focus on understanding limitations and opportunities for lifecyle design through the analysis and development of short case studies. In the second part of the course small student groups develop proposals and prototypes for a newly conceived building component based on recycled materials. These projects forefront creative design while addressing technical and business aspects. Offered by the Graduate School of Design, students from the Harvard Business School and other graduate schools are encouraged to enroll. Interdisciplinary teams of students will be formed to develop the product design projects.(With Prof Martin Bechthold, HGSD)

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MAS.S63 Design for [DIY] Manufacturing

This class explores alternative and small-scale (e.g. tens or hundreds) manufacturing processes through the hands-on design and prototyping of electronic devices. Follow- ing a studio format, students develop a product over the course of a semester, working individually or in small groups. (Students should enter the class with some idea for what they’d like to make.) The course investigates the aesthetic and practical possibilities of digital fabrication and other small-scale production processes like laser-cutting, 3D print- ing, and circuit board fabrication. Consideration is given to material selection, form and interaction, assembly, and distribution. Students develop multiple prototypes throughout the semester, iterating and refining their design. The studio work is complemented by lectures and readings on design and manufacturing as well as guest talks on product design and production. Students are expected to document their work online throughout the semester. The class does not provide extensive instruction in individual CAD tools, computer programming, or general electronics. Students should have a background in one of these areas and are expected to develop the others independently, as necessary for their projects (with David A. Mellis, Marcelo Coelho, Mark Feldmeier, Nan-Wei Gong, Nadya Peek, Amit Zoran).

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I am an architect engineer and systems thinker; currently at Harvard GSD, previously at the MIT Media Lab, and earlier at the MIT Design Computation Group. I explore how technology, policy, and design create new experiences for learning, making, and living. My work draws on a diversity of skills including digital design & fabrication, physical computing, (reverse) game theory, experimental economics, programming, data visualization, and complex systems simulation to invent mechanisms that leverage on how people make decisions over limited resources.


Harvard GSD, 48 Quincy Street, Cambridge MA 02139


Curriculum Vitae
Design Portfolio


Mar 2015
Talk at MIT on Computational Making
Mar 2015
Talk at Carnegie Mellon University on Design on Design, Media, and Computation
Jan 2015
My recent paper BodyPods was presented at TEI 2015 at Stanford Uiversity
Dec 2014
Upcoming article on the history of 18th Century's Mechanical Internet of Optical Telegraphy accepted at Harvard's New Geographies Journal
Dec 2014
Talk at the Interactive Telecommunications Program of NYU on Tangible Media and furniture design
Sep 2014
I am appointed adjunct Assistant Professor at NYU's Interctive Telecommunications Program (ITP)
Nov 2013
I was a Judge during the finalist session at the Building Global Innovators (BGI) Venture Competition of the MIT Portugal Program at the Smart Cities track
Nov 2013
I was invited as a reviewer at Skylar Tibitts' studio at MIT "Origins of Life: Architecture Design Fundamentals"
Nov 2013
I presented my research at the 27th MIT-UAlbany System Dynamics PhD colloquium
Oct 2013
I was invited as a reviewer at the Networked Urbanism design studio at Harvard GSD taught by Juse Luis Vallejo and Belinda Tato
Oct 2013
FWD Talks will be coorganizing a discussion at Harvard GSD between Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, and Moshen Mostafavi, Dean of GSD
Aug 2013
I will be chairing a panel at the 102nd ACSA annual meeting in Miami, titled "The Elements of Urban Intelligence: New Pedagogies in Global Architectural Theory." More information on the conference here
Jul 2013
I became a fellow at Harvard University's Graduate Consortium on Energy and Environment (HUCE)
Jul 2013
I was awarded a scholarship from the A.G. Leventis Foundation