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emerging technologies


A networked model of a water-resource allocation algorithm that exhibits dynamic, emergent behaviors. It is inspired by the current water crisis in the western US. Water also serves as a metaphor for distribution of capital and cultural resources throughout our communities.

Art and Science

Sustainable is a dynamic, autonomous, robotic installation comprised of a network of seven independent water gongs. The network models a water-resource allocation algorithm that yields a perpetual evolution of the sonic, visual, and timbral aspects of the installation. Each gong node functions independently and autonomously, but through their simple interactions, the system as a whole exhibits dynamic, emergent behaviors that unfold over time.

In this work, the powerful language of art is integrated with current hardware, software, and research from the sciences to address issues of social and environmental importance in a visceral, immediate way. It is designed to raise concerns over the growing water crisis that currently confronts many parts of the world and will be one of the primary global issues in coming years. Viewers are challenged to consider these issues as they observe hundreds of gallons of water flowing through the network.

The project borrows from evolutionary computing techniques and current research in water resource distribution algorithms to implement and manage a dynamic system. It merges art and sophisticated scientific tools to allow viewers to focus on the organic and aesthetic aspects of the work.

As the sounds and visuals of the system slowly evolve, and viewers contemplate how close and interdependent our communities are, the work contributes to enhanced social and environmental awareness and reflection.


To implement a compelling physical system that integrates knowledge from the arts and sciences to realize a unique work that will stimulate thought and reflection.


A core innovation of this work is design and implementation of a physical dynamic system that exhibits emergent properties. Though software models of dynamic systems are increasingly important, their physical realization poses logistical and conceptual challenges. Through simple, independent behaviors, as water, sound, and light move throught the system, the nodes are in constant flux.

The system uses Atmel microprocessors on custom PCB's to control sensors and actuators embedded in each water gong. The microcontroller software is written in C with the ICC-AVR IDE. The water tanks, support structures, and gong suspension armatures are custom fabricated.


Over the coming years, water distribution and allocation will become a pressing global issue. This work integrates current research in the sciences and the communicative power of the arts to address the immediacy of this environmental, social, and political concern. Sustainable models the complex, dynamic, networked world we live in and seeks to generate an immersive experience for contemplation and reflection.


David Birchfield
Arizona State University
Arts, Media and Engineering
dbirchfield (at)


David Lorig
Kelly Phillips
Arts, Media and Engineering
Arizona State University