Yet another year gone by. As we edge towards 2016, we would like to take a moment to thank those of you who gave us your trust, support, advise and time. It's been a good year for the studio and for this we remain grateful.
Here's a quick glimpse of our 2015 highlights.
Mangala For All: The year started with us roaming the streets of Ahmedabad, India with miniature Mangalyaan space probes. The project has been a fascinating discovery of India's space ambitions within the context of global (meta)geopolitics and the commercial space industry.
Drone Aviary at the V&A: Through a series of drone models, publications and films this project investigated the social, political and cultural potential of drone technology as it enters civil space. It has been shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Design 21_21 Tokyo, Museo Villa Croce (Inaugurazione di RAM House), and ZKM Karlsruhe, and will continue touring in 2016.
Superflux Magazine: We launched an amorphous magazine! The first issue designed as a double sided A1 poster titled 'Cartographies of the Sky' explores the vertical geographies and digital infrastructures that cities will need in order to accommodate civilian drones. It has an editorial by Warren Ellis and short drone fictions from Tim Maughan.
Uninvited Guests: With a focus on IoT and connected homes within the context of elderly healthcare and remote tracking, our short film for Thingtank explores the frictions between an elderly man and his smart home.
BuggyAir: Following our winning application for Innovate UK's IoT Launchpad Competition we have built, and are testing working prototypes of an accurate mobile sensing kit that helps parents understand their children's exposure to air pollution.
Data Futures: We developed the strategy and accompanying narratives, scenarios, and artifacts around future of data and alternate financial institutions for a client. The project investigates the changing value of data as currency, and the role of technologies such as IoT and distributed ledgers within this new landscape.
How Will We Live?: My opening keynote at NEXT Conference in Hamburg, Germany connected seemingly disparate ideas of psychology, chunking, artificial intelligence, drones, refugees, and political activism to paint a picture of our contemporary lives.
Knotty Objects, MoMA and MIT Media Lab: I was fortunate to contribute to the first MIT Media Lab Summit devoted to design, Knotty Objects which gathered designers, scientists, engineers, makers, writers, curators, and scholars to examine the transdisciplinary nature of contemporary design. Here's the video from my session 'Manufactured Objects'.
Drone workshops: Jonathan Flint and Jon Ardern led a series of drone making workshops with young people (aged 13-16) introducing them to the technology through a series of making and Q&A sessions. There have been some great results so far.
State of Eindhoven: In October, I joined the City of Eindhoven's 'Smart Council' to confront and provoke policymakers, designers and businesspeople as the city shapes up its remit as a 'participatory smart city'. More on the ongoing work and related publications soon.
Team: Jonathan Flint and Vytautas Jankauskas joined us as full time designers / makers / researchers, and alongwith our newly recruited studio manager, we are really pleased with how the team is shaping up.
Press & Media: Motherboard, Dezeen, BBC Futures, VICE, Creative Applications, Creators Project were some of the publications who featured our work. Also, the brilliant newspaper 'Paprika' from Yale School of Architecture interviewed us for their latest edition, here's a copy.
We leave you with Ursula Franklin's definition of peace as our hope for 2016: "not so much the absence of war but the presence of justice… the absence of fear… a commitment to the future.”
I was invited to deliver the keynote at NEXT Conference held on September 24th-25th 2015 in Hamburg, Germany. A busy mix of agency, marketing and business executives, it was an audience outside of our usual network. And so, it became an opportunity for Jon and me to present our thinking, our company and the research areas we want to work in, to a new audience. This is the video of the talk, it was more like a performance, with a stream of videos and animations as visual stimulus. And the full transcript is right below the video.
This is Prof Ranjan. On a Sunday few weeks ago he posted one of his regular selfies on Facebook. Three hours later he was no more. His untimely death has been a deep shock for the Indian design community and the wider world whom he touched. I am still quite not sure how to make sense of it. In many ways I am here today because of him.
I could not help but think of the fragility of life. In that moment of news, I had just finished recording a little video clip of my three year old son’s first encounter with a VR Headset. As I looked at my son, that sudden loss made me consider my own mortality more then ever before. In the absence of a prolific collection of selfies I considered writing a letter to my son — something he might read in the future, in the event of my own untimely death. But sitting down to contemplate what I would write I was continually drawn to the question: In what future world would this letter find him?
As a designer my work often involves investigating potential futures, normally through the lens of a specific technology. But this raw personal emotion gave another level of poignancy to that moment’s consideration.
As we kick of this new version of NEXT with the theme ‘How We Will Live’, I can not but help but pose that as a question. HOW WILL WE LIVE? In the 30 minutes I have, I can barely even scratch the surface of this question, but I will try my best to highlight a few themes that can hopefully help widen the scope of conversations over the next two days. Starting with some fundamental questions: What future are we building for ourselves and our children? More importantly, how are our visions of the future shaped and formed? What impact to these visions have on our lives, and what power do we have to influence and change them?
Whilst we conference, the future is manifesting itself all around us through a notification, an update, a news headline, a product launch, a housing policy, a new voting system, a political party, a patent, a treaty. And even though its within reach, and all around us, we often struggle to make sense of it.
The popular term for this in psychology is ‘Selective exposure’. Simply put — we favour information that reinforces our pre-existing views and avoid information that might question our beliefs and attitudes. It was precisely this kind of confirmatory bias that was responsible for the 2008 bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers Investment Bank, triggering the Global Financial Crisis. In the zeal for profit and economic gain, politicians, investors and financial advisors ignored the mathematical evidence that foretold the housing market crash, in favour of flimsy justifications for upholding the status quo.
In situations where we are confronted with ideas that conflict with our beliefs, we experience a form of mental discomfort. Leon Festinger called this ‘cognitive dissonance’. Stealing office supplies is one little example — if you grab sharpies and post-its from your office, whilst knowing that it does not feel right, you justify it by telling yourself that you are being made to work long hours, or not being paid enough.
Scientists continue to warn us about global warming, and many of us are aware of it, but either because of direct vested interests in it, such as being the chief executive of Volkswagen, or for lesser mortals like the rest of us — the burden of doing something about it — simply less flying or having fewer children is difficult. So we seek out information that will be more comforting, and find justifications for our actions.
These are just some examples of cognitive weaknesses that as well as blindsiding us, are also exploited by various industries to ensure we consume only specific information, whilst ignoring other. Part of it is due to the media landscape we live in, which presents us with carefully curated singular future visions full of shiny glass surfaces and effortlessly telepathy. Unless we understand these conditions, our capacity to create the future we want will be out of our hands and we will have no control it. So today, I want to go beneath the visions of the future we consume. As we look around at big trends like Big Data, Smart Cities or Internet of Things, which we realise are not really so separate, each of them bleed into the other.
Image from Luxury Report Magazine . “Technology Trends” are invariably visualised as a blue rendered image of magical technology popping out of a man’s hands.
So I’ll try and paint a bit of big picture by starting with the mundane activities such as socialising and shopping. Until recently, I was a prime amazon member, using it to the fullest, buying emergency nappies at 2 in the night. It would be at my doorstep the next morning. Super convenient. Next time I was offered a combo deal with wet wipes. Of course duh. Then those books which promise the dream of sleep, then the cute onesies, then the pacifiers. Not to mention the free vouchers and coupons. I was hooked.
We become enveloped in habit forming feedback loops, thanks to the convenience of it all — the fingerprint login, the one click buy button, saved credit details so on. This system of cue / routine / reward — in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, is called “chunking” by researchers at MIT. A simple example is driving a car. When first learning to drive, tremendous concentration is brought to bear, the brain is highly active. But after much repetition, much of the act of driving becomes “chunked” into a subroutine that is executed with far less brain activity.
These habit-forming digital activities turn us into what I call Chunkers: A new 24/7 labour class of data producing workers. As Adam Curtis has written, giant computer servers accumulate the data and metadata of our most mundane everyday pasts — creating a historical universe that is constantly mined to find new ways of giving back to us today what we liked yesterday — with variations.
The inevitable effect of chunking is the narrowing and simplification of our experience making it easier for smarter and cleverer recommendation systems to predict what we might want next. This baffling patent diagram is one example of that. Its Amazon’s patent for anticipatory shipping, so things we haven’t yet ordered but are very likely to do so, are already being shipped right now.
I have recently started confusing the Amazon algorithms, by searching for all sorts of things that I absolutely dont want. The recommendations are — well — outrageous to say the least. I know I have probably dug my own grave of insufferable spam.
But jokes apart, when such systems start showing signs of autonomy, things can get eerily complicated. One small example is my latest stand off with Siri. We are going to enter into ever more complex battles over autonomy and agency with the gadgets we use and live with.
Whilst concerns about robots taking over our jobs hit the headlines, I think we need to delve a bit more instead on how we are progressing or regressing human agency. How much capacity do we have to push ourselves to test the limits of our own abilities?
This becomes even more important to think about with the internet of things as the cue / routine / reward system is bleeding out into our physical infrastructures. Instead of buying stuff online, things all around you keep track of what you need, so long as you keep feeding them data.
Mimo, a smart baby monitor built into a onesie notifies you when your baby wakes up or changes her breathing pattern. so when your baby is stirring, the lights turn on, coffee begins brewing and some Baby Mozart starts playing on the stereo. if you are a parent in this room you might notice some problems with this product and its programmed behaviour. Most recently we heard of the smart fridge that leaves your gmail accounts vulnerable and the TV that listens into your conversations.
Recently I worked with my team at Superflux on a project where we explored the frictions that arise between such one-size-fits-all IoT care devices and an elderly person’s habits and rituals. Thomas, aged 70, has been given smart devices by his children who live far away, so they can monitor their’s father’s wellbeing. A smart fork to monitor his diet, a smart cane to monitor his exercise and a smart mattress to monitor his sleep.
Finding the constant nudges of the devices intrusive, Thomas stopped using them, only to be nagged by his children. So he looks for ways to outsmart the devices. I am going to show just a small part of the film — its called Uninvited Guests.
IoT is happening so much to us, that we forget that the technology is not the goal.
This is something my colleague Hugh Knowles constantly reminds us. Instead of desperately hunting for the killer app in IoT, what would truly make it a killer tech would be a human approach to the technology — ethical, sustainable biz models that empower people. Where we have the capacity and tools to make sense of the data we collect, and decide what we want to do with it.
We consider startups and entrepreneurs to be disruptors and early adopters of such technologies. But ironically, nation states are often the ones who actually test these technologies and start using them in unexpected and unsettling ways.
The Chinese government recently announced that it is building a ‘Social Credit System’, where they will use big data and various surveillance systems to publicly rate its citizens on sincerity scores. People will know they are being watched and their standing in society will be affected by their behaviour. This shouldn’t be so shocking for us here in the West, where such systems have been operating by stealth for a very long time. And lest we forget, there are obvious icons that represent the power and struggles of such systems.
But beyond the obvious, if we looking through the cracks and crevices we discover the less visible side of these infrastructures and big data systems. The same system which allows companies to collect copious amounts of our data and predict what we might need, is also used for policing and crime prediction. “What Can We Learn from Wal-Mart and Amazon about Fighting Crime in a Recession? ask law enforcement agencies who are busy trawling your social media data for early warnings — such as postings of gigs, parties etc. Once a computer identifies an area as a hot spot, it lowers the bar for what qualifies as suspicious behaviour -reinforce stereotypes about certain neighbourhoods.
Another example mentioned by Adam Curtis is STATIC-99 — the most popular tool in the US for predicting whether sex offenders are likely to commit crimes again after they have been released. It is being used to decide whether to keep them in jail even after they have served their full sentence. But the fact is that there is no way the system can predict what an individual will do. A recent report of such systems said that the margin of error for individuals could be as great as between 5% and 95%. Yet people are being kept in prison on the basis that such a system predicts they might do something bad in the future.
And so we come a full circle. From the simple act of shopping or sharing insignificant details of our lives online to future crime prediction — increasingly autonomous systems are constantly, watching, tracking, logging, collecting and archiving every aspect of our lives. Anonymity is becoming a luxury. Where it will never be possible to forget or get lost ever again. Finding patterns from these trillions of megabytes of data has become the biggest asset of the 21st century.
The future will be a landfill of GPS tags.
Although we might find the records and archives of our most mundane daily activities rather dull, these grey boring blocks are the biggest centres of power today. Our futures are being built on these archives. If ever there was a truth in the idea of how your past will come to haunt you in the future, its NOW. You are only as much as your data karma will allow you to be.
FaceBook’s new custom-built Data Center based in Prineville, Oregon, Photo by Tom Rafterty
This might all seem a tad dystopian, but it is a very real aspect of our technological landscape. I think one of the reasons we often overlook these more problematic aspects is because we tend to imbue technology with the ideals of the people who have created it, and the messages of those who market it. However, creator and marketeers only ever set the affordances and suggest a use case. A technology’s true impact will always be defined by those who use it. Whether that’s knitting groups or fascist regimes, technology becomes an amplifier and accelerator of the social, cultural and political values of the groups who use it, not those who made it. And it will continue to be used in ways you can never imagine.
For instance this article has been doing the rounds recently. Lot of people have been very surprised that Syrian refugees have smart phones. I guess its interesting because we see it being used in unexpected ways, but I think this needs a bit of context is needed.
This is Syria before the civil war broke out in 2011.
And here’s one of the beautiful squares of Damascus. Not one of the world’s richest country, but doing well, and with more then enough comforts to afford cheap or not so cheap smart phones.
Before this happened.
And whilst these are the popular images in the media it is often devoid of even the most recent historical context.
As millions of Syrians flee their homeland, they grab the most essential items that will help them stay connected, and chart their journeys forward. Whatsapp and maps take on a whole new meaning as they become a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people.
Simultaneously that very same technology is being ingeniously exploited by oppressive forces. Soldiers at government checkpoints, as well as at Islamic State checkpoints, commonly demand Facebook passwords. They look at Facebook profiles to determine one’s allegiance in the war.
And then altogether just like that — these things can be turned off. Just few weeks ago the Government of India turned off internet for 63 million people in my home state of Gujarat. It was known as the ‘whatsapp ban’, and was implemented because it could (apparently) ‘incite social unrest’. It was used an an instrument of control over quick communication of ‘rumours’. A very stark reminder of where power lies and how quickly something that we have come to rely on can be taken away.
And this is a small example of something history has repeatedly demonstrated. Those with the least power to participate in creating the future often suffer the worst consequences of its manifestations.
If I were to write a letter to my son I will not fail to write to him about the incredible and powerful work of thousands of people across the world to build a more inclusive, plural, aspirational world. I will write to him about the world changing projects that are brought about by the determination of a few. I will share with him a future of promises too. But I want to show some other shades that might help him form a more nuanced worldview.
We are here to discuss the consumers of tomorrow. They are going to be all groups, more diverse than you can imagine. They will include us, people from other parts of the world, extremist groups, fascist governments, activists, refugees, creditors, and bots. So any future we consider and design for will need to be diverse, plural and inclusive.
And in what world will these varied consumers live? Let us, for a very brief moment, do a thought experiment of extending it into just one — probably populist theory of the future right far out. Say 50 years from now — 2060–2070. Tim Urban’s brilliant ‘Wait But Why’ blog polls various experts of the AI field, who place their estimate of the birth of an artificial superintelligence (ASI) — one that exceeds human intelligence — to around 2060.
The kind of intelligence that we couldn’t understand anymore. As Tim writes, “An ASI would be orders of magnitude more powerful than a human mind, and it would use its power to continuously improve itself even further. For a human trying to understand an ASI’s “mind” would be as it would be for a spider to try to understand a human’s mind, concepts and culture.”
Couple this big technology trend with one of the biggest societal “trend” or more like — concern. Scientists at UK’s Met Office Department of Energy and Climate Change warn that a 3–4C rise in temperature could happen by 2060 without strong action on emissions, which will have a global GDP loss of 0.7% to 2.5% cause a 40% reduction in corn, rice other agricultural produce.
People will be forced from their homes on a grand scale — from coastal areas because of rising seas; from areas no longer habitable due to high temperatures or drought; and from changing industrial and commercial practices. Maybe human society will be so displaced that they won’t be able to adapt to it. Just about the same time at we have artificial superintelligence.
What world will that be? Some of us might still be alive then. My son would be in 63 then, and if he did have children, then my grandchildren could be just about my age. Suddenly time compresses and nothing seems that far off.
This might feel like a work of fiction and it may well turn out to be, as the future remains uncertain. But its potential is very real. Lets just have another look at the events unfolding around us today. The situation in Syria could be seen as a microcosm of this future. Researchers and scientists have said this for several years now — global warming intensified the Syria’s worst-ever drought between 2006 -2010, which destroyed the country’s agriculture.
Pushing 15 million into cities already straining from an influx of refugees from warn-torn iraq and poor government. Professor Seager of Columbia University says “I think it’s only just beginning. It’s going to continue through the current century as part of the general drying of the Eastern Mediterranean — I don’t see how things are going to survive there.”
On the Artificial Intelligence front, well we have already starting to see the impact of autonomous robotic systems.
So once again when we ask — How will we live? How will we survive, sustain, endure?
The problem with utopias or dystopias is that they demand fear or hope. Where fear often paralyses, hope fosters placid anticipation. Both can lead to inaction. When considering how to move beyond this dichotomy I am reminded of a Gilles Deleuze’s quote ‘There is no need to look for fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.’
As entrepreneurs, marketeers, media agents, technologists, hackers, designers, you have amongst you, a suite of sophisticated tools and clever tactics of social media, information access, language, human and machine resource, and so much more. You don’t need to go out on the streets and protest if that’s not for you, you can instead become stealth activists, to create the future we want. As Keller Easterling would say: “Gossip, rumor, gift-giving, compliance, mimicry, comedy, distraction, hacking or entrepreneurialism.” are all tools for the stealth activist.
So — what can you do?
This is just my quick, hastily cobbled back-of-the-napkin list, certainly not an exhaustive one. The point is that, you can, within your contexts and environments, be tactical, creative and innovative, in order to leverage power.
We all know Orwell for the bleak dystopia of his book 1984. What is not so known is that he wrote it because he was full of hope. As Thomas Pynchon wrote in his 2003 foreword for the book: “Orwell remained confident in the ability of ordinary people to change anything, if they would. It is the boy’s smile, in any case, that we return to, direct and radiant, proceeding out of an unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, is good and that human decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted — a faith so honourable that we can almost imagine Orwell, and perhaps even ourselves, for a moment anyway, swearing to do whatever must be done to keep it from ever being betrayed.”
I would like to thank Jon Ardern for the numerous conversations that informed this talk. I would also like to thank Peter Bihr, Monique van Dusseldorp and NEXT conference organisers for the kind invitation.
We've been so busy recently that this blog hasn't been getting the love and attention it deserves. There's been a lot happening in the studio, and as the summer slowly slips away from us, it feels like a good time to share a quick roundup of studio highlights from the last few months.
- The Drone Aviary project is heading to phenomenal ZMK Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe where it will become part of Globale: Infosphere, a pioneering new show curated by Peter Weibel, Daria Mille, Stephan Schwingeler and Giulia Bini.
- Anab will be delivering the opening keynote at the Next Conference in Hamburg, exploring this year's theme "How we will Live". Other talks this autumn include Future Cities Catapult, London School of Economics and Arts+Bits Festival in Katowice, Poland.
We are also doing research for a new project around robotics and urban autonomous systems, about to announce two Long Now London meetups for the autumn, and lead a drones workshop at Goldsmiths Festival.
One of the most exciting and challenging ongoing project in the studio is BuggyAir, an IoT project where we are building an accurate mobile air pollution sensing kit that can be attached to prams. Our focus is to test BuggyAir with 40 parents / carers to design better decision pathways around individual data. All users will own their own data, and they will have the right to choose how to use it, and whom to share it with. Based on some incredible work around data licensing, we are designing a systemic approach to a (responsible) IoT project. Our focus is on creating meaningful representations of the data to enable participants to choose between transparency and privacy, and ensure that feedback loops around the data collected can lead to behavioural and legislative change. Our first kit is currently being tested, and we are building 10 more as I write this. Following the tests and prototyping, we will be able to produce a smaller compact version in the next few months.
We are about to ship a client project where we developed strategy, narratives, speculative scenarios, and numerous artifacts around future of data and alternate financial institutions. The project investigates the changing value of data as currency, and the role of technologies such as IoT and distributed ledgers within this new landscape.
On the Lab front, we are currently doing some stealth research around a sensitive project and plotting the second issue of the SUPERFLUX Magazine, which it is safe to say, will be radically different in form and content from the first one.
We led a design futures workshop at the Open Set School in Rotterdam earlier this month titled 'Port Fiction'. Participants from South Korea, Singapore, China, Lebanon, US, and across Europe attended the workshop where we visited the mega port of Rotterdam to better understand its operational, economic, cultural and political impact on the city historically, today, and in the future.
Anab delivered a talk at Knotty Objects, MoMA and MIT Media Lab's Design Summit at the Media Lab in Boston.
We had the honour of showing the Drone Aviary at Joseph Grima and Space Caviar's RAM House Opening in Genoa.
I attended the workshop of designers and futurists, to explore concepts for the UAE Government's Museum of the Future, hosted by Tellart in Amsterdam.
Our project Dynamic Genetics vs Mann is published in the book 'Blueprints for the Unknown' as well as in the latest issue of the Method Quarterly.
Commissioned by Thingtank, our project Uninvited Guests explores the frictions between an elderly man and his smart home, and was recently featured on the Creators Project.
We launched a magazine earlier this year, with an editorial by Warren Ellis and short drone fictions by Tim Maughan. We are grateful for all the love and support it received, and are looking forward to the next issue.
From 1st April to 19th July, our project 'Drone Aviary' was shown at the 'All Of This Belongs To You' show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. We are overwhelmed and humbled with the response the project continues to receive till date. Our favourite press features include the BBC, Motherboard, Dezeen, Creative Applications, and Laughing Squid. The film was selected as Vimeo Staff Pick which helped bring a diverse audience to the work.
We are a research and design studio. We imagine, investigate, design, build and test ways in which technologies influence and shape our worlds. As our work explores the complex, often intangible nature of technology, we are always interested in finding new, tangible forms for sharing our thinking, processes and outcomes. A conversation with Warren Ellis few months ago resulted in the idea of a new kind of magazine. A magazine that has a constantly evolving form, a magazine whose physicality becomes a means of provocation in itself. Warren said he would be happy to be the Editor and titled the magazine SUPERFLUX. Warren has written a great editorial and writer Tim Maughan has written a series of exceptionally pertinent short fictions for this edition.
So here it is, SUPERFLUX, Issue 1.
PURCHASE A COPY
The magazine is a double sided A1 poster, printed in four process colours using offset lithography, on 150gsm munken lynx matte paper by the great Gavin Martin Colournet printers. They are packaged and shipped with love from our studio in the Biscuit Factory.
We have printed a limited edition, so order a copy for just £20 + postage, and become part of our new adventure!
|SUPERFLUX ISSUE 1 + P&P|
The Drone Aviary - an R&D project from The Superflux Lab - is an investigation of the social, political and cultural potential of drone technology as it enters civil space. Through a series of ongoing installations, films and publications, the project aims to give a glimpse into a near-future city co-habit with ‘intelligent’ semi autonomous, networked, flying machines.
We were pleased to be invited by the V&A to present an installation of the project within the Civic Objects display at their ground-breaking show ‘All Of This Belongs To You’, running from 1st April to 19th July 2015. You’ll find our installation in , within the 20th century design exhibits, in the space adjacent to .
(The Drone Aviary Film, recommended viewing with headphones)
The installation at the V&A contains a family of 5 drones and an accompanying film. Each drone is designed to be symbolic of the convergence of wider social and tech trends with specific tasks and functions that are gaining popularity amongst drone enthusiasts and entrepreneurs.
1. Madison, The Flying Billboard: This is an advertising drone, a hovering display platform, which can swoop, scan and hunt consumer demographics. It uses sophisticated facial recognition to gain feedback on the effectiveness of its content and to tailor advertisements to the interests of those within its vicinity.
2. Newsbreaker, The Media Drone: Supported by algorithmic monitoring news, emergency services and social media in real-time, these nimble devices push the boundaries for what has become known as High Frequency Journalism, helping feed our growing hunger for the very latest breaking news stories as it happens. As it films and streams news in real-time, story writing algorithms parse imagery, audio, web and radio traffic into rapidly growing, and continually edited, column inches.
3. Nightwatchman, The Surveillance Drone: A highly mobile data acquisition device used by everyone from local councils to law enforcement agencies. By securely connecting to a centralised database The Nightwatchman is able to amass and utilise huge amounts of location and subject specific information assisting in everything from documenting civil offences to detecting potential terror threats.
4. RouteHawk, Traffic Management Assistant: This drone fulfills two primary functions: firstly with its high brightness LED display and powerful 8 motor design the RouteHawk can move quickly to problem situations and provide dynamic warnings to approaching drivers. Secondly its LIDAR speed detector and ANPR camera allow the RouteHawk to efficiently log and transmit traffic violations to relevant penalty enforcement departments, often allowing a unit to pay for itself within a month.
5. FlyCam Instadrone: A highly accessible, low cost, user-friendly platform with true 'smart' style functionality. Quickly superseding the Selfie stick as todays must have life-logging and social media tool, the FlyCam allows anyone with a smartphone to share unforgettable memories from the cloud using the Instadrone app. Additionally, its patented context aware algorithm means advertisers can deliver messages to customer when and where it counts.
In the film, the drones become
protagonists, revealing fleeting glimpses of the city from their perspective,
as they continuously collect data and perform tasks. It hints at a world where
the ‘network’ begins to gain
physical autonomy, moving through and making decisions about the world,
influencing our lives in often opaque yet profound ways. A speculative map
highlights where physical and digital infrastructures merge as our cities
become the natural habitat for 'smart' technologies from drones and wearable computers
through to driverless cars.
We made a poster about the project called 'Cartographies of the Sky', which is available for purchase.
(Due to the exhibition context the drones will not be flying for this installation - but they’re very much‘alive’ and we hope to run at least one event during the time of exhibition where visitors will be able to view and possibly interact with a flying drone. This is still under discussion but watch this space.)
In this post, we want to share some of our intent behind the project, as well as our process of research, design, hacking, building and testing, all of which continues to be an intense but great learning curve.
PROJECT JOURNAL: INTENT, RESEARCH AND DESIGN PROCESS
It’s 2015. An inebriated off-duty government intelligence agent sends his DJI Phantom crashing into the White House, resulting in the private drone company forcing a mandatory firmware to disable all Camera Drones in Washington DC’s No Fly Zone with immediate effect. And this came just few weeks after a drone outfitted with mistletoe into a photojournalist's face, bloodying her nose and chin. Whilst the occasional crash stories get all the coverage, the last couple of years have seen a prodigious rise in civilian drones with venture capital funding for drone-related startups totaling to $412 million in 2014. From NASA’s hurricane-hunting drones to methane-sniffing anti-fracking drones, to the larger corporate beasts such as Google’s and Amazon’s , Facebook’s solar drones, the more altruistic ventures such as the , the critical voices of the Centre for the Study of the Drone and Drone Journalism Lab, to the hugely popular - the interest in drones is growing faster than any regulatory framework around their use. Ruth Mallors, director of the UK aerospace Knowledge Transfer Network, estimates the value of all the potential services drones might provide could excede $400 billion a year.
All of this clearly shows the rather overwhelming excitement around civilian drones, whilst the technology remains “a moving target of invention and boundary-testing making it almost impossible to create legal and cultural boundaries quickly enough.” More importantly, it also means there is little opportunity to reflect on the implications of living with it today, or in the near future. How will our cities adopt to them, what supporting infrastructure will need to be built, how will it weave into the fabric of the city, and how will it age?
As we have seen, the word “drone” is a complex, heavily loaded term; simultaneously a mascot of risk-transfer militarism, and an artifact of celebrity obsession, a tool for and a DIY enthusiast’s dream. Whilst the focus is on innovation, there is little contemplation on how the presence of these machines will change our lived experience of the urban environment, and the way we understand and interact with their increasing autonomy. And that is precisely the ambition of the Drone Aviary project: to explore the physical, digital, spatial, and civic complexities of this technology. In our work we use the term ‘drones’ to suggest partial or full autonomy, although our bigger motivation is to use this technology as a vehicle to reflect on the wider consequences of how personal robotics might integrate into our everyday lives.
We also want to use this opportunity to investigate the technology not just as a ‘machine’ with all its technical capabilities, but to explore the vision it will have, the space and geography it will occupy, the network it will operate within, the physical and digital infrastructures it will use, and the legal and regulatory frameworks that bind it.
1. THE OBJECT
2. THE (AIR)SPACE
3. THE VISION
4. THE INFRASTRUCTURE
1. THE OBJECT (THE TECHNOLOGY, ITS MATERIALITY AND AESTHETICS)
We walked over from the Studio to Southwark Park, where Jon placed his drone down in the middle of the expansive patch of grass. He walked a few steps backwards, holding the controller. About seven of us stood right behind him. Dan was holding his laptop, I was ready to film the moment. Jonathan and Dillon were holding spare props and batteries, and Sam had his headphones on ready to listen to the input from his audio recorder.
Whooooosh. Easy lift off, the propeller blades cutting through the grass as it went soaring up into the sky, gently steering left all the way to the end of the park, then right, then back towards us, marking a perfect square. All of us stood in a row, cheering as we witnessed our first fully autonomous flight, from a drone we had built. It was exhilarating. It was the first step towards testing the RTK swift system, and excitedly we were talking about getting 5-10 drones flying autonomously in outdoor space, talking to one central system.
But just then, instead of landing where it was meant to, the drone began to accelerate and flew towards us. Everyone screamed, rushing back. And then almost as abruptly, it averted, flipped, raced backwards and gently landed a few yards away. Someone let out a sigh. A nervous laugh followed. Jon simply turned around and said, “Sorry I didn't mean to scare you”. He had seen the flight going wrong towards the very end, and taken control of the remote just in time. That ever-so-brief moment of horror on the faces of those technologists, makers, designers and artists will remain an acute memory. Those who build and play with the technology, those who would be most equipped to deal with surprises were left shaken, if only for a fraction of a second.
This little episode gives a quick glimpse into our team’s relentless effort to get under the hood of this technology, spending vast amounts of time building and testing, in order to grasp its rapid growth, and understand the limits of (hacked) possibility. We are not drone or robotics experts, but we are designers (and jugaad practitioners, if you like), with enough skills and expertise to understand the complexities of this technology and test its limits. And this process of making, building, hacking, testing, and innovating is important because it’s only through such rigour that one begins to understand the huge disconnect between the hype and the ground-level reality of the technology.
For the original installation, we
could have bought off-the-shelf drones, and got them to operate and fly. But it
was deemed too expensive. We were forced to build everything from scratch - the
frames and the drone brain (the autopilot system), as well as assembling it and
making sure it survives flight. Our project’s
focus has been on outdoor flight. Not indoors, with infrared cameras and
sensors to guide them, but in an environment where
drones are meant to be flying eventually, in order to understand the potential and
limitations of autonomous flight.
Through this process we have also learnt how to move past the current lack of interoperability towards the design of a common operating system, encompassing both hardware and software. But let’s not forget that this whole thing of making it real and making it fly is in order to start revealing what these machines really do. With autonomy will come agency, and that’s when it starts getting messy and complicated. It’s the space we want to explore more and understand better, in order to invent, design, critique and disseminate.
FORM AND AESTHETICS
“Autonomous robots will displace our sense of control precisely because they are out of our control, but occupy the physical world and demand our attention.” Illah Nourbaksh
Each drone that we have developed serves as a touchpoint, a hook, a
node that represents a deeper theme, issue or concern. And so it was important
that the design and the aesthetic of each drone represents that theme, whilst inevitably becoming an integral part of a consumer landscape. Every aspect of each
drone has been specifically built and designed, a conscious and
deliberate aesthetic decision to moves beyond the off-the-shelf “machine” or ‘hacked'/'DIY’ aesthetic. By presenting them as ‘products’ we want
to reference ways in which beautifully designed products and seductive user experience often obfuscate the technology at play, and its intent.
2. THE VISION
“The conquest of physical space, the extension of society’s compass, the ability to be anywhere and see anything.” - Benjamin Wallace-Wells
The second big challenge of
understanding this technology starts the minute you get them to fly. As soon as
they start flying, there is a complete and total collapse of the distance
between us and the airspace surrounding us, as the drone becomes a new kind of
disembodied prosthetic, allowing us to watch over the world with a little
controller. Extreme acclivity can be exhilarating. It can make you feel both
alone and unrivalled. Standing with your feet on the ground, the tips of
your body push up and high into the sky, entering a state of temporary
amaranthine. But this can also be simultaneously terrifying, as the drone can
behave erratically, either because of your own incompetency or technical failure,
and can result in damage, from destroying expensive equipment to causing harm
or injury to people and property.
Stills from the film
Whatever the pros and cons, once you have this air-minded vantage point, you enter a position of strategic advantage and strength. A position that eludes to the magical effect of the pale blue dot, the overview effect and the change in cognitive ability. “Drones can democratize the overview effect. The scale is obviously magnitudes smaller but the principle is the same. They remind us that the truly remarkable thing is not looking up to marvel at the technology of a balloon or airplane or spaceship, it’s really what happens when you are up, and looking down.” .
This might be true, but we also know that this vision becomes more then an adventure sport, it’s more then a breathtaking view. Seeing the world through the drone’s eye is powerful. And that’s because, drones are, most importantly, data-acquisition devices. Joanne McNeill and Ingrid Burrington make this explicit in their : “All drones carry the burden that comes with being an instrument of tremendous power. It is the vantage point they offer, it is the data they collect from that vantage point, and it is the power afforded by that data.” Their sensors can also capture, record, transmit, share, save and even make decisions. As civilian drones become tasked with chores and functions, they will carry more sensors, gain further autonomy and even agency. This shift will be bumpy, full of bugs and crashes, but it will be a paradigm shift nonetheless. A shift that will bring with it a new language, vocabulary and in this instance, optics, which I daresay, will lead to a whole new politics.
Whilst not all drones are harnessing
their sensor power for monitoring or surveillance purposes, they will all
have this vantage point and will gain informational power, as they operate in
this abstract communicational space. When the network is digital and invisible
it appears to be like magic and we remained unchallenged, but what happens when
it starts becoming visible and gain physical form? What will our relationship
to it be, and how will we interpret its actions? Those who own the systems to
breathe life into this informational power are the ones who become the most
powerful. This, in turn has already given rise to a new kind of networked colonialism.
Stills from the film
In the film every drone’s point of view is presented through a series of video feeds, the data they acquire and the metadata they create. This drone vision gives a glimpse of banality of its tasks; capturing, recording and logging data, its capacity to form patterns, infer decisions, and its inevitable clumsiness and fragility. Its an attempt to present a world where the motivations haven’t changed; advertisers still want to sell cans of coca cola, traffic wardens are still scouting cars for parking fees; tasks that seem mundane and perhaps even repetitive enough to hand over to these flying robots. There is lot going on in the film, and we think repeated viewings might start to reveal new layers. For instance, how geofencing width might vary across buildings. Those luxurious highrises would probably afford to have a deeper geofence, whilst the lesser blessed live with narrow boundaries to protect them. In the advertising sequence, you'll notice someone who has an 'access denied' block. We assume annonymity will become a luxury, an expensive service you pay for.
Video footage of a city captured from these drones is juxtaposed with our own trials and tests of building and flying them. The film aims to present the shifts in power the technology is creating, from surveillance drones to personal (insta) drones, to present a gripping experience of the messy, multilayered social and cultural narratives that are constantly being written around it.
3. THE (AIR)SPACE THEY OCCUPY
“We talk about atmosphere, stratosphere, airspace. But none of the words say much about the porousness between the rooftops and the clouds, the bit of the sky we breathe, walk through, and look out upon.” J.M Ledgerd.
Building a multirotor and getting it to fly can be complicated, but simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. But with developments in autonomous flight control software, and changing regulations, the air above our heads could get crowded, and will become increasingly common. When we talk about civic space, as a physical entity, we rarely talk about the space above our heads, partly because of the (somewhat) naive belief that the belt between our heads and airplanes . After all, we can fly kites and go paragliding. From the , where ownership extended "" to the infamous United States v. Causby (1946) airspace, the , and many more, ownership of airspace has become a messy battlefield.
In the US, whilst the airspace is heavily regulated by FAA, the bit above our heads up to 500 ft is also being eyed by entrepreneurs and drone companies who want to claim a slice of it. Bigger companies like Facebook and Google are already using public airspace as real estate in the high-stakes competition for domination of the Internet. In the UK too, the CAA is attempting to build granularity in its laws which at the moment are very fuzzy, . The CAA's focus is purely safety. For every different aspect of the drone’s use, it seems like a different legal body will be required to take action.
As this battle for air rights takes on a new meaning thanks to civilian drones (UAVs), the countermeasures around it are fascinating too. As Parker Higgins comments, “Unlike more traditional hacking scenarios, the consequences of a drone being compromised can be both digital and physical.” We have seen incidents, especially in the US, where several drones have been shot down if found hovering above someone else’s property. Jamming, spoofing and other countermeasures to combat these aerial machines are well documented. The politics and counter-politics of being tracked, combined with some pseudo-power afforded by a jamming “smart drone”, is in some ways a tragic irony of our times.
4. NEW (INVISIBLE) INFRASTRUCTURES
The question of territoriality and airspace takes us into a bigger discussion around infrastructure that will need to be in place for these airborne machines. Whilst the network (through the drones) gets a physical form, the infrastructure to support them is vastly invisible and digital. Amazon recently asked the , on the basis that they will use geo-fencing to keep the drone in an “electronic box” below 400 feet. The creates a curious technological and sovereignty precedent, which initially created a geo-fence that prevented the flight of all Phantoms within a 15 kilometre radius of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and has now been extended to 350 airports. And of course the recent No fly zone over Washington, and the company inviting members of the public to submit their location data so they can let private drone manufacturers know that they don’t want a drone flying above their heads.
Mapbox's map that represents areas where it is not recommended to fly drones due to regulations
All of this opens up a can of worms. Like so much technology, thought is given to its use, yet all other repercussions and implications remain unanswered. How do we imagine this playing out? How willing are we to give our GPS locations to a private company, who can share it with whomsoever they like? In regards to geofencing, how happy are we to buy something we think we know and then find its functionality constantly change or diminish? And what about all the hundreds and thousands of home made drones that will never obey the geofencing rules laid out by private manufacturers?
This is just the start. Beyond large corporate ventures, the civilian drone industry is booming with gadget lovers buying off-the-shelf technology, DIY enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, public sector and non-governmental ventures, all investing in this technology. As all these drones take to the sky, what are the vertical, digital infrastructural capabilities that cities will need to equip themselves with? What sort of legal and regulatory and frameworks will need to be developed? This is already a contentious issue, which will only become messier unless some careful systems design is not done immediately.
Early sketches for flight paths, zoning and geofencing.
Rules across the world are rapidly changing, almost every week. It’s a political and commercial negotiation between businesses and regulators, with little input from the wider public. We are very interested in this dark matter, because none of the things we have talked about above will exist if this space is not considered. We are creating (speculative) sketches and designs of this dark, invisible architecture such as flight paths, zones, geofences and weight restrictions; basically the infrastructure that would support drones to fly and how the city might be divided.
A Speculative map of the city showing flight paths, zones, charging stations and geofencing.
Credits and Next Steps:
First and foremost we would like to thank Arts Council England for their generous support throughout this project. We would also like to thank the V&A, especially the All Of This Belongs To You team Kieron Long, Corinna Gardner, Rory Hyde, Kate Drummond and Jennie Llyod-Evans for inviting us to show the work.
This project has involved several exceptionally talented people over the course of the past year and its been a humbling experience to work with them.
Project Leads: Jon Ardern and Anab Jain
Design and Prototyping: Jon Flint, Jon Ardern, Dillon Froelich, Ian Hutchinson, DOME Studio
Film Script and Direction: Anab Jain
Visual Designers: Katarina Medic, Georgina Bourke
Motion Designers: Dimitris Papadimitriou, Laurence Mencé, Alexandra Fruhstorfer
Sound Designers: Sam Conran, Ian Rawes
Technologists: Jon Ardern, Dan Williams, Mike Vanis, Philipp Ronnenberg
Still Photography: Owen Richards, Jon Flint, Jon Ardern, Anab Jain
Drone Fictions: Tim Maughan
Acknowledgements: Yosuke Ushigome, David Benque, Elvira Grob, Gejin Gao, Tobias Revell, Anuradha Reddy, Sarah Gold, Lisa Shakespeare, Carolina Vallejo, Martin and Mariko.
Moving forward, we continue to look for a venue with an open space where some of our drones can fly, moving within feet of visitors, giving a visceral, tangible experience of interacting with these flying machines. Whilst the flight is not critical to our work, we do believe the tangibility of the flight experience will play a bigger role in provoking thought and reflection of the actual technology and its implications. Meanwhile we will continue to develop work in this space, expanding to include other autonomous technologies and their changing relationships to us and our lived environment.
So far, 2015 has been generous, and busy, and there's lots to share. Here's our roundup of recent and upcoming news!
BUGGYAIR WINS IOT LAUNCHPAD COMPETITION
The best news came at the end of 2014, as we won INNOVATE UK's IoT Launchpad Competition alongwith six other brilliant companies. We are thrilled to be able to get an opportunity to build BuggyAir, and IoTA through it, in partnership with hardware leaders Sciencescope, software experts Virtual Technologies, our IoTA champion Hugh Knowles and long time collaborator Philipp Ronnenberg. It will be an opportunity to sensitively design, shape and build an alternative IoT project, one which focuses on people, their needs and aspirations. A project where we begin to work directly with people to test accurate mobile sensor kits, understand how data is collected, how they can read and make sense of the data they collect and whom they want, or dont want to, share their data with. From early April we enter into a round of product development, user research and ethnography, whilst actively exploring how we can design open data policy frameworks directly with people and communities. If this is an area that you are working in, do drop us a line.
DRONE AVIARY AT V&A's ALL OF THIS BELONGS TO YOU
We have exciting news from the Lab too. Our ongoing R&D project exploring the emerging cultural significance of civilian drones received great reviews at Tokyo's avantgarde 21_21 Design Sight, as part of their landmark show: THE FABMIND: Hints of the Future in a Shifting World. Following from that, we are delighted to be invited to to present another instantiation of the project at the V&A Museum's upcoming show: ALL OF THIS BELONGS TO YOU. It opens to the public on 1st April, and runs through till 19th July 2015.
A NEW PROJECT AROUND INDIA'S MARS ORBITOR MISSION
We are excited to launch a new research strand in the studio around national space programs and their relationship to people, with our first ethnographic experiment: Mangala for All. As India Mangalyaan Space Probe, or the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), successfully orbits Mars, we roamed the streets of Ahmedabad with a suitcase of miniature deified versions of the Mangalyaan space probe, investigating questions around power, science, progress, development and jugaad-innovation. We are now in the process of making a film which, we hope, will reveal a more complex and fine-grained understanding of people’s relationship with Mangalyaan, and the Indian Space Programme.
ORGANISING AND CURATING LONG NOW LONDON
We have been members of Long Now Foundation's London meetup group ever since Paul Miller started it way back in 2008. It was a great group of people, but after a couple of years the meetup went dormant for a bit. Towards the end of last year, we took on the baton to reinstate the group, with our first Meetup where Corinna Gardner and Rory Hyde of the V&A, and Alastair Parvain from WikiHouse gave fantastic talks. We then had our second meetup in January with guest speakers Genevieve Bell and Adam Greenfield. We are deeply grateful to Impact Hub Westminster for hosting us so far. Do join the group and drop us a line if you have thoughts about potential speakers.
PRESENTING AT ST. ETIENNE BIENNALE
We are delighted to be invited to present the 5th Dimensional Camera at the Hypervital show in the Saint-Étienne Biennale in France later this month, alongwith a great group of colleagues and friends. The project will later be exhibited in Germany for the rest of this year.
We received two beautiful books in the studio last week with our contributions! The Atlas of Contemporary Networks is a complilation of projects by from the MA Communication Design at IUAV Venice, led by Ivor Williams and Marco Ferrari. It includes an editorial by myself, alongside many other brilliant folks. We also wrote about our approach to speculative ethnography for the book 'Beyond Design Ethnography' edited by Nicolas Nova.
We continue doing bits of teaching this year, with an ongoing mentorship role in the MA Media Design program at the HEAD Geneva, and a lecture at Carnegie Mellon, and few upcoming workshops.
SNAPSHOTS FROM THE STUDIO
Here's a quick snapshot of our tinkering activities. Lot of thinking, sketching, prototying and testing for a range of ongoing research and consulting projects.
And finally, as we build a bigger team, and work with new clients and audiences, we would love to hear from you. So do get in touch if you would like to hire us, work with us or collaborate.
Adios for now!
Its 2015, and we couldnt have asked for a better way to start the new year. We are thrilled to welcome two brilliant, talented designers to the studio, joining us on a range of new strategic and design work. First up, we have Sarah Gold, who will be joining us as a core member of our team, developing new client and research projects. Katarina Medić has started her internship with us, and her great graphic and visual design work has already started influencing projects in the studio. Here are their brief biographies, but I am sure you'll be seeing more of them and their work over here soon.
My work engages with our restless futures, broadly within three camps: the near now (drones, bots), data architectures (data licences, blockchains) and the new civic (the new ‘public’, eCitizenship). I finished my Masters in Industrial Design last year, and was presented with a Design Council Future Pioneer Award and Creative Enterprise Innovation Award for my project, the Alternet - a proposal for a civic network. Whilst continuing to work on an array of projects around the Alternet’s key themes, I also collaborate on WikiHouse where I helped cofound the WikiHouse Foundation. It’s a pleasure to join the Superflux team, working on some very exciting projects. Here’s to 2015!
I am a multidisciplinary designer who has a strong interest in systems and like to make sense of society by exploring new themes, analysing different opinions and merging contrasting subjects. I graduated with a BA in Visual Communication Design from University of Ljubljana where I received acknowledgement for Outstanding Academic Achievements. My work has been recognised at the Biennial of Slovene Visual Communications and exhibited in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Warsaw.
Most of my previous experience lies in identity, digital and editorial design including work for the Slovenian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale and 10th Slovenian Biennial of Illustration. I believe in design that goes beyond a printed page or device and is interested in creating unique visual experiences for digital and physical environments.
We have been very fortunate to have Ruairi Glynn recommend his brilliant student Gejin Gao to us for an internship. Gejin (Helen) has been with us for the last four weeks, so this is a rather late introduction. She joined the studio during a very busy period and got stuck into projects immediately. It has been an absolute delight having her with us whilst she explores her interests and makes decisions on whether she can live in the UK or return to China.
I am a graduate from Bartlett School of Architecture. I am interested in improving human experience through interactions with empathetic architectural spaces and design objects. My interactive project "Cellular Reticulations", in collaboration with Yujiang Wang, is about spatialising 'Cellular Automata', typically constrained to software environments, to understand their potential as dynamic architectural systems. The final outcome (image below) allows for a continually transforming environment that attempts to induce wonder and delight. During my time at Superflux, I have been working on an exciting project exploring the relationship between the Indian Space Program, progress, innovation and geopolitics, and also working on the Drone Aviary Project.
At some point in the last couple of days, as the temperature in London plummeted, this post morphed from 'Autumn' to 'Winter' news. But I'll stick to the title, just to try and make 2014 that much longer, and delay the inevitable.
The last quarter has been one of the most challenging we have had in the studio's history, testing every ounce of our perseverance, integrity and commitment. But it has also made us more resilient and we feel proud of where we are today because of it. I want to use this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported and encouraged us in this journey. And so, this post is a quick roundup highlighting some of the good things that have happened recently.
1. DRONE AVIARY 01 in Tokyo
We are thrilled to be able to show the first instantiation of the Drone Aviary project at Tokyo's stunning 21_21 Design Sight Gallery. It forms part of part of a great show titled The Fab Mind: Hints of the Future in a Shifting World. A shoutout to Dimitri Papadimitriou, Jon Flint, Ian Hutchinson, Sam Conran and Georgina Bourke who played a key role in getting it shipped. And Yosuke Ushigome for orchestrating the work in Tokyo. We shared some of our thinking behind the project on Virgin's Unite's series around drones, which was also picked up by Richard Branson. We wiill be doing a detailed post about the project and the work so far very soon, and also sharing more information on the next show in London. I have been leading this project and feel really happy that we are finally moving forward in a direction we want to pursue after some serious set backs.
2. PRODUCT INVENTION HACKATHONS
We recently wrapped up a big client project focusing on product invention and experience prototyping designed in the form of a series of week-long hackathons, led by Anab. The project remains strictly under NDA, but if all goes to plan, you should see the products out in the world by 2016. It was a joy to work with the very talented Philipp Ronnenberg, Dan Williams and Matt Shannon. The studio was a frenzy of intense activity, as concepts and prototoypes were churned out like never before. And ofcourse, it was a real joy to make proper use of our new Ultimaker. The sheer joy on the face of the key stakeholder, as they saw and played with product prototypes, made the efforts more then worth it.
3. BUGGYAIR KICKS OFF
We are thrilled to continue to receive support for IoTA, as we develop demonstrators that show our investigative research and design approach around IoT. The first version of the website is ready, and Anab wrote about the things we learnt during the journey for Nominet Trust. Based on those foundations, we are now working on BuggyAir, where a group of parents will use bespoke sensor kits to measure ground level air pollution that directly affects their children’s health, and use the generated data as evidence for long term behavioural and legislative change.
4. CITIES UNLOCKED LAUNCHES
Future Cities Catapult just launched a major project: Cities Unlocked in collaboration with Microsoft UK and Guide Dogs. We are proud to have been one of the project partners, working with blind and partially sighted people to identify the characteristics of future cities which will enrich their experiences, and to develop potential cityscapes which would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We will be sharing a detailed report about our approach, methods and outcomes in the coming days, but here's a great interview with Sara Hendren, whom we interviewed early in the process. Also some good press over on BBC, Dezeen and others.
5. BLURRING THE LINES, BRITISH COUNCIL
We are featured in British Council's remarkable 'Blurring the Lines', an exhibition about culture in flux, told through sixteen stories of people reinventing creative exploration and participation. The exhibition is free and open till 19th December, so if you are in the area do check it out. After all, any show where we can sneak in a Playmobil cant be missed.
6. FUTURE FICTIONS, Z33
Dynamic Genetics vs Mann is currently part of the Future Fictions show at the great Z33 in Belgium. With this show, Z33 continues the debate about our future, exploring how contemporary artists, designers and architects relate to future thinking and imaging: from mapping, questioning and criticizing, to developing complex visions about the structures and systems that may shape our life in the future. Designed specifically for the UK context, I continue to hope that one day soon, this project would be show here on home territory.
7. FEATURED IN WIRED UK
I am very pleased that there's a feature about the Drone Aviary in WIRED UK! (although there seems to be some confusion about the title of the project)
8. FEATURED IN BLUEPRINT MAGAZINE
Blueprint magazine has a great article by Vernica Simpson "Speculate to Accumulate" which features our work and practice.
9. UPCOMING TALKS IN THE US
From Monday 10th Nov, Anab is on a whirlwind tour of the US, for a series of talks, meetings and teaching. Starting with New York, where the first public talk is at the School of Visual Arts, followed by School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she is part of their visiting artists program. She then goes to Ann Arbor as part of the prestigious Penny Stamps series, and then finally at MOCAD in Detroit. If you are in any of these cities next week, go say hi.
10. LONG NOW LONDON
After much delay we are pleased to have reinstated the great Long Now London meetup group, with Corinna Gardner from the V&A and Alastair Parvain from Wikihouse as inagural speakers. We are grateful to Hub Westminster for offering us the venue, and to Ana Bradley for helping us with drinks sponsorship.
Ten is a good number so I'll stop here. We also have some exciting news about new people joining us, a project around Indian spacecraft and more, but I'll save that for another post.
Future Cities Catapult just launched a major project: Cities Unlocked in collaboration with Microsoft UK and Guide Dogs. As one of the project partners, we worked with blind and partially sighted people to identify the characteristics of future cities which will enrich their experiences, and to develop potential cityscapes which would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We will be sharing a detailed report about our approach, methods and outcomes in the coming days.
Image from our workshop with visually impaired people, city planners, technologists and designers.
Today, I'll start by sharing an excerpt from an early research interview with Sara Hendren, an artist, design researcher, and writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She teaches socially-engaged design practices, adaptive + assistive technologies, and disability studies for engineers-in-training at Olin College.
SF: Can you give us insights into how you approach themes in your work around adaptability and accessibility? How should designers go about collaborating with people using these technologies?
SH: I think a good general rule is to start by asking detailed questions about the kinds of technologies, low and high, that people with anomalous bodies are already using—including, significantly, their own highly adaptive and embodied sensing systems. These skills tend to get overlooked in tech development. So: canes, animal partners, and then a combination of aural, tactile, olfactory, and other skills are going to be richly in play already. Knowing as much as you can about those experiences will help prevent you from inventing a problem set, as it were, and also be potential (and potentially hidden) sources of inspiration for your design work.
I spoke to scholar and adaptive device user Georgina Kleege about these issues for the Atlantic Tech channel; she has much to say there about the interplay among the senses and assistive tools of various kinds.
SF: You think a lot about the "the future of human bodies in the built environment". What are the most important insights you have gained in your research so far, about how the human body and prosthetics adapt to the built environment, or the other way around? How can we design a more symbiotic relationship, that is inclusive, but also unique to individuals?
SH: Those are questions I think about all the time! I’d say broadly that design researchers need much, much more user interview data than we have now—too often there’s a very small sampling of data that’s used to represent human-centered design research with user-experts. Because aging and sightedness and autism and so many other conditions are wildly various, we need much bigger and more robust data sets for understanding wayfinding and product use. See Boston’s Institute for Human-Centered Design’s new user expert lab as an example. They want to be as large a resource as possible, and one that clients can access and pay for when doing market research.
I also think there’s so much more thinking to be done at the systems level, rather than at the product level—but it should be systems research where designers and artists are key contributors at every stage. I think, for example, in cultures like the US and the UK, there’s a pretty narrow focus on individual independence as the only goal worth seeking out—and that independence is thought to be delivered solely via personal technological devices.
But what about community support programs that would be points of contact throughout a city, for help when a person with developmental disabilities needs help after a bus line has been rerouted, or when an elderly person needs assistance getting groceries in the door/shoveling snow? These kinds of systems would help people get and stay employed and stay in their homes for longer than might otherwise be the case.
Images from Sara's work titled 'Inclined Planes'
Engaging at the systems level would also help designers address issues of equity and access, rather than just shiny gadgets for those who can afford them. That privilege gap is forever plaguing the discourse on new assistive tech, and rightly so.
SF: What according to you are the drivers / weak signals / to which inclusive design for cities should be paying attention? From a technological, as well as social and cultural perspective?
SH: I think designers should first try to be more granular in their approach to “canonical” disabilities: blindness, deafness, and so on. I’d think, for example, about the gradations of sightedness that tend to get overlooked in tech for vision impairments: Most people who are technically blind, after all, *do* have some kind of visual field. They see high contrasts or bright lights only, perhaps. But they don’t operate in total darkness and they do use their vision to see. There’s much more to be done with design accordingly, especially with *editing* cities for enriched use. Like: consider the high-contrast black and yellow markers along stairs and crosswalks and subway platforms and so on. What would users say about making those more tactile environments—even more than they are now? What else would they like to see in structural and architectural forms that could be better imagined or augmented, again with partial and low vision in mind? This would also address aging and the overall slow degeneration in vision as well.
Relatedly, Georgina Kleege and others have pointed out a category of what might be called “print disabilities”—also in that interview—meaning, looking at an excessive cultural reliance on printed text for city wayfinding and information. What could be done with pictorial icons and sounds and tactile environments that make the city *legible* to those who don’t process print, either because of vision or dyslexia or other learning disabilities? Grouping these sets of users together is a really interesting design challenge.
But there are many other “weak signals” that could become design opportunities. If you listen to some of Janet Cardiff’s work, for instance—there are really interesting opportunities to reconsider sensory wayfinding in cities. She makes alternate histories and tours of physical places with aural cues alone. She does part fact, part fiction sound works that would be fascinating as wayfinding that’s *enriching,* not just *more information,* which is where app design so often ends.
I also think the olfactory sense is woefully underexamined as both a useful tool for wayfinding and a potentially rich alternate experience of the city for everyone. I was thinking about this back in February as I walked to work on an especially cold day—I was so bundled up that my (quite ordinary and adept) vision was partially obscured by my hat and coat and scarf. But that day my route included going by a candy factory—and if you hit it at the right time, the building breathes out butterscotch in the most fantastic, immersive way. I can imagine a wayfinding tour of London that’s indexed completely by scents, and all the socio-cultural geography that would result. I was also intrigued by that taste map of the London tube that made wide rounds in the press last year.
This is all, in a way, revisiting Kevin Lynch’s heuristics for wayfinding again: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Seems to me there’s lots of good ways to dig into alternate and invisible counter-histories or supplemental tools when thinking at cities and access and wayfinding.
In the end, it’s less about seeing “accommodations” tailored to each individual population as though those needs were unique to them; it’s about finding interesting ways to make new Venn diagrams out of multiple publics: multiple uses and users of cities. The overall disposition to look at what seem like mere limitations—*starting* with impairment but pointing outward from diagnostic categories to richer, more unusual experiences for all—this is the kind of orientation that can yield much more interesting research and design.
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