I was invited to talk at the NEXT Conference in Berlin by Peter Bihr, as he felt that a talk I gave last year would fit well with the conference's theme Here Be Dragons: "We fret about data, who is collecting it and why. We fret about privacy and security. We worry and fear disruption, which changes business models and renders old business to ashes. Some would have us walk away, steer clear of these risks. They’re dangerous, we don’t know what the consequences will be. Maintain the status quo, don’t change too much.Here and now is safe. Over there, in the future? Well, there be dragons."
This sounded like a good platform to expand upon the 'Design for the New Normal' presentation I gave earlier, especially as its an area Jon and I are thinking about in the context of various ongoing projects. So here it is, once again an accelerated slideshow (70 slides!) where I followed up on some of the stories to see what happened to them in the last six months, and developed some of the ideas further. This continues to be a work-in-progress that Superflux is developing as part of our current projects.
Here's the video of the talk that was published by NEXT, and my slides are below. Many thanks to Warren Ellis for some fantastic feedback too.
Slides from the talk:
This is a gun. Made in a 3D printer. By a gun enthusiast called "HaveBlue", a member of the AR15.com.
As I followed up on this story, I found that Thingiverse had removed this file from their site. But the same file, along with loads of other files of weapons such as the F-1 Russian Grenade or a .22 single shot firearm can be found on defcad.org: a startup by a texan law graduate Cody Wilson. DefCad aims to provide access to the important things that institutions and industries have an interest in keeping from us. Not trinkets, not lawn gnomes, but things like medical devices, drugs, goods, guns.
This is Zemarai Elali, an electrical engineer in Afghanistan working one of his five autonomous, unmanned drones made from bamboo.
As you can see from this video, they already fly quite well. However he insists he will not allow them to be used as weapons in his insurgency-wrecked country. Zemaran, a drone hobbyist got a lot of worried press in the western media.
But its kind of interesting that whilst Zemaran created anxiety with his activities, at the moment, we are celebrating the Summer of Drones, which is an epic series of up to 34 Nodecopter community events taking place in North America and Europe where hundreds of developers team up to prorgram drones.
This is not art made by a child. Its a representation of genetically modified bacteria that are created by finding genes from organisms that have plastic degradation properties and insert them into marine bacteria.
And that is what this team of students at the University College London were designing in collaboration with the London Biohacklab. If they succeed, these new plastic-eating marine bacteria could be a ‘natural’ solution for the millions of plastic bits floating in our oceans.
They also want these bacteria to become microscopic construction workers and build artificial plastic islands. In fact here in the heart of the North Pacific Ocean, they’ve already claimed the new Plastic Republic.
And they didnt stop there. To highlight issues of public access to these tools, along with the London Biohacking group they created the world’s first ‘Public BioBrick’, where DNA code was created and submitted to a parts registry outside of an academic institution. The hackers created a BioBrick which can degrade mercury, a common water pollutant in India.
These are no ordinary t-shirts. They are a source of livelihood for
this man - Song Hojun from South Korea, who was attempting to make his...
own...satellite, creating a private connection between you and universe. Known as The Open Source Satellite Initiative, this was his latest prototype, back in September 2012.
But just last friday, after nearly four years, Hojun managed to fight all obstacles and finally launch his satellite into space from Baikonur Kazakstan! For all ham radio operators and satellite trackers who might be interested, you can tune in here.
These stories might seem unsettling and its probably easy to dismiss them as weird anomalies from whimsical people, however I’d like to show these stories illustrate a new age of Technological Empowerment. For instance this image shows two kids participating in a Raspberry Jam session where kids move from being passive consumers of technology to actively engaging with it.
They are called Raspberry Jam sessions because they use this - the Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized computer, whose first batch of 10,000 costing a mere €25 sold out within minutes, quicker then any iphone sales.
Today there are over 1500 hackerspaces worldwide, including one in Antartica. A cross between your garage and a clubhouse, they provide space, tools, and like-minded colleagues for unusual DIY projects.
And there’s even a hackerspace-crèche in San Francisco called Mothership HackerMoms where mothers can indulge in some creative hacking to the sound of babbling rugrats.
Those UCL students who were designing plastic-eating bacteria are joined annually by 190 other teams from 34 countries who are all editing and building living organisms this very minute, for the iGEM competition - also known as the 'Olympics of synthetic biology', which now includes a competitive track for entrepreneurs and high school students.
Besides iGEM, there are over 300 DIYbio labs across the world showing how technologies that were the remit of scientists, are now increasingly cheap, and easy to access by ordinary citizens.
As of June 20, 2012, Shapeways.com - a website that allows users to make their own products with 3D printing sold more than one million user-created objects.
And if you’d rather go to print a 3D object yourself, then you can access one of the 130 fablabs that have opened up around the world.
The Afghan engineer built his bamboo drone with the help of DIYdrone.com, which has over 29,001 members now, the latest being myself.
And so as the weird stories stack up its easy these seemingly peripheral trends become increasingly disruptive. With such new technologies and ways of working, tasks that would once have required the brute force of a nation or mega-corporation can now be achieved by a small company, a like-minded group of collaborators, or even a lone individual. For instance this is the Global Village Construction Set - where Marcin Jakubowski has made blueprints for 50 open source low-cost machines will allow anyone to build all the infrastructure a community needs.
Within this new age of tech empowerment I’d like to touch upon three interesting aspects that exemplify a bigger trend.
First up is crowdsourced innovation that we are all familiar with.
For instance, this is the very popular Open Ideo, where people from all over the world form teams to tackle difficult challenges and solve wicked problems. And this particular one is about tackling sanitation issues in low income urban communities.
At But this very idea of crowdsourced innovation is being lapped up by DARPA, who launched the Fang Challenge to design an Amphibious Infantry Fighting Vehicle. More than 700 Participants forming 150 teams signed up as soon it was announced, and the number is growing. Martha Kanter, the Undersecretary of Education, noted that the nation's "strategic interest" is for all branches of government—including Defense—to "move from an engine of bureaucracy to an engine of innovation".
Another less organised / more local aspect of this sort of crowd sourced innovation is something I grew up with in India, where a group of family members or friends find bits of metal to hack together vehicles from limited resources like this one allowing about 10-15 to travel fairly long distances. Its called Jugaad, and is a way of being ingenious with limited resources. In fact its become a thing that's now being advocated in Business Schools.
But this same Jugaad innovation becomes Jugaad Warfare, as in this instance, where Syrian rebels put together their own version of an armoured fighting vehicle called Sham 2 built from the chassis of a car.
And here’s the inside view of sham, where a game controller has been hacked to operate the vehicle’s gun turret.
Most of us, whether interested or not, have been watching how bitcoins stormed into the news again couple of weeks ago.
By hitting a high of $265, promptly collapsed to $105, rebounded to $201, only to begin collapsing again, trading as low as $49 before starting to rise again. Whilst on one side it powers black market sites like the silk road.
You also have people like Taylor More, of Alberta, Canada, selling his two-bedroom bungalow for a reduced price if offered bitcoins, and this bitcoin ATM about to be installed in Cyprus.
Bitcoins lead to more cryptocurrencies being created and mined, so you have Freicoin which charges a demurrage fee and Litecoin which can be efficiently mined with consumer-grade hardware.
And the third trend is what one might call new nature, where our DNA and the very parts we are made of are also being newly manufactured. I’d like to show you an excerpt from a film called DNA Dreams by filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, which shows a provocative glimpse into BGI, China’s largest genomics company.
An excerpt from DNA Dreams: (This is a 14 minute film, I had shown an excerpt from 4:30 to 6:49)These could be the world’s smartest babies. That same very company BGI, have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation's intelligence by five to 15 IQ points.
And closer to home, you have the company 23andMe. Over the last 6 years, 180,000 have sent their saliva samples using their cute spit kit, in exchange for valuable health and ancestry information.
But recently founder Anne Wojcicki, who happens to be the wife of Google’s Sergey Brin, decided to monetize their giant database of genetic information. They opened their treasure trove of genetics data to third-party developers to build new web-based interactive tools. Although current laws prohibit employers and insurance companies from discrimination based on genetic information, but life insurance providers, schools, athletic organizations can potentially get their hands on your genetic data. And I cant even begin to imagine the impact this will have on dating apps and sites.
And I havent even mentioned google glass, the second wave of nuclear proliferation, organised large-scale protests and extreme weather events. All these trends are pointing to what my friend Scott Smith might call a 'moment of superdensity' where chaos, uncertainty, rapid change and realignment of power are becoming the new operating parameters.
We thus find ourselves in a situation that is far from the popular notions of normality, and have entered the domain of the NEW NORMAL.
In this New Normal.
What does this mean for 'innovation' in the 21st century?
Are there strategies and tools from design to help us effectively engage with the new normal?
Design traditionally uses comfortable and well understood metaphors to cloak novel innovation. As my partner Jon Ardern says: "A lot of applied design, marketing and UX acts like conceptual valium." Whilst mapping the familiar onto the new and the weird is effective and arguably necessary from a stand point of usability, it also creates a form of hypnosis, dulls the subjective experience of the strange and unusual, by presenting things not as they are but as facsimiles of the known and familiar.
So how do we interrupt this state hypnosis, or what Venkatesh Rao calls the Normality Field? Design for the New Normal works to cuts through established narratives by engaging with two broad areas of interest: uncloaking the 'strange now', (whether that is the edge cases I showed earlier, or the disruptive forces that are hidden behind comforting metaphors); and extrapolating current trends to present the sheer breadth, of, often unsettling, future possibilities that lie ahead of us.
And now I would like to share a few projects from Superflux and other designers that we feel exemplify this approach.
In our ongoing project ‘Dynamic Genetics v Mann’ we imagine a world where synthetic biology and gene therapy have moved from the lab into the marketplace. In this world, the State's responsibilities have shifted from healthcare provision to the provider of health insurance. By calculating the healthcare cost of specific gene combinations, insurance rates are adjusted on a person by person basis, ensuring that individual ‘contributions’ accurately reflect the potential costs associated with their genome.
What new laws and economic models might emerge under these conditions? How will intellectual property be applied and policed when designed genetic material makes its way into people’s bodies and their lives? These issues, and their wider implications, are explored though the lens of a court case being bought by Dynamic Genetics, a large gene therapy conglomerate.
against Arnold Mann who they accuse of obtaining their copyrighted DNA from a black market ‘clinic’. Who owns our genes? Who can patent them? Will we have patented children? And at the other end will we have pirated children? How would healthcare models adapt to these new changes? How will we value human life?
Within the world of synthetic biology where nature is being designed, its important to create tangible visualisations of worlds when these new organisms start infiltrating our real environments. Living systems are capricious and mutate, so how will they be created and how will they live amongst? For a project exploring the colony collapse disorder, we worked with scientists to imagine a new kind of bee that would help pollinate our crops - made entirely through the powers of biotechnology.
We imagined various positive uses for this synthetic bee - from pollinating crops to being kept as a glowing pet.
But today there are defence personnel around the world are toying with the idea of using miniature drones disguised as bugs or insects for spying purposes. DARPA's ultimate plan is to eventually hack into the insects own natural senses, allowing the remote-control operator to look out of the insects own eyes, instead of attaching a video camera for it to carry. So whats stopping them from making the world’s first 100%natural drone, a synthetic bee - as a future surveillance device?
For a project 'Electronic Countermeasures' in collaboration with Liam Young and Eleanor Saitta, we tried to imagine new uses for autonomous drones. Rather then weapons or hobbyists toys we designed a flock of interactive drones that form their own place specific, temporary, WIFI community - a pirate internet.
People can upload files, photos and share data with one another as the drones float above the city. They swarm into formation, broadcasting their pirate network, and then disperse, escaping detection, only to reform elsewhere.
Moving on to money...looking at how big financial decisions are made on the basis of a very volatile stock market, designer Shing Tat Chung’s A Superstitious Fund is a live experiment in which an algorithm trades based on superstitious beliefs. It makes decisions based on lunar cycles and numerology, creating lucky and unlucky values that influence its behaviour.
Tobias Revell in his project 88.7 imagines a world of complete economic liberalisation, where money is valued over people. Its early 2040s, and an ex-Soviet nuclear powered icebreaker full of highly qualified traders circles at 88.7 degrees latitude in the arctic sea. By circumnavigating the world in twenty-four hours it stays in constant contact with trading zones throughout the world. A scenario extrapolated from our current trends, its a compelling thought experiment as we are forced to re-evaluate about our current situation.
For an installation at London’s Science Museum about future energy sources, Dunne and Raby wanted to show children energy futures apart from hydrogen cars, that are not part of popular discourse. They created artifacts that would bring children in direct contact with a new kind of energy future, where human and animal waste is being used to create energy. The one on the left is a lunchbox with two compartments for “food” and “poo”, whilst the one on the right is a radio is fuelled by animal blood kept in cute teddy-shaped pouches.
In a similar vein, The Bionic Requiem by Auger Loizeau initially exists as an anticipatory device: its music box poised to play a tune once it captures enough flying insects that can be eaten by the microbial fuel cell it houses. The cell then produces sufficient energy to power the motor of the music player revealing its mysterious tune.
Recently the Guardian newspaper had an interview with Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, who said: "You have to fight for your privacy, or you lose it.", enough to get even more people nervous. But seriously speaking, what strategies to deploy if you’d rather hide from facial recognition bots let loose in the world? Using the inherent dumbness of facial recognition algorithms against them, Adam Harvey’s project employs subversive application of makeup to confuse the algorithms.
This is the Nevada desert. Buried in its vastness is Jason Rohrer’s 'A Game For Someone', which is a board game not to be played for at least 2,000 years.
The 18×18 board and all the game artifacts are built out of 30 pounds of resilient titanium metal, and its rules were "playtested by an AI that then reiterated until the intelligence decided it was balanced".
Rohrer laid out the game's rules on three pages of archival, acid-free paper, sealed them inside a Pyrex glass tube and buried them. A bunch of envelopes were passed out that to the audience at the game design challenge with 900 sets of GPS coordinates on each of them. He estimates that if one person visited a set of coordinates each day, the game would be discovered within 2,700 years.
These projects bypass the established narratives about the present and future that create the hypnosis of normality, and in doing so, allow for an emotional connection with the raw weirdness of our times, opening up an array of possibilities. My hope is that this emotional connection to the unknown becomes a catalyst for us to engage with, and actually innovate in a way that is meaningful and desirable.
We have just started a new tumblr where we'll be posting ideas and projects that explore this space, which you can follow. Thank you.
(Exploring new directions and developing a practice that infiltrates popular design discourses and presents alternatives to the wider industry can be a difficult business. So its encouraging to get some great comments from Bruce Sterling in the conference's closing keynote, which is also a very inspiring talk and definitely worth a listen.)