Continuing with our series of guest posts on the blog, we invited Scott Smith to share his thoughts on the notion of 'superdensity', something he has talked about in the past. Scott kindly agreed, and today we are delighted to share his brilliant reponse.
It’s the Future. Take an Umbrella.
About two and a half years ago, I wrote a blog post titled "The Future is Here Today, and It's Superdense". The phrasing was a reference to the apocryphal William Gibson phrase that's a frequent crutch for people speaking prospectively in public fora: "the future is here today, it's just not evenly distributed." The trigger for the post was a cascade of world events that made "normal" a fairly useless construction—the Arab Spring was unfolding, the Euro crisis was in full swing, and oh, Japan had been laid low by a triple-whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
My intent in describing it as superdense, something typically used to talk about neutron stars or quantum information theory, was to find a way to describe how the typical Gibsonian loose distribution of future drivers and emergent trends was momentarily compacting into a tightly clustered ball of WTF. What we think of as the future, in particular bits of dystopia and chaos, wasn’t hiding in bits and pieces under this bush or over in that desert, but was all happening at once, or so it felt.
I also wanted to get across the sense of condensation—of various threads and elements, some connected, some not, coming together in a fairly knotty but spectacular way. While the tragedies in Japan were in some sense of a chain of causation (earthquake causing tsunami causing reactor damage), the events in the Arab world and the Euro crisis were in some ways quite connected via the sensitivities of the economic markets, political weaknesses and so on.
One could say—to keep piling on metaphors—a variety of chickens were coming home to roost. Others have talked about this period of protracted superdensity as a New Normal, where the general social, technological, economic, political and environmental conditions we had previously taken for granted no longer seem to pertain. In this period of deep flux, new power structures are emergent.
So far, so good. We’ve found various bits of language to describe the state we feel we’re in, but we don’t have a good system for coding and signaling the changes in state we experience, particularly as it applies to us as individuals, or to where we live or frame our existence (to our communities, economies, networks, etc). How fast is x changing in relation to me? To others? How strong is a particular driver, trend or state at this moment, and will it change? One person’s weird may be another’s normal, for example. From Chittagong in Bangladesh, for example, a hurricane and technological blackout in the New York metropolitan area might seem like seem a more normal distribution (though certainly not wished upon others).
Occasionally, when trying characterize the dynamic, often changeable nature of the future, I’ve resorted, unscripted to meteorological metaphors, describing how what we think of as “the future” as a phenomenon that washes over us from time to time like a storm front, full of pressure changes, turbulence, and with occasional destructive force. We talk about trends as parts of particular futures, as “building,” “gaining strength” or “rising,” for example. Fans of “Game of Thrones” speak cryptically online about how “winter is coming” as a means of characterizing what they see as a long-term shift toward instability or stagnation. The New Normal is, in effect a kind of climate change metaphor, conveying an expectation that conditions under which we’ve made assumptions and decisions in the past—or even the whole physics model of our reality—has altered in a fundamental way. Temperature, precipitation, humidity are all out of whack in our decision-making models.
As I sit thinking about this problem, a familiar sound comes on the streamed radio station to which I’m listening: the audio cue that tells me it’s time for the Shipping Forecast. If you aren’t familiar with it, the Shipping Forecast is generated by Britain’s Met Office and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at four intervals during the day. The Forecast splits the seas surrounding the UK and Ireland into 31 areas, reaching as far northwest as Iceland, east to Norway and Denmark, and south along the Continent to Spain and Portugal, and provides updated weather and sea conditions in these zones to guide both commercial and private shipping as it makes its way to and fro within the area. Similar forecast frameworks are used by other countries, with similar structures.
Many people, sailors and civilians alike, speak about the Shipping Forecast as having a sort of mythical quality—with evocative if slightly opaque names for the regions like Fastnet, Forties, Rockall and German Bight conjuring up something otherworldly, recognized but exotic. Announcers delivering the broadcast read out a standard format of information from each region: regarding wind speeds and direction, air pressure and tracking, precipitation, and so on. While the data sounds almost like a numbers station, it’s meaningful to those who use it, and from it one can create a very precise map of pressure across thousands of square miles of sea. The Shipping Forecast is a powerful shorthand that lets navigators know what to expect, how fast change is occurring, and in which direction it is moving.
Image credit: http://simonholliday.com/shippingforecast/trends
Would something like this be desirable as a means of navigating the New Normal? For understanding how to anticipate superdensity, and even to ride its kinetic energy? I wonder if what we need is a Shipping Forecast for futures—sliced into topical regions, with key forces identified, metrics described, and possible trajectories plotted? “Solar energy, veering 6 to 7, backing 3 later based on pending regulation, sporadic innovation, moderate to good.” “Surveillance, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11, hacking, squalls later, poor, becoming moderate later.” “Bioprinting, 3 to 4, fog, clearing later.”
As with many forecasts, the data is similar but the outcomes vary based on your position relative to the forces at play. Are you in a big or small craft, so to speak? Vulnerable, or protected? Is turbulence your friend or enemy? The standard language of the Shipping Forecast is interpretable by all, but value is variable depending on who or what you are, and where you stand, sit or sail, much like the security warnings we’ve grown weary of in recent years, with their orange/yellow/reds.
So, I make the modest proposal: let’s develop a Shipping Forecast for the sort of weird, New Normal futures we increasingly encounter. I’m sure we can come up with 30-odd social and economic issues, emerging technologies or environmental trends that we can all agree need tracking. Monitored by an appointed body (a Future Measurement Agency?), these factors can be reduced to publicly digestible metrics, and delivered in a daily report via print, radio and Internet.
Wondering whether Iran’s opening to the West is about to set off a chain reaction of international political reconfigurations? Want to know whether that new biotech product is an immediate gamechanger or just a slow burn? Is a new pandemic something to be concerned about? Tune in each night before bed, get a snapshot view of the future through the glow of your tablet, or a rip-and-read ticker tape via your mini-printer.
I’ll admit, it sounds a little strange, and yet we’ve spent far, far more time, money and effort developing sophisticated social media analytics, high-powered dashboards that allow financial traders at a glance views of market microturbulence, and, as we’ve found out recently, all-consuming social graphs of all of our interactions and connections. Why not, then, provide such metamaps of “future-weather” as a public good? Widespread knowledge of imminent turbulence and (dare I re-appropriate the word) actual disruption might go a long way toward connecting our actions and reactions to wider conditions.
Unlike the actual Shipping Forecast, to which sailors and ship captains can only respond in a reactive fashion, the forecasting model I propose is actually a feedback loop of sorts—a sort of Quantified Self for society. No, we can’t control (all) earthquakes, but there is a lot of the near-future that is in our control—if we can reconnect our conscious lives to causation. We may choose not to shape the waves coming at us—which is always an option in the decision-making process—but if we are going to apply so much of our time and effort to collecting data and crafting visualisations, surely this little experiment isn’t asking too much.
Recently I gave a short presentation and participated in a panel titled: "The Internet of Things, Data and the Citizen" at the Re:work Technology Summit in London. Here's the video from that talk.
The audio is not entirely clear in the video, so I'd like to share the transcript of the short talk with you sharing our vision for the IoTA Platform. I think its important given that we are now about to start building the project and would like to open this discussion around IoT, 'smart citizens', the maker movement and 'technological empowerment' in an attempt to refine our vision for this experiment. (Note: The name IoTA is a placeholder, and as we develop the experiment we will have a better understanding of how to name it.)
It is estimated that by 2020, there will be more then 50 billion connected devices, adding to the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data we are already producing daily today. There are 16 billion photos on Instagram, 350 million photos areuploaded on Facebook daily, 100 hours of video uploaded YouTube every minute. And thats just from digital data, not the connected deivces we envision forming the IoT world: tables, chairs, bikes, and bridges or even cows, cats and dogs.
All this explosion in data has meant that we are witnessing an abundance of data spectatorship, and a lack of understanding of how to turn data into knowledge we can think with. And use. That lack of understanding makes us weak and vulnerable. Essentially powerless to a certain vision of the future.
You can see the rise in maker culture countering this, as hundreds of thousands of initiatives teaching people to tinker with the cheap accessible technologies are growing, perhaps a clear sign of technological empowerment. But, alongside this genuine infectious enthusiasm, we also see tons and tons of rhetoric.
As members of an increasingly technologically mediated society we need to develop new kinds of critical socio-technical literacies. So making is very important, but also thinking about what we make. (Think) Make. (Think) Do.
So IoTA - an experiment that we are building, is an opportunity for experts, non-experts, curators, challenger seekers, people, and more people to experiment with the technology and data in inventive, playful and ingenious ways. Data, however big and plentiful, that does not necessarily lead to better or more rational decisions. Through IoTA we are not interested so much in how data is made public, but more about how the public make data, build their own hypothesis and make their own decisions. Here's a film showing early sketches of this web platform.
Today we are in the process of building, this is a live experiment. We dont have the answers yet. we hope that IoTA can help nurture a socio-technically literate population, who will gain the conceptual tools needed to parse the implications of the work that they do. something our schools do not currently nurture.
We recently finished a project Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann exploring the implications of synthetic biology and genomics in the context of future healthcare. We are thrilled to have Christina Agapakis reflect on the project in the context of genomic prediction, privacy, and piracy.
This is me
What if personalized medicine never happens? What if the promised therapies tailored to our unique genomes just never materialize? Although it seems inevitable, there is no guarantee that we will be able to precisely match treatments to individuals. For complex diseases with many associated genes interacting in changing environments, the statistical power to make therapeutic predictions currently remains elusive. What if we sequence the genome of every single person on earth and the data is still not big enough?
In such a future, will we still believe in genomic promises? Perhaps, unable to let go of the hope that our genes can predict our future health, we continue to demand access to our largely uninformative genetic code. Unable to find strong associations for complex and chronic diseases but still desperate for determinism, we might look for answers not only in the genes of our own cells but the genes of our microbial symbionts.
This hope might remain part of medical rituals, a statistical placebo for the post-genomic checkup. The doctor takes samples of your secretions and sends them to a genome sequencing company, the costs barely a blip on otherwise ballooning medical bills. You talk about your fears of aging, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, antibiotic resistant bacteria. You discuss your parents and grandparents’ medical history. Your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar are measured. Risks are calculated. You should probably lose some weight, eat more vegetables, walk more. You should smoke less, eat less processed food, less sugar. You should take better care of yourself. You probably should have done this anyway. You go home with a reassuring list of percentages that put a number on the fundamental uncertainty about your future.
The sequencing company analyzes your DNA, bills your insurance company, and stores your data in the cloud. Your demographic information and health records are linked to your unique set of sequence variations. Associations are identified, risk percentages are modified. Sequences are patented. Progress (money) is made.
You continue to be anxious about privacy. You think, “if a company is telling me that my DNA data is me, then why should that company have so much access to me?” We are told that in our dangerous world we must give up some privacy for increased safety. For increased health we must give up some of our expectations about genetic privacy.
“Crimes of a Genetic Nature”
DNA is good for telling stories about the future. DNA as machomolecule, in control of our genetic destiny. DNA as code, programmable, controllable, readable, re-writable. Like other data-driven futures, DNA-based stories are stories about probability, risk, and control: risk of developing certain medical conditions and the control that DNA has over our biological characteristics. Risk that genetic information will be used to discriminate against us, risk that our DNA will be used to control what we are and what we can be.
Superflux is good at telling stories about the future, stories that help us connect with the abstractions of probabilities and the weirdness of our unevenly distributed futures. With Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann, Superflux tells a story about DNA, risk, and control, not with percentages and promises but through the carefully crafted evidence of a fictional patent infringement trial.
The story is set in Britain in the near future, when the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has been privatized and transformed into National Health Insurance (NHI). The trial’s defendant, Arnold Mann, faced with unmanageable NHI premiums due to undetermined genetic risk factors, turns to black market gene therapy, replacing his risky genes with healthy sequences patented by the fictional biotech giant Dynamic Genetics. With these new genes, his insurance costs are decreased, but he is prosecuted for the DNA sequences that he now holds in his cells, sequences that he didn’t pay the right people for.
At first glance, DG v Mann seems to be a very familiar kind of future, especially for people who don’t live in the UK and don’t have an NHS. For many Americans, a story about an insurance company trying to use anything and everything to screw you over is not an unfamiliar fiction but an everyday fact of life. The idea that an insurance company could one day use your DNA sequences to justify increasing your premiums or deny you coverage is such a pervasive story in the American debates about gene sequencing that it was codified into law, outlawed by the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. If anything, DG vs. Mann might give its first shock of weirdness with the notion that it could be weird for such corporate shenanigans to exist in the first place. Imagine a future where Americans think that privatized insurance is a frightening and ridiculous scenario!
This is one way that design fiction could begin to help us “bypass the established narratives about the present and future,” challenge us to see the present world from a new perspective, and teach us to challenge our assumptions about what is and what might be possible–both technologically and politically. Design fictions show technologies at the edge of speculation and reality, inviting us to imagine, question, and debate the applications and implications of new science and technology in a cultural context. Exploring genetic technologies in relation to government programs, the business of health care, and the ongoing debates about piracy and intellectual property allows for discussion not just about the function of the technology itself, but its inextricable relationships with power, politics, economics, and society.
Fictions give life to these complex relationships and give us a vocabulary to debate the kind of future we want (think of how often Gattaca used to come up in conversations about DNA sequencing). But while such stories are good at challenging our assumptions about how a technology might be used, rarely do they challenge the deeper assumptions about technological power and control.
What does the world look like when we bypass the established narratives of DNA as the of master of our readable and rewritable future? What if DG vs. Mann is actually a story about genetic indeterminacy?
“Good Source of 6 Vitamins & Minerals”
The DNA evidence in DG vs. Mann is not human readable. Strips of paper with tiny, indecipherable A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s highlight the regions of Arnold Mann’s genome that are infringing on Dynamic Genetic’s patents. Looking at these strips, we don’t know what diseases he was at risk for, how much of a burden he would one day be on the insurance pool, or even if the pirated gene therapy has actually changed his odds of developing the disease.
It’s possible that Mann’s risky sequences are part of the relatively small set of gene variants that are known to directly cause devastating diseases. But if Mann is an otherwise healthy adult, it’s much more likely that the NHI actuaries are looking for common gene variants that have been statistically associated with very common and very expensive diseases: type II diabetes, cancers, and cardiovascular disease.
What does it mean if you have, for example, a diabetes-associated sequence in your genome? In terms of real world health outcomes, the small changes in risk associated with any one such variant probably don’t mean much, especially compared to the big effects that environment and diet can have.
Indeed, it’s harder to imagine what these numbers might mean for your health than what they could mean for your health insurance. These associations provide an “objective” justification to what the insurance company wanted to do all along: get more money. As long as people still believe that DNA is in control of our biological destiny, these associations don’t actually have to be biologically meaningful in order to have a big effect.
What does it mean then to use gene therapy to change these risky gene sequences? Considering that for most health outcomes, zip code is a better predictor than genetic code, probably not much. But if an insurance company can use DNA sequences to justify charging more, then altering gene sequences isn’t necessarily about being healthier but simply appearing healthier to the risk calculators. The new variants are the genetic equivalent of sugary breakfast pastries fortified with vitamins and minerals, an unknown risk with a quantifiable veneer of “healthiness.”
Unlike Pop-Tarts, however, when it comes to deciding who gets affordable insurance coverage, such genetic spoofing might ironically be enough to translate to better health in the real world, where access to health care is much more important than DNA. For Arnold Mann, the potential dangers—medical and legal—of undergoing back-alley gene therapy is worth the risk in order to get affordable insurance. People have done weirder things for health care.
Polarized debates about the desirability of a new technology and its potential implications often oscillate between cheerful utopia and horrific dystopia. We discuss the promises and perils, the risks and rewards—opposite ends of a speculative spectrum. The real future, of course, is not simply one side or the other, happening instead somewhere in the messy in betweens, neither world-saving nor civilization-destroying.
But wether proposing utopia or dystopia, both sides of such debates grant technologies with an unexamined power to solve or create problems, what anthropologist Georgina Born calls an “unproblematic effectivity.” For debates about the future of biotechnologies, the power of DNA always remains at the center. When speculating about the future of a technology, it is worth asking: what if it just doesn’t work that way?
Stories about the future can open up new possibilities, new avenues for debate, breaking free from the “half-pipe of doom” between utopia and dystopia. We can imagine more complex, weird, ambivalent futures—stories where technological promises come unraveled, their technical underpinnings explored, their cultural appeal examined.
We want to know the future. We want to know that in the future we will be able to know more than we do now. We want our futures populated with competent scientists, always in control, able to fully understand and accurately predict. We want DNA to be able to justify inequalities in health, we want DNA to give us answers, to tell our future.
DNA is obviously an important molecule, but too many of our social problems and technological dreams rely on the false promise of genetic determinism. DNA is not all-powerful. Data is not enough. Health is biological, but also social, political, economic. Biology is complex. Biology is messy. For better health, we need less sequencing and more support. For better technological promises, we need less control and messier futures.
About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.
The postman has been delivering some nice things recently, which I am excited to share.
1. Weave Magazine, Berlin.
The folks from Weave magazine did an extensive interview with us for their latest issue, for the German speaking readers out there, we'd love to know what you think.
2. Intelligent Life Magazine, Economist
Every year the Intelligent Life does an extensive feature titled 'Inspiring Women' where they ask 16 women to choose their inspiring woman. I am so humbled to have been chosen by architect Amanda Levete, as someone many years my senior, its a real honour.
3. Dread: Dizziness of Freedom
Our essay 'Dynamic Genetics v Mann' is published in this book edited by Juha van't Zelfde, who has also curated a fantastic exhibition of the same name, currently being shown at De Hallen Haarlem in the Netherlands. Other contributors include China Mieville, Kevin Slavin, Ben Hammersley, Adam Greenfield, James Bridle and Timo Arnall.
I am delighted to introduce two talented designers who have been working with us in the Studio recently. Megan has been with us for two months developing the lab project 'Dynamic Genetics v Mann, and Yosuke, a graduate from Design Interactions, Royal College of Art, has just started his internship with us.
I am an interaction designer and creative coder. I gained my MA in Design Interactions from Royal College of Art in 2013 during which I developed my own perspective of how our society has been structured in relation to technology and spectacle, and the skill to craft and visualise speculative narratives derived from this perspective. Previously I had studied at the Computer-Human-Interaction research lab at The University of Tokyo, employing physical and computational prototyping to communicate complex concepts. I have also been performing as a freelance interaction designer/artist, and led projects ranging from commissioned artworks to iOS app development for organisations such as MUJI, takram design engineering, Future Robotics Technology Center at Chiba Institute of Technology and some start-ups. My work has been exhibited at Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Ars Electronica Centre and Haneda Tokyo International Airport.
Dig around his website and check out the brilliant commoditised warfare and other projects.
I have a tendency to delve head first into complex tangled systems and enjoy attempting to tease them apart. I like playing with, distorting, restricting or enhancing the senses or an experience, while looking at humans as creatures in a world where the evolving technological landscape is rapidly changing our behavior, habits and manner that we live.
After graduating from the Glasgow School of Art, I have worked in various prolific design studios at the crossover of design, technology and art. Having specialised in Graphic Design, I use both design’s attention to detail, and my passion in the area of speculative design to undertake various projects for the design studio Cohen van Balen, Timothy Hatton’s London Design Festival Pavilion and a series of production design projects in Sweden.
Over at the Superflux Lab, for the past few months, we've been engaged in a research project exploring the politcal and economic implications of synthetic biology and gene therapy. Whilst the research continues, one realisation of the project is now being exhibited at Ars Electronica, and so it's great to be able to finally share what we're been working on.
(For full information about this project visit our work page.)
PRESS RELEASE, SUPERFLUX: DYNAMIC GENETICS vs. MANN
From tissue biopsy samples to an improvised CO2 incubator used in the manufacture of counterfeit genetic therapies, ‘Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann’ presents a body of evidence from a fictional court case. Unfolding as a rich narrative, this new project from Superflux explores a world where designed and patented genetic material enters the human body through illicit means.
This work forms part of ‘Project Genesis’, curator Matthew Gardiner’s flagship exhibition at the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz, Austria. It opened to the public on Friday 2nd August, and is part of the Ars Electronica festival in September 2013.
‘Dynamic Genetics v Mann’ was commissioned by Design Interactions Research Department at the Royal College of Art, and has been realised as part of Studiolab; a three-year initiative funded by the European Commission 7th Framework Program.
History has shown that political and economic forces exert as great an influence on the development and application of technology as the aspirations of scientists and engineers. ‘Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann’ explores the technological trajectory of synthetic biology, extrapolating from current social, economic and political trends so as to locate the technology within a broader cultural landscape.
This project imagines a world in which synthetic biology and gene therapy have moved from the lab to the marketplace. In this world, the responsibilities of the state have shifted from healthcare to the provision of health insurance. By calculating the likely impact of specific gene combinations, insurance rates are adjusted on a person-by-person basis, ensuring that individual ‘contributions’ more accurately reflect the potential costs associated with their genome.
What new legal 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? Who are the winners and losers in such a world?
The primary plot of ‘Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann’ reveals the increasing vulnerability of protagonist Arnold Mann, an ‘ordinary citizen’ whose insurance contributions spike dramatically after a regulatory spit test from the NHI (National Health Insurance) reveals elevated risks across a range of chronic health conditions in his genetic profile. Caught between an inflated health levy and the staggering cost of private treatment, a desperate Arnold turns to a black market clinic for a gene upgrade. This treatment will reduce his health insurance bill at the cost of permanently modifying his DNA with patented, but unlicensed therapy.
The collection of evidence presented in the exhibition, including an interrogation video, alongside other corroboratory, forensic, scientific, digital and material evidences, make a strong case against Mann, who is accused by Dynamic Genetics, a major corporation in the genetic therapy industry, of illegally possessing their proprietary DNA. Items including tissue biopsy samples, covert surveillance photographs, genetic search warrant, ‘found’ documents, newspaper clippings, and an improvised CO2 incubator, are presented by G5P, a private security agency hired by Dynamic Genetics to carry out the investigation.
Visitors to the work are encouraged to explore the body of evidence, piecing together this foreboding story that questions the ethical and economic implications of the new forms of genetic technology that are quietly transforming our world.
The project ‘Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann’ takes place in the United Kingdom, following government efforts to privatise and outsource services previously undertaken by the NHS (National Health Service). The project also takes into account large-scale citizen DNA databases, big data, and the growing popularity of companies like 23andMe, which allow customers to exchange small samples of their saliva for access to information about likely health risks based on their genetic information – with many unwittingly ceding their genetic privacy in the process. We are already witnessing the rise in private companies’ attempts to patent genetics in order to secure profits as well as established industries going to evermore extreme lengths to protect intellectual property.
Projecting forward from our current economic and political landscape, these and other developments provide governments and large corporations with the opportunity to create proprietary health-related services, often at the expense of the privacy, rights, and individual agency of ordinary citizens.
Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann is project by Jon Ardern and Anab Jain from Superflux, London, UK. The project has been realised with the valuable creative support of Megan Rodger, Minsung Wang, Raphael Pluvinage, Patrick Stevenson-Keating, Elvira Grob, Tobias Revell and Joe Duggan.
The designers would like to thank scientific advisors Cathal Garvey and Christina Agapakis for their support and critique, and Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, Rob Carlson and David Benque for their encouragement throughout the project.
All the evidences from the case will be presented on a dedicated website, which we will share very soon. Meanwhile if you'd like to know more, drop us a line at email@example.com.
A pdf of this press release can be downloaded here.
Whilst our practice is primarily project-led, whether thats client-focused, commissioned or self initiated work, we also like to continually find new ways of exploring the theoretical frameworks within which many aspects of our work are situated. With this in mind we have decided to invite people, whose ideas and research we find inspiring, to contribute to the Superflux blog, with the aim of creating an open space for discussion and reflection.
And so we are thrilled to have writer, researcher and futurist Paul Graham Raven kick-off this endeavour, by discussing the idea of Infrastructure Fiction in the context of his research work at the Pennine Water Group.
Photo Credit: Vivi Trujillo/Corporacion Fractal
My name's Paul Graham Raven, and I'm a researcher in infrastructure futures at the University of Sheffield. Team Superflux have very kindly invited me to take the mic and talk about the potential of applying critical design practice and futures thinking to the infrastructural domain. What follows is very much a theory under development; feedback and critique is not just welcome, but actively encouraged.
To begin, though, allow me to quote one of my hosts:
“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.” – Anab Jain, keynote talk from Next13
I've begun with this quote from Anab because it's one of the neatest summaries I've found of what design fiction does. Defining how it does what it does, however, is a little more slippery, as it's less about method than it is about results. We can say that design fiction tends toward the visual: images, videos, simulations, renderings, even theatrical performance. We can also say that in order to produce the desired effect – which we might sum up as a thought-provoking cognitive estrangement – a design fiction has to believe in itself, or at least give the impression of believing in itself. But rather like the presentation of a paper at a conference, the images and videos and so on are the medium, a delivery system for the memetic payload. The payload is possibility, the potential for a different world: a loud bang to break the spell of hypnosis.
Over the last year and half, a bunch of infrastructure academics and researchers, myself among them, managed to commit design fiction by accident.
“All-in-One” was an EPSRC-funded project involving researchers and investigators from the University of Sheffield's Pennine Water Group, Cranfield University, De Montfort University and the University of Leicester. The project's remit was unusually open-ended, especially for an infrastructure gig: the basic research question was “would it be possible to replace all the disparate utility infrastructures which we have currently with a system that uses one single unified infrastructure to fulfil all the needs of end-users?” (Research questions are the polar opposite of poetry.)
With a background in science fiction and speculative thinking, this was right up my street. But it was new territory for the civil engineers, modellers and risk analysis types I was working alongside; they were used to working in predominantly quantitative modes, with established systems, analytical frameworks and processes, with strict specifications and roadmaps to completion. Infrastructure is prosaic, practical stuff – it's mundane, in the literal sense of being of-the-world. It's about keeping the lights on; if you start getting all visionary, people might think you're some sort of Tesla wannabe.
Design occupies an interesting position astraddle C P Snow's two-cultures divide, with one foot in the engineer's world of practical considerations and the manipulation of materials, and the other foot in the more arty realms of the unfettered imagination. Designers think differently to engineers because design has internalised the notion of critical production, of praxis as discourse, of reflexive rhetoric. To a designer, what a thing means is as important – sometimes more important – as what it does and how it does it.
My theory is that is if you combine a speculative writer like me with engineers, then the gestalt entity that results sits somewhat nearer the centre of the two-cultures spectrum. Just about where you might expect to find a designer, in fact.
The core output of the All-in-One project's early stages were a handful of vignettes that described possible – if not necessarily plausible – solutions to the All-in-One question. These largely took the form of presentations in the established engineering project-proposal style: much talk of practicalities, materials, logistical problems and sociopolitical challenges.
But leave the format aside for a moment, and look at the actual ideas we came up with: a “city blood” circulatory system, wherein energy is carried to homes dissolved in water like oxygen is carried to our cells by haemoglobin; a rhizome-topology urban network of underground freight-delivery tunnels; the entire planet powered by orbital solar collector satellites, and eventually by a belt of photovoltaics on the moon; and a subterranean modular city based around the central need for water, energy and fresh air. These are combinations of prior speculations and actual contemporary tech developments (the “solar globe” vignette owes a debt to the Shimizu Corporation's more ambitious blue-sky projects, for instance, and my own “Intertubes” vignette used the Foodtubes proposal as its jump-off point), and they were put together with an engineer's eye for actual achievable systems, at least as far as technological plausibility is concerned. The links embedded above will let you download the “condensed flyers” we did toward the end of the project; you'll note that these still speak the language of the proposal, of the project pitch. We were trying to convince our audience of the possibilities, because we were also trying to convince ourselves of them.
Remember what I said back at the beginning, about how design fiction has to believe in itself to do its work? I think if we'd had the knack of that, if we'd found ways to present them not as proposals but as faits accompli, we'd have had four chunks of infrastructure fiction on our hands.
Why would anyone want to do design fiction about infrastructure, though? That's not just a valid question but an important one, and it calls back to that quote of Anab's that I opened with. But first, we need to decide what “infrastructure” actually is.
Outside the world of civil engineering, infrastructure is profoundly unsexy. Oh, sure, there are people who can work up an aesthetic appreciation of a really good bridge, or admire the robust geometry of the classic British electricity pylon, or even enthuse about the mud-caked technological sublime of a tunnel-boring machine... but infrastructure's function is not a thrill in its own right. That wasn't always the case, though. The first electric lighting systems, the bridges and tunnels and engines of the pioneering railways, the epic sewers concealed by Bazalgette's Embankment on the Thames: they were wonders of their age, and changed the way life was lived wherever they appeared2.
But we grew accustomed to them, and now – at least here in the West – take them for granted. Indeed, we might nowadays define infrastructure as being that part of the built environment which is only ever noticed when it stops working. At all other times, it's lurking in the background, humming away in the interstices, invisibly providing you with, as the stacktivist Jay Springett puts it, “the means to not die” – plus, depending on the nation-state in which you find yourself, providing the means to achieve a variety of tasks and/or move around the landscape.
Even when you spend most of your working day thinking about infrastructure, it's surprisingly hard to make the leap from the abstract to the actual – as illustrated by the number of times I've caught myself stood with my brow creased and my mouth full of toothpaste, thinking about ways to encourage more careful domestic water usage habits, while the tap pours a couple of litres per minute of meticulously and expensively treated water straight down the plughole.
No one would describe Douglas Adams as a “hard” science fiction writer, but I've long felt that he was better than many of his more serious contemporaries at communicating the paradoxical relationships we humans have with the world we inhabit. Near the start of the third Hitchhiker's Guide novel, Life, the Universe and Everything (Adams, 2009), Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect observe the arrival of an unusual spacecraft (which, if I remember correctly, looks rather like a low-budget Italian bistro turned on its side) in the middle of Lords cricket ground during an important test match. This spacecraft remains unnoticed by the players, the crowd, or even the stolid BBC reporters covering the match; this is because it includes a device which generates a “Someone Else's Problem” field, whose inventor realised that, while making something invisible is very tricky, making something look like someone else's problem is much, much easier, as most people are predisposed to that position.
The challenge for infrastructure fiction is to dispel the Someone Else's Problem field and reveal the elided centrality of infrastructure to pretty much everything we do. Its challenge is to explore what infrastructure means.
To do that, we're going to have to kill off some assumptions.
From a designer's point of view, infrastructure is a given. It's the invisible and unacknowledged stuff – supply chains, communications networks, utility grids – that make the designed object producible, deliverable, and able to function as intended. Without infrastructure, there would be no designers. It's the oxygen of the profession.
From an infrastructural engineer's point of view, infrastructure is an intricate and interdependent web of entangled systems which ends at the point where it goes through the wall of your home, factory or office, thus granting the occupants the ability to do a variety of things, starting with not dying.
Appropriately enough – or so you'd think – these are both structuralist conceptions: understandings of a system in terms of what it does and how it does it. Capacities, voltages, efficiencies, safety features, diurnal demand profiles, materials, specs... engineering bread'n'butter, in other words.
Both of these conceptions are both right and wrong.
The first assumption that needs to die: that infrastructure enables designed objects. As the old saying goes, the problem is that it's not even wrong; it's just one-sided. The relationship between infrastructure and designed objects is duplex, a synthesis. The multiplication of designed objects, of tools and machines and appliances, both necessitated and enabled the construction of infrastructure, which in turn enabled a further proliferation and multiplication of appliances. Look at the history of electricity grids, for instance; the basic physics had been understood for quite some time before anyone came up with useful and affordable (and safe) ways to use this new phenomenon, but selling those appliances was dependent on there being an infrastructure to connect them to. Neither sprang fully-formed from the Zeus-brow of human invention. They co-evolved; they're still co-evolving. (Though one could make a good argument that the designed objects are presently out-evolving the infrastructure, at least in some locations.)
The second assumption that needs to die: that infrastructure ends at the wall of your house. This is a little like assuming that the chunky plastic pistol-shaped thing with a cable coming out of the handle is what drills holes in your walls. It is the drill-bit that drills the holes; the motor unit of the power drill simply enables you to use the drill-bit to make bigger, deeper holes more quickly, and in a greater variety of materials than you could make using elbow grease alone. The power drill is not the tool; it is a function-specific extension of the infrastructure, an interface between the tool and the abstract world of harnessed energy.
When you connect a device to an infrastructure, the latter is effectively subsumed by the former. It's a sort of metonymy: the power and potential that we imply when we speak of a power drill is actually the power and potential of the electricity grid, an electrical loa riding the horse of the drill.
You don't believe me? Unplug the power drill from the wall, take it somewhere there are no wall sockets. Or take a nicely chromed faucet to some place without a water distribution mains, or a smartphone to somewhere where there's no signal.
Ain't much use to you now, is it?
This is what you see when the spell of Anab's “hypnosis of normality” is broken around infrastructure. Design fiction is getting pretty skilled at problematising the power drill (faucet, smartphone, whatever) from the perspective of the user; what infrastructure fiction needs to do is get skilled at problematising the tap as seen from the other side of the wall.
(As-yet-untested thesis: a functional and/or designed object which in no way requires or depends upon an infrastructure can itself be considered a sort of infrastructure.
The more you think about it, the more you realise how tiny a category of things that actually is.)
There was no predefined methodology for the All-in-One vignettes. When we started in on them, all we had was a broad blue-sky research question and a wiki stuffed with ninety or so new or improved technologies; each subgroup of the project team set out to answer the former using items taken from the latter.
As such, they're not a matched or complementary set of futures like you'd get from the classic 2x2 matrix. Each vignette reflects the assumptions (and the obsessions) of its creators. In the long run, infrastructure fiction practice may want to avoid this sort of haphazardness, but it might be beneficial at this early stage. After all, critical design is a critique of design, an inherently reflexive undertaking. So critical infrastructure design should surely do something similar: expose flawed heuristics and frangible assumptions, especially those of its own practitioners.
There's an subtle difference between those who started with an idea and generated a world around it which would make it possible (as in the “Solar Globe” and “Intertubes” vignettes), and those who started with a set of problematic assumptions about the world and created an idea to solve them (as in the “Subterrania” vignette). This is a tension I see a lot of in the nascent discipline of science fiction prototyping; the term has been popularised by Brian David Johnson of Intel in his book of the same title (Johnson, 2010), which makes a case for the writing of science fiction narratives as a method for extrapolating the consequences and implications of new ideas, technologies or phenomena.
Bruce Sterling talks about design fiction as being diegetic prototypes, as “stories that tell worlds”: the object or product or service in the foreground implies the social, political, economic and technological dimensions oif the storyworld in which it must be assumed to exist, and it is this implication of diegesis that does the “work” of design fiction. One of the difficulties I have with Johnson's approach (which I've been wrestling with in a paper currently under review at Technological Forecasting & Social Change) is that it explicitly subordinates the diegesis to the novum. Much like the classic Gernsbackian science fiction story, the idea is the star, and everything else follows from that; the world is assembled so as to accommodate and extrapolate the idea. Or, to put it another way, diegetic prototyping “creat[es] 'pre-product placements' for technologies that do not yet exist” (Kirby, 2009). Such practice can be (meta)critical, as in much of what we think of as design fiction, but Johnson's approach is more advocative; design fiction uses the foreground to make you think about the background, while Johnson's mode of prototyping uses the background to make you think about the foreground.
To me, this looks like a case of cart before horse – in fact, I'd argue it accurately reflects the problematic mindset of contemporary tech-biz approaches to innovation, but that's a rant for another day. As suggested above, new technologies and infrastructures alike came into existence as a result of the continuing socioeconomic interactions of people and other already-existing technologies and infrastructures; as such, you need to do a bit of thinking about the world before you can do any sensible thinking about a new thing that you're proposing to introduce to said world.
That's not to say Johnson's wrong, though. In fact, I think the All-in-One vignettes show that you get different sorts of prototype from each approach – but I need to do a whole lot more experimentation and tinkering with techniques before I feel I can quantify those differences, and what value they have. My theory is that a reversed approach might be more useful at the infrastructural scale: that one can start by imagining a coherently problematic world or worlds, much as you might with a 2x2 matrix, and allow it/them to suggest objects or products or services that might come into being as a response to such; “worlds that tell stories”, in other words3.
What keeps our vignettes from being true design fictions is their format: they are proposals, not yet convinced of themselves. We were still thinking in engineering terms when I finally realised how close we were to doing design fiction: thinking about feasibility, roadmaps and path-dependecy, about practical barriers to actualisation and so forth, as opposed to making the design-fictioneer's leap and imagining the problem already solved, so as to ask what that solution might tell us about the problem that we hadn't already noticed.
Convincing engineers that feasibility can be handwaved away in order to focus on meaning and implication is surprisingly difficult, as it goes against every instinct of their practice. I got there in the end with my colleagues, but the approach needs to better systematised and tested before it'll float easily with an unprepared audience; that systematisation is what I hope to spend the next few years working on.
But imagine for a moment that our “proposals” concretised properly; imagine for a moment we'd had the skills and resources to make true design fictions of them. Imagine them being convinced of themselves, delivered as slick three-minute IPO promo videos, as guided tours of installations or facilites, or as reports from industrial spies or saboteurs. Imagine them narrated by a non-engineer: by an eco-activist, a ruralist refusenik, a hypernationalist political firebrand, a ubicomp urbanite, a lobbyist for Big Carbon, by Joe Sixpack or a Daily Mail NIMBY. Imagine them as faits accompli, presented in a manner that elides their fictionality.
See? Design fiction, of a sort.
While it's satisfying to retrospectively identify the All-in-One vignettes as a form of design fiction, or even to coin the term “infrastructure fiction” for them, the question remains: what use are they?
For the Superfluxian audience, such a question is probably (hopefully?) anathema: design's internalisation of critique makes the point moot. They're thought experiments, exercises in reflexive critique of both practice and principle. The ends justify the means, right? So all I need do is remind you to stop thinking that infrastructure is Someone Else's Problem. Unless you're spinning wool from your own sheep or whittling wooden spoons, everything you do touches (or is touched by) infrastructure. This means there's a whole new layer of questions you could be asking in your practice – and as climate change, resource distribution inequity and fragile global supply chains become increasingly dominant forces in the chaotic megasystem of the world, they're questions you need to be asking.
To my colleagues in engineering, and to businesses and agencies thinking about innovation and infrastructure and the troubled times ahead, I would say this: you have been trained, and trained well, to imagine the possible as constrained by the plausible, for what you imagine must be buildable. That's as it should be... but you must learn to switch it off from time to time.
This isn't so much about thinking outside the box, that most tired of innovation cliches; if anything, it's about thinking about the box, asking how and why the box constrains you. It might help to think of vignettes and infrastructure fictions as a type of theoretical model, albeit one that is almost entirely qualitative. The point is not to see whether they hold up to the tests of physics, or whether they can be evaluated against cost, resilience or feasibility; indeed, it is to be expected that most infrastructure fictions would fail at least one of these types of test. And therein lies the real point: failure is instructive, and the failures and flaws of imaginary systems at this sort of scale – not to mention the circumstances which might influence the likelihood or otherwsie of that failure – are impossible to explore in reality.
Design fiction is a sandbox, a test-bed, a gedankenexperiment; it's the technological archaeology of imagined futures. If design fiction is a discourse both in and around start-up culture and bleeding-edge technologism, then infrastructure fiction can do the same thing for global sustainability, infrastructure policy and the iteration of appliance functionality. It can break the hypnosis, collapse the Someone Else's Problem field. It can make infrastructure legible – and once you can read a story, you can write it a new way.
Of course, you can still do infrastructural engineering without thinking about the context in which you're doing it; we've been doing that for the last hundred years or more, after all.
But look where that got us.
1 – Tesla's place in the geek canon is not echoed in the trad engineering canon; indeed, I suspect that's a big part of why he's in the geek canon at all.
2 – This sensawunda lives on in attenuated form in the collective culture of civil engineering; my favourite conference drinking game5 involves taking a drink every time a presenter or panellist speaks in reverent tones about the ambition and longsightedness of the Victorians. Regrettably, the culture has largely forgotten that those genuinely astonishing projects were made possible by a nigh-total lack of regulation, and a class system that permitted the systematic exploitation of the navvies.
3 – I'm thinking of calling it “mimetic prototyping”, because Plato isn't around to call me out in an angry blog-post for misusing the other half of his dialectic.
4 – We did try making some videos, but the main thing they communicated was that the making of videos is best left to people who know a lot about making videos, or at least those who have the time and resources to make a proper go of it.
5 – To be totally clear, there is no actual drinking involved. Well, not during the conferences, anyway.
Adams, D. Life, the Universe and Everything. Pan, London, 2009
Johnson, B. D. Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction Morgan & Claypool, San Francisco, CA, 2011
Kirby, D. “The Future Is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development.” Social Studies of Science 40.1 (2009): 41–70.
The sun is shining after nearly nine months of winter here in London. Perfect time to share the latest round of studio happenings.
Recent Talks and Conferences:
Embrace Mutations, Vivid Sydney: Anab gave a keynote at the Vivid Sydney festival last week, and from what I have heard, it sounded like a brilliant event, great panelists and an amazing city.
Real Fiction, University of Applied Arts, Vienna: We were invited by Fiona Raby to talk about our studio practice as part of a great lectures series, organised in collaboration with StudioLab at the Royal College of Art, London and BioFaction, Vienna.
Lecture, Royal College of Art: Anthony Dunne and Noam Toran invited us to share our studio practice, methods and projects with their students.
Next13, Berlin: The video for Anab's talk at Next13, Berlin is now online, and some very kind words from Warren Ellis here.
We have also updated our Press page which now covers some of our latest activities and media engagements.
Dynamic Genetics V. Mann: We are so pleased that this Lab project I have been leading has been selected to be exhibited at Yours Synthetically, Ars Electronica later this year. Watch this space as we share the work over the next few weeks.
IoTA: Internet-of-Things Academy: We have published a film and report showcasing IoTA's progress and our conversations with some incredible people from the world of IoT. The project will continue developing, and if you are interested in partnering or sponsoring any part of the project, do get in touch.
New Studio, New People, and Everything Else:
We are moving to a new studio in Bermondsey end of next month, which is super exciting! Photos and updates on that front soon. We also have Megan Rodger join us this month, who besides being a very good graphic designer and maker, is also the most resourceful person I've met recently. Very much looking forward to working with her.
On June 14th, Anab and I will be announcing the winners of the Core77 Awards (Interaction Category), 10am UK time. Thanks to Vicky Richardson, Durrell Bishop and Louise Shannon who took time out to join us for the judigng session.
Another thing we are very excited about is our contribution to the DREAD book, published this September by Valiz and designed by Metahaven. The book also includes contributions by Adam Greenfield, James Bridle, Timo Arnall and Xander Karskens. It is edited by Juha van 't Zelfde, whose exhibition by the same title will open at De Hallen Haarlem on 6 September 2013.
Last but not the least, thanks to everyone who applied for an internship position, we have done the recruiting for now. But we'll be having one new position open from August, so do get in touch if you are interested.
That'll do for now. Happy Summer!
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.)
7th of April is celebrated as the symbolic birthday of that thing we call the Internet. We thought it was appropriate to send out our first ever Newsletter to mark the occasion. Well you know what they say, better late than never. In case you didnt sign up for it, here's the pdf version, so you'll know what we've been upto.
We hope to send maybe two or three of these out per year, celebrating important dates through the year. So if you havent signed up yet, there's plenty of time to do it, before the next one hits your inbox.
(Here's what it looks like. Lea's done a great job with the design, and the illustrations.)