In early May, Jon and I were invited by the HEAD MEDIA DESIGN faculty in Geneva to lead a week long design futurescaping workshop for the first-year students on their postgraduate Media Design programme. Having not previously encountered speculative design, futurescaping, or design fiction, we were tasked with finding a way to drag this bundle of themes and techniques into the participants’ familiar everyday lives. We could easily have spent a week exploring different processes and methods, but, instead, we chose to develop a challenging context-specific brief, through which the HEAD students could start to grapple with some of the questions we ourselves have been exploring through our lab and studio activities.
Drawing on our recent work, talks, and ongoing personal encounters with immigration and the contemporary nation-state, we were drawn to a central theme of political complexity – challenging students to probe notions of borders, territories, and the fragile, increasingly precarious relationship between people and their governments. Developing the brief in collaboration with Justin Pickard, our spooky, mostly virtual studio associate, we wanted to leave workshop participants fully primed and poised, ready to develop their own original work on these and similar issues.
"Looking ahead to the Switzerland of 2025, this workshop challenges participants to design thoughtful responses to emerging political tensions at the intersection of migration, housing, climate change, robotics, surveillance, currency and finance, energy, public protest, and the hollowing out of the contemporary nation-state. Superflux will present the students with a series of weak signals from a near-future world and the students will work individually to respond to this world. At a deeper level, this workshop asks the students to consider the role their design practice may play in a future that is radically different from the one they may have been led to expect."
We kicked off the workshop with a presentation expanding on the initial brief, describing how the workshop would use the notion of ‘failed states’ to ‘explore how political visions of the future fail to account for the complexity of the world, and in doing so, struggle to consider unforeseen events and uncertainty.’ We showed real-world examples of the ways in which unanticipated events – the collapse of the USSR, the Great Depression, etc. – have triggered paradigm shifts in national and international politics, the consequences of which we continue to experience in our everyday lives today, in 2014.
Mid-week Crit, where students present their research and initial design proposals.
With this as background and context, we confronted the workshop participants with a future Switzerland of the mid-2020s; a small, federal state in a world where an increasingly powerful Chinese state holds controlling shares in a number of critical Swiss infrastructure projects, a network of surveillance UAVs have been deployed to monitor and pre-empt civil unrest, widespread food shortages have been met by the nationalisation of many Swiss food companies, and the persistent overuse of antibiotics has led the world into an era in which even minor infections can prove terminal.
Series of UDC propaganda posters, more here.
Sharing our timeline of events from 2013-2025 based on current trends and weak signals, we tasked participants with digesting the interplay of a range of future developments, considering their implications for the everyday experience of future Swiss citizens and inhabitants, and designing a response to the challenges and consequences of this future world. We asked them to engage, critique and infiltrate the dominant political and economic order through a proposed service, product, experience, movement, campaign, or anything else that felt appropriate.
Europe according to Switzerland, 2010, Atlas of Prejudice, by Yanko Tsvetkov
After the initial splash presentation, participants ran through a series of discussions and initial brainstorms, touching on the recent immigration referendum, the incipient anxieties of French students, and the visual language of Swiss political propaganda. The students were asked to consider the elements of this future world that resonated with their own passions and personal politics; what their own lives – and those of their friends and family – might look like in this proximate future; and alternative roles for their own design practice in an unexpected or divergent environment. Over the first few days, participants made extensive use of mapping and fiction and they sought to orient themselves in relation to a series of much larger, interlocking social and technical systems.
Image from Clement Coubès' research. His project explored the idea of disaster tourism in the context of failed states.
After a round of early brainstorms we suggested the students write short stories, that situate them or their loved ones, within this world. This became a great mechanism to create deeper connections with the things that they otherwise did not consider. For instance, here's an excerpt from Vytautas's story:
I’m in my 2-room rented flat with my french girlfriend and our child. My salary is late by more than two months, as the Genevan canton suspended issuing residence permits due to the unclear future of the state. I was thinking of taking all the family and going home, for quite a while, up until Russians invaded Lithuania (for national security reasons, as they state) and are now “maintaining order” just like back in the Soviet Union days. Last week we buried our dog, which was shot in "self-defense” by one angry nationalist rioter. Nobody cares about it anyway, life’s just too difficult right now. Nobody except my daughter. I’m still here, because hoping to get an extension for a residence permit is still a better option than being a refugee with no nationality. All in all, I couldn’t even pass the border.
Final projects tackled questions around immigration, state surveillance, cryptocurrencies, mesh networks, political apartheid, economic protectionism, puppet governments, gated communities, racial discrimination, and the growing influence of China and the Global South.
Vytautas Jankauskas's Proposal "Swiss Independent Citizen Community": ISCC is a project about independent foreign citizen community formed in Switzerland as a failed state, where foreigners offer government balanced community agreements in exchange for social, political and economical guaranties. People can voluntarily provide selected parts of their Big Data, bank transaction info, sign-up as military volunteers, etc. whereas the state issues special citizen IDs allowing free travel, national health insurance and other essentials. The goal is to help stabilize the country as well as improve the living and individual security of struggling foreign citizens
Gaetan Stierlin's Proposal "Economic Wars": In 2025, most of the Switerzland (public services, the mountains) is into the hand of foreign investors (mostly China). This investors control also the government. The Federal Counsil wants Swizterland to keep the beautiful image we have, so they're using massive propaganda to convict the swiss to be happy and confident, has if nothing is happening. Swiss people feel like strangers in their own country, because they have to reimport swiss products, like the Kinder chocolate. The investors love it so much, it's totally exported to China for themselves.
Participants’ work explored the various ways in which they might be able to either infiltrate the system, or design for it from within it. As workshop convenors, we found it emotionally and personally challenging to see how far they were willing to push themselves beyond their comfort zones, in order to explore new thematic and design territories.
Catherine Brand's proposal "The Milky Way & New Kitchenware; or how the Swiss population copes with food shortages in 2025" Since 2019 dramatic heat waves affect Europe. Governments have to face food shortages. In Switzerland, the price of food products has drastically increased, with basic food products having become a rare commodity.Switzerland has nationalised the country’s largest suppliers of in-vitro, lab grown meat. As the country has been kicked out of the Schengen area, they are not able to buy food products in neighbouring countries anymore. This would require a visa. Solutions have to be found in the domestic economy or on digital platforms.
Félicien Goguey's Proposal: The DSPS works as a Peer 2 Peer ever-shifting network based on human flows. Every citizen taking part in it wears a mobile device and own an immobile mailbox. These devices allows to exchange data between citizens without any contact.Thus any citizen wearing a mobile device becomes a messenger of the network. Public transportation (buses, trains, planes...) and crowded places are nodes where the messages can be exchanged. Messages are protected by PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). AI (maybe genetic algorithm) determines the shortest way to deliver the message and compute the path, based on the habits of the peers and predictions. Efficiency and delivery speed rely on the number of citizens using DSPS.
The set of final presentations was inspiring and rewarding, and the students who took the opportunity to engage with this complex and chaotic bundle of issues did remarkably well in such a short period of time. "We learnt how to ask questions" was possibly one of the best feedback we could have asked for. Many thanks to Daniel Schiboz, Nicolas Nova and Marion Schmidt for the hospitality, we hope to be back at HEAD soon.
The year has flown by! What should be a monthly update has now become a quarterly (perhaps even semi-annual) update, our attempt to share studio highlights, and a fleeting moment to reflect on what has happened and what we have learnt.
On the Consultancy front, we have been lucky to have the opportunity to work with some great clients this year. Couple of quick project hightlights that we can share publicly:
Future Cities Catapult / Family Day Out Programme
One of the most exciting projects we have been working on this year is with the Future Cities Catapult called 'A Family Day Out Programme'. The project seeks to work with partially sighted and blind people to help identify the characteristics of future cities that will enrich their experience of it and develop potential cityscapes that would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We have been through an extensive design research, horizon scanning and futurescaping process and are currently visualising some of the outcomes.
Museum of Future Government Services / PMO, UAE
We were lead creative consultants for the concept and scenario development of the Museum of Future Government Services commissioned by the Prime Minister's Office of the UAE, working the incredible Tellart, Fabrica, Near Future Laboratory and Institute of the Future, spearheaded by Noah Raford. The project launched at the Government Summit, a global platform dedicated to the improvement and enhancement of government services and related opportunities. The six exhibits being shown at the Museum are immediately visually compelling, yet provocative, and ambitious visions of how services ranging from border control to health care to education could be delivered in the future, in an attempt to stimulate thought and action, from their leaders and civic officials in the UAE. Our colleagues at Tellart and Fabrica, working with the PMO, have done a remarkable job in translating concepts, developing elements, and ultimately executing the exhibits.
On the Lab front, currently two projects are keeping us on our toes.
Things that Fly and Watch Over You: Quadcopters, multirotors, positioning systems, and such other stuff has kept us occupied in the Lab, in huge amounts. Project Impossible is a beast that is simulteneously exciting and terrifying. One of the most fun part of the project is an opportunity to work with a host of amazingly talented people, all to be announced in an upcoming press conference.
IoTA: Internet of Things Academy: A full update on this project requires a separate blogpost, but suffice to say, we have made good progress. We are grateful to have a team of great people working with us: Gyorgyi Galik, Philipp Ronenberg, Martin Charlier and Daniel Pomlett. We have moved in a different direction from our initial proposal, but feel we now have a much clearer, far more exciting direction. Our focus is on people, on social and environmental concerns, and thinking of ways in which IoT can ultimately shape and influence legislation and policy. We are grateful for the incredible support of our partners Hugh Knowles and Louise Armstrong from the Forum for the Future and funders Nominet Trust and Founders Forum for Good, as well as the brillants folks at Suncorp who have been supporting our work. For regular updates follow @IoTAcademy on twitter or have a peek into our process on our tumblr.
Also on the Lab front, we were in India earlier this year, and have revisited Lilorann, with an renewed interest in Tactical Design and Tools for Critical Jugaad. We are in talks with several collaborators in the hope of realising a small thing this winter. Stay tuned.
Our Associate Tobias Revell has recently completed a commission 'Monopoly of Legitimate Use' premiered at the Lighthouse Brighton, which we highly recommend making a trip for. Also, Yosuke Ushigome is currently developing a fascinating project "exploring high-speed and speculative trading of our bodily-harvested energy/data/knowledge/assets" to be exhibited in October in Tokyo.
TALKS & EXHIBITIONS
Keynote, Futureverything: I delievered a keynote at the Futureverything Festival in Manchester end of March. Titled 'Valley of the Meatpuppets', the talk explores the ethereal space where people, agents, thingbots, action heroes and big dogs coexist and how influence is designed within this space. I think the conference videos should go online soon. It was also great to exhibit the 5th Dimensional Camera and Open Informant at the Festival too.
Design and Violence, MoMA New York:
We were invited by Paola Antonelli to contribute to their online show Design and Violence with a critical response to the work of Phil Ross. We wrote a short fiction piece exploring a future world where Mycotecture becomes a favoured material and what its implications might be.
V&A Friday Late: Candyce and I presented Dynamic Genetics vs Mann, followed by a series of sessions with the Synbio Tarot Cards at the V&A Friday Late for Synthetic Aesthetics. We had never run this sort of a session previously, but judging by the evening's success are considering new avenues for such toolkits.
We will be showing Dynamic Genetics vs Mann at the DEAF Biennale in Rotterdam later this month as part of the 'Blueprints for the Unknown' Exhibition, and hoping that there will be a way for the project to be shown in the UK soon, perhaps where the project will resonate the most. I will also be giving a talk at the DIY ‘Altopia’ Seminar at the Biennale. I'll be joining Tobias Revell at the Lighthouse to discuss his new work and explore themes of migration, borders, and networks. And I think that might be it, in terms of talks this year, apart from Chicago much later this year. Due to time contraints I have recently had to turn down few very exciting conference invitations for this year, but looking forward to it next year.
We enjoy teaching and our favourite form is intense workshops, which gives us an opportunity to set a brief, and a concetrated time with students to develop responses. We just wrapped up a workshop at HEAD, Geneva, with the Media Design MA students, working with them on a highly challenging brief titled 'Failed States: Tactical Design for Uncertain Futures. Developed in collaboration with Justin Pickard, we invited students to design thoughtful responses to emerging political tensions at the intersection of migration, housing, climate change, robotics, surveillance, currency and finance, energy, public protest, and the hollowing out of the contemporary nation-state, for a near-future Switzerland. Needless to say, it was a highly energetic, inspiring week, and we'll be writing a bit more about it soon.
STUDIO & NEW PEOPLE
We feel very much like an elastic studio, expanding and contracting on an almost daily basis, held together by Elvira's assiduity, and a constant supply of PG Tips, Waghbakri Chai, and Soyabean Cha. On some days its heaving with people, and the energy is palpable, at other times its quietness is calming. In the midst of the recent deadlines, we havent had a chance to properly welcome Candyce Dryburgh, Anuradha Reddy, and Jon Flint, three brilliant designers in various stages of internship with us.
Also, we were fortunate to have Romain Menieur intern with us for few months, do check out his great work. Apart from the regulars, we have been fortunate to welcome a range of awesome folks to the studio: Mike Vanis, Dan Williams, Martin Charlier and Daniel Pomlett to name a few.
This was meant to be brief, so I'll stop. Just a quick final note to say that we are also considering new projects, collaborations and partnerships for 2015, so if you have something in mind, do drop us a line.
Adios, be well!
Last year we were lucky to have some fantastic guest posts from Paul Graham Raven, Scott Smith and Christina Agapakis. Continuing the tradition into our second year, I am thrilled to welcome Alexis Lloyd, Creative Director R&D New York Times, to our blog with a great essay. When I met Alexis last year, it was clear that there were crossovers in our work, and we are grateful that she agreed to write for us, brilliantly exploring a space that we are currently preoccupied with in the studio. Over to Alexis.
IN THE LOOP: DESIGNING CONVERSATIONS WITH ALGORITHMS
Earlier this year, I saw a video from the Consumer Electronics Show in which Whirlpool gave a demonstration of their new line of connected appliances: appliances which would purportedly engage in tightly choreographed routines in order to respond easily and seamlessly to the consumer’s every need. As I watched, it struck me how similar the notions were to the “kitchen of the future” touted by Walter Cronkite in this 1967 video. I began to wonder: was that future vision from nearly fifty years ago particularly prescient? Or, perhaps, are we continuing to model technological innovation on a set of values that hasn’t changed in decades?
When we look closely at the implicit values embedded in the vast majority of new consumer technologies, they speak to a particular kind of relationship we are expected to have with computational systems, a relationship that harkens back to mid-20th century visions of robot servants. These relationships are defined by efficiency, optimization, and apparent magic. Products and systems are designed to relieve users of a variety of everyday “burdens” — problems that are often prioritized according to what technology can solve rather than their significance or impact. And those systems are then assumed to “just work”, in the famous words of Apple. They are black boxes in which the consumer should never feel the need to look under the hood, to see or examine a system’s process, because it should be smart enough to always anticipate your needs.
So what’s wrong with this vision? Why wouldn’t I want things doing work for me? Why would I care to understand more about a system’s process when it just makes the right decisions for me?
The problem is that these systems are making decisions on my behalf and those decisions are not always optimal: they can be based on wrong assumptions, incomplete understanding, or erroneous input. And as those systems become more pervasive, getting it wrong becomes increasingly problematic. We are starting to realize that black boxes are insufficient, because these systems are never smart enough to do what I expect all the time, or I want them to do something that wasn't explicitly designed into the system, or one “smart” thing disagrees with another “smart” thing. And the decisions they make are not trivial. Algorithmic systems record and influence an ever-increasing number of facets of our lives: the media we consume, through recommendation algorithms and personalized search; what my health insurance knows about my physical status, the kinds of places I’m exposed to (or not exposed to) as I navigate through the world; whether I’m approved for loans or hired for jobs; and whom I may date or marry.
As algorithmic systems become more prevalent, I’ve begun to notice of a variety of emergent behaviors evolving to work around these constraints, to deal with the insufficiency of these black box systems. These behaviors point to a growing dissatisfaction with the predominant design principles, and imply a new posture towards our relationships with machines.
The first behavior is adaptation. These are situations where I bend to the system’s will. For example, adaptations to the shortcomings of voice UI systems — mispronouncing a friend’s name to get my phone to call them; overenunciating; or speaking in a different accent because of the cultural assumptions built into voice recognition. We see people contort their behavior to perform for the system so that it responds optimally. This is compliance, an acknowledgement that we understand how a system listens, even when it’s not doing what we expect. We know that it isn’t flexible or responsive enough, so we shape ourselves to it. If this is the way we move forward, do half of us end up with Google accents and the other half with Apple accents? How much of our culture ends up being an adaptation to systems we can’t communicate well with?
The second type of behavior we’re seeing is negotiation — strategies for engaging with a system to operate within it in more nuanced ways. One example of this is Ghostery, a browser extension that allows one to see what data is being tracked from one’s web browsing and limit it or shape it according to one’s desires. This represents a middle ground: a system that is intended to be opaque is being probed in order to see what it does and try and work with it better. In these negotiations, users force a system to be more visible and flexible so that they can better converse with it.
We also see this kind of probing of algorithms becoming a new and critical role in journalism, as newsrooms take it upon themselves to independently investigate systems through impulse response modeling and reverse engineering, whether it's looking at the words that search engines censor from their autocomplete suggestions, how online retailers dynamically target different prices to different users, or how political campaigns generate fundraising emails.
Third, rather than bending to the system or trying to better converse with it, some take an antagonistic stance: they break the system to assert their will. Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle is one example of this approach, where people hack their hair and makeup in order to foil computer vision and opt out of participating in facial recognition systems. What’s interesting here is that, while the attitude here is antagonistic, it is also an extreme acknowledgement of a system’s power — understanding that one must alter one’s identity and appearance in order to simply exert free will in an interaction.
Rather than simply seeing these behaviors as a series of exploits or hacks, I see them as signals of a changing posture towards computational systems. Culturally, we are now familiar enough with computational logic that we can conceive of the computer as a subject, an actor with a controlled set of perceptions and decision processes. And so we are beginning to create relationships where we form mental models of the system’s subjective experience and we respond to that in various ways. Rather than seeing those systems as tools, or servants, or invisible masters, we have begun to understand them as empowered actors in a flat ontology of people, devices, software, and data, where our voice is one signal in a complex network of operations. And we are not at the center of this network. Sensing and computational algorithms are continuously running in the background of our lives. We tap into them as needed, but they are not there purely in service of the end user, but also in service of corporate goals, group needs, civic order, black markets, advertising, and more. People are becoming human nodes on a heterogeneous, ubiquitous and distributed network. This fundamentally changes our relationship with technology and information.
However, interactions and user interfaces are still designed so that users see themselves at the center of the network and the underlying complexity is abstracted away. In this process of simplification, we are abstracting ourselves out of many important conversations and in doing so, are disenfranchising ourselves.
Julian Oliver states this problem well, saying: “Our inability to describe and understand [technological infrastructure] reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable. Infrastructure must not be a ghost. Nor should we have only mythic imagination at our disposal in attempts to describe it. 'The Cloud' is a good example of a dangerous simplification at work, akin to a children's book.”
So, what I advocate is designing interactions that acknowledge the peer-like status these systems now have in our lives. Interactions where we don't shield ourselves from complexity but actively engage with it. And in order to engage with it, the conduits for those negotiations need to be accessible not only to experts and hackers but to the average user as well. We need to give our users more respect and provide them with more information so that they can start to have empowered dialogues with the pervasive systems around them.
This is obviously not a simple proposition, so we start with: what are the counterpart values? What’s the alternative to the black box, what’s the alternative to “it just works”? What design principles should we building into new interactions?
The first is transparency. In order to be able to engage in a fruitful interaction with a system, I need to be able to understand something about its decision-making process. And I want to be clear that transparency doesn’t mean complete visibility, it doesn’t mean showing me every data packet sent or every decision tree. I say that because, in many discussions about algorithmic transparency, people have a tendency to throw their hands up, claiming that algorithmic systems have become so complex that we don’t even fully understand what they’re doing, so of course we can’t explain them to the user. I find this argument reductive and think it misunderstands what transparency entails in the context of interaction design.
As an analogy, when I have a conversation with a friend, I don’t know his whole psychological history or every factor that goes into his responses, let alone what’s happening at a neurological or chemical level, but I understand something about who he is and how he operates. I have enough signals to participate and give feedback — and more importantly, I trust that he will share information that is necessary and relevant to our conversation. Between us, we have the tools to delve into the places where our communication breaks down, identify those problems and recalibrate our interaction. Transparency is necessary to facilitate this kind of conversational relationship with algorithms. It serves to establish trust that a system is showing me what I need to know and is not doing anything I don’t want it to with my participation or data; and that it is giving me the necessary knowledge and input to correct a system when it’s wrong.
We’re starting to see some very nascent examples of this, like the functionality that both Amazon and Netflix have, where I can see the assumptions that are being made by a recommendation system and I am offered a way to give negative feedback; to tell Amazon when it’s wrong and why. It definitely still feels clunky — it’s not a very complex or nuanced conversation yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.
More broadly, the challenge we’re facing has a lot to do with the shift from mechanical systems to digital ones. Mechanical systems have a degree of transparency in that their form necessarily reveals their function and gives us signals about what they’re doing. Digital systems don’t implicitly reveal their processes, and so it is a relatively new state that designers now bear the burden of making those processes visible and available to interrogate.
The second principle here is agency, meaning that a system’s design should empower users to not only accomplish tasks, but should also convey a sense that they are in control of their participation with a system at any moment. And I want to be clear that agency is different from absolute and granular control.
This interface, for example, gives us an enormous amount of precise control, but for anyone but an expert, probably not much sense of agency.
A car, on the other hand, is a good illustration of agency. There’s plenty of “smart” stuff that the car is doing for me, that I can’t directly adjust — I can’t control how electricity is routed or which piston fires when, but I can intervene at any time to control my experience. I have clear inputs to steer, stop, speed up, or slow down and I generally feel that the car is working at my behest.
The last principle, virtuosity, is something that usually comes as a result of systems that support agency and transparency well. And when I say virtuosity, what I mean is the ability to use a technology expressively.
A technology allows for virtuosity when it contains affordances for all kinds of skilled techniques that can become deeply embedded into processes and cultures. It’s not just about being able to adapt something to one’s needs, but to “play” a system with skill and expressiveness. This is what I think we should aspire to. While it’s wonderful if technology makes our lives easier or more efficient, at its best it is far more than that. It gives us new superpowers, new channels for expression and communication that can be far more than utilitarian — they can allow for true eloquence. We need to design interactions that allow us to converse across complex networks, where we can understand and engage in informed and thoughtful ways, and the systems around us can respond with equal nuance.
These values deeply inform the work we do in The New York Times R&D Lab, whether we are exploring new kinds of environmental computing interfaces that respond across multiple systems, creating wearables that punctuate offline conversations with one’s online interests, or developing best practices for how we manage and apply our readers’ data. By doing research to understand the technological and behavioral signals of change around us, we can then build and imagine futures that best serve our users, our company, and our industry.
About the Author: Alexis Lloyd is the Creative Director of the Research and Development Lab at the New York Times where she investigates technology trends and prototypes future concepts for content delivery. Follow on twitter @alexislloyd.
Over the last few weeks we have been working on a very exciting project with the Future Cities Catapult called 'A Family Day Out Programme'. The project seeks to work with partially sighted and blind people to help identify the characteristics of future cities that will enrich their experience of it and develop potential cityscapes that would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. The critical objective of this research project is to identify areas of innovation around integrated city systems relating to city navigation by partially sighted people, and inspire innovation around design techniques that enrich the city experience by partially sighted or blind people.
An important aspect of this project is to engage with a diverse range of participants to create tangible instantiations of various future visions. For this collaborative visioning process, we are conducting a one-day workshop with a series of different key stakeholders: partially sighted and blind people, urban designers and planners, technology developers and funders, product designers, government agencies, transport providers and financiers. It will be an opportunity to create high level future worlds, that include the end user’s perspective alongside that of experts. This workshop will culminate in a series of early-stage future cityscapes that are inclusive and empathetic - visions that include the voices, challenges and aspirations of a large group. In the workshop we will use processes of co-creation, world-building and storytelling to collate fragments of an unevenly distributed futurity, which has previously manifested in the form of cityscape prototypes, psychogeographic narratives and artefacts.
If you are a designer, city planner, technologist, policy planner, architect, urban designer or involved in shaping our built environment, and interested in the workshop, it would be great if you can join us on the 18th of March. If you would like to join us drop us a line telling us who you are, and why you want to participate.
We are thrilled to welcome the very talented Philipp Ronnenberg as the creative technologist for the IoTAcademy project. Philipp will be working with us to develop the project's mockups, quick experiments and various workshops as part of our current work with Nominet Trust. He will also liase with expert technologists to create a robust, expandable platform. Here's a little introduction:
Philipp Ronnenberg studied Digital Media at the University of the Arts in Bremen, Germany before graduating with a M.A. in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art. He is passionate about democratizing technology, open-source phenomena, making-hacking culture and digital protest. Philipp's work investigates the relationship between technology and society, using various programming languages, electronics, software-hardware-prototyping, graphics and animations. He is exploring past, recent and future technologies through design and developing new perspectives on the interaction between humans and technology. While working as a designer and software developer he is working in the fields of interaction and concept design, speculative and critical design. Therefore he is researching and prototyping concepts for future interactive systems, applications and products in alternative realities and on the intersection between reality and speculation. The outcome of his work has been published in various magazines, newspapers, online media and was shown in exhibitions. You can follow him on twitter @PRonnenberg
As the studio gets busier, it becomes increasingly difficult to pause and reflect on our work, our process, our ambitions and aspirations. So as the madness of pre-Christmas deadlines settles, we felt it would be a good time to share a few of the many highlights that made 2013 one of our best and busiest years yet. So here it is, a quick, little document of our process, our studio conversations and travels, a glimpse of things stored away on phones and instagrams. A somewhat candid look at what has been keeping us busy. A cathartic exercise for us to reflect and take stock of what this year meant, and how our thinking has evolved.
We would also like to take this chance to thank the new clients and commissioners who approached us with trust and confidence, and those who came back again with fantastic new opportunities. We worked with the BBC, the Government of Dubai, Future Foundation, Sony and Suncorp amongst others, on a range of projects, from speculative design and foresight, to product strategy, invention and interaction design. We lead and faciliated workshops, wrote reports, made films, created scenarios, build prototypes and designed new experiences. But most importantly, we found new audiences and made new friends. We learnt that our work and approach has gained traction within industries and organisations we would never have considered as potential clients when we first started out.
An intense week in Dubai followed by few more intense week, working with some brilliant minds to develop concepts for a (NDA-ed) project, which will be made public early 2014.
Screen grabs from our scoping report and film on IoTA: Internet of Things Academy for Sony and Forum for the Future at the start of the year, which then led to more exciting stuff.
Stills from our design futurescaping workshops with the BBC where we created detailed cardboard scenarios which were then built upon further by the participants. We enjoyed every minute of it, and will treasure being some of the last people to wander the old Television Centre.
On the Lab front, our ongoing research project exploring the future of personalised genomics and synthetic biology in the context of healthcare, found its first manifestation in the form of a courtcase: Dynamic Genetics v Mann which was exhibited at this year's Ars Electronica. Tobias also showed his brilliant project 'Into Your Hands Are They Delivered' in the same exhibition. Following IoTA's scoping exercise with Sony, we were thrilled to receive funding from the Nominet Trust as one of the ten winners of their Social Tech Social Change Challenge, in partnership with Forum for the Future. We'll be sharing most of our activities through IoTA's twitter account in case you want to follow. We are in the final stages of wrapping up the second stage of the Song of the Machine project with the University of Newcastle, creating a series of functional prototypes and apps for optogenetic retinal prosthesis. The last Lab project this year was Open Informant, commissioned by the Wearable Futures Conference. It was a great start of a theme we will be exploring a lot more in the studio over the next few months. And finally, we are delighted to have won the Grants for the Arts Award from the Arts Council England to create a pretty spectacular project at the V&A next year, so stay tuned!
Discussions from our first Open Day for IoTA at the studio.
The spitkit from Dynamic Genetics vs Mann.
Jon presenting Dynamic Genetics vs Mann at Ars Electronica.
Tobias presenting Into Yours Hands Are They Delivered at Ars Electronica.
Open Informant exhibited at the Wearable Futures Conference
Yosuke wearing the Open Informant Badge.
Lea's drawings for our Grants for the Arts project.
Patrick's photographs of the prosthesis for Song of the Machine Part 2.
The Synbio Tarot Reader being exhibited at Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Milan.
Apart from Studio projects, we gave a lot of talks this year, developing and refining our own research agenda with each presentation. These include 'Design for the New Normal' at Next Berlin, Keynote at the Open Institute, London Launch, Keynote at the Vivid Festival Sydney, Australia, Talk at Futurefest, NESTA, Lecture at Fabrica, and 'Staying with the Trouble' at this year's rather brilliant Poptech. All our talks are now online here.
This slide became a leitmotif in our presentations this year, ending up on some t-shirts. Next year, it will be different.
Presenting at NESTA's Futurefest, curated by Pat Kane.
Enjoyed being on a panel at the Design Museum with the former and present RCA Rectors, Sir Chris Frayling and Dr. Paul Thompson.
Some of the press features of this year include Economist's Intelligent Life, the Sunday Observer, Weave Magazine and WIRED amongst others. We published an essay for the DREAD book edited by Juha van 't Zelfde, wrote texts for the Design Academy Eindhoven's upcoming book and contributed our work to Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby's new book Speculate Everything.
But the best part of this year has been about working with some absolutely brilliant people, our team members, collaborators and associates. Tobias continues collaborating with us on a range of exciting projects, Yosuke Ushigome who interned with us earlier this year is now an associate, Minsung Wang and Lea Bardin were the most fantastic interns, Elvira Grob has joined us as our new studio manager, Gyorgyi Galik has joined us to work on the IoTA project, and a creative technologist (yet to be announced) will be joining us in Janaury.
And finally, we are chuffed to find a new home for our practice, a studio in the corner of the Biscuit Factory, overlooking London's seductive, yet fragile cityscape like a little weather station. We are surrounded by our team, friends and associates, people we enjoy working and drinking with. We hope we can welcome many of you to our space next year.
Looking back at the year, Jon and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to grow, balancing ambition with scale, which is always a challenge, but we are learning that the scale-at-speed method that used to be a measure of success does not necessarily hold. Whilst we have at times questioned the logic of running a research lab within a studio of our size, its the Lab project that have helped us keep a progressive design agenda, allowing us to explore possibilities and opportunities that keep us intellectually and creatively sustained, but most importantly, enabling us to bring vision and freshness to our client work. Ultimately, not everything is about speed and scale. Maintaing a sense of pace and resisting the urge to grow too quickly has actually helped us build a business model that has structural and economic resilience.
Here's to a very Happy New Year!
That face? Well, it pretty much sums up how we are feeling at the moment. Absolutely delighted! We'd like to welcome two fabulous new people to the studio, Elvira Grob and Gyorgyi Galik.
Elvira Grob is our Studio Manager, working with us to create bespoke systems for organising, planning and supporting our growing consulting and lab projects.
She is a designer and researcher, with a BA in Process Design/Interaction Management and an MA in Design & Environment from Goldsmiths University. Keen to pursue her design management interests, she is working with us to craft organisational and project management systems that will allow us to grow in ways that supports the studio's ambitions and further our interests.
Elvira's own design work and research also has overlaps with the studio's work. During her MA, she has explored concepts where nature becomes culture or vice versa - such as technonature, future animal biomonitors, or hyperobjects. She has also been working as a visiting lecturer in critical design and as a creative strategist, and has a special interest for working in bizarre places including a waste incinerator and an operating theatre. When she is not working, she is mainly occupied with trialling anything pickled and sour. Her personal work can be found here, and you can follow her on twitter @grobli.
Gyorgyi Galik is our Project Manager for the IoTA project, working with us to shape the project as it grows into an independent platform.
Gyorgyi Galik is a London-based designer and researcher. Her practice focuses on voluntary social change, and more specifically how we can transform socio-ecological systems and our collective relationship towards the environmental commons to address and respond to contemporary societal and environmental challenges.
She has worked frequently in collaboration and in cross-disciplinary teams in labs and design studios including: Baltan Laboratories (Eindhoven), Kin Design & Research (London), Sackler Centre, Victoria & Albert Museum (London), PAN Studio (London), Natalie Jeremijenko and the Environmental Health Clinic (New York), Hexagram Research Lab - Concordia (Montreal), CECI (Montreal), Kitchen Budapest Art & Tech Lab (Budapest).
Gyorgyi is a tutor at the Contexts in Design and Communication, Graphic Communication Design Programme, Central Saint Martins College of Art Design, University of the Arts London. She recently started her PhD in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London under the supervision of Professor Matthew Fuller (UK) and Professor Natalie Jeremijenko (NY, US).
*DEADLINE EXTENDED TO 3RD DECEMBER*
We are embarking on the development of an exciting project - IoTA: Internet of Things Academy - for which we are seeking a creative technologist to work with us on a contract basis, starting immediately.
We are looking for a passionate and ambitious creative technologist who has experience in building IoT projects, is an active member of the maker community, and is well informed with recent developments in the technology. We welcome applicants who want to push the boundaries of the technology, but are also excited about challenging assumptions within the IoT space, and want to join us in testing those assumptions by building prototypes of varying fidelity that participants in workshops will use, and break.
We are looking to work with someone who is looking for a flexible position, initially for a period of five months on a part time basis, but with the potential of a longer term contract or regular employment. We are happy to discuss a working arrangement that suits the right applicant, and arrange time commitments and salary accordingly.
Applicants should send us an email explaining why they are interested in working on this project with us, alongwith their CV, github profile and links to work samples.
Closing date: 5pm on Tuesday, 3rd December 2013.
Interviews with selected candidates: Thursday, 5th December 2013
We are thrilled to announce that our project IoTA: Internet of Things Academy is one of the winners in the Nominet Trust's Social Tech Social Change challenge. The £1m fund will support ten organisations that use technology to tackle social challenges in the UK and beyond. Each company will receive £50,000 as well as mentorship from some of the world’s leading tech entrepreneurs to develop their early-stage ideas into profitable, scalable social tech ventures.
We are excited to be working with our long term project partners, Forum for the Future to develop the experiment further by building experience prototypes and conducting workshops with a diverse group of people over the next few months. Here's a film showing early sketches of this web platform.
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. As stated earier, IoTA is an experiment and 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.
We would like to thank Nominet Trust for their invaluable support in helping us take this work forward. We would also like to thank Hugh Knowles and Louise Armstrong from the Forum for the Future, who are key partners in this project. And finally we'd like to thank Esther Maughan Mclachlan, Emily Nicoll and Chris Clifton who initiated the Futurescapes project at Sony, which led to the IoTA concept. If you are interested in collaborating or participating please do drop us a line.
(As a note to those who have asked, IoTA or the Internet of Things Academy is a placeholder name, and as the project will evolve and take shape we will think about renaming it appropriately.)
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.