Last week I was invited to give a talk at the Global Design Forum organised by the London Design Festival 2012. Some of the 31 speakers included Thomas Heatherwick, Tom Dixon, John Thackara, Charles Leadbeater, Matt Hunter, Tom Hulme and Zaha Hadid to name a few. According to the organisers, the idea behined the event was to bring together a star-alliance of design luminaries, organisations and talents to debate the issues and pressure points that are really affecting the design industry. Some of the questions they hoped would be debated included: How can designers draw our path out of recession? How is the business of design changing around the world? Where does the digital revolution leave your business? What are the real innovations shaping the design industry? I was part of the first session titled 'Design / Global', where speakers from different parts of the world would bring their perspectives on the shifts in the economy, and the value of the individual, the local and the personal.
The agenda sounded ambitious and the speaker line-up looked incredible. I was a bit nervous about how to pitch some of the things we have been exploring over in the Studio, given that I only had ten minutes. I was also not quite sure whom to expect in the audience, but I knew it would include a good mix of designers, agency representatives, business executives and academics, and so I decided to go for a broad sweep - a rapid fire slideshow highlighting some current disruptive trends that also facilitate technological empowerment, and what they might mean for the design profession. Whilst its not new or radical to a lot of people in my network, its often left out of the discussions around UK's 'economic growth' and the 'role of creative industries' to influence change and invigorate the economy. I wanted to hightlight the impact of seemingly peripheral trends on mainstream industry and provide ammunition for some rigourous debate during the panel discussions. Lastly, but most importantly, I wanted it to provide a counter argument to what I knew would be a lot of 'star lead portfolio talks'. If and when I get time and opportunity, this topic will be developed further. But for now, here are the slides:
These are no ordinary t-shirts. They are a source of livelihood for...
this man - Song Hojun from South Korea, who is attempting to make his...
...own satellite - creating a private connection between him and the Universe. Known as the Open Source Satellite Initiative, this is his latest prototype.
He has also made this step-by-step instruction manual that you can download and make your own satellite if you so wish.
This is not art made by a child. It is 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 teenage students at the University College London are currently designing in their biohacklab. If they succeed, these new plastic-eating marine bacteria could be a ‘natural’ solution for the millions of of tonnes 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.
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.
This is a gun. Made in a 3D printer. By a gun enthusiast called "HaveBlue", a member of the AR15.com.
He did not print the entire gun, only the lower part of the rifle, which is the most important bit because it holds the entire firearm together and requires a license.
In fact files for this lower part can be found on a website called thingiverse.com, which have been created by a user called King Ludd.
These stories might seem unsettling and its probably easy to dismiss them as weird anomalies from whimsical people, however I’d like to show how they also illustrate a new age of Technological Empowerment.
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. Its here that our Korean man kicked off his open source satellite idea.
Those UCL students who were designing plastic-eating bacteria are joined by 192 other teams from around the world who are all editing and building living organisms this very minute, for the iGEM competition - also known as the olympics of synthetic biology.
There are over 300 DIYbio labs and enthusiasts across the world, showing how technologies that were the remit of scientists, are now increasingly easier to access and manipulate by ordinary citizens.
As of June 20, 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 29,000 members now. These are some of the obligatory look-I-made-a-drone shots that members frequently upload.
And finally, the first batch of 10,000 tiny Raspberry Pi computers costing a mere £22 sold out within minutes -quicker then any iphone sales. They have been designed to inspire schoolchildren and adults to program just like the Sinclair Spectrum and BBC Micro did in the 1980s.
And so, as the weird stories stack up its easy to see how 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.
Linked to these trends of technological empowerment, we're are also living in a period where chaos, uncertainty, rapid change and realignment of power are becoming the new operating parameters.
Many refer to this as the NEW NORMAL.
In this New Normal...
What does this mean for design and business in the 21st century?
How do you operate as a design company when your competitor is an open source community of hackers - selling 3d printed objects from virtual environments like Minecraft for a profit?
Or some weird non-brand knockoff - like this Chinese company Goophone who came up with a iPhone5 look-alike just before it was actually released by Apple. It says it will even sue Apple if they try and sell the iphone 5 in China.
How can designers explore the potential of these new challenges?
I dont have all the answers, but I can show a quick glimpse of some strategies that we’ve been exploring to work with these challenges at our design studio Superflux.
For starters, can the design studio be less of hierarchial monolith and more of a decentralized organism that has eyes and ears everywhere that people touch the company? Whether they are employees, partners, customers or suppliers? Through these wider networks of interdisciplinary collaborators we are attempting to cultivate the 'scenius', a term create by Brian Eno to refer not to the genius of a lone individual but that of collective intelligence.
Cultivating such a network has led us to work on a range of projects, from partnering with neuroscientists to design prosthetic vision for the blind...
...to attempting to curb desertification by working with local communities of North India.
By embracing community and collaboration we hope the true spirit of innovation is harnessed. For instance this is an illustration of a new kind of unifying platform we are attempting to create, which will allow everyone - from first time users to tinkers to expert hackers - to access tools and technologies and build projects around the internet of things.
Our work for clients and commissioners is also informed by keeping an eye on weak signals. This is a project called Ark-Inc, created in 2006, exploring design solutions for a post-crash civilization. The important thing about this project is that it was imagined just before climate change debate entered mainstream media, and we were still flying high on a wave of financial growth.
The fictional company Ark-Inc offered products and services as investments in the creation of a ‘post-crash’ portfolio - From stylish radios that turns into a solor powered audio and data transmission devices post collapse to...
..reading materials - books such as 'Collapsing Society' and 'Pets as Protein' that prepared people for a post crash world. Such projects aim to bring problematic issues to the forefront through the use of tangible artefacts and compelling narratives.
Today users will find unexpected uses for your technology / products. So how can we get into their shoes? For a project titled 'Electronic Countermeasures' we tried to imagine new uses for autonomous drones. Rather then weapons or 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.
And finally, apart from design of applications, how can we also think about the unforeseen implications of new technologies? Whilst the iGEM students were designing bacteria to clean plastic pollution from the oceans, we too explored provocative possibilities around this technology.
For a project exploring the colony collapse disorder, we worked with scientists to visualise a new kind of bee assembled made entirely through the powers of biotechnology and synthetic biology.
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. So what's stopping them from making a completely ‘natural’ spying drone? Can we imagine the synthetic bee to be a 100% natural drone -a future surveillance device?
This talk in many ways is a rallying cry for businesses to consider this as an important debate. And I hope this forum is the perfect opportunity for doing that. Thank you.
I am grateful for all the positive response I have received from the audience and on twitter. There was also a lot of interesting feedback around the event on twitter - here and here, which I am sure the organisers are looking at closely, for next year's Forum.
This is a version of the talk I gave at the fantastic Improving Reality conference, curated by Honor Harger and hosted by Lighthouse. I was part of the first session, 'The Edge of Reality,' alongside Warren Ellis, Joanne McNeil and Leila Johnston, all of who gave very good talks.
This talk was an exploration of some of the themes we are currently exploring in our Lab, and as our projects develop further, my position on the ideas presented will evolve. For now, here's the synopsis, followed by the deck of slides.
'From re-engineered mosquitoes designed to stop dengue fever, to super powered athletes accused of gene-doping, our current news stories seem to have leapt straight out of science fiction. Flesh, blood and DNA are our new materials and the technologies to use them are fast becoming open source. We are creating a ‘third kingdom’ of ‘hybrid objects’ that are neither ‘natural’ nor ‘artificial’ but something entirely new. My talk explored how designers and artists play a key role in developing cultural understanding of these ‘objects’ by decoding and speculating on our relationships and interactions with these new hybrid forms.'
Since we are all still enjoying the Olympic fever, I am sure most of you are familiar with the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen who won the 400m race by swmming faster than her male counterparts. She was rapidlyaccused of 'gene doping', with the Daily Mail quick to spit out this headline.
Another headline that caught my attention referenced designer babies.
And then there was the story of an artificial jellyfish made from proteins found in the cells of a rat's heart and a sheet of silicone.
Named Medusoid, here we can see the jellyfish floating gracefully in its little water incubator.
One final news story, about the British firm Oxitec, who have designed genetically modified mosquitoes designed to eradicate dengue fever.
Much like Atwood’s world of Oryx and Crake, these news stories of genetically modified humans and chimerical animals sound like elements from a science fiction novel – with these edge-cases challenging our ability to sort things into neat categories. Is it nature? Is it artificial?Is it machine?
A common thread that runs through the stuff these stories talk about is the way people are starting to use DNA, the very stuff we are made of, as a raw material. We're constructing not only ourselves, but what might be 'natural' around us – just like we construct chip sets or political systems, creating a new genre of hybrid objects.
The modification of biological organisms is not new, We have intervened with nature for a long time now. For instance, I am not even sure we remember what ‘wild chickens’ look like.
Then there are the Atomic Seeds; hugely popular after the second World War, when people were preocuppied with the idea of using the power of the atom for beneficial purposes. Enthusiasts bombarded a wide variety of plants with radiation hoping to produce genetic mutations such as disease-resistent wheat and more sugary sugar maples. Actually, we’ve made some at Superflux.
We have also seen unintentional modifications in the natural world around us. These beautiful illustrations of bugs by Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, are in fact insects she found near Chernobyl. Exposure to radiation has resulted in mutations such as asymmetrical wings and eye-cysts, almost as if they had started to become "prototypes of a future nature".
We have not spared ourselves either – creating hybrid humans; cyborgs or cybernetic beings with both biological and artificial enhancements. In fact, if a cyborg is someone who uses a machine to enhance one's biological self then arguably these cyclists could be considered cyborgs as well. None of them are thinking "I am on a machine and I must remember to pedal..." In many ways the idea of a cyborg is now a lived reality. So what makes these news stories, the sort of hybrids these stories talk about, any different? And why is it especially relevant today? I think there are couple of things worth considering.
One is the way these new kinds of hybrids are ‘made’. Considering Oscar Pistorius, you know where you stand: even as he accused Alan Oliveira of using longer blades that gave him a distinct advantage, they are still fighting over something that is easily measurable. Or if it comes to drug doping, you feel you have control and knowledge of the input and the results.
With capability that is not manufactured, but designed to ‘grow’ inside of our bodies or that of plants and animals, and when it becomes possible to ‘edit and design’ living organisms, then that's a whole different matter. This sort of 'stuff' makes us a bit more uncomfortable and confused. For instance, when a fantastical animal – a spider goat demon – as imagined by Albertus Seba in his book Cabinet of Natural Curiosities from the 18th century...
...becomes real, we have little choice but to sit up and take notice. This is Freckles: she is part of the first generation of transgenic goats. Before she was born, she had a spider's genes added to her genome, causing her to produce spider silk protein in her milk. This protein can now be extracted and spun into silk which is desirable for its incredible strength.
Secondly, we have to consider the intensity with which these ‘hybrids’ are being 'made,' and the increasing accessibility of the technologies we can use to 'make' them. In fact, at this very moment, more then 1500 undergraduate students are designing new biobricks to submit to the iGEM competion 2012, the Olympics of synthetic biology.
They are attempting to build simple biological systems from standard, interchangeable parts, deploying them in living cells. The resulting DNA strands and data will be submitted as biobricks into a registry which serves as an online catalogue for hundreds of standardised genetic parts. In this image, a team have designed the E.coli bacteria to respond to red light by changing their color. Images projected onto the colonies would become fixed, and in this instance, they created a 'photograph' of Albert Einstein.
When what might be perceived as ‘nature’ merges with with science, technology and politics, what sort of new categories of ‘things’ will be needed? And when the techniques to 'make' them become easier to access, who will be designing, manufacturing and distributing? Like the cyborg was to the 20th century, what will be the prototypes for this new 21st century ‘nature’? These questions interest and excite me because, as a designer, I want to be involved in the shaping of this new world.
And that's what we do at Superflux. We are a design studio interested in ways in which emerging technlogies intersect with our everyday lives, whether its through products, systems, services, or stories. Through these intersections, we explore the uncertainties around such new technologies to design for the 'imminently probable'.
One of the ongoing projects in our studio focuses on the design of prosthetic vision – the idea being to restore some form of vision to people with visual impairment such as retinitis pigmentosa. This is possible due to the incredible science of optogenetics, combining gene therapy with an optoelectronic prosthesis.
>Here is a short video in which our principal collaborator and scientist Dr. Patrick Degenaar explains his work:
While this research is still in its early stages, to understand how people might react to their new vision, the scientists have been carrying out some image augmentation tests. They prepared these sorts of cartoonised versions of the world, assuming that, while the resolution is limited, people who cannot see would feel better to start seeing the world in an enhanced, simplified ‘outline’.
To their surprise, people said things like: “I’d rather be blind then have my world look like this.” As scientists, they were approaching this technology from a data-driven perspective, assuming that people want to be able to see something, even if that might not be the case. As designers, we often ask what our experiences of and with technology feel like; focusing on a human-centric approach over efficiency. As science and engineering illuminate what's possible, how can we, as designers, help zero in on what's preferable?
With this new kind of bio-optoelectronic prosthetic, which is almost like a scart lead plugged to your brain, what kind of possibilities open up? Could those with this prosthetic start to see in electromagnetic spectrums not visible to the 'normally sighted'?
We decided to try and bring this vision to life. Working with specialist camera equipment, we filmed in these different spectrums to get a real sense of what the world would look like.
In our film, Song of the Machine, a mundane narrative, ambient cityscape, and offbeat score set the scene for exploring the electromagnetic spectrums and visual 'channels' of the protagonist's sensory perceptions. Ultraviolet, infrared, and augmented reality extend his world, with digital artifacts and noise hinting at the technical limitations of this low-res vision.
This experiential, speculative work allowed the scientists to understand the possibilities offered by their research. This in turn enables us to make the work more grounded, as we start to design the entire prosthetic ecosystem and package this technology in a way that people will find useful and meaningful.
Another level of engagement as a designer is to challenge ourselves by exploring alternate pathways for the near future. Whilst many of our individual futures are perhaps locked in an ever hopeful world of exotic holidays and freedom from mortgage payments, what happens when we think about our collective futures? Putting out an open call, I invited people to explore this question, for a project called Power of 8.
Over several workshops, eight of us attempted to build a optimistic vision of our collective futures.
While it was our hope to create something optimistic, what emerged was perhaps a little more problematic – an alternative ecosystem of strange machines and modified nature.
One element of this ecosystem was the Beamer Bee, or the synthetic bee – designed by the biotechnologist in our team.
We imagined idyllic scenarios of people using these bees to grow food in their gardens...
...or following people on their way home on warm summer evenings...
...as well as children who kept glowing bees as pets.
But alongside our forward-facing, community-oriented visions, are darker possibilities around the militarization of animals. In the Second World War, the American army created the bat bombs by attaching incendiary devices to bats, with an ambition to destroy entire Japanese villages by letting the bats 'drop' the bombs. The only reason they decided not to deploy the bat bombs was because the technology was rended irrelevant by the invention of the atom bomb.
And then there's a dolphin used to locate underwater mines.
Defence and intelligence personnel around the world are toying with the idea of using miniature drones disguised as bugs or insects for spying purposes. An ongoing project at DARPA called Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems investigates these very 'opportunities'.
So, whats stopping someone making ‘natural’ drones from insects and bugs? Could our rather beautiful 'synthetic' bees become the world's first 100% 'natural drones' ? Living in nature like any other insect or bird, whilst also working as little surveillance machines? This is where it starts to become interesting, and quite unsettling. It's also the space where apologues situated within our popular culture can help explore unforeseen implications of such technologies, and that is where speculative design can be most useful; a means of helping suspend disbelief, allowing us to experience alternate worlds as they juxtapose with our lived realities today.
In another ongoing project we are exploring some of the complexities that emerge when these technologies which happen to be fringe, avant garde or limited to the far-future start to rub up against contemporary models of capitalism and ownership – not only on a personal level, but on a global scale.
Aside from the actual making of hybrids, current news is also covered with murky stories around gene patenting, whether its the seedy and greedy Monsanto trying to patent yet another strain of seeds or...
...the ongoing battle between the courts and Myriad Genetics, a company who is trying to patent two cancer genes that it ‘discovered’ in some people during its tests.
Who owns our genes? Who can patent them? Will we have patented children? And is there a new opportunity for a deviant entrepreneur to step in and sell 'pirated genes' for those who cannot afford to get the patented genes? How would healthcare models adapt to these new changes? How will we value human life?
In our ongoing project, 'Genetic Stock', we are designing a scenario where genome sequencing, profiling and modification have become the norm. In this scenario, we are exploring the potential healthcare costs of gene combinations. The algorithm we are designing - calculates insurance premium costs based on specific gene combinations, and their associated risks.
For instance, in this chromosome number 9, a high risk of Alzheimers is detected, which could potentially increase this individual’s premium payments.
In many ways, this talk is a rallying cry to think about all of this as a new space for design, a space which is no longer about the design of static objects, and perhaps requires a more liquid approach. While epigenetic expression means we might never fully understand what the 'mutated products' will look like, we can attempt to deal with such uncertainty through design. Additionally, I'd also like to use this opportunity to invite people to slow down and be more deliberate and conscious about what is happening around us, instead of being sucked into passive consumption by corporations like Monsanto. By situating ourselves in the heart of the legal, political and economic implications of a world where flesh, blood and DNA are being used and abused, we can play important roles in continuing our quest to understand what it means to be human.
Thanks to Honor and Lighthouse for inviting me, and special thanks to team Superflux – Justin, Jon and Raphael – who are equally responsible for the way this talk has shaped up.
"Consider everything an experiment."
This is one of the ten rules in a list created by celebrated artist and educator Sister Corita Kent as part of a project for a class she taught in 1967-68, recently discovered by the ever brilliant Maria Popova. Titled 'Some Rules for Students and Teachers, the list is attributed to John Cage, who was responsible for making it popular. The list also appears in Stewart Brand’s cult-classic Essential Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1986.
We've been doing our fair share of experiments, and can pay testament to the spirt behind Cage's rule #4. We can't share everything, but here's a selection of photographs from the studio; a glimpse of the 'nitty-gritty' of our business, the everyday making, thinking and learning from our world of design.
For a recent project pitch, we created this *very* quick prototype to illustrate the experience of discovering location specific content in a museum. The key here was not the quality of the prototype but the incredibly 'real experience' it gave – by using the smartphone inside this 'telescope-like' device and another smartphone controlling the content remotely, people were able to walk around a space and 'discover' new content. This technique definitely goes into our 'box of prototyping tools' for future use.
We have been designing equations for our synthetic biology project. This has probably been one of the most challenging projects tackled in a long time, and while the thought of designing 'Mutant Economies' might seem like fun, we've been working to avoid sinking into a bottomless sea of algebraic symbols. But we are almost there, and there's a general feeling that we are onto something very exciting.
We have been approached by several organisations and individuals for permission to use the 'Tarot Cards' that we developed for a StudioLab workshop back in April, in their own work. So we are in the process of developing a complete pack of the Tarot Cards, available for download very soon.
Apart from that, there are some lovely paper prototypes being made.
Too many working post-it lunches.
And, of course, tea-induced contemplation (and inspiration).
In her own words:
"I am currently pursuing my Bachelors in Industrial Design from Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI. With a passion for problem solving and a keen interest in interaction design I strive to seize every opportunity to learn so that I can enrich my own work. My passion for theatre and performance art is often reflected in my work. I have worked on projects with topics ranging from Indian traditions inspiring sustainability in the food industry to public art interventions initiating conversation on child sexual abuse. My latest project is a humorous bedside clock with an alarm that would not stop ringing until the user played (and won) a game on it."
Kritika is half way through her internship, and so far its been great having her around. She's been working on our internal design and branding project, making tons of paper prototypes, crunching large chunks of data for our Mutant Economies project and doing some research on the history of cybernetics.
(And...treating us to goodies like this!)
It was officially supposed to be summer in the UK, but monsoon took over for the last few weeks, and the lack of sunshine triggered an existential crisis in the studio. We ended up drinking too much tea, working longer hours and plotting new episodes of Black Mirror, all while sheltering from the blackening clouds which loomed, menacingly, outside.
In addition to our usual stable of ongoing projects, which continue to chug along, here are some of our personal highlights of the season:
Featured in AXIS
AXIS Magazine published a lovely feature of our work, with details about the design of our tarot kit for StudioLab's synthetic biology workshop at the Science Gallery Dublin. They also includes material from a couple of our earlier workshops looking at healthcare in Qatar and the impact of climate change in Verbier, Switzerland. The magazine focused on the evolution of the workshop, taking a deeper look at the ways in which design studios around the world engage participants and clients through the workshop format.
Superhuman at the Wellcome Collection
Running at the Wellcome Trust from July through October, there's a new exhibition called Superhuman exploring the ethics and impact of human enhancement. We are pleased to have a small presence in the exhibition, with the inclusion of our project Near Future RFID.
This exhibition reflects a growing public interest in the issues around prosthetic technologies, synthetic biology and healthcare. The ever-excellent Justin McGuirck offers a thoughtful review of the show:
'What the Superhuman exhibition does well is demonstrate how design and technology challenge our ethics and our attitudes to the body. But it's also one of those shows where the objects are merely illustrations of the issues, and the issues become broad indeed.'
IOTA makes it out, into the wild
Our contribution to Sony's FutureScapes project was a subject of a press release in late June, triggering a range of interesting conversations. What would a 'code academy' for the internet-of-things look like? How would our concept differ from other, existing platforms? If there are overlaps, what are the opportunities for collaboration? While we continue to chew through some of the implications, you can find out more about this stage of the project over at the Huffington Post and on FastCoExist.
'Improving Reality' conference
Also this month, the lovely folks at Lighthouse Brighton announced Improving Reality 2012, a half-day conference which (*clears throat*) 'playfully and critically looks at how designers, artists, and makers are using various technologies to shift our perceptions of reality.' I am chuffed to be a speaker at this event, presenting alongside some amazing people, including Warren Ellis, Luke Jeram, Leila Johnston and Regine Debatty. It looks like it's going to be a really great session, so I'd encourage you to get your hands on some tickets.
Global Design Forum
Again on the presentations front, I am pleased to be speaking at alongside a host of design kingpins at the Global Design Forum, London Design Festival's one-day design conference in September. Other speakers include Thomas Heatherwick, Richard Seymour and John Thackara. The organisers are intent on using this space to 'collectively set the global design agenda and inspire positive new directions for the sector', using the Forum as a platform to debate the issues and pressure points that are really affecting the design industry, today. Here are some of the questions they hope to raise:
Are the creative industries inherently risky or the key to our future growth? How can designers draw our path out of recession? How is the business of design changing around the world? Shouldn’t design be rooted at the centre of problem-solving activities? What are the real innovations shaping the design industry? How do you convince people to have what they don’t yet know they want? How can design be best used to secure a competitive advantage? Why is it important to play and dream?
Meanwhile, some of the team managed to escape the city, swapping London for adventures near and further afield. Justin has been the US since June, teaching high school students at Duke as part of the Futures Institute gang, and Patrick conducted a Particle Zoo Safari at the Secret Garden Party, organised by Guerilla Science.
In the wake of amphibious royal jubilations in London, and with spring's drought-deluge-heatwave (hopefully) shifting into a more conventional kind of summer, it's time to fire up the Superflux Film Club.
In recent months, we've been thinking a lot about technology, futures, and the emerging economies of Asia, Latin America, and (Sub-Saharan) Africa. From this whirlpool of cognitive leaf mould, we stumbled across some clips from The Last Angel of History (1996), a short documentary about Afrofuturism.
Mythology! Cyberfunk! Spaceships! What's not to like?
Our second pick comes from Superflux's summer intern, Raphaël Pluvinage, and his collaborator Marianne Cauvard, who've been doing some far-out work with jelly-based audio interfaces. Noisy Jelly offers a real conceptual leap, here, and, with a strong emphasis on colour and tactility, is deeply satisfying to watch.
Another round of in-studio backslapping here, as we share Patrick Stevenson-Keating's Handcrafted Particle Accelerator, which is seven kinds of awesome, and – crucially – actually worked!
Rounding out a trio of design projects is the user experience video for Memento Mori, an interaction design piece by Michael Yap, an MFA candidate at SVA. I had the great pleasure of speaking to Michael about this project earlier in the year, and really dug the 'gothic hi-tech' direction he took the project – highlighting some interesting issues around identity, designed objects, and the quantified self.
Finally, to finish, I was keen to flag Dark Matter & Trojan Horses, an important and insightful (if long) lecture by SITRA's Dan Hill, which unpacks some of the processes of studio work, and begins sidling in on a new creative design lexicon. Oh, and there's an ebook. Highly recommended.
I usually lead the design, prototyping and making of projects in the Superflux studio, and don't blog often enough, well... not at all, untill now. As a start, I thought I'd share a few recent photographs that we took of what we've been getting up to.
There isn't much revealed in these photos, as they are of work under development or NDAed. However, I'm hoping to share more behind-the-scenes work from the studio in the future, and perhaps even make it a regular feature of the blog. Well, I'll try.
On Bank Holiday Monday, 7th May, 'Start the Week', a popular BBC Radio 4 Show presented by Andrew Marr, invited Nick Harkaway, Simon Ings, Charles Arthur and myself to discuss some ideas around our collective 'digital future'.
We at Superflux are big fans of New Scientist's Arc magazine, and it was great to be discussing the space between design and science fiction with Simon Ings, Arc's editor. Nick Harkaway's book The Blind Giant is a great read, highly recommended, and he kicked off the session with some intriguing insights into our digital lives and individuals' powers of decision-making. Charles Arthur, the Guardian's Chief Technology Officer, talked about his new book, Digtial Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft, an incisive look at the way these 'stacks' operate, fighting for power, people, and that greatest of prizes: 'innovation'.
I really enjoyed Andrew Marr's take on our work at Superflux, and was surprised by his eagerness to hear all about our projects – from prosthetic vision and 5th dimensional camera to the synthetic bees. Following which, Charles reckons we should be looking into asteroid mining – next lab project, maybe?
In case you missed it, you can a listen to the podcast here.
Urban Times interviewed me for their ‘Back to The Futurist Series‘, in which I rant about Tarkovsky, Hayles, Haraway, urban brain-cubes, deviant globalisation, and ancient Indian UFOs. I also share some details from our previous projects and ongoing work, and finally what our dream project briefs might look like. But the fun bit was discussing the questions with the rest of the studio – it became an opportunity to think deeply about many of the themes we've been exploring for a while now.
A detail drawings of an anti-gravitational 'aircraft' from ancient Indian scriptures.
For Team Superflux, the first few months of 2012 have (according to Justin) been a little like trying to land a large and particularly cumbersome aircraft, or dance the tango with a fridge-freezer. Wherever possible, we've been focusing on projects that support our core strategic vision, chipping away at a range of projects across experiential futures, design futurescaping, and various flavours of innovation.
As 2011 slid into 2012, we completed some exciting work for the strategy unit of the Prime Minister's Office, Dubai. Collaborating with Changeist's Scott Smith, we adopted an interesting and productive combination of design and foresight methodologies, to produce a dossier of materials that will inform future strategic work around a set of key social, demographic and economic trends in the United Arab Emirates.
'brings together a range of expert thinkers, designers, futurologists, writers and ... the public ... to explore the opportunities and challenges of life in 2025, and to consider the potential contribution that technology and entertainment can make in shaping a better, more sustainable future.'
Working with an interesting and provocative group of stakeholders and collaborators, from sustainability, storytelling, and more traditional design work, we participated in a set of workshops, outcomes of which were developed by them into a set of scenarios to guide thinking around questions of ownership, innovation and sustainability. You can download the full report, which lays out detailed versions of the four futures, linking them to current drivers and weak signals.
As the workshops moved forward, some of the concepts were selected to be developed further. Over the last couple of weeks, team Superflux was commissioned to develop some concepts from one of these scenarios, finding hooks for a potential community and service ecosystem around the Internet-of-Things.
As a second stage of our collaboration with Dr. Degenaar and his team at Newcastle University on 'Song of the Machine', we have been focusing on the interaction and experience design challenges for their work around Optogenetic Retinal Prosthesis – relishing the opportunity to shape the technology as it develops. As of March, we are in the middle of a three-month research phase, pulling insights, conducting in-situ user interviews, and working on design concepts in partnership with the scientists and engineers at Newcastle, and the RNIB. All of Jon's efforts in putting our filming kit together are paying off now, as we go across different parts of the city and country on little film expeditions. It's interesting to be working at the intersection of product development and scientific research, and we're learning a lot as we attempt to balance the speculative, the functional, and the feasible.
More recently on the Lab front, we've begun some initial scoping work for a European Union project bringing together the RCA, Science Gallery Dublin, Medialab-Prado, and a host of other partners, to contemplate potential applications of synthetic biology. We'll be contributing to the first stage of a three-year collaboration between science and design, working to design and develop concepts around the idea of 'mutant products', and the interaction of markets and (biological) mutation.
Odd weekends have been blocked out for work on Project SAM, as the core team race to get an initial prototype up and running as soon as possible. This has entailed an impressive work of mathematical wizardry from Tim Brooke, lots of tinkering and soldering from Mark Selby and user experience design flows from Jon Ardern, as we've knuckled under for a series of high-velocity sprints.
Somewhere in the mix, we found the time to write a guest blog post for PIVOT Dublin, applying some of our work on design futurescaping in an Irish context.
Out of the studio, the end of February saw Justin in Switzerland for Lift 12, pretending to be a journalist, and helping Nicolas Nova run a foresight workshop (on which, more to follow). Before heading back to the UK, he caught a train across the Franco-Swiss border to check in with urban futures kingpin Emile Hooge, who gave him an insider's look at innovation, politics and regeneration in contemporary Lyon.
In January, Anab represented Superflux at a seminar run by Demos to explore the implications of the new Communications Act, looking at intellectual property, licensing, and the role of the state.
In human resources, we are excited to have Patrick Stevenson Keating join Superflux as an Associate in February, spending few days a week in the studio working on a range of projects. We've also been joined by Superflux intern Raphaël, who'll be with us for the next few months.
Lastly, we're being kicked out of our post-collapse Liverpool Street HQ relatively soon as the building sale is being negotiated – so if you have any insider knowledge or leads on possible spaces, please get in touch.