Over at the Superflux Lab, for the past few months, we've been engaged in a research project exploring the politcal and economic implications of synthetic biology and gene therapy. Whilst the research continues, one realisation of the project is now being exhibited at Ars Electronica, and so it's great to be able to finally share what we're been working on.
(For full information about this project visit our work page.)
PRESS RELEASE, SUPERFLUX: DYNAMIC GENETICS vs. MANN
From tissue biopsy samples to an improvised CO2 incubator used in the manufacture of counterfeit genetic therapies, ‘Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann’ presents a body of evidence from a fictional court case. Unfolding as a rich narrative, this new project from Superflux explores a world where designed and patented genetic material enters the human body through illicit means.
This work forms part of ‘Project Genesis’, curator Matthew Gardiner’s flagship exhibition at the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz, Austria. It opened to the public on Friday 2nd August, and is part of the Ars Electronica festival in September 2013.
‘Dynamic Genetics v Mann’ was commissioned by Design Interactions Research Department at the Royal College of Art, and has been realised as part of Studiolab; a three-year initiative funded by the European Commission 7th Framework Program.
History has shown that political and economic forces exert as great an influence on the development and application of technology as the aspirations of scientists and engineers. ‘Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann’ explores the technological trajectory of synthetic biology, extrapolating from current social, economic and political trends so as to locate the technology within a broader cultural landscape.
This project imagines a world in which synthetic biology and gene therapy have moved from the lab to the marketplace. In this world, the responsibilities of the state have shifted from healthcare to the provision of health insurance. By calculating the likely impact of specific gene combinations, insurance rates are adjusted on a person-by-person basis, ensuring that individual ‘contributions’ more accurately reflect the potential costs associated with their genome.
What new legal and economic models might emerge under these conditions? How will intellectual property be applied and policed when designed genetic material makes its way into people’s bodies and their lives? Who are the winners and losers in such a world?
The primary plot of ‘Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann’ reveals the increasing vulnerability of protagonist Arnold Mann, an ‘ordinary citizen’ whose insurance contributions spike dramatically after a regulatory spit test from the NHI (National Health Insurance) reveals elevated risks across a range of chronic health conditions in his genetic profile. Caught between an inflated health levy and the staggering cost of private treatment, a desperate Arnold turns to a black market clinic for a gene upgrade. This treatment will reduce his health insurance bill at the cost of permanently modifying his DNA with patented, but unlicensed therapy.
The collection of evidence presented in the exhibition, including an interrogation video, alongside other corroboratory, forensic, scientific, digital and material evidences, make a strong case against Mann, who is accused by Dynamic Genetics, a major corporation in the genetic therapy industry, of illegally possessing their proprietary DNA. Items including tissue biopsy samples, covert surveillance photographs, genetic search warrant, ‘found’ documents, newspaper clippings, and an improvised CO2 incubator, are presented by G5P, a private security agency hired by Dynamic Genetics to carry out the investigation.
Visitors to the work are encouraged to explore the body of evidence, piecing together this foreboding story that questions the ethical and economic implications of the new forms of genetic technology that are quietly transforming our world.
The project ‘Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann’ takes place in the United Kingdom, following government efforts to privatise and outsource services previously undertaken by the NHS (National Health Service). The project also takes into account large-scale citizen DNA databases, big data, and the growing popularity of companies like 23andMe, which allow customers to exchange small samples of their saliva for access to information about likely health risks based on their genetic information – with many unwittingly ceding their genetic privacy in the process. We are already witnessing the rise in private companies’ attempts to patent genetics in order to secure profits as well as established industries going to evermore extreme lengths to protect intellectual property.
Projecting forward from our current economic and political landscape, these and other developments provide governments and large corporations with the opportunity to create proprietary health-related services, often at the expense of the privacy, rights, and individual agency of ordinary citizens.
Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann is project by Jon Ardern and Anab Jain from Superflux, London, UK. The project has been realised with the valuable creative support of Megan Rodger, Minsung Wang, Raphael Pluvinage, Patrick Stevenson-Keating, Elvira Grob, Tobias Revell and Joe Duggan.
The designers would like to thank scientific advisors Cathal Garvey and Christina Agapakis for their support and critique, and Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, Rob Carlson and David Benque for their encouragement throughout the project.
All the evidences from the case will be presented on a dedicated website, which we will share very soon. Meanwhile if you'd like to know more, drop us a line at email@example.com.
A pdf of this press release can be downloaded here.
Whilst our practice is primarily project-led, whether thats client-focused, commissioned or self initiated work, we also like to continually find new ways of exploring the theoretical frameworks within which many aspects of our work are situated. With this in mind we have decided to invite people, whose ideas and research we find inspiring, to contribute to the Superflux blog, with the aim of creating an open space for discussion and reflection.
And so we are thrilled to have writer, researcher and futurist Paul Graham Raven kick-off this endeavour, by discussing the idea of Infrastructure Fiction in the context of his research work at the Pennine Water Group.
Photo Credit: Vivi Trujillo/Corporacion Fractal
My name's Paul Graham Raven, and I'm a researcher in infrastructure futures at the University of Sheffield. Team Superflux have very kindly invited me to take the mic and talk about the potential of applying critical design practice and futures thinking to the infrastructural domain. What follows is very much a theory under development; feedback and critique is not just welcome, but actively encouraged.
To begin, though, allow me to quote one of my hosts:
“These projects bypass the established narratives about the present and future that create the hypnosis of normality, and in doing so allow for an emotional connection with the raw weirdness of our times, opening up an array of possibilities.” – Anab Jain, keynote talk from Next13
I've begun with this quote from Anab because it's one of the neatest summaries I've found of what design fiction does. Defining how it does what it does, however, is a little more slippery, as it's less about method than it is about results. We can say that design fiction tends toward the visual: images, videos, simulations, renderings, even theatrical performance. We can also say that in order to produce the desired effect – which we might sum up as a thought-provoking cognitive estrangement – a design fiction has to believe in itself, or at least give the impression of believing in itself. But rather like the presentation of a paper at a conference, the images and videos and so on are the medium, a delivery system for the memetic payload. The payload is possibility, the potential for a different world: a loud bang to break the spell of hypnosis.
Over the last year and half, a bunch of infrastructure academics and researchers, myself among them, managed to commit design fiction by accident.
“All-in-One” was an EPSRC-funded project involving researchers and investigators from the University of Sheffield's Pennine Water Group, Cranfield University, De Montfort University and the University of Leicester. The project's remit was unusually open-ended, especially for an infrastructure gig: the basic research question was “would it be possible to replace all the disparate utility infrastructures which we have currently with a system that uses one single unified infrastructure to fulfil all the needs of end-users?” (Research questions are the polar opposite of poetry.)
With a background in science fiction and speculative thinking, this was right up my street. But it was new territory for the civil engineers, modellers and risk analysis types I was working alongside; they were used to working in predominantly quantitative modes, with established systems, analytical frameworks and processes, with strict specifications and roadmaps to completion. Infrastructure is prosaic, practical stuff – it's mundane, in the literal sense of being of-the-world. It's about keeping the lights on; if you start getting all visionary, people might think you're some sort of Tesla wannabe.
Design occupies an interesting position astraddle C P Snow's two-cultures divide, with one foot in the engineer's world of practical considerations and the manipulation of materials, and the other foot in the more arty realms of the unfettered imagination. Designers think differently to engineers because design has internalised the notion of critical production, of praxis as discourse, of reflexive rhetoric. To a designer, what a thing means is as important – sometimes more important – as what it does and how it does it.
My theory is that is if you combine a speculative writer like me with engineers, then the gestalt entity that results sits somewhat nearer the centre of the two-cultures spectrum. Just about where you might expect to find a designer, in fact.
The core output of the All-in-One project's early stages were a handful of vignettes that described possible – if not necessarily plausible – solutions to the All-in-One question. These largely took the form of presentations in the established engineering project-proposal style: much talk of practicalities, materials, logistical problems and sociopolitical challenges.
But leave the format aside for a moment, and look at the actual ideas we came up with: a “city blood” circulatory system, wherein energy is carried to homes dissolved in water like oxygen is carried to our cells by haemoglobin; a rhizome-topology urban network of underground freight-delivery tunnels; the entire planet powered by orbital solar collector satellites, and eventually by a belt of photovoltaics on the moon; and a subterranean modular city based around the central need for water, energy and fresh air. These are combinations of prior speculations and actual contemporary tech developments (the “solar globe” vignette owes a debt to the Shimizu Corporation's more ambitious blue-sky projects, for instance, and my own “Intertubes” vignette used the Foodtubes proposal as its jump-off point), and they were put together with an engineer's eye for actual achievable systems, at least as far as technological plausibility is concerned. The links embedded above will let you download the “condensed flyers” we did toward the end of the project; you'll note that these still speak the language of the proposal, of the project pitch. We were trying to convince our audience of the possibilities, because we were also trying to convince ourselves of them.
Remember what I said back at the beginning, about how design fiction has to believe in itself to do its work? I think if we'd had the knack of that, if we'd found ways to present them not as proposals but as faits accompli, we'd have had four chunks of infrastructure fiction on our hands.
Why would anyone want to do design fiction about infrastructure, though? That's not just a valid question but an important one, and it calls back to that quote of Anab's that I opened with. But first, we need to decide what “infrastructure” actually is.
Outside the world of civil engineering, infrastructure is profoundly unsexy. Oh, sure, there are people who can work up an aesthetic appreciation of a really good bridge, or admire the robust geometry of the classic British electricity pylon, or even enthuse about the mud-caked technological sublime of a tunnel-boring machine... but infrastructure's function is not a thrill in its own right. That wasn't always the case, though. The first electric lighting systems, the bridges and tunnels and engines of the pioneering railways, the epic sewers concealed by Bazalgette's Embankment on the Thames: they were wonders of their age, and changed the way life was lived wherever they appeared2.
But we grew accustomed to them, and now – at least here in the West – take them for granted. Indeed, we might nowadays define infrastructure as being that part of the built environment which is only ever noticed when it stops working. At all other times, it's lurking in the background, humming away in the interstices, invisibly providing you with, as the stacktivist Jay Springett puts it, “the means to not die” – plus, depending on the nation-state in which you find yourself, providing the means to achieve a variety of tasks and/or move around the landscape.
Even when you spend most of your working day thinking about infrastructure, it's surprisingly hard to make the leap from the abstract to the actual – as illustrated by the number of times I've caught myself stood with my brow creased and my mouth full of toothpaste, thinking about ways to encourage more careful domestic water usage habits, while the tap pours a couple of litres per minute of meticulously and expensively treated water straight down the plughole.
No one would describe Douglas Adams as a “hard” science fiction writer, but I've long felt that he was better than many of his more serious contemporaries at communicating the paradoxical relationships we humans have with the world we inhabit. Near the start of the third Hitchhiker's Guide novel, Life, the Universe and Everything (Adams, 2009), Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect observe the arrival of an unusual spacecraft (which, if I remember correctly, looks rather like a low-budget Italian bistro turned on its side) in the middle of Lords cricket ground during an important test match. This spacecraft remains unnoticed by the players, the crowd, or even the stolid BBC reporters covering the match; this is because it includes a device which generates a “Someone Else's Problem” field, whose inventor realised that, while making something invisible is very tricky, making something look like someone else's problem is much, much easier, as most people are predisposed to that position.
The challenge for infrastructure fiction is to dispel the Someone Else's Problem field and reveal the elided centrality of infrastructure to pretty much everything we do. Its challenge is to explore what infrastructure means.
To do that, we're going to have to kill off some assumptions.
From a designer's point of view, infrastructure is a given. It's the invisible and unacknowledged stuff – supply chains, communications networks, utility grids – that make the designed object producible, deliverable, and able to function as intended. Without infrastructure, there would be no designers. It's the oxygen of the profession.
From an infrastructural engineer's point of view, infrastructure is an intricate and interdependent web of entangled systems which ends at the point where it goes through the wall of your home, factory or office, thus granting the occupants the ability to do a variety of things, starting with not dying.
Appropriately enough – or so you'd think – these are both structuralist conceptions: understandings of a system in terms of what it does and how it does it. Capacities, voltages, efficiencies, safety features, diurnal demand profiles, materials, specs... engineering bread'n'butter, in other words.
Both of these conceptions are both right and wrong.
The first assumption that needs to die: that infrastructure enables designed objects. As the old saying goes, the problem is that it's not even wrong; it's just one-sided. The relationship between infrastructure and designed objects is duplex, a synthesis. The multiplication of designed objects, of tools and machines and appliances, both necessitated and enabled the construction of infrastructure, which in turn enabled a further proliferation and multiplication of appliances. Look at the history of electricity grids, for instance; the basic physics had been understood for quite some time before anyone came up with useful and affordable (and safe) ways to use this new phenomenon, but selling those appliances was dependent on there being an infrastructure to connect them to. Neither sprang fully-formed from the Zeus-brow of human invention. They co-evolved; they're still co-evolving. (Though one could make a good argument that the designed objects are presently out-evolving the infrastructure, at least in some locations.)
The second assumption that needs to die: that infrastructure ends at the wall of your house. This is a little like assuming that the chunky plastic pistol-shaped thing with a cable coming out of the handle is what drills holes in your walls. It is the drill-bit that drills the holes; the motor unit of the power drill simply enables you to use the drill-bit to make bigger, deeper holes more quickly, and in a greater variety of materials than you could make using elbow grease alone. The power drill is not the tool; it is a function-specific extension of the infrastructure, an interface between the tool and the abstract world of harnessed energy.
When you connect a device to an infrastructure, the latter is effectively subsumed by the former. It's a sort of metonymy: the power and potential that we imply when we speak of a power drill is actually the power and potential of the electricity grid, an electrical loa riding the horse of the drill.
You don't believe me? Unplug the power drill from the wall, take it somewhere there are no wall sockets. Or take a nicely chromed faucet to some place without a water distribution mains, or a smartphone to somewhere where there's no signal.
Ain't much use to you now, is it?
This is what you see when the spell of Anab's “hypnosis of normality” is broken around infrastructure. Design fiction is getting pretty skilled at problematising the power drill (faucet, smartphone, whatever) from the perspective of the user; what infrastructure fiction needs to do is get skilled at problematising the tap as seen from the other side of the wall.
(As-yet-untested thesis: a functional and/or designed object which in no way requires or depends upon an infrastructure can itself be considered a sort of infrastructure.
The more you think about it, the more you realise how tiny a category of things that actually is.)
There was no predefined methodology for the All-in-One vignettes. When we started in on them, all we had was a broad blue-sky research question and a wiki stuffed with ninety or so new or improved technologies; each subgroup of the project team set out to answer the former using items taken from the latter.
As such, they're not a matched or complementary set of futures like you'd get from the classic 2x2 matrix. Each vignette reflects the assumptions (and the obsessions) of its creators. In the long run, infrastructure fiction practice may want to avoid this sort of haphazardness, but it might be beneficial at this early stage. After all, critical design is a critique of design, an inherently reflexive undertaking. So critical infrastructure design should surely do something similar: expose flawed heuristics and frangible assumptions, especially those of its own practitioners.
There's an subtle difference between those who started with an idea and generated a world around it which would make it possible (as in the “Solar Globe” and “Intertubes” vignettes), and those who started with a set of problematic assumptions about the world and created an idea to solve them (as in the “Subterrania” vignette). This is a tension I see a lot of in the nascent discipline of science fiction prototyping; the term has been popularised by Brian David Johnson of Intel in his book of the same title (Johnson, 2010), which makes a case for the writing of science fiction narratives as a method for extrapolating the consequences and implications of new ideas, technologies or phenomena.
Bruce Sterling talks about design fiction as being diegetic prototypes, as “stories that tell worlds”: the object or product or service in the foreground implies the social, political, economic and technological dimensions oif the storyworld in which it must be assumed to exist, and it is this implication of diegesis that does the “work” of design fiction. One of the difficulties I have with Johnson's approach (which I've been wrestling with in a paper currently under review at Technological Forecasting & Social Change) is that it explicitly subordinates the diegesis to the novum. Much like the classic Gernsbackian science fiction story, the idea is the star, and everything else follows from that; the world is assembled so as to accommodate and extrapolate the idea. Or, to put it another way, diegetic prototyping “creat[es] 'pre-product placements' for technologies that do not yet exist” (Kirby, 2009). Such practice can be (meta)critical, as in much of what we think of as design fiction, but Johnson's approach is more advocative; design fiction uses the foreground to make you think about the background, while Johnson's mode of prototyping uses the background to make you think about the foreground.
To me, this looks like a case of cart before horse – in fact, I'd argue it accurately reflects the problematic mindset of contemporary tech-biz approaches to innovation, but that's a rant for another day. As suggested above, new technologies and infrastructures alike came into existence as a result of the continuing socioeconomic interactions of people and other already-existing technologies and infrastructures; as such, you need to do a bit of thinking about the world before you can do any sensible thinking about a new thing that you're proposing to introduce to said world.
That's not to say Johnson's wrong, though. In fact, I think the All-in-One vignettes show that you get different sorts of prototype from each approach – but I need to do a whole lot more experimentation and tinkering with techniques before I feel I can quantify those differences, and what value they have. My theory is that a reversed approach might be more useful at the infrastructural scale: that one can start by imagining a coherently problematic world or worlds, much as you might with a 2x2 matrix, and allow it/them to suggest objects or products or services that might come into being as a response to such; “worlds that tell stories”, in other words3.
What keeps our vignettes from being true design fictions is their format: they are proposals, not yet convinced of themselves. We were still thinking in engineering terms when I finally realised how close we were to doing design fiction: thinking about feasibility, roadmaps and path-dependecy, about practical barriers to actualisation and so forth, as opposed to making the design-fictioneer's leap and imagining the problem already solved, so as to ask what that solution might tell us about the problem that we hadn't already noticed.
Convincing engineers that feasibility can be handwaved away in order to focus on meaning and implication is surprisingly difficult, as it goes against every instinct of their practice. I got there in the end with my colleagues, but the approach needs to better systematised and tested before it'll float easily with an unprepared audience; that systematisation is what I hope to spend the next few years working on.
But imagine for a moment that our “proposals” concretised properly; imagine for a moment we'd had the skills and resources to make true design fictions of them. Imagine them being convinced of themselves, delivered as slick three-minute IPO promo videos, as guided tours of installations or facilites, or as reports from industrial spies or saboteurs. Imagine them narrated by a non-engineer: by an eco-activist, a ruralist refusenik, a hypernationalist political firebrand, a ubicomp urbanite, a lobbyist for Big Carbon, by Joe Sixpack or a Daily Mail NIMBY. Imagine them as faits accompli, presented in a manner that elides their fictionality.
See? Design fiction, of a sort.
While it's satisfying to retrospectively identify the All-in-One vignettes as a form of design fiction, or even to coin the term “infrastructure fiction” for them, the question remains: what use are they?
For the Superfluxian audience, such a question is probably (hopefully?) anathema: design's internalisation of critique makes the point moot. They're thought experiments, exercises in reflexive critique of both practice and principle. The ends justify the means, right? So all I need do is remind you to stop thinking that infrastructure is Someone Else's Problem. Unless you're spinning wool from your own sheep or whittling wooden spoons, everything you do touches (or is touched by) infrastructure. This means there's a whole new layer of questions you could be asking in your practice – and as climate change, resource distribution inequity and fragile global supply chains become increasingly dominant forces in the chaotic megasystem of the world, they're questions you need to be asking.
To my colleagues in engineering, and to businesses and agencies thinking about innovation and infrastructure and the troubled times ahead, I would say this: you have been trained, and trained well, to imagine the possible as constrained by the plausible, for what you imagine must be buildable. That's as it should be... but you must learn to switch it off from time to time.
This isn't so much about thinking outside the box, that most tired of innovation cliches; if anything, it's about thinking about the box, asking how and why the box constrains you. It might help to think of vignettes and infrastructure fictions as a type of theoretical model, albeit one that is almost entirely qualitative. The point is not to see whether they hold up to the tests of physics, or whether they can be evaluated against cost, resilience or feasibility; indeed, it is to be expected that most infrastructure fictions would fail at least one of these types of test. And therein lies the real point: failure is instructive, and the failures and flaws of imaginary systems at this sort of scale – not to mention the circumstances which might influence the likelihood or otherwsie of that failure – are impossible to explore in reality.
Design fiction is a sandbox, a test-bed, a gedankenexperiment; it's the technological archaeology of imagined futures. If design fiction is a discourse both in and around start-up culture and bleeding-edge technologism, then infrastructure fiction can do the same thing for global sustainability, infrastructure policy and the iteration of appliance functionality. It can break the hypnosis, collapse the Someone Else's Problem field. It can make infrastructure legible – and once you can read a story, you can write it a new way.
Of course, you can still do infrastructural engineering without thinking about the context in which you're doing it; we've been doing that for the last hundred years or more, after all.
But look where that got us.
1 – Tesla's place in the geek canon is not echoed in the trad engineering canon; indeed, I suspect that's a big part of why he's in the geek canon at all.
2 – This sensawunda lives on in attenuated form in the collective culture of civil engineering; my favourite conference drinking game5 involves taking a drink every time a presenter or panellist speaks in reverent tones about the ambition and longsightedness of the Victorians. Regrettably, the culture has largely forgotten that those genuinely astonishing projects were made possible by a nigh-total lack of regulation, and a class system that permitted the systematic exploitation of the navvies.
3 – I'm thinking of calling it “mimetic prototyping”, because Plato isn't around to call me out in an angry blog-post for misusing the other half of his dialectic.
4 – We did try making some videos, but the main thing they communicated was that the making of videos is best left to people who know a lot about making videos, or at least those who have the time and resources to make a proper go of it.
5 – To be totally clear, there is no actual drinking involved. Well, not during the conferences, anyway.
Adams, D. Life, the Universe and Everything. Pan, London, 2009
Johnson, B. D. Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction Morgan & Claypool, San Francisco, CA, 2011
Kirby, D. “The Future Is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development.” Social Studies of Science 40.1 (2009): 41–70.
The sun is shining after nearly nine months of winter here in London. Perfect time to share the latest round of studio happenings.
Recent Talks and Conferences:
Embrace Mutations, Vivid Sydney: Anab gave a keynote at the Vivid Sydney festival last week, and from what I have heard, it sounded like a brilliant event, great panelists and an amazing city.
Real Fiction, University of Applied Arts, Vienna: We were invited by Fiona Raby to talk about our studio practice as part of a great lectures series, organised in collaboration with StudioLab at the Royal College of Art, London and BioFaction, Vienna.
Lecture, Royal College of Art: Anthony Dunne and Noam Toran invited us to share our studio practice, methods and projects with their students.
Next13, Berlin: The video for Anab's talk at Next13, Berlin is now online, and some very kind words from Warren Ellis here.
We have also updated our Press page which now covers some of our latest activities and media engagements.
Dynamic Genetics V. Mann: We are so pleased that this Lab project I have been leading has been selected to be exhibited at Yours Synthetically, Ars Electronica later this year. Watch this space as we share the work over the next few weeks.
IoTA: Internet-of-Things Academy: We have published a film and report showcasing IoTA's progress and our conversations with some incredible people from the world of IoT. The project will continue developing, and if you are interested in partnering or sponsoring any part of the project, do get in touch.
New Studio, New People, and Everything Else:
We are moving to a new studio in Bermondsey end of next month, which is super exciting! Photos and updates on that front soon. We also have Megan Rodger join us this month, who besides being a very good graphic designer and maker, is also the most resourceful person I've met recently. Very much looking forward to working with her.
On June 14th, Anab and I will be announcing the winners of the Core77 Awards (Interaction Category), 10am UK time. Thanks to Vicky Richardson, Durrell Bishop and Louise Shannon who took time out to join us for the judigng session.
Another thing we are very excited about is our contribution to the DREAD book, published this September by Valiz and designed by Metahaven. The book also includes contributions by Adam Greenfield, James Bridle, Timo Arnall and Xander Karskens. It is edited by Juha van 't Zelfde, whose exhibition by the same title will open at De Hallen Haarlem on 6 September 2013.
Last but not the least, thanks to everyone who applied for an internship position, we have done the recruiting for now. But we'll be having one new position open from August, so do get in touch if you are interested.
That'll do for now. Happy Summer!
I was invited to talk at the NEXT Conference in Berlin by Peter Bihr, as he felt that a talk I gave last year would fit well with the conference's theme Here Be Dragons: "We fret about data, who is collecting it and why. We fret about privacy and security. We worry and fear disruption, which changes business models and renders old business to ashes. Some would have us walk away, steer clear of these risks. They’re dangerous, we don’t know what the consequences will be. Maintain the status quo, don’t change too much.Here and now is safe. Over there, in the future? Well, there be dragons."
This sounded like a good platform to expand upon the 'Design for the New Normal' presentation I gave earlier, especially as its an area Jon and I are thinking about in the context of various ongoing projects. So here it is, once again an accelerated slideshow (70 slides!) where I followed up on some of the stories to see what happened to them in the last six months, and developed some of the ideas further. This continues to be a work-in-progress that Superflux is developing as part of our current projects.
Here's the video of the talk that was published by NEXT, and my slides are below. Many thanks to Warren Ellis for some fantastic feedback too.
Slides from the talk:
This is a gun. Made in a 3D printer. By a gun enthusiast called "HaveBlue", a member of the AR15.com.
As I followed up on this story, I found that Thingiverse had removed this file from their site. But the same file, along with loads of other files of weapons such as the F-1 Russian Grenade or a .22 single shot firearm can be found on defcad.org: a startup by a texan law graduate Cody Wilson. DefCad aims to provide access to the important things that institutions and industries have an interest in keeping from us. Not trinkets, not lawn gnomes, but things like medical devices, drugs, goods, guns.
This is Zemarai Elali, an electrical engineer in Afghanistan working one of his five autonomous, unmanned drones made from bamboo.
As you can see from this video, they already fly quite well. However he insists he will not allow them to be used as weapons in his insurgency-wrecked country. Zemaran, a drone hobbyist got a lot of worried press in the western media.
But its kind of interesting that whilst Zemaran created anxiety with his activities, at the moment, we are celebrating the Summer of Drones, which is an epic series of up to 34 Nodecopter community events taking place in North America and Europe where hundreds of developers team up to prorgram drones.
This is not art made by a child. Its a representation of genetically modified bacteria that are created by finding genes from organisms that have plastic degradation properties and insert them into marine bacteria.
And that is what this team of students at the University College London were designing in collaboration with the London Biohacklab. If they succeed, these new plastic-eating marine bacteria could be a ‘natural’ solution for the millions of plastic bits floating in our oceans.
They also want these bacteria to become microscopic construction workers and build artificial plastic islands. In fact here in the heart of the North Pacific Ocean, they’ve already claimed the new Plastic Republic.
And they didnt stop there. To highlight issues of public access to these tools, along with the London Biohacking group they created the world’s first ‘Public BioBrick’, where DNA code was created and submitted to a parts registry outside of an academic institution. The hackers created a BioBrick which can degrade mercury, a common water pollutant in India.
These are no ordinary t-shirts. They are a source of livelihood for
this man - Song Hojun from South Korea, who was attempting to make his...
own...satellite, creating a private connection between you and universe. Known as The Open Source Satellite Initiative, this was his latest prototype, back in September 2012.
But just last friday, after nearly four years, Hojun managed to fight all obstacles and finally launch his satellite into space from Baikonur Kazakstan! For all ham radio operators and satellite trackers who might be interested, you can tune in here.
These stories might seem unsettling and its probably easy to dismiss them as weird anomalies from whimsical people, however I’d like to show these stories illustrate a new age of Technological Empowerment. For instance this image shows two kids participating in a Raspberry Jam session where kids move from being passive consumers of technology to actively engaging with it.
They are called Raspberry Jam sessions because they use this - the Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized computer, whose first batch of 10,000 costing a mere €25 sold out within minutes, quicker then any iphone sales.
Today there are over 1500 hackerspaces worldwide, including one in Antartica. A cross between your garage and a clubhouse, they provide space, tools, and like-minded colleagues for unusual DIY projects.
And there’s even a hackerspace-crèche in San Francisco called Mothership HackerMoms where mothers can indulge in some creative hacking to the sound of babbling rugrats.
Those UCL students who were designing plastic-eating bacteria are joined annually by 190 other teams from 34 countries who are all editing and building living organisms this very minute, for the iGEM competition - also known as the 'Olympics of synthetic biology', which now includes a competitive track for entrepreneurs and high school students.
Besides iGEM, there are over 300 DIYbio labs across the world showing how technologies that were the remit of scientists, are now increasingly cheap, and easy to access by ordinary citizens.
As of June 20, 2012, Shapeways.com - a website that allows users to make their own products with 3D printing sold more than one million user-created objects.
And if you’d rather go to print a 3D object yourself, then you can access one of the 130 fablabs that have opened up around the world.
The Afghan engineer built his bamboo drone with the help of DIYdrone.com, which has over 29,001 members now, the latest being myself.
And so as the weird stories stack up its easy these seemingly peripheral trends become increasingly disruptive. With such new technologies and ways of working, tasks that would once have required the brute force of a nation or mega-corporation can now be achieved by a small company, a like-minded group of collaborators, or even a lone individual. For instance this is the Global Village Construction Set - where Marcin Jakubowski has made blueprints for 50 open source low-cost machines will allow anyone to build all the infrastructure a community needs.
Within this new age of tech empowerment I’d like to touch upon three interesting aspects that exemplify a bigger trend.
First up is crowdsourced innovation that we are all familiar with.
For instance, this is the very popular Open Ideo, where people from all over the world form teams to tackle difficult challenges and solve wicked problems. And this particular one is about tackling sanitation issues in low income urban communities.
At But this very idea of crowdsourced innovation is being lapped up by DARPA, who launched the Fang Challenge to design an Amphibious Infantry Fighting Vehicle. More than 700 Participants forming 150 teams signed up as soon it was announced, and the number is growing. Martha Kanter, the Undersecretary of Education, noted that the nation's "strategic interest" is for all branches of government—including Defense—to "move from an engine of bureaucracy to an engine of innovation".
Another less organised / more local aspect of this sort of crowd sourced innovation is something I grew up with in India, where a group of family members or friends find bits of metal to hack together vehicles from limited resources like this one allowing about 10-15 to travel fairly long distances. Its called Jugaad, and is a way of being ingenious with limited resources. In fact its become a thing that's now being advocated in Business Schools.
But this same Jugaad innovation becomes Jugaad Warfare, as in this instance, where Syrian rebels put together their own version of an armoured fighting vehicle called Sham 2 built from the chassis of a car.
And here’s the inside view of sham, where a game controller has been hacked to operate the vehicle’s gun turret.
Most of us, whether interested or not, have been watching how bitcoins stormed into the news again couple of weeks ago.
By hitting a high of $265, promptly collapsed to $105, rebounded to $201, only to begin collapsing again, trading as low as $49 before starting to rise again. Whilst on one side it powers black market sites like the silk road.
You also have people like Taylor More, of Alberta, Canada, selling his two-bedroom bungalow for a reduced price if offered bitcoins, and this bitcoin ATM about to be installed in Cyprus.
Bitcoins lead to more cryptocurrencies being created and mined, so you have Freicoin which charges a demurrage fee and Litecoin which can be efficiently mined with consumer-grade hardware.
And the third trend is what one might call new nature, where our DNA and the very parts we are made of are also being newly manufactured. I’d like to show you an excerpt from a film called DNA Dreams by filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, which shows a provocative glimpse into BGI, China’s largest genomics company.
An excerpt from DNA Dreams: (This is a 14 minute film, I had shown an excerpt from 4:30 to 6:49)These could be the world’s smartest babies. That same very company BGI, have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation's intelligence by five to 15 IQ points.
And closer to home, you have the company 23andMe. Over the last 6 years, 180,000 have sent their saliva samples using their cute spit kit, in exchange for valuable health and ancestry information.
But recently founder Anne Wojcicki, who happens to be the wife of Google’s Sergey Brin, decided to monetize their giant database of genetic information. They opened their treasure trove of genetics data to third-party developers to build new web-based interactive tools. Although current laws prohibit employers and insurance companies from discrimination based on genetic information, but life insurance providers, schools, athletic organizations can potentially get their hands on your genetic data. And I cant even begin to imagine the impact this will have on dating apps and sites.
And I havent even mentioned google glass, the second wave of nuclear proliferation, organised large-scale protests and extreme weather events. All these trends are pointing to what my friend Scott Smith might call a 'moment of superdensity' where chaos, uncertainty, rapid change and realignment of power are becoming the new operating parameters.
We thus find ourselves in a situation that is far from the popular notions of normality, and have entered the domain of the NEW NORMAL.
In this New Normal.
What does this mean for 'innovation' in the 21st century?
Are there strategies and tools from design to help us effectively engage with the new normal?
Design traditionally uses comfortable and well understood metaphors to cloak novel innovation. As my partner Jon Ardern says: "A lot of applied design, marketing and UX acts like conceptual valium." Whilst mapping the familiar onto the new and the weird is effective and arguably necessary from a stand point of usability, it also creates a form of hypnosis, dulls the subjective experience of the strange and unusual, by presenting things not as they are but as facsimiles of the known and familiar.
So how do we interrupt this state hypnosis, or what Venkatesh Rao calls the Normality Field? Design for the New Normal works to cuts through established narratives by engaging with two broad areas of interest: uncloaking the 'strange now', (whether that is the edge cases I showed earlier, or the disruptive forces that are hidden behind comforting metaphors); and extrapolating current trends to present the sheer breadth, of, often unsettling, future possibilities that lie ahead of us.
And now I would like to share a few projects from Superflux and other designers that we feel exemplify this approach.
In our ongoing project ‘Dynamic Genetics v Mann’ we imagine a world where synthetic biology and gene therapy have moved from the lab into the marketplace. In this world, the State's responsibilities have shifted from healthcare provision to the provider of health insurance. By calculating the healthcare cost of specific gene combinations, insurance rates are adjusted on a person by person basis, ensuring that individual ‘contributions’ accurately reflect the potential costs associated with their genome.
What new laws and economic models might emerge under these conditions? How will intellectual property be applied and policed when designed genetic material makes its way into people’s bodies and their lives? These issues, and their wider implications, are explored though the lens of a court case being bought by Dynamic Genetics, a large gene therapy conglomerate.
against Arnold Mann who they accuse of obtaining their copyrighted DNA from a black market ‘clinic’. Who owns our genes? Who can patent them? Will we have patented children? And at the other end will we have pirated children? How would healthcare models adapt to these new changes? How will we value human life?
Within the world of synthetic biology where nature is being designed, its important to create tangible visualisations of worlds when these new organisms start infiltrating our real environments. Living systems are capricious and mutate, so how will they be created and how will they live amongst? For a project exploring the colony collapse disorder, we worked with scientists to imagine a new kind of bee that would help pollinate our crops - made entirely through the powers of biotechnology.
We imagined various positive uses for this synthetic bee - from pollinating crops to being kept as a glowing pet.
But today there are defence personnel around the world are toying with the idea of using miniature drones disguised as bugs or insects for spying purposes. DARPA's ultimate plan is to eventually hack into the insects own natural senses, allowing the remote-control operator to look out of the insects own eyes, instead of attaching a video camera for it to carry. So whats stopping them from making the world’s first 100%natural drone, a synthetic bee - as a future surveillance device?
For a project 'Electronic Countermeasures' in collaboration with Liam Young and Eleanor Saitta, we tried to imagine new uses for autonomous drones. Rather then weapons or hobbyists toys we designed a flock of interactive drones that form their own place specific, temporary, WIFI community - a pirate internet.
People can upload files, photos and share data with one another as the drones float above the city. They swarm into formation, broadcasting their pirate network, and then disperse, escaping detection, only to reform elsewhere.
Moving on to money...looking at how big financial decisions are made on the basis of a very volatile stock market, designer Shing Tat Chung’s A Superstitious Fund is a live experiment in which an algorithm trades based on superstitious beliefs. It makes decisions based on lunar cycles and numerology, creating lucky and unlucky values that influence its behaviour.
Tobias Revell in his project 88.7 imagines a world of complete economic liberalisation, where money is valued over people. Its early 2040s, and an ex-Soviet nuclear powered icebreaker full of highly qualified traders circles at 88.7 degrees latitude in the arctic sea. By circumnavigating the world in twenty-four hours it stays in constant contact with trading zones throughout the world. A scenario extrapolated from our current trends, its a compelling thought experiment as we are forced to re-evaluate about our current situation.
For an installation at London’s Science Museum about future energy sources, Dunne and Raby wanted to show children energy futures apart from hydrogen cars, that are not part of popular discourse. They created artifacts that would bring children in direct contact with a new kind of energy future, where human and animal waste is being used to create energy. The one on the left is a lunchbox with two compartments for “food” and “poo”, whilst the one on the right is a radio is fuelled by animal blood kept in cute teddy-shaped pouches.
In a similar vein, The Bionic Requiem by Auger Loizeau initially exists as an anticipatory device: its music box poised to play a tune once it captures enough flying insects that can be eaten by the microbial fuel cell it houses. The cell then produces sufficient energy to power the motor of the music player revealing its mysterious tune.
Recently the Guardian newspaper had an interview with Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, who said: "You have to fight for your privacy, or you lose it.", enough to get even more people nervous. But seriously speaking, what strategies to deploy if you’d rather hide from facial recognition bots let loose in the world? Using the inherent dumbness of facial recognition algorithms against them, Adam Harvey’s project employs subversive application of makeup to confuse the algorithms.
This is the Nevada desert. Buried in its vastness is Jason Rohrer’s 'A Game For Someone', which is a board game not to be played for at least 2,000 years.
The 18×18 board and all the game artifacts are built out of 30 pounds of resilient titanium metal, and its rules were "playtested by an AI that then reiterated until the intelligence decided it was balanced".
Rohrer laid out the game's rules on three pages of archival, acid-free paper, sealed them inside a Pyrex glass tube and buried them. A bunch of envelopes were passed out that to the audience at the game design challenge with 900 sets of GPS coordinates on each of them. He estimates that if one person visited a set of coordinates each day, the game would be discovered within 2,700 years.
These projects bypass the established narratives about the present and future that create the hypnosis of normality, and in doing so, allow for an emotional connection with the raw weirdness of our times, opening up an array of possibilities. My hope is that this emotional connection to the unknown becomes a catalyst for us to engage with, and actually innovate in a way that is meaningful and desirable.
We have just started a new tumblr where we'll be posting ideas and projects that explore this space, which you can follow. Thank you.
(Exploring new directions and developing a practice that infiltrates popular design discourses and presents alternatives to the wider industry can be a difficult business. So its encouraging to get some great comments from Bruce Sterling in the conference's closing keynote, which is also a very inspiring talk and definitely worth a listen.)
7th of April is celebrated as the symbolic birthday of that thing we call the Internet. We thought it was appropriate to send out our first ever Newsletter to mark the occasion. Well you know what they say, better late than never. In case you didnt sign up for it, here's the pdf version, so you'll know what we've been upto.
We hope to send maybe two or three of these out per year, celebrating important dates through the year. So if you havent signed up yet, there's plenty of time to do it, before the next one hits your inbox.
(Here's what it looks like. Lea's done a great job with the design, and the illustrations.)
Before getting into design I studied art history, and at that time I was fascinated by how artists and creatives materialized timeliness, or zeitgeist, in inspiring ways throughout history. For instance, early 15th century Korean earthenware embodied the social flux of a once glorious 500 year old Goryeo dynasty being overthrown. Numerous European artists of the 16th century, such as Parmigianino, El Greco, or Joachim Wtewael, artists that are nowadays broadly labeled as Mannerism, displayed every symptom of being intoxicated and hungover from the heavenly spirits of the Renaissance. And more recently, through people like Duchamp, we get a glimpse of the multitudes and contradictions of the westernized 20th century.
But leaving art history as it is, I was allured by Dutch design, and eventually had the pleasure to learn how to experience traditional materials hands on in Eindhoven. Personally I'm quite obsessed with the notion of utilizing creativity within a cultural and social context. So lately, together with some friends in Eindhoven, we've been busy trying to figure out how to bring these two together; that is, to find intersections between experience based creativity and reality, or design that makes sense if you will.
Quite recently I have learned a new word, and to be honest I'm quite fond of it. It's a relatively young word, since it's only been around for about thirty years now. For a few, especially for those who breathe and drink and eat smart technology and the Web, it's nothing new, maybe even considered mundane already. For some, who are accustomed to such technologies as users, it's definitely something fascinating, but largely in an intimidating fashion. And for many in the world where Internet access is scarce, it's not even part of their reality.
The wonderful thing of this time is that there are amazing people all around the world working hard to ease the approachability to this to a much wider populace; not just technologically, but also in terms of knowledge, usability, and engagement. I am talking about the Internet of Things (or what that word stands for since apparently there are many different ways of referring to it and frankly what you call it is much less important to what it actually stands for), and I feel there is a compelling timeliness to the activities orbiting around the Internet of Things. At the moment I am extremely happy to be able to learn about such things and be a part of it here at Superflux.
The hugely talented Minsung's has become very involved in the IoTA project, helping us ship the second phase of the project, and we are looking forward to working with him over the next few months.
If you'd like to know more about internships with Superflux, take a look at this recent blog post.
Over the last few months, we have been overwhelmed by the amount of internship requests we've received for our summer positions. A big thanks to everyone who got in touch, there are some great portfolios in there. We will be reviewing all applications and getting back to people in the next couple of weeks.
As we continue to receive requests, here is the low-down on our Internship Program, in case you're considering applying:
- We offer paid internship positions usually for a period of 3-6 months. We like to involve interns in all aspect of the project: from ideation and concept development all the way to delivery and communication of projects, whether they are client-facing or our own Lab projects. In order to get the most out of your time with us, we recommend longer internships as projects in the studio tend to be spread over few months.
- From past experience we have found that students about to start their final year are ideal candidates as the internship period becomes an opportunity for them to shape their final piece of work through internal discussions and experimentation in the studio. Recent graduates are also welcome to apply as we ensure that there will be time available for them to develop their own projects.
- Whilst design students from all disciplines are welcome to apply, an interest and awareness of emerging technologies is important. We have found that students with a core skill (graphic design, product design, service design, filmmaking, prototyping) alongside a broader interest in technology, culture and society are able to get involved in projects quite quickly.
- If you are thinking of applying, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org telling us a little about yourself, your interests and expectations, alongwith a link to an online portfolio or attached PDF and the dates you would like to intern.
We look forward to hearing from you!
29 days of this year are already over, and we have been chasing time, once again. 2013 kicked off on a busy note, and this is a quick post to say 'hello' and a (very belated) happy new year. We wrapped up 2012 by sending tiny packages of our edible Christmas cards to friends and well-wishers. Fortunately, everyone who's had a taste of them is still alive, and actually quite liked them, which made our efforts so worthwhile.
On the Consultancy front, 2013 saw us kick off phase two of the project 'Internet of Things Academy'. We are scoping out the possibility of actually building such a platform, and what that might involve. With this mind, we are in conversation with some amazing people, including Laura James, Tim Maly, Usman Haque, Gavin Starks, Chris Speed, Rob Van Kranenburg, and Eben Upton. We are also making a film about the project. And... the first pilot for school children was successfully deployed at the Oasis Academy in Manchester, in partnership with Technology Will Save Us.
Unlike IOTA, we can't talk much about other projects currently in the pipeline, apart from mentioning keywords such as 'new uses of metadata', 'coin-operated AR machines', and 'lost drones'. On the Lab front, slow progress has been made on SAM. But Tim has come up with some clever ideas that might speed things up. Elsewhere, Jon has found a great direction for Mutations that now needs to be quickly realised. And in my (rare spare) time I have begun to piece the OVIPRO edit together. LOTS TO DO. And so, we are very pleased to have received such a fantastic response to our tweet inviting people to get in touch if they wanted to be added to on our Freelancers / Contractors Directory. We are in conversation with several talented people, some of who I hope will be able to come on board and join different projects.
In other studio news, Jon and I are pleased to be Jury Captains for the Core77 Design Awards in the Interaction category. We are super excited about the rest of the Jury members who should be announced soon, so stay tuned. (And apply!)
I also made two new years resolutions, as requested by the folks at WIRED magazine which I am trying to stay loyal too, and have just finished an interview with the lovely folks at Alpine Review, which should be out soon. On the conference front, Justin's off to Geneva soon to give a talk at LIFT13, so if you are there, go say hi to him!
All in all, I am feeling pretty excited about 2013.
2012 has been one hell of a year for us here at Superflux. The Studio has been working on a wide range of exciting projects: From the design of apps for prosthetic vision to developing the groundwork for an Internet of Things Academy. From playful experiments such as making Atomic Seeds to imagining scenarios for a future world where human genes are priced and jealously patented. We have talked about design for the New Normal, explored ideas around New Forms of Nature and made the case to bring more Faerie Stories into our everyday lives.
All of this means that our minds have been preoccupied with ideas around making and hacking nature in the context of new and future technologies such as synthetic biology. So, when we were toying with ideas around our Studio's very first Christmas cards, we decided to tie all these themes together in a simple and playful manner that everyone could enjoy. We wanted our cards to be memorable for people who received them, but also fun for us to make. And so we created the Limited Edition Edible Species Taxomony, made from fruit leather, for Christmas 2012.
Here's the full Taxonomy of the species in print and their corresponding fruit leather clones.
The card and the animal in detail:
THE CARD PACKAGE:
The fruit leather needs to be kept safe and secure as the cards travel around the world so we decided that the packaging should be integral to the design of the card.
And here are some images of the 'card in use':
Each mutant animal or plant is made in our Lab, by us, from 100% organic pulped fruits such as Kiwis, Plums and Blueberries using a Mango base, mixed together and baked to make the delicious fruit leather. Each of the animals was then hand cut and packaged, ready to be sent off in time for Christmas. Below are some photos from the messy but fun process of making the fruit leather, the individual plant and animal designs and the pairing of the printed cards with the finished fruit items.
This project was led by Jon Ardern who spent long hours cracking the fruit leather recipe. The brilliant Lea Bardin worked tirelessly to design and package the cards, with support from myself, Patrick Stevenson Keating and Tobias Revell.
2013! Hope you'll be good.
The first signs of frost have appeared on the streets of London and people are scurrying quickly in dark coats, heads hung low... yes the winter is coming. Fortunately, we have some lovely new people and exciting projects helping to maintain a warm glow in the Superflux Studio.
First up, a couple of Lab projects, which have moved from being slow burners to high priority. Lea has made great progress producing some very lovely drawings and paper prototypes for our 'secret project'.
While Tobias, Raphael and I have been making good progress with the Mutants project, firming up ideas for GRM family trees and genetic data mining.
On the Consultancy front, some nice projects have lined up, including an ongoing piece of futures and scenario planning work. We are working on a range of different industry sectors, helping develop technology roadmaps, and then creating a range of accompanying visualisations illustrating their social, economic and political implications. We are also busy with some workshops and developing an Internet of Things project further. All of this means most of my time has been spent head deep in statistics, photoshop and illustrator, whilst also working with Anab to develop client relationships and plan projects for next year.
On the public front, Anab gave three talks in quite quick succession over the past couple of months that are well worth checking out. Design for the New Normal at the Global Design Forum was very well received, and so was the Playful talk, Faerie Stories for the 21st Century.
Meanwhile the lovely folks at Lighthouse Brighton, have published the videos of the Improving Reality Conference online, here's Anab talk: 'Flesh, Blood and DNA'. (And here's the full text and slide deck.)
Chris Speed from Edinburgh College of Art invited us to exhibit the 5th Dimensional Camera at the 'I am Seeing Things' symposium in Edinburgh. According to the organisers: "The 'I Am Seeing Things' symposium took another look at what we mean by the term ‘things’. How do everyday, analogue objects change when connected to the World Wide Web? Referring to an Internet of Things, the symposium anticipates the technical and cultural shifts as society moves to a state in which every object is connected, or ‘wired’. This symposium and exhibition was the culmination of a three year research project entitled TOTeM (Tales of Things and Electronic Memory) and the work of its research team that has developed technologies to support the association of personal memories with material artefacts."
As a Jury member of the IxDA Awards 2013, Anab wrote an article From Pixels to Dna: The Next Frontier in Interaction Design which was published by Fast Company. (Unfortunately Anab will not be able to attend the Jury Session in New York this year; she's been waiting for over five months for the UK Border Agency to issue her a UK visa and return her passport, but still no news.)
And finally, tea break conversations have revolved heavily around the American Elections, mostly thanks to Tobias, who has given us an indepth anaylsis of the machinations of the presidential race. Supplemented with an adequate supply of pecan brownies and banana cake.