At the end of April, I gave the opening talk at the TED 2017 conference ‘The Future You’ in Vancouver. Today, I am excited to finally be able to share it with you.
Spring has sprung, and here at the studio we’re in full bloom. Check out what we’ve been up to, and find out what we’ve got coming up over the next few months.
The UAE Ministry of Energy and the Prime Minister’s Office invited us to help them develop a mechanism to experience numerous possible futures around energy, and to stress test the opportunities and broader systemic consequences of each future with Cabinet Ministers and key decision makers. The ambition was that such collaborative futuring activity would help inform the country’s energy policy all the way till 2050.
This talk explores the deep disconnection between the ‘future’ and how it manifests in our everyday lives.
BuggyAir is an accurate mobile sensing kit that helps parents understand their children’s exposure to air pollution.
Over ten years ago, I did a project that explored scenarios of a ‘post-apocalyptic civilization’. It was a time when the rumblings of climate change had only just begun to be felt in the public domain. Today things are different. It’s hard to escape the news, certainly impossible to not experience the actual effects of extreme weather conditions, just one of the many signs of climate change.
Unbelievably, its summer already. The studio has been a hive of frenzied activity for the last six months, and in this post we wanted to share some of our top highlights of projects and activities.
At some point in the last couple of days, as the temperature in London plummeted, this post morphed from ‘Autumn’ to ‘Winter’ news. But I’ll stick to the title, just to try and make 2014 that much longer, and delay the inevitable.
The last quarter has been one of the most challenging we have had in the studio’s history, testing every ounce of our perseverance, integrity and commitment. But it has also made us more resilient and we feel proud of where we are today because of it. I want to use this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported and encouraged us in this journey. And so, this post is a quick roundup highlighting some of the good things that have happened recently.
1. DRONE AVIARY in Tokyo
We are thrilled to be able to show the first instantiation of the Drone Aviary project at Tokyo’s stunning 21_21 Design Sight Gallery. It forms part of part of a great show titled The Fab Mind: Hints of the Future in a Shifting World. A shoutout to Dimitri Papadimitriou, Jon Flint, Ian Hutchinson, Sam Conran and Georgina Bourke who played a key role in getting it shipped. And Yosuke Ushigome for orchestrating the work in Tokyo. We shared some of our thinking behind the project on Virgin’s Unite’s series around drones, which was also picked up by Richard Branson. We wiill be doing a detailed post about the project and the work so far very soon, and also sharing more information on the next show in London. I have been leading this project and feel really happy that we are finally moving forward in a direction we want to pursue after some serious set backs.
2. PRODUCT INVENTION HACKATHONS
We recently wrapped up a big client project focusing on product invention and experience prototyping designed in the form of a series of week-long hackathons, led by Anab. The project remains strictly under NDA, but if all goes to plan, you should see the products out in the world by 2016. It was a joy to work with the very talented Philipp Ronnenberg, Dan Williams and Matt Shannon. The studio was a frenzy of intense activity, as concepts and prototoypes were churned out like never before. And ofcourse, it was a real joy to make proper use of our new Ultimaker. The sheer joy on the face of the key stakeholder, as they saw and played with product prototypes, made the efforts more then worth it.
3. BUGGYAIR KICKS OFF
We are thrilled to continue to receive support for IoTA, as we develop demonstrators that show our investigative research and design approach around IoT. The first version of the website is ready, and Anab wrote about the things we learnt during the journey for Nominet Trust. Based on those foundations, we are now working on BuggyAir, where a group of parents will use bespoke sensor kits to measure ground level air pollution that directly affects their children’s health, and use the generated data as evidence for long term behavioural and legislative change.
4. CITIES UNLOCKED LAUNCHES
Future Cities Catapult just launched a major project: Cities Unlocked in collaboration with Microsoft UK and Guide Dogs. We are proud to have been one of the project partners, working with blind and partially sighted people to identify the characteristics of future cities which will enrich their experiences, and to develop potential cityscapes which would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We will be sharing a detailed report about our approach, methods and outcomes in the coming days, but here’s a great interview with Sara Hendren, whom we interviewed early in the process. Also some good press over on BBC, Dezeen and others.
5. BLURRING THE LINES, BRITISH COUNCIL
We are featured in British Council’s remarkable ‘Blurring the Lines’, an exhibition about culture in flux, told through sixteen stories of people reinventing creative exploration and participation. The exhibition is free and open till 19th December, so if you are in the area do check it out. After all, any show where we can sneak in a Playmobil cant be missed.
6. FUTURE FICTIONS, Z33
Dynamic Genetics vs Mann is currently part of the Future Fictions show at the great Z33 in Belgium. With this show, Z33 continues the debate about our future, exploring how contemporary artists, designers and architects relate to future thinking and imaging: from mapping, questioning and criticizing, to developing complex visions about the structures and systems that may shape our life in the future. Designed specifically for the UK context, I continue to hope that one day soon, this project would be show here on home territory.
7. FEATURED IN WIRED UK
I am very pleased that there’s a feature about the Drone Aviary in WIRED UK! (although there seems to be some confusion about the title of the project)
8. FEATURED IN BLUEPRINT MAGAZINE
Blueprint magazine has a great article by Vernica Simpson “Speculate to Accumulate” which features our work and practice.
9. UPCOMING TALKS IN THE US
From Monday 10th Nov, Anab is on a whirlwind tour of the US, for a series of talks, meetings and teaching. Starting with New York, where the first public talk is at the School of Visual Arts, followed by School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she is part of their visiting artists program. She then goes to Ann Arbor as part of the prestigious Penny Stamps series, and then finally at MOCAD in Detroit. If you are in any of these cities next week, go say hi.
10. LONG NOW LONDON
After much delay we are pleased to have reinstated the great Long Now London meetup group, with Corinna Gardner from the V&A and Alastair Parvain from Wikihouse as inagural speakers. We are grateful to Hub Westminster for offering us the venue, and to Ana Bradley for helping us with drinks sponsorship.
Ten is a good number so I’ll stop here. We also have some exciting news about new people joining us, a project around Indian spacecraft and more, but I’ll save that for another post.
We recently finished a project Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann exploring the implications of synthetic biology and genomics in the context of future healthcare. We are thrilled to have Christina Agapakis reflect on the project in the context of genomic prediction, privacy, and piracy.
This is me
What if personalized medicine never happens? What if the promised therapies tailored to our unique genomes just never materialize? Although it seems inevitable, there is no guarantee that we will be able to precisely match treatments to individuals. For complex diseases with many associated genes interacting in changing environments, the statistical power to make therapeutic predictions currently remains elusive. What if we sequence the genome of every single person on earth and the data is still not big enough?
In such a future, will we still believe in genomic promises? Perhaps, unable to let go of the hope that our genes can predict our future health, we continue to demand access to our largely uninformative genetic code. Unable to find strong associations for complex and chronic diseases but still desperate for determinism, we might look for answers not only in the genes of our own cells but the genes of our microbial symbionts.
This hope might remain part of medical rituals, a statistical placebo for the post-genomic checkup. The doctor takes samples of your secretions and sends them to a genome sequencing company, the costs barely a blip on otherwise ballooning medical bills. You talk about your fears of aging, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, antibiotic resistant bacteria. You discuss your parents and grandparents’ medical history. Your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar are measured. Risks are calculated. You should probably lose some weight, eat more vegetables, walk more. You should smoke less, eat less processed food, less sugar. You should take better care of yourself. You probably should have done this anyway. You go home with a reassuring list of percentages that put a number on the fundamental uncertainty about your future.
The sequencing company analyzes your DNA, bills your insurance company, and stores your data in the cloud. Your demographic information and health records are linked to your unique set of sequence variations. Associations are identified, risk percentages are modified. Sequences are patented. Progress (money) is made.
You continue to be anxious about privacy. You think, “if a company is telling me that my DNA data is me, then why should that company have so much access to me?” We are told that in our dangerous world we must give up some privacy for increased safety. For increased health we must give up some of our expectations about genetic privacy.
“Crimes of a Genetic Nature”
DNA is good for telling stories about the future. DNA as machomolecule, in control of our genetic destiny. DNA as code, programmable, controllable, readable, re-writable. Like other data-driven futures, DNA-based stories are stories about probability, risk, and control: risk of developing certain medical conditions and the control that DNA has over our biological characteristics. Risk that genetic information will be used to discriminate against us, risk that our DNA will be used to control what we are and what we can be.
Superflux is good at telling stories about the future, stories that help us connect with the abstractions of probabilities and the weirdness of our unevenly distributed futures. With Dynamic Genetics vs. Mann, Superflux tells a story about DNA, risk, and control, not with percentages and promises but through the carefully crafted evidence of a fictional patent infringement trial.
The story is set in Britain in the near future, when the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has been privatized and transformed into National Health Insurance (NHI). The trial’s defendant, Arnold Mann, faced with unmanageable NHI premiums due to undetermined genetic risk factors, turns to black market gene therapy, replacing his risky genes with healthy sequences patented by the fictional biotech giant Dynamic Genetics. With these new genes, his insurance costs are decreased, but he is prosecuted for the DNA sequences that he now holds in his cells, sequences that he didn’t pay the right people for.
At first glance, DG v Mann seems to be a very familiar kind of future, especially for people who don’t live in the UK and don’t have an NHS. For many Americans, a story about an insurance company trying to use anything and everything to screw you over is not an unfamiliar fiction but an everyday fact of life. The idea that an insurance company could one day use your DNA sequences to justify increasing your premiums or deny you coverage is such a pervasive story in the American debates about gene sequencing that it was codified into law, outlawed by the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. If anything, DG vs. Mann might give its first shock of weirdness with the notion that it could be weird for such corporate shenanigans to exist in the first place. Imagine a future where Americans think that privatized insurance is a frightening and ridiculous scenario!
This is one way that design fiction could begin to help us “bypass the established narratives about the present and future,” challenge us to see the present world from a new perspective, and teach us to challenge our assumptions about what is and what might be possible–both technologically and politically. Design fictions show technologies at the edge of speculation and reality, inviting us to imagine, question, and debate the applications and implications of new science and technology in a cultural context. Exploring genetic technologies in relation to government programs, the business of health care, and the ongoing debates about piracy and intellectual property allows for discussion not just about the function of the technology itself, but its inextricable relationships with power, politics, economics, and society.
Fictions give life to these complex relationships and give us a vocabulary to debate the kind of future we want (think of how often Gattaca used to come up in conversations about DNA sequencing). But while such stories are good at challenging our assumptions about how a technology might be used, rarely do they challenge the deeper assumptions about technological power and control.
What does the world look like when we bypass the established narratives of DNA as the of master of our readable and rewritable future? What if DG vs. Mann is actually a story about genetic indeterminacy?
“Good Source of 6 Vitamins & Minerals”
The DNA evidence in DG vs. Mann is not human readable. Strips of paper with tiny, indecipherable A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s highlight the regions of Arnold Mann’s genome that are infringing on Dynamic Genetic’s patents. Looking at these strips, we don’t know what diseases he was at risk for, how much of a burden he would one day be on the insurance pool, or even if the pirated gene therapy has actually changed his odds of developing the disease.
It’s possible that Mann’s risky sequences are part of the relatively small set of gene variants that are known to directly cause devastating diseases. But if Mann is an otherwise healthy adult, it’s much more likely that the NHI actuaries are looking for common gene variants that have been statistically associated with very common and very expensive diseases: type II diabetes, cancers, and cardiovascular disease.
What does it mean if you have, for example, a diabetes-associated sequence in your genome? In terms of real world health outcomes, the small changes in risk associated with any one such variant probably don’t mean much, especially compared to the big effects that environment and diet can have.
Indeed, it’s harder to imagine what these numbers might mean for your health than what they could mean for your health insurance. These associations provide an “objective” justification to what the insurance company wanted to do all along: get more money. As long as people still believe that DNA is in control of our biological destiny, these associations don’t actually have to be biologically meaningful in order to have a big effect.
What does it mean then to use gene therapy to change these risky gene sequences? Considering that for most health outcomes, zip code is a better predictor than genetic code, probably not much. But if an insurance company can use DNA sequences to justify charging more, then altering gene sequences isn’t necessarily about being healthier but simply appearing healthier to the risk calculators. The new variants are the genetic equivalent of sugary breakfast pastries fortified with vitamins and minerals, an unknown risk with a quantifiable veneer of “healthiness.”
Unlike Pop-Tarts, however, when it comes to deciding who gets affordable insurance coverage, such genetic spoofing might ironically be enough to translate to better health in the real world, where access to health care is much more important than DNA. For Arnold Mann, the potential dangers—medical and legal—of undergoing back-alley gene therapy is worth the risk in order to get affordable insurance. People have done weirder things for health care.
Polarized debates about the desirability of a new technology and its potential implications often oscillate between cheerful utopia and horrific dystopia. We discuss the promises and perils, the risks and rewards—opposite ends of a speculative spectrum. The real future, of course, is not simply one side or the other, happening instead somewhere in the messy in betweens, neither world-saving nor civilization-destroying.
But wether proposing utopia or dystopia, both sides of such debates grant technologies with an unexamined power to solve or create problems, what anthropologist Georgina Born calls an “unproblematic effectivity.” For debates about the future of biotechnologies, the power of DNA always remains at the center. When speculating about the future of a technology, it is worth asking: what if it just doesn’t work that way?
Stories about the future can open up new possibilities, new avenues for debate, breaking free from the “half-pipe of doom” between utopia and dystopia. We can imagine more complex, weird, ambivalent futures—stories where technological promises come unraveled, their technical underpinnings explored, their cultural appeal examined.
We want to know the future. We want to know that in the future we will be able to know more than we do now. We want our futures populated with competent scientists, always in control, able to fully understand and accurately predict. We want DNA to be able to justify inequalities in health, we want DNA to give us answers, to tell our future.
DNA is obviously an important molecule, but too many of our social problems and technological dreams rely on the false promise of genetic determinism. DNA is not all-powerful. Data is not enough. Health is biological, but also social, political, economic. Biology is complex. Biology is messy. For better health, we need less sequencing and more support. For better technological promises, we need less control and messier futures.
An overview of our studio’s research practice, process and ethos presented at Fabrica, Italy.