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.