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: email@example.com 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.
Last week, I gave a talk at Playful, an annual conference organised by Mudlark, tasked with investigating "playfulness in all its forms ... in design processes, creative methodologies or the final product."
At Superflux, we don't usually do games stuff. Instead, Jon and I thought it might be a good idea to explore some of the relevant tangents from my prior talks at Global Design Forum and Improving Reality. We were interested in showcasing a range of work that explored the creation of alternative futures (much like 'world-building' in games), holding a space for emergence, novelty and surprise. While many of these projects might appear audacious and ridiculously ambitious, they can serve as touch points for our current hopes and anxieities. Such work can help engineer ideas, practices, and values to meet the challenges and dilemmas of our uncertain times, and help us navigate risk. Here's the final talk.
Hello. I grew up in India in the late 1970s, when the country was busy doing nationwide “voluntary” vasectomies as a way to control the population explosion. At that time, only seven cities in the entire country received television broadcast. We didn't have a television at home until I was about 8 and neither me or my friends even know what a games console might have been. Within this context, I didnt have the opportunity to get into gaming in the way we now understand it. Nevertheless, I loved to play.
I was busy playing in the magical lands of what were arguably the worlds earliest speculative fiction and mythological faerie stories.
Blown away by fantastical comic books featuring flying celestial animals fighting battles with mere mortals.
And elaborate renderings of solar powered anti-gravitational flying machines.
So when Greg asked me talk at Playful, I thought that, since I am not a "gamer", I’d explore the idea of faerie stories, and see how thinking about these stories can help us engage more playfully with the world around us.
Also, partly because I recently read this essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ by J.R.R. Tolkien; an exemplary early analysis of speculative fiction. For Tolkein, fairy stories are not just about fairies, elves, fays, trolls or dragons, but they are stories about the 'Faerie', or the worlds in which fairies exist. These worlds contains many things besides elves, dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants or dragons: they contain the seas and sun and the moon, the sky and the earth. They are full of beautiful enchanting experiences as well as dark, foreboding visions.
Most importantly, faeire stories are about ‘fantasy’ – fantasy which creates rich, imaginative, alternate worlds, full of magic. By doing so, such stories allow the reader to review their own world from an alternative perspective. Growing up, the fantastical worlds of flying machines and solar power airships created that inexplicable magic of the faeire for me.
In fact, Tolkein further explores the idea of fantasy as the most essential element of imagination, something to be nurtured and encouraged. Instead, we have come to think of fantasy as 'fantasizing' which quite often translates as being delusional. Also, as he is quick to point out, there is no reason for children to like fairy stories more then adults, its like so many other things – where adults decide what children 'might like' and what goes in the nursery. And so, the freedom to suspend disbelief, create make-believe worlds and indulge in fantasy is also left behind in the nurseries.
We become conditioned to putting things into distinct categories such as politics, technology, nature, culture – when our modern lives are full of hybrids. Bruno Latour: "All of culture and all of nature get churned up again every day. Yet no one seems to find this troubling." Latour used the way stories are positioned in newspapers to trace the complexity of our modern lives. Similarly, I’d like show the strange and weird nature of our modern world by talking you though just a few tweets from my twitter stream.
This is a tweet from Peter Diamindis, calling for college students to do internship in his new venture: Planetary Resources, a company whose mission is to mine natural resources from asteroids. It sounds like something straight out of a 1960s SF novel, but it's happening now. Actually when they announced this few months ago, our newspapers were busy trailing the newst series of Strictly Come Dancing.
The Green Building and Design magazine tweeted recently about Spaceport America opening to the public. This may look like a film set, but it's where Branson’s spaceships will live. 500 people have already paid the £125,000 ticket price to experience five minutes of weightlessness and views of earth only seen by astronauts’.
Jon Ardern recently tweeted this job ad from the University of Sheffield:
In fact, the person who lands the job will probably be involved in 'uploading' bee brains to flying robots, as tweeted by Olivia Solon. The universities of Sheffield and Sussex are working on a project called ‘Green Brain’, prototyping robots to mechanically pollinate crops. Bingo! Colony collapse disaster, engineered away.
On the topic of hacking biology, here’s a tweet from the DIYbio lab Biocurious in San Francisco. Here, they are advertising their biohacking classes for six year olds.
I’d like to play a small clip from a video which I am sure you all remember well, but which exemplifies the ways in which we fail to recognise the minor (and major) miracles of the modern world. (The full clip is entertaining enough, but I played the bit from 4 mins 30 secs.)
As Louis CK says, everything is amazing and nobody is happy. It seems that successful adulthood is all about normalising the fantastic. Building on from what Latour and Louis CK are trying to talk about, a writer called Ventakesh Rao recently used the term “manufactured normalcy” to describe this phenomenon. The idea being that we have a psychological predisposition to believe that we’re in a static and dull continuous present – consider the experience of flying. According to Rao, we change our mental models and behaviors the minimum amount necessary to work productively with the results of any change.
This kind of conditioning has been explored in some of the most popular science fiction works. In his dissertation, Tobias Revell references Brave New World and Farhenheit 451 as fictional examples where the authorities has remove fantasy out of fear of the psychological freedoms which it enables. Fiction allows us to compare alternative scenarios and our own world, and by removing this, you can effectively 'numb' a population to other possibilities.
Take this real world example, where the Chinese government banned all fictional time travel media, including the popular time travel TV show, Palace. A statement from the Chinese government explains that "characters travelling back in time "lack positive thoughts and meaning" and that a program's portrayal of time travel can "casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation."
It's not just totalitarianism regimes that are a problem; our own lives are full of things that create a numbing effect. As Tolkien’s good friend C.S. Lewis said:
So, how can we effectively engage with the world and all this weird stuff that is happening? Obviously we cant live our lives in a constant state of slack-jawed amazement, with tears of joyful terror rolling down our faces. Jon, Justin and I were discussing how we at Superflux explore playful engagement, which, according to Justin, could be seen as a positive alternative to the cynical manipulation of 'gamification'. For us, the key question is howto find new and exciting ways in which we can weaponise playful engagement.
One of the ways we do this is by using what we call design futurescaping; a toolbox of methods including speculative design, with which we can create imaginative projections of alternate presents and possible futures. Design Futurescaping channels multiple voices to create hybrid, humane alternatives to the deterministic, ‘business-as-usual’ consensus future. I’d like to show some examples of work from several people who exemplify this approach, starting with one example from our own studio.
For a project called Power of 8, I pull out an open call, inviting people to engage in create their own visions of optimistic futures, however fantastical they might be, as an alternative to passively consuming other people’s agendas.
Over several workshops, eight of us attempted to build a optimistic vision of our collective futures.
Though it was our hope to create something optimistic, what emerged was perhaps a little more problematic – a haunted alternate ecosystem of strange machines and modified nature called Acres Green. A sort of Tolkien-esque fictional world for our modern times.
One of the key features of Acres Green was the combination of people’s ingenuity and technological aspirations. Worried about the disappearing bees, the citizens worked with biotechnologists to develop a new kind of bee that would help pollinate our crops.
We imagined idyllic scenarios of people using these bees to grow food in their gardens, and children who kept synthetic bees as glowing pets.
For the final exhibition, visitors could come in, explore Acres Green, have discussions and leave comments and reactions.
Another example of this kind of collaborative 'future-making' is a project called Upper Toronto, by Tim Maly and Jacob Skimmer. Tim and Jacob are working with people to build a new city in the sky above Toronto. When it is completed – they think it'll take about 75 years – all the residents of 'lower' Toronto will be relocated to their new homes in the sky.
The authors of the project agree that this is clearly a terrible idea. According to Tim: "It is never OK to force millions of people to move, but what it lets us do is have a conversation with people about what kind of city they'd like to live in, if we could start fresh."
They have been running a series of public consultations with as many different communities as they can get time with, partly to get those people to think differently about the future and the city, and partly to teach themselves about their needs. Here, Tim and Jacob are mirroring how real development happens, but as a theatre piece, freeing people up to think a little more imaginatively about the issues at stake.
Moving from public-facing, bottom-up projects, to those that are more explicitly political in nature, in a project titled 88.7, Tobias Revell zooms into one possible event from our not-so-distant future – the early 2040s, when an ex-Soviet, nuclear-powered Arktika class icebreaker (traditionally used for expeditions to the Arctic) is recommissioned to host a barely-legal experiment in global finance.
He imagines how this ship of highly qualified traders circles the Arctic ocean at 88.7 degrees latitude, a 24-hour circumnavigation which brings the ship into constant contact with trading zones throughout the world.
This chart showing the movements and trading patterns of the Arktika over a one-week period. In Tobias' scenario, the sheer volume of trade made possible by this new kind of deregulated mobile trading triggers decades of power shifts throughout the financially-developed world, forging a new world order of sovereign currency collapse, Chinese dissolution, and more besides.
In a similar vein, Sascha Pohpleff’s project ‘The Golden Institute’ imagines an alternate past that could have led to a different present. The Golden Institute for Energy is a think tank located in Golden, Colorado from an alternative reality where Jimmy Carter won the 1980 US presidential election, further pursuing his much-discussed environmental policies.
Pohflepp uses details models and imagery to take us through a journey of this alternate history. A model of The Golden Institute, which he imagines to be the earthbound equivalent of NASA, promising a future of national wealth through an abundance of energy. (This is an artist's impression of a geo-engineered cloud over Golden, Colorado.)
The State of Nevada was officially deemed a weather experimentation zone, where a range of ingenious ideas to harvest energy were tested. Here, for example, is a model of Lightning Harvester based on a Chevrolet El Camino.
This is a model of an induction loop-equipped Chuck's Cafe, prototype for an idea to make major modifications to the national infrastructure so that the freeways could be used as a power plants.
From more recent times, this is Eneropa, where Rem Koolhas and his team at OMA created a reconfigured map imagining a low carbon Europe in 2050 where regions are redefined by their energy source. Ireland and the western half of Britain become the "tidal states", while the eastern half forms part of the "isles of wind".
They also created images of these new regions. For instance on the top right corner you see Solaria - which is most of Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece. If it was windless in Britain but sunny in Spain, power could travel from them to us, and vice versa.
This sort of visual imagery of future / fictional / fantasy worlds is a popular way of playfully engaging with the anxieties of our present times. This famous project titled ‘Postcards From The Future' by Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones creates surprising, contradictory images of what a flooded London might look like. Whilst these are clearly fictional provocations, they managed to create widespread political rage.
An article in the Guardian referred to this image of dense housing near Buckingham Palace as occupied by climate refugees; saying it would fuel further anxiety around immigration. In response, science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, referring to this as the Buckingham favela notes "how those indignant figures waxing all politically-correct over “montages.” were freaking out over race, rather than the prospect of London being seven meters underwater."
And this particular image was referred to as Asian peasants working in paddy fields in the shadow of Big Ben. In response Sterling comments: “Those aren’t immigrants or Asian peasants, but Britons reduced to Third World conditions. Looks like the viewers are having a bit of a time getting their heads around that lively possibility...”
Another brilliant project is The Hypothetical Development Organization, where Rob Walker and partners stick convincing renderings of imagined uses on abandoned buildings in an attempt to share with the public a fascinating potential future they have invented. For instance this unused building located in downtown New Orleans could be the home of a museum dedicated to the most important figure of our time: the self.
The entire façade would be mirrors. Mounted from the front of the building is a large 3-D sculptural representation of the “thumbs up” icon (one you use to “like" your status). The creators felt that if monuments honouring heroes of the Civil Rights movement, or of the Civil War form a kind of public inventory of what matters to a community, then surely it is time to memorialize abstract strangers approving the Self. You will "like" this museum!
In the project FoundFutures: Chinatown 2007 Stuart Candy, Jake Dunagan and Matt Jenson created the fictional future scenario of a bird flu epidemic with its 'ground zero' in Honolulu's Chinatown. In effect they were referencing the resilience of that particular community who historically suffered from two outbreaks of plague. One artefact created as part of the project is a memorial plaque from 2016 installed on a street corner. It is placed in memory of the residents of Chinatown who lost their lives to a fictional future epidemic. This exercise in 'guerrilla futures' looked at how such reverse archaeology might help people to better imagine the diversity of possible futures for their neighbourhood.
Finally, moving into territories a litlte more light-hearted, Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks from Design with Company created a fantastical over the top absurd disneyland of livestock called Farmland World. Situated in America, it looks at the increasing distance between people and where the food they eat comes from. As they said in an interview with Geoff Manaugh: "The extreme demand for cheap food and the diversion of the pet economy distorts animals until they look more like utilitarian machines (bacon). Farmland World is part amusement park and part working farm designed to reunite disenfranchised Americans with the heartland."
Populated by robots, rides and representations, these entertainment places can be accessed via high speed train and visitors can enjoy a variety of fantasy farm experience packages. Inflatable mega-pigs act as robotic performers whilst real cows graze the fields in enclosures designed to look more like amphitheatres.
So, in conclusion, these projects explore many elements of the farie – the miraculous, the marvellous, the utopian, the dystopian and the improbable. Though they may at times appear to be highly adventurous in their premise and realisation, they can help us both - engage with the present from valuable new perspectives...
...And provide an opportunity to step away from the hackneyed monotony of our everyday lives, leaving us free to imagine and create possibilities of future worlds. So I guess, in many ways, this talk is a call to arms for all of us to actively engage in the creation of our own Faerie Stories for the 21st Century.
After Raphaël Pluvinage from ENSCI joined us in the studio in March this year, we have become fans of the school and its brilliant students. So we were pleased when Léa Bardin applied to do an internship with us, as she has developed a remarkable portfolio during her time at ENSCI.
Léa has moved from Paris to join us for the next four months, and she'll be helping us client projects as well as investing part of her time on product development for one of our pet Lab projects.
Here's what she has to say about herself:
Hello. I am Léa and I am a product and graphic designer interested in looking for superlinks between different media, exploring aesthetics, and experimenting with narrative systems. I love to draw, make quick experience prototypes, play with code and make interactions tangible. I am inspired by this quote from Buckminster Fuller: "When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."
Léa has already been entertaining us with a lovely dose of French comics and graphic novels.
Rather than say too much about his work and interests, I'll let him introduce himself:
I'm a recent graduate of the Design Interactions department of the RCA where I spent most of my time parsing economic and historical theory into design ideas and working through large scale scenarios and futures speculation. I'm also an associate lecturer at the London College of Communication in Interaction and Moving Image.
Also, I've scoured my dissertation. I worked on the supposition that the Internet and technology were normalising and numbing sensation but talked about it in neurological terms of plasticity and the way we become normalised and addicted to constant visceral stimulation provided by technology. So, I was tailing more about the media than the content there.
The second part (Fiction That Frees) is probably the most relevant, which is all about why fictions are important and tying play, fiction and psychological freedom together. There's bits about how without fiction we can become ‘lodged in the literal and immediate’ without the ability to perceive change or growth or draw comparisons with reality against possibility.