3 March 2009

Design thinking for the future at LIFT09

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LIFT 2009
The session devoted to Design Thinking was my personal favourite of the entire 2009 LIFT conference.

Beyond the engineers and business’ discourse about the future, what is it designers can propose? What sort of alternatives are they envisioning? What’s the role of design thinking in creating more meaningful futures?
With Fabio Sergio, James Auger and Anab Jain and open stage talks by Fabian Kalker and Felix Koch, and Bill Thompson.

Note: this post contains embedded video which might now not show up in your rss feed.

Fabio Sergio

(Note that the above video is actually in English, and not in French, and that it doesn’t always load).

Fabio Sergio (blog | site) is a design and user experience strategist, and creative director at frog design.

At LIFT he presented a designing for social impact project: Masiluleke (which means “lend a helping hand” in Zulu), a breakthrough approach to reversing HIV and TB in South Africa and beyond.

Frog was asked to conduct a project on this in New York and Sergio is simply relaying the project approach and results (he didn’t work on it himself).

Based on on-the-ground research, it became clear to t he designers that HIV is primarily a problem of information and social stigma in South Africa.

The methodology used was the normal Frog one of shaping the user experience, which goes from immersion, to synthesis, to concept development, and to service design.

In South Africa more than 80% of the population has access to a mobile device. So one of the key ideas of the Masiluleke project is to broadcast sms in the unused space of the “Please Call Me” (PCM) text messages (a special, free form of SMS text widely used in South Africa and across the African continent). These messages can connect mobile users to existing HIV and TB call centres, and remind patients to take theirs drugs.

But the project also wanted to facilitate local testing, so they created a low cost in-home self-test kit with mobile support, that was conceived for easy local production and assembly.

Design, says Sergio, is “how it works” not “how it looks”. When we talk about design as a future shaping discipline, you have to understand people and their behaviour. We don’t call this testing, but verification, as testing implies standing out of the activity.

The secret ingredient to it all is empathy. People-centred design goes beyond usage or consumption. It is also about culture and seeing people how people react to things within their culture.

Technology in this context is just a material to sketch with.

James Auger

James Auger is a partner in the critical design practice Auger-Loizeau whose projects explore the role of technology as a mediator and modifier of the human experience in both contemporary and future societies. He teaches on the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art in London and is currently undertaking a design practice based PhD looking into the role of robots in the home environment.

James talks about another way of approaching design. Some call it critical design, others discursive or speculative design. By removing the commercial content, we are free to dream and to see things in a slightly different way than they are done at the moment.

The mibEC was an audio tooth implant that looked at the ramifications of biotechnology. This implant, which was positioned as a real product, could be inserted during normal dental surgery and would give you superhuman capabilities. It gathered a huge amount of press attention and was voted as best invention of 2002 by Time Magazine (who never talked to James).

At Medialab Europe, Auger-Loizeau critiqued our immersive use of mobile technology, and created the IsoPhone, an immersive environment for deep social conversation. The 40 to 50 people that tried it at Ars Electronica all said it really changed the way they thought about telecommunications.

Now they are working on a new provocative, discussion-generating project: the carnivorous domestic entertainment robots, that explore the idea of evolution, value and aesthetics.

All these robots are based on microbial fuel cells, which turns organic matter into electrical potential.

What kind of services exist in real life environments that do that that could inspire our designs? Many people own a vivarium, where they feed real life animals to other animals.

James and Jimmy (Loizeau) developed a series of prototypes taking this idea to the extreme, such as the Flypaper Robotic Clock, the Lampshade Robot, the Fly Stealing Robot, the UV Flykiller Parasite Robot, and the Coffee Table Mousetrap Robot.

Anab Jain

Anab Jain (blog | website) is an independent designer and film maker. She likes to tell speculative stories of possible near futures at the intersection of the technological and sociological. She also likes to make these stories tangible by using design objects as props and narratives. Most of all, she likes to play with tomorrow by engaging with people in every possible way. Until recently she was design lead on a project at Microsoft Research Cambridge, which attempted to rethink notions of machine intelligence by developing product and service scenarios around biotechnology and RFID. Currently she works as a service and interaction designer at Nokia Design in London, while developing her emerging design practice ‘Superflux’.

Anab Jain’s talk, entitled “Learning to play with Tomorrow“, was according to me (together with Bill Thompson – see below), one of the best of this conference.

She talked about design futurescaping, which is using design methods like storytelling, experience prototyping, making scenarios tangible, and talking to people on a daily basis, to influence how our near future will turn out.

Anab started off with referring to some historic examples of designers for whom the process of sketching has been hugely influential in their thinking, and allowed them (and us) to think outside of the box.

Two projects Anab worked on in the recent past illustrate this new way of thinking.

The future of work“, a project for Colebrook, Bosson & Saunders, a product design and office furniture company, explored the nomadic nature of work in contemporary life. The client wanted an open-ended project, that created new ways of thinking about the future of work, and opened up new spaces for product innovation. They were particularly interested in the home worker, the nomadic worker and the office worker, and in the demographic of the elderly worker.

Anab decided that the best way to find out what this future would be was to put these people in the future, and she created personas which she projected fifteen years into the future. She invented new jobs for them and placed them in a fictional space, which she called Little Brinkland. By having a new job, they needed new work places, new products and new services, which Anab chronicled about. Many practical service ideas and scenarios came out of this project.

The other project she talked about was loosely titled “Rethinking machine intelligence” (a.k.a. Life and Death in Energy Autonomous Devices and Objects Incognito), a project done in collaboration with Alex Taylor at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

The group at Microsoft Research that Anab Jain was part of was quite critical of smart homes of the future, simply because the way intelligent machines work may change drastically. Their concept was that the everyday ideas of intelligence are not fixed, but are active in the world. Anab designed a small number of interventions that can show how material things are imbued with intelligence. Perhaps we can even start thinking of new objects and new kinds of computing machines.

To explore better what intelligence means, she designed four objects, the Gubbins, that are mini single-track robots. They are storytelling devices that can be situated through scenarios in people’s everyday lives, and are meant to get people think about ‘smart objects’ in the home.

One of the ideas that came out of the research is that people associate intelligence with living things. This brought up the question how to embed this quality of life, of biological “livingness”, in everyday objects.

So they created the Eco Board, which is an autonomously powered robot, which powers itself. This was then further iterated in objects that are made of sugared and powered things in our homes, but had a fixed lifespan, and in a big radio that can live forever as long as you feed it.

Open stage talk: Fabian Kalker and Felix Koch

The two “lefthanded bloodbrothers from back in the days” Felix Koch, strategic planner and Fabian Kalker, musician/composer, talked about knives, “just knives”.

In five minutes Felix and Fabian went through their wittily called presentation “Who has no knife may not eat pineapples. An off-topic tour d’horizon on the literacy of cutting“, and shared their insights about cutting-culture ( and the most memorable/painful experiences acquiring it ).

This pure and simple user experience presentation was for many in the audience one of their favourites. A must to see on video.

Open stage talk: Bill Thompson

Bill Thompson is a UK technology critic and commentator and his talk, entitled The death of privacy and why we should welcome it., was just marvellous, bringing together philosophical concepts with the mundane tasks of dealing with privacy on Twitter, in a series of thought-provoking questions.

The enlightenment idea of privacy is breaking apart under the strain of new technologies, new social tools, new practices, new ways of seeing things.

Bill thinks that instead of worrying about it, we should embrace it as an opportunity to rethink what we understand by ‘personality’, and perhaps even to find new ways of being human.

how we engage and interact with others and where the boundaries can be put between the public and private, because those of us who live our lives in the open are the avant-garde: we can take on those who believe in the old truths, and we can a find way to live in the new world.

Every Twitterer, Tumblr, Dopplr or Brightkite user at Lift is sharing more data with more people than even the FBI under Hoover or the Stasi at the height of its powers could have dreamed of. And you are doing it voluntarily, willingly, because you are hoping to benefit in a variety of ways. You believe that this unwarranted disclosure will in the end produce some public good, or even some private benefit.

Those of us who are ahead of the curve when it comes to the adoption and use of technologies that undermine the old model of privacy, should start thinking about what it means.

We can offer advice and support to those who might be less happy to have their movements, eating habits, friendships and patterns of media consumption tracked and made available to all.

We can begin to explore what it might be like to be a post-private human, or perhaps a human in recovery from the stultifying burden of privacy.

Bill Thompson is telling the “great God Google” everything about himself, and has no expectation that that data is or will remain private.

The reason he objects to the encroachment of the database state is because he is aware of the power that the asymetrical relationship gives the state at the moment.

Yet to some extent the power only exists because we believe there is a border between public and private. But this only matters if we believe in the individuals, if we believe in people that have behaviours, characteristics and personalities instead of accepting that each one of us is simply a contingent set of responses to stimuli, that we are defined by the people and situations around us.

The idea of the monolithic personality is in fact a mistake. We do not exist in the sense that we think we exist, and therefore we do not require privacy in the sense that we currently think about it. It is a necessary illusion.

We have a legal framework that is based on assumptions of individuality, existence and personality, that encourages us to draw lines. Bill Thomson is not sure those lines should be drawn any more.

We need to think about it again. The technologies we have around us now are challenging the enlightenment way of thinking, and what it means to be a human being at all. We have the option now of taking the big risk of living life in the open, and to embrace it. Privacy is over already.

This will not work for everyone. Some will suffer. That may be the price we have to pay for finding a new enlightenment, a digital enlightenment, that is far more powerful and important even than the first enlightenment was. But in order to do we have to get over the idea of privacy.

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