Thrilling Wonder Stories..London Edition

Thrilling Wonder Stories

Live in London and New York Oct 28th

Created by
Liam Young [Tomorrows Thoughts Today]
And Geoff Manaugh [BLDGBLOG]

In Association with the Architectural Association, Studio-X NYC, Popular Science

We have always regaled ourselves with speculative stories of a day yet to come. In these polemic visions we furnish the fictional spaces of tomorrow with objects and ideas that at the same time chronicle the contradictions, inconsistencies, flaws and frailties of the everyday. Slipping suggestively between the real and the imagined these narratives offer a distanced view from which to survey the consequences of various social, environmental and technological scenarios.

Wonder Stories chronicles such tales in a sci fi storytelling jam with musical interludes, live demonstrations and illustrious speakers from the fields of science, art and technology presenting their visions of the near future. Join our ensemble of mad scientists, literary astronauts, design mystics, graphic cowboys, mavericks, visionaries and luminaries for an evening of wondrous possibilities and dark cautionary tales.

For the first time, Wonder Stories will be simultaneously hosted in London and New York and Popular Science will join the Architectural Association and Studio X NYC in coordinating the event this year. Join us for the third event in the series as we chart a course from science fiction to science fact with talks, a hands on taxidermy workshop, animatronic guests, swarm robotics demonstrations, datascapes walking tour and live movie soundscapes.

Free to all. OCT 28 1200 – 2200 at the Architectural Association London and OCT 28/29 at Studio-X NYC

The event will be streamed live streamed here and you can follow the twitter feed with #tws3

Hosted by
LIAM YOUNG (‘Tomorrows Thoughts Today’ and the AA’s ‘Unknown Fields Division’)
MATT JONES (‘BERG London’, Design technologists)

Director of Splice, Cube, and forthcoming films based on J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise and Neuromancer by William Gibson

Scifi author and futurist

Game designer and spatial theorist

Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor for Inception,compositing/2D supervisor for Batman Begins and Children of Men

Digital media artist and experimental architect

Concept artist and illustrator for video games and films such as The Matrix, Dark City, The Fifth Element, and Superman Returns

Designer, technologist, and researcher at the Near Future Laboratory

Taxidermy artist and sculptor, to lead a live taxidermy workshop

Head of the Natural Robotics Lab at the University of Sheffield,to lead a live Swarm Robotics demonstration

Concept artist for Moon, directed by Duncan Jones

Animatronics engineer for Hellboy, Clash of the Titans, and Ridley Scott’s forthcoming film Prometheus

Motion graphics artists for Discovery Channel’s Future Weapons and Project Earth

Music, composition, and sound design for film and television

Throughout the day we will be accompanied by electronic tonalities from Radiophonic


Hosted by

Architect, WSJ Magazine 2011 architectural innovator of the year, and author of Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution

Architect and author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

Novelist and author of Gods Without Men and The Impressionist

Historian and author of Fixing The Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control

Journalist and author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Architect and co-director of The Living

Science writer and author of First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth

Researcher and educator in biological materials and engineering design

Nettle’s latest album, El Resplandor, is a speculative soundtrack for an unmade remake of The Shining, set in a luxury hotel in Dubai

Interaction designer

Science writer and author of Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy

Architect and author of Organs Everywhere

Insect agriculturalist at Small Stock Foods

Researcher in evolutionary robotics and the future of 3D printing

Science writer and open-source biologist, focusing on bacterial genomics

Designer at Autodesk Research working on the intersection of bio-nanotechnology and 3D visualization

[Image credit ‘Inception’ dir. Christopher Nolan]

Weekending 10232011

Okay. Maybe we will get back into the swing of the weekending note. This one won’t be comprehensive, but a note nonetheless to note a few things.

First, something I found while flipping through the Internet that got me thinking about using creative tension and inversion in the design fiction process and also connected to this Anthem Group, which has curious dispatches related to object-oriented ontology (which I barely understand) and Bruno Latour: this was an interesting post on the reason for having “intellectual fiends”. It helps me understand why, when I was studying Science and Technology Studies and just, you know…academic-y “theory” broadly, there was always this impulse to set ideas or discussions in opposition. To find ways to be critical of anything. Which gets annoying and I’m sure is the reason for general pissy-ness in the academic world.

It turns out it has its usefulness, if you stay optimistic and hopeful. It can be a way to move discussions always in some direction rather than allowing them to sit still and suffer the tyranny of undisputed acceptance. Of course, these things would always get quite squirrely — debates and the perpetual state of “crisis” over some theoretical position. That all becomes quite tiresome and you wind up with folks who are never, ever satisfied and always finding an argument to be had.

But, related to present work, it provides a logic for designing by inversion — taking the initial instinct or common assumption and then turning it on its head. I guess things like making physical, “embedded”, full-electronic prototypes rather than “apps” is one way of seeing this. Or doing the creative-opposite of something to really get into the *why of the natural, assumed, expected thing.

For example, when we made the social/trust alarm clock it was a way to invert commonly held assumptions about about the rituals of waking up in the morning. They don’t get inverted because we think the world should be hung upside down by its shoes — at least not routinely. But one can put “the normal” in relief by looking at things from the downside looking back up. Looking sideways. And it’s not until you actually *look at things through an unusual lens and make the assumption that the abnormal is actually “normal” — then you start seeing new curious opportunities and stories to explore that can then evolve and cause creative — rather than typical — disruptions that hopefully make the normal more engaging, fun, creative and curious.

Continue reading Weekending 10232011

Design Fiction + Advanced Designing + Trust in Volume Quarterly

The most recent — now a month or two old — issue of Volume Quarterly was on the topic of The Internet of Things. And within that was a small sub-volume of essays and articles on Trust compiled by Scott Burnham who has been running a project called Trust Design for Premsela which I understand to be The Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion.

((The Laboratory seems to be a recurring guest in Volume Quarterly. We were in one a couple of issues back — their issue on The Moon.))

Scott started his project on Trust just as we in the Advanced Projects (then Design Strategic Projects) Studio at Nokia were beginning a project with the same name and some of the same questions. One of our questions was to understand what Trust is and how Design can somehow illuminate where Trust exists and its paths and relationships. When I say “illuminate” the image that comes to mind is one of a special detective’s forensic UV light illuminating something under specific conditions that would otherwise not be seen. Or, in those weird 1950s era medical treatments in which a subject drinks some wretched fluid or is injected with something that shows the paths of digestion or the networks of arteries when shown under X-Rays or something. (Maybe it isn’t wretched, but the thought gives me the willies for some reason.)

In any case there were many facets of the Design work we did in the studio, one of which was this Alarm Clock which was meant to operate precisely in this fashion — to focus our attention on a simple interaction ritual in which we were forced to consider characteristics of Trust.

The essay far below below was my contribution to the Volume Quarterly issue.

But first..

There’s a thing or two to add as well, that have more to do with this particular way of doing Design — or Design Fiction. The process of *making these clocks — which were made out of plastic and aluminum and electronics and solder and all that — was only partially about the specifications that determined how those things would be configured. Beyond those pragmatic, specified things were the ideas we sought to force to the surface — the concepts that we wanted to make ourselves address and consider directly. The preposterousness of the interaction ritual that the alarm mechanism forces was a deliberate way of compelling us to think and talk and design for this ephemeral social bargain called Trust. There was no way around it. We couldn’t lose ourselves in the geekery of circuit design; or choosing a color for the LED numerical displays; of obsessing over compound curves in the industrial design of the thing; or fetishizing any aspect of the “Design” as it is traditionally understood — a material instantiation of an already-accepted and well-understood object. There’s not much movement these days in Alarm Clocks. They are what they are and the variations come in things like…size. Like…color. Like…brand. Like…AM/FM or longwave. Like…number of alarms. Like…style. Like…box-y or round-y. Etc. You get it.

You’ll get stuck with those sorts of boring variations if you think about Alarm Clocks traditionally. Rather, thinking *not about Alarm Clocks but about waking up, and the rituals around it changes one’s approach. All of a sudden, you’re mucking with tradition. You’re getting people upset. You’re not responding to the client’s brief the way they expected. You’re not just doing color and materials variations.

Pfft. So what? Well — looking at things a little sideways is, for lack of a better moniker, advancing design. Advancing it beyond the expected. Doing the Fosbury Flop for Alarm Clocks.

The other thing to say about the project is that the making of the thing — all that plastic prototyping; all that circuit design; all that figuring-out-of-colors-and-materials; all that CNC machining; all that figuring out of tool paths; all that figuring out of firmware and interaction algorithms..why was all that done? Yes, of course — to make the thing *work, in the plainest sense. But, more than that — it was all done to do the Design. The making of the thing is *also a way of doing the Design of the thing. We didn’t figure everything out and then said, “right. now we can make it!” The making was the designing. Assumptions and questions are raised. We interrogate our own ideas and create new ones, whilst making and building and handling material and trying out little scenarios. The peculiar nature of the clock was such that we had debates, one in particular was about what the display should do when the little keyfob alarm-buzzer part was removed to be given to a friend. I felt quite strongly that the display on the main clock should go off, so that you’d have to Trust completely the person who was meant to be your human alarm. Otherwise, you can wake up and check the time, which is an implicit way of not really trusting that human alarm person.

This was the bit of fiction insofar as a clock like this would be quite otherworldly. There would be a very different set of assumptions about how relationships work; about what waking up entails and what it is for (getting to a meeting on time; making sure the kids are ready for school; not missing a flight and all the weight and significance of what happens if you *don’t do these things when and what time they need to be done.)

It would be a very different world if we just *woke up when we woke up, rather than waking up to the same time nearly every day. It’s a slightly skewed universe that this clock came from, but it’s crucial to do this kind of design. Why? Well — it advances the realm of possibilities and begins one considering quite directly about creating new, more curious and sensible interaction rituals. It is also a way of advancing design — doing design differently; questioning and challenging assumptions not only of materials and colors and forms and such, which is good. But questioning the actions and rituals and behaviors of the humans, even to the point of something so seemingly absurd as waking up in different ways. This isn’t to say that people will want to wake up to other people knocking on their doors or shaking their pillows, but it forces a number of unexpected considerations and questions and new ideas that plainly wouldn’t come about if one just focused on different colors for clock displays or snooze button styles. Its a kind of advanced design that is able to engage in its topic by throwing out all base assumptions and free-fall a bit into a weird world and then *not allow the usual questions to arise. Sink into the discomfort zone and do some advanced designing.

How does the underpinnings of social relationships become a design principle? How does one design for trust? Can an intangible like trust become embedded in an object?

The principle that “theory” can be expressed in an object plays a part in this question. Substitute “Trust”, a kind of philosophical principle that is perhaps, in my mind, best expressed through exemplars that represent it, rather than the abstractions of philosophical discourse.

The topic of “Trust” presented itself in October 2008 with a tremendous force. The world rattled as global networks of “Trust” institutions collapsed on a scale that sent apcoloyptics scurrying for Old Testament passages consistent with the sequence of events witnessed across the globe. “Trust” became a keyword for these events as macro social institutions that were once “too big to fail” failed despite their size. These institutions that were once the bedrock of society cracked and dissipated and in their failure, revealed what Trust is, at its core. It is, of course – people and the networks of relationships that define what it is to be a social being.

In the Advanced Design studio at Nokia, we were curious about Trust and what it means. Trust is recognized as a core values of the Nokia brand. The worldwide events brought the topic to the fore and provided an impetus for a design-based experiment. Our question was — what is Trust and how could one design with Trust as a guiding principle? How do you embed Trust in the material of a designed object?

The project walked around the topic, building up the studio’s expertise on the topic through the Design equivalent of a “literature review”, both in the sense of readings as well as a more tangible equivalent. We collected essays and books and made things — objects. We brought in both internal to Nokia and external experts on the topic. A social psychologist talked to us about how ordinary people become extraordinary liars. We followed closely the daily events of the macro level systemic failures of insurance companies, banks, economies and entire governments.

Our goals were deceptively simple — to develop a set of principles that could become “actionable” and be “designed-to” in order that Trust could be embedded in the material of an object.

Amongst a dozen principles, one is worth highlighting and is best paraphrased and represented in one of our tangible exemplars. The principle goes something like this: facilitate the trust network — allow people to trust the people they already trust.

Our tangible prototype was, of all things — an alarm clock. We called it the Trust Alarm Clock. The design brief was simply to make an alarm clock that embodied the principle — an alarm clock that highlighted the idea that trust is a relationship between people. At the same time, it was a platform that allowed us to experiment with this simple principle. As you will see, it is an almost absurd object. But it was the response to the brief that we made, without questioning our motivations, but rather following our curiosity on the topic of Trust.

The clock is best described directly. It consists of two components. The main component is not unlike a conventional bedside alarm clock. The second sits nearly where one would expect the canonical “snooze” button of a conventional alarm clock. This second piece is a small, removable “fob”. When one sets the desired time to wake up, the fob is programmed with a digital count down timer. The alarm setting ritual starts when one sets the wake-up time using a dial on the back of the clock. While doing this, the fob timer is configured so that its count down would expire and the fob would “alarm” when the alarm clock setter would like to wake up. The ritual is completed when the fob is removed from the main component and given to a most trusted friend. In that ritual of handing over the fob, the network of trust is established and embodied. The “handshake” of the passing represents the creation, or the invigoration of trust in its most elemental form. Handing over the fob signals that there is Trust amongst this small, two-person social network. If one wants to wake up — or be woken up — one must first consider a number of things. Primarily — who do I trust to wake me up? Who would I want to be woken up by? To whom do I want to convey that I do indeed trust them?

Short animation of an interaction ritual.

We did not suppose that a bedside alarm clock like this has mass-market appeal. It’s a theory object — a way of questioning and probing and exploring the idea of Trust as made into this provocative material exemplar. In a way it is a bit of fiction, only not written, rather made as a physical object that compels one to think of the stories and “user experiences” that may surround it. The fiction is established through a provocation created through design practices.

Theory objects are like material instantiations of ideas — perhaps even our hopes and our imagination. Theory objects refract some social practice in a peculiar and hopefully thought-provoking way. They are “theory objects” in this sense, ways of shaping refining, refracting and altering social practice hopefully in a way that creates more habitable worlds.

The theory object is a way to think about “technology” as something that does more than utilitarian or instrumental. It is an embodiment of some sort of practice that is not outside of the realm of social action. In other words, the theory object is a social object — one that can shape and mutate social practice. Technologies are mutable. They can be what we need them to be, and shape how we experience the world and in that way, are social. What we are doing here is over-emphasizing this point by skirting around the usual assumptions about technology in order to make this point about their social nature more evident and obvious and provocative.

Why should we care enough to make this point that technologies are embodiments of social practice? Because we need to reveal the human hand in their creation and their possibility. Once we can see that people put these things together (and show this process plainly, through images and descriptions without secrets) it becomes possible to talk about how they could be different, or obey different laws and assumptions — possibly become more environmentally conscientious, or help us find playful ways to be more compassionate to mean people, or find ways to be kind to strangers (whatever..need some concrete examples, perhaps anticipating the projects.)

In the case of the Trust Alarm Clock, we were confronted with a rather exciting and unconventional direction for ways of waking up, which everyone does, with the regrettable exceptions, of course. The question evolves beyond *who do I want to wake me up, and who do I trust the most to, say — make sure I get up to make an unusually early meeting or airplane departure. Rather, through this theory object we were drawn into thinking about other *things one may wake up to besides the time of day. What sort of alarm clock might the near future bring that represents a trusted evolution of the waking-up ritual. Perhaps an alarm clock that allows someone in my networked social graph to wake me up. Or — are there things that I trust more than people in these circumstances? Somethings that are beyond the rather mechanistic and mundane ritual of waking to the time, which, after all — is not particularly exciting. Might the things that are more relevant or consistent with our connected age be what wakes us in the near future? In the near future, might we trust more an alarm clock that wakes us up when other people start waking up in order to facilitate that sense of being amongst a larger group of people who are also starting their day. Who are we to say that the now common ritual of waking to a specific time become as antique as luggage without wheels.

SuperCollider: A Class at LA Public School

Sunday October 16 16:21

I’m taking a class through the LA chapter of The Public School on the SuperCollider, like..application, I guess it is. It’s more of a programming environment for making and processing sound. Good fun stuff. I really want to invest more time and energy towards the audio project and this seemed like a good way to start on that goal.

Ezra Buchla is teaching it.

SuperCollider is a rather terse programming environment with a kinda curious set up that requires services/servers to actually run the programs you write — or that are interpreted. I’m making assumptions that this was done so as to allow a distributed model of processing when things get hairy or maybe its just a fetish of the network and its possibilities for elastically distributing processing. In any case, what I’m most interested in is being able to real-time process sound and a little less interested in generative sound synthesis.

I never thought (just without even checking) at how rich and sort of — overwhelmingly weedy the SuperCollider API was. I mean — there’s tons there. I wish that some embedded hardware-y stuff could actually consume/interpret it somehow so that I could have really portable sound processing capabilities. What I’d like is a way to do process sound but I don’t want to have to do it on a laptop or something — should be able to do it in something the size of a 1/4″ stereo audio jack or something.

Sunday October 16 16:26

Sunday October 16 14:19

But, to contradict myself, I may in fact be also somewhat interested in generative sound synthesis — making sounds with things, objects and algorithms. It’s on the @2012 list of things to be some kind of music maker of some sort and meeting up with Henry Newton-Dunn (who made BlockJam a precursor and prior art of Siftables/Sifteo by a good 6 or 7 years) at the AIGA Pivot conference a couple of days ago was fortuitous because I remembered that he was a DJ back there in Tokyo. We had some excited conversations about sound and audio and DJ’ng and software to do all that. I feel a collaboration in the near future!

In fact, here’s Henry himself — this is probably when we first met in, like..2005 in Tokyo. Some hepcat spot. Check out that Hi-Fi “Set” in the background!


Design and Storytelling at AIGA Pivot

Back in 2010 at the University of Michigan Taubman School’s conference on “The Future of Technology” is where I first started thinking about the future as represented in graphs. I brought this visual graphical prop back again at the AIGA conference this last weekend in Phoenix. I guess I figured that a graphic of the future would be a good way to start a talk of the design professional society that at least started with a strong emphasis on graphic arts. (But it’s broadened itself, as I understand, which is good.)

I started with these hand drawn illustrations as a way to show that the future is contestable and malleable and one can make it and need not subscribe to the least-common denominator ideologies about what the future looks like. More than “disruption” — which has weird connotations with business, but just creating a future we imagine, not driven by forces that have typical measures of “future” that includes better battery life and larger screens and more brain-y smart devices.

I participated in a discussion on Design and Storytelling. It was a rehash of some existing material on Design Fiction and the various idioms and conventions that Design can learn from science fiction in order to do the work of design — and not just communicate design ideas, but actually *do design.

Parenthetically, I’ve only recently become a part of the AIGA and I’m still in a phase of my professionalization in design. I think it’s quite important to understand that being anything in any community means being a part of the community which means circulating oneself — ideas, conversations, listening and learning. It is a way of advancing oneself *and advancing that professional community. This is why I go to these things and why I try my best to be an active part of the conversations and discussions — contributing something in the form of a talk or a workshop. It’s not because I like to travel around. That part is actually hard on the body and the home. But it’s part of what it means to be “advanced” at whatever one does. Advanced Designers who do not Advance Design are just shift workers. And then they’ll come a time when they are obsolete because they never paid attention to the larger advances in their community and one day they’ll have befuddled looks when the generation or two “behind” them comes up and eats their lunch. It should be a formal requirement to participate at these levels, proactively. There’s a three step plan. I describe it here:

Saturday October 15 10:49

Okay. Rant on Advanced Designers who don’t Advance Design is officially over.

Going to these things is hard, fun work — but, then you also learn *new things and meet *new people! One high-note for me was this fellow who I’m sure you all already know about and I may be the last one — Jackob Trollbäck. Here is a designer who I could admire right away as he finds the curious, little weird things full of possibility for expression and experimentation. There were a number of things he showed that were just almost incongruous studies and experiments, much of which was wrapped up in sound and rhythm (also topics of great interest to the laboratory these days) as well as curious visual studies and experiments. These were informal experiments — playing with images and videos from an iPhone that turn a technical failing into an aesthetic marvel. These sorts of unexpected things are very interesting to us here.

Also! There was a little bit of a confirmation for my own personal “that’s weird” study — things that happen and one notices them repeatedly. There’s no big theory explanation here, but I notice curious alignments of numbers on clocks — digital clocks. I was capturing them quite regularly and uploading them to a Tumblr. And then I stopped because people would say — no..that’s not weird. It’s just the time. But it seems Jackob Trollbäck has done the same. So — it was a bit of an affirmation of my weird observations.

Related, here’s the talk from the University of Michigan where I first showed these hand-drawn sketches of the future. I think there’s a t-shirt in here somewheres..

Continue reading Design and Storytelling at AIGA Pivot

In the polishing phase

There is this influential dispatch “Follow Curiosity, Not Careers” by Julian Bleecker that I love to refer to. In a few paragraphs he argues for the importance of shifting ones practices and area of activity of 3-5 years cycles. Cycles that are driven by curiosity with phases that link sometimes consciously and sometimes in unplanned and disruptive manners.

Two years ago, I engaged into a Making/Creating/Building phase after the feeling that my “voice” of my academic journey needed a renewal. At that time, I was shaping a project for the Louvre on the evolution of “hyper-congestion” levels in key areas of the museum. An investigation directed at the urban informatics era when few people had experience of actually working with local authorities or decision makers on a large scale that affect either governance or built fabric (reminding me of Dan Hill indication of shortcoming of the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium 2010).

At the Louvre experimenting with sensors to measure levels of hyper-congestion.

Since then, I have persisted working on the ground, observing clients and partners practices, responding to opportunities and glitches with new data tools and experimenting with research methods. I was particularly focused in understanding how the exploitation of network data could integrate and complement traditional processes. It means confronting my evolving practice, plotting in unknown territories, or tinkering the business and financial aspects of a product “go to market” strategy. The phase has been extremely enriching that I only start to grasp coherently. Along the path, I got to lead the making/creation/building for the multiple actors of the ‘smart city’:

  • A geographical information provider: a GIS model that generate a novel type of street data based on social media content for cities with very limited information layers.
  • A real-time traffic information provider: innovative indicators and interactive visualizations that profile the traffic on key road segments.
  • A multinational retail bank: co-create its role in the networked city of the near future with a mix of workshops and tangible results on how bank data are sources of novel services.
  • A large exhibition and convention center: with audits based on sensor data to rethink the way they can manage and sells their spaces.
  • A mobile phone operator and a city council: to measure the pulse at different parts of the city from its cellphone network activity and extract value for both city governance and new services for citizens and mobile customers.
  • It has been equally important to independently explore the ideas shared at Lift Lab either through academic collaborations with UPF, MIT, EPFL or through the actual experimentation of services like that I would love to develop more.

Today, my trousers are scuffed. This accumulated experience on the field requests a move to a next phase to what Julian would describe as:

And subsequent years, refining and polishing that “voice”. Keep moving, refining, finding ways to continue to learn and bringing all the other bits of learning, the other “fields”, the other ways of knowing and seeing the world, all the other bounded disciplines — let them intrude and change things.

Practically, I will continue to push Lift Lab in imagining fast-prototyping ‘stuff’ and explore their implications as a core element our investigation. But the most exciting feeling is that I can start polishing a “voice” in company of a growing list of friends I admire who now run their own boutiques/studios/collective/structure to operate on the field and practically contribute in shaping the urban near future. They are the Bestiario, Urbanscale, City Innovation Group, Everythng. We share an approach that dramatically contrast with the data-driven ‘smart city’ marketing ploy. We come from practices that integrate the importance of learning from both history and fiction, that understand the implication from the long-running theoretical and practical challenges of using data to improve urban life. We are aware of the shortcoming of data models (see The “Quants”, their Normalizations and their Abstractions), we experimented the value of Mixed Methods and are becoming fluent in both design and research approaches as sources of knowledge as so elegantly described by Kevin Walker Design Research and Research Design.

The shift of phase comes naturally with attempts of finding coherence in the contributions of the last two years or simply “polishing my practice”. So practically: I have been exploring the exploitation of network data (byproducts of digital activity) as material to qualify the built environment and produce new insights for the different actors of the urban space (e.g. city governments, service providers, citizens). These stakeholders have approached Lift Lab to a) find unknown benefits in data they already exploit or b) investigate specific problems they instinctively feel network data will help them solve.

There is one specific methodological aspect to emerge from my work. A year ago, I described it as “Sketching with data“. I found it extremely useful to go beyond the traditional ways of sharing the exploration of network data and avoid the contemporary experience with data as described in the recent review of the IBM’s “Think” exhibition in New York.

“But we get no practical sense of how traffic information might be useful.”
“It would have been far more powerful to have an interactive display that led viewers on a path of interpretation and mapping, so we could experience the process instead of simply sampling images. “

The exhibition is actually quite insightful and I value the effort of IBM to communicate. However in projects involving multiple stakeholders, the ability to rapidly sharing interactive information visualizations is a key practice to transform information into a tangible and imperfect material. Recently I attempted to describe it in an abstract submitted to a practitioners’ conference sub:

Since the early days of the data deluge, Lift Lab has been helping many actors of the ‘smart city’ in transforming the accumulation of network data (e.g. cellular network activity, aggregated credit card transactions, real-time traffic information, user-generated content) into products or services. Due to their innovative and transversal incline, our projects generally involve a wide variety of professionals from physicist and engineers to lawyers, decision makers and strategists. Our innovation methods embark these different stakeholders with fast prototyped tools that promote the processing, recompilation, interpretation, and reinterpretation of insights. For instance, our experience shows that the multiple perspectives extracted from the use of exploratory data visualizations is crucial to quickly answer some basic questions and provoke many better ones. Moreover, the ability to quickly sketch an interactive system or dashboard is a way to develop a common language amongst varied and different stakeholders. It allows them to focus on tangible opportunities of product or service that are hidden within their data. In this form of rapid visual business intelligence, an analysis and its visualization are not the results, but rather the supporting elements of a co-creation process to extract value from data. We will exemplify our methods with tools that help engage a wide spectrum of professionals to the innovation path in data science. These tools are based on a flexible data platform and visual programming environment that permit to go beyond the limited design possibilities industry standards. Additionally they reduce the prototyping time necessary to sketch interactive visualizations that allow the different stakeholder of an organization to take an active part in the design of services or products.

Flow profiling
Sketching with mobility data in Impure

Why do I blog this: The idea of shifting ones practice and area of activity is quite important to me. It comes with phases similar to the pursue of a PhD (listen, propose, experiment, contribute with a voice, confront the contributions). The shift of phase is sometimes planned and sometimes affected by external event. This polishing phase occurs with pleasant evolutions the name, structures and focus of Lift Lab. More on that later…

Speculative Design Workshop: The Era of Objects at V2_

Thursday September 29 22:14

Last week I was at V2_ in Rotterdam to participate in the event “Blowup: The Era of Objects”. It was a brief visit — too brief, of course — but well worth the time to help facilitate this workshop along with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Anab Jain and curated by Michelle Kasprzak.

There was an EPUB produced for the event containing short essays by Bruce Sterling, Ilona Gaynor, Anab, Alex, myself and others in this: The Era of Objects

The event started with Alex, Anab and myself giving a rapid-fire presentation to lay out some of our own perspectives and work on the theme of “speculative design” — which is an area of design akin to design fiction.

Parenthetically I think it would be worth spending a little bit of time excavating some of the distinctions and contrasts between these various ways of doing design — speculative design, design fiction, critical design — if only to be more specific and open a dialogue about the utility and techniques of these ways of seeing the world a bit differently in order to create new perspectives, principles, points-of-view and the resultant outcomes.

The presentations were short — 20 slides I think was the requirement, done almost pecha kucha style with automatic slide changing after about 30 seconds a slide, so I think we violated pecha kucha trademark rules.

In any case, I cobbled together a perspective on speculative design/design fiction that blurred the boundaries between the two, but also got me started thinking about how the two are distinct.

To start, I outlined three perspectives on what the future is and how it is useful as a way of thinking about what come to be. This is crucial insofar as it’s super important to think from a slightly different angle on what could come to pass. The future isn’t always bigger, brighter, better, better battery life or taller, &c.

To reinforce this I shared several of my “graphs of the future” — some crude hand drawings I made that show various ways in which the future is depicted — linear, logarithmic, a three-dimensional “spread”, a bumpy road of hype curves, &c. This helps reinforce this idea that the future is a point-of-view, which is crafted and created by humans based on a set of ideologies — not in a mean, evil way, but just plainly for the sake of framing what is understood as possible or desirable. Oftentimes though these sorts of points-of-view embedded in graphs are ideological in the sense that they are taken as “law” handed down from somewhere. They’re just points-of-view, like politics and therefore entirely flexible and free to be altered, subverted, re-interpreted and re-graphed.

I then presented what I consider three principles for speculating while designing with fiction:

1) It’s okay to let the imagination wonder — science, technology, design, fact and fiction are all knotted up anyway. By this I mean that once you are working in the broad territory of design, one should not be concerned about steering away from the austere pragmatics of “reality” — one should vector to-and-fro into weird, unexpected territory and flex the realm of what is considered possible. At the same time, be prepared to find that small components of the larger design problem are what one is really after — not so much space-age, fantastical luggage for the future but, in fact — just adding wheels to luggage may be the most significant outcome of getting a “future of luggage” design brief.

2) Realize that stories (and storytelling) are more significant than specifications, feature sets and engineering. As an engineer, this is hard to say, but I believe it more and more every time I’m forced to communicate. The list of sucks. The story, where you can take someone along a path and communicate to them in a way that is engaging and compelling — even if ultimately the base-level of what you are saying is a set of features and the engineering involved — is *much better than just saying what the features are. Show the experience of the design concept in a small story/film/animation/comic book. The hard thing is that telling good stories if really, really difficult. It requires practice and failure and refinement and iteration. I mean — there really aren’t that many good story tellers in the world, but it’s worth aspiring to be at least a satisfactory design storyteller. (Also, parenthetically — I’ve grown weary of the mantra that designers are storytellers. Not because I don’t believe it but because I’d rather see evidence of it, even to the point of workshops and curricula and all that. Maybe I’m overlooking something..a few are; most of course make fast-looking tooth brushes and over plastic-y bits and bobs of landfill.)

3) Science fiction/speculation can do things that science fact/pragmatic reality cannot. It’s more robust to speculate than to cordon off.

Then for the remaining few slides I gave some examples of HOW to speculate with design. These are three approaches/techniques/creative idioms..pastiche, re-enactment/re-imagining, making little films.

1) Pastiche is something I’m quite curious about — a way of moving in and out of reality and fiction, such as turning the reality of the Apollo 11 lunar lander into the cornerstone of an imaginary “owner’s manual” — as if normal humans might own Apollo 11 lunar landers and need to service them in their driveways like normal vehicles rather than highly specialized, hand-built space vessels.

2) Re-enactment/re-imagining, in the particular example I offer of the Tom Sachs project/art-piece “Space Program” is a form of pastiche — replaying an event but altering it subtly to explore alternative futures/pasts.

3) Making little films. I find it extremely useful to make small visual stories that capture the essential characteristics of a design idea. Done quickly without too much preciousness is a great way to iterate on a concept. It forces one to work through many of the aspects of a design fiction/speculation that are very easy to overlook in a static sketch or even a discussion. You have to figure out a number of the important albeit subtle aspects of the design problem. It’s a form of design work, definitely — the film is not just the final communication of an idea; it is design work least it should be.

Finally, I concluded with two WHY statements..Why speculate with design? Why do design fiction? First, to imagine and see the world from a different perspective. And then of course — speculating and fictionalizing things allows one to imagine and see the world from a non-dominant against the the unexpected to nudge things into the realm of new possibilities. Like Dick Fosbury or the guy who decided to bolt some wheels onto the bottom of his barely luggable luggage and thereby roll free around the world.


Following our presentations we entered into a bit of a talk-show style discussion and thence onto the workshop itself. We had three “briefs” for a rapid-iteration design session that was only meant to last about 40 minutes total. Very quick, but these are where interesting things happen. Here were the briefs:

1) The Netherlands. Everyone knows the dikes are going to break and the North Sea is going to begin to cover Holland’s land mass. Despite the best efforts of Dutch engineering prowess, there are “preppers” who want to be sure to be prepared. One is Ries Von Doren — a rich guy who has the resources to do what he wants. In this case, he consults with a design agency to create a disaster communications device because he knows the existing infrastructure (cell phones, emergency networks, etc.) are going to fail. How will he and his family stay in touch?

2) China. Aging population. Robots. How will the robots support the needs of the aged when the numbers reach into the many hundreds of millions?

3) The EU. Things really fall apart in a few months. Deutche Bank takes ownership of Greece. Tensions rise. Travel becomes highly restricted so that engineers from one country cannot get into other countries and so conversations and meetings related to setting and evolving technical standards and interoperability are not able to happen. Soon, systems that connect one country to the other fail to work properly — some countries evolve their internets, others are not able to and very quickly the internet fails to cross borders. The network becomes heavily balkanized. What arises out of this sequence of events? How do people communicate across geographical borders?

I made up the Balkanized Internet one so I listened in on that group. It was good fun. The outcomes were varied but I particularly latched onto this idea that existing infrastructures and systems might be used to facilitate communication — and it may in fact not be the visual internet as we are presently used to. For example, the quaint old RF radio would come back into use, with people using voice and perhaps rudimentary modulation to communicate data/text. DIY low-earth orbit satellite, even buoyed by helium/lighter-than-air systems to set up comms networks. Tapping on rail lines to send low-bandwidth morse-code signals across borders. Slow communication over long-wave. Things like this were all very interesting to imagine.

Why do I blog this? Merely to capture a few points on the week I spent mostly traveling with a few hours doing a workshop. Well worth it, though. I also want to think about a schema of these design approaches — speculative, fiction, critical — to help formalize the distinctions in a useful way.