Fresh. Future. Firestarters.

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It’s usually best to write up an experience as soon as you can after it happens, just in case you lose some of the verve. Then again, if you happened to be at the last Firestarters event at Google, the energy and synapse-blowing stuff that came out of it has taken longer than previous sessions to calm down enough for me to contemplate trying to make sense of it.

And I’m not even sure that, a week later, I’m able to do much more than throw some random thoughts into the air and hope it gets across even a smidgen of the smart thinking that was shared by Anab Jain from Superflux, Alex Deschamps-Sonsino from Design Swarm, and Faris Yakob of Genius Steals.

As ever, Neil Perkin of Only Dead Fish must take credit for bringing these three together to talk to an expectant audience about Designing for the Future.

I made a lot of notes on the night. These are those typed up in some semblance of sense. All stupidity and incorrect claims are mine. (Don’t try to take them away from me). This is a long post, so go grab a tea or coffee (or other beverage of your choosing) and settle down for 20 minutes of mind-boggling stuff.

Anab Jain
I’ve listened to Anab talk before at This Is Playful, and I’ve been a fan of the work of Superflux for a while. Anab began talking about a topic that is at the heart of what drives her business, the new normal. What is that? An example is the Liberator, the 3D printed gun. Or the Afghan man making autonomous drones made from bamboo. Places like Kickstarter are beginning to bring this type of open source innovation to the mainstream and change the world through design.

Anab had a phrase for it: Technological empowerment. It’s what is driving the 1500+ hackspaces around the world. And they’re proliferating; there’s a feminist one in San Francisco, one that is housed in shipping containers in Shanghai, even one in Antarctica.

The new normal incorporates the maker movement that has been building for many years. On DIY Drones there are over 44,000 members. This is the third industrial revolution.

But Anab cautioned that revolutions are complex beasts. The consequences of them need to be considered in a wider context:

1/ Crowdsourced innovation is often done to solve challenges quickly. But there is a sinister side, such as Riot Control through Tiltor. Anab had her own way of describing what is happening and it’s linked to the Hindi word for the innovative fix: Jugaad. This Jugaad Innovation has great power, and we all know what comes with great power.

2/ The algorithm has risen. It can’t be ignored any longer. Neither can it be trusted.

3/ The power dynamics have shifted irrevocably. Think of networked activism. Sneered at by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, it’s taking what was once restricted to large organisations, and governments, and opening it up to everyone. Guerrilla infrastructures and mesh networks are becoming increasingly popular; chaos and complexity are becoming our guides.

So, can design tools help with this complexity? Anab suggested that most are ‘Conceptual Valium’. Design should be unlocking things and not adding further cloaks of mystery. She made a point that design should not be judged by the problems it solves but by the problems it creates. This is what creates questions and unknowns that allow Superflux to find new ideas. Simply put, this is what some refer to as design fiction. If buzzwords are your thing.

She talked of some projects, including Open Informant, a badge that displayed trigger words used by the NSA publicly. These are words that exist in your own communications, which not only throws up interesting questions but also seeks to weaken their power.

The IoTA, or Internet of Things Academy, which was originally created for a collaborative project with Sony, is all about moving people away from data assumption. It showed that little data is just as important as big, that correlations can become evident and ultimately pulled into sharp focus a challenge that has a wider impact on the whole of society.

A really fascinating concept was Optogenetics, a headset that can use gene therapy and technology to restore vision. It’s hard to describe, but I think this video pretty much captures what Anab was describing:

This is how we will engage with the new normal. It’s both frightening and exciting in equal measure.

Alex Descmaps-Sonsino
I’ve met Alex, chatted with her many times and backed her IoT hardware projects. She is one of those people whom I spend time in the company of and instantly come away feeling both smarter than ever and incredibly dumb at the same time.

Alex has been working in IoT for a long time, and was the first distributor of Arduino. She talked about Connected Knowledge – how we’ll live and support a connected life, and design’s place in that. It’s the new gold rush, this connected future. The news agencies tell us, the ad agencies want to get involved (which usually means it’s already jumped the shark) and you can buy the tech in Tesco. (Techsco, anyone?)

Admitting a love of the 1950s – as this was the last time engineers were leading where things are heading. It’s like this now. And we can do all this because we can connect things. There’s a dark side to this – we can, but should we?

Wearables are getting a lot of coverage recently. It’s where things are focused at the moment. Money is flowing towards projects and ideas that involve wearable technology. As Alex said, “I am an object. A measurable entity.” This is what is happening now.

But it’s been happening for a long time and we’ve barely noticed. Back in 2000, Michael Froomkin talked about the consumer privacy myopia. We’re still talking about the death of privacy now, 14 years on. Alex used the stark stats that made me sit up and take notice – I ear, I use water and energy. I generate a lot of data: texts, calls, location and social media. If I don’t see an immediate value then I give this data away for free. This is something we can’t measure.

There is no capitalist environment for data. Yet.

As Alex said, we don’t know our own data. This makes us apathetic. It’s also driving a ubiquitous fear of data theft. We need to address this properly if we’re to move on, or just get over it. If not, in the future data will be stigma.

If you don’t believe this, Alex shone a light on it.

Behaviour modification in the future will be normal. If you have car insurance they will know what you’re doing, always. You’ll suddenly find yourself signed up for things you didn’t know you were getting involved with. Driving erratically, your insurance gets cancelled the moment you start doing so.

The sad thing is, it’ll be the poorest that will be affected most. Those who need to drive costs down. So, what can we do as those who are designing the future?

    1. Be transparent as a designer.
    2. Build standard communication strategies. Think how plastics are made and marketed and recycled. Will we have this for connected objects? We should allow for data export, for example.
    3. Decide where your responsibility lies to the user. This is really important. It’s not just about making; it’s about aftercare, about SLAs. What will you do, who will you partner with?
    4. Ask permission.
    5. Give people the opportunity to make money with you. Everyone has ideas, so give them something back. Amazon and eBay do this, but Google doesn’t. Can it? Alex wanted to see data marketplaces. A proposition that is scary and incredibly smart.
    6. Keep educating people. There is a real obligation for this. It’s more than just good PR.

You can see Alex’s slides from the event on her SlideShare.

Faris Yakob
Faris bound on the stage wearing a From the Future t-shirt. He is the living embodiment of the true definition of awesome. A man who describes himself as slightly out of time, he has written books (well, the opening chapter of one), won awards and done some fantastic work along the way. He was anything but calm, but also coherent despite rushing about at 100 miles per hour.

He put forth the idea that change hasn’t been noticeable to those experiencing it. The future arrives and we get on with it. And the reason for this is mental time travel: chronesthesia. This is what makes us human: we are anticipation machines. We think about the future, and we have memories.

Design is no different. It’s about doing things for the future.

Here’s an interesting fact: our brain is just two per cent of body mass, but it uses 20 per cent of all the energy our bodies consume. No matter how much or little you’re thinking, it still uses that 20 per cent. It’s like a SETI screensaver that kicks in – just one of Faris’s many geeky jokes peppering his talk. Your brain is constantly building memories, daydreaming and scenario modelling, and planning.

If it didn’t do this we couldn’t conceive of a future. Consequence is possible because of how our brains work. We can only create a future because we can conceive of one. Without a sense of it, our civilisation couldn’t and wouldn’t exist.

It’s not just profound, it’s important. It is able to handle multi-variant futures and allow to imagine them. However, these are tainted by mistrust, so we should think of them in a useful way.

To illustrate this, Faris talked about how we must move beyond these constraints. If we apply Moore’s Law to the internet, we get to the point where it’s shoved into anything and everything. So when you buy milk on the way home, your fridge says stuff like, “People who bought milk also bought…”

Faris would prefer to call it the Thingernet and not the Internet of Things. We are moving from an internet of utterance to one of behaviour. And it’s this that we must design for. What patterns can we see and what do they tell us? He reminded us that the future we imagine determines how we get there. Everyone. Collectively. And that’s why we should think of the people, the humanity. This will make the future a positive experience for all.

So, there you have it. Firestarters. A lot of information that was, on the night, hard to make sense of. A week or so on and it’s not got any easier, but it has opened a great many ideas and thoughts.

The future is what we make it. Let’s design it properly. Let’s not just shove the internet into it.

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