It’s the end of December, which means it’s time for an update. Here at the Imaginaries Lab we’re just completing our second year, currently based within Carnegie Mellon School of Design. We’re a pretty part-time lab at present, but have aims to do much more in the years ahead. We’re using creative approaches to envision alternative ways of thinking and living, now and in the future, to inform interdisciplinary research and practical applications for social and environmental benefit. Our goal is to become a world-leading center for this kind of research, collaborating internationally to support transformative innovation. We carry out research projects, publish and run workshops internationally, teach studio classes, and build collaborations externally and within Carnegie Mellon.
What does the Imaginaries Lab do?
The lab’s basic premise is that how we imagine affects how we understand the world, how we live, and what we see as possible in our collective futures, with consequences for sustainability, society, our relationships with technology, and our everyday lives.
At the Imaginaries Lab we believe that humanity needs tools to enable new ways of understanding and imagining, and new ways to live, that provide more equitable socially and environmentally sustainable futures. We create those tools through developing creative research methods, adapted from those used in design practice, and explore their use in a variety of cross-disciplinary contexts.
⇧ Imaginaries Lab research team, December 2018—upper row left-to-right: Devika Singh, Gray Crawford, Aadya Krishnaprasad, Rachel Gray Alexander; lower row left-to-right: Michelle Chou, Saloni Sabnis, Dan Lockton, Bella
█ Imaginaries, mental models, and mental imagery: using design methods to investigate how people understand abstract or complex concepts (from mental health to energy to metaphor generation to the structure of disciplines themselves), help them understand and imagine in new ways, and imagine new ways of living. This research covers the development of creativity methods, workshop and facilitation methods, and new kinds of interface design (human-computer interaction) and qualitative data visualization.
█ Research through design, and design as inquiry: investigating the use of design practice as a form of research and creative inquiry, including how to teach design studies through critical making, speculative and critical design, and how design methods can contribute to new knowledge generation beyond the design discipline itself.
█ Design for behavior change: exploring the links between designed technology and influence on human behavior, particularly in relation to sustainability and social benefit, and how designers can practically engage with issues of ethics and effects in this area. The Design with Intent toolkit is one of the most highly-cited pieces of work in this field, both academically and through use in design practice, but how is the field evolving in the light of mass surveillance, individual behavioral profiling, and weaponized behavioral economics?
In practice these areas have been woven through projects with a range of themes — new methods for design and creativity, new types of interface, intelligences, and futures.
New methods for design and creativity
Among our projects exploring what we might loosely call ‘new methods for design and creativity’, New Metaphors has seen the most development during 2018, with workshops at Interaction 18 in Lyon, UX Lisbon, Plurality University’s Founders’ Meeting in Paris, a keynote at Interaction Latin America in Rio de Janeiro (Dan Lockton), and numerous sessions at Carnegie Mellon including a workshop for the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship and a dSHARP Digital Humanities talk. A metaphor is just a way of expressing one idea in terms of another, often used in design to introduce people to new ways of doing things, by relating them to familiar ideas, from desktops, files and windows, to the net, web, websites and browsers, cloud storage, even blockchain. Many of these are so familiar now that we perhaps no longer even think of them of as metaphors. But they are not inherently ‘right’; they can be challenged — including creating novel metaphors, which can persuade us to think differently and accept new ideas, or help us reframe the ways we think at present. The New Metaphors workshop format is a simple juxtaposition approach using cards and a variety of structured worksheets — or Devika Singh‘s Inspiro SMS bot — but can generate ideas applicable to a wide range of domains within and beyond design and futures.
⇧ A New Metaphor generator
⇧ Interaction Latin America 2018 keynote, ‘New Metaphors’
In November, Michelle Chou, Saloni Sabnis, Devika Singh and Dan Lockton ran a DIF On Air session for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Disruptive Innovation Festival on ‘New Metaphors for Design, Economies, and the Systems of Everyday Life’ (video below). The team, facilitated by Laura Franco Henao, discussed how — inspired by the metaphor inherent in the circular economy — other kinds of metaphors could help give us an expanded conceptual vocabulary around economies and our relationships with products, reframing them for more sustainable ways of thinking.
⇧ Michelle Chou, Saloni Sabnis, Devika Singh and Dan Lockton, hosted by Laura Franco Henao, for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation DIF 2018
The New Metaphors project offers a form of intentional apophenia — deliberately provoking oneself to see patterns or relationships or parallels where (perhaps) none actually exists but where proceeding as if it does offers us some new way of thinking or interesting angle for seeing the world differently. This has some overlap with the ‘event scores’ of the Fluxus movement, for example the pieces collected in Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit — which led to Dan Lockton taking part in the Disruptive Improvisation workshop at CHI 2018 in Montreal, organized by Kristina Andersen, Laura Devendorf, James Pierce, Daniela Rosner, and Ron Wakkary. The New Metaphors method, introduced via a short paper called ‘Apophenia As Method—Or, Everything Is Either A Metaphor Or An Analogue Computer’ was tried out at the workshop along with a wide range of other generative and experimental techniques, collected in a zine. We intend to develop this direction further in more work, since the potential of ‘apophenia as method’ has interesting implications for the intersection of machine learning and creativity in particular. More on this next year.
⇧ New Metaphors at the CHI 2018 Disruptive Improvisation: Making Use of Non-Deterministic Art Practices in HCI workshop in Montreal
⇧ Left: Sketch Model Summer Workshop at Olin College; Right: The systemic design community explores Ostana, Piedmont
Sarah Foley presented her new method for designers to rethink services and human-technology relations, Service Fictions through Actant Switching, at the Design Research Society’s DRS 2018 conference in Limerick in June. The paper was developed from Sarah’s MDes thesis (advised by Dan Lockton and Cameron Tonkinwise) and offers an approach combining actor-network theory, design fiction, and service design to generate speculative, provocative ideas for the future of services.
⇧ Left: Sarah Foley presents her Service Fictions project at DRS 2018; Right: Drinks in Limerick after the DRS 2018 Designing for Transitions track.
⇧ Electric Acoustic installation, CMU Design Week, spring 2018
New types of interface
A big theme through our work is exploring new kinds of interface design, through various perspectives including a more qualitative approach. One such project this year is Electric Acoustic (Shengzhi Wu, Gray Crawford, Devika Singh, Dan Lockton) which explores data sonification — turning data into sound — as an alternative way to engage with patterns in energy use data. Building on Dan’s previous Powerchord project (developed with Flora Bowden at the RCA), Electric Acoustic is supported by Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts’ Fund for Research and Creativity, using data provided by CMU Facilities Management Services. Following a public engagement workshop at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum in fall 2017 for Pittsburgh Maker Faire, we have built a multi-modal prototype also incorporating cymatics (vibration displays), which we installed in May 2018 during CMU Design Week. Cymatic displays seem to offer some interesting possibilities for more qualitative ways of representing the effects of phenomena and their interactions with each other, and we’re hoping to explore this further in some different contexts.
⇧ Ubiquitous Inclusion, by MacKenzie Cherban
⇧ Silent Scene, by Chang Hee Lee
In general, shifts in sensory experiences for interaction design have been an area of lots of interest for people in our community this year. MacKenzie Cherban‘s MDes thesis, Ubiquitous Inclusion (advised by Dan Lockton) examines the design process and the role of technology in relation to the d/Deaf community, through building on the affordances of sign language (ASL) and participatory futuring, arriving at an ecosystem connecting ‘future artifacts’ developed from participants’ ideas, including a ‘machine learning for personal use’ approach to the smart home (above left), trained using Wekinator. Dr Chang Hee Lee — who passed his PhD at the RCA this October! — (supervised by John Stevens and Dan Lockton) has been investigating synaesthesia and design for the last four years, and as a development from this work created Silent Scene (above right), an exploration of “zero interaction” as a playful mode of experience. In the grand tradition of Claude Shannon / Marvin Minsky’s Ultimate Machine, Silent Scene is “a stationary device that appears to do nothing. However, when there are no humans in its environment — when no sound, motion, or light is detected — it secretly starts to create beams and rays of stunning colors. The device will not function if anyone is near it.” Here’s Chang’s DIS 2018 abstract with Dan Lockton and Ji Eun Kim, and a write-up in Interactions‘ Demo Hour. Dr Lee’s fellow RCA Innovation Design Engineering PhD researcher — and medical practitioner — Dr Dave Pao (also supervised by John Stevens and Dan Lockton) is continuing with his redesign of electronic medical record interfaces for doctors, to use a more visual, qualitative style which enables not just better usability but also higher self-perceived clinician competence.
⇧ Dixon Lo’s ShapeShift demo
⇧ CHI 2018 presentation of Dixon Lo’s Experiential Augmentation project (presented by Dan Lockton)
How can we make use of the affordances of virtual and augmented reality — spatial computing more widely — to create new kinds of interface, with new possibilities for understanding, rather than just adapting existing paradigms? Dixon Lo‘s CHI 2018 paper, based on his MDes thesis Experiential Augmentation (advised by Stacie Rohrbach and Dan Lockton), examined qualitative indexical visualizations for AR building on our learned understanding of physical phenomena in the real world, from shadows to floating, arriving at recommendations for designers working in this space. Dan presented Dixon’s paper (see video). A very different approach is being taken in Gray Crawford‘s thesis project, Assimilating Hyperphysical Affordances (advised by Dan Lockton and Daragh Byrne), in which he is exploring neuroplasticity in relation to “more unorthodox physical phenomena” in VR — can we learn to interact in ways which are very different to the real world? Are there opportunities for new kinds of interfaces?
Working on raymarched hands in VR, seeing how UI might be directly incorporated into / emerge from the body
⇧ A demonstration of one of Gray Crawford’s experiments
Another theme running through our work this year has been around ‘intelligences’ and the questions of other minds (whether human, animal, or artificial). Within Carnegie Mellon, we’re situated in (and saturated with) an environment strongly flavored with AI development — and indeed, increasing consideration of ethics via an initiative funded by K&L Gates — but interaction design’s engagement with the changing intelligences around us has a lot of potential for critical and generative exploration and development.
⇧ Projects on show at Where Are the Humans in AI?, May 2018 — the class show for the Environments Studio ‘Intelligence(s) in Environments’
⇧ Emoto AI Sidekick by Marisa Lu, Gautam Bose and Lucas Ochoa
The Environments Studio projects received a range of guest critique throughout, including a visit from Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tesanovic, and culminated with a three-day show, Where Are The Humans in AI?, in May 2018, following which Cameron Burgess, Emma Brennan, Monica Huang, and Gautam Bose exhibited their projects at Data & Society’s Future Perfect event in New York, organized by Ingrid Burrington.
⇧ Emma Brennan and Cameron Burgess demonstrate their projects at the Data & Society Future Perfect event, New York
Going in depth on a specific dimension of our interaction with other intelligences, Meric Dagli‘s MDes thesis Designing for Trust (advised by Dan Lockton and Daragh Byrne) examined interaction design for trust in the context of multiple chatbots — developing designs guidelines for maintaining and increasing trust in scenarios where multiple virtual e-commerce agents collaborate with each other. Meric won a Kynamatrix Research Network Innovation through Collaboration Grant for his project.
The major question of ‘other minds’ is, of course, how can we ever know how each other thinks? How can we understand other people’s thought processes and emotions, when we have no way of experiencing others’ experiences? In some ways, much of the Lab’s work is about externalizing imaginaries and mental models, or developing tools for imaginaries to be externalized, to enable sharing and discussion. One field where this approach has a particularly practical application is in mental health — using design methods to help people think about and explore creative ways to describe, talk about, and share our own often invisible experiences. According to research compiled by the Wellcome Trust (UK), “one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year”, and “75% of people with a mental health problem develop it before the age of 24”. Sales of books on anxiety are “soaring”. Carnegie Mellon students, in common with many people in high-pressure environments, can experience a broad range of mental health issues.
⇧ Projects from New Ways to Think: Materializing Mental Health
Yet as a society, we don’t always have good ways of talking about mental health. In New Ways To Think: Materializing Mental Health, an eight-week research studio run by the lab, undergraduates, Master’s students, and PhDs from CMU’s School of Design, School of Art, Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Tepper School of Business, and Integrated Innovation Institute explored how we can adapt participatory design and facilitation methods, often used in user experience, service design, and working with communities, to a mental health context. We believe they have the potential to help people capture qualitative dimensions of their experiences, to make them palpable, to enable discussion, reflection, and peer support. Our initial focus has been working within the Carnegie Mellon community, including receiving very valuable input from the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services, but we hope that the methods developed can be of use more widely through further development. Four projects — Lexicon of Feelings (Aisha Dev, Kailin Dong, Katie Glass, Zhiye Jin, Soonho Kwon, and Jessica Nip), Emotional Modeling (Laura Rodriguez, Katie Herzog, Josh LeFevre, Nowell Kahle, and Arden Wolf), Empathy Rock Garden and Personalized Potions (both by Jen Brown, Carlie Guilfoile, Michal Luria, Uluwehi Mills, and Supawat Vitoorakaporn) — each work with different aspects of mental health, from anxiety and stress to loneliness, to enabling feelings that perhaps don’t have a name yet to be expressed and shared. We are currently working on finding ways to publish what we’ve done so far, and take some of this work further.
‘New ways to live’ is a dimension of the Lab’s work that brings together imaginaries of futures and some of the design for behavior change work on which Dan’s research was founded. The basic premise is that if we can develop better ways of helping people imagine themselves living and acting differently then this makes larger-scale behavior and practice changes for sustainability easier to achieve, ultimately, for humanity and for the planet. (We draw here on some of the experiential futures framing developed by our CMU colleague Stuart Candy.) Starting in November 2018, with a short course called New Ways To Live: Future Pittsburgh — and continuing in 2019 with a publication project, lab researchers Rachel Gray Alexander and Saloni Sabnis, with students Aisha Dev, Kailin Dong, Monica Huang, Soonho Kwon, Jessica Nip, Nicole Pinto, Tamara Amin, Jen Brown, Jeffrey Chou, Katie Herzog, Laura Kelly, Michal Luria, Ulu Mills, Laura Rodriguez, Devika Singh, and John Zoppina (undergrads, Master’s, PhDs, and staff, from Design, Environmental Engineering, Psychology, Business, Human-Computer Interaction, Professional Writing, and University Advancement) have been developing projects exploring the Pittsburgh of 2030 — speculative (but well-informed) scenes from possible future everyday life and work in the city, shot through a more realistic lens of the kinds of small businesses and cultural phenomena that are present here rather than the entirely shiny visions of automation that are sometimes proposed. This could be relevant to many rust-belt cities in the US, and former industrial towns elsewhere too. More on this project in due course.
The Imaginaries Lab, represented by Dan Lockton, is excited to be a founding member of Plurality University (U+), a Paris-based global collective “that detects, connects, and federates people or organizations who mobilize the resources of the imaginary to broaden the scope of thinkable futures: activist artists and sci-fi authors, speculative designers, reflexive utopians, creative futures thinkers, engaged researchers, etc”. We’re in some excellent company and looking forward to building on ideas developed at the founders’ meeting in Paris at the end of November.
⇧ Plurality University Founders’ Meeting, New Metaphors workshop
We’re actively seeking collaborations, projects where we can contribute, and opportunities to apply for funding together. We’re also pretty experienced at running workshops, short courses and projects in both commercial and academic contexts. If you’re interested in any of the ideas or methods we’re working on, or think we might be able to work together in 2019, internationally or within the US, please do get in touch. As we look to the future, the Lab is exploring the options for new funding models, host institutions and partners, inside and outside of academia.
Other activities from the Lab in 2018
Finally, we should mention some of the other activities the Lab’s been involved with in 2018. We’ve been pleased to welcome guest speakers for the classes we run, both in-person and virtually, including Simone Rebaudengo, Bruce Sterling, Jasmina Tesanovic, Emily LaRosa, David Danks, Madeleine Elish, Deepa Butoliya, Jill Simpson, Tobias Revell, Cennydd Bowles, Viviana Ferrer-Medina, Cheryl Dahle, and Emily Blaze — thank you all for your time. Dan Lockton and Ahmed Ansari’s MDes Seminar III class have published a great set of articles about the research they’re doing. Dan Lockton has talked about the Lab’s work for TEDx University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Institute (thanks to Brad Myers), IxDA Pittsburgh (thanks to Simon King), CMU’s dSHARP digital humanities group (thanks to Scott Weingart), CMU School of Architecture’s ‘Introduction to Ecological Design & Thinking’ (Dana Cupkova), and for London College of Communication’s MA Communication Design (thanks to Tobias Revell). In terms of professional service, Dan has been an Associate Chair for the CHI 2018 Design subcommittee, an invited discussant at PhD by Design in Limerick, a jury member for the IxDA Interaction Awards 2019, and a guest critic / respondent for CMU School of Architecture’s EX-CHANGE in May 2018. PhD advisees Chang Hee Lee (RCA), Michael Arnold Mages (CMU) and Deepa Butoliya (CMU) have all passed and are embarking on academic careers, at the RCA, Northeastern, and Stamps (University of Michigan) respectively.
We’ve published a bit during the year, mostly at conferences:
Thanks to everyone who’s helped this year, and all the students and participants in our projects and classes, to event organizers who’ve taken us all over the world, to Carnegie Mellon colleagues who’ve understood what we’re trying to do, and to our long-suffering families. Happy New Year to all: 2019 will be better.
Seniors (4th-year undergraduates) in Industrial and Product Design at Carnegie Mellon take three ‘Senior Design Labs’, Wonder Lab, Speak Lab, and Play Lab, each of which aims to help students develop some ‘design agility’. They set out to enable students to integrate and revisit skills they’ve developed through their time at CMU, but applying them in new and different situations. The idea is that this helps graduating students develop a shift in perspective on their own abilities and identities as designers, and gives them confidence to tackle new kinds of problems and challenges in a reflective way, through knowing themselves better.
Play Lab2016 was specifically about exploring ambiguity. Over five weeks, the 33 students worked on the idea of future(s), and designers’ role in both creating (in a sense), and responding to, ideas of possible futures that by definition, don’t exist yet. It’s about developing and being able to show a thought process which is not just about problem-solving, but comfortable with ambiguity, problem-finding, and problem-worrying.
Our starting points for exploration were three quotes: most famously, as phrased by the novelist William Gibson, that “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed” (there are different versions of this quote going back to the early 1990s); Jenny Holzer’s “You live the surprise results of old plans” and “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam”, attributed to Frederik Pohl. The basic idea is powerful from a design point of view: what ‘futures’ do we see emerging right now, what might they grow into, what consequences could they have, and how would designers be involved? What power, or agency, do designers even have here? Through a series of small exercises, students build toward designing and creating ‘pockets of the future’ that can be glimpsed or experienced byÂ others.
By the end of theÂ course:
Comfortable discomfort: you should be comfortable—well, as comfortable as you can be—with applying the design skills you have developed over your time at CMU, to inherently ambiguous questions about theÂ future.
2. Problem-worrying: you should have carried out a project through which you don’t ‘solve’ a problem, but rather, ‘worry’ at the questions involved, creatively exploring possibilities and opportunities through synthesizing your design and research skills, thinking through ‘making’.
3. Reflective designing: you should be confident in using the project to demonstrate your ability to engage creatively to explore ambiguous futures, with a critical eye on your own role as a designer in shaping and responding toÂ trends.
The course overall comprised five exercises, starting with small challenges around observation and speculation, and building to a bigger project in the final two weeks of the five-week session. The classes were a mixture of group discussion, presentations, demonstrations and one-to-one advising in the studio. Students kept a blog as part of the course, which was part of the assessment; these could be made public or kept private depending on students’ preferences. As students come from different design specialisms, it was expected that they will use whatever physical or digital media suit their skills and confidence. The fuzzy edges of ‘the future’ permit a deliberate fuzziness in the resolution of the work: ambiguity was encouraged.
It’s worth noting that Play Lab took place in three groups over the semester, and the details of what we focused on with each group differed slightly as questions and ideas and issues arose. With the final group, the presidential election results occurred on the morning of one of the classes, and provided an emotional and quite difficult atmosphere to our discussions of the future. Questions around filter bubbles, fake news (a form of design fiction, surely), blurred boundaries between truth and falsehood, and changing geopolitics ended up influencing a number of the projects. Oddly, many of the themes from J.G. Ballard’s ‘The Future of the Future’, written for Vogue in 1977, also seemed to recur, unprompted, throughout theÂ class.
While Play Lab 2016 was not explicitly focused on speculative and critical design (Deepa Butoliya’s class gave her students a proper grounding in that), much of what students produced was nevertheless approaching this area. It was, at least, using design to provoke discussion, particularly in relation to the future mundane, as Nick Foster has called it. If the ideas and scenarios the students created ended up telling us more about today’s preoccupations and concerns, from the perspective of North American undergraduate design students, than being politically motivated calls to action, that is little different to the majority of work on design fictions, and no worse for it. As we will see with the projects themselves, the broad themes give us an insight into what worries, inspires, and preoccupies a group of talented designers about to go out into the uncertain world ofÂ 2017.
“the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed”
and thinking about how this idea is manifested in practice. What do we see around us—things, actions, habits—that are potentially ‘from’ a future? What do we perceive to be anachronisms, in ‘both’ directions (past-in-the-present and ‘future’-in-the-present)? What is the ‘texture’ of the present? What things come and go, and what stay? Can we tell which ways of doing things are going to become ‘normal’ or popular, the seeds of possible futures, and which won’t? How does this differ across cultures, across countries, but also within one place? As designers, are our observations and thinking here different compared with what people with different agendas and skills might pay attention to?
We considered how we ‘read’ modern behaviors into images from the past, and how that relates to what we assume, as designers, about the way people ‘will’ use things that we design. Looking around the room for examples, we saw things such as the projector propped up on a diary, a trash can being used to hold the door open and the first aid kit box being used as a noticeboard, all of which are not necessarily what the designers intended, but nevertheless are almost second nature to us. (See Jane Fulton Suri’s Thoughtless Acts, Uta Brandes and Michael Erlhoff’s Non-Intentional Design and Richard Wentworth’s beautiful Making Do and Getting By for much more of this kind ofÂ thing).
“Cars lumbered past like ponderous elephants of rusty steel, not so different from the cars of 30 years ago, and seemed not to belong in the same world as the tattooed kid punching code into his laptopÂ nearby.
Under the spell of this book, I suddenly understood my surroundings not as a discrete contemporary tableau but as a hodgepodge of 1910, 1980, 2011 andÂ 2020.”
We also considered how this kind of ‘hodgepodge’ could mean that, in a sense, we are all living in different worlds, a flaky, uneven present– what is ‘new behavior’ or ‘a new way of doing things’ for one person may be something quite mundane for someone else. (This theme came up later in a number of the projects showing the point of transition from one way of doing things to another—when some people have adopted a new way, and others haven’t.)
We also talked through Voros’s futures cone, as explored by people such as Stuart Candy (see pages 42/43 of the PDF) and Jessica Bland and Stian Westlake (see image)—and featured in Chapter 1 of Dunne & Raby’s Speculative Everything, one of the readings (see below)—and what it might mean for designers plotting a career trajectory. Futures that might once have been merely ‘possible’, such as driverless cars, are rapidly moving right to the center of the ‘probable’ cone, while other futures recede in probability. What happens if you specialize in something that goes nowhere? And yet, as a designer, you are potentially partly responsible for the way in which the future develops. (Sjef van Gaalen has some thoughts about how the cone interacts with Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.) We also looked briefly at the idea of ‘backcasting’ from the right-hand side of the cone to the left (the present), discussed some of the deficiencies of treating the present as a ‘singular’ point, and asked what a cone extending backwards into multiple ‘pasts’ might look like. (Some of my own thoughts about how this potentially relates to Transition Design areÂ here.)
Introducing the first exercise, we thought about how observation, and noticing things around you—objects, behaviors, trends, outliers, social ‘rules’ and norms, and ways of doing things (practices)—can be a valuable habit to get into as a designer, and how using this form of observation to try to see some of the ‘unevenness’ of the present could be a way of uncovering possible ‘micro-futures’ that might be the start of something. This is the idea of ‘weak signals’ as explained by Near Future Laboratory.
Was this man I saw at Helsinki airport in 2008, using a (for the time) startling, apparently enormous 20" HP laptop, with an external hinge, an early adopter of a trend that would soon be ubiquitous? Were we soon going to be seeing people using giant laptops in coffee shops everywhere? Was this a ‘pocket of the future’ in the present? Or was this an aberration? What about devices such as PDAs and personal organizers, which in some way seemed to presage today’s total cellphone saturation, and yet never reached those levels of popularity?
Jan Chipchase’s TED talk from 2007—nine years ago—on The Anthropology of Mobile Phones, describing his research fieldwork for Nokia, provides a fascinating ‘historical’ insight into how possible future(s) for cellphone use and communication practices were explored and envisaged through in-context research in a huge number of countries and cultures, and makes an interesting comparison with what actually happened in the subsequent decade. (Jan’s Future Perfect blog is an incredible chronicle / travelogue, and diving into the archives at any point is well worth it.) Exercises like asking people to empty their bags, to get insights into the minutiae of everyday life, can also be used to explore possible futures—what do you carry around that you expect to be doing so for the foreseeable future? What is temporary? What willÂ change?
We finished the class by looking at a few examples, mostly collected online, of what might seem like ‘odd’ behaviors or outright misunderstandingsÂ , but which nevertheless maybe offer something interesting, the tantalizing seed of a different kind of system, where things work differently. Some involve adaptation, some ‘fighting back’ against a system (like make-up and fashion to prevent facial recognition), some involve people believing that something works in a particular way that it doesn’t really, but maybe itÂ could.
Look around you—on campus, online, anywhere—at the ways people are using things (not just technology, but clothes, fashions, mannerisms even). Notice unusual or intriguing sets of behaviors, and consider whether they could be possible ‘micro-futures’—small trends, kernels of the future in today, or maybe even today in theÂ future.
They might be ways of doing things that seem culturally different, or age-specific. They might be things that just seem strange, or wrong. Or they might take a bit of noticing. Look at other people, but also perhaps yourself—what micro-futures might you be engaged in creating? Are there new habits you’ve developed, or you see yourself developing?
Document them somehow, using photos, video, screenshots, or even just your own notes (it’s not always easy to photograph people doing things!). Ideally, find at least 3 possible micro-futures.
Readings for Exercise 1 (on Box, needs CMUÂ login)
Jillian Nelson: Railings as bike parking, Pocketbra, Phone as mirror, Holding papers inside of laptop, Backs of chairs as coat or bag storage, Roads / sidewalks as a billboard, Using a trashcan as a ladder to climb into window, I used a hammer to open up a beer bottle once, Kenny and the cerealÂ bar
Leah Anton: People who brush their teeth in the shower, People who share their food over the internet, People who ask “How are you?” and meanÂ it
Vicky Hwang: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) Bidets and toilets, Hacking cables to strengthen them, Ways to open beer bottles, Skipping songs, Digital and seniority
Jackie Kang: How-to videos, Social media/reality stars,Â Google
Brian Yang: Public transport in Asia, Toothpaste maximizer, Velcro spice rack, FoodÂ caddy
Catherine Zheng: Prescriptive lifestyles, Distracted walking and waiting, Cosmetic augmentation
Lea Cody: Status update, Health tracking, The AmericanÂ Death
Linna Griffin: Augmenting nature through tech, Citizen journalism, Temporary beauty technology
Gabriel Mitchell: What will augmented reality actually be like?, What will bots actually be like?, How much information is tooÂ much?
Temple Rea: VR Experiences, Transcranial direct stimulation, Facial Action Coding System, Inherent vs explicit form, Tools for creators, The relationship between technology and ourÂ feelings
Zai Aliyu: Emotions and intelligence in technology, Civil inattention, Ephemerality, Impression management
Kate Apostolou: The political reality show, Emotional expression through technology, Technology’s effect on spatialÂ thinking
Kaleb Crawford: Live-streaming, live-chatting, and and the meta-memetic zeitgeist, A/B Testing, Rhetoric Analysis, Context Collapse, Self-Identity through Non-Identity: Social media presence for a post-ironic generation
Ruby He: Banter with robots, Packaged empathy, MomentsÂ relived
Alisa Le: Gender identity and gender expression, Sharing economy, Automating decisions and simplifying dailyÂ routine
Julia Wong: Flexible and mobile environments, Grunge, “nostalgia” and celebration of the “retro” / less perfect and “genuine”, ExtendedÂ self
Jeff Houng: Tattoos and Body Self Expression, Biometric Data or Authentication, The Pursuit of Hyper-Efficient Wellness
We looked at these not so much as theories that need to be understood, but as examples of formal corporate / business attempts to ‘deal with’ ambiguity in futures and understand how ideas and practices spread.
‘A good science fiction story should be able to predict not [just] the automobile but the traffic jam’: Attributed to FrederikÂ Pohl
The distinction between side-effects and side-shows is somewhat blurred, but we might consider side-effects (in relation to cars) to include, as in the Frederik Pohl quote, immediate effects such as traffic jams and accidentsÂ , but also, potentially, longer-term effects such as obesity, changes in city planning, and, potentially—via lead—violent crime. And of course wars driven, in some part, by the quest forÂ oil.
It’s also important to remember what might be seen as positive side-effects: widening access to travel has enabled huge changes in mobility, working possibilities (including jobs for designers!), economic development, meeting new people, cross-fertilization of cultures, and so on. And, as Robert K. Merton pointed out, even if certain effects were not specifically desired by people who planned the system, they may well be desirable for someÂ people:
Side-shows are the parallel-but-related developments. In relation to the car, that might mean the development of gas stations, roadside diners, car culture and everything that goes with it—which all involve design to a greater or lesser extent. They might also include frictions and counter-movements: people opting out, or being forced out, of the new norm, or finding ways to subvert it (as in Superflux’s ‘Uninvited Guests’).
The line is blurred between side-shows and side effects, hence considering them together. There are many levels of abstraction at which systems can change, and the boundaries of how we frame our analysis are necessarily somewhat arbitrary. A version of Jerome Glenn’s Futures Wheel featured in Extrapolation Factory’s Operator’s Manual was a useful tool for thinking through side-effects and side-shows, or secondary and tertiary consequences—and some students managed to apply this very effectively to the micro-futures they had identified in ExerciseÂ 1.
Pick one of the possible micro-futures you explored in Exercise 1 (or swap with someone else’s) and explore/study it further as a concept or phenomenon. (If you don’t like it, find another.)
How does it fit with the ‘ecosystem’ of people’s lives now? How could it fit in the future? How would it change dailyÂ life?
Using what you know as a designer, about both design trends and human behavior, can you extrapolate a few years into the future to create a short scenario for how things might be? (Remember, there are, of course, no ‘wrong’ predictions here, since we don’t know what we don’t knowÂ yet.)
Think through the side-effects and side-shows that might exist in this world, and the role of the designer:
Side-effects: What consequences (potentially unanticipated—except by you!) might there be, from the new thing or way of acting? What effects could it have on society more widely? Will some people ‘opt out’ of it? Will some people rebel against it? Are there technological or environmental ‘limits’ we mightÂ reach?
Side-shows: What other things are going on in this world? What parallel developments, related or unrelated, go along with the phenomenon you’re examining? What are the big issues in this world, the areas of publicÂ debate?
Role of the designer: What might the briefs be for designers, in this world? What skills are in demand? How does society treat designers? How do designers treat society? Are designers mainly dealing with side-effects?
Explore these ideas visually and in text, and document them on your blog. Visually, you could sketch, take photos, collect images from elsewhere and annotate them or modify them—anything you need to do to tell your story and explain your thinking to others. In text, there’s no need for a long essay, but aim for a few hundred words. Be prepared to present what you’veÂ done.
Some questions to helpÂ you
These are a few (optional!) questions and things to look up which might be relevant, depending on how ‘big’ the idea is that you’re workingÂ on.
Questions about ethics —Look up Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’. What would happen if this new behavior, object, etc, became universal, i.e. if everyone acted or were influenced in this way? Would you envisage that that this ‘should become a universal law’? If not, why not? – Look up Rawls’s ‘Veil of Ignorance’. What are you, as a designer, assuming your status would be in the world you envision? Would you support the idea if you didn’t know what place you would have in the scenario, what background you would have, and whether you were on the ‘receiving end’?
Questions about sustainability If you are thinking about ‘sustainability’, what definition are you using, tacitly or explicitly? Where is the boundary drawn between humans and nature? Is your treatment of sustainability primarily ecological, or does it include a social component?
Questions about power Would this world involve one group of people having power or advantage over others? Would it create new power structures in society, or reinforce existing power structures? Or could it break down existing structures, and give different people agency to change the system?
These questions are based on some in a forthcoming book chapter by myself and Veronica Ranner: Lockton, D. & Ranner, V. (2017). ‘Plans and speculated actions: Design, behaviour and complexity in sustainable futures’. In: J. Chapman (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Product Design, Routledge, London.
Zai Aliyu: How might emotional intelligence in technology help us better express ourselves to others, empathize with others, or improve day-to-day interactions? In this faster moving world, how might the integration of ephemerality into our day-to-day lives change the way we interact, share, and connect with others, as well as our perception of identity?
Kate Apostolou: What is the future of spatial thinking in a world where people depend entirely on technology (smartphones and self-driving cars) to getÂ around?
Kaleb Crawford: What does a future look like where online content and copywriting is algorithm driven, not personally authored?
Ruby He: A New Age of Communication: Conversations withÂ Machines
Throughout the class, we looked at a variety of examples of design fiction, speculative design and other forms of making futures (and alternative pasts and presents) experiential—or at least tangible—through design. We explored the notion of diegetic prototypes and design fictions as detailed by David Kirby, Bruce Sterling and Julian Bleecker, and the influence of Hollywood, and popular visions of ‘the future’, including the very current Black Mirror, on how we as designers imagine what might exist, and what might be designed to bring that ‘alive’ to an audience. A major part of bringing the futures alive was finding ways to incorporate some of the side effects and side-shows uncovered in Exercise 2, either directly as part of a story, or through developing a scenario in which some designed product or service responded to those side-effects.
The aim of looking at existing examples was partly to consider the speculated futures themselves, but also to evaluate and critique the designed forms in which those ideas were presented, and relate them to the skills and ambitions the students have, and what might be achievable to create within a short period. So, from newspapers to photoshoots, websites to day-in-the-life videos, comics to service blueprints, renderings to prank product packaging, we examined these forms as potential models and inspirations, for their effectiveness and limitations.
It is important to remember: these were going to be undergraduate student projects, to end up in portfolios, be seen by potential employers and be shown in the end-of-semester exhibition—they needed to be comprehensible to an audience without extensive introduction or background-setting, and, while they could be amusing or serious, they needed to demonstrate the skills the students wanted to exhibit. Telling a story somehow, through either acting a scenario or showing us artefacts from that scenario (or both), seemed to be a good way of doing this, and we looked at some basic story forms via TV Tropes, Kurt Vonnegut andÂ Plotto.
One novel, contemporary form which emerged was the creation of digital ‘meta-artefacts’: not just webpages, but search engine results pages, reviews, forums, subreddits and even Wikpedia articles as design fictions, particularly to show the side-effects or side-shows, or other consequences of the main idea. Starting with Lauren Zemering, who saw the value of technology blogs and reviews as a potential way to highlight side-effects, students explored a range of media and platforms. I have no doubt that some of these have been done before in design fiction contexts, but the Play Lab students certainly took them in some interesting directions:
But this is getting ahead of ourselves somewhat. Exercise 3 was intended to help students start to world-build, to create a scenario in which the trend they identified in Exercise 1, and the side-effects and side-shows explored in Exercise 2, started to come together, as a way of providing a structure for Exercise 4 where the ‘future’ would be made. In some cases students pivoted from, or evolved significantly, the ideas they had initially been exploring, to produce a story which better fitted what they were interested in.
Create a scenario around the future(s) world(s) that you’re gradually exploring. What is a ‘realistic’ (maybe) everyday (maybe) situation that might exist in this world? What are the behaviors? What are the ambiguities? What is expected vs uncertain? Try to preserve some ambiguity: do you understand everything about the world around you now? Would you expect to do so in theÂ future?
Build a story around your scenario—bearing in mind that in Exercise 4, you will be ‘making’ parts of it, so if particular objects or settings are going to be important in the story, think about how you might do this. If you need to do so, work in pairs or groups of 3 to plan how to act each person’s story out (you’ll need one story one per person in the end—so split your time accordingly). Don’t script everything in detail, but work out some possible roles for different people and the general outline of aÂ story.
The ‘deliverable’ is: – notes on the scenario / story and people’s behaviors (on your blog) – notes on what objects or situations you might need to ‘make’ later (on your blog) – a brief run-through in class of the outline of your story (not a full-on dramatic production)
Ruby He: Scenario development around Conversations withÂ Machines
Alisa Le: Scenario development around Raising the Gender-Neutral Generation
Julia Wong: (1, 2) Scenario development around traveling in theÂ future
Jeff Houng: Scenario development around Hyper-personalization leading to experiential echo-chambers
Exercise 4 and 5: Make an experiential ‘pocket’ of a future; reflect, critique andÂ document
The final segment of the class, approximately the last 2Â½ weeks, was spent as studio sessions where students developed and implemented their scenarios from Exercise 3 in an experiential, or at least presentable, form, with regular desk crits and discussion with each other. The third group of students did this alongside preparing Focus, their senior design exhibition, but some students from this group nevertheless managed to get their Play Lab projects done in time to have onÂ show.
As well as continuing to look at examples of design fictions of different forms, we also did a group exercise to generate taglines and project titles for each other’s projects (based around the notion that if someone else can explain your project back to you, they probably understand it). After looking at some famous movie taglines and the ways in which they perhaps hint at the story but did not give it away, we also examined the phenomenon of the one-line elevator pitch, which often references other, existing products or services.
It’s clear that while these will often relate to very specific, current contexts, there are some structures which could almost be used generatively for creating (and explaining) speculative concepts, e.g. “Facebook for the dead” or “LinkedIn on steroids” in Chris Eleftheriadis’s list. In the event, the Play Lab students variously found these approaches useful or not, with a few usable taglines and project names being generated: Courtney Pozzi’s “First we cured cancer, now let’s cure ugly”, Hannah Salinas’s “Watch the world go by” and and Lea Cody’s notion of a “hangover for your whole life” being particularly memorable.
Create a way for an audience to ‘experience’ the future you are exploring, through bringing your story /scenario to life somehow in a form which can be presented. This could involve objects / artifacts, a website, illustrations, a video or a performance which you or others ‘act’ out, or maybe something that the audience can interact with. The aim is that an audience is able to get slightly more than a glimpse of this future, but also some of the frictions, ambiguities, tensions and uncertainties in it—what are the side-effects, the side-shows, theÂ issues?
The deliverable for this is a 5 minute maximum presentation (+3 mins of questions) of your ‘pocket of a future’ (this might be the wrongÂ term!).
Reflect, critique andÂ document
On your blog, write a short (500—800 word) reflection on the role of designers in this possible future. Has it come about through design, or through external factors? Are designers in this world acting within the story or scenario, or acting to oppose it? What could a common brief be for a designer (or design student) in thisÂ world?
Also, reflect on your speculation itself: is this a future you want to be part of creating? If so, how do you get there? If not, what do designers need to do now to prevent it? Make sure that your blog overall documents your process throughout Play Lab, including the development of ideas through Exercises 1, 2, 3 andÂ 4.
All the projects are featured at cmuplaylab.com, but it’s worth some discussion here of the trends that were apparent, and the variety of ways in which students tackled the issues they worked on. Over the course of the three groups, some larger themes emerged, which I attempt to summarize here. The preoccupations of imagined futures inevitably represent reflections on many of the issues of concern in the present, and perhaps tell us more about ourselves right now than we might first appreciate.
Many students were interested in ideas of the evolution of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, the usage of our data, and ‘intelligent’ devices more generally (see below). But two projects in particular explored the everyday environment of the ‘smart’ home and what it might be like to live in a context where our devices talk to us, day andÂ night.
Outside the home, four projects looked at what we might think of as futures of place, at different scales. Via a passport, travel guide and a Wikipedia page, Julia Wong’s Ab Ovo (1, 2, 3, 4) examines this globally, “extreme globalization leading up to the designation of permanent and mobile zones in cities and eventually the formation of a new culture and nation… due to the transition of economic needs and ultimately a progression of human values on a globalÂ scale.”
Brian Yang’s Big City X Tiny Home imagines a future where tiny homes become increasingly the default for city living as population rises. Through a property website and a clever fold-out IKEA advertising flyer, Brian explores how renters might find the homes, and what might be important to them (how to choose furniture, which amenities are shared, and soÂ on).
Albert Topdjian’s Green Space Initiative (e.g. 1, 2, 3) is an intriguing experiment in actually making the imagined future experiential in the present. The project envisioned a situation “where the density of city populations increases, and the available green spaces diminish, citizens can retreat into their personal/public indoor green rooms. There, one can relax, reflect, and socialize like it was in the good ol’ days of public parks, and green lawns.” Albert brought this to life by installing a patch of artificial grass in Carnegie Mellon’s University Center, branded #gspitt, and seeing how students used it. In documenting this via a Tumblr, he also fused this ‘feed from the future’ with contemporary tweets about green space fromÂ others.
The mainstreaming of forms of augmented reality in 2016 was reflected in two projects looking at how its evolution might affect our everyday interactions with the world and each other, particularly the notion of its enabling of / convergence with filter bubble-type phenomena.
Rae Headrick imagines the 2063 Channel Expo, an event unveiling hundreds of channels of augmented reality which people can choose to tune into for the next three years—“your chance to discover new realities and transform your life in one flip (in the Tuning Ceremony).”
Perhaps representing a closer future, Linna Griffin’s Update is a comic exploring the issues around a teenager making the decision to have the surgery needed for an AR implant—the peer pressure, the societal norms, differences in access between wealthier and poorer families, and the history of AR evolution as taught in schools. Linna reflects on these ideas here. With other students playing different roles, Linna’s live-reading of the comic in the final Play Lab presentations was a dramatic and effective way to bring the ideas and issues toÂ life.
The future of theÂ self
How will we present ourselves to others in the future? How will we curate and re-create the ways in which others see us? Three projects examined this from different perspectives.
Zai Aliyu’s Identity Curation explores two alternatives with opposite extremes of people’s investment in curation of their identity online at levels from the individual to the communal: “In one future, identity curation is made harder through ephemerality. What if all forms of media or posted content are temporal and they have an expiry date? In the other future, identity curation is made easier through impression management. What if we can cure this sense of disconnection that results from identity curation?”. In contrast, Leah Anton’s Transpersona imagined a service which enables people to adopt ‘personas’, to “break down cultural barriers by giving users the ability to behave as if they are from another background”, particularly “to perform appropriately in professional situations such as interviews and presentations”.
Alisa Le’s Beyond the Binary looked at the future of gender expression—“how different the world would be if from the beginning humans were not raised based on these stereotypes and “norms””, via “an imaginary gift set a new parent might receive during a baby shower or a similar celebration”. Alisa also explored more questions around design’s role in perceptions and reinforcement of gender norms inÂ society.
Dealing withÂ death
Evolution in the way we deal with death is the focus of projects by Vivian Qiu and RachelÂ Chang.
Vivian’s ASHES. is a “high brow magazine for the future elite to plan their own funeral”, imagining a world where “dying becomes a claim to individuality or a exposition of values” through articles such as ‘Curate Your Digital Legacy’ with North West, and ‘5 Mournists You Should Know’ covering ‘notable designers in the field’. Rachel’s Orpheus explores how “as a way of memorializing dead loved ones, bots built from the immense digital trail individuals leave behind become common. Preparing the bot is just another step of estate planning.” The Orpheus prototype concentrates on the touchpoints of the service, while Rachel’s reflection examines some deeper questions around artificial intelligence, design, andÂ death.
The body asÂ site
The relationship between our bodies and technological advances was a theme running through a number of projects, but three in particular explored this in moreÂ depth.
Courtney Pozzi’s Cosmetic Genetics examines the development and mainstreaming of gene therapy and genetic engineering via a projected timeline and scenes from that timeline, with newspaper and magazine headlines and covers. Building on the pattern seen in reconstructive surgery and popularized drugs, the project explores the “idea of a tipping point, or the when, what, and whys behind how an idea detrimentally splits between its utopia and dystopia, and how both of these worlds may coexist within a singular future.” Courtney explores these questions further in her reflection in relation to speculative design and ambiguity.
Brandon Kirkley created a story taking place in a future where “FashionTech—fashion with wearable technology that showcases one’s emotions—becomes popular”. Dealing with social interactions emerging from the visible display of emotions, and the consequences, the video “explores an everyday situation in which someone denies how they are feeling—despite what their clothes say.” Brandon also reflects on the role of the designer in relation to emotion, and the idea of such an approach making communications between humansÂ easier.
Voices in theÂ head
The idea of voice interfaces, and more specifically, invisible voice technology audible only to the user, is explored, in different ways, in two projects. Ruby He’s Visual Aids in an Audio World imagines the (AR) iconography needed to accompany conversations with each other in a world “when information and interactions are almost entirely in our ears, it will be much easier for people engage in audio realms different from their immediate surroundings by playing music, listening to podcasts, etc without others even knowing.”
Going perhaps one step further, Zac Mau’s Future of iOS brings to life the idea that “within 50 years we will stop using phones to natively access the Cloud and digital service platforms including Facebook, Maps and Uber, and instead stream all of our digital content directly through our brains. This would result in a thought-based interface that we mentally interacted with, rather than physically”. Zac illustrates this very effectively through “a day-in-the-life kind of video, that briefly takes the audience through this future where speaking to an OS in your head is already theÂ norm”.
Changing relationships withÂ language
How will changes in technology affect how we talk to each other? Two projects took this question in different directions. Kaleb Crawford’s Marko V examines ‘contextual computation co-authorship’ via “a speculative fiction that explores future social media interactions at the intersection of conversational interfaces, automated text generation, and post-context-collapse. Told through four audio-vignettes, the story explores how Adrian’s use of a conversational writing assistant, Marko, amplify tensions in his social relationships with a loved one, his ego, and his friends.”
Jiyoung Ahn’s Trilingo, in contrast, imagines the evolution of a new language, CCE, which fuses vocabulary elements of Chinese and English with the formal structures of computer programming languages, to enable easier human-machine communication. The idea is that children are learning this at school, and the need exists for older generations, particularly grandparents, to learn CCE as a second language. Trilingo is an educational language learning platform aiming to bridge thisÂ gap.
Memory andÂ privacy
Questions around the use of data, and questions of memory and privacy, ran through three quite different projects. Kaitlin Wilkinson’s The Private Life considers a future world where privacy has been effectively abandoned—“People have become accustomed to having personal data tracked and shared at all times. This data ranges from things about health, fitness, eating habits, social habits, experiences, etc. The idea of personal information is not understood.” Kaitlin envisions a museum exhibit on personal documentation such as letters and private photos, things which “no longer play a role in the life of the average person”, complete with almost incredulous copy explaining to the public the “primitive act of personal documentation” and the “unfathomable” ways in which people “tried to hide aspects of their lives from publicÂ view”.
Jillian Nelson’s Lifeed extrapolates from ideas of lifelogging and sousveillance to imagine a service which “creates a catalogue of everything you see and experience in order to use it as a way to document your life story for yourself, your descendants, and for those seeking to learn about the past in the far future.” Lifeed would enable reflection and change our relationship with memory, and primarily be for people themselves rather than for sharing on social media; Jillian discusses the ideas here, including the possibility of creating ‘life documentaries’ in theÂ present.
We saw projects earlier dealing with wider contexts of ‘smart’ homes, but two projects focused on specific product-service systems within the field. Lauren Zemering’s Hygienie is a “line of bathroom devices [that] allow users to monitor and track their shower, teeth brushing, and toilet habits. The devices not only monitor and track them, but are also able to provide feedback that can help improve a person’s health and hygiene. AND they can be awarded points and compete with their peers!” The site presents the system from the manufacturer’s point of view (including a revealing FAQ), but also shows some of the wider side-effects of the data’s use via a Google search page. Lauren reflects on these ideasÂ here.
Justin Finkenaur’s Intelligent Furnishings explored the development of ‘smart’ furniture which, in response to sedentary lifestyles, involves ‘automating’ furniture so it adjusts itself to the ergonomic needs of individual people. The proposed service was explored through service blueprints, experience maps and a storyboard.
When the millennials age
Two projects, from Vicky Hwang and Daniel Kison, deal with questions of what happens as the millennial generation ages. Vicky (forum text and a discussion of the video) imagines a disorienting experience via a forum where the ageing millennials ask for help with the ‘New Web’. Daniel takes as his starting point the current notion that “Millennials are killing everything” and imagines what vanished activities the post-millennial generations might want to ‘live’ for the first time,through a store display of virtual experiences.
Our relationship with celebrity, and how it might change, was the subject of projects by Praewa Suntiasvaraporn and Hannah Salinas. Hannah’s Watch The World Go By tells the story of Alexa, a vlogger, and Vicky, a ‘watcher’, who spends her day watching Alexa via screens everywhere at home and at work. The video explores the effects this has on the lives of Vicky and her friends. Hannah’s blog post shows the significant amount of work required to produce theÂ video.
Consumer Culture, by Praewa Suntiasvaraporn, explores food celebrity, an evolution of current trends such as mok-bang and the food porn of Instagram. Praewa created a world around this, including personal artefacts from the life of food celebrity Mikah Wong, exposed through hidden cameras placed by an infatuated fan. The project examines how lifestyle eating, food presentation and photography become so significant that they dominate popularÂ culture.
The medicalization of everything
Three projects examined, in very different ways, the potential evolution of the current trend towards the ‘medicalization’ of human conditions and problems, perhaps a form of solutionism. Catherine Zheng’s Prescriptive Lifestyles is a range of medications, branded stasis: perfect state, which each target common emotions and situations such as ‘timidity’, ‘focal deficiency’ and ‘sluggishness’. In Catherine’s reflection, she notes how “No longer are people able to simply be themselves, as there is always a way to “become better”, whether that means acting, looking, thinking, or feeling the “acceptable” way.”
Jonathan Kim’s NowFood.Inc envisioned a range of ‘medicalized’ food products and consumption-related drugs such as Muse, a treatment which reduces the immediate side-effects ofÂ smoking.
Finally, Lea Cody’s Physio is an exploration of the evolution of the fitness tracker, going beyond quantified self into the realm of actually changing behavior through operant conditioning—a “health improvement system”: “After receiving a Hormonal Adjustment Implant, the user will obtain a prescription for Physio, the external tracker. Physio will reward ‘good’ behavior like exercise with accelerated effects of increased agility, decreased anxiety, and euphoria. It will punish ‘bad’ behavior like poor diet, smoking, and lethargy with decreased agility, irritability, and depression.” Lea’s project provides an interesting example for the possibility space in design for behavior change around health, and I think could serve as a useful touchstone for this particular approach.
In her reflection, Lea suggests something which perhaps offers a succinct summary of the feelings many (not all) of the Play Lab students had about the ideas they explored:
“I believe that the role of the designer in this scenario, as in it seems all current scenarios, is to rein in the possibilities of technology to ensure a human-centered, benevolent focus.”
This is the first class I have taught at Carnegie Mellon, and I was not sure what to expect. But the students have, very pleasantly, allayed any trepidation I had: they have been enthusiastic, insightful, critical and creative, and have worked very hard in short periods of time to produce the work you’ve seen on this page. I am proud of them for what they have achieved, given some very vagueÂ briefs.
What is the value of this class? I feel that being able to explore, and make ‘real’, different visions of possible futures is an important part of ‘designing agency’ and indeed Transition Design, but most importantly, to be able to think through, manage and cope with uncertainties, ambiguities and potential side-effects in a design process. If, as outlined in the introduction, Play Lab can help undergraduate design students “develop a shift in perspective on their own abilities and identities as designers”, “give them confidence to tackle new kinds of problems and challenges in a reflective way”, and help them “developing… a thought process which is not just about problem-solving, but comfortable with ambiguity, problem-finding, and problem-worrying”, then it will have succeeded. Maybe I am just teaching the class I wish I had had as an undergraduate design student, and am lucky enough to be working somewhere that gives me the freedom to doÂ that.
The ‘critical’ in the Play Lab projects is, largely, not too critical, but it is certainly demonstrative of a curious and enquiring mindset, and, with at least a few of these projects, I think there are hints of comfort with ambiguity and contrast and the good and bad all at once, the “complicated pleasures” that Dunne and Raby speak of. Dave Wolfenden, a DDes candidate at Carnegie Mellon, is researching the notion of negative capability, a term coined by the poet John Keats to describe the state of someone “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”, and after hearing Dave speak about his research, I realize that perhaps this is what Play Lab aimedÂ for.
The future will be at least as complex as the present, and the projects resulting from Play Lab show a recognition of that. The design fictions the students have created are, no doubt, very much rooted in the concerns they have about the world they are growing up in, and the world into which they are about to head out once they graduate (yes, in the eyes of many of the critics of speculative and critical design, most of these projects would probably, rightly, be categorized as arising from a privileged group of students with a particular mindset, and dealing primarily with people like them, but going beyond that was not the point of theÂ class).
As Christopher Beanland phrases it (in an article on an abandoned British maglev train project, a kind of Brummie Aramis): “When you get to a certain age you realise how much more visions of the future say about the present they’re concocted in than the actual future they purport to show us hurtling towards”. Maybe what the Play Lab students have created, to draw on StanisÅ‚aw Lem, is not a collection of futures, but a set of mirrors for theÂ present.
Thank you to the students, first of all, for their enthusiasm and for giving me a wonderful welcome to CMU: Jiyoung Ahn, Rachel Chang, Rae Headrick, Jonathan Kim, Brandon Kirkley, Courtney Pozzi, Vivian Qiu, Diana Sun, Albert Topdjian, Kaitlin Wilkinson, Lauren Zemering, Leah Anton, Justin Finkenaur, Vicky Hwang, Jackie Kang, Daniel Kison, Zac Mau, Jillian Nelson, Hannah Salinas, Praewa Suntiasvaraporn, Brian Yang, Catherine Zheng, Zai Aliyu, Kate Apostolou, Lea Cody, Kaleb Crawford, Linna Griffin, Ruby He, Jeffrey Houng, Alisa Le, Gabriel Mitchell, Temple Rea, and Julia Wong; thanks too to my fellow senior design labs leaders Mark Baskinger and Michael Arnold Mages for co-ordinating and helping me get started; to Peter Scupelli for the very useful insights into previous senior design labs; to Bruce Hanington for the guest lecture for group 2; to Harriet Riley for making shah biscuits and bringing Marks & Spencer tea back from Britain for the class; to Veronica Ranner and Ahmed Ansari for lots of chats about ideas; and to Molly Wright Steenson, Stella Boess, Deepa Butoliya, Dimeji Onafuwa, Theora Kvitka, Terry Irwin, Dan Boyarski, Shruti Aditya Chowdhury, Tammar Zea-Wolfson, Robert Managad and Matthew McGehee and anyone else I have missed, who came to visit the groups’ presentations and asked some very good questions.
Thanks everyone who’s helped and been supportive in 2015. It’s been a busy year and I barely stopped to think about a lot of very important things, but spent too long thinking about other things which in retrospect probably aren’t so important. I’m sure that’s normal.
In February, I’m off to Mexico City as the RCA lead, working with Laura Ferrarello, for a collaborative Mexico—UK project with Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Superflux, Future Cities Catapult and UNAM. Supported by the British Council’s Newton Fund, we’ll be looking at aspects of how to make policy visible, tangible and interactable-with (agency?), in the city environment, transposing ideas between Mexico City and London and vice versa. Thank you to Dan Hill, Claire Mookerjee, Gabriella GÃ³mez-Mont, and everyone else involved in setting this up.
From 27—30 June, DRS2016 in Brighton, the Design Research Society conference, is shaping up into an interesting and diverse programme of perspectives on design, research and society. I’m conference experience chair, along with Veronica Ranner, and we’ll be trying to help curate a good experience for everyone taking part. Some thoughts here on how you can help.
The biggest event in 2016, scheduled for the autumn, will be O’Reilly’s publication of my Design with Intent book – see below for some more details.
Living Labs, a book arising from the SusLabNWE project, for which I am an editor along with David Keyson and Olivia Guerra Santin from TU Delft, will be published by Springer
‘Taking the Code for a Walk’, written by Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and myself for Elisa Giaccardi’s ‘Connected Everyday’ forum in ACM Interactions will be published. This is a brief but exciting article detailing some of the research Delfina has done for her PhD around human interaction with the algorithmic systems of the ‘smart’ home, taking a second-order cybernetic perspective.
‘Plans and Speculated Actions’, a chapter that Veronica Ranner and I have written for Jonathan Chapman’s Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Product Design, should be published (though I see as I write this that the intended publication date is actually 2017). We’re exploring what happens when design for behaviour change and speculative design collide, with a sustainability focus.
At the RCA, Research Culture Action will continue in 2016, a series of informal lunchtime talks bringing together research students and staff from across the College. Our first ‘prototype’ event, in October, featured Daisy Ginsberg, Grit Hartung and Sarah Teasley, and I’m hoping we can have them every couple of months.
In career, personal development, and work-life balance terms, 2016 needs to be very different to 2015. I won’t go into it here, but I have come to the conclusion that I need to heed Mary Dankoski‘s advice outlined here by Kate Clancy:
Dr. Dankoski asked us if we were the type of academic who lived by Plan A: did what we were asked to do and hoped we would have a rewarding fulfilling career while also meeting the promotion and tenure expectations, or Plan B: were proactive, developed a plan and negotiated responsibilities to be sure we will have vitality, find real meaning in our work, and meet promotion expectations.
You can probably guess which type most of us were, and which type Dankoski encouraged us to become. The Plan A academic says yes to most things because she is directionless and is trying to meet expectations, whereas the Plan B academic uses her personal values and interests to define and express her scholarly worth.
I have been trying to follow Plan A for the past few years, because I thought it would lead somewhere, but my resolution for 2016 is Plan B, or something better. And the main part of that is making things. I used to do it, and have done it a bit with things like Powerchord in recent years, but nowhere near to the extent I would like to. Writing papers, and book chapters, and reports that no-one will read, has squeezed out something that I really enjoyed. I need to get back to it, and find a way to make an academic career work that isn’t primarily about being seen to produce outputs, but actually to do things (and have the freedom to think about them too).
2015 certainly involved doing a lot, even if I didn’t make much. It’s strange how in an everyday life so flooded by information and essential updates from everything from household objects to people whom I vaguely remember who added me on LinkedIn, I still forget a lot of what I was doing only a few months ago. Updating my CV recently, I suddenly remembered an entire industry collaboration project I did in summer 2013, with meetings, and diagrams, and presentations and everything, that had completely slipped my mind. So, because I know that I’ll forget them if I don’t record them, below, here’s some of what happened in 2015:
10 years of this blog
The anniversary slipped by unrecorded here, but it was back in November 2005 that I first started this blog, then called Architectures of Control in Design. It changed my life: it led to changing career, doing a PhD, meeting people from all over the world. Still on the same WordPress installation, with layers of tinkering and lots of things that no longer work, the blog probably deserves a bit of attention for its 11th year.
Design with Intent book
In August I signed a contract with O’Reilly to publish a Design with Intent book, which aims to give practitioners a more nuanced approach to design and behaviour, working with people, people’s understanding, and the complexities of everyday human experience. It will build on the toolkit, and my PhD, but also what I’ve learned over the last few years on practical research projects, with people in real contexts, around people’s understanding of, and interaction with, technology and designed systems.
It’s taking longer to write than I had hoped, not due to the content as much as the difficulty of arranging uninterrupted periods of time to concentrate on writing it. That’s certainly not a problem unique to me, but it gives me new (extra) respect for people who manage to write these kinds of books alongside busy jobs, looking after children, and everything else. Publication date should be Autumn 2016: see the website for updates.
Drawing Energy book published
Drawing Energy was published in July by the RCA. Written by Flora Bowden, together with myself, Rama Gheerawo and Clare Brass, and designed by Hannah Montague, the book explores public perceptions of energy, through a drawing project Flora and I ran, in which more than 180 people illustrated their thoughts and reactions to the question ‘What does energy look like?’, as part of the Interreg IVB-funded SusLabNWE project.
Left: Relational Materials workshop, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar; Right: Cultural probes around repair, NazlÄ± GÃ¶kÃ§e TerzioÄŸlu
This year I have been a visiting (i.e. entirely uncontracted adjunct) research tutor for Innovation Design Engineering at the RCA, working mainly with a wonderful group of research students, including five whom I’m supervising:
Delfina Fantini van Ditmar (2012—2016), ‘The Internet of Dwelling’ (second-order cybernetics and human interaction with IoT and ‘smart’ homes–image above). Supervised with Professor Ashley Hall, RCA Innovation Design Engineering and Dr Paul Pangaro, College for Creative Studies, Detroit
Dr Dave Pao (MBBS, MRCP, MD) (2013—present), ‘Design as the 3rd voice in the clinician-patient conversation’ (new interfaces for facilitating conversations in sexual health contexts). Supervised with Dr John Stevens, RCA Global Innovation Design
NazlÄ± GÃ¶kÃ§e TerzioÄŸlu (2013—present), ‘Exploring the Means of Creating New Relationships between Users and Products Through Repair’–image above. Supervised with Clare Brass, SustainRCA
Hugo Glover (2013—present), ‘Stereoscopic Spatiality: A Practice-based Investigation into the Use of Stereoscopic 3Dâ€Depth Technologies in Physical and Digital Space’. Supervised with Neil Barron, RCA Innovation Design Engineering
Chang Hee Lee (2014—present), ‘Synaesthesia Materialisation: Synaesthetic Inputs within the Product Design Industry’. Supervised with Dr John Stevens, RCA Global Innovation Design
Thanks to all the IDE research students for all your enthusiasm and help this year, and well done on everything you’ve achieved. In November, NazlÄ± GÃ¶kÃ§e TerzioÄŸlu and Yoon Choi both presented papers at Sustainable Innovation 2015 on which I was a co-author, covering two intriguing directions in understanding (and changing) people’s relationships with products from a sustainability perspective:
–TerzioÄŸlu, N., Brass, C. & Lockton, D. (2015) ‘Understanding user motivations and drawbacks related to product repair’. Sustainable Innovation 2015, 9-10 November 2015, Epsom, UK. (PDF)
–Choi, Y., Lockton, D., Brass, C., & Stevens, J. (2015) ‘Opportunities for sustainable packaging design: Learning from pregnancy as a metaphor’. Sustainable Innovation 2015, 9-10 November 2015, Epsom, UK. (PDF on ResearchGate)
V&A Design Culture Salon
As my look of terror / staring into nothingness in the above photo (by Jonny Jiang) might suggest, I chaired a Design Culture Salon at the V&A in November, with the title “Is Designing for Behaviour Change ‘Creepy’?” With a fantastic panel of Alison Powell, Phoebe Moore, Jessica Pykett, Peter John and Simon Blyth, we debated issues from the Quantified Self to the Nudge Unit to algorithmic governance: all with a “design and behaviour” theme, too broad really for a single event, but very enjoyable. Thanks to Guy Julier and Leah Armstrong for organising the event, to the panellists, and to so many people who came to see and take part.
In June, I ran a workshop at Nordes 2015, at Konstfack, in Stockholm, with Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and Claudia Dutson, looking at conversations between people and machines. We packed a lot into the day, with some great participants, but my part of the workshop was mostly focused on “thinking about how machines think we think”–applying some basic forms from R.D. Laing’s Knots to situations that might arise in the smart home (or other algorithmic developments). We got some nice examples of knot-like scenarios, particularly around people trying to cajole the technology to make different assumptions. I can see why, as Paul Pangaro commented, Gordon Pask liked Knots so much. I am, slowly, working on a paper drawing on some of the ideas generated in the workshop: thank you to all the participants and to Salu Ylirisku for the organisation.
One Another: Empathy and Experience
In October, Dr Katie Gaudion and I ran One Another: Empathy and Experience, a week-long ‘AcrossRCA’ course exploring questions of how we can experience the world as someone (or something) else does. With participants from eight different RCA MA and PhD programmes, over the week, we had a talk from Jon Adams, an autistic artist with synaesthesia, we visited London Zoo to explore the world from animals’ points of view (and human interactions), and through practical experiments, tried to see if we could “generate” empathy for inanimate objects, such as paper tissues, leaves and headphones. We backed up the practical work with some theoretical psychology background around theory of mind, empathy and the fundamental attribution error. The week ended with three really brilliant group projects, which invited participants to try to experience the world through the perspective of another:
– The Human Zoo, by Sarha Hersi, Joey (Jupone) Wang, Saaya Kamita, Mariana Pedrosa
– Obsessions, by Thomas Leech, Faith Wray, Andrea Fischer, Heeju Kim and Chang Hee Lee
– Empathising with Claustrophobia (centre, above), by Anna Dakin, Harry Thompson, Nong Chotipatoomwan and Tess Dumon
Rice University Urban Sustainability and Livability Summer Institute
The end of May and early June saw Flora Bowden, Claudia Dutson, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and myself run Learning New Ways of Looking at the City, an international summer programme for Rice University’s Urban Sustainability and Livability Summer Institute, at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, in Copenhagen. With visits over three weeks, working with an impressively enthusiastic and motivated group of Rice students, we used Copenhagen as a setting to explore questions around transport and mobility, tourism, green space, and cultural differences, among other issues, through student research projects. Thanks to Don Ostdiek, Michael Emerson and Julia Grasse for the organisation, and thanks to Anne-Kathrine KjÃ¦r Christensen and Larry Toups for visiting contributions.
Kingston University MACE Startup Weekend
At the end of September, I returned to Kingston Business School’s MA Creative Industries and the Creative Economy, to run the Startup Weekend, a two-day workshop right at the start of the course, in which new students on this unique programme, combining design and business (with the practical requirement of creating a business by the end of the course), get a rapid introduction to design research and prototyping and carry out a group project responding to a real-life problem they have identified. In 2014, we looked at the experience of new international students; in 2015 we focused on money, with field research in Kingston town centre, including visiting (and comparing the customer experience at) Metro Bank and some more traditional establishments, and a guest talk from Stephen Wendel via Skype. Groups came up with some clever concepts, including a service that automatically puts change onto a card, new kinds of international money transfer service, and redesigning how Argos works. Thanks to Janja Song, and Mark Passera who originally invited me.
Visit to Carnegie Mellon
In November, I visited Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, to do a talk / mini-workshop called Design, Behaviour & Understanding, in the School of Design, for Master’s students in Molly Steenson’s Interaction and Service Design class, and a talk called People Don’t Really Use Energy for the Intelligent Workplace team in the School of Architecture. I also got to meet some very interesting people (students and staff), and take part in one of the Design PhD group discussions, which was very enjoyable. Thank you to Cameron Tonkinwise, Kakee Scott, Darlene Scalese, Jane Ditmore, Molly Steenson, Simon King, Terry Irwin, Peter Scupelli, Bruce Hanington, Michael Arnold Mages, Dimeji Onafuwa, and everyone else who arranged my visit and made me feel so welcome.
Good luck everyone for 2016: it’s going to be what we make it!
As our everyday lives are increasingly pushed and pulled by technology and the systems around us, from infrastructure to quantification to government to horrifying combinations of these, understanding these complex systems, and how to change them, is something we should be paying attention to. In ‘As we may understand’, last year, I looked—at excessive length—at the understanding bit, but not the change. Hopefully here I can address that, to some extent, though my thinking’s moved on a bit.
Paralysis and regret
We are surrounded by, and enmeshed in, complexity which at once causes us paralysis over not being able to take action, and regret over the actions we do take (and continue to take). We simultaneously worry and do nothing about issues such as the military-industrial surveillance state, ageing populations, inequality, war and privatisation of the commons. We fudge our responses to planetary-scale crises such as climate change, pollution or poverty because our understanding of what we are able to do locally does not match our understanding of what is possible at a larger scale. We face a crisis of agency, in the phrase used by Gyorgyi Galik, Natalie Jeremijenko, Zygmunt Bauman and others.
How can ‘we’ (at the level of individual people—and I’m speaking from the position of a middle-class Western consumer, with all that entails) act? We don’t know what to do, and even if we did, we are not individual “micro-resource managers” (to use Yolande Strengers’ phrase), but people acting within the constraints (and enablers) of family, society, social groups, cultural contexts, norms and expectations. We lack the ability to hold different visions of possible futures in mind simultaneously, or even to think through the consequences and possibilities at multiple levels. We are entangled in social traps, double binds and knots around everything from participation in democracy (why bother? it won’t change anything) to dealing with terrorism (be alert, but not scared, because that’s what they want, so still be very very very alert).
What can designers do?
What is designers’ role in this? Both design and sustainability, in its broadest sense, are about “the future”—bringing into being a world where humanity and other forms of life will “flourish on the planet forever” (John Ehrenfeld) or where we can “go about our daily affairs… [knowing] that our activities as civilised beings are expanding our future options and improving our current situation” (Bruce Sterling). Design might be one of the mechanisms by which much of our current predicament has come about (Victor Papanek), but perhaps “the future with a future for “us” can only be reached by design” (Tony Fry).
Designing for behaviour change at the mundane level of helping people recycle things, or use their electrical appliances more efficiently—the sort of thing a lot of my previous work has focused on—might be part of the solution, but it’s clear that design really needs to address things at a much higher, more systemic level, including designing things out of existence. Perhaps, in terms of producing a new generation of designers ready to engage with this degree of challenge, this is what transition design can bring us. I hope so.
To engage with this complexity—not destroy its variety, because we can’t and we shouldn’t—requires designers to understand society better. Yes, we need designers to understand people’s lives, and appreciate the realities of situated decision making and subjective experience, but also to understand complexity, connectedness (in a technology sense but a people sense too) and the effects of design, and its politics, to a degree beyond what might previously have been common. We need designers to engage with the invisible ‘dark matter’ (Dan Hill) even though it may often be experienced as an impediment to action.
We need designers to understand (and be allowed to deal with) the wickedness of the problems we are facing: they will not be understood until ‘solutions’ have been attempted (which will in turn create new problems, as John Gall pointed out); there will be no stopping rules; there will be no right or wrong answers; and all attempts to deal with a problem will only highlight its uniqueness and contextual peculiarity. We will not be able to step in the same river twice, nor even once (as Ranulph Glanville suggests), and we must make peace with that. It doesn’t mean we can’t learn from what we’ve done before, but we cannot presume that patterns always transpose effectively. Deterministic top-down approaches promoted by behavioural economics and simplistic notions of the ‘Quantified Self’ and ‘Big Data’ are not going to work.
Understanding how to act
Of course, understanding complexity is not the goal in itself. The real goal is understanding what agency is possible, and how to enact change. So, we need design that enables people to understand the wider contexts of their actions, their agency within society, and how they can act to create different outcomes, different futures.
Understanding how to act to change the systems we’re in is arguably the biggest meta-challenge of our age. We need not just information, but tools for connecting our understanding of how things work and how we can act, around everything from the environment, cities, our own bodies, networked infrastructure to social, civic and political contexts, emerging technologies and plural considerations of the future itself.
This is design for behaviour change, but is not about designers trying to change ‘public behaviour’ as if it were somehow a separate phenomenon. Designers are members of society, and there is only one Earth: we are part of the same systems. It is about design which enables people to change the behaviour of the systems of which they—we—are part.
Ways of doing this
What do we do, then? I imagine a ‘Designing Agency’ research / action programme, which would rethink how we engage with the systems of everyday (and future) life, through developing new approaches to understanding and action. Designing Agency would use ‘design’—in the broadest sense—as a way to:
1. understand the world
2. understand people’s understandings of the world
3. help people understand the world
4. help people understand their agency in the world
5. help people use that agency in the world
We could see these as a progression from understanding to action. But how would we do it in practice? Different techniques would be effective at different levels. Some would be investigatory, some practical, some speculative or critical. Some would give us tools for understanding and learning, some tools for doing, some provocations for reflection. The examples I have here are quite pedestrian.
A ‘comfort timeline’ heating practice diary developed by Natalia Romero Herrera, TU Delft, being used here by a householder in Dartford, UK.
For example, at Level 1, using design to understand the world might involve designing and deploying probes (e.g. the heating diary shown here), and running designed experiments, which investigate phenomena in the world (including society) through gathering data in a way which provides meaningful scaffolding for the next level. This is essentially using design as a way to do science, or social science.
Level 2, in attempting to ‘understand understanding’ (in Heinz von Foerster’s phrase), would take things a stage further: using activities which practically try to explore the different ways in which people imagine, conceptualise and think about how things work. Very basically, we could use techniques such as drawing (as in the image at the top of the article, from the Drawing Energy project), but there’s a whole world of possibilities here. It is partly about making the invisible visible, tangible or legible, from the point of view of people themselves (i.e. what is legible, or not, to them), but also about surfacing people’s different understandings of situations, and how that leads different people to act.
Claustrophobia simulation apparatus, developed by Anna Dakin, Harry Thompson, Nong Chotipatoomwan and Tess Dumon as part of ‘One Another: Empathy and Experience’, AcrossRCA course by Katie Gaudion & Dan Lockton
At Level 3, we’d be designing ways which help change people’s understandings of the world and the systems they’re in. This could take the form of new kinds of interface, designed experiences, educational activities—a range of things.Some of the examples collected by Dieter Zinnbauer’s Ambient Accountability project perhaps fit here. It could be about changing mental models, expanding horizons, reframing of situations, or even trying to facilitate empathy (as in the image). I want to make it clear here that this isn’t about ‘correcting incorrect mental models’ but about enabling and supporting people to construct and refine their own models of the world, experientially, which serve them better. And learning how to reflect on that.
I don’t really know, at this stage, what Level 4 would look like. This is the “let’s see what we can do” of the title. I have some ideas, but they need work: I imagine new forms of interface, new ‘senses’, new metaphors (in the sense suggested by Margaret Mead and also by A. Baki Kocabelli—see below) and new analogues: not just behaviour quantification and data dashboards, but highlighters and contextual explainers of agency. I am very excited about this, and aim to come back to it with another article very soon, once I’ve actually built something. Let’s just say, qualitative interfaces…
At Level 5, among other things, we would pretty much be challenging and inverting common ‘behavioural design’ paradigms. We have a whole load of them, of course, but what can they do if you turn them upside down? What does it look like when the public uses a technique like Commitment & Consistency or Are You Sure? or Watermarking to change the behaviour of a system like policing or energy policy? Can it be more constructive than ‘fighting back’, and actually be about co-designing systems of society that behave more effectively, and work better for more people? Again, these could be applied critically, or provocatively—a what if?—or they could be direct ways of enabling action, empowering people to change the behaviour of the systems in which we live.
“Framing wicked problems requires explicit values and viewpoints, accompanied by the responsibility to justify them with explicit arguments, thus incorporating subjectivity and the epistemology of second-order cybernetics.”
“In design processes, the quality of relationality asks for three sensitivities: (i) understanding of mutual influence, shaping and co-constitution of actors and artefacts; (ii) embracing and supporting emergent and improvised action and (iii) consideration of the system as an assemblage/network of actors, artefacts or collective hybrids. In order to develop these sensitivities, we first need to stop formulating design solutions based upon the assumption of a well-defined individual with fixed characteristics and capacities of action. Design solutions should recognize and support the existence of the multiple individuals embodied in one individual and the possibility of multiple enactments of one individual within a network of other human and non-human actors interacting with each other and exhibiting different capacities for action.”
Kocaballi’s six qualities for agency sensitive design—relationality, visibility, multiplicity, configurability, accountability and duality—could be a valuable set of considerations to explore in relation to the design of these ‘Level 5’ attempts to help people use their agency in the world.
I need to stop writing about things like this, and get back to doing it. I’ve had my own career-related crisis of agency in 2015, but 2016 is going to be better. First up is an amazing opportunity working with Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Superflux, Future Cities Catapult and UNAM on a joint project between Mexico City and London, funded by the British Council’s Newton Fund, in which (I’m hoping) at least a bit of levels 4 and 5 can come into play, in the context of helping people understand their agency, and act in relation to policy in the built environment.
We’ll have to see what we can do.
Thank you to Veronica Ranner, Gyorgyi Galik, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and Laura Ferrarello for conversations which have led to ideas in this article.
[See also readers’ comments / responses on Medium]
We’re heading into a world of increasingly complex engineered systems in everyday life, from smart cities, smart electricity grids and networked infrastructure on the one hand, to ourselves, personally, being always connected to each other: it’s not going to be just an Internet of Things, but very much an Internet of Things and People, and Communities, too.
Yet there is a disconnect between the potential quality of life benefits for society, and people’s understanding of these—often invisible—systems around us. How do they work? Who runs them? What can they help me do? How can they help my community?
IoT technology and the ecosystems around it could enable behaviour change for social and environmental sustainability in a wide range of areas, from energy use to civic engagement and empowerment. But the systems need to be intelligible, for people to be engaged and make the most of the opportunities and possibilities for innovation and progress.
They need to be designed with people at the heart of the process, and that means designing with people themselves: practical co-creation, and constructionist public engagement where people can explore these systems and learn how they work in the context of everyday life rather than solely in the abstract visions of city planners and technology companies.
The internet, particularly the world-wide web, has done many things, but something it has done particularly well is to enable us to understand the world around us better. From having the sum of human knowledge in our pockets, to generating conversation and empathy between people who would never otherwise have met, to being able to look up how to fix the washing machine, this connectedness, this interactivity, this understanding, has–quickly–led to changes in everyday life, in social practices, habits, routines, decision processes, behaviour, in huge ways, not always predictably.
It’s surfaced information which existed, but which was difficult to find or see, and–most importantly–links between ideas (as Vannevar Bush, and later Ted Nelson, envisaged), at multiple levels of abstraction, in a way which makes discovery more immediate. And it’s linked people in the process, indeed turned them into creators and curators on a vast scale, of photos, videos, games and writing (short-form and longer). It may not all be hand-coding HTML, but perhaps much of it followed, ultimately, from the ability to ‘View Source’, GeoCities, Xoom, et al, and the inspiration to create, adapt and experiment.
But how do things fit into this? How can the Internet of Things, ambient intelligence and ubiquitous, pervasive computing, help people understand the world better? Could they enable more than just clever home automation-via-apps, more-precisely-targeted behavioural advertising, and remote infrastructure monitoring, and actually help people understand and engage with the complex systems around them—the systems we’re part of, that affect what we do and can do, and are in turn affected by what we do? Even as the networks become ever more complex, can the Internet of Things—together with the wider internet—help people realise what they can do, creating opportunities for new forms of civic engagement and empowerment, of social innovation, of sustainability?
In this article, I’m going to meander a bit back and forth between themes and areas. Please bear with me. And this is very much a draft–a rambling, unfocused draft–on which I really do welcome your comments and suggestions.
Design and behaviour change
For the last few years, I’ve been working in the field of what’s come to be known as design for behaviour change, mostly, more specifically, design for sustainable behaviour. This is all about using the design of systems–interfaces, products, services, environments–to enable, motivate, constrain or otherwise influence people to do things in different ways. The overall intention is social and environmental benefit through ‘behaviour change’, which is, I hope, less baldly top-down and individualist than it may sound. I am much more comfortable at the ‘enable’ end of the spectrum than the ‘constrain’. The more I type the phrase ‘behaviour change’, the less I like it, but it’s politically fashionable and has kept a roof over my head for a few years.
As part of my PhD research, I collected together insights and examples from lots of different disciplines that were relevant, and put them into a ‘design pattern’ form, the Design with Intent toolkit, which lots of people seem to have found useful. All of the patterns exemplify particular models of human behaviour–assumptions about ‘what people are like’, what motivates them, how homogeneous they are in their actions and thoughts, and so on–often conflicting, sometimes optimistic about people, sometimes less so. Each design pattern is essentially an argument about human nature. Some of them are nice, some of them are not.
However, in applying some of the (nicer!) ideas in practice, particularly towards influencing more sustainable behaviour at work and at home, around issues such as office occupancy and food choices, as well as energy use, it became clear that the models of people inherent in many kinds of ‘intervention’ are simply not nuanced enough to address the complexity and diversity of real people, making situated decisions in real-life contexts, embedded in the complex webs of social practices that everyday life entails. (This is, I feel, something also lacking in many current behavioural economics-inspired treatments of complex social issues.)
Many of the issues with the ‘behaviour change’ phenomenon can be characterised as deficiencies in inclusion: the extent to which people who are the ‘targets’ of the behaviour change are included in the design process for those ‘interventions’ (this terminology itself is inappropriate), and the extent to which the diversity and complexity of real people’s lives is reflected and accommodated in the measures proposed and implemented. This suggests that a more participatory process, one in which people co-create whatever it is that is intended to help them change behaviour, is preferable to a top-down approach. Designing with people, rather than for people.
Another issue, noted by Carl DiSalvo, Phoebe Sengers and HrÃ¶nn BrynjarsdÃ³ttir in 2010, is the distinction between modelling “users as the problem” in the first place, and “solving users’ problems” in approaches to design for behaviour change. The common approach assumes that differences in outcome will result from changes to people–‘if only we can make people more motivated’; ‘if only we can persuade people to do this’; ‘if only people would stop doing that’–overcoming cognitive biases, being more attentive, caring about things, being more thoughtful, and so on.
But considering questions of attitude, beliefs or motivations in isolation rather than in context–the person and the social or environmental situation in which someone acts (following Kurt Lewin and Herbert Simon)–can lead to what is known as the fundamental attribution error. Here, for example, some behaviour exhibited by other people–e.g. driving a short distance from office to library–is attributed to ‘incorrect’ attitudes, laziness, lack of motivation, or ignorance, rather than considering the contextual factors which one might use to explain one’s own behaviour in a similar situation–e.g. needing to carry lots of books (this example courtesy of Deborah Du Nann Winter and Susan M. Koger).
So, framing behaviour change as helping people do things better, rather than trying to ‘overcome irrationality’ as if it were something that exists independently of context, offers a much more positive perspective: solving people’s problems–with them–as a way of enacting behaviour change, from the initial viewpoint of trying to understand, in context, the problems that people are trying to solve or overcome in everyday life, rather than adopting a model of defects in people’s attitudes or motivation which need to be ‘fixed’.
Something that has arisen, for me, during ethnographic research and other contextual enquiry around things like interaction with heating systems, energy (electricity and gas) use more widely—and even seemingly unrelated issues such as neighbourhood planning, or a community group’s use of DropBox—is the importance of people’s understanding and perceptions of the systems around them. Questions about perceived agency, mental models of how things work, assumptions about what affects what, conflating one concept or entity with another, and so on, feed into our decision processes, and the differences in understanding can cause conflict or undesired outcomes for different actors within the system.
As Dan Hill puts it, if we can “connect [people’s] behaviour to the performance of the wider systems they exist within” we can help them “begin to understand the relationships between individuals, communities, environments and systems in more detail”.
But it seems as though most approaches to design for behaviour change–and it’s a rapidly growing field under different labels–either ignore questions around understanding entirely, or try to find out about how users (mis)understand things, and then attempt to change users’ understanding to make it ‘correct’. Many, in fact, start straight out to try to change understanding without trying to find anything out about users’ current understanding. A few (but not enough, perhaps) try to adjust the way a system works so that it matches users’ understanding. (This is a development of something I explored in a London IA talk a few years ago.)
Also, I must emphasise at this point that ‘behaviour change’ is not really a thing at all. ‘People doing something differently’ covers so much, across so many fields and contexts, that it’s silly to think it can be assessed properly in a simple way.
If anyone is really an ‘expert’ in ‘behaviour change’, it is parents and teachers and wise elderly raconteurs of lives well lived, children with youthful clarity of insight, people who strike up conversations with strangers on the bus, or talk down people about to jump off bridges: optimistic, experienced (or not) human students of human nature, not someone who sees ‘the public’ as a separate category to him- or herself, ripe for ‘intervention’.
The Internet of Things as an innovation space
One of the nicest things about the Internet of Things phenomenon–and indeed the Quantified Self movement–as opposed to that other, related, topic of our time, the top-down ‘Smart City’, is the extent to which it crosses over with the bottom-up, almost democratic, Maker movement mentality. I’m using ‘the IoT’ here as a broad category for the potential to involve objects and sensors and networks in areas or situations that previously didn’t have them.
The Internet of Things, through initiatives such as Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino’s IoT meetups and others–while undoubtedly boosted commercially by Gartner Hype Cycle-baiting corporate buzzword PowerPoints–has been to no small extent driven by people doing this stuff for themselves. And helping each other to do it better. The peer support for anyone interested in getting into this area is immense and impressive: you can bet that someone out there will offer assistance, suggest ways round a problem, and share their experience. The barriers to entry are relatively low, and there are organisations and projects springing up whose rationale is based around lowering those barriers further.
The IoT is a huge von Hippel user innovation space, and it involves not just innovation by users, but innovation that is about building things. Its very sustenance is people building things to try out hypotheses, addressing and reframing their own problems responding to their own everyday contexts, modifying and iterating and joining and forking and evolving what they’re doing, putting the output from one project into the input of another, often someone else’s. And yet it is still quite a small community in a global sense, overrepresented in the echo-chamber of the sorts of people likely to be reading this article.
Constructionism and co-creation
I suspect there is something about the open structure of many IoT technologies (and those which have enabled it) which has made this kind of distributed, collaborative community of builders and testers and people with ideas more likely to happen. It may just be the openness, but I think it’s more than that. There are three other elements which might be important:
Linking the real world to a virtual, abstract, invisible one. Even if an IoT project is about translating one physical phenomenon into another, this action comes about through links to an invisible world. I don’t know for certain why that might be important, but I think it may be that it triggers thinking about how the system works, in a way that is still somewhat outside our everyday experience. This kind of action-at-a-distance retains some magic, in the process calling new mental models or simulations into existence…
…which are then tested and iterated, because nothing ever works first time. This means people learn through doing things, through coming up with ideas about how things work, and testing those hypotheses by their own hand, often understanding things at quite different levels of abstraction (but that still being just fine). It’s not a field that’s particularly suited to learning from a book (despite some excellent contributions)…
…and indeed the boundaries of what the IoT is for are so fluid and expansive in a ‘What use is a baby?’ sense that the goal is one of exploration rather than ‘mastery’ of the subject. There is no right or wrong way to do a lot of this stuff, nor limits imposed by any kind of central authority.
I’m no scholar of educational theory, but it seems that these kinds of characteristics are similar to what Seymour Papert, father of LOGO and student of Jean Piaget, termed constructionism–in the words of the One Laptop Per Child project,
“a philosophy of education in which children learn by doing and making in a public, guided, collaborative process including feedback from peers, not just from teachers. They explore and discover instead of being force fed information”.
Constructionist learning (whether with children or adults) is not a ‘leave them to it’ approach: it involves a significant degree of facilitation, including designing the tools (like LOGO, or Scratch) that enable people to create tools for themselves. Returning to the design context, this is a central issue in discussions of participatory design, co-design and co-creation–to what extent, and how, designers are most usefully involved in the process. What are the boundaries of co-creation? How do they differ in different contexts? Is the progression from design for people to design with people to design by people an inevitability? Whither the designer in the end case?
Setting aside this kind of debate for the moment, I am going to say that for the purposes of this article:
involving people (‘users’, though they are more than that) in a design process…
to address problems which are meaningful for them, in their life contexts…
in which they participate through making, testing and modifying systems or parts of systems…
partly facilitated or supported by designers or ‘experts’…
in a way which improves people’s understanding of the systems they’re engaging with, and issues surrounding them…
meets a definition of ‘constructionist co-creation’.
Behaviour change through constructionist co-creation
Now, let’s go back to behaviour change. I mentioned earlier my contention that much of what’s wrong with the ‘behaviour change’ phenomenon is about deficiencies in inclusion. People (‘the public’) are so often seen as targets to have behaviour change ‘done to them’, rather than being included in the design process. This means that the design ‘interventions’ developed end up being designed for a stereotyped, fictional model of the public rather than the nuanced reality.
In design for behaviour change, we need to recognise the limitations of our models, and be much clearer about the assumptions we are making about behaviour. We also need to recognise the diversity and heterogeneity of people, across cultures, across different levels of need and ability, but also across situations. This approach is something like attempting to engage with the complexity of real life rather than simplifying it away–in Steve Portigal’s words:
“rather than create distancing caricatures, tell stories… Look for ways to represent what you’ve learned in a way that maintains the messiness of actual human beings.”
What’s a way to do this? Co-creation, co-production–in a behaviour change context–enables us to include a more diverse set of people, leading to a more nuanced treatment of everyday life. This, in itself, represents an advance in inclusion terms over much work in this field. Flora Bowden and I have tried to take this approach as part of our work on the European SusLab energy project.
But going further, constructionist co-creation for behaviour change would enable people actually to create, test, iterate and refine tools for understanding, and influencing, their own behaviour. Just look at Lifehacker or LifeProTips, GetMotivated or even the venerable 43 Folders. People enjoy exploring ways to change their own behaviour, through experimenting, through discussion with others, and through developing their own tools and adapting others’, to help understand themselves and other people, and the systems of everyday life which affect what we do. Behaviour change could be direct–or it could be, perhaps more interestingly, directed towards exploring and improving our understanding of the systems around us.
Invisible infrastructures and the Internet of Things: avoiding the demon-haunted smart fridge
The thing is, the systems around us are complex and becoming more so, and often invisible–or “distressingly opaque”–in the process, which makes them more difficult to understand and engage with. This includes everything from ‘the Cloud’ (which, as Dan Hon notes, is coming to the fore with news stories such as celebrity photo hacking) to Facebook (as danah boyd puts it, “as the public, we can only guess what the black box is doing”) to CCTV and other urban sensor networks.
Timo Arnall, in his PhD thesis, introduces this issue using the example of smartphones, “perhaps the most visible aspect of contemporary, digitally-mediated, everyday-life. Yet the complex networks of systems and infrastructures that allow a smartphone to operate remain largely invisible and unknown.”
He goes on to explore, via some beautiful projects, another invisible infrastructure–RFID and near-field communication– and the possibilities of making this visible, tangible and legible.
Most diagrams or infographics aiming to illustrate the Internet of Things show visible lines connecting objects to each other, or to central hubs of some kind. But whatever forms the IoT takes, most of these are going to be ‘invisible by default’, in Mayo Nissen’s words (specifically referring to urban sensors). Invisibility might seem attractive, and magic (and we’ll get onto seamlessness in a bit) but by its very nature it conceals the links between things, between organisations, between people and purpose:
“Some sensing technologies capture our imagination and attract our constant attention. Yet many go unnoticed, their insides packed with unknowable electronic components, ceaselessly counting, measuring, and transmitting. For what purpose, or to whose gain, is often unclear… there is seldom any information to explain what these barnacles of our urban landscape are or what they are doing.”
Back in 2011 I ran a workshop at dConstruct including an exercise where groups each received a ‘black box’, an unknown electronic device with an unlabelled interface of buttons, ‘volume’ controls and LEDs, housed in a Poundland lunchbox and badly assembled one evening while watching a Bill Hicks documentary and drinking whisky.
Internally —and so secretly—each box also contained a wireless transmitter, receiver, sound chip and speaker (basically, a wireless doorbell), and in one box, an extra klaxon. The aim was to work out what was going on—what did the controls do?—and record your group’s understanding, or mental model, or even an algorithm of how the system worked in some form that could explain it to a new user who hadn’t been able to experiment with the device.
As people realised that the boxes ‘interacted’ with each other, by setting off sounds in response to particular button-presses, the groups’ explanations became more complex.
Each group used slightly different methods to investigate and illustrate the model, with unexpected behaviour or coincidences (one group’s box setting off the doorbell in another, but coinciding with a button being pressed or a volume control being turned) leading to some rapidly escalating complex algorithms.
We are now creating an even more complex world of black boxes, networked black boxes with their own algorithms, real and assumed, and those that depend on algorithms out of our hands, remote, changeable, strategic, life-changing which we may not have any easy way of investigating. And which model us, the public, in particular ways.
“the intangibility of contemporary networks conceals the true extent of their operation… This invisibility extends through physical, virtual, and legal spaces.”
Bridle is talking about a policing context, but invisibility, or rather lack of transparency, is of course also a hallmark of crime and corruption, often intentionally complex systems. Dieter Zinnbauer’s concept of ambient accountability is very relevant here: systems can only be accountable if people can understand them, whether that’s windows in building-site hoardings or politicians’ expenses.
“We can only trust something if we think we know how it works… When we don’t know how a thing works we make it up.”
What new superstitions are going to arise from smart homes, smart meters, smart cities? What will people make up? Are my fridge and Fitbit collaborating with Tesco and BUPA to increase my health insurance premiums? What assumptions are the systems in my daily life going to be making about me? How will I know? What are the urban legends going to be? How will this understanding affect people’s lives? How can we make use of what the IoT enables to help us understand things, rather than making things less understandable?
The opportunity exists, then, for more work which uses a constructionist approach to enable us–the public–to investigate and understand the complex hidden systems in the world around us, in the process potentially changing our mental models, behaviour and practice. Tools based around IoT technology, developed and applied practically through a process of co-creation with the public, could enable this particularly well. In general, co-creation offers lots of opportunities for designing behaviour change support systems that actually respond to the real contexts of everyday life. But the IoT, in particular, can enable technological participation in this.
We would have to start with particular domains where public understanding of a complex, invisible system in everyday life potentially has effects on behaviour or social practices, and where changing that understanding would improve quality of life and/or provide social or environmental benefit.
I want to propose some examples of projects (or rather areas of practical research) that could be done in this vein, but before that–because I can–I am going to coin a new word for this. Knopen, a fairly obvious portmanteau of know and open, can be a verb (to knopen something) or an adjective (e.g. a knopen tool). Let’s say ‘to knopen’ conjugates like ‘to open’. We knopen, we knopened, we are knopening. Maybe it will usually be more useful as a transitive verb: We knopened the office heating system. The app helped us knopen the local council’s consultation process. Help me knopen the sewage system. Maybe it’s useful as a gerund: knopening as a concept in itself. Knopening the intricacies of the railway ticketing system has saved our family lots of money.
Tools for understanding
What does knopen mean, though? I’m envisaging it being the kind of word that’s used as description of what a tool does. We have tools for opening things–prying, prising, unscrewing, jimmying, breaking, and so on. We also have tools that help us know more about things, and potentially understand them–a magnifying glass, a compass, Wikipedia–but just as with any tool, they are better matched to some jobs than to others.
If I just use a screwdriver to unscrew or pry open the casing on my smart energy meter, and look at the circuitboard with a magnifying glass, unless I already have lots of experience, I don’t know much more about how it works, or what data it sends (and receives), and why, or what the consequences are of that. I don’t necessarily have a better understanding of the system, or the assumptions and models inscribed in it. I have opened the smart meter, but I haven’t knopened it. To knopen it would need a different kind of tool. In this case, it might be a tool that interrogates the meter, and translates the data, and the contexts of how it’s used and why, into a form I understand. That doesn’t necessarily just mean a visual display.
This, then, would be knopening: opening a system or part of a system (metaphorically or physically) with tools which enable you to know and understand more about how it works, what it does, or the wider context of its use and existence: why things are as they are. Knopening could include ‘knopening thyself’–understanding and reflecting on why and how you make decisions.
Knopening isn’t as involved as grokking. To grok something is at a much deeper level. Nevertheless, knopening could be transformative. Going back to the earlier discussion, knopening is basically a label for a process by which we can investigate and understand the complex hidden systems in the world around us, which could certainly change our mental models, behaviour and practice. Knopening is about understanding why.
Maybe knopen is a daft conceit, a ‘fetch’ that isn’t going to happen. But it’s worth a try. And I see that it also means ‘to button’ or ‘to knot’ in Dutch, but that’s not too awful. As my wife put it, “that’s quite sweet.” Probably ontknopen, unbuttoning or untying, would be closer in meaning to what I mean. Urban Dictionary tells us that knopen can also mean “the act of knocking on and opening a closed door simultaneously”, which is not inappropriate, I think.
Some areas of research for knopen
These are all about people making and using tools to understand–to knopen–the systems around them, in particular the whys behind how things work. They all have the potential to integrate the quantitative data from networked objects and sensors with qualitative insights from people themselves, in co-created useful and meaningful ways.
DIY for the home of the future
In the UK, “at least 60% of the houses we’ll be living in by 2050 have already been built” (and that quote’s from 2010). That means that whatever IoT technologies come to our homes, they will largely be retrofitted. The ‘smart home’ in practice is going to be piecemeal for most people, the Discman-to-cassette-adaptor-to-car-radio rather than a glossy integrated vision.
(Photo by Toyohara, used under a Creative Commons licence)
What are people going to be able to choose to fit themselves? What systems will people be able to connect together? What’s the equivalent of a buried cable detector for data flows? What will Saturday afternoons be like with the IoT? Is it an electrician we need or a ‘data plumber’? What will happen when parts need to be replaced? When smart grids come along, for example, what is interaction with them going to look like? Can DIY work in that context? What happens if microgeneration becomes popular?
Could we use this DIY context strategically—as a way of engaging people in behaviour change, through active participation in experimenting and changing their own homes and everyday practices, using IoT technologies? How do we domesticate the IoT?
Something in this space could be the core of the knopen concept: tools that enable us to understand and investigate the invisible systems around us, and the links between them, at home (or at work). Really basically, we could think of it as in-context system diagrams on everythingâ€Š–â€Šnot just static, but explorable explanations in Bret Victor’s terminology, maybe even some kind of data traces. And those explanations don’t have to be physical diagrams—they can be ambient, responsive, exploring both the backstories and possible future states of systems.
Networked devices and sensors, inputs and outputs, everything the IoT provides, could show us explicitly how systems work both in and beyond our immediate home context—including our own actions, past, present and future (hence enabling us to change our behaviour), and those of other people. We would learn what a system assumes/knows about us, and how it makes decisions that affect us and others; how do we fit into these systems that pervade our homes?
Matthew Chalmers, who has developed the ideas that Mark Weiser (father of calm technology, ubiquitous computing, etc) had around seamlessness and seamfulness, suggests that: “Seamfully integrated tools would maintain the unique characteristics of each tool, through transformations that retained their individual characteristics.”
Going slightly further than that, perhaps, by enabling people to experience the joins between systems, and the discontinuities, the texture of technologies—even making the seams not just ‘beautiful’ but tangible– we could help them understand better what’s going on, and interact with systems in a different way. As Karin Andersson says:
“The seams that are the most important are the ones that can improve a system’s functionality and when they are understood and figured out how they can become a resource for interaction by the user. If designers know how certain seams affect interactions, they can then incorporate them into an application and direct their effects into useful features of the system. This way, seamful design allows users to use seams, accommodate them and even exploit them to their own advantage”
Knopen is perhaps an attempt to enable people to make tools to make seams visible, or tangible, for themselves, where currently they are not. It is trying to turn seamlessness into seamfulness, then into understanding and empowerment, through enabling, facilitating, investigation of those systems: brass rubbing for the systems of the home, perhaps.
two people’s models containing different sets of nodes
or, more specifically, conflating particular nodes or introducing distinctions between nodes where others treat them as the same thing
two people’s models connecting the same nodes in different ways
Seams are, perhaps, the links or gaps between nodes or groups of nodes. Intentional seamlessness is an attempt to hide these links or gaps by actually conflating particular nodes or groups of nodes from the user’s perspective. Seamlessness is saying, “This is one system, and these nodes are the same”. In doing this, it inherently removes the ability to see or inspect or question or understand these relations.
We are—and will shortly be even more so—surrounded by systems, in our homes and elsewhere, that are collecting, sending, receiving and storing data all the time, about us, our actions and our environments. And yet we are generally not privy to what’s going on, what decisions are being made, where the data come from and where they go.
It might not seem a major issue at present to most people—even in the light of Snowden’s revelations and all that’s come sinceâ€Š –â€Šbut once, for example, smart meters are dynamically adjusting pricing for electricity and gas on a large scale, a greater number of people are going to want to understand where those prices are coming from, and how these systems work. Compare the—often amusing—reactions when people explore what Google Ads or Facebook thinks it knows about them. Many people seem to enjoy this kind of exploration—all the more reason for a constructionist approach.
We need a narrative context for the streams in our daily lives: what is the story of the sensors? What is the meaning of what’s going on? Even a Dyson-style ‘transparent container’ metaphor for data, showing us what’s being collected, or colour-coded statuses on devices, would give us some more understanding. This is something like ambient accountability in Dieter Zinnbauer’s terminology, but involving us, the public, the ‘end user’, much more explicitly.
Metaphors could play an important role here, or perhaps new metaphors. Representing a new, unfamiliar system in terms of more familiar ones is maybe obvious, and has its limitations (except in Borges, the map is never the territory), but as with our discussion of new superstitions earlier, it’s almost inevitable that new metaphors will arise for parts of these invisible systems in the home and elsewhere, as part of mental models and in people’s explanations to others of how they work. Metaphors are very commonly used in design for behaviour change, from gardens to sarcastic overlords.
We can learn quite a lot from exploring people’s understanding and mental imagery around invisible systems. A project Flora Bowden and I have been doing over the last couple of years involves asking people to draw ‘what energy looks like’; we’ve also tried it with concepts such as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, and there are large scale projects such as Can You Draw the Internet? There are insights for the design of new kinds of interfaces, of course, but also something more fundamental about how people perceive and relate to intangible things. Almost by definition, people use metaphors (or metonyms) of one kind or another to visualise abstract or unseen concepts—what would they look like for invisible systems in our homes?
Could we use new metaphors strategically, to help people understand new systems? What should they be? How do they link to behaviour change in this context? Bringing it back to DIY, what metaphors are going to be used to get people interested in fitting these systems to their homes in the first place?
You’re not alone
Moving away from the home, this next group of ideas would use IoT technologies to enable ‘peer support’ for decision making: connecting people to others facing similar situations, and enabling people to understand each other’s thinking and what worked for them (or not). The aim of this knopening of situations would be empathy, but also practical advice and support.
Understanding–and reflecting on–how you think, and how other people approach the same kinds of situation, can help change mental models, support behaviour change in the context of everyday practices (learning from others what worked for them, and why), and tackle attribution errors, as mentioned earlier, by bridging the gaps between our own thinking and our assumptions about others’ behaviour.
The contexts and domains where this could be useful range from physical and mental health, to route planning, to home improvement, to financial decisions, to any situation where a combination of networked objects and/or sensors, combined with qualitative insights from people who are part of the system, could help.
Some specific ways of implementing You’re not alone might include:
This would be a tool for annotating situations with ‘what your thinking is’ as you do things (that may be logged automatically anyway)—a kind of ‘Why?’ column in the event logs of everyday life.
The question might be prompted automatically by certain situations being recognised (through sensor data) or could also be something you choose to record. These ‘Whys’ would then be available to your future self, and others (as you choose) when similar situations arise.
My thinking here is that (as Tricia Wang points out), the vast quantities of Big Data generated and logged by devices, sensors and homes and infrastructure, are largely devoid of human contexts–the ‘Why?’, the ‘thick’ data–that would give them meaning. There’s a great opportunity for introducing a system which makes this easier to capture. It could be an academic or design practitioner research tool, but my main priority is that it be actually useful to the people using it.
While there exist research methods such as experience sampling and sentiment mapping, with plenty of location- or other trigger-based mobile apps, these largely focus on mood and feelings, rather than the potentially richer question of ‘Why?’. Yet Facebook and Twitter have shown us that short-form status updates, with actual content (mostly!), are something people enjoy producing and sharing with others. When I worked on the CarbonCulture at DECC project, one of the most successful features (in terms of engagement) of the OK Commuter travel logging app was a question prompting users to describe that morning’s commute with a single word, which often turned out to be witty, insightful and revealing of intra-office dynamics around topics such as provision of facilities for cyclists.
Clearly there are lots of questions here about validity and privacy. Would people only log ‘Whys’ that they wanted others to know? Who would have access to my ‘Whys’? Would they ‘work’ better in terms of empathy or behaviour change if linked to real names or avatars than anonymously? We would have to find ways of addressing and accommodating these issues.
What this would involve is essentially being able to create helpful ‘ghosts’ for other people, which would appear when certain situations or circumstances, or conjunctions of conditions, were detected, through IoT capabilities. You could record advice, explanations, warnings, suggestions, motivational messages, how-to guides, photos, videos, audio, text, sets of rules, anything you like, which would be triggered by the system detecting someone encountering the particular conditions you specified. That could be location-based, but it could also be any other condition. It’s almost like a nice version of leaving a note for your successor, or anyone who faces a similar situation.
The ghosts wouldn’t be scary, or at least I hope not. Maybe ghost is the wrong word. The idea obviously has parallels with Marley’s Ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol–and the feedforward / scenario planning / design futures of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come–but what directly inspired me was Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (probably in turn inspired by archaeologist and parapsychologist Tom Lethbridge’s work), in which ghosts are explained as a form of recording somehow left behind in the fabric of buildings or locations where strong emotions have been felt. Kevin Slavin’s talk at dConstruct 2011, and Tom Armitage’s ghostcar, are also inspirations here. And I have recently also come across Joe Reinsel’s work on Sound Cairns, which has some very clever elements to it.
Maybe it’s better to think of this like If This Then That (see below), but allowing you to create rules that trigger events for other people instead of just for you.
How would it be different to Clippy? (thanks to Justin Pickard for making this connection). We should aim to learn from the late Clifford Nass’s work at Stanford on why Clippy was so disliked, and how to make him more loveable. It would also be important that the helpful ghosts did not just become a form of ‘pop-up window for real life’. Advertisers should not be able to get hold of it. It should always be opt-in, and the emphasis should be on participation (creating your own ghosts in response) and understanding. It is meant to be at least a dialogue, a collaborative approach to learning more about, and understanding–knopening–a situation, and then passing on that understanding to others.
A Collective If This Then That
This is probably already possible to achieve with clever use of If This Then That together with some other linked services, but the basic idea would be a system where multiple people’s inputs–which could be a combination of quantitative sensor data and qualitative comments or expressions of sentiment or opinion–together can trigger particular outputs. These might also be collective, or might apply only in a single location or context.
There are obvious top-down examples around things like adaptive traffic management, but it would more interesting to see what ‘recipes’ emerge from people’s–and communities’–own needs. There could also be multiple outputs to different systems. They could work within a family or household or on a much bigger scale–connecting families who are often apart, for example.
The knopen element comes with being able to understand–right from the start–how to make action happen, and collaboratively create recipes which address a community’s needs, for example. The system might be complex but would be not only visible, but fully accessible since the participants would be involved in creating and iterating it.
It could involve ‘voting’ somehow, but it would also be interesting to see effects emerge from unconscious action or a combination of physical effects read by sensors and social or psychological effects from people themselves.
I’m inspired here particularly by Brian Boyer and Dan Hill’s Brickstarter–in which the collective desire/need/interest of the crowdfunding model is applied to urban infrastructure–but also by the academic research (and workshop at Interaction 12) I did exploring ‘if…then’-type rules of thumb and heuristics that people use for themselves, often implicitly, around things like heating systems, and how different people’s heuristics differ.
There’s some really interesting academic research going on at the moment by teams at Brown and Carnegie Mellon–e.g. see this paper by Blase Ur et al from CHI 2014–on using IFTTT-like ‘practical action-trigger programming’ in smart homes as a way to enable a more easily programmable world, and it would be great to explore the potential of this approach for improving understanding and engagement with the systems around us. As Michael Littman puts it:
“We live in a world now that’s populated by machines that are supposed to make our lives easier, but we can’t talk to them. Everybody out there should be able to tell their machines what to do.” (Professor Michael Littman, Brown University)
Storytelling for systems: Five whys for public life
‘Five whys’ is a method for what’s called root cause analysis, used in fields as diverse as quality management and healthcare process reform. It’s similar to the interview technique of laddering, which has seen some application in user experience design. The basic principle is that there is never only one ‘correct’ reason ‘Why?’ something happens: there are always multiple levels of abstraction, multiple levels of explanation, multiple contexts–and each explanation may be completely valid within the particular context of analysis. In ‘solving’ the problem, the repeated asking ‘Why?’ enables reframing the problem at further levels up (or down) this abstraction hierarchy, as well as giving us the ‘backstory’ of the current state (which is often considered to be a problem, hence the analysis).
It’s a practical instantiation, in a way, of Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s tenet of trying to design for the “next largest context–a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, environment in a city plan”. In some previous work, I tried exploring (not particularly clearly), the notion that this kind of approach, in reframing the problem at multiple levels, could essentially provide us with multiple suggested ‘solutions’ by inverting problem statements at each level of abstraction.
So what do we do with this? How can IoT technology be useful? Imagine being able to ‘ask’ the physical and societal infrastructure around you–the street lamps, the building site, the park fountain, but also the local council, the voting booth, the tax office, your children’s primary school’s board of governors, the bus timetable, Starbucks, the numberplate recognition camera, the drain cover, the air quality sensors in the park, the National Rail Conditions of Carriage–Why?
Why are they set up the way they are? Who came up with the idea? (not for blame, but for empathy). What’s the story behind the systems? What influenced how they’re operating, how the decisions were made, how they came to be?
What data do they collect, and what do they do with the data? What’s the revision history for this government policy? What were the reasons given for that cycle path being routed that way? What’s the history of planning applications for buildings on this site? What were the debates that led to the current situation?
And for each of those, the answers would be explained at multiple levels–maybe not exactly five ‘whys’, but more than one simplistic reason, devoid of context.
From a technology point of view, you could do it very simply with smartphones and QR codes or NFC tags stuck on bits of street furniture (for example), but it would be possible to do much more when systems have a networked capability and presence–when data are being collected or received, or transmitted, or when one piece of infrastructure is informing another.
Of course, it could be seen as quite antagonistic to authority: this kind of transparent storytelling could reveal how inept some institutions–and potentially some individuals–are at making decisions, although it could also help generate empathy for people facing tough decisions, in the sense of revealing the trade-offs they have to make, and so increase public engagement with these systems by showing both their complexity (potentially) and their human side. Peerveillance, sousveillance, equiveillance, yes–but preferably framed as storytelling.
The challenge would be finding positive stories to lead with (thanks to Duncan Wilson for this point). Suggestions are very welcome.
Conclusion: what next?
This has been a long, rambling and poorly focused article. It tangles together a lot of ideas that have been on my mind, and others’ minds, for a while, and I’m not sure the tangle itself is very legible. But I welcome your comments.
My basic thesis is that IoT technology can be a tool for behaviour change for social and environmental benefit, through involving people in making systems which address problems that are meaningful for them, and which improve understanding of the wider systems they’re engaging with.
I think we can do this, but, as always, doing something is worth more than talking about it. As an academic, I ought to be in a position to find funding and partners to do something interesting here. So I am going to try: if you’re interested, please do get in touch.
Back in the darkest days of my PhD, I started bloggingextracts from the thesis as it was being written, particularly the literature review. It helped keep me motivated when I was at a very low point, and seemed to be of interest to readers who were unlikely to read the whole 300-page PDF or indeed the publications. Possibly because of the amount of useful terms in the text making them very Google-able, these remain extremely popular posts on this blog. So I thought I would continue, not quite where I left off, but with a few extracts that might actually be of practical use to people working on design, new ideas, and understanding people’s behaviour.
The first article (to be split over two parts) is about toolkits (and similar things, starting with an exploration of idea generation methods), prompted by much recent interest in the subject via projects such as Lucy Kimbell, Guy Julier, Jocelyn Bailey and Leah Armstrong’s Mapping Social Design Research & Practice and Nesta’s Development Impact & You toolkit, and some of our discussions at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for the Creative Citizens project about different formats for summarising information effectively. (On this last point, I should mention the Sustainable Cultures Engagement Toolkit developed in 2012-13 by my colleagues Catherine Greene and Lottie Crumbleholme, with Johnson Controls, which is now available online (12.5MB PDF).)
“Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artefacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.” Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 (p.129 of 1981 MIT press 2nd edition)
Designers solve problems, but they are by no means alone in that. As Jack Schulze of BERG comments, ”so do dentists” (Kicker Studio, 2009). Design is not, then, identical to problem-solving, but it certainly involves addressing issues that are seen (by someone) as problems and developing new or changed products, services or environments (seen by someone as solutions) in response. This review is not going to fall into the ‘What is design?’ rabbit-hole, since that has been more than adequately explored by other authors, but it is important to understand how design processes can work, in order to identify the most useful characteristics for the proposed toolkit. [which became Design with Intent]
The view of design as being entirely about ‘problem-solving’–which, at its most mechanistic, is ”basically a form of means-ends analysis that aims at discovering a process description of the path that leads to a desired goal”–as espoused by Simon (1969/1981, p.223, and to some extent in the above quote), has become unfashionable in design research, and not just because of the implied lack of creativity in the process. In particular, the reaction against the ‘problem-solving’ view follows SchÃ¶n’s (1983) concept of The Reflective Practitioner, whose “inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation” (p.68).
Thus, design is seen as being as much about problem-framing as problem-solving, an exploration and co-evolution of both the problem and solution ‘spaces’ (Maher et al, 1996), questioning and refining the problem, changing focus and the boundaries of the problem as part of the process of generating solutions.  Read More