Black Sky Thinking: Designing for The Unexpected

Rachel Armstrong on why black-sky thinking can help us design beyond short-term issues and prepare for the unexpected by going further than what we traditionally call blue-sky thinking. Taking far reaching ideas into reality requires long term thinking: Black Sky Thinking.

My interpretation of a few main points:

1. “Dare to dream. Armstrong innovates by looking 100 years into the future, even beyond the limit of her lifetime”Designing and innovating beyond the limits of our lifetime is what’s required in order to design sustainably and responsibly with an understanding of our impacts on future generations. Design is currently focused on creating within the short term as it’s what necessary in order to design products that will be replaced by a newer better version within a few years sometimes months and generally this is done without an idea or understanding of the impact on the environment and future generations which then creates “wicked problems” that have to be managed by a generation that did not create the problem in the first place. Long term thinking is essential to prevent such problems. 

2. “Mix art and science. The merging of these previously separate disciplines has produced an explosion of creativity unseen since the days of the EnlightenmentThis is the current emergence of transdisciplinarity or the break down of disciplinary silos, the overlap of traditionally separate disciplines. The arts and the sciences require very different ways of thinking therefore combining them allows for a leap in creativity. Disciplinary silos can only take knowledge so far and the overlap of disciplines is necessary to take knowledge to new heights, especially when it involves the arts and the sciences.


3. “Talk lab. Consumers are embracing the science bit. Show off the science behind your product to draw your customers into the process”As Rachel Armstrong previously suggested, there’s an important place for allowing the public in scientific research. Including the public in a dialogue about research is not only a way to inform and demystify what’s happening in what’s perceived as “ivory towers” but also allows for new ways to generate ideas in ways that scientist and designers might not as the public may interpret the research through fresh eyes and potentially inspire new generations of research. The current crossing of arts and science is leading to exciting and fascinating new horizons and there’s no time like the present to engage people in the possibilities.



Branding in 2079: A Brand is Valued by How it Allows Humanity to Thrive thru Creation

What is branding in 2079? A very interesting design (science) fiction project by IDEO. It’s fascinating to see how a design fiction exercise like this one can lead to captivating new ideas of near future possibilities to then explore how today’s brands/companies would create value and purpose beyond sales and without marketing if they were to operate within the same dimensions as this fictive world.

A most fascinating aspect of this project is that in that world,  sharing is the new currency and co-creation is the new consumption. As the needs of humanity have dramatically shifted, a brand/company (VARIA) is valued by how it allows civilization to thrive and evolve thru a culture of creation, information sharing, knowledge and collaboration rather than one of consumerism and individualism. As a result, the company becomes a human-centered brand focused on what we need rather than what it wants to sell us. It is also called to evolve with its users. What we today call customization is essentially one-way transaction, the user’s mods have little to no effect on the brand, whereas in that world, customization (data input) is a continuous feedback loop and users’ input help the brand improve and humanity to thrive.

It’s a beautiful project.

Eventually We Will Have to Rethink Work and the Economy

The Risk of Technological Unemployment

“Only a more intelligent look into the technosphere and into the networks of autonomous systems that surround us – the economy, the internet, democracies, etc – can produce a satisfactory solution to these issues. For real solutions, we must look for ways to interact with these emerging, autonomous systems of our complex technosphere.”- Daniel Fraga

I agree that there is over-simplification of the issue in Stephen Hawking’s argument regarding the pressing issue of robotization and technological unemployment. However, I would argue that on the other side of the issue, there is another major problem regarding pressing concerns we are facing as a civilization.

There’s a rigid and foolish notion that we have it all figured out somehow, that, as a blind proponent of capitalism once said “there’s no more work to do, this is the best economic system ever by mankind”. Really? We have it all figured out? There are no flaws, no need for reform any kind?

This economic system has produced wealth and a standard of living like none before, no one can argue that. My concern, is that we are operating in a system “designed” in a 19th century reality but we now live in the 21st century. Progress like never before has happened in less than two centuries, let alone what is about to happen in the next 50 years. There are definitely reforms needed in how the economy functions and about its impact on the environment, about the foolish notion of “constant growth” which is ultimately impossible when that very system exists within a finite system (ecosystem). In regards to this article, at some point, we will need to rethink work in itself. How many hours is really necessary in a workweek, what will a productive workweek really look like, how many hours do we need to spend in an office in the age of the internet, how is that wealth fairly distributed (I didn’t say redistribution) and are there novel ways to work and create in order to make a living.

These will be question we will have to honestly answer if we are to live in a more equitable and sustainable society. We cannot treat our institutions whether they be economic, political or educational as if they are untouchable and as if this is the best we can do, otherwise we are doomed to inadequately adapt to the massive changes we are facing as a civilization.


Cross-fertilization to Generate Innovative Design Solutions

Innovation through cross fertilisation; The friendship of Da Vinci and Machiavelli led to The Mona Lisa and The Prince

This article by Dr. Jasmine Pradissitto touches on an interesting subject I focused on in my thesis on Biomimicry and Innovation in Design. It’s important to specify that my point is valid for all creative endeavours and not just biomimicry. However since it was the subject of my thesis, I can better illustrate my argument through this example.

An insight I had before embarking on a 6 month biomimicry project with Adidas was to explore what happens creatively through the interaction between designers, engineers and developers as they are led by a biologist. In the end, I didn’t get to include this in the project in part due to the fact that at the time I wasn’t realizing this project would be a perfect PhD dissertation but a bit ambitious for  a master’s thesis. Even though I wasn’t able to observe and dissect the interaction, the insight was still valid. As I explained in the thesis, this type of interaction is what leads to innovation in biomimicry and ultimately in any setting which exploits this type of interaction between various disciplines. This is known as transdisciplinarity. I argued that biomimicry is a transdisciplinary approach and not an interdisciplinary approach as it is often said in the literature; inter- invokes a hierarchy whereas trans- invokes a network. It is the network aspect which leads to innovative and creative solutions.

Even though the BaDT (Biologist at the Design Table) “leads” the project, the other participants are not expected to assimilate the methodologies of biology as they would in an interdisciplinary approach and neither is the biologist expected to assimilate the methodologies of the other participating disciplines. In this transdisciplinary approach, the BaDT  has to learn to speak the language of architects, designers and engineers to properly transfer the knowledge of natural sciences to the realm of the built environment. This removes any aspect of hierarchy despite the fact that the project is in fact “led” by the biologist. The interesting part is that as each participating disciplines (architects, designers, engineers, etc.) receives the knowledge of the biologist, each will absorb and understand it through their respective worldview which is influenced by their discipline, education, etc. As they then discuss what they understood and took from that information this is when the innovation and creative leap happens, what Matt Ridley describes as “what happens when ideas have sex”. Through the filter and worldview of each disciplines, new understandings and ideas that one wouldn’t have conceived of through his/her worldview are brought about.

Essentially this is what Dr. Pradissitto talks about in her text when she talks about cross-fertilization, about what was happening during the interaction between an artist/engineer, a politician and a warrior. Transdiciplinarity fosters cross-fertilization and it was this unlikely transdisciplinary exchange which then led to the creation some of the greatest works ever produced: The Prince by Machiavelli and the Mona Lisa by DaVinci.  It is ultimately what happens when disciplinary silos are broken down and when there is a parallel exchange of ideas.

This explains the rise of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART, and Mathematics) vs STEM. More and more, we are seeing artists involved in corporate environments, on academic research labs and projects. In this day and age, when there is a dire need for progressive ideas, new ways of doing, new ways of thinking to get to innovative design solutions and truly creative ideas, it might be worth it to incorporate various and unlikely disciplines in the creative process.

What is the Role of the Designer in Synthetic Biology?

In this interview Daisy Ginsberg talks about the importance of the increase in collaborations between artists, designers and scientists. Essentially, the importance of the resurgence of STEAM vs STEM. I say resurgence because the arts in the time of the Renaissance were an intrinsic part of the scientific community. Leonardo DaVinci would not be if he was solely artist or scientist: it’s the combination that makes his notebooks such salient artistic/scientific documents. Today, as disciplinary silos are collapsing, new forms of knowledge, new disciplines are being created propelling forward understanding, for example neurochemistry (neurology + chemistry) . This is what explains the growing trend of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. Disciplinary silos could only have gotten us so far, they have inhibited knowledge and understanding and considering the important challenges we are facing, breaking these boundaries will provide new ways of questioning, new insights and new understandings.

Such is the importance of designers and artists being involved in the scientific realm as they bring about a worldview that is completely foreign to scientists and thus potentially bring in new insights traditional scientists would have been less likely to bring about. Ginsberg points out the increasing role of designers and artists in synthetic biology and what that means for the future of design, what is the role of the designer in the scientific realm and how it redefines the discipline of design.

When designers are traditionally involved in a mechanistic world of inert products, what insights are they bringing in discussions about living machines and designing with biology?


The Importance of Engaging the Public in Scientific Research

This interview with Prof. Armstrong relates in some ways to my previous post about diegetic prototypes as tools to communicate scientific research with the general public.

In this article, Prof. Armstrong reiterates the necessity for academia to reach out to the public. Not solely to inform the public about the research but perhaps more importantly to engage the public in a dialogue about the research and this way generate ideas that had perhaps not been considered, understand how to better communicate the work being done, or inspire new generations of researchers.

Her approach is essentially a transdisciplinary approach as she considers the public to be an essential part of the discussion. A transdisciplinary approach aims at resolving issues through the participation of various stakeholders, from scientists to designers, from academia to the public to evoke new ways of thinking, new ways of resolving design problems. Transdisciplinarity is not solely the breakdown of silos between academic fields but also between the scientific realm and the public realm.


Prof. Rachel Armstrong on Design Fiction

A talk by Prof. Rachel Armstrong on design fiction. A part of the presentation focuses on the importance of design fiction as a tool for designers and scientists to engage the general public about future technologies, their potential benefits and their potential impacts through diegetic prototypes (the storytelling of visionary science through fictional objects).


Such a tool is important to prevent the public’s aversion to emerging technologies and instead inform and engage the public in the discussion of how these new biological technologies can be applied in imagining, designing and creating the future.