Future Ways of Living

I am great fan of Freakanomics Radio. So this morning I was listening to an episode – “Think Like a Child”. Now as a designer educated in India, with its gestalt psychology leanings, and complexity theory narratives this is what you would hear; think like a child, learn to see things from unorthodox perspectives. So I was mildly curious, and wondering if I would be dissappointed – I need not have worried. As a Dubner fan I know better than to predict content – so I was again inspired by this podcast. So get your Frekanomics radio app, download this and listen. If you want to skim – here is the transcript.

I will open with this crucial section that was a great takeaway.

DUBNER: Okay, so you’ve given us a number of traits that children exhibit in much larger measure than we might’ve thought before. What about the ways in which the old wisdom was right? What are the ways in which children really are kind of a dormant or latent version, at best, of what they will become?

GOPNIK: Yeah. It’s interesting. The kind of conventional wisdom was really that children were sort of defective grownups. So they were grownups, but missing pieces, with bits that hadn’t developed yet. But if you think about that from a biological or an evolutionary point of view, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. An alternative way that you might think about them is think of the kids as being the research and development division of the human species. And we’re—adults—we’re production and marketing. So from the production and marketing perspective, it might look like the R & D guys are really not doing anything that looks very sensible or useful. They sit around all day in their beanbag chairs playing Pong and having blue-sky ideas. And we poor production and marketing people, who are actually making the profits, have to subsidize these guys. But of course, one of the things that we know is that that kind of blue-sky, just pure research actually pays off in the long run.

I am writing this post to talk about – Contemporary Industrial Design and how Industrial Design reimagines ways of living. First I pull out phrases from the text above and list it.

  1. Research and Development division – As Industrial Designers we are familiar with the R&D Wallahs who are always dreaming up new innovations.
  2. Production and Marketing – We are also familiar with this lot who can shoot down what we propose. The market is not ready for that. This is what will sell.
  3. The R & D guys are really not doing anything that looks very sensible or useful – Often the obsessions that lead to innovations and inventions can be hard to fathom.
  4. They sit around all day in their beanbag chairs playing Pong and having blue-sky ideas – Such as having endless conversations about the future. Or thinking up ridiculous ideas – which they then propose to develop.
  5. Blue-sky, just pure research actually pays off in the long run – But for now they seem to be having endless conversations about the way things will be in the future.

There is one branch of Industrial Design that does blu sky thinking – this is popularly referred to as Design Thinking. Jon Kolko does a great job of appropriating Design Thinking as a process Industrial Designers use. He writes; “In the past, design has most often occurred fairly far downstream in the development process and has focused on making new products aesthetically attractive or enhancing brand perception through smart, evocative advertising. Today, as innovation’s terrain expands to encompass human-centered processes and services as well as products, companies are asking designers to create ideas rather than to simply dress them up.” He goes on to give the example of an Ideo/ Tim Brown project: “Brown, the CEO and president of the innovation and design firm IDEO, is a leading proponent of design thinking—a method of meeting people’s needs and desires in a technologically feasible and strategically viable way. In this article he offers several intriguing examples of the discipline at work. One involves a collaboration between frontline employees from health care provider Kaiser Permanente and Brown’s firm to reengineer nursing-staff shift changes at four Kaiser hospitals. Close observation of actual shift changes, combined with brainstorming and rapid prototyping, produced new procedures and software that radically streamlined information exchange between shifts. The result was more time for nursing, better-informed patient care, and a happier nursing staff.” Heaps more on that great Kolko article here.

Now if you are an industrial designer all this is music to your ears. Its also a convenient stick with which to beat the thing-making designers who as Kolko says above are “focused on making new products aesthetically attractive”. I will add a small addendum here that pretty things and goodlooking designs have their place. Its just that they are, to use Brown’s words, not that important. That 2009 TEDTalk by Tim Brown is a classic: Tim Brown says the design profession has a bigger role to play than just creating nifty, fashionable little objects. You can see that here.

Now I invite you to think about the R&D people in bean bags doing blu sky thinking as the people who do not make usable stuff. They spend their time thinking about changing the way things are done. They are design thinkers – switched on by Brown, Kolko and the story of Kaiser Permanente. The production people (adults) are then spending time creating nifty, fashionable little objects.  This sounds rough, much like the barbs aimed at ‘design thinking’ and ‘innovation’ by the fashion wallahs. So there is this divide – and a tension.

Or in freaknomics terms – the children and the adults.

Now how would this design thinking, innovation and service design orientated approach reimagine ways of living? This is what I set out to answer in this post.

I directed a studio with undergraduate industrial design students to find out. The goal was stated as micro living in the future. The designer were then invited to think up propositions that visualized the living infrastructure of the future. Would sharing play a big role in this future? What could we learn from Airbnb to reimagine sharing?

Much in the way the car is recast as a mobility appliance, the apartment becomes an appliance. Seen as appliances – the role of technology and consumption of appliances can be queried. On one side we start blusky thinking by visiting all the sci films – fifth element is a favourite – and also thinkers like Ray Kurweil who urges world changing as a great thing to do, “There are young people who followed their own instincts and changed the world.” What does this kind of thinking do when confronted with the notion of living and the living appliances we currently use? Lets say there exists an outmoded way of thinking about living.

Then there is the aspect of how do you consume these appliances – these living modules. Not like your mobile phone or other contemporary tech appliance. You have to buy this appliance hard wired into a specific geographical location. One immediate query – that can potentially break down the meaning of modules for living – is why do we have a hard-tie with geo-location? There is no way to answer this except to say – this is a legacy issue that will go away at some point in the future.

Seth Godin, in his blog, does a pithy take on legacy. He asks questions such as, “How long did it take Detroit to take the ashtrays out of cars? The single-sex admission policy at the club? How many people who use your website need to speak up on behalf of a button or a policy for you to persist in keeping it there? How long before you cancel the Sisterhood meetings that are now attended by just three people?”

To this we can add – How long did it take for governments and city councils to change laws about consuming living appliances?

Focussing away from some obvious bottlenecks to innovation – such as legacy issues – we can take a look at the people who need these appliances. Into this conversation we introduce some very powerful issues such as coproduction, cohousing, cocreation and collaborative consumption.

What happens to living then? What happens to living appliances and the living ecosystem when service designers are asked to design apartments?

To be continued.

See my earlier post inspired by the theme of – if apartments were cars here.

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Soumitri Varadarajan

Soumitri lives in Melbourne, Australia - #probonodesign #codesign #sustainability #patientexperience #quantifiedself #mdg

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