Identify the Problems Correctly
The gap between the problems we face as a species and the seemingly unlimited potential of technologies ripe for implementation begs for considered but agile design thinking and practice. Designers should be problem identifiers, not just problem solvers searching for a solution to a pre-established set of parameters. We must seek to guide our technology, rather than just allow it to guide us.
On the cover of the November/December 2012 issue of MIT Technology Review, the shortcomings of the past decade’s technological achievements are expressed in the damning headline dramatically superimposed in white type over the bemused portrait of astronaut Buzz Aldrin: “You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead I Got Facebook.” The subhead elaborates tellingly:“We’ve stopped solving big problems. Meet the technologists who refuse to give up.” The accompanying article “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems” details some of the current limitations in American culture, finance, and politics that, since the Apollo moonshot, have relegated big thinking and technical aspirations to the sidelines.
We are on the cusp of a new technological age, saddled with the problems of the previous one, demanding that as we step forward we do not make the same mistakes. To do this, we must identify the right challenges to take on: the significant and valuable ones. Chief among our concerns must be the environment, not only in reducing the carbon we release as a result of consumption and seeking new sources of energy, but also in understanding the effects of a growing global population, against the backdrop of limited resources. We must also improve human health and consider the ramifications as humans live longer lives. And, we must find new ways to manufacture goods and produce food and clean water for a planet currently with 7.2 billion inhabitants—a population that is projected to explode in the next 35 years by an additional 2.4 billion, reaching 9.6 billion by 2050, according to the UN report,“World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision.” Recognizing these major challenges for humanity in the twenty-first century and seeking proactive solutions, even in significant areas such as the environment, energy, health, manufacturing, agriculture, and water usage, will not be an obvious or easy task.
The boundaries between product design and engineering for software, hardware, and biotech are already blurring. Powerful technologies are creating an environment of constant change for the creative class knowledge workers. In the coming years, those who began their professional lives as industrial designers, computer engineers, user experience practitioners, scientists, and system thinkers, will find that the trajectory of their careers takes them into uncharted territory as the cross-pollination and evolution of these fields in parallel creates new possibilities for influencing humanity’s progress.
Designers will need to understand the implications of science and technology for people. To do this effectively, we must be able to immerse ourselves in new technical domains and learn them quickly. Just as our understanding of and empathy for people allows us to successfully design with a user’s viewpoint in mind, understanding our materials, whether they be pixels or proteins, sensors or servos, enables us to bring a design into the world. To achieve this, designers need to be early adopters of technology, learning constantly.
The ability to quickly learn new materials and techniques has always been one of the most important of a designer’s core competencies. However, the speed at which this is expected and at which technological change occurs is the critical difference today. How we learn will soon become as important a consideration as what we learn. To prepare designers for the new roles that emerging technology will bring, schools will need to develop curricula that emphasize continuous learning as a core competency and provide tools and methods to enable it.
Increasingly, designers will also need to be system thinkers. As we consider the fields of advanced robotics, synthetic biology, or wearable technology, the design of the ecosystem will be just as important as the design of the product or service itself.
Work at a Variety of Scales
Designers should be able work at a variety of scales, from the aforementioned overall system view, to the nitty-gritty details. Moving between these levels will be important, too, as each one informs the other—the macro view informs the micro, and vice versa.
At the highest level, designers can work proactively with politicians and policy makers to effectively regulate new technology. As one example of this, in September 2013, the FDA released final guidance on mobile medical apps, which was crafted with input from industry experts. From bioethics to industrial regulations governing the use of robotics, designers will want and need to have input into the realm of policy. Just as free markets cannot exist without effective and enforceable contract law, so, too, technological advancement cannot exist without sensible, effective, and enforceable regulation with a long-term view. Designers will need a seat, not just at the computer or the lab bench, but at the policy-making table, as well.
Connect People and Technology
Design should provide the connective tissue between people and technology. The seamless integration of a technology into our lives is almost always an act of great design, coupled with smart engineering; it’s the “why” that makes the “what” meaningful. It is through this humane expression of technology that the designer ensures a product or service is not just a functional experience, but one that is also worthwhile. We must consider the outputs of these technologies—what people need and want. The designer should ask:“Why are we doing these things? How is humanity represented against what’s possible with technology?” It is the designer’s duty to be a skeptic for the human side of the equation.
For instance, as robots take a greater role in the fields such as manufacturing by automating repetitive and dangerous tasks, as well as augmenting human abilities, we can see that even though there are many benefits, there remains a question as to how such robotic optimization can coexist with meaningful work for people in the long term. At first glance, the combination of collaborative robotics and agile manufacturing seems to be one potential answer to this problem. Rethink Robotics’ Baxter, Yaskawa Motoman’s Dexter Bot, and Universal Robotics’ UR are examples of collaborative robots designed with human-like characteristics, flexibility regarding the tasks they can execute, and ease of programming, opening up new possibilities for working in tandem with human workers on the factory floor. In this model, human labor is augmented by, not replaced with, the robotic technologies.
Advanced collaborative robotics could readily provide the flexible systems required to meet the demands of agile manufacturing. A key advantage to robotic manufacturing is its adaptability: robotic production lines can be easily modified to accommodate shorter-run, customized products. We could soon see robots replace expensive dedicated industrial machinery made for specific production processes, which can be extremely difficult to repurpose when changes to a process are required. As a part of this agile manufacturing paradigm, robots with the ability to work in collaboration with human beings—in factories, warehouses, and other industrial settings—will be a critical component. Human workers will be responsible for programming, monitoring, supervising, and otherwise interacting with a robotic workforce that is repurposed regularly to handle the creation of custom, short-run production.
Provoke and Facilitate Change
It is not only the designer’s responsibility to smooth transitions and find the best way to work things out between people and the technology in their lives; it is also the designer’s duty to recognize when things are not working, and, rather than smooth over problems, to provoke wholesale change. Technological change is difficult and disruptive. Even today, there are countless examples of technologies outpacing the frameworks for controlling them, resulting in a sense of unease in people about the seemingly unprecedented and unchecked advances, from digital surveillance encroaching on our privacy to genetically modified foods filling our grocery stores. Designers can start the discussion and help lead the process of transformation.
Work Effectively on Cross-Disciplinary Teams
The challenges inherent in much of emerging technology are far too great for an individual to encompass the requisite cross-domain knowledge. For this kind of work, then, the team becomes paramount. It is a multidisciplinary mix of scientists, engineers, and designers who are best positioned to understand and take advantage of these technologies. And, it is crucial that these creative disciplines evolve together.
From such collaborations new roles will be created: perhaps we will soon see a great need for the synthetic biological systems engineer or the human-robot interaction designer. This cross-pollination of science, design, and engineering is already happening at organizations such as the Wyss Institute at Harvard, whose mission is to develop materials and devices inspired by nature and biology. Wyss structures itself around multidisciplinary teams. Forward-thinking design firms such as IDEO have also added synthetic biology to their established practices of industrial and digital design.
Take Risks, Responsibly
To find our way forward as designers, we must be willing to take risks—relying upon a combination of our education, experience, and intuition—which can be crucial to innovation. We must always keep in mind both the benefits and consequences for people using these new technologies, and be prepared for mixed results.
The Glowing Plant Kickstarter project is a good example of such inspired risk taking in action. There is perhaps no technology more fraught with perceived peril than genomics and synthetic biology. Seeing the opportunity to both inspire and educate the public, a team of biochemists started a project to generate a bioluminescent plant, which they touted as “the first step in creating sustainable natural light- ing.” Financed on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, the Glowing Plant project generated so much grassroots excitement that it raised $484,013 from 8,433 backers, far exceeding its initial goal of $65,000.
However, soon after the Glowing Plant project finished its campaign, Kickstarter, without any explanation, changed its terms for project cre- ators, banning genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as rewards for online backers. Glowing Plant, with its project financing already in place, might be the last example of crowd-funded synthetic biology for a while. Although this incident, in and of itself, might seem minor, it’s worth remembering that Kickstarter is the primary resource for crowd-funding in the United States. Removing this financial option for synthetic biology startups, in a seemingly arbitrary decision, will have a chilling effect on future innovators.
The results of the Glowing Plant crowd-funding project illustrate the promise and perils of designing for such a disruptive technology as synthetic biology. How do we evaluate the risk and reward, in this case, knowing the outcome? Even though the team initially received immense grassroots enthusiasm and financial backing, they also caused the Kickstarter ban, as an established corporate entity reacted with fear. During this transition time between fear and acceptance, designers of genetically modified organisms, like the team behind the Glowing Plant project, will continue to push the envelope of what companies, regulators, and the government find acceptable. It’s safe to say that until synthetic biology is better understood, policy decisions such as this ban will continue to happen. It might be that a willingness to push forward and to take risks will be important to making the transition, to reach public acceptance and ultimately help move the technology forward.