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March 11, 2009

LIFT 09, future-proof design.

I recently had the luck of spending a few stimulating days at LIFT 09.
As in the past the pre-conference workshops and two full days of interesting conversations flooded my slow brain with ideas that have started sedimenting, hopefully to then resurface in my thinking patterns in the upcoming months.

I found many talks to be particularly relevant - Nicolas Nova's thoughts on how to learn from "failed futures", David Rose's musings on basic human needs and leveraging magic as a metaphor for connected products, Matt Webb's usual mix of genius and madness and Anab Jain's fantastic video reportages from Little Brinkland - but it was Dan Hill's presentation that stood out as my personal highlight from the whole conference.
What made Dan's talk great was not just the content - a rich introduction to the upcoming challenges and opportunities posed by Urban Informatics - but also the way in which he supported his argument with almost-real-time storytelling layered over a masterfully orchestrated sequence of images and quotes interspersed with videos. Favorite quote: "No matter how good the hard infrastructure is, its the soft infrastructure that defines the experience.".

An added pleasure for me this year was also getting to speak in front of LIFT attendees in the "Design thinking for the future" session.

When first offered this opportunity this is what I had sent in:

"An old project management saying states that "plans are useless, but planning is indispensable".
Something along the same lines could be probably said about future-shaping practices.
Visions of the Future are often useless, but the act of envisioning them is not.
3D flying virtual assistants, 1984-like nightmares, Asimov-inspired robots, videophones and even flying cars are here, they are just not evenly distributed, and they might never be.

Truth is that many designers dream of spending their professional lives telling stories about the Future, and shaping systems of products and services that populate those stories like props in a movie.
Historically Design-at-large has been the discipline arisen to help the industry-at-large give form to artifacts fit for a given cultural milieu, artifacts that in turn usually end up influencing and changing that very cultural milieu, and thus its future.
What's interesting is that the sheer amount of these stories today vastly overwhelms their "rate of absorption": the necessary cultural humus for a vision to grow onto is continuously washed away by the next wave of seducing - albeit often utopic or dystopic - hypotheses.
In other words the potential culture(s) of use that could take shape around any and all of these visions simply cannot keep up with the ever-accelerating production of competing images depicting the next "perfect" - and often branded - future we will be living in so-very-soon.

Perhaps part of the problem stems from a model of time that's still very Newtonian: an infinite horizontal Cartesian axis pointed right. Within this model the Future appears to be an infinite resource.
Recently we have been forced to ask ourselves if that is actually the case.
We live on a planet that shows worrying signs of weariness.
We live in a world where economies recursively crumble under their own unsustainable weight.
We live in a world that has by now realized that technology solves as many problems as those it creates anew.

In addition to this our fixation with pro-jecting ourselves "beyond the beyond" into possible futures also appears to be strangely at odds with technologies that give us superhuman memory accrual capabilities. Our always-on devices and servers never, ever forget.
What we might be starting to realize is that to create something new we need to still have an "empty" space for it to take shape, and that space might be reducing.
Should we teach our digital tools to forget, so that we can as well? Maybe.

Design with a capital D is changing and reshaping its practices and philosophies to face these new challenges.
Form is on a new quest for meaning, rather than just function or emotion.
In the meantime the people formerly known as consumers and users have stopped listening to somebody else's tales from the future, and are now actively telling their own.
What's emerging is a dynamic dialogue, an ever-evolving conversation among all parties involved, with designers (hopefully) gearing up to act as maieutic catalysts of change.

After all was said and done this is what I presented:

If you've got 20 minutes to waste you can also watch the video:

frog design's Tim Leberecht's LIFT 09 report kindly included also a nice summary of my brief talk, and I will shamelessly re-post it here:

"(Fabio) used the case study of Project Masiluleke (a large-scale initiative that leverages mobile technologies to combat HIV/AIDS in South Africa) to illustrate a model of design that 'is not just about creating compelling visions of perfect futures but rather shaping presents that are betas of a future we want to live in'.
Quoting an Italian bus customer ("In the past you had to stamp the ticket, now you simply have to caress the machine."), he spanned the arch from 'form follows function' to 'form follows emotion' to 'form follows meaning' (design that resonates with people's value systems). Empathy, technology as 'a material to sketch with', people-centered user experiences, and social impact these are the characteristics of 'meaningful design'.
Empathy, in particular, is not only the foundation for meaningful social innovation projects (pro-bono or for-profit), it is also the very prerequisite for every act of human cooperation.

Could not have said it better.
Also much kudos and lots of respect to Robert Fabricant and the rest of the frog NY team that worked on Project M: I undeservedly basked in the light you guys cast with your good work. Thank you.

Chapeau to Laurent Haug and Nicolas Nova for once again putting together a flawlessly-organized unconference, for the crazy 700+ people fondue and for LIFT's famously relaxed atmosphere that encouraged precious conversations with lots of interesting fellow t(h)inkerers and old pals like Anne Galloway, Fabien Girardin and Stephen Blyth.

Posted by fabio sergio | 3:32 PM | permalink


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