September 24, 2009 TED Salon London 2009: Designing (for) Awareness.
On September 21, 2009 I was lucky enough to speak at a TED Salon, held in London at the wonderful Unicorn Theatre for Children. Tim Leberecht, Till Gruche, Sam Martin and the rest of the frog Marketing team have my respect and deep appreciation for creating (and giving me) this great opportunity, and for flawlessly organizing such a great event. It was thrilling to breathe a TED-like atmosphere for an evening, and even though I tend to be relatively relaxed when talking in public the red 3-letter acronym glowing behind me on stage kept me on the edge more than I expected. Always interesting to learn something about yourself.
If you're curious you can read how the evening went overall on the TED blog, or you can take a look at some of the photos on Flickr. Below you'll also find an extended transcript of my talk. TED's infallible Bruno Giussani told me several times that "TED talks last 18 minutes, better plan for 16", so what I actually said was a much-distilled version of the text below. And yes, I managed to stay on time and was not pulled off stage. Phew. And no, unfortunately I do not think it was my best performance ever. Sigh.
Designing (for) awareness
Can Design really help change the world? Of course I think that the answer to this question is a loud "yes", but I also think that the question still stands, and the reason is simple. If you asked designers for a definition of Design, you'd get back as many definitions as there are designers, but if you asked the same designers what they think they do best they would consistently tell you they see themselves as catalysts of change. I share the same point of view: in the recent past Design has shed a perceived fixation on esthetics to become a credible future-shaping, world-changing discipline. In this process designers have had to stop just relying on sheer intuition and creativity to meet their challenges, and developed a profound understanding of people's needs, hopes, desires and dreams, in addition to an ability to detect, trace and shape the boundaries of liquid socio-economic and technological scenarios. One thing has not changed though: it is still all about love and passion, loving not just what we design, but who and where and when we design for. Future-proof design requires a genuine interest in human beings, and care for the spinning sphere they live on.
The downside of such love and passion for humanity coupled with an appetite for change is - at times - frustration. I've become particularly intrigued lately by our apparent inability to modify our habits. Why do most of us stick for example to behavioral patterns that we well know will hurt us individually in the short term, and collectively - as a species - in the long term? I believe, like others, that the problem is a problem of awareness. Without disturbing Buddhism I mean awareness as a profound, always-present consciousness that our accumulated decisions and actions, our behaviors and habits can have a huge impact. The problem is that we don't notice what needs changing simply because we don't even know it's taking place, or we have a misguided sense of what we do and how we do it and how often. But here are the good news. There is something brewing at the intersection of design, technology and digitally-mediated social interactions that promises to reveal and make manifest the invisible cause-and-effect loops that tie our perceptions to our decisions and to our actions. The result of giving visible and actionable substance to our otherwise invisible behavioral patterns will be a raised level of awareness about those very patterns, and thus an ability to reflect upon and ultimately change them, changing the world in return.
Let's make a concrete example: how fast is your heart beating right now? I am sure that just by thinking about it some of you are breathing differently already, and as a result your pulse slowed down, or maybe it accelerated instead. You've become all of a sudden aware of something we probably take for granted 99.9% of our time, that our heart is indeed beating... and beating just as fast as it needs to support us in whatever we're doing. Bear with me as I take this one step further. Some of you are probably involved in some form of physical exercise: jogging, running, cycling, whatever. Some of you might use a heart rate monitor while training. Those that do will usually report that being aware of one's heart rate while exercising deeply changes the way you train and even think about training, in the same way that people who meditate will tell you that becoming aware of one's breathing is the first step to actually change one's mental state. Becoming aware of the physiological state of your own organism changes the way you consciously behave ultimately, which has an impact on the state of the organism in return. This cause-effect loop is nothing new of course, and there's a term that defines it when that organism is the human body: biofeedback.
Here are a few questions that I'd like you to think about going forward. What happens to our sense of self and to our behaviors when technology can extend and enhance our ability to sense and make sense of what's around us? What happens when our nervous system ceases to be limited by the boundaries of our body, and extends into an artificial neural network of sorts we currently call the Internet? What happens when our fallible memory is supported by tools that never forget our actions and decisions, tracked over extended periods of time? This is what we'll be toying with in the next few minutes, pointing to a few paths worth exploring in the process, not necessarily to destinations. For the rest of this talk I will superficially touch upon the four essential components of a potential product/service ecosystem focused on making our behavioral patterns - our habits - manifest, to enable us to reflect upon them, and possibly to decide to change them in return. These components are: sensors and processing power everywhere, data streams, digital storage, information visualization and digitally-mediated social networks.
A short story first. I've always been a fan of comics, and Iron Man has always been one of my favorites. Iron Man is the super-alter-ego of pre-internet technologist and billionaire Tony Stark, but what is often forgotten is that the armor that gives him super-powers was originally conceived to help him cope with a heart condition derived from having been kidnapped. The armor was first and foremost a life support system: Iron Man was originally a man with disabilities overcome through technology. More about this later. In one of the recent evolutions of the Iron Man character, Tony Stark interfaces with his all-powerful exoskeleton through a sort of membrane on his bones. The integration between the man and the technology he has invented has become absolute. In a page from the comic he is seen talking to one of his assistants, who's warning him about potential dangers as he's ready to head out for another life-threatening mission. He shrugs her words off: "I can see through satellites now" is his answer. He is already well aware of the information she brings to him. He can see it with his own eyes. Literally. Which is to say that his nervous system now extends well beyond the boundaries of his body, that his behavior and decisions are now not just based on the information conveyed through his natural and limited senses. We might not see through satellites - yet - but we are undergoing a silent shift that sees our behaviors and decisions influenced profoundly by a raised awareness of their impact on ourselves, on others and and on the environment surrounding us.
The key enabler for this shift comes in the form of access to our own data streams, and I'll use a personal anecdote to illustrate what I mean. If you - like me - commute to work you might at one point have asked yourself a question similar to this one: how many times have I been on this bike/car/bus/train/airplane/spaceship? If you - like me - have had to use a car to commute to work this question might be spurred by a desire to measure the sheer economic implications of such a decision, or maybe you wanted to gauge its impact on your carbon emissions. Well, when it comes to me I can easily tell you that there are at least 3 independent systems that could provide a numerically exact answer to that question, but interestingly I have no access whatsoever to any of them. In other words, I do not own or control the bit-crumbs that I leave behind me during all my various digitally-traceable activities. This is ludicrous, and simply unacceptable. We want access to our own data streams, we need to have access to our own data streams, and the reason is simple: we want to be able to mine them to extract meaningful information about ourselves. Needless to say do so it is not enough to track what we do for short periods of time. Patterns, meaningful patterns, sometimes emerge over months, years, even decades, especially if you consider a collective dimension. Luckily ubiquitous wired and wireless broadband connectivity has led to the rise of so-called "Cloud Services", and if you couple this with digital storage following the equivalent of Moore's law you have all that's needed to store our data streams for good, for us to decide later on what best use for them we might think of.
Having access to one's own data streams, and service schemas to store them forever establishes the right foundation for the next layer. Paraphrasing an old Italian Pirelli commercial: data is nothing without control (over it). Raw data needs to be shaped into information first, then it needs to be communicated in a form that allows human beings to make sense of it, to turn information into knowledge. In other words data needs to be made intelligible to become meaningful. Time to move on to information visualization. Time for another quick anecdote.
When you'll have to take a taxi in the future make the effort to wait until you can hop on a Toyota Prius. Wait a few seconds, then casually ask what that colorful display in the middle of the dashboard is showing. What usually follows - and I've done this quite a few times now - is a long and passionate introduction to how that display has changed not only the way the taxi driver drives, but the way he thinks about driving. Seeing in real time the effect of one's driving style on the energy efficiency of the vehicle quickly reverts the act of driving from a sequence of mostly automated tasks back to a conscious effort. After a while things go back to low cognitive involvement of course, but by then driving habits have changed. "I can see inside my car's engine now", Iron Man would probably say. This is the power of revealing and giving substance to things not seen. Information used to be power, now information visualization is.
Information visualization is a multidisciplinary design domain that's been quickly rising in importance and impact: a critical mass of users whose mental model for digital assets is that of "un-curated accrual" has motivated a new generation of talented visual and interaction designers to try and help people to make sense of the overflowing complex data-sets they generate and have access to. People like Carlo Ratti and his team at the MIT's SENSEable City Lab have created software solutions that detect unforeseen events, like traffic jams or natural catastrophes, by monitoring spikes in mobile traffic , while other companies like Stamen Design have seen projects like Cab Spotting, which shows San Francisco mapped through the traces left by the GPSs of taxis driving around the city, displayed at the MOMA. Moodstats is another interesting prescient example dating back to the beginning of the new millennium, an application created by a group of talented designers called Cuban Council intended to track and even share people's mood over time. More recently companies like Nike, Polar, Suunto or Nokia for example, have created opportunities for runners of all levels to see their performances mapped and tracked on the pages of a website.
There's a risk in all of this renewed fixation on the visual dimension though, actually two possible risks. The first one is that we as designers see these graphics purely as an opportunity to draw beautiful, compelling images. The second risk is that we underestimate the importance for people to be able to change the way the data is visualized. That is to say that shaping information out of complex data-sets by giving it a visual representation can only be achieved by adding information to it: the graphic layer itself. In other words still the point of view of the designer ends up standing between the data and the user. Designers need to enable people to manipulate the data, and they especially need to make it possible for them to establish their own point of view on it, by modifying parameters and visualizations. This is the difference between an artistic representation based on data, and software that enables people to reflect on behavioral patterns revealed by the same data. We don't just want to look at cool-looking graphs, we want to be able to extract meaning from them, our own meaning. We want tools, we want tools of self-reflection.
We now have lined up access to our own bitcrumbs, endless space to store them and ways to give them an actionable form. Where will all these data streams come from? An easy answer would be to just check in your pocket or bag, and pull out your mobile phone of choice, but it's actually time to go back to Iron Man and to how disabilities overcome through technology can teach us a thing or two. We are going through a revolution when it comes to the role that cheap, ubiquitous processing power and sensors are playing. I already mentioned Nike and the Nike+ partnership with Apple as a mass-market example of the role sensors will play in helping us track what we do, but they are not alone. For example Fitbit makes a wearable clip that tracks your movement 24/7, calculating calories burned and even sleeping patterns, while Yamaha has been making an MP3 player called Bodibeat that matches the beat of the music you're listening to to the rhythm of your heartbeat. Along the same lines also gaming platforms have been - ahem - toying with similar ideas, the latest being the Wii and its Wii Vitality Sensor, which promises to make one's biostats the invisible joypad controlling your on-screen avatar.
If these examples show applications that put entertainment at the center, there's an industry sector in which we are seeing a sudden acceleration facilitated by cheap ubiquitous sensors and portable processing power, and that sector is Healthcare. Spurred by an aging population, technological innovations and new service schemas that replace hospitalization with always-on at-home monitoring to reduce costs this industry is buzzing with innovative products that constantly monitor patients' biostats to help them cope with their ailments while improving their quality of life.
In diabetes management the new standard is called Continuous Glucose Monitoring, and Dexcom for example produces a solution that's comprised of a user-implanted sensor wirelessly feeding real-time blood glucose levels to a glucose meter. Similar competing systems also include an insulin pump, finally freeing patients from a life-disrupting routine that has them currently pierce their fingers for testing to then inject themselves with insulin when needed. Proteus Biomed claims it will soon be making swallowable connected pills that will constantly send various biostats to a device worn on the body. Finally frog design Milano is currently running with a few local partners a research program called E-monitors that also looks at this opportunity area, and will soon result in an open hardware-software platform for integrating a network of biosensors sending real-time data to a health-monitoring service via a last generation mobile phone.
All of these examples are indicative of an emerging product/service architecture that will likely be the reference for the near future when it comes to the body as an active node on The Network. An implanted sensor transmitting wirelessly to a larger wearable device, which also exchanges data with other nearby devices and aggregates it, making it take the long jump straight to a remote server for long-term storage and further mining.?Mass-market enablers for this product/service architecture are already in place.?Devices like Apple's iPhone are now powerful enough to process massive amounts of data, and can easily act as bridges between “sensors” of all sorts and The Network itself.
This quickly consolidating model has prompted commentators like Lee Maguire to ask a very interesting question: "So what happens when the device that records your medical status is also the device that you use to update your social connections?" I personally think that the answer is fairly straightforward: "your heartbeat becomes a conversation", but the question this answer raises in return is even more interesting that the original question, at least in my opinion. What will be the nature of this conversation? I'll try to use a couple of other examples to point at a possible answer, and in doing so I'll touch upon the last component: the role that digitally mediated-social networks will play in this scenario.
Vitality's Glowcap is a product that can be described as an intelligent and connected pill bottle cap, and it does at least a couple of interesting things. First it reminds users to take their medications, second it tracks if they are following their regimen, making a report accessible in various ways both to users themselves and to other people they select, including of course their doctor. A few months ago I had a chance to speak with David Rose, the company's founder and CEO, and he mentioned that they are currently evaluating to create a way for the cap to publish real-time stats to a Facebook widget, so that people in your social network could see if you are indeed taking your medications. "Why would anyone want to do that?" you are probably thinking. Well, to create self-imposed peer pressure to induce and reinforce virtuous behaviors. If you know that other people know, you'll become in turn more aware of what you are doing... and even more importantly so will the others as well. Individual behavior takes on a social and collective dimension: it becomes a conversation spurred and sustained over time by machines.
If the previous example was a bit unsettling here's another and even more controversial one, hinting again at the nature of the conversations that our data streams will be likely to spark in the future. Bayer's Didget glucose meter is targeted to younger diabetes patients. As you can easily imagine convincing children and youngsters to stick to a socially disrupting but life-saving routine that includes regular testing is difficult. The Didget encourages them to take good care of themselves by integrating with the Nintendo gaming ecosystem, and turning regular testing into points that can be redeemed in that playful environment. There's also a community of users where the social dimension is introduced to exchange personal experiences, and again points can be used to unlock features and the like.
Of course quite a few questions raise to the surface immediately in this case, and as a father of two young children I am sure you are asking yourself what I've been asking myself as well. Is this even right? Is it ethical? Well, as I said we're looking at paths, not destinations, so please contemplate your discomfort for a few seconds, if you can. Because what this is ultimately all about is turning virtuous behavior into social currency. Nothing more. Framed in this context, and with an element of "freedom of choice" associated with it I think this is an amazingly rich opportunity to turn our contemporary digital tools for managing social ties into support systems that will keep us adhering to behaviors that we agree are virtuous in nature. It's taking tools of individual self-reflection and adding a collective dimension to them: I can see what others in my situation are doing, and can use this reference to motivate myself or others to do more, to do better, to do what we collectively agree is right.
And this is where I'll stop because at this point we're ready to wrap up this brief exploration, as we've touched upon all the intersecting opportunity areas I listed at the beginning. Here are all the pieces once again, loosely joined: - Access to our own data streams, and services to accrue and store our bitcrumbs forever - Sensors and cheap ubiquitous processing power to generate those data streams and provide instant access to correlated real-time information - Well-designed interactive tools of self-reflection to visualize, manipulate and shape raw data into meaningful information by revealing hidden behavioral patterns - Social networks that encourage and sustain virtuous behavior by treating it as social currency and accumulated social capital/reputation.
Of course this field is ripe with new challenges and wicked problems. How to design (for) awareness and self-reflection? How to design platforms that people can use to encourage and challenge each other in following what they consider to be virtuous behaviors? I strongly believe that it will be all about passion and love for humankind, again.
These are indeed good news, but it does not stop here, and here's why. We have already factored the social and collective variable into the equation, but mostly in terms of possible benefits for individual participants. It is not difficult to imagine what would happen if we reversed the point of view from that of a single node in the (social) network to that of the network itself as the organism. In other words if you don't consider what I just described so far as a solution but as a platform you'll immediately realize that it scales beautifully. Let's go back to the Toyota Prius anecdote for a second. What if all Toyota Priuses were networked, and their displays also showed how much fuel other drivers were saving? What if drivers could subtly or playfully challenge each other to do so, collectively? What if all cars had such a system onboard? What if a similar system allowed residents to set local speed limits, or limit access to the streets where they live based on local pollution levels, detected by a network of sensors they own, mantain and control? What if homes had displays, that showed real-time individual resource consumption levels in relationship to those of somebody's close friends, of their local neighborhood, of their urban area, of their country, of their continent, of the world? How would their decisions, and actions, and habits change in such a scenario? I believe they would. I believe they will. Posted by fabio sergio | 4:46 PM | permalink