Back in April 2022, I was invited to speak as part of CIID’s Open Lecture series on my career so far (!) and what I’m working on now at Moixa.com.
Naturally, It ends up talking about trying to reframe the energy transition / climate emergency from a discourse of ‘sustainability’ to one of ‘abundance’ – referencing Russian physicists and Chobani yoghurt.
Thank you so much to Simona, Alie and the rest of the crew for hosting – was a great audience with a lot of old friends showing up which was lovely (not that they spared the hard questions…).
I was on vacation at the time with minimal internet, so I ended up pre-recording the talk – allowing me the novelty of being able to heckle myself in the zoom chat…
CIID Open Lecture, April 2022
Hello, it’s very nice to be “here”!
Thank you CIID for inviting me.
I’ll explain this silly title later, but for now let me introduce myself…
Simona and Alie asked me to give a little talk about my career, which sent me into a spiral of mortality and desperation of course. I’ve been doing whatever I do for a long time now. And the thing is I’m not at all sure that matters much.
I’m 50 this year, you see. I’m guessing everyone has some understanding of Moore’s Law by now – things get more powerful, cheaper and smaller every 18mo-2yrs or so. I thought about what that means for what I’ve done for the last 50 years. Basically everything I have worked on has changed a million-fold since I started working on it (not getting paid for it!)
If you’re a designer that works in, say, furniture or fashion – these effects are felt peripherally: maybe in terms of tools or techniques but not at the core of what you do. I don’t mean to pick on Barber Ogersby here, but they kind of started the same time as me. You get to do deep, good work in a framework of appreciation that doesn’t change that much. I get the sense that even this has changed radically in the last few years as well – for many good reasons.
Anyway – when I was asked to look back on work from BERG days over a decade ago, it’s hard to pretend it matters in the same way as when you did it. But perhaps it matters in different ways? I’m trying here to look for those threads and ideas which might still be useful.
In design for tech we are building on shifting (and short-circuiting) pace layers. I’ve always found it most useful to think them as connected, rather than separate. Slowly permeable cell membranes/semiconducting layers. New technology is often the wormhole or short-circuit across them.
So with that said, to BERG.
BERG was a studio formed out of a partnership between Matt Webb and Jack Schulze. Tom Armitage joined – and myself shortly after. From there we grew to a small product invention and design consultancy of about 15 folks at our largest, but always around 8-9. It was a great size – I’m still proud of the stuff we took on, and the way we did it.
One of the central tenets of BERG: All you can see of systems are surfaces. The complexity and interdependency of the modern world is not evident. And you can make choices as designers about how to handle that. Most design orthodoxy (at the time) and now is to drive towards ‘seamlessness’ – but we preferred Mark Weizer’s exhortation for ‘beautiful seams’ that would increase the legibility of systems while still making attractive and easy to engage surfaces…
Another central tenet of the studio: “What got just got cheap and boring?” We looked to mass produced toys and electronics, rather than solely to the cutting edge for inspiration. Understanding what had passed through the ‘hype curve’ of the tech scene into what Gartner called ‘the trough of disillusionment’. This felt like the primordial soup of invention.
We got called sci-fi. Design fiction. I don’t think we were Sci-fi. We were more like 18thC naturalists, trying to explain something we were in, to ourselves. think we were more Brian Arthur than Arthur C. Clarke. We didn’t want to see tech as magic.
Brian Arthur’s book “The Nature of Technology” was a huge influence on me at the time (and continues to be.) An economist and scholar of network effects, he tries to establish how and why technology evolves and builds in value. In the book he explains how diverse ‘assemblages’ of scientific and engineering phenomenon combine into new inventions. The give and take between human/cultural needs and emergent technical phenomenon felt far more compelling and inspiring than the human centred design orthodoxy at the time.
This emphasis on exploring phenomena and tech as a path to invention we referred to as ‘material exploration’ as a phase of every studio project. We led with it, privileged it in the way contemporaries emphasised user research – sometimes to our detriment! But the studio was a vehicle for this kind of curiosity – and it’s what powered it.
“Lamps” was a very material-exploration heavy project for Google Creative Lab in 2010. It was early days for the commoditisation of computer vision, and also about the time that Google Glass was announced. We pushed this work to see what it would be like to have computer vision in the world *with you* as an actor rather than privatised behind glasses.
The premise was instead of computer vision reporting back to a personal UI, it would act in the world as a kind of projected ‘smart light’, that would have agency based on your commands.
To make these experiments we had to build a rig. An example here of how the pace-layers of past design work get short-circuited. Here’s our painstaking 2010, 10x the size, cost, pain DIY version of ARKit… which would come along only a few years later.
This final piece takes the smart light idea to a ‘speculative design’ conclusion. What if we made very dumb interactive blocks that were animated with ‘smart light’ computation from the cloud… There’s a little bit of a critical thought in here, but mainly we loved how strange and beautiful this could look!
We also treated data as a material for exploration. One of the projects I’m always proudest of was Schooloscope in 2009 (one of the first BERG studio projects for Channel4 in the UK) – led by Matt Webb, Matt Brown and Tom Armitage which did a fantastic job of reframing contentious school performance data from a cold emphasis on academic performance to a much more accessible and holistic presentation of a school for parents (and kids) to access. Each school’s performance data creates an avatar based on our predisposition to interpret facial expression (after Chernoff)
Another example of play – Suwappu was an exploration for a toy/media franchise for Dentsu. Each toy has an AR environment coded to it, and weekly updates to the the storylines and interactions between them was envisaged. Again a metaverse in… reverse?
A lot of the studio work we couldn’t talk about publicly or release. I don’t think I’ve ever shown this before for instance, which was work we did for Intel looking at the ‘connected car’ and how it might relate to digital technology in cities and people’s pockets.
A lot of it was video prototyping work – provocations and anticipated directions that Intel’s advance design group could show to device and car manufacturers alike – to sell chips!
We deployed our usual bag of tools here – and came up with some interesting speculations – for instance thinking about the whole car as interface in response to the emerging trend of the time of larger and larger touchscreen UI in the car (which I still think is dangerous/wrong!!!)
Here’s another example of smart light – computer vision and projection in one product: an inspection lamp that makes the inscrutable workings of the modern car legible to the owner.
Something we wrote as part of a talk back then.
I guess we were metaverse-averse before there was a metaverse (there still isn’t a metaverse)
I left BERG in 2013 – it stopped doing consulting and for a year it continued more focussed on it’s IoT product platform ‘bergcloud’ and Little Printer product.
In 2014 it shut up shop, which was marked by some nice things like this from William Gibson. Everyone went on to great things! Apple, Microsoft – and starting innovative games studio Playdeo for instance. In my case, I went to work for Google…
So in 2013 I moved to NYC and started to work for Google Creative Lab – whom I’d first met working on the Lamps project. There I did a ton of concept and product design work which will never see the light of day (unfortunately) but also worked on a couple of things that made it out into the world.
Creative Lab was part of the marketing wing of Google rather than the engineering group – so we worked often on pieces that showed off new products or tech – and also connected to (hopefully) worthy projects out in the world.
This piece called Spacecraft For All was a kind of interactive documentary of a group looking to salvage and repurpose a late 1970s NASA probe into an open-access platform for citizen science.
It also got to show off how Chrome could combine video and webGL in what we thought was a really exciting way to explain stuff.
Another project I’m still pretty proud of from this period is Project Sunroof – a tool conceived of by google engineers working on search and maps to calculate the solar potential of a roof, and then connect people to solar installers.
We worked on the branding, interface and marketing of the service, which still exists in the USA. There were a number of other energy initiatives I worked on inside Google at the time – which was a much more curious (and hubristic!) entity back in the Larry/Sergey days – for good and for ill.
One last project from Google – by this time (2016) I’d moved from Creative Lab to Google Research, working with a group that was pioneering techniques for on-device AI. Moving the machine learning models and operations to a device gives great advantages in privacy and performance – but perhaps most notably in energy use. If you process things ‘where the action is’ rather than firing up a radio to send information back and forth from the cloud, then you save a bunch of battery power…
Clips is a little autonomous camera that has no viewfinder but is trained out of the box to recognise what humans generally like to take pictures of so you can be in the action. The ‘shutter’ button is just that – but also a ‘voting’ button – training the device on what YOU want pictures of.
Along with Clips, the ‘now playing’ audio recognition, many camera features in pixel phones and local voice recognition all came from this group. I thought of these ML-powered features not as the ‘brain-centered’ AI we think of from popular culture but more like the distributed, embodied neurons we have in our knees, stomach etc.
At the beginning of this year I left Google and went to work for Moixa. Moixa is a energy tech company that builds HW and SW to help move humanity to 100% clean energy. More about them later!
Instead of overlaying Moore’s Law on this step of my career, instead another graph of an all-together less welcome progression. This is Professor Ed Hawkin’s visualisation of how the world has warmed from 1850 to 2018.
I’ve been thinking a lot – both prior to and since joining Moixa about design’s role in helping with the transition to clean energy. And I think something that Matt Webb often talked about back in BERG days about product invention has some relevance.
And we all love a 2×2, right?
He related this story that he in turn had heard (sorry I don’t have a great scholarly citation here) about there being 4 types of product: Fear, Despair, Hope and Greed products.
Fear products are things you buy to stop terrible things happening, Despair product you have to buy – energy, toilet paper… Greed products might get you and advantage in life, or make you richer somehow (investments, MBAs…) but Hope products speak to something aspirational in us.
What might this be for energy?
You probably thought I was going to reference The ministry for the Future by KSR, but hopefully I surprised you with Family Guy! It’s creator, Seth Macfarlane went on to create the optimistic, love-letter to Star Trek called “The Orville” and has this to say:
“Dystopia is good for drama because you’re starting with a conflict: your villain is the world. Writers on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” found it very difficult to work within the confines of a world where everything was going right. They objected to it. But I think that audiences loved it. They liked to see people who got along, and who lived in a world that was a blueprint for what we might achieve, rather than a warning of what might happen to us.” – I think we can say the same for the work of design.
I’m going to read this quote from Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s long but hopefully worth it.
“It’s important to remember that utopia and dystopia aren’t the only terms here. You need to use the Greimas rectangle and see that utopia has an opposite, dystopia, and also a contrary, the anti-utopia. For every concept there is both a not-concept and an anti-concept. So utopia is the idea that the political order could be run better. Dystopia is the not, being the idea that the political order could get worse. Anti-utopias are the anti, saying that the idea of utopia itself is wrong and bad, and that any attempt to try to make things better is sure to wind up making things worse, creating an intended or unintended totalitarian state, or some other such political disaster. 1984 and Brave New World are frequently cited examples of these positions. In 1984 the government is actively trying to make citizens miserable; in Brave New World, the government was first trying to make its citizens happy, but this backfired. … it is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many. This observation provides the fourth term of the Greimas rectangle, often mysterious, but in this case perfectly clear: one must be anti-anti-utopian.”
I’ve been reading a lot of solar punk lately in search of such utopias. But – The absolute best vision of a desirable future I have seen in recent years has not come form a tech company, or a government – but a Yoghurt maker. This is the design of the future as a hope product.
“We worked closely with Chobani to realise their vision of a world worth fighting for. It’s not a perfect utopia, but a version of a future we can all reach if we just decide to put in the work. We love the aspiration in Chobani’s vision of the future and hope it will sow the seeds of optimism and feed our imagination for what the future could be. It’s a vision we can totally get behind. We couldn’t be more happy to be part of this campaign.” – The Line
In 1964 a physicist named Nikolai Kardashev proposed a speculative scale or typology of civilisations, based on their ability to harness energy.
Humans are currently at around .7 on the scale.
A Type I civilization is usually defined as one that can harness all the energy that reaches its home planet from its parent star (for Earth, this value is around 2×10^17 watts), which is about four orders of magnitude higher than the amount presently attained on Earth, with energy consumption at ≈2×10^13 watts as of 2020.
So, four orders of magnitude more energy is possible just from the solar potential of Earth.
A Type 1 future could be glorious. A protopia.
At Moixa we make something that we hope is a building block of something like this – solar energy storage batteries that can be networked together with software to create virtual power plants, that can replace fossil fuels. It’s one part of our mission to create 100% electric homes this decade.
The home is a place where design and desire become important for change. I hope we can make energy transition in the home something that is aspirational and accessible with good design.
I’ve also been very inspired by Saul Griffith’s book “Electrify” – please go read it at once! It points out a ton of design and product opportunity over the coming decade to move to clean, electric-powered lives.
As he says:
“I think our failure on fixing climate change is just a rhetorical failure of imagination. We haven’t been able to convince ourselves that it’s going to be great. It’s going to be great.”
– Saul Griffith
I’ll finish with a couple more quotes:
“If we can make it through the second half of this century, there’s a very good chance that what we’ll end up with is a really wonderful world”
“An adequate life provided for all living beings is something the planet can still do; it has sufficient resources, and the sun provides enough energy. There is a sufficiency, in other words; adequacy for all is not physically impossible. It won’t be easy to arrange, obviously, because it would be a total civilizational project, involving technologies, systems, and power dynamics; but it is possible. This description of the situation may not remain true for too many more years, but while it does, since we can create a sustainable civilization, we should. If dystopia helps to scare us into working harder on that project, which maybe it does, then fine: dystopia. But always in service to the main project, which is utopia.”
Kim Stanley Robinson