Originally published on “Matters” by Designit
Future interaction designer Simone Rebaudengo wants us to think twice about what we design. The objects and experiences he creates — in his words, “design fiction” — defy our mental model of what is or should be possible. Creating objects that could exist is his way of asking: Do we trust what we’re designing for the future?
Designit: Tell us about your design collective.
Simone: When we started the collective automato.farm with three colleagues (Matthieu Cherubini, Saurabh Datta and Lorenzo Romagnoli), we decided we would combine our computer science, interaction design, and electrical engineering backgrounds to collaborate on connectivity, product behaviors, and interfaces. Even early on in my own work, I was always interested in adding connectivity to simple objects to see how that connectivity changed the way objects behaved. Most of our projects are about understanding the implications of technology on our behavior, but also on the behavior of objects and interfaces we design and engineer.
Designit: How did that lead to your current work on the future?
Simone: I realized that design was a powerful tool for showing people how the things we make have very specific implications on our future. So we started off trying to convey the implications of technology through props, devices, and experiences. Most of those things ended up in exhibitions or museums. These days, I feel that designing things that will be ordinary in the future is the best way to figure out the long-term implications of whatever you’re studying.
Designit: How does an ordinary object convey the implications of a technology on our future?
Simone: Remember the 1968 sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stanley Kubrick’s zero-gravity toilet? It was a complex machine back then, but also quite ordinary. I mean, it was a toilet. But that toilet had a role to play in Kubrick’s vision of our future among artificially intelligent machines. In his version, HAL 9000, the sentient computer, wants to kill us. Kubrick looked hard at the implications of artificial intelligence, but he put ordinary stuff like high-tech toilets and directions for using them in the film. Conceptually, the idea that the future gets normalized as we enter or embrace it is something that has an even bigger impact than the object itself. In that really strange future, you still had to use the toilet. But it wasn’t about the toilet. It was about imagining all the hidden details of what it would be like to live among artificially intelligent machines.
Designit: How are you helping people reflect on the future through design?
Simone: All my work has always been about making simple things — “stupid” but amazing objects, such as plugs, fans, and toasters. Those are my “spirit” objects. During the design process, we explore what technologies might be embedded in these products in the near future. The goal is to show people that ordinary objects are powered by decision-making that is not neutral, but shaped by the humans that engineer those objects. Hopefully the products and experiences we create encourage different kinds of conversations about the future. Objects are easy to understand, especially if you can touch and interact with them. So we use this medium to help people see the future from different perspectives.
Designit: How does your international work impact your feelings about the future?
Simone: I’ve consulted for Chinese startups that are working at such a fast pace that it feels like the present is moving faster than the future. I’m able to observe not only how people adapt to technology, but the implication of scale. Being connected in Europe is not like being connected in China. If something goes viral in China, it goes! It’s intriguing because it speeds up how things are happening. A few years ago, in China, there was a fascination for creativity, so 10,000 maker labs were created across the country. With this kind of scale, you really see the implications of what you’re doing on society.
Designit: What will be important for people in the future? What is meaningful change?
Simone: What’s important and meaningful is for people to feel that they have the authority to have opinions and interrogate progress. I fight with people about our very deterministic approach to progress. I took this attitude when autonomous cars were being discussed, and often I heard people say, “Oh no, of course that needs to happen.” My feeling was: “Why? Why does this have to happen?” You have to be able to question someone’s point of view. This has been my quarrel with innovation — that people don’t spend time reflecting on the implications of what they produce. Neither do people spend much time reflecting on their beliefs.
Designit: Why does it matter so much right now?
Simone: It’s critical because we’re in an era of the smart everything. Instead of solving issues that help society, we create complexity around things that are really simple. I’ve been criticizing this development by exhibiting in museums, and now I’m trying to apply future thinking with product companies and startups. I’ve recently been collaborating with mobility companies and product startups here in China and I’m co-founder of a future food and living lab called YEAST. One of my co-founders used to run a large food-tech accelerator and the other co-founder is a food designer.
Designit: What are you working on?
Simone: We’re collaborating with experts in food and technology while using design, future thinking, and experimentation to come up with product opportunities. So while we’re talking to chefs to understand their fears about technology and automation, we’re trying to go beyond the food by pondering how people and AI could collaborate in the future kitchen. The first product opportunity we’re pursuing is about food and toys. We want to encourage exploration around food and education, and around food and play.
Designit: What will have the biggest impact on the future?
Simone: I’m biased because what I do centers around looking at technology. But from a design perspective, I’m interested in the near implications of things that companies are putting out in the world. Sure, we have AI, but — ? My technique is just to ask questions — stupid questions about the future. Are objects objectives? No! Why? Because people program them and people have biases. “Smart” is another example. What is smart? Smart for you? Smart for your religion? Smart for your belief system?
Designit: What issues should we be targeting and what is falling short?
Simone: There are gigantic issues to solve, from food security to energy. But we focus intensely on “stupid” devices and services. If you — as a technologist, designer, or developer — can find ways to have sincere discussions with companies about the future, you might actually have influence over how certain technologies are developed. There are so many designs that feel meaningless in the scheme of things.
Designit: Can you give us an example?
Simone: For many people, cooking and eating is often an issue of time efficiency. How do we live in a way that is not determined by the amount of time we save? Someone will argue that it’s okay people don’t have time to eat, and ask: “How can we get find solutions for them to eat without cooking?” That’s the wrong attitude. Let’s find a way for people to cook again.Let’s not make our rituals and our domestic culture “problems” to solve. I learned a lot form chatting with Aki Sano, the founder of Cookpad. “It’s hard to see a bad outcome in a future in which everyone will take time to cook,” he said.
Designit: What is driving innovation today?
Simone: You’d think that the future is driven by innovation, but I think the future is driven by managers’ fear of missing out (FOMO) and the amazing abilities of engineers to solve an issue. That’s why when someone says, “We want cameras in the car,” engineers figure out a way to put the cameras in. But why are cameras inside the car? Oh! So you can unlock the car with your face. Usually, if someone wants to steal your car, they just break in or steal the key. So in the future they’d have to chop your head off to steal your car? It’s a ridiculous example, but it proves a point: We are creating insane contraptions to bridge issues that are really boring.
Designit: What is typical of the way we experiment today?
Simone: Fail fast, be positive! This concept of fail fast is a problem, especially when it applies to physical products. It means you’ve created a mold, a pipeline of products, and have gathered materials. If you don’t sell it, where does it all go? Maybe it might become cheaper components for an OEM in Shenzhen to create some crazy product mix, but otherwise it’s just waste.
Designit: Can you give us an example of a design that you felt was useless?
I was working with a phone manufacturer whose product brief was: “We want a back screen.” I said, “I don’t think we need a back screen because you have a front screen!” But a screen got built. Components are cheap. The future is built on existing failures, and as everything gets cheaper, companies push more product. Someone is always there to solve a problem but who will make sense of it?