Congrats to PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Kushal Chakrabarti of Vittana (facilitating education microloans throughout the world) who is in the Huffington Post’s Top Ten for Ultimate Game Changers in Philanthropy.
You can vote for Kushal here.
CC image of Kushal Chakrabarti at PopTech 200 by Kris Krüg.
You can lend money to students right now on the Vittana.org home page.
We also have a few Twitter lists we are developing for our community:
- You can follow all the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows on Twitter in the PopTech Fellows Twitter list.
- Follow the 2009 PopTech speakers, photographers, and bloggers in the Twitter PopTech 2009 list.
- PopTech staff is on the Twiter PopTech staff list.
Thank you to everyone who has added @PopTech to their Twitter lists; we appreciate the compliment.
Other Twitter lists you think are useful for social entrepreneurship? Let us know in the comments.
Thank you to everyone for a wonderful PopTech 2009: America Reimagined conference.
We have made videos with highlights of each day along our special 2009 Social Innovation Fellows video and Science Fellows announcement, and we hope you will share these videos widely—each has a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. Videos below are in the PopTech Vimeo account and our YouTube account.
First, highlights from Thursday, October 22, 2009, including Erica Williams’s passionate call to see her generation and their political interest as it really is, musician Zee Avi’s bright lyrics, artist Chris Jordan’s stunning photos of plastic inside albatross at Midway Atoll, Mayor John Fetterman on what his town isn’t, and kinetic sculptor Reuben Margolin on waves, beads, and the movement of light.
On Thursday, we showed this video of the PopTech 2009 Social Innovation Fellows, who are young leaders with new approaches for social innovation working in for-profit and not-for-profit worlds, nationally and internationally; this year’s class includes Aviva Presser Aiden and Hugo Van Vuuren of Lebônê, Jason Aramburu of re:char, Eben Bayer of Ecovative Design, Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect, Deb Levine of ISIS, Inc., Josh Nesbit of FrontlineSMS:Medic, James O’Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School, Ory Okolloh of Ushahidi, Emily Pilloton of Project H Design, Hayat Sindi of Diagnostics For All, Taylor Stuckert and Mark Rembert of Energize Clinton County, Nigel Waller of Movirtu.
Highlights from Friday, October 23, 2009 include Dennis Littky on why kids drop out of school, Jay Rogers on building family cars, Rinku Sen on the continuing racial divide, Zoe Keating’s electronic layering of cello, Zach Lieberman on helping a paralyzed man make art, Hayat Sindi with a diagnostic lab on her fingertip, Robert Guest on why America’s greatest strength, and Josh Nesbit on how you can save lives with your old cell phones.
Also on Friday, PopTech announced the Science and Public Leadership Fellows, an intention of developing a corps of highly visible and socially engaged scientific leaders who embody science as an essential way of thinking, discovering, understanding and deciding. Nominations are open now until April 2010 on a rolling basis, and the formal training component begins in June 2010. (See the science advisors and supporters (Microsoft Research, National Geographic, the National Science Foundation) of the program.)
Finally, these are highlights from Saturday, October 24, 2009, including Michael Pollan on whether a vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius, Nick Bilton on what people used to believe about transportation and news, Neri Oxman on an eggshell membrane, Marije Vogelzang on designing playful eating, Naif Al-Mutawa on his goal for The 99 comic series, James Fowler on how and why we are connected, Dean Ornish on changing your genes by changing your lifestyle and walking for three hours a week to grow brain cells, and Zoë Keating, Ruby Jane Smith, Mark O’Connor musically closing the day.
UPDATED: We are posting the below revised Saturday video on Sunday, November 1st.
We look forward to seeing everyone at PopTech 2010!
Let us know your favorite parts of PopTech 2009 and what you would like to see in 2010 in the comments—
Scientist James Fowler is a professor at University of California San Diego, where he studies the intersection of social and natural sciences. His most recent book is Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. For years, he has studied the role our real-life networks play in our health outcome.
CC image by Kris Krug.
You hear social networks these days and what do you think of? Twitter, Facebook etc. But Fowler is interested in “what became before”. Part of what makes us human, says Fowler, is that we live in “webs of humanity”. Who are we going to be friends with? Who do we let in and how do they influence us?
The simplest kind of natural network is a pair. Pairs connect to form beautiful webs. How do these networks form? What is their purpose? How do they connect us?
We shape our networks. We chose who we bring into our network. We even choose who within our network we connect with. Some of us want everyone to be friends with each other, others take a George Costanza approach, “We don’t want worlds to collide.”
In establishing a pairing: how many dates does it take to find Mr./Ms. right? Statistically, it would take 6,000 dates. With a network, you are in touch with personal information on a wide range of people. In fact, two out of three people who are married got married to within three degrees of separation.
Fowler is also interested in how these networks affect our lives. Researchers followed people for thirty-two years and asked questions like: where do you live? Who are you friends? They were able to see a vast, interconnected network. For the first time, they got a bird’s eyeview of a real social network. On one case, they studied obesity in Framingham – was it spreading like the flu? They were able to cluster info, size the data points to indicate obesity.
The results were not definitive, and had to account for false positives. These were easy to deal with: compare to results using a simulator. Or maybe people of the same type were choosing to be friends, reflecting a characteristic called homophily (we choose to be friends with people who are like us.) There was an advantage to having thirty-two years worth of data to draw from.
They made a movie visualizing this data, which Church played for the audience. In the clip, there are shifting lines, expanding and disappearing dots representing and tracking marriages, divorces, death. “We are connected in ways that other social species are: school of fish, flocks of birds”.
So to the issue of obesity: can your friends make you fat? It turns out that you are 57% more likely to have fat friends if you yourself enjoy a danish or three once in a while. Spouses and siblings have enormous influence. But it’s only the truly deep connections that have that influence – you can’t catch obesity from a fat guy on the bus like cooties.
Some people whose friends gain weight stop being friends with them. But data shows that every friend makes you happier regardless of their weight i.e. it is better to have a fat friend than no friend at all. People who ended friendships when their friend gained weight ultimately ended up gaining themselves. A healthier lifestyles means getting friends and family involved. This is critically important if you want to make real change in your life.
Fowler also discussed “emotional stampedes”. Emotional states like happy, unhappy and neutral spread through networks. And, far-away friends affect you as much as people close to you. For instance, even seeing a far-away friend once a year getting fit can inspire you.
There’s also financial contagion e.g. Northern Rock bank, where there was a run on the bank because everyone thought that everyone else thought the bank was going to fail. Contagion works with voting, too. Person to person effects; voting inspires others in their network to vote.
“Real influence spreads three degrees and no further,” says Fowler. They most affect obesity, smoking, drinking, happiness, altruism, loneliness and depression. There’s a ripple effect in networks; influence and ties gets weaker the further you go out. They also conducted twin studies: can genes affect people’s social network structure? His research showed that it did.
There are important lessons to take online: social networks affect you in many ways. Is that the end of free will? No. Fowler personally reacted to this new evidence by losing five pounds. This, he feels, will potentially improve his son’s life, his son’s friends lives. By changing his behavior, he wants to take care of friends and family. “If you tell people that they can influence one thousand people, they will change their lives.”
Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman and Rachel Barenblat for their amazing live coverage these past two days! Picking up since they had to head south a little early. Safe travels to our PopTech friends!— MRR
“You may have noticed a small, roving, very adorable robot over the past few days,” jokes Andrew Zolli to begin the final session of PopTech. This robot is the work of roboticist Kacie Kinzer, who explains that she’s actually not that interested in robots, she’s more interested in people. Kinzer’s tiny, friendly robots, which she calls tweenbots, traverse cities unaided except for the help of strangers.
CC image from Kris Krug
Kinzer, who lives in NYC, finds it often to be an overwhelming place: filled with “trash and noise and guys with clipboards”. This, she explains, makes it hard to have real moments of interaction and serendipity in the city; the very things that separate humans from robots. Her goal in creating tweenbots is to change the way people experience city on a very small scale, and to encourage them to engage with the city in a different way. In her words, to create “robots that make humans act more like humans.”
Tweenbots got their name both because they travel between spaces, and also because they are between humans and robots and between reality and imagination. “Sam”, the original tweenbot, rolls along in at straight path at a constant speed, proudly bearing a flag that reads “Help me! Trying to get to (a specific place in the city), aim me in the right direction.” His simple, smiling face is apparently quite effective in getting strangers to engage.
Kinzer’s efforts put Sam out in the city in the NE corner and tried to get him to the SE corner while recording what happened. “I quickly learned,” joked Kinzer, “that New Yorkers very rarely suspect they are being watched” so there was no need for hidden cameras, she could just record Sam’s interactions unobtrusively.
A video clip shows a man following Sam along for thirty seconds or so, then decides to help. Passing dogs look slightly confused but enthusiastic. The day that Kinzer shot the video was very hot, causing the rubber tread on the tire came off and Sam to go in circles. A group of seemingly delighted and unrelated men worked together to figure out what had happened and, like an ad hoc pit crew, found the missing tread, replaced it, and set him on his way again.
“You never really know how deep the level of engagement will go,” says Kinzer. A young woman talks to herself as she tries to orient him, triangulating to determine the best way. A street performer inspects him curiously. Throughout the clip, characteristically stern New Yorkers are laughing, helping, participating in this little robot’s journey.
“When I first started the tweenbots,” remarks Kinzer, “I had no idea that a cardboard robot in NYC would provoke such a poignant response.”
Her personal favorite moment from her experiment was when a man carefully turned the robot around, cautioning “You can’t go that way, it’s towards the road.”
“New Yorkers really brought the story to life and taught me about empathy and kindness,” says Kinzer. “Thank you, New York!”
George Church, founder of the Personal Genome Project and Professor of Genetics and Harvard Medical School begins by thanking the crowd and mentioning how insprinig he’s found the past three days. So how can we harnass this energy and change it into action?
CC image by Kris Krug.
For furthering genetic research, he believes, the answer may be in crowdsourcing. “Data doesn’t do much good if you don’t share it.”
A challenge is that we’re at a point where we don’t know what the social standards for data sharing are going to be. For example. says Church, “Our faces are something that actually might be worth hiding” because they could unwittingly betray racial characteristics, emotions, or other things we might not want to share. “Openess has changed since we were young.” We used to not talk at all about topics like salary, illness, sexuality. But that’s changing. As an example, he mentioned the site Patients Like Me, which brings together people who have been diagnosed with life-altering illnesses to share symptoms, treatment, etc. In this case, what’s shared is balanced with how beneficial it is for the greater good of the community.
What about the risk of using this type of data for discrimination? The GINA act was passed in 2008: the Genetic information Nondiscrimination Act. This will prevent employers etc. from discriminating against someone because of their genetics. “Because,” Church says, “everyone is watching.”
You can now get your 10 year-old kid a DNA kit so they can do things like “determine who their fathers are,” joked Church. But that is actually happening: Church told a story about a boy who was the child of anonymous sperm donor. He got a kit, tested his saliva, located his father and showed up unannounced on his doorstep.
Not all DNA data are used for CSI-like idenitification. The data can be used to identify more than just genes and traits. It’s not, as Church states, “This is your genetics, get used to it” but a potential tool to inform lifestyle changes.
Who can contribute to new cures and prevention? Anyone can by motivating others to do it, donating time and money and raising consciousness even though folks aren’t geneticists.
So why open source data? “We do this because we’re not sure who is going to make the break-though,” says Church, “It’s the outsiders who often make the breakthroughs.” Volunteers participating in shaping the Human Genome Project and extensive education is done with the volunteers before they get involved. They have approval to scale to 100,000 diverse volunteers. Right now the biggest complaint is “Where’s my genome?” — people want this information!
Church revealed to the crowd that he himself is actually “a mutant”. His genetic code reveals that he has three heart problems, atypical infarction, arrythmia, narcolepsym dyslexia, skin cancer, and long femur syndrome (he’s tall). What do you do with this information? It used to be that would get generic health advice: excercise, drink milk, eat green beans, grains and iron unless…you have specific conditions that some of these solutions would exacerbate. Having specific data would better inform choices for potential treatment.
Data could also be used to create a “bioweather map”. Instead of having a cold front coming in, what if it was actually a mapped the spread of a virus? Working on this through the human genome project.
What inspires us to participate? Being a part of a community: motivate, contribute time, raise awareness. “It’s like a walk-a-thon,” says Church, “Some will be walking, some will be cheerleading in various ways.”
Dean Ornish’s overall message was that “joy, freedom, and pleasure enable us to make sustainable choices.”
He began by pointing up how the language of behavioral change has a moralistic quality and that terms like “patient compliance” are manipulative and not about freedom or pleasure or joy. He went on later to say that this language leads to false choices (the dicotomy of ‘good for me’ versus ‘fun for me.’
CC image by Kris Krug.
He also mentioned neurogenesis (“I’m only the messenger”) and then proceeded to give examples of the body’s capacity to heal itself.
Echoing earlier PopTech speaker Ashley Merryman, who spoke about parenting and amazed the audience with her statistic that fifteen minutes of sleep can be the difference between an A and a B student, Ornish talked about growing brain cells by walking for three hours a week.
Ornish had the audience raise their hands if had children, and teased the majority of the audience with the slow raising of their hands—“You forgot?” He used the event of having children as a way to illustrate our ability to change lifestyle (as explanation for disease survivors that say the disease was the best thing to happen to them because it changed their lifestyle and they were happier in their new, healthier choices.
Following on Michael Pollan’s food talk from this morning, he talked about how the current generation’s expected lifestyle is shorter than their parents, said “what you include in your diet is as important as what you exclude,” and everyone took note of the three ounces of fish oil he prescribes daily.
Ornish explained the French Paradox by returning to his focus on joy, freedom, and pleasure—eat mindfully and savor your meal (channeling Pollan again), and talked more about transformation.
Using Christy Turlington’s site smokingisugly.com as a way to effectively target teens, Ornish made the audience smile at a parody ad of the Malboro Man with a droopy cigarette and “Impotent” emblazoned on the sky behind him. Half of men who smoke are impotent, he says, and this is a much more effective argument (for men) with teens, who care less about living a few less years.
Other things we learned:
500 genes can change in three months, and meditation can assist with this. “Your genes are not your fate.”
telomeres – chronic emotional stress may shorten your lifespan
diet “If you are on a diet, you are likely to go off a diet.”
75% of 2.1 trillion in healthcare costs are due to things that can be prevented like heart disease.
(Heart disease is reversible, preventable for 95% of people, he says.)
In 2006, 1.3 angioplasties were performed, more than $60 billion (and did not reduce risk of death, heart atack, or other major cardivoasuclar events)
Ornish is concerned with reimbursement-driven medicine and that our overarching depression and loneliness have led to antidepressants being the prescription drug most often prescribed over the past few years.
“Lifestyle as treatment, not just prevention”—joy, freedom, pleasure. And walks to grow brain cells.
CC photo; O’Connor practices in the Green Room before coming onstage.
O’Connor’s fiddle playing is fast, virtuosic, lyrical, like the rush of notes pouring from a wood thrush’s throat. It’s mesmerizing, somewhere between classical music and something I wish I knew how to dance to. The piece he’s playing keeps shifting, a sonic patchwork quilt with all sorts of influences and more different time signatures than I can count.
Many of the early motifs return, by the end, giving me the sense that we’ve come full circle. Through key changes and almost unthinkably fast waterfalls of notes, we’re all mesmerized.
When he stops playing, O’Connor tells us that his presentation is going to be about how natural habitat interfaces with music education. The piece he just played was commissioned for the bicentennial of Tennessee, about 15 years ago; it’s called “The Mockingbird,” which is Tennessee’s state bird.
“The next piece has to do with the ocean,” O’Connor says, and with how waves reach the shoreline, each one carving a chapter in the history of the ocean. He hopes we’ll hear solitude, drama, hope. “While I’m playing this I’ll think about the earlier presentation about the albatross on Midway island.” (He’s referring to Chris Jordan’s photos of plastic inside an albatross at Midway Atoll, seen here on Thursday. You can see some of them here.)
This one starts out slow and melancholy. Maybe it’s because I’ve been tipped off beforehand, but I can imagine this accompanying a walk along a cold, windswept north Atlantic beach. After a time the tempo picks up, like the wind raising itself into a squall, and runs of notes crest like whitecaps. The piece ends with a long slow rise toward silence, and at first the crowd hesitates, hoping for more before we applaud.
“For 25 years I’ve been playing American classical music, broadening the tent of what’s perceived as American classical music,” O’Connor says. A question for this audience: “Four hundred years ago the violin was made and perfected, the scroll and tuning pegs, the neck and fingerboard, the ribbing, the contoured and graduated top and back, producing the acoustic principles required.” This “unusual contraption,” he says, “mechanical device, really, has never been improved upon in four hundred years.” He’s playing a new violin, made by a great maker right here in Maine — Jonathan Cooper — and he thought he would ask this audience if there’s another contraption like the violin/viola/cello/bass, invented that long ago and not yet improved-upon. (Someone shouts out: the wheel! Someone else: ice cream!)
Another interesting thing about the violin, O’Connor tells us, is that it’s been a cornerstone of American music for 400 years. He’s developed a violin method book, which will be coming out in a couple of weeks, which utilizes American tunes to teach how to play the violin. The concept’s been around in fiddle circles for a while. The book will use America, Canadian, and Mexican tunes as well, and looking at cultural relevance to help aid the lessons. His hope is for young people to fall in love with the violin in new ways.
He gives a couple of examples of why string playing is so important in American music. Bluegrass music and western swing were both invented in the 1930s and 40s, developed from earlier Appalachian styles. He features a lot of those old traditional terms in the book, and is interested in how this material can develop a new kind of classical string playing and broaden the tent of classical music in America.
First example: the Florida blues, from about 100 years ago. It’s syncopated and familiar. Then an excerpt of something created from the blues but featuring newer techniques: twice as sultry, with a kind of come-hither virtuosity. Then we get a taste of ragtime, fast and danceable, and a short snippet of a jig and to show how that developed into American classical music, an excerpt from his fiddle concerto, which is equally fast and charming. “These are some of the ways that American music develops and continues to develop,” O’Connor says.
He cites parallels between American folk music and European classical music; both genres have existed fr 400 years with very little overlap. A rare exception to that is Copeland’s hoedown, of which he plays us a little bit. (You can hear it in this YouTube video.) It’s a catchy tune but fiddlers almost never play it. A tape was recently rediscovered: four years before Copeland wrote his “Rodeo” in 1941, a fiddler played that tune with those exact notes on tape for the Library of Congress. “When I discovered there was an original recording, I asked a friend of mine, did the fiddler compose and play it in standard tuning? It turned out he’d retuned his fiddle,” and that was not passed along in the orchestral setting — so O’Connor plays it for us on a re-tuned fiddle.
The phrases sing, as he promised — it pours out of the fiddle with such effervescence that one might imagine it was effortless, and we all whoop in applause. “This is one of the things I thought I’d try to bring to the forefront,” O’Connor says, “appreciation of traditional materials used in new settings.” This (re)discovery of folk music is a big piece of his method.
O’Connor also offers string camps — music training for kids — where classical training can coexist alongside jazz and world music all taught on violin. (Here’s an article about those camps; he tells us that more than 7,000 students have been trained in this way.) He and a student collaborate to play “Appalachia Waltz,” music which exists in the space between classical and American folk music. O’Connor has recorded it with Yo-Yo Ma (read more aout that collaboration here.) The student who joins him is Ruby Jane Smith (Pop!Tech bio; website) — aged fourteen.
The two fiddle voices intertwine in a gentle duet full of close harmonies, seconds resolving into thirds, and the waltz’s characteristic heartstring-tugging melancholy. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower, the tempo changes organically. When I crane my neck to peer down from the opera box where we’re liveblogging today, I see the two musicians so intent on their fiddles and the notes they’re creating that it’s as though the opera house full of audience wasn’t even here.
“If you feel, like me, that there could be a reimagined America with more music-making, playing string music that could be perhaps more culturally relevant to the Americas, let me know,” O’Connor says.
And Ruby adds that she’s honored to be here at Pop!Tech, that being here has been life-changing for her. “You hear people talk about changing the world all the time, but to be here and be listening to people who really are changing the world is really inspiring.” She first came to Mark’s camp when she was ten; she’d been playing fiddle since she was two. She remembers the first time Mark showed up, midway through the week — “it was like Elvis Presley walked into the room, but ten times better than that!” Performing by his side is clearly an emotional experience for her, and the audience applauds.
They wrap up with an old fiddle tune transformed into a classical duet, “another demonstration of how classical music and American fiddle can meet.” This one’s a toe-tapper, fast and swirly and upbeat and danceable. What a treat.
Science writer Jonah Lehrer, the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist tells us about a relatively obscure 1919 essay. The essay was titled “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews in Europe”, and it was written by Nobel-winning sociologist Thorstein Veblen. A zionist group commissioned the essay, expecting that Veblen would argue that the jews would be even more intellectually productive if given their own, soverign, protected homeland.
But Veblen was a contrarian, and he argued that a Jewish homeland might actually reduce Jewish creativity. Jews as the consummate outsiders, he contended, able to see problems that no one else noticed. If Einstein had been tenured faculty at a university, he wouldn’t have been able to see the theoretical holes he saw as an outsider to the physics establishment, as a patent clerk.
When we’ve got hard problems, we turn them over to experts. That might be the wrong thing to do, Lehrer suggests.
There’s some new research that justifies this approach. An experiment at Indiana University brought in a group students and gave them insight puzzles, which measure divergent thinking and creativity. One was the compound remote associate test. If I give you the words “mile”, “sand”, “age” – what word can be added to all of them to make a valid word or a phrase?
One group was told that the problem came from researchers down the hall. Another was told that it came from a team in Greece. The people told that the problem came from Greece solved 40% more of the puzzles. (The answer is “stone”, by the way.)
How does this work? Well, if you’re standing in a corn field and thinking about corn, you think about the most obvious connotations of corn: the plant, the structure of the ears, the fibers, the stalks. But in Camden, we might think about biofuels, or degradable plastics. The farther we are away, the more our sphere of thinking expands. We go on vacation to avoid thinking about our problems – actually, we should go and meditate on our problems from outside them.
A second experiment on outsiders was conducted by economists at Northwestern Business School. They found two groups of MBA students: students who’d lived more than three months abroad, and those that hadn’t.Those who’d lived abroad solved 20% more of these creativity problems. Living abroad somehow expands our minds – it didn’t matter when they lived abroad, just that they’d had the experience of thinking as an outsider.
Innocentive.com is based around the idea of the intellectual outsider. It’s used by companies like Proctor and Gamble – a company that has more PhDs than MIT – to find solutions to intractable scientific and engineering problems. You’d assume that most people can’t solve the problems that Proctor and Gamble scientists can’t solve. But 33% of all problems posted with associated prizes get solved. If you post an organic chemistry problem, it usually won’t be solved by an organic chemist. It might be solved by a population biologist, someone just on the outside of the domain. There is a virtue in seeing something from the outside.
Lehrer ends on this intriguing idea: “Problems are intractable because we didn’t see them from the outside.”
And that’s it for us, folks. There’s one more session at Pop!Tech, but Rachel and I are hitting the road. It’s been a provocation and a joy – what more can you hope for? Thanks for reading.
After their “Edible Futures” panel at PopTech 2009: America Reimagined, speakers author and leading food thinker Michael Pollan, Will Allen of Growing Power, and eating designer Marije Vogelzang toured the gardens and kitchens of local restaurant
They were extracting the last of the honey:
Michael asked about the feed and the chickens:
Primo Chef Melissa Kelly talked about light and they uncovered some of the lettuce:
Will Allen talked a little about community and gardening:
And, in one of the greenhouses (speaker Marije Vogelzang stands behind Michael here), Michael gave advice how fake owls might be a good solution:
One can only imagine the conversation over lunch—
Celebrated designer Neri Oxman wonders what is the origin of form? How do we invent form? Is it a preconcieved image of narrative? Intelligent design? Getting rid of the stone in the way, as Michelangelo speculated?
If form is to follow function, how is that function tested and evaluated?
It has been my assumption that design by shift of perspective may be, perhaps, considered a second nature.
I’ve accumulated a set of design research experiments inspired by nature. Pioneers in this approach are few. Like Buckminster Fuller, they are immense in stature, the form finders of the 1970s. They asked not what an object wants to be, but what a material wants to be. They developed a hands-off spirit towards design which has profound implications for how we make things today, and how we perceive sustainability.
Nature offers not forms, but processes to think about forms – recipes that mix material and form together, relationships from which form emerges. She’s been mapping precedents and procedures, using a method she’s invented called computational form finding. A designer can approach these tools and edit within the set of constraints.
Instead of designing 2D or 3D forms and sending them off for analysis, we invert the process and start from analysis, generating forms from what we learn in the analysis.
Nature is a grand materials engineer – abalone shells are twice as strong as our best ceramics, and spider silk is five times stronger than steel. And nature designs multifunctional structures – our muscles support us mechanically, but also manage and conserve our energy.
But there are things that nature does not do – trees do not grow into the heaven. Why can’t they? Nature didn’t invent pumps – we did and then build the skyscraper. Nature didn’t build wheels – we did and built the factory and the industrial revolution.
Her father, an architect, presented her with an image of the first glass skyscraper – a study in the separation of material from function. It’s her anti-building – the steel is for structure, the glass for environment. With design like this – and with pumps and wheels – there are ways we harm our planet and increase our carbon footprint.
What’s a natural way to design that use and utlilize natural principles and embrace technological advancement? What would nature 2.0 look like? Would we be beating nature? Or designing a sustainable way.
She shows a microscoping photograph of the membrane of an eggshell. It looks like an insulative ceiling panel. She explains that, like many things in nature, it’s made from fibers. It allows heat exchange, and also has profound strength. If you understand this image, she tells us, you’ll understand her entire work.
Neri Oxman, photo by Kris Krüg
She was invited by Paula Antonelli to invite four objects for a show at MOMA – instead, she chose to design four processes. The idea behind this was multifunctionality – the idea that a structure could both support and engage in heat exchange. She shows a printed material, which has white and dark spaces – the black are stiff and supportive, while the white conduct heat.
She shows us a canyon, sculpted by water and wind. She shows a material she’s designed that can be sculpted by a designer with light, to have thickness and translucency, based on what’s needed by the lighting conditions.
Designers might be more like gardeners in the future, selecting for environmental fitness – we recognize that a glass house would work very differently in Iceland than from in the Sahara.
In the late 19th century, Julius Wolfe discovered that bone could create stronger, more calcified structures when put under weight. The bone is doing design and execution at the same time – we don’t do this as designers. Bones lose density in space, gain it during pregnancy – how do we design in the integrated way that our bones grow?
What can design do for science and technology? Using algorithms, we know we can map load. We can map heat and light. What does this mean for the medical industry?
Pain is a personal thing, and difficult to map. And it’s always been poorly treated by Western medicine. Second skin is a process designed to map the pain profile of a particular patient, and then distribute hard and soft materials to match her needs. The patterns are like the spots of a cheetah, but they’re spots of hard and soft, designed in conjunction with a top materials scientist at MIT.
This has led to a glove designed for carpal tunnel sufferers, custom gloves designed for an individual’s particular pathology. Mass-produced braces are too big or too small – by unfolding the skin of your wrist digitally, she reforms the pain profile into a tool that holds and constrains the movement.
Beast was a project to design a customizable chaise lounge – printed from a material that holds itself structurally, while cradling pressure points. It’s like sitting in your acupuncturist or massage therapist, she tells us.
How do we generate a new technology that caters to more sustainable ways of making and doing things? Can we print buildings as if we were 3D printing bones and save 50% of materials? We can. At MIT’s Media Lab, she’s creating something called Variable Process Printing, which allows us to print buildings as if we were printing oysters at a thousand times their scale.
“Design is truly alive because it’s truly, truly relevant… It’s high time we transcend the fallen state of design into a new and exciting paradigm of literally making our future… and it’s happening.”