Things Designing Things

What if you used an object to do something other than what it was made to do, and ended up redesigning the object? That doesn’t seem so far fetched, unless, as a result of your misuse, the object redesigned itself. This is the idea behind ThingTank, a project that came together during an Ideas Lab facilitated by Knowinnovation in September 2013. The project, funded by the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in collaboration with MIT, is based on a few fundamental questions: Can things design things? Can different objects form a social network and invent new products or services? Can a massive dataset be mined to inspire new and surprising uses?

“The Internet of Things really started within a very technological context,” said Dr. Elisa Giaccardi, from the School of Industrial Design Engineering at the University of Delft in the Netherlands. “In both business and in many academic projects, it’s mostly about employing sensors to collect data that’s used to optimize the performance of the object.”

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Giaccardi believes that the ThingTank research is different because they want to look at practices and objects not vertically, but horizontally, to see how objects could be misused or could be used in the contexts in order to identify design opportunities that would not otherwise be imagined. “In this sense it’s the opposite to the classic way of the Internet of Things that’s mainstream right now.”

At the helm of the ThingTank research project, along with Dr. Giaccardi, is
Dr. Neil Rubens, University of Electro-communications in Tokyo, Japan and Dr. Chris Speed from the Centre for Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. Speed has also been funded at previous Sandpit-styled events, including the TOTeM project at an EPSRC Sandpit on the Digital Economy.

Giaccardi sees ThingTank is an opportunity to challenge the notion of design intent. “Designers are obsessed with their intent, but actually the most interesting things happen once people start using something.” By collecting a large amount of data over a period of time, the ThingTank researchers will observe how objects that are part of the same setting interact with each other, and how these interactions create unintended and unusual uses. For instance, a kettle and a cup are part of the practice of making tea, but a kettle can be used to boil water for different purposes, like making pasta. It can have other uses in the kitchen, like propping the window open for ventilation.

With enough data on a large scale, the ThingTank teams hopes to see anomalies and correlations that point to design opportunities not otherwise visible to a designer. “It’s clear from these preliminary studies that there are things that we would not notice, we would not even ask of people, and they wouldn’t think to tell us.” Giaccardi’s example is a teacup. It can be purely functional, to hold a hot drink. But they’ve also seen how the cup is used beyond its role as a container. “You think you take the cup around because you want to have tea on the balcony but for one of our participants, his tea was actually getting cold, it didn’t matter. He kept carrying it, bringing his cup along with him because he needed a companion, something to hold.”

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Dr. Ilia Dubinsky, Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Skoltech, organized the Ideas Lab in Moscow last year hoping that the projects generated from it would open distinctly novel paths and approaches to research. ThingTank seems to fit in that category. He sees the potential of this project to “introduce instruments and values of social research to the natural sciences and traditional engineering innovation processes.”

Dubinsky said that the Ideas Lab produced projects that are so radically different in scope and goals that only their successful completion will convince scientific community of their value and win us support to pursue this path in the future. But he sees the potential for tangible impact. “In addition to the traditional scientific input – publications – they aim to produce new approaches to the very process of innovation and may even go further, generating technologies and startups as their results.”

Giaccardi underscores that the objective of ThingTank is not to optimize objects, though improvements won’t be rejected. She also insists it’s not about objects taking control of the human world. “We only want objects to have some agency. We want to be able to listen to humans through the objects. We’re intrigued with the concentric relationship between humans and their objects.”

Moving beyond the user-centered design approach to a thing-centered approach challenges designers to re-think the role of design in a world where exhaustive amounts of data will be attached to almost everything that surrounds us. What will it mean for a designer to release control and collaborate with the objects – or let them lead the way – in their design?

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One scenario that the ThingTank team imagines is that objects would collect data about how you’re using them – or abusing them – and eventually these objects would clamor to redesign themselves with a 3D printer. “It might be that they want to look, feel and be different. Your computer and your cup want to do something together. A lamp might want to be squeezed and used as a pillow because the light makes it very warm.” Giaccardi believes that objects could redesign themselves in a dimension that you don’t have with products that are mass produced. This leads to kind of private design, driven by the objects themselves. With machine learning and predictive analytics, objects could see into the future and do more than optimize themselves, they could reinvent themselves into new objects that disrupt and augment, entirely, the material world around us.

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Know Further: See the slide presentation the ThingTank team used at its project launch. More about Skoltech, the collaboration between MIT and Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. Gartner reports that the Internet of Things will overtake Big Data as the most hyped technology. Here was their 2014 hype cycle report and a recent estimate that 25 billion things will be connected by 2020. Read about the emerging landscape of smart things.