Reflections about the Lift Conference 2014
Lift is one of the most important european events about innovation and digital technologies held in Geneva every year since 2006. This conference gathers together inspiring speeches, active workshops, spontaneous meet-ups and groundbreaking expositions with the aim to encourage reflections, opinions exchanges and discussions that make this event a catalyst of innovation. Lift is a key event for all people, individuals and organisations alike, that want to face current challenges and find solutions in relation with emerging technologies while considering economical and social implications of innovation.
When we talk about innovation we think about technology, computer science and software engineering, but the innovation could be possible also in other fields. This year, Lift’14 investigated many interesting topics such as company management, bio hacking, e-commerce or family business… and a lot of observations and reflections emerged from this.
1. How to innovate?
First of all, a big question that emerges when we deal with this theme is about the methodologies and the processes we could innovate with. In the design field, innovation is synonymous of User-Centered Design focused on the thinking capabilities of the user. Certainly, placing the user in the center of the design process isn’t a new approach, but now we have to re-consider the idea of “the user” especially if we are designing digital products. While in the past users were considered for their shape, according to ergonomic studies, now designers have to consider them more for their abilities to understand process, for their memory. From this observation Nicolas Nova started his studies trying to define the methodology for the user research. Presenting his research during the workshop Design Ethnography. Beyond User-Centred Design he describes the designer more as an anthropologist and a psychologist than a simple problem-solver. He has to “understand the users” observing how they behave and interact with the environment and trying to capture their habits, rituals and needs, but it is also important to consider emotional and cultural aspects.
Focusing on the relation between the user and the computation system, Alexis Lloyd, creative director of the New York Times R&D Lab, reflected on the necessity of a simple and efficient communication between the two. She identified three new design principles that should be built into new interactions: the transparency, the ability of the system to show the user what he needs to know; the agency, the sense of control and participation in the process that the system has to give to the user, and the virtuosity: the ability to use technology expressively (this is a result of systems that support agency and transparency).
Innovation is something that we usually connect to the beginning of a venture, but interesting things happen also when a company has to reboot their DNA, when it has to face its decline and have to change to survive, or maybe when it has to let itself die. According to Bracken Darrell, president and CEO of Logitech, design is a method of innovation. When the company had to reinvent itself, after the arrival of iPad, he decided to hire new designers able to o create simple, functional and aesthetic products. Moreover, he worked hard to keep the structure of the company similar to the ones of small companies, in order to avoid being stuck in bureaucratic processes and therefore maintain informal way of communication between people and to create a collaborative working space. If a company doesn’t manage to rebuild its identity, it happens what Philippe Silberzahn calls a “creative breakdown”, it is still performing but the creativity capacity is gone and the company isn’t able to introduce new products in the market anymore. Focusing on the dead side of the innovation, Philippe Méda, founder of Merkapt, defined the innovation as a “killer rabbit”, a brutal force waiting for killing someone else innovation, with a better idea.
2. Creativity to make innovation happens.
Often when we speak of innovation we think of cutting-edge technology or the new hype product recently launched by some new shiny start-up. Although we forget that most of those disruptives changes are possible thanks to the action of creative people. Indeed, as stated by Dan Williams, hacker at Makeshift, “being an artist allows you to try things you would get arrested for if you weren’t”.
We can indeed find examples of artist using new technologies in creative and unexpected ways. Lia Giraud is a french artist working on the photographic process based on exposure and shutter speed. She discovered through the use of algae new way of exploring this century old technique. Algae are light-sensitive organism, therefore by exposing them to a given light shape it is possible to create picture. What is of interest in this process is that you can actually see the picture take shape by seeing the motion of the algae heading toward the light area. Lia Giraud gives us an example of how biotechnology, which can be considered as a cutting edge industry, can be used to re-explore older concepts and make them evolve. On the other hand, graphic designer such as Ariel Martin Perez are also using bio technology to create “biofont”, using services and education in the field of biology provided by open initiatives such as La Paillassein Paris.
Those example can appear as fancy and not having much impact on the society. But creative thinking can be used as a trigger of discussion around new technology and innovation. Therefore art and creative practice have a very strong social function. One very relevant illustration of this is the Holzmarkt urban project located near the Spree river in Berlin. This project, created by Juval Dieziger, was first a place to party, gathering people from all around the world. But authorities decided to close the place because of the Mediaspree development plan envisaged for this area which consisted in building skyscrapers. With the help of Mario Husten, Juval Dieziger was able to propose a viable and creative alternative which was supported by the local population (contrarily to the Mediaspree project). In the end this alternative was adopted by the city of Berlin. The Holzmarkt project is working as a cooperative where citizens gather and share their ideas which are taken into account for the future development of the area. The place is meant to evolve in a natural and organic way. Through the involvement of the population and the proposition of an original urban plan, the Holzmarkt project offers a real value to the city of Berlin and illustrates the role of creativity in social innovation.
On another level, the architect Fabio Gramazio is thinking about the use of technology in creative processes and how to enhance them through technology. With his research at the Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore he is exploring with his team the use of machines, similar to the ones used in factories, to innovate in the way we are constructing and designing buildings. Notably, he is speaking of the notion of digital materiality, corresponding to architectural structures build from design data. This totally new practice allows for a new kind of materiality and a new way of thinking architecture: first the architectural process should use more generic and flexible machine completing human work. This would allow the rethinking of construction by making the design of processes more important and valuable than the design of forms. Finally the use of robots in architecture enable the creation of unique structure enjoying material sensuality which creates a new form of interaction and experience with the user. Moreover of this discoveries, Fabio Gramazio considers as essential to engage with technology to be able to shape the future of his profession.
As said before, creativity has an important role on a social and innovative level. But it is also a perquisite for sustainability. As Philippe Silberzahn explains us the death of creativity in an organization leads to a creative breakdown leading eventually to the death of the organization itself. This pattern has been observed in the decline of many societies, as for example the Roman Empire. Once an entity is too important it becomes stuck in administrative processes which kills the overall creativity of the entity by silencing the creativity of individuals. Although the creative breakdown which emerge from this takes years to have impact on the entity and at this moment it is often too late to take any action against it. This highlights the fact that creativity is an essential motor of innovation but also sustainability.
3. Ethic and innovation
When we are speaking of innovation, the idea of pushing boundaries seems strongly linked to it. This implies that a dialogue exists between innovation and the society: how innovation disrupt the social rules and in return how the society shapes the use of technology.
Indeed, technology enables us to tackle some of the big challenges of our society. For example production of meat as we are doing it today produces massive amount of carbon dioxide. Moreover it will not be sufficient to cover the need of the global population in the years to come, especially because of the growing market in Asia. Although this meat production could be replaced in the future by laboratory grown meat. This is the aim of the research conducted by Mark Post at the Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who created the first in Vitro-burger. Even if this is just a first step, a lot of quality such as taste and texture have to be improved on this lab meat, it can be considered as a sustainable solution to this problematic. Actually this lab grown meat is made from stem cells found in animal muscle. One stem cell can potentially, through successive division, creates 10000 kilos of meat, equivalent to 300 cows, using only some sugar and fat to grow. Another example of this sustainable use of technology is the pen created at La Paillasse. This pen has the particularity that its ink is created by bacteria living in the pen. Those bacteria are harmless for humans and totally biodegradable which is an ecological alternative to the highly toxic ink used until now. One funny thing about those bacterias is their ability to produce ink of different color according to what their eating. In the end the idea benign those two projects is to use organic and minor resources consuming processes to replace current products in a sustainable and eco-friendly way.
On the other hand, this reveals a new side of technology and science. It would seem that we are relying more and more on it to resolve all our problems to the point that science is becoming some kind of new religion. This is defined by two main elements: the lack of critical thinking and the lack of transparency. The lack of critical thinking is explained by Ian Bogost by talking of algorithm in particular. He considers algorithms as a metaphor of the world. This is due to the partial view of the world we are putting in them, we are making them from. Most algorithm are made to answer a specific problem and to do so it is designed according to just one aspect of the reality. This is not the first time that human kind is doing the confusion between the real capacity of its creation and what he wants it to be. For example the same confusion exists with machine and manual creation, where we thought that the manual creation could be entirely automated and even now we are trying to believe in this. However most of the factories around the world are using human hands for most of the crafty works. The second point, the lack of transparency, is directly linked on the way technology and science is conceived. The modern world is build on science and technology, although the understanding of those is limited to a bunch of people in the world, and is hardly accessible despite the open initiatives and the world wide web. Most of the person using their smartphone don’t have much clue on how it works and how it is linked and interacts with a global complex network. The need of transparency, as pleaded by Alexis Lloyd, should be one of the most important point in the future development of technology. I also personally think that education has a great role to play in increasing the awareness and understanding to technologies and science.
To answer those threats some think about opening the science to all. This is one of the main goal of the Fab Labs where anyone could build objects thanks to the availability of computer controlled tools. Thomas Landrain has the same approach with his open bio space: La Paillasse. Here the idea is to make available to the greatest number of people biotechnology: you can potentially play with bacteria, analyze your food or your DNA. Although this openness of high-tech technologies, even if trying to answer to an overall lack of knowledge in the science field, also brings its share of problematics. Being open, no one can really control the use of those tools and therefore it can be used in some dangerous ways. One of the most obvious misuse of these technologies is the open sharing of 3d printed gun models. But thinking of biotechnology, you can think about the creation of drugs or the creation of viruses. One answer is the creation of manifestos or moral code around those practice, as done for La Paillasse. Another one is the intervention of states and legislation, which could potentially lead to a surveillance society.
It is evident, therefore, that innovation and society are inseparable and they shape each other. For instance, the e-commerce was a real success in Europe and America, but in other societies this practice has really struggled before being established. In China, for instance, the current biggest e-commerce business, Alibaba, 14 years ago encountered lots of cultural and social problems to seep through because people didn’t trust in strangers or in electronic payments. As explained by Porter Erisman, ex-VP alibaba.com, entrepreneurs tried to transform Alibaba in a more human experience, integrating chat and allowing people build relationships, community and groups and discuss about products. They also innovated the payment method founding Alipay, an online payment platform that introduced a broker between the buyer and the seller and introducing the culture of returning as guarantee. Africa is today in the same stage Asia was 10 years ago because of logistic, delivery and payment problems that prevent the growing of the e-commerce, as Isaac Nii Noi Nortey, co-founder of RetailTower in Ghana, told.
And what next? What change is our society waiting for? Our economy is becoming more and more sharing-oriented instead of shopping-addicted and this is a current social and cultural transition provided by technology; what is really important is not what people have, but what they don’t own. We are now changing our habits, the way we travel, eat, and, mainly, we are changing the value we give to money, hospitality, friendship, respect, etc. Wouldn’t it be great if we could share meals and connect people with food? This is exactly the concept behind Eatwith, presented by Joel Serra, an innovative web-based service that allow people to share a meal and a kitchen table with strangers. This is a good alternative to restaurant and a chance to experience local culinary for visitor and an opportunity to meet new people for locals -and also to gain some money.
Innovation relies mainly on creative processes where technical progress should be used as a tool and not as a driving force. Most importantly, those creative processes have to be deeply social and consider the society and the individuals as the base of any thoughts. This is one way to create alternatives to our current living style in order to tackle challenges of our modern society and hopefully find solution to other threats which can emerge from technology.