Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby from the Royal College of Art in London were two of my favourite speakers at the Indaba. Partly, I must admit, because I enjoyed drawing Fiona. She is so deliciously caricaturable:
Before her talk, she came tripping past the P Q at the women’s loos, chirping – “I’m on next – I’m a presenter – sorry!” and vanished into a cubicle. I could not wait to draw her.
Anthony and Fiona are teachers, and they spoke about an area of teaching that I am trying to learn more about. What is the value of getting students to explore the world of ideas, particularly when these ideas seem to be very far from the world of jobs, rent and “the real world” or “the industry”?
They explained that in their projects, they treat design as “an accessible language to open up discussion” and talk about things before they happen.
They showed the work of a number of students. First off, was the idea of “victimless meat”. Apparently it has become possible to grow meat in a vat, spun from the cells of an animal. The animal does not have to die, or be harmed for this to take place. This vat grown meat raises a number of questions.
Could it be eaten by vegetarians seeing as no animal was harmed in its making?
What if … it were made from human cells? And leading from that one –
What if…it were made from the cells of a famous person? A president or pop star? Could we be eating celebrities?
More seriously – the questions asked were around how one could present such a product. What would be its shape, since it can be any shape? Would its shape refer to its origins? Should it? Or to some abstracted version of the original animal?
Another project, this time by student Alice Wang used Asimov’s first law of robotics to interrogate common household objects. This law states that a robot should not be able to harm a human being. Alice Wang searched for instances in which this law was being broken in our everyday lives, and then attempted to re-design these objects according to Asimov’s law. For example – a scale.
Alice states that a scale clearly harm humans:
“Scales, although they don’t perform physical harm, have been subtly damaging us psychologically. Should objects like these exist in a complex society like ours where people are more emotionally fragile?”
She re-designed the scale in a number of ways. Here is one example, called “White Lies”.
The person being weighed cannot see the reading directly. They have to rely on a friend, who is hopefully more tactful than the scale in choosing how and when to convey this information.
You can see more examples of Alice’s work here.
A third project that caught my attention was the “Technological Dream Series”. Here they investigated the shapes that robots can assume, and how we might relate to them.
” These objects are meant to spark a discussion about how we’d like our robots to relate to us: subservient, intimate, dependent, equal?”
These robots are very unlike the mental image that occurs to us when we think of “robots”.
A heavy, solid log of wood with two dark eye like openings that can be cradled in the arms. You are supposed to stare into its “eyes” for a long time, allowing it to scan and collect your data – slowly, methodically, making “extra sure, sure, sure” you are who you are.
Or a little white glossy robot with a big “head” balanced on a skinny neck. This one peeps peevishly when that it would prefer to be moved – closer to a window, or to a warmer spot.
This takes advantage of the human need to be needed, and our need to care. What if technology were needy?
There were a number of other baffling and thought provoking projects. What kept coming to the fore was their belief in the need to play with ideas. That we should create a space between fiction and reality, to use aesthetics to help suspend disbelief and make it possible for us to wonder about what might be.
Design, for them, is an open space in which to question and is used to spark discussion.
Another theme which emerged is that maybe technology need not be a source of fear. Another is that maybe technology is not a solution, but a catalyst.
Their final message rang true.
Design cannot change the world. Where before, humans have used design to adjust their environment to their needs, we can no longer do this.
“We need to adjust ourselves in the worlds image.”
If these robotic explorations interested you, you may also wish to read this article in the New York Times: “The Real Transformer” – about sociable robots and the ethical issues that surround them