A Future Fueled by Design

MIT Media Lab Hosts Their First Design Summit, Knotty Objects

Must design fill current human needs before imagining new futures? That was the topic for debate at the close of the MIT Media Lab’s first design summit, Knotty Objects. With a dose of sardonic wit, Ahmet Ansari and Jamer Hunt took the stage for this impassioned “Affirmative Design” versus “Critical Design” face-off. Ansari questioned whether “violent dystopian visions ever lead to positive substantive change.” Hunt asserted that, “Design constrained to problem solving is design oversimplified.” In this thrilling denouement to the two-day event, Ansari and Hunt argued their positions and left the matter fittingly unresolved and knotty.

Co-organized by Paola Antonelli (Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, Director of Research & Development, MoMA), Neri Oxman (Sony Corporation Career Development Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT Media Lab), and Kevin Slavin (Benesse Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT Media Lab), Knotty Objects convened designers, scientists, authors and curators to explore design at the intersection of science, engineering and cultural production.

Oxman remarked in her introduction, “This is a very exciting time for design-–a time when we’re creating objects by knotting disciplines in contexts that are technologically savvy and culturally sensitive.” Just as a knot in mathematics joins two ends in a way that cannot be undone, she explained, so too knotty objects entangle practices, processes, and policies. Knotty objects’ conception, design, manufacturing, use and misuse are nonlinear and non-discrete.


Paola Antonelli, Knotty Objects, 2015. Photo: Andy Ryan.

Antonelli, Oxman and Slavin chose four archetypal knotty objects—brick, steak, phone, bitcoin—as lenses through which to examine the transdisciplinary nature of contemporary design. The symposium’s four sessions—“The New Metabolism,” “New Dimensions in Organic Design,” “Manufactured Objects,” and “Design and Complexity”—explored the intricacies of building, food, communication and commerce.

The occasion also marked the first ever MIT Media Lab Award, which “celebrates individuals who break new grounds by refusing to acknowledge separate territories of design, science, and technology.” This honor was bestowed on Anthony Dunne and  Fiona Raby in a spectacular opening event at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, where Dunne and Raby delivered the keynote address for the design summit to a packed house.

Dunne and Raby coined the term “Critical Design” to describe the speculative practices that they have employed in their thirty-year careers as designers and faculty in the Design Interactions programme at the Royal College of Art, London. They use design to stimulate discussion and debate about the social, cultural and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies. It is their view that products—unlike philosophy, literature or art—can locate these issues within a context of everyday material culture, thereby bringing the conversation to the wider public. In their keynote address, Dunne cited his and Raby’s manifesto, A/B, which outlines their future-oriented design aspirations: “We’re taught to design for how the world is now, whereas we believe we need to imagine how the world could be and design for that.” Although, as Dunne pointed out, “a lot of our designs are aimed at our minds and our belief systems,” visually arresting projects like the teddy bear blood bag or digicars demonstrate their commitment to giving material expression to their concepts.

Dunne and Raby’s contribution to design thinking was woven throughout the summit, as the twenty-six speakers linked “Critical Design” strategies to various treatments of the apertures and entanglements between design and technology.


Neri Oxman, Knotty Objects, 2015. Photo: Andy Ryan.

Brick: The New Metabolism

In the first session, “The New Metabolism,” bricks were shown to be more than mere mortar; bricks can be made of mushroom mycelium, corn, circuits, and potentially, DNA. They can unite digital and biological materials. The speakers in this session—David Benjamin, George Church, Hashim Sarkis, Nicola Twilley and Neri Oxman—joined the bricks’ traditional attributes of modularity and assembly with ideas about interconnectedness, growth and metabolisms.

Benjamin discussed his projects, which reimagine architecture through synthetic biology and treat cities as living, breathing organisms with their own kind of metabolisms. Hashim Sarkis, Dean of the MIT School of Architecture + Planning, connected these ideas to the work of the Metabolists, post-war Japanese architects who fused ideas about megastructures with biological growth. Giving the example of a soccer ball, Sarkis spoke of how social networks activate objects and how objects possess the ability to connect networks.

In her discussion of a “Knotty Metabolism,” Oxman also investigated the interconnectedness of things. She described the chain of events caused by the explosions of the 1954 US nuclear test at Castle Bravo and how “the Cold War gradually made it through the food chain, and Carbon-14 made its way into the human DNA,” before discussing a wearable digestive system created in her lab, in which two microorganisms were engineered to have a symbiotic relationship.


Knotty Objects: Steak, Shortie.

Steak: New Dimensions in Organic Design

“The steak knots together so many interesting issues and touches the deepest recesses of our humanity,” Antonelli remarked in her introduction to “New Dimensions in Organic Design.” The panelists, Kevin Esvelt, Isha Datar and Daisy Ginsberg, addressed the taboos and unresolved issues surrounding steak, animal slaughter and the use of in vitro cells to produce food products. The moderator, Alexandra Midal, cited an early study on the effects of mechanization, which warned that destroying animals by the millions could have unpredictable consequences for human nature, by neutralizing the act of killing.

The ethical implications of meat production were paramount to both Esvelt’s and Datar’s presentations. In his talk on biological design, Esvelt addressed such topics as resurrecting extinct species, spreading traits designed in a lab to wild populations and editing DNA for human offspring. He pointed out that there are historical precedents for sculpting living things by directing evolution – such as forming chihuahuas from wolves or systematically making livestock larger – before introducing the current biological design dilemma: “We could alter mosquitoes so they could no longer spread disease… alter crop pests so that they no longer have a taste for eating our crops, or even control invasive species. We could do all that by speaking nature’s language and using biology rather than bulldozers and toxic chemicals, but the question of course is, should we?”

Molecular biologist Datar, who works to produce animal products without animals at New Harvest, discussed the threats to both animal life (including humans) and the environment posed by the current factory farming system, which produces 60 billion land animals per year to serve the needs of 6 billion people. “The way we make animal products is still absurd,” she argued, suggesting that growing whole complex sentient organisms for simple tissues is grossly inefficient. She warned that continuing to design animals based on human preferences will lead to more complex ethical dilemmas, such as whether to make chickens unconscious while we farm them to alleviate their suffering.


Isha Datar, Knotty Objects, 2015. Photo: Andy Ryan.

Phone: Manufactured Objects

Our phones, with their regular updates and ability to track our preferences, are reminders that an object is no longer divorced from the manufacturer once it is in consumers’ hands. The panelists in “Manufactured Objects”Tanya Menendez, Anab Jain and Revital Cohen—discussed the shifting relationship among designers, manufacturers and consumers, as they looked at work that ranged from purely speculative endeavors to utilitarian products.

Menendez created Maker’s Row, an online marketplace for American manufacturers, to connect designers to factories closer to their locales. Jain discussed some of the work produced at Superflux, including a collaborative project with neuroscientists to create a new form of prosthetic vision that allows blind people to see in areas of the electromagnetic spectrum not visible to the normally sighted and another project that used open-source software to scan cellular devices for TSA trigger words, which would then be displayed on badges worn by the users. Not all Superflux’s projects, however, are provocations; they have also designed portable air quality sensors to be attached to baby carriages that will record data and could eventually lead to legislative changes. Jain says, “We understand things by building them, by getting under the hood of the technology.”

Cohen, an artist whose work deals broadly with materials and manufacturing, presented several of her pieces, including 75 Watt, for which she worked with a choreographer and 15 assembly-line workers at a Chinese factory to make a product that had no other function than to choreograph the workers’ movements. Interested in the design and manufacture of animals, she worked with a biologist in Japan to make a goldfish with no reproductive organs. Her latest obsession is the mining industry; she takes old electronics and reverse engineers these products to extract gold, aluminum, and other precious metals, which she then crafts into rocks.

Bitcoin: Design and Complexity

Currency without banks, data visualization, flight patterns of starlings, Conway’s Game of Life and lacemaking were a few topics addressed in “Design and Complexity.” Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, stated at the outset, “The Internet could have been a very boring medium, had designers and entrepreneurs not thrown their creativity at it,” and prophesied, “I think now bitcoin is in a very similar space.” Beyond being merely digital currency, Ito stressed that bitcoin could be something bigger if creative people get an intuitive sense of both “the nitty-gritty of bitcoin and its ancillaries.” The speakers opened up the conversation to encompass all manner of complex systems.

Alan Chochinov, a surgical device designer who taught himself tatting, spoke of the gendered complexity of being a man who makes doilies, as well as the social and utilitarian complexity of learning the craft of making tens of thousands of knots. Scott Page spoke of the field of complex systems from a scientific perspective.

Artist and designer, Fernanda Viégas, presented several data visualizations, such as her striking editorial history of Wikipedia, which exhibits the patterns that emerge with mass deletions and editing wars. Another project, “Seeing the wind” replaced the static arrows of former wind maps with motion graphics. As Viégas remarked, “by making the visual image more complex, it is easier to understand.”

Debate: Critical Design versus Affirmative Design

The audience was asked to state their positions (by a show of hands) prior to the “Critical Design” versus “Affirmative Design” debate. After Hunt and Ansari argued their positions on the relative merits of designing for possible futures or for problem-solving in the here and now, some opinions shifted (again announced by a show of hands) and a few more people joined those sitting on the fence. In the closing remarks, Oxman suggested that perhaps new categories, such as “critical-affirmative,” or “affirmative-critical” can account for many who have more nuanced design principles. Then, borrowing a line from Groucho Marx, she added, “If you don’t like my principles, I have others.” Knotty Objects ended on a note of open-ended discussion and ongoing debate, as the organizers intended. True to their prediction at the summit’s beginning: “We hope there will be no conclusion.”

Knotty Objects took place at the ICA Boston and the MIT Media Lab on July 15-16, 2015.

Posted on September 14, 2015 by Sharon Lacey