Time, Space, The System and the IndividualBy Digital Strategy — May 3, 2013 - 5:38 pm
This year’s PSFK Conference held in New York brought together a diverse group of thought leaders, business innovators and creators to discuss design, creativity and digital technology. This gathering brought to the forefront some of the most pressing existential issues of our generation: time, space, “the system” and the individual. From the lack of divide between our digital lives and our “real” lives, to the need to subvert convention and create our own rules, to the power of the crowd to solve just about anything, we certainly felt this was an inspiring and thought-provoking conference.
Please find a summary below of the sessions that took place:
1. “Life with Extra Senses.” Neil Harbisson, Cyborg Foundation
Soundbite: “I couldn’t feel a difference between the software and my brain.”
What He Said: Neil Harbisson, a Catalan contemporary artist, composer and cyborg activist, was born with achromatopsia, a condition that only allowed him to see in a gray scale. Ten years ago he took part in the development of the eyeborg, a cybernetic eye permanently attached to his head that allows him to hear colors through bone conduction. This device functions as an extension of his senses and has totally transformed his perception of quotidian things —“supermarkets are like nightclubs for me now.” Through his foundation he is commited to fighting for people’s rights to extend and defend their senses and sees cyborgism as a social movement.
What We Heard: While many claim that affixing digital technologies to our bodies makes us more like robots, Harbisson argues that it actually brings us closer to nature, as animals have many of the abilities that cybernetics allows us to experience. Brands can look for ways to both appeal to this growing community of cyborgs and embrace/create technologies that ultimately make us more human. If it’s possible to hear color, how else can the senses be subverted?
2. “The Dogmas of Design.” Bruce Nussbaum, Author
Soundbite: “Connecting two or three dots gives you huge power.”
What He Said: Bruce Nussbaum is Professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons School of Design and an award-winning writer. His most recent book, Creative Intelligence, looks at creativity as a new form of cultural literacy and as a tool for solving problems and driving innovation.
What We Heard: Individuals, corporations and nations that can better tap into creative intelligence (or CQ) can not only make new products but solve new problems. Much of this comes from how we are able to frame the problem – by framing the problem in a novel way, we are able to devise original and highly social solutions.
3. “Crowdfunding in Real Estate: Finance Your Ideal City.” Rodrigo Niño, Prodigy Network Innovator
Soundbite: “Anything that’s self-sustaining and profitable will be funded by the crowd.”
What He Said: Rodrigo founded Prodigy Network ten years ago to help small investors participate in previously unattainable deals. He saw pure potential in his native city of Bogota (in addition to several economic and social challenges), but believed that there was no limit to what institutional capital allows you to do. His company was responsible for building the world’s first crowd-funded skyscraper, the BD Bacatá. They were able to raise $200 million from 3,500 investors (just every day Colombians) and forever changing our notion of what can be crowd-funded.
What We Heard: Beyond T-shirts and iPhone apps, crowd-funding really is limitless. If it can make mega projects like a skyscraper possible, with total transparency and s clear end-user benefit, its foreseeable that whole cities can be funded this way.
4. “The Product of Time.” Scott Thrift & Ari Kuschnir, m ss ng p eces
Soundbite: “What I’m proposing is time for the right-brain.”
What They Said: Sometimes personal art projects become global business products. Scott Thrift, an award-winning video artist and editor, was fascinated by the concept of time. Not only did he feel that it moved too fast, but he felt that modern time was really for the left brain – it was linear, logical. Thrift created (and crowd-funded) an annual clock, ThePresent. This beautiful clock tracks time in seasons using subtle gradients of pure color to mark the Equinoxes & Solstices throughout the year. It takes an entire year for this wall clock to complete a single rotation using a first of its kind German-engineered movement.
What We Heard: “Becoming accustomed to the present is an adventure.” There is an opportunity for more products and services to help us balance the right and left hemispheres of our brain and to re-define our notions of very basic concepts. Additionally, there is a need for products to tap into the notion of the “present need state.” The role of today’s and tomorrow’s products is to be responsive to the “present need state” where anticipating is not enough, but reacting and delivering in the moment will be the new normal.
4. “The Lowline: An Underground Park for a Resilient Future.” Dan Barasch, The Lowline
Soundbite: “If you know where to look, there are adventures and treasures underground.”
What He Said: While New York’s Lower East Side is full of bars, restaurants and history, it is lacking in greenspace. The Lowline is a plan to convert a historic trolley terminal beneath Delancey Street into a subterranean public park. Dan Barasch and his partner James Ramsey led the invention of a new technology, dubbed “remote skylight” that is able to channel and redistribute natural sunlight underground, enough to even support photosynthesis. This effort has been supported by both the city and community (with over $150,000 raised via Kickstarter). Their next step will be to develop a full scale installation of this concept/technology for the MTA, community and supporters.
What We Heard: While most people look up when trying to identify new space, these guys looked down. This underscores the importance of resisting the usual solutions. Those that do so are guaranteed to have a very large amount of work on their hands, but an infinitely bigger reward.
4. “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.” Douglas Rushkoff, Author
Soundbite: “I got the idea for this somewhat intellectual book while watching The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
What He Said: Douglas Rushkoff, one of the world’s leading media theorists and author of 12 bestsellers, introduced his new book, Present Shock. He believes that we are now living through the phenomenon of presentism, where we have a completely new relationship with time. This fundamentally new challenge has us struggling between chronos (the time of the clock) and chyros (timing). He argues that the use of asynchronous devices has us living outside of time, where the future is now, and the world is full of constant interruptions and updates. Like traffic controllers or 911 operators, we are “overwinding” every day and trying to squish time.
What We Heard: Rushkoff implores us to “subvert the underlying operating system.” We need to find ways to reclaim time and find new models of time – and perhaps (the right) brands can give consumers permission to do so.
5. “Food Design: Form Following Feeling.” Emilie Baltz, Author
Soundbite: “The best recipes are honest tastes of their creator, unfiltered emotions captured from life experience and translated through the five senses.”
What She Said: Emilie Baltz is a food designer and author of the art cookbook, L.O.V.E. Foodbook about the relationship between desire and cuisine. She believes that food is the most robust medium for storytelling as it engages all five of our senses. And ultimately, the senses are the instrument of our heart. By reminding people that food is not a calorie but an experience, she is able to elevate food to not art, experience, and a part of history.
What We Heard: While good brands have been telling stories for a long time, perhaps it is time to think about how these stories can engage all of people’s senses, instead of just a few. The palate may be the next frontier for brands to engage all of our senses.
6. “Evolving a Living Information System for NYC.” Mike Rawlinson & Eoin Billings, City ID and Billings Jackson Design
Soundbite: “Few cities are inherently legible.”
What They Said: One out of ten New Yorkers gets lost every week, according to the city’s Department of Transportation (not including tourists). This past March, the city began installing 150 wayfinding signs in high-traffic areas to help pedestrians navigate their way. PentaCity, a group made up of graphic design studio Pentagram, map makers City ID and industrial designers Billings Jackson developed this system, including a new font called Helvetica DOT. A sample shows that they will include major landmarks, local businesses, and estimated transit times within a 5-minute proximity. The city believes that not only will this help pedestrians, but it will ultimately be good for business, communities and the economy.
What We Heard: We assume that some of the friction in our lives is unavoidable and will just always be there. However, seemingly small problems or inconveniences can have a much bigger impact than we think. There are a myriad of opportunities to become a hero by ameliorating these small injustices.
7. “The Sense of Non-Sense: Decoding the Visual Web.” Abigail Posner, Google
Soundbite: “Are we just getting dumber and dumber?”
What She Said: The Internet is filled with silly, senseless, mundane and downright bizarre content – mostly in video format. Do we just lack taste and seek frivolity? Abigail Posner, head of strategic planning at Google, argues that we’re actually seeking something much more meaningful. She believes these humorous and viral videos are capable of sparking our own sense of creativity and desire to leave a mark. They have the ability to inspire us to turn our own ideas into something that leaves a mark, too. And we share these videos because providing happiness to others amplifies our own happiness and deepens our bond with others. Not bad for baaa-ing sheep videos.
What We Heard: People want to feel like their daily lives aren’t mundane but are full of magic, beauty and love. Brands have an opportunity to elevate consumers’ every day in a way that makes them feel better about themselves and their world. By marveling in the mundane or finding the fascinating in the familiar, we can fuel an energy exchange and a deep connection between both people and brands.
8. “¡Viva la Revolución!” Benjamin Dyett, Grind
Soundbite: “Free radicals don’t need desks.”
What He Said: We are currently experiencing the largest shift in workplace demographics in the last 100 years. By the end of this decade, it is expected that half of Americans in the workplace will be independently employed. And for people that are more interested in working in a community than a corporation, there’s Grind. Grind is members-only workspace and community that serves as the antidote to the office. It gives people the ability to work however they want, whenever they want in a high-tech, sustainable and responsive environment.
What We Heard: While technology has freed us in many ways, it also has us working around the clock, often in isolation. Now is the time for “free radicals” or “free-range humans” (as Grind calls them) to redefine every aspect of what a “job” is. This just means that everything is free rein for re-invention. In the words of Dyett, “if it ain’t broke, fix it anyways.”
9. “Brand Building Through Narrative & Vulnerability.” Neil Blumenthal, Warby Parker
Soundbite: “You could be the poorest person on the planet but you’d rather be blind than wear donated [unattractive] glasses.”
What He Said: Warby Parker launched in February of 2010, and after three weeks they hit their first year’s sales goals. Co-founder Neil Blumenthal credits a few basic principles to their success. The company is very clear about their value proposition. They’re a fashion brand offering designer eyewear at a revolutionary price while being socially-conscious. Warby Parker has been very careful about crafting this narrative, and staying true to the prioritization of all these elements. They’re also quite transparent with their customers. One example of this is the interactive, quirky and fun annual report that they share with their fans; not only does this report on “the numbers” in a way that is easily-digestible but it also highlights humanizing data about their office lunches and employee fun facts, making it a marketing tool, too. Warby Parker is also inventive about how they display their product – from staging hush hush events at the New York Library to putting their glasses on a school bus – they’ve quickly become a darling of the fashion industry and consumers alike.
What We Heard: Warby Parker was started when the founders realized that the eyewear industry was virtually a monopoly. Any major player that dominates their vertical will eventually be overturned by entrepreneurial individuals who see opportunity where others see a closed door and regard vulnerability as a strength. Brands that are in these leadership positions should seek out opportunities to create the highest level of transparency possible by being vulnerable with both their current and future marketplace. Brands are better off turning their own industries upside down in order to remain relevant before visionary entrepreneurs do it for them.
10. “Making a Great Brand with Quality and Community.” Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani
Soundbite: “The first thing my father said to me when he visited me in America was ‘you can’t find better cheese?’”
What He Said: You may want to start reading your junkmail. Hamdi Ulukaya came across a postcard advertising a closing yogurt plant from Kraft Foods that was for sale. After thinking it over (and over) he decided to purchase it. That small plant in South Edmeston has now turned into a company with over $1B in sales, employing 3,000 people. Ulukaya believes that the best decision he ever made for his company was to paint the walls of that factory together with his initial staff of five employees. “I didn’t know what to do next, but we came up with the next idea [after that].”
What We Heard: Ulukaya argues that it’s not about how sophisticated or educated you are…it’s only about what you’re made of. His company has dominated the yogurt industry by “staying close the to the plant.” By focusing on the well-being of the local community and building a superior product, even yogurt can be meaningful. By preserving their core vision and adhering to their values of “respecting the locals” the company has grown beyond anyone’s expectations. Not only are they a global phenomenon but they’re highly sophisticated marketers whose story and heritage will provide a platform for their continued growth.
The beauty of the PSFK Conference is that it focuses on how seemingly esoteric concepts have been turned into products, services and business models that can be felt by consumers and will ultimately become the norm in our day-to-day lives. We look forward to following these individuals and ideas over time.