Beacons: Sensing Innovation in a World of Change

Mode Lab
April 25, 2022

Technology and Culture

The relationship between technology and culture is symbiotic yet antagonistic. Both are radical drivers of each other through a self-perpetuating cycle. One of the simplest and most common examples of this relationship is the first Industrial Revolution, which created a radical shift from an agrarian to a machinic economy. This transition led to the growth of factories, and as more people moved from rural to urban areas, cities grew, and so did the amenities and behaviors of city dwellers. Similarly, the Bessemer process, enabling the mass production of steel in the 1850s, led to the boom of railroads in the United States during the Second Industrial Revolution and contributed to the massive growth of cross-country travel, and therefore the proliferation and mixing of cultures.

The constant interplay of technology and culture sets beacons for each, pointing toward future states of understanding, behavior, and innovation.

While more modern examples of this relationship exist, like social media, Google maps, immersive gaming, and e-learning, examples from science fiction are particularly interesting because often times the beacons created are just slightly too far away from the realities of the moment. For example, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne, written in 1872, outlines, in detail, a fictional submarine called The Nautilus. Although submarines had already existed for roughly 300 years before Verne's novel, his creation inspired submarine designers as technology advanced over time. Similarly, in 1953, Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 described what 50 years later we would know as earbuds, as the conduit for “an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk, coming in on the shore of [your] unsleeping mind.” And in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), doctors talk to each other via video link on tablets, and Dr. Floyd makes a video call to his daughter on her birthday. This was likely based on Bell Labs' Picturephone which was invented around the same time, but the depictions of iPads and Skype calls 50 years earlier are clear beacons to the future of technology and culture.

Approaching Beacons

As designers, one of our main jobs is to be able to sense, read, and respond to signals that we see both in the world around us and in the workflows and processes we use in design. This responsiveness to our environment enables us to identify and approach beacons, setting us in various directions of exploration.

While we may not be able to reach these beacons today, driving toward them enables us to explore our adjacencies and what is just outside of possible. Biologist Stuart Kaufmann defined this as the adjacent possible: the ability of systems to morph into more complex systems by making incremental, relatively less energy-consuming changes in their makeup. With the potential for change, over time, systems evolve into future, higher-level states. While this concept originates in biology, the adjacent possible has been instrumental in the development of many physical products, enabling designers and manufacturers to leverage existing technologies to create new and innovative products that push the limits of what is possible.

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…it captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.” - Steven Johnson

The concept of the adjacent possible is evident in the development of electric cars. Rather than attempting to create a completely new form of transportation, manufacturers leveraged existing technologies, such as batteries and electric motors, to create more energy-efficient cars. With each iteration, advancements in battery and charging technology have allowed for increased driving range and faster charging times, slowly pushing the limits of what is possible with electric vehicles. The rise of smart home devices is another example of the adjacent possible in product innovation. Early smart home devices, such as smart thermostats, were limited in terms of their capabilities, but as technology improved, new features and capabilities were added, such as voice control, energy management, and security systems. Each new feature led to more advanced and sophisticated systems that can control many different aspects of the home environment. Finally, the development of wearable technology is also an excellent example. Early wearables, such as fitness trackers, were limited in terms of their capabilities, but as technology improved, new features and capabilities were added, such as mobile payment capabilities, voice control, and health monitoring.

The Power of Computational Design

Computational design is the application of algorithms to design solutions, enabling designers to apply both the art and science of computing to challenges. Computational design can help explore the adjacent possible in a few different ways.

Firstly, computational design can rapidly generate and iterate on designs that push the limits of what is currently possible. By leveraging algorithms and generative design techniques, designers can create designs that are optimized for specific performance criteria and that take into account a wide range of constraints and requirements. This allows for the exploration of a wider range of design options than would be possible with traditional design methods, and to quickly iterate on those designs to refine them further.

Secondly, computational design can simulate physical products in a virtual environment. This allows designers to explore the potential outcomes of different design decisions and to identify any potential issues or limitations before investing significant resources in physical prototyping. This also enables designers to create prototypes that can be easily shared and reviewed, and experienced in completely new ways, and solicit feedback from other team members in different roles and functions without the need for domain expertise. This cross-disciplinary collaboration encourages the mixing of ideas and knowledge that may not have occurred otherwise, providing opportunities for innovation. These new ways of working enable designers to identify solutions that might not have been feasible or practical to explore through traditional production and collaboration means.

Finally, computational design can help facilitate a novel creative process between humans and machines, and between machines themselves. By leveraging generative design methods and artificial intelligence, designers have the capability to explore opportunities that were completely unknown or impossible to create by humans alone. This augmentation of human creativity by advanced technology provides an exciting way to explore the adjacent possible.

Find Your Beacons

Computational design is a powerful tool in pursuing the search for beacons, enabling designers to generate and iterate on designs that push the limits of what is currently possible. As we approach these beacons, we expand the adjacent possible, allowing us to create new and innovative products that push the limits of what is possible and drive us toward a better future.

Let's find our beacons and build groundbreaking products together.