Jessi Baker is a technologist, designer, and founder of Provenance, a European startup that uses blockchain to track supply chain of products. Why is this kind of system valuable? It’s valuable for product companies in that it can help streamline supply chain issues. But more important, it’s valuable for customers who want transparency on where and how the companies they buy from source their materials.
Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology. Its killer feature is that it enables decentralized transactions. Example: You may have heard of Bitcoin. Bitcoin uses blockchain technology to facilitate financial transactions without banks.
There are blockchain experiments in journalism, like civil, that are exploring new business models in a field whose hierarchy was disrupted by the internet. There are experiments happening in about every sector: transportation, education, healthcare. If the internet disrupted command and control systems, then Blockchain, and it’s decentralized model, promises to be the solution to that disruption.
One application of that excites me is blockchains potential to track the social and environmental ethics that are embedded in supply chains. There’s a model in sustainable product design called “Life Cycle Assessment” or LCA. LCA can be used to measure the environmental and social impact of products and industrial systems. There are a lot of variations of LCA, but to give you a broad sense of what it tracks, we might look at the social and environmental impacts of how the raw materials for a gadget were mined; how they were manufactured; distributed;used; and in the end, reclaimed or recycled.
As you can imagine, one of the challenges in communicating LCA to decision makers (consumers, citizens, or policy makers) is that there’s a lot of variation in what and how things are measured with LCA models. The lack of universal standards is often pointed to as a challenge. But blockchain might turn that challenge into an opportunity. How might blockchain LCA be more dynamic and thus more appropriate for decision-makers? For example, in California a decision-maker might want to put more weight on how much water is wasted in a product’s LCA. Yet in upstate New York, where water is plentiful, this data point might carry less weight. Blockchain can accommodate this fine-tuning. Which can be scary if used to manufacture alternative facts. But can be quite powerful if used to make the social and environmental costs of products more visible than they are now.
As art goes digital, it becomes easy to copy and remix. This is great in many ways. But it’s also important for artists to know that there are tools out there to help them communicate how they would like their work to be used.
Creative Commons (CC) licensing was founded in 2001 by lawyer and academic Laurence Lessig as he and the folks around him saw a need for a new kind of licensing in the digital age.
There are a few flavors of CC. Some give you permission to use and remix work with no boundaries at all while others have some requirements. From the CC web page:
Attribution CC BY. This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.
Attribution ShareAlike CC BY-SA. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.
Attribution-NoDerivs CC BY-ND. This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
Attribution-NonCommercial CC BY-NC. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND. This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.
TAKE IT FURTHER
To see examples for each kind of CC and to download license tags for your own use, go here
At home, at work, and school we benefit from sharing spaces, tools, and resources. However, sharing resources is challenging because the responsibility for them is distributed. Shared spaces get messy. Shared tools get broken. And no one person is on the line to clean or fix them.
So when you use a shared space, leave the space better than you found it. Do something extra. Change that light bulb that’s been out for too long. Make and hang that sign that needs to be in place. Sweep those stairs that need sweeping. And when you contribute, don’t be a silent contributor. Let the group know what you’ve contributed. Your generosity will inspire others to make their own contributions.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a category of products and systems that use computation and web connection. It’s a tough category to describe because computation and web connection enable so many different things. One thing is for sure, these aren’t the products of the 20th century. They are something new. And they behave differently. Whereas many products of the 20th century were stand alone and kind of static, 21st-century products work in systems and get smarter over time. Here are a few forms that you might see or imagine:
SOCIAL. Some IoT systems allow you to coordinate tasks with other people. Uber is essentially an IoT system: it allows drivers and people who need rides to coordinate their goals. Another social IoT system that does this is FitBit. They have a “challenge” feature that allows you to set competitive goals with the FitBit community.
GEO-SPATIAL. For some IoT systems, location really matters. If you are tracking air pollution with on-the-ground sensors, for example, you are going to want to see that data on a map. Autonomous vehicles need to sense and respond to geospatial data too.
HUB and SPOKE. Not every single object needs full computing power on board. That would be a waste of money and energy. Some systems work better in a hub and spoke model. Philips hue, for example, has a hub that communicates with multiple light bulbs throughout a home. Yesterday my students imagined a cattle tracking system that had a light sensor device on each animal, and that data from those sensors would be gathered by a mobile hub (a drone).
BIO-SENSING. We have sensors that can sense and track living things. Fitbit, mentioned above, is one. Other systems for human patients or herds of animals are emerging and enabling easier, and more effective tracking of vitals. “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” wearables ought to be IoT enabled by now, yes?
SENSE and RESPOND. Mentioned above with autonomous vehicles, some systems not only gather data through sensing but enable the system to act on that data in real time. You could imagine a hydroponic farming system that can sense the temperature of the system and actuate heating and cooling as needed. If only the HVAC systems in office buildings worked as well!
We have a lot of creative educators out there who are trying to create and teach curricula that bridges the gap between STEM and The Humanities. Why is this an important thing to do? Because the critical thinking skills that we learn in the humanities will help technologists of the future create and scale meaningful solutions to complex problems.
The barrier that these educators face in this important work is that they are still bound to a siloed evaluation system. This system limits their creativity and ultimately, their effectiveness in bridging this gap.
Why is evaluating integrative student work so challenging? Perhaps it’s because educators and administrators might have to evaluate students on something that they themselves don’t have expertise in: true interdisciplinary work.
But if we are to ask our students to do something new in order to build a better future, than we educators and evaluators need to be generous in figuring out the evaluation side of the equation. Maybe evaluation needs to be done collaboratively with stakeholders who have cognitive diversity, who together can discuss how they appreciate the ways in which their students are practicing interdisciplinarity as well as identify and troubleshoot the places in which their students struggle.
Change of this magnitude requires that the leaders and evaluators of it be vulnerable. They are trying to teach and evaluate students on something that they themselves aren’t an expert in. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s what’s required.
Designing for individuals is a deeply rooted practice in our culture. When Keeping up with the Joneses is a major concern for customers, designers and advertisers exploit that. And while it’s certainly necessary for some products, it should no longer be the default.
Media theorist Douglass Rushkoff tells an interesting story about urban vs suburban design. When he was a kid growing up in the Bronx, folks in the neighborhood would gather on the street every Friday evening for a bbq and a block party. Each person would bring a dish or something for the grill. They’d bring music or games and it was a great time. But when his folks moved the family out to Long Island, no more block parties. Each house had a fenced-in yard equipped with its very own bbq cooker.
“Design for individuals” influences how we connect with one another. For example, I have a newish car with a real-time average MPG gauge on my dashboard. I track it and lighten my foot on the gas pedal to burn less fuel. It’s kind of fun, like a video game. But the driver behind me has no idea what I’m doing. They think I’m just driving slow and they are annoyed with me. But what if the design of my MPG gauge weren’t for my eyes only, but for the cars and drivers around me (displayed on my rear window or something). Then they’d be in the game too. The could use my gauge to burn less fuel in their cars. This public visualization of real-time behavior would help us work toward a common goal.
More consumer technology should be designed for community. More design should help people engage in, and get feedback on, collective positive impact. We have the technology. Let’s use it to its full potential.
It’s easy to get distracted by the symptoms of a problem. It’s easy to trick ourselves into believing that if we address those symptoms, the underlying problem will go away. Why is that? Sometimes we just don’t see the underlying problem. And other times we do see it but the thought of addressing it scares or overwhelms us. So we whack-a-mole our way along never really addressing the root cause of a problem (Why are we at this carnival in the first place??). What a waste.
What if we felt empowered to address root causes? And what if our peers were interested in that too? The work would be harder, but more effective and more rewarding. Root causes of problems are powerful leverage points. Identify them, generate multiple ideas for how to address them, use criteria to choose the best idea, implement it and observe and learn from feedback. You’ll be glad you did.
Too many organizations try to grow by subscribing to a “more is better” approach. Yes, the original intent of this approach is a good one–when you are starting out, you need to explore your options and figure out what you want to be when you grow up. But all too often we get stuck in this experimentation phase and “Do all the things!” becomes a de facto strategy. Why? Because making strategic decisions is hard and scary. What if you put all your eggs in one basket and you are wrong?? Better to decide not to decide and see how that goes.
However, you started this organization because you want to make an impact. You want to be the best in the world at what you do. But when you avoid focus, you dilute your impact. Your systems break down. And broken systems don’t scale.
Let’s take “John’s Bake Shop.” John has three locations in one city and struggles to keep up with overhead. He’s told himself that more is better and that in order to reach more customers he needs to give them more options. But what if John turned that narrative around? What if he decided to focus on one retail location and make it the best that it could possibly be on product, service, and operations? Then customers would come from miles around to visit his shop and buy his product. John would hardly be able to keep up with demand.
Yes, it’s true that “perfect” is a controversial word in innovation land. “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough,” they say. And they are right. They are right when it comes to launching. You have to launch an imperfect product in order to learn. But in order to scale, you do need some perfect. You need to have product, service, and operations that run like a well-oiled machine. Well-oiled machines scale. They travel far.
I care deeply about who goes into technology as a profession and what they decide to do with it. Why do I care about that? Because technology is a powerful lever. It has an enormous impact on society and the world. When it’s in the hands of thoughtful people, it can scale amazing things. But in the hands of less thoughtful people, it scales mediocrity and distraction, and even worse, destruction. And since we need more truly amazing things and less mediocrity and distraction and destruction, we need to nurture thoughtful technologists who will design and launch amazing things.
How is it that some people go into tech and others decide not to? There are a few factors. Role models and cultural signals are huge influencers. Growing up, I didn’t have tech role models or see any signs from the people around me that tech was a path. So while I loved lego as a kid and I excelled at shop class and mechanical drawing in high school, I didn’t find my way to engineering. I didn’t know it was an option. I pursued art.
Ten years after art school, I discovered Industrial Design and finally found where I was supposed to be. A rich mix of art and design and engineering and systems. I was home.
But I didn’t become an industrial designer. Instead I put my energy into teaching, into trying to fix this problem I had in my youth. I wanted to help young people discover their inner techie earlier than I did. I still want to help them do that.
But I’m burnt out on teaching. Ten years of it and I’ve only reached a few students a year. Yes, I’ve helped set those students on a path to making and launching deep technology. But that’s not enough impact. It’s too small and it’s too slow. I need to level up or quit.
Recently I’ve been thinking that I want to quit teaching and try something new. Maybe even go back to being an artist. But the world keeps telling me that my teaching is my art. I need to lean into that. And I need to find a way to leverage it.
I think I’ll turn my focus from educating students to educating teachers. Teachers are the ultimate leverage points. If you can empower a teacher to teach technology in a thoughtful way, a way that inspires their students to become world changers and inventors, then you can reach, let’s say, 50 students over that teacher’s career — students who discover the path to designing and shipping meaningful technology. And if you can empower hundreds ofteachers to teach technology in a thoughtful way, you can reach tens of thousands of students. And if you can teach a few of your peers to teach teachers, then you can reach millions of students. Leverage.