The website for Simone Rebaudengo’s newly launched studio, Oio, says ‘We make products, sometimes real, sometimes fictional.’  The Italian designer, who has spent the last five years in China, builds experiential versions of the future, through a fantastical and somewhat frightening, spectrum of products and interactions. These range from toasters with needs of their own to Made in Machina/e – a collaboration with Sami Niemela, which explores the mashup of clashing, global design philosophies.

Perhaps what allows Rebaudengo to not just hold a mirror to the future, but actually bring a piece of it to life, is his ability to understand the past and its role in the prevailing technological and cultural norms. Either way, his querying of the future holds valuable lessons for emerging economies, where so much is being built from first principles.

Transcript below but we highly recommend watching the video.

How would you describe what you do?

I take a lot of inspiration from people that talk about design fiction

There is this group called Near Future Laboratory that has developed this idea of what design fiction means – the idea of designing products and pieces of the future, as if they were really part of reality of the future.

So as an approach it is different than the kind of futuristic or, cinematic type of thing, or the very speculative, which are critical and dark.

Their approach for me was very inspiring because they really look at the ‘mundane’ of the future. And this guy, Nick Foster, is one of the founders and he’s also the head of Google X and he wrote this piece which, for me, it was very important.

It’s called the Future Mundane, and in the Future Mundane he talks about how you look at the story. Every story we tell there is always a hero. So, when we design futures, we always design for the hero, for this important person.

But instead of designing for Tom Cruise, in the future, why don’t we design for guy at the hotdog spot? You know the guy making the pani puri, what is that future for him? How is life going to change for him in the future that you are building?

How much should designers know about technology?

I always go back to the examples of how, at a certain point after the war, you had these new materials coming in, like plastics, and then you had young, architects at the time who had to figure out, how can we build things with plastic? So they needed to learn. 

You need to know what is the machinery that we use. But you don’t need to become a technician. You don’t need to know how to really build it, but you need to know how the material works in order to design for it.

So even for technology for machine learning, you don’t need to become an expert. You don’t need a technical background but you need to understand what are the limits, how can I bend it? What can I use it for?  And so I don’t need to code, but I need to know, what are the boundaries? What are the boundaries that I can break? How can I talk to someone? In this case a developer or a machine-learning expert, in order to communicate at the same level, so they can help me.

You have strong views on ethics and AI

What I find problematic is that it’s becoming a new framework, almost like a corporate framework to get a checkbox. Okay, you should do this. Okay, we don’t have bias, check. We are checking implications, check.

So it’s a new corporate framework that it’s a bit like the green, sustainable frameworks that companies used – we don’t use plastic straws, so we are sustainable!

And it’s not really addressing the real problem. It is just ethics washing, in a way. You say we are ethical because we follow the framework. I think that’s the problem because in reality there are always going to be issues about biases

Of course it is great that we talk about it, so now we are addressing the problem. But there are always going to be more issues related to this, because the nature of the technology is that you have some information which someone selects, puts it into a machine, and then the machine is going to use that to interpret whatever you show it.

So the nature of the thing is biased because the information being chosen is biased, by definition, because someone choose it. And then, someone will say, okay we’re going to make a machine to check whether it is biased. But wherever you go upstream, there is always going to be a starting point, which is something that has some bias.

So then, for me it’s much better that we acknowledge the fact that it is biased. And we are frank about it.

You’ve spent the last 5 years in China. Tell us about that

Thailand and Indonesia had American companies coming and creating the social networks there. But in China you had this kind of glitch that allowed a parallel evolution of things and so that’s why you see models and products that are completely different.

QR codes, which were a joke in Europe, are the basis of how a billion people now have access to digital money.

You look at any app in China, and from a European, Dieter Rams type of view which says simplicity is everything – it looks horrible. But then you realise that it’s an extremely empowering tool.

So I think it really helped me see that there is there is not really good design globally. We thought in the Western world that this is good design. But then look at Wechat, Alibaba, Taobao – all these things that are crazy (in terms of design) but they really work.

Is there a globally consistent idea of what is ‘good design‘?

You start with the bulky PC, and then use a smaller PC and then you add a feature phone and then you add the smartphone. So your mental model (is based on the fact) that your first thing with technology was a computer and a computer allows you to have windows and be quite quick at moving through windows. So it makes sense that our software is single purpose software. And that’s why the App Store has single purpose-driven apps.

If you look at the most downloaded apps in the US, they’re all single purpose activities. However, switching between software on a phone, is a bit more complicated. So it kind of makes sense that in a place where you went directly to the smartphone, you don’t want to switch through too many things, so you put more things in the same thing. It’s very natural.

That’s my fake theory, anyway. It’s not based on any data and I haven’t done any research, but it explains why multiple things and multiple services are repeated in many different places.

We assume uniqueness, the fact that your app, or your service (exists) by itself. But for instance, look at mobikes. Mobike are there as an app, Mobikes are inside WeChat, and inside Alipay. It’s inside, whatever else I don’t know, but it’s okay because it all drives the ability for you as a person, to achieve, to reach that service, instead of someone saying –  no no I want everyone to just download my app.

There is this concept of anti-fragile. By making it less crystallised and more knotty you are going to get people there somehow. And you don’t care how. I think that’s very good learning, and that’s something that we are horrible at doing in the US-driven design world.

One of your ‘fictional products’ that could exist today

I saw one that I think already exists. Probably I saw it in Tao Bao. When I went to China, I did this project called The Unmask that is basically like a pollution mask. But I asked myself, how can I still keep people’s reaction? Because basically when you have a pollution mask, you don’t see a big part of the face and so when you walk around the city, suddenly it’s like no one has reaction or emotions anymore, because you don’t see the faces.

So I basically made up a mask with an LED matrix, which reads whether you’re smiling or what kind of reaction you have and it just shows it in eight bit. It’s very simple and think I saw a copy of that already on Tao Bao.

We met Simone on the sidelines of DesignUp 2019, where he was a speaker.

Simone’s new book Everything is Someone – Future fables about people and technology and everything in between is available for purchase at https://www.vetroeditions.com/Everything-is-Someone

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