Designs for what the future can be

  • Eric Sucar
     

Published by PennToday.

Photograph by Eric Sucar

"People have long speculated about how new technologies will impact the future. While science fiction often focuses on the impacts of fantastic feats like flying cars or mutant vaccines, there are also a number of tangible questions about the future that need solutions: Will there be enough food for the next 100 years of population growth? Will rising carbon dioxide emissions render the planet uninhabitable? Will advances in robotics help or harm social interactions?

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Designs for Different Futures” exhibition addresses some of these questions by contemplating what daily life may look, feel, smell, and taste like in the not-so-distant future. Among the many contributors to the exhibition are several Penn faculty and alumni whose work, on display in the exhibition until March 8, is part of an innovative museum program that leans into the speculative and explores the unknown.  

From technology to product

Orkan Telhan, an interdisciplinary artist, designer, and researcher, is a consultant curator of the exhibition and also has a commissioned installation called “Breakfast Before Extinction.” Telhan got involved with “Designs for Different Futures” after senior curator Kathryn Hiesinger reached out to discuss ideas early in the exhibition’s development. 

Telhan says that the goal of the exhibition is to introduce visitors to different ideas about the future through the lens of design. “Designers imagine objects long before we have access to them,” he says, adding that designers are also the “interface between scientists and engineers by turning new technologies into applications and products.”

Telhan’s goal is for the installation, including the “Ourochef Steaks” made out of human cells, is to get visitors to confront their behaviors and thoughts about ways to solve the problem of feeding a growing world. “An environmentally sustainable solution may not necessarily be the most culturally accepted one—like the way we see the steaks made from human cells,” says Telhan. 

“Designs for Different Futures” is organized into 11 sections: Resources, Generations, Earths, Bodies, Intimacies, Foods, Jobs, Cities, Materials, Power, and Data. Telhan explains that curators spent time developing this structure to help visitors focus on the value of objects and how they would impact society as opposed to focusing on the object’s materials or time period. 

Across the 80 pieces that make up the exhibition are a wide variety of installations, from a 15-foot inflatable pod that expands and contracts in response to carbon dioxide levels in the room, to robotic exoskeletons that aid individuals with limited range of motion. In contrast with other exhibitions that focus on design, not all of the installations are objects meant for everyday consumption. Instead, the installations are meant to encourage visitors to contemplate deeper issues about the future such as population growth and climate change. 

Telhan’s own installation is about the future of the human diet as society addresses the challenge of how to sustainably feed a growing global population. His work includes foods ranging from extinct bananas to genetically modified salmon that are placed around a table to resemble a banquet. 

Telhan’s goal is for the installation to get visitors to confront their behaviors and thoughts about ways to solve the problem of feeding a growing world. “Design is also a way of constructing of how people perceive things,” says Telhan. “My task as a designer was to stage them as provocations that help the audience question what is good for them, for the society, or the environment. An environmentally sustainable solution may not necessarily be the most culturally accepted one—like the way we see the steaks made from human cells.” 

Interacting with robots

Roboticist Mark Yim and architect Simon Kim first met Hiesinger in 2013 through Penn’s Integrated Product Design (IPD) program, an interdisciplinary graduate program that brings together design, engineering, and business perspectives to create new products and experiences. “Kathryn asked about different things that we had done, and Simon and I had done a bunch of these engineering and art projects through IPD classes,” Yim says, “As we talked about the items we produced, Kathryn thought many of them could go well in her upcoming show.”  

Featured in the Jobs section is Kim and Yim’s Quori, a social robot used for human-robot interaction research developed by a team of students here at Penn. In the exhibition, visitors can interact with Quori and watch the robot respond to their movements. 

Quori stands at about five feet tall and has a customizable digital face, broad chest, gesturing arms, and an omnidirectional mobile base surrounded by a pyramid-shaped shell. Those features are supposed to be genderless, but Yim says that many see Quori as female. “Some people think it’s wearing a skirt,” Yim concedes. “Part of the reason for that skirt-like design on the bottom is that we needed space for the motors and wheels, so it couldn’t have legs. But whenever anyone looks at something, they immediately try to call it 'him’ or a ‘her.’”

These interactions highlight one of the exhibit’s themes: The tension between intended design and a user’s perception. When encountering a never-before-seen design, users want to make it familiar and easy to understand. In Quori’s case, this means imposing gender on a genderless robot. 

In the future, designers will continue to be challenged by their need to advance the field beyond existing gender roles and to create robots whose capabilities are not limited by how it looks. With Quori’s main role as as a teaching robot, its genderlessness can help provide a blank slate for human-robot interaction research, which can hopefully help efforts to reduce gender bias as researchers figure out what jobs or roles robots could fill in the human world. 

Diverse designs

“Designs for Different Futures” also contains several contributions from Penn alumni and spin-off companies. Next to Quori stands the Minitaur, a four-legged, multi-terrain robot developed by Ghost Robotics, co-founded by Penn alumni Avik De and Gavin Kenneally under the direction of roboticist Daniel Koditschek. With four triangular legs, the Minitaur is designed to mimic an animal’s mobility and dexterity, able to run and turn at high speeds, jump over obstacles, scramble over challenging terrain, and even open doors. In the future, robots like the Minitaur could be sent into unknown or hazardous places in lieu of humans to complete search-and-rescue missions, military operations, and possibly even off-Earth explorations.

In the Bodies section is Lia, the first FDA-approved flushable pregnancy test. IPD graduates Anna Couturier Simpson and Bethany Edwards founded the company in 2015 and created a pregnancy test that’s both discreet and biodegradable. Since the first at-home tests were designed in the 1960s, the form and aesthetics of pregnancy tests have rarely been the focus of innovation. Now, as evidenced by Lia, young designers are creating new consumables that are focused on women’s health while also challenging the historically gendered nature of design. 

The role of the field of design in the future of society is also key element of the exhibition. “Designers don’t necessarily advocate for a particular future, and everyone has a different take,” says Telhan. “It’s about diversifying our ideas about future and also who gets to design the future.”

Also in the Bodies section is a 3D Bioprinter made by Allevi, co-founded by Penn alumni Ricky Solorzano and Danny Cabrera, which use “bioinks” to print living human cells for research and testing purposes. On display is the Allevi 1, a compact 3D printer that works much like the many desktop 3D printers that have become an important part of design in the last decade. This tool has the potential to reduce the costs of research and development within health care—although the ethical ramifications of these type of experiments have yet to be fully explored. 

In the Food section is a portable smart incubation system called the B|reactor, with interchangeable culturing vessels and sensors for biofabrication and fermentation. Developed by Telhan and Karen Hogan, the B|reactor could enable food production at a much smaller scales than farms and greenhouses and uses a process that is more customizable and local. Tools like this can help visitors rethink the role of global food-supply chains and infrastructure. 

At the end of the exhibit is the Futures Therapy Lab, a welcoming room with art-making stations, a library of comics and science fiction books, and a “talk-back” wall where guests are invited to share their visions for the future. The space was designed to help visitors expand their views and to learn more about specific objects, ideas, or concepts. The exhibit is also hosting a number of ongoing events, including one-on-one sessions with local designers sharing their perspectives on the exhibition and a recurring “Artist in the Lab” lecture series. 

Designing the future

As art, design, science, and technology continue to overlap, collaborating across disciplines will be a key component for designing society’s future. “In the courses we teach, students from different academic backgrounds come together to learn from each other,” says Kim. “Engineers learn from architects, architects learn from business students, and so on. It’s a collaborative exercise that produces work that could not be realized if the students remained locked away in their respective fields.”

Another version of Quori being assembled at the Pennovation Center. This is one of several versions that are being deployed across the country for robot-human interaction research. 

Orkan hopes that “Designs for Different Futures,” which will travel to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and then to the Art Institute of Chicago during its run, gets visitors to think about design not just as something that creates objects for consumers to buy and use but also as a tool to help society face tough questions. 

“Design is usually very optimistic, but we try [in the exhibition] to balance these very technical utopian ideas with more critical pieces,” says Telhan. “It’s not about proposing that technology and science will solve all our problems, but with design we will be more informed about our decisions when dealing with these problems.”


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Featured people

  • Koditschek
    Director, PERCH; Alfred Fitler Moore Professor, ESE
  • Yim
    Director, GRASP Lab; Faculty Director, Design Studio (Venture Labs); Asa Whitney Professor, MEAM
  • PhD, MEAM
  • PhD, ESE '17- PostDoc, Harvard SEAS and Wyss Institute

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