Jude Pullen: Yeah, no pressure, but it’s truly been a great honor, and I think it feels like a really nice culmination. This is my first time at Beyond Tellerrand, and I really felt it. I love this one-track thing of having to throw yourself in, and kind of yield and submit to the fact that it’s going to be something that you can relate to, but a whole bunch of stuff that’s going to blow your mind.
I truly mean it that it’s a real privilege to be here. I hope there’s some interesting stuff. I don’t know what things you’re going to connect with, but I hope that I’ve tried to create some sort of narrative around all these different chocolate box things that I’ve done.
Not to waffle on too much, I’ll get stuck into it. I called it “More Than Answers -- Designing for Questions and Provocations,” and we’ll find out what that means later.
But I thought I’d give an introduction to the formative years, an easy trick to show you childhood pictures. But genuinely, this to me means so much to me because this is my best friend (when I was ten years old) George. We had made this giant T-Rex out of cardboard boxes from my dad, who is a builder, and all the building sort of rubbish that was left over. And this huge, big, sweeping tail of pots and paint tins. It says a lot that this made it into the news, where I grew up, in the local newspaper.
In Cambria, north of England, for anyone who doesn’t know, there’s not a lot going on. But I kind of love the fact that they did see there was something in this. As much as I’m taking the mickey, I kind of love it too, as well.
Fifteen years, I didn’t know it. There’s a whole bunch of stories of highs and lows and doing the wrong degree and starting all over again. But I found myself at Dyson doing something much, much closer to what I wanted to do. This was really where I got stuck into the sort of power of doing really, really good experiments and being into the mechanical detail, but then also trying to think about how to make products which would go all over the world.
I then sort of flipped almost completely the opposite to going to work for Sugru, this company. I believe Jane, the founder, spoke here before, which is terrific. Anyone who doesn’t know, the clue is in this little, squishy, moldable thing, which is glue.
No offense to Jane. Glue is not in itself exciting. So, what is incredible about the brand Sugru as well that Jane has done is given this energy to sort of give it a new lease of life around the power of fixing and feeling in control and enabled.
And so, as head of R&D and technology, I thought, “Well, how can I sort of talk about glue and make it exciting?” And so, we set projects like this, which is a Gatling gun water pistol, and each of those things have got rainbow colors in, so it rainbow attacks you.
Jude: I still look back at this and think, “I got paid good money, more than Dyson, to actually build this.”
Jude: Twice as much.
Jude: What’s amazing about this is I also was able to basically look at the really serious side of it, having done chemistry before I did product design. I got really stuck into the chemistry of the team and thinking about how could we make the glue not just good for makers and adults, but how could we make it family safe so that even kids could use it? I’d just become a father myself, and so this was really emotionally significant to do these sorts of things.
I then got the coolest job in the world, which you know how the saying of, “You’ve done the job backward.” I never would have expected to get a job at LEGO working as a technology scout and direction designer, which means I look at cool stuff from all around the world and then figure out why the company and why the designer should care.
That was just incredible but, as I mentioned, I had had a kid, and it’s after two and a half years. It was one of those sorts of strange blessings that I was actually sort of happy to take a different change of gear and become more connected with all sorts of things like this.
This for me is sort of significant, and I wanted to share it as well for two reasons. One, there’s so much of me wanting to become a creative parent and showing my kid all sorts of beauty and magic in nature. But at the same time -- connecting with some of the speakers who have gone before me -- this was a way of me doing not big, heavyweight, multi-million pound projects. This was just about me having fun in the moment and not overthinking it, which is why there are so many little sorts of snapshots of things that are either curiosities or triggered a bigger idea, and so that’s something we’re going to connect with later.
Also realizing some of the talks here have covered a little bit of how do you get started, I think it’s also a little bit about getting in the right place at the right time and saying yes.
This was an opportunity with a company called Raspberry Pi. For anyone who doesn’t know, a little tiny computer. It was shipped in a cardboard box, like most things, but it really needs a case because if you’ve ever put a circuit board near a metal ruler, they tend to blow up.
I sort of did this little design to show how you could cut a box out of the cardboard and actually use some cocktail sticks to vent the heat. I just thought this was a cool thing, and it was on Instructables. Back in 2013, 50,000-odd views in a few weeks was really cool.
I’ll come back to this. I say, take a note of this that I didn’t really know this company. They weren’t that big at the time. But it’s the relationships that you form. Actually, this is what’s exciting about being here as well is you just don’t know where they’re going to take you.
The other side is doing projects where you think I could get a client to sort of pony up and pay for this. But really, if I’m honest, this is my journey, and I’d just seen Toy Story 4. For anyone who doesn’t know, Bo Peep has sort of leveled up from being this batting eyelashes, flower-on-the-wall character of Toy Story 1 to being this total badass. She’s absolutely amazing and very much equal if not a bit cooler than Woody. Let’s be honest.
She puts together this skunk mobile so that she can get around places without being spotted. I just thought this was unbelievably cool. And so, I thought, okay, I don’t usually buy my son merchandise, but this might be the exception.
it didn’t exist. Needless to say, Woody and Buzz has these really cool remote control cars, and so I sort of felt like, okay, the heck with this. I’m going to basically show how to 3D print and use the sewing machine to build this remote control skunk plushy, which Bo Peep could fit inside. So, Mattel still won. I did by merch.
But I also loved the fact that, a little bit like Tim earlier in his talk of getting Bo to actually look like she was building it rather than traditionally me building it, so using the sewing machine and stuff like that.
It sort of took me on this journey of being in the park and taking pictures with a serious camera and people walking by with, like, “What’s going on?” But I loved the fact that the deceptive thing about this is that it actually sort of meant that I could send this thought piece to people in all sorts of industries that will remain nameless, but start to have a conversation about gender equality, representation, and all sorts of hot button subjects. But it gives you something to talk about, and it puts action to the words, and it gives them substance.
The irony is, I’ve made a “return on investment” from doing this, but it’s not the conventional way. It’s basically feeling that the payback is from the people you meet and where that goes on the next journey.
Another example of this was in lockdown, and this wonderful guy Mark Greenbaum was making a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sort of playset out of a cardboard box for his little son, which is about the same age as mine. I’d been making sort of buses, by chance, for my little boy, and so I got in touch. I was like, “Oh, I love this stuff. We should hang out.”
Even though he’s in Boston and I’m based in London, the funny thing is we ended up designing this game for an industry pitch called Goats & Llamas. Obviously, it plays on my building things out of cardboard and all this sort of stuff, by Mark is also, as you can see, a fantastic illustrator. And so, it was this perfect sort of synergy of both of our skills.
It was just so much fun working together. It was again a little bit like Bo Peep. It allowed this battle cry of saying you could just put this in the recycling, which of course is good. But you could also just make a product from it for your kids. The process of building this thing step-by-step, which again is sort of uploaded and open-source and free to download. Even if you don’t have a 3D printer for all the pieces, you can still just do it in plain paper and cardboard from your printer. Again, you can see that this is another thought piece, but it’s also just a really nice game.
As the title says, this time it’s personal. This was the 3D-printed goat and llama and a little snake. Even though you can do the nice funky ones over there in the corner, the beautify of this was just seeing my son just do it entirely how he wanted to, and I wanted other parents to experience that.
I think there’s something in this downloadable physical play, and I don’t actually know where it’s going to go. This is like chapter one. Truly, this has only been up a couple of weeks and is an experiment.
I should also point out I’ve still not met Mark this whole time in two years, but it’s just an incredible relationship. Again, the power of these things.
Another series of incredible relationships, for anyone who has seen BBC Two’s - Big Life Fix. I’m going to cover a little bit more on this, but you can find it on YouTube.
When I look back, again through Mark, is that going through all my work, I realized that all these things were experiments. And so, just to bring everyone on the same page, I thought, “Well, what is an experiment?”
As I alluded to, I used to do chemistry, and that was very sort of linear and quite rigid: hypothesis, experiment, validation. Of course, when you’re in a good engineering experiment, all these words of robustness and validating things are incredibly important.
I felt that these were mostly knowns. That doesn’t mean that, in the brief, you weren’t exploring. But you were working in a dimension of familiarity.
I thought, “Well, what is a creative artistic experiment?” I thought this was much more questioning, much more exploratory, much more insightful, as I’m sure you can all relate to.
And so, all these words around provocative, a bit meta, poetic, playful, all these sorts of things come to mind. And these are quite often unknowns or hard-to-define things.
The experiments, let’s call them, in the real world, just to bring the spoiler upfront, the punchline here is that I think good experiments are defined by uncovering the right questions. As you can guess, there’s a but, there’s a kicker, which is that it takes practice to get from the known knowns to the unknown unknowns - and get comfortable with them.
And so, you might be thinking, “Okay. Unknown. What’s all this stuff? It’s a bit of a tongue twister. What’s the point?”
This actually relates to a quote from Donald Rumsfeld, and I can’t even say his name let alone his quote. Honestly, I couldn’t read it. I’m dyslexic, so I wouldn’t have been able to do it, but I thought it’s nicer to visualize this.
I thought, if you’ve got the awareness and the knowledge here on either axis, these are things that we’re aware of, and we do understand. I thought the example that we’ve all experienced today, hopefully, is breakfast. You know what it is. You know what happens. You know how it feels afterward.
It gets a little bit more interesting when you go, “What about the known unknowns?” so things we are aware of but don’t fully understand. I thought the gut-brain reaction, again relating to breakfast, was a good example.
Most of you are familiar with gut feeling or gut feel. Very recently, I was talking to a friend who said, “Did you know it’s only in recent years that they found a nerve that goes from your brain to the stomach?” This thing is actually real now. They don’t fully understand it, but they know there’s something physically connected. I just thought that was absolutely amazing.
Conversely, the unknown knowns, things that we understand but are not aware of, I thought gut bacteria on this theme was a good example. I don’t know whether anyone has seen this documentary, but there was a guy who basically no one believed that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria.
He’s like, “Fine. I’ll prove you wrong.” He cooked up a petri dish, swallowed it, and absolutely destroyed him. He had the worst ulcers in the world. But then he made a cocktail of whatever antibacterial remedy, and then cured himself almost instantaneously. He’s much, much better, and that proved it. I think he won sort of all sorts of prizes despite everyone ridiculing him at the beginning.
Anyway, aside, but a good story.
I thought the unknown unknowns -- this is building somewhere [laughter] -- this is a little bit oxymoronic. How do I describe an unknown unknown? But I thought that the closest thing, if you’ll forgive me the indulgence, is the interconnectivity between a life.
This isn’t a sort of “Oh, far out, man” type of thing. It’s saying that if you ever look on Netflix or Amazon, there are a few documentaries on trees at the minute and how they’re interconnected through the mycelium and the root systems and how, for example, if one tree is getting attacked by beetles, it’ll send out these signals, and all the other trees will up their tannins and toxins to ward off the attack.
I thought that’s the closest thing I could think of. Tell me if you’ve got a better idea. But it’s something that is really in that outer sphere of our ability to describe and connect with and relate to as humans but is most certainly out there.
Again, I don’t really deal in words, so I thought, emotionally, how does that feel? I feel like this is terra firma. You’re sort of happy with this. It gets a little bit more far-out, a bit more far-out, and gets more sort of crazy. I think that’s the easiest way. Don’t worry about the letters and the words. That’s what we’re talking about here.
Today, I’m not going to talk about Dyson too much because I think you can all relate to this. This is the known knowns. Sadly, I can’t talk about the really crazy stuff in working with LEGO and the 10, 15, 20 years out futures. But I actually thought these two things here would actually be the most relevant to talk to.
One is about BBC Big Life Fix, as I said I was going to mention, and another one is RadioGlobe, a sort of technology art project.
Again, just trying to bring everyone along on the same page. Feel free to debate me on this, but I feel that predominantly designers prototype for answers. In other words, validation. And artists prototype for questions.
it gets interesting if you think “What would Da Vinci have done?” because quite obviously, he would have done a bit of both. It doesn’t matter what historical contemporary figure. The notion of breaking through those silos and mixing things up a bit is really at the heart of what I’m trying to talk about today.
I thought I’d try and reflect this back on the audience. I appreciate we can’t get into a big discussion here, but I thought it would just be good for you to think on what percentage of a project brief is unknown upfront. I mean this like after launch. I don’t mean in the crazy bit when you don’t know what you’re doing until you’ve written the brief and then you try. I mean even when you’ve launched it, what bit are you deliberately saying this is unknown.
And so, these are just numbers I’ve plucked out from my gut reaction to this. I think when I’m doing less than 10%, I’m basically confirming what I already knew. If I’m doing 25% or above, I think it’s sort of safe but spicy. And if it’s greater than 50%, I think I’m in the Vanguard, and I’ve usually got that feeling of hanging on by my fingernails, but I know that something interesting is going to happen as well.
Case study one, Big Life Fix, these were about experiments in story, technology, and people. Applying this mindset that I’ve been talking -- forgive me the preamble, but I hope it’s useful -- applying this to the bigger mindset with Big Life Fix, and this project was basically all of these incredibly talented designers, makers, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs.
We were all tasked with basically helping people with disabilities through the use of clever technology. For example, one man here was looking to capture a photographic legacy as he had a terminal illness, but he didn’t have full use of his hands, so wasn’t able to operate the camera.
Another young boy was blind and not able to find his friends in the playground. How could we augment the playground rather than him?
Then slightly more sort of whimsical or unusual ones but were actually quite serious at heart when you got into it like sheep rustling, and then Kyle, who I’m going to talk about more today, who, as you can see, hasn’t got a fully formed left hand but wanted to still pursue his dreams of becoming a hairdresser and hair stylist regardless.
I felt the best bits of my work came from the unexpected and unplanned parts of the creative challenge. So, I’ll share with you a little video about Kyle.
Kyle: I’ve always been told the umbilical cord got wrapped around the wrist, which then stopped the circulation in the hand forming itself.
Jude: So, what movement have you got in your hand?
Kyle: It’s literally that.
Kyle: That’s all it does.
Narrator: Kyle’s dream is to become a hairdresser.
Kyle: I can remember playing with hair in school. Sat in assembly. Girls with long hair, putting it into plait.
Kyle: So, I’ve always wanted to do it. I never thought I would be able to.
*Narrator:** Designer Jude has come to help.
Kyle: Normal hairdressers hold the hair up--
Kyle: --in their fingers. So, trying to get all of that hair in between that--
Jude: It’s quite a job.
Kyle: It is, yeah. See, it’s sort of dropping already, and then bits of hair would fall out.
Jude: So, you need that. You need that tension with the fingers quickly.
Kyle: Yeah, I need to hold that there, so it’s just sort of that I need on that side.
Narrator: Kyle is hoping this fix will change the way people see him.
Kyle: I get really, really self-conscious, in particular when I’m eating out. There have been times I’m having to pass my plate down to my friend to cut my food up, which--
Kyle: Which, at 27, is really hard. I don’t want people to look at me and judge me before they’ve got a chance to know me. I don’t want people to give me the title as that’s the guy with one hand. There are a lot of guys with one hand. I’m Kyle.
Narrator: Judge sets to work.
Jude: We have a prototype.
Comb. Comb. Comb. Lock. Snip, snip, snip, snip, snip, snip, snip.
So, it’s really simple, and I kind of like it.
Narrator: But will it work?
Jude: Good to see you.
Kyle: Long time, man.
Kyle: Oh, God. It’s incredible.
It looks amazing.
Kyle: It looks so cool. It does look really good.
Jude: So, how do you fancy giving me a little haircut then?
Kyle: [Laughter] You’re braver than me.
Kyle: It kind of feels like it’s just my hand.
Jude: I can feel the tension, actually, at the back of my head. It’s great.
Kyle: I can just really kind of see a future of me cutting hair whereas before I was a little bit skeptical, I guess, and I didn’t 100% believe I would be able to [loud exhale] and it’s because of you.
I literally don’t know what to say.
Jude: So, it’s funny. I still watch that, and I still get the goosebumps, and I hope it’s still sort of apparent is that what was so special about that project with Kyle was the connection and the friendship.
So much of this project, as you can appreciate, is a very sensitive subject, and it was about him sort of being pulled into my world of design. But also, I was getting pulled into his world of hairdressing as well.
These are my sort of badly drawn notes in haste, working with Yvonne there who was showing me the sort of tricks of the trade and how to sort of feather cut and layer and all these sorts of things. And, at the same time, I was looking at what Kyle was doing and trying to observe his best efforts to try and make some sort of prototype himself. But then think, how could I take it to the next level and help him get further.
The other thing that I think is really important is that you know how it is with TV. There’s a lot of edit, but there’s also a huge amount of hard work of just trying to make sure that you’re desperately doing the right thing.
And so, I was working with Sarah and Arjan here in Strathclyde, who are international experts in prosthetics and orthotics. They were taking me on this sort of tour de force journey of the history of all sorts of different devices and adaptations to the body over the years.
There are two things which sort of really took a lot of time to process, which is firstly the sort of physicality that you’re putting something onto a body, but then also the sort of psychological effects of how do you not do harm in the short-term, but also the long-term. This was something that I really thought was incredibly important in the project, and I can’t state this enough.
Even though there’s the nice sort of techy bits, and this was an example of where I got the inspiration for the project was trimming my beard with low battery. For any gentleman (and maybe some women will know) that it sort of nips the hair when it doesn’t cut accurately enough.
This was basically how I devised the first prototype of two combs put together like that, and so the hair flows through when they’re aligned. But then when you toggle it so that they lock, it basically pinches the hair and holds it in place before unlocking it and releasing it, and it’ll flow through again.
This could have been a lot more complicated. We looked at all sorts of myobands and things to connect with electrical stimulus from the muscles. This was really, really simple, and that was why we got excited about it, Kyle and me.
Over in this corner, you can see this is the Poundland comb that got it started. Just a comb with a couple of bolts in it to sort of tech the mechanism. Then you can appreciate it’s the devil in the detail. It doesn’t look significantly different for a long time, but it’s dialing in all those little engineering details before you get the final result.
Again, aesthetically, it sort of sounds obvious, but you can’t go in with this sort of Wallace and Gromit thing. You’ve got to have something that looks the part and has a bit of flare and has a bit of style. And so, I love the fact that we went through, again, all these, like, really getting into the radii and harmonizing the design.
This wonderful guy, Mark (down here), who is not just an incredible jewelry designer, but also specializes in 3D printing as well. This was a compliment to the project. I learnt a huge amount from working with him and absolutely loved it.
As you can see here, yet again with my notebook, taking notes of what Kyle is saying and critiquing the design. And so, it was as much about bringing him into the process.
Even though we’d started off on this journey of his first ideas, my first prototypes, and getting to the end, it’s this fact that the best moment we had was in his training school when a few people who had full use of their hands came up and said, “Hang on a minute. This is amazing. Can you make an able-bodied version of this?” because, actually, most of them were female and had quite small hands. They were like, “You can grab so much hair in one go!”
Jude: “This is, like, really unfair. You can get so much done in one go.” And so, I think at that moment, Kyle knew that it wasn’t even coming as pity or cynicism. It was genuine awe of what this could do.
Again, we sort of internally called it the Swiss Army Knife, and so there are razorblades and weave tools and bleaching combs and all sorts of brushes and things like that and picks and two different grades for different hairstyles. We just absolutely loved designing this together.
And so, I felt coming back to this thing of the design question of can Kyle cut hair and, in some ways, Kyle was not obvious to, is this a sort of a folly to try something that’s difficult. Should he even cut hair in the first place?
But I think, again, uniting this sort of tension of the two worlds together with the Da Vinci question, let’s call it, is what does it mean for people with an impairment to style hair, because you’re going to get something interesting that comes out the end of this.
I’m really proud to say that Kyle now is not only gone on to be, as my wife would say, extremely handsome devil that he is, he’s a professional male model. But also, now does the hairstyling in that modeling agency as well. And so, I think even though Kyle is still sort of undecided about where it’s going to take him in the long-term, but I feel it’s that thing of just having someone validate and give your dreams some sort of acknowledgment of having a chance.
Very much, I feel I’ve learned as much from Kyle as well by being part of that journey. Again, many of the other speakers have spoken about this at Beyond Tellerrand, and I love that.
Just as a sort of side note but a parallel here, I was at MIT Media Lab and LEGO in Berlin. It’s a weeklong hackathon. This was on a particular speaker talking about deafness and what that means to the design experiences. I just think this has honestly stayed with me my whole life since being there.
“Nothing about us without us.” It’s easy to remember, it’s incredibly poetic, and I just don’t think I’ve heard it said better ever. I just think the more you can live that in your design work the better.
To put it on the nose, what we were doing with Kyle, this is about not running experiments on people but designing experiments with people.
We’ve had a look at this sort of project. Jumping over to the other side of things, I thought I’d look at this case study, RadioGlobe, which is experiments in Internet of Things. You all know what that is. Connected technology and open-source.
The interesting caveat I’d say to open-source isn’t just that it’s available but that it can be remixed as well. That’s a little bit of a clue where we’re going.
This is an illustration from a good friend of mine, and a very talented chap, Tim King. It was a new word for me at the time. This is reportage illustration, which means drawing something in the moment, sometimes on the very media that you’re engaging with, such as this mask.
I love the fact that he seems to have lucked out on deciding to do a sketch a day in the years 2016 and 2020, so he just caught these waves of incredible turbulence and variety. I almost consider them like heirlooms that I would leave them to my kids or something, a documentation of this.
Of course, not to make light of it. We were still panicking. It was stressful. I didn’t know whether I was going to have any income as a freelancer. Worried about could I make a mask.
Then I suddenly, out of the blue, got this offer from DesignSpark community, which were basically the RadioGlobe thing -- sorry, the Raspberry Pi, the little box that I made earlier.
They had this community of over one million designers and engineers and said, “This is kind of a bit of a tricky brief because, on the one hand, we want to celebrate the fact that we’re ten years old and so to energize people and get them excited. But at the same time, there’s no budget to spend because we’ve got to spend it on staying afloat.”
Where this took me was thinking, if you don’t know DesignSpark, it’s part of RS Components, and the RS stands for Radio Spares because their history was in radio communications. And so, I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to sort of speak to their past of radio, but then also give it a modern twist as well?”
And so, this concept of creating an open-source 3D printable project that’s fun and could be made by a stranger on the other side of the world, that all sounded really well and good. The first part of it I thought was quite certain. I can definitely do this. The second part was filled with uncertainty.
I mean fun, you can’t guarantee fun, and I wouldn’t know how it would perform with a stranger on the other side of the world. But something interesting was definitely going to happen.
So, this is RadioGlobe, and it’s actually been updated now to have 15,000 stations you can dip into simply by spinning the globe, pointing that pointer, and it’ll dial into whatever music, news, or culture is happening there. Here’s a little demonstration.
Jude: That’s it moving the pointer.
[Music briefly plays]
[Speaking a foreign language]
[Speaking a foreign language]
Jude: And that’s in the same city.
[Speaking a foreign language]
[Music briefly plays]
Jude: I was amazed at how quick the... very little lag.
[Music briefly plays]
[Music briefly plays]
Jude: There we go, and the last one.
[Music briefly plays]
Jude: So, there we are.
Radio host: --during lockdown and homeschooling. Scarlett, quite rightly--
Jude: I love that we just caught, by chance, on the little lockdown reference there.
Jude: Thank you.
So, you can even make this yourself if you want to. The thing that we sort of thought is that if people are locked down and they’re wanting something to do, that this whole thing about feeling connected even though you’re completely isolated and trapped.
I’m not going to lie. You require obviously some engineering skill, but it was aimed at the engineering community who would have had these sorts of tools and been comfortable buying these sorts of things like 3D printers and little computers.
But again, I didn’t want to skim over the fact that this certainly wasn’t all me. These two wonderful people, Joy and Pete, here helped project manage and get it all sorted with the company. Don, here, this is sort of an interesting point for me because Don (I knew at Dyson) is an incredibly talented coder who now works at Graph Corp.
But basically, I never would have picked him to work on this project because he lived in Bristol and I was in London. Whereas, being in lockdown, it kind of leveled the playing field so that it was talent first rather than geography first basis. I love the fact that that’s really what sort of drove all this project.
We obviously got to grips with all the usual tools. But I think even sort of quite clever use of things like WhatsApp by just creating portals into each other’s world and then sketching on the screen where we wanted wire looming or problems with a particular design.
People quite often asked me, “How did you deliver this in four weeks with zero budget?” It was basically also just a bit of management. This is just Excel and just putting in when we said we’d do things, which I think a couple of other speakers have mentioned is just so important to have a deadline. It’s a strange little tip, but it works.
Anyway, we put this on. We put it open-source, as mentioned. People got really into this. It’s got examples on how you do this, how you 3D print it, all the tools you need, how to assemble things in the right sequence.
But truly, the thing that really surprised me is, for those of you in UI/UX, HMI, and all these sorts of interface design, I think the real test is when -- this was my four-year-old at the time -- I was just completely shocked that he got this. He was like, “I’m over Spain, and I can hear someone talking Spanish like my friend at school.”
Then we’d sort of travel to somewhere else. He’d be like, “Well, what does Japan sound like?” and all these sorts of things. He just didn’t need any sort of training or introduction in this. He just got the interface. I just thought it’s really nice to share with, like, I wouldn’t say using your kids, but enjoying the fact that your kids are amazingly perceptive when the interface is good and comes together.
Of course, needless to say, we had all these sort of, like, push things on social media. But I thought one that I’d point out that I’m especially proud of is that if you’re corporate and you try and go into Reddit and be all sort of showboat-y and it’s the hard sell, you just get kicked out instantly. We didn’t. We sort of went in there very much to engage people and get feedback and see what they wanted to do next with it open-source, and so it absolutely took off and went incredibly well.
Again, a little bit of -- I don’t know how to frame this, whether it’s advice, but we’ve all been in that situation where you’re doing this fringe project and let’s just say not everyone believes in it because, of course, this was a lockdown. People were stressed. This was an incredibly tense time.
RadioGlobe could easily have been perceived as just this silly little project on the side. The fact that we cleaned up in all these awards and nominations and it got taken to all sorts of different places was just such a relief for the team who had backed this horse to say, “It’s okay. It worked out. We did something cool with it.”
Most of you probably won’t know the Elektra Awards, which is the industry, the electronics industry award for best campaign of the year. That was a massive sign of acknowledgment and validation. It’s kind of what I wanted to build on is that once we had that feather in that cap, it gave us license to do some other things as well.
Even though it’s really cool that loads of people built this, I love this quote of someone saying, “It combines all the things I love. The simple truth is that it’s so, so out of my skill set, but I downloaded the instructions because I love it so much, and I’m okay digging through the tools and looking at the instructions much, much more. And I’m going to lose the fear and add some new skills to my world. Thank you. It’s beautiful and inspiring.”
And it’s not lost on me that this is a woman in a very engineering-heavy community as well. So, I love the fact that this got picked up.
But I’ve got to admit. This was still one of the real surprises that I wasn’t ready for. This is Chuck Miller at 75 years young who, rather poignantly, is actually having to isolate from his wife, and so took it upon himself to build this to keep him occupied. Not only has he changed the color, but my wand was basically blue-tooth connected for the audio. He actually put the speakers inside it because he wanted it to be completely contained. I love the fact that he just took that on himself and remixed it.
I thought it was a nice quote that brought all this together from Phil Knight. “Don’t tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with the results.” I think that’s very much what we got from this.
Again, I sort of felt to try and break it down, if you’re working with clients, find ways to embolden your client to fall in love with the experimental adventure as much as the initial brief. Develop a strong starting point, which is what RadioGlobe was, but leave room for experimentation, and let the experiment grow in the wild.
That’s a little bit of what I wanted to talk about. What did we do after this? Was this just a one-trick pony or did we do something a little bit more interesting?
Again, without getting too much into the theoretical of this, I just wanted to make a point that it’s about how to push more into the unknown, so how could we drive this forward, build on the success that we had? And so, this is about case study three, the good air canary, and building on the experiment with technology but also activism.
Taking reference from the fact that, in London, this is a report in The Guardian from 2018 around the air quality crisis, a staggering 40,000 deaths a year in the UK are attributed to air pollution. I was just blown away by that figure. I couldn’t believe it.
And so, I sort of had that kneejerk reaction of thinking, “Oh, well, it’s obviously outside. It’s cars and all these things.” I looked at open-source projects like this to basically check out what the pollution levels were.
I then went on the tube and had a look on roundabouts as well as indoors. Even though, of course, outdoors had all sorts of problems, you can see the readings are actually quite high indoors. Just to be crystal clear. I’m not equating the particulate from a stir fry as being equal to that from coming out the back of a car. But the point was, it was a really interesting reading.
I dug into it with a WHO report and found that 92% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed their recommended limits. Some three million deaths per year are linked to the exposure of outdoor air pollution. Yet indoor air pollution can be just as deadly.
In 2012, an estimated 6.5 million deaths, so 11.6% of all global deaths were associated with indoor air pollution together. I just thought this was absolutely mind-blowing. I don’t know whether some of you here, I hadn’t even thought it was that big of a deal until I read that.
So, I got to work on prototyping, looking at all these sensors. In the interest of time, I didn’t want to go blow-by-blow through this, but used very simple things like blue tack and card, working things up into CAD, and making it so it’s like little LEGO blocks and clicks together.
Building the guide yet again so that people could follow it open-source and, of course, it was really great. We gave 50 of these away to people all around the world, but also hand-picked 10 people who we thought would take the project in a different direction.
But I thought I’d try and break down a little bit this thing of expanding the question and creating tools, I think, is incredibly important. So, it’s not enough just to give someone some really good high-tech air quality sensors. How do you also give them the ability to upload the data anonymously and safely and share it around the world? We build this system using Grafana, and people can contribute to it.
I think, also, making it relatable is incredibly important as well. Even though the engineers and all my friends who are very technical would have been really impressed that this isn’t just I2C, but it’s also using Pmod as a way to connect these things like little LEGO bricks. Very clever, very technical, impressive stuff. The fact is most people weren’t really going to get it in the general sort of mass media.
I started looking at the air quality thing of a canary in the coalmine. I’m sure most of you are familiar. You take it into the mine. It would fall off the perch, but it would save a human life. Of course, this was back in the 1800s or whatever. Completely reasonable and acceptable to expend a canary to save many human lives.
But I just found it incredible that someone had the grace to think, “When the canary has fallen off and we’ve hightailed it out of there, we close the door, open that valve at the end, and flush it with air.” For someone to do this when there wasn’t the society of prevention of cruelty to animals, there was no one forcing this person to do it, but they just thought ethically this bird doesn’t deserve to die for want of a few bits of cylinder and some piping.
I just thought, how do we almost take that metaphor and apply it to ourselves today to say, “If we create something, even if the ethics don’t condemn us today, how would we be viewed in 200 years’ time?” Is it too lax? Are we being too “move fast, break stuff” about it, or did we try and build in something better than just what governments told us to do and we could get away with?
I just find this such an eloquent and sort of memorable image that really drove a lot of the ethics of the project and on the data side as well. So, of course, prototyping, all that sort of good stuff, CAD, and I thought I’d share with you this little video of how it works in action.
Jude: This is the Good Air Canary, an IoT device that lets you know the air quality around you.
Canary: Yawn... cheep, cheep. It’s a bit stuffy in here.
Jude: So, the CO2 is getting a bit higher.
Canary: Would someone open a window, please?
Canary: Cor blimey! Open a window, or I’m going to pass out!
Jude: Hopefully, at this point, you’d open a window for the benefit of you and the canary.
Canary: Phew! That’s better.
Jude: But if you don’t...
Canary: Cor blimey! Open a window, or I’m going to pass out.
Jude: If you let CO2 levels reach 4,000 parts per million...
Jude: You most certainly have an ex-canary. It is deceased, and you will need to reset it and, of course, remember to open a window this time.
The Good Air Canary is an incredibly versatile Internet of Things device. You can connect it to all sorts of sensors -- for example, the one shown here -- or any number of APIs of your choosing. Download the open-source files and make one today.
Jude: That was also the voice talents of the coder, Pete Milne, who did all the stuff behind the scenes. But I love the fact it was also cockney, which is an east-end accent from London with the “cor blimey” stuff.
But anyway, one of the things I sort of really loved about this was the fact that there could have been this split between the two things, but we didn’t. We tried to bring them together.
The thinking behind that is, let’s call it what it is. The canary is a little bit clickbait, and it draws people in. It gets them curious. But then it does mean that we can have a discussion about the fact that these are actually amazingly good, cutting edge, industry-grade sensors inside it, and we’ve worked really hard to try and make this as legit as possible.
But at the same time, the communities that discover the project through the technical end, they also end up going, “Ah, that’s actually a really nice articulation. It’s quite silly. It’s quite quirky.”
I love the fact that, as a whole, it sort of builds into this debate, which truly I don’t know quite how it’s going to morph, but there are two narratives that are growing from the tree. One is around CO2 as a proxy for Corona Virus and, basically, the more fresh air you can have the better.
But at the same time, that seems to be sort of easing off a little bit as things hopefully -- touch wood -- improve. But then there’s the second narrative about the fact that CO2 -- and I’ve done this in the name of science -- if you sit in a room without opening the windows, the CO2 level jumps. There are military reports on this saying that basically your lateral thinking and problem-solving or, as we know it, creativity basically goes through the floor. It’s terrible.
Actually, you will not just work better, but you’ll sleep better. It’s really, really important to actually have a change of air. Bringing these two together, I thought, was really important.
Another thing was adding diversity. I appreciate the hashtag diversity. It can feel a little bit forced and labored and just for the sake of it. Of course, it’s important, with race and gender, to address these things. But cultural, cognitive, creative, and experiential diversity was also incredibly important in what we were trying to do here.
We wanted to bring all those things in together, and these are just some of what we call air quality influencers looking at all sorts of different projects. I wish I had more time. I’m sorry, but I don’t. I’m just going to show you a couple of the projects.
For anyone from America knows that Smokey the Bear is this international sign of safety in the forest and not creating fires. Cecilia here made a Breathe Better Bear that uses the Met Office API from places like California. If you’re downwind, it’ll basically give you a half an hour to an hour warning to close all your windows and protect yourself from truly something that can trigger asthma attacks. This is sort of an interesting variation on the theme.
Another one by Allie Katz, also known as Geeky Faye Art, online. This was about looking at passive smoking and other pollutants in the air and trying to think how could we make this into a wearable. I think this is absolutely amazing and looks really incredible. But at the same time, if you were to walk up to Allie, it would basically trigger and turn red and pulsate and so all sorts of things.
And so, this wasn’t something that we even knew how would people respond. Would they think it was a little bit... meh? Or is it something that they’d think, “Wow! I hadn’t realized I was having that effect with smoke.” And so, giving data a narrative was something that we were really excited about with people from different walks of life.
Articulating the bigger vision. This is Michael, who was very moved by this story in the BBC of young Ella who had tragically died and an inquest found that this was unequivocally attributed to basically poor air quality in her neighborhood.
This threw up all sorts of very emotive questions, which I’m sure we’re all very aware of, of just how certain communities are neglected by governance and, indeed, of people. There can be real hotspots of things where people are just in critical danger.
This is a story which we’re still in sort of the first chapter of this. This is evolving all the time. It’s a very, very big and nuance project that Michael has been undertaking with incredible grace and stamina to do it.
We felt that to give this a sort of label to try and encourage other people to take part in this, we called it Activist Engineering. Internally, we sort of thought, well, isn’t it great that engineers can take to the streets and protest, but what happens if they also then are inspired to take to their sheds and actually use the skills they’ve got to build things that could help change it?
Wrapping up, designing for provocations and questions. You’re all familiar with this sort of design, creativity squiggle of where you’d start with chaos and end with something. I kind of thought this was sort of where it started with all these projects and how it’s going and that there are these sort of things with the canary project, with the smoking project, with also things to do with schools and neighborhoods, the data side of things, and of course, the sort of overarching principle.
I love the fact that if you’re familiar with the British Council’s double diamond of expanding ideas and then refining them, usually twice, I kind of love the fact that actually these projects in itself are their own little diamonds of curiosity and where they’re going to be. These are almost like mother project here, but lots of daughter projects and experiments that are equally interesting.
I kind of thought the whole point of this is that we started off with air quality and the physics and the technical side, but we’re trying to find out what really matters to people and why. These are the questions and the provocations that I’d talked about.
I was really excited to know what your questions and provocations are about. This was the sketch that I drew whilst taking notes with Mark. I sort of felt like this is what really excites me is this way of thinking, of saying, “You know when you get the brief from the client. But how could it have the potential to grow into all these other narratives and stories?”
I think the trick is that you don’t have to drive all of them. You just have to create the moment and the nexus of people to join and get involved. That’s what’s just so exciting about building from this movement.
When I showed you this and all the crazy terminology, I was drawing this thing out. I thought, isn’t it funny that it looks a little bit like this picture of starting off on terra firma but then getting up to the stratosphere and beyond. I thought that was a nice metaphor to end on and say, “Please share your designs for questions and provocations,” and thank you so much.
[Audience applause and cheers]