Networked Homes is a talk about material trajectories and their impact on environment and local economies (Domestic Datascapes project). It is an attempt to understand how Material Registry can reshape operational framework and usage of material.
Maksym Rokmaniko is a designer and researcher who works on the cutting edge of design and architecture, exploring emerging technologies and new forms of urban living. He is a founder of Center for Spatial Technologies – a design studio whose works are pushing the boundaries of housing and urban design, and also the project lead of DOMA — a cooperative, shared-ownership platform for equitable housing.
How can we use blockchain infrastructure in order to achieve circular economy in architectural design? During the workshop we went through the process of representation of physical building components in decentralized ledger technologies and tested the existing mechanism for modeling to raise the discussion about the implementation of this technique in the Material Registry/Material Passports.
Dr. Theo Dounas is a registered and chartered architect and learning excellence leader at Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment at Robert Gordon University. He is the head of http://www.archchain.cc, a project that aims to establish a decentralised Building Information Modelling toolset and mechanisms for the AEC industry.
The interview discussed how we can change the way of consumer decision-making, supply chain management, and the ownership of everyday objects through the lens of the “Chain of Traceability” project and Material Passports framework.
Participants: Marcus Wendt and Vera-Maria Glahn (FIELD.SYSTEM) & Artem Nikitin
Artem (NEA): Can you elaborate and describe what FIELD is? (What is the difference between field.systems and field.io)
Vera (FIELD): FIELD.IO is a creative studio that has been operating for 12 years now, in a very broad spectrum of work and formats, in the realm of design, art, and technology. And today, we’re operating under two different labels. And FIELD.IO is our own artistic and research practice, where we pursue our own interests, explore new formats, and, and means of storytelling that come about through the use of new technology, always with graphic design, and artistic and often quite poetic focus.
FIELDS.SYSTEM is our creative office practice, where we collaborate with global brands on very innovative generative design projects, branding projects, and design research. We did a collaboration with space 10, the think tank and research lab of IKEA, that was looking at spatial computing, and how that is changing how we live at home and how we deal with privacy in our homes and how we design spaces. And I think that is the project that caught your interest for this interview.
Artem (NEA): Let’s go deep into materials and material registry. The framework of material passports is still open and we do not have a unified definition of it, but What is a material passport from your perspective?
Vera (FIELD): So one of the projects that we worked on for space 10 is called chain of traceability. And like I mentioned, we approached it from the perspective of privacy and trust. And the question how can we create an instill trust in consumers by providing information about the history of a project, about its energy usage, providing information about the history, the material composition, the supply chain, the transport, the carbon footprint of a product in a really accessible way. And researching or experimenting, whether that might be a good way to create more trust in a product and ultimately, in a brand.
Marcus (FIELD): I think maybe to add we haven’t developed a technique to solve the tracking a precisely, we’ve researched computer vision techniques sufficiently enough to say you already have very good object recognition, you could build a quite reliable recognition of everyday objects. And you could link that to the spec databases that do exist. So if the companies decide that they wanted to expose more information, that can be made visible, can be made accessible, and so on. So they definitely were a strong side of our research, and how would that interface work? How would we deal with it?
Vera (FIELD): To add a few thoughts to that. Like Marcus said, our focus was really on the accessibility on lowering the boundaries for making that information accessible, because and that was actually something or a phenomenon that we stumbled across a few if you work in this field of research, it’s very hard to decide where you start and what you focus on because it is such a new cosmos, it’s such a new entity, an entire chain that needs new interfaces, new formats, new technologies, new ways of dealing with content and data, and that we kind of narrowed down our focus on the interface on the question, how can we lower the boundaries for people to really access that information, because it is already there in corporate hands, or it will be there, the demand to make it accessible is there from a consumer side? quite tangibly. And, and we really want to, you know, from a designer and artists and experienced designer perspective, we want to create an incentive for people to engage with this information, and to allow it to inform their decisions.
Marcus (FIELD): I guess what’s, what’s also interesting is that actually, by doing this research, we found there’s a lot of new business opportunities, there’s a lot of this opens up the door to a whole new industry, and of services that could be built on top of that, basically allow you to deal with materials objects, and have different types of interactions and what we used to know like that going from a linear to a circular economy.
Artem (NEA): The Chain of Traceability reveals the all supply chain of the product, for example, IKEA table, what do you think visualization of traceability will change?
Marcus (FIELD): I guess in our everyday lives, people are too busy to study every single object and make sure every part of it was produced in a sustainable way. But just allowing the possibility opens up, opens themselves up for criticism, opens them up, makes them want to work in a more transparent way makes them want to work in a more sustainable way. I would say, if you can hide every single source, then it’s easier to kind of cheat a little bit and greenwashing, for example. So I think there’s increasing as the world of media and advertising is shifting over to promoting sustainability, like every company says that, yes. But I, as a consumer, want some believable claims as, why I should be investing in this or that brand. And just allowing or giving the possibility that this could be traced. If I wanted to look into it, then that that helps, I think we’ve I guess you would compare to the sugar content and the backside of, of food products, for example, thing over the years.
Vera (FIELD): It is ultimately about creating consumer pressure. And that’s what it comes down to. And the space that we find ourselves in as designers is to help facilitate that by making the information more accessible, and also interpreting it in a simplified way. Because like Marcus says people don’t have the time to sift through the data by themselves and make those calls. One of the examples that we picked from the IKEA catalog that I think was really, really tangible is a small wooden toy, it’s a toy crane, that, you know, when you perceive it, or when you first look at it, it feels like you know, it’s quite a natural thing, it’s good old fashioned, a wooden toy that you want to give to your kids to play with. But it has a tiny little magnet on the crane that you pick up the toy blocks with. And that little magnet causes a much higher percentage of the carbon impact of this of the making of this product than anything else. And it’s in its supply chain and in its history. So we picked that as an example. And we visualized the in a very kind of intuitive way, how much impact the different parts have. And then as soon as you add the magnet, the balance shifts. So we’re using visual metaphors, we’re using animation, we’re using our skills to create visualizations that are super intuitive and that feel like they are actually in the space with you. And by that way, trying to almost with an activist mindset if you like to create tools for that for creating that consumer pressure.
That’s a good example. So with just by looking at this toy, for example, we found IKEA is actually very good and very sustainable when it comes to their wood production. So where they source the wood from. They’re really leading in that area. And you look at this toy element and it’s 90% made out of wood. And that’s great. But then it is like we have a set this tiny little magnet well, that requires some minerals to be mined somewhere in China. And then those minerals need to be produced, processed to be magnetized, and then be shipped to another place. So I think we actually went as far in In our research to map out every single step of that supply chain, what does it take to make a magnet, essentially, and it, it goes through a number of different places, this tiny little magnet travels around the world, from at least three, four destinations inside of China, and then it gets shipped, and finally, be put into this the product itself. And that’s where the balance shifts, obviously. So I guess, when designing products, even these tiny elements need to be taken into account. And I think that’s what we found, in general. And I think the another, we sort of had three different focus points. As I said, in general, the question of accessibility and visualization. That was a really big topic for us. And I think it shows that maybe a more detailed database can be based in combination with blockchain technology can actually create some really engaging and also informative visualizations, that that help you make decisions.
So once I know, I think a general topic we’re dealing with is the merging of digital and physical spaces. And what if every object in your house essentially can become a digital intelligent object, even if it’s just a teacup, but everything an element can have a digital representation, a digital twin, and then you could build software and services on top of that. So what if I had the digital representation of that object? And I could open up almost like a menu card of what do you want to do with this thing? Do you want to sell it? What is the current resale price? Do you want to repair it? Do you want to remodel it? Or do you maybe want to customize it further? That’s like four new services that could be added on top. So instead of just going to the shop all the time and buy new stuff, bring it home, I could get someone to build a new front for my kitchen, for example, change out the palettes change the color scheme, gives the whole logic more life because maybe the main body of kitchen is every house needs a kitchen.
Vera (FIELD): And that’s another aspect of you know, of this, this research on this, this direction of a digital twin that I think hasn’t been explored yet. Very much or the question of products carbon footprint in general, how much of that is actually generated by how I am using it? How long am I using it? How quickly Am I discarding it? How quickly Am I breaking it? Does it actually have as an object the opportunity to reach its lifespan and to kind of make up for the energy that it costs to produce it? So that’s something that we were quite excited about as a new direction to include in the spectrum of possibilities.
Marcus (FIELD): In this is some internal IKEA research basically set up to 80% of certain products have their environmental impact is depending on how you use it as a consumer, what do you do with it at home? Yeah, exactly. So let’s do it the way the largest majority if it’s quite logical in a way if obviously you buy something and you treat it unwell and you have to throw it away after a month, then that obviously creates a huge cost of buying the next thing. It is it’s the smart speakers that are always on. It’s the furniture that you fall out of love and Then you just get another one and things like that, that there would be many more options. What you can do with this product?
Artem (NEA): And talking about blockchain infrastructure, we review and make a transparent supply chain. But do you think the blockchain infrastructure can change by ownership or stewardship of everyday products? Because it’s also can provide a new type of relationship and a new way of ownership.
Vera (FIELD): And, again, awareness. I think that’s it’s actually quite interesting to think about owners, multiple owners, and resale changing stewardship in the context of blockchain. Because, you know, as from a consumer perspective, we always put the responsibility on the corporations on the manufacturers. But you know, we also need to take responsibility as individuals, and you know, blockchain as a decentralized idea at its very, very foundational principle, and is really well suited to, to also be a platform for formalizing passing on objects to a second hand or to for repairs, or, you know, has this been expertly refurbished? Or has it been done, just by some, you know, by someone who’s an amateur, I think that’s really where a lot of potential to, capture information, and increase the value of reused resold items can come into play.
Marcus (FIELD): It’s even if you look at the hype that is going on what the hell was going on with the NFT, digital art world? It’s not unthinkable that you could develop a concept where an artist customizes modifies physical products, because he puts a signature on it on top of it, he or she, then that increases in value and makes each product more individualized again, and more unique.
Artem (NEA): Yeah. And let’s move a bit of visual fiction in your work and the speculation in your work. How can visual fiction aid decision-making in design practices?
Marcus (FIELD): I think a lot of these concepts were talking about so abstract, that, at some point, you just need to bring it down to earth, you need to create a scenario that people understand and find accessible without leading and getting lost in the theory. So I think that’s why especially what this everyday experiments platform tries to achieve is, we come up with a speculative scenario, and it has many sorts of far-reaching ideas. But at some point, we know we want to talk to a general public audience and make these ideas accessible, even if that means that we can maybe show every single aspect and go as far but in our case, for example, it was also the special fact that we were in lockdown, we could not, we couldn’t actually go to a photo location or most of the team was working from home and smaller, nonfat, we couldn’t even meet for the shoot. So we decided in this case, to remodel actually, we’re with a Berlin apartment into a photorealistic unreal scene where we could essentially need and try out new interactive methods. And this impartment so we had a virtual showroom, so to say, the virtual house where we could experiment with what if I have this digital avatar here Or what if I have a blockchain interface connected to that object there and because of the level of visual fidelity, you get out of games engines these days, you can turn around quite convincing free previous civilizations in a much shorter time and that makes it a lot more accessible to everyday users.
Artem (NEA): You know, the concept of sandboxes in regulation, do you think visual experiments and storytelling can provide a controlled environment and testing ground in designing preferable futures?
Marcus (FIELD): Yeah, I’d say definitely. I mean, that’s, that’s a huge interest of ours, you can iterate too many possible iterations of a design before you actually need to make it physical, make it real. You can play around with this whole digital and physical interaction, which obviously was a big factor for us. Yeah, I think that’s probably the way to go. I wouldn’t have any similar project, I wouldn’t approach it in a different way anymore.
Artem (NEA): Talking about testing environments – maybe using storytelling and speculation you have found some side effects and negative vectors of using technology or new stewardship? Because the conversation around material passports and blockchain in the material tracing usually in a positive connotation, and every time excited.
Marcus (FIELD): Thinking of how to answer the question, I think what we were really interested in the work and the thinking that Rachel Botsman put out. Because obviously a big topic for us. And part of the reason why IKEA commissions project like this is they are a big corporation. And we’re living in a time of increasing skepticism towards any big decision-maker. The internet is full of skeptical comments. So they are obviously wondering, how can we build real trust? Trust can be based on transparency. But I think actually, the interesting learning for us is trust is mostly based on you create trust, by repeatedly demonstrating reliability. It’s not that you necessarily have to reveal everything. So, but I think repeatedly being accountable for your actions. That’s not always in the interest of a big corporation. They might make it much more likely to make give you a new design platform, rather than literally being accountable for everything they do. But I think that’s the tension. So I think the ultimate aim for this, it’s a very good thing that is big companies are aware of the issues of privacy and trust, and that they want to design their products and services in a way that they support that. But it’s not that we necessarily need more information about everything if we could trust it more. But to trust it, I need to have the ability to dig deeper. So that’s a bit of a cycle here.
Vera (FIELD): I think the other challenge with thinking about how this could find its way into the real world is a purely practical and logistical one, you know, how do we connect the dots? How do we really get the supply chain data and where it lives within a corporate network? Down to the consumer? Does that happen on a per-brand level? Is this an app? You know, what’s the threshold for people to have the information on their devices in their hands? And that’s really why we had to free ourselves from all of these interdependencies. And we had to speculate and that’s really where, like you said, speculative design is maybe the only means to advance it, you know, we need to dream in order to create self-fulfilling prophecies and to create a blueprint that then maybe a big corporation takes inspiration from and really implements and also to create consumer demand for having that information in a more accessible form. And, you know, it’s quite an important decision and it’s also quite a responsibility for us as designers to decide which aspects we focused on which ones we leave out of focus for a little bit, and how we present that information.
Artem (NEA): And what were the most unexpected phenomena that you have revealed in the chain of traceability?
Marcus (FIELD): I think they were definitely in actually knowing. That’s what that’s the reason why we picked these examples. For example, the one element was modern consumer products, consumer goods, like the iPhone and a lot of IKEA designs, and many others are designed and this really seductive, simplified, brown, Bauhaus aesthetic. But often they hide a huge amount of complexity of ingredients, materials inside, which is very sort of hidden cost. So you buy this thing, it looks really friendly and harmless, it has all these elements of baby, round edges, small cute forms, but then actually inside of it is lithium, rare earth and many other ingredients that are difficult to recycle difficult to produce. And if you knew more about that, and the impact of those, and that’s definitely one thing. So we were surprised by how seemingly humble and cute little objects can actually have more of a dark side than you think. But I’m obviously also very excited by the possibilities and the theory of it. But when you dig a little bit deeper from what I understand that the moment projects like Etherium, I mean, I think the proof of work versus proof of stake problem that is a known problem. Another problem that gets left, less often talked about is a lot of these networks rely on single institutional sponsors. So in theory Etherium could be accessible to everyone. In theory, anyone can participate. But I think it needs might not be like several 100 gigabytes. The actual Ethereum blockchain is several 100 gigabytes deck. And they have a problem, who actually wants to dedicate half a terabyte of data on his computer all the time just for that, that excludes a lot of potential users already. How do they manage that they get single corporate sponsors that run a big part of the Ethereum platform on Amazon cloud service, which is the opposite of a totally decentralized network. I may be wrong, but this is what came up in our research on that issue of scale, I think there was an interesting article by Vitalik, one of the co-founders of Etherium. He talked about the issue of scaling Etherium. And the amount of transactions throughput. So if you want to increase like now blockchains are limited and how many transactions you can actually process. Because literally, all that data has to be distributed across the network. And if you wanted to increase it, you needed everyone in the network to have a better network connection, more data storage, and so on. And that’s a real technical issue to a company. So I think as always, with this speculative design, it’s important to us, it’s important to dial in, focus your lens, so you’re not shooting into the far away future. But it is something that is in an effort of plausible future for the near term because I think that’s where obviously a lot of important decisions are made. And that’s the most helpful for everyone. So we when we look at these things, we assume we make some assumptions, the quality of object detection AI, the quality of our displays, and how pervasive they will become. Yeah, so I think it’s dialing in how speculative how far away Do you go. It’s an important part of the practice because it’s easy to overshoot. And then Yeah, that becomes more scientific.
Artem (NEA): Yeah, I agree. I think it’s really crucial to create these branches of possible futures and to find the direction, find a way for a preferable future because a lot of this topic, unframed, and side effects are unknown.
Marcus (FIELD): I’d like to maybe stress that for everyday experiments, every concept even if we render the doubt in the end, as a CG animation was accompanied by coded digital prototypes. So the demonstration we do about the AI digital avatar was actually based on research we did working with open AI, GPT3, voice translation, and so on. So I think it’s important that when you get into this field of speculative design, that needs to be one foot in the real world, one foot in prototyping, testing those boundaries, doesn’t mean that you have to have all the answers. But I think that that gives you more of a steer that you’re on the plausible track.
Artem (NEA): Yeah, and talking about Chain of Traceability. As I understood it was a three-step methodology (Object Detection – Sketch of visualizer for material composition – Blockchain signature). Was it all kind of fiction and speculation with technologies, or you go deep into prototyping?
Marcus (FIELD): Things like for example, object detection, we actively actually build applications for and with. So it was quite fun to basically one of the apps we develop, you walk around your house, with a phone, record a video, and then by counting the number of objects we find. And which gives you interesting statistics, like how much carbon Can you find in your house, how many objects you have, how many categories they fall, and, you know, that gives you a new way of seeing your living space, what’s the average age of them, and so on. Let’s say our object recognition, capabilities were limited, but it was already very exciting. To see just to apply that to your own space, and then we said, okay, we can see how this is, if someone was to really put a bit of time into it, the disk can work. If IKEA was to put their entire catalog into a network like YOLO, you only look once you would be able to recognize anything you have any house. And then you can build these other services on top of it. So yeah, I think it’s object detection. Once I know what the object is, I can then connect it to a knowledge graph of materials. And then I can connect that to so a layer of services like that, that’s the that was the thinking.
Artem (NEA): That interesting, combining some kind of fiction and storytelling with real prototyping and production.
Vera (FIELD): That’s, that’s something that is actually quite interesting for us in our work at this moment because we started out as a studio with also quite artistic ambitions to create special experiences to create new ways of storytelling through intuitive gestural interaction in gallery spaces and in public space. And at the moment, with the shifts that are happening in technology now and with the shift towards augmented reality, this is really converging with design again, and the things that we’re kind of valid as intuitive interactions in an artistic or in a gallery space, and now becoming very tangible interface research. And that’s something where we as a studio with the side of FIELD.IO that is, you know, very speculative, also focusing on sustainability and the experience that we have with FIELD.SYSTEMS and really working, developing hard-working generative brand design systems. There’s a lot of kind of merging and converging, happening at the moment. And with giving us quite a strong foundation that we can develop new ideas from a very broad spectrum of interaction.
Artem (NEA): And talking about it, what are your interests now? The new story around emerging technologies or developing a real material passport, for IKEA products for instance.
Marcus (FIELD): I think we’ve always been very interested in applying a graphic design mindset, to all its new media, and sort of really uncovering the potential, I think we’ve always been very excited by this kind of early stage of exploration, the name FOELD as for this big field of possibilities that we could open up by digital technologies, essentially. So we’re always interested in this kind of early stage. And once a certain design discipline becomes really established. And then obviously, other companies are way more professional, and they specialize in, for example, CG post-production. So I think we’re really more started together with partners, I think that’s what I love about being a designer is to be thrown into problems that you wouldn’t necessarily look at yourself if, but then once you’re in that topic, it’s that turns out to be a very interesting topic to learn more about. And I think we try to bring a perspective of we connecting to nature, poetics, and sort of universal, maybe Bauhaus, modern modernistic design principles into each one of these projects, even if they’re very technical.
Vera (FIELD): I would add to that, that we’re also interested in how the role of the designer is changing as the world changes, because, it’s, there are so many new challenges, and we’re finding ourselves by through having the technical capabilities in the role of a translator of breaking down complexity and deciding how information is being presented, which can really be a means to bring about or to contribute to, at least humbly, to cultural and social change, which is maybe something that’s, from an architectural point of view is more established. From a graphic design and media design perspective it’s not so much commonplace, you know, if I think about the role of architecture, in the 20th century new ideas to solve the housing crisis to have new materials to rebuild faster, and, and things like that. I think the, hopefully, if or I’m thinking that, in hindsight, the challenges about how we deal with technologies and how far we will allow machine learning and artificial intelligence to be a part of our lives and in to which extent and in which quality will probably be looked at as, similarly fundamental challenges in hindsight, and I think that’s a really exciting time and space to be a designer and an artist right now to be working with these technologies.
Artem (NEA): And what is the future of Chain of traceability? What’s your vision for the next steps, or it’s finished?
Marcus (FIELD): I think right now, where we’re looking into other topics. At the moment, we just designed a bike together with a bike company. But it has a beautiful graphic story around it based on solar data. So I think this connection to nature and sustainability is something we bring into every project. But we’ve had out of all everyday experiments or through the traceability chain of traceability blockchain experiment was the one that sparked the most discussion and curiosity because I think a lot of companies can see how that is useful for them. Actually, there is I don’t want to talk about unhatched eggs, we’ll be talking to a large wind energy company that definitely can see the potential in using visualizations for this really abstract data of power output and the network itself. And so yeah, when you apply that to the energy sector, wind farms, and so on, it becomes highly relevant. I’m sure IKEA will develop the next iteration of everyday experiments as well.
Artem (NEA): Nice. Thank you. I think we can sum up and wrap up our conversation. It was really interesting to have this kind of perspective from visual fiction and speculative design on this topic. For me, personally.
Marcus (FIELD): Yeah. I think there are probably many more things we could go into.