The inaugural edition of Technology and Design Lab by open-ended design at LDF

Curated by Suhair Khan, the evening saw inspiring creatives trying to find the balance between hyperreality and real-life events. A report...

by Yuki SumnerPublished on : Oct 12, 2022

This summer, I made a conscious effort to disengage myself from the digital world and engage more with the physical world around me, roaming in rural Japan, swimming in rivers, hiking up a mountain, meeting with friends and feeling the country’s hot humid air. It was idyllic but also delusional, of course, to think that I could ‘disengage’ from the digital world. As the New York Times journalist Whitney Richardson pointed out at this London Design Festival event, "so much of our life is already powered by software and hardware in ways that we don't even think about them."

It was time for me to get back into the swing of things and be recharged. What better way than to attend the inaugural edition of Technology and Design Lab, organised by Suhair Khan, 'ex-Google', as part of the new platform open-ended design she has just set up. I headed off to Camden, very curious to find out exactly what the next step is "in the age of innovation and disruption". The event turns out to be a four-hour talk marathon. The 18 speakers Khan has enlisted included some familiar faces, such as the artist and stage designer Es Devlin and industrial designer Tom Dixon, but refreshingly, there were also people less well known, and delightfully for me, a lot of women. All the moderators were women, one of whom was newly elected London Councillor, Emily Benn, Tony Benn’s granddaughter.

A captive audience during the launch of open-ended design’s Technology and Design Lab | London Design Festival 2022 | Technology and Design Lab  | open-ended design | Suhair Khan | STIRworld
A captivated audience during the launch of open-ended design’s Technology and Design Lab Image: Courtesy of open-ended design

This gathering felt particularly refreshing in part because it did not take place in an airless basement of a designer furniture store in Clerkenwell or South Kensington, as is the norm for LDF talk events but inside The House of Koko, a new members' club attached to the recently restored 122-year-old theatre Koko. The House of Koko is a creative environment where "music, culture and creative digital future" come together. Here you can wine and dine, and hang out with singers and musicians in the most intimate settings.

Self is continuous with the world

The day’s big draw is Es Devlin, known for her immersive art installations and fantastic stage shows. She has worked with mega-stars like Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and U2. On the day, she is fashionably late. You can feel the room pulsating with anticipation. When Devlin finally arrives, she offers to stand up so that people at the back can see her. We instantly forgive her for her lateness. Devlin’s down-to-earth presence mirrors that of Khan's. It’s a good double-act. Khan anchorages the event, which at times threatened to drift off and disappear into hyperreality. Khan has a way of gently reminding people of real-life events, such as the recent catastrophic flood in Pakistan which displaced over 30 million people, or a relatively new, but under-the-radar phenomenon called hikikomori, a Japanese word signifying a complete withdrawal from the real world. 

(L) Es Devlin, (R) Ben Evans CBE | London Design Festival 2022 | Technology and Design Lab  | open-ended design | Suhair Khan | STIRworld
(L) Es Devlin, (R) Ben Evans CBE Image: Courtesy of open-ended design

Devlin is quick to give Ben Evans CBE, Director of the London Design Festival, credit for inspiring her latest creation, Come Home Again. It was on view outside the Tate Modern until recently. The shape of her piece replicates the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral across the river, where she and Evans made a visit a few years ago. The structure, sliced in half, functions as a stage. The cut-out pieces of birds, moths and other creatures represent the 243 species on London’s priority species list. They are based on Devlin’s hand drawings: “it took me four hours to draw each of them!”

View of Es Devlin’s Come Home Again | London Design Festival 2022 | Technology and Design Lab  | open-ended design | Suhair Khan | STIRworld
View of Es Devlin’s Come Home Again Image: Yuki Sumner

Illuminated from the back, these creatures come alive at night, some of them seem ready to fly off or slither away. “We always think of city dwellers as being human but there are 15,000 species apart from us that live here that are also Londoners. We are just one out of 15,000.” To further reflect on London’s diverse communities, Devlin has invited various London-based choral groups, such as Choir with No Name and The Sixteen, to sing at dusk every evening. It’s a version of an evensong, Devlin explains, sung at sunset in cathedrals and some churches on most days. Devlin says Come Home Again is based on the idea of extended self, "The air that comes in my mouth, which is going into your mouth, has been in Charlie Chaplin's mouth or in Cleopatra's mouth, they are the same particles. The self is continuous with this whole network. Anything that we do that harms any of this network comes back to self." Pressed on about sustainability, Devlin says she is thinking more and more 'in' materials, "I am at a stage where I need to learn how to use materials in a different way. I feel like I have gone back to kindergarten.”

Who defines the Metaverse?

Suhair Khan (open-ended design), Jen Haugan (Nexus Studios), Sanjay Bhooshan (Zaha Hadid Architects) and Arthur Mamou-Mani (Mamou-Mani Architects) | London Design Festival 2022 | Technology and Design Lab  | open-ended design | Suhair Khan | STIRworld
(L-R) Moderator Suhair Khan (open-ended design), and panellists Jen Haugan (Nexus Studios), Sanjay Bhooshan (Zaha Hadid Architects) and Arthur Mamou-Mani (Mamou-Mani Architects) Image: Courtesy of open-ended design

The second lot of speakers are Jen Haugan from Nexus Studios, Sanjay Bhooshan from Zaha Hadid Architects and Arthur Mamou-Mani from Mamou-Mani Architects, with Khan moderating the panel. They are here to discuss the Metaverse. Bhooshan and Mamou-Mani are both architects and insist that the work in the Metaverse frees up their thinking. As if sensing the anxiety level of the room going up, Haugan assures us that her studio is trying to create "a tangible, beneficial experience" for people, that it is moving ‘as far as possible’ from the dystopian universe we often associate with VR and the Metaverse. Khan intervened to ask an important question, "Who defines the Metaverse and does it allow for decentralised creativity?” Mamou-Mani, who designed Catharsis - “a fractal gallery for infinite dreams” - virtually at first then built it for Burning Man 2022, responds, "The Metaverse is a great place for inclusion but I still have fears that it disconnects us from the physical world, so our approach is to create bridges." As an example of such bridge-making devices, he mentions Hololens, which allows you to create things with your hands through holographic representations.

A good question comes up later from the audience, "Would people be allowed to vandalise some of the creations in VR? Would the Metaverse be policed? If a far-right group builds a monument in the Metaverse, what would happen to it, especially given that nothing can be deleted there? Would it stay there forever?” Mamou-Mani responds that they do encourage vandalism on whatever they build in the Metaverse but that we are indeed censored by technology itself, because "if anyone can write anything and create data, memory quickly becomes full," adding, "we need to own the Metaverse and create it together because otherwise, we are at the mercy of whoever controls it."

We all need to take the Hippocratic Oath

(L-R) Moderator Whitney Richardson (NYT), and panellists Suhair Khan (open-ended design), Dara Huang (Design House Liberty), and Greg Robson(Katana Ventures) | London Design Festival 2022 | Technology and Design Lab  | open-ended design | Suhair Khan | STIRworld
(L-R) Moderator Whitney Richardson (NYT), and panellists Suhair Khan (open-ended design), Dara Huang (Design House Liberty), and Greg Robson(Katana Ventures) Image: Courtesy of open-ended design

In the third round of talks, Khan joins the panel as one of the speakers alongside Dara Huang, an architect and founder of Design House Liberty, and Greg Robson, a conservationist, a clean tech investor and founder of Katana Ventures. The talk is moderated by Whitney Richardson, the aforementioned NYT journalist, who asks the speakers rapid-fire questions to relax everyone. In this atmosphere, Richardson gets Robson to admit that he is a hypocrite, "The money that funds my cleantech venture capital firm comes from a fossil fuel career that I had." Robson is in fact echoing Devlin who mentioned earlier the need for designers and artists alike to take a Hippocratic Oath if they were to carry on making.

Every speaker is relentlessly positive about our future at this event, Huang in particular. She promises us that positive changes are coming, “I am working with these developers who are very focused on building internal courtyards, gathering spaces and hosting events.” Khan balances Huang’s view somewhat, "I think that there's going to be more loneliness, more isolation. There's this whole phenomenon in Japan called the Hikikomori syndrome. More and more young people are disconnecting and going into the virtual world. I think there's also an imbalance, inequality. How many of us are confident enough to connect with others, to show up, to feel like we belong in spaces of gathering and how many of us retreat?”

Difference between spraying wildly and creating intelligence

(L-R) Moderator Emily Benn, and panellists Mariasole Pastori (Diorama), Maxim Zhestkov (digital artist), Diana Alcausin (WeTransfer) and Dayo Olopade (Amazon Prime) | London Design Festival 2022 | Technology and Design Lab  | open-ended design | Suhair Khan | STIRworld
(L-R) Moderator Emily Benn, and panellists Mariasole Pastori (Diorama), Maxim Zhestkov (digital artist), Diana Alcausin (WeTransfer) and Dayo Olopade (Amazon Prime) Image: Courtesy of open-ended design

In the fourth round of talks, we have Mariasole Pastori from Diorama, Maxim Zhestkov, an artist, Diana Alcausin from WeTransfer and Dayo Olopade from Amazon Prime. Emily Benn takes over as a moderator, saying, "I am not an expert but a curious observer." Benn starts off by pointing out that Diorama's images created for the day's event are somewhat dystopian. Pastori explains why: "Midjourney (the platform Diorama uses) pulls images from the Internet, so maybe there is something underlying there." Alcausin is here to plug a new game that WeTransfer has created: Snap Who. It’s all about "challenging our unconscious bias". Olopade, a journalist, and a product designer, who now works in a film world, steals the show by getting straight to the point, "The idea of crawling the entire Internet to produce an image is in fact the exact opposite of what our newsmakers are trying to do. It goes back to the difference between spraying wildly and creating intelligence. News apps may be limiting because we can’t endlessly scroll,” Olopade adds, "but I am a team constraint." I wonder if the necessary next step should involve mandatory programming of constraints and limitations for all AI and robots. The 'anything-goes' attitude of some techs, in general, does scare me.

Monetise, monetise, monetise!

(L-R) Moderator Emily Benn, and panellists Amon Kale (Central Saint Martins), Karen Kang (TikTok) and Tom Dixon (Tom Dixon) | London Design Festival 2022 | Technology and Design Lab  | open-ended design | Suhair Khan | STIRworld
(L-R) Moderator Emily Benn, and panellists Amon Kale (Central Saint Martins), Karen Kang (TikTok) and Tom Dixon (Tom Dixon) Image: Courtesy of open-ended design

In the fifth round of talks, we have designer Tom Dixon, Amon Kale from Central Saint Martins, Karen Kang from TikTok, who flew in from Canada for the event. Emily Benn is moderating again. The topic is the democratisation of the Internet. Dixon reflects that the power of networks in the digital age is its speed and wonders if we are getting too lazy. I can’t help but feel an immediate kinship with Dixon, possibly because I am closer to him in age than most people in the audience. Dixon complains that he still doesn’t get TikTok. Kang says she was keen to bring in more diversity to TikTok, because "design is for everyone". One of the first things the TikTok Canadian team did was to get the platform to partner up with the National Screen Institute to "empower indigenous creators in Canada to have a voice and to be able to show up and present themselves in a way that is authentic to them."

Kale enthuses that if TikTok wants authenticity, then they should hire more young people because "nine out of ten" of his students don't know how to be inauthentic, "everything you get from them is authenticity". Dixon has to catch his Uber to attend another gig. Before he leaves, however, he shares one more grievance with us. He seems incensed at how he ends up in the "ridiculous kind of auction" of his own search words against his best clients. I understand his rage. Competition is fierce and it seems to be getting worse. We all fight for a few seconds of people’s attention on the Internet. Kale has one final piece of advice for all of us: "Monetise, monetise, monetise! Everyone's at it, so should you!” I didn’t dare ask out loud, monetise what, for I knew the answer already: everything. It’s your every move, every fleeting thought you might have that you should be monetising. I am not a particularly religious person but the biblical verse “no rest for the wicked'' crosses my mind.

Artists are pushing the possibilities of technology

L-R) Moderator Suhair Khan (open-ended design), and panellists Freya Murray (Google Arts and Culture) and Sougwen Chung (performance artist) | London Design Festival 2022 | Technology and Design Lab  | open-ended design | Suhair Khan | STIRworld
(L-R) Moderator Suhair Khan (open-ended design), and panellists Freya Murray (Google Arts and Culture) and Sougwen Chung (performance artist) Image: Courtesy of open-ended design

The sixth and final talk of the day is made up of two speakers, Freya Murray from Google Arts and Culture and the performance artist Sougwen Chung. The topic discussed here ranges from robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, art and creativity. Chung is asked to describe her practice. Listening to Chung is like hearing a newly evolved language. I decide it’s an evensong for the new world, which I would call the 'Mazeverse', using my own imagination. I then recall Devlin’s mirror maze she created in my local neighbourhood of Peckham back in 2016. That seems like a long time ago in the digital age we live in but my mind never left that maze. Virtually, it seems still relevant.

Freya Murray says artists like Chung and many other artists (the choreographer Wayne McGregor and Daisy Ginsberg, the creator behind Pollinator Pathmaker, are mentioned alongside) are pushing the possibilities of technology and challenging what is possible. The following day, reading The Guardian news app, I discovered that the great British novelist Hilary Mantel has died. When Mantel was asked about her view on the afterlife, apparently she said that the universe was not limited by what she could imagine. Likewise, I would say that the Mazeverse, sorry, the Metaverse, is unlikely limited by what any of us can ever imagine. And that seems to be a good conclusion to draw from this event.

Postscript

(L-R) Suhair Khan, Ben Evans and Justine Simons; Poster of the event | London Design Festival 2022 | Technology and Design Lab  | open-ended design | Suhair Khan | STIRworld
(L-R) Suhair Khan, Ben Evans and Justine Simons; Poster of the event Image: Courtesy of open-ended design

At some point, Emily Benn wanted to discuss issues around copyright and data but ran out of time. I am hoping that we get to hear more of that in the next edition. I caught up with Suhair Khan later to ask her a few more questions for STIRworld readers.

Yuki Sumner: Do you feel that the digital world feels at times over-curated?

Suhair Khan: I think that's the beauty of the digital world is that it is chaotic and messy and it could be dangerous and broken. But there's also room for growth and authenticity, particularly as we think about the fact that hundreds of millions of people have access to the Internet. The Internet doesn't have to belong to people who have the power to curate. At least that's what I really hope.

Yuki: You mentioned the recent flood in Pakistan during the event - I wonder if you have an emotional connection with the country?

Suhair: My mom is from India and my dad is from Pakistan. I am relatively unusual in that. I grew up in Europe and then I lived in Islamabad until I went to university. I was lucky I ended up spending a lot of my time in Pakistan during COVID where I set up my jewellery business, getting on the board of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation, and going deep into questions around conservation and the planet.

Yuki: Tell me about your teaching experience at Central St Martins.

Suhair: I agreed to do it, even though I don't know anything about architecture, because I think that tech and design are interlinked, if not overlapping. And secondly, the course is framed within the umbrella of decolonisation and decarbonisation, both of which are areas I have very little understanding of. But I realised, through teaching during COVID times, that you can design values along the way.

The evening continued with a performance by GAIKA   | London Design Festival 2022 | Technology and Design Lab  | open-ended design | Suhair Khan | STIRworld
The evening continued with a performance by GAIKA Image: Courtesy of open-ended design

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