With Intent

Innovation communities with Michela Magas

Episode Summary

Michela Magas has had a nonlinear career path driven by a focus on bringing people together to make deliberate decisions that enable long-term creativity and innovation. Those decisions may reside in the realm of intellectual property, as in the Industry Commons, or music technology, as in the case of MTF (Music Tech Fest). Michela talks about how to foster innovation by bringing people from disparate fields together, why nonlinear career paths are the way forward, and the kind of skills people need for navigating our changing world.

Episode Transcription

Kristin Gecan:

Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan. This week, I talk to Michela Magas. Michela's titles go on and on, innovation advisor to the European Commission and G7 Leaders, EU Woman Innovator of the Year, creator of the Industry Commons, founder and CEO of MTF, which stands for Music Tech Fest.

Our conversation here was recorded at this year's MTF, which took place a few weeks ago in Portugal and in satellites around the world, including at ID. But what's important across all Michela's work is not her career path; it's her continued focus on bringing people together to make deliberate decisions about the future. Those decisions may reside in the realm of intellectual property as in the Industry Commons or music technology, as in the case of MTF. MTF, for example, was born out of a specific attempt to open up the interdisciplinary science of music information retrieval, to cultural, social, and creative studies.

People in the field of music information retrieval explore things like algorithmic composition. But today, MTF is an organization of more than 8,000 innovators from across disciplines. It reaches far beyond the small, yet growing field it originated in. After a week of hands on collaborative prototyping, these innovators walk away from MTF with new partners and substantial development of innovative ideas and research, new offerings and platforms prepared to drive music, technology and adjacent fields ever forward, even revealing new and extraordinary human capabilities. This was the case of a classically trained singer. The singer, who was visually impaired, was hooked up to a neural feedback device with which she was able to create music through her brainwaves alone. Other operators of this technology usually require hours and hours of training. Michela has explained the significance of this event, likening it to the relationship between a race car and driver—the world's greatest race car driver wouldn't exist without the technology that made the race car itself possible.

As such, Michela believes that technology should be a form of human empowerment. "Music," as Michela says, "is the glue that brings MTF participants together. But so, as we'll see, is design. Collaboratively written yet brief and simple, a manifesto serves as the foundation for the MTF community. That manifesto reads:

"We are music technologists. We work in science, art, engineering, humanities, activism, social science, policy, and industry. We believe in music technology, and we want to build better worlds. We invite you to join us." 

It could have, and might partially have been, written by designers, but when Michela founded MTF almost 10 years ago, before the manifesto was penned, she received little encouragement. No one thought people with these disparate specializations from the rigor of science to the chaos of art, could successfully work together. Nevertheless, as we say here in the States, she persisted…

Michela Magas:

I was told point blank that this was impossible, that people spoke completely different languages. That the music industry was getting tremendously bored by scientists trying to explain to them what music data can do, that scientists had real trouble with artists, because the artists were very sort of chaotic in their approach. There were all those wonderful prejudices and preconceptions. And I said, "No, no." I said, "Let me try," because I had done that with students before in design, because design is such a wonderful, welcoming discipline. We work across different fields, I could see how this worked and how this was possible. So I literally used the classic principles from design education to bring these disparate groups of people together. And whenever you speak to any designer, I mean, music is always a major inspiration, but when you speak to scientists, it is too.

And so I observed that that element is also a wonderful glue. The moment that we started to feed policy at high level, from the learnings that we were seeing on the ground from grassroots experimentation, from these kind of optimized environments, we decided to apply for funding to run a few enabling mechanisms and a few pilots. It was clear that we could evolve and scale this to the industry level. So when we did, when we went into that direction, of course it required the same approach. It required a manifesto, it required the inclusion of these grassroots community principles. And we have literally managed to not only get their attention, but actually get industry on board in this way.

Kristin Gecan:

So what are some of those techniques or what is the kind of the magic that you're bringing to the table here that allows people to collaborate so well?

Michela Magas:

One thing is there's an element of curation. First of all, we're building ecosystems, they're never in complete balance, otherwise they wouldn't be dynamic. And therefore, you will always be slightly adjusting and pouring another bit into the mix. And you have, for that purpose, bridges, orchestrators, facilitators, you have people who are experienced in connecting people. I mean, I usually tend to kind of scan the landscape and see what kind of chemistry can we create in the room. I never push people in particular directions. It's very similar to curation that you look for the kind of quality of a person that not only brings their knowledge on board, but that also has an open mind in the sense that they recognize the excellence in someone else.

So this is as far as sort of the human factor, I mean, it starts from the people. Then in terms of how you give them the tools to evolve, if you put excellent tools in excellent people's hands, magic things happen, right? So they have other people to collaborate with. They're inspired by each other. Then you put this extra element, which is a fantastic new invention or a piece of technology or a tool that allows them completely new affordances. So the first thing we did was for instance, back in 2015 was something called Music Bricks. It was a music tech toolkit, and we assembled it from a series of really, truly excellent institutions that developed these things in academic and research environments. But they had never left those environments, they were there, they were written up in papers.

And so we created this Music Bricks toolkit, and it just went crazy. I mean, the pilot was supposed to create one or two kind of product side of that and it came up with 11. I ended up with an opposite problem, when you create a tool or a concept that is a huge enabler, you end up with the opposite problem of trying to get funding. For instance, we hit 5 million on social and we had absolutely zero budget for marketing and we had no one to take care of social. So we ended up with this opposite problem. So I ended up on a campaign to raise further cash. I had to actually go around and I raised two thirds more funding, private funding on top of the public funding that we had, in order to just to be able to sustain the environment that was growing so much.

I can tell you that for fact, in Europe, that's really hard to do because European companies are used to public funding, funding these things, and they're not used to themselves kind of offering their funding. But what was a winner for us was that all of those big companies that supported us, for instance, one of them was Philips, they actually saw the potential of integrating their tools into their toolkit. So all of a sudden I'm faced with a complete opposite, a problem of having to actually reject industry's IP, whereas, people are kind of... Usually they really struggle to get industry IP because they will just simply not part with it, or they will not give it for free experimentation. I had the opposite.

I had to reject some because I said, "Well, unless you give it to me under MIT licenses or something that where it allows these people who are going to run off with your... Your tools are the foundation of the innovation, but then their IP builds on it. I don't want your lawyers chasing them once they invent this IP, they need to have a slice of the pie. Their enthusiasm has to be fired. They need to be able to then run with it. Besides, they're far more competent to run into new markets with it than you are, so I don't want you to frame them." So those who had their licenses too stiff, and they didn't want to relax them, I said, "Sorry guys, no, you can't be part of this space."

But I was lucky that some of these companies were... Even the big research organization, like Fraunhofer, the biggest one in Europe by far, German, the national research organization, relaxed their licenses during this pilot, because they saw the benefit of the knowledge that this exchange was created. So all of the innovations that were being created with their tools were a phenomenal test bed for them. And they were actually able to write papers off the back of it. This is when you create this wonderful ecosystem where each stakeholder has the ability to create value within their own context. They can go away with taking something that's meaningful to them. And this is super important about our space.

Kristin Gecan:

And it speaks too to the importance of making collaboration happen via dispelling the notion that there's a one sole author or owner of a given idea, that you need to open it up, otherwise it's not going to happen.

Michela Magas:

Absolutely. Absolutely. So it's interesting you should mention that because actually this has become a paradigm that's now grown and it's actually now really very much at high level. So right from the early stages, and I must say that it started for me in design education. So what happened was in around 2010, I was helping Goldsmiths establish design entrepreneurship as a course. And I was speaking with all of these mature designers, experienced designers who were doing this design entrepreneurship course because they wanted to take a leap into entrepreneurship, which wasn't really drilled into them with their design education. And people tended to come out of design education slightly kind of fumbling in terms of business and how they conduct their business because they never had any experience on that front. So, people tend to meander a little bit and some are more talented than others.

And so this course existed because there was this element that was really needed and mature people really needed it. They really wanted to boost their design business. And so we started talking about how the tools of production of change and how in a three dimensional space now, you can, of course, create completely unique one-offs that are very cheap to produce. And of course, this is 2010, 3D printing and all the rest of it, it's kind of really coming to the fore. And I said, "Well, hang on a minute. I mean, this should definitely work the same way as open-source or Creative Commons or designed by attribution." We started talking designed by attribution and I went, "Okay, wait, we need to do Open Product Licenses." So I went through a process. I got put in touch with the guy who was basically declared by the Financial Times, the most innovative lawyer in London.

And I went to him and said, "Do you want to be the next Lawrence Lessig? Because I mean, I'm developing this thing called Open Product Licenses." Then I got in touch with the guys from CERN, who had Open Hardware Licenses and we said, "How about we build on top of your licenses?" And they went, "You have our complete endorsement, go ahead, go for it." So this stuff exists, right? It's actually, probably now the time when the landscape is mature enough for us to be able to use Open Product Licenses in a 3D space. [inaudible 00:12:54], for instance, what we've had to do is have discussions such as... Well, basically, we were inviting other lawyers for a beer, with my newfound best friend, the most innovative lawyer in London. And so he said, "You know what? I'm going to invite my friend that was on Nokia versus Interdigital. And we are going to quiz him on how do we transpose this space of copyright, which is effectively linked to documented files, so digital files, to a 3D space?"

Because let's face it. You can just take a Charles and Ray Eames chair, you can hack the legs off, you can hack into it and put other legs on and nobody is going to blink an eyelid because that's not what's protected. What's protected is the tools of production that produce the chair in the first place. This is what's patented, and the chair itself is not patented. The blueprint is patented, right? So it's a completely different legal space from a Photoshop file where if you were to hack into it, of course, you are disrupting someone else's copyright and it's very clear. So what do you do? Well, first of all, why should you create rules in a space that doesn't have them? Because it allows creativity and you should just allow people to hack, right?

Well, yes, you should, except that as the space evolves with data tracking and IoT, well, it will be clamped down by proprietors. It's happened before, it's happened with typefaces. We've experienced it already, I saw that happen. I saw it happen in front of my eyes sort of overnight, we let slip of that sort of field. We couldn't make it a communal field and it kind of went into proprietary and copywritten sort of work. So in the 3D space, what we should do is set the parameters for ways in which we wish to create, which is let's enable it so that we can hack into it, but we do it in the same way as you develop open-source code. So you can actually create attributions, you can create licenses, you can create a product that's never your [Plutonian 00:14:59] archetype, because it's never finished.

Let's turn it on its head. A product starts its life when it's released into the public domain. And when it's releasing into the public domain, it starts a narrative. And this narrative can involve in all kinds of directions and everybody who adds to the narrative can add their own stamp on it. This is early days, and we were very, very lucky... I mean, I was lucky because I kind of sat down at one point because we were doing so much work. I sort of said, "I'm going to apply to Innovate UK for some help and support," because we are doing all this work voluntarily and I was very lucky that the evaluators saw... In fact, what they wrote was, "You are preempting a time to come and we are really willing to support that. You are setting the rules for things that..." Usually people are reactive in these environments.

And so they gave us support and we ended up with Open Product Licenses. I talk a lot about this because it came out of the design space. It came out of designers demanding this and that's because, of course, designers work very close to emerging markets. Now, to just to show you the scale of importance of what happened with these designers having this planting the seeds and me reacting to it with enabling mechanism. Over the years, we ended up taking it through our labs and through our pilots, not only through this kind of idea of we will track MIT licenses and then we will build the innovation IP on top. So we said, "Okay, what are doing is we're taking background intellectual property and research intellectual property and then we will put something new called the innovation intellectual property on top of that."

So we're starting to build a stack. So we went, "Okay, here's an IP stack." And then we said, "Okay, let's test it in the centralized systems." So then, we did this thing where we tested registration of intellectual property as it was created in real time. And people said, "You won't be able to see where one stops and the other one starts." And actually we proved them wrong because it was very, very clear. So you bring stuff on board, from technology providers or people who have brought tools and then you have our community. And suddenly, when someone comes up with a brilliant idea that sits on top of this, that can build on top of this, it's very clear to everyone in a room and they can register their layer.


But what was really interesting about this, as people said, "Well, as soon as this person comes up with this brilliant thing, the big guys are going to get their lawyers in and they're going to basically grab it." And what actually happened was... Again, a complete surprise. What happened was that when the idea is incredibly useful and really very good, all of a sudden, it has a market and that market can be a big guy. And this big guy suddenly says, "Well, you know what? We will buy X amount of this from you. You can now go back and negotiate the components." So suddenly you have power as an inventor, as a designer to go back to the big guys who provided the original tech and say, "Okay guys, if you now don't give me a good price on this, I'm going to go to someone else." And suddenly you've changed the game.

So this is what happened. And so this system now is being scaled at European level through the European Commission, because they've asked me to basically propose the system, particularly for the Innovation Council and it's already got approval that we will test it. And we will actually try and build it on the grand scale, so that includes all of the research results that have been created and all of the innovation results. And we're going to start to see how we can build these combinations of IP and make it available and create the standards for the data that would describe it because we need to kind of treat it a bit like with a music file, you need to be able to make it findable.

Kristin Gecan:

So then that allows for sort of a tracking situation in which once someone finds it to be winning thing that they want to bring to market, then you can track back to all the individual contributors and they can kind of reap their benefits.

Michela Magas:

That's correct. Yes. Not only that, in data driven systems, when you start to register everything in data, what you're able to do is model scenarios. Once you start to agree on ways to codify data... Let's just say an example, you have someone with material libraries and you have data about each individual materials. And then you have someone with potential use case scenarios. And let's say you combine two data set, one from each site. So let's say they're coming from two completely different domains.

One is coming from materials modeling, one is coming from, let's say some kind of industrial application. You will end up in modeling with a third data set. And that data set could give you an insight into the potential. And that data set is also significant to the original providers because all of a sudden they can make an informed decision of whether they want to invest further into this area. So you could have an inventor, or an innovator, or designer who has opened up potentially, a new market, but without the traditional marketing budget and sort of stabbing in the dark, the way that large organizations often have to do. So it's actually quite a game changer.

Kristin Gecan:

Michela Magas has had an incredibly nonlinear career path. Increasingly this is the case, especially for younger generations. Michela sees nonlinearity as not a passing trend, but an essential way forward. As she has written, "There are things I want to create or make possible in the world that simply cannot be achieved in the context of conventional employment." As Michela says, "Linearity had its place in time."

Michela Magas:

We were part of a 20th century system of industrialization and through the set of affordances that were in front of us, some of these linear parts were incredibly useful at the time. So people's linear careers where you train from one particular type of specialization and then you sit in one job for most of your life, that was useful at that time. It made the system work. It isn't anymore. The system is changing. We are redesigning systems for a reason. We are not redesigning systems because we want to be revolutionary, it's because our affordances have changed. And it is very, very clear that the set of skills that are required, they're sort of the kind of cognitive skills that are not repetitive. They are cognitive skills that have to be able to cope with unknown unknowns and surprising scenarios.


And that are inventive or they have methodologies and approaches which can question subject matter from different perspectives. So that means that people need to accumulate ranges of experiences which allow them to think in that way and that don't develop the brain... I always say, sort of, if you're working so many hours per day, you are evolving your brain, depending on what work you're doing, your brain is creating sort of connections and synapses. You're training yourself all day long. So if you're in a repetitive occupation, you're going to be brilliant at that one thing. And your brain has evolved in that way, but it's incredibly difficult for people to then snap out of that because they simply have to retrain themselves to get out of it. And this has literally been the case, when people change jobs in the 20th century, they would have to retrain.


Now what we do is we encourage education that opens up as many perspectives as possible and design education in particular has phenomenal tools for that. I'm sure the way you train your students is to actually ask them to look at the broader context and actually look at the subject matter from different perspectives and try and address it from as many perspectives as possible. And whilst that may have looked terribly chaotic back in the day... So this is why kind of [inaudible 00:23:18] scientists would say, "Well, the artists just appear so chaotic in their approach." If you do it rigorously, it's a real skill. And it's a very, very useful skill. And so with frontier technologies, we have people here in the lab working with neural nets, they're currently feeding European Space Agency data to the neural nets.


The sort of amount of data that's coming out, there's probably so much of it, you are always maxing it out on processing. You can't parse it in time to actually identify salient moments. So what you have to do is be very creative in the way that you identify the important bits and there are different kinds of visualization or different kind creative methods that are used in that. These are the kinds of things you can't design unless you're trained to really address the problem head on with as many creative ways as possible, really.


I mean, it's a great skill to have. It's a skill that all the scientists are really grateful for right now. For instance, designers and visual people and artists can bring to the table. So I am not surprised that creatives are experimenting, they're taking different paths, they're allowing themselves to have multiple experiences and build that sort of knowledge of tackling completely new territories because it equips them with the tools that these new scenarios and new landscapes as they are evolving require.

Kristin Gecan:

So in your concept paper for the New European Bauhaus, you kind of give a bit of an origin story, talking about your dad and his career a bit in architecture. And you talk about growing up in Communist Yugoslavia among these great Bauhaus works. So I have a couple of questions that connect to this, and one is around how your father or that generation used design in connection with technology and engineering and how we use it today. And the other is around how the Bauhaus was seen and used at that time and how maybe this dream of democratizing design has potentially become more real today. So those are just a couple different ways in and feel free to start wherever you'd like.

Michela Magas:

Sure. So yes, I was brought up by architect parents. My mother is 78 and she's still practicing architect and she's working on projects right now and she's kind of Oscar Niemeyer style. She'll be there right to the last moment designing. My father unfortunately passed away in 2013, as the Secretary of the Academy of the Arts at the time. And before that, he was for very many years, a professor of theory architecture. So he held the seat in the University of [Zagreb 00:26:18], but he's also the author of several buildings that are at MoMA in New York. There were five of his projects that ended up at the Concrete Utopia exhibition, still now in their catalog. And that was unfortunately posthumously, I wish my father could have been there to see it. And of course, he was battling the system throughout his life because he didn't want to be political, it's kind of weird that I ended up in politics because my father never wanted to be political.


And that was actually very difficult in those days, because as you mentioned, we were in Communist Yugoslavia where you were required to be political. Every single individual was required to be political. So my father managed to have his buildings miraculously built through anonymous competitions, and I was very much part of it. We were a cottage industry in our apartment. We were in a beautiful apartment that my father had designed. So he was asked by a local group of politicians who had privilege to ask for the architect to design their block of apartments. He was asked to design the block and he said, "Well, I'm on the queuing list for an apartment. Can I also have one, please?" And so basically we ended up living in my father's design. And so it was a lovely apartment, not too big.

We were not allowed to have them too big, but it was completely plastered with drawings, architectural drawings. You had to hop between them. I remember growing up not knowing what food times were, meal times, because that didn't exist. If you were hungry, you just grabbed something to eat, but actually the whole time what you were doing was working. And so as a kid, I was written into their projects and this has been confirmed as documentation, at the age of 10, so I was brought up on this stuff.

So the influence on me has been tremendous. I was included in the projects on technical descriptions of architectural projects. And my parents would... And I suppose that wasn't exactly above board, they would take me out of school for a week when there were competitions so that I could help and so that we could make the deadline. And we were very lucky that we won, well, my parents won, my father won, but we won also the competitions that I've participated in, and those buildings have been built. And currently two of them are listed as national heritage. Museum of Revolution in Sarajevo, which is supported by the [Guggenheim 00:28:52] Foundation. And also the stadium in Split in Croatia, the [Hajduk 00:28:59] Stadium that was built for the Mediterranean Games and that was pretty revolutionary. So when you ask about how my father used the technology, one thing that is probably important to mention is that he comes from the area of Europe that educates architects as also engineers.

So you have to be good at physics and maths, and you have to literally, as an architect, you have to straddle several disciplines. And so that's already a transdisciplinary job really, as an annual qualification. And the reason why he was able to innovate with technology is because he was able to calculate it. He was able to actually say, "This is possible." And I sort of continued on that tradition to be honest, because I mean, when I graduated as designer, designers were not programmers, they weren't trained in programming, and yet, I decided to learn to code myself. Now, there are many people who do that anyway, but at the time, that wasn't the norm. So when my father looked at innovating with technologies, it was both conceptually because he wanted to execute on a concept, for instance, with the stadium, that was hugely innovative.

I think it held for 10 years, the record for the largest unsupported arc. It was by trying to solve a problem of how to make the whole of the audience inside a stadium, have the experience of a Greek amphitheater where you don't have any pillars in front of you that obscure your view, where you can have this unified acoustic experience. Every single spectator can have a fantastic experience out of it. And also at the same time, can see the natural elements around them. See the sky, see the sort of landmark, the main landmark in that city is a famous mountain that has songs written about it called [Marjan 00:30:53]. And on the other side, of course, the other landmark is the sea. So he had the vision of what this should be and he wanted to execute it.

And then he addressed it from the technological point of view. At that time, technology was evolving with the first so-called super computers that some very progressive companies were employing. And this was the German company called Mero that invented this sort of atomic structure components that you could construct roofs with. They were using it on hangers and they had only done a straight section of the roof of the stadium in Berlin at that point. And my father said, "Well, actually, I know how to calculate an arc from this. And I can actually do a self supporting, very, very large span roof out of this." So my father didn't have a computer, he was doing it manually when he said that. And in fact, when he spoke to the engineer on the job, the engineer said, "No, no, no, you can't do that."

And he said, "Yes, you can." And so they ended up with this kind of discussion. "Yes, you can." So this, I think to me, spoke of someone who was... Well, my father was hugely into philosophy, so I was brought up on Bergson and stuff like that. And every time I would come back from school, I was massively curious. I would say, "Dad, there was this thing mentioned at school, can you kind of elaborate a little bit?" And he would go up and grab LaRousse, the French encyclopedia and start reading to me from it. So I was very, very lucky to be growing up... Because of my fondness of architecture and design and creativity and engineering and all these things, I was very lucky to be growing up in that environment, really, and have practice as part of my schooling, effectively.

So yes, the technology was embedded and this cross-disciplinary approach was embedded right from my childhood. But at the same time, when you start to talk about the Bauhaus, of course, my father was already reacting to the Bauhaus aesthetic and bringing into it some vernacular elements from our region. So some of his style is now recognized as being unique because it brought kind of unique postmodernist style for that region. So he reacted against the, sort of the language of the Bauhaus, which was very, very, very set in its ways, the language of the Bauhaus, right? We'd recognize, this is why it's so recognizable, but you couldn't go outside of it. And this was kind of the problem with modernism. And I think we have moved into a completely different direction as far as that's concerned, because we, in the New European Bauhaus, advocate for multiple types of aesthetic and they can come from various types of global communities, not just European aesthetic, not just different European regions, but different global regions.


Our sense of aesthetic can come from a sense of community. It can come from very different starting points rather than sort of the methods of production or industrial production or particular types of materials. So there are huge differences on that front. There's also then the discourse about inclusion. So if you're talking about inclusion, of course, you have to broaden your sense of aesthetic. You can compare the ambition, this idea of leapfrogging ahead with new means and new ways of doing things. And also the quest for invention, creating innovative solutions and [inaudible 00:34:32] kind of design solutions. All of that still stands but I think there are certain other things that have moved and opened up a great deal more to the original Bauhaus.

Kristin Gecan:

So to think about that a little bit, which you've written about too, and thinking about your father's contributions, which are maybe more able to be seen or concrete than maybe the contributions of much of the design that we talk about today, or even that people are working on at MTF today. You have said, "It's not our objects or lifestyle that are in urgent need of design or redesign anymore, it's the institutions and the processes." So I think telling a story like you did about your father and his contributions, and someone can see a stadium and they can see, and there's awe surrounding that. And there's a real sense of accomplishment surrounding that, right? When we get to designing or redesigning our institutions and our processes, those are much harder to wrap your head around because they're not so visible, but they are touching us at every single moment of every single day.

And I think this is a little bit of what the New European Bauhaus is trying to do is to say we can use these design notions or this Bauhaus thinking to really take a fresh look at how we live at these institutions, at these processes. So I wonder what you think about that, how you make people sort of understand the value of rethinking those institutions and processes and being ready for the shifts in structures that underpin their everyday lives. How do you tell stories about that and how do you make it real for people?

Michela Magas:

What's interesting is when you started on this train of thought, first thing that came to mind because we still, of course, mentioning my dad, the first thing came to mind was a conversation I had with him. I was, I think, very, very young and Richard Rogers had just done the Lloyd's building in London. And I was enthusiastically telling Dad about this kind of idea that turned architecture on his head and basically exposed the guts of a building, the services on the outside of the building and how cool that was. And my father said, "Yes, it is. And so it's a new language has been created through that. However, what you have to think about is what happens to those pipes when, for instance, we don't use gas for heating anymore. And then it's like, what does it become then? Does it become a monument? Does it become a language or a sign of its times? Does it become an aesthetic? What is it?"

So even these solid structures evolve, and perhaps there are some elements that were totally rational at the time. And there was a reason why the aesthetic was the way it was, becomes more of a sign of its times and the use and appropriation. And then we reframe them and rethink them and we reuse them in new ways. I mean, we still have the pyramids and they were used for a particular purpose. All of these things are wonderful, but in truth, there are [inaudible 00:37:44] more similarities between architecture and systems design as we use it today. The systems design that's now addressing all of the different ways of interaction, the way that we interact in bureaucracies, in governments, and in industry, across industry, in sort of across services and consumers, et cetera, the similarity between information architecture and traditional architecture, I think it's very clear to a lot of designers and it has been clear for awhile.

And systems design has a great deal to do with architecture. And so for instance, me having spent most of my childhood sort of staring at plans and looking at the flow in public buildings of how services are delivered or how people move through them, is not that far from the way that we need to think about how would we interact today, both in terms of services and people. So there are great deal more similarities and what we are developing now is also something that is going to need adjustment and further sort of evolution. What has, of course, changed or what has evolved are the sets of affordances that we have today and sort of the tools that we have at our disposal.

It's surprising how much we are still set in this sort of static space. I will give you an example. When sort of 10, 15 years ago, we started approaching sort of the idea of the web as something that delivers information. And we wanted to make sure people had good download speeds, and then it was already sort of 10 years ago or so that we were saying, "Well, hang on a minute. I think what's more important is the upload speeds," because what the space is really about is about creation. It's about co-creation or creation, or it's a place for creativity and for creating content and it's not about delivery of information as it was originally intended. Now that's very, very obvious now, and it's kind of an old story, but if you actually think about what's happening in our cities currently, we are still delivering services as the primary thing. And nobody has actually taken the leap to consider that now the connectivity exists in all of the spaces in between the nodes and synapses and in between the sort of the delivery of the individual kind of data points.

It exists in all of the spaces where culture thrives and we haven't flipped it yet to the point where the grassroots communities on the ground, the people who interact in these environments are the main drivers of this space. So I'm kind of, for instance, really advocating for the era of... And not just kind of an odd project, but sort of really the era of citizens as the creators of their environments. And to flip the city from service oriented to upload, to kind of really capitalize on the grassroots communities innovation that happens on the ground. And we have all of the tools and all of the systems in place to be able to do that, but we just haven't shifted our mentality towards that. So when we were doing the Innovation Seven, which is we got invited to contribute to the G7 Leaders.

We were asked questions such as how do we, as a sort of a leader of a government, establish a sort of a relationship with our citizens through digital technologies? My thing was, well, actually, all of your cultural heritage buildings, all of your public builders, all your bicycle sharing schemes are your interface with your citizens in real tangible space, [inaudible 00:41:31] your frontier. This is where you should be. And this is how those stories come across to the politicians, by opening the possibilities for them to visualize how this could look, and then they take it forward into missions and into mechanisms. This is about changing the sort of mental models.

Kristin Gecan:

How do you define design?

Michela Magas:


Kristin Gecan:

Right. I'll just end on a really easy one.

Michela Magas:

How do I define design? There's going to have to be a narrative to this and a bit of philosophy, sorry. So design has gone through different stages of sort of approaches and already sort of in the '90s, we were going past the sort of Plutonian archetype. So, there's this kind of whole [foreign language 00:42:26] thing of, how do you do form and how do you identify the function and how do you identify the [inaudible 00:42:34], the location with the context? And then of course, in the last century, we were kind of going on about the context, context was king, which it is, and it's great. And this was kind of part of my Royal College of Art education. And then of course, already in the '90s, there was a really strong movement towards sustainability.

So it was what you would now call in industry, the product life cycle. So it's like, okay, it's not just, you're aiming towards your Plutonian urn or Heideggerian urn or whatever it is, that is never going to be perfect, but this is the ultimate form, et cetera. You're actually looking at what's going to happen to this product further down the line. This is, of course, the use case of a product and design is about a greater [inaudible 00:43:19] than just products. But let's just talk about that for a minute, because it does actually continue this line of thought. When you look at the product past its release point, so it wasn't just the point of creation that mattered. Now, the consideration was what happens to this product and how is it used, re-appropriated and particularly disposed of, in terms of sustainability? Thoughts about that evolved already in the '90s, in the design communities. What then happened was I think when we looked at the life cycle of something, it turned out that the product had multiple narratives because this life cycle could manifest itself in various different ways.

And I just remember distinctly the point at which kind of I declared... I think it was 2008 or something I sort of said, "Okay, product is a platform. We're going to think of it in this way. We're going to say, 'Okay, the moment it releases itself into the public imagination or into the public realm, it's going to start to have very different shapes.'" And of course, this is going in line with the affordances. This paradigm of multiple potential destinies of a piece of design has then totally chimed with our collaborative environments and us building on each other's knowledge or on each other's creativity. It has also turned on its head, the idea of this kind of star designer, the sole author. And so the design as an approach has shifted both in terms of the agency of the designer and how the designer fits within this whole sort of chain or rather a network of different contributions, but also the possibility of design to straddle fields.

So it used to be a service more than anything, and it used to be that you serviced other domains. But what it now seems to be able to do is it's reframed within this new connected landscape, particularly now that we are doing the Industry Commons where we are connecting all the different domains of industry, I find this role very much central. So whilst it's sort of relies on multiple authors and agencies, at the same time, it also has a very, very sort of a simultaneous reach across different disciplines. And it's very central with its methodologies and its approaches in terms of being a connector. And so the way that I then redefine design is within this context of the way that we see this lab here, which is that there are people coming into this lab from all these different disciplines and the methodologies that we put at the center, the design methodologies, design and creative and art methodologies.

It's not unique to design, but it's certainly very strong with design, they are acting as the focal point. The thing that is an enabler, the thing that brings people together, and this is where also then the design from the central position can also have a good overview of the whole system around it, and can start to infer both connections and further sort of enabling mechanisms, which is all very much part of how we consider system design. As well as to consider the ethical, the moral, the sustainability questions, the sort of responsible, like responsible AI questions and all of the layers that we build this upon.

So it was always the duty of design to consider these aspects. And it is framed at different times and different ways, like you mentioned with the Bauhaus, but now that we're building these connected systems, what happens is what these systems are based upon and what are the parameters that they sit upon and this is something that design needs to kind of establish as an anchor so that whatever we build is built on ethics, responsible AI, sustainability parameters, all of the sort of social agreements and social values. So I'm reframing it as being very central, as you can kind of gather.

Kristin Gecan:

Thank you to Michela Magas for joining me today. You can learn more about Michela and her many projects at MichelaMagas.com. Links to her website and related articles are available on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu/podcast. Please subscribe, rate, and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we'd love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.