Using Prototypes to Shape Future Technologies
As Managing Director of IDEO CoLab, Matt Weiss is passionate about bringing design to emerging technologies early in their development. Matt and his team bring a human-centered design lens to new technology to better understand its functionality and help shape its formation. Matt worked as a Business Designer and Portfolio Director at IDEO for four years before cofounding IDEO CoLab in 2015.
With an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a BS in Computer Science and Economics from Tufts University, Matt brings a strategic mindset and technological knowledge to CoLab’s design process.
Matt shared with us how CoLab relies on prototypes to learn about and shape the future of new technology.
Who are you and what are you doing now?
I’m managing director at IDEO CoLab. IDEO CoLab is a shared R&D network and we look at a portfolio of emerging technologies. Right now we're specifically looking at blockchains, internet of things, artificial intelligence, and augmented & virtual reality. We're applying design to these technologies to determine what's going to happen with them, how they're going to influence society, and how they're going to change the landscape of businesses in different industries.
It's a shared network because we work in collaboration with other organizations and look into challenging areas and new technologies to figure out the future together. (For a full list of member organizations, visit ideocolab.com.)
What makes these companies open to collaborating in the R&D network?
People from our member organizations who connect with CoLab are looking at the potential of these technologies inside their organizations. What we’re able to do as a network is strip away blind spots. We're able to find an overlap between different organizations and different industries that don't normally have the conditions to work together and figure out what's possible.
We had an event in the fall and the theme was crosstalk. Crosstalk is when wires get crossed, causing unexpected connections—in engineering, it's usually viewed as a bad thing. As designers or engineers, we try to engineer it out of systems. In the world of these emerging technologies, which are connected and network-based with new distributed possibilities, we need to work like these technologies. When we're looking at something like blockchains, which is an interoperable way to track information, we should work in an interoperable way. We should work together to figure out what these technologies are going to do.
With our member organizations, we purposely work on things we can't work on alone. We're trying to figure out ways IOT data locked up in organizations can be beneficial when we connect them together; or where data locked up in different organizations in different parts of the world could open new opportunities when it becomes interoperable. We're able to look at shared spaces that you couldn't if you were working in isolation.
How does creativity fit into what you do?
Creativity is the foundation of what we do. We're practitioners of human-centered design, which looks at the three core perspectives of people, business, and technology. Generally at IDEO, we start the process and anchor it with people and what people need. The difference in CoLab is we're approaching the world starting with technology. We're starting with things that are usually in academic or commercial R&D labs. They're being developed for noble reasons, often for technical and scientific breakthroughs. They usually take a long time to get out of labs. For example, in the broad bucket of AI, there's been work in that space in labs for well over 50 years.
Creativity or design is something we believe needs to be applied to these technologies sooner than it has been. My colleague Joe and I showed up at a blockchain conference about two years ago. Everybody asked us, why is IDEO here? We said because this is potentially massively disruptive technology. We want to look at what problems this can solve. We want to bring designers into it.
That's all we needed to say, and then people just started spouting. Why are we talking about this thing as “Bitcoin,” which is a strange term? Why do we visualize it like money today? It's a digital currency. When we're talking about blockchain, how do we make this more real for people?
In our technical world, being creative and bold, while also disciplined about what problems these technologies can solve, is why we exist. We want to apply creative sensibilities to technology to create better outcomes and hopefully, create more positive outcomes.
What does prototyping look like at CoLab?
Prototyping is all we do. Some of our members describe us as a prototyping factory. We create about 100 prototypes over the course of a year. It's essentially our core tool. We're trying take what can be an intellectualized process and figure out what these technologies that are still at a formative phase are going to do. It turns out the only way we know how to find out is to prototype and prototype and prototype.
We just go build the stuff. What we do procedurally is work across our network to determine interesting questions people have about technologies. There are questions for example about blockchains as this savior new way to track and share information. But tracking lawn mowers and cars and physical assets out in the world is mostly theory. We need to figure out how to get physical information into this digital world, which is an interesting problem. We like to build prototypes to work toward solutions.
What we have our teams do when they show up is start building prototypes immediately. We encourage all shapes and sizes of prototypes. You can draw on paper a vision of what you're trying to create and show it to people. Totally valid. Our view since we're coming at this from a technology perspective is to build functioning technical prototypes. We want to figure out what breaks in the technology when we're building it.
When we're building something with AI, it can be about finding the data set that you use to train whatever you’re building. It doesn't need to be beautiful, it needs to function so that we can determine how it’s useful. We use prototyping in that vein.
“What I'm working through as a leader is this tension between efficiency and serendipity.”
The other thing we find valuable is using prototyping to push the conversation faster. One of our unique values is the speed at which we build these prototypes. It helps show the power of prototyping even at low fidelity as long as it works. You've got to choose the right prototypes to build. Narrow into a specific question, build a functioning prototype for it, figure out what's broken, and figure out where you need to go next. That's what we love to do.
How do you know if a prototype is successful or when to put the brakes on it and go in a different direction? What are your measures for the success of a prototype?
It's a bit of a linear process. First, does it work? Build something that's functional, but there is a caveat. If it doesn't work, it's just as interesting, as long as you've tried to build it as a working prototype. If it failed for some reason, we want to know why it failed. Knowing why is important because it helps us learn that maybe we don't want to go down this path in the future.
Probably the more salient criteria is that all the prototypes we build are meant to ask a question of the technology. We always go back to the question. The question can change shape and form a bit, as long as we know it’s happening. The litmus test for me is do we have an answer to the question? We’re looking at questions right now about, "How might artificial intelligences represent our interests as individuals vs. our interests as a society?" We need to build prototypes that help us answer that question and grow our understanding.
Is it a question around desirability, feasibility, or viability?
In our case, the questions are generally about feasibility. They're about what’s possible with the technology. In the IOT space, for example, we've been interested in how you can triangulate on information. You can imagine triangulating your own information of what's happening in your house or what's happening in your office or even figuring out what happened in a car accident. We have lots of questions about what certain types of sensors are capable of and how you can correlate and synthesize information to figure out how much you can trust the information you're getting. There are lots of feasibility and technical questions we're trying to uncover, among other things.
What’s something you’re working on now with your personal leadership style?
We're kind of a startup at CoLab. We've been around a few years now and we're an up-and-running business. We have this cool, small team of 13. What I'm working through as a leader is this tension between efficiency and serendipity. Being a small organization, you have limited resources and capacity, and you have to make choices about what you're going to focus on. We have a lot operationally that goes on throughout the year. We have this network of organizations we're working with, fellows showing up who we have to coordinate, and briefs we have to figure out to help teams build their prototypes. That all requires a lot of attention operationally to get everything done on time and do the good work we want to do.
On the flip side, we're a team of tinkerers and builders. We got into this whole thing because we like to be nerdy about technology. We have this thing our West Coast team created called Tinker Time. We take space and nerd out on something we want to play with around some facet of the technologies we're studying. It's tricky and as a leader in this organization, it's hard to keep balance. I feel particularly on the hook to make sure operationally we're good.
At the same time, if that serendipity of finding things in the cracks doesn't happen, we lose our energy. We also lose the opportunities for this amazing stuff to occur. An example we share all the time, we started to look at the energy industry last year, not because we were interested in the industry, but because we were interested in how blockchains and IOT could work together. Now we’re super focused on the energy industry, because it turns out there's this whole world where these technologies apply really well.
If you had a magic wand, what would you do to design a world where anyone could build creative confidence to solve real world challenges?
Encourage people to get in and build with new technologies. AI is an intimidating thing. We could break it down into natural language processing, computer vision, and more. They're amazing tools that are simple to start getting into. You're not going to become a subject matter expert overnight. But there are enough tools and APIs and you can get dangerous super fast.
Part of what we're doing at CoLab is looking for opportunities to make these technologies more accessible. We're trying to build prototyping tools that make it simple. Some of our academic fellows who are engineers and designers are deep into these technologies when they come in, but many aren’t and it doesn’t take them long to get up to speed.
We had teams that were building Amazon Alexa skills or Google Home voice interactions using their APIs instantly. The first day they were here, they had never touched it before. There's a lot of intimidation around not being able to explain what Bitcoin and blockchain are, but if you want to understand some of the possibilities of these technologies, you can get building stuff fast. It’s an awesome thing to do.
Why creativity now more than ever?
A wave of emerging technologies that could change society is heading our way. We've been selective about our portfolio technologies, choosing technologies that will change the way markets work. They’re going to change the way the industries we're looking at and beyond are going to function.
Applying creative muscle to new technologies and trying to be creative with those technologies while they're early on and still being shaped and having the ability to help shape them is an amazing opportunity. Taking a designer's skillset or broadening a creative skillset and bringing them into those technical worlds, I believe will help speed up that cycle. I believe it will help those technologies find their needs faster. It will help orient this massive wave of technology that's coming. There's a challenge for the creative world to be technically centered at the moment—to be paying attention to emerging technology.
Machines take over the world and we’re all slaves to them. Is that going to happen?
I don't think so. It’s interesting to think about what computer-based intelligence can do in terms of what we can't. A lot of that exists in the world today. It's about how you use computers and what they can do to help. What can we offload into some form of artificial intelligence so that we can do other things? I'll be utopian about this one, not dystopian. There's an amazing amount of opportunity.
Learn the art of prototyping and iterating your way to better solutions services in our From Ideas to Action online course.
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