Chris Woebken and Elliott Montgomery practice together as The Extrapolation Factory here in NYC. They often stage shows, workshops and teach a blend of speculative design provocation, storytelling, and making.

I first met them both at the RCA, and so I was thrilled when they asked me in late summer to be part of their show at ApexArt that would be based on the premise of designing future systems or objects for New York City’s Office of Emergency Management.

The show is on now until December 19th 2015 at ApexArt, but I thought I’d write up a little bit of the project I submitted to the group show along with my fantastic collaborators Isaac Blankensmith and Matt Delbridge

The premise

Chris and Elliott’s first recruit was writer Tim Maughan who based on the initial briefing with the OEM created a scenario that we as designers and artists would respond to, and create props for a group of improvisational actors to use in a disaster training simulation. More of that later!

Here’s what we got early on from Tim by way of stimulus…

NYC has been hit by a major pandemic (the exact nature of which is still to be decided – something new/fictitious). The city has been battling against it for several weeks now, with research showing that it may spread easily via the transit system. The city, in association with the public transport and the police are enforcing a strict regime of control, monitoring, and  – where necessary – quarantining. By constant monitoring of infection data (using medical reports, air monitoring/sampling, social media data mining etc) they are attempting to watch, predict, and hopefully limit spread. Using mobile ‘pop-up’ checkpoints they are monitoring and controlling use of buses and the subway, and in extreme cases closing off parts of the city completely from mass transit. Although it seems to be largely working, and fatalities have been relatively low so far, it has created an understandable sense of paranoia and distrust amongst NYC citizens.  

The Canal street subway station, late evening.

Our characters are two individuals heading home to Brooklyn after leaving a show at apexart. They are surprised to find that the streets seem fairly empty. Just as they reach Canal station they are alerted (via Wireless Emergency Alert) that quarantine and checkpoint procedures have been activated in the neighbourhood, and a pop-up infection checkpoint has been set up at the entrance to the subway. They’ve never encountered one of these before, but in order to get home they must pass through it by proving they do not pose an infection.

Our proposals

I submitted two pieces with Isaac and Matt for the show.

The first concept “Citibikefrastructure” was built out into a prop which features in the gallery, the second concept “Bodyclocks” featured in the catalog and briefly in the final performed scenario.

1. “Citibikefrastructure”

This first concept uses the NYC citibike bike share program as a widely installed base of checkpoints / support points in the city that have data and power, plus very secure locking mechanisms connected to the network.

The essential thought behind this project was this: What if these were used in times of emergency with modular systems of mobile equipment that plugged into them?

I started to think of both top-down and bottom-up uses for this system.

Top-down uses would be to assist in ‘command and control’ type situations and mainly by the OEM and other emergency services in the city.

    • e.g. Command post
      • Loudhailer system
      • Solar panels
      • Space heaters
      • Shelter / lights / air-conditioning
      • Wireless mesh networking
      • Refrigerator for medicine / perishable materials
      • Water purification

But perhaps more promising to me seemed ‘bottom-up’ uses

    • USB charging stations
      • Inspiration: after Hurricane Sandy many people who still had electricity offered it up via running powerstrips and extension cords into the streets so people could charge their mobile devices and alert loved ones, keep up with the news etc.
    • Wireless mesh networking – p2p store/forward text across the citibike network.
    • Information display / FAQomputer
      • e-ink low power signs connected to mesh
      • LE bluetooth connection to smartphones with ‘take-away’ data
        • PDF maps
        • emergency guides
        • Bluetooth p2p Noticeboard for citizens
      • Blockchain-certified emergency local currency dispenser!
        • Barter/volunteer ‘cash’ infrastructure for self-organising relief orgs a la Occupy Sandy

1:1 Sketch proto


After making some surreptitious measurements of the Citibike docking stations, I started to build a very simple 1:1 model of one of these ‘bottom-up’ modules for the show at the fantastic Bien Hecho woodworking academy in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard.




Detail design and renderings

Meanwhile, Isaac had both taken my crappy sketches far beyond into a wonderfully-realised modular system and created some lovely renders to communicate it.


Initial sketch by Isaac Blankensmith


Isaac then started to flesh out a modular system that could accommodate the majority of the use-cases we had brainstormed.



Citibikefrastructure final renderings and compositing in situ by Isaac Blankensmith


Citibikefrastructure final renderings and compositing in situ by Isaac Blankensmith

Some final adjustments were made to the sketch model on the days of installation in the gallery – notably the inclusion of a flashing emergency light, and functioning cellphone charger cables which I hopd would prove popular with gallery visitors if nothing else!

2. “Bodyclocks”

This one is definitely more in the realm of ‘speculative design’ and perhaps flirts with the dystopian a little more than I usually like to!

Bodyclocks riffs off the clocks-for-robots concept we sketched out at BERG that created computer-readable objects sync’d to time and place.

Bodyclocks extends this idea to some kind of time-reactive dye, inkjet-squirted onto skin by connected terminals in order to verify and control the movements of individuals in a quarantined city / city district…

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I’d deliberated chosen to ‘parasite’ this onto the familiar and mundane design of the ‘sanitation spray’ stations that proliferated suddenly in public/private spaces at the time of the H1N1 scare of 2009…

When you think about it, a new thing appeared in our semi-public realm – a new ritual, with it.

People would quickly habituate such objects and give themselves new temporary tracking ‘tattoos’ every time they crossed a threshold…

So, the dystopian angle is pretty obvious here. It doesn’t tend to reflect well on societies when they start to force people to identifying marks after all…

We definitely all talked about that a lot and under what circumstances people would tolerate or even elect to have a bodyclock tattoo. Matt Delbridge started creating some fantastic visuals and material to support the scenario.

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For the purposes of the show and the performances, Matt D. even made a stamp that the actors could use to give each other bodyclocks…


Would the ritual of applying it in order to travel through the city be seen as something of a necessary evil, much like the security theatre of modern air travel? Or could a visible sign of how far you needed to travel spur assistance from strangers in a city at times of crisis? This proposal aimed to provoke those discussions.


The show and performance

One of the most interesting and exciting parts of being involved in this was that Chris and Elliott wanted to use actors to improvise with our designs as props and Tim’s script and prompt cards as context.


I thought this was a brilliant and brave move – unreliable narrators and guides taking us on as designers and interpreting the work for the audience – and perhaps exposing any emperor’s new clothes or problematic assumptions as they go…

What’s next?

Well – there’s a workshop happening with the OEM based around the show on December 11th. I’m not going to be able to attend but I actually hope that the citibike idea might get some serious discussion and perhaps folks from the bikesharing companies that use such system might entertain a further prototype…



I’m reading Red Mars.

It is not an original thing to say that this book (like much Science Fiction) is about here, now, us – but hey.

On choosing a future

“History is not evolution! It is a false analogy! Evolution is a matter of environment and chance, acting over millions of years. But history is a matter of environment and choice, acting within lifetimes, and sometimes within years, or months, or days! History is Lamarckian!”

On thinking science/technology/engineering are devoid of politics

“So you see, you cannot just stick your head in sand crying ‘I am a scientist, I am a scientist!’” He put a hand to his forehead, in the universal mocking gesture of the prima donna. “No. When you say that, you are only saying, ‘I do not wish to think about complex systems!’ Which is not really worthy of true scientists, is it?”

On disruption and convenient limits for the disruptors

“…yet some of us here can accept transforming the entire physical reality of this planet, without doing a single thing to change ourselves, or the way we live.”

Data-point about the here, now, us – it’s the 6th of November in New York City, it’s 22ºC outside. I wore a t-shirt to work.

KSR on “What could happen if we did things right”

And at this moment, we can see futures that are complete catastrophes where we cause a mass extinction event, we cook the planet, 90% of humanity dies because we run out of food or we think we’re going to run out of food and then we fight over it. In other words, complete catastrophe. On the other hand, there’s another scenario where we get hold of our technologies, our social systems and our sense of law and justice and we make a kind of utopia – a positive future where we’re sustainable over the long haul. We could live on Earth in a permaculture that’s beautiful. From this moment in history, both scenarios are completely conceivable.

Shikata Ga Nai. I’m sure you’ll correct me. It’s often used (it seems) in resignation. In the Red Mars trilogy it’s used in the sense of ‘there is no alternative’. It’s the 6th of November in New York City, it’s 22ºC outside. I wore a t-shirt to work.

“We could live on Earth in a permaculture that’s beautiful.”

Be reasonable. Demand the impossible.

Shikata Ga Nai.

How the Penguin Cafe Orchestra got their name is as beautiful as their music:

“In 1972 I was in the south of France. I had eaten some bad fish and was in consequence rather ill. As I lay in bed I had a strange recurring vision, there, before me, was a concrete building like a hotel or council block. I could see into the rooms, each of which was continually scanned by an electronic eye. In the rooms were people, everyone of them preoccupied. In one room a person was looking into a mirror and in another a couple were making love but lovelessly, in a third a composer was listening to music through earphones. Around him there were banks of electronic equipment. But all was silence. Like everyone in his place he had been neutralized, made grey and anonymous. The scene was for me one of ordered desolation. It was as if I were looking into a place which had no heart. Next day when I felt better, I was on the beach sunbathing and suddenly a poem popped into my head. It started out ‘I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe, I will tell you things at random’ and it went on about how the quality of randomness, spontaneity, surprise, unexpectedness and irrationality in our lives is a very precious thing. And if you suppress that to have a nice orderly life, you kill off what’s most important. Whereas in the Penguin Cafe your unconscious can just be. It’s acceptable there, and that’s how everybody is. There is an acceptance there that has to do with living the present with no fear in ourselves.”

Back in the UK, I’d been commuting by bike seriously for most of my thirties – by Brompton at first then from Brockley to our lovely bike racks at BERG most days on my Roll-1.

I’d done a few big rides in the past with the BRIG CC, including the Dunwich Dynamo.

However 2014 was the year that I seriously got the cycling bug, and NYC not London was where it happened.

Bought a road bike

At the advice of my brother-in-law, got myself the entry level all-carbon Cannondale, the Super-Six Evo 105
My cannondale


I was quite daunted by this – my first long ride in NYC. It wasn’t that big, about 40miles. It’s a fantastic leisurely ride however, with no cars and access to places bikes aren’t usually permitted like the BQE and Verrezano Narrows bridge. Great fun.

Riding to the rockaways

From Brooklyn in the summer there’s a great ride to be had down to Coney Island from Prospect Park and then further out into the Rockaways.

The city falls away quite quickly to suburbia, then nature then seaside surfurbia again.

And the reward at the end is the sea, juice and tacos!

NYC Century Bike Tour

The NYC Century Bike Tour was the big one though – and I’d thought I’d built up enough confidence riding through the summer to take it on.

It’s a bit of a challenge to follow the course, and you can get led astray in some of the sparser sections where the crowd of cyclists thins out to one or two hoping the person in front knows where they are going… As a result, got back to Prospect Park and realised I still had about a mile to go to make the 100! So, a lap of the park it was before I could really finish…

Palisades, 9W and River Road in Autumn…

Undoubtedly however, the 9W and River-Road route is the reason I’ve taken to road cycling so heavily in NYC. It’s simply beautiful, especially in Autumn.

From Brooklyn it’s a bit of a shlep to the start of the route at the GWB, but get over the Brooklyn Bridge early enough and even that is a treat.

You can’t really complain when you’re on the dedicated bike lane of the West-Side Highway for most of that either… But there’s a certain relief when you reach the little red lighthouse and you know the good stuff is about to begin.

Once over the GWB you can opt to head deeper into New Jersey and then back into New York State via the 9W, or more usually in Autumn to take in the colours of “The Fall” as they say in these parts and ride the rolling hills of River Road.


The other culprit for getting me deeper into road riding was of course Strava, and the ‘gamification’ of rides, competing with myself and friends. Also possibly the camaraderie of cursing Strava when it crashed or didn’t record your ride properly…

In all seriousness though, Strava (and my community there) does keep me riding and seems to help me incrementally improve my riding. I’m starting to get deeper into exploring new routes and possibly one day I’ll actually commit to some proper training through it…

Winter riding

Finally – I think the cold but sunny and dry nature of most of the winter in NYC really appealed to me – the 9W got quieter, and I started heading out further.

My favourite destination quickly became Rockland Lake.

My fuel stops started to get regular too – Bunbury’s, The 9W market (oh the egg and bacon sandwich after 40miles is perfect…), The Runcible Spoon, and Gypsy Donut…

Massive thanks to Kim Granlund for acting as personal coach and guide through 2014!

Steven Johnson drew my attention to this stream of twitter (all these years later ‘tweets’ still makes me cringe) from Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen is now famous as a venture capitalist, cheerleader of The Californian Ideology, and perhaps most of all for the quote/essay ‘Software is eating the world’.

I have a lot to be thankful to Marc Andreesen for – he, in part, invented the software that effectively gave me (and you, probably) a financially-viable life messing about with what I love – networked technology.

So – assuming you can’t be bothered to click the link – what does he say?


It starts like this.

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Reminds me of “Maximum Happy Imagination” from Robin Sloan’s excellent “Mr Penumbra’s 24hr Bookstore”.

“Have you ever played Maximum Happy Imagination?”

“Sounds like a Japanese game show.”

Kat straightens her shoulders. “Okay, we’re going to play. To start, imagine the future. The good future. No nuclear bombs. Pretend you’re a science fiction writer.”

Okay: “World government… no cancer… hover-boards.”

“Go further. What’s the good future after that?”

“Spaceships. Party on Mars.”


“Star Trek. Transporters. You can go anywhere.”


“I pause a moment, then realize: “I can’t.”

Kat shakes her head. “It’s really hard. And that’s, what, a thousand years? What comes after that? What could possibly come after that? Imagination runs out. But it makes sense, right? We probably just imagine things based on what we already know, and we run out of analogies in the thirty-first century.”

After a lot of stuff that anyone with mild extropian/protopian/Rodenberrian exposure might nod along to, Andreesen’s stream of consciousness ends like this.

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His analogies run out in the 20th century when it comes to the political, social and economic implications of his maximum happy imagination.

Consumer-capitalism in-excelsis?

That system of the world was invented. It’s not really natural. To imagine that capitalism is not subject to deconstruction, reinvention or critique in maximum happy imagination seems a little silly.

If disruption is your mantra – why not go all the way?

He states right at the start that there are zero jobs in the sectors affected by his future. Writers on futures such as Toffler and Rifkin, and SF from the lofty peaks of Arthur C. Clarke to the perhaps lower, more lurid weekly plains of 2000AD have speculated for decades on ‘The Leisure Problem’.

Recently, I read “The Lights in the Tunnel” by Martin Ford which extrapolates a future similar to Andreesen’s, wherein the self-declared market-capitalist author ends up arguing for something like a welfare state…

Another world is possible, right?

I’ll hope Marc might grudgingly nod at that at least.

It’ll need brains like his to get there.

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. As we shall see, “empathy” in the sense of adopting someone’s viewpoint is not the same as “empathy” in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first can lead to the second by a natural route. Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own.

– The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker.

David Korowicz, quoted in Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter, Trojan Horses”

“Just as we never consider the ground beneath our feet until we trip, these glimpses into the complex webs of inter-dependencies upon which modern life relies only come when part of that web fails. When the failure is corrected, the drama fades and all returns to normal. However, it is that normal which is most extraordinary of all. Our daily lives are dependent upon the coherence of thousands of direct interactions, which are themselves dependent upon trillions more interactions between things, businesses, institutions and individuals across the world.” 

And… from Dave Egger’s “The Circle” 

“She thought of the foxes that might be underneath her, the crabs that might be hiding under the stones on the shore, the people in the cars that might be passing overhead, the men and women in the tugs and tankers, arriving to port or leaving, sighing, everyone having seen everything. She guessed at it all, what might live, moving purposefully or drifting aimlessly, under the deep water around her, but she didn’t think too much about any of it. It was enough to be aware of the million permutations possible around her, and take comfort in knowing she would not, and really could not, know much at all.”



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