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…

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 11.21.25 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 11.31.58 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 11.32.18 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 11.32.21 PM


Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 11.32.16 PM

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…



Personal 3d Printing has been overhyped for a while now, so I’ve found myself tuning out more and more, despite using them nearly every week in my work.

A couple of weeks back I met Steve Schell, co-founder of New Matter, and it got me excited again about personal 3d printing for the first time in ages. I mean, they kind of had me from the Anathem reference, but that wasn’t the SF link that I think has the most resonance…

They’re running a crowdfunding campaign (natch) that’s ending soon, and seems to be going great guns. Their pitch is, well, not everyone wants to fire up solidworks or even sketchup every time you want something – what if it was more like an infinite vending machine where you picked from a catalog of design? It’s also a lot cheaper than competitors – $250 bucks… and they’ve called the first one the ‘Model-T’…

No, the SF story that springs to mind isn’t one of Neal Stephenson’s but part of William Gibson’s “Bridge trilogy” – namely the “Lucky Dragon” chain of convenience stores that have brought replicator-like vending machines to the corner store…

New Matter’s not there yet – the objects in their ‘vending’ library will have to be more useful and durable than the typical mainly decorative 3d printed spamjects you find so prevalent at the moment – but well worth tracking I think.





Sad & Hairy, originally uploaded by moleitau.

A while back, two years ago in fact – just under a year before we (BERG) announced Little Printer, Matt Webb gave an excellent talk at the Royal Institution in London called “BotWorld: Designing for the new world of domestic A.I”

This week, all of the Little Printers that are out in the world started to change.

Their hair started to grow (you can trim it if you like) and they started to get a little sad if they weren’t used as often as they’d like…


The world of domesticated, tiny AIs that Matt was talking about two years ago is what BERG is starting to explore, manufacture – and sell in every larger numbers.

I poked at it as well, in my talk building on Matt Webb’s thinking “Gardens & Zoos” about a year ago – suggesting that Little Printer was akin to a pot-plant in it’s behaviour, volition and place in our homes.

Little Valentines Printer

Now it is in people’s homes, workplaces, schools – it’s fascinating to see how they relate to it play out everyday.

20 December, 19.23

I’m amazed and proud of the team for a brilliant bit of thinking-through-making-at-scale, which, though it just does very simple things right now, is our platform for playing with the particular corner of the near-future that Matt outlined in his talk.

More or less a year to the day from announcing it, we (BERG) are shipping the first BERGcloud product, Little Printer.

What’s more it’s shipping to paying customers in Europe and the USA from a supply chain system we set up for SVK in beautifully-designed packaging we crafted in-house.

I didn’t really have any involvement in the project – I mainly work on our consulting gigs that enable us to invest in our our product development – but I’m still enormously proud to have been included in this company photo a year ago when we celebrated the announcement.

^ photo by timo

And, even though I’m not in the studio at the moment, I’m super-pleased for them all today as the first products wend their way from warehouses to their new owners.

I’m currently reading ‘The nature of technology’ by W.Brian Arthur.

It presents quite the juxtaposition to things like ‘East London Tech City‘ and other recent UK government initiatives.

“Real advanced technology—on-the-edge sophisticated technology—issues not from knowledge but from something I will call deep craft. Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work. Knowing what methods to use, what principles are likely to succeed, what parameter values to use in a given technique. Knowing whom to talk to down the corridor to get things working, how to fix things that go wrong, what to ignore, what theories to look to. This sort of craft-knowing takes science for granted and mere knowledge for granted. And it derives collectively from a shared culture of beliefs, an unspoken culture of common experience.

Such knowings root themselves in local micro-cultures: in particular firms, in particular buildings, along particular corridors. They become highly concentrated in particular localities.

There’s been some hoo and some haa – about where we work – Shoreditch, Hoxton, near Old St., which my former colleague Matt Biddulph dubbed (as a joke) “Silicon Roundabout“.

The press and politicians seem suprised by the ‘sudden’ growth in technology and design companies in the area, but its been the centre of the London internet ‘industry’ since the mid 1990’s – and been home to artists, designers and printers for decades.

It has also, bizarrely, equated what is going on in the area with providing a large industrial park in Startford full of massive multi-million dollar transnational incumbents e.g. McKinsey, Cisco, Facebook and Google.

In reference to the long-now of place and craft, in ‘The nature of technology’, Arthur quotes Alfred Marshall:

“When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighborhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously.”

Sounds a lot like Old St!

He adds:

Technology proceeds out of deep understandings of phenomena, and these become embedded as a deep set of shared knowings that resides in people and establishes itself locally—and that grows over time. This is why countries that lead in science lead also in technology. And so if a country wants to lead in advanced technology, it needs to do more than invest in industrial parks or vaguely foster “innovation.” It needs to build its basic science without any stated purpose of commercial use”

So – probably better to not cut education, or funding for science – rather than encouraging people to ‘do a logo’.

This stuff takes a long time, and requires patient support not soundbites or 5-step plans.

As Arthur points out (with my emphasis):

“Building a capacity for advanced technology is not like planning production in a socialist economy, but more like growing a rock garden. Planting, watering, and weeding are more appropriate than five-year plans.

Charles Holland at Fantastic Journal with a brilliant assessment of CE3K and, for that matter – design and material exploration:

“The film is obsessed with issues of representation and non-verbal communication. The famous five-note score that the scientists use to communicate with the aliens, for example, effectively replaces speech. The chief scientist is a Frenchman (played by film director François Truffaut) who makes no more than one or two gnomic utterances and is accompanied throughout the film by an ineffectual translator. The fact that none of the Americans can understand him seems to imbue him with some special understanding of what is going on.

Roy can’t communicate his obsession through conventional language and is forced into non-verbal communication. He has to make what he is thinking in order to express it. And he’s not alone in his obsession. Another character – Gillian Guiler – is also obsessed with Devil’s Tower. She draws it over and over again. In a brilliant scene the two of them converge on Devil’s Tower aware that it’s the location for the alien spaceship’s landing. Trying to work out how to scale the mountain Roy reveals that his knowledge of its topography is vastly superior to Gillian’s. “You should try sculpture next time”, he deadpans.”


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