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…


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!

The session I staged at FooCamp this year was deliberately meant to be a fun, none-too-taxing diversion at the end of two brain-baking days.

It was based on (not only a quote from BSG) but something that Matt Biddulph had said to me a while back – possibly when we were doing some work together at BERG, but it might have been as far-back as our Dopplr days.

He said (something like) that a lot of the machine learning techniques he was deploying on a project were based on 1970s Computer Science theory, but now the horsepower required to run them was cheap and accessible in the form of cloud computing service.

This stuck with me, so for the Foo session I hoped I could aggregate a list people’s favourite theory work from the 20thC which now might be possible to turn into practice.

It didn’t quite turn out that way, as Tom Coates pointed out in the session – about halfway through, it morphed into a list of the “prior art” in both fiction and academic theory that you could identify as pre-cursors to current technological preoccupation or practice.

Nether the less it was a very fun way to spend an sunny sunday hour in a tent with a flip chart and some very smart folks. Thanks very much as always to O’Reilly for inviting me.

Below is my photo of the final flip charts full of everything from Xanadu to zeppelins…


The mini-kaiju are teething, which means very little sleep in our household.

I had about an hour’s nap mid-afternoon yesterday, kindly afforded by Foe taking on twin-wrangling for a bit. I had a really vivid dream, which I can only recall snatches of. Blogging about dreams would be naff even if I were twenty years younger and it was twenty years ago, and this was livejournal, so I’ll keep this short.

The context, I think was a pub conversation about books read and not-read – you know the sort where people enthuse about something you absolutely must-read, that they can’t quite believe you haven’t. In it, a book called “The Refrigerator” came up.

Either I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t read it, or they couldn’t believe I hadn’t. Anyway, it’s many merits were listed by those present.

“The Refrigerator” basically put, is a hard sci-fi take on Lovecraft – interstellar space is dark and empty apart from the dark, empty, unknowable and relentless things in it – which glance against our little solar system in the near-future, causing much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

I think the majority of it was set on some kind of colony or station in the Kuiper Belt that cops it before the rest of us.

I mention all this as it mustn’t of popped in there all by itself – and there are certainly shades of Greg Bear’s “Forge of God“, Lovecraft, Warren’sOcean“, and his nasally-extinguished God from The Authority, Vernor Vinge’s “A Fire upon the deep” and even Pitch-Black.


Aside from all of those, have I described to myself a book that I think I should read?

Do you recognize a book I should read?

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.


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