The world is constantly being exposed to new technologies, but how those technologies can be leveraged by designers isn't always as clear. Take blockchains, for example. The backbone technology of Bitcoin, a blockchain is an encrypted database that inseparably links every Bitcoin transaction to the one that preceded it, making the whole database tamper proof. Useful in finance, true, but it's a technology that has also been put to good use well-beyond its original cryptocurrency purpose, as a tool for doing everything from verifying web images to protecting sneakers from counterfeiters.
To help get a jump on how new technologies will impact the world beyond their immediate applications, renowned design firm Ideo created the CoLab, which pairs inhouse designers with outside organizations like Citi Ventures, Nasdaq, Target, MIT Media Lab, and more. Headed up by Matt Weiss and Joe Gerber, with the support of technology lead Reid Wlliams, the mission of CoLab is to mash up emerging technologies with problems in the energy, money, mobility, food, and health spaces. The resulting prototypes aren't ready for primetime, but with some more development, they could end up informing the next transformative, multi-million dollar business.
Last month, Ideo threw open the doors of the CoLab for its Blueprint 2016 event, offering members a chance to explore what they and their partners have been working on over the course of the last 12 months. Here are four of the most intriguing, potentially transformative prototypes.
Since we already mentioned blockchains, we might as well stay there. One of the great things about blockchains is they offer an immutable digital record that is impossible to tamper with. For example, you can tell how many times every individual Bitcoin in the world has been spent, and trace it all the way back to the person who created it.
Ideo's idea? Why not take blockchain technology and apply it to something else where you want an immutable, tamper-proof public record: police shootings.
"Glockchain was inspired by what's happening with police violence in this country," Williams says. "There's this amazing potential for blockchains to be more than just a ledger for Bitcoin, but to act as a shared record for what's happening in the world." And hopefully, dissuade police officers from being so trigger happy.
In the case of Glockchain, Ideo created a (nonfunctioning) firearm capable of automatically recording to a blockchain every time it was unholstered, or fired. "These events are already supposed to be documented by paper-based means, but we wanted to explore what it would take to do it automatically, and what the implications of such technology might mean for police forces, oversight agencies, and local communities."
The internet of things has put internet-connected sensors in everything from flower pots to refrigerators. With Nomad, Ideo imagines extending that concept outside of our smart home, where the internet of things becomes the internet of cities.
Inspired by the InterPlanetary File System, a peer-to-peer distributed file system that works like an internet-scale Bittorrent swarm, Nomad is a platform for all IoT sensors to publish information to the web, and subscribe to updates from other sensors.
For example, let's imagine a city on a sunny day. On one side of town, a bank of fog rolls in. Solar panels on that side of town would publish to Nomad that the amount of sunlight they were converting to energy was dropping. Meanwhile, a nearby power exchange might subscribe to that information, combine it with a weather forecast, and predict that all of the town's solar panels might be at low efficiency within four hours, thus kicking up some more generators to make sure that they're ready for the surge.
"The value of the internet of things is when the data it collects is broken free of its silos," says Williams. "It got us thinking what a living network built upon the IoT might behave like."
How much do you know about the food you eat? Probably not a lot: the brand, the price, and maybe what it says on the nutritional label—which can also be misleading. The truth is that most of us are pretty blind to what we're putting into our bodies.
With Pickl, Ideo thinks that augmented reality can be tasked to help solve the problem. The idea is that you should be able to just point your smartphone at some food you want to buy, and have the Pickl app tell you everything you want to know about it.
For Blueprint, Ideo showed off the concept with an apple. When scanned by Pickl, you could learn anything you wanted to know about that fruit. Not just its nutrients, its type, or how many calories it is, but how much energy it took to grow it, the path it took to get to your supermarket, how much CO2 it is responsible for, and even what its specialties are: for example, if it's a better apple for baking than juicing.
When you have a car accident, you have to jump through all kinds of hoops to resolve the insurance claim. In some circumstances, insurance companies may need to read police reports, conduct interviews, examine footage, and send investigators to the scene to determine who is at fault.
With Claimbot, Ideo imagined a system that could use AI and crowdsourcing to automate as much of the claims process. When you crash your car, Claimbot leverages data from your car's sensors to let the insurance company know what happens. Meanwhile, nearby pedestrians are encouraged to pull out their smartphones and use the Claimbot app to upload footage of the accident, where they are digitally paid for their troubles.
The hopeful end result, if something like Claimbot became a real product? A more efficient, profitable, and consumer-friendly insurance industry.
Ideo cautions against expecting too much out of its CoLab prototypes. "These are all more intellectual prototyping exercises than product prototypes," explains Reid. But by employing a cross-disciplinary approach, and mashing up new technologies and industries that don't seem, at first, like they go together, Ideo hopes that they and their CoLab partners will have a leg up on the competition when it comes to solving tomorrow's multi-billion dollar problems.
[All Photos: Bettina Crawford Photography]