08.04.2016Personal Tech

The future is wondrously human

By: Jason Moriber
Human-centered designer Ting Kelly shares her insights on bio-hacking, mindfulness and the joy of living in the future.
The future is wondrously human

The vision for this series is to surface and share the experiences, trends and insights of thought-leaders, trail blazers, and subject experts who either live at the cutting edge of technology and/or seek to make the world a better place. We can each learn from these experiences and potentially take the first steps towards making the innovations that matter to us.

There’s an assured exuberance expressed by the people of San Francisco. As you walk through the city and engage with people, there is a strong, positive and cordial energy that engulfs you. There is a sense that anything is possible, but without a rush to get there. There are more smiles on faces than frowns. People are jostling along, but not in an anxious, time-is-money way. It’s a welcoming city, yet a city within a time of transition. It could be San Francisco is always within a time of transition, from city-wide fires, to earthquakes, to gold rushes, to tech innovations. San Francisco and the Bay Area have been the hotbed for social and technological change for decades. There is a joy for life in San Francisco, for stopping and smelling the flowers, for being passionate about things that matter to you.

The future is wondrously human

Ting Kelly, the globe trotting San Francisco-born human-centered-designer, is a personification of this energy and transition. We met on the wide and sunny mezzanine of a Union Square area hotel. The sparsely furnished space could accommodate a gala. I pulled a few red high-backed chairs around a small round table near the center of the room. Tall windows lined the wall behind us with glowing steams of light. The space was almost cathedral-like, yet with shabby, foot-worn blue and gold carpeting and a dormant fireplace set within a wall of dark wood paneling.

After a brief handshake and introduction, Ting sat in the seat to my left and placed a volume of water and an astronaut-reminiscent pouch next to it.

“I’m on a salt fast,” she started, ”I’m interested in how these new foods and technologies can impact our bodies.” I look at the light-blue pouch with white lettering that identified the contents as a chemical compound of some sort.

Ting continued, “I’ve been working with this startup called ‘Thync’ which sends small signals to your neuro-synapses that affect your mood. It can make you really energetic or really calm, just like meditation or a cup of coffee. That’s why it’s called biohacking. You’re literally changing the biochemistry of your neurological brain. The research is being done out of MIT and Boston. In Silicon Valley we have packaged it into a beautiful hardware product.”

In that brief statement, Ting illustrated one of the many innovation ecosystems taking place – science that is developed in labs such as at MIT are then modeled and designed for consumers through the start-up infrastructure of the Bay Area. I asked Ting where she connects to this process, where she does her work.

As Ting speaks, her smile widens, her enthusiasm increases. She begins her statement with a matter of fact reporters tone and elevates through to a modest delight, “I was helping them develop their app experience to design some guided sound component to accompany the hardware and software experience. And to see if this will actually help people transcend further into another mood. So it’s just like you only ever see in Star Trek and there’s literally a device you put on your forehead and its plastic and it looks super cyborgy. It looks like that. I tried it many times and it does work. I did the Calm Vibe with a meditation coach, and immediately I was in a deep meditative state within five minutes. So this is already happening.” Through human-centered design, Ting takes the innovation and makes it practical for people to use.

Biology is the new killer app

Ting is very engaged as she speaks with you. She listens very carefully, without effort or strain. She shares her thoughts in an un-hurried cadence, ensuring you receive the points she aims to share.

“There are other groups that I work with that are hard to generalize, but for the most part, I work on health technology. For example, it’s like Syncro, this nutritional company. It’s similar to Soylent, but I think this is actually more high-tech. It’s basically superfood engineered in a lab that gives you super natural levels of supplements and vitamins and it reduces your inflammation and all this protein. I was also recently working with this venture capital fund called “Acre” that just launched. A 125 million dollar fund that is essentially funding disruptive food businesses in agricultural tech, packaged consumer goods, and sustainable regenerative products.”

It’s at this moment that I realized there is so much going on within this category that hasn’t yet reached a wide awareness. I also realized that Ting is at the center of this movement, part of what’s happening, helping to make it happen.

“Robotics are cheap enough now that you can deploy across thousands of acres with higher levels of accuracy than before...A lot of things where biology meets technology is really an interesting space that is going to completely change the economics of our food system and our healthcare system.”

“I’m learning more and more about all of these innovations that are happening and not just on the consumer side, but also the farmers side like robotic, automated, and basic irrigation. I also worked with a startup that has created centimeter-accurate GPS hardware for agriculture, called Swift. So now you can do things with highly targeted fertilizing techniques using drones. Robotics are cheap enough now that you can deploy across thousands of acres with higher levels of accuracy than before. So that’s completely changing the economics of things. A lot of things where biology meets technology is really an interesting space that is going to completely change the economics of our food and healthcare systems. Hopefully it will improve our overall sustainability in this country. Having more robotic systems to run everything better and also having more nutritious and high superfoods in our diets is the way things are moving. We are becoming super-engineers about our diets. I am also a foodie, studying Slow Food movement in Italy and working with a food education non-profit in San Francisco, 18 Reasons, to bring more awareness to families and kids around Slow Food. I think we have to find a balance with the very technological type of food culture and also the Slow Food movement.”

Ting paused, wanting to make sure I understood the breadth of movement, and the way human-centered design impacts the movement. I ask her about the future of this type of technology, and if there will be a set of the population that either doesn’t want to participate or can’t.

Ting sat back in the chair with its high back and padded winged armrests. She gazed towards the ceiling, clasped her hands and then looked at me directly with the seriousness of a physician. “Technology continues to permeate our lives and get closer to our bodies or get implanted to our bodies. There’s a desire to backlash towards really wanting to go back to community and ritual and performance art to become completely embodied again and enter a digital detox. So backlash movements of going back to the land and getting a cabin is a natural progression. You see it even more now with Burning Man or Camp Grounded. Inevitably there’s going to be VR that’s brought into these experiences. You’re going to be integrating the most cutting edge technology with these experiences and creating something that I think can be extremely scalable and extremely impactful. So its available to people who can’t go to Burning Man. It’s just too far or just too expensive; so what if you could actually use VR and have kids in India be able to experience it?”

“Let me step a little further back,” I paused. “How did this become your focus?”

Ting smiled broadly, laughing a little, “That’s a really good question. I think partially I was born into it. My mother is a scientist; she designs genes and drugs for cancer, working on changing our biology at a molecular level. My father is a futurist, technologist, and writer. He was one of the founders of WIRED and was the Editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. So therefore, I have a very philosophical approach to technology as well as a very practical D.I.Y. I grew up making my own toys and tools, like making my own go-carts; making my own dollhouses. I learned that tools are power in many ways. They give you access to completely new possibilities.”

“Wow,” I said. “You were clearly ahead of me as a child.” Ting then shared something simply insightful…

“Technology was changing as I interacted with it. It was transforming while I was – the more that I gave to it the more that it would give back to me. And so you would transform together with it and evolve with it. Computers got sleeker and more sophisticated, and then they started to get sexier as I grew up.”
The idea of growing up with technology, where it grew up in parallel to yourself is profound. My own parents were baby boomers and I think about their generation of switching from ice-boxes to refrigerators, which is a massive jump, but not as massive as from an early PC to smart phones connected to the internet.

“That’s far out.” I said aloud as Ting laughed.

“But the cool thing that I see happening in the future is where science and the scientific method will become so much more synonymous with the way we develop technology”

“Now I’m in my twenties and actually don’t want to carry a computer. I want something that can literally be on me. I think it’s also my mom’s influence. My mom is Taiwanese. I grew up bilingual, bicultural. And my mother was this incredible scientist who spent all her time in the lab and so I grew up hanging out in the lab. Just seeing what scientists are inventing and pioneering in the lab is so inspiring. I could immediately grasp that there’s so much that we haven’t discovered yet. So I gravitated toward the mystery in science; which is the same mystery in technology. But like in science, the cool thing is science has grounding in biology, there’s matter, there’s physics. In technology a lot of it is grounded in bits or “the Cloud,” it’s all very nebulous to me. But the cool thing that I see happening in the future is where science and the scientific method will become so much more synonymous with the way we develop technology. For example, I use this process called rapid prototyping, lean, agile…”

“Everyone should use it,” I interject, being a fan of agile…

“I apply it to everything; I just did a life design prototyping experiment on my own life…I see the acceleration happening; it’s not going to stop. But I also see the way that we are designing technology to become more human. I’m an idealist.”

“Talk about that ideal…”

Human centered design

“Why do I think these are happening?” Ting began. “It’s just our human nature. In some ways we’ve exploited or forgotten our priorities and what it means to be human. I think it’s just a process of remembering. These words are not new. They’re not novel at all, they’re actually very ancient. So I think it’s that we’ve actually gone so far and in some ways we’ve definitely experienced the negative impacts of it, such as depression or suicide, cybercrime or other things. I think this is a moment in history for a return to our collective awareness. People are remembering that we don’t feel totally happy or healthy about the situation. We are richer than ever, yet some of us feel poor or unfulfilled in our inward lives. So there’s a reality check happening where people are remembering what is it that we actually care about, what is it that innately we all want? Then we can build and design on that. So it’s a remembering process, rather than ‘let’s try to throw some new innovation thing on top of it.’”

“This is where human-centered design fits..."

“Right. Putting the human first rather than creating new abstract concepts that don’t actually solve a real problem. Or they’re not solving the right problem. If we can create more feedback loops in your design process, then we'd be a lot smarter in the way that we design things, or even just treat our colleagues and customers. That’s just what I found to be a real need in the market. You know, a lot of people talk about human design, but they don’t actually know how to do it. I like to help facilitate the process for others rather than give any answers.”

“Is there a key surprise that you found when teaching and showing this way of working that you didn’t expect?”

“That’s a good question. There are always surprises with every group. I’ve recently worked with a number of banks which has been very interesting. I’ve been surprised by how much banks have adopted human-centered design. Banks work very closely with deep human emotion. There is tons of fear in banking. There are a lot of very big decisions and you have to be very in tune with human emotions because money is inherently very emotional — high stakes and high stress for everyone involved. Banking has completely transformed in the last 10 years. Also, I think with mobile devices, people especially in emerging markets are using SMS messages to do bank transfers. I think it will make a huge impact on how we do business, how we do work, and how we think about money. As we move away from a cash economy, it’s changing how we actually perceive value. I think this is the biggest event shift.”

“Following that train of thoughts…will there be multiple economies, based on different, new currencies or values?”

Next new currencies

“That’s right; I think cash, or the current currency we use now, will become less and less mainstream. I'm talking about the next 50 years. But I think there will be alternative currencies for employment. Like how people will be paid for work payments as well as capital purchases. I have a friend who’s working on this right now. His company is called “Comakery,” and I’m going to be a beta user to help test out his model. He’s basically creating a whole new collaboration dashboard that leverages Block Chain technology, instead of normal forms of partnership agreements or IP agreements. It’s a better way to track performance and who contributed what, especially when there are 10 different partners involved. The system also helps keep track of the value of what was created, and who “owns" the IP – there are a lot of disputes about IP in different partnerships. This is one of the best uses of Block Chain technology in my opinion. And you can define what kind of currency you want to use. You pick dollars or you can pick the currency you want and define the rules. But everyone has to agree on the rules. This is an example of how even our perception of money will change. Everything will be tracked, much more quantified, but at the same time we won’t have one income source - we’ll have multiple income sources. That compensation may not be dollars - it may be a room in London or a car for six months. It is a trade system that is not monetarily valued.”

This new way to think of currencies reminded me of my conversation with Lisa Morales-Hellebo. Lisa discussed the currency an individual could create by sharing their personal, tracked meta-data (what I buy, where I’ve been, how many steps I’ve taken, etc.), and by building a following of people who relied on that individual’s decisions to inform their own choices. I asked Ting, “If I track myself less and you track yourself more, you’ll have more leverage than me because you have more data…”

“Right, totally.“ Ting confirmed. “So, some currencies will definitely favor those who are willing to track and who are willing to have less privacy. For people who are more concerned about privacy and don’t want anything online that are tracked, I think they will be able to take advantage of new currencies just by being. It’s just inevitable in some ways and there are all these tools that are being developed, and virtual tools, that will be using this data as input. So it will be dependent on how much you are willing to be tracked.”

“You mentioned Block Chain before. Why Block Chain all of a sudden?”

Ting was leaning back into the depth of the chair. She then sighed, straightened in her chair, and answered, “People are entrenched in desensitization and people are really frustrated by the lack of transparency in big corporations and government. They are looking at more crowd-sourced, transparent people-powered solutions that they feel they have control over. Plus, everything is becoming more virtual. Virtual collaboration, virtual trading and different financial solutions and services are popping up, but there’s nothing that is tracking the Meta layer and people want to understand. They need a map to understand transactions and what’s happening because everything is going on so fast. I think people just desire a more transparent view of the economy and information that is usually hidden from the public within a corporation or government. There’s a developer community that is excited to tackle this, which gives me hope.”

We both pause, thinking about this larger issue of transparency and privacy. They seem at odds, yet in order for technology to move forward, we’ll need greater transparency, but not only of government and businesses, but also of people. Privacy will need to be traded for personalization. I envision communities living off of the grid, communities relying on currencies of participatory-transparency, and then communities somewhere in the grey area.
Ting drinks from her bottle of salt-water. I ask one more question, “What does the long-term future look like?”

And the future is...

“I think overall long-term trajectory is towards more egalitarianism. But it’s going to be a long road to get there. We will need a group to lead it. Fundamentally, people are talking about the end of capitalism and I don’t think that is even in the realm of possibility for at least another 20-30 years. Corporations will continue to be stronger and larger, becoming conglomerates, as multinationals continue to buy and acquire the smaller companies and expand in emerging markets. That market dynamic is going to continue, but I hope there will be more checks and balances in the corporations to behave well, punish corruption and lead to more visibility from the public. Hopefully this will make things more fair and equitable. The developing world is still just adopting capitalism and on that very fast growth trajectory. The momentum is unstoppable, but it will be a while before things stabilize and we even begin to move towards a balanced economic model. We have to continue to think and act with a long-term view. I am very inspired by The Long Now Foundation which helps foster long-term responsibility in the way we think and approach wicked problems.”

“One more question…if I’m going to just be starting out in this world, such as a recent college graduate…what are the three key things that I should be considering knowing the future you just expressed?”

“I would encourage this graduate to start exposing himself or herself to different industries very early on. I went to different industry conferences and talks just to better understand the landscape. Media headlines always have a bias and conferences are a little contrived, but they’re helpful to understand the drivers of such things like mobile tech or VR technology. Join a Tech Shop in your city and surround yourself with people who love to make and invent. Those people are the ones leading the revolution of what’s new and what’s interesting, and they are the advocates of new things. You can learn and make things together. Drones and all these things were being used in tech shops when they were becoming new. Use it like a library card. That’s my advice.”

I imagined that Ting would stand up from our meeting and wave her hand in a quick gesture that opened a portal in time. When I think about the theories of time travel, I think of Ting. She’s someone who is living here, with us physically, but is definitely in the future. Instead of walking through a time-space portal, she had to run to her next meeting. She hailed a ride from a ride-app on her phone and then rushed down the stairs to meet her driver on the friendly streets of San Francisco.

Read more conversations from this series:

Jason Moriber is a creative communicator with a background in social and digital for CSR, tech and start-ups. He’s working within the Communications team at Verizon, charged with developing a new model for corporate and brand communications. Connect with him on Twitter @jasonmoriber or on Instagram @designinginnovation