Smart fiction vs smart fact at Gensler Birmingham’s Design Forecast Local

On Tuesday 3rd March 2020, the Birmingham branch of global design and architecture firm Gensler hosted their Design Forecast Local event in their industrial, and characterful, office located in Digbeth’s iconic Custard Factory. Topic of the night was Birmingham’s future and Vanti were lucky enough to get an invite to host an interactive session. We had a great time and wanted to share the night’s best bits for those who couldn’t attend.

The event

Sarah Yates (Marketing Communications, Gensler Birmingham) did a fantastic job of pulling together a stacked lineup of speakers including Natalie Sauber (Market Intelligence Lead, Arcadis), Chris Holmes (Programme Director of Mobility, West Midlands 5G), Philip Twiss (Senior Associate and Design Director, Gensler Birmingham), and Vanti’s own Mike Brooman.

After introductions to frame the evening, each speaker led an interactive station, with a quarter of the audience, who after 15 minutes then moved on to another station within the building. We thought this was an excellent way of generating natural discussion, as well as encouraging comfortable audience participation.

At Vanti’s station, our audience were incredibly keen to chime in and participate with discussion, each group brought a totally new and interesting spin on the topic. It was so exciting to see an incredibly diverse group of people passionately discussing smart technology with us, as well as Birmingham’s future more generally.

The night was an amazing success, we came away full of ideas having had many interesting conversations and would strongly recommend attending future events.

Vanti’s panel: ‘Smart fiction vs smart fact’

Vanti’s station, ‘Smart fiction vs smart fact’, was a play on the idea that the technology depicted in popular science fiction films is steadily coming into reality and becoming science fact.

Discussion centered around the question: How far could smart technology really go, and what are the pros and cons of pushing it to its limits?

At the end of the conversation, we asked each participant to write their thoughts onto a post-it note.

So, just how advanced is tech at the moment?

One example of high-end tech that is regularly spoken about at Vanti HQ is the large, immersive interface in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. In one scene, Tom Cruise’s character interacts with an enormous screen using complex multi-faceted physical gestures.

It could be very beneficial in terms of collaboration, if meetings were led with technology like this. Each attendee could grab and manipulate content in a totally intuitive fashion, making for exciting and productive conversations.

Guess what? It’s already here!

In early February 2020 we went to Amsterdam for the annual Integrated Systems Europe event. There was an enormous amount of high-end tech on display, but Hypebox really stood out.

Hypebox uses transparent touchscreen technology that allows the user to interact with digital content, using physical objects or gestures, just like the interactive displays in Minority Report.

With technology like Hypebox, ideas seen in science fiction become science fact, and we think this demonstrates just how advanced technology is becoming.

How far could technology go?

The realisation that some of the technology in Minority Report was more fact than fiction led us to consider the feasibility of other science fiction.

The robots in Alex Proyas’ I-Robot are essentially the ultimate version of a Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. Is this something we can expect to be living alongside in the next few years?

I-Robot explores the positives of such technology in terms of practical, visually appealing, and seamless user-experiences.

However, it’s also important to discuss the negative implications of such technology.

What are the implications of high-end technology?

Problematically, if your robot is going to automatically prepare dinner for when you get home after work it needs to have a lot of personal data. It would need to know when you usually arrive, what kind of food you like, how you like meals to be cooked, and so on.

On the surface, this all seems fairly innocuous and we had a number of people citing the argument of “it’s no problem, I have nothing to hide”. However, the inferences that can be drawn from data can be extremely valuable meaning that in the wrong hands data could be very powerful.

We all saw the disastrous Cambridge Analytica story unfold, hopefully awareness is spreading of what can happen if data is manipulated and used in ways that the person who submitted it never intended

However, the question remains: is the added practicality, enjoyability, boosted productivity, and amazing user-experiences that come with using high-end smart technology worth the risk in terms of data?

We feel the answer lies in finding a method of sensitively gathering data that can be stored safely, therefore should it fall into the wrong hands, the data is anonymous enough so that it does not provide any major value. Some possible solutions include:

  1. Giving people control of their own data – allowing them to say who can and can’t use it
  2. Product owners being transparent about the use of data – how they’re using it and where
  3. Verifying aggregated or ’anonymised’ data cannot be reverse engineered to identify individuals

Audience feedback

The groups we led were incredibly diverse, so we received lots of interesting feedback that ranged from those confident enough in the safety of technology to have six or even seven Amazon Alexas in their homes, to people refusing to own a phone, fearing its ability to listen into their conversations. The below image is a roundup of their views.

Some of the reoccurring themes throughout group discussions were:

  • Data ownership and control
  • High levels of awareness around how personal data has been manipulated for the gain of others
  • People acknowledging that they expected to give up some data in return for high amounts of value

Gensler Birmingham’s Design Forecast Local was an absolutely amazing event of exciting discussions. A big thanks to Sarah Yates for the invite.

Are you, like we are, amazed and in awe of how science fiction seems to be becoming more and more like science fact? Or are you worried about the possible implications of high-end technology? Let us know in the comments.