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Chapter 3 — The Bit and Atom Disruption


Every device will have an internet connection as standard, that's increasingly the case already. — SURANGA CHANDRATILLAKE1Suranga Chandratillake, Founder of Blinkx. BBC News, May 2011, Fiona Graham, Technology of business reporter.

The utmost mobility of internet will increasingly enable things to connect or communicate with each other, where they couldn't do so before. Things like products, services, technologies, resources, concepts, spaces and more and more people will have new ways of communication enabled by the web and other ubiquitous technologies. What does this have to do with designers? Well, products and services will never be stand-alone anymore. They will be increasingly related to other products and services and to other things, people, and environments via the information they generate. They will be Meta Products. Here you could say that in the fundamental sense, nothing is or has ever been stand-alone, and you'd be right. Everything is related in some way to everything else. A lamp, for instance needs a context to be a lamp. It needs an electrical installation, the physical location on which it can be mounted or hung, but it also needs the objects or the space that require to be illuminated. So indeed, if we look at the world through an analytical lens, everything is part of a system, nothing is really stand-alone. So, are Meta Products actually new then? Well, yes they are, because for the first time in the history of humanity, a window has been opened to endless new connections, new ways of communication and to new interactions with things that used to "talk" in a different way. For example, you could say that a chair and a table are not stand-alone entities, and that they need each other, and also "talk" to you in their own language. Just by looking at its shape, you will tell if a chair is comfortable or if you can drag it or lift it, or if it's expensive. Shape, colour and size are some of the typical language elements of a chair. But in the world of Meta Products a chair may also make decisions and talk to the table, to you, to the space around it, and to other objects. Why we would want a chair to do so is another part of the disruption we will address later. But for now it's important to realize how vast the range of new possibilities is. More importantly, some of these possibilities will eventually lead to new ways of building, accessing and sharing knowledge. Which possibilities are we going to take? For whom? And what will the impact of choosing some possibilities be?


You are witnessing the second greatest turning point in the history of humanity since the Industrial Revolution that will exponentially affect, and is already affecting, every single life on the planet. Things will be connected to other things in ways we never thought we would see, and it will happen first of all because it is possible and secondly because we will never stop building aspirations. We will continuously seek to surpass our limitations. What is happening with the web might be one way to help us make many dreams come true.

All products were already connected to each other, only not by the technology we use now. There was always an intangible system around products. The only thing now is that products can suddenly exchange information and talk to each other, so we can add some sort of intelligence to them. This is just opening more possibilities, if you are a good designer you will be able to identify good possibilities. — FRIDO SMULDERS

If you want to get a better picture of how great the technological advance of the web is, you can maybe try to compare it with what happens in our brain. The brain is still sort of a mystery for scientists, but they suspect that some sort of sudden boost happened in our evolution to make our brains so sophisticated in a relatively short time span compared to other creatures in the world.


What is astonishing is that the brain has the capacity to have a massive number of highly interconnected neurons working in parallel, with an individual neuron receiving input from up to 10,000 others. Creatures that have the ability to adapt to a changing environment — like we humans can — need a brain which is capable of learning. Our brains use very complex networks of specialized neurons to perform this task.Incorporating a brain metaphor, we could say that in a Meta Product, a group of neurons would be systems (products, services, people, concepts, resources), the points of output and input connection between systems would be the web and the supporting ubiquitous technologies. Neurons and their points of output and input connection define together a network in the brain dedicated to, for example, learning songs; in a Meta Product, the systems and the web define together a network dedicated for example, to shopping, or healthcare, or travelling.

This sort of complexity is what designers will be facing in the near future. But this doesn't mean they will stop designing products like buttons, knobs and chairs. It means that designers will also have to deal with the new networks linked to those buttons, knobs or chairs. More than ever before, designers will have to master their non-linear skills of understanding a situation and identifying opportunities along the way. So they should embrace their core specialties and at the same time become the ultimate network designers.

…no single designer is going to design a complete network, it's more about resources being mobilized, including some specialists who work with bits and some others who work with material stuff. So the challenges are about teamwork, collaboration, networked working, professional competences and knowledge sharing and so on, rather than focusing on the properties of bits or material stuff. — LUCY KIMBELL

Meta Products provide a special focus on the connections that build up a network rather than on the isolated product or the particular service. The connections, or the relationships between information and you, your products, your friends, your business, your client and so on will continue to gain in importance. We can imagine that this might all sound too abstract for you. So, let's make things a bit simpler by breaking down a popular Meta Product. Take the Senseaware developed by FedEx for example. This is a Meta Product that helps the people behind the logistics industry know when a package en route has been opened or exposed to light, its exact location in the transportation process, as well as other information that is visible to different key people in the supply chain to enable them to make better decisions.

…five years ago, you wouldn't have designed an object knowing that it could be so immediately connected, recognizable, and this object could change and react. Today potentially this happens. So the way of designing is different, you have to consider a new spectrum of variables, also too many variables in which having a very critical mind is necessary. — FEDERICO CASALEGNO
SENSEAWARE courtesy of FedEx Corporate Services, Inc.

If you design Meta Products, you are basically designing networks with connections that switch from digital to physical and vice versa. All this switching may mimic our 'real' relationships, improve them in some way, or create new relationships, and — ultimately — new behaviours. For example, paying online mimics the way we pay with real money, but also creates new paying relationships within countries because the transactions can be done worldwide, all taking place at the computer. In some countries you can pay with your mobile phone, the bank provides you with a unique seven-digit mobile money identifier (MMID), which is given to each account linked to any mobile phone number. You would also need the vendor's number, so money can be transferred to it. Then you would receive a confirmation as soon as the transaction is done. Typical Meta Product scenarios like the one mentioned above will inevitably involve a lot of switching between the digital and the physical. You will be carrying out intelligent measurements, tracking, identifying physical elements and controlling mechanisms, leading to new interactions. You might be thinking that we are already doing all this without any problems. But we believe we need to reflect on the impact of these possibilities both in the design practice and in the way people change their behaviour by performing these interactions.

I think an interaction is more about what you do and an experience is more about how doing something makes you feel… we let people interact with certain technologies so they can get experiences that help them really see the possibilities. — JENNY DE BOER

Think of urban planners. They have to constantly think about the collective use of environments. They have to create the proper connections for people to their work places, homes, hospitals, schools, etc. But they don't stop there, they also have to think about social behaviour and cultural identity in relation to the aesthetics of the city. The connections between all those elements foster economic health and sustainability in a city.

We believe that if you start grasping the idea of 'designing networks' you won't lose focus on the relationships that are valuable for people, and this will help you design meaningful Meta Products. Moreover, it will help you avoid getting bogged down in technical issues and instead focus on the value those interactions bring to people.

If you reflect on what people find valuable, it might help you to get both your feet firmly back on the ground. Our friends, our families, our communities and our societies are who we design for. When designing Meta Products you will find that the complexity of a human experience may become even more intricate when the possibilities of connecting and communicating multiply. People are precisely what the next part of the bit and atom disruption is all about.