Bas van de Poel is a designer deeply invested in what the future holds. As former Creative Director at IKEA-funded research lab Space10 in Copenhagen, he spent plenty of time working on projects that dealt with daunting issues such as climate change, affordable housing, etc, constantly posturing what the future could look like if we only envisioned a better one.
Now, running his own shop at MODEM, a new consultancy and think tank he co-founded with Astin le Clercq, he's taking it upon himself to ask these large questions about the future of our society, especially in relation to technology-integrated design. "Within MODEM, we anticipate emerging signals of change, and we actually respond with design-driven solutions," van de Poel tells us. "And yes, we're a consultancy, but on the other hand, the research we initiate within our think tank is non-commercial driven…but it's what often shapes and influences the design and innovation consulting we do within our design studio."
A prototype created by MODEM for "Patented Futures," a report postulating on patent purchases by large companies. This example for a slipper design from Google, as reported by MODEM demonstrates "motorized footwear will allow users to walk seemingly endless distances in the virtual environment while staying within a defined physical space."
In the spirit of his future-forward pursuits, we recently chatted with van de Poel to get his thoughts on what the future may look like in the hands of designers, what we are to expect of trends that sprouted in 2021, and how they will continue over the next year. Here are some of the highlights of that discussion:
"[Technology] will be moving towards a more spatial context where we're not dictated by a rigid and static UI layout."
Van de Poel predicts almost two years spent on screens and building up Zoom fatigue will accelerate explorations for better solutions that make virtual work more bearable, and intimate. One of the arenas that could help in this mission and has been quite overlooked, the designer notes, is audio. "There has been a lot of innovation when it comes to technological development of screens and cameras, and I think there's sort of a general lack of interest, at least until now, around audio. I think we're suffering from screen fatigue being on Zoom calls for eight hours a day," the MODEM co-founder mentions. "Audio has a certain quality, a certain intimacy that is difficult to replicate with video. And if you took a look at selecting the technological roadmap when it comes to audio, spatial audio, I think it offers a lot of opportunities to enhance experiences as such."
There's something to note, as well, about how van de Poel drives home the importance of bringing a 'poetry' to technology to further humanize the experience. In addition to seeing opportunity in audio, he adds that there is "perhaps a sort of urgency or need for more analog source technology that's very much infused with the latest AI machine learning and special audio technologies. There is something quite nostalgic about the crispness of a landline phone connection, which certainly has some intimate and poetic quality to it."
"The Metaverse at this point in time is perhaps an early definition of how different groundbreaking technologies will shape our lives within the next decade"
It's evident to van de Poel that while the Metaverse is a starting point to where technology is headed, it's still very much a prototype of what we're bound to see in the future. "After seeing that Meta event [in October of 2021], I think it's quite evident that today's definition [of the Metaverse] will be rather different from tomorrow's reality," he says. "I quite like the analogy of how we used to describe the Internet in the early days as the 'information highway'. Perhaps the Metaverse in similar terms is helpful for painting or describing a common Northstar different companies can work toward."
This product exploration from MODEM's "Patented Futures" report postulates on a patent from Magic Leap that is an AR-enhanced charm bracelet, allowing for intuitive fast-track access to apps in the AR space by touching them.
And it's likely important to note that for designers, engineers, and futurists that they have a responsibility to steer this technological machine in the right direction. One example van de Poel brings up about the design possibilities of the Metaverse are physical products translated into the virtual world. He mentions that "through non-fungible tokens (NFTs), physical products are now actually able to live digitally on the blockchain. So I think that will have a profound impact on a lot of things, but also on physical product design. Because if you buy a physical sneaker, you can also wear them in a virtual game. That's just one example of what that enables. So I think that we will see a lot of very inspiring and interesting applications for that particular technology in the near future."
While these NFTs may be a first iteration of what new technologies can provide, it's important to ask: how can designers look further ahead to shape the digital world and ideate even more meaningful applications of this technology?
"When it comes to remote work, I think the biggest challenge we have ahead for us is preventing second-class coworkers for those who are not physically present."
As our world begins to consider what the future of work may look like now that we have adjusted to remote work and are easing into hybrid structures, van de Poel highlights there will be a need for designers to focus on the possibilities of office inequities, saying, "at the office, I think it's actually quite difficult to track individual contributions on particular projects and to measure productivity in our hybrid reality, so I think that's actually a very large challenge to overcome. Now, how do you get seen by your superiors?" This is a matter not only of ensuring progress within the workplace, but also one of employee support. It's perhaps a challenge to solve that could not be better suited for designers.
"It's extremely important, especially in these times, to have an inclusive and diverse approach when creating design teams."
A cultural imperative in this evolving moment is to more thoughtfully build teams that include designers from diverse backgrounds, van de Poel mentions. He says that "having a diverse team allows for different world views and perspectives when designing for new emerging technology platforms. Increasingly, AI-enhanced technologies are shaping the way we live, work and relate to one another. With this in mind, we need to become more aware of the unconscious bias built into artificial intelligence and explore potential strategies to dismantle the inclusivity and diversity crisis within systems of technology."
If we are to design a future that does not alienate, and rather, serves as wide of a base as possible, how are we to do that without different people who understand different societal issues tackling those problems first-hand? Unless we want to create a future-forward world that reinforces bias toward certain races and classes, this is an imperative mission for 2022 and beyond.
This project by MODEM for Nike's House of Innovation culminated into a hyper-futuristic, multi-sensory weather dome that invites visitors to experience Nike's FitADV collection
"Collaboration with other disciplines is highly important, and the willingness to acknowledge that you might need to be not an expert on certain fields or topics."
"Be willing to get a little uncomfortable. I think this is highly important in this highly complex environment," van de Poel says. The problems in our world are becoming evermore complicated and intertwined, and therefore more experts need to come together to create solutions.
In order to solve problems as quickly as we can, van de Poel emphasizes the key is fully embracing co-collaboration, and the blurring of industry barriers. He notes that this key insight has been pivotal to the forming of his practice at MODEM, mentioning, "our practice is quite small. That's very much by intent because the way we work is we collaborate with a wide network, multiple different creatives, technologists, academia, and then we curate different teams for each individual project to ensure we have the best people at the table. Increasingly, as the world gets more complex or assignments and needs and assets are becoming more complex, that requires a more diverse and versatile team."