Kinetic Optimism

Vitor Freire
Jun 26, 2019 · 4 min read

Wojtek Szumowski is an invention strategist and relentless creative explorer. He is indirectly also the reason Imagination of Things exists: it was under his direction in the poetic innovation lab inside Crispin, Porter + Bogusky that we met and received the encouragement and confidence to establish our creative practice, where we found ways to dialogue and speculate even with industries that have a profound lack of poetry and empathy.

Outdoor ideation at Kinetic Optimism (Detroit, USA)

He currently leads his almost quixotic quest at the Kinetic Optimism, an experience design studio at VMLY&R Detroit, working with Ford to unlock the behavioral potential of cars, investigating new roles and relationships that the car can have through unfolding new techno-social situations: personal, social and public.

As we progress in our research, documenting some of our dialogues with our influences helps to show our process and reflect on the progress. Talking with Wojtek is always an opportunity to infuse our practice with enthusiasm towards our challenges.

IMOFT: As an unapologetic optimist, within your creative approach of poetic technology, what gives you hope and exciting directions when working with brands?

WS: We are in a moment when emotional and behavioral participatory potential of objects, is being overlooked. Our evolving relationship with technology awakens our participatory sensibility. We are starting to realize that existing dominant function of many familiar objects doesn’t have monopoly for action scenarios or meaning structures.
Design can foster new relationships emerging directly from an object through alternative behavioral scripts informed by alternative values and human goals. There is always a surplus of reality to objects that is not revealed by current patterns of interactions with them.
The opportunity of investigating surplus of object’s reality is to design objects that make us think and engage us directly with the values of the kind of world we want to live in. Values that go beyond instrumental goals captured by object’s dominant behavioral scripts. This allows us unlock object’s potential for inspiring novel experiential narratives emerging directly from everyday life.
Working with Ford R&D we are investigating car’s participatory potential in new techno-social situations. Not just private, but also social and public, as car has an opportunity to become our multi-talented companion and even community asset.

Expanding repertoire of human scenarios of meaningful experiences with a product previously almost entirely defined by private and personal usefulness into the social and public context is the most interesting and the most hopeful for me.

IMOFT: Your professional use of critical design seeks to change industries from the inside, such as the advertising and automobile industry. What are some of your strategies for infiltrating these industries with speculative design?

WS: It’s about bringing new ideas in front of new kind of people. People genuinely interested in doing new things, in learning new things, creating something meaningful and different. I think that most people are.
This kind of people can be anywhere, but often they are not at the “store front” areas of organizations. Engineers, product designers, software engineers, product researchers, behavioral scientists, machine learning engineers, … job titles will vary per industry, but I suspect they share some common dispositions and sensibilities.
They are close to what makes product or service work, to its essence, close to its vision, to product ambition. People who sense product or service potential. People who suspect that various elements can do different things, but often they need “the why”, the broader context of human experience, they need help imagining alternative human situations, novel use cases, alternative goals roles and relations that product can facilitate. They need a different lens, and new point of view to look at people with perceptive curiosity and empathy to realize that product could play different roles in peoples lives.

There is a recent movement in tech and media companies to bring in thinkers from more diverse backgrounds: from sci-fi writers to philosophers, ethics scholars, etc. It appears these industries are reacting to an urge to find truthful answers to philosophical and ethical questions. As someone that comes from a social science background as well, what do you see as the potential benefits and dangers in this flirtation between social science and tech/media companies?

WS: The key is to make the efforts for bringing in people who study human nature, society, ethics or even creators of science fiction, genuine. I am very optimistic about it. Especially if we invite them to be our partners rather then external experts or as a trendy decoration.

These kind of people can help us expand context of our work, they add to the process, expand our social imagination, expand possibilities. They ask a different kind of questions, they inquire into values that inform prevalent ways of how our humanness is implicated in our relation with technology. And often they question these systems, revealing their narrow agendas and pointing at alternatives. They may push us beyond our comfort zone.

Their questioning of our own assumptions about the role objects and technology play in our lives can be very liberating. These perspective shifts, these inquiries into values organizing goals behind how the things are, help us realize that we have a freedom to be intentional in our design process. Intentional in proposing goals and values that inform our designs. Intentional in how these alternative human goals and values are implicated in interfaces of our relationship with technology and in our relationships with each other.

Wojtek Szumowski and Alexia Mathieu playing with a prototype at the Room for More Possibilities (Boulder, USA)

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