Celebrating the Chimeric Nature of Design

Knotty Objects is the inaugural MIT Media Lab Summit focusing on design. Co-organized by the three of us–Paola Antonelli, Neri Oxman, and Kevin Slavin–the event will be held on July 15 and 16, 2015. We’re convening designers, scientists, authors, and curators to explore design at the intersection of science, engineering, and cultural production.

Within MIT, and far beyond it, Knotty Objects celebrates the chimeric nature of design. The event is therefore centered around four objects–the brick, the bitcoin, the steak, and the phone–that cut across research fields and defy a discipline-specific approach.

These four objects each serve as a lens on the antidisciplinary nature of contemporary design. We’ll consider some of the protagonists–the individuals, teams, and institutions–rewriting the relationships between design, technology, and science.

The Knotty Objects

“Knotty Objects” are objects for which conception, design, manufacturing, use and misuse are non-linear, non-discrete. They entangle practices, processes, and policies. When successful, they transform material practice, manufacturing culture, and social constructs.

We consider the brick, the bitcoin, the steak, and the phone to be archetypal knotty objects.

The brick invites questions about modular building and construction practices across all aspects of contemporary life, and how these are changing as they come to incorporate living materials instead of constraining them.

The bitcoin defies simple distinctions between currency, asset, and platform, and changes not just the imagining and practice of money, but of trust, reputation, value, and exchange.

The steak is a vivid reminder that all manufactured consumables have consequential origins, whether those origins are living, breathing animals, or cells in vitro.

The phone lies at the foundation of 21st century human (and non-human) communication, and shapes these exchanges for the hand, for the eye, and in the mind.

The event will question, challenge, augment, and explode these notions among others, tying together speakers, panelists, and the audience over the course of two days.

The Team

The event comes from longstanding collaborations and conversations between the three of us (Paola, Neri, and Kevin) and was jump-started by Joi Ito as a way to understand what design means today, within MIT and outside it. More widely, we’ve embraced this event as chance to examine design practices that engage omnivorously with the multiple disciplines and facets of everyday life.

Knotty Objects would not have been possible without the indomitable Michelle Fisher, Jess Sousa, and a team that includes Laura Seretta, Stacie Slotnick, Nina Wishnok, and Ellen Hoffman; thanks also to M ss ng P eces for video production, and Pentagram for design.

The MIT Media Lab Award

The keynote for the summit will be presented by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, whose work over the past three decades as designers and educators has pioneered new ways of thinking about the relationship between design, science, and technology.

On this occasion, Tony and Fiona will be given the first MIT Media Lab Award, which celebrates individuals that break new grounds by refusing to acknowledge separate territories of design, science, and technology.

Dunne and Raby’s experience, and the incredible influence they’ve had over the new generation of designers and educators, could not be more fitting. Through their studio projects and their work as educators in the Royal College of Art’s Design Interactions department and elsewhere, Dunne & Raby have formalized a new field of practice called Critical Design. This work has brought together various disciplines and mediums of expression, helping designers to move from solving problems to framing new ones–asking new questions.

The Program

After the evening’s keynote on July 15, the program on Thursday, July 16 will be organized around four sessions, each dedicated to a different knotty object. Introduced by a short video on each object produced for this occasion, each session will present a different configuration of speakers and moderators. At the end of the day, a formal debate, loosely inspired by Oxford debating rules, will address the role of imagination and reality in design.

Session 1: The New Metabolism | Architects and designers have for decades pursued the possibility that products, buildings, and cities can come to life. This first session–The New Metabolism–will focus on “metabolism,” its meaning, and its many interpretations in the digital and biological age, questioning the term and its productive translations in the design of the built environment, across scales and applications. The session brings together architect David Benjamin; geneticist, molecular engineer, and chemist Professor George Church, the new dean of MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning Hashim Sarkis, and Edible Geography founder Nicola Twilley (as well as one of the KO curators, Neri Oxman) to focus on what might the term “metabolism” mean to these communities today.

Session 2: New Dimensions in Organic Design | Over centuries of evolution through slow manipulation of living beings–from plants to animals–and by virtue of technological advancements in the natural sciences and synthetic biology, humans have managed to control, accelerate, and even hack growth and development. In the course of this session, a lively discussion will bring together Isha Datar, executive director of non-profit New Harvest, which is devoted to technologies that can address global “food insecurity;” Wyss Institute researcher (and “evolution sculptor”) Kevin Esvelt; design critic and curator Alexandra Midal; and Mars’ Global Director of Plant Science and External Research Howard Yana Shapiro. They will focus on the possibilities and pitfalls of designing entities made of cultured cells.

Session 3: Manufactured Objects | Critical designer and artist Revital Cohen, Superflux co-founder Anab Jain, Maker’s Row co-founder Tanya Menendez, and journalist and author Rob Walker will grapple with a wide spectrum of economic, social, political, and aesthetic issues connected to contemporary manufacturing, and the fundamental human needs and behaviors that shape–and are shaped by–the objects produced in factories, backyards, and front rooms the world over.

Session 4: Design and Complexity | In an era where so much of our daily lives, commerce, and aesthetic landscape are predicated on networks that are invisible or intangible, complexity remains the organizing principle. But, does it organize us, or do we organize it? From tatting to coral formation, complexity is commensurate with all things both natural and cultural. Expressed through design fabrication, data visualization, architectural practice, or urban formations, this session will bring together Allan Chochinov, chair and co-founder of New York’s School of Visual Arts’ MFA program in Products of Design; Scott E. Page, professor of complex systems, political science, and economics at the University of Michigan; and Fernanda Viégas, visualization and computational design expert extraordinaire, to discuss the term, its productive interpretations, and its relevance to design at large.

The Debate

In closing, we will stage an important debate on the role of design in dealing with the present and future–and in particular, on Critical Design.

The term Critical Design was first used by Dunne & Raby at the beginning of the millennium, to outline a new field focused on the potential impact and consequences of new technologies and policies, and the global social and environmental trends in which they are embedded. Critical Design outlines new goals and areas of interest for designers, a process that does not immediately lead to useful objects, but rather to consideration and reconsideration. It asserts value in the role of helping others to predict, prevent, and direct future outcomes. The practice has thus often come under fire from those who assert that design must engage in real-world, real-time “problem-solving,” and address real issues in realistic ways.

Ahmed Ansari and Jamer Hunt will face off on this pointed motion: Design must fill current human needs before imagining new futures. Ansari, arguing for the motion, comes from the Bhutto Institute of Science & Technology, Karachi, Pakistan. Jamer Hunt, the director of the Transdisciplinary Design program at Parsons The New School for Design, New York, will argue against the motion. The debate will be moderated by Gabriella Gomez-Mont, director of the Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico City.

In Conclusion

We hope there will be no conclusion.

From the very beginning, in the spirit of Critical Design, we have aimed for new ways to frame old and new problems that have become particularly urgent–from the necessity to find new ways of building and manufacturing, to the search for new paradigms of development and progress for cities, communities, and economies, many of which come from east and south.

We believe that the collaboration between design and science–a reality in centuries past that was temporarily lost in the course of the 20th century, when the world thought it could understand what design was–will become an important staple of education and practice in the future. And we hope that the discussions from Knotty Objects will remain in your mind and will spark new questions and new ideas.

Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, Director of R&D, MoMA

Neri Oxman, Sony Corporation Career Development Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT Media Lab; architect and designer

Kevin Slavin, Benesse Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT Media Lab


Both days will be live webcast, so no matter where you are, we hope you’ll participate. Hashtag for the event is #knottyobjects.