There is a lot of noise out in the world that can make it difficult to see the patterns and make sense of what is really happening.
Technology and commerce changes rapidly, in contrast with the slower pace of change in our infrastructure, forms of governance, culture and the environment. We’ve identified Signals in each of these categories.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has become so sophisticated that humans have difficulty spotting the difference between fiction and reality. Simulated TV news anchors, AI assistants that are capable of booking restaurants and robots with human citizenship are blurring the boundaries between humans and AI.
Biological processes and living materials are being used to create products that provide a more ethical and symbiotic relationship between the built-up and natural worlds. This shift in the boundaries between man-made and natural structures are creating a new breed of living structures that are ecologically sensitive. Living materials such as headphones that are grown from fungus and yeast, and a Living Sea Wall that removes pollution and promotes biodiversity are transforming our world.
Photo Credit: Korvaa - Aivan
Additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D Printing has advanced to such an extent that it now has an exhaustive list of applications. Designers have been exploring AM’s potential use in food, architecture, personalised prosthetics and beyond to create innovative items and processes that promise new and exciting possibilities.
Technology is allowing us to develop our natural bodies like never before. Humans are evolving into a new super species with unique powers and abilities. Smart clothing is improving our mobility and providing us with superhuman strength, headphones are enabling us to converse in any language and implants are merging our brains with AI.
Our DNA will no longer be a complex enigma which only the most qualified scientists understand. Instead, it will be mapped and used for many purposes. Companies are already providing individuals with affordable DNA services and providing them with insights into their genetic make-up, ancestry, traits, health risks and even dating preferences.
The full potential of autonomous robots is just around the corner. There are trials and concepts already exploring a wide variety of applications from aerial and bipedal delivery services, to emergency service drones that can search vast areas and agricultural robots that can plant, water and harvest crops. Innovative applications are set to continue across a wide range of sectors.
We are currently on a journey towards ‘Organic User Interfaces’, a term coined by Dennis Wixon at Microsoft to describe the types of interactions that are fluid and anticipatory. It is hoped that these interfaces will release us from ‘the glowing rectangle’ and introduce us to more natural and intuitive ways to interact with technology that celebrates the best of both the digital and physical worlds.
Designers are finding new ways to make use of waste materials, whether it is simply extending its life cycle or creating new materials for the 21st Century. Terrazzo-like recycled plastic material, jewellery made out of e-waste and a recycling process that produces clean, clear plastic shows us that the recycled materials of tomorrow can be luxurious, functional and beautiful.
Nanotechnology, the design, production and application of extremely small things, has a wide variety of applications that could have significant benefits, especially in healthcare. However, nanomaterials and nanoapplications are by definition invisible to the human eye so the possibility of hidden pollution and significant health implications will need to be addressed if this new technology is going to be successful.
A growing range of products are now emerging such as containers that block your phone signal, private home servers which store your personal data and masks that prevent you from being detected by surveillance cameras, all of which are aimed at helping you to live your life offline.
While Amazon holds the ‘convenience’ card, other brands can still find ways to deliver added value in their stores by providing product demonstrations, free samples, convenient in-store collection lockers and hubs for social communities to share their passions. The key lies in focusing on what the physical world can provide that the digital world cannot.
We find ourselves increasingly being coerced into paying for our goods and services through digital channels. However, we are starting to question whether we’re happy with every purchase being monitored and questions around inclusivity are being raised as people without bank accounts find themselves frozen out of society.
There has been a shift away from traditional ownership towards accessing and sharing. People are opting for greater levels of flexibility driven by affordability, convenience and ecological sustainability. Digital platforms allow people to watch movies, listen to music, read books and drive cars without actually owning them in a physical sense. This rising number of rental services is seemingly allowing us to satiate our craving for new things without the hassle of ownership.
People are becoming increasingly receptive to subscription services that package bespoke products and experiences together in new and appealing ways. From receiving a new wardrobe every month, to three surprise holidays a year, and even a fully choreographed service to help you get over a broken heart, people are embracing the helpful and convenient nature of curated services that save them from the tyranny of choice.
Alternative approaches are emerging aimed at reducing waste and removing unnecessary packaging from retail products. A supermarket in Germany is one of many which has adopted reusable containers and Waitrose in the UK has plans to grow fresh produce in-store. Platforms are being created to help find zero-waste stores that only sell produce without disposable packaging and stores that offer refills for items such as toiletries and household cleaning liquids.
Photo Credit: Original Unverpackt
Brands are working hard to build seamless payments in-store that allow people to make purchases without visiting a cashier or self-service check-out. Functional transactions are becoming more passive so that we can focus on what we’re doing and enjoy the moment. The removal of tickets on transport services and the disposal of cumbersome check-ins at hotels is making daily life more seamless.
Society is becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact that prolonged screen time is having on our mental health. The fact that the tech companies responsible for this ‘behaviour modification’ are starting to realise that they need to focus on humanity’s wellbeing is a welcome shift but only time will tell whether they follow through
with this agenda.
Businesses large and small are responding to the concerns of society about their carbon emissions and are looking at ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Some companies are tackling the root causes of the issue by eliminating waste from their business models, whereas others are taking advantage of the emerging carbon offset market to help neutralise the impact of their business on the environment. Either way, the signs are pointing to a more regenerative future for the infrastructures that we are dependent on.
The way we get from A to B is changing. New transport solutions have emerged and have become seamlessly connected opening up new mobility possibilities. Localised flight services will soon enable air transportation between suburbs, cities, and ultimately within cities. Solutions taking the hassle out of the ‘last mile’ and Mobility as a Service or MaaS platforms are all helping to weave together multiple transport modes thereby making it effortless to move from
one mode to another.
Agriculture exerts a tremendous toll on our planet contributing to environmental pollution, intensive use of energy and loss of habitat. Consequently, we are seeing a growing number of new and innovative solutions to feed our growing populations. Urban farming could be a way forward that provides local food by growing what we need where we live, decreasing ‘food miles’, offering the freshest produce and encouraging us to eat only food that is in season.
Semi-autonomous vehicles (AVs) are on the verge of becoming commonplace across the world for a variety of different applications from small vehicles to large shipping vessels. Designers are exploring how these new moving spaces can be meaningfully used to improve our lives from mobile offices to GP surgeries, cafes, and hotels. In many countries, including China and the United States, governments are drafting legislation to permit the use of self-driving cars in cities.
If electric vehicles are going to succeed, the network of charging stations will need to be addressed and, with 50,000 electric vehicle (EV) charge points planned for London by 2026, there are signs that it is already well underway. Charging stations could vary from relaxing spaces to parking towers or simply battery swap points. The formats might change but it’s clear that a new type of infrastructure will be required to support this transport revolution.
Cities across the globe are finding new ways to tackle the growing problem of extreme heat. An increasing number of interventions are being deployed to keep our urban environments as hospitable as possible including passive architecture that naturally promotes cooling, the planting of urban forests and the use of reflective materials that absorb less heat.
A wide range of transportation infrastructure projects promise new types of experiences that will dramatically alter our perceptions of distance. Technologies such as urban air taxis could introduce radically different alternatives to short trips across cities, Hyperloop promises to reduce travel times drastically while autonomous vehicles could facilitate much longer journeys while you sleep.
Organisations can’t and shouldn’t build everything themselves. Instead, they should ensure that they are open and easy to work with to most effectively realise their ambitions. Tools like Uber’s Kepler. gl allows anyone to analyse geospatial data. SharedStreets have created a common digital language to improve the design of cities and Opendesk has created a platform for makers to manufacture and sell their furniture.
We have left our mark on almost every aspect of the Earth’s surface, designing and shaping it to our needs. Now we are setting our sights on space. Rocket Lab has created the first ‘space graffiti’ by launching a fake star into space that can be observed from Earth, Vodafone is bringing 4G to the moon and the Chinese city of Chengdu is creating a fake moon to illuminate city streets.
The energy sector is currently characterised by the burning of fossil fuels in a small number of large-scale plants but there are signs that this model is slowly changing to a more sophisticated network. Smaller producers of low-cost renewable energy are emerging that bring energy to a local level, allowing the everyday person to generate and trade power.
Photo Credit: SPACE10’s SolarVille – Irina Boersma
Looking beyond the current take-make-dispose extractive industrial model, the circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on the positive benefits to society. It is based on three principles: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.
Photo Credit: Loop
Humanity’s challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. We need to ensure that everyone can enjoy the essentials of life without putting too much pressure on Earth’s life-support systems on which we fundamentally depend such as a stable climate, fertile soils and a protective ozone layer.
We are entering a world in which all-pervasive technologies like AI are beginning to blur the lines of accountability and legal responsibility. We need to nurture a new culture of technology and business which protects democracy and human rights by design.
As individual modes of transport become less efficient and exacerbate urban pollution, policy makers around the world are adopting new models to liberate city centres from cars. London is hosting its first car-free day in 2019 whilst Oslo and Chengdu have already committed to car-free initiatives that have helped to humanise the streets and improve the quality of life.
According to a U.N. report, 127 countries have implemented policies regulating plastic bags by July 2018. A ban on other single-use plastics have been enacted by 27 countries. Bali has already banned the sale of single-use plastics, Thailand plans to ban three types of plastic by 2020, and Canada and the European Parliament have also pledged to stop the sale of single-use plastics by 2021.
The world has been organised into nation-states for 370 years. Most people now struggle to imagine a world organised in a different way but this is starting to change as new models emerge. Global Cities are increasingly clubbing together while seeking to assert their independent power and influence. Propositions for global citizens are being rolled out like the ‘e-residency’ a ‘digital nation for global citizens’.
Across the world, laws are being relaxed on cannabis being medically prescribed to patients by doctors alongside new treatments and products that have been developed using a less mind-bending cannabinoid known as CBD. The newly mainstream CBD is being selected for wellness products, stepping in as a cure-all for relaxation, sleep loss, anxiety, muscle aches and pains, and more, causing waves in the pharmaceutical and medical industry.
Interest in basic income as a genuine policy option has increased rapidly in recent times, particularly in response to the much-hyped ‘rise of the robots’ that could see millions of jobs automated in the coming decades. All adults receive a no strings attached sum from the state to cover the basic costs of living. It is argued that this unconditional safety net will ensure that nobody lives in poverty which will in turn will free the creative, entrepreneurial instincts of the population.
The internet is becoming less free around the world and democracy itself is withering under its influence. It was originally conceived as a source of free and reliable knowledge for all, however, to commercialise their offers, companies are taking our data, invading our privacy and even modifying our behaviour through nudge mechanics and fake news made incredibly believable through deepfakes.
As AI becomes more sophisticated, the question of responsibility and ownership starts to become more confusing. In New York an AI painting sold at Christies for £432,000, and we’ve already witnessed incidents of autonomous vehicles killing people without consequence, as well as the DABUS AI becoming the first artificial intelligence to be recognised as the inventor of original work.
Never before has youth had such a powerful voice. Greta Thunberg has millions of followers around the world that have joined demonstrations against climate change, Katie Stauffer has four million followers through her four-year-old children and Malala Yousakfzai has become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner at 17.
The rise of living funerals is part of a more significant shake-up of mourning culture. People are moving away from traditional religious ceremonies and considering alternatives such as biodegradable coffins, with some funeral parlours now offering eco funerals. Alternatively, for the control freaks amongst us, why not step into the Sarco, a coffin-like sealed pod with transparent panels that can be transported to a location of your choice. All you have to do is press a button to administer your painless death.
People are finding inventive ways to address issues close to their hearts where businesses and governments are failing to take action. People are finding new pastimes such as jogging while picking up litter, they are choosing merino wool clothing that can be worn for extended periods of time without being washed to conserve water and they are delivering mobile showers and other critical services to the homeless.
Society is recognising how precious nature is and, at the same time, how little there is left of it. There is now enough science about the health benefits of nature for it to have even caught the attention of the medical profession with GPs prescribing 20-minute walks in the country instead of drugs. People are paying a premium to experience the outdoors and there is a growing social acceptance that we need to rewild areas to their natural state.
Simplifying our lives to fight the ‘distraction economy’ is becoming a common goal for many of us. We live in a world that is constantly fighting for our attention and we are beginning to recognise that we need to step back from all of the noise. Mindfulness retreats and ‘off-grid’ holidays are booming and brands like Lestrange are streamlining their offers to provide just one choice of clothing.
Products and services are becoming more inclusive and accessible by design, whether it’s easy to open packaging, genderless interiors, quiet hours for shopping or plus-sized fashion. Organisations and brands that are removing physical, economic or social barriers are being recognised for their inclusivity.
Photo Credit: Building Without Bias,
The capture of our behavioural data is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. People are becoming aware of the value of their online data and the ways that they can protect themselves in an increasingly voyeuristic world. Products and services that help monitor the privacy, security and consent of this data exchange are becoming more and more appealing to a society that is trying to take back control of their data.
Virtual assistants have become increasingly popular in homes but the jury is out on how we should be treating these devices. You may think that it’s strange not to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ to an AI but interacting with a robot as you would a human also raises serious questions. This is arguably contributing to the ever blurring boundaries between sentient and non-sentient beings.
We are beginning to accept that meat-heavy Western diets are not sustainable. It is becoming less acceptable to eat meat or to use animal products in general. Brands are racing to develop alternatives. Products are proudly advertising that they are animal-free, many clothing brands are offering vegan leather alternatives and the first vegan hotel room is now available in London.
Photo Credit: SPACE10’s Dogless Hot Dog –
Modern lives have on the whole made us sedentary, anxious and deprived of sleep. We are starting to realise that we’re not thriving in our man-made environment and that we need to find new ways to reconnect with our biological selves. Our wellbeing has become a much more holistic pursuit centred around prevention and lifestyle choices instead of invasive medical treatments.
With continued ocean and atmospheric warming, sea levels will likely rise for many centuries at rates higher than that of the current century. In the United States, almost 40% of the population lives in relatively highly populated coastal areas where the sea level plays a role in flooding, shoreline erosion, and hazards from storms. According to the U.N. Atlas of the Oceans, eight of the world’s 10 largest cities are located near to a coast.
Living conditions across the planet could change, in some cases, dramatically. A warming climate in the UK means that we are likely to face tropical diseases such as malaria in the far future, but it could also lead to the South of England becoming the new centre of Sparkling Wine. In the long term, many places could become unsafe for humans to inhabit forcing more than 140 million people to move within the borders of their country because of climate change.
Photo Credit: Thomas Alexander Photography
Eight million tonnes of plastic are added to our oceans every year, 92% of cities around the world fail to meet the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidelines and Britain faces a £30bn bill to clean water supplies contaminated by hormones from contraceptive pills. These synthetic environments are blurring the boundaries between our natural and man-made worlds and creating an increasingly toxic environment.
Naturally occurring events that are exacerbated by global warming are leading to extreme weather changes across the world. Record-breaking temperatures, wildfires, extreme tropical storms, flooding and droughts are all predicted to become increasingly common events in the future.
With the world’s population continuing to increase, natural resources are being placed under ever-increasing pressure. Earth Overshoot Day is the day every year where humanity consumes more natural resources than the planet is capable of recovering from in a year. This day is arriving earlier every year.
Environments are changing faster than ever with the accidental introduction of species outside of their normal distribution. These invasive alien species are able to establish themselves unchecked by natural predators often with devastating consequences for the local ecosystems, habitats and species.
The natural life systems that we rely on for the air we breathe and the food we eat are struggling across the world. Insect populations are collapsing and forests are dying back en masse across the world. The creation of a global seed bank in Svalbard highlights the vulnerability of the world’s gene bank of crops.
The Earth’s protective ozone layers are healing from the damage caused by aerosol sprays and coolants. The Antarctic ozone hole should disappear by the 2060s and the upper ozone layer above the Northern Hemisphere should be completely repaired by the 2030s. If nothing had been done to stop the thinning of the ozone layers then we would have destroyed two-thirds of the ozone layer by 2065.
Light pollution is often characterised as a soft issue in environmentalism but it could be more detrimental to our health and wellbeing than it appears. Life has evolved for several billion years with a reliable cycle of bright light from the sun during the day and darkness at night. It might be that virtually all aspects of our health and wellbeing are linked to regulating our circadian rhythm.