By Jon Rogers
As I sat down to write this piece, my iPhone started its familiar ring from the other room. I rushed through thinking it was from my son who’s in France this week – but my phone is silent and my son isn’t calling me. It’s someone on the street talking on their iPhone, answering a call that was for them. And I’m disappointed.
Not at the call as my son will call another time – I’m disappointed that design has been used as an incredibly powerful suckerpunch to our individuality. The audio branding that I pay £45 a month for is fixed to a single company, and it’s frustrating that someone else’s call from someone else’s child has to sound the same as mine. It’s an all too familiar sound – whether I’m in Bangalore, Berlin or Broughty Ferry. My phone is like everyone else’s and is a shiny call to modernity.
This is not so different to a similar promise when our high streets were remodeled and populated with global companies in the 1980s: that we could have the same shopping experience in Dundee as we could in New York. But look at it now. Will our digital tech of the future feature empty products that no one wants to use with features that act as a reminder of a more prosperous past?
Importance of human creativity outside the high street
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom for our shops. Certainly in Dundee we have an incredible collection of fiercely and beautifully independent shops and businesses that have occupied the space at the edge of the high street. I don’t wear glasses but I go to Spex Pistols at least once a week because it’s a beautiful place to visit (pictured: Richard Cook, founder of Spex Pistols). The Parlour café serves up an ever-changing menu that knocks the socks off what I can get on 5th Avenue in New York.
We all have our own special independent places that make our cities great. Whether it’s the Wee Curry House in Glasgow or Analogue Books in Edinburgh. That there is an incredibly human creative world outside the high street is so important, a world that’s been designed by individuals for a collective experience.
IoT and the high street
This is something we have been exploring on a research collaboration between Dundee, Northumbria and Edinburgh universities to look at the future of the Internet of Things (IoT) for the high street. As part of this work we worked with a collection of independent businesses in Dundee to find out what this emerging IoT technology could offer. An area that we looked at was how the high street is a place to explore who we are, that we use the high street as teenagers to try on different personas of the people we might become.
With this idea of ‘becoming’ we worked with Richard Cook, of Spex Pistols, to design a mirror that connected to a cloud-based facial recognition service to guess your age and play you music from when the mirror perceived you to be 14. For Richard this provides a playful space in his shop to talk about pop culture from different eras, about music and about the glasses his customers wear and try on.
Provoking debate about tech
For us as researchers it made us think about the use of cameras in shops. Did you know that a third of all UK shops are now connecting their CCTV to a range of online AI to recognise your age, what you are wearing and where you are in the store? How does that make you feel?
By placing design into a shopping environment we are able to start to have this debate with the people that shop there. The amplifying effect of design is that a one-off design work with an independent shop in Dundee can provoke a debate about how technology is being used on a global scale.
I think that we’re at a time when we could be looking more at design to nurture our relationship with technology rather than as only a way to increase customers in the short-term.
Professor Jon Rogers is a speaker at the Design Revolution business innovation event today organised by V&A Dundee, UNESCO City of Design Dundee and Design in Action.
Design Revolution is part of the first Dundee Design Festival, which runs to Saturday 28 May.