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Bio & Life Sciences Internet of Things

Why Designers and Engineers Need Chances to Cross-Pollinate

Understanding and making the most of disruptive technologies such as genomics, robotics, the Internet of Things, and synthetic biology will be a challenge best met by a mix of engineers and designers, says designer Jonathan Follett, principal at Involution Studios.

In a podcast with O’Reilly’s Jenn Webb today, Follett says that the problems these new technologies present to humanity make it crucial that the two disciplines evolve and work together. The challenges are “too big for an individual to encompass this knowledge,” he says.

Design has a huge role to play in translating emerging technologies for users, Follett says. “It will be important to have people interested in not just the ‘how’ of the engineering of technology, but the ‘why.’ Why are we doing these things? How is humanity represented against what’s possible with technology?” But getting there requires designers and engineers to mix it up.

In his hometown, Boston, Follett says opportunities for engineers and designers to cross-pollinate abound. He, for instance, knows a bit about synthetic biology having roomed while working as a young web designer with a scientist who was growing biodegradable plastics from microbes in a lab.

He predicts more organizations will structure themselves like the Wyss Institute at Harvard, whose mission is to innovate nature-inspired materials and devices. “You’ll see a lot more institutions that put multidisciplinary teams together,” Follett says.

Beyond designing interfaces that make those technologies acceptable and understandable to users, Follett argues that engineers and designers also need to take a place at the policymaking table.

“The founding fathers were very much experimental thinkers and created this framework that has worked well. But if you look at the people who created it verses the people who are now executing against it, those are different kinds of people,” Follett says. “I’d rather have another Ben Franklin type who is going out and flying his kite to see if he can generate some kind of electrical experiment. We need more scientists and designers and engineers involved in policy at higher levels.”

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