Imagine standing in your pastel-colored, electric self-driving car, speeding along to your destination as you chat with a friend across the globe while ignoring your fellow commuters, every inch of the road and your movement on it tracked and monetized. This is the dystopian world of Digitarians, one of four hypothetical “United Micro Kingdoms” conceived by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, the forward-thinking British designers who were recently awarded the first ever MIT Media Lab Award at the Knotty Objects Summit.

The Summit was organized by a team of equally impressive designers and thinkers: AIGA Medalist Paola Antonelli, senior curator and director of R&D at MoMA; Neri Oxman, architect, designer, and professor at the Media Lab; and Kevin Slavin, entrepreneur, game developer, and also a professor at the Media Lab. Opening night saw an enthusiastic standing-room-only audience at the spectacular Institute of Contemporary Art on Boston’s waterfront. The summit brought together designers, scientists, engineers, makers, writers, curators, and scholars to put the focus on a transdisciplinary approach to contemporary design. For them, “knotty objects” are ones “for which conception, design, manufacturing, use, and misuse are non-linear, non-discrete.” As Oxman said in her opening remarks, “View the world object first.”

Dunne and Raby call this approach Critical Design, a term they coined for the design methodology they and others have been using for awhile. “Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions, and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It’s more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a model.” They write that “affirmative design,” or design that reinforces the status quo, is the opposite. As Kristina Parsons summarized in her editorial on, “Design has traditionally been pigeonholed as a civil servant to the creative fields, tasked with productivity, execution, and function. In this role, design can introduce incremental improvements to a given system, but ultimately the status quo remains unchallenged.”

The Media Lab is antidisciplinary in its approach to research, which makes it ideal to investigate the tensions as well as affinities between design and science: “A future that’s based on science and fueled by design.” Critical Design embraces ambiguity as much as the potential in disciplines coming together.

Brick, Bitcoin, Steak, Phone

Four iconic “knotty” objects were chosen as pivot points for the Summit’s seminars: brick, bitcoin, steak, and phone:

  • Bricks represent a new architecture, “a new metabolism,” and could be code, circuits, DNA, or even proteins. They can incorporate digital and bio materials.
  • Bitcoin represents “design and complexity.”
  • Steak, or organic design, “stands in for all biological entities manufactured in vitro, and is a vivid reminder that all manufactured objects, animals, organs, and tissues have consequential origins and consequences on our perception and mores.”
  • The phone is the “true knot… an enabler of surprising new uses, markets, and communities; a conduit for new design and manufacturing models.” (More information can be found here.)

Critical Design and knotty objects offer all designers as well as scientists an exciting new way to think, imagine, explore, and create, “from solving problems to framing new ones, while asking new questions in the process.”

As with many new artistic or philosophical movements, this was very heady stuff and remains opaquely abstract without concrete examples. And even then, it’s not always easy to wrap your head around it all. In some ways, it upends problem-solving methods designers have long been trained to use. Perhaps the most succinct take away from the Summit is the question, “Is it true that design must fill current human needs before imagining new futures?”