A Designer at the frontier of Science and Technology
Updated: Jun 23
Women & Design // Episode 1
A creative designer's experience at the frontier of Science and Technology, CERN.
I unapologetically accept I am a romanticist, the kind that could find a brick wall attractive. As a Product Designer trained to enable hyperconsumerism effectively, I could argue daydreaming is almost an unavoidable phenomenon for creative creatures like myself, as we try and make something that doesn't already exist. Although staring at a brick wall and imagining a sustainable utopia won't pay the bills, it was this practical realization that I blame took away a perfectly daydreaming worthy Saturday afternoon from me while making it one where I squinted at an email trying to peel back the layers of my client's actual intent.
The universe holds many secrets and surprises. Some pleasant surprises, like the giant cloud of gas, found light-years away in space that is said to smell like raspberries and rum (I have my bet that that's heaven), the Aurora Borealis on Earth dancing in the north, or the email I received that very Saturday affirming that I've been accepted to participate as a designer in a program hosted by CERN.
On the other side, however, there are some surprises that leave us mystified: the on-going global pandemic that has shaken humanity, the realization that Galactic Cannibalism exists and its exactly as it sounds - Galaxies are eating each other to evolve, and my current favourite - according to our understanding of the universe, with all our instruments and research, the matter you and I can observe only accounts to about 5 percent that exists.
Physicists have proposed an unexplained substance called dark matter that might make up to 25 percent of the universe, the other 75 percent might come from dark energy. Dark matter contains particles that don't absorb, reflect, or emit light making them almost impossible to detect and study. As eerie as it may sound, this means that these particles are around you and are passing through you, as you read this.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN, is the world's largest particle physics laboratory. CERN studies the tiniest particles in the universe. The scientists there believe that they could uncover evidence of this dark matter. This is only one of the many truths CERN is trying to unveil, and most of the work done there is meant to do one thing: increase human knowledge of the universe. By studying the fundamental forms of energy and matter, CERN hopes to answer key questions such as, what are we doing here? what are we made up of? what happens if we build a four-billion-dollar supercollider to smash particles?
CERN studies the tiniest particles in the universe. The scientists there believe that they could uncover evidence of this dark matter. This is only one of the many truths CERN is trying to unveil, and most of the work done there is meant to do one thing: increase human knowledge of the universe.
They also did this and invented the World Wide Web on the way. So, you can imagine my excitement to participate and practice what I know at this pinnacle of human innovation. You might be wondering what a product designer has got to do with particle physics. Turns out, there's a spot for us here too. CERN's interest also lies in discovering ways to communicate the ground-breaking science that they practice effectively. IdeaSquare in CERN conducts a program called Challenge Based Innovation or CBI. It brings engineers, designers and businessmen, and women together to tackle one of the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals. For us, it was SDG 11 - “Building Sustainable Cities and Communities”. With the guidance of scientists of IdeaSquare and weekly lectures from experts in innovation at Fusion Point in Barcelona, we were made into groups of 4, each tackling a different section of the SDG 11.
I remember during one of our first introductory meetings, we were to make a PechaKucha - a short, usually well-practiced presentation about ourselves and our work. I had just recovered from an impeccably timed fever and was on strong medication. So, with butterflies in my stomach and a hazy head, I gathered my training in public speaking and mustered up the strength to present. This is when every designer's nightmare unfolded. My pdf didn't open. I had to wing it. With animated hand gestures and a lot of dad jokes, I somehow managed to express who I was without any visuals behind me to help me out. Keeping in mind that the four-month program ends with a final presentation at CERN in Geneva, my team wasn't particularly reassured of their designer, understandably. Off to a great start, I know.
It was here I remembered Mark Mason's book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck”, where it reminds us that we can’t always be perpetually entitled to feel comfortable and prepared.
My intention from the beginning of the project was the same as all my previous designs - to create something that would make someone dream. A dream that our future will do exponentially better, and it will happen because of our efforts and sacrifices. And that these efforts and sacrifices don't have to be as dreadful as we thought; a dream that would give hope in this world of bad news. If I had dwelled on the confused facial reactions from my first presentation, this intention would be left as it was, An intention.
We followed the Design Thinking Methodology as the basis of our project. My bright team constituted of two engineers from UPC, Barcelona, and a businessman from ESADE, Barcelona. This meant that they had the opportunity to practice and learn the Design process. It was a definite learning curve for them to apply this new process and for me to explain the importance of the user-centric approach. It put me in a position to have a holistic view of design and its value. There were two sides to this coin. On one, I could see the hesitation and hear the sighs when I approached the table with 200 Post-Its and sketch pens. On the other side, I had the opportunity to show them a glimpse of the possibilities Design Thinking provides for creating solutions that cater to user problems and meanwhile being discreetly filled with glee as I watched them embrace it, wholeheartedly and professionally.
We chose to tackle air pollution in an urban city. After innumerable coffees and countless meetings, there were many points in those first few weeks of research that we looked at each other with utter confusion. We peeled back the layers of complexity hidden in this wide topic and pieced together what seemed to be like an ever-expanding puzzle. "How could we visualize a problem that nobody can see exists?" I thought to myself, sitting on a park bench outside the big globe at CERN. This was our first trip there, and I had clearly packed wrong as I sat freezing with a hot cup of coffee trying to slow time down.
It was then when I saw Pablo Gracia Tello approach the bench with an equally hot cup of coffee and being equally disgruntled by the chilly wind. As nervous as I was to be speaking with the Section Head of development of EU Projects at CERN, I took a deep breath and blurted out a series of questions I had. It may have come out all at once. Pablo would turn out to be the most friendly and chirpy scientist I have ever had the chance to speak with.
He took a sip and asked me as many, if not more, compelling questions in return. To almost all of which I had no answers to. "I can’t help but compare the concerns we have with the invisible killer particles and the invisible particles scientists at CERN worked with while they discovered the Higgs Boson," I said. "The God particle. Do you know why they call it that?" He said with a wide grin.
"Because it was frustrating to find it. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman referred to the Higgs as the "Goddamn Particle" It was just a nickname to poke fun at how difficult it was to detect the damn particle" "Nothing to do with God" He added.
These are the scientists that dedicated their whole career to find this particle. It occurred to me here that before they found the Higgs, they built the world's largest and most powerful 27-kilometer ring particle accelerator knowing only that it would be worth it.
“If I need to find something, I should know whether it is worth looking for. If it’s worth looking for, there are people who are probably already looking for it. I need to look for them.”
We walked to his office so he could share with me a few files on Speculative Design and a presentation he made on "Multiverse Thinking" a fitting term he coined for the process he invented as his proposal of a better alternative to Design Thinking. As Pablo sat on his workstation looking for the file on his computer, I noticed his wallpaper was a picture of him smiling with Albert Einstein. No big deal. I was almost surrounded by books, not all of which pertained to Physics. Above a large pile of them was a picture of Baloo the bear from The Jungle Book. He caught me looking and said, laughing "People say I resemble Baloo in appearance and character both," He said excitedly. I had to agree with him. He is an incredibly wise Baloo. What Pablo is trying to communicate with Multiverse Thinking is what I discovered most successful designers and innovators do. They have a consistently holistic approach to the subject, thinking big throughout the creative process. To propose any technology, however impossible, because it would be valid if it doesn't break the laws of Physics. We visited the Large Hadron Collider. The world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. There were two engineers standing next to the 6 story high crosssection, watching us stare at the enormous intertwining of cables and panels of magnets. It almost looked cosmic, as if it was copied from the framework of a mandala. I, at this point, was juggling the CBI project, my university work, and an internship. As terribly tiring as working sixteen hours a day was, I was extremely happy doing it. I felt alive taking the trains, busses, and electric scooters through the summery city Barcelona trying to make it on time for my commitments throughout the week. My friends made sure It felt like a breeze, taking me along every weekend to explore. After deliberating whether I should spend my breezy, sunny park weekend taking part in a two-day-long hackathon that focused on air pollution in Barcelona, I realized this is a chance for me to find those much-needed experts in air pollution.
After having gracefully lost the event, I noticed one of the judges was a Ph.D. student specializing in the killer particulate matter. He was leaning on the after-party bar top, looking at the smoke leave the top of the mini chimney prop. Bacardi, being one of the Hackathon sponsors went all out with the air pollution themed drinks. I'm still confused about how I feel about that. I'm usually terrible at small talk and even worse when I intend to ask for something. I prefer just going to the point, but I understand the need for banter.
Jaime Benavides was a Ph.D. student completing his thesis in Barcelona Supercomputing Centre. I approached him as casually as my awkwardness would allow it and began my surprisingly short-lived exchange of nice nothingness. He wasn't much for that either. I told Dr. Jaime about my project, and I could see I piqued his interest. We spoke briefly about the magnitude of the issue of these fine particulate matters and the growing concern for it. I had briefly read up on it at this time and asked him the pressing questions I had. It was way more complicated than I had imagined. I must have been visibly stumped when I nervously muttered: "I'm not trying to save the world or anything but, I'd just really like to have a more holistic solution than a well-built face mask."
To which he responded with "Don't say you don't want to save the world, there’s no time for lies when there are issues to solve like these. If no one says it, no one does anything about it."
What Dr. Jaime was doing about it was building an innovative air pollution model called the Calliope Urban. It detected these particles at street level and with four times more precision, as compared to the others that detect it at a much higher altitude. We spoke about the possibilities of the model on the train ride to the city. I flipped through my messy scribbled notes, shared with him a few post-it ideas we had so far- A bus stop air filter, Urban Algae pods, even an ionizing vape pen that cancelled out your personal emissions. Although he giggled at the chaos, By the end of our trip back, he was inspired enough to want to collaborate with my team! Using the Calliope Urban Model and designing an application for Barcelona. I was ecstatic. We not only had a brilliant scientist collaborating with us, we suddenly had a supercomputer giving us precise air pollution levels across the city. What can we do with precise air pollution levels in our city?
We designed an air pollution navigation device called Airise. It is a navigation device for public shared mobility such as city bikes, for Barcelona City. It depicts, in real-time, the air pollution levels around you. As you peddle to your destination, it also navigates you through the cleanest route with a GPS. This helps you avoid the most polluted routes with data of the city's pollution levels coming in from the Calliope Urban Model. At the end of your trip, you will see the amount of particles you inhaled. Our goal is to keep the amount of pollutants inhaled under the WHO limit of 96μg a day. The fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is a concern for people's health when levels in the air are too high. Along with causing numerous health issues, PM2.5 are tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy when levels are elevated. This makes the public realize this issue is in fact vital, to raise awareness, and for the user to avoid as much pollution as they can.
We brought this idea to life together after a couple of weeks and then prepared to present it inside The Globe of Science and Innovation. I remember practising my lines with a friend backstage. I had completely blanked out and just began giggling uncontrollably. My friend was more worried about me than I was. I somehow knew my optimism would help me that day. This time, the PDF opened. It was the smoothest presentation I had given so far. "With this we can make the invisible, visible." My teammate concluded. Questions, Answers, Applause. Silence The next big idea. Just like that, I had experienced my most memorable moment thus far. That and watching my first snowfall outside that evening.
We made the scientists that made us dream about the beginning of the universe, dream about where it could go. Their bright smiles and enthusiasm for innovation were contagious. They taught us to be relentless and to dream big while doing it. With our world producing more than the necessity, with brands slowly and steadily realizing their impact and turning to Design for sustainable solutions, Designers are in the Golden era. We just need to realize it. It doesn't just stop there. There is a growing need for communicators in the field of Sciences. The study of Science Communication today is more and more becoming necessary and urgent, with fake news about the Coronavirus and Climate Change spreading being the biggest examples.
Similarly, there are opportunities for breakthrough innovation in organizations like CERN. At every level, scientists are creating something that could be heard, recognized, and made into a sustainable product. As every person can teach us something we don't know, the scope of our understanding of the nuances of other fields depends entirely on us and our interest and should never be constrained by anything other than that. I implore you as a creative writer/artist/designer to reach out to the extent of your interests. I dare you to ask more stupid questions. I dare you to stay uncertain for that little bit longer, staring at brick walls and dreaming of that utopia.
I dare you to dare to do it because if physics allows it, you can.
Maria, a product designer, believes that as a creator, she has a responsibility to create meaningful experiences with the least bit of environmental impact. By doing so she aims to help people overcome the fear of the current climate crisis. Want to get in touch with Maria?
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With 🧡 Team WID.