Interview with Clive van Heerden, Senior Director Philips Design

Clive van Heerden How does the crisis effect future lifestyle? Wherein lie the secrets of electronic tattoos?
Clive van Heerden, Senior Director of Design-Lead Innovation at Philips, presents a vision of the future of lifestyles.

Clive van Heerden, do you see any impact of the current crisis on lifestyles and values of our societies?
Yes. All crisis is massively important to social change, both positive and negative. The clues to future developments can be read off the historical turbulence that has preceeded us. Major invention often follows wars, famines, pandemics and the like - the catalysts that give rise to major changes in human behaviour, political systems and with relevance to ourselves, new product genres tend to follow these paterns. By looking at past upheaval we can better predict change in response to the current crisis.
What drives changes in our lifestyle?
We try to look for “weak signals” in a variety of areas – political, economic, environmental, technological, socio-cultural as the early indications of tendential shifts in lifestyle. These are of little use on their own and must be seen as a collective of events and influences that may come into focus as mainstream trends over time. We define a space to look at based on weak signals and try to understand the effect that they have on each other. It is a dialectical process where technical discovery and socio-cultural developments react to one another  neither being intrinsically determinate.
In 1998 you became director of soft technologies at Philips Design. What are soft technologies?
We spent the better part of ten years researching conductive textiles and the integration of electronic functionalities into garments, furnishings, textile based interiors and the like. “Wearable electronics” did not adequately describe the breadth of the research so it became known as Softechnology – a bit confusing to computer scientists.
You are now the Senior Director of Design-Lead Innovation at Philips and responsible for the Probes program. What is the Probes Program?
We divide the Design research programme at Philips Design into 3 time periods or “horizons” – 1) being incremental next steps to existing technology, product or application area, 2) being three to five year projections of lifestyle change (like the Next Simplicity events staged by Philips) and 3) being everything beyond 10 years, which is the area I work in. We research a ‘territory’ defined by a series of socio-cultural trends, technical interests, artistic curiosity and so on with a view to unearthing interesting developments. We start with no restrictions but gradually “kill
off” lines of enquiry if they prove to be uninteresting. When we have produced research that is substantial and which we feel could be relevant we create a Probe or a provocation which gets published or exhibited with the intention of stimulating debate and criticism.
One area you are working on, are dresses, that reveal the emotional state of its carrier. How do you at Philips imagine the use of such dresses? Why do you think people will want to express emotions through their dresses?
Yes, these were typical design probes. Our work on wearable electronics for performance sportswear and medical monitoring applications had taken us a long way down the road of biometric sensing – particularly the integration of sensing technology using soft (textile based) non-invasive techniques. It started to occur to us that by using combinations of sensors we could distinguish different emotional or mood states which struck us as extremely relevant to developing new interaction modalities and UI technology. We had been critical of the obsession to make intelligent products when almost no attention is paid to the sensitivity of machines – the ability to understand the emotional state of a person using the technology. Choosing to make dresses as the carrier for a suite of technical propositions based on these technologies came about because of the socio-cultural research we had been doing into youth fashion in Japan. We wanted to test the idea of emotional sensing without eliciting preconceived reactions which we believed would have been the case if we’d made a ‘sensitive’ DVD player or remote control.
Even more unsettling and intimate is the concept of electronic tattoos. How would patterns and colours be evoked? Will such tattoos be based on nanotechnology?
As with many probes, the underlying technical idea was not new – several people had proposed methods for creating sub-cuttaneous displays. We were testing reaction to the idea of the human body as a platform for electronic and bio-chemical technologies. Our research with the dresses had pointed to a distinction between role playing tendencies and fashion expression and we were very interested in how young people use technology to develop new forms of expression – SMS dialects being an example. As a company that makes medical equipment, we felt that the probe concept had to be far enough away from our regular business to ensure that the feedback was not clouded by reaction to existing technology or attitudes to our brand. Tattoos have become a universal form of youth expression and seemed the perfect carrier to test the idea of emotionally sensitive intra body technology driving displays under the skin in an application with no obvious utility. The reaction was very rapid and very intense – contrary to our expectation no one seemed to question the inevitability of it happening or any of the practical issues that seem very obvious – the overall response was about control and how people feel they are losing control in their lives.
Looking back at science fiction movies, nothing looks more outdated than visions of the past. Why?
Various people have said that visions of the future say more about the present in which they were made than they do about the future. That ‘present’ dates inevitably. We believe that the future has more to do with the past than the present – looking at long range historical trends, catalytic events and their knock on effects, cyclical reoccurrence and repetitive themes of human behaviour are more important than linear projections of existing technologies or social behaviours. In a way we need to try not to be predictive which is why we try to disassociate an idea as much as possible from any of the anchor points a consumer of person viewing it might turn to. We want as little association to a brand, product genre, geographical location, attitudes to gender, sexuality, religion and the like to prejudice the reaction. The best we can do is a cultural echo-sounding and see if it resonates. The greater the detail and contextualisation of an idea the more prejudiced the reaction which is why art does not date in the same way as technology, fashion or science fiction movies.
Which Probe developments have gone into serial production and are available on the market?
The purpose in producing probes is to understand people and trends with a view to being able to identify likely influences, determinants or opportunities affecting our future business. For example the research into wearability did not produce many direct product outcomes on a mass scale in the time frame that we originally forecast but it did influence product and technology thinking in a variety of areas. Similarly, the Off-the-Grid probe has not resulted in a range of immediate products but has significantly established a set of issues and priorities in a wide range of areas. Our process is to carry out Probe research and then use the result to investigate nearer term lifestyle explorations which are comprehensive prototyped propositions based on our findings and understanding.
Is the Probe program focussed on Western lifestyle-concepts only?
No. One of the reasons for the Design Research programme is to understand cultural difference in the same way that we concentrate of political, economic, environmental, gender, sexuality, age and a host of other socio-cultural factors. We are a global company very conscious of cultural difference. Our work on sustainable habitat was based on Shanghai in 2020 using technology developed in the ancient Egypt. Tattoo as already mentioned was inspired by social trends we were tracking in Japan. Our Food probe has looked at food creation globally and in the case of the farm was a reaction to conditions in Senegal, Haiti and Egypt during 2007.
According to «BusinessWeek» 96 % of all new projects fail to meet the targets for return on investment. Does the Probe program help to improve this ratio?
We hope so. Linearity in new technology or product creation can be a hindrance to identifying new application genres or market opportunities. Our CEO Stefano Marzano has pioneered futures research at Philips by positioning concepts, based on socio-cultural research, for people to react to. These techniques have been refined over the years and new methods of identifying weak signals developed. We feel that by firing design probes to light up future terrains we can work backwards with better results.

Clive van Heerden is Senior Director of Design-Led Innovation at Philips Design. One of his main responsibilities in this role is leading the Probes program, which consists of 'far-future' research initiatives that aim at identifying long-term systemic shifts and anticipating changes in future lifestyles.  Examples of recent Probes projects include Electronic Tattoo, Emotional sensing Dresses and Sustainable Habitat 2020.
Clive joined Philips Research in 1995, where he was tasked with bringing designers into a technical research environment.  He moved to Philips Design in 1998 to become Director of the Soft Technologies design research activity.  In this role he put together a team of experts from various textile and apparel disciplines, developing wearable electronic and conductive textile solutions and overseeing collaborations with other companies. Clive has also managed Philips Design branches in Redhill, New York and London.

Future of Lifestyle
Clive van Heerden, Senior Director Philips Design
Thursday, October 15, 2009; 16.00h
Culture and Convention Centre KKL Luzern