Phillips Probes Project

Design concepts for anticipating future lifestyles

Text by Henrietta Thompson

In the future we will use our own faeces as fuel, or so hopes Phillips Design, which is already working on product ideas to assist the transition.

The bio-digester kitchen is one of the latest innovations to come out of Phillips Design, as the central hub for its extraordinary Microbial Home system. At first glance it resembles a slightly quirky but stylishly appointed culinary standalone unit, complete with built-in chopping surface and gas cooking range. The huge red glass bulb hovering overhead, however, suggests this is no ordinary kitchen island. The red bulb is in fact a tank that shows energy reserves. Which means, to be more precise, available poo levels. The main unit is a methane digester which converts bathroom waste solids along with vegetable trimmings (which are conveniently fed through a grinder at the side of the chopping surface) into methane gas that is used to power the gas stove as well as a series of other functions in the home.

It is one part shocking, one part incredibly smart. The bio-digester represents a new genre of "living" biological products as envisioned by Phillips, which has set itself the task of designing a domestic ecosystem in order to challenge conventional design solutions to energy, cleaning, food preservation, lighting, human waste and a healthy lifestyle. By stepping back and looking at the big picture, the electronics manufacturer has come up with a number of concepts that we could potentially see as reality within the next 15 to 20 years. Surprising, occasionally delightful, they are always provocative and always utterly inspiring.

Jack Mama, creative director of the Probes programme at Phillips, and Clive van Heerden, senior director of design-led innovation, possibly have two of the most fascinating jobs on the planet. Together they are responsible for Phillips' Design Probes - research and development initiatives through which they aim to challenge conventional behaviour and push the boundaries of technology.

Where most concept work in product design stops projecting beyond five years (anything further in the future is considered too vague to be taken seriously), the Design Probes are generally pitched at 10 years, even 20. "The idea is to use design as a form of provocation inside and outside of the company to get an understanding of possible future lifestyle scenarios," explains Mama. Instead of trialing the concepts themselves, the idea is to track long-running trends to see how they might evolve and eventually impact on business. "We aim to shine light in an area of design interest, and to develop an understanding of what's going on in that area so we can translate it back into our near and medium-term design research. We feed the knowledge and experience of a Probe project back into our other activities."

Another product from the Macrobial Home, which was showcased recently at an exhibition during Dutch design week in October 2011, is the bio-light. Using different biological technologies to create ambient light effects, the concept explores the use of bioluminescent bacteria, which are fed with methane (from guess where) and composted material, or instead could be filled with fluorescent proteins that emit different frequencies of light.

Back in the kitchen, Mama and Van Heerden have also come up with a new larder concept. In a system designed to keep living food fresh using natural processes (as opposed to keeping dead food cold in the refrigerator), the larder revives the ritual of preparing food together around the dining table. Featuring a twin-walled terracotta evaporative cooler at its centre, the compartments and chambers vary in density and volumes so keeping different types of food at their relevant temperatures. The outer surface of the cooler is warmed by hot water pipes, which have been pre-heated by the methane digester in the Microbial Home system. Above the table is a ceramic garden and larder where vegetable groups are grown and stored on the basis of their symbiotic chemistry.

According to Mama and Van Heerden, the concept not only illustrates a world in which we are wiser to our health, wellbeing and impact on the environment, but one in which we can extend the shelf life of our food without the need for energy-intensive or synthetic chemical technology.

Such an idea would seem counter-intuitive for Phillips, an electronics company, to be proposing. Indeed for many technology-driven companies, product innovation starts with the technology, the creative challenge is to find a "killer app" for whatever new gizmo comes out of the lab, and then to persuade the customer that they want it. For the Probes, however, this is never the case. In fact there is no starting brief at all.

The complex and rigorous methodology behind the Design Probes, says Van Heerden, involves tracking emerging developments across a broad spectrum. "The underlying economic and political processes should be seen as important as the trends in technology, culture and the environment that are directly affected by them," he explains. "We also monitor the unconventional trends that have not yet entered the peripheral vision… extreme behaviours, marginal interest groups, unusual fashion, music and art, and anything swimming against the current." From this point only can the design team create narratives, and with them, the concepts (or "provocations" as Van Heerden describes them) such as the bio-digester kitchen.

The document that informs each Probe is vast, and there is no real end or beginning as each feeds into the next, overlaps or branches off in its own organic way. The Microbial Home Probe follows on in many ways from a recent Probe entitled Food Design, for example, which itself resulted from investigations into the growth of popularity of organic ingredients, the shift in emphasis from curative to preventative medicine, genetic modification, land use patterns in growing food, and other factors currently impacting on our eating patterns. Serious food shortages and rising food prices were also explored in depth.

Among the concepts that resulted was the diagnostic kitchen, which includes a variety of concepts all designed to allow people to be more accurate - and personally relevant - when making choices about their diet. Mama and Van Heerden came up with the nutrition monitor, which consists of a sensor (that is swallowed) and a scanning wand to measure the nutritional value of food. Used together it becomes possible to determine exactly what sort of food and how much of it is required by any individual at any one time. Then there's the food printer - which takes the principles of rapid prototyping - or 3D stereo lithography to be more precise - and applies them to the kitchen, processing cartridges of foodstuffs and "printing" them into whatever shape and consistency you fancy.

The third concept from the Food Design probe, and the closest to the macrobial kitchen is the Biosphere Home Farm. Food miles don't get shorter than this. Some way more substantial than the common vegetable garden, the Biosphere Home Farm contains fish, crustaceans, plants and other mini ecosystems and is designed to allow them to live interdependently and in harmony with each other.

Far from all being centred around the kitchen, however, previous Probes have looked into architecture, personal expression, adornment and fashion - resulting designs have seen clothing that responds to the wearer's mood and electronic tattoos that snake across the body. What is cooked up in one area will easily feed into another. "Microbial Home formed one part of the Biological Age probe exploration," says Van Heerden. "Another provocation we created for this was Skinsucka - a movie made about microbial-fuel-cell-powered micro-bots which eat garbage and 'excrete' fashion." It's a far-sighted but none-the-less compelling vision. Suddenly, the wardrobe looks like it might open on an entirely darker world than was ever suggested by Narnia. Should we be afraid? "The movie is meant to provoke discussion about the nature of robots - non-anthropomorphic metabolising swarms that cohabit our spaces carrying out the menial, dangerous and repetitive tasks we as a species will hopefully no longer be able to get slaves or child labour to perform for us in the future. Focusing on mass customised and disposable fashion seemed an appropriate carrier," says Van Heerden. So it is both humanitarian and ecological, then. Fairtrade organic cotton suddenly looks quite pedestrian.

Is all this talk of defecation really making a difference to the bottom line, however? With seven locations in Europe, the USA and Asia Pacific, Phillips Design has a creative force to be reckoned with - consisting of some 400 professionals of more than 35 different nationalities among its ranks. By embracing disciplines as diverse as psychology, cultural sociology, anthropology and trend research, the aim is that these professionals will create solutions that empower people, make them happier and improve (rather than contribute to the destruction of) the world in which we live. If the Design Probes get a reaction, provoke discussion and can utilise the information generated to feed back into more immediate projects and to refine ideas further, there's no chance this work will go to waste. §

Microbial home project

  • Phillips Probes Microbial Home Project
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