frogs on the roadRSS Feed

Conference insights from Vancouver and Boston to Paris and Beijing.

Q&A: MAYA Design’s Mickey McManus on Taming Complexity in A Hyper-Connected World

In their new book, Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology, Mickey McManus and his co-authors, Peter Lucas and Joe Ballay, coin the term “Age of Trillions”—our near-future in which trillions of inter-connected computers will saturate us with information as never before. In this age of massive connectivity we will literally coexist with information in real time.

I interviewed McManus prior to his October 9, 2013 talk at the Design Research Conference presented at Chicago’s Field Museum by students at the IIT Institute of Design. The below text is adapted from our conversation.

Design Mind: Hi Mickey. For those unfamiliar with MAYA Design, could you tell us a bit about your firm?

Mickey McManus: MAYA is a technology design consultancy and research lab. We do our own research, as well as funded research, into the world of the next 10-50 years. We spun out of Carnegie Mellon University 24 years ago, with a focus on taming the complexity in our world. We’re not trying to simplify complexity, but rather turn it to the user’s will. We tame complexity so that organizations and people can extract value from its power.

DM: Where did you come up with the name MAYA?

MM: We stole it blatantly from Raymond Loewy [an influential industrial designer of the 20th century], who first spoke of finding the “MAYA” zone. It stands for “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”—the notion of being at the most advanced level of information technology, but making it accessible to normal people.

DM: How do you define complexity?

MM: A complex system has emergent properties. You can’t design it, top-down. Things bubble up that you didn’t intend, or can’t predict. It is non-deterministic, which means that the initial conditions of the system wildly affect its outcome. So you end up with emergence.

Complex problems are “wicked problems.” [Complexity is a defining feature of many so-called “wicked problems” in our world, like poverty, disease, and climate change.] You can’t solve these problems until you start trying to solve them. The act of trying to solve one thing ripples through everything else. It changes the problem itself, stirs the hornet’s nest. You’ll get feedback loops, un-modeled effects. You have to stir the hornet’s nest and find out what happens.

DM: How does one begin to “tame” complexity?

MM: You need to work with complexity if you want to harness its power. One way to tackle complexity is to move it around a bit, reveal it. You could push the problem to a computer or to a person. Computers are better than people at remembering things. But humans have a lot of experience coping with physical spaces.

DM: What kinds of organizations do you work with on this subject?  

MM: We don’t specialize in any particular industry; we specialize in people and information. We find complexity in a lot of places—anywhere that technology, people, and information intersect. A few decades ago the only people who could really afford to tackle complexity were the military, other large government organizations, big industrial firms, and financial services companies doing things like high-speed trading. But today the phenomenon of complexity is surging through much broader swaths of our world, and MAYA is working with commercial clients like Mondelez, Pepsico, American Eagle, and Samsung. On any given day we might be working on clearing roadside bombs, or a blood-glucose reader for kids, or online retail, or a new consumer technology product.

DM: What are the origins of what you and your co-authors call the Age of Trillions?

MM: We’ve progressed from building a handful of room-sized computing devices in the 1950s to the mass manufacturing of approximately 6 billion cell phones, which are like super-computers in our pockets. In 2010 we produced more than 10 billion microprocessors. We made more transistors than grains of rice, and we made them more cheaply. Today we’re rapidly approaching another threshold—trillions of computing devices that can talk to each other. When trillions of devices start talking, you get emergence. That’s a trillion things generating and communicating data, a trillion things suddenly turning into bricks or sending out malicious code. We’re entering an era of unbounded, malignant complexity. If we can overcome the bad, we’ll get to the really exciting stuff. Today when we think of computing, we still think about information living “in” computers. But we are currently super-saturating our environment with enough computing power that we will soon exist within our information.

DM: How will a world saturated with information change our lives? How will it change the practice of design?

MM: Anything multiplied by a trillion is interesting. What happens when you start harnessing all the exhaust data created by a trillion devices and charge a fraction of a penny for it? Whole new industries will rise and others will fall. We’ve reached the peak of our 1960s-era computing technology, and we’re glimpsing a new mountain up ahead with huge surface area. Massive connectivity will create tremendous new opportunities as well as challenges.

DM: You suggest studying living systems to learn how to tame complexity. What relevance could nature still have in a society increasingly transformed by both industry and computing?

MM: There’s an old adage that if you want to do something hard, find someone who’s done it before and emulate them. Nature has been working with information far longer than we have. We have 6 billion cell phones in the world, effectively super computers in our pockets. We can talk to someone on the other side of the world. We can foment revolution with 140 characters. But our “information age” only dates back a few thousand years. It took until the 1930s for Alan Turing to begin developing a theory of information. By comparison, nature has been working with information for about 3.5 billion years [the scientific estimate of the length of time life has persisted on earth]. The average person has between 10 and 100 trillion cells in their body. Nature laughs at the Internet as a cute childhood toy.

DM: What are some examples of design lessons from nature?

MM: Two important and related properties of living systems are modularity and hierarchy. Modularity means that nature builds complex things from modules of simpler things. The human eye is made of atoms that make molecules that make cells, which in turn creates the eye, which is in turn connected to our nervous system. Hierarchy means that the lower levels of the system, like the cells, don’t need to know what the upper levels are doing to be successful. The modular and stable combination of these layers results in a complicated technology, human vision. The eyes fluidly focus and adjust when the light changes. But there are no drop-down menus when something new enters the field of vision, no software updates. It’s a powerful technology, yet it’s a natural extension of our bodies.

DM: How could nature inform the design of information technology?

MM: Another important property of living systems is mutualism. Mutualism means that two different organisms cooperate in some way to their mutual benefit. Mutualism is the key to a social network that’s been around for about 75,000 years. It’s a single stand of aspen trees in Utah called Pando, and it’s actually one of the oldest known living things on the planet. The aspen trees are linked together by an elaborate root system and have a mutualistic relationship with a soil fungus called a mycorrhizal network. The fungus extends horizontally for miles through the soil, exchanging water and nutrients with Pando and other organisms around it. It’s literally a matter network, because when an oak tree nearby dies, the fungus transports carbon atoms from dying oak to be reused by living aspen. The fungus harvests resources from places the aspen roots can’t reach, and through its reliable supply of water and nutrients helps strengthen Pando against disease. This is Facebook for plants. Scientists have studied the soil network and found a similar network patterning to TCP/IP [the networking model and set of communications protocols used for the Internet].

DM: How can nature help us tackle new kinds of complexity we’ll encounter in the Age of Trillions?

MM: One big problem with trillions of devices talking to each other is that they create unforeseen complexities we can’t fully understand with any of our current technologies. Today we get all excited about the cloud. But the cloud is essentially client-server technology developed in the 60s and 70s, when we had comparatively little computational and networking power. Today none of our major cloud services work together, and while a cloud service like Google makes many copies of a given piece of information, there is only one Google. There are really very few single points of failure in Nature. If I cut my leg, the cells in my leg do not need to call the server in the sky and ask for instructions, they mostly work together to fix things.

This brings up two more key properties of living systems: redundancy and generativity. Redundancy means that each leg cell has copies of all the information required for repair, so the leg can heal the cut while the rest of the body continues to function. Generativity is about emergence [the ability of living systems to independently create something new, unique, and greater than their component parts]. In nature there’s only one currency for life’s information, and it’s called DNA. It stores all the information about what makes you, and therefore lowers the threshold for “innovation.” DNA is what made possible the Cambrian explosion [a period in the history of life that saw a major expansion of biodiversity on earth]. If we ignore the generative power of nature, we lose an amazing opportunity to understand and adapt to our new world.  

DM: How has MAYA applied any of these design lessons from nature—hierarchy, mutualism, redundancy, or generativity—to tame complexity?

MM: While we use these techniques all the time, a classic example of the potential for generativity to drive impact is the work we did with DARPA. In 1999 DARPA asked MAYA along with several other research institutions to look at how to design a distributed, collaborative system for data-driven decision-making. [DARPA is the branch of the U.S. Department of Defense that conducts advanced research into future technologies, and was instrumental in the invention of ARPANET, precursor to the modern Internet.] MAYA decided to apply our knowledge of living systems to the design challenge. First we sent our researchers into the world to study how people made decisions. We looked at the billion-dollar IT systems already in place, and we found that people weren’t using them. It didn’t matter if they were clearing roadside bombs or running elections, they were defaulting to paper maps and walkie-talkies. Then we iterated our design process through a process called the Double Helix, a technique that mimics the incubation that occurs in a petri dish, where we could accelerate what we were learning faster than real time. In essence we simulated a year in a week and a week in a day, for both the business process (in the military this is called doctrine) as well as the technology. Each simulation pulled on the other like the strands of a double helix. Within two years our architecture and approach were driving the entire project. We designed an information-centric environment called Visage, which presents bits of information as objects that people can find, organize, and share across platforms and data types. DARPA used the Visage framework for their Command Post of the Future (CPOF) initiative, which is funding new research into augmented cognition, liquid machine-based semantic agents, and worldwide data flow. DARPA did an early study and found that CPOF increased decision-making and situational awareness by about 300 percent. CPOF shipped 4-5 years ahead of schedule and has become the program of record for leaders collaborating and making decisions in mission critical areas. As a side note, the old system took weeks to learn how to use, and CPOF takes hours.

DM: What will it take for biomimicry, the practice of mimicking nature to create products and services for humans, to become standard practice in the world of design?

MM: How do you design for emergence? We just don’t teach that in school. It’s a complex problem. Many times nature serves as a metaphor for design, but it can’t be directly replicated. We have to get better at understanding the metaphors, which might just take more time. We didn’t need to understand nature while we were engaged in gross industrial manipulation of the world. But now there are convergences—Big Sensor, Big Data, 3D printing—that are accelerating the complexity in our world really fast.

The reason we will decide to learn from nature is that we will have tried everything else, and we will finally decide to do the right thing. The point is not that nature knows best, or that we’re going to copy all of nature, but that nature has had a head start. Humanity’s systematic attempts to change the future—our science and technology—are amazing in their own right. We should build on both, not choose one or the other.

DM: What advice do you have for designers entering this new territory?

MM: Convergent disruptions like Big Sensor, Big Data, Software as a Service, and 3D printing will inevitably change how we make decisions. Once distributed sensors truly proliferate and we can harness that exhaust data, disruptions will happen daily and our users and customer will surprise us. Furthermore there will be no place to hide from feedback loops and data-driven insights. We will have a “wikileak decade” in which people and organizations will find it very difficult to hide. Learning to help our customers harness convergence, and tell authentic stories through mutualism with our product and marketing teams, will become a super-power. When we live in the information, we will be able to respond to the environment in new ways. If I can turn waste into energy like nature does, I can make money. Just about anything multiplied by a trillion is an interesting number.

Finally, human-centered design is the literacy of the 21st century. It’s not just about making things anymore; it’s about making the right thing. If you can make anything, make life better for humans. In a world of effectively unbounded and many times malignant complexity, we need every brain on deck.