University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA


Designs for What the Future Can Be

By Weitzman
Feb 24, '20 11:51 AM EST
Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

People have long speculated about how new technologies will impact the future. While science fiction often focuses on the impacts of fantastic feats like flying cars or mutant vaccines, there are also a number of tangible questions about the future that need solutions: Will there be enough food for the next 100 years of population growth? Will rising carbon dioxide emissions render the planet uninhabitable? Will advances in robotics help or harm social interactions? 

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Designs for Different Futures” exhibition addresses some of these questions by contemplating what daily life may look, feel, smell, and taste like in the not-so-distant future. Among the many contributors to the exhibition are several Penn faculty and alumni whose work, on display in the exhibition until March 8, is part of an innovative museum program that leans into the speculative and explores the unknown.

From technology to product

Orkan Telhan, an interdisciplinary artist, designer, and researcher, is a consultant curator of the exhibition and also has a commissioned installation called “Breakfast Before Extinction.” Telhan got involved with “Designs for Different Futures” after senior curator Kathryn Hiesinger reached out to discuss ideas early in the exhibition’s development. 

Telhan says that the goal of the exhibition is to introduce visitors to different ideas about the future through the lens of design. “Designers imagine objects long before we have access to them,” he says, adding that designers are also the “interface between scientists and engineers by turning new technologies into applications and products.”

“Designs for Different Futures” is organized into 11 sections: Resources, Generations, Earths, Bodies, Intimacies, Foods, Jobs, Cities, Materials, Power, and Data. Telhan explains that curators spent time developing this structure to help visitors focus on the value of objects and how they would impact society as opposed to focusing on the object’s materials or time period. 

Across the 80 pieces that make up the exhibition are a wide variety of installations, from a 15-foot inflatable pod that expands and contracts in response to carbon dioxide levels in the room, to robotic exoskeletons that aid individuals with limited range of motion. In contrast with other exhibitions that focus on design, not all of the installations are objects meant for everyday consumption. Instead, the installations are meant to encourage visitors to contemplate deeper issues about the future such as population growth and climate change. 

Telhan’s own installation is about the future of the human diet as society addresses the challenge of how to sustainably feed a growing global population. His work includes foods ranging from extinct bananas to genetically modified salmon that are placed around a table to resemble a banquet. 

Telhan’s goal is for the installation to get visitors to confront their behaviors and thoughts about ways to solve the problem of feeding a growing world. “Design is also a way of constructing of how people perceive things,” says Telhan. “My task as a designer was to stage them as provocations that help the audience question what is good for them, for the society, or the environment. An environmentally sustainable solution may not necessarily be the most culturally accepted one—like the way we see the steaks made from human cells.” 

Interacting with robots

Roboticist Mark Yim and architect Simon Kim first met Hiesinger in 2013 through Penn’s Integrated Product Design (IPD) program, an interdisciplinary graduate program that brings together design, engineering, and business perspectives to create new products and experiences. “Kathryn asked about different things that we had done, and Simon and I had done a bunch of these engineering and art projects through IPD classes,” Yim says, “As we talked about the items we produced, Kathryn thought many of them could go well in her upcoming show.”  

Featured in the Jobs section is Kim and Yim’s Quori, a social robot used for human-robot interaction research developed by a team of students here at Penn. In the exhibition, visitors can interact with Quori and watch the robot respond to their movements. 

Quori stands at about five feet tall and has a customizable digital face, broad chest, gesturing arms, and an omnidirectional mobile base surrounded by a pyramid-shaped shell. Those features are supposed to be genderless, but Yim says that many see Quori as female. “Some people think it’s wearing a skirt,” Yim concedes. “Part of the reason for that skirt-like design on the bottom is that we needed space for the motors and wheels, so it couldn’t have legs. But whenever anyone looks at something, they immediately try to call it 'him’ or a ‘her.’”

These interactions highlight one of the exhibit’s themes: The tension between intended design and a user’s perception. When encountering a never-before-seen design, users want to make it familiar and easy to understand. In Quori’s case, this means imposing gender on a genderless robot.  

Read the full text of this story in Penn Today.