Yihyun Lim’s mission is to use new technologies to solve social, economic and cultural problems through design innovation. She leads a multidisciplinary team of researchers, engineers and designers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Design Lab and drives design innovation across industries and lifestyle sectors. Projects Lim has worked on include shaping the future of the insurance experience, designing safety wearables for an oil and gas company, and looking at the aquarium experience in 2069. As tech weaves its way into every industry and every aspect of our lives, Lim and her team are at the forefront of connecting new forms of technology in relationship to current and future societies.

Here, Lim discusses the importance of experiences and values, the contradicting attitudes millennials have when it comes to technology and experimenting with bacteria for the latest Puma project.

JWT MIT Design Lab Adaptive Packaging
Puma and MIT Design Lab's latest research in the field of Biodesign

What is Design Lab’s role at MIT?

We are a small inter-disciplinary lab here at MIT and focus on design experiences. The team is composed of under graduates, graduates, post-docs and full-time researchers coming from different disciplines, including architecture, design, engineering, computer science and so forth.

We focus on designing experiences and that really involves understanding people in their social context. I think what sets us apart from other labs is the focus on social context and behavioral studies. There are three parts to how we approach a project. The first is understanding human needs, experiences and values. Sometimes we would conduct contextual studies and send our teams to that actual context and gather immersion studies. The second is having a good knowledge of all the emerging technologies and I think that’s the advantage we have here at MIT—we have access to all the labs and people who are working in new emerging tech. The third is mixing the two together to design the experiences that deals with how humans in the future will interact using these emerging technologies through a design solution.

What cultural changes are you identifying?

The past few years we have been focusing a lot on the millennial generation, most of us in the lab are millennials too. I think it’s interesting to study our generation because we’re the unique generation that has grown up in the analogue but also in the digital.

Some of the interesting things that we’ve been finding is their attitudes and perception towards technologies and how that might be different from what we generally think. For example, we typically think about millennials as being digitally fluent and that they can’t live without technology. What we’re seeing is that tech is so embedded in their lives it’s not something that’s thought about, it’s second nature. At the same time, there are a lot of conflictions that we’re seeing when we talk about the use of technology in the lives of millennials. They are also making efforts to detox but wanting the full efficiency and convenience of technology. I think there’s been a shift. In the past it was all about adopting technology and now it’s about learning to live with technology.

JWT MIT Design Lab Carbon Eaters
Carbon eaters
JWT MIT Design Lab Deep Learming Insole
Deep learning insole

Do you have any projects you can share with us?

I think the Puma project is a good example that’s been publicly shared. This is our second year working with Puma and what we’ve been doing is understanding what “adaptive dynamics” means. The first year was focusing on the digital translation, looking at how you create a connected app that can connect your wearables to your shoes and maybe to your digital services to create this adaptive dynamic experience. The next step moves away from being technology-driven to more ambient experiences.

This year we combined the two and created a biodesign project where we embedded the technology into the experience. We examined if bacteria in an athlete’s shoes or clothing can enhance their performance. So first we adopt the technology, then we live with the technology and now we try to embrace technology through a different means.

How does technology play a role in your projects at the MIT Design Lab?

For us tech is a driver, we’re not putting tech as the main experience but as an enabling tool that makes an experience possible. With all of our projects we start with the value, and this is where the cultural studies and generational studies become very important. Then we identify what kind of enabling tech we can use to make that experience possible. Biodesign can be one example which uses micro-organisms, or machine learning/AI can be another example. It all depends on the key values we want to deliver.

JWT NEAQ 2069 Envisioning the Future Aquarium Experience
Envisioning the Future Aquarium Experience in 2069 for the New England Aquarium

Do you have an example of a project that looks to the distant future?

We’re currently working with the New England Aquarium here in Boston. Next year is their 50thanniversary and we’re looking into the next 50 years for them, envisioning the future aquarium experience in 2069. We will study the future role of the aquarium within an urban context and what experiences people value. Even though it’s looking at the 50-year future, people don’t change as fast as technology. It’s hard to predict what technology will exist 50 years on from now, but if we focus on the values then I think that experience will still be relevant in the future.

Upcoming projects?

Many projects. We’re continuing working within sportswear and looking into adaptive dynamics looking into other technologies that can deliver that experience. We’ll also be hosting an academic conference next year on AI that will see how that works within the area of design and form. The conference will happen October 2019 on Beyond Intelligence, looking at how you design complex experiences and another topic within these complex experiences driven by AI technology what are the ethical questions that designers should keep in mind.

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