Commonplaces, DEE Magazine, Design, Design Friends, Disruptive Technologies, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Emerging Technologies, EPFL+ECAL Lab, Michael Graetzel, Michael Graetzel’s solar cells, Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab, Nicolas Henchoz, Writing
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Out of the Lab, In Conversation with Nicolas Henchoz, EPFL+ECAL Lab Lausanne

 Design is an agent of change, which can help us make sense of what is happening and turn it into our advantage.

Alice Rawsthorn


Kinga Kowalczyk: Nicolas Henchoz, you’ve had an interesting career path. By training you’re an engineer; you studied material engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and also journalism. You’ve worked as a reporter, art director, writer and curator. In 2007 you founded the EPFL+ECAL Lab, which is “a design lab that explores opportunities and issues related to emerging technologies”. Your mission is to create meaningful design that translates disruptive technologies into a user experience that strives for more than just aesthetics. It’s important to say that the EPFL+ECAL Lab is not an academic laboratory in the traditional sense, and it doesn’t form part of any particular faculty either. It is fostering a relationship between the academic and industrial worlds, partnering technology received from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne with commercial manufacturers. Let’s talk a little about disruptive technologies first. How do you define them?

Nicolas Henchoz: I wouldn’t call myself an expert on disruptive technologies. A technological advance is all about making little changes, which are rather an evolution than a revolution. You refine the existing technologies by little loops. In my view disruptive means that you have a solution coming from a totally different area, another way of thinking. For example, at the EPFL+ECAL Lab we worked with a technology of dye solar cells inspired by photosynthesis in plants.

Just to explain, Michael Graetzel and his team at the EPFL created this solar cell in the early 90s.

The process is an electro-chemical chain reaction, where a colorant, let’s say raspberry juice, interacts with Titanium Dioxide, which is a powder. In a traditional solar cell silicon captures light and turns it into electricity. In Graetzel’s solar cells colorants are used instead. The colorant catches the light to generate electrical power.

Sunny Memories was a project where your Lab and four other European design schools used solar cells to reinterpret everyday objects by incorporating them into their design.

The traditional solar cell is a sort of plate you stick on top of the object; its form is static and you cannot change it. Michael Graetzel’s solar cells can be a flexible part of the design.

Emilie Rosen’s Heliotone, for instance, explored the concept of a radio where with thinly applied layers of solar cells you could adjust the volume and the channel.

It was interesting to see how an object could be conceived in a totally different way. The concept was to use solar cell as a radio. This cell provided the energy; it also acted as a touch interface and, thanks to an exciter behind it, as a loudspeaker. I strongly believe in objects that are simple and have one function. For a very long time we’ve been trying to integrate everything into a cell phone. The Heliotone shows that it’s possible to create an object that has one specific function and is autonomous, that recharges by itself.

Do you think it will change our relationship with solar energy?

We need to have more autonomous objects that don’t need to be plugged in constantly. The bowl from Sunny Memories is a solar recharger; it can harvest energy. We realized that when the bowl was placed close to a window the light came from the sides and not from above. So the designer decided to put the solar cells—not on top of the bowl but vertically, and inside the material. I think this is the way to work with the solar cell, to find a way to integrate it into the environment, to create a nice object that doesn’t need a lot of energy and is autonomous.

What about Under Pressure? Under Pressure was an exploration of wood and its properties. By using a process called densification, which combines the application of humidity, heat and mechanical force, you changed wood’s physical and mechanical properties.

Densified wood is another disruptive technology. The idea appeared some hundred years ago but has really only been demonstrated in the 2000’s. You can densify fast growing wood like spruce and produce a hard, resistant material like from a rare species in a tropical forest. So you have this disruptive technology. Now how do you create new scenarios of use? How do you open the scope of this technology?

The products that came out of the project were headphones, a door handle, a series of boxes, and high heel shoes.

There were two disruptive elements here. The first was the texture. Nobody expected that we could get such a smooth texture—amazing in terms of touch—straight out of the mold. And then we were able to combine different percentages of densification. In the case of the high-heel shoes we went from 20% to 100%. We were trying to show the potential of the material, its strength and smoothness.

Are you still working on the project?

We would like to, but in Switzerland the wood industry is very small. We need to find a partner in the Nordic countries, or in France or Germany. To make a specific sample is one thing; to begin production is another. You need investment and you need machinery. Wood is a complex material. You must optimize the process. We have some ideas how to do this, but it costs and it’s a risk.

What about Hidden Carbon? It “aimed to make carbon usable in everyday life and offer users new, legitimate, sensitive experiences”.

Often carbon has been used for improving performance, for example in the automotive industry, where you actually don’t see it and don’t care. And carbon has also been used badly and in a stupid way, just to show how high-tech something is, how expensive. Carbon is very stiff, fragile and very light. We asked ourselves, could we find a new typology of objects made of carbon?

The products that came out of this project were a portable swing, glassware, a sort of tube that when connected to an MP3 player, for example, amplified the sound, and a kind of string that was used to easily bind the parts of a bamboo stool. Was this something disruptive?

Was it disruptive? I wouldn’t concentrate so much on that. I want to question this concept because there’s a contradiction. Can we really be disruptive? Innovation is an invention adapted by the user. Why should anybody use something that is disruptive? The important thing is to open up new paths, new perspectives. Solar Cell was purely disruptive. We had a disruptive technology and disruptive scenarios of use, and we could document how disruptive all this was. The bamboo stool with a carbon string was not disruptive at all. It took a vernacular approach and questioned it. The carbon string opened up new possibilities for making the bamboo construction work better. Hidden Carbon is a way of looking at the material differently.

Let’s shift gears. How was disruptive technology and design integrated into the Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab?

Disruptive ideas don’t necessarily have to relate to a specific technology. You can find disruptive concepts in architecture as well.

Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab 1 is a 7×8 meter acoustically insulated booth that fits six people, when closed. But by opening the lateral walls a wider audience can appreciate the 5000 hours of audio-visual content that comes from the Montreux Jazz Festival’s archive.

In the beginning we battled over the concept of what form the archive should take. We didn’t want to recreate the experience of the original concert. We wanted to be as close as possible to the original content for sure, but we didn’t want to create a piece of art based on the concert. To bring it back to life, we thought it should be a different experience.

Could you tell me something more about the design? The booth looks unique.

The key issue here was the screen and the relationship we have with it. We had digital content that we wanted to bring into a physical space, into architecture. How do you integrate the virtual and the physical to produce something that is meaningful? ALICE (EPFL’s Space Conception Research Studio) investigated a lot of different shapes of screen and observed how the image radiated outside of the booth. Inspired by the baroque church’s trompe l’oeil effect, they came up with a curvature that gives you a perception of depth without cheating your eyes the way 3D goggles do. The new shape of the screen allows you to spend hours with the content and stay relaxed. It is much more immersive than the types of screen we know, and you don’t get this tiring stereoscopic effect while watching the concerts. The screen emits light; you are not in the dark and you can see the space around you, which gives you the sense of a very normal situation. And this is something we have been trying to reinforce from the beginning, in other projects as well. We aim to produce something Super Normal, in reference to Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison. The essence of normality is something that connects, in the end, your proposition with the user’s ordinary life. It’s the key challenge to getting disruptive innovation really adopted. Behind this there is a lot of work. The way you frame a concert is different from, say, how you frame action sports. The type of screen we created is adapted especially to how the stage was filmed; it works for certain types of archival material but not for all. So the result is not just a visual reminder of something that already exists. When you are able to succeed in bringing the essence of normality into disruptive design, you can produce something meaningful. And from what we’ve seen here at the Lab, when you produce meaningful design, things don’t become obsolete so fast. In the end you don’t want to showcase technology, you want to create an experience. The thing is to make people forget about the technology and concentrate on the content.

How do you know when you’ve added real value to the projects you work on?

If it’s a good project, it must push us forward. If we produce something that you can see once in a magazine—this is something any good design studio can do. Our added value is producing knowledge that is not just for one project. You must be able to measure results, to draw conclusions, to prove that you have something real and not just something that you’ve convinced yourself of. Our society has always been driven by the search for new stuff, new knowledge. I think that today we’re not disruptive enough, not the way we used to be. My great grandmother lived to be almost a hundred. She experienced the first vaccine, the first car, the first fridge, and the first radio. For me disruptiveness is about thinking outside of the trends and this does not solely involve disruptive technology. What is important is to see how people use and perceive what we create, and then learn from that. The worst case scenario is when you think you have something cool and after three months nobody is using it and you don’t know why.

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Written by Kinga Kowalczyk for DEE Magazine published by Design Friends Luxembourg

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