Design Through CERN


19 January 2018

The founding charter of CERN, the Geneva-based fundamental physics laboratory established in 1952 to reestablish postwar Europe as a centre for science, makes interesting reading for a design audience. In this charter, Cern describes four strands to its mission: “Research – Seeking and finding answers to questions about the universe; Technology – Advancing the frontiers of technology; Collaborating – Bringing nations together through science; Education – Training the scientists of tomorrow”

Sound familiar? Many of these ambitions are hot topics in design, a discipline giddy upon the value of collaboration and education, as well as the potential of emerging technologies and material research to maintain design’s status (or so the dogma runs) as the problem-solving discipline par excellence. The work conducted at CERN – which today largely focuses upon particle physics through experiments conducted using the laboratory’s Large Hadron Collider – is wildly different from that undertaken by designers, yet the underlying values and approach of the organisation ought to provoke a sense of kinship. CERN is an environment in which designers ought to feel at home.

Certainly, this seems to be the ethos behind Challenge Based Innovation (CBI), an annual programme in which design students from IED Barcelona are invited to the Geneva institution and tasked with developing projects that respond to social issues across fields such as education, public health, pollution and emergency assistance. Now in its fourth year, the programme pairs IED students with contemporaries from Barcelona’s Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) engineering school and ESADE business school, inviting the participants to form cross-disciplinary teams that are then assigned a topic to investigate. The teams are given access to the resources, technical infrastructure and expertise of CERN’s IdeaSquare – a body tasked with “nurturing innovation” at CERN by fostering cooperation between researchers, engineers, industry and students – and challenged to spend around four months developing their ideas through to proof of concept. Just before Christmas, the students of the most recent CBI presented their final projects inside the conference hall contained within CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation, a spherical wooden structure that smacks of the optimism of New York’s Unisphere.

“From an educational point of view this is project-based learning and very experiential,” says Luciana Leveratto, IED’s academic dean and the university’s lead on the CBI project. “Students get transformed during this experience and leave as different professionals; they’re going to impact society differently because being at CERN and working in this way gives them a different perspective. Equally, CERN develops so much knowledge, technology and resources that are important and could have many different applications in society. The idea is that students might be able to shorten the gap between this technology and scientific research and find applications for the benefit of society.”

Of the projects developed as part of this year’s CBI, a common belief seemed to emerge in the potential of big data, and analysis of personal data, in order to better tailor designs to meet society’s needs. Sentra, a vest based upon haptic technology to be worn during virtual reality simulations, was proposed as a means of collecting data on blood pressure, temperature and responses to stimuli in order to help organisations working in war zones and humanitarian crises tailor their training programmes to specific individuals. Similarly, another team proposed Säker, a device used to detect radon gas in homes and public buildings (the cause of an estimated 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States each year). The team behind Säker argued that by linking their radon detectors to an app, they would be able to pool data on radon levels from around the world, thereby creating a map of hotspots for the carcinogenic gas. Yet set against a backdrop in which personal data is being rapidly monetised (such that a brand like Siemens can freely issue the following statement: “We need to understand data as an asset – and turn it into a value”), and fears are growing as to the extent to which such data is collected and the ends to which it is used (India’s state-run Aadhaar biometric identity scheme is chillingly comprehensive and invasive, for instance), the students’ faith in data collection as a force for social betterment was perhaps surprising.

The project’s roots in CERN, however, seemed to have provided a model for data-driven solutions that appealed to the students’ sensibilities. CERN’s experiments around particle physics provide a stronger basis for scientific discovery, with the amount of data that can be harvested by the large hadron collector’s various collectors. At CERN, data is the means by which a phenomenon is approached, and through which it will subsequently be unravelled and understood. IED’s students seem to have found such an approach laudable, and subsequently explored ways in which a similar form of data drive might be used to tackle design problems and be effectively anchored to an ethical desire to resolve social issues. Whether this kind of approach would be possible in the real world – in which data is all too readily exploited and commodified – is debatable (and no doubt the students and their tutors will explore this in further analysis of the CBI’s results), but within the context of a student project intended to engage with CERN’s modus operandi, it struck a winningly optimistic note.

This belief that technology might save us, or at least play a role in ameliorating some of society’s worst excesses, was most compellingly evinced by Cortex, a proposal to use blockchain technology to create a secure, decentralised, readily accessible system for storing academic certificates. The team behind Cortex created their proposal in response to UN statistics suggesting that 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide. Future job opportunities for such people, the team behind Cortex argued, are often limited by an inability to demonstrate their credentials, with paper certifications frequently lost, left behind or destroyed when a community is displaced. Blockchain, a method of storing data across computers around the world rather than in a single location, was deemed a means by which control over one’s own accomplishments might be removed from the vagaries and variabilities of paper certificate systems, as well as representing a democratic move through which power over such data would be removed from the hands of individual institutions. Whether such a system would be practicable or desirable (access to the system would be provided through biometrics, a technology that has often provoked fear for its potential to bolster the kind of totalitarian regimes that frequently cause displacement) is uncertain, but the students proposal represented a compassionate response to the issues at hand, as well as evincing a utopian belief in technology as a force to empower those who are vulnerable or disenfranchised.

A statement on CERN’s website describes the laboratory as “not only an exploratory journey at the forefront of particle physics but […] also an amazing human adventure where diversity, collaboration and respect are part of the game.” Born out of the wartime devastation of continental Europe, CERN was the expression of a postwar vision that collaboration and scientific understanding might be tools for society’s betterment. With Challenge Based Innovation, IED Barcelona has invited its students to approach design and technology with a similar optimism. In its desire to bridge the gap between CERN’s scientific research and society, the project serves up an admirable tonic by transposing the laboratory’s founding ideals into a utopian vision of design as a tool for social betterment.