Intellectual Mobility – TedX

Creating the Software to Design your Hardware

A TEDx talk by Carson Smuts – Bellville, South Africa 2016

An interview with Cape Talk about the event:

Written version:

If you hear the phrase “Intellectual mobility” you probably think of the exchange of knowledge , how ideas are passed on from one person to another. This is one way to consider mobility and is certainly a large part of the work we do as city science researchers in understanding movement patterns and social connections.

You can also think of intellectual mobility as flexibility of the mind. How many positions can your mind take? How much intellectual mobility can you actually exercise.

In our complex digital world, language and tools have become highly specialized, to the point that interdisciplinary communication becomes so difficult that it prevents collaborative work.

One of the greatest challenges we encounter is that our digital tools, are designed with prescribed functions and supply us with preemptive solutions. In other words it inhibits an open solution.


For example lets take a look at the work of the artist Paul Klee. He says about a hand drawn line, that it is a dot that went for a walk.

“A line is a dot that went for a walk.” – Paul Klee

A digitally drawn line is a defined set of points where we already know the beginning and the end. The starting point and the conclusion and the algorithm connects the dots. Not exactly a creative process.

In fact its the antithesis of creativity, it is already programmed. Even scripting, which appears to be open ended, would rely on a predefined array.

However a hand drawn line made by the dot that went for a walk is not only unpredictable but that it is made up of an infinite number of dots each leading to an infinite number of possibilities.  An infinite number of points, infinitely small, sitting side-by-side. The potential of the entire line is equally as infinite.

The problem is that this computers cannot calculate infinity and so the potential had to be defined in finite terms with the advent of CAD software.

In the same way that a CAD program uses algorithms because it cannot handle infinite possibilities. Our digital self must be defined and made finite. To corporate companies our digital self cannot be open ended with infinite possibilities.

They need to narrow you down, profile you and market to you, so that they can ultimately sell YOU. They can’t sell something they haven’t defined. So they are in the business of simplifying, categorizing , packaging and selling us on.

We are socially and professionally defined by what we watch, listen to, like, and download.

For example, Google shows me what I want before I finish typing, sometimes distracting me from my original purpose. That doesn’t say much for my concentration span , I know, but sometimes we loose our resistance. Amazon shows me books based on what I have already read. Netflix and Spotify will suggest that I listen and watch content based on what I have streamed. They aim to sell me a product based on what I already know and what they think I want and Facebook reinforces the social circles we are already part of.

Hence, we consume only what we know and what think we like. Less exposed to alternatives, which could lead to less possibilities.


In 1940 Walter Benjamin wrote about Paul Klees Angelus Novus , Angel of History:

“A storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” – Walter Benjamin

This was a very different time with a very different set of issues. Never the less, our age has its own storm of progress, propelling us forward, relentlessly… and with it, we find ourselves not in a pile of debris but in the cloud of debris.

With all this debris the cloud will attempt to define us, resulting in a finite version of ourselves. However, I would argue that our minds are not finite and thrive, develop and evolve when we have access to things beyond our definition.

We can’t exercise our neural plasticity. We are less agile, we are more constricted , we are less intellectually mobile.


Angulus Novis by Paul Klee

Exposure to interdisciplinary knowledge is only a small part of what allows us to release the latent potential for innovation. Nevertheless, I believe it is a vital part.

Even Einstein said the problems we face today cannot be solved with the prescriptive tools and professions that have created them in the first place. In other words the unique challenges we face today require a unique set of tools and perspectives.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

So what we have got here, are tools that provide us with prescribed, stock, off the shelf answer and we ourselves are defined to be sold to highest bidder.

We need freedom from the prescriptive tools and freedom from intellectual definition.

One positive aspect to this cloud of debris, is that somewhere inside the storm is a gateway to information that will can result in the knowledge to form a relationship with technology. Where you create your own tools, where you are in control.

Giving us the ability to re-position ourselves so that we can look through multiple lenses and hopefully result in a new perspective.

To reposition yourself, one needs to create your own tools where computation works with you and responds to your unique challenges. Where computation is not based on a prescribed set of algorithms that merely interpolate user input.

As an example, this is a project we are developing at the MIT media lab. We develop the hardware and software in order to facilitate collaborative design.

Cities today are ever more complex with their own cloud of data. We would like to enable communities and professionals to explore disciplines and spaces outside of there own so that they may partake in the design of cities.

The variables we test update dynamically through interaction with the model in realtime. Results are projected onto the model itself illustrating the impact of your moves on traffic, amenities, energy, pollution, activities…. the list could be endless.

The key here is that when the hand makes a change on the model, it is a result of hand-eye-brain coordination, tapping into the 10 billion bits per second retina hardware of the human brain. For a time, everyone standing around this platform is lending their organic computational power to the platform itself. This creates a feedback loop. The result is urban planning and design that is more accessible, more inclusive and more supportive of the collective.

CityScope images and video

At MIT I developed the view cube in order to allow people to interact with a physical model or plan. The software and hardware aims to enhance the tangible experience and leverage hand eye coordination during a collaborative design process. This allows participants to for go helmets and glasses in order to immersive themselves in a 3-Dimensional virtual representation while allowing them to maintain open communication with the group.

Virtual reality in a collaborative environment should not be confined to your own perspective nor should it be private.

Embracing the diversity of disciplines and perspectives, the interaction is open, accessible, and visible by others so that it is truly collaborative.

© 2015 Studio Smuts - conceptual explorations of evolving dimensions