Zen and the Art of the Superhuman Make-a-thon

February always turns out to be one of those crazy months of the year where I can’t keep up with my own shadow. Once again I found myself frantically helping to put together our 2nd IDEO London Make-a-thon.


In 2012, IDEO hosted the first ever Make-a-thon at the London studio, working in collaboration with Amnesty International and Thoughtworks.

The Make-a-thon was created then as an event to bring design and hacking together to create new products, services, ideas for social good… in a quick 2 day sprint. You can read my article about last year’s event here.

As always, the Make-a-thon has three core tenets:

  • Multidisciplinary – Bringing together designers, engineers, coders, systems thinkers to approach issues from a multitude of perspectives.
  • Materials agnostic – Working with software, hardware, foamcore, images, brands, words to bring ideas to life in tangible ways.
  • Open source – Seeding further discussion and ideas in the wild and always pushing for impact in the real world.

Traditional Hack-a-thon events tend to move very quickly into the build part. By making this format multidisciplinary and materials agnostic, the hope is to open up the space for new and wide-ranging ideas to emerge and quickly explore those through rapidly prototyping them.

As an outcome of last year’s collaboration, Amnesty prototyped a mobile app to protect those at risk of illegal detention and are planning to release it in the next few months! http://www.openideo.com/open/amnesty/realisation/amnesty-openideo-pathway-to-impact

The topic of this year’s Make-a-thon was Superhuman. With the Olympics and Paralympics wrapping up, the idea of pushing the limits of human potential seemed to be in the air here in London. More recently we saw the Wellcome Trust with it’s Superhuman exhibition. The organisation Enabled-by-Design also hosted a Design-a-thon event to create new ideas for those with physical or mental constraints.

With the theme in place, we created a set of 5 superhuman principles to help us define what Superhuman meant to the team. Amazing communications designer and photographer, Jack Haslehurst, designed a new look-and-feel for the event, setting the principles to a poster.

Superhuman was about pushing the limits of human ability and exploring new experiences. The IDEO London experience team created a wonderfully healthy space with wheatgrass shots and nutritious snacks to keep everyone fueled.

We explored the three areas of Work, Aging and Health with regards to the Superhuman and in all there were 12 briefs, 80 attendees and one heck of a busy 36 hours.  You can read about the briefs and teams in more detail here…

We were also very fortunate to have some great sponsors for the event that supplied technologies to hack with including Neurosky’s EEG brainwave reading technologies, Arduino prototyping boards and electronics from Technology Will Save Us, the Leap Motion sensor, and lots and lots of Sugru.

There were many rich projects and prototypes, here are some very brief prototyping highlights to whet your appetites…

The SuperGames Team transformed knitting into a competitive and hi-tech game, where kitted out knitting needles would detect the knit and allow players to compete online with their knitting activities.

SuperPhysical and SuperSenses created new physical abilities and sensory experiences. SuperPhysical created a set of prototypes where people could control household objects with their thoughts. SuperSenses used haptic vibrations and heat to create a new object that showed you the feeling of a distant location.

SuperDonor were joined by the NHS Organ Donation and Transport unit to re-design the process of organ donation. They created an end-to-end service offering that answered the questions around organ donation and turned it into a viral app that allows users to have full control over their decision.

I was particularly excited about this Make-a-thon as in addition to hosting duties, I also joined a team! At last year’s event, while everyone was busy making away I found myself sitting down in the middle of this whirlwind wishing I wasn’t so consumed with MC’ing the event…

I joined the SuperZen team, working with Nathan Maton, Tim Burrell-Saward, Sinead Mac Manus, Jude Pullen and Felix Reiners.

Our brief was to bring zen and balance to the workplace, as advances in digital technology have meant an over-abundance of work activities, decisions and distractions. We were challenged to create solutions that might help people achieve a sense of flow or calmness as they go about their day.

Miraculously, Sinead happened to be a yoga instructure and digital wellbeing coach. She gave us a download on some of the issues plaguing the human monkey mind, such as:

1. Distractions are our dopamine fix
Every time your brain is distracted by the thought of checking email or twitter, the anticipation actually produces dopamine which gives your brain a little happy hit. We’re chemically wired to want to check things (!)

2. The 90 minute rule
The brain should only focus on tasks for 90 minutes at a time, after which you should take a break or switch to something else to give it a rest.

3. Social nudging over self-discipline
While self-discipline to focus and take adequate breaks can be achieved, it’s difficult to change behaviour on your own. Social nudges can also be a great motivator, for example when your colleague invites you to grab a cup of tea because you’ve forgotten to take a break for a few hours. How could we create more social nudges toward behaviour change?

Our team settled on 2 directions for exploration: the Mood Chair and the Zen Phone.

The Mood Chair is a device that attaches to your office chair with sensors to monitor how long you sit for and how much you fidget. A display on the back of the chair then gently lets your colleagues know when it’s time to invite you to grab a tea together.

Jude Pullen pulled off some foamcore modelling magic, including a lo-fi rotating display. While I assembled distance sensor, accelerometer and stepper motor with an Arduino board to power the insides.

The Zen Phone leverages Neurosky’s Mindwave technology to monitor your brainwaves throughout the day and then gives you a report of what computer activities generate the most amount of distraction, flow and relaxation.

Here Nathan and Tim created interface visualisations and worked with some code samples to get the MindWave headset working.

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 23.43.20

Sinead and Felix did a great job of pulling the story together and creating the overarching brand for our products.

Now rested from the Make-a-thon and fresh from my weekend yoga retreat, I’m very much keen on exploring the idea of bringing zen to work and perhaps leveraging the Neurosky technology in new ways. I’m brewing up a ZenHack (!) – not sure what will be involved, but feel free to leave a comment if you’re interested in participating.

Amongst all this hubbub I am also leaving IDEO and OpenIDEO for some new adventures. I’ll write soon about what I’m up to next and I am so glad I got to help create this second instalment of the Make-a-thon at IDEO and hope good things will bubble up out of it in the next year!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *