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  • Writer's pictureAmber Case

Announcing The Calm Tech Institute - Designing Tech That (Finally) Respects Our Time & Humanity



I’m very excited to announce the launch of the Calm Tech Institute, a new design organization creating standards for technology which respect our time, attention, and humanity.


Our goal with the Calm Tech Institute is to completely change what we expect from technology.


We want everyone asking of every high tech product: Does it demand more of our attention than is needed? Does it become “pass-through” when we use it, so that we can focus only on the task, not the tool? And when it breaks, does it fail gracefully — or force us to install an app update or do another time-consuming chore when we’re in the middle of a project?


Underwriters Laboratories Certification. Image CC by Bill Smith.


During the Victorian era, many of the first electrified products sold to consumers were poorly built and designed, leading to numerous electrocution and fire hazards. Founded in 1894, the Underwriters’ Electrical Bureau launched its UL Certification process to help guide companies on the creation and sale of safe appliances. It quickly became an incredibly influential organization which basically enabled the modern age.


Our ultimate goal is to make our “CTI” stamp nearly as ubiquitous as the “UL” stamp became over the last century. You might have noticed it on lightbulbs and other everyday appliances: a very tiny mark placed on 22 billion products each year worldwide! And while it’s found everywhere, many of us probably don’t know the important historical story behind its origin:


But while we depend every day on invisible guidelines which protect us from electric hazards, we have few standards for technology of the 21th century.


Consequently, we often encounter products and services that interfere with our time and attention in ways which degrade our well-being.


Consider how many technology / design interactions in our daily lives are detrimental, if not dangerous. To take just a few examples:


  • In the morning, you may wake still feeling groggy; chances are it’s because your sleep was spoiled by the blue light of your phone, refrigerator, or other “smart” device.

  • If you drive to work, your car probably has a touchscreen on the dashboard — even though it’s incredibly unsafe and stressful to operate in traffic.

  • When you’re at a new restaurant intended to convey a chic, hip interior, it may be lined with concrete surfaces that make every sound in the place so loud that you can’t hear anything your friend is saying.

  • If you are traveling, and you have a pet at home, you may intermittently worry that your automated feeder suddenly stops working due to a cloud computing outage. (Which is exactly what happened with PetNet, a well-funded feeder that didn’t follow any engineering principles of redundancy.)


In these instances and so many more, the stress you experience from the technology is by design — either because the designers did not fully prioritize your attention and humanity, or worse, are making your excess attention part of the product design.


Teaching Siri to Sit is important, but also we need standards to quantify whether something is taking up too much of our attention. Which brings us to the Calm Tech Institute and the vision which inspires it:

The Mui Board was on display as part of a “calm bedroom” installation CES 2023.


Evolving a Vision for the Calm Tech Institute


I’m leading this Institute with a group of amazing advisors, among them bestselling author and futurist Doug Rushkoff, along with design, research, and marketing execs who’ve worked with an incredible range of organizations including Pixar, Samsung, MIT Media Lab, Sonos, Warner Brothers, Xbox, Kyoto’s mui Lab, and Xerox PARC. We all deeply care about making it possible to make better things on a mass scale, and helping create the design standards to make that happen.


The Calm Tech Institute also distills what I’ve learned in technology since I was a kid, and throughout my career in tech:


My dad and I when I was a toddler. He was showing me how to test some speakers he was building.


I grew up in a house with an inventor dad. He built all sorts of connected devices, and even in the 80s, was intent on putting “smart” things everywhere — with mixed, often hilarious results.


For instance, he gave me a light switch in my bedroom engineered to activate on voice command. But I discovered that if its audio range was set too low, I’d have to yell at it loudly — and if we set the range too high, the light would suddenly switch on when a truck passed by! I soon realized that the classic analog light switch was better. Why? Because a switch’s input is unambiguous. (Imagine playing Mario Brothers with your voice vs. a controller!)


When you grow up alongside early tech, you learn how expectations around new devices can differ from their reality. I recall starting to formulate questions about this around the age of four. What do we mean when we say a technology “works”? And why do some devices, like doors, foot pedals, and eye glasses, still work about as well, even after being around for centuries or millennia?


Questions like these led me to study Cyborg Anthropology in college. I wanted to understand how technology affects culture, but, more importantly, how we could design tech at human scale.


I became obsessed with Calm Technology when I read some overlooked XEROX Parc papers from the 90s on the concept. Their lead author, Mark Weiser, died at 46, long before he could expand on these ideas himself.


Their influence is reflected in my 2010 TED Talk, “We are all cyborgs now”. While incredibly excited by technology expanding our expressive capabilities, I was also concerned that its implementation was already degrading our humanity:


“I’m worried that people aren’t taking time for mental reflection. They aren’t slowing down and stopping being around all those people [online who] compete for their attention on simultaneous time interfaces, allergy and panic architecture.”

When I co-founded Geoloqi, a location-based startup acquired by Esri in 2012, we incorporated Calm Tech insights into how we presented map data. We featured a “share my location for 30 minutes” option for mobile phone users, to make it easy for two people to find each other more easily at a crowded airport. More information when it’s needed — and only then — is calming.


The XEROX Parc papers had the beginnings of a set of principles; I extended these broadly into a more robust framework for designing through Calm Tech, making it relevant for devices and experiences operating both today and in the future. They’re detailed in my 2015 book Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design.


Since the book launched, I’ve been approached by numerous companies interested in integrating principles of Calm Tech in their products, including multiple automotive firms, hospitality companies, and software giants. I took on all of these projects, creating custom frameworks and workshops for corporations around the world — but quickly realized that only one person can scale up so far.


And that’s how the Calm Tech Institute was born.


What’s Next?


As a multidisciplinary team, the Calm Tech Institute is developing robust standards across many industries, enabling them to iterate designs for products which respect human time and attention. Through our Calm Tech Certification process, companies will develop products which earn our stamp of approval — and enhance their appeal to conscious consumers.


We’re now seeking established companies and organizations interested in joining our pilot program, especially those with a focus on connected home products and the hospitality industry. (And yes, we’re offering Calm Tech design principles for applications of AI — though primarily those which are implemented in smart products.) These participants will have the early opportunity to certify their product/service as calm, and learn more about designing tech in harmony with humans.


Together, I believe we can build a future where technology better serves human needs — and not the other way around.


 

Go to www.calmtech.institute to find out more, and use the Contact page to tell us about your project! You can also connect with us on LinkedIn, and with Amber Case on LinkedIn, on X, or on Medium.




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1 Comment


bruce
May 21

Congratulations! This is a great platform to help launch calm as an industry standard.

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