Digital innovation: today’s radical is tomorrow’s normal


Last week I arranged to meet a friend at Bristol’s Harbourside. Alexa told me that it’s going to be sunny all day so I used my Voi app to locate a nearby scooter, scan the QR code and make my way into town. It was heaving when I arrived, so I used the Find My app to locate my friend – who was looking significantly less hot and bothered than me when I finally spotted them.

We browsed my friend’s dating app Happn to see who they had crossed paths with as we waited for our food, which we ordered via the cafe’s own branded app to beat the queues. Alexa clearly didn’t get the memo about the late afternoon showers so we ordered an Uber home.

The above scenario is totally familiar today. However, just 10 years ago this would not have been possible because none of the digital products that I used had been launched. They would have been part of innovation programmes in R&D departments or in the tech start-up ecosystem.

Now, they are an everyday part of our social practice and how we operate in our neighbourhoods, which highlights just how quickly the ‘digital revolution’ has impacted our lives.

This has accelerated amid Covid-19, with digital technologies underpinning our social, economic and cultural lives and causing a massive shift in motivation and behaviour. With this trend set to continue, companies know that they need to be innovating now for their future success.

In this article I will look at cutting edge, radical research and early stage projects that are being investigated today – rooted in arts and science – to paint a picture of how we might be experiencing and interacting in the world by 2031.

Back to the future

Steve Jobs announced the launch of the first iPhone in June 2007, kickstarting a smartphone evolution that shapes the way we see and interact with the world today. While it wasn’t the first smartphone, the iPhone marked a critical moment in the development of personal technologies, bringing with it visual voicemail, multi-touch gestures, HTML email, an iPod music and video player app and a Maps app powered by Google Maps – all very standard now but revolutionary 15 years ago.

I was the founding Creative Director of an organisation called Nesta Futurelab around this time and we were exploring how new and emerging technologies could support education within formal and informal contexts. The iPhone was an exciting development in technological advancement as the mobile market had largely been dominated by feature phones and Blackberrys up until that point.

As part of our mission, we wanted young people to have agency in the world and empowerment in what we now call digital placemaking. Through our research programmes, Futurelab asked questions like ‘How might co-designing and co-constructing enhance their experience of a place through locative media?’ Two particular projects that I worked on at the time which addresses this question were pioneering and groundbreaking for their time (2006-7).

The first of these was a social gaming prototype for public space called MobiMissions, where 16- to 18-year-olds explored citizenship by creating place-based missions using their camera phones. This was early stage location-based gaming – almost a decade before the launch of Pokemon Go!

Photo of teenages and old mobile phones, with a screen grab of phone screen 'Mission detail: What graffiti do you like and why?'
MobiMissions – University of Nottingham and Futurelab

The second project, Create-A-Scape, enabled school pupils to create and situate digital media in their physical neighbourhoods, for others to experience in location. We weren’t using smartphones, instead, personal digital assistants (PDAs) helped us to imagine future worlds.

Photo of primary school children taking photos on a PDA, and a screengrab of the Create A Scape homepage
Create-A-Scape was Education winner of the New Statesman New Media Awards 2007

Both examples from my past serve to demonstrate that what was once radical and cutting-edge is now mundane and far more sophisticated than we were envisioning at the time. And so the cycle continues…

Today’s radical

What are some of the early stage research and innovation projects that could shape the way we live our lives in the not-too-distant future?

XR Telepresence

Are office telecommunications soon to be a thing of the past? Microsoft is currently exploring XR Telepresence technology to see how it can be used to enhance our sense of belonging in the workplace – wherever we are working.

Images of Local (AR), Remote (VR) and VR user views of an office
Image: Microsoft, from Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction. April 2021, Vol 5(CSCW1, Article No. 59): pp. 1-31

VROOM, which stands for Virtual Robot Overlay for Online Meetings, augments a virtual avatar overlay of a remote worker to the work environment. This is viewable through a ‘HoloLens’ worn by the person in the work space, through which the remote user can gesture and express themselves. A 360 degree camera on a robot, meanwhile, gives the remote user an immersive 360 degree view of the work space through a VR headset.

An early study Microsoft ran to understand how pairs of participants collaborate using VROOM shows there is potential for a system like this to support dynamic collaborative activities in which embodiment, gesturing, mobility, spatial awareness and non-verbal expressions are important. As organisations adapt to new ways of hybrid working, VROOM and products like it are poised to play instrumental roles in the future of work.

Sweat powered batteries for wearable tech

Scientists from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, meanwhile, have developed a prototype battery powered by human perspiration. How? The 2cm by 2cm stretchable battery contains printed silver flake electrodes that generate electricity in the presence of sweat.

What’s more, the battery doesn’t contain any heavy metals or toxic chemicals like regular batteries do, which makes it an environmentally-friendly alternative that could help to reduce electronic waste.

Three scientists looking to camera in lab, holding a small sheet with battery material
(L-R) Nanyang Technological University’s School of Materials Science & Engineering (MSE) Senior Research Fellow Dr Gurunathan Thangavel, Materials scientist and Dean of NTU Graduate College Professor Lee Pooi See, and NTU MSE Research Fellow Dr Lyu Jian.

The battery has performed promisingly in early trials and is expected to be able to power all sorts of wearable devices in future. The team is now looking at how factors such as body heat might enhance the battery’s performance. Are we moving towards a world where human-powered devices become the norm?


Is the future of fashion a sustainable one? These early stage research projects certainly give us hope that the fashion industry is on track to finding alternative solutions to some of its biggest ethical and moral problems.

One such project, undertaken by a Masters student at Central St Martins, explores how programmable algorithmic electro-magnets could be used to generate and mimic biological patterns in lab-grown furs. The designer aims to create an algorithm so sophisticated that it makes it impossible to distinguish between real and lab-grown fur.

Petri dish with growth, on top of electrodes, wires and circuit board
Programmable Lab-Grown Fur: Federico Oliva, UAL

Another project from students at Imperial College London has been looking at how to make the footwear industry sustainable through augmented reality digital skins and 3D-printed biodegradable self-healing technology. They are creating a shoe that is able to regenerate up to 50% of its total surface area through a user-specific microvascular healing structure, therefore extending a shoe’s lifetime.

Incredible and inspiring ideas to reshape our lives!

Sparkly opaque plastic-looking shoe
Image: E&T Innovation Awards 2021

Handheld near-infrared spectroscopy sensor

There are exciting things going on in healthcare sciences too. A team of students at University College Dublin have determined it is possible to accurately measure the fat content in foods using a handheld near-infrared spectroscopy sensor.

They have created machine learning classification models that are able to distinguish between vegetable fat spreads with an accuracy of over 99%, which could play a significant role in helping to reduce the risk of people developing cardiovascular disease.

The team is now looking to explore other compounds such as carbohydrates, as well as expanding the concepts developed in the project to work on the diminution of other health conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

Phyto printing

Phyto printing is the process in which light projection is used to control the growth of phytoplankton to create high-resolution prints and living materials that breathe and metabolise. This particular project is looking to design a printer that would make this process accessible to designers, artists and makers, allowing them to explore innovative biofabrication process in their work.

Leaf image printed on a sleeve
Phyto printing- Luis Undritz, UAL

This not only has huge implications for how we design art and materials, but also how we design public spaces. Phytoplankton can produce large amounts of oxygen and bind carbon dioxide, which could play a vital role in our efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and bring cleaner air to our towns and cities.

Tips for success

1. Key to the success of MobiMissions and Create-A-Scape back in 2007 was the creative and thoughtful use of technology. We weren’t led by the technology. We were using the appropriate technologies to support the questions posed about people, place and learning. MobiMissions explored citizenship and agency, Create-A-Scape explored creativity, collaboration and empowerment; the technology was an enabler not a driver. When innovating to advance your organisation, don’t follow the technology ‘hype cycle’, instead spend time imagining the future and work with specialists who can help you to design the best technical solutions to achieve your vision.

2. I write often about the benefit of principles underpinning projects. In short, make sure that your innovative projects are values-driven and that those values are understood by your entire project team and that those principles inform decision making throughout the workflow and management of your project.

3. Whilst this is the third tip, it’s core to success. Ask really good questions and make sure you invest in research to understand the full context within which you are operating. By doing so you are setting yourself up for success.

Tomorrow’s normal

Now, it’s 2031. I wake up, put on my 3D-printed biodegradable trainers and sweat-powered smartwatch and go for a run. I head to work in my biomaterial clothes, which change shape and colour throughout the day, ready for a day of back-to-back VROOM meetings.

Later, I meet my friend for dinner (thankfully, my ever-changing wearable wardrobe keeps me looking and smelling fresh) and laugh when she scans her lab-grown burger and is surprised by its high fat content. I’d rather not know, personally. We finish our drinks, book a flying taxi on our 7G-powered smartphones (however did we cope with 5G and 6G?) and head home. I ask my retro voice assistant for tomorrow’s weather forecast, just for fun.

Jo Morrison is Director of Digital Innovation & Research at Calvium

Feature Image Source: Andy Kelly on Unsplash 

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