As objects around us begin to collect data and make suggestions about what might be desirable, it is possible that they may even be able to design things that we could never think of. Project Thing Tank is doing design research on these possibilities.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) takes a firm foothold, and as even the mundane objects of our everyday lives become instrumented and connected, they will begin creating and exhausting huge streams of data about their habitual activities. They will learn patterns of use, form connections with other objects, and eventually become aware of themselves in an ecology of other objects and sentient beings. Soon, they will become better positioned to suggest new iterations of themselves or to see connections that may be invisible to the human eye.

In Thing Tank, we grapple and tinker with such intriguing questions brought up by the rise the IoT: When everything is connected, can things design things? Can a tea cup go online and decide to interact with a kettle to create a social network of objects? Can a massive data set be mined from a fork and inspire surprising new designs and uses? The answer is: yes.

Thing Tank is an interdisciplinary team trying to figure out how objects can evolve and contribute to innovation. We think of how to bring the things around us to become part of the design culture. What would it be like if things themselves become part of design process? In order to find out, we use a combination of field studies, object instrumentation and machine learning to listen to what ‘things’ have to tell about their shared use, reuse and deviant repurpose, and it harvests these data to inspire idea generation, fabrication, rapid prototyping and business development generation.

To listen to the humans we are asking the objects. This comes with new ‘thing-driven’ user experiences, new research and design methodologies, and business models.

(Our key objectives are exploring the potential of objects and identifying novel uses and practice by using a combination of ethnographic studies, machine learning and interaction design, developing innovative rapid prototypes that offer stakeholders new products and opportunities within existing systems, and investigating how the linkages between used objects and the patterns identified through machine learning can support new cycles of innovation.)

ThingTank is 2.5 million project by the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering (IDE) at Delft University of Technology (Netherlands), the Centre for Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), the Active Intelligence Group at the University of Electro-Communications (Japan) and the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz (USA).

The project was awarded by the MIT Skoltech Initiative after an international competition against top universities such as Yale, Stanford and Oxford and is funded by the Skoltech Institute of Science and Technology, Russia (2014-2019).