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How art programs drive innovation at Thoughtworks

Artists working with emerging technologies frequently generate new insights on the future of culture, industry and society. At Thoughtworks we regularly engage with artists, collaborating on cutting edge technology projects, and enriching the perspectives we bring to our clients.

Our recent explorations have taken us on journeys into cyborgism and transhumanism, bias in machine intelligence, movement in robotics, and more.

Cyborg artists Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas during their residency at Thoughtworks
Cyborg artists Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas during their residency at Thoughtworks
This is the second article in a series exploring the symbiosis of art and technology. The first article examines how and why this particular combination generates such powerful outcomes. Building forwards, this article explains how Thoughtworks has created a suite of programs to harness this intersection by supporting artists, for the benefit of our employees, partners, communities and clients.

The suite of programs

We refer to these initiatives collectively under the umbrella of Thoughtworks Arts. This encompasses three programs, anchored in our New York office but with global reach: the Thoughtworks Arts Residency, Art-A-Hack and Hardware Hack Lab.

Thoughtworks Arts program logos

Thoughtworks Arts drives innovation by creating facilitated frameworks and contexts in which art can collide with commercial technology development.

The formation of Thoughtworks Arts has been organic, with each program reinforcing its predecessors and building on successes. These programs are outlined, along with my personal journey, in the TEDx talk “How art & technology predict the future”, recorded in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2017.

Today, Thoughtworks Arts is co-directed by myself, Andrew McWilliams, and the artist and Fulbright World Learning Specialist Dr. Ellen Pearlman. However the journey began in the summer of 2013, instigated by a chance meeting between myself and fellow Thoughtworks employee Kent Rahman.

1. The weekly demo and exchange lab

Discovering a mutual love of emerging tech, Kent and I decided to start meeting on a weekly basis to share knowledge of hardware innovation in a social setting. We invited other Thoughtworkers to join us, and soon extended the invitation out publicly, naming the program Hardware Hack Lab.

Hardware Hack Lab became a regular open-ended meeting space and demo exchange, where creative technologists of all backgrounds meet and share their latest projects and interests. The project runs every Wednesday evening, and continues to this day.
Introduction to the Hardware Hack Lab
The technology explored during these sessions ranges from from microcontrollers and circuit-building through sensors and displays, to virtual and augmented reality. Members frequently bring in prototypes and works-in-progress to develop and share. Others come to look over shoulders and get a handle on what’s happening around them.

The lab is run in collaboration with the Volumetric Society, a group with over 3,000 members exploring the intersection of emerging technology and creative practice. This widens the network of technologies, skillsets, issues and ideas that participants experience and exchange in each session.
  Among the earliest members of the Hardware Hack Lab were Joel Murphy and Conor Russomanno, founders of the open source Brain Computer Interface technology OpenBCI.

OpenBCI enables it’s users to access a wide array of real-time electrical signals representing human mental activity via electrodes placed on the skull. Making the system free supports researchers, engineers, artists, scientists, designers and others to use what was previously a more esoteric technology.
OpenBCI launches it’s Kickstarter at Thoughtworks
We hosted an OpenBCI hackathon, helping them raise over $215,000 to build out the initial release of their system for the community.

Innovations from the lab have impacted Thoughtworks clients. My work on bluetooth mesh networks, for example, fed into a project in which we installed physical “like” buttons at InfoQ conferences. The battery-powered buttons are capable of being infinitely extended in a self-healing mesh network, with a central device controlling access to the internet for permanent data storage in the cloud.

With the Hardware Hack Lab running every week of the year, we are regularly generating idea-sharing and co-working opportunities which help our clients innovate. To build on this, next we created a program to incubate teams of collaborators in dynamic summer workshops.

2. The wide-reaching co-creation experiment

Through the weekly Hardware Hack Lab, Thoughtworks saw the value of enabling open social exchange between a wide range of practitioners. In 2014, Thoughtworks Arts launched it’s second program, named Art-A-Hack.

Art-A-Hack curates and facilitates the creation of prototypes via team-based art practice. We ‘collide’ professionals of varied backgrounds into teams, enabling collaboration between people who otherwise might not have the opportunity to work together.

We then curate projects and incubate teams in the development of a prototype or other exhibatable outcome.
An Overview of Art-A-Hack 2016
Each season we publish an Open Call, asking applicants to list their skills, backgrounds and any project proposals they may have. Based on the submissions, we build teams around the strongest ideas that can be achieved given the resources, skill sets and time available. In an average season we might support 30 participants over eight or nine teams, working to bring their ideas into reality.

Our partnerships with institutions such as Microsoft, NYU Tandon School of Engineering, the Metropolitan Museum Media Lab, the Human Impacts Institute and CyberFest help infuse the program with a wide array of influences. The program is also popular with Thoughtworks employees, who regularly lead or support teams.

Many projects we support often spur highly successful ongoing projects. In 2016 we incubated the initial prototype of To Be With Hamlet, the world’s first live-time telepresence production of Shakespeare in virtual reality. The project then premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017.

“To Be With Hamlet” in VR, and (inset) the team
“To Be With Hamlet” in VR, and (inset) the team
In addition to this, Thoughtworks employees have worked on multiple VR projects during Art-A-Hack, learning new skills and investigating new technical domains.

Using OpenBCI’s hardware, the Dual Brains team explored human empathy via touch, projecting their brainwaves in live performances. Thoughtworks employee Julien Deswaef developed this codebase for our recent exhibition of this performance at New York’s SPRING/BREAK art fair, as part of Armory Week in 2018.

This kind of cross-pollination demonstrates the reinforcing effect of maintaining a suite of related initiatives. Communities, individuals, and ideas flow from one program to another, often producing surprising results.

With many and varied participants in short and impactful collaborations, Art-A-Hack bubbles with energy, producing prototypes and insights in multiple domains each season. To build on this program, we created an arts residency, which fosters deep and sustained collaborations between artists and our employees.

3. The in-depth incubator exploring tech and society

The success and popularity of the first two Thoughtworks Arts programs set the stage for a new initiative to take on deeper research. Where Art-A-Hack incubates large numbers of teams on initial prototypes, the Thoughtworks Arts Residency incubates individual artists with provocative and complex ideas.

The residency was launched in 2016 with a mission to support artists investigating new technologies and considering their implications for society. Residents are provided a workspace, stipend, active support and incubation, and access to the global network of tech sector employees at Thoughtworks, lasting anywhere from 3-6 months.

Karen Palmer’s AI installation, RIOT
Karen Palmer’s AI installation, RIOT
Each residency invites artists to apply given a particular theme. So far we have worked with artists to explore issues including transhumanism and cyborgism, genetic data privacy, biometrics in virtual reality, the biases of AI and movement in robotics.

With each artist we actively promote connections between residents and Thoughtworks employees. This may result in the formation of a global project team of analysts, developers, project managers and designers, or it may result in a very direct collaboration between the artist and a single employee. Each project works out differently different depending on its unique characteristics.
  China-based Thoughtworks analyst Caihong Liu for example, researched researched silicones and materials for implants during the Cyborg Foundation’s residency in 2016. Later that year, designer Shoili Kanungo in India collaborated with resident Heather Dewey-Hagborg, creating hand-drawn ink prints exploring DNA, politics and data.

Most recently, Thoughtworks software developer Angelica Perez led a broad international development team in the USA to create EmoPy, an open source emotion expression analysis toolkit. This system is the engine behind resident artist Karen Palmer’s AI film installation RIOT.

Cyborg Artist Neil Harbisson during his residency at Thoughtworks
Cyborg Artist Neil Harbisson during his residency at Thoughtworks
Inspired by these experiences, team members and collaborators often write articles, sharing what they have learned.

Stefanie Grewenig in Germany looked at ways to become a cyborg, while Oryan Inbar in the USA described the industrial design process for human sensory organs. Stephanie Weber, also in the USA, looked at how AI is transforming the criminal justice system, asking how decision automation impacts people at critical junctures in their lives.

The residency program directors wrote up research on AI and bias gathered in collaboration with partners at the MacArthur Foundation-funded AI Now Institute housed at New York University.

The Thoughtworks Arts Residency is the most recent addition to this suite of creative programs at Thoughtworks. Using art practice and community engagement as framing principals, the three programs are calibrated to achieve depth, breadth, and consistency of innovation.

Art’s role within Thoughtworks culture

Thoughtworks Arts programs have become deeply enmeshed in Thoughtworks, with regular global interest and participation across projects. The reason this has worked so well is because the programs elevate core themes considered high priority within Thoughtworks company culture.

As a 5000-strong global tech consultancy, Thoughtworks serves clients spanning industries and sectors, including retail, travel, finance, healthcare, energy and education.

Thoughtworks developers working on EmoPy for Karen Palmer’s RIOT
Thoughtworks developers working on EmoPy for Karen Palmer’s RIOT
The increasing pace of technological change means that our clients are always looking for ways to rapidly innovate and lead their respective fields, and they are looking for varied sources of inspiration and technical knowledge to help them accomplish it.

Our work in Thoughtworks Arts feeds into Thoughtworks’ views on emerging technology landscapes, contributing first-hand experiences of new technical realities and broadening dialog among employees. These programs support our aim of technical excellence in new fields, and expand our ability to support clients.

Further, the continued expansion of Thoughtworks Arts’ partner network continually injects fresh viewpoints into our internal and external discourse.

The ‘three pillars’ of Thoughtworks
The ‘three pillars’ of Thoughtworks
At Thoughtworks we are committed to our pillar of social justice, supported by the deeply-held conviction of employees across the company. We continue to engage with progressive individuals and organizations, allowing employees to contribute their skills. Thoughtworks Arts reinforces this arrangement, with employees contributing their skills to exploration of new and unexpected social impacts of emerging technologies.

All of this goes to the heart of Thoughtworks culture, in which we value our technical excellence as much as we aim for positive social impact in the world.

The next articles in this series will examine some of our projects in more detail. I will explain how these projects were formulated and what they have achieved. I will also look more deeply at the value genertated by these explorations at the intersection of art and commercial technology development.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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