20 Years of exploring Intelligent Systems

Stby has been doing foundational design research around emerging technologies since 2003, when the company was founded. At that time, coming into the 2000s, digital and non-digital worlds were colliding. There was wonder around how humans and technology could interact, how urban spaces could become more engaging and how objects connected to the internet could result in playfulness and efficiency.

As the years went on, mobile internet and smartphones came onto the scene, changing the way people interacted with each other and the world around them. Artificial intelligence and big data gave way to personalised experiences. Wearables revolutionised the personal health industry. Hybrid working reshaped the digital tools we use to get our work done. Through all of these changes, we did what we do best: explore.

Design research informs grounded design decisions

As design researchers, we are curious people who sit at the cross-section of people and innovation. We have seen technologies come and go and come back again, each time with new changes and challenges for us to explore. The role of design research has always been to better understand these emerging technologies as they grow and develop in order for our clients to make grounded design decisions, inline with the needs of real people. On these types of projects, Stby often works with early adopters and lead users; conducting research with these people helps inform designs for the wider population.

Due to our exploratory methods, design research is also able to uncover additional social and ethical considerations of technology. Over the last twenty years, Stby has engaged in discussions around digital inclusion of online services, human-centeredness of smart cities, ethics around data privacy with AI and many more. These conversations took place at conferences, with clients and partners or simply just around our lunchroom table. Our roles as design researchers and curious people have made the last two decades of technology revolution a very interesting time to work through and now reflect upon (as it continues to develop at a rapid speed).

Looking back at the evolution of technologies

To celebrate reaching our twenty-year milestone, the Stby team took a look back at six recurring themes in our work, to explore how they have evolved over the years. Intelligent Systems is one of these themes. For this project, we collected and analysed all of the client projects, conferences and R&D projects from the last twenty years relevant to this theme.

While sifting through dozens of digital technology-focused projects from 2003-2023, what became clear is how interesting it is that certain technologies keep coming back. For example, Stby was doing foundational design research projects about wearables and other sensors as early as 2003 and 2007, years before products like smart watches for e-health hit the scene around 2014/2015.

We started to keep a list of the technologies that came back again and again, with new uses and technological advancements. This resulted in six categories: smart cities, smart homes, digital identity, smartphones and AI. Within these technology themes, Stby has been witness to their evolution and played a part in influencing their applications for our clients.

It’s incredible to look back at the projects and now reflect on how far society has come. For example, much of our early digital technology research was around mobile phones and the introduction of mobile internet – and now, we live in a reality with so many smartphones in pockets around the world, used for everything from calling to gaming to email to social media to streaming music and more.

Taking the time to reflect on two decades of technological innovation, allowed us to feel the awe of these changes. We were often surprised by how early research we did on emerging technologies laid the foundation for the digitalised world of today. We had many “wow” moments along the way. And that inspired us to create something for others to experience this wonder, too.

If you’re interested in what we did with this, keep reading…

Stby Amsterdam team playing the Intelligent Systems game

An interactive installation or  a board game?

Our initial goal was to create some sort of interactive “installation” for people to experience the same revelations we had about the sheer speed of technological innovation and the shock at how Stby was already researching seemingly advanced technologies early on. The plan was to bring this interactive experience to the in-person twenty-year celebrations that would happen in London and Amsterdam.

Luckily we have a few designers on the team who were eager to start prototyping. Our first experiment was supposed to be inspired by a children’s nursery mobile – something where people could step in, read about past Stby projects in chronological order and experience the same feelings we had while looking back into the Stby archive. This prototype didn’t last long, but it did inspire the next iteration.

So, back to the drawing board.

Next, we thought it would be a nicer experience to be able to “hold” a past Stby Intelligent Systems project, instead of just read it. This inspired the “case study cube”. One way for people to feel our same “wow” moments would be to have them try and guess the years of the projects themselves. That meant giving them all the necessary information about each project, plus an indication about what was going on at that time.

So, what would you want and need to know to be able to guess when a project took place? Well, you’d want to know what the project was about, of course. You’d want to know what sector it was for. It could be interesting to learn about the methods used. And maybe about the purpose of the project and what was going on at that time in history. Most of those things we could glean from the archive. And adding the time period context would just take a bit of desk research and conversation with the founders of Stby.

We decided to run with this idea of creating a guessing game with case study cubes. Over a couple weeks, we curated the content for the cubes, but one thing was still missing – how would people play the game?

If the goal was to guess, then they’d need some indication of whether or not they got it right, right? Nothing does that better than a puzzle – you quickly know if the two pieces connect or not. We drew inspiration from that and ended up creating mini puzzle-like visuals spanning across each collection of case study cards. The player would find out if they guessed the right year of the case study by flipping the cubes to the image-side and seeing if they correctly connected, or if they needed to try again. This helped inform how we needed to design the board and the rules of the game.

We decided to create the game fully out of paper so it could easily be reproduced in both the Amsterdam and London offices, with just a few hours of cutting and glueing! Luckily all of the production went smoothly, and we were ready to bring it to the parties.

Playing the game

Funnily enough, almost no one got the game right on the first try! (That was our goal – to make people say, “Wow, Stby was already researching mobile apps for public transportation in 2010?!”) The board asks the players to inspect the case study cubes, guess the year in which they happened by placing them in the correct year box on the board and then flip them all over to see if the image is correct.

The people at our recent twenty-year celebrations were all past Stby-ers, so most people recognized at least a few projects from their time. Maybe for those, they could remember what year it took place, but our goal of surprising people about how such advanced technologies were already being explored in the early years of Stby worked. The game helped spark conversations about the evolution of technology and where we think we might be heading next.

This project helped bring the Stby Intelligent Systems archive to life in a playful and interactive way. The team enjoyed being creative with how to best make our initial reflections tangible for others to experience, too.

If you’re interested in reading the cube contents of the game, click here