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how to design better USING science

Meet the creators of the world’s first autonomous plant

Innovation pioneers Mark Bünger and Cecilia Tham

Will AI screw up? Will deep tech save us? And what on earth is air ham?! The future is a hard place to understand. Futurity Systems are not here to predict it – but to help us imagine better solutions

In TOPIA series My World of Good, revolutionaries imagine better

“The best way to predict the future?
Invent it.”

Futurity Systems

The world’s first autonomous plant, nourishing space food, mock tomato cell-based meat, hoodies that protect against bio threats, sense-enhancing electro-popsicles, iridescent chocolate and a motivation mirror; these are just some of the playful inventions created by Futurity Systems. Fun? Yes, but this is frivolity with purpose.

Founded by the green-fingered and “enthusiastically curious” Cecilia MoSze Tham and Mark Bünger in 2021, Futurity Systems is a Barcelona-based research and design venture studio that focuses on science-based innovation to help companies to tackle uncertainties in the future. Always thinking of long term impact, the pair take things apart and put them back together to produce possible solutions. And they have a lot of fun while they’re at it.

“We might hone in on science and design, but we never lose imagination,” Cecilia tells me. The Hong Kong born, Harvard-educated six-foot glamazon is stroking her pink poodle in a vision that’s part Bond girl, part Bond villain.

When it comes to predicting the next big thing, the pair believe that human-machine co-innovation and deep tech solutions – think: synthetic biology, quantum computing and artificial intelligence – are the way forward. And they don’t want us to panic about AI.

“Every generation has its apocalypse, right?” Mark explains. “In the 60s, it was overpopulation, then nuclear war, now it’s climate change and AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). Next it will be quantum wormholes, or something.”

The pair provide a refreshing counterpoint to today’s doom mongering, but are in no way climate deniers. The synesthesia-obsessed partners (who are also a couple – he proposed in an ice cave at the North Pole last year) are optimists. “It’s simply about human attention span and behaviour. We tend to move onto asking, ‘What’s next?’”

In 2022, Futurity Systems was selected to develop a national moonshot factory for Spain, working with the country’s Secretary of State to help solve crucial major future problems in society, industry and the environment – by applying artificial intelligence. No wild ideas are off the table, except when Cecilia joked about creating “air jamón” that could save on resources. Their reply? “When pigs can fly!”

The pair have shot to the moon before. They previously built a moonshot factory for telecommunications company, Telefonica. Moonshots rely on ambitious thinking, experimentation and the ‘fail fast’ philosophy to tackle huge problems. Some of the most groundbreaking advancements in history were initially met with skepticism; the term comes from the Apollo 11 spaceflight project, which landed the first human on the moon in 1969.

One of Futurity Systems’ longest running labs is the ‘Future of Commerce’, which takes a look at the consequences of unsustainable and irresponsible consumption, from climate change and plastic use to digital goods and privacy laws.

Their most recent audacious vision is Plantiver.se – plant-generated NFT trees that use houseplants and inexpensive sensors to generate digital twins as the ‘NFTrees’, with proceeds going back to the plants themselves, since they are equipped with their own crypto wallets. When in need of water or light, ‘Herbie’ will go to the water or light source.

Futurity Systems have also set up a DAO (a decentralised organisation governed under algorithms) where plants can make “decisions” on how that money will be spent, hence making them an active economic participant of our human-centric economy. The project builds on the Rights of Nature movement’s gains of independent legal standing for forests and species. Next up: NFSeas and NFBees?

Futurity STudios header
Plantiver.se NFTrees seed the foundation of an interspecies economy

In October 2022, Fast Company honoured the futuristic project in the ‘Innovation by Design Awards’. But don’t call them futurists. Futuristic they may be, but wishy washy they are not. Self-professed “geek-jock” Mark explains: “The problem with the word futurist is the people who call themselves that tend to not be very good at futuring! A lot of futurists are wishful thinkers (or even, charlatans) who create leaps of faith that make no sense whatsoever.”

“We don’t see the future magically in a crystal ball. What we do know is what is happening now, so we build tangible prototypes and rapidly test to learn what is possible, based on data and insights,” Cecilia adds.

OK, sometimes they are called futurists. In 2022, Cecilia was named one of the top 40 futurists in Spain by Forbes Magazine. An entrepreneur by heart, and a designer and biologist by training, she also created the first coworking community of its kind in Barcelona, Makers of Barcelona – and founded the first European digital fabrication hub, FabCafe, and a bootcamp for women in AI and data science, AllWomen.

The pair are currently working on a data-based and generative AI platform to help companies build better futures with science and imagination.

In TOPIA series My World of Good, we ask a diverse bunch of revolutionaries to create a more positive world by imagining better. Here are some of the things that “MC squared” – their combined acronym of Mark and Cecilia – hope to see in their vision of the future. Contains: bugs, drugs, edible music, tongue tasers, talking crows and an alternative look at AI.

Futurity Systems: In My World of Good…

1. People stop freaking out about AI

We’re both optimistic, but facts do corroborate an optimistic view. When it comes to AI and climate change, we’ll solve some of it. The Earth has survived mass destructions; we’ll be just fine. We need to start imagining – and building – the possible (and the impossible) to prepare us for what is to come.

AI has been around for decades, but it’s booming now because it’s available for everyone to use. The media makes money by scaring us and we have a psychological disposition to get freaked out, but this is not the end of civilisation, this is just pretty pictures and funny texts! With ChatGPT, we are only seeing a tiny fraction of what AI can do. There is a good video by Greg Brockman, co-founder of OpenAI, who breaks down ChatGPT’s potential.

2. Everyone embraces the Long Now

The Long Now Foundation was created by hippie engineer Stewart Brand (our philosopher of choice) and ambient producer Brian Eno in 1996. It was inspired by an anecdote from New York in the late-70s. Somebody asked Eno something like, “How long have you been here?”. He realised the American sense of here and now was much smaller than his, coming from the UK. He had this idea of ‘The Big Here’ referring to planet Earth, not just your apartment block or neighbourhood.

The author of The Clock of the Long Now, Brand was a sort of Abraham figure of the ‘religion’ of Silicon Valley. He was also the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture Bible for sustainable living. Its slogan was ‘access to tools’. He had a good sense for what’s feasible.

In the 60s, Brand wore pins that said, “Why haven’t we seen a picture of the whole Earth yet?” He believed a picture of the entire globe would give us a sense we’re all in this together. While divisions didn’t magically evaporate, that infamous picture of the Earth from space – the Pale Blue Dot – catalysed global environmental movements.

3. We really open our eyes

A lot of our experiments play with the senses, like optical illusions do. We are fascinated by what we call decoupling or synthesising. All of our senses are strongly coupled – you might associate yellow with citrus, red with warmth, and so on – and by creating chocolate with an iridescent colour, we are showing there are many more ways to perceive the world.

(And yes, you might have guessed that we also believe doing psychedelics – in a controlled way, and for a direct purpose – allows you to access a reality you couldn’t get to naturally!)

4. We are mindful of self-fulfilling prophecies

There is a word for fiction that makes itself real: Hyperstition: a mashup of ‘hype’ and ‘superstition’.

While forward-thinkers prepare us for the future, we must be mindful of creating self-perpetuating prophecies. A good example of this is the term ‘cyberspace’, from William Gibson’s Neuromancer. By the 90s it’s how we understood the emerging technologies of the internet.

5. Music is tasty!

Synesthesia is a big thing for us. We have built an electronic popsicle device you put on your tongue (a sort of taser!) to explore how electricity can induce a sweet and salty taste. It’s similar to licking a battery. We are now trying to connect that with an amplifier – like Spotify for taste!

As developed societies, we are consuming more and more for pleasure. It’s not fair for natural resources to have to sustain our hedonistic consumption. Substituting some pleasure eating with digital alternatives means we’re not wasting resources.

6. There is no ego

If only people could realise they are the ‘sperm that won’ and that all this is a gift, they’d have a much better time. We’re so often entrenched in our own self and ego. Everyone should read Kafka’s Metamorphosis. because it makes you think outside of yourself. Even if you’d rather be a dolphin or bird, we could all end up being a cockroach.

7. There are no limits

There is a book called Flatland that was written in the 1800s. People were just realising the philosophical implications of a fourth dimension – that there could be a God, higher dimensional beings and angels. It changed everything for us. We both have matching tesseract tattoos to remind us that the future is unbounded. The four-dimensional hypercube allows for the possibility that many more dimensions exist out there.

The red circle on Mark’s tattoo signifies Mars

There’s a mindblowing video with Carl Sagan talking about hyperspace and the universe of science. He says, “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” This changed everything!

8. We embrace Pace Layers thinking

Every chapter of Stewart Brand’s 1999 book, The Clock of the Long Now, has a useful framework for seeing the world in a new way. His Pace Layers concept is at the core of what we do and a useful lens to understand the pace of change. Slow bottom layers give stability; the higher you go, the faster the innovation.

The whole Pace Layers system needs to work for society to have resiliency

You just need to look at the impact of COVID on the fashion industry to see all the layers in action. We stopped kissing, governance regulations changed every day, infrastructure like hospitals and schools were impacted, and everyone worked from home, affecting commerce. Right now, the climate is changing faster than governments can react. When two layers move at different rates, it’s called ‘shear’. We rely on certain layers for innovation and others for stability. When that changes, it is disruptive and destructive.

Brand derived Pace Layers idea from Frank Duffy’s Architectural Knowledge

9. People appreciate animals more

It would be cool to be a crow – they never forget a face. In a Harvard field study, they put a guy in a Dick Cheney mask. Crows could pick his face out of a crowd after he was ‘mean’ to them. They even have conversations and pass on this information. There is a storyline about all the birds across the country attacking Cheney in the recent Netflix series Beef – which is amazing. Watch it!

10. And plants

An ideal world would see an interspecies economy.

An introduction to Futurity Systems’ award-winning Plantiver.se

11. We find the right way out of life’s labyrinth

Gustav Vigeland’s Man Attacked by Babies

Everyone should get to see the Vigeland Sculpture Park once in their life. It’s an exceptional park in Oslo, Norway. Gustav Vigeland was a visionary artist who made granite sculptures that are representative of generational struggle. A character might look like they’re being attacked by bees and flinging them off, but babies will be flying everywhere. It’s funny and insightful about the phases of human life; he captures life’s constant battle.

12. Everyone has read Cloud Atlas

This complex book is really transformational. Three chapters in, you wonder if David Mitchell can pull off changing voices and characters so drastically, but he does. The palindromic structure is part of its message about how the universe works. We really loved the movie too, even though it was panned. It had white actors playing Korean society, which could be seen as appropriation but the point they were trying to make is that we are souls that transmigrate across the earth, across different identities.

13. The siesta takes off globally

A nap can transform your day. There would be less anger in the world if people just had a bit more sleep. We have an amazing Spanish hammock in the office – ten minutes in it is like eight hours of sleep. Another happy place is the bath. We read and drink together in the tub!

14. We don’t need money

Often in a startup, one partner at a time gets to do something crazy. By us being in the same space at the same time, the company’s ups and downs are our personal ups and downs.

So, in an ideal world, it would be great if we didn’t need money!

15. Life is full of adventure

mars

As Americans who have changed countries, moving to Spain, we have learned that anything can be an adventure. Even something mundane like buying toothpaste becomes a learning experience when you can’t understand the label. Travelling to Mars would be a blast, although we do have an idealised notion of it and the chances of coming back are pretty slim. But, because everything would be so weird and unexpected, there would be constant learning and problem solving.

Mark proposed to Cecilia in an ice cave in the North Pole

16. We remain enthusiastically curious

Sometimes you have to do something that sounds like a terrible idea. If it doesn’t work out, walk it back. Our advice would be to be open to trying new things, trust your own intuition, be confident, think big but then do it! The greater sin is not doing things because of your small view of the world.

One of our favorite sayings is from physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who would describe bad ideas that make zero sense as “not even wrong”! A lot of people are winning at games that don’t matter. If you win a bug eating contest, really you’re just a loser who just ate a bunch of bugs. But we prefer to say…

‘That’s a terrible idea. What time do we start?’

Futurity Systems’ tips of Good people to follow


1 – Galit Ariel – A techno-futurist and a experimental media artist who address frictions, gaps and glitches across digital, physical and mental spaces.
2 – Lucy McRae – A body architect/artist investigating the impact future technologies have on human evolution.
3 – Esther Paniagua – Award-winning author and science, tech and cybersecurity journalist.
4 – Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz – One of the leaders at the Long Now Foundation, Mark’s religion!
5 – John Kao – John bridges fields from jazz to geopolitics and is one of the best innovation thinkers.
6 – Charlene Li – One of Mark’s best mentors and a great thinker about technology and leadership.

What’s so good about this?

Today, the need for active engineering over theorising is more urgent than ever. Check out Futurity Systems‘ lush new speculative lifestyle magazine, inTENSE, which offers a dress rehearsal of the future by exploring how deep tech will shape the world around us in 2030.

This story is part of a future-focused series with TOPIA and Futurity Systems that allows us to imagine better. Read all the features.

A special mention to Moby, the joyous pink poodle named after Makers of Barcelona, not the vegan musician.

Meet the writer

Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)

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