TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with Kaustuv De Biswas

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Kaustuv De Biswas knows that diverse perspectives create better designs, so he passionately creates collaborative platforms for all.

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via TED Conversations. This week, Kaustuv asks:

Despite the controversy over patents, what is a progressive take on authorship in the collaborative world?

Respond here!

In your TEDtalk, you tell us about the Sunglass Project, the latest software from your company dplay. What is the goal of the Sunglass Project?

The Sunglass Project is a web-based design platform that really democratizes design. It gives access to high-end design tools to people all across the world.

Thirty or 40 years ago, when computer-aided design (CAD) was pioneered, it was done by the manufacturing industry. Architects started using it in the 1970s, and now there’s practically no design that happens without a bit of computation. So some of these metaphors or ways of thinking have remained, while the context has completely changed: we now live in a networked, mobile world, and design itself has become more and more collaborative. But the design systems we use were not developed with this in mind.

So at dplay we wanted to develop a system that responds to this change in context. We thought, “What kind of a system would allow collaborative cooperatation in this networked world?” Immediately we went to a web-based delivery system. You don’t need to download or buy any software: you can get it from the web browser. Sunglass is a drag-and-drop design platform that you can use to share and build 3-D content. We are already working with universities, building up design and analysis tools on the browser, so the moment it is launched, everybody across the world will be able to use these tools. We want to make this a truly democratic space where everybody can join in design. We are planning our first launch for March 2012.

For us, success will be if a student in Bangladesh or India, using their $100 laptop, can access a high-end design tool developed somewhere in Stanford or Princeton.

You have said you are passionate about making platforms for collaborative design. What experiences developed this dedication?

My architecture undergrad studies in Kolkata were very formative for me.  It was a very orthodox, dogmatic place, and design was taught as almost rule-based. It was very frustrating.

Since I was very young, computer science was a favorite subject of mine. I simply enjoyed building systems. Early on in my architecture studies I would try to integrate small things like programming buildings and trying algorithmic ways of going about what people would normally do in other ways. It was purely out of personal interest, rather than any idea of where I was headed.

I was lucky because I had this mentor who told me that there are places that focus on integrating design and computation together. He suggested I apply to MIT — that was such an encouragement, and so exciting.

I was coming from a culture where experimentation, freethinking, and having dialogues with other kinds of sciences were not encouraged. There was no platform to do so. At MIT it was just the opposite. Disciplines don’t really exist there. You are never just an architect, or computer science person, or any one thing.

You were always doing projects that had various different perspectives juxtaposed, and everything was collaborative. I realized there is no one way to do things, no one perspective that is universally valid.

All of the projects I’ve initiated since then — like “Opening the Black Box,” or dplay — are collaborative. They come out of that vision that unless you can tell a story in many different ways, you don’t have a story.

Tell us about the forum you initiated at MIT, Opening the Black Box.

Opening the Black Box was a forum for designers to look at the world in different ways. For my master’s thesis, I was trying to build a machine that would design autonomously. At the end of the thesis I concluded to myself that you cannot remove the human out of the design. So instead, I started building systems to enable humans to design further. At that point I was also introduced to the cybernetics principles and some fantastic authors like Heinz von Foerster and Gregory Bateson.

I started discussions comparing artificial intelligence and cybernetics. Principally they differ in many, many different ways. Artificial intelligence supposes that there is an external world where objective reality exists outside us. But in constructivism or cybernetics, there is no reality that exists outside the designer. The world appears as it does because of the human’s nervous system. I tried to connect both theories to design.

So along with my colleague Daniel Rosenberg, I started this forum called “Opening the Black Box,” comparing the different narratives in each of these. We collected literature, papers and movies on the subjects, and we met one day every week and discussed them. It was so popular that it became an independent study course at MIT and was taught for two semesters for credit. I’m delighted that my personal intrigue blossomed and became a platform for others.

Is your definition of success, then, creating collaborative platforms for other people?

For me, the definition of success has really changed. When I was in India and also during my early days at MIT, it was very introspective, meaning it was about me. It was how many papers did I write, or how many talks did I give, or how many things happened to me. My definition of success was around that.

But now I feel there is a significant difference. Now I feel that my success depends on others. It’s not just about creating platforms, but creating platforms where other people become successful.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What one piece of advice would you give them, based on your own experience and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.

First, you have to follow your passion. Very often we run after ideas that are socially validated. I would urge everyone to reflect on what they are really concerned about, and what they’re really passionate about, because at the end it’s all about persistence.

Second, you’ve got to take small steps. At times we have these grand visions of changing the world. It’s fine to be ambitious and have these large visions, but the step forward is usually with whatever resources you have at any moment that you can start. Small steps allow you to start off quickly. That’s always been the case for me, anyway.

The last piece of advice is that you shouldn’t reason too much. It sounds strange, but what I feel is that most of our significant decisions are emotional and not really rational. Looking back at my life, some of the things I’ve done … I couldn’t have reasoned it out. I would say too much reasoning is short-sighted, because you can only reason with things that you can understand and see. But in the long run there is something more to it — I don’t know what it is, but I would not create barriers by reasoning too much.

I would just finish it off with a quote from Kierkegaard: “Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.”

After living in the US for several years, you moved back to India three months ago. Have you gained any new perspectives on your homeland?

When I came back to India, I noticed the Internet speeds were not as fast, things were slow in general … it seemed whatever took three days to complete in the US would take seven days here. There were a lot of frustrations at first, and my first thought was, “It’s simply inefficient.”

But now I feel that the idea of efficiency in the US cannot be directly transferred, simply because of the multiplicities and densities that exist here at every level. Because there are so many, the resources get distributed among a million nodes. Not just material resources, but also information. Delhi, for instance, is a city where small bits of information are distributed. So to get anything done, there is no global way to do it. If, for example, you are building a product and want to, say, get something laser cut, you have to ask a few people to find out who’s the nearest laser cutter. Then you’d go there and find out more about it, until you find where your laser cutter is. So of course three days would turn into seven days. And it would appear inefficient at the individual level.

So why does this work? Why is India doing so well in so many ways? In this environment, a different fabric appears. When there are many, everybody has small resources to share. You start depending on each other, and out of this sheer dependence arises a socio-economic fabric, which is efficient at a system level. One can see it surface everywhere from how the system manages energy, waste, and consumption, to how our cities evolve and how cultural municipalities exist in our society.

So a recent interest of mine is to understand such distributed systems and analyze a place of many. I’ve started writing about this and I’m trying to collaborate with a visual artist to write a book on it. We are calling it Many.

What collaborations have you had with other TED Fellows?

TEDIndia Fellow Nitin Rao is a co-founder of dplay. Skylar Tibbits and I, both from TED 2011, are constantly in discussion and work together at times.

However, the biggest thing the TED Fellowship gave me was belief in myself. I was overawed when I first met the Fellows. They are truly changing the world in their own ways. I felt like a small little ant. But it gave me the belief that if there is enough passion, enough will to give shape to an idea, you can go about doing it.