Iskander Smit tends to dwell on the future. As Innovation Director at Info.nl, Smit spearheads the internet agency’s innovation lab (Labs), which conducts in-depth research on the future of digital innovation and its impact on society. “My role is to look into the near and further future, what will happen in our domain,” Smit says. “I look into new technical developments but also the way technology is involved in people’s lives.”
After obtaining his degree in Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), Smit worked as an internet project manager for the Dutch consumer organization De Consumentenbond. At the time, public access to the internet was still relatively new and the designer was charged with making sense of the digital medium along with other emerging technologies. In 2001, Smit joined Info.nl as an information designer where he went on to become the agency’s Strategy Director and head of Labs.
Creating space for research
In order to be at the forefront of digital innovation, Smit recognises the importance of doing research in parallel to client projects.
“You need some space to elaborate on different angles,” he explains. “If you want to make good design, you have to research the problem of the client. There’s always that pressure of time and money of course, and [the research] is limited to a specific question. But if you want to look at what’s happening overall then you’re going to do it apart from the running projects.”
Furthermore, Smit maintains that external collaboration and knowledge-sharing are integral to the lab’s success. In addition to partnering with research institutes, Labs is co-initiator of both the Behavior Design AMS meetup series and ThingsCon Amsterdam. Info.nl is also actively involved with CLICKNL, the Netherlands’ creative industries knowledge and innovation network.
Objects as citizens
As a Design United Visiting Professor, Smit turns his attention to the theme of intelligent cities. Working together with the TU Delft Connected Everyday Lab, the designer aims to establish a research programme that investigates how smart objects can play a role in improving cities, particularly in addressing the issue of air pollution.
“A lot of discussions on smart cities are always about city structures and the understanding that a city is made by the diversity of people who live there,” Smit says. “What’s new is the intelligence that comes with the rise of AI (artificial intelligence), and another intelligent layer of the city is how intelligent products are becoming more self-aware [...] We want to set-up the research construction together with different stakeholders to look into this citizen-led smart cities but also ‘citizen things’ in a way that can help make cleaner air in cities.”
With the rapid development of machine learning and the Internet of Things, Smit is convinced that designers must shift their focus from the manifestation of products to designing rules and behaviours. More importantly, designers have a responsibility to consider the social and ethical implications, and standards of their work. “Design has some real new challenges now. Not only human-centred design, but users do design too by using things, and so we need to understand the new role of things.”