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“Everyone Can Get in Touch with the Digital World”

February 10, 2016 by Andreas Schmitz 95

Gesche Joost became a member of the SAP Supervisory Board nine months ago. As professor of Design Research and head of the Design Research Lab at the Berlin University of the Arts, she has a direct line to the German capital’s pulsating start-up scene and is a champion of digital inclusion.

We examine the four principles that guide her.

What looks at first glance like some kind of industrial sewing room is in fact a workshop producing prototypes of wearables, clothing that connects to the Internet via integrated, sewable microcontrollers. On closer inspection, the “connected clothing” looks very much like ordinary apparel.

“The controllers are integrated in the jacket pocket or attached to the garment collar with a removable Velcro strap,” explains Gesche Joost, who has spent the last five years building up the Design Research Lab at the Berlin University of the Arts. Whenever you need to wash your connected clothing, you simply remove the mini computer and reattach it after washing.

Joost’s team of researchers has used this technology to develop a knitted garment with an alarm-call function for the elderly: All they have to do is tug the cuff of the garment to trigger a call to a chosen number in an emergency. An app picks up the signal from the garment and automatically dials the pre-programmed number. This is just one example of the many practical ideas which, influenced by Joost’s four guiding principles, the man-machine interaction research lab has come up with.

1. Democratize Technology

“It is possible for everyone to get in touch with the digital world,” says design researcher Joost, who sees her mission as being to explore the interface between humans and computers and to encourage everyone to participate in the digital transformation.

And when she says  “everyone,” she’s also referring to those who might appear to have less affinity with digital technologies, less interest in them, and less talent than the young men aged between 20 and 30 whom society sees as the drivers and users of digitalization.

Similarly, why does a woman’s wet razor have to be pink? Why can’t it be blue like a man’s? This was a question that Joost began asking herself while she was still a design student herself: “I guess I’ve always given a lot of thought to how design decisions can exclude people,” she says.

2. Search for Practical Solutions

Deaf-blind people use the “Lorm” hand-touch alphabet to communicate. Until now, they always needed an interlocutor who was also familiar with Lorm. According to estimates, there are between 2,000 and 6,000 deaf-blind people in Germany. They, along with certain members of their families and the care professionals who look after them, are pretty much the only people who understand Lorm.

Nearly four years ago, Tom Bieling, a Ph.D. student under Gesche Joost, therefore proposed his initial idea for the Mobile Lorm Glove, which is a glove fitted with textile pressure sensors that translate tactile motions from the Lorm alphabet into text – and vice versa. A Bluetooth connection transmits the data between the glove and a digital interface such as a smartphone, computer, or wearable. Which means that a deaf-blind person can communicate freely with someone who is not familiar with Lorm.

“The glove simultaneously translates any text into the Lorm hand-touch language ‒ and back again. Which opens up a whole new world for the deaf-blind community,” says Joost. The Mobile Lorm Glove is still at the prototype stage and has not yet been licensed as a medical device. Nevertheless, Gesche Joost confirms that promising discussions are currently under way with a major orthopedic technology specialist. “The Mobile Lorm Glove is a perfect example of what our lab stands for – namely, the inclusion of people in the digital transformation who have previously been excluded from it,” she says.

3. Be an Independent Observer

“It was unforgettable!” was SAP CEO Bill McDermott’s parting message to Gesche Joost and her 25 colleagues after visiting them at the Design Research Lab in Berlin in the fall of 2014. McDermott was there to find out about the lab’s projects, to have their benefits explained to him, and to sound out potential opportunities. These joint discussions continued at last year’s CeBIT trade show. And just two months later, Joost took over from former Deutsche Bahn CEO Hartmut Mehdorn as a member of the SAP Supervisory Board. Contrary to her expectations, the first few quarterly Supervisory Board meetings she attended did not consist of one long stream of long-winded PowerPoint presentations but were full of lively and enthusiastic discussion.

Joost forges links to the startup scene, to young people who, she says, “are more interested in working on something interesting than in pursuing a conventional career.” She has already organized a tour of Berlin’s start-up scene for SAP’s Chief Human Resources Officer Stefan Ries and Jürgen Müller, Head of the Innovation Lab in Potsdam.

4. Keep in Touch with the Grass Roots

Joost continues to spend most of her time with her colleagues in the lab, the “germ cell for new technologies,” as she calls it. Beyond serving on the SAP Supervisory Board, she also applies her talents as an independent observer and advisor to her role as a “Digital Champion,” representing the German government in Brussels on matters relating to the European Commission’s Digital Agenda for Europe. She describes this role as the ideal instrument for exerting political influence without being a politician and influencing the economy without being a business manager. It’s also a way for her to ease digitalization closer to the center of society’s consciousness.

And she can only do that, she says, because she’s a hands-on researcher who keeps in touch with the grass roots.

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1 comment

  1. Lorraine

    Brilliant and inspiring article.
    Makes one realise what an exciting time we are living in, when ‘ideas form reality’ & the digitisation of society is drawing us closer to ideas once reserved for science fiction sitcoms/stories. I eagerly look forward to more developments from your team to inspire generations and forge new norms..

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