STIM at TEDxCentraleNantes: Genetics of Things

How studying the heredity of an object can help us to think about its future evolutions? That’s what Benjamin Duban – Co-founder & CEO of Stim shows us in this talk, through his theory called « Genetic of things ». 


This talk was given at a TED x event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Please find below the script of this talk. 




Until recently, I was working in the aeronautical industry. For an engineer, this is one of the most amazing places to work in. You bring in one single place some of the most talented engineers, designers, and experts of all technical backgrounds… They are all passionate about what they do and are all engaged in their work to an extent that many people would even consider inappropriate. They are working on one of the most complex and exciting objects the human being has ever designed and built – they are making people fly.


And yet something switched in my life when I realized that, even in this dream industry, when you come with an idea, challenging the way a small part of the plane is made,  you get instant feedbacks telling you that it will not work, it is not possible, or it should not be changed…


How can it be?

How can it be –  that the people who created planes, who made people fly in the air do not accept – even the slightest evolutions – on their objects?

No matter how young they are, no matter, if they are designers or engineers, or lawyers, or pilots, breaking rules, is challenging. Status quo is always the preferred choice. Of course, one could say « It’s a complex object, you are talking about a plane. you cannot change things that easily ». And that’s fair enough. But then let’s take something simpler:

benjamin duban

An umbrella


I have for you two simple questions :

 – Those of you who have an umbrella that looks completely different from this one, can you raise your hand?

 – Those who feel that umbrellas are perfectly designed (practical, easy to use, to store, protect you correctly, you enjoy using them when it’s windy,…): can you raise your hand?

The conclusion is: even on a simple object, even though nobody’s happy with umbrellas, no major improvement happens? They are stable. They do not change. They do not evolve.


Let’s have a look at another example by watching this video.


Let’s go back in time, a few years ago, in the computer industry. Remember how people reacted when Apple removed both the DVD Player and Ethernet connectors from their laptops? This is an ad from a very serious brand – Lenovo. It shows how most of the IT community rejected what is now the standard called ultrabooks. At that moment Apple broke a rule. They changed the way we used to define and design portable computers.


benjamin duban

Ultrabook design becomes a well-received and common design in the industry, even Lenovo joined the gang!


Why is it so hard, for all of us, to change something, even when it is such a detail? Why is everyone – including the most brilliant industrial designers – so quickly get fixed on what is or what should be an object? We could say that it’s natural: human beings are reluctant to change. But, can we seriously accept this?

At least, I do not believe we should. Changes are happening faster and faster around us. If we keep these negative feelings towards change, our lives will be harder and harder. Each and every child – today – should be educated to enjoy this ever-changing environment. It should be a playground for them.


So, what can we do?

 – For sure, nature plays against us. Our brain has a natural tendency to create shortcuts, categories and to put things into boxes… As the biologist does when finding new species, our brain systematically creates boxes for classifying everything easily. These boxes tend to be pretty rigid – quite hard to change.

– But what we could do to make change less violent for us, is to avoid to reinforcing our brain’s natural behavior. Indeed, from our very early days, we are taught how to define precisely each and everything in our lives.

We even wrote paper books, filled with definitions. I mean thousands of pages, filled with static definitions of the world surrounding us. We call them dictionaries. They are supposed to give us the exact meaning of a word.


Let’s take the example of the umbrella: its definition, it’s the exact meaning of the word umbrella is

  • a device consisting of a circular canopy of cloth
  • on a folding metal frame
  • supported by a central rod,
  • used as protection against rain

Now, if you ask someone to improve the umbrella: what can he seriously do? If THIS is an umbrella, what can he do? Move one bit of metal. Change the colour? Improve folding?

Is this really the level of re-design that we expect to have a better umbrella?

Do you feel the fixation power of definitions that we create? This definition gives us a clear vision of what the object is, but tend to keep the object being the same. But if we step back a little bit, we could wonder: Who wrote this definition? Where does it come from?


In fact, the definition follows the design of the object. Whenever a new object appears, be it a product (an umbrella), a service (sushi delivery), it takes time for an industry to agree on what makes sense, but after a few initial variations, a few unusual objects, the identity of the object stabilizes. Name and the definition find their way into the dictionary, and it becomes the umbrella.

Let’s have a look at a younger object: smartwatches. The definition is a mobile device with a touchscreen display, designed to be worn on the wrist.


Has your mind just automatically imagined this as a smartwatch?


Even though it sounds good for this one … Is THIS the only smartwatch?

Consider this Withings Activité Pop: it counts your steps, tells you about your daily activity, wakes you silently up at the best moment, etc… Essentially, you feel that it is smart enough… and it’s a watch. But it’s not in the scope of the definition: it doesn’t have a touchscreen. It’s a simple analogue display – like any Swiss watch would have.


Is this watch smart enough?


Do you feel how poor classical definitions in our dictionaries are – to even talk about the evolution of objects surrounding us? To what extent it is fixing things we don’t really want?


If we take a look at our education system, the balance between the time spent learning stable definitions of things and the time spent teaching us how to RE-define things, how to create new definitions of things is pretty clear. 98% of our time is spent on learning rather than challenging.


When was the last time you were asked to create a new definition? For the scientist among you, maybe the day you were introduced complex numbers in maths. On that day, you were told that we could redefine what are numbers, we have to admit that the new numbers will have a negative square. In one second, someone changed everything you learned during eighteen years before. Do you remember how you felt? It’s a kind of exciting mix of power, anger, fear, and freedom.


How can we seriously expect the world to dramatically improve, if we keep training people for marginal optimization of existing things? People are trained for designing things that are perfectly respecting the stable contours given by a century-old definition? Can we still believe that change will happen without us?

We don’t believe so. To be able to redesign things, to go beyond their definitions, we need a new kind of approach. We need it now. And we need it widespread: it’s not only about engineers, but it’s also for business people, politicians, journalists, teachers, … everyone.


Based on the latest research in design sciences, we introduced the Genetics of things. Genetics of things offers a revolutionary framework to understand differently object definitions and their evolutions.

The idea is simple: the identity of any object goes way beyond the classic definition you find in a dictionary. It results from an initial design and years of evolution, crafted year after year by people interacting with the object. Things as they are today – are the result of a long and invisible process of design and evolution.

For example, each generation of joypads inherits from the genes of the previous one. In this process, we all play a role.



Joypad evolution: each design is different, but all share the same DNA


Using Genetics of things, we can make explicit all the forgotten and invisible choices in the design of any object and thus, what we can do is to discuss all the fixations we have and force the generation of new alternatives. Exactly as geneticians reveal the DNA of any living thing, we can do the same for human-designed artefacts. Once the DNA is visible, anybody can explore the meaning and the value of new mutations.


Take the example of a car and its classical definition: car = a road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal-combustion engine and able to carry a small number of people.  

Classical definitions do not mention – and thus does not allow us to challenge – the fact that a car is designed :

  • to be driven by one person
  • who owns a driving license
  • that this person is onboard
  • it moves on roads, made especially for cars
  • it has doors.
  • it can be kept closed

Most of the classical engineering approaches, at the heart of the design process of the next generation of cars, take all these characteristics for granted. We need to change this. We need to be able to challenge the road, we need to challenge the fact that there is a person onboard etc.


We are here, with you all, talking about the Genetics of things, because we care. Because we believe that improving the world we live in, is a day-to-day job, for each and every one of us. Because our children need us to innovate not only the objects we live with but also the way we educate them and empower them to create change.


Georgre Bernard Shaw said:  » The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. « 


We don’t think it’s about reason. It’s about methods and education. So, how long will you keep designing objects without questioning their DNA? How long will you think that the road is taken for granted when you design a car.

We are all designers and change is a day-to-day game.

Should you keep one single idea about Genetics of Things, keep this one in mind: instead of designing inside a definition, allow yourself to redesign the definition itself.

Thank you very much.



(Blog image: Evolution of Walking Man with Umbrella by Uri Dushy)


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