What I think about voice

Some thoughts on all this voice malarky. I mean, Google Duplex. Because apparently it’s the future of the smart home, and seeing as I’m writing a damn book about the topic here we go. (PS: pre-order the book for much much more). I think this’ll be useful for the talk I’m giving tomorrow at YLE too.

Here’s some of what happens when you put speakers and ‘listeners’ in the home.

  • Audio Clippy: Seemingly helpful audio prompts based on in-home behaviour.  As soon as the sound of cooking happens, and your smart camera spots you took something out of the fridge, some dumb speaker goes ‘it looks like you’re trying to cook with butter, I have some recipe ideas for you’. 
  • Weird concepts of trust: I say ‘Alexa book me a flight’ and I’m not entirely sure I can trust it to find the cheaper one so I also cross-check on my laptop, my phone, I log out of Google, I use a VPN. I lose 3 hours of my life looking for a cheap flight.
  • The silent culprit. My speaker hears me scream but doesn’t call the police. It sees my partner is beating me or I’m beating my child frequently but doesn’t call social services.
  • GDPR for phone calls. You have to listen to a hold message before taking a call from a robot. You inevitably press 2 for no or 1 for yes depending on who it’s coming from.
  • You start to be very quiet a home. Just in case you know, the speaker misunderstands something you say as a request to purchase something.
  • The illusion of ease of use. Calls to hairdressers are easy but calls to doctors or plumbers are complicated. You spend 20mns setting up an IFTT recipe to place a phone call that would have taken you 2 minutes.
  • Language issues. You can’t train your assistant to make a call in another language because you also don’t know if they’re interpreting your request in the right way.
  • Phone lines are for robots anyway. Eventually Google gets its own phone line you pay for.
  • What customer service? Banks to lay off part of their customer support staff as bots can just talk at each other to solve complex banking queries and can exchange more secure authentification than my date of birth.
  • Captchas for phone calls. Elite restaurants buy new services to weed out people who can’t be bothered making their own bookings. Or the return of ‘we only do walk-ins’.

So. Yeh. That’s what I think about voice. Fun.

 

Intelligent for what?

Apologies to Drake for inelegantly stealing his line but I’m in Canada this week, speaking at the iX Symposium at the Société des Arts Technologiques and I’ve become very interested in the concepts of artificial intelligence and how mainstream the expression has become. The world of the internet of things in which I mostly operate  has been shoved aside by pundits and the press in favour of the ‘flavour of the year’AR/VR/AI/cryptocurrency. In this new wave of techno babble, some trends are clear:

  • Wilful ignorance of the experiential and hardware limitations. How many headsets can you ship, how much do they cost, when are you using them and for who? seem to be questions no one seems to be interested in.
  •  Misunderstanding of simple computing principles. Most people use ‘AI’ when they just mean ‘computers’ or ‘maths’. More on that below.
  • Misunderstanding of the hardware realities of computing principles. No, no and for the last time, no, you can’t put (X) on the blockchain, especially if there’s a hardware component to (X) which implies a supply chain, which implies people. Just forget it. You can’t track a fruit from birth and you don’t want to track child exploitation in the fashion world. So there.

I’m rereading The Golden Notebook and was struck by a line early on:

‘What’s wrong with living emotionally from hand-to-mouth in a world that’s changing at fast as it is?’.

Doris Lessing wrote this in 1962 but it could have been written in 2018. In our recurring feeling of being ‘in a frenzy’ all the time, we’ve, in fact, made little progress in utilising new technologies for socially useful purposes.

I posit that Artificial Intelligence could easily be described as:

Great work everyone. If computing power isn’t there to help us become better societies, then why exactly are we using it? Where are we going? What are we not designing instead? What are we avoiding because it’s supposedly ‘too complicated’. A lack of ambition shouldn’t be confused with a lack of technical capabilities. But if we’re not ambitious about what we want from our computers, we have to ask ourselves who we’re protecting by that cowardice. The rich? The powerful? The establishment?

These are some of the topics I hope we’ll talk about this week, because I really had had enough of us talking about AI without pointing out what exactly it is, and crucially, what it isn’t.

The Value of Design

There’s a new book out called Design and the Creation of Value  which at an eye watering £85 probably isn’t going to make it on to my reading list straight away but the review illustrates a point I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

“Moral or ethical value seems to have limited relation to design.” writes John Heskett.

I’ve been thinking about values a lot. Societal values as expressed by technology, design, artefact, building work, innovation. Every act of creation is a reflection of a time and a place. A time and place could be expressed in terms of values.

We don’t value the environment, so we pollute it. We don’t value others equally, so we discriminate against them. We don’t value weakness, so we punish the weak. We don’t value restraint, so we design for excess.

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica relationship was designed for a world of excess, discrimination, and exploiting weakness, digital addiction, lack of digital skills, lack of digital education. I’m sure the people at both those organisations use words like design, user-centered design, customer experience. But the result, the work done, is designed for a set of values which can only exist right now.

I was in the same room the other day as someone from the Design Council. That took me back to my first summer in London in 2005. Back then, I was interning as part of their team, designing services to help low-income households reduce their energy consumption. What this person had to say in 2018 was exactly the same as in 2005. Design is a good, useful tool for British businesses. Design is good. Good design is good, bad design is bad. Etc. etc. etc.

I started to wonder if our relationship with the design industry would change if we changed how we describe it and its individual components. What if we described industrial design as:

Taking advantage of the latest engineering and marketing techniques to exploit consumers psychologically and sociologically into purchasing a company’s newest product regardless of whether they can afford it or not, perpetuating an agenda of economic growth through conspicuous consumption and increasing personal credit risks.

or human-centered technology (such as Uber, Airbnb) as:

Making technologically-enabled social and economic change acceptable to a middle class population, disengaging them socially and politically from the employment and wider impact of their purchase on less wealthy populations.

These two definitions are written in jest of course, but I’m a big fan of thinking about impact across other themes in design than just materials, supply chain and aesthetics. If we can’t think more horizontally, I don’t think design has a future as a serious middle man between different professions. The professions we enable need to change though and instead of talking across engineering and the arts, we need to talk economics, philosophy, social impact and environmental impact. Let’s do more and take on more, not less.

The case for small design schools

I haven’t put a lot of effort in blogging here recently so I thought I’d kick off with a January post and get back in the groove.

I was invited by Francisco to come back to ITESM in Mexico City after leading a 3 day teacher training workshop last December. This time around I’m here to help students at the end of a wearable project and interacting with 18-24 year old industrial, engineering and mechatronic students in 2018 got me thinking about design schools I’ve visited in the last 10 years.

One of the reasons I don’t do much teaching is partially that I find the environment offered to students frustrating. When given the right conditions any student is able to do something worthy of attention. I seldom see the right conditions so I thought I’d put down what I think are challenges to coming up with good ideas and what I think a design school of the future should be.

Most design schools are too big.

When I studied my BA we were 74 students. I think less than 20 ended up in design careers, many retrained. Why did they take so many students? Probably because they had invested in an amazing library, worked with a famous architect to get a brand new building, had lots of staff. So it’s all about volume. More students need to be pushed through the doors regardless of work opportunities on the marketplace because really a design school is a business with bills to pay.

Most design schools treat their students like office workers

I was lucky to be part of the last generation of design students to have my own dedicated studio space at the Université de Montréal. Every single design school I have visited since doesn’t have this. The pencil-pushers in admin in design schools read all about open spaces and co working and started making money hiring out the building for external event. A design school becomes a real estate investment and the students become ‘customers’ of that space. Any superficial look at Bauhaus and other leading design schools shows dedicated work space that students can own, can customise, can settle in and live in. The quality of the work with change when you’re a hot desking office worker. Most design studios have dedicated spaces to work in, that they own, why on earth wouldn’t a design school enable that reality? Or perhaps they are training students to work at places like Google, but Google doesn’t hire a lot of design students.

Most design schools don’t know how to work with industry

Every year I might get invited to 1 or two degree shows. How on earth I got on their list is anyone’s guess but I’m really not interested in seeing the final work of a student, I’m interested in who they are and their process which a final show will never expose. External people don’t get exposed to student work often enough because design schools don’t know how to structure their engagements with industry. Ravensbourne College is the only one I know where the Head of Partnerships Claire Selby is public both in industry and inside her own building. This is quite rare.

I’d love to see design schools approach small studios, freelancers, alumni to invite them to dinners with students or away days, anything to create a bond, a relationship, an ongoing conversation.

Getting a professional to give a lecture is almost the worst way to engage with a class of students, as they are just being lectured to, will often disconnect and don’t really understand how important it is to engage with the lecturer because they’re used to having their lecturers near them all the time. To a design student, a lecture is just another bunch of links to Google at some point.

Nobody knows how to draw.

I’m a little shocked every time I go to visit a design program and I can’t see drawings on the walls but I see post-its. How did we get to a point where students aren’t able to think visually. Most people understand the world through images, diagrams, visuals and the ability for a student to get up and explain a complex set of issues with a few well chosen drawings is extremely powerful. Ask Bill Verplank who basically with one sketch created a whole industry. Powerpoint and Illustrator have taken that entirely away from the average design student. They now need to spend all night selecting images and drawing in an abstract environment to make their point. But pitching in a brainstorm session or a meeting with a client requires more reactivity, it requires the deep desire to draw what you mean. We’ve taken that away and given it only to architects. What a shame.

So what should be done?

Smaller design schools.

Taking the model of IDII where I studied but also Kaos Pilot and the Shumacher College I think there’s a great argument for small design programs. Less than 20 students. 20 people can create great bonds, and providing infrastructure for 20 people isn’t much: a studio room, a lecture room, a gallery with public access, somewhere to eat and workshop spaces. Somewhere to eat and workshop spaces don’t have to exist in the school as everyone and their uncle now owns a laser cutter, a 3D printer and Arduinos. So it’s down to a room, a lecture room. Could you run a design program this way? I think so.

It doesn’t have to be in the middle of nowhere, it can be in the heart of the city, but the scale of students matters to the quality of work. When you’re 20 people in a room you can’t drift off as easily, and competition builds up for people to do good work. It also means you can’t work on large team-based projects which are the death of collaborative work in industry. Teams of 2-3 are enough to get something really good done (as every startup ever has taught us).

Why a gallery? To create opportunities for the local community to get involved with the students, for the students to get used to speaking to people in the ‘outside world’. Design education shouldn’t be a bubble. As examples, Central St Martins has a shop and London College of Communications has a sort of gallery space in Elephant and Castle shopping centre.

Ideally the students are multi-disciplinary too so their interests and appetite are varied but they all want to develop solutions for the world. Those solutions could be a publication, a space, a product, a service, a business, this is all design. Why should we continue to teach design as if industrial silos still applied?

The class should be taken out on cultural visits and industrial engagements all the time like the The Slow Food Institute. As professionals you’ll be very mobile especially if you have your own business so why not get students used to that life.

I have so many more thoughts and I hope by publishing this someone out there will tell me: ah but you should see such and such a program. I hope there is something better than what I see which is a model which isn’t suited to industry or even modern living.

Design students deserve better and deserve to be pushed to try harder too. We have to give them the conditions to be challenged in ways that will make industry life feel like a piece of cake rather than a cliff’s edge.

Royal Academy favorites

Sometimes it’s important to litter the internet with pointless lists of things you like. Because I’m getting a little tired of Instagram & ‘photo-sharing’ websites. They feel very gamified without being personal and there’s no links to anything outside them. Noone knows how to use the internet anymore (except for thingsmagazine.net which is awesome) So I went to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition (which always feels like the start of autumn) back in August and thought I’d share my favorite pieces in case a millionaire wants to buy me something nice for my birthday or Christmas (both in December!).

Poupée Bleue by Abdoulaye Konaté.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Could be True by Keith Milow.

FRAME by Katherine Jones.

FINESTRA-OUT (Blue) by Prudence Ainslie.

FALL by Antony Gormley.

CMYK by Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom.

A STUDY FOR THE INTERPRETATION OF MOVEMENT (9:8 IN BLUE) by Conrad Shawcross.

 

Happy Monday.

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Tiny Useful Things: Welcome booklet

Around 2011, I published a few quick projects called ‘Tiny Useful Things’ and on this unseasonally warm Friday night I wanted to add to that list.

This is prompted by travelling a lot and staying in many Airbnbs. It’s also prompted because I like having people over. I am lucky enough to have a spare guest room and I have friends come over all the time.

I was thinking about the experience of hosting and how strangely structured the whole thing is. I’m staying in someone’s home and they may or may not be there to greet me. I have to figure out the quirks of the place on my own most of the time and I will probably have to use Google maps to figure out what exactly is around me. I think this is something that can be made more quickly accessible and generated based on a few pieces of information that can really help someone quickly get their bearings. It’s also something that doesn’t necessarily have to be online. It could be a sort of pocketbook you could take with you in case you’re in trouble. It could also be something that could help you navigate the city and the language.

So using the excellent bookleteer template, I came up with a ‘Welcome’ booklet that I think services like Airbnb should help their hosts generate and anyone should be able to make quickly. This took me an hour.

It includes:

– A cover page with the address
– A first page with contact details and emergency contact details. This may include a neighbour and the local emergency service number.
– A couple of pictures and notes on house quirks.
– Wifi details.
– A map of the surrounding area with food, transportation and other links.
– A lost of apps the person may want to download that will make their stay more pleasurable or the city easier to navigate.

That’s it. All this booklet is trying to do is help the transaction between the guest and the host. Every house is different and none of them are perfect. And every host knows their area but aren’t necessarily there to make people feel welcome. Isn’t about time we made that a feature rather than a bug?

Happy Friday!

Photos also on instagram.

Digital (&/or) Health

(Jotting down quick thoughts as I finish a day of a workshop on digital health at Wintec where I’ve spent the week as part of a 2 week speaking tour of New Zealand. )

  • So many challenges in the healthcare sector have nothing whatsoever to do with tech. This is a challenge for anyone selling ‘smart health’ solutions. Policy, process and community issues were gnarly issues that don’t have technology solutions attached to them.
  • The US’s engagement with digital platforms is looked at as a model which I find frightening. Most Americans are absolutely shaped in their daily life and career choices by their ability to have access to healthcare. This means they are much more likely to be glued to their digital healthcare records than in any other country.
  • Patient versus patient(s). It’s difficult to think of patient-centric care when you don’t provide care to one person at a time as part of a service. The model is both the challenges of a factory (people, access to the right tools & resources & managing that access) but also a community (how to you manage staff energy, teamwork, patient trust). They are two competing models.
  • (Related) Who really is the user? The doctors? The nursing & support staff? The patient? Everyone’s needs matters here. But their needs are all really different and competing.

Unless we can address some of these I don’t think we’ll find the right tech tools.

The £150K problem: how to properly fund #iot startups

I was invited to speak at Fund Forum in Berlin a few weeks ago and wanted to share the crux of my argument to a room full of investors and investment managers.

I believe that fundamentally, the investment model that Silicon Valley has developed around software is completely useless when it comes to helping early stage hardware startups get off the ground.

Traditionally, as a founder, you might look to raise £50K in seed, friends or family or angel money. That’s great except that will never get you a physical connected product to test out on the market. Never. Not with the materials you need to use, not with the embedded software that needs to be developed. Never.

Spending 3-4 months in an incubator gives you a break from your daily obligations of paying the rent but doesn’t cover the cost of expert engineering, industrial design, moulds, certification.

Some investment funds are starting to concentrate on #iot and that’s great, but good god I wish people would START by investing £150K. And then leave companies be for a while, because £150K is enough to get going or hang yourself with if you don’t know what you’re doing. But it’s not enough to make your investors cry either (as a fund manager).

£150K will cover the certification costs for EU/US sales, the design work with a team or a partner, some marketing. That’s kindof all a team needs to ‘test’ the product with people, to have something in their hands. And it’s possibly enough to start to just sell the damn thing. Later the founders can go after VC money if they’re keen (or mad) but for the love of God(s) let’s give startups a chance. Anything below £150K and they are just bidding their time, missing one Christmas after the other, missing opportunities for that ‘growth’ which all investors look for.

Help them out first, in a serious and productive way. £150K/startup. That would be great.

The why of the internet of things

(Writeup of a talk given at the IOT Summit in Dublin on June 22nd 2017 instead of slides)

Good morning,

Thank you for inviting me to share my perspectives on the internet of things.

I wanted to talk about the why of the internet of things. As an industrial designer, I’ve always been fascinated with the limits of the physical world and how the internet might extend them. Naively when I got started 13 years ago, I thought that the challenges we might face related to issues of semantics and transparency of use. If a chair was connected, how would we be able to tell, as a consumer that it was connected? When the act of using different things is different every time and the context for using them is different every time, how can we think of creating a mesh of use that makes sense to anyone else. I can eat with a spoon but I can also measure medicine to feed it to my child or use it to open a difficult piece of packaging. Products are also laden with cultural meaning and social and collective meaning. When we decide to connect them we decide to play with that meaning, with the expectations that were built in because of it’s original use and the culture surrounding it.

To work in the internet of things now is no longer a quest for better technological advancement but an academic, political and economic act to overhaul, refine, and play with the last 150 years of industrial development and decline.

It’s no longer enough to have sold something to someone now, we must know who they are, how often they use it and what they do with it. We believe that this is how we will make better decisions.

Except we don’t make those decisions. Just as we are unwilling to disclose how many ‘active’ users a site has versus ‘passive’ or spam bots, we are also unwilling to talk in real terms about the longevity of people’s relationships with the physical world. We are also unwilling to recognise that technology needs politics but not necessarily the other way around.

Most wearable devices will stay in a drawer after 6 months, most activity tracking will be inaccurate, all connectivity will be patchy at some point, most connected powertools will still only be used for 8 minutes in their whole lives, most diesel cars will need to be taken off the roads to reduce pollution, most packaging will need to be decreased, most e-waste managed by the manufacturers, most people will need to use less energy in their homes and will will all of us need to eat more vegetables and less meat.

Some problems we already know the solutions to and I sometimes feel that we use the excuse of ‘data’ to delay the inevitable political decision-making.

We’ve also trained our investment community to be addicted to 7 year cycles of investments which are frankly tailored to software companies. Most startups in #iot will face what I like to call the £150K problem. Receiving anything less will be a waste of time, and anything more and they’ll be forced to grow too quickly to really understand their product and their customers.

I’ve been running the internet of things meetup in London for 6 years now and I see good, meaningful startups that will help solve good meaningful problems die on the vine or hobble , underfunded.

Startups like Flood Network which builds sensors for bridges so you can tell the height of the water in a river and you can track flooding near your home in real time. Flooding is one of those areas where government is lazy and takes a ‘last minute, politically glorious’ approach. Building good lasting flood defenses always seems less important than looking good in wellies on television. (See Katrina for a similar although less successful scenario of politics first, people later.) So noone does anything and noone wants to invest in the opportunity to help homeowners help themselves and respond way in advance of an actual flood to protect their household goods.

I won’t even talk of Grenfell in London 2 weeks ago and what a ‘smart building’ could have done in that environment, the capital intense process of smart building management is simply too expensive for most social housing. With data and with connected things, there will be the haves and the have nots. This is a deeply political issue we cannot ignore.
We have dragged over business models that work in software into a world of capital intensive hardware-based experiences and think it’s the same. There are problems with this of course, data security, keeping people safe, making people trust a complex set of systems they have no way of understanding. We are far away from everyone knowing how to code and we have past the point where things are repairable, so we have to build trust but we also have to do the right thing.

Last week in London, I co-organised an event to build an internet of things certification mark. We need, as a community of practitioners, to think about how to build things people will want to buy and not be scared of using. We cannot hide behind the idea of selling data off without any respect for the consumers who are paying in the first place or any care for how we build a connected product they might rely on in their daily lives. GDPR (you have a session on this this afternoon) has very tangible impacts on how we build these products and 2 days ago in London I invited a technology law firm to talk to people about this at the meetup. The certification mark goes even further than this and I’d love your thoughts on this (iotmark.org) today if you’d like to speak to me about it.

So how can Dublin and other cities around Ireland respond to this landscape? Build up an environment for small but meaningful applications and startups to grow in. I’m not sure what has happened to your lovely local community but there hasn’t been a meetup in 2 years. You probably need to help them out there with a space and some support. Again think of how you might give startups £150K to get going. Encourage startups that don’t concentrate on people’s personal data, GDPR will really affect that model. Instead think of all the other things you could be monitoring and helping consumers make good decisions around: the weather, farming, infrastructure, city services. The future of the internet of things is in the words of E.F. Shumacher in ‘small and peaceful technology’. I would add ‘useful and transparent’ too.

Designers of what, when and why?

I’m taking part in this one day event hosted by Domus Academy and they asked me to think about these questions for a video they are filming. I thought I’d document my (longer) responses here.

1. Concerning the what of design. Sixty-five years ago, Ernesto Rogers said that the role of design extended “from the spoon to the city”. What should be the focus of tomorrow’s designer?

I think we have a consciously-constructed view of what design is and what a designer’s role is. We have built ourselves blinkers away from the new forms of human action and invention. Architecture, urban design, product design have always had a belated interest in technological progress. We like to think of ourselves as pioneers, but the pioneers are the marketers, sociologists and engineers that come before there is anything to design. They are the ones to construct the monetary framework for work to take place. Design comes after when someone else has made the capital investment, someone else has taken the risk, someone has failed. Christine Frederick, a home economist, and the wife of a business data publisher, took Frederick Taylor’s engineering work in automotive factories to propose a framework for a more effecient home design and how planned obsolescence was necessary for economic growth. Right there, you could say that all of product design’s current concerns, worries and general society’s sustainable woes were built on this woman’s work. Not a designer. An architect in Germany read her book when it was translated in German several years later and made it real. And the rest is history.

I think we have to get design out of this box of ‘response’. I think we ought to be in the ‘discovery’ and ‘testing’ phase a lot more than we are. We wait, we’re complacent in the global economic systems that destroy nature, we wait for a client, we wait for a need to be badly adressed by someone else. We wait.

We can’t wait anymore, we are needed, we need to collaborate with scientists, ecologists, economists. We need to run businesses, we need to get involved in the whole process of bringing a design to life and to sometimes be involved in the process of killing it.

We need to work with programmers, UX designers, people with skillsets we don’t undersand, because it makes us better at being what we should have been all along: the champion for better decision-making, not just a better looking decision.

2. Concerning the where of design: what should be local, and what should be global?

That’s an important political question. E.F. Shumacher, the philosopher and economist, wrote that making simple, non-violent machines was the way to local economic growth. A baker is such an example. Baking doesn’t scale well, and it provides high quality produce for a local economy.

We have to learn to scale down design, making plastics, metals, electronics components locally if we want to build in economic growth in rural areas. Taking a look at the local success in my municipality concerning the manufacturing of grade 4 titanium, it’s clear to see that we’re going in the right direction.

Small, quiet, non-war driven industry. That’s all hard. High-end affordable, service-based contracts have made consumers expect design to be cheap. To be successful is to sell, to sell world-wide, with free shipping. It makes it impossible to make locally this way, because the pressure is on everyone to be able to afford it.

We have to respond to this and also to the appetite we create. We create appetite for things on the other side of the planet, so even if they are made locally, they are wanted somewhere else.

Last year, I went to Japan and found this really lovely tray in a small village in the Japan Alps. My friend found the same tray in Paris last week. We have accepted that this is success. We may need to change our minds about that but find ways to talk about this without sounding anti-commerce and anti-growth because this is what design drives. Growth and success.

3. Concerning the when of design: should designers focus on the creation of future utopias? Or should designers pay more attention to qualities of the past – and the present?

Designers I think could do with less future gazing and more present fixing. We still have poverty, hunger, air pollution, unemployment in the world. These are all challenges that design should accept and embrace. Designers should be working with UNESCO, Amnesty, the WTO. Design needs to be part of an economic and political conversation that is happening now.

4. Concerning the why of design: many people say that designers need to develop empathy with people in order to understand their needs. Or is empathy a brake on creativity? and what about empathy for the biosphere?

There’s been much written about when empathy means control in the design act. I like the idea of looking at compassion instead. Walking in someone’s shoes is something that should be done more often, but also shouldn’t be limited to the ‘consumer’. Designers should be interested in everyone involved in their practice, their colleagues, their suppliers, their sub-contractors. Everyone benefits or suffers from an act of design in a global economy.

5. If you were to start a Domus Academy masters today, what would be its subject?

I’d love to start a masters in Design, economics and philosophy. I don’t think these fields interact enough and I think technology is presenting us with so many problems (security of employment, social cohesion in the gig economy, UBI, etc) that a broader and more economically-engaged conversation about design is needed. There’s a reason most politicians haven’t studied design but have studied economics, law, history or philosophy. If design wants to become a real agent of change, it needs to get political in an active way and that starts with education.