How to be an Innovator?
A conversation with Christina Blach Petersen, Founder and Head of Design and Innovation at LYS Technologies.
On a crisp winter morning I met up with Christina Blach Petersen, the founder and head of design and innovation at LYS, at her office in Second Home Holland Park. The place is bathed with natural light and real trees grow up to the first floor where we sit to have a conversation. It’s an indoor nature oasis that suits our subject: LYS is a wearable device that tracks your daily light intake and gives you feedback through a connected app on your phone, its aim is to reconnect its users to their natural rhythms.
I’d heard her speak about it the week before and had since then become obsessed with light. I’m keen to get her to talk about her invention, and how she went from fashion to tech, and I want to understand how it felt to be an outsider working with scientists and engineers. As well as her secret to building a successful and truly innovative start-up.
“Lys is the Danish word for light. When we were coming up with the name we tried to find something in French or a Latin word. But then we thought, that is so passé… let’s go for something Scandinavian, back to my roots…” she says with a laugh.
She has a degree in fashion from the renowned Kolding School of Design, in Denmark, and then went on to study an MA in Innovation, Design & Engineering at The Imperial College and Royal College of Art in London where she started to develop LYS.
On thinking like a Designer and the value of outsiders
What strikes me when I start speaking to Christina is that she doesn’t come across as a tech geek, she says it herself: “I wasn’t a techie person before starting my engineering degree, but I felt limited by the world of fashion… I wasn’t interested in just creating art on the body, I wanted to integrate more functions to what I was designing. That’s how I started working more with tech…”
“Then, when I started my engineering degree, everybody else was from fancy schools: Oxford, Browns, etc… I’d say “I’m from Kolding [Kolding School of Design, in Denmark], it’s quite well known” but nobody knows it here. I thought “I don’t know if I can live up to this”… Then I realised I could really add value because I was from a different background.”
The mix of people she describes, sound like they could never have met elsewhere: aeronautics engineers, fashion designers, biologists, graphic designers, mechanical engineers, etc. They come together because of the promise of the course to make them expert innovators, and end up working together or in parallel on a wide breadth of different problems.
I find this idea of bringing people with such different backgrounds and expertise fascinating, but I can’t quite understand how they manage it. I’ve never worked directly with engineers and my assumption is that they would just dismiss design as a fluffy discipline there just to make things look good whilst they are the grown-ups dealing with the serious stuff. Christina’s experience is quite different, she found that thinking about things in a new way is sometimes the sidestep that leads to innovation.
“I really like how engineers think, says Christina, they are really good at solving specific problems. But I also realised they were sometimes restricted in their way of thinking. If they had to make a chair they thought: “Maybe we can make a different leg, maybe we can change the material, maybe we should add wheels…Whereas as designers we are trained to think on a completely different path and challenge our ways of thinking. If we have to make a chair, maybe we think about how elephants walk in the water and then we take those principles to design a chair… suddenly you’ve got something completely new, it’s not just the a chair with wheels or made of wood. I think we can learn from each other.”
She came up with the initial idea for LYS during a brief about future working environments for Intel. I ask her what was the catalyst moment where the first idea for it came to be.
“ The room where we were brainstorming was lit with fluorescent light tubes which casted a very blue light over me, it was night and it felt really unhealthy and the light was also creating a shadow on my paper which was really unpractical. You don’t get that kind of light at night when you look out the window! It seems absurd: why is it that we try to adapt to artificial light when that’s man-made and we could design it to adapt to our needs?”
“As I delved into some research about this subject I found out that Pr. Russell Foster, who is the head of the neuroscience department at Oxford, and his research group had discovered a third class of photoreceptive cells, which are non-visual cells that sit in the back of the eye. We used to think of the sole function of the eye being vision and then suddenly they discover these cells that have nothing to do with vision and that changes everything! These cells take-in light and send that information to the brain and the body, this regulates our internal timing system, our circadian rhythm.”
“Following that, I tried to understand who is really suffering from this. That led me to find extreme cases: nurses who work night shifts, for example, have problems associated with melatonin production because they get so much blue light during the night, they have 50% higher risk of breast cancer according to a recent study conducted at Harvard School of Medicine. I think this is quite shocking, these are people who take care of us, and that becomes a problem to their health. I became obsessed about solving the problem for them and I made my first prototype, it was a pair of glasses with LCD screens that I hacked to change colour throughout the day. It was meant to protect nurses from harmful blue light waves at night.”
Her readiness to delve deep into complex subjects is impressive — so much for the “just make it look good” misconception of design — and it is her deep understanding of the problem that started her on her design journey. But was her initial response truly innovative?
“When I made the first prototype, it was a typical engineer’s way of solving a brief: find a solution to the problem.” But she didn’t stop there, her idea is that it is the designer’s responsibility to be the person constantly questioning, re-assessing what is there to make it better: “As I thought about my starting problem in more depth, and challenged my initial view, I realised that people are quite educated about food and exercise and they’re used to thinking that blueberries are healthier than chocolate but with light it’s something completely new, even though it’s so fundamental to us we tend to forget about it in our everyday lives. So there was a need to make a product that could also educate and raise awareness. Because you want people to be aware before they see a need to change. It’s not like I sat down and thought “I need to design a product that will change behaviours”, rather I found a need and then I designed for it.”
On embracing one’s naivety and embarking on seemingly impossible quests
Christina also speaks about designers’ responsibility to help find adapted solutions to modern day problems: “What we are doing in modern society, by sitting in dark offices, and then at night getting energy efficient light, is really harmful to our rhythms. Links have even been found to some short term wellbeing issues like sleep, mood, energy, stress, etc but also longer term conditions like cancer, diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases… these are some of the central lifestyle illnesses that we, as a society, are desperately trying to find a solution to.”
Thinking big in that way can be daunting, and I wonder if she ever feels faced with an impossible mammoth tasks that is too big for her to tackle. But she thinks about it in a different way:
“I love the story of Jørn Urtzon, the Danish architect who designed the Sydney Opera House. When he first showed the drawings to the engineers, they said “No way! That’s not feasible, we can never build this!” But he was pushing for it. And I think it’s quite good to be a bit naive sometimes. If you know too well how things work, you might get scared because you know it’s going to be a lot of work…”
“When I was doing my engineering degree, I think I spent five days, soldering LEDs onto something… maybe I wouldn’t have done it if I had known how long it was going to take. The same goes for this startup, I don’t know if I would have done it had I known how much work it was going to be. But it’s good to challenge yourself and to get out of your comfort zone, that’s how you can really innovate!”
On broadening one’s horizons
It is often said that meeting different people and broadening your horizons is one of the keys to being really innovative, but that is easier said than done. In Christina’s story though, those wide reaching connections are a constant, it’s as if she’d designed her life to make them happen. When I ask her how she does it she laughs: “I’m from Denmark, it’s a small country… that’s why I came to London where we’re lucky to be able to meet people from everywhere! I think that’s healthy because it challenges your perspective on the world. It’s the same for a designer. If you only work on fashion design projects, with fashion designers, who are from the same background or from the same culture, it gives you tunnel vision. Inspiration doesn’t just happen, you need to find it. Designers are good at finding inspiration in all sorts of little things, but in my experience, people are the most interesting source of inspiration. If you want to really challenge the way you look at things, and your perception of a problem, speak to someone in a completely different field or from a different part of the world.”
In the context of her business, and in the development of her product, those wide reaching connections have been vital: “Everyday I learn, about what my product actually is… I integrate feedback from other people, feedback from potential users, everything shapes us. It’s an interesting process of narrowing down and refining.”
Scientists have contacted her as they find LYS is a useful tool to gather data for their research: “When I speak to Professors in the field of chronobiology, they always ask me about how accurate my product is. We based the product on theory and research in the field, so it is fairly accurate. But I also always want to talk about the human aspect of it: How you wear it? Where on the body you put it? How do humans move? How can we feed that back into the product? How does that influence the research? How can we give an indication of human behaviour to the scientist? They can use data collected with Lys because they can access a wider pool of users, that allows them to see certain patterns across a wider section of people. The more you delve into science and research, the more questions you uncover. In that way science is similar to design, it’s trial and error and a process of iterations and refinement.”
But balancing the design between the needs of scientists and the users is not always easy: “Many researchers were telling me to make a fish eye lens on my device, because that is the best way to capture light. But then my users, all said it looked like a camera, and they wouldn’t wear it because people would think they were filming. They wouldn’t wear something that was transparent either because when you see all the electronics in the device, it looks like a medical device.”
The more questions Christina answered during the development of LYS the more questions she uncovered, the more people she collaborated with, the more needs there were to address. All the while she kept coming back to the users: “ I found it really difficult to design this product; we were looking at a new problem — not food, nor exercise— and our answer was not a bracelet or an earpiece. It’s so normal now to have white wires coming out of your ears or to wear massive headphones, but ten years ago that wasn’t the case. So I’m working with social acceptance aspect of design too. How do we push boundaries whilst retaining elements that people can recognise? The more interesting or nice the design is, the more people will wear it… and the more people wear it, the more accurate data is available for scientists. By using the tools of design we can help science and by making science available, we help people lead better lives…”
The possible applications for LYS seem endless: What if the device could help you control the lights in your home, so you can get the type of light you need to be healthier and happier? What if we could use its data to create better work places? There’s still plenty for Christina and her team to explore and develop, and it seems to me that the questioning, iteration and evolution is what gets them up in the morning and what keeps them innovating. When I ask her what’s next her answer summarises that approach:
“I’m interested in people, in their behaviours. I’m not set on what type of design I want to make. Maybe they’ll be different types of projects… I think good design starts at the edge of your comfort zone. When you’re allowing yourself to be a bit naive… so you might take decisions that are not leading to the easy answer. The danger is if you get too comfortable and too knowledgeable about how feasible things are because then you become scared. And you stop taking risks.”
My meeting with Christina ends on her wise words. It is still a beautiful crisp winter morning out and I leave feeling emboldened by our chat. I am reassured that no task is too big, no question is too complex, no problem is beyond design. By surrounding ourselves with experts in different fields and offering our outsider’s perspective on the issue we can help build innovative solutions and products. It’s okay to not have all the answers, because the naive questions are our allies on the path of innovation, we can be explorers.
You can find more info about LYS on their website: https://lystechnologies.co.uk/
And if you are interested to hear how Behavioural Science can help you design environments and processes that help your teams be more innovative...