Previous industrial revolutions launched the railroad and coal industries and sparked the growth of electricity and petroleum. Today, we are at the beginning of another industrial revolution, says today’s guest, Joanna Peña-Bickley, Head of Research & Design for Alexa Devices at Amazon and the founder of Designed By Us. As people demand change and solutions to problems, systemic design is crucial. In today’s episode, we’ll discuss the world’s challenges and the role of systemic design in solving them.
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The Girls in Tech Podcast is produced by Tote + Pears.
Music By: Adrian Dominic Walther
Featured In This Episode
Joanna Peña-Bickley is a 21st-century renaissance woman, a design technologist, known as the mother of Cognitive Experience Design. She is propelled by a multidisciplinary acumen in design, data, media and technology, her insatiable curiosity moves the C-Suite beyond obvious ideas and products, towards enduring market-making experiences for the connected era.
Joanna’s award-winning artist hand has helped the world’s most recognized companies and brands, such as Land Rover, Nokia, Sephora, American Express, John Deere, Boeing, MTV, Pepsi, and Jay Z imagine and make innovative breakthroughs, with a philosophy of radical collaboration, empathetic conviction and remarkable digital craft. Whether creating one of the first streaming video players, that changed the delivery of live news events for ABC, designing the first banking app for the Apple Watch, that made banking personal again for Citibank, reinventing the connected car as a cognitive mobility platform for General Motor’s OnStar, or inventing new Alexa Devices for Amazon, Joanna’s tenacious creativity disrupts industry and makes new markets.
You can follow Joanna as she explores spaceship earth on: Twitter, Behance or LinkedIn
Adriana Gascoigne (00:00):
I’m Adriana Gascoigne, founder of Girls in Tech and this is the Girls in Tech podcast, where we’re discussing the ways tech is always evolving and helping the world evolve, too. Listen in, get inspired and learn how you can use your skills to create the change you want to see in the world. Here’s your host, Zuzy Martin-Aly.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (00:20):
There’s a company that will value you for you. There’s a tech job where your skillset and unique perspectives are appreciated. By inviting you to share the real you, the Girls in Tech jobs board helps you find that job so that you can take the next step in your career with confidence. Go to jobs.girlsintech.org today. That’s jobs.girlsintech.org.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (00:44):
All you have to do is study history, right, and believe that history doesn’t always just repeat itself, it may rhyme. We’re at a place right now that when you look at industrial revolutions they are defined by three really common general-purpose technologies. The first one is always a communication technology, the second one has to do with energy and the third always, and I say always, has to do with mobility.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (01:14):
The industrial revolutions of the 19th and 20th Century launched the railroad and coal industries and sparked the growth of electricity and petroleum. We shifted away from an agricultural society as we started working in factories and living in growing cities, connected by more sophisticated modes of transportation. The introduction of digital technology and the internet in the 1950s were another monumental shift. Today, we’re at the beginning of the next industrial revolution, says Joanna Pena-Bickley. Joanna’s the head of research and design for Alexa devices at Amazon and the founder of Designed by Us. This moment in time, one marked by racial unrest and civil strife, nevermind a global pandemic, she says, is not unlike the conditions surrounding previous industrial revolutions and right now the challenges we face such as economic and racial inequality demand big thinkers. At the core of solving these problems is systematic design. Joanna helps us connect the dots between systematic design, technological innovation and the emergence of a better world. Here’s my conversation with Joanna.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (02:22):
Joanna, thank you so much for being on The Girls in Tech podcast today. You have not only helped some of the world’s biggest companies and brands create breakthrough designs, we’re talking Land Rover, Sephora AmEx, John Deere, Boeing, not to mention Jay-Z but you’ve also done incredibly powerful things like fight for the inclusion of women on US currency. Today, let’s pause there because that’s awesome.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (02:50):
I am waiting for my Tubman’s. Let’s be very clear about something, we have to push forward not just because A, it is something that you’re passionate about but the time has come to get a little Tubman going. I am ready to spend some Tubman’s, are you guys?
Zuzy Martin-Aly (03:06):
You know what? I was going to ask you how you felt about Harriet Tubman being the first woman on US currency and what are you going to do when you have that bill in your hand?
Joanna Peña-Bickley (03:17):
Spend it with a Black woman.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (03:19):
Joanna Peña-Bickley (03:20):
That’s the first thing I’m going to do, right? I’m going to spend it with the Latinx and Black communities. We’re at a time where I think that not just only are we having a social awaking, we’re having an economic awakening and we as designers and creators and inventors need to put our money where our mouth is and if we really genuinely care about these things it is about underwriting and funding the initiatives that we believe are going to have impacts in communities of color and impoverished communities. I really, really strive to emphasize that both in my work with Designed by Us which is the non-for-profit that I co-founded with my children and family but also the work that I do every single day with Amazon, which is just to ensure that when we are working, we are working towards the inclusion of 100% of humanity and so why wouldn’t that be applicable to the currency that we use?
Zuzy Martin-Aly (04:19):
Today you are the head of R&D for Alexa devices at Amazon but instead of titles, you like to describe yourself as an artist, an activist as we just heard, an inventor and designer of enchanting things. So thank you so much. That is a perfect intro to get into what we want to talk about most today. It’s really amazing to speak with you because you have a very unique perspective on the next industrial revolution and it’s connection to this crazy moment in time. What do you see happening that makes you think that we’re in the midst of, or at the cusp of an industrial revolution?
Joanna Peña-Bickley (04:56):
Absolutely. Well let’s start with as a creator and as someone who kind of believes that we have the possibility to have impact on the world through our work and that it’s imperative, by the way, particularly at this moment. All you have to do is study history, right? And believe that history doesn’t always just repeat itself, it may rhyme. We’re at a place right now that when you look at industrial revolutions they are defined by three really common general purpose technologies. The first one’s always the communication technology, the second one has to do with energy and the third always, and I say always, has to do with mobility. This is true, you can read, it’s in economic books. It isn’t just my theory. I think it’s really important for me to credit where this information comes from in the study but there’s a phenomenal professor by the name of Jeremy Rifkin at UPenn who has written a number of books and he has written about the industrial revolutions and how these transformations tend to happen almost every 100 years, although we’re seeing an accelerant happen to us and where we are at this point in time.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (06:08):
Now what’s really important to note that in every industrial revolution, there are these, you’ve got those kind of three engines, those general purpose technologies that happen but you also have a history of civil unrest. You tend to have sometimes a pandemic if you look at, we can go back and look at Spanish Flu as kind of taking part of that industrialization of America and how it spread and then you always have workers social movement. If you look in this moment where we are in the fourth industrial revolution. The fourth industrial revolution when we look at it are actually being defined by the following technologies. When it comes to communication, it is the internet of things. It is all of these nomadic devices, both stationary and nomadic, that will connect everyone to everything. The implications behind that are enormous and we’ll get into that.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (07:08):
The second part, the general purpose technology, is we talked about the internet of things and how that overlaps with mobility and what is happening in mobility? Well we’re trying to get to things like autonomous drones and vehicles, right? We’re starting to see it in the commercial space but we’re also seeing it now in the personal space. When it comes to energy, the thing that excites me the most is this idea that we will get to a renewable state. There is no longer a conversation, I think in very small recesses that we’re dealing with governments that don’t understand that the transfer to renewable energy isn’t just about a climate change perspective but it’s also an economic driver.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (07:56):
When it comes to racial injustice and social justice issues, like the ones you describe. All the inequality that’s being highlighted right now and that’s been happening for a long time, economic inequality and of course the gender gap at work, why are these things at the forefront of this revolution?
Joanna Peña-Bickley (08:14):
Because the reason I put forth the history and I think this is super important is we can learn from history. Every single one of these had a social revolution underneath it, okay? You see these economic engines when we have massive change and then it’s a change of often finding that there are inequalities and in that inequality and I look at this and say, “Well all these revolution, the flip side of every revolution is opportunity,” right? It’s the opportunity to make change, it’s the opportunity to fundamentally change the systems in which they work and the changes that we are seeing right now, and I think this is an important part, right? The changes we are seeing right now are unprecedented in human history because we have the accelerant of technology. Think about this as we are moving past this idea, Moore’s Law, right? That we were going to be able to accelerate at the rate of Moore’s Law but the reality is the accelerant of change is happening far quicker than I think any democracy on the planet ever was ready for and so you have this social unrest, you have all of these inequality pieces but you can turn them into equality, right?
Joanna Peña-Bickley (09:29):
You can turn them, not in just to equality but equity for these communities but you got to know how to use the technology and you have to be able to get into the game of designing with data. If you don’t, you will let this industrial revolution and opportunity pass you by. I always like to kind of frame it in that if we, as women, want to move to be the leaders in industry, we need to focus not on being industrious, right? Industrious women, but the next industrialists. Let’s be really clear about who the next industrialists are going to be. If you look back at every single one of the industrial revolutions they were people who could take those three technologies and create new systems completely and so that’s where we have to position ourselves as leaders of movements to take advantage of these technologies in a way that is going to further the good that we want to do in the world.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (10:32):
We’re talking about technology as a solution and as a driving force in this new industrial revolution. Can we speak a little bit about the up front strategy and thinking that goes in to this change? Specifically the importance of design thinking and crafting systematic change, especially regarding societal inequalities that are more relevant today.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (10:53):
Absolutely. So I’m going to cover two areas because I think the emphasis on design thinking has been enormous in business quite a bit but I actually would pivot us and say we need to get down to the design doing, as well. So important about … It is great to think, and I think design thinking really helps to catapult your ability to take on systemic research and give yourself the information that you need and just enough research to go solve a problem. But it is about immersing yourself in that problem space, understanding the data that’s available to you and then trying to create the new systems. Where I really focus in is on design doing and what I call speculative design. A very big practice of mine is actually narrative writing and why is narrative … People think, “Oh, how is writing and design connected to each other?” Well the reality is is that design is the intentional solution to a problem within constraints and so if you understand that, you understand that those intentional solutions need vision and in order to get to vision you need to be able to write a narrative, a forward thinking narrative.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (12:07):
One of the things that I began, whether I was at IBM or even now in the role that I am in today, which is … I will tell you just the framework for the narratives have slightly changed but it was about really sitting down and writing down the goals of what we intend to do with this design and who it’s intended to serve. It’s a very big creative and writing under doing and then you get down, that’s the imagining of the future. Now let’s get to actually making the future real, right, and doing it now. I kind of use this phrase that, a big part of what my team does today and what I have been doing since I was a kid was always about dreaming about the future and making the future real today. So daring to dream about a better future and then having the [foreign language 00:12:59], in Spanish we call it [foreign language 00:13:01], right? The desire, right, to try to make it real and try to make it real for as many people as you can.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (13:08):
So you can take that same framework out of product design and apply that to systemic issues and to public service and to civic technologies. I think that’s where when we think about the upfront strategy I’m always careful with the word, “Strategy,” because there are incredible strategists out there who do phenomenal work and I think strategy’s great for communication. When it comes to design, though, the opportunity for strategy is about developing a vision and working your way with customers, working your way with constituents or whoever it is that you are serving in that place that when you set forth that intent that you’re doing so with people as opposed to kind of creating out these far out strategies that could never be done.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (13:57):
I love what you said about describing that element of design with [foreign language 00:14:03], right? Because when you’re bilingual you always run into the issue of the one language describing something so much better than the translation which meant, “Desire,” right?
Joanna Peña-Bickley (14:13):
Zuzy Martin-Aly (14:14):
[Foreign language 00:14:14] is like, desire with oomph, like with guts, like I really want [crosstalk 00:14:19].
Joanna Peña-Bickley (14:19):
With passion. Passion. We’re Latinas, we need to not be ashamed of our passion. We need to own it and in our space and I will tell you I coach so many women of color and Latinas and a lot of times that’s used against us, right? It is actually used against us to say, “Oh, she’s passionate,” or, “Oh …” I’ve actually had men tell me I was spicy. Needless to say they ended up in HR because I have zero tolerance for that nonsense. What that means is is that we walk into these spaces with a passionate desire to do better on behalf of our community, to raise with people, raise up people with us versus against us or even in adversary relationships. I think that we are moving from a place of needing to think about competition to collaboration. A part of the evolution of where I sit today has been that you bring that, your whole self to work, you bring your whole self to the position and the things that you decide that you’re going to apply yourself to.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (15:29):
I’m hoping you could share what skills are needed most in driving change through technology.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (15:36):
Absolutely. So as you know I have a passion for all things internet of things. We talked about it being a general purpose technology, right? So if everything is connected to everyone, if you think about it, everything is written in code. It will have some sense of code. Everything. I always like to use the example of a raspberry pi, right? It’s a very simple device. You can connect … One of the things that our designers have utilized it is actually to connect up all the 3D printers so they can monitor them remotely while they’re producing PPE or they can see how the things are actually being designed. Here is all of this code that it requires you just to understand that a basis in some kind of code is really important. I tend to lean towards Python and HTML5 and understanding that there are all kinds of different technologies that you could do but as designers you got to know how your interface works. What are the code languages for the interfaces that you’re designing for? When I first started out, the interface I was primarily designing for was the web.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (16:46):
Well the web is, what are the primary code technologies? It’s HTML5, if you want to create a design system you got to know things like CSS, right? Then now where we’ve taken design and design systems into components it’s really understand that React is a really wonderful technology to learn. In our world, in business, you will not be able to create anything or actually understand if you aren’t able to also understand code. I highly recommend HTML5 as just a basic, CSS and code frameworks but if you want to take a next step on how those things work, really work, it’s getting into React. If you want to, as my career progressed and I collided into the world of mobile, being able to take coursework mid-career in the area of C+ and Swift was really super important to me so that I could actually start creating IOS based applications. So it was bringing that I needed to have both a visual craft and a code craft and that is going to be true in interior design. You will still have to have a sensibility of space but understand that if you’re in a connected home, that home is written in code.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (18:06):
Same thing if you’re an industrial designer. It’s creating a car, right? Today, even if you want to fix a car you need to know code and now that we have connected refrigerators and stoves and bathrooms, your plumber’s going to have to know code. Your electrician needs to know code, right? These are all skillsets that are going to be required as a part of it because as we connect everything to everyone, these things will continue to get sophisticated and if you want to be in command of that command line, you have to be able to go through somebody else’s code or teach yourself to actually code yourself. It’s very much around that understanding that code is one aspect of it and that you will have an evolution of codes that you’ll need to learn, right? Think of them as a second language. We need to be ambidextrous and being able to communicate through linguistics but we also need to be able to communicate through the love of language and the syntax of code.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (19:10):
As we look into the future, what positions or job titles should we be looking for specifically?
Joanna Peña-Bickley (19:17):
You want to be looking at CEO. Dream big my girlfriends.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (19:22):
Joanna Peña-Bickley (19:22):
Dream big because women with these skills are in high demand now and will and can run the world today. Some of my favorite people, women that I look up to, CEOs of corporations came about because they had backgrounds in engineering or product. Mary Barra from GM happens to be one of them. I just think the world of her. Having worked at IBM on a product that was with her OnStar team and understanding that she was a CEO that came out of the product world, she comes out of the engineering background. So did Ginni Rometty, the former CEO of IBM. Understand that in a world where we are all creating platforms and we’re all creating new services and they go far beyond just communicating with our customers. It’s about what we will do for our customers. I look at the pivot in the world that we’re seeing is that so much of digital technologies was focused on the communications to customers as opposed to what are you going to do to make that customer experience more? How are you going to revolutionize or transform your business in a way that is really putting in service to your customers?
Joanna Peña-Bickley (20:36):
In order to do that, you got to know some form of technology and underlying technologies and code to be able to do that and to steer the ship. Once you have those things, you marry the ability to be an entrepreneur and run the ship as a code, you will be the next industrialists. The formula for success is understand data, understand design, and understand that you have to be able to translate the world, the physical world and the built world into code in a way that you will have an impact on it. That’s how we get through the systemic biases, that’s how we bring ourselves to parity. Because in code you can actually change what that code does and so imagine being able to change the world with the stroke of a key. Ladies, you have the ability to do it. It’s about putting our minds to do it now and looking to organizations to help remove some of the systemic barriers that are keeping you from doing those things. It will feel uncomfortable but here’s the thing that I promise.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (21:42):
Is that my areas of growth were times where I felt uncomfortable. When I was like, “Hey, I got this taken care of,” I wasn’t growing. So the ability to understand that learning and constantly learning and not resting on our laurels and just knowing one aspect of technology or one aspect of our creativity, it’s bringing those things together. That’s why I’m a proponent of STEAMED, right? Yes, creatives, we got to get better at math. If you’re going to transform yourself from being industrious to being an industrialist, you’ve got to be able to understand the bottom line of business and not just communicate in the language of your customers but also in the language of business in new and unique ways. We get to define that. That’s in front of us. That is what is possible today but if we want to see more numbers in the future, we need to make that core curriculum a part of the re-skilling of all of us from early career to distinguished professions and know that these are the things that we’ve got to know to actually lead the industrial revolution as industrialists.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (22:52):
Oh thank you, Joanna. So inspiring. Thank you so much. I want to keep talking to you and I have to ask you for any final thoughts you’d like to share or advice to people who are eager to be a part of having a true impact on the world’s problems through design and technology?
Joanna Peña-Bickley (23:13):
Absolutely. Well it’s funny that you ask that. I think one of the final thoughts is around really focusing people and at this time when we are sheltered in place and we’re stuck inside but exploring what your purpose is. When you sit in a place of privilege, like many of us do and we don’t even realize it, many of us sit in a place of privilege and so how do you transform and exchange that privilege for progress? When you’ve decided what you’re going to do I’d implore you to come and explore designedbyus.org and join the Design Corps. The reason I ask you to do that is because here is a place, a safe space, that we have designed to help you chart your future, chart a place that you can take on these big, systemic issues and do so in a way where you’re gaining skills along the way. We don’t expect you to know code when you walk in the door but I promise you, you’ll know it when you leave. By the end of a studio program you’ll be able to use all these new skills to catapult you into new and inventive spaces, wherever those spaces you may want to take you.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (24:23):
What we hope to do is help to not just do the enlightenment but to deliver people a new dream and get the skills and the path and the sponsorship they need to get to the business of reconstructing a world that we deserve to live in and so for me, that’s about what I mean when I talk about daring to design the future today. That is what the Design Corps does day in and day out and being a member of that is getting the benefits that you need that are created in a world that teach you how to grab the equity that you deserve to have a much better and safer and more [inaudible 00:25:05] life moving forward. As I part with you I leave with this, the only thing that standing in your way often is self doubt. Know that I am a dyslexic kid from San Antonio, Texas, who came from the middle class and while yes, I did not live through a pandemic in my early years and I did not … As an adult I did have to overcome great, systemic barriers but it’s possible but we have to get down to the business of doing it and standing with purpose in our space and looking for the sponsors that will help us get there.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (25:45):
I promise you that if you just looked to the Design Corps, you will find that comradery and that radical collaboration in those sponsors because we are on the mission to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest time possible and we’re going to do it without disadvantaging anyone and ensuring that while we’re doing it, we’re going to fix the planet because you’ve got to remember this, we need the planet more than it needs us and so with that, I dare you to join me in designing the future today.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (26:19):
Joanna, thank you so much for being with us and for having such a wonderful conversation with me on the Girls in Tech podcast.
Joanna Peña-Bickley (26:29):
I loved being with it and I love Girls in Tech. I happen to be one of them.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (26:35):
Are you ready to sharpen your skills? Get inspired and learn how to thrive in tech? At the one day Girls in Tech virtual conference on September 9th you’ll benefit from skill building sessions, personal development workshops, networking and so much more. Connect with people from around the world as you invest in your personal and professional growth plus it’s free. To learn more go to girlsintech.org/conference. That’s girlsintech.org/conference.
Adriana Gascoigne (27:05):
Thank you for listening to today’s episode. The Girls in Tech podcast is a production of Tote + Pears. Were you inspired by what you heard today? Head over to girlsintech.org to find more resources for starting and advancing a career in tech, including our jobs board and personal and professional development programs designed to hep you excel and be sure to tune in every other Tuesday for new episodes. See you next time.
The Girls in Tech Podcast is produced by Tote + Pears.
Music By: Adrian Dominic Walther