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Johnathyn Owens

(MA/MSc Innovation Design Engineering, 2013)

Johnathyn is an international designer, filmmaker, Product Designer and Design Strategist, and futurist with a passion for products and services that elevate the quality of life for all. He works with forward-thinking businesses, institutions and cities through life centred design, to create solutions that establish new markets, and opportunities for social and environmental advancement.

He has worked with Philips Healthcare, Fuseproject and IDEO. Currently, Johnathyn continues his passion for design as Design Manager at Fjord Tokyo and founder of Sentient Collective.

In the seven years since you graduated from Innovation Design Engineering (IDE), do you feel that you actively use innovation through synergy between creativity, science and technology to create value for society?

Unfortunately for most of those seven years I’d say not so much. But this is in no way because what I gained during my time at the RCA was not valuable. IDE focuses on giving each student the tools they need to use design and design thinking to solve some of our society’s most pressing problems. It looks at the potential tangible business value, feasible technological value, and desired human value, and teaches students to create wholistic design solutions with these three factors in mind. The first mistake I made after graduating RCA was getting a job at a large company. Office politics, corporate culture and a lack of understanding and alignment across employees strongly impedes innovation and creativity. Even the majority of design firms out there don’t really practice ‘human centred design’ because, in the end, the market won’t let them. When I realised this is when I started to work on my own projects. That is when I felt what I learned at the RCA coming to life.

You worked with Philips Healthcare to lead ethnography and design on breakthrough solutions in respiratory health. With the current Covid-19 pandemic and a huge focus on respiratory care how have design advances played a part in saving lives?

I think we have seen something really inspiring during this pandemic. Without being able to meet in person, and with the dire need for respirators, and even basic medical equipment such as masks and face guards, we have seen an explosion in co-creation and production agility. Designers, engineers, students and even hobbyists alike all took to the web to share open-source designs, collaborate and rapidly produce highly affordable solutions, and to make those solutions as available as possible. With 3D printers, information and education becoming more accessible, we have seen a trend in decentralised open-source design that I truly hope will continue into the future, long after this pandemic is over.

I’m a firm believer that people develop at different rates and stages in their life. Not everyone follows the straight from school to university to work path, some people embrace education much later on in life or find their true passion after years in a job. You said you slowly over time carved out a path for yourself that will allow you to make social impact through design on a meaningful scale. Can you tell us more about your journey and your vision?

My career in design did not start until after the RCA in 2014. I completed an undergraduate in Industrial Design in 2008 full of hopes and dreams that I was going to change the world. At that time the economic crash of 2007 was at its peak in the United States, and after three years of working in restaurants, sleeping on friends’ sofas, all while applying for design jobs literally every day, I had given up hope. I was in New York at the time, and had started a small translation company to try to at least get out of working in manual labour and other unappreciated jobs. At that time I had to make a choice. I could continue going down the road I was on, or take another chance and go back to school. That’s when I applied to the RCA.

After the RCA, over the years I’ve worked at some big names.  But it wasn’t until I began to put myself out there, started working on my own projects, writing articles, and facilitating workshops for the Sentient brand that I started to really feel ownership and value in my work. The more I focused on creating output around what I was passionate about, the more people came into my life who aligned with that, and the more doors began to open. This is not to say it was easy. In fact, trying to do your own thing while working a full-time job is the exact opposite of easy, and I am still on this journey. But slowly through my own work and the Sentient brand I am carving out a position for myself that allows me to work on the projects that I chose to do, and that I feel allow me to make valuable, lasting positive impact.

You have worked on design projects in both Japan and the United States. In your current role you work with 33 global studios. Is the language of design universal or are there cultural differences?

There are absolutely cultural differences, and this is reflected in each culture’s approach to design and its fundamental mindset on work and play. I am based in Japan, and the culture here is extremely risk averse. People here struggle immensely with embracing ambiguity, improvisation, playing things by ear, and not having all the answers before they start. The approach to innovation in Japan has always been a Logical Thinking approach. That is to say you go from A to B to C in a straight line. You plan out every step, make sure you have all the answers and that you’ve accessed every risk, and then you start. This makes utilising creative qualitative processes, such as design thinking and human centred design, excruciating. By weeding out all the potential threats, and approaching development from a very quantitative point of view, the output is extremely refined, but rarely new or exciting. 

This mindset allowed Japanese companies like Sony to excel rapidly in the '80s and '90s as it was the age of technological innovation. How small can you make a gadget? How accurate can you make your technology? But we are now in the era of creative innovation. One that requires deep user empathy, in market testing, guerrilla research, and cross industry collaboration and cooperation. A big part of my role with clients in Japan is helping to bridge that gap between their traditional approach to design, and the thinking and approaches which will become increasingly necessary for innovation moving into the future.

RISE - smart speaker system
RISE - smart speaker system

What was your motivation to write 10 Principles of Life Centered Design?

I realised that human centred design – as well intentioned and still necessary as it is – cannot solve the real global problems that we face today as a species, and a planet. Human-centred design was created to serve the economic system we currently live in, and is largely designed for the wealthier population. In our current economic model, the incentives of production do not reward tackling larger systemic problems — ironically, in a time where all of our problems grow increasingly systemic. For example, there is money in creating a better banking experience. But there is no money in solving systemic poverty in rural East Africa. 

I realised that human centred design alone can no longer tackle the complexity of today’s wicked problems, and something new must come into play. What we require moving forward is a design framework that takes into consideration the ecological, socio-economical, and happiness costs of its production, distribution and disposal. Design cannot be considered to truly have humans at its core if it ultimately further contributes to pollution, landfill mass, mass species extinction, and exploitation of cheap labour. 

Life-centred design considers and addresses these points as part of its core methodology. At the time there was no name for this kind of design. There were no books on it, no one I could talk to. It started as a design manifesto, however, as I began to write these principles I realised that what I was writing were principles for design which see the prosperity of all life on earth as of paramount importance.

You founded the Sentient Collective. Is there a direct connection to choosing this name and the vision?

Absolutely. Sentience is something that every living being shares. It is the common factor that connects every one of us as a planet. When we recognise this, and conduct ourselves with this principle at heart, we are able to produce solutions which are inclusive, and that don’t sacrifice long-term prosperity for short term gains. I wanted to build the first creative organisation that truly has a vision of a common culture which values life, humanity, and the planet above profit. This started with our documentary, Sentient, which is currently in production.

While Sentient Collective is a group of creative professional individuals from different industries who leverage their skills in film, art and event creation with a common goal, we have also been working on our design and innovation arm, Sentient Future Lab (SFL). The mission of SFL is to build an inclusive, ethically and environmentally sustainable future through design and technology driven innovation. In the face of not just massive environmental change but in a change in consumer consciousness, our goal is to help companies and organisations understand what their future potential is for the coming 25 years and beyond. We work with these organisations to create new and novel products and services which help to secure their position in a constantly evolving market. A market, which, for the first time, must begin to take into account ecological and human costs, and the consequences of not addressing them.

Tell us more about the Sentient documentary?

Sentient is a full-length feature documentary that explores the phenomenon of our separation from nature, identifying its roots in culture, religion and human evolution, and offers a new perspective on what each of us can do to solve our world’s most pressing ecological and socio-economic problems; through reconnection with something bigger than our individual selves, and through painless adjustments in our acts of daily living.

We are currently in the midst of an ecological crisis on a scale of which our species has never seen. One in which the choices we make over the next few years will determine the fate of not only our species, but have the power to dramatically affect all life on earth. One of the biggest factors underlying this crisis is the way that we view each other, and our place in the world. A main feature of our common worldview is that we are separate from each other, and from the larger systems that sustain life on this planet as a whole. Sentient aims to illustrate that in fact it is the opposite; that we need each other now more than ever, and that each of us are a vital part of the solution to the crises our world faces today. Sentient looks at our human social myths of economy, capitalism and society, and shows that just as we have created these myths, we can un-create them, challenging us to see a different narrative for the future. 

Sentient documentary
Sentient documentary

Most of us have lived very different lives this past year and realised that we can live differently and consume less and buy less. We have also had time to reflect on our lives and what we do with them. Do you think the world needed some sort of reset?

I think that this world absolutely needs a reset, and we still haven’t had it yet. People think that Covid-19 was a reset, but it was only a pause in our current narrative. The true reset that we need is one of how we approach economy, ecology and community as a whole on this planet. We point to our economy and technology as a reflection of our intelligence. But all of our achievements are at the expense of every other lifeform on the planet – our success a failure, a never-ending game of diminishing returns. We continue to take, without seeing the full picture of how we are taking. Our current economic model only incentivises growth while ruling out the very planetary factors that allow it to exist as externalities.

Our current economic model has no place in its equations for the ozone layer, deep underground aquifers of fossil water, topsoil biodiversity, and all of the services vital to the survival of life on this planet which our earth provides naturally. How is our economy sustainable, when money doesn’t stand for anything, and now grows faster than the real world? What do you think your iPhone is made out of? How do you think it got into your hands? Who do you think made it? We say that everyone has a fair chance in life. That all it takes to change a situation is hard work and dedication. But hard work and dedication will never be enough when we live in a system that requires scarcity to thrive; that requires others to live in poverty so that a few can live in luxury.

We need a reset like never before, but the first thing we need to do is remove the veil of illusion that we are all blinded by; one of capital a productive force, when in reality capital creates nothing. People and nature are the only real creators.

What trends do you think we will see in the future of social and environmental advancement?

I think one of the big trends we will see is that of moving towards a narrative which diversity is no longer a threat, but a celebration. This is the next crucial evolutionary milestone for us as a species. If we are going to find our way out of this knothole of our own making, it is going to take all of us. There are thousands of cultures, thousands of languages on this planet, all with their own unique perception of reality and what it means to be human and alive. Within all of us is the collective wisdom we need to answer every problem that we currently face.

You enjoy traveling. How do you think the industry will change or be different once the world opens up again? Where is the first place you think you will go?

I’ll go to visit every culture documented in Jimmy Nelson’s book Before They Pass Away.

Interview by: Lisa Pierre

Date: April 2021

Tags: alumni_storiesgenerationrca

Johnathyn Owens
Johnathyn Owens

"We are now in the era of creative innovation. One that requires deep user empathy, in market testing, guerrilla research, and cross industry collaboration and cooperation." Johnathyn Owens