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Delfina Fantini van Ditmar

PhD Innovation Design Engineering, 2012–2016

I did my BA in Biology, in Chile. Before that, I was much more into the arts and architecture, but I had this burning question when I was about 18 years old: how do thoughts emerge from cells? Studying neurons seemed to be the way to find out, so I applied to study at the South American equivalent of University College London. It was a five-year programme, really tough, and none of the friends I started with stayed the course. Years afterwards, looking back, I realised it was silly to think that I would ever find an answer; I also realised that the more you understand the brain, the more mysterious it is, and that’s fascinating. It’s also why I left science, because I wanted to retain that fascination.

I enrolled on a design MFA at Konstfack University in Stockholm and completed one year. When I was there, I wrote a paper for an architectural conference at Sint-Lucas School of Architecture in Brussels, about fragility in architecture. I was considering doing a PhD at the time, and stayed in Belgium to research possibilities. By chance, I met someone who asked me about my interests and introduced me to Ranulph Glanville, who was Professor of Research in Innovation Design Engineering at the RCA and President of the American Society for Cybernetics from 2009 to 2014. Very sadly, he died in December 2014. He was extremely intelligent, and beyond that, such a great character, a lovely man. He really challenged me, and introduced me to so many incredible ideas; even though he’s dead, he is still the person I have the best conversations with; but, of course, I miss his brilliance. 

The PhD started with ubiquitous computing and the idea that technology is always in the background of our lives. Now, I’m looking at a critical framework in relation to the Silicon Valley mentality towards SMART technology, questioning what ‘SMART’ means, and that whole deterministic, linear problem solving approach. My work has changed and developed a lot over the years. Focusing on the home has allowed me to bring together many different interests. Ranulph’s expertise in cybernetics was also a huge influence, and has helped me to see some of the problems of artificial intelligence, for example. 

In the first year, I worked super hard and was in College Monday-to-Sunday until they kicked me out, and that's how I learned the system: who operates the workshops, who to talk to, how a PhD works, and I spent so much of that time with other people. Coming from biology, which was another galaxy, I’d never dealt with the 3D world, so I did a couple of MA courses when I first arrived, to help me make that transition. It was great to work with MA students, because I could help them with a critical approach, and they could help me with material and design issues. 

I’ve learned a lot about art and design. I was thrown into this with no practitioner experience, and there was no chance to learn things slowly, so that’s been super valuable. I’ve met incredible people at the RCA, like some of the technicians at Battersea, and there are so many opportunities to collaborate. There are two other PhD students with whom I meet up to crit and discuss each other’s work and related issues; for example, today we’re discussing whether somebody should be referred to as a person or a user. It’s a small, self-initiated community, not only intellectual and practical, and super tough and critical, but also affectionate and supportive, and I’ve learned so much from that. 

One project I’ve done was called Becoming Your ‘SMART’ Fridge, in which I became the algorithm of a SMART fridge. I went to have dinner with some students who were likely to be early adopters of SMART fridges, where we discussed their eating habits over the meal. I took something to drink and told them to cook food only using what they had in their fridge, and not to buy anything. I looked at the contents of the fridge, and afterwards produced the outcome of a SMART fridge delivered by email – a graphic report, combining SMART technology responses as well as my knowledge of the individuals, playing with sense and nonsense, use and abuse, pushing the potential of the technology. Being in the position of the algorithm was such an interesting role and made me reflect on so many things.

At the moment, I’m working out how to do the next iteration of the project, which I think will be something like a real-time responsive interaction, and then I’ll write up my PhD thesis. We’ll see what new knowledge emerges.

"I’ve met incredible people at the RCA, like some of the technicians at Battersea, and there are so many opportunities to collaborate."
Delfina Fantini van Ditmar
Delfina Fantini van Ditmar