Sustainability, Digitalisation back

Thomas Gnahm: Your pants tell you where to go

Thomas Gnahm: Your pants tell you where to go
Photo: © Florian Wenningkamp
Wearing the trousers. Indeed, and what special trousers they are!  Thomas Gnahm (first from right, third from left) works in the  wearables sector – and writes about it. Photo © Florian Wenningkamp

Digitalisation is birthing a whole new industry: wearables, or ‘smart clothing’. For example, what used to be a dalliance and technological gimmick years ago is today a reality in many ways: Bandage stockings give us feedback on how well our healing process is going with our knee. A shirt responds when our heart beats too fast – and we are just at the beginning of a development thanks to these sorts of innovations. 
  

BY   THOMAS GNAHM (organiser of Wear It Berlin)
 

When I got into cycling in New York over a decade ago, I didn’t know it would end up changing my future. These lads looked totally crazy: They wore gear jackets, looked like a mo­torcycle gang, but were proud of their bikes. This was 2006. In Berlin, I thought: This can be developed conceptually. So I came up with the idea of a first transformer­pop jacket, which resembled the gear jacket, which illuminated when braking. Together with a few friends, we developed them and also inserted LEDs into the inside of the jackets, which we also controlled from a minicomputer. On some jackets, we add­ed additional sensors that turned red when the jacket was abruptly decelerated, or that responded to tweets on the Internet. All fun and games, to be sure. But funny, too! And, to­day I realise, forward­looking.

Since that time I haven’t been able to let go of the idea of wearables. I myself come from the design field, having studied visual communication at the Bauhaus­Uni Weimar, and in 2014 I initiated the first Wear It Festival in Berlin, which has been taking place annually since then. What do we do? We are advancing the field of weara­bles, that is, smart clothing. Once a year, companies from the wearable tech scene meet industry, politics meets culture, designers meet artists – and investors meet founders, com­panies meet research and the media discover progress – and all this in the middle of Berlin. 

What’s good for the bottom is just as good for the top: the transformer pop jacket. Looks good and flashes when you sit on the bike – developed by Thomas Gnahm. Photo © Florian Wenningkamp

No question: What’s emerging here is only the beginning. Wearables have had a great impact in sports, healthcare and industry. In ski sports, sensors are now being used to detect movements or the like, and what has developed in recent years is the field of workwear. For example, Proglove has de­veloped an intelligent data glove that facilitates work in man­ufacturing, logistics and commerce; a glove that thinks with you. By pressing a button triggered by the finger, the work action is carried out concretely. Other products such as the Motex Bandage, manufactured by Fraunhofer IZM in Ber­lin, help to support our knee injury healing process. This is a type of knee bandage that measures the flexion behaviour of a knee. Motex is also used in physiotherapy.

What is happening here is a real step forward in human history, and digitalisation will radically change our lives in the future: New professions will emerge, others will become obsolete or disappear – creative work and what interpersonal communication will be also in the future

The Berlin clothing industry is largely organised in small parts. And of course, in a city like Berlin, the question remains as to how the small­minded creators of ideas and inventors can keep up with the big ones in the future. Already, the tech giants like Apple, Intel, Microsoft or IBM are very far ahead. However, I believe that this will bring about completely new synergies in the future. Because the necessary technology is often open source, so not very complicated and widespread – that’s just a plus for the small players. In addition, it can also be, and this is currently emerging, that an invention is reserved only for the adults and then democratised by the duplication. What is certain is that nothing will work without collaboration in the future, both in the image and in the product areas. And that is exactly what can be helpful for the little idea providers. 

You have the technology at your fingertips: the “intelligent” data glove from Proglove. By pressing a button triggered by the finger, the work action is carried out concretely. Photo © Proglove

On a large scale, however, it’s now a question of establish­ing an eco­system and strengthening open source concepts against closed systems. And that means we have to set fu­ture standards. When it comes to this, we are only at the be­ginning. But it’s also clear that the market is developing rap­idly. Currently, the US is very far ahead. Above all, the textile industry has completely migrated to Asia in recent years. Germany is still the world market leader in the field of smart technologies. This is also where new jobs are being created. We’ve been aware of this for years given the many startups that have attended Wear It Berlin. And I’m particularly en­couraged by printed electronics: These are electronic com­ponents and applications that can be manufactured com­pletely or partially using printing processes. Instead of the printing inks, electronic functional materials in liquid or pasty form are now being printed. I see a lot of potential here. And most of all, you’ll be able to bring an industry back to Germa­ny, thanks to intelligent smart production methods. 

In the future, we will also face a very central challenge. The question is: How can we reconcile increasing mechanisation with new sustainability? For example, how do you dispose of clothes with sensors or batteries?

But the question will be how to financially support all these ideas in the future, especially in Berlin. Because Berlin is in­creasingly becoming the central hub for the scene. In ad­dition to the large number of progressive designers, start­ups and creatives of all kinds, we have a great research landscape here and several universities that are addressing the topic, such as the Kunsthochschule Weißensee, the HTW or the Design Research Lab at the UDK. What is still missing is the connecting link between all those involved, a platform that brings together different efforts and runs matchmaking. Together with many partners from industry, research and uni­versities, we recently founded the innovation network “Wear It Hub” on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The aim is to bring Germany, and Berlin in particu­lar, even further forward. In the future, we will also face a very central challenge. The question is: How can we  reconcile increasing mechanisation with new sustainability? So how do you dispose of clothes with sensors or batteries. That’s still a problem. One solution is to make the latest tech products modular so that the components are easy to separate afterwards. But admittedly, that’s expensive. Technologies, LEDs, for example, are simply not compostable (yet). Another solu­tion is to rely on printed electronics based on biodegradable substrates. Deposit recycling systems are also conceivable. 

Smart Jacket: Generates light and flashes when touched. Practically one of your best friends – by the Berlin designer Esther Zahn. Photo © Alexander Rentsch 

Overall, most electrical appliances are simply not yet sus­tainable; they are also manufactured cheaply somewhere in Asia – and certainly not under fair working conditions. What is emerging is a gap between ecological clothing on the one hand and new technology on the other, which is simply not sustainable. We definitely need new solutions here. But what I find motivating: Politicians have now recognised the issue. This is not only shown by the Europe­wide ban on plastics, which has already been decided at EU level. It is also reflect­ed in numerous new funding programs that were launched in Berlin. This is where we have to go on. Looking to the “future” also means shaping the future. I’ve been doing this for years. The end just isn’t in sight.

 

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