New York City-based researcher, designer, innovator, and entrepreneur Benedetta Piantella is a master at overclocking her mind. She’s an adjunct professor at two universities, teaching such courses as human-computer interaction, user experience, and physical computing. Concurrently, she’s a tech consultant for UNICEF and a technology architect for Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Benedetta has cofounded two R&D firms, T4D Lab and Ground Lab. She’s an open source advocate, a humanitarian, and an environmentalist, using her skills to develop inspiring projects like lion-tracking collars, medical data loggers, and the Tsunameter buoy system. When push comes to shove, Benedetta is someone you’d definitely want on your team.
One project you’re particularly proud of:
1. Working in engineering for development and trying to tackle large challenges, I am proud of all the projects that I get the opportunity to be involved in and contribute to, but given how vast some of the issues to solve are, I am always left with a sense of dissatisfaction at heart. I always wish I could reach more people, have a larger impact, and therefore I am left feeling that I can and should do more.
That said, I tend to focus all my energies on whatever project/challenge at hand and I get into a sort of zone, so at the moment I am proudest of the project that I am currently working on. It goes by the temporary name of Quench and it revolves around exploring and building a sustainable solution to the issue of limited unreliable access to safe drinking water in rural and peri-urban areas in developing countries.
I am honored to be a part of it because of the importance of the issue that it hopes to address and the wonderfully skilled and knowledgeable team that is spearheading the project, which has allowed for a lean and fast-paced development process. One of the most significant moments of this project was when I had the chance to travel to Kenya and visit water kiosks in Mathare Valley to receive invaluable feedback directly from the people on the ground, and realized how many people a solution to water-related challenges could really impact.
Benedetta during a visit to a Maasai village in Kenya.
Two past mistakes you’ve learned the most from:
1. The most important mistake I have ever made is probably the one I keep making: thinking I can do it all. I have an insatiable appetite for knowledge and experiences so it is hard for me to balance what I want to do with what it is that I physically can do. I think I trick myself into thinking that I don’t need any personal time and I give into familiar patterns, taking on more than I can handle knowing that somehow I always manage. At some point I thought I could figure out a way to get a Ph.D. while teaching part time, researching part time in a different institution, in the meanwhile starting a new business and a family. It took a few friends and family members to sit me down and give me a reality check!
2. Another mistake I have repeated more times than I would like to admit is not savoring the process and not stopping to smell the roses. I don’t know if I simply never had any patience or if I lost it at some point along the way, or maybe because of working in technology, things change so rapidly that it makes me feel like I am living on a treadmill. Either way, I always went through projects and experiences unable to enjoy each step of the way, but rather completely focused on the end goals. I am now much more aware of the fact that the most valuable lessons to be learned are hidden in the path.
The latest prototype Benedetta collaborated on: water dispensing and monitoring system, Quench.
Three new ideas that have excited you most lately:
1. Do-it-yourself isn’t a new concept, but the momentum that this movement and attitude has received lately is definitely leading to more people making things. I am particularly excited about the home-brewed manufacturing and fabrication capabilities that people now have access to, not that many of these tools didn’t exist before, but for a while we seem to have gotten disconnected from the art of building. Digital fabrication processes, tools, and shared knowledge resources have opened new doors for many people to discover their inner tinkerer, maker, and entrepreneur. I am a huge advocate of open source as a vehicle for sharing skills and for local capacity-building and local manufacturing, so the energy behind this momentum is giving me hope that these tools can now reach innovators, shape entrepreneurs, and empower communities around the world.
2. I am a hardware nerd and often work on hardware devices that connect to some type of network and broadcast data, so I am fascinated with the exponential growth of M2M devices, sensor networks, or, like most like to call it, the Internet Of Things (a term I personally don’t think is very fitting). I am intrigued by the amount of small embedded devices that are coming on the market to collect and transmit information and by all the different types of formats, protocols, and applications. Lately, I am particularly intrigued by NFC applications and the capabilities of RFID as these technologies can be very useful for remote monitoring and data collection purposes for humanitarian, environmental, conservation, and social challenges.
3. I could not stop watching Felix Baumgartner’s descent from 128.100 feet above Earth. Whether the experiment was done for entertainment, record breaking, or research purposes, I thought it was incredible how we could watch that entire process in real-time. It was a strange voyeuristic and empowering experience that left me with a strange, and possibly false, sense that anything is possible. Well, almost anything (I am scared of heights).
Four tools you can’t live without:
1. Pocket screwdriver. I never thought I would be sentimental about my tools, but when I started dabbling in electronics and circuit design I was living in Boston and loved spending my afternoons at You-Do-It Electronics in Needham, Mass. As a memento of those days, I always carry with me a small screwdriver from that store, which has come in handy on a number of occasions, except for the fact that now there are so many metal detectors everywhere!
2. Soldering iron. There’s nothing I won’t try to do or fix using my Weller soldering iron. It’s a useful tool not just for work-related activities, but I find myself needing to solder something on a fairly regular basis. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I managed to fix my friends’ baby monitor!
3. Spreadsheets. As much as I can’t stand them, I can’t live without them. I use Excel spreadsheets for almost anything such as budgets for proposals, orders, timelines, data entry forms, and bill-of-materials for projects and electronic parts.
4. The internet. Needless to say, I wouldn’t have learnt how to do half of the things I know how to do today if it weren’t for the web, from making avocado paletas, to feeding a rescued bird, to assembling surface-mount components on a $20 hotplate. Thank you, internet, for giving me access to countless tools and resources!
One of Benedetta’s collaborative projects: open source lion-tracking collar system to help conservationists protect the last 2000 lions living in the wild in Southern Kenya.
Five people/things that have inspired your work:
1. Arduino. I had been playing around with electronics prototyping platforms like the Basic Stamp for a while, but it wasn’t until I was introduced by Tom Igoe at ITP to the Arduino platform that I really understood what physical computing was capable of and what it could do for me. In the summer of 2007 I had a chance to travel back to Italy, where I am from, and help the Arduino team in Milan. The Arduino board is a staple in my toolbox and represents a central prototyping tool for the majority of the systems I build. It is now as integral to my R&D process as nuts and bolts!
2. Indian Ocean tsunami. It was after surviving the tsunami of 2004 while sleeping on a beach in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, and witnessing the devastation it left behind, that my focus shifted from using technologies for artistic expression to wanting to apply those tools and skills towards solving humanitarian problems. The goal moved from wanting to create experiences for people to wanting to help them. Natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and other emergency situations face us regularly and we need to take steps to be prepared. These situations motivate me to raise awareness, and I hope some day to focus more on trying to identify and design tools and systems that can be easily deployed in those scenarios and make a difference for first responders, the survivors.
3. Neil Gershenfeld and FabLabs. I have had this kind of serendipitous “aha!” moment only a few times in my life, but after co-running a physical fabrication space in New York for a few years, I had started to compile a recipe for a self-sustaining lab capable of small production runs of local solutions when I came across Prof. Gershenfeld’s TED talk on movable and stationary FabLabs. That was exactly along the lines I was thinking! A decentralized system of hands-on learning that I could easily adapt and apply to developing countries and target more specifically toward addressing local problems. Hallelujah!
4. Limor Fried, Ladyada. I think Limor is not only an incredibly talented engineer but also a strong advocate for open source and a brilliant businesswoman. She is a wonderful example to look up to and has taught me and others a great deal, thanks to her online tutorials and shared knowledge. In the same ways she inspires me, I know she is instrumental to a lot of young female (and male) engineers and technologists in the making. It’s fantastic to see her getting recognized for her achievements by Entrepreneur magazine as “Entrepreneur of the Year” although “of the year” doesn’t do her justice!
5. Family. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be what I am and I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, if it weren’t for the continuous support of my friends and family members, from whom I draw inspiration daily. My husband, John Simeonidis, has provided me with endless support through all the ups and downs of my career and has offered me great advice and shared with me invaluable lessons learned drawn from his own personal experiences (his latest endeavor is an organic restaurant franchise called BareBurger). His work ethic and dedication are truly inspirational and remind me constantly of how fundamental it is to not stop believing in yourself. Ever.
The people who have inspired me and inspire me daily are countless, and truthfully my hat is off to anyone who has to manage and balance career/work and family. Those are real heroes!
The medical data logger Benedetta helped create for UNICEF, shown in the field in Uganda.