Conversations on Passion: Ayah Bdeir of littleBits
Conversations on Passion is an interview series with those who have found and are living their passions in some form. If you'd like to be profiled or know someone who would be a great fit, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm really excited to share with you this next Conversation on Passion. I was fortunate enough to connect with Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO of littleBits. If you're not familiar with littleBits, they are working to change the perception of engineering by making it straightforward and engaging for young people. Think motors, motion sensors, and other electronic components that can be connected in a matter of seconds into complex circuits and then reassembled to make a new type of circuit. All connections are made via magnets, so there's no way to mess up. Great stuff! Ayah presented at TED2012 in Long Beach, and was awarded a TED2013 Senior Fellowship. She's very passionate about what she does and has some interesting insights on passions and some great advice on how to find and keep yours.
What is passion to you?
Passion to me is synonymous with obsession. It’s when you cannot get an idea out of your head, or can’t stop thinking about a problem. It’s this knowing feeling that you can’t get rid of, no matter how much you try, and then one day you decide to listen to it, and you notice how much joy it brings you.
What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about democratizing hardware. I started littleBits, a company with a mission of putting the power of electronics in the hands of everyone. littleBits is a library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets for prototyping, learning, and fun.
Electronics are everywhere. We now produce, consume and throw out more electronic gadgets and technology enhanced products than ever before. Over the past years, technology has moved from being an integral part of our lives, to helping define who we are. Yet, engineering is mystified, electronic objects are black-boxed, and creativity is limited by the tools and materials available to each discipline.
I believe creativity with electronics (light, sound, sensors, etc.) will explode when they can be used and combined with other traditional materials such as paper, cardboard and screws. Materials are intuitive, accessible, self-contained, expressive, and most of all, can be integrated early in the creative process. Why not be able to combine felt with wood and light? Or Popsicle sticks with sound and motion sensitivity? Electronics are too pervasive and the technology too widespread for it to remain sequestered in its own space.
How did you come to find your passion?
I did not initially set out to start a company. I developed the early versions of littleBits as part of a project to help industrial designers improve their prototyping process. More often than not, in developing a new piece of hardware technology, the engineers have at it first, then the designers come in and put a shell around the hardware, and the design process becomes about masking or just beautifying. I felt like that was a very inorganic and very inefficient process, and made for badly designed products. littleBits was a prototyping tool that designers could use early on in brainstorming in order to integrate light, sound, sensors, etc into their mockups. This allowed designers to brainstorm using their regular materials in addition to the material of “interaction”, and most importantly, allowed the designers to iterate.
How did you move towards working with kids?
The education angle came when we first began demoing the product. Kids started hovering around the exhibit. Seeing them engage with the modules, I realized there was a very big opportunity to change the way kids learn about science and technology, and change the relationship they had with technology. littleBits enables kids to participate in the invention and creation process: they come up with ideas, test them out, then take them apart and do something else. Essentially, littleBits allows kids very early on to be innovators and problem-solvers.
Has your passion changed over time? How so?
It hasn't exactly changed, but it continuously evolves. I used to be passionate about creating the product and bringing it to life. Now I am passionate about building a community of inventors all over the world and seeing what products and projects they make.
Do you believe in having just one passion?
At any one time I think it’s very probable you can have only one deep passion. It’s so consuming that it becomes hard to juggle. That’s why I find it best when the passion is about a big idea that can keep giving.
How has building littleBits impacted your love for your passion?
littleBits is like my baby and I’ve seen it evolve from a little sketch on a napkin to now a product selling millions of units around the world.
I would like to see littleBits in every household, design studio, and school, used in a creative process. Not so much as an ego or greed thing (although it would be awesome to have that kind of success!) but also because littleBits is not a product, it is a tool, a platform. It would be amazing to see all the different projects, products and installations it could enable and catalyze. Expanding our reach has become a big part of my passion.
What about your life experiences do you think helped you in your pursuit of your passion?
I have a background in engineering. I did my undergrad as a computer engineer, but my passion really started to develop while doing my masters at the Media Lab at MIT. I've always been very interested in design and actually wanted to be an architect. When I started engineering, I kept trying to find ways to bring more creative practices into engineering. When I went to the Media Lab, it started my mission that I've been on for the past many years on how to make electronics accessible, and how to make electronics a creative medium.
Are there are any tips you would give to others to help them in their search for passions?
Don’t give up. Developing something new, that never existed before takes time. And solving real problems takes time. Devote time to your passion. Weekends, sleepless nights, as much time as possible. You will make progress and when you get close to something happening, you will feel it and become so energized, you won’t be able to stop.