Steven M. Johnson on Work, Life, and Intercontinental Solar-Electric Highways

When a certain volcanic eruption put the kibosh (kibash?) on our transatlantic trip, frog design was good enough to dispatch a plump and determined carrier pigeon to bring us the new design mind magazine. The latest issue, launched last week at a special TED salon in London, tackles the theme of work-life (a term that is sure to soon shed its vestigial hypen and become “worklife”). “What we do for a living and how we do it has become such an important part of our lives that we wanted to ask some fundamental questions,” says design mind editor-in-chief Sam Martin. “Is work-life balance possible anymore? Is it even that important? Work bleeds into life far more than it used to, so it’s critical that we allow life to become part of work as well. That’s the hard part.” Articles in the issue tackle topics including sabbaticals, stress, clean energy, food, China, and becoming your own boss in the “me-conomy,” but our first stop was Allison Arieff‘s illuminating peek into the brain of Steven M. Johnson.

The inventor and artist has a lot to say about, well, everything. When Arieff asks Johnson to develop some concepts around the work-life theme, he gets right down to business. “From 6:30 to 9:30 this morning, I turned on my idea faucet (which I usually keep somewhat tightly turned off) and have 55-60 rough notes as a result,” he e-mails her. “Of course, just like Blackberry’s push email, my ideas keep coming out even after I have stopped generating them.” Johnson, who spent nine years working in R&D at Honda, points to a couple of ideas as those that he would most like to see realized. First up: an Intercontinental Solar-Electric Highway, a “narrow, smooth, and gracefully rolling highway stretching from coast to coast, dedicated solely to ultralight vehicles.”

There are already proposals for an intercontinental trail that could be hiked from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so there should similarly be an intercontinental highway for solar, electric, and ultralight vehicles, one that also provides a lane for bicycles. It would be a beautiful road, and very quiet…lined with solar-powered underground buildings. Billboards would be illegal. There would be hikers’ huts, youth hostels, cafes, and battery-swap services. Highway lighting would be powered by solar panels. The highway itself would take up far less space than a freeway, cost comparatively little, and foster the design and production of new, efficient electric- and solar-powered vehicles, the kind that are now in danger of being blown off the road by 18-wheel semi-trailer trucks.

Also high on Johnson’s to-realize list? His own line of multiuse furniture, which he would prefer to invent, design, and manufacture himself. “There would be a line of chairs that become desks, sofas that become showers, and sofas that become sturdy dining tables.” he says. “I would love this kind of business because it would combine my interest in utility with my softness for humor and whimsy.”