In an interview with PSFK, working in collaboration with Verizon, Amanda Parkes discusses how she is using technology for good with her work for FT Lab

In a special series brought to you with the help of our partner Verizon, The Pioneers of Humanability is directing the spotlight onto the people, organizations, and companies who are using technology to do more new and do more good in the world.

The fashion world has undergone many attempts to improve its environmental friendliness. From recycling programs to anti-plastic initiatives, nothing has been as revolutionary as the work that Amanda Parkes, one of the Pioneers of Humanability and Chief Innovation Officer of FT Lab, is doing, however: fostering the creation of sustainable fashion technology for positive environmental effect. In this interview, Amanda describes how her hybrid investment company—part multinational accelerator, part experimental laboratory, part philanthropic organization—aims to empower the fashion industry to improve its social and environmental footprints.

PSFK: In what ways do you think technology has the potential to impact humanity, making a positive social difference?

Amanda: Generally, there's been a perception that technology and sustainability seem at odds with each other or that they naturally have to be, with natural materials on one hand and technology and devices on the other.

I think that now with the fourth industrial revolution, we have a convergence between the physical, the digital and the biological. We can start to see how these things can actually come together. Using high-tech processes and high-tech innovation can help to create more sustainable materials and processes. For example, you can have things like synthetic biology. We're involved with a company called Bolt Threads, which is producing lab-grown spider silk. They've taken the DNA from a spider and transposed it into yeast cells. When the yeast cell grows (you can think of it as similar to beer brewing), you feed the yeast sugar, but instead of having it create beer, it creates silk protein. This is a very high-tech process with the DNA transformation, but you get completely naturally occurring silk, which can then be extruded.

Using the tools of both digital kinds of technology mixed with biological technologies really can make our materials streams be a lot more sustainable in various ways. I think that's one way that we can have better sustainable material culture, which obviously directly impacts humanity, climate change and the environment.

Every technology has a potential positive impact and a potential negative impact. When you look at things like artificial intelligence, you can use it in ways that will actually create better supply chains, understand everything about business and industry better and have predictive models. That can all be very, very positive. You have machines do what they're good at and have humans do what they're good at — creativity for the humans and repetitiveness for machines.

I think that the most important thing is that we consider how these technologies are employed. It's not just, “Can we do this?” It's, “Why are we doing it and what exactly are we doing?” and thinking of the longer-term effects.

Questions of ethics and process and all of the human angles of developing new technologies come into what we're developing. That could be from the corporate perspective. It could be from a government policy perspective. There's a lot of different ways that those situations can be structured.

PSFK: How does your work create a positive impact on the local and global world?

When we're talking about the kind of high-tech development around materiality, obviously there's impact around the global supply chain, around what materials are available and what price points they can meet.

When you talk about having more sustainable materials developed at a more affordable price, that naturally means that everything else along the fashion supply chain can be more sustainable, both in terms of environmental sustainability, but also in terms of the human piece of sustainability, the ethical piece of sustainability, so around labor and transparency.

The global development of these new processes that impacts local production methods and makes things safer for everybody involved, that's one way to think about it. Every person who's a piece of this fashion supply chain can have better working conditions and a better existence if we have more sustainable processes in place — from a high level.

PSFK: You describe the work that you do as being at the intersection of design, manufacturing and technology. Could you elaborate on that?

First of all, I don't at all believe these are disparate practices, and that's maybe one of the biggest problems that exist. Designers have somehow been traditionally educated in a way that they're cut off from manufacturing processes and the supply chain. You can actually go through design school and — for example, if you're doing something in industrial design — never understand how injection molding works at a factory level.

When we think about elements like circular design — where you design products from the very beginning to be reclaimed, both in terms of material and how they're assembled and all these thing — understanding the manufacturing becomes a major element. The assembly, the disassembly, how things get reclaimed, — there’s an entire cycle around the product. The design manufacturing and the technological element of that are intrinsic to each other. It's arbitrary that we've somehow split that out in terms of education system and how we run jobs.

I know that now there is a little bit more of a convergence. If you're a technology designer at the highest level, you have to understand manufacturing processes down the chain. There's massive opportunity for innovation. That is a key component. The reason that we've gotten ourselves into the state that we have is because they've been separated.

I also think there's a lot of process technology that often gets ignored, as well as enabling technologies. Of course, what's of public interest is consumer products. That's what we see as the output. For example, the enabling technologies of components and things like the design of interactive fibers and the internal chemistries of batteries, all these things are going on on the back end. The companies are not consumer-facing brands. All that stuff is really, really important to be addressed. Without that level of deep attention and investment into those layers, we're not going to move forward. That's something that I've seen that has been very skewed about how Silicon Valley works in terms of their investment structure. They're very focused on these things that have immediate consumer results and less focused on things that have global, world-changing implications in terms of materials and processes. That's because they're not as sexy as investments.

You're talking about things that can be kind of boring, but they can be massively possible. I talk about how whoever can create the USB connector of fiber — something that's a universal connector for fibers to do all kinds of interactive processes — that's a multi-billion dollar company and idea. I'll be in every single consumer product.

Those are really much harder and much more fundamental innovations that don't have a three-year return on investment, necessarily. I think there's a broken piece of our financial infrastructure that's tied into what we think of as consumer tech, as opposed to enabling tech.

What inspired you to do more new and do more good?

Future Tech Lab is working on the future of sustainable and interactive fashion through a hybrid model based on different pillars – an investment fund, an agency and an experimental lab for research and product development. Our company in itself is an innovative and experimental business model to try to move the entire fashion industry forward. We see each pillar as necessary for this development. Those elements working together and simultaneously is what allows us to create change and be a bridge- builder. That’s essentially what our company is: a bridge-builder between fashion and tech.

I can’t say that there was one sort of ‘aha’ moment that shifted my career into doing more good. It seems to have come from subtly building a life of doing things that people told me I’m not supposed to be able to do- maybe starting from being good at art and physics, while also being a girl. It wasn’t on purpose or coming from some deep sense of rebellion but if you have a sense of humor and humility about yourself, it works to walk the line. It has made me simultaneously highly optimistic and equally irreverent, more like a soft, dreamy rebel. I aspire to the charm offensive. No one ever directly says no if your ideas seem to be floating in the clouds. They just don’t know that there is actually a ground plan formulating around them…

Also, perhaps ironically, it comes from a deep sense of pragmatism. I just don’t like things that don’t make sense. This is the scientist in me. Look at plastic – why is the one material that lasts forever used to make everything that is intended to be disposable? Or why the structure of high heels, which has been damaging women’s bodies for the last century, has never been addressed as a contemporary engineering problem (we are doing that). And the situation with the irrationality of our energy infrastructure – don’t get me started – absolutely bonkers!

It comes down to the fact that every design failure is just an opportunity in waiting and it’s way more exciting to pursue these than work on the status quo. It is harder, for sure, but not harder than being bored. I’ve been really lucky to build a community around me – intellectually, socially and personally- that supports and inspires this kind of thinking. If I had to pick one thing that inspires me to do more good, it’s the people around me, and that community continuously grows and compounds on itself. Sometimes I can barely believe the kind of people I get to interact with! Luck favors the prepared, and I’m not diminishing the work I have done, but I also know I have been inordinately lucky and I now see that as a responsibility to do everything I can to do better, make better. Which is not to say I am trying to be a martyr or not interested in being financially successful. That thinking is flawed, it doesn't help to get good ideas and solutions out into the world which is what we desperately need. Money is the power to realize opportunities, especially important to recognize as a woman. It took me a long time to fully embrace that idea. It’s now become kind of a cliche, but doing well by doing good is the only way forward.

PSFK: Could you describe the FT Lab facility and the resources it provides to the community?

We have an investment fund. We obviously are focused on some of these hard tech, biotech, with pieces of material science, the things that you would not normally think of as direct fashion investments, but that are very, very crucial for the future of the industry.

We're looking at the companies that transverse those spaces, and that also are behind the scenes, so really important companies that are emerging.

Then we have an agency, where we work with big companies, such as fashion companies or tech companies. We help them with innovation and sustainable strategy. That's as much about thinking about how their business works and understanding fashion traditionally does not have any internal R&D. They don't own the means for their own production. I think this is a big cause of a lot of the roadblocks in the industry. Apple and Google will buy the companies that they need for the hardware and software and have this 5-year, 10-year plan and research going on inside of their companies.

Fashion companies are not doing the same things in terms of developing textiles and having technical departments. They're depending on other companies — whether they are big companies like Dupont or start-ups in the space — to provide what they need to make better products.

We are trying to switch that model around a little to get them more comfortable with doing internal R&D or partnering with companies, asking them, “How do you manage risks in terms of new projects and new materials? How do you think more holistically about your business model that doesn't necessarily just have to be about multiple collections again?”

There are so many other new, interesting models going on, both in terms of how products are made and what products are made. Models of retail, as well — rental models and things that allow you to make different kinds of products for different kinds of markets and ways of selling and distributing things, a service model around fashion and clothes. That's our agency.

We also have our experimental lab, which is where we do product development. We're making some private label products to demonstrate to the fashion industry that we can do very high-fashion products that use and combine innovative, interesting, new high-tech fabrics and some interaction technologies.

We’re trying to merge a lot of the things that are on the bleeding edge and get them to work together. The research comes from not the fundamental development of the fabric but getting it through a manufacturing supply chain and combining it with other technologies, which is a difficult thing for the industry to solve, especially when we're talking about scaling up on processes. It's also under-explored and invested in. A lot of what we're doing with our product development is to work through all those kinks and show how a new, innovative, very high-fashion product can get made.

We also do incubation and outreach, working with programs like Fashion for Good. We also work with universities and do project challenges. We call it our incubator, but it's not a physical space incubator. It's more about trying to incubate all the best ideas and the best communities to try to combine and create new projects that are maybe less defined.

PSFK: Could you talk to us about FT Lab’s creation and what needs or gaps you were trying to fill?

Our CEO and founder, Miroslava Duma, came from the traditional fashion industry. She had built a big media company called Buro 24/7. She became really well-known as a fashionista. As she was getting to know the traditional industry more, she was noticing how much damage they were doing, finding out that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world. All of the major brands were ignoring this. There was a lot of glamor in the runway shows, but on the back end, it was incredibly destructive. She switched her focus because she wanted to do something about this. She used her influence inside of the fashion industry to get people to listen. We connected last March when what she was doing was still all very secret.

I come from a more traditional tech background. I had been running a fashion technology studio called Skinteractive. I was building out all of the technology pieces of lots of different startups. I was the CTO of manufacturing in New York, where we were working on a new fashion ecosystem and running a fashion tech incubator. Before that, I got my PhD at MIT, where I was heavily involved in research in this space. I could bring to her what I saw as the bleeding edge of what's going on across those start-ups. I had consulted with Intel and Google and had been in the wearable space for 15 years. I was able to create a perspective on the industry from the science and tech side and create a pipeline for the funds and bring us into various research initiatives. That's how we got started, and the company's been building from there.

PSFK: What are a few of the companies that FT Lab is excited about?

We’re excited about Dropel Fabrics, which is hydrophobic nanotech process coating, and Diamond Foundry, which does above-ground sustainable diamonds. We're invested in Reformation, which is a brand that's sustainable. It's mostly enabling material tech. There are also a lot of secret things I can't tell you yet, which is frustrating!

The one thing we’ve invested in that has already come out is a company called Orange Fiber, which makes a beautiful silky textile from the waste product of the orange juicing industry, the white pulpy part of the orange peel.

That arose naturally. Italy has a big citrus industry. They thought this was a waste stream that the juicing industry was having to pay to remove. Instead of thinking about this as waste, we thought about it as an asset and what they could do with it. This Italian company evolved into something called Orange Fiber. We had invested in them, and then set up a collaboration with Salvatore Ferragamo. They launched a line of sustainable scarves in the fall. It was a big hit. They sold out. The textile's beautiful, and the design's beautiful. It was very, very high fashion, yet super sustainable. Now, of course, they're up against the fact that demand for their material is so high that they can't manufacture it quickly enough.  Those are the kinds of things that we're working on — very, very high fashion with well-known brands — helping navigate those relationships, mitigating risk along the way and helping start-ups and big companies talk to each other. Oftentimes, they just don't know how to do that.

Resolving the challenges facing the fashion industry from the ground up with sustainable materials is possible with those that FT Lab is fostering. For more about how innovators like Amanda are using technology to serve progressive goals and better the community for all, see the Pioneers of Humanability, brought to you by PSFK with Verizon.

Verizon’s Pioneers of Humanability list honors the people, organizations and companies that are using technological innovations to bring about good things for the world. These are the pioneers, keeping food safe and water clean, cutting pollution, saving energy and enabling doctors to treat patients a county or a country away. They’ve stopped asking “What if?” or “Why isn’t?” and started doing and leading. These are the people, organizations and companies you need to know about now—because they’re building the future.