37.7749° N, 122.4194° W

‘The San Francisco Bay Area is sparkling and dynamic — it’s one wave after another.’

Gems in this


Explore Playbook

Gems in
this story

Feature by Mikaela Aitken

Award-winning, Chinese-born, US-based artist Jiabao Li finds her sweet spot where technology, art and design meet. This insatiable appetite to understand and explore the world sees her travel extensively.

Jiabao's journey of discovery first led her from China to Singapore, and then on to Boston. She’s spent time in Hawaii studying cephalopods and in Alaska recording glaciers for her virtual film. Yet, it was in San Francisco, among the prolific tech scene, that Jiabao found her community of like-minded creatives and worked for Apple, designing the future of human and technological interaction. We chat with Jiabao about creative travel, the pull of San Francisco, and her top Travel Gems to explore in the city.


On where you’re from

I'm from China, I was born in the city of Shenyang, in the province of Liaoning, in the northeast of China. At the age of 17, I moved to Singapore to do my undergrad. Afterward, I moved to Boston in the United States, and when I finished graduate school, I came to San Francisco.

On pursuing the creative side of science

Even though my undergraduate is in electrical and computer engineering — all of my family are engineers — I started painting when I was four and always had the creative streak. Now, I'm finding the sweet spot to work at the intersection of art, design and technology.

On the intersection of art, design and technology

There's no separate discipline or way of thinking — they are all mingled together. There's a more art-tech side of me and a more design-tech side. The design side is more utilitarian, and about how we design the experience and the product, so that it’s useful for people. The art side is more speculative, more critical.

On what you’re working on

I'm building a non-anthropocentric world where humans are not the center anymore but octopuses. In this world, global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and all continents to be submerged. As a highly intelligent species in the ocean, the octopus evolves and unlocks the gene which causes them to self-destruct after giving birth. This optic gland releases the self-destructing hormone so that they can pass on the wisdom of their ancestors from generation to generation. There are some science facts, but also science fiction, including a dance and games, a virtual reality film, and graphic novels. It's also about how we can design a better, more elegant extinction so that the next dominating species can remember us with tenderness and empathy.

For someone whose passion lies at the crossroads of design, technology and art, the San Francisco Bay Area and its future-focused creative community proved fertile growing grounds for Jiabao Li’s thinking. It was while working in Apple’s Prototyping team that Jiabao gave several talks, including a TED talk and one on Discoverable Design at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. First image by Shen Pan, final two images courtesy of Jiabao Li.

On creating in Hawaii

I worked in Hawaii for a year and collaborated with Kewalo Marine Lab at the University of Hawaii, where I learned a lot about cephalopods — Hawaiian bobtail squids and octopuses. I was also inspired by Donna Haraway's book Tentacular Thinking. Before collaborating on squids in Hawaii, I moved to Alaska, and I am very fortunate to call it home.

On the sound of climate change

In Alaska, I created a series of works around glaciers and climate change. Glaciers are sentinels of climate change. They are the most visible evidence of global warming today. This series of works embodies the stunning beauty, rapid change, fragility, destructive power, and magnificence of glaciers. At the same time, the work challenges the audience with the dramatic, irreversible ecological damages from climate change. Now, I'm working on a virtual reality film, telling the story between a girl and a piece of glacial ice. As time goes by and the girl grows up, the existence of the ice is threatened. I did a field recording there together with sound artist Matt McCorkle, dropping contact microphones into the glacier and its river that we can't access. In a way, we are documenting the part of nature that will disappear, within our lifetime or our kid's lifetime, before it's gone.

‘People who have the privilege to travel have the responsibility to spread their knowledge and their experience. Being away from home and learning different perspectives and landscapes is very important.’

On how travel inspires your creative approach

People who have the privilege to travel have the responsibility to spread their knowledge and their experience and make it more abstract. For example, to translate science and data in a more engaging way to the public. Many of my recent works are location-specific. Especially the ones that I co-create with another species. Being away from home and learning different perspectives are essential to the work.

On moving to the US and working for Apple and Harvard

In Boston, I studied at Harvard University and did research in the MIT Media Lab. I was there for two years. Then I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area because I joined this exciting team at Apple. I was on a small team of about 10 people who are both designers and engineers. The team is called Prototyping. We look 5 to 10 years into the future, to see which new technologies can create interesting interactions. The group is very experimental and explorative — we work across various products and platforms.

Jiabao juices inspiration from every trip she takes, and her time spent in Alaska was perhaps one her most fruitful explorations. After scouting through the disappearing glaciers, the creative produced five bodies of work, including ‘Glacier’s Lament’, a musical composition and choreographic work based on 60 years worth of data, a Pantone color board (pictured Row 1) capturing the changing hues of glaciers titled ‘The Disappearing Blue’, and the VR film ‘Once A Glacier’, which depicts the journey of a piece of glacial ice. Row 2 image by Pat Galvin, all other images courtesy of Jiabao Li.

On the future of the industry

I joined UT [University of Texas] at Austin as a professor. I teach on the art side of design and technology, and interspecies world sharing. My long-term goals are: making art and design that is inspiring, thought-provoking and that has ‘wow’ moments and to do good for people; challenging norms around habitats; pushing boundaries between different disciplines and establishing new fields out of that; and creating methodology and pedagogy for the new fields to let them continuously expand.

On a memorable road trip across the US

We drove from San Francisco and took a road trip down to Austin — via Los Angeles and Palm Springs. We mapped the human-created world and the post-Anthropocene world. The Salton Sea, which is a sea created by accident by humans, becomes a recreational area that evaporates and gets super salty and toxic to the surrounding environment — it's very apocalyptic. We also went down to the airplane graveyard where they park dysfunctional military aircraft from World War II onward. Biosphere 2 is where eight people lived in a closed environment for two years. And then Earthship Biotecture is the off-the-grid eco-friendly and self-sufficient community built by the architects themselves. We drew inspiration as we went along.

‘When I travel, I'm not just taking information in, but I’m actively speculating.’

On how travel broadens your thinking

When traveling through post-Anthropocene, we're constantly thinking about what might happen after human extinction. When I was in Hawaii, I learned more about native animals as I contacted scientists to learn directly from them. When I travel, I'm not just taking information in, but I’m actively speculating and creating. While we were recording sound in Alaska, I wasn’t able to find the word in English to describe this chirping sound we could hear. I learned that in the local Indigenous culture’s language, Tagish is both the name of their tribe and also means ‘the sound of ice breaking’. Besides, in traditional Inupiaq stories, the glaciers carry memories from the past and communicate their memories through the glacier’s songs.

On where you’d love create next

Iceland or Antarctica. I always wanted to do residencies there — for my love of glaciers. Also, in China, as it's where my roots are. It's developing really fast. Sometimes I feel FOMO and every time I go back, I'm shocked at how different it is compared to when I left. There are great art communities as well.

On the pull of San Francisco tech hub

In my TED talk, I discussed how technology mediates the way we perceive reality. Living in the SF Bay Area, the tech center, while we are designing the future, there is also the strong voice of how we can design a more preferable future. What are the potential problems and opportunities this tech brings. 

For Jiabao, the locally-led art scene in San Francisco is thrumming, and pushes the boundaries of technology and futurism in art. For an introduction into the scene, Jiabao recommends stopping into galleries including B4BEL4B (pictured Row 1, by Tiare Ribeaux); the Asian Art Museum (photos courtesy of Asian Art Museum) and the Exploratorium (photos courtesy of Exploratorium).

On connecting with local culture

Mission District is a very diverse district with funky stuff — lots of murals that address Latinx culture and social problems and amazing food and art events. Gray Area / Grand Theater emphasizes new media art, and you can find a great community there. Mission District is a full street of murals — it’s so good to walk down and experience different realities in real life. If you go district by district, it's pretty walkable. But if you want to travel far, from the east to the west, or north to south, you will need a car, subway or bike. Biking along the coast from the Ferry Building makes for a really good experience.

On showing a friend around San Francisco for the day

We can start from the Ferry Building, then we’d bike along the coast, and you can see Alcatraz Island and pass by the Golden Gate. There's the Exploratorium, a place I love with interactive installations or exhibits of science, visual illusions and natural phenomena — sometimes I go there to think about physics, draw, and question what part I can incorporate into my creative work. From the Exploratorium, we can walk around Union Square. Then go to SFMOMA to see some exhibitions. Have dinner at In Situ, my favorite restaurant in SF. Sometimes they pair the dishes with the shows at SFMOMA.


‘Every district in the city has its own unique bookstore and right next to it, is normally, a very good restaurant. Some of my friends are food and bookworms, so we like to combine them — it satisfies the needs of mind and stomach.’

On pairing book stores and restaurants

Every district in the city has its own unique bookstore and right next to it, is usually a very good restaurant. Some of my friends are food and bookworms, so we like to combine them — it satisfies the needs of mind and stomach. If you head to the City Lights Bookstore, you can see poem readings there once in a while. Then you can combine it with a Chinatown restaurant, like Good Mong Kok Bakery. There's Japantown, too, and you can go to Kinokuniya Bookstore and Japantown sushi. If you’re going to Dog Eared Books, you can pair it with Garden Creamery. Near it is Green Apple Books and you can pair it with Perilla Vietnamese. William Stout Architectural Books pairs with Fondue Chinoise. Or, if you like Mexican food, there’s La Taqueria and a gallery next to it that you can check out called Ration 3. That's how diversified San Francisco is.


On finding a creative community

San Francisco has a super talented creative community — designers, creative technologists, artists. There are several galleries or labs, that bring the art community together. B4BEL4B is an artist-run gallery. CODAME and Gray Area are new media art spaces and host many interesting events. Noise Bridge is a maker space with a welcoming community. Asian Art Museum and Chinatown are great places to visit. Also, Chinatown in San Francisco is the oldest and the most established in the US.


Another favorite pastime for Jiabao is feeding the mind at the city’s top bookshops, and then the belly at one of the nearby restaurants. Pictured here in Row 1 is La Taqueria in Mission (images courtesy of La Taqueria); in Row 2 is William Stout Architectural Books between Telegraph Hill and the Financial District (images courtesy of William Stout Architectural Books); and the historic City Lights Bookstore (images courtesy of City Lights Bookstore).

On your relationship with the city

San Francisco is like a co-founder. Everybody has an entrepreneurship mindset, always thinking about new ideas, searching for collaboration and new projects. It's at the forefront of technology and innovation.

On a window or an aisle seat

Window. I love looking at the Earth from above. A recent flight gave me another project idea to create fonts from natural patterns from above — for example, a glacial river or the agriculture pattern in Texas. I want to write poems with these letters and the underlying images. Humans have shaped the patterns of the Earth, including the nature we destroyed and the roads and the farmlands we built. Like a glacier-carved through the giant rocks, we come into this land and leave the black and white stripes. You can always see this from the above.

‘San Francisco is like a co-founder. Everybody has an entrepreneurship mindset, always thinking about new ideas, searching for collaboration and new projects.’

On San Francisco in one word


Seaspray is aerosol particles formed from the ocean, mostly by ejection into Earth's atmosphere by bursting bubbles at the air-sea interface. Sparkling, dynamic. One wave after another.

On a song that best represents San Francisco for you

2034 by Quruli

Music is personal. This is the song I like to listen to while driving in San Francisco. It makes me feel like driving a Mario Kart through the uphills and downhills in the city. The techno and game elements also fit the vibe.


Related stories & places



‘You have to allow San Francisco to pull you in and surprise you.