October 15, 2011

The Compost Candidates

Colibris screen shot.png

Something special is happening in France. A nationwide campaign will be launched next week by the Colibris movement for the 2012 Presidential Elections - but without a charismatic leader. The campaign, instead, is for everyone to be a candidate - for a new kind of politics.

In their language and tone-of-voice Les Colibris are like the Transition Movement, but different. They are like Occupy Wall Street but different, too. This is surely healthy. The movement for a global democracy is an ecology, not a single homogeneous movement.

"We know that an election won't change society" says the Colibris manifesto [colibris is the French for hummingbird]. "For a real transformation, things have to change at the bottom and involve everyone amongst us".

But Les Colibris, who call themselves a 'Movement for the Earth and Humanity', are not just about grassroots activity. They also highlight global issues that traditional politics is unable to engage with: climate change; the sixth massive extinction of species; the fact that nearly a blllion people on our planet are the victim of famine.

The idea is not to vote for a programme, or delegate power to a government, say the Colibris. The aim is to mobilize much wider participation in the radical social experiments that have emerged in recent years: low-impact housing, off-grid energy, seed sharing, community-supported agriculture.

Social transformation is already happening, say Les Colibris, but now it is the time to deepen and amplify that change.

The founder of les Colibris is a 73 year old Algerian-born farmer, philosopher and environmentalist called Pierre Rabhi. Without being a presidential candidate, this remarkable figure is having an extraordinary impact on the culture of this resolutely human-centered, nature-dominating country.


Back in January I joined the second of two sell-out crowds in Le Vigan, a small Cevennes town near where I live, to hear Pierre Rabhi speak.


He talked about 'the deep fear that is in us all' as the impacts of modernity are felt. He went on to describe such concepts as "happy sobriety", a "de-growth economy", and "agro-ecology".

Rabhi's language is alien, to put it mildly, to the normal rhetoric of hustings politics. But this was a culturally-mixed and decidedly unsentimental crowd. They came in large numbers - in le Vigan, as elsewhere in France - because here, for the first time, is a public figure who makes an economy of moderation and balance sound attractive, and do-able. The atmosphere when Rabhi speaks is the opposite of sanctimonious. On the contrary: he is is catalysing a social movement that, while serious and determined, is also light. Rabhi even made a joke about cutting own oak trees.

Asked, towards the end of his Le Vigan meeting, whether he believed in life after death, the non-candidate for President of France replied that 'I'm more preoccupied with life before death... but in the long run, I am compost'.

] Pierre Rabhi background


Pierre_Rabhi [I'm quoting Wikipedia here] was born into a Muslim family an an oasis in southern Algeria, in 1938. His mother died when he was four years old. His father, a blacksmith, musician and poet, was forced by economic circumstances to close his workshop and work in the mines. The father persuaded a French couple to raise Pierre; his childhood thereafter was shared between France and Algeria, and the Catholic and Muslim worlds, until he was 14.

He chose to convert to Christianity when he was sixteen, and completed two years of secondary education, but had to leave college because his family were unable to cover the costs. When the Algerian War broke out in 1954, Rabhi was rejected by his father for having converted to Christianity, and by his adoptive father following a dispute. He decided to settle in Paris.

In France, Rabhi, with no knowledge of agriculture, moved with his new family to the country; this was well before the French 'neo-rural' movement of the late 1960s. In 1963, after three years working as an agricultural worker, he became a goat farmer. Appalled by the impacts of industrialised agriculture on ecosystems he had witnessed in the Sahara, and around him in France, he developed the practice of ecological agriculture.

"I am often called a philosopher", Rabhi told an interviewer, "but you must know that I came to ecology through farming". On his farm in the Cevennes of Ardèche, he has lived for 13 years without electricity, water, or modern technology. Through this experiment he has discovered that "man has created a radical break between activities that enable them to feed themselves and essential principles of nature. The little plot of land that I cultivated in Ardèche widened my horizons and enabled me to connect with time and space all around the world"

Rabhi wondered whether his experiment was transmissible. In 1985, he set up an agro-ecology training centre; and in 1988 he also founded an International forum for the sharing of knowledge about applied agricultural practices, CIEPAD. "I realized that the South had been trapped by modernity, that it was connected through chemical fertilizers and pesticides" he explained; 'the South is especially affected by ecological disasters, by the disappearance of animal and vegetal biodiversity, by desertification'. He has since launched oversees development programmes in Morocco, Palestine, Algeria, Tunisiea, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Mauritaniea, Poland and the Ukraine.

Rabhi's work had a big influence on the emerging anti-globaization movement. He is a member of the board of editors of the French monthly La Décroissance- 'De-Growth'.


He is also vice president of the Kokopelli Foundation.


Kokopelli works to protect biodiversity in the production and distribution of organically and biodynamically grown seeds, and for the regeneration of the fertility of cultivated soils.

In 2009, Rabhi founded Terre et Humanisme [Colibris], an 'international movement for earth and humanism'. Since then, more than two million people have been involved in Colibris' place-based projects and encounters, and more than 100 groups have been launched. These aim in different ways to create ecological and socially ways to organize daily life. A plethora of initiatives includes AMAPs [community supported agriculture schemes]; apiaries; ecological building workshops; shared gardens; and other educational activities.

[This film, as an example, is about citizens of Rennes developing their own climate plan. It's not dissimilar to the Energy Decent Action Plans being pioneered by the Transition Towns movement].

The idea of the 'campaign without a candidate' is to demonstrate to French citizens that an alternative to politics-as-usual is possible. Describing the campaign as an "insurrection of the conscience", Rabhi explains that the campaign is not about reforming present society with its 'banal consumption' and 'pervasive fear'. Rather, it is about accelerating the emergence of its replacement.


The Colibris campaign is based on a Charter for the Earth and Humanity'. The Charter first outlines five existential challenges: 'The Disaster of Chemical Agriculture'; 'Humanity has Failed Humanism'; 'Disconnection between Humans and Nature'; 'The Myth of Unlimited Growth'; 'The Powerless at the Mercy of Money'. It then proposes six responses to these challenges: 'Embody Utopia'; 'Happy Sobriety'; 'Femininity at the Heart of Change'; 'Agroecology as Indispenable Alternative'; 'Earth and Humanism are One'; 'Re-localization of the Economy'; 'Another Education'.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:30 AM

September 21, 2011

5% health: Catabolic collapse and peak fat in modern health systems, and what to do about them


I was emboldened, upon arriving at the Mayo Clinic 's Centre for Innovation last week, to learn that people with deep domain knowledge do not make the best innovators. I concluded that I was therefore well-qualified to warn one of the top academic medical centres in the world, each of whose 60,000 staff knows more about medicine than I do, about the risk of catabolic collapse in the US health system - and what to do about it.

[The 20 minute video of my talk is here. This text touches on:energy intensity in health systems; peak fat; 5% health in Cuba; the Quantified Self; Design grammars for health and care; doing what we know we need to do. It builds on the chapter on Conviviality in my book In the Bubble].

My core proposition at the Mayo event was that peak oil, and peak fat, are transforming the logic that currently shapes the global biomedical system. Firstly, because coming energy famines will render one of the world's most energy-intensive systems unsustainable. And second, because until the medical system addresses the causes of illness with the same brilliance with which it addresses the effects, the population will continue to get sicker.

] Energy intensity

The main Mayo Clinic building is a vast silver facility that shouts two things: authority, and energy intensity.


If one Googles health, and energy efficiency, most results are about hospital buildings and attempts to render them 'greener'. But hospital buildings are just one element within a distributed system that is both materially heavy and entropically complex.

For a start, most of the consumables within any hospital are oil-based - from analgesics and antihistamines, through heart valves, implants, and prosthetics, to ambulances and helicopters. But energy that you can measure, such as that used by buildings and suppositories - is only one part of the picture. A new technique called Systems Energy Assessment measures the total energy demand of businesses, such as health ones. Its developers have concluded that for every barrel of oil equivalent that's counted today - if they are counted at all - four times that number are consumed invisibly. And because they are neither perceived nor counted, no thought is given to their possible replacement. A recent UK study, for example, found that five per cent of all vehicle movements on British roads are health-related.

There is some discussion in the medical world about the consequences of the coming energy crunch but by all accounts these voices find it hard to be heard and finds it an uphill struggle to make an impact.

Loud alarms raised in other other complex organisations are being taken more seriously. Lloyds of London, for example, an epicentre of the global financial system, warned last year in a report called
Sustainable Energy Security that "an oil supply crunch is likely in the short-to-medium term”. And the US Army, hardly a hotbed of doomers and subversives, stated in its Joint Operating Environment [JOE] report that "by 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear...we simply aren't going to replace this with renewables”.

The danger facing complex organisations such as the Mayo Clinic is that, by postponing consideration of energy issues, it risks catabolic collapse down the line. This is the situation, as described by John Michael Greer,in which by the time a system realises that its energy regime is not sustainable, the money energy and resources to do anything about it are no longer available.

] Peak fat

From catabolic collapse I moved on in my talk to peak fat.

peak fat.png

I was perplexed at this fascinating conference by a weird imbalance. We heard several case studies about innovative ways to deal with consequences of the diabetes pandemic - a disease growing in the US by a terrifying 30% a year. The response of designers and doctors was an array of Personal Health Planning tools, "high-end wellness" services, superfoods, remote diagnostics, and more. But almost nothing was proposed, that I heard, about tackling the causes of this grim disease on a mass scale.

Looking online I then found this statement by the Centers for Disease Control [CDC]. The mission of tis Federal organisation is "to create the expertise, information, and tools that people and communities need to protect their health". On the subject of overweight and obesity, CDC's website explains that these killer conditions "result from an energy imbalance. Behavior and environment play a large role...these are the greatest areas for prevention and treatment actions”

This is surely a bizarre statement. "The environment" makes you fat? I was under the impression that fat makes you fat - and the correlation between the growth of fats in the food system, and the growth of obesity and diabetes in the population, is not hard to spot. Neither is it a secret that the producers and distributors of this killer fat are the junk food and soft drinks industries.

The medical system - from the CDC to the Transform conference - appears to be focused overwhelmingly on downstream phenomena. Medical researchers are working tirelessly to improve treatment protocols - the steps for treating particular ailments. Huge efforts are also being made to improve safety in hospitals , and to raise the quality of care you receive in them. But among all these projects, attempts to transform a food system, that is making hundreds of millions of people sick, are rare to invisible.

A speaker from Pepsico added to the cognitive dissonance. Dr Dondeena Bradley told the conference that she is "on a journey… to redefine what nutrition means" and that her employer is determined to "double its food-end healthier portfolio". I wanted to ask, "healthier than what?" - but was then distracted by her assertion that "we don't have enough land in the US for everyone to eat their five a day". I believe she probably meant to state "food system" rather than "land"; if not, she urgently needs a better map.

Even then, one has to ask if this is not a dead-end road. The only way for Pepsico to make money in the food industry is by processing food, and it is surely self-evident by now that processing, a.k.a. innovation - is bad for food. Over one third of the added sugars that Americans consume are from sweetened carbonated beverages such as Pepsi. Healthy food - fresh- from-the-field food, whole-until-the-kitchen food - loses quality with each 'value-adding' innovation process it is subjected to.

A more plausible proposal from a global business was made by IBM's Dr Paul Grundy. The conference responded enthusiastically to his Patient Centered Medical Home. Grundy is one of the world's leading experts on preventive medicine, so he did not come to peddle platitudes. His model integrates phone, e-mail and Web portals to enable one-on-one communication and collaboration between doctors and patients. Each occupant of the Home will enjoy an ongoing relationship with a doctor for continuous and comprehensive care and - the killer line - "we know that somebody who has a personal physician will cost us about a third less".

But a third less than what? The IBM scenario is enticing, but it suffers from two flaws. The first is cost. "A third less" will be welcome to those fortunate people who are employed, or in work, and are therefore insured. But it is likely to be unaffordable for the majority of the US population who need it most. Of course if IBM's share of the pie, and that of highly-paid doctors, were to be removed from the equation, the story would probably be different. But as it stands, the PCMH is for the top 5%, not the bottom 95%.

The bigger drawback, from me, is that the PCMH is about one-to-one connectedness through technology. The secret to health transformation surely lies in the social, embodied, eye-to-eye, breathing-the-same-air kind of connectivity that sustains healthy communities elsewhere in the world.

] 5% health already exists

In Cuba, for example, where food, petrol and oil all have been scarce for 50 years as a consequence of economic blockades, its citizens "achieve the same level of health for only 5% of the health care expenditure of Americans." (SCIENCE, 30 April 2010)


The reasons for this achievement are not magical. A key principle of the Cuban system is that physicians are based in neighbourhoods, not in clinics or hospitals. An estimated 97 per cent of medical care in Cuba is from neighbourhood-based family doctors and community health practitioners. Cuba has one family doctor per 180 inhabitants compared to one per 480 in the US.

Over in New Mexico, Community Health Workers in Project Echo are paid $10 an hour for their work in a highly effective campaign against common diseases such as hepatitis, asthma, and substance misuse. In some of the state's prisons, inmates, after a ten week training course, are proving highly effective health educators to their peers - and they are paid, if I understood the presentation correctly, nothing.

"Doctors", said one development professional at the conference, when describing a project in Africa, "are grossly overemphasised". This speaker told us how maternal deaths of women during childbirth had been reduced by a third following a training programme for traditional birth attendants. Experts, including doctors, had helped to set the training programme up, but most of the direct contact was among the same women as before.

Does one need to live in an impoverished or boycotted state in order to achieve 5% health? No. In Northern countries, too, 5% health care already exists - but for the most part invisibly, or at least uncounted. This is is because value is the so-called social economy is created by caring relationships between people, not by the provision of care by a supplier. Indeed seen through this lens, the vast majority of care takes place away from medical establishments or the presence of professionals.

An example that I gave at the conference concerns dementia care and the Alzheimer 100 project carried out as part of the UK Design Council's social innovation biennial Dott07.

700,000 British citizens suffer from dementia, and 3,000,000 people directly affected as family members and/or carers - and these numbers are expected to double every twenty years. How, people have started to ask, will the government care for them?

The answer is that it won't. It can't. Or at least, it cannot if the words 'care for' are interpreted to mean the complex, high-cost, energy-intensive and institutionally-focused kinds of medical care that are already bankrupting advanced countries. In Dott07, confronted by this realisation, we reframed the words 'care for' and asked, instead: “What practical actions would improve daily life for people with dementia and their carers?”. With that as our reference, we then worked over a two year period with a wide variety of citizens: people with dementia, carers, support and voluntary groups, researchers, doctors, nurses. We used a variety of approaches to determine what the needed practical actions might be at different stages of what we called 'patient journeys'.

From this process emerged a wide variety of anecdotal insights and also, crucially, a shared understanding of what, for people with dementia and their carers, were priorities. The two most pressing priorities for them were first, the awful experiences people have when they first discover they have a problem; and second, end of life experiences. These two issues were both more than twice as important as, for example, assistive technology, or communication campaigns to reduce stigma associated with the condition.

These insights, and understanding of priorities, enabled our project partners to identify a shortlist of service innovation opportunities: a care concierge; a buddy system; and an e-bay for time. The Dott project selected the development of a prototype dementia signposting service to enhance connectivity among existing support ecology. [Since then,this service has been adopted and developed nationally by the UK Alzheimers Society. And the Design Council has launched a new project called Living With Dementia.

The lesson from Cuba, New Mexico, and for that matter from the UK, is that as well as addressing causes rather than effects, community-based health and care is so massively cheaper than its mainstream alternative, and more effective in terms of overall health, that the time has surely come to regard the bottom of the pyramid as the top when it comes to healthcare innovation.

] 5% health by numbers

5% health is not about a u-turn back to a pre-scientific age. It's about reconfiguring the way patients, doctors and researchers relate to each other.

Transformation looks impossibly hard from inside today's official health systems. The prospect of radical change looks more doable outside the tent. Agile, networked knowledge-sharing thrives in the open open source movement, for example, whose vitality is sustained not by money, but by a shared sense of values. One can also look outside the tent in time, as well as place. Open source has much in common with medieval kinship communities . These too were sustained by a duty of care among extended networks of family relationship and reciprocal obligation.

The trick is to combine ancient cultural values with new tools. As an example: The mass polling of patients to determine what actually works among new - and old - approaches. Health geeks at the Mayo conference were confident that "patient-driven hypothesis generation" and "innovation through data liquidity" can achieve quickly what it now takes the academic publishing process years to achieve: put a possible solution out there; then find out from real people if, and how well, it works.

An organisation called Lybba http://www.lybba.org/work/, for example, is developing the platform for a a Collaborative Chronic Care network [C3N] [see also pic below].

collaborative chronic care network.png

C3N will combine social- and idea-networking functions, "remote wellness tools", and medical content. A website such as CureTogether, for example, is already able to ask 6,000 patients, who suffer from anxiety, what treatments work best for each of them. The aggregated results are fascinating: totally free remedies, such as "exercise" or "masturbation", are plotted on the same effectiveness versus cost chart along with commercial drug therapies. The anxious person gets to choose.

Information designer Hugh Dubberly and computer scientist Ian Eslick envisage a time when polling data will be combined with data visualisation and some kind of Facebook of health to help people make better choices about their health and behaviour.

The idea of self-made health data seems to have struck a chord. Among theQuantified Self crowd, for example, 'self-tracking' is growing fast; they use smart-phone apps and assorted custom-built devices to monitor patterns of food intake, sleep, fatigue, mood, and heart rate.

] Me meters - or we meters?

I confess to a slight prejudice against the word "self" here. We-meters, more than me-meters. would help us focus on the community more than the individual. Groups are a better compost for the growth of health alternatives. Too much emphasis on individual behaviour - for example, to eat less bad food - diverts attention to structural factors, beyond the individual's control - such as food deserts.

I may well be mis-representing self-trackers here; they talk as much about the aggregation of data, as about its collection. Besides, an exciting prospect is that crowd-sourcing will be used to create a wide range of resources for alternative health care networks as three basis of a radically decentralised health ecology. Allan Chochinov told us about the Open Prosthetics Project that is already producing useful innovations. Before energy famines begin to impact seriously, we need to finds new ways to produce and distribute the essentials of modern medicine, such as vaccines and antibiotics. There could be mass calls for proposals for ultra low-cost therapies, services, or devices; groups would bid online to meet that need.

] Design grammars for health and care

When we started work on Alzheimer100, we anticipated that the project would deliver a set of design methods and tools. These, we hoped, could be used to improve the experience of patients within the existing health system.

In the event what emerged - for this writer at least - was a realisation that the transition to a 5% health system is less about tools and more about new ways of perceiving the situation. The late David Fielding, in his extraordinary book Lean Logic, calls these new ways of seeing 'grammars'. [page 379]. In that spirit, here follows a first attempt to describe some grammars for the transformation of health care:

health = context.png

a Shift the focus of attention upstream. Health and wellbeing are properties of a social and ecological context in which soil, plant, animal, and man are interconnected in diverse communities and situations. That context needs to be cared for and, if necessary, repaired.

b Health and wellbeing are not something you ‘deliver’, like a pizza. This is no small shift of emphasis. The 'delivery' metaphor is pervasive in today's system - as is the word 'industry'. But those words perpetuate the myth that health is something produced by one set of people [the professionals] for another [their customers].

c Focus on the existing metabolic energy of people - not on the about-to-be-problematic fossil-fuel energy n mainstream medical systems. The good news is that 95% of care happens outside the medical system already; think of those three million Brits people caring for people with dementia today. The raw materials for transformation are already in place.

d Time intensity is bad for bottom lines - but great for ecosystems. [Remember those dementia patients and their carers in Britain? They judged trust between people, built up by co-presence over time, to be twice as important as the ‘delivery’ of services by third party vendors].

e Stop talking about ‘intervening’ in communities.Think of this way: you don't intervene in a garden, you look after it. Care is more about breathing the same air than delivering the right solutions from afar.

f. The same goes for 'making an impact'. By what right do any of us presume to impact on someone else's situation? It sounds like a meteor. 5% health is more about being in an ecosystem, and enhancing existing social energy - than about having an impact on it from above. This is one of the secrets to Cuba's public health success. It has a lot of doctors [one for every 174 citizens, compared to one for every 600 in the UK] - but rather few of them hang out in clinics, or hospitals. Nearly all of them are based in a community.

] Doing what we know we need to do

The many designers present at the conference were thrilled, and rightly, that the Mayo Clinic has established a Centre for Innovation that has design thinking at its core. But there's a danger, amidst the euphoria, that priorities will get skewed.

Yes, good design can improve a patient's experience. Yes, there are many ways that interacting with a doctor, being in a medical facility, or communicating with a service remotely, can be improved. And yes, of course, there's good business to be done in the medical 'space'.

But given the imminence of post peak energy famine; given what we now know about the causes of ill health, such as peak fat; and given that 5% models already exist for effective health: are high-end medical systems really the best place to focus design's creative capacity?

Towards the end of the conference Rebecca Onie asked the key question: "why don't we do what we know we need to do?" in health care.

She's right. Most of the pieces for a profound transformation of the healthcare jigsaw are on the table. What's missing is an evocative source image with which to direct everyone's efforts where the greatest difference can be made. Could this be where designers can make a difference?

The challenge is not a shortage of ideas - crowd-sourced or otherwise. The challenge is a misallocation of resources. Out there in the world, we know what will make a huge difference: localised food systems, clean drinking water, training and resources for community health workers on the ground. ssential, life-saving interventions such as childhood immunization, safe pregnancy and delivery services for mothers, access to treatment for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

This is not to suggest that designers retrain as community health workers en masse. But one thing we could attend to, and now, is that missing source image for the 5% health jigsaw - the one in which communities are at the centre, in their own contexts, and health care experts and support services are located around the edge in a supporting role.

Mayo Clinic has the values to embrace this new picture and make it its own. It is also strong enough to begin growing a sequel system now, rather than waiting until the current one stops working. In the Center for Innovation, the Mayo already has a stepping stone to the solidarity economy in place. I can can absolutely imagine that the Mayo community, given a moment to reflect on what lies ahead, could move to a strategy of what the ecologist David Fleming in Lean Logic describes as "deconcentration" - a radical refocus of the clinical context away from hubs and towards local expertise and self-reliance in context.

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Posted by John Thackara at 05:27 PM

June 14, 2011

How to make systems thinking sexy

Bucky Pic.png

[The following is based on the author's keynote at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge awards in New York on 8 June. He was also on the 2010 jury of the Challenge.]

We will not transition successfully to a restorative economy until systems thinking becomes as natural, for millions of people, as riding a bike. That's a big ask. How do we get from here, to there?

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge [BFC] is one of the more important projects to address this task - and serving on the jury was by far the hardest work I did last year.

Our task was easily enough stated: select "a bold, visionary, but tangible initiative that has significant potential to solve humanity's most pressing problems". To that headline - a challenge on its own - was appended a daunting set of criteria for the assessment of each entry: Did it apply a whole systems approach to all facets of the design and development process? Is the project ecologically responsible? Is it feasible - not just in an ideal world, but using current technology and existing resources.? Can the project's claims be verified by rigorous empirical testing? And, finally, is the project replicable? Can it scale and be adapted to a broad range of conditions?

When Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of the BFC, asked me, "is the Challenge too niche?" my reply was: Damn right it's niche - and a good thing, too. No other public design competition that I know comes even close to being this demanding for applicants, nor so thoroughly managed. The Challenge is a long way from the business as usual of mainstream design and its frothy competitions.

By "business as usual" I mean the kind of business that is bewitched by what Dr Chris Seeley calls, in The Fool and the Great Turning "the three impossible fantasies": the fantasy of limitless growth; the fantasy that actions can be taken that don't have consequences; and the fantasy that human beings are separate from, and above, the natural world.

These fantasies are not unique to design. They describe the state-of-mind of the industrial growth economy as a whole - the economy which Adbusters has so memorably described as a “doomsday machine”. It's a doomsday machine because everyone strives after infinite growth in a world whose carrying capacity is finite. The better the economy performs — faster growth, higher GDP — the faster we degrade the biosphere that is he only life support machine we have.

It’s madness - and all over the world people are waking up to the fact that it’s madness. Those awakening include a fair number of designers, architects, and urban planners. But they - we - are still a minority and they - we - are waking up so...very...slowly.

Don't get me wrong. It’s fantastic that designers have been involved with projects that improve access by poor people to safe drinking water. It's been inspiring to learn that engineers are figuring out ways to reduce the cost of medical or agricultural equipment. And communication designers, when they raise awareness about pressing social issues, can play a life-critical role in mobilizing people to take meaningful action about them.

I'm also a big fan of the skills and energy that design thinking can bring to the green economy table - such as when design portrays what Fuller described as "preferred states" so evocatively that diverse groups are motivated to try and make those outcomes happen.

With its focus on services, not just on products, design thinking has also started to adopt the whole systems approach that Fuller was advocating a generation ago. Above all, with its strong ethos of prototyping ideas early and often - following Goethe's dictum of "Begin it now!" - design thinking brings positive energy to bear on intractable situations that might otherwise be bogged down in endless talk and powerpoint slides.

All this is welcome, and impressive. But it's too slow, not enough - insignificant relative to the bigger picture.

Last year I was invited to a famous design firm on West Coast to talk about "design for social impact." When I got there, the whole place was locked down by security guards. Wow, I thought! Maybe President Obama is coming to discuss social impact. Silly me. The security clampdown was insisted on by a famous soft drinks firm. I don't know what their project was about - maybe they were there to redesign the shape of the bubbles - but I doubt that replacing the doomsday machine economy was uppermost in their minds.

Many design firms have added design for social impact to a portfolio that is otherwise shaped by the demands of the perpetual growth economy. The net result is a "do less bad" approach to environmental and social issues. That's why we hear so much in design-land about "being aware of" or "taking account of" or "moving steadily towards" a respect for environmental limits.

The green entrepreneur Gunther Pauli is scornful of this half-way house approach: 'A thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do we give each other awards for polluting 'less', even though we are still polluting?’. Why, indeed. If one 'moves towards' the goal of, for example, net zero impact - but one's total business is growing - the net effect is to fall behind.

Outside the business-as-usual tent, gradualism is on the retreat. A new kind of economy - a restorative economy - is emerging in a million grassroots projects all over the world. The better-known examples have names like Post-Carbon Cities, or Transition Towns. But examples also include dam removers, seed bankers, and iPhone doctors.

A restorative economy is emerging wherever people are growing food in cities, or turning school backyards into edible gardens. The movement includes people who are restoring ecosystems and watersheds; their number includes dam removers, wetland restorers, and rainwater rescuers. Many people in this movement are recycling buildings in downtowns and suburbs, favelas and slums. They often work alongside computer recyclers, hardware bricoleurs, office-block refurbishers and trailer-park renewers.

You’ll find the movement wherever people are launching local currencies. In their version of a green economy exchange system, 70 million 'unbanked' Africans exchange airtime, not cash, using the M-pesa system. For every daily life-support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter and clothing - alternatives are being innovated. Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments.

What these projects have in common is that they are creating value without destroying natural and social assets. I'm not talking here about a 1960s style retreat into an imagined rural idyll, with or without a teepee. On the contrary, the most dynamic restorative design is happening in urban contexts, where it re-imagines the urban landscape itself as an ecology with the potential to support us.


[ This point was emphasized at one BFC discussion I attended last week. Bill Browning, founder of Terrapin Bright Green, explained how ecological history can provide a rich source for urban designers who are willing see nature as a vast source or inspiration and opportunity. Before European settlers came to Manhattan, he told us, the island was home to over 1,000 plant and animal species, all co-existing in a unique ecosystem. Understanding how the island’s water cycle worked then, Browning suggested, can help us redesign ineffective portions of our stormwater drainage systems today so that they can function more seamlessly as a part of the natural water cycle].

In the matter of systems thinking for the masses, a subset of the restorative economy -Transition Towns - is especially significant.


Transition initiatives, which only started six years ago, are multiplying at extraordinary speed. Nearly 800 communities in Europe and North America have been officially designated Transition Initiatives - or cities, districts, villages. There's even a transition forest.

The transition model is not about the purchase of green artefacts. On the contrary, transition thinking “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye.” The key point is that they don’t just look: Transition groups break down the scary, too-hard-to-change big systems picture into bite-sized chunks. They create a community-level to-do list, with an order of priorities. This to-do list describes such thi gs as the skills and resources that a community will need to cope with the challenges coming down the track - and also how those skills and resources are to be put in place, and who will do what.

The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a single geographical area. These people have different interests, agendas and capabilities. But they are united in being dependent on, and committed to, the context in which they live - in all its complexity.

A second reason the Transition model is so powerful is that it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities — the “open space” method — that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view. It gives a voice to all, not just to the loudest.

In addition to the million-plus grassroots projects of restorative economy; and in addition to community-scale networks like Transition Towns; a third zone of activity, also outside the design tent, is also amplifying the reach of systems thinking beyond the academy.

This is the emergence of projects that engage with resource efficiency as a social process, not a technical one. Our BFC winner last year, Operation Hope, exemplified this.

Africa-UK 162.jpg

Simply explained, Operation Hope was about the use of cattle to reverse the spread of deserts around the world. But its back story was about the ways energy and nutrients are circulated in natural ecosystems and how humans could learn from this.

I believe all of us on the jury were surprised when we selected , as our clear winner, such a starkly post-Green Revolution and post fossil-fuel project. We seem instinctively to have marked a step beyond the green revolution which, with its hyper-industrialized agriculture, involved massive inputs of petro-chemicals and herbicides, monoculture cropping, and confinement animal feeding operations. Yes, the Green Revolution increased global food production tremendously - but it severely degraded its ecological base in the process.

Project Hope, in contrast, stood for what its founder Allan Savory calls a new ‘Brown Revolution’ that is based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the service intensive production of food.

The fundamental difference between Operation Hope and what went before is that it was - is - about wholes, not parts. Unlike the subject specialization of the industrial growth economy, Savory's approach is based on the idea that things can have properties as a whole that are not explainable from the sum of the parts.

The same goes for this year's remarkable winner, Blue Ventures.


By connecting conservation with wealth creation Blue Ventures has found a way to help fishing communities in the developing world experience a counter-intuitive reality: that saving fish doesn't mean starvation, it means surviving and prospering.

As Alasdair Harris, Blue Venture's founder and research director told us, "the way we approach marine conservation is not just about setting up protected areas. It's about alleviation of poverty, empowering women, reducing gender inequity. All those things, from sex and reproductive health to education are directly relevant to conservation. We work in a multidisciplinary, holistic way."

At the scale of the city, or the city-region, this kind of multi-dimensional, multi-scalar, multi-temporal restorative design re-imagines the man-made world as being one element among a complex of co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food, production, and information. It takes natural biodiversity and its starting point – with special emphasis on bioregions, foodsheds and watersheds.

It's not about back-to-nature. It's about enabling these different ecologies and flows and networks help each other.

To conclude, Elizabeth also asked me to address the question: where next for the Challenge? How [I interpret] can the Challenge help make systems thinking as natural, for millions of people, as riding a bike?

1 Stay niche
The world needs a new kind of design based on an ethical framework in which life is the ultimate source of value; that re-conceives mainstream notions of "development"; and that drives the transition from an extractive economy (minerals and hydrocarbons) to a restorative economy. That framework may be niche now, but it's the way of the future. And besides, there's a ton of work to be done re-imagining the kinds of value that design can create. The BFC is one of the few platforms for this essential work - and many many people are waiting for someone to take a lead here.

2 Embrace wickedness
The discontinuities we face - in terms of climate change, financial systems, and resource flows - are all so-called ‘wicked problems’ that do not lend themselves to a single-vision, top down, design approach. Fuller anticipated this uncertainty and counselled people to accept that life always tends to unfold in unexpected ways. Just as one cannot step into the same river twice, each and every design project - and the people, land, and context - are, or should be, unique. I'm sure many people really don't want to hear more solutions from on-high who can't possible know what will happen; what they want is more thougthful conversation about open ended questions. BFC is the place for these interactions.

3 Edit out the genius stuff
Peter Drucker famously warned that "no institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it". The same goes for systems thinking, and systems design. Fuller was a genius who could see what needed to be done - but much of his language is hard for most of us mere mortals to grasp: "reductionist thinking"…"reflexive default"…"design science revolution"…."preferred state" …."whole systems approach"…."replicable" and so on. By all means use those words backstage - but not in the main hall.

4 Be a breathing space
In 1970 Bucky Fuller wrote, " I don't know what I am. I don't fit into a category. I seem to be a verb". Many people involved in today's sustainable alternatives - design's ‘outliers’ - feel the same. They - we - often plough lonely furrows and need to to support each other more. The BFC can help to meet that need - just as we are doing here this evening: breathing the same air.

5. Prepare to get political
David Orr wisely alerted us to this at this year's prize giving event. All things bottom-up, spontaneous and emergent are fine - up to a point. But here we are, a generation into all of that, and our overall position continues to decline. As Charlotte du Cann wrote recently, 'Transition is changing tempo..history is coming into our streets and into our lives and we need to know how to act

Posted by John Thackara at 10:20 PM

March 01, 2011

Work Faster, India!


"Work faster, get time for life." I just got back from a short trip to India where this insane slogan adorned a poster at a bus stop.

It pretty much sums up a febrile mood in Delhi where it was announced during my stay that India's economy will grow by nine percent next year. [I say "announced" because the government spokesman said they were powerless to reduce the economy's rate of growth].

Among the consequences of this great success: a sulphur dioxide-spewing coal-fired power station [one of twenty being built in Gujarat alone] is being built ten kilometers upwind from the idyllic farm of my host in Vidodara. He's a senior industrialist - and even he can't stop it.

In 2007, India's coal-fired power plants consumed 6.6 quadrillion Btu of coal - and the country plans to double its energy generation capacity by 2035. That is a lot of SO2.

On the positive side, although India is herself a major coal producer, the country also needs to purchase tens of millions of tons of coal from Australia, Indonesia, South Africa and the US to meet its near-future needs. So perhaps peak coal will ensure that the Gujarat plant never gets lit.

Why is all this energy needed? A lot of blame is heaped on India's emerging middle class consumers; for many of these 270+ million people, an air conditioner in every room is becoming the norm. But a fair bit of power was also needed by the DJs and VJs at Salon der Alchemisten - the final event of the UnBox festival I was attending.


[In a beautiful piece of symmetry, the evening featured Talvin Singh (Jaan). In 2000, Kristi van Riet used Talvin's music throughout Doors 6 on Lightness in Amsterdam. Talvin's music transformed our event then - and probably helped persuade us to move Doors events to India].
(listen to the song with Spotify)

After the break: "Life’s Work: Opportunities in the Restorative Economy" [the text of my talks in Vidodara and Delhi].


"Life’s Work: Opportunities in the Restorative Economy"

I often think of the post-it notes generated at a brainstorm as being like butterflies: beautiful, in their own way - but doomed to a short life.

Ideas are not hard. It's selecting the best ones, and implementing them, that's hard.

What kind of filter might we use to make sense of the swarm of ways being proposed to fix the environmental and social challenges we face?

First I propose an ethical framework for design in which life is the ultimate source of value. This ethical framework leads us unavoidably to re-conceive mainstream notions of "development" and - within that framework - the kinds of value that design can create;

Second, I propose that we evaluate proposed design interventions through a process which measures the true costs of the thermo-industrial, doomsday machine economy we have now.

I conclude, thirdly, with the proposition that India has the opportunity to take the lead here - precisely because its design infrastructure is less 'developed' than the mature but wrongly developed one we have in the North.


In 1949, the American forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold proposed what he called a “land ethic” that would guide “man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.”

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” wrote Leopold. “It is wrong, when it tends otherwise.”

(“Biotic community” here is another name for what we now call the biosphere.)

A growing worldwide movement is looking at the world through this fresh lens. Sensible to the value of natural and social ecologies, they are searching for ways to preserve, steward and restore assets that already exist - so-called net present assets - rather than thinking, first, about extracting raw materials to make new consumables from scratch.

It would be no small thing for designers to decide to take a stand - explicitly - for an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life.

Such a commitment would be stronger than the hippocratic oath sworn by doctors. Young doctors promise to "prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment - and never do harm to anyone."

Unambiguous respect for human life here - but no mention of the rest of life!

An unconditional respect for life would also be clearer than the proposed scientific oath that's been circulating since the late-1990s.

In this text, scientists would commit to "minimise and justify any adverse effect our work may have on people, animals and the natural environment".

The natural environment is mentioned, which is a step forward. But the proposed commitment here is to *minimise* adverse effects - not stop them altogether.

In terms of values, of a changed belief system, these, I believe passionately, are steps along the way.

But only steps.

You may argue that this is to state the obvious: That of course you respect life, and the conditions that support life.

But I stress the word unconditional. If a commitment is unconditional, it does not mean “take account of,” or “pay due respect to,” or “move steadily toward.”

It does not mean “minimize adverse effects on nature.” It means a target of no adverse effects.

“A thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do companies get environmental awards for polluting less — even though they are still polluting?”

The biomimicry entrepreneur Gunter Pauli, who I’m quoting here, is scornful of the “do less bad” school of environmentalism – and, by implication, "do-less-bad" design.

Rather than "do less bad" - or greenwashing design - Pauli demands that we commit to Net Positive Impact – that’s to say, “economic activity where the demands placed upon the environment are met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations.”

Otherwise stated: Leave the world better than we found it.


It is no small thing to acknowledge the biosphere as a systemic whole - and to act on the basis that human beings are a co-dependent part of this whole.

A celebrated book by Oliver Saks, “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”, is about a man who looks at something familiar - but perceives that something completely differently.

We all need to look at industrial society in such new ways.

I should warn you that this is not a relaxing frame of mind, once you get into it.

I first experienced this unsettling perceptual shift at Madrid’s new airport. It was hard not to admire the gorgeous roof, the soaring curves, and the vast swathes of new concrete apron. But I then I started to wonder about the amount of energy embodied in the artefacts. structures and processes that surrounded me.

Madrid's elegant concrete pillars looks benignly tree-like - until I remembered the amount of carbon dioxide emissions generated during its fabrication; a ton of CO2 is emitted for every ton of cement used.
An airport is made up of an awful lot of tonnes when you add up the concrete floors and those endless acres of concrete taxiways and runways.

At that moment the smooth vast lines of a big airbus caught my attention as it taxied in to park: how many millions of pounds of matter and energy must have been used to build it?

<< iPhone example 200g = 75kg >>

Often, when I quote these highly uncomfortable facts, designers get cross and irritable.

When I spoke at one big conference in the US, they projected tweets live onto a giant screen beside me! "What's all this got to do with interaction design?" said one, as the words came out of my mouth.


In his book Collapse, Jarred Diamond explains that one reason societies fail is that their elites are insulated from the true energy costs of their society.

Diamond focuses in his book on Easter Island, where the overuse of wood products eventually destroyed its inhabitants' survival prospects.

The lesson applies equally to us, today.

We are bewitched, as a culture, by a high entropy concept of quality and performance.

Our lust for speed, perfection, and control blinds us to the fact that we live in a catabolically-challenged world.

Catabolic, here, is a great word use by one of my favourite writers, John Michael Greer. It describes the energy usage - the "metabolism" - of our thermo-industrial economy.

It has become so complex, and so inter-connected, that it has to burn through astronomical amounts of energy just to remain operational.

Greer explains is that our economy is in danger of 'catabolic collapse' because it depends on perpetually growing throughputs of energy and resources - and infinitely growing throughputs are simply not going to be available.

This is why Adbusters’ True Cost campaign calls our economy a “doomsday machine”

We strive after infinite growth in a world whose carrying capacity is finite.

The better the economy performs — faster growth, higher GDP — the faster we degrade the biosphere that is the basis of life and our only home.

It’s madness. And the world is waking up to the fact that it’s madness.

The reason I remain hopeful, despite the doomsday machine being out of control, is that its replacement is now emerging.

A new kind of economy - a restorative economy - is emerging in a million grassroots projects and experiments all over the world.

The better-known examples have names like Post-Carbon Cities, or Transition Towns.

But examples also include dam removers, and seed bankers, iPhone doctors and rainwater rescuers.

It is happening wherever people are growing food in cities, opening seed banks, or turning school backyards into edible gardens.

The movement includes people who are restoring ecosystems and watersheds. Their number includes dam removers, wetland restorers and rainwater rescuers.

Many people in this movement are recycling buildings in downtowns and suburbs, favelas and slums. So called “slack space” activists work alongside computer recyclers, hardware bricoleurs, office-block refurbishers and trailer-park renewers.

You’ll find the movement wherever people are launching local currencies. Non-money-trading models are cropping up like crazy: nine thousand examples at last count. In their version of a green economy, 70 million Africans exchange airtime, not cash, using the M-pesa system.

Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments. For every daily life-support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter and clothing - alternatives are being innovated.

What they have in common is that they are creating value without destroying natural and human assets.

The keyword here is social innovation - and the creation of social goods - because this movement is about groups of people innovating together, not lone inventors.

A subset of this movement, Transition Towns, is especially significant.

Transition initiatives, which only started four years ago, are multiplying at extraordinary speed. More than 600 communities in Europe and North America have been officially designated Transition Towns, or cities, districts, villages — even a forest.

The transition model — I’m quoting their website — “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye.”

The key point is that they don’t just look: Transition groups break down the scary, too-hard-to-change big picture into bite-sized chunks.

They create a community-level to-do list, with an order of priorities.

This plan describes not only the skills and resources that a community will need to cope with the challenges coming down the track, but also how those skills and resources are to be put in place and who will do what.

The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a single geographical area. These people, yes, of course, have different interests, agendas and capabilities. But they are united in being dependent on, and committed to, the context in which they live.

A second reason the Transition model is so powerful is that it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities — the “open space” method — that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view.


Designers have an important contribution to make in this fast-emerging movement.

Not much, any more, as the creators of completely new products, buildings and communications.

"New" is an old paradigm.

But designers can very usefully cast fresh and respectful eyes on a situation.

Designers - and artists, are brilliant at spotting material and cultural qualities that might not be obvious to those who live in them.

Nabeel Hamdi, the author of Small Change and a world expert on city design, celebrates the fact that this kind of design gives priority to the existing life and intelligence of place.

But it's not just about finding a warehouse to do art projects in.

A second task of restorative design is to make it easier to share all kinds of resources - not just spaces. Resources such as energy, matter, time, skill, software, or food.

Resource-sharing is a service. And many of you are service designers.

You have the necessary skills to help groups of people determine:
- what kind of resource sharing service they need [you can even call it a "service architecture" if you must!]
- what kind of technology platform might be needed;
- how to make the "touch points" in your resource-sharing service enjoyable and engaging

At the scale of the city, or the city-region, regenerative or restorative design re-imagines the man-made world as being one element among a complex of interacting, co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food, production, and information.

Restorative design - at a city or regional scale - takes natural biodiversity and its starting point – with special emphasis on bioregions, foodsheds and watersheds.

In ths kind of work, new forms of representation are needed to communicate energy and nutrient cycles, or biodiversity - and to show the different ways that healthy social systems depend upon, and are intertwined with, healthy economies and ecosystems.

It's not about back-to-nature. It's about enabling these different ecologies and flows and networks help each other.


India, in this context, has a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to innovate a new kind of design at the exact moment when the old world's model is on its last legs.

What the world needs - and not just India - is a new kind of design
- is based on the new core value of a restorative economy;
- engages with the next economy, not the dying one we have now;
- focuses on service and social innovation, not on the outputs of extractive industries;
- is unique to its place - and therefore infijnitely diverse - but is also globally networked.

In some ways I am describing India now. Today. So, what's the best way for India to grasp this opportunity?

What I think's needed is a new kind of school. Not so much a finishing school - more a starting over again school.

The best way to create this kind of school would be to start planting real seeds, right now, into India's fertile ground.

Different kinds of courses and learning models could be piloted and adapted to India's multitude of different contexts.

These pilots would not require new campuses. They could use existing facilities. The main investment would be in people to co-ordinate them.

But what kinds of seeds?

India is not alone in needing to innovate new educational models. On every continent, outside its Big Tent - over there on the edge of the clearing - exotic new species of design and business education are emerging.

These new schools and courses have names like Yestermorow School, Deep Springs College, Kaos Pilots, School of Everything, Social Edge, Deep Democracy, Centre for Alternative Technology, Schumacher College, Living Routes, Gaia U, Crystal Waters, Horses Mouth, WOOF, The Art of Hosting.

Few designers, few policy makers, and few entrepreneurs, have even heard of these places.

But these 'outliers' are where the real innovation is happening- in terms of content, form, and business model.

But they are significant, for me, because they meet the requirements of these new times

Posted by John Thackara at 07:42 AM

February 19, 2011

What Kind of Design Institutes for India?

A decision by the Indian government set up four new National Institutes of Design [NIDs] in the country has sparked a lively debate about the kinds of design they should teach.

An influential group of design thought-leaders has launched a campaign called VisionFirst that calls for a "rigorous co-creation process to bring clarity to the models of design education that India should seek".

VisionFirst applauds the new institutes as "a significant step towards leveraging design to enhance the country's ability to innovate, and in using design to enhance the quality of life in the country". But the group also expresses concern that the new institutes "will be a lost opportunity if we follow a predetermined route and end up replicating expired, limited and ineffective models of design".

The VisionFirst group includes Uday Dandavate, co-founder of SonicRim; Ashish Deshpande, founder of Elephant Design; S Sundar, president of the Association of Indian Designers; the writer and blogger M P Ranjan; and the educator Jogi Panghaal, India Associate of Doors of Perception.

In a pamphlet launched yesterday VisonFirst propose a "nationwide and rigorous co-creation process" to stimulate fresh inquiry and bring clarity to the models of design education that India should seek.

This "grand open, global conversation about design education in India" could unfold on the internet and in print media, says the group; it could conclude with a international conference to share the insights and emerging directions in design education from around the world.

"To remain competitive in the global marketplace" argues VisionPlus, "industry must respond to new sets of challenges. Users are seeking more than usefulness and usability. They are looking for emotional connectedness, commitment to green values, transparency, and fair use of labour".

The Indian government has published a Request for Proposal that invites consulting organizations to bid for finalisation of the model for setting up campuses for four new NIDs. This approach, warns VisonPlus "may exclude new and innovative ways to imagine new institutions". The group is concerned that India's government may "commit to building infrastructure for a pre-supposed form of a school, both in building and content that is actually in desperate need for re-imagination".

Sam Pitroda, Advisor to the Prime Minister of India on Public Information Infrastructure & Innovations, and recent chair of India's Knowledge Commission, has told VisionFirst that he supports the creation of 40 innovation clusters indifferent parts of India to serve different sectors of the economy, and sees a need to have a 100 NID’s in India.

The debate in India coincides with the launch by Doors of Perception of a new project called Xskool.. [Declaration of interest: This writer is director of Doors of Perception].

The idea of Xskool is to set up a training platform that will help the next generation of design teachers and leaders "make a fundamental transition to a new kind of design - one that creates social value without destroying natural and human assets".

More on Xskool shortly.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:14 PM

February 02, 2011

Renewable energy: salvation, or snake oil?

[First published at Design Observer]


Unsettling patches of metallic eczema have started appearing on former vineyards where I live in the south of France. They turn out to be solar farms, the first spores of a clean energy revolution that will soon cover the land. People tell me I should be pleased, but I feel foreboding.

The Energy Report, published today by the World Wildlife Fund, is not reassuring. It asserts that the world's energy needs could be met by wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower and sustainable forms of bio-energy - and by 2050. All we need is the guts to go for it.

Jim Leape, director general of WWF International, says the report is a 'spur to global action'. He wants governments, stymied in their search for an effective response to climate change, to 'move boldly to bring the renewable energy economy into reality'.

The Energy Report has been prepared by WWF together with renewable energy consultancy Ecofys, and AMO, the consulting arm of Rem Koolhaas's architecture firm OMA. It builds on two earlier large-scale energy projects: Zeekracht, the 2008 plan for a ring of offshore wind farms in the North Sea; and Roadmap 2050, launched last year, which advocates the decarbonization of European electrical power.

'A global energy supply based on renewables must be addressed at a global scale' says Reinier de Graaf, AMO's director. 'It's so ambitious that it requires a new way of looking at the world in order to be understood'. To help us perceive 'a world without borders in which all continents have equal access to sustainable energy', AMO has created visualizations that bring the new realities to energy geopolitics in sharp focus.

The image below makes the transfer of energy from South to North look especially clean and easy.

AMO dymaxion global energy grid.png

At first sight, the WWF report makes sense: There's a lot of wind in Northern Europe; there's a lot of sun in the South. Why not capture energy where it is not needed, in undeveloped countries, and transmit it to where people could use it, in the North? Much as we do with oil and gas today.

At the heart of The Energy Report is the concept of a global scale 'smart' electricity grid that would balance periods of low wind or sun in some areas by harvesting the wind or sun in others. This would reduce the need for back-up power systems and storage.


In the benign vision outlined by the WWF efficient cables (HVDC) will run over very large distances — for example, between North Africa and Europe. These smarter grids, says WWF, can be consumer-friendly, save energy, reduce costs and increase reliability.

Behind the scenes, however, major energy players do not appear to regard locally-produced power as an important part of the big picture. Energy “harvested” on a huge scale, in predominantly poor countries, is at the heart of their plans.

The World Bank, for example, is planning a grid to link the eastern Arab states with Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, the western outposts of the Arab world, and the Maghreb region of north Africa and the Western Sahara.

Another mega-plan, the European Union's Roadmap 2050, plans to create priority corridors' in southwestern Europe 'to make best use of Northern African renewable energy sources'.

These supergrids look neat and hygienic on AMO's maps, but their implementation begs a host of questions. Among these is the process by which decisions are being made. The Energy Report states blandly that 'the grid will allow power to be transferred from one part of the continent to another' — but allowed by whom, and in whose interests?

For ENTSO-E, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, keen to ensure security of supply for 525 million energy-hungry Europeans, the biggest obstacle is 'permitting procedures and authorization processes'. It promises that its next ten year plan, to be launched next year, will take 'a more top-down approach'.

The Energy Report also makes wind and sun energy sound clean and weightless when their impact on the real world is far less benign.


For one thing, they need a lot of land. Fossil fuels are concentrated, and buried underground. To achieve the same quantities of energy, renewables have to be spread over much wider areas: They need land for the equipment to capture the wind and the sun, land for power transmission infrastructure, land for access roads and buildings. It all adds up.

Bruce Pavlik, in a piece for the LA Times, warns that a rush to produce green energy could do irrevocable damage to fragile California ecosystems. Topsoil and plant life that have evolved over millenia are disrupted or destroyed by the placement of solar arrays, wind farms, power plants, and transmission lines.

'We need to acknowledge the true costs of any energy development' warns Pavlik. 'When a dam is built, a river is lost - but people who turn on their tap and draw that water rarely think about the river that was destroyed to produce it. If we place industrial technologies in what city people regard as wilderness, there will be less awareness of the damage, less incentive to conserve'.

Despite such warnings, vast projects are in the pipeline. According to the LA Times, the total public land under consideration for alternative energy production exceeds 1.45 million acres in California alone.

In India, negative impacts of green energy are already starting to be felt. A wind farm project under way in Pune has destroyed protected forests and threatens farmland in the area. Bombay's High Court, responding to a public interest petition, ordered a halt on tree felling — but blasting and other destructive activities continue. At another wind power project in Andhra Lake 300,000 trees were felled by an Indo-German enterprise called Enercon to construct an access road along the hills; the consortium had permission to cut 26,000. Many rare plants and shrubs, found only in the western Ghats, have been destroyed because of dumping of rubble from blasted rocks.

Environmental activists allege the project was authorized on the basis of false promises that 'there is no wildlife in the area'.

In Ontario, Canada, crown land is being opened up to to renewable energy developers at low rates. These wild paces may be rebranded as 'wind parks' to divert opposition from community groups. As National Wind Watch reports, the majority of these renewable energy projects are controlled by multinationals, not by home-grown idealists as some might imagine.

Renewables are also not as clean and light as they look in the photographs - only somewhat less dirty than the fossil fuels they are purported to replace. As equipment, wind farms use an awful lot of physical resources. The neat white compartments at the top of each tower each contain a generator, hub and gearbox that weigh upwards of 15,000 kilos (33,000 pounds). Other components of a utility-scale wind farm include underground power transmission systems in concrete culverts; high-tech control and maintenance facilities; and substations to connect farms with power grids. There's a lot of embodied energy in a single solar panel or wind turbine.

The Energy Report promises middle-class lifestyles for all, powered by renewable energy. For that to be achieved, vast numbers of these turbines would be needed. The journal Energy Policy estimates that four million 5 MW wind turbines would be needed to supply 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 — not to mention 1.7 billion roof-mounted solar PV systems, 90,000 large solar power plants, plus a smattering of geothermal, wave and tidal power plants.

Four million turbines? We could probably add a zero, or two, to that number. In his book Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air David Mackay, a professor at Cambridge University, reckons that the net energy contribution of one wind turbine is equal to the energy footprint of about 100 British people. According to MacKay’s rough calculations, the maximum plausible production from on-shore windmills across the United Kingdom would be (on average) about one fifth of today’s total energy consumption.

Chuck Burr, a southern Oregon farmer and writer, provides an additional reality check.. Cited by John Michael Greer, Burr uses hard numbers - a study of his own solar-powered home – to demonstrate that high-tech renewables cannot be a long-term solution. Burr is adamant: the photovoltaic system that powers his home will not generate enough electricity to maintain his modest lifestyle. If the energy used to manufacture transport and install the solar equipment is added in, the result is actually a net energy loss, concludes Burr.

"Every alternative energy solution is manufactured with fossil fuels. Think of the cables, the transformers, the pylons, the concrete they are mounted on. Renewable power is not renewable once these fossil fuel inputs are factored in."


[The photo above, from Burr's farm, shows the inverters and breaker box required in additional to the solar arrays themselves].

Whether the number of turbines required is in the millions, or tens or hundreds of millions, their manufacture will in any case be constrained by the availability of rare earth materials. One of these, neodymium, is not just used in the manufacture of the magnets used in wind turbines - it is also needed for electric cars. Pressure on supplies is already acute.

A report from Earth Policy is confident that any supply bottleneck could be overcome "if mining were increased by a factor of five" - but, like many of the promises in The Energy Report, there would be a hidden price to pay for that: A five-fold production increase in rare earth mining would have horrific consequences on the ground where it takes place.


[Above picture] "Hidden out of sight behind smoke-shrouded factory complexes in the city of Baotou, and patrolled by platoons of security guards, lies a five-mile wide ‘tailing’ lake. It has killed farmland for miles around, made thousands of people ill and put one of China’s key waterways in jeopardy"

'Every step of the rare earth mining process is disastrous for the environment' states Jamie Choi, an expert on toxics for Greenpeace China. Ores are extracted by pumping acid into the ground; they are processed using more acid and chemicals; finally, they are dumped into tailing lakes that are often very poorly constructed and maintained. Throughout this process, large amounts of highly toxic acids, heavy metals and other chemicals are emitted into the air that people breathe, and which leak into surface and ground water that villagers rely on this for irrigation of their crops and for drinking water.

For their part, fishermen, too are worried by offshore wind power. Wind turbines could one day straddle thousands of miles of rich fishing grounds in the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, for example, if federal plans to accelerate growth in the offshore wind industry are realized. “Looking at the gridded map, it seems like they are going to take the whole Nantucket Lightship area away from us and about 80 percent of the Great South Channel area,” said Paul Wessecker, the owner of three local scallop vessels. “These are some of the most lucrative fishing grounds that we have.”

The optimistic projections of The Energy Report ignore another inconvenient reality: cost. Infrastructures on the scale it recommends would require massive inputs of investment in the form of fossil-fuel based energy, materials, knowledge, and labor. Even in a booming world economy, such resources would be hard to find; in the global crisis we are experiencing now, it is hard to see where even a fraction of the needed costs would be found.

At its heart, The Energy Report suffers from an existential flaw: It takes 'global energy needs' as a given, adds up how much renewable energy would be needed to meet them - and then ignores the true costs of deploying such an infrastructure. Apart from a vague commitment to 'efficiency measures', the report fails totally to question the energy-intensive way-of-life that a spoiled 20 percent of us across the industrial world take for granted - from fresh strawberries at Christmas, to holidays in Mauritius.

The Energy Report does not lie outright. We could, theoretically, generate the vast quantities of renewable that it promises. But at what cost? David MacKay calculates that we could deploy renewables that would deliver nearly as much energy as we use today - but only "if we threw all economic, social, and environmental constraints to the wind".

That is what makes The Energy Report so dangerous. For the World Bank, construction and energy companies, and short-termist politicians, the report provides cover for profitable projects - and happy voters. Beguiled by the promise of “green jobs”, and the painless continuation of lifestyle-as-usual, many of us would be inclined to turn a blind eye to the environmental devastation, land-grabs, and undemocratic planning procedures, that would follow.

For Rem Koolhaas and AMO, The Energy Report is a natural progression. Ecosystems and natural justice have never been a priority for the de facto house architect of globalizaton. As for Ecofys, the report's other partner, it's a technology company with no pretensions to be competent on social or environmental issues.

But The Energy Report is a tragedy for the WWF.


Its imprimatur provides cover for a Big Tech, growth-is-good, business-as-usual energy strategy that will not work. Worse, the WWF plan would divert resources from a more pressing priority: the creation of truly sustainable ways to organize daily life.

The biggest losers of all, if The Energy Report were to be implemented, would be people in so-called undeveloped societies, mainly in the south, who live without the vast energy throughputs we've become addicted to in the North. They should be our models, not our victims.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:44 PM

February 01, 2011

Dozy Parkers


A study by Transportation Alternatives found that up to 45 percent of traffic in an area of Brooklyn was caused by cars circling the streets looking for parking. And in 2006, UCLA professor of urban planning Donald Shoup calculated that, within a year, vehicles searching for parking in a small business district in LA consumed 47,000 gallons of gas and produced 730 tons of carbon dioxide.

Faced by such shocking numbers, the default reaction of some people has been to look to technology for an answer. Let's invent a system, they resolve, that enables drivers find open parking spaces without delay. A team at Rutgers University, for example, uses ultrasonic sensors, GPS receivers and cellular networks to find empty parking spaces; they relay this information to drivers using Internet maps and navigation systems.

To optimise the search process, the Rutgers team placed ultrasonic sensors on the passenger-side door of three cars and used them to collect data on empty parking spaces over a period of two months during daily commutes through Highland Park, New Jersey. From this, the engineers developed an algorithm that used these ultrasound readings to reveal the number of available parking spaces with 95 percent accuracy. By combining this informnaton with GPS data, they were able produce maps of occupied and unoccupied spaces that were 90 percent accurate.

Enough, already!

While technically impressive, this is an absurdly over-complicated answer to the wrong question. In January 2011 alone, 4,474,00 cars were produced. We're adding 50 million cars a year to the 600,000,000 that are already here - and for 95 percent of the time, those 600,000,000 cars sit idle, wasting space.

Systems that help people locate not-yet-wasted parking places are a technological form of spatial cancer.

Small outbreaks of low-tech sanity do exist - like this one brought to you by the team at Tucson velo:


Posted by John Thackara at 09:17 AM

May 31, 2010

Whole, whole on the range

My toughest work this year has been serving on the jury of this year’s Buckminster Fuller Challenge. Our work has been demanding because we’ve had to assess high quality entries that range from the use of social media to organize urban food systems, and transforming Chicago into a giant water treatment machine; to helping Indian women solar electrify their own villages, and the use of cattle to reverse the spread of deserts around the world.

But the experience has also been uplifting. As a jury, we were instructed to look for a “bold, visionary, but tangible initiative that addresses a well-defined need of critical importance” – and we have been spoiled for choice. Our winner, who will be announced on 2 June at the National Press Club in Washington DC, will receive a $100,000 prize to support the development and implementation of their work. I can't be there myself, so my contribution is write about some of the finalists over the coming days and weeks - starting with....

] Operation Hope

Africa-UK 161.jpg
[Photo borrowed from Fast Company]

A quarter of the land area of Earth is turning into desert. Three quarters of the planet’s savannas and grasslands are degrading. And because the main activity on rangelands is grazing livestock, on which 70% of the world’s poorest people depend, grassland deterioration therefore causes widespread poverty.

All this impacts on climate change, too. According to Richard Douthwaite, who leads the Carbon Cycles and Sinks Network, agriculture and land-use emissions are 27% of global total of harmful emissions. [Douthwaite’s network is developing policies which will enable the Irish land mass to become a carbon sink rather than a source of greenhouse emissions. His organization, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (Feasta) was instrumental in the invitation to Allan Savory to give a lecture at Trinity College, Dublin which may bee seen online here ]

Grassland degradation is not a new problem. Decay started when the first hominids discovered the tool of fire and, by burning grasses, destroyed nutrients that would otherwise have enriched the soil. But the rate of degredation has accelerated with the expansion of the human population .

Enormous research efforts have been made to understand and reverse desertification but, until recently, and with one remarkable exception, to no avail. That exception, Operation Hope, has transformed 6500 acres of of parched and degraded grasslands in Zimbabwe into lush pastures replete with ponds and flowing streams - even during periods of drought.


Surprisingly, this was accomplished through a dramatic increase in the number of herd animals on the land. Behind Operation Hope is an approach called holistic management which is applied to rangeland pratice. It has been developed over fifty years by Allan Savory, a former wildlife biologist, farmer, and politician. It takes pretty much the exact opposite approach to the dominant theory that desertification is caused by overgrazing.

Savory's approach is based on a singular insight: grasses can't graze themselves. Before man came along, herbivores co-evolved with perennial grasses. “When a large herd moved around freely – accompanied, that is, only by pack-hunting predators - they dunged and urinated with very high concentration on the grass. No animals like to feed on their own feces, so they had to move off of their own feces within 1-3 days and they could not return until the dung had weathered and was clean again”.

Moving across the land in large herds, the herbivores trample and compact soils in much the way that a gardener does to encourage plant growth - while also fertilizing the soil with concentrated levels of nutrient-rich animal wastes. This approach aligns itself with nature a comprehensive way; it increases plant growth and also re-establishes livelihoods through additional livestock, and increasing wildlife populations through holistic management.

Grasses depended on herbivores to help them with their decay process. When large herbivores such as Kudu and Cape Buffallo, disappear, grasses begin to decay far more slowly through oxidation. When millions of tons of vegetation are left standing, dying upright, the result is to block light from reaching growth buds; the next year, the entire plant dies. The death of grass leads to bare ground, and desert spreads.

] Hooves, not tractors

The Dixon Imprinter.jpg

Savory has not been wholly alone in his understanding of the importance of compacting on the health of vegetation. In the early 1970s, land grant universities in Texas and Arizona designed machines to simulate the physical effects of once prevalent vast herbivore herds – such as the millions of bison that roamed North America.

These machines, such as the Dixon Imprinter, were put into operation over thousands of acres of the western U.S to break soil crusts and cause indentations and irregularities while laying down plant material as soil-covering litter vital to soil health. Imprinting as the technique is called, is still practised.

But having observed observation of large wildlife herds close-up over more than fifty years, Allan Savory is convinced that animal hooves, mouths and digestive systems do this same task more effectively; the process can be repeated annually, and at no cost; and the process consumes no fossil fuels.

Large herbivores do three important things. They:

1. Break soil crusts: Trackers have observed this for thousands of years. The effect is more pronounced when animals are concentrated in large herds - which is how they behave when under threat from from pack hunting predators. The broken crust allows soil to absorb water and to breathe; this enables more plants to germinate and establish.

[Operation Hope runs livestock in a ‘predator-friendly manner’. Lvestock are held every night in portable lion-proof corrals (known as kraals in southern Africa). The kraals are portable to prevent excess dung and urine becoming pollutants. “We do not kill the lions, leopards, hyenas, wild dogs or cheetah" says Savory; "they are present because they are crucial to keeping wildlife moving and thus the land healthy”].

2. Compact the soil under their hooves: “Anyone who has had a horse stand on their boot understands this” jests Savory. Compaction is required for good seed-to soil-contact, which increases germination. The need for compaction is why gardeners tamp down the soil around seedlings or seeds, or some farmers put a heavy roller over certain crops after planting.

3. Return standing grass plant material (dead or alive) to the soil surface earlier than the same plant material would have returned to the soil had the animals not been there. One has only to watch a cow or buffalo trample or dung to know this. (Which this writer will henceforth do).


In short, the conversion of plant material to litter or dung is essential to maintain biological decay. Machines designed to imitate animals cannot do this.

] Time, not numbers

Seasonal rainfall grasslands require periodic disturbance for overall health. Savory also discovered that overgrazing was a function of time, not of animal numbers. For example, trampling for too long powders soil; this increases erosion by wind and water. Trampling for too long also causes compaction in deeper layers that is adverse to plant growth. And dung and urine, like most things in excess, become pollutants as feedlot animal producers soon learn.

But as Savory explains, “whether there is one cow or a thousand does not on its own determine the degree overgrazing; what changes the number of plants overgrazed is time - if the animal(s) remain too long in the same place, or return to it too soon following grazing”.

] Graze/trample ratios

The holistic planned grazing practiced in Operation Hope is therefore based the application of high physical impact – trampling, dunging and urinating – in short periods, separated by much longer periods for plants and soil life to recover. The aim is to minimize overgrazing by maintaining a high graze/trample:recovery ratio on the land at all times - generally no more than three days grazing always followed by three to nine months of recovery.

Because they manage holistically, Operation Hope team herders do not apply abstract time regimes. They concentrate livestock over brief time periods either to break soil surfaces, compact soil to ensure seed germination or cycle annually dying plant material biologically and rapidly.

Savory’s use of increased livestock to reverse desertification runs against ten thousand years of agricultural development. “More than twenty civilizations have failed due to environmental degradation”, Savory reminds us, “and most of them had what people today would call sustainable, or organic agriculture!”

] From green revolution, to brown

Savory's work has far wider implications than desertification alone. His approach contains the elements of a new approach to agriculture.

The Green Revolution was based on high input, industrial agriculture. It involved massive inputs of petro-chemicals and herbicides, monoculture cropping, and confinement animal feeding operations. It increased global food production tremendously - but it has also tended severely to degrade its ecological and socio-cultural capital base in the process.

“The Green Revolution has not been characterized by ecological or social integrity—quite the contrary”. Charges Savory: “Horrific soil erosion, dead zones at the mouths of rivers, severely depleted levels of biodiversity, impoverished rural communities, soil fertility loss, and oxidation of soil organic matter - all these have been exacerbated by the Green Revolution”.

The good news, according to Savory, is that this can all be reversed - indeed, this is what Holistic Management practitioners have been engaged for the past 40 years. “We posit the necessity of a new ‘Brown Revolution’, based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil, and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the production of food.

"Viewed holistically biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change, are not three issues, they are one, he continues. “Without reversing desertification, climate change cannot adequately be addressed.

“The more humid and biologically productive regions of the world need to develop agricultural models based on small, biodiverse farms that imitate the natural, multi-tiered vegetation structures of those environments. This is where most of the grain, fruits, nuts, and vegetables will be produced, as well as most of the dairy products, and some of the meat".

] Wholes, not parts

Although Savory describes some of his insights as common sense, he has spent fifty years battling to make the scientific case for his approach, too. For most of this half-century, he has had to contend with intense opposition from maintream range science researchers 'proving' it does not work.

After fifty years during which the very idea of using increased livestock to reverse desertification has been rejected, a growing number of scientists now accept that the results claimed by Savory are supported by rigorous data, and that they therefore deserve to drive land use, agriculture, and development policy.

Savory’s acceptance by the mainstream is part of a profound shift in scientific thinking. He is no longer alone in realizing that transfers of energy and nutrients are innate to a ecosystem ecology. Savory's concusions are confirmed by biological studies of plants, animals, terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems and, crucially, how they interact with each other.

This new approach to science has been called holism, or emergentism - the idea that things can have properties as a whole that are not explainable from the sum of the parts that reductionist science, at its crudest, studies in isolation.

The principle of holism was concisely summarized by Aristotle in the Metaphysics: "The whole is more than the sum of its parts".

Jonathan Teller-Elsberg, a writer turning permaculture designer, explained to me why, in his view, Savory’s approach has resisted so long by the scientific mainstream. “Mainstream natural resource management systems were in essence designed to avoid or bypass complexity. They coined the term "best management practice" – but this was a a misnomer. What may be the right thing to do on a farm this year may not be next year - let alone on a different farm”.

Although their motive was good, complexity—social, environmental and economic—is the implacable reality for management and thus cannot be bypassed or avoided", Teller-Elsberg continued. "It has to be embraced through holistic planning processes”.

] Land is not linear

One of the obstacles Savory has encountered is the tendency of modern humans to make conscious decisions – planning and design, for example - in a linear way.

As individuals, we tend to be motivated a clear objective or goal. And in groups, we have created complex global organizations whose design is influenced by the same linear thinking. We manage these organizations by designing missions, or visions, that give the collective entity something to aim for in its (linear) journey forwards.

“We have been successful with developments of technology, but have failed over and over again to deal with complexity in nature and human society” says Savory. The trouble, he believes, stems from our attempts to control a world that is holistic, and fundamentally non-linear, in its makeup.

This rational, control-seeking approach makes it almost impossible to deal with such wicked problems as biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change.

The limits of linear management are especially true of land. Says Savory: “the US enjoys the greatest concentration of scientists and wealth ever known in one nation – but she exports more eroding soil annually than all her other exports combined”.

] Wealth = soil

The only wealth that can sustain any community or nation is derived from the photosynthetic process, he says. “Wealth, ultimately, means soil. And yet ever-larger farms are said to be ‘economic’ when this is simply not true. The US claims to be feeding the world when the true position is that the US farmers are bleeding the world with their topsoil losses”.

Land - whether rangeland or cropland – cannot be managed like the production line in a car factory. “Land alone is no more manageable than is the hydrogen or oxygen alone in water” says Savory.

] Conversations, not plans

It follows from working in whole situations – when our actions are guided by complex realities, rather than by rational and abstract concepts – that what Savory terms the the “holistic goal” must change - continously.

Otherwise stated: conversations are more important than plans. In a healthy community, discussion of its holistic goals never ends. A healthy community does not aspire to create the perfect plan and then implement it; rather, the idea is to grow and develop holistic goals over time.

Each and every managed whole - people, land, money - is unique. Therefore, just as one cannot step into the same river twice because it is flowing, Holistic Management does not permit replication.

Savory traces many of his ideas back to 1924 when Jan Christian Smuts wrote Holism and Evolution’ “Smuts believed scientists would never understand nature until we understood that nature functioned in wholes and patterns of great complexity” recalls Savory; “unlike the mechanistic world view in which nature is viewed as a complicated machine with interconnecting parts. Savory is confident today that Buckminster Fuller’s thinking would have resonated with that of Smuts.

The issues raised by Operation Hope also resonate with a recent debate in the Transition Towns movement.Brian Davey, from Transiton Nottigham recently asked, “what constitutes a ‘plan’?”.

“A plan is a way of attempting to shape the future” writes Davey, “yet there is also an explicit ethos in the Transition Movement of 'letting things go where they will'. 'Letting things go where they will' implies accepting that things will unfold in unexpected ways, and being flexible to that, taking up unforseen opportunities as they arise and being prepared to abandon unrealistic aspirations along the route.

"Instead of shaping the future, this is about being prepared to be shaped by the future”.

For Allan Savory, too, holistic management is about the means rather than the ends. The ends - the goals - are almost incidental. “You might even say that the means are the ends”, he reflects; “whatever you think your goal is, the true goal is to have a process for making decisions on an ongoing basis. After all, life is an endless, ongoing process. Any so-called goal is merely one step along an infinite path”.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:20 PM | Comments (4)

May 01, 2010

What should design critics write about?

What issues should the next generation of design critics write about? Where and how should they do this writing? And, how will they get paid for doing so?

This is the text of my keynote talk yesterday to Crossing The Line at the School for Visual Arts in New York.


"The first question is easy. You should write about humanity's new place in a catabolically-challenged world - and the kinds of future that await us.

By catabolically-challenged I mean the complex, connected and high entropy world we’re in now – the one which can't possibly be sustained into the indefinite future. Why? because it depends on perpetually growing throughputs of energy and resources that are not going to be available.

The True Cost campaign calls our economy a “Doomsday Machine”. We strive after infinite growth in a world whose carrying capacity is finite. The better the economy performs – faster growth, higher GDP - the faster we degrade the biosphere which is the basis of life - and our only home.

It’s madness. And the world is waking up to the fact that it’s madness.

The trouble is that no society in history has ever been able to reduce its consumption of resources voluntarily over the long term.

On the contrary: as Joseph Tainter has explained: when problems in a complex society, such as our’s, emerge, tackling them requires more resources - just as resources are becoming scarcer.

Another word for this is overshoot. But it’s slow motion overshoot. Not like a mouse running off a cliff in a Disney cartoon - more like a goods wagon bumping down the unpaved side of a mountain, shedding cargo and parts along the way.

Anyone traveling in Europe two weeks ago, when the volcano blew, will know what that kind of ride feels like.

John Michael Greer, another of my muses, who first alerted us to the idea of a catbolic collapse, wrote a book called The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. Greer’s account of how our high entropy society will degrade slowly and unevenly over many decades is pretty convincing. For one thing, that’s how the Maya, the Roman Empire and other civilizations declined in the past.

"The decline of a civilization is rarely anything like so sudden for those who live through it s it looks in retrospect”, writes Greer, encouragingly; it's a much “slower and more complex transformation than the sudden catastrophes imagined by many social critics today."

Now catabolic collapse, overshoot, and the end of civilization are too abstract to make decent stories as they stand. Besides, film makers and game designers have already made the social Armageddon space their own.

The stories that do remain to be written are about the new and better being born from the ruins of the old.

By new and better, I do not mean the happy-clappy bright-green optimism promoted in some quarters the past few years. Let’s not kid ourselves that we can pre-design a smooth transition using positive thinking and green technology.

In a new book chillingly titled ‘Requiem for a Species’, the philosopher Clive Hamilton writes that “it's too late to avert catastrophic change. Our politics and institutions are too dysfunctional to make elegant adaptations. We'd better prepare ourselves for surviving as best we can".

What we’re likely to experience is decades of muddling through what Greer describes as "scarcity industrialism" – a period when we liquidate what remains of the planet's oil endowment, fossil fuels, and other nonrenewable resources.

This phase, scarcity industrialism, will morph into to a "salvage society" phase when, having depleted non-renewables, we’ll scavenge the ruins of abandoned man-made structures for their iron, steel and other raw materials.

Scarcity industrialism is well under way in India and Brazil, by the way. http://www.momentomonumento.org/en/

I’ve learned from the resource ecologies of favelas and shanty towns thyat the concept of embodied energy – emergy – stretches forwards as well as backwards in time.

Backwards, emergy measures the energy necessary for raw material extraction, transport, manufacture, assembly, installation, disassembly, deconstruction and/or decomposition. Forwards, emergy represents potential for products or componenbts to be re-purposed – without the need to mine and smelt raw materials from scratch.

And you’ll probably think I’m sad, but I can no longer look at paved surfaces without thinking about breaking them open to free the soil.

I’m describing a way of looking at the world through a fresh lens. Rather than look at the world and think about extraction and consumption, it’s about looking for ways to preserve, steward and restore assets – human and natural ones, or so-called net present assets, that already exist.

Designers have an important contribution to make. Not much, any more, as the creators of new products, buildings, and communications. New is an old paradigm.

What designers can do is cast fresh and respectful eyes on a situation to reveal material and cultural qualities that might not be obvious to those who live them.

This kind of regenerative design re-imagines the built world not as a landscape of frozen objects, but as a complex of interacting, co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food.

Nabeel Hamdi points out that “design disturbs that which it touches…we need to give priority to the existing life and intelligence of place. There are vast latent resources in existing situations"

Hamdi, the author of "Small Change" and "Housing without Houses" is working with Habitat for Humanity on a "mind shift" - from "building shelters" to a greater appreciation for existing social and ecological assets.

What I experience, in muntiple contexts, is the re-emergence of a ethical framework.

In 1949, the American forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold proposed what he called a "land ethic" that would guide "man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it". "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community" wrote Leopold. "It is wrong, when it tends otherwise". ["Biotic community" here is another name for what we now call the biosphere].

You may argue that this is to state the obvious: That of course you respect life, and the conditions that support life.

But I stress the word unconditional. If a commitment is unconditional, it does not mean "take account of"; or "pay due respect to"; or "move steadily towards". It does not mean "minimise adverse effects on nature" - it means a target of *no* adverse effects.

"A thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do companies get environmental awards for polluting less -- even though they are still polluting?". The biomimicry entrepreneur Gunther Pauli, who I’m quoting here, is scornful of the "do less bad" school of environmentalism.

Pauli demands that we commit to Net Positive Impact – that’s to say, "economic activity where the demands placed upon the environment are met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations”.

Otherwise stated: Leave the world better than you found it.

That kind of economy may sound fanciful- but it’s happening, out there, now.

Between the 'tech-will-fix-it' dreamers, and the 'head-for-the-hills' brigade, a third and much larger global movement is growing. Paul Hawken reckons it’s the single biggest movement on the planet, with a million or more active groups. But it’s been invisible in mainstream media. It’s certainly hard to spot from the lobby of the Ace Hotel here in Manhattan!

This movement is evident wherever people are growing food in cities, opening seed banks, or turning school backyards into edible gardens.

The movement includes people who are restoring ecosystems and watersheds. Their number includes dam removers, wetland restorers, and rainwater rescuers.

Many people in this movement are recycling buildings - in downtowns and suburbs, favelas and slums. So called ‘slack space’ activists work alongside computer recyclers, hardware bricoleurs, office block refurbishers, and trailer park renewers.

You’ll find the movement wherever people are launching local currencies. Non-money trading models are cropping up like crazy: nine thousand examples at last count. In their version of a green economy, 70 million Africans exchange airtime - not cash.

Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments. For every daily life support system that is unsustainable now - food, health, shelter, and clothing -– alternatives are being innovated.

The keyword here is *social* innovation, because this movement is about groups of people innovating together - not lone inventors.

A sub-set of this movement, Transition Towns, are especially, significant. Transition initiatives, which only started a couple of years ago, are multiplying at extraordinary speed. More than 200 communities in Europe and North America have been officially designated Transition Towns, or cities, districts, villages - and even a forest.

The transition model - I'm quoting their website - “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye". The key points is that they don't just look: Transition groups break down the scary, too-hard-to-change big picture into bite-sized chunks.

They create a community level to-do list, with an order of priorities. This plan describes the skills and resources that community will needed to cope with the challenges coming down the track; how they are to be put in place; and who will do what.

The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a single geographical area. These people, of course, have different interests, agendas and capabilities. But they are united in being dependent on, and committed to, the context in which they live.

A second reason the Transition model is so powerful is that it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities - the "open space" method - that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view.

For every daily life support system that is unsustainable now - food, health, shelter, journeying - any alternative has to be system-wide, and involve a variety of different stakeholders who will not, as a rule, have worked together before.

B The second question Alice put to me concerns 'modes of critical practice available to critics'.

To answer that question I have to tell you about tomatoes. We have an allotment garden near my home in France, and I decided this year basically to copy the way my neighbour, Pedro grows his tomatoes. I studied the bamboo supports structure, and the way his beds are laid out in such a way that water can flow easily from the canal that runs past our gardens. Having but a similar bed on our patch I proudly planted 60 tomato seedlings. But then, disaster. Whe I opened the water pipe from the canal, I realized that my beds, unlike Pedro’s, are a foot above the water level. My plants will have to be watered by hand using doens of heavy cans. The reason? I had looked at the form and structure of Pedro’s system – but not at its position in the soil, and I did nt think once about the role of gravity in moving water from the canal.

The lesson of my tomato debacle is this: perception and understanding is both embodied, and situated - and this goes for writing, too.

Where you write is as important as what you write. Where you are from is often as interesting as what you have to say. Place gives a writer strength as much as it gives natural systems strength.

Disconnect from place and context is one of the reasons global systems have become so vulnerable. Man-made systems are attenuated, hyper-connected and interdependent - but not resilient. They depend on high throughputs of energy, and we have systematically sought to remove human agency from their day to day operations.

Think how parlous is our food security. Think about what one volcano did to global travel.

So my suggestion about where to write, would be: select a bioregion as your patch.

A bioregion is defined by the Interconnectedness, and the interdependence, of its natural systems. It's an ideal context in which to explore what co-dependency with one’s place, for people, can mean.

Many bylines these days decribe a story's writer as 'London-based,' or 'Tokyo-based'. My reaction when I read them these days is to think: "so?".

Think how different it would be to describe yourself as 'Central Valley BioRegion based writer' if you're from that part of California; or a Hudson Valley Watershed based writer, if you're based in New Jersey.

In Norway you could be a writer based in the Caledonian Buckling.

Me? I'm a writer based in the "Steppic BioRegion" [ formerly known as Occitania, or south west france].

Alice also asked me to say something about the proliferation of channels we now have to choose from.

I’m happy to oblige: The transition towards sustainability is not about messages, it's about activity. It’s not about proclamations, it’s about practices.

Many professional designers are in the representation business, so their default response in recent times has been to design a poster about sustainability. Or maybe a website filled with green things to buy.

But projecting more signals into an already cluttered environment is like throwing confetti into a snowstorm.

Advertising folk respond to what they call “the clutter problem” by adding to it.

Social media? They're part of the clutter conundrum too. Online communications are a mode of publication, not of conversation. The number of bloggers is growing at 35%; the number of people using the internet is growing at 10%. Do the math!

Emitting messages, however clever and evocative they may be, is not the same as being with real people, in real places, who are changing their lived material reality.

That's why I have a radical proposal: Consider speaking your words in a place rather than pressing "send".

Ivan Illich believed that our culture started to go off the rails in 1120, when monks stopped reading texts aloud to each other and became solitary scholars.

When I first read those lines of Illich, 20 years ago, I thought the guy was nuts. Later, when he told me in person, I listened harder. Embodied, situated, and unmediated communication, he explained, was the norm before we invented writing - and, later, mass media - - and later still, social media.

Barely three generations ago, one out of ten words that a man had heard when he reached the age of twenty were words spoken to him directly—one to one, or as a member of a crowd—by somebody whom he could touch and feel - and smell. By the 1970s, that proportion had been reversed: About nine out of ten words heard in a day were spoken through a loudspeaker.

“Computers are doing to communication what fences did to pastures and cars did to streets,” said Ivan Illich told 1982. Are social media playing a similar role today?

For Illich, there was a huge difference between a colloquial tongue—what people say to each other in a context, with meaning—and a language uttered by people into microphones. Or typed onto a Facebook page.

When someone we trust tells us to our face that a thing is important, we pay attention. Conversation is usually a more powerful medium for provoking change in behaviour than pre-packaged messages projected at us by media.

Conversation matters more than content.

Out there in the bioregions, and especially among folk like the Transition Towns groups, face-to-face is key.

There’s a continuity ere between today’s social radicals and the avant gardes of art in earlier times. For years, artists fought to bridge the schism in Western culture that separates the creator from the spectator. The Constructivists, Dadaists, Surrealists, Lettrists, and Fluxus artists all fought in different ways against the idea that art was about the creation of beautiful, static forms.

As Guy Debord put it: ‘representation separates life from experience'.
And the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that perception is a process in which an active body enters into a “communion” with its surroundings.

I empathise especially with the Lettrists, who invented a technique called hypergraphics,or super-writing. Their technique merged poetry, as text, with more visual graphic ways of communication such as painting, illustration or signs.

Rather as traveling storytellers have been doing in Rajastan for 2,000 years.

Part C
I've given you what I think are some terrific story leads:
the catabolic collapse of industrial civilization;
the design agenda for a salvage society.
The replacement of a doomsday machine economy with a solidarity economy

I've also suggested new ways to think about where and how to write
Making a bioregion your patch - and making a virtue of the spoken word.

But Alice’s third and final request was more grounded: would I please point to some "areas of hope in these students' future careers" - - - which I take to be a polite way of saying: how does a design critic get paid these days?

Some years ago, when the dot.com collapse was in full gory progress, I was at conference with Erik Spiekerman, the well-known German typographer and designer.

Erik showed some us exquisite work he'd done for blue chip cultural and business clients, such as typefaces for the German Rail­ways, or the Berlin Under­ground. We were all duly impressed.

But then a young design student stood up and said: "it's all easy for you, Mr Spiekerman: you're famous; you can cherry pick the clients you want to work with; and they have to pay what you ask. But I'm young [said the student]; I'm unknown. And the economy is collapsing. What am I supposed to do?".

Erik stood up and told the meeting about the unglamorous jobs he did - but never usually mentioned - in order to keep his studio afloat. I ememebr his candid comments t this day – and I owe you similar honesty today.

If some of you think I've got it made, you need to know that well, I’m still on the make. Some reality checks:

In my capacity as a portfolio worker, I’m earning far less now, than I did up before 2007.

I'm paid for 25%, at most, of the of the hours I work. I don't get paid for writing my blog, or my newsletter. I don't get paid for organizing Doors of Perception events.

I do get paid to give talks to industry events – and I’m rather proud of that line of work. And I learn far more from hanging with people in a new industry than I do at most design events. But that market too is most charitably described as soft.

I also work as an event producer – like a film producer, only for festivals. Here my client has tended to be a city government or government agency. Projects I've done like Dott 07 in England, or City Eco Lab in France, have been timely, popular, and well-received - but it's harder now, not easier, to get projects like that funded.

I’m sorry if you were expecting me to share get-rich-quick revelations – with you. The reality, I know, is more of a cold shower: I’m probably as puzzled about how to earn a living as you are.

But let me share also what keeps me going, and why I am optimistic about the prospects for everyone here today.

The main thing is there a need for what we do:
No one has time to think. There's opportunity in that.
Society needs to take a longer view. We can help with that, too.
Adaptive resilience as a script that needs to be re-written - continuously.

So-called 'worker correspondents' were important during the 1920s in revolutionary Russia and Weimar Germany when they collated materials on issues affecting their workplace and other aspects of everyday life.

During the Depression years here, a good number of writers were involved in agricultural extension services.

As I said, The main thing is there a need for what we do – even if the business model to pay us to do it remains eternally emergent, but emerged.

I am also comforted by the fact that we are not alone. Spare a thought - if not your sympathy - for the media empires of the world. They're desperate for an answer to the question: how - selling what kind of content, and using using what business model - can big newspaper groups survive?

Empires are complex, far-flung, and active on multiple fronts. That's what makes them an Empire, and it goes for media empires too. But it takes an enormous flow of resources to keep them afloat.

They are high entropy operations. Just like Rome.

And those resources are just not there. Many have given up on selling news. People simply won't pay for it. Ad revenues have also collapsed.

Media emperors do believe that customers will pay for "actionable insight". This is why Reuters recently paid $18m for a multi-authored financial blog called BreakingViews. Not news: views. Subscribers are sent several well-crafted 350-word texts a day to their Blackberry.

But selling 350 word stories online is not a replacement for fat ad-filled newspapers. NYTimes.com generates about $15 million or so a month, which translates as so about a dollar a unique visitor a month. But their fixed costs are so high that can't make profit on that. Huffington Post, as a comparison, makes about 12 cents a unique visitor per month. And they're finding it hard to make a profit, too.

Now think of your own position. No huge office building to pay for; no executive suite; no accounts department; no human resources; no private jet; no lobbyists. In fact, if you decided to squat rather than rent or buy a space to live in. If you were aggressively to share - rather than own - the tools and resources you need for daily life.

In that case, your fixed costs can be as near as dammit to zero. Zero costs is a good place to start. Try to stay right there. When your costs are zero, how many multiples of 12 cents a month do you actually need, to survive? or, when you get established, how many single dollars do you really need?

But even that may not be the answer we’re looking for. If, as I’ve suggested here todaty, the future needs to be about conversation, not content - then maybe asking how to get paid to write is the wrong question.

Maybe our salvation will be to be paid to listen.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:15 PM | Comments (5)

May 04, 2009

Clean Growth: From Mindless Development to Design Mindfulness


I've written this White Paper, called Clean Growth: From Mindless Development to Design Mindfulness for Design Innovation Scotland. It's the first in a series whose aim is "to stimulate thought and debate about...radical solutions to real-world challenges". The intended readers are regional economic development professionals and policy makers.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:34 PM

March 31, 2009

Make sense, not stuff: A three step plan to connect design schools with the green economy

[I was asked to write a text about the green economy by Cumulus, the international network of design schools. It will published at their forthcoming conference in London (27-30 May). This is a preview].

What would architects design, if they did not design buildings? What would designers design, if they did not design products, or posters?

My question is not a rhetorical one. On the contrary, I believe design schools are in danger of being marginalised by events. The world is changing around them fast - and they are not. Or not fast enough. I agree with Al Gore that the world has reached a tipping point in its responses to climate change, resource depletion, and economic crisis: Changes we have all talked about for years are starting to be implemented.

But design schools are finding it hard to move on from the old paradigm of design-for-production, and design for individual expression.

Read the rest of the text here: Download file

Posted by John Thackara at 08:46 AM | Comments (3)

March 02, 2009

Tweeting from North America

I spent three weeks last month on the West Coast. The following is based on this month's Doors of Perception Report. If you don't receive the newsletter - it's free - you can subscribe here

Everyone tweeted madly during my talk at the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) Iconference in Vancouver. The Twitter-enabled IxDA crowd seemed split as to whether my dire warnings about peak protein and peak indium were the proper concern of interaction design. I remain split on whether or not this new communication medium addles the brain.

IxDA's chair, Greg Petroff, tells me that in his neighbourhood, in San Francisco, near-strangers have started to meet for a socially-bonding beer every Friday. They assemble at the house whose owner has stuck a plastic flamingo in the lawn.

During my visit to Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI), students taking the Sustainable Business MBA tell me what they look for in an employer: “generous, empowering, optimistic, creative, trusting, respectful, transparent, restorative, purpose-driven, meaningful, compassionate, humble, healthy, diverse.” I have to explain that Doors has no vacancies - probably because we exemplify just those qualities.

BGI students spend four days each month together at IslandWood , a 225 acre “school in the woods” on an island off Seattle.


The rest of the time the facility’s fabulous food, and LEED gold-rated buildings, are enjoyed by high school students who go there for outdoor classes in environmental stewardship. The subject is compulsory in all the state’s schools.

When not on their island, BGI students work remotely from home. They seem remarkably happy with the online tools they use. I’m hopeful that Sharepoint, Illuminate and The Channel can work for DoorsOfPerceptionU, too.

Social media are not just used by interaction designers with the attention span of gnats. I learn from Chris Allen , its architect, that Johnson and Johnson has a ”social media strategy”, too.

In Palo Alto, I learn from Tim Brown that Ideo undertook more than 20 substantial “social impact” projects in 2008 - and demand is increasing. Back in London, I meet local government officials who are enthusiastic about their experience on iTeam , a joint venture between Ideo and Forum for the Future: iTeam trains public sector managers in the use of design innovation to tackle climate change.


Reflecting on the iTeam experience, a local govenment officer states that “small is the new big”. Despite the hugeness of the climate change challenge, it’s usually best to begin with modest-scale projects. Smallness, however, is a challenge for the design industry: business model is based on a cost structure, and therefore day rates, that are not small.

A lively debate ensues in Palo Alto when I ask whether designers should hesitate before they deliver pre-cooked solutions to the developing world. I am told, robustly, that Ideo practises “empathic research”, and that empowering local knowledge is a priority in its social impact projects.

The words “social” and “sustainable” cover most of life on earth. How is one to choose which design projects to do? Banny Banerjee - below - new Director of Stanford’s Design For Change programme, tells me that the three criteria by which their projects are selected are: beneficial impact, scalablility, and urgency.


The joint workshop on water issues that I run with Banny easily meets the urgency test: Obama’s new energy secretary, Steven Chu, has just stated that “we're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California”. Immediately following our workshop, a state-wide water state of emergency is declared.

Chu’s warning about “no more federal water” contains an irony: The Central Valley Irrigation Project, which enabled Caifornia’s agriculture to flourish, was authorised in 1935 as an infrastrucure project to beat the Great Depression. Eighty five years later, the state’s dependence on long-distance irrigation is a structural impediment to sustainable water and agriculture. Now Obama promises to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure – to beat the depression.


Our Stanford workshop - above - focuses on entrepreneurs developing tools to help citizens manage water sustainably. Sally Dominguez, whose Rainwater Hog has won lots of prizes , wanted our advice on the best way to translate celebrity into sales. Our design experts conclude that people will pay better money to save their house, than to save the planet., and advise Sally to re-brand the system as an on-site emergency water supply.

Seven per cent of all US energy use is to process waste – thereby causing 30m million of tons of emissions. Charles Zhou mesmerises us with his story about the use of smart micro-organisms to optimize sludge digestion, and of microbial fuel cells to recover clean energy from wastewater. Ninety-nine percent of current wastewater treatment facilities do not recover any energy from wastewater. Zhou seems set to become the Bill Gates of sewage

Southwards again, to Orange County. The Planning Center has asked me to run a workshop around the question “What would life in a sustainable world be like?” Participants from grassroots organizations present case studies in which they use existing resources in a creative, original way.


Jules Dervaes is a pioneer in urban edible gardens; he calls these urban homesteads


Jules has launched a social networking site called Freedom Gardens to help disseminate what they have learned, and to multiply the groups involved. His practical concern is that planners might make it illegal to keep chickens in urban areas.

California is spending more than $20bn on “green” school buildings. The state spends $65,000 per classroom seat for the building - versus $1 per child per year for garden upkeep and support. Mud Baron, who se job is to help L.A. schools develop gardens and nature projects, wanted our help to persuade planners and architects that "contact with nature" - not just buildings – is a crucual ingredient of "green" schools. We propose re-labeling school gardens as “outside classrooms” and thereby solve Mud’s resource problem at a stroke.

Another one of our case studies, Proyecto Jardin, is an inspiring example of a bario-based economy. Irene Pena tells us that this community garden for food and medicinal herbs must daily confront issues of land-use, group self-organisation, food coo-ps, seed storage, and green jobs – to name just a few. Thanks to Claudia Hernández, I also know more than I did before about Hispanic Herbalism.

Project Hope provides scholing to some of Orange County’s 16,000 homeless children. The project began in 1989 when a teacher began educating local homeless children from the back of her car. A huge issue is mobility: the foundation spends $8,000/month moving students around. We ask whether churches, hospitals and universities, with their often under-used spatial and human resources, could be added to the empty strip mall spaces, and half-abandoned motels, that are on offer now.

Brian Biery explained the concept of “place-based philanthropy”, which is new to me. The Flintridge Foundation, of which he is programme director, closed its Conservation, Theatre and Visual Arts programmes in order to focus all its efforts on the community where Flintridge's endowment was created, and where it is headquartered—Northwest Pasadena and Altadena.

I visit the Silver Lake den of Stephanie Smith, founder of the decade’s most timely website wannastartacommune? “With the right tools you can start a commune and share resources, wherever you are. Connect more deeply, save time and money, and do right by the earth. What's not to like? Start a commune today”.

I’m invited to a meeting at LA’s new cathedral. An organisation called Progressive Christians Uniting has invited faith-based, community, and environmental organisations to discuss “building America’s green future.” Leaders of Inland Empire Concerned African-American Churches, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference sit down next to non faith-based groups such as L.A. Bioneers, South Central Farmers - and Doors of Perception.

I am there to meet Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy and leader of a nationwide platform called Green For All.


Jones - second from right, above = has been working with Obama for 18 months on the development of the multi-billion dollar Economic Recovery Package that the new president just signed. Jones talks about the creation of “green pathways out of poverty, and greatly expanding the coalition to fight global warming.” We are all keen to find out what the plan means in practice.

GreenForAll has launched a Clean Energy Corps. Five cities have joined together in a Green Collar Cities programme. And a Green For All Academy pic below) trains community organisers to be effective advocates for green collar jobs: Participants receive advanced media and messaging skills, economic and climate science training, and high level political tools and analysis.


On the campaign trail, Obama promised to create five million green collar jobs. Most US commentators interpret this to mean wind farms creating jobs for sheet metal workers, machinists, and truck drivers; or the roofers, insulators, and building inspectors needed to increase the energy efficiency of buildings through retrofitting; or the civil engineers, electricians, and dispatchers needed to expand mass transit systems.

Several people round the table with Van Jones welcome his explanation that “green jobs” will not be interpreted narrowly in terms of tech-based projects. Health care, social solidarity, and grassroot project coordination, should also be thought of green work, they say, because these are affordable activities that will keep life bearable.

Throughout my trip I ask people what a “smart grid” is. Everyone I meet tells me something different. At the Van Jones meeting, I suggest that a smart grid is best thought of as a social grid. Later, someone sends me this statement by Dr. Martin Luther King: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society”. He said that in April 1967.

On Venice Beach, I meet a big group of special needs students. They are filling plastic bags with trash picked up from the sand. Their teacher tells me that they come at least one a month, and are volunteers in a fast-growing movement called Heal The Bay.

This would have been mine and Kate's abiding memory of the trip - had not our gracious hosts Rebeca Mendez and Adam Eeuwenssuffused our memory synapses with this breakfast:


...in the cute-as-cute-can-be company of Mr Lucien Mori Darini Bratton:


Posted by John Thackara at 02:00 PM

March 16, 2008

From MySpace to fakespace: How close are we to travel without moving?


This is my talk from yesterday in Helsinki at Pixelache University. There are pix here

Could the biosphere be saved by six glass lamps, six speakers, 36 ultra bright leds, six diy mono amplifiers, a diy arduino-based six channel led dimmer, a six channel soundcard, a midi controller, a midi interface,one computer, and a max-msp application ?

It all depends on how radical and open-minded we are prepared to be in the search for alternatives to physical travel.

Traveling without moving has become an economic and environmental imperative. Matter is more expensive than energy; energy is more expensive than information; it is cheaper to move information, than people or things. So what is to stop us moving less, and and tele-communicating more?

Telecommunications companies have invested heavily for years in telepresence systems with the aim of reproducing as closely as possible the sensation of 'being there'. Hewlett Packard describe their system, Halo as "the ultimate collaborative environment... a telepresence solution that brings meeting attendees from around the globe into an environment that feels as if they are in the same room".

The entertainment industry has also been busy - motivated by the fact that people will pay theme park operators a dollar a minute to experience sophisticated simulations. The small-screen computer games industry is already bigger than Hollywood; social website proprietors are also keen to add functionality; so big money is at stake.

Presence researchers are testing myriad ways for us to interact with virtual worlds in this 'fakespace' race: Computerized clothing that recognizes physical gestures; accelerometers that track movements of the body; sensors that track eye movements (first developed by shop designers); joysticks that allow interaction with 3-D magic wands; feedback systems that measure force, pressure, or vibration; remote operation systems that translate human movements into the control of machinery.

With so-called haptic interface devices, you feel the motion, shape, resistance, and surface texture of simulated objects.Telerobotic manipulators, that incorporate actuation, sensor, and control technologies, permit us to achieve dexterous manipulation of virtual objects.

Sound is also being designed for "acoustigraphic" environments in which 3-D sound is combined with stereoscopic vision to help you hear the sounds of traffic in the distance and wind rustling the leaves of nearby trees. A Displaced Temperature Sensing System enables you to feel the temperature of a remote location - real or unreal - as if you were there.

Down the line, technology developers that tiny micro-lasers will scan pictures directly onto the retina of the eye - an effect already experienced by military pilots. A company called Cyberware has developed 3d whole-body scanners which create representations of people - avatars - that can act for corporeal people in "inhabited information spaces". The business plan is that you'll be scanned in AvatarBooths - as happens now with passport photographs in railway stations. Having digitised your body, you'll send it out into cyberspace where it will meet and hang out with other avatars. (The project was was nicknamed Immortality R Us by fellow researchers).

Other developers dream of scaling up such effects to create virtual electronic crowds. A project in Europe called eRENA focussed on information spaces inhabited jointly by audience members, performers, and artists: they would explore, interact, communicate with one another and participate in staged events.

Remote sensing may also be used to create immersive representations of otherwise inaccessible places. Real-time sonar and acoustic tomography data could become a display of undersea terrain and objects. An acoustigraphics library would stream the noises made by fish into the mix.



Evelina Domnitch (who is here at Pixelache) and Dmitry Gelfand directly convert sound into lightwaves by employing a phenomenon called sonoluminescence. They create sensory immersion environments that merge physics, chemistry and computer science with uncanny philosophical practices.

The problem with these intriguing ideas is that it would never occur to telcos to develp them. Despite five decades of effort, the promise of virtual presence ushered in by the of the videophone, which was launched with much kerfuffle by IBM at the 1964 New York World's Fair, has not been met. Huge investments in virtual environments, mobile communication and biosensors have delivered modest results at best. Tele-presence communication has not matured as an experience, nor as a market.

Even its advocates remain unimpressed: The head of videoconferencing of a large British TelCo told me that he and his colleagues avoided used their own system if they possibly could.

A reality check for technology optimists: whilst high bandwidth videoconferencing has strugggled, simpler forms of remote communication have boomed - POTS they call it in the telecoms trade, or "Plain Old Telephone Service". Two billion people now have handsets because they want POTS - not because they want virtualty. The lowest bandwidth communication, texting, enjoys the highest volume by far.

TelCos are needlessly obsessed with Being There-ness in a literal sense. As MediaLab rsearcher Skip Ishii points out, the human eye has something like 40 million receptors in it. Many millions more receptors are to be found in our ears, up out noses, in our skin and on our tongues. (There are dense clusters of receptors elsewhere on the body, too - but this is a family readership, so I will not dwell on those).

Even if you could capture the smells, sounds, tastes, and feel of a place, digitise them, and send them down a wire - you'd still never get near the sensation of Being There. Why? We'd just know, that's why. Our minds and our bodies are one intelligence.

Subliminal perception, perception that occurs without conscious awareness, is not an anomaly, but the norm. As Tor Norretranders has explained, most of what we perceive in the world comes not from conscious observation but from a continuous process of unconscious scanning. During any given second, we consciously process only sixteen of the eleven million bits of information that our senses pass on to our brains. The conscious part of us receives much less information than the unconscious part of us.

This is why technology simply cannot and will not recreate what it is like to be in a meeting with people somewhere else. People, who have bodies, cannot inhabit virtual space. Hubert Dreyfus, a philosophy professor, puts it more poetically: "Tele-hugs won't do it."

The fact that we inhabit bodies, and not networks, frustrates games designers. They complain about the "uncanny valley" dilemma. Game designers once hoped that crisper 3-D graphics and faster response-times would deliver a more realistic experience. In the event, higher bandwidth and faster speeds does nothing to increase our sense of an environment being 'real'.

The uncanny valley effect was explained by a robotics engineer, Masahiro Mori, to explain why almost-human-looking robots scare people more than mechanical-looking robots. The uncanny valley of Mori’s thesis is the point at which a person observing the creature or object in question sees something that is nearly human, but just enough off-kilter to seem eerie or disquieting.

Cognitive pyschologist Andy Clarke, author of Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again adds that the biological brain is populated by a vast number of what he calls hidden 'zombie processes.' These underpin the skills and capacities in which successful behaviour depends.

"Being embodied is our nature as earth-born creatures” says the English philosopher, John Gray. But our infantile enchantment with digital communication blinds us to this fact. Our tendency to undervalue embodied knowledge is one of the root causes of the sustainability crisis.


Telepresence sucks. It's an insult that telcos should expect us to meet in hideous sterile rooms in front of huge screens.

But sustainabiity demands that we compromise; the biosphere cannot support the perpetually growing movement of goods and bodies around the world. We have to make the best we can of mediated presence.

So we have to keep on trying. But there are more interesting tasks for design than the use of brute bandwidth to achieve 'Being There' verisimilitude. The communication quality of cyberspace can be enhanced by artful and indirect means.

A first task is to escape from our disciplinary silos. Engineers try to coax more bandwidth out of pipes. Psychologists study communication behaviours. Philosophers talk about embodiment. Artists make beautiful interfaces. But they barely know that each other exists - let alone pool their knowledge and resources.

Some designers have tried out a more poetic and multi-dimensional approach. Twelve years back, in The Poetics of Telepresence, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby looked at the potential of fusing physical and telematic space. They asked, why should videoconferencing always be face to face? why limit contact to speech, or sight? They proceeded to use radio to trigger heat devices remotely, and proposed other techniques to evoke, and not just replicate, the shared experience of the remote body.

Half a decade ago in Italy, design researchers in a project called Faraway also looked at long distance communication between loved ones who are physically distant, but emotionally close. The team explored what happens when gesture, expressions, heartbeat, breathing, alpha- and beta-rythm informnation are incorporated into long-distance communication. The idea was to increase the sense of presence of a loved person over distance - but indirectly.

Replicating heartbeats is not the only way to go. Seventy years ago, Walter Benjamin marveled at the capacity of the aura of an original art work to spur our imaginative engagement wth a situation. Or think how much the religions achieve with the use of icons as aids to devotion; if lumps of bronze help millons of people commune with a deity, surely we can enhance telepresence using other kinds of objects.

Think of photographs. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about kissing the picture of one's beloved. "When we kiss a photograph, we do not expect to conjour up a spectacular manifestation of the person in the picture represents - but the action is nonetheless satisfying".

Evolutionary psychologists believe that magical ways of thinking may be hardwired into us, and cite as evidence the human capacity to invest inanimate objects with meaning...souvenirs, heirlooms, chldhood toys, objets d'art, dolls, totems, talsmans, and charms.

It's probably a matter of timing. Here we are at Pixelache, and the world needs artful telepresence more urgently than before. Can we please get on with it? Now!

Posted by John Thackara at 05:22 AM | Comments (2)

January 05, 2007

Global place - or is it a hat?

The following is the text of my lecture at the Global Place conference in an unseasonably warm Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Joshua Kauffman has posted an excellent summary of the event here).


Some of you may know Oliver Sacks' book “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”? It's about people afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations - and in particular a man who looks at something familiar (his wife) but perceives something completely different.

Well, I’ve become one of those people!

It happened to me most recently at Madrid’s new airport. One minute I was admiring Richard Rogers’ gorgeous roof, and the play of light upon curves.

But I suddenly stopped perceiving these effects as aesthetic. In place of elegant forms and vistas, I started to contemplate the vast amount of energy embodied in the artefacts, structures and processes that surrounded me.

A big new airbus, taxiing in to park, made me wonder how many thousands - millions - of pounds of matter and energy must have been used to build it.

Beside me was an elegant concrete pillar. It looked benignly tree-like with a gently curving trunk and branches, higher up, that supported a soaring roof.

But how many carbon dioxide emissions were generated during its fabrication? A ton of CO2 is emitted for every ton of concrete that ends up in a pillar - or the miles of concrete apron that stretched, in Madrid, in every direction.

Millions of tons of concrete visible to the eye. Millions of tons of emissions out of sight.

Then there was the noise. I don’t usually notice the background hiss and hum of these great modern spaces. But this time my cognitive filters seemd to fail. I became aware of an ambient, angst-inducing roar.

All that air-conditioning, cooling huge volumes of empty space, blowing gales of out hot air to goodness knows where in the sky.

Eight per cent of the world's total electricity supply is used to cool buildings in the United States.

Then there was the light! There was a bank of large plasma screens. On the screens, ads were playing - but all I could think about was their greed for electricity.

Did you know that flat screens use five times more power than the bulbous ones they replace?

And that’s just the power they use. Cathode ray televisons contained mostly air. These new plasma screens are packed densely with complex materials whose manufacture is highly energy intensive.

So I’m the man who mistook a concrete pillar for a threat to the world! But do you know what? I reckon my cognitive confusion in Madrid had just cause.

I read a text by Rafael Buitrago about our aesthetic and visceral responses to landscape. (My fellow speaker Anne Spirn, who I met in the break, told me Buitrago is an ex-student of hers).

The ways we respond aesthetically to our environment, Buitrago (and Spirn) argue, may be derived from psychology that evolved to help hunter-gatherers make better decisions: when to move, where to settle – to chase or not to chase - in varying situations.

Environmental stimuli as diverse as flowers, sunsets, clouds, thunder, snakes, and predators, activate response systems of ancient origin.

I’m a frequent flyer, not a hunter gatherer. But I’m sure now that feeling the creeps in Madrid was some residual survival instinct being triggered. Not by an inherited fear of snakes - but by a learned fear of degredation to the biosphere and the threat it poses to us all.

Many climate change activists complain that "climate pornography” - the promotion of apocalyptic climate change scenarios - is counter-productive. Climate porn, for one British think tank, “offers a thrilling spectacle, but ultimately distances people from the problem'.

These critics are right. To do things differently, we have to perceive things differently - but not be immobilised by fear, or guilt. We need to be startled out of our complaency, but in such a way that we feel motivated to take meaningful action.

A lot of people seem to have started. Paul Hawken reckons that over one million organizations, populated by 100 million people, are engaged in grass roots activity designed to address climate and other environmental issues. This worldwide movement of movements flies under the radar, he believes, but "collectively, this constitutes the single biggest movement on earth”

These one million grass roots organisations are just one part of the story. Many big organisations, too, are re-thinking fundamental principles of their business. For many multinationals, the consequences of climate change for the very existence of their business has moved from the realm of “future scenario” to be a real and present danger.

Let me give you some examples I’ve heard about just during the last month:

I heard about a top five logistics and parcel delivery company for whose CEO sustainability is the key driver of the company’s future.

I was told that one of the world’s largest shipping ports has decided it must render its operations carbon neutral within a decade. How, I have no idea – but it sounds as if they are completely serious.

A major European airport, I learned, is studying how it might feasibly prosper if air travel ceased to be an important part of its business.

Whole countries are getting serious about massive transformational change.

Sweden, for example, has made it national objective to be independent of oil within a decade.

Switzerland has set a target of becoming a "2000-Watt society". That’s one third of the 6000 Watts of energy consumed by each of its its citizens today on food, goods, heating and cooling buildings, mobility and so on.

The most dramatic shift, for me, is emerging in Britain – until now, a byword for of wasteful consumerism.

The recent publication of the Stern Review Of Climate Change Economics - by a former World Bank chief economist - marks a step change in government responses.

It’s not just that Stern's conclusions correspond broadly to what environmentalists have been saying for fifteen years. The fact that the report was commissioned by The Treasury, which control’s the nation’s taxation and money - is also key. Money is at stake: Something must be done!

Stern paves the way for so-called “external” costs to be counted properly for the first time.

(Notoriously, economists describe as”external” costs things like energy, water, minerals, the biosphere as a whole - that, until now, have not been properly counted as part of the game. We used energy to exploit resources – but did not pay the full price of the energy or the resources).

A government can use fiscal measures to make these so-called “external” costs internal costs, payable by the producer. Matter and energy flowing through the economic system will have to be paid for at full price - rather than taken for granted as a freebie. The Stern review provides an economic justification for dramatic changes to the ways we live.


There’s a truly gigantic design opportunity here. We have to re-design the structures, institutions and processes that drive the economy along. We have to transform material, energy and resource flows that, unchecked, will finish us.

In this new design space, the boundaries between infrastructure, content, equipment, software, products, services, space, and place, are blurred. Compared to physical products, or buildings, sustainable services and infrastructures are immaterial. They are adaptive in time and space.

So it’s a huge opportunity, but a new kind of design practice is needed to exploit it.

First: This new design practice is more about discovery, than blue sky invention. Many of the answers we need already exist. We need to become global hunter-gatherers of models, processes, and ways of living that have been learned by other societies, over time. We have to find those examples. Adapt them. Recombine them.

Just as biomimicry learns from millions of years of natural evolution, we can adapt the social innovation of other times and places to our present, ultra-modern needs.

For example, a lot of people already know how to live more lightly than we do. Hundreds of millions of poor people practise advanced resource efficiency every day of their lives. That’s because they are too poor to waste resources like we rich folk do.

Design schools should relocate en masse to favelas and slums. These informal economies are sites of intense social and business innovation.

A second key feature of the new design practise: it is less about control, more about the devolution of power. A good test is whether a design proposal will enable people to retain control over their own territory and resources.

A third feature of the new design practice: it does not have to think Big,or act Big, to be effective. On the contrary: we have learned about the behaviour of complex systems that small is not small. Small design actions can have big consequences, and these can be positive.

If someone builds a bus stop, in an urban slum, a vibrant community can sprout and grow around it. Such is the power of small interventions into complex urban situations. Read Small Change by Nabeel Hamdi for more inspiring examples of the power of designing small.

Item four: The new design practise looks for ways to replace physical resources with information. The information part is knowing where something you need to use, is. If you can locate a thing, and access it easily, you don't have to own it.

Think of cars. Most of them are used less than 5% of the time. It’s nonsense. 600 cities now have carsharing schemes? The same goes for buildings. In a light and sustainable economy we will share resources - such as time, skill, software, spaces or food - using networked communications.

We don’t have to design sharing systems from scratch. Many already exist. Local systems of barter and non-monetary exchange, such as Jogjami, have existed in India for at least 500 years. A cooperative distribution system called Angadia, or "many little fingers", enables people to send goods over sometimes vast distances without paying.

They just need to be internet enabled.

The fifth and hardest aspect to master of the new design practice is whole systems thinking.

The best example I heard recently is from an entrepreneur called Paul Polak, who helps people in developing countries develop more effective water distribution systems. Paul reckons the design and technology of a device, such as a pump, or sprinkler system, is not much more than ten percent of the complete solution. The other ninety percent involves distribution, training, maintenance and service arrangements, partnership and business models. These, too, have to be co-designed.

I began this morning by describing the curious perceptual delusions that I experienced, whilst staring at a concrete pillar in Madrid Airport.

I may be nuts, I said, but could there be method in my madness? The ability to perceiving disorders in the environment has helped a lot of creatures survive.

Besides, millions of people seem to share my unease. I suspect there are quite a lot of you in this room.

Big companies, and governments, are also readying themselves for transformational change. I promise you that strange bedfellows will be teaming up in the near future.

Eugenio Barba calls this “the dance of the big and the small”.

I don’t mind if you choose to dance. I’l be satisfied if, just once this week, you slap a concrete pillar and start to wonder…..




I very much enjoyed this post - thought-provoking, yes, but written in a positive and energetic style. Lots of arresting ideas to ponder.

And I really think you ought to strive to get wider distribution for this piece.

Fyi, I tried to post this comment on the blog but kept getting incomprehensible (to me) error messages.


Posted by John Thackara at 10:32 PM | Comments (1)

December 24, 2006

The dance of the big and the small

(Alex Steffen and Sarah Rich from Worldchanging asked some people to send them an end-of-year reflection. Here below is mine. They are both coming to Doors 9, by the way).

Suppose Bill Gates were to purchase six and a half billion copies of Worldchanging, have them translated into the world’s major languages, and then give a free copy to every citizen of the on the planet. Would the challenges we face disappear?

I don’t think so. Reading, writing, and discussing are important precursors to meaningful innovation – but they do not, of themselves, change material reality.

On the contrary. Although hundreds of millions of people are now demanding that “something must be done” to avert climate change, they – we – are confronted by a debilitating cacophony of often contradictory ideas and solutions.

Think, for example, of buildings and energy. Passionate advocates of different technologies insist to us that each has the ideal solution: Wind turbines, nanogel insulation, hydrogen fuel cells, solar panels, wood-chip boilers. How can each one be the answer?

Or take energy infrastructure. One group of innovators insists that each building can become its own power station. Another says that micro-generation is only viable when 50 houses do it as a group.

As many organisations offer advice as there are technologies to choose from. In the North East of England, for example, when we set out (in Designs of the time ) to reduce the carbon footprint of a single street, we encountered 20 organisations already busy trying to help people save energy.

We’re swamped by innovation, but starved of meaning. So what steps should we take, and in which order?

I believe the solution is to scout the world for situations where the question has already been addressed - whatever the question may be. The Danish theatre director Eugenio Barba describes this as “the dance of the big and the small”. We need to be global hunter-gatherers of models, processes, and ways of living that already exist.

In the same way that biomimicry learns from millions of years of natural evolution, we need to adapt lessons learned by other societies to our present, ultra-local needs.

Where there are gaps, we can invent stuff. But let's ease up on inventing for it’s own sake: it delivers as much smoke, as solutions.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:34 AM

December 07, 2006

Re-designing the game

(The following is the text of my lecture at today's Competitiveness Summit in London.

"I have been asked to address two questions this morning.

The first: Is UK competitiveness imperilled by developing countries catching up and overtaking us?

And question two: How best shall we use our creativity and innovation to stay ahead in the game?

My answer to question 1 is that it is the wrong question, as I shall explain in a moment.

But I will answer Question 2 - by telling you about a project in North East England, called, Designs of the time, or Dott. I will explain the ways in which Dott reframes competition as a race for energy and resource efficiency in our everyday lives.

I will conclude with suggestions on how the lessons of Dott might usefully inform the ways we think about competitiveness at a national level.


Question 1: Is our competitiveness imperilled by developing countries catching up with us?

My answer is No, because, in so-called developing countries, but also here in the north, the rules of competition are changing – profoundly, and irrevocably.

We are all emerging economies now.

The publication of the Stern Review of climate change economics, by a former World Bank chief economist, marks a radical change in the rules by which we compete.

Before Stern, we measured our competitiveness against bizarre criteria. The country with the highest growth, and productivity, went to the top of the league.

But the application of bizarre criteria leads to bizarre - and unsustainable - results.

High growth, as an abstract measure of success, meant that last year a new product was launched every 3.5 minutes.

Companies all over the world innovated like crazy, and competed like mad, to bring out some new ….thing….at ever increasing rates.

Did we need a new product every 3.5 minutes?

I don’t think so.

On the contrary: survey after survey demonstrates that we are in despair at the flood of often pointless products we are told will make us happy.

What beckons in an era of perpetual growth? New product simultaneity? Reality that will contain only new products?

Measuring competitveness against the yardstick of productivity leads to other forms of strangeness.

You must have heard the story: the highest degree of productivity is exhibited by a cancer patient going through a divorce.

Very smart.

What’s especially mad about productivity, as a measure of success, is that so-called “external” costs – energy, water, minerals, the biosphere as a whole - are not properly counted as part of the game.

The theory of productivity is that we produce more with less.

But we don’t. We use energy to exploit resources; and we don’t pay the full price of the energy or the resources we use to do so.

Excluding external costs from the score sheet means we completely ignore the impact of our game on the playing surface. And guess what. The playing surface has become worn. And the ball has started to bounce in alarming ways.

(A laboured cricketing metaphor is pretty much a requirement in any speech made in England).

This is what is important about Stern. He is paves the way for a new scoring system.

Under new rules, which the UK Chancellor’s pre-budget statement yesterday started tentatively to portend, will be introduced progressively faster as cultural and poiitcal pressure for action builds.

One of the few things a government can do, when the people demand that it does something, is use fiscal measures to make these so-called “external” costs internal costs, payable by the producer.

This is the heart of what a “high value, knowledge-based economy” means.

It’s when matter and energy, flowing through the economic system, have to be paid for at full price - rather than taken for granted as a freebie.

Who will be competitive then?


Some commentators responded quickly to Stern. They proclaimed lists of the crucial actions that government must…. take…. now.

What governments must, or can do, top-down, is a modest part of the story.

There are limits to any government’s power to tell people how to behave. Especially, if these edicts boil down to the command: consume less!

This leads me to Designs of the time – Dott 07 – and the second question I was asked to address: How best shall we use our creativity and innovation to stay ahead in the game?

Dott 07 is about creating demand for new and more sustainable ways to live.

(Dott is an initiative of the Design Council and a joint venture with the Regional Development Agency, One North East).

Next year, throughout the North East of England, different communities have been challenged to address the question, “how do we want to live?”

Grass roots communities are taking the lead in experiments to change the ways they deal with daily-life issues.

These issues range from energy use in the home; to how we move around; how we look after older people; how we can grow food in cities.

One Dott project is called LOW CARB LANE.

More and more of us would like to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, especially at home. To save money, if not to save the planet.

But how to do it?

Wind turbines? Fuel cells? Solar panels? Nano-gell insulation? Wood-chip boilers? There are so many competing technologies claimed to be the magic cure-all solution.

It’s imposible to decide what to do.

It’s also hard to pay. Most people cannot afford to shell out thousands of pounds just to be good.

Low Carb Lane tackles tackles these challenges head-on, in a real street: Castle Terrace, in Ashington.
The community will explore the potential to achieve warm and comfortable homes in ways that reduces their carbon footprint - and also save them money.

Helped by an an innovation and design team from Dott, they will look at ways to modify everyday patterns of activity; choose more efficient appliances; add insulation; generate their own power.

Everything from energy saving lightbulbs, to high-tech meters; solar hot water; and off-grid generation; will be considered as a whole.

We’ll see if Personal Energy Passports might work for the citizens of Castle Terrace.

We’ll explore the idea of a Green Concierge Service to help citizens choose which solutions, if any, are best for them.

Seventy five schools across North East England are also tackling the energy issue head-on.

Year eight students have been given a tool by Dott to help them map the carbon footprint of their "school as an ecosystem".

Once they have identified which aspects of their school’s energy and resource life are wasteful, they will propose re-designs to make their school more resource and energy efficient.

The 50 best schools will progress these plans the help of professional designers. The best designs will be put forward for awards at the Dott Festival next October.

Low Carb Lane, and our schools project, both respond to the big energy picture.

But these projects must deliver practical improvements to the daily lives of real people in real places.

What’s key is that these small actions just might, as tipping points, have big consequences.

Another Dott project, called Move Me!, tackles the need for mobility and access in a rural community.

The question posed by Move Me! is this: How can we improve peoples mobility, and access to services, without adding more cars or building new roads?

Scremerston County First School, in Northumberland, is the focus for this project.

The Move Me! project will look at the school community’s total mobility needs – including un-met ones - and explore how they can be better served by combining existing services, in smarter ways.

In policy terms, our subject is transport intensity, rural access, and resource efficiency.

In Dott terms, we are seeking practical ways to improve daily life for one community, in one place.

The idea is that if we can improve things for real people, in one school - the tools, methods and services we develop for Scremerston can be scaled up and multiplied.

This is why we say Dott is in the acorns business,

A third Dott 07 project is called Urban Farming or: “I grew it my way”.

Food is a huge energy challenge.

From farm to plate, depending on the degree to which it has been processed, a typical food item may embody input energy between four and several hundred times the food energy that enters our bodies.

As much fat from fast food outlets is clogging up the sewers of our cities -- as is clogging up the arteries of our citizens.

Or take an iceberg lettuce in Harvey Nicholls food hall: for every calory that we eat, it takes 120 calories to grow it, pack it, fly it over the Atlantic, and display it under bright flattering lights in an open-fronted refrigerator.

Totally mad.

In Dott, we decided to take practical steps to slash the distance between what we eat, and where it is grown.

Based in Middlesborough, our Urban Farming project is helping local citizens grow their own food in small, medium, and large urban growing spaces.

These will range from window boxes, to larger planter boxes, and low-sided skips.

A Meal Assembly Centre will be established where growers will be helped to prepare their produce in a week’s worth of meals.

The project will culminate next September, in a ‘Meal for Middlesbrough.’

All the individuals, schools, businesses, farms and communities will take part.

A fourth Dott 07 project is called ALZHEIMER 100.

It asks: What practical steps are needed to improve daily life for people with dementia and their carers?

Dementia affects 750,000 people currently in the UK. This is expected to rise to 810,00 by 2010 and 1.8m by 2050. Two million sufferers means five million people directly affected.

It’s a huge - but largely hidden - issue.

As with the other Dot projects, we will investigate every day problems experienced by particular Alzheimer’s patients and carers in real situations.

Dott has teamed up with Alzheimers Society branches throughout the North East to find out what new products and services might be needed tackle these specific problems.

We will enable people with Alzheimers and their carers to document a “day in our life”. These day-in-my-life presentations wlil become opportunity maps that mark practical things to be fixed.

Where new with support systems, or devices, are needed, we will make design proposals.

We don’t yet know what the outcomes will be, but early meetings have considered concierge or “porterage” service; a time sharing system for carers and volunteers; and a buddy system for people with Alzheimer’s enabled by GIS technology and wearable computing.


The first public events of Dott 07 are not until next March. But Dott 07 has been in preparation for over a year, and a number of lessons pertinent to today’s discussion are already evident.

The first lesson we have learned in Dott is that creativity and innovation are all around us. People are busy - dealing innovatively with daily life - in all manner of creative ways.

Everywhere we look.

Paul Hawken reckons that worldwide, over one million organizations, populated by over 100 million people, are engaged in grassroots activity designed to address climate and other environmental issues.

"Collectively this constitutes the single biggest movement on earth, but but it flies under the radar" he writes.

Our job in Dott, we now realise, is not to create innovation it from scratch. Our job is to discover and accelerate existing grass roots innovation.

A second lesson from Dott is about networks, connections, and alliances.

Some of our public commission projects involve ten or fifteen different partners. Public ones and private ones. Big ones and small ones. Academic ones and business ones. In Dott’s public commission projects, we seem to have them all!

Bringing together new players, in new combinations, is exciting. Importing inspirational examples from other domains is dynamic. Looking “outside the tent” for new ideas has fantastic potential.

But it takes an awful lot of time and social energy to build the shared understanding, and trust, without which these new alliances and relationships would not flourish.

Our conclusion, a year into Dott: Innovation is as much a time issue as it is a money issue, or a technology one.

The third big lesson we are learning in Dott concerns leadership, and that over-used word, “vision”.

We are finding, in Dott, that posing a question - “how do we want to live?” – motivates people in ways that telling them how to live, does not.

We do not stand over people and demand: “what sacrifices will you make to save the planet?”. On the contrary, Dott is about open-ended conversations about how we want to live.

Our ambition is that out of these conversations – and others that are happening throughout the region - a shared vision of region-wide and sustainable renewal will emerge.

It’s a vision in which people take control of how they want to live. Not a vision imposed, top-down, by those with technlogies to sell, or policies to impose.


I said at the start that there are two ways to compete:

Either we run faster and faster - under existing rules - wear out the pitch, and then, whilst looking backwards, run slap into a rock. The rock of climate change.

Or we re-design the rules of the game.

The old game was all about productivity, growth and continuous acceleration. We played it – and played it well in the UK - as if resources were limitless. As if carrying capacity of the planet didn’t matter.

In the new game, resource constraints, the carrying capacity of the biosphere, are all that matter.

Given that 80 per cent resource efficiency, or the lack of it, is determined at the design stage, the new scoring system presents design with a gigantic challenge.

I’m not so starry-eyed that I expect humankind to get all lovey dovey and co-operate our way to sustainabliity.

Let’s face it: We humans are rapacious and competitive by nature.

But when new rules turn “external” costs into internal costs....

When matter and energy flowing through the economic system have to be paid for....

Well, we’ll just have to be rapacious and competitive in new ways.

Some of these new ways bare being tried out in Dott. So I look forward to seeing you at the Dott 07 Festival next October, somewhere on the bands of the River Tyne.


Some other texts and resources:



Strategies for Building New Economies From the Bottom-Up and the Inside-Out by Ethan Miller

The percentage of people in Northern countries calling themselves happy peaked in the 1950s - even though consumption has more than doubled since then. Hazel Henderson has helped develop twelve quality of life indicators - new criteria against which to make decisions about what we innovate, and how. http://www.calvert-henderson.com/update-globalboom.htm

Posted by John Thackara at 08:37 AM | Comments (1)

November 20, 2006

Life as a spot

Remember all those books and reports about "the future of work"? Well, the future seems to have arrived. A new report from Orange called The way to work states that, of 28.5 million UK workers, 3.64 million (13%) are self employed, 7 million (24%) are part-time workers, 7% are freelance workers, and 11% are in businesses with no employees. Otherwise stated: 55% of the UK workforce does not have a job in the traditional sense of the word. The report does not mention the hundreds of millions of hours of unpaid, uncounted work done by parents and care givers. If their work were included in the total, the number of job-less workers would be nearer 80% of the total. Now there's a thought.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:10 AM

November 17, 2006

Doing good at 8,000 feet

Podcast of an interview at 8000 feet with Chee Pearlman.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:42 PM

November 10, 2006

Global Place

A century ago, the planet was primarily rural; today it is half urban; and in twenty-five years it will be predominately urban. What does this mean for the design, production, sustainability and experience of our buildings and cities? For the sense of community and place? The University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning's centennial conference will bring together two dozen renowned architects, urban planners, researchers and scholars from around the world. The line-up features Homi Bhabha, Charles Correa, Kenneth Frampton, Liane LeFaivre, Saskia Sassen, Michael Sorkin, David Harvey, Susan Fainstein, Ken Yeang, Yung Ho Chang, Dan Soloman, Marilyn Taylor, Bish Sanyal, John Habraken, Arif Hasan, Phillip Enquist, David Orr, Anthony Townsend, Anne Spirn, Lars Lerup, Ricky Burdett, and your correspondent. Phew.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:58 PM | Comments (1)

October 31, 2006

Stern, Monbiot, and the tasks of design

The publication of the Stern review of climate change economics by a former World Bank chief economist marks a step change in government responses to the crisis.

It’s not just that Stern's conclusions correspond broadly to what environmentalists have been saying for fifteen years. The fact that the report was commissioned by The Treasury, which holds the keys to the nation’s money, is also key.

Money is at stake: Something must be done.

If something must be done, rather than just talked about, then design moves centre stage.

George Monbiot, responding to Stern in today’s Guardian, proposes a “ten point plan for drastic but affordable action" that the UK government could take now.

I thought it would be helpful to outline some of the design tasks that would be involved during implementation of such a plan.

At the heart of Monbiot’s plan is the setting of an annual personal carbon ration. Every citizen is given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide. He or she spends it by buying gas and electricity, petrol and train and plane tickets. If they run out, they must buy the rest from someone who has used less than his or her quota.

DESIGN TASK: The information and interaction design of such a rationing system.

Monbiot proposes the introduction of new building regulations that would impose strict energy-efficiency requirements on major refurbishments, and ensure that all new homes are built to the German Passivhaus standard which requires no heating system.

DESIGN TASK: Many technical components of low carbon emission building exist in embryo. If compelled to do so, big construction companies have the expertise and systems to implement them. What’s missing is a service to help private citizens, who already have a place to live, choose between competing claims. Myridad suppliers of passive and active heat and power systems, fuel cells, geothermal and the like all claim to have “the answer”. But a wind turbine on every roof, next to the satellite dish, is wildy inefficient compared to off-grid combined heat-and-power system installed and maintained by groups of families. In Dott 07, our Low Carb Lane project is about getting an entire community to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions through a range of practical measures. We want to create a “green street” by helping people make sense of the bewildering range of eco-friendly options they have. And at least 50 schools will take part in our Ecodesign Challenge.

would be a ban on the sale of incandescent lightbulbs, patio heaters, garden floodlights and other wasteful and unnecessary technologies.This would be followed, he says, by a stiff "feebate" system for all electronic goods sold in the UK, with the least efficient taxed heavily and the most efficient receiving tax discounts.

DESIGN TASK: As with construction companies, consumer electronics companies could make their products more energy efficicient if they had to. Some are already trying to do so. But the personal ownership of devices will always be more wasteful than use–not-own. Services to help us use devices only when we need them - from cars to stereos to food mixers – are the more important priority. These services - their system architecture, the ways we access and use them, their touch points in daily life - all these need to be designed.

is to redeploy money now earmarked for new nuclear missiles towards a massive investment in energy generation and distribution. He favours very large wind farms, many miles offshore, connected to the grid with high-voltage direct-current cables; and a hydrogen pipeline network.

DESIGN TASK: both these solutions are large-scale engineering projects based on the persistence of a national power grid. They would entail huge investments of money and matter. For me, new paradigm design would focus on micro-generation systems at a local level.

Monbiot proposes a new national coach network to replace most car train and airplane journeys. Journeys by public transport then become as fast as journeys by car, while saving 90% of emissions.

DESIGN TASK: In Newcastle, UK, a fleet of near-silent electric buses already glides around the city. Vehicles are not a design priority. To make a national coach system work, transport connections between homes, workplaces, shops and long-distance coach hubs would need to be seamless and painless. Integrated transport systems already exist in many places: Transport for London, for example, brings together 52 previously separate transport organisations.

Writing in car-crazed UK, Monbiot assumes that private cars will be an inevitable part of a sustainable future. Yes, he wants the government to abandon its huge road-building and road-widening programme, but he then proposes that all chains of filling stations be obliged to supply leasable electric car batteries.“This provides electric cars with unlimited mileage: as the battery runs down, you pull into a forecourt; a crane lifts it out and drops in a fresh one. The batteries are charged overnight with surplus electricity from offshore wind farms”.

DESIGN TASK: this part of Monbiot's plan suggests a large amount of design work on new vehicles and battery exchange points. But this is a conservative solution. Better, surely, to
re-think the way we use time . One hour of mobility a day over a working year of 220 days adds up to a vacation missed of five to six weeks. Rather than enable long-distance patterns of movement at accelerating speeds, the more interesting design task is to enable local patterns of activity so we don’t have to move so much. Otherwise stated: Think More, Drive Less

As I was dismayed to discover a week ago, we have to reduce the number of flights, period. That means my flights, and your flights, not somebody else's flights. Monbiot demands a freeze on all new airport construction and the introduction of a national quota for landing slots, to be reduced by 90% by 2030.

DESIGN TASK: In the chapter on mobility in In The Bubble I was too scornful of mobility substitution as a design task, and too dismissive of the idea that telepresence—travelling on highways of the mind—could replace the highways of traffic jams, pollution, and road rage. "If the aim of travel were simply to exchange information, then we wouldn’t bother doing it", I wrote. "The trouble is—to state the obvious—that’s not why we do it. It’s that mind-body business: Experientially, there never will be a simulated alternative to actually “being there.” Even if you could capture the smells, sounds, tastes, and feel of a place, digitize them, and send them down a wire, you’d still never get near the sensation of “being there.”

Face-to-face communication is not the only type of communication that counts. The telephone, after all, is a form of virtual realty—and it’s a powerful medium that delivers a satisfactory sense of connection to billions of people everyday.

There are more interesting tasks for design than the use of brute bandwidth to achieve “being there” verisimilitude. The communication quality of cyberspace can be enhanced by artful and indirect means. In a project called The Poetics of Telepresence, British designers Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby looked at the potential fusing of physical and telematic space.

Monbiot states that warehouses containing the same quantity of food and goods use roughly five per cent of the energy of a superstore. Out-of-town shops are also hardwired to the car, whereas delivery vehicles use 70 per cent less fuel. Monbiot therefore insists that the government legislate for the closure of all out-of-town superstores, and their replacement with a warehouse and delivery system.

DESIGN TASK: Our city farming project in Dott07 addresses this design challenge head on. It's one of many practical responses around the world to the realisation that food is a design opportunity.

The Stern review provides an economic justification for dramatic changes to the ways we live. The taxes, incentives and regulations to come will drive demand for sustainable solutions, which will have to be designed.

But we are not talking about a few design projects here. The transition to sustainability involves a new approach to innovation and new, post-consumerist models of development that will emerge from ongoing social innovation.

And about time, too.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:19 AM | Comments (2)

October 17, 2006

My long walk home

I chose a bad place to read George Monbiot's new book Heat - the transit lounge of Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi Airport.

I already knew that flying is an indefensible way to travel because of its contribution to global warming. But I've comforted myself over the years with the idea that what environmentalists call a 'soft landing' could be achieved if people like me cut down our flights a wee bit every year.

'Heat' destroys my alibi. Long-haul flights produce 110 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre. According to Monbiot's numbers, a single passenger flying to New York and back produces roughly 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is about the same as each of us will be entitled to emit in a whole year once a 90 per cent cut in emissions is made.

Monbiot says that a 90 per cent cut is needed by 2030 if the biosphere is to remain habitable for you and me. He arrives at this sobering figure as follows. By 2030, the total capacity of the biosphere to absorb carbon - its carbon sink - will be reduced from today's 4 billion tonnes, to 2.7 billion. By then, world population is likely to be 8.2 billion. By dividing the total carbon sink by the number of people, and spreading the load equally, Monbiot arrives at an average cut in the rich countries of 90 percent per person.

In the case of my flying behaviour, it's probably more than that. A single passenger going from the UK to Beijing and back in business class, as I am doing, emits probably four times as much carbon dioxide as someone going to New York and back in coach. I am probably using up four years' of my personal carbon allowance in 2030 within one single week.

And that's just if I count my time in the air. Sitting still, reading Monbiot's book, was also wasteful. Suvarnabhumi is a vast forest of concrete pillars and structural decks. Outside, endless acres of concrete apron spread into the far distance. It all looked very nice and modern until I read, in Chapter 10 of Heat, that the manufacture of cement emits a ton of carbon dioxide for each ton actually made and used.

I don't know how many million tons of the stuff were used in Bangkok's new airport. Many. I would not be surprised if my use of that airport - for a few hours, just sitting there, on this one trip - used up another few weeks of my annual carbon ration.

A 90 per cent cut in emissions requires not only that growth in aviation stops, but that most of the planes which are flying today be grounded. We need to cut the number of flights by 87 per cent to meet Monbiot's target.

And he is adamant that this means me, personally - not someone else, out there. 'Writing, reading, debate and dissent, of themselves, change nothing he concludes, pitilessly. 'They are of value only if they inspire action. Progress now depends on the exercise of fewer opportunities. If you fly, you destroy peoples lives'.

Analysing the potential of energy efficiency, renewable resources, carbon burial, nuclear power and new transport and building systems, Monbiot unveils what works, what doesn't, what costs the least and what needs to be done to make change happen. He argues that answers are available and hope is not lost.

I am still in Beijing as I write this. It is going to be a long walk home.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:27 AM | Comments (1)

July 18, 2006

Power Laws Of Innovation

I'm at a Cursos De Verano (summer school) near Madrid. Just down the corridor, a bunch of senior generals are discussing the "army of the 21st century". Next to them, a some egg-head priests are discussing "the church of the 21st century". Our lot is doing innovation of the 21st century and I promised to post the following Power Laws before the Church and State guys leave town.

Power Law 1: Don’t think “new product” - think social value.

Power Law 2: Think social value before “tech”.

Power Law 3: Enable human agency. Design people into situations, not out of them.

Power Law 4: Use, not own. Possession is old paradigm.

Power Law 5: Think P2P, not point-to-mass.

Power Law 6: Don’t think faster, think closer.

Power Law 7: Don’t start from zero. Re-mix what's already out there.

Power Law 8: Connect the big and the small.

Power Law 9: Think whole systems (and new business models, too).

Power Law 10: Think open systems, not closed ones.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:54 PM

May 31, 2006

Is the future old news?

Is it time to put the future out of our misery? Design can be valuable as a forecasting tool, and designers are great hunter-gatherers of ideas. We should develop that role further. But we should not just look ahead in time, and not just look for technology trends. In particular, we should look to nature for inspiration – it has been innovating for three billion years. We should also learn from other cultures beside western ones. And we should learn more from the here and now. Inspiring things are happening just outside the door. Read more in an article (5.4 Mb) written for the June Royal Society of Arts Journal.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:31 PM

January 24, 2006

Brace! Brace! Have a nice day!

My lonely campaign against the concept and practice of "emotional design" is failing. I learned with horror this morning that an International Journal of Emotional Labour and Organisations has been launched, and that it is for people who study emotionology. A journal and an 'ology in one day: The fight is lost. A history of the field is also on the way. Someone called Christina Kotchemidova at NYU is working on a "social history of cheerfulness" - a domain that includes the practice of "drive-by smiling" by motorists. It seems (or so say emotionologists) that "we can work ourselves comparatively easily into the feeling we're aiming at simply by altering our facial expression". Emotionologists revere a professor called Arlie Hochschild who was the first to study "emotional labour" back in the 1980s. Hochschild's 1983 book "The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling" included studies of bill collectors and airline attendants, and introduced Emotion Systems Theory to an expectant world. Hochschild also provided today's emotionologists with the concept of "feeling rules" for those wishing to manage the emotions of others. Business, as you might imagine, loves this stuff - and to judge by the new journal, plenty of academics are happy (sic) to give them more of it. But Hochschild's account of flight attendants is, I must confess, quite gripping. Trainees were constantly reminded that their own job security and the company’s profit rode on a smiling face. They were told "Really work on your smiles" and "Relax and smile." "No ridicule" was another rule: The flight attendant was not to react normally, perhaps laughing at passengers, but to "present an image that will make the guests feel comfortable". And of course, no alarm or fright: One attendant said: "Even though I am an honest person, I have learned not to allow my face to mirror my alarm or my fright."

From now on, the same goes for me. Whenever I meet an emotionologist, I'll smile - gosh how I'll smile.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:13 AM

December 18, 2005

Schools as gated communities?

Having proclaimed the vital importance of education to the nation's future, the British government is putting its money where its mouth is. It aims to rebuild or renew every secondary school in England over a 10-15 year period in a seventy billion pound programme called Building Schools for the Future (BSF). It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put the latest thinking on education into practice on a massive scale.

A lot of attention is being paid to the criteria which will determine how all these schools will be designed. On paper, head teachers and communities, and the architects and designers they work with, have some leeway to do things their own way. But their design space will be heavily circumscribed by public procurement procedures which determine how all this public money may be spent.

Traditional procurement policies would force local authorities to go with the lowest cost proposals for slightly better versions of the types of school that already exist. But there are positive signs that a broader definition of value for money, rather than just cost, will inform the BSF process. One powerful government agency, the Audit Commission, has stated that outputs such as the impact of new school projects on the local economy are as important as inputs, such as the money spent on them. And members of parliament, who are taking an active interest in the development of BSF procurement criteria, have involved expert organisations such as the Design Council to monitor and evaluate the first schools to be built.

A more worrying trend is the way technology and communication networks are procured as part of BSF.

Local education authorities are being encouraged to create a system-wide response, rather than one based on individual institutions. The idea is that by aggregating its resources, an authority may offer learners in its region a wider variety of courses and approaches than if every school determined its own offer.

The danger is that integrating groups of institutions into a single system will have the opposite effect - reduced flexibility and diversity – because of the way technology and communication networks are procured.

An initial two billion pounds has been allocated to information and communication technology (ICT) in BSF. Microsoft, for one, is making a big push to position itself as a preferred supplier. Based on the innocuous-sounding proposition that “ICT should be available to a schools as an industrial strength utility”, Microsoft has persuaded Kent Council Council to make its Learning Gateway platform a key part of its ICT infrastructure for multi-school systems.

”The best way to achieve industrial strength reliability is for the local education partnership to procure a full managed service from an expert partner” says the company. It’s best that a single supplier “will design, suppply, install and support a comprehensive ICT infrastructure and platform for learning”.

For me, Microsoft's offer is incompatible with an educational vision, repeated in dozens of policy pronouncements, in which “the unit of organisation is the learner - not the system”.

Microsoft's technology-based product, Learning Gateway, contains proprietory software products used within a closed system. It turns schools into the ICT equivalent of gated communities.

Forty years ago, Ivan Illich proposed that we should use existing technologies and spaces - the telephone, local radio, town hall meetings - to create learning webs through which learners would connect with their peers and with new contexts in which to learn.

“We can provide the learner with new links to the world,” said Illich, “instead of continuing to funnel all education through the teacher.”

Three decades later Tom Bentley of Demos made a similar point in Learning Beyond the Classroom: “We should think of learning as an ecology of people and groups, projects, tools, and infrastructures. We need to reconceptualize education as an open, living system whose intelligence is distributed and shared among all its participants”.

An open, living system. Not a closed, proprietory one of the kind being pushed relentlessly by technology companies like Microsoft and Oracle.

The trick they play is to scare customers such as local authorities or schools - who have lot of other things to think about - with the incredible complexity and cost of ICT systems. Then they say, "Leave the whole thing to us; we'll provide you with a turn-key solution and look after the whole thing for you”.

Technology is an important enabler of educational ecosystems - but in simple and relatively uncomplicated ways.

As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid write in The Social Life of Information: “Learning at all levels relies ultimately on personal interaction and, in particular, on a range of implicit and peripheral forms of communication that technology is still very far from being able to handle".

Yes, technology facilitates new kinds of interaction between teachers, students, and the external world. But as Sunil Abraham argued so cogently at Doors 8 this year, this kind of connectivity does not need to be complicated, or expensive. And it certainly does not need to be delivered within a closed system.

We already have an "industrial strength utility" - it's called the internet. If Britain's new schools are not based on open systems, this multi-billion-pound “once in a lifetime” opportunity will be needlessly constrained. Open information systems should be be a non-negotiable condition of BSF funding.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:21 PM

December 07, 2005

Doors of Perception Report: archive

A good friend mentioned last night that she enjoys Doors of Perception Report (the monthly email newsletter that accompanies this blog) but often puts it aside for later reading - "it's so dense" - and then loses the thing. This is why we made this handy archive.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:58 PM | Comments (1)

November 21, 2005

"Solidarity economics & design"

This is the title of a lecture I'm giving at the Royal Society of Arts in London on 12 December. It seems a good oppportunity to reflect on the lessons we learned at Doors 8 earlier this year in Delhi. I plan to talk about those lessons in the framework of solidarity economics.The word 'development' implies that we advanced people in the North have the right or even obligation to help backward people in the South to 'catch up' with our own advanced condition. No, it doesn't make sense. The concept of development is further devalued by the impoverished but destructive mindset of economists: The North's pursestrings are clutched by people who define development narrowly in terms of growth, jobs and productivity - and ignore broader measures of sustainability and well-being. If we are to exchange value with other cultures - rather than just take it, or act like cultural tourists - what do we have to offer? One idea proposed by Jogi Panghaal is that fresh eyes can reveal hidden value - and thus mobilise otherwise neglected or hidden local resources. Visiting designers can act like mirrors, reflecting things about a situation that local people do not notice or value. The negative side of this is the gruesome prospect, anticipated by Yves Doz at Insead, of global companies "harvesting lifestyles". Do come along if you're in London.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:05 PM | Comments (2)

September 11, 2005

The 'cellular church'

I carried two psychological burdens on the promotional tour for my book earlier this year. One was the knowledge that a competitor is published every thirty seconds; every day I was on the road, the ranks of new titles swelled by 2,880. My second burden was awareness that Rick Warren's 'The Purpose Driven Life' sold 500,000 copies a month during its first two years, and is projected to reach 100 million. I found it hard to accept that my own book might not sell quite so well. Now I at least know how Rick does it: He has built a 'Cellular Church' that is based on small groups for whom his book is a kind of primer. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in this week's New Yorker (12 September) Rick's small groups 'focus on practical applications of spirituality...not on abstract knowledge, or even on ideas for the sake of ideas themselves'.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:48 PM

August 01, 2005

Does technology make us happy?

As designers and social innovators, should we take any notice of technology policy? Wouldn't it be best to ignore the think-tanks and telcos, and concentrate on doing great projects in the real world? A 90% focus on projects would probably be healthy. But we also need to keep half an eye on policy making because that's where priorities for research spending - and hence the projects we are able to do - are made.
Tech policy is not a pretty picture right now. After a few years in which social issues were visible on the agenda, tech-push is fighting back. In the European Union, for example, the Information Society Technologies (IST) programme contains a lot of tech but not much soc. The IST's aim is to 'master technology and its applications, and help strengthen industrial competitiveness'. Documents mention the need to 'address the main European societal challenges' - but the advisory group that interprets that statement, ISTAG, consists wholly of Big Tech and Big Research interests. (To compound the imbalance, ISTAG comprises 29 men and just four women). There once existed a panel of High-Level Socio-Economic Experts but they quietly disappeared in 2003, supplanted by an entity called eEurope. The main job of eEurope is to 'develop modern public services and a dynamic environment for e-business through widespread availability of broadband access at competitive prices and a secure information infrastructure'. Once again: a lot about tech and not much about soc. All Doors' friends report a similar pattern: proposals that don't put tech at their centre have little chance of success.
In the UK last week, a paper called Modernising With Purpose: A Manifesto for a Digital Britain by William Davies was published by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR). The manifesto begins promisingly with a complaint that ‘the strong focus on investing in technology, and measuring Britain’s most easily quantifiable assets, has left social resources, and less quantifiable assets, underdeveloped’. The manifesto demands that enduring cultural norms be protected, and insists on social and constitutional rules to guard against the constant possibility of harmful unintended consequences. Disappointingly, the manifesto is otherwise resolutely orthodox in the way that it casually equates modernisation with technological intensification. The ways we live and think now, for example, are described casually as 'obstacles to modernisation', and the manifesto finds it self-evident that future policy ‘anchors people to technological change’. 'We may have reached the toughest stage in the transition to a digitally enabled economy and government” writes Davies, “where the obstacles facing us are hardest to pin down or tackle, being psychological, cultural and local”.
Obstacles, or assets? A more inspiring manifesto would have located technology within a range of new ways to organise our daily lives - not made tech the starting point. It would have laid out a broader range of success indicators, and challenged us to find new ways to improve them. The good news is that a global boom in new indicators is providing us with new success criteria against which to make decisions about what we innovate, and how. An International Conference on Gross National Happiness took place in Canada in June, and even in the UK new ways to measure well-being and life satisfaction are also being discussed in UK policy circles. And I have to mention that my book, In The Bubble describes a range of daily life situations in which redesign is appropriate - sometimes using tech, but just as often, not.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:14 AM | Comments (6)

June 29, 2005

Solidarity economics and design

During the years Doors of Perception has been staging encounters in India, I don’t think anyone uttered the words ‘solidarity economics’. We’ve had many conversations about bottom-up globalisation, about complementary currencies, and about how design can enable resource-sharing services to emerge. But we have not been immersed in the lessons of Latin America where so many alternative economic practices emerged during the 1980’s and 1990’s. These were survival-based responses as the effects of corporate globalization began to hit people hard. (The term “solidarity economy” is the English translation of economia solidária (Portuguese), economía solidaria (Spanish), and economie solidaire (French)). Noting that few materials on solidarity economy are available in English,the American writer and activist Ethan Miller last year posted an excellent solidarity economics primer.“How do we start to imagine—and create—other ways of meeting each other’s economic needs?” he asks. “Solidarity economics is an organizing tool that can be used to re-value and make connections between the practices of cooperation, mutual aid, reciprocity, and generosity that already exist in our midst”. Miller repeats a lesson we have tried to stress in South Asia too: alternative economic models are already being implemented if we only choose to look for them. Creative and skilled people have designed, and are testing, everything from shared meals and Community Supported Agriculture, to Carpooling and Seed Exchange. Before you jump on my head yes, I know, a lot has been written in English, too. But the word green does not resonate for me like the the word solidarity. I raise all this because I could use some help preparing for these two events.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:32 AM | Comments (1)

January 23, 2005

Study art and never be unemployed

'Those who enjoy what they do never have to work any more'. An intriguing article by Sybrand Zijlstra (in a new Dutch publication called Morf ) reports that 80% of students graduating from Dutch art academies pronounced themselves to be satisfied with their education. This is a surprise: endless reports describe art and design education as being in a mess. Among their older peers, only 2% of those with a degree in art or design consider themselves to be unemployed - which is even more surprising when one considers that the number of jobs available for artists is tiny.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:30 AM

January 08, 2005

Design school reputations

When potential students or project clients ask me which is the best architecture or design school, I usually give them the names of a few institutions but also insist: 'don’t take my word for it, get hold of current students or researchers there, and ask them what it’s like'. Even that approach is limited: people inside one institution are not ideally placed to compare their own experience with that of their peers in other ones. Citation league tables are a guide, but tell only one part of the story. I’m struck, in this context, by a Pew report which states that 33 million people in the US have rated a product, service, or person using an online rating system. If reputation systems already help so many people buy books, movies and so on, how long can it be before such systems extend to big ticket purchases of things like a design education?. Design portal Core 77 already hosts a lively forum in which potential and current students exchange opinions about design courses and schools. So far, these exchanges are anecdotal, but someone soon will surely build a ratings system for them to use. Some colleges have already implemented online ratings of individual teachers, and many students are assessing themselves and each other. In 2003, Yale's online course evaluation system processed 24,000 evaluations in its first semsester alone. I'm not sure that many design school directors have thought through the consequences for their institution once online user ratings take hold. There’s a bibliography on the subject here.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:20 AM

January 03, 2005

Technology, safety, community

This year's Computer Human Interaction (CHI) conference has as its theme, 'Technology, Safety, Community'. The event, says the website, confronts the 'challenge for technology to make people feel safe again'. The agenda sounds uncontroversial, but you have to ask if the resulting design effort will make anyone materially safer, or be directed to where the real problems lie. About 2750 people a day succumb to road traffic injuries, for example, but I don't suppose CHI will call for the abolition of the car: the car industry, after all, is among the world's leading users of information technology. 8,000 people die each day as a result of air pollution, but the CHI agenda does not explain how interaction design might deliver cleaner air. 30,000 people a day die from curable diseases; most of these unfortunates live in the developing world and cannot afford the prices charged by drug companies for remedies that might save them. The events and situations that kill people in the modern world raise complex and highly political issues, and it would not be fair to demand that CHI tackles them all. But CHI surely does have a responsibility to be critical on the safety question. Googling “Homeland Security” and "design" yields 1,250,000 results today - up from 600,000 six months ago. This is evidence, if it were needed, that the Age of Fear has become big business. The question is: do we want to be part of it?

Posted by John Thackara at 08:42 PM

December 14, 2004

Is the creative class driving people to suicide?

I was once involved in a project called Presence in which we were given quite a lot of EU money to investigate how the social needs of elderly people might be met by the Internet. One of our test sites was a small village in Italy, called Peccioli. When our design team first visited the village they located some elderly people and told them proudly: 'we've come to help you with the Internet'. And the elderly people said: piss off; we do not need your patronising help, you designers you. Or words to that effect. We learned that elderly people in Italy are less socially isolated, and feel less in need of added-on connectivity, than almost anywhere else in Europe - apart from Greece and Portugal.

I was reminded of the Peccioli episode when reading Europe In The Creative Age One of its highlights is a league table of creative economies in Sweden comes top, followed by USA, Finland, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium. What caught my eye were the league table's losers. Italy and Portugal, with less than 15 percent of their workforce in the Creative Class, are 'performing below the norm'; Greece, too (along with Spain and Austria) 'appears to be in a difficult position'.

Well, that depends on what you measure. I was reminded, when reading Europe In The Creative Age, of another league table published in September on the occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day. Now the two league tables do not match each other one-to-one but, on paper at least, suicide rates are highest where the creative industries are strongest. Suicide rates are higher, and the creative industries are stronger, in North America than in Latin America, and in northern European countries compared to southern ones. Industrialized countries tend to have a higher suicide rate, and much stronger creative industries, than poor, developing countries. India's suicide rate, for example, is half the global average - but her public relations industry is pitifully small.

Is there a connection? Where the creative industries are strongest, citizens do seem to be miserable as hell. As I reported a few days ago (see my story of 9 December, below) more than eight out of ten Americans believe that society's priorities are 'out of whack'; 93 percent agree that Americans are too focused on working and making money, and not enough on family and community; more than 8 in 10 say they would be more satisfied with life if they just had less stress; and 95 percent agree that today's youth are too focused on buying and consuming.

Tom Bentley, in his introduction to Europe In The Creative Age, writes that the rise of the creative class 'goes to the heart of what a shift to a new economy really means'. Surely the opposite is the case. The activities lumped together as creative industries are characterised by a Fordist, point-to-mass, one-to-many model of production: advertising, architecture, crafts, design, designer fashion, public relations, marketing, film and video, interactive leisure software, music, performing arts, publishing, and so on.

According to the British Council, in Nurturing the Creative Economy, the Creative Industries are 'those that have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent, and that have a potential for wealth creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property'.

The words that jump out at me here - Individual, Wealth Creation, Property - do not exactly smack of social solidarity.

Some will argue that I'm getting cause and effect mixed up. The authors of Europe In The Creative Age, for example, are good guys at heart: they devote considerable space to the proposition that tolerance is a necessary condition for competitive advantage. And another British think-tank, Comedia, argues that there is now 'substantial evidence that cultural activities help engender social and human capital, transform organizational capacity to handle and respond to change, and can strengthen social cohesion'.

That proposition may well be true. And it's not as if I'm arguing that culture or creativity are a bad thing. The problem is that policy makers and planners are interpreting the Creative Class / Creative Industries concepts in weird ways. I recently saw a map from TNO on which were plotted, ward-by-ward, the number of creative individuals in Amsterdam. Holland's national technology research organization has discovered that there are 223 artists in Zaanstad, and that 20.9 percent of the workforce in Hilversum is a member of the creative class. TNO does not mention that Hilversum is where the Big Brother format was invented and, all over Europe, city planners are drawing lines round derelict areas and labeling them creativity districts.

I don't suggest that rise of the creative class drives people to suicide. What I do suggest is that this class is an integral part, if not the driver, of a consumer culture that makes most people pretty damn miserable. And many of the people who determine where resources are to go have got the wrong end of the stick.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:24 PM

November 26, 2004

Success Factors In Design Research Projects

The reports of last Friday's Project Leaders' Round Table, which we organised together with Virtual Platform, are now online here.
We've posted summaries, most of the project presentations, a bunch of pictures, and a text called "Conclusions". The latter text, I now realise, contains more questions than answers. And a lot of the knowledge exchanged at the event was tacit and not easily published on a website. But you'll get the feel of it all. We will apply the lessons we learned doing this event to the Project Clinics which will be a focus of Doors 8 in Delhi.
If you're interested in the design and management of design research projects, you may also find these earlier texts of mine useful:
Thermodynamics of Co-operation
From shelfware to wetware: where next for design research?
Does your design research exist?
Rules of engagement between design and new technology
Why is interaction design important?

Posted by John Thackara at 10:30 AM

October 03, 2003

Design-recast: the world as spread-sheet

A lecture given to the Design Recast conference organised at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht by Jouke Kleerebezem.

Trying to get a grip on design is rather like trying to grab hold of a shoal of herring. Orca whales do this by blowing upside-down funnels of air bubbles from underneath the shoal - somewhat like a martini glass - and then gulp the whole lot down in one go as the shoal swirls helplessly round. After the last couple of days, I can't decide whether I feel like a herring, or the whale...

Architecture and design have to change faster if they are to be effective, or even meaningful, in today’s context. We have filled the world with complex systems and technologies - on top of the natural ones that were already here, and social-cultural systems that have evolved over thousands of years. We live in world of human, natural, and industrial systems whose complex interactions are hard to comprehend. These systems are, by their nature, invisible - so we lack the clear mental models that we might otherwise use to make sense of the bigger picture. The design of Large Technical Systems, pervasive software, and the inaptly named 'ambient intelligence', is an almost unimaginably complex process. To be effective in such a context, design needs to be renewed, and transformed. But in what ways? And how?

In recent years we were told that these systems were 'out of control' - too complex to understand, let alone to shape, or re-direct. But 'out of control' is an ideology, not a fact. In architecture, in particular, this ideology fostered a kind of cultural autism, an absorption in self-centered subjective activity, accompanied by a marked withdrawal from reality.

But there is something we can do. It's called design: the "first signal of human intention".

If you look at the mainstream of architecture, the prospects for change look bleak. Many design professionals have retreated into denial and narcissism. Their projects deal mainly with appearances, and are fashioned to enhance the celebrity of their creators. More insidious are those designers who have adopted the language of complexity and networks – only to become craven servants of what Manuel Castells calls "The Automaton" or Alasdair Grey, in Lanark, "The Machine".

Exulting in forces ‘too big for us to control’, this second group has taken it upon themselves to amplify, to accelerate, the powerful forces unleashed by neo-liberal values (or the lack of them) and new technology. These designers don’t just go with the flow, they speed it up. The result is the glorification of fast cities, of extra large cities, and of 24-hour cities - a big interest in fast trains, and in high-end shopping - but little attention to social quality, learning, innovation, or sustainability.

Things are not much better in communication design. We do not know how to design communication. We know how to design messages, yes: the world is awash in print and ads and packaging and e-trash and spam. But these are all one-way messages, the output of a point-to-mass mentality that lies behind the brand intrusion and semiotic pollution that despoil our perceptual landscape. I’ll return to this issue later; right now I want to focus on two missing communication flows that need to be designed: social communication, and ecological communication.

That sad picture, for me, is the empty half of the bottle. But the bottle of design innovation is half-full - and rising. Profound change in design is already underway. Being bottom-up, and outside in, these changes are barely visible on the official radars of architecture - its media, schools, and professional bodies. But these changes are real.

I will focus on two axes in this transformation of the design process. The first axis concerns the understanding and perception of processes that shape today’s shifting urban conditions. The second axis is about modes of intervention - exploring new kinds of design moves in which we are blind to the precise outcome of particular actions - but militant promoters of the core values I mentioned above: social quality, learning, innovation, and sustainability.

Design for legibility

The emerging model of architectural and urban design incorporates what we know about the behaviour of biological organisms, the geometry and information processing systems of the brain, and the morphology of information networks. In order to do things differently, we first need to see things differently. We need to re-connect with the systems and processes on which we depend. We need to understand them, in order to look after them.

Many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have described immune systems in the body, and among communities. Network designers have mapped communication flows between continents, and in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. So far, these representations have been used, by specialists, as objects of research – not as the basis for real-time design. That is now changing. Real-time representations are becoming viable design tools.

Representations of energy flows, for example, are now achievable. And a priority. All our design processes should aspire to reduce the ecological footprint of a city. Man and nature share the same resources for building and living. An ecological approach will drastically reduce construction energy and materials costs, and allow most buildings in use to export energy rather than consume it. Natural ecosystems have complex biological structures: they recycle their materials, permit change and adaptation, and make efficient use of ambient energy. Real-time representations of energy performance can help us move closer to that model in the artificial world.

I emphasize that I am not talking about simulations, here, but about real-time representations.

We should also visualize connectivity. Many of us here, I am sure, enjoy charts that map the number of people connected to the Internet, or the flows of bits from one continent to another. They make really sexy infographics. But I am not just talking about information as spectacle, or as porn. An active intervention in the architecture of connectivity means mapping communication flows in order to optimise them. We need to understand overlapping webs of suppliers, customers, competitors, adults, and children – to identify communication blockages and then to fix the 'plumbing' where flows don't work.

We also need to investigate change processes at a ground level. In a recent issue of Hunch, edited by my friend Jennifer Sigler at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, I lauded a project called Wild City which mapped the interactions between non-regulated processes (street traders) and existing city fabrics (the green market, or a department store). I’m not convinced that the researchers' initial research hypothesis was proved: they set out “to point out the undiscovered potentials of specific locations” - but, for me, that was not the main point. The Wild City project delivered new notational tools for perceiving ‘actors’ and ‘forces’ that previously did not figure - to use a fusty architectural term - in urban design notation.

A further design challenge would render more of these process representations visceral. Maurice Merleau Ponty, an early critic of blueprint thinking in architecture and design, said that we need to move beyond “high altitude thinking... towards a closer engagement with the world made flesh". And Luis Fernandez-Galiano, in his remarkable book Fire and memory, argues that we need to shift our perceptions “from the eye to the skin” - to develop not just an understanding but also a feeling of how complex urban flows and processes work.

Architects are not famous for being in touch with their feelings, so I do not anticipate fast progress on this particular front.

Sense-and-respond design

Evolution operates without prior knowledge of what is to come - that is, without design. But culture does not. The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside. It is to enable action. We need to develop a shared vision of what we need to do, together, and how. We need to re-discover intentionality and learn, once we can read them, how to shape emergent urban and industrial processes.

A first step is learning how to think backwards from a desired outcome. To identify the things that need fixing, and to foster creativity in the search for new questions, we need to become expert at a process called ‘back-casting’ .We learned a lot about this technique during the 1990s at the Vormgevingsinstituut in Amsterdam. The trick is to develop scenarios of everyday life in the not-too-distant future: for example, a city in which 90 per cent of food is eaten within 50km of where it is produced; or a community in which fifty per cent of the teaching in a local school is done by people living in the area; or a health system based on peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing among hospitals, doctors, and citizens, enabled by the web. [The best book I know on such scenarios, by the way, is David Siegel's Futurize your enterprise. Our own book Presence: new media and older people is also pretty good].

We put these scenarios into workshops with professionals from mixed backgrounds, and asked them to work the consequences through backwards from then, to now. On that ‘backwards’ road, we developed the capacity to spot opportunities at the juncture between physical and virtual networks, and to imagine relationships and connections where none existed before (in much the same way that processes were visualised in Wild City).

Back casting and scenarios are neither fantasies, nor a new variety of theoretical onanism. Design scenarios are about the real world. We need to use as design tools, as the basis for real-world interventions to ‘steer’ complex urban transformations. Scenarios can help us connect an understanding of urban genetics with real-time actions to nudge ‘self’ organising systems in a desired direction.

[I should mention that design scenarios are quite different from autonomous or so-called intelligent design tools, such as genetic algorithms and cellular automata. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) community has shown that it is feasible to design self-generating code that can plot the lines of complex shapes, such as a boat hull. It was once thought that ‘intelligent’, generative design tools might help architects design the processes or codes, the ‘rules of the game’ or ‘shape grammars’, by which forms are generated, rather than the end product itself in detail. Researchers continue to look for ways to harness the formidable power of computers to do prototyping, modelling, testing and evaluation, thus compressing the time and space needed for products to evolve. For researchers like John Fraser this means designing the overall system: “you design the rules, rather than the actual individual stylistic detail of the product”.

But neither shape-generating algorithms, nor self-replicating software viruses, are appropriate for the continuous intervention in continuously evolving urban systems – for three reasons. First, because urban processes are not shapes. Second, because self-replicating software does not allow for sense-and-respond feedback. Third, because intelligent design tools are just that: tools. They can and do exist independently of the physical and social context without which a sense-and-respond design process is impossible.

In biology, they describe as choronomic, the influence on a process of geographic or regional environment. Choronomy adds value; a lack of context destroys it.

The irony is that while city and building designers have been flirting with semi-autonomous, evolutionary design processes, the most advanced software designers, who call themselves 'extreme programmers', are headed in the opposite direction – back towards human-steered design. Extreme programmers prefer to do it, than watch it. They have come to value individuals, and interactions among them, over abstract processes and tools. They find it more important to engage directly with working software, than to labour at the design of self-organizing systems. These principles are the basis of a new movement in software called The Agile Alliance.

As designers, we all need to be Agile. Our best intentions – for social quality, for sustainability, for learning, for play - will remain just that - intentions - until we complete the transition from designing on the world to designing in the world.

Natural, human and industrial systems are all around us – they are not below, outside, or above us. In design, if we are to take this new subject-object relationship seriously, we need to shift from a concern with objects and appearances, towards a focus on enhanced perceptions of complex processes - and their continuous optimisation.

We need to think of ‘world’ as a verb, not as a noun. We need to think of rowing the boat, not just of drawing it.

The transformation from designing for people, to designing with people, will not be easy. Anyone using a system - responding to it, interacting with it, feeding back into it - changes it. Complex technical systems – be they physical, or virtual, or both - are shaped, continuously, by all the people who use them. Think of Netscape, or Napster. In the world as a verb, it won't work to treat people as users, or consumers or viewers. We need to think of people - of ourselves - as actors.

As designers, our role is evolving from shaping, to steering; from being the ‘authors’ of a finished work, into facilitators who help people act more intelligently, in a more design-minded way, in the systems they live in.

Our business models in design also have to change. The idea of a self-contained design project – of 'signing off', when a design is finished - makes no sense in a world whose systems don’t stop changing. Design’s project-based business model is like a water company that delivers a bucket of water to your door and pronounces its mission accomplished. We need to evolve new business models for design - models that enable design to operate as a continuous service, not as manufacturing process.

One scenario, which we are discussing next week at a workshop on new business models in Ivrea, is a design economy based on service contracts, such as those used by big management consultancy firms.

Someone told me that every lecture should end with an answer to the question: what do I do with this information on Monday morning, when I go back to work? It's a reasonable question, but I can't answer it directly. Italo Calvino, however, tells a wonderful story - so I'll tell you his.” Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later, the drawing was not begun.” I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu.The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect ever seen”.

For Calvino, literature was a search for knowledge.” My work as a writer", he said, has, from the beginning, aimed at tracing the lightning flashes of mental circuits that capture and link points distant from each other in space and time”. Might we not think of design in a similar way?

Maastricht April 2002

Posted by John Thackara at 05:51 PM

September 27, 2003

The post-spectacular city

This is my lecture to a conference at Westergasfabriek, in Amsterdam, called Creativity and the City, on 25 September 2003.

In Rajhastan, travelling storytellers go from village to village, unannounced, and simply start a performance when they arrive. Although each story has a familiar plot - the story telling tradition dates back thousands of years - each event is unique. Prompted by the storytellers, who hold up pictorial symbols on sticks, the villagers interact with the story. They joke, interject, and sometimes argue with the storyteller. They are part of the performance.

Hearing about these storytellers reminded how much we have lost, in the 'developed' world, of the un-mediated, impromptu interactions that once made cities vital.

We now design messages, not interactions. The world is awash in print, and ads, and billboards, and packaging, and spam. Semiotic pollution. Brand intrusion at every turn.

Our buildings are now about one-way-communication, too. Sports stadia, museums, theatres, science and convention centres. Such buildings do an accomplished technical job: they deliver pre-cooked experiences to passive crowds.

And whom do we have to thank for this semiotic pollution, for the catatonic spaces that despoil our physical and perceptual landscapes?

The "creative class". That's who's responsible. In the same way that mill owners optimised mass production, the creative class has optimised the society of the spectacle.

At least mill owners bequeathed us well-made industrial cities. The creative class will be less fondly remembered. Their legacy is meaningless, narcissistic cities.

Luckily, the era of the creative class is over. Point-to-mass advertising, onanistic art, and big-ticket spectacles, are over.

We are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture. Our cities, from now on, will be judged by their capacity to foster collaboration, encounter, intimacy, and work. Much like cities used to be judged, before they fell into the hands of the creative class.

I'll explain more about these design criteria for cities in the second half of my talk. In the first half, I explain just why it would be foolish to dedicate our cities to 'creatives' and the impoverished, sender-receiver model that informs their activities.


There are three reasons why it would be foolish to entrust the future of our cities to the creative class.

The first is its autism. Autism is defined in Webster as "absorption in self-centred subjective mental activity, especially when accompanied by a marked withdrawal from reality".

An example. A week ago I attended a meeting here in Amsterdam on the subject of "Hosting" The invitation posed an interesting question: ”What is the relationship between art biennales, and their host cities?" Many international art powerbrokers turned up for this meeting, which was hosted by an organisation called Manifesta. Ten or 12 of them sat round a table.

In the event, the meeting was a waste of time and space. All the curators and critics and producers discussed were 'viewers' and 'audiences' and 'publics'. They banged on endlessly about the business of biennales, but lacked any insight into the changing nature of business.

It dawned on me, as I struggled to stay awake, that Art has become most attractive to the interests it once ridiculed.

The tourism industry loves art because its events and museums are 'attractions'. Property developers love art because a bijou gallery lends allure to egregious projects. For city marketers, an art biennale bestows glamour, and an aura of intelligence, on a city.

"Our events are not summer camps", pleaded Franco Bonami, director of the Venice Biennale. (Mr Bonami invited more than 500 artists to this year's event). But he did not mention one single word about what, if anything, these 500 people had to say - or why the rest of us should care.

After two hours I had to leave. "Hosting" felt like a sales meeting for Saga Holidays.

So then I went to Japan where Prada, which is said to be 1.5 billion euros in debt, has lavished $87 million on a new Herzog and de Meuron-designed store, in Tokyo. Now for Aaron Betsky, (a previous speaker, Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute) the Prada building would be a right and proper thing to do. Shopping, he just told us, is the fundamental purpose of cities today.

For me, the whole Prada project smells like the last days of Rome. The Plexiglas exterior, which is like bubble-wrap, certainly stands out. The new shop is on the Tokyo equivalent of P C Hooftstraat. (Amsterdam's fashion street). I popped in for a look.

Ten minutes. Quite nice. Been there, done that.

Prada spent 87 million bucks on a clothes shop that contained nothing I wanted to buy, but that's their right. A creative consultant called Christopher Everard told The Economist that, "by using iconic architects, the label is building brand equity". Mr Everard's firm is called "InterLife Consultancy". I emailed him the suggestion that he change its name to "Get A Life Consultancy" - but he has not replied.

Besides, Pravda’s investment is chickenfeed, a mere grain of corn, compared to Tokyo's Roppongi Hills tower. This 800,000 square metre monster had just opened when I was there. No expense has been spared by Yoshiko Mori, its developer, to compensate local people for the sacrifice of their old neighbourhood to progress and creativity. Several traditional features have been retained, I was told, including a Japanese garden, a Buddhist temple, and a children's park.

When I visited Roppongi Hills, these human-scale traces of old Tokyo proved hard to find. They were hidden among the 200 shops, 75 restaurants, and a zillion square feet of office space and apartments that fill the building.

The Zen garden may be lost, but compensation and enlightenment await you at the top of the tower: the Mori Museum of Art.

A Who's Who of the global art establishment - including Nicholas Serota from the Tate, and David Elliot, its British Director - have joined this lavishly funded enterprise. Glenn Lowry from the New York MoMA is also on board, apparently unperturbed by his client's appropriation of the Moma name.

The museum opens next month with a biting and critical look at the modern society which begat it. The show is called, ”Happiness: a survival guide for art and life".

Only people with a 'community passport' are admitted to this Xanadu of art-as-happiness. The passport, curiously, closely resembles a credit card. But still: it gains you access to all those shops and restaurants and - piece de resistance - an orange bar designed by Conran Associates.

The art museum itself was not yet open when I visited, but six museum shops were. They were doing a roaring trade.

"Art, design and happiness" says the brochure, "the kind of place that we want to become".

Not of all of us, Mori-san. "Tourism - human circulation considered as consumption - is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal". Guy Debord wrote that more than 40 years ago, in The Society Of the Spectacle. He would not have warmed to Roppongi Hills.

In much the same way that that tourism kills the toured, 'cultural industries' like museums-and-shopping destroy diversity and desolate their host environment. CIs are like GM crops: bland, tasteless, and a threat to the ecosystem.

I do not deny that the economic case for the creative class is strong. After all, designing all those spectacles is big business.

A new trade fair and exhibition in Philadelphia, which calls itself "Exp", announces itself as "The Event That Defines The Experience Industry". I didn't go to Exp, but I did go to the website. The middle-aged, white male speakers boasted a remarkable collection of jowls and bad haircuts. They promised to tell me, "how to gain a greater share of your guest's discretionary time and disposable income"; how to "destroy the myth that great experience need huge budgets" (sic); and, "how to surf the generational shift".

The website did not mention a session on how to speak English, but this omission did not deter the creative classes. They flocked to Exp - enthralled. no doubt, by its convenient clustering of four key themes: Corporate Visitor Centres, Retail, Casinos, and Museums.

The other big spectacle business is sport. Sophisticated Paris, in its bid for the Olympics, says that sport is replacing culture as an attractor in urban regeneration. "The role that investment plays in the Games of the 21st century will be comparable to that played by industrialisation at the end of the 19th century", burbles their bid.

Claude Bebear, chairman of the Paris Olympic Committee, does not think of sport as kicking a ball around a field. He thinks about twenty million dollar sponsorships, and the well-being of the people who provide the spectacle. Claude's plan for a sporty Paris features private road lanes for the exclusive use of athletes and officials. A travel time of 12 minutes, from bed to track, is promised to the muscle-bound sportspersons and their crypto-fascist paymasters. If the bed-t-track journey proves too taxing, an internet and electronic games centre will be provided to "help athletes relax and get in touch with the outside world". Le Moniteur, eds, 2001, Paris olympiques: twelve architectute and urban planning projects for the 2008 games, Paris, Editions du Moniteur


But I digress. I've made the point that pre-programmed cultural 'attractions' and 'experiences' are on the wane. The nightmare of "art and design as happiness" is nearly over.

And I should also stress that the "creatives" who make them are not personally to blame. They - we - are the symptom, not the cause, of a cultural affliction that touches us all.

So what are alternatives? This brings me to the second part of my talk.

Tor Norretranders, in his book The user illusion, explains beautifully what's missing from the mediated, specacular, dis-located, and disembodied experiences that blight our lives. Once we know what's missing, we can put it back.

"Most of what we experience we can never tell each other about" writes Tor. "During any given second, we consciously process only sixteen of the eleven million bits of information that our senses pass on to our brains".
In other words, the unconscious part of us receives much less information than the conscious part of us. We experience millions of bits a second but can tell each other about only a few dozen.

Humans, concludes Norretranders, are designed for a much richer existence than processing a dribble of data from computer screen, or a wide-screen display in Times Square.There is far too little information in the Information Age. Spectacles may be spectacular, but they are low bandwidth.

"I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action, over a life of consumption. Rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows to produce and consume, the future depends upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action".

That was Ivan Illich, in 1973. Thirty years ahead of the rest of us, Illich argued for the creation of convivial and productive situations - including our cities. A sustainable city, Illich understood, has to be a working city, a city of encounter and interaction - not a city for the passive participation in entertainment. www.infed.org/thinkers/et-illic.htm

What matters most in a post-spectacular city is activity, not architecture. As the director Peter Brook has said, "It is not a question of good building, and bad. A beautiful place may never bring about an explosion of life, while a haphazard hall may be a tremendous meeting place. This is the mystery of the theatre, but in the understanding of this mystery lies the one science. It is not a matter of saying analytically, what are the requirements, how best they could be organized — this will usually bring into existence a tame, conventional, often cold hall. The science of theatre building must come from studying what it is that brings about the more vivid relationships between people."

Tame, conventional, cold. How many buildings do those words recall? Torsten Hagerstrand has studied dysfunctional spaces - and good ones - and how people use space and time for thirty years. He says it is the ability to make contact with people that determines the success of a transport system or location. Hagerstand [q in Whitelegg) Hagerstrand T, Space time and the human condition, in Karlquist A, Lundquist L, and Snickars F (eds) Dynamic allocation of urban space, Saxon House, Lexington MA 1975

Peter Brook, too, as I said, asked us to focus on what it is that what it is that brings about "the more vivid relationships between people."

One of those things is the mobile phone. It's impacting remarkably on our interactions with space and community. Mobile phones stimulate connections between people who already know each other, or have something in common. They can also help crowds assemble, as we saw in Seattle, in 1999.

That's not major news. The more interesting change is the way wireless communications connect people, resources, and places to each other on a real-time basis, and in new combinations. Demand responsive services, as they call them in the (service design) trade.

Traditional city planning designates different zones for different activities: industrial, residential and commercial. Telecommunications are changing the nature and inter-action of activities that "take place" in these three types of location.

Think of the taxi systems you have encountered. They are demand responsive services, to a degree. The old model was that you would ring a dispatcher; the dispatcher offers your trip all the drivers on a radio circuit;
One driver would accept the job; and the dispatcher would send that taxi to you.

A better way, now being introduced in many cities, is that you ring the system; the system recognises who you are, and where you are; it identifies where the nearest available taxi is; and it sends that taxi to you. Dynamic, real-time, resource allocation.

Now: replace the world "taxi" with the word sandwich. Or with the words, "someone to show me round the back streets of the old town". Or the words, "a nerd to come and fix my laptop" Or the words, "someone to play ping pong with". Or suppose you feel like helping out in a school, and hanging out with kids for a day.

In every case, networked communications, and dynamic resource allocation, have the potential to connect you, with what you want. It just needs to be organised.

You could be a supplier, too. Perhaps you have time on your hands. Make good sandwiches. Know the old town like the back of your hand. Have a nerdy daughter who's looking for work. Know there's a ping-pong table in Mrs Graham's garage, which they never use. Or perhaps you don't feel like dealing with Form 5 on your own this week.

What do you do? You call the system. Or the system calls you.

The reason I've jumped from the creative class, to mobile phones and networks, is this. If the post-spectacular city is about person-to-person encounter, technology can help us achieve that. The consequence can be a profound change in the ways that we operate, and live, in cities.

With networked communications we will be able to access and use everything from a car, to a portable drill, only when we need it. We won't have to own them, just know how and where to find them.

Did you know that the average power drill is used for ten minutes in its entire life? Or that most cars stand idle 90 per cent of the time? The same principle - of use, not own - can apply to the buildings, roads, squares and spaces that fill our cities.

But the killer app is access to other people. People is what makes cities different from other places. The creative city will be the city that finds ways to strip out all the transaction and infrastructure costs that make it expensive to hire people to help us do stuff.

In retrospect, we got the information age completely wrong. We thought it would be smart to remove people from services: we called it 'disintermediation'. It reads as it was: a pain in the nexk.

We also thought we couild do without place.Nicholas Negroponte stated in Being Digital, the dotcommer's bible, that "the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will depend less and less on being in a specific place,at a specific time". Lars Lerup,dean of the architecture school at Rice University - and a dotcommer manque - proclaimed in a book approriately named Pandemonium that "bandwidth has replaced the boulevard. Five blocks west has given way to the mouseclick. After thousands of years of bricks held together by mortar, the new metropolis is toggled together by attention spans." Brandon Hookway, 1999, PANDEMONIUM Princeton Architectural Press New York.

All that stuff was, in retrospect, piffle. But we all did it, including this speaker. He apologises, and pleads only that he is a tiny bit wiser after the event.

The point is that the information age has been added to the industrial age. Telematic space has been added to Cartesian space. The one did not supplant the other.

And mobile phones and networks do not make the city disappear. On the contrary, they render the city itself more powerful as an interface.

Sometimes this is at the level of tools. Experiments are under way in which mobile phone act like a remote control to activate technology in our surroundings. You stand at a bus stop, and summon up your personal web page on one of the panels. J C Decaux, or Viacom Outdoors, control millions of such urban surfaces which could be used for such an application.

Researchers at Interaction-Ivrea, in Italy, had another good idea: connect these displays to the printers in ATM machines. You could print out SMS messages, or a local map, on the ATM printer.

Other projects treat the whole city, not just its furniture, as an interface. A project called New York Wireless, for example, has identified more than 12,000 wireless access hot points throughout Manhattan alone, and put their location on a website."The result is a new layer of infrastructure", says co-founder Anthony Townsend."But no streets were torn up. No laws were passed. This network has been made possible by the proliferation of ever more affordable wireless routers and networking devices. Mobile devices re-assert geography on the internet".

Marko Ahtisaari, a future gazer at Nokia, says that enabling proximity - getting people together, in real space - has become a stratgic focus, the killer application of wirelsss communications."Mobile telephony might seem very much to do with being apart, but a lot of telecommunications behaviour is aimed at getting together physically in the same place", he says.

Proximity and locality are natural features of the economy. Worldwide, the vast majority of small and medium-sized companies - that's most of all companies - operate within a radius of 50km. Most of the world’s GDP is highly localised. Local conditions, local trading patterns, local networks, local skills, and local culture, are critical success factors for the majority of organizations.

Mobile phone and wireless-enabled gadgets enable us to access people, or resources, or services - just-in-time, and just-in-place.

By doping that, they also design away the need for mobility, or much of it. Demand-responsive services, combined with location-awareness, combined with dynamic resource allocation, have the capacity dramatically to reduce the mobility-supporting hardware of a city: its roads, vehicles, malls and car parks.

Imagine there's a kind of slider on your phone. You set it to "sandwich" and "within five minutes walk" or "within a five dollar cab ride" - and use those parameters to search for whatever it is you need.

You don’t need to own it. You don't even need to go far to get it. You just need to know how to access it.


Talks like this one are supposed end with a list of things you might do on Monday morning. But I just criticised creatives for over-designing our cities, so it would be hypocritical of me to give you a list of things to do.

So let me summarise. I have said that we are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture. It's for this reason that it would be foolish to hand over our cities to the "creative class".

They just don't get it. More to the point, their business model drives them on. Our cities are over-designed because the creative classes get paid for designing things.

'Creatives' don't get paid for leaving well alone.That's a conundrum we'll need to resolve.

The second part of my talk touched on some of the ways wireless communication, and networks, enable people, places, and things, to be connected in new and often unexpected ways - and times. I also explained that the information age has not replaced the real-word age - but it is certainly transforming the ways we use and live in it.

I do have one suggestion for what you can do on Monday morning. Go out and buy Italo Calvino's wonderful book, Invisible Cities - of which the following is an extract:

“The Great Kahn contemplates an empire covered with cities that weigh upon the earth and upon mankind, crammed with wealth and traffic, overladen with ornaments and offices, complicated with mechanisms and hierachies, swollen, tense, ponderous. "The empire is being crushed by its own weight” Kublai thinks, and in his dreams,cities as light as kites appear, pierced like laces, cities transparent as mosquito netting, cities like leaves’ veins, cities lined like a hand’s palm, filigree cities to be seen through their opaque and fictitious thickness”

Posted by John Thackara at 06:02 PM

November 12, 2001

Why is interaction design important?

I was on the launch team that helped develop teaching and research programmes for Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. One outcome was the following statement, which was written collaboratively with Gillian Crampton Smith’s team in Ivrea.

* Interaction design determines how people interact with computers and communications. This is an issue of profound economic and cultural importance.
* Interaction design determines the value of a communication service to its users, and the quality of experience they have when using it.
* Computers and networks are transforming every aspect of our lives. As networks converge, almost everything we use, or do, involves some kind of interaction. There are interactions between us and the system, or between one object and another. Interaction design shapes the kind of experience we have when this takes place.
* The world is already filled with twelve computer chips for every man, woman and child on the planet. By the time today’s five-year-olds leave school, their world will contain thousands of chips for every human being alive. In a world of such complexity, interaction design will influence the kind of life she lives.
* Compared to physical products, communication services are experiences, not things. Interaction design deals with immaterial processes, and with services that adapt to an individual’s needs and preferences. This is a completely new kind of design.
* Interaction design also reveals the new business models that are needed to deliver these services and experiences.
* Very few universities and design schools in the whole world specialise in this vital subject. Interaction Ivrea is in a position to drive innovation, and shape the agenda, for this key question of our age.

We also put these slogans all around the building for its opening in 2000:
* Collaborative innovation: shaping technology with the people who use it.
* From the era of devices, to the era of service and flow
* Interacting with all our senses - at home, at work, on the move.
* Between an airport, and a monastery - a hub as well as a hive
* A connected community - linking people, places and ideas.
* A new approach to innovation
* For the convergence of culture, technology and business
* Stimulate debate. Provoke reaction. Change agendas.
* Combining the depths of the old economy, with the energy of the new.
* In the tradition of Olivetti, with the strengths of Italy

Communication services of tomorrow
Designing new ways to connect – with family, friends, lovers, and colleagues. Adding new qualities to the communication services we know today. Creating new value through richer and more variedforms of interaction.

Interaction qualities
Interactions when you hear, and taste, and see, and touch, and feel. Interactions when smart technology is everywhere – but not in your face. Interactions that are playful, intuitive, and moving, surprising, and fun. Interactions of quality.

People and their culture
From the worship of technology, to a culture of community and communication. From a fetish for devices, to an aesthetic of service and flow. From a focus on needs, to services that delight and inspire. That are closer to poetry, than to plumbing.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:11 PM | Comments (1)

November 12, 2000

Rules of engagement between design and new technology

These principles were first formulated for my keynote at the CHI conference, The Hague, 2000

1] We cherish the fact that people are innately curious, playful, and creative. This is one reason technology is not going to go away: it’s too much fun.

2] We will deliver value to people – not deliver people to systems. We will give priority to human agency, and will not treat humans as a ‘factor’ in some bigger picture.

3] We will not presume to design your experiences for you – but we will do so with you, if asked.

4] We do not believe in ‘idiot-proof’ technology – because we are not idiots, and neither are you. We will use language with care, and will look for less patronising words than ‘user’ and ‘consumer’.

5] We will focus on services, not on things. We will not flood the world with pointless devices.

6] We believe that ‘content’ is something you do – not something you are given.

7] We will consider material end energy flows in all the systems we design. We will think about the consequences of technology before we act, not after.

8] We will not pretend things are simple, when they are complex. We value the fact that by acting inside a system, you will probably improve it.

9] We believe that place matters, and we will look after it.

10] We believe that speed and time matter, too – but that sometimes you need more, and sometimes you need less. We will not fill up all time with content.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:13 PM

September 22, 2000

New geographies of learning

How technology is altering the terrain of teaching. I rashly agreed to give a lecture to several hundred university teachers in Amsterdam....

I am most grateful - and not a little intimidated - by your invitation to give this talk to you today. I say intimidated because I am an outsider speaking to a room full of experts. At a rough guess, I'd say that you probably have about 5,000 years of educational experience between you in this room! If we add in your time as childhood learners, then your aggregate experience doubles to probably 10,000 years!

Now this may surprise you, but I am not here promote the internet as the answer to every educational question we face. On the contrary. I am sceptical about the claims being made for web-based learning. Most of it strikes me as 'old wine in new bottles'. The potential of the internet is not understood - let alone exploited - by much of the 'virtual', 'distant' or 'online' education that's out there now.

But I am not a technophobe. I do not criticise today's e-learning products because they use the internet, but because they don't use it enough. The internet contains amazing examples of what I call 'net effects' that can enhance learning in spectacular ways. But these net effects are being developed in different contexts, and for different activities, than for education and learning.

The main point of my story today is this: we should use these 'net effect' tools for learning, whether or not they were intended for that. My talk today has three parts. First, I will explain why I don't much like or trust most of the internet-based learning that's on offer now. Secondly, I'll show you some of the 'net effects' that we should hijack for our own purposes. In the final part of my talk, I'll tell you about a forthcoming event - OroOro: teacherslab - which has been designed to help us take this kind of initiative.


(PICT)001 e-learning myths

My critique of today's e-learning is this: it focusses on just one aspect of the learning process - the delivery of text or media from one place to another. This scenario is often accompanied by fantasy images of privileged individuals surrounded by all the world's knowledge. 'Streaming learning' for the hi-tech elite. There are two problems with this picture. First, it is technically not yet feasible. The tools and infrastructure for multi-channel broadband communications on a large scale are simply not there yet. The second much bigger problem: any service that restricts itself to the delivery of pre-packaged content, ignores the social and collaborative nature of learning, and cultural qualities of time and place that add depth and texture to the process. I call these key ingredients the geographies of learning.

I am sure nobody here would seriously aspire to replace schools and universities with websites or cable channels. But there are powerful interests out there who do. A couple of years ago, a former Dutch economic affairs minister told me that, with the internet, "we can stream lectures from the best ten per cent of teachers to classrooms, and do without the other 90 per cent ". I also visited Japan with a European delegation; there, we were proudly shown vast halls filled with hundreds of personal omputers - facing forward to the teacher, in neat rows. This, we were told, was a school of the future. To use the language of my childhood comic Dandy: "Yikes!"

Fantasies of a technological fix for education are highly attractive to some politicians. Faced with large-scale skill shortages, they are receptive to scenarios that 'penetrate the schools' with new technology and thus, as if by magic, multiply the production of well-trained students. This rosy vision is clouded only by the possibility that grown-ups might stand in the way; I have read in several policy documents that 'teachers are the main impediment' to technological modernisation. Some developers are just as bad, boasting of their 'teacher-proof technology'.

As Gore Vidal once said, even paranoids have enemies. So if any of you have been suspicious about the motives of people promoting new technology in education - you were right! At least in part. Such visions of a vast, semi-automated learning machine remind me of the joke about the factory of the future: It will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog - the dog will be there to stop the man touching the equipment. Technology push is not a new feature of the learning world.

Throughout the 100 year history of distance education, which began with the correspondence course, ambitious claims have been made for the capacity of technology to improve the way we learn. First there was radio, then television, then video - a whole series of 'Next Big Things' even before the internet came along. None of those earlier technologies lived up to the claims made for them. Neither will the internet - unless we change the things we are asking it to do.

(PICT)002 pervasive computing

We need to be vigilant, creative and proactive - right now - because technology push is intensifying. The internet is only one aspect of this. My picture of a cityscape (borrowed from Autodesk) neatly suggests that almost everything man-made, and quite a lot made by nature, will soon combine hardware and software.

So-called pervasive computing spreads intelligence and connnectivity to everything around us: ships, aircraft, cars, bridges, tunnels, machines, refrigerators, door handles, walls, lighting fixtures, shoes, hats, packaging. You name it and somone, rather soon, will put a chip in it. The world is already filled with between eight and thirty computer chips for every man, woman and child on the planet. (The number depends on who you ask). Within a few years - say, the amount of time a child who is four years old today will spend in junior school - that number will rise to thousands of chips per person. A majority of these chips will communicate with networks. Many will sense their environment in rudimentary but effective ways.

(PICT)003 "here's looking at you, too"

The way things are going, as the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling so memorably put it, "you will look at the garden, and the garden will look at you". Mind you: what the sunflower will see may not be very interesting. By 2005, nearly 100 million Europeans will be using wireless data services connected to the internet. But so far, only one service seems to have caught our imagination: paying the parking metre via mobile phone. I do not imagine our sunflower will be impressed by that!

(PICT)004 innovation dilemma

Technology push confronts us with an innovation dilemma. It is simply stated: our industries know how to make amazing things, technically. That's the top line in my chart: it heads heading manfully upwards. The line could just as easily apply to the sale of mobile devices, internet traffic, processor speeds, websites, or e-commerce. That blue line is a combination of Moore's Law (which states that processor speeds double and costs halve every 18 months or so) and Metcalfe's Law (which states that the value of a network rises in proportion to the number of people attached to it). But a new law - I have modestly named it Thackara's law - is that if you put smart technology into a pointless product, the result will be a stupid product.

We've created an industrial system that is brilliant on means, but pretty hopeless when it comes to ends. The result is a divergence - which you see on my chart - between technological intensification - the high-tech blue line heading upwards -and perceived value, the green line heading downwards.The spheroid blob in the middle is us: we are hovering uneasily between our undiminshed infatuation with technology, on the one hand, and our unease about its actual value, and possible rebound effects, on the other.

Much of today's e-learning reflects this tension between what we can do, and what we ought to do. Much of it is an answer to the wrong question. The wrong question is: "hey, we have a new communication medium called the internet! what shall we do with it?". The right questions are these: "what is it about the learning process that needs to be improved? in what ways might the internet enable those improvements?".

Our dilemma is that, although the internet and new media technologies can do some amazing things, they cannot support the soft and 'wet' aspects of learning that I believe we cannot do without. Besides, even if the technology could cope, no business model has emerged to pay for these more complex forms of learning.

(PICT)005 learning as a market

Right now, these questions are not heard amid fevered talk of an 'emerging electronic university', a 'unified global marketplace for ideas' and 'worldwide web-based knowledge exchanges'. This kind of rhetoric has started a feeding frenzy among investors. One example: the world's first trade fair for education - World Education Market - took place in Vancouver in 2000. Thousands of new players were attracted to an event which promised that education would soon be a $90 billion business - one of the biggest in the world, along with financial services and health.

(PICT)006 intellectual capital

E-learning entrepreneurs calculate that, in a knowledge-driven society, investors will place a higher value on people, than on plants and equipment. Proponents of the 'intellectual capital' concept assert that 70 per cent of a nation's wealth today is in the form of human capital, rather than physical capital. Whether or not this theory is true, hardly matters: the markets perceive it to be true - and have decided it is worth a bet. To be fair, the high priest of the intellectual capital movement, Tom Stewart, says repeatedly in his book that "smart individuals do not add up to a smart enterprise: for that, you need knowledge to flow. Sharing and transporting knowledge are what counts".

(PICT)007 learning rhetoric

In the breathless words of one new education 'portal', UNext, "the vast imbalance between the supply and demand for quality education provides an enormous, untapped global market. Countries, companies, and individuals that don't invest in knowledge are destined to fall behind". The internet, gushes Unext, "has created an unprecedented opportunity to create a global education business".

(PICT)008 hungry minds

Some new projects are so-called 'pure play' initiatives - start-up companies which aspire to be a 'learning portal' through which all types of knowledge and learning will be exchanged. One such, Hungry Minds (hungryminds.com) is - I quote - "continually combing the net to feed our growing database of 37,000 online courses". The fact that Hungry Minds is only a couple of years old may explain its preference for quantity over quality.

Another pure-play site, Corpedia.com, has enlisted the world's leading management guru, Peter Drucker, to make a series of five hour-long management programmes - "leading business strategists delivered direct to your computer". Corpedia's demo includes a wonderful demonstration in which a fictitious (I hope) employee types onto an electronic schoolbook', "I resolve to become a batter employee". The power of computing and 'learning process re-engineering' is wondrous to behold.

Another new entrant, Fathom (fathom.com), has spent many millions of dollars building an alpha version of its portal, which has not even been launched as I speak. Fathom has partnered with an impressive roster of blue-chip universities and institutions, including the London School of Economics, Columbia and Chicago Universities, Rand Corporation, and New York Public Library. The Nobel Prize-winning professors and heads of state who studied at these august institutions take pride of place on the home pages of sites like UNext and Fathom.

Other institutions are going it alone. Harvard Business School has invested millions of dollars a year in its website since the mid-1990s; the site features sophisticated interactive software that adds zest to the tonnage of business case studies. Penn State University has thrown all modesty to the winds with its so-called "World Campus". And at the Wharton Business School, its private-sector neighbour, you can spend $50,000 on a four month e-business course. There are more than 1,600 accredited distant learning courses, many of them web-enabled, in California alone. So there's a lot happening out there, and big money is flying around.

But I suspect some of these projects miss the point. In many of these ventures learning is understood - if it is understood at all - as a one-way, 'point-to-mass' distribution system. My line is this: even if there are ten Nobel Prize-wimnning professors sitting at that 'point', delivering content down a pipe, like water, this is not teaching. And 'receiving' content - like an empty bucket under a tap - is not learning. Put another way: I'd be very surprised indeed if these Nobel Prize-winning eminences would have made such a big contribution of they'd done all their teaching and research on net.

The English writer Charles Hapmden Turner has put it better than I can: "knowledge is becoming too complex to be carried in the individual heads of itinerant experts. Knowledge as it grows and grows is necessarily social, the shared property of extended groups and networks".

(PICT)009 geographies of learning

The 'distribute-then-learn' model cannot embrace the more complex geographies of learning that I mentioned earlier. I like the way David Hargraves put it in a Demos pamphlet: "schools" he wrote, "are still modelled on a curious mixture of the factory, the asylum, and the prison". Unless we think about learning as a process that depends on place, time, and context - the internet will not enhance learning. It will probably make it worse. I will briefly take you through these 'geographical' qualities to explain what I mean.

(PICT)010 learning (words on screen)

Learning is social, learning is asynchronous, learning is local, learning is organisational, learning is sharing, learning is searching, learning is play, learning is social.

An important new book, The Social Life of Information, by Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown, reminds us that we learn not only by the acquisition of facts and rules, but also through participation in collaborative human activities. The most valuable learning takes place among social networks, not at the end of a pipe filled with pre-packaged 'content'. (The fact that one author of this book, Seely Brown, is Chief Scientist of Xerox, suggests that big companies companies may be changing the way they innovate away from a technology-led approach).

(PICT)011 learning is asynchronous

New technology has worked best when helping people interact across time, rather than across space. When students and teachers can access web documents at different times, they can escape the temporal confines of the classroom, say experts like John Seely Brown. The best of such internet tools are usually an extension of - not a replacement for - face to face exchanges.

(PICT)012 learning is local

The concept of a 'death of distance' made great headlines a couple of years ago. Its grandchild is the concept of 'anytime, anywhere learning'.The idea sounds attractive and uncontroversial. But when based on a point-to-mass distribution model, it overlooks the significance of place and local knowledge. A lot of what we learn is remarkably local: History. Agriculture. Politics. Art. Geology. Viticulture. Forestry. Conservation. And local does not just mean local nature. The city of Paris, (shown here on a photograph) is also replete with 'local' knowledge. Cities are unique learning ecologies. The danger we face is a combination of 'death of distance'ideology and the sheer pressure of money and technology behind 'global' e-learning scenarios that could marginalise local forms of knowledge, regardless of their importance.

(PICT)013 learning is organisational

A lot of learning takes place in offices, research labs, hospitals, design offices, web studios - anywhere, indeed, that people gather together to work. The way we organise education - or for that matter work - hinders integration between the two communities. The Internet makes it easier to connect parts together in a technical sense - but breaking down the walls between 'school' and 'work' and 'home' will involve cultural and institutional connections that will be harder to achieve.

(PICT)014 learning is sharing

The prominence given to the presence of Nobel Laureates in the rhetoric of portal sites like UNext and Fathom suggests that they are wedded to a Great Minds theory of learning. But teacher-to-student education is only one side of the story. Student-to-student learning (or peer-to-peer learning outside formal educational contexts) is just as important. And let us not forget student-to-elder teaching! At a time of rapid technical change, so-called 'upward mentoring' is coming into play because 'students' often have a fresher understanding of specialised technical domains. The founder of MediaLab, Nicholas Negroponte, tells a great story about upward mentoring. "I never used to understand why people had difficulty with their video recorder remote control " he says. "Until, that is, my own remote control - my son - went off to college. From that moment on, I've been unable to use my video at all."

(PICT)015 learning is networking

The concept of local knowledge ecologies summons up the image of education as a kind of mythical journey. A student would no longer expect her or his university career to take place in a particular place, for a pre-set period, among a pre-selected body of academics. Instead, tomorrow's student will travel, Chaucer-like, among a a network principally of his or her own making - staying at home, travelling, mixing online and off-line education, work in classes, or alone, or with mentors - and above all continuing the journey long after talking a degree.

(PICT)016 learning is play

It takes a lifetime to become the child that you should be, said Jean-Luc Godard. But vast projects to wire up classrooms to the Internet seem to be going in the opposite direction. Rather than make space for children and teachers to learn in new and playful ways, most 'wired classrooms' are more like cages filled with experimental rats. Only the rats are our children. But in The Netherlands, origin of Huizinga's Homo Ludens, we should know better. We learn by playing and by doing - not by being filled up with knowledge like a bucket. Or a hungry rat. We need playmates, too.


In the first part of my talk, I complained that a lot of Internet-based education is based on an industrial, 'distribute-then-learn' model at the expense of other qualities which are just as important - social, local, organisational, sharing, networking, and play. But I do not blame the Internet for e-learning's lack of ambition! On the contrary: away from "Learning" with a capital "L", astonishing new tools and environments are being developed. They are called "customer service technologies" or "application services." These are the focus of part two of my talk.

(PICT)018 customer service applications

Many of the buzzwords used to label these new tools will mean nothing to you. Many of them mean nothing to me, and I'm supposed to be an expert:

[Words on screen] Search Engines, Wizzards, Filters, Bots, and Agents. File Sharing, File Transfer, Intelligent Routing. Auctions and Clearing Houses. Portals, Vertical Nets, and Vortals. Games Opinion Sites; Feedback, Rating, Comparison and Recommender Systems. Groupware, Community Ware, List Servers, Moderation Support Tools. Live Voice, Real Person, Chat Spaces. Keywords: Peer-To-Peer and Open Source.

(PICT)019,020,021 new economy bibles

But before we explore what these words mean, I'd like to draw your attention to the amazing speed and scale of the innovation taking place. These technical innovations receive far less attention than e-commerce - partly because it is often hard to grasp what these applications are for. But, albeit obscurely, dozens of new applications emerge every month. For a flavour of this strange new world, read new economy magazines like Red Herring, Business 2.0, Fast Company, or Industry Standard. These new economy bibles are filled with advertisments for these obscure new applications. As a sample, only, of what I mean, allow me now to show you just four examples - from the hundreds out there - of applications that I think we can use in learning.

(PICT)022 file sharing revolution

The first is file sharing. The subject has been in the news as the conflict between Napster and the global music industry (plus a ton of lawyers). What happens is this. People who want to obtain an music file (which may have been copied from a CD and compressed into something called an 'MP3' file) can do it in one of two ways. They can download it directly from a server linked to the worldwide web. Or they can use a file-sharing service like Napster to grab the track directly from another user's computer. Listeners running Napster software use it to request a song; the programme searches the hard drives of all other Napster users who are online, and generates a list of the hard drives where the song can be found. Listeners can then download the file directly from the selected location. Sometimes this transaction can involve email exchange between the two users.

Online music sharing services like Napster provide access to millions of song files. Access, that is, to anyone with a computer, a sound card, and an Internet connection. 20 million users and rising fast. Whether or not Napster survives the legal onslaught of the music industry, other file-sharing platforms like Gnutella or Freenet are emerging too. Due to the de-centralised way they work, litigation is difficult, if not impossible. They do not use central servers that can be shut down: there is no 'there' there. Besides, these free programmes are developed by a loose coalition of young software developers who are guided by a strong sharing concept known as the Open Source movement. Open Source adds cultural energy and legitimacy to what is already a super-smart technological onslaught on centralised knowledge distribution.

(PICT)023 university as call centre

The next 'net effect' I find intriguing is so-called live person technology. You might consider it an irony that contact between real people should be trumpeted as an innovation. After all, we enjoyed unlimited personal contact before the communications revolution that began with the telephone in 1876! Tant pis: retro-fitting real people into websites is now a big trend. Channels such as CNN and BBC Online are steadily expanding services that allow viewers to interact. Live contact is a bigger priority in the business world. A lot of effort is going into customer service technologies that help companies interact with their customers in real-time with varying degrees of directness.

Such systems as LivePerson allow companies to build a shared knowledge base for 'pre-formatted responses'. (PFRs they are called in the trade). The aim is to provide at least the perception of so-called '24/7 Customer Assistance' - ultimately increasing the sites' "stickiness" and value. A live person scenario for learning is not hard to imagine. Teachers all over the world complain when students ask them the 'same old questions' over and over again. By putting answers to students' old chestnuts into a database, teachers could free up their time for direct input about new and original points of discussion.

(PICT)024 matters of epinion

Teachers may have more mixed views about my next net effect: application, opinion sites and 'recommender systems'. A well-known example is epinions.com. One million reviews have been posted on epinions since its launch a year ago - about 4,000 a day. 10,000 of the reviews posted have been reviews of the site itself - a rich source of feedback for the company's designers and managers. Such environments can dramatically increases a buyer's spectrum of available, high-quality and efficient suppliers.

Another buzzword - 'Supplier Performance Ratings' - refers to other tools that help one buy services in new ways. Open Ratings' (openratings.com) services includes the display of real-time ratings during the decision-making process. After a transaction, Open Ratings collects 'satisfaction surveys' from the buyer and supplier, then crunches the data in a way that weeds out fraudulent and retaliatory feedback. Participants can track their 'reputation performance' online. When it comes to education, caveat emptor indeed!

(PICT)025 play is big business

Finally, the net effect called games. I said earlier that play is sorely absent from most learning sites. The good news is, that away from the earnest attentions of learning entrepreneurs, children (and adults) are playing online like crazy. They spend hours on computer games which demand extraordinary feats of skill, intelligence, prediction, and motor co-ordination. All of these are aspects of high-quality learning, too. Sales of games software in America hit $3.3 billion last year, accounting for 15 per cent of all software sales. The Japanese spent $9 billion on games in 1998!

Many parents - and possibly spouses, too - worry about the shoot-and-slash storylines of games, nervous that that their loved ones' minds are being turned to mush. Seasoned experts are more optimistic, and believe that children are learning to learn in new ways. According to Douglas Rushkoff, author of Children of Chaos, the youth of today have mutated into "screenagers". The television remote-control, the videogame joystick, and the computer mouse, have irrevocably changed young people's relationship to media. In any case, the worlds of game-obsessed children, and of sophisticated business, have started to overlap.

Gaming theory in general, and visual simulation in particular, are hot topics now in business. Banks, oil companies, city planners and environmental agencies, are all using game techniques to enrich their understanding of future scenarios. So, if someone in your family appears to be zapping monsters, do not despair: the skills they are acquiring can also help them explore scenarios about the future of ecosystems.

Let me recap on my story so far. In part one, I argued that delivering content down a pipe is not teaching. New models of learning are needed that connect people to people - not people to machines. In part two, I showed you examples of 'net effects' that involve sharing, live contact, opinion giving and rating, and play. I suggested that this kind of application - and many more on the way - should be plumbed into the learning process. Now, whether we want to change or not, technology will come. Entrepreneurs will continue to innovate. Student values will carry on evolving, and their media behaviours will continue to perplex us. But we have choice: to be be passengers, as they drive a transformation of the ways we teach and the ways we learn. Or we can join them in the drivers seat - and wrest the wheel from interlopers who don't know how to drive.

Will we be the innovators in leveraging the value of what - and who - we know? Oro Oro has been organised for those of us who - yes - want to take the initiative. This unique three-day experience - part symposium, part hands-on workshop - is about new ways to teach, and to learn, in practice. The philosophy behind it is that you do not have to be under 25, and you do not have to be a nerd, to succeed in these hybrid learning situations. The objective is this: by the end of OroOro, every participant will be online, and on the net. We will acquainted with new concepts, skills and tools for the future. And we will have sampled learning interactions on the web that have their own rules, rhythms and speed.

The focus of Oro Oro is not just about technology, or online channels and tools. Its focus is on people, and on new ways to organise relationships between what - and who - we know. We are being asked to think about teaching and learning as a market. But what kind of market is it? An 'agora' in which everyone sells knowledge - and time - to everyone else? What are the different ways to be paid for what you know? The answer is that nobody knows. But if we do not like the answers being given now, it's up to us to propose alternatives. Thankyou for your attention. And I'll see you again at Oro Oro in January.

(This is the text of a speech given on September 6th, 2000, by John Thackara at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam).

Posted by John Thackara at 05:36 PM

April 22, 2000

The design challenge of pervasive computing

What happens to society when there are hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet? What cultural consequences follow when every object around us is 'smart', and connected? And what happens psychologically when you step into the garden to look at the flowers - and the flowers look at you? This is the complete version of my keynote lecture to the Computer Human Interaction (sic) congress in The Hague in 2000.

My talk this morning has four parts.

First, I will talk about where we are headed - right now. I'll focus on the interaction between pervasive computing, on the one hand, and our social and cultural responses to technology, and increased complexity, on the other.

The second part of my talk is about what I call our innovation dilemma. We know how to do amazing things, and we're filling the world up with amazing systems and devices. But we cannot answer the question: what is this stuff for? what value does it add to our lives?

The third part of my talk is about the new concept of experience design - and why it is moving centre stage as a success factor in the new economy. Experience design presents designers and usability specialists with a unique opportunity; but I will outline a number of obstacles we need to overcome if we are to exploit it.

I conclude with a proposed agenda for change, which I package as, 'Articles of Association Between Design, Technology And People'!


So my first question is this: where are we headed? I want to start with this frog and the story, which many of you will have heard before, about its relationship with boiling water. You remember how it goes: if you drop a frog into the pan when the water is boiling, it will leap out pretty sharpish.


But if you put the frog into a pan of cold water, and then heat it steadily towards boiling point, the frog - unaware that any dramatic change is taking place - will just sit there, and slowly cook.

The frog story is one way to think about our relationship to technology. If you could drop a 25-year-old from the year 1800 straight into the bubbling cauldron of a western city today, I'm pretty sure he or she would leap straight back out, in terror and shock. But we, who live here, don't do that. We have a vague sensation that things seem to be getting warmer and less comfortable - but for most of us, the condition of 'getting warmer and less comfortable' has been a constant throughout our lives. We're used to it. It's 'natural'.

But is it? Preparing this lecture required me to step back for a moment to get a clearer view of the big picture. This really was quite a shock. It's not so much that technology is changing quickly - change is one of the constants we have become used to. And it's not that technology is penetrating every aspect of our lives: that, too, has been happening to all of us since we were born. No: what shocked me was the rate of acceleration of change - right now. It's as if the accelerometer has disappeared off the right-hand side of the dial. From the point of view of a frog sitting on the edge of the saucepan - my point of view for today - the water has started to steam and bubble alarmingly. What does this mean? Should I be worried?

One aspect of the heating-up process is that many hard things are beginning to soften. Products and buildings, for example, which someone so insightfully described as 'frozen software'. Pervasive computing begins to melt them.

Let me explain.


I borrowed this picture from an ad by Autodesk because it so neatly hints that almost everything man-made, and quite a lot made by nature, will soon combine hardware and software. Ubiquitous computing spreads intelligence and connnectivity to more or less everything. Ships, aircraft, cars, bridges, tunnels, machines, refrigerators, door handles, lighting fixtures, shoes, hats, packaging. You name it, and somone, sooner or later, will put a chip in it.

Whether all these chips will make for a better product, is one of the questions I want to discuss with you this morning. Look, for example, at the list of features on a high-end Pioneer car radio. Just one small product. There would be hundreds like it on the on the city street we just saw. Shall I tell you a strange thing? There's no mention, on this endless list of features and functions, of an on-off switch! This car radio is about as complex as a jumbo jet. They also don't have an on-off switch, as I discovered the first time I asked a 747 pilot to show me the ignition key.

Speaking of jumbos, I saw a great cartoon in the New Yorker depicting a 747 pilot, sitting in sitting-back interaction mode with a PDA in his hand: the caption says, "That's cool: I can fly this baby through my Palm V."

Our houses are going the same way, crammed full of chips and sensors and actuators and God knows what.


And to judge by this picture increasingly bloated and hideous. Why is it that all these "house of the future" designs are so ghastly?

Increasingly, many of the chips around us will sense their environment in rudimentary but effective ways. The way things are going, as Bruce Sterling so memorably put it, "You will look at the garden, and the garden will look at you."


The world is already filled with eight, 12, or 30 computer chips for every man, woman and child on the planet. The number depends on who you ask. Within a few years - say, the amount of time a child who is four years old today will spend in junior school - that number will rise to thousands of chips per person. A majority of these chips will have the capacity to communicate with each other. By 2005, according to a report I saw a couple of days ago, nearly 100 million west Europeans will be using wireless data services connected to the Internet. And that's just counting people. The number of devices using the Internet will be ten or a hundred times more.

This explosion in pervasive connectivity is one reason, I suppose, why companies are willing to pay billions of dollars for radio spectrum. In the UK alone, a recent auction of just five bits of spectrum prompted bids totalling $25 billion. That's an awful lot of money to pay for fresh air. It prompts one to ask: how will these companies recoup such investments? What's to stop them filling every aspect of our lives with connectivity in order to recoup their investment?

The answer is: not a lot. We hear a lot in Europe about wired domestic appliances, and I can't say the prospect fills me with joy. Ericsson and Electrolux are developing a refrigerator that will sense when it is low on milk and order more direct from the supplier. Direct from the cow for all I know! I can just see it. You'll be driving home from work and the phone will ring. "Your refrigerator is on the line", the car will say; "it wants you to pick up some milk on your way home". To which my response will be: "tell the refrigerator I'm in a meeting."

But pervasive computing is not just about talking refrigerators, or beady-eyed flowers. Pervasive means everywhere, and that includes our bodies.


I'm surprised that the new machines which scan, probe, penetrate and enhance our bodies remain so low on the radar of public awareness. Bio-mechatronics, and medical telematics, are spreading at tremendous speed. So much so, that the space where 'human' ends, and machine begins, is becoming blurred.


There's no Dr Frankenstein out there, just thousands of creative and well-meaning people, just like you and me, who go to work every day to fix, or improve, a tiny bit of body. Oticon, in Denmark, is developing hundred-channel amplifiers for the inner ear. Scientists are cloning body parts, in competition with engineers and designers developing replacements - artificial livers and hearts and kidneys and blood and knees and fingers and toes. Smart prostheses of every kind. Progress on artificial skin is excellent. Tongues are a tough challenge, but they'll crack that one, too, in due course.

Let's do a mass experiment. I want you to touch your self somewhere on your body. Yes, anywhere! Don't touch the same bit as the person next to you. Whatever you're touching now, teams somewhere in the world are figuring out how to improve it, or replace it, or both. Thousands of teams, thousands of designs and techniques and innovations.

And this is just to speak of stand-alone body-parts. If any of these body parts I've mentioned has a chip in it - and most of them will - that chip will most likely be connectable. Medical telematics is one of the the fastest growing, and probably the most valuable, sector in telecommunications - the world's largest industry. There's been a discussion of patient records, and privacy issues; and the media are constantly covering such technical marvels as remote surgery.


But we hear far less about connectivity between monitoring devices on (or in) our bodies, on the one hand - and health-care practitioners, their institutions and knowledge systems, on the other. But this is where the significant changes are happening. Taking out someone's appendix remotely, in Botswana, is no doubt handy if you're stuck there, sick. But that's a special occurrence.


Heart disease, on the other hand, is a mass problem. It's also big business. Suppose you give every heart patient an implanted monitor, of the kind shown here. It talks wirelssly to computers, which are trained to keep an eye open for abnormalities. And bingo! Your body is very securely plugged into the network.

That's pervasive computing, too.


And that's just your body. People are busying themselves with our brains, too. Someone already has an artificial hypocampus. British Telecom are working on an interactive corneal implant. BT, which spends $1 million an hour on R&D - or is it a million dollars a minute, I forget - are confident that by 2005 its lens will have a screen on it, so video projections can be beamed straight onto your retina. In the words of BT's top tecchie, Sir Peter Cochrane, "You won't even have to open your eyes to go to the office in the morning." Thankyou very much, Sir Peter, for that leap forward!


By 2010, BT expect to be making direct links to the nervous system. This picture shows some of the ways they might do this. Links to the nervous system - links from it. What's the difference? Presumably BT's objective is that you won't even have to wake up to go to the office...


It's when you add all these tiny, practical, well-meant and individually admirable enhancements together that the picture begins to look creepy.


As often happens, artists and writers have alerted us to these changes first. In the words of Derrick de Kerckhove, "We are forever being made and re-made remade by our own inventions." And Donna Haraway, in her celebrated Cyborg Manifesto, observed: "Late 20th-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we are frighteningly inert."

Call this passive acceptance of technology into our bodies Borg Drift. The drift to becoming Borg features a million small, specialised acts. It's what happens when knowledge from many branches of science and design converge - - without us noticing. We are designing a world in which every object, every building, - and every body - becomes part of a network service. But we did not set out to design such an outcome. How could it be? So what are we going to do about it?

This is the innovation dilemma I referred to at the beginning.


To introduce the second part of my talk, I made this diagram. Every CHI talk has to have a 'big concept' diagram - and I'm not about to buck the trend.


The innovation dilemma is simply stated: many companies know how to make amazing things, technically. That's the top line in my chart: it keeps heading manfully upwards. It could just as easily apply to the sale of mobile devices, Internet traffic, processor speeds, whatever. Think of it as a combination of Moore's Law (which states that processor speeds double and costs halve every 18 months or so) and Metcalfe's Law (which states that the value of a network rises in proportion to the number of people attached to it).

The dilemma is that we are increasingly at a loss to understand what to make. We've landed ourselves with an industrial system that is brilliant on means, but pretty hopeless when it comes to ends. We can deliver amazing performance, but we find value hard to think about.

And this is why the bottom line - emotionally if not yet financially - heads south.

The result is a divergence - which you see here on the chart - between technological intensification - the high-tech blue line heading upwards - and perceived value, the green line, which is heading downwards. The spheroid thing in the middle is us - hovering uneasily between our infatuation with technology, on the one hand, and our unease about its meaning, and possible consequences, on the other.

I have decided to call this Thackara's Law: if there is a gap between the functionality of a technology, on the one hand, and the perceived value of that technology, on the other, then sooner or later this gap will be reflected - adversely - in the market. You can judge for yourselves whether the Nasdaq's recent downturn confirms Thackara's Law, or not.


In this next slide I have re-labelled the value line as the carrying capacity of the planet. I know there's nothing worse than being made to feel guilty by ghastly downwards-heading projections about the environment. As an issue, 'the environment' seems to be all pain, and no gain. My point is that although we may push sustainability - or rather, the lack of it - out of our conscious minds, we feel it nonetheless. I believe that the carrying capacity of the planet, and our background anxiety about technological intensification, are two aspects of the same cultural condition.

The green line on my chart describes a synthesis of environmental and cultural angst. The two lines are diverging because for far too long we've been designing things without asking these simple questions: what is this stuff for? what will its consequences be? And, are we sure this is a good idea?


This brings me to the third part of my talk, where I connect the concept of an innovation dilemma to the business of this conference, "designing the user experience", which seems to be a major preoccupation of the new economy. My question is this: what kind of experiences should we be designing? And how should we be doing it?


Another way to think about this question is by changing the lines on the chart. What products or services might we design which exploit booming technology and connectivity - which are not, after all, going to go away - while also delivering the social quality, and environmental sustainability, that we also appear to crave?


How, in other words, might we make that green line turn upwards? One way is to shift the focus of innovation from work to everyday life. People are by nature social creatures, and huge opportunities await companies that find new ways to enhance communication and community among people in their everyday lives. 'Social computing', in a word. Or rather, two.

Social communications often do not have a work-related goal, so they don't get much attention from industry. Low-rate telephone charges probably explain the low priority given to social communications by TelCos in their innovation. But social communication occupies a large amount of time in our daily lives. About two-thirds of of our conversational exchanges are social chitchat. These are different from the 'purposive', or task-related communications, that feature in most telecommunication advertising. All those busy executives rushing around being - well, busy. Not to say obnoxious.

Social communication among extended families and social groups is a huge and largely unexplored market. I discovered just how big is the potential as a member of a project called Presence. Presence is part of an important European Union programme called i3 (it stands for Intelligent Information Interfaces). Presence addressed the question: 'How might we use design to exploit information and communication technologies in order to meet new social needs?' In this case, the needs of elderly Europeans. Presence brought together companies, designers, social research and human factors specialists, and people in real communities in towns in three European countries.

We learned a valuable lessons in Presence: setting out to 'help' elders, on the assumption that they are helpless and infirm, is to invite a sharp rebuff. Unless a project team is motivated by empowerment, not exploitation, these 'real-time, real-world' interactions will not succeed. Sentimentality works less well, we found, than a hard-headed approach. Our elderly 'actors' reacted better when we decided to approach them more pragmatically as 'knowledge assets' that needed to be put to work in the information economy. Old people know things, they have experience, they have time. Looked at this way, a project to connect eldely people via the Internet became an investment, not a welfare cost.

We also evolved a hybrid form of co-authorship during Presence. Telecommunication and software companies routinely give prototype or 'alpha' products to selected users during the development process. Indeed, most large-scale computer or communication systems are never 'finished' - they are customised by their users continuously, working with the supplier's engineers and designers. In Presence, too, elderly people were actively involved, along with designers, researchers, and companies, in the development of new service scenarios.

Designing with, rather than for, elderly people raises new process issues. Project leaders have to run research, development, and interaction with citizens in parallel, rather than in linear sequence. We learned that using multiple methodologies, according to need and circumstance, works best: there is no correct way to do this kind of thing. The most pleasing aspect was the way that designers and human factors came - if not to love, then at least to respect - each other. Once you get away from either/or - and embrace and/and - things loosen up amazingly.

Presence also raised fascinating issues to do with the design qualities of so-called 'hybrid worlds'. As computing migrates from ugly boxes on our desks, and suffuses everything around us, a new relationship is emerging between the real and the virtual, the artificial and natural, the mental and material.

Social computing of the kind we explored in Presence is unexplored territory for most of us. I can think of few limits to the range of new services we might develop if we simply took an aspect of of daily life, and looked for ways to make it better. I even found a list of common daily activities which have deep cultural roots, but which we can surely improve. I took the list from E. O. Wilson's book, Consilience, in which he reflects on the wide range of topics that anthroplogists and social researchers have studied, in relative obscurity, for several decades.


To recap on the story so far: We face an innovation dilemma: we know how to make things, but not what to make. To resolve the innovation dilemma, we need to focus on social quality and sustainability values first, and technology second. And I described, through the example of the Presence project, how one might take one aspect of daily life, and make it better in using information technology as one of the tools.


Usability of any kind used to be either ignored completely, or treated as a downstream technical specialisation. Many of you know, better than I, what it is like to be asked to 'add' usability to some complex, and sometimes pointless, artefact - after everyone else has done their thing.

Today, all that is changing. In the new economy, we hear everywhere, the customer's experience is the product! Logically, therefore, the customer's experience is critical to the health of the firm itself!

A new generation of companies has burst onto the scene in a dramatic way over the last couple of years to meet this new challenge. They are a new and fascinating combination of business strategy, marketing, systems integration, and design. Their names are on the lips of every pundit, and on the cover of every business magazine. I thought it worth looking at a couple of these new companies.

In Scient's discussion of user experience, the word architect has been turned into a verb, as in "The customer experience centre architects e-business solutions". For Scient, customer experience design capabilities include information architecture, user interface engineering, visual design, content strategy, front-end technology, and usability research. Scient proclaims with gusto that "customer experience is a key component in building a legendary brand". True to these beliefs, Scient hired a CHI luminary, John Rheinfrank. John has become the Hegel of user experience design with the wonderful job title of "Master Architect, Customer Experience".

Over at Sapient, Rick Robinson, previously a founder of e-Lab in Chicago, has been appointed "Chief Experience Officer". Rick is proselytising for "experience modelling" which, he promises, "will become the norm for all e-commerce applications". Experience design, whispers Sapient modestly, will "transform the way business creates products and services . . . by paying careful attention to an individual's entire experience, not simply to his or her expressed needs".

The group called Advance Design is an informal, sixty-strong workshop, meeting once or twice a year, convened by Clement Mok from Sapient and Terry Swack at Razorfish, and featuring most of the luminaries in the New Age companies I referred to just now. I reckon that the energy and rhetorics of "user experience design" probably originated here in the group of pioneers.

I cannot end my quick excursion into the new economy without mentioning Rare Medium, whose line on customer experience design falls somewhere between the Reverend Jerry Falwell and the Incredible Hulk. Rare talks about "the creation phase" in a project, then go on to describe the the so-called "heavy lifting" stage of the engagement, before they segue back into the last phase of the Rare methodology, "Evolution'.


Now, I'm teasing good people here. I'm probably jealous that nobody made me a "Master Architect of Customer Experience". Some of the language used by these new companies about customer experience design is a touch triumphalist. But this focus on customer experience design is a major step forwards from the bad old days - that is, the last 150 years of the industrial age - when the interests of users were barely considered. Besides, it's tough out there. The new economy does not reward shrinking violets. But it's because design and human factors are now being taken more seriously, that we need to be more self-critical now - not less.

To be candid, I worry that by over-promoting the concept of "user experience design" we may be creating problems for ourselves down the line.

Language matters. Let me quote you the following words from an article about last year's CHI: "The 1999 conference on human factors in computing posed the following questions: What are the limiting factors to the success of interactive systems? What techniques and methodologies do we have for identifying and transcending those limitations? And, just how far can we push those limits?"

Do these words sound controversial to you? Probably not. They describe what CHI is about, right? But those innocuous words make me feel really uneasy.

Take the reference to "human factors in computing". The "success of interactive systems" is stated to be our goal - not the optimisation of computing as a factor in human affairs. Do you consider yourself to be just a "factor' in the system? I don't think so. But CHI's own title states just that. Language like this is insidious. It's not about the success of people, and not the success of communities - but the success of interactive systems!

We say we're user-centred, but we think, and act, system-centered.

My critique of system-centeredness is hardly new. The industrial era is replete with complaints that, in the name of progress, we wilfully subjugate human interests to the interests of the machine. Remember Thoreau's famous dictum that, "We do not ride on the railroad - it rides on us"? The history of industrialisation is filled with variations on that theme.

In a generation from now - say, when the child I mentioned earlier has her first child - what will writers say about pervasive computing? I believe we should try to anticipate the critics of tomorrow, now.

As Bill Buxton (a leading interaction designer) would say: usable is not a value; useful is a value. Making it easier for someone to use a system does not, for me, make it a better system. Usability is a pre-condition for the creation of value - but that's something different.

The words creation of value are important. I do not mean the delivery of value. Users create knowledge, but only if we let them. I recommend an excellent book by Robert Johnson called User-Centered Technology for its explanation that most rhetoric about user experience depicts users as recipients of content that has been provided for them.

A passive role in the use of a system someone uses is the antithesis of the hands-on interactions by which we learn about the non-technological world. At the extreme dumb end of the spectrum, you find the concept of "idiot-proofing" - the idea that most people know little or nothing of technological system and are seen as a source of error or breakdown. To me, I'm afraid, it's the people who hold those views who are the real idiots.

Many of you may disagree vehemently with this, but I believe hiding complexity makes things worse. Interfaces which mask complexity render the user powerless to improve it. If a transaction breaks down, you are left helpless, unable to solve what might be an underlying design problem.

An architecture of passive relationships between user and system is massively inefficient. I agree with the argument that if a thing is worth using, people will figure out how to use it. I would go further: in figuring out how to use stuff, users make the stuff better. I'll return to this idea in a moment.

The casual assumption that only designers understand complexity is related to another danger: the denigration of place. 'Context independence' and 'anytime, anywhere funtionality' are, for me, misguided objectives. If we are serious about designing for real life, then real contexts have to be part of the process. User knowledge is always situated. What people know about technology, and the experiences they have with it, are always located in a certain time and place.

I would go further, and assert that 'context independence' destroys value. Malcolm McCullough, who wrote a terrific book called Abstracting Craft, is currently exploring 'location awareness' and has become critical of anytime/anyplace functionality. "The time has arrived for using technology to understand, rather than overcome, inhabited space", he wrote to me recently; "design is increasingly about appropriateness; appropriateness is shaped by context; and the richest kinds of contexts are places."

Putting the interests of the system ahead of the interests of people exposes us to another danger: speed freakery. "Speed is God; Time is the Devil", goes Hitachi's company slogan. We're constantly told that survival in business depends on the speed with which companies respond to changes in core technologies, and to shifts in our environments. I tend towards a contrary view, that industry is trapped in a self-defeating cycle of continuous acceleration. Speed may be a given, but - like usability - it is not, per se, a virtue.

I believe we need to begin designing for multiple speeds, to be more confident and assertive in our management of time. Some changes do need to be speed-of-light - but others need time.

We have to stop whingeing about the pressures of modern life and do something about them. One way, I propose, is to budget and schedule time for reflection. Such 'dead' time or 're-booting' time is important for people and organisations alike. We need to distinguish between time to market and time in market - a lesson I predict will be learned the hard way by many of the 'pure-play' dot coms. Yes, industry needs concepts, but it also needs time to accumulate value. Connections can be multiplied by technology - but understanding requires time and place.


You may well object that your work is complicated enough as it is, without being subjected to my flaky and unrealistic demands. I sympathise with the anxiety that involving users on a one-to-one basis would lead to 'flooding', and that nothing would ever get done.

But let's try to re-frame the question. Let's return to my suggestion that we replace the word 'user' with the word 'actor'. I like the word actor because although actors have a high degree of self-determination in what they do, they do their thing among an amazing variety of other specialists doing theirs. There's the writer of the screenplay, for example. The screenplay holds a film together. Without a screenplay, no film would ever get made. A movie also has an amazing array of specialised skills and specialisms - craft experts - such as the lighting and sound guys - and all those "best boys" and "gaffers" and "chief grips" - who know whatever it is that they do!

The Hollywood Model makes a lot of sense to me when thinking about the collaborative design of complex interactive systems. As an experiment, I put all the keywords and specialisms listed in the CHI conference programme into these credits for a complex interactive system I've called THING. On these credits are all the disciplines and approaches needed to make THING.

Let's assume that that the producer of THING is a company. Companies have money, and they co-ordinate pojects. And we already agreed that people, formerly known as 'users', are the actors. The obvious question arises: who is the scriptwriter of THING? And who is the director?


I think the role of scriptwriter might possibly go to designers. Designers are great at telling stories about how things might be in the future. Someone has to make a proposal to get the THING process started. This picture, of a next- generation mobile ear device was designed by Ideo mainly to stimulate industry to think more broadly about wirelessness. One can imagine that such an image might trigger a large and complex project by a TelCo.

Like scriptwriters, designers tend to play a solitary rather than collaborative role in the creative process. Clement Mok (Chief Creative Officer of Sapient) put it rather well, in a magazine called Communications recently: "Designers are trained and genetically engineered to be solo pilots. They meet and get the brief, then they go off and do their magic." Clement added that he thought software designers and engineers are that way too.

This suggests to me that, although designers should occupy the role of screenwriter, they should not necessarily be the director and run the whole show. Designers are not good at writing non-technological stories.


These sunglasses, also by Ideo, are a high-tech gadget whose function is to protect the wearer from intrusive communications. But in my opinion, you don't protect privacy with gadgets, you protect it by having laws and values to stop people filling every cubic metre on earth with what Ezio Manzini so eloquently terms 'semiotic pollution'. For me, gadget-centredness is the same as system-centredness - and neither of the two is properly people-centered. This is why designers are not, for me, eligible automatically to be the director of THING.

Don't get me wrong. People do like to be stimulated, to have things proposed to them. Designers are great at this. But the line between propose and impose is a thin one. We need a balance. In my experience, the majority of architects and designers still think it is their job to design the world from outside, top-down. Designing in the world - real-time, real-world design - strikes many designers as being less cool, less fun, than the development of blue-sky concepts.

So who gets to be director of THING? I say: we all do. In the words of Nobel Laureate Murray Gell Mann, innovation is an 'emergent phenomenon' that happens when there is interaction between different kinds of people, and disparate forms of knowledge. We're talking about a new kind of process here - design for emergence. It's a process that does not deliver finished results. It may not even have a 'director.'

Perhaps we might think about the design of pervasive computing as a new kind of street theatre. We could call it the Open Source Theatre Company. Open Source is revolutionary because it is bottom-up; it is a culture, not just a technique. Some of the most significant advances in computing - advances that are shaping our economy and our culture - are the product of a little-understood hacker culture that delivers more innovation, and better quality, than conventional innovation processes.

Open Source is about the way software is designed and, as we've seen, 'software' now means virtually everything. Computing and connectivity permeate nature, our bodies, our homes. In a hybrid world such as this, networked collaboration of this kind is, to my mind, the only way to cope.



The interaction of pervasive computing, with social and environmental agendas for innovation, represents a revolution in the way our products, our systems are designed, the way we use them - and how they relate to us.

Locating innovation in specific social contexts can, I am sure, resolve the innovation dilemma I talked about today. Designing with people, not for them, can bring the whole subject of 'user experience' literally to life. Looked at in this way, success will come to organisations with the most creative and committed customers (sorry, 'actors').

The signs of such a change are there for all to see. Enlightened managers and entrepreneurs understand, nowadays, that the best way to navigate a complex world is through a focus on core values, not on chasing the latest killer app. (This picture illustrates the core values of the French train company, SNCF).

Business magazines are full of talk about a transition from transactions, to a focus on relationships. We are moving from business strategies based on the 'domination' of markets, to the cultivation of communities. The best companies are focussing more on the innovation of new services, and new business models, than on new technology per se. They are striving to change relationships, to anticipate limts, to accelerate trends.

As designers and usability experts we need to study, criticise and adapt to these trends. Not uncritically, but creatively.

To conclude my talk today, I have drafted some "Articles of Association Between Design, Technology and The People Formerly Known As Users". Treat them partly as an exercise, partly as a provocation. They go like this.

Articles of Association Between Design, Technology and The People Formerly Known As Users

Article 1:
We cherish the fact that people are innately curious, playful, and creative. We therefore suspect that technology is not going to go away: it's too much fun.

Article 2:
We will deliver value to people - not deliver people to systems. We will give priority to human agency, and will not treat humans as a 'factor' in some bigger picture.

Article 3:
We will not presume to design your experiences for you - but we will do so with you, if asked.

Article 4:
We do not believe in 'idiot-proof' technology - because we are not idiots, and neither are you. We will use language with care, and will search for less patronising words than 'user' and 'consumer'.

Article 5:
We will focus on services, not on things. We will not flood the world with pointless devices.

Article 6:
We believe that 'content' is something you do - not something you are given.

Article 7:
We will consider material end energy flows in all the systems we design. We will think about the consequences of technology before we act, not after.

Article 8:
We will not pretend things are simple, when they are complex. We value the fact that by acting inside a system, you will probably improve it.

Article 9:
We believe that place matters, and we will look after it.

Article 10:
We believe that speed and time matter, too - but that sometimes you need more, and sometimes you need less. We will not fill up all time with content.

Which is good a moment as any, I think, for me to end. Thank you for your attention.

(This text was John Thackara's keynote speech at CHI2000 in The Hague. CHI is the worldwide forum for professionals who influence how people interact with computers. 2,600 designers, researchers, practitioners, educators, and students came to CHI2000 from around the world to discuss the future of computer-human interaction.)

Posted by John Thackara at 05:34 PM

January 22, 2000

From science fiction to social fiction: a new vision for innovation and design

(A chapter about i-cubed for If/Then).

In thermodynamics it is called entropy when a system becomes disengaged from its context, and runs out of energy. Entropy afflicts a lot of design ‘research’ today. Even though the world is changing in profound and exciting ways, a generation of young designers is missing out on meaningful interaction with industry and society. Too many of their design schools and professional organisations are more interested in protecting professional turf than in exploring new challenges in the world at large.

The industrial research situation is not much better. Some $160 billion is spent each year on research and development by companies and governments in industrialised countries - but less than five per cent, by some estimates, ends up as a product or service that someone can buy. The reason is the same as for design: research is disengaged from its context. The majority of industrial research and development (R&D) is driven by a frantic scampering after technological Holy Grails - not by an exploration of changing social needs.

People are social

This is where i3 comes in. i3, which stands for Intelligent Information Interfaces, seeks new ways to enhance communication and information exchange among people in their everyday lives. i3 is a next-generation research and innovation programme, funded by the long-term Research division of Esprit, the European Commission’s telematics programme, and by European industry. Launched in Autumn 1997, i3 consisted by the beginning of 1999 of seventy million ecus ($60m) of research involving 300 researchers, and more than 100 organisations, in 15 European countries. This unique network includes big telecommunication companies, small manufacturing enterprises, important national universities, media centres, and design research organisations. (The Netherlands Design Institute is managing two i3 projects - Presence, and Maypole - which are featured on page xx).

New tools, new markets
What, you may ask, do they all do? In short, i3 develops scenarios and pilot projects that concern new services in travel, education, entertainment, news and information, health care, social interaction, and trade - all of them markets being transformed by information technology. From play and learning in childhood, through new forms of work as adults, to self-help in old-age, tremendous opportunities are opening up for new forms of technologically-enhanced communication and community. The role of i3 is to help companies and other organisations exploit these opportunities - and to develop new innovation techniques so that they may continue to do so.

i3 projects are currently grouped in three clusters: Connected Community, Inhabited Information Spaces, Experimental School Environments. Connected Community projects explore the situated use of information by communities of ordinary people; future service and technologies to enhance social interaction; devices to help children and adults stay in contact. Inhabited Information Spaces projects examine new ways to embody information, and to support virtual communities; new ways of managing access to online resources; new forms of interactive television; new forms of community participation. Experimental School Environments investigates learning environments of the future for four to eight-year-old children - and their teachers and parents; visualisation of ecological processes; sound and gesture interfaces.

New interaction paradigms
i3 projects move beyond the conventional thinking on interaction design exhibited in today’s consumer electronic products and personal computers. Among the novel interaction scenarios for devices and media already emerging from i3 projects:
∑ new forms of social communication in homes, museums, streets, cafés, cars, schools
∑ broadcast television linked to interactive local content
∑ new sensorial tools for children to tell stories and share experiences
∑ wireless devices to connect children and parents
∑ wearable agents; interest-based physical navigation devices
∑ public information systems around the city
∑ techniques to map and visualise information flows in a community
∑ interfaces for specific users - elderly, children, computer novices
∑ avatar-inhabited television
∑ way-finding, exploration and social interaction within information spaces
∑ new forms of social interaction such as collective memories, oral/digital storytelling

Real-time, real world
Industrial members of i3 are encouraged to see their consortium as an extension of their in-house research and development - and so far, the response from companies taking part has been very positive. The reason for this is that in i3, know-how is given as much emphasis as know what - and the network emphasises the rapid uptake of ideas, concepts and innovation processes. The thinking is that ideas should be exploited as close to real-time as possible - not, as in traditional academic research, at the end of an endlessly long publishing process. (Academic papers can take three years to see the light of day; in i3, three months is the normal time horizon).

Finding unexpected new partners has proved to be an extra benefit for companies in i3. This has prompted the founders of i3 to think about broadening the range and mix of companies involved. During 1999, a new entity will be created for research and marketing managers in large corporations; visionaries developing new business concepts and alliances; entrepreneurs from dynamic small enterprises; and modernising managers from the public sector. These new industrial members will be offered rapid access to i3 research results, and to the innovation processes by which these results are achieved. Value will be added further by the exploration, in collaboration with Europe’s leading business schools, of business scenarios and new value chains to test the commercial potential of interesting service concepts as they emerge.

The research agenda of the enlarged i3 will be a series of thematic domains rather than a list of projects. Identifying research topics, and enhancing innovation methodologies, is a learning process in itself. Different streams of work will interact: scanning for new technology; the development of blue-sky concepts by designers; explorations of new media by artists; proposals for new services and infrastructures by citizens; business scenarios developed by managers; research observations made by social scientists.

i3derives tremendous energy from Europe’s cultural diversity, with creative people, companies, and communities, beginning to work together in novel ways. i3 now includes interactive system and technology developers; interaction and product designers outlining new concepts; interactive media artists developing new media forms; human and social scientists achieving new insight into the relationship between users and technology. An extended research network will be based on a human-oriented vision of the potential of information technology and, if things go well, foster the emergence of a new innovation culture.


Posted by John Thackara at 05:24 PM

Is technology cooking us?

Article for The Guardian (UK) in 2000 based on my CHI lecture.

What happens to society when there are hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet? What cultural consequences follow when every object around us is 'smart', and connected? And what happens psychologically when you step into the garden to look at the flowers - and the flowers look at you?

You might think that such questions would preoccupy anyone involved with computers – namely, all of us. But you’d be wrong. We think about technology in the same way that a frog thinks about boiling water. You remember the story: if you drop a frog into the pan when the water is boiling, it will leap out; but if you put the frog into a pan of cold water, and then heat it steadily towards boiling point, the frog - unaware that any dramatic change is taking place - will just sit there, and slowly cook.

Is technology cooking us?

Many hard things are certainly beginning to soften. Take products and buildings, for example, once described as ‘frozen software’: Pervasive computing begins to melt them. Almost everything man-made, and quite a lot made by nature, will soon combine hardware and software: intelligence and connectivity are suffusing ships, aircraft, cars, bridges, tunnels, machines, refrigerators, door handles, lighting fixtures, shoes, hats, packaging.

The world is already filled with eight, twelve, or thirty computer chips for every man, woman and child on the planet. (The number depends on who you ask). Within a few years - say, the amount of time a child who is four years old today will spend in junior school - that number will rise to thousands of chips per person. A majority of these chips will have the capacity to communicate with each other. Increasingly, many of the chips around us will sense their environment in rudimentary but effective ways. The way things are going, as writer Bruce Sterling so memorably put it, "you will look at the garden, and the garden will look at you" .

But pervasive computing is not just about flowers. Pervasive means everywhere, and that includes our bodies. Bio-mechatronics, and medical telematics, are spreading at tremendous speed. So much so, that the space where 'human' ends, and machine begins, is becoming blurred. British Telecom, which spends $1 million an hour on R&D (or is a million dollars a minute, I forget) are working on an interactive corneal implant. BT are confident that by 2005 its lens will have a screen on it so video projections can be beamed straight onto your retina. In the words of BT’s top tecchie, Sir Peter Cochrane, "you won’t even have to open your eyes to go to the office in the morning". Thankyou very much, Sir Peter, for that leap forward! By 2010, BT expect to be making direct links to the nervous system. Links to the nervous system- - -links from it. What ís the difference? Presumably BT’s objective is that you won’t even have to wake up to go to the office.....

I call this passive acceptance of technology into our bodies Borg drift. It features a million small, specialised acts. It’s what happens when knowledge from many branches of science and design converge - without us noticing. We are designing a world in which every object, every building, - and every body - become part of a network service, even though we did not set out to design such an outcome.

I am no Canute: railing against technology, per se, is pointless. But we do need to reflect on the bigger picture if we are to have any influence over what it looks like. This is why, to provoke a discussion inside the industry, I recently circulated some "Articles of Association Between Design, Technology and The People Formerly Known As Users" which have provoked a lively – and generally positive – response. They go like this:

Article 1
We cherish the fact that people are innately curious, playful, and creative. We therefore suspect that technology is not going to go away: it’s too much fun.

Article 2
We will deliver value to people - not deliver people to systems. We will give priority to human agency, and will not treat humans as a ‘factor’ in some bigger picture.

Article 3
We will not presume to design your experiences for you - but we will do so with you, if asked.

Article 4
We do not believe in ‘idiot-proof’ technology - because we are not idiots, and neither are you. We will use language with care, and will search for less patronising words than ‘user’ and ‘consumer’.

Article 5
We will focus on services, not on things. We will not flood the world with pointless devices.

Article 6
We believe that ‘content’ is something you do - not something you are given.

Article 7
We will consider material end energy flows in all the systems we design. We will think about the consequences of technology before we act, not after.

Article 8
We will not pretend things are simple, when they are complex. We value the fact that by acting inside a system, you will probably improve it.

Article 9
We believe that place matters, and we will look after it.

Article 10
We believe that speed and time matter, too - but that sometimes you need more, and sometimes you need less. We will not fill up all time with content.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:23 PM

Designing the space of flows

(This is a chapter for a book published in 2000 (by 010) on Benthem|Crouwel - the wonderful architects of the -now gone - Netherlands Design Institute and, in their spare time, of Schiphol Airport)

Are buildings a liability?
The eminent Spanish economist Manuel Castells, whose first speech in Amsterdam was by invitation of the Design Institute, has written about the networked economy as "the space of flows" - a brilliant metaphor that helps us understand the changing nature of the workplace. Castells observes that while connections between people can indeed be multiplied by information and communication technologies, understanding still requires space, place and time. It is on that relationship - between connectivity, and meaning - that I focus in this text.

Management of the work environment as a combination of space, place, time and interaction, is moving centre-stage in discussions about innovation, learning, and the knowledge economy. This new focus on work environment raises tricky questions for anyone involved with the building industry. Hard questions are being asked about all the physical assets owned by business - with buildings being singled out as an albatross hanging around their necks. In the extreme view, which is gaining ground, ownership of any kind of asset other than information is becoming a liability. You gain flexibility by not owning physical assets, the argument goes; by concentrating on ownership of intellectual property and moving that around, organisations will do better in the new economy; there is growing pressure on all kinds of organisations to invest more in immaterial than in material assets.

But even albatrosses - and buildings - have their uses.

If it is indeed the quality of interactions with other people, communities and customers that determines the success of a knowledge-nurturing organisation, then buildings can still deliver value. In an economic world dealing in knowledge, the secret of success is the combination of different types of expertise in a productive manner - continuously. Learning, at all levels, relies ultimately on personal interaction and, in particular, on a range of implicit and peripheral forms of communication. Technology is still very far from being able to handle these liminal communications efficiently - but buildings can.

Frozen software?
So real-world spaces remain useful in knowledge work - but not static space. The criticism that products and buildings are 'frozen software' is a powerful one. Anything that blocks complex interactions between individuals, communities of practice, and customers, hinders innovation. This criticism has been levelled at our own building more than once - that it isolates and separates the people in it from the real world. It is so beautiful, so perfect, that the outside world pales by comparison. Most buildings are dumb and inflexible. The design institute is not that. But neither is it an easy space to change to suit circumstances: the spaces determine the interactions that occur within them, and are therefore a problem.

Fostering complex interactions - the constantly changing flows of people and ideas that characterise a dynamic organisation - means designing the context of innovation and learning in a new way. In the words of Nobel Laureate Murray Gell Mann, innovation is an 'emergent phenomenon' that happens when a person or organisation fosters interaction between different kinds of people, and disparate forms of knowledge. A new kind of design - design for emergence- increases the flow of information within and between communities. Such a design process does not deliver finished space or fixed equipment; if a building behaves like frozen software, it won't work. The re-framed objective of design is to decide what inputs to plumb into a particular context: what questions? which people? what experiential qualities? in what kind of space?

Smart space
The concept of emergence is changing the way our products, systems, organisations and buildings are designed, the way we use them - and how they relate to us. Everything about us is now a combination of hardware and software. The world is already filled with 35 computer chips for every man, woman and child on the planet. A growing proportion of these chips talk to each other thanks to another revolution, wide area computer networking. Ubiquitous computing spreads new forms of intelligence and connectivity everywhere - from the bottom of the sea to the bottom of our shoes. As connected computing suffuses the environment, the notion of designing particular behaviours and qualities into that environment becomes a realistic proposition. When combined with the explosive growth of mobile telephony, the result is a transformation in the way we use time and space.

When new multimedia technologies and internet first appeared, there was excited talk of 'parallel worlds' and escape into a 'virtual reality'. Now the fuss has died down and here we still are, in the same old bodies, on the same old planet. Things have changed - but in subtle and more interesting ways: now the real and the virtual, the artificial and natural, the mental and material, co-exist in a new kind of hybrid space.

Hybrid space, smart space
We tend to think of products and buildings as lumps of dead matter: inert; passive; dumb. But buildings are becoming lively, active, and intelligent. Objects that are sensitive to their environment, act with some intelligence, and talk to each other, are changing the basic phenomenology of buildings - the way they exist in the world. The result is to undermine long-standing design principles. "Form follows function" made sense when products were designed for a specific task - but not when responsive materials, that modify its shape or behaviour, are available. Another nostrum, 'truth to materials', was a moral imperative of the modern movement in design; it made sense when products were made of 'found' or natural materials whose properties were pre-determined. But 'truth' is less helpful as a design principle when the performance and behaviour of materials can be specified in advance.

Once workspaces become suffused with unfrozen software, their designers will encounter another revolution - this one, in the way software is designed. Every day, computer designers at companies like Netscape receive thousands of messages directly from the users of their products. These products are never 'finished', but evolve continuously in response to the to and from of messages between users and designers.

It follows that software-suffused environments may soon be subject to online redesign 24 hours a day. What's more, it may be done for free thanks to yet another revolution, open source. Open source describes the tradition of open standards, shared source codes, and collaborative development, behind software operating systems and languages such as Linux and Perl. Open source is revolutionary because it is bottom-up; it is a culture, not just a technique. Some of the most significant advances in computing - advances that are shaping our economy and our culture - are the product of little-understood hacker culture that delivers more innovation, and better quality, than conventional innovation processes. Open source is one symptom of a powerful world-wide trend towards networked collaboration that companies and specialist knowledge workers, isolated in their professional and institutional ghettos, have been slow to pick up. The faint outline of such a world is already visible at the design institute. The task of tweaking our telephone and computer networks never really stops, and more-and-more expert technical people trade their time spent fixing our systems for benefits we can give them, such as participation in events, or introductions to interesting people.

Amsterdam: strange attractor
The transformation of business processes means that a good geographical location does not always carry as much weight as it once did. But place still matters a lot. All economic actors face new challenges as the distance between the producers of products or services, and their users, shrinks. Sophisticated distribution and logistics systems, computer-integrated manufacturing and design, new materials, and direct marketing, have changed fundamentally what it means to design, produce, distribute or sell a product or service. In this context, location is one more edge that smart entrepreneurs capitalise on.

The location factor is clear as can be in Amsterdam, where our own building is located. Amsterdam's harbour, its position in Europe, and its connections with the great rivers of Europe, gave it its first gateway status. Soon there was a physical infrastructure for the smooth movement of goods. Now a new infrastructure of wired and wireless networks is adding to the city's potency, to quote Manuel de Landa, as an 'attractor'. These cumulative investments in physical and information connectivity have led American information-technology entrepreneurs, in a report by the Aspen Institute, to view Amsterdam as the ideal European base.

In her influential book World Class, Harvard University professor Elizabeth Moss Kantor has analysed what makes a city competitive; she talks about a "golden triumvirate of world class resources: concepts, competence, and connections". Cities and organisations alike, she argues, should develop these three assets to link their local population to the global economy: to be a place where new ideas can be generated by interactions among a variety of disciplines and cultures; to be a place where some production skills are concentrated; and above all to be a place which, if it does not possess a skill or competency itself, has links to a place which does.

Combining traditional research techniques with new design and user-driven methods, designers are also learning now how to map the way communications flowed in different kinds of communities. These 'maps' do not just focus on so-called 'purposive' communication - letters to the bank, calling a taxi, a project meeting - but also embrace all kinds of social and cultural communications - the many ways people build relationships, articulate their needs and fears, and interact informally with friends, family, carers, officials and so on. The dynamic of such projects is to focus on the people themselves, their needs, their habits, their frustrations, their daily life. Knowledge management is the new imperative - driven by the shift away from a world of goods and services towards one of information and relationships. The keyword here is minds in the in the plural - and in particular the capabilities of groups. Traditional workplace design emphasised the individual worker; space and equipment for teams has more recently been given attention. Workplace design that fosters continuously changing and complex knowledge relationships and flows is the new priority.

Speed is God, Time is the Devil
Space and place are important to he way an economic entity manages time. Speed is God, Time is the Devil", goes Hitachi's company slogan. But it's hard to accelerate, or change direction, when you're big. For many big companies, too much dispersal of places and people is becoming counter-productive. "Mobility is starting to backfire", says Lufthansa, without a blush. The relationship between workspace design and mobility is a paradoxical one. Nothing would appear to be more immobile than a building - but new workplaces can adapt themselves to cope with constantly changing configurations. The designers of 'SimCity' have, intriguingly, tied up with the SantaFe Institute to offer 'design for emergence' simulation tools for - among other intriguing possibilities - a 'SimSainsburys'. Large organisations can emulate the dynamism and speedy decision-making typical of smaller firms by using ICT space and real space in new combinations.

The relationship between information technology and social experience (especially in the areas of art and entertainment) is already a very close one. Current trends include the merging of IT and Television technologies (e.g. in digital and interactive TV), the growth of the computer games industry and the use of multimedia and interactive technologies to create novel artistic installations and exhibitions. However, even though there has been a recent trend towards greater interactivity between individual viewers/users and the technology, these experiences are, on the whole, socially isolating ones. For example, Interactive TV does not allow different viewers to directly participate in an event or to interact with one another and most computer games are still single user experiences (with a few exceptions and even these only support a very few users at a time). Compare these with traditional cultural forms such as theatre, sports events, concerts, fairgrounds and exhibitions, all of which provide rich and vibrant settings for social interaction and which would be reduced in their impact with the active presence of many participants.

We need to consider how new electronic forms of experience might enable social interaction between participants. This is necessary both from the commercial perspective of creating new markets for entertainment applications and also from the socio-political perspective of countering the negative social impacts of current media and entertainment technologies.A specific goal is to encourage making the inhabited information spaces available, useful and enjoyable for groups of worker-citizens with heterogeneous access to the network, in bandwidth as well as presentation and interaction devices.

The use of large-scale display technologies (e.g. projection systems, domes and Caves) may enable the provision of public interfaces to social computer systems. Such interfaces may eventually allow users to be immersed without being encumbered by equipment. They will also be inherently sharable - several people may use the same interface at the same time. However, present technologies fail to support meaningful interaction between the crowd of observers and the shared display: typically, one person 'drives' and the others merely watch. Research is required into techniques whereby groups of people can meaningfully interact with a shared display in a relatively easy, flexible and unencumbered manner.

The range of disciplines with an impact on workplace design is widening. Psychologists, for example, describe as 'catatonic space' an environment that is so devoid of the contextual clues (daylight, heat, wind etc) that we fail to make sense of where we are. We know that buildings can be physically sick; now, it seems, they can be emotionally dysfunctional, too, and will need the help of shrinks. Theatre people are getting in on the act: the Walt Disney Company employs "imagineers" to ensure that its supremely artificial environments do not become catatonic. We are beginning to see something similar emerge in the offices of knowledge-based companies. 'Office clowns', 'animateurs', 'showbusiness impresarios' and other jobs whose role is to generally 'liven the place up'.

Innovations in the workplace will migrate steadily to the domestic environment - indeed, the two spaces will merge. Interactive communication networks linking public and private spaces will have a considerable impact on the future of urban functions, local communications and lifestyles. Such technologies will change qualitative and quantitative aspects of relationships between household members, as well as the role and function for the home and its relationship to the wider environment. Many IT companies now view the home as the next site for technological development. The world market for 'domestic' information processing, communications, interfaces and control units is already running at five billion ECU's per year for new homes and 10 billion ECU's per year for upgrading old homes.

A knowledge centre that works
Ultimately, however, work is not just about earning money to buy products. "We work not just to produce", said Eugene Delacroix, "but to give value to time". Work has social, cultural, and personal, as well as economic meaning. It is that meaning that the design institute building so powerfully fosters. Although it is not used as a public museum, the Institute's building is intensively used by more than 20,000 people each year as a knowledge and activity centre. The building hugely impresses every visitor, and has contributed to the Institute's international standing as a leading-edge organisation. The Fodor has become a busy knowledge centre rather than a cultural or leisure destination. The building stimulates innovation, but is not dedicated to the passive consumption of design spectacles by hordes of citizens and tourists. In the years to come, we will intensify use of the building in new ways: as a meeting place, for presentations, as a communication centre, as a laboratory.


Posted by John Thackara at 05:21 PM

Lost in space: a traveller's tale

This is the text of the Lumiance Lecture that I gave in Amsterdam, in 1994, at the invitation of Harry Swaak, the founder and (then) CEO of Lumiance. Harry was also also chairman of the board of the Netherlands Design Institute where I had started work as its first Director12 months earlier.

As well as being thresholds between land and air, modern airports are gateways to complexity. Through them, we enter the operating environment of global aviation, surely mankind's most complicated creation. But in airports, although we are isolated from the rythms of the natural world, we remain ignorant of how this artificial one works. The result is to reinforce what philosophers call our ontological alienation: a sense of rootlessness and anxiety; of not quite being real; of being... lost in space.

Aviation is typical in many respects of the way the whole world is going: saturated with information and systems; complex but incomprehensible; an exhilarating human achievement, and a terrifying prospect, at the same time. It's time design got to grips with these ambiguous features of our technological society. But I'll return to these broader issues at the end.

Right now, I want to focus on three design questions: why does air travel makes you feel strange ? what can design do to improve the experience? and why go in person, when you can call?

I believe answers to these three questions can be found by looking at the ways that different kinds of space affect the way we think and feel. The first is architectural space, a familar enough concept which is sufficiently mAinstream nowadays to coommand generous coverage in newspapers and on television. Then there is aviation space, the 'operating environment' within which airports, airplanes, electronic signals, and people, interact with each other continuously on a global scale. Typical airport plans, of the kind you would find in an architect's office, say almost nothing about the quality of our interaction with these intangible systems and processes. I will then compare these first two kinds of space to a third, telematic space - the space of electronic communications, where all that's whizzing around is information.

In order to explain the strange way we feel when traveling by air, and the impact on us of airport and aviation space, I need to explain a bit about the aviation system as a whole, which determines what architects would call the programme of an individual airport building.

Since 1993, the world's airlines carried more than one billion passengers on scheduled flights every year. That's equivalent to one sixth of the world's population. Airlines also carried 22 million tons of freight last year - almost a quarter of the total value of the world's manufactured exports. It took something like 12 million aircraft departures to carry such stupendous quantities of people and goods around the world. These were to and from about 16,000 airports in the Unites States alone - perhaps 30,000 in the world? Nobody actually knows: no single organisation represents them all.

But the aviation system's earthbound infrastructure is as nothing compared to the complexity of its operating environment, or aviation space. The aviation system, of which airports are one component, is distributed not just in space, but also in time. Airports exist at the intersection of airways - the space through which aircraft pass - which are densely criss-crossed, in three spatial dimensions,and at different times - by the routes planes are flying, did fly, and will fly.

Aviation space is also saturated with electronic information from humans and machines, chattering out directions to thousands of aircrew - and onboard computers - at any one moment. The fact that people - passengers, aircrew, ground staff, air traffic controllers and the like - are part of the system, too, means that when it comes to complex environments, forget the banks and dealing rooms that feature so prominently on television as symbols of modern space: airports are by far the most advanced smart buildings on earth.

Expansion of the system, and in particular the rate of building of new airports, is staggering. Compound growth in air travel and transport of six per cent or more has a profound impact on the phenomenology of air travel - the vague sensation that these huge flows of people and matter and information are increasing in volume and power all the time. Once a year, Airports International magazine lists hundreds of new aiport projects around the world. Many are in places I, for one, have never heard of - exotic towns spending tens and hundreds, billions of dollars on new facilities.No single world body is responsible for the aviation system as a whole. There are airlines - thousands of them: the breakup of Aeroflot produced 800 new ones in the URSS Then there are all sorts operators and managers of airport - some local, some national. There do exist supranational air traffic control bodies, but they have an uphill struggle integrating national systems.Nobody is coordinating this phenomenal expansion of world aviation. It's just happening.

Speed is money This stupendous investment of money and materials is not the consequence of an integrated plan to manage increasing traffic: it is a potent interactionm between politics and markets. Economically, aviation growth is a visceral response by the market to apparantly limitless demand. Politically, airports have become economic and political touchstones against which cities and regions measure their status in the world. In post-Cold War Europe more than 300 emerging cities or regional entities are competing with each other to attract increasingly mobile capital and jobs. For them - and for hundreds of other cities and regions around the world - an airport has become a strategic priority.

The biggest international airports and major hubs - the United States alone has 30 - are like giant pumps that greatly increase flow through the whole system. Phenomenal costs land on those places that wish to keep up. A single 747-capacity runway can cost $200m; an international passenger terminal ranges from $100 million upwards. Once road and rail links, baggage handling systems, air traffic control systems and so on, are factored in, the capital cost of an international airport quickly exceed a billion dollars.Japan's new Kansai airport cost $15 billion -insofar as anyone actually knows the full amount,or is prepared to say.

The ground traffic generated by all those workers, passengers, well-wishers, cab drivers and so on, is enormous too. Los Angeles International generates more than 150,000 vehicle trips daily in and out of the central terminal area alone - excluding long-stay car parks, warehouses, nearby hotels and their suppliers. For planners, it's like designing a traffic system for a city with more than half a million inhabitants.

Airports also have huge workforces. Frankfurt, whose workforce is well over 40,000, is the biggest single-site employer in the whole of Germany. London Heathrow,in order to handle more than 1,000 airliner movements a day, employs 55,000 people directly - meterologists, air traffic controllers, pilots, cabin crew, cleaners, caterers, check-in staff, baggage handlers, engineers, firemen, police, security guards. Heathrow's staff numbers exclude more than 300,000 or more people employed by a myriad suppliers. All those van drivers and sandwich makers. Airports are also the world's largest employers of dogs.

It is only because airports are multinational businesses in their own right that costs on this scale can be sustained. Indeed, commercial activity on the ground, not aircraft taking off and landing, is now one of the main drivers of airport design. Less than 50 per cent of Heathrow's earnings now come from landing fees or servicing aircraft. International transit passengers not flying spend an average of $35 a head at Heathrow's hundreds of shops, restaurants, hairdressers - and four caviar bars. Heathrow is also the largest market for Havana cigars in the world - including Havana.

Dwell time In the olden days, when airports were planned and operated as transport utitlities - if only for an elite - engineers and operations people would have regarded an idle passenger as evidence of system inefficiency. Not today. Mobility is just one of the products on sale at a modern airport. So much so that to commercial managers, 'passenger discretionary time', or 'dwell time'- the time spent by passengers killing time between flights - is a sales opportunity. Why else ask people check in up to 3 hours before takeoff?

The management of dwell-time to optimise commercial yield is one reason - traffic jams are another - that between 1950 and 1990, the proportion of time spent in the air by passengers on a journey has steadily decreased. As the transport economist John Whitelegg has observed, the amount of time each person devotes to travel is roughly the same regardless of how far or how fast they travel. Facilities are sited further apart, and people have to travel furether top reach them than they did 70 years ago. "Time is money, we are told, and increasing mobility is a way of saving time", says Whitelegg; "but how successful are modern transport systems at savnig time?". If air travel is any guide, the answer appears to be: not very much.

Social speed In fact, the faster we go the less time we feel we have. Following on from the work of Ivan Illich in the 1970s, the German sociologist D Seifried has coined the term social speed to signify the average speed of a vehicle (and its passengers) after all sorts of hidden time costs are added in. So in addition to 'getting to the airport' time - and dwell-time once you get there - Seifried reminds us about the time spent earning the money to go on the journey in the first place. Some urban designers have introduced the concept of time planning to take account of these hidden costs of travel.

Air travel purists, wedded to the fantasy that air travel denotes fast and efficient mobility, face worse disillusion ahead. London's Gatwick, for example, has developed a $40 million airport theme park whose target is one million people a year - 'travellers' whose only destination is the airport itself.

Work space

Apart from shopping and leisure, airports are also being used ever more intensively by businesses. Virtual corporations - companies that have forsaken headquarters buildings for a life on the road - are big users of airports. The growing amount of business carried out across national boundaries in the new economy has fuelled demand for meeting rooms, exhibition and showroom facilities, business centres, and other non-travel-specific facilities - inside, next to, under, and on top of, most new airports. Airports have replaced science and business parks as the epicentre of business real estate.

These multiple programmes and agendas - operational, commercial, political - are one reason why writers have started talking about airports as cities - cities of the air.Both cities and airports cover large areas; both are a complex of intersecting transport systems, economies, buildings, and people. But there is one crucial difference: cities have inhabitants. At airports, everyone is transient. Herein lies one element of the airport's existential ambiguity.

The American writer Richard Sennett is particularly outraged that cities have become more like a pump for traffic, than a place to live, and that planners can describe a local airport as a 'traffic-flow support nexus'. "When public space becomes a derivative of movement", says Sennett, "it loses any independent experiential meaning of its own. On the most physical level, these environments of pure movement prompt people to think of the public domain as meaningless... It is catatonic space".

Catatonic space

The word catatonic is horribly apt as a description of the way these great modern spaces make us feel. What is going on when they have this effect?

Any space, including artificial space, affects our minds and our bodies. But artificial environments shield us from phenomena like climate, and particularly daylight, whose cycles in the natural world expose us physically to the reality of constant change. In an optically static environment, like most airports, the body is physically desensitised from its sense of time.

In a brilliant essay called The Poetics of Light the American architect Henry Plummer observed that "our very sense of being is based on an experience of process, activity, and movement. We seem to find an image of our own existence in the changing lights of the natural world". Moment-to-moment mutations of light also provide what the philosopher Henry Bergson called "lived time", and Ernst Cassirer "a consciousness of sequence". I was reminded of this recently when, wandering slack-jawed around Anchorage airport en route to Japan, I accidentally stepped outside to an Alaskan night: it was literally like waking up from a dream. Startled by the cold, dank spooky Alaskan air, I lost my bearings for a moment. Where was I? Luckily, a blast of noise, and the warm embrace of kerosene fumes, reminded me where I was. For a moment there, I could have been lost to nature.

Lived time, natural time, cold, dank spooky Alaskan air time, stands in stark contrast to the so-called objective time of clocks and departure times at airports. According to the psychologist David Winnicott, loss of temporality is a feature of the psychotic and deprived individual, in which a person "loses the ability to connect the past with the present". The bridging of the present into the past, and into the future is, says Winnicott, "a crucial dimension of psychic integration and health".So there you have it. Air travel, by scrambling your mind-and-body clock, creates the preconditions for psychosis. So that's another reason it makes you feel strange!

This will not come as dramatic news to architects. As far back as the 1930s, the celebrated Hawthorn Study analysed a connection between light and mental comfort. Hawthorn's work represents the pre-history of environmental psychology and has been an established branch of science for about 15 years now. It is to environmental psychologists that we owe the term 'sick building syndrome', and the development of so-called 'environmentally porous' new buildings. The smartest new structures now let fresh air and daylight in.


I have suggested thus far that the challenge posed by airports to architecture and design is threefold: the designer confronts contradictory operational and commercial agendas; she has to tackle the impact of artificial environments on our physical/mental state; and there is the problem of cognitive disorientation, of not understanding the system, on our mental/physical state

The contradictory agendas of airport operators are by themselves an intractable problem facing architects and designers. Remarkably, the architect is one of the few people on earth - along with the planner and the economist - who grapples materially with the big picture - the totality of the aviation system. Almost everyone else tends to be a specialist in one bit of the system. But it is obvious, given these conflicting agendas, that the chances of an architect imposing a coherent design solution are small. I will return to the consequences of that in a moment.

The second problem - of artificial space which isolates us from natural rythms - can be and is being tackled by letting in fresh air and daylight - just as almost any nineteenth century parent, opening a child's window at night, would have known intuitvely! Window manufacturers are making a huge song-and-dance out of the fact that their latest high-tech products, some of which are being used in airports, can actually be opened. Even where windows remain sealed, letting in daylight is now a fully-blown fad in airport design.

The logic of movement

A spectacular example of this trend is Kansai International Airport in Japan which opened in 1994. It's a $15 billion pheneomenon, described - even by the can-do Japanese - as "an exceptional endeavour for the country". To secure the 500 hectares needed for airport with a projected capacity for 160,000 aircraft movements a year - in a country where 70 per cent of the land is occupied by mountains - the airport is built on an artificial island. It's about 5km offshore from Osaka, where the average water depth at the site is 18.5m, with unstable clay underneath. Preparation of the the site began in 1987, and involved driving one million sand piles into the seabed. They then built an 11km long seawall, which outlined the island, And filled the resulting hole with 164 million cubic metres of soil.It must have taken a lot of buckets and spades.

Meanwhile, Renzo Piano, working with engineers Ove Arup and partners, won an international competition for the 300,000 m2 terminal. The central concept, the geometry of the main roof, was inspired by the design of an airflow, and developed by reference to fractal geometry. Renzo Piano believes that an "air terminal should be structured as a diagramme of the people moving through it. The entire building - structure, light and air movement - should complement the logic of passenger movement". To its credit,the airport has also segregated commercial activities on another level, allowing passengers more or less uninterrupted access from landside to airside. With a main span of 82.5m-long main beams over the 300m long main halls will afford travellers the pleasure of being part of a moving throng in a great space. The roof is airy and uncluttered and full of light. The design allows people to experience a drama of changing space, light and sights -familiarity intermixed, as the jury report put it, with "bold revelations of the future". Passengers arriving from the mainland enter a great canyon- the interface between nature and the machine - that is some 25m wide and 300m long.

At their first briefing meeting, Piano's team was presented with a 2,000 page summary of the technical briefing. As legend has it, the great man ceremoniously threw this $50 million document in the trashbin - if only to make the point that he needed to start with, and hold onto, a clear design concept. The details could be worked out later. Amazingly, the design concept survived a vast, fast, multi billion dollar programme more or less intact - although even the Japanese ran out of money towards the end and had to trim the 'wings' of Piano's masterpiece by about half, pending expansion later.

Kansai successfully emerged as an architeturally coherent building. But the opportunity to build a new island, built on millions of sand-piles, and to spend $10 billion, is not an option for most airport developers in the world. So the third design problem I want to discuss - the cognitive dissonance that comes from being a rootless monad in an architecturally opaque space - is likely to remain pervasive in airports around the world unless new design stratgies are developed.

Countless modern writers, from Karl Marx, to Baudelaire,to Richard Sennett, have written about the alienation you feel in modern cities. Urban anxiety is part of our culture: Bladerunner,; MTV videos of wild creatures singing songs amidst burned out cars; the lurid urban advertising used by law-and-order politicians during elections. All these media use urban angst as their backdrop. But psychologists have only recently addressed the phenomenon. They have now discovered the importance of what they call "situated understanding" - a phrase of Hubert Dreyfus - the fact that having a clear mental picture of an artificial environment contributes to mental health.

When it comes to giving us a clear mental picture of our environment, architecture has not exactly excelled itself in recent years: in most airports, one is situated in a box - and it feels like it. After a pre-history involving utilitarian brick buildings on the edge of fields, airports once seemed destined to become the architectural equivalent of modern cathedrals. Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal in New York had a particularly strong impact on the public imagination and became for many critics a symbol of modernity. As Reyner Banham so memorably observed, the TWA terminal was obsolete before it even opened. Designed for fleets of propeller-driven Lockheed Constellations, by the time it opened the first jets, the Comets and Boeing 707s were in use, and the terminal's airside had to be encrusted with jet-blast deflectors. Today, Saarinen's masterpiece at JFK has almost disappeared: you glimpse it every now and again, cowering between lumpish great buildings like a lost child in Times Square.

Planners, besieged by data, can't really help but think in terms of boxes. Boxes contain lots of space, can be packed together, and stack up nicely. And frankly, a well-made box is preferable to artworks like Roissy Charles de Gaulle in Paris. This monument to system complexity looked stunning on paper - but turned out a nightmare to use. I must have been to Roissy 40 times; it's nice, as you glide down those capillary-like tunnels into the featureless aorta of the main building, to imagine oneself in a Jacques Tati movie. But I still have to think twice, and sometimes ask at Information, where to catch the railway shuttle.

Sim city without batteries

When complex systems are not hidden or disguised - for example in the vast, cathedral-like dealing rooms built by Japanese banks in the 1980s - the geometry and atmosphere of the space is determined by the technology, not by a designer. Architecture really doesn't have a language for unstable contexts of this kind - still less for ones like airports where large numbers of people, as well as data, are passing through. As the architect Bernard Tschumi points out in Architecture and Disjunction, "three thousand years of architectural ideology have tried to assert that architecture is about stability, solidity, foundation, when it is the very opposite: like modern scientific knowledge, buildings are constantly on the verge of change." And as Donald Schon put it in The Refelective Practitioner back in 1971, "design is now increasingly taking place beyond the stable state".

Beyond the stable state

Some architects have at least acknowledged the problem that confronts buildings and urban spacesin an era of speed and change. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas talks about the "incoherence, or more precisely randomness, that is the underlying structure of all architects' careers. They are confronted by an arbitarary sequence of demands - parameters they did not establish, in countries they hardly know, about issues they are only dimly aware of". We have dismantled urbanism, says Koolhaas, leaving only architecture - "more and more substance is grafted on starving roots". The trouble is that although Koolhaas the critic understands the problem, Koolhaas the architect can't do much about it. An extremely macho 'hundred crane man' during construction of Euro-Lille in France (quantities of cranes are a measure of how big a building project is), his project celebrates space, change and movement but does virtually nothing to to give passers-through a cognitive sense of place. You feel like one of those tiny humanoid figures architects use to decorate their models - sleek, but blind.

Signs of the times

Some airpoort managers do try out new tools and techniques to make complex space more inhabitable. Schiphol in Amsterdam, for example, installed a large Jenny Holzer artwork in one particularly vapid void. Cryptic words and phrases flow up and down the 20 metre-high stack of digital displays all day long. Jenny Holzer's use of typography and digital displays has a particular resonance for anyone contemplating the notion of semiotic pollution in the sheer volume of information swirling around us. I guess these are the first artists to have spent a lot of their lives staring at departure boards. But this large, strong, clearly-conceived, and subversive object, is pitiful in the context of Schiphol as a whole. Phenomenologically, it is inert. It is powerless to communicate amidst the silent roar of people, movement and information that pervades the airport.

Cartography also fails in such contexts. Maps represent one of the fundamental tools by which we make sense of the world; as cartographic historian Stephen Hall has explained, "they mediate between an inner mental world, and an outer physical world, of which the map reader may have no direct experience". By that definition, maps should be an excellent antidote to the cognitive fog that surrounds us in vast artificial environments such as an airport. And it is true that the best maps and charts do inform you where you stand in relation to the whole. But what they do not do is convey a sense of movement, of flow, of process -which is the experiential reality that you are aware of, but cannot see, in places like airports.

It is not the role of signs, either, to reveal the fundamental structure of a system.Their role is to control and optimise flow, to induce your movement in a particular direction at a particular time. They are the graphic design equivalent, for humans, of the metal strips on the floor that robots follow blindly around automated factories.Don't get me wrong. I love good signs.When I arrive back at Schiphol from any other airport in the world (except possibly from the new bits of Frankfurt, whose Grundig digital signs are also fab) I get real pleasure from the sheer design quality of the banks of video information screens, and those large yellow signs. If one is going to be processed by a system, better to be processed by an elegant, even beautiful system, than by a bad one.

But I return to my point that neither maps, which are representation, nor signs, which issue instructions, can help us understand the system as a whole. Visual displays to explain complex processes do exist - the French make particuilarly beautiful ones for their nuclear power stations; and the Japanese make wonderful, high-resolution digital displays for banks and dealing rooms that are a sheer pleasure to watch; but neither airport operators nor architects seem have thought about presenting information to the public using new media in a creative way.

Slow space

The same cannot be said of artists. Throughout the twentieth century artists have intervened in a variety of ways into manmade space: futurism, cubist collage,Duchamp's readymades, Dada, constructivism, surrealism, Fontana's spatialism, Fluxus, land art, arte povera, process art, conceptualism. These groups and ideas all confronted the movement, energy, dynamism, and sheer process--ness that modern man encounters, in the modern places we have made. They treated the deadness and catatonia of modern public space both as a rebuke, and a challenge. Their aim has been twofold: to create reflective, liminal or 'slow' space on the one hand; and to animate space, to give it a narrative content, on the other.

In recent years a new generation of media artsists has emerged with new tools and new ideas.. Jeffrey Shaw's piece Legible City, for example, is a quite remarkable idea: the participant bicycles down virtual street where instead of buildings, you pass words. Shaw worked with a writer on the project, and together they created a template for the words based on the grid and actual buildings of Manhatten. If you turn a corner, you move from one narrative - or sentence - into another one. Keiici Irie, one of the most brilliant of the new young architects in Japan, used sound to animate and delineate spacein a project called Movable Realities; you pass ed through 'cones' of sound, each of which plays a different sound sequence. In a show called T-Zone which we did together in London and Glasgow, Irie created 10m high slabs slabs of glass behind which were video cameras which captured your picture as you walked past, and replayed them with a delay on small monitors. In Glasgow we had to turn the thing off because the frequencies were interefering with air traffic control at Glasgow Airport. [Just in case you were wondering what possible conection this had with airports!].

Another Japanese artist, Toshio Iwai, who designs games for Nintendo and installations for the Group Of Seven Summit, intervenes in space with crisp, evocative, and visceral combinations of computers, projectors, and various interfaces. I do not mean to be over-literal about this, but one could at least imagine an enriched design scenario for airports which combined the latest mapping and computerised cartography with the spatial sensibility of the best artists - and simply bring the places to life.


Let me remind you of the three questions I posed at the beginning: why does air travel makes you feel so strange? how might design improve the experience? and why go in person, when you can call?

My reason for telling you about media artists followed my reluctant conclusion, concerning question two, that architecture and design by themselves lack the motivation and the tools to improve our experience of airport space. My thought was that perhaps different specialisms, like cartography or media art, might be able to add a new dimension to the articulation of these spaces.

The trouble is, I'm not completely naive: it's highly unlikely that airports and their design can be influenced in such interesting ways - let alone by artists. Some enlightened airport operators do try to make their facilities cleaner, easier to use, more humane. Schiphol exemplifies this. Sometimes they even hang art on walls, or put sculptures in the concourses. But apart from the fact that most concourses are semiotically stronger than most art, this is not really the point. The fundamental logic of airports - their basic operating software - is to process passengers, not to enlighten them. Even Schiphol suffers gravely from the fact that no person, and no team, is responsible for the perceptual integrity of the airport as a whole.

Greedy space

But there's another, quite different reason why my contemplation of radical design scenarios for airports ran out of steam. Aviation as a whole is already far too greedy a consumer of energy - and space. If we are serious about striving towards a sustainable world economy, and given population and other trends, we have to increase the energy- and matter-efficiency with which live on this planet by a factor of 20. Getting a bit better each year will not be enough. In this rather daunting context, there's no way our world can afford the continued mad growth of aviation. If we are serious about a sustainable economy then aviation will have to contract.

It sounds implausible, but consider this: matter is more expensive than energy; energy is more expensive than information. It is almost infinitely cheaper to move information than people or things. So why not fly less, and communicate more? Hence my third and final point: the telematic alternative. Rather than try to "cure" the alienating effects of airports - for example, by radical artistic intervention into airport space - should we not be looking for alternative ways to achieve the same ends as air travel, without the obscene consumption of energy that we now know aviation entails? Hence my third question: why go in person when you can call?

From aviators to avatars

Despite all the hoopla about highways of the mind, the capacity of information and communication technology to recreate what it's like to be in a meeting with people somewhere else is a long way off. A lot of the whizzier demonstrations you see or hear about are either faked, or cost $10,000 an hour. But whether or not the technology will actually deliver distant verisimilitude now, or later, is not the main point. Existing forms of comunication deliver perfectly satisfactory results to billions of people everyday; POTS they call it in the trade - or "Plain Old Telephone Service".

If the aim of air travel were simply to exchange information, then we wouldn't bother doing it. The trouble is - to state the obvious - that's not why we do it. It's that mind-body business again: experientially, there never will be an alternative to actually 'being there'. Now I know that - and you know that - but the terrifying thing is that the world's telecommunications companies don't appear to know that. On the contrary: they're spending vast amounts of money and gobbling ludicrous quantities of bandwidth in the search for systems and networks that will reproduce as closely as possible the sensation of 'being there'.

At Germany's huge GMD national computer laboratories, for example, one team has harnessed together a whole row of super-fast Thinking Machine computers in order to increase the perceptual depth of its 'virtual conference room'. GMD's idea is to recreate, as closely as possible, the experience of sitting round a conference table - only with the people opposite you being located in differenm parts of the world. Most major TelCos are engaged in similar experiments - mindless to the fact that most of us find real meertings, let alone virtual ones, futile enough.

Skip Ishii, a researcher formerly at Japan's NTT, and now at the MediaLab in Boston, is a leading critic of Being There-ness as the strategic aim of TelCos. Ishii points out that the human eye has something like 40 million receptors in it. Many millions more receptors are to be found in our ears, up out noses, in our skin and on our tongues. There are dense clusters of receptors elsewhere on the body, too - but this is a family readership, so I will not dwell on those! Even if you could capture the smells, sounds, tastes, and feel of a place, digitise them, and send them down a wire - you'd still never get near the sensation of Being There. Why? Because we humans are not so dumb. Our minds and out bodies are one intelligence. We'd just know, that's why.

So why bother trying? Well, there's big business in all this. Assuming, as the industry does, that 2 billion people will be flying annually by 2005, and that 20% of that number will be travelling on business, as forecasters predict. That's 400 million business travellers who might be persuaded - or told by their boss - to take the superhighway of the mind instead of flying.

As a matter of fact, this is already happening. Sales of videoconferencing equipment and services in the United States climbed from $350 million in 1992 to $7 billion in 1997- and the graph continues to rise. But the real growth is in the internet, and there, the graphs are not shooting upwards for the reasons the TelCos imagine. The geometric explosion in usage of the Internet is despite the fact that it is actually rather difficult to use, is low in information content quantitatively, and is many many years away from 'Being There' verisimilitude. Most of what you send or receive is boring old text. Visual trickery will come: as we have seen, industry is busy developing high-bandwidth networked computer graphics and real-time simulators. But funnily enough, the prospect of virtual reality 'coming true' is not what is turning on one million new Internet subscribers a month,now. Simulation, per se, has already lost its allure.

No. What drives the explosion in Internet usage is something else, a new quality to existing communication,the quality of connectivity.

Connectivity is the capacity of the communication networks to connect everything and everyone, to everything and everyone else. Unlike the telephone, whose great advantage is its intimacy as a medium - you use the phone, but you don't think about it - the Internet very positively conveys the idea of shared communication space. So although the engineers and bandwidth junkies will continue their quest for 'Being There' verisimilitude, the more interesting task for design is to enhance the communication quality of cyberspace by more artful and indirect means.

The promise of proxemity

To give you a flavour of what this might involve,let me tell you about a project called The Poetics of Telepresence which the Netherlands Design Institute did with two English designers, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby. Their idea, which was to look at the effect of fusing physical and telematic space, was inspired by the obscure (outside Umberto Eco books) social science of proxemics. Proxemics looks at how different spatial relationships - standing close, standing apart, eavesdropping - change the whole tenor of the way we communicate. Dunne and Raby extrapolated from these findings to ask: why should videoconferencing always be face to face? They developed scenarios in which each person sits inside a box in which the weather in the other person's ncountry is represented, and listens to the person's voice. They also asked, why limit contact to speech, or sight? We could use radio to trigger heat devices remotely, or to emit smoke or smells. [I particularly liked the idea of a "hot air" button on my telephphone, so I could politely let the person at the other end know she or he was talking nonsense]. Temperature is highly evocative of the body: to recreate an intimate atmosphere of co-presence for a call, why not make the area warm?

The big telecom companies emphasize 'purposive' communication - all those ghastly television advertisements with dynamic business persons doing deals on mobile telephones. But a lot of the most important communication is informal, accidental, and happens by chance. In the brain, intense activity takes place in liminal parts of the cortex that nobody understands, but know are important. In offices, the water cooler or coffee machine tends to be more important than the boardroom as a communication nexus; so why not create similar reflexive spaces and street-corner moments in cyberspace? Dunne & Raby came up with ideas whereby telecommunications might allow you 'bump into' people in distant spaces.

New ways by which people might be represented in telematic space include the use of 'avatars'; these are images or symbols (the word has origins in Hinduism) either literally or metaphorically represent a particular person. Microsoft have an avatar team whgose experiments include Miro-like squiggles that co-habit so-called chat-spaces with others of their (ie our) kind. An English team is developing 3d whole-body scanners thatr will be installed, rather like passport photo booths, in public spaces. Having digitised your whole body, you will be able to send it out into the internet on your behalf where it will meet and hand out with other avatars.

Speed is God; time is the devil

The thing about air travel is that it affords you the illusion of compressing space and time. But, as John Urry has observed, "speed turns nature into landscape" - and we have no real idea what this unprecedented explosion in mobility and telecommuniccations portends. It took centuries for information about the smelting of iron ore to cross a single continent and bring about the iron age. During the time of sailing ships, it took years for knowledge and technologies to spread around the world. Just 100 years ago, 99 per cent of all people lived their lives within a 50 kilometre radius of where they were born.

All that has changed - and in a couple of generations. The telegraph and radio made it possible to deliver information point to point, simultaneously. Radio, television and satellite increased the communicational footprint. Now we have the internet and world wide web - and nobody really knows what the interaction of this new medium with the old ones will mean in the medium term for the nature and dynamics of knowledge.

We tend to scoff nowadays at nineteenth century medical experts who warned that the acceleration of life, and use of the telephone, would cause "serious mental degeneration"; we think it quaint to discover that the word 'phoney' should derive from early descriptions of the communicative quality of telephones. But how sophisticated are we, really, today? We seldom step back and think critically about the aviation system as a whole, for example, preferring to pass our days either m indlessly passing through it - or working intensively on small bits of it: flying aircraft, managing passenger manifests, delivering canapes, designing avionics, staring at air traffic control screens. There are thousands more functions in the system, and millions of people work on them day and night. But aviation is so complex that we find it hard to grasp as a totality. Even social scientists hold back. They will wax indignant about the impact of television, or of the computer, but I have yet to hear a behavioural critique of aviation - even though aviation has transformed the way we experience 'here' and 'now' and 'there' and 'then'.

I set out to explore a common activity, flying, and to provoke you look and think about it differently next time you do it. My proposition is that in the modern world - of which airports and air travel are a paradigm - ignorance is not bliss. We need new design languages, a grammar of complexity, to describe the contemporary world - not as it used to be, and not as the engineers would like us to see it, but as it actually is: a world of global computer and communication networks; of distributed intelligence; of interactivity; of connectivity.

In the seventeenth century we were exposed by science to the fact that - to cut a long story short - the world is not flat. Today, to cut an even longer story even shorter, the world is more complicated than it used to be. But we made it, and we can still understand it. We have to, if we are to control it.


Posted by John Thackara at 05:10 PM