March 08, 2008

Dott 07 wrap event

Before we close the doors at Dott 07 for the last time, the final Dott 07 Explorers Club will take place in Newcastle on Wednesday 12 March. We will look back at Dott projects and discuss: what did we learn? and what happens next? We'll have updates from the community design projects, including news from the Eco Design Challenge. There will be a special session on Our Cyborg Future? We'll also debate what design schools are doing (or not) for sustainability. The evening will close with a debate on future opportunities for design innovation as North East England makes the transiton to a one planet economy. News on the next Dott (somewhere else in the UK) will also be announced. This is your last chance to enjoy (with us) the fabulous space of the Robert Stephenson Centre. Spaces are limited due to fire regulations so you need to book your place. To do this please email susan.lowthian@dott07.com with Explorers Club in the subject line. See you there!

Posted by John Thackara at 02:57 PM | Comments (0)

Wouldn't a free Dott Manual be great?

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What could life in a sustainable region be like - and how can design can help us get there? Here are some more sample spreads from the Dott 07 Manual. We've got a couple of boxes of the book left over, so I will send five free copies to the person(s) who most intrigue me with the names of four other people you will send the books to when you get them. Hint: they should be people likely to make other Dott-like events happen. Email the names of your nominees, plus your full postal address, to: john at doorsofperception punt com (and please put Manual in the header). Subject to availability. Single copies are still available from Amazon

Posted by John Thackara at 07:18 AM | Comments (0)

January 09, 2008

Wikinomics vs Getting Real

Don Tapscott's new book Wikinomcs gallops along at a heady pace. "The knowledge, resources, and computing power of billions of people are self-organising into a massive new collective force", it gushes. This marvelous news is tempered by the suspicion that either I, or the Web 2.0 world, is afflicted by a severe reality deficit. Wikinomics promises us an internet-powered business utopia, but the words climate change, peak oil, and catabolic collapse, are notable for their utter absence from the book. Tapscott is the finest tech booster of our age, but I can't help feeling the name of his company, New Paradigm, is a misnomer. Although, as Bruce Nussbaum comments this week, companies are demanding that their managers be more creative , surely they should be creative with their eyes open? For me, a better text than Wiknomics for CEOs is John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia . "The pursuit of utopia must be replaced by an attempt to cope with reality" writes Gray. Warning that "an irrational faith in the future is encrypted into contemporary life", the laugh-a-minute philosopher recommends a diet of Spinoza and Tao-ism for those whose new year resolution is: Get Real.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:11 PM | Comments (0)

September 03, 2006

Service as a journey

Is service design the next big thing after e-everything? If the recent surge in books and conferences is a guide, service design is at least a meme – if not yet a mania.

The trouble is, it can’t possibly be new. Seventy percent of the UK economy is ‘services’, for goodness sake, so someone must have designed them. Service designers look foolish when they claim to be inventing a new profession.

What’s new is an interest in existing public services as potential subjects of re-design. “All service organisations need to find new ways of connecting intimately with their users and customers” say Sophia Parker and Joe Heapy, in a new booklet. They’ve written down a set of service design principles that offer "fresh approaches to organisations seeking to close the gap what they do, and what people want and need”.

Do such virtuous organisations exist? The Italians have a great word – “managerialita” – for the obsession with process and targets that so mesmerise politicians and officials. I recently started working with the UK public sector for the first time in thirteen years. The application to what is basically a cultural project (Dott 07) of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), evaluation protocols, and risk assessment has been, to be frank, bizarre. The fact that everyone around me finds this stuff to be normal is almost as scary as the stuff itself.

Worse is to come. New Labour has swallowed whole and undigested the notion of a ‘self-service’ economy - and its bastard offspring, 'e-govenment' - that have been peddled by old-paradigm business professors and ICT firms like Microsoft. “Government will take swift advantage of new technologies as they emerge” trills a Cabinet Office paper on “transformational government”.”Over the next decade, the principal preferred channels for the delivery of transactional services will be the internet, telephone and mobile…”.

Mark these words: “Preferred” means peferred by government and its ICT suppliers, not by normal people. In countless surveys at least 80 percent of citizens say they prefer to communicate with human beings, not with machines.

If the future is about how citizens and service staff can work together and help each other, as Parker and Heapy propose, then the clunky, automated, expensive and top-down e-government threatened by Bill and Tony will be an obstacle to that future, not a support.

The authors interviewed 50 organisations for the book. They sought out organisations "that seek to close the gap between what they do, and what people want and need”. Their conclusion: successful services are rooted in “empathy, support, and dialogue”. “Spreadsheets are no substitute for people” sthey write; “It is not commodified products or services that we want, it is support”.

The book sets itself a tough challenge: persuading the bean counters and control freaks in government that empathy, support, and dialogue are meaningful indicators of success. Mindful that New Labour is usually impressed by business, most of the book’s exemplars are private providers of health, money, food, and communications - firms like BUPA, first direct, Pret a Manger, Tesco, Orange. Performance metrics exist – in the form of stock price - for these private firms. For example, investors received a 52 percent higher return over five years from shares in companies that make high investment in training.

Parker and Heapy propose a fresh set of building blocks that they hope will enlighten policy makers to new possibilities for change. They write about the 'touchpoints', 'journeys', 'channels', 'service environments' and 'architectures' of a service. These items, they propose, can be thought of as things to be re-designed.

But a new kind of design. As the book says, “As customers of an airline, we are more likely to remember something about the brand from our interactions with cabin staff than we are from looking at the design work on the tailfin.”

The mistake would be to imagine that designers shoud take it upon themselves to lead public service reform, unasked. Empathy, listening and co-creation are more important than abstract ‘creativity’ and from-the-front leadership. These qualities do not receive much emphasis in design education, nor in the business models of the design industry. Both need to evolve.

This is a well-written, insightful and important text. I just hope its impact is not diminshed by the arcane title. I can imagine more exciting destinations than a ‘journey to the interface’. And being ‘connected to reform’ is hardly a turn–on. Ghastly buzzwords also intrude from time to time in a generally clear narrative. What on earth is “channel migration” for example?

Right at the end of the book I realised that this insider language may have been left in the book as bait to entice its intended readership. A concluding Agenda of Action is addressed, by name, to The Treasury, The Cabinet Office, ‘Delivery Departments’ (which I think means ministries), The Audit Commission, Local Authorities, and service delivery organisations. If the mention of channel migration turns this bunch on to service design, then these rare crime against language may turn out to have been justified.

A better if more vulgar title would have been: “Six Secrets of Successful Service”. A large commercial publisher should commission the authors to write a best-seller based on this excellent and important pamphlet.

The journey to the interface: how public service design can connect users to reform. By Sophia Parker and Joe Heapy. Demos, London, 2006.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:49 AM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2006

Hi, Protein!

Warm congratulations to one of our favourite and most respected newsletter-website things, Ninfomania aka Protein° Feed aka Protein° Supplement. Today, Protein celebrates it's 300th issue, having first been published in September 1997 to 14 people. It is now enjoyed by an international audience of over 9,000 select subscribers. Go there, subscribe, push them to 10k as a birthday treat!

Posted by John Thackara at 09:53 AM | Comments (0)

August 11, 2005

Hungry and lonely

Is the collective intelligence of the web overrated? A couple of nights ago, 18 people turned up for dinner. We pushed three tables together and sat together around an irregular rectangle. It felt, to me at least, as if the shape and dimensions of the ad-hoc table did little to foster social interaction. So yesterday I spent two hours failing to find a website that would tell me the the optimal shape and size of a dining table for 12-18 people. Googling design + table + size + social first yielded TableTop2006. This interaction design workshop in Australia is all about Horizontal Interactive Human-Computer Systems; the website mentions augmented reality, user interface technologies, multi-modal interactions, computer supported collaborative work, and information visualisation - but it makes no mention of food. A description of dining tables in the Roman Empire proved diverting, but did not answer my boring questions about size and shape. The nearest I got was Guidelines For Choosing The Size And Shape Of Dining Tables. But that text-only site contains no drawings or room layouts - and I would have to import the author, a cabinetmaker (also, curiously, from Australia) to benefit from his tacit knowledge. Surely someone can do better? The answer seems to be oval - but what sort of oval?


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Posted by John Thackara at 07:30 AM | Comments (1)

June 14, 2005

Authorship and design

An argument about authorship has once again overshadowed discussion of what matters about design. No sooner had Design Council director Hilary Cottam won the 2005 Design Museum Designer of the Year award, than an article by Deyan Sudjic in The Observer reported that an architect is furious about the award, and that a head teacher has described it as "a victory of spin over substance". It's a great shame if people close to the story are upset, because the award to Cottam signals a shift away from the obsession with celebrity and authorship that so often renders discussion of design tedious. As director of the experimental RED team at the Design Council, Cottam has been working to redefine the role of design in daily life, starting with health and citizenship. Her work, which is always collaborative, involves the use of design to re-engineer the ways schools, prisons and public institutions - and the people who use them - relate to each other. The Design Museum's award website includes this prominent statement from Cottam: "All the projects are developed by a team which includes designers, other professionals from a range of disciplines, front-line workers and members of the public who, with me, are challenged through the design process to abandon their initial preconceptions and co-create something new and beautiful that works".

Posted by John Thackara at 04:13 PM | Comments (2)

March 14, 2005

Edda scissorhands

A wondferful profile by Lynn Barber in Sundays's (UK) Observer features the career of 'The Scissor Sister' or 'human Google' Edda Tasiemka who, after 55 years, is selling her amazing cuttings library and retiring. 'Whizzy management types are fond of telling us that nowadays you can find everything on the internet' writes Barber, 'but actually it is rare to find any newspaper stories over five years old or any magazine articles at all, whereas one quick phone call to an elderly German widow in the suburbs can provide precisely what you need. Almost every profile writer and biographer I know uses Tasiemka, and everyone who uses her raves about her'. Barber's story reminded me of the time I went to a meeting of librarians at MIT a few years ago. Even since Vannevar Bush had proposed his ideas about 'memex' in 1945, old-style librarians had been told repeatedly that they faced extinction. And yet, in 2000, with the internet in full swing, they discovered that their human-only information retrieval and recombination skills had become more valuable than ever. It's a lesson we will discuss at Doors in the session on how best to share design knowledge.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:17 AM | Comments (1)

January 04, 2005

Project Clinics at Doors 8

A core element will be Project Clinics (on the Wednesday and Friday). In these clinics, experts gathered together for Doors will evaluate real world projects and, we hope, help teams refocus their work in light of the lessons learned in the rest of the event.

We organised a similar event in Amsterdam in November and have incorporated the lessons learned then in the format for Delhi.

Here is how Project Clinics will work at Doors 8. The sessions are organised into blocks of time, each one containing:
- theme for block introduced (5 minutes)
- two project presentations (10 minutes)
- Q+A with presenter + plenary discussion (15 minutes)
- Experts Round Table (60-75 minutes)
- Plenary Report (2 minute per table)

For each case study, a Project Leader makes a 10 minute presentation that addresses a list of questions:
1) Why? = the main question being asked by the project
2) Who are the actors/partners?
3) Where? (the locality or situaton)
4) What are the desired outcomes/results of the project?
5) When (timeframe)?
6) HOW can the Round Table help? What are problem, challenge or dilemma does the project face, that the assembled experts can help with?

The meeting then breaks up into groups of about eight people each, sitting around two metres wide tables (labelled A, B, C, D etc). Everyone is allocated to a table in advance (so you don't have to choose). Each table has a facilitator (briefed in advance) who gets people to introduce themselves, leads discussion, and makes sure that someone takes notes and a final presentation is prepared. The table meets for 60-75 minutes and then the Plenary reconvenes for another round.

We will focus the project Clinics at Doors 8 on design efforts and innovative solutions emerging from South Asia. We anticipate that leading design schools and universities, NGOs, communities and independent innovators will bring projects to the clinics - and that they will leave them in better shape!

Posted by John Thackara at 08:57 AM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2004

Uxorious design

Speaking of glossaries, I found another one in a British report about People Centered Design (PCD). This glossary, which is much shorter than the CHI one I mention below, runs briskly from AHRB (Arts and Humanities Research Board) to UX. The latter stands here for User Experience - although UX also reminds my married scrabble-playing self of the word uxorious, or excessively submissive or devoted to one's wife. Based on encounters with interesting design firms in the US - SonicRim, Smart, Jump, IDEO, Cheskin and Adaptive Path, as well as in-house design teams for BMW, Volvo, Nike, Microsoft and Intel - the report, Innovation Through People-Centred Design, says that people in their social context, rather than task-centered users, should be considered a fundamental source of innovation. Reality and that insight, sadly, are not close together: design firms found it difficult to sell PCD work to clients, the report says. This, one has to say, is hardly surprising: most of the potential clients mentioned are big tech companies. Expecting them to put people first is like expecting a fox to put hens first. I also fear the authors are in for a disappointment when they conclude, 'We urge all UK technology companies to promote a people-centered culture throughout their organisations'. Yes, People Centered Design is the way of the future, even for tech firms - but it will take more than advocacy to push the transition along. For people to come out on top, human beings will have to be redefined as an asset, rather than a cost, in the economy, and flesh-eating tech companies will have to be forcibly evolved into docile, load-carrying herbivores. I‘m sure HP and Intel, who are sponsoring Doors 8, are comfortable with that picture of their future....

Posted by John Thackara at 11:01 AM | Comments (0)

December 09, 2004

All together now

There's renewed interest in ensemble theatre as a form of organisation. A meeting of theatre directors and producers in the UK last month opened with this quote from Joan Littlewood, in 1961: 'I do not believe in the supremacy of the director, designer, actor - or even of the writer. It is through collaboration that the knockabout art of the theatre survives and kicks. No one mind or imagination can foresee what a play will become. Only a company of artists can reflect the genius of a people in a complex day and age'. (Thanks for that to Tony Graham, Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre in London). Agenda item for Delhi: ensemble interaction design and/or agile architecture.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:40 AM | Comments (0)

December 04, 2004

Civil Communities of Practice

Back to the soft stuff. "Might social problems that communities confront be structured as the kind of knowledge creation and/or problem solving that the open source software community has found new ways to solve?". So asks Pekka Himanen (author of "The Hacker Ethic") and colleagues in a recent report. An essential component of such an approach would be an OS-style referee process through which different ideas, corrections,and improvements are integrated. The report suggests that the tools and governance principles of the open source software community could, in some modified form, yield new approaches to community organization and problem solving. The design question raised is this: What incentives and design principles will facilitate the development of Civil Communities of Practice? [Jerome A. Feldman, Pekka Himanen, Olli Leppänen, and Steven Weber, 2004. Open Innovation Networks: New Approaches to Community Organization and Problem Solving. Helsinki:Finnish National Fund for Research and Development ]

Posted by John Thackara at 05:56 PM | Comments (2)

November 26, 2004

How much does a project cost?

What is the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a design research project? If we knew, we'd probably make more realistic budgets for things like co-ordination, and communication, that often don't get paid for, even though we do the work. Or else, if we knew the true time costs, but could not get them included in the budget, then maybe we wouldn't do the project. One reason the IT boom has flattened out is that TCOs for information systems have been found to be far higher than big customers at first realised. Rishab Gosh, in a paper for First Monday, quotes these TCO numbers:
- Licence fees 5-10%
- Hardware and software costs 15-40%:
- Maintenance, integration, support and training 60-85 %
Gosh makes the point that free software is a skills enabling platform; it is far cheaper, and it is more adaptable to local needs than proprietary software. But the TCO issue has wider ramifications. One of the key lessons to emerge from our Project Leaders' Round Table last wekend was that co-ordination, which has many facets, is a key success factor: if it's not done properly, or is treated as an extra, projects (and the people involved) usually suffer. Here in The Netherlands we're being squeezed on this issue as I write: bean counters from Berenschot, a consulting firm, have advised the government to stop funding 150 "support organisations" (including Doors) and give all their money to "production".

Posted by John Thackara at 09:58 AM | Comments (0)

November 02, 2004

Health as service design at Doors 8

Will health systems bankrupt the west, drive medical staff to despair, and dissatify their users in perpetuity? The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (Nesta), together with the Health Modernisation Agency, both from the UK, are supporting a series of projects to do with service design for health care, whose results will be presented at Doors 8. Hugo Manassei, Creative Pioneer Programme Director at Nesta, and Lynne Maher, Head of Innovation Strategy at the National Health Service, are briefing a team that includes designers Indri Tulusan, Deborah Szebeko, Nicola Koller, Suzi Winstanley & Harriet Harriss. More on this later.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:21 AM | Comments (0)

October 06, 2004

DOGME DAYS

This won't be news to film buffs but I'm interested in the lessons for design projects. The Danish film cooperative Dogme have developed an interesting model of work. Co-founders von Trier and Vinterberg developed a set of ten rules that a Dogme film must conform to. These rules, referred to as the Vow of Chastity, are as follows:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The final picture must be transferred to the Academy 35mm film, with an aspect ratio of 4:3, that is, not widescreen. (Originally, the requirement was that the film had to be shot on Academy 35mm film, but the rule was relaxed to allow low-budget productions.)
10. The director must not be credited.

see www.dogme95.dk and
en.wikipedia.org/

Posted by John Thackara at 12:51 PM | Comments (1)

October 05, 2004

Open Welfare

Hilary Cottam is hoping to join us in New Delhi. She and Charles Leadbeater are writing a paper on "open welfare". They observe: "The open model is not a traditional service delivery model. It relies on mass participation ion creation of the service. The boundary between users and producers is blurred. Broad and widespread participation is enabled by the design of a platform or shared space in which people can share ideas, and communicate. This requires simple systems of codification and rules for assessing the value of a contribution. These communities produce or publish the code or tools for self help which are widely diustributed ; they include mechanisms for constant feedback and review. The basic principles can be described as: "share the goal; share the work; share the results".
Hilary Cottam and Charles Leadbeater. Open Welfare,: designs on the public good. London, Design Council, 2004.
see: www.designcouncil.org/blog/red

Posted by John Thackara at 11:39 AM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2003

The thermodynamics of cooperation

(This is the text of my closing keynote talk at the European Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Work, Helsinki, 18 September, 2003.)

A few years back, I arrived in New York to meet my daughter Kate for a vacation. She seemed her normal sunny self but, as we chatted in the lobby of her mother's hotel, we noticed a lump behind her ear. It did not hurt, Kate said, but we resolved to see a doctor just to check.

It was a weekend, there was no house doctor on call, so we were advised to go to the emergency room of St Vincent's Hospital a few blocks away. A gothic scene awaited us. There were armed guards on the door. Drunks and junkies lolled on the benches of the waiting room. A half-naked lunatic was running around. And most of the staff in the large gloomy space wore bright pink face masks. Kate, who was six at the time, watched this all with great interest. Her parents were pertified.

We were seen rather promptly by a nurse, and then by a doctor who took one look at Kate's bump and said she had to be admitted. Within an hour she was in a children's ward on an intravenous feed of antibiotics. She had mastoiditis, an infection of the bone behind the ear.

So began 17 days of hell. Increasingly stronger drugs, and then combinations of them, did not work. Kate's temperature soared into the 100s and stayed there. The mastoiditis begat bacterial meningitis. It looked - and was - very bad indeed.

And the doctors were unsure what to do. Quite soon, two different teams had become involved, pediatrics and surgery. The pediatricians wanted to stick with the drugs; the surgeons said drugs would never do it, and wanted to operate.

The doctors examined Kate a lot. They would look at her charts. Someone would lay a hand gently on her head. In her room, they were gentle and respectful, but out in the corridor, and back in the staff room, they would argue, constantly. They would pore over crumpled printouts from online research someone had done earlier. They would look at at the endless test results. Boy, did they argue.

For us, as parents, these arguments added to our terror. In Britain, senior hospital doctors, and especially the god-like consultants, barely speak to
parents, let alone share their doubts with them. At St Vincent's, we were involved in every twist and turn of their perplexity and worry.

In the event, the drugs never worked, Kate got weaker, and the decision was made to operate. It took eight hours - a team of twelve around a hole in Kate's head that was less than two inches wide. But it worked, they saved her life, and I had had a crash course on collaboration, knowledge work, and the body that I do not recommend to anyone else.

So what did I learn? The first thing Kate's story taught me was that the flesh and blood of the doctors and nurses is just as important as Kate's flesh and blood. In the formal language of work and knowledge design, actionable medical knowledge is embodied. Having formal knowledge in your head is not the same as having it in your finger tips. Doctoring is a physical and fleshy thing.

This raises the first of three design issues I will discuss today. How do we design work that enhances tacit and embodied knowledge, rather than pretending that they do not exist, or do not matter?

The second lesson I learned is this: the where of medical intervention and care is important. Situations matter, because it is in physical situations that the continuous conversations that comprise care, take place.

The design question that follows from this is: how do we improve the capacity of situations to support these kinds of inter-personal interactions?

The third thing I learned at Saint Vincent’s is this: the meaning of a task plays a critical role in the way it gets done. Otherwise stated: matters of life and death foster great collaboration.

Antoine Saint Exupery put this simple point more memorably. "Don’t teach men how to build a boat. Teach them to yearn for the wide and open sea."

Antoine’s wise advice raises a third design question. Are we sure that the design attention we give to tools for community and collaboration – the 'we-ware' - is in balance? Or do we need to think more about the 'why?' issues of collaboration?


1 EMBODIMENT

Embodiment is a big problem for the 'information society' as a project. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk about it very much.

But we can no longer evade an inconvenient fact: most of what we perceive and experience in the world comes not from conscious observation, but from a continuous process of unconscious scanning.

As Tor Norretranders explains, in his book, 'The User Illusion': "Subliminal perception, perception that occurs without conscious awareness, is not an anomaly, but the norm. Most of what we experience we can never tell each other about – with or without information technology – because we are not even aware of it."

As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 billion bits of information per second. But the bandwidth of consciousness is only about eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.

The 'information society' is based on that teeny little one-millionth of data that we know consciously.

For the philosopherJohn Gray, the upshot of neuroscientific research like this is that, "We are not embrained phantoms, encased in mortal flesh. We filter and select from the the massive flows of input from our senses are so that our lives can flow more easily.

"Cybernauts seek to to make the thin trickle of consciousness - our shallowest sensation – everlasting," says Gray. "But being embodied is our nature as earth-born creatures."

John Christopher Jones has also warned about the dangers that come with the disproportionate attention we pay to digital communication. "Computers are so good at the manipulation of symbols - a thousand times better than robots are, even today, at the manipulation of objects – that we are all under pressure to reduce all human knowledge and experience to symbolic form."

Remember Robert Reich? In his best-seller, 'The Work Of Nations', Reich predicted that we would all become“symbolic analysts”. The concept was so successful that Reich ended up as Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Labour!

I accept that 'computer-supported collaborative work', is a symptom, not the cause, of our tendency to undervalue the knowledge, and experience, that we human beings have by virtue of having bodies.

Besides, the design lesson I draw from the importance of embodiment is not that face-to-face is the only communication that counts. That would be dumb.

Low bandwidth can deliver high-value communication. The telephone, after all, changed everything – much of it for the better.

But, as designers, we must nonetheless guard against those who promote virtuality – and the myth of disembodied communities - for the wrong reasons.

I called this talk, 'the thermodynamics of networked collaboration.' I chose the title because of some alarming meetings I had with policy makers. Out there, in the real world of budget-making and vote-getting, the promise of disembodiment, of virtuality, is attractive for simple reasons. People think it will save money.

Automated, disembodied communications are attractive for the same reasons that e-learning is attractive. Organizations without organizers are like educational establishments without teachers. They save a ton of money.

Only, they don’t work – or at least, not optimally. Human beings are social creatures. Our networks and communities need the time, energy, presence, and participation of real people, to flourish.

That’s why I talk about thermodynamics. Human systems need inputs of human energy to do well. Everything else - the internet, agents, wireless, knowledge-mining - is contingent. They’re support, not the thing itself.

So, when designing systems, services, infrastructures - and work itself - we should ask whether our design actions will enable or disable human agency.

Embodiment is a killer app. Whatever it is that we design, it's better if we design people in, not out.


2 SITUATIONS

The second thing I learned at Saint Vincent’s Hospital is that the situations matter a lot.

'My' discovery proved to have been made a long time before. Hippocrates said 2,500 years ago - in 'Airs, Waters, Places' - that, in order to understand the disorders in any subject, we must study its environment. "Treatment of the inner requires treatment of the outer," said the sage. "The greater part of the soul lies outside the body".

Biologists have also known this for ages. Biologists describe as 'choronomic' the influence on a process of its geographic or regional environment. Choronomy adds value.

So how are we to improve the situations in which our all-important people-to-people interactions take place? What kinds of knowledge do we need to bring to bear to do that?

Designers and architects should be able to help here. After all, they’ve been designing spaces and places for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, the mainstream of architecture – including most of the big-name designers - has lost the plot. They’re designing spaces as spectacles, not spaces that foster interaction and encounter.

Concert and exhibition halls, tourist resorts, sport stadiums, shoppping malls and cafes, all are designed as places for us to buy things, not for social interaction.

Raoul Vaneigem complained about this back in 1957, when he founded the The Situationist International. "The whole of life presents itslf as an immense accumulation of spectacles," said the Situationsist Manifesto. "All that was once lived, has become mere representation".

More recently, the spanish economist Manuel Castells wrote about the networked economy as the "space of flows" - a brilliant metaphor that helps us understand one way in which our world is becoming a hybrid of real and virtual space.

Unfortunately, the 'flows' metaphor has prompted architects to design squidgy and undulating buildings which are interesting (on first sight) to look at – but rarely foster better interaction. Often, they do the the opposite.

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.

So what are the design qualities we need to make this new hybridity work?

Now here’s a thing. I don’t know!

I don’t have the answers to this question.

I just know that it's an important question.

But I’m reassured by St Exupery’s insight. If the destination is attractive enough, we’ll find a way to get there.

We have the tools – hybrid space. The question remains, how do we want to use it?

For me, the best description of the destination is by Ivan Illich. Illich said, 35 years ago, that we need to:
"Give back to people the capacity to resolve their problems within the network of their own relationships."
"Re-frame institutions (such as medicine, or work, or education) as a support service in this transition – not its substitute."
and
"Recover the ability for mutual self-care and learning, helped by – but not centered on - the use of modern technology."

The theologian Martin Buber also saw things clearly. For him, the essential qualities that describe a healthy situation are ones that enable encounter, dialogue, and community.

Now you may well object that theologians do not make ideal clients. But Ivan Illich and Martin Buber anticipated what our wisest designers today have also discovered.

John Carroll, for example, in his wonderful book 'Making Use', says of design in today’s complex world that, "its ultimate objective and approach have to be discovered, not specified."

Carroll criticises the traditional engineering approach in which, to get some kind of grip on complexity, the information to be considered is filtered, and overall task is 'decomposed' into manageable chunks.These chunks are put into a neat to-do list with deadlines, responsibilities and costs attached.

It’s a completely understandable and impressive approach. For a bridge, or a chemical plant, or even the shell of a new hospital, it works just about fine. But not with people-centered systems, says Carroll.

Decomposition is not only applied to hard things like nuts and bolts. If you look at the proceedings of the CHI (Computer Human Interaction)conference, there’s a thesaurus that lists - and attempts to explain - 137 terms that crop up in the papers selected for the event.

The thesaurus runs from agents, to work analysis. It includes subjects like augmented reality, cognitive models, ethnography, help desks, input devices, metaphors, predictive interfaces, story-telling, tactile inputs, and usability engineering.

As I said, 137 entries. CHI is for the good guys - human-centered designers who care about people – but their knowledge-base is fragmented and specialised – and becoming more so, year by year. If you look at the proceedings for an information systems conference, the thesaurus can be tens of pages long.

Someone told me that "research and practice hardly seem to speak to each other." This is madness.

'The situation' is not where you do the design. It is the design.


3 MEANING

George Orwell could not imagine a society, whether a happy or a miserable one, without managers, designers and supervisors who, "jointly wrote the script for others to follow."

In Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future, many aspects of which have duly come to pass, designers staged the performances, put the lines in actors' mouths, and fired, or locked in dungeons, "everyone who would improvise their own texts."

John Grey, in a book you should read called 'Straw Dogs', describes our dilemma this way: "We are in a new kind of uncertainty: not knowing the ends, rather than not knowing the means."

Ivan Illich, 35 years ago, introduced us to the idea of 'counter-productivity' in the institutions and systems upon which our society depends. Beyond certain thresholds of development, said Illich, institutions would become an obstacle to the objectives they are meant to serve.

Illich, like Orwell, was pretty accurate.

Medical systems render us anxious, but out of control.

Education gets automated, and fosters stupidity.

There’s so much transportation, that it’s hard to get around.

There is so much communication, that it’s hard to see, or hear, or think.

What these trends have in common that people are no longer helped, in illich's words, " to resolve their problems within the network of their own relationships in daily life."

I mentioned the Manuel Castells’ metaphor of our age as "the space of flows." This evocative metaphor also explains the changing nature of work in the new economy. We look at lot at the means, but not enough at the ends.

During the 1990s, new-economy rhetoric promised a rosy future. Rather than salarymen and women, or wage slaves, we would be self-employed 'portfolio workers'. We would be 'actors', 'builders', 'jugglers', 'stage managers of our own lives.' Our every working moment would be filled with challenging projects, and boundless creativity.

Above all, we would be Free. Free of bosses. Free of command-and-control bureaucracy. They would be swept away by a tide of self-organizing groups.

The reality of net work, for most of us, turns out to be as near as dammit the exact opposite of those rosy promises. A huge gulf separates the rhetorics of the information society, from the logic, and hence realities, of the way it actually works.

Reality check: we are not living in an information society but in an information market. In this market, three powerful economic forces - downsizing, globalization, and acceleration – have all been socially disadvantageous to most of us.

Jobs, for one thing, are disappearing. The idea of a 'steady job' is no longer a reliable prospect for tens of millions of young adults. They face a future in which they will labour at short-term tasks – 'projects' – and change employer or client frequently.Their work will be fragmented and atomised. They will suffer a steady loss of economic power. They will exist as monads in 'spot markets' for 'human resources.'

Yesterday (at the conference in Helsinki) I heard someone say, "the field of work and communities is still quite new."

Colleagues, that is palpable nonsense. The importance of community may be new in computer science research. But, outside this little box, philosophers and social scientists have studed people and relationships and communities since more or less forever.

And they have some interesting things to teach us. "We work not just to produce," said Eugene Delacroix, "but to give value to time." That alone undermines the theories of efficiency that drive the design of many information systems.

But let me also quote three relatively recent observations. The evolutionary biologist S L Washburton has written that "most of human evolution took place before the advent of agriculture, when men lived in small groups, on a face-to-face basis. As a result (says Washburton) human biology has evolved as an adaptive mechanism to conditions that have largely ceased to exist. Man evolved to feel strongly about a few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time - and these are still the dimensions of life that are important to him."

My second quotation is from Yochai Benkler, a professor of law at New York University. In a paper called 'Linux and the Nature of the Firm,' Benkler argues that the eternal necessities of life are reasserting themselves in such phenomena as the evolution of free software. Benkler argues that free software is just one - although the most visible - example of a much broader social phenomenon. "We are seeing the emergence of a new mode of production," he says. "Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects. The design lesson is this. In order to re-design work, we need to keep fundamental questions of human existence always in mind."

For Charles Hampden Turner, too, "We overlook the extent to which needed appications give meaning and zest to our work. Without shared purposes, and moral meanings, we risk drifting into a culture of self-absorption and narcissism."

In Japan they call this call the nemawashi factor. Originally a horticultural word that means 'to turn the roots', prior to replanting – or, by implication, 'laying the groundwork' - nemawashi has come to mean the process by which groups in Japan develop the shared understanding without which nothing much gets done.

Too much of the design we now do suffers from a nemawashi-deficit. Fixated on abstractions and tools, we lose touch with the connections between people in the world, and the values we have in common, that provide the meanings that impel us to work.


Posted by John Thackara at 08:51 PM | Comments (0)

September 22, 2003

The thermodynamics of cooperation

This is the text of my closing keynote talk at the European Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Work, Helsinki, 18 September, 2003.

A few years back, I arrived in New York to meet my daughter Kate for a vacation. She seemed her normal sunny self but, as we chatted in the lobby of her mother's hotel, we noticed a lump behind her ear. It did not hurt, Kate said, but we resolved to see a doctor just to check.

It was a weekend, there was no house doctor on call, so we were advised to go to the emergency room of St Vincent's Hospital a few blocks away. A gothic scene awaited us. There were armed guards on the door. Drunks and junkies lolled on the benches of the waiting room. A half-naked lunatic was running around. And most of the staff in the large gloomy space wore bright pink face masks. Kate, who was six at the time, watched this all with great interest. Her parents were pertified.

We were seen rather promptly by a nurse, and then by a doctor who took one look at Kate's bump and said she had to be admitted. Within an hour she was in a children's ward on an intravenous feed of antibiotics. She had mastoiditis, an infection of the bone behind the ear.

So began 17 days of hell. Increasingly stronger drugs, and then combinations of them, did not work. Kate's temperature soared into the 100s and stayed there. The mastoiditis begat bacterial meningitis. It looked - and was - very bad indeed.

And the doctors were unsure what to do. Quite soon, two different teams had become involved, pediatrics and surgery. The pediatricians wanted to stick with the drugs; the surgeons said drugs would never do it, and wanted to operate.

The doctors examined Kate a lot. They would look at her charts. Someone would lay a hand gently on her head. In her room, they were gentle and respectful, but out in the corridor, and back in the staff room, they would argue, constantly. They would pore over crumpled printouts from online research someone had done earlier. They would look at at the endless test results. Boy, did they argue.

For us, as parents, these arguments added to our terror. In Britain, senior hospital doctors, and especially the god-like consultants, barely speak to
parents, let alone share their doubts with them. At St Vincent's, we were involved in every twist and turn of their perplexity and worry.

In the event, the drugs never worked, Kate got weaker, and the decision was made to operate. It took eight hours - a team of twelve around a hole in Kate's head that was less than two inches wide. But it worked, they saved her life, and I had had a crash course on collaboration, knowledge work, and the body that I do not recommend to anyone else.

So what did I learn? The first thing Kate's story taught me was that the flesh and blood of the doctors and nurses is just as important as Kate's flesh and blood. In the formal language of work and knowledge design, actionable medical knowledge is embodied. Having formal knowledge in your head is not the same as having it in your finger tips. Doctoring is a physical and fleshy thing.

This raises the first of three design issues I will discuss today. How do we design work that enhances tacit and embodied knowledge, rather than pretending that they do not exist, or do not matter?

The second lesson I learned is this: the where of medical intervention and care is important. Situations matter, because it is in physical situations that the continuous conversations that comprise care, take place.

The design question that follows from this is: how do we improve the capacity of situations to support these kinds of inter-personal interactions?

The third thing I learned at Saint Vincent’s is this: the meaning of a task plays a critical role in the way it gets done. Otherwise stated: matters of life and death foster great collaboration.

Antoine Saint Exupery put this simple point more memorably. "Don’t teach men how to build a boat. Teach them to yearn for the wide and open sea."

Antoine’s wise advice raises a third design question. Are we sure that the design attention we give to tools for community and collaboration – the 'we-ware' - is in balance? Or do we need to think more about the 'why?' issues of collaboration?


1 EMBODIMENT

Embodiment is a big problem for the 'information society' as a project. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk about it very much.

But we can no longer evade an inconvenient fact: most of what we perceive and experience in the world comes not from conscious observation, but from a continuous process of unconscious scanning.

As Tor Norretranders explains, in his book, 'The User Illusion': "Subliminal perception, perception that occurs without conscious awareness, is not an anomaly, but the norm. Most of what we experience we can never tell each other about – with or without information technology – because we are not even aware of it."

As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 billion bits of information per second. But the bandwidth of consciousness is only about eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.

The 'information society' is based on that teeny little one-millionth of data that we know consciously.

For the philosopherJohn Gray, the upshot of neuroscientific research like this is that, "We are not embrained phantoms, encased in mortal flesh. We filter and select from the the massive flows of input from our senses are so that our lives can flow more easily.

"Cybernauts seek to to make the thin trickle of consciousness - our shallowest sensation – everlasting," says Gray. "But being embodied is our nature as earth-born creatures."

John Christopher Jones has also warned about the dangers that come with the disproportionate attention we pay to digital communication. "Computers are so good at the manipulation of symbols - a thousand times better than robots are, even today, at the manipulation of objects – that we are all under pressure to reduce all human knowledge and experience to symbolic form."

Remember Robert Reich? In his best-seller, 'The Work Of Nations', Reich predicted that we would all become“symbolic analysts”. The concept was so successful that Reich ended up as Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Labour!

I accept that 'computer-supported collaborative work', is a symptom, not the cause, of our tendency to undervalue the knowledge, and experience, that we human beings have by virtue of having bodies.

Besides, the design lesson I draw from the importance of embodiment is not that face-to-face is the only communication that counts. That would be dumb.

Low bandwidth can deliver high-value communication. The telephone, after all, changed everything – much of it for the better.

But, as designers, we must nonetheless guard against those who promote virtuality – and the myth of disembodied communities - for the wrong reasons.

I called this talk, 'the thermodynamics of networked collaboration.' I chose the title because of some alarming meetings I had with policy makers. Out there, in the real world of budget-making and vote-getting, the promise of disembodiment, of virtuality, is attractive for simple reasons. People think it will save money.

Automated, disembodied communications are attractive for the same reasons that e-learning is attractive. Organizations without organizers are like educational establishments without teachers. They save a ton of money.

Only, they don’t work – or at least, not optimally. Human beings are social creatures. Our networks and communities need the time, energy, presence, and participation of real people, to flourish.

That’s why I talk about thermodynamics. Human systems need inputs of human energy to do well. Everything else - the internet, agents, wireless, knowledge-mining - is contingent. They’re support, not the thing itself.

So, when designing systems, services, infrastructures - and work itself - we should ask whether our design actions will enable or disable human agency.

Embodiment is a killer app. Whatever it is that we design, it's better if we design people in, not out.


2 SITUATIONS

The second thing I learned at Saint Vincent’s Hospital is that the situations matter a lot.

'My' discovery proved to have been made a long time before. Hippocrates said 2,500 years ago - in 'Airs, Waters, Places' - that, in order to understand the disorders in any subject, we must study its environment. "Treatment of the inner requires treatment of the outer," said the sage. "The greater part of the soul lies outside the body".

Biologists have also known this for ages. Biologists describe as 'choronomic' the influence on a process of its geographic or regional environment. Choronomy adds value.

So how are we to improve the situations in which our all-important people-to-people interactions take place? What kinds of knowledge do we need to bring to bear to do that?

Designers and architects should be able to help here. After all, they’ve been designing spaces and places for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, the mainstream of architecture – including most of the big-name designers - has lost the plot. They’re designing spaces as spectacles, not spaces that foster interaction and encounter.

Concert and exhibition halls, tourist resorts, sport stadiums, shoppping malls and cafes, all are designed as places for us to buy things, not for social interaction.

Raoul Vaneigem complained about this back in 1957, when he founded the The Situationist International. "The whole of life presents itslf as an immense accumulation of spectacles," said the Situationsist Manifesto. "All that was once lived, has become mere representation".

More recently, the spanish economist Manuel Castells wrote about the networked economy as the "space of flows" - a brilliant metaphor that helps us understand one way in which our world is becoming a hybrid of real and virtual space.

Unfortunately, the 'flows' metaphor has prompted architects to design squidgy and undulating buildings which are interesting (on first sight) to look at – but rarely foster better interaction. Often, they do the the opposite.

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.

So what are the design qualities we need to make this new hybridity work?

Now here’s a thing. I don’t know!

I don’t have the answers to this question.

I just know that it's an important question.

But I’m reassured by St Exupery’s insight. If the destination is attractive enough, we’ll find a way to get there.

We have the tools – hybrid space. The question remains, how do we want to use it?

For me, the best description of the destination is by Ivan Illich. Illich said, 35 years ago, that we need to:
"Give back to people the capacity to resolve their problems within the network of their own relationships."
"Re-frame institutions (such as medicine, or work, or education) as a support service in this transition – not its substitute."
and
"Recover the ability for mutual self-care and learning, helped by – but not centered on - the use of modern technology."

The theologian Martin Buber also saw things clearly. For him, the essential qualities that describe a healthy situation are ones that enable encounter, dialogue, and community.

Now you may well object that theologians do not make ideal clients. But Ivan Illich and Martin Buber anticipated what our wisest designers today have also discovered.

John Carroll, for example, in his wonderful book 'Making Use', says of design in today’s complex world that, "its ultimate objective and approach have to be discovered, not specified."

Carroll criticises the traditional engineering approach in which, to get some kind of grip on complexity, the information to be considered is filtered, and overall task is 'decomposed' into manageable chunks.These chunks are put into a neat to-do list with deadlines, responsibilities and costs attached.

It’s a completely understandable and impressive approach. For a bridge, or a chemical plant, or even the shell of a new hospital, it works just about fine. But not with people-centered systems, says Carroll.

Decomposition is not only applied to hard things like nuts and bolts. If you look at the proceedings of the CHI (Computer Human Interaction)conference, there’s a thesaurus that lists - and attempts to explain - 137 terms that crop up in the papers selected for the event.

The thesaurus runs from agents, to work analysis. It includes subjects like augmented reality, cognitive models, ethnography, help desks, input devices, metaphors, predictive interfaces, story-telling, tactile inputs, and usability engineering.

As I said, 137 entries. CHI is for the good guys - human-centered designers who care about people – but their knowledge-base is fragmented and specialised – and becoming more so, year by year. If you look at the proceedings for an information systems conference, the thesaurus can be tens of pages long.

Someone told me that "research and practice hardly seem to speak to each other." This is madness.

'The situation' is not where you do the design. It is the design.


3 MEANING

George Orwell could not imagine a society, whether a happy or a miserable one, without managers, designers and supervisors who, "jointly wrote the script for others to follow."

In Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future, many aspects of which have duly come to pass, designers staged the performances, put the lines in actors' mouths, and fired, or locked in dungeons, "everyone who would improvise their own texts."

John Grey, in a book you should read called 'Straw Dogs', describes our dilemma this way: "We are in a new kind of uncertainty: not knowing the ends, rather than not knowing the means."

Ivan Illich, 35 years ago, introduced us to the idea of 'counter-productivity' in the institutions and systems upon which our society depends. Beyond certain thresholds of development, said Illich, institutions would become an obstacle to the objectives they are meant to serve.

Illich, like Orwell, was pretty accurate.

Medical systems render us anxious, but out of control.

Education gets automated, and fosters stupidity.

There’s so much transportation, that it’s hard to get around.

There is so much communication, that it’s hard to see, or hear, or think.

What these trends have in common that people are no longer helped, in illich's words, " to resolve their problems within the network of their own relationships in daily life."

I mentioned the Manuel Castells’ metaphor of our age as "the space of flows." This evocative metaphor also explains the changing nature of work in the new economy. We look at lot at the means, but not enough at the ends.

During the 1990s, new-economy rhetoric promised a rosy future. Rather than salarymen and women, or wage slaves, we would be self-employed 'portfolio workers'. We would be 'actors', 'builders', 'jugglers', 'stage managers of our own lives.' Our every working moment would be filled with challenging projects, and boundless creativity.

Above all, we would be Free. Free of bosses. Free of command-and-control bureaucracy. They would be swept away by a tide of self-organizing groups.

The reality of net work, for most of us, turns out to be as near as dammit the exact opposite of those rosy promises. A huge gulf separates the rhetorics of the information society, from the logic, and hence realities, of the way it actually works.

Reality check: we are not living in an information society but in an information market. In this market, three powerful economic forces - downsizing, globalization, and acceleration – have all been socially disadvantageous to most of us.

Jobs, for one thing, are disappearing. The idea of a 'steady job' is no longer a reliable prospect for tens of millions of young adults. They face a future in which they will labour at short-term tasks – 'projects' – and change employer or client frequently.Their work will be fragmented and atomised. They will suffer a steady loss of economic power. They will exist as monads in 'spot markets' for 'human resources.'

Yesterday (at the conference in Helsinki) I heard someone say, "the field of work and communities is still quite new."

Colleagues, that is palpable nonsense. The importance of community may be new in computer science research. But, outside this little box, philosophers and social scientists have studed people and relationships and communities since more or less forever.

And they have some interesting things to teach us. "We work not just to produce," said Eugene Delacroix, "but to give value to time." That alone undermines the theories of efficiency that drive the design of many information systems.

But let me also quote three relatively recent observations. The evolutionary biologist S L Washburton has written that "most of human evolution took place before the advent of agriculture, when men lived in small groups, on a face-to-face basis. As a result (says Washburton) human biology has evolved as an adaptive mechanism to conditions that have largely ceased to exist. Man evolved to feel strongly about a few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time - and these are still the dimensions of life that are important to him."

My second quotation is from Yochai Benkler, a professor of law at New York University. In a paper called 'Linux and the Nature of the Firm,' Benkler argues that the eternal necessities of life are reasserting themselves in such phenomena as the evolution of free software. Benkler argues that free software is just one - although the most visible - example of a much broader social phenomenon. "We are seeing the emergence of a new mode of production," he says. "Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects. The design lesson is this. In order to re-design work, we need to keep fundamental questions of human existence always in mind."

For Charles Hampden Turner, too, "We overlook the extent to which needed appications give meaning and zest to our work. Without shared purposes, and moral meanings, we risk drifting into a culture of self-absorption and narcissism."

In Japan they call this call the nemawashi factor. Originally a horticultural word that means 'to turn the roots', prior to replanting – or, by implication, 'laying the groundwork' - nemawashi has come to mean the process by which groups in Japan develop the shared understanding without which nothing much gets done.

Too much of the design we now do suffers from a nemawashi-deficit. Fixated on abstractions and tools, we lose touch with the connections between people in the world, and the values we have in common, that provide the meanings that impel us to work.


Posted by John Thackara at 06:01 PM | Comments (0)

December 12, 2002

From shelfware to wetware: where next for design research?

(In December 2002 I chaired a seminar in London, organised by the Design Council, which brought together 100 academics, designers and business people to discuss: "how to get the most out of academic design knowledge". Here are some half-formed thoughts (Philip Tabor) on the points that arose)

Designers and companies tend to understand 'design research' as:
- technology scoping
- market research
- product development
- trend forecasting

Most of the academics at the meeting said that these activities were not "research" as they understood the term.

Other kinds of value can be created by design research. Among these:

- knowledge about new processes and methods - to the extend that they can be documented and codified. People running large organisations generally value process innovations more than outcomes. But this is not a uniquely academic research activity: internet service companies like Sapient, and management consultants, do process innovation all the time.

- case studies and best practices: everyone wants them, but there's a difficulty: a "best practice" is hard to document or make 'objective'. Practices, by definition, are rooted in a social and technological context.

- Intellectual Property Rights (IPR): old-thinking companies want it, but an obsession with IPR stifles innovation.

- reflection, criticism, and evaluation of bigger picture: these lofty activities are badly needed, and are traditional tasks for academe. The problem arises: how to share the insights so gained with people on the front line whose attitudes and behaviours we want to modify?

- develop new business models: business school academics were active in this field during the early dot.com boom: remember "pure-play" business concepts? Nearly all these platonic concepts failed - precisely because they were not rooted in a context.

- develop new ways of working: the same proviso applies. Academic research can draw our attention to new ways of working (or "WoW" as Philips' Josephine Green called it) - but I'm sceptical that academic research, by itself, can innovate methods out of context.

- understand people and communities: my tolerance for engineers and social scientists who claim to "understand people" is so low that I pass on this one.

- identify un-met needs and desires: the concept of an "un-met need" raises an equally large number of epistemological questions. That, too, is for another time.


It's worth noting, too, that there is no single "design process". Those words were used by different people to describe different steps:

- action research - iterative design in which build > trial > evaluate > learn > build repeat, continuously;
- scoping the domain - to identify broad-brush drivers and dilemmas;
- framing the initial question - on the basis that questions are more powerful than answers;
- assembling the actors - with an emphasis on the inclusion of people formerly known as users;
- obtaining resources - the process of designing and drafting project proposals, setting up projects, and co-coordinating them, is complex and very time-consuming;
- co-ordination and facilitation - the Sloan Business School's Centre for Co-ordination Science (sic) reckons that coordination should be allocated 30% of time and money resources in many projects - but never is;
- sharing results - will never happen if left to the end of the project.

If I reflect, after the meeting, on success factors for design research, four of these stood out for me:
- locate at least part of the project in a real-world context. I heard no convincing examples of purely theoretical design research.
- Design research should involve the innovative re-combination of actors among the worlds of science, government, business, and education.
- If the results (and value) of design research are to be shared effectively, communication and dissemination methods need to be designed (and budgeted) in at the start.
- there's an urgent (and so far not visible) need to develop peer-to-peer methods for research and investigations.

The list of barriers to the effectiveness of design research to emerge from the meeting was longer:
- limits of design knowledge; its epistemology (C Frayling);
- difficult to capture/represent - and thus share - a process;
(processes are often tacit and social, not objective);
- divergent ways of working (WoW);
- inadequate access to, or knowledge of, who is doing what;
- impoverished stores, or more properly flows, of knowledge and experience
- IPR/ownership issues stifle sharing;
- institutional constraints (professional associations, disciplinary divisions);
- funding bodies are too slow, too mono-disciplinary;
- lack of ways to measure effectiveness (Jamie Oliver story).

Conclusion

It was not clear to me, after the meeting, what the academy can or should do, that business cannot. I'm not persuaded that pure reflection, for example - "shelf ware", as wittily described by Rachel Cooper - can be effective, or meaningful, if it is divorced from practice. I also fear that stores of knowledge, put together by academic researchers, may be less useful - remembering the recent failures of knowledge management - than flows of knowledge. I also wonder whether academia can, or should, deliver the just-in-time-research that fast-moving industries seem to need.

In the end, it is probably not a matter of either-or (academic vs. worldly research) - but of both-and. But even a both-and conclusion raises tricky issues. Systematic collaboration between academics and practitioners implies institutional and attitudinal transformation. Does this transformation process need to be designed?

On this last point, I was fascinated to read a paper by Yochai Benkler, Professor of Law at New York University, about Linux and the nature of the firm. Free software, or open source software, is a fifteen-year-old phenomenon in the software world. But, according to Benkler, free software, although the most visible, is one example of a much broader social phenomenon, commons-based peer production - a new mode of production in the digitally-networked environment.
http://www.benkler.org/CoasesPenguin.html

The central characteristic of this new mode of is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals - rather than market prices or managerial commands.

This would be a worthy subject for a follow-up meeting.

See also my piece, Does your design research exist? at
http://www.doorsofperception.com/In+the+Bubble/details/50/

Posted by John Thackara at 08:55 PM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2002

Does your design research exist?

An internet sage once said that a web page never accessed does not really exist. Does the same logic apply to your design research? If nobody 'gets it', when you present your results, has anything been achieved?

Over recent months, I have seen years of work by design researchers almost wasted because they did not communicate well. Here are a couple of stories about such near-disasters, plus 15 highly-opinionated tips for design research presentations at the end.

In Amsterdam, in February, I attended the seventh bi-annual exhibition of Young Designers and Industry, The show’s sub-title - "the unknown meets the unknown" – turned horribly true. Thirteen European companies, ranging from Heineken to Forbo Linoleum, had given research projects to groups of talented young designers from all over Europe. Their task was "to conceive of new concepts for products, services or strategies of the future". A fascinating brief, good partnerships, plenty of time. How could they fail?

Here is how. The exhibition and presentation in this five month project took place in a splendid and theatrical loft in Amsterdam docklands. On entering, I was confronted by 13 mini-exhibitions, in bays down each side of the space. These exhibits were impossible to interpret or understand. Numbers were stuck on columns - but nothing told the visitor what these numbers referred to. Each bay contained jumbles of posters and objects - but there were no titles or captions to help the visitor understand what these jumbles were about. Groovy-looking young people hung about; but it was not clear whether they were visitors, exhibitors, or just lived there.

I asked each person in turn, I hope in a friendly way: "what am I looking at here?" "to what question is this project an answer?" and "what lessons did you learn from this project?". After two hours I realised that, once again in this excellent series, some great work had been done. In one project, websites and wireless devices were used to help Dutch citizens find nature - which is often hidden away here. Noffit Yelloz, in another fine project, developed an elegant structure to hold potted plants vertically inside a stairwell for Europe’s largest plant distributor, www.waterdrinker.nl. A third team worked with Forbo Linoleum to produce terrific lamps and bowls. But I had to find all this out for myself. Nobody framed the event for people like me walking in literally from the cold. Many of the men and women in suits for whom the whole event was staged clearly had no idea what to make of it.

A few weeks after Young Designers and Industry, I found myself at HomeTech, in Berlin, an enormous trade fair for domestic appliances. Whirlpool Europe, who have a dynamic new design director, Richard Eisermann, had worked with design futurist Francesco Morace on a major lifestyle trends study. This inspired Whirlpool’s centrepiece at the trade fair, a beautifully produced exhibition of design prototypes called "Project F" in which large glass cases contained intriguing and well-executed.... objects. But it was utterly unclear what we were looking at - or why. I happened to tour the exhibit with a British design journalist who has eight million appliance-buying readers back in London. She walked right past the Project F exhibits with barely a glance; "what are they?" she asked - without stopping. These objects, I later discovered, were the results of months of investigation, by talented design professionals from several countries, into fabric care futures. Upon reading Whirlpoolls interesting book, which I discovered in a dark corner, I learned that the objects were "an open exploration of the washing process and the new relationship between products, spaces, and humans". (The book is available from ray_isted@email.whirlpool.com)

Both Young Designers and Whirpool forgot to put themselves into the shoes of their audience. They focussed on what they had to say, at the expense of asking: what will it take, in this noisy and crowded environment, to engage a passing stranger's curiosity and interest?

JT’s TIPS FOR POTENT PRESENTATIONS
It’s awful to see such interesting work head, unnoticed, for obscurity – so here are fifteen tips for presentations which I reckon apply equally both in a small presentation, such as a research crit in a university, or in a large, noisy, distracting trade event, like HomeTech.

Tip 1 Design the way you will present and publish your results at the beginning of your project, not at the end.

Tip 2 Budget generously for publishing results.I reckon the ideal is 30 per cent of the total, including people costs - but hardly anybody allocates that much. A budget for publishing results below ten percent means you don't care if anyone outside your project ever knows what you achieved.

Tip 3 Assume I know nothing. NOTHING! The first two minutes – of my visit, or of your presentation - should answer the following questions that are rattling around in my addled mind:
"Where am I, and why am I here?"
"Who are these people?"
"What’s in it for me?"
"To what question is this story an answer?"

Tip 4 Always answer that last question! State, explicitly, the insight, discovery or invention you have made, that you are giving me to take away.

Tip 5 Kill your darlings. You will always have more things to tell me than time to do so - so tell me less. Never try to cram everything you know into a limited time by speaking fast, or in bullet point-ese. Inform about the things you have to leave out of your verbal presentation in a handout. If you make a good presentation, I will probably read it later. if you’ve bored or confused me, I won’t bother.

Tip 6 Avoid using the words "we are very interested in....". I don't care what you are interested in. I care what I am interested in.

Tip 7 Only tell me about your process or methodology if the process or methodology is the valuable thing I am going to take away. Otherwise stated: don't tell me how you got there, tell me what you found when you got there.

Tip 8 Reassure me you have thoroughly scoped the territory, and that you are not about to tell me something 500 peoople already investigated.

Tip 9 Never, ever, present for more time than you promise to in the programme. If that’s ten minutes, do it in ten – not a second more.

Tip 10 For every minute you propose to present, allow one hour of preparation. For a ten minute presentation, in other words, you need to plan in ten hours of preparation before the Big Day. (I was taught this unlikely-sounding rule by Carol Harding Roots, who trains the Doors team how to present. She’s right).

Tip 11 Never rely on designed objects or media to tell your story on their own - whether they be posters, prototypes, videos, computer simulations, or exhibits. Real people, properly briefed - and ideally you, yourself - are far more interesting and effective than the glossiest poster or video in the world.

Tip 12 Don’t commission a special video for a public exhibition: they add noise, and hardly anyone watches them. If you have a big budget, spend the money hiring a celebrity chef to cook exhausted visitors delicious snacks - as Gaggenau did at HomeTech.

Tip 13 Treat PR consultants politely but with the utmost suspicion. They almost never get it, whatever it is – but will act as if they do. If your company insists you use a PR team, use them as support - but never give them complete control over your communications.

Tip 14 At the end of your presentation, or my visit, find a way to make sure we stay in touch - for example by saying, "may I call you next week?" or, "may I put you on our mailing list?". (And don’t put my visiting card in a large goldfish bowl with all the others: study it with respect and awe, and then put it in carefully in your wallet.).

Tip 15 Get help. There's no logical reason why a good designer or researcher should be a good presenter or communicator. Many great writers became great thanks to dedicated editors behind the scenes. Get an editor to finish your text. Pay a trainer to teach you how you to present.

Tip 16 Send me more tips. You surely know better tips than these (or disagree vehemently with mine) - so send your comments in to . I'll put the best ones online here, and credit you. I particularly want to add the names of books, sites and people that have helped you become a better presenter or exhibitor. Let's put an end, together, to failed research presentations.

Useful contacts:
The Doors team recommends Carole Harding Roots at Executive Presentations in London. Carole comments that it’s "better to look ahead and prepare than look back and regret.Good speakers create a spark to ignite the fuel of anticipation; they capitalise on their platform presence; they look the part; they stand and move with ease; they sound the part chr@executivepresentation.com

A good book on the subject is Getting Started In Speaking, Training or Consulting by Robert Bly (John Wiley paperback, 2001). Bly’s site, www.bly.com, contains a small arsenal of tools and services.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:07 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2002

Design-recast: the world as spread-sheet

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

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 08:59 PM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2002

Why is interaction design important?

Over the previous two years I had been helping Interaction Design Institute Ivrea develop its teaching and research programmes. 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 05:40 PM | Comments (0)

April 22, 2001

File sharing the future

Infodrome, a one-day conference for the top civil servants of The Netherlands held in The Hague this month (April 2001).
Infodrome is a think-tank set up by the Dutch cabinet to analyse the consequences of information and communications technologies (ICTs) for government and its agencies. Its task is to expose policy makers to possible future scenarios, and thereby to enrich the policy-making - and public money-spending - process.

Charles Leadbeater, an advisor to Tony Blair and a keynote speaker at the Infodrome conference - pronounced it an 'incredibly grown-up process'. For his part, Leadbeater made an incisive case for the need to focus on institutional innovation - and not just on technology - if governments are to succeed in their role as joint stewards (with citizens) of the public domain, physical and informational infrastructure, learning, health care and so on. The consensus at Infodrome seemed to be that, although governments have to re-think what they do, and how, they are needed more than ever in a world changing profoundly and at increasing speed. Yes, we could listen to the propagandists of the new economy, and leave it all to the market and to corporations - but that would be the gloomier of the futures among the utopian and distopian visions discussed at Infodrome.

The story below is the text of John Thackara's presentation at Infodrome, on 11 April 2001.

You often hear talk, at this kind of meeting, about 'cultural barriers to innovation'. Innovation is not just about technology, experts like to say: innovation also means changing the way people think, and behave.

This argument is used frequently about learning. We know that everyone has to become a lifelong learner. The way to achieve this, it is said, is by making the Internet a gigantic distribution system for knowledge. Knowledge for all - a bit like water. The only obstacle to this rosy scenario, goes the argument, is that people are not ready, or able, to be filled up with knowledge in this way, like a bucket under a tap. Therefore, people have got to change.

This is the wrong way to think about learning and the Internet. People are not a 'problem' to be solved. The real barriers to innovation are institutional: our teaching concepts, our professional associations, the business models of publishers and media companies, and countless incompatible technical standards.

My talk this morning is about a key aspect of this picture: file-sharing, and peer-to-peer knowledge exchange over the net. File-sharing is a good example of the people being ready, and the technology being available and working well - but where institutional barriers are holding us back.

Now, file-sharing is one of those subjects that far more people talk about, than actually do. So first, a quick check: hands up who has heard of Napster? Now, who actually uses Napster - or Freenet, or Gnutella - on a regular basis?

As I would have expected: for every 100 people who have heard about the subject, five per cent, at most, have had direct experience! I include myself as a non-user, by the way - but I have friends who show me around!

(The following section accompanies a demo of Napster). So let's look at what this file sharing story is about. Once you start the programme, it connects automatically to the Napster server, which maintains an index of everybody's collection - or at least, everybody who is connected at that moment.

You type in your search keyword. You can limit your search by choosing line speed, in this case a minimum of 'T1': this means you are looking for this music only on computers that have a fast connection, so that your download time will be shorter. You hit the search key, and out pops the window with the results. You can sort this list in various ways, as with response time.

Then you pick your song. You double click it - and up pops a box called transfer manager. At this moment, a song on somebody else’s computer is being copied onto the hard disk of your own computer. Whilst the transfer is under way, you can already go to your download folder and listen to the file, even before it has fully arrived. By the time this song is safely parked on your hard disk, it is automatically made available for other people to copy from you.

But the exchange of music files is just one aspect of the file-sharing phenomenon. Just as important: the system connects you with other people out there - not just with a catalogue of songs of the kind you might find on a publisher's website.

If you search among the so-called 'channels', the window lists different genres: pop, oldies, rap, jazz, techno, rave, hiphop. You name it - there can be a hundred or more on a busy day when a lot of people are connected (to Napster). Each channel - or folder - is inhabited by a particular interest group. When you open one of these folders, you find a list of nicknames representing real people who have put their own music collections online, ready for you to copy.

You can check their line speed, which is important if you care about the speed of downloading. I usually go straight for the T3 group. Today, I'm lucky because "Mr Guggenheimer" is here, whose collection intrigues me; it happens to be on a speedy T3 line. I am interested in what he has to offer, so I peek into his library, his personal collection of songs and . . . oh wow . . . great stuff! Now I decide to bookmark him into my hotlist so I can find him again, so I hit the 'add to hotlist' button. My hotlist is the list of people that have interesting songs and that I might want to look up again. I check if he indeed has ended up in my hotlist, and there he is. I can check his speed again, in case I forgot.

Now I decide to send him a message. At his end, my message to him will pop up in a little window. And he might decide to reply. I should warn you that, content-wise, it can be a bit adolescent out there. File-sharing is a marvel of communication - but the contents can be less than marvellous!

I decide to download one of his songs now, and will proceed as with a normal download, like I showed you before. The transfer manager will pop up and you can listen to the song while you download.

Systems such as Napster enable you to communicate not only with a machine but, if you so wish, with another human being who seems interesting because their tastes overlap with yours.

This is where the cultural energy of file-sharing comes from. It's the essence of peer-to-peer - or "P2P". You search indirectly, by comparing tastes - but then you connect with that person directly. You learn from and with each other.

There are various kinds of P2P systems. Napster is just one. But in its very short life - less than two years of existence - Napster alone has attracted nearly 40 million committed and enthusiastic users. That's far more people than watch most so-called 'mass' media.

Just like email, and just like the mobile phone, the 'killer application' here is connectivity and sharing among people. That is the cultural driver ofP2P.

Most recent attention has focused on the implications of file-sharing for music. And music is a 40 billion dollar business. But recorded music is only one kind of intellectual property. Words are another - there's an 'open content' movement on the Internet.

Images are IP, too. I met some artists in Montpellier two days ago, who are building an open artwork network (Domaine Public, an idea of Eric Watier, info: cebra@club-internet.fr).

And you may well have heard about the Free Software movement and the concept of 'Open Source' and open standards. With Linux, thousands of people work on each others' code, continuously - massive testing and peer review that private companies, however huge, cannot afford. Linux is never finished. Its response time to change is incredibly short, thanks to countless people working on it on a daily basis.

Open Source is not just a regulatory issue: it lies at the the heart of the relationship between ICT and organisational structure.

Let me remind you how we shared intellectual property up until now. In the beginning was the Word - and it was free. Language enabled us to tell each other stories, an effective way to share knowledge and experience that has worked well for 20,000 years - and still does. Then came writing and, with it, the possibility to transfer knowledge from one person to another indirectly. Four hundred years ago, with printing, we industrialized writing, learned out how to embody knowledge in an object, and, with the invention of copyright, created the publishing industry. First came books; a bit later, with sound and image recording, we added records and CDs; more recently still, we added software to the list.

So file sharing raises fundamental questions about the distribution methods - and the business models that underpin them - for all kinds of intellectual property. The old model was simple: the publisher packages knowledge, and we buy the packages - books, CDs, whatever. This model worked perfectly for 400 years or so. It was only with the rise of file sharing that this cosy system came into question. File sharing disrupts this simple and deeply rooted model of publishing. This is why we have the law suits and rhetoric surrounding Napster.

It's terribly important to filter out the screams of anguish from vested interests, as they contemplate extinction, from the potential of file sharing in a learning-based society. We confront a world whose complexity is growing at an exponential rate. As you will hear repeatedly today, computing and connectivity are pervading products, buildings, our bodies, nature.

You're probably sick of hearing all those e-words: e-learning, e-health, e-governance. But if you thought nothing was changing, thenyou would not be here today. We are in the middle of a profound transformation in which everything around us, and in us, is being networked. The way we will cope is by learning from each other - continuously, collaboratively, and without friction.

During the Iron Age, it took one hundred years for knowledge about smelting to cross the world. But we simply don't have 100 years to learn how to live in a world of infinite connectivity. We have to learn in ways that are direct, collaborative, continuous. The good news is that two of three necessary conditions for this kind of learning have been met.

Condition one is cultural. We have the will. Human beings have an innate desire to learn, to connect with others, and to share. I already told you about the 38 million Napster users. Did you know, too, that more people take part in voluntary continuing education each year than the combined number of people who go to sports events, and take air flights? 'Peer-to-peer' file sharing is not an algorithm, it's human nature.

Condition two is technological: We have the technological means to support radical, ubiquitous file sharing in the form of the Internet, peer-to-peer networking, and the file-sharing techniques of the kind I just showed you. Ian Clark, the 25-year-old Irishman who designed Freenet, said: "It's a way to de-commercialise information, period". File sharing, which fosters continuity and collaboration in learning, combines technical and cultural forces.

Condition three is institutional - and that's where we do face obstacles. This is also where you, as policymakers come in: there's plenty of work for you to do!

The first institutional barrier is the variety of attempts to privatise information - people who try to privatise algorithms, genetic data, or natural organisms. This one is a real snake: we have to kill it.

A related obstacle is the commodity model of publishing I mentioned just now. We need to be firm, but perhaps more humane than with the privatisers of discoveries, in helping publishing change its business model from the commodification, to the facilitation, of learning.

A third institutional barrier: technical standards that make it harder for systems to operate together - rather than easier, as we need.

These are the 'cultural barriers' to a learning society that need to be removed. I do not know how to get rid of them. I have no blueprint for a transition from a culture of learning that is corporate, to one that is collaborative. I do not know how to foster a culture of learning based on free exchange of knowledge, Open Source software, and its learning equivalents.

What I do know - and here I will conclude - is two things. First, learning is not a 'problem' that will be solved by technology. Neither is learning a problem of human nature, which we somehow have to change. On the contrary, we want to learn, and we have the technical means to do so in new ways. The only obstacles are institutional.

And that brings me to the second thing I know: "Where there's a will, there's a way".

Posted by John Thackara at 05:39 PM | Comments (2)