March 15, 2008

Design policy as ecocide

In the UK at least 20 local authorities have brought forward innovative answers to climate change. This roll call includes Woking, Kirklees, Barnsley, Nottingham, Braintree, and Merton. This cheering list is included in an excellent piece by Jonathon Porritt in Nesta's Annual Review. (His bit is on page 56).

Having reminded us that many good things are happening at a local level, Porritt goes on to warn that getting these innovative programmes mainstreamed across the whole of local government has proved a massive problem. "Politicians would have us all believe that they have 'got' climate change - but they absolutely haven't" writes Porritt. These local programmes have been launched "without the slightest encouragement from central government". He describes as 'eco-cidal" the conception of economic progress that is hard-wired into policy - and therefore shapes how governments spend our money.

A good example of ecocidal policy in action was an announcement last week concerning the Design Centre of the North (DCN). The regional development agency, One North East, has published a public call for tenders for organisations to run the new institution.

The word sustainability does not appear, once, in the accompanying text - despite the fact that 80 percent of the environmental impact of products and buildings is determined at the design stage.

How could this happen? The answer lies in the rules which determine how these government agencies work. A development project may only be funded if it contributes to growth, productivity, and "Gross Value Added." Otherwise stated, unsustainable business-as-usual. So although a project like DCN may be regional, the rules that determine its financing are set and enforced by central government (and often by the European Commisson) - the two centres of power where, in Jonathon Porritt's assessment, eco-cidal inertia is strongest.

The picture is not all black and white. This same development agency that's promoting a sustainability-free DCN was also the major funder (along with the Design Council) of Dott 07 - which was all about sustainability. And I must say, as its programme director, that both these stakeholders were exemplary and supportive partners.

The reasons a major public agency, which spends hundreds of millions of public money each year, can face in two opposite directions at once, are partly technical and partly cultural.

Technically, because it was not a capital or infrastructure project, Dott 07 could be run at arm's length. Design Centre of the North, as a capital project, had to be the subject of a laborious consultation process. This process, crucially, engaged only with parties with a vested interest in design: industry, design schools, the design profession, and so on.

Most of those consulted agreed that a new institution, set up to support their interests, but paid for by the taxpayer, would be a splendid addtion to the region's landscape. What a surprise.

The fatal flaw in this procedure was that sustainability was excluded as an interested party.

The cultural factor here is that many economic development officials are enchanted by a bright, shiny and high-tech vision of of the future."Sustainability" sounds boring compared to an all-things-new economy. Muddy food-growing allotments, or car-sharing schemes, are perceived as sad and backward remnants of a grim past compared to glossy buildings filled with all things bio and nano - and "design".

The DCN epsode is dispriting - but raging against a flawed system is seldom productive. I remind myself. A better use of one's life energy is to support the myriad exciting projects led by "improbable contenders" that, in Jonathon Porritt's words,"just get on and do stuff".

Professional design bodies and old-paradigm design schools will persist in dragging their feet - but they are baggage we can afford to leave behind.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:19 AM | Comments (0)

January 28, 2008

Should design schools be closed down?

Neil McGuire asked me in his Wodcast interview with me whether I meant it when I said that design schools should be closed down.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:27 PM | Comments (1)

January 22, 2008

Measuring what matters in France

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has recruited two Nobel economists, Amartya Sen of India and Joseph Stiglitz of the US, to advise him on changing the way French economic growth is calculated. “We must change the way we measure growth,” said Sarkozy, adding that "the way gross national product is calculated should take into account the quality of life in France".

Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his development 20 years ago (with Pakistan's Mahbubul Haq) of the the widely used Human Development Index. As another reformer, "anti-economist" Hazel Henderson, has explained, "in our economy, everything has a price - but nothing, it seems, has a value. The yardsticks we have chosen to measure "progress" are economic ones: margin, GNP, jobs, the Dow Jones, the prime rate. Everything else -- the health of our children, clean air, the safety of our communities, the feeling of belonging, a sense of meaning -- has to compete on the same grounds. Environmental damage, or stress on workers, don't get counted at all in such economic measures"

Now call me cynical, but I suspect that what the French president has in mind is to *add* France's wellbeing score to its GDP, not to substitute one for the other. But Sarkozy's move is nonetheless a breakthrough in the the fight to change the way we measure economic success.

Ever since we organised Doors of Perception 3 on "info eco" in 1995, our conferences have repeatedly asked what would it take to monitor our planet’s true condition in real time. We've been shown a variety of sometimes beautiful perceptual aids designed to help us understand the conditon of the invisible natural systems that surround us. (Inspired by these proposals, I then wrote in my book about systems literacy).

In Dott 07, we ran a project over two years called Vital Signs. It asked: "What would it mean to monitor the region’s vital signs in real time? How can we design indicators to look at ecological footprints, energy use of buildings, food miles, transport intensity, and housing density alongside traditional economic indicators? What technologies can we use to design means of benchmarking and communicating our progress?". One outcome of the Dott project was that Lone Twin challenged us to move away from an over-concentraton on information artefacts (such as urban screens, or mobile phone displays) to human activity with their project Town Crier.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:33 AM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2007

India's new design policy

When I first visited India 20 years ago, the country had fewer design teachers for a population of more than a billion people than had Wales - whose population is three million. The supply of teachers seemed to be stuck because India had just one national public design school: the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad.

NID had (and has) extremely smart faculty and students. But their number - 400 or so per cohort - is tiny in comparison with the 60,000 elite students who attend the country's Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) - and who have played such a major role in the global IT boom.

It's good news, then India's new National Design Policy, which was published on Friday, decrees that four more National Institutes of Design, on the pattern of NID, will be set up in different regions of the country.

The new policy also encourages the establishment of departments of design in all IITs, the National Institutes of Technology (NITs), and in prestigious private sector colleges. The objective is to spread quality design education to all regions of India.

So far, so good. But I was shocked and dismayed to find no mention of climate change, sustainable development, or resource efficiency, in the press release describing the Cabinet's "vision for a National Design Policy."

The emphasis of the vision is on "making India a major hub for exports and outsourcing of designs." This does not sound like the basis for a post-waste, post-consumerist, sustainable economy.

Frankly, if it ignores sustainability, India's new design policy will make the global situation worse. A lot worse. 80% of the environmental impact of products, services and infrastructures is determined at the design stage, and India is a global industrial power.

Along with other friends of Indian design, I have been arguing for some years for a "leapfrog strategy" in which India jumps directly from a resource-guzzling productivist model to a more advanced, sustainable - and competitive - services-based model.

Doors has been arguing this case in India for six years. The focus of our first formal event in India, at NID in February 2000, was on the transition to a services economy. We expanded this discussion in Doors East in 2003, and at Doors 8 on Infra in 2005. The theme of Doors 9 on Juice , in two weeks' time, returns once again to the leapfrog idea, this time on the context of food and energy.

India's new design policy suggests that we have not argued well enough.

The leapfrog hypothesis is doing much better in China. Ezio Manzini, a pioneer of the idea, was on the front page of the Peoples Daily a few weeks ago on just this topic. Senior Chinese policy makers told us, then, that they are looking to develop a fundamental "transformation of our economic growth model". They said they expected design to play a crucial role in this tranformation.

On a third reading of last week's announcement from the Indian Cabinet, I discovered a nugget of hope near the bottom of the last page. Item xvi.11 of an Action Plan to implement the Policy says a proposed new India Design Council should "Take effective steps towards 'cradle to grave environment-friendly approach' for designs produced in India so that they have global acceptance as ‘sustainable designs’".

This reads more like an afterthought than a ringing endorsement for design's biggest opportunity in 200 years. But it's better than nothing.

Will India's design education fall further behind? I doubt it. India's designers are fast on the uptake. Give them the tools - in the form of the promised new institutions - and I'm confident they'll adapt them to the task of One Planet Economy design.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:32 AM | Comments (0)

August 30, 2006

New job title?

I was perplexed to find myself billed as a "designberater" at Monday's Rosenthal Design Convention in Frankfurt. Now in my dictionary, berate means "to rebuke or scold angrily and at length". That can't possibly mean me, I thought, self-righteously. It turns out that the German word berater means, more prosaically, advisor or consultant. Still, I can't help thinking that someone was trying to tell me something. And maybe they are right. I will only ever say sweet, short things about people from here on in. Hummmmmm.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:24 AM | Comments (0)

April 10, 2006

Design transformation

What, in broad terms, is happening to design right now? According to a new paper from RED in London, we are experiencing two important shifts: Firstly, in where design skills are being applied; and secondly, in who is doing the designing. A new discipline is emerging, they say, that builds on traditional design skills to address social and economic issues. “Solutions to today’s most intractable issues – the rise of long-term health conditions, the impacts of climate change, the consequences of an ageing population - need to place the individual at their heart, and build the capacity to innovate into organisations and institutions”. I’m not comfortable with the words “transformation design” – they suggest a new-agey Dr Who – but it’s a well-written piece that explains cogently that old and new approaches to design can and need to co-exist.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:26 PM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2006

Bottles half-full

Africans are twice as optimistic as Europeans. According to a survey of 52,000 people around the world by Gallup International (reported in The Economist of 17 January), African people come top when asked if they expect this year to be better than last year. Asked to explain the apparent anomaly – after all, Africa is “poor” - Meril James, from Gallup, is quoted as stating that “there is usually very little relationship between the survey’s optimism rankings, and reality”. Nigerians, for example, are “usually upbeat whether their lot gets better or not”. Hmm: I’m not sure about that. Results also depend on how you define a person’s “lot”, and on what aspects of “reality” you choose to measure. For example, I’m pretty sure that that levels of household debt are somewhat lower in Nigeria than they are in London - but that levels of social solidarity are much higher. I next year’s survey, I would like Gallup to add the question: “Do you look forward to being old in this community?”.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:49 AM | Comments (0)

January 02, 2006

Human sciences and design

On January 13, Donald Norman will receive an honorary doctorate from the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering in Delft. On January 12 a symposium will take place on how the human sciences infuse design, with Donald Norman, Josephine Green, Henk Janssen (Indes) and Paul Hekkert (IO) as the speakers. Entrance to the symposium is free of charge, barticipants are requested to register by sending an e-mail to:

Posted by John Thackara at 09:34 PM | Comments (0)

December 08, 2005

Creativity in business

Design policy is itself a globalising industry. I arrived back from Korea to be greeted by my copy of the Cox Review of Creativity in Business. This startling document has been eagerly awaited by the design industry. Many creatives in the UK (as in other industrialised countries) fondly believe that while manufacturing and call centres may emigate to cheaper countries, their brand of 'creativity’ is immune. They expected the Cox Review (it's written by Sir George Cox) to confirm this warm and cosy feeling. Instead, it will feel more like bucket of cold water. “The model of the UK becoming an all-service economy, the world’s leading repository of professional skills, is enormously appealing - and totally unrealistic” writes Cox. “The now rapidly advancing developing economies have no desire to remain as suppliers of cheap, low-skilled labour to the world. And indeed, why should they?”

As my own visit last week to South Korea confirmed, what’s impressive about emerging economies is not where they stand today, but the scale of their commitment to knowledge-intensive industries, including design, in the near future. The Cox Review is admirably global in its scope, but even he underestimates the speed with which things are changing. The report refers to “a window of opportunity – perhaps five or ten years – while the new economies develop the kinds of creative skills necessary to compete across the board”. I don’t think those years exist. Pretty much the same words greeted me when I joined the Hong Kong Design Task Force in 2001: we had "ten years to move the Hong Kong design industry up the value chain", we were told. A single visit to the Pearl River Delta, and an encounter with a room full of PhDs developing acoustic software for Bose, persuaded us that the gap in capability between Hong Kong and the mainland was was nearer two years, than ten.

The story in India today is similar. Cox states that GE has 1,000 scientists doing top level research in India. But my own understanding is that the number is already nearer 3,000. The site, which is always shrouded in construction equipment, has a capacity for many more again. I have a feeling that that GE would happily base all its 7,000 researchers in India were it not for fear of the political backlash in the US. As Cox rightly emphasizes, it’s not just about cost. Yes, an Indian PhD can be hired for 10 percent of the cost of an American or British one. But GE’s Indian PhDs, I was told, have also reduced innovation processes that took 24 steps in the US to seven steps in Bangalore. They are cheaper, and better.

But back to Britain. I was an early critic of the implication that only ‘creatives’ are creative, and the Cox Review wisely eschews that approach. Its subject is creativity and innovation among thousands of small and medium sized companies (SMEs) in all sectors of the economy, including public services. It’s also refreshing that Cox does not limit creativity to the production of new (and, for me, often pointless) novelty. On the contrary: He insists, on page one, that creativity includes new ways of looking at existing problems.

Having set out to discover what stops SMEs making greater use of the country’s creative talents, and what might be done about it, Cox arrives at a series of recommendations for action. These, for the most part, strike me as well-reasoned, innovative and relatively inexpensive. (I should declare an interest at this point: the Design Council, of which Sir George is Chairman, is a client of mine). Having evaluated no fewer than 70 existing initiatives which, one way or another, have the aim of linking creativity, design and business, he recommends that one of these, a Design Council programme called Design for Business, should be developed natonally. Around 6,500 SMEs could be reached over a three year period if the right resources were mobilised and focused. Based on early testing of the programmme, Design for Business would transform the performance and prospects of around 1,800 of these firms.

The Cox Review also emphasizes public sector procurement. British public services spend around £125 billion each year (getting on for 200 billion euros) on goods and services. For Cox, "all of the major problems facing society today – such as healthcare, education, security, transport infrastructure, or sustainability – require a high degree of innovation if they are to be addressed effectively". The public sector should be an intelligent and demanding buyer of goods and services, not simply looking for long-proven products and yesterday’s solutions at the lowest prices.

These are wise words, marred by the fact that this is one of the few places in the report where the word sustainability appears. This is a missed opportunity. Sustainability is the most important driver of innovation of all. SMEs represent over 99 percent of companies, and permeate supply chains: The fact that most SMEs are far less advanced than most multinationals in their environmental policies and practices is a fantastic opportuniuty for design-led innovation.

Cox also recommends that universities should develop multidisciplinary masters programmes that would bring together different elements of creativity, technology and business. He reminds Britain’s design schools that they face new competiton from programmes such as IDBM in Finland, or Stanford’s new D-School in the US. (The latter has been funded by a reported $25 million grant from SAP, the European software firm). Cox recommends that at least one of the new UK centres of excellence should embrace service design within its curriculum.

It looks as if most of Cox's recommendations will be implemented. According to the Design Council's website the UK's chancellor, Gordon Brown, has backed its key recommendations from the Cox Review, including a design support programme for businesses, a review of the tax credit system, and a network of design centres.

The Cox Review has one weakness, which is easily remedied. This is a proposal for no fewer than six showcase buildings in different parts of the UK that would “create greater visibility for the UK’s creative capabilities” and be a hub for creative industry gatherings.These shiny edifices would enable networking between them and regional SMEs, the report argues. Running costs for a London centre alone would be “around £4.6 million”, but the centres “should become largely self-sustaining” with income from letting, retail activities, grant, and sponsorship.

I don’t buy the value proposition, and am suspicious of the business model supplied to Cox by consultants. Cox is right that networking among SME’s, and with designers, can foster innovation – but you don’t need shiny and expensive buildings do it in. On the contrary: the most intense and creative encounters I experience usually occur in edgy, derelict, un-shiny old industrial buildings, or in tents, or in Starbucks. New institutions to foster networking are a good idea – but what’s needed are support and connecting organisations – and small ones at that - not great big edifices.

If if the prominence given to glossy photographs of the project is any guide, Cox's team was unduly impressed by Singapore’s £158 million Fusionopolis creative centre. Fusionopolis, which is due to open in June 2007, is a massive development - dedicated, says its brochure, to “fostering knowledge transfer and providing a vibrant work-live-work-play environment”. For me, at the end of the day, Fusionopolis is a government-subsidised real-estate project. Fusionopolis is the latest in a series of grandiose Singapore projects (others include Biopolis (biotech) and a Technopolis) that have been backed by billions of dollars of government money. They look futuristic, but these projects are based on an old-fashioned, technology-focused, and therefore unsustainable, understanding of innovation. Singapore bureaucrats are now promoting “Global Entrepolis”, the concept of Singapore as an entire city-state dedicated to, and filled with, high-tech entrepreneurs. This last brainwave, said one local critic, “confirms Singapore’s position as a ‘Polis State’ “.

Innovation needs to be situated in reality - not segregated from it. Projects like Fusionopolis (and New Songdo that I learned about in Korea last week) are gated communities for subsidised scientists. So much development money is sloshing around in them that their inmates are fated to become inward looking and self-referential. And that's when the innovation stops. Look what happened at Interval Research in the US: it burned through $100 million of Paul Allen’s money but, being isolated behind smoky mirrors up a Palo Alto hill, it so lacked interaction with the real world that it produced no innovations that the world wanted.

A simple win-win solution is available: Redirect the money earmarked in the Cox Review for showcase design buildings, to the greening of SMEs.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:58 AM | Comments (5)

September 05, 2005

The Internet of Oz

What might the Internet be like in 2010? Darren Sharp, whom some of you met at Doors 8 in Delhi, is co-author of a hefty new Australian report called Smart Internet 2010. An executive summary is here. The 2010 Report provides, in narrative form, a range of expert opinion on future possibilities for Australia in Open Source and social network technologies, e-health, digital games, voice applications and mobiles. Old-paradigm language - lots of 'end users' and 'consumers' - permeates the introductory remarks of Senator Coonan; but she would not be the first politician to pay for a report and yet not read it. For the report itself draws on sound advice from wise souls such as Cory Doctorow and Howard Rheingold. It concludes that 'the Smart Internet of 2010 is likely to become the platform for personal connectedness'. My own take is that culture and institutions change far more slowly than most futurists would have us believe; the best way to find out what things will be like in 2010 is by going out the door and seeing what they're like now.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:11 PM | Comments (0)

August 31, 2005

Toys for the boys?

A mesmerising shopping list of new ‘research infrastructures’ has been sent to the the European Commission by a committee of top scientists. These new toys – sorry, ‘tools’ – range from an Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) for optical astronomy, to a research icebreaker called Aurora Borealis, and a facility for antiproton and ion research called FAIR. The price tags are fair, too: they range from ‘less than 100 million’ euros, to one billion-plus. Its authors describe the list as ‘well-balanced’ even though just two of its 23 projects concern human beings. Can this have anything to do with the gender profile of European science? Women represent 27 percent of the scientific workforce in EU countries, but the proportion of women in senior research positions is extremely small. In Austria, for example, only 4 percent of full professors are female, compared to a (still not brilliant) 14 percent in the United States.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:14 AM | Comments (1)

August 30, 2005

Cooperative multiplatform warfare

What exactly is an 'information society' and do we want to live in one? The European Commission has published a new plan, called i2010 for 'the completion of a Single European Information Space'. The Commission proposes an 80% increase in funding for ICT research focused on areas where Europe has recognised strengths: nanoelectronics, embedded systems, communications, and 'emerging areas such as web-services and cognitive systems'. Now you probably knew, but I did not, that Europe is a leader in cognitive systems. To be frank, I had no idea what they are, or do. So I checked them out. They are 'artificial systems that can interpret data arising from real-world events and processes (mainly in the form of data-streams from sensors of all types and in particular from visual and/or audio sources); acquire situated knowledge of their environment; act, make or suggest decisions and communicate with people on human terms, thereby support them in performing complex tasks'. Sounds straightforward enough. But what might those 'complex tasks' be? A helpful collection of examples is to be found at the website of COGIS 06 , a watering hole of the cognitive systems crowd. To judge by the list of special sessions, an 'information society' will be a warlike one. The first topic on the list concerns 'cooperative multiplatform warfare', a condition that will feature 'the human control of multiple unmanned aerial vehicles in collaborative missions'. Until, that is, they run amok. The Commission does say that social aspects of ICT are important in delivering public value. But it's not easy to judge from the budget breakdown how research spending on 'public value' compares with that on cooperative multiplatform warfare. Will someone from the Commission enlighten me, and thereby dispel my nagging doubts?

Posted by John Thackara at 08:00 AM | Comments (0)

August 26, 2005

X-ray ayes

What are the dark scenarios for Ambient Intelligence (AmI) ? Five threats are identified in a report from a powerful European consortium: Surveillance of users; spamming; identity theft; malicious attacks (on AmI systems); and a cultural condition they describe as 'digital divide'. The research consortium - whose members include the Fraunhofer Institute, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS), and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel - has been asked to investigate 'Safeguards in a World of Ambient Intelligence' (hence its embarassing acronym, SWAMI). In a 200+ page interim report, the team reviews the state of the art in AmI. Their initial conclusion is that 'ambient intelligence technology violates most of currently existing privacy-protecting borders'. This is not just a matter of spooks recording email. Our psychological assumption that 'If I can not see you, then you can not see me' seems to dissolve in contexts where video cameras render walls and doors transparent. We quickly forget they are present, and adapt to a new normality.
Tucked away in the references is an impressive and, I think, important text by a philosopher, Ira Singer, called Privacy and Human Nature. Singer writes: 'Increasing manipulativeness, decreasing intimacy, and self-revelation in a dehumanizing context, all sound like substantial harms. But do these apparently trivial intrusions really do such damage?'. His conclusion: yes, they do. 'An accumulation of intrusions does ...moral and conceptual damage...even apparently trivial and 'harmless' violations of privacy depend on a reductive and unappealing picture of human nature, and promote the diminishment of human nature in accord with that picture'. The Swami report also acknowledges (page 181) that many of the application scenarios prepared by the AmI industry 'present people (children particularly) as passive consumers happily accepting increased dependability on AmI systems'. In this context I think Swami is wrong to name its fifth dark scenario 'digital divide'. If it is true that 'AmI visions are often extremely individualistic, not recognising people as members of a family or social groups' - then we face a a cultural and moral challenge, not an infrastructure access one. A better word would be anomie.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:51 AM | Comments (0)

July 25, 2005

If the terrorists don't get you your socks will

Outside Baghdad, and almost everywhere one might travel in the world, the risk of being killed in a road accident greatly exceeds the risk of being killed by a terrorist. John Adams - Britain's leading academic expert on risk, and author of a seminal book by that title - wrote a paper on this issue last year. He has now updated it for the inestimable NewMobility website. Adams points out that the death toll from the London bombings represents six days of death on Britain's roads. The death toll from the Madrid bombings represented twelve or thirteen days of death on the Spanish roads. In the 25 busiest years of 'the troubles' in Northern Ireland, twice as many people died in road accidents as were killed by terrorists. Yet the public fear of terrorism - and reaction to it - is on a completely different scale to that of death on the road. What Adams does not mention is that staying home is even more dangerous: over 3,000 deaths a year in the UK are the result of home accidents – more than on the roads. Half of these in-the-home deaths (1,500) are people falling over - and of these, between five and ten each year take place when people are trying to put on socks. (In 2003, 11,788 people were taken to hospital following accidents while putting on socks, tights or stockings). 67,000 people are injured each year in the UK trying to peel the cellophane off a packet of sandwiches or open a ring-pull can. Research shows that around seventy per cent of British people are ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about national security. I would hazard that around zero percent worry about putting on their socks. Or near to zero: Googling "design" and "homeland security" yields a score today of 3,220,000; Googling "design" + "putting on socks" + "safety" yields a score of 840.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:12 AM | Comments (0)

July 12, 2005

Back to normal?

Is this true? Gary Yonge reports from New York in today's Guardian that US newspapers are warning of threats to America from 'Londonistan'. "Articles on front pages of newspapers across the country describe the UK as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism that threatens global security" writes Yonge; (the newspapers report that) London has become a "feeding ground for hate" and a "crossroads for would-be terrorists" where Muslims exploit civil liberties to "openly preach jihad". I'm not going to get het up about this until I hear from someone else that it's a true reflection of US coverage. For now, I urge US readers here to read and pass around one of the most moving stories of the London bomings, yesterday's release of photographs of the missing. One of those missing, 20 year-old Shahara Akther Islam, is a young Briton from the East End of London, and a devout Muslim. The other faces represent the extraordinary variety of creed and colour that makes London such a great city. To me, as a wandering Brit, the real threat to civilisation comes not from radical muslims but from radical consumerism. Another UK story today is headlined "Bombs keep shoppers away"."The British Retail Consortium predicted £26m of losses since the bombs hit"the story intones gravely. "One retail analyst said the lower footfall, particularly on the day the bombs exploded, was not as bad as he had expected". Retail - what a charming industry. Not.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:53 AM | Comments (0)

July 11, 2005

Designers on the breadline

I like to keep track of the total I get when Googling "design" + "homeland security". The number six months ago was 1,310,000. Today, the score stands at 3,090,000. By a complete coincidence, the budget for Homeland Security rose to $41 billion by the end of 2004. Commenting on this paltry amount of money, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox said that the budget "represents good progress," but leaves some efforts "badly underfunded." Too true. After all, designers have to eat, right? If you're hungry, too, check out this list of design appetisers. Opportunities await sociologists,too.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:19 PM | Comments (0)

June 26, 2005

What shall we call this kind of behaviour? Patrochuting?

We need a new word for the insulting behaviour of politicians. I refer to their habit of turning up late to a conference, reading a banal speech to a room full of experts in the subject, and then leaving before hearing what anyone else has to say. The latest insulting cameo appearance is described by Jonathan Marks who attended a conference in Amsterdam called Creative Capital. Two senior politicians "didn’t stick around for anything more than their speeches... looking at the body language of the audience during (one) speech there was a mixture of sadness and anger…what did this have to do with what they had been discussing the last few days?". Some combination of 'parachuting' and 'patronising' perhaps? 'Patrochuting politicians'? Please do better.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:48 AM | Comments (0)

June 07, 2005

Of politics and Pimms

A Pimms-enhanced party at Demos, in London, was held to launch a new strategy for the organization called Building Everyday Democracy. According to the think tank's director, Tom Bentley, “politics is fighting a losing battle against forms of theatre and spectacle that are more entertaining, and forms of conversation and social exchange that are more meaningful to citizens. Without more direct citizen participation, the legitimacy of our political institutions will continue to decline”. Democracy, for Bentley, should be understood as “part of a capacity for self-organsation” - and his pamphlet describes numerous neighbourhood-based models and institutions as infrastructures of distributed democracy. The Demos project is interesting, and timely, but somehow lacks cultural fizz. At the end of the nineteenth century, the promise of speed and simultaneity, amplified in popular and scientific culture, drove modernity along. The opportunity, now, to “build local democracy” feels a good deal less mesmerizing. The same goes for the "everyday design" we pay attention to in Doors: there's always a danger of being worthy but dull. A cultural- aesthetic transformation will also be needed if political renewal is to have a chance.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:05 PM | Comments (0)

May 15, 2005

Vote for Reverend Billy

The most entertaining challenger to Michael Bloomberg for Mayor of New York is the Reverend Billy , leader of the The Church of Stop Shopping. The Reverend has announced plans to conduct his entire campaign on premises of the Starbucks Corporation; he will offer 258 sermons in 258 locations in the five boroughs of the city. Reverend Billy is banned from Starbucks world-wide, possibly because he describes the firm as a "community-destroyer". Or maybe it's because he is often accompanied at Starbucks by a 40-strong gospel choir that sings "Put That Latte Down".

Posted by John Thackara at 05:19 PM | Comments (0)

March 15, 2005

How digital rights management will harm the developing world

India-bound Michael Coburn draws my attention to a paper by Cory Doctorow on how Digital Rights Management will affect the developing world. The piece is written for an International Telecommunications Union report aimed at telecoms regulators in national governments around the world; they are trying to figure out which DRM to adopt. Doctorow questions the "DRM hypothesis" that the public is dishonest, and will do dishonest things with cultural material if given the chance. Besides, he says, DRM won't work: 'there has never been a single piece of DRM-restricted media that can't be downloaded from the Internet today. In more than a decade of extensive use, DRM has never once accomplished its goal'.My own view is that anything that restricts the free flow of communication is obnxious in and of itself - but that the value of protected - and therefore frozen - content, is modest relative to live contact between humans, which is far more important. But we need to be vigilant on both counts.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:58 AM | Comments (0)

February 13, 2005

Little Boy: look at me!

I like to keep track of a possibly meaningless statistic: Googling 'design' + 'homeland security'. Today's total, at 1,310,000, is up 20,000 on a month ago. But I have a feeling the the security-through-fear bubble may be deflating. One sign that people may not be as scared as the industry would like: Jason Coster-Mullen drove a 600-pound, shiny steel replica of "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, 800 miles across the United States in the back of his car and no one stopped or questioned him.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:44 PM | Comments (0)

February 11, 2005

Markets for "slivers of time"

Online auctions are booming. The phenomenon has been been labelled the 'march of the micro-sellers'. But could sites like eBay, with its 105 million users, be harbingers of a more important transformation, when individuals start to exchange time and services online? Wingham Rowan in the UK is developing the technical and institutional infrastructure for Neighbourhood e-Markets (NEMs) in which anyone can directly sell their time, around other commitments in their life, with total control and all the information they need about localised patterns of demand/supply and pricing for the kind of work or services they wish to offer. "These are hugely complex transactions" says Rowan; "they can now be made effortless, ultra-low overhead and consistently safe - but it takes much more sophisticated technology than Internet marketplaces based on bulletin boards or auctions require. Each 'slivers of time' marketplace must absorb issues including availability, contactability, reliability, price construction, potential agency involvement, protection of all parties, legal compliance, alignment of localised supply/demand, post transaction administration and restructuring of failed transactions". It seems that NEMs does all of this, but the participation of government is needed to seed this kind of economic activity and create a legal framework that enables its full potential.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:04 AM | Comments (0)

February 09, 2005

On 'think and do tanks'

An article by Rob Blackhurst in the UK's New Statesman states that "whilst think tanks and their policy wonks have proliferated, their influence on policy has declined sharply". This piece has sparked a lively debate at the Demos blog about "how to stay influential and competitive, without drifting away from the very people whose lives your ideas are intended to benefit". Pitching in to this discussion, the Global Ideas Bank observed that "both Demos and New Economics Foundation style themselves increasingly as think and DO tanks". The diminishing power of pure thought to change social reality will be debated at Doors 8 - so for now I'll do some useless point-scoring: the Netherlands Design Institute (where Doors was born) called itself a think and do tank back in 1994 - as it shown on this prototype (by Zuper) of our first website . (I'm sure others used the term before we did: do tell me if you know when, and by whom).

Posted by John Thackara at 08:57 AM | Comments (1)

January 19, 2005

Why European IT research is failing

According to Computer Weekly today, a high-level European Commission assessment panel has concluded that European Union research into information society technologies (IST) is failing, despite it spending more than a billion euros a year on the area. The panel said "more investment and less bureaucracy" are required for success. Red-tape is indeed a problem: it can take 70 working days to complete an EC project proposal which - when a one-in-three success rate is factored in - means we at Doors used to employ a whole person just to make applications. But the much bigger problem than red tape is the EC assumption that designing an information society is only about tech. Last year, for example, we spent three months filling in a huge funding application for Doors East - an event whose entire agenda was devoted to social innovation in a network society using ICTs as support. Our application was turned down because our proposal contained 'insufficient technological content'. Doors has also been forced to stop participating in EC-funded programmes because of scale. Knowledge-sharing networks of excellence (of which we like to think Doors is a lively example) may only be funded by the EC if a network's member organisations have at least 50 (and preferably 100-200) PhD level researchers on their books. This number favours the dinosaurs of Big Science (who helped write the policy) at the expense of hundreds of grassroots organisations who have the ideas - and local connections - that the dinosaurs lack.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:35 PM | Comments (0)

January 07, 2005

How to play the innovation game + APOLOGY

"If you're a manager at a company that's going to compete globally by playing the innovation game, you're going to have to learn how to innovate. When people talk about innovation in this decade, they really mean design". That was Bruce Nussbaum in Business Week , Tuesday, January 04, 2005. And this is a shameless puff. for our design conference in Delhi in March.
APOLOGY: this month, this blog contains a number self-serving plugs for the Doors 8 conference in Delhi in March. This is because we decided not to print 60,000 brochures this year, as we did in the past, and to use this channel instead to tell you about the event and persuade you to come.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:47 PM | Comments (0)

January 03, 2005

Technology, safety, community

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

Posted by John Thackara at 08:42 PM | Comments (0)

December 22, 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". The Design Council will publish a formal report soon (I will link it from here) - but 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 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).


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.

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

Posted by John Thackara at 05:57 PM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2000

No more (design) heroes

The lone genius is dead. Long live collaborative design. I was interviewed by Chee Pearlman for Wired. Chee wisely published less than the stuff that appears here, but, shucks, this is my column....

Interview for Wired. Questions by Chee Pearlman, who also interviewed Paola Antonelli, Tim Parsey, Bruce Sterling, Lee Green, Lorraine Wild, Don Norman, Ayse Birsel, Tucker Viemeister, David Kelley, Ted Selker, Ray Riley, Ettore Sottsass, Erik Adegard, Robert Brunner,Trevor Creed, Gary Fisher, Andy Proehl, Rick Valicenti, Richard Saul Wurman and Susan Yelavitch.

Chee Pearlman: Let's talk about experience design.

John Thackara: I tend not to like or trust any all-encompassing experience that has been designed for me, and not with me: theme parks, shopping malls, air travel, most websites, 98 per cent of e-learning products. The majority of architects and designers still think it is their job to design the world from the outside, top-down. Designing in the world; real-time, real-world collaborative design; strikes many designers as being less cool, less fun, than the development of blue-sky concepts. To be fair, many younger designers feel free to set the stage for what is experienced. But the big money still goes to the control freaks. People do like to be stimulated, to have things proposed to them. Designers are great at this. But the line between propose and impose is a thin one. We need a balance.

CP: When is a design finished?

JT: Design has been too slow to focus on services rather than on things. As a result, we have flooded the world with pointless devices. It has taken us far too long to consider material end energy flows in all the systems we design. We need to think about the consequences of technology before we act, not after. We've created an industrial system that is brilliant on means, but pretty hopeless when it comes to ends. The result is a divergence between technological intensification and perceived value. We are hovering uneasily between an undiminshed infatuation with technology, on the one hand, and unease about its actual value, and possible rebound effects, on the other. Locating innovation in specific social contexts can, I am sure, be a resolution to the innovation dilemma. Designing with people, not for them, can bring the whole subject of 'user experience' literally to life. Looked at in this way, success will come to organisations with the most creative and committed customers (sorry, 'actors'). The era of the lone design genius working in isolation is over. But not all the lonely geniuses realise it yet. This only matters when you get stuck in a restaurant with an egocentric design star who cannot or will not think about anything except himself. (It's rarely a she).

CP: How about the contribution of design to the bottom line?

JT: I've always found it hopeless trying to isolate the financial contribution of design to a business. Yes, design matters; but so too does technology, the value proposition, the people who work in the business, and people who cohabit its space (the ones we used to call 'users' or 'customers'). All these factors interact in ways too complex to measure financially. I don't know the numbers, so I simply assert the following: design contributes to the 'triple bottom line' of environmental impact, social quality and business profitability. It's a no-brainer: helping companies re-tool their processes to reduce wasteful flows of matter and energy reduces costs and adds quality.

CP: What is the next killer-app?

JT: Words like 'killer app' and 'cutting-edge' are throwbacks to a Neanderthal time when technology was seen as an end-in-itself. Sweet spots occur at the intersection between latent social needs, open systems, smart consumers and smart companies. That's when real value is created. The result will probably be a new service that constantly evolves. The best way to navigate a complex world is through a focus on core values, not on chasing the latest killer app. We're in the middle of a transition from an economy of transactions, to an ecology of relationships and contexts. Business strategies based on the 'domination' of markets are hopeless. The best companies are focusing on the innovation of new services, and new business models, rather than on new technology per se.

CP: What is your favourite design?

JT: My all-time favourite information product remains the Oanda Currency Converter ( I use the site almost every day to calculate guilders into lire into pounds sterling into US dollars into euros. If this is all that the Internet revolution has brought us, I am content. It is just so useful, it's sublime.

CP: So what is the future of design?

JT: I'm less intrigued by science fiction futures than by social fictions; untapped needs that can be met using the technologies we already have. Our technologies may well be multiplying, but we're finding it harder to find useful or valuable ways to use them. On the contrary: as I state in Thackara's Law: if you put smart technology into a pointless product, the result is a dumb product. But I'm not naive. We are innately curious, playful, and creative, so technology is not going to go away: it's too much fun. We're at a turning point in the relationship between design and network communications. Which is just as well: sometime soon there will be hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet. Hardline systems people, steely-eyed marketing types, and formerly effete designers; plus fellow travellers like myself; now find themselves working together. And they; we; are getting on surpisingly well. With levels of complexity growing all the time, dividing our work into 'hard' and 'soft' design simply doesn't work. Pervasive computing and experience design are accelerating the transformation of what we mean by 'design'.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:27 PM | Comments (0)

Interview with W magazine

Q] Do you believe a new century will spur different thinking in terms of architecture and design? Why or why not?

A] A new century, with 100 or 1,000 years stretching ahead, will prompt us to focus with dramatic new intensity on the consequences of design for the environment. Expect to hear much more about "Factor 4" or "Factor 10" - the number of times by which the environmental impact of a product or building needs to be reduced to be sustainable. The good news is that Factor10 projects will be fun, and will bring designers a vast amount of new work.

Q] There seem to be two strong camps emerging in the two fields - one aggressively modernist and the other looking to reinterpret the past
for the modern era. In your view, will one prevail? Is one necessarily better than the other?

A] The words 'modern' and 'past' will change their meaning in the new century. 'Modern' in 2000 will refer to designs that are sustainable, incorporate smart materials, are adaptive, and communicate with other products or places. Few of today's modernist designs have these qualities. As for the 'past', I anticipate that in 2000 we will look farther back than the last 100 years for inspiration. You'll hear talk of high-tech-enabled hunter gatherers - a 12,000 year-old lifestyle.

Q] The last century has seen enormous strides in terms of design. Will the new century see even more, given the
acceleration of demand for new design? Or will this process slow down and the public begin demanding longer-lasting designs?

A] Miles Davis said: "don't play what's there, play what's *not* there". Faced with so many new challenges, we will surely become impatient with designers who waste their time and the planet's limited resources on short-life-span products and pointless re-inventions of the wheel.

Q] Will the public awareness of what is good and bad design continue to increase? Why?

A] Who knows the difference between good and bad? I have no ambition to be a designer-priest. I prefer to believe that 'the public', among whom I include myself, will judge new design by such criteria as relevance, innovation, lightness, intelligence, connectedness, and fun.

Q] Will architecture and design adopt even more new materials compared with the past, i.e., from the computer, aerospace and high technology fields,
>>or where there be a move back toward natural materials?

A] The gap between artificial and natural materials is fast disappearing: biologists and engineers are now collaborating to figure out new ways to transfer the properties of 'natural' materials to man-made products and systems. The question is not, how do we choose between natural and artificial? but, how do we use these new materials in smart new ways? Answers to this question will start to flow when designers, citizens, and the men in white coats, start working together.

Q] Will companies and individuals begin commissioning grander projects in order to commemorate the arrival of a new century?

A] I hope not, because if they do, they will be horrendously late. I know quite a lot of people involved in millennium expos and building projects: they are all late. To anyone thinking about starting a grand project today I'd say: forget it! Time is only part of the problem: many of the prestige buildings being put up with millennium-enabled cash will soon become financial black holes, because nobody has thought much about who will pay for their running costs.

Q] Are the fears of a ''dumbing down'' of design in order to safely appeal to the masses justified? Should a broader approach to design be
taken or should designers lead public taste?

A] The only dumbing down I see is in marketing and advertising offices wherein gormless 'executives' and 'creatives' persist in insulting their fellow citizens with 'mass' communications. Happily, most of these advertising and marketing types will go out of business early in the new century because they simply don't Get It. The years ahead are not about 'consumers': we will increasingly design of our own products and services.

Q] What impact will the internet and the growing use of computers have? For example, will the increase in working from home mean
products designed for the home or the home office will become more important than office and office product design? How will they impact
food, clothing, cars, etc.?

A] Now there's a big question! Let me take one bit of it: how do we want to live? The internet allows more people to work from home - but how many of us want to do so? Home is lonely and isolating for millions of women (and men); they yearn for community and social contact, which the Internet can support. But we have to do it ourselves: the internet by itself is just a dumb bunch of wires and computers.

Q] Finally, what two or three SPECIFIC products or buildings do you believe are most indicative of the way design is moving as we enter the next century?

A] Pic 1: GOURD Designers will learn from biology in marvellous new ways. I really love these 'home-grown' vessels by the Dutch designer (name to follow). Pix c: GRAFFITI-SCAPE The true potential of the internet lies in its capacity to connect people together socially in new ways. This "graffiti-scape" is a leading edge example, designed by Michael Samyn @ VanRiet Online Productions for the Netherlands Design Institute. Different people can leave messages in a shared electronic space. It's like graffiti, but with the possibility to reply to other people in the space. Pix 3: PENGUIN Penguins are an inspiration for the redesign of buildings - or for that matter, clothes - in the years ahead. A penguin can stand up in extreme cold for weeks on end, keeping up a temperature difference between itself and its environment of 80 degrees Celsius. It can swim in icy water and get out on a sunny beach without overheating. And all on a diet of cold sardines. Compare that to the wasteful clothes, central heating and air conditioning by which we control our own environments.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:20 PM | Comments (0)

On design awards

Domus Magazine asked me about design competitions and awards.

Question 1 - the idea of "good design"
Your question reminds me that years ago, the British Design Council used to proclaim that "good design is good business" . But it was always hard to define good design, let alone to demonstrate a link between good design and business performance. A better question for design now is not, "is it good?" but is it connected ?- connected with interesting questions, connected with social or environmental issues, and connecting people and organisations in novel combinations.

Question 2 - what design awards can tell us
Most but not all design awards are useless. There is no evidence that awards have the slightest impact on consumer attitudes. Any award that goes to an existing product celebrates old knowledge, embodied in an artefact, and is therefore a waste of everybody's time. Awards to an individual designer are also a waste of time - but they make people feel good, and can be interesting, which is why I still get involved in them! The best ten per cent of design award schemes generate new projects, deliver a snapshot-in-time of current trends, and alert us to new ideas. The next best ten per cent are well-funded, and use expert juries to select winners who may not nominate themselves. The other 80 per cent are a money-making racket which exploit the hunger of designers for fame and recognition.

Question 3 - which innovation should be backed
Any intervention which raises new questions, connects new parties together, and thereby generates new knowledge, is worthwhile. The best existing scheme I know is the Student Design Awards organised by the Royal Society of Arts in London: these pro-active projects are based on current issues, and bring young designers and companies together for the first time. Some of the students work in teams. What happens during the projects is more interesting and valuable than who wins.

Question 4 - to whom are design prizes useful now?
Quite are few design awards are profitable to their organisers; a much smaller number is interesting; and to the designers who win them they are sometimes comforting; most of them are harmless; but hardly any are useful.
The kind of award I would like to organise, but which does not exist, would involve designers and companies working together on some future issue such as biomimicry , or social computing, or knowledge maps, or lightness.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:19 PM | Comments (0)

Design and elders: The Presence project

Imagine a world where every second European adult is over fifty years old. And where two-thirds of disposable consumer income is held by this age-group. By 2020 this will be a reality. There will be huge demand for services that enable older people to live independently in their own communities as they age. But although it is potentially huge - health care alone represents nearly eight per cent of Europe's GDP - few people or companies understand this emerging market. There is no category in the DOW index for services in which elderly people communicate and care for each other using new information tools and services; investors and entrepreneurs seem blind to the potential of new markets fuelled by the changing lifestyles and considerable financial resources of many elderly people. (I wrote this chapter for an American Centre for Design book, but I do not recall ever seeing a copy).

Imagine a world where every second European adult is over fifty years old. And where two-thirds of disposable consumer income is held by this age-group. By 2020 this will be a reality. There will be huge demand for services that enable older people to live independently in their own communities as they age. But although it is potentially huge - health care alone represents nearly eight per cent of Europe's GDP - few people or companies understand this emerging market. There is no category in the DOW index for services in which elderly people communicate and care for each other using new information tools and services; investors and entrepreneurs seem blind to the potential of new markets fuelled by the changing lifestyles and considerable financial resources of many elderly people.

Governments, too, are stuck in a negative mind-set: they fear that social, welfare, and health-care costs are going to escalate alarmingly, and are uncertain how best to react. As a result, perhaps the greatest of human achievements - the addition of 25 or more years to the average European lifespan in the space of three generations - is all too often see as a problem, and not an opportunity. Presence ( a two-year programme that brings together an international group of researchers to begin to fill this gap.

Social computing
These design and business issues converge in the concept of 'social computing' - a theme which informs an important European Union programme called i3 (it stands for Intelligent Information Interfaces - of which Presence is a part. i3confronts the question: 'how may we use design to develop new forms of public and personal media in order to meet new social needs?'. Twenty five i3 projects, with an aggregare value by now of 100 million euro (about $100 million) involve industrial companies, design groups, social research and human factors specialists, and real communities, all over Europe. Presence is a two-year programme that brings together an international group of researchers designers and industrial partners from Norway, Italy, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom. There are eight partner organisations, and more than 25 people are actively involved with this project.

Beginning in 1997, the project team set out to challenge stereotypes of older people as a predominantly frail, needy and disabled; their investigations focussed instead on the positive possibilities of ageing - even to see elders as knowledge assets. To reinforce this positive bias, the team decided on day one to work with groups of real people in their own communities, instead of taking the more conventional approach of generating ‘user profiles’ based on statistical and therefore abstract information.

Three ‘test-sites’ were chosen, each with its own individual characteristics and cultural roots. One was in Oslo, an affluent neighbourhood of more highly educated people who work with computers and are learning to get onto the Internet. A second community was an inner city area in Amsterdam called the Bijlmer; people from over 92 different countries live there. The Bijlmer is perceived by many Dutch people to be a ghetto, a really bad neighbourhood although, s we shall see, the people who live there see it differently. The third test-site was Peccioli in Italy, a small rural village. Between them the three communities cover the European spectrum - from North to South, urban to rural, from native to immigrant, from rich to poor, and from the extended family to fragmented family structures. The diversity to be found in just three test-sites was almost literally infinite.

Mapping communication flows
Combining traditional research techniques with new design and user-driven methods, which I describe below, the Presence team set out first to map the way communications flowed in the three communities. These ’maps’ did not just focus on so-called ‘purposive’ communication - letters to the bank, calling a taxi, a town-hall meeting - but also embraced all kinds of social and cultural communications - the many ways people build relationships, articulate their needs and fears, and interact informally with friends, family, carers, officials and so on. The dynamic of the project was top focus on the people themselves, their needs, their habits, their frustrations, their daily life. Information was also collected on demographics, how many people lived in the communities, how much money they had, and so on; but the soft, qualitative stuff proved more inspirational for the designers, when their turn came.

This first phase strongly reinforced our team’s intuition that older people want to be more ‘present’ in their communities, to sustain active fulfilling and independent lives; to develop new communication skills; to increase their involvement in the local community; and thereby to develop a fresh sense of purpose, self-esteem and belonging. Apart from this emerging insight into what it is like to be old in Europe today, the early Presence investigations into communication patterns identified blockages and dysfunctions into the communication contexts of elderly people: these blockages or gaps became a list of service and product opportunities for people of all ages.

Researchers also used maps to explore the psycho geography of each territory - what designer Bill Gaver called the "emotional typology" of the local sites. On a map of the Bijlmer people were asked people to put red yellow and green stickers to indicate where they felt afraid, cautious or safe in, respectively. On another map people in Oslo were asked to mark where in the library they go daydream, where they go and be comfortable, or where they would like to go and can't. In Peccioli the citizens were asked, where would the landmarks be? - and thy were given stickers of New York, everything from the statue of Liberty to a junkie on the street shooting drugs. And they had to ‘map’ these images onto a small Tuscan village.

This was a complex, messy, interactive process. Presence researchers worked in short cycles: talked with people, developed some ideas, showed these ideas to the people, got feedback, changed ideas, talked with the people again. They used conventional research methods, such as focus groups and questionnaires, but also developed new methods: maps that were annotated; postcards with questions on them were people wrote stories about themselves; photo albums of their own lives with hand-written stories about that.

Sidsel Bjornby, a social scientist who worked with the elderly people in Oslo, organised a series of so-called ‘dreams and dreads’ workshops. Recalls Bjornby: "we wanted to go deeply into how they felt for themselves in the future. At first we went through technology trends, discussing research from Norwegian Telecom; right then we found they were very
eager listeners to these trends and were not at all as afraid of the subject (technology) as we thought they might be". A second workshop on social trends was also surprising. Here you had a group of elderly people who live in the most affluent part of Oslo, all professional people, and fairly well off, and they regretted the social consequences of economic developments in Norway: people had become more remote from each other, and were not so concerned about each other as they used to be. There was talk of it being a (socially) colder society. and people were afraid technology might exacerbate these negative trends.

After each discussion, the participants in the discussions were asked to go home and write postcards from ‘ten years in the future to somebody living now’. Some sent text, others drew images. Sidsel Bjornby recalls one imaginary postcard to a grandchild that said: "I enjoyed so much being present at your birthday party even though could not be present in person because I was sick at home. I could hear you play the piano and I could see everybody sitting around the table and all my relatives being happy. Thankyou". This same lady also wrote postcards expressing concern about the future. " She was worried that she would go into a nursing home and would have nobody to talk to because all the ones with any brain would be sitting in the Internet room and nobody would come and visit her", recalls Bjornby.
" This simple device (postcards) taught us that elderly people can be a lot more open and creative in expressing their concerns and dreams about the future than we give them credit for". Sidsel Bjorneby is ruefully aware now that the role of researcher and researchee are fluid: "one of our people said how interesting it had been to learn how young designers think!".

Researchers at the other sites also used story-telling to get deeper into the social context. Danielle van Diemen, who led research in Amsterdam’s Bijlmer district, organised three-weekly sessions for a group of 25 people from Dutch, Caribbean and Indonesian descent. "We tried role playing and acting-out as a way to help people make a step from what is, to what could be", recalls van Diemen, "and in particular to to communicate a part of their lives
which are hard to express in language". The group therefore used visual tools, too, to express images, ideas, and memories; these in turn stimulated further role
playing and acting out - with or without designers being present. They formulated slogans which expressed their opinions, fears and thoughts. As a result, Danielle was able to gather information about a community which many other researchers have found extremely difficult to engage with. She concludes: " I have discovered just how hard it is just to
imagine yourself being old. Maybe you can't imagine it - which in itself is a strong message for designers. Don’t ever assume you know what people want".

So too in Peccioli, in Italy, where research co-ordinator Cecilia Laschi concludes that the experience of being old is itself changing rapidly. "Being elderly now is very different from the elderly just a few years ago; and so our results - you have catch them before they change". And this was in Peccioli, a small rural village, 20 per cent of whose citizens are over 65. Overall educational levels in Peccioli are low. It is also rather isolated: it is a rural area with no public transportation to the village centre, which adversely affects the social connectedness of people living there. The dominant social relationships are within the families, or with neighbours, who also provide assistance when needed. Using the cultural probes developed by the designers, and more traditional techniques, Laschi’s group finally prioritised three areas of possible communication need: sociability; the maintenance of knowledge and experience; and the need for assistance.

Cecilia Laschi recalls her pleasure and surprise at the receptiveness of elders in Peccioli to new communication concepts - as long as they could be deemed to be useful, and usable. Laschi emphasies that elderly people interpreted ‘useful’ in broad ways. "Inspirational design concepts were as well received as those that were more narrowly functional" she recalls; "they were not especially motivated by scenarios about practical personal assistance in case of disability, or something like that; they were just as enthusiastic about ways to know what their relatives are doing at any time". (Someone told Laschi proudly that a big proportion of mobile phone sales in Italy are by mothers for their sons....)

These processes generated an enormous amount of feedback. In the case of the cultural probes, designers Tony Dunne and Bill Gaver received 600 maps, postcards, photographs, and other items. The team distributed disposable cameras with the packages, repackaged to fit into the rest of the probe materials, with requests on the back ranging from "show us the picture of what you will wear today" or "what you will carry in your bag?" to "take a picture of something ugly, something beautiful, something interesting, something boring". The designers asked people to use a final three shots for things they would like to show us to let us know more about. The postcards, the maps, all the items could be self addressed and stamped so they could be returned to the designers separately. Returning from field trips to the various sites Gaver’s postman was dismayed to find he had to deliver huge amounts of mail.

From feedback to feed forward
The next stage was to develop a new round design concepts in response to the most recentfeedback. One design team, led by Elena Pacenti at Domus Academy, Milan, developed design concepts based on the notion of emotional communication. Recalls Pacenti: "the elderly we met were mostly active people, socially engaged, and all of them with good relationships with their family and friends. Our main objective and the objective of our work was to reinforce such relationships with the elderly and the local communities and with their families and friends. We explored new communication languages, new social media and new collaboration spaces".

The Domus team organised its next round of scenarios into three concept areas: sociability, knowledge and experience, and assistance. Among several sociability scenarios were a talking television which allows older people to find out who among their friends is watching the same programme as them, and to exchange audio, video and written messages about the programme in real time. An active portrait would help elderly people participate in their grandchildren's’ lives, even if they do not see them often. (The portrait - some kind of display - shows still pictures of the child at school, playing with friends and so on. The child’s image superimposed on the screen changes in response to what he or she is feeling. The older person can use the device to exchange audio or video messages with the child). A related concept is called active cameo; similar to the active portrait idea, it is worn as a pin or a necklace, and becomes warm when the child wishes to send ‘warm feelings’ to the grandparent. An idea called hot house enables people to ‘decorate’ the house with traces of loved ones; coloured circles appear periodically on walls and surfaces to display messages sent by grandchildren - with graphic maps showing where they are at the time. A scenario called eye on the town allows older people to ‘sample’ - through a smart television interface - what is going on in the town’s busiest bars, streets and squares; one variation - talk about it - enables the elderly Epson to talk with a friend about what they have both seen or heard.

The knowledge and experience scenarios focussed on the idea of elderly people as valuable knowledge assets. In memory traces so-called ‘soul panels’ are attached to the noticeboards of public buildings such as churches or community centres. These panels display information about events that happened there in the past. Older people write, edit and maintain these information feeds. A related system called Can I help you? allows tourists to contact elderly people with specific local knowledge from a central information point via videophone and ask them questions directly.

Among the many product concepts developed by the Italian team, one in particular - developed as part of as third group on the theme of ‘assistance’, an called Nonnogotchi - caught everyone’s imagination. This Tamagotchi-like system is based on two wireless but directly connected devices: the grandchild has Nonno, and the grandparent Gotchi. The system enables the grandchild to remind a grandparent when to take their pills or measure their blood pressure. The Nonno bleeps when it is time to take a pill; the child sends a message to a screen in the old person’s house, or activates a buzzer on the Gotchi, to remind them it is time to take the pill. Each devices monitors traffic between the two so that if, for example, Grandpa is silent for a while, the grandchild’s device will mention this - and the child can make contact to make sure grandpa is ok and, in one scenario, send a suggestion that he goes out for a walk. The Nonnogotchi has already been prototyped and tested among the Peccioli and Oslo communities and from the feed back received the concept is being refined further.

Beating the Bijlmer blues
Meanwhile in the Bijlmer, designers Tony Dunne and Bill Gaver - both tutors at the Royal College of Art in London - were discovering that although the place has a bad reputation in the Netherlands, people who live there are proud of the place and lead rich and fulfilling social lives. Having arrived to solve short term problems such as day-to-day security, the designers shifted focus to communication concepts that would challenge negative images of the Bijlmer held by people who pass by it every day.

Over the next few months there emerged uses of electronic technology to provide a new facade or interface with the Bijlmer that would engage car users and train passengers passing by the area. One idea was a roadside projection system with photographs developed in local photo shops in real time to provide glimpses of every day life. Another idea was to project a home-made (in the Bijlmer) soap opera. In another concept, image scanners are used at home by elders and other inhabitants to capture and project images and words on so-called ‘slogan furniture’ sited in outdoor areas.

On a parallel track, Dunne and Gaver developed a concept called ‘radioscapes’ in Peccioli, the small Tuscan village - sounds captured from different locations in the beautiful countryside and fed back into the community by radio. "We came up with the idea of ‘social transmitters’ that might allow a kind of chat space to develop", recalls Dunne; "these transmitters might be distributed in the countryside - perhaps attached to animals to allow them to enjoy the sounds of the local countryside. The original idea was to hang these transmitters around the necks of cows - until it transpired that the cows of the designers’ fantasy were in Holland: they only had chickens in Peccioli. "The idea was that having been lost for days, everyone's favourite chicken was broadcasting again" said Gaver defiantly, having scaled down the needed devices. Finally, one of the local people prompted the designers to make the radio feeds available to tourists passing through the area: they might be able to pull into a lay-by and hear - on their car radios - locally-broadcast birdsongs, half-audible chat in the village square, the sounds of someone making wine. Gaver and Dunne later came up with an extraordinary computer interface for their radioscape idea,

Design revolution
Presence is an example of a revolution that is transforming the way our products, systems and cities can be designed. Both public and private sector organisations are discovering ways to deliver more value in their services by involving user communities directly and early in their development. The concept of user involvement is not that new, of course: telecommunication and software companies routinely give prototype or 'alpha' products to thousands of users during the development process. Indeed, most large-scale computer or communication systems are never 'finished' - they are customised by their users continuously, working with the supplier's engineers and designers. But this approach is normally only found in high-end, software-only services. Gillian Crampton Smith, professor of interaction design at the Royal College of Art, reflected later: "in traditional user research, you see what peoples’ problems are, then you propose ways to solve them. But this entails mapping solutions to whatever already exists. In Presence, we were looking for opportunities, rather than solutions". The key element in the Presence: elderly people were actively involved - along with designers, social researchers, and companies - from the start. Recalls Bill Gaver: "from the very outset of the project we wanted to explore a design centred approach, different from the more usual system of user-centred or technology driven approaches. We wanted to direct the conversation towards ideas or concepts that the elderly people might not have expected. Part of our strategy was actually to embrace subjectivity, provocation, ambiguity - and it seemed to work".

But turning consumers into producers is easier said than done. One lesson learned in Presence: approaching citizens in a patronising way will quickly turn them off. Unless a project team is motivated by the desire to empower people - not to ‘help’ them -these real-time, real-world' interactions will not succeed. Designing with, rather than for, elderly people raises other difficult process issues. Project leaders have to run research, development, and interaction with citizens, in parallel, rather than in linear sequence — the equivalent of parallel processing in computer software and, for that matter, in the human brain. This approach to innovation also raises difficult questions about current business models: who pays whom, for what, when 'consumers' add value to a system by being part of its development? The lesson from Presence is that in the information age, innovation is about re-inventing value - not simply adding value to existing service or product concepts.

Hybrid worlds
Presence has also raises important issues to do with the design of so-called 'hybrid worlds'. 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 we are still here- in the same old bodies, on the same old planet. Except that things are changing - in subtle ways - as information and communication systems permeate more and more of our everyday lives. Technologies may be converging - but information devices are dispersing and embedding themselves in our environments. As computing migrates from those ugly boxes on our desks, and suffuses everything around us, a new relationship is emerging between the real and the virtual, the artificial and natural, the mental and material. Presence confronted designers with wholly new questions about the qualities we need to make the new hybridity work.

One of the over-arching themes in all i3 projects is ‘territory as interface’ -not just looking at interfaces based on personal computers, but also at much broader ways of interacting with information and networks of information. Most of the Presence scenarios turned out to be hybrids between real space and digital space. Scenarios for mediated conversations in Peccioli, for example, between grandparents and their grandchildren, were a hybrid type of space with physical devices (for example, the Nonnogotchi) and digital communications. Such scenarios are at first sight about designing physical places, physical products for people to use in their everyday lives. But these are all overlaid with information and networks of information - a mixture of hardware and software, multifaceted design of devices and services and new kinds of social interactions enabled by media. Roger Coleman, director of another UK partner in Presence, DesignAge, and co-ordinator of the European Design for Ageing Network, draws a parallel with architecture: "we know that the way you design buildings affects the relationships people have within them. The way they relate to each other, and the shape of physical space, affects the shape of relationships. And I think information has the same kind of potential in reverse. That’s why we didn't just transfer qualities of the physical world into the digital world; we overlapped one with the other". This opened up a new dimension of design, says Coleman, "the aesthetics of relationships. Relationships mediated by the things we design are really quite different; we knew that from our history of using telephones - but the internet adds another, rather strange, dimension that we are only beginning to understand".

Strange relations
Another strange proposal was to stop treating elderly people like sick children and to start treating them as knowledge assets - to exploit systematically their experience and connections. Marco Susani, director of the Domus Academy research centre in Milan, was militantly opposed to sentimentalism about elders: "Old people know things, they have experience - we need that", said Susani. "Looked at this way, projects to enhance the connectivity of elderly people via internet become an investment, not a welfare cost". All designers need stimulation and feedback: Susani’s idea is that users can be ‘antennas’ to help designers understand what's happening out there in the real world. "We developed a reciprocal fascination with each other, a kind of courtship", reflects Susani of the Presence team’s interactions with the various elderly partners in the project "I am not allowed to say flirting, because they told me in English it is not so correct, but anyway a kind of seduction between two kinds of actors - one pulling on a certain side - that "what if?" side - and the other pulling on, not so much the other side, but being a contrary element. That created energy.".

Gillian Crampton Smith, professor at the Royal College of Art in London, is excited by what she seeds as a new kind of design, "design that does not expect a brief, that has time to react and interact, a design that steers, that anticipates, that grabs opportunities, that has
dialogue with the people who are going to use it. It means design with different attitude, which is fast and visionary, design that doesn't plan the future, but simulates possibilities, and delivers "what if?" more than the "what is that?".

Future Presence
There’s a lot of money to be made in all this. The potential market is huge for systems and services to do with care and welfare, the memory of communities, the way that different ethnic or cultural groups might communicate with each other or with tourists or incoming businesses. But how to get the innovation and investment ball rolling?

One way is for governments to take the lead: they, after all, have most to gain. Recent studies (Diego) suggest showing that if you increase the connectivity of all people in a community - never mind just elderly people - so that they can help out and look after each other better, it reduces the cost burden on the health service, the welfare service, and all of the rest of
it, which are all very expensive. National governments are probably too slow and disconnected from local contexts to be pioneers here; a better vanguard group is probably among ambitious city managers for whom social quality is one of the assets they use in promoting themselves in world-wide city v city competition. A European network of ‘tele-cities’ is interested in taking Presence to a next stage.

Private companies are also beginning to see the potential of social computing. Kay Hofmeester, project manager of Presence, has been leading the search for new industrial partners. "When we show Nonnogotchi to drug companies, or to people running privatised welfare services, they usually are quick to come up with new scenarios of their own which we had not thought of. But it’s still not obvious to any of us exactly what kind of business model will pay for it - the development costs, the infrastructure, the running costs. Do the users pay, does the state pay, does the city pay or some combination of those?". Hofmeester adds: " if we had our life over again - or to put it another way, for the next stage of the project - we would like to bring in business people at the start along with service providers, technology developers, city managers and so on. Only two years down the track we have some great concepts here - but if we can take them one step further and make a business out of it, that's when you accelerate the process".

The process is the product
How can we make people the subject - not the object - of innovation? This was the key question in the Presence project. A consensus emerged that using multiple methodologies - in a tactical way, according to need and circumstance - is the right approach. Research results are relatively worthless until they are disseminated to - and acted upon by - third parties, preferably in a real-world context. This is literally new territory for most designers. The name ‘cultural probes’, for example, was chosen to suggest that they are despatched into an alien environment, returning hints and signs which must be interpreted from afar. Boys, boys, this is the city outside your door we’re talking about here!

Pro-active design scenarios can anticipate or discover 'needs' that people did not know they had, or were unable to articulate clearly on their own. And the role of a 'cultural probe' is to test either for gaps, or for patterns - to identify needs or functions that other forms of research had not unearthed; or to make connections between ideas that users had not themselves associated with each other. The aesthetic quality of research tools matters a lot: people are more likely to be engaged by a well-designed bag of tricks than by some endless questionnaire

Another success factor in research of this kind is time: time to understand a community; time to get to know individuals within it; time to conduct research at a speed that does not threaten people; and time to reflect on results

"It's less important that a method is scientifically sound, than that it be effective" said Elena Pacenti. She recalls a story from another i3 project, Maypole, which is about children and intra-family communications. "At one point a group of children in Vienna were given instant cameras and asked to take photographs of their daily routines and media behaviours, and to make the photographs up into story boards. One of the children's’ well-meaning teachers could not believe that designers would want such messy presentations, and re-arranged the photographs in neat straight lines, thereby destroying a lot of the meaning that had been given to them". Someone else noted that hand-drawn pictures, however rough, usually have more immediacy and resonance than professionally executed artwork. Experts from other disciplines attending Presence often said how pleasantly surprised they were by the apparently chaotic arrays of snapshots, multiple views of communities, the mixture of paper, stickies, video screens. In working with ‘real people’ designers are going to have to overcome a reputation for obsessive tidiness and a preoccupation with straight lines. Now where could that idea have come from?

"Simulate to stimulate" summarises Marco Susani. "Observing and involving users in innovation is not a science, which has a pretence towards neutrality. On the contrary, in our approach, you need to have bias to provoke and stimulate a reaction and this start the conversation. Once that starts, we are often amazed by how creative people become"
Pleaded Tony Dunne towards the end of 1999: "involve users as soon as possible, but above all please let us always make the experience fun".

Hard and soft - the dialectics of design research
user -- person
consumer -- producer
control -- emerge
care -- enable
author -- character
facts -- feelings
distance -- presence
objective -- immersive
inform -- inspire
describe -- simulate
suggest -- discuss
gaps -- patterns
record -- reflect
understand -- involve
feedback -- feed forward
useful -- desirable
normal -- absurd
adaptive -- generative
objects -- events
form -- context
think -- do

Posted by John Thackara at 05:13 PM | Comments (0)