February 11, 2008

Ahmad: probably not the target audience


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Emaar Properties has teamed up with Giorgio Armani to build and manage thirty Armani hotels and resorts around the world - one of which will be included in Burj Dubai, the the world's largest skyscaper (above) that is now being built. As one of the world's largest developers, and a "global provider of premier lifestyles and pioneer of innovative community-living concepts," Emaar must be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the global design economy.

Somewhat less well-publicised than Burj Dubai (and curiously absent from the company's website) is a US$43 billion Emaar project in Pakistan called Diamond Bar City. Emaar is constructing 4,000 luxury high-rise apartments, residential resorts, hotels, and casinos, on two islands - Bhudal and Bhuddo - off Karachi. The project has been the focus of intense debate since it was given a government go-ahead at the end of 2006. At the time, Government officials described the islands as being 'deserted' but the Asian Human Rights Commission says the livelihoods of about 500,000 fishermen - indigenous people who have been living on the islands for centuries - will be directly and severely affected (bottom picture.) Nearly 4,000 fishing boats make a trip every day near the Bundal coast, but their routes are already being disturbed as the deep water channel has narrowed due to Emaar's land reclamation. The construction of a bridge and deforestation will further constrict channels used by fishing boats. The 10,000 ha under mangrove cover on these islands also represents a unique habitat for juvenile fish and shrimp in the area, and Bundal Island is the breeding ground of Green Turtles and several rare bird species.

When the Pakistan government signed a 99 year lease contract on twin Islands,it did not conduct an Environment Impact Assessment as required by law, before making the contract, and the Chief Minister of Sindh, in deciding to support the mega project, said that “land is not superior than development”. The Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Karachi calls Diamond Bar City a "disaster project."

So where does this leave the design industry? For example a British design company, The Brand Union does a lot of Emaar's corporate communications. (The Brand Union is WPP's global brand agency). "We have a deep understanding of the Emaar brand and, for each project, we delve deep into the details of the project – understanding the masterplan, architecture and examining the profile and psyche of the target audience," says the company's chief executive in Dubai, Hermann Behrens.

It will be interesting to see whether Ahmad (not his real name) who has been in the fishing trade for decades, will feature prominently as a member of the "target audience" in brochures for Diamond City. "If Diamond City is built on Bundal island", Ahmend told a local reporter, "all the rich of Karachi will move in there and the poor will be left behind. We will then not even get drinking water.”

Posted by John Thackara at 08:47 AM | Comments (0)

February 05, 2008

Dam Nation: Dispatches From the Water Underground

Ever since learning about water mapping from Georg Bertsch and about watershed-based planning in Toronto from Chris Hardwick at Doors 9 on Juice last year, I've been aware that we talked a lot about energy but not enough about water. This prompted me in a fit of guilt to buy a bunch of books about greywater harvesting; these now sit in a dispiriting and unread pile next to my bath. Then, bingo: I found this wonderful book called Dam Nation: Dispatches From the Water Underground which I commend to you all. Its essays, drawings, and photographs span a wondrous range of topics: off-grid water concepts; the politics of dams and water infrastructure; watersheds as a way of understanding and living in the world. The essays explain the often destructive relationship between human settlements and nature, but these gloomy reflections are more than counter-balanced by stories about successful resistance to dams - including advanced plans to dismantle some of them - and practical ideas on how to restore wastersheds. Damn Nation's editors are a reassuringly edgy and non-wet group of activists, tattooists and 'dishwasher deviants'. They've done a great job: the collection is extremely well-written. Buy two copies now: one for you, and one for an architect or urban planner who also needs to read it.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:11 AM | Comments (1)

April 19, 2007

Delhi street kitchens face closure amid hygiene drive

The Guardian reports on the threat to Delhi's 300,000 street food vendors in the name of "hygiene" and "modernisation" ahead of the 2010 Commonweath Games. If you have any contacts in the Indian judiciary, please ask them to read about the food system experts who went to India to learn how to bring this tradition back to their supposedely modernised cities.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:43 AM | Comments (0)

April 17, 2007

Hunter gatherer designers and cellular churches

Our friends at WorldChanging are running a series of think-pieces to celebrate Earth Day. My piece is about designers as hunter gatherers, and what we can learn from the explosive growth of cellular churches as we seek ways to expand the footprint of sustainable design.

An intriguing piece in the same series by Bill McDonough argues that "to move from improvement to revolutionary transformation, we need 5% of the human population committed to cradle to cradle flows".

A curious contrast emerges here. As a lad, I was a paid-up Trotskyist vanguardist. Whenever the membershp of our party exceeded 100 people it would split, with great acrimony. These days, I advocate working with apolitical NGOs, corporations, and churches in order to achieve mass participaton in the transition to sustainability.

Bill, on the other hand, seems to be moving in the opposite direction. He quotes Mikhail Gorbachev - I think, approvingly - on the notion that "significant change can come from the actions of a few". Shock horror: could there actually be political disagreement in the green design ranks?

Posted by John Thackara at 08:12 AM | Comments (0)

April 01, 2007

Druids as designers

jmg.jpg Which box does one belong in during these curious times? Jan Jaap Spreij sent me links to two excellent articles - on peak oil, and the future of industrial society - written by the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. Great beard, great writing. But have you noticed how young Grand Archdruids look these days?

Posted by John Thackara at 09:56 AM | Comments (0)

March 12, 2007

High-tech beads for the natives?

(COMMENT AT END: we've had to suspend comment function because of spam attacks)

You know what? I just don't think Sunnyvale, California is the right base from which to save the world with Tech.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Architecture for Humanity have announced a $250,000 competition for the design of technology centers in the developing world.

Dan Shine, director of the AMD's 50x15 Initiative, says "the creative designs developed in this competition will contribute to our ambitious goal of connecting 50 percent of the world's population to the Internet by 2015."

Had the organisers spent more time in South Asia, or in Africa, they'd be aware that six million mobile phone accounts are being opened each month, just in India, right now, today, without the participation of a single "technology centre".

The explosion in cell phone usage is even more pronounced in Africa - from just one million in 1996 to 100 million users today, and rising exponentially.

AMD's 50% figure is likely to be reached years before 2015 because of the smart ways poor people share devices and infrastructures.

Shine says that the prize will be for the design of a "sustainable technology facility and community center which incorporates a centralized building equipped with internet connectivity solutions designed to enable an entire community to access the transformative power of the Internet".

That's two uses of the word "centre" in a single sentence. The words "old" "western" and "paradigm" spring to mind.

AMD's new competition is as misguided as the $100 laptop project. It's based on an outdated model of individual device ownership that may seem normal at the TED conference in Monterey, but has little to do with daily lives of the people it's supposed to benefit.

The press release concludes that "we are challenging the creative world to design innovative structures".

That challenge, too, is misguided. Amazingly innovative structures are already emerging in Africa and South Asia. As Aditya Dev Sood told us last week in Delhi, mobile communication is revolutionizing economic and social life in rural India, spawning a wave of local entrepreneurs and creating greater access to social services.

Amazingly, poor people are managing to do this without the participation of the "creative world".

Check out the new study by The Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS) commissioned by Nokia.


Cheap phones and falling per minute charges in India
and elsewhere don't mean that public places for people
to gather and use new-ish technologies are not useful.
Cheap paperbacks and Amazon did not close public
libraries. Video Volunteers in NYC have a successful
community video unit in India, and telecenters (just
about everywhere) have been important gathering places
for people to do other activities than go online.
Shared access to resources is more than a cost-saving
device. Media Labs like Waag and De Balie in your
town(Amsterdam) have partnered with places like Sarai
in Delhi and certainly serve a local purpose too.

While I'm critical of some parts of the XO (former
$100 laptop) project, I think you might catch up on
what's happening with it before you dismiss it.

All that said, I will conceded that some really odd
tech projects have been deployed in developing
countries. LINCOS in Costa Rica and the expensive ITU
telecenters in Mali and Uganda. And writing from San
Jose I would agree that the best designs may not hail
from Silicon Valley.

-Steve Cisler

Thanks for that. The comparison is with deBalie and Waag would suggest I over-reacted. But these two Amsterdam organisations are political-cultural centres. Technology was added (in Waag's case, c700 years after it was built) as extra infra, not as their raison d'etre. In the case of Africa and South Asia I make no claim to superior expertise on appropriate technology; it's just that wise people on the ground have hammered it into my head repeatedly that progress starts with people, collaborating, not just with the arrival of tools. JT

Posted by John Thackara at 01:00 PM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2007

How rural India benefits from mobile comms

Mobile communication is revolutionizing economic and social life in rural India, spawning a wave of local entrepreneurs and creating greater access to social services according to a new study by Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS) - our partners for Doors 9.

The research, commissioned from CKS by Nokia, identifies seven major service sectors including transport, finance and healthcare that could be radically transformed through mobile technologies.

Mobile phone ownership in India is growing rapidly, six million new mobile subscriptions are added each month and one in five Indian's will own a phone by the end of 2007. By the end of 2008, three quarters of India's population will be covered by a mobile network.

Many of these new mobile citizens"live in poorer and more rural areas with scarce infrastructure and facilities, high illiteracy levels, low PC and internet penetration. The study looks at how their new mobility could be used to bridge the growing economic and social digital divide between rural and urban areas.

Read the full story here.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:28 AM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2006

Vote for La Voute!

Our friends at La Voute Nubienne are among the 13 finalists of the Ashoka-Changemakers Competition on "How to Provide Affordable Housing." This ancient architectural technique, traditionally used in Sudan and central Asia, but until now unknown in West Africa, can accelerate appropriate house-building in the Sahel. The Nubian Vault (“la Voute Nubienne” or VN) technique uses basic, readily available local materials and simple, easily learned procedures. The major cost element is labour, so cash stays in the local economy. Raw materials, too, are locally available, and ecologically sound. In Burkina Faso, trained VN builders are becoming independent entrepreneurs.

La Voute Nubienne has been shortlisted by a panel of five distinguished judges. Now it's over to the online community - ie, you - to vote in three winners. Each voter is required to cast three votes - otherwise your vote is rendered invalid. (Ashoka say this is a good way of ensuring fair play, and has worked well in past competitions). The deadline for voting is October 16, 2006. The Changemakers Innovation Award winners will be announced on October 17, 2006.

So please: get cracking and vote here for La Voute Nubienne - and two others!

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

October 04, 2006

.000001 % solution

Doors 9, with its focus on energy and food, is about an important security issue. We seek funding to the tune of .000001% of America's Homeland Security budget to pay for scholarships so that project leaders may come to New Delhi from different parts of India and elsewhere in South Asia. If you are able to fund a scholarship or two, please contact: john@doorsofperception.com

Posted by John Thackara at 09:39 AM | Comments (0)

September 17, 2006

Last days of Rome (cont.)

I was told last week that 250 new five and seven star hotels, 1,000 major new restaurants, and a second indoors ski slope three times bigger than the one just opened, will be completed in Dubai over the next next five to seven years. So that's where all the designers and architects went. The good news is that three feet wide cracks are rumoured to have appeared in the gin palace houses built by slebs on those floating reclaimed islands.

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

July 03, 2006

How to be good

At last week's Aspen Design Summit 150 concerned designer-citizens explored ways that they might contribute to sustainable community development, education innovation, and social entrepreneurship. (Other reports are at Core77 and at unBeige.There are many images at Flickr

(Humbug check: I was an enthusiastic participant – and paid to be the moderator - of the Summit).

The stated aim of the event was to “launch a design revolution to put an end to poverty in developing countries by conceiving new extreme-affordability products”. The Summit was challenged to “create a road map to focus the design, engineering, business and education expertise, represented by Summit participants, to address the needs of the poor”.

Real-world projects were the focus of the Summit. Project leaders told us of their work at a grass roots level in Myanmar and Nepal, St Louis and Detoit, New Orleans and the South Bronx.

As previously stated the word 'development' too often implies that we advanced people in the North have an obligation to help backward people in the South to ‘catch up' with our own advanced condition. The problem with this approach is that broader measures of sustainability and well-being tend to be ignored. Or, worse, they are viewed as impediments to progress and modernisation.

The participation in Aspen of people from rooted, real-world projects helped ensure a degree of sensitivity to context, and to existing social relationships, in our discussions.

A degree, but not a lot. At the end of the day, we were high on altitude - but low on context. We discussed ideas and plans for and about people located hundreds or thousands of miles away. As someone remarked, “you can pretend to care, but not pretend to be there”. Second hand representations, however well-crafted, are not the same as direct experience.

This confronts the design world with a substantial dilemma. Eighty percent of professional designers are in the representation business. But designing a poster about an issue, or launching a media campaign about it, is not the same as helping real people, in real places, change an aspect of their everyday material reality.

This dilemma is especially pointed for the American Institute of Graphic Arts, which organised the Summit in Aspen. Full credit to them, then, for organising an initiative that benefits such a small part of its membership directly.

And one especially positive outcome of the Summit is that it forces us to address some tricky questions.

For example: When we talk about design and social innovation, how confident can we be that we are not searching for personal salvation by “doing good”?

And: If we are genuinely to exchange value - ather than donate it, unasked - what do we have to offer that people want, and need?

And what about the matter of agency? When designers in the North (or rockstars, or NGOs) sally forth to help “the poor” - who is acting for, or on, whom?

Reflecting on these questions, I conclude that we need some Rules of Engagement to govern design-aid expeditions. So - with the caveat that rules are there to be broken, or at least argued about - I propose:

Rule one: Look near as well as far. There’s a lot of work to be done nearby as well as far away. It’s easier to enhance the human resources, culture, heritage, traditions, know-how and skills of a local culture than that of a distant one.

Rule two: work for actual people, not for categories. Be on your guard whenever you read the words “the poor” (or “the elderly” or "the blind" or “the disabled”). These casual (and widespread) habits of language disembody and dehumanise people. (If you don't believe me, ask a blind person).

Rule three: Respect what’s already there. Designers are trained to to change things for the better - not to leave well alone. The good news is that visiting designers can act like mirrors, reflecting positive things about a situation that local people no longer notice or value.

Rule four: empower local people. Any design action that rearranges places and relationships is an exercise of power. A good test for the sensitivity of Incoming designers is whether they enable people to increase control over their own territory and resources.

Rule five: commit long-term. When Sergio Palleroni offered the support of design students to communities in New Orleans, he commited to a minimum of three years’ engagement. It takes time to understand a situation, time to listen to local people and gain their trust, time for appropriate solutions to emerge.

Rule six: Small is not small. Small design actions can have big consequences, many of them positive ones. If someone builds a bus stop in an urban slum, a vibrant community can sprout and grow around it. Such is the power of small interventions into complex urban situations. Read Small Change, by Nabeel Hamdi for more inspiring examples of thre power of thinking small.

Rule seven: Think whole systems. Aspen project leader Paul Polak reckons the design and technology of a device, such as a pump, or sprinkler system, is not much more than ten percent of the complete solution. The other ninety percent involves distribution, training, maintenance and service arrangements, partnership and business models. He and Jim Pattel at Stanford Business School get students to plan whole business solutikons to development opportiunities.

Rule eight: hands-on or hands-off. Hungry people need posters and campaigns less than they need food to eat.

We prepared a briefing on design-related social innovation for Doors 8.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:06 AM | Comments (2)

April 03, 2006

Intel's PC for India

Intel has launched a PC platform to meet the needs of rural villages and communities in India. The "ruggedized" Community PC is equipped to operate in a community setting while accommodating the varying environmental conditions prevalent in the country. Intel also announced an initiative called “Jaagruti” (“Awakening”) to support the spread of rural Internet kiosks that will use the new Community PC. These kiosks would be operated by local entrepreneurs and provide neighboring communities with access to services such as e-Government forms (land records and marriage licenses, among others). The Intel project looks more likely to succeed than the $100 laptop being developed by MIT MediaLab. As we commented when the laptop was launched at Davos last year, the idea of one-person-one-device misses the important point: connectivity is at least as much about the design of clever business models as it is about the private ownership of technological devices. The Doors crowd learned this lesson ten years ago when the extraordinary Sam Pitroda spoke at Doors 4, in 1996. Pitroda enabled hundreds of millons of people to gain access to telephony in India by designing the Public Call Office (PCO) concept - a low-tech, high-smarts system based on the clever sharing of devices and infrastructure. The PCO model, which is further explained here, also informed our exploration of infrastructure design at Doors 8 in Delhi last year. Then, Intel's Tony Salvador started an interesting argument about the ethics of ethnography used for and by commercial companies. By what right do designers study peoples daily lives if their purpose is to develop new products? Who owns such information, anyway? (Louise Ferguson has compiled a handy archive of texts about the subject; and there's another good one here which I learned about from Mark Vanderbeeken).

Posted by John Thackara at 11:31 AM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2005

"Solidarity economics and design"

An edited podcast of my lecture last week at the Royal Society of Arts in London is available online.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:28 PM | Comments (1)

November 22, 2005

Flat out

“I’m exhausted just writing about this” says Thomas Friedman on page 170 of The World is Flat. The book does move swiftly along, but I'm sure its author is perked up by today’s news that he has won $50k as winner of the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs business book of the year award. The World is Flat is filled with anecdotes about change in different parts of the world that threaten our fatcat lifestyles in the North. “One cannot stress enough: Young Chinese, Indians and Poles are not racing us to the bottom, they are racing us to the top” writes Friedman. He adds that “in China, when you are one in a million, there are 1,300 other people just like you” and quotes the chairman of Intel saying that “they will get to the same level as us in a decade”. Friedman writes brilliantly about the logistics that underpins the globalisation of smartness. UPS, we learn, maintains a think-tank, Operations Research Division, which works on supply-chain algorithms. Thanks to a school of mathematics called “package flow technology”, two percent of the world’s GDP can be found in UPS delivery trucks or package cars on any given day. Friedman also reminds us that globalisation is not a new phenomenon. The trend was first highlighted by Karl Marx who first wrote 150 years ago about “the inexorable march of technology and capital to remove all barriers, boundaries, frictions and restraints to global commerce”. So far, so good. But I lost sympathy with the book when it became clear that Friedman buys into the inexorability argument 100 percent. It's not that he is unaware that downsides exist: He lets slip at one point that “when you take the middleman out of business, you also take a certain element of humanity out of life”. He also agrees that some obstacles to a frictionless global market are “institutions, habits, cultures, and traditions that people cherish precisely because they reflect non-market values like social cohesion, religious faith, and national pride”. But for Friedman, a resolute free marketeer, non-market values are second-order. For him, the trend towards commercialised flatness is unstoppable and, on balance, a good thing. In the end, I recommend you read this book for its reporting - but what you make of it comes down to values. Friedman travels widely, but he betrays scant understanding - and no empathy that I can detect - for the non-American cultures he dips into. Towards the end, Friedman's smug insularity turns nasty. He writes about the “backwardness and stagnation” of the Arab world, and commands: “either they abandon their cherished religion, or they remain forever in the rear of technical advance”. By this point, the author’s technological determinism becomes cultural bigotry.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:08 AM | Comments (5)

September 19, 2005

How to deal with cultural emissions

Does tourism kill the toured? An unexpected overnight in Barcelona at the weekend reminded me that cities should be be careful what they wish for. Barcelona is the most-quoted example in the world of a city that has used design and creativity to make itself attractive to tourists. But having come in their hordes, they are eating the place alive. When I first ate at Restaurante Los Caracoles 25 years ago, most of its customers were local. On Saturday night, most of its its customers were foreigners - loud, pink, huge ones. (I do not exclude myself from this category). At least 50 percent of the tourists and conventioneers arriving to eat looked clinically obese. Some found it hard to squeeze through the door. The percentage of obesity among the cooks and waiters working like crazy to feed us was ...zero %. Meanwhile, outside on the Ramblas, Spanish families trying to stroll slowly with children were jostled by gangs of drunken Easyjet Brits on their way to party.
Carbon emissions are not the only damaging by-product of tourism. Tourists change local cultures, too - especially temporal ones. Londoners, who hurry, can't help but impose their own time values on places they go to for weekend breaks. But I have a solution. Visitors to Southern cities should be compelled to spend time in Temporal Quarantine at the airport on arrival. Once judged to have slowed down, they would be given a smart bracelet to wear for the duration of their visit. The bracelet would contain GIS software that would detect any stagggering around, and an accelerometer would detect unseemly pedestrian speed. Anyone caught disrespecting the city's normal tempo would be subject to compulsory liposuction on the spot. I am told it is is an enervating procedure.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:21 AM | Comments (3)

September 08, 2005

How to rebuild, or how to be?

The papers today say that rebuilding after Katrina will cost the same as the war in Iraq. In the unlikely event that so much money is forthcoming, what will it be spent on? Are new freeways and malls the wisest way to rebuild? Before firms like Halliburton start pouring concrete, a moment's pause is in order. One interesting vantage point from which to consider alternatives to business-as-usual rebuilding is the New Economics Foundation's Well-being manifesto.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:28 AM | Comments (0)

July 21, 2005

The limits of Live8

Overheard in The NYU Bookstore, Washington Place: Girl on cell: 'So I went up to my Professor just now? And I was telling him I've chosen a country for my project. He was like,"Africa? That's not a country." I was like, "Come on, what was all that Live 8 stuff about, then?". He was just like, "Never mind. Africa is fine."...Yeah, totally.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:06 AM | Comments (0)

July 08, 2005

Disruptive behaviour

A breathless email from Tony Perkins invites me to Stanford to watch lions eat Christians. Or so it sounds. Tony writes that his conference, Always On, is about “the sweet spots in the technology markets…where innovation is disrupting behavior and creating new business opportunities”. His website concludes, “come play in our spontaneous and uncensored arena”. The text does not specify whose behaviour is being disrupted, and whether we will all experience it as “sweet” when it happens. But something tells me the investors who dominate the AO roster don’t expect their own lives to be disrupted. For a moment I thought Chai Ling, former student leader at Tiananmen Square, was there to speak up for the forcibly disrupted masses; but it turns out she went on to do an MBA at Harvard and now runs a software company. Old-paradigm events like Always On don't matter if you regard disruptive innovation as inevitable, and therefore morally neutral. But if innovation - which used to be called modernisation - can make things worse, as well as better - should not innovators, and the guys who bankroll them, take responsibility for the consequences of their actions? Maybe I should stand outside the hall with a placard saying "Repent!".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:22 AM | Comments (0)

July 07, 2005

African response to G8

A range of African NGOs and organisations has expressed frustration and concern in response to statements from G8 that world leaders would solve Africa's problems with limited debt relief and increased aid. Writers and campaigners from a range of African countries have expressed their views in the Alternatives Commission for Africa report. For most of its contributors, the problem is that Africa needs less control by the IMF and the World Bank, not more. International financial institutions have failed Africa with flawed policies that centre on enforced privatisation and user charges. Blair's commission argues for an increased role for the private sector, and is focused on more input from Western transnational corporations.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:16 PM | Comments (0)

July 04, 2005

Dealing with good and bad news

Someone told me (offline) that my reaction to Live8 yesterday was unduly critical. Isn't it better for people to be charged up and optimistic about a big challenge, such as poverty, rather than overwhelmed and demotivated? It's a tricky call. I still agree with George Monbiot that Live8 will have done more harm than good if provides a smokescreen for governmental actions on aid that are so riddled with terms and conditions that they are "are as onerous as the debts it relieves". Gary Silverman made a similar point in Saturday's FT: "the trouble with feel-good weekends such as Live8 is the next day's political hangover: where do we go now?"(July 2 page W2). Is there a middle way between happy-clappy pop concerts, and cynical inaction? One answer is to educate ourselves better. The Worldchanging website, for example, does a brilliant job in publishing a stream of stories about "the tools, models and ideas for building a better future". The site's editors, Alex Steffen and Jamais Casco, have quickly built up a large readership by orchestrating intelligent discussions of the question: how do we create a future which is sustainable, dynamic, and prosperous? Supposing some among the Live8 masses get hungry for more knowledge, and find it in places like Worldchanging, the question then becomes: what do they (we) do with this information? The challenge for good ideas sites, like Worldchanging, is to keep the good stuff coming but without making us feel anxious that that we are not responding adequately to this flow of good ideas. This is where the need for kinds of institutions, and new kinds of politics, comes in. Of which, more anon.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:23 PM | Comments (0)

July 03, 2005

How good it feels to feel

"Everyone is, suddenly, globally, politicised" froths an embarassing article about Live8 by Euan Ferguson in todays Observer. Puleese.The atmosphere this morning reminds me of Princess Diana's funeral. The emotions released yesterday are heartfelt - but narcissistic. It feels good to feel. Watching a rock musician in a London park is not an optimal position from which to empathise with someone in Africa - let alone to understand the issues. I don't claim any expertise either, but I've been reading around. George Monbiot wrote last week, of the the debt-relief package for the world's poorest countries likely to be unveiled this week: "Anyone with a grasp of development politics who had read and understood the ministers' statement could see that the conditions it contains - enforced liberalization and privatization - are as onerous as the debts it relieves". The G8 meeting will announce this package, tell the Bonos and Geldofs of this world that "we listened" - and Africa will be screwed.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:32 PM | Comments (1)

June 17, 2005

One-dimensional Doors?

At deBalie in Amsterdam, a conference called Incommunicado is debating issues to do with information technology for development (ICT4D). I could not stay for today's debate, organsed by Solomon Benjamin, on “culture and corporate sponsorship in the ICT4D context” - so I make this contribution remotely. Benjamin, quoting as one example Doors 8 in Delhi (where he was a speaker), asks: “What is the agenda of these organizations? Is the electronic art they are exporting merely paving the way for the big software and telecom firms to move in, or should we reject such a mechanical, one-dimensional view?”. One way to resolve this pertinent question would be for Dr Benjamin to re-read what was written and what was
said before and during Doors 8. My reading is that people at Doors argued miltantly that technology is not, of itself, virtuous. It's what people do with it that matters - and what people do with new media is not for us in the North to dictate to the South. We went to compare experiences, not to download expertise. Doors was criticised at the time for associating with corporations (firms like Nokia and HP were sponsors) - but opinion on that among our critics seems to be softening. Some speakers at the opening event of Incommunicado argued that new strategies for develoment will unavoidably involve the private sector, so they (the companies) should be involved in discuission, not demonised and excluded. And a text published at Incommunicado called "The Delhi Declaration" proposes “the cultivation of hospitality and attention by practitioners towards people engaged primarily with discourse”, and for theorists and researchers to be “sensitive to the exigencies of practice and artistic creation”. I think all this means: let’s lunch. So we will.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:22 AM | Comments (0)

June 09, 2005

Small is not small (cont.)

Build a bus stop in an urban slum and a vibrant community sprouts and grows around it. Such is the power of small interventions into complex urban situations. Small Change by Nabeel Hamdi is another of my 'finds' in Seattle's anarchist bookshop - although on closer inspection the book was not published out of a commune in Oregon, but by Earthscan in London. It nonetheless has a rich history. Born in Afghanistan of Iraqi parents, Hamdi studied architecture at the AA in London before spending a career in a huge variety of contexts helping with participatory action planning and the upgrading of slums in cities. Every page of Small Change contains an implied critique of old paradigm, top-down, outside-in, development thinking. Hamdi judges the approriateness of projects by the degree to which they evidence trust and mutual respect - but he is not moralistic. He demonstrates the wisdom of the street through cooly written and unsentimental case studies. It's worth buying the book just for the story about the pickle jars.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:20 AM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2005

So you want content?

We have posted several more of the presentations from Doors 8. Among these are a text from Ezio Manzini in which he develops his critique of "the tunnel that a mistaken idea of comfort, and an equally mistaken idea of economic growth, have driven us into". He proposes a new idea of well-being, and argues that "traditions can be reframed as social resources, valuable building materials for the future". Jimmy Wales' gripping presentation about Wikipedia (now over the 500,000 article mark) is also online. David Burney's beautifully illustrated talk on the hard infrastructures of New York (including its waste systems) is there. Check out, too, Teko London's innovative visualizations of "journeys of care" in a decentralized, community-based health system. The non-video bits of Joi ito and Marko Ahtisaari's final session wrap are also there, together with Derrick de Kerckhove's intervention on 'the internet of things'.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:38 PM | Comments (1)

April 06, 2005

Open letter to Dr Solomon Benjamin

Dear Solly,

My attention has been drawn to your post of 28 March on the Sarai Commons-Law mailing list.

I am usually pretty relaxed about criticism. After all, if our events failed to provoke discussion and disagreement, they would be feeble events indeed. One reason I was so happy to be introduced to your work, and then to be able to ask you to come to speak, was that you bring such clarity and sharpness to the issues we set out to understand and discuss.

I am especially sympathetic to your pointed question about "our attempt to constantly map our cities in a un-questioning way". I raised similar questions myself, before and after Doors 8 - but your doubts are more sharply stated. You are right: we need to think far more critically about the use of cartography and mapping by designers in the context of research and product development.

But one sentence in your posting is upsetting and, frankly, demeaning. You write (about the programme) that it contained "Little on improving corporate accountability though, but then, the sponsors would hardly approve of that topic as a session heading". The clear implication is that our corporate sponsors were able so to determine the agenda so that nothing that might have discomifted them appeared.

The facts are as follows. First, I did not solicit the approval of our sponsors, or their input, on any aspect of the the programme. The agenda for the Doors 8 programme was determined by me personally according to a policy that has applied very publicly to all Doors events since 1993: corporate agendas (or those of any special interest group, including designers) shall not influence or impinge on the programme in any way, period.

For Doors 8, we did discuss with several companies the content of one pre-conference workshop on "Service Design In Emerging Economies"; this was conceived and executed as a special interest event about business issues; it would have been strange (if not impossible) to prepare it without involving business people. But apart from that one workshop, which was one event among nine days of events, the entire programme was developed independently.

Second, the total amount of money contributed by commercial sponsors to Doors 8 was a rather small proportion of the total costs of the event when the time of staff members is counted in. We wish we had raised a lot more sponsorship. But by far the largest part of the global budget for Doors 8 comprised time and resources donated by the two organisers: the Doors of Perception Foundation, and the Centre for Knowledge Societies.

The suggestion of improper corporate influence is especially damaging considering that the event was only possible because our modestly paid staff colleagues worked 18 hour days for weeks on end. Another success factor in our event was the work, time and enthusiasm of dozens of unpaid student volunteers from Indian colleges and universities.

I am writing to you publicly like this because your comment follows a series of jibes that, until now, I had decided to ignore. During the months before Doors 8, we heard continuous reports of ill-informed chitchat to the effect that Doors was a "commercial" event at the service of corporate interests. The fact that such comments were, are are, totally untrue does not stop them being damaging. They should stop. Hence this letter.

For the record, I am as delighted now as I was a month ago to have discovered your work. The energy and insight you brought to the Doors conference was something special, and helped to make it a fabulous and memorable event. I look forward to inviting you to another Doors event as soon as possible.

With warm regards,
John Thackara

Posted by John Thackara at 05:55 PM | Comments (4)

March 30, 2005

"Small is not small"

A session at Doors 8 on service design for emerging economies left a tricky question unanswered: how do we determine when is a market is ‘emerging’ - and when it has emerged? And, is it possible to design the relationship between small pilot projects, as potential tipping points, and large scale system or market change? Ezio Manzini half answered that last question a day later with the observation in his keynote that “small is not small”. Even small design actions are political today, he said, because anything that shapes connectivity and information architecture inevitably impacts on knowledge and value – and therefore power.

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

March 12, 2005

Design in development (cont.)

A large meeting last week at the Tropen Institute in Amsterdam marked the launch of a new project, Dutch Design In Development (DDiD). Participants ranged from young designers struggling to make a living by importing textiles from Africa, to eco-tourism marketeers, and consultants who advise global companies how to behave responsibly. My own contribution was to complain that economists tend to define ‘development’ in terms of growth and productivity but ignore their impact on well-being. The day I spoke, a survey by the New Economics Foundation in the UK found that although the British economy has doubled since 1970, peoples’ satisfaction with life has barely changed - and their consumption of antidepressants has skyrocketed.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:49 AM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2005

Want to be a knowledge superpower?

According to an India survey in Britain's New Scientist magazine, 'if the sub-continent gets everything right it will have the third largest economy in the world by 2050, after China and the US. India is not yet a knowledge superpower, but it stands on the threshold'. Is this a good place for India to be? America and Europe are already knowledge superpowers: does this make us happy and content? I don't think so. If being a 'knowledge superpower' means the mindless growth of technoscience, then it's an undesirable destination. India (and the rest of us) can do better. As Susantha Goonatilake reminded us with his talk on 'civilizational knowledge' at Doors East last year, 'Western scientific logic is twofold: 'X' is either 'A' or not 'A'. There are four-fold logics in the Buddhist tradition - and a seven-fold logic in the Jain tradition'.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:51 PM | Comments (1)

February 17, 2005

On natural and man-made disasters

The spectacle of Bono and other glossy celebs singing for tsunami victims was a somewhat quease-inducing sight on the box the other night. As P Sainath points out in indiatogether,"Number of homes damaged by the tsunami in Nagapattinam: 30,300. Number of homes destroyed by the Congress-NCP Government in Mumbai: 84,000. The elite wants a society geared to deal with rare disasters - but shows no urgency at all when it comes to the destruction of the livelihoods of millions by policy and human agency".Dunu Roy points out that many slum clearances "are as much to do with the space they live in as with the work that they perform, and have been promoted by the bilateral and multilateral funding agencies". Squatter Citycontains excellent coverage of these issues.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:52 AM | Comments (0)

February 14, 2005


So Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Laboratory at MIT, is to bestow laptop computers on poor people for just $100. To the punters in Davos, where Negroponte was promoting his project, $100 probably sounded cheap: many were paying $100 an hour to be there. But in Mali, where 90 percent of the population lives on $2 a day, Nick's Laptop would cost people two or three months' earnings. During thoughtful exchanges on Worldchanging, Robert Neuwirth pitched in with a criticism of "top-down, tech-heavy approaches to democratization and globalization" - and others pointed out that radios and telephones score higher if you actually ask people what they need. As we learned from the extraordinary Sam Pitroda at Doors 4, back in 1996, connectivity is as much about the design of clever business models as it is about tech. Pitroda enabled hundreds of millons of people to gain access to telephony by designing the Public Call Office (PCO) concept - a low-tech, high-smarts system based on the clever sharing of devices and infrastructure. PCOs exemplify the kind of design skills that we need to learn from India (for example, at Doors 8) and adapt to our own situations.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:08 PM | Comments (4)

February 07, 2005

Spooks: why you have to be in Delhi for Doors 8

By 2020 globalization is likely to take on much more of a non-Western face. So says the US National Intelligence Council (NIC), a think-tank that advises the CIA on the likely course of future events. A new report called The Contradictions of Globalization says that Asia will "alter the rules of the globalizing process". The report adds, anxiously, that "advances outside the United States could enable other countries to set the rules for design, standards, and implementation". This is why Doors 8 in Delhi can be so important: this is the right moment to accelerate the emergence of post-tech-push models of innovation and development. The NIC talks apocalyptically about 'a force-multiplying convergence of the technologies - information, biological, materials, and nanotechnologies - that have the potential to revolutionize all dimensions of life' - but that kind of macho tech-talk is tedious and old hat. Doors 8 is about more nuanced uses of tech as a support - sometimes - for new kinds services that keep people, not tech, at centre stage.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:27 AM | Comments (0)

February 06, 2005

Wrongly developed design?

I've been asked to give a lecture on 'design in development' at a conference in Amsterdam on 8 March. It will be an interesting opportunity to test the waters in Europe ahead of the main event of Doors 8 itself. I'm more than a little uneasy about the word 'development': it implies that we advanced people in the North have the right or even obligation to help backward people in the South 'catch up' with our own advanced condition. No, it doesn't make a lot of sense. I'm more in tune with the anonymous author of Bolo Bolo, "P.M", for whom the North is 'wrongly developed'. Standing still is not an option for either North or South, but I'm looking for a better word than development to use in my talk.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:51 PM | Comments (0)

January 10, 2005

Design and disaster (cont.)

Many architects are eager to help with post-tsunami rebuilding in Asia, but "now's not the time for them to switch off their computers and rush for the next flight to Indonesia or Sri Lanka. They'd have little to offer, and would be just more mouths to feed. My advice to them is to study, to learn the skills that will make their contribution truly useful when diasaster strikes in the future." So counsels Architecture for Humanity's Cameron Sinclair in a story by Jonathan Glancey in today's Guardian . Zygi Lubkowski, the Ove Arup engineer and chairman of the Society of Earthquake and Civil Engineering Dynamics, says in the story that there is a place for sophisticated new design and technology - but only when and where local traditions and ways of building and living cannot be readily adapted to cope with future emergencies."We need to plan ahead to make places that are both safe and special", he tells Glancey; this means "working humbly with local people wherever we are wanted or can help, but not imposing fashionable design ideas". Appropriate design knowledge is embodied (in people) and situated (in a context): this has to be one of our reference points when we discuss, at Doors 8, the kind of infrastructures we need to enable the timely sharing of design knowledge.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:26 AM | Comments (0)

January 01, 2005

Design and disaster

Our partner in the organization of Doors 8, Aditya Dev Sood, was in Phuket, by the sea, with 15 members of his family, on a post-wedding vacation, when the tsunami struck. Thankfully Aditya and his family, at least, are safe. So, too, so far as we've heard, are other friends of Doors in places hit by the disaster. The experience has been a shocking one, but it also brings the theme of Doors 8 - "infra" - into focus. We need to ensure that Doors 8 makes a meaningful contribution to the recovery process. There are at least three ways to do this. First, we will devote time at the event to an evaluation of the design challenges revealed by the disaster. We are therefore keen to hear from people in, or going to, areas affected who can brief us, first-hand, on some of those challenges. Second, one topic already on our agenda is: how best might we share design knowledge when and where it is most needed? Alex Steffen from worldchanging.com, and Jimmy Wales from wikipedia, will join our discussion on this issue. Third: Doors 8 includes two days for Project Clinics when the expertise of delegates can be applied to the development of future projects. More on all this in due course.

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

November 23, 2004

From new economy to anti-economy

"In our economy, everything has a price - but nothing, it seems, has a value. We find it hard to really tell whether the things we value are growing or dying". So begins an excellent interview by Joe Flower with "anti-economist" Hazel Henderson. The yardsticks we have chosen to measure our "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, and the comparisons become absurd. Environmental damage, stress on workers, or risk to consumers from the costs of things don't count at all in such economic measures, until they get turned into dollars by suits or regulatory action -- and then they get counted on the plus side. Henderson is developing a national quality of life measure for the U.S. "We are going to distribute it with the Calvert Group in Washington, D.C., starting in the fall. We want to release our quality of life indicators, without putting money coefficients on them, at the same time that the government puts out the GNP". Read the interview here.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:40 PM | Comments (0)

October 30, 2004

Emergent Economics

m. kennedyI'm delighted to report that Margrit Kennedy, a world authority on complementary currencies, has agreed to join us at Doors 8 in New Delhi. www.margritkennedy.de
Non-cash economic systems are, for me, where a genuinely new economy is being born. And where so-called emerging economies are in many respects ahead of "developed" ones. (Barter dates back thousands of years in India).If a light and therefore sustainable economy means sharing resources more effectively - such as time, skill, software, or food – then economic systems for exchanging non-market work have got to be part of the answer. Networked communications, and wireless networks, can be repurposed as enabling infrastructures to help systems like local and complementary currencies, Ithaca Hours, Time Dollars, LETS systems, micro-credit programs, interest-free banking, and other community-oriented monetary systems, scale up.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:44 AM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2003

Bangalore diary

Writing from India, where he encounters designers, digerati and Bollywood producers who want to put him in a movie, John Thackara considers the potentially thrilling future of IT in the subcontinent.

To Bangalore, India's IT city, to speak at the first India Design Summit. The event is organized jointly by the National Institute of Design (NID) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

Business leaders here anticipate keen competition from China, in markets ranging from textiles to software, now that the World Trade Organization (WTO) has further opened up Asian and global markets; they are looking for new ways to innovate higher-value products and services. NID's new Director, Darlie Koshy, persuaded CII to stage the summit as a signal that design will be one of those ways.

Koshy's timing strikes me as excellent in two respects. First, India's manufacturers and software industries are preparing to move up the value chain of the world economy, and they seem to have decided that design can help them do that. Secondly, NID graduates possess a unique combination of social responsibility - and entrepreneurial zeal - that are perfectly suited for these New Times.

For its part, the CII, too, is in the middle of a generation shift. Its new vice-president, Ashok Soota, is president of Mind Tree Consulting, one of India's software powerhouses; Soota is a keen supporter of design as an alternative to what he described as the ‘LCP Raj’ - the stifling decades after independence in which Indian industry laboured under a regime of Licenses, Controls and Permits.

The Design Summit summit had a somewhat ceremonial flavour, with lots of senior people saying rather general things; but the CII will now set up a design working party to work out how best to turn this abundant goodwill into projects.

The day I arrive, a report by Forrester Research predicts that within five years the proportion of spending on offshore services in global IT budgets will rise from 12 to 28 per cent of total expenditure. As I comment at the conference, only America could describe a subcontinent with one billion people as part of an ‘offshore’ industry. But nobody seems to share my indignation.

People I meet are more engaged by a discussion of the different ways design can help them develop new kinds of services, supported by IT. My own talk is about the move away from tech-driven innovation towards a new model which I nickname ‘the re-engineering of daily life’.

Sir Christopher Frayling, chairman of the UK Design Council, made a well-received speech about design as one of the ‘creative industries’ that the British government (and, to my horror, the Dutch minister of culture), favours right now.

Personally speaking, I can't stand the ‘creative industries’ concept: the words conjur up ghastly images of a world filled with advertising executives and rich design consultants. Creative industries thinking is redolent of a point-to-mass mind-set that may have worked in the new economy - but won't wash in these New Times. The good news is that I have the strong impression that the follower generation, certainly in India, shares my distaste for the creative industries concept.

December 2nd
After the Design Summit Jogi (Panghaal, Director of Doors in India) and I visit the new campus of Bangalore's National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). Bangalore NIFT is the latest in a nationwide network of seven educational and research institutions first established in the 1990s. (NID's new director, Darlie Koshy, was previously at NIFT). NIFT's Director in Bangalore, Hema Maya, and her senior academic, G. Somasundaram, a professor in fashion management studies, tell me that their task is to deliver the designers and managers (600 graduates each year) and business strategies needed to expand India's share of the global textile and apparel market from one to at least five (and preferably ten) per cent by 2010. NIFT is such a buzzy and focussed institution that I'm sure they will succeed.

Another new design institute in Bangalore, Srishti, has been set up by Geetha Narayan and Poonam Buir Kastur. When I arrive there, Jogi is running a workshop about the mapping of communications in a network of nine villages somewhere in the countryside nearby.

Our next stop is Infosys where Sridhar Dhulipalar has aranged for me to give a talk. The Infosys campus is more like a small city state than a company. Within our first minutes on campus we bump into a crowded national delegation from New Zealand, led by its IT minister, and another group from AT+T, apparently including its chairman. The Doors of Perception delegation is more modest in size - namely, the two of us - but we've nabbed the lecture theatre first so the other guys don't get to grandstand like we do.

Infosys City, as it's called, is an enormous site: 28 buildings cluster among ponds, fountains, lawns and and shrubs. There are Food Courts, conference centres, and a huge gym. Mind you the latter, although filled with brand-new machines, is empty: I presume everyone is working. The only unsure touch is an expensive high-tech 'presentation suite' in the main corporate building where you are shut in a darkened room and subjected to a ghastly audio visual show about the digitally-enhanced lives of Indian yuppies. Speaking personally, I was a hundred times more impressed chatting to Infosys staff after my talk than by this automated sub-themepark experience. Infosys should chuck out the tech and replace it with a tearoom.

After Infosys we head for the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT). This élite postgraduate facility hosts 122 hand-picked students in an expensive, if rather hideous, building paid for by Singaporean investors. Our host - IIT's director, Professor Sadagopan, who had been a speaker at the Design Summit - is besieged by two separate Chinese delegations and by phone calls from the the Chief Minister. So we don't stay long.

Singapore is spearheading the development of an ‘IT Forum’ to coordinate strategy among an Asian belt of IT cities including Bangalore and Hyderabad in India, Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. David Lim, Singapore's IT minister, reckons there is complementarity in this ‘infocommunications ecosystem’ between China's manufacturing base, India as a software powerhouse, Korea's bandwidth capacity, Japan's global leadership in wireless services, and Singapore as a test-bed for new services and business models. Pan-Asian rhetoric like this is persuasive, but I'm not convinced much will come of it. Most IT alliance action nowadays is company-to-company (B2B) not state-to-state (S2S).

December 3RD
Our next stop is General Electric's equally lavish new campus, the Jack T. Welch Research Centre, which has just opened in another outskirt of Bangalore. The campus has been designed and built at amazing speed. Its Bangalore-based architect, Naresh Navasimhan, shows us round. Eleven hundred researchers are already busy in eleven labs developing polymers and synthetics, modelling new chemicals, engineering smart ceramics and metallurgy, and so on. Nearly everone here, we are told, has at least a masters degree or a PhD.

I'm reassured to see plenty of people in white coats putting powders into glass pipettes - and not just rows of young guys staring into computers. The team here evidently works together well; the duration of research projects has been reduced sharply by cutting the steps in GE's standard process from 24 to seven. Research costs, as a result, have plummeted from an average of $2million per project to $200,000. Small wonder that GE has decided to enlarge the facility to 3,000 researchers as fast as possible (or that the company's US-based researchers are anxious about their futures). Several thousand construction workers are hammerng away putting up a new group of buildings.

Welch-ville is impressive as an example of global-scale research production. But although the facility is brand new, the atmosphere feels resolutely Old Times. A vast sign over the food court exhorts us to ‘Welcome GE's New CEO, Jack Immelt’. I learn that the (new) Great White Chief did not, in the event, show up in person, but manifested himself by telepresence instead. Inside the facility, otherwise bare walls sport policy exhortations in ghastly typography. A traffic sign at the entrance reminds visitors that the speed limit is not ten, and not 15, but 16 kph; 10 miles an hour is GE's global on-site traffic standard. The acres of lawn with rows of powerful water sprinklers, full-on during the hottest part of the day, are also pretty shocking in a city which has a severe water shortage. I don't imagine this will endear GE to environmentalists, but neither do I imagine they will care too much.

Back in the city I meet 40 designers and architects at an informal get-together organized by Jacob Matthew, an organiser, in his private time, of Bangalore's Designers Friday network. Matthew's 28-strong company, Tessaract, consults for big retailers, manufactures furniture, and runs an interesting design shop. Along with most of the professionals I meet, Tessaract seems to be doing pretty well - so the evening was hardly fertile ground for my talk about the need for design to re-invent itself. But once again I am struck by an openness to new ideas and the intelligent way designers and architects here plot their course.

December 4TH
For me, the major story in India is the potential for the design of services by, and with, rural and urban poor people. This is not about aid, but about a truly vast, un-met market that myopic TelCos, all of whom seem to be mesmerised by high-cost, high-bandwidth business networks, seem unable to focus on.

M. S. Banga, chairman of Hindustan Lever, pointed out in a press interview during my visit that India's software industry has impacted less than 500,000 people among a one billion-strong population - but that more than 700 million people work in agriculture (living in roughly 700,000 villages). If the income of these people were to rise by a modest three per cent a year, overall GDP in India would grow by 1.7 per cent a year. And the country would also benefit from a reduced rate of urbanization. Mumbai (Bombay), I learn, is growing by 160,000 people a week - whereas the last time I was here the number was 60,000.

Connectivity is no longer the main obstacle to wealth creation via communication services. On my last but one day, an impressive programme to bridge the digital divide is announced. Under Plan 9000, Pace, a Hyderabad-based computer training company, will launch 3,000 self-sustaining computer centres in Andra Pradesh and 6,000 in the rest of the country. Each will be staffed by three computer science graduates who will be helped to procure equipment such as computers, scanners and software. Each centre, which will have cable internet access, will service 15,000 people - about 100 million in total.

As with the Public Call office (PCO) innovation of the 1990s, a combination of new technology and new business models is making serious inroads into the digital divide in India.

The crucial step is to accelerate the design of new services to take example of this more broadly available connectivity. At the Centre for Knowledge Societies(CKS) in Bangalore, Aditya Dev Sood's team documents developmental ICT projects throughout South Asia. The Bangalore-Hyderabad area is probably the only region in the world where global-quality high-tech and Bible-age lifestyles co-exist, and I'm sure Sood is correct to argue that test projects done here can stimulate service innovation throughout South Asia and the African subcontinent too.

CKS and Doors have agreed to search for ways to support service design innovation in different rural and urban contexts. CKS is looking to expand its project documentation activity, while Doors will support pilot projects that involve collaborative mapping of communication flows, and the design of service scenarios, in diferent situations.

Institutes such as NID, where Professor M P Ranjan has pioneered scenario design techniques for several years, have started to train designers about the use of design scenarios for this kind of work, so plenty of qualified people are available once the projects get underway.

Bangalore operates at multiple speeds. GE's huge research centre seems to have been built in less time than it takes to order a beer at the Bangalore Gold Club, where I am staying. Bangalore is less frantic than Mumbai, or even Ahmedabad, where we did our first Doors event in India last year. One reason for a certain tranquility is that the city contains several large parks. These are are owned and occupied by India's army and airforce. India's nearest external enemy, Pakistan, is thousands of kilometres to the north - but the British, who liked the climate here, turned sleepy little Bangalore into a a garrison city during the nineteenth century and India's military never left. I saw hardly any troops or military vehicles, but their city-centre grounds are so extensive that there could be many divisions of them hidden away.

Speaking of the military, an article by Anuradah Chenoy in the Asian Age (30 November 2001) enlightened me more about the Afghanistan situation in 500 words than all the western media coverage I'd seen since 9/11. Chenoy's ripping yarn includes these gems: By 2050, Central Asia is to account for 80 per cent of US oil and gas. The Taliban leadership was invited to Houston in 1997 and promised $100 million a year in transit fees when the Bakhu-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline is built. Vice-prez Cheney was previously president, CEO, and a major stockholder in Haliburton, a leading energy services group. Bush Senior is a member of the $12 billion Carlyle Group whose private equity investors have included ... the Bin Laden family. Bush Senior is said to have met the Bin Laden family twice. Gripping stuff.

Only four million mobile phones have been sold in the whole of India, but everyone seems to have one here. People mostly use pre-paid cards, and a price war is raging between local TelCos and international networks such as Orange. There are signs everywhere for "MOTS" (Mobile On The Spot).

The tempo of business is determined by the use of mobiles: Jogi and I make appointments a few hours in advance; call from taxis or auto-rickshaws to say we are arriving; and a couple of times, people call minutes after we leave a meeting to confirm the points we just agreed.

Speaking of mobiles, Nirmal Sethia, a management professor from California, reflects at the design summit on the "lost 20 minutes" of his students. This is the amount of time they spend packing up their papers (and Palms) at the end of one lecture and walking across campus to the next one. "Five years ago, they would either chat to each other, or possibly walk alone reflecting - as I fantasized about it, at least - on what they just heard," says Sethia. "Nowadays, most of them are talking on their mobile before they are even out of the lecture hall. I speculate not only about what they're talking about - but also about what they are now missing from college life."

December 5TH
En route back from Bangalore to Europe, I have one more day in Mumbai. Ravi Pooviah, a communication design professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, has organized a four-day conferece on interaction design at the Indian Institute of Technology and invites me to give a talk. Another group of very smart students and researchers. By now its 37 degrees, and I'm beginning to flag, but it's tremendous fun to be there.

Since I last visited the Mumbai/Bombay IIT in 1994, a row of bizarre apartment blocks has been erected by the lake. Each one is at least 40 stories high and boasts either a Grecian temple, or some kind of Italianate cupola, on its top three floors. Las Vegas meets Milton Keynes - not the sort of thing they'd approve of back in Holland. During a break at the conference, I learn that the Mumbai/Bombay dot.com scene has been more badly hit than Bangalore's larger software companies. If dot.com money paid for those blocks, they deserve it.

In Mumbai on my last evening, two young film producers approach me on the street and ask me if I want to be in a Bollywood movie. I say yes, of course - and then ask them what my role will be. Nobody mentions mentions the title, let alone the plot, of the movie. "You can choose between the police chief and the hotel manager," they say. I say I'll do the hotel manager, and ask when they start shooting. "Eight o'clock tomorrow morning." Talk about just-in-time production. Sadly, I have a flight to catch - but just in case I'm throwing away a fortune, as well as a new career, I ask about the pay. "It's 500 rupees before tax," (about $10) they say. Five, perhaps less, after deductions. I tell them my agent will call them. Maybe.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:28 PM | Comments (0)