April 14, 2008

Space, time and childhood


"When George Thomas was eight he walked everywhere. It was 1926 and his parents were unable to afford the fare for a tram, let alone the cost of a bike and he regularly walked six miles to his favourite fishing haunt without adult supervision. Fast forward to 2007 and Mr Thomas's eight-year-old great-grandson Edward enjoys none of that freedom. He is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home". The contrast between Edward and George's childhoods was highlighted in a report which warns that the mental health of 21st-century children is at risk because they are missing out on the exposure to the natural world enjoyed by past generations. The report charts the change in attitudes iagainst the wanderings (or not) of four generations of the Thomas family in Sheffield, England.

The UK report echoes a paper by Henry Jenkins that explores the changing spaces of childhood. In the nineteenth century, children living on America’s farms enjoyed free range over a space which was ten square miles or more; boys of nine or 10 would go camping alone for days on end, returning when they were needed to do chores around the house. Henry did spend some quality childhood time in wild woods, but his son has grown up in apartment complexes, surrounded by asphalt parking lots. Video games constitute his main playing spaces.

I was prompted to revisit these two stories by an appointment I have tomorrow to meet with French colleagues to discuss the participation of high school students in an eco-design project. As was the case in Dott07's Eco Design Challenge we'll probably spend a small part of the meeting on content and a large part searching for slivers of free time in the over-crammed curriculum.

I'm increasingly convinced: one of the most important design actions we can take for a sustainable future, if we're to have one, is to free free up lots of space and time for the follower generation to just get on with it.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:10 AM | Comments (0)

May 11, 2007

How to teach no-product product design


In an excellent piece in Metropolis , Peter Hall argues that "design schools need to rethink how they teach product design." The subject is booming, Hall writes, and yet the world is filled with terrible products: cars that kill two people every minute; airport X-ray machines that consume more time than Tardis, and designer trains that are less reliable than the ones thay replaced and cost four times as much to ride.

Hall observes that design schools are responding to the crisis in three ways. Some are positioning product design as "a business(week)-friendly, innovation-focused process (IIT and Stanford); others focus on research rather than form-making; a third group produce sexy imagery of objects that are often more hypothetical than manufacturable". These conceptual products don’t guarantee an income, Hall concedes, but - like paper and digital architecture - can sometmes stimulate fresh thinking.

A fourth new approach to product design, for Hall, is "to shift gears to mapping those object-producing systems and using the data, arrayed in compelling visual form, to drive design change". That approach is evident in the service design sector; "opportunity maps" (a term I believe was first used by E-Lab ten years ago) are becoming a powerul way to help multiple disciplines work together. Interestingly, many of the best service desgners began life as product designers: their instinct is to make services work well, not just look good.

The above illustraton to Hall's piece, which I borrowed from Metropolis, is by Martin Lorenz. It's beautfully done, but I don't buy the way it puts designers at the centre of multiple systems and flows. Design thinking is key in the transition to a One Planet Life, but it won't all be done by laptop-toting Designers.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:29 AM | Comments (0)

October 15, 2006

School out of school

Over the next 15 years, 3,500 UK schools will be rebuilt or refurbished in a seventy billion pound (110 billion euro) programme called Building Schools for the Future (BSF). The problem, as Joe Heapy explained to a meeting last week of the Dott 07 Explorers Club, is that "BSF is so huge, that most people within it are working to the limits of their experience". Besides, it's by no means clear that throwing money at buildings will make a vast difference. As The Economist comments this week, a crumbling edifice improves results, but as long as classrooms are decent—not too dark, damp, noisy, airless, hot or cold—further frills seem to make little difference. The paper quotes Elaine Hall, a Newcastle University education researcher who has studied past building programmes: “While improvements to schools where the buildings fell below an acceptable standard did have a significant impact upon health, student morale and student performance, the same could not be said once an adequate standard of provision was reached”. Hall's research seems to confirm my own unkindly-received assertion (on page 147-148 of In The Bubble) that "there's no need to purpose build huge numbers of schools and colleges". The more pressing challenge, surely, is to confront the dimishing spaces of childhood. Hence our search, in Dott 07, for a design challenge to do with "school out of school".

Posted by John Thackara at 03:53 AM | Comments (0)

January 31, 2006


I thought I’d escaped from the quicksands of of learning-speak when I completed the chapter on learning (which nearly did me in) for my book. But no! A new tsunami of learning lingo is upon us. Teachers having been exhausted by years of enforced modernisation, the hapless victims this time round are Britiain's museums and libraries. Inspiring Learning for All (ILFA) promises to “transform the way in which museums, archives and libraries deliver and engage users in learning”. Government officials were unhappy, it seems, at ”a lack of knowledge about the significance of focussing on learning and the consequential need for organisational change in museums and libraries”. When broaching this failure with museum and library professionals, they were further perplexed by the “lack of a common vocabulary: For example libraries use the word "stock", museums "collections", and archives talk about "holdings"". These heinous crimes against language galvanised the government into five years of think-tankery. The result is a 'Measure Learning Toolkit' that will force (sorry, enable) museums, archives, and libraries to “gather evidence of their impact on broader learning agendas". Library staff are further commanded to “understand their role in the creativity agenda (and) have confidence that they are part of the creative world”. For recalcitrant librarians who insist that they’ve been doing this all along, a mind-control – sorry, measuring - system called “Generic Learning Outcomes” – or GLOs - has been invented; this will “transform the way that we to talk to users and visitors about learning”. Among a number of accompanying design proposals is the requirement that “the furnishing and layout of libraries should take account of the creative process, providing stimulus, surprise, random connections and different means of recording ideas”. It strikes me that that Glo-world uses vast numbers of words to state the obvious - and/or to describe, as an objective, something that already exists. My own take on it: a) Give me a dusty old library any day rather than one suffused with a profane Glo; b) go and hug a tree rather than worry about Glos; and c) Where there's a will there surely follows a way.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:05 AM | Comments (1)

November 23, 2005

The shooting of ECiD

As the author of a book on the subject, I'm disconcerted to see that a sniper has shot the main speaker at Complexity and Design in the eye. Is our subject that controversial?

Posted by John Thackara at 07:06 PM | Comments (0)

October 28, 2005

Stress @ education

Britain's unhealthy obsession with formal education appears to be stressing out the country's youngest children. A recent story in The Guardian reports that toddlers starting at nursery, after being at home since birth, experience high levels of stress in the first weeks after separating from their mothers, and are still showing "chronic mild stress" as long as five months after their first day in the new environment. Remember, we're talking here about children as young as eleven months old. I repeatedly tell my British friends that in Switzerland, children don't go to school until they are seven years old - and yet the country scores third in OECD world rankings for educational attainment. Does anyone know of comparative data on stress among children (and their parents) in different countries? It would be instructive to compare the two league tables.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:17 AM | Comments (2)

September 12, 2005

What innovation sounds like

"Quiet in class!". Silent attention to Teacher's every word was the required mode of interaction when I was at school. Only speak when spoken to. Teachers themselves were judged by the quietness of their workspace; a noisy classroom meant they were not in sufficient control. All that seems to be changing. Prowling school inspectors now like to hear the babble of group interaction in a classroom. I learned this at a fascinating Demos workshop in London last week. Entitled Open Secrets, the workshop brought toghether 50-odd senior managers from the forefront of public sector innovation in contexts ranging from schools and hospitals to the police. The fact that we met in a delightful primary school in south London, and not in some grim seminar room, added to an upbeat atmosphere. The UK is at a interesting juncture right now. After years of intense research, reflection, and a mountain of policy documents, a lot of people now have a good idea of how public services might be organised differently. But there's a palpable feeling now that insight and reports are the beginning, not the end, of the innovation process. Everyone is looking for ways to try things out in real situations.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:28 AM | Comments (1)

June 18, 2005

What they made and what they think

The catalogues published by design schools when students graduate are frequently over-designed, under-edited, and consequently hopeless as communication tools. A welcome exception is MAID from the industrial design masters programme at Central Saint Martins in London. I was able to find out from it what the tutors and students are thinking, as well as see what they had designed. I enjoyed Dane Whitehurst on tube travellers: “Amongs all the fashion accessories adorning the city slicker, the most common thing to be worn is the frown”. And Steve Sparshott writes entertainingly about the visit to London of the (apparently 1,300 strong) 2012 Olympics Inspection Committee. Whilst you're at it, get hold of the catalogue of the Textile Futures catalogue; it too contains beautiful and fascinating work.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:24 PM | Comments (1)

May 01, 2005

Designing the Transformation of Rotterdam Harbour

This sounds like a fab summer engagement. Lucas Verweij, who Rotterdam Academy of Architecture and Urban Design has been fortunate to land as its new Dean, is organising a summer school entitled 'Big and Beautiful, Designing the Transformation of Rotterdam Harbour'. The two week course takes place at one of Europe's more exciting locations, Rotterdam Harbour. Based in a listed former head-office building of RDM, one of the biggest dry-dock companies in Rotterdam, students will be accommodated in apartments close to the summer school venue, and will move around by boat. Peter Wilson, Martin Aarts and Aaron Betsky are masters.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:57 PM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2005

City as d-school

I have arrived in New Delhi at the same time as Condoleeza Rice. She is in town to sell F16s and nuclear power station technology; I am in town to sell the idea that design for social capital is a better investment. While Condi shows powerpoints to air force generals, Doors of Perception design teams have fanned out across the city. Debra Solomon’s Nomadic Banquet team is checking out street food and food distribution systems. Jogi Panghaal’s group is exploring the city’s markets. Juha Huuskonen is teaching a group how to VJ; their results will be used in the party on Wednesday. Jan Chipchase is engaged in guerilla ethnography... somewhere. The idea is to experience the city as a design school in practice. Meanwhile, one of the team got bitten by a monkey, and a truck containing half the ‘Used In India’ exhibit broke down 1,000 km south of here. This last adventure has put India’s famed logistics flexibility (and curator Aditya Dev Sood’s calm demeanor) to the test.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:42 AM | Comments (2)

March 06, 2005

Misleading on MBAs

Politicians, under pressure for some awful action, sometimes play a clever trick: they deny responsibility for a different action, that nobody had accused them of. The supporters of business schools are playing a similar trick at the moment. For two weeks running, The Economist has lambasted critics of business school education for suggesting that scandals such as Enron are the schools’ fault . After all, says The Economist, many bad–guy CEOs never even went to business school. Which is true, and utterly beside the point. The problem with b-schools is not that they breed black-hat bad guys, but that they train thousands upon thousands of future managers to regard human beings as discretionary costs – costs that can be eliminated by a bland-sounding technique, that they all learn by rote, called ‘restructuring’.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:36 AM | Comments (2)

February 05, 2005

Design education (cont)

There's a curious mismatch between the demand for design and art education among school leavers (see my story about "Study art and never be unemployed" below) and the reluctance of industry to fund research. Design Observer drew my attention to a claim in Fortune that, in the USA, a master of fine arts (MFA) degree is in such demand that design schools can now be tougher to get into than Stanford or Harvard. While those schools' MBA programs accept roughly 7% and 12% of applicants, respectively, UCLA's MFA program admits just 3%. At the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), applications are up 50% over the past two years; they dropped more than 19% at Harvard and Stanford. Meanwhile, Media Lab Europe has closed due to lack of funding and design research everywhere is being squeezed by funding pressures. There is an argument that all design projects entail research -but my own impression is that the financial squeeze that's affecting institition-based research also applies to paid-for design: there's money for quick results, but not for investigation or reflection.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:47 PM | Comments (0)

January 28, 2005

Professor of flows

When the Dutch word for urban planning, "planologie', was first used in 1929, its literal meaning was 'the study of surfaces'. Planners today work in a more multi-dimensional context - one that Luuk Boelens describes as 'a motley assemblage of multiple times and spatial realities'. Urban planning is doomed to fail, says Boelens, when it persists in treating cities as stable units consisting of a centre, a periphery, and around it a rural area where 'spatiousness and peacefulness are the predominant chacteristics'. That may have been true when there were just 68,000 cars in the country, says Boelens, but such an approach makes little sense when there are seven million vehicles and the whole country is conceived as a logistics hub. Boelens is so committed to a multidimensional approach to planning that he wanted to be called a Professor of Fluviology, and to play 'Route 66' at his inauguration. But even the world's most planned culture was unwilling to countenance that much change in one go. The lecture (pdf) is available here

Posted by John Thackara at 10:31 PM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2005

Kaos Pilots

On the heels of news that Media Lab Europe is to close, and that European IT research is failing (see below) comes a more cheerful message: Kaos Pilots in Denmark is to stay open. A new prospectus has been published with the announcement of a plan to make this unique institution, which is rather like a cross between Burning Man and a b-school, 'Scandinavia's most attractive and modern entrepreneurial program'. Kaos Pilots, which is 13 years old, lost a big chunk of state funding a year ago, but they have managed to fill the liquidity gap for now with support from the Tuborg Foundation and a dairy company. Earlier this week Kaos Pilots published 25 'Recommendations From Us to the World'. The list contains a lot of exclamation marks, and tends towards breathlessness - but what the heck, these guys are aviators. If the thought of going to HBS or Insead fills you with gloom, check them out.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:10 AM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2005

More b-school tosh

Am I alone in becoming terminally irritated by the macho posturing that passes for thought in business schools and their journals? An article about service design by Uday Karmarkar, in Harvard Business Review, is typical of the genre. "A tidal-wave of change bearing down on the services sector should make you rethink your strategy and revamp your organisation" it begins breathlessly. A tidal wave of tosh would be more accurate. Karmarkar's big idea is that "the industrialisation of services" will somehow help service companies to "focus their efforts on overcoming the feeling of disembodiment and depersonalisation that technology has created between companies and customers". Karmarkar seems blissfully unaware that the industrialisation of services will make things worse for those of us who have to use them,not better. But what really bugs me is his his blithe assumption is that the technology that causes all this disembodiment and depersonalisation somehow deployed itself. But guess what, Mr K: It did not: It was deployed by an army of managers, many of whom were taught to do so at business schools like your own. (His article draws on "surveys and interviews with 300 senior IT managers" carried out by the Center for Management in the Information Economy at UCLA). "Will You Survive The Services revolution" by Uday Karmarkar in Harvard Business Review. July 2004.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:16 PM | Comments (0)

January 10, 2005

Fit, or fried?

Tech-filled "houses of the future" are usually grotesque but darkly entertaining, and MIT's new one does not disappoint. Hundreds of sensing components are installed in nearly every part of Live-In Place Lab. The sensors are used to develop 'innovative user interface applications that help people easily control their environment, save resources, remain mentally and physically active, and stay healthy'. The website says 'help' - but the details suggest...compel. Jason Nawyn, for example, is working on the use of so-called persuasive technologies to 'motivate behavior change' and (with Pallavi Kaushik) to extend a 'sensor-driven place and event-based reminders...encouraging a healthy life balance of work, entertainment, eating, etc'. I'm reminded (these houses are all basically the same) of the Electrolux future home I saw a while back: a poster boasted of a smart floor that, when an intruder was detected, 'turns on the lightning' (sic). The image of liberal Swedes electrocuting teenage burglars has remained with me ever since. Will MIT apply similar sanctions if I eat too much? Thanks to Institute for the Future for the lead.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:53 PM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2004

Weighed down by what we know

I was sorting through some old and priceless documents, such as the five year-old proceedings of a CHI (Computer Human Interaction) conference. In it I encountered a thesaurus that lists 137 terms that crop up in the papers selected for the event. The list runs from agents, to work analysis, and includes, in-between, such subjects as augmented reality, cognitive models, ethnography, help desks, input devices, metaphors, predictive interfaces, story-telling, tactile inputs, and usability engineering. As I said, 137 entries. Now CHI is for and about designers who care passionately about people - but you have to ask: is it possible to stay on top of this kind of burgeoning knowledge-base and still find time to get out of the house and mix with....real people?

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

January 22, 2000

Experimental school environments

Slides used in my lecture to an expert meeting at the European Commission in Brussels in 1999.

* ICT is not content - it is a tool
* teachers are extremely suspicious of machines
* they are right to be so (radio, film, tv, VCRs, PCs)
* not to mention, "teacher-proof technology"
* our legacy: "ecstasy, disappointment, blame"

* delivering content is not teaching
* teaching does not lead, per se, to learning
* connecitivity does not always foster collaboration
* schools resist - but schools also deliver

= helping to teach,helping to learn:
- basic skills: numeracy, literacy
- abstract concepts
- systems thinking
- social skills (collaboration)
- enhance personal experience
- connect "school" with real world

* "interaction" vs learning
* sustained engagement
* self-initiated
* self-sustaining
* self-structuring

* telephone
* television
* camcorders & VCR s
* fax
* two tin cans and a piece of string

They are also:
- spaces
- places
- communities
- experiences
- processes

* when did technology add value?
* what exactly did it add?
* under what circumstances?
* what was the teacher / student’s role?
* how many of them were there?
* what resources were used?
* how much time was needed?

* being told
* being shown
* seeking
* finding
* evaluating
* organising
* communicating, explaining

* memory
* curiosity
* imagination
* collaboration

* space (for reflection)
* time (for reflection)

* Teachers are isolated, so....
* Foster communication with other teachers
* Not just about tools, but also curriculum, pedagogy
* Enable informal techniques to be visualised
* Enable "lessons learned" to be shared

* taste
* touch
* smell
* sound
* sight

Posted by John Thackara at 05:15 PM | Comments (0)