August 21, 2011

In Praise of the Feral: Update on Xskool


Convention centres are expensive, filled with hard surfaces, and - unless you're in the convention business - somewhere else than the subjects discussed in them. Being separated from the thing itself, they tend to foster groupthink - and abstract groupthink at that.

A feral encounter, in contrast, is one that has changed from being domesticated, to untamed. It brings people into contact with the lived reality of a situation. It is guided by its context - not by an agenda, and not by a curriculum.

In preparing for the challenges ahead we need more of the latter kinds of encounter.

This is the main conclusion so far from the xskool story. As I wrote here in May, "x" means: "This place, this moment, these people. Breathing the same air. Shoulder-to-shoulder learning. The opportunity to be still. Only here, only now".

Later, at Parsons in New York in June, someone said that "people don't want more messages; they want more interactions." Our group in New York also responded positively to the idea of a school with no curriculum, no standardised process, no teachers, and no certificates.

During the past months, I've learned about numerous plans to set up next-generation universities, design schools, courses, camps, festivals, fellowships, journeys and institutes of one sort or another. Last month's Future Perfect Festival in Sweden was another cheering experiment. This diversity is heartening. It's been liberating to realize that there's no special virtue to being unique in the world. If a dozen or a hundred other groups are exploring ideas for new schools, then good.

This does not, however, answer the question we posed in January: Might xskool become an intentional part of the change we wish to see in the world'?

A clear-cut answer to this questions has yet to emerge. Xskool is a cross between a recipe, and a platform. It enables people to create unique events in which change-minded people participate, interact, and reflect. As a model it helps both its participants, and the host venue or project where they meet, to create new value, and to learn.

In that sense xskool complements, but does not compete with, mainstream institutions such as design or business schools. But because we also decided on a core principle - that people participate who should participate, not just those who can pay - xskool is yet not a sustainable business proposition.

What we do have is a clear picture of the capabilities needed to make an xskool happen. Someone is needed to:
• produce and co-ordinate each xskool journey and event;
• be a host at the venue;
• cause the food to be amazing;
• facilitate meet-and-greet, Open Space, and other sessions;
• be a steward of the Xskool community to "maintain a drumbeat" between events;
• be a storyteller, and collector-selecter of images;
• look after a website, facebook page, carrier-pigeon, or whatever.

So that's the xskool story so far. In January, when we started, I floated the idea of xskool as a kind of eco travel agency. It would help young designers, many of whom are keen to learn and contribute, to travel and visit places mindfully rather than, as happens too much now, blunder around insensitively in foreign places .

The xskool opportunity is real, and pressing. Every design school in the world could use its support. All that's missing is a framework and resources to make it happen as a distributed service.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:48 AM

July 16, 2011

Ten Ways to Redesign Design Competitions

wind wall.png

The image above is a Piezzoelectric skin that could be attached to vertical surfaces on buildings.The skin would generate electricity as wind moved across its tiny hairs. Wind Skin, as the project is called, so enchanted jurors at last week's EDF Sustainable Design Challenge that it was selected as one of six winners that will be exhibited at the London Olympics next year.

Wind Skin does not yet exist. But according to the three French students who designed the system - Jérémy Gaudibert, Antoine Giret and Marion Jestin - the technology is not far from being available. A quick check on Google by this juror unearthed 264,000 entries on piezoelectric energy harvesting - and the fact that a 412 page book onPiezoelectric Energy Harvesting was published in April.

That said, a host of other questions remained unanswered by the judging process. How far is the technology from being usable in this way? How does this technology compare with other emerging energy solutions? What would be the energy return be relative to the energy invested in its manufacture and use - its EROEI? What business model would enable it to be deployed? What could go wrong?

The fact that Windskin was such an evocative idea, and yet left these questions unresolved, crystallized a concern about design competitions: as most of them are conceived and run, they achieve only a fraction of their potential.

My EDF experience was not a one-off. This article is informed by the writer's experiences as a juror on a series of design competitions in recent times. These included: the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge [which I wrote about here here and here. In addition to the EDF Sustainable Design Challenge mentioned above, the writer was a juror on India Future of Change, the Papanek Foundation's Social Design Award, and the Royal Society of Art's Design Directions

It's been an enjoyable privilege to serve on the jury of these sustainability competitions - and I do so with pleasure because their potential is tremendous. They can stimulate fresh thinking on intractable challenges. They can pose new questions, explore new solutions and start new conversations. They can bring positive energy to bear on situations that are otherwise bogged down in endless talk. They can foster connections between people and projects that would not otherwise meet each other. Above all, design and sustainability challenges can yield such evocative "preferred states" that diverse groups can be motivated to try and make those outcomes actually happen.

Can - but for the most part, don't.

So why is their potential missed so often? Here are some of the problems:

1. Competitions are too often staged for wrong or unclear reasons. Some competitions are staged to furnish an exhibition with exhibits, or a book with content. Or they are run and paid for as marketing projects whose aim is to make the sponsor appear innovative. When these objectives take precedence, the potential of a competition to make a serious impact is diminished.

2. In too many competitions innovation, by itself, is the main requirement. But innovation is not, of itself, virtuous. The carbon economy is the result of innovation. The financial crisis is the consequence of innovation. The parlous condition of global food systems is the result of innovation. Last year, a new product was launched somewhere in the world every three minutes. They too were the result of innovation - but the vast majority involved the inefficient use of energy, water, and natural resources.

3. Design competitions usually present us with novelty - but not with the means to assess it. Each group of finalists is added to a growing cacophony of contradictory ideas and solutions. Simply adding to that flow of ideas, without also proposing new ways to select among them, does not take us forward.

4. A focus on neat 'solutions' detaches competitions from reality. We face an array of wicked problems that are simultaneously complex, uncertain, and urgent. We must learn how to adapt to unpredictable discontinuities rather than cling, dangerously, to business as usual. Static design solutions are not a good preparation for that. A single-vision, top down approach to design - especially when it based on a project-only business model - simply does not work in the face of so much uncertainty.

5. Attention is usually focused on the thing rather than on person or team behind the thing.

6. Competitions too rarely insist that entrants scout the world for situations where the question has already been addressed - whatever the question may be. As a result, they too often end up re-inventing wheels.

7. Many 'competitions' and 'challenges' are better described as awards for past achievements. The 'send in your best work' model is helpful for designers, especially students, seeking recognition and feedback. It is also, for the bigger events, a lucrative business when all those entry fees are added up. But an award for great work is not at all the same thing as recognition for an intelligent exploration of a new question.

8. The linear design challenge format - publish a Call; judge the entries; announce a winner - perpetuates the myth that complex, multi-faceted challenges can be met by of a one-off 'solution'.

9. Many entries avoid that problem only by being 'solutions' to non-existing problems.

10. There is seldom enough time in the judging process to assess entries adequately. In one extreme case this year, we judges were asked to select the winner of an international competition, from 50 heterogeneous finalists, in a single two hour meeting. Even when they have more time, juries rarely contain the right range of expertise properly to evaluate claims made by entries.

] Ten ways to make them better

Most if these problems are the result of bad habits, not bad intentions. And to repeat, it's because design challenges have such an important role in the transition to sustainability that it's worth improving them, radically. In that spirit, here are ten suggestions of ways to make them better:

1. Make a clear separation between Awards, on the one hand, and competitions and challenges on the other. If designers want to give each other awards and prizes, fine. But activities outside the tent should operate according to different principles.

2. Design the desired outcomes of the competition first. The focus should ideally be on posing new questions, connecting people to new people, and helping them learn from each other’s other experience.
Exhibits, books, winners and ceremonies are a means to an end, not the end itself.

3. Focus on the discovery of new and meaningful questions to do with with daily life issues - not on pre-cooked solutions. The most valuable outcome is a question that excites people, that is meaningful, and that becomes a shared focus for a wider variety of people to join the conversation.

4. Focus on 'wicked' challenges. Rather than solicit fully-formed design objects or ‘visions’, ask entrants to create platforms and contexts in which diverse groups of people may co-design the systems, institutions and processes that shape our daily lives.

5. Focus on tools more than on messages and solutions. These can be tools for perceiving, seeing, understanding, conversing. They can be tools for sharing and organising and exchanging. And yes, they can be tools for making things; [the carrying capacity of the biosphere is not limitless, but neither is it zero].

6. Get real: Insist on external partners and a live context. The identification of individuals and groups who are already out there, and active, is a key part of the value competitions can create. One way to do this is by posing three questions upfront: ‘what might life in a sustainable world be like?’; 'who, out there, is already experimenting?' and third, ‘how can design help us get there?’. Reassure participants that incremental improvements to an existing reality will be taken just as seriously as blue-sky scenarios.

7. Provide communication support throughout the process. Make writers, filmers, and storytellers available to the programme as a whole. This will ensure that the most important outcomes - meaningful new conversations - are well prepared. It follows from this that PR or corporate communications will support, but not own, such competitions.

8. Ensure that there is adequate time, expertise and resources for entries to be evaluated. Entrants should be required to provide independent evidence to support their claim, and the jury process should have its own capability to interrogate those claims.

9. Make the judging public. Various formats are possible - from a court-room trial, or Pecha Kucha, to Dragon's Den. The key point is to expose as many people as feasible to the content of jury deliberations. The deliverable, here, is the capability of more people critically to interrogate the propositions of experts and specialists.

10. Provide ongoing stewardship for the community of participants, experts, judges and sponsors that a competition brings together. This connecting is itself a form of innovation. It should not stop with a winners' ceremony.

Yes, most of these recommendations will entail considerably more work and resources, than are typically available. They accompany suggestions in a similar vein made about next-generation biennials, regional museums and, especially, design schools, to whom I proposed a three step plan to connect design schools with the green economy

Some resources, in existing competitions, can be released by simplifying award ceremonies and publications. But my other advice would be: do it properly or don't do it.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:35 AM

May 26, 2011

xskool: breathing the same air


Last weekend the first xskool class took place at West Lexham in England.

As previously reported, xskool at this moment is more a question, than a project: Does the world need a professional development program to support designers, architects and their teachers making the transition to a new kind of design?

The class of West Lexham soon decided that this initial question [posed by me] was too worthy and portentous. We converged, instead, on the idea that "X" means: this place, this moment, these people. Breathing the same air. Only here, only now.

Our group also embraced the idea of no curriculum, no standardised process, no teachers, and no certificates.

It was also liberating to realise that there's no special virtue to being unique in the world. If a thousand experiences similar to xskool happened last weekend - well, lucky them.

The question nonetheless arises: was last weekend's positive energy, attention, and mindfulness a happy fluke? Or could one reproduce the conditions that nurtured them? Otherwise stated: in which ways might xskool be an intentional part of 'the change we wish to see in the world' ?

A serious, grown-up Business Plan would contain chapters on Value Proposition, Users, Key Activities, Partners, Key Roles, Costs, Revenues, Governance, and so on. But it feels too early to start constructing
a formal business plan. Rather, we left it that we'd continue collecting and testing ingredients. Then, a bit later, we will see how these fit together - much as we did for the pizzas cooked in the cob oven on the Saturday evening.

The ingredients I would put on the table - to be tasted, prodded, and if need be, fed to the dog - are:

1 An explanation: Xskool enables people to create unique events in which change-minded people participate, interact, and reflect.

2 Xskool is not for people who see themselves as leaders, role models, experts or 'change agents'. Xskoolers might well be leaders, role models etc - but that is not for them to decide.

3 New participants should be introduced by current members of the xskool community.

4 People will participate who should participate - not just those who can pay. [How, we will work out in due course].

5 At each xskool encounter, a host venue or location will present a task or a question for the visiting group to work on. At West Lexham our task was to build this path:


6 Each xskool group will also work on a question or questions of its own. This question will not be posed in advance; rather, it will emerge from a mindfully-orqanised process [such as Open Space or World Café] when the group first assembles at the location.

7 Nobody has suggested granting certificates to Xskoolers. But we might consider a two-way evaluation protocol accredited by the community - of the kijnd that seems to work on volunteering sites such as the excellent HelpX.

8 Certain skills and capabilities are needed to make an Xskool work. Someone will usually be needed to:
• produce and co-ordinate each xskool journey and event;
• be a host at the venue;
• facilitate meet-and-greet activities, Open Space, and other group sessions;
• be a steward of the Xskool community to "maintain a drumbeat" between events;
• be a storyteller, and collector-selecter of images;
• look after a website, facebook page, carrier-pigeon, or whatever;
• be a very experienced person whose role is to smile benignly as other people do the work.

9 If-and-when Xskool needs to become a formal enterprise, an appropriate next-generation co-operative model will be devised with help from people who know about such things - such as some among West Lexham's x-class:


One practical next step will be a design session, probably in the UK, to look at Xskool as a type of journey - and to design a service to support such journeys.

Before then, a next discussion is in New York City on the morning [09-12h] of Wednesday 8 June hosted by Cameron Tonkinwise at Parsons. If you would care to join us, email me at: john at doorsofperception dot com

Oh yes: Here is the path that we made:


and here [with heartfelt thanks to Liane Fredericks] are more xskool at West Lexham pix.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:48 PM

April 29, 2011

Do eco learning journeys need a travel agent?


I've written and spoken quite a lot in recent times about the changes designs institutions need to make. Sometimes, I was even asked to do so.

Examples include a talk I did in Delhi earlier this year, What kind Of Design Institutes for India?; and a paper for Cumulus, the design schools network, called 'Make Sense Not Stuff: A three step plan to connect design schools with the green economy'.

I'm also having encounters [that I write about on this site and here] with a growing number of inspirational projects.

Wherever I go, I usually meet one or two people who are ready and eager to make a fundamental transition to a new kind of design. But only one or two.

At the edges, where I often hang out, things are moving faster than at any time I can remember. But the mainstream remains stubbornly wedded to business as usual.

So I have a question: Does the world need a professional development programme for mid-career designers, architects and design professors? Do they - you - need organized help to acquire the ideas, skills and connections needed to help your organization, or community, change course more determinedly than is happening now?

To explore that question, Doors of Perception has launched an enquiry with the working title xskool

At at this stage, Xskool is more of a discussion, than a programme - still less A Plan. Our assumption is that, yes, there's a need for a way to accelerate the transiton of design to the new paradigm - but whether that need should be met by a new course, let alone a new institution, remains to be seen.

Personally, I'm not anxious to launch another small and passionate - but unsustainable - initiative. Been there; done that. And I have an inkling that what's needed is some kind of travel agency that would help people connect with courses and places that are out there, now.

So: any thoughts you might have about an experience, input or service might help you, materially, change a design organization you know, would be most welcome. There are three ways to contribute to the discussion:

First, leave a comment at xskool - or drop me a line: john at doorsofperception dot com.

Second, tell me about courses, events, projects, or journeys that may already be at least part of the answer we're looking for. I'm compiling a list of adjacent courses and programmes called 'Next Practices'
and want to keep adding to that. Some of these are for sure likely destinations on an eco-learning journey.

Third: I'm organizing two workshops - one in the UK, the other in Sweden - for which we have seven places free. The first encounter, which we're co-hosting with Ed Colville from Limina is at West Lexham in Norfolk Friday 20 to Sunday 22 May. You would need to pay GBP 100 towards the direct costs of this weekend, excluding transport there, and be prepared to camp. If you are interested, send me a few lines about the question and experiences you would bring to West Lexham. john at doorsofperception dot com

The second encounter will be as part of the FuturePerfect Festival at Karlstad in Sweden 29-31 July. To join us there you need to be part of the festival.

I hope also to organize a meeting in New York during the second week of June; details to follow.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:42 PM

February 18, 2011

Africa, Where Events Are King. John Thackara talks to Mugendi M'Rithaa


First published in Design Observer.


As the global crisis unfolds, interest in alternative economic and social models is growing – and with it, attention to what we might learn from Africa.

Most of us in the North are badly informed about a continent that is home to over 900 million people, living in 53 countries, who speak 2,000 languages between them. We hear a lot about poverty, political instability, disease, illiteracy, and corruption – but almost nothing about the multitude of ways in which poor African people organize their daily lives – to survive, yes, but in ways that are often creative and joyful, too.

In terms of material resources used, poor people in Africa live sustainably right now. But, because they consume so little, their communities are described as economically ‘marginal’. Yet many African communities are surprisingly resilient and robust in the face of pervasive uncertainty.

Is Africa's social resilience an asset – and if so, how might the rest of us learn from, or even share it?

To find out more, John Thackara talked with Mugendi M’Rithaa not just about what we in the North can learn from Africa – but also how. Dr M'Rithaa is a professor at one of Africa's most interesting universities, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and is a co-founder with Byron Qually of Design With Africa

JT A few words about background: where is Mugendi from? How did he arrive where he is now?

MM My name ‘Mugendi’ means ‘a traveler’ – which has been prophetic, if I reflect on my life thus far. I was born in Chogoria, a small town at the foothills of Mt Kenya. It's a very fertile region, and the Meru people from this part of Kenya are renowned farmers. They are also very community-orientated. When I was a young lad of five years our family moved to the USA while my father pursued postgraduate studies in pharmacy. I'm sure that early education planted the seeds of my lifelong fascination with manufactured objects. I witnessed the live TV transmission of the moon landing; that was a particularly inspiring moment for me.

JT But you didn't stay in the US?

MM I stayed in the USA for four years. When my father completed his studies we went back to Kenya; there, I ended up as a design undergraduate at the University of Nairobi. After graduation I worked for a while in advertising, and appropriate buiding materials research, prior to being awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship in Mumbai in India. I did an industrial design Masters for two years and then returned to my alma mater, the University of Nairobi, as a lecturer.

In 2001, I moved to the University of Botswana, in Gaborone, to help start a new industrial design course there. In 2005, I joined the newly established Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). I completed my doctorate in universal design and have been teaching there since.

JT What does your day job at the university entail?

MM My typical day involves wading through email correspondence; attending to faculty meetings; lecturing undergraduate students; consultative appointments with postgraduate students; and the occassional social engagement. I’m quite partial to a glass of red wine at the end of a long eventful day…

JT Who do you teach?

MM I lecture to undergraduate industrial design students on applied ergonomics, sustainable design, and universal design I also supervise postgraduate design students with a special focus on design for sustainability and participatory design. My research interests are linked to these areas.

JT Do you interpret "design for sustainability" in a way that is specific to an African context?

MM Yes, we emphasise the need for social equity and cohesiveness as critical success factors of any sustainable design strategy for the African context…

JT What kinds of hopes and ambitions do your students have?

MM Our students in the university come from mixed social and economic backgrounds. Many have families at home who depend on them. They've gone further in education than anyone else in their family – but they need to focus on studies that offer the surest prospect of gainful employment. Until now design has been viewed as a one of the 'riskier’ propositions.

Our postgraduate cohort is much more diverse. They come from Africa, Asia, and Europe – in that order. The come for the opportunity to interact with cultures other than their own, and because they aspire to create a better and brighter future through design.

JT What's the most irritating preconception we in the North have about Africa?

MM That's the assumption that problems that occur in one place in Africa, although real enough there, are typical of life for the rest of the continent. Pascal Eze coined the acronym PIDIC to describe such stereotypes: it stands for poverty, political) instability, disease, illiteracy, and corruption.

A group of us started Design With Africa as a counterweight to PIDIC attitudes. We want to facilitate a more informed and progressive dialogue. Africa is a far more dynamic and optimistic place than it is given credit for!

JT You've explained that Africa is not just about helpless poor people, corrupt elites, and a burgeoning middle-class. What about an environmental movement in Africa? What form does it take? Are many designers involved?

MM In Africa, the environmental movement (like many other grassroots activities) has mainly been championed by women. Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movementis Africa’s first female Nobel laureate. Wangari has been an extraordinarily effective activist and advocate in changing the way people relate to their environment. Designers on our continent are only just beginning to rally support for such important causes.

JT Transition Towns has emerged as a dynamic and bottom-up movement here in Europe, and I see there's now a Transition Towns Africa. Are there other comparable movements emerging in Africa?

MM Yes, I only recently learnt of a similar network that was initiated by the Community Exchange System in Cape Town. This system also advocates the use of ‘talents’ as currency for the exchange of goods and services within participating communities just like the ones in other parts of the world.

JT Are there other emerging cultural movements we should know about?

MM There are indeed exciting developments across the continent. Africa has a youthful population and young people are driving change in music, theatre, art and crafts – such as the vibrant multi-disciplinary activities showcased at the GoDown in Nairobi.

There is also a sizeable film industry in Nigeria; it's known popularly as Nollywood.

And hosting the recent soccer 2010 World Cup in South Africa was a massive morale booster for the entire continent.

Africa is the fastest growing region in the world for mobile telephony and we are producing some of the most innovative applications in that field. M-pesa, for example – the cellphone-based money transfer platform – was introduced in Kenya. It's now spreading far and wide.

JT How do you teach?

MM I use a dialogic approach for engaging with pertinent issues. I also use inspiring texts and video documentaries initiate robust debate and sustained dialogue around interesting cases.

JT Give me an example of one or two "robust debates" you've had recently…

MM Just last week we watched a video on Sustainable Design in which three products were critiqued. One of these was the highly popularised windup radio invented by Trevor Baylis. The product was designed ostensibly for majority world contexts and relies on human and solar energy to run it. One of the challenges presented in the case study was the lack of acceptance by consumers in the West due to the product’s ‘clunky’ aesthetics – this necessitated a redesign... A robust debate then ensued around aesthetics versus aspirations. The emerging consensus was that designers should not ‘skimp on aesthetics’ just because their sustainable products are aimed for less affluent consumers/end-users.

JT Does the word "sustainability" have resonance for people in Africa? Or are other words or concepts richer for you?

MM The word “sustainability” is a well-known word here. It's considered to be synonymous with good stewardship and a sense of responsibility for one’s community and environment. It is rare for economic aspects of sustainability to be given much prominence; in the collective aspirations of a community people come first!

My humble submission is that, for the most part, Africa is sustainable by default. But if African societies are to leapfrog into a more sustainable future – as Ezio Manzini proposes – we need to become sustainable by design. This is the only way to avoid the wasteful production and consumption patterns typical of more industrialised contexts.

JT I have a warm expectation that traditions of social solidarity are stronger in Africa than in the North. Am I being sentimental?

MM You’re definitely not being sentimental. Saki Mafundikwa, a good friend from Zimbabwe, famously asserted that “Africa isn’t poor; it just doesn’t have a lot of money!”

This bold statement forced me to re-interrogate the issue and subsequently ask myself: “If Africa doesn’t have a lot of money, what then does it have that is of universal value?” Perhaps we can share what it means to live in participative, interconnected and cohesive communities.

A sense of communal solidarity is still strongly embedded in our collective consciousness and social fabric. For many close-knit communities (especially in rural and peri-urban settings) consumerism has yet to take its hold on the popular psyche – people readily share what they have, and borrow what they don’t.

JT Tell me a bit about these different forms of solidarity?

MM Different kinds of communal dialogue, public debate, and consensus-building are found all over Africa. They vary from context to context. For example there are words like baraza (in kiSwahili spoken in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) indaba (in isiZulu spoken in Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe); and lekgotla (in seTswana spoken in Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa).

There are also a variety of systems of collective self-reliance, and mutual assistance: bataka kwegaita (communal solidarity) in Uganda; nobwa (reciprocal assistance) in Ghana; harambee (pulling together) in Kenya; ujamaa (familyhood) in Tanzania; stokvels (co-operative societies) in South Africa; and boipelogo (self-reliance); molaletsa (collective labour sharing systems) and motshelo (group credit unions) in Botswana.

JT I guess a lot of these social arrangements lie outside what we would call the formal economy?

MM The informal economy is of course a vital part of the big picture. Women play a pivotal social and economic role here, particularly in the informal economy which they call jua kali in kiSwahili which means literally ‘[in the] hot sun’. In Kenya and South Africa we call it the second economy.

This parallel economy contains a vast number of ad hoc co-operatives, micro-lending clubs and group savings and purchasing schemes. These are mostly based on deeply interpersonal relationships and mutual trust. Such a voluntary group is known variously as motshelo in Botswana; chama in Kenya; and stokvel in South Africa.

JT Are these social forms found exclusively in rural areas or only within more traditional societies? Or do they have urban forms?

MM In many urban areas a sense of solidarity is pervasive. It's expressed in various types of elective creative communities; these typically deal with shared needs such as running communal crèches and car pooling. These groups are known as chamas in Kenya, and differ significantly from traditional forms of groupings where membership was based on common kinship.

JT Are there examples you could tell me about of design skills being used to enhance these sharing schemes? where do you see the potential for design skills being used to enhance these sharing schemes?

MM There’s definitely scope for design intervention. Most of these examples involve rudimentary planning and logistical support systems – thus their efficacy and capacity for growth is compromised. Designers could contribute appropriate service design tools to make such schemes even more effective.

JT Some of us in the North also believe that a belief in the unity of living things remains important in African cultures. How real are these concepts for the average student in your class?

MM For the vast majority of African communities, the currency of exchange is trust. People come first! A key word here is ubuntu. The word is very difficult to render into a Western language. Desmond Tutu explained it this way: "When you want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu”; he or she has ubuntu. This means that they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means that my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “a person is a person through other people”. […] I am human because I belong, I participate, I share".

Ubuntu is best understood through the sayings that “a person is a person through other persons”; “I am because we are”; and “I participate, therefore I am”. Our humanity is intrinsically (and inextricably) linked to the humanity of others. We are ultimately humanised through our interaction and relationship to other people.

The concept is widely appreciated by our students and is a common motif or theme butressing their worldview. This ultimately results in more socially conscious design solutions.

JT You have told me that the spoken word has a special value and meaning in African cultures. What does this mean for design?

MM For the most part, traditional African societies relied on oral as opposed to written means of communication. The spoken word still holds special value and meaning because of the fundamental principle of the ‘proximity of origin’. This principle ascribes a high value to authenticity.

The immediate implication for our profession is in the creation of ‘honest’ products, services and systems that reinforce convivial relationships among people.

JT You have written [link] that a shared concept of time helps different cultures and social layers coexist in Africa?

MM The concept of ‘kairos’ or event time explains how (and why) events are king in Africa. Event time embraces people’s need for participation and accomodates a much slower and humane pace.

You see this at weddings and funerals where ‘tangible’ bonds between community members supercede the more ‘emphemeral’ social strata. A good example is that of the ‘fantasy’ coffins that are found in Ghana. Relatives of the deceased prefer to wait for these expensive, extravagantly ornate bespoke coffins (as opposed to the cheaper, nondescript mass-produced ones known locally as funu adaka) as the fantasy coffins are more befitting of the perceived status of their dearly departed. Unlike in other parts of the world, weddings and funerals invite the participation of all known kith and kin – and in Africa that equates to a rather large and lively crowd…

JT There's clearly an infinity of things we can learn from Africa. But to conclude, have you any advice, especially to young designers here, on how we should best engage?

MM Africa is a place that I believe is not fully appreciated in terms of its creativity and humanity. On behalf of my fellow denizens, I wish to extend an invitation – particularly to younger designers – to visit our continent and engage in participatory design activities that will provide deeper insights into our ways of being and doing. Such interactions can potentially leave a lasting imprint on the lives of everyone involved. This is an invitation to join us in our efforts to design with Africa…


Dr Mugendi M’Rithaa,Embracing sustainability: revisiting the authenticity of ‘event’ time

Design With Africa

Design for Dialogue

Posted by John Thackara at 11:48 AM

December 11, 2010

What should design researchers research? Report from 2020

I was invited by the Design Research Society to speak at their symposium in Birmingham [UK] . Their theme: "2050 and All That".

So first I did a quick scamper through Peak Everything: peak climate, peak biodiversity, peak oil, peak food, peak water, peak credit and so on; I touched on Adbusters' notions of a Doomsday Machine Economy and True Cost economics; and I repeated my proposition that we are all emerging economies now

For part 2 of my talk, I tabled two keywords that I find work well in re-framing our situation as "terrible - but not hopeless". The first word was catagenesis which means “renewal through reversion to a simpler state - followed by the emergence of a novel form of society”. The second word was resilience which means [in the words of Transition Towns] "the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance, and reorganize, while undergoing change". I concluded this second part of my talk with the proposition that design research needs to evolve from a human-centered to an all-of-life-centered activity.

In preparing part 3 of my talk, I had a good idea that, given what I know about design researchers, they'd be thinking by this point: "yeah, yeah, end of civilization, yadda yadda - but where's the cool research opportunity?"

So I went to Birmigham prepared. I asked the design researchers to imagine, with me, that a Doors of Perception University had been established and that, in 2020, a degree-awarding ceremony was about to take place:

Twenty-five PhDs were to be awarded at this ten-years-from-now ceremony - and I had brought along copies of the theses of the successful candidates to show them. And here they are:

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[I believe Dena Fam may aleady be busy on just this PhD, in whiucg case apologies].

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Posted by John Thackara at 08:52 AM

September 26, 2010

Next-generation biennials


I just got back from Oslo where their Architecture Triennial has opened. I participated in its main conference, Man Made Tomorrow and will report on that event soon.

But ahead of the conference, Bjarne Ringstad, curator of the Triennial, asked me to reflect on how the role of such set-piece events might evolve to match the new challenges design is facing.

Here is what I sent him:

"We are facing an array of ‘wicked problems’ that are simultaneously complex, uncertain and urgent. We have to learn how to adapt to unpredictable and possibly catastrophic disruptions to climate, financial systems, and resource flows.

A single-vision, top down approach to design and planning simply does not work in the face of so much uncertainty.

The new watchword is ‘adaptive resilience’ – a condition in which society, its experts, and its citizens, must learn how to adapt to change continuously.

In this situation, the design focus needs to evolve from the delivery of of large-scale hard-wired solutions, towards a focus on resource ecologies, land-use, and time-use.

The primary design activity, in this context, is more a conversation than the production of a blueprint.

Biennials and triennials are important ways to start these new conversations. They can bring new groups of people together to imagine sustainable alternatives to the way we do things now - and then identify design actions, some of them small, that would bring these alternatives closer.

To start these conversations the content of a design biennial and the kinds of people participating, needs to change.

Rather than focus on design objects or on urban ‘visions’, the focus needs to be on how, in practical ways, we will re-design the systems, institutions and processes that shape our daily lives.

Sustainable development requires a system discontinuity in the way we produce, consume and socially interact. A biennial should represent – not resist – that discontinuity.

As an example, consider land-use.

Cities need to re-conceive themselves as elements of a bioregion in which human settlements co-exist with, and are wholly dependent on, natural systems as well as human communities.

Some enlightened cities, such as Toronto, have already started to put the interests of these natural assets ahead of traditional planning priorities such as transportation infrastructures.

The practical way to achieve this re-ordering of priorities is to put foodsheds, and watersheds at the top of the agenda. A biennial is a perfect place to begin this reordering.

Another example could be time values. Norway, for example, must soon decide whether to invest a large part of its oil revenue endowment in high-speed rail links between several cities.

A traditional biennial would focus on infrastructure, stations, and glamorous buildings. This made sense when the energy costs of a train system – and the loss of biodiversity involved in their construction - remained ‘off balance sheet’.

Now, however, the value of biodiversity and natural resources are beginning to appear in the ‘plus’ column of national accounts. A biennial would be a perfect context to discuss the relative value to society of speed, and biodiversity.

What would one see, and talk about, in such a biennial?


A first step would be to use a biennial as an excuse to make a fresh evaluation of the assets and resources are already there, in their territory.

(The boat belongs to the Norwegian architect Sami Rintala near their office in Bodø in Norway.

These assets can be hard or soft: natural assets – such as wind, or sun, with the potential to generate energy; materials, and the skills needed to use them; abandoned spaces with the potential to be re-purposed; food and systems.

These asset maps are needed to complement, at the least, those maps used by planners or economists that tend to focus on hard things, such as roads or buildings.

Sustainability asset maps would make natural biodiversity their starting point – with special emphasis on bioregions, foodsheds and watersheds.

In mapping such assets, it would be important to represent the interconnectedness and interdependence of systems.

This is where new creative design skills will be valuable – and on display.

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

Connecting Locally

The next generation biennial will not be a spectacle, nor a place of entertainment and distraction from realty. It can be spectacular, and fun, but have a practical focus on real-world outcomes.

One such outcome is resource efficiency. A priority in design for sustainability is to make it easier to share resources - resources such as energy, matter, time, skill, software, space, or food.

Resource efficiency is a social process, not a technical one.

The identification of individuals and groups who are already out there, and active, is therefore key.

[This was the approach this writer took with Designs of the time (Dottt) in North East England (where he was programme director), and with City Eco Lab, the “nomadic market” of projects from St Etienne region produced for the city's Design Biennale].

In these kinds of event, community projects are developed with people from the region in response to two questions: ‘what might life in a sustainable world be like?’ and, ‘how can design help us get there?’

When presented in a biennial context, their focus is on connecting people to new people, and helping them learn from each other’s other experience.

This connecting is itself a form of innovation.

Every city-region needs a market place in which people can present grassroots projects, exchange experiences, and involve fellow citizens in ever larger numbers as participants in these experiments.

The search for Net Zero Impact solutions, and the creation of interesting social alternatives, can be as exciting and engaging as the buzz of new technology used to be.

By keeping the question open – by conceiving the biennial as a place for conversation and creation - energy and commitment can remain positive and productive.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:26 PM

August 29, 2010

From philanthrocapitalism to an eco-social economy


(Summer re-run: first published July 2009)

This scary hand smashing through the wall to get you is the logo of last month’s Insead conference on social entrepreneurship. Its slogan was “Reaching For Impact”.

I’ve written critically here before about the assumptions that underly “design for development” - so I won’t repeat the whole argument.

And as I said here we are all emerging economies now.

So let’s just say that I’m troubled about the term “design for social impact” when the desired impact is on someone else’s turf, not on the designer’s own.

The language of Nesta’s new “Re-boot Britain” programme also strikes me as off-key. A complex society in transition is not best imagined as a faulty machine.

But both social impact, and rebooting, are thin-blooded when compared to the concept of “philanthrocapitalism” that’s celebrated in a new book.

It chronicles a new generation of "social investors" that is using big-business-style strategies and “expects results and accountability to match”. The philanthrocapitalists, a web of wealthy, motivated donors who have “set out to change the world” include Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, George Soros, Angelina Jolie, and Bono, among others.

The project of philanthrocapitalism is not incoherent, and the way they work is often transparent and well organized. The Gates Foundation, for example, seems to bevery professionally run. My doubts concern the assumptions that underly the philanthrocapitalists' key aim, which is to provide capital to the large number of informal micro-enterprises that account for nearly half of GDP in low income countries (compared to just 13 percent in rich countries). The propositon is that low-income countries typically suffer from a "missing middle" in which “poor access to inputs” leaves “a massive economic gap in small and medium-sized enterprises.”

The "missing middle" is a real enough problem - but it won't, for me, best be filled by the imposition of a capital-intensive and growth-oriented economy – the economy, in other words, that we have now.

A new publication from The Young Foundation in the UK, Social Venturing, describes a different kind of economy – a social economy – that is more socially and informationally intensive than capital intensive.

Social ventures have a huge gap to fill. In the UK - admittedly an extreme case - state spending on public services is likely to shrink by a staggering 20-40 percent in the coming years as the bill for the financial bailout comes due.

In the coming social economy, the role of national governments in countries like the UK will unavoidably change, and radically - away from the point-to-mass delivery of centrally-produced and paid-for services: hospital operations, kilowatts of electricity, or welfare payments to those qualifying for them.

For a whole range of problems, the Young Foundation authors argue, this mass delivery model is ill-suited. “It finds it difficult to deal adequately with difference and complexity, or with conditions or situations that are difficult to routinise”.

The study of living systems suggests models of how a social economy will work, they write. But a social economy will still depend on some technology. Distributed networks will be used intensively. Relationships will be sustained by the intensive use of broadband, mobile and other means of communication.

But a social economy will be radically less resource-intensive than the one we have now. There is an emphasis on collaboration and on repeated interactions, on care and maintenance - rather than one-off consumption, commodified transactions, or too much focus on fixed assets.

A key ingredient in a social economy is “relational capital”. This is both the knowledge and trust built up between a venture and its users and suppliers, and the relationships between a venture and its staff and circle of volunteers.

Conventional accounting takes little account of this intangible capital, yet in all social ventures it is the foundation of their strength and of their distinctiveness.

For social ventures, writes Robin Murray, “there is rarely a steady state, rather the shaping and reshaping of a cloud”.

I know from long experience that shaping clouds can be demanding, and is best not done alone. A key role in the social economy will therefore be played by new kinds of places, platforms and organisations that enable people to connect and coordinate with each other more easily and convivially than is possible now.

These places are already being prepared, as is shown by the enthralling growth of The Hub. This remarkable social enterprise - a global community of people from every profession, background and culture – is creating places on four continents that enable access to space, resources, connections, knowledge, experience and investment.

In addition to places and platforms like The Hub, time and trust are also core values of a social economy. Relational capital grows slowly. It takes time for people to know and trust each other. This process cannot be rushed.

The centrality of time in a social economy raises hard questions about philanthrocapitalism and its “big-business-style strategies”. Time is seldom allowed for, let alone paid for, in an efficiency-minded corporation. One has to question whether a rules-based approach to organisation, with its its “demand for results”, and accountability to the centre, is best-suited to social venturing.

As Robin Murray puts it, “The distributed systems of a social economy handle complexity not by standardisation and simplification imposed from the centre, but by distributing complexity to the margins – to households and service users and in the workplace to the local managers and workers.

“Those at the margins have what those at the centre can never have – a knowledge of detail, the specificity of time, of place, of particular events".

All this is exciting stuff. But the social economy, as described in these publications, has one crucial limitation: it’s too human-centric.

A social economy, by definition, is an economy by and for human beings. It does not embrace the idea that looking after natural ecosystems, and the biosphere as a whole, needs to become the starting point, the raison d’etre, of sustainable economic activity.

With the coming of the social economy, many positive developments, that have been brewing for decades, begin to converge. But it is only half the story…

Danger and opportunity: crisis and the new social economy, by Robin Murray

Social venturing, by Robin Murray, Julie Caulier-Grice and Geoff Mulgan is published by The Young Foundation.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:29 PM

August 28, 2010

Unplugged - or unhinged?


(Summer re-run)

I'm reading reading a moving and important book by Sharon Astyk called "Depletion and Abundance: Life On The New Home Front".

Uniquely among recent books on life after the Peaks - energy, protein, biodiversity etc - Astyk does not write to scare us all witless.

She does not write about elaborate ways to fix The Economy. She does not even furnish a shopping list of green tools and equipment that we can all buy as evidence that we are Doing Something.

(This latter prohibition is a particular disappointment to Kristi and me: we've been compiling a shopping list of high-end fruit dryers, choucroute kits, and grain grinders, that we were about to send to our friends before Christmas).

On the contrary, Astyk writes about the benefits that can come (and will come, for most of us) from being poor in material terms.

She proffers practical advice on how best to live comfortably with an uncertain energy supply; prepare children for a hotter, lower energy, less secure world; and generally how to survive and thrive in an economy in crisis.

This shocking approach clearly freaked out the the New York Times: they ran a patronising story in their Fashion and Style section about Astyk's work and life.

The Times even dug up a so-called "mental health professional" - a Dr. Jack Hirschowitz - who was happy to describe Astyk's "compulsion to live green in the extreme" as a kind of disorder.

There is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the "compulsion toward living a green life" but Hirschowitz - a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, for goodness sake - said that "certain carborexic behaviours might raise a red flag.

"The critical factor in determining whether something has reached the level of a disorder is if dysfunction is involved,” he said. “Is it getting in the way of your ability to do a good job at work?".

Aaah:work. That would be the activity that makes tens of millions of people do depressed that they have to be medicated by people like Dr Hirschowitz just so they can carry on doing it?

And that would be the work whose trainees - ten per cent of all American school-age boys - are now doped up to the gills with psychoactive drugs by Dr H and his colleagues to make them pay attention?

Rather than fight The Economy, or try to fix it, Astyk seems to be suggesting that we simply ignore it - that we unplug. It's a very un-male, un-macho solution - which is why the book is subversive.

Astyk may have unplugged, but she's not the one who's unhinged.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:43 PM

July 18, 2010

Traditional knowledge: the dilemmas of sharing

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I learn from Kris de Decker's excellent Low Tech Magazine that an International Traditional Knowledge World Bank (ITKI)has been launched.

It's an ambitious effort to preserve, restore and promote the re-use of traditional skills and inventions from all over the world.

Someone has done a lot of work to set this project up. There are well-considered lists and taxonomies; the site is filled with enticing graphic icons; and when you dig down for case studies, it is clear that some of the people involved are expert on different aspects of traditional knowledge.

I fear, however, that this bears all the hallmarks of a well-intentioned project that will grind slowly to a halt - for three main reasons.

First, in terms of its governance, the project is hopelessly top-heavy. It's sponsored by the United Nations -a cumbersome environment at the best of times. Then, in the interests of "outreach, efficiency and visibility", the UN has "framed the project within an "intergovernmental setup". It would be hard to imagine a less flexible architecture for what is basically a publishing project.

My second concern is this: traditional and tacit knowledge does not lend itself to being codified, organized by knowledge managers, and put into an encyclopedia. It is is socially-owned and used. Like flowers that wilt when cut and put in a vase, indigenous knowledge tends to degrade quickly when removed from its context.

ITKI sounds similar to a project in India that is based at a business school. There, researchers have documented more than 40,000 examples of indigenous knowledge, and put them in a database. But because so few small farmers and craftspeople use databases in their daily lives (to put it mildly) it's not much used.

This is why even a wiki would not be the complete answer. Wikis may be peer-to-peer, but they are still media, rather than the real thing.

In terms of media platforms, some kind of Yellow Pages or Craig's List, that connects people who need to know, with people who can help them, is the more promising way to go. Such a person-to-person connection machine would be even more powerful if it were to incorporate user ratings of the knowledge suppliers involved.

My third reservation concerns ITKI's business model. It appears to be dependent on funding from institutions. I could not see a reference to its beneficiaries paying to use it. If it is true that people do not value what they don't have to pay for, then this asymmetry will impede ITKI's sustainability in the longer term.

The mistake on these occasions is to be trapped into an either/or mind-set: either centralized database, or contextual knowledge; either top-down, or bottom-up; either academic research, or vernacular field work; either a wiki, or a mailing list; either publicly-funded, or private.

The understanding and use of traditional knowledge will depend on all these elements - in different combinations at different times.

Traditional knowledge is an ecology of actors and resources. It will never be possible to categorize them all, nor to make them all work neatly together. We nonetheless need to foster connections between many of these actors - and look for ways in which different kinds of expertise can complement each other.

I don't know who should play the role of librarian / broker / co-ordinator in the traditional knowledge ecology. The least we can all do is remain respectful and open-minded to different approaches - and make connections among them on a tactical basis when the opportunity arises.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:24 AM

November 01, 2009

High entropy? Moi?


When I first came to Tokyo, fashionable parts of the city would be lined with hundreds of heavy taxis sitting in queues with their engines running, for hours on end. Every powered item was always on, 24/7. Tokyo Metropolitan Government has passed a law against idling cars - but this hall of mirrors atrium is a reminder that high entropy Tokyo will not disappear without a struggle.

This picture is by way of context for my lecture yesterday at the International Design Symposium which was held to mark Musashino Art University's 80th anniversary.

Here below is what I said.

[I've borrowed here from a fantastic book I read on the way here: The New Economics: A Bigger Picture by David Boyle and Andrew Simms. Review of that to follow - but buy it now.]

Kosa-san, esteemed colleagues,

I will talk today about the emerging green economy - and, within that, the role of art and design.

But first, a word of background.

Peak energy. Peak credit.. Peak climate change. Each of these challenges is daunting on its own.

Taken together, they mean that business- as-usual is over - for good. The old ways will not return.

Yes, there are “green shoots” - but they are not the same old plants.

They are the first sign that new economic and social life forms are emerging.

I believe that we have arrived at what complexity researchers call an “inflection point”. After forty years of talk and prevarication, we have arrived at a moment of profound transformation in the economy.

I believe our instinct for survival is taking hold.

I say survival, because the old economy - the economy in which Gross Domestic Product is the only measure of success – has become, in the words of the True Cost campaign, a doomsday machine”.

The traditional economy can only survive if it keeps growing, to infinity; and yet it wants to grow to infinity in a biosphere whose carrying capacity is finite.

That’s what makes the old economy a doomsday machine. Running after GDP, we ensure the destruction of the biosphere for economic reasons.

It’s madness.

The economist Lord [Nicholas] Stern was talking at the People's University of Beijing last week.

Stern, an insider’s insider, a key architect of the global status quo, stated the unthinkable: “we have to question whether we can afford future growth”.

Can’t afford to grow! What an extraordinary thing for a former World Bank chairman to say!

But what choice did he have? do we all have? The basic operating system of the economy is broken.

The good news is that a replacement economy – a green economy – is now emerging.

It has a new operating system. Rather than strive to make the most profit, regardless of the consequences, the green economy sets out meet human needs, whilst also protecting the capacity of natural systems to support life.

For business, and design, this new economic framework changes everything.

Before this financial crisis, a new product or service was launched, somewhere in the world, every three minutes.

Nearly all these new products involved the in-efficient use of energy, water, and natural resources.

Each product – emember: a new one every three minutes - contributed to the 70 million tonnes of C02 that is emitted into the earth’s atmosphere, every 24 hours, as a result of human activity.

Most of these products, and the environmental impacts that accompanied them, involved input from designers and the creative industries: concepts, artifacts, communications, packaging, shops, malls.

All these had, as their direct outcome, un-sustainable consumption. Without the creative industries, the economic doomsday machine could not function.

Design is not uniquely responsible, of course. The digital revolution, too, has played a part.

The digital economy was added to, but did not replace, the industrial economy. The result of adding a digital layer to the industrial economy was to amplify energy and resource use in the global economy - tenfold.

Digital communications also added a new layer of insulation – a kind of blindfold - between human beings and the biosphere.

Thanks to the the internet, and later with social networking, we became more connected to each other - but *less* connected to the natural systems on which all our lives depend.

Technology separates us from direct experience of the world. It therefore blinds us to the consequences of our destructive economic behaviour.

So: If we can no longer carry on designing and producing stuff mindless of the consequences, what, then, should our focus be?

The emerging 'green economy' is based on a simple principle: we all live and work within a system whose carrying capacity is finite.

The business opportunity, in this context, is develop the new services and infrastructures to meet daily life needs in radically lighter ways.

A key concept here is Ezio Manzini's idea of enabling solutions - solutions that re-assert human agency in our systems-filled world.

A core task of design, in this emerging green economy, is to make it easier to share resources –
resources such as energy, matter, time, skill, software, space, or food.

This green economy, you will note, is not principally about smart machines, such as electric vehicles, or wind turbines.

The most important resources in the green economy are people.

Even when machines are part of a green solution, people matter.

For example, efficiency in buildings, or in transport systems is determined by intensity of use, and by load factors - for example, of vehicles - not just by energy and material costs.

Shared patterns of use are as important as low energy propulsion systems.

A huge design effort is also needed to create and optimise tools.

Tools are needed to help us for perceive, understand the world in new ways.

The aim, in the green economy, is "radical transparency"- a situation in which we all know the true environmental, health, and social costs of what we buy.

The keyword here: True Cost.

Another keyword here is social innovation.

The green economy I am describing is not a future dream. It already exists.

Social innovation is all around us. Even if the old economy, the market economy, does not recognize them, every community contains assets in the form of people and their skills and their culture.

By some accounts, there are one million grassroots environmental organisations out there. The website Wiser Earth, alone, lists 120,000 of them all over the world.

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

The Transition Towns movement, especially, is, for me, hugely significant.

Transition initiatives, which only started to emerge a couple of years ago, are multiplying at extraordinary speed.

More than 200 communities in Europe and north america have been officially designated Transition Towns - or cities, districts, villages - and even a forest.

A further 800 communities around the world are "mulling it over" as they consider the possibility of starting their own Transition Initiative.

Transition groups have started to appear in Japan, too. Check them out.

The transition model - I'm quoting their website - “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye".

But they don't just look: Transition groups break down the scary, too-hard-to-change big picture into bite-sized chunks.

They develop practical to-do lists; put those items in an agreed order of priority; and then start to work on the priority tasks they’ve agreed on.

Their focus is the notion of *resilience*.

“Fui so” in Chinese: the capacity of a system to adapt to change, to rejuvenate.

In a green economy, resilience means the capacity of a place-based community to survive without the profligate energy and resource consumption we have become used to.

Transition groups deal with this in a most practical way. Each group asks a simple question: "for all those aspects of life that our community needs, in order to sustain itself and thrive, how will we do, if the worst case scenarios, that we fear, come to pass?

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

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

The green economy is not being made by clever guys staring at computer screens.

The green economy is not being made in shiny expensive buildings protected by guards.

No: the green economy is being made wherever people are growing food in cities.

The green economy is where people opening seed banks, or teaching young people how to forge links direct with farmers in Community Supported Agriculture schemes.

It’s being made where communities are removing dams, and restoring watersheds.

Anywhere you find car-share schemes, or off-grid energy pilots – there is a green economy hotspot.

You’ll find the green economy wherever people are launching local currencies – nine thousand examples at last count.

in their own version of the green economy, 70 million Africans are exchanging airtime - not cash. Non-money trading is exploding.

Thousands of groups, Thousands of experiments.

For every daily life support system that is unsustainable now - food, health, shelter, journeying – alternatives are being tried.

In the green economy now emerging, some aspects of resilience are technological solutions.

Other solutions are to be found in the natural world, thanks to millions of years of natural evolution – fir example, using plants to clean water.

But most resilience attributes are social practices - some of them very old ones, that have evolved in other societies and in other times.

So, before we start designing new services and systems from scratch, we need to ask first: has anyone addressed a similar question in the past? How might we learn from, adapt, and piggyback on their success? or failure, come to think of it.

Last week, for example, I received a new book by Azby Brown – Just Enough - which describes how Japanese society confronted multiple crises of energy, water, fuels, food, and population – 200 years ago.

Japanese society in the Edo period met these challenges because it was conservation-minded, waste-free, and valued wellbeing with the minimum of resource consumption.

I do not propose that we try to go backwards in time. And I am not promoting Edo as a lifestyle choice, a product you buy from a catalogue.

No: as Azby Brown writes in his book, Just Enough is valuable as a mentality, as a framework for acting in the world - not a list or rules and prohibitions.

The green economy is not a prison camp. It’s a garden.


I have spoken about the emerging green economy.

I have talked about the necessity to account for the True Cost of a whole system in everything we design.

I have spoke about the concept of “resilience” as a keyword in the society now emerging..

I have also argued that social innovation – and especially Transition Towns – are more important sites of innovation than technology labs - or design studios.

If these ideas sound a long way from the traditional concerns of art and design – well, that’s because they are!

But it’s not just design that’s facing profound change.

A green economy means profound change for all professions, all businesses, all cities and regions.

But a question has been posed to us: what is an “Advanced Design Education” and how to we deliver it?

My first response to this question is that “Advanced Design Education” already exists – only not by that name, and not in one place.

In my travels around the world, I have been encountering what Im tempted to describe as “transition design schools” !

Some of these schools, or research sites, have an environmental agenda, but also have art and design in their culture.

In parallel, so-called “green MBAs” are beginning to be offered, which also have a design component. Two interesting examples, again in the US, are Bainbridge Graduate Institute and the Dominican University.

Other ventures are further ahead of traditional design.

What these all have in common is that they operate in three complementary modes:
- the mode of the live project in a real place;
- the creation of a marketplace to connect ideas and projects together in viable enterprise;
- the cross-pollination of models, tools and experiences from other places, and other times.

I would also mention my own organization, Doors of Perception, in this context.

Five years ago, we stopped organizing big international conferences to focus on in-situ events.

For a city or region, we:
- scope for and map resources, especially people and natural resources who would not otherwise be visible;
- we bring the most interesting projects together, and run design clinics to find out how each project can be helped;
- finally, we often help each project pitch for support in a kind of Dragon’s Den game, with the aim of launching them as a social enterprise.

Our model, City Eco Lab helps a regions speed up its engagement in the green economy.

This, for me, is one new form of advanced design education.


Until recently, it has been it’s too hard to try these experiments in mainstream universities, or business.

But as I said at the start today, these are new times. The moment is right for what Eugenio Barba calls “the dance of the big and the small”.

Big institutions need fresh input and thinking.
Small, edgy projects yearn for scale, reach, and impact

For me, “advanced design education” is about making new connections, and starting new conversations
Advanced design education is not much about dreaming up original content in a lab, or studio.
Advanced design education, for me, is about getting out of the tent – going to where the action is.

Art and design have a lot to offer.

The ability of the artist to help us all perceive the unseen, or the invisible, is vital as we reframe the tasks and priorities of the economy.

Artists can sensitise us to systems, and their behaviour, and thereby help us engage with the biosphere as a systemic whole - in which human beings are a co-dependent part.

In many cultures, this has been the work of artists for thousands of years. The idea of art separated off from daily life is literally unknown in so-called “un-developed” cultures.

Design skills, too, are needed, right now, out there where the green economy action is.

Design is needed to help create tools. Tools for perceiving, seeing, understanding, conversing.
Tools for sharing resources, organising people, and exchanging time.

As Professor [Tony] Jones reminded us yesterday, artists and designers are workers!

So, put them to work!

Posted by John Thackara at 09:09 PM

May 28, 2009

What should Aalto University do, and be?

A major new university is to be named after the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Aalto University which opens in 2010, is the result of a merger between the Helsinki School of Economics (Finland's top business school, with 4,000 students); the University of Art and Design (one of Europe's top design and art schools, with 2,000 students); and Helsinki University of Technology (the main technical university, including the country's principal architecture school, with 15,000 students).]

Four hundred people are already busy preparing the new university, but I was asked to speak at symposium in Helsinki called "Beyond Tomorrow" about what the new university should do, and be.

Here is what I said.

The University has stated that it will will "make a positive contribution to Finnish society, technology, economy, art, art and design, and support the welfare of both humans and the environment".

I propose that Aalto University should stand for something more precise than this: an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life.

Such a commitment would be stronger than the hippocratic oath sworn by doctors. Young doctors promise to "prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment - and never do harm to anyone." Unambiguous respect for human life here - but no mention of the rest of life!

An unconditional respect for life would also be clearer than the proposed scientific oath that has been circulating since 1995. In this text, scientists would commit to "minimise and justify any adverse effect our work may have on people, animals and the natural environment". The natural environment is mentioned, which is a step forward - but the proposed commitment here is to minimise adverse effects, not stop them altogether.

Aalto University, in contrast to these ambiguous earlier attempts, could now acknowledge the biosphere as a systemic whole in which human beings are a co-dependent part.

An ethical position along these lines was first first championed by the American forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold, in 1949. Leopold proposed what he called a "land ethic" that would guide "man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it".

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community" wrote Leopold. "It is wrong, when it tends otherwise". ["Biotic community" here is another name for what we now call the biosphere]

Leopold argued that harm was frequently done to natural systems because of our culture's belief in its separateness from, and dominion over, nature. This myth of apartness dulls the sense of responsibility that would follow if we felt ourselves to be co-dependent members of natural community, he wrote.

This sense of apartness is not universal. Hundreds of millions of our fellow humans in other cultures worship nature now. We tend to call them "pagans" or "undeveloped" - but nearly all of them, unlike us, live sustainably.

There are a lot of tress one could hug in Finland, but an ethic based on an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life, does not mean the abandonment of science or engineering.

On the contrary: it's because of what science has taught us about the biosphere, and about the complexity and precariousness of nature -- things that we did not know at the start of the modern age -- that the time has come to re-define the ethical basis of the academy.

Measured against this clear principle - respect for life, and for the conditions that support life - many of the things that Aalto University could do, that until now have been taken for granted, become a "maybe":

Innovation is a maybe. Innovation is a right thing to do when it is informed by a commitment to preserve the integrity of the biosphere. When that commitment is absent, innovation can have profoundly negative consequences. The carbon economy is the result of innovation. The financial crisis is the consequence of innovation. Need I say more?

Fostering creativity is a maybe. Last year, a new product was launched somewhere in the world every three minutes. Most of these products involved the inefficient use of energy, water, and natural resources. Each product thereby contributed to the 70 million tonnes of C02 that is emitted into the earth’s atmosphere every 24 hours as a result of human activity.

Most of these products, and the emissions that accompanied them, involved input from creative professionals. Creatives dreamed up concepts, designed artefacts, and deployed a glittering array of communications, packaging, and retail settings. $400 billion was spent on advertising and marketing alone - a global flowering of narratives, images, symbols, and forms that had, as their outcome, unsustainable consumption.

I've read that Aalto University stands for a student-centered culture, too. Well, maybe! For me, a student-centered culture is no better than a professor-centered culture, or a technology-centered culture, unless this culture is suffused by an unconditional respect for the biosphere.

Multi-disciplinarity, too, is a maybe. Being active in international networks is a maybe. It is not a virtue to work across disciplines, or across national boundaries, unless the purpose, the ends of that collaboration, are predicated on...unconditional respect for the biosphere.

Collaboration with industry? That's another maybe, too. Nokia is of course an amazing success story. But this story has its dark side. Although a mobile phone may weigh 100 grams or less in your hand, the total environmental footprint of a mobile phone adds up to 75 kilos, per phone, per year. [That number is calculated by adding up the resources needed to mine the heavy metals used in electronics, manufacture the handset, fabricate its computer chip and battery, build masts, run servers, manufacture the packaging, fit out and operate shops, and so on].

Nokia, on its own, sells a million of these small but not so innocuous artefacts every day, day after day. A million a day x 75 kilos per unit per year? Do the maths!

Universal mobile connectivity will be a necessary infrastructure in a sustainable economy - but it has to become a zero waste and zero emissions infrastructure. How, I don't know - but that has to be the target.

Industrial artefacts don’t have to be technological, to have a big footprint. Paper, for example, is just as important to Finland's economy as the mobile phone. But the manufacture of a single sheet of A4 paper, as used in my laserpinter, requires ten litres of water. Not for the packet, for one single sheet.

In a country like Finland, with its 188,000 lakes and 265,000 square kilometres (100,000 square miles) of trees, the footprint of paper is not an obvious priority....but globally, these ratios are critical.

Innovation, technology, economics, design. These activities tend to be celebrated as ends in themselves - but they are not, of themselves, virtuous. They are means to an end. If that end incudes unconditional respect for life then - but only then - these activities are worthwhile.

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

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

Unconditional does not mean generating "less waste than any of our competitors" - it means a commitment to zero waste, and zero emissions.

Neither does an unconditional commitment to the biosphere mean adding environment courses to a curriculum that otherwise remains untouched.

Philosophers at Aalto University may argue that there is no logical reason to make this clear ethical commitment. Well, there's no logical reason why doctors swear the Hippocratic Oath - but they do so, anyway, because it is the right thing to do.

Others among you may worry that the watertight commitment, that I propose, would constrain academic and research freedoms. But the only freedom constrained by this commitment is the freedom to damage the basis of life - and for me, that's a freedom we have to live without.

Let me be blunt: If you are not for the biosphere, you are against it. Sitting on the fence is no longer an option. The belief that we exist outside the biosphere - a belief which as shaped our universities since the enlightenment - has had, as its objective result, putting the biosphere in peril.

Ethics apart, I'm certain that climbing off the post-Enlightenment fence will give Aalto University incredible competitive advantage. People all over the world are looking for leadership, for an institution to take a stand. People, energy and resources will flock to the first institution that makes this commitment.


An ethical commitment to the biosphere suggests a challenging new focus for Aalto
University's programmes of work. That focus is the notion of resilience.

Resilience is a notion shared by the worlds of ecology, science and engineering. Resilience is also a more evocative and energising word than "sustainability", which is such an unexciting destination.

Resilience is defined in The Transition Handbook as "the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance, and reorganize, while undergoing change".

In the context of Aalto University, striving for resilience means the development of the understanding, tools and skills that will enable us to flourish in the absence of the profligate resource consumption we have become used to.

Developing these assets - understanding, tools and skills - will involve a huge amount research, practice, and critical reflection.

Does an unconditional commitment to the health of the biosphere mean that designers should stop designing products? that architects should not design buildings? that engineers should not exploit finite resources and energy to embody their creations?

My question is not a rhetorical one. The inputs and outputs of industrial society are so wildy out of balance, that questions are raised about all its buildings and infrastructures. Business-as-usual, with a new brand name, is surely not an option for Aalto University.

In this context, even if the main focus of their work stops being the design of shiny new buildings and products, there is much work for architects and designers to do.

The architect and engineer's understanding of space, time, materiality, and process will be valuable as the focus of our innovation shifts to  closed loop systems.

Designers and architects are also needed to create and optimise tools:tools for perceiving, seeing, understanding, conversing; tools for sharing and organising and exchanging; nd yes, tools for making things!

The carrying capacity of the biosphere is nor limitless, but neither is it zero!

The ability of the artist to help us perceive the unseen, or the invisible, will also be vital as we reframe our tasks and priorities.

We need to re-imagine the built world not as a landscape framed by certainties, and populated by frozen objects - but as a complex of interacting ecologies: energy, water, mobility, food.

But the stuff we will still make –products, services, infrastructures – will be designed according to principles that are based on respect for life and conditions that support life: low-carbon, resource-efficient, and zero waste.

We need to reconceive Aalto University as part of a complex of regenerative people and institutions that operate in ways that are sensitive to context, to relationships, and to consequences.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:55 PM | Comments (4)

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

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

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)

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

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

February 09, 2007

Wanted: designer of a dreamy den or a tantalising tent

The culmination of Dott07’s year in North East England (where Doors is programming the content) will be a festival in October to celebrate the achievements, challenges and experiences of all those who have taken part in projects. Our dream for the Festival location is that it will inspire people to enter, and empower them, once inside, to engage with the stories and with each other on equal terms. In other words, the look-and-feel should be the opposite of a raucous trade fair or a self-obsessed art event. Keywords: encounter; participation; interaction; empowering; active, welcoming. When you leave you should feel inspired, not exhausted. Who do you think could do this best? Tell them to check out the Dott Festival Creative Tender

Posted by John Thackara at 04:10 PM

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

July 19, 2006

The coming shake-out in design education

The new Coroflot, launched by Allan Chochinov and his colleagues this week, boasts a staggering 33,000 design portfolios and more than 135,000 registered users. Gross visitor numbers to Coroflot (and its sister site, Core77 ) are many times higher than that. A major attraction is Coroflot's steady flow of job postings, updated by the minute.

I'm convinced that sites like Core77 are going to have a huge impact on design education, and soon. A fast-growing gulf is opening up between the reputations of many design schools and universities, on the one hand, and the reality of what they are able to deliver to current students on the other.

Many design schools have been compelled by governments to expand student numbers. But they have been given diminishing resources per student to do so. The results of this are now being felt. Jeff Banks, a leading British employer of designers, writes about "design education meltdown" in the August issue of Blueprint. "Employers are asking if the degrees of graduates from design schools are worth the paper they're printed on", he writes.

Prospective students that I have met of late also ask whether it is worth going to design school. They know they will leave tens of thousands of dollars or euros in debt - at a time when the prospect of a highly-paid job, to pay it off, is by no means guaranteed.

Some respected universities are offering places to one in every two applicants to design programmes this year. Five years ago, the ratio would have been 1:7. How long before they have empty places? How many already do?

Many big-name schools in the US and Europe are kept afloat financially by the fees of foreign students, particularly at postgraduate level. This cash cow will evaporate fast if the reputations of big-name schools start to deteriorate. International students will not shell out premium fees for a devalued certificate.

Among Core77's discussions among design students, for example, comments like this are typical: "I am now studying master industrial design at (School X) and I definitely DO NOT RECOMMEND this school. You can ask the other 19 students of industrial master and other 50 students from other masters and they most of them will answer you the same".

Sites like Core77 enable prospective students to communicate directly with current ones. They compare the reality of life in a school to its reputation, and to the promises made in its marketing. Under-performing colleges - and there are many, including some with inflated reputations - are going to run into trouble. Soon.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:33 AM

June 15, 2006

Social Silicon Valleys

The Young Foundation has published a manifesto for social innovation Written by a team led by Geoff Mulgan, Social Silicon Valleys compares the vast investments made each year in scientific R&D (nearly 12 billion euros of public spending on R&D in the UK alone) with the piecemeal and marginal investment that is made in social innovation. The pamphlet warns that addressing the most important challenges of this century – including climate change, ageing and chronic disease, as well as the prospects for sustainable growth – will depend as much on social innovation as new technologies. The publication is supported by the British Council as part of the preparation for an international conference in China with ministers and city leaders from Europe and China to be held in Beijing in October.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:00 AM

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

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

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)

October 23, 2005

Jan Verwijnen

I received the extremely sad news from Helsinki that Jan Verwijnen has died, following a serious illness, at the age of 56. Many Doors people will know of Jan as leader of the Spark! project that we participated in not long ago. Sparkl! was an inspirational experience that reflected Jan’s insatiable curiosity towards new phenomena. He read, studied and wrote incessantly to the very end; cities, their structures, and human lives in urban environments, were his main interest. Students will remember Jan as a discursive, critical and tireless teacher; colleagues report that when the rest of them went home after working hours, Jan would often move from his office to sit on the table corner and discuss with students sometimes well into the evening. In addition to his teaching, Jan conceived and executed many EU and TEKES projects (of which Spark! was but one). He published a number of books. And played a pathfinding role in several ground-breaking curriculum development projects. Among Jan's unfinished projects remain his doctoral dissertation, and a visiting professorship at the Estonian Academy of Arts. His colleague Eija Salmi, who sent me this sad news, concludes: “Jan always found it easy to get to know new people. He was so well-informed that it was always possible to find mutually interesting topics. He had friends all over the world. Though always a cosmopolitan, his wish was to be buried in Finland, near to his sons and those close to him. It had been good to work here, here he gave so much of his best. But his was a life cut too short”. Jan was buried on 21 October but a
memorial event will held 6 November 2005. Contact:

Posted by John Thackara at 01:50 PM

October 04, 2005

Design and the growth of knowledge

In this one-morning symposium on November 10, three eminent researchers discuss designing as form of research. Brenda Laurel, Gillian Crampton-Smith, and Kun-Pyo Lee will look at the ways design generates knowledge which can be used beyond the product at hand and thereby generate wholly new ideas. The event is hosted by the Technical University of Delft (Professor Pieter Jan Stappers) and is moderated by John Thackara. The symposium morning is open for all those involved in (interaction) design, including students, design and research managers, designers and researchers. Thursday November 10. Contact: Pieter Jan Stappers: email

Posted by John Thackara at 08:29 AM

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)

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

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)

June 17, 2005

Now listen good

My parents have been plagued by a rising volume of junk telephone calls from telemarketing outfits. Imagine my incredulity when I saw on the BBC this morning that one of the leading firms calls itself The Listening Company. One of the people we have to thank for the plague of telemarketing is Martin Williams who, the firm's website explains, "helps define the customer Buying Experience, map the Customer Journey, and apply intelligence to the use of data in sales and prospect management". His colleague, David Murray, has had a "distinguished career... in high volume outbound programmes". The two of them report to Neville Upton, chief executive of The Listening Company, who is "the inspiration for the business". In the UK, there are two ways for people to fight back against the harassment and invasion of privacy perpetrated by these kinds of people. One is for sufferers to register with the Telephone Preference Service. The second is for concerned citizens to use the industry's own telemarketing techniques and engage its practitoners in discussion of the matter. The Listening Company: +44 20 8484 1000 | |

Posted by John Thackara at 11:29 AM | Comments (2)

May 04, 2005

Europe's institutional Spruce Goose

The European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, wants to create a European Institute of Technology to compete with MIT. According to one report, there's a belief that “Europe needs an institution capable of  bringing together its currently too-dispersed scientific and teaching excellence". Instead of creating one new institution, the EIT would be a network institution founded on about six of the best universities in the EU. Five of these would be responsible for coordinating the main areas of EIT work (chemistry/materials science, life sciences/biotechnology, physics/communication sciences, etc); the sixth would be responsible for making the EIT network function. My own view? This top-heavy monster has the appearance of a network organisation, but the body and brain of a Barosaurus. EIT is not needed, and will never fly. The European Research Area contains hundreds of tech-based universities and research labs; their workers intertact and network with each other continuously, and a new 'center' is the last thing this thriving ecosystem needs. Barroso makes life needlessly hard on himself (and the rest of us) by defining economic success only in terms of tech-based economic growth. His people frantically measure things like biotech patents to persuade themselves that more needs to be done. What Europe really needs is a European Institute of Well-Being, directed by this author, whose task would be celebrate the many facets of life in Europe that work perfectly well without clunky, expensive technology.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:51 AM

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

April 28, 2005

Darwinian innovation

My book isn't even out yet (the US publication date is on Friday; UK/Europe is at the end of May) and already someone has raised a sneaky question about its basic argument.Fast Company have a section in their book reviews called "Things We Didn''t Like" and they say: "Many a garage inventor would argue that poorly designed, superfluous products are necessary by-products of the innovation process, not fundamental flaws in our design philosophy. Thackara deems it foolhardy, but maybe it's Darwinian". This is a fair point: it won't be easy to combine trial-and-error innovation, on the one hand, with consideration of the consequences of design actions before we take them, on the other. My short answer to this dilemma right now? a) life wasn't meant to be easy; and b) yes this is a hard question, but we can't go on treating the planet, our only home, as a glorified crash-test rig.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:35 AM | Comments (1)

April 26, 2005

Europe's IST research priorities

A new survey of front-line researchers in 25 EU countries reveals surprising devations from tech policy orthodoxy. The so-called Fistera Delphi (it's a system for averaging the results of an opinon survey) asked experts, including this writer, to prioritise research priorities for 2010 and beyond. Strong endorsement was given to “Education and Learning” as an application area for IST that "contributes to the construction of a European knowledge society". (I voted against this, for reasons rehearsed elsewhere). But my vote seems to have counted on other issues: domains such as leisure and recreation, ageing, and security, scored much less well than the report's editors seem to have anticipated. This led them to comment, rather plaintively I thought, that "this result is rather surprising given the huge markets that exist around these areas". I was reassured that European IT experts don't buy the corporate push in these domains. Even more encouraging: "improving IPR protection" came last among the challenges proposed by the report's editors.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:51 PM

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 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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

December 12, 2002

From shelfware to wetware: where next for design research?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- develop new business models: business school academics were active in this field during the early 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 08:55 PM

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