June 23, 2011

Open Season on Dutch Cultural Innovation


In a memorandum titled “More than Quality” the Dutch Arts Minister Halbe Zijlstra has announced savage cuts to the country's arts budget. Among media arts & technology organizations to lose their structural funding are such long-term friends and partners of ours as STEIM, Waag Society, V2, Submarine Channel, and Mediamatic.

This means that pretty much the entire field of internationally focused and future-oriented innovation, education, and development, which has distinguished the Netherlands for many decades, is to be demolished practically overnight.

I hope you will consider joining me and sign the petition - but first let me give you an example of what's at stake.

I received two books from The Netherlands this week which are good examples of the kind of work that will disappear if these cuts go ahead. The first of these, in the 'Open' series, is entitled (Im)Mobility - Exploring the Boundaries of Hypermobility. It's a project of the Foundation for Art and Public Domain, or SKOR. As described in her introduction by Jorinde Seidl, the book is about 'the search for an alternative lifestyle that is no longer dominated by speed and continuous mobility'.

Essays in the book, which is edited by Eric Kluitenberg, and include an interview with the social geographer David Harvey, describe the ways that advanced communications technologies are enabling an increase in physical and motorized mobility for some people and commodities - but that these accelerating flows stand in sharp contrast to the experience of a growing proportion of the world's underclasses. For them, harsher border regimes, surveillance and identity control are being intensified at a rapid pace.

The second book, Open Design Now, is a project of Waag Society and others. It includes essays, cases and visuals on various issues of Open Design. The book contains examples of Open Design that range from RepRap and $50 prosthetic legs, to the Instructables Restaurant. [I contributed a short rumination on the aristocratic Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin].

The Dutch arts minister argues that 'the market' can surely fill the gap left by the disappearance of state funding for the small organizations that created these books. His argument is at best disingenuous and at worst a bare-faced lie. [See this article reality check about business funding of the arts]. Commercial publishers are themselves struggling to survive and there is no prospect that they will take on this kind of edgy, critical project without some kind of support.

It can seem futile just to sign the petition. Please at least get hold of the books and then judge then whether this kind of work deserves to disappear.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:22 PM

May 03, 2011

A smooth journey

Two images have preoccupied me in recent days.

The first one [below] was taken in a lounge at Paris airport. I remember being struck by the intense design effort that had been made to create a controlled and insulated environment. On the tv screen were images of the popular revolt that is unfolding, bloodily, in Yemen. But the sound was off, and the effect was to dampen any awareness we global travellers might have of the outside world - such as those guys fighting for freedom on the Arab street.


The second image that's bugged me is this new shot of Unit 3 at Fukushima.

Fukushima-unit-3The pool at unit 3 contained almost an entire reactor core of spent fuel.jpg

Now I don't know about you, but I've been under the impression that the situation in Fukushima, although dramatic, is qualitatively less serious than Chernobyl. I've read reports [sometimes whilst sitting in lounges like the one in Paris] that the Japanese plants have a more modern design, and that those long-distance shots of smoke coming from the buildings were 'more of a leak than an explosion.'

Then I saw this photograph: Does that look like a 'leak' to you?

The image appears in Stoneleigh's long report about Fukushima. She is at pains to remind us that 'nobody knows, for sure, how bad the impacts of Fukushima will be in the long run' - but then explains that the pool at unit 3 contained almost an entire core of spent fuel - and that fifty metres from Unit 4 is - or was - a larger store of spent fuel with a volume of 3,828 cubic meters (in feet: 290 x 120 x110 deep).

Nobody knows for sure that the fuel has been blown to smithereens and into the air and the sea - but if I look at the photograph I find it hard to believe that the long-term consequences will be benign.

The writer George Monbiot has attacked nuclear energy's opponents for their double standards. 'In the normal course of operations, at least six people are killed in Chinese coal mines every day' he argued; 'even if you accept the official figure, Chinese coal mining alone kills as many people every week as the worst nuclear power accident in history – the Chernobyl explosion – has done in 25 years'.

This may well be true, but I question whether Monbiot, in his search for a single 'standard', is comparing like with like. Why did he not remind us that one thousand children are killed on the roads every day?

Deaths on the road share a common root cause with power station deaths: our world's growing transport intensity and the energy needed to sustain it. The debate we need to have is not about nuclear versus coal versus solar as energy sources; it's about the energy and resource intensity of the economy as a whole.

Design that protects us from this uncomfortable issue - design that smooths our way through life as that lounge smoothed my passage in Paris - does us a disservice in the long run.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:32 AM

November 13, 2010

Is an environmentally neutral car possible?


The future of the car has been electric for what? Five years now? ten? The answer is 110 years, for it was back in 1899 that La Jamais Contente ("The Never Satisfied") became the first vehicle to go over 100 km/h (62 mph) at Achères, near Paris.

Since then, as we produced hundreds of millions non-electric cars - and despoiled the biosphere in the process - all manner of non-petrol cars, including electric ones, have come and gone.Tesla in the the US and Norway's Think are just the latest in a long line of newcomers.

They, too, will fail to break the grip of the gas guzzler for one reason: they do not challenge the production system and business model of an incumbent global industry that is so mature that it can only make incremental changes as new pressures arise. Electric cars such as Tesla fall into this category: they are an incremental improvement, not a replacement for an ecocidal global industry.

This writer has long been sceptical that small private vehicles would have an important role to pay in a sustainable mobility mix. But Riversimple has made me pause for thought.

At a presentation in Leicester, UK, last month, where a deal has been struck with the City Council for 30 vehicles to be piloted there in 2012, we were told that the formal purpose of this new start-up is “to build and operate cars for independent use whilst systematically pursuing elimination of the environmental damage caused by personal transport”.

Not reduce but *eliminate* environmental damage? How could that be possible?

The company's founder, Hugo Spowers, explained that every aspect of the company's operation - not just its vehicle technology - is based on whole system design. It has evolved from a linear resource-consuming model, in which natural capital resources are not replenished, to a cyclical system in which waste streams provide all material inputs, and all loops are closed.

The car itself has five novel features: a composite body, four electric motors, no gearbox or transmission, regenerative braking, and power provided by hydrogen fuel cells. Its Network Electric Platform has been so designed that if there are breakthroughs in other power sources, these can easily be incorporated later on. The vehicle is decoupled from a single power platform or refuelling infrastructure.


riversimple 3.png

But Riversimple's technology is just the start. Its cars will not be sold outright. Customers will buy mobility as a service rather than a car as a product. There will be no maximum or minimum mileage allowance and, critically, it is a fully bundled service covering all costs such as road tax, vehicle maintenance, insurance and fuel, with no surprises to the customer.

The way the system has been designed, it is in everyone's interest to keep cars on the road as long as possible. Riversimple will be the first car manufacturer for whom success will not mean persuading you to buy a new one every three years.

Customers will interact with Riversimple and its user community through a personalized digital interface accessed from the car, on their computer, or via their mobile phone. They will be able to manage their account, request maintenance, ask questions, locate the nearest refuelling station, and so on.

To ensure that energy and resource efficiency remain at the heart of everything the company does, lower environmental impact is financially rewarded.


A sale of a service model is therefore pushed upstream into the supply chain. The supplier of the hydrogen fuel cell, for example, is likely to remain its owner. Manufacturer and supplier thereby have a shared interest in the longevity and reliability of the vehicle, and of the system as a whole.

Riversimple's production model, too, is distributed. Its carbon composite bodies allow profitable manufacturing with plants producing 3-5,000 units each year. This regional distribution of production will enable the delivery of improved service for regional markets at reduced cost. [The company is in early stage discussions with other regions across the world to roll out this strategy through joint venture partnerships for local manufacturing facilities]

riversimple5prod cells.png

The next consideration is service. An urban car is effectively tethered to its home city, so the critical scale for establishing a commercial market is that of a city, rather than a nation. Riversimple's service infrastructure, too, is cellular - city by city.

riversimple4 infa cells.png

The surprises continue. Everything in RiverSimple is open source. The company is adopting an open intellectual property model, based on that used in open source software. The design of this and future vehicles will be shared, thereby allowing anyone to collaborate in the design and build of our cars under an open source licence.

Riversimple, as one producer among many, believes this will be a fast route to replacing the internal combustion engine.

The aim is to maximise design input from passionate experts at low cost. It is therefore also licensing its technology to the open-source foundation 40 Fires. Riversimple wants people to contribute to the design in the same way computer programmers help build Unix.

The company is owned by six "custodial bodies". Among these is Environment - on an equal footing with investors and commercial partners. Checks and balances are built into the system through the appointment of a Stewards body, who are responsible for auditing and monitoring the governance.


The structure and responsibilities of conventional corporations create a confrontational dynamic with most stakeholders Therefore shared ownership is another key feature of the Riversimple system. Its ownership model is inspired by long-standing and successful businesses such as VISA International, John Lewis Partnership and Mondragon. All stakeholders have a formal role in the organisation, to all parties’ benefit.

Is RiverSimple another design-studio concept? Hardly: The family of Ernst Piëch, part of the dynasty who founded Porsche, is the current major investor.

Oh, you wanted to see the car? Here it is:


Posted by John Thackara at 06:00 PM

November 02, 2010

Leave nothing but footsteps


Three years ago German photographer Thomas Kalak published a book called Thailand - Same same, but different!.

Featuring all manner of bamboo scaffolding, knotted aerial lines, hand painted signs, or converted plastic bags, the book celebrated the Thais’ exceptionally gifted art of improvisation.

The strange objects and arrangements reminded Kalak of art world “ready-mades” from the beginning of the 20th century.

They reminded me that salvage society is not a future prospect that will happen when peak-everything hits home. Untold millions of people subsist on the detritus of industrial society right now.

Now Kalak has published a new book,Weltstücke: World Trip Goodies


'Weltstücke' features rare, bizarre, and exceptional souvenirs collected by the photographer during his ceasless travels.


'Take nothing but memories' Kalack concludes, and 'and leave nothing but footsteps'.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:05 AM

August 05, 2010

Heathrow chaos: time to start digging?

(Summer re-run: first published 31 March 2008)

The chaos at Heathrow's Terminal 5 is an excellent example of what happens when the logic of finance interacts with the logic of large complex systems.

As Will Hutton wrote at the weekend, shareholders in British Airways (its sole tenant) and BAA (which runs the airport) demand perpetually growing dividends. Financial returns on this scale can only be achieved by cutting people out of the system: This is because big shiny buildings, although expensive, are capital costs that can be written off through time; people, on the other hand, appear in a company's accounts as recurrent costs that directly reduce profits.

Willy Walsh, the cost-cutting hard man put in to run BA, has duly cut people costs to the bone. As a result of his ministrations morale has crashed, many experienced midde managers took early retirement before T5 opened, and a recent survey reported that nearly 30 per cent of staff claim they had been bullied.

Thousands of MBA students, whose predecessors now run companies like BA and BAA, are being taught, as you read this, to regard people as cuttable costs and that technology exists to help them do the cutting.

Once in post as junior Willy Washes, these WaffenMBAs are an easy mark for the IT industry: it peddles dysfunctional systems on the back of absurd promises that they will work without intensive participation by trained and motivated people. The tech industry grows, despite its long history of peddling porkies, because its cost-cutting clients are pre-programmed to believe the lies.

Moving bags, moving people, moving goods: Logistics are life-critical for us all. I was therefore alarmed to read in Supply Chain Standard about logistics in the supermarket industry.

On checking the software descriptors of 14,000 product lines, one analyst found that information lines for every single item contained one or more errors. A standard description has 200 attributes, but industry customers typically add up to 1,500 extra items of information on their own account - so the possibility for error is mind-boggling.

All retailers - and all airport operators - rely totally on logistics technology. But according to the industry's own in-house magazine, many supermarkets admit to at least 35 percent data inaccuracy in their product files.

Things sound even grimmer when you realise that millions of lines of dodgy data are being fed into patched-up legacy systems that few people understand - and are therefore hard to maintain. "It's little surprise", concludes the writer, that "retailers end up with little idea of what is in store, in transit, on order or at the warehouse". Supply Chain Standard January 2008 page 9 Penelope Ody

Now connect in your mind, as an exercise, the bags chaos at Heathrow with that thirty five per cent inaccuracy in the data used by supermarkets.

Next, consider that supermarkets only have three days supply of food in stock at any one time...or so they think. I don't know about you, but I'm reminded that this is planting season at my home in France: I need to get back and start digging.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:53 PM | Comments (1)

April 18, 2010

Dawn of the new age of coach travel?


If Katla (above: she's Eyjafjallajökull's much bigger sister) blows, and grounds flights forever, will this finally be Dr Storkey's moment?

The blogwaves are already filled with links to Seat 61. But as I've Cassandra'd here repeatedly (yes, I've made it into a verb) train travel is not all that light once total system costs are factored in.


As the graph shows, the best motorized way, by far, to move long distances is by coach. Buses produce 29g of CO2 for every passenger kilometre travelled, compared with 52g for trains and 170g per passenger km for cars and airplanes.

[Plug-in electric cars are very popular with politicians and car companies: they embody the myth that we can all carry driving around in private vehicles as normal, and the planet gets saved. It's a dangerous con: the true costs of electric cars - from the heavy metals in their batteries, to the coal-generated power needed to run them - mean that their viability as a long-term alternative to unsustainable mobility is an illusion].

Car, road, and aviation industries have had a death grip around the necks of policy makers in most countries, so bus travel has not flourished. But this could be its moment.

To develop as a mass alternative to flight, what's needed next is an integrated combination of enhanced vehicles, improvements to existing infastructure, web 3.0 platforms and social innovation to make each step of a journey easy and fun.

A few weeks ago I asked a group of senior car designers to consider coach travel as a product service system. I asked them to identify what elements would need to be improved, in such a system, to persuade them to consider coach travel seriously. Here's a summary of what they came up with:

Free parking at hub
Shuttles from home/work
Social status
Crash safety
Info at hub and on web
Clear route data
Better experience than air travel

Can you add to this list? Have you done a project on any of these items?

Posted by John Thackara at 06:49 PM

April 19, 2009

How to be global, and great, without traveling

While I'm away, would you help me promote these new editions of my book? In The Bubble has now been translated into French, Italian and Portuguese - and I'd appreciate your support in three ways:
a) buy-and-send copies for all your French, Italian and Portuguese-speaking friends around the world;
b) tell everyone you know, who speaks those languages, that these editions are now available;
c) send me the name and postal address of journalists, bloggers and thought-leaders in those languages to whom you think I should send a free review copy. (john at thackara dot com)

Here, first, is the French edition translated by Anne Despond-Barre and published by Marc Partouche for Cite du Design Editions.


Next is the Italian edition translated by Niels Betori and published by Pier Paolo Peruccio for Allemandi.


And here, below, published by Virgilia and available from Saraiva is the Portuguese edition published by Marcelo Melo.


Posted by John Thackara at 08:47 AM | Comments (1)

March 29, 2009

Now just add one more column...


They've installed this impressive new departures board at Paris CDG airport. It lists a good number of the more than one thousand departures from there each day. Now, what it needs next is a right hand column that shows, for every flight, the forcings per passenger of climate through CO2, NOx, and contrail formation. With that extra column in place, I can't help thinking the board would soon start getting smaller again.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:21 PM

April 25, 2008

The fake-space race: Design and the future of travel


My mates at Adobe found some great pix (including this one) to accompany my piece on travel and its substitutes

Posted by John Thackara at 11:50 AM

March 11, 2008

Traveling without moving using zombie processes

I'm running ths story again because the > Pixelache Uni final programme has just been publshed.

* * *

OK, so you know and I know that air travel is simply not sustainable. But we do it anyway because we are hypocrites (I took 78 flights last year) and also because substitutes for mobility, such as videoconferencing, simply don't afford the same quality of interaction. Despite decades of development (the first videophone was launched by IBM in 1964) tele-hugs are simply not the same as the real thing.

But what happens if people like me stop being hypocrites and/or, during some near-future eco-political paroxysm, which I'm sure will come, air travel is banned or curtailed? In that case, we'll have to make to do with mobility substitutes - and find ways to improve the experience.

The reasons why channels such as videoconferencing are so dissatisfying are complex - but the issues are not new. Philosophers have been perplexed by the relationship between body and experience for 2,000 years, and Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote a whole essay about "kissing the picture of one's beloved". Latterly, cognitive scientists such as Andy Clark have explained in some detail the ways that our brain, body, and world "are united in a complex dance of circular causation and extended computational activity. The biological brain is populated by a vast number of hidden 'zombie processes' that underpin the skills and capacities in which successful behaviour depends". These unknown, and possible unknowable aspects of consciousness are also why game designers talk about the "Uncanny Valley" that a player enters, no matter how high the resolution of the interface being used, when starting a game.

Zombie processes will feature in an event we are helping to organise at Pixelache University in March. Our host is Pixelache's Rektor Juha Huuskonen . I am preparing a paper for the event called "The Face to Face Meeting in The Age of Digital Reproduction". (It's 70 years since Walter Benjamin wrote 'The Work Of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproducton' and I will ask whether we might design virtual encounters more effectively if we were look more to iconography, ritual, and the poetic imagination - and less to brute bandwidth). Joining us will be media artist Daniel Peltz, and the son of a pilot and an air stewardess, now design entrepreneur Andreas Zachariah.

Before you start barfing, yes I will fly there. But I'm committed to reduce my flights by 90% within ten years - so for me this subject is serious and practical. Saturday 15 March, Kiasma Theatre, Helsinki. You need to register here.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:24 AM | Comments (8)

February 28, 2008

Coming with the flow

On arrival at Heathrow Airport Terminal 4 a sign says "Welcome To Britain" and you enter...a sleazy gift shop. Now, I understand why: The chief executive of BAA, which runs Heathrow, was promoted to the job from Retail Director. He's now been been sacked. But before we rejoice, consider this: His replacement's last job was running a water company, Severn Trent. What will await us next time we arrive at Heathrow - a sluice?

Posted by John Thackara at 08:23 AM

January 29, 2008

Low entropy Doris


After reading this always-cheerful blog, are you just about ready to sell the hell up and set sail around the world? A friend of ours is selling a beautiful ship, the Doris, that will make someone a fine getaway vehicle. The Doris is berthed in Amsterdam, sleeps up to ten, has a Captain's cabin, and although she is extremely strong working ship, her sails are easy to handle by one person. Doors of Perception is not in the ship broking business - but we do try to serve our readers, and for someone out there of the Silverback persuasion, this could be a great opportunity. If you call the broker, do mention we sent you.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:32 AM

January 15, 2008

Thirteen million lighters and it's still dark out there

A gem from CryptoGram."Surprising nobody, a new study concludes that airport security isn't helping: A team at the Harvard School of Public Health could not find any studies showing whether the time-consuming process of X-raying carry-on luggage prevents hijackings or attacks. They also found no evidence to suggest that making passengers take off their shoes and confiscating small items prevented any incidents." The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) responded that "even without clear evidence of the accuracy of testing, more than 13 million prohibited items were intercepted in one year...most of these illegal items were lighters". CryptoGram's editor Bruce Schneier comments: "the TSA has it completely backwards. The goal isn't to confiscate prohibited items. The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes. When the TSA confiscates millions of lighters from innocent people, it is reacting to non-threats. Now you can argue that this is necessary to make people feel safer, but it's certainly not evidence that people *are* safer".

Posted by John Thackara at 08:59 PM

August 17, 2007

The movement dilemma

Can transport and tourism ever be sustainable? The movement of people and goods around the world consumes vast amounts of matter, energy, space, and time - most of it non-renewable. Could transport intensity be de-coupled from economic progress - and if so, how?

This event in October's series of Dott Debates begins with two keynotes from international speakers. Antony Townsend , research director at the Institute of the Future in Palo Alto, asks: "must we keep on moving?" And Sunil Abraham talks about "open systems as sustainable infrastucture".

These two introductions are followed by a review of Dott 07’s Move Me project which explored the potential to transfrom transportation resource efficiency in one village, Scremerston, in Northumberland.

After the break, the results of three Dott 07 projects - Welcomes , Sustainable Tourism Design Camp and Mapping The Necklace - introduce a discussion of in the North East's strategies for tourism and transport.

The event brings together citizens, policy and tourism professionals, site owners and managers, and designers. Its aims are to start debate about decoupling transport intensity from economic progress; to understand opportunities to transform transportation resource efficiency (eg using ICT networks); and third, to discuss proposals for sustainable tourism solutions

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK, Thursday 18 October. The Dott 07 Debate on the movement dilemma takes place Monday 22 October, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead 10h-17h. Tickets are free. But you absolutely have to reserve your seat by emailing adam.thomas@dott07.com

Posted by John Thackara at 05:42 PM

July 05, 2007

New concept of mobility - in three lines

I was asked by Seung Yoon Lee, at Korean Design Research Institute, for a three line quote on "a new concept of mobility due to ubiquitous technologies". (It's for an upcoming issue of Asian Design Journal).
So I sent this: "Reducing the movement of matter - whether goods, or people - is a main challenge in the transition to sustainability. Technology, in this context, can help us use resources in a radically more efficient way - and by 'resources' I do not just mean matter and energy, but also space, and time." Not bad eh? That's another perpetually half-finished book I can chuck in the bin.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:52 AM

June 23, 2007

Design and sustainable tourism


The next Dott 07 (Designs of the time) Explorers Club meeting on Thursday 14 July, to be held at the Robert Stephenson Centre in Newcastle. Our focus this month is Sustainable Tourism.

In terms of someone's carbon footprint, a single holiday in New Zealand is equivalent to 60 short visits to the North East. But those sixty trips to the region will not be sustainable if they stimulate a wasteful use of finite resources by visitors and their host businesses. This is a real and pressing dilemma. Tourism is fundamental to the North East's Regional Economic Strategy. The region is committed to increasing its share of tourism expenditure in Britain, and to do this by accelerating the rate of investment in tourism facilities, new accommodation, and attractions. How might we re-shape this economic strategy to be consistent with a commitment to sustainabiity? What might sustainable tourism in North East England be like? Our expert speakers are:

Chris Little, who heads the Tourism Development Unit at One North East. The unit is responsible for directing and influencing investment in development of North East England tourism.

Leandro Pisano and Alessandro Esposito are partners in Ufficio Bifolco, a marketing and cultural planning companythat works on ICT strategies for development of rural areas in South Italy. They are producers of two festivals in Southern Italy - Interferenze, and Mediaterra - that bring together nature and technology, tradition and vanguard, past and future, local and global. This unique convergence of sounds, images, landscapes and carnival rites of a rural land, are signals of new ways we might visit and experience new locations.

Beth Davidson is the mapping creative lead on Mapping The Necklace. This ongoing project in Durham asks: Could a public park be more than grass and benches? Durham’s Necklace Park is a 12 mile stretch of spaces – and experiences - linked to the River Wear. You create your own park by mapping tracks, forests, picnic and fishing spots.

Ross Lowrie is a project leader of the Tyne Salmon Trail. A celebration of the river, its heritage, and its increasingly diverse ecosystem, the project explores low-impact ways to improve access to the River Tyne and its plethora of different species.

It's free, but you need to reserve a place with Beckie Darlington: beckie.Darlington@dott07.com

Posted by John Thackara at 09:13 AM

December 03, 2006

Think More, Drive Less

News reaches me from Los Angeles, via Bruce Sterling that, in the corporate imagination of General Motors, "the Hummer could be transformed from the SUV that environmentalists love to hate to an algae-infused, oxygen-exuding buggy that would open up like a flower." (GM's sketch for the "Hummer O2" was named the winner on Thursday of a design contest at the Los Angeles Auto Show that challenged major automakers to design a vehicle with a five-year life span that could be fully recycled).

This, I'm sad to say, is another example of the creative class - in this case, auto designers - fiddling-while-the-biosphere-burns. The fudamental probelm with the car is not that it burns too much of the wrong kind of fuel. The problem is that cars enable, and perpetuate, patterns of land use, transport intensity, and the separation of functions in space and time, that render the whole way we live unsupportable.

Rather than tinkering with symptoms - such as inventing hydrogen-powered vehicles, or turning gas stations into battery stations - the more interesting design task is to re-think the way we use time and space. Rather than enable long-distance patterns of movement, at accelerating speeds, we should add a ton of new functions and value to local patterns of activity so that we no longer need or want to move so much, except on foot or by bike. There's plenty of evidence, after all, that self-propulsion is central to everything from tackling obesity and climate change to creating high quality liveable cities.

In the immortal words of Janine Benyus, "nature does not commute to work" - and neither, at the end of the day, should we.

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

August 14, 2006

Bag free flight

I enjoyed my bag-free (in the cabin) flight from France to London yesterday. Forcibly unencumbered by artefacts, we sauntered lightly to the plane. Once aboard we strolled smoothly to our seats past cheerful cabin crew - a promenade rather than the usual roller-derby. Lacking laptops, we couldn’t invent work. The nosey among us were kept busy looking at the contents of other peoples' clear plastic bags. I hope this new security regime is made permanent.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:07 AM

August 10, 2006

Mobility, death, and progress

How was the traffic on your vacation drive home this year? Any near misses? Twenty thousand citizens are killed in traffic accidents in Europe each year, so you probably saw more than one car crash or its aftermath. For the European Commission, these deaths are a price we must pay for progress. As a de facto marketing agency for the mobility services and equipment sector, the Commission appears to be unaware that a mobility strategy could be based on access - to conveniently-sited services - rather than movement to reach them. The nightmare fact that freight transport has increased by 30 percent in a decade, and will rise another 50 percent by 2020, is reported with apparent satisfaction in its recent review of transport policy. Walking and cycling are not mentioned, at all, in this document. For John Whitelegg“we have to move from an energy/emissions perspective to a wider "total impact" perspective on mobility. After 30 years or more of debate about transport and environmental impacts, we still miss or downplay things like: land take (when land taken for transport infrastructure is lost to food production and biodiversity); fragmentation (a tiny land take (for a road) is a 100% change in character if it physically divides and separates a formerly unified area); landscape noise; and fiscal matters: who determines that spending billions on roads or high speed trains is a good way to allocate resources against competing demands in health care, education, poverty, pensions?" More on this at New Mobility/World Transport Agenda.To subscribe to the mailing list: WorldTransport-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

Posted by John Thackara at 07:35 AM

May 25, 2006

Sublime mobility project


This has my vote for most sublime mobility project of the year. A team of Karachi vehicle decorators has transformed a Melbourne tram to bring the experience of a journey on a W-11 Karachi mini-bus to the streets of Melbourne. Vibrant dancing colour in hand-cut sticker collage, sparkling reflection of sculpted stainless steel panels, and dazzling flashing lights. The tram is complete with conductors from Karachi & Melbourne, the music that you would hear on the Karachi W-11, and a special edition of collectable tickets that feature popular Urdu poetry seen on the side of buses and trucks in Karachi. Since the mid 1990’s, Mick Douglas has led a project called Tramjatra in which tramways communities and artists of Melbourne & Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) have explored relationships between their cities through the medium of tramways – a transportation mode shared from their British imperial past. After a decade of artful interventions there's now a Tramjatra book. It unfolds a story of friendship, dialogue and imagination, and the potential of tramways to connect people together in their differences.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:23 AM

April 01, 2006


I was not able to attend the car share service masterclass that ends today in Monaco - but the site describes an encouragingly diverse group of schemes. They're mainly European, and the US has further to go. Outside my hotel here in DC, two absolutely enormous SUVs are parked in front and behind the parking bay for zipcar. The Zipcar sedan looks David-like next to the SUV Goliaths - but at least it's here. The dinosaurs, and their pea-brained owners, should be worried.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:23 PM

February 28, 2006

Carsharing masterclass

The growth in carsharing is accelerating. Up to 600 cities now have carsharing schemes. But most of these schemes have emerged bottom-up; few cities have thought strategically about their city’s relationship with this new transportation mode. Even the best cities improvise as they go along: They help in a piecemeal way with parking, or sometimes subsidy; sometimes they help link carsharing to other transport systems. But it's not systematic, and it's not integrated. This is where the forthcoming Monaco Cities Carsharing Implementation Workshops come in. Organised by New Mobility,they will connect officials from cities and public agencies with the best car sharing schemes in Europe. Your help is requested in identifying the people in your country who might wish to attend. In France, for example, a group called GART brings together all the city officials responsible for transport matters across the country. There is also a national mayors association. Are there similar networks where you live? Please find out, and let them know about the event. 31 March to 2 April, Grimaldi Forum, Monaco.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:07 AM

February 19, 2006

Longer? smarter? stronger?

Transhumanists believe in efforts by human beings to "reshape their inherited physical, cognitive and emotional identities by extending lifespan and enhancing human capacities". I admit to a prejudice that transhumanists share this enthusiasm because they are all bald, bearded, and barking. But not all transhumanists are death-fearing loony-tunes and word reaches me from Lucy Kimbell of a seriously heavyweight event called "Tomorrow's People: The Challenges of Technologies for Life Extension and Enhancement". Speakers will discuss the prospects for human beings to live longer, smarter, stronger and happier lives. The closing plenary should be entertaining: it features techno-uber-optimist Peter Schwarz from the Global Business Network, and Lord Rees of Ludlow who studies the threats posed by asteroid impact, environmental degradation, global warming, nuclear war, and unstoppable pandemics. The organizers are especially keen for artists and designers to participate if their work investigates, and invents, the future - if we have one. Said Business School, Oxford 14-17 March 2006.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:27 PM

February 17, 2006

Walking & mapping across continents

The subject of car-free mobility sounds necessary but unappealing. But news reaches me of a sublime-sounding event called The Walking Project. It's an exploration, on foot, of desire lines - the paths made by people who walk across fields in South Africa - and across vacant lots in Detroit. Collaboratively developed with US and South Africa-based artists during a series of residencies in Detroit and KwaZulu-Natal, many of the participants created poems and stories and renditions of walking songs. The project "examines how changing patterns of movement can alter attitudes and perceptions; how people make their own paths; and the influences of culture, geography, language, economics and love, The Walking Project asks how and why people’s paths cross and how taking a different path might alter a life".

Posted by John Thackara at 08:05 AM | Comments (1)

February 06, 2006

From my car to scalar

To a car company, replacing the chrome wing mirror on an SUV with a carbon fibre one is a step towards sustainable transportation. To a radical ecologist, all motorised movement is unsustainable. So when is transportation sustainable, and when is it not? Eric Britton, an expert on the subject, had the good idea of posting a text at Wikipedia which will evolve as a shared description, if not definition, of the concept. In a new mobility discussion group Chris Bradshaw emphasizes that "light" transport systems are not, per se, sustainable - only less unsustainable than commuting by car. "Light rail supports far-flung suburbs, while street cars support, well, street-car suburbs" says Bradshaw; "likewise, a smaller, more efficient, or alternative-fuel vehicle is only less unsustainable than another private vehicle. It will still take as much space on the road and in parking lots, it will still threaten the life and limb of others, it will still create noise, and it still will require lots of energy and resources to manufacture, transport to a dealer, and dispose of when its life ends". It is an important part of sustainable transport and communities, says Bradshaw, to respect what he calls the scalar hierarchy, in which the trips taken most frequently are short enough to be made by walking (even if pulling a small cart), while the next more frequent trips require a bike or street car, and so on. "If one adheres to this then there are so few trips to be made by car that owning one is foolish".

Posted by John Thackara at 11:38 AM

September 06, 2005

Trans-Siberian mobicast

If mobility is a new place, then this event is the place to be. Capturing the Moving Mind is a conference on board the Trans-Siberian train. It's about new forms of movement and control, war and economy, in the current situation. An opening discussion of the blurring borderlines between art, economy and politics takes place at Kurvi tomorrow. After that, m-cult and Kiasma have organised web documentation of the event as it moves from Helsinki through Moscow and Novosibirsk to its destination in Beijing. 50 international researchers, artists and activists participating in the mobile conference will form a mobile production unit aboard the train. For the audiovisual streams, Adam Hyde and Luka Princic have developed a 'mobicasting' platform which enables mobile transmission of material on the web from tomorrow (September 7).There will also be a moving radio station on the train

Posted by John Thackara at 09:55 AM

August 13, 2005

Always on, not

We're taking a break. See you back here Monday 22 August.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:19 PM

July 25, 2005

If the terrorists don't get you your socks will

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

Posted by John Thackara at 09:12 AM

April 29, 2005

The true costs of mobility

As a system, mobility is locked into a mode of perpetual growth in a world whose carrying capacity is limited. The status quo policy—“predict and provide”—promises more travel (of people and goods), forever, but using new technologies and integrated systems to make mobility more efficient. A second design strategy is mobility substitution—doing things at a distance that we would otherwise move to do. But mobility substitution is an added extra, not a viable alternative, to mainstream mobility. The only viable design option is to design away the need to move and foster new time-space relations: from distance to duration, from faster to closer.And that will oipen when we start paying the true costs of moving around by whatever means. The latest edition of World Transport Policy & Practice an excellent quarterly journal edited by Professor John Whitelegg, which is just out, includes a salutary "Sustainability risk analysis of the Low Cost Airline sector". Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the true cost of that country's road and rail system is spelled out in a report published today by the Ministry of Transport.The main findings of the study are: That the charges paid by road and rail users do not cover the costs of those networks, and that some costs are not paid by anyone at all; Rail users pay a higher proportion of their costs than road users; Users of urban local roads pay a lower proportion of costs than users of rural roads; and, in many cases the costs of remedying a problem (eg congestion) are much lower than the cost of the problem itself.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:04 PM

December 17, 2004

The information society and land take

Land is a finite resource but we consume it as if it were limitless - especially for mobility. John Whitelegg, a transport ecologist, reports that in Switzerland, the land allocation for road transport is 113 m2 per person - and for all other living purposes (houses/gardens and yards) it's 20-25 m2 per person. The knowledge economy, far from reducing our consumption of land, accelerates it: the spread of car parking around universities, hospitals and airports stimulate higher levels of car commuting, demands for more road space, and hence land take."Cars are only used for 2.8% of the time and then often by one person; the rest of the time they are parked somewhere doing nothing. Allocating land to such inefficient uses is bad value for money and bad prioritisation given the many pressures on land" says Whitelegg. John Whitelegg. "Transport and Land Take". A report for Council for the Preservation of Rural England.Eco-Logica. 1994 http://www.eco-logica.co.uk/reports.html

Posted by John Thackara at 08:38 AM | Comments (1)