January 12, 2006

Bottles half-full

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

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

January 02, 2006

Human sciences and design

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

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

December 08, 2005

Creativity in business

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

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

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

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

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

The Cox Review also emphasizes public sector procurement. British public services spend around Ł125 billion each year (getting on for 200 billion euros) on goods and services. For Cox, "all of the major problems facing society today – such as healthcare, education, security, transport infrastructure, or sustainability – require a high degree of innovation if they are to be addressed effectively". The public sector should be an intelligent and demanding buyer of goods and services, not simply looking for long-proven products and yesterday’s solutions at the lowest prices.

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

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

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

The Cox Review has one weakness, which is easily remedied. This is a proposal for no fewer than six showcase buildings in different parts of the UK that would “create greater visibility for the UK’s creative capabilities” and be a hub for creative industry gatherings.These shiny edifices would enable networking between them and regional SMEs, the report argues. Running costs for a London centre alone would be “around Ł4.6 million”, but the centres “should become largely self-sustaining” with income from letting, retail activities, grant, and sponsorship.

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

If if the prominence given to glossy photographs of the project is any guide, Cox's team was unduly impressed by Singapore’s Ł158 million Fusionopolis creative centre. Fusionopolis, which is due to open in June 2007, is a massive development - dedicated, says its brochure, to “fostering knowledge transfer and providing a vibrant work-live-work-play environment”. For me, at the end of the day, Fusionopolis is a government-subsidised real-estate project. Fusionopolis is the latest in a series of grandiose Singapore projects (others include Biopolis (biotech) and a Technopolis) that have been backed by billions of dollars of government money. They look futuristic, but these projects are based on an old-fashioned, technology-focused, and therefore unsustainable, understanding of innovation. Singapore bureaucrats are now promoting “Global Entrepolis”, the concept of Singapore as an entire city-state dedicated to, and filled with, high-tech entrepreneurs. This last brainwave, said one local critic, “confirms Singapore’s position as a ‘Polis State’ “.

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

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

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

September 05, 2005

The Internet of Oz

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

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

August 31, 2005

Toys for the boys?

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

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

August 30, 2005

Cooperative multiplatform warfare

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

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

August 26, 2005

X-ray ayes

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

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

July 25, 2005

If the terrorists don't get you your socks will

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

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

July 12, 2005

Back to normal?

Is this true? Gary Yonge reports from New York in today's Guardian that US newspapers are warning of threats to America from 'Londonistan'. "Articles on front pages of newspapers across the country describe the UK as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism that threatens global security" writes Yonge; (the newspapers report that) London has become a "feeding ground for hate" and a "crossroads for would-be terrorists" where Muslims exploit civil liberties to "openly preach jihad". I'm not going to get het up about this until I hear from someone else that it's a true reflection of US coverage. For now, I urge US readers here to read and pass around one of the most moving stories of the London bomings, yesterday's release of photographs of the missing. One of those missing, 20 year-old Shahara Akther Islam, is a young Briton from the East End of London, and a devout Muslim. The other faces represent the extraordinary variety of creed and colour that makes London such a great city. To me, as a wandering Brit, the real threat to civilisation comes not from radical muslims but from radical consumerism. Another UK story today is headlined "Bombs keep shoppers away"."The British Retail Consortium predicted ÂŁ26m of losses since the bombs hit"the story intones gravely. "One retail analyst said the lower footfall, particularly on the day the bombs exploded, was not as bad as he had expected". Retail - what a charming industry. Not.

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

July 11, 2005

Designers on the breadline

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

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

June 26, 2005

What shall we call this kind of behaviour? Patrochuting?

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

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

June 07, 2005

Of politics and Pimms

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

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

May 15, 2005

Vote for Reverend Billy

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

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

March 15, 2005

How digital rights management will harm the developing world

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

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

February 13, 2005

Little Boy: look at me!

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

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

February 11, 2005

Markets for "slivers of time"

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

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

February 09, 2005

On 'think and do tanks'

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

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

January 19, 2005

Why European IT research is failing

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

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

January 07, 2005

How to play the innovation game + APOLOGY

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

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

January 03, 2005

Technology, safety, community

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

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

December 14, 2004

Is the creative class driving people to suicide?

I was once involved in a project called Presence in which we were given quite a lot of EU money to investigate how the social needs of elderly people might be met by the Internet. One of our test sites was a small village in Italy, called Peccioli. When our design team first visited the village they located some elderly people and told them proudly: 'we've come to help you with the Internet'. And the elderly people said: piss off; we do not need your patronising help, you designers you. Or words to that effect. We learned that elderly people in Italy are less socially isolated, and feel less in need of added-on connectivity, than almost anywhere else in Europe - apart from Greece and Portugal.

I was reminded of the Peccioli episode when reading Europe In The Creative Age One of its highlights is a league table of creative economies in Sweden comes top, followed by USA, Finland, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium. What caught my eye were the league table's losers. Italy and Portugal, with less than 15 percent of their workforce in the Creative Class, are 'performing below the norm'; Greece, too (along with Spain and Austria) 'appears to be in a difficult position'.

Well, that depends on what you measure. I was reminded, when reading Europe In The Creative Age, of another league table published in September on the occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day. Now the two league tables do not match each other one-to-one but, on paper at least, suicide rates are highest where the creative industries are strongest. Suicide rates are higher, and the creative industries are stronger, in North America than in Latin America, and in northern European countries compared to southern ones. Industrialized countries tend to have a higher suicide rate, and much stronger creative industries, than poor, developing countries. India's suicide rate, for example, is half the global average - but her public relations industry is pitifully small.

Is there a connection? Where the creative industries are strongest, citizens do seem to be miserable as hell. As I reported a few days ago (see my story of 9 December, below) more than eight out of ten Americans believe that society's priorities are 'out of whack'; 93 percent agree that Americans are too focused on working and making money, and not enough on family and community; more than 8 in 10 say they would be more satisfied with life if they just had less stress; and 95 percent agree that today's youth are too focused on buying and consuming.

Tom Bentley, in his introduction to Europe In The Creative Age, writes that the rise of the creative class 'goes to the heart of what a shift to a new economy really means'. Surely the opposite is the case. The activities lumped together as creative industries are characterised by a Fordist, point-to-mass, one-to-many model of production: advertising, architecture, crafts, design, designer fashion, public relations, marketing, film and video, interactive leisure software, music, performing arts, publishing, and so on.

According to the British Council, in Nurturing the Creative Economy, the Creative Industries are 'those that have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent, and that have a potential for wealth creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property'.

The words that jump out at me here - Individual, Wealth Creation, Property - do not exactly smack of social solidarity.

Some will argue that I'm getting cause and effect mixed up. The authors of Europe In The Creative Age, for example, are good guys at heart: they devote considerable space to the proposition that tolerance is a necessary condition for competitive advantage. And another British think-tank, Comedia, argues that there is now 'substantial evidence that cultural activities help engender social and human capital, transform organizational capacity to handle and respond to change, and can strengthen social cohesion'.

That proposition may well be true. And it's not as if I'm arguing that culture or creativity are a bad thing. The problem is that policy makers and planners are interpreting the Creative Class / Creative Industries concepts in weird ways. I recently saw a map from TNO on which were plotted, ward-by-ward, the number of creative individuals in Amsterdam. Holland's national technology research organization has discovered that there are 223 artists in Zaanstad, and that 20.9 percent of the workforce in Hilversum is a member of the creative class. TNO does not mention that Hilversum is where the Big Brother format was invented and, all over Europe, city planners are drawing lines round derelict areas and labeling them creativity districts.

I don't suggest that rise of the creative class drives people to suicide. What I do suggest is that this class is an integral part, if not the driver, of a consumer culture that makes most people pretty damn miserable. And many of the people who determine where resources are to go have got the wrong end of the stick.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:24 PM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2000

Rules of engagement between design and new technology

These principles were first formulated for my keynote at the CHI conference, The Hague, 2000

1] We cherish the fact that people are innately curious, playful, and creative. This is one reason technology is not going to go away: it’s too much fun.

2] We will deliver value to people – not deliver people to systems. We will give priority to human agency, and will not treat humans as a ‘factor’ in some bigger picture.

3] We will not presume to design your experiences for you – but we will do so with you, if asked.

4] We do not believe in ‘idiot-proof’ technology – because we are not idiots, and neither are you. We will use language with care, and will look for less patronising words than ‘user’ and ‘consumer’.

5] We will focus on services, not on things. We will not flood the world with pointless devices.

6] We believe that ‘content’ is something you do – not something you are given.

7] We will consider material end energy flows in all the systems we design. We will think about the consequences of technology before we act, not after.

8] We will not pretend things are simple, when they are complex. We value the fact that by acting inside a system, you will probably improve it.

9] We believe that place matters, and we will look after it.

10] We believe that speed and time matter, too – but that sometimes you need more, and sometimes you need less. We will not fill up all time with content.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:13 PM | Comments (0)