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Flow: from the new economy to the “now economy”

A preview of the Doors 7 conference written for Form magazine in Germany.
Chris Pacione did not set out to be the designer of a wireless service. On the contrary: the co-founder of BodyMedia took a communication design course at an engineering school – Carnegie Mellon University – and fully expected to become a product designer “But as soon as we started BodyMedia” says Pacione, ” it became clear that our object was only one part of a bigger picture. We had to become service designers – and after that, business model designers – in order to survive”.
BodyMedia’s product is a hybrid of hard and soft features. What you see on Pacione’s arm is a wearable computer, with wireless capability. But that object is just one part of the story. The company develops and sells wearable body monitors and software that collects, stores, analyses and displays continuous and accurate physiological and lifestyle data, such as energy expenditure (calories burned), level of activity, sleep states, and other important physiological data – anytime, anywhere. A website shows you charts that compare your body’s performance to average or ideal charts, thus enabling you to see at a glance if you are taking enough exercise, sleeping too much, or eating too many calories. As well as object design – the industrial design of the object on your arm, its shape, weight, materials, engineering and so on – Pacione and his colleagues had to design the appearance and organization of information on the website. They also had to design the ways people would buy the product, and pay for it; they have had to adjust the company’s business model continuously. At first they thought consumers might obtain the product free-of-charge, and pay for a “wellness monitoring service” – in much the way that we sometimes get a satellite dish, or TV set-top box, for free, and pay for programmes by a monthly subscription. But the marketing costs of that business model were too high, so BodyMedia switched to selling the product to sportsmen and women as a high-tech training aid. This did not work – the unit price was too high – so, now, BodyMedia sells its hybrid product-and-service to insurance companies and health-care providers in a business-to-business model. Says Pacione, “we never stop designing the object, the way it’s used, the way the information is presented, and the way people pay for it”.
Service and flow

BodyMedia’s story is paradigmatic of the way traditional ‘thing’ design is evolving into a complex hybrid called service and flow design. We are in a transition from an economy of transactions – selling and buying things – to what Paul Hawken in Natural Capitalism calls “an ecology of relationships and contexts”. Advanced companies such as Bodymedia are focusing on the innovation of new services, and new business models, rather than on new technology by itself. As Hawken explains it, a service and flow economy is based on a shift from the acquisition of goods as a measure of affluence to “the continuous receipt of quality, utility, and performance that promotes well-being”.
The context and infrastructure for the emerging service and flow economy are provided by a new technological paradigm, pervasive computing. Pervasive computing (it is also known as ubiquitous computing; embedded computing; the disappearing computer, things that think, things that link, connected appliances, smartifacts, or ambient intelligence) describes the ways we are suffusing the world with not just with sensors, but also with responsive smart materials and actuators. There are already hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet, and most of these chips will soon talk to each other. These chips will find their way into most of the objects that surround us – buildings, airplanes, doors, door handles, clothing – even our bodies. And they will speak in languages such as Bluetooth. (Bluetooth was the nickname of a Danish king called Harald who, through his impressive communication skills, united Norway and Denmark in the 10th century; an industry consortium named its wireless standard Bluetooth because it allows users to unite through communication).
The military is driving many developments in the use of sensors, tags, and remote monitoring in the physical world. John Gage of Sun Microsystems anticipates that we will soon sprinkle “smart dust” over battlefields – clouds of tiny wireless sensors, thermometers, miniature microphones, electronic noses, location detectors that will provide information about the physical world, and the people crossing it, to battlefield commanders. One company, Graviton, builds ever-cheaper sensors using MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) – tiny sensors that convert analogue data about anything physical – pressure, light, gas – into bits and bytes, which they communicate wirelessly to a network. Another company, WhereNet, has developed a system of matchbox-sized wireless tags and readers that allow objects to be located within about 3m making it much easier to keep track of them. (It is reported in The Economist that American Airlines has installed the system in its huge cargo facility at Dallas Fort Worth).
Soon, radio frequency identification tags (RF Tags) will replace today’s ubiquitous barcodes; groceries, for example, will no longer have to be scanned in individually. With 60,000 product lines in an average US supermarket, one quickly sees why the global market for such sensors is predicted to reach $50 billion in 2008 (according to Intechno Consulting in Basle, Switzerland).
These sensors will generate a phenomenal amount of data, “raising the spectre”, as The Economist, said recently,” of a new level of information overload”. Researchers are therefore developing novel information architectures, such as an operating system for smart dust that lets sensors and actuators form wireless networks without human intervention. Jakub Wejchert, who manages the EU’s Disappearing Computer programme, says that such self-organizing technology might make another dream come true: sensors will combine their skills with effectors, tiny devices that can manipulate matter, making it possible to create ‘smartifacts’ – smart materials and intelligent artefacts. http://www.disappearing-computer.net
Unfrozen music

Inspired by Goethe’s comment that “architecture is frozen music”, the writer Malcom McCullough has describes then ten steps by which pervasive or ubiquitous computing begins to “melt” traditional buildings and products: “1 sites and devices are embedded with microprocessors; 2 sensors pick up what is going on; 3 communication links form ad hoc networks of devices; 4 tags identify actors; 5 actuators close the loop; 6 controls make it interactive; 7 display spreads out; 8 spatial information becomes available, useful, and necessary; 9 agents act; 10 tuning overcomes rigidity”. Pervasive computing thereby confronts us with a design dilemma. We are filling our world with complex technical systems – on top of the natural systems that were already here, and social/cultural ones that evolved over thousands of years – without thinking much, if at all, about the consequences.
That’s why the concept of service and flow is so timely: it provides us with the context and infrastructure for a service and flow economy. Service and flow among a crop of new business metaphors that all describe a shift from fixity to fluidity – in business processes, as in products. As Ludwig Siegele explained in The Economist, “companies are wiring up digital nervous systems that connect together everything involved in their operations – IT systems, factories and employees, as well as suppliers, customers, and products”. In processes described dryly as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Enterprise Resource Management (ERM) or Supply Chain Integration (SCI), companies aspire to monitor everything important in “real-time”. Companies are trying, says Siegele, “to collect data from any point In space or time where a customer ‘touches’ a company – such as a store, a call centre or a website – and develop “dashboards”, that will measure key indicators, compare their performance against goals, and alert managers if a deviation becomes large enough to warrant action”. Some of the world’s biggest companies want to convert their worldwide information flows into a vast spread-sheet creating, not a new economy but a “now economy”.
Design agendas for flow

Two design issues are common both to a small start-up like BodyMedia, and to a giant multinational like GE: first, the necessity to design ways to perceive flows; and secondly, the need to move from a product-based, to a continuous model of innovation.
Firstly, in order to do things differently, we need to see things differently. We need to re-connect with the systems and processes on which we depend. We need to understand them, in order to look after them.
Many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have described immune systems in the body, and among communities. Network designers have mapped communication flows between continents, and in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. So far, these representations have been used, by specialists, as objects of research ˆ not as the basis for real-time design. That is now changing. Real-time representations are becoming viable design tools.
Representations of energy flows, for example, are now achievable. And a priority. All our design processes should aspire to reduce the ecological footprint of a city. Man and nature share the same resources for building and living. An ecological approach will drastically reduce construction energy and materials costs, and allow most buildings in use to export energy rather than consume it. Natural ecosystems have complex biological structures: they recycle their materials, permit change and adaptation, and make efficient use of ambient energy. Real-time representations of energy performance can help us move closer to that model in the artificial world.
I emphasize that I am not talking about simulations, here, but about real-time representations. We should also visualize connectivity. Many of us here, I am sure, enjoy charts that map the number of people connected to the internet, or the flows of bits from one continent to another. They make really sexy infographics. But I am not just talking about information as spectacle, or as porn. An active intervention in the architecture of connectivity means mapping communication flows in order to optimise them. We need to understand overlapping webs of suppliers, customers, competitors, adults, and children ˆ to identify communication blockages and then to fix the ‘plumbing’ where flows don’t work.
We need dashboards for cities and buildings, not just for big companies. We need to re-connect with the systems and processes on which we depend. We need to understand them, in order to look after them. Many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have described immune systems in the body, and among communities. Network designers have mapped communication flows between continents, and in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. So far, these representations have been used, by specialists, as objects of research not as the basis for real-time design. That is now changing. Real-time representations are becoming viable design tools.
We know, for example, that buildings consume a lot of energy – but we don’t ‘see’ heat flying out of the windows. If we did, our behaviour would probably change. Designing these experiences will not be easy. Systems are, by their nature, invisible, and we lack evocative metaphors or mental models to help us make sense of the bigger picture. But many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times: physicists have illustrated quarks; biologists have mapped the genome; doctors have described immune systems in the body; network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. Representations of energy flows, for example, are now achievable. And a priority. All our design processes should aspire to reduce the ecological footprint of a city. Man and nature share the same resources for building and living. An ecological approach will drastically reduce construction energy and materials costs, and allow most buildings in use to export energy rather than consume it. Real-time representations of energy performance can help us use buildings and places in new and more sustainable (and cheaper) ways.
These process representations need where possible to be visceral. The philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty, an early critic of blueprint thinking in design, said that we need to move “beyond high altitude thinking… towards a closer engagement with the world made flesh”. And Luis Fernandez-Galiano, in his remarkable book Fire and memory, argues that we need “to shift our perceptions from the eye to the skin – to develop not just an understanding but a feeling of how complex urban flows and processes work”. Architects are not famous for being in touch with their feelings, so I do not anticipate fast progress on this particular front. “The role of design in these places becomes making visible that which is invisible. – creating seismographs, ways of reading the flowing surface realities of both digital and analogue data. Ways of reading them, as they will surely read us”, says the writer Rob van Kranenburg.
Sense and respond

The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside – it is to enable action. The second challenge for design in the space of flows, therefore, is the transition from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. We need to shift from a concern with objects and appearances, towards a focus on enhanced perceptions of complex processes – and their continuous optimisation.
We need to think of the world as a verb, not as a noun. Natural, human and industrial systems are all around us. They are not below, outside, or above us. “As computational processes disappear into the background, into everyday objects, both the real and the subject become contested”, says the writer Rob van Brandenburg; “the environment becomes the interface”. Products of a company like Netscape evolve continuously as thousands of users interact with its designers on a daily basis. We can learn a lot in this context from the most advanced software designers, who call themselves ‘extreme programmers’. Extreme programmers have come to value individuals, and interactions among them, over abstract processes and tools. These principles are the basis of a new movement in software called The Agile Alliance. The Agile Alliance is not anti-methodology but, as their website explains, they want to restore credibility to the word methodology. “We want to restore a balance. We embrace modelling, but not in order to file some diagram in a dusty corporate repository. We embrace documentation, but not hundreds of pages of never-maintained and rarely used tomes. We plan, but recognize the limits of planning in a turbulent environment”.
As designers, too, our role needs to evolve from shaping, to steering – from being the ‘authors’ of a finished work, into facilitators who help people act more intelligently, in a more design-minded way, in the systems they live in. This transition from designing for people, to designing with people, will not be easy. Systems and processes, services and flows, never stop changing – so neither can design. Anyone using a system – responding to it, interacting with it, feeding back into it – changes it. Complex technical systems – be they physical, or virtual, or both – are shaped, continuously, by all the people who use them. In “the world as a verb”, it won’t work to treat people as users, or consumers or viewers. We need to think of people – of ourselves – as actors.
Peter Bogh Andersen, an interaction design researcher at the University of Aalborg, compares interacting with dynamic environments to navigating a ship, and gives maritime instrumentation as an example.” When I started teaching human-computer interaction in the 1980s,” he recalls, “the ideal was that the user should be in control of the system. The system should not act unless the user asked it to do so. On process control, however, the situation is quite different. Here, physical processes are running independently of the user whose task is partially to control them. The art of navigation is similar: it is to pit the controllable forces – rudder, propeller – against the uncontrollable ones to achieve ones purpose”. Andersen describes as “an adversary”, the sea and the wind, that thwarts your intentions, and says you have to be skilful and smart to win the battle. “In such areas, design guidelines that assume an essentially passive system are no longer valid, and new ones must be formulated”. This raises three design issues: First, how can we support the changing information needs that occur during a voyage? Second, how to present the basic conflict, between the controllable and uncontrollable, in a clear way? And third, how can we make the ship system understandable so that the proud old maritime tradition of self-reliance can live on in the electronic world?” As designers, our role in society is evolving from shaping, to steering; from being the authors‚ of a finished work, into facilitators who help people act more intelligently, in a more design-minded way, in the systems they live in.
Our business models in design also have to change. The idea of a self-contained design project, or of ‘signing off’, when a design is finished, makes no sense in a world whose systems don’t stop changing. The project-based model found throughout the design world today is like water company that delivers a bucket of water to your door and pronounces its mission accomplished. Or think of your own website: it needs attention constantly, like a child, or a garden. We need to evolve new business models for design as we transition from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. Not as manufacturing process that delivers finished products. One scenario is service contracts, such as those used by big management consultancy firms.

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