Wikinomics vs Getting Real

Don Tapscott’s new book Wikinomcs gallops along at a heady pace. “The knowledge, resources, and computing power of billions of people are self-organising into a massive new collective force”, it gushes. This marvelous news is tempered by the suspicion that either I, or the Web 2.0 world, is afflicted by a severe reality deficit. Wikinomics promises us an internet-powered business utopia, but the words climate change, peak oil, and catabolic collapse, are notable for their utter absence from the book. Tapscott is the finest tech booster of our age, but I can’t help feeling the name of his company, New Paradigm, is a misnomer. Although, as Bruce Nussbaum comments this week, companies are demanding that their managers be more creative , surely they should be creative with their eyes open? For me, a better text than Wiknomics for CEOs is John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia . “The pursuit of utopia must be replaced by an attempt to cope with reality” writes Gray. Warning that “an irrational faith in the future is encrypted into contemporary life”, the laugh-a-minute philosopher recommends a diet of Spinoza and Tao-ism for those whose new year resolution is: Get Real.

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The big chill

Shopping for a snack in central London yesterday evening I counted an extraordinary 78 metres (256 feet) of chiller cabinets in one small central London branch of Marks and Spencer.
Marks and Spencer have made a laudable commitment to make all it UK and Irish operations carbon neutral within five years. “We’ll maximise our use of renewable energy and only use offsetting as a last resort” pledges the firm in its Plan A. In Plan A, M&S is committed to act on waste, raw materials, healthy eating, and fair trade. For example it has banned white veal and calves liver from its shelves, and is playing a leading role in an industry consortium called WRAP.
But M&S’s Plan A has a huge, glaring omission: refrigeration. More than 50 percent of food in developed countries is retailed under refrigerated conditions – a factor due is large part to the open display cabinets of the kind I paced-out in Notting Hill yesterday. As a consequence, food retailers waste insane amounts of energy: a single open-fronted freezer costs 15,000 pounds (22,000 euros) per year to run in energy bills alone – and that does not include the embergy (embodied energy) involved in each unit’s manufacture. Unchecked, air conditioning units and chiller cabinets will cause hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere in the next 50 years.
Off course, M&S may reply, if food were not refrigerated, a good proportion of it would rot or spoil. Up to 40 percent of fruit is lost post-harvest in some food systems. Such a loss of produce represents a waste of energy on its own account, since wasted food embodies the energy used in its production, processing and transport. Nonetheless, as things stand today, it looks as if M&S is resigned not to reduce, but to offset, the massive energy emissons from its supply, storage and retail operations when its five year deadline for Plan A expires.
The alternative would be for M&S to change its business model to one of shopless shopping, and close down most of its retail outlets. And why not? Refrigerated trucks, warehouses, and high street stores, are expensive and wasteful steps, and therefore profit-reducing costs, in the journey from farm to table. M&S is well-placed to become the radically de-centralised distribution and quality assurance platform that all towns and cities need to relocalise their food systems.

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Tools for survival

Imagine that you have the attention and presence of 80,000 designers and architects. Which five tools, business models, platforms, or applications, would you badly want them to learn about – and use? Tools for Survival is such an opportunity. The event and encounter, which Doors is directing for the St Etienne Design Biennial, takes place in November. We have a 5,000 square metre (50,000 square feet) shed to fill with tools and people – and hope you will help us do so. My idea is to arrange the whole space as a kind of caravanserai of informal stalls. Each stall, or carpet, will feature a tool, and people discussing its use. Live projects, in which communities from the region explore ways to use these tools, will run throughout the event. But Tools for Survival is not about green consumerism: Its focus is on platforms, models, base tools and system components – not discrete end-of-pipe products. A tool, in this context, can be a product, system. model, book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is ready to be used now (or will be available for use soon). Each tool will probably entail a degree of social and collaborative use. The main zones will be grouped around the themes of food, water, energy, shelter, mobility, monitoring, and designing. The look-and-feel of the event will be more Bladerunner than Little House on the Prarie. That’s because most people will stlll live in cities, not in cutesy little homesteads, as the going gets….different. Right now, please just note the dates: the Biennial opens on 12 November and runs for two weeks. Over the coming period we will organise partnerships with other organizations, including a network of design schools. And we’ll soon start a blog/wiki as a public domain place to assemble and select your suggested tools.
COMMENT from Andrew Otwell (
“Be careful not to turn this into just a trade show, though. The appearance of endless choice between models, gadgets, material, or whatever is going to be overwhelming. Would it be possible to reduce this down to “five tools, business models, platforms, or applications” as you say at the beginning? I think it would be great if everyone could walk out of the event understanding Five Great Tools and how to apply them in various contexts.
“The mechanical age was founded, in a sense, upon the “simple machines”: the pulley, lever, wheel, screw, inclined plane, and wedge. What is the set of “simple machines” of the next age?”

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No new lists!

My new year’s resolution is to stop writing sustainability to-do lists. I’m supposed to be an expert, but it still gives me a headache trying to keep track of: the Triple Bottom Line; the Three Main Components (and Four System Conditions) of The Natural Step; the Five Capitals Model promoted by the Forum for the Future (along with its Twelve Features of a Sustainable Society); One Planet Living’s Ten Guiding Principles; the Ten Principles for Sustainable City Governance at the heart of the Copenhagen Agenda; the World Wildlife Fund’s Three Forms of Solidarity; Peter Senge’s Four Basic Shifts; the Framework of Eight Doorways of the Sustainable Schools Network; and the ten Hannover Principles promulgated by Bill McDonough. I’m as guilty as the rest, having cobbled together Six Design Frameworks as the conclusion to my book, In the Bubble. There are doubtless other important to-do lists out there that I’ve missed. But can we please agree: enough already?

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Of doomers and bottle fillers

In Sao Paulo before Christmas someone referred to me as a “doomer.” I had not heard the word before, but was told that it describes sad, train-spotter-like people who can’t stop talking about peak oil, climate change, the instability of financial markets, the impending food crisis, and what John Michael Greer calls the “catabolic collapse” of industrial civilisation. Now it’s true that plenty of people out there are unhealthily thrilled by the prospect of apocalypse. Their number includes, or so we are told, George W Bush. But you don’t have to be an End-Days nut to conclude that we are headed for what one might call, to put it mildly, a discontinuity. If you look under the hood, the life-support systems of industrial civilisation are coughing and spluttering alarmingly. Even mainstream politicians, who hate being associated with bad news, are promising rough times ahead. But I reject the label “doomer”. The word implies that, faced with these scary prospects, we have to choose either to join a cult, or head for the hills with a truckload of guns and baked beans. As a bottle-half-full kind of guy, I’m headed for a third space – between despair and flight – where a lot of creative and collaborative work needs to be done, much of it involving design. This newsletter – and Doors of Perception projects – will focus on those kind of activities during 2008.

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Eco Design Challenge (Schools’ sustainability competition, North East England, 2006-2007)

In Dott07’s Eco Design Challenge, more than fifteen thousand school students used custom–designed calculators to measure their school’s eco-footprint. They then ran projects to design lighter alternatives to the systems (food, water, transport, energy and waste) operating in their school. Many schools, with some modest help from Dott, invited professional designers in to help with these second phase projects.
The Dott07 campaign involved 80 schools; the winning school went on to present its project to parliamantarians in London.

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High entropy notions of quality

Last week I gave this talk at a seminar in Milan called Art For Business.
“On my way to this conference on art and business, two Erasmus University business school students (a Russian and a Dane) came to meet me in Amsterdam. They came from “Team Aesthetics” . We talked of Aesthetics, Innovation, Complexity, Meaning, Value. They asked me: “Is there a market at the intersection of aesthetics and business?”
Now there’s a question. Meeting these young MBAs triggered me to give them a warning. When the economy is booming, aor expanding like a bubble, like now, the minds of business will indeed turn to higher things – such as aesthetics. But the second the going gets tough, these elevated concerns will go straight out of the window.
One day I will write the story of my Bubble Economy years in Japan. Suffice to say here that, in January 1991, I expected to be incredibly rich by Christmas. I had invented a form of consultrancy that I called “cultural engineering” and some huge projects with prestigious Japanese partners were ready to be signed.
By April 1991, I pretty much went bankrupt when the bubble ecomnomy bust and every last one of my exotic cultural projects was put on hold. They were never re-started. Aesthetics, I learned, is a fair weather market.
And it’s going to get tough again. Unimaginably tough. Think of climate change. Resource depletion. Catabolic collapse. The global money system. Unsustainable food systems. Each of these is bad on its own. When they start to interact with each other….well….
Is there any point in even considering the connection between aesthetics and business at such a time?
The answer is yes. There is a connection, indeed a crucal one. There is a crucial aesthetic-cultural dimension to the transition to sustainability.
The ways we respond aesthetically to our environment now are horribly constrained. Urban man, industrial man (and woman) lack the visceral connectons to the biosphere that helped hunter gatherers survive.
Most of our inputs are mediated. We are blinded by a synthetic spectacle that envelops us all.
Modernity as a whole has been fuelled not just by cheap energy, but also by a cultural lust for speed, perfection, control.
We are bewitched, as a culture, by a high entropy concept of quality.
We would do well to remember the laws of thermodynamics. All order and control has an energy cost. It takes astronomical amounts of energy to acheve the pure, minimal, buildings, products, transport systems and infrastructures that we now aspire to and regard as emblematic of progress and quality.
We need new cultural-aesthetic ways of looking at – and acting in – the world. A new aesthetics of sustainability so that, when we look at things, we will think in totally new ways about whether a thing is “right”.
Think of an airport, for example. What might it mean to be aesthetically triggered to be aware of the amount of energy embodied in the artefacts, structures and processes that surrounded us in such places?
This is where aesthetics comes in.
(to be continued….)
discussed your post with a friend today who mailed it to me…
first of all: most of us working on the intersection of management and aesthetics had their waterloo one time or the other (again)… mine was 2001/02.
looking forward i guess in general there are three possibilities we are facing here:
a) as suggested by german author thomas mann: absolutely no hope for people who cannot decide whether to be on the art or the business side of life… no hope at all… they are ridiculous figures (thomas mann “tonio kroeger” 1903)
b) in germany the sales of new automobiles in 2007 were as bad as never before since the reunification. – in-spite of an economical up-swing people seem to be waiting for new hybrids and for political security to make automotive investments.
… waiting for a new aesthetics, for a new order of things?… could be.
at least i’d like to believe that. – at least i’d like to believe that the next recession – so it will come – will not be one where people are looking back in despair but are looking forward for new things to take shape.
c) all that we are talking about – and especially the way we are talking about it – is completely irrelevant because the next wave is coming from places like china and india and will hit old europe in such a way that we cannot even describe it.
the way we discuss our problem-solving patterns and management styles is so hopelessly euro-centric and grounded in a culture that exactly brought us to the point we are now, that the next wave will come from a totally different direction, in a totally different way that our game and the rules of our game will change for us in an also culturally unforeseeable way. – in that case our discussions here are nice but utterly irrelevant.
make your bet.
the ball is still rolling.

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…sachlichkeit is not a style.
it’s an attitude.

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Who is afraid of local food?

In the October issue of Blueprint its editor Vicky Richardson’s accused Designs of the time (Dott 07) of secretly buying 10,000 pounds worth of fruit and vegetables when our Urban Farming project in Middlesbrough “did not generate adequate grub for the guests”. Vicky declined to name the greengrocer for whom Christmas came so early – and I hereby confirm that her charge is ridiculous and untrue. But she did give me the space to publish this reply.
“The biggest problem with the porkies in her (Vicky’s) story is that you can’t eat them. Dott’s Urban Farming project was not an aesthetic game, nor a yuppy lifestyle fad. It was a practical response to the urgent necessity to develop alternative food systems from the ground up.
Standing in Harvey Nichols Food Hall, or wherever it is that Biueprint’s editor shops, food supplies may well look secure. But as I write, there are empty shelves in Caracas, food riots in West Bengal and Mexico, warnings of hunger in Jamaica, Nepal, the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa. Record world prices for most staple foods have led to 18 percent food price inflation in China, 13 percent in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10 percent or more in Latin America, Russia and India, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Wheat has doubled in price, maize is nearly 50 percent higher than a year ago, and rice is 20 percent more expensive, says the UN.
Harvey Nicks may look well-stocked now – but at what cost,. and for how much longer? Almost a third more food was flown into Britain last year than in 2005. Air-freight rose 31 per cent in the year to 2006, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Food air miles have more than quadrupled – a rise of 379 per cent – since 1992.
The emerging food challenge we face is about energy, not ethics. Today, up to 40 percent of the ecological footprint of a city can be attributed to the systems which keep it fed and watered. On American farms in the early 1800s, the balance between calories expended and calories produced as food was about even. In ‘developed’ countries now it takes ten calories worth of energy from fossil fuels – in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and transportation fuel – to get one calorie back in the form of food.
That insane ratio was sustainable whilst energy, especially oil and natural gas, was cheap. But what about now? Since Dott’s New Urban Farmers fed 2,500 people in Middlesbrough’s Town Meal, the price of crude oil has shot up by $25 a barrel, and there’s a growing consensus that the imminent $100 a barrel energy crunch will not be a blip, but the new norm.
In her attack on Dott’s Urban Farming project, Vicky Richardson writes that “the idea that a modern urbanised society can survive by growing its own food is unrealistic and undesirable”. Undesirable to whom, for goodness sake? The interests most threatened by a re-localisation of food supply are those associated with biotechnology and the agribusiness.
I’m perplexed that Vicky should cite “the spirit of invention and free-thinking” in defence of these corporate interests at a time when many of them are also embarking on radical change. Patrick Cescau, for example, the boss of Unilever, one of the world’s largest food businesses, spoke recently of “ seismic shifts in the world we do business in A reality gap has opened up between where we are and where we know – both instinctively and intellectually – we need to be”.
Global industrial agriculture was less the result of “free-thinking” than of saturating land with fertilizers and pesticides, and soaking it with vast irrigation schemes, using cheap oil and gas to do so. That era is over. Besides, it was an approach based on brute force compared to the innovation required now to re-localise food supply at the level of the city-region.
Real innovation now combines top-down and bottom-up approaches. Middlesbrough Council was deeply impressed by the enthusiasm with which the experiment was taken up at grass roots within the community. Its officers tell me that many residents are asking how they can get involved again next year. But Dott’s project was not about returning Middlesbrough to some kind of pre-industrial Emmerdale Farm. It was inspired by and complements the larger Stockton-Middlesborough Initiative, a 20-year vision for regenerating the urban core of the Tees Valley to ceate a “Green-Blue Heart” for more than 500,000 people.
Middlesbrough is in a global vanguard of city regions – from Arrezzo and Barcelona, to Toronto and the South Bronx, that are beginning to integrate food and water systems into their strategic planning. For these pioneers, food flows and water systems are a new layer of productive infrastructure, not a decorative afterthought.

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Designs of the Time (Dott07) (Sustainability festival, North East England. 2007)

Doors of Perception’s director, John Thackara, was programme director of Designs of the time (Dott 07), a year of community design projects in North East England that explored what life in a sustainable region could be like – and how design can help us get there.

It was an initiative of the UK Design Council and a regional development agency, One North East.
More than 200,000 citizens engaged with Dott, including 20,000 who came to the concluding two week festival on the banks of the River Tyne, and 15,000 school students who responded to its design briefs and projects.

Seventy percent of Dott’s public commission projects continued with new partners once the biennial season was over. WorldChanging published extracts from the Dott Manual here and here. The book may be purchased here.

The Move Me project tackled the need for mobility and access in a rural community in Northumberland.


In policy terms, the project looked at transport intensity, rural access and resource efficiency. In Dott terms, Move Me involved the exploration of practical ways to improve daily life for one community, in one place, and the co-design of a reliable and sustainable transport service.

The aim was to improve access without adding more cars or building new roads.

The design company live|work developed several service proposals; these were plotted on a region-wide shared-transport dashboard (below):


In a project called Urban Farming more than 1,000 residents from Middlesbrough grew fruit and vegetables in containers around the town.

Senior Producer David Barrie brought together community groups, allotment holders and other citizens together to grow their own food in previously unused public spaces; he also persuaded Middlesbrough Council, 15 primary and secondary schools, and numerous local community and voluntary sector organizations and existing allotment growers to participate.

These ‘new urban farmers’ brought their harvested produce to “kitchen playground’ events where they shared advice on how best to prepare and cook dishes using these ingredients.

The project culminated in a Middlesbrough Town Meal, where over 6,000 local people were fed.


Walker School of Technology was one of the first schools in England to receive funding as part of the government’s £70 billion Building Schools for the Future (BSF) national programme. The money is to improve and upgrade its buildings.

Together with Dott 07, the school community launched OurNewSchool to identify the design priorities for their school before the architects came on board.

Senior Producer Engine created an in-school design laboratory at Walker; this enabled all members of the school community to become ‘design ready’.

Engine then put together a design brief in the form of a professionally published book titled ‘Dear Architect.’


Dott 07’s Alzheimer100 project set out to explore ways in which the daily lives of people with dementia and their carers might be improved.


Working with the Alzheimer’s Society’s 13 regional branches, Senior Producers ThinkPublic helped people to record their experiences of dementia using video, interviews, drawings and the written word.

They discovered that six issues were of particular importance: First experiences ; Early stages; Stigmatization; Enabling and assisitive technology; End-of-life (including issues to do with care homes, palliative care; family support; end-of-life directives; support for carers before and after death).

A series of co-design workshops focused on five service scenarios, including a ‘time bank’ scheme for volunteers to make it easier for friends and family to help; and a Dementia Concierge Service to help guide people through the early stages of dementia.

This latter project is still ongoing (below) three years after Dott07 itself ended.


In Dott 07’s Design and Sexual health (Dash) project, service design techniques were used to develop a sexual health service blueprint.

This was a live project to meet a real need. 40 professionals and more than 1,000 Gateshead citizens were engaged.
DaSH was led by Design Options together with Gateshead Primary Care Trust (PCT) and the Centre for Design Research, Northumbria University.

People on the street and among high risk groups were a particular focus; Design Options spoke to many young people, gay and bisexual men, and other groups who find it harder to use health services.

The DaSH team published a blueprint which set out strategic recommendations for service networks, information management, clinical leadership, ongoing monitoring and workforce development, and a < a href=””>service experience blueprint which set out guidelines for the promotions strategy, clinic environments and care journey experiences.

Low Carb Lane set out to explore what it would take for one residential street – Castle Terrace in Ashington – to reduce its carbon footprint and save money on energy bills.

Dott’s senior producers, live|work, ran a series of co-design exercises; these led to three main concepts: ‘Saverbox’ – a financial product designed to remove financial barriers; Nesco (North East Energy Service Co-operative) – a not-for-profit, energy utility; and a Home Energy Dashboard that would take display information from customers’ household meters on their resident’s televison screen.

A project called Welcomes explored ‘welcoming’ in various locations at the region’s edges. Small groups worked with independent media company Media 19 to make images, films and audio/written material on their ideas. These ideas were presented in a special exhibition on the Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough.

Mapping the Necklace involved the use of design to re-focus attention on the forgotten qualities of a place.

Dott 07 teamed up with The Durham Necklace Park team to co-produce a four day mapping exercise along a 12 mile stretch of riverside that runs through Durham (a world heritage city).

The Durham Necklace Park involves local people in efforts to gain more access to this stunning riverside environment. Twenty original films were made from the mapping weekend and displayed in the Dott 07 Festival.

In Dott07’s Sustainable Tourism Design Camp, led by Steve Messem, young designers and visual artists from eight countries investigated how sustainable tourism might be developed and implemented in four specific locations.

An Urban Camping team transformed a disused urban space beneath Byker Bridge in Newcastle Gateshead into a temporary, sustainable accommodation for visitors to the Dott 07 Festival.

A second group created night-time outdoor light installations that evoked Allendale’s lead mining heritage.

A third group investigated the concept of power generation as visual spectacle and tourist attraction.

In Landlines, a section of land the size of three football pitches was ploughed in a way that created a remarkable but temporary landscape design for train passengers on the East Coast mainline to see as they passed through the area. 15,000 people per day saw the Dott 07 pilot.

Dott07 also participated in Picture House. Curated by Judith King, the event brought together film directors, artists and designers who were invited to transform English Heritage’s Belsay Hall in Northumberland.

A series of cutting edge art installations featured fashion, sculpture, music design, electronic art and video installations – incuding this magic mirror by UVA:


In Vital Signs Alnwick’s award-winning town crier John Stevens, and performance art group Lone Twin, were commissioned by Forma to create a series of proclamations to be ‘cried’ across North East England.

Each proclamation told stories of places, events and communities, compiled during a period of research in the area, and gave a sense of the eclectic nature of local life by combing hearsay, first-person accounts, factual narrative and fictional construct.

The Dott 07 Festival brought the Dott 07 projects and their participants together so that a broader public might learn from and be inspired by their projects, processes and results.

22,000 visitors were attracted to the festival’s programme of workshops and demonstrations – such as this one of ‘ThingLink’, a system for tracking the history of a product using a mobile phone as the interface:

A highlights of the festival was the Dott 07 Creative Community Awards which celebrated and awarded individual and community achievements in the various projects.

A series of set-piece debates reflected on ways sustainable design can provide solutions to complex problems.

And throughout Dott07, Explorers Clubs met in which citizens and designers developed ideas and prototypes together:


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