What a gas

PICNIC’06 is a new Amsterdam event to do with “creativity in cross media content and technology”. PICNIC includes a conference, lectures, an exhibition, art installations, and parties. The conference (I’m speaking at it on the Friday) will explore the distribution of content over different channels and will examine new interfaces and tools which enable people to “live their lives online”. That bit sounds sad. But an intriguing roster of speakers includes John Underkoffler, advisor to Steven Spielberg on Minority Report; John de Mol, co-founder of Endemol and a legendary format designer (ie Big Brother); Dan Gillmor, Director of the Center for Citizen Media; Matt Locke, Head of Innovation at BBC New Media & Technology; and Justin Kneist, founder of Fabchannel which won a Webby this year for best music site. September 27-29 at Westergasfabriek, the cultural facility located in a former gas factory.

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Designing naked streets

When Paul Barter posted a link to a video of a chaotic looking Indian intersection, back in April, it provoked debate on the merits of traffic discipline versus chaos. A discussion ensued on issues about shared space or “naked streets” approaches to streets and the public realm. The video genre is growing fast: YouTube’s GlobalSouth now has more than 60 short videos on transport in developing countries. “A striking number of the videos are of streets or intersections in countries like India, China or Vietnam” says Barter; “most of them show traffic that at first glance looks completely and utterly CRAZY, often with a mind-boggling diversity of road users doing anything and everything you could imagine. And the amazing thing is that it seems to work”. The first person I know to speculate about control-free traffic planning was John Chris Jones; he first wrote about the idea in 1968.

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Seven 9/11s a year in Europe

Apropos the security situation in London: “Loss of life might have surpassed the 2,700 killed in the attack on the twin towers in New York five years ago. “This was our 9/11,” a British security source said.
It’s a good thing that a lot of people were not blown up yesterday. Sadly, our security services were unable to prevent the deaths of 20,000 people last year on Europe’s roads. That’s seven 9/11s in a single year. As I wrote here yesterday the death toll from the Madrid bombings represented twelve days of death on Spanish roads.
Yesterday’s plotters, say ‘unnamed sources’, planned to carry liquid explosives onto planes disguised as Coca Cola bottles. This danger, too, is not new. As I reported here a year ago, 67,000 people are injured each year, in the UK alone, trying to open a ring-pull can or peel the cellophane off a packet of sandwiches.
Quoting statistics may sound like a flippant response to a serious situation in which peoples lives are at stake. But what’s the alternative? My proposal in Designers and the Age of Fear was that designers can use their communication skills to help people judge risk in a rational way.
I will publish here – and pass on to some newspaper friends – the best visualizations you can come up with to put different kinds of risk in perspective.
Meanwhile, one or two designers are doing well out of the fear business. Googling “design” and “homeland security” yielded 600,000 hits in August 2004. The score last year was 3,220,000. Its score today? 24,900,000.

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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

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Send in the Canadians

Ivorybill’s Iraq Journal, a great piece of writing from Kurdistan in Daily Kos, includes this sublime conversation with Ahmed, one of the cab drivers who drove him from Turkey to Kurdish Iraq. “Ahmed’s contact with people outside of Iraq has mostly been with the foreign telecom engineers who erected the (mobile phone) system. The first was a Canadian with a long beard and lots of tattoos. He had a “wolf” at home, possibly a husky, and used to call his wife and ask her to put the dog on the phone. The two would howl at each other. Kurds, like most Muslims, consider dogs unclean. Although they accept them as necessary for protecting sheep, they never keep them as pets. Ahmed could hear the howls over the receiver and considered this behavior incomprehensible”. I can’t imagine why: From my own experience meeting Telco types, it seems par for the course.

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Eastern Economic Edition of “In The Bubble”

Prentice Hall India have issued an Eastern Economic Edition of “In The Bubble: Designing In A Complex World”. (I made a completely random selction of words from recent published reviews: “enriching” (Paola Antonelli), “excellent” (Nancy Levinson), “brilliant” (Paul Hawken), “a revelation” (J C Herz), “important” (Don Norman), “captivating” (Bruce Sterling), “insightful” (Nathan Shedroff), “surprising.” (San Francisco Chronicle), “visionary” (Paul Makovsky), “alive” (Jamer Hunt). The Eastern Economic Edition enables readers in the India and South Asia market to purchase the book for 250 rupees. If you live in that area, please tell everyone about this opportunity. We want to reach college and city librarians, course tutors – and your work colleagues, and friends. To check out the book’s contents list and bibliography, or to sample free extracts, go here.

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Not quite so new

It’s twenty years since Stuart Jane and I made this book for Thames and Hudson. One of the bright young things whose work we put in a book for the first time was James Dyson. By 1986, his patented G-Force vacuum cleaner was being produced in Japan but was not selling well. That early version was tall and garishly pink – great for publicity photos, but less so for high street sales. Daniel Weil, who designed the deconstructivist radio we used on the cover, was a constant headache for his tutors at the Royal College of Art. (He is now a partner at Pentagram). We also featured a young designer called Ron Arad; he was turning the seats of old Rover cars into collectible chairs. Perhaps the first person to varnish concrete, Arad sold his heavy and often lethally pointed furniture from a shop called One Off in Covent Garden. An architect called Nigel Coates, a young star at the insanely trendy Architectural Association, had already incorporated an aircraft wing into a Tokyo night club. We also met an angelic-looking guy called Tom Dixon who made chairs out of salvaged plumbing parts and drove around London in a Mark 10 Jag. The understated genius of that generation was a quiet young man called Jasper Morrison; the technical quality of his work shone through even then. But my most startling memory by far from that project was when Stuart told me to check out the graduating catwalk show of a St Martin’s fashion designer. John Galliano’s coup de theatre remains one of the most extraordinary performances I have experienced; those few minutes with will never leave me.

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Why Englishmen do it with their socks on

Did you know this? “In the old days, women exposed their adulterous husbands by marking their left and right socks”. I never heard this before. But this makes me a minority among Englishmen, I now realise, because they (we) have been ridiculed for decades for making love with our socks on. (Thanks to Lucas Verweij for this extraordinary information; he wrote about it in the Spanish magazine Experimenta, issue 55).

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The coming shake-out in design education

The new Coroflot, launched by Allan Chochinov and his colleagues this week, boasts a staggering 33,000 design portfolios and more than 135,000 registered users. Gross visitor numbers to Coroflot (and its sister site, Core77 ) are many times higher than that. A major attraction is Coroflot’s steady flow of job postings, updated by the minute.
I’m convinced that sites like Core77 are going to have a huge impact on design education, and soon. A fast-growing gulf is opening up between the reputations of many design schools and universities, on the one hand, and the reality of what they are able to deliver to current students on the other.
Many design schools have been compelled by governments to expand student numbers. But they have been given diminishing resources per student to do so. The results of this are now being felt. Jeff Banks, a leading British employer of designers, writes about “design education meltdown” in the August issue of Blueprint. “Employers are asking if the degrees of graduates from design schools are worth the paper they’re printed on”, he writes.
Prospective students that I have met of late also ask whether it is worth going to design school. They know they will leave tens of thousands of dollars or euros in debt – at a time when the prospect of a highly-paid job, to pay it off, is by no means guaranteed.
Some respected universities are offering places to one in every two applicants to design programmes this year. Five years ago, the ratio would have been 1:7. How long before they have empty places? How many already do?
Many big-name schools in the US and Europe are kept afloat financially by the fees of foreign students, particularly at postgraduate level. This cash cow will evaporate fast if the reputations of big-name schools start to deteriorate. International students will not shell out premium fees for a devalued certificate.
Among Core77’s discussions among design students, for example, comments like this are typical: “I am now studying master industrial design at (School X) and I definitely DO NOT RECOMMEND this school. You can ask the other 19 students of industrial master and other 50 students from other masters and they most of them will answer you the same”.
Sites like Core77 enable prospective students to communicate directly with current ones. They compare the reality of life in a school to its reputation, and to the promises made in its marketing. Under-performing colleges – and there are many, including some with inflated reputations – are going to run into trouble. Soon.

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