Corrupted by cool?

Have cultural producers and designers become the stooges of property development? Guy Julier has invited me to stir things up in a talk at the inauguration on 2 March of DesignLeeds, a new research and consulting centre at Leeds School of Architecture, Landscape and Design. Invitations are available from Jean Horne: Telephone +44 113 283 3216. Email j.horne@leedsmet.ac.uk

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Longer? smarter? stronger?

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

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Walking & mapping across continents

The subject of car-free mobility sounds necessary but unappealing. But news reaches me of a sublime-sounding event called The Walking Project. It’s an exploration, on foot, of desire lines – the paths made by people who walk across fields in South Africa – and across vacant lots in Detroit.

Collaboratively developed with US and South Africa-based artists during a series of residencies in Detroit and KwaZulu-Natal, many of the participants created poems and stories and renditions of walking songs. The project “examines how changing patterns of movement can alter attitudes and perceptions; how people make their own paths; and the influences of culture, geography, language, economics and love, The Walking Project asks how and why people’s paths cross and how taking a different path might alter a life”.

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“Alert and doing fine”

Harry Whittington, 78, was “alert and doing fine” after being shot by Vice President Cheney. The same could be said of US bloggers for whom the story has been a much appreciated gift.

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From my car to scalar

To a car company, replacing the chrome wing mirror on an SUV with a carbon fibre one is a step towards sustainable transportation. To a radical ecologist, all motorised movement is unsustainable. So when is transportation sustainable, and when is it not?

Eric Britton, an expert on the subject, had the good idea of posting a text at Wikipedia which will evolve as a shared description, if not definition, of the concept.

In a new mobility discussion group Chris Bradshaw emphasizes that “light” transport systems are not, per se, sustainable – only less unsustainable than commuting by car. “Light rail supports far-flung suburbs, while street cars support, well, street-car suburbs” says Bradshaw; “likewise, a smaller, more efficient, or alternative-fuel vehicle is only less unsustainable than another private vehicle. It will still take as much space on the road and in parking lots, it will still threaten the life and limb of others, it will still create noise, and it still will require lots of energy and resources to manufacture, transport to a dealer, and dispose of when its life ends”.

It is an important part of sustainable transport and communities, says Bradshaw, to respect what he calls the scalar hierarchy, in which the trips taken most frequently are short enough to be made by walking (even if pulling a small cart), while the next more frequent trips require a bike or street car, and so on. “If one adheres to this then there are so few trips to be made by car that owning one is foolish”.

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Feast of light

A fabulous-sounding event this Sunday is Aurora Feast. Heureka Science Centre, Vantaa, Finland, hosts a celebration of the mysterious, dynamic and whimsical Northern Lights. Recapturing of the mood of traditional feasts, Aurora Feast intertwines the spectacle of sights and sounds with talk and food. Artists and scientists will discuss instruments and interpretations of the medium of light. An audiovisual event features Aurora imagery, VLF recordings, magnetograms, and all-sky camera imaging. And Aurora Live is an interactive, real-time and web-based visualization of personal and cross-cultural interpretations of the Northern Lights phenomenon: On February 5 we are invited to submit, in a single word, what Aurora conjures up in us: a feeling, a sensation, an image, a vision, a memory, a thought.

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Glo-learners

I thought I’d escaped from the quicksands of of learning-speak when I completed the chapter on learning (which nearly did me in) for my book. But no! A new tsunami of learning lingo is upon us. Teachers having been exhausted by years of enforced modernisation, the hapless victims this time round are Britiain’s museums and libraries. Inspiring Learning for All (ILFA) promises to “transform the way in which museums, archives and libraries deliver and engage users in learning”. Government officials were unhappy, it seems, at ”a lack of knowledge about the significance of focussing on learning and the consequential need for organisational change in museums and libraries”. When broaching this failure with museum and library professionals, they were further perplexed by the “lack of a common vocabulary: For example libraries use the word “stock”, museums “collections”, and archives talk about “holdings””. These heinous crimes against language galvanised the government into five years of think-tankery. The result is a ‘Measure Learning Toolkit’ that will force (sorry, enable) museums, archives, and libraries to “gather evidence of their impact on broader learning agendas”. Library staff are further commanded to “understand their role in the creativity agenda (and) have confidence that they are part of the creative world”. For recalcitrant librarians who insist that they’ve been doing this all along, a mind-control – sorry, measuring – system called “Generic Learning Outcomes” – or GLOs – has been invented; this will “transform the way that we to talk to users and visitors about learning”. Among a number of accompanying design proposals is the requirement that “the furnishing and layout of libraries should take account of the creative process, providing stimulus, surprise, random connections and different means of recording ideas”. It strikes me that that Glo-world uses vast numbers of words to state the obvious – and/or to describe, as an objective, something that already exists. My own take on it: a) Give me a dusty old library any day rather than one suffused with a profane Glo; b) go and hug a tree rather than worry about Glos; and c) Where there’s a will there surely follows a way.

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Creative communities and social innovation

For service design, public services are an enormous opportunity – half the economy in most industrial countries. This seminar in Helsinki, on Friday 10 February, is about framing the welfare and care story as a series of design opportunities. Speakers include Ezio Manzini (on creative communities and active welfare); John Thackara (platforms for public service innovation); Anna Meroni and Francois Jegou (on the case studies we encountered during the Emude project); Kari-Hans Kommonen; from UIAH MediaLab (on the co-design of social spaces); and probably Markku Wilenius from Finland’s Futures Research Institute. Wilenius is leading a national project to discover how Finland, which most people consider is already one the world’s most innovative countries, can become much more so in the future. The meeting is organised by Teolliinen Muotoilu (Industrial and Strategic Design) at UIAH. Friday 10 February, 13h-17h, Taideteollinen Korkeakoulu, Hämeentie 135C, Helsinki – 8th floor, room 822. Contact: Cindy Kohtala, cikohtal@uiah.fi. The seminar is free and open to the public, but please register here by Monday 6 February 2006.

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Automatic eco architecture?

SOM, the global architecture firm, believes that we are entering an age of comprehensive, pervasive, simulation of the physical world. It has appointed a Digital Design Director, Paul Seletsky, to develop its expertise in Building Information Modeling (BIM). With BIM, models of all a building’s physical components are stored in a report-generating database that produces what Seletsky calls “smart geometry”. Other simulations are being developed for lighting, energy, wind, pedestrian circulation, construction processes, fabrication, code, material, and security conditions. For Seletsky, these trends amount to a “complete cultural and procedural shift…architects will now have to think in terms of producing and assembling building components, as opposed to sheets of drawings or seductive renderings”. I’m not sure the trend is all that new. Archigram speculated about machine design in the 1960s, and Dutch architects such as UN Studio and Winy Maas have been engaged in real-time design for quite a while. What’s still missing from automatic architecture is what might be called Green BIMs – the compulsory integration of environmental requirements into the information models of all development. According to Seletsky, Singapore is well on the way to such a condition with a country-wide system called CORE that integrates building regulations into construction, development and real estate systems. This level of integration is helped by the fact that Singapore is small and not overly democratic. Green ratings in the US such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) remain voluntary. The principal barrier to the integration of environmental standards into building development is less an IT one than organisational. As James Woudhuysen has written in Why-is-construction-so-backward?, the main barrier to innovation lies in the fragmented nature of the construction sector.

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