Risk assessment as a design issue

I’ve been called priggish for insisting that some issues deserve more design attention than others. The trouble is that we are not good at judging risk – especially long-term ones – as a society, and when big issues get overlooked at the expense of insignificant ones, we end up mis-spending our creative energies. An example of skewed risk assessment from last week: British newspapers – and television followed meekly along – have been filled with terrifying stories about the danger to children of pedophile teachers in schools. Now I have a teenage daughter in an English school, and even one molestation of a child is a crime too many. But this lurid coverage is clearly motivated less by concern for child safety than by the urge to sell newspapers. Fact: according to government statistics, the number of cautions or convictions for sexual offences against children has been declining steadily in recent years – and of the sexual crimes against children that do take place, a third are carried out by adolescents, and 80 per cent take place in the child’s home, or in the home of the perpetrator. Now, compare the danger posed to children by “pedo teachers” to the fact that 4,863 children under 16 were killed or seriously injured in road accidents or as pedestrians last year. Do the papers denounce cars as a present threat to children? No, they don’t: They run endless stories and ads promoting cars. And the number of children killed and maimed by cars is itself insignificant compared to the environmental degredation billions of children will inherit as a result of design actions taken by all of us today. I know, I know: I’m being moralistic again – and tedious bad-news eco-stories don’t sell papers. But I don’t have to like it.

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Rural design

What are the key design tasks facing the new post-agricultural rural economies and settlements? A conference in the UK in September will map out a new role for the arts and design in response to new social, environmental and economic regeneration priorities. Among the strands and seminar topics currently being developed are:
• Arts and agri-tourism, artists projects in B+Bs, farm barns and cattle marts
• New rural media, digital art, design and the new rural knowledge economy
• Rural arts and design festivals, rural performing arts and touring projects
• Rural community broadcasting, convergence and cultural applications of ICT
• New urban-rural business partnerships, and arts-led rural cultural diversity
• Future farms, art-farms, rural art workshops and agri-design industry clusters
• Rural Biennales, proposal for a European Region of Rural Culture & Design
• Designing the new rural settlements; rural housing and architectural initiatives
• Investing in rural community-led design, crafts and arts as cultural capital
• Designing alternative land uses, renewables and new energy & fibre crops
• Food as cultural economy, urban agriculture and urban-rural foods initiatives
• Contemporary rural, innovative crafts and design-led rural regeneration
• Rural textile/fashion design and smart clothing interfaces with agriculture.
The conference is being developed by the Rural Cultural Forum, Arts Council England, LEADER+ UK, Culture NW, LITTORAL Arts, and the Lancashire Economic Partnership. 10 – 13 September 2006 at the University of Lancashire. The event is listed here along with other events to do with the changing rural economy and land use.

Posted in food systems & design | 1 Response

BT’s tinpot dictator

“Enjoy the future” raves British Telecom, in its Technology Timeline for 2006-2050. BT spoils the effect by warning of wildcards, that “may happen at any time”, that include “international financial collapse” and “the possible rise of a machine dictator”. I’m sanguine about the second of these problems: the rise of a cyber-Stalin will be welcome after the totalitarian regime of Wanadon’t that persecutes us today.

Posted in art & perception | 1 Response

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?”.

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$65 billion fund for green design

Is advertising a source of harmful emissions? Industry forecasts anticipate that advertising spending will break through the $400 billion mark this year. That’s $555 per person in the USA, (compared to $209 per head in France, $25 in Latin America and $8 in China). Those billions have just one purpose: to stimulate consumption – most of which will be environmentally damaging. I doubt that even one percent of this year’s global ad spend will be used to create demand for environmentally positive goods, services or behaviour. One response would be to curb environmentally harmful marketing, much as we are trying to reduce carbon emissions. But curbs and limits are an unimaginative solution. Far better would be for adland and its clients to divert just ten percent of their budget – $10 per person, worldwide – to the redesign of products and services to make them sustainable.

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Pigs and cubic cities

If humans can live in skyscrapers, why not pigs and fish? When the Dutch architect Winy Maas first proposed that 600 metre-high skyscrapers, filled with pigs, could supply most of Europe�s pork needs, he was accused of proposing �concentration camps for animals�. But why should agriculture be restricted to the countryside, and organised horizontally? Would it not be efficient, and ecologically sounder, to move food production and consumption closer together? This is one proposal in 1,400 page book called KM3 by MVRDV. (Winy Maas is the M).
KM3 asks two questions: How much built space would be required in a world supporting ten times more people than it does today – 65 billion? And, how would such a city be organised? Maas and colleagues designed a hypothetical city that accomodates one million people and all their needs in the most compact possible form. For the purposes of the exercise, their city is autarchic: It has no neighbours, and must meet all its needs internally. As design inputs, the team assembled an extraordinary list of spatial reguirements – from the amount of volume needed for food production (20 percent) to the average volume of a psychiatric hospital (446 square metres).
Although startling in scope, KM3 is an extrapolation of existing trends. Among familar urban areas designed to be highly dense are Les Halles and La Defence in Paris, the Barbican in London, and Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam. These examples do not inspire joy at the prospect of a KM3 future. The French sites, in particular, are so ghastly that they feature endlessly in dystopian gangster and science fiction movies. But for Maas, these contemporary examples are imperfect not because they are dense, but because they lack “programmatic diversity”. They are monocultures. 3D cities will only work, Maas argues, if they contain a rich mix of acitivites: Not just work, or sleeping, but all forms of production, especially agricultural.
Hence the vertical pig cities scenario. What started as a design provocation has taken on a life of its own. Maas’ proposal has fed into an emerging proposal for a total reshaping of agriculture – at least in man-made Holland. A Dutch think tank, the Innovation Network for Rural Areas and Agricultural Systems, proposes the transfer of agricultural production to industrial areas near large populations of people. KM3, Excursions On capacities. MVRDV, 2006. Actar, Barcelona

Posted in food systems & design | 2 Responses

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.

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Active welfare in Helsinki

Emude, a consortium of design schools and research institutions – and Doors – has spent the last two years years looking at social innovation among creative communities in different parts of Europe. Having observed the emergence of what we call “active welfare” in many of these situations, we realise that new kinds of social infrastructure are needed to support it. A meeting in Helsinki, on Friday 10 February, probably at UIAH, will develop this idea. Details will be in our February newsletter and on this blog, but you might want to book your flight ahead of that to get a good price. Oh, and if you’re celebrtating the new year tonight, have a great evening. And see you in 2006.

Posted in social innovation & design | 1 Response

The diminishing spaces of childhood

A fascinating essay by Henry Jenkins explores the changing spaces of childhood. In the nineteenth century, children living on America’s farms enjoyed free range over a space which was ten square miles or more; boys of nine or 10 would go camping alone for days on end, returning when they were needed to do chores around the house. Henry did spend childhood time in wild woods, but these are now occupied by concrete, bricks, or asphalt. His son has grown up in apartment complexes and video games constitute his main playing spaces. (Thanks to Brenda Laurel for the lead).

Posted in city & bioregion | 2 Responses