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.

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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 place & bioregion | 2 Responses

In praise of poetry

Thanks to Europe’s most horrible company, Wanadon’t, our internet connection has again been down for days. So we have had to access our email by telephone. Your warmly-meant illustrated seasons greetings have taken literally hours to download. Next year, maybe think about sending us a poem?

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“Solidarity economics and design”

An edited podcast of my lecture last week at the Royal Society of Arts in London is available online.

Posted in development & design | 1 Response

Shops as museums

A typically excellent piece by Karrie Jacobs in next month’s Metropolis discusses “how hard it is to mount a really innovative contemporary industrial-design show these days. The problem–and it’s not specific to MoMA–is that the products one can find on the shelves of almost any store are likely to be as varied, sophisticated, and inventive as the objects a museum can pull together”.

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Schools as gated communities?

Having proclaimed the vital importance of education to the nation’s future, the British government is putting its money where its mouth is. It aims to rebuild or renew every secondary school in England over a 10-15 year period in a seventy billion pound programme called Building Schools for the Future (BSF). It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put the latest thinking on education into practice on a massive scale.
A lot of attention is being paid to the criteria which will determine how all these schools will be designed. On paper, head teachers and communities, and the architects and designers they work with, have some leeway to do things their own way. But their design space will be heavily circumscribed by public procurement procedures which determine how all this public money may be spent.
Traditional procurement policies would force local authorities to go with the lowest cost proposals for slightly better versions of the types of school that already exist. But there are positive signs that a broader definition of value for money, rather than just cost, will inform the BSF process. One powerful government agency, the Audit Commission, has stated that outputs such as the impact of new school projects on the local economy are as important as inputs, such as the money spent on them. And members of parliament, who are taking an active interest in the development of BSF procurement criteria, have involved expert organisations such as the Design Council to monitor and evaluate the first schools to be built.
A more worrying trend is the way technology and communication networks are procured as part of BSF.
Local education authorities are being encouraged to create a system-wide response, rather than one based on individual institutions. The idea is that by aggregating its resources, an authority may offer learners in its region a wider variety of courses and approaches than if every school determined its own offer.
The danger is that integrating groups of institutions into a single system will have the opposite effect – reduced flexibility and diversity – because of the way technology and communication networks are procured.
An initial two billion pounds has been allocated to information and communication technology (ICT) in BSF. Microsoft, for one, is making a big push to position itself as a preferred supplier. Based on the innocuous-sounding proposition that “ICT should be available to a schools as an industrial strength utility”, Microsoft has persuaded Kent Council Council to make its Learning Gateway platform a key part of its ICT infrastructure for multi-school systems.
”The best way to achieve industrial strength reliability is for the local education partnership to procure a full managed service from an expert partner” says the company. It’s best that a single supplier “will design, suppply, install and support a comprehensive ICT infrastructure and platform for learning”.
For me, Microsoft’s offer is incompatible with an educational vision, repeated in dozens of policy pronouncements, in which “the unit of organisation is the learner – not the system”.
Microsoft’s technology-based product, Learning Gateway, contains proprietory software products used within a closed system. It turns schools into the ICT equivalent of gated communities.
Forty years ago, Ivan Illich proposed that we should use existing technologies and spaces – the telephone, local radio, town hall meetings – to create learning webs through which learners would connect with their peers and with new contexts in which to learn.
“We can provide the learner with new links to the world,” said Illich, “instead of continuing to funnel all education through the teacher.”
Three decades later Tom Bentley of Demos made a similar point in Learning Beyond the Classroom: “We should think of learning as an ecology of people and groups, projects, tools, and infrastructures. We need to reconceptualize education as an open, living system whose intelligence is distributed and shared among all its participants”.
An open, living system. Not a closed, proprietory one of the kind being pushed relentlessly by technology companies like Microsoft and Oracle.
The trick they play is to scare customers such as local authorities or schools – who have lot of other things to think about – with the incredible complexity and cost of ICT systems. Then they say, “Leave the whole thing to us; we’ll provide you with a turn-key solution and look after the whole thing for you”.
Technology is an important enabler of educational ecosystems – but in simple and relatively uncomplicated ways.
As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid write in The Social Life of Information: “Learning at all levels relies ultimately on personal interaction and, in particular, on a range of implicit and peripheral forms of communication that technology is still very far from being able to handle”.
Yes, technology facilitates new kinds of interaction between teachers, students, and the external world. But as Sunil Abraham argued so cogently at Doors 8 this year, this kind of connectivity does not need to be complicated, or expensive. And it certainly does not need to be delivered within a closed system.
We already have an “industrial strength utility” – it’s called the internet. If Britain’s new schools are not based on open systems, this multi-billion-pound “once in a lifetime” opportunity will be needlessly constrained. Open information systems should be be a non-negotiable condition of BSF funding.

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Semiotic pollution

My attention was drawn by offbrand to an article by Owen Gibson in The Guardian entitled ‘Shoppers eye view of ads that pass us by’. Owen used a recently developed set of spectacles, connected to a video camera and recording device, to monitor the quantity of marketing messages to which the modern consumer is exposed. “To cut to the chase” says offbrand, “Owen saw 250 adverts during a 90 minute journey through central London – for more than 100 brands in over 70 different media – and this is before you factor in any spam texts or emails that might have fallen into his inbox during this period. And the number of adverts he could recall, unprompted? One”. This is excellent ammo for my periodic rants about the semiotic pollution (a term coined by Ezio Manzini) perpetrated by the morons of adland. Until now, I’ve been quoting a rather old study by Absolut Vodka, in NYC, which discovered that Manhattanites are exposed to 250 messages in a morning.
What I also want to know is this: what are the physiological consequences of the large, high intensity LED screens of the kind that gave me a headache in Kings Cross Station in London this morning? I’m collecting evidence that push media in public spaces are bad for our bodies as well as what’s left of our minds.

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Amazing minihompy moment

Now here’s a tale to warm the heart. Mine, anyway. An email arrives from Emil Groh, in Seoul. Two nights ago Emil was on the subway there when a friend he was riding with took a book out of his bag and recommended Emil get it. It was “In The Bubble”. Then, yesterday, another friend – unrelated to the first one – sent Emil the link to the story I wrote here about minihompies and Emil’s work thereon. Amazing eh! Well, Emil and I think it is. “It’s quite a different world here when it comes to people’s relationship with communication tech. I love it!” Emil writes. And here, never before published anywhere in the world, is Emil’s minihompy next to his real apartment.

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Creativity in business

Design policy is itself a globalising industry. I arrived back from Korea to be greeted by my copy of the Cox Review of Creativity in Business. This startling document has been eagerly awaited by the design industry. Many creatives in the UK (as in other industrialised countries) fondly believe that while manufacturing and call centres may emigate to cheaper countries, their brand of ‘creativity’ is immune. They expected the Cox Review (it’s written by Sir George Cox) to confirm this warm and cosy feeling. Instead, it will feel more like bucket of cold water. “The model of the UK becoming an all-service economy, the world’s leading repository of professional skills, is enormously appealing – and totally unrealistic” writes Cox. “The now rapidly advancing developing economies have no desire to remain as suppliers of cheap, low-skilled labour to the world. And indeed, why should they?”
As my own visit last week to South Korea confirmed, what’s impressive about emerging economies is not where they stand today, but the scale of their commitment to knowledge-intensive industries, including design, in the near future. The Cox Review is admirably global in its scope, but even he underestimates the speed with which things are changing. The report refers to “a window of opportunity – perhaps five or ten years – while the new economies develop the kinds of creative skills necessary to compete across the board”. I don’t think those years exist. Pretty much the same words greeted me when I joined the Hong Kong Design Task Force in 2001: we had “ten years to move the Hong Kong design industry up the value chain”, we were told. A single visit to the Pearl River Delta, and an encounter with a room full of PhDs developing acoustic software for Bose, persuaded us that the gap in capability between Hong Kong and the mainland was was nearer two years, than ten.
The story in India today is similar. Cox states that GE has 1,000 scientists doing top level research in India. But my own understanding is that the number is already nearer 3,000. The site, which is always shrouded in construction equipment, has a capacity for many more again. I have a feeling that that GE would happily base all its 7,000 researchers in India were it not for fear of the political backlash in the US. As Cox rightly emphasizes, it’s not just about cost. Yes, an Indian PhD can be hired for 10 percent of the cost of an American or British one. But GE’s Indian PhDs, I was told, have also reduced innovation processes that took 24 steps in the US to seven steps in Bangalore. They are cheaper, and better.
But back to Britain. I was an early critic of the implication that only ‘creatives’ are creative, and the Cox Review wisely eschews that approach. Its subject is creativity and innovation among thousands of small and medium sized companies (SMEs) in all sectors of the economy, including public services. It’s also refreshing that Cox does not limit creativity to the production of new (and, for me, often pointless) novelty. On the contrary: He insists, on page one, that creativity includes new ways of looking at existing problems.
Having set out to discover what stops SMEs making greater use of the country’s creative talents, and what might be done about it, Cox arrives at a series of recommendations for action. These, for the most part, strike me as well-reasoned, innovative and relatively inexpensive. (I should declare an interest at this point: the Design Council, of which Sir George is Chairman, is a client of mine). Having evaluated no fewer than 70 existing initiatives which, one way or another, have the aim of linking creativity, design and business, he recommends that one of these, a Design Council programme called Design for Business, should be developed natonally. Around 6,500 SMEs could be reached over a three year period if the right resources were mobilised and focused. Based on early testing of the programmme, Design for Business would transform the performance and prospects of around 1,800 of these firms.
The Cox Review also emphasizes public sector procurement. British public services spend around £125 billion each year (getting on for 200 billion euros) on goods and services. For Cox, “all of the major problems facing society today – such as healthcare, education, security, transport infrastructure, or sustainability – require a high degree of innovation if they are to be addressed effectively”. The public sector should be an intelligent and demanding buyer of goods and services, not simply looking for long-proven products and yesterday’s solutions at the lowest prices.
These are wise words, marred by the fact that this is one of the few places in the report where the word sustainability appears. This is a missed opportunity. Sustainability is the most important driver of innovation of all. SMEs represent over 99 percent of companies, and permeate supply chains: The fact that most SMEs are far less advanced than most multinationals in their environmental policies and practices is a fantastic opportuniuty for design-led innovation.
Cox also recommends that universities should develop multidisciplinary masters programmes that would bring together different elements of creativity, technology and business. He reminds Britain’s design schools that they face new competiton from programmes such as IDBM in Finland, or Stanford’s new D-School in the US. (The latter has been funded by a reported $25 million grant from SAP, the European software firm). Cox recommends that at least one of the new UK centres of excellence should embrace service design within its curriculum.
It looks as if most of Cox’s recommendations will be implemented. According to the Design Council’s website the UK’s chancellor, Gordon Brown, has backed its key recommendations from the Cox Review, including a design support programme for businesses, a review of the tax credit system, and a network of design centres.
The Cox Review has one weakness, which is easily remedied. This is a proposal for no fewer than six showcase buildings in different parts of the UK that would “create greater visibility for the UK’s creative capabilities” and be a hub for creative industry gatherings.These shiny edifices would enable networking between them and regional SMEs, the report argues. Running costs for a London centre alone would be “around £4.6 million”, but the centres “should become largely self-sustaining” with income from letting, retail activities, grant, and sponsorship.
I don’t buy the value proposition, and am suspicious of the business model supplied to Cox by consultants. Cox is right that networking among SME’s, and with designers, can foster innovation – but you don’t need shiny and expensive buildings do it in. On the contrary: the most intense and creative encounters I experience usually occur in edgy, derelict, un-shiny old industrial buildings, or in tents, or in Starbucks. New institutions to foster networking are a good idea – but what’s needed are support and connecting organisations – and small ones at that – not great big edifices.
If if the prominence given to glossy photographs of the project is any guide, Cox’s team was unduly impressed by Singapore’s £158 million Fusionopolis creative centre. Fusionopolis, which is due to open in June 2007, is a massive development – dedicated, says its brochure, to “fostering knowledge transfer and providing a vibrant work-live-work-play environment”. For me, at the end of the day, Fusionopolis is a government-subsidised real-estate project. Fusionopolis is the latest in a series of grandiose Singapore projects (others include Biopolis (biotech) and a Technopolis) that have been backed by billions of dollars of government money. They look futuristic, but these projects are based on an old-fashioned, technology-focused, and therefore unsustainable, understanding of innovation. Singapore bureaucrats are now promoting “Global Entrepolis”, the concept of Singapore as an entire city-state dedicated to, and filled with, high-tech entrepreneurs. This last brainwave, said one local critic, “confirms Singapore’s position as a ‘Polis State’ “.
Innovation needs to be situated in reality – not segregated from it. Projects like Fusionopolis (and New Songdo that I learned about in Korea last week) are gated communities for subsidised scientists. So much development money is sloshing around in them that their inmates are fated to become inward looking and self-referential. And that’s when the innovation stops. Look what happened at Interval Research in the US: it burned through $100 million of Paul Allen’s money but, being isolated behind smoky mirrors up a Palo Alto hill, it so lacked interaction with the real world that it produced no innovations that the world wanted.
A simple win-win solution is available: Redirect the money earmarked in the Cox Review for showcase design buildings, to the greening of SMEs.

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