Worker correspondents

More and more companies are using so-called “design ethnographers” to help them develop products in real-life situations (rather than in design studios). This has sparked debate about the ethics of using other peoples’ daily lives as raw material for product development. But is design ethnography new? At Doors 8 in New Delhi, Alok Nandi reminded us that debates about the ethics of documentary film-making have been going on for 40 years. And in his book Philosophizing the Everyday John Roberts writes that so-called ‘worker correspondents’ were important during the 1920s in revolutionary Russia and Weimar Germany. Worker-correspondents collated materials on issues affecting their workplace and other aspects of everyday life. Their work was celebrated by Leon Trotsky in a celebrated 1924 text called “The Worker Correspondent and its Cultural Role”. And courses on how to be a worker-correspondent are run by Marxist organisations to this day.

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Intel’s PC for India

Intel has launched a PC platform to meet the needs of rural villages and communities in India. The “ruggedized” Community PC is equipped to operate in a community setting while accommodating the varying environmental conditions prevalent in the country. Intel also announced an initiative called “Jaagruti” (“Awakening”) to support the spread of rural Internet kiosks that will use the new Community PC. These kiosks would be operated by local entrepreneurs and provide neighboring communities with access to services such as e-Government forms (land records and marriage licenses, among others). The Intel project looks more likely to succeed than the $100 laptop being developed by MIT MediaLab. As we commented when the laptop was launched at Davos last year, the idea of one-person-one-device misses the important point: connectivity is at least as much about the design of clever business models as it is about the private ownership of technological devices. The Doors crowd learned this lesson ten years ago when the extraordinary Sam Pitroda spoke at Doors 4, in 1996. Pitroda enabled hundreds of millons of people to gain access to telephony in India by designing the Public Call Office (PCO) concept – a low-tech, high-smarts system based on the clever sharing of devices and infrastructure. The PCO model, which is further explained here, also informed our exploration of infrastructure design at Doors 8 in Delhi last year. Then, Intel’s Tony Salvador started an interesting argument about the ethics of ethnography used for and by commercial companies. By what right do designers study peoples daily lives if their purpose is to develop new products? Who owns such information, anyway? (Louise Ferguson has compiled a handy archive of texts about the subject; and there’s another good one here which I learned about from Mark Vanderbeeken).

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Homeless urban designers

Cluster is running a series of pieces on the spontaneous cities, favelas, bidonvilles and squatter cities that grow independently “creating their own networks without the help of traditional planning or design”. In the new issue Frederica Verona describes her visits to numerous dormitories, day centres, and soup kitchens in Milan. She discovered that a number of homeless sleep in hidden corners where they will not easily be found by social workers and volunteers. One result is that dormitories, showers and food kitchens – which sound grim anyway – are not located near the people who use them. Mobile units deliver care to street people, but Verona was “amazed at how a mobile service could interrupt the stability of a setting”.

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Low-carb clusters

As noted yesterday, it makes me nervous that so much money is pouring into biotech clusters; the sector has bubble-like features and is based on a absurd proposition: that technology will help us cheat death. New and renewable energy is a surer bet for a region’s economic future. World leader in this market, by some accounts, is Switzerland. The country is ranked as the worldwide leader in preventing carbon dioxide emissions, and third in recycling efforts; some 18,000 people are employed in environmental protection technology firms. The country has committed to reduce per capita energy use by two thirds. (Each day a person in Switzerland consumes about 6000 Watts of energy for the production of food and other goods, for heating and cooling buildings, and for mobility. The country has a target of a “2000-Watt society” and is investing heavily in new energy concepts and technologies to achieve that). Canada, too, is making a bug push; in Ontario, an organisation called Earth and Environmental Technologies (ETech) supports a wide range of projects to do with sustainable agriculture, clean water technologies, sustainable energy, resource management, and sustainable Infrastructure. The North East of England, has made renewable and microgeneration technologies a strategic focus, too. But it would be an exaggeration to describe these technologies as ‘solutions’. Still missing is a seamless and supplier-independent service that advises householders which, among the variety of different solutions, is appropriate, in what combination – and which fits them and looks after them. We’ll be looking at this gap in a project within Dott.

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Biomedical downtowns

An intriguing story in next month’s Cluster magazine describes plans in China for the world’s first urban biomedical hub. Sascha Haselmayer, one of its advisors, writes that Fenglin Biomedical Centre will concentrate life science, medical care services, medical education, business incubation, and medical exhibitions, in the Xuhui district of Shanghai. Haselmayer says Fenglin is about “building a healthcare system that has to almost instantly provide for more than one billion currently unprotected people”. Fenglin can become a global biomedical hub, he says, that will “increase productivity, and speed up the process from scientific discovery to bedside product”. Emerging trends such as lifestyle diseases, preventive medicine, and bio-informatics, have further stimulated interest from international partners. And there, for me, is where FMC is misconceived. It’s an urban development project, not a health service one. As I discovered in Korea a while back, biomedical clusters (here’s a map of them) like Fenglin are popular with investors and multinationals. Large inflows of capital are attracted by tax breaks and what Haselmayer describes as “an inclusive yet visionary governance” that, in Fenglin’s case, includes a Patenting Center to assist in interrnationalisation/localisation of patents. But the latest thinking on health favours the radical decentralisation of care – not its concentration, and not its technological intensification. A business model based on the privatisation of medical knowledge is also unlikely to benefit China’s population. Investors will probably get sick, too, when the wildly over-egged promises being made for biomedicine turn out to be chimeras.

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Life after overshoot

What will life be like when our growing economy overshoots its carrying capacity, degrades its resource base, and collapses? A gripping description of this more-likely-than-not outcome is included in a British government report about Intelligent Infrastructure Futures. Andrew Curry and colleagues developed four contrasting scenarios of life in 2050, one of which is called Tribal Trading. “After a sharp and savage energy shock, the global economic system is severely damaged. Infrastructure is falling into disrepair. Long distance travel is a luxury few can enjoy. For most people, the world has shrunk to their own community. Cities have declined, and local food production and services have increased. Local transport is typically by bike and horse”. There are local conflicts over resources, and lawlessness is high. But less energy means there is more physical work to be done, so people are fitter. And it’s not as if life becomes non-tech. Electricity is available from ‘microgrids’ – small community networks that integrate wind and solar power. And there’s still an internet: It’s based on wireless mesh networks whose servers are maintained by a new breed of scavenger-nerds who scour the old world’s electronic detritus for re-usable circuit boards and memory. Tribal Trading was regarded as the worst case of four scenarios developed by the report’s small army of technocrats. But Tribal Trading sounds preferable, to me, to the high-speed, perpetual motion, Always On scenario which is where we’re headed now.
If the report has a weakness, it is in describing as hypothetical futures, changes that are happening now. For example, it speculates that “perhaps in 50 years there could be a Department of Intelligent Infrastructure’ – but in FedEx and DHL, we have just such organisations today – they’re just private. Another section refers to “growing resistance in 2040 to 24/7 working patterns”. But massive disaffection with that lifestyle is recorded in numerous happiness surveys of present times. It’s only because we need to service massive personal debts that we keep working – and the money system, too, is tottering. Although Tribal Trading is not inevitable – some combination of the four scenarios is the likely outcome – one footnote does state that “The overshoot scenario is the most likely. Our system is inherently structured for overshoot and collapse”. But maybe it won’t be so bad.

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Hi, Protein!

Warm congratulations to one of our favourite and most respected newsletter-website things, Ninfomania aka Protein° Feed aka Protein° Supplement. Today, Protein celebrates it’s 300th issue, having first been published in September 1997 to 14 people. It is now enjoyed by an international audience of over 9,000 select subscribers. Go there, subscribe, push them to 10k as a birthday treat!

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Doors in D.C.

I’ll be in Washington DC for the nights of 29, 30, 31 March (for IDSA/Business Week jury duty). If you’re in DC (or know Doors persons there) we could meet for a Doors brunch on Saturday morning (April 1). Interested? Then mail me:

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Utopia by design? Creative communities in Europe

An international seminar on design, welfare and local development takes place in Milan on 28 March. The event concludes the two year Emude project (in which Doors is a partner) that explored social innovation in 10 European countries. Emude is a Europe-wide investigation into the phenomenon of people who, in a wide range of contexts, invent new ways of carrying out daily life activities. This botom-up innovation by creative communities is found throughout Europe’s knowledge-based societies.This phenomenon of diffused creativity has the potential, we believe, to drive the major social and economic changes that will be needed during the transition to sustainability. Emude investigated these creative communities with from a design perspective. That is to say, we observed their ideas and practices with an eye to the design and deployment of enabling platforms. Enabling platforms would enable creative communities to be innovative more effectively – and to multiply. They are infrastructure systems based on products, services, communication and governance tools. These platforms, we surmise, would enable larger numbers of people to solve daily life problems in an active way. Sometimes these activities will generate shared or common goods, and a new sense of citizenship.
In summary, the key results of Emude, which will be dioscussed at the seminar, are:
a) the identification of creative communites – and descriptions of their role in a knowledge based society as key actors in the transition towards sustainability
b) definition of the notion of diffused social enterprise and discussion of its potential role in the fields of active welfare and sustainable local development
c) an initial description of the enabling platforms that could enhance the effectivenesss of the diffused social enterprise
d) proposal of an policy agenda for bottom-up initiatives – a list of actions to be taken to create a better environment for creative communities to arise, and to evolve as strong, scalable, social enterprises. (An online book about the 56 cases at the centre of Emude will be published in April).
Milan, 28 March, 09.30-13.00h. Politecnico di Milano, Campus Bovisa, Via Durando 10, Aula CT46.Carla Cipolla

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