The post-spectacular city

(This is my lecture to a conference at Westergasfabriek, in Amsterdam, called Creativity and the City, on 25 September 2003)
In Rajhastan, travelling storytellers go from village to village, unannounced, and simply start a performance when they arrive. Although each story has a familiar plot – the story telling tradition dates back thousands of years – each event is unique. Prompted by the storytellers, who hold up pictorial symbols on sticks, the villagers interact with the story. They joke, interject, and sometimes argue with the storyteller. They are part of the performance.
Hearing about these storytellers reminded how much we have lost, in the ‘developed’ world, of the un-mediated, impromptu interactions that once made cities vital.
We now design messages, not interactions. The world is awash in print, and ads, and billboards, and packaging, and spam. Semiotic pollution. Brand intrusion at every turn.
Our buildings are now about one-way-communication, too. Sports stadia, museums, theatres, science and convention centres. Such buildings do an accomplished technical job: they deliver pre-cooked experiences to passive crowds.
And whom do we have to thank for this semiotic pollution, for the catatonic spaces that despoil our physical and perceptual landscapes?
The “creative class”. That’s who’s responsible. In the same way that mill owners optimised mass production, the creative class has optimised the society of the spectacle.
At least mill owners bequeathed us well-made industrial cities. The creative class will be less fondly remembered. Their legacy is meaningless, narcissistic cities.
Luckily, the era of the creative class is over. Point-to-mass advertising, onanistic art, and big-ticket spectacles, are over.
We are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture. Our cities, from now on, will be judged by their capacity to foster collaboration, encounter, intimacy, and work. Much like cities used to be judged, before they fell into the hands of the creative class.
I’ll explain more about these design criteria for cities in the second half of my talk. In the first half, I explain just why it would be foolish to dedicate our cities to ‘creatives’ and the impoverished, sender-receiver model that informs their activities.
SPECTACLES MAKE US BLIND
There are three reasons why it would be foolish to entrust the future of our cities to the creative class.
The first is its autism. Autism is defined in Webster as “absorption in self-centred subjective mental activity, especially when accompanied by a marked withdrawal from reality”.
An example. A week ago I attended a meeting here in Amsterdam on the subject of “Hosting” The invitation posed an interesting question: ”What is the relationship between art biennales, and their host cities?” Many international art powerbrokers turned up for this meeting, which was hosted by an organisation called Manifesta. Ten or 12 of them sat round a table.
In the event, the meeting was a waste of time and space. All the curators and critics and producers discussed were ‘viewers’ and ‘audiences’ and ‘publics’. They banged on endlessly about the business of biennales, but lacked any insight into the changing nature of business.
It dawned on me, as I struggled to stay awake, that Art has become most attractive to the interests it once ridiculed.
The tourism industry loves art because its events and museums are ‘attractions’. Property developers love art because a bijou gallery lends allure to egregious projects. For city marketers, an art biennale bestows glamour, and an aura of intelligence, on a city.
“Our events are not summer camps”, pleaded Franco Bonami, director of the Venice Biennale. (Mr Bonami invited more than 500 artists to this year’s event). But he did not mention one single word about what, if anything, these 500 people had to say – or why the rest of us should care.
After two hours I had to leave. “Hosting” felt like a sales meeting for Saga Holidays.
So then I went to Japan where Prada, which is said to be 1.5 billion euros in debt, has lavished $87 million on a new Herzog and de Meuron-designed store, in Tokyo. Now for Aaron Betsky, (a previous speaker, Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute) the Prada building would be a right and proper thing to do. Shopping, he just told us, is the fundamental purpose of cities today.
For me, the whole Prada project smells like the last days of Rome. The Plexiglas exterior, which is like bubble-wrap, certainly stands out. The new shop is on the Tokyo equivalent of P C Hooftstraat. (Amsterdam’s fashion street). I popped in for a look.
Ten minutes. Quite nice. Been there, done that.
Prada spent 87 million bucks on a clothes shop that contained nothing I wanted to buy, but that’s their right. A creative consultant called Christopher Everard told The Economist that, “by using iconic architects, the label is building brand equity”. Mr Everard’s firm is called “InterLife Consultancy”. I emailed him the suggestion that he change its name to “Get A Life Consultancy” – but he has not replied.
Besides, Pravda’s investment is chickenfeed, a mere grain of corn, compared to Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills tower. This 800,000 square metre monster had just opened when I was there. No expense has been spared by Yoshiko Mori, its developer, to compensate local people for the sacrifice of their old neighbourhood to progress and creativity. Several traditional features have been retained, I was told, including a Japanese garden, a Buddhist temple, and a children’s park.
When I visited Roppongi Hills, these human-scale traces of old Tokyo proved hard to find. They were hidden among the 200 shops, 75 restaurants, and a zillion square feet of office space and apartments that fill the building.
The Zen garden may be lost, but compensation and enlightenment await you at the top of the tower: the Mori Museum of Art.
A Who’s Who of the global art establishment – including Nicholas Serota from the Tate, and David Elliot, its British Director – have joined this lavishly funded enterprise. Glenn Lowry from the New York MoMA is also on board, apparently unperturbed by his client’s appropriation of the Moma name.
The museum opens next month with a biting and critical look at the modern society which begat it. The show is called, ”Happiness: a survival guide for art and life”.
Only people with a ‘community passport’ are admitted to this Xanadu of art-as-happiness. The passport, curiously, closely resembles a credit card. But still: it gains you access to all those shops and restaurants and – piece de resistance – an orange bar designed by Conran Associates.
The art museum itself was not yet open when I visited, but six museum shops were. They were doing a roaring trade.
“Art, design and happiness” says the brochure, “the kind of place that we want to become”.
Not of all of us, Mori-san. “Tourism – human circulation considered as consumption – is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal”. Guy Debord wrote that more than 40 years ago, in The Society Of the Spectacle. He would not have warmed to Roppongi Hills.
In much the same way that that tourism kills the toured, ‘cultural industries’ like museums-and-shopping destroy diversity and desolate their host environment. CIs are like GM crops: bland, tasteless, and a threat to the ecosystem.
I do not deny that the economic case for the creative class is strong. After all, designing all those spectacles is big business.
A new trade fair and exhibition in Philadelphia, which calls itself “Exp”, announces itself as “The Event That Defines The Experience Industry”. I didn’t go to Exp, but I did go to the website. The middle-aged, white male speakers boasted a remarkable collection of jowls and bad haircuts. They promised to tell me, “how to gain a greater share of your guest’s discretionary time and disposable income”; how to “destroy the myth that great experience need huge budgets” (sic); and, “how to surf the generational shift”.
The website did not mention a session on how to speak English, but this omission did not deter the creative classes. They flocked to Exp – enthralled. no doubt, by its convenient clustering of four key themes: Corporate Visitor Centres, Retail, Casinos, and Museums.
The other big spectacle business is sport. Sophisticated Paris, in its bid for the Olympics, says that sport is replacing culture as an attractor in urban regeneration. “The role that investment plays in the Games of the 21st century will be comparable to that played by industrialisation at the end of the 19th century”, burbles their bid.
Claude Bebear, chairman of the Paris Olympic Committee, does not think of sport as kicking a ball around a field. He thinks about twenty million dollar sponsorships, and the well-being of the people who provide the spectacle. Claude’s plan for a sporty Paris features private road lanes for the exclusive use of athletes and officials. A travel time of 12 minutes, from bed to track, is promised to the muscle-bound sportspersons and their crypto-fascist paymasters. If the bed-t-track journey proves too taxing, an internet and electronic games centre will be provided to “help athletes relax and get in touch with the outside world”. Le Moniteur, eds, 2001, Paris olympiques: twelve architectute and urban planning projects for the 2008 games, Paris, Editions du Moniteur
ACTION MAN
But I digress. I’ve made the point that pre-programmed cultural ‘attractions’ and ‘experiences’ are on the wane. The nightmare of “art and design as happiness” is nearly over.
And I should also stress that the “creatives” who make them are not personally to blame. They – we – are the symptom, not the cause, of a cultural affliction that touches us all.
So what are alternatives? This brings me to the second part of my talk.
Tor Norretranders, in his book The user illusion, explains beautifully what’s missing from the mediated, specacular, dis-located, and disembodied experiences that blight our lives. Once we know what’s missing, we can put it back.
“Most of what we experience we can never tell each other about” writes Tor. “During any given second, we consciously process only sixteen of the eleven million bits of information that our senses pass on to our brains”.
In other words, the unconscious part of us receives much less information than the conscious part of us. We experience millions of bits a second but can tell each other about only a few dozen.
Humans, concludes Norretranders, are designed for a much richer existence than processing a dribble of data from computer screen, or a wide-screen display in Times Square.There is far too little information in the Information Age. Spectacles may be spectacular, but they are low bandwidth.
“I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action, over a life of consumption. Rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows to produce and consume, the future depends upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action”.
That was Ivan Illich, in 1973. Thirty years ahead of the rest of us, Illich argued for the creation of convivial and productive situations – including our cities. A sustainable city, Illich understood, has to be a working city, a city of encounter and interaction – not a city for the passive participation in entertainment. www.infed.org/thinkers/et-illic.htm
What matters most in a post-spectacular city is activity, not architecture. As the director Peter Brook has said, “It is not a question of good building, and bad. A beautiful place may never bring about an explosion of life, while a haphazard hall may be a tremendous meeting place. This is the mystery of the theatre, but in the understanding of this mystery lies the one science. It is not a matter of saying analytically, what are the requirements, how best they could be organized — this will usually bring into existence a tame, conventional, often cold hall. The science of theatre building must come from studying what it is that brings about the more vivid relationships between people.
Tame, conventional, cold. How many buildings do those words recall? Torsten Hagerstrand has studied dysfunctional spaces – and good ones – and how people use space and time for thirty years. He says it is the ability to make contact with people that determines the success of a transport system or location. Hagerstand [q in Whitelegg) Hagerstrand T, Space time and the human condition, in Karlquist A, Lundquist L, and Snickars F (eds) Dynamic allocation of urban space, Saxon House, Lexington MA 1975
Peter Brook, too, as I said, asked us to focus on what it is that what it is that brings about “the more vivid relationships between people.
One of those things is the mobile phone. It’s impacting remarkably on our interactions with space and community. Mobile phones stimulate connections between people who already know each other, or have something in common. They can also help crowds assemble, as we saw in Seattle, in 1999.
That’s not major news. The more interesting change is the way wireless communications connect people, resources, and places to each other on a real-time basis, and in new combinations. Demand responsive services, as they call them in the (service design) trade.
Traditional city planning designates different zones for different activities: industrial, residential and commercial. Telecommunications are changing the nature and inter-action of activities that “take place” in these three types of location.
Think of the taxi systems you have encountered. They are demand responsive services, to a degree. The old model was that you would ring a dispatcher; the dispatcher offers your trip all the drivers on a radio circuit;
One driver would accept the job; and the dispatcher would send that taxi to you.
A better way, now being introduced in many cities, is that you ring the system; the system recognises who you are, and where you are; it identifies where the nearest available taxi is; and it sends that taxi to you. Dynamic, real-time, resource allocation.
Now: replace the world “taxi” with the word sandwich. Or with the words, “someone to show me round the back streets of the old town”. Or the words, “a nerd to come and fix my laptop” Or the words, “someone to play ping pong with”. Or suppose you feel like helping out in a school, and hanging out with kids for a day.
In every case, networked communications, and dynamic resource allocation, have the potential to connect you, with what you want. It just needs to be organised.
You could be a supplier, too. Perhaps you have time on your hands. Make good sandwiches. Know the old town like the back of your hand. Have a nerdy daughter who’s looking for work. Know there’s a ping-pong table in Mrs Graham’s garage, which they never use. Or perhaps you don’t feel like dealing with Form 5 on your own this week.
What do you do? You call the system. Or the system calls you.
The reason I’ve jumped from the creative class, to mobile phones and networks, is this. If the post-spectacular city is about person-to-person encounter, technology can help us achieve that. The consequence can be a profound change in the ways that we operate, and live, in cities.
With networked communications we will be able to access and use everything from a car, to a portable drill, only when we need it. We won’t have to own them, just know how and where to find them.
Did you know that the average power drill is used for ten minutes in its entire life? Or that most cars stand idle 90 per cent of the time? The same principle – of use, not own – can apply to the buildings, roads, squares and spaces that fill our cities.
But the killer app is access to other people. People is what makes cities different from other places. The creative city will be the city that finds ways to strip out all the transaction and infrastructure costs that make it expensive to hire people to help us do stuff.
In retrospect, we got the information age completely wrong. We thought it would be smart to remove people from services: we called it ‘disintermediation’. It reads as it was: a pain in the nexk.
We also thought we couild do without place.Nicholas Negroponte stated in Being Digital, the dotcommer’s bible, that “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will depend less and less on being in a specific place,at a specific time”. Lars Lerup,dean of the architecture school at Rice University – and a dotcommer manque – proclaimed in a book approriately named Pandemonium that “bandwidth has replaced the boulevard. Five blocks west has given way to the mouseclick. After thousands of years of bricks held together by mortar, the new metropolis is toggled together by attention spans.” Brandon Hookway, 1999, PANDEMONIUM Princeton Architectural Press New York.
All that stuff was, in retrospect, piffle. But we all did it, including this speaker. He apologises, and pleads only that he is a tiny bit wiser after the event.
The point is that the information age has been added to the industrial age. Telematic space has been added to Cartesian space. The one did not supplant the other.
And mobile phones and networks do not make the city disappear. On the contrary, they render the city itself more powerful as an interface.
Sometimes this is at the level of tools. Experiments are under way in which mobile phone act like a remote control to activate technology in our surroundings. You stand at a bus stop, and summon up your personal web page on one of the panels. J C Decaux, or Viacom Outdoors, control millions of such urban surfaces which could be used for such an application.
Researchers at Interaction-Ivrea, in Italy, had another good idea: connect these displays to the printers in ATM machines. You could print out SMS messages, or a local map, on the ATM printer.
Other projects treat the whole city, not just its furniture, as an interface. A project called New York Wireless, for example, has identified more than 12,000 wireless access hot points throughout Manhattan alone, and put their location on a website.”The result is a new layer of infrastructure”, says co-founder Anthony Townsend.”But no streets were torn up. No laws were passed. This network has been made possible by the proliferation of ever more affordable wireless routers and networking devices. Mobile devices re-assert geography on the internet”.
Marko Ahtisaari, a future gazer at Nokia, says that enabling proximity – getting people together, in real space – has become a stratgic focus, the killer application of wirelsss communications.”Mobile telephony might seem very much to do with being apart, but a lot of telecommunications behaviour is aimed at getting together physically in the same place”, he says.
Proximity and locality are natural features of the economy. Worldwide, the vast majority of small and medium-sized companies – that’s most of all companies – operate within a radius of 50km. Most of the world’s GDP is highly localised. Local conditions, local trading patterns, local networks, local skills, and local culture, are critical success factors for the majority of organizations.
Mobile phone and wireless-enabled gadgets enable us to access people, or resources, or services – just-in-time, and just-in-place.
By doping that, they also design away the need for mobility, or much of it. Demand-responsive services, combined with location-awareness, combined with dynamic resource allocation, have the capacity dramatically to reduce the mobility-supporting hardware of a city: its roads, vehicles, malls and car parks.
Imagine there’s a kind of slider on your phone. You set it to “sandwich” and “within five minutes walk” or “within a five dollar cab ride” – and use those parameters to search for whatever it is you need.
You don’t need to own it. You don’t even need to go far to get it. You just need to know how to access it.
MONDAY MORNING TO-DOS
Talks like this one are supposed end with a list of things you might do on Monday morning. But I just criticised creatives for over-designing our cities, so it would be hypocritical of me to give you a list of things to do.
So let me summarise. I have said that we are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture. It’s for this reason that it would be foolish to hand over our cities to the “creative class”.
They just don’t get it. More to the point, their business model drives them on. Our cities are over-designed because the creative classes get paid for designing things.
‘Creatives’ don’t get paid for leaving well alone.That’s a conundrum we’ll need to resolve.
The second part of my talk touched on some of the ways wireless communication, and networks, enable people, places, and things, to be connected in new and often unexpected ways – and times. I also explained that the information age has not replaced the real-word age – but it is certainly transforming the ways we use and live in it.
I do have one suggestion for what you can do on Monday morning. Go out and buy Italo Calvino’s wonderful book, Invisible Cities – of which the following is an extract:
“The Great Kahn contemplates an empire covered with cities that weigh upon the earth and upon mankind, crammed with wealth and traffic, overladen with ornaments and offices, complicated with mechanisms and hierachies, swollen, tense, ponderous. “The empire is being crushed by its own weight” Kublai thinks, and in his dreams,cities as light as kites appear, pierced like laces, cities transparent as mosquito netting, cities like leaves’ veins, cities lined like a hand’s palm, filigree cities to be seen through their opaque and fictitious thickness”

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Time In Design (24 hour workshop on time and sustainability, Delft. 2003)

If the throw-away society is over, how do we design for longevity in products and services? Eternally Yours, a Dutch foundation, organised a round-the-clock, 24-hour event to look at this timely question. Eighty different projects, case studies and scenarios – all dealing with time in design – were presented. The event experimented with a range of formats and tempos – from one-minute films, and 100-word lectures, to slow-food dinners and leisurely fireside chats.
time-in-design.JPG
Doors of Perception, and The Long Now Foundation, supported the event by helping with speaker selection and publicity. A gorgeous book of the event, edited by Ed van Hinte, was published later.

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Fused space (A competiton about new ways to use new media, The Netherlands, 2003)

fusedspace.jpg
Can you imagine a way to enable novel and exciting interactions in public space, using new technologies? A first prize of ten thousand euros was at stake in Fused Space , an international competition organised by the Dutch design foundation Premsela to find inspiring applications for new technology in the public domain. As a partner in the project, Doors of Perception helped promote the event, and John Thackara served on the final jury.

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Chain gangs: reinventing the Hanseatic League

In which I talk to Winy Maas about the design of webs, networks and archipelagos of cities and regions. This story was published in July 2003 In Domus magazine.
Sustainable cities, working cities, are necessarily complex, heavily linked, and diverse. As the English writer Will Hutton has commented, just as local knowledge and information was key 150 years ago, when there were 80 different steps in the button-making industry, so, too, complex local knowledge and linkages are also key today if you are a software, media, care, or educational enterprise.The ideal city needs to contain a rich mixture of craft-based workshops, consultants, law firms, accountants, distribution and logistics companies, advertising agencies, universities, research labs, database publishers, and local or regional government offices. Unique skills, clusters of specialised suppliers, local roots, and a variety of human skills that are unique to a region – all these are a powerful advantage for local cities and regions on today’s economic stage.
This picture confronts smaller cities with a dilemma: they cannot realistically offer the same density and complexity of knowledge skills that a large metropolis can. The metropolitan centers have their own problems, it is true, but they will always win on diversity, which is a key to evolutionary success. So how are the smaller ones to compete?
According to Winy Maas, a principal of the Dutch bureau MVRDV, the answer lies in webs, chains, networks, and ‘archipelagos’ of cities and smaller regions. By aggregating their hard and soft assets, collective cities – or multi-centered cities – can match the array of functions and resources of bigger centres, while also delivering superior social quality. The ability of small cities to offer a context that supports intimacy and encounter – what the French call ‘la vie associative’ – is where small-city webs will win out over the big centres.
City alliances are not a completely new idea. City networks date back to the thirteenth century when, in the Hansa League, an alliance of more than seventy merchant cities collaborated effectively for their common good in order to control exports and imports over a wide swathe of Europe. A powerful network of trading partners, with its own accounting system and shared vocabulary – the Hansa League became one of the major economic forces of the Middle Ages. At one stage it controlled much of Scandinavia, the Baltic states, northern Germany and Poland – and outposts can be found even today as far apart as Scotland and the Basque country.
TERRITORIAL CAPITAL
Today’s urban and regional networks can be traced back to the formation of the International Union of Cities in 1913. The Treaty of Rome, in 1957, accelerated the emergence of networks of cities and regions as supra-nation state actors in Europe. Increased globalization has put considerable pressure on cities to network among themselves – sharing, partnering and learning. Globalisation has also driven smaller cities to re-discover Hansa-style alliances, and to market them using new business techniques. According to Philip Kotler, a marketing professor in the United States, some ten per cent of business-to-business advertising – a vast amount – is now spent on marketing places, regions and nations. Kotler has identified 80,000 communities within the EU which, in one way or another, need to differentiate themselves from each other. Place marketing – or, more properly, place and regional design – aggregates and networks complementary functions and core competiencies of a region. In Europe the concept of ‘territorial capital’ is used increasingly to describe the synthesis of these hard and soft assets of a region.The hard assets include natural beauty and features; shopping facilities; cultural attractions; buildings, museums, monuments, and so on. Soft assets are all about people and culture: skills, traditions, festivals, events and occasions, situations, settings, social ties, civic loyalty, memories, and capacity to learn.
For networked, multi-centered cities to succeed, these different kinds of territorial and social and intellectual capital need to be linked together by a combination of physical and informational networks. The hubs, links, and physical and informational flows of a region need to be proactively designed in ways that help a working culture flourish.
The biggest pressure of all on cities to collaborate is environmental. Bigger cities guzzle more energy and resources per head than do smaller ones. Smaller cities, which are located closer to resources, and in which people and goods need to move less, are lighter. Cities also guzzle land. A German Federal Statistical Office forecast in 1997 that Germany would turn into a 100 per cent settled landmass within 82 years if three per cent economic growth persisted.
MULTIMODAL MOBILITY
Mobile communications are already transforming time-space relations in favour of smaller towns, working together. Where this author lives, in the Netherlands, planners hope that transport telematics will make it possible for me to to think more, and drive less. They expect to reduce so-called vehicle hours (the time spent by vehicles in traffic) by an ambitious 25 per cent. A key concept in Dutch policy is the multimodal or ‘chain approach’. The idea is that information systems will help me work out the best combination of walking, bicycle, private car, train, bus, plane, or boat – before I set off. Right now, individual transport information systems are pretty good – train and bus websites are reliable and reasonably easy to use. But they don’t work together. The next step is so to connect systems that I will enter the beginning and end points of a journey (in place, and in time) into the programme, and be offered a menu of ways to complete it.
As Nokia future-gazer Marko Ahtisaari explained at Doors of Perception 7: Flow, mobile phones can enhance proximity and reduce the allure of ‘far’. “Although mobility and mobile telephony seem very much to do with being apart, in fact the evidence is quite to the contrary,” he said. “A lot of telecommunications behaviour is aimed at getting together physically – I mean, quite simply, physically close, the stuff that happens between the one-to-ten centimetres range and room-size interaction. While we talk about devices being connected, and everything being connected in a technological sense, social interaction will be a prime driver in the future as well, even in technologically enhanced social interaction.”
CLUSTERS OF COMPLEXITY
Architects and spatial planners started thinking about clusters in the 1960s. In 1963, Christopher Alexander and Serge Chermayeff wrote that, in designing on a large scale, “We must look at the links, the interactions, and the patterns.” Following that initial insight architecture and planning evolved rather slowly – but in recent years the sustainability agenda has given the networked approach new impetus.
According to Winy Maas, “The magnitude of information concerning a region is overwhelming: complex, and constantly changing. This multi-scalar approach is new for design. It is nearly impossible to represent all the relationships, and the webs of interdependencies, of a region. The integration of hard and soft factors is complex enough – but planners, policy makers and designers now also have to deal with a new dimension of complexity: a variety of new actors. Privatised network industries, such as railway companies, airports, electricity supliers, and telecommunications operators, are influential actors. So, too, are citizens who, with growing confidence, are demanding that social agendas – such as social inclusion, or sustainability – are factored into planning processes.
“As the speed of spatial, economical and political developments and processes accelerates, we need a more dynamic approach and tools for planning”, says Maas. ” Such tools turn massive volumes of raw data into visualizations. This is not about broad-brush visions of the idealised futures, says Maas. “We keep getting asked to make ‘visions’ for cities and regions”, Maas explains, “but I want to make planning, design and thinking tools that people can really use. We are measuring an increasing variety of things, and collecting vast quantities of data. The question is: how to use it. How are we to perceive and connect all this information in ways that add value and meaning to the raw data? Increasingly, that means how do we represent the data, visually, in order to work on and with it. We also need to make these tools more accessible and usable by non-specialised actors and stakeholders”.
THE REGIONMAKER
Maas and his colleagues have therefore become toolmakers. They have developed a family of software tools, called the Regionmaker, which was first devised by MVRDV for a project called RhineRuhrCity .The Kommunalverband Ruhrgebiet (KVR), a union of cities in the region, has invested in a series of initiatives to improve its post-indstrial situation, and today fewer than six percent work works in coal and steel. But perceptions remain that this is the Detroit of Europe, a landscape dotted with ghost towns, overgrown industries and polluted areas. “The region is very well connected logistically,” says Maas. “It has incredible water resources, a dense university system, and successful media and computer industries. But these assets are fragmented. As you find in so many places in Europe, it’s a mosaic of competing municipalities, rather than one entity.” Hence the project to reposition the area as one place, one city: RhineRuhrCity.
The Regionmaker, which combines the function of search engine, browser, and graphical interface, brings together a variety of existing information sources and flows – for example, demographic data, or outputs from Geographical Informations Systems (GIS) or ‘geomatics’, as they are now called. “In a nutshell,” says Maas, “the idea is that within the context of a globalizing world, international databanks, advanced computers, internet and intranet systems, game technology, global monitoring and information systems, can be integrated in ways that convincingly represent regions. With the Regionmaker, there is no limit to visualization. You can look at maps, study charts, access databases, export images, import video feeds from helicopters or satellites, connect to the internet, use CAD drawings, and so on.”
Maas anticipates that the Regionmaker will evolve as a tree-structure of sub-machines and routines. MVRDV have plans to add representations of knowledge on the movement of people, goods and information. A housing sub-routine could develop scenarios for optimal housing designs. A light calculator could optimise the need for and control of, natural light in built spaces. A ‘function mixer’ would propose optimal mixtures of activities according to economic, social or cultural criteria.
Maas speculates that systems such as the Regionmaker could become decision support systems in a more pro-active and critical sense. “We could add an Evaluator, or an Evolver that can suggest criticism of the input we make,” he speculates. But there will never be a single programme for everything – and Regionmaker will never be finished. “We think of it not as all-in-one Big Brother software, but as an intricate network of different software programmes operating at different spatial dimensions.”

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Pros and cons of Dutch design

I was asked by the main Japanese design magazine, Axis, to write an ‘afterword’ for their special issue on Dutch design. I took the opportunity to reflect on trends in design policy in other countries.
Dutch design has enjoyed tremendous international success and prestige in recent years. Can it last?
One reason ifor its recent success is that The Netherlands is possibly the most intelligent market for design in the world. Sophisticated public and private sector clients know how to commission and manage design. And most cities and government agencies have procurement policies that enable projects to be awarded to the best design, not just to the cheapest proposal.
But profound changes, now happening in the world at large, raise an important question about the ability of Dutch design to respond to new challenges.
We are in the middle of a transition to an economy in which services are more significant than stand-alone products. Can thing-based designers, or for that matter architects, make this transition too – or are they doomed to be left behind?
In reflecting on these questions for design in The Netherlands, I draw positive – but also some negative – conclusions.
Dutch people take it for granted that they will redesign the landscape – and even nature itself. The whole country is a never-ending design project. Continuous and heavy investment in transport and logistics infrastructures has been part of an economic strategy nicknamed ‘Holland Main Port’.
The big idea of the last 10 or 15 years was to make the entire country a transport and logistics hub for Europe. At Schiphol alone, tens of thousands of square metres of new buildings were developed to support the booming air-freight business.
But Schiphol is only one element of a bigger transformation. All over the country, enormous warehouses and freight interchanges have been built at the intersection between rail, road and water routes. The result: one of the busiest and most integrated – but also most congested – multi-modal transport networks in the world.
This enormous investment programme is a break with the country’s cultural heritage as a trading nation that travels light.
This break with the country’s mercantile tradition is not easy to reconcile with the promotion of a knowledge-based economy fuelled by higher levels of investment in software than in hardware.
The ‘mainport Holland’ strategy is controversial with environmentalists, too, who argue that the ecological impact of high-density and high-value mobility (such as air freight) is nearly always damaging.
Many architects and designers have benefited from these massive investments in buildings and infrastructure. But they, along with government policy makers, now have to change direction.
The Dutch are globally renowned experts in the development of physical infrastructure – from dykes to airports – but the challenge now is to design ‘knowledge infrastructure’ – and that won’t be easy.
New times, new design policy
Around the world, new ways to think about, and do design are emerging.
Therere is growing poressure to understand natural, industrial and cultural systems – and the interactions between them – as the context for innovation. Clientrs – and regulators –are steadily forcing innovators to consider the sustainability of material and energy flows in all the product-service systems we design.
Tomorrow’s solutions will not be based on products on their own, in the old sense, but by product-service systems.
An example would be a car-sharing scheme, such as the Green Wheels service, that I use in Amsterdam. I do not own a car, but I subscribe to a mobility and car sharing service. When I need to use a vehicle, I locate one via a website and pay by the hour.
The design, integration, and operation of such product-service systems is where the greatest value will be created in the future. If a country does not make product-service systems the focus of its design policy, it runs the risk of falling behind.
Holland is well-placed to play a leading role in the development of product-service systems.
The situation in new media also remains positive.When CNN described Amsterdam as as ‘Europe’s Cyber City’ during the mid-1990s, it was in response to the fact that many global players were making Amsterdam their European centre of operations. This was in part because of a lively multi-media and internet design scene. Despite the dot.com meltdown, the Amsterdam New Media Association has many hundreds of active members.
Dutch artistic and cultural practice is, by its very nature, diverse, independent, and interdisciplinary. Doors of Perception, for example, is a member of the so-called ‘Virtual Platform’ of organisations busy with design and artistic research in new media. Our fellow-members include a media arts lab, V2, which produces the Dutch Electronic Art Festival; Steim, a celebrated music and acoustics research lab; Montevideo, an archive and production centre for video art; deBalie, a centre for debate and discussion in the centre of Amsterdam; The Waag Society For Old and New Media; Paradiso, a famous rock-and-roll venue that also stages new media programmes; and so on.
None of the member organizations of the Virtual Platform has more than 10 or 12 staff, but we collaborate with each other on a regular basis. Later this year, for example, (October 2003), we will jointly organise the E-Culture Fair – a two-day ‘bazaar’ of experimental new media art and design projects.
Design research in Hollland is often initiated by small but collaborative groups. Eternally Yours, a Dutch foundation, is organising Time in Design, a round-the-clock, 24-hour event in October, to look at a crucial question: if the throw-away society is over, how do we design for longevity in products and services?
Important design innovation also takes place in the big universities. In the environmental domain, for example, Kathalys is a Centre for Sustainable Product Innovation run by TNO and Delft University of Technology. For more than ten years, Kathalys has led the way internationally in initiating and realising sustainable product innovations.
The need for institutional innovation
These positve developments – Kathalys, VIrtual Platform, and so on – exist on the edge of mainstream Dutch design. Edges are Dutch design’s strong point.
But, as an institution, Dutch design – in common with many professions – has been slow to learn and adapt in a fast-changing world. I
Its schools and universities, its professional associations, and its specialist media, are still struggling to escape from an essentially nineteenth century understanding of design practice.
A persistent focus on what things look like in design academies is exacerbated by structural divisions between design disciplines – and between those disciplies, and other branches of knowledge.
Connectivity between people and ideas is further hindered by the turf-protecting way professional organizations, and design businesses, are organized. The result is that many designers lack the expertise to tackle the complex and multi-dimensional social questions that confront us.
The Netherlands’ Design Institute (1993-1999) was an impoitant attempt to promote institutional innovation in design. Its aim was to help the design profession evolve from a closed and inward-looking system, into an innovation support system within interlocking networks of people, companies and educational entities.
Sadly, the Design Institute closed at the end of 1999 following the arrival of a new chairman. But Doors of Perception emerged undamaged as an independent organization, and through Doors the spirit of innovation, and the international networks, created by the Design Institute have survived and continue to grow .
Also a new organization, the Premsela Foundation, has been set up as a platform for Dutch design policy on a national basis.
Some other aspects of the design situation in The Netherlands are not so rosy. The country’s economic situation, for example, is weak today after a decade of seemingly effortless growth.
Government budgets are under severe pressure, and it inconceivable that more money will be made available for culture or research for the next few years at least.
Another problem is that Dutch professional design associations, although well-organised, remain conservative in their thinking and actions. Far more attention and investment is given to old-fashioned design prizes, for example, than to the renewal of design knowledge.
At a government level, too, there are worrying signs that some officials in the Ministry of Economic Affairs want to copy the UK and promote a ‘creative industries’ policy that will include design. This writer is resolutely opposed to the idea that design and advertising are ‘creative’ whereas all other industries, by implication, are not.
In other countries than Holland, more innovative design policy is emerging.
Sweden, for example, is way ahead of The Netherlands in the extent to which different ministries collaborate. A group of Swedish ministries recently allocated two million euros for the development of a new design policy that focuses on new concepts for care. In Holland, despite years of effort, different ministries hardly talk to each other about design policy.
“Sweden is finally about to approach a point where we can leave behind egocentric design,” says Ulf Mannervik, an author of the new policy
Korea is also ahead of Holland in design policy. Korea’s “Industrial Design Fundamental Project” of recent years supports systematic research, and enables 95,000 design students for a population of 45m – a high percentage by any standards.
The llevel of design research in Korea is aalso high. Korea has far more postgraduate design programmes – 66 – than The Netherlands. Samsung, alone, is hiring 100 interaction designers – a huge number.
The British Design Council has also developed innovative design policies in recent years. It proactively makes design proposals for unexpected domains, such as places of learning, or prisons. The Design Council has also developed innovation process tools that help high-tech companies turn technological inventions into profitable products.
Perhaps the most innovative design policy comes not from national governments but from the European Commission.The Intelligent Information Interfaces programme (:i3”) of 1999-2001 was more advanced – in terms both of content, and of project form – than anything supported by constituent EU members.
i3 – and its successor programme, The Disappearing Computer – delivered scenarios for people-centered services, enabled by interactive systems, that are rooted in European culture and tradition.
The EU has now launched a new network of excellence called Convivio. This European network of excellence for social computing gathers together research institutions and universities, of which Doors of Percepion is a member; we are responsible for vision building concerning the design of services to meet everyday life-needs in new ways.
Can Dutch design and architecture stay on top? The glory days of the 1990s are probably over – if only because spending in the coming years will be so much lower. Dutch design will prosper if now takes a “breather” to refresh its thinking and institutions. If it does not do that, the way ahead will be downhill.

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Chain gangs: reinventing the Hanseatic League

(In which John Thackara talks to Winy Maas about the design of webs, networks and archipelagos of cities and regions. This was published in July 2003 in Domus magazine)
Sustainable cities, working cities, are necessarily complex, heavily linked, and diverse. As the English writer Will Hutton has commented, just as local knowledge and information was key 150 years ago, when there were 80 different steps in the button-making industry, so, too, complex local knowledge and linkages are also key today if you are a software, media, care, or educational enterprise.The ideal city needs to contain a rich mixture of craft-based workshops, consultants, law firms, accountants, distribution and logistics companies, advertising agencies, universities, research labs, database publishers, and local or regional government offices. Unique skills, clusters of specialised suppliers, local roots, and a variety of human skills that are unique to a region – all these are a powerful advantage for local cities and regions on today’s economic stage.
This picture confronts smaller cities with a dilemma: they cannot realistically offer the same density and complexity of knowledge skills that a large metropolis can. The metropolitan centers have their own problems, it is true, but they will always win on diversity, which is a key to evolutionary success. So how are the smaller ones to compete?
According to Winy Maas, a principal of the Dutch bureau MVRDV, the answer lies in webs, chains, networks, and ‘archipelagos’ of cities and smaller regions. By aggregating their hard and soft assets, collective cities – or multi-centered cities – can match the array of functions and resources of bigger centres, while also delivering superior social quality. The ability of small cities to offer a context that supports intimacy and encounter – what the French call ‘la vie associative’ – is where small-city webs will win out over the big centres.
City alliances are not a completely new idea. City networks date back to the thirteenth century when, in the Hansa League, an alliance of more than seventy merchant cities collaborated effectively for their common good in order to control exports and imports over a wide swathe of Europe. A powerful network of trading partners, with its own accounting system and shared vocabulary – the Hansa League became one of the major economic forces of the Middle Ages. At one stage it controlled much of Scandinavia, the Baltic states, northern Germany and Poland – and outposts can be found even today as far apart as Scotland and the Basque country.
TERRITORIAL CAPITAL
Today’s urban and regional networks can be traced back to the formation of the International Union of Cities in 1913. The Treaty of Rome, in 1957, accelerated the emergence of networks of cities and regions as supra-nation state actors in Europe. Increased globalization has put considerable pressure on cities to network among themselves – sharing, partnering and learning. Globalisation has also driven smaller cities to re-discover Hansa-style alliances, and to market them using new business techniques. According to Philip Kotler, a marketing professor in the United States, some ten per cent of business-to-business advertising – a vast amount – is now spent on marketing places, regions and nations. Kotler has identified 80,000 communities within the EU which, in one way or another, need to differentiate themselves from each other. Place marketing – or, more properly, place and regional design – aggregates and networks complementary functions and core competiencies of a region. In Europe the concept of ‘territorial capital’ is used increasingly to describe the synthesis of these hard and soft assets of a region.The hard assets include natural beauty and features; shopping facilities; cultural attractions; buildings, museums, monuments, and so on. Soft assets are all about people and culture: skills, traditions, festivals, events and occasions, situations, settings, social ties, civic loyalty, memories, and capacity to learn.
For networked, multi-centered cities to succeed, these different kinds of territorial and social and intellectual capital need to be linked together by a combination of physical and informational networks. The hubs, links, and physical and informational flows of a region need to be proactively designed in ways that help a working culture flourish.
The biggest pressure of all on cities to collaborate is environmental. Bigger cities guzzle more energy and resources per head than do smaller ones. Smaller cities, which are located closer to resources, and in which people and goods need to move less, are lighter. Cities also guzzle land. A German Federal Statistical Office forecast in 1997 that Germany would turn into a 100 per cent settled landmass within 82 years if three per cent economic growth persisted.
MULTIMODAL MOBILITY
Mobile communications are already transforming time-space relations in favour of smaller towns, working together. Where this author lives, in the Netherlands, planners hope that transport telematics will make it possible for me to to think more, and drive less. They expect to reduce so-called vehicle hours (the time spent by vehicles in traffic) by an ambitious 25 per cent. A key concept in Dutch policy is the multimodal or ‘chain approach’. The idea is that information systems will help me work out the best combination of walking, bicycle, private car, train, bus, plane, or boat – before I set off. Right now, individual transport information systems are pretty good – train and bus websites are reliable and reasonably easy to use. But they don’t work together. The next step is so to connect systems that I will enter the beginning and end points of a journey (in place, and in time) into the programme, and be offered a menu of ways to complete it.
As Nokia future-gazer Marko Ahtisaari explained at Doors of Perception 7: Flow, mobile phones can enhance proximity and reduce the allure of ‘far’. “Although mobility and mobile telephony seem very much to do with being apart, in fact the evidence is quite to the contrary,” he said. “A lot of telecommunications behaviour is aimed at getting together physically – I mean, quite simply, physically close, the stuff that happens between the one-to-ten centimetres range and room-size interaction. While we talk about devices being connected, and everything being connected in a technological sense, social interaction will be a prime driver in the future as well, even in technologically enhanced social interaction.”
CLUSTERS OF COMPLEXITY
Architects and spatial planners started thinking about clusters in the 1960s. In 1963, Christopher Alexander and Serge Chermayeff wrote that, in designing on a large scale, “We must look at the links, the interactions, and the patterns.” Following that initial insight architecture and planning evolved rather slowly – but in recent years the sustainability agenda has given the networked approach new impetus.
According to Winy Maas, “The magnitude of information concerning a region is overwhelming: complex, and constantly changing. This multi-scalar approach is new for design. It is nearly impossible to represent all the relationships, and the webs of interdependencies, of a region. The integration of hard and soft factors is complex enough – but planners, policy makers and designers now also have to deal with a new dimension of complexity: a variety of new actors. Privatised network industries, such as railway companies, airports, electricity supliers, and telecommunications operators, are influential actors. So, too, are citizens who, with growing confidence, are demanding that social agendas – such as social inclusion, or sustainability – are factored into planning processes.
“As the speed of spatial, economical and political developments and processes accelerates, we need a more dynamic approach and tools for planning”, says Maas. ” Such tools turn massive volumes of raw data into visualizations. This is not about broad-brush visions of the idealised futures, says Maas. “We keep getting asked to make ‘visions’ for cities and regions”, Maas explains, “but I want to make planning, design and thinking tools that people can really use. We are measuring an increasing variety of things, and collecting vast quantities of data. The question is: how to use it. How are we to perceive and connect all this information in ways that add value and meaning to the raw data? Increasingly, that means how do we represent the data, visually, in order to work on and with it. We also need to make these tools more accessible and usable by non-specialised actors and stakeholders”.
THE REGIONMAKER
Maas and his colleagues have therefore become toolmakers. They have developed a family of software tools, called the Regionmaker, which was first devised by MVRDV for a project called RhineRuhrCity .The Kommunalverband Ruhrgebiet (KVR), a union of cities in the region, has invested in a series of initiatives to improve its post-indstrial situation, and today fewer than six percent work works in coal and steel. But perceptions remain that this is the Detroit of Europe, a landscape dotted with ghost towns, overgrown industries and polluted areas. “The region is very well connected logistically,” says Maas. “It has incredible water resources, a dense university system, and successful media and computer industries. But these assets are fragmented. As you find in so many places in Europe, it’s a mosaic of competing municipalities, rather than one entity.” Hence the project to reposition the area as one place, one city: RhineRuhrCity.
The Regionmaker, which combines the function of search engine, browser, and graphical interface, brings together a variety of existing information sources and flows – for example, demographic data, or outputs from Geographical Informations Systems (GIS) or ‘geomatics’, as they are now called. “In a nutshell,” says Maas, “the idea is that within the context of a globalizing world, international databanks, advanced computers, internet and intranet systems, game technology, global monitoring and information systems, can be integrated in ways that convincingly represent regions. With the Regionmaker, there is no limit to visualization. You can look at maps, study charts, access databases, export images, import video feeds from helicopters or satellites, connect to the internet, use CAD drawings, and so on.”
Maas anticipates that the Regionmaker will evolve as a tree-structure of sub-machines and routines. MVRDV have plans to add representations of knowledge on the movement of people, goods and information. A housing sub-routine could develop scenarios for optimal housing designs. A light calculator could optimise the need for and control of, natural light in built spaces. A ‘function mixer’ would propose optimal mixtures of activities according to economic, social or cultural criteria.
Maas speculates that systems such as the Regionmaker could become decision support systems in a more pro-active and critical sense. “We could add an Evaluator, or an Evolver that can suggest criticism of the input we make,” he speculates. But there will never be a single programme for everything – and Regionmaker will never be finished. “We think of it not as all-in-one Big Brother software, but as an intricate network of different software programmes operating at different spatial dimensions.”

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Mobility, Geography, Access (DoorsEast2, Bangalore, India, 2003)

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Our aim in DoorsEast2, in Bangalore was to learn how to design services, enabled by ICT, that meet basic needs in new ways – and to share this knowledge with citizens, education, industry, and professionals. This was our second international encounter in India. It built on the success of a previous event, DoorsEast 1, that was held at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in February 2000.
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DoorsEast2 had three parts: morning plenary presentations by experts and project leaders; afternoon small groups to deepen knowledge exchange; and informal evening show-and-tell sessions in-and-around the city. Designers, technologists, entrepreneurs, and grassroots innovators, shared their project experiences developing new kinds of services. They presented and discussed projects from India, South Asia, and the North, that deliver new ways to meet needs in daily life in the areas of home, work, learning, mobility, and sociability. Discussions addressed principles for the design of network-based services in new contexts; tools and methodologies for mapping local knowledge; lessons learned, and next steps
We called DoorsEast 2003 a “working party” because it was also a celebration of the tenth anniversary of Doors of Perception. It was organised by:
– Doors of Perception (The Netherlands);
– Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS) in Bangalore (India);
– National Institute for Design, Ahmedabad, India;
– Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (Italy)’
– National Institute of Fashion technology (NIFT) Bangalore
with support from Nokia.
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Designers, technologists, entrepreneurs, and grassroots innovators, shared their project experiences developing new kinds of services. They presented and discussed projects from India, South Asia, and the North, that deliver new ways to meet needs in daily life in the areas of home, work, learning, mobility, and sociability.
Discussions addressed principles for the design of network-based services in new contexts; tools and methodologies for mapping local knowledge; lessons learned, and next steps. Although their contexts differ dramatically, both Europe and Asia face the same innovation dilemma: in order to innovate successfully, we need to learn about the emerging needs to which new technology might be an answer.

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Bangalore diary

Writing from India, where he encounters designers, digerati and Bollywood producers who want to put him in a movie, John Thackara considers the potentially thrilling future of IT in the subcontinent.
To Bangalore, India’s IT city, to speak at the first India Design Summit. The event is organized jointly by the National Institute of Design (NID) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).
Business leaders here anticipate keen competition from China, in markets ranging from textiles to software, now that the World Trade Organization (WTO) has further opened up Asian and global markets; they are looking for new ways to innovate higher-value products and services. NID’s new Director, Darlie Koshy, persuaded CII to stage the summit as a signal that design will be one of those ways.
Koshy’s timing strikes me as excellent in two respects. First, India’s manufacturers and software industries are preparing to move up the value chain of the world economy, and they seem to have decided that design can help them do that. Secondly, NID graduates possess a unique combination of social responsibility – and entrepreneurial zeal – that are perfectly suited for these New Times.
For its part, the CII, too, is in the middle of a generation shift. Its new vice-president, Ashok Soota, is president of Mind Tree Consulting, one of India’s software powerhouses; Soota is a keen supporter of design as an alternative to what he described as the ‘LCP Raj’ – the stifling decades after independence in which Indian industry laboured under a regime of Licenses, Controls and Permits.
The Design Summit summit had a somewhat ceremonial flavour, with lots of senior people saying rather general things; but the CII will now set up a design working party to work out how best to turn this abundant goodwill into projects.
The day I arrive, a report by Forrester Research predicts that within five years the proportion of spending on offshore services in global IT budgets will rise from 12 to 28 per cent of total expenditure. As I comment at the conference, only America could describe a subcontinent with one billion people as part of an ‘offshore’ industry. But nobody seems to share my indignation.
People I meet are more engaged by a discussion of the different ways design can help them develop new kinds of services, supported by IT. My own talk is about the move away from tech-driven innovation towards a new model which I nickname ‘the re-engineering of daily life’.
Sir Christopher Frayling, chairman of the UK Design Council, made a well-received speech about design as one of the ‘creative industries’ that the British government (and, to my horror, the Dutch minister of culture), favours right now.
Personally speaking, I can’t stand the ‘creative industries’ concept: the words conjur up ghastly images of a world filled with advertising executives and rich design consultants. Creative industries thinking is redolent of a point-to-mass mind-set that may have worked in the new economy – but won’t wash in these New Times. The good news is that I have the strong impression that the follower generation, certainly in India, shares my distaste for the creative industries concept.
December 2nd
After the Design Summit Jogi (Panghaal, Director of Doors in India) and I visit the new campus of Bangalore’s National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). Bangalore NIFT is the latest in a nationwide network of seven educational and research institutions first established in the 1990s. (NID’s new director, Darlie Koshy, was previously at NIFT). NIFT’s Director in Bangalore, Hema Maya, and her senior academic, G. Somasundaram, a professor in fashion management studies, tell me that their task is to deliver the designers and managers (600 graduates each year) and business strategies needed to expand India’s share of the global textile and apparel market from one to at least five (and preferably ten) per cent by 2010. NIFT is such a buzzy and focussed institution that I’m sure they will succeed.
Another new design institute in Bangalore, Srishti, has been set up by Geetha Narayan and Poonam Buir Kastur. When I arrive there, Jogi is running a workshop about the mapping of communications in a network of nine villages somewhere in the countryside nearby.
Our next stop is Infosys where Sridhar Dhulipalar has aranged for me to give a talk. The Infosys campus is more like a small city state than a company. Within our first minutes on campus we bump into a crowded national delegation from New Zealand, led by its IT minister, and another group from AT+T, apparently including its chairman. The Doors of Perception delegation is more modest in size – namely, the two of us – but we’ve nabbed the lecture theatre first so the other guys don’t get to grandstand like we do.
Infosys City, as it’s called, is an enormous site: 28 buildings cluster among ponds, fountains, lawns and and shrubs. There are Food Courts, conference centres, and a huge gym. Mind you the latter, although filled with brand-new machines, is empty: I presume everyone is working. The only unsure touch is an expensive high-tech ‘presentation suite’ in the main corporate building where you are shut in a darkened room and subjected to a ghastly audio visual show about the digitally-enhanced lives of Indian yuppies. Speaking personally, I was a hundred times more impressed chatting to Infosys staff after my talk than by this automated sub-themepark experience. Infosys should chuck out the tech and replace it with a tearoom.
After Infosys we head for the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT). This élite postgraduate facility hosts 122 hand-picked students in an expensive, if rather hideous, building paid for by Singaporean investors. Our host – IIT’s director, Professor Sadagopan, who had been a speaker at the Design Summit – is besieged by two separate Chinese delegations and by phone calls from the the Chief Minister. So we don’t stay long.
Singapore is spearheading the development of an ‘IT Forum’ to coordinate strategy among an Asian belt of IT cities including Bangalore and Hyderabad in India, Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. David Lim, Singapore’s IT minister, reckons there is complementarity in this ‘infocommunications ecosystem’ between China’s manufacturing base, India as a software powerhouse, Korea’s bandwidth capacity, Japan’s global leadership in wireless services, and Singapore as a test-bed for new services and business models. Pan-Asian rhetoric like this is persuasive, but I’m not convinced much will come of it. Most IT alliance action nowadays is company-to-company (B2B) not state-to-state (S2S).
December 3RD
Our next stop is General Electric’s equally lavish new campus, the Jack T. Welch Research Centre, which has just opened in another outskirt of Bangalore. The campus has been designed and built at amazing speed. Its Bangalore-based architect, Naresh Navasimhan, shows us round. Eleven hundred researchers are already busy in eleven labs developing polymers and synthetics, modelling new chemicals, engineering smart ceramics and metallurgy, and so on. Nearly everone here, we are told, has at least a masters degree or a PhD.
I’m reassured to see plenty of people in white coats putting powders into glass pipettes – and not just rows of young guys staring into computers. The team here evidently works together well; the duration of research projects has been reduced sharply by cutting the steps in GE’s standard process from 24 to seven. Research costs, as a result, have plummeted from an average of $2million per project to $200,000. Small wonder that GE has decided to enlarge the facility to 3,000 researchers as fast as possible (or that the company’s US-based researchers are anxious about their futures). Several thousand construction workers are hammerng away putting up a new group of buildings.
Welch-ville is impressive as an example of global-scale research production. But although the facility is brand new, the atmosphere feels resolutely Old Times. A vast sign over the food court exhorts us to ‘Welcome GE’s New CEO, Jack Immelt’. I learn that the (new) Great White Chief did not, in the event, show up in person, but manifested himself by telepresence instead. Inside the facility, otherwise bare walls sport policy exhortations in ghastly typography. A traffic sign at the entrance reminds visitors that the speed limit is not ten, and not 15, but 16 kph; 10 miles an hour is GE’s global on-site traffic standard. The acres of lawn with rows of powerful water sprinklers, full-on during the hottest part of the day, are also pretty shocking in a city which has a severe water shortage. I don’t imagine this will endear GE to environmentalists, but neither do I imagine they will care too much.
Back in the city I meet 40 designers and architects at an informal get-together organized by Jacob Matthew, an organiser, in his private time, of Bangalore’s Designers Friday network. Matthew’s 28-strong company, Tessaract, consults for big retailers, manufactures furniture, and runs an interesting design shop. Along with most of the professionals I meet, Tessaract seems to be doing pretty well – so the evening was hardly fertile ground for my talk about the need for design to re-invent itself. But once again I am struck by an openness to new ideas and the intelligent way designers and architects here plot their course.
December 4TH
For me, the major story in India is the potential for the design of services by, and with, rural and urban poor people. This is not about aid, but about a truly vast, un-met market that myopic TelCos, all of whom seem to be mesmerised by high-cost, high-bandwidth business networks, seem unable to focus on.
M. S. Banga, chairman of Hindustan Lever, pointed out in a press interview during my visit that India’s software industry has impacted less than 500,000 people among a one billion-strong population – but that more than 700 million people work in agriculture (living in roughly 700,000 villages). If the income of these people were to rise by a modest three per cent a year, overall GDP in India would grow by 1.7 per cent a year. And the country would also benefit from a reduced rate of urbanization. Mumbai (Bombay), I learn, is growing by 160,000 people a week – whereas the last time I was here the number was 60,000.
Connectivity is no longer the main obstacle to wealth creation via communication services. On my last but one day, an impressive programme to bridge the digital divide is announced. Under Plan 9000, Pace, a Hyderabad-based computer training company, will launch 3,000 self-sustaining computer centres in Andra Pradesh and 6,000 in the rest of the country. Each will be staffed by three computer science graduates who will be helped to procure equipment such as computers, scanners and software. Each centre, which will have cable internet access, will service 15,000 people – about 100 million in total.
As with the Public Call office (PCO) innovation of the 1990s, a combination of new technology and new business models is making serious inroads into the digital divide in India.
The crucial step is to accelerate the design of new services to take example of this more broadly available connectivity. At the Centre for Knowledge Societies(CKS) in Bangalore, Aditya Dev Sood’s team documents developmental ICT projects throughout South Asia. The Bangalore-Hyderabad area is probably the only region in the world where global-quality high-tech and Bible-age lifestyles co-exist, and I’m sure Sood is correct to argue that test projects done here can stimulate service innovation throughout South Asia and the African subcontinent too.
CKS and Doors have agreed to search for ways to support service design innovation in different rural and urban contexts. CKS is looking to expand its project documentation activity, while Doors will support pilot projects that involve collaborative mapping of communication flows, and the design of service scenarios, in diferent situations.
Institutes such as NID, where Professor M P Ranjan has pioneered scenario design techniques for several years, have started to train designers about the use of design scenarios for this kind of work, so plenty of qualified people are available once the projects get underway.
Bangalore operates at multiple speeds. GE’s huge research centre seems to have been built in less time than it takes to order a beer at the Bangalore Gold Club, where I am staying. Bangalore is less frantic than Mumbai, or even Ahmedabad, where we did our first Doors event in India last year. One reason for a certain tranquility is that the city contains several large parks. These are are owned and occupied by India’s army and airforce. India’s nearest external enemy, Pakistan, is thousands of kilometres to the north – but the British, who liked the climate here, turned sleepy little Bangalore into a a garrison city during the nineteenth century and India’s military never left. I saw hardly any troops or military vehicles, but their city-centre grounds are so extensive that there could be many divisions of them hidden away.
Speaking of the military, an article by Anuradah Chenoy in the Asian Age (30 November 2001) enlightened me more about the Afghanistan situation in 500 words than all the western media coverage I’d seen since 9/11. Chenoy’s ripping yarn includes these gems: By 2050, Central Asia is to account for 80 per cent of US oil and gas. The Taliban leadership was invited to Houston in 1997 and promised $100 million a year in transit fees when the Bakhu-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline is built. Vice-prez Cheney was previously president, CEO, and a major stockholder in Haliburton, a leading energy services group. Bush Senior is a member of the $12 billion Carlyle Group whose private equity investors have included … the Bin Laden family. Bush Senior is said to have met the Bin Laden family twice. Gripping stuff.
Only four million mobile phones have been sold in the whole of India, but everyone seems to have one here. People mostly use pre-paid cards, and a price war is raging between local TelCos and international networks such as Orange. There are signs everywhere for “MOTS” (Mobile On The Spot).
The tempo of business is determined by the use of mobiles: Jogi and I make appointments a few hours in advance; call from taxis or auto-rickshaws to say we are arriving; and a couple of times, people call minutes after we leave a meeting to confirm the points we just agreed.
Speaking of mobiles, Nirmal Sethia, a management professor from California, reflects at the design summit on the “lost 20 minutes” of his students. This is the amount of time they spend packing up their papers (and Palms) at the end of one lecture and walking across campus to the next one. “Five years ago, they would either chat to each other, or possibly walk alone reflecting – as I fantasized about it, at least – on what they just heard,” says Sethia. “Nowadays, most of them are talking on their mobile before they are even out of the lecture hall. I speculate not only about what they’re talking about – but also about what they are now missing from college life.”
December 5TH
En route back from Bangalore to Europe, I have one more day in Mumbai. Ravi Pooviah, a communication design professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, has organized a four-day conferece on interaction design at the Indian Institute of Technology and invites me to give a talk. Another group of very smart students and researchers. By now its 37 degrees, and I’m beginning to flag, but it’s tremendous fun to be there.
Since I last visited the Mumbai/Bombay IIT in 1994, a row of bizarre apartment blocks has been erected by the lake. Each one is at least 40 stories high and boasts either a Grecian temple, or some kind of Italianate cupola, on its top three floors. Las Vegas meets Milton Keynes – not the sort of thing they’d approve of back in Holland. During a break at the conference, I learn that the Mumbai/Bombay dot.com scene has been more badly hit than Bangalore’s larger software companies. If dot.com money paid for those blocks, they deserve it.
In Mumbai on my last evening, two young film producers approach me on the street and ask me if I want to be in a Bollywood movie. I say yes, of course – and then ask them what my role will be. Nobody mentions mentions the title, let alone the plot, of the movie. “You can choose between the police chief and the hotel manager,” they say. I say I’ll do the hotel manager, and ask when they start shooting. “Eight o’clock tomorrow morning.” Talk about just-in-time production. Sadly, I have a flight to catch – but just in case I’m throwing away a fortune, as well as a new career, I ask about the pay. “It’s 500 rupees before tax,” (about $10) they say. Five, perhaps less, after deductions. I tell them my agent will call them. Maybe.

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Trophy buildings are over

Three developments are putting an end to the boom in landmark buildings. The first is over-supply. This year’s Venice Architecture Biennale show-cased literally hundreds of large, glamorous buildings that will be built in the next few years. But, precisely because they are conceived as spectacles, these signature buildings have started to cancel each other out.
We accord them the same perceptual status as an Armani ad on a wall in New York or Milan: we look at them, judge them in a glance – and then move on. That’s not a great return on all the time, work and money invested to bring these totemic edifices about.
A second development: buildings conceived as tourist destinations are hard to sustain in business terms. City-hopping tourists seldom re-visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao, for example, where visitor numbers are now in decline.The UK, too, is awash in landmark cultural buildings – conceived politically as large and expensive signs, and paid for with lottery money – that seem doomed to go out of business once their novelty has worn off.
The third development is the emergence of “sociability” and “liveability” as new criteria for urban design. The French – who with their Grands Projets invented the craze for trophy buildings – have gone off in a new direction – towards the development of live, participatory events as ways of adding value to a place.
Describing itself as the “land of festivals”, the region of Provence-Aples-Cote d’Azur, alone, published a 194 page catalogue for 2002 that lists more than 300 events and festivals.These range from land-art and arborescence, ancient music and falconry, to festivals of laughter, rythm, and fanfare http://www.laregie-paca.com
Formal cultural festivals have been booming in France for years, but the new craze if forles arts de la rue. So popular has street art and performance become that festivals on the subject are now staged every summer – in Chalon-sur-Soane and Aurillac. These events, which bring together street-level theatre, circus, music and dance, have spawned now well-known acts such as Royale Luxe, Iltopie, and Generik Vapeur (http://www.generikvapeur.com/)
Eyebrows were raised this summer when the French minister of culture, usually the epitome of high (read: expensive) culture, attended the Chalon event for the first time. And a professional asssociation for street arts has been formed to represent the artists and producers, and festival organisers. http://www.lefourneau.com/lafederation
Jean-Marie Songy, director of the Aurillac festival, says these events expemplify what he calls the “open city – the utopian ideal that a city as an open stage that supports freedom of expression”. http://www.chalondanslarue.com/
Some artists have mixed views about the growing attention. Caty Avram, founder of Generik Vapeur, warns that “these festivals are indispensable for bringing performers and programmers together – but we must take care that our street-level interventions do not evolve into spectacles observed by a passive public.We should always be looking for new locales, and for people not accustomed to our kind of actions”.
Olivier Brie, Director of Art Point M, agrees: “there are two real risks for a festival such as Chalon: the rain, and paying visitors”. (Source: Le Monde 20 July 2002)
“Street artists are rightly suspicious of passive spectacle” confirms another producer, Catherine Lemaire, director of a dynamic Ganges-based agency, Eurekart. “The trend is away from set-piece performances towards smaller, more intimate interactions. The thinking now is that every spectator can also be an artist”. eurekart@club-internet.fr (00 33 (0)4 67 73 98 40)
Lemaire observes that street theatre is becoming less aggressive and provocative. “Artists seem to have become less confrontational and more humane – less hard”, she says.”We are seeing smaller, more intimate events – and the emergence of troupes of one, two or three people – in contrast to the 15 or 20 we’d have seen a year or two ago. It’s not unknown now for an artist to provoke an interaction with just one person on the street”.
A second tendency, says Lemaire, is that street art is finding new types of locations.”Performers seem to be moving away from decorative balconies in the town square, in favour of the workplace, the shopping centre, or the factory”,
Every November, Lemaire organises the equivalent of a Cannes Film Festval in Montpellier – Label Rue – which brings together a selection of artists, and commissioners of events from throughout France. Lefevre, who has realised street art events in dozens of towns throughout France, Spain and Italy, selects about 40 acts and invites city and festival programmers to come and view them.
The artists do their thing in car parks, outside cafes and on the streets of Montpellier. There is music of all kinds – jazz, steel drum, morooccan fanfare, yeti chanting. There are graffiti artists, fire performers, and a sculptor, Patrick Lefevre, playing the saxophone a top a 15 metre pyramid of his own construction.
end

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