Clogging up the City: Flows of Fat in Bodies and Sewers

I’m repeating a plug here (published before in our newsletter) for this memorable paper, by Simon Marvin and Will Medd, about the circulation, deposition and removal of fat in bodies, sewers and cities. “Our emphasis is on the metabolisms of fat across the different levels of bodies, infrastructures and cities” say the authors; “We explore three sites of fat (im)mobility: first, the excessive deposition of fat in obese bodies and the rising urban fat count; second, the sewer-fat crisis generated by the blockages of coagulated fat in urban sewers; and, finally the league tables used to rank the Fatness and Fitness of US cities. The paper examines the shifting configurations of flows between bodies, infrastructure and cities. It was published in April, but if it’s an April Fool’s number it’s a truly elaborate one. [Simon Marvin and Will Medd University of Salford, Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures Clogging up the City: Flows of Fat in Bodies and Sewers].

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Do surveys make you blind?

The world is awash in reports, from think tanks and research companies, telling us what the next social or tech trend is going to be. Europe’s research policy makers had a good idea: aggregate the best of these, and see what picture emerges. They created the Fistera network to bring together national foresight exercises on information society issues in the Enlarged Europe. Fistera recently asked 505 experts to prioritise research issues for 2010. The resulting report contains dozens of bar charts but, at the end of the day, it’s like reading 50 blogs that all link to each other: the gamekeeper/fox conclusion that emerged was that the number one priority is “establishing more user-friendly systems”. It’s a great business model: first, you fill the world full of clunky systems that don’t work properly, and stress out the citizenry – then you demand a ton of money to make them “usable”.

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What don’t I get?

I found some amazing new numbers in a 2004 survey of attitudes to consumption in the United States. More than eight out of ten Americans believe that society’s priorities are “out of whack” and 93 percent agree that Americans are too focused on working and making money and not enough on family and community. More than 8 in 10 say they would be more satisfied with life if they just had less stress. 40 percent of Americans have made conscious decisions to buy less. since 9/11. 95 percent agree that today’s youth are too focused on buying and consuming. 83 percent agree that the way we live consumes too many resources. 81 percent agree that protecting the environment will require most of us to make major changes in the way we live. 71 percent of respondents say that our dependence on oil leads to conflicts and wars with other countries. And so on and so on. So what I don’t get is this: why are the markets not nosediving?

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Market density

The picture shows the number of fairs and markets per year, in 1732, in the Occitania region in the south of France (where I live). The small blobs denote three fairs per year, the biggest one, 13. I’ve decided to perceive the picture as a visualization of two things: street life intensity, and infrastructure for small-area food distribution. Please send me your nominations for social infrastructure graphic of the year (which we’ll show in Delhi).
Source: Pierre-Albert Clement. ‘Foires et Marches d’Occitanie.: de l’antiquite a l’an 2000’. Montpellier, Les Presses du Languedoc, 1999.

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All together now

There’s renewed interest in ensemble theatre as a form of organisation. A meeting of theatre directors and producers in the UK last month opened with this quote from Joan Littlewood, in 1961: ‘I do not believe in the supremacy of the director, designer, actor – or even of the writer. It is through collaboration that the knockabout art of the theatre survives and kicks. No one mind or imagination can foresee what a play will become. Only a company of artists can reflect the genius of a people in a complex day and age’. (Thanks for that to Tony Graham, Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre in London). Agenda item for Delhi: ensemble interaction design and/or agile architecture.

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Civil Communities of Practice

Back to the soft stuff. “Might social problems that communities confront be structured as the kind of knowledge creation and/or problem solving that the open source software community has found new ways to solve?”. So asks Pekka Himanen (author of “The Hacker Ethic”) and colleagues in a recent report. An essential component of such an approach would be an OS-style referee process through which different ideas, corrections,and improvements are integrated. The report suggests that the tools and governance principles of the open source software community could, in some modified form, yield new approaches to community organization and problem solving. The design question raised is this: What incentives and design principles will facilitate the development of Civil Communities of Practice? [Jerome A. Feldman, Pekka Himanen, Olli Leppänen, and Steven Weber, 2004. Open Innovation Networks: New Approaches to Community Organization and Problem Solving. Helsinki:Finnish National Fund for Research and Development ]

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Rocks to rubble

I know our focus in Doors 8 is supposed to be on social infrastructures, but interesting material on the hard kind keeps turning up, too. I found a report about rocks and rubble, for example, which describes a more sustainable system of resource management. The life cycle of construction minerals is complex and involves many players: quarries, industrial processors, manufacturers, transporters, construction companies and waste disposal operators. The 4sight project has used mass balance and other modelling tools to identify and assess the impacts associated with the various processes and operations in the life cycle of construction minerals. If you like the hard stuff read more here.

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Success Factors In Design Research Projects

The reports of last Friday’s Project Leaders’ Round Table, which we organised together with Virtual Platform, are now online here.
We’ve posted summaries, most of the project presentations, a bunch of pictures, and a text called “Conclusions”. The latter text, I now realise, contains more questions than answers. And a lot of the knowledge exchanged at the event was tacit and not easily published on a website. But you’ll get the feel of it all. We will apply the lessons we learned doing this event to the Project Clinics which will be a focus of Doors 8 in Delhi.
If you’re interested in the design and management of design research projects, you may also find these earlier texts of mine useful:
Thermodynamics of Co-operation
From shelfware to wetware: where next for design research?
Does your design research exist?
Rules of engagement between design and new technology
Why is interaction design important?

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How much does a project cost?

What is the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a design research project? If we knew, we’d probably make more realistic budgets for things like co-ordination, and communication, that often don’t get paid for, even though we do the work. Or else, if we knew the true time costs, but could not get them included in the budget, then maybe we wouldn’t do the project. One reason the IT boom has flattened out is that TCOs for information systems have been found to be far higher than big customers at first realised. Rishab Gosh, in a paper for First Monday, quotes these TCO numbers:
– Licence fees 5-10%
– Hardware and software costs 15-40%:
– Maintenance, integration, support and training 60-85 %
Gosh makes the point that free software is a skills enabling platform; it is far cheaper, and it is more adaptable to local needs than proprietary software. But the TCO issue has wider ramifications. One of the key lessons to emerge from our Project Leaders’ Round Table last wekend was that co-ordination, which has many facets, is a key success factor: if it’s not done properly, or is treated as an extra, projects (and the people involved) usually suffer. Here in The Netherlands we’re being squeezed on this issue as I write: bean counters from Berenschot, a consulting firm, have advised the government to stop funding 150 “support organisations” (including Doors) and give all their money to “production”.

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