Design-recast: the world as spread-sheet

A lecture given to the Design Recast conference organised at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht by Jouke Kleerebezem.
Trying to get a grip on design is rather like trying to grab hold of a shoal of herring. Orca whales do this by blowing upside-down funnels of air bubbles from underneath the shoal – somewhat like a martini glass – and then gulp the whole lot down in one go as the shoal swirls helplessly round. After the last couple of days, I can’t decide whether I feel like a herring, or the whale…
Architecture and design have to change faster if they are to be effective, or even meaningful, in today’s context. We have filled the world with complex systems and technologies – on top of the natural ones that were already here, and social-cultural systems that have evolved over thousands of years. We live in world of human, natural, and industrial systems whose complex interactions are hard to comprehend. These systems are, by their nature, invisible – so we lack the clear mental models that we might otherwise use to make sense of the bigger picture. The design of Large Technical Systems, pervasive software, and the inaptly named ‘ambient intelligence’, is an almost unimaginably complex process. To be effective in such a context, design needs to be renewed, and transformed. But in what ways? And how?
In recent years we were told that these systems were ‘out of control’ – too complex to understand, let alone to shape, or re-direct. But ‘out of control’ is an ideology, not a fact. In architecture, in particular, this ideology fostered a kind of cultural autism, an absorption in self-centered subjective activity, accompanied by a marked withdrawal from reality.
But there is something we can do. It’s called design: the “first signal of human intention”.
If you look at the mainstream of architecture, the prospects for change look bleak. Many design professionals have retreated into denial and narcissism. Their projects deal mainly with appearances, and are fashioned to enhance the celebrity of their creators. More insidious are those designers who have adopted the language of complexity and networks – only to become craven servants of what Manuel Castells calls “The Automaton” or Alasdair Grey, in Lanark, “The Machine”.
Exulting in forces ‘too big for us to control’, this second group has taken it upon themselves to amplify, to accelerate, the powerful forces unleashed by neo-liberal values (or the lack of them) and new technology. These designers don’t just go with the flow, they speed it up. The result is the glorification of fast cities, of extra large cities, and of 24-hour cities – a big interest in fast trains, and in high-end shopping – but little attention to social quality, learning, innovation, or sustainability.
Things are not much better in communication design. We do not know how to design communication. We know how to design messages, yes: the world is awash in print and ads and packaging and e-trash and spam. But these are all one-way messages, the output of a point-to-mass mentality that lies behind the brand intrusion and semiotic pollution that despoil our perceptual landscape. I’ll return to this issue later; right now I want to focus on two missing communication flows that need to be designed: social communication, and ecological communication.
That sad picture, for me, is the empty half of the bottle. But the bottle of design innovation is half-full – and rising. Profound change in design is already underway. Being bottom-up, and outside in, these changes are barely visible on the official radars of architecture – its media, schools, and professional bodies. But these changes are real.
I will focus on two axes in this transformation of the design process. The first axis concerns the understanding and perception of processes that shape today’s shifting urban conditions. The second axis is about modes of intervention – exploring new kinds of design moves in which we are blind to the precise outcome of particular actions – but militant promoters of the core values I mentioned above: social quality, learning, innovation, and sustainability.
Design for legibility
The emerging model of architectural and urban design incorporates what we know about the behaviour of biological organisms, the geometry and information processing systems of the brain, and the morphology of information networks. In order to do things differently, we first need to see things differently. We need to re-connect with the systems and processes on which we depend. We need to understand them, in order to look after them.
Many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have described immune systems in the body, and among communities. Network designers have mapped communication flows between continents, and in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. So far, these representations have been used, by specialists, as objects of research – not as the basis for real-time design. That is now changing. Real-time representations are becoming viable design tools.
Representations of energy flows, for example, are now achievable. And a priority. All our design processes should aspire to reduce the ecological footprint of a city. Man and nature share the same resources for building and living. An ecological approach will drastically reduce construction energy and materials costs, and allow most buildings in use to export energy rather than consume it. Natural ecosystems have complex biological structures: they recycle their materials, permit change and adaptation, and make efficient use of ambient energy. Real-time representations of energy performance can help us move closer to that model in the artificial world.
I emphasize that I am not talking about simulations, here, but about real-time representations.
We should also visualize connectivity. Many of us here, I am sure, enjoy charts that map the number of people connected to the Internet, or the flows of bits from one continent to another. They make really sexy infographics. But I am not just talking about information as spectacle, or as porn. An active intervention in the architecture of connectivity means mapping communication flows in order to optimise them. We need to understand overlapping webs of suppliers, customers, competitors, adults, and children – to identify communication blockages and then to fix the ‘plumbing’ where flows don’t work.
We also need to investigate change processes at a ground level. In a recent issue of Hunch, edited by my friend Jennifer Sigler at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, I lauded a project called Wild City which mapped the interactions between non-regulated processes (street traders) and existing city fabrics (the green market, or a department store). I’m not convinced that the researchers’ initial research hypothesis was proved: they set out “to point out the undiscovered potentials of specific locations” – but, for me, that was not the main point. The Wild City project delivered new notational tools for perceiving ‘actors’ and ‘forces’ that previously did not figure – to use a fusty architectural term – in urban design notation.
A further design challenge would render more of these process representations visceral. Maurice Merleau Ponty, an early critic of blueprint thinking in architecture and design, said that we need to move beyond “high altitude thinking… towards a closer engagement with the world made flesh”. And Luis Fernandez-Galiano, in his remarkable book Fire and memory, argues that we need to shift our perceptions “from the eye to the skin” – to develop not just an understanding but also a feeling of how complex urban flows and processes work.
Architects are not famous for being in touch with their feelings, so I do not anticipate fast progress on this particular front.
Sense-and-respond design

Evolution operates without prior knowledge of what is to come – that is, without design. But culture does not. The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside. It is to enable action. We need to develop a shared vision of what we need to do, together, and how. We need to re-discover intentionality and learn, once we can read them, how to shape emergent urban and industrial processes.
A first step is learning how to think backwards from a desired outcome. To identify the things that need fixing, and to foster creativity in the search for new questions, we need to become expert at a process called ‘back-casting’ .We learned a lot about this technique during the 1990s at the Vormgevingsinstituut in Amsterdam. The trick is to develop scenarios of everyday life in the not-too-distant future: for example, a city in which 90 per cent of food is eaten within 50km of where it is produced; or a community in which fifty per cent of the teaching in a local school is done by people living in the area; or a health system based on peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing among hospitals, doctors, and citizens, enabled by the web. [The best book I know on such scenarios, by the way, is David Siegel’s Futurize your enterprise. Our own book Presence: new media and older people is also pretty good].
We put these scenarios into workshops with professionals from mixed backgrounds, and asked them to work the consequences through backwards from then, to now. On that ‘backwards’ road, we developed the capacity to spot opportunities at the juncture between physical and virtual networks, and to imagine relationships and connections where none existed before (in much the same way that processes were visualised in Wild City).
Back casting and scenarios are neither fantasies, nor a new variety of theoretical onanism. Design scenarios are about the real world. We need to use as design tools, as the basis for real-world interventions to ‘steer’ complex urban transformations. Scenarios can help us connect an understanding of urban genetics with real-time actions to nudge ‘self’ organising systems in a desired direction.
[I should mention that design scenarios are quite different from autonomous or so-called intelligent design tools, such as genetic algorithms and cellular automata. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) community has shown that it is feasible to design self-generating code that can plot the lines of complex shapes, such as a boat hull. It was once thought that ‘intelligent’, generative design tools might help architects design the processes or codes, the ‘rules of the game’ or ‘shape grammars’, by which forms are generated, rather than the end product itself in detail. Researchers continue to look for ways to harness the formidable power of computers to do prototyping, modelling, testing and evaluation, thus compressing the time and space needed for products to evolve. For researchers like John Fraser this means designing the overall system: “you design the rules, rather than the actual individual stylistic detail of the product”.
But neither shape-generating algorithms, nor self-replicating software viruses, are appropriate for the continuous intervention in continuously evolving urban systems – for three reasons. First, because urban processes are not shapes. Second, because self-replicating software does not allow for sense-and-respond feedback. Third, because intelligent design tools are just that: tools. They can and do exist independently of the physical and social context without which a sense-and-respond design process is impossible.
In biology, they describe as choronomic, the influence on a process of geographic or regional environment. Choronomy adds value; a lack of context destroys it.
The irony is that while city and building designers have been flirting with semi-autonomous, evolutionary design processes, the most advanced software designers, who call themselves ‘extreme programmers’, are headed in the opposite direction – back towards human-steered design. Extreme programmers prefer to do it, than watch it. They have come to value individuals, and interactions among them, over abstract processes and tools. They find it more important to engage directly with working software, than to labour at the design of self-organizing systems. These principles are the basis of a new movement in software called The Agile Alliance.
As designers, we all need to be Agile. Our best intentions – for social quality, for sustainability, for learning, for play – will remain just that – intentions – until we complete the transition from designing on the world to designing in the world.
Natural, human and industrial systems are all around us – they are not below, outside, or above us. In design, if we are to take this new subject-object relationship seriously, we need to shift from a concern with objects and appearances, towards a focus on enhanced perceptions of complex processes – and their continuous optimisation.
We need to think of ‘world’ as a verb, not as a noun. We need to think of rowing the boat, not just of drawing it.
The transformation from designing for people, to designing with people, will not be easy. Anyone using a system – responding to it, interacting with it, feeding back into it – changes it. Complex technical systems – be they physical, or virtual, or both – are shaped, continuously, by all the people who use them. Think of Netscape, or Napster. In the world as a verb, it won’t work to treat people as users, or consumers or viewers. We need to think of people – of ourselves – as actors.
As designers, our role is evolving from shaping, to steering; from being the ‘authors’ of a finished work, into facilitators who help people act more intelligently, in a more design-minded way, in the systems they live in.
Our business models in design also have to change. The idea of a self-contained design project – of ‘signing off’, when a design is finished – makes no sense in a world whose systems don’t stop changing. Design’s project-based business model is like a water company that delivers a bucket of water to your door and pronounces its mission accomplished. We need to evolve new business models for design – models that enable design to operate as a continuous service, not as manufacturing process.
One scenario, which we are discussing next week at a workshop on new business models in Ivrea, is a design economy based on service contracts, such as those used by big management consultancy firms.
Someone told me that every lecture should end with an answer to the question: what do I do with this information on Monday morning, when I go back to work? It’s a reasonable question, but I can’t answer it directly. Italo Calvino, however, tells a wonderful story – so I’ll tell you his.” Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later, the drawing was not begun.” I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu.The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect ever seen”.
For Calvino, literature was a search for knowledge.” My work as a writer”, he said, has, from the beginning, aimed at tracing the lightning flashes of mental circuits that capture and link points distant from each other in space and time”. Might we not think of design in a similar way?
Maastricht April 2002

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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, 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, Prada’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 neck.

We also thought we could 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 doing 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 dont need to own it. You don’t even need to go far to get it. You just need to know how to access it.

So what to do?

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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The thermodynamics of cooperation

This is the text of my closing keynote talk at the European Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Work, Helsinki, 18 September, 2003.
A few years back, I arrived in New York to meet my daughter Kate for a vacation. She seemed her normal sunny self but, as we chatted in the lobby of her mother’s hotel, we noticed a lump behind her ear. It did not hurt, Kate said, but we resolved to see a doctor just to check.
It was a weekend, there was no house doctor on call, so we were advised to go to the emergency room of St Vincent’s Hospital a few blocks away. A gothic scene awaited us. There were armed guards on the door. Drunks and junkies lolled on the benches of the waiting room. A half-naked lunatic was running around. And most of the staff in the large gloomy space wore bright pink face masks. Kate, who was six at the time, watched this all with great interest. Her parents were pertified.
We were seen rather promptly by a nurse, and then by a doctor who took one look at Kate’s bump and said she had to be admitted. Within an hour she was in a children’s ward on an intravenous feed of antibiotics. She had mastoiditis, an infection of the bone behind the ear.
So began 17 days of hell. Increasingly stronger drugs, and then combinations of them, did not work. Kate’s temperature soared into the 100s and stayed there. The mastoiditis begat bacterial meningitis. It looked – and was – very bad indeed.
And the doctors were unsure what to do. Quite soon, two different teams had become involved, pediatrics and surgery. The pediatricians wanted to stick with the drugs; the surgeons said drugs would never do it, and wanted to operate.
The doctors examined Kate a lot. They would look at her charts. Someone would lay a hand gently on her head. In her room, they were gentle and respectful, but out in the corridor, and back in the staff room, they would argue, constantly. They would pore over crumpled printouts from online research someone had done earlier. They would look at at the endless test results. Boy, did they argue.
For us, as parents, these arguments added to our terror. In Britain, senior hospital doctors, and especially the god-like consultants, barely speak to
parents, let alone share their doubts with them. At St Vincent’s, we were involved in every twist and turn of their perplexity and worry.
In the event, the drugs never worked, Kate got weaker, and the decision was made to operate. It took eight hours – a team of twelve around a hole in Kate’s head that was less than two inches wide. But it worked, they saved her life, and I had had a crash course on collaboration, knowledge work, and the body that I do not recommend to anyone else.
So what did I learn? The first thing Kate’s story taught me was that the flesh and blood of the doctors and nurses is just as important as Kate’s flesh and blood. In the formal language of work and knowledge design, actionable medical knowledge is embodied. Having formal knowledge in your head is not the same as having it in your finger tips. Doctoring is a physical and fleshy thing.
This raises the first of three design issues I will discuss today. How do we design work that enhances tacit and embodied knowledge, rather than pretending that they do not exist, or do not matter?
The second lesson I learned is this: the where of medical intervention and care is important. Situations matter, because it is in physical situations that the continuous conversations that comprise care, take place.
The design question that follows from this is: how do we improve the capacity of situations to support these kinds of inter-personal interactions?
The third thing I learned at Saint Vincent’s is this: the meaning of a task plays a critical role in the way it gets done. Otherwise stated: matters of life and death foster great collaboration.
Antoine Saint Exupery put this simple point more memorably. “Don’t teach men how to build a boat. Teach them to yearn for the wide and open sea.”
Antoine’s wise advice raises a third design question. Are we sure that the design attention we give to tools for community and collaboration – the ‘we-ware’ – is in balance? Or do we need to think more about the ‘why?’ issues of collaboration?
1 EMBODIMENT
Embodiment is a big problem for the ‘information society’ as a project. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk about it very much.
But we can no longer evade an inconvenient fact: most of what we perceive and experience in the world comes not from conscious observation, but from a continuous process of unconscious scanning.
As Tor Norretranders explains, in his book, ‘The User Illusion’: “Subliminal perception, perception that occurs without conscious awareness, is not an anomaly, but the norm. Most of what we experience we can never tell each other about – with or without information technology – because we are not even aware of it.”
As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 billion bits of information per second. But the bandwidth of consciousness is only about eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.
The ‘information society’ is based on that teeny little one-millionth of data that we know consciously.
For the philosopherJohn Gray, the upshot of neuroscientific research like this is that, “We are not embrained phantoms, encased in mortal flesh. We filter and select from the the massive flows of input from our senses are so that our lives can flow more easily.
“Cybernauts seek to to make the thin trickle of consciousness – our shallowest sensation – everlasting,” says Gray. “But being embodied is our nature as earth-born creatures.”
John Christopher Jones has also warned about the dangers that come with the disproportionate attention we pay to digital communication. “Computers are so good at the manipulation of symbols – a thousand times better than robots are, even today, at the manipulation of objects – that we are all under pressure to reduce all human knowledge and experience to symbolic form.”
Remember Robert Reich? In his best-seller, ‘The Work Of Nations’, Reich predicted that we would all become“symbolic analysts”. The concept was so successful that Reich ended up as Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Labour!
I accept that ‘computer-supported collaborative work’, is a symptom, not the cause, of our tendency to undervalue the knowledge, and experience, that we human beings have by virtue of having bodies.
Besides, the design lesson I draw from the importance of embodiment is not that face-to-face is the only communication that counts. That would be dumb.
Low bandwidth can deliver high-value communication. The telephone, after all, changed everything – much of it for the better.
But, as designers, we must nonetheless guard against those who promote virtuality – and the myth of disembodied communities – for the wrong reasons.
I called this talk, ‘the thermodynamics of networked collaboration.’ I chose the title because of some alarming meetings I had with policy makers. Out there, in the real world of budget-making and vote-getting, the promise of disembodiment, of virtuality, is attractive for simple reasons. People think it will save money.
Automated, disembodied communications are attractive for the same reasons that e-learning is attractive. Organizations without organizers are like educational establishments without teachers. They save a ton of money.
Only, they don’t work – or at least, not optimally. Human beings are social creatures. Our networks and communities need the time, energy, presence, and participation of real people, to flourish.
That’s why I talk about thermodynamics. Human systems need inputs of human energy to do well. Everything else – the internet, agents, wireless, knowledge-mining – is contingent. They’re support, not the thing itself.
So, when designing systems, services, infrastructures – and work itself – we should ask whether our design actions will enable or disable human agency.
Embodiment is a killer app. Whatever it is that we design, it’s better if we design people in, not out.
2 SITUATIONS
The second thing I learned at Saint Vincent’s Hospital is that the situations matter a lot.
‘My’ discovery proved to have been made a long time before. Hippocrates said 2,500 years ago – in ‘Airs, Waters, Places’ – that, in order to understand the disorders in any subject, we must study its environment. “Treatment of the inner requires treatment of the outer,” said the sage. “The greater part of the soul lies outside the body”.
Biologists have also known this for ages. Biologists describe as ‘choronomic’ the influence on a process of its geographic or regional environment. Choronomy adds value.
So how are we to improve the situations in which our all-important people-to-people interactions take place? What kinds of knowledge do we need to bring to bear to do that?
Designers and architects should be able to help here. After all, they’ve been designing spaces and places for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, the mainstream of architecture – including most of the big-name designers – has lost the plot. They’re designing spaces as spectacles, not spaces that foster interaction and encounter.
Concert and exhibition halls, tourist resorts, sport stadiums, shoppping malls and cafes, all are designed as places for us to buy things, not for social interaction.
Raoul Vaneigem complained about this back in 1957, when he founded the The Situationist International. “The whole of life presents itslf as an immense accumulation of spectacles,” said the Situationsist Manifesto. “All that was once lived, has become mere representation”.
More recently, the spanish economist Manuel Castells wrote about the networked economy as the “space of flows” – a brilliant metaphor that helps us understand one way in which our world is becoming a hybrid of real and virtual space.
Unfortunately, the ‘flows’ metaphor has prompted architects to design squidgy and undulating buildings which are interesting (on first sight) to look at – but rarely foster better interaction. Often, they do the the opposite.
When new multimedia technologies and internet first appeared, there was excited talk of ‘parallel worlds’ and escape into a ‘virtual reality’. Now the fuss has died down and here we still are – in the same old bodies on the same old planet. Things have changed – but in subtle and more interesting ways. Now the real and the virtual, the artificial and natural, the mental and material, co-exist.
So what are the design qualities we need to make this new hybridity work?
Now here’s a thing. I don’t know!
I don’t have the answers to this question.
I just know that it’s an important question.
But I’m reassured by St Exupery’s insight. If the destination is attractive enough, we’ll find a way to get there.
We have the tools – hybrid space. The question remains, how do we want to use it?
For me, the best description of the destination is by Ivan Illich. Illich said, 35 years ago, that we need to:
“Give back to people the capacity to resolve their problems within the network of their own relationships.”
“Re-frame institutions (such as medicine, or work, or education) as a support service in this transition – not its substitute.”
and
“Recover the ability for mutual self-care and learning, helped by – but not centered on – the use of modern technology.”
The theologian Martin Buber also saw things clearly. For him, the essential qualities that describe a healthy situation are ones that enable encounter, dialogue, and community.
Now you may well object that theologians do not make ideal clients. But Ivan Illich and Martin Buber anticipated what our wisest designers today have also discovered.
John Carroll, for example, in his wonderful book ‘Making Use’, says of design in today’s complex world that, “its ultimate objective and approach have to be discovered, not specified.”
Carroll criticises the traditional engineering approach in which, to get some kind of grip on complexity, the information to be considered is filtered, and overall task is ‘decomposed’ into manageable chunks.These chunks are put into a neat to-do list with deadlines, responsibilities and costs attached.
It’s a completely understandable and impressive approach. For a bridge, or a chemical plant, or even the shell of a new hospital, it works just about fine. But not with people-centered systems, says Carroll.
Decomposition is not only applied to hard things like nuts and bolts. If you look at the proceedings of the CHI (Computer Human Interaction)conference, there’s a thesaurus that lists – and attempts to explain – 137 terms that crop up in the papers selected for the event.
The thesaurus runs from agents, to work analysis. It includes subjects like augmented reality, cognitive models, ethnography, help desks, input devices, metaphors, predictive interfaces, story-telling, tactile inputs, and usability engineering.
As I said, 137 entries. CHI is for the good guys – human-centered designers who care about people – but their knowledge-base is fragmented and specialised – and becoming more so, year by year. If you look at the proceedings for an information systems conference, the thesaurus can be tens of pages long.
Someone told me that “research and practice hardly seem to speak to each other.” This is madness.
‘The situation’ is not where you do the design. It is the design.
3 MEANING
George Orwell could not imagine a society, whether a happy or a miserable one, without managers, designers and supervisors who, “jointly wrote the script for others to follow.”
In Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future, many aspects of which have duly come to pass, designers staged the performances, put the lines in actors’ mouths, and fired, or locked in dungeons, “everyone who would improvise their own texts.”
John Grey, in a book you should read called ‘Straw Dogs’, describes our dilemma this way: “We are in a new kind of uncertainty: not knowing the ends, rather than not knowing the means.”
Ivan Illich, 35 years ago, introduced us to the idea of ‘counter-productivity’ in the institutions and systems upon which our society depends. Beyond certain thresholds of development, said Illich, institutions would become an obstacle to the objectives they are meant to serve.
Illich, like Orwell, was pretty accurate.
Medical systems render us anxious, but out of control.
Education gets automated, and fosters stupidity.
There’s so much transportation, that it’s hard to get around.
There is so much communication, that it’s hard to see, or hear, or think.
What these trends have in common that people are no longer helped, in illich’s words, ” to resolve their problems within the network of their own relationships in daily life.”
I mentioned the Manuel Castells’ metaphor of our age as “the space of flows.” This evocative metaphor also explains the changing nature of work in the new economy. We look at lot at the means, but not enough at the ends.
During the 1990s, new-economy rhetoric promised a rosy future. Rather than salarymen and women, or wage slaves, we would be self-employed ‘portfolio workers’. We would be ‘actors’, ‘builders’, ‘jugglers’, ‘stage managers of our own lives.’ Our every working moment would be filled with challenging projects, and boundless creativity.
Above all, we would be Free. Free of bosses. Free of command-and-control bureaucracy. They would be swept away by a tide of self-organizing groups.
The reality of net work, for most of us, turns out to be as near as dammit the exact opposite of those rosy promises. A huge gulf separates the rhetorics of the information society, from the logic, and hence realities, of the way it actually works.
Reality check: we are not living in an information society but in an information market. In this market, three powerful economic forces – downsizing, globalization, and acceleration – have all been socially disadvantageous to most of us.
Jobs, for one thing, are disappearing. The idea of a ‘steady job’ is no longer a reliable prospect for tens of millions of young adults. They face a future in which they will labour at short-term tasks – ‘projects’ – and change employer or client frequently.Their work will be fragmented and atomised. They will suffer a steady loss of economic power. They will exist as monads in ‘spot markets’ for ‘human resources.’
Yesterday (at the conference in Helsinki) I heard someone say, “the field of work and communities is still quite new.”
Colleagues, that is palpable nonsense. The importance of community may be new in computer science research. But, outside this little box, philosophers and social scientists have studed people and relationships and communities since more or less forever.
And they have some interesting things to teach us. “We work not just to produce,” said Eugene Delacroix, “but to give value to time.” That alone undermines the theories of efficiency that drive the design of many information systems.
But let me also quote three relatively recent observations. The evolutionary biologist S L Washburton has written that “most of human evolution took place before the advent of agriculture, when men lived in small groups, on a face-to-face basis. As a result (says Washburton) human biology has evolved as an adaptive mechanism to conditions that have largely ceased to exist. Man evolved to feel strongly about a few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time – and these are still the dimensions of life that are important to him.”
My second quotation is from Yochai Benkler, a professor of law at New York University. In a paper called ‘Linux and the Nature of the Firm,’ Benkler argues that the eternal necessities of life are reasserting themselves in such phenomena as the evolution of free software. Benkler argues that free software is just one – although the most visible – example of a much broader social phenomenon. “We are seeing the emergence of a new mode of production,” he says. “Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects. The design lesson is this. In order to re-design work, we need to keep fundamental questions of human existence always in mind.”
For Charles Hampden Turner, too, “We overlook the extent to which needed appications give meaning and zest to our work. Without shared purposes, and moral meanings, we risk drifting into a culture of self-absorption and narcissism.”
In Japan they call this call the nemawashi factor. Originally a horticultural word that means ‘to turn the roots’, prior to replanting – or, by implication, ‘laying the groundwork’ – nemawashi has come to mean the process by which groups in Japan develop the shared understanding without which nothing much gets done.
Too much of the design we now do suffers from a nemawashi-deficit. Fixated on abstractions and tools, we lose touch with the connections between people in the world, and the values we have in common, that provide the meanings that impel us to work.

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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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