Flow: from the new economy to the “now economy”

A preview of the Doors 7 conference written for Form magazine in Germany.
Chris Pacione did not set out to be the designer of a wireless service. On the contrary: the co-founder of BodyMedia took a communication design course at an engineering school – Carnegie Mellon University – and fully expected to become a product designer “But as soon as we started BodyMedia” says Pacione, ” it became clear that our object was only one part of a bigger picture. We had to become service designers – and after that, business model designers – in order to survive”.
BodyMedia’s product is a hybrid of hard and soft features. What you see on Pacione’s arm is a wearable computer, with wireless capability. But that object is just one part of the story. The company develops and sells wearable body monitors and software that collects, stores, analyses and displays continuous and accurate physiological and lifestyle data, such as energy expenditure (calories burned), level of activity, sleep states, and other important physiological data – anytime, anywhere. A website shows you charts that compare your body’s performance to average or ideal charts, thus enabling you to see at a glance if you are taking enough exercise, sleeping too much, or eating too many calories. As well as object design – the industrial design of the object on your arm, its shape, weight, materials, engineering and so on – Pacione and his colleagues had to design the appearance and organization of information on the website. They also had to design the ways people would buy the product, and pay for it; they have had to adjust the company’s business model continuously. At first they thought consumers might obtain the product free-of-charge, and pay for a “wellness monitoring service” – in much the way that we sometimes get a satellite dish, or TV set-top box, for free, and pay for programmes by a monthly subscription. But the marketing costs of that business model were too high, so BodyMedia switched to selling the product to sportsmen and women as a high-tech training aid. This did not work – the unit price was too high – so, now, BodyMedia sells its hybrid product-and-service to insurance companies and health-care providers in a business-to-business model. Says Pacione, “we never stop designing the object, the way it’s used, the way the information is presented, and the way people pay for it”.
Service and flow

BodyMedia’s story is paradigmatic of the way traditional ‘thing’ design is evolving into a complex hybrid called service and flow design. We are in a transition from an economy of transactions – selling and buying things – to what Paul Hawken in Natural Capitalism calls “an ecology of relationships and contexts”. Advanced companies such as Bodymedia are focusing on the innovation of new services, and new business models, rather than on new technology by itself. As Hawken explains it, a service and flow economy is based on a shift from the acquisition of goods as a measure of affluence to “the continuous receipt of quality, utility, and performance that promotes well-being”.
The context and infrastructure for the emerging service and flow economy are provided by a new technological paradigm, pervasive computing. Pervasive computing (it is also known as ubiquitous computing; embedded computing; the disappearing computer, things that think, things that link, connected appliances, smartifacts, or ambient intelligence) describes the ways we are suffusing the world with not just with sensors, but also with responsive smart materials and actuators. There are already hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet, and most of these chips will soon talk to each other. These chips will find their way into most of the objects that surround us – buildings, airplanes, doors, door handles, clothing – even our bodies. And they will speak in languages such as Bluetooth. (Bluetooth was the nickname of a Danish king called Harald who, through his impressive communication skills, united Norway and Denmark in the 10th century; an industry consortium named its wireless standard Bluetooth because it allows users to unite through communication).
The military is driving many developments in the use of sensors, tags, and remote monitoring in the physical world. John Gage of Sun Microsystems anticipates that we will soon sprinkle “smart dust” over battlefields – clouds of tiny wireless sensors, thermometers, miniature microphones, electronic noses, location detectors that will provide information about the physical world, and the people crossing it, to battlefield commanders. One company, Graviton, builds ever-cheaper sensors using MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) – tiny sensors that convert analogue data about anything physical – pressure, light, gas – into bits and bytes, which they communicate wirelessly to a network. Another company, WhereNet, has developed a system of matchbox-sized wireless tags and readers that allow objects to be located within about 3m making it much easier to keep track of them. (It is reported in The Economist that American Airlines has installed the system in its huge cargo facility at Dallas Fort Worth).
Soon, radio frequency identification tags (RF Tags) will replace today’s ubiquitous barcodes; groceries, for example, will no longer have to be scanned in individually. With 60,000 product lines in an average US supermarket, one quickly sees why the global market for such sensors is predicted to reach $50 billion in 2008 (according to Intechno Consulting in Basle, Switzerland).
These sensors will generate a phenomenal amount of data, “raising the spectre”, as The Economist, said recently,” of a new level of information overload”. Researchers are therefore developing novel information architectures, such as an operating system for smart dust that lets sensors and actuators form wireless networks without human intervention. Jakub Wejchert, who manages the EU’s Disappearing Computer programme, says that such self-organizing technology might make another dream come true: sensors will combine their skills with effectors, tiny devices that can manipulate matter, making it possible to create ‘smartifacts’ – smart materials and intelligent artefacts. http://www.disappearing-computer.net
Unfrozen music

Inspired by Goethe’s comment that “architecture is frozen music”, the writer Malcom McCullough has describes then ten steps by which pervasive or ubiquitous computing begins to “melt” traditional buildings and products: “1 sites and devices are embedded with microprocessors; 2 sensors pick up what is going on; 3 communication links form ad hoc networks of devices; 4 tags identify actors; 5 actuators close the loop; 6 controls make it interactive; 7 display spreads out; 8 spatial information becomes available, useful, and necessary; 9 agents act; 10 tuning overcomes rigidity”. Pervasive computing thereby confronts us with a design dilemma. We are filling our world with complex technical systems – on top of the natural systems that were already here, and social/cultural ones that evolved over thousands of years – without thinking much, if at all, about the consequences.
That’s why the concept of service and flow is so timely: it provides us with the context and infrastructure for a service and flow economy. Service and flow among a crop of new business metaphors that all describe a shift from fixity to fluidity – in business processes, as in products. As Ludwig Siegele explained in The Economist, “companies are wiring up digital nervous systems that connect together everything involved in their operations – IT systems, factories and employees, as well as suppliers, customers, and products”. In processes described dryly as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Enterprise Resource Management (ERM) or Supply Chain Integration (SCI), companies aspire to monitor everything important in “real-time”. Companies are trying, says Siegele, “to collect data from any point In space or time where a customer ‘touches’ a company – such as a store, a call centre or a website – and develop “dashboards”, that will measure key indicators, compare their performance against goals, and alert managers if a deviation becomes large enough to warrant action”. Some of the world’s biggest companies want to convert their worldwide information flows into a vast spread-sheet creating, not a new economy but a “now economy”.
Design agendas for flow

Two design issues are common both to a small start-up like BodyMedia, and to a giant multinational like GE: first, the necessity to design ways to perceive flows; and secondly, the need to move from a product-based, to a continuous model of innovation.
Firstly, in order to do things differently, we 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 ˆ 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 ˆ to identify communication blockages and then to fix the ‘plumbing’ where flows don’t work.
We need dashboards for cities and buildings, not just for big companies. 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.
We know, for example, that buildings consume a lot of energy – but we don’t ‘see’ heat flying out of the windows. If we did, our behaviour would probably change. Designing these experiences will not be easy. Systems are, by their nature, invisible, and we lack evocative metaphors or mental models to help us make sense of the bigger picture. But 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; network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. 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. Real-time representations of energy performance can help us use buildings and places in new and more sustainable (and cheaper) ways.
These process representations need where possible to be visceral. The philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty, an early critic of blueprint thinking in 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 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. “The role of design in these places becomes making visible that which is invisible. – creating seismographs, ways of reading the flowing surface realities of both digital and analogue data. Ways of reading them, as they will surely read us”, says the writer Rob van Kranenburg.
Sense and respond

The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside – it is to enable action. The second challenge for design in the space of flows, therefore, is the transition from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. 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 the world as a verb, not as a noun. Natural, human and industrial systems are all around us. They are not below, outside, or above us. “As computational processes disappear into the background, into everyday objects, both the real and the subject become contested”, says the writer Rob van Brandenburg; “the environment becomes the interface”. Products of a company like Netscape evolve continuously as thousands of users interact with its designers on a daily basis. We can learn a lot in this context from the most advanced software designers, who call themselves ‘extreme programmers’. Extreme programmers have come to value individuals, and interactions among them, over abstract processes and tools. These principles are the basis of a new movement in software called The Agile Alliance. The Agile Alliance is not anti-methodology but, as their website explains, they want to restore credibility to the word methodology. “We want to restore a balance. We embrace modelling, but not in order to file some diagram in a dusty corporate repository. We embrace documentation, but not hundreds of pages of never-maintained and rarely used tomes. We plan, but recognize the limits of planning in a turbulent environment”.
As designers, too, our role needs to evolve 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. This transition from designing for people, to designing with people, will not be easy. Systems and processes, services and flows, never stop changing – so neither can design. 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. 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.
Peter Bogh Andersen, an interaction design researcher at the University of Aalborg, compares interacting with dynamic environments to navigating a ship, and gives maritime instrumentation as an example.” When I started teaching human-computer interaction in the 1980s,” he recalls, “the ideal was that the user should be in control of the system. The system should not act unless the user asked it to do so. On process control, however, the situation is quite different. Here, physical processes are running independently of the user whose task is partially to control them. The art of navigation is similar: it is to pit the controllable forces – rudder, propeller – against the uncontrollable ones to achieve ones purpose”. Andersen describes as “an adversary”, the sea and the wind, that thwarts your intentions, and says you have to be skilful and smart to win the battle. “In such areas, design guidelines that assume an essentially passive system are no longer valid, and new ones must be formulated”. This raises three design issues: First, how can we support the changing information needs that occur during a voyage? Second, how to present the basic conflict, between the controllable and uncontrollable, in a clear way? And third, how can we make the ship system understandable so that the proud old maritime tradition of self-reliance can live on in the electronic world?” As designers, our role in society 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, or of ‘signing off’, when a design is finished, makes no sense in a world whose systems don’t stop changing. The project-based model found throughout the design world today is like water company that delivers a bucket of water to your door and pronounces its mission accomplished. Or think of your own website: it needs attention constantly, like a child, or a garden. We need to evolve new business models for design as we transition from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. Not as manufacturing process that delivers finished products. One scenario is service contracts, such as those used by big management consultancy firms.

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Architecture, spectacle, performance

A chapter for the catalogue of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2002, edited by Deyan Sudjic (who was also overall Director of the event).
A few years ago I met a woman in Bombay who was completing her PhD in social anthropology. She had just returned from her last field trip to Rajhastan where she had spent time with a group of travelling storytellers. This particular group went from village to village, unannounced, and would simply start a performance in the village square. Although each story would have a familiar plot the story telling tradition dates back thousands of years ˆ each event would be unique. Prompted by the storytellers, who held up pictorial symbols on sticks, villagers would interact with the story. They would be part of the performance. I commented to the woman that with that depth of knowledge about interaction, and the combined use of words and images, she could get a job with Microsoft tomorrow. ‘What’s Microsoft? ‘, Was her reply.
This encounter confirmed my prejudice that we have forgotten how to design for communication and interaction. We know how design messages, yes: the world is awash in print and ads and packaging and e-trash and spam. And we know to design one-way-communication buildings: hundreds of sports stadia, museums, theatres, science and convention centres have been built in recent years. Most of these buildings do an adequate technical job in delivering spectacles to passive crowds – but they are all about one-way messages. In the open air, as in the Indian villages my friend described, people cluster around a speaker. Children wriggle through to kneel at the front. As the crowd grows, the more distant and adventurous will seek a higher vantage point tree, rock, wall, or balcony. The courtyard form of theatre evolved from there and remains the root form for most later theatrical development. It simply grew in size and sophistication. Today’s monumental, overblown and inhospitable theatre and arena architecture is the creation of a point-to-mass mentality that lies behind the brand intrusion and semiotic pollution that despoil so many of our perceptual and physical landscapes.
A lot of the push towards a post-spectacular culture – perhaps surprisingly – comes from business and technology. The chicken breasts in my supermarket have started to bear a photograph of the farmers who rear the birds, plus a little story about their place. Globalisation promoted ‘anytime, anywhere’ as a value – but attention is shifting back from space to place. Even telecommunication companies see location as the next big thing. The new business thinking is that mass things – mass production, mass communications, and large public spectacles – are relatively easy for upstart competitors to copy. Abuzz with talk of closed and open systems, large firms now believe that the best way to compete is by making things more complicated, not less. Complex services, and customised experiences, will be harder for newcomers to imitate. Business has decided that there’s money to be made in customisation and authenticity. The idea is to make a real-time ‘now economy’. Vivek Ranadive, author of the power of now, has a rather precise vision of what he calls the “event-driven firm”. Business is also responding to spectacular erosion in brand loyalty, which calls into question the fundamentals of modern marketing.
A similar change of mood is evident in the traditional worlds of performance. In theatre, for example, big is over. Big concepts, big-ticket productions – and the big marketing budgets needed to make them pay – are out of favour. Tony Graham, Director of the Unicorn Children’s Theatre in London, looked at more than 100 buildings in London before deciding to commission a new theatre on the River Thames. “Scale is crucial in theatre” he says; “300-400 people is the maximum size at which you can be both epic and intimate, and we simply could not find a space that would allow us to those in the way we need to do”. A 1500 person audience creates a differerent sense of what theatre is about. Prosaic issues to do with access play an important role: where do coaches park, how far is it to the tube, and so on. But. Graham’s brief to Theatre Projects, who lead the functional design of his new theatre, was to move away the proscenium arch model, with its picture-book illusion of looking into a room. “We are moving back to the amphitheatre model which thrusts the stage into the body of the audience”, says Graham; “audiences today don’t want trickery, special effects and illusion. They want to see things as they are, without artifice”. The amphitheatre model favoured by Graham “heightens the human figure and strips things back to the minimum”.
Many in the theatre world question whether new buildings are needed at all. Big theatres, in particular, tend to sap energy out of productions and money out of their producers. Some producers have taken literally to the streets in so-called ‘promenade’ and site-specific theatre. In these Chaucer-like journeys, players and audience move together around cities, through forests, up mountains, or into resonant but abandoned or found spaces. The significance of place, and the localisation of knowledge, is now taken as seriously by companies as by theatre people. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid emphasize in The Social Life of Information, a lot of what we learn is remarkable local: History. Agriculture. Politics. Art. Geology. Viticulture. Forestry. Conservation. Ocean Science. For the writer Charles Hampden-Turner, too, we learn through participation in collaborative human activities. “Knowledge as it grows is necessarily social,” he writes, “the shared property of extended groups and networks”.
What matters most in a post-spectacular world is activity, not architecture. As the director Peter Brook once 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… studying what it is that brings about the more vivid relationships between people.” 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. We all deserve to spend time in safe, pleasant and comfortable surroundings, rather than their opposite; but, beyond that, most buildings will surely do – for performance, for learning, for all forms of social connection.
Given that more space is needed for shared learning activities, many involving performance and interaction, where will it come from – and who will pay for it? Happily, large, expensive, centrally located informal environments, suitable for learning and performance, already exist in most cities in the form of museums, science, and media centres. The majority of these facilities were conceived and are now run as leisure facilities, spectacles for public and tourists who only ever visit them once. These buildings are therefore ripe to be commandeered and re-purposed as sites of informal learning.
Some of their Directors are eager for such a change. James Bradburne, for example, Director of the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Frankfurt, despairs that exhibition design ever since the 1950s has been “obsessed with the message – the storyline – and has seen itself as one of the broadcast media, reaching out to the masses with its messages”. The apotheosis of this approach is the Guggenheim, whose director, Thomas Krens, turned the Guggenheim into a theme-park-like franchise operation and that now competes with Disney for the property and leisure developer’s dollar. The word ‘exhibit’ is at the heart of criticisms of the museum and science centre model where, once again, a point-to-mass model of communication prevails.
Instead of looking at the design task as creating exhibits, modernisers like James Bradburne have shifted their focus from the exhibit as an end-in-itself to the exhibit as a setting for interaction between and among participants: discussion, dialogue, debate are the goal. Just as with theatre. At NewMetropolis in Amsterdam, where Bradburne’s ideas were first implemented, the emphasis was not on science and technology, per se, but on being human beings in a world rapidly being transformed by science and technology. “Our aim was to foster skills of experimentation, abstraction, collaboration, and systems thinking”, says Bradburne, who led the design team there before moving to Frankfurt. Puzzles, challenges, simulations and role-playing games were at the heart of his design strategy. “Our goal was to stimulate self-initiated exploration, encourage sustained engagement, and repeat use, and provided a framework in which competence demonstrably increases”. Bradburne uses the metaphor of the piazza – in contrast to the arena – to describe this kind of museum as a resource to be used, rather than visited, or looked at.
The best collaboration environments provide the opportunity to meet, share ideas, discuss, and learn from each other’s experiences. Seen in this way, anyone who plays a role in shaping a learning or performance environment – whether they are by training a researcher, a teacher, a multimedia specialist, a programmer, or an industrial designer – is a designer. Design must allow the user the shape her experience. “Design doesn’t end with the opening”, says Bradburne, “it begins with the opening”.
Theatre and museum people are not alone in their search for a more rooted, animated context in which to work. Richard Sennet once complained, „When public space becomes a derivative of movement, it loses any independent experiential meaning of its own. On the most physical level, these environments of pure movement prompt people to think of the public domain as meaningless… It is catatonic space‰ The word catatonic is horribly apt as a description of the way many great modern spaces make us feel – arenas and stadia designed for passive crowds, as much as airports and hub wastelands such as Eurolille.
The problem is not new. Throughout the twentieth century artists intervened in a variety of ways into man-made space: futurism, cubist collage, Duchamp‚s ready-mades, Dada, constructivism, surrealism, Fontana‚s spatialism, Fluxus, land art, arte povera, process art, conceptualism: in all these groups the deadness and catatonia of modern public space were perceived to be both as a rebuke, and a challenge. They prepared site-specific installations and events whose meaning was to be gathered by the viewer over time. (Performance art itself was born in a fistfight in 1910 between Italian Futurists and Venetian townspeople reacted in anger when 800,000 manifestoes “Against Past-Loving Venice” were scattered upon them). The tradition has persisted that, in Marinetti’s words, “there is no artifice here: this is happening now, in real-time”.
Today, even real-time is mediated. In the age of the rave, street-level events have become big productions. Festivals, concerts, corporate events, church pageants, and fashion shows vie with each other tin the quality and sophistication of their production. The supply and use of technology for live performance is a large speciality business in itself: hundreds of companies specialise in every conceivable variety of lighting, sound systems, staging, video walls, and endless special effects. The rapid evolution of digital media, advanced materials and other technologies has further opened the way for technology to penetrate live performance. The design and evaluation of alternative musical and lighting controllers is currently the leading edge of an ongoing dialogue between technology and musical culture
It is not just real-time performance that is mediated. So is “here”. With the advent of broadband video, satellite and wireless, and fixed networks, live performance has entered the realm of the reproducible and in the words of one critic, “barriers between the televisual and the performative are breaking down”. The human actor who shares the same space and time with a body of spectators can now, to a degree, share other spaces and other times with different actors – in so-called electronic arenas in which spatial technologies, especially multi-user virtual environments, are coupled to new forms of artistic content and an understanding of social interaction.
But even in virtualised, networked contexts, the cultural drive is to support interactive performance and interaction, not passive spectacle. A European project called eRENA, for example, investigated a range of inhabited information spaces in which participants would be mobile and socially active. Audience members as well as performers and artists would explore, interact, communicate with one another and participate in staged events. Through concepts such as ‘dynamic crowd aggregations’, the aim was to support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous participants, bridging the gap between current small scale, real-time communication technologies such as video conferencing, and current massive-scale non-participative broadcast technologies such as television. The Erena consortium brought together digital artists, experts in multi-user virtual reality and computer animation, social scientists, broadcasters, experts in expertise in CAVEs and other projected interfaces, networking expertise, spatial technologies and novel artistic content. Avatars, both as individuals and in potentially large and dynamic crowds.
The point-to-mass age of big ticket spectacles is ending. We are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture in which performance environments will be judged by their capacity to foster interaction and learning. The trend is towards spaces, places, and communities in which complex experiences and processes combine in new geographies of learning and experience – while also exploiting the dynamic potential of networked collaboration. A division persists between designers who believe that experiences can be systematically designed, and those who feel that the designer can only set the stage for what is experienced – but the consensus is clear: we are all actors now.

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Architecture, spectacle, performance

A chapter for the catalogue of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2002, edited by Deyan Sudjic (who was also overall Director of the event).
We have forgotten how to design for communication and interaction. We know how design messages, yes: the world is awash in print and ads and packaging and e-trash and spam. And we know to design one-way-communication buildings: hundreds of sports stadia, museums, theatres, science and convention centres have been built in recent years. Most of these buildings do an adequate technical job in delivering spectacles to passive crowds – but they are all about one-way messages. In the open air, as in the Indian villages my friend described, people cluster around a speaker. Children wriggle through to kneel at the front. As the crowd grows, the more distant and adventurous will seek a higher vantage point tree, rock, wall, or balcony. The courtyard form of theatre evolved from there and remains the root form for most later theatrical development. It simply grew in size and sophistication. Today’s monumental, overblown and inhospitable theatre and arena architecture is the creation of a point-to-mass mentality that lies behind the brand intrusion and semiotic pollution that despoil so many of our perceptual and physical landscapes.
A lot of the push towards a post-spectacular culture – perhaps surprisingly – comes from business and technology. The chicken breasts in my supermarket have started to bear a photograph of the farmers who rear the birds, plus a little story about their place. Globalisation promoted ‘anytime, anywhere’ as a value – but attention is shifting back from space to place. Even telecommunication companies see location as the next big thing. The new business thinking is that mass things – mass production, mass communications, and large public spectacles – are relatively easy for upstart competitors to copy. Abuzz with talk of closed and open systems, large firms now believe that the best way to compete is by making things more complicated, not less. Complex services, and customised experiences, will be harder for newcomers to imitate. Business has decided that there’s money to be made in customisation and authenticity. The idea is to make a real-time ‘now economy’. Vivek Ranadive, author of the power of now, has a rather precise vision of what he calls the “event-driven firm�. Business is also responding to spectacular erosion in brand loyalty, which calls into question the fundamentals of modern marketing.
A similar change of mood is evident in the traditional worlds of performance. In theatre, for example, big is over. Big concepts, big-ticket productions – and the big marketing budgets needed to make them pay – are out of favour. Tony Graham, Director of the Unicorn Children�s Theatre in London, looked at more than 100 buildings in London before deciding to commission a new theatre on the River Thames. “Scale is crucial in theatre” he says; “300-400 people is the maximum size at which you can be both epic and intimate, and we simply could not find a space that would allow us to those in the way we need to do”. A 1500 person audience creates a differerent sense of what theatre is about. Prosaic issues to do with access play an important role: where do coaches park, how far is it to the tube, and so on. But. Graham’s brief to Theatre Projects, who lead the functional design of his new theatre, was to move away the proscenium arch model, with its picture-book illusion of looking into a room. “We are moving back to the amphitheatre model which thrusts the stage into the body of the audience”, says Graham; “audiences today don’t want trickery, special effects and illusion. They want to see things as they are, without artifice”. The amphitheatre model favoured by Graham “heightens the human figure and strips things back to the minimum”.
Many in the theatre world question whether new buildings are needed at all. Big theatres, in particular, tend to sap energy out of productions and money out of their producers. Some producers have taken literally to the streets in so-called ‘promenade’ and site-specific theatre. In these Chaucer-like journeys, players and audience move together around cities, through forests, up mountains, or into resonant but abandoned or found spaces. The significance of place, and the localisation of knowledge, is now taken as seriously by companies as by theatre people. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid emphasize in The Social Life of Information, a lot of what we learn is remarkable local: History. Agriculture. Politics. Art. Geology. Viticulture. Forestry. Conservation. Ocean Science. For the writer Charles Hampden-Turner, too, we learn through participation in collaborative human activities. “Knowledge as it grows is necessarily social,” he writes, “the shared property of extended groups and networks”.
What matters most in a post-spectacular world is activity, not architecture. As the director Peter Brook once 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… studying what it is that brings about the more vivid relationships between people.” 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. We all deserve to spend time in safe, pleasant and comfortable surroundings, rather than their opposite; but, beyond that, most buildings will surely do – for performance, for learning, for all forms of social connection.
Given that more space is needed for shared learning activities, many involving performance and interaction, where will it come from – and who will pay for it? Happily, large, expensive, centrally located informal environments, suitable for learning and performance, already exist in most cities in the form of museums, science, and media centres. The majority of these facilities were conceived and are now run as leisure facilities, spectacles for public and tourists who only ever visit them once. These buildings are therefore ripe to be commandeered and re-purposed as sites of informal learning.
Some of their Directors are eager for such a change. James Bradburne, for example, Director of the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Frankfurt, despairs that exhibition design ever since the 1950s has been “obsessed with the message – the storyline – and has seen itself as one of the broadcast media, reaching out to the masses with its messages”. The apotheosis of this approach is the Guggenheim, whose director, Thomas Krens, turned the Guggenheim into a theme-park-like franchise operation and that now competes with Disney for the property and leisure developer’s dollar. The word ‘exhibit’ is at the heart of criticisms of the museum and science centre model where, once again, a point-to-mass model of communication prevails.
Instead of looking at the design task as creating exhibits, modernisers like James Bradburne have shifted their focus from the exhibit as an end-in-itself to the exhibit as a setting for interaction between and among participants: discussion, dialogue, debate are the goal. Just as with theatre. At NewMetropolis in Amsterdam, where Bradburne’s ideas were first implemented, the emphasis was not on science and technology, per se, but on being human beings in a world rapidly being transformed by science and technology. “Our aim was to foster skills of experimentation, abstraction, collaboration, and systems thinking”, says Bradburne, who led the design team there before moving to Frankfurt. Puzzles, challenges, simulations and role-playing games were at the heart of his design strategy. “Our goal was to stimulate self-initiated exploration, encourage sustained engagement, and repeat use, and provided a framework in which competence demonstrably increases”. Bradburne uses the metaphor of the piazza – in contrast to the arena – to describe this kind of museum as a resource to be used, rather than visited, or looked at.
The best collaboration environments provide the opportunity to meet, share ideas, discuss, and learn from each other’s experiences. Seen in this way, anyone who plays a role in shaping a learning or performance environment – whether they are by training a researcher, a teacher, a multimedia specialist, a programmer, or an industrial designer – is a designer. Design must allow the user the shape her experience. “Design doesn’t end with the opening”, says Bradburne, “it begins with the opening”.
Theatre and museum people are not alone in their search for a more rooted, animated context in which to work. Richard Sennet once complained, �When public space becomes a derivative of movement, it loses any independent experiential meaning of its own. On the most physical level, these environments of pure movement prompt people to think of the public domain as meaningless… It is catatonic space� The word catatonic is horribly apt as a description of the way many great modern spaces make us feel – arenas and stadia designed for passive crowds, as much as airports and hub wastelands such as Eurolille.
The problem is not new. Throughout the twentieth century artists intervened in a variety of ways into man-made space: futurism, cubist collage, Duchamp�s ready-mades, Dada, constructivism, surrealism, Fontana�s spatialism, Fluxus, land art, arte povera, process art, conceptualism: in all these groups the deadness and catatonia of modern public space were perceived to be both as a rebuke, and a challenge. They prepared site-specific installations and events whose meaning was to be gathered by the viewer over time. (Performance art itself was born in a fistfight in 1910 between Italian Futurists and Venetian townspeople reacted in anger when 800,000 manifestoes “Against Past-Loving Venice” were scattered upon them). The tradition has persisted that, in Marinetti’s words, “there is no artifice here: this is happening now, in real-time”.
Today, even real-time is mediated. In the age of the rave, street-level events have become big productions. Festivals, concerts, corporate events, church pageants, and fashion shows vie with each other tin the quality and sophistication of their production. The supply and use of technology for live performance is a large speciality business in itself: hundreds of companies specialise in every conceivable variety of lighting, sound systems, staging, video walls, and endless special effects. The rapid evolution of digital media, advanced materials and other technologies has further opened the way for technology to penetrate live performance. The design and evaluation of alternative musical and lighting controllers is currently the leading edge of an ongoing dialogue between technology and musical culture
It is not just real-time performance that is mediated. So is “here”. With the advent of broadband video, satellite and wireless, and fixed networks, live performance has entered the realm of the reproducible and in the words of one critic, “barriers between the televisual and the performative are breaking down”. The human actor who shares the same space and time with a body of spectators can now, to a degree, share other spaces and other times with different actors – in so-called electronic arenas in which spatial technologies, especially multi-user virtual environments, are coupled to new forms of artistic content and an understanding of social interaction.
But even in virtualised, networked contexts, the cultural drive is to support interactive performance and interaction, not passive spectacle. A European project called eRENA, for example, investigated a range of inhabited information spaces in which participants would be mobile and socially active. Audience members as well as performers and artists would explore, interact, communicate with one another and participate in staged events. Through concepts such as ‘dynamic crowd aggregations’, the aim was to support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous participants, bridging the gap between current small scale, real-time communication technologies such as video conferencing, and current massive-scale non-participative broadcast technologies such as television. The Erena consortium brought together digital artists, experts in multi-user virtual reality and computer animation, social scientists, broadcasters, experts in expertise in CAVEs and other projected interfaces, networking expertise, spatial technologies and novel artistic content. Avatars, both as individuals and in potentially large and dynamic crowds.
The point-to-mass age of big ticket spectacles is ending. We are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture in which performance environments will be judged by their capacity to foster interaction and learning. The trend is towards spaces, places, and communities in which complex experiences and processes combine in new geographies of learning and experience – while also exploiting the dynamic potential of networked collaboration. A division persists between designers who believe that experiences can be systematically designed, and those who feel that the designer can only set the stage for what is experienced – but the consensus is clear: we are all actors now.

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Does your design research exist? JT’s top tips for potent presentations

An internet sage once said that a web page never accessed does not really exist. Does the same logic apply to your design research? If nobody ‘gets it’, when you present your results, has anything been achieved?
I frequently see years of work by design researchers almost wasted because they do not communicate well. Here are a couple of stories about such near-disasters, plus 15 highly-opinionated tips for design research presentations at the end.
In Amsterdam, I attended the seventh bi-annual exhibition of Young Designers and Industry, (www. ydi.nl). The show’s sub-title – “the unknown meets the unknown” – turned horribly true. Thirteen European companies, ranging from Heineken to Forbo Linoleum, had given research projects to groups of talented young designers from all over Europe. Their task was “to conceive of new concepts for products, services or strategies of the future”. A fascinating brief, good partnerships, plenty of time. How could they fail?
Here is how.

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Creativity and the City (International conference on ‘Creativity and the City’, Amsterdam, 2002)

An international conference on ““Creativity and the City” was held in Amsterdam’s former gas works, Westergasfabriek. Westergasfabriek is the latest urban project to transform a former industrial site into a public and cultural amenity, and it wanted to share the lessons it has learned, and bring together comparable projects from around the world. Doors of Perception supported the event with speaker suggestions and advance publicity; John Thackara gave a keynote lecture, “The Post-spectacular city” which has been widely cited.

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Hong Kong Design Task Force (Expert advice to government task force, Hong Kong, 2002)

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Doors of Perception’s John Thackara was the expert advisor to the Hong Kong Design Task Force (chair: Victor Lo) which developed a new innovation and research policy for the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The task force plotted plotting the best way for Hong Kong and China to move up the value chain from a product-based to a service-and-flow based economy. professor John Heskett later wrote a report, Shaping the future: Design for Hong Kong, which is referred to here.
Following the Task Force project, Hong Kong launched an initiative called DesignSmart with the creation of a HK$250million (25 million euros) fund.

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Amsterdam Medical Centre (AMC) (Participation in think-tank, Amsterdam, 2002)

John Thackara was a member until the end of 2004 of a four person think-tank developing concepts for its Director of a next-generation national childrens hospital.

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Smart matters

The European Commission made ‘ambient intelligence’ a focus of its research programmes for 2001 to 2005. In official documents, the commission sometimes replaces the words ambient intelligence with the acronym AmI – to which I, as a philosophical joke, started adding a question mark – as in,
Am I?
We shall soon find out: several hundred million euros have been earmarked for the design of systems composed of autonomous entities whose participation in computation is dynamic and where activity is not centrally coordinated.

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Milan Triennale (Exhibition and conference on ‘tomorrow’s services’, Milan, 2002)

Doors of Perception was an advisor to this exibition and conference organised by Ezio Manzini at the Milan Triennale. “In tomorrow’s communities, an obsession with things will replaced by a fascination with events.” Manzini ran workshops in Brazil, China, and India to develop new design ideas for the show (the India one with assistance from Doors). An accompanying book, Collaborative Services: Social innovation and design for sustainability addressed questions that most of us confront: how to take care of people, work, study, move around, find food, eat, and share equipment.

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