What are artists for?

(A comment for Cumulus, the European association of design schools).
In order to do things differently, we first need to see things differently; the imaginary can be extraordinarily powerful in shaping expectations.
In order to do things differently, we first need to see things differently; the imaginary can be extraordinarily powerful in shaping expectations. New services and systems will be needed to support new ways of living; we need to develop a shared vision of what an improved quality of life for Europe’s citizens would be like. The problem is that traditional visions of the future tend to be filled with gadgets and devices – with more artificial life than real life. Goethe warned us about this problem back in 1817 when, writing about technological visions of the future, he warned that “one faces the danger of seeing, and yet not seeing”. New technology is the means to deliver services, not an end in itself. Technology requires the cultural imagination in order to emerge as economic and social success.
The artist’s critical intuition, and the designer’s powerful representations, can help us helps us shift our focus away from the material world and its artefacts, towards alternative future ways of living based on new concepts of culture and community. We know this from what happened during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, which was seething with possibilities. The motion picture industry is a vivid instance of how a nineteenth century technology simultaneously gave form to, and was shaped by, artist-driven conceptions of space and time and event. Cultural enthusiasm for speed and simultaneity pre-dated the technology of film, together with the telephone and phonograph, that later extended our perception of events and locations beyond their physical and temporal bounds. (William Uricchio).

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No more (design) heroes

The lone genius is dead. Long live collaborative design. I was interviewed by Chee Pearlman for Wired. Chee wisely published less than the stuff that appears here, but, shucks, this is my column….
Interview for Wired. Questions by Chee Pearlman, who also interviewed Paola Antonelli, Tim Parsey, Bruce Sterling, Lee Green, Lorraine Wild, Don Norman, Ayse Birsel, Tucker Viemeister, David Kelley, Ted Selker, Ray Riley, Ettore Sottsass, Erik Adegard, Robert Brunner,Trevor Creed, Gary Fisher, Andy Proehl, Rick Valicenti, Richard Saul Wurman and Susan Yelavitch.
Chee Pearlman: Let’s talk about experience design.
John Thackara: I tend not to like or trust any all-encompassing experience that has been designed for me, and not with me: theme parks, shopping malls, air travel, most websites, 98 per cent of e-learning products.

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Design for family communication

This is a story about the European funded project – Maypole – in which we (Doors folk) were part of the team.
Informal communication – sharing jokes, teasing each other, asking what kind of day you’ve had – is an important part of everyday life. Most families also do a lot of communicating to organise and schedule shared resources: car pools and school runs in the morning; ferrying kids to sporting events after school; getting in touch for help with homework in the evening. A big proportion of the 100 billion minutes of telephone calls made each year are short-distance – so the market for any service that adds value to local, intra-community communications is potentially vast. This is why Maypole focuses on new ways to enhance social communications among an extended family in the community.

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From science fiction to social fiction: a new vision for innovation and design

(A chapter about i-cubed for If/Then).

In thermodynamics it is called entropy when a system becomes disengaged from its context, and runs out of energy. Entropy afflicts a lot of design ‘research’ today. Even though the world is changing in profound and exciting ways, a generation of young designers is missing out on meaningful interaction with industry and society. Too many of their design schools and professional organisations are more interested in protecting professional turf than in exploring new challenges in the world at large.

The industrial research situation is not much better. Some $160 billion is spent each year on research and development by companies and governments in industrialised countries – but less than five per cent, by some estimates, ends up as a product or service that someone can buy. The reason is the same as for design: research is disengaged from its context. The majority of industrial research and development (R&D) is driven by a frantic scampering after technological Holy Grails – not by an exploration of changing social needs.
People are social

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Is technology cooking us?

Article for The Guardian (UK) in 2000 based on my CHI lecture.

What happens to society when there are hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet? What cultural consequences follow when every object around us is ‘smart’, and connected? And what happens psychologically when you step into the garden to look at the flowers – and the flowers look at you?

You might think that such questions would preoccupy anyone involved with computers –  namely, all of us. But you’d be wrong. We think about technology in the same way that a frog thinks about boiling water.

You remember the story: if you drop a frog into the pan when the water is boiling, it will leap out; but if you put the frog into a pan of cold water, and then heat it steadily towards boiling point, the frog – unaware that any dramatic change is taking place – will just sit there, and slowly cook.

Is technology cooking us?

Many hard things are certainly beginning to soften. Take products and buildings, for example, once described as ‘frozen software’: Pervasive computing begins to melt them.

Almost everything man-made, and quite a lot made by nature, will soon combine hardware and software: intelligence and connectivity are suffusing ships, aircraft, cars, bridges, tunnels, machines, refrigerators, door handles, lighting fixtures, shoes, hats, packaging.

The world is already filled with eight, twelve, or thirty computer chips for every man, woman and child on the planet. (The number depends on who you ask). Within a few years – say, the amount of time a child who is four years old today will spend in junior school – that number will rise to thousands of chips per person.

A majority of these chips will have the capacity to communicate with each other. Increasingly, many of the chips around us will sense their environment in rudimentary but effective ways. The way things are going, as writer Bruce Sterling so memorably put it, “you will look at the garden, and the garden will look at you” .

But pervasive computing is not just about flowers. Pervasive means everywhere, and that includes our bodies. Bio-mechatronics, and medical telematics, are spreading at tremendous speed. So much so, that the space where ‘human’ ends, and machine begins, is becoming blurred.

British Telecom, which spends $1 million an hour on R&D (or is a million dollars a minute, I forget) are working on an interactive corneal implant. BT are confident that by 2005 its lens will have a screen on it so video projections can be beamed straight onto your retina.

In the words of BT’s top tecchie, Sir Peter Cochrane, “you won’t even have to open your eyes to go to the office in the morning”. Thank you very much, Sir Peter, for that leap forward!

By 2010, BT expect to be making direct links to the nervous system. Links to the nervous system- – -links from it. What’­s the difference? Presumably BT’s objective is that you won’teven have to wake up to go to the office…..

I call this passive acceptance of technology into our bodies Borg drift. It features a million small, specialised acts. It’s what happens when knowledge from many branches of science and design converge – without us noticing.

We are designing a world in which every object, every building, – and every body – become part of a network service, even though we did not set out to design such an outcome.

I am no Canute: railing against technology, per se, is pointless. But we do need to reflect on the bigger picture if we are to have any influence over what it looks like. This is why, to provoke a discussion inside the industry, I recently circulated some “Articles of Association Between Design, Technology and The People Formerly Known As Users”.

They go like this:

Article 1
We cherish the fact that people are innately curious, playful, and creative. We therefore suspect that technology is not going to go away: it’s too much fun.

Article 2
We will deliver value to people – not deliver people to systems. We will give priority to human agency, and will not treat humans as a ‘factor’ in some bigger picture.

Article 3
We will not presume to design your experiences for you – but we will do so with you, if asked.

Article 4
We do not believe in ‘idiot-proof’ technology – because we are not idiots, and neither are you. We will use language with care, and will search for less patronising words than ‘user’ and ‘consumer’

Article 5
We will focus on services, not on things. We will not flood the world with pointless devices.

Article 6
We believe that ‘content’ is something you do – not something you are given.

Article 7
We will consider material end energy flows in all the systems we design, and we will think about the consequences of technology before we act, not after.

Article 8
We will not pretend things are simple, when they are complex. We value the fact that by acting inside a system, you will probably improve it.

Article 9
We believe that place matters, and we will look after it.

Article 10
We believe that speed and time matter, too – but that sometimes you need more, and sometimes you need less. We will not fill up all time with content.

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Designing the space of flows

(This is a chapter for a book published in 2000 (by 010) on Benthem|Crouwel – the wonderful architects of the -now gone – Netherlands Design Institute and, in their spare time, of Schiphol Airport)

Are buildings a liability?

The eminent Spanish economist Manuel Castells, whose first speech in Amsterdam was by invitation of the Design Institute, has written about the networked economy as “the space of flows” – a brilliant metaphor that helps us understand the changing nature of the workplace. Castells observes that while connections between people can indeed be multiplied by information and communication technologies, understanding still requires space, place and time. It is on that relationship – between connectivity, and meaning – that I focus in this text.
Management of the work environment as a combination of space, place, time and interaction, is moving centre-stage in discussions about innovation, learning, and the knowledge economy. This new focus on work environment raises tricky questions for anyone involved with the building industry. Hard questions are being asked about all the physical assets owned by business – with buildings being singled out as an albatross hanging around their necks. In the extreme view, which is gaining ground, ownership of any kind of asset other than information is becoming a liability. You gain flexibility by not owning physical assets, the argument goes; by concentrating on ownership of intellectual property and moving that around, organisations will do better in the new economy; there is growing pressure on all kinds of organisations to invest more in immaterial than in material assets.
But even albatrosses – and buildings – have their uses.

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Interview with W magazine

Q] Do you believe a new century will spur different thinking in terms of architecture and design? Why or why not?
A] A new century, with 100 or 1,000 years stretching ahead, will prompt us to focus with dramatic new intensity on the consequences of design for the environment. Expect to hear much more about “Factor 4” or “Factor 10” – the number of times by which the environmental impact of a product or building needs to be reduced to be sustainable. The good news is that Factor10 projects will be fun, and will bring designers a vast amount of new work.
Q] There seem to be two strong camps emerging in the two fields – one aggressively modernist and the other looking to reinterpret the past for the modern era. In your view, will one prevail? Is one necessarily better than the other?

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On design awards

Domus Magazine asked me about design competitions and awards.
Question 1 – the idea of “good design”
Your question reminds me that years ago, the British Design Council used to proclaim that “good design is good business” . But it was always hard to define good design, let alone to demonstrate a link between good design and business performance. A better question for design now is not, “is it good?” but is it connected ?- connected with interesting questions, connected with social or environmental issues, and connecting people and organisations in novel combinations.
Question 2 – what design awards can tell us
Most but not all design awards are useless. There is no evidence that awards have the slightest impact on consumer attitudes. Any award that goes to an existing product celebrates old knowledge, embodied in an artefact, and is therefore a waste of everybody’s time. Awards to an individual designer are also a waste of time – but they make people feel good, and can be interesting, which is why I still get involved in them! The best ten per cent of design award schemes generate new projects, deliver a snapshot-in-time of current trends, and alert us to new ideas. The next best ten per cent are well-funded, and use expert juries to select winners who may not nominate themselves. The other 80 per cent are a money-making racket which exploit the hunger of designers for fame and recognition.
Question 3 – which innovation should be backed
Any intervention which raises new questions, connects new parties together, and thereby generates new knowledge, is worthwhile. The best existing scheme I know is the Student Design Awards organised by the Royal Society of Arts in London: these pro-active projects are based on current issues, and bring young designers and companies together for the first time. Some of the students work in teams. What happens during the projects is more interesting and valuable than who wins.
Question 4 – to whom are design prizes useful now?
Quite are few design awards are profitable to their organisers; a much smaller number is interesting; and to the designers who win them they are sometimes comforting; most of them are harmless; but hardly any are useful.
The kind of award I would like to organise, but which does not exist, would involve designers and companies working together on some future issue such as biomimicry , or social computing, or knowledge maps, or lightness.

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Nine surprising new job titles for facilities managers

Summary of a lecture to an international meeting of Facility Managers in 1999.
How are we to design modern space? saturated with information and systems; complex but incomprehensible; an exhilarating human achievement, and a terrifying prospect, at the same time.
Management of work environments, in particular, is moving centre-stage in discussions about innovation, learning, and the knowledge economy.
We are beginning to understand that innovation is a social process that involves complex interactions between individuals, communities of practice, and customers.
Fostering these complex interactions – designing the context of innovation and learning – brings ‘soft’ aspects of workplace design to the fore.

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