Objectionable objects: the failure of Workspheres

At the invitation of Paola Anotonelli, one of the world leading design curators and an eminence at at MoMA in New York, I spent a most enjoyable year talking with her, Aura Oslapas (from Stone Yamashita), Bruce Mau, and Larry Keeley, about the future of work and what that future portended for design. Paola’s show was an enormous smash hit. – but I was disappointed how little of our ‘beyond the object’ thinking made into ino the exhibition.
Are museums a menace?

Read More »

Posted in [no topic] | Leave a comment

Local knowledge: the design and innovation of tomorrow’s services (DoorsEast 1, Ahmedabad, India, 2000)

doorseast1.nid_workshop.jpg kopie.jpeg
The purpose of DoorsEast 1, a memorable week in Ahmedabad, was to accelerate the exchange of people, knowledge and experiences among Indian and European designers and internet entrepreneurs. We wanted to know: what can western interaction designers learn from Indian design and internet culture? and, what are the prospects for future joint work between the two communities?

Within a single week we discussed scenarios for using all manner of internet tools in different Indian contexts: producer and consumer cooperatives; smart distribution systems; horizontal markets; vertical nets ; enhanced information flows; auctions; reccer systems; desert-based WAP applications; cows with unique IP addresses. Name any internet fad: someone in Gujarat discussed it during our visits.

These were not sentimental or fanciful discussions: questions of access, and cost, cropped up repeatedly – but most of our Indian hosts believed technical solutions were feasible. Barriers were likely to be institutional, not technical. they said. And the best way to break down institutional barriers, we all agreed, was by showing policy makers working prototypes or persuasive simulations of the services we had in mind.


Our week in Ahmedabad lit a flame: it led to the Doors of Perception events we have done in India since….


Posted in [no topic] | Leave a comment

Doors of Perception 6 on “Lightness” (international design conference, Amsterdam, 2000)

A strange thing happened to the ‘weightless’ and dematerialised economy we thought the Internet would bring. It never arrived – or it hasn’t yet. Finding ways of reducing wasteful flows of energy and matter in our daily lives remains an enormous opportunity for design.
Hence lightness, the theme of Doors of Perception 6 on the theme of Lightness
Lightness will drive the way we design every product, service, and place in the coming years. We’ll need to re-think everything in terms of matter and energy performance – a profound transformation of design’s ‘operating system’ that will affect us all. In the language of open-source software, lightness will be a new ‘kernel’ for design. Doors 6 was about what that new kernel means for design. The conference tackled many nettlesome issues: the role of open-source and file-sharing software on design methodology, the need for more strategic alliances in order to withstand impending ecological doom, and ways to dismiss the clichés that reflexively associate ‘ecological’ with, as moderator John Thackara put it, ‘less stuff, less change, less fun.'”
Doors 6 was attended by 1300 people from 27 countries. They came to hear over 30 speakers from almost as many different fields of expertise. Our live webcast was watched by many thousands of people worldwide.
A large archive relating to the first eight Doors of Perception conferences is available here:

Posted in [no topic] | Leave a comment

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).

Posted in perception | Leave a comment

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.

Read More »

Posted in [no topic] | Leave a comment

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.

Read More »

Posted in [no topic] | Leave a comment

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

Read More »

Posted in most read | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in [no topic] | Leave a comment

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.

Read More »

Posted in most read | Leave a comment