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December 21, 2004

Flying fish fiasco

Freight transport is an important source of air pollution, CO2 emissions, and noise, as well as causing countless injuries and deaths by accidents. Freight transport is out of control in the sense that it has been growing faster than the economy, by 0.8% per annum, since 1985. Flying fresh salmon from Norway to Japan is an example of excellent logistics performance and crazily misplaced priorities that characterise this mobile economy. "A crazy case of flying fish" is described by two Danish researchers, Tina Petersen & Lise Drewes Nielse, in the latest issue of the excellent and always fascinating journal, World Transport Policy & Practice. Volume 10, Number 3 (2004) 12–18. PS: Back in a week from now.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:21 PM | Comments (0)


The threatened flood of post-election refugees from the US to Europe did not materialise - but many of our US friends do still sound nervous. So we found the perfect Christmas gift: a high-level security system designed for maximum protection in various hostile environments. "With this unit you don't have to run to a Safe Room, you're already in it" promises the blurb.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:12 PM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2004

Uxorious design

Speaking of glossaries, I found another one in a British report about People Centered Design (PCD). This glossary, which is much shorter than the CHI one I mention below, runs briskly from AHRB (Arts and Humanities Research Board) to UX. The latter stands here for User Experience - although UX also reminds my married scrabble-playing self of the word uxorious, or excessively submissive or devoted to one's wife. Based on encounters with interesting design firms in the US - SonicRim, Smart, Jump, IDEO, Cheskin and Adaptive Path, as well as in-house design teams for BMW, Volvo, Nike, Microsoft and Intel - the report, Innovation Through People-Centred Design, says that people in their social context, rather than task-centered users, should be considered a fundamental source of innovation. Reality and that insight, sadly, are not close together: design firms found it difficult to sell PCD work to clients, the report says. This, one has to say, is hardly surprising: most of the potential clients mentioned are big tech companies. Expecting them to put people first is like expecting a fox to put hens first. I also fear the authors are in for a disappointment when they conclude, 'We urge all UK technology companies to promote a people-centered culture throughout their organisations'. Yes, People Centered Design is the way of the future, even for tech firms - but it will take more than advocacy to push the transition along. For people to come out on top, human beings will have to be redefined as an asset, rather than a cost, in the economy, and flesh-eating tech companies will have to be forcibly evolved into docile, load-carrying herbivores. I‘m sure HP and Intel, who are sponsoring Doors 8, are comfortable with that picture of their future....

Posted by John Thackara at 11:01 AM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2004

Humiliation or disgrace

I was flattered to receive a seasonal message today from Professor Dr. Nikolay V. Kirianakithe - the President, no less, of the International Sensors and Traducers Association. I've always fancied myself as an amateur traducer, but had not realised my efforts had been recognised at such a high level. And then, disillusion: I went to fill in the survey and realised...... well, I'm too upset: you'll have to fill it out for me.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:36 PM | Comments (1)

Weighed down by what we know

I was sorting through some old and priceless documents, such as the five year-old proceedings of a CHI (Computer Human Interaction) conference. In it I encountered a thesaurus that lists 137 terms that crop up in the papers selected for the event. The list runs from agents, to work analysis, and includes, in-between, such subjects as augmented reality, cognitive models, ethnography, help desks, input devices, metaphors, predictive interfaces, story-telling, tactile inputs, and usability engineering. As I said, 137 entries. Now CHI is for and about designers who care passionately about people - but you have to ask: is it possible to stay on top of this kind of burgeoning knowledge-base and still find time to get out of the house and mix with....real people?

Posted by John Thackara at 07:28 PM | Comments (1)

December 17, 2004

Heard the one about averting catastrophe?

Never mind about tarmac-covered land and the fate of the planet - what about sales of my book? I've been jolted awake by a reference in Future Now to a research paper that describes the use of an "Epidemics-Type Aftershock Sequence model to track how information about a book travels through social networks". The researcher, Didier Sornette, a specialist in the scientific prediction of catastrophes in a wide range of complex systems, said his model for analyzing peaks and falls in book sales is very similar to one he uses to understand earthquakes."Sales are typically greater when a book benefits from an endogenous shock which progressively accelerates over time, and is illustrated in the book business by favorable word-of-mouth". Fine, excellent, well-done Didier. But what do I do with this information to avert the catastrophe of the above-mentioned artefact not selling well?

Posted by John Thackara at 09:39 AM | Comments (0)

The information society and land take

Land is a finite resource but we consume it as if it were limitless - especially for mobility. John Whitelegg, a transport ecologist, reports that in Switzerland, the land allocation for road transport is 113 m2 per person - and for all other living purposes (houses/gardens and yards) it's 20-25 m2 per person. The knowledge economy, far from reducing our consumption of land, accelerates it: the spread of car parking around universities, hospitals and airports stimulate higher levels of car commuting, demands for more road space, and hence land take."Cars are only used for 2.8% of the time and then often by one person; the rest of the time they are parked somewhere doing nothing. Allocating land to such inefficient uses is bad value for money and bad prioritisation given the many pressures on land" says Whitelegg. John Whitelegg. "Transport and Land Take". A report for Council for the Preservation of Rural England.Eco-Logica. 1994 http://www.eco-logica.co.uk/reports.html

Posted by John Thackara at 08:38 AM | Comments (1)

December 14, 2004

Is the creative class driving people to suicide?

I was once involved in a project called Presence in which we were given quite a lot of EU money to investigate how the social needs of elderly people might be met by the Internet. One of our test sites was a small village in Italy, called Peccioli. When our design team first visited the village they located some elderly people and told them proudly: 'we've come to help you with the Internet'. And the elderly people said: piss off; we do not need your patronising help, you designers you. Or words to that effect. We learned that elderly people in Italy are less socially isolated, and feel less in need of added-on connectivity, than almost anywhere else in Europe - apart from Greece and Portugal.

I was reminded of the Peccioli episode when reading Europe In The Creative Age One of its highlights is a league table of creative economies in Sweden comes top, followed by USA, Finland, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium. What caught my eye were the league table's losers. Italy and Portugal, with less than 15 percent of their workforce in the Creative Class, are 'performing below the norm'; Greece, too (along with Spain and Austria) 'appears to be in a difficult position'.

Well, that depends on what you measure. I was reminded, when reading Europe In The Creative Age, of another league table published in September on the occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day. Now the two league tables do not match each other one-to-one but, on paper at least, suicide rates are highest where the creative industries are strongest. Suicide rates are higher, and the creative industries are stronger, in North America than in Latin America, and in northern European countries compared to southern ones. Industrialized countries tend to have a higher suicide rate, and much stronger creative industries, than poor, developing countries. India's suicide rate, for example, is half the global average - but her public relations industry is pitifully small.

Is there a connection? Where the creative industries are strongest, citizens do seem to be miserable as hell. As I reported a few days ago (see my story of 9 December, below) more than eight out of ten Americans believe that society's priorities are 'out of whack'; 93 percent agree that Americans are too focused on working and making money, and not enough on family and community; more than 8 in 10 say they would be more satisfied with life if they just had less stress; and 95 percent agree that today's youth are too focused on buying and consuming.

Tom Bentley, in his introduction to Europe In The Creative Age, writes that the rise of the creative class 'goes to the heart of what a shift to a new economy really means'. Surely the opposite is the case. The activities lumped together as creative industries are characterised by a Fordist, point-to-mass, one-to-many model of production: advertising, architecture, crafts, design, designer fashion, public relations, marketing, film and video, interactive leisure software, music, performing arts, publishing, and so on.

According to the British Council, in Nurturing the Creative Economy, the Creative Industries are 'those that have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent, and that have a potential for wealth creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property'.

The words that jump out at me here - Individual, Wealth Creation, Property - do not exactly smack of social solidarity.

Some will argue that I'm getting cause and effect mixed up. The authors of Europe In The Creative Age, for example, are good guys at heart: they devote considerable space to the proposition that tolerance is a necessary condition for competitive advantage. And another British think-tank, Comedia, argues that there is now 'substantial evidence that cultural activities help engender social and human capital, transform organizational capacity to handle and respond to change, and can strengthen social cohesion'.

That proposition may well be true. And it's not as if I'm arguing that culture or creativity are a bad thing. The problem is that policy makers and planners are interpreting the Creative Class / Creative Industries concepts in weird ways. I recently saw a map from TNO on which were plotted, ward-by-ward, the number of creative individuals in Amsterdam. Holland's national technology research organization has discovered that there are 223 artists in Zaanstad, and that 20.9 percent of the workforce in Hilversum is a member of the creative class. TNO does not mention that Hilversum is where the Big Brother format was invented and, all over Europe, city planners are drawing lines round derelict areas and labeling them creativity districts.

I don't suggest that rise of the creative class drives people to suicide. What I do suggest is that this class is an integral part, if not the driver, of a consumer culture that makes most people pretty damn miserable. And many of the people who determine where resources are to go have got the wrong end of the stick.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:24 PM | Comments (0)


This blog is part of the build-up to Doors of Perception 8, which takes place in New Delhi next March and is on the theme, "INFRA: Platforms for social innovation and how to design them". What infrastructures are needed to enable bottom-up, edge-in social innovation - and how do we design them? Doors 8 will address this question from a variety of angles over the five days :
- plenary think-piece presentations;
- Project Clinics;
- a social innovation bazaar;
- one-to-one conversations;
- an exhibit of 100 years of media artefacts from India;
- encounters and exchanges in the city and around.
Your takeaway from Doors 8 will be next-generation service concepts, plus many of the connections and capabilities you will need to implement them.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:56 PM | Comments (1)

December 13, 2004

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

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

Posted by John Thackara at 05:27 PM | Comments (0)

December 11, 2004

How not to be a sad person

If you plan to travel overland to Doors 8, take these on-the-edge-of-design books with you to read on the trip. If you are a sad person, and have decided not to come, give them to a friend and feel better. Put your better suggestions in Comments.

1. Barba, Eugenio .The Paper Canoe: A Guide to Theatre Anthropology. London: Routledge, 1995

2. Benyus, Janine. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York: Morrow, 1997.

3. Fernandez-Galiano, Luis. Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. 2000

4. Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millenium. London: Cape, 1992

5. Elbek, Uffe, ed. KaosPilot A–Z. Aarhus, Denmark, 2004

6. Gombrich, E. H. The Sense of Order. London: Phaidon, 1979

7. Gray, John. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Animals. London: Granta, 2002.

8. Holloway, Richard. Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2004

9. Hussey, Andrew. The Game of War: The Life and Death of Guy Debord. London: Cape, 2001

10. Levine, Robert. A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist. New York: Basic Books. 1997

Posted by John Thackara at 09:48 PM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2004

Do surveys make you blind?

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

Posted by John Thackara at 06:28 PM | Comments (0)

What don't I get?

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

Posted by John Thackara at 06:03 PM | Comments (0)

December 09, 2004

Market density

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

Posted by John Thackara at 11:47 AM | Comments (0)

All together now

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

Posted by John Thackara at 09:40 AM | Comments (0)

December 04, 2004

Civil Communities of Practice

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

Posted by John Thackara at 05:56 PM | Comments (2)

Rocks to rubble

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

Posted by John Thackara at 05:45 PM | Comments (0)