Cities that make

I spent a couple of days in Liverpool this week, catching up with Adrian McEwen, an old friend, author, technical #iot consultant and founder of what I consider to be one of the most embedded and sustainable maker spaces in the North: DoES Liverpool. We talked a lot about what’s happening in his city and that’s fed my thoughts on the future of cities which I’m sharing at the V&A tonight.

This summer is strange, the summer before Brexit. I’m having lots of coffees with peers who are feeling the pain of what looks like a creative knowledge economy slow down. It might just be a summer lull too but it’s a good time to reflect on what makes cities like London great places to make things, for now. Every city, city district or area that hopes to call itself ‘great for makers’ needs to get some things right:

Be more than a real estate play
Nevermind the gag-reflex inducing WeWork, space isn’t the most important problem an artist, maker or product entrepreneur has. If it is, they’re probably not very good at what they do. There is a very rich history of people running cottage industry businesses from their living rooms and spare rooms. Space is in a way both compulsory and optional. Karen Finch (who I helped add to Wikipedia the other day) started and ran a whole textile conservation practice from her home for a while. I started selling Arduinos from my boyfriend’s flat in Hackney in 2007. Those businesses are, to a city, as relevant as the digital unicorns we champion. So what are hyper-groomed co-working spaces there for? They should be championed as a stop-gap.

A real business is sustainable enough to pay council tax. A real business is sustainable enough to pay its own water and electric bills. A real business is interested in shaping a culture that isn’t just about how to use Slack and github, but how a space feels and how lunch happens. You can’t do that in a co-working space someone else owns.

Co-working spaces are great before you start running a larger business and you value being out of the house and engaging with others. But there’s a tension there. Ideally a city probably needs people in a co-working space to work somewhere, go to lunch somewhere else (a local market or restaurant), have meetings in a local cafe and go out for a beer somewhere else again (a local pub). If a co-working spaces tries to offer too many of these economic functions, it’s as good to the city as someone cooking themselves lunch at home.  So the city has to think about this when it funds ‘innovation spaces’ in the middle of nowhere. Are there cafs nearby for people to go to? or a good pub? Will people just commute in and out of this ‘innovation space’ and never meet their buildings neighbours?

Support informal networks not just networking events

Tom Cecil who makes the UK’s enclosure for the Good Night Lamp works in an arch in E14 in London. That’s far. He doesn’t even have much of an online presence, but he’s busy all the time. Artists who show their work at Frieze will commission him to build their furniture or sculptures. He’s got an amazing light industrial space right next to a taxi service, MOT shops, a fabric distributor and some metal workshops. He knows everyone there. He cycles to work and has been fitting the space out through years of work and investment.  The first batch of Good Night Lamp was assembled by some Goldsmiths students he trained. There were 3 of them who had odd jobs and were studying in the Fine Art courses. These informal routes of work weave themselves naturally through the city. With Brexit, this will become a big problem. Visas will be required to transition a young talent to a collaborator. Tier 2 visas are annoying and their process will need to be completely redesigned especially for creative skills. Cities may want these kinds of processes to be devolved away from Westminster to attract the most talent locally or to keep the foreign students who will contribute to the universities budgets but can’t stay on afterwards.  Especially if the UK wants to reboot a dying industrial sector, it has to be able to both train and keep talent around.

– If it’s about real estate, make it accessible.

Networking events are also a strange way of building relationships between city stakeholders and its makers and entrepreneurs. Often the city delegates networking to where it thinks it belongs, with ‘innovation agencies’, incubators, accelerators, universities. They’ll give them money to put on events with no ROI attached to these apart from the numbers they might collect like attendee numbers and some awful feedback forms that a small percentage of people will fill. No one ever questions who goes to these and why. Are they too early for parents, too late for mums, too expensive for students and not wheelchair accessible? Did they actually trigger a conversation that started a business 4 years down the line? How often does someone come along and what have they done with the knowledge that’s being shared? These questions almost never get asked of an ‘networking’ event and that’s a shame.

I’ve been running the London #iot meetup for almost 8 years and I know people have left jobs, found funding, found out about accelerators and more through these events. But that’s not from people showing up once, it’s from years of convincing, talking, having a drink together, complaining, whatever. Building a city that’s good for makers means being able to accomodate and more importantly champion the long-term work that needs to be done and is done rather informally by meetup organisers, maker space founders, small conference organisers or yearly tradeshows producers. Cities should be supporting these people more directly with free space or reduced service access. After all, these kinds of events make people believe that they can move to a city and make their dreams come true because a community is created.

 

– Make the tools do more

When we talk about making, we might talk about maker spaces which to a lay person is an office space crossed with a light industrial unit. These tools are often expensive to purchase for those space owners and a city needs to be aware of this. Because it’s not only the tools, but the talent and training that happens around those tools. A smart city that wants people to be making should subsidise some of the costs of both paying someone to train others, and the cost of training, especially when it happens outside of formal education. It’s already hard enough to get something like a CNC machine in, if the people who owned them were incentivised to train others more directly, imagine how many more people might learn how to use the, get ideas or get excited enough to enter more formal education as a result.

Cities in short could engage far more with the informal networks that are brittle and can suffer quite quickly from political turmoil or economic downturns. And it’s not about massive grants nor elaborate multi-year funding programs but about having enough emotional intelligence to put people in the right places, helping the people who are helping others.

Sunday Scraps #1

I’ve handed in my book‘s manuscript to my editor so I’m having a bit of a mental clear-out.  A year ago, when I started writing, I would write down in my Moleskines the unopened tabs on my phone to ‘come back to them later’. Pah! One of my favorite places on the internet is the Things Magazine so as an hommage, here is that collection of those mostly unread tabs, as they appear in my Moleskine. I’m not saying this will make any sense.

Tabs from May 4th 2017

Gluten free sourdough starter / Japan: the end of the rice age / Moscow Design Museum: discovering utopia / Technology readiness scale / Manufacturing readiness level assessment / Hemingway editor / Nigel Slater banana and cardamon cake / The Siege of Jodotville / El Lissitzky interior project for the F-type residential Cell of a Commune House (1927) / Quilts in women’s lives (film) / Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis / People in glass houses / Les Immateriaux de Jean-Francois Lyotard (1985) / Design after modernism, Beyond the Object  by John Thackara/ Brutalist Paris Map by Institut Francais / General Electric Realty Plot / The Listener Historical Archive / Therblig / Lillian Moller Gibreth / Cheaper by the dozen (film) / Applied Imagination by Alex Osbon / Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples / Googie Architecture / Cycle confident courses Lambeth 

 

 

What I think about voice

Some thoughts on all this voice malarky. I mean, Google Duplex. Because apparently it’s the future of the smart home, and seeing as I’m writing a damn book about the topic here we go. (PS: pre-order the book for much much more). I think this’ll be useful for the talk I’m giving tomorrow at YLE too.

Here’s some of what happens when you put speakers and ‘listeners’ in the home.

  • Audio Clippy: Seemingly helpful audio prompts based on in-home behaviour.  As soon as the sound of cooking happens, and your smart camera spots you took something out of the fridge, some dumb speaker goes ‘it looks like you’re trying to cook with butter, I have some recipe ideas for you’. 
  • Weird concepts of trust: I say ‘Alexa book me a flight’ and I’m not entirely sure I can trust it to find the cheaper one so I also cross-check on my laptop, my phone, I log out of Google, I use a VPN. I lose 3 hours of my life looking for a cheap flight.
  • The silent culprit. My speaker hears me scream but doesn’t call the police. It sees my partner is beating me or I’m beating my child frequently but doesn’t call social services.
  • GDPR for phone calls. You have to listen to a hold message before taking a call from a robot. You inevitably press 2 for no or 1 for yes depending on who it’s coming from.
  • You start to be very quiet a home. Just in case you know, the speaker misunderstands something you say as a request to purchase something.
  • The illusion of ease of use. Calls to hairdressers are easy but calls to doctors or plumbers are complicated. You spend 20mns setting up an IFTT recipe to place a phone call that would have taken you 2 minutes.
  • Language issues. You can’t train your assistant to make a call in another language because you also don’t know if they’re interpreting your request in the right way.
  • Phone lines are for robots anyway. Eventually Google gets its own phone line you pay for.
  • What customer service? Banks to lay off part of their customer support staff as bots can just talk at each other to solve complex banking queries and can exchange more secure authentification than my date of birth.
  • Captchas for phone calls. Elite restaurants buy new services to weed out people who can’t be bothered making their own bookings. Or the return of ‘we only do walk-ins’.

So. Yeh. That’s what I think about voice. Fun.

 

Intelligent for what?

Apologies to Drake for inelegantly stealing his line but I’m in Canada this week, speaking at the iX Symposium at the Société des Arts Technologiques and I’ve become very interested in the concepts of artificial intelligence and how mainstream the expression has become. The world of the internet of things in which I mostly operate  has been shoved aside by pundits and the press in favour of the ‘flavour of the year’AR/VR/AI/cryptocurrency. In this new wave of techno babble, some trends are clear:

  • Wilful ignorance of the experiential and hardware limitations. How many headsets can you ship, how much do they cost, when are you using them and for who? seem to be questions no one seems to be interested in.
  •  Misunderstanding of simple computing principles. Most people use ‘AI’ when they just mean ‘computers’ or ‘maths’. More on that below.
  • Misunderstanding of the hardware realities of computing principles. No, no and for the last time, no, you can’t put (X) on the blockchain, especially if there’s a hardware component to (X) which implies a supply chain, which implies people. Just forget it. You can’t track a fruit from birth and you don’t want to track child exploitation in the fashion world. So there.

I’m rereading The Golden Notebook and was struck by a line early on:

‘What’s wrong with living emotionally from hand-to-mouth in a world that’s changing at fast as it is?’.

Doris Lessing wrote this in 1962 but it could have been written in 2018. In our recurring feeling of being ‘in a frenzy’ all the time, we’ve, in fact, made little progress in utilising new technologies for socially useful purposes.

I posit that Artificial Intelligence could easily be described as:

Great work everyone. If computing power isn’t there to help us become better societies, then why exactly are we using it? Where are we going? What are we not designing instead? What are we avoiding because it’s supposedly ‘too complicated’. A lack of ambition shouldn’t be confused with a lack of technical capabilities. But if we’re not ambitious about what we want from our computers, we have to ask ourselves who we’re protecting by that cowardice. The rich? The powerful? The establishment?

These are some of the topics I hope we’ll talk about this week, because I really had had enough of us talking about AI without pointing out what exactly it is, and crucially, what it isn’t.

The Value of Design

There’s a new book out called Design and the Creation of Value  which at an eye watering £85 probably isn’t going to make it on to my reading list straight away but the review illustrates a point I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

“Moral or ethical value seems to have limited relation to design.” writes John Heskett.

I’ve been thinking about values a lot. Societal values as expressed by technology, design, artefact, building work, innovation. Every act of creation is a reflection of a time and a place. A time and place could be expressed in terms of values.

We don’t value the environment, so we pollute it. We don’t value others equally, so we discriminate against them. We don’t value weakness, so we punish the weak. We don’t value restraint, so we design for excess.

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica relationship was designed for a world of excess, discrimination, and exploiting weakness, digital addiction, lack of digital skills, lack of digital education. I’m sure the people at both those organisations use words like design, user-centered design, customer experience. But the result, the work done, is designed for a set of values which can only exist right now.

I was in the same room the other day as someone from the Design Council. That took me back to my first summer in London in 2005. Back then, I was interning as part of their team, designing services to help low-income households reduce their energy consumption. What this person had to say in 2018 was exactly the same as in 2005. Design is a good, useful tool for British businesses. Design is good. Good design is good, bad design is bad. Etc. etc. etc.

I started to wonder if our relationship with the design industry would change if we changed how we describe it and its individual components. What if we described industrial design as:

Taking advantage of the latest engineering and marketing techniques to exploit consumers psychologically and sociologically into purchasing a company’s newest product regardless of whether they can afford it or not, perpetuating an agenda of economic growth through conspicuous consumption and increasing personal credit risks.

or human-centered technology (such as Uber, Airbnb) as:

Making technologically-enabled social and economic change acceptable to a middle class population, disengaging them socially and politically from the employment and wider impact of their purchase on less wealthy populations.

These two definitions are written in jest of course, but I’m a big fan of thinking about impact across other themes in design than just materials, supply chain and aesthetics. If we can’t think more horizontally, I don’t think design has a future as a serious middle man between different professions. The professions we enable need to change though and instead of talking across engineering and the arts, we need to talk economics, philosophy, social impact and environmental impact. Let’s do more and take on more, not less.

The case for small design schools

I haven’t put a lot of effort in blogging here recently so I thought I’d kick off with a January post and get back in the groove.

I was invited by Francisco to come back to ITESM in Mexico City after leading a 3 day teacher training workshop last December. This time around I’m here to help students at the end of a wearable project and interacting with 18-24 year old industrial, engineering and mechatronic students in 2018 got me thinking about design schools I’ve visited in the last 10 years.

One of the reasons I don’t do much teaching is partially that I find the environment offered to students frustrating. When given the right conditions any student is able to do something worthy of attention. I seldom see the right conditions so I thought I’d put down what I think are challenges to coming up with good ideas and what I think a design school of the future should be.

Most design schools are too big.

When I studied my BA we were 74 students. I think less than 20 ended up in design careers, many retrained. Why did they take so many students? Probably because they had invested in an amazing library, worked with a famous architect to get a brand new building, had lots of staff. So it’s all about volume. More students need to be pushed through the doors regardless of work opportunities on the marketplace because really a design school is a business with bills to pay.

Most design schools treat their students like office workers

I was lucky to be part of the last generation of design students to have my own dedicated studio space at the Université de Montréal. Every single design school I have visited since doesn’t have this. The pencil-pushers in admin in design schools read all about open spaces and co working and started making money hiring out the building for external event. A design school becomes a real estate investment and the students become ‘customers’ of that space. Any superficial look at Bauhaus and other leading design schools shows dedicated work space that students can own, can customise, can settle in and live in. The quality of the work with change when you’re a hot desking office worker. Most design studios have dedicated spaces to work in, that they own, why on earth wouldn’t a design school enable that reality? Or perhaps they are training students to work at places like Google, but Google doesn’t hire a lot of design students.

Most design schools don’t know how to work with industry

Every year I might get invited to 1 or two degree shows. How on earth I got on their list is anyone’s guess but I’m really not interested in seeing the final work of a student, I’m interested in who they are and their process which a final show will never expose. External people don’t get exposed to student work often enough because design schools don’t know how to structure their engagements with industry. Ravensbourne College is the only one I know where the Head of Partnerships Claire Selby is public both in industry and inside her own building. This is quite rare.

I’d love to see design schools approach small studios, freelancers, alumni to invite them to dinners with students or away days, anything to create a bond, a relationship, an ongoing conversation.

Getting a professional to give a lecture is almost the worst way to engage with a class of students, as they are just being lectured to, will often disconnect and don’t really understand how important it is to engage with the lecturer because they’re used to having their lecturers near them all the time. To a design student, a lecture is just another bunch of links to Google at some point.

Nobody knows how to draw.

I’m a little shocked every time I go to visit a design program and I can’t see drawings on the walls but I see post-its. How did we get to a point where students aren’t able to think visually. Most people understand the world through images, diagrams, visuals and the ability for a student to get up and explain a complex set of issues with a few well chosen drawings is extremely powerful. Ask Bill Verplank who basically with one sketch created a whole industry. Powerpoint and Illustrator have taken that entirely away from the average design student. They now need to spend all night selecting images and drawing in an abstract environment to make their point. But pitching in a brainstorm session or a meeting with a client requires more reactivity, it requires the deep desire to draw what you mean. We’ve taken that away and given it only to architects. What a shame.

So what should be done?

Smaller design schools.

Taking the model of IDII where I studied but also Kaos Pilot and the Shumacher College I think there’s a great argument for small design programs. Less than 20 students. 20 people can create great bonds, and providing infrastructure for 20 people isn’t much: a studio room, a lecture room, a gallery with public access, somewhere to eat and workshop spaces. Somewhere to eat and workshop spaces don’t have to exist in the school as everyone and their uncle now owns a laser cutter, a 3D printer and Arduinos. So it’s down to a room, a lecture room. Could you run a design program this way? I think so.

It doesn’t have to be in the middle of nowhere, it can be in the heart of the city, but the scale of students matters to the quality of work. When you’re 20 people in a room you can’t drift off as easily, and competition builds up for people to do good work. It also means you can’t work on large team-based projects which are the death of collaborative work in industry. Teams of 2-3 are enough to get something really good done (as every startup ever has taught us).

Why a gallery? To create opportunities for the local community to get involved with the students, for the students to get used to speaking to people in the ‘outside world’. Design education shouldn’t be a bubble. As examples, Central St Martins has a shop and London College of Communications has a sort of gallery space in Elephant and Castle shopping centre.

Ideally the students are multi-disciplinary too so their interests and appetite are varied but they all want to develop solutions for the world. Those solutions could be a publication, a space, a product, a service, a business, this is all design. Why should we continue to teach design as if industrial silos still applied?

The class should be taken out on cultural visits and industrial engagements all the time like the The Slow Food Institute. As professionals you’ll be very mobile especially if you have your own business so why not get students used to that life.

I have so many more thoughts and I hope by publishing this someone out there will tell me: ah but you should see such and such a program. I hope there is something better than what I see which is a model which isn’t suited to industry or even modern living.

Design students deserve better and deserve to be pushed to try harder too. We have to give them the conditions to be challenged in ways that will make industry life feel like a piece of cake rather than a cliff’s edge.

Royal Academy favorites

Sometimes it’s important to litter the internet with pointless lists of things you like. Because I’m getting a little tired of Instagram & ‘photo-sharing’ websites. They feel very gamified without being personal and there’s no links to anything outside them. Noone knows how to use the internet anymore (except for thingsmagazine.net which is awesome) So I went to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition (which always feels like the start of autumn) back in August and thought I’d share my favorite pieces in case a millionaire wants to buy me something nice for my birthday or Christmas (both in December!).

Poupée Bleue by Abdoulaye Konaté.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Could be True by Keith Milow.

FRAME by Katherine Jones.

FINESTRA-OUT (Blue) by Prudence Ainslie.

FALL by Antony Gormley.

CMYK by Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom.

A STUDY FOR THE INTERPRETATION OF MOVEMENT (9:8 IN BLUE) by Conrad Shawcross.

 

Happy Monday.

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Tiny Useful Things: Welcome booklet

Around 2011, I published a few quick projects called ‘Tiny Useful Things’ and on this unseasonally warm Friday night I wanted to add to that list.

This is prompted by travelling a lot and staying in many Airbnbs. It’s also prompted because I like having people over. I am lucky enough to have a spare guest room and I have friends come over all the time.

I was thinking about the experience of hosting and how strangely structured the whole thing is. I’m staying in someone’s home and they may or may not be there to greet me. I have to figure out the quirks of the place on my own most of the time and I will probably have to use Google maps to figure out what exactly is around me. I think this is something that can be made more quickly accessible and generated based on a few pieces of information that can really help someone quickly get their bearings. It’s also something that doesn’t necessarily have to be online. It could be a sort of pocketbook you could take with you in case you’re in trouble. It could also be something that could help you navigate the city and the language.

So using the excellent bookleteer template, I came up with a ‘Welcome’ booklet that I think services like Airbnb should help their hosts generate and anyone should be able to make quickly. This took me an hour.

It includes:

– A cover page with the address
– A first page with contact details and emergency contact details. This may include a neighbour and the local emergency service number.
– A couple of pictures and notes on house quirks.
– Wifi details.
– A map of the surrounding area with food, transportation and other links.
– A lost of apps the person may want to download that will make their stay more pleasurable or the city easier to navigate.

That’s it. All this booklet is trying to do is help the transaction between the guest and the host. Every house is different and none of them are perfect. And every host knows their area but aren’t necessarily there to make people feel welcome. Isn’t about time we made that a feature rather than a bug?

Happy Friday!

Photos also on instagram.

Digital (&/or) Health

(Jotting down quick thoughts as I finish a day of a workshop on digital health at Wintec where I’ve spent the week as part of a 2 week speaking tour of New Zealand. )

  • So many challenges in the healthcare sector have nothing whatsoever to do with tech. This is a challenge for anyone selling ‘smart health’ solutions. Policy, process and community issues were gnarly issues that don’t have technology solutions attached to them.
  • The US’s engagement with digital platforms is looked at as a model which I find frightening. Most Americans are absolutely shaped in their daily life and career choices by their ability to have access to healthcare. This means they are much more likely to be glued to their digital healthcare records than in any other country.
  • Patient versus patient(s). It’s difficult to think of patient-centric care when you don’t provide care to one person at a time as part of a service. The model is both the challenges of a factory (people, access to the right tools & resources & managing that access) but also a community (how to you manage staff energy, teamwork, patient trust). They are two competing models.
  • (Related) Who really is the user? The doctors? The nursing & support staff? The patient? Everyone’s needs matters here. But their needs are all really different and competing.

Unless we can address some of these I don’t think we’ll find the right tech tools.