The Cargo Cult of Innovation: the toxic habits of corporate innovation

Update August 7th 2019: This will become a book, published by Apress in 2020. Follow #writingabook on @iotwatch on Twitter to hear more as I write it!

NB: I have an idea for a second book about the cargo cult of corporate innovation but I’m not totally sure how I’d get people to contribute to it without getting in trouble. So I’m trying the topic out as a blog post first and there’s an ask at the end. 

My experience of working with large scale clients as a consultant for the past 9 years (and before that running an innovation design studio) means I know horror stories are out there (probably hiding behind a Glassdoor review) about how innovation actually happens in a business.

Why cargo cult?

I think that most large-scale organisations try to enact patterns of innovation created before them by smaller organisations or at a time when those patterns were disruptive. Repeating those patterns without understanding the context that created them amounts to engaging in a cargo cult of innovation. From the cornering of innovation into specific departments, dedicated client-facing innovation spaces, internal maker spaces, exhibition-like showcase spaces, business incubators, mergers and acquisition departments, open plan offices with free food and flat communication structures, the means by which large organisations define and manage innovation are often the same. The by-product of a Silicon Valley led business mono culture, these tropes now pollute almost every large-scale organisation.

Ways to make internal teams more creative and innovative often come down to using a commonly-understood and repetitive set of tools: post-its, brainstorming, design thinking, conferences, training, external consultants.

Furthermore the mechanisms used to talk about the innovation that is developed is often repetitive and meaningless. From tradeshow booths, PR campaigns and social media engagement, most companies use the same approaches to sharing the work they do.

So by using the same mechanisms of innovation, the same ways of extracting innovation and the same means of talking about it, most companies do not, in fact, innovate.

Hiding outside of established time management structures, away from a specific innovation budget, outside of the innovation hubs and relying on more than free lunch meals, I know that some employees eventually fight the systems of innovation to really build new products and solutions. I would love to capture these stories too. 

Here are 5 ways I’ve personally seen corporate innovation culture fail:

1. Setting the conditions
From the way a space is laid out (probably open plan because it’s cheaper), how teams communicate (probably in silence in the open space with Slack open all day), where they sit (probably hot-desking because it’s also cheaper) and how they eat (communal kitchens, free food) these can act as a toxic mixture that imposes ways of working and thinking on teams.

I’ve seen people over-invest in the wrong kind of furniture. I’ve seen offices filled with people with noise cancelling headphones, even emergency sirens and hats when people needed to tell others to keep quiet or not disturb them. I’ve heard of people hiding in parts of a building to make sure they weren’t found. I’ve seen people book themselves fake meetings so their open calendar wasn’t filled by other people and they could go hide in a room on their own to actually do work. I’ve heard of people fighting hot-desking culture. I’ve seen people use post-its for no other reason than others use them too. I’ve seen post-it sessions documented to an inch of that rapporteur’s life only for the results never to be revisited again because the group lead had already made up their mind. Some of this also applies to normal work life in the knowledge economy but when applied to innovation work, they become really counter productive.

2. Job titles and vendors
From ‘Master Inventor’, ‘Head of Labs’, ‘Intra-preneur’, ‘Futurist-in-residence’, ‘gurus’ and others are ways companies use to assign power to people and departments in charge of innovation and segregate them from the rest of the business. This not only shapes how that work happens but also how it is perceived by everyone. Titles can also contribute a culture of youth around innovation and isolate people who have been in the business for a long time. Businesses often punish someone for their loyalty by working with innovation consultants or design agencies outside the business, trusting that the ‘real world’ will bring something to a team that they can’t see for themselves. This ‘real world’ is also drip-fed internally in the form of ‘brown bag lunches’ or sending executives to conferences (TED, Davos, SXSW, etc.) so they can come back enlightened by what others are doing. The people who are chosen to contribute a talk or are sent to Vegas for CES are again isolated, picked out as more innovative or more receptive to new ideas. This, I believe, is dangerous for the social cohesion of a team and collaboration across the business. It creates haves and have-nots emotionally and sometimes even financially. ‘My budget against yours’, ‘my ideas are better than yours’, are unhealthy by-products of these titles and reliance on other people’s ideas.

3. Showing off
Finally innovation isn’t recognised unless it is shared with the world. Many executives treat innovation as a marketing activity rather than the future of their business. Here again the patterns most companies adopt are the same: client-facing dedicated physical spaces with blue LEDs to PR stunts at CES, sponsoring events run by startups, hiring an evangelist, and more. The effectiveness of these efforts is rarely measured because the results would probably be dismal.

Makerspaces/accelerators/hubs/incubators are a cheaper opportunity to network with future employees (via aqui-hires) or competitors without anyone leaving the building. They make for great articles or case studies but these spaces may be rarely used by staff or dropped at the end of a bad quarter. They are fickle because they are not based on an indigenous corporate culture, they are borrowed from other, much more nimble and cash-strapped environments where new ideas are not an option but they are the only way to survive. How these spaces are spun out is also often a failure too with an innovation hub/lab/whatever working in one geography but totally failing in another.

Innovation culture is primarily about permissions, power, and setting the right conditions for new ideas. Finding champions internally, holding on through corporate restructuring exercises, holding on no matter how much money is dedicated to innovation, that’s what makes new ideas come to life, over time, when everybody believes a new idea can thrive. It’s damn hard.

I don’t think many businesses do this right and I’d like to write about your corporate innovation success against the odds or horrible failure if you have any. Please comment anonymously below, the comment will not be published but will go directly to me for moderation. I won’t publish anything or use it in my book without your consent. Thanks!

So you’re about to graduate

(This is a follow-up to my blogpost as I’ve been invited to give one of the keynotes at the Umea Institute of Design’s Degree Show  in Sweden next month.)

So you’re about to graduate from an interaction design degree. Welcome to the rest of your life in the industry of design. Here are some harsh realities you’ll have to face:

  1. Noone has used ‘interaction design’ in about 10 years. Don’t look for interaction design as a job description on job search sites. Noone uses it. Just like information architecture has become ‘UX/UI’ and user-centered design has become ‘UX/UI/CX/service design’. Noone has ever used HCI or physical computing either. The terminology of your academic life doesn’t apply to the rest of your life.

This is a fairly normal byproduct of academia being its own industry. People make a living from using those terms to apply to doctoral positions, post-docs, heads of departments, etc.

So you’re going to be applying for ‘product design’ positions where the word product usually means digital product. The halcyon days of a variety of sizes of companies recruiting multi-disciplinary graduates to work on hardware/software products are mostly over. Why? Because the product/engineering design sector is now servicing the smallest startup to develop a connected product so they don’t have the internal knowledge to train you up across electronics engineering, supply chain management, marketing etc. They don’t have much funding so they need you to already bring deep knowledge to the table which, sadly, your education won’t have provided you (if you’re graduating from an interaction design course).

If you’re pretty good at CAD or coding you might find something sooner than your peers who aren’t. Why? Because ‘hard skills’ are valued more by startups and small companies than the ‘soft skills’ that agencies might value. But it does mean you’ll start your career with mindless technical work. That’s ok, it’s better to start somewhere and build from that, than not to start at all and retrain (many of my B.A. peers did).

The good news if you’re not particularly technical is that the world of design agencies is perfect for you. It has changed and shrunk so you’ll be mostly applying to dull 20-30 year old companies like IDEO, Smart, Frog, Fjord (EY) Seren (EY), Method, Native and the ‘big 4‘ which are the large accounting consulting firms who now offer design services.  These businesses have internship programs and will have structures in place to let you grow within a team, drowning in a flurry of post-its and powerpoint presentations. This may also be a disappointment, but hey, it’ll pay the bills for a few months.

2. You’ll have to work for nothing sometimes The fact is that the most interesting interaction design work is now firmly in the arts. You’ll find endless opportunities to work with artists building fantastic AR/VR/wearable/whatever  with absolutely no budget. This can be a good side hustle to an agency position. You’ll have the power to learn across multiple sectors but no money so you’ll be inspired to do this for the right project or because there’s a technology stack you want to learn about.

3. You may have to keep studying Yes there are plenty of large consumer smart product companies out there but they’ve mostly been absorbed by even larger groups (Google, Philips, Microsoft). Those companies have super interesting research going on but your BA or Master’s might not be enough. Any PhD will open all sorts of strange doors, especially in interaction design work. You also might want to try applying to MIT for eg. which will open further doors when you graduate no matter what you want to do. You’ll find a PhD gets people in Google Creative Lab, Microsoft Research and others very interested. You don’t have to go into a PhD straight away of course, but some topics (ethics in #iot for eg.) are not industries yet. Some topics in interaction design are firmly, still, academic in nature or worse, policy/government-based. A PhD can get you to keep exploring, perhaps do a practice-based PhD if you hate writing, and engage with corporates in very different ways than with your M.A. begging bowl.

4. You’ll definitely have to write, sell yourself on social and generally become entrepreneurial. I know social media doesn’t exactly inspire many young people, but how do you compete with someone who has 10 years of career under their belt? You show your work (dedicated URL so I can find you with search engines), you share your ideas about your work (start blogging on your own site and cross-post to Medium and Linkedin), you share what you value, what you think is interesting, what your opinions are (try twitter with plenty of muted words).

You should try giving talks as soon as possible (I gave my first conference talk 6 months after graduating) perhaps at your local chapter of PechaKucha or TEDx. Try organising a meetup around the design issues you value. Do every bloody thing you can to avoid being another CV someone won’t read (especially if the robots are reading it first).

Start your own business, take small clients who are friends of your family, start wherever you can if you feel like the options above are unpalatable. But keep in mind this is the hardest path. It’s the one with the most psychological ups and downs and rewarding in lots of ways, but incredibly seasonal. But it’ll be different from what most of your peers end up doing. I’ve made a career almost entirely this way.

5. Keep your interests diverse This all sounds quite stressful I realise. Work in design is like work in most industries. It’s full of sexism, ageism, politics, ego, and the odd toxic workplace. What helps is family, friends, sports and hobbies. They will act, collectively, as a safety net against the tides of your work life and make your a more rounded, sane professional. Also, always have enough money in the bank to afford to quit your current job/client and survive for 3 months. That’ll give you lots of inner power.

Good luck and if you have questions, ping me on twitter!

Young people

I’m lucky to have a spare room and for the last few years, I’ve made a case of inviting interesting people younger than myself to stay over if they’re in town.

I meet them when I lecture in universities or speak at conferences. Some have come to visit London for work, a conference, or just for fun. This has put me in the path of Olivia Ireland who is studying gender studies and security in Australia, Katya Krasner who graduated from Goldsmiths, Jolane Schaffner who is a very talented photographer based in Augsburg, and recently Daphne Muller, a young ethics & design graduate from the Netherlands who I hired to intern in Bulb Labs. This has given me some idea of what ‘young people’ are interested in and worried about.

I’ve been working at Bulb since late October and the best thing about it is the exposure to other types of young people, often straight out of a UK university. Most of the company is below the age of 35, including some of the most senior people who have been there since the early days of the company. Outside of Daphne, Bulb Labs isn’t a great representation of the rest of the business. I convinced Claire and Tom, old friends and peers in #iot, to join Labs as contractors. We’re all in our late 30s to early 40s and that 10 year gap with the rest of the business is fascinating. It’s one thing to say ‘young people these days’ and quite another to work with them closely.

On Monday night, a colleague ran an International Women’s Day and I was asked to give a talk. I thought it might be nice to bridge that perceived gap by remembering the most useful thing I was asked to do when I was about 26. Back then, I found myself in Manhattan, staying on the spare bed in Tom Klinkowstein‘s space age apartment for a couple of nights. I had worked on helping Tom, a new media art pioneer, with one of his #iot focused pieces when I was a student in Ivrea and when I came to stay, I was a little lost. In the first years of my first business, I was struggling to see the forest from the trees. I didn’t quite know how to connect was I was working on (selling and promoting the Arduino in the UK) to the rest of my life. He told me to go sit somewhere with a piece of paper and write down everything I wanted to do with my life ‘to the point of embarrassing yourself’.

So I went to the MoMa and sat in their café writing things down. Without being prompted, I wrote things down by decades. And then stood back. What was there was as interesting as what wasn’t there (no mention of children or a boyfriend for eg.). My ambitions included writing a book (tick!), starting a design school (which I’ve shelved in the ‘unconvinced’ pile by now) as well as building my own home (planning & training for it slowly). It felt great, like holding a treasure map with an X in sight. And I’ve come back to this exercise every 5 years or so.

So on Monday, I made a group of mostly 20 somethings working at Bulb do the same. Two of them came back saying they’d gone home and did it with their housemates. I was happy that this was useful to them.

From what I can tell with my house guests and young people at Bulb, it must be hard living in a digitally-mediated information landscape coloured by a western/capitalist illusion of success: a family, a mortgage, nice clothes, the latest phone, endless capital to travel around the world. That’s nice, but it’s flat. It’s not what real life is about, it’s just what will make you more economically productive to the system. It won’t make you kind, resilient, generous, caring, patient, supportive, mentally strong, in short, capable of weathering the storms of life. The more we, as not-quite-so-old people, can help them relax about their own path in life, the better we all are. They deserve their own stories, their own metaphorical forest, their very own trees.

End of Year Review

Thanks to Prof. Dr. Molly Steenson for initiating this habit, this is the 11th year I’ve done these reviews.

1.What did you do in 2018 that you’d never done before?
Got a job.

2. Did you keep your New Years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
What New Year’s Resolutions?

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes. Donovan + Louise, Emily & Gavin, Gareth & Alison.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

5. What countries did you visit?
Mexico, Germany, U.S.A, France, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Malaysia, Canada, Scotland, Slovakia, Austria, Netherlands.

6. What would you like to have in 2019 that you lacked in 2018?
A boyfriend would be nice.

7. What date from 2018 will remain etched upon your memory?
Nothing springs to mind.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
My book on smart homes was published.

9. What was your biggest failure?
No big failure I think.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

11. What was the best thing you bought?
Breakfast plates for my growing collection.

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?
Liberal, free women around the world.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?
Everyone involved in pushing Brexit forward.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Visits to 40 Maltby Street, yoga at The Shala, museums.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
I wrote a book!

16. What song/album will always remind you of 2018?
I don’t really think about music like that anymore.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
In better physical shape.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Reading. You can never do too much reading.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Travelling, but that’s a common complaint.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
With family in Canada.

21. Who did you spend the most time on the phone with?

22. Did you fall in love in 2018?

23. What was your favourite TV programme?
I don’t watch TV.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

26. What was the best book(s) you read?
Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
No real discoveries this year, just basking in the pleasures of the music I already like.

28. What did you want and get?
To finish writing my book and get it published.

29. What did you want and not get?
Someone to go the museums with.

30. What were your favourite films of this year?
I discovered (rather late) My Own Private Idaho. I don’t think I went to see a film once this year and that’s quite unusual.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
It’s today. I went to a pub lunch with a friend.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
More books.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2018?

34. What kept you sane?
Conversations with C.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
No time for that.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Brexit, obvs.

37. Who did you miss?

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Kate who lives in NYC.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2018.
Everything changes and nothing changes.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year?

Oh, I would rate the future
If I could put a finger on it
But I have no idea
If what I want is better than this

What’s next?

I’m turning 38 and as of 13 contractual days ago, I have a job at Bulb as Head of Labs (new products, new parternships). Bulb is an affordable and green energy company.

So I’m back working in Shoreditch in a co-working space set up by David Cameron’s former digital advisor that looks like something out of The Shining. I’m running a team in a business of 300 employees.

Some of this feels new (where did all these young people come from?), some of this is not (Bagels on Brick Lane). It’s definitely strange though.

Why did I take a job you ask?

Well. It turns out that pioneering in the internet of things space isn’t really what pays the bills anymore. Writing a book doesn’t pay them at all and without sales reports, I’ll only know once a year (if a check comes through the door) how successful that has been. And then there’s Brexit. Many of my friends in #iot consultancies and startups have reported a rather quiet year. Does it feel like the financial crisis did? I don’t know as I had started Tinker in 2007 when I moved to London, aged 26. Since then I’ve managed to do quite a few things:

– sold the first Arduinos in the UK
– hired the best in the country to help me run Arduino, product, innovation workshops
– worked with a variety of companies from adland, traditional press to R&D departments
– ran an open source project on the smart home which is in the permanent collection of the MoMA
– made a smart/dumb button for russell which is also in the permanent collection of the MoMa
– commercialised a 2G version of the Good Night Lamp which is in the permanent collection of the London Design Museum and has been exhibited in the Science Gallery in Dublin, the Steven Lawrence Gallery and is currently in the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford as part of an exhibition on the home and security
– run the first #iot pop-up shop from my office
– curated 2 years of projects and events around the smart home across Europe
– wrote a book about smart homes which was published in September by Apress
– I’ve been running the London internet of things meetup for almost 8 years.
– I’ve given talks about innovation, the internet of things around the world (apart from Africa and South America).
– I’ve offered multi-day training both digitally and in person around the internet of things.
– I’ve been a visiting lecturer in the most prestigious schools across Europe.
– I’ve mentored professionals in search of a career change towards #iot.
– I’ve given feedback to PhD students around the world
– I’ve mentored and made connections for startups
– I’ve worked as an independent consultant for companies in the energy, smart agricultural, FMCG , industrial sectors and more
– I produced the first 2 UK editions of the Mozilla Festival
– I’ve worked with engineers, developers, designers, product managers, marketers and more.
– Two years ago I took 75 flights that year. This year it’s 45.

It’s fair to say I rushed through much of the last 10 years life. As an immigrant keen to ‘make my mark’ I suppose it was inevitable. But as I started to relax into my official new home (and status as a British citizen) I started to look at things a little differently. I don’t consider I’ve been smart for most of my career but I do know I was first to reach a lot of invisible lines in the sand. And for the first time perhaps I’m content in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter if nobody knows nor if I slow down a bit.

I’m also willing to learn from working *inside* an organisation and Hayden Wood, the CEO of Bulb, is kind enough to give me that platform. Whether he realises it or not, I’m doing exactly the same thing as I usually do, working with people I like, hiring people I respect, working with organisations and figuring out what the best outcome will be. I’m also surrounded by friends who work in different bits of the business and that’s fun. It’s a scale-up and I’ve never worked in a business at that stage. It reminds me of Inception, the metaphysical furniture and building moving around me. But that’s also the kind of environment I thrive in.

I’m not full time yet as I still have a couple of clients still ticking over, a book to promote and the redesign of the Good Night Lamp for CAT-M networks, but that’s not a lot for me. Slowing down is relative.

If you’re doing some exciting things with green technologies, hit me up at alexds at bulb dot co dot uk .

Smarter Homes: Lessons Learnt

I wrote a book on smart homes which has just been published by the lovely people at Apress in the US. Why did I do that? Well there were no books on smart homes as a technological, sociological and design movement. There are plenty of design and architecture books out there, plenty of books on domesticity, the history of interior design, the history of home architecture and a handful of antiquated books on networking in your home. But a combination of these things? Nothing.

And with the spirit of wanting to write a book I wanted to read (but also that my mother would understand) I sat down intermittedly for a year and a half and learnt a lot. I spent a lot of time in archives and libraries because, no you can’t google your way through most of what I found. You actually have to look at a book. I also bought a lot of books. I already love books but now I have a shelf dedicated to the books I bought for research and it makes for a pretty diverse collection. From books about robots to books about games and early computing to books about some early modernist homes for the rich. I wove a rich tapestry of industries together and I think it makes for a perfectly readable starting point for others to go digging even further and write their own PhDs or books. I uncovered some really lovely stories and people who have been lying dormant on and in libraries around the world. I also had the pleasure of reading works from archives that aren’t digitised yet for lack of funding. It’s been immensely pleasurable and rewarding to connect worlds that I was always interested and connecting to: the technologies of everyday life. As I tour around Germany, recording content for a podcast I’ll be putting together pretty soon, I’m giving a talk about what I learnt from writing the book and wanted to share it with others in case a blog post is all you’re willing to commit to the topic (don’t worry, most designers would have stopped reading by now).


Lesson 1: The home isn’t a system

The internet of things loves a good systems diagram. When you google iot you find beautiful images of product outlines in circles connected to other circles. Like the internet! Well things aren’t like the internet and people don’t buy things like they click on webpages. The model simply doesn’t apply. But the imagery is so potent its over 100 years old. The idea that scientific models can apply to the home space can be seen in the times of electrification. An electric home was a really big deal for many families who couldn’t afford the retrofitting costs. Companies put together ads, competitions, articles to convince people that an ‘all-electric’ home was something you could puchase and would purchase. In reality, it was a bitty affair. Until the late 1950s most Americans wouldn’t have electricity and General Electric had to lobby hard through the GE Homes (plaques on homes that had invested in the most electric appliances). In the UK, the Electric Association of Women (E.A.W) lobbied women to buy all-electric homes, even running competitions and they always failed. Noone takes the risks they’re asking us to take: change your entire personal and family routine to accomodate a set of new or unknown technologies. People bought into the dream one appliance at a time, starting with the electric iron (not lighbulbs) and then moving on to other things. This idea of a systems view of the home even comes into play  in the late 1980s when the term smart home starts to take a hold. The Smart House LLP is created to rewire the whole home with new data cables and the idea is that someone would pay for a new home with this set of technologies in mind. Even IBM gets involved with Director. And none of it sticks. Or rather a few rich people get some lights that come on when you open a cupboard but its hardly the stuff of 1950s fantasies. Because ultimately the dream of a connected set of daily interactions is at best an industrial dream of automation applied to the home space, the least predictable, most heterogenous space. Imagined issues of interoperability and standards are laughable when you understand that it’s not what prevents people from buying connected products. As a professor once said to me: you’re either selling aspirin or chocolate. And current connected home applications that imaging an ‘if this then that’ scenario aren’t doing any real user testing nor product research worthy of that name. People buy technology one product at a time. Not 10 things at a time.


Lesson 2: Size influences behaviour

The size of the home will have an influence on what technologies are brought and how much interaction takes place with the rest of the city. In the 18th century a fire range with a kettle and an iron did most of what you wanted: heat, a little bit of food prep (people ate out a lot) and ironing your husbands and kids clothes on wash day. Everything else was communal. Obviously because of health standards, that became a problem. So apartments and properties got bigger to accomodate a legally required indoor bathroom. And as countries grew wealthier the homes grew to accomodate the influx of goods made in the city or that were traded at home. Eventually technology like the radio and the phone helped manage the flow of information and people so the home became less prone to random visitors and a ‘private’ space could be more clearly established. But how much space do you need to establish that  private space? Is a capsule hotel enough? Is a Hong Kong high rise enough? Is a mid-western 5 bedroom home enough? We don’t have a clear understanding of what enough is because none of us share the same socio-economic conditions nor personal aspirations. Designers and architects have certainly tried to lead the way starting with the concept of ‘Existenz Minimum’ in the early 1920s which led to lots of ‘decluttering’ hand in hand with more boxy architecture and more industrial materials being used. Purity of form meant purity of spirit and more humble living post-WWI. Well we’re far from that discourse now with East London ‘co-living’ spaces being on par with the size of a UK prison cell. So we have ‘clean living’ and Marie Kondo instead as it’s less affordable for most to decide to buy a designer home or designer furniture. But technology doesn’t contribute to this much as its often about adding things to the home, not taking things away. So there’s a tension there. We have a lot less technologies lying around because of computers (rolodex, calculators, alarm clocks) but we consume more power than the industrial sector and new connected produce experiences are asking us to keep spending on things that use up power. Not really minimal nor clean.


Lesson 3: Inventors come first, noone remembers them.

We don’t talk about invention much anymore but I think that the last 18 years of internet of things development has been invention. Noone remembers the inventor of the telephone (Antonion Meucci) nor the lightbulb (Joseph Swann). So perhaps noone will remember pioneers of the physical computing age in 80 years. It’s already complicated enough to understand the real stories behind the beginnings of Apple, Microsoft and Google, image in 50 years! I sometimes think we know far more about the world before industrialisation than after. Test units, production batches, mass production all make it really difficult to ascertain process, influence and collaboration.  Industrial design history is littered with inaccuracies, ‘circa’ next to production dates in museums, falsehoods which aren’t referenced. It’s a minefield. I just spent a couple of days researching the cantilever chair which was technically invented by a number of people who never made them ‘pretty’ and then Mart Stam, a dutch architect sees a collapsible seat in a car and designs a tubular cantilever chair. People then say he designed the first cantilever chair. He didn’t, he just made it visually iconic. And then Marcel Breuer chimed in and so did Mies Van der Rohe and Eileen Gray. Not the inventors. The advertisers. The myth makers. That discrepancy is important when putting people on pedestals.


Lesson 4: The home and it’s forever servants

Most western nations don’t have servants anymore. But they might have occasional maids, assistants, virtual assistants and voice assistants. We use TaskRabbit, LaundryApp, Deliveroo and Amazon Key. For all intensive purpose, we still have servants who do low-paid jobs that facilitate our home life. If we’re super posh (or in the Middle East, super rich) we have live-in maids whose passports we confiscate. And human trafficking is a real problem. But we still develop interfaces that promote a relationship of power and servitude with our conencted products. I don’t have to yell ‘thank you’ at Alexa and she doesn’t yell back ‘you’re welcome’. I think Jeeves and HAL got treated better than Alexa does. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman? Which brings me to the last point.


Lesson 5: We talk to women as if it was 1957.

Most brand of appliances show happy, smiling parents doing laundry in a washing machine that uses an app with glee. Nobody relates to this. We think ‘oh cool’ and click on Insta/Snapchat/Twitter again for the 10th time in the last minute. We don’t value home interiors and our life at home as we once did as we have almost 50% less people over as we did 10 years ago. We ‘meet’ online, while in our underwear, on our couch, watching Netflix. We don’t need a friend to see our curtain choice, to look at how we laid out our kitchen as a way of signalling how well we’re doing socio-economically. Women in 2018 have other more important societal issues to deal with than buying a connected washing machine. They just about got their partner to do his bit of the house work, now they’re interested in how they might get equal pay. Screw the washing machine. But instead of embracing this change, companies still show us women laughing eating salad. In computing, historically, its the same. Computers were sold to men at work and women in the house to ‘print out shopping lists’ and help kids with their homework. This dates back to 1957 but many of the same language and ideas are still kicking around design schools and R&D departments. 

So all of this makes for a complicated space to design for and in. The book is small, a short read, but an accessible and important one I think for computer scientists, digital designers and product designers alike. Share it far and wide and send it to your institutional library as a suggestion!

Sunday Scraps #3

(Yes I know, not posted on a sunday. Sue me)

Hiroshima / The ugly scandal that cancelled the Nobel Prize / Sugartime / Apollo magazine / Basic Design: a revolution in Art History, the beginning of the Hatton Gallery  / John Pasmore: The Developing process video / This Is Tomorrow (1956) exhibition / Design education: time to reflect (1990) / Euston Road School / White Elephant / Genkan japanese home entrance / Church Going by Philip Larkin  / Quietism / Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate olive cake / Victor Pasmore Gallery / Resurgence magazine / The Theory of the Leisure Class / CNAA art collection of Victor Pasmore / / Designs for the Pluriverse / What money can’t buy by Michael Sandel / Automated ethics on Aeon / Open School East in Margate / Moral Psychology Research Lab / Dorothy Parker / London Freud Museum / Matters of Care (book) / On Liberty / Jardins de la Villa de Noailles / Villa Tamaris / Capsule housing plan for low income workers in Spain / Chateau La Coste / Bernar Venet / Darmstadt Artist Colony / Dora Maar / Espace de l’Art Concret / Mougins Museum / Rene Pechere / Beau travail (1999) / Pierre Bonnard / Surrealism, Sex & Sadomasochism / Schindler House / Bokklubben World Library / Peggy Guggenheim / Derwent Museum / Hotel La Serra in Ivrea / Deontological ethics / A translator’s son (I would be a daughter) / explanation for ‘stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus’.

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