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!

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 £150K problem: how to properly fund #iot startups

I was invited to speak at Fund Forum in Berlin a few weeks ago and wanted to share the crux of my argument to a room full of investors and investment managers.

I believe that fundamentally, the investment model that Silicon Valley has developed around software is completely useless when it comes to helping early stage hardware startups get off the ground.

Traditionally, as a founder, you might look to raise £50K in seed, friends or family or angel money. That’s great except that will never get you a physical connected product to test out on the market. Never. Not with the materials you need to use, not with the embedded software that needs to be developed. Never.

Spending 3-4 months in an incubator gives you a break from your daily obligations of paying the rent but doesn’t cover the cost of expert engineering, industrial design, moulds, certification.

Some investment funds are starting to concentrate on #iot and that’s great, but good god I wish people would START by investing £150K. And then leave companies be for a while, because £150K is enough to get going or hang yourself with if you don’t know what you’re doing. But it’s not enough to make your investors cry either (as a fund manager).

£150K will cover the certification costs for EU/US sales, the design work with a team or a partner, some marketing. That’s kindof all a team needs to ‘test’ the product with people, to have something in their hands. And it’s possibly enough to start to just sell the damn thing. Later the founders can go after VC money if they’re keen (or mad) but for the love of God(s) let’s give startups a chance. Anything below £150K and they are just bidding their time, missing one Christmas after the other, missing opportunities for that ‘growth’ which all investors look for.

Help them out first, in a serious and productive way. £150K/startup. That would be great.

All things, connected and considered.

(Talk given at a Telenor event in Oslo on January 10th 2017.)

I’ve just come back from CES in Las Vegas and I can tell you, what can be connected is definitely on its way to being connected.

Cities, homes, cars and much more. But the devil is in the details so I’ll be the devil’s advocate.

Who is paying?

Smart cities is an area where connecting everything sounds like a great idea. Hello Lamp Post is a great, playful example of what we should be able to expect from our city’s infrastructure. The problem is of course that there is almost no such thing as ‘public goods’. The bins are made by a private company (Big Belly  for eg.) and installed by another private company (Veolia). Your water is distributed by a private company, so is your energy. Connecting these various elements to make a citizen’s life easier isn’t actually easy. Cars are very disruptive to a city’s pollution levels but collecting parking fines is an important source of finance for cities. And if a city isn’t collecting much taxes it will avoid spending it on investments where the ROI isn’t important enough. Many connected services also need capital investments that cities can’t afford. To offer smart parking you’d need to strap a camera on every street light or more dramatically dig out the tarmac to put sensors in the ground. Sounds great but if this isn’t financed artificially (EU-funding or other) many cities would prefer pouring their money in waste management, policing and emergency services as they are where financial planning is more predictable. Moving away from the status quo comes at a price for the cities like Vegas that would benefit the most from connected services simply because the capital investment, to make a real difference, is too large. For additonal reading take a tour of the recent posts made by the biggest casino’s recently, they have gone into detail with their predictions of a smart Vegas.

Who is buying?

CES was full of connected pet trackers, fridges, ovens and other novel applications of connectivity. There is often a lag between the ability to technically execute a new product offering and when consumers buy into them. The microwave for eg. was patented in 1945  but it wasn’t until the 80s that it became a household item in 90% of American homes. The first mobile phone was developed in 1973 but until the 2000s most people didn’t own one for leisure. An early instance of a connected fridge delivery service was meant to be developed in 2001 by Tesco the british retail giant and Glue, a swedish company has just received funding to do the same last year. But it only works with Scandinavian locks. That’s the type of problems you get when you try to scale and that’s how long ideas can take to be developed and adopted. It’s also rare that entirely new categories are created.

Global vs local scales of development

The world isn’t flat. Even McDonalds makes its product differently for everyone. Nest worked in the US because there you can do whatever you want to your electric system. In the UK however, it’s illegal to play around with your electric setup so you need an approved installer. The scalability of connected solutions always sounds nice on paper but the reality of hardware is different. People’s habits and behaviours are also different around products. People honk in the west to indicate their frustrations but in India, you honk to let someone know you’re behind them. On some American roads speeding is expected and flashing your lights indicates to others there is a police car nearby. Imagine a smart car in these contexts, the same sensors would create a very different map of cities and driving behaviours if you are locally aware. They would not make any sense if you are looking at the data through a machine’s view only.

Connected? Really?

Seamless connectivity is a dream we hold on to for the development of many products. But the reality is our cities, countrysides, rural areas and even our homes make for very different connectivity environments. Recognising that multiple modes of communication are needed at any point is hard, it’s expensive. The chipset prices vary widely so product designers tend to pick one over others and pay the price at some stage. The idea of seamless connectivity is dangerous because it fouls consumers into thinking they should be getting it from the get go. We’re not that lucky and the quicker we can manage expectations or offer alternatives the better. It’s expensive as it means handling returns but it’s the right thing to do.

Data, whose data?

Speaking of the right thing to do, well the internet of things presents us with many opportunities to inform consumers about their data and what rights they have over it. So why don’t we? Most consumers have absolutely no idea what happens to the data they create when using a product. No idea as to when that data is being taken and where it ends up, or even what it is. This will present the industry with ethical and corporate social responsibility problems. I’ve proposed a labelling system which is far from perfect but whoever decides to implement this first will lead the industry in being transparent about the invisible strands between a consumer and the company they are invisible linked to.

Damn pesky people

At the end of the day there is also the dirty secret of connectivity which is that you know precisely when and where someone has stopped using your service or how ineffective it may be. And instead of admitting it, most companies stay mute. Wearables are a perfect example, as they are linked to an unhealthy habit of thinking, every January usually, that you’ll lose weight this year. Most people stop using them within a short period of time and it has very little effect in changing our habits it turns out. Instead of building return/reuse services or a deeper more tailored service, wearable companies take whatever data they can get and move on to the next consumer. What a lost opportunity to change people’s lives for the best.

Common good(s)

Finally if there is an aspect of society which connectivity and telcos like Telenor can help build and invest in well it’s to build solutions to problems no-one wants to address, the problems for which markets are terribly ill-equipped. The elderly care market, personal security devices, smart flood warning systems and others are niche applications that can change people’s lives. The ability to execute small pilot projects to prove to other partners the effectiveness of a solution is key. Only companies like Telenor have the capital to invest in these kinds of solutions, solutions where a little bit of connectivity will go a long way.

The end of design

I just came back from CES (thanks to Here for flying me over to see their work, I’ll write about that soon too) and wanted to write down some thoughts I’ve been having over the past few months which crystallised during this trip. I’ll be giving a talk tomorrow in Oslo at an event organised by Telenor which will touch some of what I’ll write about here too.

I’ve been thinking about product design. Technically I studied industrial design, graduated from a B.A.(Sc) Sp. in 2004. We were never introduced to programming, computer science principles, electronics design or prototyping and the internet was an image search tool for presentations. That was 2004 but I have met people who still constrain their product design career that way. The course I studied has basically not changed while over the past 12 years, product design has been taken away from ‘designers’ to become an extension of computing and the latest technology.

A product has become a physical manifestation of computing capability, with little concern given to the ‘user’ because it is now so cheap to produce something physically, that whether someone finds a product ‘useful’ or not hardly matters. It’s about what the ‘user’ can contribute to the computing power and the technology. The function is almost accidental. A physical product is no longer a tool to solve an actual problem. The design of the product is now simply a process of execution of a technological capability, not the core value. The physical product, just an accidental interface to a land of data to be mined. It is a physical access point to people’s behaviours, language skills and habits in their home, cars and at work.

A bit like Narcissus, looking into the mirror, we want our technical capabilities to mirror us. We are making the mirror.

Robots and assistants at CES were a great examples of design by technologists, of that mirror made physical. I worked for over 2 years for an EU-funded  social robotics project and the computing technology has hardly improved (mostly relying on great copywriters) but the access to design means that simple, clunky technology can be made to look final and believable enough for consumers. Some of the ‘robot companions’ you can find in the CES Robotics Marketplace included Abilix, Koova, Unibot, Furo-i Home, Loobot (don’t ask), Alpha 2, Laundroid (no product pics), Nannybot and i-RobiQ. All a little hopeless, there was also Kuri a gender-confused (copy uses both he and she but not it) home robot launched by Mayfield Robotics. The CTO’s interviewed talks about the technical ability to make robots cost effective, not the fact that there was a great need for them. And that’s the problem in a nutshell.

The expression ‘just because we can doesn’t mean we should’ will become ‘now that we did, why did we again?’ as user and need-driven design has completely disappeared in the developed world.

Our biggest problems  have nothing to do with connectivity and technology but we’re enjoying the engineering-led distraction.

Environmental responsibility, ridiculous packaging, data ownership are all areas that people have been thinking and writing about for over 70 years and we have done, as designers, almost nothing about them. At least not enough to fill the halls of CES.

So design, as it was once conceived, is no longer the glue between technical capabilities and user needs. It is simply the physicalisation tool of technologists with no real understanding or appetite for real needs as there are better, advertising led ways of making money. Hardware doesn’t make you money anymore.

How did we get here? Well the design industry just went to sleep. It’s star system (Stark, Rashid, Béhar, Mooi, etc) is decades old and young talent distracted by it.

For a product designer to want to learn about technology, he/she would not be going to a traditional design course but then he’d lose out on some of the technical essentials of design. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

There is not yet a space for graduate design education that caters to this new world, that fights back. A world that teaches people that to build great products, a design education isn’t enough, you need financing, marketing, engineering and manufacturing partners. You, actually, need to be a design entrepreneur in order to control the user-need driven vision you are taught in design education.  And that’s hard to tell someone who, at 18 or 19,  just knows that they like to draw.

I’d like to try to build such a design program longer term. If you’d like to talk about that drop me a line at alex at designswarm dot com. Let’s keep calm, but let’s not carry on. There is much work to do.


Happy New Year!

So you want an internet of things strategy?

I’ve been giving talks and having lots of meetings with executives across a number of different industries who are interested in the internet of things and aren’t quite sure what to do. Based on the past ten years of my work around this topic, here are some high-level recommendations.

Assumptions: chances are you have a research department or the product arm of your business is changing because your industry is changing. Latching on to the internet of things, AR/VR, cloud and digital is likely to help you solve some problems but not all. Chances are you need a change of culture and a change of senior management. This article is specifically for your business if you’ve decided to commit to #iot as a topic area and are ready to commit to it for a minimum of 3 years.

  1. Think about legacy

Staff turn-around in technical teams can be high (especially if they’re young) and chances are you’ll be recruiting web developers, creative technologists, industrial designers and electronics engineer as part of a good team that can prototype new connected product ideas for your business. These teams, when they work well are self-sufficient and therefore a culture of quick iterative prototypes is developed. This culture clashes with the need for comprehensive documentation of each idea. Successful high resolution prototypes are one thing but the interesting little prototypes that lead you there are just as important. Making sure code, circuitboard diagrams, BoMs and demo videos are available is important to make sure someone in Marketing or the next technical lead can understand a development process.

  1. Know your history and your landscape

You are joining a rich ecology of startups, government programs, tools and standards groups. You’re not doing this on your own so you better get used to collaborating with others that may have competing interests but are much smaller than you and have developed better tools. It takes a particular type of humility but what you’ll get out of it will stand out from what’s being done by your industry. The point of the internet of things is the breakdown of industry silos. The trick here is to grow a circle of ‘care’ so work with people in a way that opens up your abilities and your contacts so they can do the same. That’s why it’s the internet of things and not the intranet of things. People expect APIs for your services and the open mind to go with it.

  1. Help users get literate

In light of the recent splat of press about the internet of things and security we have to work as an industry to give people the tools to know what they should do. We struggle to do this online already and when things are added to the mix of course it complexifies things a lot, but the opportunity here is for a decent amount of time spent with end-users, not just ‘personas’ who are so loved by some design thinkers. There’s nothing like giving people something to live with for a while (be it either at home or at work) to get great feedback and highlight opportunities. It’s not with post-its, it’s not with ideas, it’s with functional high resolution prototypes that you’ll have to invest in fabrication. This means spending months (a long-term trial of the average social robot is 3 months) with customers finding out how your product fits. Only then will you have something that can change people’s lives (at work or at home!) and only then can you help them understand the risks best.

  1. Be patient

Don’t assume you’ll be able to create value for your organisation quickly, getting teams to work together and have good ideas they can prototype and iterate (takes ages to order parts) and then getting something that’s unique enough to showcase once a year at CES means that to get noticed and the right partners on board long term you’ll have to do this for some years. You’ll learn a lot and try to trust your team to work slowly but steadily. It’s difficult when you’re probably tied to whatever you can do within a financial quarter but if you want to change your business, that’s the price to pay. Try not to change innovation managers too often that’s really disruptive to the process and technical teams and jeopardises progress. Also give them a good budget, they have to buy machinery and parts! :)

Good luck!


Day 3 of Mozilla OpenIOT DesignSprint

mapsdataexport-2016-06-22Not a particularly productive day (I may be nursing a cold) today but lots of thinking about what we know, what we don’t know and what we choose to ignore.

It turns out for example that there isn’t any regulation on what distance is required for you to be able to use the term ‘local’on your packaging. Waitrose decided on 30 miles. In the US you can go up to 640km to call something ‘local’ or ‘regional’.

This also made me think about the distance itself. Where a cow is raised for example isn’t where it will be killed but will probably be where it will be butchered. When the farm gets the pieces back it isn’t even sure that it comes from the animals that were sent in. Often the labour is cheap and untrained so bits like the pigs cheeks don’t ever come back to the farmer even if they are highly desirable by cooks in local kitchens. The meat will then travel to the consumer. So is the food mile considering that whole trip? I’m not sure.

I also thought I’d map out the UK’s official slaughterhouses that deal with cows, pigs, horses and deer (ungulates). Not many around London obviously. But also not many period considering we’re feeding over 65M people.

I was also reminded of the BBC Radio 4 show on EL Shumacher an economics thinker and philosopher in the 70s. There’s a college in the UK that takes his philosophy into practice and there’s a lovely sounding sustainable food workshop next month. I wish I could attend.

I think for this Friday I’d like to think about what we’d do if we knew how far away things had to travel to get to us. Would we be surprised about it? Would we spend more / less? Would it make any difference?

This may take the shape of a little ‘low carbon market’.

New Creatives

I recently gave a talk at the closing event of an EU-funded program to support the creative industries around Coventry and it gave me an opportunity to think about my ‘practice’.

This is a word people in the creative industries like. It sounds like ‘craft’ but with more intent, more direction. I don’t think of what I do as a practice, I don’t have a studio space anymore, and I don’t work with other people in that studio space.

However, I do know plenty of people who have studios and even more people (who I’m calling New Creatives as an hommage to James’ New Aesthetic) who add to those studios in ways I find compelling & admire.

I wanted to share what New Creatives are for me if only to shine a light on new ways of working in the creative industries, ways which the government does not acknowledge when it defines these industries but ways which lead to innovation across a number of disciplines.

A definition

If I had to define a New Creative, I would say it is:


A flexible professional who uses their knowledge of programming to lead the early stage of client projects in the arts and/or product design.

What I’m implying in this definition:

  • That person usually works as a freelancer (with their own registered company) or as part of a micro-SME (less than 5 employees).
  • They have a deep knowledge of programming because they studied computer science or they are self-taught programmers.
  • They work for clients.
  • They may not be fussed about working with people who will publicly recognise their contribution.
  • They can act as both a creative lead and a technical lead.
  • They are often involved in the early stages of a client project, rarely staying for more than 2 years and often moving on after a few months.
  • They have developed skills in product design and manufacturing through education platforms like the Arduino, the Raspberry Pi and others.
  • New Creatives understand and adapt to product design and software development processes and timelines.

What’s new?

In New Media Arts and now the internet of things, clients are turning to these New Creatives to integrate a creative and technological conversation which would traditionally have taken a whole team often working in silos. The external state of the New Creative allows him/her to work in isolation to business processes that might be blocking innovation as well. This doesn’t mean the work done by the New Creative always fundamentally disrupts a business completely, but simply that their broad skillset allows them to have an impact more quickly. In that sense, the traditional tension between a designer and an engineer is removed because the New Creative is both.

You could see this as a threat to the design industry, but it’s not quite the case. A New Creative simply allows their clients to move away from traditional design values & processes (strong sense of authorship, long-lasting impact, expensive market research and mass production) by replacing it with a variant of software design processes (iterative prototyping, proof of concept and design fiction as a tool for communication) and assessing the results in different ways.

Their engagement though is ephemeral and they quickly move on from organisations, so their value needs to ultimately be internalised by the client in the form of changing HR practices or restructuring whole business processes. Easier said than done. But the New Creative doesn’t care, because he/she has already found work elsewhere.

They are highly autonomous and well paid which allows them plenty of time to keep learning about other design processes whether that’s electronics design, CAD, sewing, photography, film whatever will get them to contextualise and examine the impact of software in new ways.

Where do they come from?

Most of the New Creatives I’ve had the pleasure of encountering did Computer Science at university but with an interest or minor in humanities. Some came to CS later on in life.

This means that our art and design schools are terrible at creating the type of real multi-disciplinarity which our societies need to come up with innovative ideas based on complexity.

Why should you care?

Not unlike a unicorn, these New Creatives are a great way to see the future marriage of technology and creative industries. Too often funded differently, with separate conferences and separate trade-shows, New Creatives point to a more integrated education, workplace and future ideas. Catch em while you can!



What does it do? A proposal for connected product labelling.







The problem with connected products is (among other things) that they have a life beyond our actual use of them. Data is collected by manufacturers about how we use our lightbulbs, wristbands, thermostats and more. That data is collected at a particular rate and we often don’t have access to it.

So what can we do about it? Well very little for now because most consumers don’t know this is happening at all. Once the packaging thrown out, we sortof forget what’s going on.

Standards around recyclability of an object and safety means companies are forced to print a little logo or CE and UL marks but there is yet to be any such tools forcing manufacturers to share information with consumers about their use of our data with a connected physical product.

I think this should change and have shared a first stab at what this should look like.

Broadly I think companies should be sharing information on a basic level such as whether data is being sent to the cloud and collected or not. At what rate that data is being sent and using what type of communications technology.

Additionally I think we should all have access to the data we share with companies in a human-readable format. We can then decide to archive the data elsewhere or delete it. This is regardless of our technology literacy and mobile phone access. You should be able to pick up an object and see things about it online that relate to you.

This may be something we can use the .iot domain for for example (if ICANN wants to act in this space).

There are lots of things to figure out with this idea (security of access to archive and delete functions for eg.) but I think we need to start somewhere.