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.

The why of the internet of things

(Writeup of a talk given at the IOT Summit in Dublin on June 22nd 2017 instead of slides)

Good morning,

Thank you for inviting me to share my perspectives on the internet of things.

I wanted to talk about the why of the internet of things. As an industrial designer, I’ve always been fascinated with the limits of the physical world and how the internet might extend them. Naively when I got started 13 years ago, I thought that the challenges we might face related to issues of semantics and transparency of use. If a chair was connected, how would we be able to tell, as a consumer that it was connected? When the act of using different things is different every time and the context for using them is different every time, how can we think of creating a mesh of use that makes sense to anyone else. I can eat with a spoon but I can also measure medicine to feed it to my child or use it to open a difficult piece of packaging. Products are also laden with cultural meaning and social and collective meaning. When we decide to connect them we decide to play with that meaning, with the expectations that were built in because of it’s original use and the culture surrounding it.

To work in the internet of things now is no longer a quest for better technological advancement but an academic, political and economic act to overhaul, refine, and play with the last 150 years of industrial development and decline.

It’s no longer enough to have sold something to someone now, we must know who they are, how often they use it and what they do with it. We believe that this is how we will make better decisions.

Except we don’t make those decisions. Just as we are unwilling to disclose how many ‘active’ users a site has versus ‘passive’ or spam bots, we are also unwilling to talk in real terms about the longevity of people’s relationships with the physical world. We are also unwilling to recognise that technology needs politics but not necessarily the other way around.

Most wearable devices will stay in a drawer after 6 months, most activity tracking will be inaccurate, all connectivity will be patchy at some point, most connected powertools will still only be used for 8 minutes in their whole lives, most diesel cars will need to be taken off the roads to reduce pollution, most packaging will need to be decreased, most e-waste managed by the manufacturers, most people will need to use less energy in their homes and will will all of us need to eat more vegetables and less meat.

Some problems we already know the solutions to and I sometimes feel that we use the excuse of ‘data’ to delay the inevitable political decision-making.

We’ve also trained our investment community to be addicted to 7 year cycles of investments which are frankly tailored to software companies. Most startups in #iot will face what I like to call the £150K problem. Receiving anything less will be a waste of time, and anything more and they’ll be forced to grow too quickly to really understand their product and their customers.

I’ve been running the internet of things meetup in London for 6 years now and I see good, meaningful startups that will help solve good meaningful problems die on the vine or hobble , underfunded.

Startups like Flood Network which builds sensors for bridges so you can tell the height of the water in a river and you can track flooding near your home in real time. Flooding is one of those areas where government is lazy and takes a ‘last minute, politically glorious’ approach. Building good lasting flood defenses always seems less important than looking good in wellies on television. (See Katrina for a similar although less successful scenario of politics first, people later.) So noone does anything and noone wants to invest in the opportunity to help homeowners help themselves and respond way in advance of an actual flood to protect their household goods.

I won’t even talk of Grenfell in London 2 weeks ago and what a ‘smart building’ could have done in that environment, the capital intense process of smart building management is simply too expensive for most social housing. With data and with connected things, there will be the haves and the have nots. This is a deeply political issue we cannot ignore.
We have dragged over business models that work in software into a world of capital intensive hardware-based experiences and think it’s the same. There are problems with this of course, data security, keeping people safe, making people trust a complex set of systems they have no way of understanding. We are far away from everyone knowing how to code and we have past the point where things are repairable, so we have to build trust but we also have to do the right thing.

Last week in London, I co-organised an event to build an internet of things certification mark. We need, as a community of practitioners, to think about how to build things people will want to buy and not be scared of using. We cannot hide behind the idea of selling data off without any respect for the consumers who are paying in the first place or any care for how we build a connected product they might rely on in their daily lives. GDPR (you have a session on this this afternoon) has very tangible impacts on how we build these products and 2 days ago in London I invited a technology law firm to talk to people about this at the meetup. The certification mark goes even further than this and I’d love your thoughts on this (iotmark.org) today if you’d like to speak to me about it.

So how can Dublin and other cities around Ireland respond to this landscape? Build up an environment for small but meaningful applications and startups to grow in. I’m not sure what has happened to your lovely local community but there hasn’t been a meetup in 2 years. You probably need to help them out there with a space and some support. Again think of how you might give startups £150K to get going. Encourage startups that don’t concentrate on people’s personal data, GDPR will really affect that model. Instead think of all the other things you could be monitoring and helping consumers make good decisions around: the weather, farming, infrastructure, city services. The future of the internet of things is in the words of E.F. Shumacher in ‘small and peaceful technology’. I would add ‘useful and transparent’ too.

Day 2 of Mozilla Open IOT Design Sprint: Farmnet

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I’m in Anstruther (a small fishing village in Fife, Scotland) this week taking part in the second Mozilla Open IOT Studio design sprint. The whole week is organised by Michelle Thorne, the studio director and Jon Rogers who lives in the area. We’re working from an old church adjacent to a graveyard and there’s 40 of us working on bringing the internet of things to a rural town.

I was offered to jump into a farming community brief and as I’ve had the pleasure of working with Wintec over the last years, this seemed like an obvious space to be.  We visited the estate of the 14th Baronet of Anstruther who manages lots of land, rents it out to farmers, has converted old farming buildings into hipster-friendly work spaces and is going organic. Not quite your average farmer but it was nice to get close to the action.

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One of the first things he told us yesterday morning when we interviewed him was that Tesco and others fake farm names for their brand own labels.

Despite the British sounding names, the “farms” do not exist and the produce is often sourced from abroad.

I’d imagine that this is because there is no such thing as a public farm registry. If you apply to become a farm, it’s information that stays with the government but not something you’d put on a label. Provenance is important in helping consumers make decisions about the food they eat. It’s not just an administrative imperative, it’s a conversation between producers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and consumers. Especially when it can kill you if you have allergies. It makes me think that just like we need advocacy around labelling for #iot products, we certainly need it for British-farmed produce.

So I’m developing a very early idea I’m calling Farmnet, which is an open registry for farms which they can use on labelling of their products.

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I imagine this to be a space where you can check where that farm is based, if it’s organic or not, if it has an online shop should you want to buy directly from them and what it also sells (many farms have lots of different crops).

This was also after realising there are lots of different organisations around farming, but no publicly accessible database. Even doing a bit of digging around I found more local businesses by Googling my way around the web than one of the many official sites Farmafarma_map_anstruther

My map.

anstruther_mymap_zoomedin

The other reason to have a database is give people an excuse to add to it. Many local farm shops do have an online presence if you know their name already. For many that presence is minimal, the bigger the town, the more likely they are to have an online shop and a responsive website. For many they would rely on local trade and relationships that continue to support a highly seasonal business structure. I was told by

Food for everyone.

Anstruther has many care homes and retired people, making sure they can have access to great local food and not just shop/supermarket bought goods because they can no longer drive is pretty important to the life and health of the town and local economy. There may be a future argument for local food to be cheaper for local people, a kind of local subsidy to encourage farmers to start farmer’s markets very very locally.

Anyway, some thoughts on day 2. If you’d like to give me some feedback or want to talk about this, please drop me a line at alex at designswarm dot com.

From Tech City to City Gardens: the slow death of Shoreditch

About 2 years ago, I was making jokes and designed a tote bag when the government announced its Tech City program. I didn’t imagine that what would actually happen was that we would start to see the type of confused political interest that has led to proposed changes in planning laws.

Maybe it’s because during the Olympics politicians were invited to an area of town they wouldn’t have been caught dead in previously. Maybe on those trips to Old Street they realised it’s full of nice post-industrial buildings that would make for the types of fantastic loft spaces they experience in New York. Maybe it’s because they compare Shoreditch to the City and think that housing would help liven it up during weekends. Maybe if they’d lived in Hackney, they’d understand why they should just leave it be and stick to the initial plan to support startups and a tech community not give bankers a chance to live 10 minutes away from work.

One of the many reasons why Shoreditch works for startups is precisely its crap, badly heated, badly connected post-industrial buildings that don’t cost a fortune. That’s why there was an industry there in the first place right? And also everyone’s here, for now. (I’m already starting to hear of friends and colleagues relocating south of the river or even more east, where prices aren’t crazy.)

Clean Shoreditch up and you end up with the cultural desert that Old Spitalfields Market suffered after it was renovated in 2005. Building for the sake of building is all very well for the rich, middle eastern investors or bankers, but really for startups, your lowest overhead should be rent, otherwise, well you’re not a startup.

I won’t even mention other tenants of Shoreditch in the arts, design, fashion houses, fashion schools, illustrators, galleries. I thought we’d established that fashion alone accounts for 1.7% of GDP and creates 800K jobs. Do these political men and women think fashion happens in residential areas? Didn’t think so. I wish Sam Cameron would pipe up on this issue if anyone should as a supporter of fashion and creative industries. Anyway, I digress.

That the area is getting international interest is great, for that to affect real estate was always going to happen, but really in these proposed planning changes, the only people that will suffer are precisely the companies the government wanted to support.

Thanks Dave & Eric.

Love, Shoreditch.

On Shoreditch & informal innovation


View Working in London in a larger map

I wrote a blog post 2 years ago about the Tech City announcement, then I wrote another blog post a year later. Because of this compulsion to write about Shoreditch and its transformation at the hand of the government and corporations, I was interviewed on Friday for BBC News as part of a piece on the new Barclay’s sponsored Central Working building on Bonhill St. To avoid giving the impression that I’m simply a grumpy bastard, I thought I’d elaborate a little on the point I’ve been trying to make.

Then & now
I love Shoreditch. When I moved to London in May 2007, I set up Tinker and sold Arduinos from my at-the-time boyfriend’s apartment (thanks Matt) for the first 6 months of the business. We were the first UK distributors of the platform that had grown from a platform for students designed and used in my MA course in Italy to a world-famous tool to easily learn how to tinker with electronics & programming. Since 2007, I moved around the area, constantly hanging around Shoreditch for meetings, vietnamese dinners and pints in local haunts.

Now, the things I love the most haven’t changed much. The vietnamese is still great, the few pubs I go to are still around and I still have meetings in the Book Club even if they insist on deafening their customers with their increasingly loud music (don’t get me wrong, the music is great). I get the most out of the area, professionally, by walking the streets at lunch, discovering new places and bumping into people all the time. If anything, the “Tech City” thing has increased the amount of serendipity in the area. It’s made my network very accessible and made the area very friendly.
These are all good things, and also why I don’t understand the construction of what I can only describe as innovation factories. What Google Campus and other such large buildings do is to cut people off from that serendipity. Places where lunch can be had at a desk because the café is downstairs and the coffee machine is only 3 steps away actively disengage people from the area they work in. Not only that, but it puts pressure on the environment to deliver “value”. They act as hot-houses for a particular type of business as opposed to help different types of businesses meet and knowledge sharing to happen.

The informal innovation machine
Back in 2008 when Dopplr started and Matt wrote about the Silicon Roundabout, the heartbeat of the area was the offices of Moo on the Old street station roundabout itself. Already quite large at the time, Moo had extra space in their offices which they rented to small businesses and startups. Both benefited from great press with the early days of the new Wired UK. A few years later, Tech Hub had moved into the same building, White Bear Yard had properly started and Moo moved to the building I have worked in for the last 3 years. They continued until recently to host companies like Tweetdeck, arguably the last great success of the area in terms of acquisition. None of these transactions, moves or relationships were formalised by calling any particular space an “innovation hub”. The pressure wasn’t necessary and the space was cheap.

Do the maths


View Les carnets d’Alexandra: the price of a desk in a larger map

With its new building and desks costing £449 + VAT a month for single occupancy, it’s hard to think how Central Working will compete with the informal San Francisco laptop-in-a-café culture. The point of being a startup is that you have no money! The types of startups that will have the money for 3 desks ie around £1 500 a month won’t be the ones who are starting out, they will be the ones that will already have received funding and are looking for a second round. The ones that need help will still be in cafés, university libraries or at home.

This is typical of London’s approach to business and the corporatisaion of space and activity that can often be found in the way areas like London Bridge are getting turned into shopping malls or Spitalfields market in 2008. Once an area gains in reputation, corporate interest emmerges and prices go up. The cost of a square meter in our postcode has gone from £24 in 2010 to around £32 in 2012.

What to do?
Shoreditch is an environment that not unlike an unkept garden, benefits from a light touch approach. Concentrating on creating pedestrian areas, event spaces and allowing the creative people in the area to take over a bit more would help get people out of their ivory towers and foster the type of serendipity that makes things happen and allows artists, designers, coders and fashion designers to hang out and influence each other’s work. Because that’s exactly what makes Shoreditch so special.


View A New Shoreditch in a larger map

So with that, I think I’ll steer clear of the topic for a while. I’m busy with my own startup after all :)

Tech City UK: one year later

So it’s been a year since I wrote my long rant about Tech City UK. Someone asked me the other day what I thought about things now so I thought I’d write about it again.

Silicon Roundabout / Tech City: it’s not about location
Since November 2010, things haven’t changed much in Old Street, except that the Silicon Roundabout thing went from a joke to becoming a marketing vehicule for Shoreditch. Companies moved in the area and started waving the flag around. I started to track activity around the expression on a Tumblr site. Journalists from the US came to visit, companies from the world of advertsing, PR and others are organising tours, walking around trying to understand what is happening behind the converted factories. Local companies had a football match, organise recruiting events and shared food recommendations. I use the past tense as activity has diminuished over the summer as London snoozed. I’m curious if it will pick up again, or we’re kindof collectively over it. If anything, I predict that Tech City will replace the tongue-in-cheek moniker, and Stratford will stay isolated. Right now, the idea of a technology & innovation hub makes sense in Shoreditch, not Stratford. Google’s choice of (sales) offices south of Old Street means they’ve understood that too even if becomes just another TechHub. I’m not sure where the Olympic legacy fits in anymore. It’s even dissapeared from public discourse as Cameron finds himself with other fish to fry.

Show me the money
Having a bunch of startups in a city means you have to build an investment ecology around them. What’s changed the most in the past year is how many of those startups started to turn to government for funding. VC & angel funding isn’t quite there yet but The Technology Strategy Board, a governmental funding body started putting out calls for more web & tech centric topics after years of catering to industrial manufacturing only. Their call on “internet of things” for example generated a lot of buzz, as did the Tech City call that fueled Makielab. It would be useful, instead of bullying corporations to open offices around here, for the government to get them to invest some money in start-ups funds, not unlike the Awesome foundation. I’m sure this sort of scheme could count as social corporate responsibility. Of course if most of these startups end up being acquired by US businesses, you could argue this isn’t doing our economy much good on the long term, but as we all know governments aren’t good at long term plans anyway.

So I’m not sure if I’m excited or not yet. And I guess that’s the problem.

Say what you mean and read the book

A few weeks ago, I went to a lunch organised by 10 Downing Street hosted by Mother. This was well attended by some important members of the arts, education and advertising industries and Kieran Kumaria one of the advisors to George Osbourne ran the session. He started by stating that Mr Osbourne was a great fan of Richard Florida.

Now, I was still a product design student in Canada when The Rise of the Creative Class was published but it was always on the wishlist. Right after the session I ran back to the office and ordered it online. I haven’t finished it yet, but was struck by a paragraph in the preface that sounded very familiar:

Meanwhile, the United States appears to have thrown its gearshift into reverse. At all levels of government and even in the private sector Americans have been cutting back crucial investment in creativity – in education, in research, in the arts and culture – while pouring billions in the low-return and no-return public projects like sports stadiums. In the zeal to ensure homeland security, the nation has placed tighter restrictions on immigration, foreign students and the flow of scientific information. If these trends continue, the U.S. may well squander its once-considerable lead. Consider this thought: The real threat to American security is not terrorism, it’s that creative and talented people may stop wanting to come here.

I suggest someone should get Mr Osbourne to actually read the book.

Mapping creativity in London?

Was intrigued by the accusation that the council of Barnet was going to be the only council not to invest in Arts by cutting funding to Artsdepot. The whole debate in the Evening Standard article a few days ago made me want to know where exactly does “creativity” happen and if you can start mapping it geographically and investing on that basis only (as per my previous post on the Tech City idea). A first step in that general direction was for me to pick up the weekend’s Guardian Guide and map out the exhibitions listing. It was interesting to see that for that particular week, things are quite “central london” if that means anything. Not much south of Southbank. Not much West west. Not much north. Lots in “the west end”, Soho and Shoreditch.

I grant you this isn’t very scientific (I’ll try to update the map every week to spot any changes or new additions), but it shows London as a creative beast all over, with no real clusters when it comes to enjoying art / visual arts / creative industry outputs.


View Les carnets d’Alexandra: Guardian exhibitions list in a larger map

Slovenian wines: a map

I went to Slovenia last year and it was beautiful. As with all fo.am events we ate a lot and drank a lot and during the last meal, enjoyed a long wine-tasting evening. The maitre de cérémonie had made a map which I have turned into a digital thing. It seems Slovenian wines are a little hard to find in the UK, so might not be super useful, but there. There’s a place for it now. All these wines were superb by the way.


View Les carnets d’Alexandra: Northern Slovenian wines in a larger map