John Thackara | Essays

Design Transformation [April 2006]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

What, in broad terms, is happening to design right now? According to a new paper from RED, in London, we are experiencing two important shifts: firstly, in where design skills are being applied; and secondly, in who is doing the designing. A new discipline is emerging, they say, that builds on traditional design skills to address social and economic issues. "Solutions to today's most intractable issues - the rise of long-term health conditions, the impacts of climate change, the colnsequences of an ageing population - need to place the individual at their heart, and build the capacity to innovate into organisations and institutions". I'm not comfortable with the words "transformation design" - they suggest a new-agey Dr. Who - but it's a well-written piece.

Mind you, if we don't change, and radically, our growing economy will overshoot its carrying capacity, degrade its resource base, and collapse. What will life be like then? A gripping description of this more-likely-than-not outcome is included in a British government report about Intelligent Infrastructure Futures. Andrew Curry and colleagues developed four contrasting scenarios of life in 2050, one of which is called Tribal Trading. "After a sharp and savage energy shock, the global economic system is severely damaged. Infrastructure is falling into disrepair. Long distance travel is a luxury few can enjoy. For most people, the world has shrunk to their own community. Cities have declined, and local food production and services have increased. Local transport is typically by bike and horse". Read more at:

If we manage a soft landing, it will be in part because emerging information technologies enable more informed and effective citizen engagement in planning how to use land. But which decision-support tools actually work as support for public participation in community decision-making? The development of these tools is at an early stage, and it's difficult for potential users to evaluate what works. This event in Colorado, organised by the Orton Family Foundation, includes a Tool/Method Expo. The event runs October 19-21, Denver, Colorado.
There's a databse of tools online at:

This year's Aspen Design Summit (which I'm moderating) will look at the interaction between design and three themes: education innovation, sustainable community development, and social entrepreneurship. Each theme will be investigated by Aspen Action Studios, and at the end the event, the event will jointly issue a design challenge. The idea of the multi-disciplinary retreat is to explore the different ways that design thinking and the design process can address these pressing but complex issues. Aspen, June 20-23.

A Japanese-led research team has announced a robot that can carry human beings and is "aimed at helping care for the country's growing number of elderly". The idea is grotesque and depraved - but a boom in assistive technology is on the way whether old people want it or not. Tech companies and researchers sense a market among the children of old people who would rather pay for care than provide it in person. My own rule of thumb is that if someone talks about "elderly" or "the elderly", they are probably spotty young tech pushers and not worth talking to. If someone talks about "elderly people" or just "people", then they may be open-minded enough to allow real people to participate in the development of products that are supposed to be for their benefit.

Speaking of tech-pushers, whoever designed battery-powered disposable razors is an ecologically irresponsible moron. More innocent days are recalled in "The Culture of Shaving", a special exhibition at the Braun Collection in Kronberg.

Did we say that green design needs to be less sad and more glamorous? Brad Pitt narrates a six-part television series on ecologically friendly architecture, called Design², which launches in June on PBS in the United States. The series challenges us to "live smarter, greener lives with the future in mind". There's some worryingly schmaltzy music on the website, but full marks to Autodesk, the world's largest provider of design software, for supporting the series. Autodesk also opens a sustainability centre next month.

It can't boast Brad Pitt, but Adobe, too, has gone into design publishing. The firm has commissioned a series of articles about the "sometimes tense but always intimate" relationship between design and technology. Among several intreresting pieces are Peter Hall on architecture as interface; Rachel Abrams on communication networks and collaborative spaces; Momus on VJ culture and design; Katie Salen on game design; and Adam Greenfield on the challenge of ubiquitous design

If we packed all the neutrons and protons in our body together, it would have a thickness the hundredth of a human hair. Why would we do that? And what, if anything, does this "space of nothingness" mean? Speakers from art, science, philosophy, and spirituality, who will explore that question at UCLA's Department of Design and Media Arts, include a Lama Reincarnate, Chuni Lobsang Jinpa Rinpoche; artist Roy Ascott; Sigi Hale, neuroscientist at the Mindful Awareness Research Center; PicoLab nanoscientist James Gimzewski; and Barbara Fields, director, Association for Global New Thought. April 19, Los Angeles.

If you are in or near Jerusalem, I'm speaking at Design City: Tomorrow's World on 26 April. The event is orgtanised by Alex Ward at the Israel Museum in collaboration with the Department of Industrial Design, Hadassah College. Wednesday, 26 April 2006, Jerusalem.

Intel has launched a PC platform to meet the needs of rural villages and communities in India. The "ruggedized" Community PC is equipped to operate in a community setting while accommodating the varying environmental conditions prevalent in the country. Intel also announced an initiative called "Jaagruti" ("Awakening") to support the spread of rural Internet kiosks that will use the new Community PC. These kiosks would be operated by local entrepreneurs and provide neighboring communities with access to services such as e-Government forms (land records and marriage licenses, among others). Read more at:

Cluster is running a series of pieces on the spontaneous cities, favelas, bidonvilles and squatter cities that grow independently "creating their own networks without the help of traditional planning or design". In the new issue Frederica Verona describes her visits to numerous dormitories, day centres, and soup kitchens in Milan. She discovered that a number of homeless sleep in hidden corners where they will not easily be found by social workers and volunteers. One result is that dormitories, showers and food kitchens - which sound grim anyway - are not located near the people who use them. Mobile units deliver care to street people, but Verona was "amazed at how a mobile service could interrupt the stability of a setting".

Museums, archives and libraries don't just store artefacts, they are also meeting places where conversations start - in real life, or virtually. What's the best way to nurture these conversations? Virtual Platform hosts a workshop in Amsterdam on 18 May that deals with this social role of heritage organisations. It focuses on three themes: the links between physical objects and digital information; social networks and social interaction; and tagging as an alternative to traditional classification systems. Presenters include Ulla-Maaria Mutanen (Thinglinks project); Willem Velthoven, director of Mediamatic, which is developing a button-free "Symbolic Table"; and new media project developer Dick Rijken. Thursday 18 May 2006, KHL, Oostelijke Handelskade 44, Amsterdam.
Email: [email protected]

Each day a person in Switzerland consumes about 6000 Watts of energy for the production of food and other goods, for heating and cooling buildings, and for mobility. The country has set a target of becoming a "2000-Watt society" and is investing heavily in new energy concepts and technologies to achieve that. (Switzerland is ranked as the worldwide leader in preventing carbon dioxide emissions, and third in recycling efforts; some 18,000 people are employed in environmental protection technology firms). Read more at:

It makes me nervous that so much money is pouring into biotech clusters. The sector has bubble-like features and is based on an absurd proposition: that technology will help us cheat death. Undaunted by common sense, there are plans in China for the world's first urban biomedical hub. Sascha Haselmayer, one of its advisors, writes that Fenglin, as it's called, can become a global biomedical hub that will "increase productivity, and speed up the process from scientific discovery to bedside product". For me it's an urban development project, not a health service one. Read more at:

Is the recent rise of design ethnography really new? Debates about the ethics of documentary film-making have been going on for 40 years. And in his new book Philosophizing the Everyday, John Roberts writes that so-called 'worker correspondents' were important during the 1920s in revolutionary Russia and Weimar Germany when they collated materials on issues affecting their workplace and other aspects of everyday life. You can go on a worker correspondent course today, of you like:

Jobs | May 19