John Thackara | Essays

Design and Risk [October 2005]

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.

My design-and-fear index is roaring along. Googlng "design' and "homeland security" yields a score today of 11.5 million - that's up one million in just a month, and up ten million compared to a year ago. Fear-based design has now been awarded the ultimate cultural accolade: an exhibition next week at MoMA in New York. 'SAFE: Design Takes On Risk' is the first major design exhibition at MoMA since its reopening in November 2004. Curator Paola Antonelli has gathered together more than 300 contemporary products and prototypes that are "designed to protect body and mind from dangerous or stressful circumstances, respond to emergencies, ensure clarity of information, and provide a sense of comfort and security.These objects address the spectrum of human fears and worries, from the most mundane to the most exceptional, from the dread of darkness and loneliness to the threat of earthquakes and terrorist attacks".

MoMA have very right to bring this stuff to our attention, but one thing is clear: The design of products to protect people from terrorism is a short-term solution that won't work. Indeed a focus on hardware, if it deflects attention from the human causes of violence, is likely to make things worse in the long-term. In an important pamphlet from Demos called 'Hearts and Minds: Human Security Approaches to Political Violence', Scilla Elworthy and Gabrielle Rifkind argue that much more is known about how to reduce and prevent violence than public figures (and the homeland security industry) acknowledge."A careful analysis of the root causes of political violence reveals the persistent influence of powerlessness, exclusion, trauma, and humiliation. Approaches to terror, political violence and insurgency must take human security as their starting point". Should, but don't: France, the UK, Russia and the US account for 78 percent of all global exports of conventional weapons.

How 'natural' are natural disasters? Large losses of life, and destruction of homes and infrastructure, are regular features of floods and hurricanes in many parts of the less developed world. The latest, brilliantly-timed issue of Design Philosophy Papers points out that for people, at last, these are not natural disasters at all. They are the outcome of risky forms of settlement by large numbers of people whose choices are limited by history and economic circumstance. The result: More people are made refugees as a result of the changing environment than by war or poltical conflict. In this context, is it time to stop perceiving homeless people as a minority underclass? Might not more of us become bums, hobos, tramps, beggars, street kids, bag ladies, tramps and the like as climate conditions degrade? If that happens, the survivial skills of the despised may become highly valued.

If you: a) possess a copy of 'In The Bubble'; and/or b) have read it; and c) found any errors in it (names, typos, dead urls etc) ...then please let me know. MIT Press is reprinting the book and need my corrections by 28 October. I will give a free signed copy of the paperback edition (due out next Spring) to anyone who tells me about a mistake they have found. Email please to: [email protected]

This annual festival for art and new technology in Trondheim, Norway, is hosted this year by our friends Alan J Munro and Rob van Kranenburg. Matchmaking, whose theme this year is "soft freedom", is the only event of its kind in Norway. It's a great place to make new alliances and projects in the (especially Nordic) art and media scene. 17 - 23 October 2005. Trøndelag Centre of Contemporary Arts/ Bybroen Scene.

Does tourism kill the toured? An unexpected overnight in Barcelona a week ago reminded me that cities should be careful what they wish for. Barcelona is the most-quoted example in the world of a city that has used design and creativity to make itself attractive to tourists. But having come in their hordes, they are eating the place alive. On the Ramblas, Spanish families trying to stroll slowly with children were jostled by gangs of drunken Easyjet Brits on their way to party. Carbon emissions are not the only damaging by-product of tourism.

Google has offered to build San Francisco-wide a free wifi network. Google say San Francisco residents and visitors will enjoy a free 300 kilobits per second, always on connection anywhere in the city. "San Francisco will be a true test bed for location based services and applications," said Chris Sacca, principal of new business development at Google.

Uffe Elbaek, founder and energiser of Kaos Pilots business school in Denmarkhas been invited by Ode Magazine to talk about the changes in the world and the new ways of organisation to deal with those changes.

Applications are invited for the upcoming cycle of fellowships supported by Sarai and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies 9 in Delhi.

Three eminent researchers discuss designing as form of research in this symposium in Delft (The Netherlands) on November 10. Brenda Laurel, Gillian Crampton-Smith, and Kun-Pyo Lee will look at the ways design generates knowledge which can be used beyond the product at hand and thereby generate wholly new ideas. The event is hosted by the Technical University of Delft. Thursday November 10. Contact: Pieter Jan Stappers: [email protected]

I remain eager to learn about real and useful applications for nanotechnology to explain the zillions being invested in its reseach. This one-day seminar on new surfaces for architecture, furniture, and design may begin to meet that need, but I can't help noticing that the German words for "will" outnumber the words for "is" by a large margin. An eye for tiny detail presumably explains, too, why the price is 410 euros. 27 October, Saarbrücken.

Usman Haque and Aether Architecture were commissioned to develop a suite of low-tech sensors and actuators using electronic children's toys and gadgets as a source; (they can be hacked for their constituent parts). The idea was to enable artists and architects to develop interactive spaces and objects quickly and cheaply. One outcome of the project was an instruction manual of sorts - a manifesto for low-tech that functions also as a conceptual framework for complex interactive systems.

Andrew Otwell writes to ask "how green is the greening of Apple?" proclaimed by Steve Jobs. Jobs was quoted in The Guardian as saying that "one automobile is, I'm sure, greater in impact than 100,000 iPods. The one part of consumer electronics that you have to worry about is the battery". I don't know what the environmental impact of a single ipod is, but Paul Hawken (in his book Natural Capitalism) wrote memorably that the amount of waste matter generated in the manufacture of a single laptop is close to four thousand its weight in your lap.

Where is the money for a carbon neutral economy to come from? The transition to a renewable/clean/low carbon energy and resource efficiency economy will require massive investment. A seminar in Brussels will pool knowledge about public-private partnerships, capital risk, venture concepts, and other opportunities for the financial services sector in the realm of eco-innovation and eco-technologies. October 14, Brussels

Radio Forest is a radio station, located in a forest in Neerpelt, Belgium, that broadcasts onto a local highway, such that cars can tune in to the sounds of trees when they pass by.

The new edition of Dutch architecture magazine Archis (which is now published jointly with AMO, the research arm of Rem Koolhaas's design office) includes a diatribe against people who travel to conferences around the world to talk about global warming, design and sustainability, and asks such people to "ponder on the critical question: whether you are an environmentalist, an ecologist, or a hypocrite". Read on at:

Jobs | May 19