John Thackara | Essays

On Time [September 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.

I carried two psychological burdens on the tour for my book In The Bubble earlier this year. One was the knowledge that a competitor is published every thirty seconds; every day I was on the road, the ranks of new titles swelled by 2,880. My second burden was awareness that Rick Warren's 'The Purpose Driven Life' sold 500,000 copies a month during its first two years, and is projected to reach 100 million. I found it hard to accept that In The Bubble might not sell so well. Now I know how Rick does it: He has built a 'Cellular Church' that is based on small groups for whom his book is a kind of primer. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in this week's New Yorker (12 September) Rick's small groups 'focus on practical applications of spirituality... not on abstract knowledge, or even on ideas for the sake of ideas themselves'.

During a visit to the MIT campus a few weeks ago Doug Sery, my editor at MIT Press, pointed out two large and expensive-looking buildings that were being constructed to house neuroscientists. A generation ago, the glamour building on the block was MediaLab - so I was prompted to ask: What do these neuro guys do all day? Why are they so well-funded? What does their work portend for the rest of us in the medium term? Read more at:

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.

Two of the most striking images from New Orleans featured helicopters. In one shot, a helicopter is dropping 15,000 bags of sand onto rushing waters that will obviously wash them away. In the second, the president projects a concerned gaze onto the diaster from a similar height. Engineering to control nature needs a social base and political consensus to be effective - and those were missing in New Orleans.

Massive floods in Mumbai and Maharashtra have drawn attention to a crisis of civic infrastructure and public health in India, too. The right of citizens to information about their environments has emerged as an issue of public importance. Very few citizens of India enjoy open access to maps, satellite imagery, and other geographic information. Collected and brokered by national mapping and space imaging agencies, these geo-data are nonetheless essential for understanding civic issues such as planning, housing, infrastructure. The Open Knowledge Foundation is hosting a forum at about Open Access to State-Collected Geo-Spatial Data.

Many designers in the North want to use their skills to help people affected by such disasters. In Project Lifeline, for example, a multi-disciplinary team has developed a sustainable medical assistance module designed to provid water and help in cases of natural tragedy, war and extreme poverty. Based on a shipping container, the system incorporates solar energy, wind generators, water purification system, water distribution and grey water irrigation. A prototype of the system will be presented at Next2005 in Copenhagen, Nov. 25-26

Some papers say that rebuilding after Katrina will cost the same as the war in Iraq. In the unlikely event that this much money is forthcoming, what will it be spent on? Before Halliburton starts pouring concrete for new freeways and malls, a moment's pause is in order. A global boom in new indicators is providing us with new criteria against which to make decisions about what we innovate, and how we invest. An International Conference on Gross National Happiness took place in Canada, in June; and in the UK, new ways to measure well-being and life satisfaction - and the support systems needed to nurture them - are being discussed in policy circles.

TOYS FOR THE BOYS? After a few years in which social issues were at least visible on the agenda, tech-push dinosaurs are regaining control of European research policy. For example, a mesmerising shopping list of new 'research infrastructures' has been sent to the the European Commission by a committee of top scientists. These new toys - sorry, 'tools' - range from an Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) for optical astronomy, to a research icebreaker called Aurora Borealis, and a facility for antiproton and ion research called FAIR. The price tags are fair, too: they range from 'less than 100 million' euros, to one billion-plus. It looks as if the next Information Society Technologies (IST) programme will contain a lot of tech - but not much soc.

What exactly is an 'information society' and do we want to live in one? The European Commission proposes an 80% increase in funding for ICT research focused on areas where Europe has recognised strengths. These apparently include 'cooperative multiplatform warfare', a condition that will feature 'the human control of multiple unmanned aerial vehicles in collaborative missions'.

For another view of what might the Internet be like in 2010, Darren Sharp, who some of you met at Doors 8 in Delhi, co-authored of a hefty new Australian report called Smart Internet 2010. The report draws on sound advice from wise souls such as Cory Doctorow and Howard Rheingold.

In a review of "dark scenarios for Ambient Intelligence" (AmI). five threats are identified in a report from a powerful European consortium: Surveillance of users; Spamming; Identity theft; Malicious attacks (on AmI systems); and a cultural condition they describe as 'digital divide'. Tucked away in the references is an impressive and, I think, important text by a philosopher, Ira Singer, called Privacy and Human Nature. Singer writes: 'Increasing manipulativeness, decreasing intimacy, and self-revelation in a dehumanizing context, all sound like substantial harms. But do these apparently trivial intrusions really do such damage?'. His conclusion: yes, they do.

An American designer, Natalia Allen, reckons there's an emerging 'fashion tech industry'; and a Canadian artist, Joanna Berzowska, is excited by the potential of what she calls 'soft computation': electronic textiles, responsive clothing as wearable technology, reactive materials and squishy interfaces. Berzowska's talk at next month's Wearable Technologies conference, in Wales, includes a description of 'memory rich garments'. These sound like a mixed blessing: some of my clothes were present at occasions I'd rather they forgot.

Next year there will be more than two billion mobile phone users in the world. Indeed, the World Bank reckons that 77 percent of the world's population already lives within range of a mobile network. One access accelerator is the way service providers often sell us handsets cheaply because we'll pay far more, later, for the intangible service they enable us to use. Marko Ahtisaari, Nokia's design supremo, thinks now is a good moment to reflect on where we want to go next. "In the rush to connect we have not designed what it means to disconnect, to tune out. How do we design to be sometimes off in a world that is itself always on?"

As we're seeing with mobile phones, objects play new roles in an economy of product-service systems. Designers need new types of knowledge, processes and tools to grapple with such novel product genres. Researchers in product and interaction design, semantics, and human computer interaction will discuss the design and semantics of form and movement at an event in Newcastle, in November. Their focus: how to exploit the combined usage of form, colour and behaviour as a design language.

I was critical of the recent decision by Telecom Italia to reduce its support for Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, and to merge the organisation with Domus Academy in Milan. Ivrea was just getting intro its stride - as its end-of-year show confirmed. Ivrea's director, Gillian Crampton Smith, has now left, but Heather Martin and Neil Churcher have taken over the programme and will guide the last group of students in their final year in Milan.

Velo Mondial (French for 'Cycle Worldwide') is an international organisation that promotes the use of the bicycle in all aspects of life. The bicycle is the world's cleanest, healthiest, most economical and most efficient form of transport, and Velo Mondial seeks to increase its integration into the economies and lifestyles of countries across the world. Backed by the European Commission, Velo Mondial advises cities on ways to improve their support of cycling, integrate cycling plans into their transport policies, and to implement and monitor action programs. Cycling 'Oscars' will be awarded to cities around the world with the best cycling policies at its Cape Town event in 2006.

Looking for an excuse to head for mountains that are out of reach of floods? A conference at the Banff New Media Institute could be your answer. Refresh! is an international conference on the histories of media art, science and technology - from nineteenth century magic lanterns to early experiments with sound, to nanotechnology and biotech today. Keynote speakers include Paris-based theoretician Edmond Couchot; São Paulo-based semiotics professor Lucia Santaella; and Sarat Maharaj from Goldsmiths College, London. The conference is directed by Oliver Grau, director of Immersive Art & Database of Virtual Art, Humboldt University Berlin.September 28 to October 1, The Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, Canada.

Have cultural producers become stooges of property development? A Barcelona- based group, Yproductions, organised the Sant Andreu Free University (SAFU) to discuss the the crisis of a Barcelona that has become "over-branded and over-gentrified". Prices are rising so fast that locals find it hard to continue living there, and "labour precariousness has now become mainstream situation". Coolness, say these critics, is not innocent, when cultural projects act as camouflage for rampant redevelopment.

If mobility is a new place, then this event is the place to be. Capturing the Moving Mind is a conference on board the Trans-Siberian train. It's about "new forms of movement and control, war and economy, in the current situation". M-cult and Kiasma have organised web documentation of the event as it moves from Helsinki via Moscow and Novosibirsk to Beijing.There is also be a moving radio station on the train.

Can new technology improve the quality of public space? On 21 September city and regional policymakers meet in The Hague to discuss whether the ideas raised in last year's Fused Space design competition might be used in real-world planning and development.

A fast-growing acreage of large digital displays pervades public space. Can the mainly commercial use of these screens be broadened to include cultural agendas? Come to think of it, do cultural people have any more right than commercial types to fill up the visual landscape with push media? Urban Screens, organised by Mirjam Struppek, addresses these issues. Struppek has collected an interesting array of images and project profiles at the website; if we all add to the collection, it will become a very useful resource. 23, 24 September, Amsterdam.

Among the speakers lined up by organiser Esme Vos for the first Municipal Wireless Conference are Jonathan Baltuch, founder of a firm which creates economic development blueprints for municipalities; James Farstad, consultant to the city of Minneapolis' citywide wireless project; Greg Richardson, who helps municipalities develop digital communities; and Sascha Meinrath, an expert on Community Wireless Networks (CWNs). I particularly like the offer of a pre-conference "reality bus tour of a wifi network". San Francisco, September 28-29.

Billions of euros (the published figure is two, the likely total is 15) are being spent by the UK's National Health Service in a new attempt to digitise and integrate patient medical records. Insiders tell me the latest project is doomed to fail, as did previous attempts, because turf-wars between professionals and managers, in different parts of the country, remain unresolved. In the US, the management of personal health information is perceived to be a better business opportunity. Esther Dyson, who is organising a seminar on the subject, says "health information liquidity is the ability of that information to move around, relatively friction-free, to where it is most useful and relevant: Many of those records can be aggregated (with proper privacy protection) for use in public health, epidemiology and evidence-based medicine of all kinds".

A forthcoming Healthcare Communications Forum in the US steers clear of patient records to concentrate on essentials: invoices for payment. 'Healthcare providers are spending fortunes producing bills and statements that baffle and frustrate most consumers' says the blurb for the seminar. The motto of the Forum's main sponsor, Art Plus Technology, is: 'Financial Documents Are Fun. Financial Documents Are Exciting'.

If we are to re-localise food, a new generation of information systems will be needed as support. Many of today's food systems rely on closed networks in which access to information is controlled by entities (such as supermarkets) that are not keen on cooperatives and localisation. The good news is that open source software for food systems are already emerging. Read more at:

If you are worried about the cost of living, try the cost of dying. The cost of the average cremation in Britain is expected to rise by up to £100 (160 euros) after a government announcement that it wants to halve the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere by crematoria. Read more at:

A gift from Brenda Laurel has cost me dear. The eminent design professor at Art Center, in California, sent me a copy of a new report called 'Tweens: Technology, Personal Agency, Engagement'. The book is an intriguing portrait of Californian tweens (ages 11-14): How they think, feel. act, and relate to each other and the world. A knowing 12-year-old is quoted saying that 'only losers wear striped shirts'. So I now have to find a loser to give about seven of mine to.

An exhibition about social innovation among creative communities in Europe takes place at the Technical University during Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven (October 17 - 21). On October 18 Philips Design will host a seminar that will include Ezio Manzini, Stefano Marzano and John Thackara, facilitated by Josephine Green. Details: [email protected]

A plaintive request arrives from London: Diana Deal, conferences administrator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, has been 'deluged with emails' about the Critical Debate between Rem Koolhaas and myself on 14 October - but it's not Diana's job to sell tickets. For that, please email: [email protected]

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