John Thackara | Essays

Self-Service Economy [June 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.

The abuse of Asian telephone centre staff by customers is symptomatic of corporate cock-up on a grand scale says Simon Caulkin of the Observer newspaper. Caulkin has sharply attacked "the lengths to which companies will go to avoid drawing the right conclusions in favour of the self-serving and expedient". Irate calls to call centers in India have contributed to turnover rates touching 60 or 70 percent a year in some cases. Some call center operators have responded by offering staff psychological counseling and anger management courses. But, Caulkin points out angrily,"double alientation, of staff and of customers" is in fact to blame

The anarchist bookshop next to the pier in Seattle never fails to yield interesting titles. I'm enjoying a book by Jim Diers called "Neighbor Power: Building Community The Seattle Way". In the 1990s, Diers helped Seattle neighborhoods face challenges ranging from gang violence to urban growth. Many of the stories he tells here concern small, local Tipping Point-like actions. Diers describes as 'asset-based' the often-modest actions that enable communities to exploit resources - such as time, skills, or relationships - that would be too small or scattered to interest a global company.

Business Week ran a brilliant story about the marketing strategies of Evangelical America. A traditional U.S. church typically has fewer than 200 members and an annual budget of around $100,000 - but the average mega church pulls in $4.8 million and a new one of those emerges every two days. Mega churches offer a great product - internal peace - and deploy the latest marketing techniques with great flair to sell it. As a hard-working book promoter myself, I was struck by the success of California pastor Rick Warren's book The Purpose-Driven Life: It has sold 23 million copies through a novel "pyro-marketing" strategy. I plan to apply this approach to "In The Bubble" right away.

"Many a garage inventor would argue that poorly designed, superfluous products are necessary by-products of the innovation process, not fundamental flaws in our design philosophy. Thackara deems it foolhardy, but maybe it's Darwinian". Fast Company, in reviewing my book, pinpoints a dilemma: how to combine trial-and-error innovation, on the one hand, with the precautionary principle -consideration of the consequences of design actions before we take them - on the other. Yes, it's a conundrum - but do we have any right to carry on treating the planet, our only home, as a glorified crash-test rig?

A Pimms-enhanced party at Demos, in London, was held to launch a new strategy for the organization called "Building Everyday Democracy". According to the think tank's director, Tom Bentley, "politics is fighting a losing battle against forms of theatre and spectacle that are more entertaining, and forms of conversation and social exchange that are more meaningful to citizens. Without more direct citizen participation, the legitimacy of our political institutions will continue to decline". Democracy, for Bentley, should be understood as "part of a capacity for self-organsation" - and his pamphlet describes numerous neighbourhood-based models and institutions as infrastructures of distributed democracy. The Demos project is interesting, and timely, but somehow lacks cultural fizz. At the end of the nineteenth century, the promise of speed and simultaneity, amplified in popular and scientific culture, drove modernity along. The opportunity, now, to "build local democracy" feels a good deal less mesmerizing. A cultural- aesthetic transformation will be needed if the political strategy is to succeed. The Demos pamphlet is downloadable at:

The European Commission has launched the Good Practice Framework to collect and publishe eGovernment case studies. The first batch ranges from a "multi-channel Integrated Service System known as MISS" in Barcelona, to an Icelandic Student Loan Fund and several digital ID card projects. The organisers seem to be more interested in new tools for local government than in the ways they might be used because the site is light on critical discussion. But maybe that will come. The project is launched at a workshop in Brussels on 17 June.

What would it be like to send and receive hugs rather than text messages? Or stroke the TV to turn it on? An exhibition called Touch Me: Design and Sensation opens next week at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Curated by Hugh Aldersey Williams, the exhibition features experimental designs that engage playfully with the touch senses. These include artifacts are from IDEO, Droog, Marcel Wanders, and MIT Media Lab - not to mention some "impossibly stylish" sex toys. 16 June - 29 August, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A brutal policy change by its main sponsor, Telecom Italia, has forced Interaction Design Institute Ivrea to move to Milan and effectively merge with Domus Academy. The two organizations describe the move stoically as "a great opportunity for growth", but the fact remains that the Ivrea team will be broken up and funding for the combined entity drastically reduced. Telecom's decision is short-sighted and represents a stupendous destruction of value: It is breaking up a hub, five years in the making, for a new community of practice in a subject area strategically crucial for telecoms. Interaction Ivrea's end of year show opens Friday 10 June in Turin at 6pm at Via Porta Palatina 15.

Every year the Institute For The Future in Palo Alto publishes a map of the decade ahead. Jason Tester, an alumnus of Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, is helping IFTF enhance its maps by the development of 'artifacts from the future'. At Ivrea, the design of enticing representations of imagined futures was regarded as a core process. (The technique, called 'evidencing', was introduced there by the English service designers Live|Work).

Azby Brown has written a pertinent book for these sprawl-afflicted times."The Very Small Home" describes 18 residential buildings built within the past five years in Japan by leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Shigeru Ban.

The latest issue of Design Philosophy Papers is on the theme 'De/re/materialisation'. Lead papers include Tony Fry & AM Willis on Ecologies of Steel. The current issue is available free for approximately 8 weeks.

The European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, wants to create a European Institute of Technology to compete with MIT. The EIT would be a network institution founded on six of the best universities in the EU, according to one report we've seen (see url below). But wait: the European Research Area already contains hundreds of tech-based universities and research labs whose workers interact and network with each other continuously. A new 'centre' is the last thing this thriving ecosystem needs. It would be nice if European firms would support our existing design institutions more. Hasso Platner, founder of SAP, is giving tens of millions of dollars to Stanford's new D-School. A even better idea would be a networked-based Institute of Well-Being, directed by this author, whose task would be celebrate the many facets of everyday life in Europe that work perfectly well without clunky, expensive 'self service' technology.

The most entertaining but also thoughtful challenger to Michael Bloomberg for Mayor of New York is the Reverend Billy, leader of the Church of Stop Shopping. The Reverend has announced plans to conduct his entire campaign on premises of the Starbucks Corporation; he will offer 258 sermons in 258 locations in the five boroughs of the city. Reverend Billy is banned from Starbucks worldwide, possibly because he describes the firm as a "community-destroyer". Or maybe it's because a 40-strong gospel choir that sings "Put That Latte Down" often accompanies him at his Starbucks manifestations. The book is recommended, too: "What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is in My Store?"

Richard Florida's new book, The Flight of the Creative Class, argues for "a broadening of the definition of creativity that will ennoble and encourage the everyday efforts of ordinary occupations...from housekeeper to fieldworker". By extending the concept of "creative class" to cover most of the US population, it seems to me that Florida has abandoned the notion that a discrete creative class exists. This is a welcome change of position. The book ends with a ghastly-sounding proposal for a "Global Creativity Commission", but it also argues powerfully that diversity and immigration are good for America. Citing many examples of foreign-born entrepreneurs who have played central roles in the US economy - from Goggle's Sergey Bring, to Vend Kola of Sun Microsystems - Florida argues that "the real foreign threat to the American economy is not terrorism; it's that we may make creative and talented people stop wanting to come here".

I was in San Francisco a week too early to attend World Environmental Day when 100 mayors are brainstorming about environmental problems worldwide. But according to Olivia Wu in the San Francisco Chronicle, four Northern California women are viewing these global issues through the prism of their own kitchens. Calling themselves the Locavores, the women are passionate about eating locally and have devised a way to show others how to do that, too. With San Francisco as the centre, they have drawn a circle with a 100- mile radius from the city, and are urging people to buy, cook and eat from within that "foodshed" in a month long challenge in August called "Celebrate Your Foodshed: Eat Locally." (Thanks to Debra Solomon for this lead).

A well-meaning friend gave me a copy of Gabriel Zaid's "So Many Books" to read while on my book promotion tour."A new book is published every 30 seconds" Zaid begins. During 34 days on the road, this statistic was never far from my mind. Several of my stops were at large bookstores where the vanity of expecting one's book to be noticed, let alone read, amid literally acres of new titles, would have been sad if it were not also laughable. But the second half of Zaid's book kept me going, and cheerful. He counsels writers to reframe the purpose of their of their work - away from commanding the attention of millions, to starting conversations, some of them small, that will end...who knows

Jobs | May 26