John Thackara | Essays

Emerging Economy Design [March 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.

Doors of Perception 8 begins in a week from now. We've added a pre-conference workshop about the business side of Emerging Economy Service Design; this complements our street-level workshops which now also include 'exploring the market cultures of Delhi' with Jogi Panghaal. The media exhibit at Apeejay Media Gallery - 'Bombay, Badarpur Border' - is also now online. If you really can't make it, we'll post reports and photos from the event on the Doors 8 site.

Doors events are hard to describe in one sentence to a busy journalist. Our work, and your interests, do not fit neatly into traditional categories such as 'business', 'arts' or 'home'. But some writers intuitively understand what Doors is about. Do you know of any we might have missed who might like to know about 'Infra'? Please send the name and email address of your favourite journalist to: editor at doorsofperception.com

Ten days before Doors 7 (this was November 2003) our cable connection crashed and our then Internet provider, UPC, were unable to fix it. Then I located the home phone number of UPC's European CEO, called him during dinner, shared my thoughts on the matter, and our cable connection was restored later that evening. Now, just before Doors 8, it has happened again: Our DSL connection went down and remains down, as I write, after 15 days. We've spent tens of hours talking to what is described with some exaggeration as the Wanadoo "help desk". We finally gave up hope when a new voice said: "yes, now that you mention it, we've had major problems in Toulouse for some time". If you know the CEO of Wanadoo, don't go near him/her for a while: a plague of pustulating sores and a painful parasitic infection has been summoned for the leader of this company from hell.

Politicians, under pressure for doing something bad, sometimes play a clever trick: they deny responsibility for a different action that nobody had accused them of. The supporters of business schools are playing a similar trick at the moment in response to a growing wave of criticism that their education encourages amoral behaviour by its graduates. The Economist, for example, has lambasted critics for suggesting that scandals such as Enron are the b-schools' fault. After all, says The Economist, many bad-guy CEOs never even went to business school. Which is true, and utterly beside the point. The problem with b-schools is not that they breed a few black-hat bad guys, but that they train thousands upon thousands of future managers to regard human beings as discretionary costs - costs that can be eliminated by a bland-sounding technique, which they all learn by rote, called 'restructuring'.

A full-page story in the Financial Times (March 1, page 9) waxed lyrical about 'reality TV for the boardroom' - and went on to describe the use of video footage to 'reduce the growing distance between the corporate elite and consumers'. Executives in multinational companies, understates the FT, 'often find themselves doing business in places they know little about' (but) 'corporate reality TV enables highly paid executives to cross the class divide and get a glimpse into the lives of regular people'. The FT described Ogilvy RedCard videoing 'the secret lives of consumers' - for example, by following young women into bathrooms at discos, where they are filmed reapplying makeup a lot. 'Video research has struck a particular chord with executives at pharma companies' the story concludes; 'they are intrigued with witnessing suffering'. The FT story is a wake-up call: video ethnography is not a neutral activity: we must be critical about the ways it's used, and by whom.

Information design students and professionals will converge this summer on the Cape Verde Islands, in the middle of the Atlantic, to develop a challenging communication project on issues of cultural, educational and economic development. They'll surely be too busy to work on their tan. http://www.iiid.net/SummerAcademy.htm

Island hoppers need to know about this conference in Malta about new research on educational technologies. They also plan to set up a consortium for future transnational projects.

A large meeting last week at the Tropen Institute in Amsterdam marked the launch of a new project, Dutch Design In Development DDiD). Participants ranged from young designers struggling to make a business importing textiles from Africa, to eco-tourism marketers and consultants who advise global companies how to behave responsibly. My contribution was to complain that economists tend to define 'development' in terms of growth and productivity but ignore issues of well-being. The day I spoke, a survey by the New Economics Foundation in the UK found that although the British economy has doubled since 1970, peoples' satisfaction with life has barely changed - and their consumption of antidepressants has skyrocketed.

New York's most prestigious museums and exhibition spaces have announced plans to host a roster of Dutch design projects. In 'Orange Alert: Dutch Design in New York', which is organized by Robert Kloos, The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Fashion Institute of Technology, Museum of Arts and Design, Moss, and Olympus Fashion Week, will spotlight work by the likes of Tord Boontje, Viktor and Rolf, Hella Jongerius, Claudy Jongstra, and Droog Design.

A total thrill: I'm to speak about my new book at the Hay Festival in the UK on 31 May. This event is a gem of the English summer season: a small town in beautiful countryside with pubs, dozens of bookshops, and publishing persons galore. A free pint awaits whoever makes it to my session and mentions this story. Thrill number 2: 'In The Bubble' won against Jack Welch in a Fast Company readers poll and will feature in their May edition.


Jobs | May 26