John Thackara | Essays

Street-level Innovation [February 2005]

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A majority of the population in many Asian cities lives in shantytowns, which make urban planners extremely anxious. These places also contain very few members of the 'creative class'. But although perceived as problem areas by bureaucracies, these areas are also sites of intense social and business innovation: the activities of so-called suitcase entrepreneurs are one of the ways cities like Delhi and Kolkota are so creative. Solomon Benjamin will tell us more about this at Doors 8; he studies the complex relationships among these city locations, and the activities they contain.

A number of location-based workshops will take place in and around Delhi before Doors 8. In Nomadic Banquet (led by Debra Solomon, culiblog.org) guests walk or take auto rickshaws from course to course, and discover the city's street food vendors. The workshop will use Delhi's existing food systems as a point of departure, the idea being to use locative media to enhance the relationship between vendors and hungry people. Juhuu (Juha Huuskonen, juhuu.nu) will do something on VJ-ing in the city. Usman Haque (haque.co.uk/) runs a workshop on open source architecture. Jan Chipchase will show how Video Diaries might be used in service design. And Christian Nold will conduct locative media experiments. Participation in a workshop is by agreement with the workshop leader concerned, and you have to register for Doors 8 first to be eligible to take part. An equal number of places is available for Indian and international delegates.
Enquiries: joost at doorsofperception.com

What might everyday life be like in a sustainable society? How would we work, move, and take care of each other? When Francois Jegou and Ezio Manzini looked around the world for hints of what's to come, the picture that emerged was that of a 'multi-local city...a city in the shape of a network of places endowed with totally new characteristics". At Doors 8, Jegou will run a workshop on project observation.

Marko Ahtisaari, recently appointed Director of Design Strategy for Nokia, together with uber blogger Joichi Ito, a Vice President of Technorati among many other projects, have teamed up to lead a special session (on the evening of Wednesday) on the 'infra of sharing'.

During Project Clinics at Doors 8, experts will evaluate real world projects and help teams refocus their work. The Clinics will feature pairs of live projects - one from the North, one from the South. Groups of experts will provide project leaders with feedback and suggestions. (We organised a similar event in Amsterdam in November).

Someone asked us if Doors 8 is near the tsunami danger zone. No, it is not. The distance from Delhi to Chennai (the Indian city where the tsunami hit hardest) is 2,095 km, or 1,301 miles. That's similar to the distance from Boston to Miami, Amsterdam to Athens, or Tokyo to Beijing. The real danger is that you'll miss this great event and kick yourself so badly that you end up covered in bruises.

I've been asked to give a lecture on 'design in development' at a conference in Amsterdam on 8 March. I'm uneasy about the word 'development': it implies that we advanced people in the North have the right or even obligation to help backward people in the South 'catch up' with our own advanced condition. No, it doesn't make a lot of sense. I'm more in tune with the anonymous author of Bolo Bolo, "P.M", for whom the North is 'wrongly developed'. Standing still is not an option for either North or South, but I'm looking for a better word than development to use in my talk.

A green-coloured book has appeared on the Doors 8 home page. The book is called 'In The Bubble: Designing In A Complex World' and will apparently be published by MIT Press in April. Doesn't it make you sick when people with inside connections get their work plugged in such a flagrant way?


Speaking of infrastructure, I was shocked to read that EnergeticA, Amsterdam's museum of energy generating equipment and lifts, is threatened with closure; there's also a danger that its collection will be broken up. EnergeticA is in an old power station and is full of wonderful old gaugues and machines. Among its exhibits is an excellent example of the Giroud Verifier - a device used (in 1789) to test the purity of gas. I'd like to test this device on Amsterdam's cultural bureaucrats: they have refused to rescue EnergeticA because it is too commercial. www.energetica.nl/Documentatie.html

When the Dutch word for urban planning, "planologie", was first used in 1929, its literal meaning was 'the study of surfaces'. But planners today work in a multi-dimensional context that Luuk Boelens describes as 'a motley assemblage of multiple times and spatial realities'. Urban planning is doomed to fail, says Boelens, when it persists in treating cities as stable units consisting of a centre, a periphery and, around that, a rural area where 'spaciousness and peacefulness are the predominant characteristics'. Boelens is so committed to a multidimensional approach to planning that he wanted to be called a Professor of Fluviology. Check out his inaugural lecture at 'downloads' on his site.

Truck drivers already have to endure supervision by a tachometer, which logs their speeds and driving times on behalf of myriad external authorities. Why not a tachometer for tomatoes, to monitor and make explicit food miles? Food distribution can be tremendously wasteful, but invisibly so.

'Those who enjoy what they do never have to work any more'. An intriguing article by Sybrand Zijlstra in a new Dutch publication called Morf reports that only 2% of those with a degree in art or design consider themselves to be unemployed.

It's sad news that Media Lab Europe (MLE) is to close. MLE was on its third director in as many years when the decision to shut up shop was made - but these individuals were not the reason MLE failed. It was doomed by a business plan written during the tech boom which they had to implement during a tech bust. What will hurt MLE's 100 people most is the knowledge that they were just getting going. It takes years to build momentum in a research institute, and MLE had just started to carve out its own agenda and an independent personality. It's a rotten business that it had to stop right now.

A more cheering message from Denmark: Kaos Pilots in Denmark is to stay open. They lost a big chunk of funding from an unsympathetic government last year, but a new prospectus has been published and bridge funding secured. The plan to make this unique institution, which is like a cross between Burning Man and a b-school, 'Scandinavia's most attractive and modern entrepreneurial program'.

A gorgeous 500 page gold brick of a book called Time In Design has arrived. It is based on a 24-hour conference by that name that took place last year in Rotterdam. Printed on gold paper, the book ranges widely over what the editors call 'cultural lifespan extension - ways of designing and planning products so that their value is sustained and they can be kept in use for a longer time'. Ed van Hinte, designed by Thonik and Sander Boon, produced by the Eternally Yours Foundation, 2004, edit Time In Design.

Am I alone in becoming terminally irritated by the macho posturing that passes for thought in business schools and their journals? An article about service design in Harvard Business Review suggests that the "industrialisation of services" will help overcome "the feeling of disembodiment and depersonalisation that technology has created between companies and customers". The writer implies that the technology causing this disembodiment and depersonalisation somehow deployed itself. But it did not: It was deployed by managers taught to do so at business schools like Harvard's. "Will You Survive The Services revolution" by Uday Karmarkar is in Harvard Business Review June 2004.

For much of 2004, the Doors of Perception conference archive was inaccessible to the majority of our visitors. Some of today's browsers had become so clever, multifunctional, and advanced. that they could no longer access simple textual material,which we hadn't touched in years. Sigh. Well, we've quick-fixed a new architecture and most of you should now be able to re-visit classic moments in our history.

When potential students or project clients ask me which is the best architecture or design school, I usually give them the names of a few institutions but also insist: 'don't take my word for it, get hold of current students or researchers there, and ask them what it's like'. Even that approach is limited: people inside one institution are not ideally placed to compare their own experience with that of their peers in other ones. Citation league tables are a guide, but tell only one part of the story. There's a gap here: 33 million people in the US have rated a product, service, or person using an online rating system - but not, so far as I can see, the big ticket purchase of a design education. Design portal Core 77 hosts a lively forum in which students exchange opinions about design courses and schools - but these exchanges are anecdotal. Is there a ratings system for education out there that I've missed?

"When people talk about innovation in this decade, they really mean design". That was Bruce Nussbaum in the January 4 edition of Business Week. There is still time for your company to sponsor Doors 8. We will use new resources to enhance the Social Innovation Salon, and to provide travel scholarships to grassroots innovators with stories we want to hear. Note: Doors of Perception is a not-for-profit foundation so your sponsorship may well be tax-deductible.

Doors 8 Blog http://www.doors8delhi.doorsofperception.com
New book http://www.thackara.com/inthebubble
Business site http://www.www.thackara.com

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