John Thackara | Essays

Quality Time At High Speed [April 2004]

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.

Today's high speed train (HST) travel is a marvel of speed and profligate resource consumption. It is transforming the experience of space and time of 13 million travellers who already use it each year - and of citizens who live in places where the trains deign to stop. Enormous infrastructure projects are under way, but we have not made space for reflection on the cultural consequences of it all. To fill this gap, the High Speed Network Platform, an association of 15 European regions, and Urban Unlimited, a planning firm, have asked Doors of Perception to organise a cultural expert workshop on the theme, "quality time". The aim is to develop project ideas for services and situations that connect people, cultural resources, and places, in new combinations. The workshop is full, but we'll bring you the results in a later edition.

The maximum speed of the HST right now is 300-350 km/hour (200+ mph). It will end up at 500 (300 mph). At these speeds a train needs eight kilometers to stop with the brakes full on. If another train is approaching, you need 16 km. This is why train drivers have to rely on electronic sight instead of looking at the world with their own eyes. (Rens Holslag told us about this at Doors 4 on "speed").

The consultants charged with finding a way to modernize Britain's crumbling west coast railway line thought they'd hit on a magic bullet: a white-hot software solution - "blocking" - that would allow the huge task to be completed cheaply. There was just one problem: blocking had never worked in the real world. A Guardian writer, James Meek, spent a whole year investigating the saga of "incompetence, greed and delusion" behind Britain's biggest public works project. It's a terrific piece of journalism about a complex subject - and a salutary reminder that the integration of cyberspace and real space will always be fraught with more problems than technology marketers acknowledge.

The Bonholm Rooster, a superior kind of chicken, is a star product on "Food Island". So is the legendary white salmon, a ghostly creature that passes quietly by this misplaced Danish island (it sits between Sweden and Poland) only in winter months. This desolate but fertile spot was the location for the final workshop in Spark!, a service design project in response to the question: when traditional industries disappear from a locality, what is to take their place? (Nexo, on Bonholm, is one of dozens of Baltic and European fishing ports where industrial fishing has become unsustainable). A conference in Oslo, an 5 and 6 May, will review the lessons learned in this experiment, reflect on the concept of "territorial capital", and begin the design of new projects for the future. Innovation experts Charles Leadbeater, Ezio Manzini and Bert Mulder (plus your correspondent) will lead discussions at the event, which will be run on along Open Space lines. A few places remain open for participation by interested designers and place developers. It's free, but you have to register before 20 April.

The same goes for the next Doors East. A week of workshops and encounters will take place in India in February or March next year; we will announce place and dates to this mailing list.

Conceived as the first on a series of "epicentre" stores that would "revolutionize the luxury experience", Prada's $40 million Manhattan flagship, designed by Rem Koolhaas, has turned into a "high-priced hassle". The March edition of Business 2.0 chronicles a series of failures in the store's state-of-the-art technology: fitting room doors that fail to open; touch-screens that remain blank; custom-made PDAs that don't get used. Although the words high-tech hubris spring to mind, we should probably thank Pravda for turning themselves into a gadget test bed. We also sympathize with their lust for automation: Prada shop assistants are usually so obnoxious that even faulty touch screens would be preferable. But we hope the debacle is not blamed on Ideo, who did a lot of the interaction design. The New York store has been inundated by far more visitors than expected, and it sounds as if delicate kit has simply been overwhelmed. Had Koolhaas consulted museum professionals before pressing ahead, they'd have told him that only industrial-strength interfaces survive the depredations of a cultural public.

One way to hear more about the Prada story is to head for Vienna. Ideo's CEO, Tim Brown, is closing keynote speaker at the world's leading forum on human-computer interaction, CHI. (It stands for Computer-Human Interaction). 24-29 April, Vienna.

When rich retirees in Palm Beach shut themselves away in gated communities, the rest of us mock. But a gated community has now appeared in liberal Amsterdam. A tunnel under the Rijksmuseum, one of the most important arteries in the city for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, has been closed in a high-handed way for a five-year rebuilding programme. The retreat of official culture from the public domain seems unstoppable.

Richard Florida calls them "the creative class". Former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich called them "symbolic analysts". Management guru Peter Drucker dubbed them "knowledge workers". British policy makers talk about the "cultural industries". The US Department of Labor Statistics lumps them all together as "information". Whatever the definition, there's a lot of them about - 30 percent of the US workforce, by Richard Florida's reckoning. This newsletter has long been uneasy about the concept, mainly because of the implication that anyone who is not a "creative" is not, well, creative. A new survey of boom towns in North America attributes these cities' success to the presence of the creative class - public relations specialists, communication analysts, advertising sales agents, and the like. The survey is probably most useful as a checklist of places the rest of us uncreatives - who do "routine commoditized tasks" - can avoid like the plague.

The average tourist uses as much water in 24 hours as a villager in a developing country uses in 100 days. Before we even get there, our flights add to the 600 million tons of carbon emissions that come from aircraft each year. If you multiply those indicators by rising tourist numbers, the result is yet another grim eco trend. In 1950, there were about 25 million international tourist visits; by 2020,1.6 billion of us will go lemming-like on our hols each year - carbon emitting and water guzzling as we go. The good news is that many of us wish to travel lightly: eco-tourism already accounts for about one in five trips worldwide. As with "organic" food, tour operators tend to play fast-and-loose with definitions of "eco" - so before you book, check out these informative sites.

"The city as interface" is a core theme at ciber@rt, a new media fest in Bilbao that features artistes Blast Theory, Parasite, and Simone Michelin from Brazil. Media artists do a great job helping us look at the world in new ways, but we sometimes wish they would just do it, and not talk about it. The conference programme threatens us with computational sociology, "neuronal communities of post-modern art" and "synaptic cartography". We pity whoever has to translate that stuff into Catalan. Bilbao, 23 to 30 April 2004.http://www.ciberart-bilbao.net/

Mind you, engineers can be worse. An event called Eye For Wireless offers, for a mere $1,200, to teach you "How To Build WiMax into Your WiFi and Hotzone Over WLAN Strategy". We often wonder if the world can absorb any more knowledge about mobile and wireless technology. To judge by the flood of announcements we receive, researchers are like hamsters racing round the insetde of a wheel: their energy and output are impressive, but the purpose of it all remains unclear, unappetising, or sinister. Another event, MobiSys, promotes Location-Aware Mobile Advertising, a System to Detect Greedy Behavior in Hotspots, a Sensor Network-Based Countersniper System, an Electronic Shepherd, and "Hood: A Neighborhood Abstraction for Sensor Networks". Mobisys, June 6-9, Boston. Eye For Wireless, San Francisco, April 22 - 23.

There's too much visual communication in the world, but if you're one of the people responsible, here's a chance to improve its quality and originality. The International Biennale of Graphic Design in Brno is off the commercial track (the site barely mentions the word "creative") but there are always surprises and delights to be found among the show's 5,000 posters, books, magazines, newspapers and websites.16-17 June, Brno, Czech Republic.

"The complexity of large-scale computing systems is beginning to overwhelm software developers and system administrators". IBM says so, and it should know. An obvious solution would be to stop deploying such systems - but then they'd go out of business. IBM's Plan B is to create "systems that configure and manage themselves under human supervision---an approach often called autonomic computing". IBM concede, in an aside, that the introduction of autonomic computing "will change the relationships between systems and people" and that "not a lot is known about this kind of transformation in the human-computer relationship". This seminar is for people IBM perceives to be "stakeholders in the success of autonomic computing" - human science researchers, computer science researchers, IT architects, product developers, outsourcing practitioners, and (of course) consultants. Others likely to be affected by a "transformation in the human-computer relationship" - namely, the rest of humanity - are not mentioned. Conference on the Human Impact and Application of Autonomic Computing Systems (CHIACS2), April 21, 2004, IBM T. J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, New York.

The business model is sublime: first you make the world too complex to understand, then you organize conferences to figure out what to do next. Here is another complexity event, again for computer scientists, this time in Bath, England. The programme laments that "we are increasingly faced with having to understand what is often termed ëcontext". Is it possible that we have a complexity problem because computer scientists put "context" in inverted commas - as if it were a distant land, like Xanadu? Bath, UK, July 12/13

A seminar on "Developing Social Brains", at the Salk Institute, features research into neuroscience, machine learning, robotics, and developmental psychology. One of the sessions is entitled "Learning to Interact with Humans" - so don't be surprised if the guy sitting next to you has metal legs, and bleeps. Salk Institute, San Diego, California , October 20-22.

By the age of three, a professional person's child will have had 700,000 encouragements addressed to it, and only some 80,000 discouragements.(Source: Polly Toynbee, in The Guardian, reviewing Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Betty Hart and Todd R Risley, Brookes Publishing). Good: so we can tell the little dears, without causing them undue trauma, not to make the world so complex that we can't understand or fix it.

What is a design metropolis? Should a city aspire to become one? This symposium casts a critical eye over the policies and programs of MontrÈal, Saint-…tienne and other aspirant design cities, and will compare them with established international design capitals. FranÁois Bare (France) and Saskia Sassen (United States) are among the keynote lecturers; (their number also includes your correspondent). The event will be a small-ish affair for municipal public servants and elected officials responsible for urban, cultural and economic development and procurement policies, government officials responsible for design and innovation policies, and people in design organizations responsible for strategy development. The New Design Cities, October 6 and 7, 2004, Canadian Centre for Architecture, MontrÈal, Quebec.

We're proud of our city. A poll of Amsterdammers asked: how do you go to work? The answers were: public transport: 26.7%, Car: 28.3%, Bicycle: 29.8 %, Walk: 4.8 %, Scooter: 2.7 %, "I don't work": 7.7 %. (We do. We walk)

Hong Kong will launch a "DesignSmart" initiative with the creation of a HK$250million (25 million euros) fund. The money will be used to nurture start-up design ventures and for training. Industrialist Victor Lo - Hong Kong's Mr Design - says the initiative also includes setting up a Design and Innovation Centre to attract design talent from different places. Lo says the HK authorities will also extend a profits tax deduction to research and development expenses on design-related activities.

Alyce Santoro has created a textile woven from 50 percent pre-recorded audiotape and 50 percent cotton. This material has the texture of a lightweight, shiny canvas with a subtle metallic lustre. The audiotape retains its magnetism throughout the weaving process, and the fabric's sonic potential can be revealed by running a tape head along its surface. Yardage of Sonic Fabric is also being made available to socially-conscious industrial, interior, fashion, and accessories designers. If you have to ask "why?", you're not who it's for. For more information:

Product development is changing. Many intangible services now include physical products, and visa versa. Many of Europe's key researchers belong to the thematic network that is organising this event. 3 and 4 June 2004 , Concert Noble, Brussels, Belgium. http://www.suspronet.org

Convivio, the European network for people-centric computing, is organising an interaction design summer school in Split. The theme is: Communities in Transition: Reinventing Hospitality. Convivio is a European Commission-funded network of sixteen research institutions and companies from nine countries (including Doors of Perception).
As a taster, here are some pictures from last year's event in Rome.

A "space capsule" at Milan's Salone del Mobile has been furnished by design researchers at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. There's a classic Olivetti Lettera typewriter that sends email; interactive wallpaper which, when touched, enables you to give commands to your household appliances; an inflatable room for you to leave digital audio graffiti in; and an old Fiat-500 car that "downloads" MP3 files when you fill it up with fuel. 15 -19 April 2004, Milan Triennale, Palazzo dell'Arte. The opening do is at 7pm on 14 April.

Exhibits from the estate of Stanley Kubrick, who died in 1999, are on display for the first time at the Film and Architecture museums in Frankfurt. The exhibition gives special emphasis to Kubrick's innovative use of technical equipment; devices like the steadicam are explained. There's also a lecture series, "Kubrick is Light".. Until July 4, 2004.

Is there any difference between a product designed by a computer, and one devised by a designer? In conjunction with arts venue HYPERLINK "http://www.vleeshal.nl/"de Vleeshal (the meat hall) Premsela, the Dutch design organization, has organized an exhibition called 'Alternate' to find out. Among the exhibitors is The Institute of Artificial Art - an organization that consists of machines, computers, algorithms, and human persons. The overall concept of Alternate is by Dingeman Kuilman; the show is designed by (but not in) Concrete.

"When cities spread out, so do waistlines and rear ends". For proof visit Charleston, West Virginia, or Fort Wayne, Indiana: these cities have North America's highest obesity rates and lowest population density - both less than 3,000 people per square mile. Cities where people drive everywhere contribute significantly to obesity. (Dan Ackman in Forbes spotted these reports in the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion).

An interest in decentralization brings people together for Supernova, a California conflab. The heavier-hitting speakers include Ray Ozzie (CEO, Groove Networks); Esther Dyson (Chairman, EDventure Holdings) Lawrence Lessig (Professor, Stanford Law School) and uber-blogger Clay Shirky. Someone called Loic Le Meur, who sounds like a spammer, is in fact CEO of Ublog. June 24-25, 2004 Santa Clara, CA.

In 1989, a Pan-European Picnic along the Austrian-Hungarian border induced events leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. On May 1, when ten new countries join the European Union, a two-day electronic media arts and culture picnic - in and around the city of Novi Sad, Serbia - will explore the changing cultural and artistic landscape within and beyond this new conglomerate of competing cultures. Hosted by kuda.org (motto: "free internet as free beer") in collaboration with V2,Institute for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam. This has got to be the black tea shirt event of the year. April 30 - May 01, Novi Sad, Serbia.

"Have you designed an interactive system that is ground-breaking, fun, unexpected?", an email asks. If you fancy yourself as a member of the digger design avant-garde, then enter this competition. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1-4 August 2004.

Do websites burn? Someone should take a flame-thrower to the programme text of this event in Sheffield: the art speak is so turgid that we dare not even repeat it here in jest. (Oh all right, here's a sample: "Fostering our imaginings of ecological selfhood"). But behind the verbiage lurk some interesting speakers - among them Malcolm McCullough who, in his new book, Digital Ground, proposes a theory of place for interaction design. Sheffield Hallam University, 6-8 April 2004

"We are the true clowns" say the organisers of OFFF , a festival of experimental audio and unusual video in Valencia. Clowns maybe, but it looks intriguing. July 1 to 3, Valencia, Spain.

The beta version of a searchable database covering "next-generation learning design" has been launched. Check it out - but don't send your comments to us, send them to:

We happy to report that Simon Vinkenoog, the opening speaker at Doors 5 on "play", has become the Netherlands' "Dichter des Vaderlands" - a kind of poet laureate - after an internet election. He told us at Doors 5 that "in any flourishing, living civilization, above all in archaic cultures, poetry has a vital function that is both social and liturgical. All antique poetry is at one and the same time ritual, entertainment, artistry, riddle making, doctrine, persuasion, sorcery, soothsaying, prophecy, and competition". We're not sure what it means, but this poetry boom thing is quite fascinating.

Ravensbourne College will grow into a major UK centre for digital content design when it occupies a big new building near London's Dome in a few years' time. The eminent film-maker Jeremy Barr, a professor at the school, calls the project "Gone Doming". In order to get the next generation of students at the college thinking right, free software guru Richard Stallman is to give a keynote lecture. Thursday 20 May 14:00h till 16:30h, Amphitheatre, Ravensbourne College.

Marvin Minsky is one of the world's leading authorities in artificial intelligence. He is striving right now (our email states) "to impart common-sense reasoning capabilities to machines". We can't help thinking that imparting common sense to computer scientists is a higher priority - but then we're not at MIT. Design, Computing and Cognition, 17-21 July 2004, MIT, Cambridge, Mass.

On August 31, 1935, Aleksei Stakhanov, a thirty-year-old miner working at the Central Irmino Mine in the Donets Basin, hewed 102 tons of coal during his six-hour shift. This amount represented fourteen times his quota, and within a few days the feat was hailed by Pravda as a world record. Anxious to celebrate individual achievements in production that could serve as stimuli to other workers, the party launched the Stakhanovite movement. Stalin captured the upbeat mood with the phrase, "Life has become better, and happier too" - words that later served as the motto of the movement. It's small surprise, then, that the authors of Why is construction so backward? were not best pleased when we described their new book (in our February newsletter) as "Stakhanovite". Their book criticizes the low rate of production of new houses in the UK - but this, they tell us, is an attack on the lack of innovation in the building industry which we (Doors) should be pleased about. They have a point: the widespread replacement of energy-wasting old buildings by prefabricated, energy-saving new ones would indeed help the environment more than the skin-deep conversions that feature in design programmes on television. But Why is construction so backward? is deliberately provocative on environmental issues; it insists, for example, that "architects should not fear energy use (and) there is no reason to rush, like lemmings, to reduce energy demand". The authors argue that energy is in limitless supply, and that human beings can design and produce their way out of environmental trouble if, indeed, we are in any. Their website also lambastes the Precautionary Principle. This states (we paraphrase) "don't take a design step until you are confident that it will not make things worse" - but for the book's authors, the Precautionary Principle is "a serious attack on human daring and development". We recommend the book highly as an antidote to the political correctness that can afflict us all - but we still say Aleksei would have agreed with most of what it says.

We don't know how many Doors conference veterans live in or within reach of Toronto, but we're sure all of you would want to know that Ivo Janssen, our almost resident master pianist, is playing in your city on 6 May. Ivo is playing music by Simeon ten Holt as part of a Dutch Music Week organised in conjunction with CBC. It's at 8pm on 6 May 2004, Jane Mallett Theatre, St.Lawrence Centre, Toronto. (The concert is not yet online, but it's happening, we promise).

Jobs | May 26