John Thackara | Essays

Creativity and the City [November 2003]

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.

2003 has been an uphill year for many of us, but October was buzzy here in the Netherlands. Three events lifted our spirits with bursts of innovation and optimism: Creativity and the City, Time in Design, and E-Culture Fair. We hereby thank their hard-working organisers.

In December you have a tough choice to make: Doors East in Bangalore, or The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva. The latter event brings together Heads of State, Executive Heads of United Nations Agencies, Industry Leaders. They will adopt a Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action that will address the whole range of Issues Related to the Information Society. If you're a top-down, capital letters kinda guy, head for Geneva. Bottom-up types, and devotees of the edge effect, may prefer to join us in Bangalore (see next story).

We do not expect many Heads of State to come, but Doors is "the closest event the design community has to the World Economic Forum" - or so writes Hugo Manassei, a wise programme director at NESTA in the UK. (He sent us this utterly solicited testimonial following our request last month). Other reasons your boss should send you to Doors East are: The industrial revolution was launched in part by knowledge about textile production brought from India to Europe. The same can happen with knowledge about daily-life services brought from India, today. Doors is a lens which helps companies look at the world in new ways. We explore next-generation service and product concepts, and develop exploitable insights, tools, and knowledge. India is a world-class incubator of new business models. The "Public Call Office" concept enabled hundreds of millions of people to gain telephone access, within a few years. Whatís coming next? Indiaís software companies are determined to move up the value chain, globally. They need help to do that. Who is going to help them? Grassroots innovators in India combine bible-age lifestyles with cutting edge technology. How did they do that? Doors East led to "brilliant insights into the internet and sustainability" (Economic Times of India). Only 1,100 of 265,000 plant species have been thoroughly studied. Of these, probably 40,000 have medicinal or nutritional applications for humans. Ethnoecology, the study of this locally situated knowledge, will feature in the keynote talk by Susantha Goonatilake, author of Toward a global science: mining civilizational knowledge.

What kinds of value reside in a locality? What tools are available for mapping communication flows, and for the notation of local knowledge? What are the success factors for design projects in real-world situations? If your project contains answers to any of these questions, tell us about it. We are looking for best-practice case studies, and exploitable insights, for the Spark! conference in Oslo next May. The event is for research and project managers in postgraduate design and architecture education, together with their clients in cities and companies. Spark! is a project of Cumulus, Europe's association of design and art universities, together with Doors of Perception. The conference, which is hosted by the University of Oslo's School of Architecture, is on 5 and 6 May, 2004, Oslo. The conference website and call for papers is at:

Psychogeography is "the study of the effects of geographical settings on the mood and behaviour of the individual". Guy Debord, founder of the Situationist International, invented psychogeography during the 1950s - and a big revival is under way today. Psychogeographers who gathered in New York recently, for the first Psy-Geo-Conflux, conducted experimental walks using computer code, decks of cards, and other systems for navigation. There followed an event in Riga, called Re-public, in which artists intervened in cafés, railway stations, parks, and pharmacies, on the city's outskirts. The opening event, Moskovskij bazar, was organized by the bio.codes group with participation of Ventspils Roma Gypsies, hip-hop DJs, graffiti artists and break-dancers. The Re-public catalogue, Psychogeographic Guide Of Riga, may be obtained from:

Traditional city planning divides up city into different zones for different activities - industrial, residential, commercial. You go to those zones to do those things. Wireless networks, that come into being on an as-needed basis, seem set to modify the ways activities "take place" in a city. A project in Dublin called DAWN (Dublin Ad-hoc Wireless Network) is a modular system that includes instant messaging, web and phone applications, MMS, and email image attachments.

HP's Jo Reid, project leader of Mobile Bristol, talked at E-culture Fair about "drag and drop mediascapes" - a digital canvas over the whole city. "As you walk through the city, a diverse range of digital experiences such as soundscapes. Games, and interactive media, bring the city alive".

"The problems with money stem entirely from how conventional money is normally issued - it is created by central banks in limited supply. It's scarce, and hard to get. And we know where it's from: it's from "them", not us"". We like the sound of Open Money, a means of exchange freely available to all: it seems to be an internet-enabled version (finally) of Local Economy Trading Schemes (Lets). The open money project includes a community currencies server program, cybercredits There's also the intent to develop an open money kernel - a core set of text files, administration tools and software systems.

One of the hits of E-Culture Fair was Glenn Otis Brown's talk on Digital Rights Management. Brown, executive director of Creative Commons, showed a flash movie called "Get Creative" that manages to make the subject of copyright - and its alternatives - entertaining. Check it out.

"The most significant lesson is the importance of going off-message". So argues David Weinberger, Howard Dean's internet advisor, of the first internet-enabled presidential campaign. "This is a tough thing for businesses -- and political campaigns -- to learn. We've been trained for decades to think that marketing is all about pounding a single idea into the warm, mushy brains of consumers (but) we're eager to hear some real voices, and we want to do much of the talking for a change". We will not know for a few months how well net effects will work for Dean, but the quantity and geographical spread of local meetings - organised through meetup.com - are impressive to see.

The aims of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology for Successful Aging are laudable: "promote independence and quality of life for older people with disabilities through technology - devices that can make everyday tasks easier to complete". Our only problem with assistive technology is that we'd prefer to be looked after by assistive people - of whom there will be seven billion or more in the world by the time your correspondent reaches retirement age. The people vs. tech debate may well surface at a big Europe-US conference in DC in December, on aging, disability and independence.

Data: speak to me! New research on the use of sound to display data, monitor systems, and provide enhanced user interfaces for computers and virtual reality systems, are the focus of a meeting in Sydney next July. We hear that papers will cover psychology, psychoacoustics, media, design, music, sound design, medicine, and a plethora of other application domains. 6-9 July 2004, Sydney Australia

We interact with devices and systems 150 times a day but, until recently, the designers of these interactions have been too busy to reflect on their own process. To put this right, Interaction Design Institute Ivrea has organised a symposium on the theoretical foundations of interaction design. The meeting, which is curated by Sebastiano Bagnara of Milan Polytechnic University, brings together theorists from cognitive psychology, social psychology, discourse analysis, linguistics, semiotics, computer science, and the science of materials, together with practising interaction designers. Key speakers include Cristiano Antonelli (Italy), Maria Brandimonte (Italy), Cristiano Castelfranchi (Italy), Gillian Crampton Smith (Italy), Giorgio De Michelis (Italy), Pelle Ehn (Sweden), Yrjo Engestrom (Finland), Walter Gerbino (Italy), Charles Goodwin (USA), Bill Moggridge (USA), Thomas Moran (USA), Donald A. Norman (USA), Andrew Ortony (USA) and Gianfranco Soldati (Switzerland).

Linnaean Society events cover everything from plant and animal diversity to remote sensing and in vitro fertilisation. Their next meeting is about colour in the natural and engineering worlds. An intriguing programme includes papers on: "Newton, Goethe and the Process of Perception"; " Colour in Heraldry and Flags"; "The Colour of Cancer"; and "Traditional textiles in Estonia, their cultural influences, and in particular the significance of the colour red". Nov 21-22, 2003, London.

Rob van Kranenberg writes with news that Marlin Mickle, a University of Pittsburgh professor, says his new PENI tag has "the ability to self-destruct". This, says Mickle, answers privacy concerns. The so-called kill function in an RFID tag will allay the fears of consumers, confirms an industry newsletter, High Tech Aid. What we want to know is the following: which self will these tags destruct if they all go off when you're wearing them?

Doors of Perception is participating in Transmediale, a three-week exhibition in Berlin about the changing perception of space and time enabled by interactive and media art works." The ideologies of the 20th century and their illusions about a perfect world are obsolete" says our invitation, which nonetheless invites us to "Fly UtopiaÖan excursion into the utopias in our age determined by media and technologies". 31 January to 2 February 2004, Berlin.

We warmly welcome the new chairman of the Doors of Perception Foundation, Walter Amerika. Walter was until recently director of FHV-BBDO, one of the Netherlands' leading marketing services and strategy consulting companies. The Foundation's other board members are Christiaan Oberman and Ben Pluijmers.

Prime Minster Luns from The Netherlands, on meeting JFK for the first time, is asked by the Prez if he has any hobbies. "Oh yes", replies Luns, "I fock horses". "I beg your pardon?'" says Kennedy. "Yes, paarden", Luns confirms. (Paarden fokken, in Dutch, mean horse breeding. Thanks to Viktor Frˆlke for this golden oldie).

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