The Making Of…

May 29, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Jonathan Rowson wrote a couple of days ago on Tim Jackson’s argument that the pursuit of ever more productive labour harms some things that we should value; care, craft & culture. Far from being a lone voice in this, Tim is joined by many, and in this quick post I wanted to highlight the growing number of ‘maker videos’ that illustrate the same message in a more sensory way (turn the sound on before watching!).

Here is the video by Juriaan Booij to accompany the recent Power of Making exhibition at the V&A.

Here is another of Tom Donhou in his workshop in Norwich, where he speaks about his move from a London design consultancy to his bike-building cottage industry:

Lastly, I came across (in a recent Design Observer post with some criticism of the predictability of the genre) this rather nice video of Thomas Forsyth casting a giant brass nut:

Enough to make you put down the mouse and pick up a brazing torch!

Infinity Loop

April 26, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

In Monday’s Guardian Aditya Chakrabortty asks why Apple don’t shift their manufacturing base to the US. He argues that although the costs would rise (apparently from $178.45 to $337.01 for an iPhone 4G according to CRESC analysis), Apple would still make a 46.5% margin on each iPhone. He notes this move would also create social benefits for the US in the form of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, and suggests it would represent ‘enlightened self-interest’ on Apple’s part.

While it would certainly be an example of ‘think different’, I can’t see shareholders supporting a move to knock 25% profit off each iPhone sold. But it might just become viable if they combined it with another idea: adopt a ‘closed loop’ manufacturing model.

My six year old Apple laptop is on its last legs, not so much because the parts are wearing out, but because software moves at a tremendous pace. So the latest version of the Firefox browser no longer supports my system, and Flash video player is discontinued for my type of processor. People don’t expect computers to last forever, in the same way that they expect their mobile phones to become out-dated after a couple of years. But unlike my phone, I own my laptop outright – why can’t I sell it back to Apple, or even rent it from my local Apple store in the first place?

There could be a real financial incentive here (perhaps even sufficient to offset the cost of manufacturing in the US). A recent report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that ‘the cost of remanufacturing mobile phones could be reduced by 50% per device’ if manufacturers adopt a more ‘circular’ model, in which the resources are re-used at the end of the phone’s working life.

Apple will recycle your spent goods, but rather than blend those lovingly designed, assembled and used products into piles of scrap, couldn’t they design for disassembly instead? I was struck with the video (seven minutes long but worth it) that accomplished the launch of Apple’s CNC-milled MacBook a few years ago – I’d love to see a factory that un-makes their old products so beautifully.

Ingenious Networks

April 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Last year we published a pamphlet called How to be Ingenious, which explored the effect of very resource-constrained environments on innovation – how such situations can sometimes cause innovation to thrive but at other times throttle it. We drew on examples of bricolage, technology races between countries, the Indian concept of jugaad, and interviews with people we thought exemplified the ability to devise ingenious solutions in different domains: an expert in theatrical improvisation, a software engineer and a survival instructor.

Given the state of our global economy (and ecology), the topic of resource-constrained – or ‘frugal’ innovation – is enjoying focus in public and private sector. The Innovation Unit’s blog pointed me to David Cameron’s tribute to the ‘Delhi drive’ to succeed: “When you step off the plane in Delhi or Shanghai or Lagos, you can feel the energy, the hunger, the drive to succeed. We need that here”. The Economist proclaim that frugal innovation will ‘change the world’. The subject has attracted recent business books (Jugaad Innovation) and one fascinating magazine (Makeshift).

Examples of ingenuity in the public sector exist, but how could they be better supported? Matthew recently blogged about the importance of clusters and networks to innovation, which are arguably even more critical to successful innovation in resource-constrained environments. Chatting with a colleague about the shift from top-down ‘best practice’ to more devolved practice and more ‘micro-innovation’ to solve problems, we wondered whether an online platform could collect and showcase examples of ingenious or frugal solutions to common problems: perhaps a kind of Instructables for the public sector?

Latest Winners of a Citizen Power Award

April 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

This post was originally posted on Project Dirt, where we are building a cluster for all the community-led environmental projects in Peterborough.

Here at the Citizen Power Peterborough* project we’ve been working with community groups that have ideas which could make Peterborough a greener place. One way we’ve been doing this is by running workshops that allow people to develop their ideas and meet others, then help them apply for a Citizen Power grant that will allow them to test that idea on the ground.

So far we’ve funded further development of a well-loved community garden in Paston and a group who are in the process of assuming responsibility for a section of ancient woodland in Bretton. The latest decisions on funding were made at an event last Friday, when eleven individuals and groups applied for grants to allow them to put their ideas into action.

The three judges were environmental innovators Pam Warhurst of Incredible Edible Todmorden and Hermione Taylor of The DoNation, together with Councillor Sam Dalton – the member of Peterborough’s cabinet with responsibility for environmental issues. The judges heard from each group, who pitched the idea of their project for the chance of a grant.

People developing project ideas at an earlier workshop (photo by Adrian Stone)

Among others, the judges heard from one group who wanted to replicate the success of a Cambridge paint upcycling project in Peterborough. Rather than sending paint straight to landfill, they planned to collect waste paint from local recycling centres, store, sort and redistribute it to community groups and families.

A group of students from Peterborough Regional College presented a plan to convert old unused bicycles into safe and usable bikes. The improved bikes will be available for college students to buy at low weekly cost over the course of a year – making travel a more active and healthy experience, as well as being better for the environment.

The judges also heard from another individual who wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of alternative energy systems like hydrogen power to people at public events. He planned to use an education fuel cell to power a low-energy projector, at the same time demonstrating and explaining the physics behind the post-oil future.

In the end, the judges opted to fund all eleven projects for amounts between £300 and £500 each. Each project will be creating a profile on Project Dirt (if they don’t have one already), so in time you’ll be able to keep track of their progress through the Peterborough cluster on Project Dirt.

Well done to all involved!

* Citizen Power Peterborough is an initiative from the people of Peterborough, the RSA, Peterborough City Council and the Arts Council, East

The full list of winners:

  • Peterborough Repaint Scheme from Kevin and Fiona
  • The Backyard Food Group Shop from Sophie
  • Green Backyard Woodskills from Renny
  • Rake and Bake Gardening Club from Parents United
  • P£anet Bikes from Peterborough Regional College students
  • Pond & Frogs project from Peterborough Regional College students
  • An Introduction to Hydrogen Fuel Cells, HHO and Alternative Energy from Jordan
  • Bike workshop from Dominic
  • Slow Sewing from Lorena
  • The Little Miracles Peterborough Sensory Garden from Michelle
  • The Olive Branch Community Garden & Allotments from Mark

What do Your Jeans Mean to You?

March 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

In 1890, William James wrote that “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes, his friends, his wife and children, his ancestors, his reputation and works, his lands and yacht and bank account…”. Now I don’t have any children or a yacht (or even much of a reputation), but I am a sucker (and an advertising agent’s dream) for the idea that my possessions are linked with my identity.

I suppose the objects I feel this most keenly with include those I use daily – like my ageing Apple Powerbook – things that were created by someone I love, like the cartoon my grandfather drew of rush hour at Glasgow Central Station in the 1920s, and things that have almost become a physical part of me – like my wedding ring. As a product design graduate, when I’m buying a new object I tend to critically assess it, working out how long I think it’ll last. Sometimes my favourite stuff has changed as I’ve got older; my laptop has dents where I’ve dropped it for example, which somehow make it an object more special to me.

Can this process of owner, object and identity be enhanced? A new maker of jeans in Wales think so. Hiut Denim are including what they call a History Tag with each pair of jeans. Each pair of their jeans will have a unique number which you can register on their website. Once registered, you can send photographs of you (presumably wearing your jeans) to the website, amassing a collection of memories over time. They describe it more persuasively than I can:

“…the History Tag is a bit like a blank iPod, but as you add more and more music it becomes more and more interesting. Or in our case, the more memories you add to it, the more fascinating it becomes. So if in the future, your jeans get handed down, or end up in a second hand jeans shop, their memories will go along with them. Your memories won’t be forgotten which we think is good. A good marriage between Luddite and Geek.”

In short, the History Tag is a way to make this connection between owner and object more visible, even enduring when the object passes to another owner. Could ideas like this help us become more satisfied with what we have, reducing our ‘insatiable’ desires? Or on the other hand – will enough customers actually bother to do it? I think it’s a neat idea, but have a sneaking feeling that it’s sustainable in a way that I find just a little bit too sickly sweet…

What do you think, and what are your favourite objects?

GoodbyeOverdraft HelloWallet

February 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Is it just me, or do retail banking services in the UK seem to innovate at the speed of rowing through treacle? From a customer’s perspective, online banking has remained the same for years. My bank (which prides itself on customer service) provides a website that looks pretty much the same as the very first online banking interface I used about ten years ago.

In the past, holding too many bank accounts with different banks and forgetting how much was in each has got me into trouble, but the first I knew of it would be a sneaky letter telling me that my “request for an informal overdraft” had been successful at a cost of fifty quid.

While some services like the US-based Mint offer account aggregation and infographics to help people keep on top of their finances, their competitors struggle to get noticed and fail – particularly on this side of the Atlantic. Wesabe lasted five years, Kublax couldn’t raise funding, and MoneyDashboard doesn’t seem (without having used it) to have the design or user experience to connect with the general population.

There’s more than just innovation for innovation’s sake here. For example at last week’s Benefits Camp, organised by FutureGov to devise ways of helping change and improve the benefits system, personal finance apps able to integrate a person’s benefits were mooted. Research conducted by the Brookings Institution over the last few years notes that (in the US at least) lower income individuals often end up paying over the odds for basic financial services, cars and mortgages.

In fact, in a nice example of being a “think & do” research organisation, Brookings Institution fellow Matt Fellowes later launched HelloWallet, a personal finance service. HelloWallet reckon that “hundreds of billions of dollars unnecessarily lost by middle- and low-income workers because of avoidable financial missteps”. Their service provides tailored advice and tools to help users get out of debt, create budgets and increase their savings.

I guess that my question is: why not here – why is there still no HelloWallet (or Mint) for the UK? Are the problems technical, regulatory, or with customers? Could the RSA do something here? Perhaps someone with more understanding from today’s BarCampBankLondon could shed some light…

Pushing at an Open Door

January 26, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

On Tuesday the Lords discussed on the recently published Restarting Britain: Design Education and Growth from the Design Commission. The transcript of the debate provides interesting reading – partly for the way in which the Lords interpret the word ‘design’, drawing on their personal stories: working as trend spotters in the fashion industry, establishing technical colleges to teach hand skills, or simply owning a Lachasse suit. Below are a few snippets.

The Lords raised the design community’s old grievance that their skills are often misunderstood:

“…many people regard design as largely concerned with aesthetics or with products such as furniture or ceramics. As a result, they regard it as a marginal issue-something that is good and desirable but not essential.”

They affirmed that certain important capabilities are effectively learned through design training:

“Design teaches “a problem-solving approach; the capacity to work collaboratively; interdisciplinary capability; taking into account the participation of the end-user … and the habit, and satisfaction, of creating projects which work … [these qualities] are … hard to acquire from other subjects.”

Most frequently they noted – unsurprisingly given the report’s title – that design is critical to the UK’s economy:

“…our education system needs to be design-linked with technology for the future, for our economy and, most importantly, for jobs”

“One distinguished magazine editor told me that British designers are the creative engine of the French fashion industry. We seem to be able to produce design talent but it appears that we just do not know how to use, develop and nurture it.”

“…we have grown used to hearing it bruited about that the UK’s record of scientific invention and the great strength of its creative industries-product design, architecture, fashion, media, games software, entertainment and advertising-would equip us well enough for the future. However… the uncomfortable truth is that, with a few very honourable exceptions, we have not been good enough at carrying these capabilities through into consistently world-beating products and services.”

The eulogies for design continued, with the accusation implied that the Government was not taking Design-with-a-capital-D sufficiently seriously. Baroness Wilcox hit back on behalf of DBIS:

“While we welcome the commission’s contribution to this important subject, we must dispute the suggestion that the Government do not fully appreciate design as a lever for growth … We do not see it as “whimsical”, which I heard Sir Paul Smith say was the view of design that many people have when they should be looking at the beautiful design of an engine or water bottle. He actually said that design “isn’t all red hair and bare chests” when he was interviewed this morning about the relocation of the Design Museum.”

Leaving the red hair and bar chests aside, her response gave the impression that the Design Commission were pounding on an open door, but the contribution that struck me as most thoughtful was from Baroness Morris:

“I have never known anyone who was against design. There is no army of people out there making a case against it. Sometimes when that happens, because there is no core to the debate, you find that everyone thinks that it is a good thing but no one really fights for it to be as good as it could be.”

She advocated that rather than top-down directives on design education, more demand creation (as exemplified by the Design Council’s Designing Demand programme, I suppose) could be a better route:

“…it is all too easy to say that if we made [design] compulsory for every child in every year of schooling the problems would be solved, but I am not sure that that is the case. The more difficult task is to win the case and make it so good that schools want to teach it and children want to learn it. Sometimes, giving something the hook of compulsion actually makes you take your foot off the accelerator in making it a very good subject.”

Which to me at least, seems like a more designerly approach.

People, Patterns and Problems

January 11, 2012 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society 

Here are some quick thoughts on a new project that I’ve been wondering about – what do readers think?

The sheer complexity of social problems at local and national level can leave public servants, volunteer groups, social entrepreneurs and others feeling powerless. Of course there are a multitude of successful case studies, ‘best practice’ and promising ideas, but it can be difficult (arguably impossible) to adapt ‘solutions’ that have worked in one instance to new contexts with different characteristics.

Dave Snowden and Mary Boone argue in their 2007 article for Harvard Business Review (requires a subscription) that relying on ‘best practice’ is powerless to tackle problems in complex systems. They compare simple, complicated and complex structures and show that unlike the other two, complex systems are dynamic, and comprise large numbers of elements interacting with each other in unpredictable ways. Rather than imposing fixes, Snowden and Boone suggest that trouble-shooters in such a situation must step back and allow potential solutions to emerge.

Their paper is a persuasive argument against best practice and challenges the orthodoxy of ‘evidence based policymaking’ – but I don’t think it means public servants faced with tricky problems in complex systems must always start from a blank sheet.

For example, technical innovators often solve simple and complicated problems by applying past solutions, but also learn from the past in order to solve complex problems. However rather than directly deploying a known fix (likely to fail for the reasons above), they use abstract principles derived from past solutions. This allows past solutions to inform new ideas indirectly.

For example, databases of granted patents (which contain novel solutions to technical problems) were analysed to develop the TRIZ problem-solving system. Similarly, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language presents a typology of architectural principles that allow others to solve problems in the built environment. Design firm IDEO publish Patterns, recording recurring insights gleaned from past design projects as an aide-memoire.

So could a similar set of principles be devised to solve social problems across different contexts? Perhaps through a meta-analysis of policies, programmes and interventions that showed some success (with reference to the characteristics of the environment in which they worked), more abstract pointers could be developed that give public servants a starting point, or some promising lines of enquiry.

Good idea or a silly one? Perhaps such a database and set of principles already exists? Would the methodology work, or should it be done in a different way? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Virtual Day in Court

December 8, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society 

What’s the missing word?

“Good ██████ keeps the user happy, the manufacturer in the black and the aesthete unoffended.” Raymond Loewy

“People think that ██████ is styling. ██████ is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good ██████ is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.” Paola Antonelli

██████ is not the narrow application of formal skills, it is a way of thinking.” Chris Pullman

It is of course – Design. It’s a common complaint (at least from designers) that design is misunderstood as a fundamentally superficial activity, but over the last five years the message is getting through. Design is now being championed in previously unlikely places – particularly on issues of public service reform. As Lord Bichard, previously Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment said:

“Many people think of design in terms of packaging and product design. They don’t realise design tools can go far beyond that, and can cause you to ask serious questions about business vision and service vision. Design is very much addressing the relationship with clients, customers and citizens and is relevant to the public sector, not least around services.”

However there are still fields where good design is unheard and unthought of, though the approach could play a valuable role. In one example, courtrooms across the country are planning enormous change, as the Ministry of Justice makes changes to balance its budget. As the BBC reported last week, one of the primary ideas they are testing is to increase the use of videoconferencing technology in court, allowing witnesses and defendants to give evidence remotely, potentially saving time and money.

Today we publish a report that looks at this exact issue: how could better design improve the productivity and experience of appearing in court? Drawing on an expert seminar hosted earlier this year by the RSA and Cisco during which we heard from academic researchers, legal professionals and designers, we explore how design could improve the development of such ‘Virtual Courts’, which have proved controversial for a number of reasons – some fearing that the technology could undermine the gravitas of courtroom events, or even bring threats to justice.

Our report argues that the planned extensions of the virtual courts pilots should put ‘design thinking’ at their centre to resolve these potential issues, for example by: 

  • Involving all court users (magistrates, defendants, interpreters, solicitors and more) to generate ideas to improve stakeholders’ experience of new technologies in court
  • Rapidly testing ideas with court users, prior to pilots, to reduce the risk of failure further down the line – as well as suggesting more ideas to improve other parts of the system
  • Embedding design thinking into the organisational culture of agencies in the criminal justice system to encourage on-going innovation

The full report is available for download or reading online in the Design section of the RSA’s website.

The iPod of Thermostats

October 26, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society 

It’s a hideous cliché for product companies to say that their product is “the iPod of…” breadmakers, shopping trolleys, remote controls or whatever they make (though just another indication of how Apple have raised the profile of good design). But one product launch that took place yesterday had more right to use this title than most. Tony Fadell was a senior executive of Apple’s iPod division until 2008, but has more recently started Nest, a product development company.

Nest’s first product is the iPod of (sorry) thermostats. It’s simple, intelligent (its main selling point is that it ‘learns’ from the way you live) and wouldn’t look out of place in a Foster + Partners home (if they made homes). It’s an interesting example because thermostats are exactly the kind of product that are traditionally heavy on features and light on desirability and ‘human interface’.

Developing the last point, cognitive scientist and designer Don Norman used thermostats in his Design of Everyday Things (one of the inspirations for Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge) to illustrate how the human interface of a thermostat often fails to match a homeowner’s mental model of their central heating system. Norman writes that people often think of the thermostat as either a valve (in which turning the dial up increases the amount of heat flowing through the system) or a timer (in which turning the dial up makes the system respond more quickly). Both are wrong, and both illustrate a problem with how people understand thermostats (for more see this post from Rattle Research and this post in response by Dan Lockton).

Why does this matter? Well, while possessing products that are well-designed might fulfil some of our desires, it also has an impact on big social and environmental problems. ‘Space heating’ is the highest percentage (61%) of domestic energy consumption in the UK (domestic energy is itself 32% of the UK’s overall) and with sky-high energy prices, more falling into fuel poverty & climate change, it becomes more important than ever that we can clearly understand and manage the energy we use. The way that we interact with our home’s central heating system directly affects our energy consumption.

Nest seem to be motivated by trends like these. They reckon that thermostats control about 50% of a US household’s energy bill, and that a well-designed and properly programmed device will be an attractive proposition to consumers. We’ll wait and see I guess (there’s price premium of about $100 more than competitors), but it could be another example of great product design not only making consumers happier, but also helping to solving social problems. As Nest’s website says: “Technology should be about more than newest, loudest, prettiest. It should make a difference”.

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