Thinking beyond the classroom

Some good news for a Friday morning: Despite our Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the Pupil Design Awards pilot falling just short of target (we had £8,000+ pledged), our Academies have agreed to support this pilot project using their own resources, meaning we are able to go ahead! We have begun working with teachers to transform three RSA Student Design Award briefs, and work with pupils will begin in April.

Mollie Courtenay, who was shortlisted for the RSA Student Design Awards in 2013, is one of our alumni who is keen to get involved. Mollie studied graphic design at Kingston University and graduated with a first in 2013. She has recently taken the new position of Junior Designer in the Design Council Challenges team who use design to tackle big social issues, working on a variety of projects including the Knee High Design Challenge. Here she reflects on her own experience of the RSA Student Design Awards, and why introducing social design thinking into schools will inspire pupils to think beyond the classroom…

EXIF_IMGMollie carrying out testing and reseach for her RSA Student Design Award ‘Social Insurance’ shortlisted entry

“Yes Miss! I believe introducing the RSA Pupil Design Awards to schools would offer a practical method of inspiring pupils to think beyond the classroom. How incredible would it be if young people began to build and use their skills and imagination to tackle real social issues?

My personal reflection of school, is that it could often make me feel like one of many others; year by year I was in the same class, in the same uniform, answering the same exam questions. Even when it came to Design and Technology, the end product was always prescribed; each of us designing perfume packaging or a place mat.

The Pupil Design Award project briefs would offer an opportunity for pupils to embark on an individual journey, to create a project that provides unique insight, and to design an innovative solution to a challenging question. There is no single correct answer with these briefs, which is often why they exist and why they are so exciting.

I took on a RSA Student Design Awards brief at University, as I was motivated by the realness of the issue I was designing for (encouraging safer driving among young drivers). At one point I remember I had covered a whole wall in my flat with my research. When my flatmate got home, he looked at me as if to say- ‘er, are you alright..?’ I was great – I had found something that I was interested in, and discovered the issue I wanted to solve through design.

I am currently working on a project that focuses on the development of children in their early years, up to the age of five. When working in this environment you can’t think about design in a way that produces shiny, perfect and one off things.

One of the most important factors when designing for society is to really understand the issue or problem you are trying to solve, whilst building empathy for people and situations you are working with. It is unlikely that this can be done without spending time with people where they are. This means getting out and about, learning from many sources, observing, monitoring, questioning, recording and interpreting. Having an agenda and going out to fulfill it.

Giving pupils an opportunity to take responsibility for their own project is a fantastic way of encouraging individuality and creativity. Unlike some school subjects, these design projects allow for mistakes; and that’s where the really interesting learning happens. It’s so important to continually look back and challenge your own thinking and not rely on your own assumptions.

I am super excited for the launch of this project and hope that schools can see the value in adding it to their existing curriculum.”

If, like Mollie, you want to get involved in the Pupil Design Awards, there are plenty of ways to do so!

  • Become a mentor or judge   We are looking for a handful of designers to help mentor the pupils through the briefs. 
  • Donate a prize  This could be an industry placement or some design-related goodies – we’re open to suggestions! 
  • Help take the project UK-wide    We are already looking for other schools and especially sponsors to take this project beyond our Academies.

If you would like to get involved, or receive project updates, please get in touch –

The (em)Power(ment) to (Co-)Create

February 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Take a look around you. Wherever you are there will almost certainly be something that has been designed. The buying and selling of these objects, the way they are made and the people and raw materials that are involved in the making build economies and develop societies. The design industry is a key part of this loop. With around 11% of the UK workforce in our sector, we play a key role in the economy and account for 7% of GVA, with a third of this coming from consumer-related spending (ref).

The designer’s role of adding value to products is fundamental to the markets. But sadly this industry, like many others, is only slowly waking up to some of the negative impacts of this system: the over extraction of resources, the exploitation of workforces and growing toxic waste streams. The staggering fact is that, according to EU research, 80% of a product’s environmental impacts are decided during the design stage. Ultimately our decisions at the very beginning stages on material specification or assembly process will be instrumental in determining the product’s lifetime in use and method of disposal (whether re-use, recycling or landfill), but our industry seems to have very little understanding of this. Why is this so?

To understand the challenges around system change you need to go right back to the beginning. Everything around you once had a written brief given to the design team to tell them what they needed to consider. These design briefs could include quite specific instructions which, in summary, might say: ‘We want a kettle design that is weighted so it can be held comfortably by an elderly arthritic person; is able to boil two cups of water in less than twenty seconds; uses minimum metal in the moulding; and retails at £12.99’. Or, it may say something about the aesthetic outcome: ‘We need a 50 page full colour report that makes our company look youthful and innovative’. However, you can absolutely guarantee that a brief will not include phrases like: ‘This product is required to be designed for a second life’, ‘must be able to have all its raw materials fully recoverable to their maximum value’, or ‘must not in any way be diverted to landfill in the first 5 years of its life’.

Imagine if it did. Consider how different our products would look, how differently we would use them, and how much easier it would be to recapture the materials. It would radically change the way our products were made. It would require a lot more collaboration and knowledge transfer around the extended supply chain, with those that see the problems at the end of life (ie waste disposal or materials recovery experts) telling those that potentially build in those problems at the beginning (ie designers) what they are experiencing. Design would not be so focused on the initial sell but would extend its vision far into a product’s potential second or third ‘life’, or even towards a ‘circular system’ of continuous re-use. To get to this point, the whole process of design, manufacture, recovery and ultimately re-manufacture would need a complete re-think.

Over the last 18 months The Great Recovery project at the RSA has been investigating the role of design in the ‘circular economy’. We have been building networks and using the creativity of the design industry to help understand why current design does not include ‘closed loop’ principles (where product ingredients can be recovered back into raw materials through re-use, industrial symbiosis and recycling). Our programme of public workshops and networking events set in the industrial landscapes of recovery and recycling facilities, disused tin mines, and materials research labs worked with people across all sectors mapped in our circular network model. Print

Participants went through a process based on the design principles of ‘Tear Down’ – where you literally pull products off the recycling pile and take them apart to understand how they are currently designed, manufactured and recovered/disposed, and then ‘Design Up’ – a process of rebuilding and redesigning the products around the four design models for circularity mapped by the programme: longevity, leasing/service, re-use in manufacture and material recovery. TGR_diagram_redraw_130425

This first phase of work supported the competition calls from the Technology Strategy Board on ‘New Designs for a Circular Economy’. These calls invested up to £1.25m into a range of feasibility studies proposed by business-led groups that included collaborative design partners.

The lessons that came out of these initial investigations underlined some key issues:

(i) the role of design is crucial to circularity but very few designers understand or think about what happens to the products and services they design at the end of their life;

(ii) new business models are needed to support the circular economy;

(iii) the ability to track and trace materials is key to reverse engineering our manufacturing processes and closing the loop;

(iv) smarter logistics are required based on better information;
(v) building new partnerships around the supply chain and knowledge networks is critical.

The inaugural Resource show sees the launch of The Great Recovery’s next phase of work in a two-year programme of work that will bring together materials science innovators, design experts and end-of-life specialists to explore the interrelationships and key levers in the manufacturing process. In a series of investigatory workshops we will be seeking further understanding around the challenges and obstacles faced by businesses and members of the circular network when considering the shift towards circularity. We need the problem holders, ideas creators and collaborators to get involved and share their resource knowledge.

In a move to nurture disruptive thinking across the network, The Great Recovery plans to develop short-term immersive design residencies that can set up inside recovery facilities around the UK. These design teams will be there to observe and experience the complexity of recovery systems, to help inform new thinking around current waste streams and new product designs. We will also be growing our network of pioneering professionals and circular economy stakeholders, developing thought leadership, influencing policy and nurturing disruptive thinking to fast-track innovation. By their nature, many of these activities will be highly creative and we are looking for interested recovery facilities, designers, materials experts and other stakeholders who want to participate.

3D Printing and its Impact on Society

January 23, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

A few weeks ago I blogged about the social impact of mass ownership of drones.  Another area of technology that will be in homes and workplaces across the country in the not too distant future is 3D printers.  While the price used to be prohibitive, it is now dropping fast as their popularity rises.  I have a friend who bought a 3D printer for under a £1,000, though it can only print in white plastic, which is rather limiting once you get over the novelty.

3D printing is already in use widely for businesses and the RSA has been helping to set up hubs for designers, some of which will contain 3D printers.  Even ASDA has got in on the trend.

3D printer in action

3D printer in action

Home 3D printing will work in the following way: you need a collar for your dog, so you go online to one of the websites which has ready designed objects and choose a dog collar you like.  You personalise it, perhaps choosing the colour, putting your dog’s name on it and making it a bit larger because you’ve been overfeeding him.  Then you purchase the tailored design and it is downloaded to your printer on your kitchen table (via your computer) which immediately prints it out, ready to use.

Not all objects will be printable, there will be size limitations and complex objects like smart phones will be beyond home printers.  However, given that it is possible to already print in a huge variety of materials from glucose (i.e. sugar) to ceramic, including combining different materials in one object, the majority of everyday items will be printable.

What does mass 3D printer ownership mean for society?

While cheap 3D printers will bring huge changes in many areas, not least manufacturing, I’m focusing here on the relatively under discussed topic of the societal impact of mass 3D printer ownership.

3D printing hit the headlines last year with the printing of a working gun and will continue to make it increasingly difficult to stop the distribution of illegal objects.  It’s far easier to find and confiscate a physical object than a computer file.  When that file is finally turned into a physical object it only needs to happen immediately before it is used.  The game of cat-and-mouse between law enforcement and criminals will move further online.

It’s far easier to find and confiscate a physical object than a computer file.

Personal interaction will reduce, with fewer of those incidental chats and conversations that are so important in building strong communities.   I live in a town so when I go to my local high street I often bump into people I know. Using 3D printing I won’t be bumping into anyone.

Another implication is that it will take ‘mass personalisation’ to new levels.  This is where companies are able to personalise things for people without the huge cost of human intervention to do so, like the dog collar example above.  Indeed this will probably be the norm, turning us all into creatives, all able to personalise jewellery, watches, clothes, food, cutlery and so on before we buy.

This will put out of business organisations that don’t adapt to the world of mass personalisation, while also continuing the trend of the UK becoming a nation of small businesses as it reduces design and prototype costs, increases the ease of servicing customers and allows manufacturing to take place in a home office.

Personal interaction will reduce, with fewer of those incidental chats and conversations that are so important in building strong communities

Finally it will have a large positive effect on the environment.  Place of manufacture has become disassociated from place of consumption.  Planes, ships and trucks transport millions of goods around the world every day at huge environment cost.  If the two are brought together this would significantly reduce the environmental damage of goods transportation.

3D printing brings many benefits, along with some headline grabbing challenges.  What will probably fly under the radar, but is of significant concern and shared with mass drone ownership, is the gradual erosion of social interaction, accidental meetings and community cohesion.  One technological advance doesn’t cause a noticeable difference but a variety of them that are happening at the moment are adding up to significantly more atomised communities.  While Local Authorities already take steps to build community cohesion, they are fighting against the tide, and more needs to be done.

Universal 3D printer ownership won’t happen yet.  Few would put up with the white plastic spoons, cups, plates and other objects that are slowly taking over my friend’s house as he prints out what he needs, but it won’t be far off.

Oliver Reichardt is Director of Fellowship at the RSA, you can follow him @OliverReichardt

Planning Educational Spaces

December 17, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

The South Central Region of the RSA has recently concluded its series of events aimed at sharing ideas about education. These events were run by and for RSA Fellows with the aims of:

  • Sharing knowledge and ideas about education
  • Meeting and networking with other Fellows
  • Clarifying existing, and provoking new, ideas for potential projects
  • Sharing information on Catalyst funding which could potentially support the growth of the ideas.

On Thursday 14 November Rupert Cook and Nick Mirchandani of ArchitecturePLB in Winchester gave a presentation and led a discussion exploring divergent trends in the briefing of educational buildings. This is a guest blog from Nick Mirchandani FRSA.

Nick Mirchandani

As a practice that has specialised in education design for over 30 years, ArchitecturePLB is well placed to identify trends in the educational rationale behind the briefing of new learning environments. As part of the RSA’s South Central Region’s Ideas in Education Series we wished to offer our own observations and explore the possible implications of a growing divergence in the way in which educational buildings are briefed.

With a portfolio that spans the age range from early years to higher education, we had noticed over the last 10 years that schools, colleges and universities were increasingly concerned with some of the same issues, in particular:

  • The individualization and ‘personalisation’ of learning, based on a recognition that different students learn in different ways and that flexible buildings offering a range of spaces are needed to support varied learning activities and group sizes.
  • ‘Student experience’, in particular a new emphasis on the importance and quality of social spaces as well as teaching and learning spaces.
  • A recognition that learning and socializing are not distinct and separate activities but that learning can and should occur in a variety of settings including spaces for ‘social learning’ as well those for traditional didactic teaching and private study.
  • A changing relationship between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ (due primarily to the speed of technological change and the need for all members of society to be continual learners) to one of ‘experienced and inexperienced learners’.
  • A blurring of the boundaries between traditional subjects and a wish for the physical environment to facilitate and encourage inter-departmental activity.
  • The wish to create or develop an institution’s individual identity and character as an important differentiator in an increasingly competitive market for education.

Since 2011 the briefing of school buildings has become increasingly centralized and standardised, with a presumption in favour of traditional, cellular classrooms.

Since the abolition of the Building Schools for the Future programme and the publication of the James Review in 2011 however, the briefing of schools has changed dramatically.  While colleges and universities continue to explore and respond to the issues described above, the briefing of school buildings has become increasingly centralized and standardised, with a presumption in favour of traditional, cellular classrooms.

Representing a wide range of interests in education, we invited our guests to form smaller groups in order to debate three specific questions:

  1. Are our observations borne out by your own experience?
  2. What, if any, are the likely implications?
  3. What of the future?

While the debate was wide-ranging, there was general consensus amongst all groups that these changes are indeed evident and that the implications are potentially significant. Much of the debate focused on the risk of a gap between the learning skills expected by further and higher education providers (particularly in self-directed learning) and those with which schools equip their leavers. There was agreement that if ‘learning to learn’ becomes a lesser priority for schools then further and higher education providers may need to fill the gap themselves, possibly as a kind of ‘foundation course’ similar to Art schools.

Of even greater concern were the implications for those students who do not go on to further and/or higher education. If they are to leave school with knowledge but without core learning skills then there is a serious risk that they may be ill-equipped to continually develop themselves as required in today’s workplaces.

With regard to the future, there were both optimistic and pessimistic voices.  Some felt that recent changes in school briefing reflected the state of the economy rather than a more fundamental diversion from a wider trend. It was also noted that school age students are becoming more demanding consumers of education and would themselves apply pressure to maintain and improve the delivery of learning skills.

The more pessimistic noted that the UK is now in a global market for education and that if further and higher education providers fail to find the learning skills they require from ‘home grown’ students then they would be increasingly likely to seek higher caliber candidates abroad. Alternatively some guests felt that further and higher education providers would seek to extend their provision to younger students. ArchitecturePLB’s own experience supports this suggestion, including a further education college sponsoring academies, a free school and a ‘studio school’ as part of a federation and university involvement in schools through UTC’s.

With both positive and negative possibilities, the greatest concern appears to be a risk of increasing inequality in school-age provision. This of course would be entirely contrary to the intentions behind a more standardized approach.


If you’d like to find out more about Fellowship activities in the South Central region please email

Never mind 3D printing guns: let’s 3D print bullet-shaped cars!

December 6, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Walking around the 3D Print Show four weeks ago, I found that most of what was on show was either self-indulgent or pretty useless. I think we could all live without 3D printed statues of ourselves.  Do we need to 3D print imaginary insects? Do we need to print intricate chocolates using additive printing only for them to be gobbled down in an instant? I even went to a session titled “Building a 3D printed home” only to hear the designer had only printed a small part of the interior, which from the moment it was printed meant it was impossible to make any home improvements.

Then I heard Jim Kor talk. Jim and his team of designers in Canada have for decades been trying to build a car that does as little harm to the environment as possible, in light of some eye-watering projections about the number of new car drivers there will be in the next few decades. With few signs of the electric grid quickly becoming greener, they’re trying to build a car that can run at normal speeds on as little petrol as possible. They’re going about this in three main ways:

Firstly, making sure that energy is efficiently transferred from the engine to the tires. On this front, Jim is following many engineering features of the Mini Cooper (famously good at this), including the length of the car, in part because he used to race minis… on ice! (I have no idea whether Jim is driving this car, but I wouldn’t put it past him!)

Secondly, the team needed to reduce air drag. Jim pointed out that Enzo Ferarri’s comment “aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines” was for a by-gone era. His team have used the latest simulation software to come up with a car for two people that looks a bit like a bullet (below, right, ironic given the amount of press that the 3D printed guns have got).

(from left to right) the bird bone structure which Urbee used when 3D printing its parts / a Hummer / the Urbee (hopefully the difference in aerodynamics is obvious!)

Finally, they make the biggest savings on petrol by reducing weight. Here, Jim draws his inspiration from nature. Birds can fly because they have hollow bones. But, birds, like cars, need to survive collisions at high-speed so their hollow bones are full of intricate supports to increase their strength. The Urbee team mimicked this structure (above left) when building the parts for their car. 3D printing has allowed him to build a car that is far lighter than, but just as strong as, what is currently on the market.

Jim said that at current quantities of production they can produce the car for $50,000, but if a car company produced 100,000 then the cost could come down to $16,000. As was discussed during the RSA President’s lecture ‘Making the Future,’ one reason for the lack of investment in new digital fabrication technologies is because once products are designed and prototyped using technology such as 3D printing, at a certain scale of production it becomes cheaper to build moulds into which the final product is cast so manufacturing jobs go to other countries where labour and space is cheaper. Interestingly, in the case of the Urbee, 3D printing will still be required since no moulding can make the bird-bone-type structure.

There’s been a lot of hype about 3D printing, and maybe that’s needed to get noticed. But we should try and strip away the hyperbole, just like historian Marshall Poe does when describing the Internet as follows: “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Internet is a post office, newsstand, video store, shopping mall, game arcade, reference room, record outlet, adult book shop and casino rolled into one. Let’s be honest: that’s amazing. But it’s amazing in the same way a dishwasher is amazing – it enables you to do something you have always done a little easier than before.” And I think the Urbee is a specific example of how useful 3D printing can be.

I’m reminded of what Evgeny Morozov said in his recent book about the Internet “technology should not be seen as lying outside of culture and history. Printing certainly didn’t come equipped with its own “logic” or “nature”… features were the product of complex negotiations and contingent historical processes, not the natural attributes of printing technology.” I think the same should apply to 3D printing. Just because some people want to use 3D printing for mini statues and intricate chocolates, it doesn’t mean the rest of us should be put off!

Here’s how you can get involved.

  • Show your support for the Urbee on their latest Kickstarter campaign
  • Like many new ventures, the Urbee team are using crowdfunding to turn their idea into action (having crowdfunded for the orange shell). If you want to use crowdfunding to turn your idea into action, the RSA Catalyst recently launched support to help people crowdfund their social ventures
  • RSA Enterprise team are designing a prize challenge for the UK’s talented pool of amateur designer-makers, hackers, fabricators and manufacturers to apply their skills to help disabled people, read more
  • If you’re a manufacturer interested in these new technologies, or a maker already experimenting with them, the RSA Design team are working to help makers. Read about this or follow them on twitter
  • Or you can get in touch with these RSA Fellows are hoping to build a digital fabrication space in London, having built one in Glasgow with support from RSA Catalyst

My first Makespace

October 22, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Enterprise 


Despite having been working on the RSA’s new project around Making for the last 6 months, running events to connect Makers from all levels such as the FutureMaker day back in June and our recent Maker Networking workshops, until last week I had never actually visited a real life ‘Makerspace’.

Makespaces, FabLabs Hackspaces and community workshops are popping up all over the world (if I’ve lost you already, then this great article by Gui Cavalcanti will expain all!) and you may have heard Dr Laura James, the founder of Cambridge Makespace singing their praises at this years President’s Lecture. I have long understood their benefits including encouraging startups, enterprise and collaborative learning, but see one of these spaces in the flesh and you realise it is so much more.

Last week Nat Hunter and I spent a whole day at the brilliant MakLab in Glasgow, Scotland’s first open access digital fabrication studio which is nestled in the Lighthouse, an arts centre in the very heart of the city. And it was FANTASTIC!

At this point, I should make it clear that I am not what you would call a Maker. I am a graphic designer, and 99% of what I do involves me working on my own on my laptop, before sending finished artwork to a printer on the other side of London. Quite often I don’t even get to see the finished thing before it is delivered to the client. No collaboration, no materials experimentation, no hands on craft. All in all, not very ‘Makey’, so I was initially sceptical about what I would take from a very hands-on 3D environment such as MakLab.

We were given a tour of the MakLab by Debra, a volunteer and part-time MakLab employee who makes stunning jewellery from plastic off-cuts in her spare time. She showed us all of the different equipment – a digital milling machine, vinyl cutters, laser cutters, CNC machines, digital embroidery and 3D printers. But it wasn’t so much the machines that got me excited (after all, I’ve never used any of this equipment before so wouldn’t know where to start) but the inspiration that surrounded us. From the material banks of brightly coloured vinyl and glittery Perspex (which I took a particular shine to) to the work samples that were lying around – an incredible skull laser cut into slate, a portrait etched out of marble and an intricate paper-cut wedding invitation as just a few examples – gave me ideas instantly of what I (as a non-maker) could do with this equipment. This sort of inspiration is something that you just don’t get by working in a traditional isolated environment.

IMG_5847 IMG_5824 IMG_5826 IMG_5828 IMG_5834

The atmosphere was also fantastic. People were working together, sharing ideas and helping each other with the equipment. We met Frankie who started her model making company Finch and Fouracre soon after graduating Product Design from Glasgow School of Art. Frankie was using the laser cutter to help her make fast prototypes for a new paper craft project. Before she discovered MakLab she had to send off the work to be cut. This was costing her both money and time. She told us about how MakLab had changed the way she works. She now takes on bigger more complicated jobs, safe in the knowledge that with MakLabs equipment and support she will be able to learn and apply new skills to her work.

I think the most inspiring thing about the space was not necessarily what was being made, but the collaborative backdrop to this making. Anna Marion, an independent jewellery maker and the resident expert on the milling machine spends a large amount of her time at the MakLab. When we arrived she was busy helping someone turn their digital sketch of Skye’s mountain-scape into a 3D cast, which could be used to make collectable fridge magnets to sell to tourists. Anna saw the potential to collaborate, and by the end of the day it was agreed that she could use the design for rings in her jewellery collection. Conversations like this must happen every day, with skills, inspiration and ideas being shared in an open community environment.



I left MakLab and headed back to London bursting with ideas and itching to get Making. The problem is, there isn’t currently a facility for me to do that.  MakLab are running a Kickstarter Campaign to bring a Lab to the heart of London. If the campaign is successful they will open a workshop in Makerversity, Somerset House with the following aims:

“1. We will create a bustling centre for making and digital manufacture in the heart of London. Part workshop, part studio, part laboratory, part learning centre. A diverse environment where differing people, technologies, crafts, and world views come together creates true innovation, empowering people to kickstart ideas into realisation. We are creating a place where some of the most weird and wonderful collaborations occur. Where we offer a model that is fair, affordable and inclusive, ensuring creative and experimental work is not pushed out of the city.

2. We will build learning programmes that empower young people with a modern skillset. An alternate education for young people that focus on developing young people’s skills, attitude and creativity with connections directly into different industries. Our aim is to develop young people who are engaged, proactive, critical and enthused.

3. We will put digital manufacturing in the hands of people who might not ordinarily use it. We see many of these technologies as being transformative, both in a technical sense as well as from a social perspective. We have witnessed first hand how making things with technology can be an incredibly empowering exercise and how it can spark creativity and imagination.”

Sounds great doesn’t it!? I’ve already snapped up my 3 months trial membership for just £30, but the campaign needs more help to succeed. Pledge now, and I will see you down at MakLab London in April. I’ll be the one making something out of glittery Perspex!


Finding out what Makers really want

October 21, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society, Enterprise 

There’s been widespread interest in new digital fabrication opportunities for quite a while now – and I’m not just talking about 3D printing a gun or 3D printing your face in chocolate. There are Hackspace, Makespaces, Techshops and Fablabs popping up all over the world, and books about the implications of what is being termed the next Industrial revolution.

Activity around micro-manufacturing techniques is emerging in lots of different disciplines – from educators to individuals to entrepreneurs, to make-spaces to manufacturers – and we’ve been thinking for a while that it would be mutually beneficial to connect all these disparate parties. After our FutureMakers day back in June, people told us how inspiring and useful it had been to connect with communities that they wouldn’t normally have access to. It turned out that the network that we created by bringing people together was the thing that was most valued.

So… that got us thinking. How could we keep those connections going? Could we create a digital platform that supports all the amazing real world activity that’s out there? It made sense to us, but in order to check that we were on the right track, we needed to find out what was needed from our potential community itself.

Tom from Swarm summing up the day's activities

Tom from Swarm summing up the day’s activities

We gathered together representatives from as many different interests and age groups as possible, to start a process of co-creating a digital platform which will be the mainstay of a network to connect all those working in the making sphere.  We held the workshop last Monday at Makerversity, and the fabulous Tom and Dan at Swarm (who are also Good for Nothing), helped us run the event.

We asked participants to bring an image/photo/sketch of something they’d made and/or something they would like to make in the future. 35 people came and brought pictures of boats, sustainable phones, treehouses, crocheted turnips, hard drive cases and objects made from sparkly plastic.  

The ideas flowed thick and fast – we started making connections really quickly between people who needed advice about manufacturing, setting up a business, where and what to study, how to make a certain object; 9 times out of 10 there were people in the room who could directly help. Tom and Dan set group tasks which helped us work out what we would like to see from our ideal online network. Maps, profiles, sharing of work, giving of advice, discussion; we started seeing the value of this network before the morning was out.

Drawing one of the day's many diagrams

Drawing one of the day’s many diagrams

Hilary, Jim and I are now taking all the drawings, diagrams and questions from the first session and have begun to flesh out what a digital prototype might look like, before taking it back to the group in early November. We’re looking for a few more people with experience or interest in manufacturing to join us, so please get in touch if you would like to take part in helping us to co-create an incredibly useful tool for this exciting emerging community.


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Making an entrance at Arrow Vale RSA Academy

In recent months I have had the privilege of developing new opportunities with the RSA Academies and the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry (RDI). The aim is to assign at least one RDI to each school every year. As reported by my colleague Georgina Chatfield in her blog post ‘What’s the secret to learner engagement’, interior and exhibitions designer Ben Kelly RDI, recently visited Arrow Vale RSA Academy  to set a radical ‘live’ brief.

The initial project for Year 12 product design students was to design a shelving system for the school entrance hall in which to display student’s work. However, as communications developed between Ben and design tutor Paul Taylor, the brief, much to the students’ excitement, became a more daring proposition to completely re-design the reception space.

During the visit Ben shared his design path with the students, from school days, to a career-defining commission to design the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester, and beyond. When discussing the project he challenged the students to “dare to be different”, and to “challenge convention by breaking the rules”.

I joined Ben for the presentations and tutorials and it was evident that the students were engaged throughout, asking searching questions and listening attentively. But could this experience really make a difference to them? Our intention from the outset was that it should.

Following the visit we were encouraged by a report of the day written by two students from the group; Bren Heald and Chantelle Pollit. It was a heart-felt and incredibly rewarding account of the experience from the group’s point of view which they described as “thought-provoking and inspiring”. The group continues to develop its’ design proposal as I type, and Ben Kelly will be returning to the school at the end of term to assess the outcome.

This project is a unique opportunity for the students to take ownership of a space that could redefine the character of their school, and that will enable them to be confident about taking risks when testing their ideas. It is also a valuable example of how designers can contribute inspiration and quality to design education, and also of the enrichment that partnership with the RSA can offer.


Smartphones make us dumb


Did you see the one about Apple Maps mistakenly directing people to drive across the runway at an Alaskan Airport? The coverage provides an indication of how much we’ve outsourced our intelligence to our smartphones, and how we are likely to erode our own intelligence as a result.

An excerpt from the BBC coverage:

“They must have been persistent,” the airport’s assistant manager Angie Spear told the BBC.

“They had to enter the airport property via a motion-activated gate, and afterwards there are many signs, lights and painted markings, first warning that aircraft may share the road and then that drivers should not be there at all.

“They needed to drive over a mile with all this before reaching the runway. But the drivers disregarded all that because they were following the directions given on their iPhones.”

So here we are in 2013. We can carry in our pocket a device which can instantaneously direct us, aided by a network of satellites we’ve launched into space above our planet, between any two points on earth. When there are glitches in this remarkable system, we appear to be losing our ability to engage our auxiliary senses of navigation. We increasingly trust our smartphones, simultaneously giving our innate sensual systems less trust in connecting to our cognitive comprehension. When people put themselves in danger, we vent anger at the technological miscues they may have received. How did people drive to airports before SatNav? We expect technology to be perfect: an upgrade to our own human fallibility.

There is a broader danger associated with the ubiquity of smartphone use. We withdraw from engaging with the places we are in and the people with whom we share them. Mobile technology enables local disconnectedness through providing a ubiquitous connection to everyone we know (and many we don’t), regardless of where we are (or where they are) in the world. As a result, our other communication skills become degraded. Smartphone users are constantly interrupted and distracted, less present in the place and the moment something that a recent Apple ad celebrates. We are unable to switch off – indeed the more technology enables us to work flexibly the more anxious we are to demonstrate to our work colleagues that we are not slacking, as the latest RSA Animate explores.

Comedian Lewis CK recently noted that constant connectivity spares us from the emptiness and sadness (and subsequent tranquillity and happiness) that we find when faced with overcoming periods of being alone. Taking notice of the world around us is one of the five “ways to well-being”.

Just walked into my neighbours house by accident while texting. I only noticed when someone called out and I looked up and saw it wasn’t my flat. Christ. - From Facebook, 26/9/13

With a phone in hand, we are less likely practice mindfulness (recognising our thoughts and feelings). And inter-personal communication skills are at risk of deteriorating as we avoid talking with neighbours or chitchatting with shopkeepers.

As Richard Sennett argues, learning to cooperate with different people, outside of your regular networks, is a key rite of passage to adulthood and civility and is contagious in a population. If that sounds too pretentious, then even on a basic level we’ve got to connect the dots: listening to others talk is the most important aspect of learning in early years. My fear is that the rising rates of social isolation, autism and technology penetration are inter-related. On the tube these days it’s becoming rude not to look at your smartphone: we can’t tolerate the gaze of fellow passengers.

I’m not saying we should give up this powerful technology. Many technological applications support local connectedness (such as Streetbank), while other applications support our offline social well-being (such as the RSA’s social mirror). SatNav gives people the confidence to navigate and explore, and mobile phone cameras empower citizen journalists across the world, but we need to know its OK to switch off and unplug. Smartphone adoption may be the most rapid technology adoption of all time – 45% of under-11s in the UK regularly use a smartphone or tablet. We need to understand the implications for public and inter-personal engagement, fast.

Consider those moments where you pause and think to yourself “this is what life is all about”. Its likely you’ll be mentally present. Think of your favourite streets, parks, squares, or bus routes. We can be entertained us for hours watching what Jane Jacobs calls the “sidewalk ballet”: an urban, social, public experience. At the height of our powers of human perception we can learn silently, discretely admiring the athleticism of streetballers and joggers, the daring of skateboarders, and the technique of a street performer. We develop visual literacy to comprehend the age of our buildings, the fashions of different generations, and the processes which clean our streets. Taking a walk, sitting on a bench or at a cafe, we guess the age of a passing infant, the profession of their parent, or simply where someone got those shoes. And we can mindread, discerning the causes of the argument between two lovers and enjoy from the deduction of awkward body language between two people that this must be a first date.

This role (sometimes termed the “flaneur” – the strolling observer) is a somewhat romantic and privileged notion, but we need to protect the time and space for activity which develops our social skills: reading other people’s faces, body language, tone of voice and emotional signals. Indeed our most skilled public servants – social workers, police officers, nurses, school teachers – recognise that inter-personal intelligence is essential in co-producing desirable outcomes, especially with vulnerable people with barriers to verbal or written communication.

The time each of us has to engage with our surroundings is precious, and the design of the spaces which surround us are often disengaging. Several initiatives have shown that often space the looks like public space is not: subject to surveillance, regulation and restrictions on use and participation. A true public space might include a shared institutional setting where we experience a base feeling of equality because we’re all accessing the same thing.

No doubt we will develop better maps, location-based apps and global 3G coverage, but we need to engage in real places to support the development of our capabilities as social creatures.

Jonathan Schifferes is a Senior Researcher in the Public Service 2020 and Connected Communities team (and does use his smartphone for Twitter).

What can social leadership learn from design?

Building a neural net of wishes and sharing experience at the #RSARDIsummerschool filmed by Dr James Furse-Roberts

This week I returned from the 2013 RDI Summer School; an immersive, collaborative design experience created by the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry. Held over four days at Dartington Hall, Devon, the Summer School brought together designers and others from diverse, cross-disciplinary backgrounds who could learn from each other and be inspired and empowered to think differently and creatively. During the event, the eminent designer and creative leader Michael Wolff RDI shared his favourite quote by the author and poet, Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Having worked on six summer schools with the Royal Designers, I have observed that each event has had a dramatic or life-changing impact on those who have attended. Some of the designers leave with renewed confidence and are emboldened to take more risks, or start their own businesses. Others decide to change the way they work, become more open to collaborating, or begin a new altruistic pathway.

As we developed the 2013 Summer School, jointly directed by exhibitions and interior designer Dinah Casson RDI, and engineering designer Chris Wise RDI, we proposed the inclusion of more ‘wildcards’ in the cohort; participants who were not designers but were somehow touched by design. They might be commissioners, teachers, or civil servants. Could the summer school be as educative and transformative for them as it had been for designers?

The wildcards that were selected this year all shared a connection with the public realm; a healthcare researcher specialising in quality improvement initiatives, and a regeneration manager of a local council to name but two. Here follows a personal account of the Summer School from wildcard Owen Jarvis, a social entrepreneur and Clore Fellow, who is exploring how social leadership can learn from design:

“During my Clore year I’ve been considering how can social leaders make better use of design-thinking in shaping social and public services.

The Summer School involved a series of curated activities to allow us to meet, network, and collaborate away from work. Challenges were introduced for small groups around themes such as “us and them” and explored meanings and expressions of emotions and how these can be used as inspiration for work. These culminated in the sharing of findings, performances and art works on the final morning, with many groups working through the night to finish on time. Pleasure, creativity, play, discussion, reflection and work were delightfully intertwined for a very rich weekend.

The Royal Designers were incredibly open and generous in offering support and mentoring. Often provocative, they demanded honesty, sharper thinking and attention to detail and standards in exercises. Challenges and insights were received and respected in turn. As we moved from discussions to making objects and performances the magic started to happen. The final pieces were surprising and engaging and remarkable given the short time we had together.

So what can be taken away with reference for the social sector? Many of the challenges designers face are familiar and not specific to their profession. How big do you get before you lose the essence of what you are, how do you attract and keep talent? How do you avoid selling out to the agenda of investors in the process of growth? Over the weekend we were called upon to move away from these important but day-to-day issues to ask other broader questions.

In the same way the social sector comes back to a question of social impact, designers are also constantly returning to a question of quality and attention to detail in the pursuit of beauty. This raised some important questions for me. What is in the beauty, design and elegance of a social service and in achieving social change? Is there an aesthetic? How can organisations be designed in their own right to be things to admire? In addressing these questions, do we make a greater impact?

‘Life can be evaded, death cannot’, our final session considered. Everyone faces some apprehension and anxiety in presenting views, ideas, creations. We feel surrounded by judgement yet our real adversary is our own self. Talent that doesn’t fulfil its potential is a tragedy.

The Summer School has been one of the most extraordinary learning opportunities of my career. It has reminded me of the courage needed to step-forward and step-out and embrace the risk of failure. This has lessons for us all to reach our potential and live life fully. That is also a mark of leadership.”

Melanie Andrews is the Manager of the Royal Designers for Industry at the RSA

You can follow her @Melanie_Andrews

Event twitter hashtag #RSARDIsummerschool

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