John Pavlus, a blogger for MIT’s Technology Review, dismisses most of TIME’s current feature The 50 Best Inventions of 2010 as “shiny flying things that no one on Earth needs”. A sceptical technocrat after my own heart then. But he picks out three that he thinks are more worthy of attention, one of which is a prototype incubator for premature infants.
Conventional incubators can reduce neo-natal deaths by carefully regulating the baby’s temperature, but they are completely unsuitable for less economically developed countries – high up-front costs and require prohibitive ongoing costs and training. The NeoNurture is rather different.
While researching the problem, the team of design students and professional volunteers behind the NeoNurture noticed that a lot of medical equipment donated to the hospitals they visited quickly broke and was much too complex to fix. Starting to ask “What does get fixed?”, they were swiftly led to cars.
Adding “Car” to the four Cs (Coke, condoms, cigarettes and cell phones) that Paul Hudnut describes as ubiquitous products, they developed an incubator that can be constructed from widely available vehicle parts and mended by any local mechanic. The warming is provided by headlights, a motor blower draws in filtered air, indicator lights as an alarm and a motorcycle battery protects the incubator from power outages.
It’s ingenious inventions like this that perfectly exemplifies the thesis behind the RSA’s Design team. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” as Teddy Roosevelt (who I guess would have made a very resourceful designer) put it. Or as the Design team’s webpages argue: “design will be fundamental to closing the gap between behaviour and aspiration because of the particular resourcefulness that designers represent”.
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters, Social Economy
Aside from the student march in central London yesterday protesting a proposed rise in student fees, many conversations around the implications of the CSR and the imminent and immediate budget cuts have significantly died down. On the design front, there was a flurry of discussion around the demise of Cabe announced as part of the budget cuts, but there has been much less talk about the possible end of another, much smaller design champion, Design for London.
Operating under the London Development Agency (which itself is under threat) Design for London, has adopted a more proactive approach to championing good design, driving forward the Mayor’s policies and objectives and working with the London boroughs to deliver high quality plans, most notably the Thames Gateway and a number of public realm initiatives. Their contributions to new design schemes in Barking, Brixton and Dalston town centres are of particular note. Design for London represents a model for the future of locally-led, collaborative planning and urban design that will result in better places ands spaces for all citizens.
RIBA has similarly warned that in the face of organisations like Cabe and Design for London being axed, the Coalition government must work even harder to promote local empowerment in individuals and communities (through the Big Society agenda) but it must also foster support for local authorities to understand and make informed design decisions. What we desperately need are organisations, communities and individuals that will promote good design through the delivery of practical, locally-led, high quality schemes.
In light of this need for design champions, we return to the RSA’s central mission to foster good citizenship by closing the gap between our current behaviour and our aspirations for the future. The RSA Design team argues that design is fundamental to closing the gap between behaviour and aspiration. The process of design demands creative problem-solving and improvisation in the face of the unexpected. Designers observe, analyse and seize opportunities and this course of action (observation, analysis and opportunity) is particularly relevant as all citizens will need to take greater leadership and ownership in their communities, including the built environment that surrounds all of us.
Though not a design consultancy or a design advisory body, the RSA is a design champion of a different sort. We are the only UK organisation that considers design within a broad, multi-disciplinary understanding of society, enterprise, individual human capacity and collective action. We are particularly interested in how design can increase the resourcefulness and self-reliance of people and communities. We promote design through hands-on projects, such as our forthcoming Resourceful Architect project, our Design & Rehabilitation work and our recent 3-day residential Design & Creativity Workshop (which Emily Campbell, Director of Design recently wrote about here).
It remains to be seen who will take on the leadership role of championing good design in the environment and in our communities in the absence of organisations like Cabe and Design for London, but I can only hope that more resourceful citizens will emerge, taking a vested interest in the power of design to improve communities from within.
Catching up with a summer issue of the New York Review of Books, I was enthralled by Michael Pollan’s article ‘The Food Movement, Rising’ about the new food movement(s) and the intersection with business, government and society. The article is worth reading in itself, but it was one particular quote, from Janet Flammang’s new book, The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society, that struck me most:
“Food is apprehended through the sense of touch, smell and taste, which rank lower on the hierarchy of sense than sight and hearing, which are typically thought to give rise to knowledge.”
Flammang’s book is, of course, about much more than how we experience food, but I am intrigued by the sensory notion she touches on. Of course, Aristotle’s classical hierarchy of the senses is widely accepted (in order: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) but the idea that really only two of our ‘big five’ and our estimated total 9-21 senses are considered on the path to knowledge and reason is peculiar. With so many senses at our disposal, we have historically relied on only sight and hearing to advance our minds.
Based on Fleming’s VARK Model, much of education divides pupils into visual learners or audible learners, based on an increased ability to understand through sight or hearing, respectively. Fleming’s Model also highlights two other types of learning styles: reading/writing-preference learners and kinesthetic (tactile) learners, where the latter relies on touching, moving and doing activities. I am intrigued, however, that despite widely accepted models of various learning styles, the number of senses involved in traditional education is limited. There would seem to be huge untapped potential in thinking more holistically about involving all our senses, perhaps by first limiting some to heighten others and see what happens.
At present, there are very few fields of education, or indeed, jobs that rely more on senses other than sight and hearing. Training to become a chef or a sommelier are perhaps the most obvious, where taste and smell are paramount, followed by sight (I’ve not heard of any sommeliers listening to how a wine pours or sips, but you never know…). And there we return to Flammang’s argument – the sense of smell, touch and taste are generally perceived to be ‘of the body’ and the body tends to symbolise our animal tendencies. Sight and hearing are considered above bodily senses because they represent our ability as civilised beings to be ‘of the mind’.
Those without sight and/or hearing have found countless of ways to understand and grasp concepts and the world around them. Braille relies on the sense of touch in lieu of sight and sign language relies on sight in lieu of hearing, but there must be more than just these… Surely we haven’t unearthed all ways of communicating and learning to date? What if a newly conceived version of Braille didn’t just allow the blind to read words and language, but it displayed entire concepts through sensory maps and diagrams?
So what if Aristotle was wrong? (Oh no, did I really just say that?) What if our other senses haven’t played a bigger role in advancing our wisdom not because they really rank lower than sight and hearing, but because we haven’t placed as much emphasis and value on using them? We know that sensory deprivation of one sense can lead to a heightened awareness and understanding through the other senses, so what would happen if we put more effort into using our sense of smell, taste, touch, time, balance, temperature, et al and learning through them?
It would seem that there is a huge opportunity here for an intersection between design, which already relies heavily on an increased understanding of all the senses, education, biology, psychology and a number of other fields. By just thinking about how we could design new ways of learning a range of subjects and concepts through senses other than just sight and hearing, we will open up a range of possibilities for greater human understanding and wisdom.
I personally have done some design work on translating visual concepts into tangible, tactile ones, but I want to go further. Can we learn philosophy through smell? Can we learn a language through touch? Can we learn mathematics through balance? Perhaps not, but I think there is something there… For example, it doesn’t seem so revolutionary to think that we might be able to learn geometry through touch, biology though temperature, or even geography through direction…
Here within the RSA design team, we are known for our mantra: design and designers have a vital role to play in making citizens, and therefore society, more resourceful. We argue that a fundamental optimism with respect to progress, change and fulfilling needs is at the core of design. But just as the definition of design is becoming increasingly diffuse, so is the quality of design becoming increasingly varied. This prompts the question: what constitutes good design, how is it measured and what are its effects?
Ben Toombs addressed the effects of good design in his recent post On Everyday Beauty, acknowledging the fundamental link between a sense of civic pride and well-designed, beautiful places and spaces. Toombs’ point is a good one and one that is widely perpetuated in urban design circles and as a way of highlighting the benefits of place-making. But, in her piece, You know more than you think you do: design as resourcefulness & self-reliance, Emily Campbell, the RSA Director of Design, notes that “Good design in itself is not a guarantee of good citizenship.” But what about bad design? Does bad design have a role in perpetuating or facilitating bad citizenship?
Design starts with a problem of what people want and/or need and finds a solution. Bad design takes many forms and in its worst, it can exacerbate a problem rather than solve it. Does this mean, then, that it can even be called design? I’ve been toiling over this idea for years and I wrote about extensively in Design Denied: The Ethics of Withholding Good Design, but I’d like to know what others think…
Bad design is increasingly abundant. In her piece, Campbell acknowledges that an increased prevalence of amateur design, especially provoked by electronic design tools, “breeds quantity more than quality; it adds to the complexity and abundance of our world, rather than producing clarity.” (Of course, amateur design does not necessarily equate to bad design, but it can and often does). So, are there principles of bad design (does bad design even have principles?) that we can learn from to help us inform good design? Is bad design a necessary part of the development of good design (as the ‘try, try again’ philosophy seems to imply)?
Designers today have a responsibility to not only promote the resourcefulness of design, but specifically good design. Campbell is on to something: the professional designer needs to not only increase access to design tools, but also to champion good design and raise the overall quality of design.
Back by popular demand, here are a few more of John Flanagan’s ingenuity problems from the 1960s. As the instructions say:
This is a test of your ability to think of clever and effective ways of doing things. A number of problems are described on the following pages. In the paragraph describing each one, clues are given to show how the problem was actually solved. You are to read the problem description and think of the solution suggested by the clues. If you have the right solution, one of the five choices under the problem will have the same first and last letter as your answer and the same number of missing letter spaces as your answer contains.
A. Removing old paint can be a problem. A common household appliance can be used to do this in the same way as the newer electric paint removers. The appliance is used to soften the old coats of paint with heat, so that the paint can be removed with a putty knife. The appliance is an:
- i _ _ _ _ _ _ d w _ _ e
- a _ _ _ _ _ _ e d _ _ g
- e _ _ _ _ _ _ n t _ _ g
- e _ _ _ _ _ _ c i _ _ n
- o _ _ _ _ _ _ r p _ _ g
B. The tall sawhorses a painter needed for his inside work would not fit into his panel truck. He found that strapping them to the top of the truck required too much loading time. He solved the problem of getting them to fit into his truck by making new sawhorses with:
- l _ _ _ _ _ g b _ _ s
- r _ _ _ _ _ n b _ _ s
- c _ _ _ _ _ n p _ _ s
- f _ _ _ _ _ g l _ _ s
- r _ _ _ _ _ l s _ _ s
C. An oil drilling crew drilled a hole 20 feet deep and about 2 feet in diameter at the top. The hole narrowed considerably toward the bottom. A large wooden block fell into it and lodged about threequarters of the way down – too far to reach with hooked poles. The drill could not be operated with this block in the way. The men tried unsuccessfully to reach it with longer poles, and then one of them suggested a simple way to remove the block. His plan called for the use of:
- i _ _ _ e
- w _ _ _ r
- p _ _ _ s
- h _ _ _ s
- l _ _ _ e
D. When an adjustable wrench is not available, it is possible to make an emergency adjustable wrench to fit any size nut by putting two square nuts on a long:
- m _ _ l
- b _ _ t
- c _ _ d
- h _ _ g
- t _ _ k
John Flanagan said that ingenuity “is shown by inventing or discovering a solution to a problem … in an usually neat, clever, or surprising way”. How would you define it? Do you think there’s a difference between a creative or innovative idea and an ingenious one?
“Design isn’t radical enough.”
“Design is less innovative than business.”
“Designers don’t know how to make.”
What?! But jazzy, animated (literally, in some cases), colourful design is everywhere. Now with the London Design Festival in full swing, design, not just the stuff, but the very word itself, abounds. So, who says that design isn’t radical, innovative or curious? The speakers at yesterday’s debate at the RSA on ‘What should we be teaching professional designers today?’ that’s who.
Indeed, from an outsider’s perspective, design definitely does seem to be everywhere. Actually, from an insider’s perspective, too, but therein lies the problem. Designers have ‘won’ status for design, but with a changing and increasingly diffuse definition of design, much of design has lost the ability to identify and meet need. Thus, the debate asked three experts to tackle the questions: what are the skills that a designers needs today and how can we teach them?
Sam Hecht, an industrial designer and former teacher at the Royal College of Art, distilled the issue right down to its essence. By contrasting design for media (the Milan syndrome) and design for use, Hecht senses a disingenuous relationship between design education and the true need for and importance for design. Design students are enroling in advanced university design courses without ever having taken an object apart to see its parts and see how it fits together. Now, that might not sound too shocking to many of you, but this causes great concern for the professional design industry. Designers should know how to put things together (and you can’t know how things are put together without taking things apart). With a lack of understanding of design as a system of making and a system of use, design becomes utterly marginal. It is artists today, rather than designers are asking why things are the way they are…
Roberto Verganti, Professor of Innovation Management at the Politechnico di Milano, addressed the issue from his own experience of teaching design thinking to businesses. Verganti acknowledged that ‘design thinking’ has become a hot-topic in international MBA programmes and front-page news on business weeklies, but that as designers learn the language of business, design is becoming less and less innovative. Designers must return to their roots: identifying needs, pursuing radical visions and ultimately, delivering ingenious solutions. Hecht and Verganti agreed: designers are losing their language, being usurped by artists. He argued that designers need to be ‘radical’ again (citing Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group) and they need to resist the urge to be ‘culturally neutral’ if they are to continue to work with and influence not only business, but also design!
Ellie Runcie, Director of Design Support Programmes at the Design Council, introduced us to the power of design interventions from a policy perspective. Highlighting the Designing Demand and Public Services by Design initiatives, Runcie illustrated how design teaches people to think differently. Designing Demand supports businesses to become more innovative, competitive and profitable by giving managers a sort of ‘designer’s toolkit’ to spot opportunities, respond to a brief and work with clients. Public Services by Design builds capacity for managing innovation in the public sector and asks the crucial question: ‘How can design simplify public services around the needs of citizens?’ Runcie cited Lewisham Council’s successful engagement with the Public Services by Design programme to tackle the problem of homelessness (no small feat). By highlighting the strategic role of designers to think in a systems way (in this case, working with the public sector), Runcie summed up the quartet of essential skills for a designer:
- understanding people’s needs
- working visually and tangibly
- prototyping to manage risk
- working inclusively and collaboratively
So, there you have it: designers need to be radical, designers need to think in a systems way and designers need to rekindle their curiosity and the urge to make. Three different perspectives that provoke many more questions about design, its role and how its taught, but no matter whom you talk to or what you agree with, that old Eames adage still resounds: ‘Recognising the need is the primary condition for design.’ Oh, and it helps to take things apart once in a while.
In the Autumn issue of the RSA Journal, Ben Rogers writes about the importance of exceptional beauty in our lives, and of how good design should not, and need not, be a victim of austerity. While endorsing all this, I want to add a few words about how the beauty or ugliness that we see every day also affects us through its impact on community cohesion.
The recent Connected Communities report makes a strong case against a purely geographic conception of community. But that’s not to say that the environment in which we live doesn’t have an impact on our relationships with other people living nearby. Quite the opposite, in fact: I’d argue that it can underpin or undermine community ties and the extent to which people want to get involved locally.
I can think of two aspects of community life that are deeply affected by the beauty or ugliness that surrounds people. I’m sure there are more, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
If communities have public spaces that are pleasant, even beautiful, local people are more likely to feel a sense of civic pride and ownership, and more likely to want to get involved to keep them that way. It’s that desire to get involved that will power the Big Society. But it will only come about if the incentive is there in the first place.
The first involves ugliness. Local environments which encourage the use of public space – parks, pavements, shops, pubs etc – also encourage chance meetings between people. These chance meetings contribute to a lively community that people want to be part of – and at the least, they create the impression of such a community, which is a good starting point for the real thing. These public spaces don’t need to be beautiful, but they need not to be ugly if they are to work well. By ugly, I mean not just poorly designed but poorly maintained – even beautiful things can become ugly if they are neglected and abused.
Ugliness in public spaces in itself puts people off using them. People have a choice about where to spend their free time, and unless they have an active reason for going somewhere, they’ll vote with their eyes and their feet and choose the most pleasant option. If it’s not local public space, it’ll be somewhere private, or they won’t vote at all and stay at home. And that does little to bolster community cohesion.
Ugliness also increases the fear of crime and, perhaps, real crime. Whether or not you buy the ‘broken windows’ theory (which argues that small markers of neglect or misuse will, if left untouched, suggest that nobody cares and therefore encourage more serious abuse), a run-down environment in which street lights don’t work, vandalism and graffiti aren’t fixed and litter isn’t collected gives the impression of a lack of authority and control, which in turn raises at least the fear of crime. Which in turn makes people less willing to ‘risk’ using public space.
The second aspect involves beauty. Social cohesion is greatest when people get actively involved in the community, rather than simply using its amenities. I think a degree of beauty can have an impact here. Matthew Taylor has commented on the benefits of people getting involved locally by helping to maintain the park or volunteering in other ways. There has been some scepticism about this, yet some parks and gardens attract numerous volunteers. The National Trust, for example, could not manage its gardens without volunteers; it attracts them because its gardens are already beautiful, and people want to feel a sense of ownership in them and work to keep them that way.
I think communities are in the same situation. If they have public spaces that are pleasant, even beautiful, local people are more likely to feel a sense of civic pride and ownership, and more likely to want to get involved to keep them that way. It’s that desire to get involved that will power the Big Society. But it will only come about if the incentive is there in the first place.
All this suggests that beauty and ugliness go to the heart of community ties and social capital: the former promotes it while the latter undermines it. I don’t know how much weight to attach to this, but I just want to end by drawing your attention to a post I wrote a week or so ago about the apparent link between social cohesion and disposable income. Is it reasonable to suggest that local beauty might have a role to play in this; that public space in more affluent areas is generally better maintained and often better designed, and that people are more likely to use it and get involved in keeping it that way? If so, there’s an argument for focussing attention and admittedly limited public resources on the maintenance and design of public space in less cohesive areas too.
Dan Pink spoke recently on Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. The RSAnimate of this has been watched (at the time of writing) 2,844,309 times, although I confess I had to be scolded into watching it by Matthew Taylor. In his talk, Dan draws on the well known study of the Candle problem, devised by Karl Duncker, who devised the term functional fixedness to describe the way that people don’t immediately realise that the matchbox could also play the part of a shelf for the candle (click on the link if that last sentence made no sense).
If you like problems like this then read on, because I’ve been reading up on John Flanagan, a psychologist who studied the capability of ingenuity during the second world war while working for the US army air force. Flanagan came up with a test to identify ingenious personnel, comprising a series of problems followed by multiple choice options with all but the first and last letter of each word blanked out. Flanagan reckoned that: “the ingenious person confronted by a problem situation will be able to think of the clever solution very quickly, whereas the individual lacking this quality will be unable to think of such solutions even if given a large amount of time”. Here are two for you to try:
Q1. As part of a manufacturing process, the inside lip of a deep cup-shaped casting is machine threaded. The company found that metal chips produced by the threading operation were difficult to remove from the bottom of the casting without scratching the sides. A design engineer was able to solve this problem by having the operation performed…
A. i – – – – p h – – h
B. m – – – – n c – – e
C. f – – – – r w – – l
D. l – – – – d b – – k
E. u – – – – e d – – n
Here’s a slightly different one:
Q2. A very rare severe wind storm destroyed the transmission tower of a television station in a small town. The station was located in a town in a flat prairie with no tall buildings. Its former 300 foot tower enabled it to serve a large farming community and the management wanted to restore service while a new tower was being erected.
The problem was temporarily solved by using a _____.
Too easy? Let me know if you’d like any more…
Thomas Homer-Dixon argues in his The Ingenuity Gap that the increasing complexity, pace and unpredictability of our world make a greater demand on our ingenuity than ever before. He suggests there is a gap that emerges between this demand and our ability to supply the ingenuity required to match it.
I’ve been thinking a little bit about ingenuity lately, particularly the distinction between ingenuity, innovation, invention and creativity, and there are a couple of characteristics of ingenuity that I like. One of these is picked up in The Ingenuity Gap, which notes that innovation describes new ideas being put into practice, but ingenuity “assumes that ideas don’t have to be new to be useful”. I think this nuance appeals to my distrust of the hype that accompanies technical innovation.
A similar theme was picked up in the excellently-named Hopeful Monsters and the Trough Of Disillusionment blog post last week from BERG. Matt Jones reports on a workshop that re-imagined applications for those commonplace technologies that would fall into the Trough of Disillusionment in Gartner’s Hype Cycle, like low capacity USB sticks, landline telephones or accelerometers. Resulting for example in Matt Webb’s comment “cross-breeding thumbdrives and, oh, something else that triggered a thought about audio… and the product that came up was audio textbooks on super cheap hardware for the developing world”.
The RSA is an organisation in the rare position of being able to look back as well as forwards. Its original working practice of giving out premiums “for any and every work of distinguished ingenuity”, has meant that the organisation has a long perspective on many technological developments over many years. Some of these [pdf link] are as relevant now as they were in their day.
I wonder if, when we face huge public spending cuts and the need to use the Earth’s resources more sustainably, some of the solutions might lie in past ingenuity as well as future innovation. So to stretch the original metaphor, might some of the most appropriate bridges over the ingenuity gap be those that have simply fallen out of use rather than ones that need engineering from scratch…?
What does “civic behaviour” look like? Voting springs to mind, as does volunteering, with perhaps starting a charity or social enterprise towards the black-belt end of being an active citizen. Debugging a page of code in the evenings is not something many of us would immediately point towards. But this particular example of civic behaviour, hidden to many of us, is going on across the country.
It’s become much more visible to those with an interest in technology through the example of pioneers like mySociety, who presciently argued for public sector data to be freely available in helpful formats to everybody at the same time as demonstrating how it could be put to social use through sites like TheyWorkForYou – created entirely by volunteers. And while the slowly-turning machinery of government chewed the idea over (now manifest in data.gov.uk), ingeniously came up with their own solutions of scraping it from the Government’s very web 1.0 sites and making it available to others.
Other enterprising groups have established their own community websites, which pull local residents around their neighbourhood, achieving in a Big Society-ish way some of what local government would like to do, while hacking events like those run by Rewired State (“Geeks meet Government”) bring people together to make useful and open applications from public data.
Rory Cellan-Jones broke the news today that many government websites could be cut, after a review from the government that highlights some of their soaring cost. This review seems in sympathy with a report the RSA published earlier this year that heard a variety of stories around the depressingly wasteful cost of public sector IT and argued for a more parsimonious approach to technology in a cold economic climate.
When the RSA was founded it aimed to “embolden enterprise, to enlarge Science, to refine Art, to improve our Manufactures, and extend our Commerce”, and offered premiums or awards “for any and every work of distinguished ingenuity”. William Shipley, a drawing master, felt deeply about the importance to Britain of the skill of drawing. One of the first premiums given is recorded in the minutes of the RSA’s very first meeting on 22nd March 1754:
“It was likewise proposed, to consider of giving Rewards for the Encouragement of Boys and Girls in the Art of Drawing; and it being the Opinion of all present that the art of Drawing is absolutely necessary in many Employments Trades & Manufactures, and that the Encouragement thereof may prove of great Utility to the public, it was resolved to bestow Premiums on a certain number of Boys or Girls under the age of sixteen…”
Drawing was a key skill in the eighteenth century, but in the twenty-first, it seems to me as though developing computer code is also important to solving some of the real problems we face. Developing code that helps people to feel attached to their neighbourhood, strengthens community, helps keep the government accountable, and reduces the burden on public money is of course a civic behaviour.