FRSA London and the Fellows Artists Network: Reboot and the Jubiloo

September 6, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

This is a guest blog by Mark Power FRSA. Mark is an architect and a member of the Fellows Artists Network.

As I recently discovered at this summer’s RSA Reboot event-Re:Engage, creativity is in plentiful supply within the London Fellowship network. The event focused on how Fellows could use the 4 ways to engage model to find and support each other in their work. It also featured a lightening talk by a member of the cross-disciplinary Fellows Artists Group which myself and a group of other Fellows have set up. Our members range from film-makers to sculptors, architects to writers and we meet seasonally and informally to visit exhibitions, discuss artists, discuss each other’s work and discuss ourselves and what makes us tick.  We also encourage creative ways of recording our responses to the Reboot events, such as this stop-motion video which shows the buzz surrounding new connections being made.

Reboot events are organised by the London Region Fellowship Councillor, and are an excellent platform for getting to know other Fellows; getting to know what they do, what they believe in and getting them tipsy on whatever they bring along. However, running parallel to this social exchange, as RSA Fellows we have a more urgent and vital agenda: to engage in the current debate on public funding and support for the Arts, a debate which so often excludes the artists themselves and tends to emphasise instrumental over intrinsic value. We pursue this in various ways, the London Region has supported a range of events including a debate at the ICA a and a celebration of the 160th Anniversary of the Royal Photographic Society, founded at a meeting held at John Adam Street in 1853.

For me, as a member of the Group and architect running my own practice I am interested in the tension between instrumental and intrinsic intents that makes architecture what it is. At the first Picture of the queen inside Jubiloo and shot of the London EyeFRSA Reboot event I showcased our design for the Jubiloo, a marvellous new public convenience temporarily moored on the historic Thames riverbank, 100m from the London Eye; a dramatic image for a dramatic setting.

As a result, I was able to invite a group of RSA Fellows to experience the Jubiloo, which according to Mary from Manchester was ‘the best toilet I’ve been in’. Fellows heard about the rich historical allusions embodied in the floating barge-like image of the pavilion, admired its flush detailing (automatic of course), whilst also learning of its capacity to turn rainwater into greywater. Although the project was funded by a private company who built and now operates the facility, public funds were contributed by Lambeth as part of its efforts toward landscaping and integration in the public realm. The Jubiloo serves as an amenity for the Jubilee gardens and Queen’s walk, both of which are part of the ‘continuous foyer’ of London’s South Bank, hence the public contribution could be justified on instrumental grounds. The formal and material allusions integral to the design which give the building its intrinsic cultural value interestingly, were paid for by the operating company who felt they would attract more people to use the toilets.

Toilet rollls and a portrait of the QueenResponses to the Jubiloo have been both instrumental and intrinsic; at the launch, the South Bank Community Choir sang “Up, up and away in my beautiful Jubiloo”. In Summer 2012 a specially convened Jubiloo Shakespeare Company performed Act II Scene 2 Antony & Cleopatra “The barge she sat in, like . . .” remembering the Bard’s sighting of Elizabeth I in her golden vessel on this stretch of the Thames.

Looking back at the activities of the last year, I can truly say that the partnership between the RSA London Region and the Fellows Artists’ Network has given me some highly sought-after opportunities to meet and exchange ideas and experiences with other Fellows. I am looking forward to continuing the conversations with Fellows from around the world in our new Artists Group on the RSA social network and seeing what events we can come up with for the London Region Autumn programme.

For more information about Fellowship visit or if you would like to know more about the Reboot events or the Jubiloo please email

RSA Student Design Award Winners: the next generation of socially responsible designers

June 27, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Innovation 

A self-repair washing machine, a bee-friendly neighbourhood scheme and an app that provides more active and scenic routes for commuters are among the 16 cracking projects that won in the RSA Student Design Awards this year. 150 people came together at the RSA last week to celebrate the 2013 winners, take part in a spot of speed networking, and hear keynote speaker Kevin Owens talk about his experiences as Design Principal of the London 2012 Olympics.

Now in their 89th year, the RSA Student Design Awards is an annual competition that rewards students for coming up with innovative design-led solutions to today’s big challenges. Each year the RSA works with industry and university partners to develop a series of briefs focused around social, environmental and economic issues. We work closely with universities – in the UK and internationally – to support design students in applying their skills to research and respond to these problems. Their finished projects are then judged in person by a panel of experts, and winning students receive prizes that include cash awards, paid internships, and a complementary year of RSA Fellowship.

This year’s briefs addressed a range of pressing social issues, from improving workplaces and commuting to reducing waste and water pollution. There’s a full list of winners on the RSA Student Design Awards website, and our online exhibition will be going live soon – but for now, here are some snippets about a few of the winning projects:

  • Chris Redford from Sheffield Hallam University won a paid internship at branding agency Springetts for his ‘Tinker’ project; a radical stripped-back domestic washing machine that is designed to be repaired by the consumer without the need for a technician.

Chris Redford

“I got the inspiration for my repairable washing machine from thinking about the number of times we dispose of entire products – especially large consumer appliances – when there might only be a single failed component. My design exposes the user to all the components so they can learn about its function and hopefully feel more confident about attempting to fix it.

  • Charles Anderson, who has just finished a degree in Graphic Design at Kingston University, won a paid internship at the Environment Agency for his scheme to reduce water pollution in the UK.

Charles Anderson_DIP

His project, ‘Dump in Polystyrene’, is a service design solution for breaking down and recycling polystyrene that would otherwise be sent to landfill.

“Since my childhood I have constantly been aware of the litter in the river and the influence it had on the local environment. Through my project research I learned about how water-borne animals mistake polystyrene for food. It clogs up their digestive system which starves the animal. Polystyrene also breaks up and releases pollutants into the soil formation. This project is about reducing polystyrene waste down to a manageable size. The current size-to-weight ratio targets mean that local councils can’t recycle it – so I designed a process that meets these targets.”

  • MA Design students Nicole Shadbolt and Meredith Thompson from Plymouth University each won a paid internship in Waitrose’s Graphic Design team.

The Hive

Responding to a brief asking for ideas to help people live more sustainably, ‘The Hive’ is a community improvement scheme focused on developing bee-friendly communities and educating people about the importance of the UK bee population.

Rebecca Ford is the Assistant Manager of the RSA Student Design Awards.

You can follow her @RebeccaPFord

RSA FutureMakers

June 23, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society, Enterprise 

We at the RSA believe in the power of making, especially when it involves newly emerging approaches; our intention is to help grow the infrastructure and opportunities for designing and making at a local level, both in London and around the country.

Our first venture into this arena was held at Somerset House last Wednesday, and was a resounding success. We introduced and connected the varied and rather fragmented groups interested in this agenda and showcased some of the great work already happening. 300 people came to this inaugural event and the basement of Somerset House’s west wing was filled with professional makers and designers, hobbyists, 3D printing companies, technologists, schools, educators and many more groups that defy easy categorisation. You can see the full list and links here.

Girls from the Ideas Foundation show their collaborative work

Girls from the Ideas Foundation show their collaborative work

One of the surprising and heartening things about this emerging area is that in terms of age it’s a level playing field: age is no barrier to entry at either end of the spectrum. The Ideas Foundation brought several groups of children from schools in the north west,  all of whom were collaborating across various subject areas: English, Art, DT, and ICT students had been working together to create award winning projects that they brought to the event. Many of these teenagers had never been on a train before, let alone to London, yet clearly had huge talent, and were more switched on to the possiblities of emerging technologies than some of the adults in the room.

Amy Mathers teaches conductive thread circuits

Amy Mathers teaches conductive thread circuits

For many, the most surprising speaker and workshop leader was 14 year old Amy Mather, a remarkable girl who held a workshop for 15 adults making conductive thread circuits after speaking about her adventures with Raspberry Pi.

1970s children play with Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms floor turtle

The confidence of all these young people around technology reminded me of Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms work at MIT which I first discovered when studying Human Computer Interface Psychology in the eighties. One of his theories about the power of computers which really struck me and has stayed with me throughout the years is that computers are non-judgemental; you program something and it either works or it doesn’t. If you’re struggling at school and feel misunderstood, technology can be your saviour. The picture above doesn’t look that different from what we saw this week – kids playing with robots. The difference is that with the invention of Arduino and Raspberry Pi, combined with the knowledge transfer powers of the internet, the technology is now available to many more of us.

Sophie Thomas at the Great Recovery stand

Sophie Thomas at the Great Recovery stand

However, the event wasn’t all about robots and new technology, exciting though both areas are. Sophie Thomas ran a Great Recovery teardown workshop taking apart electronic products, exposing the elements that we throw away so casually and looking at ways we could re-design them from scratch to re-use our valuable resources. The Restart Project showed us how to fix and repair products that we might previously have thought were destined for the dustbin. Technological innovation is always exciting: developing ways to deliver consumer electronics in a sustainable way is just as important and this conversation was at the heart of the event.

What I found most exciting about the event was the amount of cross cultural connections that were being made as the day went on. On the face of it, we followed a standard trade show format of stands, talks and workshops, but what was different about this event was that everyone was meeting people from beyond their usual networks who were interested in the same subject as they were, but from a different angle. We had educationalists connecting with design innovators to inject a new way of thinking into schools, product designers hatching plans for research papers with RSA Fellows, RSA Student Design Awards winners (see video above) talking to chemists and finding out that there were less harmful chemicals that they could be using, and many more people connecting over their passion for this area. The excitement in the room was palpable all day long and everyone left having had their brains “rewired” in an unexpected and powerful way.

We are currently developing plans for an ambitious and innovative project in the areas of making and education, which will be rolled out both in London and around the country. Also look out for the RSA FutureMaker Premium; a prize for innovation in this area.

Thank you to all stallholders, speakers and workshop hosts for your fantastic contributions, to the Comino Foundation who initiated and funded the event, to everyone who attended the event and to Somerset House for kindly letting us use the recently vacated HMRC mailroom to host the event.

The event was a collaboration between the Design and Enterprise strands of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA.

Nat Hunter is Co-Director of Design at the RSA

You can follow her @redfish66

Are you ready for an extraoRDInary journey?

What do the iPhone, the Millennium Bridge, Harry Potter film sets, and the World Wide Web have in common? They were all designed by the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry (RDI), a cross disciplinary collective of designers who have shown sustained design excellence, work of aesthetic value, and significant benefit to society.

The Royal Designers are planning a Summer School which will be held at Dartington Hall, Devon from 5 – 8 September 2013. This event will give 24 young designers and 12 wildcards the chance to work with them in an intensive 4-day collaborative design experience.

Designers of any discipline with between 5 and 15 years’ experience, and wildcards – people who intersect design, as commissioners, public servants, users – are invited to apply for a place. We are seeking applications from people whose work has the potential to be an instrument of beneficial change, from whatever field. If you are up for a bold new challenge, and would like to be one of the designer or wildcard participants, you still have a week in which to submit your application.

Set up in 2000, the Royal Designers’ Summer School brings together a group of people from diverse, cross-disciplinary backgrounds who can learn from one another and are inspired to think differently and creatively. Open, conceptual challenges are set to mixed groups which are discretely choreographed by the Summer School Directors. Exhibition designer, Dinah Casson RDI, Master of the Royal Designers for Industry, and Millennium Bridge engineer, Chris Wise RDI, are co-directing this year’s programme:

“The summer school is both touch-stone and touch-paper, reassuring at first, and then a fuse is ignited. Flashes of insight come when nurse, designer, economist, engineer and neuroscientist face each other openly. It is a well-spring for understanding how ideas are born, and why design is at the core of our being.”

Click here to apply and submit to the RSA by Friday 28 June.

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

You can follow her @Melanie_Andrews 

Event twitter hashtag #RSARDIsummerschool

The Big Idea: New Approaches to Making

May 29, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

The Big Idea: Using new technologies to bring manufacturing and making into the public sphere.

Bruce Newlands FRSA, Director of MAKLab, writes:

“We are at an exciting moment in the history of ‘making’. New approaches to manufacturing are set to take hold over the coming decade. Technologies like CNC Routing and Cutting & Drilling have been around for decades in industry but it’s only now that young people, creative start-ups and ‘ordinary’ people are getting access to these technologies.

These technologies have been steadily transferring from centralised industry to the garden shed with a burgeoning tech shop scene in the United States and the development of a making culture through hackspaces, fablabs and other institutions dedicated to nurturing making in the UK. The emergence of affordable 3D printers offer the prospect of mass customisation and potentially the democratisation of design that breaks free from traditional assumptions of designer and client and perhaps introduces new ethical dilemmas about design responsibility and originators.

The technologies however are only the platform on which this paradigm shift is based on.

A new generation of small makers promises to bring these sophisticated means of production into the home, applying it to everything from making furniture to printing jewellery; from making toys to ‘printing’ whole houses.

MAKLab image

It is this sophisticated networked ‘making culture’ that is at the heart of the change. This is a culture sustained through social media networking, swapping, sharing, co-operating and collaborating. Their practices and techniques are embedded in the powerful concept of a global village of local makers, an aspect of the circular economy that is increasingly attracting interest from government and educators.

Notions of intellectual property are being challenged through approaches such as the ‘open source’ movement, where you can build on someone else’s work in return for publishing your work under the same license and sharing back any changes. ‘Hacking’ clubs that encourage people to dismantle, understand and ‘mod’ existing products with new and additive functions offer shared environments for innovation. These are ideas that suit the nimbleness of being innovative and small, of embracing the power of a network whilst demonstrating a healthy ‘autodidactism’ that challenges our current linear economies. They offer opportunities for technology to be taken in new directions, as different makers in different contexts find different ways of utilising the resources available to them.

MAKLab is Scotland’s first open access digital fabrication workshop looking to address some of these issues. We are open to the public and designers alike to access these technologies and for them to be trained on how to use them to turn their ideas and concepts into reality. We were recently awarded £100,000 by Google in their Global Impact Challenge that will enable us to expand this concept to other UK cities in partnership with others.

We’re excited by the prospect of developing a decentralised network of fabrication facilities that with the assistance of local creative networks will provide the platform to explore 21st century entrepreneurialism with tangible local and global community benefits. Learning from this decentralised experience of making and doing will have value for the future of collaborative working, helping to create vibrant innovative communities finding solutions to shared challenges.”

Get Involved

MAKLab are working closely with RSA Scotland, and the wider RSA, to develop and deliver a programme of events and projects around the topics of manufacturing and making.  Details for the events, which will hopefully include a programme around support young people into enterprise and work connecting older people to new technologies, will be shared with Fellows in Scotland in the near future.  If you are outside Scotland and would like to know more, please contact Jamie Cooke.

At its core, MAKLab is about open access to the technology and skills, so if you are in Glasgow take the chance to visit their facility at the Lighthouse, meet the team and see the equipment in action!  It is open to the public, with specific activities available at the weekend, and they will be delighted to see you.  MAKLab are also exploring opportunities to develop bases in other parts of the country, so there will be plenty of opportunities for Fellows to engage with this innovative work.


Jamie Cooke is Deputy Head of Fellowship, with responsibility for the Specialist Programme team.  You can follow him @JamieACooke or connect with him on LinkedIn.

The Big Idea: Tog Studio – Empowering people through design and collaboration

May 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Collaborative buildingTog Studio host ‘live-build’ events. This means that people who are usually excluded from the construction process take an active role in building their own project. In doing so participants are empowered to learn practical skills and teamwork to deliver a valuable community asset.

This is made possible by the architects and engineers behind Tog Studio designing buildings which are consciously low-tech to build. This allows participants to be fully involved in the process after a brief introduction to a few key skills (such as measuring timber, sawing, clamping and screwing).


 About the project

“(working on the Sitooterie) gives me a purpose to get up in the morning and gives me the self-satisfaction to do a decent days work and see what comes from your hard work”.

Tog Studio recently collaborated with the Salvation Army (TSA) to build a ‘sitooterie’ (Scots slang for an outdoor seating area) with the service users of a TSA LifeHouse in Edinburgh; a project which was funded by an RSA Catalyst Grant. Tog Studio hosted a number of design workshops with the participants to agree how the Sitooterie would be used, where it would be sited and what it would look like. The team then spent three days building the project in April 2013.

The innovative structure was partially prefabricated at MAKLab, an open-source digital fabrication facility. MAKLab, which is also part of the RSA Scotland network, makes access to tools and equipment available to anyone who wants to make things; from jewellers to electrical engineers and school children. MAKLab helped Tog Studio deliver the Sitooterie by pre-fabricating the ply-box portal frame structure. MAKLab, who are based in Glasgow but plan to roll out their service across the country, were invaluable supporters of the project and warmly welcomed the TSA service users to tour their facilities and watch the frames be cut on the high-tech CNC router.

Delivering the Sitooterie increased the confidence and motivation of those involved. Kev Kelly, a TSA service user who had been involved in the project since its inception, commented that “(working on the Sitooterie) gives me a purpose to get up in the morning and gives me the self-satisfaction to do a decent days work and see what comes from your hard work”. Micheal Holliday, FRSA and architect at Tog Studio, commented that ” delivering the Sitooterie was an emotional project. It’s been a really intense build and we’ve made newGroup celebration friends along the way. We’ve learnt from each other and worked as a team; which is incredible given the short amount of time we had together.”

Tog Studio also recently hosted their inaugural summer school on the Isle of Tiree, off the west coast of Scotland. This event was attended by architecture students from across the country who wanted a hands-on alternative to their classroom-based education. The team delivered a 5m-high temporary timber ‘lighthouse’. The project was a huge success, winning national architecture awards, was published internationally and featured at the New York Architecture Film Festival. A further summer school is planned for June 2013 where the team plan to build a permanent community-owned boathouse on Tiree with a boat-building local charity.


“delivering the Sitooterie was an emotional project. It’s been a really intense build and we’ve made new friends along the way. We’ve learnt from each other and worked as a team; which is incredible given the short amount of time we had together.”

How you can get involved

Tog Studio are looking Sitooterieto bring their expertise to a greater number of projects across the country. Fellows who are looking to deliver innovative buildings through an inclusive construction process should get in touch; the team have experience of working at a range of scales and on a variety of building types. Tog Studio are currently working on proposals for affordable, self-build accommodation and work-space would be interested to collaborate with like-minded organisations looking to commission such projects.

Fellows who work in the construction industry supply-chain and can donate time, materials or equipment in exchange for sponsorship of projects like the Sitooterie should also get in touch.

Tog Studio would like to thank the RSA Catalyst Grant for their funding towards the Sitooterie, without which the project wouldn’t have happened.

There is more information about Tog Studio, including a short film about the making of the Sitooterie, at


Jamie Cooke is Deputy Head of Fellowship, with responsibility for the Specialist Programme team. You can follow him @JamieACooke or connect with him on LinkedIn

RSA Student Design Awards: Going global

April 23, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Today I had the pleasure and the privilege of being a judge at this year’s RSA Student Design Awards (SDA). The competition issues briefs to young designers to demonstrate how the insights and processes of design can solve 21st century problems.   The brief I was on the jury for, created in partnership with Yorkshire Water, was to design innovative solutions to help individuals and communities value water more. There were quite a few amazing entries, which made the shortlisting process challenging, but in the end we arrived at a very strong list (congratulations to my colleague Sevra Davis who heads the SDA programme, and to Robin Levien RDI who did a great job in facilitating the discussion).

The main themes of the entries were metering, and how to make better use of rainwater or grey water. Apart from some genuine insights I gained from going through the folders (how much water goes to waste only to heat up the shower!), I was delighted to also see entries from Hong Kong, the Czech Republic and Cyprus. In fact, SDA is becoming more international every year. Last year, with Eva Besenreuther for the first time one of the winners came from abroad.

As I am writing this post, the first ever RSA-US Student Design Awards are about to stage their annual lecture in New York at the Cooper Union this Friday (congratulations to David Turner FRSA and the whole team on this terrific Fellow-led initiative). The keynote will be delivered by Kevin Owens, Design Principal of the highly successful London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. On Saturday then, the big day, there will be a whole host of high-calibre speakers at the RSA-US SDA event itself, which will be followed by a reception. If you’re quick, perhaps you can book a spare seat.

Which brings me to another first for the RSA: Starting this autumn, in collaboration with Genovasi Malaysia we will run the first ever RSA Genovasi Malaysia awards as part of the SDA programme. As part of a consortium including Pearson, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam and Singularity University, we will partner to reward craft, ingenuity, insight, communication and social benefit of the designs of a new generation of Malaysian students.

And we are currently exploring further countries to add to our list together with the RSA Fellowship. Next year the SDA programme, which started in 1924 and is the oldest design competition of its kind in the world, will be going strong for 90 years – what a better way to celebrate than for RSA Student Design Awards to go global.

We are all made of stars… and so is our stuff

February 14, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Moby famously sang that we are all made of stars. And yesterday evening at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Professor John Wormersley, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, echoed Moby’s mantra (okay, maybe that’s a bit of stretch). Professor Wormersley spoke about how the search for black holes and the higgs boson impacts society and the economy.

Professor Wormersley’s talk was engrossing for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he emphasised the link between ‘big science’ (think of the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year) and the implications for our daily lives, society and the economy.

While for many people (me included), our knowledge of theoretical physics may come mostly from reruns of The Big Bang Theory on E4, Professor Wormersley noted that we rely on the numerous outcomes and chain reaction results from ‘big science’ in our daily lives: the internet (originally Tim Berners-Lee’s method for information management for scientists at CERN), wifi (which was enabled through Hawking radiation), and MRI scanning (which comes from knowledge of superconductors). In short, we need theoretical physics to help develop and improve our economy, our health, and the environment.

Yet ‘big science’ is often viewed as a risk because it is in an investment in the unknown, the unexpected and can often fail. But, as Professor Wormersley pointed out, we must be willing to take that risk.

So, Professor Wormersley’s thesis got me thinking about design. Just as Wormersley emphasised the need for and the link between theoretical and applied science, I think we need both theoretical and applied design.

But how can we teach and understand and then reap the benefits of theoretical design?

We can interrogate the design brief. Instead of just applying our knowledge of design and the design process (observing, analysing, prototyping, etc. ), we should use design to question our motives and why things are the way they are, without necessarily expecting a certain outcome.

This is where projects like The Great Recovery come in. The RSA’s Great Recovery project is about how we can promote and foster a circular economy and for now, we’re focusing on making connections between science, design, manufacturing and policy. But, we don’t necessarily know what the end result will be – though there actually is some ‘small, medium and big science’ going on in our workshops related to the project) as we don’t know necessarily what the end result will be.

You might even call it ‘big design.’


Hautte Clutture

December 18, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

“People are being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about” Tim Jackson, TED

I have been watching a series of films made by the Culture, Materials & Design Anthropology students at UCL for a brief set by The Great Recovery around people’s personal ‘stuff’.

Their footage follows a middle aged married couple in their home in South London (above) juxtaposed with another film of a young professional living in a newly built shared apartment in Notting Hill. The students were quizzing the inhabitants about their possessions. The shot pans around the house in South London, which is piled high with stuff; intricately carved wooden heads from Africa, stuffed toy animals, audio equipment with its vast quantity of snaking wires, CDs, books and trinkets. Kitchen drawers opened exposing a myriad of objects deemed ‘too useful’ to throw away. One of the couple starts to talk: “I don’t have anything in my house that is not useful to me, I don’t like objects that have no particular function”.

In the second film we pan around the stark white walled room belonging to a young advertising professional. Objects have been carefully curated on the shelves; an unopened beer can; a bottle of whiskey; a vintage camera. All these objects relate to specific moments, reflecting history through their creases and scuffs, and held in a personal space. A stark contradiction when we pan through to the small shared kitchen where chaos rules. Piles of food packaging flows from the bins and the shared fridge is smaller than a bathroom cabinet.

Watching these films made me realise three things:

1. The way I define usefulness is not universal.

I could see no intrinsic use in most of the stuff that populated the first house – but the couple who lived there clearly did. As a designer this is a very interesting concept. Can a trinket carrying personal memories be deemed useful? People’s possessions are testimonies to their history and not everything has to be practical. We seem to be very good at building attachment to our objects. We like to customize our things, and we define ourselves through the brands we have around us. Brands use this desire to build entire campaigns enticing us to identify with their lifestyle and therefore buy whatever they are selling – its clever stuff.

2. Many newly built houses are not fit for purpose.

The 3-bedroom apartment in Notting Hill was a new development. It’s built-in kitchen was not, it seemed, designed to cook in; its fridge was so small it had no room for fresh vegetables and and there was a tiny amount of preparation space on the counters.

RIBA’s report ‘The Case for Space: The Size of England’s new homes‘ highlights that the average 1 bedroom home newly built in the UK is 4sqm short of the recommended minimum size. It puts this into perspective by relating it to our use of space; 4 sqm is enough to work at home on a computer comfortably or ample room for a single bed with a bedside table and a dressing table with a stool. 57% of the people they surveyed said they did not have enough storage for their possessions and 35% said they did not have enough space for their kitchen appliances.

3. Designers can’t predict the user experience.

Finally, the question I had posed to the students was giving different answers to that which I had expected. I had asked them to observe people’s disposal habits, but the films clearly showed how bad we seem to be at this, generally keeping things for as long as possible to the point where we border on hoarding. In fact the UK is seeing a rise in extreme hoarding and we now have dedicated helplines for those that suffer.

Even though I am nowhere near extreme, I have a clutter drawer where all manner of things are shoved out of sight. Things I don’t know where to put but can’t yet face to throw away end up there. It’s where my old mobile phones live side by side with forgotten plastic toys from kid’s party bags, old batteries and pens that no longer work. When I open this drawer I despair in the same way one woman in the films despaired when she went up into her loft and saw the boxes of unopened possessions still carefully packed from a move two years ago. It was so much easier to close the door and walk away.

Our hoarding habits are beginning to become an issue: We are squirreling away valuable resources. Research done by Hallam University as part of their ‘What’s in my stuff‘ project estimates that the UK have over 85 million old mobile phones stuffed into those drawers. We pull out excuses that we don’t know where to send them, still hold useful addresses/pictures/fond memories in them or keep them for our kids to play with. Each phone is made of approximately 40 different elements including Copper in the wiring, Indium in the touch screen and Gold in the circuit boards. These elements are becoming increasingly viable to recover as the price of metals and minerals increase. There is more gold in a ton of mobile phones (approx. 300g) than there is in a ton of mined rock from a gold mine (approx. 1 – 5g)

Our clutter drawers are filling up fast. It seems it much easier to design things without talking to the people who have to live with the stuff and eventually dispose of it and with little or no consideration as to where our finished products will end up: re-used, recovered or landfilled once we as consumers are finished with them.

Incredibly the design industry still seems unable to fully understand the subsequent impact of design decisions. In an age where the rising cost of resource and increasing nervousness around security of supply of these raw materials is affecting business decisions and where 80% of the environmental impact of products is pre-determined at concept design stage this surely needs attention.

By Sophie Thomas, Co-Director of Design, RSA

With thanks to MA Culture, Materials & Design, UCL


Welcome to India

November 2, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Here at The Great Recovery HQ we have been glued to our TV screens for the last few weeks watching BBC 2’s three part documentary series: Welcome to India. Over 1 in 6 of the world’s population live in India, and during the series we see the film crew follow a handful of ‘backstreet entrepreneurs’ who are all “learning to survive in a crowded world”.

In episode 1 we meet 23 year old Kaale who has moved from the countryside to the city of Kolkata in search of gold. Gold is a precious metal with huge cultural significance in India – it acts as insurance, and Indian housewives own an incredible 11% of the world’s gold stocks. That’s more than the USA, Germany and Switzerland put together. Kaale lives with 20 other men in a small room in Kolkata’s Jewellery district, and wakes at 3am every morning to begin work. The huge mass of goldsmiths who live and work in the area leave particles of gold on the street which falls off their clothes, hands and hair when they wash, and gathers with the dirt and dust. Kaale and his friends spend hours sweeping the streets and using traditional American gold panning techniques to extract the metal.

“When people look at the street, all they see is garbage… But we know what’s hiding here.”
During the hour long programme, we see Kaale taking his gold panning venture even further by lowering himself down the tiny drains of Kolkata, extracting sack loads of ‘sludge’ and selling it to Javed, whose family own a backstreet gold panning workshop on a disused bank of the River Ganges.

Here, Javed’s 20 employees work tirelessly to first dry the mud, then sieve and crush it into powder (the only mechanised part of the process) before using 19th century Californian techniques with a wooden board and water to massage the mud to trap gold particles in tiny grooves on the board. Mercury is added to the remaining mud to ‘stick’ to the gold, and this is moulded into ‘ranga’ balls which are heated to first drive off any impurities, then to melt off the mercury. All that remains is one final smelting with nitric acid and they are left with 24 carat gold! These tiny gold particles that could so easily be dismissed as lost are being meticulously sourced and implemented back into circulation.

In episode 2 we meet Kanye, who also works recycling metals, but on a much bigger scale. Mumbai is home to a cargo ship graveyard, and it is down to 16,000 workers to ‘butcher’ these 12,000 tonne ships from across the world. It is an extremely dangerous job – every part of the ginormous vessels is taken apart by hand. Not a bit of the boats go to waste. The reusable parts go to the market and supply the Indian construction industry with cheap recycled steel, and the bits that cannot be reused are turned into something else and sold on. Even the tiny specs of iron that gather on the floor are collected and sold on.

Moving away from metals, to plastic recycling: Johora lives with her 12 children and husband alongside the railway tracks in Kolkata. She has worked her way up from a rag-picker to business-woman, with 3 warehouses collecting, sorting and selling on empty plastic bottles. Her young son, who has a network of ‘suppliers’ (who scour rubbish tips, restaurant and shop refuse) and a rickshaw collects the bottles, and brings them back to the warehouses where 4 employees remove the labels and sort the bottles by colour. They are then bundled into huge balls weighing up to 100 kilos and sold by weight for around £50 each to the next link in the recycling chain. (Johora cheats a little here by filling the odd bottle with water to increase the weight!).

At the next stage of the recycling process, some of the bottles are shredded, and the ‘chips’ are sold to manufacturers of poly-synthetic fibres who can use them to make everything from polar fleece to the stuffing for your sofa cushions.

It’s thanks to businesses like Johora’s that India manages to recycle a massive 60% of all plastic bottles. We, on the other hand are not even close to this figure, this is what the UK aims to be recycling by 2020 – Europe currently recycle 48% of their plastic bottles, the US just 29%.

All of these examples encapsulate so well the ethos behind a circular economy, however the tragic part of this story is the fact that these people aren’t dredging mud out of drains or collecting plastic bottles because they care about the environment, for them it a necessity for survival: “Where you see trash, we see a livelihood”. It’s time that here in the west we began to realise that ‘trash’ shouldn’t really exist as a concept any more. Money can be made from the recycling and recovery process. What if we started collecting and selling all of our plastic bottles? What if recycling became more of a business than a chore?

This illegal ‘backstreet entrepreneurship’ can also be seen in San Francisco, where due to the California Bottle Bill of 1987 (which means a deposit is paid on all plastic and glass bottles sold in the state) recycling has become an extremely profitable business for gangs who raid recycling bins. In February’s edition of BBC 4’s ‘Costing the World’, Tom Heap meets a 78-year-old Vietnamese woman who has spent all night rummaging through bins to collect just £17 worth of recycling. While this illegal activity means that 78% of all waste in the city is diverted from landfill, imagine if we could make this a legitimate business model, instead of relying on those in desperate need to do the work for us, illegally. One of the main drivers for the Technology Strategy board putting up £1.25million for designers to come up with new approaches to the closed loop system are the rising cost of metals and other resources. China now own 97% of the Rare Earth market. We don’t use the words ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ as the drivers are now financial as well as moral.

One of the most interesting things to note about all of these stories is the networks that these people have. When Kaale decided to take extend his business to selling drain sludge, he knew exactly who to call who could process mud into gold. When Johora brought her own van so that she could sell her bottles on directly, she knew exactly where to take them to get the best price. It’s developing these networks that we need to build on. We need to make sure that we know where to take our goods to recycle them; we need to make sure we know a materials expert to consult when designing new products and we need to make sure we are building and using these networks at every stage of a products life span. We need to become a connected society.

Join the Great Recovery community by signing up online, and find out more about material flow and closed loop behaviour by coming to one of our workshops, taking place throughout November.

(This blog was originally posted on the Great Recovery site)


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