An Audience with Terence Woodgate, Royal Designer for Industry

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

‘Designers were considering sustainability before sustainability really existed.’ It wasn’t what I expected to hear from an internationally renowned designer, but then it seems to be the job of designers to defy expectations.

Solid Slide #9

A light from Terence Woodgate’s SOLID range

This particular designer, Terence Woodgate, rose from humble beginnings in North London to become one of the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry (RDI), the highest accolade for a designer in the UK and acclaimed for his exquisite furniture and lighting. After failing his 11+ and with dyslexia misdiagnosed as lack of aptitude, he was steered towards woodwork and found a niche in technical drawings – and maths. An apprenticeship at Gordon’s gin plant in Clerkenwell found him designing machines to stamp wax crests onto bottles, and was followed by work in the petrochemicals industry and travel in Europe and Asia. It wasn’t until his 30’s that Woodgate trained as a furniture designer.

One of Woodgate’s heroes is the iconic designer Charles Eames, who famously said: ‘I have never been forced to accept compromises but I have willingly accepted constraints’. Woodgate takes this a step further, declaring: ‘You have to be passionate about every constraint’. For him, this includes the material constraints that must be taken into account when designing for reusability or recyclability, and he maintains that it is the job of the designer to know about the whole life cycles of a product’s components. More than anyone, it is the designers of ‘cheap stuff’ who should be thinking about the lifespan of a product: ‘Because those are the first things that are going to be thrown away!’  

‘You have to be passionate about every constraint’

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From Eggs to Education: why diversity allows the flock to flourish

October 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

In the most recent RSA Journal, I read with interest the piece on competition by Margaret Heffernan – particularly, the part that describes an experiment designed to engineer a ‘super flock’ of golden-egg180x180hens. To see whether increased competition would create higher levels of production, geneticist William Muir pulled the top egg-producing hens out of a regular flock and put them together. After just two generations of this new flock, the results were remarkable – six of the super hens had been pecked to death by the remaining three, whilst the original flock was performing better than ever.

This experiment suggests that if you only value the so-called ‘cream of the crop’ you are probably missing a trick or two. Societies need variety and balance in order to function healthily – you simply can’t have everybody doing the same thing, no matter how valuable it is deemed.

The article got me thinking about our education system and the levels of competition and selection. My own experience saw my peers divided into two camps at age 11: clever, and not so clever. Even for those who weren’t required to take the dreaded 11+, academic pressure remains a dominant feature of school life. Certainly, an element of competition can be motivating, but just as the ‘cream’ ought not to be scooped off the top and isolated at their own expense, nor should the rest feel their particular strengths have no value to society.

Many of the RSA Fellows I’ve met over the past year have been teachers, and all were unequivocally passionate about the difference a good education can have on the trajectory of a person’s life. Whatever the challenges in the classroom might be, Fellows have a wealth of ideas about where improvements can be made that will potentially transform the confidence of their students.

One such teacher is Jo Taylor FRSA, who, having participated in Teach First’s leadership programme, has gone on to co-found Wall Display – an education project which has recently applied for an RSA Catalyst grant.

“As a teacher I saw how much of a difference an engaged parent could make to their child’s aspirations. I also saw how hard it was for parents to be involved in their child’s education. I wanted to create a way for them to see the great things their children were doing.”

With children from disadvantaged schools, parental disengagement can be a big problem because if the parent had a bad experience at school themselves, they may be less inclined to encourage their children to participate. Many of these parents may have become disengaged because they did not perform well in exams, and with the continual emphasis on exams and grades, it’s increasingly important for teachers to find ways to celebrate the diversity of students’ skills and ensure they do not become disenchanted with learning altogether.

Wall Display has addressed this issue by creating an online platform for teachers to share their pupils’ work in such a way that it displays the creativity and individuality of the work whilst pushing it beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

“Students can get really demotivated producing amazing work which nobody ever sees, the idea is that Wall Display provides them with an audience for what they do in school.”

The public can award badges to work they like

The public can award badges to work they like

When teachers post work from students, members of the general public can give badges to work they like and other teachers can offer feedback.

I think this responsive aspect of the project is critical because if your teacher does not like your work, it might feel like theirs is the only opinion that counts. Wall Display’s strength is that it allows an array of opinions to reach the students – an experience which is far more representative of life after school.

Jo spoke about the progress of the project at a recent RSA Engage event, and asked other Fellows to get involved in the following ways:

- Do you know a teacher or school who might like to use Wall Display?
- Do you know anyone who works for Ofsted or an education body?
- Do you know any business leaders who are passionate about education?

If you’d like to know more about Wall Display, help Jo or get involved then you can contact him at contact@walldisplay.org, or find out more on their website: http://walldisplay.org

The RSA has partnered with Teach First for seven years, and we are able to offer a reduced rate of Fellowship for all Teach First participants – contact Alex Barker for more information.

Pioneering social innovation in Malaysia

Genovasi Malaysia logoThis blog was originally posted on the news page of the RSA Student Design Awards website on 4th August 2014.

I am pleased to announce that nine emerging Malaysian innovators have won in the inaugural RSA Genovasi Malaysia Awards, winning a range of prizes worth a total of RM260,000. In addition, the winners all receive admission into Genovasi’s Innovation Ambassador Development Programme, complementary RSA Fellowship for a year, providing the students with access to the RSA’s Catalyst Fund and Skills Bank to further develop their projects.

The RSA Student Design Awards team partnered with Genovasi, a transformative learning institution focused on cultivating innovation skills in young people to develop and deliver the RSA Genovasi Malaysia Awards, which launching in September 2013. Genovasi offers a human-centred learning experience to learn and use innovation for social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development for future transferable skills to face challenges in life. The RSA Genovasi Malaysia Awards focused on three project briefs for this pilot year: Active Citizens, Encouraging Social Entrepreneurship, and Citizenship and Communication in a Digital Age.

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Can we save the world by taking the piss?

August 4, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I apologise for the intemperate language of the title, and I had to check today wasn’t April 1st before posting, but I wanted to share an idea I came across today in The Economist which involves using our pee to create renewable energy. The article features a new insight on an old idea rather than something completely original, but the upshot is that taking the piss might help to save the world.

Look, we all do it, several times a day, so if it’s good for something other than moderately entertaining sound effects then let’s put it to the best possible use. Contrary to the occassional wacky health fad, it’s probably not very good for you to drink your main liquid waste product, but it turns out that when it comes to creating electricity, urine has a p-value that would be the envy of any good statistician.

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The Big Idea: STEM, in a day, with the RSA

June 2, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

This is a guest blog from Anne-Marie Imafidon.  Anne-Marie is a Fellow who works in technology at an investment bank and has spent the past 15 months running a social enterprise alongside her main job. She was the UK IT Young Professional of the Year in 2013 and recently won the UnLtd Innovation Award for work on the ‘Stemettes’ which encourages young women to get involved with STEM. She received RSA Catalyst funding in April.

rsa-tourWe’re facing a skills shortage across the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries and have what seems like a shrinking minority of females in what is an important industry for our economy. [WISE 2013] 

We’ve helped girls meet a diverse set of women working across a diversity of roles in STEM and in doing so have helped break stereotypes

Many have documented the problems across STEM at all levels and made their recommendations for what should be done (see the Through Both Eyes report). Since its launch in February 2013, the Stemettes project has given positive STEM experiences featuring STEM females ‘Big Stemettes’ to over 1100 girls across the UK with our unique brand of passionate, fun & creative panel events, hackathons, workshops and one exhibition.

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Megabyte metros: how data and digital technologies can drive city growth

May 23, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

“It is a paradox of our age, that as digital connectivity enables more of us to work remotely, clustering becomes even more important in the creative, knowledge economy,”  so began Rohan Silva at the fifth and final seminar in the Commission’s spring series. To attract talent, investment and foster innovation, cities need to be places of culture and good design.

City growth needs innovation not replication (Image by delta_art via iStock

City growth needs innovation not replication                        (Image by delta_art via iStock)

When persuading Google to invest in its campus in Tech City, Rohan told us it was the fact that “Old Street station is in walking distance of 150 art galleries and exhibitions” that sealed the deal.  Culture feeds minds and, citing Richard Florida, so feeds creativity, entrepreneurialism and economic growth. Over half a million people now work in Tech City.

But our home grown talent is not just in the capital.  Mark Barrett, Head of Leeds Data Mill, explained the work going on in his city to collate, release and use data from a range of local sources – including Yorkshire Water, the NHS and City Council.  They’re also engaging people to create data where none currently exists by gamifying the cataloguing of city’s public statues.  With sell out data pub nights, a data dashboard for the city ready to go live and the Data Mill model already spinning out to six other cities in the region, there’s a new movement in town driving social and economic growth. Read more

8 Technologies that will change your life

May 14, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Fellowship, Innovation 

In January I wrote a couple of blogs about how drones and 3D printers would soon transform our lives and that policy makers need to think about the implications now rather than playing catch up later.  Since then there have been a steady stream of articles about the two technologies which suggest both are going to be transforming our lives sooner rather than later.

The Dutch and Chinese are both 3D printing houses, while surgery has reconstructed part of a person’s face using 3D printing after a motorbike accident.

Both Facebook and Google  have plans to use solar powered drones to provide internet access to more of the world’s population, a data stealing drone was revealed at a security conference in Singapore and the BBC revealed it has its own Drone journalism team.

Given that I was on the right path with those two bits of technology, I thought I’d draw up a list of 8 technologies that will change the world that policy makers really need to be thinking about now.

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EduKit: Innovating Education

March 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

RichardRichard Blissett is Co-founder and CTO of EduKit, an online platform that will help disadvantaged students by matching them with organisations that can provide specialist educational and personal development support. Edukit has recently received RSA Catalyst funding. This is a guest blog from Richard. 

Just days before Christmas we received the amazing news that we’d been offered a £2k Catalyst grant to develop a prototype of our ambitious EduKit application – an online platform that will connect schools in deprived areas with youth programmes being run by social enterprises and charities (aka providers). Our prototype is important as it will help us to demo our planned online tool to teachers and students and to collect vital feedback that we will need before we start system development. In addition to this, we had also selected three schools with whom we decided to pilot our approach manually. We were all set for 2014 to be truly eventful – and momentous.

And we have certainly not been disappointed. In early January we handed our system design to our developer Christian, a bright new graduate, who set about turning our vision into reality. After two months of hard slog we have now almost finished developing a prototype which demos the different log in screens i.e. for teachers, school admin staff, students etc and shows the results and analysis that will be available for users. We have also finished our paper pilot during which we matched 29 students (each with interesting, high quality local programmes that they would otherwise have been unaware of) and are just waiting to hear back from schools as to which programmes they will be enrolled for. The feedback from the schools has been exceptional and each has provided us with a testimonial of the service!

The students have been able to access support from programmes that are tailored to their specific needs and we have already connected with local organisations recommended by Edukit, who offer support/services to young people. Some of the students are receiving free, regular mentoring, and for others we are hoping to give them an extensive experience of living and working on a farm for a week. The whole process has been so helpful in finding targetted programmes to ensure the needs of our students are being met.” Debbie Coloumbo, Eltham Hill School

“The matches between providers and our students have been ideal. For a number of our students, having an additional resource to support and engage them has meant that they are no longer at risk and are much more engaged in their education. This is equally true of those in Year 11 as those in Year 8″. Amanda Desmond Assistant Headteacher, Southfields Academy

But what has really surprised us is how much we’ve learnt about how schools work. During just three or so weeks, we’ve been able to find out so much about what their challenges and expectations are and how users will use and value our tool. For example, we’ve learnt that whilst schools are entirely committed to helping their students in whatever way they can, they can usually take far longer than we had hoped to get back to us so it’s best to either organise drop-ins to help them fill in their data or build an very user friendly online system which would allow both teachers and students to easily enter their data. We also learnt about how schools plan their budgets in order to finance external support.

It’s been a great learning experience but we’re not quite done yet, based on the feedback we have received we now plan to build a Beta version of the online service. This will allow us to test the online functionality and onboard many more charity programmes into our database. if you’d like to find out more about our progress so far please contact us at info@edukit.org.uk

Watch this space for further updates!

Richard Blissett
www.edukit.org.uk

Megacity 2: the right solution to mending the gap?

March 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

Recently moved from London to Bristol, a friend of mine asked me last month: “How is life in Megacity 1?”. While she moved to be closer to her work as a retail manager, she finds herself frequently coming back to London to buy clothes for her small chain of shops in the South West.

The problem is not that London is getting too big, it’s that other UK cities are too small. This is how the adversarial relationship set up in the two-part TV series Mind the Gap: London v The Rest was resolved last night. As Evan Davis wrote “Britain does not have a second city. Instead, it has a first city and a couple of thirds…it is as though Britain has a great world city but lacks a great national one.”

As a recent report suggested, London’s ‘primacy’ – its size relative to the national economy – is not particularly unusual by international standards.

Other countries have more dominant capital cities than the UK

Other countries have more dominant capital cities than the UK (Source)

It’s not just population size where UK ‘second-tier’ cities underperform. Along with other factors, their smaller size means they are less productive, in terms of economic value produced per resident. As Lewis Dijkstra notes “a range of cities allows each firm to find its optimal city”. Illustrating this point with bar graphs, and noting that costs to firms (wages, rent) and workers (housing, commuting) also increase in larger cities, he likens the ideal city distribution to a staircase. If the steps between cities are well-spaced, as in Germany and the Netherlands, firms and workers are less likely to make a compromise. In short, we can imagine that there are firms and workers who want to “downshift” out of London, but can’t stomach the loss in the benefits of locating in the capital; and firms and workers who want to move to London – but are unsure they can afford the costs relative to the likely benefits. Both scenarios lead to inefficiencies: the gaps in our city staircase are too big.

ESPON staircase

Gaps between cities – measured here in 2007 GDP per person – are smaller in Germany and the Netherlands. (Source)

 

The solution proposed Monday night was that “the real second city of the UK is a northern, trans-Pennine strip that extends the relatively short distance across northern England, joining the built-up areas that lie second, fourth and sixth in the UK ranking”. This idea has been suggested before. As we highlighted in our Metro Growth report last month, 22,000 people cross the Pennines every day to commute. Other research shows connections and relationships between Leeds and Manchester are less strong than we would expect for these cities given the complementary nature of their economic activities. The Pennines are both a physical and psychological barrier. City boundaries don’t correspond to their economic footprint.

 

Megacity 2?

Megacity 2?

So, should we use national investment in infrastructure which better connects a ‘northern necklace’ of cities? The Northern Hub scheme now underway will improve the speed and frequency of trains, but over a distributed pattern of urban settlements car travel is likely to be much more convenient for the majority of trips. Without investment, the northern trunk road network is forecast to become more congested in the next decade. Which government – local or national – has the conviction to resurrect the motorways once planned? The M64 (Stoke to Derby), the M67 (Manchester to Sheffield), or the M650 (northwest of Bradford) to slice through the Peak District National Park? Furthermore, at our seminar last week, Henry Overman was sceptical that creating a network of northern cities was sufficient; we may be better off with one city of “over 3.5 million” for ‘agglomeration’ effects to kick in.

Forecast travel times in 2025

Forecast road travel speeds in 2025. (Source)

Evan posed the difficult question as being how to fund public transport infrastructure in both London and other parts of the UK, when the needs of London are so evident. It’s easy to get upset when you consider that, on a per person basis, London gets many times more infrastructure investment than other regions. But much of London’s investment is private, not public; and London’s scale means authorities are able to borrow more affordably against future fare returns. London’s public transport network carries half of all the journeys on public transport across the country every day. On a net basis, each day, London also imbibes over a million workers from beyond its borders and a million visitors from the UK and abroad (tourists and those on business trips). But beyond transport, if government is to guide development of Megacity 2, how will specific policies and priorities change? What sacrifices will be made?

The first question is whether we are confident we can make the right kind of spatial plan. As referenced in the programme, Birmingham’s economic success in the post-war era was stunted by the Distribution of Industry Act 1945 and later the Control of Office Employment Act 1965. By 1957 the council had explicitly accepted that it was obliged “to restrain the growth of population and employment potential within the city.” Seeking the opportunity to rebuild bombed-out British cities at higher housing standards, many planners at the time sought to reduce urban densities, protect the newly created Green Belt around cities, and rely on motor vehicle transport supporting new suburban settlements such as Peterlee and Harlow. This was anti-agglomeration, perhaps even contributing to subsequent inner city decline. Only Milton Keynes – the largest of all new towns – has the scale and location today viable enough to have its own economic dynamism as an employment centre.

We have a poor record of predicting the future dynamics of economic geography, and many of the key forces shaping the UK at the moment are little understood. Despite being important long-term trends, the spatial implications of household dynamics and the changing nature of work remain largely unexplored. As more women enter the workforce, more households are made up of two earners. Larger cities offer the additional benefit of having a higher likelihood that both partners will be able to pursue careers in different sectors, occupations or industries. Some argue London has benefited from a ‘trailing spouse’ effect. For example, with schools benefiting from (otherwise mobile) teachers attracted to London by the work of their partners working in less mobile professions tied to London. And new technologies of production are accompanying different career structures, growing rates of self-employment and different types of workplaces.

Mind the Gap barely engaged with the dynamics of the housing market, where growing anxiety is deepening the British obsession. Cambridge featured in the show as a success story, hungry for growth. Like Oxford, it’s a historic city endowed with a Green Belt and now bursting at the seams and increasingly unaffordable. London housing pressure needs a release valve, and London seems unable to provide it for itself.

The Green Belt in fact covers more land than the entirety of England’s urban areas which it was designed to constrain. It’s the jewel of strategic planning policy, but stifles other strategic thinking. For example, HS2 takes fast long-distance trains off the existing line. New commuter services will therefore offer drastically more capacity: from Willesden and Watford up towards Milton Keynes. Who is talking seriously about Green Belt release for new significant new housing development in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire? Welcome to a property-owning democracy.

Planning restrictions and the proposed HS2 route; Source: http://www.sed.manchester.ac.uk/research/cups/map_for_england_final_report.pdf

Planning restrictions and the proposed HS2 route. (Source)

 

Perhaps, therefore, we need a change in the geography of democracy itself. City growth needs local champions. Central government consented to London’s Congestion Charge in part with the comfort that Ken Livingstone – rather than national politicians – would be held to account if it failed. Lord Adonis noted last week that more people in Newcastle could name the mayor of London than their own council leader.

According to the boldest propositions, perhaps we should consider moving our capital. This question was asked at the launch of the City Growth Commission, and continues to be posed. Moving the political machinery could bring with it not just lobbyists and central government departments, but much of the private sector too – as the links between the two become more complex.

According to Professor Alan Harding “we have slowly redesigned our institutions of government and our major policy frameworks so that they respond to the pressures of growth in southern England and rarely see what happens beyond. We have a national policy regime that not only does not mind the gap, it extends it.” Last week we saw northern Lib Dem MPs calling for a High Speed 3 rail line across the North. The broad debate is gaining momentum and Mind the Gap was a substantial contribution. While cleverly pitched to stir debate, we need to move beyond ‘London or’ to ‘London and’. To be successful, the City Growth Commission will need to build the most important links: those between the political rationale and economic rationale for reforms which will produce a better system of cities. London and other cities will each, inevitably, evolve in their role nationally and globally.

Jonathan Schifferes is research lead for the City Growth Commission hosted at the RSA (@jschifferes)

Beware the Coming Drone Invasion

January 7, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

If I added up all the time I’ve spent in conferences and meetings discussing some policy or piece of research and what it meant for society I’d probably scare myself. If I counted up how many of those were about new technology it would be a tiny fraction.

Yet technology has had more impact on society and individuals over the past 50 years than any legislation, research or government initiative. Mass car ownership, computers, the pill have all revolutionised society, and now the internet is literally re-wiring our brains. Since we are, at least in part, what we think, then the internet is changing fundamentally what it is to be human.

Drone delivery

Drone delivery

If you ask policy wonks they will acknowledge technology’s impact on society, but despite this they don’t spend enough time thinking through the societal aspects of technological advance.  Getting through the backlog of interesting reading in between relative hopping over Christmas I came across the news that Amazon aim to start delivering their packages by drones.

So drones are fast becoming cheap enough and smart enough for commercial companies to use. It surely won’t be a year or two more before the rich have their own drones and then continuing downwards until I get my own drone one year for Christmas, delivered by a drone.

What are the societal implications of mass ownership of personal drones?

All modern drones have cameras and they will be constantly flying past windows, including bedroom windows, recording everything. However small the malicious element of this, people are more likely to keep their curtains closed to avoid embarrassment. I wouldn’t want Adrian from two doors down looking at my messy bedroom, even when I’m not in it. Drones will exacerbate the continuing trend of technology making privacy harder to find and us barricading ourselves further in to try and find it.

They will be very useful for police, increasing surveillance of people. While it might start with a team of drones keeping tabs on potential football violence or Saturday night town centre disorder, it will surely expand. Big Brother will edge closer.

There will be a further reduction in small interactions, the social glue that holds communities together. I don’t need to go round to drop back the pliers I borrowed from Adrian, thereby having a chat with him, I’ll simply send the drone instead. The regular conversation with the corner shop owner as I buy a pint of milk will be a thing of the past.

The regular conversation with the corner shop owner as I buy a pint of milk will be a thing of the past.

As the RSA’s connected communities research shows, these small interactions are vital to healthy communities.

Courier jobs will disappear, likely to be replaced with higher skilled drone repair jobs, whether software or hardware, requiring a higher skilled workforce and less opportunities for those who don’t have the skills needed.

So overall then, a huge increase in convenience counteracted by loss of privacy, continuing isolation of individuals and increased surveillance. These implications are surely enough that policy makers would do well to think sooner rather than later about the impact of mass drone ownership on our lives, including the more subtle impacts, and prepare for it. I’m no luddite, technology is amazing and I can’t wait to get my hands on my own drone, I just hope I’ve spent a few more hours of my life in meetings and conferences talking about their impact first.

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

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