Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

John Thackara | Essays

With the i-Borg in New York [May 2009]

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A new sign on Manhattan Bridge as you enter New York warns, “No Idling: $2,000 fine”. Fat chance. The city would make more money if it fined people for using iPhones whilst walking along. It’s as if everyone has been Assimilated; iBorg, disguised as cellphones, cling limpet-like onto everyone’s hands.


But I have to hand it to the iBorg: they’re good at social innovation. Take the example of family doctoring. Tamara Giltsoff, a service designer, introduced me to a wondrous new outfit called Hello Health. Their website is so well-written that I have to quote it direct: “Once upon a time, going to your doctor was simple. You knew his first name, or perhaps just called him ‘Doc’. He lived just down the street and made house calls. And if you were sick, you would see him that day, because, well, you were sick. Then things started to change. Although medicine has made some amazing advances in keeping us healthy, we now have to contend with dietitians, insurance premiums, running shoes, deductibles, HMOs, OTC drugs, specialists, fat-free salad dressing, and therapists. Daunting, isn't it? But don't worry, we've made going to the doctor easy again”. Hello Health combines the virtues of the old-fashioned neighbourhood doctor, with new tech platforms. “We love technology, the Internet, and especially our iPhones”, say Hello Health; “You can talk to us like you're talking to a friend: through emails, texts, phone calls, instant messages, or face-to-face conversations. Also, everything's online, from making appointments to accessing your records. It also helps we're close by, living and working in your neighborhood”. Anyway, the whole thing is quite brilliant - and to cap it all, hello health’s principal communication platform is a video on YouTube:

Even iBorg have to eat. Indeed, insofar as they have a destination as they wander the city, it’s usually to their next watering hole. An intriguing alternative to traditional venture funds is actually called All Day Buffet. One of its founders, Mike Karnjanaprakorn, told me (over breakfast, of course) that their idea is to “invest in creative misfits and entrepreneurs”. I ask him how this is different from existing social venture capital funds. “We’re like a record label - minus the evil”, Mike tells me; “we find super-smart people and give them the resources, connections and collaborative structure they need to launch their purpose-driven ventures and turn their ideas into successes”. Their method revolves around internal collaboration.”Our secret sauce (there’s the food thing again) lies in a cross-disciplinary culture that cultivates rampant idea generation, productivity, and happiness”. If you want to taste this recipe for yourself, Mike is organising a social innovation conference called The Feast on 1 October.

Phemonena like All Day Buffet won’t last long if food runs out. Claire Hartten, recently returned to New York from the UK (via the Doors 9 event we did on food systems,in New Delhi) has launched a group called Hungry New York to foster synergies between sustainable food projects, and buildings. Claire’s idea is to to bring together specialists from the green-building world (engineers, architects, developers, educators, etc.) with those, like cheese-seller Anne Saxelby, and restaurateur Carlos Suarez, who are finding entrepreneurial ways to grow more sustainable food systems. A first event, organised with the New York Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, features Carolyn Steele, author of Hungry City.

I was taken on a sneak preview visit to The High Line. It’s an elevated public park on a 1.5 mile elevated railway that runs along the West Side of Manhattan. Everyone is rightly proud that this historic rail structure has been saved from being razed by developers. 150 million dollars have been found to to create a “one-of-a-kind recreational amenity…a linear public place where you will see and be seen”. It’s a spectacular site, and the work is being beautifully done – but the project feels strangely out-of-date before it even opens. The High Line website features “before” images of the site before restoration, with masses of weeds and greenery. The “after” site, that I visited, features concrete walkways, high-design benches, and artful planting. What I missed, amidst the designerly order, was a sense of productivity and abundance.The good news is that Phases 2 and 3 of the project venture into vast unused railway yards – perfect sites for city farms.

An interesting exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, curated by Maura Lout, echoed my feeling that too much of New York’s surface is paved and impermeable. “Growing and Greening New York” seemed to be a friendly critique of the Obama reconstruction budget with its emphasis on bridges, roads, tunnels - and restored railway lines. Infrastructure can be renovated, the show implies, by softer means - “tweaking much of what exists” to create a healthier, more sustainable place to live. In New York, of all cities, it will take time for this soft notion of infrastructure to take hold - but once it does, the potential for digging up paved surfaces and retrofitting productive gardens, with so much water all around, is stupendous.

One warmly welcomes the imminent arrival of 30 highly-trained competitors into the buoyant market for design writing. (Can one write through gritted teeth?). Not one but two new masters programmes in design writing have started. At the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, “fifteen stellar students and an all-star faculty” are learning how to “research, analyze and evaluate design and its social and environmental implications”. In the UK, part-time students on the London College of Communication MA are switching into my market from careers in design and architecture, teaching, social networking, and trend forecasting.

But why be a sheep? Instead of becoming a design writer, I have a better idea for you: Liz Danzico, its co-founder,, told me that a couple of places are still open on her new Interaction Design course at SVA. Danzico promises “a range of experiences that cross visual, conceptual, and technical boundaries”.


Europe’s social innovators are more outdoors-inclined than New York’s iBorg: they all seem to be keen campers. The organisers of Social Innovation Camp, “an experiment in creating social innovations for the digital age”, are looking for the best ideas for web-based tools that can change stuff that matters. A camping weekend in Glasgow brings together some of the best of the UK’s software developers and designers with those at the sharp end of social problems. Their mission is to turn six back-of-the-envelope ideas that could change the world into social start-ups - complete with working software. And all in under 48 hours.

LocalGovCamp, for its part, is an ‘unconference’; this means is that no agenda is prepared and distributed in advance. Instead, sessions at the event are decided upon and scheduled during the first part of the day.

Two years after the group was formed, Transition Forest Row has just published its first version of an Energy Descent Action Plan, or EDAP. Subtitled ‘a community work in progress’ it is a combination of storytelling, cartoons, drawings and practical steps to an oil-free 2030.

The arts centre Stroom, in The Hague, has launched a two year project called Foodprint: food for the city. A range of activities will explore the influence food can have on the culture, shape and functioning of the city, using The Hague as a case study. Artists and designers are invited to develop project proposals that will connect entrepreneurs, farmers, food experts and the general public. One of the kick-off events is a symposium on 26 June featuring inter alia Carolyn Steel, author of ‘Hungry City', and me.

What’s the best way to use design during the crisis? This year’s Design-Organisation-Media conference (DOM) in Linz will explore different ways companies are using design to deal with complex business problems. Speakers from Nike, Shell, Siemens, Arup, and Ideo will be joined by researchers, professors, et moi. My chosen topic is: “Inwieweit sind die Methoden aus dem Kreativbereich für die Wirtschaft relevant und wie können diese erfolgreich im Bereich der Strategieplanung und Innovationsentwicklung eingesetzt werden?”. May 14 - 16, 2009, Linz/Mondsee

Juha Huuskonen and Tuuli Sotamma invite you “Emperor's New Clothes" in Helsinki on 16 May. “People no longer want to be passive consumers, instead they want to have an active role in searching for better solutions. How can designers open up their work process and allow access for others to participate?” The event starts with a presentation, by Professor Heikki Hyötyniemi, about “the search for balance in complex systems”.

The demise of architectural trophyism coincides with an interesting debate about the use of existing, but abandoned, industrial buildings. Until the bust, most large empty buildings would have been jumped on by developers and turned into egregious lofts. These days, the pressure is off and cities are considering more interesting uses. The question of grand architectural statements is raised by the transformation of the Var Valley, near Nice, into an Eco Valley This vast project, which will last 30 years, spans 25,000 acres from the Mediterranean coast to the Alpine foothills. The project's leader, Thierry Bahougne, wondered, in our discussion in Nice, whether the commission of a signifcant architectural...something...would attract potential stakeholders and give coherence to the enterprise through time. I'd be in favour of involving architects in Eco Valley - but not to make grand architectural statements. Rather than splash out $250 million on a signature building, a more exciting design challenge would be would be communicate the success of Eco Valley as a narrative about the restoration and nurture of its existing watersheds and biodiversity. The great national parks don't have signature buildings in them, so why Eco Valley? Read more at:

Scientists from Britain’s Natural History Musem, and the Meteorological Office, are helping to develop two unique "citizen science" ways to record an urban microclimate. A centrepiece of the Futuresonic Festival is Climate Bubbles: People across the city of Manchester will test air flow circulation by mapping the path of bubbles blown around the city, and share the results online. The game enables the Met Office to get a snapshot the Urban Heat Island phenomenon. And in Biotagging Manchester, people will traverse a range of microclimates including cooler and warmer areas of the city; they will use “micro-tagging" to record animal and plant life in Manchester's Philips Park. The idea is to discover and map Manchester's urban wildlife in new ways. Futuresonic’s director, Drew Hemment, tells me that “both of these science-based artworks revolve around a three-way interaction between technology, environmentalism and society”.

I’m not sure what design in-activism would entail, but design activism “encompasses a wide range of real-life, socially and environmentally-engaged actions”. A practitoners’ conference will facilitate the sharing of knowledge and understanding of practical engagement in design activism. A concluding Gala Event includes?cabaret, music, an awards ceremony, board games and “making new friends”. Aaah. 2-4 July 2009, Leeds, UK.

The Manual of Dott 07 is now available to download, and it’s free. We didn’t want to call it a book, which is frozen; and it’s not a Catalogue, which is backward-looking. So we called it a Manual.

Two Intel researchers, Margaret Morris and Farzin Guilak, are developing “mobile therapy” – a system of just-in-time personal coaching, by the system, that is triggered by physiological indicators of stress. Mobile Heart Health, as it’s called, uses body sensors to help people “tune in to early signs of stress, and modulate reactivity that could potentially damage their relationships”. Breathing visualizations and “cognitive reappraisal cues” appear on your cell phone when a wireless ECG detects deviations from your baseline heart rate. The only flaw I can see in this project is that my heart will literally explode the first time that a cellphone tells me to calm down.

Jobs | September 30