Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

John Thackara | Essays

Travels in Uncanny Valley [March 2008]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

Many of us are confronted by a painful dilemma: we travel to earn money, and to see loved ones - and yet the only way to reduce the ecological footprint of flying is to stop flying. I took 78 flights last year, for example, which must put me in the top one per cent of individual polluters in the world. I have committed to fly 30 per cent less this year, and to reduce my flights by 90 per cent within ten years after that; but this will still leave me open to the valid charge of hyprocrisy for years to come. So I am very seriously motivated to explore substitutes for mobility. My search kicks off at a Pixelache University seminar on "Traveling Without Moving" in Helsinki. My fellow speakers are Juha Huuskonen, Andreas Zacharia (Carbon Hero), Matt Jones from Dopplr (remotely) and Danie Peltz (remotely). Saturday 15 March, Kiasma Theatre, Helsinki 15:00-16:30. Yes, I'm flying there; I promised Juha I'd be there nine months back - and you're right, that's no excuse. Read more about Uncanny Valley here:
Details of the seminar at Kiasma are here:

Before we close the doors at Dott 07 for the last time, the final Dott 07 Explorers Club takes place in Newcastle next week. We'll have updates from the community design projects, and the Eco Design Challenge; we'll also debate what design schools are doing (or not) for sustainability. News on the next Dott will also be announced. This is your last chance to enjoy (with us) the Robert Stephenson Centre space - birthplace of the railway age. Time 1730h-2100h. Wednesday 12 March. Spaces are limited due to fire regulations so you need to book by email: susan.lowt[email protected] (Please put Explorers Club in the subject line).

What could life in a sustainable region be like - and how can design can help us get there? Here are some sample spreads from the Dott 07 Manual: We've got a couple of boxes of the book left over, so I will send five free copies to the person(s) who most intrigue me with the names of four other people you will send the books to when you get them. Hint: they should be people likely to make other Dott-like events happen. Email the names of your nominees, plus your full postal address, to: john at doorsofperception punt com (and please put Manual in the header). Subject to availability. Single copies are still available from Amazon:

What happens when you get a bunch of software developers and social innovators together, give them a set of social problems and only 48 hours to solve them? The Young Foundation plans to find out at the first ever Social Innovation Camp. They will select between five and 10 projects to come to the weekend where there will be funders who, it's hoped, will take on some projects. Ideas already submitted include Barcode Wikipedia, a tool for sharing cycle routes in London and an idea for how the web could help the UK prison system become a more humane institution. Call for Ideas closes this Friday. The camp is in London 4-6 April 2008

Neil McGuire asks me, in this Wodcast interview, whether I meant it when I said that design schools should be closed down.

Shopping for a snack in central London I counted 78 metres (256 feet) of chiller cabinets in one small central London branch of Marks and Spencer. M&S have made a laudable commitment to make its operations carbon neutral within five years - but the company's Plan A does not mention refrigeration.This is a huge issue, because more than 50 percent of food in developed countries is retailed under refrigerated conditions. Read more at:

Ever since I learned about about water mapping from Georg Bertsch, and about watershed-based planning from Chris Hardwick, at Doors 9 on Juice last year, I've been aware that we don't think enough about water. In a fit of guilt I bought a bunch of books about greywater harvesting; these now sit in a dispiriting and unread pile next to my bath. Then, I found a book called Dam Nation: Dispatches From the Water Underground which I have read - and commend to you all.

Steven Johnson's books on the intersection of science, technology and personal experience have influenced everything from the way political campaigns use the Internet, to urban planning. He also co-created the online magazine FEED,, and most recently the hyperlocal media site, Steven will give the annual Stephan Weiss lecture in New York in 13 March; it commemorates the life of the late artist and sculptor, Stephan Weiss, partner of Donna Karan. Thursday 13 March 13, 6:00pm, Theresa Lang Center, 55 West 13th Street, NYC, 2nd floor. RSVP + or email [email protected]

Charles Leadbeater's new book is 'We Think: Mass Innovation Not Mass Production'. It's published this week. Charlie will debate the impact of the web with Jonathan Friedland of the Guardian at the British Library on 26 March. You can book for that event here:
The first three chapters can be downloaded from:

A serious-looking book from the Said Business School at Oxford University is called "Designing for Services: Proceedings from the Exploratory Project on Designing for Services in Science and Technology-based Enterprises". Not a thrilling title, it's true, but many of the names on the contents page are Doors (and Dott) regulars - so you may want to check it out. A degree of dedication is required to decipher the orange pages with white text on them.

The new SIX website lists projects and case studies from the International Social Innovation eXchange network.

The European Commisson has made bio-based products a green priority alongside sustainable construction, recycling and renewable technologies. In bio-based innovation we have a lot to learn from the natural world. This workshop brings together will bring together a number of leading bio-Innovators. 7 April, Reading, UK.

A sign when you arrive at Heathrow's Terminal 4 says "Welcome To Britain" and you enter...a sleazy gift shop. Now I understand why: The chief executive of BAA, which runs Heathrow, was promoted to the job from Retail Director. He's now been been sacked - but before we rejoice, consider this: His replacement's last job was running a water company, Severn Trent. What will await us next time we arrive at Heathrow - a sluice?

Jobs | September 30