John Thackara | Essays

Lessons of Infra [April 2005]

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.

People take different things away from a conference. Much of the value is created in situation-specific encounters than cannot easily be shared. But second-hand information is better than none, so we've put most of the presentations given at Doors 8 online, together with a few hundred photos. If you know of other photo collections or blog entries, please send us the url:

One takeaway from Doors 8 was an understanding that enabling platforms for social innovation need to meet three criteria: they should creatively engage the people they are intended for; they should help people to evaluate the new against the old; and they should help local people retain control over their own resources. Big corporations may have a role to play here as providers of enabling platforms - but not as the proprietors of of finished products or services. The challenge is to design system architectures that promote local leaderships, and that keep power, knowledge, and the value generated, at local level.

A majority of the population in many Asian cities lives in shanty towns which make urban planners anxious. Although perceived as problem areas by bureaucrats, these areas are also sites of intense social and business innovation. We learned in Delhi that they play a crucial role in keeping the city and its economy running. Indian users of technology-based devices cannot rely on formal networks of distribution, support, and maintenance: These are often incomplete, unimaginative or unrealistically priced. They therefore turn to the temporary fixes, or 'jugaads', carried out by Indian street technicians. An army of pavement-based engineers keeps engines, television tubes, compressors and other devices working. Outside our office in Delhi, for example, hundreds of tiny workshops, plus sole traders sitting on on the street, sold (and fixed) the countless hardware peripherals that keep office life running. Everything from toner cartridges to USB sticks was available, and bustling basements contained amazing arrays of ancient monitors, terminals and motherboards awaiting repair. The irony is this: many bureaucrats (and property profiteers) in Asia want to get rid of these so-called suitcase entrepreneurs; but in the North, proponents of 'creative cities' are desperate to foster a comparable level of small-scale industries and street-level productivity.

Our discussions of service design for emerging economies left a tricky question unanswered: how do we determine when is a market is 'emerging' - and when it has emerged? Is it possible to design the relationship between small pilot projects, as potential tipping points, and large scale system or market change? Ezio Manzini half answered that last question with the observation that "small is not small". Small is also not neutral. Small design actions have become political, Manzini explained, because anything that shapes connectivity and information architecture inevitably impacts on knowledge and value - and therefore power. For Chris Downs and Ben Reason, we are "less in a transition than in a u-turn: we have to design for less, rather than more", and shift our attention from the individual user's needs, to the social use of a service or system. Tilly Blyth cautioned us to remember that social innovation is usually unintended: "The history of interaction between technoloigical change and social change should be part of the policy and innovation process - but is not".

One "Aha!" moment in Delhi was the realisation that re-mix is not just about new music and vj-ing. Re:mix also signals a broader cultural shift away from the preoccupation with individual authorship that has rendered art (and management) so tiresome in recent times. In architecture circles, the concept of "recombinant design" has been doing the rounds - but re-mix, as flagged by Joi ito, is a better word. One visiting re-mixer at Doors 8, Juhuu (Juha Huuskonen), ran a terrific workshop on VJing in Delhi. Juhu is also behind an event in Helsinki (14-17 April) called PixelACHE which brings together new media explorations of this cultural shift.

The foreigners among us arrived in New Delhi at the same time as Condoleeza Rice. She was in town to sell F16s and nuclear power station technology. We were in town to sell the idea that design for social capital is a better investment. While Condi shows powerpoints to air force generals, Doors of Perception design teams fanned out across the city. Debra Solomon's Nomadic Banquet team checked out street food and food distribution systems. Jogi Panghaal led a group exploring the city's markets. Juha Huuskonen taught a group how to VJ. Jan Chipchase engaged in guerilla ethnography... somewhere. The idea was to experience the city as a design school in practice. Later on, Tony Salvador from Intel made a persuasive case that the massive microchip company takes the work of ethnographers and anthropologists seriously."We're trying to understand how to connect local with global knowledge. To do that we have to think about local knowledge ecosystems, not just about devices". Salvador showed us a case study in which ex-pat Kashmiris, now working in the US, send family members a coupon for a goat. The goats looked unaware of their fate.

These street-level workshops sparked a debate about ethics and ethnography. By what right do we swan around a city capturing information about peoples lives? If we are to exchange value - rather than just take it, or act like cultural tourists - what do we have to offer? Alok Nandi made the point that ethnographers - and for that matter documentary film makers - have been wrestling with this issue for decades, and why don't we ask them about the issue? (We will). Nandi was critical of the "dive bombing" method in which people land in places cold, and start filming things that they see, but have no way of understanding.(A British professor, Jonathan Gosling, refers to this as "The Mir Experience" - dropping in on another galaxy from within one's own spaceship). Jogi Panghaal countered that fresh eyes can reveal hidden value and thus mobilise neglected local resources. Visiting designers can act like mirrors, reflecting things about a situation that local people no longer notice or value. Shamefully, too many visiting designers promise local people they will do this, but never get around to sharing their conclusions and documentation.

Upon arriving in Delhi, Garrick Jones told me how intrigued he had been by the Duchamp-related theme of Doors 8. Marcel Duchamp's concept of "infra-thin" - an "invisible and intangible separation between two things, a space in which the possible impies the becoming" - struck him as highly appropriate. I was forced, at this point, to confess to Garrick that the Duchamp reference was new to me. The original inspiration for the theme had been shiny green consruction diggers in The Netherlands that sport the words "Bam Infra". These words had perplexed me for years.

At a meeting of people from universities, design and architecture schools, we heard that the London School of Economics is receiving 30,000 applications a month from China.

A surprising number of presenters introduced themselves as "ex-architects". The ExArchs included Marco Susani, who develops new services for Motorola; Margrit Kennedy, who redesigns money systems; and Usman Haque, who makes structures that float and emote. A British contingent of service designers included four ex-architects who design health situations. Industrial ecologist Ezio Manzini designs knowledge-sharing projects. And Aditya Dev Sood, another ExArch, nicknamed his panel session "architecture as old media". An ex-planner from Bangalore, Solomon Benjamin, told us that only ten percent of the population of Delhi lives in a master-planned area; probably fewer live in a building designed by an architect. Among the ExArchs engaged by the complex relationships among city locations and the activities they contain were media artists Ashok Sukuraman and Usman Haque: both talked about site-responsive media interventions as a way to enrich the experience of people in places. Maybe they're not Ex-, after all.

Actually building a location-based service, and making it pay as a business, is easier said than done. Stefan Magdalinski shared some of the lessons he learned developing upmystreet.com, a service platform based on the real patches of inhabited land connoted by Britain's 1.7 million postcodes. The reality of information flows at this ultra-local level eludes the big infrastructure providers, said Magdalinski - and he left the project himself when its P2P ambitions did turn into a sustainable business. (For all you bloggers out there, Magdalinski gave us one of the week's more memorable factoids: fewer than one percent of a website's visitors usually contribute or comment - and people usually only start contributing after they have been visiting a site for three years).

Laurent Gutierrez and Valerie Portefaix, who are MapOffice in Hong Kong, previewed their stunning new book, 'HK Lab 2'. It contains photography, maps, and writing about the Special Administrative Region and China's Pearl River Delta. When not working in the informal economy, a floating population of more than 15 million migrant workers sleeps in dormitories so small that there is no room to accumulate consumer goods. As a result, new patterns of living, consuming, and play have emerged; these challenge traditional notions of efficiency, order, and creativity in city design. Buy a copy of the book at:

The problem faced by Tim Tomkins, who runs the Times Square Alliance in New York, is that his city has been rendered clean - but culturally barren. In retrofitting creative disorder to the streets of Manhattan, Tomkins seeks to accomodate both creators and observers. Meanwhile New York's hard infrastructure design supremo, David Burney, used fabulous visualisations of New York's underground infrastructures to remind us that his city's water consumption, at 1.5 billion gallons a day for 8 million people, is unsustainable - just like New Delhi's. The good news is that 40 percent of New York's solid waste is now being recycled, and the city will save nearly $50m a year just by installing energy efficient traffic lights.

Returning to soft infrastructures, a contingent of service designers seemed comfortable in their new role as enablers, rather than providers, of a service - in this case, health. Jennie Winhall and Chris Vanstone from RED, at the UK Design Council, presented a persuasive design methodology for public services. We then saw the results of a six month project commissioned by NESTA and the National Health Service, from four design firms, that examined the potential for patients with long-term health conditions to co-produce and then lead their own 'journey of care'.The idea was to make the experience of different actors visible to all stakeholders in a storyboard format that pinpointed moments when communication blockages are most likely to occur. (The presentations for this part of Doors 8 are not yet online, but will be soon).

Ex-architect Margrit Kennedy delivered a stunningly clear analysis of why the world financial system is doomed.The bad news is that an horrendous crash is more likely than a soft landing.The good news is that complementary money systems are spreading fast in different parts of the world. Taken as a group, these experiments are evidence that we can do something, now. They also provide us with a real-life picture of what social transformation from the bottom-up actually looks like. Non-cash exchange systems and complementary currencies are, for some, where a genuinely new economy is being born - and where so-called emerging economies are in many respects ahead of "developed" ones.

If a light and therefore sustainable economy means sharing resources more effectively - such as time, skill, or food - then economic systems for exchanging non-market work have to be part of the answer. Sunil Abraham, a leader of the Free and Open Solurce Software (FOSS) movement in South Asia, added software to that list. When discussing access, and the digital divide, the cost of devices is less crucial than Total Costs of Ownership including, especially, the costs of software. Because software is a $300 billion industry, its leaders find it hard to understand that, when 90% of Africans in rural areas live on between no and two dollars a day,tThe price of a typical basic proprietory software package would cost someone in South Africa the equivalent of $7,500 and in Vietnam, $48,000. 'Information For Development' Magazine (i4d) is an excellent monthly publication on these crucial issues; its sister magazine 'eGov' is also recommended. You can order them both online at:

How best shall we share design knowledge when and where it is most needed? Books, databases, or blogs that contain insights, tools and rules are a powerful support. But much important knowledge is embodied, and situated. How do we share that? Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, quoted some spectacular numbers to describe the effectiveness of large-scale co-operative voluntary work enabled by carefully designed internet tools: there are currently 400 million page views per month of Wikipedia's 1.5 million articles - in 200 languages. The whole thing (if it is a thing) is doubling every three months. For Wales, the key ingredients in the design of the Wikipedia platform are: a policy of favouring results over process; flexible quality control using versioning and easy-to-use editing features; community features such as talk pages; and, above all, Wikipedia's Neutral Point Of View (NPOV). This last concept prompted a number of "now wait a minute!" comments from philosophical relativists in the room. Wales easily held his own with an explanation that Wikipedia's system of governance combines consensus, democracy, aristocracy - and absolute monarchy.

Wikipedia is a hard act to beat in terms of formal and recordable knowledge. But what about lived, everyday, embodied knowledge? Several knowledge-sharing designers - Francois Jegou (Sustainable Everyday) Amrit Srinavasan (Paedia), and Kamil Vijay (Honeybee Network) - found this to be a challenging design issue. The Honeybeee Network, for example, has documented 48,000 rural innovations - but a lot of them are hard to transfer from one situation to another; the system doesn't scale. Kamil described how one plant, which farmers stated adamantly was effective at resisting a particular kind of pest, failed to reproduce the effect when tested in a lab. It transpired that what the plant did, in situ, was attract another kind of insect, which also only lived locally, and that that insect disturbed the pest insect's eggs. But the egg-disturbing insect had not been taken to the lab. And those are just bugs. Two Bombay-based designers, John and Sanjeev from Kudos, spent months living among and documenting street food vendors of Bombay. Their material was rich, and entrancing - but what to do with it?

Marko Ahtisaari, reflecting on the infrastructure of sharing, listed what for him are today's 'primitives' of social experience: the gift; re-mix; 1:1 signalling; photostreams; and tuning out. Sanjay Khanna asked, in response to this analysis: is nothing sacred? Joi Ito proposed open-ness - and added that it is a condition of an open society that monopolies be broken up.

From my lodging house in Delhi I heard: No airconditioning roar. Pigeons fidgeting in the metal box above my window that used to contain an airconditioning unit The long moan of a freight train's horn as it crosses the city. Dogs fighting. Monkeys monkeying. Birds that miaaow like cats while swooping overhead. Loud insects shouting at each other. People sweeping leaves off their drive. Pedestrians saying "sshhhh" to cows so they will move out of the way. And the cries of street traders on a variety of bikes: the man with eggs; the man with the pink and red fruit; the knife sharpener; and the man with brightly coloured brushes and feather dusters who looks like a huge electrocuted parrot as he moves with his wares up the street. Later someone demonstrates the cry of the mattress rumpling man, but I have no need of his services.

Jobs | June 17