John Thackara | Essays

Tools for Citizen Services [January 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.

The tsunami has brought tragedy and disaster to millions of people. We believe the best way for Doors 8 to respond is by looking for ways to empower people with the knowledge, tools and they need to rebuild their own lives and communities. This brings our theme, "infra", sharply into focus. We will reshape Doors 8 in response to the disaster in three ways. First, we will organise a session to evaluate the design challenges revealed by the disaster. We are therefore keen to hear from people in, or going to, areas affected who can brief us, first-hand, on some of those challenges. Second, we will prioritise the part of agenda that asks: how best shall we share design knowledge when and where it is most needed? Alex Steffen from worldchanging.com, and Jimmy Wales from wikipedia, will join our discussion on this issue. Thirdly, we will free up more time for Project Clinics when the expertise of delegates coming to Doors 8 can be applied to the development of future projects.

Doors of Perception 8 runs from 21-26 March at the Habitat Centre in New Delhi. Designers, grassroots innovators and entrepreneurs will discuss "INFRA: platforms for social innovation, and how to design them". What infrastructures are needed to enable bottom-up, edge-in social innovation - and how do we design them? Doors 8 will address these two questions from a variety of angles over five days:
- Plenary think-piece presentations;
- Project Clinics;
- A social innovation bazaar;
- One-to-one conversations;
- An exhibit of 100 years of media artifacts from India;
- Encounters and exchanges in the city and around.

Your takeaway from Doors 8 will be next-generation service concepts, plus the connections and capabilities you need to implement them. In the post-event survey that followed Doors 7 on "Flow" we asked delegates: "Did you take away any insights that will inspire your work?" They answered: "No, alas, none" (3%); "Yes, one at least" (43%); "Yes, more than one" (54%). To the question," how many people are you happy to have met at Doors?" they replied: "Zero" (8%); "1-4" (54%); "5-10" (29%); "More than 10 people" (9%). They also mentioned as valued takeaways: critical design thinking; inspiration from other fields of work; high-level discussions on design and social networks; and "the willingness of the entire group to be challenged".

One session at Doors 8 will look at the street as a site of innovation. Sixty percent of the population in many Asian cities lives in shantytowns: what can we learn from how they innovate to survive? We'll hear about migrants' lives in Chinese cities, and compare New Delhi street life with the ways that New York is trying to breathe life back into its over-sanitised streets. The British story of Up-My-Street.com will help us appreciate how hard it is to add service quality to locality.

Now that 'tech' has ceased to be a driver of innovation on its own, some advanced companies are using ethnography in an effort to make their innovation processes more people-centered. Designers from Motorola, Intel, HP and Nokia will explain at Doors 8 how they use social research in the design of services and devices. In discussion we'll ask, how meaningful is the ethnographic knowledge they're using? How does this approach to innovation compare to the kinds of bottom-up creativity found on the street?

The difference between social services provided by the state, and services enabled by the state but implemented by citizens, is pertinent in disaster relief. We will also explore the transition to what Ezio Manzini calls 'enabling services' in the context of health systems in the North. Hilary Cottam and Robin Murray will describe their "Touching The State" work in the UK. We will also see the results of a project commissioned by Hugo Manassei at Nesta, and the National Health Service, in which young service designers explore new ways to support "journeys of care".

Sixty percent of the work done in the world is "non-market". Among the enabling infrastructures now emerging are Local Economy Trading Schemes (LETS), alternative currencies, and so-called open money systems. Most of these local schemes are manually administered. But service designers Live|Work will bring us news of web- and wireless-enabled non-market infrastructures for sharing knowledge, tools, space, time and other resources. Sunil Abraham will describe Indian barter systems as benchmarks for these new service concepts. And Margit Kennedy will explain how complementary currencies influence traditional ones.

What does it mean in practice to design a platform for social innovation? To find out, we have scheduled two days of Doors 8 for Project Clinics. In these clinics, experts gathered together for Doors will evaluate real world projects and help their teams refocus them in light of the lessons learned in the conference. By way of introduction Tilly Blyth, the new curator of computing at London's Science Museum, will put this question into historical context. Jan Chipchase, who uses live video as a medium for street-level innovation in Tokyo, will demo this technique.

Someone, somewhere, has probably designed some of the services or situations that we will need in a sustainable society - so why repeat things? Novel ways to share food, move around, or care for each other, often already exist. But a lot of social innovation is not picked up on the radar screens watched by service designers in the North. And when need arises - such as with the tsunami - the North is often ignorant of what people affected actually need. So they do things with the best of intentions like drop the wrong kind of food. The question arises: can websites and wikis help us learn about, and share, living contextual knowledge? Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia and Alex Steffen from Worldchanging will discuss this with grassroots innovators.

Doors 8 is not about aid or development in a paternalistic sense. It's about collaborative value creation among peers. Don't come to 'do good' but to learn about shared-use models of communication, and new ways of using - and paying for - devices and networks. Doors 8 is taking place in India because, with one fifth of the world's population, it's an ideal place to explore what it will mean to design tomorrow's services that use people more, not less.

We would dearly love to invite you all to come to Doors 8 for free. Sadly, we can't do that, and must ask you to pay to participate. For young designers and design students, who the event is really for, the registration can be expensive. Some complain that we have become too "commercial". But commerce is not the reason you have to pay. Doors 8 is a not-for-profit event. Indeed, it will be subsidized by the Doors Foundation. A Dutch government subsidy pays for about 20% of the direct costs of Doors' activities - conference, website, professional workshops - but the balance has to be paid for by sponsorship and ticket sales. Doors 8 is sponsored by Nokia, HP, Intel, Nesta, and some generous private sponsors - but their support means that the event goes ahead, not that we make a profit. If we charged you for all our costs, and all our time, and charged you a commercial rate, you'd be paying four times more.

We sympathize with MIT. It seems the value of the university's endowment has dropped by a cool billion dollars during the stock market 'correction'. If you know to whom that missing billion went, please ask them to recycle one percent of it to Doors. With that as an endowment, we can expand our work, and reduce ticket prices.

When we asked the one thousand people who came to Doors 7 on Flow, in 2002, how they first heard about the event, they replied:
- "Someone told me in person": 42%
- "Someone sent me a personal mail": 9%
- "Doors email newsletter (this one)": 19%
So word-of-mouth means everything to us in promoting Doors 8. If you know of people who could benefit from going to Doors 8, please tell them now.


In his new book 'Information Politics on the Web' Richard Rogers says that the Web can be a "collision space" for official and unofficial accounts of reality and, as such, an excellent arena for "unsettling the official". Tools developed by Rogers, such as the celebrated issue tracker, can be used in a new information politics involving competition between the official, the non-governmental, and the underground. For Jodi Dean, Rogers' book is "light-years ahead of other research". And Bruno Latour celebrates the fact that "finally, someone investigates the Web's ability to express, renew, and disrupt the age-old tools of political expression." Rogers is Director of govcom.org in Amsterdam

Ethan Zuckerman a researcher at Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, is researching what he calls the Global Attention Gap - the tendency of major media outlets to report more thoroughly on rich nations than on poor ones. Ethan's current project - Global Attention Profiles - creates graphical portraits of where different media sources are focusing their attention, and demonstrates correlations between these distributions and economic and population statistics.

Freight transport is an important source of air pollution, CO2 emissions, and noise, as well as causing countless injuries and deaths by accidents. Freight transport is out of control in the sense that it has been growing faster than the economy, by 0.8% per annum, since 1985. Flying fresh salmon from Norway to Japan is an example of excellent logistics performance and crazily misplaced priorities that characterize this mobile economy. Two Danish researchers describe "A crazy case of flying fish", in the latest issue of the excellent and always fascinating journal, World Transport Policy & Practice.

Land is a finite resource but we consume it as if it were limitless - especially for mobility. John Whitelegg, a transport ecologist, reports that in Switzerland, the land allocation for road transport is 113 m2 per person - and for all other living purposes (houses/gardens and yards) it's 20-25 m2 per person. The knowledge economy, far from reducing our greedy consumption of land, accelerates it: the spread of car parking around universities, hospitals and airports stimulate higher levels of car commuting, demands for more road space, and hence land take." Cars are only used for 2.8% of the time and then often by one person; the rest of the time they are parked somewhere doing nothing. Allocating land to such inefficient uses is bad value for money and bad prioritization given the many pressures on land" says Whitelegg.

Check out Exxon secrets, a new website designed for Greenpeace by Josh On and Amy Balkin. Their brilliant "They Rule" interface has been adapted for a database that tracks Exxon funding to a series of individuals and institutions that "have worked to undermine solutions to global warming and climate change".

The World Trade Organization has said it "deplores" the Yes Men, and George W. Bush has called them "garbage men". Why could that be?

Esther Dyson is preeminent among Internet gurus in understanding the value of embodiment - the proximity of bodies to each other - in today's network society. So we're happy to recommend Esther's annual conference, Release. It runs just before Doors 8, and in Arizona, but some of her delegates are rich and have their own G5s so persuade them to come on to Delhi and hitch a ride. Speakers include Marc Andreessen, Claiborne Barksdale, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Howard Gardner, and Anne Mulcahy. March 20 to 22, 2005, Scottsdale, Arizona.

The aim of the Tactical Technology Collective'is to advance the use of new technologies as a tactical tool for civil-society in developing and transition countries. The group, together with Mahiti.org, is organising Asia Source to bring together over 100 people from 20 countries to increase the use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) amongst the voluntary sector in South and South East Asia. Asia Source is a seven-day hands-on workshop aimed at building the technical skills of those working with NGOs in South and South East Asia. Bangalore, India - Jan 28-Feb 04 2005.

An international symposium on the design of environments for young children will take place at Domus Academy in Milan and be combined with visits to schools in the city of Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy. It's a unique opportunity for architects to learn about the design philosophy and detail construction that supports the world-renowned approach to early years education developed by Reggio Children.

A two-day international conference in Amsterdam will examine the new interconnections between culture and economy. The speakers are a policy maker's dream team: Charles Leadbeater, Tony Blair's favourite futurist,; Charles Landry, founder of Comedia; Lawrence Lessig, chairman the Creative Commons project; Geoff Mulgan, T. Blair's head of policy; Luc Soete, one of the European Union's most influential internet eggheads; Pekka Himanen, director of the Berkeley Center for Information Society and author of The Hacker Ethic; and uber-geographer Stephen Graham, author (with Simon Marvin) of Splintering Urbanism. Yes, they're all men: the creativity bubble seems to be a guy thing.

"Digital media have not only made in-roads in the way visual artists, musicians, designers, film makers and other cultural practitioners work - they have created a new context". Michiel Schwarz's insightful Dutch policy paper on "e-culture", that has just been published in English, says stirringly that "the key here is not doing the old things with different tools, but rather 'to do other things'. Digital technologies and the Internet are opening the door to new forms of expression, changing the roles played by cultural institutions, and placing the audience and user increasingly centre stage". Which is all well-and-good, but the minister to whom the report was addressed also wants to abolish Doors of Perception's funding after 2005. Booo.

Jobs | June 13