John Thackara | Essays

Landscape to Mediascape [February 2004]

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.

When traditional forms of work and daily life disappear from a locality, what is to take their place? What are the success factors for design projects in real-world situations? How should we deploy, and exploit, "mediascapes"? A talk by Charles Leadbeater opens this workshop in Oslo. Best-practice case studies address the notation of local knowledge, and test the boundaries between devices, networks, infrastructure, content, equipment, software, space, and place. Participants will be selected on the basis that their project sheds light on the above questions.There's no fee, and inexpensive flights to Oslo from various European cities are available from Ryanair, Basiq Air, Easyjet, Virgin Express. Our Oslo hosts have booked rooms at a modest price. Spark! is organised by Cumulus, Doors of Perception, and Oslo School of Architecture. Oslo 5-6 May 2004.

Muniwirelss.com is a welcome new website devoted to municipal wireless projects worldwide that are funded and/or run by cities and towns - from simple downtown hotspots, to city-wide wireless broadband networks. Rural municipalities receive equal coverage because they are leading the fight for affordable, universal access to the Internet. Esmeralda Vos, the site's Amsterdam-based editor, told us about a pharmacist who set-up wireless coverage for a town of 4,000 people for just $23,000.


The Agile Alliance brings together designers committed to the discovery of better ways to develop software.The Alliance prefers individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and responding to change over following a plan. This grassroots conference is to educate individuals about the Agile methodology, known as Scrum. April 20-25, 2004 Vienna, Austria.

The 1,276-page Telemedicine Glossary lists 13,500 organisations and projects involved with health telematics. A single page (696) lists 30 online journals and magazines. Two more (917/918) list 600 or more telemedicine research projects; they have acronyms like KISS, DILEMMA, ESTEEM, CONQUEST, WISECARE, PRE-HIP, CLEANWORLD and HUMAN. The first ambulatory electronic monitor was invented by a Dr Holter 1957 (page 584). In his day, neither the endoscopic pill (page 1006) nor the artificial nose (page 1025) had been invented. If all this cyber health stuff scares you witless, head for a "Less Developed Country" (page 1250) where they spend less per person on health ($11) than in High Income Countries ($1,907). Information: [email protected]

The Database of Adverse Events Related to the Internet (DAERI) is less shocking than we had hoped. It's an online form for the collection of case descriptions of patients who have been harmed, psychologically or physically, by misinformation on the Internet - but the results are not yet online. We did learn for the first time about "cyberhypochondria" - a conditon afflicting patients who consult their physicians recurrently or needlessly due to Internet-searches. We defintely have it.

Last month your correspondent bought a train ticket from Amsterdam to Switzerland - a ten-hour, five-train journey. A pleasant and expert woman at the ticket desk helped us select the best route. It was a complicated transaction, but she was so proficient that the experience was not unpleasant. Now the train company, NS International, has announced the closure in 2005 of all international ticket desks. 350 jobs will be lost, and anyone travelling to Belgium, Germany, France, or Switzerland will have to buy their ticket from a website or - and here the mind boggles - via SMS. If you are elderly; if you don't speak English or Dutch; if you don't have internet access; or if you are simply disinclined to waste your life energy getting lost in clunky websites, then NS the action is insulting and irresponsible. We regret the fact that Mr Roozendaal's mother dropped him on his head as a baby (he is director of NS International) - but why should the rest of us suffer for that? He should read his own website: "Service, of course, involves people", it says.

Buzzing buttons animate the website of Futuresonic, Manchester's festival of electronic music and media arts. It's about how perceptions of space and time are being reconfigured by wireless and mobile media. "Recording enabled sound to be heard apart from the place and time of its creation. Radio made possible remote listening. What kinds of communication and creative expression are emerging within networks with no fixed centre, but rather multiple, mobile nodes?" The director of futuresonic, Drew Hemment, has cleverly secured funding to explore the shifting boundaries between art practice, the event, and data-systems.
29 April to 02 May, Manchester.

Our book of the month is KaosPilot A - Z. It's about the first ten years of the Danish business school "where business and life are in bed together". During its first decade, KaosPilots sparked fierce debate about the future of the labour market, demands for new competencies, and socially responsible business. Well-written by Uffe Elbaek, the book features insights into people, projects, education, and philosophy. Friends of KaosPliots also contribute - among them Alan Webber, founder of Fast Company, Visa founder Dee W. Hock, and Wired editor-at-large Kevin Kelly; he muses on "the strangeness of kindness". The wretched Danish Government has just cut state funding for KaosPilots, so they need your support. Buy the book.

The "next convergence" is at the intersection of healthcare and technology. So argues Richard Saul Wurman of TEDMED, his conference about medical technology, research and healthcare in the 21st Century. Themes this year include "understanding yourself through imaging, tests, and genomic visualization"; access to information and diagnosis; pharmaceuticals, medical research, water, and biotechnology; hospitals, devices and product design; the economics of healthcare, insurance and government polices. Expect to encounter more heavy-hitters than dissident voices at the event: Wurman is co-producing it with The Wall Street Journal. 12-15 October, Charleston South Carolina.

Can you imagine a way to enable novel and exciting interactions in public space, using new technologies? A first prize of ten thousand euros is at stake in Fusedspace, an international competition to find inspiring applications for new technology in the public domain. You have to pay 50 euros to enter, but your ideas will be reviewed by a jury which includes editors and writers (Max Bruinsma, Ole Bouman, Charles Leadbeater, Marleen Stikker) and designers and architects (Amy Franceschini, Adam Greenfield, Natalie Jeremijenko, Jouke Kleerebezem, Knowbotic Research. Christian Moeller, Anne Nigten, Franziska Nori, Joachim Sauter). Proposals may be submitted until 1 May 2004.

"Design excursions out of the ordinary" are promised by Chee Pearlman, director of the first Art Center Design Conference. Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the man bringing us tantalizingly close to discovering the mysteries of Mars, is one speaker. Is this a sign that Art Center has chosen the site of its next campus? Other excuses for a trip to California are Oscar-nominated Andrew Stanton, Pixar's director of Finding Nemo; David Baltimore, Nobel-prize winning biologist; plus designers James Dyson, Bruce Mau, Peter Girardi, and Frank Gehry. March 18 - 21, 2004, Pasadena, California.

London's ecological footprint is 239 times its actual size. Energy use, healthy materials, waste, pollution, and other technical-material considerations, can all be redesigned to make a city lighter. But cities are also a vital economic and social hub; wider issues of social and economic sustainability are important, too. This conference in Glasgow, on urban ecology, is about visions and experiences of large-scale urban ecology projects in Europe. Urban Ecology, 23 & 24 February 2004, The Lighthouse, Glasgow.


Our invitation says "move your body in the musical field". What that means will no doubt be revealed in Roskilde, Denmark, where 75 students and researchers have put together a show called Digital Bauhaus for the 21st Century. Until 21 March 2004, Roskilde, Denmark.


What do today's design schools think about the hospitality industry and its many design concerns: city identities, city brands, events, spaces for hospitality, tourist information centers, hotels, restaurants, bars, new products and furniture? Milan Polytechnic University's celebrated design school is hosting the annual "Designing Designers" event to find out. Twelve international schools are taking part. It's on 17 April, and the next day is kept free so that you may visit the Milan Furniture Fair.

The leading international forum on human-computer interaction, CHI, meets this year in Vienna. One of the topics is Robotics & Transport, which makes you wonder. Jun Rekimoto from Sony Interaction Labs gives the opening keynote; Tim Brown from IDEO gives the closing one. We are confident that Tim will attend all CHI's 93 papers and 31 tutorials before jumping to any conclusions. 24-29 April 2004, Vienna. 


In Holland, the weight of a fire engine holding 30,000 litres of water determines the construction constraints for roads. All infrastructure has to be built on a two-metre layer of sand. This, plus the piles that are also used to support many buildings, disrupts the water balance. Architects MVRDV and Jon Kristinsson have suggested a solution called 'Lite Urbanism' for a location south of Rotterdam. No sand, and the opportunity for balanced water management using swamps and natural drainage. No telephone cables, thanks to wireless. No gas pipes, because bottles are used. No electricity wires, because power is generated on site. No sewer pipes, because water purification takes place in gardens. Adriaan Beukers, a professor the Delft University in The Netherlands, calculates that most buildings could be at least 50 per cent lighter if different combinations of materials, concepts and processing methods were to be deployed. These, plus a ton of other great examples, feature in an excellent new book, Smart Architecture, by Ed van Hinte, Marc Neelen, Jacques Vink, and Piet Vollard.

An Entropy Information Kiosk, by Nils Norman, features in Adaptations, an intriguing city design show in New York. Another project, by Raqs Media Collective in Delhi, focuses on the "civil war between the master plan and the moment". The show also features The Wild City: Genetics of Uncontrolled Urban Processes, a collaborative work by the STEALTH group (Ana Dzokic, Milica Topalovic, Marc Neelen, and Ivan Kucina); they examine the explosion of unregulated and illegal architectures stemming from Belgrade's economic and political crises in the 1990s. Adaptations ends on 7 February, so hurry on down.

The organisers promise a session on "How to promote your community so that new members can find it" - and then give the game away: they've organised their conference in Lisbon, a city which everyone wants to go to, and features prominently on most maps. Web Based Communities 2004 is for moderators of web communities. One session is on "virtual communities for people with special needs". This category should include the ability to communicate in a humanoid language: a session on "fading hierarchies and epistemic dictatorship" appears to have been written by Klingons. Lisbon, 24-26 March 2004.

Why are homes so expensive to buy and maintain? Why is the industry that builds them so fragmented, barely globalised, and behind other sectors in introducing disruptive innovations to its basic processes? In a new book called Why is construction so backward?,James Woudhuysen and others attack "architecture as social engineering" and rail against "environmentalist dogma" and "sustainababble". In its praise for US carmakers, and Japanese prefabricators, the looks sounds like a Stakhanovite rant. But some of little England's best architecture critics are involved, so it's probably worth a read.


Jobs | June 15