John Thackara | Essays

Announcing Doors 9 and 10 [May 2006]

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.

Doors of Perception 9 takes place in New Delhi, 1-5 March 2007. The theme is "Juice" and the subject is food, fuel and design. The encounter (we have stopped calling ourselves a conference) has several parts: A two-day Project Leaders Round Table for c30 people who will be invited after a call (published later this month); a design innovation bazaar in the Palm Court Gallery, at India Habitat Centre; and a one day thing in an auditorium, also at India Habitat Centre, on Saturday 3 March. Our partner for the event is the Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS). Our content partners, who will develop bits of the programme, include culiblog.org (Debra Solomon) and PixelAche (Juha Huuskonen). The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and Designs of the time (Dott) are sending design students. Winy Maas from MVRDV will be one of the featured presenters. Joost Wijermars is coming. Doors 9 ends with a Holi party on 5 March. For now, just note the dates; details of how to participate will be emailed to this list and posted at:

Doors of Perception 10 takes place in Newcastle, UK, towards the end of October 2007. We will develop further the ideas and projects that emerge from Doors 9. Doors 10 takes place during the Designs of the time (Dott07) festival. (A new Dott07 website, with information on all next year’s projects and programmes, will go online in July).

The Young Foundation has published a manifesto for social innovation. Written by a team led by Geoff Mulgan, Social Silicon Valleys compares the vast investments made in each year in scientific R&D (nearly 12 billion euros of public spending on R&D in the UK alone) with the piecemeal and marginal investment that is made in social innovation. The pamphlet warns that addressing the most important challenges of this century - including climate change, ageing and chronic disease, as well as the prospects for sustainable growth - will depend as much on social innovation as new technologies. The publication is supported by the British Council as part of the preparation for an international conference with ministers and city leaders from Europe and China to be held in Beijing in October.

A few places are available for the next meeting of the Designs of the Time (Dott07) Explorers Club in Newcastle (UK) on 13 June. The evening is about the question: What would it mean - in terms of content, and of information design - to monitor a region's vital signs in real time? There will be three short presentations: Janet Abrams editor of the new Else/Where: Mapping; Nic Marks, head of the Centre for Well-being at New Economics Foundation; and Sarah Cook from CRUMB. Admittance strictly by invitation only (fire regulations!) so it's first-come, first-served when you email.

Someone's been busy: A new product was launched every 3.5 minutes in 2005. Of those 150,171 new products, 87,656 were in food and drink. But 68,469 new products were launched in the non-food sector - with cosmetics, skincare and hair care leading the way. Mintel, which published these numbers, also identified new trends that are set to have a huge impact on product innovation: Brainpower foods, age-defying treatments, increases in portion control, and "just for you" customised products. Inexplicably, Minitel omitted environmental collapse, and global cultural ennui, from its list of trends that will impact on innovation.

Brainpower foods are missing from the agenda of the Aspen Design Summit. Insteads, design leaders and professionals from business, government, culture and education will spend three days working on practical challenges to do with education, community development, and social entrepreneurship. A highlight takes place on the Summer Solstice, when participants will "celebrate curiosity, creativity and enlightenment" during a "Darwin Dinner". Our menu, says host Niles Eldredge, the paleontologist, will reflect Darwin's culinary experiences in South America. Dodo-burgers? The design summit is in Aspen Colorado, June 20 - 23.

A few weeks back I gave a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts in London entitled "Solidarity economics & design". The lecture was provoked by the ghastly antics of Bob Geldof and the assumptions he and others make about 'development'. I argued that the word development to often implies that we advanced people in the North have the right, or even obligation, to help backward people in the South to 'catch up' with our own advanced condition. And that No, this idea doesn't make sense. The concept of development is further devalued, I said, by the impoverished but destructive mindset of economics. "The North's purse strings are clutched by people who define development narrowly in terms of growth, jobs and productivity - and ignore broader measures of sustainability and well-being".

In sub-Saharan Africa, timber used traditionally for roofing is increasingly hard to find. Where flat beams and rafters were once made from rough timber and branches, people in rural areas must now resort to corrugated iron and sawn timber beams. These imported materials are expensive, and have poor thermal, acoustic, and aesthetic properties. In an interesting South-South knowledge transfer, an ancient architectural technique, traditionally used in Sudan and central Asia, is providing new impetus to house building in the Sahel. "La Voute Nubienne"(Nubian Vault) uses basic, readily available local materials are locally available and ecologically sound. The major cost element is labour, using simple, easily learnt, procedures which help keep cash in the local economy. The challenge now is to develop the design strategy into something much bigger, by training 250 builders. If you'd like to help contact: [email protected] Read more at:

One of the more critical issues facing urban habitat is the decreasing spaceavailable for humans to rest, relax, or just do nothing. More than 70 per cent of San Francisco's downtown outdoor space is dedicated to the private vehicle, while only a fraction of that space is allocated to the public realm. A group called PARK(ing) reprogrammes private vehicular space by leasing a metered parking spot for public recreational activity "thereby temporarily expanding the public realm and improving the quality of urban human habitat, at least until the meter ran out".

In this sublime mobility project, Karachi vehicle decorators transformed a Melbourne tram. It now features vibrant dancing colour in hand-cut sticker collage, sparkling reflection of sculpted stainless steel panels, and dazzling flashing lights. The tram is complete with conductors from Karachi & Melbourne, music that you would hear on the Karachi W-11 minibus, and collectable tickets that feature popular Urdu poetry. Since the mid 1990's, Mick Douglas has led a project called Tramjatra in which tramway communities and artists of Melbourne & Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) have explored relationships between their cities. A new Tramjatra book celebrates this decade of artful interventions. It's a story of friendship, dialogue and imagination, and the potential of tramways to connect people together in their differences.

"Picnic" in Amsterdam promises to celebrate "creative genius in cross media" and will showcase content delivered to consumers. These old-paradigm uses of language would deter right-thinking people from attending - were it not for the fact life's always a Picnic in Amsterdam. So we'll see you there. September 26-30, 2006, in Westergasfabriek, the city's state-of-the-art cultural facility located in a former gas factory.

Adam Greenfield coined the term 'moblogging' and organized a conference about it in a lurid basement nightclub in Tokyo. His new book, Everyware, is also filled with street tech cred. It's about a world in which "the garment, the room and the street become sites of processing and mediation". Household objects from shower stalls to coffee pots are reimagined as places where facts about the world can be gathered, considered, and acted upon. The book is informative and insightful. Greenfield concludes: "We seem to have a hard time with the notion that some aspects of life are simply too important, too meaningful, and too delicate to subject to the clumsy interventions of information technology".

Three European experts have published a guide to Radio Frequency Identification technologies. Attaching an RFID tag (pronounced arfid) to a physical object allows the object to be 'seen' and monitored by computer networks. This TechWatch report (by Matt Ward, Rob van Kranenburg, and Gaynor Backhouse) includes a detailed examination of RFID technology, and discusses the vision of 'seamless' and 'calm' ubiquitous computing being promoted - with more optimism than realism - by the European Commission.

The term "Digital Territory" (DT) has been coined by European researchers to describe a world filled with RFID tags and Ambient Intelligence. One suspects them of subversive intent: For most English speakers, DTs are associated with Delirium Tremens - "the horrors", "the shakes" or the "rum fits" associated with alcohol withdrawal. DT symptoms also include intense hallucinations - such as insects, snakes, rats, or giant spiders ready to attack. Even I don't think AmI is that bad. If you're brave enough, go to this conference on DTs, it's in Athens. 5-6 July 2006, Athens, Hellas.

A new participatory monthly webzine - idCAST - is about design, culture and technology. "We aim to generate interest and vibe around innovations that encapsulate social values, design aesthetics and technological ingenuity," say the editors. The May issue begins promisingly: "We are all hybrids!"

This useful and professional new is site for all those interested in experience and user-centered design. It concentrates on "how to create products and services that are driven by an understanding of people".

Is it time to put the future out of our misery? Design is certainly valuable as a forecasting tool, and designers are great hunter- gatherers of ideas. They should be encouraged to develop that role further. But we should not just look ahead in time, and not just look for technology. In particular, we should look to nature for inspiration - it has been innovating for three billion years. We should also learn from other cultures beside western ones. And we should learn more from the here and now. Inspiring things are happening just outside the door. Read more in an article written for the June Royal Society of Arts Journal.

Jobs | June 17