The Design Observer Twenty

John Thackara | Essays

Social Innovation Observatory [August 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.

Doors of Perception 8 will be take place in New Delhi, India, during the week 21-26 March 2005. Designers and entrepreneurs from different parts of the world will discuss platforms for social innovation, and how to design them. Doors 8 will be as will be as participatory as we - and you - can make it: a week-long mixture of presentations, peer-to-peer interaction, and visits in and around that amazing city. Our media partner, Business Today, will run a competition. All you need to do right now is reserve the dates; registration opens at the beginning of September, and will be announced first in this newsletter. The week of Doors 8 precedes Indiaís boisterous Holi spring festival, when people celebrate with friends and relatives and throw coloured water on each other - so you might want to stay for that. If you have not been to a Doors event before, check out:

What does it mean to design a platform for social innovation? To find out, we have teamed up with Virtual Platform, the Dutch club of new media research organizations, to organize an Open Doors Project Challenge on 19 November 2004. 25 design teams will be invited to pitch their project to a jury of their peers. The best projects will be invited to Doors 8 in Delhi. Open Doors also enables design researchers to share knowledge and experience on content and business issues.

What kinds of knowledge about other people's design projects would be most useful to have - and how best might we represent such information? On Monday 23 and Tuesday 24 August, we are running a two day workshop on the subject of Project Observation as part of the Amsterdam New Media Institute (ANMI) summer school. Each participant in this two-day workshop will be asked to bring and show examples of project intelligence that have had had an "Aha!" or "Oh really?" impact in the past. We hope to collect and share trade secrets; we will also review new communication techniques, such as moblogging, or wikis. The workshop is open to service design professionals who are keen to improve the ways we share knowledge about projects.

Someone, somewhere, has 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, already exist - but they are off the radar and therefore unavailable for the rest of us to copy or adapt. Doors has joined a research network, Emude, that will be an observatory of social innovation. The thing is, other social innovation observatories already exist - and we want to avoid duplicating what they already do. So can you help? Tell us about organisations or websites that you find valuable. Examples we know about include: Whole Earth Catalogue; Global Ideas Bank (based on the Norwegian one); World Social Forum; Centre for Social Innovation. Well publish the best, of course. Input to: [email protected]

How shall we move from clock time, to event time - from speed, to conviviality - in the spaces and places we design? Together with Europe's High Speed Train Network Platform, Doors gathered together twelve international cultural experts to address this question. We were hosted by Via Breda, the design team of the small Dutch city that, along with many others, must grapple with the impact of high-speed rail travel. A report of the event, which is now online, includes five "quick-and-dirty" service scenarios made by our teams.

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A scary story about nuclear security in CryptoGram, a newsletter on security issues. Robert McNamara, when U.S. Secretary of Defense, added a security layer to the Minuteman missile launch procedure by protecting them with an eight digit "Permissive Action Link" code. Strategic Air Command, fearing that the retrieval and entry of these codes might be an impediment to speedy launching of the missiles, quietly decreed that the code should always be: 00000000.

A smart idea from Pieter Burghart at LogicaCMG in the Netherlands: cause companies and government agencies to allocate one per cent of their vast budgets for information technology to creative and artistic development of IT. A comparable system has operated in the building industry for decades. True, a lot of the one percent money in buildings gets spent on hideous bronze sculptures outside office blocks - but we could surely find more interesting ways to spend the one percent money from IT.

"We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true." Robert Wilensky, UCB.

France, which spawned the situationists, also hosts a festival of street art in which everything is live, time-based, and in your face. 15-18 July 2004

Germany's pavilion at this year's Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Urban Drift, features unlikely-sounding architectural wonders: ìÖperipheral areas on the urban fringe, the amorphous in-between spaces which evade description, the featureless landscapes of the urban margins and provincial townsî. Venice, September 12 to November 7.

A two-month-long workshop at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden is about the transfer of knowledge developed in statistical physics to other domains such as biology, artificial intelligence, social and economic sciences. The event , "From Many-Particle Physics to Multi-Agent Systems", features special sessions on ìHopping Particles, Granular Media, and Colloidal Systemsî and ìSwarms, Ecology, and Societyî. Dresden, 19 July - 17 September.

How will Information and communication technology change the ways we use public space? Having reviewed 309 entries from 39 countries, the nominating jury of Fused Space has announced the 20 finalists in this competition, which Doors of Perception is supporting. A quick preview yields buses as browsers, downloading music whilst standing in queues, and the use of manhole covers as message boards.

Do you need to learn how to design ICT systems that support communities? This yearís Convivio summer school is a good place to start. Lecturers and atelier leaders are now profiled online, and you need to apply by 4 July . Split, Croatia, 30 August 30 to 10 September.

Do you remember that scene in Jurassic Park when dinosaurs gather at a watering hole? It reminds us of the Information Society Technologies (IST) congress where major recipients of European research funding ñ the big research labs and technology companies - meet the policy makers and officials who dole out the money. After a flirtation with human-centeredness, IST has regressed into tech-push mode of late and small research groups find it incredibly hard to participate. The result is a less innovative Europe. The Hague, 15-17 November.

Brussels has launched the first phase of its city-wide Wi-Fi network - but at a cost of one million euros. Esme Vos, editor of, says this seems like an exorbitant amount of money. ìFor one million euros, the city got 20 computer kiosks with access points on top. That comes to 50,000 EUR per kiosk-point! What's in those kiosks: supercomputers? WiMAX antennas? rocket launch pads?î. Muniwireless has issued a challenge, which we are happy to endorse: what can you do for Brussels for one million euros?

An online debate entitled ìHuman Body Partsî has been prompted by the Human Tissue Bill, the UK government's response to the so-called body parts scandal at two hospitals. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, author of 'The Tyranny of Health', argues that the controversy includes ìthe cynical exploitation of the grief of the bereaved, the cult of sentimentality attaching to the dead body, and widespread anxieties surrounding medical science.' The debate is hosted by Spiked, and sponsored by the Wellcome Trust.

Philosophers have debated the difference between the words ìisî and ìoughtî for 2,000 years. Ninety percent of the emails we receive describe thrilling developments in technology but do not question whether there consequences - known and unknown - are a good idea. Hereís another example: ìTransVision will address how artificial intelligence, biotechnology, nanotechnology and other emerging technologies are altering humanity's sense of self as well as expanding and diversifying our means of expression and self-actualizationî. The event does feature two excellent keynote speakers: Steve Mann, inventor of the wearable computer; and performance artist Stelarc who has provided his likeness and personality for an intelligent prosthetic head. 6 to 8 August , Toronto.

The high-rise building was made possible by elevators and, less obviously, by the telephone. (The latter enabled a large organization to occupy several floors efficiently). What will the mobile phone do to the way we design and inhabit space? For a challenging answer to that question read On Digital Ground, the new book by Malcolm McCullough (who also wrote that modern design classic, Abstracting Craft). Digital Ground is published by MIT Press.

William J. ìCity of Bitsî Mitchell, who runs MIT Media Lab, and Gillian Crampton Smith, ditto Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, feature in this yearís DISS in Cambridge, Mass. 1-4 August.

An excellent book/magazine reaches us from Turin, ìCluster On Innovationî. It looks at ìnew technologies and the mutations they generate in society and languageî. Cluster 3, a special on interaction design, features an interview with media artist Lev Manovitch; Marco Zaniniís design for a ìLiquid Jungle Labî in a steamy Panama jungle; and a new design centre in a former rat-infested fish market in Buenos Aires.

Computers were once synonymous with novelty and the future. Now theyíre collected by museums. The Science Museum in London, which to be fair is rather innovative, has appointed Dr Tilly Blyth as its new curator of computing: her remit is to overhaul their computing collection, develop a new gallery, and build a software collection with an emphasis on gaming. Blyth is looking for an assistant to look after the computing collections: could this be you? [email protected]

The architect Christian Moeller harnesses sound, light, weather conditions, movements of the body, and human emotions, to create responsive spaces. Moeller will talk in London about architecture as an art of reactive signs and cognitive, sensory manipulation. The event is curated by Lucy Bullivant and supported by the Science Museum, London, where Moeller has installed new work in its new gallery, ìEnergy : fuelling the futureî. Wednesday 21 July, 18.45pm, ICA London.

Pigs, corn, and telephones feature in our summer choice movie, Panorama Ephemera, by Rick Prelinger. Drawn from industrial, advertising, educational and amateur films, Rickís film tours the conflicted landscapes of twentieth-century America. Its 64 self-contained film sequences are populated by American children, animals, farmers, industrial workers, superheroes, pioneers heading West, crash test dummies, and many others.

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