John Thackara | Essays

Street Art Pro [August 2005]

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The most important impact of wireless communications will be on the resource ecologies of cities. Connecting people, resources, and places to each other in new combinations, on a real-time basis, has the potential to reduce drastically the amount of hardware - from gadgets, to buildings - that we need. This 'use, not own' urban ecology will arrive faster once wireless communications are pervasive. And, ideally, free. It's for this reason that Doors is supporting the first Municipal Wireless Conference in San Francisco. The event brings together buyers, vendors, service providers, integrators, consultants, policy-makers, and other interested groups. The diversity of this crowd makes it hard to reach - so our contribution, with your help, is to help spread the word to people who might like to attend the event, but would not otherwise hear about it.

If you prefer interacting with people to gazing raptly at perspex building facades, you might also tell someone in your City Hall about this a business-to-business street art festival in the South of France. Label Rue brings 100 interesting artists and groups together with commissioners from cities where festivals and events are planned. In addition to performances in the old town, there's a debate (in French) among professionals on the Saturday morning. 23, 24 and 25 September, Ganges (one hour north of Montpellier).

As designers and social innovators, how much should concern ourselves with government policy on technology? Would it not be best to concentrate on doing great projects in the real world? A 90% focus on projects is probably healthy. But we also need to keep an eye on policy making because that's where priorities for research spending - and hence the projects we are able to do - are made. Besides, if we abstain from policy debates, old-style thinking will persist. In the UK last week, for example, a paper called Modernising With Purpose: A Manifesto for a Digital Britain is based on the false assumption that modernisation and technological intensification are the same thing. The ways we live and think now are described casually as 'obstacles to modernisation', and the manifesto finds it self-evident that future policy 'anchors people to technological change'. A more inspiring manifesto would have located technology within a broader menu of new ways to organise our daily lives. The good news is that, thanks to a global boom in new indicators. new criteria besides productivity and growth are available to measure overall progress - from health and education, to environmental quality. Hazel Henderson has helped some of these new quality of life indicators; they were most recently discussed at an 'International Conference on Gross National Happiness'. www.calvert-henderson.com

Tech push is a good thing in the lives of people whose physical or cognitive capacities have been curtailed by accident or illness. The interesting focus of this year's Assitive Tech conference is the space between virtuality and reality - the design process by which the perceived needs of a capacity-limited person are turned into an assistive device or service. Lille, France, 6-9 September

Tactile Graphics is an international conference on diagrams, maps and pictures which are touched rather than looked at. Topics for discussion include spatial cognition and tactile perception, tactile signage, tactile-audio diagrams. Principal users are for blind and partially sighted children and adults in education, work and life activities. Birmingham, UK, on 1-2 December 2005. Call for abstracts closes 8 August.

Locative Network is a collaboration between researchers, grassroots Geographical Information System (GIS) activists and new media artists. The network's website and blog discuss emerging notions of mobile geography, map issues to do with geo-annotated data space, and report the development of collaborative cartography tools and tactics. There are also descriptions of ongoing experiments with location-based media.

Dangers lie ahead for the organisers of design conferences, trade fairs, festivals and biennials. A growing number of me-too events is competing for our attention, and there's a real danger we'll all switch off. Since I last wrote about the subject , plans have been announced for a large event in Denmark called Index which pronounces itself to be 'the world arena for future design and innovation'. Another biennial starting at about the same time - in Gwangju, Korea - has similar global ambitions. And the theme for a full-blown world expo in Shanghai in 2010 is 'better design, better life'. In Europe alone, biennial type design projects are happening, or being planned, for Lille, Brussels, Glasgow, Liege, Newcastle, London, Lucerne, Berlin, and St Etienne. We probably need the equivalent for design events of the Bureau of International Expositions that, in 1933, brought order to the unsustainable proliferation of World's Fairs. Rarity is another solution: the Critical Computing conference in Aarhus, Denmark, only happens once a decade.

Half of all the energy consumed by human beings is used in or by buildings - but for the most part invisibly. David Vogt at Kondra Systems designed a system to make the invisible visible and display the power used cumulatively by devices such as microwaves, toaster and coffee makers. Vogt's charts tell you whether it it really makes a difference if you turn all those lights - but his project leads straight to another design challenge: how to deploy these representations in such a way that they change behaviour rather than just add to visual overload. Thousands of affective representations of complex phenomena are entering our world. Physicists illustrate quarks. Biologists map the genome. Doctors represent immune systems in the body. Network designers map communication flows in buildings. Managers chart the locations of expertise in their organizations. (Excellent blogs now monitor the best new examples - among them Information Aesthetics, Worldchanging, and Futurefeeder). The too-much-visualization dilemma is put into historical context in Luis Fernández-Galiano's book 'Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy'. Visualizations of complex phenomena can attract attention, he explains, but it requires the development of a shared vision of where we want to be to make visualztions meaningful to us.

Food 'miles' in the UK have risen dramatically over the past 10 years, are still rising, and have a significant impact on climate change, traffic congestion, accidents and pollution. Food transport accounts for 25% of all the miles driven by heavy goods vehicles on British roads. The use of heavy trucks to transport food has doubled since 1974 (in southern Europe, it's growing even faster). The dramatic increase has resulted in a rise in the amount of CO2 emitted by food transport: 19m tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted in the UK 2002 in the course of getting food to people, a 12% increase on 1992. It's hard for a government to take meaningful action against an industry that combines food, logistics, powerful retailers, and spoiled consumers: we'll have to wait for a couple of massive eco-shocks for the policy framework to change. Meanwhile, a lot of service design is available to be done in support of the move towards sustainable food systems. http://www.quartierhof-weinegg.ch

Who owns a lifestyle? Is there a right to privacy on the street? One of the livelier debates at Doors 8 in Delhi concerned the ethics of anthropology used in product development. The first Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) provides an opportunity to continue this debate; takes place in Redmond (hosted by Microsoft Research) in November. The Epic website states that the conference will "promote the use of ethnographic investigations...in corporate settings". That sounds a bit dreary: Our colleagues in South Asia at the Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS) have a more interesting life: Their business clients usually ask them to look at people on the street, or at home - not, per se, in offices.

Need some easy listening for the beach? Two radio interviews from my recent 'In The Bubble' book tour are now online. One is with Carol Coletta on Smart City; the second is with Moira Gunn on Tech Nation.

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