The Pattern Problem

I was delighted when Neil Perkin invited me back after six years to speak again at Firestarters last night. The theme of the evening was on behaviours.

Richard Shotton was up first, and gave an excellent talk on three of the lesser known biases in behavioural sciences. In particular, I was interested in one of his assertions at the start that there are a whole collection of biases that are at play, yet there are probably more famous ones which everyone is aware of, and a whole set people are less familiar with. Perhaps there’s a long tail – the three that everyone knows, and then it all tails off a bit?

It’s occurred to me since last night that perhaps there’s a way to think about this whole ‘collection of biases’ not as a set from which you choose one that you believe is having an effect, but as a card sorting exercise in which you identify all of the ones that could have an effect for different people, and work out ways to test them against each other.

Maybe it’s about curtains an ‘assemblage’ of biases around the problem you’re working on, and pulling out the overall effects and implications of many things being at play. (If you want a crash course in Assemblage Theory, read this by Manueal DeLanda).

There is a perfect toolkit to do this sort of thing, in Stephen Anderson’s Mental Notes. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re on sale any more, so you either have them or you don’t.

 

**UPDATE**

Stephen’s bringing back Mental Notes, with expansions in mind… follow him on twitter for more updates on that soon.

****

But I’ve recently become aware that Jerome Ribot has been working on something called Coglode, and has a really useful set of cards (potentially, I’ve not seen them, just pictures) called Nuggets – you can sign up here for news on them.

So thanks Richard, that talk really got me thinking.

Then I talked about a thing from the Smithery canon, The Pattern Problem. It’s more related to behaviours in the sense it’s about how we work on projects, and help clients think about working on projects too.

There are two tools in particular I talked about as ways of breaking away from endlessly repeating the same process no matter what the problem you’re facing. They are ‘The Obliquiscope’ and ‘Zenko Mapping’, both of which are designed to grow and change as you use them, so that they’re never the same tool twice.

The Obliquiscope

Zenko Mapping

 

All of my slides from yesterday are up here, though of course they’re probably of most use to the people who were there last night and want to reflect a little on some of the ideas in here:

I’ll probably be talking about these concepts in other places soon, though, so will make mention of that on here when I do. Thanks again to Neil, Richard, everyone who came along and to Google for continuing to support Firestarters.

 

The Time Capsule Retrieval Service

We’ve recently been working with the Emerging Technologies team at The Royal Society, for a conference they put on for their Fellowship.

The purpose of the conference was twofold; to introduce the fellowship to a set of different tools from the ‘futures’ toolkit, and then use those tools to explore which areas of technological focus the Fellowship believed should be of highest priority for The Royal Society in the coming years.

Our specific role was to take four broad scenarios for the UK in 2030, as developed by the Emerging Technologies team, and solidify that in some speculative design work which would give the Fellowship prompts to examine each of the four scenarios, work out what was happening in that specific future, and begin to describe the implications these futures would have on science in the UK.

Here’s how we went about defining an approach, putting together an awesome team comprising Scott Smith of Changeist, Thomas Forsyth, Stanley James Press, School 21 and Helen and myself from Smithery, and then delivered it through a new clandestine national facility; The Time Capsule Retrieval Service.

So, why time capsules?

When thinking about the context, we first of all thought about the participants at the conference. The Fellowship of The Royal Society are by definition the leading scientific minds of the age, pioneering breakthroughs in specific fields through both academic and commercial environments.

In short, if there are to be significant scientific and technological breakthroughs that impact our lives in 2030, in all likelihood the Fellowship are working on them now.

Which means you enter a tricky dilemma when it comes to speculative design; how do you avoid trying to out-science the scientists? Anything you put in front of a group such as this will be immediately subject to a natural level of scrutiny that keenly-honed expert minds will bring to bear.

Our proposal was to switch the emphasis in the speculative design away from representing the ‘ground-breaking’ technologies of 2030, and examine the social impacts that particular technologies may have. What would life be like for people in these particular scenarios? If only they could show us…

Which is where the time capsules come in.

For over a hundred years, communities have been marking important events by gathering together a series of artefacts in a robust container, and burying them in the ground, securing them in foundations and walls, or even designing special crypts to hold them.  If you’re of a certain generation, the versions that come to mind most might be from the BBC children’s show Blue Peter, who buried a succession of capsules on their show.

All time capsules have a common message at their heart – “hello there, people from another time… this is who we are”. Imagine if a series of time capsules put in the ground in 2030 didn’t go forwards in time for future generations, but came backwards, so we could see what’s in store.

And so, The Time Capsule Retrieval Service was born:

Using the British Library’s guide to making a time capsule, we set boundaries for how the capsules themselves would be created by the groups in 2030. We simplified a little, to give ourselves some cleaner design constraints:

  1. Get a strong, non-corrodible airtight container made from stainless steel/tough plastic
  2. Use things like paper, non-PVC plastics, wood, devices without power, wrapped separately
  3. Avoid plants, animals, insects, rubber, and batteries – all can give off corrosive substances
  4. Place the time capsule in a cool, dry location (e.g. building foundations)

In order to think about what groups of children would be likely to put in a time capsule, we worked with the pupils and staff at School 21 in Stratford. I recently met Debbie Penglis from the school at a conference, and had subsequently had a tour from her around the school to learn more about their unique approach to education. In particular, I was very excited about the Project Based Learning approach, which feels to me like the sort of education that will really help bring out the best in a lot of people. They were a natural partner to work with on a project like this.

Alongside the Emerging Technologies team from The Royal Society, and the staff at School 21, we ran a workshop with a group of 13 year olds in two halves.

Firstly, what would the pupils put into a time capsule today to represent what life was like for them?  Then, once we’d introduced the four scenarios, what could they imagine that a class of 13 year olds in 2030 would put in their time capsules?

The exercise gave us a whole raft of inspiration for the sorts of things that groups of children (and more broadly the communities they live in) would include when it came to communicating who they were through a series of objects.

With all this material to work from, it was then time to create the time capsules for each of the four scenarios.

To do this, we needed to define a clear situation for each of the time capsules, writing a story about the exact “who, where, what and why” that we could keep coming back to.

This additional layer of story was injected to help us get from broad, world-sized scenario to a more human scale environment in which we could imagine—then manifest—everyday objects that might exist in each future.

We set each time capsule in a different town, and wrote a short story of the events in that place that led to the creation of their time capsule. I’m not going to reproduce them here (for reasons I’ll explain shortly) but the summary banners from the event are pictured below.

Each narrative then acted as a bond between the different objects we would go about creating.

We developed a long list of roughly twenty-five objects for each capsule, pulling on the lists created with School21 plus our other time capsule research, and set the goal of selecting the six most viable objects for each capsule to get across all the core emergent technologies in each scenario.

You can see detailed photos of each object over here, but here’s a grouping of each capsule’s objects below:

Of course, doing this much design so quickly was always going to be a challenge; not only do you need a team that can flit between styles and approaches in creating the objects, they also need to continually test the believability of each item. Scott, Emily, Thomas, Helen and myself found ourselves constantly testing each other on the credibility of each item as they developed.

The hardest part, perhaps, was how to do ‘plausible’ design; an underfunded school in the future is not going to have beautifully designed templates, so how do you design something that looks like it’s been put together by an in-house team, but is well designed enough to get the points across in the conference.

Finally, the last part of the task was to introduce these capsules at the conference, the third of three exercises on the first day, and after the Fellows had been introduced to the broader scenarios to set the scene for where these time capsules had travelled back from.

The broad delight when people started digging in was wonderful to hear – I was playing a floating role in the background, though in the end didn’t need to really help at all, the objects seemed to speak for themselves.

Perhaps what made it work so well was that we didn’t give the participants the full narrative structure (the stories I mentioned before). In each time capsule, just as you’d find in a real one, there’s a letter from the people who’ve put it together (this one, for example, by one of our in-house junior designers):

After reading the letters, the participants had to find and make connections of their own. By freeing the objects from the whole story, the time capsules themselves a platform for lots of different potential futures.

I’ve been thinking about it graphically like this; to start with, the narrative was about keeping the objects cohesive as a set, bound into one structure:

Whereas by taking that narrative away, it meant the Fellowship from The Royal Society who opened the capsules were asked to fill the gaps between the objects with their own ideas and experience.

Each capsule contained objects that were open to interpretation, and it was the interpretations we were seeking in the first place. If these were potential futures for people in the UK, then what might be the factors that take us there, and which emerging technologies must the UK focus on as a result.

But the themes that emerged from different teams opening the same capsule were different, and I have no doubt you’d continue to get more interpretations with different groups of people if you reran the exercise.

It’s an idea that Scott’s explored in more depth with this essay on ‘lossy futures’:

“Lossy futures — be they artifacts, simple scenarios, wireframes of speculation, rich prompts, brief vignettes or some other material object — give us the scaffolding and ask or allow us to determine the details ourselves. In doing so, they transmit the critical data, the minimum viable future, and give us the opportunity to fill in the gaps we think are important to understanding, or have a dialogue around what these gaps may mean.”

Once people discovered that this was ‘the game’ they were being invited to play, it meant that they got even more creative with their interpretations, pulling out angles and information we hadn’t yet thought about.

Throughout the process, I kept thinking back to the work we shared in 2014 around “Flow Engines”, and how the time capsules are a very useful example of how to take that idea and put it into practice.

 The ‘high consequences‘ at the start comes from the unveiling of the capsule itself, and the simple instruction; we want you to tell us what’s going in in this future, and how we will come to get there.

The ‘rich environment‘ is then created by the mix of different objects, the need for complex puzzle solving, and the various layers of information that reveal themselves as people investigate items for a second or third time.

Then, finally, there’s ‘embodiment‘. The last task for each group was to take the items, and create a map around them of the emerging technologies and the implications they would have on our future.

All in all, we’re delighted to have worked on the project with a great team at The Royal Society, who were very up for pushing the boundaries of what we could and couldn’t do.

Thanks also to Provenance, for allowing us to sneak in little Easter egg on the packaging for The Maidstone Saveloy (100% NuPro cricket protein sausage folks… well, it’s better for you than the typical mystery meat).

Thank you also to Curtis James, who took a beautiful set of inventory photos for us.

It’s also the very first Smithery project that (to the point of a ‘family business‘ I talked about last year) all four of us in the Willshire household have made something for. So thanks to the junior design team for their contributions.

And thanks again to Scott at Changeist, Thomas Forsyth, Stanley James Press and School 21, for making it one of our favourite Smithery projects yet. Who knows, maybe we’ll repeat the experience with some other organisations who’ll call upon the service of the Time Capsule Retrieval Service.

Contact us here if you know of anyone, and we’ll be sure to pass the message on…

 

 

Metastrategy – Movement, Loops and Layers – Video

I was very excited to be invited to Oslo to give the final keynote of the Webdagene conference. It’s one of my favourite cities, and the speaker line-up was immense too – you should check out all of the talks.

My talk was an updated version of the Metastrategy idea, with cleaner entry points into the theory, and an extended practical back-end. Please enjoy, and as always questions, additions and thoughts in the comments below are most welcome.

John Willshire: Metastrategy – Movements, Layers and Loops (Webdagene 2016) from Netlife Research on Vimeo.

Metastrategy In Malmo: Adventures at The Conference

I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote talk at The Conference in Malmo last week, to an audience of 1000 people. Which is a big room…

Here’s the ‘before’ picture…

P1130524

…and here is the ‘after’… although technically ‘during’, now I think of it…

P1130525

The talk itself was on Metastrategy, the need for ‘a strategy of strategies’.

It’s the ‘third act’ after the Metadesign talk at last year’s dConstruct, and ‘Metamechanics‘ at IAM in Barcelona this year.

In a brilliant move, the guys at The Conference were live editing the videos as they were recording, and posting up the videos of the talks about an hour after they’d happened.

Which means if you want to watch the talk, you can do that here.

There is also a whole mountain of amazing talks from across the two days, some which I saw and some I’m now going to catch up on after hearing so much about them.

I also ran a masterclass on the Thursday with a small group of people who’d signed up (apologies to those who tried but couldn’t get in, I might come back to Malmo to run it again) on using the ‘9 Box’ agility map as a springboard for metastrategy.

Using masking tape, we quickly made the framework to work within, and then populated with Artefact Cards to keep moving around types of work and activity and examine different potential routes through projects.

P1130533

It’s set off a whole series of subsequent thoughts about working on the horizontal plane rather than the vertical too (in short, people are more likely to reach out and move things around; the tabletop seems to be ‘common’ space much more than walls do…), but I’ll think about that more and write it up.

And, of course, because it’s the year of The Chair Game, we played that at the end, to examine the nature of multiple strategies folding in on themselves, becoming appropriate depending on how the context shifts, and each deployment of a strategy changing the nature of the game and so therefore the next strategy needed. Scholars of The Chair Game will notice a new chair set-up tried by the players, which we shall christen ‘Malmo Rows’ I think.

P1130536

Anyway, thank you again to all the team at The Conference for a splendid, splendid week. Whatever they do next year, get it in your diary.

Designing The Future: Tues 21st June

This June, during London Technology Week, I’ve been invited to give a talk over at Loft Digital on Designing The Future. It’s been about a year since I started a track of thinking and doing on this specific topic, spurred on by the invitation to talk on the topic at dConstruct in Autumn last year:

 

However, there’s a whole new subsequent set of reckons and thoughts that’ve added in since then, so it’ll be a talk a bit like that talk, but also not. There might be less superheroes, for one.

It’s from 6pm on Tuesday 21st June, and if you’d like to come along, please give the guys at Loft a shout here.

How does #thechairgame work?

We’ve had a good sign-up rate for The Chair Game tomorrow, Friday 22nd April, at the V&A Performance Festival.

We gather at 1:45pm for a 2-4pm game, after which we’ll repair to a local pub. Come along if you can, and sign-up here so we have a sense of numbers.

But how does it work many people have asked. So here’s a quick ruleset:

  1. Everyone sits in a chair, randomly distributed in the space.
  2. One player is “chair zombie” – they vacate their seat, walk to the other side of the space
  3. The chair zombie can only walk, at a steady pace
  4. They must try and sit in the empty seat.
  5. It’s everyone else’s job to stop that happening, not by blocking them, but by occupying the empty seat
  6. Which means vacating the one you’re in, so the zombie heads for that one
  7. Everyone else can move as fast as they like – e.g. they can run between seats.
  8. Once you’re up, you can’t sit back down in the same seat
  9. The round ends when the zombie sits in an empty chair
  10. Repeat, ad infinitum

What happens as a result of multiple plays, as people learn the game, is the interesting part. We’ve trialling out two specific (non-playing) roles tomorrow to help this part of the game along…

The Whatcher – the person who, at the end of every round, asks what went wrong, and what the group’s next strategy should be

Waits & Measures – The timekeeper, who tells the group how long they succeeded for, and what interesting things happened (and when)

See you there if you can make it.

(previous post on what this is all about…)

Mexico - P1090203

Working Out How The Internet Works

I did a wee talk at the fabulous IAM 2016 conference in Barcelona. In it’s second year, and conceived and run by Andres & Lucy of Wabisabi Lab, it’s the kind of weird experimental conference that London was great at a few years back, but seems less so, now, I think?  Something something gentrification something something.

(actually, maybe that’s another blog post for another day – the lack of joy in NeuLondon, in all forms of work and play)

I spoke about Metamechanics, and working out how the internet works. Or, indeed, not, because that isn’t the point.

There will be a video some time soon I believe, and at the time, I did a simultaneous Periscope of it (but ‘you had to be there’ as they say, given how Periscope streams expire after 24 hours or something…)

….but until then here are the slides, and two pics Scott sent me afterwards where it looks like I’m showing people who big the internet a) was and b) is now.

JVW at IAM16 - 1

JVW at IAM16 - 2

The Chair Game – Live at the V&A

This is the year of The Chair Game“, I said to Rob, over a pint after an evening’s play in London Bridge. He’d just spent two hours running the game for all of us who were new to it, save for Clarisa.

It was her fault, apparently. She’d been in a workshop Rob was doing where he’d used The Chair Game as an exercise. “If you run a workshop that’s just The Chair Game for hours, I’d come to that” she told him. Hence London Bridge. True to her word, Clarisa flew over from France especially for it.

The Chair Game is pretty simple. Everyone has a chair. They’re randomly distributed around a space. One person gets up, and walks to the side; they’re the chair zombie. They have to amble towards the empty chair. It’s everyone else’s job to stop them by sitting in the empty one. They can’t block them, but they can run as fast as they like. But once they’re up, they’re up – they can’t sit back on the same chair.

Chaos ensues…

Mexico - P1090203

The first round is always really quick. Like, six seconds as an average. Then you ask the players what went wrong? And what their strategy next time should be. And you go again. And again. And again.

It’s a game that is about strategy as much as you want it to be. You can stop, analyse, plot and plan, instruct and act. Or you can just play. It is compelling to watch, and addictive to play. Since learning about the game, I’ve been building it into various strategy workshops as part of the narrative, and prototyping workshops as part of the fun. We started calling it Karaisu, for fun – like karaoke; Japanese* for “Empty Chair”…

Karaisu

Another thing happened after the night Rob showed us the game.

James was there, and James works at the V&A in London. We joked on email that we should play it on all the very expensive chairs at the V&A. Ho ho ho. Wouldn’t that be a lark?

Two weeks later, James emails again. We’re on. Not on the expensive chairs. But at the V&A. As part of the Performance Festival. Look, we’re even listed on the site.

We’re playing next week, on Friday 22nd April, 1:45 meet-up for a 2pm start. We’ll be in the John Madejski at the V&A in South Kensington. We finish at 4pm, and then head to a pub to unpack what goes on.

And we need some more players.

If you are around, and fancy it, then please sign-up here. We need around 30-40 players. Send this on to anyone else who might fancy it too, and we’ll send confirmations out next week.

So sign up, and come down and play.

Because this is the year of The Chair Game.

 

*I checked with a Japanese friend – it kinda doesn’t mean this, but also kinda does.

 

 

 

“The best for the most for the least” – 2016 Projects

Every year, we set three internal projects for Smithery; things we want to work on that will improve our own practice, be fun to explore, and originally to occupy a little downtime too. As perhaps evidenced by the performance on last year’s projects (see 2015 project write-up), we seem to have a bit less time nowadays to purposefully muck about.

Firstly, some of that is down to workload; we’re working on more complex, nuanced, interesting problems for clients. They’re more compelling to get readily lost in, to wander through and wonder about. We’re doing the sort of projects I started Smithery for.

Secondly, a lot of the things we do as part of projects nowadays perhaps take the place of the more makery stuff we used centre some personal projects around. Adopting various things into our approach, like the principles from Seymour Papert’s Constructionism, means that more often than not we have ‘a thing’ in the middle of the table to facilitate discussion, design and direction. We make things all the time.

And perhaps thirdly, the internal projects have served as useful proof-of-concepts, and in pointing to them (and subsequent clients things) we are asked to do more things like those. Getting paid actual money for things you really like to do anyway is always nice.

I talked a while ago about ‘The Blacksmith’s Sign’; a beautiful wrought iron sign that hangs from a post, an ornate piece of communication about the type of work done within. People would see the sign, and think ‘ah, there’s someone who could help me with X…’ and another client was secured. The client didn’t want a sign, of course. They wanted the skills that created that sign. In some way, that’s what some of the Smithery internal projects have been about, wittingly or not…

In the light of all this, we’ve been thinking a lot over the holidays about the right internal projects this year, and how after four years they might change focus a bit, beyond just thinking of ourselves.

‘Internal projects’ seems a little small. We have decided we want to be a little more ambitious in how we make the projects as useful as possible beyond our own walls. Stealing an idea from Charles & Ray Eames, how do we use the projects to deliver “the best for the most for the least”; to create really useful outputs from the projects, which can offer greater value for more people, making the very best use of the resources we have available.

With all that in mind, here’s our three for 2016.

There’s a What, a How and a Where

————————-

1. WHAT – Strategic Design Unit

What is Smithery? Ah, the perennial question. The original answer was long and uncertain, as proved by the thing I must’ve written when asked by Campaign on leaving PHD:

“…called Smithery, the business will look to work with clients on brand and service innovation, community initiatives, crowdsourcing projects and marketing and media strategy.”

About a year in, and after I’d reflected on the actual work I was doing, it become “an innovation studio” (after a German magazine called PAGE called it that). Formulating “Make Things People Want > Making People Want Things” helped explain what it was about.

What about now though? Smithery has always been centred around innovation; an inheritance of the previous role I’d had for five years, a comfortable legitimacy.

But increasingly, looking at the work we’ve done over the last twelve months, that’s not the right definition anymore.

It’s harder to see what I thought innovation was looking at how it’s used everywhere now. As a term, innovation is at risk of being meaninglessly overused and abused. In too many cases, it just means ’slightly better than useful’, or ‘the things we do to hide the day job’. It is hard to discern what it is someone’s actually talking about when using the word. It is a fat, unhelpful descriptor, just like digital became before it. I find myself having to go through layers of conversation with people when they say ‘innovation’ to find out what they actually mean

you keep using that word

Which is partly what the system we’ve developed around our practice is a reaction to, I think.

Rooted in the gearbox idea from Smithery 3.0 in 2014 (around Stewart Brand’s shearing layers), the system uses four complementary realms, and in particular their relationship to each other, to help us define what sort of job we’re actually looking at. Or at the very least, helps state the question that everyone at the start of the project thinks we’re trying to answer (it usually changes, but that’s another story).

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 10.56.08

None of the realms are described as ‘innovation’, of course, and you can’t describe everything we do as innovation, either in our own understanding of it or that of others. So if Smithery isn’t an innovation studio, what is it?

I went back through the bookshelves to find some clues, and I picked up Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary” again.

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

DMATH is a terrific read, and in reading Dan’s post about it, which started from Dan’s talk at the first Laptops & Looms, which itself was an important experience for me, as I found myself at it barely a month into starting Smithery at Toby & Russell’s invitation.

L&LRead Adrian’s take on what it was, if you don’t know, which is a) great and b) links to lots of other reactions to it, as all good rabbit holes should.

But it’s only in reading DMATH again, in context of the last eighteen months of work, that I’ve started to appreciate what Dan is really getting at, from a practitioner’s perspective, when talking about Strategic Design.

Rather than trying to design specific solutions, and ones constrained by the same silos that create previous failing ones at that, Strategic Design bridges disciplines and departments within the organisation as currently exists, and seeks to change the cultural, political and social factors which prevent necessary change; the hidden things, the ‘dark matter’ the title refers to.

Another thing I’ve been reading (for the first time) is John Harwood’s The Interface, an exploration of the seminal IBM Design programme led by Eliot Noyes (who brought in Charles & Ray Eames, Paul Rand, etc), which transformed the business starting in the late fifties. What you realise from reading the stories back is just how much the politics and the social structures that Noyes & Thomas Watson Jr (his client, and new IBM CEO) navigated their way through were part of the design project.

P1080135

I could keep going in, but in this first week of January though, I’m very aware that there’s a lot more to research, and this is just the setting out of our stall. What other examples and takes on Strategic Design should we appraise ourselves of? This one? These folks? Does it really match up to the system we have? It does feel, on the surface, like what we’ve been working on with Smithery (somewhat unknowingly to an extent):

Exhibit A: We’re working with an innovation team from one end of the business, as well as the sales team from the other end. Rather than waiting three years for innovation to hit the front line and change the organisation, we’re helping them create and deploy the ideas and constructs immediately to make a difference for their customers.  Building conceptual and functional platforms and methods upon which they create things together. It’s a long, investigative journey of researching, prototyping, talking and observing. Developing a feel for the rhythm of the organisation, things we can see, things we can’t. What results is a field kit, a box full of the future, in many different iterations, that the sales team can use with clients to scope out problems together.

Exhibit B: We were asked to put together a ‘War Game’ for a global strategy team last autumn. They were bringing together the thirty strategic leaders from across the globe, who don’t see each other that often. The brief time they have together is valuable. Traditionally, ‘War Games’ are long extrapolations of one scenario. And it’s a rational thing for global strategy teams to ask for. No one gets fired for asking for a war game. But in rooting around in what the problem actually was, they wanted their people to become better at reacting to unforeseen circumstances. So instead of running a long game of ‘Risk, one long, exhaustive scenario, we designed a card game, more ‘Poker’ (multiple, recombinant, rapid scenarios). Instead of one scenario, we build 21 in three hours. But we only build half the deck; half are blank, for the client teams to create their own additional and variations in the future. In a sense, rather than just create a fully formed thing for one experience in the business, we made a half-formed thing they would take back home with them, and create their own experiences with.

In both these cases, of course, it wasn’t just us. We pull together ‘units’, small specialist teams to work on these things, according to the task. Sometimes individuals, sometimes wee groups of people from other companies. But importantly, I think, people from the inside of the client teams too. It’s less about building units for people, but building the units including people.

So the WHAT project is this: What Is A Strategic Design Unit?

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) In these first fresh weeks of 2016, inhabiting a new way of seeing what we do is something to test out. Then with further reading and reflection, we’ll be experimenting and investigating what it takes to be a “Strategic Design Unit”.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Working out what Strategic Design means for us, how we describe ‘strategic design units’ helpfully for others, and creating an artefact of our investigations (writing a guide on how we get on to publish,  a white paper, or something). The best articulation we can create, available to develop and build on through creative commons, that asks the least from others and ourselves in order to take the most from it.

————————-

2. HOW – Universal Agility Map

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sketched the thing below in the last year. Using the same axes of ‘people’ and ‘things’ as the system above, it’s nine-box variant for appraising what you should do next on a project basis. If the four box system model is the what, then this is the how.

P1080136

Very simply, you start projects in the bottom left, work quickly with a small team, then work out what to do next; Improve or Share. Go out to the right to share with more people, taking what you’ve got into qualitative, then quantitative ways of testing what you’ve made, before you spend all your resources making it better. Go up to improve, and make a better version of what it is you’ve come up with as a team.

As a simple instruction, ‘improve or share’ shares a lot from modern, iterative working, but there’s some additional things in there too.

For one, it’s non-judgemental. There is no right and wrong in the approach. Instead, it simple demands that you ask yourself, as truthfully as you can, what the most appropriate thing to do is. For another, it allows you to perceive the empty spaces in the process, and think about where else you might have taken the project, had you chosen to go there.

There’s more detail on what this method is here, but in short it’s about using a design process that isn’t wedded to time. Time doesn’t sit on the X axis of the two-dimensional model, so therefore the emphasis is not simply on moving from left to right. It’s like a self-directed version of snakes and ladders for projects.

The more we’ve used it ourselves, and talked about it to other people, the more it seems useful in situations as a way for other people to think about the way they work.

We think it might be a Universal Agility Map.

The idea that it’s a map, specifically, came from an afternoon we spent hanging out with Ella Saltmarshe and Tim Milne, reflecting on a project each of us had done and mapping the out across the grid, plotting points according to the action we’d taken at each stage (improve/share).

P1030156

Then the best bit, which was Ella’s idea for the session, was to then think about how it felt at each stage of the project, and to map those feelings on too. We got to some really interesting ways of describing the territory through this.

For instance, if you only keep improving something, without sharing it with others, it gets harder to share it eventually and take all the feedback on board at once. It’s like a mountain range that’s easier to cross when you’re further south in the foothills, but the further north you go, the higher and colder it becomes to make it over the mountains.

If you only talk about and get input and data about a project, on the other hand, and never use any of that to make significant steps on, you get lost in ‘the forests of constant chatter’… you never get anywhere as you’re lost in the reactions of what you get from external sources.

P1080142

All of this is something we want to work on more this year, and make something that people can take for themselves and use as a way of improving their own working process.

The HOW project is this: How Do You Use The Universal Agility Map?

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) We’ve found it really useful. We think other people will find it really useful. How we communicate the value we’ve found in that will be a good challenge for us (we’ve spent a year on it, surely it doesn’t take that long to learn), and beneficial for others.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Work out a way to teach it to people. Then teach it in person, at places where I teach already, like IED Barcleona & Google Squared, and in new places too. And, just maybe, create an artefact of the method too, so that people can teach themselves. Our friend Tina does a wonderful range of maps already, we should talk to her…

————————-

3. WHERE – Perpetual Spatial Ranges

The book I recommended most to people last year was Prototype, edited by Louis Valentine. It features a cornucopia of different takes on what prototypes are, written by practitioners in quite different spheres. It’s from 2010, rather than being from last year, but when I stumbled across it, I loved it from the off.

P1080140

One of the ideas I kept coming back to was from an essay called ‘Prototypes as a Central Vein For Knowledge Development‘ by Pieter Jan Stappers, in which he references ideas created during a PhD by dutch designer Ianus Keller.

Keller proposed that there could be ways to set up working environments for people engaged in prototyping which bring together what they are working on immediately in their hands, what is close to them on the table, and what they see in the environment in line-of-sight.

The bodily interactions in design activities can be divided into three spatial ranges, each serving different cognitive functions” as the essay puts it.

P1080139

The simple idea of the ‘spatial ranges’ gripped me, partly because of the Artefact Cards work over the last few years (which starts at the precision range, then stretches into the layout range), but partly because I’ve always been fascinated at exploring the spaces we all work in (effectively and not).

The Atmosphere range is one I personally think we at Smithery should concentrate this year on understanding more, and linking back to the other ranges. We’ve also been working these last six months on a fascinating ‘Future Of The Workplace’ project with a client, which we should be able to say a lot more about soon, I hope.

It’s not just a way to think about the way people work when in particular set-ups (like Keller was exploring with ways of prototyping) but in every moment we work. Do we always pull things in from the precision, layout and atmosphere ranges when working, knowingly or not?

Do we work in what we might call ‘Perpetual Spatial Ranges‘, three circles around us we should be much more mindful of? By considering these ranges, and understanding how they relate to each other, and what makes for good working practice for ourselves and teams, can we learn how to adjust and align the ranges, like a dance of working practice?

P1080138

When you start thinking about it in this way, you realise that in most work environments, the design of the spatial ranges aren’t that aligned. Team leaders, facilities managers, IT Departments, the board’s latest attempt at interior design… the number of different people taking unilateral decisions about the ranges soon stacks up, and perhaps damages or impedes the work people are being asked to do.

So what to do about this, then? Well, we have, by chance, some projects lined up this year which have a lot to do with the realms in which teams work. How to design environments which are most conducive to the sort of work you want people to more readily and easily produce. We might also explore our own working environment more, and set up an experiment of working practice that plays on these ideas.

Finally, then, the Where project is this: Where can you see Perpetual Spatial Ranges at work?

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) From the 2014 work based on the Stewart Brand shearing layers, it’s been really apparent that the spaces in which people work are part of the domain of trying to solve the problems we’re asked to. This is the year to get to grips with that properly.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Find a place to show people what we mean by Perpetual Spatial Ranges, whether it’s a place we work in, or someone else works in, or one we’ve designed for someone else for a specific purpose. Then, perhaps, run a tour of the space…?

————————-

There we go then. That should keep us busy, but hopefully in a way that creates more value for more people. We’ll see at the end of the year in the wrap-up.

Here’s to 2016.

 

 

2015 Projects – A Romjul Review

It’s that time of year again; a review of the annual Smithery projects, as laid out here, and then start thinking about next year’s projects.

…….

**As a very early tangent, I realise why I’ve been pondering this in the days after Christmas, and before New Year – I love Lauren Laverne at the best of times, but in particular this week as in this piece she draws attention to the Norwegian term Romjul

“Romjul is the Norwegian word for the last week of the year. It has a name and its own specific set of activities and traditions, which help make the most of the holidays, but also bring a bit of balance and recalibration to the last few days of the year. There’s eating, obviously, and a fair bit of staying in, creating a cosy nest. It’s a peaceful time to hang out with family and friends, but it’s also traditional to get outside and take walks, and to spend some time reflecting on the year that has passed and what comes next.”

…sorry, worth sharing I thought. Back to the matter in hand…

…….

The Smithery projects have always been set up as something slightly apart from the client work, internal things I wanted to do that benefits how we work, that clients would ultimately benefit from indirectly. Last year was the first time there were two of us writing them (Fraser and I), but given Fraser’s halfway up a mountain at the moment, you’ll have to make do with me writing this review.

The projects last year were an alliterative little bunch; Practice, Play & Produce. Each had their own specific intro (follow those links), and of course their own objectives.

To quickly recap…

1PRACTICE

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) – The aim of this project is to establish a shared language of practice for Smithery. As the work expands in scope, and the studio grows, having a common way to approach complex problems seems mandatory.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal)Define the axes properly, identify what Smithery offers in each quadrant, and write something on each of the 25 sub-sections to help orientate different types of work.

2 PLAY

WBB“Playing With Ideas” works when designing workshops, one-off experiences, and so on. But it feels like there’s scope to go further, to set up systems and games people can use themselves to be more productive…

WDG Work up three general versions of this so that other people can pick them up and use them without us being there to scaffold them into it. And make a version of one of them to sell to folks, either crowd-funded or direct.

3PRODUCE 

WBB “If you don’t make anything yourself you’ll never make anything of yourself” now this might not be true but I do think that only good can come out of trying to make something you have never tried before. Failing leads to learning and all that jazz. Also we can see how good we are at being the people who make things.

WDG What will we be making? We don’t exactly know, we aren’t ruling anything out, there aren’t any criteria for just now other than no pointless stuff because lets face it the world is already full of loads of useless crap. Stuff that helps people, has a purpose or evokes a nice reaction out of folks. We do know that we will be aiming to make something every month (MSEM) and that will be the minimum requirement.

 

So then… how did we do?

I’m going to address them in reverse order, and give them a score out of ten.

Produce was always going to be the most fulfilling to do, and hardest to achieve. One reason, perhaps, is that it’s harder to slot in the making of things in between client projects; it takes a mental shift sometimes to find the space to make a thing.

Another is, as Alex wrote in her excellent review of the Good Night Lamp year, making is waiting. When you’re making physical things which need some sort of scale, this is especially true. For instance, you design a version of something, then send it off… and wait days to see the prototype. It’s not like more digital forms of making, where you can form a more instant test-and-learn approach as you see the results of every change and tweak. And it’s also not like pure craft, where you’re making a one-off piece (a pot, let’s say), and you feel and see every shift in the material as you go.

Finally, of course, there’s Artefact Cards – we already have a ready-made (sic) production arm (albeit now a separate company), which we’ve been creating new products and things for all year. Sometimes it’s for Artefact Cards, sometimes collaborations, sometimes for Smithery client work (which I’ll blog about separately, next year, when I can).

P1070929

In hindsight… does this count, or not? Should we have been making different things? Or is it a useful platform upon which to make things to explore things with people.

I kinda feel that if we were to count all the useful, provocative things we used the cards for this year, we’d pass the criteria as set for the project with flying colours. There’s been at least twelve. Part of the discovery of this year was just how deep the whole card thing goes, which I talked about at Adaptive Lab’s Pi People event in September:

 

But there’s no point going soft on ourselves; this wasn’t the goal, as Fraser wrote about it back in January. To pass, we’d have needed much more non-card production, I think. So I’m going to state that it’s a 4/10 for PRODUCE.

Next up, PLAY. I was about to fail us on this, totally, but then I read the description again…

“Playing With Ideas” works when designing workshops, one-off experiences, and so on. But it feels like there’s scope to go further, to set up systems and games people can use themselves to be more productive…

And thought back to something that happened after my dConstruct talk (below)…

John Ellison at Clearleft took one of the games I mentioned in the talk, Popular Thing For Broken Thing, and wrote a brilliant description of the game as they put it into practice on a project – you should pop over here and give it a read.

That game, and others, we’ve played at workshops this year in a very diverse mix of places, from Barclays Capital to Google Squared to the Museums Association. All the games have one thing in common, perhaps; they’re not terribly hard to remember how to run. And if you get it wrong, then hey, that’s a new version.

In this sense, it’s all about what you leave behind, rather than what you bring. Giving people useful games to play with each other means, I think, they can be more productive when you’re not there. They’re also more likely to play the thing again, if it’s a fun, productive thing to do. It’s been a very useful way to create value this year for other people to take away.

However…

When I read the WDG again, it says ‘Work up three general versions of this so that other people can pick them up and use them without us being there to scaffold them into it. And make a version of one of them to sell to folks, either crowd-funded or direct.’. We didn’t do that at all. Hmmm.

In the strictest terms, we’ve failed. PLAY gets a 1/10. In hindsight, the aims are wrong, and I’m much happier as a result.

Finally then, PRACTICE

We started the year with a vague notion that the card you see at the top, those cartesian coordinates of ‘people’ and ‘things’, was a way to describe… well, everything we did. The very point of Smithery, when founded 4+ years ago, was to stretch right across organisations in order to solve the problems that really needed solving, not just iterate in domains long-past their sell-by date.

In this model, I think we’ve found it. It’s been tremendously useful and production on a weekly, if not daily basis, as a way to think about the type of project we’re shaping with clients, what stage things are at, what actions are most viable next.

There’s an extended post on the thinking behind it here, too (though I’ve stopped referring to it as the ‘Axes of Praxis’, a joke that lost its shine at some point…) – http://smithery.com/making/a-sonic-screwdriver-for-thinking/

What’s come out of it most usefully, I think, is the ability to clearly state what Smithery does (beyond ‘Making Things People Want > Making People Wants Things’), and why, and therefore what we would do at any given point for a client.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 10.56.08

These four interrelated areas we think about are Design, Strategy, Prototype and Culture.

Prototypes are small things we do with small groups of people. When the thing we make together needs advancing, and the thing-thing is more important that the people-thing, we shift into Design. When we find that the wider organisation needs to shift in order to make the future successful, and the people-thing is more important than the thing-thing, we shift into Culture. And finally, when thinking about all of the people, and all of the things, we are operating at the Strategy level.

Then there’s a nine-box grid version too, which details out a project as it progresses, which makes for a really useful design process where time isn’t used on the X axis… I talked about that at UX London:

Overall, this PRACTICE section of the projects has been a real success – although I never did write 25 pieces about it.
For that slip, let’s go 8/10 for PRACTICE.
There we have it then, the 2015 projects in review, and just in time for Hogmanay too. We’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year, and see you in a few days, when we’ll talk about the 2016 projects and the year ahead…