On not writing books

“You should write a book.”

Sometimes I say this to other people, sometimes other people say this to me.

It came up again this week. Anjali and I had lunch, and spoke of our mutual delight on Neil announcing he’s writing a second book.

The first book is a super useful read, a manual to keep dipping in and out of. In fact, I have it in my bag now, as I’m rapidly scanning everything I can to get further into the deeper backstory of John Boyd’s OODA loops for various projects.

Like many folk, I’d perhaps only scratched the surface of OODA. I started using in in workshops and teaching back in 2015/15, but only lightly as part of the metamechanics collection, basing work on the elements of movement, maps, loops and layers which help people think about their work using the qualities and power of information in the internet age, rather than fighting against it.

But in wanting to delve deeper into the OODA loops, I found this, which contains Boyd’s original 327 slide briefing document, and an introduction from Dr Grant T. Hammond, in which he writes…

“In introducing the 327 slides of “A Discourse on Winning and Losing,” I am hesitant. Boyd’s briefings were never meant to be a compilation of doctrine or dogma about how to fight and win wars. They were meant to be conversations between him and his audiences.

He never gave a briefing in which he did not learn something. He might have poorly conveyed a particular idea or skipped a step in the logic trail. Alternatively, perhaps, he forgot something or someone had added to the examples he used, the references he had consulted, or provided a different interpretation that he should have considered more deeply.”

“He could not bring himself to publish anything because it was never complete. Coming from an essentially oral culture of briefings in the military, Boyd put carefully chosen words on view-graphs, but never in print. The “Discourse” was an unfinished conversation with each audience, part of a perpetual learning experience. He learned every time from each discussion with his audiences, and this necessitated changes for the next iteration. There was a succession of unfinished OODA Loops.”

I’m totally going to use this as my excuse for not writing books from now on.

Firstly, because I believe it; all of the various theories, models, tools and so on that have developed over eight years of Smithery are not ‘finished’; they work differently every time, and are contextually powerful because of that, and always send me away thinking new thinks.

And secondly, because from the outside, writing books looks hard and often joyless, and my hat goes off to all those who do. I look forward to reading them all.

The Parasite As Host?

I has a DM from Lee at the weekend, after we’d caught up last week for the first time in ages: “…loved your comment re Monzo as an incumbent – smart, in an ‘of course’ way. Might make a nice blog* post…”. So here it is.

I’d mentioned the poster and campaign below, and the weirdness of seeing new financial startups treat Monzo as an incumbent.

Yes, Monzo now have over a million users. Yes, they’re prepping for a US launch. Yes, they’ve raised £85 million to help fund new product development.

But are they the banking incumbent? No, not really.

Perhaps, though, they’re now the incumbent service for a thin layer of people who want banking no thicker than the thin glass layer atop a smartphone, a business that skips along the top edge of the pace layers, feeding on a deeper system below.

They feed off the slower moving layers below to survive; yes, the parasite metaphor has a metallic tang in the mouth, and probably doesn’t reflect intentions, but as a description of how they’ve captured the mobilista section that the market without really contributing to the lower layers is arguably accurate.

And now, we see the emergence of others who try to thrive in the whole they’ve burrowed in the host organism. One question emerges though about the campaign; who is it for?

It’s surely not for people with a Monzo card already, as getting people to switch bank accounts remains notoriously hard work, so why go after a small subset of a market. Viola Black is not going to feed off Monzo in the way that Monzo feeds off the wider system.

And it surely can’t be for those on the verge of making a decision to switch to Monzo, as any quick search on comparisons of the two would bring back unfavourable results for Viola Black; it is just a pre-pay credit card, as Monzo used to be.

It’s perhaps more likely that it is just a market statement, for current investors and potential future ones; ‘look, we’re in this market, associate us with these other players’.

In startup land, you don’t need to live off a real user base, sometimes the fumes of hype will provide enough sustenance for months or years. It’s like vaping success.

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*It’s 2019, so let’s try more blogging, as per this:

Short fast blogging, rather than having an existential crisis when trying to fashion a passable Medium post. Why is it every Medium post ends up as a Large?

Next Gen Artefact Cards

It’s taken a little while, due to longer than expected things (which I’ll perhaps blog about at length at some point).

But the next generation, retail-ready Artefact Cards are hitting the presses this month, to be on sale (and on shelf in lovely establishments) by the end of January.

I have enough of the pre-production prototypes to run workshops with this month, though, which is pleasing.

via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/RWo8uh

The New Twickenham Gates

“The venture, led by London-based architects Wilson Owens Owens, provides a unique focal point when fans arrive and delivers a recognisable starting point for their experience at the world’s largest dedicated rugby stadium.”

So say England Rugby, on their site, about the new Twickenham entrance gates.

In reality, it turns out they’ve tried to send as many people past this ‘focal point’ as they can, and it takes twice as long to get in. Well done, architects.

via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/RJAKTh

Flying The Forge

It seems somewhat fitting that it’s the tenth anniversary of The Do Lectures this weekend; it was there at their fifth iteration I met Fraser Hamilton, and tomorrow is his last day at Smithery.

For five years we’ve worked together, at first with Fraser on an internship, then freelance, then full-time. He’s been a vital companion on the continuing Smithery journey, as it productively picks its way through the sunny uplands towards whatever peaks we next spot on the horizon. At this point in that journey though, there’s a path into a year or two of specialism beckoning, so Fraser’s joining our friends at Adaptive Lab as a service designer…

…I was about to type ‘we’re glad he’s going to a really good home”, but that just sounds like he’s a puppy who’s been mithering the designer furniture, so I’ll leave that there…

Every day working with Fraser has been a pleasure. I’ve never worked with someone before who’s so eager to learn and stretch themselves, to combine their talents they’ve developed over the years with things the’ve never even tried before, to ask good questions that they know need to be asked even if they feel uncomfortable doing so, and to be such thoroughly good company in any situation.

Fraser, you will go far. See you on the mountain paths, my friend.

 

 

The Futures and Follies of the Full-Stack Habitat

I’m delighted to be back at IED in Barcelona again this summer leading the Innovation and Future Thinking summer course. We’re bringing together the usual gang of inspirational lecturers and local innovators to explore a theme across the two weeks, starting on July 16th. More details on that soon, but in a change to the regular approach, we’re sharing the course theme up front this year (because, well, reasons… which will become clearer if you attend). Apply now if you’d like a place, or send it on to someone you think might…

UPDATE: We’ve finalised the core course teaching staff for next month in Barcelona, and I could not be more excited to explore ‘The Future of Space’ with a set of folks whose ideas and methods regularly excite and inspire me. We may yet add some more special guests too, keep an eye out for those. And come and join us in July in Barcelona.

Scott Smith

Scott is best — and worst — described as futurist, taking a distinctly non-traditional approach to the job. He is also a writer, critic and educator. As founder and managing partner of Changeist since 2007, he points the way for the team’s research, and manages partnerships and strategic direction for the group.

Scott’s work covers 25 years looking for and describing the “So what?” of change across technology, society, economics and politics. His time is spent between gathering new signals in the world, making sense of them at a quiet table or crowded whiteboard, giving them narrative form on sketch paper, in a text editor, or on camera. He has lived in three countries and worked in over 20, and managed strategy and research teams in New York, Washington and London before launching Changeist.

Scott heads the Designing the Future programme for Dubai Future Academy, and lectures in the Innovation & Future Thinking programme at IED Barcelona, which he helped create. He has written for The Atlantic, Quartz, The Next Web, WIRED UK, How We Get to Next, Medium, The Long View, and HOLO 2, and spoken at major events as diverse as The Next Web, Lift, Helsinki’s Flow Festival, South Australia’s Open State, EPIC, SxSW, Sibos, FutureEverything, and NEXT14 and 15.

Dan Hill

Dan Hill is a Visiting Professor at IIPP (UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose), as well as an Associate Director at Arup, and Head of Arup Digital Studio, a multidisciplinary design team based in London. He is also one of the Mayor Of London’s Design Advocates.

A designer and urbanist, Dan’s previous leadership positions have produced innovative, influential projects and organisations. They range across built environment (Arup in Australia, Future Cities Catapult in UK), education and research (Fabrica in Italy), government and social innovation (SITRA in Finland), and media (BBC and Monocle in UK), each one transformed positively via digital technology and a holistic approach to design.

He has lived and worked in UK, Australia, Finland and Italy. He started his career working on the urban regeneration of Manchester, and has subsequently worked on city strategy and urban development projects worldwide.

Last year he was the Sir Banister Fletcher visiting professor at The Bartlett School of Architecture, with Joseph Grima, and he is also an adjunct professor at RMIT University in Melbourne and UTS in Sydney.

He is the author of “Dark Matter & Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary” (Strelka Press, 2012), as well as numerous pieces for other books, journals, magazines and websites.

Christina Bifano

Christina Bifano is a design and trends researcher, educator, textile designer and fashion historian with a passion for combining all interests into one.

Christina has been coordinating and teaching trends investigation courses at IED Barcelona for the past 7 years. Her latest research projects include: Design Thinking for the EU Erasmus Commission, The Book of Everyone, Hotel Brummel, GNT Group, Cahier Studio (Double G Prints), Protein (London) and Stylus (London) and she has participated in producing trends-based editorials for: PSFK (NYC) and La Entropia (Barcelona).

Her backgound is in textile/surface design and she has worked for large brands and small design studios alike including: JB Martin, Co. Inc., Nautica Int’l. Inc., Milkprint Studios (NYC), Colette&Blue (PA), Cahier and Coloroom/Double G (BCN). She is proud editor of Roadtrip to Innovation and Digital Natives/Get Ready! both by Delia Dumitrescu. She holds degrees in Textile/Surface Design from FIT in New York and Accademia Italiana Moda in Florence, Italy.

Natalie Kane

Natalie D Kane is a curator, writer and researcher based in London, UK. She is Curator of Digital Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum (UK).

Natalie is a co-curator of Haunted Machines with Tobias Revell, a long-term curatorial and research project starting with a mini-conference at FutureEverything 2015, which reflected on the narratives of magic and hauntings pervading our relationship with technology. Haunted Machines were selected to curate the 2017 edition of art, tech and media festival Impakt (NL).

Natalie has talked about magic, art and technology on BBC Click and BBC Radio Four’s Digital Human, been interviewed by Vice’s Motherboard, Uncube Magazine, Spark on CBC Radio, Mindful Cyborgs and The Guardian and had work featured on BBC News, Le Monde Blogs and Mashable. Which is nice.

As an educator, Natalie has guest lectured at London College of Communications and Design Academy Eindhoven, is a Visiting Tutor at the Instituto de Europea Design (Barcelona), previously taught at Royal Institute of Theatre, Cinema and Sound (Brussels), and delivered workshops for the 2017 Malta Presidency of the Council of the European Union for Times Up.

 

The Futures and Follies of the Full-Stack Habitat

Each year on the Innovation and Future Thinking course at IED in Barcelona, we select a theme to work with. This provides students with a lens through which to see the world, a platform to help understand the methods and tools used to critically assess what may unfold, and a language in which to design a response to communicate what they see. Perhaps most importantly of all, given the global diversity of the course and the highly contextual nature of the field, we look for a theme that connects them to the city itself. 

In 2018, we will explore the future of space in Barcelona: Where will people live, where will they work? What will be public, what will be private? Who will be from here, and who will be passing through? Which resources will be finite, and which will be infinite? What will be permanent, what will be temporary? What changes, and what will remain eternal?

In order to unpick the various physical, urban and social interactions which are being transformed by software, we will interrogate the idea of The Full-Stack Habitat.

The first half of this is about kidnapping the ‘full stack’* metaphor from technology development, and wearing its clothes for a while to see what works and what doesn’t. We will look at the city as if it is a stack of interdependent systems, from the light-touch experiences you have on an hourly basis to the heavy infrastructural implications, from the feelings it creates for an individual visitor, to the long-term social effects for whole communities. Where does such a metaphor help us, and where does it fall apart?

The second half is an interrogation of the term ‘habitat’. Is a habitat in the 21st century really only the “various types of places intended for human residence, as opposed to and often in addition to e.g., places of work, study, or entertainment”. As the boundaries between activities blur, do we need to scale the idea of ‘habitat’ back up to the ecological level, and think of it as the city in which we live, work, learn play, relax and more?

Through understanding more about the complex and networked layers that exist around Barcelona, we expose the need for adaptability in both ourselves and the spaces we inhabit. By the end of the course, the students will be able to connect different ideas and elements, and design innovations and interventions to represent potential, viable futures.

Most crucially, we must create a learning experience in which the anticipation of problems is brought the fore. New products and services are emerging in cities which ignorantly or wilfully bypass any thinking on how they will affect the balance of a space. 

Collaborating with partners in the city, each of whom will bring a different perspective and set of priorities to the debate, we will seek to identify where in Barcelona problems are likely to arise, the form they will appear in, and the evidence of how they manifest themselves already. Understanding the follies of The Full-Stack Habitat are as important as understanding the potential futures.

 

Apply now if you’d like a place, or send it on to someone you think might…

 

*  a full-stack developer is “simply someone who is familiar with all layers in computer software development. They aren’t experts at everything… they understand how everything works from top to bottom and can anticipate problems accordingly” – https://codeup.com/what-is-a-full-stack-developer/

The Oliver Twist

Last week, after two days of teaching at the RCA with the Design Products gang, I also took part in a Future of Manufacturing edition of the School of Design’s evening lecture series. This involved three short talks and a panel with Asif Moghal from Autodesk, Gavin Munro from Full Grown and myself. 

The below isn’t the script as such, just a (less sweary) exploration of the main points and some subsequent post-rationalisations. That said, it’s still written in the present tense, as it’s the sort of things that I wish I’d said (and might have said), but, like, said better. Ish.

My thanks go to Hannah Stewart at the RCA for the invitation, and to John Dodds for suggesting the pithy title of the talk…


 

The Oliver Twist

I’d like to talk about a problem in how people think about the things they make for people, and what we all might start doing to change that. I run Smithery, a Strategic Design Unit in London. In our interpretation, Strategic Design bridges disciplines and departments, roles and responsibilities; it is concerned with all of the factors around a thing, be they visible or invisible, and not just the thing itself.

Our practice is rooted in the philosophical stance that Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.

It should be noted that I have a somewhat strange background to be doing this work and talking here at the RCA. I went to university through the clearing system, when doing such a thing didn’t carry the financial disincentives that it does today. I’d originally wanted to study English, and did for a while, but ended up with a degree in Economics. In hindsight, I’m unable to tell you which demands a more applied use of fictional devices.

After university, I landed in market research, and spent a time unknowingly looking at what was the start in the decline of local newspapers. Then it working out how to replace the old paper posters on the underground with as many flashy, whizzy digital ones as possible. Then finally into media innovation for a seven year stretch.

This graph neatly shows my tenure in that area, starting at a time when social media was just a thing you did to get your friends along to see your band’s gigs. Then Friends Reunited was bought by a telly company, Myspace was bought by a newspaper company, and Facebook realised you can’t afford to be bought by anybody if you want to get on with your mission of destroying the fabric of democratic society as we know it connecting everyone on the planet.

The reason I got out was that it’s was really quite boring. As Jeffrey Hammerbacher pointed out back then, all of these great minds and technologies are being honed and pointed at making people click ads.

Maybe Jeff’s quote should now be updated to “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make agencies tell their clients that a pixel being on a screen for barely a second is probably enough to justify the expense of buying this shit”.

It’s not as catchy, but is arguably the only business model that Silicon Valley has managed to crack repeatedly, unless you count VC-backed Ponzi schemes pushing market-destroying services at a loss on the run-up to some ridiculous future IPO valuation.

Anyway, 2011 was a good time to get out of that.

Yet funnily enough, a lot of the companies who’ve spent all that time thinking about making people click boxes on tiny screens have started to expand their thinking away from just the screen and into things too.

The data monster needs more to feast on than the meagre scraps of information you’re feeding it now… how can Amazon launch an Alexa Advertising Network based on just knowing everything about some of the things you buy sometimes… it wants to know more

So we’re now seeing the rise not of ‘product-as-a-service’ so much as ‘product-as-a-parasite’.

It comes into your home, or your office, plugged into your dashboard or splattered across your actual face, and (even when you’ve paid money for it) makes a living by sucking the data out of your daily routines and feeding it back to the central nervous system.

For example, take the Snap Spectacles – please, in fact, take them, because there are 300,000 pairs unsold, wasting in a warehouse somewhere. That little lot caused Snap to take a $40m write-down. But hey, that’s fine, it’s someone else’s money, right? That’s what investors are for.

The inherent gamble in products like this is that it might increase the number of users of the greater system (new users who’ve never used the old thing, but are attracted by the new product), or it might increase the amount of data you have from existing users. And if you’re very lucky, it might do both. More likely, it will do neither.

But where as digital product development is equally prone to failure (and perhaps more so), we can more easily bear the cost that this brings, both as the company trying something, and the wider society.

If a new digital thing doesn’t take off, then you’ve lost more human effort than anything else (and even then you could argue that when people are getting paid in the process, there’s some valuable economic activity happening somewhere). There’s no real long-term downside. But that’s not true if you have 300,000 plastic, metal, and rare-earth mineral things in a warehouse.

Another way of thinking about it is with economies of scale. In traditional manufacturing, if you just want to do one of something, it’s really, really expensive. Your cost per unit for the next comes down, and continues to do so for a good while – the next 300,000 after the first 300,000 look really cheap in comparison.

If you’re more used to scaling digital businesses, the curve you operate on might look a lot different. You can build something for the first ten users in a weekend with a friend, on computers you already own. Over time, you can increase design, functionality, hosting, and grow the user base as you go. If it gets bigger still, you rent some office space, grow the team, move on to better servers, redo the brand… the cost per user keeps going up, but only after you’re making enough money to pay that off and keep investing more of your money (or more likely your investors money) into feeling user growth.

Perhaps the problems start when a digitally-trained business are offered a cost curve like that of a traditional manufacturing business – at the point where things usually get more expensive per user, the manufactured items are getting cheaper! Cheaper, you say?! Let’s but an extra 300,000, I’m sure we’ll sell them.

The more shit products created by companies who haven’t really though this through, but just feel that it’s a useful route to growing their user base, then the more warehouses and dumps full of redundant waste future generations are going to have to deal with.

Designers are complicit in this. It’s the age of click-bait design, where, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get the lovely photo of the product you’ve designed for that start-up into Dezeen, and you can send it in an email to your Mum and say ‘look Mum, I designed that‘.

And then banner adverts for isometric chairs will follow your Mum around the internet for weeks afterwards, and she’ll wonder why.

But as a designer, you’ve got to own all of your product shots, not just the one you send to your parents.

Let’s take an example from this piece by Benjamin Haas in the Guardian recently. Here’s your standard product shot, well done you:

But then you should really send your Mum this one too, where the thing you designed didn’t really fit into the existing systems people were already using, and it go a bit inconvenient. That’s on you.

Then there’s this one, where the people who were using the thing you made started abandoning it in the middle of towns and cities because… well, it wasn’t obvious or easy where they went, or there was no incentive, and then someone else had done it, so… yeah, that’s your product shot too.

Then there’s this doozy. That’s a repair man in Beijing wondering where he’s going to start repairing all of the bikes which have something wrong with them to get them back on the streets. He’d tell you that this is your product shot too.

Then, finally, comes the best product shot of all, because they had to use a drone to take it. That’s a sharing bike graveyard in Xiamen in China, where the whole ‘bike-sharing start-up’ craze has reached the point where you have 1.5m sharing bikes in Shanghai, which is three times bigger than London which manages with 11,000 Santander bikes.

In short, if companies continue to make physical products with a start-up. digital first mentality, then we will drown in this stuff.

What we need to do is find a way of persuading people to want not more, but less. Making Things People Want, yes, but where the ‘thing’ in that idea is a concept of responsible sustainable existence, rather than simply the accumulation of MOAR THINGZ.

I’ve been thinking about the term leastmodernism since a talk I gave at dConstruct in 2015 – how do we fuse together than spirit of modernism, the wide-scale, far-reaching transformation of the world, but centred around the idea that it’s about what you’ve not done, what you’ve chosen to leave out, the repairs you enable… what are the repeatable patterns and expectations we can build into a wide variety or products, services and systems so that the expectation of less becomes a habit?

And this, of course, is The Oliver Twist.

“Please sir, I want some less…”

Merry Christmas

After the five-year celebratory extravagances of last year’s festive Three Spirits project, we over at Smithery decided that we’re keeping the basic form of those three trees and expanding it into our annual Christmas present to Smithery clients. This year, we’ve made two things from it. First of all, there’s a special Christmas Coffee blend produced in collaboration with Lindfield Coffee Works. Then there’s a screen-printed card that Helen created, setting up a mini printing press in our kitchen for a couple of days. These all went out a week and a half ago, in plenty time for people to receive and enjoy the coffee on their Christmas holidays.

We hope you all enjoy your time with friends and family too, and wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the fortune and fun you can wish for in 2018.

John, Helen & Fraser.