I’ve been thinking a lot about Assemblage. It’s been prompted by Anab’s inclusion of it in her More-Than-Human-Politics manifesto, pointedly positioned against Systems (“Assemblages are diverse, indeterminate and precarious… Acknowledging the entanglements without the desire to have the ‘full overview’”).
It also took me back to some of the thinking I originally did around Artefact Cards specifically, and more recently working with information particles generally, and a few other conversations and pieces I’ve been working on in the background.
This week, I started playing with a short explanation, which felt worth sharing:
An assemblage is like being dealt a hand of cards for the first time, in a game you don’t know the rules for.
You have these five cards in your hand, of a mix of suits and numbers, and you have to work out what to play, and how to do it. When the time comes, you play some cards as best you can, but you lose that first hand. Yet you saw what was going on, and figure that you might have a better chance at working out the overall game come the next hand.
Except when you are dealt your new hand, it contains a new suit you’ve never seen before, and a number that you didn’t know existed. You’re not sure what the new suit means (is it more senior than other suits? Equal?), and from what you know of numbers, you try and establish where this one might fit in a ranking. Additionally, the previous work you put in to trying to establish the rules of the game is now potentially of lower value, though it’s hard to let go of answers you think you’ve worked out.
You play, and of course you lose that hand as well.But again you learn more about how to sort through the cards you’re likely to be holding in the next round.
So when the third hand arrives, containing another unfamiliar suit, moderately taxing algebra, a postcard from a relative, and some cheese and pineapple on a stick, you’re at least a bit more prepared for the possibility that different things will turn up that don’t fit in with your expectations.
Thinking in systems asks that you work out the rules of the game.
Thinking in assemblages helps you become better at playing the hand you’re actually dealt.
Postscript: There’s a lot of diverse and interesting debate and discussion around what Systems Thinking actually is, of course, but I’m blithely operating under the following rule of thumb for now – “If you mean constantly moving and changing things, maybe you shouldn’t use the word ‘system’?”
Earlier this week, I posted up the four images above on a twitter poll and on instagram, and asked the simple questions; A, B, C or D? No context, just that – of the four images, which would you choose. I’d said I’d explain a bit about it, but first though, what were the results?
Instagram folks are kinda similar, though it’s a much smaller sample size. The reactions, when people sent some additional thoughts, are also really interesting, but in particular I’m going to draw attention to Richard‘s comment here:
A because the gradients are spot on and draw your eye out of a hexagon into a cube. Solid yet transformative. But with refinement of colour distribution D makes my mind feel kaleidoscopic.
The real extremes in the test are A and D, to my mind.
The former is a solid, simple structure that’s trying to do one thing. All the colours are aligned, all the gradients are consistently directed. As Fraser said in his response, “a designer’s designer would say A“.
The latter, D, has a whole lot of things going on.
At first, it just feels a bit like random chaos, especially in context with the others. But then as you scan it a bit more, looking more closely, or holding it at arms length, it starts revealing different things. Richard’s idea about it making the mind feel ‘kaleidoscopic’ is bang on, I think.
Beyond playing with delights of isometric shapes and gradient effects though, I did promise to explain a bit more about what it’s for though.
Last year, various streams of work and teaching the Innovation & Future Thinkingcourse at IED in Barcelona made me start wondering about revisiting the underlying tools and frameworks of Smithery’s work (Strategy, Prototyping, Culture, Design, Innovation… etc), and how all of those things connect. The last time I’d done this was back in 2014, when a month of blogging every day produced a set of theories and practices which formed the backbone of the following five years’ work.
Back in January, in ‘the before’, I gave a talk called “A Blacksmith Makes Their Own Tools“, which set the seeds of the reading and reflection on our work so far since starting in 2011. Then these past couple of months have provided a brilliant opportunity to get torn into that work properly, and start to shape a few early parts of the new work, of which the images are part.
What I’d been working on was a graphic representation of a basic information process, from sensing what’s out there in the world, through to the actions people take as a result. It pulls on a few pre-existing models already (Boyd’s OODA loops, some of Boisot’s information space) as well as some other reading I’ve been doing, and it’s not finished as yet. As a basic general framework, it’s a fairly useful starting point for me at the moment, and would already serve as a useful tool in asking questions of clients or students (Where do we get information from? How do we process it? What filters can we identify that prevent some information getting it?) in order to identify intervention points and practices to deploy.
I’m not going to dwell on it a lot now, but come back instead to the “A versus D” thing from above, as to which best represents the ‘in here’ part of the model. In short, what does the processing of information look like internally, be it as an individual (the things in your head) or an organisation (the knowledge we hold)?
Now, if I’d framed a question around this (perhaps ‘which of these represents thinking?’ or something similar), and presented people with the four images, I would imagine the answers would be very different. We are aware of the unstructured nature of our own minds as much as we are of the information and knowledge that resides inside the organisations we populate.
I would argue though in this context, the neatness and perfection of A is likely not what we’re looking for in these terms; the Sisyphean task of organising all our ideas and workflows into perfect order, I think, will remain forever beyond the grasp of people. Which opens up the question; if striving for perfection in structure is a futile goal, then what should we be aiming for instead? What does good thinking look like?
Anyway, that’s the next couple of months of thinking and writing sorted – pursuing the above and the themes obliquely sketched out below. I’ll be sharing more as soon as it is ready (and maybe an additional post on why it’s not following the same process as a month’s worth of blogging from the last time). Thanks to everyone who played along with the picture experiment.
This week, I gave a talk (with a little bit of workshopping) as part of the third module of IPA Excellence Diploma. This was a course I did back in 2007/8, and without doing it, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do now, and definitely wouldn’t be thinking about things in the way I do.
It’s never a substitute, but people have asked if I’d be sharing the slides, so here you go. Just imagine that when you get to the ones that make no sense, I am in front of you saying something really profound. Ignore that pesky internal voice of yours that questions that how likely that would be, and just go with it…
It was an honour to be invited back by Amelia and Sera from The Fawnbrake Collective, who have taken over and reimagine dates course for the 2020s. Yet it feels like a gift, because being asked to reflect on 12 years of making / thinking and spot patterns in your own process has given me a view of my own work I’d never have seen otherwise. We alway look at the mountains ahead, rather than the hills behind.
I’ve noticed that there’s a fascinating little exchange at the end of the Ocado process. After you’ve received all your shopping, the delivery driver will ask ‘have you got any bags to return?’. It’s the bag recycle scheme they’ve been doing for a few years, where they give you 5p for every bag you give them back. After you hand them the pile, they ask ‘how bags do you think that is?’. You then say a number – you might know, or like us you might guess.
‘About 12?’ I offered today. “Ok, I’ll call it 20” said the driver, and off they went.
And it’s not just one or two drivers in particular that rounds up the number in this manner, but all of them. It’s so consistent, in fact, that today I started to wonder if it was designed as an exchange, as part of the service.
Because it’s such a simple, generous idea, to leave a customer at the end of the interaction feeling like the representative in the company has just given them something back.
It’s not really about the amount, the 40p extra refund. It’s the gesture that makes it work. And the fact that it’s a gesture from a person, rather than a discount figure that appears on an app, powered by an unseen algorithm. In comparison to other service companies who send people to your door, that projection of autonomy in the job is interesting.
During Natalie Kane’s presentation on the IED Innovation and Future Thinking course last month (yes, I will write something up, promise), she showed the class this, the Amazon warehouse picker wearable. It’s the antithesis of autonomy in a job – it is telling you what, where, when, and how, and your only job is simply to comply.
What struck me as the class was discussing it was that, yes, this is a wearable, but not in the way that you think. It’s not a person wearing a device, it’s an algorithm wearing a person.
Yet if the Ocado ‘how many bags?’ exchange is ‘designed’ and instructional in some way, then it’s merely just the allusion of autonomy. Is this worse in some ways?
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.
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 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 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 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 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 spacein 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?
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/
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.
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?
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’sMental Notes. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re on sale any more, so you either have them or you don’t.
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.
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.
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:
Get a strong, non-corrodible airtight container made from stainless steel/tough plastic
Use things like paper, non-PVC plastics, wood, devices without power, wrapped separately
Avoid plants, animals, insects, rubber, and batteries – all can give off corrosive substances
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.
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.
“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…
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.