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?

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.

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.

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

Conceptual Strategy for Intranets

I know, that’s a rock and roll blog post title, eh?

A short video, explaining something that Chris, Mark and I worked on a while ago for a client, but that came back round again today when someone asked ‘any thoughts on setting up intranets?’. Rather than a long blog post, or a detailed email, I made a scratchy video…

…using the webcam/lamp stand thing I hacked together a while ago.

 

dConstruct 2015: Metadesign For Murph

I’m thrilled and honoured to be talking at dConstruct this year. It’s one of the highlights of the year for me, and so many friends, that to be asked to speak there is… well, it’s a complex emotional melting pot, let’s say. It’s on Friday 11th September, and you can see all the details here.

The theme this year is Designing the Future. My talk is still in early prototype stage, of course. But you still have to have a rough idea what it might be, so it can go on websites and that. So here’s where I am at the moment… it’s gone pretty hard into using Interstellar as the main metaphor for how I think we need to address the theme… all thoughts on the film welcome in the comments section underneath….

 

METADESIGN FOR MURPH

IMG_0016

Cooper: “I thought they chose me. But they didn’t choose me, they chose her!”
TARS: “For what, Cooper?”
Cooper: “To save the world!”

If we’re going to talk about designing the future, let’s understand two things – who is doing the designing, and who is this future for, anyway?

Much of our cultural upbringing, from the pages of comics, to the Hollywood studios, repeatedly told us that we could step up and be the heroes. We’re programmed to feel that we’re the ones who will make the difference.

It’s time to look further than the end of our own egos, because there are problems coming we can’t find answers to, because we’re products of the system that created them.

Instead, whether we’re designers or clients, peers or parents, we must switch our attention to Metadesign; “nurturing the emergence of the previously unthinkable” in those around us, and those who will come after us.

It’s about ideas and environments, books and blocks, objects and systems, all examined through the contents and context of the most intriguing bedroom in sci-fi.

 

This Week In Barcelona…

P1040377

Right now, I’m holed up in a lovely little AirBnB in Gràcia in Barcelona, a self-proclaimed ‘writers apartment’, which to be honest does live up to its claim. It’s a perfect spot for sitting and working on a few things, as the sounds of the streets bubble up through the wide bay windows, whilst hidden at the back of the flat is an oasis of air-conditioning in which to sleep.

I’m not here just to hang out, though.

Scott Smith invited me over to teach on the Innovation and Future Thinking summer course that he runs here at the IED. Thirty-one students are coming to learn about how to spot things in the world, and use them to start building up versions of the future from the fragments of the present.

Barcelona as a city is a perfect environment to do this; complex different types of economy and social behaviour, combined with an independent streak a mile wide, means that the city just tries to talk to you at every turn.

To make the most of this, we’re giving each of the students an Artefact Field Kit, which they can prowl the streets spotting and collecting the clues about what might happen in the future.

FW - open

Then we’ll be teaching them how to use these clues together in exploratory mapping using the cards, and recombine them in speculative acts of creation. As Scott put it last night when we were prepping, it means we could run this course sitting on the pavement somewhere, in the event of a sudden and seismic collapse in the infrastructure that takes the power grid down… I’m hoping it won’t come to that though.

We’ll try to post as much as we can up from the course, and share it on twitter using the #IEDFutures hashtag.

More as we have it, as they say…

PS Thanks to the guys at Flamingo in London for doing some game testing last week as part of the preparation for today

 

Many Is Greater Than One

Many > One.

Yep, of course it is. And no, I’m not just trolling maths geeks.

Last week I delivered an updated version of my new talk for this year on the Google Squared talent accelerator programme. The train of thought is still called “Fanfare For The Common Brand”, but the lead principle is now that Many > One.

Have a read of it here, and thanks to Brad Berens and David Wilding for their invaluable input on version 1. And as always, all thoughts welcome…

Slap Dash: quick reactions to the Amazon Button

There are many better places to read about the new Amazon Dash button, launched yesterday. One such place is Matt Webb’s excellent (and as he calls them) ‘raw’ thoughts on what it means from an IoT perspective. And he should know.

Amazon Dash Button

One sentence in Matt’s piece made me sit up though… “You’re a loyal Tide customer, but you’ve run out“…

Loyalty does seem to be the presumption in the launch campaign for Dash; that people have a firm favourite (not even just a fixed repertoire) amongst the countless toilet rolls, washing up liquids, soaps and cereals they stock their homes with.

Loyalty. A big word, with an ironically fickle fan base.

What I perceive to be the general wind direction in the realms of best brand practice is that ‘loyalty’ might just be a largely fictitious beast, especially in the realms of FMCG.

A quick blast through the main points of Byron Sharp’s excellent How Brands Grow will give you an idea of why…

And there’s a longer list of other brilliant viewpoints on it (read Martin Weigel on it, perhaps, over here).
Yet the launch of Amazon Dash seems predicated on the existence of brand loyalty.
So here’s an open question:
How many brands are you certain enough about to stick a button to your wall for? Think about the last shopping basket you filled, or Ocado order you received. What in there is a permanent fixture? What will you always buy to the exclusion of anything else?
What brand would you nail to a wall with the same conviction that you’d put up a picture in your house?
Dash makes a lot of sense from Amazon’s point of view, clearly. Whooo, go supply-chain monopoly!
And it may even make sense to FMCG marketers who believe they have a hard-core of “brand loyalists” out there, somewhere, who’ll choose their Dash button over a rivals.
(There’s actually a whole other conversation to have on whether you need an Ariel button by the washing machine, or a P&G button, but that’s for another day).
But with what the evidence and understanding of how it seems now that brands have worked, that doesn’t seem like the Amazon Dash idea of ‘loyalty’ is all they make it out to be.
It does give rise to an interesting set of questions though.
If we suppose for a minute that brand loyalty isn’t a thing, could we also argue that it’s because the infrastructure hasn’t existed to make it a thing.
After all, building loyalty in supermarket aisles by running TV ads and putting up posters is doomed to failure becuase of all the stoopid consumers who always forget what craft and joy you put into your ad, right?
Loyalty would probably be a brilliant strategy if everyone used shopping algorithms.
However, is it possible that things like Amazon Dash will create a world where brand loyalty actually means something, because the infrastructure connecting people to needs is so different?
Or, alternatively, are we going to see a short-term future in which people stick three Dash buttons on the washing machine, and use the website to check prices on the cheapest before pressing?
Hmmmmm…
Oh, and those brand stickers – they’re crying out to be screens in two years time. Which could mean adverts, and competition for space, and doom for FMCG brands.
Reckon, reckon, reckon… and relax.