• The Pattern Problem

    On: September 6, 2017
    In: design, material culture, people, work
    Views: 828
     1

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

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

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

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

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

     

    **UPDATE**

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

    ****

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

    So thanks Richard, that talk really got me thinking.

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

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

    The Obliquiscope

    Zenko Mapping

     

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

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

     

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  • The Time Capsule Retrieval Service

    On: July 23, 2017
    In: design, economics, making, material culture, technology
    Views: 1544
     1

    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…

     

     

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  • Metastrategy – Movement, Loops and Layers – Video

    On: October 26, 2016
    In: culture, design, economics, making, rivetings, technology
    Views: 3138
     1

    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.

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  • Metastrategy In Malmo: Adventures at The Conference

    On: August 22, 2016
    In: culture, design, economics, Smithery 3.0
    Views: 4177
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    I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote talk at The Conference in Malmo last week, to an audience of 1000 people. Which is a big room…

    Here’s the ‘before’ picture…

    P1130524

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

    P1130525

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    P1130533

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

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

    P1130536

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

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  • Designing The Future: Tues 21st June

    On: May 23, 2016
    In: design, technology
    Views: 3645
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    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.

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