• The Pattern Problem

    On: September 6, 2017
    In: design, material culture, people, work
    Views: 1201
     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.

     

    Read More
  • The Time Capsule Retrieval Service

    On: July 23, 2017
    In: design, economics, making, material culture, technology
    Views: 2064
     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…

     

     

    Read More
  • 2015 Projects – A Romjul Review

    On: December 31, 2015
    In: design, making, material culture, rivetings
    Views: 4371
     Like

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

    …….

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

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

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

    …….

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

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

    To quickly recap…

    1PRACTICE

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

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

    2 PLAY

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

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

    3PRODUCE 

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

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

     

    So then… how did we do?

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

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

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

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

    P1070929

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    However…

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

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

    Finally then, PRACTICE

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

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

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

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

    Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 10.56.08

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

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

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

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

     

    Read More
  • Delaminating Reality – a week at IED Barcelona

    On: July 27, 2015
    In: culture, design, education, material culture
    Views: 2647
     Like

    I spent last week teaching on the first week of the Innovation & Future Thinking summer course at the IED in Barcelona with Scott Smith.

    You can listen to us talking about what transpired here on a little podcast we made there…

    …and I thought I’d just throw up a few photos on here too, to give to you a flavour of it (the whole album is here on flickr).

    Never have the Artefact Field Kits been so rigorously put through their paces… good luck to all the students and Scott in the final week as they prepare their projects to present.

    We might well be doing another one in the winter now too, but if not, well, come to Barcelona to dance round the streets and find the future in the fragments of the present.

    P1040545P1040673P1040680P1040666P1040592P1040524

    P1040434P1040609P1040671P1040459

    P1040667P1040626

    P1040488P1040544

    Read More
  • Froebel’s Gifts for The Internet

    On: February 11, 2015
    In: artefactcards, making, material culture, rivetings, technology
    Views: 6345
     Like

    Over the past few days, after John first introduced the topic to me last week, I have been looking in to Froebel’s Gifts. For those of you who are unaware of Froebel’s gifts, they are a series of playthings for kids that are widely considered to be the world’s first educational toys.

    froebel

     

    The gifts, created by Friedrich Froebel, were introduced in 1838 at a similar time to when Froebel coined the term and opened the first Kindergarten. They appear deceptively simple but represent a sophisticated approach to child development. The six original gifts were accompanied by a series of “Occupations” such as sewing, gardening, singing and the modelling with clay, which were designed to help children mimic their experiences through play.

    The idea of these gifts and occupations did spark a thought with us over here at Smithery. What would Froebel’s gifts be if you were designing them today, to help people grasp the idea of the Internet? Can you easily translate the physical lessons from 1838 over to the digital age? This translation is something I have struggled with in the past, as my brain works towards predominantly physical solutions for things.

    Some of the lessons Froebel was trying to introduce included:

    i) The idea of learning through “focused play”

    ii) Seeing the interconnectedness of all creation.

    iii) The importance of knowing how information fits together, rather than memorising facts themselves.

    The last two lessons really stand out to really lending themselves to understanding the internet. Obviously the world is becoming more and more interconnected, and more recently the emergence of the Internet of Things will accelerate this. But also I like the idea of helping people develop a powerful skill; to be able to use the internet well without needing to be an expert in any of its particular disciplines. A way of closing the gap between amateurs and experts perhaps, or at the very least create common ground for dialogue between the two.

    So we’re setting ourselves a task; what would Froebel’s gifts and occupations be for a digital world? We’ll have a little play around, with the Artefact Cards which exist already, and some other ideas we’ve been playing with.

    And maybe, just maybe, we will try to create a collection of gifts to go along with one of our new years resolutions about producing more, and set up a subscription service for people to receive them.

    We have some starter questions that need answered; if you can think of any more helpful ones, please do drop them into the comments below.

    What would the internet look and feel like in your hands?

    What would Froebel’s occupations be to enhance education for the internet age?

    What’s the metaphor or analogy that helps you understand what the internet is?

    Read More