Obliquiscopes: setting aperture for reality

I just realised that this thing, the frame, the viewer, the [enter other casually used descriptor] has never really had one particular name. What is it? Well, it’s an Obliquiscope.

I’ve previously used the word to define a process, which I think I taught at a session at the RCA back in 2016 or so. And teh process took on a variety of diagrammatic forms, of which this is one:

Until now, I have used the definitive article – The Obliquiscope – to describe it.

But really there could be many ways into achieving the same aims of looking at the word obliquely.

As I sit here finishing the regenerative design toolkit, having to name the contents, I’ve decided that the frame is also an obliquiscope. And there may be many more. To be going on with then, here’s a generic description…

An Obliquiscope is a tool which sets different apertures for reality.

It works to bring your focus to bear at different layers of a scenario or situation.

Depending on what you need to do, it helps you see the surroundings more clearly, or blurs them for convenience. It helps a novice understand the basic principles of zooming in and out. For an experienced practitioner, it is a reminder to explore methodically in their inquiries.

Point an obliquiscope at something, and see the world differently.

Towards a regenerative design toolkit

I have been working on a side project in the moments where I get the chance; a regenerative design toolkit called Where the light gets in. It’s a corruption of the Leonard Cohen lyric “There are cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. I am less interested in the how, and more interested in the where. It’s a toolkit in three parts.

The second part, the idea of the healthiest environment, for the most in society, with the greatest economy, has just become more fully formed in the last week or so. I’ll talk about that last as a result.

The first part of the toolkit is the viewer we have used on the IED Innovation and Future Thinking course for years. Originally, the viewer was something I made to show the students how a laser cutter worked. Natalie Kane had just delivered a great session on how at the V&A they used a set of critical questions to consider the world for Rapid Response Collecting. I just took some of the questions, put them together in a file and sent it to the laser cutter to make a point. Very soon, I had to make one for all the students. It’s been a core part of the course since and students have been busy pointing them at things all over Barcelona.

Viewer in use during the course in Barcelona this year

The third part of the toolkit will be a set of 40 prompt questions. This idea came from the ongoing Regenerative Triangulation theme, which has been unfolding over the summer. Thanks to Lizzie Shupak, Rob Phillips and Andy Thornton in particular for ongoing conversations and contributions in this work.

I played around with various ways of coming up with questions that would work to stretch out the things people consider, and settled on a matrix that makes use of two things.

The first is the RSA’s 10Cs, a “capabilities framework fit for the 21st century”. These worked for me as tactical prompts, things to think, or about approaches you would take in the moment when looking at a challenge.

The second is the Design Council’s four roles from their Systemic Design Framework.

These work as a way of thinking about a longer term position to hold constant as you sift through different options you could use to solve the problem.

By using these two sets against each other in a matrix, I have been generating the kinds of questions that a person in a particular role might ask when applying a certain capability.

They aren’t finished just yet, but they are coming together nicely to form some very different angles into difficult challenges.

So that’s the first and third parts.

The missing middle was quite evident. I wanted a key central question which framed the Regenerative Design challenge precisely. Something that brought together the tension between the environment, society, and the economy. As is often the way, I got a bit stuck at this point, and found a possible answer halfway along a repurposed railway in North Wales.

I started thinking back to one of the 20th century’s most influential design mottos; the invocation that “we want to make the best for the most for the least” by Charles and Ray Eames.

Today, in a regenerative design context, you have to twist about a fair bit to caveat meeting the needs of the environment, society and the economy in the same breadth.

Perhaps it’s emblematic of the breadth of what design entails nowadays, when considered properly.

Instead of being focussed on the individual, strategic design instead considers the whole world they inhabit….


I had pointed to one of Dan Hill‘s diagrams from his 2019 essay The City Is My Homescreen here.

But he’s kindly sent me some updated versions of the idea he more typically uses nowadays, and promises he’s going to write them up properly soon too:

Designing Design, Dan Hill 2023
Design Timeframes, Dan Hill, 2023

Dan notes these are “a more detailed unpacking of how the different design disciplines (not all of them….) sort of have centres of gravity across the series of scales, or system dimensions…

Strategic design is stretched across them all — not to say that it does all of that design; but it’s role is to talk to all of those different disciplines (and other things of course), and make sure it’s a connected, holistic view.

So it needs to be able to speak the language of both interaction design and urban planning — without doing or replacing either — but primarily it’s about orchestration, and getting them to recognise they’re connected.

Given the purview and purpose of strategic design, I started rethinking what a suitable version might be today, and what marks out the regenerative and differentiates it from sustainable.

Let’s start with an economic stance.

I have taken inspiration from this passage in a recent William Keegan article; “Now, when they are not tying themselves up in statistical knots, my fellow economists from time to time remind us that what economics should really be about is the quality of life.

The end goal for an economy is to improve the quality of life of all the people who work in it and live under it.

It’s easy to start with this angle, and walk straight into this version of the Eames mantra:

The best economic life, for the most people in society, with the least impact environmentally.

As soon as I wrote that down, I realised you could use this mantra to describe the current state of affairs, especially as the environmental angle is last, and all we are talking about is really “doing less bad” rather than any good.

Various iterations later, and I am beginning to get to something which more adequately reflects the tensions at play here:

The healthiest environment, for the most in society, with the greatest economy.

As a second step for the field kit, it feels useful.

It helps shapes the field kit user’s job; balance the tension between these things. You certainly cannot just do one at the expense of the other two. And you shouldn’t pursue two at the expense of the third.

It should act as a useful bridge between what you see through the viewer, and the roles and capabilities they and others could bring to the task.

I’m now going back to sharpen the questions again, and then hopefully will get the first version of the field kit up on the Artefact Shop within the next few weeks. We will announce it first on the newsletter, as per usual.

But do have a play around with these tensions yourself, and get in touch with what you find, I would love to hear how it works (or not) for you.

The Crisis of Discovery

Sometimes a phrase pops. You drop everything, because those words suddenly make the world make more sense; the background interference that’s been nagging at your subconscious resolves to something more intelligible. Today, it’s this from Robin Sloan‘s newsletter:

“Where the internet is concerned, we are in a crisis of discovery. Anyone with interesting new work to share — their own or someone else’s — rummages in the tool shed, looking for a seed spreader or a slingshot, and emerges with an egg beater and a single unmatched glove. Is this all we’ve got??”

A great phrase. The crisis of discovery.

Why did it speak to me?

At first, it grazed me momentarily as I scanned through Mastodon. I think Dan mentioned it, but I’ll be damned if I can find it again in what passes for Mastodon search. That phrase wormed its way in, though, and I went searching for the source.

And yes, there is a bitter, rich irony about discovering Robin’s phrase via a Twitter liferaft, finding it nestled in a newsletter.

I was lucky to have found it at all.

And at first, I took it at face value, paired with the sentiment I’d been trying to articulate eight years ago when wrestling with the idea of The certainty of delivery:

When we find things, or make things, and send those things somewhere, there’s an expectation of delivery. An expectation that someone at the other end would want to receive it, so we should be able to make sure they get it. Maybe that’s why we’ve seen a return to email newsletters and podcasts, to posting letters and making things. There’s a certainty of delivery about them. People will get what we send. We’re not really sure whether the social network stuff we post is going to go any more, whether it’ll reach any of the people we want it to reach.”

Yet shortly afterwards I found myself reaching for the phrase in a meeting.

The project in question is on an ongoing one, regarding scanning for signals around the world. Part of the training was asking people where they looked for information regarding important new signals of change.

I’m now wondering what those answers will look like in twelve months.

Or five years?

I think there’s potentially a much bigger crisis of discovery on the horizon, as social networks collapse under the weight of imploding egos, and journalism continues to be cut to the quick thanks to new economic realities.

If you’re an organisation trying to build full sensory capabilities, to become more anticipatory, to sense what’s coming around the corner, it’s not going to be about where you look in future. Because where might not be a place any more. It’s how. How you prepare your people, your teams, your systems. You need to start building it in now, to make sure you’re not cut off from the world, blind to emerging realities.

Because in the crisis of discovery, you might not even know what you don’t know until it’s too late.

How to play Mundane Superhero

I was writing up a longer blog post, reflecting on the recent Innovation and Future Thinking course which Toban Shadlyn and I ran last month, and I wanted to quickly nod to Mundane Superhero.

It’s a workshop warmup game I came up with maybe ten years ago. But it turns out I’ve never written it up anywhere, bizarrely.

So here we go, a quick how-to guide…

Firstly, we give everyone a pen and one Artefact Card.

(Use whatever alternative you like, but should be something people will draw well on, and can move around on a table to find connections with.)

Tell them they’ve got to draw themselves as a Mundane Superhero.

Everyone has a Mundane Superhero power inside them.

It’s the thing you do really, really well. But is actually quite boring.

Introduce your own one as an example. My go to one is usually Parent IT Man – wherever I happen to be, I can usually resolve my parents IT problems in a single phone call.

Toban’s Mundane Superhero was Hairomania – because of the hair she has herself, she’s become the go-to person for friends and family to help style unruly locks.

Give people three minutes to think about their Superhero, draw it, and stand up.

Explain what a wonderful job everyone has done – in only three minutes, they’ve created a superhero world which is the rival of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And what happens in this world is the same – all the Superheros will bump into each other.

Invite everyone to move around the room, meeting people and hearing about who their Mundane Superhero is. Do this for… a while. You want everyone to have chatted to at least half of the room. Make sure everyone is listening to what the other people are saying, because they’ll need to know who their Mundane Superheroes are, and why…

Now, the final step.

In this Mundane Superhero Universe, we’ll see the sort of thing you see in any superhero universe.

Alliances. Team-ups. Nemeses.

Ask the group to find the people that they are connected with, and be ready to explain why.

Now, not everyone will have met everyone yet. But you should be at the point where the collective understand of ‘who is in the room’ will be able to help each other out and make matches.

Once they’ve done that for a few more minutes, invite them to stand around a table.

Ask the first team to place their Mundane Superhero cards down together, and explain their connections. If anyone feels their hero, or other team, are similar, they can go down next to that first group. Together as a group, work (and rework) your way to a place where everyone is down on the table, and connected to some others.

As a fast, fun and creative way to start a workshop, I’ve not found anything better – hence sticking with it for so long.

It also is designed to do some other things too, which helps the rest of a workshop unfold.

Firstly, it makes people draw. It swiftly gets past the ‘I can’t draw’ stage that you can bump into with some folk. Everyone’s been asked to draw a thing without having thought about being frightened of the drawing part. It means moving forwards, more of the material the group will produce and work with will be richer as a result.

Secondly, it’s a first practice run at what I’ve described before as the metamechanics of this type of work; movement, maps, loops and layers. It just gets people used to created free-moving representations of information, which can be clustered, mapped, regrouped, picked up, shuffled and more. From this mode of working, endless possibilities can emerge.

Which when I think about it now, is properly super, and not that mundane…

Testing the Community Power Compass

A year or so after first writing about the Community Power Compass, I was invited by Val Elefante to deliver a seminar on it for The Metagovernance Project this week.

Metagov (for short) is an interdisciplinary research collective looking at standards and infrastructure for digital self governance. The video of the seminar will be up at some point, but I wanted to capture a few notes and thoughts whilst they were fresh.

Firstly, I’d put together the canvas below. I’ve also added an updated version of the compass below it, in case you’ve not read the previous posts. This could act as a prompt sheet if needed to consider deeper questions, though that’s not what we did in the seminar.

Community Power Compass Canvas
Community Power Compass

Then I set up a board on Miro with a set of blank canvases, plus an explanatory example.

The community I’d used for this example was radardao.xyz, which describes itself as follows: “RADAR is a decentralised global collective of 300+ researchers, early adopters and innovators accelerating better futures. We discover and validate emerging trends powered by collective intelligence.”

There are all sorts of interesting facets to the way it presents itself as a community that made it a good example to use, added to which I’ve used the compass previously to quickly examine it before with friends. I shan’t go into that here though, as the point is to capture what emerged from others in the session.

After running through the example, participants then started working on their own boards to think about a community they were part of, or perhaps one they wanted to research more about before joining.

I find it useful to distinguish between two facets of a community; how it actually works, and how it presents itself as working.

With the nature of digital communities nowadays, this is particularly interesting; they can be fairly complex in the machinations, and so a simplified version is presented to the world as an invitation to join. However, this simplified version can fail to capture the nuance, expectations, requirements and rights of being part of that community, and can often raise more questions than it answers.

With that in mind, my three main takeaways from the latter discussion in the seminar are:

1. The compass can be a tool for reflection

It was interesting to hear how people were using the compass to think about communities they were involved in, and start to realise how (in places) they knew comparatively little about aspects of them. Just having the space laid out seemed to encourage deeper research too, as people looked for answers to things they hadn’t previously considered.

2. Opportunity for comparisons across communities

As we started hearing about how different communities worked (for example, in how transparent debate and decisions spaces were on a platform like Discord), as a group we could start noting points for comparison. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that, at sufficient scale, by mapping a number of communities in the same way you could start to develop both ‘best practice’ guidance for particular sections (controls and freedoms). Additionally, the idea of archetypes emerged. Might there be communities with specific balances between the three controls and three freedoms, who can act as an example to follow?

3. It could hold an ongoing research enquiry

I have a phrase I sometimes use for ongoing online whiteboard sessions; continual partial workshopping. In watching the boards fill up yesterday in a fairly compressed period of time, I realised that setting them up this way for a longer period of time (a week, a month?) could be a good way to capture ongoing notes for a series of communities at once, or even just one person’s experiences over time with a community

What’s next, then?

I’m interested in continuing to experiment and refine the process; perhaps running a half day or day workshop on specific existing communities, or look at how you might use the Community Power Compass as a starting point in designing a new one.

Do get in touch if you have an idea where we could do this, or are just interested in learning more about the approach.

How to rewild a new garden

You may be thinking you’ve stumbled into the wrong blog. And I can understand why. Smithery is a strategic design practice, which admittedly encompasses many things. But never gardens. What follows, however, is a documentation of our personal experience of a nature-based design intervention, and then some broader systemic thoughts on what might have worked better, more broadly, for a community.

Dr Rob Phillips, of the RCA’s Design Products team, asked me if I had some pictures of our garden before and after we made our version of MyNatureWatch Camera. It was a project centred on “self-build cameras for engagement with local wildlife and digital DIY”. Essentially, a design intervention to make people think more about the natural world immediately outside their door. Or the lack of wildlife in our case.

Our version of MyNaturewatch Camera, inside an old food container.

In 2016, we moved to a wildlife desert.

It was a new build estate in Sussex, which had been essentially scraped clean of any nature in order to build the houses, roads and other infrastructure that would support the new development. This was long before the Biodiversity Net Gain clause in the 2021 Environment Act, which requires developers to plan and get approval for a minimum 10% gain (calculated using Biodiversity Metric) in habitat, which is secured for at least 30 years.

Luckily, I take photos often, and of a lot of things. So nowadays, given everything’s stamped with metadata, I can look back and see which garden pictures we have, and from when, so I can tell a story of what happened before we built the camera, and afterwards.

At the start

What was the garden like when we moved in? It’s probably a typical new-build story; some turf laid over rubble and builders rubbish (oh, the things we’ve dug out of the garden in the interim years), and then some woodchip and selection of small bushes.

The front garden space isn’t huge, and just ‘neatened’. I can understand the argument that some people don’t want much in the way of maintenance in a garden, especially as they move in, but it certainly feels that there would have been an opportunity to inspire people differently.

The back garden, in hindsight, was more problematic. You can see the ring of low brick wall around the right hand side here to the road, creating a hermetically sealed section of the estate between the three houses on this row. It makes it virtually impossible for wildlife to get into, or pass through, this area. The other communal areas planted through the estate were pretty new as well, and contained as sparse a wildlife environment as you can imagine.

Before the camera

June 2016 – That first summer, I made a bug house. I can’t quite remember where the instructions or impetus came from, but with a few scrap materials and some basic tools, I put this together. It is still somewhere deep in the undergrowth today, in what became our nature garden. I should go and look for it.

August 2016 – I clearly remember seeing this butterfly emerge from its chrysalis that was hanging on the gate. It was perhaps remarkable because it was the first time I felt I’d seen a living creature in the garden which had made its own way there. I spent about half an hour watching its progress unfold, as its raggedy wings stretched out and flapped for the first time.

Summer 2017 – When the children were smaller, the back garden was kept as mainly grass for play, a shed for toy, bike and lawnmower storage, and not a lot else. We did put a young apple tree in it, a traditional Sussex variety called the Egremont Russet. Yet around then, we fenced off the little bit of space around the apple tree, and called it ‘the nature garden’. We let the grass grow longer in the hope that things might want to live in there.

I remember a trip to a nearby meadow with our daughter and a tupperware pot, to catch crickets and grasshoppers to release in this little patch. Out in the front garden, we plant a cherry blossom tree, but largely leave the rest alone.

Spring 2018 – In the first of the transformative attempts, we start taking out some of the more pointless turfed areas at the side of the house, replacing them with plants and a rockery. We read about how to make a a small garden pond using an old washing up basin, and over the course of a sunny Saturday afternoon, my dad helped my son and I make our first pond in the corner of the nature garden.

Shortly after this, the kids and I did find some frogspawn locally, and take a little and put it into our pond. What I know now was probably not a great thing to do; there are various issues that can arise in move frogspawn between locations. Yet, given the sealed nature of the garden, though, it’s hard to know whether frogs would have ever been able to make their own way there.

Literally two days after the pond was finished, though, something did find its way to the water. I saw a pair of mating red damselflies by the side of the pond, and most summers since then we’ve seen them around again.

What we have before we build the camera, then, is best described as a small nature patch, perhaps 5-10% of the total garden space available, where we were experimenting with things that would bring more nature in.

Making the camera

March 2019 – We bought and made our camera, tipped off by Rob no doubt. You can still by the MyNaturewatch camera kit here from Pimoroni. It’s a Raspberry Pi Zero W with a camera module and a few other pieces, and it connects to your mobile phone or computer so that when it’s outside and the motion sensor goes off, you can look at the photos or the videos you’ve set it up to capture.

We set it up opposite some bird feeders we set up in a small tree, and… waited. And waited some more.

As the birds failed to materialise, we started looking around the development with a keener eye, whether on school runs or playing in the common area. There just weren’t a lot of birds around. You could see some flying high overhead, as if commuting along the bird bypass to spaces in which they could thrive. But we couldn’t go and ‘kidnap’ them, as we had done with the crickets or the frogspawn.

Putting a camera up really brought the message home; if you want to attract birds to your garden, you have to think about what birds want and need. Just like the red damselflies, who’d somehow spotted an environment that would work for laying their eggs.

Height, cover, food

Spring 2019 – The great thing about design gardens for wildlife is that there are so many resources available for inspiration, online and elsewhere. It’s really just a case of reading about what might work for you, where you are.

The core principles which seemed appropriate for us, trapped in the middle of a barren wilderness area, was to create an initial oasis into which birds could stop off, and find three things they needed; height, cover and food. The height would let them settle above the garden and survey if needed, the cover would offer places to retreat to, and then food would be provided by planting native species which would continue to attract different types of insects and the like on which the birds could feed.

The pond in the nature garden was upgraded using a preformed pond mould which was on sale, and alongside the apple tree we planted a gooseberry bush and a bramble. We then found a cheap garden arch in another sale, and placed that beside the nature garden. Then we started digging out borders around the garden, put in another tree, some trellis to grow climbing jasmine up, and made a wood pile in a darkened corner to encourage more bugs and grubs. We also let nettles grow in this patch to encourage butterflies to lay eggs.

It was a little bit of work across a couple of weekends, but it was fairly cost-effective and fun for the family too. And it became all the more worthwhile when in October that year we start getting visitors like this…

It definitely felt like validation of the work we’d been putting in, and the principles behind it. And over the following winter months, we are treated to many repeated visits from blue tits, all captured on the camera.

Spring 2020 – Moving in to the following year, we felt we could go further. Seeing the blue tits was great, of course, but it felt like it was a plan reliant on putting out bird food still, and it only really attracting one species at that. The plan evolved; what could we do to get different birds in the garden, and how could we provide food that doesn’t come from a packet?

June 2020 – It was peak pandemic time by then, of course, so we had extra time on our hands, and nowhere to go. We tore up the front garden, removing everything the house builders had put in there. We started with a rowan tree and a Boston ivy which could grow up the shady wall at the front. Going back to the principle of providing cover, I started looking around for where I can get a native wildlife hedge, and find an offer on what are known as ‘whips’.

Not long after, I took delivery of what I can best describe as fifty ‘sticks with roots’, a mix of hazel, bird cherry, field maple and purple berberis. We cobbled together enough buckets and pots to soak them, quickly planted some in the available space at the front of the house, and potted the rest until we could work out what to do with them.

July 2020 – The brick wall at the back of the rear garden was problematic; we couldn’t grow anything up it, as it technically wasn’t our wall. But we could grow things in front of it. We found some planters online we could assemble ourselves, and used more of the mixed hedge plants in them to start off a free standing hedge. The rest of the hedge plants we started giving away to neighbours, so they too could put some native hedging in.

Late 2020 – As autumn rolled around, the new planting was beginning to take, especially the Boston ivy which had begun to creep up the wall. In the subsequent January sales we find a bird box to go out at the front above it on the same shady wall. We had another couple of bird boxes in the back garden, both north facing too, but in hindsight they weren’t high enough, nor far enough away from trees. The hope, of course, is that the blue tits who still frequent the garden decide we’re hospitable enough to stay with for awhile in the spring.

Spring 2021 – It was time for more borders. We removed a fence from the bottom of the back garden, and dug out the space below where it stood for more low level planting. We wanted a bed of flowers to attract pollinators, predominantly, though they would also became a place we would find some of the young frogs who had made it out of the pond.

Summer 2021 – There was nothing to report in the bird box. Clearly the blue tits hadn’t got the message, or seen our listing on Rightmove. However, we were finally starting to see a lot of other birds around the garden too. Goldfinches, great tits, blackbirds, wrens, a fair few magpies, a goldcrest (just the once), a greater spotted woodpecker, and later in the year a black redstart. Plus all the other wildlife on top that was spreading out around the nature garden.

Spring 2022 – Last year, we finally got what we were hoping for; nesting birds. Except, not the blue tits we had been expecting, but great tits instead. In late autumn, we cleaned out the nest box and saw what they’d constructed. They’d used some of the wool packing which Helen had put in an old bird feeder around in the back garden. Pleasingly, they then came back again in 2023, and successfully fledging both years.

I can’t quite believe it’s been seven years already, and how much of a difference that moment of getting the camera in 2019 has made. As promised, now on to some reflections as to what it makes me think about when doing this at scale, across whole estates, towns, and the country as a whole, especially given the 2021 Environment Act 10% Biodiversity Net Gain conditions for developers.

i) Measuring success

I wish I could tell you that the pictures above of the great tits at the bird box were taking using the MyNaturewatch Camera, but the truth is that it’s been sitting idle in my office since 2020. As a prompt, a thing to get us going, it was brilliant. It was the nudge we needed to change our behaviour, learn new things, and try them out.

But as with so much in the digital age, if success was somehow measured by tracking usage of the device, updates on the software, number of pictures downloaded, it would be judged as a failure. You need to set yourself up to measure the real effects, rather than orientating around the convenient data points. Number of cameras ordered, built, used, updated… I don’t think any of these stats would help you work out whether the project is a success or not. It feels like finding ways to make Citizen Science an active part of continual delivery against Biodiversity Net Gain would be appropriate.

ii) Planning collective efforts

Our garden is just one across the whole development. Other people have done things in their gardens, some haven’t. But they are so infrequently talked about by people in the collective context. Yes, you might well talk to your closest neighbours, but there’s no provision in the planning on emergent communities that might collaborative efforts easier. Imagine if every spring for three years whilst the development was filling up with new families, the housing developer had run a ‘planting plan’ weekend. Turn up with a few hundred whips for hedges, a few hundred bedding plants, and a leaflet on how to attract nature to your garden. What’s more, you would start to draw together people and families interested in making a difference at the point where they can rapidly accelerate regeneration of the natural environment.

iii) Regulation and incentives matter

A different example from our doorstep of the impact which regulation and incentives have. We live on the side of the estate which was completed around Christmas 2015. Each house has solar panels installed, as it came before the government slashed solar panel subsidies for house builders. I can look across right now to the other side of the development, where every house was built without solar panels. Even now, after the energy crisis, only a few houses have had them installed. It is maddening, and wholly predictable.

But it does show how quickly housing developers will react to changes in what they’re expected to deliver. Now imagine that building new houses in the UK came with a mix of regulations and incentives that prioritised not just the broad but set out some specific mixes of ways this could be achieved.

From our experience, then, here’s an initial list of things that would have made a difference when we started:

  • Let nature in, and stop fully sealed brick enclosures around gardens
  • Mandatory borders, ready for planting
  • Only pre-plant native species in gardens for handover
  • Locally specific nature guides to quickly restore areas
  • Ensure soil quality by removing all builders rubbish

Having watched a new build site emerge over the last seven years, and thinking about the challenges ahead in protecting biodiversity in the UK, I feel strongly that much more can be done, and it isn’t actually that hard to do.

(Also, if you want to talk more about any of this, and are in a position to make some changes that help, then do contact us, happy to chat.)

Exploring Regenerative Triangulation

I started articulating some thoughts in the last newsletter about a triad, in the fashion of fragile–robust–antifragile (from Taleb’s 2012 book) , which contained the states of unsustainable, sustainable and regenerative.

The main thing bugging me was that making something sustainable, and moving towards a regenerative version of it, aren’t necessarily in the same direction.

I started sketching out this in a variety of ways, looking for a representation that showed that the sustainable being the same shape and size as the unsustainable, but just constituted differently. Below is a more formal version of that.

Where the central unsustainable model has fragile elements to address, moving to sustainability allows the same model to persist, just with differently parts in place of those unsustainable ones. Though whether anyone ever gets to true sustainability is a bigger point.

N.B. Whilst sustainability might commonly understood as being environmental, it’s also helpful to think of it in other ways. It could be values based – how do people perceive what you’re doing, and judge accordingly – or politically bound by imminent regulation, and so on.

Moving in the other direction, you peer into the gaps in the fragility of your current model, and exploring what breaking these apart would do. What do these constituent parts look like as part of a larger, emergent future? What else to the pieces mix with, which other actors? What grows when you encourage it?

It feels like these two things are moving in opposite directions… but only perhaps in certain circumstances. And we’ll come back to the context thing shortly.

But one key thing for me around the language used to describe the relationships between unsustainable, sustainable and regenerative, is just how directional it often is.

For instance, you read people describing “moving beyond” sustainability and towards regeneration. This language has a spatial dimension, and suggests that should you get to sustainability first, then the distance left to travel towards a regenerative state will surely be closer.

But that’s certainly not always the case; this Regenerative Design Framework diagram below (Daniel Christian Wahl, adapted from Bill Reed) gives a hint towards the direction.

So perhaps, I thought, the right word is not beyond, but maybe after? A temporal understanding, rather than a spatial one.

Once you’ve been through the place where you can make an organisation think about sustainability, then perhaps they’re ready for regenerative design?

However, this is where context comes in. It depends. On the company, the culture, the effort requires, the industry standards, the customers and communities, and, well, everything.

As always, I’m interested in the how. And in this case, how do you work out which the right thing is to do?

I felt it was worth sharing an early stage version of something that might help with that which for the time being, I’m calling it Regenerative Triangulation.

The same three states exists; unsustainable, sustainable, regenerative. The starting point, where you are today, is unsustainable in some regard.

You then need to articulate two images of the future.

The first is what it means to get to a sustainable future, and whether or not that is above or below the line in Bill Reed’s original work.

The second point is what a regenerative future would look like for you, and how you might get there.

Now place each point at a distance which represents what it takes to get achieve those states; likely some combination of time, resources, mindsets, conditions that tells you how hard each will be.

(I suspect there’s a rough and ready formula which can help here that I don’t have quite yet.)

Now you can draw two lines from your starting position, to each of the two places on the map. The length of line x takes you to sustainable, and the length of line y takes you to regenerative.

But here’s the rub; if you stop off at sustainable first, you (or those who come after you) also have to traverse line z at some point in the future.

My initial hunch is that mapping out these context specific relationships will help organisations think about some indicative short and medium-term strategies.

In the example on the left here, if feels that sustainability might be in the same general direction as a regenerative future. It’s probably worth aiming for in the short term. Whereas the example on the right feels like sustainability would definitely mean taking the long way round.

I also think you could make an argument for saying that if you do stop at sustainability first, it changes the final destination point; in some cases because you’ve built in more resistance to achieving it, in others you might bring it closer as the journey has been started.

More to think about for sure. Drop me a message if there are other things you think I should look at, or you want to just discuss it a bit more. I might host an open session at some point if enough folk are interested in contributing.

Artefact 234 – Your Letters

I sent out the latest edition of the Artefacts newsletter earlier this week, 3000+ words on a variety of things. Interestingly, various people got in touch with contributions, thoughts, questions, and more, but all via different platforms. There was no one place to share responses which other people might see and get something from too.

something something platform fragmentation…

Anyway, as a possible one-off, here’s the Artefacts Letter Page – a response to some of the correspondence which might be useful for others.

Nick writes

Having been in a set of Wardley Mapping sessions for the last couple of weeks – the point about the process of mapping being potentially of more value then the maps that come out of the process really hit home. 

The pointer to Jeet Kune Do was both useful and fascinating, and something I can mine for metaphors. If I wanted to go one level deeper than Wikipedia in understanding the thinking behind it, do you have any recommended books before I start asking around?

I’m no expert in Wardley Mapping, though the quote from Dr Roser Pujadas in the newsletter (“Mapping is a social practice of sensemaking that shifts from individual cognition to shared understanding”.) was taken from her talk at one of the Map Camp conferences (2019 I think..?).

And not long after that, I tried some for a client, rather than with a client, as circumstances dictated, and it didn’t take. I walked through the stages of the mapping, and implicit recommendations… yet would have been better to stick to just the latter.

Maybe maps in general, and Wardley Maps in particular, are an artefact of a much deeper, richer conversation between people in this wort of work context, and hopeless if you just show people the map afterwards.

Good question on the Jeet Kune Do stuff, I think most of my learning about it was just internet reading rather than specific books. I’ve found an old talk I gave in Norway here, where I’m talking about it specifically as an approach to learn from, and uses the famous ‘Be Water’ clip to illustrate the deeper idea.

But another reader has something related…

Andy writes…

I find myself wondering if (system) mapping is a zeitgeisty symptom of dominance and/or control issues (ergo also an acknowledgement of the increasing loss/lack of it in our late-stage civilisational entropy). Designers will presumably continue to make bigger, more complex maps to compensate?

Bruce Lee / methods and process fetishisation also reminds me of shuharu (follow/break/transcend the rules). A concept I think I’m adopting as the new Universal Theory of Everything (Pace Layers 2.0?) https://medium.com/@thorntonandy/shuhari-a-learning-journey-b38eb6ea180

Firstly, I agree in a roundabout way about some of the underpinning symptoms (dominance/control/existential dread etc). I also wonder if it’s in part because Designers (note the capital D) are furnished with the skill-sets and tools to, and the heart of make, make pretty visualisations of things. And the prettier something looks, the less people feel as if it’s an emerging invitation to question, rather than a final, declarative vision (and to be accepted or rejected wholesale).

Secondly, I love the shuhari and will fall down that rabbit hole a little more I think. On first glance, it makes me also think of the story of the apprentice / journeyman / guildmaster progress as told in The Craftsman by Richard Sennett; start just by copying the form (the rules), then travel to see how the rules are applied in different contexts, and then finally present to a local guild your own version of how the rules would be constituted in your own house.

Kirsten writes…

I was also intrigued by the idea of how frameworks come and go – that they have a lifespan and that no one has really come up with one for the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world we find ourselves in. A colleague and I have talked at length about how frameworks in these times might just be true artifacts – a snippet, a map, a place to take notes – but certainly not a way to make decisions when the minute after you fill in the framework, the world has changed.

Instead, we need tools to help us recognize the upcoming pivots we need to make. Take the decision….there are no wrong ones….and be watching for the signals that you need to adjust. How do we recognize these signals? What are the signals? Can we see them fast enough? Are we agile enough to change at the pace we need to? Can we make the initial decision fast enough and make the next one fast enough, etc?

A way, or even a ‘place’, to make these decisions, is maybe a good way to think about these artefacts/artifacts (choose whichever you wish, transatlantic friends). And then they can be discarded, as the decision is agreed. They’re more tools in that respect than maps, and support collective exploration and agreed direction. I’ve not used Cynefin nearly enough to properly understand it’s usefulness in different circumstances, but from what I do think I know is that it helps you see what sort of system you’re in, and what decision you might take next.

On finding those upcoming pivots and the like, one of the ways we’ve used Zenko Mapping as a framework in this case is to ask people to describe projects by identifying ‘5 key moments where a project changed’. Over time, you can start collecting these together across projects, and start to spot patterns around what needs to change and where.

Louis writes…

I completely agree on the triad-ness of Unsustainability, Sustainability, Regenerative. There’s lots of people looking to reach closed-loop production systems first, then regenerative. Regenerative is going to have a completely different manifestation/impact than a closed-loop system, which can at times feel like a material version of the minor efficiency gains cars are chasing.

This is my gut feeling too, though lots more reading and thinking to be done. Just ‘making a sustainable version of X’ does not naturally led to ‘making Y which replaces the extractive nature of X in the first place, PLUS starts to regenerate some of etc damage done’.

Mark writes…

I like the anti fragile and regenerative approach/idea. Are you aware of Frijof Capra and his Web of Life book?

I recently read it and what you wrote reminded me of the chaos and velocity of metabolism of cells and how that whole process is quite chaotic but also regenerative. I think this concept also links into entropy but I wouldn’t know how to combine all those ideas and make it fun and interactive in a workshop for a purpose.

I am not aware of The Web of Life, but it’s now added to the list. You pick up on a really good point too about how do you take these ideas, and embed them practically in formats (workshops, frameworks, even talks) that gives people more reason to do them than to not. I like to think that’s what I’m fairly good at after doing it for a while, but grappling something this complex is making me think very hard about it indeed.

I can’t believe there’s no butter

Well, not no butter. But certainly less than you’d expect. Another example of what producers are having to do in the face of ever-rising input costs.

The wrappers are probably long paid for in bulk. The boxes they’re packed into measured for the original dimensions. The size expectations of what a portion of butter looks like set in the minds of people.

“So what if we… worked out how to put only 75% of the butter in there?”

Taking Care of Water: IEDIFT 2023

Toban Shadlyn & John V Willshire

📢 Calling all futurists, changemakers, change-seekers, innovators 📢 .

Come spend two weeks this summer at IED in Barcelona attending the Innovation and Future Thinking course. We will be bringing together a group of inspirational local and international lecturers, immersing ourselves in the local and regional context through a series of site visits, and applying practices from foresight and futures thinking. Keep reading for more details.

Apply now if you’d like a place, or send it on to someone you think might. See you on July 10, 2023!


Each year in the Innovation and Future Thinking course at IED Barcelona, we select a theme to ground our work. This provides students with a lens through which to explore the world, a platform to help understand the methods and tools used to critically assess possible futures, and a common language in which the cohort can communicate what they uncover. 

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 both connects students to the city, and is applicable to their practice and profession beyond the course. As always, we were making notes on potential themes for this year during the course last July. More than ever, we could keenly feel the presence of climate in every field trip, every conversation with residents, and every link found in secondary research.

When a city announces it is increasing the number of climate shelters for that summer to almost 200, it’s hard not to think about the implications for the future.

This summer we knew we wanted to explore the urgent and important challenges of the climate crisis, the impacts presently – and yet to be – felt in Barcelona as well as the wider region of Catalunya. How will Barcelona need to adapt as the city, the region, and the country all continue to get hotter year upon year? 

(Source: BBC)

It is a big question,  and as the course is only two weeks long, we want to tighten the enquiry a little. So our theme for the course this year is Taking Care Of Water, a phrase taken directly from one of the key changes in the 2018-30 Barcelona Climate Plan.

Taking Care Of Water

How will the region prepare for a reduced availability of potable water in the context of drought? Or on the flip side, prepare for a greater increase of flooding due to unprecedented rainfall.   What effects can we expect to see on the food people eat, the work they do, the communities they’re part of, the places they live, and the services which support them?

Usefully, the Climate Plan sets out some goals that we should by now be on the verge of seeing come to fruition (or not). We will use the first half of the course to see how much progress has been made, gaining first hand experience by 1) immersing ourselves in the city through a series of site visits – to build a deeper and broader understanding of the landscape, and 2) guest speakers – 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 historic and present day dynamics are a vital first step in beginning to understand how potential futures may unfold.

Assemblage Space, Smithery, 2020-onwards.

The second half will build on the first week, informing the development of specific briefs – emerging from the research – for teams to respond to. We will introduce and guide teams through the creation of a variety of outcomes from speculative products, to prototyping services, imagining new roles for citizens, innovative infrastructure, radical policies, developing new mental models, or forging new narratives.

The course will culminate in a final presentation, an opportunity for students to share their work with a group of invited external guests, receive feedback, and engage in meaningful discussion. Central to all of this is making sure students leave with a practical, usable set of skills, and a firm understanding of what this kind of work can be used to achieve.

Over the past nine years of IEDIFT, we’ve seen how far students can get even in a short time; by creating a learning environment that invites exploration, challenges the status quo, and promotes new ways of doing and knowing, this course has always tried to prompt transformative action. This year, we want to harness that energy in order to think and act differently around one of the world’s most pressing challenges.

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

We’ll see you on the streets of Barcelona in July.



Set up by Scott Smith of Changeist in 2014, and taken over by John V Willshire of Smithery in 2017, and this year will be co-cordinated for the first time by John and Toban Shadlyn.  This two week summer course was conceived and designed to be a practical futures course for the streets. Past themes have included the Futures of Payments, Identity, Food, Transport, The ‘Futures and Follies of the Full-Stack Habitat’, and the Expansion of the Superblocks (Superillas). Past guest lecturers have included Christina Bifano, Laura Cleries, Andres Colmenares, Susan Cox-Smith, Dan Hill, Fabien Girardin, Natalie Kane, Tobias Revell and Elisabet Roselló.