Carlo’s Madin Desk

Carlo came over today to get his John Madin desk.






The desks are from the John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library, which has been stripped and is being demolished. They’re the original ones as designed by Madin to fit inside the library. We nabbed a couple when they were on eBay, after some smart soul had managed to rescue a few. We’ve managed to rescue a little bit of history.


john madin desks


Delaminating Reality – a week at IED Barcelona

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.





This Week In Barcelona…


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

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

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

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

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

FW - open

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

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

More as we have it, as they say…

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


Star Wars: “Real Sets, Practical Effects”

There’s something really interesting about the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens footage that was released at ComicCon a couple of days ago… it’s three and a half minutes pointing out how they’ve made it the hard way, not the easy way.

The sets are real sets, built and finished by hand. The ships have been built at scale, for actors to be in front of. The alien lifeforms (well, they’re ALL alien lifeforms, even the human looking ones, but you get my point) have been built in real life, animatronics controlling their features.

They’re making this the hard way, and they want you to know it.

Sure, there’s particular form to consider; part of the major failing of the three Star Wars ‘prequels’ is considered to be that they relied too much on CGI sets and green screen acting.

But I wonder if there’s something bigger for the film industry in this approach, a consideration of how to make people believe it’s going to be a better film.

Sure, you can do anything on a computer nowadays (hello, Michael Bay’s Transformers). But the application of proper craft, of putting effort in above and beyond what you could do, and then using it as part of the story of your product… well, we’ll just have to wait and see how it turns out, but the run-up so far is pretty promising.

Where Does Responsibility Lie?

(A foreword, in the style of Samuel Pepys)

Late to bed, but not before receipt of an electronic mail from Mr. Fitzpatrick of Boston, a most good-humoured fellow of curious and sharp intellect, to whom I promised action of a distributary nature come the morning.

He asks for assistance in the pursuit of data for an ongoing pursuit of where in a company ‘responsibility’ does reside.

I made plain my own interest in his endeavours, and did promise to avail my friends and associates of his intent. I republish his letter in full, so as not to vex the reader further…

I’m working on a new study on the accountability for the role of customer experience within the modern organization, and I’m looking to get some data that will help paint a better picture of where that responsibility lies and how it’s measured/used. At present, there’s not much usable/useful data on the topic.

In the interest of casting as wide a net as possible, I’ve put together a quick Google survey; found here: that I’d like to put in front of a few hundred members of large organizations.

I’m hoping that you can help put this in front of people I’d otherwise not reach.

I’d appreciate any help you could provide in sharing the link with anyone you know within a large enterprise organization, and inviting them to share it with others (multiple responses from the same org are especially helpful in this process). I’m aiming for as broad a cross-section as possible: junior/mid-level/senior, marketing/HR/product/engineering, etc.

It shouldn’t take anyone more than 2 minutes to complete. It’s completely anonymous, and no one will ever be contacted, nor will the company they work for ever be directly referenced.

Is Our Strategy Working For Me?

I was in Shoreditch on Friday, and passed by an installation called “Capitalism Works for Me”, part of the 2 Degrees festival. You have a think about the question, maybe have a chat, press a button to vote, and get a sticker.




The artist, Steve Lambert, has been asking people across London whether Capitalism works for them – here’s his video from that day of the installation:


We had a chat about the nuanced set-up of the question when I was there; does it work for me?

At one level, you can quite readily think about ‘me’ as the immediate things that affect you; your job, circumstances, monthly pay packet, career prospects. Things that form the immediate relationship between the system and you. But the further away things get from you, the more subjective judgement becomes on exactly what capitalism is doing for you. Perhaps as a broad rule of thumb, if you’re doing well, you’re probably in favour. If you’re disadvantaged, you’re probably after some form of change.

Resolving the tension between the two things in sustainable ways is what keeps everything ticking along, of course. Elizabeth Warren encapsulates that best, perhaps:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

What it does demonstrate is that it’s hard to view a system objectively whilst you’re a part of that system, no matter how well intentioned or honest you are.

Beyond the broader economic/political perspective, this has made me satrt thinking about when I’m working with a company from the outside; what does ‘me‘ mean in the context of a company that you might be working in and looking to improve?

What’s the equivalent of building the roads and an education system that will benefit the business long after you’ve left? How do you make sure your people are thinking about long-term benefits rather than short-term personal KPIs?

In short, what if you asked a question as punchy and provocative as Steve’s, but inside your own company?

Is Our Strategy Working For Me?

A Sonic Screwdriver For Thinking

Tools are becoming the theme of the year for me.

From Dan Dennett’s “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking“, to the rediscovery (via Faris) of the McLuhan idea that “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”, it seems in reflection that the work Smithery is doing has a universal tool to start applying at the beginning of any process rather than the end.

We’ve used it on everything from the Future of the Workplace studies with Konica Minolta, which is about the slower layers of technological and cultural change, to sector-specific trend analysis for Gravity Road, which is by nature fast and fluid. And it seems to work across all sorts of different things because it’s a tool, not a technique.

It’s a sonic screwdriver of thinking kit; something to point at the unfamiliar, the unknown, and try to reckon something out of it or make something happen.

Sonic Screwdriver

I thought I’d explore it a little on here, partly as it’s part of the first of the Smithery 2015 projects, but also partly as a prompt to tease out any go-to thinking tools you lot might have, or indeed questions you can see around this one.

First of all, having a general tool to start with feels very useful, and perhaps more important than I’d realised before.

Arguably, you could say that the idea of Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things is a thinking tool, as it draws you in to a way of establishing about what you’re doing and where it sits across that divide. But I think that beyond initial divination it’s not that useful in a work context, and of course it’s open to the abuse of people think it has to be either one or the other.

There’s more value in finding a thinking tool that acts as the primary device you pick up to assess a territory, but one that doesn’t dictate taking the same path every single time no matter what the problem is. It’s a tool, not a technique.

Of course, repeatable techniques are great in times of certainty, but I’d argue that tools are better when you have to do something you’re not quite sure about, and need a way to attack it. It allows you more fluidity than being the person who says “computer says no…”

Here’s two stories to illustrate this.

A year or so ago, a client friend told me they were judging between two agencies who’d reached the final round. The first agency came in with a very proper, prepared walk through of their clever process. Essentially, they were saying “…put anything in this machine, and it’ll give you the right answer”. The second agency came in a lot less prepared, but with a team who teased out the right thing to do by asking questions in the meeting itself, reacting to conversation and aligning the strategy & tactics to fit. The second agency won because, as my friend put it, “that’s what they’re going to have to do on a daily basis anyway, so it’s nice to see them in action”.

The second story; I spoke to another client friend who’d been through a massive pitch process with multiple agencies, who all had very precise, complex techniques that they presented at length. Each agency thought their clever technique would differentiate from the others. All that happened was the client team couldn’t tell the agencies apart. The proprietory techniques just served to make their proposals more similar than different, hid the teams and how they actually thought, and made the decision even more of a price-based one.

Both illustrate The Law of the Instrument, of course: if all you have is a hammer, you treat everything as if it were a nail. And nowadays, a lot of companies are rolling out the Hammermatic 9000 in a bid to differentiate themselves.

Instead of techniques, then, what do I mean by tools?

The following model is our basic tool, based on the X and Y axes (of Descartes’ Cartesian Coordinates, as Dennett reminds us).

We’re now using as a starting point for everything, like you would a compass for a map. If you understand direction, it helps you determine the correct course of action.

Fraser and I have taken to calling this “The Axes of Praxis“, with tongues firmly in cheek, but there’s something important in the name which I’ll explain more about at the end.

If you want (and I can really recommend doing this) you could grab a pen & paper and draw it out yourself as we go…

*waits for you to get paper*

On the X axis, we have “People”, and on the Y axis, we have “Things”.


Eh? Things?

Well, from last year’s thesis work, which was all about People & Space, “things” has now replaced “space” as a more useful descriptor.

I wrote a bit about it too about in Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief:

“When I say ‘Things’, it is a purposefully fuzzy description of potential outputs in this strange future. Not products, not services, not brands, not adverts. Things are something that all different parts of an organisation come together to realise.  Things are remarkable, in the sense that people bother to pass a remark about them. Things could mean, well, just about anything. Which is very useful, because in disruptive times established companies are often too caught up in the specifics of what they currently do to grasp and utilise the generalities of what they could do.”

So yes, People and Things. That’s all there is in anything.

On the diagram, both axes start at zero, and then increase in scale, according to each definition.

As with all good Economics graphs, these are pretty rough rules of thumb; don’t get hung up on the exact numbers here. It’s just a little mental doohickey which allows you to quickly create a version on paper of the world in which you’re working. It’s a ready reckoner.

Firstly, People (P) is determined by thinking about n (% of population) x m (magnitude).


The population is all about the whole group you’re thinking of in the project in front of you.

If you’re working within a business unit on culture change, then it is everyone who works in that business unit. It could be across an industry, if you’re in lobbying. And if you’re in marketing, you’re probably thinking about your target audience. Magnitude is about the size of the impact you think you’ll have on people. A light nudge? A life changing experience? This gives you a quick way to think about where you might be working along the People axis.

If you’re creating powerful experiences that only touch a small percentage of the population, you’re still pretty small-scale in terms of the whole picture. Likewise, if it’s a lightweight advertising message, even though the reach is great, the impact might not be as great as you imagine.

Secondly, on the Y axis, Things (T) is determined by i (instances) x d (detail).


Thinking about Things in terms of instances (i) means that you can quickly work out what sort of change you’re going to suggest to a business.

Does it change all of the output, a fundamental change to everything shipped? Or are you making a little standalone beta, or new product, that doesn’t change everything all at once. Using instances as a proxy for ‘% of output’ it helps you think of the scale you’re operating at within the business. We refine this by thinking about detail, the degree to which you’re creating a change in the output; is it a small tweak? A fundamental rewrite? Different packaging?

Now you can do the same quick reckoning trick you pulled with the People axis on the Things axis. If you’re just working on a small public Beta of something that isn’t that radical a change, it’s probably not that high up the Things axis. Or if it’s a minor tweak to a service process that every customer goes through, it’s hard to see it creating a radical change.

That’s the lay of the land, then, our thinking tool for whatever passes our noses. It can lend itself to different sorts of descriptive structures, question frameworks, job estimation, and so on and so forth. Like a sonic screwdriver, it doesn’t work that well on wood though. But we’re working on that.

To give you an idea of how to apply it, here are some examples to bring that to life; two bigger ones, and a series of little ones…


A. What sort of job is this?

Firstly, we define the four areas of studio practice using it.


Bottom left, where you’re working with smaller groups of people and early stages of work, you’re basically Prototyping. That’s not just to mean the prototyping of products and services, of course, but the prototyping of any sort of idea. (Now, having been chatting about it with David over coffee yesterday morning, I’m wondering if there’s a different word for this quadrant… Action, perhaps, or Habit? But for now, Prototyping will serve.)

Bottom right, as you start increasing in scale along the People axis, it’s about Culture (and communications, and communities, and collaboration, and lots of other words that begin with c…). In short, it’s when the ‘people thing‘ is more important than the ‘thing thing’ (which as Mark will tell you is more often than you might think).

Top left, where the priority is the things you’re working on, it’s about Design. Working out how the thing works, and how people react to it by putting it in front of small groups of users to improve and iterate. An important clarification; it’s low on the People axis not because people aren’t important, but just that compared to percentage of the population you’re thinking of, more often than not you’ll be testing with small groups.

Top right, then, is about Strategy. How to think about whole outputs and whole populations at the same time, and setting new direction as a result of the needs you discover.

All in all, thinking across these four quadrants has helped us see what jobs look like, but also what they might benefit from being connected to. For instance, we’ve recently been included on the GOV.UK Digital Marketplace for services, and we created a version of what we call Strategic Prototyping – if you have a strategy you think is formed, how can you make the first version implication of what it would look like, and then predict the likely consequences of what would happen as it scaled (basically drawing a line from top right to bottom left on the model).

It’s also a way of thinking about project balance, client case studies, preferred operating quadrants, and more besides.


B. What sort of thing are we looking for?

I was doing some research work with the Gravity Road guys on a premium brand, and looking for concrete examples of different emergent trends across multiple sectors. Rather than ask for general “what’s happening in your sector?” questions, we used the chart to think about the extremes of each corner.


Thinking about what might characterise each part of the map (Did lots of people use something? Was it beautifully designed but still largely a secret?) helped us create a simple set of four questions to ask various experts some precise questions:

What’s New? – You’ve just seen something that’s made you stop, drop everything and focus in a way you haven’t in months. It isn’t finished, there’s still work to do, but it could change everything. What is it? Who made it? What recent development has helped it emerge?

What’s Popular? – There’s something you’ve noticed that everyone who matters has. It’s become unremarkable to them, yet outside ‘the bubble’ it’s unknown. Describe it. Who’s behind it? What part does it play in peoples’ lives? Who will pick it up next?

What’s Great? – It’s the most wonderfully designed, highly detailed, beautifully put together production you’ve seen in a year. But it’s curiously niche, as if nobody is looking properly at it. What is it? Why is it still to find its audience? What have its makers done previously?

What’s Successful? – A year ago, nobody really knew about it, but now X is the go-to-example on everyone’s lips. “Oh, it’ll be X for this…” everyone says, a comparison point for success at scale. Who’s responsible for X? Where did it come from? Is it here to stay?

So as opposed to the first example, where we’re using the map as a lens to see what we do, here we were using it as a lens on each of those different worlds, and then working out how each overlapped with the other worlds (for instance, do the same sorts of things appear top left in music and fashion? If not, why not?).

In hindsight, what’s interesting about the tool in this respect is that it makes you think there are other areas you haven’t explored. It’s a little like in games like Age of Empires, where you don’t know what’s hidden in the unexplored areas of the map, but you do know that there’s going to be something out there.



C. Some other quick examples

– We’ve used it to map out personal development needs for Fraser and I – what are we good at across each part of the map, where do we need to improve? To do that we split each axis into three, and worked out which skills were most appropriate where

– It’s the framework for the board game version of product development we’re playing with. This aspect, particularly stealing from rules of games like snakes and ladders where you traverse the board in different ways, helps you explore unexpected corners.

– It’s been used with a client to compare with their corporate innovation stage-gate process. We realised that a linear stage-gate process wasn’t as linear as it first appeared, because the stages could be crossed in various alternative ways, which helped introduce better flexibility.

– It’s good for drawing out typical workflow journeys, like the one for test & learn below, where you keep circling in loops between the team and small user tests until you’re ready to properly launch.


So, PHEW. That wasn’t meant to be as long, but it’s only just a partial exploration of where we are with it at the moment. I’d love to hear from people who have different thinking tools they use in similar scenarios, to see what those are and compare, and of course if you have any thoughts on how else the tool could be applied or improved, then do drop them in the comments section below. If it’s of interest, we might even put on a workshop or two on some of the things we’re discovering.

Above all though, I’d encourage you to make your own tools, or at least codify the loose ones you might use already. Everyone could use a sonic screwdriver in their head.



I forgot to mention why we’re calling it The Axes Of Praxis, didn’t I? Three reasons:

1. It Rhymes.

2. Praxis means “the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas“. This tool gives us a way to do that.

3. See reason 3.


Fighting Fires or Lighting Fires?

This flew by my eyes yesterday (HT Mark Storm)

fightong vs lighting

The bit I’m most drawn to is the pithiness of definition – it’s by Kenneth Mikkelsen:

If Management is about Fighting Fires, Leadership is about Lighting Fires

It’s so easy to get drawn into fighting fires. The machinations of the organisation around us make it easier for you get involved in the urgent thing that must be solved. It sucks the time, the energy, the impetus to do anything but focus on the problem at hand.

But if you work that way, if you battle to extinguish every fire in the business, it’s probably at the moment just after you put out the last one that you realise there’s no more fires to be fought, because the company has run out of things to burn. There’s nothing left to do.

Remember to light more fires, folks.


Of course, I have a track record in natty turns of phrases involving firey metaphors. I never use that one at all anymore, but somewhat unbelievably it’s five and a half years old. Where did the time go, eh?

2015 Projects / #2 – Play

Catching up? You should read the overview to learn about the background to this… we’ll wait for you, promise.


I don’t know who my favourite band are, or what my favourite film is. I can tell you about lots of music and films and directors and albums that I love, but they leapfrog over each other as time, circumstances and context all change.

I can tell you though, with a great degree of certainty, that the late Iain Banks is my favourite author. Or should I say Iain M. Banks, as (if pushed to decide) I prefer his science fiction writing over his (un)normal fiction. Without turning this into a massive exploration on the universe he created with the Culture novels specifically, I would like to draw you attention to one book in particular; The Player of Games.

A short description, from here:

The Culture – a human/machine symbiotic society – has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh. Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game … a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes Emperor.

I have been fascinated by this idea for a while; a game that represents a whole system, or organisation, so that the way that you play it means you fare well within the society for which the game is representative.

…indeed, once upon a time, when first starting Smithery, Mr Alex Fleetwood and I pitched an idea to a large FMCG company to design a game that they could use for recruitment of the right sort of new people. They didn’t go for it, it wasn’t really what they were expecting, I don’t think…

In the book, the word ‘Azad’ translates to mean “machine” or “system”. And as Vijay pointed out to me there’s also a Hindi / Persian word ‘azād’ which translates as “free”. Which is actually on some level, quite the opposite of the meaning in the book; those playing the game, which is everyone in the Empire, is trapped by it.


We are now approaching the part of the blog post where we could endlessly investigate the differences between ‘play’ and ‘games’. This is neither the time nor the place, and there are infinitely better qualified people than me thinking and writing about this.

Somewhere between ‘systems’ and ‘freedom’, between ‘play’ and ‘games’, I think there’s a rich fertile space for introducing more playful, gameful, systemized freedom into organisations.

And since this idea of AZAD won’t leave me, it’s be bubbling for years, so the only rational course of action is to play it out as a Smithery project this year.

As a starting point, we’ll look to play with the practice, to use the axes as defined in the last post as a starting idea, where a series of chance encounters and strategic decisions help groups of people play around with the language and actions as they become apparent to them.

Over Christmas, as I mentioned before, there was a wee boardgame version we created at home just for fun, to see what happened with a two-dimensional game that was a mix of choices, events and outcomes.


When thinking about it more though, I think there are interesting different ways to think about truning it into a real thing, at different levels of complexity and required time. So whereas there might be a ‘board game’ version (fully immersive, for teams), there could also be a simple nine square version, more akin to noughts and crosses perhaps, and even maybe a ‘back of the car’ version, where it just becomes about language and environment, and you don’t need anything else at all.

With all that in mind, let’s set the goals for project 2…

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) “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 (Woolly, Do-able Goal) 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.


The New Anaesthetic?

Having just returned from holiday, I have (as always) a surfeit of thoughts and ideas that sprang from the books I read whilst away. And whilst I’ll get round to blogging about them soon enough, just a wee short one which has been proimted by the recent statement on how the UK  classes digital communications as external ones, and therefore fair game for monitoring.

Without delving down into the whole post-Snowden world, I’d just like to think about the apathy that news like this is met with by the general public.

We don’t seem to be able to get worked up about it. Should we not be a bit more concerned, or ask a few better questions, or become a litttle more circumspect on what we share? Why don’t we react?

Here’s where the holiday reading comes in. I was reading Raymond William’s Keywords, an exploration of some of the most important words in the English language. It’s from 1976, the year before I was born, so a generation ago for me.

The first word in there is Aesthetic, which of course for me will be ever-welded to James Bridle’s New Aethestic work. Something in William’s definition of aesthetic grabbed me though, a connection I’d previously not made:

…from [the middle of the nineteenth century] onwards, with advances in medicine, anaesthetic – the negative form of the increasingly popular adjective – was widely used in the original broad sense to mean deprived of sensation or the agent of such deprivation.

Whenever I’d thought about the New Aesthetic before, I tried to think about how it made people feel. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe what’s happening is that it doesn’t make us feel, it deprives us of feeling, it numbs us, so we don’t react. Is the New Aesthetic actually an Anaesthetic?