A short, exploratory post, prompted by the serendipitous collision in my head this past week of this thread by Jerry Daykin on proven principles for building brands at scale, and this great post by Zoe Scaman on moving from static frameworks to dynamic flywheels.
I’d like to caveat all of the below, too – the day-to-day efforts of building brands in a modern media landscape is not my wheelhouse anymore, so I would be inclined to bow in deference to Zoe & Jerry’s thoughts on this area.
Firstly, I’ve always liked to operate in worlds where many things can be true. The metaphor I employedthat Zoe mentioned, ‘if advertising is a firework, social media is a bonfire’, was very much meant to speak about the two things coming together to work.
This of course was back in 2009 or so, when it looked like community building at scale might be possible on the platforms which are now, to the amateur eye, simply ad networks.
Since then, Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things has been purposefully open – it’s not ‘instead of’, there’s room for both. I just believe there is more interesting, powerful work for me to be doing in the former, rather than the latter.
So as a rule of thumb, I’m against holding absolute positions on things. I’ve even left myself enough wriggle room in that last statement should I decide to hold an absolute position on something in the future.
Basically, it all depends. It’s context, isn’t it?
As Faris said at some point this year I think, Context isn’t everything, but it is everything else. He might well have stolen that from somewhere, but I’m definitely stealing it from him.
Anyway, to the point; I think it’s perfect reasonable to assume that both Jerry and Zoe’s positions are true, even though on the surface it might not look like it.
Part of that is the context of what sort of brand you’re working on, and the sector it operates in. This has always been true of course.
However, I wonder if there’s also something deeper going on too, in the way markets and economics works in 2020.
I stumbled into another metaphorical comparison when I was replying to Jerry’s thread, and it seemed worth capturing here, as a way to think about some more if nothing else.
It was about physics, and what happens to the laws that govern how we perceive the universe when you get down to the quantum level.
(I mean, now we’re really straying far from my comfort zone, but let’s persevere…)
The short version; classical physics told us the big rules of how the observable world around us worked. Apples falling from trees, etc. These laws worked for everything it seemed.
Then along comes quantum mechanics, proving how things work down at the atomic and sub-atomic levels. And they don’t work in the same way as the classical laws of physics.
Yet… the world we see as governed by those classical laws is comprised of a miniature world that doesn’t obey them.
Cue much head scratching, books, TV shows, TED talks and Avengers references. Things work differently down at the quantum level.
OK, which means what in terms of the two arguments?
In short, if you’re a big brand (or want to be a big brand) then there are an established, proven set of laws you can rely on. You might as well follow those, or at the very least use them as your theoretical base.
Some will be trying, and just not get there. If they’re leveraged in some way based on that achieving that goal, they’ll disappear when they don’t make it.
Some businesses will never to be big. They might choose not to be, or that choice is thrust upon them. But the won’t necessarily disappear. They will use the tools at their disposal to be the size that works for them, given their beliefs, circumstances and so on.
The technology stack of 2020 provides a perfect democratised toolkit for micro businesses – from accounting services to video production, you carry around an entire business or seven on a mobile phone.
They aren’t markets in the classical sense. Perhaps we might think of them as quantum markets?
Tightly interwoven groups and communities where some of the dynamics that don’t scale (to Jerry’s points) when building big brands actually do for smaller businesses.
It sets of a whole series of questions in my head:
– Do the laws that apply to large brands (e.g. concentrate on reach and penetration) still work the same down at that level? If not, why not?
– Conversely, can you actually take the laws which seem to govern at the quantum level, and apply those consistently and well for large businesses?
– How do we define and describe the mechanics that replace them? At that scale, does context (the who, what, when of producer and audience) distort any general lessons you might learn?
– If we start finding out how things work down here, then does it change our thinking of how it really works up there too? Does it change the way we interpret the classical laws?
Perhaps most significantly, I’d like to think more about the market context for existing players.
If you’re a large, established business in a market that is susceptible to the quantum markets phenomenon, and you can’t operate in the same way, what can you do about it?
Rather than the classical economic idea of ‘barriers to entry’, where new entrants into a market have hurdles of resource and regulation to overcome, do established players need to think about ‘barriers to entropy’? What really stops your market breaking apart under your feet into a billion little brands?
One of the conversation threads in our breakout group was about clutter. We’re spending much more time in our homes, and so undoubtedly eyes and activity will turn to the things we’ve accumulated over the months and years. What to keep, what goes.
Another person drew a lucid picture of great tension point; we’re being told that the economy must restart again, which is basically a veil for increased consumption.
Hence the cunning wheeze of extending Sunday shopping hours, which feels like a doomed trick from the eighties economic playbook. If you really think people aren’t confident in spending because the shops aren’t open long enough on Sundays, I have some miraculous hair oil I want to talk to you about.
The theme that year was about Designing the Future, and whilst I was uncomfortable in claiming or assuming that it was our future to design (which still remains my view), as part of the metadesignstance I talked about, a word popped into my head the day before the conference… it often happens the night before, as you’re sweating over the slides.
I don’t have a crunchy description of exactly what it is. I referred to it again in a talk called The Oliver Twistat the RCA, but it’s an idea that every so often creeps up on me then I wonder what exactly to do with it, or how to articulate it.
Leastmodernism is about trying to harness a similar energy around solving societal problems that existed round modernism (for all its flaws), in a way that focuses efforts on what we are not doing, rather than what we are. It happens in pockets perhaps, and certainly can find allied concepts in parts of things like the Green New Deal.
How do you starting building an economic model around it, though? There’s something about drawing the connections between the thing, the creator, the customers, the money and the brand. We can take a stance that money is just a construct, as are brands. These two constructs float around the actual thing ‘made’ in the middle. Then a lot of the connections circumvent the actual thing in the middle:
Which perhaps opens up an opportunity to think about what you might do to replace that thing. Is it possible that money can flow from customers to creators, building a shared sense of what the brand means as a connection between people, but without the impact (or better still, negative impact) in the middle?
This might be the year to start thinking and articulating this more, but for the time being, the proxy I’m using is Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer.
Mr Prosser, of course, is the man from the council in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who is trying to knock down Arthur’s house. Arthur is lying in front of the bulldozer, preventing it from doing so.
Then Ford Prefect, in order to whisk Arthur away, comes up with a cunning ruse… well, you might as well just read it for yourself:
Ford looked across to Mr. Prosser, and suddenly a wicked thought struck him. “He wants to knock your house down?” “Yes, he wants to build . . .” “And he can’t because you’re lying in front of his bull-dozer?” “Yes, and . . .” “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement,” said Ford. “Excuse me!” he shouted. Mr. Prosser (who was arguing with a spokesman for the bulldozer drivers about whether or not Arthur Dent con- stituted a mental health hazard, and how much they should get paid if he did) looked around. He was surprised and slightly alarmed to see that Arthur had company. “Yes? Hello?” he called. “Has Mr. Dent come to his senses yet?” “Can we for the moment,” called Ford, “assume that he hasn’t?” “Well?” sighed Mr. Prosser. “And can we also assume,” said Ford, “that he’s going to be staying here all day?” “So?” “So all your men are going to be standing around all day doing nothing?” “Could be, could be . . .” “Well, if you’re resigned to doing that anyway, you don’t actually need him to lie here all the time do you?” “What?” “You don’t,” said Ford patiently, “actually need him here.” Mr. Prosser thought about this. “Well, no, not as such . . .” he said, “not exactly need . . .” Prosser was worried. He thought that one of them wasn’t making a lot of sense. Ford said, “So if you would just like to take it as read that he’s actually here, then he and I could slip off down to the pub for half an hour. How does that sound?” Mr. Prosser thought it sounded perfectly potty. “That sounds perfectly reasonable . . .” he said in a re- assuring tone of voice, wondering who he was trying to reassure. “And if you want to pop off for a quick one yourself later on,” said Ford, “we can always cover for you in re- turn.” “Thank you very much,” said Mr. Prosser, who no longer knew how to play this at all, “thank you very much, yes, that’s very kind . . .” He frowned, then smiled, then tried to do both at once, failed, grasped hold of his fur hat and rolled it fitfully round the top of his head. He could only assume that he had just won...
Now, the obvious problem in drawing this parallel is whilst Mr Prosser doesn’t knock Arthur’s house down immediately, he does eventually.
Therein lies the trick. How do you hold back Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer indefinitely?
*Yes, the breakfast is a welcome space to connect, it’s not a room though. Off the back of another participant describing the rooms in her house, I realised how much I miss walking into rooms. Rooms that I don’t know, know barely, or know well. Subconsciously scanning, sitting down or leaving.
I’m looking forward to walking into other rooms again.
I has a DM from Lee at the weekend, after we’d caught up last week for the first time in ages: “…loved your comment re Monzo as an incumbent – smart, in an ‘of course’ way. Might make a nice blog* post…”. So here it is.
I’d mentioned the poster and campaign below, and the weirdness of seeing new financial startups treat Monzo as an incumbent.
But are they the banking incumbent? No, not really.
Perhaps, though, they’re now the incumbent service for a thin layer of people who want banking no thicker than the thin glass layer atop a smartphone, a business that skips along the top edge of the pace layers, feeding on a deeper system below.
They feed off the slower moving layers below to survive; yes, the parasite metaphor has a metallic tang in the mouth, and probably doesn’t reflect intentions, but as a description of how they’ve captured the mobilista section that the market without really contributing to the lower layers is arguably accurate.
And now, we see the emergence of others who try to thrive in the whole they’ve burrowed in the host organism. One question emerges though about the campaign; who is it for?
It’s surely not for people with a Monzo card already, as getting people to switch bank accounts remains notoriously hard work, so why go after a small subset of a market. Viola Black is not going to feed off Monzo in the way that Monzo feeds off the wider system.
And it surely can’t be for those on the verge of making a decision to switch to Monzo, as any quick search on comparisons of the two would bring back unfavourable results for Viola Black; it is just a pre-pay credit card, as Monzo used to be.
It’s perhaps more likely that it is just a market statement, for current investors and potential future ones; ‘look, we’re in this market, associate us with these other players’.
In startup land, you don’t need to live off a real user base, sometimes the fumes of hype will provide enough sustenance for months or years. It’s like vaping success.
*It’s 2019, so let’s try more blogging, as per this:
Short fast blogging, rather than having an existential crisis when trying to fashion a passable Medium post. Why is it every Medium post ends up as a Large?
I’m delighted to be back at IED in Barcelona again this summer leading the Innovation and Future Thinking summer course. We’re bringing together the usual gang of inspirational lecturers and local innovators to explore a theme across the two weeks, starting on July 16th. More details on that soon, but in a change to the regular approach, we’re sharing the course theme up front this year (because, well, reasons… which will become clearer if you attend). Apply now if you’d like a place, or send it on to someone you think might…
UPDATE: We’ve finalised the core course teaching staff for next month in Barcelona, and I could not be more excited to explore ‘The Future of Space’ with a set of folks whose ideas and methods regularly excite and inspire me. We may yet add some more special guests too, keep an eye out for those. And come and join us in July in Barcelona.
Scott is best — and worst — described as futurist, taking a distinctly non-traditional approach to the job. He is also a writer, critic and educator. As founder and managing partner of Changeist since 2007, he points the way for the team’s research, and manages partnerships and strategic direction for the group.
Scott’s work covers 25 years looking for and describing the “So what?” of change across technology, society, economics and politics. His time is spent between gathering new signals in the world, making sense of them at a quiet table or crowded whiteboard, giving them narrative form on sketch paper, in a text editor, or on camera. He has lived in three countries and worked in over 20, and managed strategy and research teams in New York, Washington and London before launching Changeist.
Scott heads the Designing the Future programme for Dubai Future Academy, and lectures in the Innovation & Future Thinking programme at IED Barcelona, which he helped create. He has written for The Atlantic, Quartz, The Next Web, WIRED UK, How We Get to Next, Medium, The Long View, and HOLO 2, and spoken at major events as diverse as The Next Web, Lift, Helsinki’s Flow Festival, South Australia’s Open State, EPIC, SxSW, Sibos, FutureEverything, and NEXT14 and 15.
Dan Hill is a Visiting Professor at IIPP (UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose), as well as an Associate Director at Arup, and Head of Arup Digital Studio, a multidisciplinary design team based in London. He is also one of the Mayor Of London’s Design Advocates.
A designer and urbanist, Dan’s previous leadership positions have produced innovative, influential projects and organisations. They range across built environment (Arup in Australia, Future Cities Catapult in UK), education and research (Fabrica in Italy), government and social innovation (SITRA in Finland), and media (BBC and Monocle in UK), each one transformed positively via digital technology and a holistic approach to design.
He has lived and worked in UK, Australia, Finland and Italy. He started his career working on the urban regeneration of Manchester, and has subsequently worked on city strategy and urban development projects worldwide.
Last year he was the Sir Banister Fletcher visiting professor at The Bartlett School of Architecture, with Joseph Grima, and he is also an adjunct professor at RMIT University in Melbourne and UTS in Sydney.
He is the author of “Dark Matter & Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary” (Strelka Press, 2012), as well as numerous pieces for other books, journals, magazines and websites.
Christina Bifano is a design and trends researcher, educator, textile designer and fashion historian with a passion for combining all interests into one.
Christina has been coordinating and teaching trends investigation courses at IED Barcelona for the past 7 years. Her latest research projects include: Design Thinking for the EU Erasmus Commission, The Book of Everyone, Hotel Brummel, GNT Group, Cahier Studio (Double G Prints), Protein (London) and Stylus (London) and she has participated in producing trends-based editorials for: PSFK (NYC) and La Entropia (Barcelona).
Her backgound is in textile/surface design and she has worked for large brands and small design studios alike including: JB Martin, Co. Inc., Nautica Int’l. Inc., Milkprint Studios (NYC), Colette&Blue (PA), Cahier and Coloroom/Double G (BCN). She is proud editor of Roadtrip to Innovation and Digital Natives/Get Ready! both by Delia Dumitrescu. She holds degrees in Textile/Surface Design from FIT in New York and Accademia Italiana Moda in Florence, Italy.
Natalie D Kane is a curator, writer and researcher based in London, UK. She is Curator of Digital Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum (UK).
Natalie is a co-curator of Haunted Machines with Tobias Revell, a long-term curatorial and research project starting with a mini-conference at FutureEverything 2015, which reflected on the narratives of magic and hauntings pervading our relationship with technology. Haunted Machines were selected to curate the 2017 edition of art, tech and media festival Impakt (NL).
Natalie has talked about magic, art and technology on BBC Click and BBC Radio Four’s Digital Human, been interviewed by Vice’s Motherboard, Uncube Magazine, Spark on CBC Radio, Mindful Cyborgs and The Guardian and had work featured on BBC News, Le Monde Blogs and Mashable. Which is nice.
As an educator, Natalie has guest lectured at London College of Communications and Design Academy Eindhoven, is a Visiting Tutor at the Instituto de Europea Design (Barcelona), previously taught at Royal Institute of Theatre, Cinema and Sound (Brussels), and delivered workshops for the 2017 Malta Presidency of the Council of the European Union for Times Up.
The Futures and Follies of the Full-Stack Habitat
Each year on the Innovation and Future Thinking course at IED in Barcelona, we select a theme to work with. This provides students with a lens through which to see the world, a platform to help understand the methods and tools used to critically assess what may unfold, and a language in which to design a response to communicate what they see. 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 connects them to the city itself.
In 2018, we will explore the future of spacein Barcelona: Where will people live, where will they work? What will be public, what will be private? Who will be from here, and who will be passing through? Which resources will be finite, and which will be infinite? What will be permanent, what will be temporary? What changes, and what will remain eternal?
In order to unpick the various physical, urban and social interactions which are being transformed by software, we will interrogate the idea of The Full-Stack Habitat.
The first half of this is about kidnapping the ‘full stack’* metaphor from technology development, and wearing its clothes for a while to see what works and what doesn’t. We will look at the city as if it is a stack of interdependent systems, from the light-touch experiences you have on an hourly basis to the heavy infrastructural implications, from the feelings it creates for an individual visitor, to the long-term social effects for whole communities. Where does such a metaphor help us, and where does it fall apart?
Through understanding more about the complex and networked layers that exist around Barcelona, we expose the need for adaptability in both ourselves and the spaces we inhabit. By the end of the course, the students will be able to connect different ideas and elements, and design innovations and interventions to represent potential, viable futures.
Most crucially, we must create a learning experience in which the anticipation of problems is brought the fore. New products and services are emerging in cities which ignorantly or wilfully bypass any thinking on how they will affect the balance of a space.
Collaborating with partners in the city, 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 follies of The Full-Stack Habitat are as important as understanding the potential futures.
Apply now if you’d like a place, or send it on to someone you think might…
* a full-stack developer is “simply someone who is familiar with all layers in computer software development. They aren’t experts at everything… they understand how everything works from top to bottom and can anticipate problems accordingly” – https://codeup.com/what-is-a-full-stack-developer/
Last week, after two days of teaching at the RCA with the Design Products gang, I also took part in a Future of Manufacturing edition of the School of Design’s evening lecture series. This involved three short talks and a panel with Asif Moghal from Autodesk, Gavin Munro from Full Grown and myself.
The below isn’t the script as such, just a (less sweary) exploration of the main points and some subsequent post-rationalisations. That said, it’s still written in the present tense, as it’s the sort of things that I wish I’d said (and might have said), but, like, said better. Ish.
My thanks go to Hannah Stewart at the RCA for the invitation, and to John Dodds for suggesting the pithy title of the talk…
The Oliver Twist
I’d like to talk about a problem in how people think about the things they make for people, and what we all might start doing to change that. I run Smithery, a Strategic Design Unit in London. In our interpretation, Strategic Design bridges disciplines and departments, roles and responsibilities; it is concerned with all of the factors around a thing, be they visible or invisible, and not just the thing itself.
Our practice is rooted in the philosophical stance that Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.
It should be noted that I have a somewhat strange background to be doing this work and talking here at the RCA. I went to university through the clearing system, when doing such a thing didn’t carry the financial disincentives that it does today. I’d originally wanted to study English, and did for a while, but ended up with a degree in Economics. In hindsight, I’m unable to tell you which demands a more applied use of fictional devices.
After university, I landed in market research, and spent a time unknowingly looking at what was the start in the decline of local newspapers. Then it working out how to replace the old paper posters on the underground with as many flashy, whizzy digital ones as possible. Then finally into media innovation for a seven year stretch.
This graph neatly shows my tenure in that area, starting at a time when social media was just a thing you did to get your friends along to see your band’s gigs. Then Friends Reunited was bought by a telly company, Myspace was bought by a newspaper company, and Facebook realised you can’t afford to be bought by anybody if you want to get on with your mission of destroying the fabric of democratic society as we know it connecting everyone on the planet.
The reason I got out was that it’s was really quite boring. As Jeffrey Hammerbacher pointed out back then, all of these great minds and technologies are being honed and pointed at making people click ads.
Maybe Jeff’s quote should now be updated to “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make agencies tell their clients that a pixel being on a screen for barely a second is probably enough to justify the expense of buying this shit”.
It’s not as catchy, but is arguably the only business model that Silicon Valley has managed to crack repeatedly, unless you count VC-backed Ponzi schemes pushing market-destroying services at a loss on the run-up to some ridiculous future IPO valuation.
Anyway, 2011 was a good time to get out of that.
Yet funnily enough, a lot of the companies who’ve spent all that time thinking about making people click boxes on tiny screens have started to expand their thinking away from just the screen and into things too.
The data monster needs more to feast on than the meagre scraps of information you’re feeding it now… how can Amazon launch an Alexa Advertising Network based on just knowing everything about some of the things you buy sometimes… it wants to know more…
So we’re now seeing the rise not of ‘product-as-a-service’ so much as ‘product-as-a-parasite’.
It comes into your home, or your office, plugged into your dashboard or splattered across your actual face, and (even when you’ve paid money for it) makes a living by sucking the data out of your daily routines and feeding it back to the central nervous system.
For example, take the Snap Spectacles – please, in fact, take them, because there are 300,000 pairs unsold, wasting in a warehouse somewhere. That little lot caused Snap to take a $40m write-down. But hey, that’s fine, it’s someone else’s money, right? That’s what investors are for.
The inherent gamble in products like this is that it might increase the number of users of the greater system (new users who’ve never used the old thing, but are attracted by the new product), or it might increase the amount of data you have from existing users. And if you’re very lucky, it might do both. More likely, it will do neither.
But where as digital product development is equally prone to failure (and perhaps more so), we can more easily bear the cost that this brings, both as the company trying something, and the wider society.
If a new digital thing doesn’t take off, then you’ve lost more human effort than anything else (and even then you could argue that when people are getting paid in the process, there’s some valuable economic activity happening somewhere). There’s no real long-term downside. But that’s not true if you have 300,000 plastic, metal, and rare-earth mineral things in a warehouse.
Another way of thinking about it is with economies of scale. In traditional manufacturing, if you just want to do one of something, it’s really, really expensive. Your cost per unit for the next comes down, and continues to do so for a good while – the next 300,000 after the first 300,000 look really cheap in comparison.
If you’re more used to scaling digital businesses, the curve you operate on might look a lot different. You can build something for the first ten users in a weekend with a friend, on computers you already own. Over time, you can increase design, functionality, hosting, and grow the user base as you go. If it gets bigger still, you rent some office space, grow the team, move on to better servers, redo the brand… the cost per user keeps going up, but only after you’re making enough money to pay that off and keep investing more of your money (or more likely your investors money) into feeling user growth.
Perhaps the problems start when a digitally-trained business are offered a cost curve like that of a traditional manufacturing business – at the point where things usually get more expensive per user, the manufactured items are getting cheaper! Cheaper, you say?! Let’s but an extra 300,000, I’m sure we’ll sell them.
The more shit products created by companies who haven’t really though this through, but just feel that it’s a useful route to growing their user base, then the more warehouses and dumps full of redundant waste future generations are going to have to deal with.
Designers are complicit in this. It’s the age of click-bait design, where, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get the lovely photo of the product you’ve designed for that start-up into Dezeen, and you can send it in an email to your Mum and say ‘look Mum, I designed that‘.
And then banner adverts for isometric chairs will follow your Mum around the internet for weeks afterwards, and she’ll wonder why.
But as a designer, you’ve got to own all of your product shots, not just the one you send to your parents.
But then you should really send your Mum this one too, where the thing you designed didn’t really fit into the existing systems people were already using, and it go a bit inconvenient. That’s on you.
Then there’s this one, where the people who were using the thing you made started abandoning it in the middle of towns and cities because… well, it wasn’t obvious or easy where they went, or there was no incentive, and then someone else had done it, so… yeah, that’s your product shot too.
Then there’s this doozy. That’s a repair man in Beijing wondering where he’s going to start repairing all of the bikes which have something wrong with them to get them back on the streets. He’d tell you that this is your product shot too.
Then, finally, comes the best product shot of all, because they had to use a drone to take it. That’s a sharing bike graveyard in Xiamen in China, where the whole ‘bike-sharing start-up’ craze has reached the point where you have 1.5m sharing bikes in Shanghai, which is three times bigger than London which manages with 11,000 Santander bikes.
In short, if companies continue to make physical products with a start-up. digital first mentality, then we will drown in this stuff.
What we need to do is find a way of persuading people to want not more, but less. Making Things People Want, yes, but where the ‘thing’ in that idea is a concept of responsible sustainable existence, rather than simply the accumulation of MOAR THINGZ.
I’ve been thinking about the term leastmodernism since a talk I gave at dConstruct in 2015 – how do we fuse together than spirit of modernism, the wide-scale, far-reaching transformation of the world, but centred around the idea that it’s about what you’ve not done, what you’ve chosen to leave out, the repairs you enable… what are the repeatable patterns and expectations we can build into a wide variety or products, services and systems so that the expectation of less becomes a habit?
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:
Get a strong, non-corrodible airtight container made from stainless steel/tough plastic
Use things like paper, non-PVC plastics, wood, devices without power, wrapped separately
Avoid plants, animals, insects, rubber, and batteries – all can give off corrosive substances
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.
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.
“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…
I was very excited to be invited to Oslo to give the final keynote of the Webdagene conference. It’s one of my favourite cities, and the speaker line-up was immense too – you should check out all of the talks.
My talk was an updated version of the Metastrategy idea, with cleaner entry points into the theory, and an extended practical back-end. Please enjoy, and as always questions, additions and thoughts in the comments below are most welcome.
I also ran a masterclass on the Thursday with a small group of people who’d signed up (apologies to those who tried but couldn’t get in, I might come back to Malmo to run it again) on using the ‘9 Box’ agility map as a springboard for metastrategy.
Using masking tape, we quickly made the framework to work within, and then populated with Artefact Cards to keep moving around types of work and activity and examine different potential routes through projects.
It’s set off a whole series of subsequent thoughts about working on the horizontal plane rather than the vertical too (in short, people are more likely to reach out and move things around; the tabletop seems to be ‘common’ space much more than walls do…), but I’ll think about that more and write it up.
And, of course, because it’s the year of The Chair Game, we played that at the end, to examine the nature of multiple strategies folding in on themselves, becoming appropriate depending on how the context shifts, and each deployment of a strategy changing the nature of the game and so therefore the next strategy needed. Scholars of The Chair Game will notice a new chair set-up tried by the players, which we shall christen ‘Malmo Rows’ I think.
Anyway, thank you again to all the team at The Conference for a splendid, splendid week. Whatever they do next year, get it in your diary.
Every year, we set three internal projects for Smithery; things we want to work on that will improve our own practice, be fun to explore, and originally to occupy a little downtime too. As perhaps evidenced by the performance on last year’s projects (see 2015 project write-up), we seem to have a bit less time nowadays to purposefully muck about.
Firstly, some of that is down to workload; we’re working on more complex, nuanced, interesting problems for clients. They’re more compelling to get readily lost in, to wander through and wonder about. We’re doing the sort of projects I started Smithery for.
Secondly, a lot of the things we do as part of projects nowadays perhaps take the place of the more makery stuff we used centre some personal projects around. Adopting various things into our approach, like the principles from Seymour Papert’s Constructionism, means that more often than not we have ‘a thing’ in the middle of the table to facilitate discussion, design and direction. We make things all the time.
And perhaps thirdly, the internal projects have served as useful proof-of-concepts, and in pointing to them (and subsequent clients things) we are asked to do more things like those. Getting paid actual money for things you really like to do anyway is always nice.
I talked a while ago about ‘The Blacksmith’s Sign’; a beautiful wrought iron sign that hangs from a post, an ornate piece of communication about the type of work done within. People would see the sign, and think ‘ah, there’s someone who could help me with X…’ and another client was secured. The client didn’t want a sign, of course. They wanted the skills that created that sign. In some way, that’s what some of the Smithery internal projects have been about, wittingly or not…
In the light of all this, we’ve been thinking a lot over the holidays about the right internal projects this year, and how after four years they might change focus a bit, beyond just thinking of ourselves.
‘Internal projects’ seems a little small. We have decided we want to be a little more ambitious in how we make the projects as useful as possible beyond our own walls. Stealing an idea from Charles & Ray Eames, how do we use the projects to deliver “the best for the most for the least”; to create really useful outputs from the projects, which can offer greater value for more people, making the very best use of the resources we have available.
With all that in mind, here’s our three for 2016.
There’s a What, a How and a Where…
1. WHAT – Strategic Design Unit
What is Smithery? Ah, the perennial question. The original answer was long and uncertain, as proved by the thing I must’ve written when asked by Campaign on leaving PHD:
“…called Smithery, the business will look to work with clients on brand and service innovation, community initiatives, crowdsourcing projects and marketing and media strategy.”
About a year in, and after I’d reflected on the actual work I was doing, it become “an innovation studio” (after a German magazine called PAGE called it that). Formulating “Make Things People Want > Making People Want Things” helped explain what it was about.
What about now though? Smithery has always been centred around innovation; an inheritance of the previous role I’d had for five years, a comfortable legitimacy.
But increasingly, looking at the work we’ve done over the last twelve months, that’s not the right definition anymore.
It’s harder to see what I thought innovation was looking at how it’s used everywhere now. As a term, innovation is at risk of being meaninglessly overused and abused. In too many cases, it just means ’slightly better than useful’, or ‘the things we do to hide the day job’. It is hard to discern what it is someone’s actually talking about when using the word. It is a fat, unhelpful descriptor, just like digital became before it. I find myself having to go through layers of conversation with people when they say ‘innovation’ to find out what they actually mean…
Which is partly what the system we’ve developed around our practice is a reaction to, I think.
Rooted in the gearbox idea from Smithery 3.0 in 2014 (around Stewart Brand’s shearing layers), the system uses four complementary realms, and in particular their relationship to each other, to help us define what sort of job we’re actually looking at. Or at the very least, helps state the question that everyone at the start of the project thinks we’re trying to answer (it usually changes, but that’s another story).
None of the realms are described as ‘innovation’, of course, and you can’t describe everything we do as innovation, either in our own understanding of it or that of others. So if Smithery isn’t an innovation studio, what is it?
DMATH is a terrific read, and in reading Dan’s post about it, which started from Dan’s talk at the first Laptops & Looms, which itself was an important experience for me, as I found myself at it barely a month into starting Smithery at Toby & Russell’s invitation.
L&L – Read Adrian’s take on what it was, if you don’t know, which is a) great and b) links to lots of other reactions to it, as all good rabbit holes should.
But it’s only in reading DMATH again, in context of the last eighteen months of work, that I’ve started to appreciate what Dan is really getting at, from a practitioner’s perspective, when talking about Strategic Design.
Rather than trying to design specific solutions, and ones constrained by the same silos that create previous failing ones at that, Strategic Design bridges disciplines and departments within the organisation as currently exists, and seeks to change the cultural, political and social factors which prevent necessary change; the hidden things, the ‘dark matter’ the title refers to.
Another thing I’ve been reading (for the first time) is John Harwood’s The Interface, an exploration of the seminal IBM Design programme led by Eliot Noyes (who brought in Charles & Ray Eames, Paul Rand, etc), which transformed the business starting in the late fifties. What you realise from reading the stories back is just how much the politics and the social structures that Noyes & Thomas Watson Jr (his client, and new IBM CEO) navigated their way through were part of the design project.
I could keep going in, but in this first week of January though, I’m very aware that there’s a lot more to research, and this is just the setting out of our stall. What other examples and takes on Strategic Design should we appraise ourselves of? This one? These folks? Does it really match up to the system we have? It does feel, on the surface, like what we’ve been working on with Smithery (somewhat unknowingly to an extent):
Exhibit A: We’re working with an innovation team from one end of the business, as well as the sales team from the other end. Rather than waiting three years for innovation to hit the front line and change the organisation, we’re helping them create and deploy the ideas and constructs immediately to make a difference for their customers. Building conceptual and functional platforms and methods upon which they create things together. It’s a long, investigative journey of researching, prototyping, talking and observing. Developing a feel for the rhythm of the organisation, things we can see, things we can’t. What results is a field kit, a box full of the future, in many different iterations, that the sales team can use with clients to scope out problems together.
Exhibit B: We were asked to put together a ‘War Game’ for a global strategy team last autumn. They were bringing together the thirty strategic leaders from across the globe, who don’t see each other that often. The brief time they have together is valuable. Traditionally, ‘War Games’ are long extrapolations of one scenario. And it’s a rational thing for global strategy teams to ask for. No one gets fired for asking for a war game. But in rooting around in what the problem actually was, they wanted their people to become better at reacting to unforeseen circumstances. So instead of running a long game of ‘Risk, one long, exhaustive scenario, we designed a card game, more ‘Poker’ (multiple, recombinant, rapid scenarios). Instead of one scenario, we build 21 in three hours. But we only build half the deck; half are blank, for the client teams to create their own additional and variations in the future. In a sense, rather than just create a fully formed thing for one experience in the business, we made a half-formed thing they would take back home with them, and create their own experiences with.
In both these cases, of course, it wasn’t just us. We pull together ‘units’, small specialist teams to work on these things, according to the task. Sometimes individuals, sometimes wee groups of people from other companies. But importantly, I think, people from the inside of the client teams too. It’s less about building units for people, but building the units including people.
So the WHAT project is this: What Is A Strategic Design Unit?
WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) – In these first fresh weeks of 2016, inhabiting a new way of seeing what we do is something to test out. Then with further reading and reflection, we’ll be experimenting and investigating what it takes to be a “Strategic Design Unit”.
WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Working out what Strategic Design means for us, how we describe ‘strategic design units’ helpfully for others, and creating an artefact of our investigations (writing a guide on how we get on to publish, a white paper, or something). The best articulation we can create, available to develop and build on through creative commons, that asks the least from others and ourselves in order to take the most from it.
2. HOW – Universal Agility Map
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sketched the thing below in the last year. Using the same axes of ‘people’ and ‘things’ as the system above, it’s nine-box variant for appraising what you should do next on a project basis. If the four box system model is the what, then this is the how.
Very simply, you start projects in the bottom left, work quickly with a small team, then work out what to do next; Improve or Share. Go out to the right to share with more people, taking what you’ve got into qualitative, then quantitative ways of testing what you’ve made, before you spend all your resources making it better. Go up to improve, and make a better version of what it is you’ve come up with as a team.
As a simple instruction, ‘improve or share’ shares a lot from modern, iterative working, but there’s some additional things in there too.
For one, it’s non-judgemental. There is no right and wrong in the approach. Instead, it simple demands that you ask yourself, as truthfully as you can, what the most appropriate thing to do is. For another, it allows you to perceive the empty spaces in the process, and think about where else you might have taken the project, had you chosen to go there.
There’s more detail on what this method is here, but in short it’s about using a design process that isn’t wedded to time. Time doesn’t sit on the X axis of the two-dimensional model, so therefore the emphasis is not simply on moving from left to right. It’s like a self-directed version of snakes and ladders for projects.
The more we’ve used it ourselves, and talked about it to other people, the more it seems useful in situations as a way for other people to think about the way they work.
We think it might be a UniversalAgility Map.
The idea that it’s a map, specifically, came from an afternoon we spent hanging out with Ella Saltmarshe and Tim Milne, reflecting on a project each of us had done and mapping the out across the grid, plotting points according to the action we’d taken at each stage (improve/share).
Then the best bit, which was Ella’s idea for the session, was to then think about how it felt at each stage of the project, and to map those feelings on too. We got to some really interesting ways of describing the territory through this.
For instance, if you only keep improving something, without sharing it with others, it gets harder to share it eventually and take all the feedback on board at once. It’s like a mountain range that’s easier to cross when you’re further south in the foothills, but the further north you go, the higher and colder it becomes to make it over the mountains.
If you only talk about and get input and data about a project, on the other hand, and never use any of that to make significant steps on, you get lost in ‘the forests of constant chatter’… you never get anywhere as you’re lost in the reactions of what you get from external sources.
All of this is something we want to work on more this year, and make something that people can take for themselves and use as a way of improving their own working process.
The HOW project is this: How Do You Use The Universal Agility Map?
WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) – We’ve found it really useful. We think other people will find it really useful. How we communicate the value we’ve found in that will be a good challenge for us (we’ve spent a year on it, surely it doesn’t take that long to learn), and beneficial for others.
WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Work out a way to teach it to people. Then teach it in person, at places where I teach already, like IED Barcleona & Google Squared, and in new places too. And, just maybe, create an artefact of the method too, so that people can teach themselves. Our friend Tina does a wonderful range of maps already, we should talk to her…
3. WHERE – Perpetual Spatial Ranges
The book I recommended most to people last year was Prototype, edited by Louis Valentine. It features a cornucopia of different takes on what prototypes are, written by practitioners in quite different spheres. It’s from 2010, rather than being from last year, but when I stumbled across it, I loved it from the off.
One of the ideas I kept coming back to was from an essay called ‘Prototypes as a Central Vein For Knowledge Development‘ by Pieter Jan Stappers, in which he references ideas created during a PhD by dutch designer Ianus Keller.
Keller proposed that there could be ways to set up working environments for people engaged in prototyping which bring together what they are working on immediately in their hands, what is close to them on the table, and what they see in the environment in line-of-sight.
“The bodily interactions in design activities can be divided into three spatial ranges, each serving different cognitive functions” as the essay puts it.
The simple idea of the ‘spatial ranges’ gripped me, partly because of the Artefact Cards work over the last few years (which starts at the precision range, then stretches into the layout range), but partly because I’ve always been fascinated at exploring the spaces we all work in (effectively and not).
The Atmosphere range is one I personally think we at Smithery should concentrate this year on understanding more, and linking back to the other ranges. We’ve also been working these last six months on a fascinating ‘Future Of The Workplace’ project with a client, which we should be able to say a lot more about soon, I hope.
It’s not just a way to think about the way people work when in particular set-ups (like Keller was exploring with ways of prototyping) but in every moment we work. Do we always pull things in from the precision, layout and atmosphere ranges when working, knowingly or not?
Do we work in what we might call ‘Perpetual Spatial Ranges‘, three circles around us we should be much more mindful of? By considering these ranges, and understanding how they relate to each other, and what makes for good working practice for ourselves and teams, can we learn how to adjust and align the ranges, like a dance of working practice?
When you start thinking about it in this way, you realise that in most work environments, the design of the spatial ranges aren’t that aligned. Team leaders, facilities managers, IT Departments, the board’s latest attempt at interior design… the number of different people taking unilateral decisions about the ranges soon stacks up, and perhaps damages or impedes the work people are being asked to do.
So what to do about this, then? Well, we have, by chance, some projects lined up this year which have a lot to do with the realms in which teams work. How to design environments which are most conducive to the sort of work you want people to more readily and easily produce. We might also explore our own working environment more, and set up an experiment of working practice that plays on these ideas.
Finally, then, the Where project is this: Where can you see Perpetual Spatial Ranges at work?
WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) – From the 2014 work based on the Stewart Brand shearing layers, it’s been really apparent that the spaces in which people work are part of the domain of trying to solve the problems we’re asked to. This is the year to get to grips with that properly.
WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Find a place to show people what we mean by Perpetual Spatial Ranges, whether it’s a place we work in, or someone else works in, or one we’ve designed for someone else for a specific purpose. Then, perhaps, run a tour of the space…?
There we go then. That should keep us busy, but hopefully in a way that creates more value for more people. We’ll see at the end of the year in the wrap-up.
We went to the rugby at the weekend. Samoa were playing the USA in a game at the Brighton AMEX stadium. Outside the ground, people in bright clothes were selling all sorts of things, including the thing you’ll see attached to this guy’s ear:
It’s a radio that lets you listen to the commentary, or listen to the referee talking to the touch judges, players and TMO during the game.
It helps you understand more about what’s going on. Fair enough; it’s an interesting augmentation of the experience.
The guy had a phone that could have done that, though. Everyone in the crowd did. They could have made an app. Set up a locally hosted web server. Made it available through something like TuneIn. There are probably fifty different ways they could have streamed the audio to the devices we carry around with us anyway, and not needed to make or supply any other devices.
Except I suspect none of those ways would have let them charge £10 per person for doing so.
The economics of the physical object is still intrinsically understood by the vast majority of people – ‘oh, you made loads of things, but if I’m to own one of the unique things, I need to give you money‘.
There’s still something about ‘digital’ services that means people wouldn’t pay. ‘Oh, you’re doing that anyway, I’m not paying that. It should be free…‘.
But it’s produced by as much ‘physical’ labour. People who make it happen (who you can’t see). Devices and connections working hard (that you can’t touch).
Until we work out a way to sell the general principle of digital distribution of physical effort, we’ll face two problems.
Firstly, we’ll be unable to charge sustainably for things to keep them going.
Secondly, we’ll continue to make more physical things where we don’t need them, in order to make money.