How to use the Community Power Compass

The recap

You’ve likely read the first post, introducing the context for this tool, the Community Power Compass, and how it pulls three key freedoms and controls from The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber & David Wengrow. The post then, is the practical session; how might you use each of these segments to consider the sort of community you’re looking at, joining, leaving or forming.

Community Power Compass v1.0, June 2022

1. Freedom to Disobey

When you’re part of a community, how easy is it for you to dissent, disagree, argue a case in a way in which it is properly heard? And afterwards, what you feel is the right thing to do anyway?

Graeber & Wengrow refer to this as ‘the freedom to disobey arbitrary commands‘, where no central authority has the power to make people comply with their will. Instead, you have to try and persuade people.

“This is different from the abstract or legal concept of freedom of speech: you may well be able to talk as much as you like, but if nobody’s listening then it’s not really a social freedom”

David Wengrow,
Real Review, Spring 2022

The emphasis is on examining how rich, diverse debate can be a very valuable part of the decision-making process for societies. If you raise a different perspective from the common one presented, you would hope not to be dismissed out of hand, ignored or ostracised. Instead, your perspective adds to a collective understanding.

The conversation to understand different views makes for a more powerful community. The conversation is more dialogic than dialectic – something I touched on in The Dialogic Brand work back in 2013 or so, examining where brands could evolve from being centralised and one-dimensional into being a decentralised total of many ideas.

It makes me intrigued by the rhetoric in the communities around Web3 and Crypto. If an arbitrary command is from a distributed source of power, can you still ignore it? For instance, HODL has evolved to being a communal rallying call for everyone with a given investment in a cryptocurrency (originally Bitcoin) to not sell. No matter what. Not easy today (Wednesday 15th June, as I write), and not even possible for all. And yet, I think, fairly easy to disobey… who will ever know?

The Freedom to Disobey becomes important (and complex) in realms where there are different, new ways of encoding agreement. If you don’t have that freedom, you can be increasingly part of something you’re no longer comfortable with.

Starter Questions: When I speak, am I being heard? How many different voices and viewpoints are properly recognised? What formal or informal processes are there around conversations? Where do we discuss and debate? How do we decide? How do we change our minds?


2. Freedom of Movement

Do you remember the first time you left Facebook? I actually managed to leave Facebook the month after starting Smithery, but I’ve been particularly unsuccessful in leaving other services (notably Twitter). But the lock-in of the Web 2.0 business model has always been plain to see, and keenly felt for all.

In exchange for the free service, we’ll take your data, activity, connections and graph, and make money that way. It’s meant that Web 2.0 companies have spent a lot of their time, money and energy on keeping people locked in to their services, buying others that threaten them, and generally closing down connectivity between services. It may have been your data once upon a time, but it’s locked up in a system you can’t see.

The next generation of social networks, then, are seemingly driven in part by a desire to undo this Faustian pact. This is manifesting in different ways, of course. Early examples in this Bloomberg article from last month talk of building new social networks that are decentralised and run by their members.

When you dig into it, the detail around the how is scant (for the moment). But the intention is there; imagine your social profile was yours, to move between sites and services, encounters and interactions, as you wished.

As with all Web3 things, it’s really good to ask ‘but why does that need to be on a blockchain‘ at all times. It raises interesting (and challenging) questions across social, moral and technological boundaries. Emerging initiatives like Jack Dorsey’s Web5 (more here & here) are asking those questions in different ways, and protecting more of the freedoms that Graeber & Wengrow might recognise (e.g. that initiative is open-source).

The direction feels in keeping with the idea of the Freedom to Move. Not just to ability to leave your home and surroundings, but to be able to join another just as easily. It allows people and communities to grow and evolve over time, not be trapped in a specific location because of the needs of the powerful at the centre.

Starter Questions: What constitutes my presence here? How do I sign up? What do I sign away? What do I bring or create? How much is already mine? Of that stuff, what can I leave with? Where can I go afterwards? Does this space work like other spaces?


3. Freedom to Reorganise

The third of the freedoms is really interesting; “the freedom to imagine, then practically enact, different forms of social existence” as Wengrow referred to it in a recent interview in the Real Review.

It’s also the case that the third freedom is dependent somewhat on the first two; you should have the ability to leave (en masse as an ultimate threat, of course) if you’re prevented from being able to firstly reimagine the community you’re in, and then enact that new idea to change the balance of power.

In The Dawn of Everything, the freedom to reorganise social relations covered in a wide variety of examples, from rotating leaderships to seasonal power shifts and so on. The context of the environments play a large part in how people best decide to organise themselves in certain circumstances. the ability to change how the systems works, together, allows that to happen.

There’s a fair case that this is what a good number of people in the Web3 space would say they are trying to do; reimagine the way the internet works, and ‘corrects the mistakes’ of previous generations.

The stated goals behind a lot of projects are to reimagine and enact different ways of… well everything from land ownership to brewing.

It seems a lot of DAOs (“member-owned communities without centralized leadership”) start off with a broad, expansive purpose, open debate and exploration of ideas in an online space (e.g. a Discord server). But then the end goal is to get to a state where there is action enacted by code, determined by voting using governance tokens, shares or other mechanic. (There’s a good HBR piece on some of the ins and outs of what DAOs can and can’t do).

I tend to struggle with this concept a bit. There’s a trade-off between to ability to discuss and debate together, and then enshrining decisions in code so that the entity keeps doing that thing unless enough people vote for it to stop.

Sure, it’s efficient, and doesn’t require as much organisation as traditional communities. But what happens if enough people don’t turn up to vote? Or a small cadre of people make sure they vote in an organised fashion? Or the DAO converts all the matter in the universe into paperclips when left to its own devices?

Starter Questions: Who decided how this works? Were they always involved? Are their intentions consistent? How’s it going so far?Are we getting what we signed up for? What would make it better? Can we redesign and remake it? What happens if we do?


4. Control by Influence

In Graeber & Wengrow’s work, they define this as “control through individual charisma“, and describe it as usually the most ephemeral of social controls. After the sovereignty of a state is set up (control through violence), and the bureaucracy (control through information) means it is embedded in the everyday existence of all citizens, to door is open for this personal charisma; in short, the democratic process which asks ‘who should we trust with this apparatus?’.

Here though, I’m making a direct link from that ‘personal charisma’ to a more prevalent word used in today’s online communities; Influence. Of course, being ‘an influencer’ was riding high for a while as a very desirable career path for kids, but more recent stories of influencer burnout may temper that a little. More broadly though, I wonder if there are different types of influence we can look at here.

Firstly, influence through expertise; the people creating a new way of doing things (obvious example: Vitalik Buterin), who are arguably afford sovereign status in the worlds they inhabit; they are allowed to break the rules they set, as they transform the system around them striving for new goals. I think there are likely to be identifiable pioneers in all emergent communities like this: who do these ideas start with? Then there’s influence through money; those who’re accelerating new communities through funding in exchange for equity, tokens, and so on. Hello there, VC land. Then (finally for now) there’s influence through celebrity….

If you listened to Matt Damon, you’d have lost 63%

What better way to bring the masses flocking than bringing in the movie, sports and music stars to front your idea?

This celebrity angle in particular raises a good set of questions that I think can be used for the whole ‘control of influence’ area. It is just as legitimate to ask ‘what does this person know?’ of Michael Owen as it is a VC investor or a crypto-engineer.

Starter Questions: Who is using their influence here? How much do they know? What interests do they have? What’s their track record? Are they an active part of this community? What’s their vision for this community? How realistic is it?


5. Control of Information

The Dawn of Everything has a wide range of examples of civilisations where, at some point or another, the control of sophisticated ways of tabulating and storing information becomes a major force in their development. They run from high priests and their arcane, complex rituals which are vital to this year’s crop, through the scribes and artists encoding information for future records, to the tax-collectors seeking the tribute owed from surrounding lords. Control through bureaucratic means is very much conditional about who knows what, when, and where.

We know something about this you don’t. “What do you mean, you don’t know ‘Go Johnny Go Go Go Go’..?

Perhaps the aforementioned Discord server culture surrounding Web3 is a great modern example of what we might consider control through information. If you want to learn more, you must join the server in the first place; read threads and follow previous discussions, start to get a feel for the main folk involved. Information can be controlled through access to spaces, channels, DMs, and so on.

Then you need to acclimatise to certain forms and phrases in the language which (similar to academic work) are used to display knowledge in a space, rather than to aid simplicity for the receiver. Information can be controlled through obfuscation, though, and you need to understand what you don’t understand, and why that might be.

And information is controlled by being part of the right crowd. If you to get a detailed sense of how (VCs in particular) are advancing their interests through insider knowledge, I’d recommend reading The Pivot to Web3 Is Going to Get People Hurt in Vice recently.

But simply speaking, if you know an event (e.g. a particular NFT drop) is happening before everyone else, you’re in a pretty good place.

Unless, of course, you do it in a way that gets you an insider trading charge for your trouble.

(NB Given the nature of blockchains, which mean any financial trades are visible forever, and that it appears nearly impossible to delete all your past messages and presence from a Discord server, it might mean there’s a *lot* of potential evidence lying around for prosecutors to pick through some point in the future…)

At heart of this control, you have to recognise that information can serve as the fuel for the belonging people feel when part of a community. By being a part of the collective, and accessing that information, you feel your participation is valuable to you, and valued by others.

But it has to be true for the whole community if it is real, and so the follow questions might help you decide that.

Starter Questions: Are we all party to the same information? Who knows what, and when? Is there an advantage in getting information early? Is there a cost for people being late to the party? Can we reduce any asymmetries of information?


6. Control of System

Finally, I’ve taken Graeber & Wengrow’s Domination through Control of Violence, which refers most of all sovereignty, the power to set the laws of the land (and in certain cases to be above them), and directed it into specific sense of who controls the system.

The two share, at their heart, some notion of property; what here is mine? What are my claims to access and control of what is mine, within a given territory, and what are my legal rights to keep others away from it? And if we all agree on this common understanding, who polices legal understanding for the whole community that this is mine, and I can do whatever is necessary to get you off it?

Some of this manifests itself in strange ways. There’s a strange strain of libertarianism underpinning a lot of the space, it would seem, where the same communities who’re keen to make a clean break from centralised state control when it comes to money, would quote like the help of the law in getting back their stolen NFTs.

But ignoring that ‘state within state’ angle for now, just understanding more about the ‘rules’ as set out and policed within a community becomes importantly whenever you’re joining one.

I touched before on the nature of DAOs, and that central idea of writing into code the way the organisation will work for all its members. The phrase ‘code is law‘ is attributed to Lawrence Lessig’s late-nineties work, and this Forbes piece from John Quinn draws out some key lessons for today. The main thrust for me is this:

“…other than in the simplest of contracts, code cannot necessarily account for every eventuality. Drawdowns on letters of credit, for example, which are supposed to be automatic on presentation, are occasionally enjoined for nonperformance, fraud or on other grounds. It is impossible to anticipate, let alone reduce to code, all scenarios that might unfold. Contracts would have to be hundreds or thousands of pages long to address the nuances of every possible scenario.”John Quinn, Forbes

Using code to govern organisations internally seems wrought with similar problems; even in the simplest communities, with the most straightforward of aims, how would you enshrine a bit of code that ‘addresses every possible scenario‘?

It feels like, as people wrestle with this very tricky problem, online communities reply on good ol’ fashioned carbon-based bipedal regulators to manage the system. And so having sets of questions to ask about who holds these powers, and what they might use them for, becomes more vital.

An example from this week; crypto-lender Celsius froze withdrawals and transfers in order to “stabilise liquidity“. There’s a metaphorical big red switch they can throw to shut people out of their accounts. And yet… in the statement below, they claim they’re doing this in the interests of ‘their community’.

“I’m sorry, we’ve decided to stop your access to your things, but for your own good”

Now yes, this is more like a bank run than it is anything else, despite the use of the C word (and perhaps ‘investors’ or ‘customers’ is what they really mean). But it gives us a sense of what to look for; who has their hands on the metaphorical big red buttons, and what does it allow them to do?

Starter Questions: Who has admin rights? What do those rights enable them to do? What is the code of conduct? Who wrote it? When was it last updated? What happens if people break it? Who would people appeal to? What legal rights do I have?


What’s next then?

Well, this project started as a scrappy blog post over a week ago, but it’s much better for it. I’m going to test the tool when it comes to looking at various types of community over the summer, and perhaps think of three additional lenses to put over the top, if I was an individual or an organisation:

At what point is this not a community I’d want to be part of?

At what point is this not a community I’d want to create?

At what point is this not really a community at all?

I hope others out there might find some use for it too. If you use it for anything, let me know how you get on, either discreetly or publicly.

Introducing the Community Power Compass

The prologue

This started as a quick blog post a week ago, simply collecting together some field notes and some emergent ideas on how to cast a critical view across the Web3 space. Through the process of writing it up, it has has evolved into a potentially useful thing which I’ve called the Community Power Compass for now.

It’s a tool for thinking about particular communities by considering different power dynamics, informed by Graeber & Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity which I’ve been reading lately.

Rather than just deciding that all communities of a type are the same, maybe tools like this can give people a better nuanced approach when thinking about whether to join new communities, leave ones they are part of, or just observe them from the outside.

What makes communities very different underneath, even if they appear very similar on the surface? And how might having a more nuanced way of describing these differences help people and organisations join, find or create better communities?

This first post below is the context; what’s the background I’ve been working through.

The second post, here, is the practical one – if you’ve read the below and just want to get straight to that again.


May you live in interesting times

This started as an exploration I first mentioned on Twitter a while back. I was thinking about different ways of expressing what this ‘next generation’ of the web might be by looking at what people imply they want, not just what a certain kind of technology can provide. MTPW > MPTW, etc etc.

To set out my current position; I am yet to be convinced that the monotonous ‘put X on a blockchain‘ refrain of Web3™ is a good idea, but then neither am I convinced that this simplification captures the detail of what every community in the space is proposing.

There are of course plenty of sources you can read or watch on the the dangers and delusions of the space. You could easily spend your days becoming a full-time prophet of doom, and their are more and more folk out there. Indeed, part of the (subsequently useful) delay in publishing this blog post has been the endless source of new articles and examples which appear on a delay basis. Oh, and the latest cryptocurrency crash.

Disclosure time: I have never owned any cryptocurrency, bought tokens to be part of a DAO, or anything similar. Yet I’ve been fascinated by it all for a long time, since watching Dave Birch’s talk at Playful back in 2014.

The TV business is uglier than most things.  It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason

Hunter S. Thompson, San Francisco Examiner, 1985

Why? Firstly, the Web3 space seems inexorably, willingly, deliberately linked with blockchains and cryptocurrencies. It is the ‘financialisation of everything‘, and suddenly all relationships are seen through an economic lens.

Given that’s what I studied back at university – and I would argue continues to furnish me with tools and methods for thinking with – the draw of this space is compelling.

Often though, the stories of Web3 always seems to me be the economic equivalent of someone explaining that gravity works sideways rather than downwards.

That may be because it’s so fundamentally revolutionary that it changes the way everyone thinks about everything for ever. But equally, it may be because everything is not what it seems at all, and what my gut is telling me on a lot of occasions is right. Either which way, I enjoy the challenge of having to think differently about it.

Secondly, it increasingly appears that there are a lot of people are getting caught up in the excitement who can’t afford to be; things I’ve heard anecdotally, being in forums where it’s brought up, reading coverage online, and so on.

The space feels highly predatory as a result, reminiscent of the famous Hunter S. Thompson quote on the TV business. I don’t enjoy watching bad actors take good people for a ride, or complacent actors leading others up the garden path. I clearly do like mixing metaphors, however.

As always though, the people are the interesting bit. There’s lots to learn here about how people feel, what they think, and what they do, whether as individuals or as part of communities.


Generations of the Web

‘Community’ is (once again) the concept du jour for thinking about generations of the web. I wrote a thesis on communities way back when, of course, when the promise of building open, accessible, interoperable communities online still seemed a genuine possibility. Layer the communities onto the economic aspects, and you therefore have catnip for me.

Why are people willing to (once again) entertain a community-based generation of the web? When they look at the web works today, what is letting them down? Where do they see the potential of fixing it this time around? What will stop the same thing happening again? What are they prepared to do about it?

(NB I am assuming that there are more interesting things beyond ‘get-rich-quick‘ or ‘we’re all going to make it‘ going on, because I do try to be optimistic about people generally.)

In reading and researching, it clearly appears there are things that people want which are deeper than financial gain. Nods to the distribution of power, notions of ownership, the dynamics of healthy online communities, and so on.

Much of it is then wrapped up in the philosophy of ‘decentralisation‘, as a rejecting of the centralisation of Web 2.0. “Decentralise, and all will be well.

I sketched out the below set of quadrants (going back to the Cross-Quadrant Working Group work for inspiration), thinking about centralisation of generations of the web. What do generations of the web present as to the world, and what are they actually?

For many, ‘Web 1’ would have felt centralised, accessed through The Information Superhighway for example (note the definitive article), via whoever your first internet service provider was. Yet in reality, it was decentralised in the delivery, these services simply curating links to pages and resources built and curated by a wide variety of different people and organisations.

Then ‘Web 2.0’ appears, with Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, BeBo, and all the other also-rans. They offer broader access for people to create and share things on the web, but at the cost of… well personal data just for starters (“You Are The Product” etc). From a Read only web, to a Read/Write web… as long as you used the in-house facilities, as it were.

As well as presenting as a centralised world, it really is centralised, and all the power lies at the centre. You can understand why people want to rebel.


Web3 or Web Free?

Now, there’s a notion inside Web3 that declares instead of just Read/Write, this version of the web should be Read/Write/Own. All of your contributions to any platform should be (in some way) owned by you, and even offer you a return (e.g. rewards, a share of revenue, etc). And you can take all of your valuable assets with you from place-to-place, and therefore power is redistributed amongst a broader community of use.

To me though (and I’ll explain more below), it feels like this becomes a way to present an environment as being decentralised, whilst actually what it is doing is making the centralisation more opaque.

Originally I started thinking of this quadrant as The Whaling Grounds, where actors who have a disproportionate interest in a particular thing can make sweeping decisions under the surface of a notionally decentralised world.

Currently, I wonder tying the Web3 world to blockchain and crypto is what fundamentally centralises it, rather than decentralises it. Maybe there’s also a system in the middle, it’s just a matter of trying to find one in which the Whales can’t hide their actions.

Meanwhile, other things which appear more like decentralisation are appearing here and there. For example, there’s the Fediverse, “an ensemble of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging, blogging, or websites) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can communicate with each other.” You run your own version of a platform, host a server, yet still have it connect to others which are operating off the same open principles. You could almost argue it’s an alternative reality Web 2.0 – what we could have had – and there’s some efforts to get there from here.

There are also other aspects of merging trends – no-code platforms and services might be a good example – where there’s more of a direction towards Read/Write/Publish than Read/Write/Own. How do you give people ownership of their own platforms rather than their own content? And make sure that these platforms work together?

From this perspective, you can see how decentralisation has to come hand-in-hand with interoperability. This is the hardest thing to achieve for Web3, as it fights against the financial imperatives of things like VC money fuelling current growth.

As a result, I started wondering about how you might tell whether a community which presents itself as decentralised is actually decentralised. And then, as you do, started a book on ancient civilisations, and some things started falling into place.


The Dawn of… Something

David Graeber & David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is over five hundred pages of anthropology meets archaeology. It explores how a lot of experts over the years have taken for granted that there can only be one natural progression for humans in terms of society, governance and so on. Yet the evidence, as you might expect, points to there being many different systems and social relations tried over time across the world.

Whilst the book is dense and full of lengthy examples, it also contains some basic principles which are really useful to apply in other places you might be thinking about groups of people. Like, for instance, online communities.

First of all, there are the Freedoms which people value, and help them create robust societies; the Freedom to Move Away, the Freedom to Disobey, and the Freedom to Reimagine Society.

Then there are the three elementary forms of Domination which those in positions of power will call on to keep that power; Domination through Control of Violence, Domination through Control of Information, and Domination through Personal Charisma.

These are about two sides of power; freedom and control. Given the underlying philosophies of decentralisation and interoperability within the Web3 space, they feel useful ways to understand some of the complex human dynamics at play.

As an initial experiment, I wrote out a brief passage under each broad area, and started playing with titles a bit to make them more relevant to my uses. Then I started to hone a set of questions under each title to use as an ongoing interrogation device when orientating around new communities, initiatives and more. That’s all below.

Then, having mulled it over a bit more, I turned it into a fleshed out tool, thinking about how those freedoms and controls might play off against each other. It’s not perfect yet, but seems potentially useful.

In Part 2 here, I’ll dig into each segment, and describe how I hope to use it.

Community Power Compass v1.0, June 2022

Quantum Markets

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 employed that 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.

Which means there are thousands of businesses which work differently in making things for their audiences, as Zoe details at length in her post.

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?

Oh, it’s dinner time. I’d better stop there…

Towards Leastmodernism; Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer

I was at my second International Futures Form (IFF) breakfast this morning. On Zoom, naturally*.

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.

It made me remember an idea, a word, a loose concept I’ve had floating around since I talked at dConstruct in 2015.

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 metadesign stance 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.

Leastmodernism.

I don’t have a crunchy description of exactly what it is. I referred to it again in a talk called The Oliver Twist at 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:

(Except taken from NPR)

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.

The Parasite As Host?

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.

Yes, Monzo now have over a million users. Yes, they’re prepping for a US launch. Yes, they’ve raised £85 million to help fund new product development.

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?

The Futures and Follies of the Full-Stack Habitat

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 Smith

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

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

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 Kane

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 space in 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?

The second half is an interrogation of the term ‘habitat’. Is a habitat in the 21st century really only the “various types of places intended for human residence, as opposed to and often in addition to e.g., places of work, study, or entertainment”. As the boundaries between activities blur, do we need to scale the idea of ‘habitat’ back up to the ecological level, and think of it as the city in which we live, work, learn play, relax and more?

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/

The Oliver Twist

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.

Let’s take an example from this piece by Benjamin Haas in the Guardian recently. Here’s your standard product shot, well done you:

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?

And this, of course, is The Oliver Twist.

“Please sir, I want some less…”

The Time Capsule Retrieval Service

We’ve recently been working with the Emerging Technologies team at The Royal Society, for a conference they put on for their Fellowship.

The purpose of the conference was twofold; to introduce the fellowship to a set of different tools from the ‘futures’ toolkit, and then use those tools to explore which areas of technological focus the Fellowship believed should be of highest priority for The Royal Society in the coming years.

Our specific role was to take four broad scenarios for the UK in 2030, as developed by the Emerging Technologies team, and solidify that in some speculative design work which would give the Fellowship prompts to examine each of the four scenarios, work out what was happening in that specific future, and begin to describe the implications these futures would have on science in the UK.

Here’s how we went about defining an approach, putting together an awesome team comprising Scott Smith of Changeist, Thomas Forsyth, Stanley James Press, School 21 and Helen and myself from Smithery, and then delivered it through a new clandestine national facility; The Time Capsule Retrieval Service.

So, why time capsules?

When thinking about the context, we first of all thought about the participants at the conference. The Fellowship of The Royal Society are by definition the leading scientific minds of the age, pioneering breakthroughs in specific fields through both academic and commercial environments.

In short, if there are to be significant scientific and technological breakthroughs that impact our lives in 2030, in all likelihood the Fellowship are working on them now.

Which means you enter a tricky dilemma when it comes to speculative design; how do you avoid trying to out-science the scientists? Anything you put in front of a group such as this will be immediately subject to a natural level of scrutiny that keenly-honed expert minds will bring to bear.

Our proposal was to switch the emphasis in the speculative design away from representing the ‘ground-breaking’ technologies of 2030, and examine the social impacts that particular technologies may have. What would life be like for people in these particular scenarios? If only they could show us…

Which is where the time capsules come in.

For over a hundred years, communities have been marking important events by gathering together a series of artefacts in a robust container, and burying them in the ground, securing them in foundations and walls, or even designing special crypts to hold them.  If you’re of a certain generation, the versions that come to mind most might be from the BBC children’s show Blue Peter, who buried a succession of capsules on their show.

All time capsules have a common message at their heart – “hello there, people from another time… this is who we are”. Imagine if a series of time capsules put in the ground in 2030 didn’t go forwards in time for future generations, but came backwards, so we could see what’s in store.

And so, The Time Capsule Retrieval Service was born:

Using the British Library’s guide to making a time capsule, we set boundaries for how the capsules themselves would be created by the groups in 2030. We simplified a little, to give ourselves some cleaner design constraints:

  1. Get a strong, non-corrodible airtight container made from stainless steel/tough plastic
  2. Use things like paper, non-PVC plastics, wood, devices without power, wrapped separately
  3. Avoid plants, animals, insects, rubber, and batteries – all can give off corrosive substances
  4. Place the time capsule in a cool, dry location (e.g. building foundations)

In order to think about what groups of children would be likely to put in a time capsule, we worked with the pupils and staff at School 21 in Stratford. I recently met Debbie Penglis from the school at a conference, and had subsequently had a tour from her around the school to learn more about their unique approach to education. In particular, I was very excited about the Project Based Learning approach, which feels to me like the sort of education that will really help bring out the best in a lot of people. They were a natural partner to work with on a project like this.

Alongside the Emerging Technologies team from The Royal Society, and the staff at School 21, we ran a workshop with a group of 13 year olds in two halves.

Firstly, what would the pupils put into a time capsule today to represent what life was like for them?  Then, once we’d introduced the four scenarios, what could they imagine that a class of 13 year olds in 2030 would put in their time capsules?

The exercise gave us a whole raft of inspiration for the sorts of things that groups of children (and more broadly the communities they live in) would include when it came to communicating who they were through a series of objects.

With all this material to work from, it was then time to create the time capsules for each of the four scenarios.

To do this, we needed to define a clear situation for each of the time capsules, writing a story about the exact “who, where, what and why” that we could keep coming back to.

This additional layer of story was injected to help us get from broad, world-sized scenario to a more human scale environment in which we could imagine—then manifest—everyday objects that might exist in each future.

We set each time capsule in a different town, and wrote a short story of the events in that place that led to the creation of their time capsule. I’m not going to reproduce them here (for reasons I’ll explain shortly) but the summary banners from the event are pictured below.

Each narrative then acted as a bond between the different objects we would go about creating.

We developed a long list of roughly twenty-five objects for each capsule, pulling on the lists created with School21 plus our other time capsule research, and set the goal of selecting the six most viable objects for each capsule to get across all the core emergent technologies in each scenario.

You can see detailed photos of each object over here, but here’s a grouping of each capsule’s objects below:

Of course, doing this much design so quickly was always going to be a challenge; not only do you need a team that can flit between styles and approaches in creating the objects, they also need to continually test the believability of each item. Scott, Emily, Thomas, Helen and myself found ourselves constantly testing each other on the credibility of each item as they developed.

The hardest part, perhaps, was how to do ‘plausible’ design; an underfunded school in the future is not going to have beautifully designed templates, so how do you design something that looks like it’s been put together by an in-house team, but is well designed enough to get the points across in the conference.

Finally, the last part of the task was to introduce these capsules at the conference, the third of three exercises on the first day, and after the Fellows had been introduced to the broader scenarios to set the scene for where these time capsules had travelled back from.

The broad delight when people started digging in was wonderful to hear – I was playing a floating role in the background, though in the end didn’t need to really help at all, the objects seemed to speak for themselves.

Perhaps what made it work so well was that we didn’t give the participants the full narrative structure (the stories I mentioned before). In each time capsule, just as you’d find in a real one, there’s a letter from the people who’ve put it together (this one, for example, by one of our in-house junior designers):

After reading the letters, the participants had to find and make connections of their own. By freeing the objects from the whole story, the time capsules themselves a platform for lots of different potential futures.

I’ve been thinking about it graphically like this; to start with, the narrative was about keeping the objects cohesive as a set, bound into one structure:

Whereas by taking that narrative away, it meant the Fellowship from The Royal Society who opened the capsules were asked to fill the gaps between the objects with their own ideas and experience.

Each capsule contained objects that were open to interpretation, and it was the interpretations we were seeking in the first place. If these were potential futures for people in the UK, then what might be the factors that take us there, and which emerging technologies must the UK focus on as a result.

But the themes that emerged from different teams opening the same capsule were different, and I have no doubt you’d continue to get more interpretations with different groups of people if you reran the exercise.

It’s an idea that Scott’s explored in more depth with this essay on ‘lossy futures’:

“Lossy futures — be they artifacts, simple scenarios, wireframes of speculation, rich prompts, brief vignettes or some other material object — give us the scaffolding and ask or allow us to determine the details ourselves. In doing so, they transmit the critical data, the minimum viable future, and give us the opportunity to fill in the gaps we think are important to understanding, or have a dialogue around what these gaps may mean.”

Once people discovered that this was ‘the game’ they were being invited to play, it meant that they got even more creative with their interpretations, pulling out angles and information we hadn’t yet thought about.

Throughout the process, I kept thinking back to the work we shared in 2014 around “Flow Engines”, and how the time capsules are a very useful example of how to take that idea and put it into practice.

 The ‘high consequences‘ at the start comes from the unveiling of the capsule itself, and the simple instruction; we want you to tell us what’s going in in this future, and how we will come to get there.

The ‘rich environment‘ is then created by the mix of different objects, the need for complex puzzle solving, and the various layers of information that reveal themselves as people investigate items for a second or third time.

Then, finally, there’s ‘embodiment‘. The last task for each group was to take the items, and create a map around them of the emerging technologies and the implications they would have on our future.

All in all, we’re delighted to have worked on the project with a great team at The Royal Society, who were very up for pushing the boundaries of what we could and couldn’t do.

Thanks also to Provenance, for allowing us to sneak in little Easter egg on the packaging for The Maidstone Saveloy (100% NuPro cricket protein sausage folks… well, it’s better for you than the typical mystery meat).

Thank you also to Curtis James, who took a beautiful set of inventory photos for us.

It’s also the very first Smithery project that (to the point of a ‘family business‘ I talked about last year) all four of us in the Willshire household have made something for. So thanks to the junior design team for their contributions.

And thanks again to Scott at Changeist, Thomas Forsyth, Stanley James Press and School 21, for making it one of our favourite Smithery projects yet. Who knows, maybe we’ll repeat the experience with some other organisations who’ll call upon the service of the Time Capsule Retrieval Service.

Contact us here if you know of anyone, and we’ll be sure to pass the message on…

 

 

Metastrategy – Movement, Loops and Layers – Video

I was very excited to be invited to Oslo to give the final keynote of the Webdagene conference. It’s one of my favourite cities, and the speaker line-up was immense too – you should check out all of the talks.

My talk was an updated version of the Metastrategy idea, with cleaner entry points into the theory, and an extended practical back-end. Please enjoy, and as always questions, additions and thoughts in the comments below are most welcome.

John Willshire: Metastrategy – Movements, Layers and Loops (Webdagene 2016) from Netlife Research on Vimeo.

Metastrategy In Malmo: Adventures at The Conference

I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote talk at The Conference in Malmo last week, to an audience of 1000 people. Which is a big room…

Here’s the ‘before’ picture…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.