I was honoured to give a talk on Zenko Mapping as part of this year’s virtual Word Information Architecture Day. Thanks to Mike and Mari for the invitation, and help in planning.
As per the last talk I gave, I made a film to do it, using some of the previous ideas I’d used in the last Zenko Mapping film, and crucially some new parts more relevant to the
You can watch it here:
Additionally, some resources for you if you were at the talk (or just interested after watching this)…
Firstly, you might want to play around with the basic Zenko Mapping template, just to get a feel for how some of your own projects might play out. There was a copy or two on the Miro board as part of the event, but here it is here too.
Secondly, you might do this for a bit and think “well that’s interesting, but I need help applying it with my team”. Get in touch here, and we can help with that. We’ve been exploring different ways of using it with client for years, from running rapid orientation settings with teams, to designing custom versions for whole businesses to deploy.
Thirdly, I was also making an origami fox throughout the film, and so thought I’d share the instructions for that too so you can have a go.
A self-styled drop-inaudio app, it’s moving from beyond just the darling of the dilettante set of Valley media hobbyists, spiralling outwards past the long lines of social media specialists, and into that hot new space of brand opportunity.
There is a deliberate queasiness to that definition, of course, but fairly I think.
A cursory glance down the Explore section of the app, breezing past the bitcoin bunfights (“Hyperbitcoinization Underway! Are you a Lord, or a Serf?”) and delusional despotism (“Building an empire through your brand”) invites comparison to the Hunter S. Thompson misquote…
Yet rather than writing about it before really using it meaningfully, I wanted to feel what is what actually like to run a room, rather than just skulk at the back.
What follows below is a collection of quick thoughts, captured during and afterwards, all products of the conversation we had together, and the questions from some of those listening too.
A format free-for-all
Because it is in its infancy, there are no standard rules of engagement here. In in listening around to various rooms beforehand, we noticed that there are various different formats people are trying out. Is it like morning talk-show radio? A panel in a massive conference? A professionally scripted podcast? A chat between friends?
All of these bring different cues for a Clubhouse room to follow, but the underlying infrastructure (e.g. moving people between ‘stage’ and ‘audience’), creates opportunities for different formats to emerge over time, and might allow/encourage for rapidly switching between modes in sessions.
Structuring unstructured conversations
We’d prepped a little beforehand, structured loosely around a tool I’ve iterated over the years called The Obliquiscope (part of TENETS). It encourages you to think about the social and material construction around something over different time periods.
Whilst we didn’t need to reference it at all in the session, thankfully (try describing that on an audio platform…). It helped frame some questions and thoughts around the thing we were looking out. Also, it felt that we had a centre of gravity for the conversation, which allowed us to explore ideas in different ways.
Enjoy the silence
Beforehand, we’d come up with a little ‘card’ that all of us could play at any point, which we called A Question To Sit With. At any point in the conversation, when we felt it was important we could ask a specific question. This would be followed by thirty seconds of silence as people considered answers.
This turned out to be a really valuable thing which helped turn the conversation in different directions, and helped create necessary space for a little thought and reflection. Clubhouse seems very, very noisy as times, in part because…
Media is a place to dwell, not a place to sell
We were talking about the tendency a lot of speakers have in rooms to grab the mic and never let go. It’s like they’re playing a round of Just A Minute, and need to speak ‘without hesitation, repetition, or deviation…’
People are trying to grab the space to sell themselves, their past achievements, their current activities. It feels like the scene at the job fair at the end of The Big Short, a desperate, endless hustle.
Yet people are coming to rooms to give you their time, hang out, listen awhile, maybe learn, maybe reflect, maybe contribute. Formats and structures need to be better thought through to reflect this, perhaps, particularly by hosts.
Built for bad behaviour
There is something obviously problematic in building a social technology where there’s no proof of what went on in a room. For all the community guidelines and the like which are being built in from the start, it’s hard to see what genuine tools to identify, report and act on abuse exist on Clubhouse.
Come out and play?
“We know some people from your company. They’re pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you’re hiding? Can they come out and play?”
There’s something really nice about how close it brings you to people in a room. Hanging with Elon Musk is one thing (and it’s not mine), but imagine companies start using this as a platform to talk directly to fans and customers. No agencies, no branding, no celebs… it might deliver well on a promise seldom kept in the social web.
The tension of Intimacy versus Scale
Finally, as we completed our little experiment in Clubhouse, it felt like we’d done something that was just the *right* size. Yet so many rooms are chasing numbers, and the platform itself will chase more numbers… more people, bigger rooms, more paid-for tickets, higher revenue…
There’s an interesting paradox here. It might feel best when it’s intimate. Being one of fifty folk listening to your favourite artist as an example. But those fifty tickets won’t support the artists, they’ll need to do that fifty times…
It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds.
More thoughts soon, perhaps. See you at the back of the room.
In the recent Zenko Mapping video, I talked briefly about a new idea, a lens through which to see the world; we should focus on thinking of information as light, not liquid.
It’s the fundamental philosophy at the heart of this year’s TENETS project, andwill no doubt form the basis of Smithery’s work moving forwards. I’ll share more at length in the new year, but the thought of ending 2020with ‘a clear vision’ is too good a pun to pass up…
Below you’ll find the relevant excerpt from the longer film, followed by some extended thoughts from the project so far.
Information is everywhere
The language we use to describe our work is more important than we might think. Whether we realise it or not, it forms and shapes our actions, especially when it comes to the use of metaphors. I’ve been thinking about this with particular regards to information.
This reflection started back in January. I was asked to give a talk about the different ways of seeing the world I’ve created over the last 12 or so years. Looking back, it was very apparent that all of my work was about ‘information’ in one way or another (arguably, perhaps, everybody’s is).
For instance, think about the information shared in workshops and classrooms, shaping new products, living inside services, informing strategy work, rolling down a production line, creating understanding in niche communities and broader societies. Despite different sources, characteristics, uses and so on, might all that information have similar qualities?
What if there was a consistent way of thinking about information that would offer ways to apply things learned in one domain to another?
After all, information is ‘the distinctions that make a difference’ (see Dennett), a collection of things that stimulates action in all of these situations; from the inputs gathered for an innovation workshop to the profile screen inside an app.
Information as liquid
When you look at frequently used metaphors in speech and text, it becomes clear that information is often described as if it were a liquid. Here are a just a few examples, from an extended project glossary:
Let’s have a brainstorm.
We’re drowning in the detail.
It’s backed up in the cloud.
Data is the new oil.
Our thinking is a bit stagnant.
We’re going against the tide.
It’s a stream of consciousness
No doubt you’ve often heard or used phrases like these. Whilst they refer to different activities, they all employ the same metaphorical base; information is comparable to a liquid, a resource for us to store or direct depending on our needs.
Yet it is perhaps not helpful to imagine information as an homogenous liquid, a pool into which we plunge, a tank we seek to fill, a tidal wave from which we must protect ourselves.
Too often the language used to think about information defaults to this idea of it. And the metaphors we use matter more than you might think.
Now, from one angle, you might perceive that the metaphors we use to describe information as unimportant. Surely people don’t believe that information is a liquid, pourable from one vessel to another?
Well, they don’t need to believe such a thing for it to behave as if it did. As Lakoff and Johnson describe, in their seminal work on metaphors;
The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays central role in defining our everyday realities.
Basically, we need metaphors to help us work together, as they are ‘defining our everyday realities’.
Therefore, not just any old metaphor will do in order to create alignment. Our concepts about our work, and the metaphors we use to describe it, will structure how we see tasks, projects, goals, cooperation, competition and more.
Knowingly or unknowingly, our language defines our plans and actions, setting our priorities for how we look to make progress.
Which means if we think and speak of information as if it were liquid, our actions will reflect this.
Imagine our task is to ‘prevent news leaking out’. We’ll look for holes, and ways to mend them.
What if we’re asked to ‘cascade information down through the organisation’? We may readily imagine the ‘water’ channels and structures that help us do that.
And if we’re told ‘data is the new oil’? Our immediate thoughts turn to how to secure it at source, and make money from putting it in a barrel.
From light to liquid
If we rely simply on the metaphors of ‘information as liquid’, we only concern ourselves with the containers in which it’s held, and the channels through which it flows. Which means we’re not thinking about what information actually is at the moments where it is most useful and important.
Information is useful because of the differences we find in it, and the decisions it helps us make.
Separate pieces of information come together to help us focus, gain new perspectives, or fire our imaginations.
Therefore, the nature of this assembled information is not that of a homogeneous liquid melted together forever. All the contributing pieces can be taken apart and paired with other information to form another view, or even just reassembled to look like something else.
With this in mind, it is potentially very beneficial to employ a metaphor for information which readily works with this aspect of its nature. We want our actions and behaviours to be driven by what we actually want to achieve.
Information as light
Consider, then, thinking of information as light. Individual particles or pixels coming together to form a view, a glimpse, a perspective… something to inform the mind of those perceiving it.
The language we already use on a daily basis helps us see how often we do employ this metaphor anyway; once again, a selection from the glossary:
We need some clarity.
What’s the outlook?
It just dawned on me
She brought a fresh perspective.
Let’s pause for reflection.
It was a glaring omission.
Is this in scope?
This is pure speculation.
It was a real lightbulb moment.
If we shift our thinking as information as the light, not liquid, we can begin to question every piece of information we see, understanding its true nature; it is fleeting, hard to perceive, and transitory, rather than solid, permanent and additive.
Additionally, we can start to depict the processes by which information flows through everything, from the individual to the organisation level, and map out where we might intervene to improve our processes.
Casting a critical eye
Following this line of thought, every particle of information can be split out into constituent parts to help you understand more about it.
Whether it’s a slide in a presentation, a quote in a review section, an article in a newspaper, a link in a tweet, ask yourself a series of critical questions about its composition. Where do this come from? Who set conditions for its collection? Why was it created? How was it created? When was it formed?
The more you can reorient yourself to this way of describing information, the better you can interrogate the world.
Each new piece of information is not just another drop from the well of knowledge, but rather a glimpse of an uncertain vista, and one for you to compare to other things you’ve seen. Critical thinking is critical viewing.
What comes next?
This idea, that we should think more of information as light, not liquid, forms the basis of the TENETS project (“Ten Tools To Transform How You Think“). The tools are a wide variety of things, from group thought-experiments to system-view frameworks.
Overall, they simply help people, teams and organisations interrogate how they use information. That can be in forming strategy, creating new environments for innovation, creative problem solving, designing products and services, and more besides. Do get in touch if that sounds interesting for you.
Yet perhaps what matters most about this thinking right now, in the midst of COVID-19, is that none of us is seeing the world as we used to.
For organisations used to bringing people together in large containers, great big offices where the intent (or the interpretation) was that ideas sloshed around, mixed together and produced the forward momentum that pushed the business forward.
If you think of information as liquid, you’re probably still trying to recreate the containers and channels.
Think of it as light, however, and suddenly the actions you take become focussed on bringing the right view to the right people at the right time.
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?
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 did a wee talk at the fabulous IAM 2016 conference in Barcelona. In it’s second year, and conceived and run by Andres & Lucy of Wabisabi Lab, it’s the kind of weird experimental conference that London was great at a few years back, but seems less so, now, I think? Something something gentrification something something.
(actually, maybe that’s another blog post for another day – the lack of joy in NeuLondon, in all forms of work and play)
I spoke about Metamechanics, and working out how the internet works. Or, indeed, not, because that isn’t the point.
There will be a video some time soon I believe, and at the time, I did a simultaneous Periscope of it (but ‘you had to be there’ as they say, given how Periscope streams expire after 24 hours or something…)
….but until then here are the slides, and two pics Scott sent me afterwards where it looks like I’m showing people who big the internet a) was and b) is now.
I know, that’s a rock and roll blog post title, eh?
A short video, explaining something that Chris, Mark and I worked on a while ago for a client, but that came back round again today when someone asked ‘any thoughts on setting up intranets?’. Rather than a long blog post, or a detailed email, I made a scratchy video…
…using the webcam/lamp stand thing I hacked together a while ago.
I’m thrilled and honoured to be talking at dConstruct this year. It’s one of the highlights of the year for me, and so many friends, that to be asked to speak there is… well, it’s a complex emotional melting pot, let’s say. It’s on Friday 11th September, and you can see all the details here.
The theme this year is Designing the Future. My talk is still in early prototype stage, of course. But you still have to have a rough idea what it might be, so it can go on websites and that. So here’s where I am at the moment… it’s gone pretty hard into using Interstellar as the main metaphor for how I think we need to address the theme… all thoughts on the film welcome in the comments section underneath….
METADESIGN FOR MURPH
Cooper: “I thought they chose me. But they didn’t choose me, they chose her!” TARS: “For what, Cooper?” Cooper: “To save the world!”
If we’re going to talk about designing the future, let’s understand two things – who is doing the designing, and who is this future for, anyway?
Much of our cultural upbringing, from the pages of comics, to the Hollywood studios, repeatedly told us that we could step up and be the heroes. We’re programmed to feel that we’re the ones who will make the difference.
It’s time to look further than the end of our own egos, because there are problems coming we can’t find answers to, because we’re products of the system that created them.
Instead, whether we’re designers or clients, peers or parents, we must switch our attention to Metadesign; “nurturing the emergence of the previously unthinkable” in those around us, and those who will come after us.
It’s about ideas and environments, books and blocks, objects and systems, all examined through the contents and context of the most intriguing bedroom in sci-fi.