Viridian Note 00438: Delhian Doors of Perception
- Key concepts
- Doors of Perception design
conference, India, John Thackara, conference
- Attention Conservation Notice:
- I didn't go
to India. I bet a lot of you didn't, either.
John Thackara,on the other hand, will charge
right on over there, throw a big design event,
and report at length afterward.
I got a public lecture coming up April 7 here at
the new alma mater.
John Thackara has a new book coming out.
"In the Bubble – Designing in a Complex World"
by John Thackara
"How to design a world in which we rely less on stuff, and more on people."
"I eagerly devoured every last page of John
Thackara's lofty, captivating book."
– Bruce Sterling, author of The Hacker
Crackdown and Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the
Next Fifty Years
If not reading Thackara's lofty, captivating book,
you might want to watch Bollywood movies from
"Little India" in Los Angeles, thus pretending
to be cool enough to go to Delhi.
Failing that, a Survival Research Labs show is always a good bet.
It's official! Venture capital makes industries backward and stupid!
Are you a globalist, pro-capitalist energy wonk?
You might want to call yourself a "geo-green."
Subject: [Doors-Report] Doors of Perception Report: Reflecting On Doors 8
Date: April 4, 2005 4:37:11 PM CDT
Doors of Perception Report
Reflection On Doors 8 In New Delhi
By John Thackara
IMPLICATIONS OF "INFRA"
People take different things away from a conference.
Much of the value is created in situation-specific
encounters than cannot easily be shared. But
second-hand information is better than none, so
we've put most of the presentations given at
Doors 8 online, together with a few hundred
If you know of other photo collections or blog
entries, please send us the url: <editor*doorsofperception.com>.
One takeaway from Doors 8 was an understanding
that enabling platforms for social innovation
need to meet three criteria: they should
creatively engage the people they are intended
for; they should help people to evaluate the
new against the old; and they should help local
people retain control over their own resources.
Big corporations may have a role to play here
as providers of enabling platforms – but not as
the proprietors of of finished products or
services. The challenge is to design system
architectures that promote local leaderships,
and that keep power, knowledge, and the value generated, at local level.
JUGAAD: THE NEW CREATIVE CLASS
A majority of the population in many Asian cities
lives in shanty towns which make urban planners
anxious. Although perceived as problem areas by
bureaucrats, these areas are also sites of intense
social and business innovation. We learned in
Delhi that they play a crucial role in keeping
the city and its economy running. Indian
users of technology-based devices cannot rely
on formal networks of distribution, support,
and maintenance: These are often incomplete,
unimaginative or unrealistically priced. They
therefore turn to the temporary fixes, or
'jugaads', carried out by Indian street
technicians. An army of pavement-based engineers
keeps engines, television tubes, compressors and
other devices working. Outside our
office in Delhi, for example, hundreds of tiny
workshops, plus sole traders sitting on the street,
sold (and fixed) the countless hardware peripherals
that keep office life running. Everything from
toner cartridges to USB sticks was available, and
bustling basements contained amazing arrays of
ancient monitors, terminals and motherboards
The irony is this: many bureaucrats (and property
profiteers) in Asia want to get rid of these
so-called suitcase entrepreneurs; but in the
North, proponents of 'creative cities' are
desperate to foster a comparable level of
small-scale industries and street-level productivity.
(((The real irony – in a "jugaad" world,
'l33t technical skills are a one-way ticket
to a basement sweatshop crammed with ancient
SMALL IS NOT SMALL
Our discussions of service design for emerging
economies left a tricky question unanswered: how do we determine when is a market is
'emerging' – and when it has emerged? Is it
possible to design the relationship between small
pilot projects, as potential tipping
points, and large scale system or market change?
Ezio Manzini half answered that last question with the observation that "small is not
small". Small is also not neutral. Small design
actions have become political, Manzini explained,
because anything that shapes connectivity and information architecture inevitably impacts on
knowledge and value – and therefore power. For
Chris Downs and Ben Reason, we are "less in a
transition than in a u-turn: we have to
design for less, rather than more", and shift
our attention from the individual user's needs, to the social use of a service or system.
Tilly Blyth cautioned us to remember that
social innovation is usually unintended:
"The history of interaction between technological change and social change should be part of the
policy and innovation process – but is not".
RE-MIX AS A DESIGN PROCESS
One "Aha!" moment in Delhi was the realisation
that re-mix is not just about new music and
vj-ing. Re:mix also signals a broader cultural
shift away from the preoccupation with
individual authorship that has rendered art
(and management) so tiresome in recent times.
In architecture circles, the concept of
"recombinant design" has been doing the rounds –
but re-mix, as flagged by Joi Ito, is a better
word. One visiting re-mixer at Doors 8, Juhuu
(Juha Huuskonen), ran a terrific workshop on
VJing in Delhi. Juhu is also behind an event in
Helsinki (14-17 April) called PixelACHE which
brings together new media explorations of this
(((The lineup at this PixelACHE gig is amazing.)))
CITY AS D-SCHOOL
The foreigners among us arrived in New Delhi
at the same time as Condoleeza Rice. She was
in town to sell F16s and nuclear power station technology. (((To Pakistan, that is.))) We
in town to sell the idea that design for
social capital is a better investment. While
Condi shows powerpoints to air force generals,
(((hey, we've all done it))) Doors of Perception
design teams fanned out across the city. Debra
Solomon's Nomadic Banquet team checked out
street food and food distribution systems.
Jogi Panghaal led a group exploring the city's
markets. Juha Huuskonen taught a group how to
VJ. Jan Chipchase engaged in guerilla ethnography...
somewhere. The idea was to experience the city
as a design school in practice. (((I know MY
design school is a lot like a sweltering, polyglot
capital of a massive, ageless subcontinent.)))
Later on, Tony Salvador from Intel made a
persuasive case that the massive microchip company
takes the work of ethnographers and anthropologists
seriously. "We're trying to understand how to
connect local with global knowledge. To do that
we have to think about local knowledge ecosystems,
not just about devices". Salvador showed us a case
study in which ex-pat Kashmiris, now working in
the US, send family members a coupon for a goat.
The goats looked unaware of their fate.
These street-level workshops sparked a debate
about ethics and ethnography. By what right do
we swan around a city capturing information about
peoples lives? (((Don't look at me, I've got a degree in journalism.))) If we are to exchange
value – rather than just take it, or act like
cultural tourists – what do we have to
offer? Alok Nandi made the point that ethnographers –
and for that matter documentary film makers –
have been wrestling with this issue for decades, and why don't we ask them about
the issue? (We will).
Nandi was critical of the "dive bombing" method
in which people land in places cold, and start
filming things that they see, but have no
way of understanding. (A British professor, Jonathan Gosling, refers to this as "The Mir
Experience" – dropping in on another galaxy
from within one's own spaceship). Jogi Panghaal
countered that fresh eyes can reveal hidden value
and thus mobilise neglected local resources.
Visiting designers can act like mirrors, reflecting things about a situation that local
people no longer notice or value. Shamefully,
too many visiting designers promise local people
they will do this, but never get around to
sharing their conclusions and documentation.
(((Might as well hire the best:)))
FROM INFRA DIG TO INFRA-THIN
Upon arriving in Delhi, Garrick Jones told me
how intrigued he had been by the Duchamp-related theme of Doors 8. Marcel Duchamp's concept of
"infra-thin" – an "invisible and intangible
separation between two things, a space in which
the possible implies the becoming" – struck
him as highly appropriate. I was forced, at
this point, to confess to Garrick that the Duchamp reference was new to me. The original
inspiration for the theme had
been shiny green construction diggers in
The Netherlands that sport the words "Bam
Infra". These words had perplexed me for years.
At a meeting of people from universities, design
and architecture schools, we heard that the
London School of Economics is receiving
30,000 applications a month from China.
A surprising number of presenters introduced
themselves as "ex-architects". The ExArchs included
Marco Susani, who develops new services for
Motorola; Margrit Kennedy, who redesigns money
systems; and Usman Haque, who makes structures
that float and emote. A British contingent of
service designers included four ex-architects
who design health situations.
Industrial ecologist Ezio Manzini
designs knowledge-sharing projects. And Aditya
Dev Sood, another ExArch, nicknamed his panel
session "architecture as old media". An
ex-planner from Bangalore, Solomon Benjamin,
told us that only ten percent of the population
of Delhi lives in a master-planned area;
probably fewer live in a building designed by
an architect. Among the ExArchs engaged by the
complex relationships among city locations and
the activities they contain were media artists
Ashok Sukuraman and Usman Haque: both talked
about site-responsive media interventions as
a way to enrich the experience of people in
places. Maybe they're not Ex-, after all.
LOCALITY AS INTERFACE
Actually building a location-based service, and
making it pay as a business, is easier said than
done. Stefan Magdalinski shared some of
the lessons he learned developing upmystreet.com,
a service platform based on the real patches of
inhabited land connoted by Britain's 1.7
million postcodes. The reality of information
flows at this ultra-local level eludes the big infrastructure providers, said
Magdalinski – and he left the project himself when
its P2P ambitions did turn into a sustainable
business. (For all you bloggers out there,
(((yo!))) Magdalinski gave us one of the week's
more memorable factoids:
fewer than one percent of a website's visitors
usually contribute or comment – and people
usually only start contributing after they have
been visiting a site for three years).
UNDERNEATH THE FREEWAY
Laurent Gutierrez and Valerie Portefaix, who
are MapOffice in Hong Kong, previewed their
stunning new book, 'HK Lab 2'. It contains
photography, maps, and writing about the
Special Administrative Region and China's
Pearl River Delta. When not working in the
informal economy, a floating population of
more than 15 million migrant workers sleeps in
dormitories so small that there is no room
to accumulate consumer goods. As a result,
new patterns of living, consuming, and play have
emerged; these challenge traditional notions
of efficiency, order, and creativity in city
design. Buy a copy of the book at:
AND UNDERNEATH NEW YORK
The problem faced by Tim Tomkins, who runs the Times Square Alliance in New York, is that his city
has been rendered clean – but culturally barren.
In retrofitting creative disorder to the streets
of Manhattan, Tomkins seeks to accomodate both
creators and observers. Meanwhile New York's hard
infrastructure design supremo, David Burney, used
fabulous visualisations of New York's underground
infrastructures to remind us that his city's
water consumption, at 1.5 billion gallons a day
for 8 million people, is unsustainable –
just like New Delhi's. The good news is that 40
percent of New York's solid waste is now being
srecycled, and the city will save nearly $50m
a year just by installing energy efficient traffic lights.
SYSTEMS OF CARE
Returning to soft infrastructures, a contingent
of service designers seemed comfortable in their new role as enablers, rather than
providers, of a service – in this case, health.
Jennie Winhall and Chris Vanstone from RED, at
the UK Design Council, presented a persuasive
design methodology for public services. We then
saw the results of a six month project commissioned by NESTA and the National Health Service, from
four design firms, that examined the potential
for patients with long-term health conditions
to co-produce and then lead their own 'journey
of care'. The idea was to make the experience
of different actors visible to all stakeholders
in a storyboard format that pinpointed moments
when communication blockages are most
likely to occur. (The presentations for this
part of Doors 8 are not yet online, but will be soon).
SYSTEMS OF EXCHANGE: (1) MONEY
Ex-architect Margrit Kennedy delivered a stunningly
clear analysis of why the world financial system
is doomed. The bad news is that an horrendous crash is more likely than a soft landing. The good news
is that complementary money systems are spreading
fast in different parts of the world.
Taken as a group, these experiments are evidence
that we can do something, now. They also provide
us with a real-life picture of what social
transformation from the bottom-up actually looks
like. Non-cash exchange systems and complementary currencies are, for some, where a genuinely new
economy is being born – and where so-called
emerging economies are in many respects ahead of
SYSTEMS OF EXCHANGE: (2) SOFTWARE
If a light and therefore sustainable economy
means sharing resources more effectively – such
as time, skill, or food - then economic
systems for exchanging non-market work have
to be part of the answer.
Sunil Abraham, a leader of the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement in South Asia, added
software to that list. When discussing
access, and the digital divide, the cost of devices
is less crucial than Total Costs of Ownership
including, especially, the costs of
software. Because software is a $300 billion
industry, its leaders find it hard to understand
that, when 90% of Africans in rural areas live
on between no and two dollars a day, the price of
a typical basic proprietory software package would
cost someone in South Africa the equivalent of
$7,500 and in Vietnam, $48,000. 'Information For
Development' Magazine (i4d) is an excellent
monthly publication on these crucial issues; its
sister magazine 'eGov' is also recommended.
You can order them both online at:
SHARING DESIGN KNOWLEDGE
How best shall we share design knowledge when
and where it is most needed? Books, databases,
or blogs that contain insights, tools and
rules are a powerful support. But much
important knowledge is embodied, and situated.
How do we share that? Jimmy Wales, founder of
Wikipedia, quoted some spectacular numbers to
describe the effectiveness of large-scale
co-operative voluntary work enabled by
carefully designed internet tools: there are currently 400 million page views per month
of Wikipedia's 1.5 million articles – in 200
languages. The whole thing (if it is a thing)
is doubling every three months. For Wales,
the key ingredients in the design of the Wikipedia
platform are: a policy of favouring results over process; flexible quality control using
versioning and easy-to-use editing features;
community features such as talk pages; and,
above all, Wikipedia's Neutral Point Of View
This last concept prompted a number of
"now wait a minute!" comments from philosophical
relativists in the room. Wales easily held his own
with an explanation that Wikipedia's system of governance combines consensus,
democracy, aristocracy – and
BEST PRACTICE IMPERFECTIONS
Wikipedia is a hard act to beat in terms of
formal and recordable knowledge. But what about lived, everyday, embodied knowledge?
Several knowledge-sharing designers –
Francois Jegou (Sustainable Everyday)
Amrit Srinavasan (Paedia), and Kamil Vijay
(Honeybee Network) – found this to be a
challenging design issue.
The Honeybee Network, for example, has
documented 48,000 rural innovations – but a
lot of them are hard to transfer from one situation
to another; the system doesn't scale. Kamil
described how one plant, which farmers
stated adamantly was effective at resisting a particular kind of pest, failed to reproduce the
effect when tested in a lab. It transpired that
what the plant did, in situ, was attract another
kind of insect, which also only lived locally,
and that insect disturbed the pest insect's eggs. But the egg-disturbing insect had not been taken to
the lab. And those are just bugs. Two Bombay-based
designers, John and Sanjeev from Kudos, spent
months living among and documenting street food vendors of Bombay. Their material was rich,
and entrancing – but what to do with it?
IS NOTHING SACRED?
Marko Ahtisaari, reflecting on the infrastructure
of sharing, listed what for him are today's
'primitives' of social experience: the gift;
re-mix; 1:1 signalling; photostreams; and tuning
Sanjay Khanna asked, in response to this analysis:
is nothing sacred? Joi Ito proposed open-ness –
and added that it is a condition of an open
society that monopolies be broken up.
HEARD IN DELHI
>From my lodging house in Delhi I heard:
No airconditioning roar.
Pigeons fidgeting in the metal box above my
window that used to contain an airconditioning unit
The long moan of a freight train's
horn as it crosses the city.
Dogs fighting. Monkeys monkeying. Birds
that miaaow like cats while swooping overhead.
Loud insects shouting at each other. People
sweeping leaves off their drive. Pedestrians
saying "sshhhh" to cows so they will move out
of the way. And the cries of street traders
on a variety of bikes: the man with eggs; the
man with the pink and red fruit; the knife
sharpener; and the man with brightly coloured
brushes and feather dusters who looks like a
huge electrocuted parrot as he moves with his
wares up the street.
Later someone demonstrates the cry of the
mattress rumpling man, but
I have no need of his services.
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