All posts filed under “Future

Stuff that matters: Unpicking the pyramid

Most things are unnecessary. Most products, most consumption, most politics, most writing, most research, most jobs, most beliefs even, just aren’t useful, for some scope of ‘useful’.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but most of our civilisation seems to rely on the idea that “someone else will sort it out”, whether that’s providing us with food or energy or money or justice or a sense of pride or a world for our grandchildren to live in. We pay the politicians who are best at lying to us because we don’t want to have to think about problems. We bail out banks in one enormous spasm of cognitive dissonance. We pay ‘those scientists’ to solve things for us and them hate them when they tell us we need to change what we’re doing. We pay for new things because we can’t fix the old ones and then our children pay for the waste.

Economically, ecologically, ethically, we have mortgaged the planet. We’ve mortgaged our future in order to get what we have now, but the debt doesn’t die with us. On this model, the future is one vast pyramid scheme stretching out of sight. We’ve outsourced functions we don’t even realise we don’t need to people and organisations of whom we have no understanding. Worse, we’ve outsourced the functions we do need too, and we can’t tell the difference.

Maybe that’s just being human. But so is learning and tool-making. We must be able to do better than we are. John R. Ehrenfeld’s Sustainability by Design, which I’m reading at present, explores the idea that reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability, which ought to be pretty fundamental to how we think about these issues: going more slowly towards the cliff edge does not mean changing direction.

I’m especially inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s “Work on stuff that matters” advice. If we go back to the ‘most things are unnecessary’ idea, the plan must be to work on things that are really useful, that will really advance things. There is little excuse for not trying to do something useful. It sounds ruthless, and it does have the risk of immediately putting us on the defensive (“I am doing something that matters…”).

The idea I can’t get out of my head is that if we took more responsibility for things (i.e. progressively stopped outsourcing everything to others as in paragraphs 2 and 3 above, and actively learned how to do them ourselves), this would make a massive difference in the long run. We’d be independent from those future generations we’re currently recruiting into our pyramid scheme before they even know about it. We’d all of us be empowered to understand and participate and create and make and generate a world where we have perspicacity, where we can perceive the affordances that different options will give us in future and make useful decisions based on an appreciation of the longer term impacts.

An large part of it is being able to understand consequences and implications of our actions and how we are affected, and in turn affect, the situations we’re in – people around us, the environment, the wider world. Where does this water I’m wasting come from? Where does it go? How much does Google know about me? Why? How does a bank make its money? How can I influence a new law? What do all those civil servants do? How was my food produced? Why is public transport so expensive? Would I be able to survive if X or Y happened? Why not? What things that I do everyday are wasteful of my time and money? How much is the purchase of item Z going to cost me over the next year? What will happen when it breaks? Can I fix it? Why not? And so on.

You might think we need more transparency of the power structures and infrastructures around us – and we do – but I prefer to think of the solution as being tooling us up in parallel: we need to have the ability to understand what we can see inside, and focus on what’s actually useful/necessary and what isn’t. Our attention is valuable and we mustn’t waste it.

How can all that be taught?

I remember writing down as a teenager, in some lesson or other, “What we need is a school subject called How and why things are, and how they operate.” Now, that’s broad enough that probably all existing academic subjects would lay claim to part of it. So maybe I’m really calling for a higher overall standard of education.

But the devices and systems we encounter in everyday life, the structures around us, can also help, by being designed to show us (and each other) what they’re doing, whether that’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (or perhaps ‘useful’ or not), and what we can do to improve their performance. And by influencing the way we use them, whether nudging, persuading or preventing us getting it wrong in the first place, we can learn as we use. Everyday life can be a constructionist learning process.

This all feeds into the idea of ‘Design for Independence’:

Reducing society’s resource dependence
Reducing vulnerable users’ dependence on other people
Reducing users’ dependence on ‘experts’ to understand and modify the technology they own.

One day I’ll develop this further as an idea – it’s along the lines of Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller – but there’s a lot of other work to do first. I hope it’s stuff that matters.

Dan Lockton

On ‘Design and Behaviour’ this week: Do you own your stuff? And a strange council-run ‘Virtual World for young people’

GPS-aided repo and product-service systems

GPS tracking - image by cmpalmer

Ryan Calo of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society brought up the new phenomenon of GPS-aided car repossession and the implications for the concepts of property and privacy:

A group of car dealers in Oregon apparently attached GPS devices to cars sold to customers with poor credit so as to be able to track them down more easily in the event of repossession.

…this practice also relates to an emerging phenomenon wherein sold property remains oddly connected to the seller as though it were merely leased. Whereas once we purchased an album and did with it as we please, today we need to register (up to five) devices in order to play our songs.

…and Kingston University’s Rosie Hornbuckle linked this to the concept of product-service systems:

This puts a whole new slant on product-service-systems, a current (and popular) sustainability methodology whereby people are weaned off the concept of owning products, instead they lease them off the manufacturer who is then responsible for take-back, repair, recycling or disposal. So in that scenario it’s quite likely that a manufacturer will want to keep tabs on their equipment/material, will this bring up privacy issues or is it simply the case that if it’s done overtly (and not in the negative frame of potential repossession), the customer knows about it and agrees, it’s ok? Or will it be a long time before people can overcome the perceived encroachment on their liberty that not owning might bring?

It reminds me of something Bill Thompson suggested to me once, that (paraphrasing) the idea that we ‘own’ the technology we use might well turn out to be a short phase in overall human history. That could perhaps be ‘good’ in contexts where sharing/renting/pooling things allows much greater efficiency and brings benefits for users. Nevertheless, as the repossession example (and DRM, etc, in general) show, the tendency in practice is often to use these methods to exert increasing dominance over users, erode assumed rights, and extract more value from people who no longer have control of the things they use.

See the whole thread so far (and join in!)

Above image of GPS trails (unrelated to the story, but a cool picture) from cmpalmer’s Flickr

The Mosquito, and plans for an odd ‘walk-in virtual world’

McDonald's Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire

Rosie discussed the Mosquito (above image: an example outside a McDonald’s opposite Windsor Castle*) and asked “could we use our design skills and knowledge to influence these sorts of behaviours with a less aggressive and longer-term approach?” while Adrian Short summed up the issue pretty well:

There are a lot of problems in principle and in practice with these devices, but the core problem for me is that they tend to be directed at users rather than uses (i.e. people by identity, not behaviour) and are entirely arbitrary. The street outside a shop is public space and the shop owners have no more right than anyone else to dictate who goes there.

In as much as these things work (which is highly disputed), they are never going to encourage a meaningful debate about norms of behaviour among users of a space. This approach is not so much negotiation as warfare.

Sutton’s Rosehill steps (which Adrian let me know about originally) were also discussed and Adrian brought us the story of something very odd: a ‘virtual world to teach good behaviour to young people’:

Half a mile away, the same council is proposing to spend at least £4 million on a facility that will include a high-tech virtual street environment, a “street simulator” if you like, to teach safety and good behaviour to some of the same young people.

“Part movie-set, part theme park, the learning complex will be the first of its kind in the UK and will also house an indoor street with shop fronts, pavements and a road. The idea is to give young people the confidence to make the best of their lives and have a positive impact on their peers and their local community.”

I don’t really know what to make of that. I actually woke up this morning thinking about it assuming that it was a dream I’d been having, then realised where I’d read about it. It sounds like a mish-mash of Scaramanga’s Fun House from The Man With The Golden Gun and the Ludovico Centre** from A Clockwork Orange.

Scaramanga's FunhouseLudovico Centre

See the whole thread here.

*This particular McDonald’s, with the Mosquito going every evening and clearly audible to me and my girlfriend (both mid-20s) also features a vicious array of anti-sit spikes (below) which rather negate the ‘welcoming’ efforts made with the flowerbed.

**I actually gave a talk about my research to Environmentally Sensitive Design students in this building a couple of weeks ago: it’s Brunel’s main Lecture Centre.

McDonalds Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire
McDonalds Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire

Richard Thaler at the RSA

Richard H Thaler at the RSA

Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge (which is extremely relevant to the Design with Intent research), gave a talk at the RSA in London today, and, though only mentioned briefly, he clearly drew the links between design and behaviour change. Some notes/quotes I scribbled down:
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Designing Safe Living

New Sciences of Protection logo Lancaster University’s interdisciplinary Institute for Advanced Studies (no, not that one) has been running a research programme, New Sciences of Protection, culminating in a conference, Designing Safe Living, on 10-12 July, “investigat[ing] ‘protection’ at the intersections of security, sciences, technologies, markets and design.”

The keynote speakers include the RCA’s Fiona Raby, Yahoo!’s Benjamin Bratton and Virginia Tech’s Timothy Luke, and the conference programme [PDF, 134 kB] includes some intriguing sessions on subjects such as ‘The Art/Design/Politics of Public Engagement’, ‘Designing Safe Citizens’, ‘Images of Safety’ and even ‘Aboriginal Terraformation (performance panel)’.

I’ll be giving a presentation called ‘Design with Intent: Behaviour-Shaping through Design’ on the morning of Saturday 12 July in a session called ‘Control, Design and Resistance’. There isn’t a paper to accompany the presentation, but here’s the abstract I sent in response to being invited by Mark Lacy:

Design with Intent: Behaviour-Shaping through Design
Dan Lockton, Brunel Design, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH

“Design can be used to shape user behaviour. Examples from a range of fields – including product design, architecture, software and manufacturing engineering – show a diverse set of approaches to shaping, guiding and forcing users’ behaviour, often for intended socially beneficial reasons of ‘protection’ (protecting users from their own errors, protecting society from ‘undesirable’ behaviour, and so on). Artefacts can have politics. Commercial benefit – finding new ways to extract value from users – is also a significant motivation behind many behaviour-shaping strategies in design; social and commercial benefit are not mutually exclusive, and techniques developed in one context may be applied usefully in others, all the while treading the ethical line of persuasion-vs-coercion.

Overall, a field of ‘Design with Intent’ can be identified, synthesising approaches from different fields and mapping them to a range of intended target user behaviours. My research involves developing a ‘suggestion tool’ for designers working on social behaviour-shaping, and testing it by application to sustainable/ecodesign product use problems in particular, balancing the solutions’ effectiveness at protecting the environment, with the ability to cope with emergent behaviours.”

The programme’s rapporteur, Jessica Charlesworth, has been keeping a very interesting blog, Safe Living throughout the year.

I’m not sure what my position on the idea of ‘designing safe living’ is, really – whether that’s the right question to ask, or whether ‘we’ should be trying to protect ‘them’, whoever they are. But it strikes me that any behaviour, accidental or deliberate, however it’s classified, can be treated/defined as an ‘error’ by someone, and design can be used to respond accordingly, whether viewed through an explicit mistake-proofing lens or simply designing choice architecture to suggest the ‘right’ actions over the ‘wrong’ ones.

The world’s energy meter

Electrcity meter, in a cupboard

One of the presentations I’m really looking forward to at OpenTech 2008 in London is by AMEE, self-described as “The world’s energy meter”:

If all the energy data in the world were accessible, what would you build? The Climate Change agenda has created an imperative to measure the energy profile of everything. As trillions of pounds flow into re-inventing how we consume, we have a unique opportunity use open data and systems as a starting point. AMEE is an open platform for energy and CO2 data, algorithms and transactions.

From this PDF on the AMEE website:

AMEE is a neutral aggregation platform to measure and track all the energy data in the world. It combines monitoring, profiling and transactional systems to enable this, as well as an algorithmic engine that applies conversion factors from energy into CO2 emissions.

# AMEE is a technology platform (a web-service API) , designed to be built upon by you
# AMEE can represent both copyright and open data without conflict
# AMEE is open source
# You can build commercial applications using AMEE

This does sound extremely useful – the ability to convert energy into CO2 emission equivalent “enables the calculation of the “Carbon-Footprint” of anything” – and I’m going to see how I might be able to make use of AMEE’s functionality or the data set as part of the research. (As an aside, it’s interesting how often ‘energy methods’ allow us to compare diverse activities and effects with a common currency: I remember being struck by this concept before when being introduced to von Mises’ criterion in stress analysis and streamlined lifecycle analysis within a few days of each other.)

AMEE’s Gavin Starks also presented at O’Reilly’s ETech earlier this year (one day I’m sure I’ll go to this…) and the slides are available [PDF, 8MB]. On a similar theme, the very impressive Saul Griffith (of MIT Media Lab, Squid Labs, Instructables, Make et al) talked on ‘energy literacy’ – again, a detailed presentation [PDF, 7.6MB] with thoughtful notes (see also Wattzon) – and it seems that there is a certain degree of overlap, or symbiosis between the ideas. We need a public literate in energy to care enough about measuring and changing their behaviour; we equally need good and understandable energy-using behaviour data to enable that public to become literate in the consequences of their actions, and indeed for ‘us’ (designers/engineers/technologists/policymakers…) to understand what behaviours we want to address.

I’d like to think that Design for Sustainable Behaviour can help here. That’s certainly the aim of what I’m doing.

Interview with Sir Clive

Sir Clive Sinclair (BBC image)Chris Vallance of Radio 4’s excellent iPM has done a thoughtful interview with Sir Clive Sinclair, ranging across many subjects, from personal flying machines to the Asus Eee, and touching on the subject of consumer understanding of technology, and the degree to which the public can engage with it:

Your [Chris Vallance’s] generation really understood the computers, and today’s generation know they’re just a tool, and don’t really get to grips with them… When I was starting in business, and when I was a child, electronics was a huge hobby, and you could buy components on the street and make all sort of things, and people did. But that also has all passed; it’s almost forgotten.

It’s true, of course, that there are still plenty of hobbyist-makers out there, including in disciplines that just weren’t open before, and if anything, initiatives such as Make and Instructables – and indeed the whole free software and open source movements – have helped raise the profile of making, hacking, modding and other democratic innovation. It’s no secret that Clive himself is a proponent of Linux and open source in general for future low-cost computing, as is mentioned briefly in the interview, and the impact of the ZX series in children’s bedrooms (together with BBC Micros at school) was, to some extent, a fantastic constructionist success for a generation in Britain.

But is Clive right? How many schoolkids nowadays make their own radios or burglar alarms or write their own games? When they do, is it a result of enlightened parents or self-directed inquisitiveness? Or are we guilty of applying our own measures of ‘engagement’ with technology? After all, you’re reading something published using WordPress, which was started by a teenager. Personally, I’m extremely optimistic that the future will lead to much greater technological democratisation, and hope to work, wherever possible, to contribute to achieving that.

I’ve worked for Clive, as a designer/engineer, on and off, for a number of years, and it’s pleasing to have an intelligent media interview with him that doesn’t simply regurgitate and chortle over the C5, but instead tries to tap his vision and thoughts on technical society and its future.

Silicon Dreams

Incidentally, Clive’s 1984 speech to the US Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, mentioned in the interview, is extremely interesting – quite apart from the almost Randian style of some of it – as much as for the mixture of what we might now see as mundanities among the far-sighted vision as for the prophetic clarity, with talk of guided 200mph maglev cars and the colonisation of the galaxy alongside the development of a cellular phone network and companion robots for the elderly. Of course, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Talk of information technology may be misleading. It is true that one of the features of the coming years is a dramatic fall, perhaps by a factor of 100, in the cost of publishing as video disc technology replaces paper and this may be as significant as the invention of the written word and Caxton’s introduction of movable type.

Talk of information technology confuses an issue – it is used to mean people handling information rather than handling machines and there is little that is fundamental in this. The real revolution which is just starting is one of intelligence. Electronics is replacing man’s mind, just as steam replaced man’s muscle but the replacement of the slight intelligence employed on the production line is only the start.

And then there is this, which seems to predict electronic tagging of offenders:

Consider, for example, the imprisonment of offenders. Unless conducted with a biblical sense of retribution, this procedure attempts to reduce crime by deterrence and containment. It is, though, very expensive and the rate of recidivism lends little support to its curative properties.

Given a national telephone computer net such as I have described briefly, an alternative appears. Less than physically dangerous criminals could be fitted with tiny transporters so that their whereabouts, to a high degree of precision, could he monitored and recorded constantly. Should this raise fears of an Orwellian society we could offer miscreants the alternative of imprisonment. I am confident of the general preference.