Finding the unfamiliar

Entering a corporate building you’ve never been in is always slightly odd.

Every component of the place – from the size of the name space in the sign-in book, to the direction of the door handles – seems significant.

Small procurement decisions seem to form a pattern of accidental iceberg-tips that you’re sure, given enough time/knowledge/certainty, would map to some larger structure within.

Or maybe I spend too much time in other peoples offices.

Either way, last week I repeatedly turned the lights off in a large call centre in Peterlee.

I hit (as many do) a light switch I thought was a door release. At that moment, though the lights were out, I was the most visible thing in the room. Stranger. Person in need of assistance.

Unschooled in how to operate the building, I fell into its traps, several times. Each time, someone quickly came to restore normality, turning the lights back on and asking me if I needed help/escorting from the premises.

It was a very efficient way of finding me. An unfamiliar object in the midst of the familiar.




Relative economies of scale II

Without people telling me, I know what they want. The only problem is, when they go away without telling me.

Sue Kirk runs the shop on Eigg – a small island in the inner hebrides.

It has a great selection of local beers, alongside what seems to be a disproportionately vast array of “ambient groceries” (things that don’t go off at room temperature) for the size of the island’s population – which bottoms out at about 90 permanent residents.

Three types of Tahini, 20 herbs, four types of sausage, five kinds of kitchen roll – all in a shop the size of your average east-end off licence. There are however, only one or two of each item – one packet of pork and apple sausages, two packets of rosemary, and two Jars of dark tahini.

Sue can stock what most people on the island want with a reasonable amount of certainty – so long as their tastes don’t change too quickly – but what she doesn’t know is how much they’ll buy.

People often leave the island, for work, to visit family or to do all the usual things that in a larger community don’t have an affect on the shops they use. But with such a small number of people, the affordance for change is small – or as Sue told me “you don’t have to lose very much before you’re losing” so Sue orders small daily deliveries of a wide number of goods, changing the amount and range whenever she notices a change in buying behaviour.

In theory, the faster the supply, the more it can be scaled up or down as necessary, so alongside this short-order method, Sue uses as much island produce as possible. This too is affected by a relative scale though – with the export of goods off the island not as easy as selling to the shop, Sue has to absorb the unpredictability of supply as well as demand. An imbalance in the ease of import and export means that when “everyones hens are laying like crazy” there’s little you can do about it but eat more eggs.

A system never exists in isolation, and with an unbalanced friction in and out of that network, someone has to absorb change, in this case, literally.

This is the second of three short films I made on Eigg as part of Devfort 8. You can read the post I wrote about the first one with Simon Helliwell (the founder of Hebnet, Britain’s smallest ISP) [here](

Up next: Lucy Conway, founder of Eigg Box on building shared, non-specified space in a place that has little room for casual work-based crossover of expertise, knowledge or interest.

Forget it Jake, its Chinatown

Thinking about Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, again. This time in preparation for a talk I’m giving in at SDNC in Cardiff next week on ‘transformation’.

In the film, ‘The Chinese’, like desert water forced into a pipe, are a euphemism for carefully controlled chaos in LA – omnipotent, unpredictable, uncontrollable forces at work somewhere ‘below’ the city, just waiting to break free.

Only it’s not the Chinese, or water that kills the heroine at the end of the film – its a cop.

A cop controlled by the equally chaotic, ‘senseless’ requirements of laissez-faire capitalism, who can kill under the guise of sense-making: creating order form chaos.

An endless need to map, model, plot and predict the unknown and the unpredictable doesn’t usually result in designers killing people, but design can sometimes feel like an exercise of power that’s been defined by as much ‘senselessness’ as the senselessness it tries to control.

Relative economies of scale

Relative_economies_of_scale_Louise_Downe_Eigg_Devfort_HebnetLast month I spent a week on Eigg, a small island in the inner Hebrides (as part of the latest Devfort).

The island has between 90-100 inhabitants, depending on the season. Its not isolated – theres a ferry to the mainland twice a day – but it is remote.

Because of this, the island has to be almost completely self-sustaining.

There are few pipes, cables or wires that connect Eigg to the mainland. And apart from food – which is mostly imported – and rubbish & recycling – that goes back the other way – Eigg produces most if the things it consumes.

Eigg isn’t a utopia of self-sustenance. Most of the islands utilities are built and managed by resident co-ops, but people on Eigg don’t share any sense of “purpose”. They just need electricity, water, waste disposal and the internet. Unlike the rest of Scotland though, they have to build it themselves.

Few industrialised products or services can survive with only 90 customers, so the island is often too small to be a commercially viable source of revenue for anything for very long, making it seem out of scale with the rest of the world.

I spent a week walking around the island with Mark Hurrell, James Aylett, Ben Firshman. Talking to people, looking at stuff, and thinking about the ways that this relative scale shapes what and how things work on the island. How Eigg has become a self-sustaining network of people and things.

The result will be three films. This is the first one.

We’re the two percent of the one percent.

Simon Helliwell (who also runs the B&B we stayed in) founded Hebnet in 2010 with the help of a University of a Edinburgh project that helps rural groups set up local networks by accessing leased line ’backhaul’ from the mainland and distributing it around the island.

Before Hebnet was created, Eigg and the other small isles were served by a succession of US based satellite companies who would beam signal to a chain of relay points on the island. These relay points were powered by the nearest house, meaning that – because there was no centralised electricity grid at the time – if your neighbour ran out of fuel or switched off their generator, parts of the island lost their internet connection.

The satellite companies often went bust, presumably because their service was a based on a precariously balanced chain of delivery that they had no control of, save for a temporary monopoly, so neither the residents or the business on the island could rely on internet access. Hebnet now a fully operational co-op, distributing network speeds faster than you’d get consistently in most UK cities.

Simon Kindly agreed to be interviewed on the Ferry back to Mallaig, where he talked about the need for community run start-ups in a world where Eigg is too small to be commercially profitable for outside companies.

[Hebnet]( have a full write up of how they got started and how their networks put together (including the relay point on the village church. Its worth a read) as do [Tegola](, the Edinburgh project they’re supported by.

Up next: Eigg’s shopkeeper on ‘prediction’, and stock affordances needed to supply an entire island.

Elective order



Diversity was created in the history of New York because none of these areas of activity had enough power to control its own limits as a community. None of them was rich and centralised enough to wall its self off, and so each suffered the intrusion of the other by necessity.

Richard Sennett, The Uses of Disorder, 1970

What we talk about when we talk about Things


Our hypertext is not the same as Engelbart’s hypertext, because it does not serve the same purpose. Our video conferencing is not the same as Engelbart’s video conferencing, because it does not serve the same purpose. They may look similar superficially, but they have different meanings. They are homophones, if you will.

Bret Victor

The way we talk about what we do is important.

Who we allow to name it is important.

The fact that we seem to have no way to summarise the culmination of intent, physical structure and eventual use that makes up “functionality” without giving it a give it a name is important.

Functionality has no authorship, it is free to change, evolve, die and be re-used as something else. Names are not.

We need to find a way to talk about what we do.

Bret Victor’s Eulogy to Doug Englebert

Metahaven’s Can Jokes Bring Down Governments


Kate_Louise_Downe_2013.jpgThe disposal of personalisation often feels personal in a way that is out of proportion with the object that is being disposed of.

Like the remains of a house made of paper and stone, a name and a cup have different rates of decay, losing form and structure by abstraction at different speeds.

A modular, tea drinking ecosystem

a_modular_tea_drinking_ecosystem_Louise_Downe_2013.jpgNo one person designed this. It happened over the course of a day at Chelsea flower show, as tea drinker after tea drinker swirled their tea, ditching the bag and stick. I doubt either that these two objects were designed with this use in mind – that just happened too – a strange by-product of their perfect relationship to one another, amplified many times over.

This is modular design. It works for one tea drinker, and it works for many. It doesn’t rob people of the joy of solving their own problems.

More things should be designed like this.



Moularity_1_Louise_Downe_2013A couple of weeks back I spent a few days in Saas Almagell, Switzerland. The brightest, most expensive place on earth.

Winters are harsh but bring predictably huge amounts of dry tourist-baiting snow to every surface.

With the addition of vast quantities of tiny, mouldable snowflakes – and some careful raking – roads are transformed from spaces just for cars into carriageways for multiple kinds of transport. Each night an enormous Snow Cat (pictured) restructures the roads and ski slopes with a car sized comb, cutting two deep grooves for cross country skis, and flattening another area for snowshoes and walkers.

All these uses are made possible by the modular mould-ability of snow. Tiny particles, stuck together to make any shape.

Does modularity have to ubiquitous to be usable?

Or does it simply have to be predictable?

Use and non-use


Spending a long overdue weekend wandering aimlessly in the New Forest.

Like everywhere else in the UK, it’s landscape never seems far away from human curation. A place where things that are un-planned are put to good use – and anything that cant be, is signposted.

In places like this, natural and un-natural are just shades of useful and not-useful.

More pictures