The impossibility of many in the mind of one (or something like that)


the_impossibility_of_many_in_the_mind_of_one_Louise_Downe_2013I’ve gone slightly obsessed by this picture lately. This is a picture of NASA mission central after the latest rover touched down on Mars.

Teams of hundreds of scientists spent years carefully crafting a remote laboratory that could survive the extreme conditions. They altered their body clocks so that they could operate it more efficiently, switched their language to talk about ‘sols’ rather than days. They did this all together, working as a team to explore Mars.

This is how their efforts were reported in the Scientist:

The rovers enjoy significant support in congress…

We live in a world where we think, act and make collectively. And yet we can’t seem to understand the world without singular authorship.

But how exactly would you describe the complexity involved in acting, thinking or even feeling something collectively? We don’t seem to have – at least in English – the language to talk about situations like this.

Our understanding of the world is largely controlled by words we use to describe it to others. What happens when we don’t have the words?

Restructing Britain


“Disjointed incrementalism’ characterises public service design: where services are altered and adapted by changing political drivers, professional fashions, shifting institutional norms and boundaries, and the biased lessons of past experience”

Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services

All the usual disclaimers aside (few would argue that this report isn’t needed, nor that it contains a lot of really good points), this quote from the latest Design Commission report worries me. What is wrong with responding incrementally to ‘shifting political norms’? Aren’t shifting political norms supposed to respond to shifting social norms? And more broadly, isn’t ‘incrementalism’, disjointed or otherwise, how evolution works?

The quote fits in with a re-emerging attitude to design that appears to believe the world can be strategically planned, piece-by-piece. To do this, it’s argued, design needs to become ever more ‘strategic’ – morphing from UI to UX, from service design to system design.

I don’t care how you label it, but by any name this is modernism – a belief that the world can be designed by a small number of people towards some definite, knowable end-state. A belief that, for all the simplicity it brought – wielded debilitating authoritarianism and institutionalism with equal measure.

Strange then, that we should start to talk about it in the context of public service.

The successes of modernism were narrowly defined systems within the public space – transport, gas, oil and water. The problems they faced may have gotten larger or more complex as the network grew – but they were unlikely to change form completely.

Bar some famous examples, we’ve watched those other, larger structures of modernism revert to disorder with years of neglect, weather and weeds.

The problems we face today are those same problems that brought down modernism. We can’t control them with one solution, strategy or ‘five circled grid’. But just because you can’t control something, doesn’t mean it can’t be changed.

Progress in science happens because we accumulate a collective knowledge. But in traditional, two-party politics we don’t learn from the other team, we react to them. And when our own team are in power, the mechanisms of the state take so long to change that we struggle to see any direct cause and effect, making it hard for anyone to learn from anything.

But when we change things directly on the ground we can observe cause and effect. Over time we learn what works and what doesn’t.

This is disjointed incrementalism. The kind that cannot be shoehorned into any strategy, program, work-stream or project. Perhaps it will force us to take the incremental decisions we make with more care and consideration, and who knows, things might change.

Important cracks

important_cracks_Louise_Downe_2013This is spit. Red spit to be precise.

Its a feature of many cities, created by chewing a mixture of tobacco and highly coloured spices.

I’ve noticed it in Bethnal Green for years, knowing it was a by product of the local Asian community that live here without knowing how, why or thinking much of it, until I saw a corner much like this one on the edge of covent garden.

Not unremarkable, however, at the time I had no idea where I was. Until I saw red spit and realised without thinking, that I was near to a place with an Asian population. I must be near Covent Garden.

Tracking though cultural presence, or using the traces of people as a map are familiar ways of navigating, what’s strange was how at home I felt the moment I saw this this corner in Dubai last month. Cracks are important as a space without function that can be filled. A crack can become anything, even a bridge.


Chicken shop entropy

chicken_shop_entropy_Louise_Downe_2013This chicken shop It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is filled every day, not with people who don’t want to cook, but with people who cant afford to cook.

A chicken burger costs £1.75. Cheaper than you could cook it for at home.

Waste is created when any information is transferred – heat, money, and power all lose bits when they’re transferred. When energy is scarce, waste will become a luxury.

We are actively trying to reduce this transferal by centralising our lives. Moving towards a collective future where much of our lives are run centrally. The heat in our homes is already centralised, whilst eating, washing and cooking become more expensive.

The trouble is, this collective way of thinking is incredibly difficult.

This is a picture of NASA’s mission central after the latest MER rover touched down on Mars.

Teams of hundreds of scientists had spent years carefully crafting a remote laboratory that could survive the extreme conditions.

They altered their body clocks to mars time so that they could operate it more efficiently from earth, switched their language to to talk about sols rather than days. They lived and worked as a team of diverse experts, yet his is how their collective efforts were reported:

The rovers enjoy significant support in congress…

 The Scientist

We live in a world where we think, act and make collectively. And yet we cant understand the world without authorship.

All good things must come to an end

all_good_things_must_come_to_an_end_Louise_Downe_2012This week I saw Erik Kessels talk about ‘In Almost Every Picture’, a series of found photo books that show one thing, by a fluke of documentation repeated in almost every picture.

One book is famously full of pictures of Oolong the Japanese rabbit balancing things on its head, another tells the story of a woman who’s been swimming in her clothes for almost twenty years. I like repetition, so I asked:

>Me: What do you find interesting about repetition?

>Erik: You see the progression of a story, which means you see when it changes and when it ends.

(paraphrasing, I couldn’t find a pen)

All the stories in Kessel’s books come to an end one way or another, mostly because someone stops documenting them.

At Playful Simon Cutts from Coracle press talked at length about his love of producing boxed books, saying:

>They feel like finished objects, like real things

(paraphrasing again)

Trust in a system

The slogan “if your minicab’s not booked it’s just a stranger’s car” makes sense on the surface of it.

Until you realise that, of course, any taxi car is probably a ‘stranger’s car’.

The thing that makes your booked car not a stranger’s car is that it is part of a system, and one that is reasonably predictable.

Working for a taxi company has a higher barrier to entry than just buying a car and parking up outside a tube station right? The driver is probably CRB checked, has a clean drivers license, or at least has a record with the company that makes him traceable and unlikely to try and rape you and do a runner.

How do you know this? You probably don’t unless you’ve ever worked for a cab company. But by piecing together your knowledge of the systems that a make up a taxi company – an employee register that needs a bank account, and a bank account that needs an address – you can take a rough guess.

What happens then, when we have no longer have any knowledge of the systems that go into delivering a product or service?

Systems are usually created for a reason, by many people over a period of time with significant investment. They are more trustworthy than chaos, which has no such collective authorship.

What happens when the systems that we think we know require little investment to change, or are completely personal, will we trust them then?


Intimacy with machines

intimacy_with_mashines_Louise_Downe_2012.pngA person has to design the way that a machine thinks, but how often do we know who that person is? They are anonymous, collective and almost completely unaccountable.

It’s just so easy to sleepwalk into these leaps from connected technology to surveillance because although you get to vote about significant changes to human systems, when have you ever had a chance to vote on changes to an algorithm?

Unhelpful evolution

unhelpfull_evolution_Louise_Downe_2012We’re getting bigger, but our houses are getting smaller. The fact that you rarely hear these two things mentioned together says a lot about our approach to city planning.

In a bid to house New York’s growing number of single occupant and ‘pre family’ households, Mayor Bloomberg recently commissioned a competition to design a new micro apartment measuring 26×28 square meters.

That don’t seem so bad to me, but then I’m 5.2″, roughly the same height as an average Chinese woman. The average American woman is 2.5 inches taller, and American men another 5 inches taller still.

Height doesn’t just determine the amount of ceiling space we need, or the amount of space we need for a bed or wardrobe that’s large enough. It determines the amount of power we need, both in calories and in cooking and cleaning for ourselves.

Will we one day see a person’s attractiveness linked to their environmental efficiency? Will we start to shrink, as the amount of space in our cities, protein for us to eat and energy for us to burn shrinks too?