April 21, 2008
This chilling image, which I saw first at Core 77, is a visualization of space-junk by the European Space Agency.
The images (there's a series) show all the satellites and human-made debris now orbiting space as a result of 51 years of launching devices since Sputnik - a total of 6,000 rocketloads. If you think this looks bad, imagine what a similar image would look like if it visualized all the matter used in the production of cars during the past 100 years or so - at roughly one thousand tonnes per vehicle.
March 31, 2008
Heathrow chaos: time to start digging?
The chaos at Heathrow's Terminal 5 is an excellent example of what happens when the logic of finance interacts with the logic of large complex systems. As Will Hutton wrote at the weekend, shareholders in British Airways (its sole tenant) and BAA (which runs the airport) demand perpetually growing dividends. Financial returns on this scale can only be achieved by cutting people out of the system: This is because big shiny buildings, although expensive, are capital costs that can be written off through time; people, on the other hand, appear in a company's accounts as recurrent costs that directly reduce profits.
Willy Walsh, the cost-cutting hard man put in to run BA, has duly cut people costs to the bone. As a result of his ministrations morale has crashed, many experienced midde managers took early retirement before T5 opened, and a recent survey reported that nearly 30 per cent of staff claim they had been bullied.
Thousands of MBA students, whose predecessors now run companies like BA and BAA, are being taught, as you read this, to regard people as cuttable costs and that technology exists to help them do the cutting. Once in post as junior Willy Washes, these WaffenMBAs are an easy mark for the IT industry: it peddles dysfunctional systems on the back of absurd promises that they will work without intensive participation by trained and motivated people. The tech industry grows, despite its long history of peddling porkies, because its cost-cutting clients are pre-programmed to believe the lies.
Moving bags, moving people, moving goods: Logistics are life-critical for us all. I was therefore alarmed to read in Supply Chain Standard about logistics in the supermarket industry. On checking the software descriptors of 14,000 product lines, one analyst found that information lines for every single item contained one or more errors. A standard description has 200 attributes, but industry customers typically add up to 1,500 extra items of information on their own account - so the possibility for error is mind-boggling.
All retailers - and all airport operators - rely totally on logistics technology. But according to the industry's own in-house magazine, many supermarkets admit to at least 35 percent data inaccuracy in their product files. Things sound even grimmer when you realise that millions of lines of dodgy data are being fed into patched-up legacy systems that few people understand - and are therefore hard to maintain. "It's little surprise", concludes the writer, that "retailers end up with little idea of what is in store, in transit, on order or at the warehouse". Supply Chain Standard January 2008 page 9 Penelope Ody
Now connect in your mind, as an exercise, the bags chaos at Heathrow with that thirty five per cent inaccuracy in the data used by supermarkets. Next, consider that supermarkets only have three days supply of food in stock at any one time...or so they think. I don't know about you, but I'm reminded that this is planting season at my home in France: I need to get back and start digging.
November 30, 2007
High entropy notions of quality
Last week I gave this talk at a seminar in Milan called Art For Business.
"On my way to this conference on art and business, two Erasmus University business school students (a Russian and a Dane) came to meet me in Amsterdam. They came from "Team Aesthetics" . We talked of Aesthetics, Innovation, Complexity, Meaning, Value. They asked me: "Is there a market at the intersection of aesthetics and business?"
Now there's a question. Meeting these young MBAs triggered me to give them a warning. When the economy is booming, aor expanding like a bubble, like now, the minds of business will indeed turn to higher things - such as aesthetics. But the second the going gets tough, these elevated concerns will go straight out of the window.
One day I will write the story of my Bubble Economy years in Japan. Suffice to say here that, in January 1991, I expected to be incredibly rich by Christmas. I had invented a form of consultrancy that I called "cultural engineering" and some huge projects with prestigious Japanese partners were ready to be signed.
By April 1991, I pretty much went bankrupt when the bubble ecomnomy bust and every last one of my exotic cultural projects was put on hold. They were never re-started. Aesthetics, I learned, is a fair weather market.
And it's going to get tough again. Unimaginably tough. Think of climate change. Resource depletion. Catabolic collapse. The global money system. Unsustainable food systems. Each of these is bad on its own. When they start to interact with each other....well....
Is there any point in even considering the connection between aesthetics and business at such a time?
The answer is yes. There is a connection, indeed a crucal one. There is a crucial aesthetic-cultural dimension to the transition to sustainability.
The ways we respond aesthetically to our environment now are horribly constrained. Urban man, industrial man (and woman) lack the visceral connectons to the biosphere that helped hunter gatherers survive.
Most of our inputs are mediated. We are blinded by a synthetic spectacle that envelops us all.
Modernity as a whole has been fuelled not just by cheap energy, but also by a cultural lust for speed, perfection, control.
We are bewitched, as a culture, by a high entropy concept of quality.
We would do well to remember the laws of thermodynamics. All order and control has an energy cost. It takes astronomical amounts of energy to acheve the pure, minimal, buildings, products, transport systems and infrastructures that we now aspire to and regard as emblematic of progress and quality.
We need new cultural-aesthetic ways of looking at - and acting in - the world. A new aesthetics of sustainability so that, when we look at things, we will think in totally new ways about whether a thing is "right".
Think of an airport, for example. What might it mean to be aesthetically triggered to be aware of the amount of energy embodied in the artefacts, structures and processes that surrounded us in such places?
This is where aesthetics comes in.
(to be continued....)
discussed your post with a friend today who mailed it to me...
first of all: most of us working on the intersection of management and aesthetics had their waterloo one time or the other (again)... mine was 2001/02.
looking forward i guess in general there are three possibilities we are facing here:
a) as suggested by german author thomas mann: absolutely no hope for people who cannot decide whether to be on the art or the business side of life... no hope at all... they are ridiculous figures (thomas mann "tonio kroeger" 1903)
b) in germany the sales of new automobiles in 2007 were as bad as never before since the reunification. - in-spite of an economical up-swing people seem to be waiting for new hybrids and for political security to make automotive investments.
... waiting for a new aesthetics, for a new order of things?... could be.
at least i'd like to believe that. - at least i'd like to believe that the next recession - so it will come - will not be one where people are looking back in despair but are looking forward for new things to take shape.
c) all that we are talking about - and especially the way we are talking about it - is completely irrelevant because the next wave is coming from places like china and india and will hit old europe in such a way that we cannot even describe it.
the way we discuss our problem-solving patterns and management styles is so hopelessly euro-centric and grounded in a culture that exactly brought us to the point we are now, that the next wave will come from a totally different direction, in a totally different way that our game and the rules of our game will change for us in an also culturally unforeseeable way. - in that case our discussions here are nice but utterly irrelevant.
make your bet.
the ball is still rolling.
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...sachlichkeit is not a style.
it's an attitude.
October 09, 2006
New voting computers crisis
The Dutch computerised voting system is completely open to fraud, and bad guys could find out, remotely, how you voted. So argue Rop Gonggrijp and colleagues of the â€œWe do not trust voting computersâ€ foundation in The Netherlands. Gonggrijp and co are some of smartest hackers around, so we are sure they are right. A technical paper by Gonggrijp's team details how they installed new software in Nedap ES3B voting computers. They established that anyone, when given brief access to the devices at any time before the election, could gain complete and virtually undetectable control over the election results. It also shows how radio emanations from an unmodified ES3B can be received at several meters distance and be used to tell who votes what. This is not a small crisis. 90% of the of votes cast in The Netherlands are cast on the Nedap/ Groenendaal ES3B voting computer - and it's due to be used in a national election next month. The same computer with very minor modifications is also being used in parts of Germany and France.
September 22, 2006
Fat, cities, and homeland insecurity
As I mentioned a while back, two geographers, Simon Marvin and Will Medd, have published a quease-inducing paper about fat in cities. In Metabolisms of Obecity: Fat across bodies, cities and sewers they write that the number of sewer blockages and overflows across cities in the United States is growing as restaurants and fast food chains pour cooking residue into drains. Local governments lack the resources to monitor grease disposal or to enforce the relevant regulations. Yuk.
I was intrigued to see that Marvin and Medd have invented something called Urban Vulnerability Studies to package - and presumably get funding for - this new line of work. This is clever: geography must sound boring to a homeland security (or whatever it's called in the UK) budget holder. But "urban vulnerability"? Ooh, that sounds serious. Better spend a ton of money on it.
Fat-clogged sewers are not the only threat facing modern cities. Hunger is another one. The British government appears to believe that growing food is an old-fashioned activity that is inconsistent with a shiny knowledge-based economy. Every where I go these days, local policymakers tell me with pride about some digital enterprise that has set up shop in the middle of a nearby field - often with a generous grant to help them do so. As a result, food security in the country as a whole is non-existent. Sixty million people will have a nasty surprise when systemic collapses in logistics systems, which are bound to happen, cut them off from anything to eat.
You can't eat game engines.
Doors 9, with its focus on energy and food, is crucial to the national and urban security of many places. We still need funding to the tune of .000001% of America's Homeland Security budget to pay for scholarships so that project leaders may come to New Delhi from different parts of India and elsewhere in South Asia. If you are able to fund a scholarship or two, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
August 26, 2006
Dog days for the health service
After this I promise to stop obsessing about mad people running the world. But really. Today's Guardian reports that Richard Granger, architect of the world's biggest imploding IT project, compared the NHS project to a sled being pulled by huskies. "When one of the dogs goes lame, and begins to slow the others down, they are shot. They are then chopped up and fed to the other dogs".
The twisted macho mindset of some IT 'experts' is not uncommon in the health sector. One of the more extraordinary books I found during research for In the bubble was the 1,276-page Telemedicine Glossary. This hefty tome listed 13,500 organizations and projects involved with health telematics, plus six hundred telemedicine research projects with witty acronyms like KISS (Knowledge-Based Interactive Signal Monitoring System), CONQUEST (Clinical Oncology Network for Quality Standards of Treatment), CLIFF (Cluster Initiative for Flood and Fire Emergencies), and HUMAN (Health Through Telematics for Inmates) as titles. The last of these is about treating prisoners remotely.
But back to the NHS. â€œThe disaster scenario (says the Guardian today) is that iSoft's problems will eventually trigger a domino collapse among other firms, halting the transformation of the NHS or postponing completion for yet more years.â€ This disaster is surely inevitable given the way it was set up. People close to the project, that I've talked to, were appalled from the beginning by its top-down architecture. And as usability expert Ann Light spotted more than two years ago, doctors and NHS IT workers had "no confidence in the ability of the national programme for IT to improve patient care because of the impossible timescales and lack of engagement of clinicians".
August 16, 2006
How to provide affordable housing
Ashoka Changemakers has teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to stage a competition, "How to Provide Affordable Housing". Judges from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, and the International Housing Coalition, will review entries and select finalists. A public online vote will determine the winners, and Changemakers will convene a Change Summit in 2007 where winners and finalists will present their projects in person to foundation representatives and other potential investors.
Ashoka is sometimes criticised for being more concerned with individual innovators than with groups and communities. But they've been doing this kind of work for 20 years, and this experience shows in the intelligent design of the competition. It's not only about the design of cheap but clever buildings: To complete the entry form you have to answer questions about your project's "delivery model", "operational partnerships" and "scale-up strategy."
(Nomenclature note: Changemakers is not to be confused with the website (and forthcoming book) Worldchanging; and correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm fairly sure Habitat for Humanity is different from Architecture for Humanity).
August 12, 2006
Designing naked streets
When Paul Barter posted a link to a video of a chaotic looking Indian intersection, back in April, it provoked debate on the merits of traffic discipline versus chaos. A discussion ensued on issues about shared space or "naked streets" approaches to streets and the public realm. The video genre is growing fast: YouTube's GlobalSouth now has more than 60 short videos on transport in developing countries. "A striking number of the videos are of streets or intersections in countries like India, China or Vietnam" says Barter; "most of them show traffic that at first glance looks completely and utterly CRAZY, often with a mind-boggling diversity of road users doing anything and everything you could imagine. And the amazing thing is that it seems to work". The first person I know to speculate about control-free traffic planning was John Chris Jones; he first wrote about the idea in 1968.
July 14, 2006
The $100k house
In this new book Karrie Jacobs travels America in a "quest for a house to call home in the modern world". It's not a conventional architecture book; rather, it's an account of a road trip Jacobs took in 2003 -- over 14,000 miles -- to meet with architects and builders who might be able to build a nice, modern house in her price range. It's not a picture book, although it is illustrated by artist Gary Panter. "I'm hoping the book will appeal to readers interested in architecture, design, real estate, and absurdly long drives" Jacobs tells me, "and also to a more general readership. I aspire to be the Rosanne Cash of architecture writing, a successful crossover act". For me, she has succeeded: the book is beautifully-written, poetic, and inspiring. For an instant spirits uplift, go and buy The $100k house.
September 23, 2005
Beyond the cranium
Where does the mind end and the world begin? Until recently, philosophers tended to think of the nervous system as a glorified a set of message cables that connect the body to the brain. But philosopher Teed Rockwell thinks that the boundary between mind and world is a flexible one. In his book Neither Brain nor Ghost Rockwell quotes developments in neuroscience as evidence that the mind is hormonal as well as neural; the borders of mental embodiment cannot neatly be drawn at the skull, or even at the skin. For Rockwell, mental phenomena emerge not merely from brain activity but from "a single unified system embracing the nervous system, body, and environment". At this point Rockwell, man of reason, seems to get nervous, because he describes as “vacuously mystical” the claim that “we are one with everything". To me this sounds like a logical conclusion, not a mystical one. But I'm not an expert in nonlinear neurodynamics, which Teed's book is apparently about. (I've only read extracts of the book, and I only heard about it because of my interest in architectural tourism).
September 03, 2005
Infra is also social
Two of the most striking images from New Orleans feature helicopters. In one shot, a helicopter is dropping 15,000 bags of sand onto rushing waters that will obviously wash them away. In the second, the president projects a concerned gaze onto the diaster from a similar height. Engineering to control nature needs a social base and political consensus to be effective - and those are missing in New Orleans.
The creation of new land out of water, and keeping it dry, is a several centuries old tradition in the Netherlands. The famous Delta Works, the biggest Dutch public project ever, created giant pumping stations, dikes, and modern tidal protection systems, to keep the water from the sea and the rivers out. Behind these impressive achievements were the engineers and planners of Rijkswaterstaat (Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management). These were the true ‘makers' of Holland who the writer Den Doolaard called 'Water Wizards'. But these engineers have only been able to keep Holland dry because the Dutch sense of civic duty, solidarity and the commonweal: the need to take care of the dikes collectively is socially embedded, with the dike-warden as the key figure: he (I think they are all he) can order people to work in the dykes for the greater good of shared protection from the water. Without the tradition of the dike-warden, and his approach to managing the water by marshalling collective social effort, the Dutch 'polder model' of shared responsibility, consensus and a degree of skill at living together in a small space, would cease to work. Organisations like Future Water are doing fascinating work on the physical management of water, but the sobering lesson of the last days is that, if the social fabric goes, so too do the physical defences.
August 28, 2005
Bus tour of a wifi network
Only a month to go before the first Municipal Wireless Conference. Among the speakers lined up by organiser Esme Vos are Jonathan Baltuch, founder of a firm called MRI which creates economic development blueprints for municipalities; James Farstad, consultant to the city of Minneapolis' citywide wireless project; Greg Richardson of Civitium, a company that helps municipalities develop digital communities; and Sascha Meinrath, an internationally renowned expert on Community Wireless Networks (CWNs) and a leading figure in CTCNet, a network of more than 1000 organizations united in their commitment to improve the educational, economic, cultural and political life of their communities through technology. I particularly like the offer of a pre-conference reality bus tour of a wifi network. Few things sound as intangible to me as a wireless network, but MetroFi Network in Santa Clara is taking people on a behind-the-scenes look at the largest deployment in the U.S of a WiFi network. You get to check out some of their 200 second-generation WiFi nodes, visit one of MetroFi’s roof-top locations, peer at pole-top radios, and a watch a demo of MetroFi's proprietary "zero touch provisioning" of the customer's WiFi modem. (No, I don't know what that means; you tell me when you get back from the bus trip).
August 27, 2005
Socks that saw it all
The one application of Ambient Intelligence that sparks the imagination of young designers seems to be wearable computing. An American designer, Natalia Allen, reckons there's an emerging 'fashion tech industry', and a Canadian artist, Joanna Berzowska, is excited by the potential of what she calls 'soft computation': electronic textiles, responsive clothing as wearable technology, reactive materials and squishy interfaces. Berzowska's talk at next month's Wearable Technologies conference, in Wales, includes a description of 'memory rich garments'. As with most aspects of AmI, these sound like a mixed blessing: most of us surely possess garments that were present at occasions we'd rather they forgot.
July 21, 2005
Who's responsible for municipal infra?
The most important potential impact of wireless communications will be on the resource ecologies of cities. Connecting people, resources, and places to each other in new combinations, on a real-time basis, has the potential to reduce drastically the amount of hardware—from gadgets, to buildings—that we need to function effectively. The principle of 'use, not own' can apply to buildings, roads, vehicles, offices, equipment - and for that matter people. We don't have to own a thing (or a person) - just know where to find it (or him). This lighter urban ecology will arrive faster if wireless communication infrastructures are pervasive and, ideally, free. It's for this reason that Doors is supporting the first ever Municipal Wireless Conference (MW05SF). The event brings together a broad range of buyers, vendors, service providers, integrators, consultants, policy-makers, and other interested groups. The diversity of this group makes it hard to reach - so our main contribution (with your help) is to help spread the word to people who might like to attend the event, but would not otherwise hear about it.
July 10, 2005
Locative infra in practice
The service design and art worlds are filled with amazing proposals for the civic use of wireless communications. But most of these will remain hypothetical unless efforts succeed to make wireless freely available - rather than a costly privatised utility. Esme Vos, Amsterdam-based editor of municipalwirelerss.com, is organising the first Municipal WiFi Conference in San Francisco in September. Vos, who has been covering the municipal wireless arena for over two years now, is uniquely well-informed about what it takes to deploy muni wireless successfully. Vos is putting together sessions on: Successfully deploying a mesh network; Calculating return on Investment (how do you identify and quantify the benefits of a wireless network to residents, businesses and local government?); How to get political and public support for your wireless network; Common applications (Meter reading. Public safety. Small business development).
June 25, 2005
What the hack
This large hacker's festival (3,000 participated last time) happens every four years in The Netherlands. It started with "The Galactic Hacker Party", also known as the "International Conference on the Alternative use of Technology, Amsterdam". Themes this year: freedom of speech, government transparency, computer insecurity, privacy, open software, open standards & software patents and community networking. Plus independent media and networking in crisis areas and so called developing countries. One idea is to set set up a meshing experiment using thousands of laptops on the camp. It takes place "on a large event-campground in the south of The Netherlands" from 28 until 31 July 2005.
April 15, 2005
Digital Cities Convention (May 2-4 in Philadelphia) is part of "a global thought-leadership series to accelerate the adoption of broadband wireless technologies for economic and social development worldwide". According to a piece in muniwireless.com, Philadelphia was chosen to launch the Convention in light of Wireless Philadelphiaâ„¢, an ambitious initiative to strengthen the city's economy and transform its neighborhoods. The city's Chief Information Officer Diana Neff says the idea is to provide wireless Internet access for the purpose of helping citizens, businesses, schools, community organizations and visitors make effective use of the wireless Internet. About 40% of Philadelphiaâ€™s population still has no access to broadband - and wonâ€™t anytime soon: those neighborhoods are not attractive to present service operators given current wired-technology infrastructure costs.
April 05, 2005
I owe an apology to Stefan Magdalinski, from whitelabel.org, who was one of the star turns at Doors 8 (and has nice words to say about the event in his blog). In yesterday's emailed Doors Report, I managed to omit a "not" and thereby render a sentence about Stefan weird. I said, "he left the project when its P2P ambitions did turn into a sustainable business" - and, as Stefan points out, "noble and public spirited and insane though I am, I don't quit businesses that I founded at the point at which they become sustainable. We ran out of cash while trying to make it sustainable, I lost my job, and the assets got bought in a fire sale". A further clarification: I quoted Stefan saying that fewer than one percent of a website's visitors usually contribute or comment, and that people usually only start contributing after they have been visiting a site for three years. Whereas (he kindly explains) what he actually said was that (research from the BBC indicates that) typically novice users take three years of being *online* before making their first active contribution on any site. "A subtle but important difference" says Stefan; "Also, this doesn't apply to certain groups: those with a lot of puter experience, and kids aren't so reticent at all".
March 10, 2005
It's now ten days until Doors 8 and our cable has been down for 12 days. Thankyou, Wanadoo. Not. But enough of that company from hell. The good news is that the CKS team in Delhi is working brilliantly; some international people are already on their way to India; and others have actually started to think seriously about going. We are a just-in-time friendly outfit: by all means just turn up and register on the day - but if you do that, please note that for international delegates we only accept cash or euro traveller cheques on the door. Your own next step can be simple: a) come to Delhi; or b) if you really can't make it, tell one person you like and trust to come in your place - and offer to pay 50% of her or his costs.
March 08, 2005
A cure for the cable curse?
Ten days before Doors 7, our cable connection crashed and UPC were unable to fix it. Until, that is, I located the home phone number of UPC's European CEO; I called him during dinner to share my thoughts on the matter. By a happy coincidence, our cable connection was restored later that evening. Now, with less than two weeks to go before Doors 8, the same thing has happened. Our ADSL connection went down eight days ago - and remains down as I write. Friends and colleagues have spent much of last week and this telephoning a succession of persons at what is described with some exaggeration as the Wanadoo "help desk". This morning, a new voice said: "yes, now that you mention it, we have had major problems in Toulouse for some time". So that explains it. If you know the CEO of Wanadoo, take this advice: don't go near him/her during the next few weeks. I have wished really hard for this person to be visited by a plague of pustering sores and a painful parasitic infection.
February 10, 2005
Life in a swarm
The theme of Doors 8 - 'Infra' - is indeed rather broad. Today we've posted a list of adjacent organisations and projects that we've learned about in developing the programme. Doors 8 is about collaborative innovation - not about charity, aid, or top-down development - so we have not listed that vast part of the NGO swarm. A priority in Delhi is to identify design challenges that are not already being tackled by someone else. The list of speakers begins that selection process - but the main work will be done, with you, at the event itself.
January 29, 2005
Distribute then socialise
A 30 million euro scheme in London will make high speed broadband connections available to 20,000 people in a comparatively deprived area.The scheme will be accompanied by local online services such as community information, message boards, and voting mechanisms to enable referendums.'This is the most ambitious experiment of its kind in the UK, and will offer tantalising glimpses of how communities might function and govern themselves in future" comments Will Davies, an e-policy wonk at London's Institute for Public Policy Research. Davies, who is currently working on 'Manifesto for a Digital Britain', cautions that the Shoreditch experiment 'will be as valuable for its failures as for its successes. Whenever digital exuberance has ushered in such a plan, optimism has turned to crushing pessimism once it becomes clear that the internet is not the answer to all our social prayers'. If the Shoreditch project does end up a disappointment, it will be because it was conceived as a point-to-mass distribution system for pre-cooked services:online educational courses and video on demand are mentioned as highlights. A better outcome would be that the free phone calls that are part of the project trigger unexpected bottom-up P2P applications. Of course, you don't need costly broadband to enable free phone calls - but the British government probably feels sorry for the hapless telcos who paid it so many billions for broadband licenses.
November 08, 2004
Towards a cyberinfrastructure for collaboration
"The socio-institutional elements of a new infrastructure supporting collaboration - that is to say, its supposedly 'softer' parts - are every bit as complicated as the hardware and computer software and, indeed, may prove much harder to devise and implement" says the economist Paul David in a draft paper from the Oxford Internet Institute. David's comment can also be applied to the issues of social innovation that we will discuss at Doors 8. If someone knows how to live well, who owns that knowledge? And how do we share that knowledge in an equitable way? Policy wonks may check out David's paper here.
November 04, 2004
Advice, please, on those missing millions
The theme of Doors 8 is "Infra", which we interpret to span both hard and soft aspects of infrastructure in a networked society. Infra therefore includes people as well as systems. Now we keep reading that, in Europe alone, there's a shortage of 1.5 million information technology workers. A question arises: does this mean that, every day of the year, 1.5 million days of IT maintenance and development is not getting done? Has anyone studied what the effects are on our IT systems - and ourselves - if 548 million days of maintenance are missed each year?