John’s vision 1

THE SCHLOCK OF THE NEW

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One of the things that drove me to write In The Bubble was boredom with the schlock of the new. Many of the “preferred situations” that Simon talked about already exist—but in a different and often unexpected context. One of the things you can do next Monday morning, after reading this book, is walk out of your door and take a look around. I am confident you will be surprised by the variety of social innovation taking place in your environment. I have been.

That said, addressing the question “Where do we want to be?” brings us up against an innovation dilemma. We’ve built a technology-focused society that is remarkable on means, but hazy about ends. It’s no longer clear to which question all this stuff—tech—is an answer, or what value it adds to our lives. But many people I meet assume that being innovative means “add technology to it.” Technology has become a powerful, self-replicating system that is accustomed to respect and receives the lion’s share of research funding. In NASDAQ, tech even has its own stock exchange.

I do not suggest that we have fallen out of love with technology, more that we are regaining appreciation and respect for what people can do that tech can’t. Throughout the modern age we have subordinated the interests of people to those of technology, an approach that has led to the unthinking destruction of traditional cultures and the undermining of forms of life that we judged, once, to be backward. The victims of this approach to modernization have not just been hapless people in rain forests. “Getting people to adapt” to new technology has affected us all. We believed that the assembly line and standardization would make the world a better place, yet along with efficiency came a dehumanization of work. We act no less as slaves to the machine today when we lambaste teachers as “obstacles to progress” when they do not embrace the latest technological fix for education.

The introduction of a new mass technology—telegraph, railway, electrification, radio, telephone, television, automobiles, air travel—has always been accompanied by a spectacular package of promises. A certain naïveté is excusable for the inventors of those early technologies: They had no way of knowing about the unforeseen consequences of their innovations. Today, we don’t have that alibi. We know that new technologies have unexpected consequences.

Being skeptical about technology does not mean rejecting it. For one thing, we don’t have an either/or choice: Terra firma, and terabits, are both here to stay. Broadband, smart materials, wearables, pervasive computing, connected appliances, and other stuff we don’t know about yet will continue to transform the ways we live. The question is, how?

Means and ends have lived apart too long in discussions of innovation. Understanding why things change—and reflecting on how they should change—are not separate issues. We need to reframe issues of technology and innovation in ways that make it easier for nonspecialists to engage in meaningful dialogue—as things happen.

We cannot stop tech, and there’s no reason why we should. It’s useful. But we can change the innovation agenda and insist that people come before tech. It will be an ongoing struggle, of course. From nineteenth-century mill owners to twentieth-century dot.commers, businesspeople have looked for ways to remove people from production, using technology and automation to do so. A lot of organizations will continue on this path, but they’re behind the times.

A transition is already under way from innovation driven by science fiction to innovation inspired by social fiction.

It’s not that we’re dumb. On the contrary, many millions of people have exerted great intelligence and creativity in building the modern world. It’s more that we’re being swept into unknown and dangerous waters by accelerating economic growth. On just one single day of the days I have spent writing this book, as much world trade was carried out as in the whole of 1949; as much scientific research was published as in the whole of 1960; as many telephone calls were made as in all of 1983; as many e-mails were sent as in 1990. Our natural, human, and industrial systems, which evolve slowly, are struggling to adapt. Laws and institutions that we might expect to regulate these flows have not been able to keep up.

A good example is what is inaccurately described as mindless sprawl in our physical environment. We deplore the relentless spread of low-density suburbs over millions of acres of formerly virgin land. We worry about its environmental impact, about the obesity in people that it fosters, and about the other social problems that come in its wake. But nobody seems to have designed urban sprawl, it just happens—or so it appears. On closer inspection, however, urban sprawl is not mindless at all. There is nothing inevitable about its development. Sprawl is the result of zoning laws designed by legislators, low-density buildings designed by developers, marketing strategies designed by ad agencies, tax breaks designed by economists, credit lines designed by banks, geomatics designed by retailers, data-mining software designed by hamburger chains, and automobiles designed by car designers. The interactions between all these systems and human behavior are complicated and hard to understand—but the policies themselves are not the result of chance. “Out of control” is an ideology, not a fact.

In a less-stuff-more-people world, we still need systems, platforms, and services that enable people to interact more effectively and enjoyably. These platforms and infrastructures will require some technology and a lot of design. Some services will help us share the load of everyday activities: washing clothes on the roof of apartment blocks, looking after children, communal kitchens and gardens, communal workshops for maintenance activities, tool and equipment sharing, networks and clubs for health care and prevention. The most important potential impact of wireless communications, for example, will be on the resource ecologies of cities. Connecting people, resources, and places to each other in new combinations, on a real-time basis, delivers demand-responsive services that, when combined with location awareness and dynamic resource allocation, have the potential to reduce drastically the amount of hardware—from gadgets to buildings—that we need to function effectively. Most of us are potentially both users and suppliers of resources. The principle of use, not own can apply to all kinds of hardware: buildings, roads, vehicles, offices—and above all, people. For more or less anything heavy and fixed, we don’t have to own them – just know how and where to find them.

There are many things wrong with design in our world, but designers, as a group of people, are not the problem. Thirty years ago, in Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek observed that “there are professions more harmful than industrial design—but only a few.” This kind of blaming and shaming is counterproductive and unjustified. The world contains its share of selfish and incurious designers, of course. But no designer that I ever met set out to wreck the planet, force us to eat fast food, or make life miserable. Our dilemma is that small design actions can have big effects—often unexpectedly—and designers have only recently been told, with the rest of us, how incredibly sensitive we need to be to the possible consequences of any design steps we take.

Another reason not to blame designers for our ills is that many of them are working hard, right now, to fix them. They are designing new services and systems that are radically less environmentally damaging, and more socially responsible, than the ones we have now. This book contains many examples of their often-inspiring work. But the challenges and opportunities that face us will not be solved by designers acting on our behalf. On the contrary: As we suffuse the world with complex technical systems—on top of the natural and social systems already here—old-style top-down, outside-in design simply won’t work. The days of the celebrity solo designer are over. Complex systems are shaped by all the people who use them, and in this new era of collaborative innovation, designers are having to evolve from being the individual authors of objects, or buildings, to being the facilitators of change among large groups of people.

Sensitivity to context, to relationships, and to consequences are key aspects of the transition from mindless development to design mindfulness. At the heart of In the Bubble is a belief that ethics and responsibility can inform design decisions without constraining the social and technical innovation we all need to do. Design mindfulness involves a determination to

• think about the consequences of design actions before we take them and pay close attention to the natural, industrial, and cultural systems that are the context of our design actions;
• consider material and energy flows in all the systems we design;
• give priority to human agency and not treat humans as a “factor” in some bigger picture;
• deliver value to people—not deliver people to systems;
• treat “content” as something you do, not something are sold;
• treat place, time, and cultural difference as positive values, not as obstacles;
• focus on services, not on things, and refrain from flooding the world with pointless devices .

Our journey is not an easy one. We need to think, connect, act, and start processes with sensitivity We need to foster new relationships outside our usual stomping grounds. We have to learn new ways to collaborate and do projects. We have to enhance the ability of all citizens to engage in meaningful dialogue about their environment and context and foster new relationships between the people who make things and the people who use them. The “we” here is important. In a world of complex systems and constant change, we are all, unavoidably, “in the bubble.” The challenge is to be both in the bubble and above it, at the same time—to be as sensitive to the big picture, and the destination we are headed for, as we are to the smallest details of the here and the now.

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