Random finds (2016, week 28) — On good design, meaningful innovation, and how to make cities work for people
Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.
On good design and meaningful innovation
From Do Design. Why beauty is key to everything by Alan Moore (page 20, The roots of design):
“The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said the question of beauty takes us away from the surfaces to thinking about the core foundations of things. This insight is vital to understanding that good design can touch all our lives in the minutes detail — and good design is foundational to beauty and what we bring into the world.
By returning to our roots of making, crafting, designing, our world would be a better place to live.
We can use design to work on behalf of the human spirit, to uplift us physically and spiritually, to connect us to our human nature. Design elevates, nurtures and improves our lot. It intertwines our spiritual and material wellbeing.”
And then there are slippers …
In Who Needs Convertible Slippers?, Ian Bogost wonders why designers obsess over ‘revolutionizing’ products. Not everything has to be reinvented, he argues.
“‘Hang on, I just have to put my soles on,’ I call after the kids, who are racing out the door for a trip to the market. The soles in question are two dove-gray, rubber flaps that snap to the bottoms of my slippers, which I have just imported from London. A slipper-transformer that will transition me from scruffy writer-dad to euro-sleek snacks prospector in mere moments. I am excited. I am embracing design.”
Bogost’s Mahabis aren’t just ordinary slippers. Like so many startups, also Mahabis is ‘reinventing’ something. In their case, the slipper.
According to Bogost, reinvention is a fundamentally modernist drive. One of its sources is a famous aphorism of the 19th-century American architect and ‘father of skyscrapers,’ Louis Sullivan: ‘Form follows function.’
“As modernism became synonymous with the minimalism of Bauhaus and Functionalism throughout in the 20th century, ornament and tradition gave way to simplicity and extraction. The eventual result was the fusion of art, craft, design, and technology that even slippers take as a given today. For designers like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, art became an expression of structure, order, and clarity in life. The Braun industrial designer Dieter Rams evolved that clarity into 10 now-famous design principles, including innovation, utility, and longevity. Rams has had enormous impact on populist neo-minimalism in consumer goods — including Apple’s famously minimalist products and their subsequent influences, among them Mahabis slippers.”
[More Dieter Rams in this interview with Alessandro Mendini (Domus, April 1984).]
The problem however, is that simplicity and innovation unmoored from function. “Soon enough, for example, the iPhone might not have a headphone jack. Not because form must follow function, but because Apple’s product roadmap demands it — better audio, thinner phones, proprietary accessories, closing the analog loophole,” writes Bogost. “Innovation also changes purposes. Removing the eighth-of-an-inch jack from the smartphone changes function by changing form. Increasingly, innovation’s benefits are unclear. Sometimes it serves secret goals, as in Apple’s case. Other times, innovation becomes the goal, no matter its contribution to form or function.”
“When lifestyle products have adopted the design sensibilities of technology, innovation and simplicity are supposed to blend, offering access to both efficiency and meaning all at once. But the result shares more in common with associative marketing — connecting products to lifestyle aspirations — than it does with functionalist design. Nike makes you believe in your capacity to be athletic. Jeep affirms your sense of hypothetical outdoorsiness. Whether you ever visit the cross-fit parlor in your trainers or take your SUV off-road doesn’t matter. The products rely on the idea of doing so as sufficient.”
‘Revolution’ as the ultimate branding exercise. The operation of a product, whether it’s an automobile, a smartphone, an app, or a slipper, is less important than the depth of its commitment to the rhetoric of innovation. It’s not just Mahabis of course. Rainshader crows about its ‘revolutionary umbrellas,’ while Forkable promises to ‘reinvent lunch.’ What it would actually mean to reinvent slippers or lunch, doesn’t seem to matter much. What matters though, is that the reinvention is promised and packaged, like a MacBook in a shiny box.
The virtue in design is in embracing the traditions that make things what they already are.
Bogost concludes by saying that “innovation has become so diluted that true reinvention must reverse it. The true reinvention of slippers — or of anything — must involve the humility of acknowledging that most things precede us. Perhaps the virtue in design needed most today isn’t making something old new again, nor even in making something complex simple. Rather, it’s in embracing the traditions that make things what they already are, instead of assuming that what they might become is most important.”
Also Allison Arieff writes in Solving All the Wrong Problems about design and innovation. “Every day, innovative companies promise to make the world a better place. Are they succeeding?”, she asks. According to her, we are overloaded with new discoveries, patents and inventions all promising a better life, but that better life has not been forthcoming for most. In fact, the bulk targets a very specific, and tiny slice of the population. For most people working on such projects, the goal is basically to “provide for themselves everything that their mothers no longer do.”
“The impulse to conflate toothbrush delivery with Nobel Prize-worthy good works is not just a bit cultish,” Arieff writes, “it’s currently a wildfire burning through the so-called innovation sector. Products and services are designed to ‘disrupt’ market sectors (a.k.a. bringing to market things no one really needs) more than to solve actual problems, especially those problems experienced by what the writer C.Z. Nnaemeka has described as ‘the unexotic underclass’ — single mothers, the white rural poor, veterans, out-of-work Americans over 50 — who, she explains, have the ‘misfortune of being insufficiently interesting.’”
But if the most fundamental definition of design is to solve problems, why are so many people devoting so much energy to solving problems that don’t really exist? How can we get more people to look beyond their own lived experience?
In a recently published book, Design. The Invention of Desire, designer and theorist Jessica Helfand argues that empathy, humility, compassion, and conscience are the key ingredients missing in the pursuit of innovation. In her book she explores design, and by extension innovation, as an intrinsically human discipline — albeit one that seems to have lost its way. Like Bogost, Jessica Helfand argues that innovation is now predicated less on creating and more on the undoing of the work of others.
“In this humility-poor environment, the idea of disruption appeals as a kind of subversive provocation, too many designers think they are innovating when they are merely breaking and entering.” — Jessica Helfand
In Dear Silicon Valley: Forget Flying Cars, Give Us Economic Growth, David Rotman takes a different angle. “Given impressive advances in artificial intelligence, smart robots, and driverless cars,” Rotman writes, “it’s easy to become convinced that we are on the verge of a new technological age. But the troubling reality is that today’s advances are having a far from impressive impact on overall economic growth. Facebook, Twitter, and other digital technologies undoubtedly bring great value to many people, but those benefits are not translating into a substantial economic boost. If you think Silicon Valley is going to fuel growing prosperity, you are likely to be disappointed — or you’d better be patient.”
New digital technologies, even such impressive ones as artificial intelligence, won’t by themselves soon revive the economy, never mind solve problems like climate change. “The fact that you have cheaper computers doesn’t allow you to store energy,” says David Autor, an economist at MIT. “You can have all the computing power you want in your Tesla. It doesn’t solve the problem that the batteries are expensive, heavy, and have low energy density.” To radically improve productivity, we need to solve key ‘bottlenecks’ in such sectors as energy, education, and health care, but there seems to be little commercial excitement in these areas.
In 2010, Intel cofounder and longtime CEO Andy Grove, who died in March, wrote a prescient essay lamenting that Silicon Valley no longer builds what it invents. He was worried that Silicon Valley was no longer creating jobs as it once had. “Grove’s essay is a poignant reminder that our economic fate is still intimately tied to ‘old’ industries like manufacturing, and that creating jobs still matters. Digital technologies could greatly help in many sectors if businesses adopt them more fully; using software and the Internet to improve the efficiency of health care alone would have an enormous impact on the economy. But we’ll also need to invent and deploy innovations beyond digital technologies, in materials, 3-D printing, genomics, and energy.” Rotman writes.
At X, Alphabet’s ‘moonshot factory,’ they seem to realize that to truly solve large problems, it needs to go beyond the software strengths of the parent company. Indeed, X prides itself on its hardware expertise and its focus on materials and engineering. In projects like its autonomous cars, the digital and physical worlds meet up. According to Obi Felten, who is X’ ‘head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world,’ one of the criteria for selecting moon shots is that its advance could affect at least one billion people.
“The success of X will depend not only on its engineering creativity but, perhaps more important, on how well it understands what different industries need and what consumers want,” Rotman writes. The failure of Google Glass is fresh on everyone’s mind. “The venture capitalist Peter Thiel captured much of the criticism of Silicon Valley when he said, ‘We were promised flying cars, and we got 140 characters.’ He’s right to question the lack of ambition in much of the tech industry, but the quote also betrays a distracting bias. Most of us don’t in fact have any desire or need for flying cars. We would gladly settle for a healthy economy and more well-paying jobs. That will take some true ‘moonshots.’”
A bit more …
The total area covered by the world’s cities is set to triple in the next 40 years — eating up farmland and threatening the planet’s sustainability. Ahead of the latest Urban Age conference, Mark Swilling, distinguished professor of sustainable development at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, says it is time to stop the sprawl.
“Overall, however, our current urban population of around 3.9 billion is expected to grow to around 6.34 billion by 2050, out of a total global population of at least 9.5 billion. If we continue to design and build as if the planet can provide unlimited resources, then this near-doubling of the urban population will mean a doubling of the natural resources required to build and operate our cities — which is not sustainable.”
“Across the world, it would be a mistake to focus solely on improving the average densities of cities. Los Angeles has a higher average density than New York, for example, yet LA is regarded as a dysfunctional urban form while NY is functional, because it comprises a network of high-density neighbourhoods interconnected by efficient and affordable mass transit systems.”
“Compare this [China’s high-rise, multi-storey buildings located in ‘superblocks’ with wide, traffic-congested streets and few intersections per sq km] with the neighbourhoods you find in Barcelona, where buildings are five to eight storeys high, located on narrow streets with pavements, trees and small piazzas for social engagement, and all well connected to both motorised and non-motorised forms of transport. This is what makes for liveable urban neighbourhoods.”
Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl has spent decades making sure cities work for people, not the other way around.
“What we have to address now is making livable, healthy, safe, and sustainable cities,” Gehl says. It’s a topic he’s written about in his books Cities for People and Life Between Buildings, and spoken about in The Human Scale, a documentary about his life’s work. His research and theories have inspired a generation of planners and urbanists who are intent on reclaiming cities for people. On the heels of a recent lecture he gave at the Van Alen Institute in New York, Fast.CoDesign asked him about the most pressing urbanism problems of today and what he thinks the path forward should be.
“Cars are leftover from another time.” — Jan Gehl
“We were created as a walking animal, and our senses have developed for slow movement at about three miles an hour,” Gehl says speaking to our range of vision and hearing. “A good city is something built around the human body and the human senses so you can have maximum use of your ability to move and your ability to experience. That is a very important issue. For many years, we have broken all the rules to make automobiles happy. If you want to point to a place where there are people walking, and it’s a great sensation, where the senses can be used extremely well, look at Venice. And if you want the other experience, go to Brasilia.”
“A cook in his kitchen or hockey player on the ice makes clear distinctions between what’s worth paying attention to and what is not. They perceive their surroundings with a nuance and richness lost to the uninitiated. They exert agency, in other words, on the formation of the world beyond their head. When you exist outside of such ecologies, by contrast, you lose this agency and your world is instead shaped for you by other, often mechanistic means — be it Facebook’s newsfeed or the algorithm Niantic Labs deploys to locate Pokemon on your block,” writes Cal Newport, author of, amongst others, Deep Work.
“This idea is subversive,” he continues. “Since Descartes, we’ve lionized the ability for the individual to create his or her own value judgments. But when it comes to the question of what we pay attention to Crawford argues we need help. My intuition is that many of my generation are increasingly craving a return to this attentional autonomy. There’s something dehumanizing about the endless attention engineered feeds scrolling by on smart phones. We’re ready for the hard, structured work required to take back control of our mental life.”
Most economists — from Adam Smith and Karl Marx to Thomas Piketty — say the Great Enrichment since 1800 came from accumulated capital. McCloskey disagrees, fiercely. “Our riches,” she argues, “were made not by piling brick on brick, bank balance on bank balance, but by piling idea on idea.” Capital was necessary, but so was the presence of oxygen. It was ideas, not matter, that drove “trade-tested betterment.” Nor were institutions the drivers. The World Bank orthodoxy of “add institutions and stir” doesn’t work, and didn’t. McCloskey builds a powerful case for the initiating role of ideas — ideas for electric motors and free elections, of course, but more deeply the bizarre and liberal ideas of equal liberty and dignity for ordinary folk. Liberalism arose from theological and political revolutions in northwest Europe, yielding a unique respect for betterment and its practitioners, and upending ancient hierarchies. Commoners were encouraged to have a go, and the bourgeoisie took up the Bourgeois Deal, and we were all enriched.
Read Matt Ridley’s book review here: http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/bourgeois-equality.
“Fears of civilization-wide idleness are based too much on the downsides of being unemployed in a society premised on the concept of employment,” writes Elana E. Strauss in Would a Work-Free World Be So Bad?
“So what might a work-free U.S. look like? Gray [Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College] has some ideas. School, for one thing, would be very different. ‘I think our system of schooling would completely fall by the wayside,’ says Gray. ‘The primary purpose of the educational system is to teach people to work. I don’t think anybody would want to put our kids through what we put our kids through now.’ Instead, Gray suggests that teachers could build lessons around what students are most curious about. Or, perhaps, formal schooling would disappear altogether.”
“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people. Design is made for people.” — Dieter Rams