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April 01, 2005

Lessons of infra

Doors of Perception Report
April 2005
Reflection On Doors 8 In New Delhi
By John Thackara

People take different things away from a conference. Much of the
value is created in situation-specific encounters than cannot easily
be shared. But second-hand information is better than none, so we've
put most of the presentations given at Doors 8 online, together with
a few hundred photos. If you know of other photo collections or blog
entries, please send us the url: .

One takeaway from Doors 8 was an understanding that enabling
platforms for social innovation need to meet three criteria: they
should creatively engage the people they are intended for; they
should help people to evaluate the new against the old; and they
should help local people retain control over their own resources. Big
corporations may have a role to play here as providers of enabling
platforms - but not as the proprietors of of finished products or
services. The challenge is to design system architectures that promote
local leaderships, and that keep power, knowledge, and the value
generated, at local level.

A majority of the population in many Asian cities lives in shanty
towns which make urban planners anxious. Although perceived as
problem areas by bureaucrats, these areas are also sites of intense
social and business innovation. We learned in Delhi that they play a
crucial role in keeping the city and its economy running. Indian
users of technology-based devices cannot rely on formal networks of
distribution, support, and maintenance: These are often incomplete,
unimaginative or unrealistically priced. They therefore turn to the
temporary fixes, or 'jugaads', carried out by Indian street
technicians. An army of pavement-based engineers keeps engines,
television tubes, compressors and other devices working. Outside our
office in Delhi, for example, hundreds of tiny workshops, plus sole
traders sitting on on the street, sold (and fixed) the countless
hardware peripherals that keep office life running. Everything from
toner cartridges to USB sticks was available, and bustling basements
contained amazing arrays of ancient monitors, terminals and
motherboards awaiting repair. The irony is this: many bureaucrats
(and property profiteers) in Asia want to get rid of these so-called
suitcase entrepreneurs; but in the North, proponents of 'creative
cities' are desperate to foster a comparable level of small-scale
industries and street-level productivity.

Our discussions of service design for emerging economies left a
tricky question unanswered: how do we determine when is a market is
'emerging' - and when it has emerged? Is it possible to design the
relationship between small pilot projects, as potential tipping
points, and large scale system or market change? Ezio Manzini half
answered that last question with the observation that "small is not
small". Small is also not neutral. Small design actions have become
political, Manzini explained, because anything that shapes
connectivity and information architecture inevitably impacts on
knowledge and value - and therefore power. For Chris Downs and Ben
Reason, we are "less in a transition than in a u-turn: we have to
design for less, rather than more", and shift our attention from the
individual user's needs, to the social use of a service or
system. Tilly Blyth cautioned us to remember that social innovation is
usually unintended: "The history of interaction between
technoloigical change and social change should be part of the policy
and innovation process - but is not".

One "Aha!" moment in Delhi was the realisation that re-mix is not just
about new music and vj-ing. Re:mix also signals a broader cultural
shift away from the preoccupation with individual authorship that has
rendered art (and management) so tiresome in recent times. In
architecture circles, the concept of "recombinant design" has been
doing the rounds - but re-mix, as flagged by Joi ito, is a better
word. One visiting re-mixer at Doors 8, Juhuu (Juha Huuskonen), ran a
terrific workshop on VJing in Delhi. Juhu is also behind an event in
Helsinki (14-17 April) called PixelACHE which brings together new
media explorations of this cultural shift.

The foreigners among us arrived in New Delhi at the same time as
Condoleeza Rice. She was in town to sell F16s and nuclear power
station technology. We were in town to sell the idea that design for
social capital is a better investment. While Condi shows powerpoints
to air force generals, Doors of Perception design teams fanned out
across the city. Debra Solomon's Nomadic Banquet team checked out
street food and food distribution systems. Jogi Panghaal led a group
exploring the city's markets. Juha Huuskonen taught a group how to
VJ. Jan Chipchase engaged in guerilla ethnography... somewhere. The
idea was to experience the city as a design school in practice. Later
on, Tony Salvador from Intel made a persuasive case that the massive
microchip company takes the work of ethnographers and anthropologists
seriously."We're trying to understand how to connect local with
global knowledge. To do that we have to think about local knowledge
ecosystems, not just about devices". Salvador showed us a case study
in which ex-pat Kashmiris, now working in the US, send family members
a coupon for a goat. The goats looked unaware of their fate.

These street-level workshops sparked a debate about ethics and
ethnography. By what right do we swan around a city capturing
information about peoples lives? If we are to exchange value - rather
than just take it, or act like cultural tourists - what do we have to
offer? Alok Nandi made the point that ethnographers - and for that
matter documentary film makers - have been wrestling with this issue
for decades, and why don't we ask them about the issue? (We will).
Nandi was critical of the "dive bombing" method in which people land
in places cold, and start filming things that they see, but have no
way of understanding.(A British professor, Jonathan Gosling, refers
to this as "The Mir Experience" - dropping in on another galaxy from
within one's own spaceship). Jogi Panghaal countered that fresh eyes
can reveal hidden value and thus mobilise neglected local resources.
Visiting designers can act like mirrors, reflecting things about a
situation that local people no longer notice or value. Shamefully,
too many visiting designers promise local people they will do this,
but never get around to sharing their conclusions and documentation.

Upon arriving in Delhi, Garrick Jones told me how intrigued he had
been by the Duchamp-related theme of Doors 8. Marcel Duchamp's
concept of "infra-thin" - an "invisible and intangible separation
between two things, a space in which the possible impies the
becoming" - struck him as highly appropriate. I was forced, at this
point, to confess to Garrick that the Duchamp reference was new to
me. The original inspiration for the theme had been shiny green
consruction diggers in The Netherlands that sport the words "Bam
Infra". These words had perplexed me for years.

At a meeting of people from universities, design and architecture
schools, we heard that the London School of Economics is receiving
30,000 applications a month from China.

A surprising number of presenters introduced themselves as
"ex-architects". The ExArchs included Marco Susani, who develops new
services for Motorola; Margrit Kennedy, who redesigns money systems;
and Usman Haque, who makes structures that float and emote. A British
contingent of service designers included four ex-architects who
design health situations. Industrial ecologist Ezio Manzini designs
knowledge-sharing projects. And Aditya Dev Sood, another ExArch,
nicknamed his panel session "architecture as old media". An
ex-planner from Bangalore, Solomon Benjamin, told us that only ten
percent of the population of Delhi lives in a master-planned area;
probably fewer live in a building designed by an architect. Among the
ExArchs engaged by the complex relationships among city locations and
the activities they contain were media artists Ashok Sukuraman and
Usman Haque: both talked about site-responsive media interventions as
a way to enrich the experience of people in places. Maybe they're not
Ex-, after all.

Actually building a location-based service, and making it pay as a
business, is easier said than done. Stefan Magdalinski shared some of
the lessons he learned developing upmystreet.com, a service platform
based on the real patches of inhabited land connoted by Britain's 1.7
million postcodes. The reality of information flows at this
ultra-local level eludes the big infrastructure providers, said
Magdalinski - and he left the project himself when its P2P ambitions
did turn into a sustainable business. (For all you bloggers out
there, Magdalinski gave us one of the week's more memorable factoids:
fewer than one percent of a website's visitors usually contribute or
comment - and people usually only start contributing after they have
been visiting a site for three years).

Laurent Gutierrez and Valerie Portefaix, who are MapOffice in Hong
Kong, previewed their stunning new book, 'HK Lab 2'. It contains
photography, maps, and writing about the Special Administrative
Region and China's Pearl River Delta. When not working in the
informal economy, a floating population of more than 15 million
migrant workers sleeps in dormitories so small that there is no room
to accumulate consumer goods. As a result, new patterns of living,
consuming, and play have emerged; these challenge traditional notions
of efficiency, order, and creativity in city design. Buy a copy of
the book at:

The problem faced by Tim Tomkins, who runs the Times Square Alliance
in New York, is that his city has been rendered clean - but
culturally barren. In retrofitting creative disorder to the streets
of Manhattan, Tomkins seeks to accomodate both creators and
observers. Meanwhile New York's hard infrastructure design supremo,
David Burney, used fabulous visualisations of New York's underground
infrastructures to remind us that his city's water consumption, at
1.5 billion gallons a day for 8 million people, is unsustainable -
just like New Delhi's. The good news is that 40 percent of New York's
solid waste is now being recycled, and the city will save nearly $50m
a year just by installing energy efficient traffic lights.

Returning to soft infrastructures, a contingent of service designers
seemed comfortable in their new role as enablers, rather than
providers, of a service - in this case, health. Jennie Winhall and
Chris Vanstone from RED, at the UK Design Council, presented a
persuasive design methodology for public services. We then saw the
results of a six month project commissioned by NESTA and the National
Health Service, from four design firms, that examined the potential
for patients with long-term health conditions to co-produce and then
lead their own 'journey of care'.The idea was to make the experience
of different actors visible to all stakeholders in a storyboard
format that pinpointed moments when communication blockages are most
likely to occur. (The presentations for this part of Doors 8 are not
yet online, but will be soon).

Ex-architect Margrit Kennedy delivered a stunningly clear analysis of
why the world financial system is doomed.The bad news is that an
horrendous crash is more likely than a soft landing.The good news is
that complementary money systems are spreading fast in different
parts of the world. Taken as a group, these experiments are evidence
that we can do something, now. They also provide us with a real-life
picture of what social transformation from the bottom-up actually
looks like. Non-cash exchange systems and complementary currencies
are, for some, where a genuinely new economy is being born - and
where so-called emerging economies are in many respects ahead of
"developed" ones.

If a light and therefore sustainable economy means sharing resources
more effectively - such as time, skill, or food - then economic
systems for exchanging non-market work have to be part of the answer.
Sunil Abraham, a leader of the Free and Open Solurce Software (FOSS)
movement in South Asia, added software to that list. When discussing
access, and the digital divide, the cost of devices is less crucial
than Total Costs of Ownership including, especially, the costs of
software. Because software is a $300 billion industry, its leaders
find it hard to understand that, when 90% of Africans in rural areas
live on between no and two dollars a day,tThe price of a typical
basic proprietory software package would cost someone in South Africa
the equivalent of $7,500 and in Vietnam, $48,000. 'Information For
Development' Magazine (i4d) is an excellent monthly publication on
these crucial issues; its sister magazine 'eGov' is also recommended.
You can order them both online at:

How best shall we share design knowledge when and where it is most
needed? Books, databases, or blogs that contain insights, tools and
rules are a powerful support. But much important knowledge is
embodied, and situated. How do we share that? Jimmy Wales, founder of
Wikipedia, quoted some spectacular numbers to describe the
effectiveness of large-scale co-operative voluntary work enabled by
carefully designed internet tools: there are currently 400 million
page views per month of Wikipedia's 1.5 million articles - in 200
languages. The whole thing (if it is a thing) is doubling every three
months. For Wales, the key ingredients in the design of the Wikipedia
platform are: a policy of favouring results over process; flexible
quality control using versioning and easy-to-use editing features;
community features such as talk pages; and, above all, Wikipedia's
Neutral Point Of View (NPOV). This last concept prompted a number of
"now wait a minute!" comments from philosophical relativists in the
room. Wales easily held his own with an explanation that Wikipedia's
system of governance combines consensus, democracy, aristocracy - and
absolute monarchy.

Wikipedia is a hard act to beat in terms of formal and recordable
knowledge. But what about lived, everyday, embodied knowledge?
Several knowledge-sharing designers - Francois Jegou (Sustainable
Everyday) Amrit Srinavasan (Paedia), and Kamil Vijay (Honeybee
Network) - found this to be a challenging design issue. The Honeybeee
Network, for example, has documented 48,000 rural innovations - but a
lot of them are hard to transfer from one situation to another; the
system doesn't scale. Kamil described how one plant, which farmers
stated adamantly was effective at resisting a particular kind of
pest, failed to reproduce the effect when tested in a lab. It
transpired that what the plant did, in situ, was attract another kind
of insect, which also only lived locally, and that that insect
disturbed the pest insect's eggs. But the egg-disturbing insect had
not been taken to the lab. And those are just bugs. Two Bombay-based
designers, John and Sanjeev from Kudos, spent months living among and
documenting street food vendors of Bombay. Their material was rich,
and entrancing - but what to do with it?

Marko Ahtisaari, reflecting on the infrastructure of sharing, listed
what for him are today's 'primitives' of social experience: the gift;
re-mix; 1:1 signalling; photostreams; and tuning out. Sanjay Khanna
asked, in response to this analysis: is nothing sacred? Joi Ito
proposed open-ness - and added that it is a condition of an open
society that monopolies be broken up.

>From my lodging house in Delhi I heard: No airconditioning roar.
Pigeons fidgeting in the metal box above my window that used to
contain an airconditioning unit The long moan of a freight train's
horn as it crosses the city. Dogs fighting. Monkeys monkeying. Birds
that miaaow like cats while swooping overhead. Loud insects shouting
at each other. People sweeping leaves off their drive. Pedestrians
saying "sshhhh" to cows so they will move out of the way. And the
cries of street traders on a variety of bikes: the man with eggs; the
man with the pink and red fruit; the knife sharpener; and the man
with brightly coloured brushes and feather dusters who looks like a
huge electrocuted parrot as he moves with his wares up the street.
Later someone demonstrates the cry of the mattress rumpling man, but
I have no need of his services.


Posted by John Thackara at April 1, 2005 03:52 PM