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June 01, 2005

Self-service economy

Notes on social innovation and service design
June 2005
By John Thackara

The abuse of Asian telephone centre staff by customers is symptomatic of corporate cock-up on a grand scale says Simon Caulkin of the Observer newspaper. Caulkin has sharply attacked "the lengths to which companies will go to avoid drawing the right conclusions in favour of the self-serving and expedient". Irate calls to call centers in India have contributed to turnover rates touching 60 or 70 percent a year in some cases. Some call center operators have responded by offering staff psychological counseling and anger management courses. But, Caulkin points out angrily,"double alientation, of staff and of customers" is in fact to blame

The anarchist bookshop next to the pier in Seattle never fails to
yield interesting titles. I'm enjoying a book by Jim Diers called
"Neighbor Power: Building Community The Seattle Way". In the 1990s,
Diers helped Seattle neighborhoods face challenges ranging from gang
violence to urban growth. Many of the stories he tells here concern
small, local Tipping Point-like actions. Diers describes as
'asset-based' the often-modest actions that enable communities to
exploit resources - such as time, skills, or relationships - that
would be too small or scattered to interest a global company.

Business Week ran a brilliant story about the marketing strategies of Evangelical America. A traditional U.S. church typically has fewer than 200 members and an annual budget of around $100,000 - but the average mega church pulls in $4.8 million and a new one of those emerges every two days. Mega churches offer a great product - internal peace - and deploy the latest marketing techniques with great flair to sell it. As a hard-working book promoter myself, I was struck by the success of California pastor Rick Warren's book The Purpose-Driven Life: It has sold 23 million copies through a novel "pyro-marketing" strategy. I plan to apply this approach to "In The Bubble" right away.

"Many a garage inventor would argue that poorly designed, superfluous
products are necessary by-products of the innovation process, not
fundamental flaws in our design philosophy. Thackara deems it
foolhardy, but maybe it's Darwinian". Fast Company, in reviewing my
book, pinpoints a dilemma: how to combine trial-and-error innovation,
on the one hand, with the precautionary principle -consideration of
the consequences of design actions before we take them - on the
other. Yes, it's a conundrum - but do we have any right to carry on
treating the planet, our only home, as a glorified crash-test rig?

A Pimms-enhanced party at Demos, in London, was held to launch a new
strategy for the organization called "Building Everyday Democracy".
According to the think tank's director, Tom Bentley, "politics is
fighting a losing battle against forms of theatre and spectacle that
are more entertaining, and forms of conversation and social exchange
that are more meaningful to citizens. Without more direct citizen
participation, the legitimacy of our political institutions will
continue to decline". Democracy, for Bentley, should be understood as
"part of a capacity for self-organsation" - and his pamphlet
describes numerous neighbourhood-based models and institutions as
infrastructures of distributed democracy. The Demos project is
interesting, and timely, but somehow lacks cultural fizz. At the end
of the nineteenth century, the promise of speed and simultaneity,
amplified in popular and scientific culture, drove modernity along.
The opportunity, now, to "build local democracy" feels a good deal
less mesmerizing. A cultural- aesthetic transformation will be needed if the political strategy is to succeed. The Demos pamphlet is downloadable at:demos.co.uk

The European Commission has launched the Good Practice Framework to collect and publishe eGovernment case studies. The first batch ranges
from a "multi-channel Integrated Service System known as MISS" in
Barcelona, to an Icelandic Student Loan Fund and several digital ID
card projects. The organisers seem to be more interested in new tools
for local government than in the ways they might be used because the
site is light on critical discussion. But maybe that will come. The
project is launched at a workshop in Brussels on 17 June.egov-goodpractice.org

What would it be like to send and receive hugs rather than text
messages? Or stroke the TV to turn it on? An exhibition called Touch Me: Design and Sensation opens next week at the Victoria and Albert
Museum in London. Curated by Hugh Aldersey Williams, the exhibition
features experimental designs that engage playfully with the touch senses. These include artifacts are from IDEO, Droog, Marcel Wanders, and MIT Media Lab - not to mention some "impossibly stylish" sex toys. 16 June - 29 August, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A brutal policy change by its main sponsor, Telecom Italia, has forced Interaction Design Institute Ivrea to move to Milan and effectively merge with Domus Academy. The two organizations describe the move stoically as "a great opportunity for growth", but the fact remains that the Ivrea team will be broken up and funding for the combined entity drastically reduced. Telecom's decision is short-sighted and represents a stupendous destruction of value: It is breaking up a hub, five years in the making, for a new community of practice in a subject area strategically crucial for telecoms. Interaction Ivrea's end of year show opens Friday 10 June in Turin at 6pm at Via Porta Palatina 15.

Every year the Institute For The Future in Palo Alto publishes a map
of the decade ahead. Jason Tester, an alumnus of Interaction Design
Institute Ivrea, is helping IFTF enhance its maps by the development
of 'artifacts from the future'. At Ivrea, the design of enticing
representations of imagined futures was regarded as a core process.
(The technique, called 'evidencing', was introduced there by the
English service designers Live|Work).

Azby Brown has written a pertinent book for these sprawl-afflicted
times."The Very Small Home" describes 18 residential buildings built
within the past five years in Japan by leading architects such as
Tadao Ando and Shigeru Ban. www.amazon.com/

The latest issue of Design Philosophy Papers is on the theme
'De/re/materialisation'. Lead papers include Tony Fry & AM Willis on
Ecologies of Steel. The current issue is available free for
approximately 8 weeks.

The European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, wants to
create a European Institute of Technology to compete with MIT. The
EIT would be a network institution founded on six of the best
universities in the EU, according to one report we've seen (see url
below). But wait: the European Research Area already contains
hundreds of tech-based universities and research labs whose workers
interact and network with each other continuously. A new 'centre' is
the last thing this thriving ecosystem needs. It would be nice if
European firms would support our existing design institutions more.
Hasso Platner, founder of SAP, is giving tens of millions of dollars
to Stanford's new D-School. A even better idea would be a
networked-based Institute of Well-Being, directed by this author,
whose task would be celebrate the many facets of everyday life in
Europe that work perfectly well without clunky, expensive 'self
service' technology.

The most entertaining but also thoughtful challenger to Michael
Bloomberg for Mayor of New York is the Reverend Billy, leader of the
Church of Stop Shopping. The Reverend has announced plans to conduct
his entire campaign on premises of the Starbucks Corporation; he will
offer 258 sermons in 258 locations in the five boroughs of the city.
Reverend Billy is banned from Starbucks worldwide, possibly because
he describes the firm as a "community-destroyer". Or maybe it's
because a 40-strong gospel choir that sings "Put That Latte Down"
often accompanies him at his Starbucks manifestations. The book is
recommended, too: "What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is in My Store?"

Richard Florida's new book, The Flight of the Creative Class, argues
for "a broadening of the definition of creativity that will ennoble
and encourage the everyday efforts of ordinary occupations...from
housekeeper to fieldworker". By extending the concept of "creative
class" to cover most of the US population, it seems to me that
Florida has abandoned the notion that a discrete creative class
exists. This is a welcome change of position. The book ends with a
ghastly-sounding proposal for a "Global Creativity Commission", but
it also argues powerfully that diversity and immigration are good for
America. Citing many examples of foreign-born entrepreneurs who have
played central roles in the US economy - from Goggle's Sergey Bring,
to Vend Kola of Sun Microsystems - Florida argues that "the real
foreign threat to the American economy is not terrorism; it's that we
may make creative and talented people stop wanting to come here".

I was in San Francisco a week too early to attend World Environmental
Day when 100 mayors are brainstorming about environmental problems
worldwide. But according to Olivia Wu in the San Francisco Chronicle,
four Northern California women are viewing these global issues
through the prism of their own kitchens. Calling themselves the
Locavores, the women are passionate about eating locally and have
devised a way to show others how to do that, too. With San Francisco
as the centre, they have drawn a circle with a 100- mile radius from
the city, and are urging people to buy, cook and eat from within that
"foodshed" in a month long challenge in August called "Celebrate Your
Foodshed: Eat Locally." (Thanks to Debra Solomon for this lead).

A well-meaning friend gave me a copy of Gabriel Zaid's "So Many Books" to read while on my book promotion tour."A new book is published every 30 seconds" Zaid begins. During 34 days on the road, this statistic was never far from my mind. Several of my stops were at large bookstores where the vanity of expecting one's book to be noticed, let alone read, amid literally acres of new titles, would have been sad if it were not also laughable. But the second half of Zaid's book kept me going, and cheerful. He counsels writers to reframe the purpose of their of their work - away from commanding the attention of millions, to starting conversations, some of them small, that will end...who knows where.thackara.com/inthebubblewww.amazon.com/exec/104-

Posted by John Thackara at June 1, 2005 03:53 PM