17 December 2008

Elegant design, elegant frugality

In his seminal work Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek discusses the very essence of design, which he suggests is embodied two characteristics: precision and simplicity. He goes on to suggest that these two characteristics are best captured in the (scientific) notion of elegance, that which is gracefully concise, simple and admirably succinct. (In addition to intellectual satisfaction, Papanek suggested that aesthetic satisfaction can also be derived from reducing something from "the complex to the simple", into what he called elegant solutions.) Elegant design or elegance in design is something that has been touched upon by others, including author and professor M. J. French referenced here. Unfortunately, the term elegant design has not really caught on, perhaps because of the more typical associations made between elegance and interior design, etc. Yet, elegant design deserves another look as it embodies key guiding characteristics or principles.

Of course the narrower scientific definition of the elegance has great relevance in these times of climate change and resource scarcity, and the term "elegant frugality" appears to be gaining currency (see Porritt and Lovins for example). However, elegant frugality does appear to be something of a tautology as the simplicity and precision suggested in the definition of elegance above connote "economy in the use of resources", which is the definition of frugality. No matter. Its import is that commentators are increasingly articulating the very real need to look anew at how resources are consumed, whether in a product or service, at the level of the individual, the community, the nation. When one considers that, for example, 70-80% of a product's environmental impact is determined at the design stage, the importance of elegant frugality cannot be overstated.

Our economies are hung over from over-indulgence and greed. Resource scarcity, from credit scarcity to food and water scarcity, will shape our world for the foreseeable future. These are challenging times, and whether designer, innovator or architect of change, it is propitious to consider the guiding values of simplicity and precision, and efficiency and economy, that underly the notion of elegance.

11 December 2008

The Age of Scarcity

The current financial crisis has shown the terrible effects of wanton risk taking and resource gluttony (in this case other people's hard earned monies). The resulting credit scarcity has devastated individuals, families, communities and businesses. Yet, the credit scarcity is but one of many that will force changes in everything from the life styles of the poor and the wealthy, to the geopolitics of nations.

In short order there will be a range of other resource scarcities to contend with - food, fuel, water, shelter, raw materials, labor, etc. We are entering a period of time that will be shaped by pressures felt not only at the individual level, but more critically at the community and national levels - from the lack of water in many parts of the world through to the lack of energy sources in others. Individually, these scarcities will impact nations in different ways, but the impact will be felt globally. The disruption brought about by scarcity in one region will be felt elsewhere as our interrelated and systems based world no longer allows us the luxury of geographical immunity. Geopolitics will be shaped by those nations that have resources and by those that clamor for them. Competition for resources will occur at the individual level and the global level with dependencies on other nations for the provision of resources (of any kind) creating a whole new dimension of security risks. Some have suggested that water will be the next oil. That is to look at the issue far to narrowly - think rather of the global scarcity of sustenance and shelter! What is certain is that the insidious politics of oil provide but a foretaste of the politics of scarcity.

The question for our times is now how will we address the inevitable and endemic resource scarcity that individuals, communities and nations will face, possibly for the foreseeable future?

Further reading: The Guardian, BusinessWeek

Design, recession and Smart Consumption

On the Industrial Design group list in LinkedIn, the following question was asked "What products are people willing to buy in a crashing global economy?" The question prompted me to think about product design more generally. Given that we are in times characterized not only by credit scarcity but also resource scarcity, perhaps the issue is not so much what products will people buy in hard times, but rather what products should people expect and demand in times defined by scarcity? My answer to the above on the list was a little glib, but its applicability is more general:

Products that don't have sell-by dates, products that eschew built-in obsolescence, products that eschew built-in waste, products that are elegant (simple and precise, built for purpose), products that last beyond the first firmware update, products that are not disposable....

If we are in heading into new times, times characterized by moving from want to need as Bruce Nussbaum suggests, then as consumers we should demand and expect more of product manufacturers and service providers. Change can be mandated, but real sustaining change will have to be driven by empowered and savvy consumers and communities, embracing "Smart Consumption", that which encourages greater product and service effectiveness, efficiency (in terms of resource utilization, etc.) and longevity.

05 December 2008

A flaky post

So for something of a lighter nature. Many are familiar with the classic chocolate bar the Cadbury Flake. This a chocolate bar lover's delight - light, flaky milk chocolate in an iconic wrapper that is known around the globe. From a user's or consumer's point of view there was one drawback: an annoyingly large number of the light flaky flakes always ended up on one's clothes, the tabletop, the car seat or wherever one used to eat the bar. So the elegant solution (simple and precise, without diluting the brand, etc.) is the Flake Dipped. So what is illustrative about this variation on a theme? Certainly, its no innovation, but it is an evolutionary step that keeps the crumbs to a minimum, increases a chocolate lover's delight, and builds the range and reach of the brand.

Design and social services

Over at Participle, Hillary Cottam and colleagues are pondering the re-design of social services. The UK's Design Council is also looking at the public sector as a part of a major initiative of their entitled "Public Services by Design". (Also worth a look is the product of the Design Council's RED "do tank".) This public sector-focussed work is important, and relevant to any developed nation where the structure and delivery of social/public services tend to be a generation or two behind the other organizational design and services provision thinking. The Participle effort looks at re-humanizing and decentralizing social services - in other words getting the services back to those who truly need them and giving them a sense of ownership; a no-brainer you might say, but not where public authorities are concerned. The big challenge is that public services are not really for the public anymore. They usually suffer from the "check the box" syndrome which results in poorly structured and inadequately provisioned services that do little to enhance the well-being of the public (which is what public services were supposed to be all about in the first place). Public services are a foundational component of community, and one of the reasons that service provision is so abysmal is that we have lost any real notion of physical and human community, and our responsibility for and to them. Whether the discussion revolves around social or public services, the bigger challenge is how we re-architect community to encourage a renewed sense of ownership and empowerment - people are not going to take ownership for services that are poorly designed and delivered, and if the requirements of the individual and community (user-centricity) are not guiding service design then any new efforts are stymied from the start.

18 November 2008

Design and recession II

Some very interesting discussions on design thinking over on Tim Brown's blog (IDEO) and in particular on a nascent approach to innovation called restorative innovation. This was an output of a recent conference in Dubai that Brown and other design luminaries such as Bruce Nussbaum (blog BusinessWeek), and Alice Rawsthorn, IHT, attended. The term restorative innovation is an interesting one, and I'm pasting here my comment on Brown's blog entry on the issue:

A restorative is something that an individual would take to make them stronger, to bring them back from ill-health, etc. Restorative thinking is about going back to some point of stability, balance or equilibrium and taking another look, another think. It is, in a manner of speaking, a mental regrouping, so as to allow for time to think anew. Restorative innovation is getting back to a known point and looking at the challenge(s) with a fresh eye, considering new facets, data, perspectives, etc. The known point is important as it has to be one at which one can breathe and reflect - a point of relative stability. I suppose that the analogy in today’s world would be a “getting back” to the basics, or fundamentals, those elements that most can agree upon. Specifically, and in terms of the ongoing financial crisis, it might be getting back to good conservative banking practices and refocusing the banking industry on being a cornerstone of community.

Following up on the earlier entry on design and recession, the idea of seeking a point of balance and stability so that future innovation has a solid foundation upon which it can thrive, whether it be in services, products or systems, seems entirely apropos in an environment in which nations are reeling from financial wizardry run amok. Restorative innovation (or whatever one might call it) could well be the ticket for design in times such as these. It never hurts to get back to the fundamentals.

Design and recession

Alice Rawsthorn, writer at the IHT, has an interesting piece on the role of design during hard times. One might dispute some of the products that are highlighted - particularly the anti-style driven jumble of drawers by Tejo Remy that, if anything, makes a mockery of hard times - but the key message of the piece can be found in the last line, and it is an important one. Rawsthorn asks what should design be focussed on in these recessionary times: "... whats the most exciting role for design? Developing new business concepts and cracking social problems, or making expensive, uncomfortable furniture?"

Ms Rawsthorn has put her finger on the importance of design and designers in responding to the myriad of challenges that recession is throwing our way. Of course design is no panacea, and many of the challenges cannot be fixed by changing a shape or font or material, but taking a fresh look at some of the more mundane, awkward challenges (some of which have been discussed in other entries) that face the consumer, the line worker, the middle manager, the public servant, the community and indeed the nation, would be incredibly valuable and a challenge worth rising to. What better way to dispel the notion that design equals expensive, uncomfortable furniture?

17 November 2008

'There's nothing worse in the world than "not knowing".'

'There's nothing worse in the world than "not knowing". The Internet quite simply helps me to know,' said Bernard Featherstone from Eccles, near Salford, Manchester, England, named Silver Surfer of the Year for 2008. Silver Surfer Day recognizes the importance of social inclusion and the role that the Internet can play for the elderly in maintaining family ties, finding new friendships, building community and pursuing dreams. The comments by the finalists, and their blogs, are testament to the Internet's incredible ability to empower.

12 November 2008

Design thinking and infrastructure

The cry for a longer term focus on, and funding for, infrastructure is recurrent and warrants attention, all the more so because it is a mundane yet critical contributor to a nation's competitive advantage. An earlier posting suggested that the nation's moribund physical infrastructure is ripe for design thinking - yet how does one apply design thinking to something as essential, complex and yet ordinary and under-valued as infrastructure?

Part of the challenge is of course understanding what exactly design thinking is. Much discussed, there are few good definitions, although the following are quite useful: Luke Wroblewski's article does a nice job of comparing business and design approaches to problem solving; Tim Brown's blog overs the subject well (albeit in a somewhat diffuse manner); and, David Burnley, Red Hat's VP of Brand Communications and Design, provides a very good overview. In a generic sense, design thinking is 1) about addressing challenges in ways unconstrained by accepted wisdom, existing "solutions" and narrow parameters; 2) looking at challenges as opportunities rather than problems; 3) looking at challenges holistically, taking into account the user and other stakeholders, as well as dimensions and considerations, etc., that would typically be considered beyond those associated with the challenge at hand; and 4) looking at longer term (innovative and value building) solutions rather than short term fixes. When applied in the context of transformation design - which "seeks to create desirable and sustainable changes in behavior and form ... of individuals, systems and organizations" - there appears to be an opportunity for design thinking to suggest innovation in infrastructure development and deployment.

So where does one start? In addition to the resources listed in an earlier blog, this piece by Gregory Fenves, Dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, entitled Innovating the 21st Century Physical Infrastructure is incredibly useful. In it Fenves outlines some overarching themes including sustainability, safety and security, economics and scalability, and then goes on to identify key areas for what he calls "frontier research" including materials, flexibility and adaptability, distributed sensing and control, modeling and simulation and economic operation and risk management. He notes that infrastructure systems are siloed and work to date has been largely on patching what exists, while what is really needed is an interdisciplinary approach that encompasses, inter alia, nano-engineering, the study of socio-economic systems and cyber infrastructure, and one that puts an emphasis on innovation and breakthrough opportunities.

It is hard to get excited about infrastructure, but it is crying out for a more holistic, multi-disciplinary, innovative and longer-term perspective, one that can evolve and meet our needs rather than the current band-aid approach that has resulted in a crippled infrastructure not much evolved from the last great build period between the 1940s and 1960s. What is missing is strategic innovation: consider, for example, the impact of intermodal freight transport and how that revolutionized the movement of goods; or the development of the electric power grid, and how it revolutionized energy provision and use. What new systems are required today? What new systems will be required for tomorrow? Infrastructure also needs to be looked at in the context of some important related issues such as sustainability, climate change (concrete production produces significant green house gases), migration (new centers of population, urban blight, etc.) and local natural resource availability.

Taking a design thinking approach would encourage a truly collaborative multidisciplinary initiative - bringing together engineers, urban planners, architects, social anthropologists, economists, policymakers, transformation designers, etc. - that would likely result in a comprehensive exploration of the opportunities for building an infrastructure that evolves with need and use, embraces innovation in systems, processes, structures and materials, and, most importantly, safeguards global a nation's competitive advantage.

29 October 2008

Seeing the possibilities

Until his untimely death in August, Robert Davies was the CEO of the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) and blogged at Seeingthepossibilities.com. In his brief time as a blogger he addressed a number of issues related to sustainability and how stakeholders, and particularly business, should embrace it. In this particular piece Davies touched upon design and the "other 90%" opportunity (see my thoughts on the "other 90%" below). His other entries are well worth a read.

Where have you been?

Been absent a few months, traveling and catching up on things. Couple of items of interest:

I just read and thoroughly enjoyed Victor Papanek's "Design for the Real World" - a visionary book and required reading for anyone interested in or already a part of the rarefied world of design. I will come back to this seminal work with further thoughts in a little while.

And, I spent an enjoyable afternoon with a young aspiring designer (pictured) at the Design Museum in London, appreciating not only the contents of the museum but also its wonderful location on the banks of the Thames.

27 August 2008

No infrastructure, no competitive advantage

Infrastructure performance is an essential contributor to a nation's economic development and competitive advantage. Those individuals responsible for infrastructure upkeep have a heavy burden: economic advantage in today's world is defined by agility and responsiveness and if the infrastructure underpinning the delivery of goods and services is not up to the task then economic advantage is squandered. For example, not only is the aging electrical grid in the US threatening the economy and the livelihood of individuals and community through the increased threat of blackouts, but a NYTimes piece illustrates beautifully how it is also thwarting innovation through bottlenecking the profitable development of renewable energy. A similar issue is playing out in telecommunications infrastructure where telcos are throttling (aka "traffic shaping") growing Internet usage so that they do not have to invest in new infrastructure. But here's the rub: no infrastructure, no competitive advantage.

The challenge is that we take infrastructure for granted. Anything taken for granted is likely suffering from disrepair or abuse. In times of recession investment in basic services is likely to be curtailed, resulting in even greater future challenges. The spend in the US is $400B but its largely used to prop up an existing infrastructure model, as is outlined in a global study by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst and Young. This study paints a dismal picture of a truly under-appreciated yet critical element of a nation's economy that is in desperate need of innovation. World Changing has an inspired piece on new ways to think about infrastructure, what infrastructure requirements may look like in the future and rightly calls for a much more substantive debate on this matter. Whether nations can move from archaic systems based on physical distribution routes dating from the 19th century and earlier, to innovative systems that actually evolve and grow to meet and anticipate demand, will determine which nations retain economic advantage and which do not in this increasingly competitive global economy.

08 May 2008

Confused by carbon footprint? Use common sense

Business Week carried a fascinating piece about how the consumer is soon going to be overwhelmed by carbon footprint product data and wondered how they would make head or tail of it all. The truth is that if carbon footprint data is overwhelming and confusing, the consumer can always rely on common sense (how about that for a novel idea). If consumers are worried about their overall carbon footprint then they should measure everything they do in terms of resource efficiency - this is a key start to lessening resource consumption, and that, after all, is what lies at the heart of the climate, food and energy crises we face at the moment.

So, be efficient, save some pennies and do your bit for the planet: consolidate two trips to town into one to reduce fuel consumption; reduce your hot water in the shower to lower gas or oil consumption; replace your incandescent lightbulbs with CFLs; pass on that bag of chips (see here for its carbon foot print, not to mention its health footprint) to better your wellbeing (which in turn lowers the likelihood of doctor and hospital visits, which lowers energy consumption and insurance premiums), etc. If carbon footprint data is confusing, use good old common sense!

25 April 2008

The "other 90%" opportunity

There is an increasing focus on the role of design for development, both at an awareness building level and at the level of products designed to address a specific need, such as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. This is a relatively new phenomenon and one has to ask how important is design to development and what kind of contribution can it make?

The recent Cooper Hewitt exhibit "Design for the other 90%" raised the overall awareness of the role that design and innovation can play in addressing challenges particular to developing countries. The design museum noted that:

Of the world’s total population of 6.5 billion, 5.8 billion people, or 90%, have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted; in fact, nearly half do not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter. Design for the Other 90% explores a growing movement among designers to design low-cost solutions for this “other 90%.”

The suggestion that there is an opportunity, and rationale, for designers to spend more time focusing on the other 90% is supported by the findings of the World Resources Institute report on The Next 4 Billion. This report is one example of a growing body of work and practice to better understand the "Bottom of the Pyramid" economic opportunity that the "other 90%" represent:

Four billion low-income consumers, a majority of the world’s population, constitute the base of the economic pyramid (BOP). New empirical measures of their aggregate purchasing power and behavior as consumers suggest significant opportunities for market-based approaches to better meet their needs, increase their productivity and incomes, and empower their entry into the formal economy.

There has been some debate over the extent and nature of the actual Bottom of the Pyramid opportunity, but there is a general recognition that new, innovative ways of working with communities, business and governments, particularly in the area of sustainable development, could help change the fundamental economic dynamic among the poor in developing countries. Visionary practitioners such as Paul Polak and top-tier academic programs such as the Johnson School Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell are, while approaching the issue from very different perspectives, working to better understand and leverage this opportunity for improving the welfare of vast number of human beings.

So where does design fit in? What is clear is that the "other 90%" opportunity will grow according to the degree to which the fundamentals of life such as shelter, water, health, education, etc., are improved. The Cooper Hewitt exhibit has shown that simple and effective design can being about change for the better in the welfare of the poor. This puts design right in the middle of the development equation, as an enabler of economic development and a contributor to the growing opportunity that the "other 90%" represent. Addressing the fundamental challenges faced by developing countries and thereby contributing to bettering human welfare and economic opportunity is just good design sense.

17 April 2008

George Lois and Esquire magazine

Metropolis magazine is carrying a piece on some of George Lois's work for Esquire:

"For anyone who works in magazines, George Lois’s Esquire covers from the 1960s are both an inspiration and a rebuke. The art of the magazine cover—especially the mainstream version—has been in decline for the better part of 20 years. Everyone talks about doing “George Lois–type covers,” but no one really does them. Recently, the Museum of Modern Art installed the iconic designs into its permanent collection."

Metropolis features a number of the covers. They are striking, exuding artistic intelligence and news-sense - and best of all you get Lois's commentary alongside.

For more on the man visit here.

15 April 2008

Design and global priorities

Three design principles will increasingly underpin design strategy and design generally in the future: sustainable design, inclusive design and transformation design. Why are these three principles so important? They broadly correlate (from a design perspective) with a range of critical issues related to energy, resources, the individual and society that are the focus of considerable debate both today and for the foreseeable future.

Simply (and crudely) put, sustainable design ensures that a product or a service's environmental impact is minimized through the use of "innovative design and industrial practices"; inclusive design ensures that "goods, services and environments are accessible to more people" through understanding and meeting user needs; and, transformation design looks at the application of design skills and processes to bring about change in systems and organizations (even segments or structures of society).

Issues related to the environment, the individual and organization/society are at the nexus of many of the increasingly complex pressing global priorities we face, whether global warming, resource depletion, population growth, etc. In the past design has been perceived as largely unconcerned with global issues but this is changing, led by some impressive exponents such as Architecture for Humanity, and through the design of increasingly relevant products and services and the application of design processes to key problem areas.

The challenge, however, is that none of these considerations - environmental, individual or societal - can be addressed in isolation: the linkages between them are becoming more acute. Any single strand in this interwoven world is hard to isolate: a design success or failure may be a catalyst of change, negative or positive, unimagined by the designer. We now recognize that the impact of an energy inefficient design goes far beyond the product or service itself and has a bearing on issues such as climate change and economic welfare and therefore on the individual and society.

Which leads us to an obvious but important statement: no product or service (even the most trivial) should be designed without taking into account resources and materials involved, its impact on the local environment, its accessibility for users and the impact it may have on society from its use, etc. To design in a vacuum is to be singularly out of touch with societal, environmental and economic trends and is to ignore the increasingly interrelated nature of our planet.

If, as many suggest, design is going to contribute to addressing global challenges - whether related to resource management, population accommodation or key societal concerns such as more effective education, more innovative public services - then it needs to reflect the underlying principles embodied in sustainable, inclusive and transformation design. In many ways this boils down to a set of simple questions that every designer should be asking: how is my design - whether for a new utensil, new low-income housing, or a new public service - going to impact the individual, society and the environment?

A more holistic approach embodying sustainable, inclusive and transformation design needs to be adopted in this increasingly challenging design environment. There is an incredible opportunity for design - through innovation, new technologies and processes - to help address some of the critical global priorities we face today, from water and housing shortages to overflowing landfills. But for this to occur there has to be a commitment to these three underlying design principles and to their holistic application: considerations related to the individual, society and the environment must underpin all design, no matter how trivial or inconsequential it is perceived to be.

11 April 2008

Don't stay home without it

This rechargeable/wind-up Freeplay Indigo lantern is a marvelous example of simple and effective design.

The Indigo is small, lightweight, powerful and best of all it can be totally human-powered. It is user friendly, with a well placed dial and button, a crank arm that is easy to use and intuitive (and folds away easily), and a powerful light for its size (through more efficient LEDs).

Its grand on a camping trip, but no matter the torches/flashlights you may have in your house this is also a great emergency lighting solution. Run out of charge and crank up the light. Brilliant. The Consumer Electronics Show thinks likewise.

Here's the site for more details. Buy one, or two.

09 April 2008

The "bio-foolish"

Time Magazine's April 14 European issue has a wonderful article on "The Clean Energy Myth" in which it notes that the USG "props up the biofuels industry to the tune of $7 billion a year". Not sure whether this piece is being carried in the US edition but it certainly should be. Worth a read! And, the article confirmed a point made in an earlier post - that investment in energy research and university led innovation in the sciences would be a far greater contribution to the energy future of any nation. $7 billion would go a long way!

07 April 2008

Subsidize research and education not biofuels

The IHT has a useful piece on the need to get beyond caps on green house emissions and to enable technology, and specifically energy related technology and innovation, to flourish and substantially contribute to alleviating global warming. Now clearly technology and innovation alone won't be enough - major changes in the way we source and consume energy, and manage our energy dependencies are needed - but creating an innovation drive in the area of energy tech is the right thing to do.

Innovation in this space is already underway but not nearly to the degree that is necessary, which of course will require funds. Governments are spending vast amounts to find alternatives to oil, but the value of that investment is questionable: subsidizing biofuels only diverts crops from food production to energy production, and causes significant increases in food raw materials costs. Instead, we should be using these subsidies to encourage academic research into extracting better energy efficiencies from oil, coal, etc., AND, more importantly, better ways of harnessing energy resources that have gone untapped so far - solar, wind, bio-mass, etc. The benefits would be many fold: monies for additional research and researchers, a renewed focus on the sciences in basic curricula, and the further strengthening of the education infrastructure of the nation.

A no-brainer right? Particularly as many innovations in this field are coming from universities! So how come policies so far are merely further disadvantaging the individual by increasing costs of food on top of already exorbitant prices for fuel? Where's the logic in that? Lets make a real investment in our energy future by building our educational institutions and getting more kids into college studying the sciences!

03 April 2008

Things of great beauty

Pictures taken during a classic motorboat event in Mystic. A number were Chris-Craft, pristine examples of classic run-about motorboat design.

There is a completeness about the design of these craft. It is the same with similar makes, such as Riva. There is a balance of elements between the mahogany hull and the water, between the solid and the fluid, between something shaped by man and something shaped by nature. In retrospect, these craft are marvelous examples of aesthetic design, where (according to Wikipedia) qualities include:

"smoothness, shininess/reflectivity, texture, pattern, curviness, color, simplicity, usability, velocity, symmetry, naturalness, and modernism."

A couple of great sites for wooden motorboat window shopping here and here. And for aficionados, there is the Chris-Craft club.

The owners of Chris-Craft also revived the Indian Motorcycle - see this.

Environmental security - the (not so) new national security

Perhaps this is not obvious, but it should be - a nation's security is undermined by its dependencies on energy resources from other nations. This is not new: in 2006 the Council of Foreign Relations published a report on the "National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependency" that should be read and re-read by policy-makers because it has become all the more relevant as fuel prices soar and the political stability and "friendliness" of those nations that have been gifted energy reserves become increasingly questionable.

Environmental security is an area of study that has been largely focused on the impact of natural disasters, and the mis-use of the environment and natural resources. It should become an increasingly relevant area of study: a nation's environmental security is directly threatened by excessive dependencies on external energy sources, no matter the nature of the relationship between the nation and the resource provider.

And if the impact of global warming is such that the physical nature of a nation is threatened - changes in climate resulting in significantly reduced arable land, coastal destruction and other dramatic alterations to our physical space that will cause massive human misery and economic loss - then Environmental security becomes even more relevant. The CFR report notes that reducing both energy dependencies AND energy consumption are critical to a nation's security. Until these are addressed we are knowingly contributing to actual or potential (depending on your political/scientific leanings) systems weaknesses that could prove disastrous to the nation state in the medium to longer term.

Environmental security is, and should be, an integral component of the security considerations of any country. "Save the planet to save ourselves" takes on a whole other meaning!

(Oh and subsidies for bio-fuels? Guess what, they increase a nation's external dependencies for the basic raw materials for food!)

6 point fonts and digital divides

New digital divides are opening up driven by mobility, complexity and miniaturisation. The world is moving to an untethered networked world, in which our personal networks interface with a seamless networked environment so that we are always on, available and "here". But this (somewhat frightening) environment depends on greater processing complexity and miniaturisation, both of which work against the increasing percentage of the population that is aging and can no longer see 6-8 point fonts on their mobiles, or use buttons that were made for a child violinist's fingers.

This brave new untethered world will create all manner of new divides - not just in mobile communications. What are tech companies doing to address these issues? Not much. Slick, fashion driven, "6 month from cool to uncool" mobiles are the trend. Will all this networked mobility merely further socially marginalise those that cannot find the ON button on their phones because of its size (and location)? Much more needs to be done to engineer and design devices that are guided by inclusive (and sustainable) design principles - otherwise an increasingly important part of society will be continually disadvantaged and an increasingly important market opportunity will remain un-addressed.

Empowerment: what is notional and what is real?

I spoke at a conference in Hong Kong on the issue of new roles and rules in the digital age. During the talk I raised the issue of empowerment and wondered what it meant to youth in the age of the Internet, and whether technology was changing the empowerment dynamic. In the past empowerment for youth was time-bound and based upon some very traditional "coming of age" and "assumption of identity" related events such as being of age to vote, to drink, to drive, etc. I asked whether "traditional empowerment" was becoming merely notional in today's technology-driven world where the mobile phone, the Internet, social networking, etc., are giving youth a new sense of identity and purpose in an unprecedented way.

This is not to say that the traditional notions of empowerment are not important, but are they as important as they once were? My hunch is that they are not. Impediments of the past to building identity through social activity such as distance, cost of communications, etc., are no more. Today identity (and therefore empowerment) is real and virtual, built through videos on the web, online gaming guilds, instant messaging, and a myriad of other communications media that allow youth today to have a voice like never before. The young now have society shaping physical tools, such as the mobile phone, that can bring and have brought about social and political change long before the users had the traditionally empowering "right" to vote.

This is a fundamentally new dynamic in societal structure that will have implications for education, social interaction and other forms of community engagement and integration. For example with traditional empowerment came the instilling of responsibility (you have to learn the rules of the road before you can drive); where is that all important factor in this world of "new" empowerment? Is it still relevant or is it also changing? The ways in which coming of age, identity and empowerment are occurring is radically different than in the past - this is not a bad thing but it raises many questions in terms of how this empowerment is used, how it is managed responsibly, and, more than anything else, how it will shape society in the future.

01 April 2008

How poor rear light design can ruin a Euro 150K Italian GT

So the Maserati GranTurismo is here - a fabulous looking GT that will propel Maserati to even greater things, building on the success of the well-received Quattroporto. But there is design failing that mars the looks of this car. The front and sides of the Maserati are beautifully sculpted but the rear is let down by cheap and garish looking lights. And not only that but you have seen a better looking version elsewhere, on a family car that sells, well, for at least 100K less:

Maserati lights:

Ford Mondeo lights:

Oh dear, oh dear - the Maserati has upside-down Ford Mondeo rear lights! No this isn't an April Fools... The GranTurismo follows in the footsteps of the old Maserati GTs (Mexico, Sebring...) and it is nice to see the classic GT return. But hopefully this will be rectified in the next iteration.

See here for similar comments about the lights.