Archive for February, 2009

The City Is A Prototyping Engine

The best cities – usually also the largest – are prototyping engines that use the abundance of their density to ceaselessly test new ideas for material accumulations (buildings, vehicles, things), abstract systems (laws, regulations, even languages), and ways of life. This, I argue, is the source of the effervescence that any good city exhibits. The city is exciting because it’s always new in a million little ways. In a similar way the non-city, the rural, is exciting because its vaccuum presents persistant challenges. If the mode of the city is becoming, the mode of the rural is a constant overcoming.

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The thing about prototypes is that they are by definition a temporary condition to be replaced by subsequent iterations. Prototypes turn into products and those products get deployed. While 80% of the US may now reside in places nominally deemed “cities,” this is not an undifferentiated term. Amongst the country’s places there are cities which consistently prototype new things, systems, and ways of life and those cities that deploy post-prototype “products.” You’ll have to excuse the brutishness of this line of reasoning, but suffice it to say there are places which tend to prototype new ideas and others which tend to adopt pre-tested ideas from other places. New York City: prototyping engine. Paso Robles, CA: consumption engine.

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This came into striking clarity for me as I joined some dear old friends amongst a group of happy Paso Robles residents at a finish line party for the 5th Stage of the Amgen Tour of California. For a few hours the streets of this small town were alive with people – excited people. Jumbotrons and bleachers were erected along the route, television helicopters buzzed overhead, some even awkwardly donned VIP badges. These various control structures all hailed from somewhere else, though: the route fencing was trucked in from Boulder, CO; the helicopter up from LA; the Jumbotron from whoknowswhere.

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While Amgen was clearly an economic and cultural triumph for the town, it came pre-tested, deployable, and was temporary. The problem with the prototype/product model of cities is that those places which tend more towards consumption than production become the handmaidens of their bigger brothers and sisters, dependent upon distant places to deliver the equipment and expertise needed to put events in to motion.

If the largest cities are able to churn over constant ptototypes it’s because the abundance of density yields disproportionately large opportunities in the form of financing, know how, and other limited resources. The rural, on the other hand, typically has ample supplies of raw material and time. The rural ethos is to assemble what you have in the best way that you can and this kind of improvisation is is what was missing from Paso Robles. As a place that now thinks of itself as a city, Paso Robles looked to other, larger cities for its missing expertise and equipment rather than taking the imperative of the event to test something new. This opportunity for civitas was treated as a chance to consume.

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The glimmer of excitement that came from converting the street into a stage – that old but wonderful architectural cliche – disappeared with the crowd as soon as the race was over. Where was the street food? The hoe down? Anything to prolong the civic moment beyond the bracketed few hours of commercially-sponsored airtime would have given Paso Robles a chance to test out its own ideas for how to be a city. Before you may hope to use the city, you must first create it.

Consider these thoughts half baked, but I continue to feel some responsibility to represent (!!!) the non-urban. This sort of elseplace, as it could be called, makes up a large part of the country’s territory and is a fertile land of opportunity should we decide to change the
fundamentals of the american way of life (like, say, SUVs, obesity, McMansions, et al) These places, too distant from urban centers to be suburbs and too developed to be called rural, are what we need to be prototyping.

Without the warm fuzzies of a humanitarian crisis or the imperative of environmental collapse, when the buzzword of “urban” is nowhere to be found and life seems to be pretty OK, how do we escape the apathy of the comfortable? If the rule of thumb is that 80% of interest comes from 20% of sources, how do we motivate ourselves to work on that 80% that is neither upper echelon nor bottom bin?

San Miguel to Suomi

Short version: I’m moving to Helsinki to work for Sitra where I am largely responsible for a very exciting project. Yay!

It has been a while since I had to do this, but for clarity’s sake everything written below is the opinion of bryan boyer the individual and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or interests of my employer, Sitra.

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Unknown but striking participant from Helsinki Design Lab 1968, literally translated as “The Industrial, Environment and Product Design Seminar.” Photo copyright Kristian Runeberg.

Last week in Helsinki I spent a lot of time digging through archival material from the summer of 1968. Ostensibly I was working, but the excitement with which I poured over the photographs and documents would have made it obvious to anyone nearby that this was hardly a chore. The subject of my limited research was an event held on the island of Suomenlinna, a fortress outside Helsinki that hosted Christopher Alexander, Buckminster Fuller, Kaj Frank, Victor Papanek, and other mid century luminaries for a sort of design workshop. Conversing about topics as diverse as national energy policy and the prototyping of a portable reindeer slaughterhouse (seriously), the young Finns who organized this event did so because they felt a crisis brewing in their world: resources were exhibiting their scarcity, social unrest was spreading, and experts were increasingly entrenched in their own circles of conversation. Design, they argued, could be used as a methodology that brings with it a lateral, holistic approach to the visualization and solving of problems.

Sounds familiar, right? World-saving cross-disciplinary discussions have been undergoing a kind of second-coming recently. What struck me was the prescience of the original documents – as I read it was often hard to remember that the words were committed to paper 40 years ago. Forty years and we’re still having the same discussion. To a pessimist this would be depressing lack of progress. An optimist, however, sees the past forty years as the preparing of ground for the next forty. Perhaps now, with all this time that has passed, we’re ready as a society to listen to the nagging voice of the designer. Rather than using the aesthetic judgment of an individual solely to fixate on the development of products and buildings, this is a definition of design as a method of inquiry – a mindset in conjunction with a coterie of tools and techniques that may be applied to the production of concrete objects as readily as the development and analysis of abstract systems.

Acknowledging the many pitfalls of language that come with this territory, we could call this practice “strategic design.” A designer working in this territory would use their ability to visualize in their mind and on paper complex sets of relationships such as those existing in any plan or section. They would use their ability to pursue multiple paths to the same goal the same way any studio worth their salt presents multiple schemes. They would think about the coordination, staging, and relationship of multiple self-interested parties the same way that an architect negotiates between the trades. A designer of this sort would bring to the abstract configuration of political structures, organizations, and events the same sort of pragmatic rigor that they apply to the working drawings of an object going into production (in other words, strategic design is useless without consideration of tactical execution).

Language is indeed a problem in this discussion and it’s about to get worse. My new employer is Sitra, The Finnish Innovation Fund. I can imagine the look that most of you reading this site must have smeared across your face right now. Strategy and Innovation? Yikes!

I am just as skeptical of terms like “strategic, “innovation,” and “design thinking” (4 simple steps!) as you probably are. For me, this distrust comes from seeing these terms used as rubber stamps to up the hourly rate or fluff up a studio project. Making a zany proposal is not innovative and it’s certainly not strategic. Pulling some stats from Wikipedia does not “design thinking” make. If we – as a discipline of designers – are to make use of such terms we must hold ourselves accountable to external judgment while also defending the specialization of our skills. Strategic design faces the dual threats of academic inflation and business deflation. On the one hand, academic environments rarely offer any opportunities for realization (and thus testing of ideas) in a strategic context. On the other, the business world increasingly threatens to gobble up “design” as a stock solution to poor sales and destroy the credibility and effectiveness of any serious design-minded method of inquiry in the process (“Creativity! Zam! $$$ ?!?”).

Trained designers must gain enough credibility that they can reclaim these wasted terms. Credibility comes from results, which requires testing, which requires implementation, which means we have to partner with those who need help solving their own complex problems. Currently design has a very low stakes role in global decision making because we are generally brought into the process once most of the important decisions have already been made. If we really want to change the world becoming involved with decisions at higher levels, with more at stake, is essential. If designers partner with fabricators of various sorts to bring their projects into material reality, we must consider governments and corporations the fabricators of strategic design.

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Snapshot from my first visit to Helsinki in 2002 as a tourist

This is exactly why working at Sitra is exciting: as a government-endowed fund that reports to the Finnish Parliament we are accountable to the decision making apparatus of the country. Sitra has both the position and the mandate to think broadly and strategically about how to enhance the “welfare of Finnish society” – and by extension the global community. To be a designer asked to bring my skills to bear on the problems that an organization like this deals with on a daily basis is… well, pretty damn awesome.

My main task, which you will be hearing more about in the near-ish future, is to organize Helsinki Design Lab 2010, an event whose heritage stretches back to the 1968 happening mentioned above. To put it bluntly, it’s my job to make sure that HDL 2010 doesn’t follow the stale model of most design conferences: a bunch of people talking about slides. Luckily for me, there’s a great foundation to build upon.

See you summer of 2010 in Helsinki?