The future beneath our feet

This is the text of my presentation at the Leeds Digital Conference on 12 October 2012. If you like this, you may also like my TEDxLeeds 2010 talk, The Makers of Leeds.

In 1763, the Corporation of London, wishing to make way for bigger boats on the Thames, ordered the removal of a central pier of the old London Bridge to form a wide arch near its middle. What could possibly go wrong?

As with more recent innovations in the City with a Capital C, there were… unintended consequences. Torrents of water were now concentrated at one point under the bridge. They started to tear away at the other piers making the bridge unstable. Many people now refused to pass over or under the bridge, bringing the city to a standstill.

So they sent for a Yorkshireman. John Smeaton, of Leeds, designer of the famous Eddystone Lighthouse who worked in a way so novel that he had to make up his own job title. He coined the term “civil engineer”.

Smeaton hurried from Leeds to London where he quickly assessed the situation and made an urgent recommendation.

It was a Sunday morning, but the citizens got to work straight away. They had recently demolished the gates of the City as part of a road-widening programme. Smeaton told them to buy back the rubble of the gates and throw it into the River to stem the flow and protect the remaining piers of the bridge. This they did; the bridge was saved and remained in use well into the following century.

I’m Matt Edgar, and I started out as a history student, telling stories about the past. I became a newspaper journalist hunting down and telling stories in the present day. Now I’m a service designer. I help businesses to imagine and create the services of the future, by working with their current and potential users and the people who deliver services for them.

I’m fascinated by the interplay between our past, present and future. All the more so given the accumulated narratives in a place that was one of the world’s first industrial cities. Those pioneers, like Smeaton, Matthew Murray at the Round Foundry, Thomas Harding at Tower Works, they worked with the stuff the city had in abundance – mainly rocks, coal and water.

It’s no coincidence that this session called “the future” takes place in a 150-year-old former mechanics’ institute and features not just me but Tom, a bona fide museum curator, and Steve, whose company celebrated its centenary last year.

The past is a platform from which we can launch more confidently into the future. To understand what’s possible, we need to understand what we inherit from the past and what we have in the present.

So when the organisers of the Leeds Digital Festival asked me to do something as part of last year’s programme, I wanted to get people away from the screens out onto the streets, to see what was lying around in the present day, the raw materials with which we can solve our problems and build for the future.

Pixels aren’t just on our computers and phones; they’re everywhere we go, leaking out into the environment. What could possibly go wrong?

Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim of Do Projects provided the template in a booklet called “Systems/Layers”. They looked at the interplay of the city and the network and proposed a simple hack. Instead of a workshop, a walkshop: a half-day stroll to looks for tangible evidence of the network collecting and feeding information in the urban environment.

Many of my friends from the Leeds service design community had already done some of this as part of the Global Service Jam earlier in the year. They got out of the building to go through litterbins and interview people about transport to help create new services for the city and its people.

There had been walkshops in other cities – London, Bristol, Barcelona – and these had typically been on a summer’s day, ideally in dry, settled weather. We decided to push the technique by going for a November evening in Leeds.

The brief contained three questions:
- where is information being collected by the network?
- where is information being displayed?
- where is information being acted upon?

In the hours before the walkshop we got the worst weather of the month, which thinned out the field a bit. But then the sun came out, just in time to set over Millennium Square. Our hardy group of walkshoppers met on the steps of this building with the German Christmas Market in front of them.

So here are some of the walkers setting off – David, Jane and Anzoo. After about an hour of walking and talking within the area on our map, everyone got back together in a room at the top of the Leonardo Building, kindly provided by Leeds City Council.

And this is what we found.

A lot of infrastructure…

Visibly, there are cameras everywhere. Also alarms, wind speed sensors, traffic sensors, footfall sensors. And screens – in bars, shops windows, and the granddaddy of them all, the BBC’s big screen overlooking Millennium Square.

Phone boxes have morphed like Superman from kiosks for calling into internet terminals and now into wireless access points. Some phone boxes and cabinets also seemed to be taking up prime pavement real estate despite being completely redundant. In the spirit of these straitened times, we wondered what else we could do with them.

Then there was the invisible. Ground-level lighting betrays cables and ducts buried underground. And layer-upon-layer of wifi blanketed the area we walked. There’s no formal citywide wifi, but, for those in the know, a patchwork of access points spills out from educational and public institutions, covering the area with connectivity inside and out.

Dotted around the Christmas Market we found signs (literally signs) of the cheap and ubiquitous connectivity that enables temporary stalls to affect the trappings of permanent retail. Mobile phone numbers, credit and debit cards welcome, even a fast-food stand with Twitter and Facebook IDs.

Much of this stuff is apparently under-used or unused…

The iconic memory of the walk for me was the sight of a lone, hooded texter, face illuminated by a screen, standing in front of the Henry Moore Institute. On one side of the building stood a brace of Giles Gilbert Scott phone boxes, on the other a Royal Mail pillar box: several tonnes of bright-red painted cast iron disintermediated by a hundred grammes of smartphone.

We saw screens blazing, needlessly bright for the time of day, yet unheeded by passers-by. QR codes went unscanned (though unlike many of the walkshop group I still have a personal soft spot for them).

Smokers lit up in front of the Post Office oblivious to the comprehensive display of foreign exchange rates just inches from them through the plate glass window.

An LCD display tucked inside the entrance to a shopping centre reported alarming malfunctions in the building’s security systems; no one seemed concerned.

Low-fi is high impact…

The utility of the screen tended to be in inverse proportion to its resolution. The two most successful public screens we encountered were the illuminated signs showing numbers of empty spaces in nearby car parks, and the displays at bus stops with real-time departure information.

While people were making real, time-saving, money-spending decisions on the strength of these mono-colour LED matrices, nearby HD TV screens frittered away their millions of colours on drinks promotions and national news tickers. Even parking ticket machines can tell you the time.

And the old still dominates the new…

From our vantage point at the top of the Leonardo Building the most striking visual presence was the clock on Cuthbert Brodrick’s Town Hall. Its trustworthiness enhanced by synchronisation with the smaller clocks on the nearby Civic Hall. I suspect this trick is achieved the old-fashioned way, without the aid of a network time-servers.

And then the sound of bell-ringing practice wafted over from St Anne’s Cathedral.

These effortless assertions of authority by church and state have gone unchanged and unchallenged over more than a century. Together they set a high bar for the new media that aspire to a place in the cityscape. Nothing I saw on our walk came close to clearing that bar.

I say these things not as criticism but as opportunities.

Never in the history of the city has so much infrastructure been so under-used. Our walkshop group came back frothing with what-ifs of connecting this stuff just a little more smartly, to itself and to the needs of the people who use the city. The raw materials for fun, useful and engaging services now litter the streets for the taking.

So I want to spend the last few minutes of this talk on four big things I see for the near future – not far-out crystal ball-gazing things, but rather ones that can easily be made using the stuff that’s already lying all around us.

The first big thing is the trend for services to replace products. There are many things we use but do not need to own, even ones we value very highly.

In my house we used to cram photos into cardboard boxes in a cupboard and mostly forget about them. Now I upload them to Flickr. I have no idea where they are physically stored but I access my online photostream far more frequently than I open that cupboard.

Anyone who drives less than 6000 miles per year will almost certainly save money using a car club instead of owning a car. And our cities will be better for it too, because for every car added to a car club fleet, roughly 25 private vehicles are taken off the road. This stuff is not easy though. It requires understanding the emotional side of car ownership as well as the financial.

Swapping products for services doesn’t always mean that physical objects go away. The American interaction designer Mike Kuniavsky coined the term “service avatar”. Something that looks like a product but actually represents a bigger service. Something that generates and affords access to valuable data. Something that evokes memory and meaning far beyond its tangible qualities.

A mobile phone is nothing without a mobile network. A bank card is a useless bit of plastic if it doesn’t make money roll out of the cash machine.

I think we’re going to see more service avatars as it becomes cheaper to make lots of little, single purpose devices with just a little computing and networking power baked in.

The third trend I call the “don’t-look-down user interface”. At Orange I worked for several years trying to get users to move from this – making phone calls – to this – looking at the screen. We were so successful that one local authority trialled padded lampposts because pedestrians no longer look where they’re going.

Then I had the privilege of working with NFC – near-field communications, which turns your phone into a magic wand. You don’t have to look at the screen – just wave or tap the device to make stuff happen.

So instead of making apps that get people more and more engaged in screen-based interaction, I hope you’ll soon be able to create services that work more seamlessly with the real world. We’ll allow people to concentrate on what they’re doing, where they’re going, or the people they’re with. They’ll be able to use the internet together without even having to break eye contact.

Which brings me to my final trend – services that set people free to do their best work.

Web 1.0 – the era of online publishing and e-commerce sites – brought us massive efficiency savings by replacing high-touch human processes with low-touch digital ones.

Web 2.0 – the high water mark of social networks – helped us stay in touch and share more, but at the expense of putting technology between us.

If Web 3.0 really is this so-called Internet of Things, then I think “things” is a misnomer. Because when you put my last three trends together you have something wonderful – digitally connected tools that augment the actions of humans in the moment without needing to replace them.

In this new world, the best user interface might just be the smile on the shop worker’s face. And it will be our job to help her smile more often.

We have the chance to reinvent the way we do everyday things, to make them more productive and enjoyable for everyone. The materials we need are there for the taking, there for the playing.

I’m inspired by everything to be found in this old city, not just the built environment but also the ways of doing things, of getting on with other people and of living together at scale. This has to be some kind of competitive advantage for Leeds, for Yorkshire and the wider region.

A new idea of the North. Manufacturing has long gone; the people of Brazil, Russia, India and China are no slouches at software; soon they will also excel at marketing and design. But our rich legacy of infrastructure and stories gives us a head start to pioneer new people-centred services and civic technology.

When I speak of the “North,” I do not just mean the North of England, but also the wider, “global North”. When its old world certainties are torn away by the raging torrents of change, what new solutions will we here have to offer?

Thank you.

What to look forward to at the LЗЭDS DIGITДL CФИFЗЯЭЙCЗ

Friday’s Leeds Digital Conference should be great. Look out for Dean Vipond, Victoria Betton, Tim Medcalf, Robin Cramp, Simon Zimmerman and lots of other speakers doing amazing work in the city. I predict I will be on a panel about “the future” with Tom Woolley from the National Media Museum and Steve Peel from IBM. In the run-up, the organisers have asked me to answer the questions below:

What’s your job and how many years have you been in Leeds?

I’m Matt Edgar, an independent service design and innovation consultant. I came to Leeds in 1997.

What is it about Leeds that makes it unique from the rest of the country in terms of Digital?

I’ve been puzzling over this a lot lately. There certainly seems to be something in the water, but I think the same could be said of the digital scenes in many other cities around the world. What city wouldn’t be buzzing with all the possibilities now open to us? As a history graduate working with the services of the future, I’m inspired by everything to be found in one of the world’s oldest industrial cities – not just the built environment but the ways of doing things, of getting on with other people and living together at scale. This has to be some kind of competitive advantage for the North.

Why should a potential client pick an agency from Leeds?

They should pick the best agency for the job wherever they may be based, or indeed no agency at all. Some things are better done with the enduring commitment and attention to detail that you get from an in-house team. But one of my current goals is to spend less time on the train to London, so I’m all in favour of new services that help me serve clients at a distance. Alternatively, if you’re a Yorkshire-based service provider in need of some people-centred service design and innovation then I’m right on your doorstep, and if I can’t help I likely know someone who can.

What will you be speaking about at this year’s Leeds Digital Conference?

The past is a platform from which we launch into the future, so I’ll start with a story about one of my heroes of innovation in Leeds. Then I’ll talk about the walkshop I ran as part of last year’s Digital Festival to investigate the present and future potential of all the digital infrastructure that litters our streets.

Predictions for the Digital Industry in 2013? What should be top of the agenda at the conference?

As co-organiser of Service Design Drinks and Thinks in Leeds, I would say this, but I do think it’s time to look beyond purely digital touchpoints to the way digital enhances and enables useful and engaging services for everyone in everyday life. I’m writing this post on the way back from Next Service Design in Berlin, where two big themes were the coming internet of things with all the weirdness that entails; and the lessons that organisations of all sizes can learn from the lean startup movement. Expect to hear (even) more about those in 2013.

(Apparently “for search benefits” it would be “hugely beneficial” if I could work “Leeds Digital Conference” into the title of this post, “whether it’s along the lines of ‘What to look forward to at the Leeds Digital Conference’ etc.”. As you can see I ДM HДPPУ TФ ФЬLIGЗ.)

#walkshopping (winter edition)

We made a walkshop! At sunset on Tuesday, undeterred by George Osborne, high winds and torrential rain, 17 of Yorkshire’s finest designers, technologists and geographers gathered to walk and talk, to see Leeds in a new light.

The inspiration came from Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim’s booklet “Systems/Layers”:

“A walkshop is a new kind of learning experience that’s equal parts urban walking tour, group discussion, and spontaneous exploration. As we’ve presented them, in cities like Toronto, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Oulu and Wellington, walkshops are a half-day event, held in two parts. The first portion is dedicated to a slow and considered walk through a reasonably dense and built-up section of the city at hand. This is followed by a get-together in which participants gather over food and drink to unpack and discuss what they’ve just experienced.”

To their tried and tested format we added winter, a German Christmas Market, and the cover of darkness. Despite a nervous few hours where I checked the weather forecast more avidly than on my wedding day, I think the gamble with the timing paid off. As I’d hoped, the glow of screens and lights was accentuated by the gloom. We set out from Millennium Square at dusk, and returned an hour later in the dark to our meeting point in the Leonardo Building. It was a time of transition: for some passers-by this was going home time, for others going out time, or hanging about on the square time.

The 17 split into three groups. Each walkshopper was armed with a map, the obligatory service designer’s bundle of Post-It notes and three simple questions:

  • Where is information being collected by the network?
  • Where is networked information being displayed?
  • Where is networked information being acted upon?

Photos were taken, sensors noted, QR codes scanned and scorned in equal  measure. The different tacks taken by the three groups were fascinating, and I hope others will write up their experiences to compare and contrast.

Some things that impressed me personally:

A lot of infrastructure…

Visibly, there are cameras everywhere, also alarms, windspeed sensors, traffic sensors, footfall sensors. And screens – in bars, shops windows, and the granddaddy of them all, the BBC’s big screen overlooking Millennium Square.

We noted with fascination how phone boxes have morphed from kiosks for calling into internet terminals and now into wireless access points. A number of phone boxes and cabinets also seemed to be taking up prime pavement real estate despite being completely redundant. In the spirit of these straitened times, we wondered what else we could do with them.

Then there was the invisible. Ground-level lighting betrays cables and ducts buried underground. And layer-upon-layer of wifi blanketed the area we walked. There’s no formal city-wide wifi, but, for those in the know, a patchwork of access points spills out from educational and public institutions, covering the area with connectivity inside and out.

Dotted around the Christmas Market we found signs (literally signs) of the cheap and ubiquitous connectivity that enables temporary stalls to affect the trappings of permanent retail. Mobile phone numbers, credit and debit cards welcome, even a fast-food stand with Twitter and Facebook IDs.

… much apparently under-used or unused…

The iconic memory of the walk for me was the sight of a lone, hooded texter, face illuminated by a screen, standing in front of the Henry Moore Institute. On one side of the building stood a brace of Giles Gilbert Scott phone boxes, on the other a Royal Mail pillar box: several tonnes of bright-red painted cast iron disintermediated by a hundred grammes of smartphone.

We saw screens blazing, needlessly bright for the time of day, yet unheeded by passers-by. QR codes went unscanned (though unlike many of the walkshop group I still have a personal soft spot for them). Smokers lit up in front of the Post Office oblivious to the comprehensive display of foreign exchange rates just inches from them through the plate glass window. An LCD display tucked inside the entrance to a shopping centre reported alarming malfunctions in the building’s security systems; no one seemed concerned.

Pedestrians crossed in equal numbers on both sides of the Cookridge Street/Great George Street junction, even though one side has a pedestrian crossing and the other does not.

… low-fi is high impact…

When it comes to public display, I was struck by the way the utility of the screen tended to be in inverse proportion to its resolution.

The two most successful public screens we encountered were the illuminated signs showing numbers of empty spaces in nearby car parks, and the displays at bus stops with real-time departure information. While people were making real, time-saving, money-spending decisions on the strength of these mono-colour LED matrices, nearby HD TV screens frittered away their millions of colours on drinks promotions and national news tickers. Even parking ticket machines can tell you the time.

… and the old still dominates the new.

From our vantage point at the top of the Leonardo Building the most striking visual presence was the clock on Cuthbert Brodrick’s Town Hall. Its trustworthiness enhanced by synchronisation with the smaller clocks on the nearby Civic Hall. I suspect this trick is achieved the old-fashioned way, without the aid of sophisticated networked time-servers.

And then the sound of bell-ringing practice wafted over from St Anne’s Cathedral. These effortless assertions of authority by church and state have gone unchanged and unchallenged over more than a century. Together they set a high bar for the new media that aspire to a place in the cityscape. Nothing I saw on our walk came close to clearing that bar.

I say these things not as criticism but as opportunities.

Never in the city has so much infrastructure been so under-used. Our walkshop group came back frothing with what-ifs of connecting this stuff just a little more smartly, to itself and to the needs of the people who use the city.

The raw materials for fun, useful and engaging services now litter the streets for the taking.

Credits…

Thank you to the Leeds walkshoppers for braving the wind and rain, and especially to Leeds Digital Festival hero Leanne Buchan and Leeds City Council for the use of the Leonardo Building for our post-walk discussion. Thanks to Kathryn Grace, my Service Design Leeds co-organiser, and to Leeds Psychogeographer Tina Richardson for their support. Also, of course, to Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim for the whole walkshop concept, which made organising the event a case study in simple internet-based group formation.

The conversation continues. All three groups collected lots of evidence and had many more ideas than we were able to share on the night. I hope they’ll  upload more photos and blog about the walkshop, letting us know via the #walkshop hashtag, and by adding notes or links on the wiki at http://leedswalkshop.pbworks.com/w/page/48487583/what%20we%20found

Brought to book: some subtleties of social interaction

It’s a pleasure to see – at risk of sounding like a Key Stage One Literacy Coordinator – that reading is hot right now.

Into this maelstrom come the Mag+ concepts from BERG for Bonnier. If you haven’t seen the video you should watch it now. Beyond the thoughtful work on the interaction within the user interface, I like the thinking about “how the device might occupy the world.”

And separately, Christian Lindholm has some interesting ideas about linearity as a low-involvement user experience, perfectly suited to mobile.

Everyone’s talking about how it feels to be the reader – how he or she will be empowered to enjoy the best aspects of printed and digital media rolled into one wafer-thin device. It’s all very user-centred.

But I think to succeed eReaders must not only meet the needs of the direct user, but also of those around them, the friends and family who may not welcome their loved one’s absorption in this exciting new media. They are the “next largest context” within which the new device must win acceptance.

Continue reading