Facts Not Opinions – a talk at Bettakultcha’s ‘Importance of Failure’

On the evening of Sunday 28 December 1879, a newly built bridge over the River Tay collapsed as a train passed over it in a storm. All 70 passengers perished. William Topaz McGonagall commemorated the disaster in possibly the most comical poem ever earnestly composed. And ironwork recovered from the river estuary was sent for testing on an extraordinary machine made in Leeds.

Leeds made many machines – machines for spinning and weaving, machines for moving and hauling, machines for making other machines. This one, however, was made for learning. Learning the way a toddler does. Learning by breaking things.

Meet its creator, David Kirkaldy. In the 1861 Census we find him in Glasgow where he gave his occupation as “mechanical engineer and artist.” Are there any artists in the house? Any engineers? Anyone who is both an engineer and an artist?

For 18 years Kirkaldy rose through the ranks of Napier’s engineering works, where his specialism was testing. He tested the stuff used in ships and high-pressure boilers, big bits of metal. You would not wish to be near them when they failed. He learned a lot about these materials,and how they stood up under massive stresses and strains.

Finally he left his job to construct a patented machine of his own design – the Universal Testing Machine.

Some rights reserved by IanVisits

The machine is massive – 14.5 metres long, 116 tons, capable of testing columns and girders from buildings and bridges. It can pull, thrust, bend, twist, shear, punch and bulge iron beams to breaking point. And critically, it records just how much hydraulic pressure each takes before the point of failure.

David Kirkaldy signed a deal with Greenwood and Batley of Leeds, to make the machine at their Albion Foundry in Armley. He was not an easy customer. He spent 272 days here to supervise every stage of the construction personally.

Progress was slow and Kirkakdy lost patience. He was paying for time and materials out of his own pocket. Eventually he had the unfinished machine sent by rail to London, where it was installed on reinforced foundations a block in from the south bank of the Thames on Southwark Street.

The machine was the centrepiece of the world’s first independent commercial testing service. It tested materials for the new Blackfriars Bridge, for steamships from Germany, and for guns from Belgium.

After the Tay Bridge disaster,  David Kirkaldy tested iron rods and columns to pinpoint where they had failed so that no engineer need make the same mistake again.

Above the door of his Testing and Experimenting Works, he had his motto carved in stone: Facts Not Opinions. Any data geeks here tonight? 99 Southwark Street should be a site of pilgrimage for you.

Some rights reserved by Lars Plougmann

He displayed the broken materials on the upper levels of the building, in what became known as the Museum of Fractures. By the 1920s the collection was so heavy that it threatened to fall through the floors and was gradually sold off for scrap.

The machine and the business passed to his son, his son’s widow and eventually his grandson. Three generations and two world wars. Come the 1950s they were testing wreckage from a crashed Comet jet airliner and parts for the Festival of Britain Skylon.

And how’s this for showing the courage of your convictions? In 99 years, the Kirkaldys never incorporated as a limited company. As sole proprietors, they retained unlimited, personal liability if they, or their workers, were ever found to be negligent.

They finally sold to a larger testing company, and the works closed for business in 1974. But the story of the machine made in Leeds goes on. It became the first machine ever to be listed as integral part of the building in which it stood.

Now volunteers run the works as the Kirkaldy Testing Museum. One Sunday a month they will bend, stretch and snap stuff for your entertainment and edification. This coming weekend is one of those Sundays. You should go.

It’s a beautiful, atmospheric museum still dominated by the spirit of David Kirkaldy and the smell of Victorian engineering. I urge you to visit soon because commercial pressures mean that the museum’s future is uncertain.

I really hope it survives because there is no better place to learn the importance of failure than the Kirkaldy Testing Museum.

Andrew Thompson made this lovely video of artist James Capper’s work in progress (i.e. breaking) at the museum. Thanks for permission to show clips of the video during my talk. You can watch the director’s cut here:

A found Leeds litany, raw notes from an afternoon walk

Red brick, air con units and recycling bins

Way back in June, as part of Andrew Wilson’s wonderful HannaH Festival, a group of citizens fanned out from Wharf Street Chambers into the summer drizzle clutching maps to four quarters of our city. We briefed participants to look for evidence of Leeds’ past, present and future. On returning to base we shared what everyone had found as photos and sticky notes spread out in a giant timeline on the wall.

As organiser, I committed to take the collective findings and weave them together into some kind of essay, as part of the Stories in their place series that emerges sporadically from this blog. Now it is winter, nearly six months to the day since our walk, and all I have are these damned PostIts. The promised essay will follow, with grand sweeping themes. But not yet.

Sticky notes on wall at Wharf Street

So by way of a down payment I offer you the raw notes, transcribed from the PostIts and ordered roughly as we stuck them on the wall at Wharf Street.

Like a medieval bestiary, ontography can take the form of a compendium, a record of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and imply interaction through collocation. The simplest approach to such recording is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma. Ontography is an aesthetic set theory, in which a particular configuration is celebrated merely on the basis of its existence. — Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing

Here is the list, a found Leeds litany. Make of it what you will.

  • East Bar stone outside the Minster
  • Kirkgate oldest street in Leeds
  • Failing since Briggate was built
  • Black Prince statue – political message
  • Public art – Victorian and Current
  • First White Cloth Hall
  • Railway through the end of the 2nd White Cloth Hall
  • Hunslet industrial history
  • Victorian attention to detail
  • Doors big for big cargo
  • Foundation of Leeds United
  • Bricked up windows and doors
  • Leeds brick
  • Bricks made locally
  • Old Dock
  • Printworks
  • 1990s riverside development
  • Back alleys
  • Narrow lanes
  • Clarence Dock
  • The Armouries
  • A long way from anywhere
  • Failed shopping centre
  • How many people actually live here
  • Crown Hotel and blue building
  • Development Corporation
  • De-industrialisation
  • Shiny buildings with social problems
  • Hotel with unexpected consequences
  • Market – Traditional shopping vs Trinity
  • A city of shopping
  • Poundland, Poundworld, Poundstretcher
  • Pile of bricks that was Tetley’s
  • Tetley’s now a car park
  • Green spaces
  • Parasitic balconies in the canal
  • Stagnant lagoon
  • Seedy places of innovation
  • Modern sheds in compounds
  • Locks on Millenium Bridge
  • Asda grocery collection point
  • Plans for a park
  • Digital agency in an old industrial building
  • The new college
  • Salem Church of big data
  • Cheap spaces – Berlinification
  • Bins and recycling
  • Hipster urban regeneration
  • Corn Exchange and building next door – tiling
  • Retro – what is old
  • Trinity Church – arts centre
  • Basinghall Street – service street

Thanks to all the walkshoppers, whose names can be found on the Eventbrite page.

The definite article, or lines written on the opening of a former brewery headquarters as contemporary art gallery

These past few years have been tough on Tetley’s disembodied headquarters.

First came the loss of the purpose for which it was built in the depths of 1930s depression – a human-scale head office for a family firm. The directors’ boardroom was relegated to an outpost of the Carlsberg empire. Lutheran rectitude became the order of the day in the by-all-accounts once riotous in-house bar.

In time the booze stopped flowing altogether. They closed the brewery and levelled the surrounding buildings, which had cosseted the headquarters from the elements and perfumed it with their distinctive whiff. Whether you loved or loathed it, South Leeds will never smell the same again.

Standing alone, lacking a flashy boom-time facade, the headquarters building was denied heritage status by English Heritage on myopic grounds, apparently based only on photographs:

“Technological innovation and machinery: it has no special interest in terms of technological innovation or machinery.

Wider industrial context, regional factors and an integrated site: these are linked and can be dealt with together. While the brewing industry was of importance in Yorkshire, and Tetley’s a major brewer, the region was not pre-eminent nationally. More significantly, the headquarters building is a small part of a much larger complex, and one that has already been judged not to be of special interest in a national context and not recommended for designation. In terms of industrial process, those parts of the site that were involved in the physical brewing would potentially have been of greater interest than the offices.

Architectural interest: the building is, as the applicants suggest, solid 1930s. The same architects were responsible for some of the buildings on the north side of Eastgate in Leeds, and there are similarities in both materials and style. The Eastgate buildings were based on designs earlier drawn up by Sir Reginald Blomfield and were already rather old-fashioned by the time they were executed. The surviving original internal features are attractive but not unusual, with the possible exception of the lift which has good contemporary styling including sun-burst motif decoration.”

Thus did the protectors of our heritage abandon a Leeds landmark, distinctive rooftop lettering and all. They left its fate to the whim of the self-same cold-blooded multi-national executives who had just ended 189 years of mass-scale brewing in our city. They might as well have ground every last brick to dust for a few more £3 a day parking bays.

But then it turned out those Danes had a soft side. They had been here before, as it were, with Carlsberg’s own factory turned cultural quarter on the edge of Copenhagen. Tetley’s headquarters had the fortune to fall into the hands of the persuasive, entrepreneurial artists who created and ran Project Space Leeds. Doubly lucky, this happened just as the impetus ran out on pointless, statement regeneration, new-build modernism. The artists could see things the bean counters and bureaucrats had missed.

That this building still stands, with much of its relatively understated interior intact, is testament to the place’s quiet strength of character, born of a solid sense of purpose and multi-generational commitment to the business. Despite all the indignities, it demanded a future as well as a past. That future begins today as The Tetley.

The Tetley. #thetetley. Roll that around for a bit and savour the de rigeur hashtag. For the first time in its four score years this place bears the mark of a lone survivor: its own definite article.

PSL and their architects have taken advantage of the site’s unlisted status to insert a massive new wall down the middle of the building. But they have also done the hard and unglamorous work required to open up the internal stairwell and the lift that even English Heritage had to grudgingly admit showed some merit. They have cleaned the place up, but not too much.

Stairwell and lift

At a bloggers’ preview last week I was heartened to hear director Pippa Hale talk about the way artists would be encouraged to engage with all the building’s rich heritage. The Joshua Tetley Association of former staff have been consulted and involved. Items left behind by the departing workforce will be incorporated into works of art. Among the most striking of these, giant letters from a lost rooftop lie scattered across a panelled former office.

Tetley interior with letters

There will be interventions outside The Tetley too. Mass industrialisation rendered the edges of many English cities impermeable. Gigantic works and goods yards cut off ancient rights of way. They enclosed the pre-industrial public realm and made new secret spaces that were only open to employees, and the occasional cheeky interloper. We post-industrials have a chance to reclaim that commons. The old Hunslet Lane – severed for years by Tetley’s security barriers – will re-open to pedestrians, with a little pocket of grass and promises of a bigger South Leeds park to come.

All of which will soon go to show just how wrong-headed it has been to evaluate industrial heritage like The Tetley in terms of machinery, manufacturing and stylistic merit. Like the chain of pubs administered from its offices, The Tetley was always a social place. I can’t wait to see those social qualities revived by the PSL crew and the artists they commission to work there.

Keep the campfire burning: a thread of whimsy from Baden-Powell to Berners-Lee

Cubs badges

As a child I hated Cubs. All that running around and shouting, the church parades, and camping on a damp field at the edge of Danbury Common.

But in a twist of fate I find myself parent to three boys far more enthusiastic than I ever was; my oldest recently got a badge marking seven years – more than half his lifetime – as a Beaver, Cub or Scout.

That’s seven years of walking him to and from the weekly meetings in the school hall, driving to the scout hut down dark country lanes, dropping off and picking up at obscure Dales campsites that satnav passed by. If the youngest one follows in his muddy footsteps I’ll be doing the same for the next seven years as well.

I remain both surprised and grateful that there are grown-ups who volunteer to take my children camping so I don’t have to.

And just recently I’ve come to wonder at the infrastructure that has grown up around the scouting movement in the 106 years since Robert Baden-Powell ran his first experimental camp at Brownsea Island, Dorset.

Within an hour’s drive of our home there are dozens of scout sites tucked away in valleys, down farm tracks, one on an unpromising gap between a canal and a railway line. The Wakefield District even has its own canal boat.

Then there’s the knowledge and social capital. My boys are fourth-generation scouts – at least four of their eight great-grandparents were active in the movement. Yet their campfires, penknives, funny handshake and woggles would be instantly recognisable to scouts who bob-a-jobbed in last Great Depression.

I like to think that our digital culture will develop like this.

When I reflect on its future, I’m not that interested in whether we’ll experience life through screens, or glasses or holograms or deep brain implants, or whatever. The scout hut now has flushing toilets, not a hole in the ground, but the boys would still pee against a tree if you let them.

What matters to me as a second-generation geek is the culture and shared set of values that emerges in a movement over multiple lifetimes.

I relish the thought of heritage servers and listed fibre optic cables.

How brilliant would it feel to comment on a 50-year-old Basecamp, or push to a 100-year-old Github repository?

Imagine watching the accelerated sights of a webcam that has lain forgotten on someone’s window sill for a century or more. Or sifting through an heirloom dataset.

How will the do-ocracies that power hackspaces and open source projects manage the passing of batons from generation to generation?

Will the elders entreat sceptical youths to eschew the home comforts of AI-generated code for the delights of hand-whittled trinkets in Python?

In 2093, will our great-grandchildren gather to mark 100 years since the first experimental website was put up by Tim Berners-Lee (like Baden-Powell a knight of Britain’s exclusive Order of Merit)? What greetings will they use? What songs will sing?

And how will the network bear the scars of countries that have come to blows, made peace and repaired the damage, as have many of the nations in the worldwide community of scouts?

I picture a world much more complex than ours, more resilient too, yet in some ways instantly recognisable.

The example of scouting makes me optimistic about the decades to come – not because of the things we’ll invent between now and then, but because of the experiences we’ll share; because the future will have more history behind it.

Make mine a messy city: Riot Sim and the City that Didn’t Riot

If you live in, work in, or occasionally visit a city, any city, but especially one in England’s North, please set aside half an hour or so some time soon to watch and read two powerful critiques of the prevailing techno-determinist vision of the so-called “smart city”.

All 11,000 words of Dan Hill’s post on his City of Sound blog repay an extended reading, but the title also says it all: “On the smart city; Or, a ‘manifesto’ for smart citizens instead“.

Dan asks: “Can a city be ‘smart’ and inefficient at the same time? Perhaps this is a fundamental question, un-voiced by smart city advocates.”

Then there’s Adam Greenfield’s more clinical dissection of the smart city missions of leading enterprises moving in on the space, such as Siemens’ somewhat sinister “the goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

Watch Adam’s talk now, it’s only 10 minutes long.

Adam speaks of : “All that messy history caused by an infinity of small acts… It’s not just any city, it’s this city, wherever this city happens to be with all its texture, all of its history, all of its people…”

Mess, texture, history… all things Leeds, Bradford and their northern neighbours have in abundance. No more so than in the city districts that have been home to successive waves of immigration, making new dishes out of past occupants’ leftovers, as in Caribbean/Jewish Chapeltown or South Asian/Jewish Manningham.

When I look back over the glinting shards that Andrew, Imran and I have collected on our New Idea of the North Tumblr, one of the themes I see crop up repeatedly is that of the messy city, the celebration of small acts, randomness, spontaneity, lack of control.

I see it in the positive, creative activities like Emma Bearman’s Playful Leeds events…

Some rights reserved by Imran…

Take this intervention from the Scott Burnham Urban Mischief playshop last year…


A pair of sticky tape legs, appear to have dived just this second from a half-finished shopping centre walkway and into the tarmac below. A beautiful piece of trash in the middle of a street that has itself been trashed by piecemeal development for as long as I can remember.

The smart city could not tolerate this. Development would be too well coordinated, the flow of pedestrian traffic too precious to permit even a temporary perturbation. Only in the messy city can such creativity flourish.

Of course the messy city has its dark side too. Don’t miss Radio 4’s upcoming re-staging of Tony Robinson’s ‘V’, the powerful and profane poem written at the time of the Miners’ Strike. The city that gave the world practical steam locomotion also grew the terrorists who bombed London’s underground railway.

But in contrast to the sterile efficiency of the mythical smart city, the messy city is real, and there’s always hope. To understand how the smart and messy cities see things differently, consider responses to the summer riots of 2011.

Exhibit A, the most egregious example at a recent smart city “social” sciences demo event at Leeds City Museum. The “Riot Sim” seeks to gamify law and order. Participants take the role of police commissioner, moving cute Lego officers across a projected city map to quell computer-generated outbreaks of violence.

In the movie world of the Matrix, the authorities are software agents, but here in the smart city, the computer assumes the role of the citizens. It’s tidier that way; even the riots are tidier. Riots are presented as inevitable, an apolitical phenomenon to be modelled and controlled. Tellingly, the high score is a financial one – how many thousand pounds of damage to property could the user/police chief/god-like viewer mitigate?

Riot Sim

Meanwhile in the messy city, real people were determined to change the narrative. In London they rejected the myth that Blackberry Messenger caused the riots and organised on Twitter to start the clean-up.

And in Chapeltown, there’s another story, one that the Riot Sim is incapable of imagining. In this story the police, community leaders and rioters are all humans, who look each other in the eyes and refuse to conform to stereotypes and computer models. After a gang-related shooting at the height of the ferment, police agreed to hold back while youth workers went round to calm tensions and call on parents to enforce an informal curfew. Because, not in spite, of the district’s troubled history the people of Chapeltown chose a different August 2011.

I’ll see your #riotcleanup and raise you, against all provocation and expectation, the City that Didn’t Riot.

How’s it going to end?

For the past four years a story has accreted on this blog. It’s a meta-narrative, a story about stories.

Looking back, I believe the arc began with the partial collapse of Leeds’ Temple Works. That’s what led me to encounter the people who made this city, and then to talk about them in pixels, in print and in person.

Along the way, I have questioned what it means to tell a story in the place where it happened. I have celebrated the often overlooked asset of narrative capital, the capacity of a population to imagine and make a future out of the stories they inherit from the past.

And for a while now I’ve felt as if this arc is drawing to a conclusion, only I don’t know how it ends.

It’s something about England’s North. Not the North of cliches, of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and flat caps and “Good Honest Broadband from Yorkshire”, but rather the future of the North. Not the future of economic development and high speed rail and devolution of power, though all of those things make a difference. It is something about a new idea of the North, a social and cultural and technological way of being that grows out of all that has happened here thus far.

As evidenced by the paragraph above, I am rather better at saying what it isn’t than what it is, so in a bid to hasten the moment of closure, I have taken two steps.

First, I have begun to collate my talks and blog posts into the structure of book, which I plan to release under the same Creative Commons license as this blog. It will be a tentative, provisional book, one with version control and footnotes, but I feel this will help me to get the ideas in my head out of alpha and into some shape where others can engage more easily with the emergent arc.

Second, with Imran Ali and Andrew Wilson, I started to collect examples of what the New Idea of the North might look like. We made a Tumblr and started to throw in stuff that seemed relevant. We’ve had a couple of sessions where we tried to wring meaning out of all the stuff we’ve collected. I think it’s helping but we’re still not there.

The New Idea of the North

So please take a look at the Tumblr, tell us what you see. I can’t wait to find out where it leads us.

Five minutes, one year, two buildings, a thousand stories

Notes from my presentation at Bettakultcha, Leeds Town Hall, on Wednesday 9 January 2013.

Some rights reserved by tricky (rick harrison)

What an amazing venue. I could spend the next five minutes just talking about this building. I could tell you how the Leeds Corporation raised a special tax and set a budget of £35,000 to build a grand new town hall.

I could tell you how an unknown East Riding architect named Cuthbert Brodrick won the competition with his Classical Baroque design, championed by Charles Barry, architect of the Palace of Westminster.


I could tell you how, part-way through construction, rivalry with surrounding towns spurred on the architect and his clients to add a tower and bust their budget, finally completing the structure at a cost of £125,000. But you know all that stuff, right?

I could tell you about the year construction began, 1853. A year of industrial strife in which Preston cottonworkers were locked out of their mills, inspiring novels by both Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.

A year of innovation. Dr John Snow anaesthetised Queen Victoria with chloroform during the birth of her eighth child. The year Sir George Cayley’s terrified butler flew across Brompton Dale, near Sarborough, and resigned as soon as got back down to earth. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Because while the great and the good of this city were signing the contract to build this town hall, a mile across town, a very different group of people were laying the foundations of another remarkable building.

The area on Richmond Hill known as “the Bank” was populated in early Victorian times by Irish weavers and labourers, drawn to the city to work in factories and construction.

Their numbers were swollen in the 1840s by refugees from Ireland’s Great Famine. The Bank was a slum, with badly-built housing, poor drainage, overcrowding and disease.


Yet in this place, the poor Catholic congregation, with their priests and an order of Oblate nuns, found the resources to replace their makeshift church with a massive cathedral-scale Gothic creation known as Mount St Mary’s. They called it the Famine Church.

Some rights reserved by phill.d

It took four years to build. In that time, workers were killed and injured in a lightning strike; the order of nuns faced financial ruin, and due to old mine-workings the foundations below the ground cost as much as the structure above.

Some rights reserved by phill.d

The church’s first architect was York-born Joseph Hansom, inventor of the horse-drawn Hansom Cab. Later additions were by  Edward Welby Pugin, whose father gave us the rich interiors of the Palace of Westminster.

In Bradford in 1858, John Ruskin asked why it was that the churches of the period were so often Gothic, while the mills and mansions were Classical. Which is more than just a question of taste.

But now you live under one school of architecture, and worship under another.
What do you mean by doing this?

Ruskin hated Classical buildings because every detail had to be specified according to the laws of proportion and precedent – that pesky golden ratio. Symmetry trumps practicality. Perfection frustrates adaptation.

If you… make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.

With Classical, it’s all big design upfront. Adding the Town Hall tower, was costly and disruptive. At St Mary’s it was natural for Pugin’s transepts to blend into Hansom’s nave. A tower was planned, but, no matter, it never got one.

Mount St Mary’s Church was in use for more than 130 years. But since 1989 it has lain empty, stripped of its contents and allowed to decay.

Some rights reserved by phill.d

A sign on the vaulted front door said, “Keep Out, Private, Danger” – a warning, a threat and a promise.
Bernard Hare, ‘Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew

The English Heritage Grade II* Listing says it is “An important building on a prominent site,” with “fine proportions and remains of important features.”

Some rights reserved by phill.d

Developers now have planning permission for “a scheme that preserves the most important parts of the buildings and creates an innovative and exciting new residential development.” I really hope it succeeds.

It’s worth reflecting on the differences between these two buildings, Leeds Town Hall and Mount St Mary’s. Both begun in the same year, but on different sides of the tracks. One Classical, the other Gothic.

One built by civic power, the other by the faith of an immigrant community. I am neither Irish nor Catholic – I was married here in the Town Hall. But both buildings have provided a stage over the years for marking our city’s countless births, marriages and deaths.

One well-maintained and in use to this day, the other neglected now for two dozen years. What do their parallel stories tell us about the kind of city we want this to be?

Thanks to Richard and Ivor for giving me yet another five minutes on the Bettakultcha stage, and to Phill Davison for the many wonderful photos of Mount St Mary’s which I used in my presentation. For more on the history of church, head over to the Leeds Civic Trust bookshop and buy a copy of Pat Gavan’s ‘Mount St Mary’s Church 1851-2000′.

Three machines made in Leeds

For my wife’s family it is the crockery. Staffordshire-raised, they can’t resist upturning plates and bowls to check their makers’ marks – Doulton, Wedgwood and what-have-you. And my own father grew up near Sheffield, so in restaurants I also study the knives and forks – David Mellor was a Noughties Brit cuisine staple.

But Leeds, well Leeds made all sorts of stuff, and much of it too big and heavy for fine dining. So here I present three machines that have recently caught my familiarity-biased eye – all of them survivors still making their marks on the world in different ways.

Thing 1. I’m loving Chris Thorpe’s series on “Preserving the past with the near future” – the story of Winifred, a Hunslet-built steam engine that has travelled to Wales, the USA and back before being recorded as part of a unique project with lasers, 3d-printers and stuff.

The work is beautiful, and so are Chris’s blog posts describing the project at the Bala Lake Railway, especially like the bit about how future generations might view the recording.

Thing 2. On the first Sunday of many months, I had my Remember The Milk app pop up a repeating reminder, if in London, to visit the Kirkaldy Testing Museum a block inland from the Tate Modern at Bankside. Last Sunday we did, and were not disappointed.

David Kirkaldy was so convinced of the need for independent testing of construction materials that he commissioned at his own expense a massive testing machine from Greenwood and Batley of Armley.

Kirkaldy's testing machine - Wikimedia Commons

The machine served for 99 years through three generations of a family business, crushing, pulling and bending metal girders, concrete beams and much more – literally testing to destruction. Now it is cared for by knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers. You should visit too.

Thing 3. At the back of my mind since our summer holiday in Scotland, this…

… a Leeds-built John Fowler & Co. steamroller upcycled into play equipment in a park at Aberfeldy. I guess there must be a few of these in playgrounds around the world. With a bit of imagination, you can flatten anything.

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.


On opening the great arch at London Bridge, by throwing two arches into one, and the removal of a large pier, the excavation, around and underneath the sterlings of that pier, was so considerable, as to put the adjoining piers, that arch, and eventually the whole bridge, in great danger of falling. The previous opinions of some were positive, and the apprehensions of all the people on this head were so great, that many persons would not pass over or under it. The Surveyors employed were not adequate to such an exigency. Mr. SMEATON was then in Yorkshire, where he was sent for by express, and from whence he arrived in town with the greatest expedition. He applied himself immediately to examine the bridge, and to sound about the dangerous sterlings, as minutely as he could. The Committee of Common Council adopted his advice; which was, to re-puchase the stones of all the City Gates, then lately pulled down, and lying in Moorfields, and to throw them pell-mell, (or piece perdu,) into the water, to guard these sterlings, preserve the bottom from further corrosion, raise the floor under the arch, and restore the head of water necessary for the water-works to its original power ; and this was a practice, he had before, and afterwards adopted on other occasions. Nothing shews the apprehensions of the bridge falling, more, than the alacrity with which his advice was pursued : the stones were re-purchased that day ; horses, carts and barges were got ready, and the work instantly begun, though it was Sunday morning. Thus Mr. SMEATON, in all human probability, saved London Bridge from falling, and secured it till more effectual methods could be taken.

Life of Mr John Smeaton, in Reports of the Late John Smeaton: F. R. S., Made on Various Occasions, in the Course of His Employment as a Civil Engineer, 1812

A {$arbitrary_disruptive_technology} In Every Home

The fantastic culmination of James Burke’s talk at dConstruct last week set me thinking about a misleading trope that seems to recur with regularity in our discourse about technology.

Through his 70s TV series James was a childhood hero of mine. I wrote about his talk in my summary of the event, and thanks to the generous and well-organised dConstruct team you can also listen to the whole thing online.

With a series of stories, James showed how chance connections have led to important new discoveries and paradigm shifts – how, for example, a wrecked ship gave rise to the invention of toilet roll. So far, so serendipitous.

But then he set off on a flight of fancy that I found harder to follow, on the implications of nanotechnologies still gestating in the R&D labs. How this stuff would transform the world in the next 30 to 40 years! Not, thankfully, with a Prince Charles grey goo apocalypse but with a triumph of anarchist equilibrium.

How would the Authorities cope when their subjects no longer needed them to arbitrate Solomon-like over scarce resources? How would society be structured in a new world of abundant everything (except maybe mud, apparently the basic element of nanoconstruction)? How would Everything be changed by the arrival of A Nanotechnology Factory In Every Home?

A {$arbitrary_disruptive_technology} In Every Home!

I wondered what other innovations have held such promise. Cue Google Book Search where among the random pickings I find:

  • 1984: “modem in every home”
  • 1978: “robot in every home”
  • 1976: “microprocessor in every home”
  • 1975: “wireless telegraphy in every home”
  • 1943: “television in every home”
  • 1937: “telephone in every home”
  • 1915: “water supply in every home”
  • 1908: “sewing machine in every home”
  • 1900: “piano and good pictures in every home”

And some of the most popular charted with the wonderful Ngram Viewer:

It seems that whenever a transformative technology comes along there are some who dare to dream of its widespread adoption. On paper of course, they are right. I live in a home with all the above (though we in the developed world can all too easily overlook the 780 million people who still rely on unsafe water supplies).

Yet the focus on the domestic obscures the fact that all these technologies and resources are still employed as much, if not more, in our public spaces and workplaces as in our private homes.

  • A fountain in every town square
  • A screen at every bus stop
  • A server in every server farm
  • A robot in every loading bay
  • A sewing machine in every sweat shop

So why the allure of a domestic context?

200 years ago the Luddites found themselves, with good reason, resisting the wrenching of textile trades out of their cottages and into the factories. They responded by machine breaking, not machine making.

Now, however, we look to technology to redress the balance in the other direction. By limboing under a bar of low price and simple operation, goes the narrative, each new technology will find its place in every home, thus setting people free from the tyranny of mass production.

Except that’s not how it really works out. Even for the cheap and plentiful, large-scale industrialisation trumps cozy domestication.

The printing press managed to change society drastically between 1500 and 1800 without the need to deliver hot metal to the home. One in every town appears to have been plenty disruptive enough. And while computer-connected home printers have been a reality for decades the use cases for large-scale industrial printing continue to expand.

The Computer In Every Home was a vision held early on by the pioneers of the Homebrew Computer Club. But as a by-product of ushering in a new era of small-scale tinkering, homebrew hackers Jobs and Wozniak also happened to grow the most valuable single public company of all time!

And while I write this post in a living room stuffed with processing power and data storage, the services that I value most run in and from the network – Gmail, Facebook, WordPress.com, Dropbox – not so much a computer in every home as a home in every computer. What’s more, for this convenience, it appears people are prepared to put their faith in the most unaccountable, parvenu providers.

The same may be true of the 3d printer, current poster child of post-industrialism. The sector is in spitting distance of  sub-$1000, desktop units, but those are unlikely to prove the most popular or productive way to disperse the benefits of this new technology. Far simpler to pack rows of bigger units into factories where they can be more easily serviced and efficiently employed round the clock.

So if the alchemy of nanotechnology does come to pass (and I’ll be stocking up on Maldon mud just in case) then – like it or not – it seems as likely to be a centralised and centralising force as a decentralising one.

Or am I missing something? Economists, historians of science, help me out, please.

“Please join me in a drive for better letters”

As a follow-up to the 1951 ‘No Idle Words’ booklet, comes this gem of a letter about writing letters. Its author was Charles Hill, a doctor turned broadcaster and politician who briefly held the office of Postmaster General.

Note also the lovely simplification of the royal coat of arms – just remove all the fussy heraldry from the middle, leaving only the supporters, crown and ribbon – and the brilliant phone number.

Transcript below.





HEAdquarters 1234.

11th June, 1956

Dear Colleague,

I am sending this letter to all in the Post Office whose job includes the writing of letters to the public. As a rule Post Office letters are very good. Sometimes they are so good as to make one feel proud. But it does happen that now and again Post Office letters come back to me because they have made members of the public very cross.

Unlike the customers of many private businesses, our customers cannot go elsewhere. Since we are a monopoly, our obligations to the public are all the greater.

A letter which is not clear and polite is just as serious a failure as is a wrong number or a misdelivered parcel. And it is bad in another way. We in the Post Office need the closest co-operation from the public if we are to provide efficient service. Unless the public think of us as a body of friendly, helpful and efficient men and women, we shall not get that co-operation. Bad letters are bad business – and we are in business.

Will you join me in and experiment? Will you re-read your own letters as though they had been sent to you? It can be a useful check to ask oneself as a private citizen what one would think of the writer. Would he seem to be a friendly, understanding, human being anxious to help, or a remote, cold, aloof bureaucrat? If you knew nothing about the Post Office and wanted to know only why you cannot get a telephone or why your letter or parcel went astray or was damaged, would the letter you have written seem clear and polite?

As ordinary individuals writing to a friend, we write simply and clearly. Or most of us do. Only when they pick up their pens in the office do some people sometimes write stiff, long-winded, and obscure letters.

Of course clarity is not all. Sometimes a letter is very clear – all too clear – but not very polite. But the people to whom we write are our customers. We cannot always do what our customers want; but we can, and should, always be polite. If the Post Office has made a mistake, we should apologise.

May I make some other suggestions? Write as nearly as you can as if you were talking to your correspondent. Keep your sentences short and use the simplest and most natural words. User your own words but avoid technical terms and abbreviations. Your correspondent may know little about the Post Office.

If your letter is to promise action of some kind, think out who will do what and say so. If you do not know, find out. If you cannot find out, the chances are that nobody is going to do anything and it’s high time somebody did.

If your letter is clear, polite, and as helpful as possible, you will be making a friend for the Post Office and doing a first-class job.

If for you this advice is unnecessary – as it is for the great majority of our Post Office colleagues – please forgive me for offering it. If not, please join me in a drive for better letters.

Yours sincerely,

Charles Hill

View – History – Flatten layers: part 2. Anniversaries

From the optical illusion of the Russell Square aeroplane to the temporal plywood of anniversaries.

At one level, anniversaries are meaningless folds in the map – artifacts of an arbitrary time-system force-fitted onto the relentless drift of natural history.

An ocean liner strikes an iceberg and sinks. The-square-of-the-number-of-fingers-a-human-has multiplied by the-time-it-takes-for-the-Earth-to-circumnavigate-the-Sun later, we’re watching a 3d cinematic rendering of Leonardo DiCaprio clinging to damp wood.

But the angles at which these glistening shards of the past collide with present-day events can render them impossible to ignore.

London will have a special quality this summer as it hosts the Olympics Games in the sixtieth year of unelected Elizabethan head-of-state-hood.

For 2012 seems to have a particularly fine crop of anniversaries.

I am particularly struck by the way the Luddite bicentenary can be a flashpoint for different interpretations of the past, present and future of the English North.

The way these events ripple through history reminds us that we only ever live partially in the present. There may be a randomness in the way that past events  bounce off each other and recombine, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

“That even space travel is now a reality”

And now for today’s news from the Department of Serendipity.

Quote Investigator digs diligently, delightfully and with positive results into the provenance of William Gibson’s lumpily doled-out future|present.

But the bit that stands out for me is Ralph Thomas’ 1967 criticism of Marshall McLuhan…

McLuhan suffers also from a mixed-up time sense. He believes the future has already happened. He often says most people can see thru the rearview mirror, but he seems to have the opposite fault. He appears to think total automation is upon us, that the whole world is linked as “global village” by TV, that even space travel is now a reality.

Meanwhile, 45 years and exactly six Moon landings into McLuhan’s future, this from Ed Booty of BBH London…

As we’ve explored and embraced the bewildering possibilities, we’ve increasingly convinced ourselves that a revolution is here. Meanwhile real peoples’ lives and needs simply aren’t changing at the same pace. What is possible is growing at an exponential rate, but how people actually live and use technologies has changed very little.  This gap between the myth and reality is ever-widening.

Mind that gap, people.

History is the handrail

History is the handrail for which we reach when knocked off balance by the present day.

Therefore it seems apt that at the Museum of London a “timeline handrail”  runs from 1688 to 2012, around the new Galleries of Modern London.

At first sight this is a cute way to lay out the span of years through the expanse of the gallery, surrounded by some excellent exhibits that bring past generations of the capital’s people back to life.

But the handrail left me feeling queasy, unsteady on my feet, because here London’s past is for sale.

I don’t mind the principle of sponsorship so much as the way it is done. Critically, for £5000 corporations and wealthy individuals can not only affix their names to a year, but also dictate the very events with which that date should be associated.

It’s a strange price, £5000 – beyond the reach of mass participation by ordinary Londoners, yet chickenfeed for the City’s many firms and institutions. And, the website boasts, it counts as gift aid so…

if you are a 50% higher rate taxpayer, your donation could cost you even less at £2,500.

In other words, the rich may occupy a year of London’s narrative for half the sum that their history-loving cleaners or chauffeurs would have to scrimp and save.

Regular followers of my ramblings will know that I have a special thing for the year 1794. I wondered which of the various happenings of that eventful year might have made it onto the timeline.

From the latter…


I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe. (1-4)

You’ll see where this is leading.

Now I know nothing of Norton Rose LLP and their business. Well done them, I say, for 217 years of lawyering in London.

Yet this entry inadvertently speaks volumes  – more even than those lines of William Blake – about the nature of power in the City of London. The structure of this sponsorship scheme guarantees a history written by the victors. It underwrites the narratives of the already powerful.

When you place your hand on a rail it does more than offer support; it also guides your direction of travel. Where do you want it to lead you?