How I learned to stop worrying and love the jam

A lightning talk at Service Design in Government

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There’s a growing interest in hacks and jam events in the public sector. Over the past months in Leeds alone, we’ve seen events around open government data, mental health, cycling and public transport.

Great stuff can happen at these events, yet they can also be unfulfilling for participants and organisers alike. After all the pizza-fuelled excitement of the weekend, everyone gets back to their day jobs and wonders what, if anything, has changed?

I’ve felt that sense of disappointment myself. As co-organiser of events under the Service Design Leeds banner, I’ve tried to fix it in various ways. I want to share the conclusion I’ve come to about what hacks and jams are for, and how to make them work.

It’s easy to see the reasons why these events are so popular – but I think they’re often the wrong reasons.

People in the public sector are hungry for ideas – they’ve always wanted to make things better for the people they serve, but now they have to do so with diminished resources and less central support.

These diminished resources make shortcuts and quick fixes very tempting. One of my collaborators jokes about the magical thinking surrounding startup pixies – mythical creatures who just appear and solve problems overnight in return for beer and pizza.

The pixies don’t exist. And even if they did, they couldn’t solve anything overnight because that’s just not long enough to engage with real users, to gain their trust and understand their concerns. Co-creating service with users is a long-term relationship not a one-night stand.

Yes there may be rare examples of hack day projects that go on to greater things – projects like Snook’s MyPolice. But the strike rate is far too low to justify the enormous amount of time and effort that everyone else puts in, often for free.

The true value in hacks and jams doesn’t come from the ideas and projects they generate. It comes down to the social capital we create, and new ways of doing things that we practice by working together for the first time.

My favourite definition of innovation is a throwaway line by Bruno Latour that “a project is considered innovative when the number of actors is not known from the outset.”

Much of life in large organisations (in the private sector too) consists of doing the same things we did yesterday, with the same people in the same building. We can improve those things incrementally with six sigma and process improvement, but to be truly innovative we need to join forces with others from outside our bubble.

The best hacks and jams foster innovation by pressing together groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to collaborate. Even if that exact group never works together again, they all gain from the exposure to different perspectives and priorities in an egalitarian setting. So it matters who takes part in the event. 90 percent of the effort goes into getting the right people in the room.

Group forming and negotiation takes time and emotional energy. It’s not uncommon to see furrowed brows and tense discussions in jams. But this is all part of the important work of forging new understandings between strangers. The jam should be a safe space for that to happen.

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Meanwhile, the artificial time constraint in a jam forces people to work at a pace that they may not be used to. If you care greatly about the quality and reliability of the insights from your event, this will always be a source of pain.

But I prefer to turn that on its head (again in a safe, low-stakes environment). I urge jammers to start making a prototype before they know what it is, and to take it out of the building and test it with users before they think it’s finished. They’re invariable surprised by how much they could make in so little time, and by how little they needed to show users to get a good reaction. I want them to bottle that feeling and take it back to the office.

So when I look at the attendee list we have for the Leeds GovJam in a couple of weeks’ time, I’m excited by the possibilities.

We’re not going to solve the problems of the public sector overnight.

But we are going to see people working creatively together from our local authorities, central government departments, the NHS and third sector – a luxury they rarely have.

And we’re going to see what happens if, for just 48 hours, we focus on making something happen and involving users at a radically earlier stage than has been the habit in the public sector for so many years.

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One last thing: we’re doing it midweek. The unspoken message behind weekend hack events is that this stuff is an optional extra. If we really believe in innovation as part of an organisation’s core purpose then people deserve to do it during their normal working week.

Leeds GovJam is on Tuesday 3 and Wednesday 4 June. Find out more at leedsgovjam.wordpress.com

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.

The future, on foot

Andrew Wilson has Kickstartered something rather wonderful in the first HannaH Festival, which runs next week at venues across Leeds. My own contribution is a Friday afternoon stroll through the city’s past, present and future. I do hope you can join me.

Here’s the plan.

We’ll spend the first hour in small groups on the streets of Leeds collecting photographic evidence and found objects that represent the city’s past, present and future.

Meeting back at Wharf Chambers, a fantastic space in a Victorian former pork pie factory, we will discuss the material and use it to try and draw a trajectory for where Leeds, and the North as a whole, is heading. Are we going where we want to go, and what interventions could be made to change the direction of travel?

It’s a chance to try out the walkshop research technique and take a different look at the city in which we work, live and play. I’ve committed to document the walkshop findings in a short essay, and the whole group will be credited.

Why am I doing this? To find answers to questions that have bothered me for quite some time. See this post for the back story, and our New Idea of the North Tumblr for inspiration and source material.

And if after all that you still want to come for a walk, please book your place on the Eventbrite page.

Room to grow^ – 48 hours of the Global Service Jam

Leeds Service Jam

SD Leeds co-organiser Kathryn Grace and I were joined by 15 jammers in Leeds as part of the biggest ever Global Service Jam, taking place simultaneously in more than 120 cities around the world.

Thanks to Simon Zimmerman of Hebe Media, Leeds Council’s Leeds Inspired programme and James and Laura of Duke Studios for making it an absolute pleasure.

The group I was in had a relaxed yet purposeful approach to the jam. We got out on the streets early to interview potential users, heard them shoot down our first idea, pivoted, then went out again, and ended up designing a local currency for people who aren’t local to the city.

Simon East and Cassandra Stocks out testing our ideas with potential users

Other groups looked at accessibility in Leeds Market and a playful way to get children cooking healthy meals with their families.

On the Planet Jam website you can see the stuff we made, and all the other cities too.

Alternatively you can read Jane Wood’s reflections on the jam over at &Co Cultural Marketing – thanks Jane!

And if you liked that, you may also like these:

Make’Owt #3 15-16 March – The next event in the Make’Owt series, of which the Leeds Service Jam was part. This one’s led by maker Stuart Childs with the theme ‘Make Light’

Service Design Thinks and Drinks in Leeds – Our next Service Design Drinks event will be on Tuesday 23 April. Follow us on Twitter at @SDLeeds to find out more.

Gov Jam 4-6 June – The sister jam to the Global Service Jam.  We are looking at supporting a GovJam in Leeds. If you are interested please let us know.

^ that carat thing. I have no idea either, but it was part of the theme.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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.)

Mr. SMEATON IN UR RIVR FIXIN UR BR1DGE

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

And Science — we have loved her well

And Science — we have loved her well, and followed her diligently, what will she do? I fear she is so much in the pay of the counting-house, the counting-house and the drill-sergeant, that she is too busy, and will for the present do nothing. Yet there are matters which I should have thought easy for her; say for example teaching Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river, which would be as much worth her attention as the production of the heaviest of heavy black silks, or the biggest of useless guns.

William Morris, ‘Hopes and Fears for Art’, 1882

#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

Down with Façadism: a provocation for Culture Hack North

I was honoured to be asked to do a short talk on the opening afternoon of the brilliant Culture Hack North event in Leeds this weekend.

For one thing, it was a chance to appear alongside Rachel Coldicutt‘s dream team of Rohan Gunatillake, Natasha Carolan, Lucy Bannister, Helen Harrop, Frankie Roberto and Greg Povey.

Also, I got to try out a half-baked thought about an unexpected way in which situated stories could lead to long-term, physical changes in our cities, even better, to do so with some people whose Culture Hack projects could be pivotal to bringing that change about.

I made a Prezi to go with the talk, but for those who can’t abide all the whizzing and swooping here it is in static words and pictures. I’d love to know what you think.

What if the interior lives of buildings were as exposed as their exteriors?

I ask because I think we’re heading for a profound change in the way we experience our built heritage.

We’ll start by considering a heritage concept that got a bad name in the latter part of the last century. There was a trend for ripping out the hearts of old buildings but leaving the shells intact. Critics called this trend “façadism” – the privileging of the exterior or front to the detriment of the building’s deeper character.

“Façadism (or Façadomy) is the practice of demolishing a building but leaving its facade intact for the purposes of building new structures in it or around it.” – Wikipedia

Here’s a particularly egregious example from Estonia:

Victorian architects and builders sowed the seeds of this practice themselves in the way they put their emphasis on the public face of a structure, while skimping on the unseen parts. Here’s Temple Works in Holbeck, Leeds. In front, it’s a grand millstone grit temple; round the back, nicely detailed but workaday redbrick…

  

That tension remains today. The building’s blue plaque focuses on the spectacular facade, the industrialist and architect who erected it…

But if you listen to local people, the complex is important to them as something else, the unglamorous Northern Distribution Depot of Kay’s Catalogues, the Amazon.com of its day. This sign is from Slung Low’s Original Bearings project which sought to capture some of those real Holbeck stories and expose them on the street…

This is the inside of Kay’s as we found it a couple of years ago, a pre-digital data centre abandoned by its previous occupants…

And still the same site: fittingly, Reality was the name of the last company to occupy the complex…

But now it’s possible to see inside buildings through time and space. The pun is too good to miss…

All this would be academic if it wasn’t for the fact that planning law is shifting, away from purely national, architectural significance, towards a system that gives weight to local people’s views of what’s important in their environment.

The Draft National Planning Policy Framework talks (page 55) about “heritage assets” which should be…

“identified by the local planning authority during the process of decision-making or through the plan-making process (including local listing).”

According to English Heritage, local listing is …

“… a means for a local community and a local authority to jointly decide what it is in their area that they would like recognised as a ‘local heritage asset’ and therefore worthy of some degree of protection in the planning system.” – Good Practice Guide for Local Listing

And while the Tory-led government seems to use localism as cover for an attack on communities’ rights to resist inappropriate developments, the National Trust is leading the fightback by positioning heritage in terms of dialogue between people and places:

“I believe that the planning system should balance future prosperity with the needs of people and places – therefore I support the National Trust’s calls on the Government to stop and rethink its planning reforms.” – National Trust Planning for People petition

The upshot of this focus on local significance is that the images and stories of use that we expose through geo-location and augmented reality could influence which buildings are preserved and reused and which are demolished. Historic buildings won’t just stand or fall on architectural merit, but also on local residents’ attachments to them.

Those attachments tend to arise from the activities carried on inside buildings as much as what they look like on the exterior. I visited the old Majestyk nightclub on City Square a year ago because it was on Leeds Civic Trust’s Heritage at Risk list…

And I found this – a spontaneous display of affection for a derelict building…

And while it’s a striking building in a prominent location, I don’t think whoever wrote that loved it for its architectural merit. They were remembering the good times they had at Majestyk’s – the laughs, the drinks, the music, the snogs.

And then there’s this unassuming late 90s box, called the White House, on Melbourne Street…

It has its own Facebook page! Or rather the people who worked here do…

In this building they launched Freeserve, the UK’s first free ISP which got millions of Britons on the net for the first time. If anywhere deserves local listing for its historic significance surely this does.

But I think the real potential is for places like the Leeds district of Chapeltown. (I owe a debt for many of the ideas in this post to my wife Caroline Newton who has just completed her MSc in Historic Building Conservation, studying the development of the Chapeltown Conservation Area. Ask her about it if you get the chance.)

Currently buildings get protection for their contribution to the Edwardian streetscape. But the really interesting stories are ones like this launderette, which was started as a cooperative in response to the needs of the immigrant community in an area that many had written off as a slum…

Such narrative capital is fragile and often completely disregarded in the name of regeneration. If stories like the laundry coop’s were better known, they might count for something in decision-making about the district.

Finally, this is the Mandela Centre, also on Chapeltown Road…

I stopped to take this picture because I loved the big sign commemorating Nelson Mandela’s visit to Leeds in which his drove through this area. But then I noticed the cups in the window. I have no idea what they’re for, but they speak volumes about the activities that go on in a community centre and the pride of the groups that meet there.

What if those stories were as obvious as the sign on the wall? The great thing is that, for the first time, they could be.

Maybe in the future buildings will no longer need to shout for attention with elaborate archiecture. In fact, to do so will be useless as nobody will see their peacock finery through the data smog. Instead, places will be recognised for the richness of their inner lives, meaning we preserve a fuller, messier cross-section of structures for their historic significance.

Just as in quantum theory, the act of observing changes the outcome. Facadism is dead; the future is all about interiors.

Let’s talk service design in Leeds. And one more thing

We’re fortunate to have three great presenters for the next Service Design Thinks Leeds on Tuesday 25 October. (It’s our seventh event, but we’re calling it SD Thinks Leeds | 04.) In part 1, we’ll have perspectives on service design in health from Jane Wood and Daniela Sangiorgi. In part 2, Rory Hamilton will show how you can prototype experiences easily and effectively.

Once again we’re grateful to NTI Leeds for providing the venue at Old Broadcasting House. You can find out more and book over on Eventbrite.

Oh, and one more thing.

For a while I’ve wanted to do a Leeds version of Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim’s Systems/Layers Walkshop.

In talking about our November 2011  Service Design Drinks event to tie in with the Leeds Digital Festival I realised it could work really well as a winter evening exploration, centred on Millennium Square and the German Christmas Market. Within a small area we have many features that would stimulate interesting discussion about how the network touches the city, and the glow of screens and lights would be accentuated in the darkness.

The proposed date is the late afternoon and evening of Tuesday 29th November 2011. Want to join in the planning? Head on over to the wiki.

Thank you.