After BBC Connected Studio – gazing through a moving window

Regular readers will know that I have a slow hunch about the value of stories in the place where they happened. So when I saw the brief for the latest BBC Connected Studio, focused on Knowledge and Learning, I packed my personal hobbyhorse and jumped on the train to Salford.

It was an ace day. Credit to the BBC for being so generous with their experts’ time and open about their exciting plans for the digital Knowledge and Learning product. The plan – going from a portfolio of bespoke programme sites and siloed services to a single product to fuel everyone’s curiosity – has a lot in common with the bigger transformation underway over at gov.uk.

Having shared my passion for situated stories and the narrative capital they engender in communities, I found myself in a team that wanted to put a “local lens” on the wealth of learning material that the BBC has amassed over the years.

I’m always surprised and humbled when I get the chance to explore early stage ideas with potential users, so the 15 minute audience we had with three regular BBC users was a particular highlight for me.

And on the tram back to Piccadilly I fell to thinking a bit further about a second strand that our team discussed but sadly didn’t pitch, which was centred around journeys and ways of cultivating curiosity while being a passenger.

There’s a piece of dead time, especially for children, when they’re going on a journey. It could be a short bus trip into town, hours in the car on the way to the seaside or going on a plane on holiday. Parents always struggle to keep their children entertained and settled, and if you look at families travelling together on trains it’s almost always the kids who have control of the family iPad. Often they’ll have headphones on, lost in a DVD, not paying attention to their surroundings at all. That seems a shame.

So this idea aims to give people information to enhance but not overwhelm the experience of being somewhere. It strings moments of learning together into a personalised journey, linking multiple Knowledge and Learning topics along the route. They could be places of interest, famous people from an area, or even time or season-specific things like looking out of the car window at the night sky or noticing cloud patters or migrating birds.

Augmented reality it’s not, quite. As Kevin Slavin noted at dConstruct a couple of years ago, Reality is Plenty. These judiciously timed nudges are intended to draw us back into the here and now, to rediscover the quaint old habit of gazing out of windows when travelling.

So I spent the rest of my journey home knocking up a Keynote prototype.

By a happy coincidence, the following morning, I happened to be booked on the 0715 from Leeds to London with my children (they for a day out with their grandparents, I to The Story, on which a post follows soon.)

Here’s my son having a go…

User testing on the 0715 to London

From this initial user test of one, I learned just how engrossing a glowing rectangle can be to a six-year-old. He played along for the first two or three stops, before becoming hooked on Angry Birds instead. To rouse the youth from their digital dreamspace, the next version of the app would need to pause play on whatever else they were doing, with the guarantee that they could come back to it after a few minutes looking out of the window.

The service would use location, but only lightly, knowing the nearest town would be good enough. And because the route gives us a predictable narrative spine, content could be packaged up and pre-loaded on users’ devices. (In feedback, users told us that they didn’t always have, or want to use, data while out and about.)

In terms of build, it could be developed iteratively, starting with a highly editorially curated version along a few major routes – say the West Coast Mainline and the M1 motorway, then scaled up by adding more routes and software to create personalised journeys on the fly according to the user’s travel plans and content interests.

Seen it before? What would make it better? All feedback gratefully received.

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…

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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.

View – History – Flatten layers: Part 1. The Russell Square Aeroplane

One summer morning a jetplane flew south over central London, gear down, seatbelts on, devices off. Thousands of feet below, traffic flowed around Russell Square. An open top bus turned into Bedford Way, plunging its passengers into the shade of the tall university buildings.

Thanks to the aristocrats whose names the streets wear, this part of the city between Euston and Oxford Street is the closest London gets to a grid structure. I know it quite well, but still use the crutch of a map to find my way round. It’s a marauder’s map with me at the centre, surrounded by a shaded circle of confidence that pulses bigger and smaller as my phone singles out satellites, cell towers and WiFi points in the radio spectrum cacophony.

I was not there that day, the day of the jetplane and the tour bus. Yet every time I cross Russell Square, Google satellite map in hand, I walk under the left wing of the jetplane.

Frozen in time, the Russell Square aeroplane looks as though it has landed in the park. The scale is about right. Besides, how without forward motion can it be anywhere but on the ground?

Like saving an image out of Photoshop, the satellite view flattens the layers. The people in the sky (who knows where they came from or how long their journeys?) are suddenly on the same plane as the people on the bus, for whom the passenger jet was nothing but a streak of sound or a vapour trail in the clear blue sky.

I can imagine the bustle when I walk though the square, squinting at my phone screen in the daylight. Not a crash landing for there are no signs of panic around the plane.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Russell Square where the time is forever 10am British Summer Time. Please remain seated until the pilot has switched off the seatbelt signs. On behalf of the airline and our partners may I thank you for flying with us and wish you a pleasant onward journey.

And please mind the picnickers as you disembark the plane.”

“The bit where the screen went black and you said ‘look up’”: on the irresistible pull of a story in the place where it happened

This is my youngest son, Pascal, when he was two years old. He’s looking sheepish because he’s just picked an apple. It’s an apple from the orchard at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, the orchard where Isaac Newton first conceived of gravity.

We were drawn to this beautiful, remote farmhouse for a tea break on a long journey, and ended up learning some science. A master storyteller can make the laws of gravity come alive anywhere, even in a lift, but to experience them at Woolsthorpe adds an extra weight. The National Trust which now owns the house has turned a barn into a small discovery centre where you too can see the forces of nature anew, right where Newton did more than 300 years ago.

In his famous Proposition 75 Theorem 35, Newton wrote:

“If to the several points of a given sphere there tend equal centripetal forces decreasing in a duplicate ratio of the distances from the points; I say, that another similar sphere will be attracted by it with a force reciprocally proportional to the square of the distance of the centres.”

That “reciprocally proportional square of the distance” bit means the attraction gets stronger, much stronger, as things get closer together.

So it is with stories.

Sheffield and Leeds are 34 miles apart. When I told the story of Leeds steam engine pioneer Matthew Murray in the Cutlers’ Hall, Sheffield, the Interesting North audience gave me polite applause. (Granted, it was 10:30am on a Saturday when many had got up early to be there.) When I told the same story in Temple Works, Leeds, just across the road from the site of Murray’s Round Foundry the audience gave much more. I could have raised a mob there and then to tear down James Watt’s statue in City Square.

  • A story in the same county is quite interesting.
  • A story in the same city is more compelling.
  • A story in the place where it happened is extra powerful.

It’s more than just playing to a home crowd. Actually being there increases exponentially the return on just a small leap of imagination. We can picture the protagonists standing beside us, under the same sun, breathing the same air. It’s why the microcontent of blue plaques is so powerful.

It’s why it was so much fun to talk last week about the Corn Exchange in the Corn Exchange. Several people have remarked on the same moment in the talk, something that brought this thing home to me.

Bettakultcha follows a lightning talk format of 20 slides in five minutes. When I reached the part about the amazing domed roof, there seemed little point showing people a Powerpoint slide of the inside of the Corn Exchange in the Corn Exchange. Cuthbert Brodrick’s masterpiece speaks for itself. So I blanked the screen and asked people to look up.

They looked up at the Spartan, modern-before-its-time structure above our heads. It turns out this was the point of maximum attraction, the moment people were as one with place, the point most remarked on in my conversations ever since.

Similar connections to place cropped up in some other Bettakultcha talks too:

All of which must not be taken to mean that local stories are static, parochial stories. As I argued at TEDxLeeds and hinted in my Corn Exchange talk, our city owes its dynamism to outsiders and their connections with other great cities around the world. Without Egypt, we would have no Temple Works; without France, no Louis Le Prince.

These unexpected links with other places, these wormholes, only open up when we open our imaginations to the things that happened in the past, in the places where we now find ourselves.

An oft-remarked characteristic of the internet is that it erases distance and difference, that it allows a script kiddy in Kazakhstan to cripple a business in California. In this account it seems local differences will be erased by the swelling ranks of the Republic of Facebook.

But this emerging medium must surely also power a resurgence in situated storytelling. The location-aware dimension of the mobile internet is uniquely well placed to bring stories to people where they need to know them most. The hyperlinked web dimension makes it possible to leap through wormholes from one situated story to its entangled quantum twin.

I wonder where they will take us next?

King Chaunticlere; or, the Fate of Tyranny

An Anecdote, related by Citizen Thelwall, at the Capel Court Society, during the discussion of a question, relative to the comparative Influence of the Love of Life, of Liberty, and of the Fair Sex, on the Actions of Mankind.

You must know then, that I used, together with a variety of youthful attachments, to be very fond of birds and poultry; and among other things of this kind, I had a very fine majestic kind of animal, a game cock : a haughty, sanguinary tyrant, nursed in blood and slaughter from his infancy — fond of foreign wars and domestic rebellions, into which he would sometimes drive his subjects, by his oppresive obstinacy, in hopes that he might increase his power and glory by their suppression. Now this haughty old tyrant would never let my farmyard be quiet; for, not content with devouring by far the greater part of the grain that was scattered for the morning and evening repast, and snatching at every little treasure that the toil of more industrious birds might happen to scratch out of the bowels of the earth, the restless despot must be always picking and cuffing at the poor doves and pullets, and little defenceless chickens, so that they could never eat the scanty remnant, which his inordinate taxation left them, in peace and quietness. Now, though there were some aristocratic prejudices hanging about me, from my education, so that I could not help looking with considerable reverence, upon the majestic decorations of the person of king Chaunticlere — such as his ermine spotted breast, the fine gold trappings about his neck and shoulders, the flowing role of plumage tucked up at his rump, and, above all, that fine ornamented thing upon his head there — (his crown, or coxcomb, I believe you call it — however the distinction is not very important) yet I had even, at that time, some lurking principles of aversion to barefaced despotism struggling at my heart, which would sometimes whisper to me, that the best thing one could do, either for cock and hens, or men and women, was to rid the world of tyrants, whose shrill martial clarions (the provocatives to fame and murder) disturbed the repose and destroyed the happiness of their respective communities. So I believe, if guillotines had been in fashion, I should have certainly guillotined him: being desirous to be merciful, even in the stroke of death, and knowing, that the instant the brain is separated from the heart, (which, with this instrument, is done in a moment,) pain and consciousness are at end — while the lingering torture of the rope may procrastinate the pang for half an hour. However, I managed the buisness very well; for I caught Mr. Tyrant by the head, and dragging him immediately to the block, with a heavy knife in my hand, separated his neck at a blow : and what will surprise you very much, when his fine trappings were stripped off, I found he was no better than a common tame scratch-dunghill pullet: no, nor half so good, for he was tough, and oily, and rank with the pollutions of his luxurious vices.

From Politics for the people; or, A salmagundy for swine, number 8, 1793, published by Daniel Isaac Eaton.

For telling this farmyard story, both Eaton and Thelwall (who had rooms on the Strand, near today’s Trafalgar Square) were tried for sedition.

A park in your imagination

There’s a patch of wasteland near my work that some people say could be a city park.

I’m not sure if this is even the right place for a park. As Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

“Parks are volatile places. They tend to run to extremes of popularilty and unpopularity…
In orthodox city planning, neighbourhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes.”

But here’s a funny thing: for some reason, the land is already marked on some maps as “Chadwick Park,” as if someone hopes that by mapping a fiction they can make it reality.

Most days Chadwick Park looks like the bulldozed former chemical works that it really is. But not today, the snow day.

The white stuff erases the rubble and concrete to give us a glimpse into the future. Ever so fleetingly, the territory is the map.