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.

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