Three things a city in charge of its destiny ought to know about software

2015 promises change in the way that Leeds, Yorkshire and England’s north are governed. Not before time, decision-making and funding are to be brought closer to us, to the cities and localities where we live, learn, play and work. This new settlement will arrive at a time when cities and governments everywhere are challenged to design and deliver service differently. It also comes just as, in Marc Andreessen’s words, software is eating the world.

Over my Christmas break I’ve been thinking about the malleability and abundance of software; what this looks like at the scale of a 200-year-old post-industrial city; and how it should shape the ways we decide and deliver things together. This is the first half of a 2-part ramble. Part 2 (still an outline in my drafts folder) will probably look at the structuring principles of the internet and the web, and how we might apply them at city scale. But before I can get to that story, I want to tell you this one: three things a city in charge of its destiny ought to know about software…

Light Night 2014 - Some rights reserved by CarlMilner

1. The clue is in the name

The first thing to know about software is… it’s soft: the opposite of hardware, malleable, endlessly changeful. When we shift the dominant logic of a thing from the hard layers to the soft we open it up to unpredictable new uses and reuses. We move from a world where things must be finished before use to a swirl of beta versions, A/B tests and updates on the fly.

  • Google repurposes links between pages as votes to rank websites’ authority, and in so doing grows a multi-billion dollar business based on an algorithm tweaked constantly to stay a step ahead of the SEO industry it has spawned.
  • The half-finished world of Minecraft is released missing its game mechanics and becomes a sandbox for the imaginations of millions of children.
  • Strangers collaborate to make Wikipedia at a pace of 10 edits per second across 4.6 million articles in the English version alone.

Massive though these software-driven behemoths may seem, they exist only as long as people choose to interact with them: the moment they stop moving, they begin to wither away. Remember Friends Reunited? Microsoft Encarta? The Yahoo Directory? Software facilitates the delivery of service in the moment, with value created at the point of use. It does not produce assets that can be hoarded in a warehouse or on a balance sheet.

This service-dominant logic of software poses a special challenge to the traditional imaginings of the world’s first industrial cities, synonymous as they are with unprecedented accumulation of hard, fixed capital. Here, the newly rich industrialists staked their claims on history’s grand sweep with facades designed to endure for centuries. Victorian navvies raised 18 million red bricks high above the River Aire so that 21st Century trains could rumble right into Leeds city centre. Little wonder that when today’s businesspeople and politicians want to symbolise a northern revival they reach first for the nostalgia of industrial museums and commitments to big infrastructure projects. This is, however, a misdirection that we need to avoid.

Leeds Brick Man maquette - Some rights reserved by nualabugeye

I’m a sucker for steam engines, but there are other stories that we should surface if we are to make sense of the era of software. The history of city after city is that people settled first, and shaped the infrastructure around them afterwards. And while they were waiting for the mod cons to arrive, they had to figure out how to get along together, how to raise the next generation, how to look after the old, sick and poor. To organise service for so many people demanded new forms of social software. The first mutual societies, trade unions, public health boards, and even modern local government arose first in cities like Leeds. Keep hold of those stories. Seek out more of them.

Surrounded by very concrete ruins, we overlook the intangible skills and habits of service that remain intact here. Let no one tell us that service is a new concept for the formerly industrial cities – it’s what we were doing all along. Renewing our cities in the 21st century should be more about these things – the soft, changeful ones – than about hard, physical infrastructure projects.

2. There’s a lot of it about

The second thing about software is abundance. It is infinitely copiable, an embodiment of human knowledge. The more it is shared, the greater its utility. Every day, more is added to the store of freely available code. When the team behind GOV.UK released their code on Github they enabled the people of New Zealand to re-use it for their government website, at no cost to British taxpayers. Indeed we Brits may even benefit further, if the New Zealanders improve on our code and share it back with the world.

Leeds Santa Dash - Some rights reserved by Old Bluebeard

Not only is software plentiful, but so, increasingly, are the skills needed to create and use it. In Leeds alone there are thousands of people working in-house with organisations and across digital agencies and service providers. Our universities and colleges train hundreds of students in software disciplines. Moreover, in almost every office there are people without this formal training who can wrangle a spreadsheet or paste in some HTML formatting. There are people who go home from day jobs which have nothing to do with software and spend their evenings running websites for their football clubs or churches.

This is how platforms are made in the age of software, not by fiat of a central authority but emergently with layer built upon layer in response to the needs of users and the growing capabilities of makers. As platforms build they can raise everyone up to levels of attainment previously only available to a privileged few. They don’t so much lower the barriers to entry as help us to scramble over them – by wrapping up what used to be hard in easy-to-use packages.

  • Freeserve pioneered a pay as you go model that made dial-up internet accessible to millions of Britons.
  • Blogger, Typepad and WordPress made everyone a writer on the web.
  • Ebay and Paypal made everyone a seller who could accept card payments.
  • Satnav endowed everyone with the knowledge of a London cabbie.

Software in all its abundance can and should be made accessible to all in our city, without mystery – but this is not something that happens by default. There are players in the software world who don’t want you to know about abundance. They seek excess profits in the gaps where people haven’t yet cottoned on that something formerly hard and expensive has now been rendered easy and cheap. Before you know it, a major systems integrator is charging the government £30,000 to change a logo on a webpage.

At the height of the early noughties DotCom boom, I knew the game was almost up when I met a consultant whose business card proudly declared “Because It Really Is Rocket Science”. It wasn’t even then. It certainly isn’t now. As cities, we should demand platforms that raise the knowledge, confidence and capability of all our citizens, without leaving us in hock to snake oil salespeople.

3. Don’t ask if it will scale

“Yes, but will it scale?” is a common challenge when evaluating the commercial potential of a new service. I’ve come to believe this is the wrong question. Focusing too soon on scale leads us down the road of the lowest common denominator. In my private sector career I’ve seen multinational companies blow millions of euros and lose market share because of global “solutions” that were wholly inappropriate to the realities of business on the ground. I’ve seen the error compounded by bending good local services out of shape to spare the embarrassment of the people who specified the wrong things from the centre.

The so-called economies of scale claimed for big IT solutions turn out to be largely illusory. Their business cases begin with wrong-headed, goods-dominant accounting copied from the world of manufacturing, where buying stuff in bulk really can be cheaper. Wishful thinking by people remote from the frontline carries these projects forward unchallenged. But by the time complex shared services have been tailored to the needs of the people and teams who use them, they can actually increase costs substantially.

This is an important point to understand when thinking about efficiency at different levels of government. We should be suspicious of those who tell us that devolution will lead to duplication between cities. Given that software is cheap and abundant, duplication is the least of our worries. In fact, two neighbouring cities doing things in slightly different ways would present a wonderful way to learn what works in each context. We should resist pressure to merge IT services between neighbouring authorities – that would dilute quality as well as blur democratic accountability.

revengance on aire street - Some rights reserved by Johnson Cameraface

Instead of asking “will it scale”, ask a better question: “Does it gracefully handle massive diversity?” The old paper form to claim Carer’s Allowance handled the massive diversity of people’s caring needs and relationships, but it did so gracelessly – by asking many questions not relevant to all carers. By doing user research, and diving into the detail of the application process, the digital exemplar team were able to remove 170 questions from the application process and structure the service so that users are only asked things relevant to them.

This is not to say that scale doesn’t matter. Rather, understanding diversity is the better starting point. The diversity question accommodates scaling; the scaling question tramples all over diversity.

Our cities are havens of diversity (not that you’d know it from the white, male, middle-aged-dominated board of our local enterprise partnership). The only way to understand and serve diversity is to go and see the users, learn what really matters to them and start to meet their needs. The good news: with software eating the world, with its inherent malleability and abundance, there’s never been a better time to get out of the bubble and do just that.

Postscript – a couple of days after I published this, JP Rangaswami posted a beautiful piece on his blog. I can smell the printer’s ink too: Bureaucracy as a platform? The power of diversity

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.

At Future Everything: nobody likes a smart arse, even when it’s a city

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“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, opening line

Why did Glasgow win the right to host the Technology Strategy Board’s £24 million Future Cities Demonstrator? Project Leader Scott Cain reels off a set of doom-laden statistics: a looming crisis in affordable warmth; a high incidence of anti-social behaviour; a shocking 28-year life expectancy gap between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Oh, and good city leadership, the kind that’s up to hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Poverty, conflict and inequality rarely figure in the “smart city” visions of those who seek to sell infrastructure dressed as “technology”.

I’ve railed against these things before. At Future Everything in Manchester on Thursday the chorus was deafening.

From Dan Hill’s call for “active citizens” not “smart cities” – “if we want people to think about carbon, don’t make the lights go out automatically.”…

… through Martijn de Waal’s pitting of computer-rendered master-planned Songdo against the very real, spontaneous “Seoulutions” of Hongdae: “engage and empower publics to act on communally shared issues.”…

… to Usman Haque’s praise for the messy city of Grub Street after 200 years of Enlightenment dirigisme: “a backlash of messiness in which the great uncalibrated rise up.”…

… and the audience’s line of questioning of the panel in which Scott, Martijn and Usman took part…

… it was abundantly clear that nobody likes a smart arse, even when it’s a city.

To frame problems in terms of efficiency is to miss the point of what it means to be a city, a platform for people’s numerous, contradictory drives and dreams.

The hunt for economies of scale chases us inexorably to the lowest common denominator. (So London gets the Future Cities “Catapult” because it’s Britain’s only “World City” – you can guess how this revelation went down in Manchester :)

Worst of all is the abdication of responsibility. Usman: “What I see specifically in the open data movement is that someone else is going to find the solution because it resides in the data.”

We’ve been here before, warns Dan, and the result was not pretty. It was Richard Weller’s “city that cars built when we weren’t looking.”

But if not that, then what?

As Dan notes, the interventions that make us smile, that feel intuitively right, like Helsinki’s Restaurant Day or Silje Johansen’s lonely traffic light, are fleeting and leave no trace but memory.

Dan urges us to consider the power of engaging with the “dark matter” of local administrations and building codes.

Despite its unpromising name, I also found some answers in a session titled “Building Creative Ecologies for Smarter Cities”.

There, Claire Reddington of Bristol’s iShed talked about “keeping the money at the margins” and trusting “the unreasonable expectations of artists”: “Tech conferences often fetishise failure. If you are not predefining the outputs it’s hard to categorise something as a failure.”

I loved Claire’s suggestion that if you want to be part of a network it’s “best not to have all the bits” – for example not having an art gallery on-site at the Watershed had prompted collaborations with surrounding galleries and venues.

On the same panel was Doug Ward, co-founder of Tech Hub Manchester in a listed warehouse in the city’s Northern Quarter. Referencing Brad Feld’s “Boulder thesis”, he listed the reasons he chose to stay as an entrepreneur in his home city: its history, universities and culture.

My take-outs: Endurance is greater than scale; diversity more valuable than efficiency; and actors are what matter, the networks will follow.

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

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

Some rights reserved by tricky (rick harrison)

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

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

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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.

www.leodis.net

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.”

Some rights reserved by phill.d

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

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

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

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

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

For Ada Lovelace Day: Eleanor Coade, technology entrepreneur of the 18th Century

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. In previous years I’ve written about Elizabeth Montagu, Lizzie Le Prince and Laura Willson.

This time I want to highlight the unique achievements of Eleanor Coade, creator and entrepreneur behind one of the most durable and effective building materials of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the eponymous Coade Stone.

This remarkable survivor by London’s Westminster Bridge is a fine example of Mrs Coade’s artificial stone, the ingredients of which are simple but the production process apparently fraught with complexity. Others at the time tried to make the material, but Coade’s London factory was the only one to produce it successfully at scale.

Examples can still be seen outside the John Soane Museum, Somerset House, Castle Howard and elsewhere.

Eleanor Coade was born in Exeter in 1733, and moved to London around 1760. She was unmarried, the title Mrs being accorded to her as a businesswoman rather than as a wife.

In late 1769 she bought a struggling artificial stone business sited on the South Bank where the Royal Festival Hall now stands. Her Wikipedia entry notes:

Coade’s success as a business woman was very rare in the Georgian era. She was a hard-working individual who concentrated on methodical procedures to produce consistently high quality products. She was the first and only person to succeed in the artificial stone business thanks to a combination of managerial skills, entrepreneurial flare and a talent for marketing and public relations.

She closely supervised both the preparation of clay mixtures and the firing process for all her products. Having bought Daniel Pincot’s struggling business within two years she took the decision to sack him for disciplinary reasons, and confirmed her decision on September 11 and 14 by adverts in The Daily AdvertiserGazetteer and The New Daily Advertiser.

She cultivated strong business relationships with respected architects and designers, including Robert Adam, James Wyatt, Humphry Repton, John Nash and Sir John Soane, because she could produce multiple copies of their designs. Her success may be gauged by Josiah Wedgwood’s complaint that he ‘could not get architects to endorse his new chimneypiece plaques’

And those are the reasons why Elanor Coade stands out to me – the combined qualities of attention to detail and to the bigger picture make her a true Georgian technology entrepreneur.

Read more about Ada Lovelace Day at findingada.com.

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

#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