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.

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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.

The past is a platform from which we launch into the future*


In my dayjob, mobile media, we spend a lot of time talking about platforms. Curiously we like to think of these platforms as eternally new and shiny. “Legacy” is is not a windfall from the preceding generation. It’s a perjorative term. Sometimes we even set our old platforms on fire, which is strange, because, as a historian, the biggest platform of all is the past.

I wanted to use some of my time at Foo Camp to test out a long hunch about the past as a platform: that every one of us comes from somewhere with a past which shapes the innovation that’s possible in its future. It was harder than I thought.

Yes, we captured some great examples of the grand and generous legacies of industrialists who shaped European and North American educational institutions – tour any great campus and you cannot help but wonder at the wealth of history beneath your feet.

Then there were the unintentional cast-offs – the recycling of cheap spaces in marginal locations that bear out Jane Jacobs’ aphorism, “New ideas must use old buildings.” We have no shortage of either in West Yorkshire.

But what struck me most, on asking this question in Northern California, was how many seemed to see history as ballast to be jettisoned, rather than raw material to build foundations. The dominant old world image was of modern-day Rome, littered with the doom-laden ruins of an ancient empire.

In Singapore, so I learned, they erase the historic built environment  but keep the gardens.

At Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, passion for what the place once was impedes the search for a viable future even though the hockey teams have long since upped sticks and gone. New media could help – someone suggested –  by decanting cherished memories from their bricks and mortar body into a digital casket, freeing the building itself to be demolished without guilt.

Technology certainly seems to facilitate such outcomes. From my flip chart notes:

  • Open Plaques
  • History pin
  • Tying archive material to place
  • Geolocated, contextually relevant stories
  • Discovery – phone as augmenting where you are
  • History layer through all location based services
  • Curated paths through a neighbourhood vs random voices passing through

We are, as Ben Cerveny so beautifully put it in another session, busy building a data-based model of the world which we may soon choose to inhabit in preference to the real one. Why should the past be exempt from this dissociative space-hopping?

And there’s a loaded phrase at the back of my head as we shovel our past into the big data sausage machine.

“Since records began.”

I love stuff like the Old Weather project in which citizen scientists transcribe World War I naval data to help improve predictive models of our future climate. I love that Iceland’s genealogy data goes back to the 9th Century, enabling the charting of long-range genetic trajectories.

But I worry that “big data” by definition privileges quantitative insight over the qualititative. So many value judgements are embedded in what we choose to measure and to encode. Before long you have exactly five exabytes and all kinds of other Eskimo snow vocabulary tropes.

People in California told me that they came “from the future”; that their parents moved west in a spirit of optimism where anything was possible. America still thinks of itself as a young country, yet there are roads in upstate New York following paths that people have trod for more than 1500 years.

Maybe this is an inevitable blind spot in an entrepreneurial culture. As Will Davies wrote of Britain’s Big Society cheerleaders:

“Entrepreneurs, by definition, find it plausible that things can be built out of nothing.”

But I reckon Britain’s planners have it right (admittedly in a PDF, sorry):

HE12.1 A documentary record of our past is not as valuable as retaining the heritage asset, and therefore the ability to record evidence of our past should not be a factor in deciding whether a proposal that would result in a heritage asset’s destruction should be given consent.

When I bemoan the loss of whole swathes of a city’s historic fabric it’s not because it was more picturesque than what comes after: the past can sometimes be ugly. Rather, those old buildings represent a resource from which to tell stories, a platform of accumulated pride and achievement which makes the future less daunting.

Communities robbed of their stories have to reach further, and are readier prey to false, easy narratives: the past can sometimes be inconvenient. Entrpreneurs may appear to benefit, at least in the short term, from the proprietorial control these fairy stories give them, but they’ll soon find out that all that extra lifting and stretching outweighs the work of accommodation to unexpected truths. These are the grains of sand around which pearls will form.

Conversely, looking at Michael Brohm‘s wonderful photos of Leeds, I see a city remarkably rich in history which its people can use and reuse in unexpected ways. It’s the opposite of “Londonostalgia“, a rose-tinted version of a city’s past to boost a conservative agenda that ossifies inequality. Rather it’s a dynamic use of the old as springboard for the new.

The past is the platform from which we leap to the future.*


* Ironically, I have been unable to find the source of this phrase. All suggestions gratefully received.

“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?

The Makers of Leeds

Notes for my TEDxLeeds presentation, “The Makers of Leeds”. The Prezi version is here.

It starts with the amazing view from the top of the TEDxLeeds venue, the Mint, which looks out over Leeds on all sides. The American architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen said:

“When you look at a city, it’s like reading the hopes, aspirations and pride of everyone who built it.”

And where better to illustrate this than in one of the world’s oldest industrial cities? The new cities springing up in Asia, Africa and South America have 200 years to wait before they have such depth of stories.

Looking down towards Leeds Bridge, we can imagine the scene where Louis Le Prince shot one of the world’s first ever movies. Together with his wife Lizzie, who trained in ceramics, Louis started a “school of technical arts” in Leeds. This marriage of arts and science is still alive today among the Leeds Savages and hackers at the Hackspace. While we think of new media as bits and bytes, digital content, the new media of the late Victorian period was chemistry – specifically the actions of light and chemicals on ceramics, brass, paper and celluloid. The Le Princes had to combine these things to come up with a whole new artform.

But to make his design a reality, Le Prince needed a way to reliably move the film through the gate of his camera or projector. He turned to an inventor who had something every city needs – tickets (just think of all those football matches and theatre performances). James Longley had invented a machine for dispensing tickets. Le Prince commissioned him to combine this know-how with his own work on photography to create his camera-projector.

And the result is this snippet of traffic moving across Leeds Bridge. If you don’t believe how important this is, you can look it up yourself in the Internet Movie Database where Le Prince dominates the movie charts for 1888. There are no entries for 1887.

Just down the road from Leeds Bridge is Meadow Lane where hacker Joseph Priestley moved in near Jakes and Nell’s brewery. He noticed bubbles on the vats of beer and wondered what they were. This led to a series of experiments which isolated the gas we know today as oxygen. Priestley shared his discoveries of the effect of this gas on plants and animals with his coffee-house friend Ben Franklin who, in a startling leap of imagination, suggested that we should stop chopping down trees. The green movement began wih a mint plant in a bell jar in Joseph Priestley’s kitchen. Steven Johnson also tells how Priestley invented a process for making fizzy drinks. He open sourced the method and Johann Shweppe cleaned up.

Speaking in Shanghai, the writer Charlie Leadbeater set out six C’s that determine a city’s capacity for innovation: combination, conversation, co-evolution, challenge, commitment and connection. I think we can see plenty of all six C’s here in Leeds. The Le Princes combined art and science, mchanics and chemistry to make moving pictures. Priestley’s exchanges with Ben Franklin and his French rival Antoine Lavoisier give us conversation.

For co-evolution – the ability of suppliers, manufacturers and customers to develop solutions together – we look across the city to the three Italianate towers of Tower Works. Thomas Harding who built the towers was a maker of pins, not dress-maker’s pins but the pins used by billion in the textile industry. He understood that the business would prosper if his customers could rely on standard sized pins from multiple suppliers, so he worked with his customers and competitors to develop a range of standard pin sizes, called the Harding Gauge. For a modern parallel, picture those pins as angle brackets and the Harding Gauge as HTML, a standard language facilitating endless innovation and efficiency improvements.

Co-evolution was also central to the parallel developments of coal-mining, manufacturing and consumption in our city. In Holbeck, Matthew Murray built the Round Foundry, possibly the world’s first integrated engineering works. But he faced challenge in the form of competition from Boulton and Watt, a much bigger name in the steam engine trade. James Watt Junior stole Murray’s ideas, recruited a spy at his factory and bought up land to stop Murray growing his business. But the competition spurred Murray on, and he built the steam engine for the first commercially-successful steam railway at Middleton Colliery.

It seems unjust that the engineer commemorated by a statue in City Square is not Matthew Murray but his nemesis James Watt.

Murray’s mentor John Marshall faced challenges of a different kind. He was a flax spinner and flax spinning was a flamable businss. When one of Marshall’s wooden-framed mills burned down he partnered with a designer of a different kind of mill, one made of cast iron and brick. That’s commitment! The resulting fire-proof mills, like Marshall’s Mill in Holbeck are an important step in the evolution of the skyscraper. So it’s fitting that Leeds is the home of the best new tall building of 2010.

We can list a series of start-ups and businesses grown in Leeds:

  • Marks & Spencer, founded on Leeds Market
  • Burtons, which mass-produced suits for de-mobbed soldiers after the Second World War
  • Freeserve which revolutionised the business model for ISPs in Britain, enabling millions of households to get online for the first time.

But what’s left as we move from the indutrial to the post-industrial? At St Aidan’s former colliery near Garforth a five-storey-high giant walking robot stands marooned in a Teletubbyland of grassy hills and lakes.

What’s left, I think, is narrative capital, the wealth of stories we can draw on to make sense of our present and inspire our future, it’s the power people have to tell stories about their places and lives. And unlike coal, narrative capital never runs out. It’s a rich seam that’s getting deeper all the time.

Stories belong to everyone, so as well as the great innovators, the dead white men, it’s important to remember the contributions of ordinary people, like the thousands of women who laboured over spinning machinery in Temple Works, in its heyday the biggest room in the world.

And stories can be slippery when we try to grab hold of them. Of the heroes listed here:

  • Louis Le Prince was a Frenchman who had to go to New York to commercialise his invention
  • Joseph Priestley was from Leeds but ended his life in exile in the United States, having been hounded out of the country due to his radical political views
  • Matthew Murray was a Geordie so the North East has as much claim on him as we do here in Leeds.

All of those people bear out Charlie Leadbeater’s sixth C, connection to the wider world. As do the buildings that our Nineteenth Century predecessors have left us. Squint and you can see:

  • The Temple of Horus at Edfu on Marshall Street
  • Rennaissance Florence, Verona and a Tuscan hill town on Water Lane
  • A Venetian palazzo in Park Square
  • Paris at Cuthbert Brodrick’s Corn Exchange

So when I hear that people want to make Leeds “the best city in UK” I wonder whether that’s ambitious enough. Our predecessors saw themselves not as better than, but certainly equal to, any great city anywhere in recorded history.

Which makes me optimistic for the future of the city. As the American writer and campaigner Jane Jacobs put it:

“Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”

If the dust doesn’t settle: Gin, Jetplanes and Transitive Surplus

More than 150 years ago John Ruskin imagined the experience of flight. Now, thanks to Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, we can begin to imagine the possibilities without it.

Robert Paterson provocatively suggests in Volcano & Air Travel – A Black Swan? What might happen:

At the moment we are all treating this event as a temporary inconvenience. But what if this is not temporary? The last time this volcano erupted in 1821 the eruptions lasted for months… So imagine European airspace being closed until September – possible? What then?

Robert has a list of sensible ideas about the impact on airlines, on shipping and other industries. Disruption for some of them could be serious and long-lasting.

But beyond the purely economic effects what could a sustained bar on air travel mean for our working and cultural lives? It might not all be doom and gloom. To see why, let’s revisit a concept proposed by Clay Shirky, most notably in his 2008 essay “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus“.

Continue reading If the dust doesn’t settle: Gin, Jetplanes and Transitive Surplus

1794, so much to answer for

I’m not sure where this is pointing, but I think it’s the future.

A strange cast of people have occupied my reading in recent months – English and French, writers and scientists, aristocrats and hackers. Now, like a Heroes season finale, I find them converging on a single year.

To keep track of the people and places I scribbled a map. On the right, my six-year-old son has added, with relish, a depiction of the Battle of Fleurus. More on that further on.

The story goes like this.

Continue reading 1794, so much to answer for