Jane Jacobs and London’s Old Street area

I’ve been read­ing The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities at a leisure­ly pace since octo­ber or so. (A tem­po that seems to suit the book fine. Jacobs makes me want to slow down and see.) I came across this pas­sage dur­ing a ses­sion with the book this week­end and some­thing about a recent vis­it to Lon­don clicked.

After explain­ing how large com­pa­nies do not need to be in cities because they are to a large extent self-suf­fi­cient and thus do not have to rely on ser­vices out­side them­selves, Jacobs goes on to say:

But for small man­u­fac­tur­ers, every­thing is reversed. Typ­i­cal­ly they must draw on many and var­ied sup­plies and skills out­side them­selves, they must serve a nar­row mar­ket at the point where a mar­ket exists, and they must be sen­si­tive to quick changes in this mar­ket. With­out cities, they would sim­ply not exist. Depen­dent on a huge diver­si­ty of oth­er city enter­pris­es, they can add fur­ther to that diver­si­ty. This last is a most impor­tant point to remem­ber. City diver­si­ty itself per­mits and stim­u­lates more diver­si­ty.

(My empha­sis, by the way.)

The day before Play­ful ’09 I spent some time at BERG, Tinker.it! and Real­ly Inter­est­ing Group. Noth­ing fan­cy mind you. I mean, they lent me a chair and a bit of table, plus inter­net. It wasn’t like I actu­al­ly worked with them (although I’m sure I would enjoy it!) It was a nice expe­ri­ence, but most of all, it was hum­bling. I was struck by the spare­ness of the space they were in, the lim­it­ed facil­i­ties at their dis­pos­al, the lit­tle room they had for all the peo­ple present.

Let me just say it was as lit­tle or less than what I’ve seen com­pa­ra­ble groups in the Nether­lands have to make do with.

And this is the thing. Over here, many of the star­tups I’ve encoun­tered seem to believe they first need more and fanci­er facil­i­ties before they can make it big time. The Sil­i­con Round­about crew I men­tioned ear­li­er make a glob­al splash at a reg­u­lar basis, despite the lim­it­ed (that I observed) resources at their dis­pos­al.

How­ev­er, and this is where the quote from Death and Life comes in, per­haps I was look­ing at it the wrong way. Per­haps the Shored­itch star­tups are more effec­tive than their Dutch coun­ter­parts not just because they do more with less (and because they are, clear­ly, insane­ly tal­ent­ed and hard work­ing, “rid­ing the wave of inno­va­tion, 24/7”, right guys?) but because they are in Lon­don. A city at a dif­fer­ent scale than Ams­ter­dam or for that mat­ter the greater Ams­ter­dam area, the Rand­stad as we call it around these parts. A city with a more diverse ecosys­tem of ser­vices and things, small­er ser­vices, more spe­cialised ser­vices, ready to be employed by com­pa­nies like BERG and RIG and Tin­ker, enhanc­ing their abil­i­ties when need­ed.

The city, in this case, not as a bat­tle suit, but more like a huge drug store stocked with a huge range of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals that aug­ment then this trait, then the oth­er.

Looking back on a second This happened – Utrecht

Some more catch­ing up with things that occurred recent­ly; on Mon­day Feb­ru­ary 23 we1 had our sec­ond This hap­pened. I am quite sat­is­fied with how things went.

For one; we had some unplanned cohe­sion2 amongst talks.3 Three out of four talks dis­cussed the use of field research (to use the term broad­ly). It was good to have some dis­cus­sion of how this is put in prac­tice, as I often find ethno­graph­ic tech­niques being pre­sent­ed as some kind of sil­ver bul­let, but with­out any clear demon­stra­tion of its appli­ca­tion. It was also cool to see field research being applied effec­tive­ly in such dif­fer­ent con­texts (pri­ma­ry school, the elder­ly, South Africa).

To my relief, a sig­nif­i­cant­ly larg­er per­cent­age of the audi­ence (com­pared to last time) was female.4 This was some­thing we had worked con­scious­ly towards, since the first edition’s testos­terone quo­tient was a bit too high. In my opin­ion, a more diverse audi­ence is con­ducive to the kind of relaxed, open and hon­est atmos­phere we are pur­su­ing. The main way we tried to draw in a more bal­anced mix of peo­ple was by invit­ing more female speak­ers. Three out of four talks were by women. All of them were great. It seems to have worked.

I love that This hap­pened seems to be a venue for the kind of unas­sum­ing and hon­est pre­sen­ta­tions we some­how stop giv­ing once we leave design school (or at least I have). I can’t think of oth­er events where I am treat­ed to such won­der­ful war sto­ries from the front-lines of inter­ac­tion design.

The dis­cus­sions after each ses­sion were good again as well. Lots of thought­ful ques­tions, crit­i­cal, but fair. Alper was kind enough to keep min­utes, and has blogged the most salient parts over at his site (in Dutch).5

Our friends in Lon­don launched a new web­site that now con­tains videos and slides of all talks from past events. The Utrecht ses­sions are on there too, so go have a look. It already is an amaz­ing col­lec­tion of high-qual­i­ty con­tent. Some of my cur­rent favourites are Troi­ka, Crispin Jones and Schulze & Webb.6

The next This hap­pened – Utrecht (num­ber three) is set for June 29. Hope to see you there.

  1. Alexan­der, Ianus and I []
  2. Iskan­der spot­ted it first, this is a blog post in Dutch dis­cussing the par­al­lels between the talks []
  3. Hon­est­ly, this was not some­thing we had aimed for before­hand. []
  4. I real­ize in the tech scene this has once again become a hot top­ic, see for instance this dis­cus­sion over at Chris Messina’s blog. []
  5. I’ve col­lect­ed more posts on our sec­ond edi­tion over at Deli­cious. []
  6. While you’re there, why not vote for This hap­pened in the Brit Insur­ance Design of the Year 2009 awards at the Design Muse­um? []

Design-related endnotes for MoMo AMS #7

Yes­ter­day I attend­ed my first Mobile Mon­day in Ams­ter­dam. The theme was “val­ue” and in my mind, I had already equat­ed the term with “user expe­ri­ence”. This was a mis­take. Con­trary to my expec­ta­tions, the event was well out­side of my com­fort zone. Dis­cus­sions were dom­i­nat­ed by busi­ness and tech­nol­o­gy per­spec­tives. I found the expe­ri­ence frus­trat­ing at times, but I guess this is good. Frus­tra­tion often leads to new insights. There­fore, although this may not sound as a rec­om­men­da­tion, I would say MoMo is an event worth vis­it­ing for any design­er inter­est­ed in mobil­i­ty. It will remind you that in this indus­try, many ideas you take for grant­ed are far from accept­ed.

I thought I’d share some thoughts con­cern­ing the salient points of the evening.

Context

Con­text was often equat­ed with loca­tion. To me, these two are far from the same. Loca­tion is, at best, a com­po­nent of con­text, which also involves what peo­ple are doing, who else is there, what objects are present, etc. But, more impor­tant­ly: Con­text aris­es from inter­ac­tions, it is rela­tion­al and there­fore can­not be objec­ti­fied. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, Adam Green­field has post­ed some valu­able insights on this top­ic.

As an exam­ple, con­sid­er a per­son present in the White House, in the pos­ses­sion of a firearm, in clear sight of the pres­i­dent. The mean­ing of this sit­u­a­tion (i.e. the con­text) depends com­plete­ly on who this per­son is and what his moti­va­tions are. He might be work­ing (body­guard­ing the pres­i­dent), he might be at war (mak­ing an attempt at the president’s life) or he might be play­ing around (the gun isn’t real, he’s the president’s son).

Any­way — I sub­scribe to the view that we should not attempt to guess con­text, the above exam­ple has hope­ful­ly shown that this is an impos­si­ble task. (At least, as long as we can­not reli­ably read the minds of peo­ple.) In stead, we should ‘lim­it’ our­selves to giv­ing places, things, etc. a voice in the con­ver­sa­tion (mak­ing them self-describ­ing, and account­able) and hav­ing con­text arise those voic­es, as deter­mined by the peo­ple involved.

Open source

Ajit Jaokar posit­ed that open source mobile soft­ware (such as Android) will lead to new device man­u­fac­tur­ers enter­ing the are­na. The anal­o­gy was made to the PC indus­try with the emer­gence of white-label box­es. I won­der though, for this to tru­ly hap­pen, shouldn’t the hard­ware be open-sourced too, not (just) the soft­ware?

In any case, I think hav­ing more hand­set man­u­fac­tur­ers is won­der­ful. Not in the least for the fact that it will open the door for a more diverse offer­ing, one poten­tial­ly tai­lored to regions so far under-served by device man­u­fac­tur­ers. Which brings me to my next point.

Local, global, diversity, relevance…

Sev­er­al speak­ers allud­ed to the fact that mobile is a glob­al mar­ket, and that busi­ness­es shouldn’t be shy about launch­ing world-wide. I see sev­er­al issues with this. First of all, with­out want­i­ng to sound too anti-glob­al­is­tic, do we real­ly want to con­tin­ue on mak­ing stuff that is the same no mat­ter where you go? I find diver­si­ty a vital stim­u­lus in my life and would hate to see soft­ware expe­ri­ences become more and more the same the world over.

Let’s in stead con­sid­er the fol­low­ing: A ser­vice that might make per­fect sense in one locale very like­ly does not offer any dis­tinc­tive val­ue in anoth­er. I think the exam­ple of the now defunct Skoeps1, which was dis­cussed at the event, illus­trates this per­fect­ly. It did not work in the Dutch mar­ket, but offers real val­ue in ‘devel­op­ing’ coun­tries, where the amount of video crews on the ground is lim­it­ed and images cap­tured by locals using mobile phones are there­fore a wel­come addi­tion to the ‘offi­cial’ cov­er­age.

Context redux

Which brings me back to the ques­tion of con­text, but in this case, the role it plays not as a com­po­nent of a ser­vice, but in the design and devel­op­ment process itself. I was sad to see the most impor­tant point of Rachel Hin­man’s video mes­sage go unno­ticed (at least, judg­ing from the fact that it was not dis­cussed at all). She said that start­ing point for any new ser­vice should be to go out “into the wild” and observe what peo­ple are doing, what they want, what they need, what they enjoy and so on.2 From this real and deep under­stand­ing of people’s con­texts, you can start mak­ing mean­ing­ful choic­es that will help you cre­ate some­thing that offers true val­ue.

It was this notion of start­ing from people’s con­text that I found most lack­ing at MoMo AMS. Besides Hin­man, I was sur­prised to find only Yme Bosma of Hyves3 allud­ing to it. Who’d have thought?

  1. Skoeps — pro­nounced “scoops” — was a social video site focused on cit­i­zen jour­nal­ism. It went out of busi­ness because not enough “users” were “gen­er­at­ing con­tent”. Ugh. []
  2. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Hin­man works at Adap­tive Path. Athough I very much agree with her presentation’s premise, I felt her exam­ple was a bit disin­gen­u­ous. I find it hard to believe Apple designed iTunes to fit the mix­tape usage sce­nario. This, I think, is more of a hap­py coin­ci­dence than any­thing else. []
  3. Hyves is the biggest social net­work­ing site of the Nether­lands. []