Archive for February 2007

IDEO Smart Space – A transformation of what?

February 25, 2007

IDEO’s Urban Pre-Planning

Can its “Smart Space” practice shake up the lumbering world of infrastructure, zoning, and public process?
IDEO gets so much press on their approach to architectural projects – perhaps because its a relatively new space for design, and few other firms are taking it on in the way they can. They have the size, the rep, and a diverse mix of design disciplines. They have balls, you have to give them credit – their developing practice in urban planning, land use, and housing planning is taking on a complex, hyper-sensitive, “sprawling” territory where results will be hard to measure, because cities and new initiatives in urban spaces take time and community commitment to happen. IDEO does not have to care if they design it, and nobody comes. So they can reach far with ideas and aim for excitement and inspiration.

But it is not innovation of urban planning, it seems to be a innovation of urban packaging. This has implications for design strategy, because IDEO gets to set the top bar for the profession. If conceptual design planning is the product and deliverable, how does this actually lead to better urban spaces? And who is the ultimate customer – the city planners and developers? Or the people living in the community?

“It’s not clear that works, mostly because it’s too early to tell—but also because the team at IDEO is messing with the DNA of the planning process. They’re changing it from a concrete process of infrastructure and building to an imagined one of narrative and identity; they’re exchanging the idea of a place for place itself. In an urban realm already threatened by privatization—not just by developers but by a broader trend toward place-making as marketing—IDEO’s approach could be seen to further erode the idea of city-building as a democratic process (if it ever was) because of the way it applies the shiny language of marketing to the gritty mixed-up world of the city. As IDEO emphasizes, its communication skills have been honed in the corporate world, and its “user centered” approach is often cast as a particularly empathetic version of market research.”

This is a case where process has implications for everybody involved. As a zoning board member in an Ohio township, I know the regulatory and planning processes are not sexy, and its hard to get real citizens engaged in designing their own future. It should be easier going getting people involved in a gritty, hip location in a large city. But who IS the user here, if this user-centered? This is the problem of transformation design – if a design process is not democratic or even participatory, who then has the rights to design, package, and market on behalf of the citizens? The “client” – the planners, or in many cases – the developers of Potemkin village greens that are becoming popular at the edges of failed urban centers such as my Ohio town?
My last post engaged Liz Sanders’ Design Research article, with her model differentiating between designer (expert)-led and participant (user) led generative design. It may be very cool to have IDEO design your urban area’s brand package based on “user” research, that may have included real people like you that live in the locale. But they seem to fall short of actual planning, and drop off before working with the political grind and zoning/use negotiations that establish the affordances for building, infrastructure, service delivery. At the end of the day, the trade-offs between officials, developers, and the public lead to livability and community. This is an interesting front-end approach, but it could lead to high expectations that do not become realized in transformation of community space.
So to what extent can people be empowered to direct the planning and design of their own communities? To what extent can they – community dwellers – mobilize the tools of design – with design facilitation by IDEO-like firms? And should innovation firms take on the slog through architecture, zoning, and planning to engage themselves as committed players in such projects? If they don’t “have a dog in the fight” now, how would the level of trust and possibility of real community-centered design be actualized if they did have such a commitment to results?
One of the most inspiring practices I’ve encountered in the world of conceptual arts is Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s total commitment to a project, often involving years of negotiation with planners, public official, and public hearings. To a great extent, this is where the art happens – its a multi-year, mixed-temporality performance, leading up to an event and land sculpture. Ands the real takehome lesson for me is that their process is participatory, in the very real sense that when they take on a wrapping or public space project, they engage fully in the public hearings and discussions as a type of community-sensitive collaboration. Its behind-the-scenes participatory art.  As designers considering public or transformative work, should we at least be working with local planners and educating people in public hearings, if not reflecting on the full range of stakeholders in our design processes? Who do we collaborate with to make this happen? What design research methods do we use?


Generative (participatory) design

February 22, 2007

Liz Sanders, now at, presents this mapping of Design Research approaches – in Design Research Quarterly (1:1). She distinguishes between Design-led and Research-led design, and Expert vs. Participatory. At MakeTools, Liz advocates Generative Design, led by participants as designers. Her article distinguishes generative design as:

Generative tools (Sanders, 2000; Sleeswijk Visser, Stappers, van der Lugt and Sanders, 2005) is a newer design-led bubble in the participatory design zone. It is characterized by the use of design thinking by all the stakeholders very early in the fuzzy front end of the design development process. The name ‘generative tools’ refers to the creation of a shared design language that designers/researchers and the stakeholders use to communicate visually and directly with each other. The design language is generative in the sense that with it, people can express an infinite number of ideas (e.g., dreams, insights, opportunities, etc.) through a limited set of stimulus items. Thus, the generative tools approach is a way to fill the fuzzy front end with the ideas, dreams and insights of the people who are to be served through design. The generative tools approach has been used across all the design domains, although the generative toolkits differ across the various domains. It should be noted that generative design research is not entirely design-led. Generative toolkits are created and developed based on a solid understanding of the context of use that has been ethnographically informed.

Structured Dialogic Design shares a similar “space” on her mapping of participatory, user-led design, but with very different methods and orientation to systems. Generative design is oriented toward products and services that people (users) might adopt in daily practice. SDD generates a space of design possibilities for complex systems and social projects, such as policy or democratic community projects, constructed from participants’ experience and ideas only. SDD adapts dialogue to generate and then qualify ideas, and progresses to organizing options fields and finally actionable plans.  A presentation is available online at

Architecture as Social Research

February 19, 2007

Critique of Pure Research: A new graduate program at London’s Goldsmiths College explores architecture as a tool of social and political practice.

Metropolis Magazine just keeps getting better – their editorial policy has strengthened their social focus with each issue.

The Centre for Research Architecture is as concerned with politics and human rights as it is with architecture. It dispenses with the practice of building and delves into the profession’s more political and theoretical applications. Eyal Weizman, the founding director, derived his approach to architectural research from his own study of conflict zones in Israel. The laws and restrictions on space were often so vague on paper that they provided no guide to policy; to determine where Palestinians could and could not rebuild after their homes were destroyed, Weizman worked with a nonprofit organization to reconstruct them and see how the government would react. “The law was unpredictable,” he says. “You had to provoke to reveal the government’s internal logic.” At Goldsmiths, Weizman has brought these lessons to the classroom, turning the traditional detached academic perspective on its head. “Practice is not the result of investigation,” he says. “It is the tool of investigation.”

Do we (UX) have any programs like this? And what will it start looking like if UX champions social research as an outcome of practice? Are we improving work conditions, enhancing the humanity of everyday life? (For example, could over-optimized information structures lead to cognitive efficiencies at the wrong levels of use? By levels, meaning organizationally or socially? Have we tested hypotheses that suggest some value in information friction?)

Twilight of the Republic?

February 16, 2007

A series of articles, just since late 2006, wonder seriously if America’s soul – its character and shared values – dropped over a tipping point. Each of these are from a different perspective, revealing an interconnected complexity of problems, even if each takes a single focus. These underlying concerns have been building since 2001:

Since 2001, what have these old white guys with bad haircuts done, in secret, to what was once the most-respected nation? What kind of government has actually emerged now to take the place of a democratic republic? What are the possibilities for citizen engagement in their own democracy, and are we up to the job of creating one?

Inside, looking out at the mess we’ve made. Andrew Basevich asks in his Commonweal essay, a section of which I’ve fair-used here, the question titling this post.

A serious attempt to pacify the Islamic world means the permanent militarization of U.S. policy. Almost inevitably, it will further concentrate authority in the hands of an imperial presidency.
This describes the program of the “faster, please” ideologues keen to enlarge the scope of U.S. military action. To paraphrase Che Guevara, it is a program that calls for “one, two, many Iraqs,” ignoring the verdict already rendered by the actually existing Iraq. The fact is that events there have definitively exposed the very real limits of American hard power, financial reserves, and will. Leviathan has shot his wad.

Seeking an escape from our predicament through further expansion points toward bankruptcy and the dismantling of what remains of the American republic. Genuine pragmatism-and the beginning of wisdom-lies in paying less attention to “the way that they live” and more attention to the way we do. Ultimately, conditions within American society determine the prospects of American liberty. As early multiculturalist Randolph Bourne observed nearly a century ago, ensuring that authentic freedom will flourish at home demands that we attend in the first instance to “cultivating our own garden.”

Will we recognize the US when Iraq is finished with us? In the past, we have ignored reflection and bypassed the opportunities to learn from mistakes. With a real war debt US $2T, we will not have the luxury of “moving on.” If you have ever been in debt, you may recall there’s interest to be paid. How much, and how long?

Outside, looking in. Jan Morris, British historian and writer, writes in the Guardian: Once the most beloved country in the world, the US is now the most hated. You have to read this just for the comments, if not the (actually hopeful) argument she makes in the editorial piece:

Perhaps, with a future new president already champing at the bit, we are about to witness its rebirth. As a foreigner I am immune to the rivalries or seductions of American party politics, but I have loved the old place for 60 years, and I simply pray for an American leader to give us back its baraka, as the Arabs say – nothing to do with religion or economics or power or even ideology, but the gift of being at once blessed and blessing.

Of course nobody can claim that the old dreams of America were ever perfectly fulfilled. They often let us down. They were betrayed by the national reputations for crime, corruption, racism and rampant materialism. … Nobody’s perfect, still less any republic.

But I think it is true that only in our time has the American Idea lost its baraka. A generation or two ago, most of us, wherever we lived, loved the generous self-satisfaction of it, if not in the general, at least in the particular. The GI was not then a sort of goggled monster in padded armour, but a cheerful fellow chatting up the girls and distributing candy not as a matter of policy, but out of plain goodwill – everyone’s friendly guy next door. … one could watch the lachrymose patriotic rituals of America – the hand on heart, the misty-eyed salute to the flag – with more affection than irony.

These are not political impressions as much as they are values impressions, which is why they’re more important. Values shifts endure long after the crises that inspired them – because my parents grew up as Depression-era kids, I learned to respect neighbors, saving, and preparing for the future.  That may be way old-school, but your personal values don’t change every month. Organizational values change slowly – a national culture’s values change very slowly.

Values are not political ideology, left or right – but most of us would not remember this, since our values have become as mediated as our political experience. Most Americans are working too hard (“staying employed”) to particpate in our own cultural and democratic renewal. By the time we’re home, what left for us to engage in our community or national issues in a meaningful way? We leave the mangle of real participation to the fanatics and the heartbroken, and then we wonder why our laws do not reflect our values.

Tao of Dialogue

February 9, 2007

Lao Tze imagined a way of serving others and giving up your own ideas:

In caring for others and serving heaven,
There is nothing like using restraint.
Restraint begins with giving up one’s own ideas.
This depends on Virtue gathered in the past.
If there is a good store of Virtue, then nothing is impossible.
If nothing is impossible, then there are no limits.
If a man knows no limits, then he is fit to be a ruler.
The mother principle of ruling holds good for a long time.
This is called having deep roots and a firm foundation,
The Tao of long life and eternal vision.

Working in Dialogue means giving up your role as expert and engaging with all others as if they were the only voices that matter. Dialogic design is our process of designing social systems and complex services in participatory design dialogue.

Dialogue enables people to listen to each other on issues of common concern, going beyond what they personally think is important, to find common roots the deep issues that dynamically influence their situation. Informed with the knowledge of what is really driving their situation, people move forward with enthusiasm and commitment, working together in a designed future co-constructed by dialogue.

We bring Structured Dialogic Design (SDD) to the table to facilitate deep and disciplined dialogue. SDD honors individual autonomy in the group dialogue, respecting each contribution, and allowing their careful clarification. It does this in such a way that every participant engages with equal influence. Hierarchies of power, expertise, and personality are harmonized or flattened. When everyone has submitted their answers to a triggering question and clarified them, the tension goes out of the room as everyone feels that they have been heard. The group has formed in mutual respect and with an agreed upon vocabulary.

The intellectual underpinnings of our approach to Dialogue can be found in the work of the following thinkers:

Socrates Socratic Dialogues

H-G Gadamer Horizons of Understanding

H. Ozbekhan Toward a general theory of Planning

J. Habermas A Dialogue on 9/11

David Bohm
Dialogue – A Proposal

J. Warfield Galleries of Interactive Management

Aleco Christakis A People Science