Computing

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination

I gave my inaugural lecture at Brighton University in December 2015. It draws on a few of the blog posts I’ve written in this blog* and sums up my current thinking about the idea of  Design.

Here is the blurb:

Design, the ‘D’ in TED*, has well and truly broken out of the Design School. In fact it made its escape some decades ago but still retains its potential to develop our collective imagination and enrich inter-disciplinary dialogue.

In this lecture Professor Lloyd will draw on over 20 years of research and teaching to trace a journey from the cognitive activity of the brain to the architecture and politics of democracy, and from Bitcoin to football to education. The linking thread is design thinking and he will argue that understanding design as a process of dialogue is not only fundamental to an ethical engagement with the world, but vital to securing an equitable future for all.

*Technology Entertainment Design: Ideas Worth Spreading When one considers the sheer range of talks that fit under these three words, you realise how important the idea of design has become.

Here is the Video (42 minutes):

Here is the Transcript (opens in a new window):

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination (pdf)

*And here are some references:

1. The story of Aaron Swartz is a compelling one. You can see the documentary about his life here: How to Kill a Designer

2. The mystery surrounding the inventer/designer of Bitcoin has been going for some years. I talk about it in Nakamoto’s Last Theorem. However, in the past six months the story has developed considerably. The Australian computer scientist and cryptographer Craig Wright has claimed convincingly to be the originator of Bitcoin and his ‘coming out’ tale is excellently told in an extended piece in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagen.

3. I talk about how Design relates to football here: Dolphin or Shark? Designing the Beautiful Game

4. Design Education in the Wired Weird World starts with architectural education but moves on to talk about the possibilities of Design Education more generally, it also discusses The India Report by Charles and Ray Eames which I touch on briefly in the lecture.

 

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Dolphin or Shark? Designing the Beautiful Game

Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football Club, thinks one of his star signings of 2013, Mesut Özil, is now ready to perform at the highest level. Here’s what a recent article said of him:

“Wenger thinks the player he bought for a club record £42.5m from Real Madrid two summers ago is readier than he has ever been to excel, to design the game, consistently and decisively.” [1]

It is time for Mesut Ozil to 'design the game' according to his Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.

It is time for Mesut Özil to ‘design the game’ according to his Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.

That’s a funny phrase there, right at the end: ‘to design the game’. I’ve come across players as ‘architects’ of a football match, or ‘play makers’, but not heard of a footballer described as a designer before.

It sort of makes sense. Football has long been a source of good metaphors about the process of design – there is teamwork, strategy, star individuals, a manager with a plan, and people that perform to that plan, as the game is crafted and made. Below is a 1975 photo of my colleague and design methods guru Nigel Cross, explaining the design process with football props for an early Open University television programme.

TV_football[1]

Nigel Cross illustrates concepts of design using a football model for a 1975 Open University programme.

Ozil might be a designer in the classic sense – an individual, intuitively shaping the form of something; someone exploring, trying things out and, in being consistent and decisive, retaining (more-or-less) overall control.

That might be where Wenger is wrong, though, because nowadays there are other candidates for the designer of a game of football; indeed many other types of sporting contest too.

The way that performance data can now be captured and used in real-time is changing the nature of sport into a battle of data acquisition and interpretation. The team car following Chris Frome up L’Alpe Duez in the Tour de France is doing more than just waiting for him to puncture. It is acting as his brain, processing his ‘numbers’ on a laptop. Data about his heart rate, effort, and power tell the team just how much energy he has left to give, which means they can communicate to him exactly what he has the capacity to do. They can tell him to raise the pace because his numbers are looking good, they can tell him to slow down because he’s touching the red zone; they can tell him he needs some food, or something to drink. He is, in effect, their machine. They know what his body can do in extremis better than he does.

Knowing your numbers is not just something for elite sportspeople.  The proliferation of the smartphone and associated devices has heralded what philosopher Julian Baggini has termed ‘the quantified self’.  The Apple iWatch, with it’s ability to constantly monitor our physiological makeup has the potential to change how we understand what our lives are about:

“The Apple Watch will make mainstream the hitherto minority obsession with the “quantified self”. This is an approach to living which encourages the relentless gathering of data about everything related to our wellbeing, from health and fitness indicators like heart rate and cholesterol levels, to time spent on social media or learning new skills. All this data is supposedly used to make us leaner, fitter, happier, more efficient.” [2]

To design our lives, in other words. Anyone that has ever used Sleepcycle (see pic below), which monitors sleeping patterns and wakes us when we are ready to be awoken, will understand this design intervention in our lives. The ‘quantified self’ means that we become the agents of a faraway designer, not the designers of our own lives, free to learn from our mistakes (freewill notwithstanding).

Sleepcycle

Three nights of sleep monitoring by the Sleepcycle iPhone App.

That makes the freedom that Arsene Wenger implies that Mesut Özil has, in designing the game, sound both attractive and old fashioned; like a craftsman from a bygone era.

Football has, for quite a while, collected increasingly more detailed information on what happens during a game. It started, like baseball before it, by counting tackles made, passes completed, distance run, etc. but that was only ever half the story:

“Until recently, it was very much about collecting data on what had happened, without looking at why it had happened,” says Paul Power, a data scientist at Prozone. Power cites the great Italian defender Paolo Maldini as an example of a player who might be marked down by a system that values tackling and intercepting; because his positional play was so good he had less need to do these things.” [3]

As sensors and electronics have shrunk, and with physiological and other data being added to the data mix, the analysis of data has got more sophisticated and can now be used during a game. That means the game can be designed from the touchline using a dashboard of indicators and drawing in theories about complexity to model emergent forms of play and plan how interventions might work:

“Power used a video clip of a shoal of sardines reacting to the presence of sharks to illustrate the more sophisticated approach rapidly gaining ground in football. ‘We’re reconceptualising football as a complex dynamic system’ [he says]”. [3]

The implication is that our plans and intuition aren’t working, or aren’t working well enough. That’s not to say, though, that we won’t at some point be able to monitor cognition and thought process, and by implication look at the quality of design thinking that someone like Özil is demonstrating. The intelligence that someone like Paolo Maldini uses, to do more with less, could then be factored into dynamic performance data.

Until that day Wenger’s touchline impotence means he has to rely on someone on the pitch to design the game on his behalf, someone with intelligence and vision and swiftness of thought and foot. Someone like Mesut Özil, in fact. But Mesut is an unpredictable and sometimes fragile soul. So on his off days, Wenger might do well to swap his dolphin for a shark.

References

[1] Amy Lawrence (2nd August, 2015) Mesut Özil becomes central to Arsène Wenger’s way of thinking at Arsenal, The Observer

[2] Julian Baggini (11th March, 2015) Apple Watch: Are you feeling the terror? The Guardian

[3] Nic Fleming (2nd August, 2015) How science is fine-tuning our elite footballers, The Observer

How to Kill a Designer

In a past post I wrote about the mysterious design genius of Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and on BBC television recently was a documentary about another internet shaper – Aaron Swartz, who played major parts in developing RSS feed technology, Creative Commons implementation, and the social news website Reddit. The documentary is called The Internet’s Own Boy and is available (courtesy of Creative Commons) through The Documentary Network.

I urge you to watch this to gain an account of how global politics is lumberingly, awkwardly, waking up to the democratic power of the web and how that, paradoxically, is threatening democracy, or at least what passes for democracy in the western world, post Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. It is a hopeful, then utterly heartbreaking, account of how someone with technical genius and political skill, someone devoted to democratic ideals of openness, and with the energy, creativity, and organisation to really achieve change, is slowly and deliberately brought down.

I hadn’t heard of Schwartz before I watched the film but it is clear how much hope was invested in him. What I was struck by was a T-Shirt he wears in a brief scene about half-way through the film (shown below):

Design can Save the World

Aaron Swartz’s T-Shirt: “Design will Save the World”

“Design will save the world”, it says, and it’s easy to see why he might have seen design as a key force in the projects he was involved with: creating forums for knowledge exchange, making ‘private’ research information public, and allowing creative outputs to be used by all. But designing at this level is becoming a dangerous and political business, which probably means it is absolutely vital that we try to protect and support those people who know how to do it.

Nakamoto’s Last Theorem

A couple of weekends ago I was at the Latitude festival and happened on a rather good talk by Sunday Times journalist Andrew Smith. The talk was a cross-legged affair, in a shed, in the woods and was about the inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto, it turns out, is a bit of mystery. He, if indeed it is a ‘he’ solved a mathematical cryptographic problem that the rest of the world couldn’t, as a necessary condition for inventing a peer-to-peer currency. The neat thing about a peer-to-peer currency is that it doesn’t need a central repository to guarantee its value. That’s bad news for governments and banks everywhere if it becomes mainstream, and potentially destabilising/energising for national economies.

But Nakamoto has disappeared. After introducing the currency, and impressing the pants off mathematicians everywhere, he dropped off the radar and hasn’t been seen since. A bit like Pierre de Fermat and his famous last theorem or Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects. The ‘disappearing genius’ is a good, human-interest angle for journalists and Smith is now on something of a detective trail fueled by potential conspiracy at every turn. Part of that trail is in looking at the fragments that Nakamoto left behind and talking to the people that interacted with him online, another part is trying to figure out the characteristics of the person by looking at the qualities of the ‘thing’ he created. That second part is a bit like the so-called ‘argument from design’ – inferring the nature of God by looking at the world she created – a tenuous exercise at best, as David Hume showed in his Dialogues on Natural Religion, but a fun game all the same.

Shed of Stories

Shed of Stories

I’ve been following Bitcoin in the news for a while now, without ever really understanding what it is exactly, never having used it. The talk, however, brought home design aspects to the currency, and implications for its use, that I found intriguing. One comment that Smith reports Nakamoto as saying, on one of the discussion lists he was part of was that, in figuring out his currency:

“much more of the work was designing rather than coding.”

That’s an interesting comment to me. It sort of implies that there was a ‘hard’ problem to solve, followed by a lot of design problems: working out how Bitcoins could be ‘manufactured’, used, kept secure, and how they might capture the imagination of people.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I think Bitcoin works. A Bitcoin is basically a number, though not any old number. It’s a number worked out by a computational process that allows anyone to ‘mine’ Bitcoins. Early on in the currency it really was anyone (with a computer and the right software) that could mine Bitcoins, and many did. But Bitcoins are finite, like the total amount of gold in the world, so they get progressively harder to mine. The analogy that works for me is of prime numbers – numbers divisible only by 1 and themselves. The first few are easy to work out: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37 but as you get higher and higher, the numbers get harder and harder to ‘mine’, to the extent that it is only since the invention of the computer that we’ve been able to ‘discover’ large prime numbers. The latest, discovered in April 2014 (Wikipedia is a wonderful thing), has 17,425,170 digits to it. And that’s the crux of it; to mine Bitcoins now, you need extensive computing power. There are server farms now set up in the cold half of the northern hemisphere with the sole purpose of mining Bitcoins. That’s a lot of energy, but then mining for gold takes a lot of energy too.

So basically you get a number when you mine a Bitcoin and when you exchange your Bitcoin for goods, services, or other currency there is a process that checks both that you have a valid Bitcoin – in our analogy you really do have a prime number – and that you have not already spent your Bitcoin.

That may, or may not, be a good explanation but it’s about as far as I can go. If you want more detail I’d recommend you read Andrew’s book as a starting point. What I’m really interested in though are two things. First, the process of design leading to Bitcoin and second, the potential disruptive implications of Bitcoin. The two, of course, are linked through the enigma that is Satoshi Nakamoto.

What I like first is the use of gold as a metaphor for Bitcoin. Gold instantly tunes you in to the kind of currency you’re dealing with; one set up with olde world values. Gold coins, mining, ingots stored in safes, buried treasure, mediaeval tradesmen shaking out ducats from leather pouches. Gold fires the imagination; intuitively you seem to know what you’re dealing with – it gets its value, unlike pound notes or euros, from its scarcity. That must have taken some thinking out by Nakamoto, to keep that metaphor in mind while doing the serious coding.

The serious coding, the ‘hard’ problem mainly seems to have involved making Bitcoin hack-proof. All currency is based on trust and once that trust is breached you don’t have a currency any more. If false Bitcoins can be mined as valid Bitcoins then trust in the currency breaks down.  But Nakamoto appears to have covered the bases through the architecture of his software, having a central (and simple) core, which can deflect any potential attack to satellite components; a solution which has been acknowledged by mathematicians as an elegant one. I’ll spare you the details because, to be frank, I don’t know them. What I do know is that making Bitcoin secure involved imagining how possible threats might emerge, and what to do about them. That is, how does the product respond to misuse? A classic design problem.

Of course Bitcoin must also be efficient and easy to use – no point in waiting a week for a transaction to be confirmed. Again, Nakamoto must have imagined potential use scenarios at the point of exchange. How is validity checked? How long does it take the purchaser to know that they have a real Bitcoin? How easy is it to make an exchange even? These are all potential barriers to the take up of a new system, and design problems that Nakamoto systematically solved. Nakamoto looks more and more like a very good designer.

There is more to good design than just the design, though. Good design sets the mind thinking about new directions, consequences, and effects. A good design, like a character in a novel for an author, takes on a life of its own and is able to show the designer the possible implications of the thing as it relates to a broader vision of society. Bitcoin is more than just good code, it is a way of thinking about the fundamentals of what money is and does.

That is where the (potential) disruption comes in. We have got used to our pound notes, dollars, and euros. Money is regulated by central banks and managed for us by high street banks. The whole financial system pretty much runs on transaction charges. Like a casino – and the gaming analogy is apposite – the house always wins. And, as the recent financial crisis has shown, if a bank loses it still (almost always) wins – the government can provide a bail out, say ‘don’t do it again’, and print more money as a sticking plaster. Because money, in this form, and unlike gold, is, in theory if not in practice, infinite.

So, if you can create a stable financial system without banks, that would be a big thing; a way of reshaping the whole financial system and perhaps stopping the wealthy, at least those in finance, from getting wealthier. And all from a number. The interesting thing is that it’s not clear what politics Bitcoin has, though it appears to have come about with political aims. Smashing the system seems like good old socialism, while creating new financial models sounds like rampant capitalism. That seems like an indicator, to me, that it is a potential way forward, and if it is, it has been cleverly thought through.

Bitcoin, though, has not received a good press. Silkroad, a website for buying illicit goods – the Amazon of the dark side if you like – uses Bitcoin as its currency because (another key thing) it preserves the anonymity of the people carrying out transactions. As a result the exchange value of Bitcoin has fluctuated widely from almost nothing (bad press) to something huge (good press). But it abides, and therein lies the challenge to existing financial frameworks. While crypto-currencies like Bitcoin remain, a possible future also remains. So if anything, Bitcoin looks like material for a new architecture, although that architecture remains largely to be constructed. There are interesting applications emerging though. Transactions too small for transaction charges to be feasible, so-called micro-payments, is one area of potential growth; for small chunks of web content, for example. Emerging economies are another area of Bitcoin development, where currencies, banks, and financial services tend to already to be unstable.

You might think that such a fascinating subject would attract a reasonable crowd at a festival like Latitude. Well, see the photo above, I could have counted the audience on both hands.