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City magic

Chris Woebken and Elliott Montgomery practice together as The Extrapolation Factory here in NYC. They often stage shows, workshops and teach a blend of speculative design provocation, storytelling, and making.

I first met them both at the RCA, and so I was thrilled when they asked me in late summer to be part of their show at ApexArt that would be based on the premise of designing future systems or objects for New York City’s Office of Emergency Management.

The show is on now until December 19th 2015 at ApexArt, but I thought I’d write up a little bit of the project I submitted to the group show along with my fantastic collaborators Isaac Blankensmith and Matt Delbridge


The premise

Chris and Elliott’s first recruit was writer Tim Maughan who based on the initial briefing with the OEM created a scenario that we as designers and artists would respond to, and create props for a group of improvisational actors to use in a disaster training simulation. More of that later!

Here’s what we got early on from Tim by way of stimulus…

Backdrop
NYC has been hit by a major pandemic (the exact nature of which is still to be decided – something new/fictitious). The city has been battling against it for several weeks now, with research showing that it may spread easily via the transit system. The city, in association with the public transport and the police are enforcing a strict regime of control, monitoring, and  – where necessary – quarantining. By constant monitoring of infection data (using medical reports, air monitoring/sampling, social media data mining etc) they are attempting to watch, predict, and hopefully limit spread. Using mobile ‘pop-up’ checkpoints they are monitoring and controlling use of buses and the subway, and in extreme cases closing off parts of the city completely from mass transit. Although it seems to be largely working, and fatalities have been relatively low so far, it has created an understandable sense of paranoia and distrust amongst NYC citizens.  

Setting
The Canal street subway station, late evening.

Scenario
Our characters are two individuals heading home to Brooklyn after leaving a show at apexart. They are surprised to find that the streets seem fairly empty. Just as they reach Canal station they are alerted (via Wireless Emergency Alert) that quarantine and checkpoint procedures have been activated in the neighbourhood, and a pop-up infection checkpoint has been set up at the entrance to the subway. They’ve never encountered one of these before, but in order to get home they must pass through it by proving they do not pose an infection.


Our proposals

I submitted two pieces with Isaac and Matt for the show.

The first concept “Citibikefrastructure” was built out into a prop which features in the gallery, the second concept “Bodyclocks” featured in the catalog and briefly in the final performed scenario.

1. “Citibikefrastructure”

This first concept uses the NYC citibike bike share program as a widely installed base of checkpoints / support points in the city that have data and power, plus very secure locking mechanisms connected to the network.

The essential thought behind this project was this: What if these were used in times of emergency with modular systems of mobile equipment that plugged into them?

I started to think of both top-down and bottom-up uses for this system.

Top-down uses would be to assist in ‘command and control’ type situations and mainly by the OEM and other emergency services in the city.

  • TOP-DOWN:
    • e.g. Command post
      • Loudhailer system
      • Solar panels
      • Space heaters
      • Shelter / lights / air-conditioning
      • Wireless mesh networking
      • Refrigerator for medicine / perishable materials
      • Water purification

But perhaps more promising to me seemed ‘bottom-up’ uses

  • BOTTOM-UP:
    • USB charging stations
      • Inspiration: after Hurricane Sandy many people who still had electricity offered it up via running powerstrips and extension cords into the streets so people could charge their mobile devices and alert loved ones, keep up with the news etc.
    • Wireless mesh networking – p2p store/forward text across the citibike network.
    • Information display / FAQomputer
      • e-ink low power signs connected to mesh
      • LE bluetooth connection to smartphones with ‘take-away’ data
        • PDF maps
        • emergency guides
        • Bluetooth p2p Noticeboard for citizens
      • Blockchain-certified emergency local currency dispenser!
        • Barter/volunteer ‘cash’ infrastructure for self-organising relief orgs a la Occupy Sandy

1:1 Sketch proto

IMG_6768

After making some surreptitious measurements of the Citibike docking stations, I started to build a very simple 1:1 model of one of these ‘bottom-up’ modules for the show at the fantastic Bien Hecho woodworking academy in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard.

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Detail design and renderings

Meanwhile, Isaac had both taken my crappy sketches far beyond into a wonderfully-realised modular system and created some lovely renders to communicate it.

citibike_IB-1

Initial sketch by Isaac Blankensmith

citibike_ib-2

Isaac then started to flesh out a modular system that could accommodate the majority of the use-cases we had brainstormed.

 

CitiBike_Poster

Citibikefrastructure final renderings and compositing in situ by Isaac Blankensmith http://www.isaacblankensmith.com

Ortho_Poster

Citibikefrastructure final renderings and compositing in situ by Isaac Blankensmith http://www.isaacblankensmith.com

Some final adjustments were made to the sketch model on the days of installation in the gallery – notably the inclusion of a flashing emergency light, and functioning cellphone charger cables which I hopd would prove popular with gallery visitors if nothing else!

2. “Bodyclocks”

This one is definitely more in the realm of ‘speculative design’ and perhaps flirts with the dystopian a little more than I usually like to!

Bodyclocks riffs off the clocks-for-robots concept we sketched out at BERG that created computer-readable objects sync’d to time and place.

Bodyclocks extends this idea to some kind of time-reactive dye, inkjet-squirted onto skin by connected terminals in order to verify and control the movements of individuals in a quarantined city / city district…

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 11.21.25 PM

I’d deliberated chosen to ‘parasite’ this onto the familiar and mundane design of the ‘sanitation spray’ stations that proliferated suddenly in public/private spaces at the time of the H1N1 scare of 2009…

When you think about it, a new thing appeared in our semi-public realm – a new ritual, with it.

People would quickly habituate such objects and give themselves new temporary tracking ‘tattoos’ every time they crossed a threshold…

So, the dystopian angle is pretty obvious here. It doesn’t tend to reflect well on societies when they start to force people to identifying marks after all…

We definitely all talked about that a lot and under what circumstances people would tolerate or even elect to have a bodyclock tattoo. Matt Delbridge started creating some fantastic visuals and material to support the scenario.

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For the purposes of the show and the performances, Matt D. even made a stamp that the actors could use to give each other bodyclocks…

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Would the ritual of applying it in order to travel through the city be seen as something of a necessary evil, much like the security theatre of modern air travel? Or could a visible sign of how far you needed to travel spur assistance from strangers in a city at times of crisis? This proposal aimed to provoke those discussions.


 

The show and performance

One of the most interesting and exciting parts of being involved in this was that Chris and Elliott wanted to use actors to improvise with our designs as props and Tim’s script and prompt cards as context.

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I thought this was a brilliant and brave move – unreliable narrators and guides taking us on as designers and interpreting the work for the audience – and perhaps exposing any emperor’s new clothes or problematic assumptions as they go…


What’s next?

Well – there’s a workshop happening with the OEM based around the show on December 11th. I’m not going to be able to attend but I actually hope that the citibike idea might get some serious discussion and perhaps folks from the bikesharing companies that use such system might entertain a further prototype…

 

Back in the UK, I’d been commuting by bike seriously for most of my thirties – by Brompton at first then from Brockley to our lovely bike racks at BERG most days on my Roll-1.

I’d done a few big rides in the past with the BRIG CC, including the Dunwich Dynamo.

However 2014 was the year that I seriously got the cycling bug, and NYC not London was where it happened.

Bought a road bike

At the advice of my brother-in-law, got myself the entry level all-carbon Cannondale, the Super-Six Evo 105
My cannondale

5boro

I was quite daunted by this – my first long ride in NYC. It wasn’t that big, about 40miles. It’s a fantastic leisurely ride however, with no cars and access to places bikes aren’t usually permitted like the BQE and Verrezano Narrows bridge. Great fun.

Riding to the rockaways

From Brooklyn in the summer there’s a great ride to be had down to Coney Island from Prospect Park and then further out into the Rockaways.

The city falls away quite quickly to suburbia, then nature then seaside surfurbia again.

And the reward at the end is the sea, juice and tacos!

NYC Century Bike Tour


The NYC Century Bike Tour was the big one though – and I’d thought I’d built up enough confidence riding through the summer to take it on.

It’s a bit of a challenge to follow the course, and you can get led astray in some of the sparser sections where the crowd of cyclists thins out to one or two hoping the person in front knows where they are going… As a result, got back to Prospect Park and realised I still had about a mile to go to make the 100! So, a lap of the park it was before I could really finish…

Palisades, 9W and River Road in Autumn…

Undoubtedly however, the 9W and River-Road route is the reason I’ve taken to road cycling so heavily in NYC. It’s simply beautiful, especially in Autumn.

From Brooklyn it’s a bit of a shlep to the start of the route at the GWB, but get over the Brooklyn Bridge early enough and even that is a treat.

You can’t really complain when you’re on the dedicated bike lane of the West-Side Highway for most of that either… But there’s a certain relief when you reach the little red lighthouse and you know the good stuff is about to begin.

Once over the GWB you can opt to head deeper into New Jersey and then back into New York State via the 9W, or more usually in Autumn to take in the colours of “The Fall” as they say in these parts and ride the rolling hills of River Road.

Strava

The other culprit for getting me deeper into road riding was of course Strava, and the ‘gamification’ of rides, competing with myself and friends. Also possibly the camaraderie of cursing Strava when it crashed or didn’t record your ride properly…

In all seriousness though, Strava (and my community there) does keep me riding and seems to help me incrementally improve my riding. I’m starting to get deeper into exploring new routes and possibly one day I’ll actually commit to some proper training through it…

Winter riding

Finally – I think the cold but sunny and dry nature of most of the winter in NYC really appealed to me – the 9W got quieter, and I started heading out further.

My favourite destination quickly became Rockland Lake.

My fuel stops started to get regular too – Bunbury’s, The 9W market (oh the egg and bacon sandwich after 40miles is perfect…), The Runcible Spoon, and Gypsy Donut…

Massive thanks to Kim Granlund for acting as personal coach and guide through 2014!

The chairman writes:

*Everybody’s got a theory about the Internet-of-Things and its killer applications.

*It reminds me of the days when the Information Superhighway was all about 500-channel television. Nowadays we’ve got five zillion channel television, and it’s scarcely recognized as an existent technical reality. Those historical acts of foresight are so beside the point now that they’re “not even wrong.”

The way to LDN's heart is on a brompton

I got my Brompton six years ago, while I was still reverse-commuting every day from central London to Hampshire. Nokia’s UK design studio was located in glamorous Farnborough at the time, and quite a few of us travelled west from Waterloo for an hour or so, where there was a incredibly-depressing shuttle bus to the anonymous office park where we drank a lot of tea and tried to seduce implacable engineers and product managers with endless flash mockups of what we thought were better UIs than s60.

But that’s a tale for another day.

The train ride you could cope with – competitive crosswording with Matt Brown, Joe McCloud’s stream of consciousness narration of the suburban landscapes we trundled through (think Jonathan Meades meets Bill Hicks), Eddie’s terrible puns – but wait for the shuttle bus and the cramped, smelly bus ride itself were the last straw for many, who opted to bike the last couple of miles to the office every day instead.

There were a few tribes – the fast and furious fixies of Adam and Silas, Tom and Mattias the oak-legged mud-loving MTBers… and then, me… initially on a Strida, with its rubber belt, tiny wheels, pennyfarthing-seating and terrifying twitch-steering.

1st commute

Despite it’s quirks, I loved the Strida – at least compared to the shuttle bus. It was perfect for the train -> work -> train -> pub -> first floor flat daily life I had back then.

Strida Day #1

The lack of gears started to be noticed on even the slight climbs between Farnborough station and Nokia HQ, so after only a few months, in September 2006 I upgraded to my Brompton.

Wheels for yr mind

Up until last year it was my primary bike – until I started cycling my entire route to work rather than folding up and getting on the train. It sat forlorn in the studio, and then my kitchen – until last Saturday when I sold it to welovebromptons.co.uk, from where it will hopefully find a new home.

I loved my brompton as I’ve not loved many of my possessions. Not only for it’s utility and efficency – but also for what it represented: British design, engineering and manufacture.

I was fortunate to be invited to the Brompton factory in 2010.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 17

I believe that at the time it was (and it still maybe) the only full manufacturing site in London. It was fantastic to see the skill, care and attention to detail that was given to every process.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 04

Also the integration of design, engineering and manufacture – the continuum of concern that the designers had for the material and human processes at work in the factory.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 14

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 06

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 07

Design was not an abstract activity, but an integral one – with a tight feedback loop from the shop floor, the testing suites, the customer service.

And the shop floor itself was a treat for a designer – a rainbow of coated metal…

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 08

So, sadly it’s goodbye to all that for now, no longer will I be able to tuck my green machine into the convenient parking bay provided by The Shepherdess…

The Bromptronozord

But I dare say I’ll own one again, one day.

Handsome, handsome machines.

I’m currently reading ‘The nature of technology’ by W.Brian Arthur.

It presents quite the juxtaposition to things like ‘East London Tech City‘ and other recent UK government initiatives.

“Real advanced technology—on-the-edge sophisticated technology—issues not from knowledge but from something I will call deep craft. Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work. Knowing what methods to use, what principles are likely to succeed, what parameter values to use in a given technique. Knowing whom to talk to down the corridor to get things working, how to fix things that go wrong, what to ignore, what theories to look to. This sort of craft-knowing takes science for granted and mere knowledge for granted. And it derives collectively from a shared culture of beliefs, an unspoken culture of common experience.

Such knowings root themselves in local micro-cultures: in particular firms, in particular buildings, along particular corridors. They become highly concentrated in particular localities.

There’s been some hoo and some haa – about where we work – Shoreditch, Hoxton, near Old St., which my former colleague Matt Biddulph dubbed (as a joke) “Silicon Roundabout“.

The press and politicians seem suprised by the ‘sudden’ growth in technology and design companies in the area, but its been the centre of the London internet ‘industry’ since the mid 1990’s – and been home to artists, designers and printers for decades.

It has also, bizarrely, equated what is going on in the area with providing a large industrial park in Startford full of massive multi-million dollar transnational incumbents e.g. McKinsey, Cisco, Facebook and Google.

In reference to the long-now of place and craft, in ‘The nature of technology’, Arthur quotes Alfred Marshall:

“When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighborhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously.”

Sounds a lot like Old St!

He adds:

Technology proceeds out of deep understandings of phenomena, and these become embedded as a deep set of shared knowings that resides in people and establishes itself locally—and that grows over time. This is why countries that lead in science lead also in technology. And so if a country wants to lead in advanced technology, it needs to do more than invest in industrial parks or vaguely foster “innovation.” It needs to build its basic science without any stated purpose of commercial use”

So – probably better to not cut education, or funding for science – rather than encouraging people to ‘do a logo’.

This stuff takes a long time, and requires patient support not soundbites or 5-step plans.

As Arthur points out (with my emphasis):

“Building a capacity for advanced technology is not like planning production in a socialist economy, but more like growing a rock garden. Planting, watering, and weeding are more appropriate than five-year plans.

Just finished watching Julian Temple’s film about Ray Davies and The Kinks: “Imaginary Man”.

It’s incredibly tender toward it’s subject – which is at once Ray, his music, the band – and London.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

The Turner-esque, painterly imagery alternates with more graphic compositions of Davies’ peregrinations around North London.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

It’s a series of psychographic sketches, punctuated by Kinks songs – in archive footage, in cover versions and most affectingly perhaps, hummed, sung and stumbled through by Davies as he strolls.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

He’s cast by the film as a flawed-heir to Blake – wandering London, inventing his own sung-systems rather than be enslaved by another man’s.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

This blog goes into far more detail and appreciation.

If you can hunt it down online do.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

If only to revel in London as Temple and Davies do.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

My thanks to both of them.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

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