Almost four years ago, I joined Jack Schulze, Matt Webb and Tom Armitage at what became BERG.

Schuze & Webb & Jones & Armitage

I’m leaving this week.

I’ll write more about that soon, but for now, here’s a post I found in my “drafts” folder about leaving the start-up I co-founded (Dopplr) and joining Schulze & Webb.

I didn’t publish it at the time, as shortly after I wrote it and left Dopplr the company started talks with Nokia which led to it being acquired.

Looking back – I certainly got to explore the domains I hoped I would be able to explore working with Jack and Matt, and more. It’s also interesting (to me at least) to think about what we were trying to do at the time with the ‘Social Atlas’ and the iPhone app, which of course in the meantime have become central to services like Foursquare, Yelp and the like.

Also – I joined S&W after spending a while in an advisory role while at Dopplr, and I’m pleased to say I’ll be keeping an advisory role at BERG going forward.

Anyway – out of ‘drafts’ it comes.

Leaving Dopplr, Joining Schulze & Webb

Just a note about some changes. Since June, I’ve been working full-time as a principal at Schulze & Webb and have reduced my role at Dopplr to an involvement of about a day a month as a design advisor.

I’d been working on Dopplr for two and a half years altogether, since it’s inception in a cottage in Norfolk, about 20 months of that full-time. At the beginning of the year I thought that it was likely that 2009 would be the last year I’d spend working on it.

Also, the beginning of the year brought a trip to Etech in San Jose – which convinced me that a territory that I’d always loved to explore was taking commercial shape: the overlap of the physical and digital in our environments. The research I’d done for my webstock talk had resurrected old hankerings for interactive architecture, physical product design and embodied interaction. Etech’s diverse schedule of talks from materials experts, architects, synthetic biologists, hackers working on augmented reality, Arduino, data visualisation and robotics sealed the deal – I wanted in.

2009 was going to be an exciting year at Dopplr however. The direction of the service was broadening: from one that dealt with social sharing of travel plans to something much more ambitious: “The Social Atlas” as we called it… More of which later… But, we’d gone through 10 major releases of the service, and broadly the outline trajectory for it was to build as a business rather than as a product design problem, as it should be. I’m a product launch kind of guy, and so I talked with Marko and Matt B. about my intentions, stating that the iphone app, which at the time was codenamed “Spitfire” would be the last thing I’d work on full-time.

Spitfire and “The Social Atlas” were particularly interesting, as they built upon one of the original discussions that Marko, Matt Biddulph, and myself had when we were starting out on Dopplr: what do you get if you enable the social bookmarking of spacetime.

I talked a little about this at IxDA, and along with Tom Insam we’d tried some early experiments in ‘placemarking’ – but the ‘social atlas’ really started getting built in earnest at the beginning of this year. We all thought the mobile component was essential, and an iphone application was a priority.

Tom Taylor came on board for the build, and rapidly we got to a place where we were able to prototype and shape the interaction design directly on the device – essential. I left working at Dopplr full-time just after the final prototyping of the app, and the credit for the fine finished article goes in large to the Toms Taylor and Insam, and in terms of the visual design to Boris Anthony.

Boris has taken over design duties at Dopplr, with additional interaction design work from the team including of course, Celia Romaniuk. The service is in great hands, and under Marko and MattB’s leadership in terms of the business and technology, I’m certainly very happy to remain a founding investor!

It’s been a great time and a really fun ride – it’s a bittersweet feeling to be sure to leave your first start-up behind, but I think it was the right time for me to step to one side and let Dopplr grow to the next level.

So, to the next thing.

I’ve been working with Matt and Jack in an advisory role for over a year, and in that time the range of work that they’ve been involved in has been formidable. They really have been amongst those pioneering research and design in areas that fascinate me, such as data as material, connected things and places.

After talking with them about my plans I was delighted when they offered me a larger role in their practice. I’m now Director of design there, since going full time with them in early June, and have a focus on a lot of the strategic design consultancy work that S&W does, as well as heading up interaction and visual design direction on projects.

We’ve got a lot going on at the moment, and Matt is writing about it in a series of weekly posts on our blog, Pulse Laser.

I’m particularly excited about the next stage in S&W’s evolution, that we’re going to announce this week…

Port Talbot Steelworks
The area I grew up in is in the news in the UK this week.

There are to be major job losses at the steel works in Port Talbot, where my mother, father, and grand-father worked.

My dad was an engineer there, and my mother was a computer (at least until she married by dad and started their family.) I never met my grand-dad, he died before I was born, but he was an engineer at the steel works during its establishing years, who earned an MBE working on refining the steel-making processes there.

It is literally the crucible of my family, and massive part of the psycho-geography of my early life.

Port Talbot Steelworks

It is a huge industrial site, that dominates not only Port Talbot but can be seen for many miles – lit by flame and sodium-light at night, perched on the coast of Swansea Bay.

From the highlands surrounding – the rather-grandly named ‘Margam Mountain’ you can see it nestling/infesting the border between biomes – sandy, scrubby dunelands and lush welsh ‘rainforest’.

Port Talbot Steelworks

Port Talbot Steelworks

Glance to the left and you see Margam Castle, the grounds of which my mother and aunt grew up in – daughters of the Talbot family butler.

Margam Castle

You can also see the sands of Kenfig, and the lake at the centre of the nature reserve (a ‘SSSI’ – Site of Special Scientific Interest) – where I spent many weekends as a child in the early 1980s as part of a nature conservancy group for kids.

The lake has legends associated with it – most notably that of a sunken city beneath it, but the formation of the lake and the dunes has more to do with changing tides, climate and the forces they can wield.

And now, changing tides of capital and globalisation are at play on the landscape.

I wonder if subliminally I learned something about the history of power and landscape. Something of the disregard the rulers of the industrial age held for the environment, contrasted against the deep romantic love for nature from those who worked for them.

It’s more complicated than that though – not as clear cut.

Something as big as the steelworks becomes a force of nature, both in its impacts on the local ecosystems – and symbolically.

It becomes landscape.

Ridley Scott on the inspiration a similar industrial landscape had on him:

There’s a walk from Redcar into Hartlepool … I’d cross a bridge at night, and walk above the steel works. So that’s probably where the opening of Blade Runner comes from. It always seemed to be rather gloomy and raining, and I’d just think “God, this is beautiful.” You can find beauty in everything, and so I think I found the beauty in that darkness.

The steelworks imprinted something like this on me early – perhaps not beauty, but majesty in the industrial.

The news this week is very sad – overwhelmingly for the people and their livelihoods that it effects. Environmentalists probably won’t mourn the passing of the steelworks, but those of us who find ‘beauty in the darkness’ might.

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, 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.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Many have done this already. Here’s 5 of mine (sort-of). Bit of a scratchpad as don’t have much time for writing in length these days. Half-formed thoughts. But that’s the point. Right? No?

Oh well.

  • “Internet of things” ubicomp as a ‘lost future’ vs a world of glowing rectangles. This is a big deal for me a (and our little company) as I/we have been thinking about the former for years now, and believe that being in the world is a net Good Thing – and will win out. At the moment it seems like most of us (myself included) are voting with out feet for a world where our attention is consumed by glowing rectangles that live in our pockets, on our laps, in our houses and increasingly on the facades of our towns and cities. The seemingly-manifest-destiny of manufacturing and sourcing economics plays a huge role here – unseen and perhaps un-engaged with by most interaction designers. The world-factory is tooled for glowing rectangles of Cupertino’s design for quite some years. Aaaand of course our sociotechnical futures aren’t ever so neat – a gestalt of the two will probably emerge. At least until we hit Peak Indium. Which leads me to…
  • Going beyond PeakX: as a way of thinking = throw up hands and say hey-ho, that’s that then, isn’t everything complicated and terrible! Aren’t we wicked! There’s nothing to be done. How about ‘precious X’? ‘Resilient X’? ‘Chronodynamic design’ was something prententious that I wrote down a while back on a post-it, suggesting a Loewy-esque aesthetic celebration of an object’s resilience through time. Although at first blush, this might just be vernacular design – it might have legs as a more spectacular-vernacular. The High-Viridian Aesthetic. Moving beyond “Resource Constraints = design”, to source of ornament, cultural-invention, semantic-wealth. Charles & Ray Eames’s definition of the act of design still rings like a bell: do the best, for the most, with the least. Rhys, Raph and others work on Homegrown remains inspiring. I like Adaptive Path’s (at least that’s where I heard it first) conceit of ‘constraint-storming‘. Of course, most of the 1st-world isn’t even thinking about PeakX yet, and we don’t feel the pinch until we feel the pinch, so yeah. Anyway. I probably need to re-read “In The Bubble”, and wear a “John Thackara Was Right” (hair)t-shirt…
  • SpaceTime as a design material. Slow/long services. Still not done anything with it. Want to. Maybe/probably in an app context.
  • The boiling frog of population shock. More is different. Older is different. We don’t seem to get that. Many of our western/northern cultural tropes/beliefs/ways-of-living are based in the 18/19th century when world population was below 1 billion. We still believe it’s like in Britain, and it’ll kill us. Y’know – village green romanticism. We’re probably going to plateau at 10 billion in a couple of decades. We need a way to discuss the bigger/different crew of SpaceShipEarth without it sounding sinister. Permafutures not middle-class, ‘organic’, austerity-nostalgia that will only work for a less-crowded planet. I think it’s kind of exciting. 10 billion minds.
  • The longish-now of me. This is a bit self-centred to say the least. I’m going to be 40 soon. I find myself thinking about how to become a sustainable/resilient 50 year old. That is – well – 50 might be halfway through. Hell, it might be a third of the way through my life… I’ve been very lucky for the past 20 years. What the hell am I going to do with all that time? How am I going to pay my way? How do I stay involved and useful? More making? More teaching? Maybe.

If I could cheat and have six things I’m thinking about I’d say turning tablet computers into The Primer. But, then, I’m always thinking about the Primer, and Maneki Neko. So they don’t count.

Also, I just finished Anathem and it blew my mind. Between it, “Galileo’s Dream” and Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life” there’s something brewing I’m a bit scared to think about to hard in case I end up rocking and drooling. So. Yeah. A mess of things.

Did a fun 15mins chat with Ken Hollings on cities, futures, cosmism and many other things from an arcology floating in deep-space (via the magic of radio) which will be going out tonight at 7pm, and podcast shortly.

Here’s the description for the show:

“Enter Hollingsville at 7:00pm this evening. In this new series Ken Hollings and guests Steve Beard and Matt Jones discuss voodoo science parks, cities as battle suits, pods, capsules and world expos. Specially commissioned musical interludes are by the Hollingsville composer in residence, Graham Massey. Hollingsville is open for 12 weeks only”