Category Archives: Politics

A Sisyphean Task

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Every time a new ‘lobbying scandal’ breaks, it reminds me of that Greek chap Sisyphus, sentenced to forever be pushing a boulder up a hill. Each time he makes it to the top, the boulder gets away from him – poor old Sisyphus – and rolls back to the bottom.

The analogy comes to mind every so often when we hear our politicians promise a ‘root and branch review’ of lobbying, or to ‘stamp out corruption’, once and for all. This is a task doomed to only partial success. It’s not a finite action, but rather an effort that has to be constant and recurring.

The central, unavoidable problem is that people in positions of power will always be vulnerable to being bribed. No political system is exempt from this potential pitfall. For things to operate in a non-corrupt way requires rules, and the integrity of all parties to stick by them.

Actually, most of the big companies professionally engaged in lobbying activities – in representing the interests and concerns of their clients – are very well behaved. And although you wouldn’t know it from the denigration they get in the press, most MPs are too. (I remember an interesting conversation with an Italian who said his favourite thing about the UK was our honest politicians. It’s all relative you see.)

Which is why last week’s Panorama – which sent the metaphorical boulder tumbling back down to the bottom of the hill, and did something similar for MP Patrick Mercer – was particularly frustrating. Instead of exposing or uncovering real corruption, all the programme did was manufacture a crime and then point to it as evidence of widespread malpractice.

One idiotic politician does not a broken political system make. To suggest such a thing is just lazy journalism. Anyone can invent a fake business and dupe a foolish person – and I’m not trying to exonerate Mercer here, who does seem to be particularly deserving of his fate. But if this little exercise in entrapment had been carried out by the police, rather than a journalist, the value of the evidence gathered would have been seriously compromised.

So for me, rather than casting doubt on the general trustworthiness of politicians, instead the integrity of the press is called into question.

Panorama is meant to be serious investigative journalism. This was just an exercise in sensationalism, and further evidence of the depressing dumbing down of our mainstream media. And it was irresponsible. Feeding the public mistrust of politicians doesn’t serve any of us well.

Further, it didn’t tackle the much more interesting – but difficult – question of corporate influence on government, which MP Douglas Carswell alluded to within the programme. This is a valid point.

There are a number of large corporates in the UK that enjoy particularly close relationships with government – and arguably because their (business) interests, and the national interest (security, the economy) are closely aligned. In these relationships no money is changing hands improperly – but defining ‘how close is too close?’ is an interesting question.

It’s a shame that instead of really interrogating this, the rest of the documentary busied itself with persuading a little known MP to accept money on behalf of an obscure (and fictional) interest group. And presumably also spending a lot of money flying the journalist out to Fiji – quite unnecessarily.

If this was an attempt to bolster democracy, it failed. We are all left none the wiser. The thorniest issues went untouched. Sisyphus toils on.

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Function follows form: politics and the National Curriculum

As the newspapers never tire of telling us, there are many problems with politics and policymaking. Some of them involve hapless MPs claiming expenses for pork pies in station cafes. Some are much more deeply rooted, and challenging to our national prosperity. Here are two of the latter, and an analysis of how they are currently playing out in the fight over a little corner of education policy.

The first problem is politicians tend to think in electoral cycles. They are mainly interested in tackling, or being seen to tackle, today’s problems, and of those the ones that grab the most column inches. Short-term urgency takes precedence over long-term importance. There are some laudable exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. This is a problem if, as is the case in education, it takes a lot longer than five years for the real effects of a policy change to become clear.

The second problem is the person with the final say, and often the person driving policy direction, is someone who frequently has a very shallow understanding of the matter in hand. In few other fields would we leave complex decision-making to partisan non-experts.

I recently had the privilege to watch both of these inadequacies have their fun with the Design & Technology curriculum, currently under review.

The first issue has manifested itself in the reluctance of the Ministerial team to hive off cookery as a subject in its own right, because of the need to change ‘primary legislation’ this decision would imply – which is time-consuming and labour intensive. Furthermore the interest in bigging up cooking (which I actually don’t disagree with in principle) is a direct response to the ‘obesity epidemic’. Which is of course a very current and pressing problem. Both of these things combine to mean that we are apparently trying to counter the obesity (and other lifestyle diseases) epidemic through the medium of D&T.

This is all a bit untidy and confusing, but the second problem, of expertise, is really far more serious.

The way I see it, different subjects teach you how to think in different ways, often through making you perform particular tasks, of increasing difficulty and complexity. For example, in history, writing essays teaches you to marshal your thoughts and facts into an argument with a narrative. In chemistry, conducting experiments teaches you how to test a hypothesis and evaluate empirical evidence. In design and technology, designing and making teaches you how to arrive at a solution that meets a number of needs or requirements: to problem solve.

The unfortunate thing about the proposed curriculum for design and technology is that nowhere does it acknowledge that designing and making – the practical activities – have associated cognitive skills. The emphasis is all on the ability to perform a series of practical tasks, rather than developing capacities that will serve for a lifetime. ‘Students just need to leave school knowing how to weld’. This is all very well if what we need, now and for ever more, is welders. But unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that over the coming century, we need people who (as well as being able to operate machinery) can deal with problem-solving in complex situations.

D&T and Art & Design, when taught well, provide some precious curriculum space to teach this, to instil an alternative way of thinking, an essential counterpoint to the rule of the 3Rs. But the discussions being had over the new curriculum fall far short of this level of sophistication. It has come down to arguing over which kinds of structural systems ought to be taught at Key Stage 3. It is really quite shocking how far we are – given our national heritage of innovation in education – from designing a curriculum that will turn out innovative, creative people equipped to critique and engage with the designed world in the 21st century.

And this is where it gets really circuitous: part of the reason we don’t have a curriculum that will generate creative and inventive problem-solvers, is that it is being designed by people in government who – even after a great deal of input from professional associations and industry experts – fundamentally don’t recognise design as a conceptual mode. It is being designed by people whose only framework for addressing a problem (and it is remarkable how often they turn out to be Oxbridge PPE graduates) is by writing a lot of words down on paper and then arguing about which ones should be there and which order they should go in. Not by people who ask at the outset, ‘what really is the problem we are trying to solve here?’ and ‘how are we going to interact with the man-made world over the next 100 years’ and ‘does this D&T curriculum bear any relation to those challenges?’

In dogs and monarchies, too much inbreeding leads to defects and weakness. Unless we start thinking quite radically about how to diversify the experience of our elected representatives, we risk governing ourselves into a corner.

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A Captainless Ship

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking, as part of an international panel at the Hertie School of Government, about the landscape for ‘Human-Centred Design in Government & Social Innovation in the UK. In the process of mulling things over in preparation a few macro trends clarified themselves in my head. Namely, alongside the fairly predictable (albeit stupid – see blog here) ‘cuts to the arts’, recent years have also seen a gradual disenfranchisement of design and design policy expertise in the UK.

The Design Council has shouldered its share of the cuts and constitutionally has moved away from government, from being a non-departmental public body to a charity. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment nearly disappeared altogether. It was saved by a merger with Design Council but many of its people have dispersed into other charities and think tanks. The GLA’s urban design department, Design London, has been decimated, with most of its people finding their way into academia or consultancy. The regional design support expertise built up within RDAs has evaporated with those organisations – and with it a great deal of know-how about bidding for EU grants. Bucking this trend is Nesta, who appear to have gone from strength to strength. No doubt their generous endowment helps.

But nonetheless, unlike other countries, all the UK expertise in design policy is now outside government, leaving departments such as BIS, and the Cabinet Office, playing catch-up, casting around to try and find out who knows what and who can help them. The experts now are not in government, and design policy is without an institutional home (hence the subtitle of my talk, ‘a captainless ship’). This is in contrast to competitor nations’ governments who have either design-led strategy units looking at public service transformation (US, Australia, France, Denmark, Finland), or design strategies as a very clear pillar of industrial and economic growth strategies (the BRICs, and all the Far Eastern economies).

Now I’m not saying all these cast-off people are owed jobs by government, but taken together it does represent an impoverishment of design intelligence inside government. A very useful capacity that was generated under New Labour has been sidelined. And perhaps it’s because these things were all part of the 1997 Creative Britain landscape that the Coalition seeks to distinguish itself from. Admittedly we are now seeing the rise of some design-y Coalition projects: the government digital service (although I think the design bit came along with the digital, I’m not convinced it was a political intention); the infamous Nudge Unit (but behavioural economics and randomised control trials are not the same as strategic design, they are bits of it); and Ed Vaizey has recently commissioned an Architecture Review, which must be a kick in the teeth for CABE-ers who lost their jobs.

As well as the party political flavour, it’s undoubtedly part of a wider clamp down on spend, and the drive for smaller government. It seems bizarre to me though that in whittling government down, strategic expertise wouldn’t be one of the things you’d hold on to.

This brings me to another more general point about the unhelpfulness of the austerity rhetoric (for which thought I owe Jeremy Till some dues). It doesn’t leave much room for creative invention. It’s very reductive, disempowering, all about taking things away. A positivity ceasefire. We just have to ride out this period of misery and then we can flourish again. Such a mindset is not conducive to encouraging public servants to consider design activity: which is all about seeing possibilities and creating value. Mostly the Coalition government seems to be interested in talking about innovation only for how it can save money, not how it can create value for users. As such it’s a tactic of management rather than leadership, all pragmatism and no vision. I don’t think it bodes well.

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Defining Design in 2013

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Over the last year, I’ve learnt a few things about (to borrow Nat Hunter’s phrase) the bleeding edge of design. I’ve been working on a research project looking at the application of design skills to help reform Britain’s public services, and at the same time I’ve been co-organising a talks series critiquing the emerging field of Social Design: what is it?, who is doing it?, what questions does it throw up?

Compared to its origins in optimising the products of Victorian industry, it’s clear that design functions very differently in the context of the public sector, and in the face of social challenges: the material is often intangible, the ends are not profit-seeking, and the ethical considerations are more apparent. The people doing it have often migrated across from other design fields – product or industrial design for example – and their numbers are growing. But precisely because it is a field not wholly preoccupied with producing beautiful objects, it isn’t always proportionately represented in the world of design awards. This is a shame, as increasingly we ought to be encouraging our designers to think about the social and environmental implications of responding to a brief, as well as the economic or commercial ones. Just think of the wonderful solutions that might result if all the designers currently showing chairs in Milan decided instead to apply their creative brainpower to addressing the chronic disease pandemics that result from our sedentary lifestyles.

For this reason – the fact that social and service design rarely gets pedestal space – when asked to put forward some suggestions for the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year Award, I deliberately sought out work that had overt social intentions. There are indeed plenty such projects represented in the 99 shortlisted entries – I particularly like Kit Yamoyo by ColaLife – and I really hope it’s a sign of the times that this and the two projects I chose won their categories.

The Folding Wheel by the young and sharp-minded team at Vitamins Design is just a good old-fashioned brilliant solution to a problem – but one that you’d be unlikely to be aware of if you hadn’t ever had to use a wheelchair. A great combination of user insight, technical prowess, and market opportunity, that adds up to a better life experience for millions of people. I’m so glad they’ve won, and I’m only sorry the UK couldn’t furnish a manufacturer bright enough to make it for them (it’s now being manufactured in the US).

And the winner, gov.uk, hopefully needs little introduction. Everyone in my office is tired of hearing me sing its praises I’m sure, but as someone who spends their life looking out for even the faintest signs of design intelligence in government, the progressiveness and design leadership demonstrated by the GDS has totally bowled me over. The website design itself is of course a vast improvement, and a great lesson in how not to overdesign. Its pared down aesthetic is not only accessible to the full range of users, it’s a wholly appropriate look for government in times of austerity. The process of simplification inherent in moving all department sites on to one platform has saved Whitehall an awful lot of money. The real achievement, though, is one that you can’t see: the summoning of political willpower and can-do-ness required to bulldoze this change through 24 reluctant departments. And the result is, remarkably, a government IT project that hasn’t catastrophically failed. Who knew that was possible?!

But to end on a less cynical note: by awarding gov.uk the Grand Prix of Design of the Year, the Design Museum has sent a very helpful signal to the design community about exactly what kind of design we should, in 2013, be celebrating.

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How the mighty have adapted

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I recently had the privilege to see inside Cliveden House, once a residence of the Astors, now a luxury hotel. I went there primarily to interview MD Andrew Stembridge in relation to a piece of research on service design, but did not want to miss the opportunity to have a look round this historically significant and beautiful house.

(NB Cliveden is most often noted now for its part in the Profumo affair: the location of THAT swimming pool. Which is all I’m going to say on that front.)

I had actually been to visit the gardens – a National Trust attraction – before. On that occasion, being welcomed as a member of the public into the wonderful landscaped grounds with all their follies and exotic planting and statuary, there was a sharp contrast with the inaccessibility of the house. Now run as a private (and very sumptuous) hotel, it is beyond the reach of lowly National Trust daytrippers. Looking along the tree lined vista to the facade of the house, I wondered if this is what mere mortals felt like in the old days, gazing wistfully at the great house and only able to guess at what went on inside.

It also reminded me of the reciprocity that exists in the composition of house and gardens of this kind – both designed to frame the spectacle of the other. Being enveloped in the gardens is one thing, but their entire arrangement can only be realised from an upstairs window, when they reveal themselves to be one vast canvas. Unfortunately, at Cliveden one can only appreciate both dimensions of this relationship if you can pay.

I have mixed feelings about this inaccessibility: my initial sense of exclusion was moderated after a tour with the very lovely and knowledgeable Operations Manager, and not just because I had been admitted inside.

A little potted history of Cliveden: an aristocratic residence placed at just the right distance from London to receive Royal visits, it was absorbed into the Astor dynasty in 1893, and given to Waldorf and Nancy Astor as a wedding present in 1906. When Nancy finally died in the ’60s it was given to the National Trust, briefly became an educational establishment, and finally turned into a 5-star hotel.

Houses of this size and age frequently seem to risk bankrupting the families that run them. The theme running through many big house histories is that of the labour of love that eventually overwhelms its creator. They are essentially giant works of art, and the detail and care and investment is mind-boggling. Anyone who has ever tried to work out how to arrange furniture, or what sort of picture might suit a wall, can imagine that the composition and construction of these homes – stuffed full of art and artefacts – is a life’s work. This is why the resource of the National Trust is so valuable, in providing a way to preserve these artworks, and at the same time democratise them, opening them up to the public. Indeed one could argue it is only by democratising them in this way that the old elitism they represent can be reconciled with the democratic sensibilities of the 21st century.

The difference with Cliveden was the Astor’s stipulation that the House must not become ‘a museum’. The property was given to the Trust on the condition that it continue to be (as it had been all its life) a place of parties and fun. Its current incarnation as a luxury hotel lives out this stipulation. But it also maintains its elitism.

This raised an interesting conundrum for me, as it must have done for the National Trust. The Trust, for all that it preserves the rich materiality of these places, is rarely able to keep their meaning intact, precisely because their mission to ‘preserve for the nation’ transforms it. The life of such properties, the private histories and political significances, founded on class and elitism, is normally at least part of their interest and the reason they were worth preserving in the first place. This ends as soon as they pass into public hands and inevitably become museum showpieces: they stop having their own life, or start having a very different one at least.

With somewhere like Cliveden, that deeper meaning, the life beyond the bricks and mortar, was only ever accessible to the well-heeled few – and this (with the exception of a scheduled house tour on Thursday afternoons) continues to be the case. Whilst it would of course be a shame if the house were lost altogether, and there is a certain romantic attraction to the idea of the living artwork, the question for me is: what is the nature of the value to the public in preserving a place so far beyond the reach of most? Tricky…

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Speaking of International Women’s Day…

Caravaggio - Medusa

This will be a very short blog: it would have been a tweet if I could have boiled it down to 140 characters.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I would like to make a point about language. Specifically, I have found much of the commentary around Vicky Pryce’s trial rather depressing. I know Vicky a little bit – and I don’t want to make any comment about the facts of the case or the verdict. But I do want to say something about the way it has been discussed.

Apparently it is impossible for journalists – and others – to make comment without drawing on the traditional ‘angry woman’ tropes. And since Vicky happens to be Greek, it has been even easier to lazily call on such classical references as ‘Fury’, ‘Medusa’, ‘Medea’, ‘Harridan’, ‘Harpie’, etc.

This is annoying for two reasons. One: stereotypes are rarely helpful or sophisticated. They are reductive and serve only to simplify the discourse, rather than enlighten it. Cases and people get shoehorned into the familiar rather than understood on their own terms.

Two: the particular stereotypes mentioned above have been long-standing tools for the demonisation of femininity and thus, ultimately, the repression of women. It is depressing that we still cannot seem to shake them. Even more depressing when the journalist exploiting them happens to be a woman.

I know that there are women around the world suffering far greater wrongdoing than this bit of labelling – it’s easy to write off as a case of ‘#firstworldproblem’. But the two ends of the spectrum are utterly related, and one of the things that unites them is language.

Language matters: it is subtle and pervasive. It shapes how people think. And too many people are careless with it.

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Design Means…

Made in Peckham, by Hendzel and Hunt

What do composing the audio-brand for a Chinese TV channel, building furniture from old pallets, and making ice cream in liquid nitrogen have in common? These were all activities described by my fellow panelists Joe Glasman, Jan Hendzel and Mike Knowles at a discussion earlier this week at Goldsmiths University. The rather open topic of the debate was ‘Design Means…’, with a more provocative subheading: ‘Can anyone be defined as a designer?’

Earlier in the day, in preparation for this debate, I had been reading a paper about the vexed question of ‘design thinking’. This concept suggests that there is some unifying capacity that underpins all design disciplines. It has been used – mainly by certain design consultancies – to promote the idea that designers’ skills might be valuable beyond the traditional realms of design: such as business management, for example.

There are indeed numerous examples of designers doing good work outside of the discipline they trained in. But it is still a somewhat flawed concept: one learns to design, and practices design, in an iterative loop of thinking and doing. It is entirely questionable whether the thinking element can be meaningfully divorced from the doing. One can’t move a design problem forward by thinking alone. But when the doing bit happens in such different spheres as cooking, cabinetry and composing, can there still be said to be a common process?

By the evidence of the debate on Monday night, I would say, tentatively, yes. As I listened to Joe Glasman explain the process of composing music and sound for various clients, I understood him to be describing a design process. And there were clear similarities to how the other speakers described their own practice: Mike Knowles of culinary troupe Blanch & Shock on how to make the perfect meringue; furniture maker Jan Hendzel of Hendzel and Hunt on constructing a table and chairs from reclaimed materials. All are directing their creativity and craft expertise to a desired (and sellable) end, working to certain constraints and briefs.

Exploding cake, by Blanch and Shock

What so evidently unites them, beyond an inclination to be creative, and a client whose needs have to be met, is the craft expertise underpinning their work. They have all, painstakingly in some cases, amassed their ten thousand hours of practice, and more. This incredible breadth and specificity of knowledge about their domain was immediately apparent in the way the spoke. And also – to me at least – in the quality of their output. This is what qualifies them for the title of designer.

But ‘design thinking’ potentially challenges the supremacy of the professional designer. It implies that non-designers might learn to do it, and that there are ‘design tools’ which could be wielded by anyone, regardless of their professional background. This is particularly relevant in relation to the question of design in policymaking. If policies and public services are conceived of as ‘designed’ processes, that implies the need for some new skills to be embedded across the public sector. But as the public sector is not about to fire all its economists and hire a load of designers (crudely), one seemingly obvious way to get more design nouse into the public sector is (re)training of existing public sector workers.

Is this valid? Can anyone be a designer if given the right toolkit, without those years of practice?

I suspect there is a happy medium somewhere, but another commonality between my fellow panellists was what they saw as a lack of appreciation of their hard-won mastery. Joe Glasman commented that the development of some DIY design tools (such as photoshop) has led many people, clients included, to believe they really can do it themselves, rather than paying a professional. And Jan Hendzel commented that it was always a battle to convince clients of the cost incurred in hand-making beautiful furniture.

Advent Calendar Cabinet, by Hendzel and Hunt

I would suggest this is because, at present, design sensibility within the general public is minimal. And I would question whether it’s possible for anyone to develop an appreciation of a skill without understanding it a bit, and having, at some point, had a go themselves. So I think it’s important for everyone to have had some experience of designing, specifically in order to be better commissioners and clients. But this doesn’t make them designers.

Whilst I am inclined to take a very broad view of what design means, I don’t believe that just anyone can qualify as a designer without some hard graft. My favourite definition (perhaps because the latest and newest) is to liken design to physics: an attribute of almost everything, evident everywhere in the man-made world. And while most of us may understand it a bit, and all of us are undoubtedly affected by it, not everyone can be a physicist. Or a designer.

Many thanks to Lior Smith and Marion Lean for organising this debate.

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