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Re-Framing in London

The third TED Salon in London supported by frog.

In partnership with frog, a TED Salon took place in London earlier this week at the Unicorn Theatre, a cozy venue near the Tate Modern on the south side of the Thames. It was the third such event together, and this time 250 local TEDsters attended to hear 15 speakers talk in two sessions about a variety of subjects on the theme of “Re-Framing.” Master of ceremonies and TED’s European director Bruno Giussani explained the theme this way: “When films shift camera angles, they shift a scene… they literally reframe; that’s what we’re trying to do tonight… to look at things from a different perspective.” It was also the occasion to debut the special TEDGlobal edition of design mind, which covered the 2010 Oxford conference and the theme “And Now the Good News.”  

Session one began with Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company and an outspoken champion of better childcare systems. She spoke about the failures of Britain’s child welfare services (1.4 million kids abused each year and 1.1 million living with substance abusing parents, but only 38,000 children placed on the child protection register), before telling the audience that it “was time to reframe the way we think about vulnerable children.” Rather than thinking of them as “containers for our moral input” we need to do a better job caring for and supporting them and giving them to tools to self-regulate. “Children well cared for, with good parents, who are at a point of crisis due to a car accident or being bullied, and in need help of professional help, do well in our clinics because care and caring is there for them at home,” she said.

In short, kids who live through regular traumatic events such as abuse, “need a re-parenting opportunity.” And they need to be able to re-experience love.

Batmanghelidjh suggests putting in place street level services, open from 9am to 10pm, where children could come and have loving care on a consistent basis with consistent staff when they need it.

“Love always surprises the disturbed child,” she said.

Next up was frog’s own Jon Kolko, a principal designer at the innovation firm, who talked about the role of personality in creativity. He asked the audience to think about the people and the things that we all surround ourselves with and ask ourselves “what makes them special?” He believes that people and products (even software) can have personality, individuality, and character — and that’s what makes them interesting and useful to us.

So where does personality and attitude in a product come from? According to Kolko, that’s the designers role, and he showed the audience a series of projects his design students are working on to inject personality and individuality and character into products (Kolko is also the founder of the Austin Center for Design).

The most successful designs have the ability to “turn everything on its head,” while also being playful, humorous, and risky. 
“Does your organization let employees ask ridiculous questions and give them the runway to pursue answers?” Kolko asked.  
  


Michael Pawlyn took the stage next. Pawlyn is an architect specializing in sustainability and biomimicry, which is the use of nature and natural systems as a model and resource for the built environment. He pinpointed “three big transformations” that need to happen in order for the building industry to achieve long-term environmental sustainability: we have to make radical changes to resource efficiency; we have to create closed loop cradle to cradle style material use rather than sticking with the linear cradle to grave track most people still employ; and we have to switch from a fossil fuel economy to a solar economy. He believes biomimicry can lead us through the changes.

Pawlyn showed the crowd several projects that embody these transformations—projects that were inspired by various forms of nature. “A world of beauty and efficiency awaits us if we use nature as a design tool,” he said.  
 


JP Rangaswami, chief scientist at Salesforce (previously, he held the same position at BT), then presented his thoughts on how companies ought to “design for the loss of control.” Rangaswami used various examples to describe how industry has sought to keep a short leash on how their employees and customers interacted with and used their products and services. But now, he said, things are different, largely because open source tools allow people to control and define a company’s offering. “For 100 years we sought to establish an illusion of control,” he told the audience. “Now, we have to start designing for community action and collaborative enterprise.”

One way to do this, said Rangaswami, is to design for extremes and not just narrow ranges. Businesses also have to learn that failure is an integral part of success (in fact, he said that “If one is designing for loss of control, there is no such thing as failure. There is only future profiling.”). Being able to adapt faster is more vital to success, which is why strong feedback loops must be in place.  
 
To end, he used the video game industry as an example of designing for control loss. “We have already learned to design for loss of control,” he said. “All we have to do is to implement it.” 
 


To start the second session, economist, author, and professor Noreena Hertz used the stage to talk about the influence of “experts” and how we ought to view them with skepticism. “In an age of extreme complexity we believe experts are more able to come to conclusions better than we are,” she said. “I believe this is a big problem with potentially dangerous consequences for society, and for us as individuals.”
 
She then urged the crowd to rebel against this dynamic and more actively engage our own independent decision making capabilities, because “if we can become more comfortable with nuance, uncertainty, and doubt, we will set ourselves up for the challenges of the 21st century.”

How can we challenge experts? First, by being ready and willing to take them on. We have to “dispense with the notion that experts are modern day apostles,” Hertz says. 

Second, we have to actively manage dissent. We should “embrace the notion that progress comes about not only in the creation of ideas but in their destruction.”

Thirdly, we have to “democratize expertise.” Says Hertz: “expertise is not only the domain of surgeons and CEOs, but also of shop girls.”  

 


After Hertz, Martin Jacques took the stage. Jacques is the author of the book When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, and he spoke about the need to reframe our understanding of the People’s Republic. By 2020, China will surpass the US to have the largest economy in the world and by 2050 it will be double the size of the US economy. And as Jacques pointed out, “never before has a developing country had the world’s largest economy” and never has a non-western country had that distinction. In other words, we have to understand China better, and according to Jacques we have to stop trying to view it through a westernized frame. “It’s a western illusion that when countries modernize, they westernize,” he said. “China is not like the west, and it will not become like the west.”
 
Jacques then explained three building blocks that can help in our understanding of China.

First, China is a “civilization state,” not a nation state, which is what every country in the western world is. In other words, no other country in the world. China’s massive geographic size and population as well as its ancient history (its origins date to the Han dynasty in about 140 BC) is too diverse and widespread to be governed by one centralized system in Beijing. The political value of unity is very important to the Chinese way of life and success, but to have unity with such diversity, China can only maintain its many and varied regions “one country, many systems.” Hong Kong was reintegrated into the Chinese system so seamlessly because there was no central government demanding that the city adhere to one rigid way.

Another key to understanding China is that it’s people have a much different conception of race than most other countries. Over 90 percent of Chinese people think they belong to the same race — the Han. “The great advantage of this cultural experience is that it has held the country together,” said Jacques. “The great disadvantage is that it promotes a lack of tolerance and cultural diversity.”

The third thing to understand about China is how they perceive the state. For the population the state is not only part of the family, but the head of the family. In the west, the state is constantly being challenged, but in China the state is seen as the patriarch of the family, and because of that it is embedded in society in a much different way.  

Jacques finished his talk by admonishing the west. “The European continent is sleepwalking into oblivion,” he said. “The arrival of countries like China and India represents the most important single act of democratization in the last 200 years. As humanists we must surely welcome this transformation.”  
 


Next up was Michelle Gallen, a social media and technology expert from Ireland who had encephalitis as a child and lost her photographic memory. Since then she has turned to technology to make up for her deficits. After many years of having to deal with insufficient tools, she embraced Web 2.0. Now she runs a website called TalkIrish.com, in which she teaches Gaelic to students.

She is still frustrated by the way in which people “fritter away” the technology we do have, such as location based applications. Her goal is to use technology to save and change the world, much as it saved her world as a child.

Next on the program was an excerpt of a short film “Love the Earth” by the musician Imogen Heap and Thomas Ermacora. The filmmakers crowdsourced images of nature, and edited them to create “a collaborative experience to nurture our sense of our planet.” Heap, who was not in attendance, scored the film. It premiered on November 5 in Albert Hall with a live orchestra. Ermacora was in the crowd and the Unicorn and got a warm round of applause.    


Design student Thomas Thwaites came on after the film to share his hilarious and poignant story about trying to make a toaster from scratch. As host Bruno Giussani pointed out in his introduction to Thwaites, at TEDGlobal in Oxford, author Matt Ridley showed pictures of a stone ax and a computer mouse, and explained that the difference between the two objects is that one person knew how to make the stone ax, but there is no one person who knows how to make a mouse from scratch because of the enormous variety of materials and technologies that go into it. “To create the plastic and mine the raw materials and design the object and manufacture it takes huge numbers of people complicitly working together,” said Giussani. That’s why he was so intrigued to hear from Thwaites.

Thwaites went on to tell the story of his adventure, showing the crowd images of him visiting an iron ore mine to gather raw ore, after which he took it home to melt it down and pour it into a mold to make interior toaster parts. He got water from the bottom of a copper mine and filtered out the tailings that he melted down, put into a mold, and made plugs. He visited Scotland to dig for mica, which is used frequently in consumer electronics as an insulator. Lastly he gathered raw scraps of plastic (having been denied a visit to a BP oil platform from where he could father crude oil, the base of all plastic), and melted them down in his backyard, after which he globbed the batch onto a wooden mold to make the exterior toaster housing. 
 
Thwaites did come up with a finished product (see image above), and he may have received the loudest ovation of the night after showing his toaster on the shelf with other professionally manufactured ones, and revealing to the crowd that he did in fact plug the toaster in one time, after which it lasted for five seconds before imploding.

After Thwaites, the Norwegian singer Kate Havnevik serenaded the audience with three beautiful songs accompanied only by her guitar playing and some prerecorded a capella voiceovers. Havnevik is known for her recordings on the television show Grey’s Anatomy. 


Next up was author Matthew May, whose book The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change will be published on November 16. May introduced the audience to the Japanese design concept of shibumi, which is the ability to achieve the maximum effect with the minimum of means. He went on to share seven Japanese words that convey this concept in one way or another.

Koko means austerity, and May pointed to the In N Out Burger’s drive through sign as an example. Even though the Southern Californian burger stand will make dozens of different types of burgers (which people read about on secret menus), their drive-through menu hasn’t changed in over 60 years in order to preserve the simplicity of their brand.  
 


Kanso means simplicity, which refers to understated beauty paired with high utility. The idea, said May, “is to take a complicated operation and hide it behind easy to use interface.” Example: the Flip camera; it has one button.
 


Fukinsei means asymmetry and imperfection. “Sometimes it’s best to leave the viewer to complete the picture,” said May. He used the end of the last episode of The Sopranos, in which the screen went black before the very end, as an example. In this way the writer made creators out of his audience. 
 


Other words included shizen, which means unforced naturalness, yugen, which refers to subtlety and suggestion (“if everything it too clear, you’ve lost something”), seijaku, which is stillness and quietude (“doing nothing is as good as doing something”), and datsuzoku, which is taking a break from the routine (the idea being that all the best ideas come in the shower when you relax your thinking).    


May ended by telling the audience “the beauty of a brilliant idea lies in what isn’t there because what isn’t there often trumps what is.”

Literary critic Sarah Churchwell came on next to talk about her work researching the year 1922 for a book about F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the similarities she discovered in modern day celebrity culture. She gave a compelling overview of the history of mass media and the birth of the concept of celebrity and “celebrity gossip,” which she rejected as a measure of the decline of society. “Gossip is a measure of our interest in other people and therefore a measure of our humanity and not of our decline,” she said.


Next up was Internet theorist and professor Theresa Senft, who introduced the concept of “famous for 15 people,” the notion that we are currently in a culture of micro-celebrity in which everyone is known to many more people than they might think — and that this dynamic has serious and far reaching implications. She used the example of Neda Agha-Soltan, the woman gunned down by Iranian militia on way to demonstration that was seen by millions after a cell phone video was posted to the Web. In a case of mistaken identity, another Iranian woman named Neda Soltani was found alive in Iran, had her picture published on the Internet, and was subsequently pursued my the Iranian secret police who wanted her to go on television and say that she was the woman in the video and that she was alive. Soltani is now living in exile in Germany because she fears for her life. 
 


Last on was Mike Dickson, a regular TED attendee and the author of Please Take One, a book about generosity. Dickson extolled the virtues of living a more generous life and he went through seven steps anyone can do to be more generous, including getting in touch with old family and friends, buying someone in line a coffee, and giving away a percentage of your paycheck each month. As he said, being generous can make “a world of you and me, not you or me.”

All photos by Robert Leslie for TED.

Sam is the director of publishing for frog where he oversees frog's global content, editorial, and digital publishing strategy. He is also the editor of design mind, frog's print and online media platform. Sam is the author of numerous books of non fiction and has written for Dwell, Metropolis, GOOD, and other magazines.