You are what you do

May 12, 2009

Words of Jack Shulze being interviewed by design consultancy Kicker:

“No one cares about what you think, unless you do what you think. No one cares what you do, unless you think about what you do. No one ever really cares what you say.”

“Here’s another. You get the work you do. If you want to do something else start doing it.”

Wonderful advice.

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Richard Saul Wurman, prolific explainer and the creator of the TED conference, is back with a 5-year project called 19.20.21 to try and work out what makes urban environments tick. This is long overdue:  over half the world’s population lives in cities, rising to 2/3 by 2050. By analysing 19 supercities with more than 20 million inhabitants, the project:

“will lead to a common means electronically, in print and real time, to comparatively describe the demographics , economies, health data and environmental data as it relates to the urban world.” (from 192021.org)

The powerful idea at the heart of this is that whereas the world used to be thought of as power struggles between countries, it  is now “A Globe of Cities”:

“today, people think of the world as a network of cities – not a network of countries. We visit London, Paris or Rio de Janeiro, rather than England, France or Brazil. The world is now linked through mass channels of communication and transportation, managed by a patchwork of public and private interests.”

So what?

Cities grow organically and are the product of their host cultures, so it is no surprise that there is variation – in sanitation, transport, health, education, quality of life, crime etc… But how do you describe these differences? The words “crime”, “quality of life”, “public transport” may have literal translations in the languages of the world, but subtle variations in meaning are too much for a simple dictionary entry.  

To understand these factors you need to have lived in both cities long enough to have experienced the right things. Worse, even people who have been fully assimilated in several cities would mostly have experienced them in a deeply personal way. If you spent your primary school years in London, secondary school in New York and university in Mumbai, could you really comment on their respective educational systems?

And even if you could explain the differences on a completely objective level, you’d still have to consider the perspective of the other culture. The exact same meal, maths lesson or knee operation might be seen as fantastic, adequate or deeply disappointing depending on expectations.  

That’s why it’s so hard to answer the question asked by someone from a different city or country: “What it’s like where you’re from?”

19.20.21 = a common yardstick

Getting to the point where applicable lessons can be drawn from the world’s largest cities may take longer than 5-years, but the findings should be fascinating. Hopefully, the outcome will be a set of concrete design patterns which city planners can use to improve the lives of their citizens while reducing the environmental burden of urbanisation. These must do two things. 1) create an objective way to measure the success of a city’s elements, 2) make it possible to transfer these elements elsewhere.

Finding a common scoring system can kick start progress: take the introduction of the Apgar scoring of a newborn’s health, which slashed the mortality rate of babies in childbirth:

The Apgar score, as it became known universally, allowed nurses to rate the condition of babies at birth on a scale from zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good, vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two if its heart rate was over a hundred. Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby.
The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of a newly born baby—into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores—and therefore better outcomes—for the newborns they delivered.
Around the world, virtually every child born in a hospital had an Apgar score recorded at one minute after birth and at five minutes after birth. It quickly became clear that a baby with a terrible Apgar score at one minute could often be resuscitated—with measures like oxygen and warming—to an excellent score at five minutes. Spinal and then epidural anesthesia were found to produce babies with better scores than general anesthesia. Neonatal intensive-care units sprang into existence. Prenatal ultrasound came into use to detect problems for deliveries in advance. Fetal heart monitors became standard. Over the years, hundreds of adjustments in care were made, resulting in what’s sometimes called “the obstetrics package.” And that package has produced dramatic results. In the United States today, a full-term baby dies in just one out of five hundred childbirths, and a mother dies in one in ten thousand. If the statistics of 1940 had persisted, fifteen thousand mothers would have died last year (instead of fewer than five hundred)—and a hundred and twenty thousand newborns (instead of one-sixth that number).

The Apgar score, as it became known universally, allowed nurses to rate the condition of babies at birth on a scale from zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good, vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two if its heart rate was over a hundred. Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby.

The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of a newly born baby—into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores—and therefore better outcomes—for the newborns they delivered.

Around the world, virtually every child born in a hospital had an Apgar score recorded at one minute after birth and at five minutes after birth. It quickly became clear that a baby with a terrible Apgar score at one minute could often be resuscitated—with measures like oxygen and warming—to an excellent score at five minutes. Spinal and then epidural anesthesia were found to produce babies with better scores than general anesthesia. Neonatal intensive-care units sprang into existence. Prenatal ultrasound came into use to detect problems for deliveries in advance. Fetal heart monitors became standard. Over the years, hundreds of adjustments in care were made, resulting in what’s sometimes called “the obstetrics package.” And that package has produced dramatic results. In the United States today, a full-term baby dies in just one out of five hundred childbirths, and a mother dies in one in ten thousand. If the statistics of 1940 had persisted, fifteen thousand mothers would have died last year (instead of fewer than five hundred)—and a hundred and twenty thousand newborns (instead of one-sixth that number). (Atul Gawande in the New Yorker – also a story in his incredible book, Better)

Without a common yardstick, how can you know who has gone the farthest? 

Or what about the impact on trade and industrialisation of common standards for railway gauges, shipping containers or even the metric system itself. In The Box, former finance economics editor for The Economist Marc Levinson explains how “an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible.” From the first chapter:

Some scholars have argued that reductions in transport costs are at best marginal improvements that have had negligible effects on trade flows. This book disputes that view. In the decade after the container first came into international use, in 1966, the volume of international trade in manufactured goods grew more than twice as fast as the volume of global manufacturing production, and two and a half times as fast as global economic output. Something was accelerating the growth of trade even though the economic expansion that normall stimulates trade was weak. Something was driving a vast increase in internationl commerce in manufactured goods even though oil shocks were making the world economy sluggish. While attributing the vast changes in the world economy to a single cause would be foolhardy, we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility that the extremely sharp drop in freight costs played a major role in increasing the integration o fthe global economy.   

What are the equivalent costs of interaction between cities? What stops cities sharing more ideas on how to make urban environments fit both for people and for the planet?

I hope that this project will help identify the ideas which have worked best, and somehow explain them clearly enough that cities of any culture will be able to apply them. As many people as live in the entire planet today will live in cities in 2050. That’s why 19.20.21 matters, and I hope it succeeds.

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As I’ve said before, games can do a lot more than just entertain. They can can make accounting fun, help kids learn, teach valuable lessons in design and suggest new interactions with the world around us.

In that context, here are two more examples of game design techniques in two of the least frivolous areas imaginable – health and wealth. Both from Raph Koster’s great blog (which is essential reading for people creating anything that another person will use/experience). 

Games for Health

Coming up June 10-12th is the Fifth Games for Health conference which looks at all the ways that games can act as a positive disruptive force in healthcare. For example:

  • games used for rehabilitation and therapy
  • “exergaming” (exercise gaming) which exploded onto the scene with Wii Sports and is here to stay 
  • improving doctor patient communication by using virtual environments
  • games to raise awareness of issues like STDs (“Catch the Sperm”)
  • game environments to train surgeons and rapid response teams
  • where games help kids to develop (and where they might be a problem)

Games have two things to offer healthcare. Firstly, they are engaging and can bring an addictive reward structure to just about anything. This is valuable for us all, as we tend to live our lives less healthily than we should due to the  of the delayed benefits. Using game mechanics to make the rewards more immediate could revolutionise our attitudes to our health.

Secondly, they can be very realistic simulations. Games can educate and train healthcare professionals in more engaging ways, which ultimately makes the learning more effective. They can also simulate things which are hard to otherwise experience (see Burn Center below).   

Here are some of the sessions that caught my eye (full list of sessions announced so far is here):

Mindless Eating Challenge
In the game, players are tasked with caring for a virtual pet or plant, similar to the popular Tamgotchi.  Pet care requires the user to follow a variety of health and eating recommendations and verify their actions with photos taken with their phone’s camera.  For example, the recommendation “Eat a hot breakfast” would require the player to submit a photo of him/ herself eating a bowl of oatmeal.  Photos and compliance are then judged either by judges or peers.  Based on compliance to these recommendations, the pet or plant changes its appearance and gains features or accessories–a tree might grow taller or grow more leaves or fruit in response.  Alternatively, leaves might fall off if the player’s performance is poor.  A social portion of the game allows the user to see various depictions of their performance in comparison to the performance of others in their group, as well as of their group in comparison to other groups.

Case Study : Burn Center
This session covers the design, development, and rollout of Burn Center by 360ED an award winning training game covering a mass casualty burn-victim event. Burn Center not only provides the immersive experience of a full-scale, chaotic triage situation, but it also features an extensive resuscitation mode that follows patients over the course of 36 hours of treatment on an intensive care unit following a disaster event.

Case Study : The Skeleton Chase, A Healthy ARG
SThis session covers the development, rollout, and results of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) titled Skeleton Chase that was developed to serve as an intervention for college students who studies show routinely dial down their exercise activity upon arrival at college which in turn sows the seeds for bad health habits and outcomes later in life. (more at this link)

The Coming Age of Sensor Based Health Games
Increasingly, games are using a new generation of sensors that can detect movement, haptics, proximity, global position, light, audio, visuals, brain waves, emotional states, and physiological states, to name a few. These sensors often transmit their data to games without requiring players to transmit the data themselves, such as through an accelerometer attached to the player’s belt throughout the day, or a GPS system that inputs the player’s physical location into the game state.

Advances in sensor technologies and affordability are giving health game designers new gameplay options. This session will cite research findings and case-study examples to provide an overview of the many types of sensor systems that exist today or are just around the corner, and their potential integration into the research and design of games for health.

A Conversation with Richard S. Levine : Developer of Microsurgeon
 One of the first games about health ever debuted for the Intellivision video console. Microsurgeon featured incredible graphics for its day and detailed gameplay where you guided a nanobot through a human patient helping them battle a variety of ailments from cholesterol build-up in arteries, to bacterial infections, kidney stones, tapeworms, and tar deposits from smoking.

The YouTube clip of this 1982 game is a must see.

Games for Money

Personal finance sites like Mint and Rudder have been springing up to help us save money and make sense of the hundreds of options out there. They have incredibly useful tools which aggregate all your accounts in one place (so you don’t get fooled by your own mental accounting) and allow you to set budgets and send reminders when you go over. Mint has been a great success, and now reports over a million users.

Despite the zillions of products out there to do this, we still managed to wheel, deal, and borrow ourselves into a financial crisis (that is still ongoing, though swine flu may be eclipsing it just now). Clearly, something was lacking in the appeal here, for if said product category were truly successful, we wouldn’t be in this fix.

Now, Mint is in closed beta on a feature that turns personal finance into a game, complete with points earned for doing things like socking away some cash into the savings account each month, or switching to a credit card with annual rewards. Get enough points in a sustained way, and you too can be a Financial Guru.

This seems like a fairly straightforward harnessing of game-style incentive systems towards a laudable goal (though I should note that said credit card with rewards is likely from one of Mint’s partners). But honestly — money is points anyway, isn’t it? Why is it that we value the cash less than the flat-screen TV?

Raph goes on to wonder at the kind of game mechanic that would nudge us to try and save as money in the same way that WoW players go nuts over experience points.  

It may be that one reason why we used to be thriftier is simply because the money we hoarded was more tangible… gold coins trigger the brain’s systems in a way that a bank balance does not. This is what the Mint point system is designed to supplement: by creating a non-fungible point system, the game is giving you something other than real-world stuff onto which to displace your acquisitiveness, a “virtual stuff.” It would do even better, perhaps, if the points were gems or something else more “stuff-like” in terms of its representation.

Go read it the whole thing. It’s a powerful point. As with health, we save too little because the tangible reward comes in the future, and we massively understimate our future wants. Using game mechanics to bring that value forward can only help.

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Diego Rodriguez, an inspirational member of the IDEO family, is working through 21 design principles he believes in on his blog, Metacool. Go check them out, it’s worth it.

Number six talks about living life in a way which gives you the tools to feed off the constraints of a difficult problem rather than be afraid of them:

Innovation needs to happen at the intersection of desirability, viability, and feasibility.  These three elements make up the legs of a proverbial stool called “it’ll work in the world.”  Too many innovation initiatives focus on only one or two, much to their detriment.  For example, creating something without regard for its feasibility out in the world is not unlike designing a bridge without regard to the existence of gravity: it might work, but the likelihood of it being a reliable, safe, means of transport will be greatly diminished.  And while it might be tempting to “really be creative” by ignoring constraints, a wiser approach is to view constraints as liberating.

The best designs are those which attack a set of constraints head on to create something that can operate within them. That’s why I was so inspired by Ernie Schenk’s book, “The Houdini Solution”, which is full of techniques for thinking inside the box.

For what it’s worth, I think this is such an important principle that it can be separated from the idea of “T-shaped” people, which is wonderful in itself (particularly for how little explanation it needs to be grokked).

All that said, I have to thank Diego for putting me on to the work of Santiago Calatrava who he uses to illustrate his point. The Chords Bridge, pictured above, is a stunning example of elegance which dances on the fine line between beauty, structural integrity (this design is apparently not the most structurally efficient) and of course cost.

This kind of structure can only be built by really understanding the limits of all those dimensions.

GRAFF

Walking around Lisbon, you see plenty of witty and awesome graffiti pieces (particularly in the Alfama and Santos districts). Done well, it adds a great touch of personality to the city and looks fantastic – just look at advertisers and the art world drooling over the work of guys like Banksy

However, the debate over whether it is vandalism or art continues, with some evidence that it encourages crime (the “Broken Windows” idea) and of course the fact that much of it, like the tags scrawled in marker pen, looks awful.

The UK’s Department of Transport has some pretty in-depth research here on why and how to reduce graffiti, with case studies of graffiti on trains in New York, and around the UK and Holland. Last year, the Design Against Crime Research Centre held a seminar to better understand it. Someone even came up with a “Graffiti Report Card” to shame the bad.

Is graffiti art or vandalism? That really depends on whether only the best makes it on to the walls.

Art Building

Into the breach steps Art Building, which takes building or renovation sites and has up and coming young artists put colossal up pieces on the scaffolding.

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It’s nice to see property developers sponsoring this kind of art, and regardless of the merits of the projects themselves (the first is supposed to be a tapeworm), the city is far better off with than without. There are three projects so far:

Vitrine – Joana Vasconcelos
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War/Work – Tiago Batista
Arbuilding work war

Peek to Heaven – Lucas Mila
Artbuilding peek

I love street art, and would love to live in a city where graffiti is part of the culture, and where the good stuff get celebrated. What do you think?

Here’s some more from the streets of Lisbon.

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Yesterday I showed some awesome signage from Lisbon’s Museu Colecção Berardo’s which was engaging, witty and fit perfectly with the character of a modern art museum.

This is the opposite.

Imagine that something horrible has just happened to you, and you depsperately need urgent medical attention. How would you feel if you rushed to the hospital and were directed to the emergency room by a series of signs which looked like this:

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The signs are incongruent with the clean, clinical, highly professional feeling that a hospital needs to project to make patients feel safe and respect the authority of the staff. They don’t inspire confidence.

In fact, the hospital is fine and modern. The irony is that directly below these delapidated signs is a smaller, bright red piece of top quality signage in what seems to be the world’s most ubiquitous font: Helvetica.

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The last two posts (about the Cervejaria Trindade and Museu Colecção Berardo) were about how the most utilitarian objects need not pass unnoticed. They can be made to have a charm of their own which helps communicate the personality of their surroundings.

This shows how much damage they can do when poorly thought through.

 

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Next up is some cool signage at the Museu Colecção Berardo’s in Lisbon’s Belém area. 

As with the Cervejaria this is an example of injecting wit and character into something that usually only gets an afterthought.

What’s better. This (from the Oceanarium, also in Lisbon)?

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Or this:

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It’s clear which one is more likely to engage the audience.

And what about these reinterpretations of the humble toilet wo/man?

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Even the floor numbering gets in on the act, showing you the number and the contents of the floor in a single chunk of typography.

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As Jonathan Miller says, art is about “making the negligible considerable”, which this goes some way to doing. A great set of designs and particularly appropriate for a gallery of modern art, although it would be wonderful if utilitarian details were always this stimulating.

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