The venerable flirble organization is no more, which means that the machines that hosted my Blackbeltjones.com domain from around 1999 are no more. Which means that if you’ve been trying to get hold of me (unlikely I know) through email to that address, you haven’t been. Please use Matt [at] moleitau [dot] com if you want to drop me a line from now on.
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
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.
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.
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.
e.g. Command post
Shelter / lights / air-conditioning
Wireless mesh networking
Refrigerator for medicine / perishable materials
But perhaps more promising to me seemed ‘bottom-up’ uses
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.
LE bluetooth connection to smartphones with ‘take-away’ data
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
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.
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.
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!
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…
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. As we shall see, “empathy” in the sense of adopting someone’s viewpoint is not the same as “empathy” in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first can lead to the second by a natural route. Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own.
Later this month I’ll be starting work at Google, specifically their Creative Lab in NYC, as Interaction Design Director.
I’ve worked with a few of the team there on projects at BERG, such as Lamps and Connbox – both of which are some of my favourite output of the studio. During working with Creative Lab I was struck by the width of their brief, and the depth of talent they had in their studio.
Late last year I became a dad, and while I took time out from BERG to help look after our new twins the opportunity to work with Creative Lab arose.
The canvas is the future of everyday life, for nearly everyone.
How we learn to live with and use artificial intelligence. How to honestly and simply communicate products and services that mere months ago seemed science-fictional, so that people can evaluate them properly and, hopefully, become literate in them.
How we make sufficiently-advanced technologies distinguishable from magic so that everyone, not just a priesthood, benefits.
The opportunities are massive, as are the responsibilities and the criticisms.
Too much to pass up.
So – I’m joining old friends such as Iain, and new comrades such as Ben, Alexander and many others, at Google Creative Lab.
I’m keeping an “at-large” advisory role at BERG as it focusses on its product business turning BERG Cloud into the OS for the Internet-of-things.
Almost four years ago, I joined Jack Schulze, Matt Webb and Tom Armitage at what became BERG.
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…
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.