Can we measure metadesign by its synergies?

Transcript from his talk at the colloquium on metadesign on 29th June 2007

By John Wood

I didn’t realize that Clive was going to give me the title of my paper. Thanks, Clive. The title of my paper is: "Configuration of incommensurabilities" (a phrase used in Clive Dilnot's talk). So that’s very helpful. I think you said "negotiation of incommensurabilities", didn’t you? This is part of the issue that we have discussed over the last two days. There are some differences between the way we see words, and the way we see design. And picking up on what Clive and Ezio and various other people have been saying, perhaps we can start with this quote from the Uppanishads that describes the world being without name or form. This is an invitation to us, as I see it. It invites us to dream beyond what we know as forms and what we know as words. And so we had some very good invitations from Naomi and other people talking about the importance of language. And very loosely, if you think about Western culture and Western thought, we have what Aristoteles called the "logic of categories". Clive was talking about the age of shopping. All we do is 'shop'. But, my God, we are doing it in a very very controlled way, so that every part of the process is automated and numbered. As shoppers we are part of a number crunching system. So this process, devised by Aristoteles, emphasised boundaries that were created by words. These gives us - at one extreme - maybe the notion of 'pretext', which is what many designers may be afraid of. in design, actually saying something predicting something and it also led to notions of sameness. So in other words, if we have a language which says there is a law and again, Clive was talking about law, the laws of nature. That leads us to the idea of a theory of everything. And the theory of everything that we have acquired through a whole range of people, I won’t name them but coming up to Newton let’s say, let’s pick up Newton, who talked about a kind of universal law, if you like. And Einstein and now Stephen Hawkins, they are all looking for something that proofs a universality of a category. And of course, that doesn’t make sense, and as Ezio has pointed out, we are changing the change, and that’s much more exciting actually. It comes back to one of my favourites: Hereclates who kind of anticipated a lot of these things many years ago.

So, back to this origin of thinking - names or forms. So there is name on this side, forms on this side (writing on the board) and then it’s very hard, if you think of 20th century design, and the kind of, let’s say, the more closed world of fetischisation, let’s say, of products and objects. You could blame on Plato and the kind of formalism of Plato, Pythagoras, Euklid, they are all formalists in the sense of that they believe in form as more important than flow or actions or meanings. It’s quite a complex argument here, actually, and I am trying to simplify it. But this kind of idealism that you get about the form, and then also not only the theory of everything, but the kind of legislation, the kind of American courtroom dramas where it’s either this or this. This process than has led to computers, cumputer systems, databases and so on. So, as Ezio and various people have pointed out, we don’t really live in either of those worlds any more. The whole world is much more liquid. And, in fact, I think it is very helpful to think about Wittgenstein’s idea of language games. That’s one of my favourites, because what we tend to think is, because we have got the dictionary and Dr. Johnson created this very kind of earnest English policing, sort of morality of the anthology, morality of the ought. You ought not to use this word, so we won’t put it in the dictionary. And now Wikipedia actually is going a little bit that way, but nevermind.

Language games is really good because what it reminds us is that everything is negotiated. The truth is, we have a kind of Eudemonic ethics, it’s the ethics of the politics of “feel good”. And so, again, we are kind of moving a little bit beyond this strict 19th century morality of the ought. The language games is very helpful because what it says is it that one word in text, if you do a search in a text, one word is the same as the next word, there is an equivalent, alphabet works like that. But actually, Wittgenstein says there is a similarity, a network of similarities, families of ressemblence. That is getting a bit more like design, isn’t it. This form slowly emorph into one another. But the role of language is exceedingly important because we live by the metaphors, as Lackoff and Johnson put it in their book.

So, in order to kind of create a process that might be helpful, and this is largely from Clive’s thinking, language games which would be on this side (points at the board). We have now artifact games. If nature is now artifactual, certainly designers and people who work with forms, make things, they know what this means. They may not be able to name it but we play with things and we juxtapose things. And that’s partly what design does. And then, now we got service design, we have got a whole range of other things which are more ephemeral and have less to do with what we used to think of the actual form or the material object. We also have a notion of behaviour games, and in fact, there is a whole industry, fashion in a sense. You know, the way people deport themselves, it is kind of a part of a merchandising process, through fashion. Interactive games: We could probably talk, now that we got into this point where we’ve got the internet, and as Gustav pointed out, the importance of the internet, and the way we have open source systems means that we perhaps can talk about relationship games, and that’s getting a little bit closer again to Ezio’s idea of ‘changing the change’ because yes we are changing the change, but…
Unfortunately - and this is where I become a little bit Yorkshire - design is not working. You know this is where I am pessimistic. Because, you could say that many of the things that are causing - or nearly all of things - if the world is artefactual, everything that is going wrong has been designed. So design is not working. And I am shocked to hear myself being pessimistic, actually. The good news is actually that, what I have realized by this, is that: Izmir when I was commenting on Clive’s pessimism and I brought in and played optimist to his pessimist, and then I am trying to play pessimist to Ezio’s optimist. And I am realizing that the question Otto raised on the first day was very important. This thing about the yes/no. Remember when we had this discussion about whether we should say, I think John Chris said, we have noticed that there were no NOs in your table. And I realized that what Otto was talking about was that a yes and a no are always in a context, and that to be pessimist is ok in the right company, or in optimistic company, and it is actually very important and viceversa. So complementarity is necessary through these processes. So what I am going to talk about is the configuration of incommensurabilities. What I mean by that and what I assume Clive might mean by that is: How can we synergize these four different entities? (drawing on the board) and Niki was asking about this form, the tetrahedran, and I will explain that in a little bit. In a sense I think we need top-down and a bottom-up, because we have got an urgent issue and part of that process of bottom-up aspect is, I don’t know whether interpolation is the right word, but creative interpolation or creative insinuation within the system. That goes directly to the heart of this word entrepeneur or entredoneur that I mentioned yesterday.

What I was really going to talk about, or what I know a little bit more about, is the question of synergy, because this is the backdrop that other people have eluded to. We can have anything we want anytime, anywhere, faster and faster. I would argue that we are licensed to choose. The shopping process is not one of imagining what we want. The process is choosing from what is available. And in fact, one very important design theorist said: “we only choose what we are given, what we are offered”. So these are some important questions, I think. How can business become more natural? A number of people have talked about this and some people have given models, Richard for example, Batel talked about it very eleoquently and Otto. If we are going to dream, if we are going to license people to, not just to choose a government or a product, how can society be more imaginative? Because it seems to me this is a process of creative democracy means co-creative democracy, and it means imaginative democracy. That means that the first duty of every citizen is to imagine a better world. They don't have to say it. That is already transformative. Naming things is exceedingly important. So, partly why I get upset with certain words, yes I am a very arrogant, pedantic, I am an academic, I am licensed to do that, but nevertheless, if you keep talking about consumption, then we would forget the fact that we are producers. We are producers in order to consume. If we talk about production rather than consumption, it would change the way we behave and the way we feel, and Otto explained this process very eloquently yesterday. So, designers need to insinuate themselves within the whole system. They need to recognise the whole system, they need to identlfy how they are different from the next person, they need to look for complementarities. And that’s another thing I learned from the conference, really, that you may get people who vehemently disagree. What happens if you put them together? Maybe they can work together? Does that neutralise those differences or does it create a synergy? I am not sure, well I don’t think there is an answer to that question because we haven’t made it specific. What education doesn’t allow us to do, doesn’t help us to do is how to make that synergy work. It certainly doesn’t in this country. As I said earlier on, people seem to be educated as fulfilling a norm, we have to meet a certain level of competence, and the Design Council in the UK is now going back to this whole skills fetisch, as though this is going to get us out of some economic problem. It’s the worst thing possible actually, not as it would need to get us out of economic problems, but it’s a no-brainer, frankly. Ok, so why don’t I agree with the word sustainability? I just go through this quite quickly because I think it is quite an important issue. In other words, everybody knows a little bit about global warming, about what they should do. About how they should consume less and so on. Why do they not really change? One of the reasons, I believe, is because this guy on the left, Adam Smith, to make a very crude analogy of his argument: “By helping your family and yourself, by being industrious, you will would help society as a whole”. So there is kind of an emergence idea, that collectivelly works for the individual itself and then emerges into benefits for the whole. Well, in very cheap words, the win-win idea. I think Jo mentioned it, it’s a very powerful idea. A win-win offer, fantastic, all we need to do in the 21st century is buy anything you want and you are helping economic growth, helping the wheels to turn. Fantastic plus-plus. Sustainability sounds already like a loosing battle because you have got to sustain, got to prompt something up that’s beginning to flag. There is going to be a disaster, a crisis and we all have got to help. Well, maybe we want to help but the argument that is usually put forward is that if you forgo some of your purchases and reduce what you consume, then you would do well for your children or grandchildren. Sorry, but that is a loose-win offer. Doesn’t sound good, is not so appealing.

What we have been looking at in our project, in our research project, is to see if we can change the language and to look for multiple benefits, will be it small ones, from one action. And partly, the way to do that is to look for relationships which we don't notice. So there are many relationships implicit in a transaction. We see it as a point of sale, exchange of money, product. It's not as simple as that. This is where design, I think, can redesign that concept and the notion of being, actually, as I think Clive said earlier on or a couple of people said. So the win-win idea is a very simple argument, logic of reciprocal advantage, very familiar to us. Now just in terms of the topology, which I am coming now to a slightly mathematical thing. If you have got three players, you have got three relations, if you have got four players, how many relations have you got? Six, and this process of having two more than you would expect is something that was noticed by Euler, the mathematician in the 18th century, I think. So, two players - one relationship, three players - three relations, four players - 6 relations and so on and so on. There is a kind of auspicious moment here that there is a doubling from three to four, and that’s very important because, if you see the graph, the graph is exponential, as the number of relations goes up, you are dealing with issues, these are all things that are interdependent aspects. Now, how many can you hold in your mind at one point? And I think the experts normally say around 9, I forgot the exact, but I think it’s around 9 would be pretty good, actually. Between 5 and 9 I think is the argument, but that’s ambitious so let’s call it four. Because as our ability to hold things falls off and the auspicious returns goes up, there is a crossover just around 4 or slightly above 4. So anything with managing 4 interdependent relating things is manageable, and we can give it a name. We can give it a form. So in a sense what we could say is that if you are talking about win-win-win-win (counting) that's 4, isn't it? Then you have six possible relation advantages. So that's something that could be given a name, given certainly a number and a form. Not very auspicious in China unfortunately because it is synonymous with death. So this is what we have done. We have started with four. Just as a matter of convenience, let’s figure out all that stuff. But we have then looked at roles, because as I said, metadesigning would need people to be able to select themselves and select others, and the reason is because that tetrahedran offers a peer-to-peer relation, its optimal on a number of levels. As an example, how many people would you have as body guards? If you are really rich how many would you have around you? The answer is probably not more than five, because they start falling over each other, and you probably need only three or four. There is a kind of optimal quantity in some of these number systems that can be found in nature, and Ken Fairclough is an expert on this. There is also lots of management theory, people like Belbin and Adesis, they have looked at the way that roles are necessary in any given task, and how you need a certain range of roles. In fact, there is a number of strange anomalies about this. The Apollo Syndrom is when you take the very best achievers from each of Belbin’s nine types and put them together - it’s a crap team, it never seems to work very well. It’s much better if you have a kind of average balance. Nine is a lot of people to work together as well. So we have been working with the notion of four, and so we defined particular four types. We are not saying that this expresses the human species, and that this works in every case but it has worked in the work we have done. These four types: Languaging means the ability to think about the discourse, think about the levels on which people are working; Pushing and Doing is the pragmatic; getting things done, making sure that ressources are there; Visioning is critically seeing the whole problem in an abstract way and looking for the outcomes; and New Knowing is, I think, probably something akin Otto was talking about yesterday, the membrane of the cell. But the basic idea behind this, in a sense, is that we are having a go at starting with a kind of meta-model of the whole thing. So Metadesgin would need to produce synergies probably at every level. And that means you need to synergize all the synergies. So that's very ambitious. So we have got 4 roles which I have just shown you. We have got 4 types of synergy, or levels of synergy, or orders of synergy. The first one, but they are in no real order, as I explained, with the tetrahedron, Data sharing synergies, synergies that emerge from the sharing of data. So, in a sense, data is not accessible, it is just something that is in nature. It might be in computers or in number systems but we don’t directly access it, but nevertheless sometimes it’s benefitial. Often we use something in nature and it works but we don’t know why. It may be because of the data process. The Craton windmill for example is made of sail cloth. If you analyze it in aerodynamic conditions, when it starts to go too fast there is a flapping process which reduces the speed, we didn’t know that, we didn’t have a theory for it but it works. So that’s a kind of data sharing synergy. Next one up, Information sharing synergies, thermostats, Penguines that huddle together to keep warm, smart user interfaces. Then the third one is Knowledge sharing, flying bees, open source systems or web 2.0 are probably current examples. And then finally the most difficult, Wisdom sharing synergies, which are perhaps emergent, they are what emerge from the whole thing.

I was thinking at the beginning that this was the most simple and that was the most complex (pointing at the board) but that, was it John Chris who said yesterday, that we don’t know anything, we hardly know anything. So nearly everything is at this level, wisdom is infinitely small. But I think its very important to design it into the system so that we can aspire to it, and I think that is really important. So, there is the notion of putting the two systems together. So we have got the synergies mapping and then we have the team role mapping, so that the team works synergisticly, and the outcomes embrace different levels of synergy, and of course, what I didn’t say, but I guess you can see is that, whenever you have these four you can also map in the other six. And if you look for directions then there is twelve. So these are the lines in between. There is not really time to got through all of these, but working through this systematicaly, its very crude but it gives us knowledge that we wouldn’t otherwise find.
Can I give you examples of synergies or metadesign synergies? I would love to but not sure I can. We are working on them, We have got our next week’s Knowledge sharing synergy workshop. So we will be able to tell you a little bit more about that. So we know more about the first two. We are making furniture, which will facilitate and also software, Johnny Bradley is helping us develop software, that will help us produce conferences that use these methods and actually reduce flying for international conferences. These are just a couple of examples of things I thought were really synergistic across these different levels that I have mapped out. So this is William Warren’s idea and it’s very cheeky on lots of levels, which I think is great. The fact that that’s a key fob, he has taken the absence of a key to remind you it’s a key fob, so its witty but actually, that means that the inside is used for making a key, perhaps ,or something else. So, there are many levels on which you can see synergies working. This is where it’s a multiple layered enterprise and the entrepreneurship must work in a multidimensional way. I think that’s where perhaps the enterprise and, perhaps, the design thinking can come together. As regards to the ethics, I think maybe some people are using the word ethics in a slightly different way than the way I thought it should be used, actually. I think some people seem to be using it as though its morality, the morality of the ought and that’s where design, in fact, I think Clive, you said in one of your papers that design is intrinsicly ethical, in a sense, because you have to do it for other parties and if it works well, if they are going to pay you, for example, even, then presumable that pleases them. So it’s a Eudemonic kind of ethics, its an ethics of good spirit, rather than an ethics of following a rule. And then this is another lovely one from William Warren, if you know this piece. He went to Japan and he got some extremely smart craftsmen who make glasses and then he took them out to lunch and gave them quite a lot of beers, and then when they came back he asked them to blow these wineglasses, and I don’t know if you can still smell the breath inside. I think I’ll stop here, it has been a long two days and its supposed to be for other people to talk.