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All views and opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent DIT in any way.

Sunday
Mar222015

Community engagement in Second Life

Last week I took part in a panel discussion titled 'Virtual Ability: Support, Collaboration, Research, Community' at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Conference 2015 that was hosted by the virtual world Second Life. I provided a brief outline of the class I teach, 'Virtual Environments: Is once life enough?' and described a field trip to Virtual Ability Island, a community established specifically to enable people with a wide range of disabilities by providing a supporting environment for them to enter and thrive in online virtual worlds like Second Life.

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I have been teaching a class in Second Life (with my former DIT colleague Locks Aichi) called ‘Virtual Environments: Is one life enough?’ since 2009. The class is delivered entirely online, with weekly meetings in Second Life and regular engagement through student blogs and social media. My first students were undergraduates from the School of Creative Arts taking it as an elective.
 
Panel members with Acuppa Tae (aka John O'Connor) fourth from the left.
  
One decision we made that might be considered unusual for a university was to forgo the use of a private island. Instead we came to an arrangement with the already vibrant community, Dublin Virtually Live. Established in the early days of Second Life, by real life Dubliner and world traveller Ham Rambler, the Second Life version of Dublin provided an ideal cultural context for the class. To some extent it mirrored DIT’s position as a university in the centre of the city. But, more importantly, Dublin offered an already established cultural backdrop in which the students could be immersed. Sitearm Madonna, the virtual city manager, took an active interest in our activities and also attended as a student. This engagement has continued and he is now a regular contributor to the class.
 
With Sitearm’s encouragement we soon decided to offer places to Second Life residents who wanted to take the class on a stand-alone basis. This resulted in our meeting a broad range of professionals from diverse backgrounds who added experience and depth to the class. Many of these became friends and have also returned to the class as guest lecturers. They have also introduced us to many new communities over the years, including Virtual Ability Island.
 
Last year we started a new development and were joined by Dudley Dreamscape’s class from University of Akron, Ohio. Dreamscape (Prof Dudley Turner in Real Life) participated as a student in the class the previous year and following that we met in Real Life at a conference in Dublin. Over the course of a few days we planned a methodology that allowed us to commence joint delivery. The Akron students come from a more diverse range of disciplines than the Dublin students: engineering; nursing; education; dance; accountancy and so on. This brings not only a disciplinary richness to the class but also a cultural breadth that many participants would not otherwise experience.
 
The current class has thirty students with about fifteen from each university and the main aim of the module is to introduce the participants to online collaborative working. Second Life provides the virtual space for class meetings but we also explore the use of tools such as blogs, wikis, social media and so on. This prepares students to engage professionally with building their own online reputation and personal brand.
 
In order to experience online collaboration first hand students from each university are put into mixed groups to work on a project throughout the semester. This ensures they learn how to use a range of online tools to work together and plan effectively. They must decide how to communicate asynchronously across different time zones and cultural norms to produce a coherent presentation by the conclusion of the semester.
 
A key element of the module is the number of field trips arranged for students. These are mostly organised by our guest lecturers who introduce the class to a range of diverse online communities. Elfay Pinkdot, a long-time collaborator and former host of the Second Life jazz radio show Coffee and Pajamas, introduced us to Circe Broom’s Sunset Jazz Club and to some art collectives.
 
Dudley Dreamscape made contact with Gentle Heron and Virtual Ability Island, one of the very dynamic communities to inhabit Second Life.
 
A view of the conference location in Second Life.
  
The recent class field trip to Virtual Ability Island had a very distinct impact on our students. Gentle welcomed us and gave a brief outline on the genesis of the community and how it functions. Many of the students began to realise, for the first time, the potential of virtual environments for filling gaps in real lives. Speaking directly with the residents of Virtual Ability Island they began to understand that online engagement is not merely about games but can be an important social and professional space for people who might not otherwise be able to engage in this way.
 
Our hosts in Virtual Ability Island are open and welcoming – and willing to share their stories with the class. They answered questions and even asked some of their own! The interactive nature of the engagement shone through and impressed the students with its sincerity. (An account of the visit can be read on the module blog.)
 
Many do not quite understand the power of Second Life in some people’s lives. It is only when they meet those who rely on the environment and its communities for their social interaction that the power of this engagement is revealed. The opportunity to speak to members of the community and hear their stories first-hand is very powerful indeed. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid propose that
...the more isolated learners are, whether physically or socially, the more they need access to peers, communities of practice, and other social resources”. [note 1]
The same goes for most of us: community engagement is a fundamental human need. When this is denied us in the Real World Second Life truly offers a second chance.
Thursday
Mar272014

Design thinking and creative intelligence

If we are to take Bruce Nussbaum’s word for it the role of ‘design thinking’ in business development and innovation has been in decline since 2011 when he called it a ‘failed experiment’. Nevertheless, I suspect that its value as a methodology for re-framing ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber 1973) has yet to be fully realised. Undoubtedly, there remains considerable confusion around the notion of design thinking. For example, 'Designing Growth', a discussion hosted by Dublin City Council in 2013 to explore how design could be harnessed to drive economic growth in Ireland revealed competing understandings of the role of design in design thinking.

The international panel of experts held divergent opinions – as did the audience, largely made up of members of the design community. The event was intended as 'a discussion on ways to develop new and better public services, communication platforms, education and business models through design' but had difficulty getting beyond a debate on the value of design itself, never mind design thinking. This was a disappointing, if not altogether surprising, outcome: all the more so due to the missed opportunity to convince John Moran (the panel’s deliberately selected sceptic and influentially positioned Secretary General at the Department of Finance) and other policy makers of the value in utilising alternative methodologies to plan the rebuilding of the national economy following its collapse in the recent recession.

The confusion between ‘design thinking’ and ‘designing’ in evidence at the event is not unusual. From an academic perspective Lucy Kimbell writing in 2011 suggests that:

Even on a cursory inspection, just what design thinking is supposed to be is not well understood, either by the public or those who claim to practise it.

In 2007 Nussbaum was a proponent of the role of designers:

My own current thinking is that designers must play a critical role in the creation of this new field of design thinking. The whole core culture of design is essential to design thinking.

Later that year Nussbaum's thinking has developed to the point where he is recommending that CEOs:

have to understand design thinking – using the process to manage the company. That is what [Steve] Jobs does – he isn't a trained designer but he gets it. He focuses on what is important these days. And it took him a while to get these skills. Remember all those mistakes along the way?'

This understanding of design thinking as an approach to problem framing and problem solving – derived from the design process – emerged from business schools. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, interviewed by David Dunne in 2006 says 'today’s business people don’t need to understand designers better, they need to become designers.' Martin had gained an insight into the design process from encounters with a small design firm in Toronto and a later involvement with IDEO. He was fascinated by the way designers approached problem solving by accepting constraints and ‘creating something that looks great and sells’. He also recognised that the same approach applied in business:

As I watched it, I saw that this is what great business leaders do. They enter some kind of constrained environment where they want to do something that is near impossible. They have to figure it out by thinking differently from anybody else. The best of what I see in the best business people is the same as what I see in designers at their best.

Kimbell cites Martin, from the Design of Business (2009) describing design thinking as having:

something important to offer managers, enabling them to shift from choosing between alternatives to helping them generate entirely new concepts.

Designer and writer Aiden Kenny (Notes and Thoughts from the 'Designing Growth' Event 2013) proposes that it may lie in ‘collaborations between business strategists and strategically-minded designers’. This all suggests a particular application for design thinking as a methodology for re-framing problems that society is having great difficulty addressing. But, just as it appears there may be a consensus developing Nussbaum appears to change his mind. In 2011 he writes that:

The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on to another conceptual framework: Creative Intelligence, or CQ.

A cynical response might be that his conversion is simply a strategy to support his new book, Creative Intelligence (2013). But, in fact, he attributes it to the failure of CEOs to understand and implement design thinking correctly and opportunistic designers misusing it to increase business. He reports a conversation with IDEO’s Tim Brown and quotes his analysis:

Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change. From the beginning, the process of Design Thinking was a scaffolding for the real deliverable: creativity. But in order to appeal to the business culture of process, it was denuded of the mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process.

The ability to live with mess, with uncertainty, and with the looping circularity of creativity is something that John Cleese (The Origin of Creativity 2009) talks about also. He acknowledges the instinctive urge to move from uncertainty to decision and argues that it limits creativity. The longer one is willing to live with the discomfort and continue exploring solutions the better the ultimate result.

It seems that some of Nussbaum’s motivation in describing creative intelligence is to move away from the preconceptions he believes have limited the potential he, and others, saw in design thinking. He recognises that the wicked problems have not gone away and they require attention – as a matter of urgency. By changing the context in which they are addressed participation in the search for solutions is opened up to everyone. No single profession, design included, can claim ownership of the creative process so perhaps the new terminology will support the framing of problems in new ways that lead to the development original solutions.

Tuesday
Sep102013

Steve Jobs and Apple

On the day Apple launches iOS7 and with the approach of the second anniversary of the death of the company's visionary leader it seems an appropriate opportunity to republish an article I wrote about Steve Jobs for the November 2011 edition of Irish Printer.

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It is quite extraordinary that an organisation in corporate America widely renowned as a world leader would use its global shop window to display an obituary photograph rather than promoting its most recently introduced product. And yet that is exactly what Apple did after launching the iPhone 4S. Steve Jobs died the following day and his photograph opened the website for almost two weeks. This, more than any other act, demonstrated the reverence in which the innovative leader of Apple Inc is held. 

The man who co-founded the world's most valuable consumer-facing brand [note 1] has been eulogised since his death at the early age of fifty-six. Articles across the world’s media have claimed he changed the world as we know it by developing the standard graphical user interface now familiar to all users of personal computers, perfecting the mouse for the marketplace, introducing the most accessible personal computer while also inventing the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Along the way he also revolutionised the design and print industries, the digital music industry and the mobile phone industry [note 2]. Not a bad legacy for a self-proclaimed college dropout [note 3].

My first inkling of the genius of Jobs came in the latter part of the 1980s when my design company invested in our first Apple Macintosh II computer and laser printer. They were so expensive that a five-year loan was required for the purchase, which then remained unused in the corner of the studio for six months. We didn’t dare start a job on the Mac for fear we wouldn’t be able to produce camera-ready artwork suitable for print. No one knew how to migrate from the familiar world of professional computer typesetting and pasted-up artwork to the intangibility and uncertainty of the digital wysiwyg world. In the high-pressure atmosphere of a busy design studio there was little time to spare learning an untried and untested approach. Nevertheless, gradually the Mac was drawn into service – originally as a typesetting machine – and thus began the inevitable development of an entirely digital workflow.

In 1989 I was contracted to advise the London based Brompton Group advertising agency on the introduction of a Mac system for the design and production of corporate literature for its biggest client, Lloyds Bank. It is difficult now to imagine just how difficult this task was at that time. The Mac was still largely untested in the design and print sector. Typographers in particular were fearful (rightly, as it turned out) for their jobs and so proclaimed loudly (and incorrectly) that type set on a Mac was grossly inferior to photosetting and computer set type. Art Directors refused to go near the keyboard and continued producing traditional scamps and rough layouts for the ‘Mac operator’ to work up. The Finished Art department could not even contemplate laying down their scalpels and letraset. Just as in any revolution many continued in denial until the inevitability of progress removed them from the scene. Those that couldn’t adapt were forced out.

My career, on the other hand, was at a good stage to benefit from the change. Having originally trained in a quintessentially traditional studio established outside Bradford by a designer who learned his craft at Lund Humphries with Herbert Spencer I went on to study for a degree in visual communication in Dublin. By the time I established a design practice in 1985 I had wide experience working in letterpress, offset litho and silkscreen. Layouts were produced in pencil with accurate specifications for print reproduction. I could render ten-point type with a high degree of precision after a year doing so for full-page newspaper ads. This was a crucial skill due to the cost of typesetting – mistakes often meant the difference between profit and loss on a job. But for young designers filled with the enthusiasm to experiment and go beyond the traditional typographic conventions the need for our work to be mediated by craftsmen could be frustrating. Busy typesetters with conventional training in this traditional craft were not always sympathetic to our motivations and generally wanted to get a job typeset, delivered and billed. My co-founder at Information Design, Ron Hamilton, once described the experience as being akin to learning to ice skate with one hand tied behind his back.

The Mac, once we rescued it from the dark corner of the studio and figured out how to use it, abolished those restrictions forever. It liberated type and allowed designers complete freedom to improvise and experiment. This period resulted in some incredibly exciting and inspiring work particularly by designers like April Greiman and David Carson in the US and Octavo Design, Vaughan Oliver and Neville Brody in the UK. It also inspired a review of the work of the early modern pioneers of typography such as El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Apollinaire's "figurative poetry” along with the influence of Futurist, Dada and de Stijl movements on graphic design.

While designers were enjoying their new found freedom the Mac was having an altogether different impact on the wider print sector. Typesetting houses began to disappear as word processing took over. Some companies managed to reinvent themselves as bureaus for outputting the bromides and film that were replacing pasted-up camera-ready artwork. The trade of the typesetter soon disappeared and the art of setting readable type suffered frequently at the hands of those untrained for the task.

The capabilities of the Mac expanded with the development of software applications such as Adobe Photoshop and significant improvements in the quality of desktop scanners. Origination companies with large investments in drum scanners began to feel the pressure and eventually all but disappeared. At the time few outside the trade realised the significance of the knowledge base and wealth of experience that could not be replaced easily or replicated by a computer. The skill and expertise of an originator who manages the conversion of an image from continuous tone transparency (made up of millions of colours) to reproduction in cyan, yellow, magenta and black ink included a high level of subjective judgement honed over years of practice. Part of the price to be paid for the convenience brought by the Mac has been an increase in poor quality reproduction.

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In the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century there were a number of high profile inventors who changed society with great rapidity. Edison is widely regarded as being the first to develop the industrial research laboratory [note 4] in a facility that occupied two city blocks by the 1880s. He registered over a thousand patents and is particularly remembered for perfecting the electric light bulb which had incalculable impact. It could be argued, however, that his real ingenuity was the development of the infrastructure to deliver electric power at an affordable price enabling every home to acquire this resource [note 5].

Similarly, Jobs will be remembered for his ability to harness the supply chain or, more often, to develop a completely new supply chain to deliver Apple's innovative services. He also demonstrated an astounding ability to perfect existing technology and develop completely new processes for the consumer to access it. It was this ability to provide a fully integrated and reliable user experience that continually set Apple apart and resulted in a customer base with exceptional devotion to its brand [note 6].

When competing products in the marketplace are virtually the same it is difficult to maintain differentiation and a competitive edge. Jobs clearly understood that design was central to innovation and reliability and built a company whose design philosophy makes it unique. In a very real sense Apple is the biggest design company in the world. Through this lens the product line might be seen as somewhat incidental, emerging from the design process to fulfill previously unimagined consumer desires and needs. The reshaping of how we consume popular music demonstrates this strategy. To harness the power of downloading music online Apple developed an entirely new shop-front with the iTunes Store and facilitated consumers with the iPod. Purchasing music is now a seamless process from the moment of hearing a tune to acquiring it – with Apple at the centre.

The positioning of design at the heart of Apple’s strategy has resulted in a range of premium products that are not particularly price sensitive. Margins are significantly greater therefore generating a higher return on investment than competitors. This focus on systems and processes that respond to (and sometimes prompt) changes in society is the fundamental reason for Apple’s phenomenal success. Steve Jobs recognised this from early on and it is clear that on his return to the helm in 1997 his focus was on implementing this strategy. The subsequent success of Apple in the marketplace led to his iconic status as a visionary and charismatic businessman, not only in the eyes of his own employees and customers but also among his direct competitors and in the wider business community.

Friday
Apr262013

Conjugating Irish identity

 

Today, in my role as Chair of the Board of the Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media (GradCAM) I introduced the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Naoise Ó Muirí, to launch the conference Object Matters: Making 1916 at the Wood Quay Venue in the Civic Offices of Dublin City Council. Here's what I said.

Six days that shook Dublin… that shook Ireland… that shook Britain… that shook the world? Or perhaps not. While the Easter Rising of 1916 certainly shook up the city it did not necessarily have the support of Dublin citizens at the time, with public opinion remaining opposed in its aftermath:

Regardless of their political outlook, most people responded to the end of the rebellion with relief. The streets of Dublin remained dangerous, with snipers continuing to fire from rooftops well into the following week, as people struggled to purchase food, collect pensions and wages, and return to everyday life (McGarry 2010).

Supporters of Redmond's Home Rule party even believed it to be a dastardly German plot (Lee 1989). Yet, we now recognise those six days as pivotal in Irish history. Writing in The Irish Times in 1996 Garret FitzGerald notes that as a result of the Rising:

Two years later, in the 1918 election, the tiny proportion who in 1914 had favoured separation of Ireland from Britain rather than Home Rule had jumped almost tenfold to half the electorate.

The historical, political, economic and social impact of those Easter events almost one hundred years ago has been well documented in the intervening years.

Today and tomorrow, however, we are gathering to examine how they have shaped our understanding of ourselves; to unpick what has become so much a part of our being that we don’t even see it any more. Material and visual culture is at the heart of identity and the really interesting thing about identity is how fluid and malleable it can be at particular times.

I am particularly interested in the concept of identity formation as a process rather than a single act. I have heard it described as:

the conjugation of identity.

That idea is tantalising and it explains the power of identity – as it resonates with repetition and rhythm – until the habit is internalized and becomes subconscious. It carries on unnoticed becoming part of who we are. It is the everyday experience of living that informs this process. A process that is shaped by what we see around us, what we hear, the tools we use – the world of the senses: through which we absorb information almost without being aware of it and perhaps with a less conscious critical evaluation.

It is the very ordinariness of existence that shapes us. But, of course, that experience is most difficult to impart. Many artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers in particular spend their creative lives interpreting the ordinariness of existence. Paradoxically, in that act of creativity they make the ordinary extraordinary. So it is with history. Events that may well be ordinary at the time of living become significant later on. This theme is explored with insight in Brian Friels’ 1989 play 'Making History', in which he explores the conflict between the participants and the historians: those who make history and those who wish to Make History.

Over the next two days we will hear about such diverse matters as the forgery of official documents, the impact of fashion on identity, the sense of place, memory and forgetting, the power of military uniforms, flags, and craftwork made in prisons.

It promises to be very interesting.

Sunday
Feb102013

Online: exploitation or opportunity?

New technologies upset society. For the early adopters the rewards can be great but society in general resists change. Declamation of the rise of digital technology is a current and recurring example. The usual argument is that it will result in the demise of print and consequently have a negative impact on literacy. This perspective seems to me to be misguided: it confuses the medium with the message. Perhaps McLuhan can be held responsible but I suspect it is simply the natural human resistance to change and the consequent shift in power.

As human beings discovered writing I imagine there were significant issues around the shift from an oral tradition. It is probable that the poets and bards who were responsible for administering the oral Brehon Law in pre-Norman Ireland resisted efforts to have it recorded. Once the law was written down there would be little need for the poets who had spent their lives memorising it. As they lost power and authority new opportunities became available for those who learnt to write and became scribes.

During the Middle Ages a highly sophisticated approach to religious manuscript reproduction developed in Europe. By the mid-fifteenth century cities such as Paris already had a two-hundred year tradition of commercial trade in manuscripts in addition to the production of religious manuscripts. One can only imagine the challenge that Gutenberg and his contemporaries represented to this status quo as they developed print reproduction using movable type.

What interests me about this history is how, at each development, the world of ideas is opened up to a greater proportion of the population. Cheaper methods of reproduction resulted in wider access. Today, illiteracy is considered one of the single most debilitating afflictions in society because written/printed information is ubiquitous. Since the fifteenth century society and culture in the Western World has been altered out of all recognition and it would not be an exaggeration to claim that the discovery of printing with movable type is the fundamental cause.

When technologies change those who see themselves as the gate keepers of knowledge and information resist the loss of their power… vigorously.

Throughout early 2013 columnists at The Irish Times published opinion pieces about online publishing and social media. David Adams (Much internet Journalism at level equivalent to Stone Age) and John Waters (Venomous and toxic social media out of control) led the charge with well-worn platitudes on the calibre of print journalism versus online writing that revolved largely around process. Adams proclaims the superiority of traditional journalism in the print media by describing the methodology of fact-checking by the writer, followed by an editorial procedure resulting in the dissemination of reliable information. This was presented as being in stark contrast to the methodology ascribed to 'so-called internet journalism'. Leaving aside the hard won reputation of online titles such as the Huffington Post and the transition to a digital-only format by Newsweek, not to mention the successful online edition of the New York Times, the fundamental problem with this argument is the failure to acknowledge the possibility that the process of traditional journalistic methodology is independent of form. It can be as easily employed in on online context as it has been in print.

But, the real problem with their lack of vision is the failure to see how digital online technology has already changed journalism. That is what McLuhan identified fifty years ago: the medium has an irreversible impact on the message. It massages it, shapes it, contextualises it and ultimately forms it. Any attempt to critique media today without taking account of this understanding is, at best, misinformed.

The credibility of The Irish Times was restored somewhat when Hugh Linehan, Online Editor, (Big online issues lost amid Twitterphobia) countered their myopic viewpoints and poorly informed opinions in a later article.

Then Fintan O'Toole revealed an equally naive attitude in a piece about the music industry when he asked Streaming, stealing: what's the difference? He suggests that the streaming model employed by companies such as Pandora and Spotify is essentially exploitative. He goes on to argue that implicit in this arrangement is the thoughtlessly selfish attitude of the consumer. Just as we are happy to ignore the real human cost of the cheap clothing available in department stores dependent on sweat-shop labour O'Toole argues we demand cheap music at exploitative rates. So, what's new? From the days of Tin Pan Alley popular music promoters have been exploiting artists in collusion with consumers. The story has been told in countless Hollywood movies and through the lyrics of many pop songs. 'Come in boy, have a cigar…by the way, which one is Pink?' sang Pink Floyd on the classic album Wish You were Here. The entire contemporary popular music sector has always been based on the exploitation of ambitious artists – irrespective of the delivery platform.

Contrary to O'Toole's view I would argue that the Internet and online music distribution has given artists the opportunity to reach previously unimagined audiences. For example, sites such as Magnatune offer artists a fair return for their efforts and specialise in professional artists who are not necessarily signed to major recording labels. Artists are also establishing their own sites to distribute their music and maintain control in a way never before possible. With the broad reach of the web niche audiences are now accessible and can provide a reasonable income to minority-interest artists. 

Two recent examples demonstrate how musicians have been much more adept at exploiting new technologies while highlighting the importance of listening to the music than O'Toole imagines.

Platinum wining singer/songwriter Beck Hansen returned to the Tin Pan Alley days by releasing his most recent album Song Reader as a book of sheet music rather than a recording. In an effort to remind music fans that it is worth devoting time and attention to his work he requires them to become part of the music by performing it themselves and encourages them to post the results online for all to see and hear at Song Reader. He even challenged the traditional publishing and distribution routes by using book publisher Faber and Faber in the UK and McSweeney's online bookstore in the US.

In a coincidentally similar but unrelated development musician Pierce Turner released an Apple iOS app earlier this year. Snow is also distributed by a publishing house, Associated Editions, rather than a record company. It broadens the scope of the artist's creative ability by including a discussion with award-winning writer Eoin Colfer, scenes from the recording, live performances, original notation and images inspired by the song. The app has been downloaded globally bringing Turner to new audiences.

Such imaginative and creative responses from artists to the ubiquity of recorded music in contemporary life and the new possibilities offered by the web give us a glimpse into an exciting online future.