A design for life

There’s an infuriatingly flawed discussion of the future of innovation by Charles Leadbeter (of the Design Council) in today’s Observer. I started going “uh-oh” when I read the first paragraph:

About 20 years ago a new kind of bike started appearing on British streets: the mountain bike. Where did it come from? Not from a lone inventor working in his shed, experimenting feverishly. Not from the research and development lab of a mainstream bike manufacturer. The mountain bike came from users, especially a group of young enthusiasts in California who were frustrated that they could not ride along mountain trails on racing bikes.

There’s all kinds of idiocy in that first paragraph, from a simplistic black-and-white distinction between “users” and “inventors”, to a further promotion of the myth of the lone inventor, that there ever has been a time when all creative activity was done by lone individuals acting ex nihilo (which followed, and was shaped by, the similarly flawed concept of the single Romantic author, the solitary original creative genius – but that’s a story for another day). There’s also an implicit myth that bicycles in general were, pre-mountain bike era, unchanged and static, when in fact they have been evolving and shaped, not just by the manufacturers but by the users from the day they first appeared on the market (I have rambled on about this in the past) .

Then, to make things worse, the article flat-out contradicts itself:

The first commercial mountain bike came out in 1982, and the big bike manufacturers piled in. By the mid-Eighties, 15 years after the users had developed the first mountain bike, it was a staple of the mainstream market. In 2000, mountain bikes accounted for 65 per cent of bike sales in the US.

Before going on to assert:

We are moving from an era of mass production to one of mass innovation.

Hang on – if we’re leaving the era of mass production, where have all those bikes come from?

Anyway, the “total bollocks” alarms really start to go off when he starts talking about eBay:

In 1995 only about 122 people were trading on the forerunner of EBay. Now there are 122 million. EBay’s growth is in large part due to putting easy-to-use tools in the hands of users and letting them trade together. EBay charges for providing a platform and the tools. Users are free to do much as they like with them. EBay, as a firm, is sustained by its users who provide much of the innovation.

Now, while it’s true that eBay does offer a wide variety of tools, they’re not exactly that flexible; they’re closed-source and designed to constrain users’ behaviour from doing anything too dangerous (which is understandable, given the sensitive information eBay holds, giving users free remit to play with its inner workings might be a bad idea); while they offer an API for some real ‘power use’, it’s still under their terms, and very few regular eBay users are going to have the time or ability to exploit it.

The article then tries to unify both the rise of Linux, and of internet-coordinated campaigns like Jubilee 2000, into one big theory of where the world is going, shifting towards a paradigm of user/individual-oriented innovation. But, all four examples are fundamentally different; a physical technology, a closed digital technology-cum-marketplace, an open digital technology and a political campaign all have their own unique sets of politics and economics. Grand over-reaching theories of everything rarely satisfy, either in the natural sciences or the social sciences.

The thing is, this is a real shame, because the middle bit of the article is spot-on, at least as far as technology is concerned:

We will need to rethink deep-seated notions. We like to think innovation comes in a flash of genius and insight – a eureka moment – to an individual who is the author of the idea. Our patent system is based on the idea that the individual inventor can say in advance what their invention is for. […] We have come to think that all creativity resides in the special people and places, the home of the creative class: the designer in his studio, the boffin in the lab, the geek in the garage, the bohemians wandering the cultural quarters of our leading cities.

But the mistake he makes is to think this a recent phenomenon; historical social studies of technology show this to be far from the case – even in the mass-produced, industrialised age, users, well, some users, have always tinkered, modified and amalgamated technologies into new configurations (there’s some good stuff done on this by Williams and Fleck, amongst others). There is the question of whether a greater proportion of users are now doing so, because of better education, more information available to us, more free time etc. (I believe this to be the case), but this does not mean it did not exist in the past; there has always been a human instinct to create, and creation nearly always involves reusing the established work of others like this.

But there are obstacles to this creation; some domains by their very nature are more flexible and pliable than others – while it easy for people to customise their copy of The Sims, this cannot be extended to the treatment of diabetes (this actually is his example). Innovation in medicine is far riskier and carries a markedly different set of values to innovation in gaming. Issue of expertise, cost, measuring outcomes, power and ethics all muddy the water.

A departure from the flawed paradigm of the lone genius, the solitary inventor towards the idea of a remix culture (and the enormous value of a commons of knowledge for creators to use) and of innovation as a shared group activity is a good thing, and deserves to be given more treatment. But to gain any true understanding out of it, we need to apply not just to the ideas of the future, but also the lessons from the past.

As a footnote, the article also defends Hilary Cottam, who won Designer of the Year for the design of a school, a project which she wasn’t directly involved with; thus she’s been criticised for taking someone else’s credit. The defence is that she may not have done the actual design, but she deserves it for encouraging the users of the school in designing it misses the point; if we are going to recognise the collaborative and shared nature of innovation, then we should just get rid of awards like Designer of the Year.

One thought on “A design for life

  1. I’m not particularly sectarian, but I do tend to mistrust anyone who’s ever been a member of the Communist Party – within the Left, CPers had a combination of groupthink, historically-validated self-righteousness and extreme moderation which made them particularly wearing.

    Charlie Leadbeater is an old CPer. He’s also an old tankie, in the true sense of the word – he joined the party after the crackdown on Solidarnosc. His subsequent political evolution is curiously unsurprising.

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