A modular, tea drinking ecosystem

a_modular_tea_drinking_ecosystem_Louise_Downe_2013.jpgNo one person designed this. It happened over the course of a day at Chelsea flower show, as tea drinker after tea drinker swirled their tea, ditching the bag and stick. I doubt either that these two objects were designed with this use in mind – that just happened too – a strange by-product of their perfect relationship to one another, amplified many times over.

This is modular design. It works for one tea drinker, and it works for many. It doesn’t rob people of the joy of solving their own problems.

More things should be designed like this.



Moularity_1_Louise_Downe_2013A couple of weeks back I spent a few days in Saas Almagell, Switzerland. The brightest, most expensive place on earth.

Winters are harsh but bring predictably huge amounts of dry tourist-baiting snow to every surface.

With the addition of vast quantities of tiny, mouldable snowflakes – and some careful raking – roads are transformed from spaces just for cars into carriageways for multiple kinds of transport. Each night an enormous Snow Cat (pictured) restructures the roads and ski slopes with a car sized comb, cutting two deep grooves for cross country skis, and flattening another area for snowshoes and walkers.

All these uses are made possible by the modular mould-ability of snow. Tiny particles, stuck together to make any shape.

Does modularity have to ubiquitous to be usable?

Or does it simply have to be predictable?

Use and non-use


Spending a long overdue weekend wandering aimlessly in the New Forest.

Like everywhere else in the UK, it’s landscape never seems far away from human curation. A place where things that are un-planned are put to good use – and anything that cant be, is signposted.

In places like this, natural and un-natural are just shades of useful and not-useful.

More pictures

The impossibility of many in the mind of one (or something like that)


the_impossibility_of_many_in_the_mind_of_one_Louise_Downe_2013I’ve gone slightly obsessed by this picture lately. This is a picture of NASA mission central after the latest rover touched down on Mars.

Teams of hundreds of scientists spent years carefully crafting a remote laboratory that could survive the extreme conditions. They altered their body clocks so that they could operate it more efficiently, switched their language to talk about ‘sols’ rather than days. They did this all together, working as a team to explore Mars.

This is how their efforts were reported in the Scientist:

The rovers enjoy significant support in congress…

We live in a world where we think, act and make collectively. And yet we can’t seem to understand the world without singular authorship.

But how exactly would you describe the complexity involved in acting, thinking or even feeling something collectively? We don’t seem to have – at least in English – the language to talk about situations like this.

Our understanding of the world is largely controlled by words we use to describe it to others. What happens when we don’t have the words?

Restructing Britain


“Disjointed incrementalism’ characterises public service design: where services are altered and adapted by changing political drivers, professional fashions, shifting institutional norms and boundaries, and the biased lessons of past experience”

Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services

All the usual disclaimers aside (few would argue that this report isn’t needed, nor that it contains a lot of really good points), this quote from the latest Design Commission report worries me. What is wrong with responding incrementally to ‘shifting political norms’? Aren’t shifting political norms supposed to respond to shifting social norms? And more broadly, isn’t ‘incrementalism’, disjointed or otherwise, how evolution works?

The quote fits in with a re-emerging attitude to design that appears to believe the world can be strategically planned, piece-by-piece. To do this, it’s argued, design needs to become ever more ‘strategic’ – morphing from UI to UX, from service design to system design.

I don’t care how you label it, but by any name this is modernism – a belief that the world can be designed by a small number of people towards some definite, knowable end-state. A belief that, for all the simplicity it brought – wielded debilitating authoritarianism and institutionalism with equal measure.

Strange then, that we should start to talk about it in the context of public service.

The successes of modernism were narrowly defined systems within the public space – transport, gas, oil and water. The problems they faced may have gotten larger or more complex as the network grew – but they were unlikely to change form completely.

Bar some famous examples, we’ve watched those other, larger structures of modernism revert to disorder with years of neglect, weather and weeds.

The problems we face today are those same problems that brought down modernism. We can’t control them with one solution, strategy or ‘five circled grid’. But just because you can’t control something, doesn’t mean it can’t be changed.

Progress in science happens because we accumulate a collective knowledge. But in traditional, two-party politics we don’t learn from the other team, we react to them. And when our own team are in power, the mechanisms of the state take so long to change that we struggle to see any direct cause and effect, making it hard for anyone to learn from anything.

But when we change things directly on the ground we can observe cause and effect. Over time we learn what works and what doesn’t.

This is disjointed incrementalism. The kind that cannot be shoehorned into any strategy, program, work-stream or project. Perhaps it will force us to take the incremental decisions we make with more care and consideration, and who knows, things might change.

Important cracks

important_cracks_Louise_Downe_2013This is spit. Red spit to be precise.

Its a feature of many cities, created by chewing a mixture of tobacco and highly coloured spices.

I’ve noticed it in Bethnal Green for years, knowing it was a by product of the local Asian community that live here without knowing how, why or thinking much of it, until I saw a corner much like this one on the edge of covent garden.

Not unremarkable, however, at the time I had no idea where I was. Until I saw red spit and realised without thinking, that I was near to a place with an Asian population. I must be near Covent Garden.

Tracking though cultural presence, or using the traces of people as a map are familiar ways of navigating, what’s strange was how at home I felt the moment I saw this this corner in Dubai last month. Cracks are important as a space without function that can be filled. A crack can become anything, even a bridge.


Chicken shop entropy

chicken_shop_entropy_Louise_Downe_2013This chicken shop It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is filled every day, not with people who don’t want to cook, but with people who cant afford to cook.

A chicken burger costs £1.75. Cheaper than you could cook it for at home.

Waste is created when any information is transferred – heat, money, and power all lose bits when they’re transferred. When energy is scarce, waste will become a luxury.

We are actively trying to reduce this transferal by centralising our lives. Moving towards a collective future where much of our lives are run centrally. The heat in our homes is already centralised, whilst eating, washing and cooking become more expensive.

The trouble is, this collective way of thinking is incredibly difficult.

This is a picture of NASA’s mission central after the latest MER rover touched down on Mars.

Teams of hundreds of scientists had spent years carefully crafting a remote laboratory that could survive the extreme conditions.

They altered their body clocks to mars time so that they could operate it more efficiently from earth, switched their language to to talk about sols rather than days. They lived and worked as a team of diverse experts, yet his is how their collective efforts were reported:

The rovers enjoy significant support in congress…

 The Scientist

We live in a world where we think, act and make collectively. And yet we cant understand the world without authorship.