Category Archives: Uncategorized

Design and Protest

At Improving Reality 2013 in Brighton, during a panel session, one of the speakers, Tobias Revell briefly mentioned the ideas that design can be an antagonistic platform and the possibility that design could be a protest movement.

A flurry of tweets on the backchannel around this idea appeared and as I am involved in a college of art and design and I am interested in protest, activism and action I thought that this might be worthy of some further investigation.

An antagonistic platform is something I consider a space to investigate the tensions and conflicts between two or more actors. Through scenarios, provocations and role playing it should be possible to investigate and document the potential antagonisms and use this information, either in working towards resolution, evidence against one actor or another etc.

Something missed in the tweets that surrounded Tobias comment was a follow up for him, that this antagonistic space could be safe. This of course follows from a lot of the work that was presented on the day, these were design fictions and as such had yet to permeate into everybody’s everyday life.

Using the toolkit of design and the creation of fictions and scenarios and associated interventions you could explore certain antagonisms between actors in a safer space than ‘in the wild’

The artist and researcher Christian Nold presented a piece of work on Noise at the recent Participation In Science conference, held recently in London as a part of the Royal Geographic Societies annual conference. For the work, he has been working with local communities around Heathrow Airport, working to record the sound levels due to aircraft usage of the Airport. This is a politically charged issue, the expansion of Heathrow has a lot of investment attached to it but it would also greatly affect a large number of people who live in the area, with increased noise and the associated loss on the value of property that they own.

The work, as part of UCL’s Extreme Citizen Science research project is looking at ways of engaging the public in recording data, data that needs to be gathered to form part of a report on the proposed expansion.

Whilst developing tools and practiced to involve the community in collecting the data on their environment, Christian also developed a set of ‘interventions’, objects that use and respond to the data and provoke questions. For example, a simple receipt printer attached to a sound monitor, a receipt printed each time it recorded a sound above a preset limit. In a future could such receipts be used to clam compensation for sound pollution.

What was interesting was, at the conference, there were questions about the place of such parts of the work in the project. Science is supposed to be objective and not involved in the politics of the situation, yet these objects are imbued with the situation and political dialogue and work to provoke and question within that space, based on the underlying data collected in the ‘science part’ of the project.

Yesterday (as i write this) the iPhone 5s was launched, complete with fingerprint scanner and thus a mechanism for the everyday normalisation of biometric collection and use was released. This is though the post Snowden moment and whilst the theatre of techno-fetishism around the launch continued, the criticism behind the agenda of such technology was more noticeable. How long will this continue?

We are now working in a much more accelerated space. What is interesting is if design, art, critique on technology and practices can get out fast, so that by the time the technology is embedding itself into our everyday infrastructure we are already more conversant in how it works, why it does what it does and way it means to us in our lives.

I do not think that design is or will be a protest movement of itself, but it is part of the landscape on how we interact with each other and our environments, that protest ideas should make use of the tools of design and that design projects should be able to present the conflicts and hi light the issues, problems and conflicts in systems, processes, ideas and technologies.

Design can make the more abstract philosophies and ideas more accessible, more tangible and therefore more questionable and prod-able. Systems and methods of agency can be examined and questioned in a more accessible way. By developing the dialogues inside the safer space of the design space we can examine and extract and develop the ideas that are positive, that do make life better whilst retaining a record on the dialogue and process that lead to that decision.

I am thinking about hosting a one day conference on this, geekyoto style, if you might be interested the please fill in this form.

notes on: The Preferable Future Research Unit

The Preferable Future Research Unit

I want to look at two terms that I have been using recently, both are just ways of framing how I am trying to think about things at the moment but they might be useful, including how I map these onto existing frameworks and ways of thinking.

These are terms that I have been thinking about to explore a grander project, to create a better world. Whilst I fear that we now run a risk of becoming numbed to the word Future we do need to peg a vision somewhere.

The terms are ‘Preferable Future/s’ and ‘Accelerated Now’. I do not think that they obfuscate what I am trying to communicate with them too much, no clever wordplay here. Lets take each one in turn.

‘Preferable Future/s’

If you have been following geekyoto for a while this will be familiar to you, it originates for me, from the geekyoto conference where Richard Sandford gave an amazing talk on how we talk about the future and our possible nihilistic obsession with the dark, pessimistic futures. If that is how we communicate our imagination to our children how will be give them the tools and the aims for thinking beyond that.

Richard Sandford at geekyoto 2008 from Mark Simpkins on Vimeo.

Richard Sandford tells us something about the Beyond Current Horizons research project that is happening at Futurelab.

Maybe it is a nostalgia. There are a generation of us on the internet now whose future was, when children, described by the visions of space colonies and exploration, Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and the whole gamut of ‘Rescue Fiction’ where engineers, scientists and brave thinking people solved problems and saved lives. This was our future.

Cyberpunk critiqued this, whilst we were looking at the space colonies of the future the world was going through a complex neo-liberalisation that reinforced existing power structures. We were not going to get those futures we had hoped for, instead we had to return to an examination of economics and power. Instead, though, of taking the critique and mapping the positive paths through this to a better, preferable future many became seduced by the spectacle presented by the critique.

Preferable Future/s is the project to re-invigorate the critical role in examining the possible futures that we can see developing from now and map the paths through that does take us though to a preferable state in the future. If we obsess over our eventual destruction then we are more than capable of making that so. On the other hand we can focus our critical skills on the reality that we are continually creating and manipulating and pick out the preferable paths, the options and suggestions for a brighter, better world.

‘Accelerated Now’

This is simply the condition we are in now, processing the changes and developments as they happen. Science Fiction after cyberpunk did not lose its way but the critical thinking had to leap back to a previous time of accelerated change and re-imagine an industrial revolution with the communication and information density of now.

The economic collapse and the dearth of new ideological thinking has left us flailing, quickly latching onto whatever structure might just ‘float’ at the moment without a depth of critical thought or analysis. We thus possibly enable the new brokers of power almost unwittingly.

‘Accelerated Now’ is like Future Shock but possibly more manageable as we have become better able to address the densities of information that are now available. Yes, we still need more people to understand ‘how it all works’, understanding that code gives ideas agency within a computational culture is vital, being able to understand that code is useful.

The Preferable Future Research Unit

The goal of Preferable Future research is to enable critical thinking and collaboration across disciplines and to generate the tools, dialogues and objects that allow us to manage the accelerated now and move towards the future that we would prefer to see.

Working on projects that create projects and methods that allow us to sharpen our decisions towards preferable goals, working with those that are examining possible futures and helping gauge the best routes though them. The PFRU should be as much a path finding mission, explorers in the space of possibilities, developing the new maps for these territories.

The PFRU should be cross discipline and cross institutional. It’s home is in the network, with the nodes that can make an surface within the projects, models and thinking of the creators and explorers working now to pull us all through to a better world.

‘I want to …’

[you can discsuss this on twitter #iwantto]

Sometimes you wake up and realise that you want to change the world.

It might be that three o’clock in the morning and the fears and ideas that have plagued your mind for the last week coalesce into something you want to do. You have an idea. You write it down.

The next step is always one of the hardest, what to do next, how do you go about changing the world?

Taking the first step

The first step is always the hardest, in all things. The only way to approach anything is at a step at a time. You may create a grand vision, but what you act upon that always has to be managable. You have to be able to make the steps to reach towards your goal.

Now this starts to sound a bit like AA, the steps to moving away from addiction but that is because as a method of achieving something this works. There is a goal, ‘stop drinking’ or ‘cure cancer’. You can only ever step towards that goal and each step has to be one that you can take. It may be a hard step, it may take effort, it may cost you personnally but you have to be able to take the steps.

The goal may never be reached, but each step does change things. It alters to world to varying degrees.

A while back I was sat in a Le Pain Quotidien with Mark Stevenson and John-Paul Flintoff. Mark had recently finished his book ‘An Optimists Tour of The Future’ and John-Paul was researching how people affect change.

How To Change The World by @jpflintoff

We were discussing the idea around the League of Pragmatic Optimists, how this idea of people meeting regularly, sharing ideas about changing the world might work. How we could actually get action, not just a talking shop. John-Paul put forward that the key is to be able to examine the problem properly, be able to define what it is that you are trying to achieve and then, create the steps necessary to get there.

I think I reduced that down to ‘ToDo Lists’ for people attending LOPO meetings. Not quite the same thing.

The point, I think, is that we are very much in an age where we very quickly hit a point of impasse, what do we do next, how do we move forwards. It’s not just ‘us’ though. Politicians hit the same thing, everyone does.

Stop, reflect, regroup and replan

Being able to assess what it is that you actually want to achieve is a skill, one that can be taught and learnt.

One of the simplest ways though is to talk to people, other people can often look at a problem and help you see what you need to do next. Not everybody i’ll admit but on the whole they can.

Lots of people already do this. It is not new. In 2008 Clay Shirky wrote ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ which was about “what happens when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structures”.

PledgeBank, a site from MySociety is explicitly a site to help people get things done.

I have recently helped to launch a site and app Impossible. In this you add your wishes and gifts, there is no exchange but you can connect to people and help them to do something.

These are not the only tools out there either, the trick now is working out which step, which tool is the right one to take.

And this is where I think the gap is right now, I read an article on some grand disaster that is happening somewhere in the world and instinctively I want to do ‘something’ but what?

I wake up with and idea that will change the world, probably in small way but what are the next steps.

How to I add a wish to impossible that, in terms of effort from someone else, is grantable? How to I scope my gifts so that I know that when someone asks I can do it, without, at the back of my mind wishing I hadn’t posted that?

When do I create a pledge? When do I contact my MP? When do I take to the streets?

In a way we can approach this using a funnel model, we start with something possibly big, at least big in terms of the fact that you don’t quite know which direction its going to take. You examine it and start to break it down, possibly into steps that involve all of the above and more, steps that you can give to friends and contacts which are at the right scale that they can do them without too much thought.

So what happens now?

We talk. I don’t have one of my usual ideas, collapsing two words and thinking about creating something new. We probably don’t have to. The tools are already out there and there are plenty of people who have managed and are now affecting change.

Maybe if we just find it easier to find out these examples and maybe if we can just say, sometimes:

‘I want to change X in the world’

and people, anyone can come back with:

‘Look at Y’, ‘Start by contacting Z’, ‘I’ll help email me at …’

We can help each other look at the grand goals and help create the steps so that we can move towards them.

We can then use the tools out there, post our wishes and gifts on impossible, create the pledge on pledgebank that affects the next level of change.

This is not about creating a platform to ‘help you make change’, to try and own processes and tools, its a discussion about taking part in the community that can make change happen, that can point to and help with the tools out there, can possibly help make the new tools necessary.

Make a difference.

[you can discsuss this on twitter #iwantto]

the new RICH list

The other day I drank rather a lot of coffee but had some great conversations with some very clever people. Chris (@jaggeree), Ben (@beng), Paul (@r4isstatic) and Vinay (@leashless).

By the end of the day I wanted to do about 20 things at once, but there was one idea that started to form when I was speaking with Chris and Ben and took a better form later on when talking with Paul.

We came up with or listed out loads of ideas on things that would be worth building or exploring. Things that we could learn from, maybe other elements of the community could learn from. Maybe the ideas are wrong or useless or maybe in the fluff there is the germ of a good idea.

What is needed is a space to share the idea, to ask a group of peers ‘I have this half baked idea, help’. Now you can publish your idea and link to it and hope that you garner the feedback that you want but because there is so much noise online and so many ideas you might well in a lot of cases whistle into the wind. You will not get the feedback or support you need because no one notices that in fact you need a bit of help baking your idea.

So we go back to an old construct on the internet, the mailing list. That self selected group of people who know or vaguely know each other and are willing to share and bounce ideas off each other. A group that can go ‘thats a good idea, I have a bit of code that can do that bit and…’

As long as there is no pressure on people, since the ideas and projects are all extra-curricular, then it should become a space to actually get things done. They do not have to be finished, they might be sketches but it becomes a space to try and discuss and play with ideas.

So, Paul and I came up with the concept of the ‘Reasonably Interested Community of Hackers’, Paul has done a very nice post about this already. If you think you want to be a part of this small-ish list then let us know. The interesting thing will be how it works getting things made.

Of course the rest of the day was filled with new ideas for conferences, how presentations should be made, what mischief could be performed online, especially to show up the moral vacuity of the Tory idea of Big Society and so there will be more posts on these oh so very soon.

bookleteer API – project 2 (mini atlas)

Cheating a little, as we are not yet hitting the API.

I did a small piece of work that made use of Michal Migurski‘s Walking Papers a while back, ‘A Watchful State’ is a piece about CCTV and recording their location in urban infrastructure.

A Watchful State

I used one of the Walking Papers in the left hand part of the triptych.

Now, playing with Bookleteer one of the things I want to create is small atlas’ of an area with space for notes and annotations.

For the first test, I have used the walking papers site to generate a map of an area I am interested in and then manually resized the maps to fit in the Bookleteer page. The resulting atlas has the following:

First spread has the full map of the area on the left hand page and a blank page for notes on the right, the next spread has the top left quadrant of the map and a blank. Next is the top right quadrant and so on.

The full map

It is not complete yet by any stretch. Walking Papers are far more than just a nice way to print an map for a specific area, they are designed to be scanned back in and help add more information to Open Street Map data.

The main map, whilst it retains the markers to communicate orientation and location of the map has been reduced in size, the other maps are currently just cut ups of this main map, so missing the full registration details.

That said, since Bookleteer is also designed to be taken apart and rescanned in the two should complement each other.

Next step is to create a simple web app that will automatically do the same as above to create your mini atlas.

bookleteer API – project 1 (notebook)


When we did the geekyoto conference, Giles Lane printed up a set of notebooks and storycubes that we had around the venue. These were from the diffusion system that they had developed.

Diffusion became Bookleteer.


Bookleteer is a platform from Proboscis. I first became aware of their work whilst I was at the BBC and I discovered their Urban Tapestry project. I have stayed in touch since then, Giles also being a supporter of the Geekyoto conference.

Bookleteer has had an API for a while and I have been meaning to get around to doing stuff with it, now with some time to do some experiments and small ideas I have finally gotten around to it.

It works with so many of the ideas and projects that I have been working with and thinking about over the last few years that this is I feel one of the most exciting and important pieces of experimental work that I will have done in ages.

Now, I am also going to take on board some of what Tom Armitage spoke about at the recent dConstruct conference in Brighton, specifcially when he mentioned the (amazing) work of James Bridle. The Ideas to Actual Projects ratio. I’m not aiming at finished products, these are sketches and learnings and components of ideas. From building these I intend to learn more about how some things work, how they might work together and how they might be used.

Now the first one out of the box is rather a cheat, in discussions with Giles he mentioned how he was planning on writing some code to generate blank notebooks. So I have taken that as a starting point and done just that.

The notebook app allows you to select the type of book (classic reporters notebook or book type fold), whether you want blank pages or a grid and the number of pages. You can also give your notebook a title and it will go off and get the bookleteer system to generate the PDF. You can then download, print this and create your bespoke notebook.

There is lots is does not do:

  • At the moment it just uses my access token, so, ha after all this access to it is rather limited. This is something to work out with bookleteer and myself. If you want a go then drop me an email.
  • It should really do clever stuff like put the request to the Bookleteer API into a queue and let you know when its ready, rather than just wait for it a single process at a time.Thats a scale thing, something I may do later.
  • The grid is quite large at the moment, creating backgrounds for the pages is quite easy, they are just small jpegs repeated in a div tag in the HTML that describes the page. So I need to play about with images and sizes to give you some options on grid size.
  • Potentially other backgrounds can be made.
  • At the moment all the notebooks are private, when you create a book in bookleteer you get the option to make it public into their library, I just didn’t want to clog up the library with lots of bespoke notebooks, especially when they are titled like ‘notes for this specific day/location’ :)

This is just a first experiment with the API and starting to get my rusty code skills back into shape. Visit the Proboscis site and read about their project linking notebooks and the new publishing venture The Periodical. This whole concept of being able to create bespoke notebooks that are then used in a project and then, added back into the digital system is one of the reasons this platform is so exciting.

Since each book is made of A4 pages, once you have finished writing in it, sticking in pictures, sketching, whatever, unfold the book and scan the pages back in. Its not much work to re-flow the scanned pages back into a downloadable and printable book again. You can also then send that off to be printed in short runs. (or long runs if you need).

There is a lot of power and potential in this platform as each book is not just a book. It can be the gateway to online conversations and allow online to reach out into spaces where the technology is still not easily accessible. It’s like Michal Migurski‘s Walking Papers project but reaches beyond just maps and location.

I think of it as forming a part of the whole ecology of projects like Newspaper Club and even Bergs upcoming Little Printer but unlike those projects it still has that samizdat feel, that route to be useful to people who still don’t go online or have the facility to explore the internet or even just find thinking with paper and pen more their thing.

Upcoming, mini atlases, museum trips and storytime.

The Ministry Of Stories Procurement

I volunteer as a technical advisor to the Ministry of Stories in Hoxton. If you don’t know them they are a charity that runs creative writing workshops for children. To help fund the Ministry they also run the Monster Supply Shop.

Right now they have a big project for which I need your help, as a charity they have lots of people who volunteer, donate or are just interested. Over the last year they have managed these various lists through a number of systems, some more ad hoc than others. Now though they know that they need to sort out some joined up system, we are into the world of CRM.

I have started looking at CiviCRM as a possible solution, but my experience with Drupal is rather limited. We have also been pointed to at least one commercial solution. So below I have noted our key requirements for a CRM system and was hoping that you might be able to help us work out the best route to take.

Currently we have three main sites on the net that can collect data for us, The main website, allows you to find out about the Ministry and sign up as a volunteer or just sign up for news. is our online shop, where you can buy Tins of Fear and more to support the work of the Ministry. This is another data point, allowing you to sign up to newsletters etc.

Finally we also have a presence on information from here should also get captured.

We have a database of people, mostly from signing up on the main Ministry website. These are contact details for people who want news, volunteers and donors. Volunteers have various roles, there can be volunteers who help out in the shop, or the office (or like me trying to give some domain advice) or they can be the mentors for the workshops. If they are going to work directly with the children, then they have to have CRB checks completed and references. All this needs to be recorded so that we know who is doing what, what status they are at (fully trained and checked, in progress etc).

Also people can have multiple roles, some will volunteer time as well as donate money. So when someone joins our database we need to be able to know about their multiple roles and make sure when we communicate with them we do so in the correct context and also make sure we are not spamming them.

We also have data on organisations and contacts at these organisations. Since some donations come in via such organisations we need to be able to record these as entities as well.

There is also a database of Schools and contacts there and we also keep records of the children who attend the workshops, data around allergies, dietary requirements and their progress through the workshops. This database we want to keep separate to further restrict access, but would need to get some reports from this into the general reporting in the main system.

As, yes, reporting. We need to be able to generate reports, for us to track people we have, interest, admin (ie who has CRB checks that need renewing, who has been attending the workshops, who is also signed up as an illustrator etc). We also need to be able to generate reports for various funding bodies, as they like to know information such as number of volunteers, number of volunteers from a specific area and other demographic information.

Where we have that data we need to be able to create these reports, they will help us to apply and maintain funding from various organisations. This data is also useful in quantifying the impact the Ministry is having, in terms of engagement etc.

So our new system needs to be able to do all this, but whereas at the moment this is all spread across a number of databases (wordpress users, filemaker, mailchimp, various spreadsheets) we would like to be able to have one system, or at least one core system that can push out relevant information to the other systems (so, when you sign up at the website we record your information in the main database, it can then update the wordpress system to create your account on there).


  • We would like to be able to attach paperwork to records, ie a scan of references, or CRB document.
  • Create contact reports when calling organisations / individuals about funding / donations.
  • Possibly integrate with ticketing systems, we run some events, some free some paid.

Finally, we hope that over the next year other Ministries will appear across the country and we would like to be able to say ‘Here is the CRM system for you, here are the reports you need, here is a shared contact database for funding groups. etc’

So we now need to find the solution that ticks as many boxes as possible, is something we can work with (on a day to day usage basis) but will also grow as our requirements possibly change.

It needs to:

  • Be cost effective, we are a charity with a very limited budget.
  • Integrate with our existing websites as much as possible. Though of course we can work on them to get them to work with the new system, I do want it all to join up as much as possible so we are not duplicating data or adding points where mistakes can be made.
  • Integrate with MailChimp. We currently use mailchimp for sending out our emails but we are getting close to the free limit, something that allows us to work closely with mailchimp to efficiently send emails, to make the best use of the free account would be great (yes, I intend to start talking to MailChimp about possibly helping us further).
  • Support a number of users working with the data. A volunteer co-ordinator and a fundraising volunteer could well be accessing records on the system at the same time.

So, as I said I have started looking at CiviCRm as a possible solution and we have had
suggested as a possible solution. What I would like to know is if you have any experience with either of these, would they deliver what we need and what would it take to make them do what we want.

Also do you have any other suggested solutions?

If you have any further questions, then please leave a comment or find me on twitter @marksimpkins.