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Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

Space and pace of flows

Ezio Manzini

[slide] John Thackara's main issue:
"to what question, if any, is pervasive computing an answer"
I'd like to develop the question that we've posed this afternoon - "how to design this space of flow?" - starting from the question that John Thackara posed for this conference, which is whether pervasive computing has some questions to answer.
[slide] enabling sustainable forms of life

And my answer is: to enable people to live in a sustainable way.
This is sufficiently simple to have said, and I think that today nobody here is estranged from the idea of sustainability. But of course the real problem is to translate this very general statement about sustainability into something that can work.

[slide] challenge: contexts regeneration

I talk frequently about sustainability, so some of you will already know about my condensed idea what it means to talk about a transition towards sustainability. And the major point for me is that we have to regenerate the context in which we live. The expression, a little larger, is that we have to learn to consume less and, at the same time, regenerate the context of life.

[slide] sustainability: to learn how to live better consuming less
and regenerating the contexts of life

To say "consume less" in regard of the subject of sustainability is sufficiently obvious - even it is not so obvious how much less we have to consume.

The regeneration of the context of life, a relatively new phrase, connects with the mainstream of our idea about what is well-being.The mainstream of thinking has been that in order to live better, we have to consume more. The problem being that, in consuming more, we destroy our context of life.

The way John (Thackara) posed this question this morning was about the contradiction between facing a system that seems out control - and knowing we cannot control it - but at the same time knowing we want to go in a certain direction.

[slide] transition: to route towards sustainability is a wide, complex, contradictory social learning process

I have no real answer (to this dilemma). As I will try to show, we cannot imagine to really direct this learning process because, like all learning processes, it will be very contradictory.

The problem is to be able to have feedback, to be able to learn from feedback. In order to have feedback, we have to be able to dare to do something. We have to do something in order to create the possibility to choose - to choose a direction. At the same time, we have to be ready to change direction when, and if, we discover that the direction is not the right one.

[slide] challenge: fear minimization

In recent months I have added another issue in my speeches, something related to fear. My impression is that we have to face something that was not so obvious is the past, especially not in the western countries: the idea that people, on a daily basis, could live in fear.

I was listening to the CNN, and there was a poll which said that today in the (United) States, sixty per cent of the people are favourable to the idea to start a war - a war against somebody when we don’t know exactly why we have to start a war with them. (It feels to me as if) we have to start this war because people are afraid, that they like to find an enemy, and hope that by killing the enemy they can solve the problem (of fear).

[slide] democracy in danger:
the perception of insecurity is spreading worldwide (through the networks), touching people everywhere and changing their priorities

When fear is distributed and flows through the nets, something changes in the minds of people. Our priorities change. I put this subject (fear) in my speech because it is obviously a little bit difficult for me to continue talking about sustainability - as I have been talking for the last ten or fifteen years, with a certain positive attitude that I tried to maintain - without taking into account that something is changing really deeply in the mind of everybody - probably also in my own mind - the idea of fear.

Fear is a very important issue. We have to insert this awareness into our projects - how we can face this problem (of fear). And it is really related to flow, and to networks, because it through the nets that it (seems to) become clear that you are not safe in any place. The possibility to find out that somebody wants to kill himself, and you, in every place in the world, is linked directly to the flow of people and information. There is a strong link between knowledge, and fear, on the net.

One of the fortunate things about being one of the last speakers is that I don’t have to frame the context. The context has been described clearly.

I will use three quotes - not because they are the only good ones, but because they are in one way or another more stricktly linked to what I have been thinking about.

“the space of flow is highly stratified”
(Felix Stalder)

“forms of relationships correspond to different social structures”
(Marco Susani)

“where steady crossovers between flows occur, places emerge”
(Malcom McCullough)

The first quote is that "the space of flow is stratified, has many different layers" (Felix Stalder). As Stalder said - which is also my opinion - the point is not only to have horizontal links, but to also have vertical links - to connect the different layers. Places are important when we face the space of flows, because places are where you have these vertical connections between different layers in the space of flow.

And at the same time "there is a link between relationship, the form of relationships, and different social structures " as Marco Susani explained yesterday. This kind of link is related to the idea of place. So in my view (and I can speak only for western culture) the idea of a place, of a rich place, is the richness of the many different layers of the flow that are connected together in a certain point. I am on the same line as what Marco Susani has written that I quoted here (points at text on screen).

A synthetic way to talk about what we are facing, is to call it an ecology of networks. "Ecology" here doesn't mean green, and all that that word stands for. It means a particular structure of the system, the meta-system in which you have many different systems that co-operate and compete. Ecology is the very complicated relationship within a system that is based on co-operation and competition. An ecological approach is when we read the space of flow and the space of networks (as a whole).

[slide] context: an ecology of networks

I very much appreciated the speech by Patricia de Martelaere yesterday, a philosopher colleague. But my final consideration would be very different to hers. I understand what makes her suspicious - and I am suspicious too - when we try to: give a form; to find some mental model; to try to represent in our mind: the space of flows, the ecology of flows, the ecology of networks.

I understand her suspicions about that (effort). But in my view it is terribly important. Because,as human beings, we need to create mental models of of reality - of some kind. So, whatever the methodological problems, I feel that it is much better to try to find a mental model based on the ecology of flows and of networks, than (to keep) the old, solid, one that we had before.

I know that we are still very far from capability to really create this (new) mental model. But I think that all the effort that has been done, and that we are doing, at this conference, is very uselful. And I dare to say: we need it.
Because, in some way, we cannot imagine to escape fear if we don't have an image of (what is going on in) the present. And to have an image of the present, we have to be able to picture the space of flow. So I'd say: this effort is fundamental.

The problem is that when we talk about the space of ecology, the space of flow, or the space of networks, we imagine that - like in every ecology - there are different ecological niches and the different niches are characterised by different equilibrium in between the different elements.

[slide] present key-words: large and fast

(Think of ) different places. In Switzerland you can go into a village and for sure it will be a place charaterized by very closed-mesh networks and very slow flows. Or you can go to a big airport, to a global hub, or into a big commercial center, and there everything will be characterised by the large, and the fast. Nowadays the emphasis is on the large and fast.

[slide] risk: large and fast, and desertified

But the large and fast has a risk: to desertify (those places) where things are not large and fast.

So imagine very large grids, with very big global hubs, with a flow in between them. Everything else - that is in between, that is not so large, and not so fast - can disappear, can be desertified. And this - as in a (natural) ecology - will be a loss. Because any ecology, any ecological system, is richer when you have a high diversity.

[slide] key-words to be renewed: close and slow

Diversity is a very fundamental issue. And given the large and the fast being very strong -- and I also like the large and the fast, by the way; I am not against it! -- but my point is that, given that the mainstream is the strong one, the one that actually is going to kill the other one, we have to do something to promote and to facilitate the existence, and to renew the idea, of the close, and the slow.

[slide] possibility: close and slow, and regenerative

And in my view, the close and the slow can be regenerative. So through the close - I mean, with this word, close mesh networks and slow flow - you can image how to regenerate our context of life. And this is because the social fabric is very linked to close mesh networks.

[slide] close close-mesh networks and social fabric

I can be in a virtual community with everybody - but if I need somebody that brings me milk to my home, because I am ill, I need somebody that is my neighbour. And if I have that, if I feel a little bit protected. I need somebody that I can feel physically around me. I don’t feel protected by some friend through email that lives at the other side of the world.
So that is in some way a way to to go in a direction that is against fear.

[slide] slow: slow flows and quality

And the second point is about slow. Talking about flows, for some strange reason, people usually are talking about fast global flows. But flows are not only fast, and global. They are also local, and slow. And slowness is fundamental. If we loose the idea of slow flow, we lose the idea of quality, for sure. Not only for the obvious thing - that to appreciate quality, I have to take time. If I have a glass of wine I can not drink it like this (gestures a hasty sip: ed.). I have to smell it, look at it, I have to take my time to drink this wine.

But I would say even beyond that, to be able to understand that is a good glass of wine, I had to do something before. You are not able to judge quality if you have not learned, you have to study in some way to know what quality is.

This (only to speak of )the perception of quality. And it is even more true for the production of quality. Quality is the result of social activity. It is a process to create something that is of high quality. It takes time. Nothing is of great quality if there is no community that produces this quality.

I mean, yes: you (can) have an invention while you have a shower, for sure. An idea is there just like this (snaps fingers). Ideas are very important, and also ideas need some kind of environment to emerge. But we are not talking about that now. We are talking about quality. And the best idea can end up as a terrible gadget, as is has happened for many of the issues that we have been talking about here at Doors. It often happens that a fantastic idea is translated into stupid, stupid gadget. I won’t say useful, or not, at this point; I only want to say these (gadgets) don’t have quality because for quality you need a community of people that are working on that, that create standard.

(Ezio looks around for a time check).
"Where is the gong man? My God! What to do in one minute?!"

There are three Italian good examples that, by the way, are not Armani or Versace, or whatever. I want you at least to know Italians are able to do something else.

[slide] example: slow food
(food+culture+cultural diversity protection)

Slow food is a movement that has emerged in Italy, and that has been enormously succesful, also in a lot of other countries in the world, And the success is because they used the term "slow". It was a design choice to pick this term. If they would have chosen "good food", people would have shrugged: so what. But by saying "slow", they bet on the fact that, for many people, this word be able to move something inside. What they promote is not only food, it is also diversity, culture, and links between little activities and the rest of the world.

[slide] example: agri-tourism
(farming+hospitality+landscape maintenance)

Then the idea of the agri-tourism. This is something that happens in many different places. How to put together weakness to create a strength. You have a farmer who could not make a living as a farmer in places that would not be of high touristic attraction. But if you put them together, and you develop the idea of hospitality, you can have a farmer that can have some tourists - and he can work.

(Gong sounds. Time is up).

Well. What do they have in common? They have in common that they are not one issue, they are complex, they are an example of a multiplicity of goals. They are local,and global. They are rooted somewhere, but at the same time they are linked to the global flows. And they take their time. They are slow.

We have a lot to design, so let's discuss this afterwards.

Question and answer

John Thackara
: This question of fear. I am not sure that fear is something new, that has been brought to us by the networks. Do you suggest that it is an irrational fear, do the networks fool people, is it a strategy of the system? Do we have good reasons to be scared?

Ezio Manzini: Maybe, at this moment, we have a good reason to be scared, Because there is somebody who is probably going to start a war. I am afraid of something - which is by the way not really the terrorists, but more the anti-terrorists.(audience claps) So yes, I think we have a reason. When I was young - pardon me John, when we were young, a long time ago - we could take a car from Milan, and go safely with our kids to India. By car. Now it is impossible. And this is to me a sign that something has changed drastically, that there is a sickness in our world wide society. And I think that the presentation of Stefano Boeri this morning was very clear on that. I only say that, through the network, the good and a bad can walk around. And I think that in some way you feel that you cannot escape. So the network of the general flow augments everything. And terrorism for sure they can exist, because they are mediatic. I am not able to really develop this thought, because I am not an expert on that. The only thing I wanted to make clear is that I cannot talk about sustainability today without taking into account that Europeans, in my view, are really scared - about, for instance, that there are 70 million people pushing trying to come into Europe. And when I see how beautiful we can live here in Amsterdam - or in Tuscany, where I live - and when you see images of what is going to happen, or might happen, and knowing how fast things can happen in these days, you feel fear.

Addendum : Ezio Manzini on "enabling" vs "disabling" product-service systems.

In April 2002, Doors of Perception organised a seminar at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea with the title: "PURE PLAY, OR PURE PAIN? New business concepts for interactive products and services". We have added below a summary (translated by Interaction Ivrea from the Italian report by Arianna Dagnino) of Ezio Manzini's presentation - the bit he would have given had we not limited him to just 20 minutes at Doors7!
(A full report of the Ivrea workshop is here)

"From new business ideas, to new ideas on business".

In this transitional phase from a product economy, to a services economy, a new methodological approach needs to be implemented to make our economies sustainable.

This means re-configuring companies in a way that is sensitive to the social and economic contests in which they operate.

The great new metamorphosis which businesses will have to undergo is the result of widespread connectivity. To explain this phenomenon, Manzini uses a metaphor: connectivity is like the action of heat in a solid. The more the heat increases, the more the bonds, which keep atoms united, tend to weaken - making the solid move progressively from solid to fluid, therefore making them lose their form.

In a parallel fashion, wherever company structures are rigidly defined, they tend to flake off with increased connectivity. There is a need to create organisations based on projects rather than on hierarchy.

There is a need to create teams of people, who can, in turn, set the scene and develop a frame of reference.

Ideas come before organisation. The first step therefore is to sit down round a table and implement a strategic conversation. The crux of the matter is to produce new ideas about business. And we must do that with the awareness that we are in a stage of being after... values after the collapse of the Twin Towers, or after the rise of the no global movement.

The great challenge is for companies to learn to reduce consumption and pollution, and to regenerate the environment - while in the meantime to produce a better quality of life.

They can do this by increasing culture, the system's creativity.

This could be possible, but only by means of a discontinuity - to radically change a company's business model.

Until now, every new product launched on the market created a better service - but, at the same time, destroyed something in the environment. We should now think in terms of sustainable solutions - services, products, or product-service systems - that also solve a specific problem in a specific context at the same time.

A company cannot resolve all problems by itself. A convergence of several different local actors - ie, the creation of a network - becomes necessary to resolve existing problems in that particular socio-economic context.

Manzini suggests three lines of research for companies to move along in the future:

1.Develop enabling rather than disabling solutions. This means creating conditions, infrastructures, which enable users to participate in the process of creating new products and new business models. This leads to a constant process of osmosis between companies and consumers, where the latter become the best market sensors, positioned to provide feedback and re-orientate the system using a constant learning process. In this way the system becomes really intelligent.

2. Think of new products and services in relation also to those resources which are common to the whole planet: air, water, social structure, quality of life, security in city centres.

3.Promote systems, which support an ecology of time rather than just-in-time. There can be types of temporal realities other than the simple acceleration of production and consumption rhythms.


updated Monday 31 March 2003
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