Design with Intent: The Book by Dan

I'm very excited to announce that O'Reilly Media will be publishing my Design with Intent book in Autumn 2016, with an Early Release version available before that. Please do sign up to the new newsletter for updates! Design is increasingly about people’s behaviour, but this is often considered simplistically. The Design with Intent book aims to give practitioners a more nuanced approach to design and behaviour, working with people, people’s understanding, and the complexities of everyday human experience.

It will build on the toolkit, and my PhD, but also what I've learned over the last few years on practical research projects, with people in real contexts, around people's understanding of, and interaction with, technology and designed systems, including SusLab, Creative Citizens, CarbonCulture at DECC and Creating Sustainable Innovation. The book will also build on examples, good and bad, from all over the world, addressing a wide range of problems and contexts, both social and commercial. It'll cover design across products, services and environments, physical and digital (and, increasingly, in combination), and I'll be asking for readers' suggestions and examples for particular ideas and themes.

I'm hoping that the book will offer a more nuanced approach to designing around people's behaviour, based on designing and researching with people rather than ‘for’ them, learning from people’s understanding of the world, and embracing the complexities of everyday human experience. As I said last year, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with how I see "design for behaviour change", and the "behaviour change agenda", being applied in practice, with simplistic, deterministic and individualist approaches which often seem to be about treating humans as defective components, that need to be constrained or tricked, denying variety, complexity, culture and social context. I started blogging ten years ago specifically to explore and critique the use of design to control and exert power, and that hasn't gone away.

Writing the book is going to be a big job alongside my work at the RCA, and my plan is to blog the process to keep myself on track—partly also to get suggestions and input along the way. So please do keep an eye on the site, and sign up to the newsletter for updates. Thanks to everyone who gave me the confidence to take the plunge with this!

What does energy look like? Drawing Energy book now available by Dan Lockton

Last year, Flora Bowden blogged about our investigation of people’s perceptions of ‘energy’—how do people visualise, or think about, what is for the most part an abstract, invisible concept? A book detailing our research, Drawing Energy, is now available to download or order: Bowden, F., Lockton, D., Gheerawo, R. and Brass, C. (2015). Drawing Energy: […]

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Update by Dan

Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore It's been a bit of a chaotic time recently, both in family terms and professionally, so my apologies for the lack of updates. In February I started as Visiting Research Tutor in Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) at the RCA, helping develop a programme of research and helping to supervise a group of excellent PhD researchers with a range of very interesting projects. IDE has one of the largest design research cohorts within the RCA, and I am looking forward to helping develop this further, in some new directions, through both academic and industry collaborations.

Part of this, from my point of view, will be reinvigorating and developing the Design & Behaviour Research Network which I started back in 2008, into something more substantial and which can build on other work such such as last year's Creating Sustainable Innovation project. If you're interested in collaborating, please get in touch.

The Performance of Nonhuman BehaviourAt Nordes 2015 at Konstfack in Stockholm in June, I will be running a workshop, The Performance of Nonhuman Behaviour, with Delfina Fantini van Ditmar (IDE PhD candidate) and Claudia Dutson (Architecture PhD candidate). My part of the workshop builds on many of the ideas explored in this blog over the years, around people's understanding of the systems they interact with, and I'm hoping it will be a fun and useful event. More details in due course.

Some background

I'll be blunt here: academic career prospects for what are termed "early career researchers" in the UK are not great, particularly in subjects which fall between the cracks of major research councils' funding scope, and particularly at places like the RCA which don't have any kind of staff development programme for researchers, and which depend heavily on "visiting" and part-time staff, often with no contract at all. My choices have been, essentially: 1) bring in enough funding to pay my own salary plus all of the overheads which universities require (which I have tried to do, and am trying to do, but which is very difficult starting from a near-zero base); 2) work on others' projects on a series of short-term contracts, with little strategic input (which I don't mind doing if I have to, but which is a step backwards); 3) leave and go somewhere with better support for early career staff. The RCA has some fantastic people, both students and staff, so I am trying option 1), as best I can, but I am aware that as an institution, it doesn't try very hard to hold onto people.

GATEway project, Meridian ShuttleIn option 2) terms, working for the Helen Hamlyn Centre together with Vehicle Design at the RCA, I have temporarily (since January) also been project manager for setting up the public engagement work package of GATEway, an £8 million Innovate UK project looking at understanding and demonstrating driverless cars in the UK, led by TRL in conjunction with partners including the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Commonplace, and Shell. The introduction of new technology of this kind, the designed systems, services and infrastructure around it, and the potential effects on everything from urban planning to jobs, is fascinating, and I will be intrigued to see how the project develops and what it finds.

SusLab, Drawing Energy and Powerchord

My job at the Helen Hamlyn Centre as part of the RCA's role in SusLab has ended when the RCA's funding ended, although I am still contributing to the project by supporting other partners in analysis and writing up of the results, and co-editing an academic book with Professor David Keyson and Dr Olivia Guerra Santin from TU Delft.

From the UK perspective, our book Drawing Energy, on which Flora Bowden has led, with myself, Clare Brass and Rama Gheerawo as co-authors, should be published in June this year by the Helen Hamlyn Centre. I'll put more details on the SusLab at the RCA blog when they're available.

Powerchord, energy sonificationI am going to continue to work on Powerchord, the home energy sonification system, as a personal project. Being freed of the constraints of a major project ought to make this easier and faster, though of course without the benefit of funding. Claire Matthews has produced a brilliant range of sound schemes, and I'm hoping that a Mark II version of Powerchord using Jack Kelly's approach to extracting CurrentCost/EDF individual appliance monitor data will prove more flexible than the previous approach. More news on this in due course.

Design with Intent

In February, while I was en route to Munich to talk at the wonderful Hans Sauer Foundation Social Design Elevation Days, a PHP upgrade by the webhost, combined with a long outdated version of MediaWiki meant that the Design with Intent website became unusable (blank, basically). My botched attempt to fix it rapidly via FTP, hotspotting from my phone in an airport departure lounge, made things worse. So I have put up a temporary site which has most of the same content, but does not have individual pages for each pattern. Something better is on the way when I get a spare weekend...

Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack: Inspiring digital ideas from community projects by Dan Lockton

Launched at the Creative Citizens conference in September 2014, the Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack is a collection of practical case studies: 12 diverse, inspirational community projects, all making use of digital tools in creative ways for social benefit, with suggestions and advice from the people involved. Along with projects from the three strands of the […]

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As we may understand: A constructionist approach to ‘behaviour change’ and the Internet of Things by Dan

Find Alternative Route, Old Street In a world of increasingly complex systems, we could enable social and environmental behaviour change by using IoT-type technologies for practical co-creation and constructionist public engagement.

[This article is cross-posted to Medium, where there are some very useful notes attached by readers]

We’re heading into a world of increasingly complex engineered systems in everyday life, from smart cities, smart electricity grids and networked infrastructure on the one hand, to ourselves, personally, being always connected to each other: it’s not going to be just an Internet of Things, but very much an Internet of Things and People, and Communities, too.

Yet there is a disconnect between the potential quality of life benefits for society, and people’s understanding of these — often invisible — systems around us. How do they work? Who runs them? What can they help me do? How can they help my community?

IoT technology and the ecosystems around it could enable behaviour change for social and environmental sustainability in a wide range of areas, from energy use to civic engagement and empowerment. But the systems need to be intelligible, for people to be engaged and make the most of the opportunities and possibilities for innovation and progress.

They need to be designed with people at the heart of the process, and that means designing with people themselves: practical co-creation, and constructionist public engagement where people can explore these systems and learn how they work in the context of everyday life rather than solely in the abstract visions of city planners and technology companies.

View Source

Understanding things

The internet, particularly the world-wide web, has done many things, but something it has done particularly well is to enable us to understand the world around us better. From having the sum of human knowledge in our pockets, to generating conversation and empathy between people who would never otherwise have met, to being able to look up how to fix the washing machine, this connectedness, this interactivity, this understanding, has—quickly—led to changes in everyday life, in social practices, habits, routines, decision processes, behaviour, in huge ways, not always predictably.

It’s surfaced information which existed, but which was difficult to find or see, and—most importantly—links between ideas (as Vannevar Bush, and later Ted Nelson, envisaged), at multiple levels of abstraction, in a way which makes discovery more immediate. And it’s linked people in the process, indeed turned them into creators and curators on a vast scale, of photos, videos, games and writing (short-form and longer). It may not all be hand-coding HTML, but perhaps much of it followed, ultimately, from the ability to ‘View Source’, GeoCities, Xoom, et al, and the inspiration to create, adapt and experiment.

But how do things fit into this? How can the Internet of Things, ambient intelligence and ubiquitous, pervasive computing, help people understand the world better? Could they enable more than just clever home automation-via-apps, more-precisely-targeted behavioural advertising, and remote infrastructure monitoring, and actually help people understand and engage with the complex systems around them — the systems we’re part of, that affect what we do and can do, and are in turn affected by what we do? Even as the networks become ever more complex, can the Internet of Things — together with the wider internet — help people realise what they can do, creating opportunities for new forms of civic engagement and empowerment, of social innovation, of sustainability?

In this article, I’m going to meander a bit back and forth between themes and areas. Please bear with me. And this is very much a draft—a rambling, unfocused draft—on which I really do welcome your comments and suggestions.

Light switch panel, RCA

Design and behaviour change

For the last few years, I’ve been working in the field of what’s come to be known as design for behaviour change, mostly, more specifically, design for sustainable behaviour. This is all about using the design of systems—interfaces, products, services, environments—to enable, motivate, constrain or otherwise influence people to do things in different ways. The overall intention is social and environmental benefit through ‘behaviour change’, which is, I hope, less baldly top-down and individualist than it may sound. I am much more comfortable at the ‘enable’ end of the spectrum than the ‘constrain’. The more I type the phrase ‘behaviour change’, the less I like it, but it’s politically fashionable and has kept a roof over my head for a few years.

As part of my PhD research, I collected together insights and examples from lots of different disciplines that were relevant, and put them into a ‘design pattern’ form, the Design with Intent toolkit, which lots of people seem to have found useful. All of the patterns exemplify particular models of human behaviour—assumptions about ‘what people are like’, what motivates them, how homogeneous they are in their actions and thoughts, and so on—often conflicting, sometimes optimistic about people, sometimes less so. Each design pattern is essentially an argument about human nature. Some of them are nice, some of them are not.

However, in applying some of the (nicer!) ideas in practice, particularly towards influencing more sustainable behaviour at work and at home, around issues such as office occupancy and food choices, as well as energy use, it became clear that the models of people inherent in many kinds of ‘intervention’ are simply not nuanced enough to address the complexity and diversity of real people, making situated decisions in real-life contexts, embedded in the complex webs of social practices that everyday life entails. (This is, I feel, something also lacking in many current behavioural economics-inspired treatments of complex social issues.)

Milton Keynes Station

Many of the issues with the ‘behaviour change’ phenomenon can be characterised as deficiencies in inclusion: the extent to which people who are the ‘targets’ of the behaviour change are included in the design process for those ‘interventions’ (this terminology itself is inappropriate), and the extent to which the diversity and complexity of real people’s lives is reflected and accommodated in the measures proposed and implemented. This suggests that a more participatory process, one in which people co-create whatever it is that is intended to help them change behaviour, is preferable to a top-down approach. Designing with people, rather than for people.

Another issue, noted by Carl DiSalvo, Phoebe Sengers and Hrönn Brynjarsdóttir in 2010, is the distinction between modelling “users as the problem” in the first place, and “solving users’ problems” in approaches to design for behaviour change. The common approach assumes that differences in outcome will result from changes to people—‘if only we can make people more motivated’; ‘if only we can persuade people to do this’; ‘if only people would stop doing that’—overcoming cognitive biases, being more attentive, caring about things, being more thoughtful, and so on.

But considering questions of attitude, beliefs or motivations in isolation rather than in context—the person and the social or environmental situation in which someone acts (following Kurt Lewin and Herbert Simon)—can lead to what is known as the fundamental attribution error. Here, for example, some behaviour exhibited by other people—e.g. driving a short distance from office to library—is attributed to ‘incorrect’ attitudes, laziness, lack of motivation, or ignorance, rather than considering the contextual factors which one might use to explain one’s own behaviour in a similar situation—e.g. needing to carry lots of books (this example courtesy of Deborah Du Nann Winter and Susan M. Koger).

So, framing behaviour change as helping people do things better, rather than trying to ‘overcome irrationality’ as if it were something that exists independently of context, offers a much more positive perspective: solving people’s problems—with them—as a way of enacting behaviour change, from the initial viewpoint of trying to understand, in context, the problems that people are trying to solve or overcome in everyday life, rather than adopting a model of defects in people’s attitudes or motivation which need to be ‘fixed’.

Lord Stand By Me

Something that has arisen, for me, during ethnographic research and other contextual enquiry around things like interaction with heating systems, energy (electricity and gas) use more widely — and even seemingly unrelated issues such as neighbourhood planning, or a community group’s use of DropBox — is the importance of people’s understanding and perceptions of the systems around them. Questions about perceived agency, mental models of how things work, assumptions about what affects what, conflating one concept or entity with another, and so on, feed into our decision processes, and the differences in understanding can cause conflict or undesired outcomes for different actors within the system.

As Dan Hill puts it, if we can “connect [people’s] behaviour to the performance of the wider systems they exist within” we can help them “begin to understand the relationships between individuals, communities, environments and systems in more detail”.

'Pig Ears' outside the Said Business School, Oxford

But it seems as though most approaches to design for behaviour change—and it’s a rapidly growing field under different labels—either ignore questions around understanding entirely, or try to find out about how users (mis)understand things, and then attempt to change users’ understanding to make it ‘correct’. Many, in fact, start straight out to try to change understanding without trying to find anything out about users’ current understanding. A few (but not enough, perhaps) try to adjust the way a system works so that it matches users’ understanding. (This is a development of something I explored in a London IA talk a few years ago.)

Also, I must emphasise at this point that ‘behaviour change’ is not really a thing at all. ‘People doing something differently’ covers so much, across so many fields and contexts, that it’s silly to think it can be assessed properly in a simple way.

If anyone is really an ‘expert’ in ‘behaviour change’, it is parents and teachers and wise elderly raconteurs of lives well lived, children with youthful clarity of insight, people who strike up conversations with strangers on the bus, or talk down people about to jump off bridges: optimistic, experienced (or not) human students of human nature, not someone who sees ‘the public’ as a separate category to him- or herself, ripe for ‘intervention’.

Not for Public Use, Class 172 London Overground train

The Internet of Things as an innovation space

One of the nicest things about the Internet of Things phenomenon—and indeed the Quantified Self movement—as opposed to that other, related, topic of our time, the top-down ‘Smart City’, is the extent to which it crosses over with the bottom-up, almost democratic, Maker movement mentality. I’m using ‘the IoT’ here as a broad category for the potential to involve objects and sensors and networks in areas or situations that previously didn’t have them.

The Internet of Things, through initiatives such as Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino’s IoT meetups and others—while undoubtedly boosted commercially by Gartner Hype Cycle-baiting corporate buzzword PowerPoints—has been to no small extent driven by people doing this stuff for themselves. And helping each other to do it better. The peer support for anyone interested in getting into this area is immense and impressive: you can bet that someone out there will offer assistance, suggest ways round a problem, and share their experience. The barriers to entry are relatively low, and there are organisations and projects springing up whose rationale is based around lowering those barriers further.

The IoT is a huge von Hippel user innovation space, and it involves not just innovation by users, but innovation that is about building things. Its very sustenance is people building things to try out hypotheses, addressing and reframing their own problems responding to their own everyday contexts, modifying and iterating and joining and forking and evolving what they’re doing, putting the output from one project into the input of another, often someone else’s. And yet it is still quite a small community in a global sense, overrepresented in the echo-chamber of the sorts of people likely to be reading this article.

Home Energy Hackday, Dana Centre

Constructionism and co-creation

I suspect there is something about the open structure of many IoT technologies (and those which have enabled it) which has made this kind of distributed, collaborative community of builders and testers and people with ideas more likely to happen. It may just be the openness, but I think it’s more than that. There are three other elements which might be important:

  • Linking the real world to a virtual, abstract, invisible one. Even if an IoT project is about translating one physical phenomenon into another, this action comes about through links to an invisible world. I don’t know for certain why that might be important, but I think it may be that it triggers thinking about how the system works, in a way that is still somewhat outside our everyday experience. This kind of action-at-a-distance retains some magic, in the process calling new mental models or simulations into existence…
  • …which are then tested and iterated, because nothing ever works first time. This means people learn through doing things, through coming up with ideas about how things work, and testing those hypotheses by their own hand, often understanding things at quite different levels of abstraction (but that still being just fine). It’s not a field that’s particularly suited to learning from a book (despite some excellent contributions)…
  • …and indeed the boundaries of what the IoT is for are so fluid and expansive in a ‘What use is a baby?’ sense that the goal is one of exploration rather than ‘mastery’ of the subject. There is no right or wrong way to do a lot of this stuff, nor limits imposed by any kind of central authority.

I’m no scholar of educational theory, but it seems that these kinds of characteristics are similar to what Seymour Papert, father of LOGO and student of Jean Piaget, termed constructionism—in the words of the One Laptop Per Child project,

“a philosophy of education in which children learn by doing and making in a public, guided, collaborative process including feedback from peers, not just from teachers. They explore and discover instead of being force fed information”.

Story Machine workshop at The Mill, Walthamstow Constructionist learning (whether with children or adults) is not a ‘leave them to it’ approach: it involves a significant degree of facilitation, including designing the tools (like LOGO, or Scratch) that enable people to create tools for themselves. Returning to the design context, this is a central issue in discussions of participatory design, co-design and co-creation—to what extent, and how, designers are most usefully involved in the process. What are the boundaries of co-creation? How do they differ in different contexts? Is the progression from design for people to design with people to design by people an inevitability? Whither the designer in the end case?

Setting aside this kind of debate for the moment, I am going to say that for the purposes of this article:

  • involving people (‘users’, though they are more than that) in a design process…
  • to address problems which are meaningful for them, in their life contexts…
  • in which they participate through making, testing and modifying systems or parts of systems…
  • partly facilitated or supported by designers or ‘experts’…
  • in a way which improves people’s understanding of the systems they’re engaging with, and issues surrounding them…

meets a definition of ‘constructionist co-creation’.

Education City, Doha

Behaviour change through constructionist co-creation

Now, let’s go back to behaviour change. I mentioned earlier my contention that much of what’s wrong with the ‘behaviour change’ phenomenon is about deficiencies in inclusion. People (‘the public’) are so often seen as targets to have behaviour change ‘done to them’, rather than being included in the design process. This means that the design ‘interventions’ developed end up being designed for a stereotyped, fictional model of the public rather than the nuanced reality.

Every discipline which deals with people, however tangentially, has its own models of human behaviour—assumptions about how people will act, what people are ‘like’, and how to get them to do something different (as Susan Weinschenk notes). As Adam Greenfield puts it:

“Every technology and every ensemble of technologies encodes a hypothesis about human behaviour”.

Phone box, Isleworth

All design is about modelling situations, as Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro and before them, Christopher Alexander remind us. Even design which does not explicitly consider a ‘user’ inevitably models human behaviour in some way, even if by omitting to consider people. Modelling inescapably has limitations—Chris Argyris and Donald Schön suggested that “an interventionist is a man struggling to make his model of man come true”—but of course, although “all models are wrong…, some are useful.”

In design for behaviour change, we need to recognise the limitations of our models, and be much clearer about the assumptions we are making about behaviour. We also need to recognise the diversity and heterogeneity of people, across cultures, across different levels of need and ability, but also across situations. This approach is something like attempting to engage with the complexity of real life rather than simplifying it away—in Steve Portigal’s words:

“rather than create distancing caricatures, tell stories… Look for ways to represent what you’ve learned in a way that maintains the messiness of actual human beings.”

What’s a way to do this? Co-creation, co-production—in a behaviour change context—enables us to include a more diverse set of people, leading to a more nuanced treatment of everyday life. This, in itself, represents an advance in inclusion terms over much work in this field. Flora Bowden and I have tried to take this approach as part of our work on the European SusLab energy project.

But going further, constructionist co-creation for behaviour change would enable people actually to create, test, iterate and refine tools for understanding, and influencing, their own behaviour. Just look at Lifehacker or LifeProTips, GetMotivated or even the venerable 43 Folders. People enjoy exploring ways to change their own behaviour, through experimenting, through discussion with others, and through developing their own tools and adapting others’, to help understand themselves and other people, and the systems of everyday life which affect what we do. Behaviour change could be direct—or it could be, perhaps more interestingly, directed towards exploring and improving our understanding of the systems around us.

Vodafone tower, on a car park roof in central London

Invisible infrastructures and the Internet of Things: avoiding the demon-haunted smart fridge

The thing is, the systems around us are complex and becoming more so, and often invisible—or “distressingly opaque”—in the process, which makes them more difficult to understand and engage with. This includes everything from ‘the Cloud’ (which, as Dan Hon notes, is coming to the fore with news stories such as celebrity photo hacking) to Facebook (as danah boyd puts it, “as the public, we can only guess what the black box is doing”) to CCTV and other urban sensor networks.

You are now entering a Bluetooth Zone (Right: An interesting infrastructure ‘business model’ from the Public Safety Charitable Trust—see

Timo Arnall, in his PhD thesis, introduces this issue using the example of smartphones, “perhaps the most visible aspect of contemporary, digitally-mediated, everyday-life. Yet the complex networks of systems and infrastructures that allow a smartphone to operate remain largely invisible and unknown.”

He goes on to explore, via some beautiful projects, another invisible infrastructure—RFID and near-field communication— and the possibilities of making this visible, tangible and legible.

Most diagrams or infographics aiming to illustrate the Internet of Things show visible lines connecting objects to each other, or to central hubs of some kind. But whatever forms the IoT takes, most of these are going to be ‘invisible by default’, in Mayo Nissen’s words (specifically referring to urban sensors). Invisibility might seem attractive, and magic (and we’ll get onto seamlessness in a bit) but by its very nature it conceals the links between things, between organisations, between people and purpose:

“Some sensing technologies capture our imagination and attract our constant attention. Yet many go unnoticed, their insides packed with unknowable electronic components, ceaselessly counting, measuring, and transmitting. For what purpose, or to whose gain, is often unclear… there is seldom any information to explain what these barnacles of our urban landscape are or what they are doing.”

Black Boxes & Mental Models Black Boxes & Mental Models Black Boxes & Mental Models

(Above and below: Black boxes and mental models: an exercise at dConstruct 2011. Some photos by Sadhna Jain.)

Back in 2011 I ran a workshop at dConstruct including an exercise where groups each received a ‘black box’, an unknown electronic device with an unlabelled interface of buttons, ‘volume’ controls and LEDs, housed in a Poundland lunchbox and badly assembled one evening while watching a Bill Hicks documentary and drinking whisky.

Black Boxes & Mental ModelsInternally  — and so secretly — each box also contained a wireless transmitter, receiver, sound chip and speaker (basically, a wireless doorbell), and in one box, an extra klaxon. The aim was to work out what was going on — what did the controls do? — and record your group’s understanding, or mental model, or even an algorithm of how the system worked in some form that could explain it to a new user who hadn’t been able to experiment with the device.

As people realised that the boxes ‘interacted’ with each other, by setting off sounds in response to particular button-presses, the groups’ explanations became more complex.

Each group used slightly different methods to investigate and illustrate the model, with unexpected behaviour or coincidences (one group’s box setting off the doorbell in another, but coinciding with a button being pressed or a volume control being turned) leading to some rapidly escalating complex algorithms.

We are now creating an even more complex world of black boxes, networked black boxes with their own algorithms, real and assumed, and those that depend on algorithms out of our hands, remote, changeable, strategic, life-changing which we may not have any easy way of investigating. And which model us, the public, in particular ways.

Algorithm is going from black box code to black box language. Everything is being explained away as “algorithm”. No surprise really

(“Algorithm is going from black box code to black box language. Everything is being explained away as “algorithm”. No surprise really.” Scott Smith, 6 July 2014 —

As James Bridle puts it, “comprehension is impossible without visibility”:

“the intangibility of contemporary networks conceals the true extent of their operation… This invisibility extends through physical, virtual, and legal spaces.”

Bridle is talking about a policing context, but invisibility, or rather lack of transparency, is of course also a hallmark of crime and corruption, often intentionally complex systems. Dieter Zinnbauer’s concept of ambient accountability is very relevant here: systems can only be accountable if people can understand them, whether that’s windows in building-site hoardings or politicians’ expenses.

Or as Louise Downe has said:

“We can only trust something if we think we know how it works… When we don’t know how a thing works we make it up.”

What new superstitions are going to arise from smart homes, smart meters, smart cities? What will people make up? Are my fridge and Fitbit collaborating with Tesco and BUPA to increase my health insurance premiums? What assumptions are the systems in my daily life going to be making about me? How will I know? What are the urban legends going to be? How will this understanding affect people’s lives? How can we make use of what the IoT enables to help us understand things, rather than making things less understandable?

Cables, Downing College Cambridge, 2004

An opportunity

The opportunity exists, then, for more work which uses a constructionist approach to enable us—the public—to investigate and understand the complex hidden systems in the world around us, in the process potentially changing our mental models, behaviour and practice. Tools based around IoT technology, developed and applied practically through a process of co-creation with the public, could enable this particularly well. In general, co-creation offers lots of opportunities for designing behaviour change support systems that actually respond to the real contexts of everyday life. But the IoT, in particular, can enable technological participation in this.

We would have to start with particular domains where public understanding of a complex, invisible system in everyday life potentially has effects on behaviour or social practices, and where changing that understanding would improve quality of life and/or provide social or environmental benefit.

Ghosts, Old Street LT

Introducing ‘knopen’

I want to propose some examples of projects (or rather areas of practical research) that could be done in this vein, but before that—because I can—I am going to coin a new word for this. Knopen, a fairly obvious portmanteau of know and open, can be a verb (to knopen something) or an adjective (e.g. a knopen tool). Let’s say ‘to knopen’ conjugates like ‘to open’. We knopen, we knopened, we are knopening. Maybe it will usually be more useful as a transitive verb: We knopened the office heating system. The app helped us knopen the local council’s consultation process. Help me knopen the sewage system. Maybe it’s useful as a gerund: knopening as a concept in itself. Knopening the intricacies of the railway ticketing system has saved our family lots of money.

Tools for understanding

What does knopen mean, though? I’m envisaging it being the kind of word that’s used as description of what a tool does. We have tools for opening things—prying, prising, unscrewing, jimmying, breaking, and so on. We also have tools that help us know more about things, and potentially understand them—a magnifying glass, a compass, Wikipedia—but just as with any tool, they are better matched to some jobs than to others.

If I just use a screwdriver to unscrew or pry open the casing on my smart energy meter, and look at the circuitboard with a magnifying glass, unless I already have lots of experience, I don’t know much more about how it works, or what data it sends (and receives), and why, or what the consequences are of that. I don’t necessarily have a better understanding of the system, or the assumptions and models inscribed in it. I have opened the smart meter, but I haven’t knopened it. To knopen it would need a different kind of tool. In this case, it might be a tool that interrogates the meter, and translates the data, and the contexts of how it’s used and why, into a form I understand. That doesn’t necessarily just mean a visual display.

Meter cupboard

This, then, would be knopening: opening a system or part of a system (metaphorically or physically) with tools which enable you to know and understand more about how it works, what it does, or the wider context of its use and existence: why things are as they are. Knopening could include ‘knopening thyself’—understanding and reflecting on why and how you make decisions.

Knopening isn’t as involved as grokking. To grok something is at a much deeper level. Nevertheless, knopening could be transformative. Going back to the earlier discussion, knopening is basically a label for a process by which we can investigate and understand the complex hidden systems in the world around us, which could certainly change our mental models, behaviour and practice. Knopening is about understanding why.

Maybe knopen is a daft conceit, a ‘fetch’ that isn’t going to happen. But it’s worth a try. And I see that it also means ‘to button’ or ‘to knot’ in Dutch, but that’s not too awful. As my wife put it, “that’s quite sweet.” Probably ontknopen, unbuttoning or untying, would be closer in meaning to what I mean. Urban Dictionary tells us that knopen can also mean “the act of knocking on and opening a closed door simultaneously”, which is not inappropriate, I think.

Some areas of research for knopen

These are all about people making and using tools to understand—to knopen—the systems around them, in particular the whys behind how things work. They all have the potential to integrate the quantitative data from networked objects and sensors with qualitative insights from people themselves, in co-created useful and meaningful ways.

Please Don't Turn Me Off, I'm The Fridge :)

DIY for the home of the future

In the UK, “at least 60% of the houses we’ll be living in by 2050 have already been built” (and that quote’s from 2010). That means that whatever IoT technologies come to our homes, they will largely be retrofitted. The ‘smart home’ in practice is going to be piecemeal for most people, the Discman-to-cassette-adaptor-to-car-radio rather than a glossy integrated vision.

CC licensed by Toyohara (Photo by Toyohara, used under a Creative Commons licence)

That’s something to bear in mind in itself, but even with this piecemeal nature, there’s still going to be plenty of invisibility—quite apart from whatever it is our fridges are going to be making decisions about, what will DIY look like?

What are people going to be able to choose to fit themselves? What systems will people be able to connect together? What’s the equivalent of a buried cable detector for data flows? What will Saturday afternoons be like with the IoT? Is it an electrician we need or a ‘data plumber’? What will happen when parts need to be replaced? When smart grids come along, for example, what is interaction with them going to look like? Can DIY work in that context? What happens if microgeneration becomes popular?

Could we use this DIY context strategically — as a way of engaging people in behaviour change, through active participation in experimenting and changing their own homes and everyday practices, using IoT technologies? How do we domesticate the IoT?

House of Coates Haunted Coates House

(Tom Coates’ House of Coates, and the Haunted Coates House)

Something in this space could be the core of the knopen concept: tools that enable us to understand and investigate the invisible systems around us, and the links between them, at home (or at work). Really basically, we could think of it as in-context system diagrams on everythingnot just static, but explorable explanations in Bret Victor’s terminology, maybe even some kind of data traces. And those explanations don’t have to be physical diagrams — they can be ambient, responsive, exploring both the backstories and possible future states of systems.

Networked devices and sensors, inputs and outputs, everything the IoT provides, could show us explicitly how systems work both in and beyond our immediate home context — including our own actions, past, present and future (hence enabling us to change our behaviour), and those of other people. We would learn what a system assumes/knows about us, and how it makes decisions that affect us and others; how do we fit into these systems that pervade our homes?

Pipes in disabled toilet at RCA Battersea

Seams, streams and new metaphors

The idea of seamful design  — in contrast to the seamlessness which so often seems to be goal of advances in human-computer interaction—is useful here. We are used to systems being promoted as invisible, seamless, frictionless as if this is necessarily always a good thing, from contactless payment to Facebook Connect. There’s no doubt that seamlessness can be convenient, but there’s a cost.

Matthew Chalmers, who has developed the ideas that Mark Weiser (father of calm technology, ubiquitous computing, etc) had around seamlessness and seamfulness, suggests that: “Seamfully integrated tools would maintain the unique characteristics of each tool, through transformations that retained their individual characteristics.”

Going slightly further than that, perhaps, by enabling people to experience the joins between systems, and the discontinuities, the texture of technologies — even making the seams not just ‘beautiful’ but tangible— we could help them understand better what’s going on, and interact with systems in a different way. As Karin Andersson says:

“The seams that are the most important are the ones that can improve a system’s functionality and when they are understood and figured out how they can become a resource for interaction by the user. If designers know how certain seams affect interactions, they can then incorporate them into an application and direct their effects into useful features of the system. This way, seamful design allows users to use seams, accommodate them and even exploit them to their own advantage”

Knopen is perhaps an attempt to enable people to make tools to make seams visible, or tangible, for themselves, where currently they are not. It is trying to turn seamlessness into seamfulness, then into understanding and empowerment, through enabling, facilitating, investigation of those systems: brass rubbing for the systems of the home, perhaps.

Detail of Juliana, wife of Thomas de Cruwe, 1411, CC licensed by Amanda Slater

(Detail of Juliana, wife of Thomas de Cruwe, 1411. CC licensed by Amanda Slater)

Seams are important to mental models. In the 1990s, Neville Moray — drawing on a approach taken by cybernetician (and ‘requisite variety’ originator) Ross Ashby — explored how one way of modelling what a mental model really is, is a lattice-like network of nodes that are super- or subordinate to other nodes (not necessarily in the sense of power relations, but rather in terms of parts or categories). By this interpretation, different mental models of the same situation or system come down to things like:

  • two people’s models containing different sets of nodes
  • or, more specifically, conflating particular nodes or introducing distinctions between nodes where others treat them as the same thing
  • two people’s models connecting the same nodes in different ways

Seams are, perhaps, the links or gaps between nodes or groups of nodes. Intentional seamlessness is an attempt to hide these links or gaps by actually conflating particular nodes or groups of nodes from the user’s perspective. Seamlessness is saying, “This is one system, and these nodes are the same”. In doing this, it inherently removes the ability to see or inspect or question or understand these relations.

Ethernet cable looped back, Quality Hotel Panorama, Gothenburg

We are — and will shortly be even more so — surrounded by systems, in our homes and elsewhere, that are collecting, sending, receiving and storing data all the time, about us, our actions and our environments. And yet we are generally not privy to what’s going on, what decisions are being made, where the data come from and where they go.

It might not seem a major issue at present to most people — even in the light of Snowden’s revelations and all that’s come since  — but once, for example, smart meters are dynamically adjusting pricing for electricity and gas on a large scale, a greater number of people are going to want to understand where those prices are coming from, and how these systems work. Compare the — often amusing — reactions when people explore what Google Ads or Facebook thinks it knows about them. Many people seem to enjoy this kind of exploration — all the more reason for a constructionist approach.

AC will not work when door is open, Four Seasons, Doha

We need a narrative context for the streams in our daily lives: what is the story of the sensors? What is the meaning of what’s going on? Even a Dyson-style ‘transparent container’ metaphor for data, showing us what’s being collected, or colour-coded statuses on devices, would give us some more understanding. This is something like ambient accountability in Dieter Zinnbauer’s terminology, but involving us, the public, the ‘end user’, much more explicitly.

Metaphors could play an important role here, or perhaps new metaphors. Representing a new, unfamiliar system in terms of more familiar ones is maybe obvious, and has its limitations (except in Borges, the map is never the territory), but as with our discussion of new superstitions earlier, it’s almost inevitable that new metaphors will arise for parts of these invisible systems in the home and elsewhere, as part of mental models and in people’s explanations to others of how they work. Metaphors are very commonly used in design for behaviour change, from gardens to sarcastic overlords.

What does energy look like?

(What does energy look like? From the V&A Digital Design Weekend 2014. Photo by V&A Digital.)

We can learn quite a lot from exploring people’s understanding and mental imagery around invisible systems. A project Flora Bowden and I have been doing over the last couple of years involves asking people to draw ‘what energy looks like’; we’ve also tried it with concepts such as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, and there are large scale projects such as Can You Draw the Internet? There are insights for the design of new kinds of interfaces, of course, but also something more fundamental about how people perceive and relate to intangible things. Almost by definition, people use metaphors (or metonyms) of one kind or another to visualise abstract or unseen concepts — what would they look like for invisible systems in our homes?

Could we use new metaphors strategically, to help people understand new systems? What should they be? How do they link to behaviour change in this context? Bringing it back to DIY, what metaphors are going to be used to get people interested in fitting these systems to their homes in the first place?

Ham Island, Old Windsor

You’re not alone

Moving away from the home, this next group of ideas would use IoT technologies to enable ‘peer support’ for decision making: connecting people to others facing similar situations, and enabling people to understand each other’s thinking and what worked for them (or not). The aim of this knopening of situations would be empathy, but also practical advice and support.

Understanding—and reflecting on—how you think, and how other people approach the same kinds of situation, can help change mental models, support behaviour change in the context of everyday practices (learning from others what worked for them, and why), and tackle attribution errors, as mentioned earlier, by bridging the gaps between our own thinking and our assumptions about others’ behaviour.

The contexts and domains where this could be useful range from physical and mental health, to route planning, to home improvement, to financial decisions, to any situation where a combination of networked objects and/or sensors, combined with qualitative insights from people who are part of the system, could help.

Some specific ways of implementing You’re not alone might include:

Windows XP Event Viewer (Windows XP Event Viewer — image from

The Shared ‘Why?’

  • This would be a tool for annotating situations with ‘what your thinking is’ as you do things (that may be logged automatically anyway) — a kind of ‘Why?’ column in the event logs of everyday life.
  • The question might be prompted automatically by certain situations being recognised (through sensor data) or could also be something you choose to record. These ‘Whys’ would then be available to your future self, and others (as you choose) when similar situations arise.
  • My thinking here is that (as Tricia Wang points out), the vast quantities of Big Data generated and logged by devices, sensors and homes and infrastructure, are largely devoid of human contexts—the ‘Why?’, the ‘thick’ data—that would give them meaning. There’s a great opportunity for introducing a system which makes this easier to capture. It could be an academic or design practitioner research tool, but my main priority is that it be actually useful to the people using it.

Annotating household objects to understand thermal comfort

(Annotating household objects to understand thermal comfort. From a study by Sara Renström and Ulrike Rahe at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg.)

  • Asking people to annotate real-life situations with simple paper labels or arrows has worked well as a research method for eliciting people’s stories, meanings and thought processes around interaction with particular devices, and the sequences they go through. Similarly, even simple laddering or 5 Whys-type methods can be used to uncover people’s heuristics around everyday activities. But how could these kinds of methods be made more useful for those doing the annotation or answering the questions—and for others too?
  • While there exist research methods such as experience sampling and sentiment mapping, with plenty of location- or other trigger-based mobile apps, these largely focus on mood and feelings, rather than the potentially richer question of ‘Why?’. Yet Facebook and Twitter have shown us that short-form status updates, with actual content (mostly!), are something people enjoy producing and sharing with others. When I worked on the CarbonCulture at DECC project, one of the most successful features (in terms of engagement) of the OK Commuter travel logging app was a question prompting users to describe that morning’s commute with a single word, which often turned out to be witty, insightful and revealing of intra-office dynamics around topics such as provision of facilities for cyclists.
  • Clearly there are lots of questions here about validity and privacy. Would people only log ‘Whys’ that they wanted others to know? Who would have access to my ‘Whys’? Would they ‘work’ better in terms of empathy or behaviour change if linked to real names or avatars than anonymously? We would have to find ways of addressing and accommodating these issues.

There are some parallels with explicitly social projects such as the RSA’s Social Mirror Community Prescriptions, but also with work in naturalistic decision making. For example, there are projects exploring how Gary Klein’s recognition-primed decision model of how experts make decisions (based on a mixture of situational pattern recognition and rapid mental simulation) can be ‘taught’ to non-experts. A constructionist approach seems very appropriate here.

The wall of a fish restaurant in Gothenburg

Helpful ghosts: ambient peer support

  • What this would involve is essentially being able to create helpful ‘ghosts’ for other people, which would appear when certain situations or circumstances, or conjunctions of conditions, were detected, through IoT capabilities. You could record advice, explanations, warnings, suggestions, motivational messages, how-to guides, photos, videos, audio, text, sets of rules, anything you like, which would be triggered by the system detecting someone encountering the particular conditions you specified. That could be location-based, but it could also be any other condition. It’s almost like a nice version of leaving a note for your successor, or anyone who faces a similar situation.

The wall of a fish restaurant in Gothenburg (The Stone Tape (BBC, 1972). Image from

  • The ghosts wouldn’t be scary, or at least I hope not. Maybe ghost is the wrong word. The idea obviously has parallels with Marley’s Ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—and the feedforward / scenario planning / design futures of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come—but what directly inspired me was Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (probably in turn inspired by archaeologist and parapsychologist Tom Lethbridge’s work), in which ghosts are explained as a form of recording somehow left behind in the fabric of buildings or locations where strong emotions have been felt. Kevin Slavin’s talk at dConstruct 2011, and Tom Armitage’s ghostcar, are also inspirations here. And I have recently also come across Joe Reinsel’s work on Sound Cairns, which has some very clever elements to it.
  • Maybe it’s better to think of this like If This Then That (see below), but allowing you to create rules that trigger events for other people instead of just for you.
  • How would it be different to Clippy? (thanks to Justin Pickard for making this connection). We should aim to learn from the late Clifford Nass’s work at Stanford on why Clippy was so disliked, and how to make him more loveable. It would also be important that the helpful ghosts did not just become a form of ‘pop-up window for real life’. Advertisers should not be able to get hold of it. It should always be opt-in, and the emphasis should be on participation (creating your own ghosts in response) and understanding. It is meant to be at least a dialogue, a collaborative approach to learning more about, and understanding—knopening—a situation, and then passing on that understanding to others.

Pigeon deciding whether to take the District Line or North London Line from Richmond station

A Collective If This Then That

  • This is probably already possible to achieve with clever use of If This Then That together with some other linked services, but the basic idea would be a system where multiple people’s inputs—which could be a combination of quantitative sensor data and qualitative comments or expressions of sentiment or opinion—together can trigger particular outputs. These might also be collective, or might apply only in a single location or context.
  • There are obvious top-down examples around things like adaptive traffic management, but it would more interesting to see what ‘recipes’ emerge from people’s—and communities’—own needs. There could also be multiple outputs to different systems. They could work within a family or household or on a much bigger scale—connecting families who are often apart, for example.
  • The knopen element comes with being able to understand—right from the start—how to make action happen, and collaboratively create recipes which address a community’s needs, for example. The system might be complex but would be not only visible, but fully accessible since the participants would be involved in creating and iterating it.
  • It could involve ‘voting’ somehow, but it would also be interesting to see effects emerge from unconscious action or a combination of physical effects read by sensors and social or psychological effects from people themselves.
  • I’m inspired here particularly by Brian Boyer and Dan Hill’s Brickstarter—in which the collective desire/need/interest of the crowdfunding model is applied to urban infrastructure—but also by the academic research (and workshop at Interaction 12) I did exploring ‘if…then’-type rules of thumb and heuristics that people use for themselves, often implicitly, around things like heating systems, and how different people’s heuristics differ.
  • There’s some really interesting academic research going on at the moment by teams at Brown and Carnegie Mellon—e.g. see this paper by Blase Ur et al from CHI 2014—on using IFTTT-like ‘practical action-trigger programming’ in smart homes as a way to enable a more easily programmable world, and it would be great to explore the potential of this approach for improving understanding and engagement with the systems around us. As Michael Littman puts it:

“We live in a world now that’s populated by machines that are supposed to make our lives easier, but we can’t talk to them. Everybody out there should be able to tell their machines what to do.” (Professor Michael Littman, Brown University)

Trackbed at St Margaret's (London)

Storytelling for systems: Five whys for public life

Five whys’ is a method for what’s called root cause analysis, used in fields as diverse as quality management and healthcare process reform. It’s similar to the interview technique of laddering, which has seen some application in user experience design. The basic principle is that there is never only one ‘correct’ reason ‘Why?’ something happens: there are always multiple levels of abstraction, multiple levels of explanation, multiple contexts—and each explanation may be completely valid within the particular context of analysis. In ‘solving’ the problem, the repeated asking ‘Why?’ enables reframing the problem at further levels up (or down) this abstraction hierarchy, as well as giving us the ‘backstory’ of the current state (which is often considered to be a problem, hence the analysis).

It’s a practical instantiation, in a way, of Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s tenet of trying to design for the “next largest context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, environment in a city plan”. In some previous work, I tried exploring (not particularly clearly), the notion that this kind of approach, in reframing the problem at multiple levels, could essentially provide us with multiple suggested ‘solutions’ by inverting problem statements at each level of abstraction.

Construction work, Doha

Planning notice, Kensington, LondonSo what do we do with this? How can IoT technology be useful? Imagine being able to ‘ask’ the physical and societal infrastructure around you—the street lamps, the building site, the park fountain, but also the local council, the voting booth, the tax office, your children’s primary school’s board of governors, the bus timetable, Starbucks, the numberplate recognition camera, the drain cover, the air quality sensors in the park, the National Rail Conditions of Carriage—Why?

Why are they set up the way they are? Who came up with the idea? (not for blame, but for empathy). What’s the story behind the systems? What influenced how they’re operating, how the decisions were made, how they came to be?

What data do they collect, and what do they do with the data? What’s the revision history for this government policy? What were the reasons given for that cycle path being routed that way? What’s the history of planning applications for buildings on this site? What were the debates that led to the current situation?

And for each of those, the answers would be explained at multiple levels—maybe not exactly five ‘whys’, but more than one simplistic reason, devoid of context.

SEEB Cables Cross Here, Twickenham

This isn’t just Freedom of Information—although it intersects with that. It’s more about understanding the decision process, the constraints and priorities others have had to contend with along the way. Kind of autobiographies for systems (including public objects, perhaps, but also institutions—maybe even Dan Hill’s ‘Dark Matter’). Or a cross between blue plaques (or rather, Open Plaques), ‘For the want of a nail’, WhatDoTheyKnow, City-Insights, FixMyStreet, Dieter Zinnbauer’s Ambient Accountability, TheyWorkForYou, Historypin, Wikipedia’s revision history, Mayo Nissen’s ‘Unseen Sensors’ and a sort of transparent reverse IFTTT where you can see what led to what.

Cables, Berkeley

From a technology point of view, you could do it very simply with smartphones and QR codes or NFC tags stuck on bits of street furniture (for example), but it would be possible to do much more when systems have a networked capability and presence—when data are being collected or received, or transmitted, or when one piece of infrastructure is informing another.

Of course, it could be seen as quite antagonistic to authority: this kind of transparent storytelling could reveal how inept some institutions—and potentially some individuals—are at making decisions, although it could also help generate empathy for people facing tough decisions, in the sense of revealing the trade-offs they have to make, and so increase public engagement with these systems by showing both their complexity (potentially) and their human side. Peerveillance, sousveillance, equiveillance, yes—but preferably framed as storytelling.

The challenge would be finding positive stories to lead with (thanks to Duncan Wilson for this point). Suggestions are very welcome.

Asset mapping, Kentish Town

Conclusion: what next?

This has been a long, rambling and poorly focused article. It tangles together a lot of ideas that have been on my mind, and others’ minds, for a while, and I’m not sure the tangle itself is very legible. But I welcome your comments.

My basic thesis is that IoT technology can be a tool for behaviour change for social and environmental benefit, through involving people in making systems which address problems that are meaningful for them, and which improve understanding of the wider systems they’re engaging with.

I think we can do this, but, as always, doing something is worth more than talking about it. As an academic, I ought to be in a position to find funding and partners to do something interesting here. So I am going to try: if you’re interested, please do get in touch.

The End, College Hall, Cooper's Hill, 2004

Drawing Energy and Powerchord at the London Design Festival 2014 by Dan Lockton

The latest Powerchord prototype in use.. The London Design Festival is a huge event taking place across London from today (13th) for the next couple of weeks, and we’re proud to say that two of our SusLab mini-projects, Drawing Energy and Powerchord, are featured, as part of two exhibitions.    V&A Digital Design Weekend: 20 [...]

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Introducing The Story Machine: Part 2 by Dan Lockton

Co-creation of the Story Machine In Part 1, we discussed some of the challenges and ‘process friction’ in integrating digital storytelling into community activities, and introduced our initial work with The Mill, a community centre in Walthamstow, east London, which provides space and resources for local creative citizens to organise groups, events and activities. The […]

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Introducing The Story Machine: Part 1 by Dan Lockton

Friction in integrating digital storytelling into community activities For some community groups, the use of technology and digital media is built into the work they do—for example, the Wards Corner Community Coalition‘s very successful use of Stickyworld and social media to tell their story, integrated into the organisation of a whole range of community events. […]

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Tools for ideation and problem solving: Part 1 by Dan

Brainstorming  brainstorming Back in the darkest days of my PhD, I started blogging extracts from the thesis as it was being written, particularly the literature review. It helped keep me motivated when I was at a very low point, and seemed to be of interest to readers who were unlikely to read the whole 300-page PDF or indeed the publications. Possibly because of the amount of useful terms in the text making them very Google-able, these remain extremely popular posts on this blog. So I thought I would continue, not quite where I left off, but with a few extracts that might actually be of practical use to people working on design, new ideas, and understanding people's behaviour.

The first article (to be split over two parts) is about toolkits (and similar things, starting with an exploration of idea generation methods), prompted by much recent interest in the subject via projects such as Lucy Kimbell, Guy Julier, Jocelyn Bailey and Leah Armstrong's Mapping Social Design Research & Practice and Nesta's Development Impact & You toolkit, and some of our discussions at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for the Creative Citizens project about different formats for summarising information effectively. (On this last point, I should mention the Sustainable Cultures Engagement Toolkit developed in 2012-13 by my colleagues Catherine Greene and Lottie Crumbleholme, with Johnson Controls, which is now available online (12.5MB PDF).)

The article below is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the field, but was focused specifically on aspects which I felt were relevant for a 'design for behaviour change' toolkit, which became Design with Intent. I should also note that since the below was written, mostly in 2010-11, a number of very useful articles have collected together toolkits, card decks and similar things. I recommend: Venessa Miemis's 21 Card Decks, Hanna Zoon's Depository of Design Toolboxes, Joanna Choukeir's Design Methods Resources, Stephen Anderson's answer on this Quora thread, Ola Möller's 40 Decks of Method Cards for Creativity, and Public Policy Lab's list of Toolkits for Public Service Design. I'm sure there are others.

Problem-solving and problem-framing

"Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artefacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state." Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 (p.129 of 1981 MIT press 2nd edition)

Designers solve problems, but they are by no means alone in that. As Jack Schulze of BERG comments, "so do dentists" (Kicker Studio, 2009). Design is not, then, identical to problem-solving, but it certainly involves addressing issues that are seen (by someone) as problems and developing new or changed products, services or environments (seen by someone as solutions) in response. This review is not going to fall into the 'What is design?' rabbit-hole, since that has been more than adequately explored by other authors, but it is important to understand how design processes can work, in order to identify the most useful characteristics for the proposed toolkit. [which became Design with Intent]

The view of design as being entirely about 'problem-solving'—which, at its most mechanistic, is "basically a form of means-ends analysis that aims at discovering a process description of the path that leads to a desired goal"—as espoused by Simon (1969/1981, p.223, and to some extent in the above quote), has become unfashionable in design research, and not just because of the implied lack of creativity in the process.[1] In particular, the reaction against the 'problem-solving' view follows Schön's (1983) concept of The Reflective Practitioner, whose "inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation" (p.68).

Thus, design is seen as being as much about problem-framing as problem-solving, an exploration and co-evolution of both the problem and solution 'spaces' (Maher et al, 1996), questioning and refining the problem, changing focus and the boundaries of the problem as part of the process of generating solutions. [2] Dutch trains  Dutch trains

Dorst and Cross (2001) give the example of a workshop participant asked to redesign in-train litter bins for Dutch Railways (NS) who asks whether simply making a hole in the floor for litter to be dropped through (or combining it with the toilet flush which works in a similar way) is valid within the scope of the brief. They use Cross's (1997) idea of the formation of 'bridges' between problem and solution as the 'creative leap' which pairs one representation of the problem with a solution, suggesting that "creative design involves a period of exploration in which problem and solution spaces are evolving and are unstable until (temporarily) fixed by an emergent bridge which identifies a problem-solution pairing. problem-solution pair A creative event occurs as the moment of insight at which a problem-solution pair is framed" (Dorst and Cross, 2001).

Pragmatically—and dependent on the semantic preferences of those involved—it is arguable that problem-framing is part of problem-solving. The process of interrogating a brief, stretching and testing the boundaries of what is being asked and what will count as a solution, is an integral part of addressing the problem, rather than being a distinct activity. Paul Rand said that "[i]deas may also grow out of the problem itself, which in turn becomes part of the solution" (Heller et al, 1998), and this is a proposition also found within TRIZ (see below), 'systems thinking' in general, and specifically within Edward de Bono's work.

A kettleChristopher Alexander (1964, p.17), using the (re)design of a kettle as an example, notes the fluidity of the boundaries of design problems: 

If I say that the kettle is the wrong way to heat domestic drinking water anyway, I can quickly be involved in the redesign of the entire house, and thereby push the context back to those things outside the house which influence the house's form. Alternatively I may claim that it is not the kettle which needs to be redesigned, but the method of heating kettles. In this case the kettle becomes part of the context, while the stove perhaps is form.

Many more human-related design problems (including those relating to behaviour change) may be characterised as `wicked problems' (Buchanan, 1992; Rittel and Webber, 1973), perhaps particularly exhibiting the characteristic expressed by Conklin (2009) in his re-statement of some of Rittel and Webber's principles: "You don't understand the problem until you have developed a solution. Every solution that is offered exposes new aspects of the problem, requiring further adjustments to the potential solutions. There is no definitive statement of `the problem': these problems are ill-structured and feature an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints."

Generating ideas

Both within and without `design', a variety of `creative thinking' techniques are commonly used to generate novel ideas as part of problem-solving processes, often in group workshops, but also individually. While this review cannot hope to do more than scratch the surface, some which potentially offer relevant insights to the subject at hand will be discussed.

Brainstorming The field comprises a mixture of academic and popular literature, and many techniques have become generally familiar, and evolved through use, without their `authorship' remaining clear. As Gray et al (2010, p.xvi) put it, "[t]he practices live in a mostly oral culture, passed along from person to person by word of mouth. For example, a consultant uses an approach with a client, and the client begins to employ that approach internally. Over time... it evolves into something quite different, and... the source of the original idea or approach may be lost".

One of the most comprehensive online resources on the subject, Jack Martin Leith's Compendium of idea generation methods, is no longer available, but a version of the site (Leith, 2005) retained on the Internet Archive, contains over a hundred categorised methods. Most of the methods considered relevant to this thesis are what Leith calls `springboards' (drawing on the use of the term in Synectics)—those which involve the use of an external stimulus to trigger new thinking.

Lateral thinking

Over more than forty years, Edward de Bono has produced a series of popular books and training courses on creative thinking and innovation methods. The full range of his work cannot be covered here, but some concepts relevant to design and idea generation can be extracted. `Lateral thinking', which de Bono (1993, p.52) explains via the maxim "You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper", contrasting it with linear `vertical thinking', comprises four principles (de Bono, 1971, p.68): "1. Recognition of dominant polarizing ideas; 2. The search for different ways of looking at things; 3. A relaxation of the rigid control of vertical thinking; 4. The use of chance."

Australian phonebox. Photo by Halans on FlickrIt is noteworthy that a number of the lateral thinking examples de Bono gives across his books are specifically concerned with influencing people's behaviour and addressing a wide range of societal issues. For example, influencing behaviour for commercial benefit is embodied in the the anecdote (de Bono, 1993, p.6) about an Australian payphone operator which needed to offer fixed-cost local calls to remain competitive with rival operators, but wanted callers to spend less time on those calls so that the telephones were made available for other customers; so the story goes, the operator decided to increase the weight of the telephone handsets so that longer calls became tiring (subconsciously or otherwise), limiting the length of calls made.

Corporate behaviour change for environmental benefit is also included, for example with the idea (e.g. de Bono, 1976, p.146) that a factory taking in river water and discharging (dirty) water back into the river "should be downstream of itself", i.e. planners should force the water intake pipe to be downstream of the water outlet pipe, thus making it in the factory's best interests not to discharge polluted water.

Among the methods de Bono suggests for lateral thinking, including particularly those suited for finding "different ways of looking at things" are: simple focus, a deliberate effort to pick out a new focus point for a problem (de Bono, 1993, p.92); the creative challenge, a forced questioning of the current way things are done; and the concept fan, a method of repeatedly `pulling back', abstracting the problem implied by a search for alternative solutions, such that the need for a ladder is restated as the need to be raised above the ground, in turn restated as the need to reduce the distance between the person and the ceiling, and so on, with each abstraction suggesting a greater range of possible solutions (de Bono, 1993, p.129).

Straker and Rawlinson (2002, p.4) call a similar approach `chunking up', asking "What is the real problem here?" at each level; it also recalls aspects of Alexander's (1964) functional decomposition and the abstraction hierarchies used in cognitive ergonomics and ecological interface design (e.g. Rasmussen, 1985). [see also the kind of 'abstraction' method applied in our later work on behavioural heuristics]


Many of de Bono's techniques centre on the idea of provocation, in particular, finding ways of intentionally provoking new ideas through methods ranging from the simple random input (juxtaposing two seemingly unconnected concepts [3] to trigger new ideas as a connection emerges—this is an expression of `the use of chance' as mentioned above (de Bono, 1993))—to more structured methods such as using reversal, exaggeration and distortion of ideas as part of a stepping-stone process to examine and alter the given problem. The concept of PO (de Bono, 1972) was introduced as a marker to signify that a deliberately provocative (perhaps superficially absurd) suggestion follows, not necessarily to be adopted as a valid solution in itself, but as a trigger to help think of alternative solutions. For example, "PO, cars should have square wheels" leads to thinking about the possibilities of adaptive suspension systems (de Bono, 1993).

This kind of prompt potentially has application in helping designers shift problem frames (see above) implied by a brief: "[e]ven if an idea is wrong in itself it can serve as a starting point for a new line of thought or as a stepping-stone to get from one idea to a new one" (de Bono, 1976, p.146). In some circumstances, it is easy to imagine that it could suggest behaviour change (rather than solely technology change) as an approach in the first place, by introducing the idea that people should change rather than a product changing (or vice versa).

Six Thinking Hats

One of the most structured creativity techniques applicable to idea generation described by de Bono is Six Thinking Hats (de Bono, 1990 [4]). The idea here is to put members of a group—as part of a meeting or workshop—into a role-playing context, where the coloured hats (put on literally or figuratively) each enable the group's attention to be directed to different points of view and aspects of the problems and ideas under discussion, and to switch gears between ways of thinking about a problem (`parallel thinking'). The role-playing context also allows participants to say things they might otherwise not feel comfortable expressing---“[w]earing the clown costume gives you full permission to play the clown” (de Bono, 1990, p.29) [5]---including asking others to consider changing their point of view, since “[y]ou can ask someone to `take off the black hat for a moment' more easily than you can ask that person to stop being so negative” (p.33). The table below summarises very briefly the characteristics of each hat.

Six Thinking Hats

The details of the different perspectives triggered by the hats are general enough to apply to a wide range of meetings, workshops, idea generation and decision-making situations. Independently, though, the concept of introducing a deliberate `prop' to encourage taking different perspectives on a problem could be valuable for idea generation, particularly where there are issues which ought to be debated but which might not otherwise be raised. For example, an `ethical' hat might be of value when considering behaviour change interventions. It might also be feasible for hats to represent the points of view of different stakeholders---a particular hat being put on to represent the `voice of the user', a different one to represent the `voice of the shareholders' and so on. For Baron (1994, p.72), an additional advantage of deliberately taking multiple viewpoints on a problem is that “it is more likely to remind you of the critical information that you need to solve it”, i.e. that multiple views also help ensure that relevant information is not missed.

Perhaps one of the most useful implications of the concept for an idea generation process which seeks to generate a large quantity of ideas (see below) is that switching hats (of whatever form) could re-start the inspiration process when it starts to dry up, explicitly introducing alternative sets of ideas or viewpoints. The Design with Intent `lenses' follow this approach.

SCAMPER and Rosenman and Gero's processes

SCAMPERMoving more specifically towards product design, two verb-based idea generation techniques are particularly relevant. While arising from different contexts, they overlap in content.

SCAMPER (Eberle, 1971) was developed as a simplified form of some of Osborn's (1953) brainstorming recommendations, intended originally for classroom use. It comprises seven verbs (see table below) describing operations which could be carried out on a product or concept (potentially including even people themselves) to generate new variants or improvements. [6]


Rosenman and Gero (1993) and Gero (2000) arrive at a partially similar list of processes (table below), but from the perspective of examining idea generation behaviour by designers and extracting descriptions of the processes (also presented as applicable in an artificial intelligence context), rather than offering them explicitly as inspirational triggers. Gero's (2000) definition of analogy is somewhat similar to what I have identified with Design with Intent as transposition of design principles between disciplines.

The active provocations offered by Eberle's approach are more immediately suited to triggering idea generation, but formal descriptions of principles as given by Rosenman and Gero have value in providing a reference of techniques which could be consulted as a reflective part of the idea generation process, in a similar way to Alexander et al's patterns (see part 2 of this post). Hence, both of these possible approaches are worth considering as relevant directions for Design with Intent. Aside from the form of the processes, the content itself may have direct relevance to the behavioural context. If “people's behaviours” rather than a product's features are considered as the focus of each SCAMPER verb, what sorts of ideas might be suggested? Can you design a product which `substitutes' an undesired behaviour with a desired one? One which combines behaviours to avoid an unwanted harm? One which adapts a behaviour which a person expresses in another context to the context for which you are designing?

Rosenman & Gero's creative design processes

Geoff Mulgan's Social Design Tools[2014 note: Geoff Mulgan of Nesta has recently published a list of 'Social Design Tools' similar in form to SCAMPER and Rosenman & Gero's processes, adapted to fit social enterprises and the public sector.]

Do you know a related problem? Analogies and metaphors

“We can scarcely imagine a problem absolutely new, unlike and unrelated to any formerly solved problem; but, if such a problem could exist, it would be insoluble. In fact, when solving a problem, we always profit from previously solved problems, using their result, or their method, or the experience we acquired solving them. And, of course, the problems from which we profit must be in some way related to our present problem. Hence the question: Do you know a related problem?”

George Pólya, How to Solve It, Princeton University Press, 1945 (p.98 of 2nd edition, 1971)

Pólya's How to Solve It (1945) is a guidebook for addressing mathematical problems, best known for popularising the term heuristic in the sense of a `rule of thumb' in problem-solving. The `Short Dictionary of Heuristic', comprising the main part of the book, offers 67 entries on aspects of, and approaches to, solving problems. The use of questions---“Do you know...? Could you imagine...?” and so on---is reminiscent of some of the provocation techniques mentioned earlier.

Extract from Polya 1945A theme which recurs in a number of Pólya's heuristic approaches relates to the use of analogies, including solving a “simpler analogous problem”, and finding related problems which have been solved in other contexts. As Baron (1994, p.73) puts it, “[h]euristic methods allow us to search our memories for possibilities and evidence that are already there”. [7]

While Pólya's work deals explicitly with mathematical problem-solving rather than creative design, the use of analogies, similes and metaphors is widely recommended as a method in idea generation for design (as well as a design technique itself). Saffer (2005, p.6) highlights the role of metaphors in cross-domain, interdisciplinary mapping for designers---“[t]he way we understand new things is to conceive of them in terms of things we already know. Metaphors become natural models that allow us to take familiar, concrete objects and experiences and re-cast them onto unknown or abstract concepts or things, giving them structure and meaning.” [8]

Seelig (2009, p.129) recommends the use of similes and metaphors to trigger new perspectives on a problem, using an exercise where teams are asked to come up with multiple versions of a statement in the form, “[concept under discussion] IS LIKE [an unrelated concept, usually a concrete noun] BECAUSE [of some characteristic of the second concept] THEREFORE [implications for the first concept]”. For example, “Ideas are like babies because everyone thinks theirs is cute, therefore be objective when judging your own ideas.”

Saffer (2005, p.10) sees metaphor use in idea generation as being about juxtaposition: “this is probably the easiest and one of the most fruitful way for designers to embrace metaphor use. All metaphors are, in a sense, juxtapositions in that two different things are put together to form a construct that highlights (and hides) different characteristics of each. Finding any inherent metaphors in the problem space is therefore probably a useful activity.” This last point about helping to define and structure the problem space is echoed by Leclercq & Heylighen (2002, p.287), who suggest that drawing analogies “can bring forth valuable knowledge from a known situation… to the ill-defined design situation at hand”.

Learning from biomimetics

“[W]e often find quite different inner environments accomplishing identical or similar goals in identical or similar outer environments---airplanes and birds, dolphins and tunafish, weight-driven clocks and spring-driven clocks, electrical relays and transistors.”

Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 (p.7 of 1981 MIT press 2nd edition)

Volstad & Boks' Biomimicry Card DeckOne design approach where analogical transfer is commonly applied in idea generation and problem-solving is biomimetics or biomimicry---making use of biological systems as models and inspiration for technology. Combining biomimetics with TRIZ (see below) to produce BioTRIZ offers a structured way of generating possible biologically inspired solutions for problems (Vincent and Mann, 2002; Craig et al, 2008), but there are also other idea generation methods based on applying biomimetics, such as Volstad and Boks' (2008) `Biomimicry Card Deck’, intended to help packaging designers generate ideas for novel packaging concepts drawing on biological principles.

It is conceivable, if a somewhat romantic vision, that the biomimetic approach to design---learning from a vast reservoir of solutions to problems, and finding ways to apply them in other contexts---could be seen as a model for how to develop `design for sustainable behaviour' as a field, treating human history and culture as a reservoir of behavioural insight to adapt and transpose to a design context.

It does, however, seem reasonable to suggest that “idea creation by analogical transfer” (Stacey et al 2009, p.362; Tseng et al 2008) might be most effective where the examples used make it easy for designers to see how the principles can be applied elsewhere---in a similar way to biomimetics---enabling “the ability mentally to stand back from the specifics of the accumulated examples, and form more abstract conceptualizations pertinent to their domain of expertise” (Cross, 2004, p.432).

As part of Design with Intent, an emphasis on example implementations of principles—“previous instances of design elements in a variety of different situations” (Eckert & Stacey, 2000, p.527)—rather than simply descriptions of the principles themselves, should allow designers to explore the ideas and relate them to the problem at hand, even where the terminology is unfamiliar. Thus, if the guide is to help designers make use of metaphor and analogy, these need to be clearly illustrated through examples which are quickly understandable.


Divergent production and brainstorming

A key concept in idea generation is the notion of divergent production, which Guilford (1967, p.213) defines as “generation of information from given information, where the emphasis is upon variety and quantity of output from the same source; likely to involve transfer,” as opposed to convergent production which would involve reaching a single `right' solution to a problem.

While the `output from the same source' criterion might be interpreted in a number of ways, the approach of trying to generate as many different ideas as possible is familiar from the process of brainstorming. Osborn (1953)---a co-founder of advertising agency BBDO---introduced the process as “a formal and systematized approach to a fuller utilization of the creative imagination” (p. vii), offering a set of rules and recommendations for how to `ideate' in group conferences or workshops which have been widely adopted (and mutated) since, to the extent that `brainstorming' has become a generic term for many different kinds of idea generation, both in groups and individually.

A significant part of the appeal of Osborn's work must be his optimism and confidence that everyone can be creative: the book (Applied Imagination) makes the “universality of imaginative talent” clear and exhorts everyone to develop his or her creativity via exercises, games and puzzles. The book is somewhat reminiscent of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (see a discussion of its relevance to design for behaviour change) in its mixture of anecdotes, positive encouragement and rules to follow.

Those rules and recommendations will not be covered here in detail, but the “four basics” for “idea-producing conferences” in groups are:

  1. Judicial judgment is ruled out. Criticism of ideas must be withheld until later.
  2. `Free-wheeling' is welcomed. The wilder the idea, the better; it is easier to tame down than to think up.
  3. Quantity is wanted. The greater the number of ideas, the more the likelihood of winners.
  4. Combination and improvement are sought. In addition to contributing ideas of their own, participants should suggest how ideas of others can be turned into better ideas, or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea” (Osborn, 1953, p.300-1).

IDEO Rules of Brainstorming as displayed at IDEO London, December 2009As Baron (1994, p.120) notes, much of Osborn's approach centres on the argument that “a major impediment to creation is insufficient search for possibilities. If we are too self-critical during the phase of idea generation, it has been argued, we inhibit ourselves from thinking of our best ideas. We must overcome our inhibitions and ‘brainstorm’ before we criticize and select”.

In the design industry, the most high-profile proponent of the brainstorming approach has been IDEO, which has evolved and tuned Osborn's recommendations into its own set of `rules for brainstorming', prominently displayed in company meeting rooms.

It is difficult to assess formally how much use any idea generation method is, since most such methods are, in practice, used in contexts in which there can be no comparable control group. Few organisations are able to bring competing projects to fruition in parallel, and few of the ideas generated by any brainstorming process will ever be directly realised as a product or service, but as Sutton and Hargadon (1996) suggested in a major ethnographic study of IDEO’s brainstorming processes, the process provides the organisation with less quantifiable benefits, including providing skill variety for participants by exposing them to a diversity of ideas and approaches, and supporting the attitude of wisdom by providing a non-judgemental forum “for getting unstuck” through collaborative endeavour.

They suggest that attempts to assess effectiveness of idea generation in terms purely of quantity of ideas generated are too simplistic; nevertheless, IDEO’s rules of brainstorming are at least partly geared towards generating as many ideas as possible (including “Go for quantity (not quality): Set an outrageous goal and surpass it”)—drawing directly from Osborn’s recommendations. This implies that while not a direct proxy for effectiveness, quantity can be an important step on the way. Hence, comparison of the quantity of concepts generated using different methods can still be considered worth studying.

The academic literature on the `productivity' of brainstorming suggests that Osborn's focus on groups `outperforming' individuals may have been erroneous (Furnham, 2000). Interaction effects within differently constituted groups can be responsible for their collectively producing fewer ideas as a result of brainstorming than the individuals would have produced on their own. Phenomena such as production blocking (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987), and social loafing (Robbins, 1995) may lead to less productive sessions. It is also worth noting that recommendations for successful brainstorming (e.g. Wilson, 2006) often include the idea of a ‘warm-up exercise’ using a problem not directly related to the one intended for the main exercise, suggesting that participants may need some time to become `fluent' in their idea generation.

However, as Sutton and Hargadon imply, there are other benefits from group brainstorming that may be desirable for the situation at hand. Expertise may be transferred between participants with different specialisms (which may be particularly important in a design context where the designers are not necessarily subject matter experts on the domain they are addressing). Group activity may be a chance for other stakeholders' perspectives to be heard (and feel that they have been heard). For example, in urban planning, a design charrette refers to a session where multiple stakeholders (including members of the public) are brought together to address an issue (e.g. Condon 2008), including brainstorming. The implications of these issues for the development of the idea generation guide are probably that such a guide needs, ideally, to be usable either individually or in a group situation, and, again ideally, needs to be flexible enough to allow different groups of stakeholders to make use of it on an `equal footing' with each other, rather than being focused entirely on one group as the users.

Although Osborn recommended the use of questions to spur ideation as part of the brainstorming process (some of his example questions were developed into SCAMPER---see above), many brainstorming exercises, at least in the author's experience, do not use any explicit stimulus or provocation material beyond the problem itself and whatever background information is available. In this sense, an idea generation guide or toolkit is already enabling a slightly different form of brainstorming, although whether it would be more likely to increase the productivity of a session or restrict the ideas generated to only those derived from the guide is something that would need to be investigated.

Brainstorming  brainstorming


“We live in an `Era of Technical Revolution'. The main point is that this revolution lies not in the appearance of new machines---that has happened before. The method of developing new machines is changing. organised ways of thinking replace the old chaotic ones. Every step in the thinking process should be as accurate as the movements of a pilot flying an airplane.”

Genrich Altshuller, And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared (trans. Lev Shulyak), Technical Innovation Center, 1994, p.160

One of the most structured systems for idea generation and technological problem solving that is available to designers is TRIZ (teoriya resheniya izobretatelskikh zadatch: theory of inventive problem solving). Developed in the early post-war Soviet Union by Genrich Altshuller and colleagues---and publicised in the West mainly from the early 1990s onwards (e.g. Altshuller, 1994)---TRIZ comprises a family of tools which draw on a database of principles and relationships extracted through analysis of, initially, tens of thousands, and by now, “millions” of patents (Gadd, 2011, p.101). The idea is that “[s]omebody someplace has already solved this problem (or one very similar to it.) Creativity is now finding that solution and adapting it to this particular problem” (Barry et al, n.d.).

Jones (2003, p.140) provides a `Map of TRIZ', grouping a variety of TRIZ tools according to their function within the innovation process. She distinguishes between problem analysis (or situation analysis) tools (such as working out what kinds of contradictions are occurring) and solution tools (such as the Contradiction Matrix itself---see below).

Following the `Prism of TRIZ', the problem analysis tools are used to generalise the problem, abstracting it to a form to which TRIZ offers generic solutions---the 40 `Inventive Principles', such as SEGMENTATION, PERIODIC ACTION, PHASE TRANSITION and THE OTHER WAY ROUND, which are `suggested' by the contradiction matrix or table of `separation principles'. In this section, only a few elements of TRIZ will be covered which seem most directly relevant to the behaviour change context. [9]

The Prism of TRIZ

Prism of TRIZ One of the most fundamental ideas in TRIZ is what Gadd (2011) calls the `Prism of TRIZ' (see diagram), although it goes by a number of other names (e.g. Straker and Rawlinson, 2002, call it `Getting over the invention wall').

The diagram represents a process of translating a specific problem into a more abstract general problem for which general solutions are known, then re-translating that general solution into the context of your problem, resulting in a specific solution.

The specific problems may be disparate, but on some level they are instances of general, recurring problems which exist in the world, and which someone has solved. Straker and Rawlinson (2002, p.78) suggest that this is in fact “similar to how people normally approach many situations”, but the explicit step of abstracting a specific problem into a more general one is not necessarily a common way to think in everyday life. The first step is not simply Pólya's “Do you know a related problem?” (see above) but something more like “Can you describe the problem in an abstracted form?”---essentially a process of modelling a situation.


TRIZ has many principles and themes running through the family of tools, but one which dominates is the idea of contradictions. [10]

Altshuller's approach---which Craig (2008) suggests has much in common with Marxist dialectic---was to see all problems as arising from contradictions between desired states. In TRIZ these are classified as technical contradictions (where “[w]e think of a solution to improve something but something else gets worse”), for example making a structure stronger makes it heavier, and physical contradictions, where “[w]e want opposite solutions---for example, high and low” (Gadd, 2011, p.102-4), such as a blacksmith wanting a horseshoe to be hot enough for the metal to be worked, but cold enough to be able to hold and manipulate it (Straker and Rawlinson, 2002, p.82). Solving physical contradictions involves separating when and where each condition or solution is present---in time, space, scale or on particular conditions---and this is done via consulting a table of `separation principles' which suggests particular relevant Inventive Principles.

TRIZ Contradiction Matrix Part of the TRIZ Contradiction Matrix

Each technical contradiction is described in terms of two of 39 abstract `technical parameters', for example `strength' (no. 14) and `weight of stationary object' (no. 2)---as we make something stronger, it is becoming heavier, but we don't want this---and then the Contradiction Matrix, a 39 × 39 matrix is consulted. This suggests, for each intersecting cell, up to four Inventive Principles that are relevant. For improving strength without worsening the weight of a stationary object, the matrix suggests COMPOSITE MATERIALS, COPYING, CHEAP SHORT-LIVING OBJECTS and SEGMENTATION. Each of these principles can then be considered in more detail (with examples) to see how it might be applied to the specific problem.

The process of abstracting the problem to understand the contradiction(s) present, and hence selecting the parameters, can start in a number of different ways. For example, Jones and Harrison (2000) mapped TRIZ technical parameters to the five axes from Fussler and James' Eco-Compass (1996), a commonly used tool for mapping changes in environmental impact of new and existing products, to enable this to be used as a starting point for the process (as well as to uncover whether TRIZ could be usefully applied in this context).


As Craig (2008, p.40) puts it, in Altshuller's view “a trade-off was resolved not by optimizing between two conflicting features, but by changing or adapting the system in some way so that both features could improve. For instance, a device may be made stronger and lighter by applying the principle ‘composite materials’”.

In TRIZ, “[t]he Ideal describes the perfect state, a perfect result... Whatever problem we are tackling, if we begin by imagining the Ideal version of the thing we want... then we get quick understanding of the best possible outcomes” (Gadd, 2011, p.177). A word equation is used to explain the concept:


A solution tends towards ideality when the benefits achieved are greater than the `costs' and `harms' entailed in the solution; ultimately, the system disappears entirely, the benefits tending to infinity as the costs and harms tend to zero. This implies the functions being delivered without the system existing at all---there are parallels here with the idea of dematerialisation in product-service systems, where a product is replaced augmented by a service which provides the same benefits without needing the same physical form. Mann and Jones (2002) apply TRIZ tools to the example of portable generators in this context. More generally, “[i]nnovation following this law of ideality could contribute to sustainable development, through the delivery of the functions without the environmental impacts associated with current systems of production” (Jones and Harrison, 2000).

What can be usefully applied from TRIZ?

What useful insights from (or features of) TRIZ can be applied to the `design for behaviour change' guide?

• The notion of a method---systematic but not formulaic, to use a phrase applied by Sato (2009) to `design thinking' in general---which helps `prescribe' a range of possible solutions drawing on knowledge and experience with analogous situations, is an appealing one. • The specific--abstract--abstract--specific arc (the Prism of TRIZ) perhaps provides a more formal description of the kind of analogical transfer discussed in a number of other idea generation and problem solving processes. • The `lookup table' form of the contradiction matrix is interesting because it expressly suggests relevant Inventive Principles, building in a creative element, rather than stating unequivocally that there is a single right answer. • Craig (2008, p.45) notes that the Inventive Principles, being derived from analysis of patents across a number of technology domains, necessarily “resemble elements of the individual strategies used by expert designers in various disciplines.” This parallels the opportunity for an idea generation guide---that of a tool which can help designers learn from practice in other disciplines. Referencing Schön's concept of problem-framing (see above) and Bryan Lawson's concept of `gambits', Craig goes on to suggest that “[d]ialectical ‘contradiction-thinking’ can be seen as an explicit method for problem-framing, just as the Inventive Principles can be understood as a sophisticated set of ‘gambits’”. • On the other hand, the `certainty' that may be implied by the philosophy of TRIZ---that there are definitely solutions to all problems, and that those solutions do not need to involve any compromises---does not sit easily with the notion of wicked problems in design, which may make it an uncomfortable perspective to designers working on social problems.

Urinal flies at Schiphol airport, Amsterdam  BBC story on use of classical music

The TRIZ Inventive Principles are all technological, mostly based on physical sciences, although in many cases they can be seen as descriptions of system properties, at different levels (sub-systems, system and super-systems) so some at least could potentially be applied to systems involving human behaviour. Gadd (2011) includes a number of examples of solutions (many via the use of cartoons) illustrating TRIZ principles, which could be seen as `design for social behaviour change', including:

• a target painted on a urinal to “Give the messy devils something to aim at” (p.163) • a bakery deliberately piping its `fresh bread' aroma into the street to attract customers (p.183) • the use of a deceptive `Beware of the Bull' sign to scare away trespassers (p.204) • “Separate on condition with music for older people which repels young people”---playing Frank Sinatra's songs in a public square at night to discourage younger people from `hanging around' (p.125) • using scarcity to make misprinted football shirts appear valuable rather than wasting them (p.161) • a police officer giving drunken brawlers chocolate bars to stop them fighting rather than hitting them with a truncheon (p.47) • a group of mothers forming a group to use social pressure to deal with street violence (p.83)

While a number of these are familiar examples, not necessarily created using TRIZ, the implication is that they could have been, i.e. the method potentially provides for the creation of these kinds of solutions.

However, people, and the different ways that people think and act, are not included explicitly in mainstream TRIZ. There is certainly the opportunity for a 'BehaviourTRIZ' to be developed, but we are to some extent lacking the body of formally recorded knowledge about behaviour equivalent to the patents that informed the development of TRIZ. We have no `patent database' of human behaviour and the `solutions' for influencing it. Human history, literature, politics---indeed, the entire sum of all cultures---is the resource we have, but it is not formalised through the use of claims as patents are, and is thus difficult to interrogate in this way.

Equally, and perhaps most importantly, the heterogeneity and diversity of people's lives and culture, and responses to social and contextual factors, do not sit easily with attempts to formalise people's behaviour into a 'lookup table'.

A vast meta-analysis of meta-analyses, drawing together everything learned from human history that could be extracted as a `principle' would be a significantly larger project than a PhD. Extracting insights from a limited number of mainly psychological disciplines, that have direct relevance to design (as it is intended that this series of working papers has done), is probably the most that can be hoped for, at least initially, together with limited use of some of the features of the TRIZ method identified above, where they are appropriate.

In part 2 (coming soon): Design patterns, card decks, and other forms of guide

Image credits

All photos and diagrams by author except: Phonebox photo by Halans on Flickr, CC-licensed; Square-wheel trike by Stan Wagon; Social Design Tools table by Nesta; Screenshot from Polya's How to Solve It; Screenshot from Nina Volstad and Casper Boks's 'On the Use of Biomimicry...'; Screenshot from TRIZ 40; Screenshot from BBC News. The tables are screenshots from Design with intent: A design pattern toolkit for environmental and social behaviour change by Dan Lockton.


[1] Developed in detail in the context of artificial intelligence research by Newell and Simon (1972). Hey (2008, p.15) makes an additional criticism, referencing on the frequent use of rule-based games such as chess by researchers such as Simon as contexts for understanding problem solving: "an ideation session for an NPD [new product development] project can never claim to have exhausted every possible option, in contrast to, for example, determining what next moves are possible in a game of chess (a classic problem solving challenge)." [2] 'Exploring problem-framing through behavioural heuristics' explores some of the implications of this viewpoint for designers involved in behaviour change. Hey (2008) explores designers' framing in detail in his PhD thesis, in the context of new product development, in particular how design teams negotiate a common frame for their design situation, and how this is matched to the needs of their potential users. [3] One is usually related to the problem under consideration, but the other is randomly drawn, e.g. from a dictionary. Straker and Rawlinson (2002) recount that King Gillette used an `Alphabet System' where he listed every product he could think of beginning with each letter, as a way of triggering new ideas about improving them. Eno and Schmidt's Oblique Strategies (1975) are considered in Part 2 of this post. [4] See also Hewitt-Gleason (2008) for a statement on the origins of the concept, the sole authorship of which is disputed [5] There are some parallels with Goffman (1959): see this paper for a discussion of relevance to design for behaviour change. [6] Another more general method, Morphological Analysis (Zwicky, 1969; Ritchey, 1998) may be relevant here. It “is a method for identifying and investigating the total set of possible relationships or `configurations' contained in a given problem complex” (Ritchey, 1998, p.3), dividing a problem into “major parameters, components or problem dimensions and then systematically allow[ing] the user to identify all the combinations possible with those elements... [and] find all the theoretically conceivable solutions to a problem” (Jones 2003, p.130). Elias (2009) used a Morphological Chart to generate concepts for redesigned refrigerators. Straker and Rawlinson (2002) suggest a range of other verbs which could be used to extend the process, similar to the (longer) lists used in methods such as Synectics (e.g. Nolan, 2003). [7] An additional aspect is Simon's (1969/1981) suggestion that “[i]n problem solving, a partial result that represents recognizable progress towards the goal plays the role of stable subassembly” (p.206), and that “[o]ne way to solve a complex problem is to reduce it to a problem previously solved---to show what steps lead from the earlier solution to a solution of the new problem” (p.226). Hence, perhaps, the joke: “A mathematician wants to read a book, but the room he is in is dark, and the light is off. In order to read, he turns on the light. The next day, the mathematician wants to read a book, and the light is on in the room. He first turns off the light, reducing the problem to the one he solved the previous day”. [8] Hey and Agogino (2007) studied the use of metaphor across the entire design process, including extracting and coding designers' use of terms such as “bounc[ing] ideas off each other”. In particular, one of their codings has some parallels with the scamper methodology discussed above---the idea that “Problems Are Objects: They can be assembled, viewed from a different angle, divided, decomposed, be hard, big, well-structured or ill-structured, transformed, patterned, complex, broken down into sub-problems, refined, clarified, broken into parts, and stable” (p.6). [9] Of the 40 TRIZ Inventive Principles, a number which could potentially be more easily applied to behaviour have---indirectly---inspired or influenced patterns in the Design with Intent toolkit. In particular, by the stage of DwI v.1.0, SEGMENTATION, ASYMMETRY, PARTIAL OR EXCESSIVE ACTION and FEEDBACK are all represented in some form, though usually not described in quite the same way as in TRIZ. [10] Pickering (2010, p.176) links Gregory Bateson's concept of the double bind (see here for its design for behaviour change context) to the idea of the Zen koan, an apparently self-contradictory, paradoxical or unresolvable question or statement. It is intriguing to consider the possible parallels with contradictions in TRIZ.


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Introducing Powerchord (Blackbird edition) by Dan

Powerchord 1, housed in a Poundland lunchbox. In the video, you see a laptop (~40W) being plugged in, with, from 10 seconds, the Powerchord kicking in with relatively gentle blackbird song. (The initial very quiet birdsong at 4-8 seconds is actual blackbirds singing in the hedge outside!) Then at 30 seconds, a 400W electric heater is switched on, and the birdsong increases in emphasis accordingly. At 49 seconds, a second 400W element is switched on and the birdsong increases further in volume. There is some background noise of rain on the shed roof. In the previous post, I introduced the exploration Flora Bowden and I have been doing of sonifying energy data, as part of the SusLab project. The 'Sound of the Office' represented twelve hours' electricity use by three items of office infrastructure – the kettle, a laser printer, and a gang socket for a row of desks – turned into a 30-second MIDI file.

Going further with this idea, I've been playing with taking it into (near) real-time, producing sound directly in response to the electricity use of multiple appliances. Powerchord seemed too good a name to pass up. Again using CurrentCost IAMs, transmitting data to a CurrentCost EnviR, this system then uses an Arduino to parse the CurrentCost's XML stream*, and trigger particular audio tracks via a Robertsonics WAV Trigger. I tried a GinSing to start with, which was a lot of fun, but the WAV Trigger offered a more immediate way of producing suitable sounds.

The Powerchord prototype   CurrentCost IAM

Testing GinSing   Alongside CurrentCost EnviR

There are lots of questions - what sort of sounds should the system produce? How should they relate to the instantaneous power consumption? Should they be linear or some other relationship? Should it be an 'alarm', alerting people to unusual or particularly high energy use, or a continuous soundtrack?** I decided in this case, that I wanted to build on a number of insights and anecdotes that had arisen during discussion of representing energy use in different ways:

  • one of the householders with whom we're working had mentioned in an interview that she could tell, from the sound of the washing machine, what stage it was at in its cycle, even from other rooms of the house.
  • a remark from Greg Jackson of Intel's ICRI Cities that the church bells he could hear from his office, chiming every 15 minutes, helped him establish a much better sense of what time it was, even when he didn't consciously recall listening out for them
  • Blackbird

  • the amount of birdsong I can hear (mostly sparrows and blackbirds) both lying in bed early in the morning, and from the hedge behind the garden shed where I work when I'm working from home. Reinforced by a visit to the London Wetland Centre in Barnes a couple of weeks ago
  • the uncanniness of the occasional silence as the New Bus for London or other hybrid buses pull into traffic, compared with the familiarity of increasing revs for acceleration
  • the multi-sensory plug sockets produced by Ted Hunt during our 'Seeing Things' student workshop last year
  • the idea of linking time and daily routines and patterns to energy use, e.g. Loove Broms & Karin Ehrnberger's Energy AWARE Clock at the Interactive Institute.
  • the notion of soundscapes, e.g. Dr Jamie Mackrill's work at WMG with understanding and manipulating hospital soundscapes.
  • a recording I made out of the window of my hotel room, on a trip to Doha, of the continuous sound of construction work, interspersed with occasional pigeons
  • the popularity of things like Mashup: Jazz Rain Fire
  • Gordon Pask's Ear and attempts to recreate it
  • the ‘clacking’ sound of split flap displays (e.g. mechanical railway departure boards) as an indicator that the display has updated, as Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally point out in their Designing the Internet of Things.

All of this led to using birdsong as the sounds triggered - in the video here, blackbirds - at different intensities of song (volume, and number of birds) depending on the power measured by the CurrentCost, at 7 levels ranging from 5W to 1800W+. The files were adapted, in Audacity, from those available at the incredible Xeno-Canto - these include Creative Commons-licensed recordings by Jerome Fischer, Jordi Calvert, Roberto Lerco, Michele Peron, David M and Krzysztof Deoniziak. I also made sets of files using house sparrows, and herring gulls, which proved particularly irritating when testing in the office.

Arduino, WAV Trigger and cannibalised CurrentCost EnviR   Arduino, WAV Trigger and cannibalised CurrentCost EnviR

The initial intention was to use multiple IAMs, with different birdsong for each appliance, played polyphonically if appliances are being used at the same time. This is the aim for the next version (and I'll publish the code), but was stymied in this case by 1) my misunderstanding of the CurrentCost XML spec, and 2) a failed IAM, which conspired together to limit this particular version to one IAM (with multiple appliances plugged into it), at least to have it ready to be shown at a couple of events last week. The prototype you see/hear here, in all its Poundland lunchbox-encased glory, was demonstrated by Flora Bowden and me at the V&A Digital Futures event at BL-NK, near Old Street, and at the UK Art Science Prize 'Energy of the Future' event at the Derby Silk Mill. It was more a demo to show that it could work at all than anything particularly impressive.

What's the overall aim with all this? It's an exploration of what's possible, or might be useful, in helping people develop a different kind of understanding of energy use, and the patterns of energy use in daily life - not just based on on numerical feedback. If it's design for behaviour change, it's aiming to do so through increasing our understanding of, and familiarity with, the systems around us, making energy use something we can develop an instinctual feeling for, much like the sound of our car's engine - once we're familiar with it - effectively tells us when to change gear.

The next version will, hopefully, work with multiple appliances at once, playing polyphonic birdsong, and be somewhat better presented - I'll post the code and schematics too - and, later in the year, might even be tested with some householders.

*Using a modified version of Colin R Williams' code, in turn based on Francisco Anselmo's. **The distinction between model-based sonification and other approaches such as parameter-mapping sonification is useful here - many thanks to Chris Jack for this.

Thank you to Ross Atkin and Jason Mesut for suggestions! Blackbird photo by John Stratford, used under a CC licence.

Work in progress: Ambient audible energy data by Dan

The three instruments you hear here represent the electricity use of three items of office infrastructure - the kettle, a laser printer, and a gang socket for a row of desks - in the Helen Hamlyn Centre office over 12 hours from midnight on a Sunday to lunchtime on a Monday, in December, monitored using CurrentCost IAMs. The figures were scaled to provide ranges that sounded better, and converted into a MIDI file using John Walker's csvmidi and then Aria Maestosa.

The 'ticks' indicate each hour's passing. The 'honk' (Tenor Sax) is the kettle (up to 1.5kW when in use). The 'whine' (Synth Brass 1) is the Kyocera laser printer. The other synth (Polysynth) is the gang socket, which mainly had a couple of laptops (15W-50W) plugged into it when people were in the office, and a charger (1W) plugged into it otherwise . Lower pitch indicates greater electricity use, hence the high-pitched whine is the background power of the printer (about 10W on standby, rising to 300W-500W when in use).

As the audio starts, you can hear, over the background whine of the printer, the kettle come on as the security guard makes himself a middle-of-the-night cup of tea. Then, early in the morning, the kettle is used three times by the cleaners - twice in quick succession (reboiling?) and then once again. Suddenly, from 9.30, as office staff arrive, the kettle goes on again, laptops are plugged in, the printer starts printing and the energetic hubbub of office life becomes apparent.

Sound of the Office

Data sonification has been in the news a bit recently, from Domenico Vicinanza's 'Sound of Space Discovery' to Opower's 'Chicago in the Wintertime'. It's something that's long intrigued me, but if I'm honest, has underwhelmed me in terms of either its actual utility or indeed its impact aesthetically. A (visual) graph is useful because I can use it to find something out. A table of numbers, likewise, even if patterns are less immediately evident. But a beautiful orchestral piece that just happens to draw on aggregated data which are a long way from anything I can comprehend, in scale or meaning, doesn't tell me anything, somehow. Sarah Angliss was pretty much spot-on in this 2011 Mad Art Lab post.

Energy use is the focus of one of the main projects I'm working on, and one of the strongest findings that came out of interviews and co-creation work with householders that Flora Bowden and I did last summer and autumn was the notion that the invisibility of energy was a major component of householders' lack of understanding, which contributed - by their own admission - to energy waste.

More than one person specifically suggested that being able to 'listen' to whether appliances were switched on or not, and, more interestingly, what state they were in (e.g. listening to a washing machine will give you a good idea as to where it is in its cycle), was potentially more useful for understanding how to reduce energy use than a flashy visual display or dashboard. Sound is potentially even more 'glanceable' than glanceables. Even hearing what you'd left on as you went out of the door would be useful. There are echoes of Mark Weiser's Calm Technology including Natalie Jeremijenko's Live Wire (Dangling String) but also the 'useful side-effects' of things like the 'clacking' sound of mechanical railway departure boards as an indicator that the display has updated, as Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally point out in their excellent Designing the Internet of Things.

We also explored aspects of this idea further in our Seeing Things project with RCA students back in November, with contributors including Dave Cranmer and Dagny Rewera having an audio/visual sensory translation element to their work. Of the participants, Ted Hunt took an explicitly multi-sensory approach with his project, including audio, while Francesco Tacchini, with Julinka Ebhardt and Will Yates-Johnson, subsequently went on to create the incredible Space Replay where audio is both monitored and played back in public space.

I'm not saying the 'Sound of the office' audio above is particularly good. It was more of a let's-play-around-with-some-data experiment, and I've since found that proper sonification platforms exist. But the approach is something I very much want to explore and build on - possibly whole-house energy use audio disaggregated by appliance, or by activity - and it raises so many interesting questions around what is most useful or most effective at actually either influencing energy use, or helping people understand the complex systems around them. Should it be aesthetically pleasing, or horrible enough it triggers you to turn things off? Is that just the kind of over-simplification that makes most energy monitor displays ineffective? Should the audio be real-time or provide a summary? Should it be paired with visuals? (e.g. like Alexander Chen's beautiful MTA.ME or Listen to Bitcoin / Listen to Wikipedia) How much should it try to be 'music' versus, basically an 'auditory affordance' or alarm system? Should there be something about the quality of the sound that indicates something, e.g. load on the National Grid? (Thanks to Aideen McConville and Jack Kelly for this suggestion.)

The field is interesting partly because, post-PhD, I've come to realise that what I'm interested in is not so much the question of "how do we influence behaviour?" as an end in itself, but something more like "how do people understand complex systems of which their behaviour is a part, and how do we help them understand those systems better?". There's a substantial blog post coming on that, which hopefully draws together lots of interests and ideas, from the IoT to heuristics to seamfulness to affordances to mental models, and (I hope) will set out a kind of research programme which I might be able to get some funding for. But in the meantime, this is certainly part of the direction we're going in with the 'energy feedback' part of the RCA's work on the SusLab project. It's going to be ambient, and it's going to involve more than just numbers and graphs.

Direct link for MP3 file Sound of the Office

Designing with people in sustainability and behaviour change research: DRS 2014 Workshop, 15 June 2014 by Dan Lockton

On 15 June, at the 2014 Design Research Society conference in Umeå, Sweden, we will be running a workshop on Designing with people in sustainability and behaviour change research along with SusLab project colleagues from Chalmers University of Technology and the Wuppertal Institute. This full-day workshop should be of interest to designers and researchers working at intersections [...]

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Guest post at Ethnography Matters by Dan Lockton

Over at the excellent Ethnography Matters we have an invited guest post about SusLab, explaining the RCA’s work on the project so far through from an ethnographic perspective. From the conclusion: …we hope to demonstrate, in the context of the wider political, academic and commercial debate over energy and behaviour change, what it means to [...]

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What’s the future of the UK’s energy? 12 February by Dan Lockton

On Wednesday, 12 February, we’ll be presenting our work on SusLab so far as part of What’s the future of the UK’s energy?, the next event in the RCA’s Sustain talks series, alongside some big names in sustainability policy and design. By 2050, we could get all the energy we want from safe and clean [...]

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Home Energy Hackday: the results by Dan Lockton

On Saturday 9th November, about 35 designers, developers, makers, researchers and other interesting people came together at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. We had everyone from energy startups to service designers, venture capital to building performance and energy consultants, along with participants from our SusLabNWE partner organisations, Chalmers (Gothenburg) and Imperial College London. (Full list [...]

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Seeing Things: The projects by Dan Lockton

Visualising invisible patterns in human behaviours and environmental conditions Go straight to the projects On Friday 1 November, in the Senior Common Room at the Royal College of Art, twenty students from twelve different courses presented the outcomes of their week-long Seeing Things projects to invited guests, including participants in other AcrossRCA projects run by [...]

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Co-creation workshop by Dan Lockton

At the end of September, five householders from London and beyond worked together with five designers from the RCA’s Service Design department and Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, participating in a SusLab co-creation workshop at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in Kensington. Our aim with the workshop was to connect a talented set of designers [...]

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