Category Archives: Design

A Reality Check about Plastic and the future

Here it is

Plastic has been much demonised recently, thanks to its impact on wildlife and the environment, which is starkly illustrated by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and pictures of seahorses clutching Q-tips or dead albatrosses with stomachs full of plastic.

Despite the increasing concern about the issue, there is little sign that plastic use is falling. Half of all the plastic ever made was produced in the last 13 years, says investment house Hermes, while output is set to increase by 40% in the next decade.

We might think of this as a paradigm for our modern “linear economy”. The line goes from resource to product to consumption to waste. And so we are overloaded with waste while we wonder about resource scarcity.

The answer? A circular model. Designing products that are meant to be used and the materials in them to be re-used.


A Bridge You Could Love

Here it is

Related image

It is called the Lucky Knot Bridge, designed by Next Architects  and it can be found in Changsha, China.

…the whimsical pedestrian bridge actually has three bridges woven into one structure. Next Architects was awarded the project after their design proposal won an international competition in 2013, Michel Schreimachers, a partner at the firm, tells Business Insider. The steel bridge in Changsha’s newly redeveloped city center was completed in late 2016.

Very cool!


Thinking about Systemic Innovation and a “Light Touch”

It is a bit odd, I think, that we usually think of innovation as something produced on a micro, or individual, basis. The conventional wisdom is that some very smart person comes up with a great idea, starts up a company, and off he or she goes!

We think less, unfortunately, about the ecology that supports individuals and the role that ecology play in promoting or retarding innovation.  That is changing, to be sure. Awareness of how innovation has surged in certain places got people shaking their heads and asking “why there=” And “Could that be copied?”

On the surface, it seems easy enough. Put together “clusters” of people who seek out new knowledge, financing agents, and entrepreneurs and you have all the ingredients you need, right?

Well, it  is not that simple. The above ingredients are important — even critical — but arraying them side by side in a cluster does not mean that they will create a dynamic process, a self- replicating process of building value added from new ideas.

Recent research suggests one of the reasons why.  Folks who may want to develop better ways of doing things are easily daunted by systemic barriers, like shortages.

as New Scientist points out, (trying to accelerate innovation too quickly) often fails because supply chains—whether they be for power, labor, raw materials, or something else—in poorer countries can be too chaotic to support jumps in technological complexity. Power outages happen. Workers don’t show up. Parts get stolen.

And the big new thing that was supposed to provide jobs and prosperity for all starts to turn into a beached whale.

And this idea pops out

The finding …  helps explain “why ‘big push’ policies can fail and … underscores the importance of reliability and gradual increases in technological complexity.” To that point, this MIT Technology Review interview does a wonderful job of explaining how light-touch technological interventions can often have some of the biggest impacts on poorer countries

And I think there is a social dimension to this approach. If more folks “buy into” the process, it becomes easier to identify where the potential disruptions will occur and develop strategies to deal with them.

Are We Connected Yet?

The word “connected” has added new meaning over the last few decades. It used to mean that you were what was called an “insider”. You knew the “right” people. Bill Clinton, with his enormous rolodex, was certainly connected in that way. That meaning still has traction. But being connected now also means just having internet access.

Let’s shift our focus from the word “connected” to “connectivity”. The word was not in common usage before the internet. We are now all connected through this technology. But has this improved our connections? Are we better connected in the personal, rather than technical sense? Has our personal connectivity gone up?

Before addressing that question, I would point out that pre-internet connectivity — the ability to make personal connections — was limited for many people. Whatever the quality of our connections now, we have not moved to it from a paradise of community. But some would argue that we have moved from not good to worse.

I first began thinking about that issue when I bumped into Robert Putman’s famous book, “Bowling Alone“.  It came out in 2000, and was based on an article that Putnam wrote back in 1995. Putnam’s point in the book is that going back to 1950, America’s stock of “social capital” has been declining.  His thesis is that this decline leads to a decline in public involvement, including participation in political life.

Putnam was first lionized and then criticized.  And there is no doubt that “social capital” is difficult to measure. Social capital in the US may have been low before 1950, and the social organizations that Putnam refers to may not have been very adept at building social capital. At the same time, I would argue that the rise of the Republican Party’s angry hard right wing has its roots in the decline of social capital. Where else does all of the anger and conspiracy theory come from? And I would argue that it is a serious threat to the republic.

We might expect that the social capital in our great cities would be higher, simply because of density and demographics. Perhaps. But CityLab points out that social isolation in cities is a serious concern. In part, it may be connected with how urban living is designed. And in part it is due to the high cost of living.

And btw, when it comes down to it, we do not have good models for building social capital where it is needed most. I am reminded of the experiment of “PieLab”.  PieLab was a well-intentioned attempt to promote social change in a small community by creating a shared public space – a cafe that served pie. That sounds simple enough. But the results of the experiment were far more complex. It was at best a partial success.

The problem with PieLab was that the locals — who were supposed to benefit from the project — begam to feel that the project was an intrusion. BTW, ditto for gentrification in cities. When new residents come into a neighborhood, they do not necessarily increase social capital there.

I find this to be fascinating for a simple reason. We know that we find new and great ideas through social interaction. Steve Johnson brought that out in his 2010 TED talk . So there is a good reason to think carefully how we can better design our social interactoins to achieve this. Corporations are not necessarily the best design, as they optimize capital allocation, not social interaction.

So how do we do this? That, my friend, is still an open question. We know that “teams” seem to exhibit a high level of social capital. In sports, for example, high levels of teamwork is called a key to success. So how do we take that concept, which seems so familiar in the sporting setting, and apply it more broadly? There is a lot of talk about team building in firms. And there is a lot of talk about networking to create teams. But once again, there is not a lot of clear solutions to handling this challenge.

Indeed, there is evidence from Sutton and Rao (see their book “Scaling for Excellence”) that the task of getting people in a large organization focused on a common message is very tricky indeed. It may be, therefore, that the need for more social capital in teams will lead to smaller, more tightly integrated firms. More modular types of organizations.

That type of thing is still in the future.

And we begin to see that our ability to join in and get the benefit of teams highly correlates with our individual social skills. I would include cognitive and communication and organization skills there. But so far, our schools are less focused on educating our young to be more adept in social skills and remain fosuced instead on individual knowledge acquisition and obsessed with testing for it.

We have a way to go it seems before we see significant gains from more widespread and enhanced team building. But at least we have a vision of what is needed. That is a starting point that even Sutton and Rao would applaud.

Why We Don’t Have thorium Reactor Prototypes

Nuclear reactors that use thorium have been discussed for a long time. Initially (back in the 1950’s) they presented a better option for producing nuclear power. But uranium-based reactors could be used to make weapon-grade material.  So thorium designs were rejected.  Better, but rejected.

And that is still the story. But now the arguments for not exploring how to make commercial grade thorium reactors is that the cost of renewables will keep falling.  Errr … that sounds like a decent argument. But NO ONE in their right mind argues that energy from renewable sources will be enough to meet all of our energy needs for the foreseeable future.

In this article, you get the more complete picture of why thorium is very interesting, and why we are spending so little on it.