Massive Change - the future of global design

This is an extremely long post on Massive Change, the multi-media exhibition that is intended to be the starting point for a global discussion on the role of design in creating our world. Here is a bit from their website that gives you a sense of the goals of the project.


Design has emerged as one of the world’s most powerful forces. It has placed us at the beginning of a new, unprecedented period of human possibility, where all economies and ecologies are becoming global, relational, and interconnected. In order to understand these emerging forces, there is an urgent need to articulate precisely what we are doing to ourselves and to our world. This is the ambition of Massive Change.

For many of us, design is invisible. We live in a world that is so thoroughly configured by human effort that design has become second nature – ever-present, inevitable, taken for granted.

And yet, the power of design to transform and affect every aspect of daily life is gaining widespread public awareness. No longer associated simply with objects and appearances, design is increasingly understood in a much wider sense as the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes.

Engineered as an international discursive project, Massive Change: The Future of Global Design, will map the new capacity, power and promise of design. We will explore paradigm-shifting events, ideas, and people, investigating the capacities and ethical dilemmas of design in manufacturing, transportation, urbanism, warfare, health, living, energy, markets, materials, the image and information.

Massive Change will be a celebration of our global capacities but also a cautious look at our limitations. We will present the utopian and dystopian possibilities of this emerging world, in which even nature is no longer outside the reach of our manipulation.

 We need to evolve a global society that has the capacity to direct and control the emerging forces in order to achieve the most positive outcome. We must ask ourselves:

Now that we can do anything what will we do?


The Massive Change project encompasses a variety of media including a book, an international exhibition, public events, a radio program. The online forum and film are in the process of being created.

I had the good fortune to be given, as a present for completing my 35th year outside of the womb, a ticket to attend a day long series of panel discussions with some very brilliant minds of the day including such visionaries as Esther Dyson (Chairman of EDVenture Holdings – a venture capital firm, and author of Release 1.0), and Dean Kamen (creator of the Segway.)

The day was broken up into five separate conversations on a theme with a moderator and two panelists. The subject matter included the continued exponential expansion of the “global mind”; wealth & politics; evolution’s designs (biology as template); urban design, space, and transportation; and finally military applications of design and the transfer of technology from the military to the public sector and also in reverse.

I did not take a lot of notes as I did not have a laptop with me so this posting contains some overall impressions, a few specific notes, and a few of my own thoughts on some of the discussion points.

Session 1: Information and Image: Building the Global Mind
With: Bill Buxton: human/computer interface researcher and designer and Esther Dyson: venture capitalist, and general techno-diva.

Interestingly Esther has no phone at home, nor does she drive a car. I figured that if she doesn’t drive a car, she must live in New York. I checked the address of EDventure holdings and sure enough, that’s where it is. I’m not sure that’s where she lives, but where else could somebody with her schedule get by without a car?

I was really expecting a lot from this session but Esther couldn’t seem to connect to Bill’s conversation at all. Bill on the other hand was engaging, energetic, and driven. I could have listened to or talked with him for hours.

Esther gave the audience a long explanation of her work with ICANN over the past couple of years and if I may be so bold as to summarize it, it was this:

ICANN should simply be a mechanism for controlling the DNS. That’s IT. But because it smells like an opportunity to build a world government, everybody and their dog wants to be involved for the wrong reasons to build ICANN into a pseudo global governmental framework instead of simply a group of people whose job it is to make sure the routers stay on and the packets get to their endpoints.

It sounded like she had been through a war.

Bill Buxton, having for the most part, his own conversation on his side of the stage waxed poetic about why Alvin Toffler’s ideas were wrong the night before, how humans can’t think on large timescales (or was that Dyson?), and how it is impossible to be a renaissance person but that the way to handle that is to build renaissance teams.

One of the interesting points of his conversation was where he talked about James Murray, one of the key editors of the Oxford dictionary, perhaps the single largest open-source off-line project in the world, where every word in every book in the history of the English language had to be found, traced, and documented. A fascinating history can be found over here at Wikipedia.  According to Buxton, this type of document exists in no other language in the world.

Unfortunately for this session and two others, Bruce Mau moderated it and while I think he did a superlative job with organizing the whole Massive Change project, he is not a moderator and that role should have been handled all day by somebody like Charlie Rose who moderated sessions 2 and 4. Without a strong moderator, the conversations did not connect, the panelists were often left trying to fill the space on their own, and a lot less real content was delivered in the end.

Session 2: Wealth and Politics: Is the World Getting Better?
With: Andrew Zolli, founder of Z+Partners, specializing in analyzing cultural and economic shifts, design innovations and strategies for ethical leadership and Hazel Henderson, futurist, evolutionary economist, worldwide syndicated columnist and sustainable development consultant.

My take-away from Andrew was that there are serious demographic changes that will drive severe global economic changes and that those forces are different in different countries. He gave a brief tutorial on the work that he does with the Demographics Society, showing the various demographic bell-curves of various countries. He showed a normal curve (looks like a bell); the U.S. curve (lots of kids at the bottom makes it like bell-bottomed pants); and terrorist  states (lots of young men, no economic middle class, very few old people to lead the society).

The fundamental message from Hazel and from the work that she has been so passionately involved in for many years was that the currently used metrics of capitalist economies around the world, are wrong. GDP and GNP are measuring the wrong thing. What gets measured (pure economic output), improves. Therefore we increase efficiency to bump up the numbers but we end up with high outputs and a lousy society. So her goal is to build a new set of measurements and then disseminate those far and wide in the hope that if countries were measuring quality of life rather than just pure economic outputs, they would at least have a useful measuring stick.

This was a topic of frequent conversation when I attended the Environmental Studies department at UVic a decade ago. For example, if you introduce a set of policies and environmental carcinogens that end up causing a higher incidence of cancer, which in turn requires more expensive doctor visits….voilá…higher GDP. Often, extremely negative real-world results translate into higher GDP rankings.

One of the new measurement systems that Hazel discussed is the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators:


…a contribution to the worldwide effort to develop comprehensive statistics of national well-being that go beyond traditional macroeconomic indicators. A systems approach is used to illustrate the dynamic state of our social, economic and environmental quality of life. The dimensions of life examined include: education, employment, energy, environment, health, human rights, income, infrastructure, national security, public safety, re-creation and shelter.


Helen managed to bring up a few more issues noted here:

• Her friend Jeremy Rifkin has just launched his new book titled The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream.

[I have another of Jeremy Rifkin’s books titled The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World and it is an incredible read. I am also interested in his book The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth but have not yet had a chance to read it.]

• Another interesting website/project that is currently underway is, an international free + recycling project where people can give and receive things that they have to other people in their local community. So rather than keeping that old box of cables, many of which you probably paid $10-30 for, you can list them on Freecycle. Then somebody else who happens to need that thing can come by and get it from you – for free. There is no bartering, all of the items listed must be given free of charge.

[I subscribed to their site which actually runs the listings using Yahoo Groups with notifications that come into your mailbox of your mail client which you can set up a rule for to siphon off into a Freecycle folder. I would prefer to see it done via something like Craigslist and using RSS feeds, but hopefully they’ll get there.]

Session 3: Designing Evolution
With: Janine M. Benyus, author of Biomimicry and advocate of nature based design innovation and John Todd, biologist and designer of Eco Machines for the treatment of waste, food production, generation of fuel and water treatment.

Janine began the session with an overview of biomimetic design principles by examining the stage furniture (chair, table, water jug) and explained the differences between how nature would make a material and how we make that same material using toxic, ecologically wasteful processes.

Then John Todd discussed his eco-machines, large greenhouses that contain a few thousand species of creatures and plants from all five bio-kingdoms – monera, protista, plantae, fungi, animalia – a classification that has recently been usurped by a three domain model.

Some notes from his waste-water Eco-machine:

• to build an eco-machine, you combine ecologies and direct them towards a goal; to do this, he combines ecologies in order to solve particular problems;

• he can build systems that require only 1/10 of the inputs of a traditional man-made system;

• his sewage treatment Eco-Machine treats 100,000 gallons / day of sewage and outputs perfectly clean water. The input speed has no effect on the output quality.

• in order to build something of this complexity, he can’t plan it. He can only build them by combining several thousand species from all five kingdoms and then let them self-select out until they find their balance equilibrium at which point there are usually still around 300 unique species left in the Eco-Machine.

Back to Janine Benyus, she discussed her new project called “Google for Biodiversity.”

She started by getting a bunch of biologists together with a bunch of industrial designers. She then had the designers say things like, “I would like to build a pump.” Then the biologists would go away, compile all the information on the 24 pumps found across 68 creatures (I made those numbers up) and then present that to the designer. The designer would find the one that was the best fit, replicate it using other materials, and then voila – biomimetically inspired pump design! However, this was very labour intensive. The biologists and designers didn’t speak the same language. And the biological data was not organized by function, but by animal.  So, “Google for Biodiversity” was formed.

The goal of this project is to catalog all biological data by function rather than by animal and then to build a translator between the biology world and the design world, such that a designer working on a project can say, “I need a solar desalinization device” and then the website will identify all of the potential possibilities that exist in the world’s creatures and allow the designer to pick and choose from that of the mango for example, and try to replicate the function in his design.

The problem is a difficult one. The two ontologies do not connect and have to be mapped to each other. The biological data is currently referenced by creature, not by function. And having biologists and designers sit side by side is expensive and not very scaleable.

Janine and her students are currently building a proof of concept of this system where they have tagged 12 species of creature appropriately and can now search the animals using designer language.

I asked Janine whether or not she was using Semantic Web tools to build her system, and surprisingly she wasn’t and in fact, had never heard of the semantic web at all. I suggested to her that she should look into it as it would help her with the ontological mapping and tagging. It would also be interesting to see if you could deploy something like Axonwave’s NLP-based tools to assist the humans by applying the semantic tags or else aiding in the re-categorization of biological data by function.

My favourite quote of Janine’s was: “Limits [of resources] should be considered by designers as a design contest – an opportunity to exercise their skill in designing efficient mechanisms.”

However, I personally believe that the best way to ensure that this happens in any particular area is for constraints to be quantified, clarified, and made explicit. And in those cases where they don’t exist, make them up if you have to. Humans rarely if ever design efficiently for the sheer challenge of it. Design is hard enough as it is. They wait until they are pushed into it. That is why the best thing that could happen to alternative energy development would be for something horrendous to occur that jacks oil up to $500/barrel – a 10x multiple over its current Fall 2004 price. THAT would boost spending and ingenuity in the energy/transportation sector like nothing else. Designers the world over would engage their efficiency creativity and you can be darned sure that automobiles would be getting 100mph in about 12 months.

Session 4: Urban Space, Movement, and Energy
With: Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, entrepreneur, founder of DEKA Research that builds the stair-climbing wheelchair; and Jaime Lerner, architect and former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, where he revolutionized transit and recycling programs.

Lerner spoke on the history of Curitiba, Brazil and his mayoralty there. When he first became mayor and the city was at 600,000 people and approaching a million, he was advised by mayors of all of the other major cities of the world that he absolutely HAD to build a light rail transit system. Fortunately for Curitiba, they did not have the money to do so. So he built a bus system that ended up surpassing most if not all LRT systems in the world, that is self-funding (it pays for itself and requires no subsidies) and that moves more people than LRT systems at 1/8 of the cost. It has been hailed the world over as a transportation model to be applied to many of the world’s cities as they face increased density, and mounting LRT construction and legal costs and timelines.

He talked about how New York has been talking for FIFTY years about putting an LRT line on 2nd Avenue. They have finally approved it. But it will take twenty years to build. Seventy years of not moving people because the solution is so drastically expensive and difficult to execute!!

Here were some of Lerner’s notes:

• live work and play in one part of the city. Separating functions is an economic and ecological disaster in the making.

• when you build transit, stay on the surface – don’t tunnel and don’t go above ground – both are expensive in terms of land-buy-backs and both are slow in terms of actual people moved across distances because of having to go underground and then above. Most of all, stay on the surface to minimize the costs of building underground or above ground on raised platforms.

• Ignore the peer pressure that says you need an LRT. You don’t. No city does.

• Curitiba moves 2 million people per day by bus. It pays for itself from ticket revenue.

• if a regular bus can move X people per day through the city, there are a couple of things you can do to get higher multiples. If you have a dedicated lane, that bus can move 2x the people. If that bus is articulated, then you can move another 1.7x the people. If that bus is a double-bus, it can move 2.5x the people. Add that all up and they are getting an 8.5x multiple over using a regular stand-alone bus! Because they are using double-decker articulated buses that get their own dedicated bus lanes all through the city. BRILLIANT.

• another awesome part of their buses is that to get on a bus you enter a bus-tube that is a tube-shaped building at the bus-stop. You pay to go into the tube, and then when the bus arrives five sets of doors on the bus open into the tube platform. It’s like an LRT but only two bus-lengths long. So the people can move in/out of the bus in 5 or 10 seconds and then all of the doors shut and the bus moves off again. When you leave the bus, you then exit the tube from the opposite end you entered from. This tube-platform minimizes idle time and keeps the passengers sheltered from the weather.

• Their buses arrive at the tube every 30 seconds. As he noted, many people do not like taking the bus because they have to learn the routes and the timing or they waste a lot of time. Well, if a bus is coming by every 30 seconds, that’s not an issue!

• Recycling is handled by exchanging items of value for the goods that need to be recycled. Even the poorest squatters are paid for their garbage with tickets for the buses, or food from outlying farms. Curitiba recycles 2/3 of its garbage, one of the highest urban recycling rates in the world.

• Even the fishermen are paid to clean up the ocean. They are paid if they catch fish, and they are paid by the city if they catch garbage like tires or car parts.

My favourite quote of Lerner’s was: “The city is not a problem; it is a solution.”

I loved this guy. He laughed quickly and easily and it was obvious that he was extremely passionate about the principles that they had used to build Curitiba. He was also pleased that at last count, 87 more cities had begun to build using these same principles. But it had taken 20 years for that to happen!

Dean Kamen spoke about his motivation to build the Segway 2 wheeled device.

• When Ford built the car, 9% of people lived in cities.

• As of 2000, >50% of the global population lived in cities (>3.2B of 6.4B).

• the average speed of the automobile in most cities is 9mph, the same speed of the Segway.

• he feels that the car is designed for the freeway and should absolutely be used to drive on the freeway, but then it should be left at the city gates in much the way that horses and carts were also left outside the ancient cities. We should be using other forms of transportation from the outer ring to the inner core of the city.

I have to say that as much as I like Dean Kamen and as cool as the Segway is, even I wouldn’t run around on one because they’re just so….geeky(?) I’m not sure what it is but something bugs me about them. Maybe it’s just the dorkiness factor. I can’t quite pin it down.

Also, bikes widely distributed by the city and covered bike routes would do more for commuters than expensive electric Segways everywhere, although Paris is trying an experiment with them.

I think the biggest difference between the panelists was the following. One had built an incredible city of 1.6 million people on ecological principles and the values of simple, cheap, and quick. Kamen was trying to solve the commute problem by adding a heavy, electricity-using scooter that was difficult to get up and down stairs and that would pretty much require putting a rack onto your vehicle in order to carry. It is the solution for cities that we don’t actually have. I mean, I give the guy points for long term fifty year vision, but I still don’t get it. And there are a lot of other things we can do that are cheap, quick, and simple like Lerner has done.

(To be continued…)