Researching Social Technologies

For a client, I am researching the area of Social Technologies – that is, the humane use of innovative technologies in social care, including care of the elderly and infirm – to understand how this domain can be intelligently and effectively supported.

Such social technologies might include mobile robotic assistive ‘arms’ in the home to help the elderly with tasks, fetching, and moving around. Or sensors to detect falls and alert carers. The key affordances are the retention of dignity, independence and choice for the ‘user’.

I am currently working to map and engage with possible stakeholders; understand their and other audiences’ potential interests, needs and goals; map the landscape of organisations in this area; and propose viable designs for addressing them.

Possible stakeholders include Academia, Funders, Government (National and Local), Regulators, Health/care providers, the Tech industry, the Media, Social technology researchers, and Social and Technology policymakers.

I’d welcome thoughts from friends and colleagues on challenges, stakeholders, and exemplary organisations working intelligently and effectively in parallel domains. Do post thoughts here or on my LinkedIn post, where other colleagues have been commenting. Either way, if you’d like to be updated on this research when it is published and goes to the next stage do get in touch.

Article: dmi:Review ‘Design, Didacticism, and the Dignity of People’, 2019

Shepard Fairey’s ‘Greater Than Fear’ image from We The People Art
Shepard Fairey’s ‘Greater Than Fear’ image from We The People Art

In this article I argue that there is an orthodoxy in the design profession, which is a product of ‘not knowing what you don’t know’, a tendency to create filter bubbles, and ‘bad faith’ humanism. The design industries embrace diversity in everything except politics; users are at the centre except when their views don’t fit. I also reflect on my journey to understanding how design and politics relate and the insight that:

“while creativity and innovation are distinct domains, their potential will only be realised when the common people have political freedom”

Design, Didacticism, and the Dignity of People’ Nico Macdonald, dmi:Review, Vol.30, Issue 1, March 2019, pp.4–6 [PDF]

Comments on the piece welcomed. Friends who want to comments can also do so on the submitted draft published as a Facebook Note.

Review: The origins of ‘just in time’ production

The BBC Radio 4 Money Programme edition Total Recall: The Toyota Story recounts Toyota’s major vehicle recall in the context of the company’s history. Though it takes far too long to do it, and is accompanied by annoying music, it gets interesting about 20m in when it describes Toyota’s ‘just in time’ production model (inspired by the inventory strategy of the US Piggly Wiggly self-service grocery chain) being a response of post-War material shortages in Japan. It also charts Toyota’s encroachment on the US car market, beginning in the 1950s, including some wonderful TV adverts from the 1960s/70s. [Producer: Ruth Shurman]


Review: Nesta: Pulling the plug: what should a human-centric European Internet look like?, 2018

On Wednesday early evening in London Nesta is hosting the first of a series of provocations on ‘how European citizens can retake control over the future of the internet’. Pulling the plug: what should a human-centric European Internet look like? Is part of the Next Generation Internet initiative, the European Commission’s programme focused on building a more democratic, inclusive and resilient Internet by 2025.

The event will start from the observation that the Internet is dominated by two ruling narratives: ‘an American one, where power is concentrated in the hands of just a few big players, and a Chinese model, where government surveillance appears to be the leitmotif’. It asks ‘Between Big Tech and Beijing, where does this leave citizens? What could Europe do create a more human-centric future internet?’.

Debaters include Professor John Naughton, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), who has spoke at my events in the past; Marleen Stikker, Managing Director and Co-Founder of the Waag Society, which has been key to thinking about digital culture in the Netherlands and beyond; Adam Rang, Head of Location-Independent Investment, e-Residency, for the Republic of Estonia; Katja Bego, EU Engineroom Project Coordinator and Senior Researcher at Nesta; and Nesta’s CEO Geoff Mulgan.

The question on which they will focus are:

  • Could Europe build the kind of alternatives that would put citizens back in the driver’s seat?
  • Rather than trying to build the next Google, should Europe focus on building the decentralised infrastructures that would prevent the next Google instead?

This event is aimed at policymakers, civil society leaders, innovators, activists and everyone else involved with shaping and thinking about the future of the internet. I will be there, adding my bit of analysis, insight and shaping.

Nico Macdonald on Twitter

On Wed @Nesta_UK hosts an event on the Next Generation Internet initiative, the EC’s programme to build a more democratic/inclusive/resilient Internet; speakers inc. @adamrangpr John Naughton (@jjn1) @marleenstikker @katjabego (cc @jim_boulton @EvaPascoe)


My report on the event, shared via Evernote.

Katja Bego (chair), John Naughton, Marleen Stikker, and Adam Rang
Katja Bego (chair), John Naughton, Marleen Stikker, and Adam Rang

Review: The working life of David Bowie documentary

One year on, a lovely BBC Bowie documentary – David Bowie: The Last Five Years – featuring many of his close friends and artistic and other collaborators reflecting on how he worked, and how he revealed he was dying. It focuses on his last two albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, and his play Lazarus, with lots of footage from backstage and other working environments.

Some of the most moving interviews are with guitarist and arranger Carlos Alomar, and one wonders what those collaborators who pre-deceased him would say, such as Mick Ronson. Also interviewed is graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook, who worked on both albums (and more) with Bowie, and who I know a little, He talks fascinatingly about how Bowie art directed the design of The Next Day as a riposte to his earlier self-conscious image-making. (I think the design of Blackstar is one of the most wonderful covers and identities I’ve seen in years.) A great watch.