Monday, October 28, 2013

The Afronauts

In flight magazine on Arik last week reminded me that I missed this year's LagosPhoto festival, on the theme of "The Megacity and the Non-City" (which appears to have overtones of / overlaps with the Joburg Art Fair's "Phantasms of the Non-City").

It also reminded me how much I love Cristina de Middel's project The Afronauts. Originally a self-published photobook, which now runs about US$2000 on Amazon, she recently released an iPad edition. The story is she got inspired by a newspaper article on "Zambia's forgotten Space Program" (or perhaps more accurately the story itself) and went on to create a magical pseudo-documentary that blends fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. A super compelling example of an imaginary African retro-future. I think we will continue to see more work like this as younger generations re-appropriate selective aspects of Africa's postcolonial past and remix them as idealized (and sanitized) models of the genius future we wish to see.

In her words: "The images are beautiful and the story is pleasant at a first level, but it is built on the fact that nobody believes that Africa will ever reach the moon. It hides a very subtle critique to our position towards the whole continent and our prejudices." [Amazon]

Former American Embasssy

Have you ever noticed there is an entire sequence of "former American embassies" in Accra? (I won't even broach the geopolitical significance.) People still use all of them as landmarks, even though half the time there's a mix-up: "No...the *other* former American embassy!" The first of these, now the Ministry of Women and Children, is — along with the Scott House and half of KNUST — one of my favorite buildings of Ghana's original run of "Tropical Modernism". (There's another former American embassy site behind Design House, near Dankwa Circle.)

Image source: US State Department

Image source: Peter Tolkin Architecture with Mabel E. Wilson - "Listening There" / Studio X

It was designed by Harry Weese, an architect whom otherwise I've never heard of but has done some fascinating work. In Place Journal, Ian Baldwin suggests that Weese's relative obscurity, compared to his contemporaries like Rudolph and Kahn, may derive from his having never taught at Yale (I find this especially interesting because the design cabal of the Ivy League continues to define who gets deified and who doesn't, often independently from the quality of the work), or the fact that his production was more diverse — in style, form, program and geography — which made it harder to encapsulate or describe in an easily marketable brand, and therefore harder for critics and scholars to explain and theorize:

"Weese avoided specializing in a single building type, and his work covers an astonishing range of scales and programs, from transit systems to townhomes and hotels to corporate headquarters. The commission that first put Weese on the map, in 1958, was the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana, a handsome rectangle of offices with projecting bays of louvered mahogany. It is elevated on white tapered columns around a central courtyard, leaving the entire ground floor accessible — too much so for the security concerns of later decades, which forced the embassy to relocate. It is now, in something of a rebuttal to Weese's postcolonial critics, a Ghanaian government ministry." [Places]

The building looks like a disaster today, a half-forgotten icon of a different era: when Maxwell Fry, the father of Tropical Modernism, said "“I have practiced architecture at a time when architects were full of hope and optimism — at a time when we felt that the changes in planning and in architecture would change living conditions and improve the world. A time when there was great hope for the future.”1 A half-century later, the battery of air conditioners of different ages and makes, together with the long-drained pool, underscore the tension between a modern architecture that references aspects of vernacular tradition (wood, natural ventilation, courtyards and open access, etc.) that ultimately finds itself in juxtaposition with users that aspire to a different form of modernity (glass, air conditioning, enclosure and artificiality).

1. Jane Drew, "Recent Work by Fry Drew Partners and Fry, Drew, Drake and Lasdun," Architectural Design, May 1955, 139. via: Mabel Wilson and Peter Tolkin, Place Journal.

Monday, October 21, 2013

8+1 Rules for creating value through enterprise

photo courtesy of Sarah Osei / AIMS
A week ago I gave a guest lecture at the Ghana campus of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. AIMS launched in Capetown, South Africa and was founded by theoretical physicist Neil Turok, director of Canada's Perimeter Institute and winner of the 2008 TED Prize (Watch his powerful talk and vision to find the “next Einstein” in Africa.)

It was amazing to spend an afternoon overlooking the Atlantic, discussing the world of ideas with AIMS Ghana's pan-African group of young mathematical minds.

The topic was entrepreneurship, which at first I found strange — because I have never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. Then I realized I have co-founded two businesses: Low Design Office, with Ryan Bollom and DSGN AGNC, with Quilian Riano (now run by @quilian).

But I have always thought of them as organizations first: entrepreneurship is a subset of enterprise. Whereas an entrepreneur is someone who sets up a business and assumes the associated risk, the term enterprise refers to any organization (business, non-profit, government agency) that integrates people and technology to accomplish a task, typically one which is challenging and requires nontrivial effort over time.

We can assume that the motivating factor behind any such organization is that it generates (or has the potential to generate) significant value. That value can be either economic OR social. I tend to prioritize the social value aspect, while others better understand the nature of the class of non-physical units everyone likes to talk about called “money”.

Copied below are notes from what I shared: some ideas, based on my own experiences, about setting up a “social enterprise” (not necessarily how to make a fortune through capitalist exploitation).

There is a hip word "ideate” in design thinking circles (it feels new, but dates to the 17th century, meaning "to form an idea"). According to IDEO, the corporate mother ship of design thinking, “Ideation is the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas”. Kind of like “brainstorming” — but with less focus on producing tons of ideas rapidfire, and more emphasis on a specialized approach to actualizing good, great or transformative (innovative) ideas.

If you want to be an entrepreneur or create a social enterprise, then the starting point is to (decide to) convert your idea(s) to action. Anyone can have an idea; the difference is to act on that idea. The simplest way to activate your idea is to just start doing (or making).

Never psych yourself out. Listen to, but refuse to be either overwhelmed or intimidated by the little voices in your head discouraging you (or the not-so-little voices surrounding you). If you have faith that you can do something, chances are you can. (Maybe not on your own.)

You have to make plans. But remember, a plan is near-meaningless if it does not include goals! They can be simple, complex, conditional, short-term, long-term, ideal, whatever. You just have to set them, in order to make your planning concrete.

Same goes for discipline — the foundation of getting stuff done. The most rewarding goals are often the most difficult. You will likely have to put in inordinate amounts of time and energy in order to achieve your goals. Perseverance is paramount. Keeping records keeps you on task, helps you track your progress and serves as tangible evidence to you that you are indeed doing what you set out to do.

The importance of self-reflection cannot be overstated. It is easy to fall in the trap of external validation: looking to what others say about you, your ideas, your goals, your work, your appearance, your organization, etc. in order to assess your own self-worth, relative success or probability of success. It is great to get input (and it is almost safe to say you can never get too much). But at the end of the day, take it all for a grain of salt. Look inward to assess your performance metrics. And based on your independent but comprehensive self-evaluation — originating from your own perspective — be prepared to make changes to yourself, your tactics or even your strategy, as required, in order to achieve your goals. This should be on-going and iterative.

Dream big and be empowered to make your dreams your goals. Never fear failure — that is a self-defeating mental trap! If failure finds you, embrace it! Look to your failures for insight. You can learn more than you can ever imagine by ending up where you did not intend to go.

No wo/man is an island. You may think you can do anything by yourself, but it is highly probable that you  will need help, support, guidance or a yin to your yang somewhere along the way. (Business studies and experts often say that the most successful businesses rarely have a single founder, regardless of the “founding story” narratives fabricated for marketing and posterity).

Build your teams properly. That means share work/loads, include all team members (at all levels!) in as much of the process as possible, and make sure everyone has real and legitimate reasons to not just show up everyday, but to show up and do their utmost best to advance the overall project (not just their tiny piece of the puzzle).

Multiple plans vs. planning in multiple ways: The last point (the +1 of 8+1) took a bit of explaining, but I think it is super critical and often gets overlooked. At the same time that the clichĂ© business advice "focus on your core business" is valid, it is equally important to not just have a plan A, B, C, etc. but also to have a “side hustle”. To plan multiply translates to not only having multiple strategies to achieve the same goal(s), but additionally to also have plans in place to accomplish entirely different agendas — and to act on them all. We all know what hustle means (keep at it always, no matter what, any way you can imagine), and while usually this implies the idea of making money (and often by perhaps dubious methods) take it simply to mean never put all your eggs in one basket. Many times an unrelated initiative (side hustle) can teach you important skills, give you innovative ideas, bridge funding or seed capital, or lead to an unexpected breakthrough in your main — completely unrelated — business.

Iterative nature of design (D=):

Made this graphic a while back to explain how I understand design and how we use it in the office. Remarkably, they were able to decipher the pseudo-math! (Can you?)

Design Innovation:

IDEO is awesome, but I believe their model fails to reach true fundamentals, mathematically speaking. Their approach (in their own words) is human-centered, as per this Venn diagram, whereas the universe is NOT anthropocentric. Only our individual and conceptual perception and conceptualization of it is — at least in most cases, if not all.

Since last year, Dr. Yasmine Abbas and I have been working on a design theorem called “Stellate Innovation” which postulates a methodology for inducing urban innovation. It was fun to present the introduction to this text to the AIMS Ghana group — especially because they seemed both to understand it and to immediately recognize its potential applicability to their own work, lives, thinking and, ideally...the enterprises they will in all probability launch in industry, academia or government once they graduate from AIMS and radiate outward across Africa and planet Earth.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Stellate Innovation (intro)

Introduction to research project *Stellate Innovation* toward an open methodology for inducing urban innovation. Started in 2012 by Yasmine Abbas and DK Osseo-Asare.


Next up: how to innovate urban systems using a 5-fold method for design stellation. More process here.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Onitsha Market urbanism

This is the kind of urban space and architectures that we should be motorizing via digital technologies in Africa:

We need to get out in front not only in mapping these environments and networks, but also in re-engineering them for alternative futures. That is the best countermeasure to an array of narratives derived piecemeal via other geographies. It's not as mysterious as the The Economist (London) makes it out to be in their intro to December 2011 issue "The Hopeful Continent: Africa Rising" (not their March 2013 issue "The World's Fastest Growing Continent: Aspiring Africa"):

"THE shops are stacked six feet high with goods, the streets outside are jammed with customers and salespeople are sweating profusely under the onslaught. But this is not a high street during the Christmas-shopping season in the rich world. It is the Onitsha market in southern Nigeria, every day of the year. Many call it the world's biggest. Up to 3m people go there daily to buy rice and soap, computers and construction equipment. It is a hub for traders from the Gulf of Guinea, a region blighted by corruption, piracy, poverty and disease but also home to millions of highly motivated entrepreneurs and increasingly prosperous consumers."

Motorizing Architectural Paradigms

student testing out UFO's urban design app

500 liters of waterbased environmentally-friendly paint on asphalt spread by 2000 cars.
25/04/2010 · Rosenthaler Platz, Berlin
By IEPE & the anonymous crew © 2010

The idea is that new digital tools can extend the (5) physical senses of our bodies and if architects are "smart" enough, we can harness these new forms of augmented capability to design cities in new more "super-sensitive" ways. They just started, but should get interesting. Last week their professor, Yasmine Abbas, connected students with Alain Renk, an architect and urban planner pushing these kind of boundaries across a number of intriguing projects and organizations: Urban Fab Organization - UFO; Unlimited Cities; Collaborative Urbanism; Evolving Cities.

Google translation of the course description (French):
"Digital culture has transformed the architectural and urban processes. This seminar explores the representation and use of sensitive parameters to the digital age. Students prospecteront and translate the potential of ordinary tools and innovative strategies to create spaces.
This exploration is first prepared by a sensitive reflection on the card - what a sensitive map?Then, in front of the collection of parameters, the discovery of various methods of investigation, artistic (Sophie Calle, 1999), urban (Kevin Lynch, 1960), or inspired by literature (Georges Perec, 1975), Science Humanities and Social (Richard Ocejo, 2013), the industrial design process (Patricia Moore, 1985). To consider the representation tool and "engine of reality" (Spuybroek, 1999), students will experiment with digital tools then eg consultation platforms developed urban UFO . They have five cards to develop sensitive / tools / MAP - Motorizing Architectural Paradigms, each engaging one of our five senses, the same song chosen the city of Paris.

The pedagogical intention is: 1 - to experiment with creative ways of architectural and urban research, 2 - Develop mapping sensitive / visible based on sensory data and are tools for creating architectural paradigms."

Also at l'ESA, Edouard Cabay of Appareil runs an atelier RE— that is exploring similar methods for exploiting cartographic techniques to identify emergent patterns for design (course description). The maps below depict migration of chairs, interaction of people and rubbish bins, and intersecting trajectories of ducks and toy boats in the Jardins du Luxembourg park in Paris.

As more Africans acquire smart phones, how can designers leverage this emerging mobile network to aggregate data digitally in order to expand our sense(s) of how we can motorize architecture and re-engineer the city?
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