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 cliché 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?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Innovation star

As @panurban suggested - animation of the design innovation star as iterative process loop.

Geometric stellation

stellation locates an ordered array of intersections

The geometric transformation of stellation (Wikipedia): "Stellation is a process of constructing new polygons (in two dimensions), new polyhedra in three dimensions, or, in general, new polytopes in n dimensions. The process consists of extending elements such as edges or face planes, usually in a symmetrical way, until they meet each other again. The new figure is a stellation of the original."

Net (relational diagram) of such a process can be projected or translated between dimensions, e.g. from 3D to 2D.

Monday, March 18, 2013


VRA & 'Garden City' concept

Block quote from introduction to Voltascapes: Rural Interventions architecture design thesis:

"Volta River Project – New Towns
“It is important to reflect upon the heritage that the ex-colonial countries have left in developing countries all over the world: India, Africa, South-America and the Orient. This heritage that comprises both the good and the bad has been the point of departure for urban development after independence. . . . Today all these countries are autonomous. And even if the heritage of the past has not always made things easier, they have the possibility of decision in their hands. But this possibility of decision is extremely limited because the means for study and realization does not exist”.  Michel Ecochard
One such gargantuan project was the Volta River Project (VRA) – also once called the Golden Triangle Project – which was intended to industrialize the country through the exploitation of its natural resources, minerals and water power. The Volta River Project consisted of the Ajena Power Development, new railways, the Bui Gorge Hydro-Electrical Project, the Aya Bauxite mines, Tema Harbour, Tema New Town, the Kpong Smelter and the resettlement of over 80,000 people in 52 New Towns along the newly created Volta Lake.
The project had been on the drawing board before independence, but was put into effect by then Prime Minister Dr. Kwame Nkrumah as a part of his post-independence agenda of Pan–Africanism:  an agenda designed to yield a prosperous and stable African country able to take care of its own affairs.
But today, however, most of the New Towns are ruined or deserted and the following three focal points of the VRA – intended to resettle the flood victims in the New Towns in what could be termed a process of ‘imposed modernity’ – have been failures.
  • To use the resettlement as an opportunity to enhance the social, economic and physical condition of the people.
This has not resulted in improved conditions, but rather in deprivation, something possibly due to the cash and food handouts at the beginning of the programme.
Insufficient social and economic infrastructure was provided to sustain the growth. Not even basic amenities were provided with the housing.
  • To improve their system of agriculture and so enable residents to effect a transition from subsistence agriculture to commercial farming.
Not enough farm land was provided. In addition, most traditional inhabitants lived on or near their farm lands, not in distant houses.
  • To plan and locate the New Town in a rational manner so that those resettled, as well as others (the host community) in the Volta Basin would benefit from the creation of the lake.
Since not enough infrastructure was provided, no one benefitted from the programmes. The plan also resulted in problems with sanitation and overcrowding"
Thesis presentation next month Immanuel Kwaku Sirron-Kakpor via Adventurers in the Diaspora.

Takes me back.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

5 notes on the maker future

This is a long-overdue follow-up on the maker breakout session from Barcamp Accra in December 2012. (Now a Facebook group) Thanks to @gamelmag, @annawab and @Abocco for reminding me to kick this back into gear.

“...Ghanaians are by nature makers. They improvise, use what they have at a particular moment to solve an immediate problem that needs to be solved but when it comes to taking this ability and using it to solve more intricate problems, it becomes utterly impossible. And if this ability of 'survival' can be developed upon the maker movement will definitely grow. The session focused finding answers to this problems and answering questions like who is a maker? Bottom line; a maker is synonymous to a hacker and we can say a hacker is someone who exploits the small resources available and manipulates it to produce immense results.It was also realised that makers exist in the country but the lack of network between makers in the country is why the maker community is not so vibrant. Helping makers network is one fantastic way to create a maker community in the country.”

If we substitute “we” for “they,” then this post sums the vision up well. We want to do more and do bigger. Look around you and you will likely see symptoms of Ghana’s import-dependency syndrome. Too often we feel like “quality” is more likely to come from “outside,” when all around people are already making things, many of them excellent.

How can we take this “maker culture” that already exists in Ghana to the next level: nurture it, network makers, pioneer new ways of making and new things to make — in order to incubate new and more dynamic opportunities for makers in the country and on the continent? In short, how do we want to craft this movement?

The theme of last year's Barcamp Accra was: "Removing fear of failure as a start of success." This is incredible advice and a great goal because it's true: far too often it is our fear of failure that prevents us from reaching our greatest potential. Not only because we "psych ourselves out" every step of the way, but because our fear blinds us from even visualizing the full extent of what is possible. Fear limits our vision; it can prevent us from thinking just as much as from trying. Another way of putting this that I keep hearing (don't know original source) is: What would you do if you knew that you could never fail?

Last December, the conversation ranged, organically, across a huge spectrum. Because of the energy and the intensity, I lost track of who said what. So what follows are less notes than they are highlights and ideas, born of that conversation.

#1 We need to reinvent popular education for the 21st century. The notion that you only "learn" in school is dead. (Ever heard of Youtube? What about MOOCs?) Technology today enables new tools and platforms for sharing information and creating knowledge. It's up to us to figure out how best to use these tools and to make new ones. Especially when formal educational structures fail us, we should take that as an incentive to "hack the system." Ask yourself how useful what you're learning is? Can you imagine other ways to learn? Other things you'd rather learn? Ways to help other people learn? The future is about not only life-long learning, but also massively-scaled co-production of knowledge.

DIY inverter at Maker Faire Africa

#2 Makers hack objects. One of the most amazing things about Maker Faire Africa last year in Lagos was how many young people got involved. It's not every day that you see middle and high school kids make their own inverter or invent a urine-powered generator! Aside from identifying talent and motivating a new generation of young scientists and engineers, to see youth unafraid to try and make things that do things — and unafraid to fail — underscores how few people share that trait. Many of us think too many things are beyond our comprehension. We do not know how to make furniture or a dress, repair an engine, fix a broken fan or hard drive, or plumb a house. On one hand, that's no big deal; that's why we have specialists: carpenters, seamstresses and tailors, mechanics, electricians, computer engineers and plumbers. But on the other hand, when we fall in the trap of seeing objects as "black boxes" that do things mysteriously, in ways we think we cannot understand, we limit ourselves and what we can do. When that happens at the scale of a country or a continent the problem becomes colossal. Makers are revolutionaries because they regain control over their own lives — via the ability to make the things they use everyday. Plus they have tons of fun doing just that.

#3 Who no know go no. (To quote Chimurenga.) Professor Ayorkor Korsah of Ashesi University made a profound comment that paraphrases roughly as: in Ghana, often people who know how to make things don't/didn't go to school, and people who go to school don't/didn't work with their hands. (She also co-founded the African Robotics Network. Youtube video above shows Frugalbot by Mike and Gabrielle Robinson, one of my favorites from AFRON's "10 dollar robot challenge". We need alternatives to imported rubber tyres.) Someone else offered that this represents a fundamental schism in society (and therefore Ghana's technology culture) between "those who know book and those who don't." Whereas many of the people who actually make things in Ghana lack the added technical base that comes with formal or advanced education, many people privileged with education are overexposed to theory, and underexposed to practical — and even view the idea of "getting their hands dirty" as beneath them. People who are proud to proclaim "I'm a graduate!" prefer to work in air-conditioned offices than on a farm, in a workshop or at a factory. This is massively problematic because it means that collectively, through our own cultural biases, we are constraining our capacity to make more and better things by learning from and working with each other. This divide is related to what is sometimes called the difference between "formal" and "informal." Radical innovation will occur if we can bridge this gap.

#4 Pictures are powerful. Another maker at the breakout session pointed out that language is nontrivial. Sometimes the words that we use to describe things determine both who understands and how different people understand the same thing. Ghanaian education is generally pretty strong, stellar in some cases, but its important to remember that it is not perfect: it can tend to reward certain kinds of intelligence. The power of the arts is that they leverage imagination. Expanding the role of artists and the arts can engender new visual languages for how we talk about production, support different forms of making and ultimately generate new hybrids of maker free to unleash the power of creative problem-solving.

#5 The future is now. Sometimes it blows my mind how much most people don't realize that the future is already here. If not here, then just around the corner. Robots already make cars and pretty soon will drive them. People can already control machines with their mind (you can buy one here for $300). Citizens already own more drones than the US military (but they can still kill you with a machine gun). Google Glass is about to (start to) go mainstream (There is a reason Google's O/S is called Android; in the end, we'll all be cyborgs.) Humans have maintained a continuous presence in outer space for over a decade, there are hundreds of satellites orbiting our planet (you can track them here) including one 1.5 million miles away tasked with, essentially, nothing more than watching the sun continuously. And that doesn't even touch the on-going revolutions in AI and computation, materials, nanotechnology, renewable energy, pharmaceuticals, genetics, neuroscience and biochemistry more broadly. So what does all this mean? It means that we're changing the future — and its better to make your own future than to spend all your foreign exchange trying to buy it from someone else.

This post is too long, so next steps to follow. Are you a maker? Join us at Ghana Makers.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Hope City

I need to do a real post on this project, but in the meantime: this pic says it all. If you don't know, read about it: Rlg Communications, a Ghanaian IT company, is building over the next three years a $10 billion technology park in Dunkonaa, near Kasoa in Greater Accra, in a PPP with GoG (can you say STX and sovereign guarantee?) which is to include Africa's tallest building, designed by Paolo Brescia of Italian architecture firm Open Building Research.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Animation (click pentagon to load) and projective net of a stellate process, the logic behind the innovation star. Text soon.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Joint testing

for a multi-purpose connector, to speed up fabrication process for bamboo vaults similar to the bamboo workshop and smaller; as well as bamboo robots like the waterbot for Berekuso Hill Station.

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