Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Apprenticeships: an economic history

Contemporary art and design practices - even if now taught in art and design departments in modern universities - bear some relation to the institutions of apprenticeships that developed over hundreds of years in several European countries. A seminar at Said last week raised some interesting questions about what we think we know, and what we actually know, about such apprenticeships. Tim Leunig of LSE, an economic historian, gave a wonderful seminar for the Centre for Corporate Reputation drawing on his work into apprentices in London in the pre-modern period. Given access to a huge set of data (produced a man whose job allowed him time to input vast amounts of data from historical records) about 161,000 London apprentices between 1420-1930, Leunig and colleagues found out some interesting things which challenged their - and my - assumptions about how people were trained in pre-industrial societies in England.

Looking specifically at records from 1600-1750 from 760 London companies (eg vintners, grocers) whose members were masters offering seven-year apprenticeships, Leunig and colleagues found, to their surprise, that
- kinship relations and local connections were not important in how young men chose their masters in London;
- nor were their fathers' trades important in the decisions they made about what to become apprentices in; and
- nor did the distance of their village or town from London have that much of an impact either.
There remain questions about how these young men did make decisions about who to pick to be their masters and what information they had available. But this research suggests that these young men made choices that were not encumbered by things we associate with pre-modern societies - such as kinship and location. Like "modern" apprentices, they made other kinds of choices.

Being of an ethnographic orientation myself, I must confess I have never really "got" quantitative research before. But now I do! The way these scholars framed questions around the data set, crunched numbers to produce something meaningful, and then told a clear story about it was an inspiring piece of scholarship.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Economies of contribution: a developing research agenda

At the invitation of Scott Lash and Götz Bachmann (cultural studies, Goldsmiths), philosopher Bernard Stiegler (Centre Pompidou) and Robert Zimmer (computer science, Goldsmiths), a diverse group gathered at Goldsmiths for a day or two to consider the idea of economies of contribution. The workshop included perspectives from media, art, design, software and other fields of theory and practice. In their introduction, the organizers outlined the emergence of a shift from consumer capitalism to an economy of contribution raising questions such as
- Are movements such as Open Source and Wikipedia just detached phenomena, or are they the pioneers of a new economy?
- How do specific localities and regions shape different economies of contribution?
- What are the new power relations and new forms of exploitation?
- How can we use and shape this economy of contribution?
Recent work on open source, crowdsourcing and user-generated content of course was relevant. What was distinctive here was to bring together those with a focus on cultural production, understood as art, design, film, software and broadcast, whether done by professionals or amateurs (if those terms fit).

During the workshop, presentations of research and practice included work by media artist Graham Harwood (MediaShed), Bronac Ferran (who organized the CODE conference in Cambridge in 2001 which had laid out many of the issues); artist Neil Cummings, several of whose projects have questioned the role of cultural collections (see Capital, 2001, at Tate); and Matt Fuller whose work emphasizes the importance of the commons. From Tate, there were presentations by Jennifer Mundy (research), Anna Cutler (learning) and James Davies (online) describing how they are designing new forms of consumption/engagement/contribution to their collection. From Centre Pompidou, there was an overview of some of the technologies of annotation they are developing such as Lignes de Temps. Unfortunately I had to miss the second day and presentations by design/art/media practitioner David Garcia, media theorists from Goldsmiths and others.

My contribution (here, about 7 pages, PDF) was to suggest resources from management and organization literatures that might have something to offer this emerging area, such as practice theory and the turn to design. At a time when the debt-laden consumerist economy seems to be in a tailspin, it is time to pay attention to ways of practice and organizing, and invent new cultural forms that invite a range of modes of participation, engagement and contribution. Media artists - specifically those inventing cultural forms that create novel arrangements of people, software and objects enabling new sets of relations; and service designers - who foreground the involvement of stakeholders in co-designing arrangements of objects and people over time and space - have, I believe, something important and distinctive to offer in the face of these challenges.

Image: screengrab from my project Making a Difference at the University of Plymouth (2004)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

MBA Design Leadership elective - Think and Make Tank

This year's MBA elective in Design Leadership at Oxford from April-June will include a one day workshop in which the MBA class will collaborate with design students to help social enterprise Soul of Africa address some of the challenges they currently face. The exact details are being worked out, but I'm putting up this post now while the MBAs are considering signing up for the elective.

A think-and-make-tank is a participative, creative workshop that brings together people from management and from design to use visual methods to analyze and tackle specific problems identified by an organization. A one-day event such as this will crystallize ideas that can be taken forward by the organization, complementing its other activities.

The people involved on the day will be:
- approx 20-25 MBA students from Saïd Business School, taking the Design Leadership elective
- approx 8-10 MA design students from different disciplines such as product design, fashion and design management
- people from the Soul of Africa organization, including co-founder Lance Clark
- Saïd Business School faculty

To make best use of the day, Lance has identified three challenges facing the organization which the workshop will be designed to tackle, which are: marketing and communications; service operations/organization design; and product management. The combination of creative and bright students from management and from design will, we hope, serve to generate tangible, useable ideas for the organization, as well as offering an engaging learning experience.

We are seeking a small amount of funding to support this workshop, so please get in touch with me if you can help.

Things I've recently been ....

In the last few weeks, here are some of the things I've been consuming (or co-producing, depending on your theoretical orientation)

This Book Will Save Your Life, AM Holmes
A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain, Paul Richardson
Maisie's Bus, Lucy Cousins
A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk), by: Bruno Latour, keynote at Design History conference, Cornwall, 2008
ZEITHAML, V. and BITNER, M.J., 2003. Services marketing: Integrating customer focus across the Firm, 3rd ed., New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
The Two Cultures, CP Snow
BIJKER, W. 2004. Of Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs: Towards a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
ALEXANDER, C. 1962. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Looking at
Abigail Reynolds, The Universal Now, 17 Gallery, London
Turner Prize Show, Tate Britain
Cold War Modern, V&A

BBC CBeebies: In the Night Garden

Listening to
Montserrat Figueras Ninna Nanna

Eating and drinking
Smoked mackerel
A bottle of Luigi Bosca Malbec from Argentina (thank you Tomas)

Introducing the critique to an MBA class

When Dick Boland visited us last term, one of the things he talked about was a paper by his Managing as Designing collaborator Fred Collopy (whose Fast Company blog is worth reading). As I recall, the idea was to apply an aspect of design practice - the crit (or critique) - to artefacts such as financial instruments. Inspired by their use of the crit, I decided to make explicit this way of approaching idea generation and development within our MBA Entrepreneurship Project this term.

I first experienced crits as part of my MA in what would now be called digital arts at Middlesex University's art school, a strange and wonderful course where they taught artists and designers to program in C so we could write our own software. Then later I taught in art and design colleges, where the crit is a standard part of the teaching and learning environment, mostly at the RCA in London on the MA Interaction Design which is also rooted in that art school tradition.

I can't cite any papers on this yet. What I know about crits is all tacit knowledge and reflection in practice - but the main features were as follows:
- the student presents to a group (faculty, possibly other students) their work to date
- they actually have to show artefacts (a model, a sketch, a set of photos from research, ideally several things)
- they have to explain what the artefact is, how they got to it, and why they did what they did so far (their reasoning)
- and what they plan to do next and why.
And then the people present, both teachers and other students, ask lots of incredibly difficult questions ranging from the nature of the enquiry, the method, the tools, but also the reasons. And also may suggest very concrete ideas too like what other materials or tools to try or other people's work to look at.

Viewed through the lens of practice theory, this is activity in which learning is embodied and situated, in which artefacts play key roles, in which habits and routines develop, in which there is thinking, and doing, and saying. It is therefore not something that can easily be ported to another context, such as the one I am now in, a business school.

But I thought I'd try. Having already introduced the idea to students taking my MBA elective in Design Leadership (in which we do a crit of the Said Business School), I decided to bring in a crit to this year's Entrepreneurship Project. Still at an early stage of their project development, the MBA teams presented along the lines described above, and received a lot of feedback from the people present - members of faculty and my guest designer/researcher Bas Raijmakers of STBY. Doing this prototyped a way of teaching that seemed to work but was novel in our school, where lectures and supervision are the dominant modes of learning and teaching. Oxford (and Cambridge) pride themselves on their tutorial system which has turned out great thinkers and doers, for many many years. Art and design schools have also turned out great thinkers and doers using the crit. The artefacts produced in each case vary (essays v anything at all that an art or design student might create) but the underlying method has some simliarities. But the crit offers something special in a context in which uncertainty about the problem space is high. For students generating ideas for a new business in the EP, it is not even clear what the problem or opportunity is, and it is here that art and design approaches are of value.

Photo by Alice Wang from workshop/crit during project involving MA and MBA students, Said Business Schooll 2007