Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book review: "Vibrant Matter" by Jane Bennett

Through history humans have debated how to understand and relate to their surrounding reality. We have all heard about societies that believed that every object and thing has a soul. Today this is commonly seen as a primitive and outdated view. The  dominating modern view is instead that reality consists of the human, spiritual, world of life, and on the other side the dead, material, world of matter. This division of living things from dead things is highly influential in the way humans think and act on their world.

However, in modern philosophy there is a new trend that is bringing the importance of objects and matter back into our focus. In a new book by Jane Bennett "Vibrant Matter-- a political ecology of things" one such position is presented. Bennett claims that her ambition is to develop a positive ontology of 'matter as vibrant', and to dismantle the divisions between the binaries life/matter, human/animal, organic/inorganic, and to do this with the purpose of strengthening a political analysis that  better can account for the contribution of "non-human actants".

The overall topic and the political aspects of Bennett's work is on environmental sustainability. Her claim is that we need a new understanding of our environments, of our material "things", if we will be able to find strategies for sustainability that are 'sustainable'. She writes that if we are able to find a relationship to 'things' that are built on another understanding of their nature it "might augment the motivational energy needed to move selves from the endorsement of ethical principles to the actual practice of behavior". With this she means that we need new incentives, a new motivation, that can give us the energy to engage effectively in behaviors that are positive for the environment. The argument is that it is not enough to understand intellectually that our behavior needs to change, we need to have ethical reasons for actually doing it. And if 'things' are seen as co-actants in our world, we will start to see our world differently and start acting differently.

Of course, this is a difficult argument to make and it feeds into all kinds of  'new age' ideas of living matter, spiritual thinking, energy forces, etc. Bennett does make a great case though and builds her argumentation on a solid philosophical foundation. It is not a surprise that Bruno Latour is one of her major references even though her approach differs in many and important ways from the philosophy of Latour. However, it is clear that Bennett falls into the new trend where Latour is a major thinker together with others such as Graham Harman, Peter Paul Verbeek, and what by some has been called an Object Oriented Ontology.

Overall, I am attracted by the ideas Bennett presents. They lead to new ways of thinking about things and artifacts, and for those of us who are used to think about embodied interaction, user experience, etc. many of the ideas are not that far fetched. I am curios to see how this and similar new philosophical attempts will be translated into more concrete activities and approaches relevant for design. This new evolution of ideas concerned with the status of 'things' and of the material world is highly interesting and with Bennett's work we have another example of why we need it and how it could be used. I am convinced that we will see many more examples of this philosophical development in the near future. And I am curious to see how it will influence the world of design which is a natural arena for such ideas.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Book review: "Everyday Engineering" edited by Dominique Vinck

Ok, time for another book review. This time it is "Everyday Engineering -- An Ethnography of Design and Innovation" edited by Dominique Vinck (MIT Press). First of all, I find the study of practice to be one of the most exciting forms of research in design. So, this book has a promising title and the introduction also lives up to my expectations--it does aim at studying and describing practice without being prescriptive.

The book is written by a group of French engineering researchers and sociologists. The idea of the book is wonderful, it sets out to explore the complexity of 'real' engineering practice in relation to the 'simplistic' form of understanding that dominates engineering education and textbook based prescriptive models and methods.

The book also delivers, at least here and there, and is an interesting read. For instance, I liked the first chapter about the experience of a young and newly graduated engineer in his first job at CERN. The story is quite well told and shows how the young engineer slowly starts to understand that the complexity of his task is not an inherent quality of the engineering task itself but a consequence of social and organizational aspect, and in the end all about communication. There are also some other chapters that in a similar way reveals a kind of practice complexity that is not a result of the engineering task but of the surrounding situational organizational environment.

However, overall the chapters do not deliver what I had hoped for. The approach is fine, the purpose is great, the assumptions are also reasonable and interesting, but I find the overall analysis to be a bit repetitive and the theoretical reasoning is not as insightful as I hoped for. Each chapter ends with an 'operational summary' that mostly takes the form of ethnographic findings, that is, statements and descriptions of interesting observations grounded in the case that the chapter has examined. But, these summaries do not elevate from the level of observations and I really miss any form of theorizing that could have lead to some emerging  theoretical framing and formulations, to explanations and statements of more general scope. This unfortunately means that what I get out of the book is less intersting and useful than it could have been. But the book and its chapters do have value (and for some I guess even a lot of value) as a repository of stories describing the complex everyday reality of engineering.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Book Review: "The Design of Business" by Roger Martin

One of the most interesting and surprising developments in design and particularly design thinking has happened at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Few if any other business schools have payed any attention to design as a potential philosophy of inquiry and action suitable for management. The Dean at the Rotman School is Roger Martin who has been instrumental and the force behind this development. Being a professor of strategic management he has pushed the school to adopt design thinking as a major approach when it comes to business strategy and management. He has earlier developed some of his ideas in the book "The Opposable Mind" (2007, and is now continuing to formulate his thoughts and approach in his new book "The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage".

This is a book whose audience is primarily people in the world of business and who do not know design thinking but might have heard the buzz. It is quite interesting to see how Martin takes on the challenge to introduce design thinking in a world dominated by other and strong traditional forms of thinking. Martin does a good job by introducing design thinking as a way to move business from the reliance on what he calls "reliability" to the realm of "validity". He also introduces his "funnel of knowledge" which is a simple model describing how humans approach a problem and transforms a situation into reliable actions.

I think the book might be of value to those in business who are interested in this new thing "design thinking", but for people who are knowledgeable of design, design thinking, design theory and design research, the book does not really add anything new, which is fine since that is not the purpose. The purpose is to reach those who are involved in traditional business and management approaches and theories, and for that purpose the book probably does well.

For anyone who is alsready into design thinking, the book is very easy to read and gives some interesting and good cases of how to go about when bringing design thinking into large and traditional companies. This aspect of the book is also of great use for already accomplished design thinkers since they might not be aware of the existing and sometime contradictory ways of doing things dominating the corporate world. It can help designers to be more aware of the existing culture, to understand why that culture don't understand or easily can accept a design approach, etc.

Overall, I see this book as a sign of a change going on in the traditional business world. I am quite sure Martin and his school will be followed by many. I am sure that management will adopt design thinking as one possible and valid approach to change among others. We should all be thankful to the work done by Martin to push for this and for his work in making this happen.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Book review: "Change by Design" by Tim Brown

Tim Brown is the CEO and President of the famous design company IDEO. In his new book "Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation" Brown explains his own view on the notion of design thinking. Brown has a long and successful experience as a designer and has many great stories to tell to support his claims about the benefits and nature of design thinking.


As we all know, design and especially design thinking has received extraordinary attention these last few years. It seems as if design thinking is seen as the solution for almost anything from modern product design, the new field of service design, organizational design, etc. Design thinking is in Brown's new book defined as the way to think as a designer but he also describes what that means when it comes to the process and activities.

I really like this book. For people who have heard about design thinking and do not really know what it is, I think this book is a great first introduction. It is easy to read, ideas are illustrated with great stories from real cases. For people who already have a good understanding of design thinking, the book does not really offer anything new and it does not really go into any particular aspect of design thinking in depth. Brown is aware of this and he writes that if you already understand design thinking maybe the mind map he offers is the only thing you need to understand his perspective. Even though I found this to be true, the real design stories he offers are valuable also to those who already "get it".

Even though I really like this book and it is obvious that Tim Brown has a deep understanding of design and design thinking, as a design researcher I would really like to see him go much deeper into some (or one) aspects of design. Maybe just focus on one of the aspects he covers in the book and see what he can do with that particular aspect if he devotes time and energy and focus to it. I would expect to see some really interesting thoughts and probably theoretically interesting ideas emerging. That would of course not necessarily be of interest to the broader audience but would appeal to graduate students in design, design researchers, and advanced practitioners. There is a need for that kind of more precise and in-depth analysis. However, I am also happy with what Brown is actually doing, which is to spread a good understanding of design thinking amidst all the present hype and popular writings that are unfortunately not always based on a solid understanding of design.

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