Monthly Archives: January 2011

Signs of Sydney

I named this post after an article I found in the local newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald. It discussed ‘Signs that you’re a Sydneysider.’ I think it’s a little on the cynical side and it made me feel even more like a foreigner in my home country upon reading it. I’m not sure what happened in 2010, but during the year in London I seemed to have lost a large chunk of my Sydney memory for simple things, like how to get to places, and deeper things, like a change in my thinking about how we live. All this has makes me feel like quite the foreigner in my home city. But while I struggle with these feelings, I’m also taking it an opportunity to observe more objectively my home country.

Sydney city skyline

As designers we are always knowledgeable about the context we live and work within. I love this quote by Eliel Saarinen, furniture design and architect:

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context-
a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment,
an environment in a city plan.”

So here are some differences I have observed in my new home context since coming back to Sydney after living in London.

The media: I think the media plays such a big part of feeling connected to the world. During our time in the UK, I have grown to love the BBC for their extensive coverage of world news. It made me feel like we were part of a close knit global community. The BBC made world news and issues so easy to access and engage with. Since being back in Australia, I have found a different story. Perhaps it’s the difference of private versus state funding of the media, but I have in the past few weeks been a little shocked at what Australian newspapers think is worthy of front page news. I guess celebrity news sells a few more papers than floods, bushfires and world issues. Geographically Australia’s challenge is its ‘tyranny of distance’ from the rest of the world. This geography certainly shapes media content but with the internet and social media today, there’s no reason we shouldn’t also feel like the centre of the world too.

The internet: Believe it or not, Australian businesses are the ones lagging behind the public and the Government when it comes to using the power of the internet. Our country is one of the most frequent users of Facebook and since January 2002 all appropriate Australian Government services have come online. Having used lots of online services and done lots of online shopping in the UK I came back to Australia to find a barren online retailing landscape. So while the Australian public has been well connected and almost 10 years ago public services of the Australian Government come online, Australian businesses have missed important opportunities to engage with their customers in new ways. This lag is clearly demonstrated by a recent consortium of brick and mortar retailers, including two of Australia’s biggest department stores, who bankrolled a PR campaign to lobby the Australian government to charge GST (goods and sales tax which is 10% in Australia) to customers who make overseas online purchases totalling more than $1000. The Australian Government says it is not budging on their policy (of not charging GST) and personally, I think businesses here have not kept up with the times (For more on the online retail debate see ‘Small retailers join in battle over import taxes’ in The Australian).

Climate: Yes, I had to bring it up, the weather. When we first arrived in the UK, I remember how much the weather changed our lifestyle. Growing up in Australia, we spends lots of time outdoors so when I moved to the UK, spending so much time indoors took a lot of getting used to. A London designer once suggested that maybe all the time spent indoors in the UK encouraged people to take more time to think, and think about doing more things. I wasn’t completely convinced of this until I arrived back here and went to the beach. Yes, I could spent a whole day outdoors at the park or the beach not thinking about a thing. But, at the end of the day we need both thinking and non-thinking time.

Transport: I just have to make this comment about Sydney drivers because after seeing how amicable and polite most UK drivers are, I have returned home to be shocked at how speeding, tailgating and not giving way to pedestrians or other cars is the norm. There have been many times already where I have seen drivers speed and wondered where are they’re all rushing to? Not to mention it’s just plain dangerous. In the article that’s the namesake of this post, the driving habits of Sydneysiders is pretty spot on. But maybe there are simply too many cars on the road because the public transport system in Sydney is famously known to be pretty poor.

Environment: My mother said it last night, at the beginning of each year there always seems to be some sort of environmental disaster in Australia. While the weather here is warm and almost always sunny, the country gets battered each year by bush fires, floods and drought. Earlier this month, three quarters of the state of Queensland was declared a disaster zone due to flooding. Due to heavy rain, three of the state’s biggest rivers went over capacity bursting the dams and causing flash floods and water to drown whole towns and the nation’s third largest city, Brisbane. To give you an idea of the scale of the flooding, the state of Queensland is nearly 7 times the size of the UK. I think Australia is quite proactive with environmental issues on a local level. For as long as I can remember we have been recycling and living with water restriction guidelines. When I arrived in the UK in 2007 environmental awareness was very high. It was all over the media and often talked about, especially at the design school. I have to say I can’t remember there ever being such heightened awareness in Australia about environmental issues. Sure there’s the news of the floods, fires and drought, and recycling and water restrictions are endeavoured, but never the kind of explicit awareness as I saw in the UK.

Population geography: One of the biggest differences returning to Sydney was discovering how expensive the city had become. Yes, compared to London. Groceries, clothing, teleco services, electronics, postal services and eating out seem to hemorrhage cash from the wallet. Buying consumer products and services here is expensive maybe for a few reasons. Firstly, Australia’s population, thus the market, is not very big and the geographical spread is much farther than that of the UK and Europe adding transport costs to our daily purchases. Another reason is that many of our industries are dominated by a few big players. For example, we have only two big supermarket chains. While there are a handful of medium-to-small chains, the two big players seem to be so far ahead in terms of size and scale that there really isn’t the competition to benefit the consumer making the cost of living in Sydney similar, if not higher, to that of London.

Government and politics: I won’t lie and say that growing up in Australia breeds political apathy for a large majority of the population. The Australian Government and our political leaders could do a far better job at engaging the public in ways that don’t make us apathetic and drag our feet to the polling booth every 3-5 years to vote for the “party we least hate.” In a classic story of an American friend who moved to Sydney years ago, he spoke of watching the election on TV one year in Sydney. He phoned an Australian friend to see what s/he thought of the voting results thus far and they replied “we’re not watching it.” Having spent a lot of time getting to know British politics and how design can improve public services, I am still amazed at how engaged and knowledgeable young UK designers are with government and policy. I hope that young Australians and Australian designers become less apathetic and more proactive when it comes to our country’s issues.

Health: If you think of the UK public health system and then the private US health system, Australia sits smack bang in the middle. I cannot comment on whether or not the public or private health systems here are good or bad, but all I know is that Australia has achieved a good balance in terms of public and private health care thus far. I hope we figure out how to stay this way because the balance seems to be a good thing.

The nation: Australia was colonised in 1788 making us a very young nation. We’re young, small, and somewhat isolated presenting many opportunities to do something big for ourselves and our country. While this is a long post, there are many, many more themes that could be (and may well be) added to help understand the Sydney and Australian context. Much of what I have written could be seen as more pessimistic than positive, but what I’m looking to illuminate here are opportunities for design and designers to identify how they might work with this context and/or use design to improve these situations. This discussion is of course subjective and swift (swift because I have only been back a few weeks) so feel free to add your perspectives (especially if you are local and don’t agree!).

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Sydney’s service design network

Since 2008 Service Design Drinks and Service Design Thinks has run in London bringing together people interested in service design. Drinks nights bring people interested in service design together to meet over a casual drink. Thinks nights also gather the community under one roof to hear inspiring stories, projects and experiences of people working in or on the fringes of service design.

Over the years the network and model of Service Design Drinks and Thinks has evolved organically, now coming under a single name – servicedesigning.org which is also the domain of our website.

In the beginning, when Nick Marsh, Jaimes Nel and I joined forces to coordinate and host Drinks and Thinks we received many emails from others around the world interested in the model and in how the same types of event could happen in their own city. To share the servicedesigning.org model we created an online platform which would give other city coordinators and hosts the opportunity to easily create their own service design events, with some cities running their own locally specific events such as Amsterdam’s Service Design Reading Circle. On average, servicedesigning.org is joined by a new city each month and the website is now host to fourteen cities around the world including London, Paris, San Francisco, Dublin, Lisbon, Cologne, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Amsterdam, Glasgow, Leeds, Sydney, Madrid, Stockholm.

In our early servicedesigning.org days, one of the first emails we received was from Damian Kernahan of Proto Partners in Sydney, Australia. Sydney Service Design Drinks and Thinks has now been running for a year and every event is held at the Trinity Bar in the inner city suburb of Surry Hills. Last Tuesday night was my first foray into the Sydney Service Design community and my first Service Design Drinks and Thinks outside of London. The web blog Service Designing Australia posted a summary of the night, but below is a short report from me.

On a balmy summer’s night in Sydney, a group of about 60 gathered upstairs in a private room at the Trinity Bar.


When I arrived the room was buzzing. I met many new faces and old friends, including Damien who shared with me many stories and ideas for growing and evolving the Sydney service design community. Damian does a fantastic job at bringing people together and hosting the night. For this Sydney Drinks and Thinks, Damien asked Jeremy Walker, Innovation Coach at BT Financial Group (not to be confused with the BT telco company in the UK!) to speak about service design.

Jeremy recently moved to Sydney from London after a career of working with the Design Council, RAC and most recently at live|work. Jeremy’s talk was titled ‘What is a service?’ and he maintained throughout, that understanding a service is more important than aiming to define service design. Why? Because you cannot design a service without understanding all its different aspects. This doesn’t just include the service user, but all essential aspects of the organisation delivering the service from its people, to its data, to its structure and so on. Understanding a service is understanding all the organisation’s nuts and bolts.

Throughout this argument Jeremy expertly intertwined 15 years of experience throughout the UK and Europe. Many of the UK-based organisations Jeremy worked with were familiar names, and it made me a little homesick and missing the gang in London. At the end of Jeremy’s talk a short Q&A took place and I noticed quite a number of questions around prototyping services. It was good to see as I’m working on a paper on prototyping public services.

Shortly after the Q&A the Trinity Bar emptied out. It was 9pm and a work night and I left having had a great time. It was wonderful to come back to my home city, after being away for so long, to meet a whole new community of old and new friends who share the same interests in one place. For me, the night certainly took some edge off the tricky transition from feeling homesick to starting to feel a bit more like home.

Finally, something for old time’s sake… I realised I never posted on my UK blog Letters to Australia… pictures from my last London Service Design Drinks at the Slaughtered Lamb (3 December 2010) in Clerkenwell. Good times.

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Sydney Service Design Drinks and Thinks

I didn’t expect there to be one so soon, but the Sydney chapter of servicedesigning.org is kicking off a service designing new year this week.

The night will be held on Tuesday 18 January at the Trinity Bar, Surry Hills with a talk by Jeremy Walker, Service Design Innovation Coach for BT Financial Group in Sydney, and formally of live|work in London.

For more details visit the Service Designing Australia website (uncanny that we have a similar template?!) or RSVP (of course if you are in Sydney) at Eventbrite.

I’ll be attending the night (my first servicedesigning.org event outside of London!) and will report back shortly so stay tuned here!

Sydney Service Design Drinks and Thinks is coordinated and hosted by Damian Kernahan and Suze Ingram.

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Greetings from Down Under!

Writing and sharing ideas and experiences related to design has been such a big part of my time living in the UK for the past 3.5 years. In 2007, I moved from Australia to the UK to do academic research on cutting edge design practice.

London sky line

Just 3 weeks ago I returned to my home city, Sydney, leaving London after many sad goodbyes but with many, many wonderful memories, experiences and friendships. This blog, titled designsydney, is to continue writing, sharing and exploring what’s happening on the fringes of design from within an Australian context.

In 2007 I started a PhD research programme set up by the Design Council and Northumbria University to explore an initiative called Dott 07 (Designs of the Times). Dott 07 hosted projects that aimed to use design to improve public services and achieve positive social change.

The Dott 07 Festival which celebrated and showcased all its projects

In the process I met and interviewed many inspirational designers from service design and social design companies including Engine, live|work, thinkpublic and Zest Innovations among others, and had many wonderful conversations, exchanges and drinks with the servicedesigning.org network which meets in London once a month for Service Design Drinks and once every quarterly (or thereabouts) for Service Design Thinks (click on the links to find out more about the companies and/or Service Design Drinks and Thinks).

Service Design Thinks

While my PhD thesis is currently being reviewed by the university, I’ll be spending the next few months adjusting back to life in Australia and attempting to discover what design means to Sydney, how is it thought of, perceived and received here, and what kind of context Sydney, and Australia, offers for design for public services and social innovation. This blog is the space where I’ll share some of these observations, conversations, ideas and discoveries. I hope you’ll join me in this adventure to (re)discover design in Sydney and in Australia.

Sydney Harbour

(If you’d like to know about my time exploring design in the UK, please visit my blog, Letters to Australia. If you’re more interested in travel, try my other blog Two Drifters).

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