This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Weeks 47-48: The art of rolling with punches,” written by Adam Greenfield in Barcelona on the 2nd of December 2011.

Weeks 47-48: The art of rolling with punches

Adam Greenfield on 2 December 2011

I’m just back from Barcelona, where I both spoke at the Smart City Expo and, more happily, had the opportunity to present the same material (for free) to an audience gathered by the ZZZINC independent culture lab. Much more about that next week, after I’ve had time to absorb everything I saw and heard; in the meantime, please enjoy this picture Fabien Girardin took of me at the wheel of a streetsweeper.

» The big news of the week was a trifle harder to take: we learned that our Farevalue cards — better known to most of you as Project PERRY — will not be patentable after all. Apparently, a patent that had not yet been awarded at the time of our initial patentability search surfaced when we undertook a second round of due diligence, and the method it claims protection for is entirely coextensive with the PERRY/Farevalue innovations.

While we invested a nontrivial amount of time, effort and money in trying to develop this idea and bring it to market, and are now in a position where we have no choice but to write all of that off, I remain terribly, terribly proud of what we were able to accomplish. I want to extend heartfelt thanks to Benedetta Piantella and Justin Downs of GROUNDlab, coil man Todd Bailey and our own Mayo Nissen and Jeff Kirsch for everything I learned in the course of this adventure. As well, they and you have my commitment that if there exists a way in the possibility space we’re confronted with for us to recoup our investment and bring Farevalue to market, we’ll find it.

» A quick meta comment on the above. The moment we heard from our lawyer that our patent application for PERRY was likely to be rejected — and that the wisest thing for us to do would be to withdraw it — my first instinct was to share this information with you.

In part, this instinct arises from a deep belief in the value of transparency as a way to demystify some of the otherwise obscure processes that attend tech startups and early-stage creative practices of all types. It’s a direct analogue to the open-source software development we also believe in: we want you to be able to reverse-engineer our work, glean whatever insight you can from it, and apply those gleanings to your own efforts. Our desire is to furnish observers with the most accurate record of our activities that’s consistent with client confidentiality, and that record would have little value if it was nothing more than a recitation of triumphs.

But there’s another reason to be forthright about our stumbles and setbacks, which is to push back a little against the relentless pressure that exists in our culture to always present oneself (and by extension, one’s organization) as on-message, serenely omnicompetent, and moving only and ever in a forward direction.

In the case of design firms, this pathological fear of appearing fallible is most likely a transfer from the culture of large-scale, publicly-held concerns, their obsession with “enhancing shareholder value” and their not entirely irrational dread of litigation at the slightest managerial misstep. But it’s clearly also a dynamic that exists in society at large, where Facebook tutors us in the ongoing presentation of self, and brutal economic conditions force each of us to position ourselves at all times as a plausible candidate for any opportunity that might arise. The invariably smooth and placid surfaces that get presented to the world contrast mightily with an interiority we know to be roiling with complication, in the case of individuals and institutions both.

It’s this disconnect that I diagnose as one root cause behind the awful concept videos (and, indeed, awful concepts!) foisted on the world by so many design organizations. These are always narratives of just-so success, in a blandly efficient world purged of all difficulty, contestation and human frailty.

My argument is that we properly ought to consider these videos a subgenre of dystopia, and the body of thought they grow out of a vision of hell. They’re like glamour shots of supermodels Photoshopped to meet some invidious and unachievable notion of perfection, and don’t think for a moment they don’t set up similar expectations. Our world, by contrast, is one where everything does not happen to be perfect all the time, and that includes this disappointment with Farevalue. I simply don’t think we can legitimately claim to design for the real world if we’re not prepared to live in it, alongside everyone else.

» Despite all that, great things did happen to transpire in the studio this week and last, specifically on Urbanflow Chicago. I can’t say very much about it at the moment, unfortunately, but I am blown away by what Mayo, Jeff, Leah and J.D. achieved, almost all of it while I was out of town. (There’s probably a lesson there.)

The long and short of it is that we have a functional prototype up and running on the very limited thin client we were handed just before Thanksgiving, including the base cartography, local service search and discovery, wayfinding and multimodal journey planning. More detail, including screen shots, is forthcoming as soon as we’re able to share it with you, but take it from me: the achievement of getting an acceptably and meaningfully robust subset of the Urbanflow functionality up on this hardware is significant.

» Behold the provisional design of our Year One t-shirts! There are a few tweaks left before we ship these, but do let us know if you think you’ll be inclined to order one, so we know roughly how many to make. You can have it in any colorway you want, as long as it’s black-on-black.

» Logistics: We’re all in the studio all week, polishing the Chicago work for a Friday decision gate. It’s probably not the very best time to swing by unannounced. See you next week. Endmark