April 03, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Making Art Work by W. Patrick McCray

"Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture" by W. Patrick McCray (on Openlibrary) is an interesting history of the art and technology scene in the mid-20th Century. As a technologist-who's-also-been-an-artist, and someone who helps run an organisation that welcomes technologists and artists (among others) and provides a place for them to work and find each other there was lots of interest in the book.

As ever, lots of what we're doing has been done before, or at least something similar has. It's nice to think that someone might write a history of the DoES Liverpool scene sometime; we'll have to keep striving for doing epic shit.

Here are my "dog-eared pages" from reading it...

Page 15

Compared to artists and those who write about them, engineers often appear as relatively silent actors in the larger historical record. Moreover, compared with scientists, engineers are papyrophobic. That is to say, they are less inclined to record their recollections and activities on paper.


When British artist Dick Higgins coined the word "intermedia" in 1965, he was referring to art that "seems to fall between media." Intermedia art was understood as a hybrid thing, cross-fertilizing and blurring boundaries between traditional arts like painting, sculpture, and dance while adding film images, electronic sounds, and other technologies. Higgins term suggested a coming era when traditional borders between artistic media as well as academic disciplines and professional communities would shift and possibly be erased.

Page 37

Outside the studio, Malina (and other kinetic artists) realized that many galleries and museums were not set up to display electrical works. To help alleviate concerns of gallery owners, he might include a statement on the back of his pieces noting that, if malfunctioning, it could "be put in order by any electrician or radio repair man."

Page 49

In 1961, for example, in the Belgium city of Liège, Schöffer unveiled his Cybernetic Tower. Standing 170 feet tall, its suite of sensors registered ambient environmental changes such as wind, temperature, and humidity. The information collected went to a computer that, in conjunction with electric motors, varied the movement of large rectilinear metal blades and vanes. Sunlight was reflected and diffused off their polished metal surfaces while, at night, beams of multicolored light were projected onto the tower. Schöffer integrated his works into the local environment, using the glass windows of a nearby office building as well as the Meuse River itself as projection screens.

Page 63

One of the more notable efforts, based on extensive site visits and interviews, was carried out in the mid-1950s by the American Society for Engineering Education. It emphasized that producing young engineers who appreciated the liberal arts meant discarding stereotypes while also encouraging engineers to see the arts and humanities as valuable in their own right. Hoping to do more than just make engineers "acceptable in polite society," the humanities could enhance engineers' understanding that "every professional act has human and social consequences." Statements such as these acquired greater urgency toward the end of the 1960s, when student activists, opponents of the Vietnam War, and critics of large, impersonal, and destructive technological systems increasingly labeled engineers as amoral technocrats beholden to the corporations they served. Such charges insinuated themselves into the art-and-technology movements as we'll see later.

Page 76

What Sontag branded as the "one culture" possessed exceptional diversity. It included not only painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers and musicians but also "neurologists, TV technicians [and] electronic engineers." One of these new professional hybrids, someone Sontag was certainly aware of, was engineer Billy Klüver.

Page 87

Video artist Nam June Paik, who spent time at Bell Labs as an artist-in-residence, already had his answer: "If you are surprised with the result," he later told an interviewer, "then the machine has composed the piece."

Page 94

At first, Rauschenberg incorporated static objects like light bulbs or radiometers. But his plan for a new piece, eventually called Oracle, really started to come together after Klüver gave him a tour of Bell Labs in 1961. As the artist later told critic Barbara Rose, seeing all those new technologies was "like being handed a ghost bouquet of possibilities."

Page 101

"We need a house full of exotic technology." Billy Klüver, 1966

Page 104

Despite securing his employer's approval, Klüver soon abandoned the project. Instead, he decided it would be more efficient to directly engineer social situations that would bring different professional communities together. "Only by making new inventions which are not conditioned by ordinary attitudes," Klüver later said, "can we learn about technology."


Just as Klüver's colleagues were well acquainted with one another, the artists had worked together several times.


But this familiarity only went so far and Klüver was nervous as the two groups appraised one another. "The air was stiff," he recalled, and their conversations soon soared off into abstract musings. As he wrote in his diary, "What are we doing at 13,000 feet? It's a long walk to earth." Pierce brought their speculative dialogue back to terra firma. "Tell them what you have," he encouraged his engineers, "tell them about things."

Page 124

While logical in principle, the patch board system proved enormously troublesome in practice. Locating the necessary hardware was only the beginning. Eventually, engineers convinced Automotive Marine Products, a small company in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to loan them equipment. Then came what Schneider called the "saga of the tiny plugs"—thousands of feet of wire and coaxial cables with the proper connectors attached to their end had to be made by hand. With only a few days to go before 9 Evenings started, the artists, along with dozens of friends they had recruited, learned firsthand how to wire patch boards and strip cable ends. At one point, Simone Forti went looking for John Cage and found the famous avant-garde composer off by himself, patiently crimping wires.

Page 151

In stressing the need to collaboratively develop "alternate technologies" for "industrially deficient environments," Klüver's thinking reflected ideals of the "appropriate technology movement" promoted by social activist groups in the 1960s. And, in questioning the autonomous nature of technology, Klüver's ideas echoed those expressed by public intellectuals like Lewis Mumford, concepts which later coalesced under the academic banner of "science and technology studies."

Page 167

In 1965, after submitting a proposal for [CAVS, the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies,] to MIT's administration, Kepes published his idea in the journal Daedalus. His essay described a "closely knit work community" of artists and designers who would be based in an "academic institution with a strong scientific tradition" such as MIT. Just as paleontologists envisioned human evolution advancing via interbreeding, Kepes proposed that "cultural evolution" would happen through "interthinking" between artists, engineers, and scientists. These collaborations would, Kepes argued, produce a "climate more conducive to the development of new ideas" than artists might achieve by working alone.

Page 169

[...] Billy Klüver described how E.A.T. emerged out of the spirit of 9 Evenings. By not focusing on aesthetics or artistic products, chance and randomness were encouraged as part of a larger creative process between artists and engineers. Likewise, Ivan Sutherland, an MIT-trained electrical engineer, described how computer algorithms could create art that varied with the observer's participation.

Page 183

"No one asks a scientist why he wants to use a laser beam," Klüver noted, and artists should be free to do likewise.

Page 192

In 1966, London-based artists Barbara Steveni and John Latham formed the Artist Placement Group (APG). Robert Adeane, who sat on the board of companies such as Shell, helped Latham and Steveni situate artists within corporate settings. But where Tuchman [with his similar programme in Los Angeles] saw these partnerships in largely instrumental terms, the APG brought a more theoretical and activist-inclined orientation to the table.

Page 220

"What are managers going to do with an artist?," Whitman recalled [of his residency]. "They introduced me to all the guys with beards. John Forkner had the longest beard. So we talked."

Page 230

When Fujiko Nakaya contacted him, Mee had just started his own company, a small operation run out of his Altadena garage, which planned to make instruments for weather monitoring. He had never heard of Billy Klüver or E.A.T., but Nakaya's knowledge of cloud science impressed him. Moreover, he had met her father at scientific conferences and was well aware of his pioneering research on snow.

Mee was initially skeptical about whether they could generate enough fog to obscure the entire 120-foot-diameter pavilion but he agreed to explore the problem with her. Mee respected Nakaya's aesthetic preference for producing an envrionmental sculpture of "dense, bubbling fog...to walk in, to feel and smell, and disappear in."

Page 231

When Fujiko Nakaya started working on the fog project, she made several sketches and drawings of the Pepsi Pavilion, surrounded by billowing clouds. But until she tested Mee's system in Osaka, the visual effects it would actually produce were speculative.

Page 244

Inside, Pepsi's public relations officer for Japan fretted that "common people don't understand art. I tell them it means nothing, right?"

Page 257

A closer look at the [LACMA "Art and Technology" exhibition]'s participants—this can be seen from the grid of men's faces on the cover of Tuchman's Report—reveals what became the show's main liability for many members of the art world. All of the artists included in the exhibition were white men. While this imbalance might have escaped public censure in 1967, when Tuchman was starting the Art and Technology Program, by mid-1971 such an omission seemed a serious lapse in judgement. In June, the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists (or, LACWA, a dig at their county's publicly funded museum [LACMA]) presented its own report to the Los Angeles Times. Between 1961 and 1971, it stated, some 713 artists exhibited their work at LACMA. Of these, only twenty-nine were women. And, of the fifty-three solo shows the museum presented, only one was devoted to a woman artist. Finally, an inspection of the museum's permanent galleries showed that only 1 percent of the art displayed was made by women artists and, to add insult to injury, plenty of the artwork featured depictions of nude women as seen through the male gaze.

Page 265

In 1965, around the time Bell Labs hosted him as an artist-in-residence, Paik had predicted that "artists will work with capacitors, resistors, and semiconductors as they work today with brushes, violins, and junk."


Although video art received the most attention and legitimacy from the art world, similar stories could be told for other "new" technologies that artists experimented with throughout the 1970s. Computer art (which eventually morphed into commercial and scientific applications like computer graphics and data visualization), holography, and art made using copy machines were similar to video art, if not in prominence, by virtue of their small-scale and relative accessibility. In each of these cases, artists&mash;an increasing number of whom were women—could explore the possibilities of electronic technologies without necessarily requiring a professional engineer's expertise. These new technologies offered women artists a way forward along fresh paths not blocked by men. For example, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, artist Sonia Sheridan, with support from the 3M Company, translated several years of experiments with photocopying machines into a new course of study called "generative systems."

Page 279

For years, CAVS had presented the visual arts as a humanizing influence on students, engineers, and scientists where people might interact on equal footing. Negroponte presented an alternate vision in which "being digital" would reshape society, economies, and, almost as an afterthought, benefit the fine arts as well.


[CAVS director Otto] Piene countered that Negroponte's "porous" proposals [for founding the MIT Media Lab] were full of "buzzwords" and "modish applications," promising future payoffs while abandoning the visual arts. "It is verbiage," CAVS supporters fumed, "the only defense for it is that it works to raise money."

Page 196

As an exercise in feminist social practice, [Annina] Rüst's artwork—she titled it A Piece of the Pie Chart—addressed the pervasive underrepresentation of women in the workforce. Using a robotic arm and a computer workstation, her assembly line-like installation imprinted pie charts on actual pastries that showed lopsided gender ratios at technology companies and art museums. The installation also produced mailing labels so one could mail a custom-made pie to the organization associated with its data.

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March 22, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: March 22nd 2021 Edition

  • Why Generation X will save the web. Those of us who lived through the early days of the web—the late 90s and the early 2000s—need to explain what we failed to bring into being with the open, decentralized, empowering Internet, and help fold those ideas in to strengthen new movements for a better web.
  • Not All Men: Dismantling The Pyramid. Like the "as a white man with a degree, you're playing the game of life on the easiest setting" analogy of a few years ago, Max Morgan's pyramid gave me new ways of thinking about how I can help bring down the patriarchy.
  • Indies are Everywhere. We are. We're more interesting than those chasing VC.
  • Why I Still Use RSS. Your periodic reminder that you should, like I do extensively, get an RSS reader and start subscribing to blogs with RSS. I use Thunderbird for mine, because I also use it as my email client; AboutFeeds.com has more background and some other recommendations.
  • More of a Talker. I am—in general, and slowly, and it's a bumpy road of ups and downs—getting better at spotting when I'm procrastinating and nudging myself into doing. Reading of the tricks others use to do the same is great. Us over-thinkers and talkers all need the rituals and tics to overcome that bump. Speaking of which, this tidying through tabs and making a start on this blog post is partly to overcome my procrastination in siting down to write the blog post that I've been not-making-enough-headway-with for the past few weekends. So, hopefully there'll have been something else published since the last Interesting Things... and this one.
  • The Urban Manufacturing Edition. A wonderfully-written vignette of the local manufacturing and making spread through Emeryville. This is what Liverpool could look like, if we want it.
  • The road to electric is filled with tiny cars. And this could be a way that we get around that Liverpool of the future, along with the bikes I was pitching last week. Given the near-constant concern over Vauxhall or Jaguar Land Rover deciding to close their plants here, how do we encourage more electric bike coachbuilders (Aglie Liverpool are already doing that...)
  • Delinquent Telephone Activity. Rachel Coldicutt reminds us that the street finding its own use for things also applies to tech, and encourages us to do more of that.

This week's RSS additions (see aboutfeeds.com if you don't know what RSS is, RSS is how I find most of these Interesting Things...):

  • Adactio. I've oft ended up on Jeremy Keith's blog over the years. Finally decided I should just subscribe. I need to work out how he's styling his RSS feed so it's more human-friendly if you open it in a browser and steal that idea sometime!
  • Jackie Pease Zone. Jackie has started blogging her experiments into biomaterials and three-dimensional algorithmic embroidery.
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March 21, 2021

A Footnote on Tech North

Tom Forth recently wrote about his perspective on Tech North and the following Tech Nation. When he tweeted about it he said it would get him into trouble. If such low-level criticism is troublesome then we really have got problems.

In his piece, Tom says that we need "strong institutions" in the North. On another day, and in another blog post, I'd probably argue that DoES Liverpool, a community and organisation that I co-founded, is (on its way to be) one of those institutions.

I had thought I'd fold my anecdotes about Tech North into one of those other blog posts, but I'm not sure it's important enough. However, I'll jot them down here to give me something to point at if it is useful to include in the future, and to make an entry in the public record on how ineffective Tech North was. They're not unique in that, I could write similar tales of meh about IoT UK (in fact, I got part-way through telling that tale as part of the Dataviz for Artists course that I worked on for Ross Dalziel) or Innovate UK or...

tl;dr - when Tech North finally deigned to come and chat with DoES Liverpool—two-and-a-half years after they started—and asked what they could do to help, I had one request. That their community engagement manager work from our co-working space every now and then, to get to know the community. A pretty low bar, that they failed to clear.

And the longer version...

In August 2015, Tech North arrived. I gave them a cautious welcome, and pointed them to my thoughts on what they (or anyone like them) should be doing to contribute.

They organised some events and programmes that didn't reach the piquing-my-interest threshold, as I didn't attend any. Maybe one? I have vague recollections of a startup pitching evening in the Baltic that I went to. They didn't, to my knowledge, attend any of the events being run at DoES Liverpool.

They appeared to do very little from what I could see, but made lots of noise about it.

As someone the CTO of IBM UK called "IoT king of the North", maybe they'd want to see what I thought about tech. As someone who runs a tech business in the North, maybe they'd want to talk to one of the companies they were set up to support. As someone who volunteers at DoES Liverpool, maybe they'd want to hear about our perspective on the Liverpool tech scene, from our four (at that point) years of experience with it.

Talking to me isn't the only marker of whether or not they were doing a decent job, but it wouldn't be the worst one. I keep my ear pretty close to the ground to try to find out how others are finding such support (among other things). If I'd been hearing lots of good things about Tech North on the grapevine then they'd be getting a better write-up too.

It's not like Tech North didn't know about me. Whenever they had something of their own to tout, I was on the mailing list. It even stretched to a phonecall when they were frantically searching for local startups to persuade to pitch at one of their events.

It seemed to take them over a year to work out that they should talk to the communities across the North, although having "community engagement managers" didn't result in any engagement with the communities I'm part of.

Eventually, in July of 2017 I actually got to chat to the head of Tech North. He came to find me in the break at a conference, because I'd asked difficult questions from the audience when he was on a panel. Fair play to him.

He wanted to come and visit DoES Liverpool and have a chat, and a couple of months later we'd got it arranged and he visited with the Liverpool community engagement manager.

It was a perfectly pleasant visit. I showed them round, and we had a discussion about what they were up to, who was in the community and the tech scene in Liverpool and beyond.

They explicitly asked what they could do to help and I said that they should work from the co-working space every now and then. It's not a new idea, Andy Goodwin used to rotate round working at all of the tech co-working spaces in the city so that he was available for people to chat to him and he'd get to know the people working at them.

Great idea, they said, we'll definitely do that. And we'll get a feature written about DoES Liverpool and published on the Tech North blog.

Neither of those things have happened.

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March 14, 2021

Some Suggestions for Cycling in Liverpool

td; dr. If you just want my suggestions for how we can make cycling better, skim through for the bits broken out like this.

I do lots of cycling, as anyone bored by my continual #InTheSaddle posts on Instagram will attest. It's how I get to work and back; how I visit friends outside the city centre (and in neighbouring towns and villages); and how I get exercise.

It's been a gradual thing—I didn't have a bike at all at university, or for most of the time I lived in Bury St. Edmunds. I bought my first mountain bike just before I moved to Cambridge, and understandably started using it lots more there. When I moved to Italy, both bike and car went too, and since moving to Liverpool in 2008 my bike usage has continued to rise and now, despite a penchant for fast cars, I can't remember when I last drove a car—it must be getting on for a decade.

When the first lockdown started, I switched my exercise rides away from my well-worn options of the prom along the river, through Sefton and Prince's Parks, and the canal and loop line. I was looking for less populated routes, to stay safer from the virus, and leave a tiny bit more room for others to get outside too.

That resulted in me unlocking (more of) North and East Liverpool, opening up lots more of the city and joining up other sections that I knew well but hadn't worked out how close they were to each other. I've also been pondering, off and on as I cycle around, about how we can make the city better for other people to cycle in too.

Coincidentally, Liverpool City Council have a consultation on more cycling improvements running right now. Go and fill it in if you're local. I'm going to send them this blog post too, as some related-but-different options.

It was great to see how quickly the council rolled out its network of new, segregated cycle lanes. I've used the Stanley Road and West Derby Road ones regularly.

The real revelation for me though was finding that the existing cycle network is actually pretty good. It's just quite hidden. Despite being a frequent cyclist, the obvious routes around the city are those used by cars. For those just switching from driving that will be even more likely. Helping them find better routes will make their cycling more likely to stick.

In my experiments into 15-minute cities I've been looking more at the cycling-focused views of OpenStreetMap, and so ended up looking at that to find new routes to explore.

Who knew there are two cycle routes (not including the Loop Line!) that run broadly parallel to Queens Drive? Not me. Cycle Route M will get you all the way from Walton to Old Swan on quiet and residential roads. Cycle Route O tracks similarly parallel on the far (from the city-centre) side of Queens Drive from almost Fazakerley to Broad Green—it's not as quiet, running along Long Lane, and gets a bit tight through West Derby village as Town Row isn't very wide, but I've been cycling it lots since discovering they existed.

Use and promote one of the cycling-focused OpenStreetMap maps. Use OpenCycleMap.org or the CycleOSM layer of OpenStreetMap in maps shared by the cycling team. Contribute fixes or additional data to OpenStreetMap, which is used to make both of those maps. I'm happy to show people how to do that.

I've also been using Cycle Route 7 from Broad Green through Wavertree Technology Park and Edge Hill back into town, ever since I found it after delivering visors to Broad Green Hospital.

That's a great alternative to Edge Lane, particularly at the Broad Green end where it runs along quiet residential roads. That's pretty well signposted at the key points, like this crossroads pictured below:

A crossroads on a housing estate, with a small blue cycling sign showing that route 7 is straight on

However, as that shows, the signs aren't always the biggest, and they often lose the cycle route number or letter in favour of the name of the area they're immediately headed for. I don't think we should lose the area names, but the route letter/number is important. Otherwise it's hard to know if a sign turning off from the road you're on is for the continuation of the route you're following or where another route crosses it.

Only having the signs at key points where the route changes also means that if you miss one, it's hard to know if you're still following the route correctly. That's particularly problematic where the route runs through residential areas, because you're often not following roads where it's obvious how the route progresses.

Stick route name/number stickers on lampposts at regular intervals on routes. Getting a load of stickers printed up with the same up-arrow, bike logo and route identifier in the photo above (probably with them arranged top-bottom rather than left-right?) shouldn't be too expensive. Then stick them on lampposts at reasonable intervals all along the route so that cyclists can check they've not missed a turning, and won't have travelled too far if they do stray from the route and stop seeing signs. It will have the added bonus of making the cycle network more visible to everyone.

Moving on to something a bit more involved, we could make it easier for people to plan their routes using bikes. CycleStreets and cycle.travel are pretty good options for routes that are solely by bike, and give options for quieter routes rather then just the fastest.

While I'm happy cycling five or six miles to get somewhere, not everyone is. One option for those sort of distances (and one I use plenty when travelling further myself) is sticking the bike onto the train for some of the route. OpenTripPlanner will do that sort of multi-modal trip planning, and is reasonably easy to get up and running. Here's an example route I plotted from DoES Liverpool up to South Park in Bootle:

Screenshot of a map showing a route from DoES Liverpool to Bootle, in three sections: first by bike down to Moorfields station; then by train to Kirkdale; and finally back on the bike into Bootle

Create a Liverpool version of the open-source multi-modal route planning app Trufi. The Trufi app is very similar to the CityMapper app, but you don't have to wait for them to decide that they should add Liverpool. It lets people plan routes that use both bikes and the train; or walking, bus and train; or waking, bus and CityBike; or...

It's probably best for the Council to build, but could also be a standalone thing. There'd be some initial up-front development work, and then a smaller ongoing commitment to keep the data sources (it'll need an update to timetable information when the trains change that, for example) up-to-date, etc. Again, I'd be happy to help out, at any level from a bit of advice through to building it...

Beyond the infrastructure of cycle lanes, and signage, and better apps, are there other things likely to hamper people's move to cycling for their travel?

Looking at this chart from the Cycling and Walking: A Faster Route to a Safer and Stronger Liverpool City Region policy briefing from the Heseltine Institute, it looks like the less affluent areas of the city are slightly less likely to cycle and more likely to use the bus.


There's nothing wrong with that, and my multi-modal trip planner app recommendation would help bus users too, but if they're worried about using the buses due to coronavirus it would be good to tempt them onto bikes rather than into cars.

Set up schemes to let people buy the kit they need to start cycling. This is definitely the wooliest of my recommendations, but maybe one of the more important. Could the Council set up some grants to let those who can't afford it buy a bike? And/or the additional bits-and-pieces that make sense: lock, lights, helmet, panniers, waterproofs...? Or work with a credit union to offer a get-biking loan, paid back at the same sort of rate as a weekly bus pass?

I look forward to seeing what comes of the latest consultation, and it'd be great to add some of these ideas too.

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March 08, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: March 8th 2021 Edition

  • Why The IndieWeb? "Using social media you do and say everything you would in real life but you're constantly being watched and listened to in case you say something enthusiastic about barbecues." Host your own content and "you won't inadvertently lure people into the clutches of nazi propagandists sharing the same contaminated space". That last bit is a revelation. Facebook continues to make it harder to get out into the real web because "there be dragons", when actually, you're more likely to encounter dragons on Facebook because they'll promote them at you.
  • Weeknotes: populism of equal cheating, warranties, language. Too many good links in Laura's latest weeknotes, so linking to it all.
  • They Live and the secret history of the Mozilla logo.
  • Let's Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science. The text (or video) of a talk from Donald Knuth (one of the forerunners of Computer Science) lamenting the lack of technical histories of computing. I'd like to read more of those sort of histories. It made me realise that while I'm enjoying reading Making Art Work (a history of the art-and-technology field from the 60s; will be appearing as a blog-all-dog-eared-pages soon...), it's all about the people and there's very little on the technology beyond brief descriptions. Understandably, but I'd get a lot out of the more technical side too. It also makes me think about the prototype first-web-browser-on-a-mobile-phone that's sat in my flat, and how that needs writing up sometime, beyond this brief write-up I did ten years ago(!?!).
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February 15, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: February 15th 2021 Edition

And this video is glorious.

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February 14, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Reconstructing Public Housing: Liverpool's Hidden History of Collective Alternatives by Matthew Thompson

Reconstructing Public Housing: Liverpool’s hidden history of collective alternatives (and on Open Library) by Matthew Thompson is an excellent exploration of the history and present-day (and future?) of co-operative and community housing here in Liverpool. It's also nice to see that it's open access and available to read online.

I found it a really interesting read—as you can see from the quantity of dog-eared pages. The Housing Market Renewal scheme, responsible for some of the more recent State-and-private housing disasters, is something I've written about before. And it was odd but lovely to read quotes from, and references to, so many friends and acquaintances when we get to the more up-to-date sections. Well worth a read.

Page xvii

I wanted to show how similar things had been done in the not too distant past, in the same city, often in the very same street, by other collective housing movements that shared so much, if not their name, with Liverpool's budding community land trust movement.In the 1970s, fuelled by tenant protests over poor conditions and the displacement entailed by the council’s ‘slum clearance programme’, one of the largest and most imaginative housing co-operative movements in Britain if not Europe was born—Liverpool’s so-called ‘Co-op Spring’ 2 or ‘Co-operative Revolution’.

Page 8

Secondly, for all its good intentions, there were inherent problems with this state project [of council housing]—even when delivered at the municipal scale by local authorities (as is all too evident in Liverpool’s history)—to do with the way in which housing was done to and for people rather than by them.

Page 17

Rather than rights of citizenship being founded on passive membership of a nation-state and abstract entitlement to property, they derive from the active contribution of each inhabitant to the creation of a complex urban ecology as well as their necessary embeddedness within the web of social relations that make up the city.

Page 22

The foundational economy comprises two components: material infrastructure (the pipes and cables, utilities and networks of everyday life, such as transport, food and retail banking) and what the foundational economy collective call ‘providential’ services (referring to the providence—the benevolent care and guidance—to be found in health, education and welfare provision).

Page 24

With this in mind, the question then becomes how to re-engineer the state to work for, rather than against, the housing commons. How can we re-scale the state towards more decentralised and networked institutions that enable us to engage in democratic decision-making over the material and providential services that underpin our lives? How can we reform the monolithic, centralised and hierarchical versions of public ownership of the post-war past into more collective and participatory forms of common ownership? How can we bring the state into closer conversation and engagement with that third domain of economic ownership and management often referred to as the social economy?

Page 30

Liverpool was the first city in Britain to legislate against the dire urban conditions created by capitalism. The 1842 Liverpool Building Act, Dockerill demonstrates, challenged laissez-faire attitudes of the time to municipal intervention—enforcing minimum space and hygiene standards in newly constructed privately rented courts across Liverpool. In 1846, the Liverpool Sanitary Act—the first comprehensive health legislation in England, two years ahead of the national Public Health Act, which likewise made local authorities responsible for drainage, sewerage and water supply—inaugurated the world’s first Medical Officer of Health and Borough Engineer in 1847 so as to begin to ameliorate some of the worst conditions through public improvements such as sewers.

Page 37

Regeneration has become almost a self-generating industry in Liverpool—the first to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of its maritime economy. Some local academics and commentators go so far as to suggest Liverpool’s contemporary economy is primarily geared around the so-called ‘regeneration game’

Page 53

the International Co-operative Alliance ratified its five principles: (1) open and voluntary membership; (2) democratic control; (3) fair distribution of economic results according to labour or consumption rather than capital ownership; (4) education in cooperation; (5) cooperation between co-ops.

Page 58

[John F.C. Turner] proposed a housing system driven by what he called ‘resourcefulness’ as an alternative to the logic of ‘productivity’ driving the large-scale, capital-intensive, efficient yet wasteful, misallocative and unresponsive top-down system of mass housing under state-capitalism. Turner advocated more imaginative, practical, locally attuned and needs-based use of resources for self-housing, through labour-intensive craft-based production, utilising local skills and knowledge. This was to be enabled by state and professional infrastructures, but driven by spontaneous grass-roots energy of people housing themselves through cooperative labour and directly related to the final product.

Page 69

Granby Street Housing Co-operative was established in 1972, Liverpool’s first rehab co-op.

Page 73

By the mid-1970s, Liverpool Council had the largest Housing Action Area policy in the UK, covering 23 inner-city nineteenth-century neighbourhoods.

Page 100

Having lived in poorly managed council houses all their lives, the first thing co-op residents would tell their architect was that they wanted homes as different from ‘Corpy housing’ as possible.


Weller Street took on a more urban quality, of courtyard squares. Most of the other co-ops, by contrast, were typically cul-de-sacs, which Bill Taylor likens to “a sort of wagon train when they’re stopped for the night”, arranged in a tight, inward-facing circle.

Page 102

Orienting co-op housing around an inward focal point—a community anchor or communal area—is great for internal community cohesion, but has the simultaneous effect of enclosing co-ops, cutting them off from the city, discouraging through-flow, and imposing spatial barriers between surrounding neighbourhoods.

Page 111

I remember as a kid seeing this sweep through the city. Having lived in an apartment in a Torinese palazzo, I think we're too hung up on semis here in the UK.

The URS [the Militant Council's Urban Regeneration Strategy] rationale was to target 17 (later extended to 22) “Priority Areas” of modernist ‘hard-to-let’ flats and tenements built between the 1930s and 1970s, which had become unpopular sites marked by crime, vandalism, squalor and dereliction. Byrne’s assessment of council house designs revealed one promising inter-war period of problem-free semi-detached housing and concluded that this was the pinnacle of British council housing design.

Page 116

The principal proponents of the Kirkby [co-op] movement, however, were young single mothers, who often felt isolated in the flats and wanted something better for their children.

Page 127

"The poverty initiatives then have clearly not made any great inroads on inner-Liverpool’s real material problems. All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time."

Page 133

[...] one of the pioneering Urban Development Corporations, tasked with regenerating Liverpool’s derelict docks and overseen by a specialist quango, the Merseyside Task Force. These top-down planning prescriptions were amongst the first of their kind to be tried and tested in the UK but ultimately failed to do much more than successfully restore or redevelop specific sites, such as the historic Albert Dock, due to their narrow, noun-like focus on property-led redevelopment as opposed to a more holistic approach (such as SNAP and the CDPs) considering deeper socioeconomic structures and processes, such as skills, health, housing, resource redistribution and economic ownership.

Page 137

The social economy organises economic functions primarily according to democratic, co-operative and reciprocal principles; aims for high levels of equality, redistribution and empowerment of marginalised citizens; and works towards the satisfaction of unmet human needs.

Page 143

[Jack McBane on his interview as an advisor to the Eldonians:]

So the interview panel was like 30 people and I’ll never forget it. They had a big social hall, they had an organisation, and they were used to running things, and I said, “I don’t think you’re thinking big enough. This place is a shithole, you know that, why don’t you take on the whole neighbourhood?” And at this McGann’s eyes began to light up ... I said, “Nobody else cares for this place. It’s been abandoned by the council, the businesses have already left town, housing associations aren’t even active here. The only thing that’s alive and well here is you. What’s the point in doing a housing co-op surrounded by this? Because you’re going to waste a huge amount of resources and my time and the architect’s time doing a co-op—why don’t we just change the whole thing and gear it up?”

Page 147

Then, in 1981, Tate & Lyle, the biggest local employer, closed its sugar refinery, causing a further 1,700 job losses, leaving many of the Eldonians without work. Exacerbating this was the closure of the British American Tobacco factory in 1984, with knock-on bankruptcies of local feeder firms.

Page 148

It's complicated, but that wasn't a name I was expecting to find on the supporting side...

Through their lobbying, with the political support of Thatcher, the Eldonians managed to secure the site and the funding required for remediation.

Page 150

In the context of an intensifying battle between the Tory government and Militant-controlled Liverpool Council over the city’s budget, Thatcher was looking to undermine their authority and reassert central control. The Eldonian scheme was the perfect pawn to play.

Page 153

EGL’s [Eldonian Group Ltd] decision to explore the prospects for local energy production in a combined heat and power (CHP) system led them to consider retrofitting the Eldonian Community Based Housing Association’s stock, because, an EGL officer explains, “if we’re going to produce our own energy, we can’t put it into houses that are sieves”. They set up a non-profit energy service company, the Eldonian Energy Partnership (with E.ON, the massive multinational European energy provider, and Peel Holdings as junior partner) and developed a CHP energy centre and district heating network (DHN)—the first of its kind to be delivered by a social enterprise.

Page 154

An EGL manager is upfront about their making profit from contracts with big business and consultancy work delivered elsewhere around the country:

Profit’s not a dirty word to us, but we make profit, we bring it back here and we then use that money to subsidise services we want to provide here, so “dads’ and lads’ clubs”—costing us fifty grand each a year—“after school clubs”, things like that where the local authority will fund to a level, but we want it to be a decent level.

Page 159

The Eldonian Village is perhaps more akin, as one observer likens it, to a “community dictatorship” than a community-based cooperative.

Page 160

Bill Taylor, formerly of CDS, puts it like this:

There was always a bit called the “post-development blues” when you’d been working for four years towards this thing and, finally, “bloody hell, practical completion, move in!” And then the people who have really led the co-op through that gestation period and the delivery period go “phhhhheeeewwww, right I just want a break now, I’m going to resign ...” It’s almost like post-natal depression. You’ve been looking forward to this thing for so long, it comes along and actually then you’ve got a whole set of different challenges because you’ve got something that’s alive and squawking—things like collecting rent, and tackling people who’ve been your friends and neighbours and who live next door about their rent arrears ...

Page 166

Either way, the Eldonian leadership invited a group of local property speculators to take on EGL’s debts in the hope of retaining staff. This group was linked to the Eldonians through their business connections—partners in various property redevelopment schemes in the area and also through Tony McGann’s son, evicted from the village for drug dealing.

Soon after brokering this arrangement, it became apparent that the new owners were not all that interested in fulfilling EGL’s original ethos of community enterprise and reinvestment for social value. Instead, EGL was stripped of its assets—siphoned off through a number of shell companies. Staff numbers fell from over two hundred to around 50. The sports centre in the Eldonian Village was closed down and demolished. The site awaits profitable redevelopment as residential flats, outside of Eldonian management.

Page 167

Others suggest that it was the Eldonians’ prominent position within local politics and in the property industry that made it attractive for predatory investment and money laundering—activities for which Liverpool, an anarchic port city, has long been renowned. If indeed this is true, why was EGL so vulnerable to corruption? Asset stripping is precisely the kind of problem which the community development trust model is designed to preclude.

Page 171

Unlike their mass-produced imitations, they have stood the test of time. Almost all the co-ops, as well as the Eldonian Village, are still here today, in better condition than surrounding housing built before or after.

Page 182

The CLT tripartite governance structure—with equal parts resident-members, wider community representatives and expert stake-holders—is the result of this innovation. 22 Thus CLTs are unique among collective forms of ownership for engaging with and recycling surpluses for the wider community, and not just for member-residents, as in the case of co-ops.

Page 192

According to these critics, HMR [Housing Market Renewal] logic represents a narrowly aspirational, market-based perspective on housing as a ‘space of positions’ in which middle-class consumers vie for position on the housing ladder—disregarding use values for exchange value.

Page 197

The third commissioned research report in 2001, as Webb has demonstrated, 81 identified the student accommodation construction boom in the city centre as a causal factor in the supply and demand imbalance in low-demand inner-city areas, whereby a speculative rash of new flats were being successfully marketed to students, key workers and economic migrants, who otherwise would have settled in the inner-city terraced neighbourhoods. If HMR was to stay true to its original objective of rationalising the structure of housing markets—to rebalance supply and demand so as to reconnect failing markets with sustainable regional markets—then surely a key recommendation of the report would be to stop the building of flats that were directly creating an oversupply of accommodation [...]

Page 215

These mostly women homeowners associated with the city’s artistic and creative milieu—Eleanor Lee, Hazel Tilly and Theresa MacDermott amongst others—helped move the campaign on from reactive anti-demolition protests towards more proactive claims of ownership over the neglected, disinvested and largely vacant streets. Out of a state of despair—tenants evicted, properties boarded-up, streets collecting rubbish, blight setting in—they set about cleaning the streets, clearing rubbish, seeding wildflower meadows on vacant land, painting house frontages with colourful artistic murals and bringing garden furniture and potted plants out onto pavements and into the roads. 26 The centre of these insurgent acts of ‘guerrilla gardening’ was Cairns Street, where most of the green-fingered activists lived. Their vision was to turn the Granby Triangle into the ‘Green Triangle’.

Page 219

This strategy of zero- or very low-interest social investment was described by CLT activists as “philanthropy at four per cent return”, in reference to the early housing association trusts of the nineteenth century known as ‘five per cent philanthropy orgs’.

Page 231

It was not just the church, Juliet recalls, which was targeted by such practices:

We served on the Friday; they continued with the demolition on the Saturday. I think it was by one o’clock Monday the council agreed to stop. Guess what happened on Monday night? Huge fire in some of the properties. Coincidence? So since the day that we filed that legal action, I think it was Monday 29th January [2013], until something like mid-August, there were fires all the time. I was constantly getting phone calls ... We were just documenting the lot of them, and that was part of the evidence that was presented at the High Court. So I do blame them, absolutely, this is the battleground. It’s a war. I mean all that time, there’d never been any fires ...

Page 243

Importantly, the CLT and bakery trade as separate legal entities—the CLT is registered as a Community Interest Company (CIC) whilst the bakery is a Community Benefit Society (BenCom), a relatively new legal form of cooperative that privileges wider community benefit over member benefit. This enables the CLT to operate as the landlord; the bakery its first and foremost tenant. This makes Homebaked an unusual CLT for having a commercial as opposed to a residential tenant.

Page 250

At its heart, this is about changing place, and the way we live and interact with each other and the urban environment.

Page 252

The slum-clearance programme aimed to rehouse residents in modern tenements, tower blocks and houses, mostly built out on the city’s periphery. But providing people with all the latest amenities in clean, spacious, safe environments was necessary but not sufficient to improve quality of life and, in fact, too often destroyed the delicate web of social relations that knitted communities together and provided the socioeconomic safety nets and systems of mutual aid and solidarity so important in times of hardship and precarity. Moreover, post-war slum clearances were conducted by the municipal authorities with such fervour as to help tip the inner city into a seemingly inexorable spiral of decline.

Page 256

HMR was part of a broader trend. By the turn of the millennium, Liverpool had become very talented at playing the ‘regeneration game’: demonstrating deprivation in order to secure public funding from the EU and central government that could then be multiplied by grant regime partners. The effect on people and place, however, was equally impactful. Declining inner-city neighbourhoods like Anfield have been stuck for a long time in a self-defeating mindset of proving to authorities the severity of local deprivation and the need for external assistance. Born-and-bred local resident, artist and Homebaked co-founder Jayne Lawless (whose father Jimmy sat on the CLT board) describes the dampening, deadening effect this can have on self-esteem and collective identity:

There was a big pot of gold ... In order to access this pot, the area had to tick so many boxes in the magical world of deprivation. So suddenly, we were told all the time that we were from this deprived area. And we were like “I’m not deprived. I don’t feel deprived. We have food and clothes, both parents work. How am I deprived?” But the more you feed that in: “You’re poor, you’re this, you’re that”, you watch the standards drop; everything seemed to drop, and it took about ten years, but they finally ticked that last box they needed to tick, and that was that.

Page 257

Local resident, activist and founder of the Homegrown Collective Sam Jones describes it as a logic of resilience:

The hard-won cumulative victories and long-term asset-building that is framed in every aspect of the activities of Homebaked ... is a slow and risk-laden process. ... Homebaked has itself understood the importance of slow learning and cumulative change through this longitudinal model. ... This open and long-term modality has been a difficult commitment to retain in the face of the urgency, and even desperation, that characterises the needs of the local residents of Anfield as regeneration strategies shift and change and continue to threaten not only Homebaked but also their own homes.

Page 259

Little encapsulates this better than the generic HMR regeneration zone billboards thrown up across the city—formatted in standardised script from Granby to Anfield, which could be anywhere or nowhere at all. The taglines gesture vaguely at ‘creating neighbourhoods for the future’—not for the present.

i hate those billboards. See also this similar approach from 11 years ago. And all that's happened on that site since then is the building has been demolished and turned into waste ground...

Page 271

The commons attempts to ‘unsettle this settlement’ 25 by constituting a different conception of the public, one predicated on an expansive public sphere of participation, interaction, interdependence and cooperative self-governance.

Page 281

[Rent] Strikes effectively quell the flow of capital going to private and public landlords—and thereby break the circuit of rentier capitalism.

Page 285

The challenge for collective housing alternatives—if they are to avoid the fate of the housing associations—is to grow by ‘going viral’ 59 rather than scaling up

Page 291

The lack of counter-narratives or popular myths that tell positive stories about the commons is all too evident. Nick Blomley quips: “the tragedy of the commons ... is less its supposed internal failures than its external invisibility”.

Page 293

It would appear that the Left is much better at inventing complex yet compelling mythologies about the structural power of capitalism and the ultimate futility of any attempt to make capital impotent—short of slaying the proverbial dragon—than it is at creating utopian visions that both inspire and sustain incremental action in the here and now.

Page 295

The second and third generations of the Liverpool co-op member-residents do not have personal memories of severe housing need—they lack the life-defining experience of solidarity in struggle—which helped motivate the first generation to manage co-ops directly. Much of the voluntary ‘heavy-lifting’ required—financial, staffing, facilities management, repairs, allocations, legal services—is complex and demanding, not to mention ‘boring’, so it is understandable why residents are happy to offload these responsibilities onto trained specialists such as NWHS. For these reasons, the creation of folktales and myths about the collective struggle remains important for transmitting the value of cooperation down the generations.

We can see this too in the development of the DoES Liverpool community. It's an ongoing challenge, and partly why projects like Maintain are important.

Page 312

There are lessons here for building an institutional infrastructure from below—the need to secure an asset base and a sustainable source of revenue independent of the state.

Page 322

The culture of grants is counterproductive for the long-term regeneration of areas, as it encourages competitive bidding, vanguardism and vulnerable dependence on civic volunteerism as well as on government and philanthropic hand-outs. When combined with competitive tendering of public sector assets, this leads to a monumental waste of resources, as potential co-operators are pitted against each other in a zero sum game, resulting in time wasted, unrealised ideas and exhausted creativity for all but the winning bidder. More collaborative processes of public tendering would allow competing visions to be explored in creative dialogue.

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February 06, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Creating a Culture of Innovation by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

Creating a Culture of Innovation by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (and on OpenLibrary)

My good friend Alex's second book was published at the end of last year (my pre-ordered copy arrived on Christmas Eve as a nice coincidental early present). It's a very readable exploration of the plethora of different "innovation" spaces that companies, etc. build, with suggestions and ideas on the good ways of doing it. My dog-eared sections from it are below to give you a flavour...

Page xv

The best innovation work is also down to personal interest, peer groups, timing, and luck, no matter what the state of the carpet.

Page 22

By 1924, Olivetti was offering night courses in mathematics and professional development. In 1932, a summer camp for children was organized, and in 1934, a day nursery was set up on-site to cater to its more than 1000 employees. The cafeteria service was opened in 1936, almost 30 years after the business had started. For many, food is the easiest perk to offer, but in Olivetti's case, it came after many other advantages. Eating together became easy to instigate when every other patriarchal benefit was already being offered.

Page 39

It's impossible to tell if a Rockstar, Ninja, or Sherpa earns more or is more senior than an Alchemist, a Builder or a Change Agent. That confusion will not only confuse new applicants but won't offer clarity to any future employer. Being clear in a job title enables someone to then feel confident about their place in an industry.

Having a title that sounds clear and resonates with the rest of a sector also enables more meaningful conversations between people both inside the company and out. Going to a conference and spending two minutes explaining what kind of role you occupy is a waste of a networking opportunity.

Page 65

Perhaps because of its unattainability, Inbox Zero generated its own wave of email-focused productivity software like Flow-E, Boomerang, ManyMe, and others. None of these applications or concepts have led to anymore clarity around email culture.

Page 74

The greatest benefits of professional jargon is that it nurtures a sense of what mats Alvesson has called 'grandiosity'. Committed users of management jargon are able to transubstantiate boring administrative activities into great deeds. Management jargon can help nurture a sense of self confidence in the chronically insecure world of middle management.

There's something more interesting at play than merely trying to make yourself sound interesting. Every innovation function is, in fact, trying to emulate either a smaller entity than its own or a more artistically inclined department. This desire to emulate an artist collective, an art movement, or any other form of artistic practice can lead to a group of people behaving in a cult-like manner to both build a heightened sense of belonging, increased expectations around performance, and a nifty way to keep others out of the loop.

Page 96

These spaces are neither successful nor unsuccessful, but they are examples of a very particular corporate desire: the one where talking about innovation is as good as innovating.

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February 01, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: February 1st 2021 Edition

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January 30, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Urban Acupuncture by Jaime Lerner

Urban Acupuncture by Jamie Lerner. A quick read. I think I was expecting more ideas and starting points for ways to improve areas, whereas this seemed more a set of vignettes of things that make cities alive or interesting.

Page 37

An important step is to add elements that may be missing from a given area. If there is plenty of commerce or industry but no people, then housing development could be encouraged. If another district is all homes and apartment blocks, why not boost services?

Page 48

The more cities are understood to be the integration of functions—bringing together rich and poor, the elderly and the young—the more meeting places they will create and the livelier they will become. The design of public space is important.

Page 52

After all, the Smart Bus already exists. It comes with a few basic features and requirements. First, it requires a lane all its own (painted or not, but exclusive nonetheless), a reliable schedule, and frequent runs. Next, there must be stepless boarding and exit ways, prepaid ticketing, and a choice of local or express lines arriving and departing at regular intervals.

Page 52

[...] the Smart Taxi would have to operate on the same integrated fare system. Imagine that—cabs working in partnership with mass transportation and not against it!

Page 73

There was a time in Paris when you could personally decide what time public monuments would be lit. All you had to do was call a city desk, mark the time and place, pay a service charge, and you had your personal lighting to highlight a monument or any part of the city for someone you wanted to impress.

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