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Of Imaginariums and innovation

Historian and critic Lewis Mumford once wrote of the works of H. G. Wells, “He enters utopia by hypothesis; that is, without any other subterfuge than an act of the imagination.”  While a forefather of science fiction, Wells was by no means the first author to explore utopia, and its counterpart dystopia, through the medium of creative writing. On the contrary, Wells was building on an ancient tradition dating back at least as far as the earliest known literary works: to the very dawn of civilization and of the city. Bionic City - an enquiry into "how would nature design a city?" - is born of this legacy. Birthed in 2010, it represents the convergence of a life-long interest in nature, design and the arts. It's a spin-off of my PhD research into developing city-scale resilience to natural disasters by mimicking the behaviours, relationships and systems of flora and fauna species, and its brief has been kept deliberately open-ended. In the tradition of the imaginary metropolis, and of works by figures as diverse as Plato, Sir Thomas More, and Guy Ernest Debord, Bionic City is a vessel for the philosophical exploration of new urban possibilities. Once described as a ‘biomimetic imaginarium’, it explores the potential of biomimetics, biotechnology and biology in the built environment in the now, near and far future.

Making sense of the world and our place in it
Biomimetics has been a source of design insight, innovation and inspiration for centuries, and no less so than in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, whose life-long study of the natural world inspired him to conceive of innumerable inventions. Interest in the field has grown such that the Fermanian Business and Economic Institute tracked a fivefold increase in biomimicry patents, academic articles and research grants between 2000 and 2013. Likewise, biotechnology is booming; it's no ... More

Bridging the divide: the impact of technology in developing markets

Clarke’s third law of prediction is well known to most of us: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. As that oft-referenced video from Minority Report showcased, it all did seem magic back in 2002. But now gestural interfaces are nothing out of the ordinary - from Microsoft Kinect to Leap Motion to this year’s announcement by Google about Project Soli, each year we expect a bit more from technology.  

Whilst I never cease to be amazed by these developments, largely happening within the headquarters of global conglomerates in the US and Europe, I have a personal interest in tracking how technology is changing lives in developing markets at the other end of the world.

Ones to watch

Using a Windows phone combined with electronics and resonance tubes, Winsenga is able to monitor foetal heart rates without the need for sophisticated medical equipment in areas where, most likely, there is no access to it anyway, saving hundreds of lives in areas with high maternal mortality rates. Lumkani

uses rate-of-rise in temperatures to assess whether a fire in a crowded urban slum has the potential to create widespread destruction. With its networked detectors, it raises a communal alert. In areas with incredibly high population density, this can be the difference between life and death. Eneza

is a virtual tutor and teacher’s assistant that doesn’t need a smartphone to operate - a low cost mobile phone is plenty. Other services like Sterio.me, Obami and Fundibots in Africa are also pushing the boundaries of what technology can do for education, vastly improving the prospects of children across the continent by enabling learning outside of the traditional classroom setting. As the world gets more networked

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Dot Everyone and the digital revolution

You probably saw her Dimbleby lecture. Martha Lane Fox unveiled Dot Everyone, a new institution tasked with making the UK "brilliant at the internet." It's also going to focus on promoting women in technology, as well as sorting out our infrastructure. Basically, it'll tackle anything and everything to do with technology. We caught up with the Baroness and Lastminute.com founder about designing a digital authority for the modern age.

How would Dot Everyone work, and who would be involved?
I don't want to create another fusty building. I'm not sure I'm proposing a fixed organisation at all. It might be a way for groups of people to come together for short, intense periods of time to take on particular challenges. You might pull in people from different places. From government, the commercial sector or schools as experts on a particular challenge. They might not even be experts, but lateral thinkers. Somebody described it as a "do tank." I don't want to just produce reports. It's got to be prototyping stuff. It's got to be developing things and designing systems.
So it's a challenge-focussed project. But how would you decide which ones to address?
I'm imagining a general vote. You could say, "right, which of these issues is the most important? Should we concentrate on reinventing the hospital? Should we concentrate on how to get more women more embedded in all stages of the technology sector? Or should we concentrate on universal digital skills? Vote. Help us. Decide."
Does the UK lag behind digitally?
The UK tends to be the first stop for big American platforms because of the language. We're Google's biggest market outside the US. We're Amazon's and Facebook's second biggest international market. It's incredibly important to put attention into the start-up world, as the government's been doing. But that's only half the story. The other way the UK needs to build global leadership is around the social aspects of the web. I don't ... More

Amber Case on calm technology

Amber Case explores how humans and technology interact, believing that technology can - and should - "amplify our humanness": that is, help us connect with each other in truly meaningful ways. Her insights help build devices that enable uninterrupted, human-to-human contact, such as tech that makes use of our peripheral attention - via sounds, touch, or light - which leaves us free to focus our attention on more meaningful things. The researcher and entrepreneur shares her thoughts on what's next in the evolution of calm technology.

Calm Design is about making technology that's there when you need it, not when you don't.
It doesn't get in the way of your life, but seamlessly blends into it. We don't think twice about buying a washing machine or lawn mower. The next generation of technology needs to be as straightforward and as reliable as the long term devices we grew up with.
Technology that's used as a tool can allow for some amazing things to happen. Technology that's used primarily as a form of consumption can be addictive.
I think we can do and have genuinely meaningful exchanges online - think about the grandmother Skyping into Thanksgiving dinner from Hungary, or the people that meet their soulmates online. When landline telephone was first introduced, people were worried that we'd turn away from each other and into small rooms with phones. Instead, the phone became something that helped us to connect when we were far apart. But I see the risk of becoming addicted to media all the time, and using phones in the same room or at a restaurant without interacting with each other. I think the biggest risk is instead of going home to rest and read or watch television, we might check email or work some more.
I think we should be wary of what Douglas Rushkoff calls "Present Shock".
It's the idea ... More

Designing scents for health

Smell is one of those words that’s a bit hard to take seriously. There’s something about it that risks the puerile, the silly. But taking it seriously, and urging others to do so, is what I’ve been doing with ode, a new product which uses scent to support people living with dementia. The behavioural changes associated with the condition often bring about a loss of hunger, a forgetfulness around food, or a lack of interest in meals. Ode emits food aromas from orange juice to Christmas cake into living rooms three times a day to reconnect people with eating and promote appetite. I came up with the idea after noticing a growing need to incorporate fragrance in reminiscence therapy. I saw how much innovation was being demanded of the care industries, which are struggling to cope with the now 800,000 adults in the UK alone with dementia. For every news story about the under-resourcing of care homes, negligence, and the malaise of a sector that's struggling to attract talent, there are incredible examples of new approaches being developed, from Holland's dementia village to the Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Friendly Communities campaign. The challenge was to find out if, alongside these new methods, scent - an elusive, often overlooked sense - might play a role. Ode was developed in partnership with product design firm Rodd Design with support from the Department of Health and Design Council’s Living Well with Dementia programme. Working through the design parameters was intuitive and straightforward, backed up by a strong R&D process. What proved most difficult was undertaking testing and credible evaluation as a start-up, without the budgets to commission a university-led clinical trial. We had to navigate the ethical guidelines of carrying out field research, such as how to get consent and from whom when the individual concerned is experiencing memory loss. ... More

Outsiders: social and sexual support for people with disabilities

People tend to assume that disabled people are asexual. They treat them like children and ignore their requests for support to enjoy sex. I should know - I run and answer a Sex and Disability Helpline. Disabled callers often say things like, “I've waited years to find you, and now you've helped me see how to solve my intimate problems.” Emails flood in from all over the world. In 2000, I set up the TLC-Trust website, where disabled men and women can contact responsible sexual services. I started it up after a care home manager told me that she'd found out that her staff were selling sexual services. She needed to stamp this out but find a satisfactory alternative. Disabled people often experience difficultly finding someone to have sex with. Often, they need to discover what pleasures their bodies are capable of experiencing, and how they can please a partner, before they feel comfortable embarking on the dating game. Some cannot masturbate and need to visit someone in order to experience sexual relief. People with disabilities are grateful to have a place where they know they will be treated respectfully, and the sex workers love working with disabled clients (compared with drunken rich bastards, for example). They're both, after all, stigmatised groups. In 2005 I set up SHADA, the Sexual Health and Disability Alliance for health and social care professionals to discuss ways to ensure their clients get the help they need. I also run Outsiders Club, which I set up In 1979 as a club for socially and physically disabled people to find partners. It's still going strong. We have a gorgeous online Clubhouse and hold regular lunches in cities around the country and abroad. We have Coffee Mornings via Skype and telephone conferencing, and a helpline run by an experienced disabled member. It's been impossible to obtain funding for ... More

A quiet ring

One night a few years ago I was meeting a friend for dinner after work. He was two hours late. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a problem - great opportunity to catch up on more emails, I'd have thought - but on this occasion, all my devices were out of juice. My spare battery packs (yes, plural) had already been used that day, and I'd left my wall plug charger elsewhere. It was a time in my life when I was the epitome of plugged in. I was working as a management consultant, carrying out 16+ hour days with my virtual team in six time zones, living a city-hopping lifestyle. I'd reply to emails from clients within minutes, meaning they'd become accustomed to my responsiveness. My phone was always on, and I regularly missed sleep to ensure I achieved ‘inbox zero’. At 25 years old I was approaching burnout. So as you can imagine, I was furious. How dare he be late and leave me in this wonderful cafe with live jazz music without any devices?

Digital detox
Then suddenly it dawned on me. What had I become? I had a flashback to four years earlier, when I’d spent a summer in India studying yoga and meditation intensively. For years I'd practiced techniques to help me remain connected in the yogic sense. But in my early adult life, I’d exchanged this spiritual connectedness for a much less fulfilling version: digital connectedness. When I got home that night, I didn’t charge my phone. In fact, I didn’t charge it for two whole weeks. I wanted nothing to do with technology. Which was tough, because I was a technology consultant. During this two week digital detox, I continued to work, but my life changed in ways that might seem drastic to many. I only interacted with a computer in the office and I had no interactions by ... More

Mood-altering accessories

In a bid to combat information overload, first came calm technology: smart, streamlined tech that limits notifications and interruptions. Think the Apple Watch (although some believe it's actually made things worse), or Kovert, the design house that makes unobtrusive wearables. On top of eliminating external stimuli that might cause anxiety, we've now got tech that can physiologically change our mood. The recently launched Thync lets you do this using electrical stimulation by way of a headset. For something a bit less intrusive - and a little more discreet - there's doppel, a new wristband that uses your body's innate ability to synchronise with external beats to keep you calm or get your going. We spoke to the team behind doppel about performance enhancing tech.

Tell us about the wristband.
Doppel harnesses your body’s natural response to rhythm similarly to upbeat or downbeat music​, b​ut it's a pulse you feel on your wrist rather than one you hear. It ​can be used to keep​ ​you going through a really long meeting​,​ help you stay calm during a presentation or wind down at the end of the day.
Could it be used to help people with anxiety disorders?
We’ve had a great response from our testers and know that it can help people stay calm when they are anxious. We haven't yet been able to test it extensively with people suffering from ongoing anxiety disorders. We do think there's huge potential in this area so we're going to trial it properly as soon as we can.
What do we know about how our bodies respond to rhythm?
The interaction between our senses, our vital organs and our brains form a feedback loop inside our bodies, whereby our physical and mental responses impact upon one another. We saw the potential for technology to have an ... More

Intimate objects

When Durex launched their remote controlled vibrating device for couples in long distance relationships, the internet was amused. But they tapped into what designer and psychology MSc Cassie Robinson sees as potential for digitally-facilitated intimacy. These are devices that, in their most elegant forms (see Alex Deschamps Sonsino’s ‘Good Night Lamp’), allow two people to be aware of each other at a distance - the technological equivalent of a gentle touch on the arm. Similarly, Intimate Objects and Intimacy Lab (both part of Open Source Sex) create a space to design for emotional as well as physical closeness. An individual or couple (or friends) are prompted to answer questions about their desires, their emotions, their bodies and their relationships, one of the results of which can be transformed into a 3D-printed object, to purchase if they wish. It’s a generalisation, but this emphasis on the process rather than the payoff feels rooted in female sensibilities, relying on gently suggestive cues rather than crass exposition. This is not necessarily the same realm as Make Love Not Porn, or the feminist porn awards. This is a shift away from thinking only of the body to the place where the deeply sexy or deeply intimate happens. 2014-11-05-12.14 “I really care about the difference between sex and intimacy’, says Cassie Robinson, founder of OSS. “You can share an intimate moment with someone you’ve only just met because you’ve seen something in one another that’s just connected and that might not be sexual at all. Or there’s the intimacy of caring for someone when they’re passing away. Intimacy occurs in different moments and experiences, and it’s much harder to define – which I think is what’s really beautiful.” In the case of Intimate Objects, ... More

‘I See You': Kovert’s 3 minute film builds intimacy between strangers

Ours has been deemed an age of awkwardness. As The New Yorker points out, there are some six hundred entries related to the term in the Urban Dictionary. It's such stuff as multiple memes are made of. While being able to admit our quirks and imperfections so openly across the web is refreshing and real, there's a sense that it can also justify a shying away from intensity. That our personal spaces are sometimes too forcefully demarcated with screens and devices. And there's nothing more awkward than prolonged eye contact. It's bad enough when it happens accidentally on the tube, but Kovert, the design company founded by Libertine100 member Kate Unsworth that creates smart, unobtrusive tech, have gone and got ten strangers together and forced them to stare into each other's eyes on camera. Inspired by Marina Abramovic's performance piece "The Artist Is Present", in which Abramovic invited MoMA visitors to gaze into her eyes for as long as they wished, Kovert decided to conduct their own "presence experiment." "When you grow up you're told don't talk to strangers, but that's how you make new friends,' one participant says in a rather endearing display of innocence. It's stripped down communication that's more about the intimacy than relaying information. Tech often presupposes a message, but sometimes we just want connection for its own sake. Should we always have to equate contact with content? So why not break through the discomfort of a bit of eye contact, then. With a consenting partner, that is - best not to try this out on the tube.

Wearing your art on your arm

Artist and designer collaborations are nothing new, but the Pathos Compass project is striving for a slightly deeper conversation about the handbag on one's arm. For, displayed in the handbag's minimal side panel, is an original artwork. The central concept is one seldom seen in luxury fashion. Here, fashion is being used as a "fun, playful" channel to encourage and democratise conversation around art outside of the traditional gallery spaces it's normally experienced (let's be honest, quite a few people will still be shut out of the conversation here - but it's a definite improvement). And, as Sandra Mardin has written for Libertine, the handbag has always been a powerful cultural symbol, whose evolving design carries hidden meaning about gender roles and social status. In this case the bag is a unisex, deceptively minimal conduit to the art which renders it unique. The idea of generating chatter and discussion through a glamorous, more mainstream industry is a very clever one indeed (for further discussion on the power of glamour, see here). Seen at the Venice Biennale this year, it's also been spotted around London, where last month the international art crowd descended for Art15 and Photo London, the new photography fair at Somerset House. The gallery will be launching at London Fashion Week in September. Photography Samantha Johnston.

Learning to talk dirty: the joy of good safe sex

Over ten years ago I had two eureka moments in very different places. First, I was in Sri Lanka showing sex workers how a new condom – the female condom - works. Giggles erupted as women inserted the HIV prevention tool and checked to see if they could still walk around. I handed some out and asked for feedback over the next few days. When I met them again they showed me notes their clients had written commending the female condom for being "hot", "smooth" and  "wet". These men wanted to thank me. It wasn’t me they needed to thank, but the sex workers, who had been creative in letting the men insert the condom, sexing it up and saying it got them "excited"; creativity from the people who have to practise safer sex for survival. I looked at these notes and decided that us public health people had got it wrong. Condoms can be sex toys in the right hands. In the second, I was sat at the back of a large conference hall at the International AIDS conference in Spain. I was trying to concentrate on a talk given by a medical scientist about testing a new type of gel that could prevent HIV. He spoke about "insertive probe and receptive cavity". I thought he was talking about a type of cell testing until I realised he meant sex. We couldn't even say penis and vagina at an AIDS conference, or discuss the fact that AIDS is in fact not airborne but transmitted by sexual intercourse between people. The sex workers knew that behaviour change is about positive encouragement. The public health community, on the other hand, are concerned with promoting condoms through the threat of death and disease. This is why I started The Pleasure Project: because sex education is rarely sexy and erotica rarely safe.

Safe
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Four ways to support yourself on Mother’s day (and beyond)

Ah, Mother’s Day . The time of year when everyone from florists to Jiffy Lube tries to convince us their product will solidify your bond with the woman who raised you. But over here at Modern Loss, many readers won’t get the chance to send their mothers spring flowers or enjoy getting surprised in bed by their kids with chocolate chip pancakes. Why? Because our mothers have died. Or because we’re missing babies who could have been but never were, children both small and grown, aunts, and other mother figures. We're a website and community driven by candid storytelling with a backbone of practical advice for navigating the murky, messy waters of what comes after surviving a loss. We’re demystifying a process with a long arc – grief is forever, 24/7, with endless triggers along the way. But in spite of the stark realities of loss, we’re also helping people realise they aren’t broken and that life will go on and can actually be quite terrific. Even if it’s tough to believe that now. Which brings me back to Mother’s Day. As much I hate to admit it, in the eight years since my own mother’s death, this May date gets to me in varying degrees each year, rendering me anywhere from completely pissed off to uncharacteristically silent. But I strongly believe there are ways to own this Hallmark holiday (and trust me, I am as prone to wallowing in my own grief as anyone else; see above). Here are some suggestions:

1. Treat yourself awesomely
As Kate Spencer suggested in her oh-so-delicately titled How I’m Making Mother’s Day My Bitch, the holiday doesn’t have to be just about the living. And it doesn’t have to be about the dead, either. “It can be about honouring YOU, because you are one of the best ... More

Vested interests? There’s an app for that

Transparent Nederlands will make data available to show the outside interests of people in powerful positions: the power structures and relationships that surround them. If it’s not already available, we’ll build it. We’ve just got the finance together and have media partners and journalists who will find the stories. At the moment, the main goal is the emancipation of knowledge. I’m not sure it will immediately change the behaviour of people that you think are doing wrong. But it will help a lot of people to be less naïve. We have a macroeconomic model which is very difficult to conquer because it buys power, it buys politics, it buys positions. People move between these – they’re CEO of a big company, then they become a political party leader. The next step they’re the president of a university. These people will bring their own perspective about why that triple helix has to collaborate. We’ve had suggestions that innovation should be guided by governments, business and universities – and since then every city is building up these economic wards.

Influence and innovation
In every organisation you will have people who follow the rules and people who really think something should change. The people who want to change things are in the most difficult position – they have to obey the rules but they also want to innovate. They need allies and information. Institutions and organisations themselves won’t bring the data or knowledge to the public, because it threatens their position. The Waag Society is a middle ground organisation. You have institutions above it and grass roots movements below. As individuals we have our feet on the ground but we do make allies with the people in institutions who want change. We’re not neutral – it’s impossible to be. Even by the act of doing this project ... More

Four tips for getting to grips with the election

ShouldWe is a crowdsourced guide to the big policy questions of the day. We set it up because commercial pressure is forcing mainstream news outlets to produce more and more output with fewer people and less time, meaning there’s a danger of churnalism replacing investigation. We didn’t think it should be so hard to find background to the decisions affecting our lives which was accurate, comprehensive and drawn from a range of independent sources. Every single sentence on a ShouldWe page is linked to an original source of evidence, ensuring readers get perspectives from all sides, in one place. Whatever you want to find out more about - from fracking to the licence fee to women in combat to NHS privatisation - we have it covered. We don’t mind what conclusion readers come to about any given policy debate, only that they are armed with evidence to help them make up their own minds. And we’re not on our own: ShouldWe is part of a huge movement of people who care about the quality of public policy and public debate. So if you want to really get under the skin of the big questions this election, then look no further:

  1. We love all the tools from The Media Standards Trust, but ElectionUnspun, which presents visual data about the topics being covered in the UK General Election, might be our favourite yet.
  2. Over at tellmeaboutpolitics.com there are lots of tools for people in their 20s and 30s who want to get to grips with politics and policy.
  3. Full Fact is an independent fact checking service which scrutinises statistical claims in the news. Channel 4 has its own factchecking blog

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An experimental crowd-sourced home

The pool of accumulated human knowledge continues to grow at an accelerated pace, but this knowledge is still for the most part proprietary and, for this reason, unavailable to most of the world’s population. Despite the rapid increase in overall production, efficiency, and the growing sophistication of machinery and life-saving solutions, millions still lack the means to sustain themselves and prosper. The open source model - the practice of sharing software, designs and techniques under licenses that allow anyone to replicate, modify and redistribute the goods - could go a long way towards solving their most pressing needs. Publicly available hardware designs and recipes for materials provides solutions to those who need them most. It's a collaborative approach that hinges on the power of contributions from all over the world, making solutions diverse by adapting them to different contexts.

Material changes
I believe that access to practical knowledge and the ability to manufacture one’s own solutions can have a massive impact on the world. It's why in 2009, with the help of Kirsty Boyle, I founded Open Materials: an open research group and online platform dedicated to applying open source principles to the use and production of materials. At first, I focussed on smart materials: inks and fabrics that conduct electricity, alloys and plastics with shape memory, and paints that change colour depending on ambient temperature. But I've since become increasingly interested in open sourcing more common and fundamental materials, specifically those that can be used for building inexpensive and accessible housing.
The open source house
It was in this context that I joined Open Source Ecology in 2014, a project which set about designing and building an open source, low cost house. Its walls were built from compressed-earth-blocks made from our own soil and pressed with an open source brick press. The basic structure of the building was built barn raising ... More

Selling skincare without the stereotypes

It’s not every day a deodorant changes your life but, a few years ago, that’s exactly what happened to me. My daughter had reached an age when deodorant had become an essential item. I’d been a ‘stay at home Dad’ or ‘House Husband’ or ‘Home Hubby’ (pick generic term for the man who stays at home while his wife earns the money) for eight years helping to look after our children, Emily and William. As a father, dealing with your daughter’s transition into womanhood is a privilege. Even though it’s occasionally daunting it’s an experience I’d recommend. Part of this involved buying her first deodorant that would, in Emily’s words, "get her through the school day."

Play it sexy Confident at the prospect of being able to help, I strolled into the supermarket thinking it would be a straightforward task. As I scanned the shelves, the products were segregated into gender. Eventually, I found the section devoted to teenage girls and was surprised at how much pink was used in the packaging. Everything still seemed to be aimed at very young girls: pink and sparkly, hearts and flowers but with a sinister addition of names like Minx, Tease, Be Sinful, Play it Sexy, Touch. This is my 12 year old we’re talking about. A bit disconcerted, I went to see if there was a men’s deodorant she could use, without those submissive sexualised messages. The products for teenage boys were no better. They were all blue, grey or black with names like Adrenalin, Control, Force, Power and Adventure. Apparently, in the world of personal care, power and adventure were not deemed suitable for girls. These were products that would be used on intimate parts of my children’s bodies. Products that would be kept in their bedroom, in their bathroom. Private spaces. What was the

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Stimulating debate with a symbolic passport

I'm trying to save one small town in the Middle East. This might strike you as a rather narrow pursuit, but I’d like to invite you to reconsider, because our success or failure will, inevitably, have global ramifications. I still find it difficult to sum up my story. I grew up in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem - the same Bethlehem that appears every year in nativity scenes and Christmas carols. When I was a teenager, its charm was lost on me. I believed that only great cosmopolitan cities could offer what I wanted. This is how I ended up in London. It wasn’t until many years later, in Christmas 2004, that I made my way back with a film crew intending to document the building of the Israeli wall. The UN had just issued a report stating that Bethlehem would soon be undergoing radical transformation. The little town I grew up in was about to become even smaller; the route of the wall would reduce it to less than 13% of its original territory and cut it off from Jerusalem, a vital link for Bethlehem’s future. In other words, Bethlehem would be struggling for survival. wal

Open society I could have walked away, but when everything is in flux, as it certainly is in the Middle East, one tends to be compelled to take on the challenge. In the past ten years, due to the nature of my work, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the glue that holds societies together and the forces that allow us to build inclusive cultural spaces which form the foundations of open society. The West seems eager to bring democracy to other parts of the world, but has it ever succeeded? And is it looking at the map the

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Designing spontaneity

We're Melissa Mongiat and Mouna Andraos, and together we make up Daily tous les jours, a design studio based in Montreal. We want to bring spontaneity to environments that have become associated with drudgery and routine, to reimagine the everyday as something other than just a stopgap - but as something that's magical in its own right. We love the serendipitous quality of chance encounters and unexpected connections that's made possible by the diversity of cities. We like to make the most of this through our public installations which are designed to get people interacting and working with each other. Our projects bring together teams made up of programmers, graphic designers, architects and engineers, as well as a variety of experts ranging from scientists to musicians - and local groups such as community activists and farmers. Here are three of our installations injecting cities with play, creativity and collaboration.

1: The Swings: an exercise in musical cooperation 21 Balançoires (21 Swings) is essentially a giant collective instrument. Each swing produces a musical note, and people work together to compose melodies. The swings can be found on the Promenade des artistes in Montreal from April 14th to May 31st, 2015.

2: Amateur Intelligence Radio Amateur Intelligence Radio is a robot community radio hosted by a public building and broadcasting the stories of its inhabitants. Located in Saint Paul's Union Depot, a historic station in Minnesota, AIR broadcasts interactive content about the Depot using real-time data such as weather conditions and the number of people in the room, as well as stories submitted by commuters. The public can tap into the voice of the building through listening posts which are located throughout the Depot.

3: McLarena Inspired by Norman McLaren and Grant Munro's Canon, an experimental film based on the principles behind a musical canon, last year we created an open air cinema studio in Montreal and invited passers-by to make a film together. A member of

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Growing mushrooms, spreading hope

I was 11 years old when I discovered something that would change my entire life. That something was mushrooms. Orphaned at 7 and having had no background in science, I’d become a mushroom farmer. I could go beyond just putting food on my plate; I could send my brother and other orphans in my community to school by farming and selling edible mushrooms.

Turning waste into food
Like many other village girl orphans, before the mushrooms I'd struggled to survive. I had limited resources, many responsibilities and no exposure to any initiatives whatsoever. I'd been invited to receive training in mushroom cultivation supported by the Belgian environmental entrepreneur Gunter Pauli, and by 12 I was learning to grow mushrooms from different agricultural waste materials in a laboratory at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe. I was committed to simplifying the art and science of the process so that even people living in what are considered to be the poorest villages could afford cultivated mushrooms at their tables. From here onwards I continued to hone my skills, and I adjusted the mushroom production units into very basic structures to match those found in a common African village so they could be built from local materials and by pretty much anybody.
The future of hope
At 20, I started travelling around the world teaching mushroom cultivation. I taught groups of women and girls in Colombia, South Africa, Tanzania, Congo, Cameroon and of course in Zimbabwe. Over the years my work has reached schools and communities in India, aboriginals in Australia, and entrepreneurs in the US and around Europe. My work with mushrooms has evolved to go beyond securing food and an income: I'm on a mission to create a hopeful future for women and girls and the societies in which they live. I created The Future of Hope Foundation thanks to the ... More

The secret art of pop-up books

Yunnan Province, or ‘the place south of the clouds’, is a southwestern region of China bordering Vietnam, Laos and Burma that’s home to over 25 ethnic minorities - which makes it one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country. Philadelphia-born artist Colette Fu spent some time in the nineties teaching English in the province where her mother, a member of the Yi minority, was born. She went back in 2008 on a Fulbright scholarship and visited over 50 villages, taking photographs of the rituals, festivals and everyday life in the region. It's no ordinary photography series. Because the pictures have been carefully curated, deconstructed and pieced together to form intricate, vibrant pop-up books, as part of her collection We are Tiger Dragon People

Movable histories
Colette first travelled to Yunnan with some friends, but decided to go back alone. “Back then they had certain areas that were closed off to foreigners,' she says. “I would buy what I called ‘disposable clothing’ - you could just go and spend a dollar and you’d get a whole outfit. I'd just have a backpack. Sometimes I'd sleep at someone’s house who I’d met on the bus.” “When I travelled I didn't have fear. Here there's fear everywhere, you're afraid of saying anything - I'm afraid of saying anything at least!” A lot’s changed since the photographs were taken - and continues to change quickly. “People from the countryside move to the cities," she says. "They just need to survive so people start buying cellphones and learning the common language and don't have time for the traditions - like embroidering. Things get expensive.”
Paper engineer
Colette's work isn't necessarily an attempt to sustain or make permanent the traditions she's encountered. Although captivated with her cultural heritage - the Yi minority's textile, in particular, which she tattooed on her arm last year ... More

Turning vaginas into pop stars

Artist and Libertine 100 member Megumi Igarashi was arrested last year for making a 3D printed kayak which she dubbed her "pussy boat". Thanks to an online petition, she was released - only to be arrested again in November 2014 on fresh obscenity charges. Megumi, who goes by the name Rokudenashiko ('good-for-nothing kid' or 'reprobate child'), now faces up to two years in prison. We caught up with the artist about gender politics and freedom of expression in Japan - and what if anything those across the globe can do to help. You've said that you want to make vaginas "casual and pop." Could you tell us more about your artwork's message? The vagina has been despised in Japanese culture for centuries, and it has always been a taboo word. Even when it was portrayed artistically, it was sexualised, and from a male perspective. In Japan, where traditional (male) culture dominates, there's a subculture called Kawaii (meaning "cute" in Japanese) in which women were able to create for themselves. An artist called Kyray Pamyu Pamyu uses Kawaii subculture as a vehicle for fame. Similarly, I want to use kawaii culture to make vagina imagery more shareable and fun. Considering Japan has a penis festival, what do you think makes your vagina-inspired artwork "obscene"? In Japan it's acceptable for men to talk about their penis and how horny they are but it's a completely different story when it comes to women. It is absurd but it is almost thought that women don't have any sexual desires. Japan is notorious across the world for its fetish pornography. Campaigners have been calling for tougher laws on child pornography for a long time. But despite this seemingly lenient attitude, an image of an actual, anatomically correct vagina gets censored. Why do you think this is? Japanese laws are made around heterosexual men and still full of prejudice. I'm going to continue to create my art. The police don't like it and ... More

Women of notes

Nicola Hebson, taxidermist

Painter, jewellery maker and taxidermist Nicola, 23, describes her style as “surreal anthropomorphism”. She’s also a vegan, so tries to create an emotional connection between the viewer and each piece. Her personal favourite is Rat King, a play on Germanic folklore involving seven rats, connected by their tails, holding a piece of quartz crystal.

Angela Hartnett, chef

Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Angela Hartnett’s Italian heritage continues to be her biggest source of inspiration. Well known for her television appearances, she was the first woman to run the restaurant at London’s Connaught, and is now sole owner at Murano in Mayfair. She was awarded an MBE in 2007. Maggie Aderin-Pocock, scientist Space scientist and science communicator Maggie, pictured here with daughter and travel companion Lauren, fell in love with space watching The Clangers as a child. “Curiosity is part of the human condition and when we stop using it we fade away, almost.” She’s got a great idea for a space-themed Big Brother series too. Photography Helen Cathcart

Music and cultural diplomacy: Sabina Rakcheyeva

It was leaving home to study and perform abroad, witnessing the fall of communism while growing up in Azerbaijan that made the musician realize how she could apply music as a soft power tool. Instead of relying on traditional politics to resolve global conflicts, Rakcheyeva thinks that cultural diplomacy should be used as the first port of call. More specifically, she believes that music making could appease tense relationships between Azerbaijan and Armenia: “Music-making may not solve the actual conflict but can certainly help bringing people of hostile nations together, showing the best part of humanity and common aim of music, which is a creation, rather than destruction.” Rakcheyeva started playing the violin when she was six after she saw someone playing the instrument on television. She says: “I asked my mother to buy me a violin and started taking music lessons. I wasn’t a diligent pupil at the beginning, so all credits to my mum who insisted on me practicing!” Certainly, her mother has a lot to be proud of. Rakcheyeva went on to become the first Azerbaijani to be accepted into the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. She is also a member of the European Cultural Parliament, winner of “The Best Violinist of the Year” competition in Baku, first recipient of “Artist in Residence” Award from the Fund of Mutual Understanding in New York and a scholarship from Italian Ministry of Culture. The violinist has also performed in more than forty countries, playing as a soloist with orchestras in Azerbaijan, Europe and the USA. After this heady speall of performance, Sabina has released her first album, titled “UnVeiled”, after a successful career as a performer. When asked about her motivation for doing so, she said: “When we perform music written by someone else, we convey the ... More

Libertine Fiction: London

Let us start with a bed, let us look from above. The sheet is a canvas, pulled taut in the morning. Two figures have moved it loose, but now they are still. One light, one dark, a woman, a boy.

A finger paints a line across a breast, so slowly the path cannot be kept straight. The boy’s eyes follow the finger; his. He looks hard, he always looks. He places a palm around each breast.

“Pomelo,” he says. He doesn’t know the word in English. “Son los poros... muchos, como un pomelo…”

“Oh -” she says, a shy out-breath, shutting her eyes, smiling, slightly. “Poh-mellow.”

He takes her hand and pushes the backs of her fingers flat down on the bed. Her wrist arches off the sheets. He traces dark blue veins with his thumb.

“Como arroyos… rios…” Her eyes stay shut. He goes on, “You know, ree-bers…”

“Ree-bers?”

“Ree-bers.”

“Oh, rivers -”

“Si, ree-bers. Forgive English… I am stranger. Extranjero. You say stranger?”

“Yes. Well... no. Well – yes, I suppose.”

“Ree-bers. This - ” Thumb, veins. “Wriss like ree-bers. You know, I be’ thinking - ” He props himself up and perches on one elbow. “El cuerpo – eh … body… you say body. The body is… whole world.”

That makes sense, she thinks, in his line of work. Asian, latino, black even, he must have seen the whole world in bodies.

But this isn’t what he means.

“Is like foot. Like skin on foot… I find like deserto… desert… very – dry –  And here - ” his finger xylophones her knuckles, “here is hills.”

Her breathing changes when he touches her.

Y aqui, here… cicatriz – eh -  como se dice? Marca?” He runs his finger round the rim of her BCG scar, “is like moon. Is like moon, sabes? Young bodies… is

... More

Twitter trolls and payday loans: Stella Creasy, MP

As a former youth worker and social researcher, Stella blends political campaigning with volunteering to engage people and get things done. Before the Twitter abuse incident she was best known for her leading role in the Sharkstoppers campaign, which aims to get the government to cap the interest payday loan companies can charge. The Competition Commission is now investigating the industry. But Stella has not stopped there. Walthamstow, like the rest of East London, is changing fast. The success of the Olympics is bringing in more wealthy residents, but unemployment is still persistently high. Stella started thinking about the effects of benefit changes, increases in the cost of living and rising rents and house prices would have on her poorer constituents and devised '7days4Stow,' which launched in January 2013. Over the course of the year, Walthamstow residents were encouraged to contribute 7 days of their time to community projects including a night shelter, community kitchen, food banks and housing campaigns. ‘I’ve always been passionate about involvement and participation. For me it’s not just about voting. I think parties of all colours over the last 50 or 60 years have been struggling not just to recruit people but to turn them into activists. I wrote my entire PhD on it. I’m not a customer complaints desk, I’m not here to get cross on people’s behalf – I want to change the world, so that means I have to get people involved in what I do.’

Taking threats seriously
In 2013, Stella Creasy stepped in on Twitter to defend journalist Caroline Criado-Perez who, after leading a campaign to get Jane Austen on the ten-pound note and writing about it for Libertine, was receiving as many as 50 abusive tweets an hour. Immediately, Stella found herself subjected to similar abuse and equally at a loss as to how ... More

Credible likeable superstar role model

In the three short years since she started writing and performing ‒ she was previously a producer ‒ Bryony Kimmings has attracted critical praise for her down-to-earth, whimsical and frequently affecting interpretations of modern life. “I’ve always made work, I’ve always been on the stage. I knew I wanted to do but was waiting for a good yarn to come along.” And come it did ‒ several times. In the bluntly named performance piece Sex Idiot, Bryony retraces her sexual history after an unfortunate STI diagnosis. The resulting show is unapologetic in its portrayal of female sexuality and frequently ridiculous. This was followed by another dig at social expectations in 7 Day Drunk, where she presents the findings of a week-long experiment with alcohol in the tradition of Huxley, Bukowski and Blake. Various academics were wheeled in to do the science bit in a performance piece that otherwise involved little more than vodka, Barbie beakers and audience participation ‒ all led by what the Huffington Post described as a “booze fairy in a jumpsuit”.

Giving feminism a glittery, offbeat makeover
When the camera is off, Kimmings is nothing like her sequinned alter egos. Intense and soberly dressed, her eyes glint with ideas as she barrels headfirst into a lengthy treatise on gender politics. “ all follow a similar social experiment,” Kimmings says, “and they are feminist; but if you’d asked me if I was a feminist when I’d started making them, I’d have said ‘Fuck off, I don’t even know what that means.’” Fast forward three years, however, and she is writing a manifesto with Amanda Palmer, the cult singer-songwriter whose subversive tactics have helped raise more than a million dollars on Kickstarter. She shot to internet fame last year when footage of her song ‘Dear Daily Mail’ ‒ a protest at the paper’s coverage ... More

Jill Soloway on Hollywood and gender

Jill Soloway is an award-winning director, comedian and scriptwriter for film and TV. She's received critical acclaim for Transparent, a sitcom about a transgender politics professor and his self-obsessed family. In January 2015, the show was awarded a Golden Globe for best comedy or musical series - the first online show ever to have done so. We spoke to Jill about gender politics, on screen and off. Why did you start Wifey.tv? There is a sense that something important is brewing in the world of media for women. But, as excited as everyone is about this revolution in content, it’s still a marginal part of mainstream media distribution. We wanted to create a place where women can always go to find something relevant, something that assumes its audience is both intelligent and female as the rule instead of exception. What drew you to comedy? My favourite thing about comedy is that it’s undeniable. If someone is watching drama, you can never be sure if it’s working. You know comedy is working when people are laughing. When people are laughing, they’re open. If you’re working with new or unpopular or disruptive ideas, comedy is a great path into peoples’ ways of seeing. You’ve talked about how Hollywood stories tend to follow the ‘Hero’s Journey’ – where women are presented as threatening challenges to vanquish or feeble-minded prizes to be won. How do women’s stories differ from that? When Joseph Campbell was asked about the ‘Heroine’s Journey’, apparently his reply was: “Women don’t need to make the journey ‒ all they have to do is realise that she’s the place people are trying to get to.”
 Oh, Joseph. I’m still not quite sure about the specifics of this ‒ every day I do a bit more emotional archaeology, but I sense that there is a cyclical nature to the ... More

Jessica Hynes, from Spaced to suffragettes

Aged only 24, Hynes had an early hit with Spaced, the surreal sitcom which she and Pegg pitched as a cross between The SimpsonsThe X-Files and Northern Exposure. It revolves around the lives of two 20-somethings forced to pretend to be a couple so that they could have somewhere to live. It's funny, it's silly, it has a street fight scene done in interpretive dance, and a character called Vulva. It's also, despite all this, refreshingly honest. “I saw nothing on television that reflected my experiences as a young person, nor were there any female characters that bore any resemblance to me or anyone I knew,” remembers Hynes. She's still setting out to change that. Set in 1910 and revolving around the members of The Banbury Intricate Craft Circle (later ‘The Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Politely Request Women’s Suffrage’), Up The Women is a studio sitcom, which means its characters rarely get to leave Banbury Town Hall. This is a restriction that Hynes admits makes it much more challenging to write – but the fantastic team have made it possible, including co-stars Rebecca Front and Vicki Pepperdine. “Watching Vicky is the only one who is allowed comedy teeth,’ Hynes says. “She seemed thrilled by that. To get the teeth is to get the badge of honour. We can’t all have teeth.”

A serious threat
Hynes clearly feels a responsibility for how she represents the suffragettes ‒ some of whose children and grandchildren have been part of the studio audience. “You talk to a 16-year-old girl and their perception is ‘They didn’t really do anything, because women got the vote after the First World War anyway ‒ and the reason no one took them seriously is because they were militant and they deserved everything they got’. That’s how it’s being taught,” she says. While she’s not looking to ... More

Ageing disgracefully: tea with Fascinating Aida

We meet Dillie, Adele and Liza from Fascinating Aida, the ‘grandes dames of cabaret’ who’ve been composing delightfully dirty and satirical ditties for 30 years.

Tell us about the songwriting process – you’ve been working together a long time.
DILLIE: Adele says I’m the architect and she’s the builder, which means she has to work much harder. We wrote a song all three of us, yesterday. It’s a sea shanty about the weather . ADELE: Dillie is the instigator and I am the collaborator. LIZA: Dillie kindly describes me as the interior decorator. is a bit like being in a relationship. When I first joined, the brutality of the nos was unlike anything I’d ever experienced, but I discovered it’s not meant to be hurtful. It’s about producing the best thing you can possibly produce, and once you understand that then nothing else really matters. In the same way that when you’re in an argument with a lover, if you can work out that you’re both trying to make your relationship better then all the stuff that’s said isn’t quite so hurtful. You both know that you’re working towards a similar goal. You really do have to leave your ego at the door. If someone thinks up something that’s wonderful and you’ve just thought of something quite good, you have to give way. But now we all have a sense of joy when someone comes up with the right thing.
Is there anything you would never write about?
DILLIE: I am not comfortable with blasphemy. I was born and brought up a Catholic; there are some bits you just can’t shake off. ADELE: Although we were very rude about Pope Benedict. DILLIE: Happily rude about him, that’s not blasphemy! I’m a deeply tribal Catholic rather than a believing Catholic. When I die, I don’t think ... More

When medical imaging meets luxury knitwear

Brooke Roberts is a designer with a difference. By day she works as a cardiac radiographer at King’s College Hospital in south London. And by night she designs unique knitwear based on her patients’ CT and MRI scans. The level of detail in a medical image is so enormous that it makes it impossible to condense it into a knitting machine - Brooke simplifies each one, converting it to black and white so that it's flattened and easier to translate. ‘MRI and CT scans lend themselves well to knit', she says. "They are digital files and at their most basic level, they are pixels and in a knitting machine a pixel is a stitch, so they’re programmable. But you’d need a machine that was hundreds of metres wide to cope with that level of detail’, she laughs. "I’m always taking ideas from what I’m seeing, whether it’s medical or non-medical. I focus on what interests me as a person. I think of my clients as people who are progressive and searching for new ideas, who want to learn something new every day. ‘It’s a lifestyle that’s about curious people who like science and discovering new things. I’m a big dreamer’, she says, ‘even when I’m focused on something, I’m constantly getting new ideas." brookeroberts.net Interview by @LorenzaBacino. 

Meeting Gillian Anderson

Gillian Anderson was Libertine's first cover star. We met her for our Space issue shoot before she took to the screen in series 1 of The Fall. She was as smart and direct in person as her character Stella Gibson. She's currently narrating episodes of the Radio 4 web series, A History of Ideas.

Do you think the definition of what it means to be a lady has changed? How would you define it?
I don't know if I would be so bold as to define it. I think that there are more examples of women being allowed to be complicated in popular culture, which is where we end up getting our cues as to how it's OK to be in society. It feels like, even though there seem to be attempts to drag us backwards in the political realm, in the cultural realm it feels like apart, there's something about the word 'lady' that really bothers me.
There's a piece by the feminist writer Ann Friedman that tracks the evolution of the word among women who might not be comfortable with the label 'feminist'.
I'm not familiar with its evolution - it still sends me back to older variations. In the new BBC series The Fall, the character I play is a detective superintendent who is independent and strong-minded, yet is very aware and comfortable with herself, her sexuality, what is feminine about her. She doesn't use her femininity to get what she wants in a flirtatious way, but she's aware of the fact that she is a woman - she takes care of herself. She dresses for herself, and wears nice underwear, and silk, crepe and suede. I would say if you were using 'lady' in the context that you're talking about now, she could be put into ... More

Visiting a virtual art gallery

You’ve trained at the highest levels in architecture, fine art and performance, and you’ve gained a unique understanding of all things digital - what do you do now? Let people

walk through a gallery that hasn't even been built yet, of course.

We meet Dr Vesna Petresin Robert - one half of art outfit Rubedo - who has worked with her video-game savvy partner to devise a real-time alternate world.

Your digital version of the Paynes & Borthwick gallery is an incredible, interactive space: you can admire the view from the Thameside jetty, step in through the automatic doors and experience the art as though you were there. Where did the idea come from?

Creating a digital version of a gallery currently under construction in Greenwich was a completely new challenge, but also very close to the idea we have at Rubedo about taking art out of the ‘white cube’. Rather than using traditional gallery spaces, we like using the city as a canvas or finding interesting architectural spaces for our installations. Laurent used to direct a video games company that supported our art practice and majored on the educational aspects of gaming – walking through a historic site from a first-person perspective, for example – so he’d had access to all sorts of exciting tools and technology that are usually out of reach for artists. Future City, the company commissioned to bring the space to life for artists, curators and visitors before its opening, realised if they came to us they could create a real-time online experience.

What challenges or surprises did you encounter in the gallery-creation process?

There is no precedent for this project, so there were lots of unknowns that we had to try to anticipate. We had to think about how to create

... More

Coffee on tour

The beans are small, uneven in size, and the shade of good milk chocolate. I slip a handful into the grinder, and crank the handle. The fragrance erupts. Underlying the expected bitterness is the deep sweetness of molasses, and a dark acidity; there’s a complex, rich fruit; and, as I continue to inhale, I’m surprised to find there’s also… salami.

Today I’m drinking Kochere, a washed-process heirloom varietal coffee, originating in the tiny smallholdings of Yirgacheffe, in rural Ethiopia. It’s been recommended to me by coffee epicure Emily Barker, the singer-songwriter whose tender 'Nostalgia’ lent such a sense of desolation to Scandinavian crime series Wallander. She’s presently touring Dear River, her new album with instrumental trio Red Clay Halo - and so highly does Emily recommend Kochere, in fact, that she’s adopted it as the tour’s official coffee.

Coffee is something that Emily holds, like the river, very dear: “I’ve had an interest in coffee since I was a teenager,' she says. “It’s a huge part of Australian culture - as you might have seen on Neighbours, the coffee shop really is the hub of the community. I first learnt to make proper coffee at thirteen, and when I moved to London I properly started to learn.”

Curious about cupping

In fact, Emily went through formal barista training before she became a full-time musician, and her passion for coffee has remained. Together with a friend, she’s been working on a ‘World Coffee Map’, pinpointing the locations of all the best coffee shops the pair find on their travels. They’re up to around 200 now, tweeting each new find, and it’s proving to be a valuable resource for anyone who really values a decent brew.

It was this map which led by pure accident to the creation of the Dear River tour coffee, a joint venture with roasting house Square

... More

Revolutionary inking with Mona Eltahawy

Journalist Mona Eltahawy shot to an unfortunate kind of fame in November 2011, when Egyptian riot police beat and detained her for taking part in the election protests. She took to Twitter and major news outlets to denounce their actions, and has been doing so ever since on behalf of voiceless men and women in the Middle East and beyond. She lives in New York.

Who would you like to learn from in terms of gender issues?
We often forget we’re African in Egypt, and sometimes look to . I’d like to go to sub-Saharan African countries and learn from them what they’ve done with gender issues: in South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal. Especially those countries doing better with political participation, and see how they’ve been fighting sexual violence, because I think we’ve got a lot in common and we can learn a lot from them. I’ve also had some interesting conversations with some of the Indian delegates here; India is way more advanced in terms of political participation but fighting horrible levels of sexual violence.
What are the biggest frustrations for you?
The most urgent issue is sexual violence, because it’s being used on a daily basis to push women out of the public space. I think there’s a subconscious understanding in Egypt that “this is it”: women have opened some kind of door and they’re not going to be pushed. have changed forever. Those of us who support the revolution are an important enough minority to worry the majority. And that’s all you need for a revolution. The same applies to women; we have a double goal. Making streets feel safe, making girls and women feel safe enough to go to school, to university, to work – it’s urgent. That needs legislation and ending this sense of impunity that men, ... More

Black sky thinking

Soil is something Rachel Armstrong talks about a lot, but you won’t find her on Gardeners’ World. She speaks quickly and quietly, spinning a complex web of ideas from nature, philosophy, politics, technology and the body. It's frequently difficult to keep up. Her genre-bending work in living architecture is the result of this interdisciplinary thinking; she wowed the TED conference in 2009 with her ambitious plans to save Venice. What she devised then, in partnership with a team of biochemists, was the concept of a protocell. This is a chemically-programmable agent that could grow a structure of solid material, making it a potentially perfect remedy for the dissolving infrastructure beneath the floating city. Crucially, there is no DNA involved in creating protocells, yet they mimic lifelike, biological behaviours. In Armstrong’s vision, these light-averse nodes would evolve into an artificial reef that, in addition to providing support for the sinking foundations, would also have a positive environmental impact by absorbing carbon.

Multiple disciplines, one big picture
As a dissatisfied GP, Rachel loved helping people but felt medicine too limiting a field to tackle all the big issues that fascinated her. “Ever since I was a child I’ve wanted to work with the very fabric of nature,” she says. Architecture, on the other hand, was naturally multidisciplinary. “I started by looking at the body and its relationship to technology, but got into architecture because it was about more than technology – there were all the cultural, aesthetic and social fabrics that really made life rich.” Today she refers to her work as ‘Black Sky Thinking’ – a play on a corporate cliché that seeks to unearth insights and clarity in unusual places. It’s a toolkit and a philosophy for navigating the unknown in the hopes that humanity might lurch meaningfully forward in response to collective uncertainty. Science fiction author ... More

Lines of duty

Award-winning journalist Janine Di Giovanni has spent more than 20 years at the frontlines of brutal international conflicts, most recently in Syria. She is the Middle East editor for Newsweek.

On journalism’s ability to challenge power
I think it’s quite difficult for most people to speak truth to power; whether you’re trying to get a visa to go to a blocked country or interviewing a head of state, there are certain journalists that take risks and some that don’t. In France the journalism tends to be very timid when it comes to challenging power. Most journalists here don’t want to annoy powerful people or politicians, so they are quite subservient.
On the power of narrative in war
I think journalism is the only window we have into what’s happening in times of conflict. In Syria or Egypt, if we don’t have free press and there is no way of knowing what’s going on, journalism is the first draft of history. It’s hugely important and must be maintained in every way. People need to be shaken up drastically. I’ve just come back from America and I’m appalled at the number of intelligent people who really have no idea what is going on inside Syria, and who choose to watch Honey Boo Boo and Keeping Up With the Kardashians rather than keeping up with the news. They find so horrific that they don’t want to turn their attention to it. I can understand that, but raising awareness is a reporter’s job. We must stop people from sliding into apathy because if that happens then all is lost. Ultimately, the only people who can really make a difference are the public. You can get people to sit down and listen. I just wrote a pretty grisly piece on rape; some people shake your hand and say “Thank you for ... More

Untangling the web with Aleks Krotoski

The internet has had many accusations levelled at it, from causing isolation and anxiety to damaging modern families and making politics more extreme. In her book Untangling the Web: What the internet is doing to you, social psychologist Aleks Krotoski explores the psychological evidence for these accusations. We asked her to elaborate.

There's been quite a bit of research on how tech is blurring the lines between public/private spaces in the home. What do you think the effect of this has been on family life?
There are some really interesting research projects that have looked at personal technologies in the home. I'm most familiar with the work of Genevieve Bell at Intel and Kat Jungnickel at Goldsmiths. They have an article called 'Home is where the Hub Is', which explores the chameleon nature of domestic spaces, which at times function as office, play space, family room, dining room. But I need to put this in perspective; I spent most of my teenage years on the telephone with my friends in the living room, the bedroom and - if the topic was particularly juicy - the hall closet. We all negotiate our home spaces, and this has been the case since before the web. I expect we'll continue to do so as new technologies crop up to disrupt the old ones!
Is there any difference between a convivial experience shared over Skype and one shared in the flesh?
Skype and similar services offer an intimacy that other communication tech can't. Couples who are separated by distance tend to turn Skype on while they're doing the dishes, or while they're watching TV, rather specifically to have a conversation. They'll use the phone for that. Skype is an entryway into the non-significant, everyday life, and that domestic intimacy maintains normalcy in a ... More

School of hard knocks

Analo – or ‘Priest’, as he’s affectionately known – set up the Boxgirls programme in 2007 after two girls came to the window of the Kariobangi social hall during an all-male boxing class and asked if he could teach them, too. Priest warmed to their enthusiasm and said yes on the spot. The impact of his training was immediate; as the girls grew stronger and happier, Priest resolved to broaden his outreach to the rest of the women in the community. He trained female coaches who then recruited girls to participate in weekly boxing sessions, which built their self-confidence and equipped them with vital self-defence skills. Where gender stereotyping is rigid, and women are regularly denied access to leadership roles and opportunities, it seems farfetched that a team of girls would embrace a traditionally male activity. It also seems at odds with promoting peace. Why would anyone who has already witnessed the impact of violence want to engage in a violent sport? The answer is power. Boxing makes girls feel strong. It’s also about discipline, self-defence and personal esteem. Together, these skills provide girls with the mental strength to help them stay focused on things that really matter ‒ like their education.

Ringing the changes
23-year-old Sonko (pictured in the mirror, above) was on course to becoming one of Kariobangi’s many female casualties. She is now a Boxgirls trainer with responsibility for her own group of students. To get there, she had to do more fighting outside of the ring than in it – metaphorically speaking. Her parents, for instance, were horrified that she wanted to box, and promptly sent her to hairdressing school. She skipped the classes, braved the controversial route to the training hall, and got training. Over 600 girls have now enrolled in the programme and stayed in school – 150 with help ... More

Good news agenda

Monique Villa has been the head of the Thomson Reuters Foundation for five years. In that time, she's transformed the non-profit arm of the news powerhouse, using all its resources and capabilities to find new revenue streams for social and political change. From matchmaking lawyers with non-profits for pro bono work, to launching TrustWomen, an annual conference focused on policy and legislation for women's rights. We spoke to her about some of her big ideas and the challenges of execution. People have said you run the Foundation like a start-up. What do you think they mean by that, and what are the challenges in being aligned with such an established organisation? I’ve been a journalist for 20 years. I was on the senior management team of Agence France-Presse before managing the Reuters news agency. This gave me a totally different perspective when I came to the charity world five years ago. It’s very important to use all the same rules and principles as you would in the business world. When I took over the Thomson Reuters Foundation, we were giving small grants to NGOs after a natural disaster. But there was no real impact; we didn’t give a lot of money and what we did give was difficult to track. I decided to put an end to that and instead to use all the skills of the company – news, information and connections – and put them at the service of those who needed them most. This is at the core of the Foundation’s transformation. The start-up mentality for me means employing the best professionals you possibly can and then listening, being close to the ground and seizing the opportunities when they come. This is where the idea for TrustLaw came from. I discovered that, in a few countries, lawyers were giving free advice to ... More

Amazing Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper joined the US Navy and in 1944 was posted to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she began work on the IBM Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator, known as the Mark I. She retired as a Naval Commander in 1966 and is credited with popularising the idea of machine-independent programming languages. How did you learn to program? The idea of the ‘program’ hadn’t come over from England yet – we ran ‘problems’ instead. Nobody trained. All I had was a code book and there was no time to talk or to be taught. It was wartime, and we were operating on just one idea: win that war. We hadn’t had rockets for long and we had no firing tables for them. We also had new torpedoes and nobody knew what they would do. All of these had to be computed. We were in there 24 hours a day, for the number of days a problem was running. One of the many things that you are famous for is inventing the word ‘bug’ to describe a computer glitch. How did that come about? I didn’t invent the ‘bug’. Engineers had been using ‘bug’ to mean a fault or problem for at least a century before we picked it up, but we did have plenty of opportunity to use the word. The Mark I was the largest electromechanical calculator built, 51 feet long and eight feet high, and made of panels of small gears, counters, relays, vacuum tubes, rotating shafts and clutches. We fed it instructions on 24-channel punched tape but if the tape got on the floor, and there were holes on the floor, those things would get back into position and stay there. Frequently we found bugs that were nothing more than a punched-out hole that ... More

Taking the intimidation out of buying art

Artspace was set up in 2011 to bring fine art into people's lives. 

The site boasts artwork from renowned galleries including the Guggenheim, MoMA and the Barbican with a community of over 200,000 collectors worldwide. We caught up with the site's cofounder, Catherine Levene. The traditional art market and the world of online retail seem worlds apart. Who buys art on Artspace? I think it’s a combination of existing collectors, who buy from us because they are finding such a treasure trove of work they didn’t know existed, . Even if you are an existing collector you can’t be in 12 places at once.

We also believe that we're expanding the market of people who are buying contemporary fine art. We know there is a very large market of art enthusiasts who have the means, the interest and the capacity to collect art, but who don’t for whatever reason because it could be intimidating. People are used to buying everything online these days. Art is the last of the luxury goods categories to be transformed by the internet. People often say to me - and I feel it too - that art today is where fashion was six or seven years ago, when people said women are just not going to buy high-end couture online. Fast forward to today and it's the largest category. Tell us about the art: how do you choose which artists to feature? I’m sure we miss some, but we try to do our best to have what we believe to be really important artists and future rising stars on the platform.

How did you get so many top-name galleries and artists on board? I think we've created a contextual environment that makes sense for them. We're really respectful of their brands. We have an editorial team that writes about their programming, the artists and the galleries. Myself

... More

Makie movement

Alice Taylor is the CEO and founder of Makie Lab, a disruptive games company which allows you to design and print a custom 3D doll. In the words of one enthusiastic reviewer, "I love that this company is pushing to make a doll that glamorizes science, math, and creativity instead of shopping and getting manicures." She spoke to us about the company's origins and the challenges of innovation on a budget. My previous job was as commissioning editor for education at Channel 4, and prior to that I was at the BBC. In both cases I was working on digital stuff for kids, so I'd always go to the conferences. In 2010 I was at the Kids' Expo in New York, and they co-located it with the New York Toy Fair, which is the biggest toy fair in the world. They had all the digital stuff in the basement, and upstairs was this vast space full of stuffed toys, books, dolls. They kept them completely separate. I counted two mentions of Facebook and maybe five mentions of Twitter in tens of thousands of square feet. I came out of there thinking, I wonder if you can take Stormtrooper avatars and turn them into dolls using 3D printing? I wonder if you can take a car out of Grand Theft Auto and turn it into a toy car? I did some sketches and found a modeller on the internet. He sent back a model, which we sent to a 3D print supplier in Brussels. That cost me 220 euros, which is obviously too much for a doll, but amazingly cheap for a prototype. I quit my job, wrote a business plan and by August 2011 we'd secured the first bit of money. We're building a mobile game aimed at the 8-plus crowd - so ... More

Sending out an SMS to the world

Soko (formerly SASA) is a pioneering SMS-based project, which in its simplest form connects offline artisans to online consumers despite lack of access to the internet, a computer or a bank account. It is the brainchild of Gwen Floyd, Ella Peinovich and Catherine Mahugu. "Our aim has always been to link artisans in emerging economies to a viable marketplace," Gwen tells me. "I studied the history of trade, as I have always been interested in global supply chains, and one day the idea came to me that perhaps we could use the mobile phone to achieve this link. "Then I met Ella, who had been using survey technology for another project. She had already begun thinking about how it could be adapted to facilitate international direct or peer-to-peer trade. And what came out of that was SASA, which was a great opportunity for us to bring our expertise together." The idea may be simple, but the concept is brand new. "Which is why we began exclusively with jewellery," Gwen explains. "No one has done what we've done before. So we're asking consumers not to take a leap of faith but to be active participants in something really novel and game-changing. And when it comes to jewellery, there's already a huge amount of demand."

A sale with a tale
In fact, she says, 90% of craft goods sold online are jewellery - not in terms of what's available, but what's purchased - making it the second most commonly purchased product category online. "Although there are already tons of crafts and jewellery available in the international marketplace, what makes us different is that every product is linked to the vendor who made it. "There's a very low barrier for entry. Generally vendors just opt in and a mentorship begins. The artisan completes a vendor registration ... More

Silver linings

When she turned 60, San Francisco-based photographer Vicki Topaz found the perfect way to explore her trepidation about ageing. SILVER: A State of Mind is a candid portrait and interview series, five years in the making, with 52 women who don’t dye their hair. From their conversations, Topaz concluded that, while these women wear their grey proudly, hair colour is a personal choice; it’s your state of mind when ageing that matters (Topaz admits dyeing her grey hair, quoting project participant Anne Navasky: “You know what they say: grey hair always looks better on other people!”). The above stills are taken from the project, which was also released as a short film. “A wise friend told me that your fifties can be the time that you discover what freedom means for you. And she was right.” Amy Hempel, writer / animal rights activist “Most women in Iran dye their hair. I used henna 
after my hair started to grey when I was 43 but it 
was ‘just pretending’. I don’t like to pretend.” Firoozeh Anvari, acupuncturist  “I never dyed my hair. 
I never associated it with 
age. I always associated it 
with the art of being.” Grace Lehman, healer / writer / artist “I suppose I’ve been surprised that at this age I find myself  feeling so comfortable. It’s like having permission (…) to be yourself and 
not apologize for it.” Laura-Jane Coats, illustrator / writer “My parents were typical Chinese, and very focused on appearances, very upper class. 
And I was a different kind of kid, an artist, 
sick, met and married a Caucasian man, 
not at all what they wanted for me. 
I went to China to visit relatives I was the 
only one with grey hair, under 80.” Miki Hsu Leavey, painter / teaching artist / arts integration “I think our desire to contain nature is related to ... More

Porn again

Four years before philosopher Alain de Botton started considering the consolations of pornography, former advertising boss Cindy Gallop was bellowing "Come on my face!" at an audience of TED members. Her notoriously frank talk on the importance of making love not porn soon went viral. And its user-generated climax - makelovenotporn.tv - launched to the public in early 2013. Even over the phone, Cindy Gallop has presence. Her advertising background reveals itself in perfectly stage-managed flourishes: she talks in soundbites, and makes a point of enunciating the full web address (makelovenotporn.tv) in every second sentence. Although she chuckles while telling the TED story, the point - as with any well-crafted public service announcement - is serious. You can limit the damage done by porn by having an open, frank conversation about real sex. "What happens when you combine total freedom of access to hardcore porn with our society's equally total reluctance to talk openly and honestly about sex porn becomes sex education by default, because there is nothing else." When exposure to hardcore porn can start as early as eight years old, avian and apian euphemisms just don't cut it. "My father is English and massively old-fashioned, my mother is Chinese - 'girls stay a virgin until they're married' type of thing - so I had an enormously repressed upbringing. The conversation you need to have today goes: 'So darling, we know you're online, and we know you're looking at hardcore porn sites, and we just need to explain to you that not all women like being choked, bound, gang banged, raped and having men come all over them, and not all men like doing that either."

Decent exposure
Although she was busy running another business at the time, the overwhelming response to makelovenotporn.tv got Gallop thinking. One comment from a 23-year-old ... More

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