Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Human touch

All too often designers are criticised for ignoring the human element. Sometimes it's through poor specification or implementation, or sometimes intentionally to accentuate a design aesthetic.

In terms of usability, design can decide success or failure.

For instance, when designing software user interfaces, poor design can not just define whether a product works or not, if done badly can lead to health problems; unclear text causing headaches, too many mouse movements and clicks leading to RSI. This is called Human Computer Interaction, or HCI for short. When software testers talk about software being 'intuitive', 'organic' or 'natural' in operation, this often reflects the amount of work that the developer has done to ensure the most comfortable user experience.


But when it comes to South Tyneside Council, design seems to have become a function of expediency. The awful fake chimneys on the former Nook public house won a design award for 'innovation'. They were introduced to allow a mobile phone company to hide their telecommunications equipment. Three years later and the appearance of these 'innovations' just gets worse.

quadrus_centre02The Quadrus Centre

The cubist monstrosity of the Quadrus Centre is another example of design which seems to be ugly form more than pretty function. However, South Tyneside Council seems desperate for a signature icon to represent it's aspirations for a thrusting entrepreneurial culture, so if the council feels a couple of oddly placed boxes do the job, then who am I to argue?

'Streetscape' design though, is less esoteric than the concepts behind Jenga wannabe Quadrus.

Street planning, if done badly, can mean the difference between life and death. Streetscape isn't just about green verges and pretty flower planters, it serves a 'mission critical' function.

Walking along the Nook shopping centre I came across what has got to be a beacon of council design incompetence. The road sign to the left has been positioned in such a way that 4 feet of pedestrian space has been effectively removed, also creating a pinch right next to a road crossing point. In this one simple instance, pedestrians have been failed by the road planners.

However, looking at the sign from another angle (image below), from a driver's perspective, and the realisation of impractical planning practice is complete. The sign's position means that it isn't visible to drivers coming out of the lane until they are 7 feet away from the end of the lane, a busy pedestrian crossing point.


I'm sure that the planners have followed all the neccessary rules and regulations and that the sign's position is perfectly legal. However, the sign's position is not sensible, not for pedestrians or drivers.

There are practical alternatives. One could be to extend the 20mph zone to the perimeter of the parking area adjacent to Prince Edward Road, and place the sign at the exit from the parking area onto Prince Edward Road. However, this would likely require changes to road orders and byelaws. A simpler alternative would be to move the signpost closer to the road, a matter of two feet, remove the existing signpost which holds a parking restriction sign, adding the parking restriction sign to the speed signpost.

It seems like a big deal all because of a simple street sign. But if the Council can't get the little things right, then what hope have we for the big projects?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Soft target

Taking time off from massaging easyJet's overblown eco ego, South Shields MP and Environment Secretary David Miliband yesterday hosted the "Climate Change Citizens' Summit" in London, with the objective of highlighting "the need for government, business and consumers to work together to reduce CO2 emissions." Sounds like a great idea - let's get citizens involved in working out solutions to our rising carbon emissions. But there seems some confusion over contexts here though - was it a citizens' summit or a consumers' summit? It seems like our Government doesn't know the difference between a citizen and a consumer, which is disturbing.

And hold on, which citizens were attending? Apparently, they were "...a representative sample of 150 people, recruited from six locations around the country...". I'm sure the citizen representatives are righteous people, but how 150 hand-picked people out of a population of 65 million can be termed as 'representative' is difficult to comprehend.

I'm hoping that the event wasn't managed to achieve preferred outcomes - ie giving the Government the opinions it wants - but given the history of this Government I may be being a little optimistic.

If the nu-Lab command and control machine does have the climate change Bill in it's sights then we can say good-bye to the controls that a coherent Climate Change Bill requires like annual targets and ministerial accountability.

But considering that Richard Lambert, Director General of the CBI and Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC were speakers at the event I've got to wonder if it's part of an attempt to warp the Bill to be as business friendly and pro-nuclear as possible. I know it's important to get business buy-in in the battle against climate change, but self interest groups like the CBI already have an enviable level of access to Government, and when they're given the keys to influencing supposedly 'representative' events like this it's reasonable to suspect the Government is putting the interests of it's chums in business before saving the planet.

Given the Government's policy of appeasement towards the road building lobby and the aviation industries despite the increases in emissions, at the moment there's little hope of what is needed - a strong government not afraid of using regulation to do what we need to survive.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Guilt trips

Quite often anthropogenic climate change is characterised by it's opponents as a faith structure or religion. If that's the case then a church has arisen around this religion and the money lenders are already in the temple. So it's fitting that Environment Secretary and South Shields MP David Miliband had an audience with the Pope last week, as the Church of Rome and the Church of Greenwash have a very similar stance on guilt.

In the Roman Catholic Church sins are forgiven through the acts of confession, contrition, penance and absolution. During the Middle Ages the rich could buy absolutions from priests to avoid eternal damnation. Those folk knew they could carry on sinning, comfortable in the knowledge that they could buy themselves out of hell.

In the Church of Greenwash, burning fossil fuel is the new sin and like the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, absolutions can be bought. We don't call them absolutions now though, we call the process offsetting. I have a problem with offsetting - it's complete bollocks. It doesn't do anything to reduce emissions. Once you've flown to Paris for a tenner your share of the emissions is out there - and they're going to be around for a very long time.

Offsetting is not so much absolution as an absolving of responsibility.

In Tuesday's Guardian Monsignor Miliband praised budget airline easyJet for promising a scheme where it's passengers can purchase offset credits from easyJet. To back his support for offsetting, he said:

"Businesses and consumers need to be sure that the way they offset actually results in a robust and verifiable emission reduction."

To the objective eye this seems like a reasonable statement, but he followed up with:

"That's why the government has consulted on a proposed voluntary code of best practice for all providers of offsetting products and is now considering the responses."

Voluntary. Let's think about that word. It's certainly not a synonym of "robust". Then think of the phrase "best practice". My spidey senses tell me that Miliband didn't really mean "robust" at all. Translated out of Westminster bullshit into English it really means "businesses can do what the fuck they want". That's New Labour's dogma - let's talk about how terrible climate change is, but never actually do anything about it that may upset our chums.

In Rome, Mr Miliband and Pope Benedict called for a moral and ethical approach to climate change. To most sensible folk this is a no-brainer - if it's not dealt with global heating can bring about the deaths of millions, if not billions, of people.

As an aside - if Pope Benedict wants to reduce the Catholic Church's carbon footprint then a good start would be to look at the human footprint. He could kick in the Church's support for family planning, including contraception, straight away. Less people on the planet means a bigger share of the planet's resources for everyone.

But on the ethical conundrum, the problem is that most businesses don't know how to be ethical - their prime function is to make profit. Profit in itself is neither good or bad, it's merely an economic surplus. It's how the profit is made that defines it's moral and ethical boundaries. For most citizens we have laws drawing those boundaries. But in the UK there is no law saying that businesses should act ethically or in the interests of society. Gordon Brown saw to that by ripping out the corporate social responsibility reporting requirements for companies' financial reports.

But offsetting gives businesses a chance to sell themselves as somehow caring and responsible, whilst not actually doing anything to reduce their emissions and profiting off the enviro-guilt of their customers.

If businesses and consumers need to be sure of anything, it's that offsetting is nonsense. It produces nothing but apathy and feeds the current ambivalence towards the environment and the peoples in other countries who are going to feel the pain of global heating before we do.

Offsetting promises guilt-free polluting but gives us business as usual and sod the planet.