I’ve been reading numerous articles about the consequences of two recent elections – the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential election in the US – and I’m struck by how quickly the commentariat have settled into a simple narrative. Poor white men, the story goes, have been ‘left behind’ by globalisation and ignored by the ‘liberal elite’, creating a political vacuum ripe for filling by right-wing nationalist and/or ‘populist’ extremists. Apparently, this ‘liberal elite’ were too busy being ‘politically correct’ by promoting equality and diversity to notice the concerns of the ‘silent majority’.

This is, as George Orwell so presciently warned, really about how language and politics collide, and how reason gets crushed under the resulting rubble. To give just one example, as I understand it ‘equality’ means the same for everyone. Equality for gay people does not in any way mean inequality for straight people. Equality for ethnic minorities – you get the point. How quickly Newspeak like ‘Brexit’ has become a handy tool for obscuring xenophobic suspicion. How easily ‘Trump’ has been invested with a near-holy authority by the far right, and, worse, how quickly that was normalised by others, who wish to sidle away from association with the ‘liberal elite’ and claim some ‘populist’ kudos (by the way, as you may have heard, Trump lost the popular vote).

Now, there are few sentences that don’t put ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’ in close proximity. Why don’t we just move straight to ‘Brump’ and have done with it? Or are we waiting for the increasingly touted (read: feared) victory of the extreme right National Front in France? Brumpen, anyone? Brumplepen, then. And so on.

The purpose is simple. It obscures the policies these movements promote. It affords them an effective disguise as they go about trying to undo a consensus on democracy and diversity and basic human decency that has slowly, painfully established institutions – flawed, no doubt – to try and rein in the violence of flag-waving realpolitikers while edging us towards a view of a single human race living on and preserving a single planet sufficiently well to ensure its existence for generations to come. How f*$&ing elitist is that?

Meanwhile, here’s a voice from the archives to cheer us up. Remember Whoops Apocalypse, the Cold War satire that ran for six episodes in 1982? It featured the election of an unlikely US president with only a tenuous grip on politics surrounded by ‘advisors’ of very dubious intent. Sound familiar? Allow me to share a few lines from one of President Johnny Cyclops’ campaign videos…

Sixty-three years ago, in small-town Pocatello, Idaho, a young baby was born. The humblest son of a Methodist preacher, he soon began to grow up, as only a child can. Today that man is Johnny Cyclops, President of the United States and Guardian of the Free World. He may not know exactly where Denmark is, or be completely sure whether or not Romania is a communist country, but he does care. He cares deeply about America. About every one of its fifty states, and not merely the ones he can name. Wyoming and Omaha, for instance, have nothing to fear in this context…

Oh how we laughed…

*Langrant (Newspeak, noun; to rant about the use of language as a beard for political ugliness)

Again, the future

…and so to FutureFest, ‘powered’ by NESTA, a two-day celebration of all things creative, innovative, futurish, and fantastical. I made it to the Sunday, courtesy of those fine people at Belonging Space (thanks Isabel!), and launched straight into the session ‘From design thinking to design playing’, which featured London College of Communication graphic branding and identity guru Grant Rose;  Marjorie Kaplan, president of content at Discovery Networks International; BBC Design and Engineering chief design officer Colin Burns; and Oxford primatologist and animal play expert Isabel Benhcke – all coordinated by Wolff Olins CEO Ije Nwokorie.

Phew, just typing out that list was exhausting! As was keeping up with the rapidly-changing perspectives which the respondents brought to bear on the central questions, about the relationship between playing and designing and, I guess, thinking. The points that stood out for me were Grant Rose’s warning that play is not measurable, and we need to find other ways of evaluating its impact, particularly in a higher education setting where the intellectual context demands that we learn from failure. Yet, as Rose put it, “education is not going that way”. Instead, it is increasingly dominated by assessment, measurement, satisfaction surveys, and so on.

Marjorie Kaplan shared a great story about scientists in a biomechanics lab printing artificial bones on a super complex 3-D printer. Apparently, in quiet moments they would go over to a more ‘basic’ 3-D printer to make toys – a process they considered no less important to their work than the business of bone making itself.

Colin Burns made a strong appeal for ‘grown-ups’ (I use the inverted commas advisedly, typing this on my 54th birthday) to recover and model the play behaviour that is innate in all of us, so highly valued and encouraged in children, and then so comprehensively suppressed once we ‘mature’ (see above…).

But the greatest insights, at least to my mind, came from Isabel Behncke’s work, investigating animal play and looking at human play from the perspective of evolutionary biology. “Play is full of bad ideas,” she pointed out, “but evolution is full of bad ideas”. In other words, you have to be comfortable with bad ideas to have any hope of realising good ones. As the discussion ranged over the relationship between play (in and of itself, and as a proxy for ‘creativity’) and innovation, Behncke came out with an absolute gem: “Evolution innovates through the play behaviour of animals.” Huizinga himself would be proud of that!

After a quick chat and a coffee it was on to hear Frank Furedi, on love as risk. Furedi is well known for his critique of self-help culture, and he began by calling out the growing tendency to represent love as a pathology, and the correlated idea that greater love means greater vulnerability. In love we reveal something of our inner or true nature, but the more we reveal of ourselves the more we risk the possibility of betrayal.

He made the intriguing suggestion that the novel can be construed as a ‘technology’ of love, referring to the story in the Inferno where Dante arrives in the second circle of hell. There he finds the damned spirit of Francesca, married to a handsome young man who grew into an ugly and demanding old man. One day she was sat with her husband’s younger brother, and they were reading the story of Guinevere and Lancelot. Carried away by the romance, they kissed (and, she then tells Dante and Virgil while her erstwhile lover’s spirit wails, that was the end of reading that day!). They were discovered by her husband who murdered them both, yet she didn’t regret her desire. Had she not been murdered, she would have had the chance to repent, and, she points out, her killer resides far below in the lowest circle of hell. So that’s alright then.

Furedi went on to suggest that the 18th-century moral panic over romantic novels is in some way similar to the current pathologizing of sexting. But, with only 15 minutes for the whole session, we didn’t get much of an explanation of this. Perhaps there is – or will be – a book to buy at some point…

Next up was ‘the seaweed guy’, possibly the best moniker I’ve heard in a long time. Dr Craig Rose is managing director of Seaweed & Co., a business based on sourcing, accrediting, and supplying high-quality seaweed. You see, seaweed is the future – this sub-set of the algae kingdom is an entirely natural, completely sustainable resource, with staggering potential in biofuels, bioplastics, textiles, and medicine, as well as its rather more obvious possibilities on the dinner plate.  I won’t rehearse the facts and figures here, check them out for yourself, and as you do so please bear in mind that seaweed is 100% vegan plant power.

For Dr Rose and Seaweed & Co., seaweed is no longer the stuff of slimy shocks to delicate feet on cold seashores; it’s time to change those negative perceptions. Time, I would add, to create a new algae rhythm (see what I did there?) in which the 10,000 or so different varieties of seaweed that are found globally can fulfil their destiny, as part of the answer to climate change, global hunger, and world peace (sort of).

Much else was available at this sumptuous feast of future stuffs, but I’ll leave it there for now. Next time, robotic drinking pals, drop-out business magnates, and dull old musos. Watch this space!

Below: Ascophyllum Nodosum. Or dinner, to you. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.


Schrödinger’s Brexit

Oh dear, the Europhobes who have driven us out of the EU won’t like this at all. It’s about the Copenhagen interpretation of one of Einstein’s more complex papers (co-authored with Podolsky and Rosen). Gevalt! – as he might have said – Einstein was, of course, an immigrant. Brexit Britain will be having none of that.

Nonetheless, the famous thought experiment devised by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger*, in which the cat in the box is both alive and dead at the same time, provides a useful analogy for the state of Britain today. Particularly in the terms presented by the ‘Leave’ campaign’s majordomo in a well-known UK newspaper.

Apparently, or so the frantically back-pedalling Brexitmeister would have us believe, we can be both in and out of Europe at the same time. Genius! Applying quantum uncertainty principles to EU membership! No wonder he’s called the ‘blond bombshell’. Hydrogen or neutron, I wonder?**

Schrödinger is credited with a neologism which I wish to adopt as encapsulating our condition in the unfolding post-referendum nightmare – Verschränkung. It means ‘entanglement’.

Someone call the Doctor!


Image: Schrödinger’s Brexit by Ezri Carlebach. Composite of public domain images.

*ouch, another EU reference – sorry, Brexiters!

**to quote another apposite song, The Push and the Shove by the Golden Palominos, sure I’m angry.

On to Toronto!

Last week I bathed in the heat of a scorching start to June – in Toronto. Not what I had expected. I had no shorts or sandals with me (much to everyone else’s relief I suspect) so I sweltered out in the open, and got nicely chilled in the hotel conference centre.

I was in Toronto to host a workshop session at the 2016 World Public Relations Forum. My session was based on the growing interest in design thinking and my two aims were to increase participants’ interest in design and design thinking, and to share some ideas that they could subsequently make use of. A show of hands at the end of the hour suggested my objectives were met.

We looked specifically at how design thinking could be used to attract talent with the right skills into the public relations industry. This was identified as “by far the most critical factor in the PR industry’s future growth” by Fred Cook, Director of the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, in the newly-published 2016 Global Communications Report produced by Annenberg with the Holmes Report (click here for a PDF of the Executive Summary).

Long story short, design thinking is a set of problem-finding and problem-solving approaches used by designers. I know from my time as head of comms at the Royal Society of Arts and as deputy director of comms at University of the Arts London that design is a specific, socially located set of practices that involve material skills and that it is based on an extensively researched body of knowledge. So, not a management fad. But at the same time I had just one hour to introduce some theory and get my workshoppers engaged in some design practice.

Luckily, I was able to draw on the smart thinking of artist-educator Shelagh McCarthy, whose use of the common-or-garden paper bag to explore these issues provided the perfect leverage. More on that in a moment.

But to begin with, I shared the story of my first job. From 1980 to 1981 (yes, I know, that’s an unfeasibly long time ago) I worked for a company of architects in Brighton, operating a dyeline printing machine (I can still recall the aroma of the ammonia…) and maintaining a library of design and architecture-related publications. There is a nice article about one of the firm’s partners, John Wells-Thorpe, on the University of Brighton website.

I drew a little ‘memory map’ to show – albeit crudely – something of what I remember from that time. Before any geography geeks complain that it’s inaccurate and not to scale – tough! The purpose of the story, and the accompanying sketch, was to get my workshop attendees to do the same. And they did, to glorious effect, adding notes to their own images about the most important lesson they learned in their first job, and the one thing they’d change if they could do it all over again. That information became the ‘user insight’ we needed to illustrate the first stage of the design thinking process.

To spice it up a little, I made it a competition, having been given spare copies of the re-published trilogy of books on brand language and tone of voice by leading authority John Simmons. Three lucky sketchers left with one each.

ezri memory map

A ‘memory map’ showing my first job, at Wells-Thorpe & Suppel in Brighton. The apple donuts from the shop at the bottom of Trafalgar Street were legendary.

Then, they brainstormed concepts that might appeal to different types of recruits – new graduates, mid-career folks in unrelated industries, or (shock horror) people working in marketing…

So here’s the paper bag twist. Each delegate had in front of them their own high quality, British made, lightly coated baked goods delivery vehicle (aka a grease-proof paper bag). With these, and with any other materials they could lay their hands on, they were asked to build a prototype of their concept. Thus, we had covered the three stages of Ideo’s design thinking rubric: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

I should add that I arrived in Toronto with 120 of these fine paper bags, only to find 130 people coming to my session. So when the a/v engineer for my session, Joe, asked if I needed anything I eagerly requested another dozen or so paper bags – not really expecting him to provide them. But, ten minutes later, he reappeared with this box:


The extra paper bags I needed for my session. Amazing. As an American colleague who was with me at the time said, shaking his head, “only in Canada”… Thanks Joe!

Here’s a brief pictorial round-up of the session…


A vast and daunting arena in the Metropolitan ballroom, Westin Harbour Castle conference centre, Toronto.


Delegates to my session were greeted with a refreshing promise…

IMG_0009One of the tables, bagged up and ready to go.

IMG_0015In total, 130 high quality, British made, lightly coated, baked goods delivery vehicles in situ, apart from the dozen or so last-minute Canadian substitutes. Which were very good, by the way.

IMG_0021The prototypes were astonishing in their variety and creativity…

More on the rest of the conference highlights will follow in another post.

June 23rd from supra to nuts

Wherever you are in the world there’s a good chance that you’ll have noticed the current debate about the UK’s membership of the European Union, and that there will be a referendum on that question on June 23rd.

In the interests of full disclosure let me state that I am in favour of Britain remaining in the EU and that I have joined the ‘Stronger In’ campaign, to whom I have made a small donation (under £50.00). Moreover, I work with EU agencies, providing editorial and related services.

Before any Brexiters reading this head for the Brexit (and we’ll set aside the horrors of that particular neologism for now), let me suggest that there is something bigger at stake than the relative economic benefits or disbenefits of EU membership, important though they are.

One of the anti-EU narrative’s core messages concerns the perceived threat to national sovereignty from membership of a ‘supra-national’ body. Playing on people’s fears by playing up a loss of sovereignty is to bury a complex issue in nationalistic flag-waving. In the nineteenth century an obsession with national sovereignty and its link with race and religion led more or less directly to the atrocities of the early twentieth century.

Of course, modern Britain is a very different place – multi-cultural, relatively socially liberal and democratic. So it is disappointing that those who purport to promote values which reflect the nature of contemporary Britain fail to see the importance of supra-national institutions that were created specifically in contradistinction to the failed ideologies of fascism and Nazism in the 1950s and state socialism in the 1990s. I believe that supra-national bodies serve a valuable purpose in the evolving relations between regions and nations, relations that need at the very least to consider a post-nationalist concept of the links between people and territory. Think of the UN, like the EU a far from perfect organisation, but another that is preferable to the likely consequences of unpicking efforts to bring nations, regions, and peoples together for the good of all.

Without supra-national and regional initiatives, the prospects for future generations will be damaged by the kinds of conflicts that previous generations fought to (and thought they had) overcome. The EU needs solidarity among its members at a time of considerable stresses and strains, and the social and economic benefits to all from standing together will outweigh the benefits of striking out alone. Of course, we must continue to ensure that institutions and policies are appropriately developed and held accountable.

Because, regrettably, you don’t have to look far beyond the mainstream of Brexit support to find extremists who dress their hate in smart suits and flags. Better by far to remain and work to improve the ‘supra’ than to quit and face the ascendancy of the nuts.

Go print!


The other day I was in the local branch of my bank (yes, there are still some), trying to sort out an access issue with my online banking.

“Why not use the app?” asked the friendly clerk.

“OK,” I said, thinking that’d be no problem for a gadget-loving guy like me. So we got the app installed and working, and sure enough a little sales pitch followed about some new product or other, which I promised to consider.

“Have you got a leaflet about that?” I innocently asked.

She looked at me with a mix of pity and contempt. “We don’t have leaflets,” she said, “it’s all in the app.”

So am I old and out of touch? Nope. She‘s the one who didn’t get the memo.

You see, print’s not dead.

It’s official. The UK newspaper group Trinity Mirror is launching a brand new print-only newspaper. That’s right – no website. They’ll be on social media, apparently, but this is a no-holds-barred, 100% print product.

I think it’s a great idea, and I wish them well. I will certainly fork out 25p (about 36 cents US, or 32 cents EURO) for a copy.

Of course, it’s only a few months since online giant Amazon launched its first bricks-and-mortar bookstore, in Seattle, with thousands of real paper books and around 400 magazines on the shelves.

So the future of the past is looking pretty good.

Here’s a picture to prove it – it’s not the new newspaper, but I couldn’t find a royalty-free picture of it:


Louis Pasteur on the cover of the Illustrated London News, in 1895. He looks well, but actually he’d just died. Or Pasteurway, if you like.

Addendum, 25 May 2016

The New Day was not a new dawn after all, more of shot in the dark. But I maintain that print is not dead. How can it be, when sales of hard copy books are growing?


I just want to say…

tears-of-joy-emoji. ok?

I’m not quite sure how to say ‘tears-of-joy emoji’, but it has been selected by no less an authority than Oxford Dictionaries as their 2015 ‘Word of the Year’. To find out why, you can read their less than convincing rationale.

I’m no language complaint maven, but I find myself dusting off Swift’s 1712 Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue in which he rails against those promoting changes to English usage, “the Pretenders to polish and refine it,” who, he declares, “have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities”. File under ’emoji’.

Of course, language always evolves, usages come and go, words – especially of the portmanteau variety – are invented and discarded. Just when my mother, a keen if sometimes bewildered silver surfer, had got to grips with some basic txt-speak, it turns out that LOL “is in decline”. Says Facebook, as quoted in the Economist… so it must be true.

Staying with the organ of miserable science for a moment, their ‘World in 2016’ special includes a striking piece by obituaries editor Ann Wroe (yes, hacks in the Economist get bylines in specials) which corrals a collection of bons mots which are to be banished, apparently, from the USA’s Scholastic Aptitude Test (better known as the SAT) into a New York cocktail party anecdote. Many of these words deserve revival not recycling, in my opinion, and I can’t help thinking Wroe’s work would be more fun without every implicated word having been italicised.

Still, it’s certainly worth asking the question, what are words worth? They make and break peace treaties, unite and divide lovers, inspire and oppress by turn. If only there was a catchy ditty that captured this feeling and… wait, remember 1981? Tom Tom Club?

I… er…. oh, tears-of-joy-emoji. Sorry.