Archive for June, 2010

Changing transport

Andrew Curry writes:
I was asked to speak at an event held last week in Leuven in Belgium on The Future of Transport by Said El Khadraoui, an MEP who’s a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism. I went because it was a chance to revisit a large scenarios project I directed a few years ago, for the UK government’s Foresight project, on Intelligent Infrastructure Systems, and because some of the other speakers were at the forefront of work on intelligent transport systems. (And not, of course, because Leuven is the home of Stella Artois).

Transport is a problem because its carbon emissions keep on growing – unlike every other sector – and because it is almost completely dependent on fossil fuel to power it, against a backdrop of expected long-term price increases. One speaker argued that given the carbon impact and the risks, and given also the level of external costs generated by transport, it is likely that transport – especially car use and road freight – is simply too cheap.

The argument which I teased out of the Foresight scenarios was that one of the problems is that we confuse the benefits of mobility with the benefits of access; a century of increasing car use has made services and facilities more distant, and therefore harder to access by anything other than a car. The long-run solution is to redesign the built environment to reverse this process. This takes a generation or more, although it is starting to happen; there are more food shops closer to homes, and road space, certainly in towns, is being taken away from cars across Europe.

In the meantime, technology offers both carrots and sticks. The combination of wireless technology, open data, and smartphones opens up the possibility of applications which make public transport more attractive, and alternatives to car ownership more feasible. This requires more than just better, live information. It also requires the smartphone or a smartcard to be a form of authentication (not necessarily identification), of permission, and preferably of payment as well. The stick is some form of road pricing; the technology is well advanced, and the reasons for implementing it more pressing. The Netherlands is likely to be the first, although Belgium is not far behind. One other issue that’s becoming more prominent is that of the noise impact of traffic.

Leuven is a university town with quite a lot of industry associated with it (a Belgian equivalent of Oxford, perhaps). One of the speakers conjured up a vision of the city using technology to manage its transport issues better – everything from guiding traffic and managing traffic flows, to a drivers’ reserved parking space, to integrating information about different transport systems, to supporting car sharing, to helping people use bikes or walking instead of travelling by car.

The picture at the top, by Andrew Curry, is of the Grote Markt in Leuven, a ‘shared space‘ used by pedestrians, cyclists, and service vehicles. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

28 June 2010 at 7:03 pm 1 comment

Opening up in Latin America

Crawford Hollingworth writes:

We’ve been doing quite a lot of work in Latin America in recent years, and it seemed both inevitable and desirable that we’d want to open an office on the continent, not least because – in terms of social change – it’s one of the most innovative regions on the planet. And we’ve now managed to do this – working in partnership with Ogilvy in Buenos Aires. We’ve been lucky to find two outstanding people to launch the office for us, in Bernardo Geogheghan and Sebastian Codeseiro, who’re flanking me in the picture above.

I visited Buenos Aires for the launch, and while I was there I was interviewed by Clarin, Argentina’s largest paper. Here’s part of the interview – approximately translated.

What emerging trends are we seeing?

“One of the trends that we analyze is that people feel that we live in a society which has greater risks than at other times. The way this risk emerges in each society is different. In Europe is related to the fear of others, the immigrant, and also with the possibility of a new economic crisis. In the U.S. it is the risk associated with the possibility of terrorist attacks. In Latin America it has other components linked to problems such as poverty and insecurity of property and people. In each area the trend is expressed differently.

– What other phenomenon can be anticipated for the coming years?

I think the one of the most important trends is the rise of protectionism in many forms and at many levels – national to regional and even at a city level [imagine a sort of new medievalism in which cities only care for, support and protect themselves].  This will be brought about by growing global and local power struggles, resource issues and social unrest.

18 June 2010 at 10:44 am Leave a comment

The rise of Wordle

We’ve been having a debate in the office about the merits of Wordle. These are Russ’ thoughts.

Russ Wilson writes:

Wordle, word clouds, Tagxedo:  all online apps for taking a load of data in the form of words and presenting it in a design friendly way.  As a lover of language I’m all for anything that encourages people to explore words, think about how and why they’ve been used and analyse their meanings. However I’m not really sure that any of these tools do this.

I have two main issues with Wordles, and they’re exemplified in the wordle above, based on David Cameron’s coalition speech. First, they remove the word from its immediate context.  Take the word interest, represented as one of the more frequently occurring words.  But it could equally indicate curiosity and engagement or interest payments. The Wordle doesn’t help; it only tells us the word occurred often in the speech. Similarly, coalition also figures prominently. But it doesn’t help with context. We can’t tell, for  example, whether they said ‘this is a coalition’ or ‘this is not a coalition’!

The second issue is that frequency is being proposed as an indicator of importance, but that’s not how we actually interpret speech. Imagine a Wordle which captures responses to a question such as ‘What do you think of the coalition?’ One person might say the new government is ‘absolutely the most important and exciting change in politics in living memory’; others might respond that it is ‘quite troubling’, ‘not very troubling’ or even ‘not troubling’?  The Wordle would look, well, troubling:

Frequency of use is simply that – frequency of use.

Wordles do look good. But they become dangerous when presented as meaningful analysis. They don’t tell the right story, and worse, they are also capable of telling a completely different story altogether. Yet the mainstream media are happy to present them as semi-serious analysis: The Guardian says that from its Wordles for Nick Clegg and David Cameron’s acceptance speeches ‘you can get a good idea of the two leaders’ use of language – and which words were important to them’.  As a linguist I know there are many ways to explore their language use, but I don’t think I would include a Wordle as a method of analysis or of display. Their visual appeal gives them more credence than they deserve.

As a final test, here is a Wordle of this post – do you think it reflects the views I’ve expressed above?

3 June 2010 at 9:02 am 8 comments


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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.


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