FX Talks 2019: A Review


The innovative and challenging FX Talks returned for its third year with another engaging line-up of inspiring radical thinkers


How Challenging Do We Need To Be? The Road Less Travelled…

No matter what industry you work in, it can be easy to slip into the habit of insular thinking. The danger is that by focusing on the status quo of ideas and trends in your own ‘bubble’, there is always the very real risk of missing out on inspiring new developments in other fields.

Certainly, the speakers at this year’s FX Talks event bring with them some very different perspectives, as you might expect from a line-up comprising engineers, academics, writers and inventors. What they all have in common, however, is that they are all independent thinkers in their own field. Their collective careers demonstrate that radical thinking can be found in all manner of industries, demographics and lifestyles, and that outside our industry there is much to learn.

The TED Talks-style presentations ended with what is another key aspect of FX events: the networking sessions. With over 250 attendees from across all areas of the creative industries, there were plenty of varied views on offer, as well as a good deal of synergy to be had.

The FX Talks concept is the brainchild of FX editor Theresa Dowling, who says: ‘It’s scary being a radical thinker. And to think differently means setting yourself apart from the others. But there are great prizes in thinking differently, as Henry Ford pointed out when he said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”’

The Host

Returning to host the third FX Talks, Tom Dyckhoff brings a wide perspective from a diverse career as a broadcaster and writer on architecture, cities and places. As well as having presented four series of the BBC2’s The Great Interior Design Challenge, Dyckhoff has also written and presented The Secret Life of Buildings and I Love Carbuncles (Channel 4), and Saving Britain’s Past (BBC2). A RIBA Honorary Fellow and a trustee of The Architecture Foundation, his wide-ranging writing credits include various books and documentaries, as well as a weekly column for the Guardian and being the architecture critic for the New Statesman. He has also been on the national shortlisting jury for the RIBA Stirling Prize since 2008.

The Nicholas Hawksmoor-designed Christ Church Spitalfields in London was the location for this year’s FX TalksThe Nicholas Hawksmoor-designed Christ Church Spitalfields in London was the location for this year’s FX Talks

Tim Hunkin

Ever-popular inventor Tim Hunkin returned to FX with a talk on mending. With his self-effacing and eccentric persona, he delivered a powerful and comical talk on the satisfaction of repairing products amid amazing images of his self-built machinery. His theme of recycling was present in several of our speakers’ talks.

After graduating in engineering at Cambridge Tim Hunkin’s life took a far from typical route. Instead of following the path to be an engineer he became a cartoonist, drawing a strip for the Observer for 15 years called the Rudiments of Wisdom. TV presenting followed, and he wrote and presented three series of The Secret Life of Machines for Channel 4.

Subsequently, he has worked for a host of museums and exhibitions, creating and building a number of interactive displays, most notably for the Science Museum where he explained complex principles to the public through his wacky inventions.

Since 2001 he has been making comical arcade machines for the penny arcade-style The Under the Pier Show on Southwold Pier in Suffolk, and more recently, Novelty Automation in London. ‘Making arcade machines is a hobby that sort of got out of control,’ he says.

Tim Hunkin

His message was that designers should make things that are easier to mend: ‘I make my machines with “repairability” very much in mind, and yet many of the tools I use have plastic parts that, once they break, have to be entirely replaced, even if just a very small part has broken. It’s very much part of the modern world to throw away rather than look to repair.'

‘This applies to more than just machines. Even buildings tend to have a shorter life, as well as their interiors, since we tend to follow the idea that everything needs to look “new” when, in fact, a lot of materials look better and better as they wear over time.’

He added that we are actively discouraged from fixing things too, with health and safety concerns meaning most consumers would not consider trying to fix anything in their home involving electricity for example, despite figures that show more people are injured each year by falling off sofas than by electrocution.

‘I would encourage you to try to design things to be easier to mend, but also to have a go at mending things,’ he continued. ‘There’s a sort of frisson in being naughty that comes with breaking the seal and voiding the warranty. But beyond that, by mending something it becomes “yours”. If you replace a part in the washing machine, it becomes “your” washing machine, and that’s infinitely more satisfying than throwing it away and buying a new one.’

Professor Michael Scott

Professor Michael Scott spoke of the product design of ancient civilisations and how despite their reputations for sophistication, culture and ethics – this might not have been the case

As a professor of classics, as well as an author and a broadcaster, Michael Scott suggested that in general we misunderstand ancient Greece and many of the references to which we often orientate ourselves today.

‘It was, in fact, a culture that sought to design a way in which to make our lives difficult,’ explained Scott. ‘Far from being a society of decadence and sophistication, it was a pressure cooker society that pushed and challenged its citizens in every possible moment – even when they were supposed to be relaxing.’

He presented a replica drinking vessel and said: ‘The Greeks were smart people, and yet this is what they came up with! The brim is wide, making it difficult to drink without making a mess, and the wide, shallow shape means it is hard to control the liquid inside.

‘The question they liked to ask here was not how much can you drink, but do you know how to drink? Can you prove … you can drink from this without spilling any, and you deserve to be in the same place as those with the ability?’

Now evidence suggests, for example, the early Olympic games would be less a stylised impression of a noble and distinguished challenge of human sport and more a giant gathering of 40,000 people in a small area with no sanitation, little water and possible disease, that repositions our traditional understanding.

‘It’s not a very pleasant picture, but I would argue it is an important one,’ said Scott. ‘There were relentless competitive forces at play – even when they were supposed to be relaxing they were challenging themselves. The constant uncertainty of a life in which disease, illness and disability was rife, left them with a desire to make the very most of every moment.

‘And with very few rules governing what you were not supposed to do, it led to this pressure cooker situation. It’s not a place any of us would want to find ourselves, but from that constant sense of challenge came some of the most extraordinary achievements of humankind, in literature, art, philosophy, and architecture.

‘It is often these kinds of situations that can conspire to make such times the engine of creativity we so admire even today. In many ways, you can’t have one without the other. The ancient world for us should be far more than a saccharine, whitewashed scene we use to advertise perfume or eyebrow waxes or the like. Actually, if we remember what the actual ancient Greece was like, it can offer us far more food for thought now and in the future.’

Dr Zoe Laughlin

Scientist and materials expert Dr Zoe Laughlin is co-founder and director of the Institute of Making at University College, London, bringing her engaging take on materials to shows such as Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet and ITV’s This Morning

She arrived on stage at FX Talks with an intriguing ‘bag of stuff’, which she wanted to use to underline not just the lack of radical thinking shown when it comes to material use, but in many cases ‘the lack of any thinking at all’. She made the point that while we were excellent product designers, there is scant regard for a product’s afterlife and that this needs to be properly considered and ‘designed’ too to avoid the shocking waste mountains.

She used the example of the plastic milk containers sold by the main supermarkets with coloured plastic lids, which cannot be recycled as easily as white plastic. In an effort to simplify and drive efficiencies in the process, recycling organisations established a dialogue with the supermarkets to ask them to consider changing the colour of the most common lid – green for semi-skimmed milk – to white so it too could be recycled easily. ‘Radical thinking perhaps, or perhaps just bloody sensible thinking!’ said Laughlin.

However, it was felt that the buying public needed their lids to be green, and that the most that could be done was to reduce the level of dye in the lids so there was a little ‘less green’. ‘It reduced the problem a little, but doesn’t remove it altogether,’ said Laughlin. ‘This is a pervasive problem. Plastic is the perfect material for this kind of purpose, and we can do incredible things with it, and yet we’re using it in totally irresponsible ways.”

Also out of the bag came a plastic container for a well-known beauty product, which incorporated a largely white design but with its lid section in dark blue – another colour that is much more difficult to repurpose than white. ‘We have to have radical thinking at the highest level, which ultimately means legislative measures that state you cannot use colours and dyes that renders this material effectively unrecyclable,’ said Laughlin.

“Of course, we all have the option of choosing not to buy products that do things this way, but really, it’s very difficult for individual action like this to make enough of a change.

‘Plastic is a world-changing, lifeenhancing material. But that material is also killing us, and we need to deal with our own brilliance better. The “unmaking” of things is one of our big problems.’

She added: ‘We don’t really have designers, engineers, and makers. These disciplines co-exist – sometime overlapping, sometimes entirely separate – but I would like to challenge those in that world of “making things” to think of themselves as material “farmers”. What would it mean to take that whole farming methodology of thinking in the much longer term and apply it to what is such an important part of our day-to-day lives? Farming considers the land’s health in 50 or 100 years hence for best production and so takes action now. Designers need to think of designing for our planet now to avoid tragic consequences and the ever-increasing waste mountains in the future.

‘This is a much bigger timeframe than the normal political cycle, or the amount of time my new shoes will last. It taps into the idea of the circular economy, and taking this “farming” approach to manufacturing materials such as plastic could bring about some huge long-term benefits.’

With more than 250 attendees from across all areas of the creative industries, the FX Talks provided ample opportunity for networking

Professor John Clarkson

John Clarkson is professor of engineering design at the University of Cambridge Engineering Design Centre and also leads a project called Engineering Better Care – A Systems Approach to Health and Care Design and Continuous Improvement

Professor John Clarkson started by giving some background on his past work, and how some of it forced him to re-think how he defines engineering and design. He studied for an engineering degree before working for PA Consulting Group, where he undertook many varied tasks.

‘What came out of that – and out of around 20 years of design engineering – is that it all comes down to two simple questions: how do we do it better, and what could possibly go wrong? I think engineers are particularly attuned to balancing those two questions,’ said Clarkson.

He explained how he and his team have been looking into how engineering risk management can be taken into health and care. They trained almost 600 clinicians across the east of England to do risk assessment within their day-to-day tasks, and that led to around three years ago being asked to take on a working group at the Royal Academy of Engineering, to work with health and care professionals to establish how engineers can add to current practice and understanding of systems engineering and quality improvement in systems design.

‘The academy had something of a running start with this, having worked with such systems for a long time,’ said Clarkson. ‘One of the things they always say is that “systems do not just happen – they have to be planned, designed, and built.”’

While a complex set of structures can be used by engineers to establish comprehensive systems, the danger is that these processes can be unintelligible to those from non-engineering backgrounds, so they looked at a simplified version that focused on key perspectives. But, Clarkson pointed out: ‘Clinicians “get” systems of systems. The human body has a waterproofing system, a plumbing system, a neurological system. And we know the behaviour of the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and that if one part fails and causes local trauma, it can compromise the performance of the whole.

‘In clinical practice, you expect most outcomes to be “normal”. But risk management is as much about learning from the exceptional to improve the normal as it is about avoiding the accidents.’

Clarkson referred to examples of medical machinery that through poor design made it possible for users to input the wrong dosage of medicine, prescribed medicine for arthritis sufferers issued in hard-to-open child-proof containers, and gave patients numerous tablets to take supplied in packaging that – particularly to someone with poor eyesight – could look identical, despite the risk of confusing the dosages having potentially fatal consequences.

Clarkson asked: ‘What is going on, what could go wrong, and how could we make it better? Why is it that we conspire not to understand the people we’re trying to help? What about the language we use? Is it clear and consistent in all aspects of our communications with patients?’

To address these points Clarkson said it’s vital to consider the key questions of who will use the system, where is the system, and what affects the system. ‘By working with our clinical colleagues we have been able to move into a natural cycle of identifying the problems and a better understanding of who will be using the system,’ he explained.

And the outcome of the process? ‘Clinicians were astonished that engineers think about people – that that’s at the heart of what good engineering is,’ said Clarkson. ‘We iterate before we implement – trying to get it right before we put it in place. Design is an exploratory process of trying to find the problem in finding the best solution. Risk management is a proactive process, looking at what could possibly go wrong as well as what did go wrong.’

Professor James Woudhuysen

Journalist, broadcaster and visiting professor at South Bank University, James Woudhuysen set about the task of challenging established thinking

Professor James Woudhuysen raised doubts over some of our generally accepted rules of material recycling that households across the country currently follow. He said our current approach is inefficient and ineffective in a number of ways, and that instead we should be moving towards a system of ‘automated recovery and automated recycling’. This, he added, is just one topic that could be included in a folder of issues to be discussed and addressed by designers and other creatives when talking to clients about a genuinely innovative way forward.

In particular, he warned that failure to track far enough ahead and address the possible challenges we may face in the future has been our downfall on a number of current high-profile topics, pointing to the examples of the Hinkley Point power station and also the political concerns over the involvement of Chinese brands in the construction and development of 5G telecommunications infrastructure in the UK. ‘These could have been avoided had UK energy brands invested when they needed to, or if BT had done more to spearhead the development of 5G technology,’ he said.

‘We need to up the standard of our thinking, and up the standard of our adversarial debate if we’re really going to make progress in terms of thought leadership.’

Woudhuysen believes planning for a future that almost certainly involves a continued shift in business power and influence towards Asia should be at the heart of the long-term picture. In real, practical terms, this could involve restructuring the way we do things so we are in a better position to do business with those in that region: ‘We need to organise for the night-time in the workplace, for more early calls to Asia, [and] more outdoor lighting around offices for the safety and security of staff.’

He also said we need to collect and, vitally, to suspect and keep in perspective more of the forecasts we see about the economy, climate change, and development in general: ‘We need to distinguish between the “real” risks and the “perceived” ones. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in anthropogenic climate change. That’s one thing, but it’s quite another to engage in the complete hysteria that accompanied a 16-year-old activist touring the television studios and parliament in the past few months.’

Q&A

Peter Harris, 
Head of Marketing,  Atrium

As one of three headliner sponsors, what made you get involved with FX Talks?
FX Talks is an acknowledged and respected industry platform that attracts intelligent and imaginative people to explore evolution and innovation in the built environment. As a lighting company that believes artificial light is an integral part of that evolution, from both functional and emotional viewpoints, the FX Talks is something with which we want and need to be involved.

Where does radical thinking come from: team building or individual isolation?
Let’s first define radical thinking. It means getting to the root of problems to explore new and different opportunities. Most thinking in all spheres tends to be evolutionary – if something is successful it will continue to be so, but perhaps in need of a few tweaks or bells and whistles – but when the status quo fails or circumstances alter irrevocably, radical, innovative or lateral thinking is necessary.

Advertising guru David Ogilvy once remarked that no-one has ever erected a statue to a committee. All our great innovators are individuals, driven to question, challenge, propose and wrestle, then to lead a team to prove, develop and realise its own particular radical thought. I’m not sure there can be such a thing as successful collective imagination. It requires an individual magical spark to make that synaptic connection between problem and unconventional solution. But it always takes good teamwork to turn the best ideas into practical reality.

What can businesses and organisations do to encourage fresh thinking and innovative ideas that challenge or break the industry status quo?
Companies create processes and systems to make their businesses more effcient. Paradoxically, this can lead to an unquestioning belief in the ways of working. Every employee should be actively encouraged to question process and identify opportunities in their own area because that’s the very first step towards improvement.

Discussion between departments should also be encouraged to explore how problems impact elsewhere, and from these discussions solutions may be proposed that do challenge and alter conventional thinking. No-one has sole authorship of good ideas. The key is to create a climate in which they are nurtured and harvested.

How important is it to harness ideas and practices from industries outside of our own, and what practical steps can be taken to achieve this?
Every industry believes itself to be unique, operating in a rarified atmosphere. They’re not. At their core, they all produce and deliver something to an identified market, in a competitive environment and in a fast-changing world – politically, economically and technologically. All technology, experience and knowledge is almost endlessly transferable or adaptable. What practical steps you can take to harness and transfer ideas and practices productively requires a change in a corporate culture that finds a way to balance continuous inward scrutiny with the same degree of deliberate external examination – and a process that tests its relevance. Innovation is fine when it’s relevant, but it’s often directed in the wrong way. It’s said the Americans developed a ballpoint pen that would write upside down in space. The Russians didn’t – they took a pencil. Whether true or not, it does illustrate that misdirected innovation is about as valuable as unnecessary invention.

Q&A
Jade Surtees,
Architect & Design Manager, Bisley

As one of the headline sponsors, what made you get involved with FX Talks?
Bisley has been going through a period of significant change and one of our goals is to approach things differently. FX Talks was created to challenge the traditional approaches to industry dialogue and introduce provocative speakers and topics to stimulate new ideas. It was a natural fit for both parties, and on a personal level I really enjoyed the laid-back format and approach.

Where, in your opinion, does radical thinking come from? Team building or individual isolation?
In my experience, the most revolutionary ideas have come from individuals with a belief, who have then been challenged, questioned and critiqued by several other, perhaps less visionary, people. If you have individuals with ideas and teams to shape those ideas into working solutions, you’ll get radical thinking.

What can businesses and organisations do to encourage fresh thinking and innovative ideas that challenge or break the industry status quo?
Creating an environment that allows people the time and space to have ideas and innovate is imperative. We can all be guilty of letting the day-to-day tasks take over. Making time for self-reflection and personal improvement allows fresh thinking and ideas to be nurtured. All teams within an organisation should be encouraged to schedule time for this, no matter how challenging that may seem.

How important is it to harness ideas and practices from industries outside of our own, and what practical steps can be taken to achieve this?
No one organisation or industry has the monopoly on good ideas. We should all strive to share knowledge and learn from one another.

What were the best bits about FX Talks this year – i.e. what inspired you, what made you laugh, what made you think?
I found FX Talks to be creative, witty, yet inspiring. Zoe Laughlin was a breath of fresh air with her simple yet brilliant take on the process of recycling – I will forever more remove the coloured cap from my plastic milk carton before recycling it!

Tim Hunkin was superb too. He is a genius, with the intelligence and ability to create, design, teach and make you laugh. His love and passion had me smiling from ear to ear. In fact, our curiosity for his amusement arcade in Holborn has got the better of us all and we are in the process of arranging a trip to marvel in his radical inventions!

For me, though, one of the most thoughtprovoking quotes of the day I think summed up the theme of radical thinking: ‘To create is to do something that’s never been done before.’

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