Hack your world

16 August 2008

First came the guerilla gardeners, sowing seeds and planting plants in public places without permission.

Then there were the guerilla benchers, installing street seats where the local authority had been too poor or too mean to do it themselves.

On the web, a growing community of civic hackers has been building sites on top of public information to mash it up in new ways that the publishers hadn’t imagined or didn’t have the means or motive to build.

In digital and physical space, if something can be hacked it will be. People are no longer content to live with what designers give them. As Stewart Brand argues in How Buildings Learn, the end of the formal, official design process isn’t the end of design, it’s just the start of the informal process where the users take over and adapt their spaces to their ever-changing needs.

Within the design profession, the practice of co-design is acknowledging that products are better when the users aren’t just consulted but actually participate in the design process. But this is only half the story. Design is part observation and part clairvoyance, discerning likely future needs from current and past ones. When the scope is limited and familiar – a container to hold liquid temporarily for drinking – one has to try very hard to design badly. When the scope is broad and novel – a cashless and paperless ticketing system for a large urban transport system – the risks of poor systems and rapid obsolescence increase.

This is where the hackers, or guerilla designers, come in. Hackers take a designed system or object and modify it for their own needs, sometimes by changing the thing itself, sometimes by combining it with other things to produce new possibilities. Unpaid and usually unrecognised, the hacker delights in the intellectual challenge and the satisfaction of making something for practical use. Sometimes the results are crude, sometimes elegant. The only true criterion for success is that they work.

Relatively few people have the inclination or opportunity to work as big-D professional designers, but as design tools and the hacker ethic become ever more embedded in the general population, the world is looking a lot more malleable than it used to be.

Where do you want to hack today?