Curating information for creativity

In this third video in my series on creative thinking, I go into the concept of curating inputs to the creative process. The combination of our brain and body makes for an awesomely powerful creative machine. We can use our bodies to explore and gather a wide range of inputs and then we can use our arms and fingers to manipulate and rearrange elements within our wide field of vision, and yet much of our creative work is blinkered by computer screens, or worse reduced to the width of a phone. In this video I ask viewers to think about how they can arrange their creative inputs to make full use of their creative faculties.

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#9: Engineering transport in San Francisco with Andrew Kosinski

Bay bridge suspension bridge, seen from San Francisco Embarcadero

I can’t think of metropolitan landscape that offers more varied and exciting opportunities for designing transport infrastructure than San Francisco, with its steep hills, its bay, its rapidly changing economy and its tantalisingly separated land masses.

In this second episode of the Eiffelovercast from my recent trip  to the US (catch the first one here)  I catch up San Francisco-based transport engineer and old friend Andrew Kosinski and we geek out on transport-related matters including:

  • Bridgoff: Bay vs. Golden Gate
  • Tearing down freeways
  • Bringing cycling into San Francisco
  • Is driving a right and it is a freedom?
  • The phenomenon of ‘parklets’
  • Tunnelling through ships
  • Building towers on weak and shifting sands
  • The creative bubble of silicon valley and the unintended consequences
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Using firms like Uber to replace under-productive bus routes
  • Becoming passive consumers of cities

  • Listen to it on iTunes
  • Listen on Stitcher
  • Stream by clicking here
  • Download as an MP3 by right-clicking here and choosing “save as.”

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Trust me, I feel your pain, I have a plan – tools for selling design

The final stage in the arc of design thinking workshops that I have been developing at Think Up with my colleague Nick Zienau is developing the ability to convince other people to adopt your design. In these workshops there are three areas we work on with participants: building trust with the client; three elements of content; and giving effective feedback.


Building trust with your client is absolutely essential if you are going to connivence them of anything. There are two things we concentrate on here. The first is being mindful about the first impressions we create. We all create first impressions, whether we like it or not, but we might not be aware of what those are. In our workshops we help people become more aware of the impressions that they create, and help them think about how to create the impressions they want with clients.

The second thing we concentrate on is developing trust through showing vulnerability. To show vulnerability to someone is to show that you trust them; if you can trust others then they are more likely to reciprocate. In our workshops we help participants explore how they can show their vulnerabilities, such as what they are worried about or where they feel their weaknesses are, and use this as the basis of building trust with others.

Together, managing first impressions and building reciprocal trust with our clients we call ‘gaining entry’.

Three-phase content

For many people, the starting point for any pitch is to work out what they want to say. Aristotle said that for a speaker to convince an audience of anything, then the speaker needs ethos, pathos and logos. Having ethos is to be trustworthy. Having pathos is having a shared sense of their feelings (in particularly their pain). Having logos is to have a logical argument. We can think of these as three phases we need to develop in our pitch.

In my experience, many engineers are most comfortable starting with the logos phase, the logic of the solution. The trust-building that we start the workshop with is an important element for developing the ethos phase, as is the reputation of the companies that participants work for. For many, the hardest phase is developing pathos. To develop good pathos you need good understanding of the client’s perspective, which is easiest to gain if you have a good relationship with them based on trust.

Giving and receiving honest non-judgemental feedback

We now have a plan for getting the content together, but how do we know if the pitch we have put together is any good? Here we rely on feedback from others. But for many, the idea of receiving feedback is dreadful – it isn’t all that fun for the feedback giver either. But when done well, feedback is an invaluable tool for improving our work, and it can be fulfilling for the person offering it too.

To make feedback work really well, we require the person giving the feedback to be really honest, but also non-judgemental. So they should say how something makes them feel, and why that might be, but not to judge it. A judgement is too final and puts the listener on the defensive, whereas talking about feelings offers the person listening the chance to find out more about why what they have done has elicited these feelings.

Equally, good feedback has requirements of the receiver too: they need to be open to receiving it, grateful, and not defensive. The last part is critical if the exchange is going to be useful. If the person receiving feedback can hold off on defending, and instead show interest in the other person’s views, then they can really deepen their understanding.

Taking these tools together, we can build an effective pitch for ideas that says,: ‘trust me, I feel your pain, and I have a plan’.

[This is an adapted version of a post I originally wrote for the Think Up website, posted on 1st November 2017].

Defending New York with Oyters

I really enjoyed listening to this 99 Percent Invisible podcast called ‘Oyster-tecture‘, which explains how, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the city is developing artificial reefs on which oysters will be seeded. The oyster beds will defend the city from storm swell and large waves. As the podcast explains, 200 years ago, the southern end of Manhatten Island was one of the greatest sources of oysters in the world, and these oyster beds woudl have defended the coastline from storms. The oyster beds disappeared due to overexploitation, but now designers are working on bringing them back to defend the city against the impact of severe weather events.

I liked this article because it reminded me of the importance of looking to nature to find more collaborative ways of tackling some of our infrastructure challenges. It is also a reminded of the positive impact that imaginative design thinking can have a positive impact on people’s lives.

Surface travel – Münster to London


  • Six trains and one monorail
  • Leisure
  • 709km
  • £130

Today I take my journey home from Münster to London via a different route from my way out. Outbound I came by ferry because it was cheaper; travelling back midweek I can just about afford the Eurostar. The route gives me the chance for a quick stop in Köln and the chance for an engineering detour via the Wupertaal suspended monorail.

Münster to Wuppertal

Münster is a beautiful town. I’ve spent the last few days staying with a friend and working on my book in the city library. The cities walls were removed to create a circumferential boulevard that is now tree-lined and a major thoroughfare for bikes and pedestrians. I walk this path one last time and peel off at the Hauptbahnhof.

I ride for twenty minutes on a quiet commuter train to Hamm. The flat landscape is filled with a mixture of fields and factories, with the occasional wind turbine. It reminds me of travelling up the Lea Valley north of London.

Hamm station feels in the middle of nowhere but its ten unloved platforms are busy with trains of all sorts coming and going. I get to my platform early and see one of the slightly older German high speed ICE trains arriving. Its bright white carriages are like hermetically sealed capsules. You can imagine this train is capable of zooming along the sea bed as easily as over land.

The ICE train is in fact two hitched together. I watch as the two are uncoupled and the front half pulls away. Just in time, I realise the back half is my train to Wuppertal, and I jump aboard. The land becomes more rutted and we follow an industrial valley that is well scored into the valley – it resembles  the valley of the Seine as it winds its way north from Paris to Rouen in Normandy.

My connection time in Wuppertal is three-and-a-half hours; that was deliberate to give me time to make an engineering pilgrimage to a highly unusual railway, the Schweibebahn, Wuppertal’s suspended monorail. More details of that in a separate post.

Wuppertal to Köln

I’m blown away by the monorail – a great piece of railway engineering integrated into the city. With hindsight, three-and-a-half hours was a bit too long for my engineering excursion and I struggle to find the inspiration to explore the town further. It’s nothing against Wuppertal: I’m just keen to get on. I wait impatiently at the platform for my next train.

If the last ICE train I took looked like it could be amphibious, this train, a next generation edition, looks ready for space flight, with it’s pointed nose and sleek black-and-white lines. It’s a short twenty-minute ride to Köln and before I know it we are rumbling across the bridge over the Rhine. Köln Hauptbhahnhoff is covered by a wide arching roof; beneath, trains come and go from across Germany – and I see my first French train, the Thalys service to Paris.

I have fifty minutes between trains so I visit the magnificent cathedral which is surprisingly right next door to the station – almost on top of it. It’s quiet pews are better than any waiting room I can think of.

Köln to Bruxelles Midi

I get on board another of the sleek new DB ICE trains and settle in. I don’t remember much about this 2-hour leg as I slept most of the way. The day before long journeys I rarely sleep well as I worry about missing my train, and last night’s wakefulness just caught up with me. As we slow down on the approach into Brussels I see some fairly grotty looking commuter trains and I realise these are the oldest trains I have seen since I left the UK. All the trains I’ve taken over the last few days in Germany or the Netherlands, whether high speed or slower, were well looked after. I am reminded why I don’t ever get that excited about train travel through Belgium. I may however just be prejudiced against Belgian railways because they were responsible for putting the DB night train to Berlin out of business when they put up the transit fees they charge other countries for their overnight services.

Bruxelles Midi to London

Bruxelles Midi is an endless warren of tunnels where the light at the end never seems that appealing. I have an hour and a half before I can check in; I bought tickets for a later train because it would save me £50. The beer in the cafe is half the price of the tea, which is a shame as I’ve just decided to give up alcohol for a few days.

The journey flies by; before I know it I am back in St Pancras. As I walk down the long platforms I am struck that in all the stations that I have been through on either my outbound or my return journey in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and France nothing quite compares to the experience of arriving under the magnificent Midland Blue-coloured soaring arch of St Pancras station. A fantastic piece of engineering lovingly re-invented for a different century.

Augmented reality stargazing: unintended consequences

For generations it has been a tradition on the French side of my family to spend summer evenings out in the garden looking at the stars. I happen to know that this is something my great-grand parents were doing from at least their retirement in the 60s, and it is what other families in the village were doing too. When televisions arrived, neighbours didn’t give up their stargazing; they simply opened the windows wide, put the TV on inside and watched it from outside, while still inclined heavenwards.

By the time of my childhood in the 80s, I have no memory of seeing other families outside gazing upwards in the evenings. I wonder if the people watching televisions from their gardens had switched to sitting inside and watching TV with the window open so they could see the stars, to eventually shutting out the stars altogether. But my grandparents, to their credit, shunned the phosphorus screens for the slower moving celestial entertainment.

It is for this reason that I have spent hundreds of nights staring at the same patch of sky from the same particular orientation. I know where the first star usually shines from; where the great bear appears over the horizon; where to expect to see different clusters and motifs of stars. But despite hours of dedicated study, I, nor any of my ancestors seems to have had any definitive knowledge of what any of the stars or constellations actually are. There has been much speculation and debate. That flickering red dot just above the horizon early in the evening must be mars/ no it can’t possibly be mars because it is always in the same place/ it’s actually called Beetlejuice. Our collective space ignorance is further demonstrated when we try and point out to one another where a satellite may be seen crossing the sky: you see that bright star, straight above? Go left a bit to the next bright star, then to that square of really dim stars, then go west about twelve inches, and you’ll see the satellite heading towards to the house.

I share all this to give a sense of the utter familiarity to me of this particular sky-scape, like someone who knows the view from their childhood bedroom window so well that it is impossible that anyone could show them anything new; a scene that is understood through layers of explanation, agreed between generations but never verified, so that you will appreciate the impact on me of downloading for the first time a star identification app and pointing it at the sky. It was as if I had been given a new set of glasses without ever having known that eyes were blurry.

All of a sudden, constellations stretched out in front of me. Scorpio reclining on the horizon, the diving fish of Pisces leaping over the trees in the east. I am looking at the same sky but I am seeing new things – this is augmented reality. That red star of which we had spent so many evenings arguing turns out to be the centre of the galaxy – incredible. I really felt ecstatic. We call out to each other, pointing out new things that we can see with more excitement and intensity than we have mustered for years from these seats.

The next evening, we return to the garden excited to return to our star-gazing. But I sense a subtle shift has come over us. The focus is on the screen and not on the sky; on the augmented reality rather than boring old reality. When the app loses its calibration, I start to believe what the screen tell me rather than what I can see with my eyes, even when the two clearly don’t line up. When I’ve got bored of looking at the app, I start to look at other apps: since I’ve got my screen out why not check my messages quickly. And at this moment the spell of stargazing is broken.

Very quickly the situation seems to be changing from one in which we sat under the cloak of the stars, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in silence, but always together, to one in which we are close-by but in separate worlds. I wonder if in a few years’ time a natural evolution of this scenario will be for us to sit inside where the light is better and check our messages there – with the windows open so we can still see the stars, like our predecessors did two generations ago with their televisions.

This future scenario that I present is of course by no means a foregone conclusion, but it has the characteristics of a pattern that I see myself falling into: using digital technology to solve or augment a particular situation, but in doing so, introducing a set of unintended behaviours, that overall serve to diminish the situation.

Of course none of this information is new. The Greeks new about these constellations. We just needed the technology to help us remember. Now that I know what I am looking at, I need to remember to turn my phone off again.

Surface travel – London to Münster, Westfalia


  • London – Harwich – Hook of Holland – Den Haag – Enschede – Münster
  • Six trains, two buses and a ferry.
  • Leisure
  • 365 miles.
  • £90.

When I first imagined doing this journey I thought it would be a straight-forward case of taking the Eurostar to Brussels, a fast train to Köln and then a slower train to Münster. That is indeed is a feasible route but becomes expensive when you leave booking to the last minute, especially for a trip on the first day of the half term holidays, so I had to find an alternative plan.

Then I remembered the Dutch Flyer, a rail and boat service that goes from London Liverpool Street to Harwich, then on a ferry to Hook of Holland, and then, included in the ticket, to any station in the Netherlands. It’s a great overland (and sea) route if you are heading anywhere in Northern Europe.

Londond Liverpool street to Harwich

I take two empty local trains to get me to Liverpool Street for the 6:30am train to Harwich, only to realise that I could have had an extra half-hour in bed had I picked up the Harwich train from Stratford on it’s way out of town. Travelling this way is always an experiment though and you work out travel hacks like this as you go for use next time.

The Harwich train leaves from a dimly lit platform in the upper teens at Liverpool Street. It looks like any other shabby commuter train; nobody onboard seemed to realise they were on the first leg of the Dutch Flyer – or if they did they were concealing their excitement as clattered through the Essex countryside.

Darknesses gave way to an overcast morning. The train made a strange ticking noise when it stopped at stations.We reached beautiful Dedham Vale and as we rolled along the estuary the horizon on the other side was punctured by occasional steeples.

Harwich International is not as glamorous as it sounds, and it doesn’t even sound that glamorous. But the station couldn’t be more convenient for the ferry port: you climb the stairs from the platform and walk straight into the terminal building – integrated transport!

The building seems oversized – presumably designed for some long passed heyday of the ‘Dutch Flyer’. It has six check-in desks but only one booth was open for the three customers I was among. We went on through passport control, with a similar booth count redundancy of five, and onto a bus that drove me 50m from the shore, up a ramp and onto the ferry.

Harwich to Hook of Holland

The boat trip is a good seven or so hours at sea. I installed myself in the lounge and settled in for a day of writing. Around me people were settling in for a day of drinking. It was 8:45am and the bar was open before breakfast was even being served. The onboard drinking was a bit alarming as the majority of passengers seemed to be drivers. It now struck me that they were getting their pints in early so that their bodies could process them before we got to the other side.

The sea between Harwich and Hook of Holland is a busy place. There are container ships everywhere. We are following another ship eastwards, and there is another on our tail in the shipping lane. And all the while we are avoiding the impressive arrays of wind farms in the sea. Storm Brian is whipping up in the UK and strong tail winds are sending big rolling waves past us.

Eventually we arrive at the port at Hook of Holland, an industrial spot complete with flaring oil refineries in the distance. The ferry passenger terminal is slick and modern. It has an exhibition of models of old Stena Ferries in the waiting area that make me think of the Science Museum.

Crossing the Netherlands

Included in the Dutch flyer ticket – which is only £55 – is a rail pass to anywhere in the Netherlands. But before you can get anywhere you have to find the trains. A new rail link is being built between Hook of Holland and the nearby rail hub of Schiedam Centraal, and so I waited twenty minutes on the windy dockside for the bus.

This leg of the journey is a cross-section through industrial flower production. There are acres upon acres of glass houses, some lit up, many apparently heated, filled with flowering plants, there are huge processing and packing factories, and then eventually we reach snazzy looking management buildings and distribution centres. I’ll never look at a cut flower for sale again the same.

For me Dutch railways are about good modern design rather than high-speed, although they are fairly rapid too. The large stations I travel through are modern with a restrained elegance. Take Schiedam Centraal, from where I picked up a train to Den Haag. It has six platforms covered by an elegant roof that cantilevers out on both sides from a central spine. That central spine runs the length of the middle platforms, and while it necessarily an imposing structure because of all the load it carries, has large opening in it to let in lots light.

Spectacular roof at Den Haag Centraal

I change trains at Den Haag Centraal, a magnificent rail terminus, with towering steel columns that splay out at the top to support a distant roof. By now it is dark again, and as I take my next express train, I can no-longer pick out any features of the countryside I am travelling through.

From the border to Münster

At Enschede I change trains one last time. I am now on a Deutche Bahn service. Somewhere along this leg we cross into Germany, although there is of course no evidence of the border. The only difference is I can understand a small amount of the announcements, which I couldn’t in the Netherlands.

Finally, at 22:45, some seventeen hours after I left the house, I arrive in Münster to be greeted by my host at the station. This has felt like a long journey it has also been very satisfying; I was able to get a day’s work done on the ferry, and read the newspaper cover to cover on the train; and for the first time I feel I have a mental map forming of how the Netherlands and North West Germany relate to each other, and where major cities in this area sit with respect to one another. I look forward to discovering further this corner of Europe.

Beware of Shwaa! – (re)learning to read and write

Today I went to a phonics briefing meeting at my daughter’s school. I joked beforehand that we were going to a phonetics briefing session, liking the idea of working out what all those symbols you see in a dictionary mean, the ones that look like thermodynamics equations. But when you stop to think about it, spelling in English must be equally incomprehensible to the unititiated. I’ve realised that beyond spelling out simple three-letter words and stringing them together to create dull scenarios involving recumbant felines on carpeting, I simply don’t understand how to help my daughter spell out most words.

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Use these 5 apps to create distraction-free time.

Fire Extinguishers by Claudio González is available under CC-BY-2.0
Fire Extinguishers by Claudio González is available under CC-BY-2.0

We need distraction-free time to make progress on our creative projects. At the same time, we rely on online networks and information to nourish our ideas. The trouble is, spending time online is rarely distraction-free. So, is it possible to get the best of both worlds?

The short answer is yes. In this post I share the strategies that I have adopted to maintain distraction-free time while working online. These include five apps that I regularly use to manage what information I see and when.

This post follows on from my previous post 9 ways to build creativity in your organisation, focusing on steps that individuals can take to manage their own creativity. Expect more from me on this theme in coming posts.


There are four principles that underpin my approach:

1 – Know your mode

In his book ‘Getting Things Done‘, David Allen tells readers not confuse time when you are processing actions with time when you are completing an action. The same is true for working online. Be clear about whether you are meant to be processing emails/tweets etc, completing an action or, importantly,  spending time reading.

2- Avoid the inbox

Enter the inbox, get all the information you need out of there, and then leave. If you return when you are in the middle of something else, don’t be surprised if you get distracted.

3- Reduce the back-and-forth

Just because we can respond instantly, doesn’t mean we have to. Instant responses lead to communication inflation, and erode time to ourselves.

4- Remove notifications

Until the last 100 or so years, toothache must have been the bain of adults lives – always nagging, never leaving us in peace. Today, in the age of modern dentistry, what nags us instead, what disrupts our peace, are social media notifications. If we set regular times to look at our various feeds, we don’t need notifications.

5 apps

I am being generous with the definition of ‘apps’, here to mean both ‘app-lications’ and ‘app-roaches’.

1 – Task management – use Bullet Journal

The first app isn’t an app at all, it’s an instead-of-an-app. For years I’ve been playing around with lots of different apps for managing tasks. My favourites are OnmiFocus and Trello. The trouble with even the best of these tools is that they allow you to create never-ending lists of tasks that you could never get done.

Bullet Journal is different. It is no more than a set of rules for using a paper notebook to manage your tasks. It’s simple, and it works. Each day you write down the tasks you need to complete. At the end of the day, you either forward incomplete tasks to the next day, by physically writing them out again, or your forward it to a page for the week or even month ahead, again physically writing down the tasks. It works because every time you re-write something you end up saying to yourself, ‘come on, am I actually going to do this?’

I’ve been using it for four months now and I’m hooked. Here’s a great intro video for using Bullet Journal.

2 – Information storage and online workspace – Evernote

Evernote is a great tool for storing information and for working online. Here’s how I use it to minimise distractions.

  1. As I am processing emails, if I find something that I need to refer to later for a particular project, I forward it to Evernote (which you can do straight from your email), adding meta tags in the subject line so that Evernote can file it for me.
  2. When I am working on a project, I can then look through the notes filed in Evernote that have that project tagged. It’s a great way to get to the information without being distracted by something new in the inbox.
  3. I do all first drafts of longer emails in Evernote – I can even send them from Evernote without having to go back into my inbox.

One really neat feature of Evernote is that as you use it more and more, it starts to recognise when something you are writing is similar to a previous note – this has the added bonus of making connections that I hadn’t otherwise seen.

3 – Online reader – Instapaper

Until I discovered Instapaper, I had basically stopped reading the articles that people were sending me online. This happened as a consequence of being rigourous about not spending more than two minutes processing any email that someone had sent me. If a correspondent had sent me something to read, I would forward it to a folder called ‘browsing’ where it would then languish unread.

And then I discovered Instapaper, an app that you can forward reading informaiton to. When you open the app, all your articles are there but with the formatting stripped away. What’s left is really clear to read.

Since then I usually make at least one time a week when I sit down with a cup of coffee and read my articles for the week on Instapaper. It is really refreshing to spend time reading longer articles from end to end.

If I like what I read, I forward it to Evernote, tagged for appropriate interests. If I want to share it with other people, I forward it to Buffer – see below.

4 – Schedule social media posts using Buffer

I know from looking at the analytics that most of the people that follow me are online at times when I’d rather not be. To get round this I use Buffer to schedule some of my social media posts to maximise the chances that the people I want to see the post do. Buffer allows you to set up daily posting schedules for all your social media channels. You can save time by posting to several channels simulataneously. Buffer will tell you what times your audience members are interacting with your contact, and can adjust your posting schedule to suit.

5 – Clear yesterday’s messages today

This is a great rule of thumb that I only came across recently in the Guardian (thanks Jenny for the recommendation!). I’ve long abandoned the idea of having an empty inbox – as a strategy it takes too much time and I think can actually lead to more email traffic. In this approach, on any given day, you should only aim to deal with yesterday’s emails. You are still responding within 24 hours, which is a reasonable timeframe, but your response has to be carefully written as you have to empower your correspondent to act without hearing from you againfor 24 hours.


My Dad once quoted the following to me (I am hoping he can remember where it came from and can tell us in the comments to this post): getting information from the internet is a bit like trying to take a sip of water from a fire extinguisher.

Yes, we need access to online information and networks for our creative projects – we just need to manage the flow.

Related posts

Podcast Episode 1 – Engineering, creativity and practical philosophy

I’ve been thinking about creating an Eiffelover podcast for over a year. Last week at Port Eliot festival I saw John-Paul Flintoff (@jpflintoff) give a great talk on creativity in which he challenged us to name one creative project that we want to do, and commit to taking the first step…

And so this is it, the Eiffelover podcast, the first of what I hope will become a regular digest of matters engineering, creative and practically philosophical garnered from the people I meet, the workshops I run and the material I read. I hope you find it useful.

To kick off, I created my first episode here at Electromagnetic Field camp, a non-profit UK camping festival for those with an inquisitive mind or an interest in making things: hackers, artists, geeks, crafters, scientists, and engineers.

In this podcast I meet some of the fantastic people here at EMF camp and their imaginitive creations, I dig around to find out what makes these creative people tick, and I get into a fascinating conversation with Richard Sewell about ‘Thingness’, a term he and his colleague coined to talk about the power of making things. Listen now to learn more.

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