What makes a great city?

“. . . we need to get out of our private cocoons more” says Jan Gehl.

In a recent article on CO Design, the Danish Architect and urbanist Jan Gehl talks about five important rules for designing cities. He uses Venice as a model for his ideas and with its pedestrian streets, picturesque canals and a constant hum of activity, Venice lures tourists from all over the world. Venice engages all of our senses and is described as the ultimate people-friendly city.

Today, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and by 2050 it is expected that 66 percent of the population will live in cities. Thus, it is vital to consider ways to design people-friendly cities. Go here, here or here to see a list of the world’s best cities


Photo: Stéphanie Kilgast

“What we have to address now is making livable, healthy, safe, and sustainable cities,”says Jan.

Jan believes that city planners need to consider two issues when planning a city namely climate change and public health. Previously cities have been  designed in a way that focused on “cheap gasoline”. Architects designed cities where people were encouraged and even forced to spend their day sitting in their cars, offices, or homes. This approach to design has led to many health problems and a study in the medical journal The Lancet found that people in suburbs were having shorter lifespans than people who live centrally in cities. People in suburbs simply walked less that people living in the centre of a city and this influenced their overall health.

Another aspects that need to be taken into account, according to Jan, is ways to encourage people to spend more time in public space, designing for multisensory experiences, making transportation more equitable and a city where cars are banned.

Native ecosystem

“If you were to actually make a city that functioned like the native ecosystem next door, it would produce ecosystem services,”Janine Benyus says.

The purification of water and air, and cooling of local temperatures by using nature as inspiration may also make a city more resilient to climate change.For example, by using an ecosystem such as the wetland as a model, where water is cleaned by natural filtration, it may be possible to build cities where more water is cleaned in  a more efficient way . This approach may eventually lead to less energy being wasted.

Nature provides us with a knowledge base that has been developing for billions of years. Yet it is important to remember that the questions and the focus of our attention will also influence the way we search and indeed design different solutions.

Redefining focus

The concept smart cities is fuzzy and there is no absolute definition of the word. Instead, the idea is the solution for designing a smart city varies depending on which city it is and there is no fixed goal rather it is a process where the overall aim is t0

“enable every citizen to engage with all the services on offer, public as well as private, in a way best suited to his or her needs. It brings together hard infrastructure, social capital including local skills and community institutions, and (digital) technologies to fuel sustainable economic development and provide an attractive environment for all.” (p. 7 Smart CitiesSmart Cities)


Photo: Jonathan Leung

A way to gain new ideas and insights is to redefine the existing ideas and suggestions. For example, the idea that  cars should be banned in cities could be redefined as cities should be designed for self-driving cars. Moreover, the suggestion that it should be a multisensory experience could be redefined as cities should be places of silence. Many animals look for silent and quiet places to bring up their young. Blackbirds, robins and song thrusts, for example,  will stop to check that they are not being watched while they build their nests in  a hedge or shrub.

Challenge assumptions

We also assume that cities have the same design the whole year.

Why not different designs each month?

Arctic animals change the colour of their fur and feathers to avoid been seen by predators. Maybe our houses should have different colours throughout the year to minimise the energy that is used.

Or certain structures could be designed to deal with certain seasonal problems such as how to encourage people to ride their bike on a snowy day. Many animals build tunnels in the snow and perhaps this approach could be used to make it easier to ride a bike in the winter.

Safe cities

Let us return to the suggestion that cities need to be designed for people. An approach to designing cities that are great places is to  build them in a way that encourages  people to spend more time in public spaces. It is assumed that a  city becomes safer if people are encouraged to spend time in public spaces. We may feel more socially included and we can meet each other and not only watch different people on screens.

Let us start by looking at the concept safe. The Middle English word safe comes from Old French sauf, from Latin salvus ‘uninjured’.

Safe for whom? Safe from what or whom? Perhaps cities should use airports as a model to make they more secure from terrorist threats. What ideas can be used? What solutions would not work in a city?

Perhaps we could use the rainforest as a metaphor for a safe place? A police station. or your home?

Can you draw a map of your envisioned safe city?



The Charm of Imperfection


In an earlier post about focus, we stressed the importance of paying attention to the focus of the thinking. Taking a problem or challenge unquestioned as it exposes itself may lead to brilliant solutions for the wrong problem. It is therefore required to pay substantial time and effort to (re)define the focus of the thinking.

The problem of attention is best illustrated by the figure-ground phenomenon:  it is known as identifying a figure from the background. For example, you see words on a printed paper as the “figure” and the white sheet as the “background”. However, it is possible to define the white sheet as the “figure”and the “background” as the printed words. Some examples of figure–ground perception shift are:

Figure–ground perception can be expanded from visual perception to include abstract (i.e. non-visual) concepts such as melody/harmony, subject/background, and positive/negative space. The concept of figure and ground fully depends on the observer and not on the item itself.

In art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space occasionally is used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image. It is called Negative Space. The Japanese word “Ma” is sometimes used for this concept, for example, in garden design.

With respect to presented information we called this phenomenon “Left Out” and “Cassandra information“: What is not there?

Left Out

What is not mentioned in the report, intentionally or unconsciously?

We will take the figure-ground reversal a little bit further. Normally, we strive for perfection– broadly, a state of completeness and flawlessness. We value strength, beauty, completeness, velocity, winning etc. Let’s shift focus to the negative face. What is the beauty of imperfection? Amazingly, there is no such page in Wikipedia neither in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Ripping or distressing of jeans, though also arising naturally as a result of wear and tear, is sometimes deliberately performed by suppliers – with distressed clothing sometimes selling for more than a non-distressed pair. For example, Pucci sold “embellished mid-rise boyfriend jeans” for $860 USD. In other times it would be a sign of poverty.

The Golden Raspberry Awards is an award ceremony in recognition of the worst in a film. Most winners do not attend the ceremony to collect their awards.  Notable exceptions include Tom Green (Worst Actor/Worst Director), Halle Berry and Sandra  Bullock (Worst Actress), Michael Ferris, Joe Eszterhas (Worst Screenplay), and Paul Verhoeven (Worst Director)

“The Bad Hemingway Contest” is an annual writing competition that has been held for nearly thirty years, the contest pays mock homage to Ernest Hemingway by encouraging authors to submit a ‘really good page of really bad Hemingway’. Also to mention the “Hemmingway Look-alike Society”, a bunch of “portly gray-bearded old men.”: not being unique is the pursue, but striving for the likeness of someone else is worth pursuing.


It is all about focus shift

It is all about perception shift. A shift from looking for perfection to valuing imperfection. In Japan, it is called Wabi-sabi the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”

What about the 25 inventions that are completely pointless, as a Car Exhaust Grill or a sadomasochistic tea kettle?

Leaning towers seem to attract a lot more visitors than towers standing upright.

A choir for people who cannot sing and are tone deaf was started by Nadine Cooper, 48, who wanted to join a singing group but never had the courage because she was aware she could not stay in tune. Her self-consciousness started when she was a child after a music teacher ordered her to keep her mouth shut because of her awful singing.A tuneless choir for those who . . .well can’t sing: Listen, this bunch is really hair-raising the roof!

 There are hundreds of quotes about imperfection:
At last, imperfection is even a subject of serious studies, for example, “On Ugliness” by  the legendary   Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, semiotician and university professor  Umberto Eco.

Out of Date Concepts – Thinkibility Nibble


Concepts occur in solid form and are often not questioned. After all, they have proved their worth and value. Concepts as an abstract or generic ideas, conceived in the mind, are generalized from particular instances. The more “solid” a concept appears the higher the chances are that the concept was conceived in the collective mind decades or ages ago.

Historically, marriages in most societies were arranged by parents and older relatives with the goal of legacy and economic stability and political alliances. So, the concept then was defined as a kind of business agreement, rather than something that involved love.  It is therefore  not surprising that a concept such as matchmaker – as the process of matching two or more people together for the purpose of marriage –  also got outdated.

In general, outdated concepts can be considered as originally adequate in the circumstances in which they were designed, but now hopelessly outdated because of the changed circumstances, be it economic, social, historical, technological, etc.

Schematically shown:

outdated concept.png

For example:  since we have reduced democracy to selecting representatives, and reduced representative democracy to mean simply voting, a valuable system is now mired in deep difficulties.

” In a referendum, we ask people directly what they think when they have not been obliged to think – although they have certainly been bombarded by every conceivable form of manipulation in the months leading up to the vote. But the problem is not confined to referendums: in an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years. This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today.”

“This blind faith in the ballot box as the ultimate base on which popular sovereignty rests can be seen most vividly of all in international diplomacy. When western donor countries hope that countries ravaged by conflict – such as Congo, Iraq or Afghanistan – will become democracies, what they really mean is this: they must hold elections, preferably on the western model, with voting booths, ballot papers and ballot boxes; with parties, campaigns and coalitions; with lists of candidates, polling stations and sealing wax, just like we do. And then they will receive money from us.”

“Local democratic and proto-democratic institutions (village meetings, traditional conflict mediation or ancient jurisprudence) stand no chance. These things may have their value in encouraging a peaceful and collective discussion, but the money will be shut off unless our own tried-and-tested recipe is adhered to.”

Could we conceive alternative designs for  a system that would express the will of the people, as is the original idea behind the concept of democracy: a system of government in which all the people of a state are involved in making decisions about its affairs?

Look for some real interesting ideas in “Why elections are bad for democracy ” by David Van Reybrouck.

There are many concepts that have become outdated or soon will become. Can you think of any? And can you design any new concepts that can be used instead?

Art and Innovation

What can innovators learn from art?

Observation skills, questioning, and experimentation are  vital parts of innovation. Observing everyday activities can lead to new insights where things can be improved on. It can also lead to break-through ideas.

The innovation psychologist  Leon Segal said:

“Innovation begins with an eye.”


By Johann Zoffany

Innovators carefully watch the world around them and the observations help them gain ideas for new ways of doing things. Observation skills are also at the core of art. Art students are often told to draw what they actually look at, rather than the way they think something should look. Copying someone’s ideas will not in itself lead to a person developing creative thinking skills. A painter needs to learn to think in colours, an artist working with sculptures need to think in 3D, and a songwriter needs to learn to think in lyrics.

Art is sometimes used to help medical students to develop their observations skills. Looking at art can help people understand ambiguities in a painting and also to look closely at something without “rushing to assign meaning to what we see.” Many of us are ready to immediately interpret what we see, yet looking at art can help a person to slow down and really observe things without immediately interpreting things. These skills can also help an  innovator to explore aspects and to help step out of the common way of interpreting things. Quick thinking is good sometimes but certain things are good to slowly digest.

Even if looking at art can help a person to develop observation skills the observation in itself is not enough. Making connections, questioning, visualising, and searching for patterns are also important aspects of art. Art can help a person to make connections between things. innovators often have a passion for questioning things. The importance  of question asking is a topic that has been previously explored in this blog. Valuing questions and being curious can lead to a search for new ways of doing things. Rather than focusing on quick answers, the innovative process thrives on asking questions to provoke new insights, possibilities and connections.

The book The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction is a wonderful collection of Neil Gaiman’s essays, and meditations on life, literature, and the life and love of literature. An inspiring essay in the book explores the ideas and ideals at the heart of Bradbury’s classic book Fahrenheit 451. This book is a great reminder of how important it is to explore one’s values. Neil suggests that speculative fiction gives  us a “liberation of vision”. Yet in order for this to happen, we must acknowledge that each story has a multiplicity of meanings.


Authors can offer an imagined but nevertheless persuasive alternative reality where the readers are offered a way to escape from the usual traditional way of thinking. New possibilities can be examined. It is easy to think that the way we live now is somehow the only way that the world can be organised.

Three questions can help an author to imagine possible worlds:

  • What if …?  This question provides a way to escape from the world. What if I could fold up my car?
  • If only … Allows us explore something exciting as well as the terrifying  about the future. If only there were no cars.
  • If this goes on … What would happen if that thing became bigger, became all-pervasive? Does not try to predict the future rather explores possible scenarios. If this way of parking cars goes on there will be no green spaces left in the cities.

Innovators are examining and trying out new ideas. Testing hypothesis and visiting new places and worlds. Imagining different futures is a fundamental aspect of the innovative process and reading books about the future can provide valuable insights. It can also help us develop skills to examine possible futures. A world that does not yet exist!

To think.

To imagine.

To change.


Photo: Kevin Krejci


Bootcamp Thinkibility University

We believe there should be a university that is solely dedicated to the in-depth exploration of “thinking”.

Earlier we wrote some Thinkibility Nibbles  about how a University that teaches how to think, not what, might look like. In the West Wing scientists and students dissect the existing basic thinking patterns in a scientific discipline. In contrast to this, in the East Wing scientists and students will study the thinking strategies of the world’s most creative, most critical and/or most profound thinkers at the moment. They will re-engineer, or reverse engineer their thinking, in order to learn new ways how to think.

Before entering the Thinkibility University candidates will have a profound understanding of thinking as-a-skill.  They are able to apply structured thinking techniques and are well-educated in the foundations of most scientific disciplines. They are able to express their thinking in written form, but also in a visual way. They have experienced how thinking influences emotions and vice-versa, and how groups define the thinking and the other way around. The Thinkibility Bootcamp is analogous to a Physical Bootcamp.


Topics in the bootcamp thinkibility skills training could be the following one. If it is referred to a link, it means that we have published on the blog some preliminary explorations into the topic.

And of course, study skills like speed reading, memory, presentation techniques, note taking,  etc

The key issue in the Thinkibility University Bootcamp is practice thinking.

Next time some reflections on what happens in the Art and Innovation wing. There must be a connection, but what could it be?

And about another wing: Language, Culture and Thinking as an important faculty at the Thinkibility University. Is thinking really universally?




Reversing the Roles- Kids influencing Parents

Parents’ role is to influence children in a positive way.

If you reverse this assumption and you may invent something exciting. Like a smartphone game that turns kids into helpful back-seat drivers. The underlying idea is that kids can help parents to drive safely. By playing a game called Mr Bear Driver kids can learn about traffic safety and the game encourage them to tell their parents about safe driving.

Car journeys are from a kid’s perspective often long and boring and finding ways to occupy their minds is not always easy. This game is activated when the players are in a moving vehicle. Kids navigate a school bus full of animals in this game developed by the Automobile Club of Romania and Publicis Romania for the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile.

The school bus picks up passengers and points along the way to school. Now to the real exciting bit – the game replicates the speed of the car the kid is in by using GPS. So if the car is travelling to fast, the game prompts the child to tell the driver to slow down. If the driver does not slow down, the kid loses points and eventually the game. A fun game where kids learn about road safety and at the same time may influence the parents to stay within the speed limit.


Reversal assumptions about a particular subject area can lead to creative insights.Sometimes this creative technique can lead to wild and crazy ideas but sometimes you may hit on something that can be a real winner (crazy and wild ideas should always be explored, an initial suggestion is seldom the perfect solution and ideas can be improved upon).

The reversal technique helps you to escape from the “normal” way of looking at a problem. It may trigger new ideas and help you to explore the situation from a new perspective. It opens up new exciting possibilities and this approach may be particularly useful when you are developing new products.

Learning that excessive speeding is not a good thing is a great skill. What else can kids teach parents?

What can you reverse to develop a great game? Or to get ideas for a new product?

The Life House – Thinkibility Nibble


Photo: School of Life

Gijs and I have spent many hours exploring ideas and theories related to the importance of the environment when discussing thinking.

Thinkibility is about the agility and skill in thinking. A biological approach to thinking, where it is assumed that thinking takes place in an environment and the characteristics of the environment influences the end results. Thinkibility is concerned with describing ways to create environments that lead to “fruitful” end results.”

The School of Life with the philosopher Alain de Botton has built together  with Living Architecture and the architect John Pawson a house that is perhaps perfect for meditation. The house is set amidst a landscape of hills in Wales. The idea is that the visitors should leave the house feeling calm and re-invigorated.

Japanese design as well as the architecture of Benedictine monks influenced the design of this house which is simple, calming yet also luxurious.

I love the design yet I cannot help to think dive into what a house or a section of a house that sparks ideas as well as sharpen your problem-solving skills would look like. All sorts of ideas are swishing through my mind about ways to not only calm people’s mind but also to tempt them to explore possibilities.

What does your special house built to spark new ideas look like?