I’m writing this flying over the Alps, on BA579 from Venice to London. It’s a big blue sky lit by hazy sunshine, and the Alps look unreal. We just flew a few metres over a contrail, a perpendicular arc into the sunlight, hundreds of kilometres long, a surprisingly distinct temporary structure of curly vapour. Best Installation Ever.
I’m on my way to New York, to help judge the IxDA interaction design awards for 2012. While I’m looking forward to that very much, the timing is not ideal I must admit. I said “yes” to Jen Bove and Raphael Grignani, and to a speech at the Barcelona Smart City Expo which is hot on its heels on Tuesday, months ago while I was still Strategic Design Lead at Sitra, in Helsinki. But things change.
As of this week, I live in northern Italy, in Treviso, and I’ve just been appointed CEO of Fabrica.
I feel incredibly honoured, proud and happy to be in this new role. Fabrica is an extraordinary organisation. Many places describe themselves as “unique”, and of course they all are, but they can usually be seen as a type of school, or studio, or commercial practice, or research centre. Fabrica, hovering between all these things yet resisting the urge to fall into becoming any one of them, is perhaps genuinely without parallel. This makes it a little tricky to explain, but this ability to avoid pigeonholes is also to its credit.
Fabrica is a communications research centre, part of the Benetton group, situated in the Italian countryside, near Treviso, and not far from Venice. Behind that definition lies a hybrid organisation—part communications research centre, yes, but also part arts and design school, part think-thank, part studio. My kind of place.
Founded and primarily funded by Benetton, it started in 1994, running alongside and then producing Colors magazine, as one of Benetton’s many pioneering and hugely influential social and cultural projects. Its core model has persisted over that time; staff plus “residents”; around 70 people in total. Residents get a one-year scholarship to attend, covering travel, fees, accommodation and basic living allowances, and they gain entrance on the strength of their portfolio and a two-week trial. This means they are a diverse, talented bunch, different nationalities, different backgrounds. They are usually 25 years old or under, and must have strong technical abilities and good English before they join.
The work Fabrica does is internal and external, public and private, work for clients as well as personal projects, work for Benetton and many others (from UN to World Bank to World Health Organisation; commercial clients as well as governments, NGOs and cultural sector.) Disciplines include graphic design, interaction design, product design, film, photography, music, sound, animation, illustration, advertising, media and publishing, data visualisation, urban informatics, code, industrial design, journalism and more besides.
The work is globally renowned—for example, a very incomplete list of Fabrica output would note that products are exhibited at the Milano Salone, films have won Academy Awards, campaigns have won Cannes Golden Lions, interactive artworks have won Webbys and exhibited in V&A’s Decode, visual communication work has won Graphis Platinum awards amongst others, and publications include the legendary Colors, a huge influence on my generation and those that have followed. Its workshop series has documented and shared the work of great and emerging talents for over a decade.
It’s a little unfair to select from 600 or so alumni “Fabricanti” who have been through Fabrica, so I won’t do it, but people in that external network have gone on to do amazing things; it’s something I want to work with, and bring a little closer to Fabrica.
Some of you may already know that Fabrica is also an extraordinary bespoke building and grounds, designed by Tadao Ando, comprising a 17th century villa, renovated and retrofitted, with a purpose-built sunken building alongside. It’s difficult to describe, but rather photogenic to say the least. (The quick snaps below are of places that hardly need Instagram's heavy-duty filters to save them, but I have to resist the urge to waste time photographing the building, so they will do).
I'm thrilled with the possibility of having this space to work with, to develop, to open up. I’m also interested in Fabrica’s activities extending into other spaces too (we already have small shop/exhibition spaces in Lisbon and Bologna.)
More importantly though, the people—staff and residents—are excellent, with a range of skills both broad and deep. I gave a quick speech on Monday, at the end of my first day, and although I softened them up slightly with local prosecco from this fecund region, it was encouraging and inspiring to see the sparkle in their eyes, and to share their excitement about our next steps.
(The current website clearly gives you little of all this, we know; it is essentially number one on the to-do list, fear not.)
On Wednesday, Alessandro Benetton was announced as the new Chairman of Fabrica, and Alessandro outlined his vision for Fabrica before the press, as well as announcing me as CEO, and Paul Thompson, rector of the Royal College of Art, as the Chair of Fabrica's new Advisory Board. Again, it’s a great honour to inherit Alessandro’s inspiring vision for Fabrica, and to be trusted to take that forward.
I’ve also had the great pleasure of getting to know Paul over the last few months. While I might occasionally characterise Fabrica as the pugnacious upstart, or startup, whose agility might challenge the established institutions, it’s clear we also have a lot to learn from the likes of the exemplary creative centres like the RCA, and from Paul in particular. His experience across the Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt and the RCA will be invaluable, and he’s beginning to draw together a great advisory board. Watch that space. I’m also exploring various newer models for learning environments, from Strelka and CIID to MIT Media Lab and School of Everything, alongside the centres of excellence like the RCA and others. My father and mother, more of an influence on me than perhaps even they realise, were both educators and learning environments and cultures may well be in my DNA, to some degree.
But the other idea that I’m incredibly interested in pursuing at Fabrica is that of the trandisciplinary studio. You can see me working through this theme in a recent post on nanotechnology and design, and I hope Fabrica might be able to exemplify this idea more than anywhere else. Part studio, part school, part business, with a wide range of skills and perspectives on hand, and small and young enough to be light, agile, nimble and motivated, we need not be bound by the legacy of other places. As regular readers will know, I’m inspired by the thought that we have 19th century institutions facing 21st century problems (thanks variously to Steinberg and Bourgon) and that we might need new approaches to problems like climate change, demographic timebombs, obesity and healthcare, education, social & cultural diversity, urbanisation, public decision-making, an economics of shared value and so on. Our existing tools, practices, approaches are largely insufficient, if not broken; we must make new ones. The Benetton Group wisely set up Fabrica as a place to explore many of these issues; they are as relevant now as they were in 1994, if not more so.
With this stew of perspectives at hand, we might find project teams that contain graphic designers, industrial designers, neuroscientists, coders, filmmakers, for instance. Or product design, data viz, sociology, photography, economics, architecture and interaction design, for instance. These small project teams are then extremely well-equipped to tackle the kind of complex, interdependent challenges we face today, and tomorrow. We know that new knowledge and new practice—new ideas and new solutions—emerges through the collision of disciplines, at the edges of things, when we’re out of our comfort zone. Joi Ito, at the MIT Media Lab, calls this approach “anti-disciplinary”.
This studio works for clients, if we can find a creative match between your interests and projects and those that push forward Fabrica’s broad agendas and also help develop our practice, our studio. Do get in touch if you want to talk about that. Fabrica has often done this in the past, and we aim to do much more of it in future. We're open to suggestions!
We also produce self-directed research, products, personal projects, editorial titles, artefacts, installations and exhibitions too, and the fluid relationship between exploratory personal work and public or client work is to be encouraged.
I am of course, given my background, particularly interested in picking apart how code—or The Network, perhaps—is shaping contemporary culture, “culture” as in cultural production and consumption, but also ways of life, patterns of living, working, playing, organising. Code changes how we think about objects, spaces, cultures, services, communities, practice, everything. We have to fuse it into all our work, one way or another, (although this could equally mean non-Networked, un-coded responses, of course.)
This is work we particularly want to expand, so if you’re interested in being a resident in our interactive area, please apply; equally, if you run a school or studio, please encourage your students or younger staff to take a look—it would be a wonderful development programme for them.
Equally though, I aim to bring architecture and urbanism into the set of lenses we have to work with. Situating spatial intelligence alongside the various perspectives already in-house, and working on projects that scale from pixel to neighbourhood and back again, should be incredibly interesting and worthwhile. I’m also interested in a kind of “gruppo dark matter”, continuing to unpack the transformative strategic design ideas that we were exploring at Sitra. That might include picking up some of the threads in projects like Brickstarter, or developing the kind of practice I wrote about in Dark Matter and Trojan Horses, and we developed for In Studio: Receipes for Systemic Change.
This is not to say any of the existing disciplines or approaches are downplayed; as I said at the press conference, none of these things disappear. For example, photography is as relevant, interesting and powerful as it ever was, perhaps more so, despite being almost two centuries old. We want to expand our range of skills and perspectives, not lose any; all are valuable, and often in new ways. It's more about how we combine them to take forward Colors, Live Windows, Fabrica Features, campaigns, products, new projects, partnerships ...
Finally, a note on Andy Cameron, who was an executive director here until relatively recently, as well as developing the interactive work over the last decade, and who sadly died this year. I never knew him, though our circles overlap heavily. But my first steps along a path which leads me here were encouraged by two things he did: the Anti-Rom CD-ROM (1994), which I picked up as soon as it was available and still have somewhere, as well as the paper he wrote with Richard Barbrook, “The Californian Ideology” (1995). Both shaped my thinking hugely, and rarely for the products of those early days, continue to do so. I hope we will be able to do justice to Cameron’s work and ideas within Fabrica’s future, as much as he did for its recent past.
I could talk more, but it’s time to roll up the sleeves and get to work. Fabrica has been in good hands for many years; it’s now my honour, and my challenge, to take it forward. With an emphasis on connecting, partnering, broadening its range and increasingly opening up, Fabrica is open for business, in that sense.
Do get in touch if you are interested in partnering with us on projects, or if you want to talk to me about any aspect of what we do now, and what we might do next.
And if you like the idea of working in that way, on that mix, in this place—in other words, if you want to be a Fabrica resident—apply apply apply! Fabrica is already incredibly special, but we need you to help take it forward.
The details of our particular mission at Fabrica will begin to emerge over the next few months, through its projects—for now, I’m talking with staff, with partners, with current and former residents, with Alessandro, Paul and the Fabrica board.
Again, do get in touch if you want to work with us: dan dot hill at fabrica dot it
A personal postscript:
With the benefit of hindsight, you can see this move, and this project, traced in numerous other exploratory entries here. And not simply in terms of design practice, learning, spaces, media, organisations and so on—though in some senses Fabrica does tie together many of the threads I’ve been exploring in over a decade of words and images here. But also Italy, with sporadic entries on subjects ranging from grocers shops to gestures, political rallies to Italian trains, interaction design and travel writing, from my work with Domus to that with Experientia for Low2No and my many other friends here in Italy. Huge thanks in particular, though, to Joseph Grima for his support and encouragement. As ever, I owe him a lot.
C and I are thrilled to be moving our family to Italy. And so close to Venice, home to the world’s first virtual empire, a breathtaking urban experience, and somewhat over-endowed with the cultural capital of a major world city despite its current size. And living in Treviso, a medieval walled Middle European city, our new home gives me another urban form to explore, after living in the Modern-era Social Democratic Nordic City of Helsinki, the Post-Colonial proto-Austral-Asian Sprawl of Sydney, the contemporary globalised city-state of London, and the revolutionary industrial, and then post-industrial, cities of the north of England.
A note on leaving Sitra: while the context didn’t allow us to pursue the projects as we would’ve liked, I’m incredibly pleased and proud of the work we did, and particularly the projects we created and nurtured: Brickstarter, Open Kitchen, Design Exchange, Low2No and Helsinki Design Lab. They have helped shape an emerging practice, and discourse, around the role of design in governance, policy and the public sector, and have been the subject of much international interest. The Strategic Design Unit, created by Marco Steinberg, with the team of Marco, Bryan, Justin and our interns, Kalle and Maija, are as good as any I’d worked with, and I’ll miss their insight, experience and camaraderie, and the very few Days Without Ideas. We will continue to pursue the wider strategic design project outside of Sitra.
We also loved living in Helsinki. While our work was often moving against the grain, the city itself was a wonderful place to live (as noted). For me, the centre of the experience was walking our kids every morning through beautiful Ullanlinna and Eira—equally beautiful in the endless light of summer and the pearl white winters—to their päiväkoti (kindergarten/day care), where it’s hard to believe that there is a better early stages education (and general care) anywhere in the world. It’s a special place, and as special as Italy is, we’ll miss it terribly.
As I’m now on the London to New York leg, and British Airways’ on-demand video is as hopelessly broken as ever, I’ve had time to write another note at HDL about all that, which I'll post shortly over there. Kiitos paljon!