Observations –> Opportunities

Yesterday I found myself in downtown Toronto a half hour before my business appointment, so I decided, as research for yesterday’s article on paying attention, to spend that time really observing — looking for confusion, barriers, wear patterns, user torture and duct-tape and string workarounds, and also for ideas and opportunities that might have application more broadly or elsewhere. In just 30 minutes I came up with the following observations, surprising myself at how quickly, after just five minutes of practice, I started noticing things and identifying ideas based on those observations.

  1. Pets and children welcome: There was a small library on the block where I was making observations, and on the gate to it there was a sign with a picture of a dog with a loose leash, and below it a picture of a child holding an adult’s hand. Both pictographs were surrounded by a green circle, instead of the usual red circle with a slash. I have never seen a sign welcoming well-behaved pets and supervised children before. Why not? When I went to my appointment, the president of the company introduced me to her dog at the door to her office. Children and pets are humanizing influences in everything we do, so why do we so thoughtlessly shut them out of so many places? If we were to print up and give away ‘pets and children welcome’ signs, could we simply transform our cities into warmer, friendlier places? Could we, just by doing so, make everyone more aware of the need to accommodate not only the needs of children and pets (so much of our urban environment is overtly hostile to both) but diversity in general, and make us all a little more open-minded, more tolerant, more aware of the needs of others?
  2. Where’s the nearest parking spot?: I watched cars circle a dozen times or more looking for scarce parking spots on the street or in the tiny lots off the main drag. We have cell phones that can talk to vending machines and pay for merchandise electronically. Why not have parking meters, and parking lots, that, when there are spots available, send out a beacon that the small computers in today’s cars could ‘read’? This is not rocket science, and could save an enormous amount of wasted time and fuel. If my car can tell me the best route to take from A to B, why can’t it also tell me where the closest parking spot to B is?
  3. Zoom, zoom: I noticed both pedestrians and drivers straining to read signs and street numbers and other information that was just too small to read from a distance. I saw one pedestrian with a digital camera use his zoom lens to hone in on some flowers on a balcony on the other side of the street (I think — either that or he was a Peeping Tom). Why don’t we have a zoom lens for everyday use? Could we fit such a lens into sunglasses, or cellphones, or MP3 players? And could it double as a magnifier for small print (on maps and CD booklets, for example)? Could such technology actually extend our vision, and increase our powers of observation?
  4. Wheels on shoes: Two people passed by in wheelchairs, navigating the whole block without difficulty or assistance. The world has become much more wheelchair-accessible, I’ve noticed, but in North America at least it remains largely roller-blade and bicycle hostile. It occurred to me that you can now go almost anywhere on wheels (physically, if not legally). I remember a recent fad for kids of sneakers with retractable wheels (or were they rollers)? What happened to that? Why hasn’t this caught on for adults, when wheels are just a more efficient way to move around (most of the time) than our high-friction feet? Surely technology can solve the safety and speed issues that such wheels might pose, and exploit the ubiquitousness of surfaces already designed specifically for people who live their lives on wheels?
  5. Language as art: The name of the aforementioned library was in Inuktitut, the phonetic alphabet (see complete alphabet above) adopted by the Aleut peoples of Canada’s North (and also, I am told, by the Cree). So Mahsinahhekahnikahmik looks like: mahsin. These letters have such flow, such expression compared to our harsh, angular letters. And because, like Arabic letters, a single ‘letter’ stands for a consonant and its following vowel, it’s also economical. Is there an opportunity to do this for English? And can letters, even those that are phonetic rather than ideographic, actually become art, enhancing rather than diminishing the urban landscape?
  6. The joy of umbrellas: In this part of Toronto there are still balconies everywhere, and restaurants use decks and rooftops as their al fresco dining areas (and last-ditch smoking areas). These spaces are covered with a profusion of brightly-coloured table umbrellas, a veritable riot of colour, and they are delightful, inviting, chaotic. These umbrellas are presumably furnished by the beverage companies that bear their names at little or no cost to the restaurant. Why can’t we all buy them, and why aren’t they to be found brightening up other places than just restaurants? The outside (or even inside!) areas of school and company lunchrooms. Over park picnic tables. Anywhere where people wait or gather outdoors.
  7. Using flat roofs: And while we’re on the subject of rooftop restaurant patios, why are so many flat rooftops in the city used for nothing? They could be made into meeting-places for apartment dwellers, thinking places with astonishing and inspiring views for workers in office buildings. Yeah, I know, the lawyers won’t let the rooftops be used in case someone falls off (or gets pushed, or jumps). But surely there’s a way to solve that problem. It seems like such a waste of wonderful space. In Stockholm people have gardens on their downtown roofs. What’s the matter with us?
  8. Fonts as history: The part of Toronto I was observing is old, and recently there has been a nostalgic rediscovery of the beauty of old things. I noticed that many of the new signs in the area use old fonts — flowery scripts, big clunky block letters and other extravagant and anachronistic typefaces. These have unique and extraordinary personalities, and imbue the places where they are found with a genuine flavour for the culture and lifestyle of these forgotten times. I looked through all the fonts on my computer and discovered that this rich and varied history and profusion of different type styles has been jettisoned in favour of clear, simple, utilitarian styles. This is a kind of voluntary poverty of expression.

If I could come up with these in just a half hour of consciously paying attention, think of what we all could do if we practiced doing this regularly, and if there were some mechanism for taking this torrent of observations, anecdotes and ideas, qualifying them, and implementing them as true innovations. Perhaps we all need to get out more, with no destination or purpose other than just relearning to pay attention and think about what it all means, and what we could do, simply, inexpensively, creatively, to make everyone’s life better.

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10 Responses to Observations –> Opportunities

  1. Speaking of noticing Toronto typefaces…http://akma.disseminary.org/archives/2005/06/a_bit_of_toront.htmlSee if you can find a copy of these books: Tracking and the Art of Seeing, and Thoreau’s Method for more on this stuff.

  2. 1. The Aleut are not natives of Canada’s north; they inhabit western Alaska and the Aletian Islands. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleut2. I have also thought of the flat roof thing – this is especially noticable when flying into, say, Toronto or Montreal. It has struck me that flat roofs would make excellent solar energy farms.

  3. lugon says:

    You started observing but with a creative attitude. An attitude would be like the style or the smell in your thinking: weak enough not to impose specific ideas, yet powerful enough to guide you towards “how to make a better world” ideas.A while ago I noticed our minds are like motorbikes that fly over small bumps. But there’s richness near small bumps, and we just need to slow down.Ooom! :-)

  4. Doug Alder says:

    I read some long time ago that even a large city like NY could be supplied with all the fresh produce it needed from something like a dozen or so large office towers converted to hydroponics along with rooftop gardens. When oil hits $100/bbl they may just have to – the cost of transporting fresh food across the nation will be too great for most people’s budgets.

  5. David G. Jones says:

    My Inuit name is pingwatitselereya. I was given it in 1967 when I was working on Baffin Island. I’m not sure how much that practice is carried on today, but at that time everyone had an Inuit name – local or not. You are quite right about the flowing appearance of Inuit syllabics – and so too doews it sound – calm, smooth, comforting with the snse that there are no breaks between syllables – or even thoughts…….

  6. I for one am highly allergic to children – my throat swells shut, I start wheezing uncontrollably, and I have to wash my hands immediately after I leave the area just in case I touch my face and my eyes swell closed. I’m not sure it’s such a welcoming idea to allow them in public places where a growing percentage of the population will be uncomfortable because of their proximity. Smart parking lots is a great idea, except that parking lots are not usually provided for convenience but for profit, and as soon as the land becomes worth a certain amount it is sold. The lot is a placeholder for the property management company, not an end in and of itself. Would they invest in quite expensive technology? Would a municipal lot? Why not just radically improve transit? And I do mean ‘radically.’Rooftop gardens are a wonderful idea. Full-on rooftop agriculture is heavy, and requires special strucural reinforcement, so I don’t know about retrofitting a building for it, but it might be worth the cost, eventually. It would certainly improve air quality, and that might be a good end in and of itself.

  7. Pearl says:

    Syllabics do give another sense of length. Tamil names are long to English ears but aren’t long to write since they are written in phonetic syllabics. A facility the written form gives.Love the pro-pets and kids signs. Hope those crop up everywhere.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Chris: The TTC font always struck me as utterly British — spare yet slightly quirky. Thanks for the book references.Stephen/Chris: Thanks for setting me right. I understand the Aleut and Inuit languages are related but distinct. I like the idea of roofs as solar farms, too, as they’re proposing in Oz.Lavonne: Fascinating story, thanks. Why don’t we hear more about such wonderful models?Doug/David/Pearl: Thanks for your perspectives on this.Renee: I have learned how heavy ice/snow build-up on flat roofs can be (there are actually alerts sent to property managers when build-up is excessive and needs to be shovelled off), so it would be interesting to find whether rooftop gardens would actually weigh even more.

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