City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The ‘Maginot Line’ play

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A bonus chapter from ‘Dark Matter & Trojan Horses’

What follows is one of the ‘plays’ that didn’t make my recent strategic design ‘playbook’ for Strelka Press, Dark Matter & Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary. But I’m sharing here as it serves as a bit of a taster for that essay nonetheless, describing what I call the “Maginot Line” play.

But posting this also gives me a chance to write about some work done at Arup Sydney a few years ago. With my excellent colleagues Emma Synnott, Georgia Vitale and Safiah Moore, and Sydney- and Melbourne-based comms and branding agency Naked, I worked on a project for the Australian government, outlining a strategy that would enable a meaningful shift in the housing market towards sustainable choices. Unusually (for the built environment industry), we chose to do this by addressing citizens’ perceptions and behaviour directly, rather than simply focusing on the supply-side of the built environment business.

There’s a lot in it, I think — it’s well beyond half-hearted ‘nudges’ — and I’d be interested in any responses to that project in particular. Naked’s expertise in behavioural psychology, as well as mainstream marketing techniques, was crucial, and provided our team with new angles to explore. It also implicitly describes how you often have to re-write the brief in areas with little or no precedent (let’s be clear; I doubt this was what the government thought it would be getting when it wrote the tender.) And also kudos to senior leaders at Arup, who approved our bid/approach even though it was almost entirely uncharted water for the firm.

You can download the PDF report describing the strategy here (was linked to from this page.)

Read on, and you’ll see how, in retrospect, I began to think of this as a kind of ‘Maginot Line’ strategy.

Helsinki’s Ravintolapäivä, or “Pop-Up Restaurant Day”, phenomenon (detailed here) is also a Maginot Line strategy of sorts. Rather than spending months engaging with the municipality’s “dark matter”, trying to recalibrate it from outside such that a more diverse street food scene emerges in the city, simply go around the municipality by ignoring its bylaws; or rather, look to exploit the grey areas and create a spectacle that the municipality can do little about.

Therein also lies the issue with the Maginot Line strategy, as I discussed previously. If it only aspires to sidestep dark matter, then its likely that there will be little genuinely systemic change, at least any time soon. Just as with Occupy Everywhere, Arab Spring, UK riots and Athens protests, arguably. The challenge is to find a Maginot Line tactic that delivers strategically and systemically. The Chilean architecture practice Elemental’s much-lauded social housing strategy does do this, I think.

Some phrases in the following “missing chapter” will seem a little odd, as they refer to points already made in the Strelka essay — this is taken out of context, after all. But hopefully it stands up on its own.

PS. I’m aware the story of the Maginot Line is slightly more complex than described below, and usually described. As with Trojan Horse, it’s the popular understanding of the tactic that I’m referring to.

For more on these strategic design approaches, read my short book “Dark Matter & Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary” on Strelka Press.


Play #6: Maginot Line

The Maginot Line was a line of French fortifications constructed along the country’s border with Germany and Italy from 1930–1939, ostensibly to prevent what happened in the First World War from happening again. Built at huge financial cost, the strategy failed suddenly and entirely at the onset of the Second World War. France had considered Italy more of a threat, and had started building from the south upwards. The Germans, in “blitzkrieg” mode, simply went around it to the north, moving with great speed through Belgium.

The amunitions entrance to Ouvrage Schoenenbourg along the Maginot Line in Alsace, via Wikipedia

‘Maginot’ is now synonymous with failed grand strategies aimed at the wrong direction, oriented towards the wrong point. (It is also a good example of the old adage that generals always fight the last war, particularly if they won it.)

Conceiving of strategy can involve stepping back from the play, sensing the overall patterns of movement, being aware of the big picture and looking for the most productive opportunity rather than the most obvious one. These can be tactical manoeuvres rather than strategic, if all one is interested in is a short-term opportunity.

But stepping back and being able to perceive and plot a route and apparatus that leads to a permanent systemic change? That is a strategy.

An example

Increasingly, the world seems like an interdependent system comprising “trillions of connections”. We know that this is daunting, and can leave policymakers paralysed.

But if systems thinking illustrates the problem, much as Rittel & Weber’s 1973 ‘wicked problems’ paper did, it also offers us some solutions. Redrawing the boundaries of systems, or reassessing the fabric with which they are constructed, enables us to locate new strategies.

In Australia, the Commonwealth Government put out a tender for “A Framework for a Community Engagement Strategy for the Built Environment”, intended to unlock a way of selling sustainable built environments to the community, given that the industry was moving too slowly or ineffectively by itself and there seemed to be even a slowly diminishing public appetite to “shoulder costs” to tackle global warming. They wanted a vision of what a sustainable city might look like, and a strategy for consulting the public and the industry, to locate why there was relatively little demand.

Arup Sydney won the tender, and decided to respectfully reject the idea of conveying a vision of a sustainable city and the idea of public consultation.

Instead of banging heads against the wall marked ‘construction industry’ and particularly, ‘property developers’ — who hold most of the cards in the Australian context — the project started from the position of pointing out that the industry will simply sell what they think the market will buy. Not exactly a radical thought, but it unlocked something nonetheless.

Rather than engage in the usual war of attrition with the ‘supply side’ (the industry), in which, traditionally, designers moan about property developers not wanting to build the sustainable housing they all know is technically possible, a more strategic approach would be to actively, directly raise the level of aspiration on the demand side (AKA people.)

Given that meaningful financial incentives for everyday consumers were not an option (there’s no particular political capital to be made there, in Australia), working on the demand side meant instead actively manipulating popular culture with the idea of changing public attitudes and behaviour.

Masterchef Australia

Looking for analogues, it seemed highly plausible that the turnaround in food culture in Australia, just as in the UK and elsewhere, was driven at least in part by the celebrity chef phenomenon and countless TV shows and magazines. Where 20 years ago people barely knew what Thai food was, now they’re trying to cook it at home. Masterchef Australia in particular was profoundly popular and showed every sign of being able to directly change everyday patterns and habits around food.

So the proposal was to create a mainstream TV show about renovation — essentially retrofitting — that would pit streets against streets, apartment blocks against apartment blocks, in a race to the most “value”. Value here meant a complex aggregate skewed toward low-carbon outcomes (although the words carbon and sustainable would rarely if ever be heard on the show, just as the complexity of the aggregate score would be hidden.) The show format would be halfway between a reality show and a renovation show, building on the two most popular formats of the day.

Enabled by an integrated social media campaign, the show would attempt to spark broad interest in sustainable, resilient living choices, building on the psychological ‘spur’ principles of social norming and social proof, behavioural convenience, experiential learning, mass exposure, behavioural modelling and prompting and so on.

It may seem odd that Arup, known for their high-quality engineering and design expertise across major building and infrastructure projects, would be developing a mainstream TV programme, underpinned by behavioural psychology. And indeed it was odd, and it took some advocacy within the organisation to gain acceptance for the strategy. It was still perceived as risky, although that risk was easily offset by partnering with media and marketing professionals — Naked Communications in Sydney in this case — and the actual production would be made by a professional production company, whose selection would be brokered by Naked.

The government would be equally nervous about embarking on something called ‘mainstream behaviour change’; at least the Australian government would be, given its predilection for laissez-faire market-driven approaches over intervention. So the government had to be won over too. It too had to feel that such an approach of redesigning the market was normal, and within reach, just not typically done by this industry, from this angle.

Ultimately, understanding the architecture of the solution system means that a wider range of tools is available, a wider range of tactics. So the interconnected complexity of the problem also offers new potential for solutions. Here, the tactic was to sidestep the Maginot Line of the construction industry and go direct to market, creating a demand which the industry would have to follow.

Having devised this more holistic, arguably more considered approach to the problem, one wonders about the efficacy of existing solutions at all, stunted as they are by their inherently narrow definitions of industry, business model and practice.

In this particular case, the sustainable construction industry has been moving far too slowly. This is partly because of the blinkers on practice within that industry, including architects, planners, urban designers and their ilk, and their model of tackling one building at a time, with each building effectively unique. This is in effect trying to enact change from the heaviest, most cumbersome, least adaptable or malleable end of the system — a carbon-intensive chunk of materials being slowly constructed in the mud, essentially as it has been for years, too heavily linked to a massive and complex global financial system that is variable at best.

The ripples are slow and inconsistent, subject to the vagaries of taste, the legacy of logistics, the unpredictable riptides of global markets, the travails of engaging with the slow-moving policy environment that is gravitationally bound to a slow-moving system.

Conceiving of a wider system, in which the soft infrastructure of culture comes into play, would produce far more effective systemic change more quickly. Industry will follow where they can sell, and buying decisions are cultural. Why not try to affect those, and by implication or extension, reorient the entire industry?

Unfortunately, the craft skills and conceptual outlook within the industry, including most of the architecture and engineering professions, is limited to their training in, and experience of, a business resistant to change. It’s a form of path dependency. As Nye (2006) wrote “when humans possess a tool they excel at finding new uses for it.”

For an architecture and engineering firm to partner with a social marketing agency run by behavioural psychologists was extremely unusual. But it enabled a completely different approach to a problem that had previously been characterised by well-trodden paths leading nowhere in particular.

Another example of the Maginot Line approach might be found in the work of Chilean architectural practice Elemental. Its director, Alejandro Aravena, was part of HDL’s Sustainability Studio (along with the author) during 2010, and the case study of their social housing in Quinta Monroy, in Iquique, Chile, is detailed in full at the Helsinki Design Lab website.

In short, social housing in Chile was predicated on a housing subsidy that was too low to generate good houses in good areas. A well-meaning policy actually reinforced the problem: as that budget only bought a small house, and on land too far from the city, social housing could not generate wealth for the families that bought them, and placed a heavy toll on their lives.

The obvious strategy would be to go into battle against the policy itself, to engage the dark matter in order to increase the comparatively small housing subsidy. But this a) might entail the policy-engagement equivalent of Napoleon’s march on Russia, and b) probably only produce the odd exception for a particular scheme, rather than a replicable strategy that might change the course of the industry, of the policy-making apparatus.

So rather than engage the policy, Elemental decided to go around it. The housing subsidy was deployed, but within a structure that would render it less relevant over time, through enabling adaptation, customisation, and incremental construction, and so increasing property value. The strategy involved building “half of a good house rather than a whole bad house”, within a structure that owners could augment as their wealth increased. The subsidy remained the same, yet the outcome was radically improved.

As well as the ‘Maginot Line’ approach of going around an obstacle rather than trying to demolish it, this case study is a demonstration of understanding the architecture of the problem, reframing the question, involved stewardship, and producing replicable strategies that enable systemic change (the Iquique model has subsequently been replicated in Monterrey, Mexico, winning an INDEX Award in 2011.)

Quinta Monroy housing being constructed
Before and after (or, during)

Renew Newcastle (read more here or at Brickstarter) also demonstrates a Maginot Line strategy of sorts; don’t try to engage through the front door of the town hall, but go round the back, finding a salient entry point elsewhere.

So a more strategic approach to design — new conceptions of the system in question, allied to new tactics and new multidisciplinary networks of craft skills, which attempts to produce systemic change beyond the one-off object — could free up practice as well as more effectively delivering innovation.


For more on these strategic design approaches, read my short book “Dark Matter & Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary” on Strelka Press. This originally published at cityofsound.com on August 13, 2012.

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