18 November 2008

Design and recession II

Some very interesting discussions on design thinking over on Tim Brown's blog (IDEO) and in particular on a nascent approach to innovation called restorative innovation. This was an output of a recent conference in Dubai that Brown and other design luminaries such as Bruce Nussbaum (blog BusinessWeek), and Alice Rawsthorn, IHT, attended. The term restorative innovation is an interesting one, and I'm pasting here my comment on Brown's blog entry on the issue:

A restorative is something that an individual would take to make them stronger, to bring them back from ill-health, etc. Restorative thinking is about going back to some point of stability, balance or equilibrium and taking another look, another think. It is, in a manner of speaking, a mental regrouping, so as to allow for time to think anew. Restorative innovation is getting back to a known point and looking at the challenge(s) with a fresh eye, considering new facets, data, perspectives, etc. The known point is important as it has to be one at which one can breathe and reflect - a point of relative stability. I suppose that the analogy in today’s world would be a “getting back” to the basics, or fundamentals, those elements that most can agree upon. Specifically, and in terms of the ongoing financial crisis, it might be getting back to good conservative banking practices and refocusing the banking industry on being a cornerstone of community.

Following up on the earlier entry on design and recession, the idea of seeking a point of balance and stability so that future innovation has a solid foundation upon which it can thrive, whether it be in services, products or systems, seems entirely apropos in an environment in which nations are reeling from financial wizardry run amok. Restorative innovation (or whatever one might call it) could well be the ticket for design in times such as these. It never hurts to get back to the fundamentals.

Design and recession

Alice Rawsthorn, writer at the IHT, has an interesting piece on the role of design during hard times. One might dispute some of the products that are highlighted - particularly the anti-style driven jumble of drawers by Tejo Remy that, if anything, makes a mockery of hard times - but the key message of the piece can be found in the last line, and it is an important one. Rawsthorn asks what should design be focussed on in these recessionary times: "... whats the most exciting role for design? Developing new business concepts and cracking social problems, or making expensive, uncomfortable furniture?"

Ms Rawsthorn has put her finger on the importance of design and designers in responding to the myriad of challenges that recession is throwing our way. Of course design is no panacea, and many of the challenges cannot be fixed by changing a shape or font or material, but taking a fresh look at some of the more mundane, awkward challenges (some of which have been discussed in other entries) that face the consumer, the line worker, the middle manager, the public servant, the community and indeed the nation, would be incredibly valuable and a challenge worth rising to. What better way to dispel the notion that design equals expensive, uncomfortable furniture?

17 November 2008

'There's nothing worse in the world than "not knowing".'

'There's nothing worse in the world than "not knowing". The Internet quite simply helps me to know,' said Bernard Featherstone from Eccles, near Salford, Manchester, England, named Silver Surfer of the Year for 2008. Silver Surfer Day recognizes the importance of social inclusion and the role that the Internet can play for the elderly in maintaining family ties, finding new friendships, building community and pursuing dreams. The comments by the finalists, and their blogs, are testament to the Internet's incredible ability to empower.

12 November 2008

Design thinking and infrastructure

The cry for a longer term focus on, and funding for, infrastructure is recurrent and warrants attention, all the more so because it is a mundane yet critical contributor to a nation's competitive advantage. An earlier posting suggested that the nation's moribund physical infrastructure is ripe for design thinking - yet how does one apply design thinking to something as essential, complex and yet ordinary and under-valued as infrastructure?

Part of the challenge is of course understanding what exactly design thinking is. Much discussed, there are few good definitions, although the following are quite useful: Luke Wroblewski's article does a nice job of comparing business and design approaches to problem solving; Tim Brown's blog overs the subject well (albeit in a somewhat diffuse manner); and, David Burnley, Red Hat's VP of Brand Communications and Design, provides a very good overview. In a generic sense, design thinking is 1) about addressing challenges in ways unconstrained by accepted wisdom, existing "solutions" and narrow parameters; 2) looking at challenges as opportunities rather than problems; 3) looking at challenges holistically, taking into account the user and other stakeholders, as well as dimensions and considerations, etc., that would typically be considered beyond those associated with the challenge at hand; and 4) looking at longer term (innovative and value building) solutions rather than short term fixes. When applied in the context of transformation design - which "seeks to create desirable and sustainable changes in behavior and form ... of individuals, systems and organizations" - there appears to be an opportunity for design thinking to suggest innovation in infrastructure development and deployment.

So where does one start? In addition to the resources listed in an earlier blog, this piece by Gregory Fenves, Dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, entitled Innovating the 21st Century Physical Infrastructure is incredibly useful. In it Fenves outlines some overarching themes including sustainability, safety and security, economics and scalability, and then goes on to identify key areas for what he calls "frontier research" including materials, flexibility and adaptability, distributed sensing and control, modeling and simulation and economic operation and risk management. He notes that infrastructure systems are siloed and work to date has been largely on patching what exists, while what is really needed is an interdisciplinary approach that encompasses, inter alia, nano-engineering, the study of socio-economic systems and cyber infrastructure, and one that puts an emphasis on innovation and breakthrough opportunities.

It is hard to get excited about infrastructure, but it is crying out for a more holistic, multi-disciplinary, innovative and longer-term perspective, one that can evolve and meet our needs rather than the current band-aid approach that has resulted in a crippled infrastructure not much evolved from the last great build period between the 1940s and 1960s. What is missing is strategic innovation: consider, for example, the impact of intermodal freight transport and how that revolutionized the movement of goods; or the development of the electric power grid, and how it revolutionized energy provision and use. What new systems are required today? What new systems will be required for tomorrow? Infrastructure also needs to be looked at in the context of some important related issues such as sustainability, climate change (concrete production produces significant green house gases), migration (new centers of population, urban blight, etc.) and local natural resource availability.

Taking a design thinking approach would encourage a truly collaborative multidisciplinary initiative - bringing together engineers, urban planners, architects, social anthropologists, economists, policymakers, transformation designers, etc. - that would likely result in a comprehensive exploration of the opportunities for building an infrastructure that evolves with need and use, embraces innovation in systems, processes, structures and materials, and, most importantly, safeguards global a nation's competitive advantage.