04 June 2009

Elegant design: the purse lock twist tie

No this isn't about some new fashion in neckerchiefs; it's about a simple twist tie. If ever there was a product that epitomized elegant design it is the omega shaped purse lock twist tie. Locking and unlocking it is simple. It wears better and is quicker to use than the paper or plastic coated wire tie. It has a precise yet comfortable form factor, one that makes you put it in your pocket and fiddle with it. Don't take my word for it - read the reviews!

Taking a shower and user-centered design

In an upscale hotel in Barcelona the instruction card below is prominently displayed in the bathroom to allow the guest to be able to manipulate the bath and shower controls:

The card is necessary because the bath/shower controls (pictured above) are not labeled or intuitive - three controls that are identical in look and feel but have distinct and different purposes. Unfortunately, the card itself is hardly comprehensible, let alone memorable, so that by the time you have stepped into the shower you have already forgotten the way the taps have to be turned and pushed.

The result is a frustrating and uncomfortable experience with the elegance of the taps, the marble bath and the pleasing color scheme quickly forgotten. The cost to the hotel is a disgruntled guest who may or may not return or recommend the hotel to others. Thus something that is intended to please is, unfortunately, having the opposite effect. All designers would do well to occasionally revisit the user-centered design classic by Don Norman entitled The Design of Everyday Things.

24 April 2009

How community drives environmental change

The Danish Island of Samso is a well-known environmental case study. The island has achieved energy self-sufficiency from renewable energy sources over a period of 10 years. It is a case study not only in terms of the success in moving from being fossil fuels dependent to wind and bio-mass based energy independent, but also in how important it is to leverage community, to build a common vision and purpose, and to promote ownership when it comes to tackling the global challenge of climate change at the local level. For those with an interest in the island's progression to energy independence, a report published in 2007 provides ample data and analysis. An article in the New Yorker captures the transformation well:

"Most Samsingers heated their houses with oil, which was brought in on tankers. They used electricity imported from the mainland via cable, much of which was generated by burning coal. As a result, each Samsinger put into the atmosphere, on average, nearly eleven tons of carbon dioxide annually. Then, quite deliberately, the residents of the island set about changing this. They formed energy co√∂peratives and organized seminars on wind power. They removed their furnaces and replaced them with heat pumps. By 2001, fossil-fuel use on Sams√ł had been cut in half. By 2003, instead of importing electricity, the island was exporting it, and by 2005 it was producing from renewable sources more energy than it was using."

What is most interesting is the community dimension and how a small, relatively conservative farming based community embraced and enabled the island's transformation.

In a piece in the Guardian newspaper, author Robin McKie interviews Soren Harmensen, the individual who spearheaded the effort. He recognizes that what has been achieved in Samso may not be easily replicated elsewhere (the island benefits from sustained winds, lower per-capita energy consumption and higher per-capita available bio-mass (vis-a-vis the Danish population)): "This is a pilot project to show the world what can be done. We are not suggesting everyone makes the sweeping changes that we have. People should cherry pick from what we have done in order to make modest, but still meaningful carbon emission cuts. (See prior blog post for more on cherry-picking and low hanging fruit to affect environmental change.) Harmensen goes on to note, however, that what really made the project a success was community engagement: "The crucial point is that we have shown that if you want to change how we generate energy, you have to start at the community level and not impose technology on people."

The article highlights another key element in the community's engagement - buy-in and not just at the conceptual level, but also at the financial level. Everyone has a share (whether through individual or cooperative ownership): "'No one minds wind turbines on Samso for the simple reason that we all own a share of one,' says electrician Brian Kjar... And that is the real lesson from Samso. What has happened here is a social not a technological revolution. Indeed, it was a specific requirement of the scheme, when established, that only existing, off-the-shelf renewable technology be used. The real changes have been those in attitude... 'Everyone knows someone who is interested in renewable energy today,' (Kjar) adds. 'Something like this starts with a few people. It just needs time to spread. That is the real lesson of Samso.'" The role of the municipality (local government) is also important - on Samso five of the 10 offshore wind turbines are owned by the Samso municipality, providing important local government support and commitment.

While Samso is a unique experiment, many of the lessons learned can be applied in other environments. There is no reason that other communities cannot adopt similar approaches to implementing change at the local level that will have a positive impact on the environment. Lasting global change will be brought about by local action - but it does not have to be as comprehensive as the Samso example. Local projects to increase renewable energy usage are essential to environmental progress, no matter their ambition. And as important as the technologies are, the real determinants of success are a community wide purpose and vision and a very real sense of ownership, as the island's experience shows.

23 April 2009

Fix the simple things first

Global climate change is a "wicked problem" - convoluted, interconnected, complex and dynamic. It appears to be an unsurmountable challenge. Yet sometimes it pays to start with the simple things first: affecting change through addressing low-hanging fruit may be a way to show progress in this intractable challenge. Black soot is one of those low-hanging fruit. The NYTimes carried an excellent article recently on the impact of wood stoves in the developing world on climate change. And not only is it an environmental issue, but it is also a pressing health issue:

"Doctors have long railed against black carbon for its devastating health effects in poor countries. The combination of health and environmental benefits means that reducing soot provides a “very big bang for your buck,” said Erika Rosenthal, a senior lawyer at Earth Justice, a Washington organization. “Now it’s in everybody’s self-interest to deal with things like cookstoves — not just because hundreds of thousands of women and children far away are dying prematurely.”

Research in 2006 suggested that "burning firewood -- the principal fuel for cook stoves in the developing world -- produces 800,000 metric tons of soot worldwide each year. In comparison, diesel cars and trucks generate about 890,000 metric tons of soot annually. These two sources each account for about 10 percent of the soot emitted into the world's atmosphere each year..."

According to the NYTimes article, a bill in the US Congress would authorize the US EPA to provide aid for the deployment of 20 million new stoves. Good new for the likes of Project Surya which is one of a number of parties urging basic change in India and elsewhere. Good news also for innovations in this space, such as the Chulha stove and the Kenya Ceramic Jiko portable stove.

To bring about change one has to look at the fundamentals - and sometimes they are so basic, so ordinary, so everyday, that we fail to see them. Affecting small changes in human behavior and practices and enabling simple innovations in product, service or organizational design can bring about a substantial impact. Treaties and other global mechanisms must be accompanied by a more systematic approach to addressing environmental challenges at the local, national and regional levels, otherwise commitments agreed to at the international level will be for naught. Encouraging cleaner, healthier cooking is a case in point - a small and mundane step in the scheme of things perhaps, but one that results in substantive change nevertheless.

07 April 2009

The nursing home of the future

Business Innovation Factory has undertaken some excellent work on how innovation and systems thinking can help re-architect the nursing home. The BIF work shows how inadequately most nursing homes address the challenges the elderly face. How the physical space is designed - how long the hallways are, how adapted the sinks and counters are to wheel chair use, etc. - is key to the well-being of the residents. But it is not only the home itself that is important - the home and its residents are part of the local community and ensuring accessibility to the community is also an essential component of the elderly care system. As a doctor notes in one of the videos, before moving into nursing homes most residents could probably access some green space - either their back garden or nearby park, etc. Once inside that ability is drastically reduced thereby depriving residents of the joys of being outdoors (and the physical and psychological pleasure that is derived from it). BIF's work shows how important it is to re-think and redesign not only the home itself but also the home's place in the community and local environment. The welfare of the elderly in our societies has been grossly neglected and this work, and work undertaken by Participle for example, are important steps to building environments and communities in which the elderly can thrive. Such initiatives need to be encouraged, at local and national levels - after all, we all become elderly eventually.

30 March 2009

Systems thinking, design thinking and strategic foresight

When one looks at the most pressing challenges that humanity faces, challenges typically related to energy supply and use, environmental stewardship, health-care and education reform and restructuring, economic development, rebuilding of basic infrastructure, etc., none are simple and most daunting in their scale and complexity. Yet there are strategies available to address these challenges, strategies that can provide the means for the development of new solutions and ways forward. The need for new approaches, or for the combination of different approaches, has become all the more apparent as the financial crisis and recession have shown the fickle nature of the supposedly resilient global economy. Global recession has also pointed up structural weaknesses at national levels, bringing to light failures in financial systems, health-care systems, infrastructure, etc.

Typical linear or reductionist approaches to these challenges no longer work. We have created problems whose complexity now requires different models and new thinking: Einstein said it best when he suggested that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them". Indeed, many of our problems have been insidiously metastasizing over time, increasing in their complexity, their interrelatedness and their global nature and reach. Old ways no longer suffice.

While "blank slate" approaches are not realistically feasible, there are ways of enabling new thinking and new solutions. Seeing beyond the complexity of these challenges can be best achieved through the systems thinking lens, in which the totality of the challenge and its interconnectedness is revealed. It is only by understanding the relationships (particularly the interdependencies) between the various elements of the challenge that one can begin to assess where the points of focus for "solutioneering" should be. This is when the two other approaches step in: design thinking hand-in-hand with strategic foresight. Design thinking is an innovation-oriented design discipline that applies design methodologies to problem solving, increasingly outside the design field (in business and public services, for example). Strategic foresight comprises methodologies to better anticipate and understand possible future outcomes through scenario planning, forecasting and other tools. A combination of design thinking and strategic foresight allows for a future-oriented solutions-based approach to addressing the critical focus areas of these seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Imagine, if you will, the question of education reform. One cannot look at the education system in any nation without considering, for example, its social, economic and political importance, its relevance to future national development and individual well-being, the focus of the curricula given the evolving nature of society and economy, the physical diffusion of schools and the impact on community, etc. Education reform is not just about fiddling with testing schedules and questions sets... Systems thinking allows for the complexity and interconnectedness of the education system to be fully appreciated and understood, and for its weaknesses to be identified. Design thinking and strategic foresight allow for solutions-based forward-looking strategies that provide for a variety of approaches to implementing actual (and hopefully substantive and future-proof) reform.

Using systems and design thinking and strategic foresight, is, of course, no overnight panacea for the pressing issues related to climate change and our (ir)responsible stewardship of the planet for example. Much more is needed - including, above all, the will to change. But the combination of these three approaches may provide for a new and more capable, comprehensive and solutions-oriented means to understand and address the challenges that nations and humanity face.

For further thinking on the relationship between design and strategic foresight, see here.

29 March 2009

The breadth and depth of innovation

Once in a while one stumbles across an article or commentary that gives dimension and/or context to one's interests and endeavors. For those who interested in innovation in all its facets, and particularly those looking at the changing nature of innovation, a brief article by Lawrence Husick, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, outlining the "25 most important innovations" (of all time) is a fascinating read. The list is broad and varied, and breaks down roughly into 3 groupings: the first directly related to developments in sciences and technology, the second to organizational and skills related change, and the third to developments in ideas and thinking.

Husick's definition of innovation is particularly apropos to today's discussion of the role, value and need for design and innovation. He talks about innovation as "a process of making changes by introducing valuable new methods, ideas, or products. “Innovations” are the things themselves--the ideas, methods, and processes. It’s not simply that better mousetrap; it’s different ways of thinking and doing. Innovations may of course be inventions, but they may also be beliefs, organizational methods, and discoveries."

When one considers developments in the design space it is all about new areas of application - no longer just product/industrial design, but design across services, systems, structures and organizations. Humankind has been innovating and designing in these spaces since the dawn of time (as the list so admirably shows) driving and deriving value from innovations that are not easily traded or bartered. With a 20th century value system (value in the sense of both belief and price) that is based on the individual and not the group (or the community), we have lost any notion of the value of that which is important to society. The systems (e.g. education) and structures (e.g. infrastructure) upon which society is dependent are woefully under-resourced and the time for the application for efficiency and efficacy-driven transformation design approaches, among others, is nigh. After-all, innovation should not just be about "high" technology (a very blinkered 21st century view) but about the evolution of the entire economic, political and societal construct within which we live our lives.

24 March 2009

From Alswider to Abaster

Please note that the blog has been renamed and the address has changed. Many thanks for your understanding and continued support.

17 March 2009

Design elegance revisited

In an excellent article on 3M and design, Mauro Porcini, Director of the 3M Design Center in Milan, Italy, says that elegance in design is not about aesthetics but about “the minimum number of elements that can make the product the best one to deliver the highest level of experience that I want to deliver.” Exactly. See here for more on elegance in design.

13 February 2009

Off-season: the predictable recession

A wintry January day in the beach resort of Scheveningen provided wonderful photographic material. But when looking back over the images an analogy between the off-season and recession started to form. In many ways seasonal businesses cannot survive without looking for opportunities to build or sustain the business in the off-season. They cannot afford to be idle, lay off employees and just ride out the inclement weather. They get creative, they build stronger customer relationships and brand loyalty. They prepare for the better weather that will assuredly come and invest in their assets and infrastructure, rebuilding or improving those critical business drivers that keeps the business thriving and the customers returning. They prepare for the on-season in the off-season, just as those in the throes of a recession need to prepare for the recovery. Businesses should take a leaf from the seasonal business entrepreneur's handbook and invest for their future in these difficult times.

The public sector and design

A number of luminaries in the design world attended the World Economic Forum in Davos this year to find, contrary to prior years, that design had taken a back seat (see Nussbaum) due largely to more pressing topics such as recession, reform of the global finance sector and Gaza. Understandable, but what did surprise them was the lack of interest in discussing innovative, transformational and/or forward looking responses to these issues.

Of course when a politician or public servant is faced with crises of this magnitude there is a tendency to revert to the "let's just get through this" approach – after all, the collapse of banking systems and economies is an all-consuming matter. The “design approach” is far more complicated, typically taking a "let's rethink and re-architect how we address these challenges" approach. The first response is band-aiding/quick-fixing the economy; the second is to look at what can be done to address current challenges while creating a foundation for future growth. Perhaps the first is necessary in the immediate term, but the second is essential for the longer term.

The design community's approach is, however, further challenged. While the public servant probably does recognize that innovation in public services is important for greater efficiencies, effectiveness and individual and community welfare and wellbeing, receptivity is low (right now) to this kind of terminology. There is much skepticism about "innovation" – it has been unfortunately over-used and abused. The fact that design was marginalized in Davos confirms that it is unlikely that it will be seen as a vehicle for substantive public sector change without putting it in a “relevant” context.

So how does one get government leaders beyond the “let's just get through this” approach? One probably needs to speak the language of the moment and get in their frames of reference. These times are about economy, society, financial meltdown, unemployment, shortages, etc. So the design community needs to talk about these challenges (and less about design methodologies, at least to start with). For example, what new “transformational” initiatives and approaches need to be taken to kick-start economic recovery and revitalize society? What can be done to ensure that the fixes that are implemented now will contribute to building a platform for growth and competitive advantage when the upturn comes? How can education, infrastructure, etc., be revitalized to contribute to and facilitate recovery? Answering these types of questions necessitates a discussion of the strategic enablers of economic success and societal well-being, and that, in turn, will necessitate a discussion of the role of innovation and design.

TED followed Davos, and a number of Davos attendees traveled to California for the event. Some commented that it was a far more forward looking, optimistic and celebratory event, wondering why the character of the events was so different and why the influencers (in Davos, the politicians; at TED, the innovators) held very different views. Perhaps the difference between Davos and TED was a divide between necessity (governments that have to muddle through the crisis, prevent further financial disaster and mitigate unemployment, etc .) and invention (the innovators and optimists who see beyond the present). The missing link in Davos was that there has been very little invention born of (or indeed in response to) the particular necessity(ies) being discussed.

The public sector/design divide is also exacerbated by a paucity of understanding of (transformation) design among public servants on the one hand, and a lack of communication of the (measurable) impact of design on public services by the design sector on the other. Innovation in and transformation of services, organizations and infrastructure is still a nascent (and negligible) segment of the design business - much more needs to be done to demonstrate its value to public authorities, governments, etc. Undoubtedly, transforming education, infrastructure, public services, etc., will be essential to growth and competitive advantage, and there is no doubt that design has a significant role to play.

For the moment, governments are focused on the bleeding out of their economies and don’t have an ear to lend. But the design sector has a big task ahead of it to make a credible case for itself. Advocates of its role in transforming the public sector are articulate but few. A much greater focus on this challenging and important design opportunity is needed, and indeed warranted considering the catalyzing role that design could have for economic growth and competitiveness.

21 January 2009

Re-engage and redesign first

Yes, the inclination in hard times is to slash costs and headcount. However, this is counter-productive longer term as it does not provide for a springboard for success when the upturn comes. So how does a business ride out the storm and increase its opportunity for growth when fair weather returns? Before implementing drastic measures that could impact performance in the future, consider re-engaging and redesigning.

To re-engage means to getting back in touch with those that make or break the business: customers (retain them, above all), employees (empower them to bring about change), suppliers (reassure them), etc. Recession brings retrenchment and fear, so re-engaging with these communities is essential to business survival. To re-engage also means looking anew at the brand, positioning and how well the organization tells its story - see here for an interesting take on consumers and brands in a recession.

To redesign means to look anew at products and services, and at the systems and processes that allow for the functioning of the organization. Why? Because any organization, in good times or bad, should be seeking both greater efficiencies in terms of resource use, manufacturing processes, logistics, overall operational costs, etc., and greater levels of consumer centricity (user centered design) in the redesign of products or services. Its just good business sense.

So re-engage and redesign before knee-jerk cost cutting and headcount reductions. Reinforce relationships with those communities that are critical to business success. Find efficiencies across the organization that will not only lead to cost reductions but will put the business in better stead going forward. A recession can be an opportunity to build a more resilient and better-positioned organization for future growth. It was in the 1930s!

(Notice that the "I" word (innovation) was not used once. But, for an excellent read on innovating during the recession see here. )

Further reading on design and the recession: Design Council

19 January 2009

"Attacking the recession"

In December, NESTA, the UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, released an important document entitled "Attacking the Recession" in which it proposed that the UK needs

a strategy to attack the recession, not just to respond to it. Innovation – in business, communities and public services – needs to be at the heart of that attack. The UK should aim to emerge as a more innovative, greener, more sustainable and diversified economy.

This document puts innovation squarely back in center court and helps dismiss the mutterings of the "innovation is dead" crowd. And it goes further, suggesting that innovation in other areas is equally important:

The biggest gains for society will be found in those sectors that both offer the most immediate growth potential, drawing on the UK’s existing strengths, and help meet long-term challenges: green energy, environmental services, biotechnology, and services for an ageing society.

As has been mentioned in earlier posts, rethinking and redesigning services and systems, from infrastructure to public services, is key not only to national economic recovery, but also to longer term economic advantage. Investment and innovation are building blocks of growth and competitiveness and are all the more critical in hard times.

15 January 2009

Design is like cooking - maybe

One of the questions that pop up occasionally in various fora is "how do you define design?" For a different (light-hearted or low-calorie) way of looking at this, design could be considered a bit like cooking: its part constructive discontent (it could taste better), part empathy (what do those who will eat the food expect, anticipate), part savvy (you have to know some of the basics to cooking), topped off with a good dose of creativity (seeing beyond the given parameters or the confines of the recipe itself). And cooking is incredibly iterative, just like design; no recipe is sacrosanct - they can be bettered, simplified, adapted to evolving palates, etc. The result may well be failure (to salty, to sweet) but more often than not the result will surprise, thrill and make those who have the pleasure of enjoying it come back for seconds. Constructive discontent, empathy, savvy and creativity - a tasty recipe. Right, off to the kitchen...

14 January 2009

Regroup, Rethink, Redesign

Welcome to 2009 - a year that will, according to pundits, prove a challenging and lean one. One that will test us on many fronts - financially, socially, economically... Some commentators in the design space are already looking for new buzzwords that will light our way forward in these dark times. For certain, innovation (the term du jour in recent years) has been sullied. Paul Krugman in the International Herald Tribune put it succinctly: "How did things get so opaque? The answer is 'financial innovation' - two words that should, from now on, strike fear into investor's hearts." Of course innovation is not dead - to innovate is one of humankind's greatest capabilities - but perhaps it has been talked to death.

So let's agree that for 2009 there will be no more buzzwords. Instead lets use our communal energies and time to regroup, rethink and redesign community, services, products, etc., that are essential to our future welfare and wellbeing. Of course innovation is a key ingredient, in the way we redesign products and services to be more efficient, more environmentally friendly, more user centric, more community oriented. Innovation has an incredibly important role to play in ensuring that products and services are better suited to this age of scarcity (whether scarcity of credit, natural resources, food and shelter, etc.) that we have stumbled into. While innovation is no panacea, it is an essential element to moving beyond short-term band aid mentality approaches that typify public and private sector responses in hard times. As individuals, communities or businesses, we thrive when we change, innovate, transform, etc., and in 2009 and beyond we will need to do so more than ever.