Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Future Of Work And The Internet Rainforest

This year Exponent has become my primary must-listen-to podcast. (I am still hugely appreciative of The Critical Path podcast, but it has gradually drifted away from a weekly schedule.) What makes the Exponent format unique, amongst the podcasts I listen to regularly, is that the hosts Ben Thompson and James Allworth usually tackle a topic by taking two different analysis and having a robust debate to dig into the topic and uncover new insights. There is a lot to learn from their full and frank exchanges. I find their probing dialogues to be successful because, in general, they are dissecting the ideas – not the person proposing the ideas. I always strive to live up to the maxim of ‘Strong Opinions, Weakly Held’. So I think it is always educational to see how someone well-invested in one thoughtful analysis can revise their position in a debate that brings new insights to the surface.



Recently I have been doing some investigations around the topic of ‘The Future Of Work’. The twelfth episode of Exponent ‘The Internet Rainforest’ delved into aspects of that topic. To appropriate one of Allworth’s preferred superlatives this particular topic is ‘super-interesting’. There are many significant changes already underway in the way that labour markets are going to operate. With no guarantees of positive developments for the majority.

The aspects they discuss reflects Thompson’s career where he has established a viable niche as an analyst/blogger/pundit/podcaster by cultivating an audience of paying subscribers. They discuss whether the majority of viable careers will have to take similar forms in the future, and how many people shall be capable of operating at the required levels. They develop an intriguing metaphor of an ‘Internet Rainforest’ to represent the extremes within future labour markets: with colossal omni-national corporations above in the canopy and nimble techno-artisans below on the forest floor.

As I have already transcribed selected excerpts from episode twelve for my own notes, I hope that, by sharing them here, others may find them useful as well. I have attributed each quote to BT (Ben Thompson) or JA (James Allworth) and given an approximate time stamp. One disclaimer: I have lightly-edited portions of these transcriptions for clarity, mostly by omitting conversational repetitions.

One of the absolute outcomes of the Internet may be the end of super-large companies. (BT ~19.50) 
If you start a company on the Internet your addressable market is in the billions. So even if your niche is only point-one percent of four billion, it is still a very big number. (BT ~20.30) 
It is like you can longer have super-large companies now because they cannot be large enough any more. (BT ~22.20) 
My thesis is that there is going to be a massive bifurcation between very, very large and very, very small and everyone in the middle will go away. (BT ~23.40) 
I am imagining this Rain Forest with these massive trees, but this interesting canopy down underneath that is growing and harbouring all of this interesting life. But there is literally nothing in between the two. That is the economy that the Internet is creating. (BT ~28.00) 
I am reaching an infinitesimal sliver of the Internet, but the Internet is so huge that it is a meaningful amount. On the flip side: huge sites get more huge. They are reaping the benefits just as well. Meanwhile everyone in the middle, who has neither the focus nor the huge scale, is going out of business. (BT ~28.30)  
What is the future of jobs going to look like? It is going to look messy; just as the Industrial Revolution was messy. However, whenever we do reach that future, it is going to be a more individual, artisanal society. Where people do something super-specific that they are really freaking good at. And they are able to reach a sustainable audience through the Internet. (BT ~30.30) 
[The questions are] how technology is changing the ways people work and where the gains will accrue. They will increasingly flow to a few people who will become really big winners. Folks that are concerned about how the Internet is going to change employment and contribute to inequality are not Luddites. They have identified that something has changed fundamentally in the way that the labour market operates. (JA ~39.20)
Technology increases efficiency. Those efficiency gains accrue to the owners of capital and not to labour. The people who actually do the work, not only do they not make more money, but they are not even needed. That is all basic Marxist theory: but what Marx got wrong was that machines in the time of the Industrial Revolution were dumb and did not take that many jobs. Now machines are smart and just because people were wrong to say machines would take over human jobs previously, does not mean that it is not going to happen this time. Also, it is not like it was super-great the last time. The Industrial Revolution took decades and two world wars to work its way through the system. (BT ~40.20) 
In the Industrial Revolution, the number of new jobs and their value outweighed the number of old jobs that they replaced. So the question is: will that be true again here? (JA ~43.10)  
How fast can we come up with these new types of jobs? And can we come up with them at a rate faster than we are losing jobs to automation? (BT ~44.00)
What is encouraging is that this is a clear call-to-action for how we can meaningfully create the future and overcome those problems. (BT ~44.20)
The longer-term question is: are there potentials for everyone not working inside [a large multinational at top of the Internet Rainforest] to be doing the kind of thing you are doing? (JA ~45.20) 
If you start breaking the seven(?) billion people on the planet into these little niches: are there enough niches to support the vast majority of the world’s population doing these kind of jobs? The skills required have evolved from the Agrarian Age to the Industrial Age onto the Information Age. It sounds like creativity is going to be something that allows people to flourish on the forest floor. Are there enough creative people out there to do that? And if you are not creative what happens to you? (JA ~45.40)
Another way to frame your question is: will the number of niches outpace the gains to the power curve? (BT ~46.30)
In any particular niche there are going to be just a couple of big winners. And so when I talk about the long tail: it is not that there is a long tail within a niche, it is that there are an infinite number of niches. Because, in a particular niche, the whole reason the niche is now possible is that you can reach everyone on the planet. There is going to be the single best person who does X, and if you are the fifth or sixth best person who does X… Well that is where the tension comes in. (BT ~47.00) 
My hypothesis would be that there are going to be plenty of fifths and sixths; and the world we moving towards does not behave too kindly towards them. (JA ~47.30)
Even after the Industrial Revolution the vast majority of people do jobs that they don’t like. This is not a utopian future. (BT ~48.00) 
We started with 98% working on farms. We ended with 2% working on farms. The problem was that industrial jobs increased more slowly than jobs on the farms disappeared. That meant we went through a wrenching change over decades that manifested in all kinds of ways, through economic upheaval and wars. (BT ~49.30) 
When you have a system where things don’t line up temporaly, then you have the chance for all kinds of ruptures and fissures in society. To me that is a clarion call to us in Tech. (BT ~50.40) 
Everything is accelerating. We don’t want to overly pattern-match, So why assume? Just because it took a few hundred years before; it does not necessarily have to take a few hundred years this time. (BT ~51.30) 
If you find the ideas in those excerpted transcriptions engaging, then I urge you to listen to the complete episode here. The other episodes are worth delving into as well (there have been nineteen to date).

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Design Of Service Design

Service Design has been one of my ongoing topics of interest. It is something that I have been triangulating towards for many years. I have it up on my mental whiteboard in a group of topics addressing how designers can move further up the value-chain in an environment of commoditisation. I also have identified it as another hedge against that future impact point whenever the phenomenon of ‘Software Eating The World’ finally puts white collar professions and the creative industries on the menu. 



With that in mind, I recently participated in the Service Design Masterclass at The National College of Art and Design. The organisers may have mis-calibrated the naming and positioning of their summer school experiment. ‘Service Design Bootcamp’ would be a more accurate name. As this three-day course was no theoretical wander through the conceptual underpinnings of the discipline of Service Design. Rather it was an intensive, headlong dash through the Service Design process. We worked from initial research on the first day, through to taking a suite of prototype services out to market on day three. Ré Dubhthaigh, Lynsey Duncan and Sean Miller hosted the course which itself was a prototype of a new kind of offering for NCAD.

I have captured my initial reactions and learnings in this post. There is more that I still need to unpack long-term, but it is valuable to record first impressions. Just to note that I will examining this through the lens of brand consultancy, as that is my current area of focus. These are not my final thoughts on the subject. The course participants came from a broad variety of disciplines, including architecture, UI/UX, graphic design, planning, academia, innovation, and in-house service delivery, amongst many others. So the learnings from this course have a lot of other useful potential aspects of analysis.

The chosen course methodology was ‘Learning By Doing’. Which seemed prudent given that so much of the fundamental theory is available online and in books. What that method delivered was a tangible sense of the culture and the atmosphere within a Service Design team. While I have read some books on Service Design over the last three years, I never grasped that core cultural essence before. That is not something you can grok from books or websites – there is no comparison to just doing it. I have a working understanding and appreciation of the specific kinds of internal cultures that differentiate Design Studios, Internet Agencies, Advertising Agencies, PR Houses, Branding Consultancies and related enterprises. Now I think I can add a clearer understanding of the three P’s (the mix of People, Processes and Priorities) that might typify a Service Design Agency as well. What is interesting is that it is a culture with quite a different stance and attitude to what I am used to operating within. So that makes developing a Service Design competence more of a challenge than I had envisaged. But it is a positive challenge.

Reviewing first day’s work in progress. (Yes it is designers looking at Post-It notes on white boards.)

One key fact I have taken away (blindingly obvious in hindsight perhaps) is that organisations are building new services and refining their existing services all of the time — consciously or unconsciously and with or without the help of dedicated Service Designers. So there are many opportunities out there for design thinkers to contribute. The challenge we need to set for ourselves is how to add value and become useful participants within those processes. Thinking about many of the organisations that I interact with, (and using a metaphor given on day one) it seems obvious that many are still building their services from ‘back-of-stage’ outwards rather than from ‘front-of-stage’ inwards.

The most profound difference from the professional offerings I am accustomed to is that the design component of Service Design is fundamentally about co-creation. Design Agencies and Brand Consultancies primarily operate from a stance of expertise. Yes, there is an emphasis on working closely with their clients, of course. But in practice that only goes so far, at a certain point the experts go off on their own and return later with their considered response for the benefit and edification of their clients. Service Design is far, far more about discovering the best solutions together.

So being a good facilitator is a key skill for Service Designers. The working assumption seems to be that the Service Design experts alone cannot find the best answers. They must form them with the integral participation of those who deliver the service. While my own practice of delivering brand consultancy does include a significant amount of workshops; those are usually with C-level participants. When workshops have been with service-delivery teams they generally have concerned mining for raw materials or gathering information to filter upwards.

Service Design sits at the intersection between Research and Design. Both aspects are integral to delivery. The designers need to be researchers and the researchers need to be designers. The kind of research used in the Service Design process is all about listening. I found it to be much more exploratory and open in testing assumptions.  The research I am more familiar with, is sometimes concerned with finding the necessary evidence to buttress a certain position.

Ré in action.

The clichéd narrative about design is that clients do not understand it, and it is always something that merely gets added on at the end. While that is often indeed the case, it is also worth remembering that some client organisations do perceive ‘design’ as being about true problem-solving at a higher level, whereas they consider ‘branding’  as only about messaging and communication. Some people see branding as a subset of design: others see design as a subset of branding. The fact that both of these terms have become empty signifiers is something we simply have to deal with. Yet, that does not imply we cannot work their imprecision to our own advantages either. So, depending upon the particular emphasis taken by a client or potential client, Service Design can be proffered on its own, or else as an integrated element within a larger project offering.

I think the biggest challenge facing experienced designers is the learn to let go early and then go out and test ideas that are only half-formed, or quarter-formed even. I can just imagine the initial reaction of some of my designer friends to the prototyping mantra of “Early, Ugly & Often”. The fact that much of the Service Design practices outlined on the course do work best when the prototypes are almost un-designed is a mindset that is challenging to engage with. I can see how well this approach works. But overcoming the well-worn grooves of minimal design quality habits is a non-trivial exercise.

A friend of mine has been putting together a great novel framework of organisational personalities. It is based on the metaphor of everyone being either Tinkers, Tailors, Soldiers, or Spies (with suitable apologies to Mr. Le Carré). Within that model, the members of the design community are predominantly ‘Tailors’ by nature; obsessing about the fit-and-finish of every detail of every single thing they do. Service Design asks us to step outside our traditional mindset and become ‘Tinkers’; adept at putting things together using whatever is to hand to discover what works.

On-street interview to reality-check our prototype service.

The kind of rapid iterative prototyping we did on this course is far messier and rougher than anything that we would consider in my current practice. But, critically, that does not mean that it is uncontrolled and chaotic — it is just that the control has shifted to a different axis. Ré recalled a pertinent quotation that “a prototype is worth a thousand meetings’. While I do know that from my own experience, what I would have considered a prototype before is so much further realised and polished than anything we produced on this course. I suppose that for those of us with a design background, our innate response it that a consistent high degree of finish is a key aspect of the value we deliver. That is now something I need to recalibrate.

Productive chaos

Early in the course Ré and Sean deftly side-stepped the issue of precise academic definitions. I got the sense that parsing the nuances between Service Design, User-Centred Design, Human-Centred Design and similar terms was a potential conversational black-hole which could have swallowed a lot of time. From where I am operating, the relevant matching term would be ‘Brand Experience’. We would include much of the activities and deliverables of Service Design would  within the remit of that phrase. Yet, it is always worth bearing in mind that intra-sectoral naming debates do fall prey to the Narcissism of Small Differences (if that reference is too Psych-101, just think the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ and the ‘Judean People’s Front’).

I approached this class in a spirit of enquiry and curiosity, and with a willingness be challenged and to learn. The worst outcomes from investing time into this kind of enterprise is to come away thinking either “I knew most of this already” or “this does not apply to me”. Where I have ended up is that Service Design as a methodology and mindset would be a challenge worth taking further.

One opportunity arising from this initiative is perhaps to start forming a nascent community of practice around Service Design here within Dublin. I have been assembling a Twitter list of the course attendees which anyone can subscribe to. There is also an excellent masterclass Tumblr which has a comprehensive photographic record of the activities conducted.

Finally, on the lighter side, over the three intensive days we somehow also managed to address a significant amount of tangential, yet critical, issues and topics of the day. To throw out a few examples: we discussed how challenging it is for dolphins to use the Internet effectively. We explored the pros and cons that we might associate with the founding of an international ‘Festival of Questionable Digestion’ taking place in Dublin’s Liberties district. We also made a tentative diagnosis of ‘Post-It Sole’ as a common pernicious malady that afflicts Service Designers in particular. We also did some inadvertent primary research into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as it pertains to the inverse relationship between the tea and caffeine intake of professionals and their learning acumen.

Spot the Service Designer’s room!
Update
Two other class participants have blogged their ​r​esponses to the course.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

This Week In Disruption Theory

There has been much useful online debate and commentary this week, incited by the New Yorker’s cover story: ‘What the Theory of Disruptive Innovation Gets Wrong’. Jill Lepore’s article is both an overview of Clay Christensen’s theory of disruption and a critique of what she sees as its key failings. Despite a lot of flawed analysis, the article is worth reading, even though in my opinion it seriously loses its way towards the end.

Lepore asserts that there is a lack of rigorous analysis and critiques of disruption theory.
“Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.”
I am a strong believer in always questioning assumptions and in always probing the accepted wisdom within different fields of activity. So any increase in thorough analysis, informed debate, and productive critiques of disruption. I am also unfamiliar with the relevant formal academic literature on the topic. So I can not comment on the amount and rigour of serious criticism. To be transparent, my own readings on disruption theory have all come from (some decidedly non-academic) online technology and business publications and blogs. There is a lot of informative and educational material out there. Although I do need to make the time to read Christensen’s original thinking in his books.

Lepore argues that some supporters of disruption interpret the idea too broadly.
“But among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments. If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt… When an established company succeeds, that’s only because it hasn’t yet failed.”
She also critiques disruption theory for its failure to provide accurate predictions.
“This is less because people have used his model to make accurate predictions about things that haven’t happened yet than because disruption has been sold as advice, and because much that happened between 1997 and 2011 looks, in retrospect, disruptive. Disruptive innovation can reliably be seen only after the fact.”
Joshua Gans correctly analyses this flaw as being a result of Christensen’s own dilemma.
“He saw his theory as predictive even though its own internal logic says prediction is impossible… The Innovator’s Dilemma is like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. You can’t get around it and Christensen’s failing is that he has sold it as something you can get around”
In his role as an academic Christensen needs to be able to position himself as a mentor for future business leaders. So this forces him to need to present some light at the end of the tunnel.

Ben Thompson makes the critical distinction that Christensen has identified two different types of disruption, and that Lepore has conflated the two. The first type is ‘New Market Disruption’, where new technologies with asymmetric business models gradually take the market away from incumbents. The second type is ‘Low End Disruption’ which asserts that, in the long-term, modular products succeed against integrated products. This theory applies to B2B businesses but its criteria and assumptions do not necessarily translate to B2C businesses. As Gans describes:
“You can’t actually ‘disrupt’ an industry with a technology that most consumers don’t like. There are many of those. To distinguish a disruptive technology from a mere bad idea or dead-end, you need a second criteria — the technology has a fast path of improvement on precisely those metrics the industry currently values.” 
The most insightful clarifications that I have learned from this recent round of debate are, firstly, that disruption is most useful in retrospect, to explain why a business or an industry has failed. By definition, the theory can not predict which one from a cohort of potential challengers is going to successfully disrupt any industry. Steve Denning observes:
“But the theory sheds insufficient light on the question of how do you tell a dangerous disruption from an illusory one. There is no clear metric of disruption. All disruptions are not equal.”
Secondly that the alternative innovator’s solution – of acquiring the ascendant challenger at the appropriate time – seems more successful than the original 2003 solution of businesses attempting to disrupt themselves by establishing isolated skunk-works within their organisations. Think about Facebook spending US$19 billion to acquire WhatsApp earlier this year, in contrast to their gestures towards self-disruption with their exploratory Paper app. Denning observes that:
“The ‘innovator’s solution’ isn’t a solution to the innovator’s dilemma. It doesn’t neutralise the forces hostile to innovation; it merely postpones the task of finding a solution to a later date.”
One final takeaway from this article is that the idea of disruption has now reached the point where its awareness amongst a broader audience means that many people are using the term indiscriminately and inaccurately.  (Obviously disruption is not a new topic: The Innovator’s Dilemma was published in 1997.) The word disruption is becoming neutered, and is on its way to becoming an empty signifier. So we can no doubt expect a lot more ill-informed commentary and criticism which is not referring to the core idea at all. In fact I would be surprised at this stage if no-one has begun writing the Freakonomics-style mass-market paperback summarising the essence of disruption theory. Although, as an aside, anyone needing a useful primer to share with someone unfamiliar with the topic should start with Dedieu’s excellent and concise ‘Disruption FAQ’.

I have become interested in disruption theory because I am interested in change, and in the effects of change on individuals, on organisations, and on society. While we are in the midst of any process of change it is difficult to be objective about the scale of its impact. That only becomes measurable in retrospect. I concede that when we are undergoing change we can tend to over-estimate the long-term impact. Yet, even with that awareness, I do believe that we are now in a period of fundamental change happening at many different levels. I find that grappling with the ideas at the heart of disruption theory provides perspective on macro-forces of change operating today.

Disruption is one of those ideas which step out from the pages of academic publications and business books into an awareness amongst the broader culture. I think that is because we can all see its effects in the world around us. Some of us see it as a narrative of potential: a mechanism to affect change in the world. Many others still see it as something to be afraid of. Yet the ongoing outcomes of multiple disruptions are going to effect us all today and in the years to come. So for that reason alone it is worth making the effort to understand the theory.

Linked Articles
‘The Disruption Machine: What The Gospel Of Innovation Gets Wrong’ – Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, 2014.
‘Clayton Christensen: Are Investors Bad For Business?’ – Steve Denning, Forbes, 2014.
‘The Easy Target That Is The Theory Of Disruptive Innovation’ – Joshua Gans, Digitopoly.org, 2014.
‘The New Yorker: Battle Of The Strategy Titans’ – Steve Denning, Forbes, 2014.
‘What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong’ – Ben Thompson, Stratechery.com, 2013.
‘The Disruption FAQ’ – Horace Dedieu, Asymco.com, 2014.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Is Brand Strength Any Defence Against Big Bang Disruption?


One open question arising from my previous post about disruption and design thinking is whether brand strength (1) provides any potential defence or hedge against disruption?

At this stage we are all familiar with the narrative of true business model disruption. Entire industries, such as travel agents and book shops, have been made made redundant as low-end disruptors reinvented the rules of those businesses within a few short years. For accuracy I will also include Thompson’s complimentary concept of ‘Obsoletive’ technologies which posits high-end innovations that make older technologies obsolete.

For businesses to survive disruption, they need to abandon and completely rethink their long term strategic plans. The old rules no longer apply. As Steve Denning observes:
“Big-Bang Disruption is just one of the more dramatic symptoms of this broader and deeper economic phase change: the emergence of the creative economy, where continuous transformational innovation is the game being played.”
It is trivial to come up with examples where disruptive or obsoletive innovators have destroyed the value of incumbent’s brands (as a by-product of destroying their business).
  • Think of the many mobile phone manufacturers who had built global brands (most spectacularly Nokia) only to have them wiped out in less than five years by the disruptive market entrants iPhone and Android. 
  • The Walkman brand for mobile music was so dominant in its time that it became the default name for a whole product category. All of that brand’s value was destroyed when Sony's internal politics allowed MP3 players to disrupt their business. 
  • Yahoo had established the pre-eminent brand in the area of Internet search before Google arrived with PageRank, an innovative alternative approach to search, and completely disrupted Yahoo’s business. Now Yahoo licenses search technology from Microsoft.  
  • Garmin lost 85% of its market capitalisation in the eighteen months following the introduction of Google Maps.

Counter examples are more difficult to find. What are the relevant examples of businesses under sustained Big Bang Disruption who succeeded in using their brand strength to delay (or avert) their decline?

The disruptors begin by attracting the low-value customers and then capturing more of the high-value customers. So during disruption, the classes of business assets that brand consultants leverage: brand equity, corporate reputation, even customer service experience, all become progressively irrelevant as customers migrate to the disruptor’s better, cheaper products.

My opinion is that Big-Bang Disruptive business model innovation routes around brand strength and makes it redundant. Therefore it is probable that brand strength only operates within markets based on standard competition of similar business models.

So while the methodologies of branding, as currently configured, may not be fit-for-purpose in defending against disruptive business models, it remains an open question as to how one would re-invent or re-orient branding so that it could provide more of an effective hedge against disruptive competitors.

A related question is how then should branding consultants effectively engage with companies undergoing Big-Bang Disruption?

1 — Note on ‘Brand Strength’
Up to now I have been using the phrase ‘Brand Equity’ too loosely in my writing. I became irked by the confusion around that phrase caused by both a vagueness of terminology and a variety of definitions. Kapferer (New Strategic Brand Management, 2008) proposed that brand equity is composed of three aspects: brand assets, brand strength, and brand value. With brand value being “the profit potential of the brand assets, mediated by brand strength”. So, in the context of this article the relevant aspect is the strength of a brand.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Applying Design Thinking to Big Data, Uber-fication, The End of Average and The Capitalist’s Dilemma



An overview of some of the compelling ideas and business innovation themes that are influencing my thinking at the moment.


Over the past year I have been investigating the topic of Design Thinking. I have been documenting some aspects of my explorations on this blog. However, I realised that I had only been considering Design Thinking as a theoretical methodology. Organisations can use its methods to address issues at all scales: from small design problems all the way up to large-scale economic and policy issues. I had not considered any potential challenges worth tackling with Design Thinking.

In my readings of the first part of this year, I have noticed some relevant emerging themes.

  1. The Potential of Big Data
  2. The Impacts of Uber-fication
  3. The End of Average
  4. The Capitalist’s Dilemma

I have selected these four themes for this post, as I think they interconnect, build upon, and influence each other. And also because they align with some of my own areas of interest. There are many other related and relevant themes and trends which I have omitted due to constraints of time.

I am interested in whether and how organisations could use Design Thinking and Service Design methodologies to address aspects of these themes. These are all macro trends and their initial connection to Design Thinking can appear tenuous at first. Yet one other key theme from my readings is that many people now believe that the insights and novel combinations delivered by the application of Design Thinking methods – and indeed by bringing the skills and mindset of professional designers to bear on a much broader range of challenges – should, in some part, contribute to the sort of idea generation, realisation, and implementation that can help organisations address today’s big challenges.

1 — The Potential of Big Data

From my perspective, it appear that we are experiencing a time of accelerating exploration and development of novel business models due to many overlapping actors and factors. Big Data is a global macro-trend that is acting as a scene-setting backdrop and enabler to many novel activities and potential innovations. Consider these sample data points.

• Beyond PC
There are already 7 billion mobile connections held by 3.45 billion unique mobile subscribers worldwide. One billion more people will soon own smartphones in the near future. Each of those devices will create extra data and contribute to the global network.
Read: ‘Postmodern Computing’ on Asymco.com.

• The Golden Triangle of Disruption
Social, Mobile, and Real-Time technologies are all aligning to cause far bigger changes than organisations had ever anticipated. These new consumer habits and expectations are outpacing current organisational structures and fractures. So organisations are having to scramble to catch up, or even just to keep up.
Read: Digital Transformation Report 2014 by the Altimeter Group.

• The Internet of Things
Everything is becoming connected. More and more devices are providing inputs into the network. Google recently spent $3.2 billion acquiring Nest which produces data-enabled devices for the home: such as smart thermostats and smoke detectors. Over 11 billion sensors are attached to the global network today, by 2020 predictions are for over 50 billion sensors. What can we do with the new kinds of knowledge arising from the patterns in all this information?
Read: ‘In Praise of Boring Objects’ by Tom Coates.

What is also intriguing is that, up to now, smartphones have only had rudimentary awareness of their surroundings. The ways that low-cost, low-energy iBeacon technologies are starting to provide an API for the offline world and close the physical attribution loop for online services means that business innovation in that area is only in its infancy.
Read: ‘On The New Edge Network and The Future of Local Commerce’ on Stevecheney.com.

Smarter Cities
Everything is becoming connected. IBM are focussing on this aspect of Big Data and public services are very invested. Optimising all aspects of city infrastructure both to bring efficiencies in city management and improvements to citizen's quality of life will only become more important as populations continue to grow.

The Quantified Self
Big Data can also be personal. It can concern our individual health. We can now generate and analyse data that encourages our own behavioural changes. "Big Data is made from Small Data." The Quantified Self is enabled by technologies such as the (just-retired) Nike Fuelband and the iPhone 5S which already has a dedicated motion-tracking co-processor. Indeed Apple are poised to bring take niche activity into the mainstream with talk of dedicated “HealthBook” features coming to all iPhones this year in iOS8 (and with their rumoured wearable product as well).

Big Data is going to spawn many new innovations in business and services. Opportunities that we are only now beginning to imagine. I believe that the Design Thinking mindset will have much to contribute in exploring potential use-cases and implementations, and can provide significant inputs at this inflection point.

But problems and negative reactions also lie ahead when the consequences of hyper-efficiency start to play out in local economies.

2 — The Impacts of Uber-fication

One significant transformative impact on businesses arising from Big Data-related innovations – which we have already entered the early stages of – is the potential for the so-called ‘Uber-fication’ of local-scale economic activities. The new category of On-Demand Mobile Services – apps, such as Uber and AirBnB, that aggregate consumer demand via mobile devices, but then fulfil that demand through offline services – could deliver multi-billion market opportunities.

While this is a technology-driven phenomenon, it would be a grave mistake to view it solely as a technology disruption. This one is going to play out at a societal level. There are two notable effects of this disruption.

On the buy-side, the levels of customisation and optimisation of services for the users is compelling and has delivered competitive advantage. This has already started to re-set customer expectations for many other services. People are becoming accustomed to buying services in ways that the end-supplier may have difficulty transitioning to. Push-back against this disruption ranges from the street level: protestors attacking Uber taxis in France and picketing Google buses in San Francisco, up to formal regulatory and governmental responses.

On the sell-side, certain services are becoming markets. Hailo’s CEO spoke at last year’s Dublin Web Summit alluding to the broader scope of the Hailo/Uber resource allocation business model. In effect, this model is accelerating the migration of many new categories of service providers to more of freelance-based, gig economy. So these models are disrupting the fundamental nature of many occupations. It may be taxi drivers and B&B owners today, but it may well be white-collar professional careers next.

Ring-fencing existing business models, and wishing things would stay the same is never a successful long-term solution. The fact that these dramatic changes to the ways that services and markets relate, and to the ways that people think about services and interact with services, are all happening right now provide many challenges and opportunities for leveraging Design Thinking.

Moving on from the disruption of service markets, let us consider the future of white collar professions and knowledge workers.

3 — The End of Average (or the Death Of The Middle)

One thing the Internet does particularly well is disseminate knowledge. In all markets the addition of knowledge allows for more discernment: we know who is the best and who merely claims to be the best. So the Internet begets Power Law differentiations. Sure, there is a long tail, but influence accrues at the head of the curve. We are only beginning to experience the fallout from the collision of society’s normal Bell curve with the Internet’s Power Law curve.

The global newspaper industry is a topical example. What is happening there is a clarification between ‘news’ and ‘newspapers’, which are not the same thing. (Although for the majority of their existence up to now they had seemed to be.) The previous economic constraints of time and place that always supported mid-tier newspaper titles have fallen away now that everyone more-or-less has access to the best of journalism. Those businesses are failing one after another. We need new business models for new entities – not revised business models for out-dated entities.


So what careers lie ahead for the tens of thousands of journalists who used to occupy the middle of that bell curve? This has huge implications for economies and societies in the long-term.

“Then think about the millions of others in all the other industries touched by the Internet who are perfectly average and thus, in an age where the best is only a click away, are simply not needed?” “The challenge of our time is figuring out what to do with a population distribution that is fundamentally misaligned with Internet economics.”
Read: ‘Fivethirtyeight And The End Of Average’ on Stratechery.com.

Design Thinking is associated with dealing so-called ‘wicked problems.’ I think these themes fall within that category. Addressing issues of those magnitudes needs new thinking. They will requires cross-disciplinary thinking and no single actor will resolve them. So the next question is: has anyone started to chart to path forward? 



4 — The Capitalist’s Dilemma

I think that businesses and policy makers could investigate and engage with Clayton Christensen’s thesis of ‘The Capitalist’s Dilemma.’ He identifies three types of innovations and observes that we are focusing on creating the wrong sort of innovation.

• The first type are ‘Empowering’ innovations. These transform complicated, expensive products that had been available only to a few people before, into simpler, cheaper products available to many. The Ford Model T was an empowering innovation, as was the PC. What is important is that these innovations create many direct and indirect new jobs for the people who will build, distribute, sell and service these products. 


• The second type are ‘Sustaining’ innovations. These replace old products with new. They are necessary to remain competitive against competitors.They keep economies vibrant, but they have a neutral effect on jobs.


• The third type are ‘Efficiency’ innovations. Efficiency innovations almost always reduce the total number of jobs within an industry, by allowing fewer people to complete the same amount of work (or even more work). The problem is that we have become so good creating at such optimising efficiencies without balancing them with new empowering innovations.


(Guess which type of innovations we focus on most within this country?)


Organisations have relied on measures of efficiency that focused on the short term, which leads them to invest in sustaining and efficiency innovations instead of funding the big ticket empowering innovations that pay off over long time frames. 


Over the long-term this pattern is problematic for many reasons. Christensen posits that, to avoid the twin perils of trapping capital in silos and decreasing employment we need to get far better at creating empowering innovations. Easier said than done.


Read: ‘Christensen: We are living The Capitalist’s Dilemma’ on CNN.com.


Aside: while we may not be kickstarting the next Manhattan Project or moon-shot anytime soon, we do need to explore some longer term projects. (What about colonising Saturn anyone?)


The way forward involves innovating our way to growth. Innovation has become a somewhat redundant term through overuse. Horace Dediu has provided us with a useful critical lens through which to parse real innovation from mere novelty.

Read: ‘Innoveracy: Misunderstanding Innovation’ on Asymco.com.

In conclusion

Global, societal, economic and cultural challenges are complex and multi-faceted. They have no single source of solutions. Design Thinking is another toolkit people can draw upon to tackle such looming, large-scale, intractable problems. Its methodologies have application to many relevant and pressing areas of investigation. Organisations, in both the commercial and the public sectors, could benefit by using Design Thinking methodologies and practices to generate and explore new empowering innovations.

Monday, April 28, 2014

On Sticker-Speak

Some of the stickers available within Facebook’s Messenger app.


In a March 2007 post subtitled ‘How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Just Get With The Blip-Post Programme’ I wrote that
“the ultimate logical step will be for someone to create a social networking site that just posts individual tag words on their own…” 
While I was positing that notion with tongue firmly in cheek, it is interesting to observe that we now do have the ability to communicate using absolutely simple, single-concept message units. The emojii-based stickers of today’s messaging apps are the example I have been thinking about recently. At first glance the idea behind these stickers appears trivial, indeed faintly silly. Scroll through the sticker selection panels in any messaging app and you will see rows of cute cartoon characters over-acting and gurning some exaggerated emotion.

But I think that if we look a little bit deeper there is something interesting going on here. So, while the audience for this blog is unlikely to embrace the use of pictographic stickers in their everyday messaging, it is always worthwhile for anyone working in branding, design and app development to observe the trends and be aware of what different kinds of communications are bubbling up.
People are choosing to use these stickers to communicate in some manner. So they definitely have a job-to-be-done. What that job may be, and indeed what might be the minimum that we need for viable digital communication seems worth exploring here.

Minimum Viable Communications
Firstly, I do not think that it is a given fact that the idea of simplified, single-concept message units would necessarily be seen as useful and become broadly accepted. That core idea needs to be provided as a service in a manner that people find appealing to use. In the mid-nineties, when I was doing a lot of design work for Telecom Eireann, mobile phones were still expensive products aimed at businesses. Telecom Eireann tried to kick-start a youth market for pagers as a more price-appropriate product. They launched a range of pagers in Ireland with a heavily promoted and expensive Eurotrash-themed advertising campaign which struggled and failed to make pagers seem hip. Although hobbled by ill-advised advertising creative, the real downfall of the product was that, given the available technology of the time, the low-budget devices could only send three-digit numeric codes. People could not message each other in plaintext. So to use a pager you needed to carry a booklet with an unwieldy list of arbitrary meanings ascribed to those numerical pager codes. Something like ‘234 = I am running late’ and ‘678 = Drinks later?’ The pager market never took off. The limitations imposed on communication outweighed the promise of being able to communicate on the move. The target audience just ignored pagers and waited for mobile phones to become affordable. So this was not a failure of the idea of simplified minimal communications per se, but rather of their service execution in a form that was difficult to use, and which did not convey meaning.

Jump forward to today and most smartphone operating systems have incorporated Japanese i-Mode emoji icons. These simple, single-concept icons are inter-operable with the Western character set within text messages. Most often I see people appending emoji as suffixes to text messages. Using just one character the senders can add information about whether they are being ironic or playful in their message. Emoji solve the problem where, writing so concisely, we often must sacrifice tonality. So, at least in the usage which I observe, they act as modifiers to the main text. These eight words may not necessarily clearly signify whether the sender is optimistic, sarcastic or infuriated. That is the additional role given to the little yellow character at the end.


Where I do see emoji used on their own are generally as replies to written texts. A text asking ‘How did the meeting go?’ might get a thumbs-up emoji response. No words being necessary, as a conversation will provide the relevant detail later.

Although it is not a usage I see amongst my peers, emoji can even be strung together as a rudimentary pictographic language. If only for humorous intent more than anything. Yet, I think that if that was the only way of using them, they would necessarily fail in the same way as the pager codes did. Perhaps these kinds of single-concept pictographic linguistic tools are really only useful as an adjunct to the written word?

Messenging App Stickers
Stickers – although related to the original emoji – offer a new set of affordance and a different communicative role. Stickers can only be used one at a time and can not be mixed with text. This makes them ill-suited as modifiers and so they serve a different purpose. So while these pictures are not worth a thousand words, they are intended to be worth one text message.

Stickers take the basic idea of image-based emoji to a new level. They take advantage of the larger screens and higher resolutions of today’s mobile devices. So they appear larger on-screen and can be more illustrative and expressive in style and not limited to the more iconic style needed for emoji. They are often based on cartoon characters and portray a wider range of emotions and behaviours then emoji. (The emoji character set was originally developed for the technological limitations of i-Mode phones in at the end of the nineties.) As they are not trying to be part of one standardised international character set the range of sticker designs varies from app to app. Developers can strike licensing deals with IP owners to ensure that particular characters are available exclusively in their app to attract more customers.

Facebook’s Messenger app expands the expressive range of their ‘Like’ icon. 

Selling sets of digital stickers is one of the revenue-generating features of messaging apps. Remember that this is a category of apps whose key benefit is communication at no cost to their users. So I assume stickers must be popular — and with more than just Japanese teenagers. Stickers are serving some purpose for a broader set of users. As I see it stickers answer the desire for a one-touch, single-concept message.

It is not that people are becoming too lazy to compose simple sentences. It is worth remembering – before any doom-sayers begin to predict the end of literacy and language again – that new forms of communication like this never replace what already exists, they sit alongside them. Rather it is the case that – just as something as barely noticeable as a raised eyebrow or a wink can signify a lot in our real-world conversations – so too perhaps can the emotions of an illustrated character in our online conversations. The semantic meaning encoded in the smallest gestures depends on the context and the relationship between the two people communicating.

An examples of some of the character-based stickers available within the Viber app.

I would not underestimate how many text messages are rote and formulaic. People keeping in touch simply by saying ‘good morning’ or ‘good-night’. The real meaning here is in reaffirming the connection rather than in the specific semantic content. So adding some visual flair, through colour, image and typography the way that many stickers do can enhance such simple regular messages. Even if simply through novelty and variety.

An examples of some of the text-based stickers available within the Viber app.
The visual language of emoticons and stickers sits alongside spoken languages and people all over the world can use them to communicate. Even so, it would be foolish to consider them serving as a proxy for a common global visual language. While the majority of human emotional expressions do share their meaning amongst all peoples, there are still many distinct cultural signals and messages that are learned. (That is why trying to decipher some of the obscure-to-me Japanese cultural references symbolised in the original i-Mode emoticon set seems beyond my West-of-Ireland background.)

Red = ‘I am angry’
As a final thought, I suppose it is again worth considering what comes next? What is the truly Minimal Viable Communication? Should we expect an app that allows us to communicate using just solid colours perhaps? Yellow meaning ‘I am happy’, blue saying ‘I am sad’ and red growling ‘I am angry’... Who knows?

Update 1: June 2014
Given my line of thinking on Minimal Viable Communication here, I guess that I really should have foreseen the ‘Yo’ app. Very minimal indeed.

Update 2: July 2014
Further to my point about stringing emoji together as a pictographic language for humorous intent. Turns out that you can sign-up today to ‘Emojli’ – the emoji-only social network. That may not even be a parody, and is launching soon apparently.

(I guess the Garfield licensing deal fell through.)

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Next Challenges for ChangeLabs, IdeaLabs and DesignLabs

John Thackara gave a considered talk on ‘What Makes A Change-Lab Successful’ at Science Gallery on Friday 14 March.

His theme was that “to effect system-level change in health, energy, food, or mobility, a first step is often to reframe the question. Grassroots innovation is emerging wherever people seek new ways to meet their daily life needs. So the question becomes: what are the best ways to support, connect and amplify these experiments?”

John Thackara. Photo by Uros Abram
He began with an overview of what he has learned from his years working in this area. In recent years there has been a proliferation of ‘Labs’ across the world. They use many names: Change-Labs, Design-Labs, Ideas-Labs. As traditional models of economic development have come to an impasse, these labs are exploring new models. People are investigating how to build social capital.

What the work of these Change-Labs has demonstrated is that people have no problem generating lots of good ideas. The greater challenges follow on from the initial ideation process. The first challenge is how to choose the best ideas from those generated. The second challenge is how to take the next actions arising from those best ideas. For many interconnected reasons putting useful ideas into practice is a lot more difficult than anticipated. The third challenge is how to make all the ideas work together in a long-term ecosystem.

There was a definite sense of optimism meets realpolitik to his introduction. But that kind of reality-check seems unsurprising to me.

He looked at the contemporary research area of ‘Smarter Cities’. All cities are already rich in (often vernacular) service ecologies. Many of the solutions Change-Labs brainstorming today already exist. He advised Change-Labs that they need to get better at looking back in time and across to other countries and cultures for applicable solutions. True success lies in minimising the amount of times that people reinvent the wheel.

He asked how can a city be vital in ways other than spending money? Most cities do not acknowledge their hinterlands. They depend on them for the food, materials, and energy they need to survive. So it is worth investigating how to reconnect cities with the land.

Change-Labs try to foster trust to activate their projects. This takes time and effort. He advised that they ought to get better at connecting with the ‘trust that already exists in many local place-based organisations’.

Addressing the role of ‘Design Thinking’, his view is that designers add true value in moving the process from discussing things on to making things. What I call delivering tangibility

Thackara posed a set of questions challenging a common business orthodoxy that only activities operating at a vast scale generate the greatest value.

  • What value can accrue from that which cannot scale?
  • What value can accrue from within the local living economy. 
  • So-called ‘wicked’ problems are more meaningful when they are “unique to here”. 
  • What methods of collaboration will succeed within your specific context? 
  • What coalitions and platforms are possible within your specific context? 

One particularly interesting statement was his observation that there are lots of one-person Change-Labs out there. “There are innovators everywhere.” How can we create informal social structures that will support those change agents? Otherwise he is concerned that they will burn-out without achieving their true potential. “Change is not a trick we find in a Lab; it needs social supports.”

At a macro level, he suggested that Change-Labs could contemplate how they operate as an integrated combination of: Space, Place, People and Time.

His key insight concerned the issue of project timeframes. Most Change-Labs think and act in short-term and medium-term timeframes, due to the political and cultural contexts they operate in. To effect more significant change they need to begin to act in medium-term and long-term timeframes. In practice this means that the people who finish a project are not those who instigate it. So Change-Labs need to build self-sustaining projects with longevity baked-in.

He identifies the greatest issue facing Change-Labs as that gap between creating the initial big idea and realising the intended long-term impact. Change-Labs have a two-to-five year interstitial period in which to build “coalitions of constellations” that they can work with to tackle their chosen problems.

Thackara’s thesis is that Change-Labs need to transition from their current output-based processes to interconnected ecosystem-based processes. He posited that to be more successful they need to learn how to build “mindful systems-based and time-aware processes” which come after their Design Thinking activities.

Given the research I have been conducting into this topic, Thackara’s experienced-based observations and high-level analysis does raise many valid questions for anyone considering applying Design Thinking to tackle complex problems.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Offset Conference Themes 2014

This year’s Offset creative conference was a refreshing recharge for my creative batteries. I saw a lot of interesting and inspirational work over three enjoyable days. I experienced a lot of new creative work that I was unfamiliar with. Measured on that basis this conference delivers.

The most common style of presentation is where people showcase their work throughout their career while also imparting some wisdom they have learned along the way. This is a challenge on many levels. With an audience of over two thousand creatives from many different industry sectors, the inclination is to speak in broad principles rather than in specifics. With more than twenty other presenters imparting similar insights, there is a lot of scope for crossover.

Rather than write up my notes on each presentation this year, I made this list of aphorisms from presenter’s key slides instead. All are from the formal presentations on the main stage, rather than the discussions and debates on the secondary stages. The presenters expressed a lot of shared sentiments. I have anonymised, reordered, and mixed this selection of their messages. This representative list may reveal an emergent theme for the whole conference.

  • Be uncompromising in your approach. 
  • Be true to your own heart. 
  • Great work comes from passion.
  • Dig deep. 
  • Always be curious. 
  • Always ask questions. 
  • Find your own authentic voice and speak with it very loudly. 
  • Explore your identity through your work. 
  • Pay attention to what you do when no-one is paying you.  
  • Talk less about making things: just go and make things. 
  • Everything is a design problem. 
  • Coming up with ideas is the easy part. 
  • Embrace ambiguity. 
  • Be comfortable with the uncomfortable. 
  • Build a process that delivers the unexpected. 
  • Be fearless.
  • Almost all fear is bullshit.  
  • Dive in head first. 
  • Don’t be afraid to lose control. 
  • Make trouble. 
  • Explore, fail, and fail again. 
  • Set yourself constraints. Play by your own rules (and break them).
  • Focus on your work/play balance; not your work/life balance. 
  • Play is your most important activity. 
  • Get away from your computer. 
  • Think outside the box.*
  • Don’t learn creativity: unlearn restrictions. 
  • Keep simplifying until you can’t simplify anymore. 
  • The parts that no-one sees can be the most important.  
  • Try to interrupt the dominant narrative. 
  • Always over-deliver. 
  • Respect your client.  
  • Invest in progress. 
  • One good thing leads to another. 
  • Fight for what you believe in. 
  • Never say die. 
  • Don’t be an asshole. 

One concern I am grappling with is that the speakers are just delivering broad generalities. Perhaps I am expecting too much. I may be better off just appreciating the exceptional creative work on its own merits and being less concerned about any advice on how to find success and happiness in a design-centric career.

*Yes, someone actually stood in front of two thousand creatives and advised them to think outside the box.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Brand



One of the challenges of working in brand consultancy are the many overlapping meanings of the word ‘brand’ itself. 

Each client brings along slightly different interpretations of ‘brand’ when they engage with branding services. Some are better informed and have a more fully-rounded understanding of the scope of branding. Often different people within the same organisation use the word to refer to different ideas. To complicate matters further, different brand consultancies then offer their own interpretations of ‘brand’ depending on their particular mix of competencies and services.

To get a sense of the variety of meaning you can start with a dictionary definition of brand and the Wikipedia entry. Neither provides much clarity. Brand is an expansive category term (like ‘design’ and ‘technology’) which includes many sub-meanings within itself.

It irks me when commentators, journalists, academics, and particularly brand consultants (who should know better) decide to use the single word ‘brand’ in reference to many of these alternate interpretations within one article, or even within one paragraph. While this often suits their own rhetorical ends, it confuses their readers.

This variation of interpretation is an important factor to bear in mind when discussing brand with clients. Obviously it is essential that both parties in a conversation about brand are referring to the same idea. Particularly in a group discussion when contributors may bring many interpretations.

Rather than retreat into the academic literature to scope out the complete gamut of meanings, what I want to do in this post is record the actual usage I encounter. These are the common interpretations which I find that I have to engage with in my day-to-day conversations with Irish organisations. This is not yet an exhaustive list. I may add to it later.

The Minimalist Interpretation
Brand is limited to meaning only a logo or a symbol.
“We are commissioning the design of a new brand for application onto our website, literature, vehicles and stationery.”
(Also notably used in the evergreen scandalous rebranding news story: “Outrage At €20k Spent On New Logo for NameCo!”)

The Maximalist Interpretation
Brand is intrinsic and encompasses almost all of an organisation’s activities.
“If marketing is the talk, then branding is the walk.”

The Corporate-Identity Interpretation 
Brand as a set of assets which includes a brand mark, colour palettes, typefaces, imagery style, and graphic patterns, etc. It defines a structure upon which to build a coherent visual expression for an organisation.
“Refer to our Brand Usage Standards for guidance on how to use our brand.”

The Purpose-Based Interpretation
Brand is an emergent property arising from an organisation’s Mission, Vision and Values.
“The Board of Directors held an all-day workshop to define the new brand strategy.”

The Reputation-Based Interpretation
Brand as a synonym for the organisation’s reputation.
“The expenses scandal has dramatically weakened the NameCo brand.”

The Relationship-Based Interpretation
Brand exists in the mind of customers and informs their relationship with the organisation.
“Our brand is our promise to you.”

The Internal-Cultural Interpretation
An organisation’s brand resides in its people: in their culture, processes and practises.
“Our HR team is our greatest asset in building our brand. Everyone one of us must live the brand.”

The Experiential Interpretation
Brand is every experience that every customer has with every touchpoint of an organisation.
“Our app always brings you that authentic NameCo experience wherever you are.”

The Narrative Interpretation 
Brand is the story that an organisation tells to its customers, to its own people, and to all other interested parties.
“Example.”

The Exclusive Interpretation 
Brand used as a noun referring to luxury goods, or to the premium product sector in general.
“Consumer spending on brands has decreased in the last twelve months.”

The Personal Interpretation
Every one of us has our own personal brand, which we must steward to maximise our personal success and happiness.
“You are the full-time CEO of BrandYou.”

The conundrum is that the concept of ‘brand’ can indeed include all those interpretations, each being facets of the whole. Indeed that complexity is part of the fascination of devoting precious time and attention to the topic.

Some of these interpretations are more inclusive and others more restrictive. Given that interpretation is subjective, then none is necessarily more correct than any other. More importantly they are not mutually exclusive either.

Different client organisations will focus on particular facets when parsing their specific challenges. Different brand advisors specialise in addressing sub-sets of the gamut of branding activities. The ideal is in best matching the client’s requirements with the appropriate brand consultant’s area of expertise. But as a profession we do not always make that as easy as is should be.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Thought Experiment: Infinite Spotify Playlists Via Procedurally-Generated Tracks



I use Spotify to listen to a lot of instrumental music when working; as it is less distracting than music with vocals. The Spotify Radio feature generates an effectively nigh-infinite playlist of tracks based on the characteristics of a chosen source genre, artist or track.

What appeals to me about this technology is that is encourages a very different mindset from that fostered by the old economic models. I actually like the idea of hearing lots of novel music without knowing who the artists are and quite likely never hearing that one particular piece of music ever again. It can be a river of sound: never the same experience twice.

However, how comprehensive are those playlists today? At what point would the artists or songs start to repeat themselves too much?

It strikes me that one factor which makes Spotify Radio so compelling is that it allows you to hone in on your own favourite sub-niches of sub-niches of sub-niches within musical genres. But at a certain point surely any personalised niche becomes a finite set. Perhaps it is defined by a set period of geography or of time: no-one makes music of that sort any more. Or perhaps it is defined by a small set of artists, or other such variables.

Could we reach a point in the future where Spotify, or similar services, were able to enhance such playlists with their own procedurally-generated music? Thus giving each user their own ultimately personalised music stream.

What I wonder about is the state-of-the-art regarding computer-generated music. Has the technology advanced to the point such that an algorithm could take a detailed blueprint of the DNA of a particular musical sub-genre (such as Pandora’s Music Genome) and then create novel variations on, and iterations from, those conventions? And, most critically, whether the best results would then rise above the levels of musak? I imagine that this would be more readily achievable for instrumental genres, as including lyrics and vocals would add another layer of complexity.

Before all of the Muso-Purists create a flame war in the comments section about musical integrity and whats real,  lets consider the following. What if for many users the job-to-be-done for Spotify turns out not to be the high-end ideal of “find me great artists whom I can follow and develop an ongoing appreciation for the complete depth of their back catalogue”. Rather what if the job-to-be-done was the more prosaic “find me a large amount of novel music that sounds like the kind of music I prefer”. There is a subtle distinction between those two use-cases. Spotify's marketing emphasises the former (perhaps to keep today's iteration of the music industry on-side) but they could be equally successful serving the second need.

Now perhaps the world’s musical output will always be enough to back-fill people’s infinite playlists. (Given that there already at least one dedicated service for playing only the millions of never-played tracks already on Spotify.) But it is also not beyond the realms of imagination to see such user-customised tracks slipping into playlists at some point in our not-to-distant-future.

This may not be a business which Spotify themselves would wish to enter. If so, then perhaps there is a gap in the market for businesses to start creating such content.


(I am thinking of blogging a few short thought experiments of novel features or blue-sky ideas for products and services that I use regularly.)


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Descriptagram

(Being a palette cleanser after my last heavy-duty blog post.)

Descriptagram is an idea for a small creative writing side-project. It is an exercise in brevity and clarity. It begins with the question: if a picture is worth a thousand words, what happens when you summarise that picture in 140 characters?


I scanned through my Instagram feed and attempted to capture the essence of select images using the minimum of words. Interestingly, the juxtaposition of content in this written list is far more dissonant compared with viewing the source images within the app.

“Disembodied head of a vintage shop mannequin: seventies-chic, cracked lipstick, disappointing hair.”
“Desiccated orange starfish atop a variety of grey pebbles.”
“Four bright green fractal broccoli arranged square-wise on the rich brown hues of a wooden table.”
“Mandarin Chinese characters finger-written in the mist of a window’s condensation sheen.”
“Close-up of distressed street lettering – disintegrated white paint on a black tar road.”
“Random metal letterpress type characters arranged within a steel tray, mostly serifed capitals.”
“Landscape: four-fifths dark night sky to one-fifth tiny lights delineating the vastness of a city grid.”  
“A pair of hipster spectacles completely disassembled on a wooden table.”
“Midnight. Red. Green. Blue. A neon sign’s lettering reflected onto water surface.”
“Rusty, weathered, fifties-era Vegas motel sign contrasted against a bright blue sky.”
“Close-up of overly ornate letterforms from a Victorian advert (bonus naive pro-smoking message).”
“Long shot of dark tree trunks covered in snow. Colour image appears faux-monochrome.”
“Sunrise viewed through silhouettes of leafless trees. Elongated shadows creating emphasised perspective.”
“Wrinkly young puppy asleep on a cushion; indoors, no flash, amber hues.”
“Predictable birds-eye view of a cappuccino; starkness of white cup contrasts details in wood grain of table.”
“Poorly-kerned vernacular typography. With the obligatory scathingly superior comment appended.”

I may continue this exercise in a dedicated Twitter account. Its longevity would depend on how quickly the novelty of sentence construction devolves into similarity and pattern repetition. I guess I should go and research some Haiku...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notes and Thoughts From The ‘Designing Growth’ Event

As part of Design Week 2013, Dublin City Council’s Pivot Dublin organised ‘Designing Growth’ – a panel discussion on how design could be harnessed to drive growth in Ireland. The event was promoted as “a discussion on ways to develop new and better public services, communication platforms, education and business models through design”. These are my notes from the evening’s discussion, along with some further thoughts on my ongoing investigations of Design Thinking.


Four of the five panellists were international speakers:
Marco Steinberg, Founder of Snowcone & Haystack
Robin Edman, CEO of the Swedish Industrial Design Foundation
Maureen Thurston, Design Principal at Deloitte Australia
Enrique Avogadro, Head of the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Design District

The fifth panellist was John Moran, the Secretary General of the Department of Finance. Representing the beneficiaries, rather than the providers, of ‘Design Thinking’, John was asking the skeptical questions about what precisely that methodology could add to the public sector and to broader state policy.



Ali Grehan, Dublin City Architect and Pivot Dublin representative, set the scene by positioning the evening’s event as the starting point for a conversation about a national vision for design. She expressed her belief that Ireland needs to develop a National Design Strategy which addresses our specific context and our particular needs. She stressed that in forming such a strategy we should learn as much as we can from international best practice: hence the panel of international speakers.

Some initial definitions of ‘Design’ and ‘Design Thinking’

Steinberg — Design brings coherence to things. In terms of public policy, ‘Design Thinking’ is another tool to better ensure that the policies you build are robust and fit for purpose. Design Thinking is useful for creating simpler solutions (that is, better solutions). In many regards designers can contribute like economists and engineers, by adding their expertise into a collective process. For example, one of their useful roles on a team is to be the ‘proposition-based’ thinkers; in counterpoint to the ‘analysis-based’ thinkers.

Edman — The key differentiator of ‘Design Thinking’ is that you do not just step through your process and once you have ticked-off all of the actions on your checklist then you are done. With Design Thinking you are stepping into the unknown: you need to be brave. You must iterate and learn as you go along, without knowing precisely where the process is eventually going to lead you.

Thurston — The value of ‘Design Thinking’ can be as an alternative to traditional problem-solving methodologies. More people need to understand and appreciate the values and utility of Design Thinking within the earlier ‘Problem-Finding’ and ‘Problem-Defining’ stages; before using it in to the more expected ‘Problem-Solving’ stage.  A key benefit of teaching people to use Design Thinking is they then learn to approach problems with an open mind, rather than relying upon bringing along their pre-considered solutions (even when such solutions have proved effective for similar problems in the past).

On Promoting Design

Edman’s argument was to stop attempting to promote the Irish design industry and Irish designers. Do not elevate them onto a pedestal and then promote them using the lingua franca of the design sector. Rather you need to promote ‘Design’ by focusing on the buyers of, and the users of, design. (At the same time, he added that the Irish design sector does need to raise its game and learn to position its design services at a higher level, so that it can then become a welcomed contributor to government policy-forming.)



Steinberg on Public Sector and Policy

In my view, Marco Steinberg was the most engaging of the four ‘Design Thinking’ panelists on the night. His particular areas of focus seemed most concerned with public services.

“Redesigning public service can no longer just be about making your existing processes and services increasingly efficient any more. Given the scale of cuts over recent years you now need to totally rethink many public services from the ground up. One critical question then becomes: what is the skill-set needed to re-imagine, re-invent and transform your public services at the required scale?

Too much of existing policy-making uses a general vernacular design process (“This is how we do it” and “It is just common sense”). There is a discipline of ‘Design For Policy’ which is about formally leveraging Design Thinking as part of your policy-making process. You can use those methods to investigate and address these three questions to solve policy issues in an integrated manner:

  • What is your culture?
  • What are your tools? 
  • What are your procedures? 

Policy-makers need to become far more comfortable playing with ideas and with failing. Learning to fail is critical to the Design Thinking methodology. Then, failing faster is a key way of learning and ultimately becoming wiser.”

Steinberg noted that when he advances that particular line of argument he often gets a lot of push-back from the public sector. In their view they do explore already, and they do iterate to develop new initiatives, and they do pilot them. While that may indeed be the case, he argues that cycle times need to be questioned, as most are far too slow. As an example, he claimed that some global corporations may iterate aspects of their services 15 times in a single day.



There is a need is to innovate government itself and ultimately to change the culture of the public sector. For example, he asked, what if the public sector tried to move from providing services to providing platforms, along the lines of the Kickstarter model? This could be a mechanism that channels activism into something more useful. As most activism tends to burn-out over the longer term unfortunately.

A mission critical question is where would such an innovative design capability exist? If you place it at the centre of your public service then it will be crushed by incumbents and vested interests. If you place it on the outside it will be seen as separate and ultimately irrelevant. The optimal point is at the periphery. If it operates along the edges (near delivery of services?) then it will have more of a chance of being effective and engendering substantive change.

John Moran Responds

“A post-crisis Ireland has to be open to reinvention. So we do need the design-process mindset more than ever before. We have to redesign a lot of what Ireland does. We have to design a new economic model for this country. (We tried just selling houses to each other and that did not work out so well!) What I think ‘Design Thinking’ can contribute to that process is a Culture Of Innovation that can help us to find a way for this country to be the best that it can be.

I believe that the underlying ideas being discussed here are correct, but I remain unconvinced about the ‘Design Thinking’ label. What you all call ‘Design’ and ‘Design Thinking’, we simply call ‘Policy-Making’ within the Department of Finance. And I think that lots of other people in other areas already practice such ‘Design Thinking’ as well. Surely many applications of this methodology do not necessarily require designers. Within this new paradigm we have to ask who is a designer, and who is not a designer?”



My Own Thoughts

The topic of ‘Design Thinking’ (and its related field of Service Design) is something that I have an ongoing interest in. I have been wrestling with how to incorporate it into my own professional practice for some time. Its cross-disciplinary nature is a big part of its appeal to me. The fact that Design Thinking is just as a valid topic of investigation for business schools as it is for design educators is interesting. They are both converging on the same topic from different directions.

It is noteworthy that as senior a figure as the General Secretary of the Department of Finance is interested in engaging with design thinkers to investigate what benefits their methodology can contribute. It is disheartening when the design representatives can not then deliver a unified elevator pitch for the benefits of Design Thinking. In that sense I think that ‘Designing for Growth’ was somewhat of a lost opportunity. In my interpretation, one of the (perhaps unspoken) purposes behind this event was to move design thinkers a step closer to a seat at the Big Table.

After this event, I did find myself asking: if John Mahon had wholeheartedly embraced the idea of leveraging ‘Design Thinking’ methodologies within the policy-creating function of the Department of Finance – who would he then turn to for delivery of that service? Which, if any, Irish design firms actually can offer that service at the appropriate level today? Or is it being offered by any of the business strategy units within the large Irish management consultancies? Or would he have to look to international management consultancies at present?

There is also another interesting discussion to be had exploring the reality that there is going to be an inherent conflict between any efforts at bringing a lean, light, fast-moving, iterative, design-informed process into a public sector where innovation is still constrained by cautious, slow-moving procurement policies built to counteract financial prolificacy and wasteful spending. Where are the spaces for the sorts of experimentation needed to investigate the most ambiguous problems?

The malleability of the meanings of the words ‘Design’ and ‘Designer’ in this evening’s discussion has to be telling. The catch-all term ‘design’ being perhaps too all-inclusive to be truly useful in these kinds of discussions, given that it can signify a mindset, an activity, and a practice, as well as an atypically broad industry sector which includes many different sub-sectors of activity with vastly varying business models. (But, having said that, what other term could be used in its place?) As more activities are included within ever-broader definitions of ‘Design’, then the term becomes more vague and less useful. That breadth of definition may be part of what confuses the issue whenever trying to discuss topics such as ‘Design In Ireland’.

Although I think that it is still only somewhat loosely defined within the various design sectors, it seems clear that the phrase ‘Design Thinking’ does make sense within the industry as a useful differentiator that allows certain designers to position themselves higher up the stack and so to capture greater value. So within the design sectors that phrase can be a useful signifying differentiator which is understood as being contrasted against other forms of design activity. While I do not think that those other activities are considered to be ‘un-thinking’, those forms of design activity are necessarily set in counterpoint as being somewhat less analytical or rational. In every field of human activity we always have to account for the Narcissism Of Small Differences. Therefore it is unsurprising when, within the broad church of design, a rationalist tendency should seek mechanisms to define their activities as distinctly separate from (what we can refer to as) a more instinctual tendency.

The communicative problem then arises when that intra-sector signifier ‘Design Thinking’ has to be parsed and interpreted by the purchasers of design services. It seems probable that, rather than considering Design Thinking against other forms of designing, they are considering it against other forms of thinking. I suspect that was one factor informing John Moran’s comments this evening. So it seems to me that one open challenge for the design sector is to find a better way to explain ‘Design Thinking’ in a less self-referential manner.



Also, to gain broader acceptance of its various methodologies, it is important that ‘Design Thinking’ is not positioned as some form of panacea. That line of thinking is obviously nonsensical, but it does still tend to be a theme that these conversations can circle around. For that reason I found similarities between this event and the discussions at this Summer’s IxDA ‘Design & Thinking’ event.

To me ‘Design Thinking’ can be usefully understood as another tool in the mental toolkit, offering a different perspective that works best within a broader collective process. It can obviously be approached from many different directions, each dependent on the professional’s own expertise. My current notion (well, for today at least) is that some of the most useful manifestations of ‘Design Thinking’ may lie in collaborations between business strategists who can think creatively on one hand, and strategically-minded designers with a bias for integrated thinking on the other. But I still have a lot more thinking to do on this topic.

Postscript

It took me a few weeks to carve out time to assemble my notes from the event into this post. That delay has had one benefit in that during the interval Clay Shirky posted his article ‘Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality’. Shirky’s dissection of the mis-management of the Obamacare online service delivery is as strong an argument as any I have read for the benefits of an iterative, prototyping and testing-based methodology for public services.

Read Pivot Dublin’s own review of this event here.

Disclaimer

It is important to clarify that all of the attributed statements in this post are paraphrased from my own (fairly concise) notes and none are verbatim quotations. As usual, if I have seriously misquoted anyone please do let me know.