Monday, December 08, 2014

Notes and Thoughts From The ‘Hidden Rooms’ Conference

I took part in Dublin City Council’s ‘Hidden Rooms’ conference in November. DCC convened more than 350 participants over two days to brainstorm 16 policy issues in a variety of interesting locations across the city. Each room was asked to formulate a pilot project that could be be actioned by DCC in 2015. I was asked to join room seven ‘The Rewarded City’, discussing ideas for incentivising and supporting creative entrepreneurs in Dublin‘s emerging cultural cluster.

On the topic of the Rewarded City 
The one quote that most resonated with me on the day was from Anne Miltenburg, the international contributor to the Rewarded City room. She outlined a massive challenge as: “how to make our cities hard-wired to accept new ideas more easily”.

That challenge is one of the major underlying themes of the Hidden Rooms event (and arguably of last year’s DCC/Pivot Designing Growth event as well). It also segues with my own understanding of some broader DCC agendas. Although it is also worth noting Anne’s experience of the difficulties she outlined in trying to get some crowd-sourced innovation projects started in Amsterdam. Their Government believes that people doing things for themselves does not necessarily save any money. As the Government argues that they then have to ‘spend time monitoring what those people are doing’. So that becomes a disincentive for Governments to encourage such innovative, bottom-up activities.

Other interesting ideas that I took away from the conversations about the topic of rewarding creative entrepreneurs were that, as public bodies do not have much money, therefore they are reluctant to put any money that they do have into anything risky. So the State ought to focus to provide enabling mechanisms for creative entrepreneurs, rather than reward mechanisms. Creative entrepreneurs will create rewards, not accept them. Volunteerism is not the solution to anything (in the long-term). The strategic alignment of self-interest is what actually works. True creative entrepreneurs will say: ‘I am going to do this anyway whether you help me or not’. And paradoxically those are the people who get support.

Photo: DCC/Pivot Dublin

On the process and methodology
I have recorded some insights and lessons from the workshopping day of the event. Primarily I made these notes and observations as guidance for myself for whenever I am facilitating any similarly-structured brainstorming sessions in the future.

The central idea behind Hidden Rooms was to gather an interested cohort of people together to brainstorm ideas around key policy areas. With the intention of creating novel ideas unconstrained by the limitations of the perceived conventional thinking.

One insight shared with me about this kind of process and methodology was that ‘people can be enthusiastic and keen to take part; but not have the mental tools to take part effectively’. One participant  observed that in Ireland we do not have a history of working together in large groups. We tend to operate best in smaller groups, or in one-on-one scenarios. That is a general cultural limitation which we all need to overcome. One which initiatives like Hidden Rooms are intended to challenge.

One primary risk of this group brainstorming approach can be that he ideas which the group produce are either too naive or too top-level. That they are just variants of ideas the client has seen before, or tried already. Or that they are merely what the client might expect from a group which has only been thinking about complex multi-faceted issues for four or five hours. (In contrast with the deep domain expertise of the client.) I do not think that possibility was actualised in the outcomes from Hidden Rooms. That can only be known in the longer-term, when the number of initiatives and ideas that were fully implemented can be measured.

Another insight from the workshop day is that, to make ad-hoc interdisciplinary teams work most effectively within concentrated time spans, all of the participants would be best served with a comprehensive background briefing on the project; so that they have a clarified context to operate within. Otherwise, a substantial amount of time is needed simply coordinating the group around the specifics of the topic they are to address. That leads to the issue of what is the optimal amount of briefing time on the day? Working within a fixed timeframe, the ideal should be to maximise the amount of brainstorming time. A related question then is; how much pre-event briefing is too much? If you send people a comprehensive brief, of say ten-pages, will they all read it in detail beforehand? There is definitely a trade-off here.

It turns out that the expertise of the facilitator is hugely critical to the group successfully generating insightful Design Thinking outcomes. This may actually prove to be the greatest influencer on the outcomes within compressed timelines. The facilitator can cloud the issue easily if they do not actively listen to the group and follow the dynamic of the conversations. Yes, the day needs to be managed and the activities must progress within the allocated timeframe, but staying wedded to a predetermined agenda can prove counterproductive to this type of engagement, when conversations are still in flux.

You also need a domain expert in the room (in this case the DCC client). They need to provide the necessary context to anchor the new ideas being generated. But the intrinsic problem is that the expert also has a strong understanding of what is unlikely to work and what has being tried already — which can prove to be a limiting factor on idea generation. It is critical that the facilitator and domain expert work well together. They need to be in general alignment. They need to liaise and coordinate prior to the workshop to ensure that their goals and aims align.

How could the activities of the working groups in each room be improved for subsequent events? Would it be limiting to predefine the necessary sub-groupings in advance? That could ensure that each sub-group includes at least one person capable of taking on the ‘snowplough’ role (possibly an architect in the specific case of the Hidden Rooms remit) and one other person who is an experienced Design Thinking practitioner. Either of whom could run the cooperative idea generation process on their own, if necessary. That approach could either optimise efficiency or reduce spontaneity, so would depend on the personality and dynamics of individual rooms.

DCC have now published the initial outcomes from Hidden Rooms on the Pivot Dublin site. The specific outcomes from the Rewarded City room are at this page.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Future For Designers — Expanded and Annotated

We all know that we need to innovate. But which of the different classes of innovation should we expend our best efforts on? That choice effects the kind of futures we shall build. What novel roles could designers play within those futures? If it is not going to be what we expect or desire, what can we designers do to future-proof our careers?

That was the description of my presentation to yesterday’s Defuse Dublin event. I had to condense my message dramatically to fit into the five-minute Petcha-Kucha format. I hope that posting this comprehensive version here along with source material links will prove useful to all those interested in this topic.

I am interested in what it will mean to practice as a graphic designer in future. Not in the far-flung future; but within the span of our own career horizons. It is too easy to think about what is happening in graphic design this month, or what is coming up in the next quarter. Sometimes it is worth taking a longer-term view. Thinking about what changes lie ahead for the design sector; for the overall role of graphic designers; and in the professional activities of individual designers in five, ten or twenty years time. While acknowledging that such futurology contains elements of guesswork, we can extrapolate from existing trends. The workplace of the future will look different to that of today, and most likely entirely different to that of just a decade ago.

So, what trends are potentially coming down the line that are work thinking about? Automation is not a topic we discuss much within the design sector. In a real sense many aspects of knowledge work and creative work can eventually be automated. This is the prospect facing all white collar careers in all economies. Watch the fascinating documentary ‘Humans Need Not Apply’. Its key messages are:
  • That automation does not need to be perfect — it just needs to be better than most of us, most of the time.
  • That automation is not bad — it is simply inevitable.
I will accept that film is somewhat apocalyptic. But, if we can get past immediately dismissing it as being of little relevance to the creative economy, it does offer us much to think about. It is not only taxi drivers who need to be concerned in the face of automation. We graphic designers are not protected in some unique creative sector bubble.

Walter The Wobot ©2014 Rebellion.
Over the last thirty years technology has disrupted and depreciated the roles artworkers and typesetters in the design sector. Throughout the nineties many of those people’s careers migrated to being aspects of graphic designer’s job descriptions. Now it  looks possible that many of those design tasks will migrate further on to various forms of automated algorithmic technology.

A lot of my day-to-day activities involve writing and designing corporate identity systems. Essentially that is creating design languages and visual grammars for organisations. This establishes a coherent framework for other graphic designers to create within.

Corporate identity manuals are transitioning from nouns to verbs. They began as hefty physical publications and evolved through PDFs to become online resources. Soon they will become APIs.

One can think about corporate identities as high-level pattern languages with many iteration potentials. Unfortunately for some, quite a lot of everyday graphic design work is based on understanding, manipulating and re-purposing of such pattern languages.

Africa books montage by Simon Stevens.
What would be involved in designing another cover for a new book about Africa? Or perhaps creating the icon for a new To-Do app? If we believe that these – and many similar graphic design tasks – cannot ultimately be automated to a greater or lesser degree, then it is likely that we are fooling ourselves.

Such graphic design automation will begin with the design of relatively structured and formulaic materials. It will not begin by automating high level ‘creativity’ per-se. That said, rather than being science-fiction, or the white-paper aspirations of professional futurists, this is already possible.

At a simple level, consider the fascinating service: ‘Paper-Later’. This merges a read-it-later-style bookmarking app with the automatic layout of personal, customised, physical newspapers, printed and posted to you. Do these newspapers have a rudimentary and limited design layout? Yes, of course they do. But remember this is how disruption starts: at the simplest, almost trivial, level. Which is easily dismissed by the incumbents.

It is likely that the relationship of post-human algorithmic design to the accepted Canon Of Significant Graphic Design will be as the musical output of Pop-Idol is to, say, The Beatles. But, in many situations, it will provide the minimal viable solution. Design elitists may wail and gnash their teeth and rend their garments, but the pattern of disruption has been well mapped-out for all industries at this stage. It seems improbable that graphic design would prove to be the exception.

It is notable that IBM’s Watson has already proven its prowess at answering natural language questions. It won the US game show ‘Jeopardy’ and already supports medical professionals in making treatment options for their patients. So automation can already win game shows, compose music and write news articles. But are many of the human skills supporting advanced Design-Thinking too complex for any artificial intelligence software to handle?

We designers pride ourselves upon being creative thinkers who imagine novel solutions for a living. So it should not be a stretch for us to imagine creative algorithms which could design as well as the average designer today. Now, I am no AI research scientist. But for tonight, I have sketched out this quick wire-frame of a rudimentary ‘Design-O-Matic’ algorithm in my notebook.

I am an early-adopter and an anti-Luddite. So I am not discussing automation as a negative phenomenon, more as an inevitability. The correct response to the ‘Lump Of Labour’ fallacy has always been that new innovations open up new roles and free people from less skilled tasks to pursue higher callings. Yet, many experts are concerned that things may not pan out that way, this time around.

Read more: Lump of Labor: Certainly a Red Herring, Albert Wenger, 2014.

So, bearing all of that in mind, we need to ask ourselves: how many graphic designers will actually be needed in the future? And what kind of careers will they have?

The premise underpinning the related future theory of the ‘Gig-Economy’ is that all knowledge workers or members of the creative classes who do succeed in retaining a career shall have no choice but to operate as On-Demand, Super-Specialised, Free Agents serving the tiniest niches within a frictionless, Internet-enabled, global economy.

The most unnerving aspect of that future scenario is that only a small percent of the global population will be smart enough for the level of careers remaining. Ergo, only an equally small percent of the designer population will be smart enough for the remaining creative jobs. Will there be one-percent who provide the novel design solutions which provide the stimulus material for the other ninety-nine percent?

In such a scenario, the critical question then is whether the design-related jobs which are displaced by technology can be replaced at the same rate by those Gig Economy careers? (And how long before someone brainstorms a working business model for the Uber for Graphic Designers? Or even one for brand consultants!)

Learn more: Exponent podcast, Ben Thompson and James Allworth, weekly .
Read more: Airbnb CEO Spells Out The End Game For The Sharing Economy, Venture Beat, 2014.

In our personal response to all such speculative futures we can choose to be fatalistic, or to be excited and inspired. For many graphic designers our future is going to have to be less focussed on design-craft skills. If automation will not displace those jobs in the near-term, then it could be off-shoring, or the ongoing democratisation of design via smarter tools. All those forces are already acting on the graphic design sector.

But it is not all bad news.

Paradoxically, at a time when some designer’s careers will face their greatest challenge, there is also a potential upside for others. There is a parallel narrative of new opportunities for those designers who are prepared to reinvent and reorientate themselves with new mindsets, and in new roles. It remains an open question what proportion of graphic designers will have the appropriate levels and forms of creativity required to succeed within these new economic landscapes.

Read more: It is OK to Worry about Work, Albert Wenger, August 2014.

Illustration by 
One of the traditional career trajectories for designers has been to devote less time to their graphic design craft skills and more to developing their soft skills in consultancy and client advisory roles. Those trust-based roles should prove less amenable to automation in the medium-term. The disciplines of Service Design, Experience Design and Design-Thinking are examples of horizontal activities that broaden the scope of designer’s activities and roles.

Within the graphic design sector the practice of entrepreneurship has traditionally been limited to setting-up design studios. Most those have been lifestyle businesses and SMEs, and rarely economically significant enterprises of scale. Of course, starting such service agencies is entrepreneurial. But what about the designer’s role being neither that of a service-agent nor an advisor? What about designers taking on more of a true leadership role as drivers of innovation?

Wired magazine claimed that fifty percent of startup founders have engineering backgrounds with only six percent have design backgrounds. Most graphic designers have a maker’s focus on building their expertise in their craft. Or at least that is where they tend to start from in their careers. The personality-type of an entrepreneur is characterised as not being expert at any single discipline — except leadership. They have to be ‘good enough’ at many different disciplines and know when to delegate. Yet, both entrepreneurs and designers have skills in iterating and problem solving.

It is striking that 60% of Fortune-500 CEOs cite ‘creativity’ as the most important quality of leadership today. To me that suggests that we graphic designers need to broaden our conception of success. About one-third of today’s Fortune-500 CEOs have engineering backgrounds, rather than pure business backgrounds. What if, in future, one-third of such CEOs had design backgrounds?

Read more: The Economist Special Report: Technology Is Not WorkingOctober 2014

We can observe that — as the value in many products and services migrates upwards to the experience level — design-thinking skills are now deemed critical, valued, and sought-after. In recent years the international business and technology media have started reporting more frequently on the value that designers now bring in setting the agenda and leading organisations.

This narrative is that designers are amongst those best placed to capitalise in the future economy by focussing more on creative thinking and problem solving.
“Over the next few decades demand in the top layer of the labour market may well centre on individuals with high abstract reasoning, creative, and interpersonal skills that are beyond most workers, including graduates.” 
Read more: Silicon Valley's New Secret Weapon: Designers Who Found Startups, Fast Company, 2012.
Read more: The Interface Layer: Where Design Commoditizes Tech, Scott Belsky, 2014.
Read more: Why VC Firms Are Snapping Up Designers, Fast Company, 2014. 

The role of the ‘Designer-Founder’ is a notable new career path. This is someone who uses her design-thinking mindset and problem-solving methods to build businesses that are far more ambitious than service agencies. The challenges within the problem-spaces that many startups are starting to explore now benefit dramatically from experienced design-thinking. The time is right. The opportunity is now and the need is there. No-one is arguing that designer-founders are better than founders with technical or business backgrounds. Rather they complement each other.

Read more: Advice for Designers Who Want to Be Founders, Eoghan McCabe, 2013.

A relevant question to ask is what proportion of graphic designers do have these kinds of leadership aspirations? The answer is now more than has ever been the case before.

That said, it now seems probable that an ambitious cohort within the graphic design sector will decide it is economically most advantageous to abandon the artisan career path or the professional-service career path and step up to the founder career path. Indeed, there are already historical precedents for this type of industry-wide phase-change, most notably in Engineering.

So it is informative to note that incubators only for design-founders are appearing in the US, along with some dedicated venture capital funds such as ‘DesignerFund’. Initiatives like the experimental designer school ‘30-Weeks’ are pioneering the approach of equipping designers with the skills needed to start enterprises, after years of trying to teach startups about design.

We should ask ourselves what potential there is for similar initiatives here in Ireland?

Read more: 30 Weeks: An Experimental New Design School, Backed By Google, Fast Company, June 2014.
Read more: Google Funds a Design School That Works Like a Tech Incubator, Wired, June 2014.

Airbnb’s  Brian Chesky & Joe Gebbia, Pinterest’s Ben Silbermann & Evan Sharpe, Path’s Dave Morin, and Tumblr’s David Karp. 
Looking internationally, there are already examples of high-profile, market-disrupting companies whose founders have design backgrounds. I am sure you are all familiar with Air-BnB, Pinterest, Path, and Tumblr.

No-one argues that Designer-Founders are better than founders with technical or business backgrounds. Rather, that they complement each other.

Some VCs even claim that the core of start-ups has evolved from an ‘Engineer plus Hustler’ partnership. The new ideal is a trio of Engineer plus Designer plus Hustler.

I think it will be interesting to observe how different the priorities of organisations led with a design mindset will be in comparison with those led by a Technical mindset. Perhaps Designer-Founders will envisage and build a different kind of future to complement the visions of technology founders?

Intercom’s Eoghan McCabe & Des Traynor, SeeSearch’s Hilary Kenna, Thoughtbox’s Cristina Luminea, and Drop’s Zachary Davison, Ben Harris, Jonny McCauley & Jack Phelan.
While that trio startup model is now unexceptional on the US West Coast, Designer-Founders are still only a niche here in Ireland. But we are seeing some home-grown Irish startups with designers taking on key roles in their founding teams. While many of these are just out of incubator stage, there are certainly a few we can learn from.

Read more: Find Your Niche And Put Focus On Design, The Irish Times, November 2014.

How is the Irish third-level graphic design education sector grappling with these ideas and economic imperatives? The colleges will have a key role to play in encouraging and transmitting the entrepreneurial aspects of design thinking to the graphic designers of tomorrow. Have they started planning for these futures? Their critical challenge will be that colleges need to foster such entrepreneurial mindsets while they have been configured to graduate graphic designers with an agent mindset.

Ten years ago I attended a talk by Professor Christopher Frayling. He praised what he thought was the under-rated calling of being an “everyday graphic design tradesman”. He argued that educators need to realise and accept that not every student is going to be an iconoclast, a paradigm-changer or a design visionary. He argued educators should be content to train some people to be competent journeymen designers. I do not believe that is a viable strategy any more if we face a combination of automation and a Gig-Economy marketplace.

Obviously third-level design departments cannot just flick a switch and turn on some entrepreneurial acumen within their students. But there is little value in preparing their students for careers that may not exist when they graduate. I spoke with some of the design departments about this. While I found them aware of aspects of these challenges. The slow pace of institutional reaction times and the challenges in evolving their approaches frustrated some of those educators.

So, the future of graphic design work may be far more different than we expect. This third kind of career path will not suit all graphic designers. But, ultimately I think many of us are going to have to realign our mindsets from serving as agents or trusted advisors and step-up to acting as instigators.

The issue then becomes: how do we best prepare ourselves to operate in that capacity?

Read more: What It Takes To Be A Lead Designer At A Top Startup, Designerfund, 2014.
Read more: Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, by Seth Godin.

Quote from Merlin Mann, episode one of Roderick On The Line.
All this tells me that if you are a graphic designer, you need to work actively on keeping yourself relevant. Ask yourself:
  • What aspects of your work might simply just *go away* in the next five years?
  • Then identify what new areas of expertise you need to start building today.
  • Focus intensely on how you add unique value that cannot be readily replicated.
You need to design the arc of your own career.

Read more: The End of Design As We Know It, Dan Saffer, September 2014. (That post has a lot of crossover with my presentation. I had drafted most of this essay in August and September, before that post was published, but you can imagine how I felt when I read it!)

So, who will be the potential founders, leaders and innovators within our design community in Ireland? Perhaps it is you? Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow. But at some possible point in your future career. So do not close the door to that possibility.

No one is going to choose you. Choose yourself.

I think it is important to note that this essay is not intended as an incitement to jumping aboard some happy-clappy ‘Wantrepreneur’ bandwagon. This is not a call to all graphic designers to abandon their craft skills and just release their inner Jobs/Musk/Bezos/Zuckerberg. Obviously, the third career path discussed will not suit all graphic designers. My point is about recognising that there just are not going to be the same amount of artisan or service-agent design roles required in future. So staying active and relevant within the graphic design field may need a broader mindset and a willingness to apply the core abilities of the Design-Thinker to a new set of opportunities.

Presentation Video 
IxDA have now posted videos of all of yesterday’s presentations on YouTube. So here is the live version of my talk.

Writing an article like this does not happen in a vacuum. I road-tested some of my ideas, and investigated the background with some knowledgeable people. So my thanks to Valerie Haslam, John O’Connor, Barry Sheehan, Hilary Kenna, Jill Barry, Amy Neale, Conor Clarke, David Smyth, and Shirley Casey for their contributions.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Defensive Inertia

As I was distilling and percolating the themes for my forthcoming Defuse presentation, I ended up also considering the different ways we can unintentionally stall our own progress. Think about these three examples.

What’s the problem?
In general I am the person least likely to watch sports-related films. Although 2011’s Moneyball tells a story of American baseball, its theme is really disruption – a topic much closer to my own interests. The film charts the rise of statistical quant methodologies in team construction and player selection.

There is one critical scene where the protagonist Billy Beane confronts the Ancien Régime of grizzled talent scouts responsible for recruiting new players. He explains the true challenges being faced and they summarily dismiss him and his methodologies.

That scene has stuck with me because, whatever business we are in, it is always too easy (in many situations) to gradually fall into the role of that dismissive old guard. As we gain experience, we all develop skills giving us the fast insights, accurate rules of thumb and so-called gut instincts that made those talent scout characters successful in their careers. The danger lies in believing that whatever heuristics have worked for us before will continue to work in future.

However, the true skill is in knowing when the underlying topology is changing and the accepted ground rules are no longer operating. Do not find yourself defending the wrong territory.

Trapped in amber
Last year I attended the screening of the documentary Linotype at the National Print Museum. Many in the the audience seemed in tune with the nostalgic aspects of that film, which was in part a paean to simpler times. When the Linotype machine was introduced it was an innovative and disruptive technology. It allowed newspapers to expand their page counts and frequency of publication. During the era of Peak Linotype, thousands of people were employed worldwide operating those machines. Anyone still capable of operating a Linotype machine today is a novelty: either a nostalgic anachronism encased within an academic/museum setting, or else a decidedly retro design-hipster.

Reflecting afterwards, I think I gleaned a different message from the film than most of the audience. What struck me most was that when Linotype was later overtaken by superior technologies many who had once made successful careers as Linotype typesetters abjectly failed to adapt and make further progress in new or adjacent activities. What would your Second Act be, if the parameters of your industry were to change as dramatically?

Arrested Development
The third idea that I have been mulling over is how the concept of arrested development (loosely interpreted) can apply to our careers. The flip side of attaining high degrees of competency in anything, is that you can blind yourself to your own further potential in greater areas of operation. You can all too-easily define yourself as the person who only does X, precisely because you are one of the best there is at doing X. Yet, you could be even better at Y…

Obviously this poses an ongoing conundrum to all of us throughout our careers. This crosses over with the notion that ‘knowing what you need to know’ is a complex, recursive challenge facing all knowledge workers and members of the creative classes. Merlin Mann has been addressing this recently, both in his Back To Work podcast and in his recent talk Advanced Tricycling at this year’s 34e developer conference.

So a loose assembly of those three ideas was in the back of my mind as I composed my talk ‘A Future For Designers’. I think that the take-away here is that we always need to beware of getting ourselves stuck by defending our own personal status-quo. (Even though we most often do so with the best of intentions).

Friday, October 24, 2014

Speaking at Defuse Dublin 2014

Detail from what might just be my favourite slide. 

I am delighted to have been invited to speak at this year’s Defuse Dublin event in November. The line up of speakers looks interesting and this should be an enjoyable and educational evening. 

The topic of my presentation is ‘A Future For Designers’. (Well why not aim high?) I reasoned that it would be somewhat ambitious to try and figure out *The* Future For Designers — never mind then trying to present that within five minutes. But thinking about one possible future seems a worthwhile intellectual exercise.

I submitted this original outline for my talk back in August:
“We all know that we need to innovate. But which of the different classes of innovation should we expend our best efforts on? That choice effects the kind of futures we shall build. What novel roles could designers play within those futures? If it is not going to be what we expect or desire, what can we designers do to future-proof our careers?”
The final version of my talk is not as expansive as all that, given the realities of tailoring my message to fit twenty slides delivered in five minutes. 

This talk can be considered as a third instalment of an ongoing exploration I began in Applying Design Thinking to Big Data, Uber-fication, The End of Average and The Capitalist’s Dilemma and continued in The Future Of Work And The Internet Rainforest.

(And if I had more than five minutes, my talk could have included more slides on Christensen’s Disruption Theory as well as some Pixar Easter Eggs, cartoon hipsters from the Simpsons, Morpheus’ Red Pill/Blue Pill from The Matrix, and hard-take-off AIs. Who knows, maybe next time?)

Hopefully see you at The Sugar Club on the thirteenth.

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!
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,, 2014.
‘The New Yorker: Battle Of The Strategy Titans’ – Steve Denning, Forbes, 2014.
‘What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong’ – Ben Thompson,, 2013.
‘The Disruption FAQ’ – Horace Dedieu,, 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

• 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

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

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

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

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.