Stories, moments, people and ideas of interest from within the worlds of innovation and design, spotted and written about by Helen Walters, design writer, editor, and ideas editor at TED. Attitude, errors and opinions obviously all the writer's own.
Ask me anything
October 9, 2012
"How can we best prepare for change? My advice based on the experience that I have accumulated over the years: decide what isn’t going to change, especially in three key domains: principles, purpose and people."
The Paradox of Preparing for Change is a lovely, personal piece by Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation co-chairman, John Hagel, who goes on to outline the three questions we all need to ask ourselves as change roils around us:
What principles or values will I hold constant?
What purpose or direction will I hold constant? (or why am I here and where do I want to contribute?)
Who are the people that I’m going to take on the journey and who I am going to stay with, no matter what?
"Kuhn, like Popper, thought that science was mainly about theory, but an increasing amount of cutting-edge scientific research is data- rather than theory-driven. And while physics was undoubtedly the Queen of the Sciences when Structure… was being written, that role has now passed to molecular genetics and biotechnology. Does Kuhn’s analysis hold good for these new areas of science? And if not, isn’t it time for a paradigm shift?"
— *Great* review of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, written in honor of the book’s fiftieth anniversary. John Naughton lays out the whopping impact the book had when it was published—and its continued influence today.
"History is full of sad stories of humanity’s inability to see the writing on the wall — overplowing that helped produce the Dust Bowl, overfishing that has depopulated the oceans. The heat wave is merely the latest of many weather-related messages that should be easy to read."
"Adaptation is too important to be left to the experts. Why? There are no experts. We’re entering uncharted territory, yet our expertise is based on the past… It’s up to us to look at our homes, our communities, our vulnerabilities, our exposures to risks, to find way not just to survive but to thrive. It’s up to us to plan, prepare and call on leaders to do the same even as they address the underlying causes of climate change… There are no quick fixes, no one-size-fits-all solutions. It’s all learning by doing, but the operative word is doing. Adaptation will not be painless and it won’t be perfect, but inaction — no action — is not an option."
Thoughtful piece by Timothy Egan about e-books and the threat of Amazon on the livelihood of publishers and independent book store owners, pointing out that despite the howls of “o me miserum” and fraught hand-wringing, “we have more books, more readers, a bigger audience for words, on pixels or paper.”
I’ve wondered before about those consumers who are less focused on bargain basement prices and who might want to know that a percentage of their money is going towards those actually producing the content (so I’m a writer, color me biased.) But the fear of innovation and transformation from those who wish things could just stay as they used to be is potent, dangerous and, ultimately, irrelevant. It’s useful to remind ourselves that markets shift, worlds change, whether we like it or not. Or, as Egan puts it:
Publishers need to reinvent their own future. They could offer packages. They could partner more with communities of interest, from environmentalists to religious conservatives. And, most important, they could start believing in tomorrow, instead of being afraid of it.
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
The Problem With “Innovation” is a great, great post by Bryce Roberts in which he cites the above quote from Buckminster Fuller and points out that what looks silly, superficial, inconsequential and downright distracting when they’re first proposed can “suddenly” have fundamental consequences for society as a whole. Or, as he puts it:
New models create new markets, but they’re often misunderstood at the outset. Stupid checkins reshape how we explore and experience the real world. Prepaying for tick tock watches reshapes financial markets. Silly status updates spark revolutions. And grainy glitchy video calls cut into the commercial air travel.
"The biggest resistance was an investment in the way things are done today. But I don’t think it’s going to be difficult going forward to dye textiles using zero water."
Eric Sprunk is the vice president of Merchandising and Product at Nike, and I was really taken with this comment, in a piece looking at the sportswear giant’s recent announcement of a bid to remove water from its apparel dying process. Color It Green: Nike To Adopt Waterless Textile Dying details a new partnership between Nike and the Dutch company, DyeCoo Textile Systems, and is clearly a huge deal for environmentalists. Water is already a focal point in our collective fight for survival, and any initiative that can either remove its use upstream (as it were) in the product development cycle, or prevent rampant pollution of it downstream is significant. As this article notes, up to 150 liters of water are needed to process just one kilogram of textile materials; 39 million tons of polyester will be dyed annually by 2015. That’s an awful lot of water, and the pollution levels in China are already horrible: this piece refers to the “countless billions of gallons of polluted discharges into waterways near manufacturing plants in Asia.”
But look at the quote again. The open admission of the internal resistance to change is really interesting, and an excellent reminder that innovation is never easy, even within those companies such as Nike that are constantly lauded for their innovation prowess. It’s important to remember that every single executive in every single firm meets the same forces, the ones that deliberately—and for the most rational reasons possible—attempt to prevent change. Acknowledging and dealing with these forces consciously and deliberately is the only way to have an impact—both within an organization, and in the world at large.
Rebecca Onie runs Health Leads (formerly known as Project Health, as she refers to in this video, shot when she won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009).
Based on the insight of one Dr Jack Geiger, who prescribed food for patients suffering from malnutrition, Onie started her own version of that initiative in 1996. As she told the audience at Mayo Clinic’s Transform conference, she’d been working in a Boston hospital when she realized that the staff there were operating a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. They were doing their best for their patients in the short time they got to see them, but the real problems were often social, not medical. Health Leads allows doctors to write prescriptions for unmet needs such as housing, food, or heating, forms that patients then take to the Health Leads desk at the clinic in order to work with staff to get the needs filled. 1000 volunteers currently work with nearly 10,000 patients on the east coast.
At Transform, Onie was clear that for her, this work isn’t about being glamorous or high profile; it’s about getting stuff done. “There’s no systematic transformative change without the grueling and sometimes incredibly tedious work of getting things done,” she said. Her entire approach to Health Leads has been about rolling up her sleeves and getting on and trying to make an impact. “We’re looking to change the experience of delivery and healthcare,” she said, outlining the big challenge as she sees it: “How do we ensure that these innovations in fact yield transformation?”
At one point, Onie told a story of a creative clinic director figuring out that in order to get people to pay attention to the Health Leads prescription sheets internally, they should pin them directly to billing notices. I commented that this was a great example of the importance of finding a champion for innovation, for discovering someone willing to take a chance, to do something different and to make change happen organically. Onie agreed, and then added that she wants to push this even further. For her, it’s not merely a question of finding champions, but educating and nurturing them. That, she said, is why Health Leads specifically targets undergraduate college students as its volunteers. This way, by the time the graduates enter the professional workforce, they’ll have been steeped in the social ideas of the program, and be more willing and able to continue to push for systemic change throughout their careers. It’s the slow and steady approach to radical transformation.
"Changes need to be system wide, and that is where governments will really matter. Given that governments have concentrated on getting elected by creating fear, shifting to showing vision will be an enormous challenge. But in the end, investing in the post-industrial world is the only way to go."
Innovate or Die is a worthwhile read by Yves Smith on the mess we’re in, the reason that government needs to step up to fix things—and why it won’t. He writes:
The problem is about a lack of creating the new, something governments have little or no influence over. About four fifths of so called “new products” are refinements of old products… Yes, there is growth in areas like health care, but that hardly parallels the invention of the car, or fridges or any of the other big changes of the first half of the twentieth century. Most things that are new are just refinements – a mobile phone is just a phone made mobile, a microwave oven is just a quicker oven — or an enablement of something old: the digital revolution is mostly an enabler of existing, non digital forms of commerce or functions.
It’s not all doom and gloom, Smith assures, but it will take strong leaders to step up and take bold risks on attaining some far-off vision. No word on who these leaders might be, but let’s hope they’re poised and ready.
Xerox PARC alum, John Seely Brown, teeters on the edge of sounding somewhat curmudgeonly towards the end of this video, when he bemoans the idea that technology keeps us “above the situation as opposed to in the situation.” Mainly because this rather contradicts his earlier description of the magical world of learning that modern technology can provide. Then again, it’s perfectly reasonable to sound a note of caution amid the techno-optimism. And Seely Brown’s point that in retaining a sense of curiosity, we can see change as an opportunity to learn, not a reason to panic, is well taken.
In Sustainable Design is Wearing Thin, writer Justin McGuirk looks at the sustainable design movement, and finds it sorely lacking. Sustainability, he writes, “suggests the flatlining of human ambition” while sticking a recycled logo on a product can’t really be credited with provoking thoughtful environmental behavior. The underlying problem, he continues:
is that consumers, and often designers, too, are bewildered by what really constitutes a sustainable product. You can’t judge it by looking it at; you have to know the object’s past and future – whether it’s made of renewable or recyclable materials, how much energy went into its production, how it’s going to be disposed of. It’s not objects that are unsustainable, it’s the systems that produce them. And designers have to steer their clients towards sustainable systems – that is, if they have the luxury of a client who isn’t just after the cheapest, fastest solution.
McGuirk is absolutely right to point at the systemic challenge of design as the area that needs focus from those looking to promote, provoke or provide a more sustainable way of living. And he’s also right that we don’t need more buzzwords or catchphrases to help us get there. As I wrote in CES: A Symbol of Global Vandalism, 20,000 products were unveiled at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. While that is the accepted norm, the chances of change on the scale it’s truly needed are slim at best.