January 2, 2013
So Avis has bought collaborative consumption poster child company Zipcar for $12.25 a share. As you might imagine, this has sparked a number of reactions, from those concerned that, consumed by a fusty incumbent, the innovative upstart will now lose its way, to those excited at the scale Avis can lend the still-fledgling company. The press release doesn’t say much beyond the expected platitudes, though Avis “anticipates” that key Zipcar executives such as CEO Scott W. Griffith will remain at the helm of the company. It’s certainly been interesting to watch Zipcar’s journey so far—and that will continue as the firm moves to become a test case for those looking to manage disruption both internally and at scale.
Update: tweet from Zipcar cofounder Robin Chase neatly sums up the issues at hand:

“Avis buys Zipcar. Should reduce fleet costs & make zip profitable. Concerned about whether OldCo can build NewCo in new innovative economy.”

[Photo c/o Zipcar]

So Avis has bought collaborative consumption poster child company Zipcar for $12.25 a share. As you might imagine, this has sparked a number of reactions, from those concerned that, consumed by a fusty incumbent, the innovative upstart will now lose its way, to those excited at the scale Avis can lend the still-fledgling company. The press release doesn’t say much beyond the expected platitudes, though Avis “anticipates” that key Zipcar executives such as CEO Scott W. Griffith will remain at the helm of the company. It’s certainly been interesting to watch Zipcar’s journey so far—and that will continue as the firm moves to become a test case for those looking to manage disruption both internally and at scale.

Update: tweet from Zipcar cofounder Robin Chase neatly sums up the issues at hand:

Avis buys Zipcar. Should reduce fleet costs & make zip profitable. Concerned about whether OldCo can build NewCo in new innovative economy.”

[Photo c/o Zipcar]

July 5, 2012
Tracking the birth and life of Anonymous, anthropologist and academic Gabriella Coleman set out to explain the mysterious group in her talk at TEDGlobal. The answer was less than comprehensive, but given the nature of the beast, that’s not particularly surprising. She came up with four ways to describe the group’s makeup:
Anonymous scales and is participatory; it is not just hackers. 
Anonymous may seem chaotic, but most targets are not random. 
They put on a good performance, obvious even to their detractors. 
They are visible and invisible. 
Read the full post here. For bonus points, read also Quinn Norton's excellent Wired piece, How Anonymous Picks Targets, Launches Attacks, and Takes Powerful Organizations Down, which covers much of the same ground but in rather more detail than Coleman could include in a TEDTalk (or, for that matter, than I could capture in a live blog.)

[Photo c/o James Duncan Davidson; Graphics c/o TED.]

Tracking the birth and life of Anonymous, anthropologist and academic Gabriella Coleman set out to explain the mysterious group in her talk at TEDGlobal. The answer was less than comprehensive, but given the nature of the beast, that’s not particularly surprising. She came up with four ways to describe the group’s makeup:

  1. Anonymous scales and is participatory; it is not just hackers. 
  2. Anonymous may seem chaotic, but most targets are not random. 
  3. They put on a good performance, obvious even to their detractors. 
  4. They are visible and invisible. 
Read the full post here. For bonus points, read also Quinn Norton's excellent Wired piece, How Anonymous Picks Targets, Launches Attacks, and Takes Powerful Organizations Down, which covers much of the same ground but in rather more detail than Coleman could include in a TEDTalk (or, for that matter, than I could capture in a live blog.)
[Photo c/o James Duncan Davidson; Graphics c/o TED.]

May 25, 2012
How Can Companies Copy Cities Successfully?

Jonah Lehrer was an entertaining presenter at the 99% Conference, and he flagged some particularly fascinating research, from Geoffrey West, of the Santa Fe Institute. A theoretical physicist, West’s interest in “general scaling phenomena” led him to study cities. Lehrer then outlined the difference between cities and companies, which might seem rather dull but was actually quite thought-provoking. For instance, Lehrer described, while the two might look somewhat similar on the surface, there’s one critical difference: cities never die. “They’re immortal. You can nuke a city and it’ll come back. You can burn it to the ground and we still have San Francisco.”

Companies, in contrast, die all the time. Lehrer cited a fact we’re all too quick to forget (or fail to remember) when we’re bemoaning the death of another industry icon: the average lifespan of a Fortune 100 firm is only 40 years; 25% of Fortune 100 companies die every decade. And when they’re gone, they’re gone.

According to West, the reason for this is that as cities get bigger, everyone within its confines becomes more productive. “That’s why urbanization is the great theme of the 21st century,” said Lehrer. “We cram ourselves together; we have more ideas.” The design of the city keeps us all on our toes. 

Companies enjoy the opposite effect. As a company gets bigger, everyone becomes less productive. Bureaucracy happens; meetings happen; management happens. There’s less profit per employee; they’re no longer able to innovate at the same rate; people get in the way of creativity and innovation.

"The magic of cities is that they’re freewheeling and chaotic," concluded Lehrer. "It’s a bunch of strangers bumping into each other. Cities don’t try to maximize creativity which is precisely why they do. Companies on the other hand micromanage, we chain ourselves to desk, we don’t drink beer in the afternoon, we brainstorm when we don’t want to brainstorm."

I love this insight. Now the question becomes: how can companies better imitate cities?

[Photo: Julian Mackler]

September 1, 2011
Issues of Scale

In October, I’m co-chair, with GE’s Beth Comstock and Richard Whitehall of Smart Design, of the DMI-organized conference, Design at Scale. It’s shaping up to be a super event, with a ton of amazing speakers who will all add unique insight into this difficult topic. Questions of scale — how to do it, when to do it, why it’s apparently so enormously difficult — seem to dog the design industry. So I was interested to read this piece by Atlas Venture partner, Fred Destin, who writes about how premature scaling all too often kills startups stone dead. He’s writing from a technology standpoint, but it’s worth thinking about in terms of the design entrepreneurship that seems to be bubbling up right now. In particular, I liked his explanations of why startups scale before they’re really ready:

  • llusions of product market fit or price discovery
  • Confusing Founder Heroics with a Repeatable Model
  • Unprofitable Scaling / Absence of operating leverage
  • The Tail Wagging the Dog (Board Pressure)

Well worth a read. Story via new DMI president, Karen Reuther.

June 30, 2011
The Deaths of Google Health and Google PowerMeter

As the Internets go bananas over the many introductions Google has announced this week, attention is diverted from the news that two of its much-ballyhooed announcements from recent years will be shuttered by the end of the year. In An Update on Google Health and Google PowerMeter, two leads from the projects explain the decisions. Here’s Aaron Brown, senior product manager of Google Health:

We wanted to translate our successful consumer-centered approach from other domains to healthcare and have a real impact on the day-to-day health experiences of millions of our users. Now, with a few years of experience, we’ve observed that Google Health is not having the broad impact that we hoped it would.

And here’s Bill Weihl, Google’s Green Energy Czar, on PowerMeter:

Studies show that having simple access to such information helps consumers reduce their energy use by up to 15%; of course, even broader access to this information could help reduce energy use worldwide… We’re pleased that PowerMeter has helped demonstrate the importance of this access and created something of a model. However, our efforts have not scaled as quickly as we would like, so we are retiring the service.

There are many reasons for these failures, not least that the implementation of innovation is as enormously difficult as developing a smart strategy in the first place. In both of these instances, Google wasn’t able to scale its great ideas in a feasible, sustainable manner. It couldn’t build an audience for its offerings, and it clearly didn’t factor in the existing context of industries not inclined to embrace new ways of doing things. These challenges are something I’m thinking a lot about at the moment (I’m co-chairing a DMI-sponsored conference on the topic of Design at Scale that’ll be held in New York in October.) For now, it’s difficult not to assign a degree of hubris to Google’s good intentions, and wave goodbye to more unfulfilled potential.

June 27, 2011
Sustainable Design: It’s About the System, Not the Product

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.

(Story via Yves Behar.)

June 27, 2011
Beating a New Path for Commuters is a Forbes story about Alison Cohen, president of Alta Bicycle Share, which recently installed a bicycle rental system in Washington D.C. A couple of things stood out:
The system design itself involves three companies: Alta Planning & Design designs bike lanes and parks; Montreal’s Public Bike System Co. owns the credit card processing technology; and Alta bids for government contracts and runs operations.

Cohen’s suppliers are more like partners, joining her when pitching new business and giving Alta leverage with government agencies unwilling to work with startups.

Innovation is complex work, and this smart attitude towards partners reflects the trend for companies to become more open in approach and philosophy and to think of themselves as an important hub in a network of other experts rather than having to own every element of innovation.
There is a scaling issue with these types of initiatives, however. Alta has a staff of 15 full- and part-time employees in Melbourne to manage a fleet of 600 bikes. Meanwhile, it has a global workforce of 48 people. Figuring out how to deal with the everyday management of these types of systems in a thoughtful, sustainable manner is critical to their ongoing success. 
[Photograph of a Lawrence Weiner bike, on show at the New Museum in New York. Story via Matthew Lopez.)

Beating a New Path for Commuters is a Forbes story about Alison Cohen, president of Alta Bicycle Share, which recently installed a bicycle rental system in Washington D.C. A couple of things stood out:

The system design itself involves three companies: Alta Planning & Design designs bike lanes and parks; Montreal’s Public Bike System Co. owns the credit card processing technology; and Alta bids for government contracts and runs operations.

Cohen’s suppliers are more like partners, joining her when pitching new business and giving Alta leverage with government agencies unwilling to work with startups.

Innovation is complex work, and this smart attitude towards partners reflects the trend for companies to become more open in approach and philosophy and to think of themselves as an important hub in a network of other experts rather than having to own every element of innovation.

There is a scaling issue with these types of initiatives, however. Alta has a staff of 15 full- and part-time employees in Melbourne to manage a fleet of 600 bikes. Meanwhile, it has a global workforce of 48 people. Figuring out how to deal with the everyday management of these types of systems in a thoughtful, sustainable manner is critical to their ongoing success. 

[Photograph of a Lawrence Weiner bike, on show at the New Museum in New York. Story via Matthew Lopez.)