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.
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January 2, 2013
"We must figure out a way to un-invent this food system."
Mark Bittman is always worth reading on the topic of food, and I loved this op ed, Fixing the Food Problem, in the New York Times in which he makes the case for both a systematic re-imagining of the way in which the food we consume is produced and distributed and our need to be patient while we do so. Reminiscent of Bill Buxton’s Long Nose of Innovation theory, it also reminded me of a conversation with an executive working on trying to innovate healthcare: laying the foundation is important and unflashy, she told me, when I was trying to figure out a story angle to impress both my editors and readers. As she explained, she wouldn’t be able to give me the all-important results or payoff on which I could hang my story of the progress of her work, because she wouldn’t know them herself for a decade or so. So that stopped me.
We’re all too impatient to see the fruits of our labor. This piece reminds us that every step we take is important, not just the ones when we triumphantly cross the line at the end of the journey. (And, of course, the end is never the end, anyway.)
"It’s time to address the calamity that is Penn Station."
— Anyone who’s ever had to negotiate rush hour in New York’s busiest transit hub will surely raise a cheer for this statement, in the article, Restore A Gateway To Dignity, by New York Times architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman (who’s really doing a standup job in his newish role.) The station is a monstrosity, a fire hazard, a nightmare of frazzled commuters and colliding wheely bags… and Kimmelman has a suggestion for a new plan. It’s not entirely out of the question, though any significant change is years away. But one can dream, right? (For those in New York, Kimmelman is speaking in the D-Crit speaker series at the School of Visual Arts on February 14th.)
"If we can’t get beyond the architecture of polarization, we are doomed."
Reclaiming the Republic provides me with just the food for thought I need as we here in the U.S. head into the Thanksgiving holiday. Lawrence Lessig is the director of the Edmond J Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard, as well as a professor of law at the university’s law school, and this interview came about on the publication of his latest book, Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan To Stop It. It’s well worth reading the whole of this interview, with Boston Review web editor, David Johnson; I pulled out a few other Lessig ideas/quotes that struck me below:
On regulation and the financial industries:
Frank Partnoy calculated for me that in 1980, 98 percent of financial assets traded in our economy were traded subject to the normal rules of transparency, anti-fraud requirements, basic exchange-based rules of the New Deal. By 2008, 90 percent of the assets traded were traded invisibly because they were not subject to any of these basic requirements of transparency and anti-fraud exchange-based obligations.
On Congress driving its policy agenda on the basis of fund-raising potential rather than what might actually benefit the American people:
If every unemployed person out there had a democracy voucher [a $50 tax rebate to donate to political campaigns], maybe they [elected officials] would pay a lot more attention to unemployment, because there could be a return from paying attention to unemployment.
On the broken design of lawmaking and Congress in the U.S.:
All of the activity of negotiation and deliberation is done outside the chamber; there’s no deliberation, so you just have to ask, “Why did we create a Congress?” The framers didn’t sit down and set up a Congress so they could imagine these 535 independent contractors all arbitraging fundraising opportunities. If that’s what the institution is, then let’s just shut it down.
On the importance of thinking laterally and challenging received wisdom:
"The automobile, of course, is only one piece in the vast network of streets and highways, fuel, parking, insurance and policing. In the past, it has been hard enough to get car companies to look at the total system."
— Phil Patton attended the Audi Urban Future Summit 2011. He didn’t entirely love what he saw, but he does make some good points about the future of transportation, and the need for smart urban(e) design in our new world of megacities.
"We spend $5 trillion dollars every year on a system that is devoted to diagnosing and fixing."
Dr Alex Jadad runs the Center for Global eHealth Innovation in Toronto, an organization that’s explicitly designed to prototype experiments in healthcare. Jadad spoke at the just-wrapped BIF7 conference in Providence (a series of highlights to follow) and spoke of his sadness at realizing that he had forgotten the doctor’s mission: “to cure sometimes, to alleviate often, to console always.” As Jadad pursued his career in medicine, he got sidetracked by a laser focus on curing, diagnosing or attempting to fix. He had “forgotten about alleviating or consoling” and now his entire body of work is refocused on improving health and wellness. This focus echoed an idea Dr Jay Parkinson outlined at the recent Mayo Clinic Transform conference, one he wrote up on his own blog. Parkinson’s question:
Can the few natural born leader doctors lead us into a sustainable system that profits off health, not sickness?
I find it encouraging that charismatic types such as Jadad and Parkinson are asking these questions. Now I wonder who’s really listening — and who’s helping to figure out the answers.
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.
"To really understand something, you have to try to change it."
In The Cure for Corporate Inertia, Julian Birkinshaw discusses the difficulty of trying to change how companies actually go about their daily activities, quoting the above adage as a reminder that so few actually manage it. He outlines three main reasons that the actual business of running a business is so difficult to change (and thus unwittingly stifles much of the would-be innovation work its executives are nominally aiming to achieve): Management processes are a long way from the action; there are strong vested interests at play, and last but by no means least, management processes are “usually dependent on each other.” Of the last, he writes:
Together they create a tightly-woven matrix that cannot easily be pulled apart. If you try to change one process, you upset a further two or three others, and pretty soon you are taking on the entire system.
Birkinshaw, who’s professor of strategic and international management at London Business School, has some sensible advice for those looking to get around these familiar sounding problems, while he adds some tales from his own experience that sound awfully familiar. Well worth a read.
Part of a $1 billion “freeway widening project,” a ten-mile segment of the heavily trafficked I-405 freeway was closed for the weekend, sparking excited talk of “Carmageddon” hitting car-centric Los Angeles. This lovely timelapse video from the LA Times shows the repair of the offending Mulholland Bridge: The closure should have lasted through 6am Monday, but according to Reuters, construction finished early, saving an estimated $400,000.
Also worth checking out is Carmageddon Challenge: Bikes Won! by Tom Vanderbilt. Jet Blue marketing had jumped on the freeway shutdown and laid on two flights to and from Burbank and Long Beach ($4 for a one-way ticket.) Then cyclists decided to stage a race. As Vanderbilt describes, “There was a certain mix of ludicrousness and PR genius in Jet Blue’s move to airlift people over the 405-closure madness… But the moment of folly seemed to provide an aperture for new thinking.” One can only hope.
“The problem is we’re trying to run a 21st century service on an 19th century infrastructure,” says British design leader, Paul Priestman, in this video outlining a new concept for train travel. In Priestman’s eyes, the idea of having to get on and off a train at a station is “ridiculous.” Even the concept of a station is out of date, he says. Instead, how about high speed trains that never stop, but instead hook up to local trams while on the move? It’s a big idea from Priestmangoode, a team which has designed real transport systems for the real world, so does have some genuine insight onto the problem. Kevin McCullagh of British design and innovation consultancy, Plan, noted on Twitter: “I admire the big thinking of this Priestmangoode concept, in contrast with most of today’s small tweaks and nudges.”
"[Set-top] boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States… That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months."
Atop TV Sets, a Power Drain That Runs Nonstop looks at a recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which described the assorted electrical boxes people have installed on their TVs as “the single largest electricity drain in many American homes.” The article goes on to remind readers that this “always-on” state is not an oversight. Rather it’s entirely by design; the manufacturers catering to their belief that consumers would not tolerate the time it takes to reboot on a daily basis. Alan Meier of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has the money quote, saying of the industry:
I don’t want to use the word ‘lazy,’ but they have had different priorities, and saving energy is not one of them.
I’d go ahead and use the word lazy, and probably add a few other choice words too. Nonetheless, there’s clearly an interesting opportunity here.