Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Harnessing the power of innovation

Dec 14, 2010


By Cheong Suk-Wai

BRITON Tim Brown was in Silicon Valley, California, at the right moment - when computers were made available to all by basing computing on how people received, stored and trashed information at their office desks.

Mr Brown, 47, who was then an industrial designer in Silicon Valley, recalls: 'Somehow, this technology that had clearly been very powerful but was owned by very few was suddenly becoming available to more and more people... There was a rightness to that idea.'

The alumnus of London's Royal College of Art is now the president and chief executive officer of global design company Ideo, and advises clients such as Microsoft, the Mayo Clinic and Procter & Gamble.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg Businessweek magazine named him one of the world's 27 most influential thinkers on design. His big idea is 'design thinking', or the principle that the structures of organisations and systems can be made more strategic by using the same design processes used to improve things and services. Indeed, his talks for TED (Technology Entertainment Design), a global set of not-for-profit conferences on ideas worth spreading, are well-followed.

Visiting Singapore for the first time last month to give a TED-like talk to a full house at The Esplanade, he told me about how the future could and should best be designed:

What vibes are you getting from your first trip to Singapore?
Singapore is a very interesting mix of the human as well as the massive scale. I was at lunch near some shophouses with a huge public housing tower block behind (at Duxton Plain). That contrast of scale is very hopeful because cities that can be both big and small at the same time, such as London, Paris and Tokyo, have a lot to offer, especially to creative people.

As a creative person, what about the present excites you?
That we seem to be on the edge of moving from one world view to another - from a manufacturing-led, hierarchical, physical view of things to one based on information and networks. It's going to be extremely important to understand how to participate and manage networks. All this gives a creative person the opportunity to reinvent everything. When the world needs new ideas and choices, that's a pretty cool place for a creative person to be, right? You don't want to be in a world where everything works because then everything you do is incremental.

Creative people want to rip the carpet up even when ripping isn't warranted?
We as designers have a responsibility not to rely too much on our intellect, but to ensure that our ideas come from a source outside ourselves. We may be the synthesisers of new ideas and processes but if our source isn't our understanding of the world, then there's a risk that we might invent something where the downsides are as great as the upsides.

How do you guard against being jaded?
Now that we're in periods of such constant change and turmoil, from changing economic markets to realising that we have to deal with huge problems like access to food and clean water, I actually find that it's never been easier to talk about the importance of new design ideas. When I first started out, most of what everyone was asking us to do was to take a product and make it a bit easier to use and nicer to look at and easier to market. And that was good enough because at that time companies could grow by incrementally improving their products year on year, because nobody was questioning whether those products were the right ones. Nobody was disrupting them from a cost perspective - by manufacturing cheaply in China, for example.
Now we live in a world where that simply does not work. Companies that do only that will not last very long because somebody else will figure out what they do and do it a lot cheaper. So the only way for companies - societies too - to grow and flourish is to come up with new ideas, new ways of thinking and new choices of products and services.

It's just very hard to do well for very long these days.

How do you manage the tension of such uncertainty?
I try to do what I encourage clients to do and that is to think about managing a series of tensions all the time. One is the tension between what I call exploitation and exploration. The exploitation bit is what most companies spend most of their time doing - how to get more efficient at what they do. The exploration is how to make sure we are investigating the new things that we are going to do in future.

Similarly, one has to manage the tension between worrying about what's happening in the present and thinking about what we'll have in future. This is particularly true of the talented people one has because the most difficult piece in an organisation to change is its mix of talent. You can fire and hire people but it's very hard to hire great talent and have them work effectively. So we have to be thinking about what kind of talent will solve the problems that we need to be solving in the next five years.

What do you need most from such talent?
The ability to manage complexity is one of the great challenges we face as designers, policymakers and technologists.

It's important that we educate everybody who's involved to be good, critical thinkers, and not only move forward in the blind faith that new is good. We have to be able to imagine where that newness might be taking us. And as visualisers, designers have the skills to do that.

Have designers made life so easy as to render us hapless?
That has always been the human story. Industrialisation and specialisation released us to do a whole series of other things and that created enormous amounts of wealth that we didn't have before. What's important is that as our systems get more complex, or as we offload certain needs to technology, we then need to use that extra (time and space we gain) to take ourselves to the next level. If we don't do that and leave people behind, then they'd start to feel hopeless and hapless.

How would you begin to educate people about innovation?
People come to us with a problem but often they want to know the answer before they ask the question. And there's a temptation for us to say: 'We're going to do this and we already know all the answers.'

We never do. You have to go in with this (feeling) that you're going to discover new things along the way and, perhaps, change direction a bit.

People say innovation is about being comfortable with a culture of failure. I don't think it's that. It's about being absolutely rigorous about learning, and then responding to what you learn. Then it's not failure, right? Because you'd have moved on from whatever it is you've learnt. Failure is when you give up.


Head in the clouds, feet on the ground

A FAST thinker and talker, creativity maven Tim Brown believes that all good designs respect the past and tell strong stories about the future. Here he is on:

'Its very strong engineering culture is a huge asset because it knows how to make things. It's really important to know how to convert ideas into tangible things.'

What Singapore is doing well
'It's looking at what kinds of talent it needs in future. Not all countries think as strategically about talent as Singapore.'

Cities he dislikes
'Those where everything's big because there's no human scale to them.'

What designers need most
'Optimism. Without it, it's very hard to tackle a problem in the first place - and design is always hard.'

The danger of relying too much on focus groups
'These groups are very good for verifying or validating ideas I already have. They don't help me decide what ideas I should have created in the first place.'

What many successful companies don't understand
'That to be important, they've got to work on some of the important things. It's very hard to persuade them to do something new.'

Designing something as perfect as a flower
'I'd dream and aspire to that... but we're a long way away from that.'

What designers must be
'We need to have our heads in the clouds and our feet on the ground, imagining how to create a better world while taking small, pragmatic steps to getting there.'


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