— 13th September 2009
I attended TEDx Leeds at the Rose Bowl last Thursday night. It was a very interesting evening with an impressive array of speakers and a good format for the night. Interspersing live speakers with TED videos provided a nice kind of variety and of course being TED the videos were of such good quality the only worry was whether the flesh'n'blood guys would be able to keep up the standard.
They did in spades.
So thought provoking and inspiring they were that I decided I couldn't let the whole thing pass without writing a little something about my thoughts. I have to mention too, I made copious notes for the following on my Android phone (Gmail app) in Leeds station and on the train back home. However as I neared my destination I was asked for my ticket. Whilst I was fumbling my thumb knocked the touch screen in the 'Discard Message' area and without an 'Are you sure?' I lost the lot.
I don't know what that says about the Android OS but do know I found some pretty choice phrases for it at the time. ;-)
Dr Norman LewisLewis's thesis is that innovation is on the fall. Businesses no longer are willing to fund it in the same way as they used to. Things like "The Business Case" and Return On Investment are uppermost in the mind and are leading to a risk aversion within business which is stopping the kind of free innovation which has often brought about the most useful, if unexpected, advances in technology. Innovation has become a buzz word which can be attached to anything often as a replacement for action. All this I completely agree with and I was highly entertained and inspired by the clarity and passion with which Lewis delivered it.
Space RaceLewis made a comparison with another time in history, a period of real innovation from which we're still reaping benefit. This was the space race, particularly as encourage and promoted by JFK. He quoted Kennedy's "not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard" and bemoaned the fact that that kind of visionary leadership seems missing in today's western politics. However, whilst giving it a quick mention Lewis didn't really dwell on the political context and in doing so I feel he missed a key point in a discussion of why that huge amount of innovation took place, and a key reason for why it’s not happening in that way today.
After the talk Lewis took questions and someone (please let me know if you know who I'll stick a name in) asked whether it was a case of Democracy not being conducive to that kind of level of organised innovation. He suggested that the Kennedy regime in this instance was acting more like a dictatorship and that perhaps it is only within authoritarian regimes that these 'big projects' can be forced through. It was an interesting question I could see what he meant. My own feeling is that it’s not so much a question of Democracy as such but more one of competition.
CompetitionAt the time it was politically imperative to the U.S. Government to be seen to beat the Soviet regime in any endeavour which they were both involved. This wasn't simply about military superiority of competing nations (although that obviously played a huge part, particularly in getting the approval of the people) but more than this, it was about proving capitalism was a more successful system than communism. In that context 'because it is hard' could be seen as a piece of spin for a decision that had already been made as well as a galvanising piece of visionary rhetoric. Kennedy played to the America's self-image as a hard working frontiersmen, but the fact that the country was prepared to spend such vast sums in pursuit of a victory is testament as much to the fear of communism than it is to leadership or belief in innovation.
So to the comparison with today. There simply isn't the same idealogical competition present Even with the emergence and huge growth of China, the threat (or opportunity) seems always to be couched in economic terms and within the context of a capitalist world. China as it ascends is no longer expected to initiate a domino effect as much as simply join in. It doesn't pose the same ideological threat.
But wait, I'm saying that we're missing competition because we're all capitalists now? Surely capitalism is all about competition. Why is that not driving innovation? Lewis gave us the answer from his own experience. Within big businesses there is a shrinking away, a risk aversion, a fear of waste and of lack of return. Why is this? What’s gone wrong that such a competitive environment as for example the mobile industry isn't driving companies towards innovation but away from it?
Wonderfully the next speaker gave us a clue.
Charles CecilCharles Cecil provided an excellent counterpoint between his two more reflective companions. A builder as much as a thinker, the things he has done seemed to have a immediately tangible quality which certainly resonated with the audience. He told the history of computer games development. Having grown up with many of these computers not to mention a lot of the games and game publishers it was a strange and yet hugely satisfying experience to hear the story of those things told by a true originator and insider.
Sure it was long on story and shorter on ideas but I was entirely willing to forgive that for such an interesting and impressive story from such a likeable speaker. Certain facts (the 10,000 fold increase in game development costs) stood out and a certain screen-shot (of the US Gold game Out Run) generated a gasp that was part recognition and part awe. Sufficed to say the subject matter seemed tailored to generate a good response from this audience.
AudienceApart form the history Cecil's big idea was to do with engagement with audiences. He looked back at the early days putting up home made stalls at trade fairs where the audience was 'just like us' and then told tales of publishing exec's who either wished they were really in film or were actually proud to have never played the very games they were selling. You could hear the frustration as Cecil recounted the process by which publishers would put out rubbish on the back of some film tie-in or big brand endorsement and how things like testing were sidelined or kept to a minimum by people who knew the product would probably sell anyway.
I loved it. I was there. I bought some of that rubbish! ;-)
OK. So this is where I link back to Lewis. You see what Cecil was describing here was a process where companies once they have found a way of making money aren't necessarily driven to innovate. In Cecil's case it was American publishers pumping out games like Hudson Hawk, but looking at the problem in a wider context you can see that in some cases if quick profits are the goal then it actually does make sense to produce cheap, mostly cloned products and to simply apply a veneer of newness via marketing.
This to me is something like the same problem that Lewis was raging against. The fact that businesses can end up regarding things like innovation, improvement and even just quality as an inefficient way to make money. This is of course wrong but before I go on about that I'd better tell you about the final speaker.
Clive GrinyerThe Democratisation Of Design started with the superstars of design then swiftly and appropriately pulled the rug from their celestial desingership with the assertion that 'everyone is a designer now (get used to it)'. Excellent. It’s nice to hear that it’s not just those lucky enough to marry the right footballer (damn, missed my chance) are worthy to merit the title. Grinyer talked about the new world of services and products that involve an 'experience' which stretches way beyond their purchase and use. He mentioned how a new expectation of services which are both personalised and personalisable requires a different approach to design.
He also talked about how control of the experience is often spread too thinly across companies. How within the horizontal silo's of many businesses the experience can be fragmented and degraded by the decisions of the different people involved.
'Every decision is an act of design' he said and we nodded.
The only problem with an argument like this is that it risks being too general. In aiming for a deeper truth it renders itself of little practical use. If every decision is an act of design then not only is everyone a designer but they always have been. True maybe, but actually there are still designers who are labelled 'designers'. What are they? What should they do?
Truth to powerAccording to Grinyer the designer is the visionary, the communicator and interpreter who can take a look into the future and see how an idea might work when it turns into a reality. This requires skills not only in the quick sketch which can turn around a meeting but also in the understanding of users (or user-based methods of enquiry) and the raft of communication skills which can make that potential reality understandable to those in power. It’s this which is sounds like Grinyer himself is doing now for Cisco (according to a fascinating tale of Yemeni Fisherman).
Speaking truth to power? Yes perhaps but Grinyer seemed to be saying more. By the end of the talk he was suggesting that designers should stop designing and perhaps take some of that power. Designers as the new philosopher-kings? Hoorah!
So where does that leave us. Thoroughly provoked (positively) if you're me. I haven't enjoyed hearing three speakers so much in ages and as you can probably guess I’ve been inspired to ramble on quite incessantly.
So...My conclusions? Well, I suppose I might be seeing my own order in the chaos here, and I'm sure I’ve left out great chunks of the talks (possibly even missed the point occasionally) but the joining thread I found in the evening was this. Both Lewis and Cecil were identifying a problem with the way things are sometimes done in the world and in business. Lewis called it a lack of visionary leadership, Cecil told us more of it’s consequences but personally what I see is an inability of various decision makers to take anything but the a short-term view.
Short-termismNeeding to know business cases, wondering about return on investment in a way which precludes innovation and improvement is basically about prioritising the short-term. Those games publishers probably did know that a lack of innovation would eventually drive away the audience that they currently enjoyed, or that someone (Nintendo?) might come along with a product that would leave them for dead. The fact is they didn't care because in the short-term the money was rolling in.
In all the time that I spent working in a big business there were very few really bad decisions which didn't in the end result from short-term thinking. The abuse of users trust in the hope of a quick sale, the abuse of a premium brand in the scrabble for advertising bucks, a lack of investment in the things which everyone knew would make the product better in favour of sticking plasters and 'quick wins'. This is the drive for efficiency. This is providing for the shareholder's returns. This is reality in business.
DesignersSo what is the answer? I think it lies in what Grinyer told us. What in the end he came around to in terms of what designers should do. 'Stop designing and take power' might be a bit confusing at first, more so after the assertion that everyone's a designer now, but I think what he and Lewis are driving at that what is needed right now is people who can look further into the future, people who can predict and discover what products and services could be like, how things could work, and then with the skills of communication to convince the decision makers that it should be done.
If it isn't possible to persuade them then you’ve got the wrong decision makers and that’s when the point about having designers in positions of power comes in. It’s only by having people who understand these things making the decisions that the best possible course will be taken. If that means designers having to stop designing and get those positions that’s what should be done.
I was immensely impressed that Lewis could respond to a 'it’s just talk' type question by outlining his own plan of action including going to the party conferences to push his message.
Think long termOf course long term thinking is an act of faith. By definition it’s hard work at first and the fruits of such labour might be a long time coming. That’s why people need compelling reasons to start or continue to do it. It has to be done though, not just for long-term success and long-term profits but for long-term everything. The destruction of the planet via industry is a classic example of short-termism and I think this is what Lewis was alluding to in his plea for not less but better energy.
So think long-term. It took us from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Maybe, as Lewis hopes, it'll take us to Mars. ;-)-- thanks to all those involved in bringing TEDx to Leeds. I will certainly be first in the queue for the next one. -- excellent typing monkey image by Olivander not sure who tooks the others!