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Archive for the ‘Value’ Category

Alternative Value Propositions

In adaptability, Change, Creativity, Design, Leadership, Process, Strategy, Technology, Value, Vision on 2010/05/11 at 2:06 pm

Designers can do better than offer “professional services for a fee”. They can lead by alternative value propositions.

Many creative projects get axed prematurely by key performance indicators (KPI). KPIs are typically controlled by ‘creative’ bean counters (oxymoron?) who are clients or their agents.  They typically shun change and collaboration. Their standard tool is divide-and-rule. eg train stations are transport engineering infrastructure, whilst art and sculpture is culture; therefore there is no budget for the arts as part of station development. That is somebody else’s core business. Familiar?

Designers are in a good position to propose alternative value propositions. But they need to be laterally creative and not be so naive about how bureaucrats and bean-counters work. A creative win-win is often the only way.

Take the task of designing an Expo exhibition pavilion. The no-brainer is to put up a building simply for the duration of the Expo — closing both eyes to what happens after the show is over, and visitor-ship KPI is history. Better still, have the pavilion built by somebody else and “leased back” for only the exhibition season; this way it shows up in the books as rental and not a capital-intensive inventory item!

What if the Expo building is designed in the first place for a permanent use, even if it means designing a kit of parts to have the pavilion become a school building or library where it is needed badly, say in an isolated rural location or disaster-relief area.

The challenge for designers is to find a way to collaborate with the initial client to include stakeholders who can take over the kit of parts. In return, the emotional and social benefits of the cause can be a powerful differentiating feature of the pavilion’s presentation. In Expos such as the one in Shanghai now concerned with “better cities, better life”, such an action will speak louder than the words and demos so typical of those who only think of the Expo as only a glorified sales pitch.

When Productivity is Nonsense

In Beating the Odds, Creative Culture, Creativity, Design, Productivity, Strategy, Value on 2010/03/05 at 11:37 am

The concept of “productivity” is a hangover from the industrial economy. Many try to ‘upgrade’ it to apply to the post industrial (knowledge and creative) economy but it is only as successful as putting aerofoil “spoilers” on a front-wheel-drive car — the downforce is on the wrong pair of wheels. Is the suggested obsolescence that bad?

In Singapore, the spotlight has swung on “Productivity” again. It was one of the most campaigned theme at one time (in the 70s) but has apparently lost it’s foothold despite decades of effort. The Economic Strategies Committee’s (ESC) report (see also my blog: “Design in Singapore’s Economic Strategies“) and the ensuing 2010 Budget and Parliament debate have resurrected the age-old issue again. But this is a different day and age.

The easy target of the productivity debate is cheap labour, usually synonymous with foreign workers, though not always. This is when the “less” in the classic productivity definition of “doing more with less” is achieved by lowering the cost of manpower. Never mind the headcount so long as we remain above the “bottom line”. Do or die. Technically, there is nothing wrong about lowering manpower costs, but, not surprisingly, this has social and political repercussions when the consequent of the ratio is foreigners.

But the antecedent of the productivity ratio is the more interesting. How can we increase the “more” in “doing more with less”? To some this simply means not being paid for overtime! To others it means increasing throughput by automation and info-comm; with or without reducing manpower. This, unfortunately, is what many think innovation is all about. Whether you factor in the overtime and the real (total) cost of automation, the balance-book productivity ratio must come up as a big number or you are still in trouble.

In the bigger scheme of things, productivity is a bit of a nonsense. Whilst it is important, and even crucial, to wring out of productivity all that it can yield in every way thinkable, there are aspects of the post-industrial economy that cannot be adequately addressed by the basic productivity equation.

First is the principle of “doing more with more”. The late Ng Teng Fong, a prominent real estate developer in Singapore and Hong Kong, said that he bided high for land because he could get even better returns from them later. Unlike a banker or trader who primarily depends on the market appreciation of value, the developer creates new demand and new value through intentionally good design.

Second is profitability. It is a different metric to productivity because it is no respecter of rules of the game. The competition for better profit margins and ROI goes beyond productivity, and has a life even after productivity levels off (which it always will). Through strategic design and innovation, the “rules of the game” can be changed to effectively eliminate competition. There are of course associated risks, but the potential opportunities of differentiation usually far exceeds the risks in slugging it out in the productivity battle arena.

Third is creative culture. Productivity is a particular nonsense in the heart of creative culture. It is unable to contribute to creative outcomes principally because it is calculative and pre-determined in nature, whereas basic creative culture tends to be speculative and qualitative. Productivity in architects’ and designers’ studios is limited to drawing and project management, and not anywhere near the critical design conceptualisation and design development stage (which wins the work in the first place). There will be an appropriate time for productivity issues to kick in when creative work are eventually executed in the ‘real’ world, but if the creative is not creatively competitive in the first place, productivity is nonsense.

Creativity is NOT like Fresh Air or Clean Water

In Creativity, Value on 2010/01/20 at 7:10 pm

Unlike fresh air or clean water, more creativity is not necessarily always a good thing. This is not just wordplay.

Most of us (including teachers and parents, and even creatives) casually treat creativity as a neutral absolute — the more the better. “If only the schools can be more creative…” “We need to be more creative…” “(So and so) is so so creative…”

Creativity (or design, if you prefer a more tangible version of it) is value-loaded and culturally-motivated. Always. No apologies for asserting this point in your face early. Put it another way, there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ creativity, just as there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design (see “12 Ugly Things“).  Creativity is therefore the equivalent only of air and water, and not of “fresh air” and “clean water” per se.

So when someone, organisation or comunity ask for creativity, always check the context and the relative difference it would make and at whose or what expense.  At the top level, it is not neutral, and its value needs to be carefully and critically evaluated.  Remember, the bank robber and computer hacker are creative in their own terms. They “think out of the box”, “take risks” and “break the rules” — terms we commonly lavish on our slection of ‘good’ creatives.  Depending on who writes their biographies, they can be either heros or zeros. Remember Robin Hood? Remember, too, Galileo? Zaha?

This as well as five  key issues on design-creativity will be the pre-occupation of this blog in the coming weeks:

1 The Purpose of Design with Style

2 The Paradox of Design as Thinking

3 The Prospect of Design in Practice

4 The Point of Design to Compete

5 The Privilege of Design for Life

Stay tuned.