Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

We do not live in a ready-made world. It must be designed.*

In Creativity, Design, No Readymade World, Policy, Strategy on 2010/02/26 at 12:05 pm

“Designers are, one way or another, futurists” — Richard Seymour

Problem solving is to design, only as much as wheels are to cars. It is a given. The strategic value of design lies in a different dimension. While the context of problem sets and innovation are typically “industrial”, design creativity has the natural capacity to go “post-industrial”.

In the post-industrial world, the origin of creation — research and design — will be more important than the origin of manufacturing or assembly. Take Apple. Every Apple product has this declaration, “Designed by Apple in California”. Secondarily would be the ubiquitous words of the industrial world, “Made in China” or “Assembled in Singapore”.

It should not require a rocket scientist to figure out that Apple can choose to manufacture or assemble its products in any country that “makes sense”, but they will always be of California and Silicon Valley origin. Consumers already accept that global brands such as Nokia, Nike, Gap, Canon, HP, and even Toyota, outsource their production away from the home country of the company. The processes of global outsourcing are now so effective that it practically does not matter to most people where their things are made. So, in the industrial economy, place increasingly does not matter. But, does place matter in the post-industrial economy?

The environment to foster post-industrial creativity is very much harder to create and maintain than that for industrial manufacturing. Creative thinking, say, for design, is not just a production process (with all its connotations of optimisation, systems controls, parallel and distributed processing, analytics, etc.), but also needs vibrant social and cognitive milieus that are talent-centric. The recent financial recession has helped to expose the myth of “rational market-driven” (read: objective) decision-making. The key drivers of the post-industrial economy are no longer technology, finance, policies, or education. They come in warm bodies: talent. They may pursue their ideas in solo, but they cannot achieve creative status for themselves or their creations, without interacting with the wider local and international community of interested experts. Creativity is not defined by individuals.

* Forward in the Icsid World Design Congress 2009 handbook. Singapore: DesignSingapore Council.

The Writing on the Studio Wall

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Design, Policy, Strategy on 2010/02/23 at 10:27 pm

For a long time, I championed along with many the design studio as the heart of design culture. This was — and to a large extent, still is — the common wisdom of design and architecture schools the world over. No question. It is assumed that the studio is the best rehearsal of the “real world” of practice where the apprentice students were all headed in a beeline; it’s like the moot court to train lawyers. This is the logical “no-brainer” if (big if) practice is all that there is to design culture and design education. But the universe has changed.

Studio Drawings and Models -- means or ends?

In the post-industrial economy that we are arguably already in, the desired outcomes of markup from end-product cost, and fee for service are still relevant but seriously dated. The new value propositions and business models for design are subtlety shifting to a knowledge-based economy, where the value of design is in the intrinsic value of ideas rather than commodity pricing or professional fees. If, by contrast, the pursuit of design is in knowledge terms, what goes on in conventional design studios and practice is extremely wasteful: projects are done to clear hurdles rather than for collective knowledge. Studio projects have no value and are unceremoniously trashed at the end of each exercise. What an unsustainable shame.

A Schema of Strategic Design Culture Copyright 2010 Milton Tan.

The design studio is typically “active” and “propositional” in nature. For a more self-sustaining design culture of the 21C, these top-level attributes need to be augmented by the “reflective” and “representational”. This means that the venerable studio needs to be repositioned away from the spot light and re-grouped with 3 other key components in a 2-by-2 matrix of “Active- Reflective” and “Propositional-Representational” axes.

The Active-Propositional component is the Design Studio, the Active-Representational the Design Conference, the Reflective-Propositional the Design Museum, and the Reflective-Representational the Design Library. Collectively they form the “Strategic Design Culture” that I believe is the new structure for 21C design education, research, practice and culture.

The writing is on the wall for the standalone studio.

Not Just a Box of Crayons

In Policy, Strategy on 2010/02/20 at 11:11 am

Where is design? I wrote this paper — Not Just a Box of Crayons — on mapping the design sector in 2003. I share it here in response to regular requests over the years for something like this for those who, like me,  need a map to help explore uncharted territories such as the design sector. Enjoy.


Without a conceptual map of the design sector, identifying and understanding the interrelationships of its industries is like picking colours from a box of crayons. Individual industries appear stand-alone and often colourfully autonomous. And, like crayons, the means to mix industries are limited or arbitrary, at best. Outcomes are therefore dominated by the ‘forms’ of design, and miss the potency of the creative ‘substance’ which underpins all design practices.

This paper explores the use of a 3-dimensional Hue-Lightness-Saturation “colour wheel” to map the design sector. The key ‘hues’ of the sector are “Imagemaking”, “Objectmaking” and “Placemaking” to represent the key forms of practices on the wheel. The vertical ‘lightness’ axis represents “scale” — from the millimeter-scale of micro machines to the kilo-meter-scale of urban planning. The tangential ‘saturation’ axis represents “materiality” — the extent to which a design entity is abstract (at the common core) or concrete (embodied in tangible form at the outer reaches). The resulting Form-Scale-Materiality (FSM) model of the design sector positions all forms of design practice — advertising, fashion, industrial design, furniture, interiors, architecture, urban design, etc — within a scaleable and interactive conceptual framework for students, educators, researchers and practitioners of design to better navigate the parts and relations that should make up a vibrant design sector.

“T” is for Tiger and Teams

In Leadership, Policy on 2010/02/12 at 10:48 pm

Arguably, one of the most common reference for the alphabet “T” is Tiger. Ask any 3-year old.  “T for Tiger” will get a boost this year because, come 14 Februrary 2010, it will be this Lunar New Year’s Chinese zodiac sign. Happy Tiger Year!

The issue of this post, however, is not the tiger. I digressed to highlight the prominence of T for Tiger in many alphabet books. And to wish everyone a happy Year of the Tiger!

The issue is “T for Teams”. The context is last week’s (2 February 2010) Singapore ESC (Economic Strategies Committee) Report (see my post) which called for “T-Shaped” persons.

Without beating about the bush, let me admit upfront that I have some issues with the “T-shaped” person. To be sure it served McKinsey, the management consultants who coined the term in 1971, very well. They figured that they needed — in their business consulting teams — “T-shaped” consultants (note: specifically consultants, and not every person). They had found that their consultants then were too ‘vertical’, ie they knew a lot about a specific aspect of business, eg marketing or finance, and very little about the verticals of others. They did not have the broad ‘horizontal’ dimension to enable them to connect (sideways) to other consultants. Hence the T-shape. Got it? As far as I know, the T-shaped consultant, let alone the T-shaped person, is no longer in vogue in Mckinsey today (correct me if I am wrong). In 1987, McKinsey realised that “specialists” are needed in their consulting teams and not just bunches of T-shaped consultants running around with their ‘horizontal’ hooks.

The central issue then and now — for McKinsey, the ESC and for Singapore — is the team. Not the peculiar T-shaped person. We need teams of all kinds and sizes, depending on the complexity of tasks and industry concerned. Teams can be scalable, flexible and customisable. The concept of the team (note: not “groups” — go figure the difference) is that no one person can cover all bases. No football (or soccer) team can be made up one type of player, strikers, say, no matter how best they are in (only) scoring goals.  So the argument for T-shaped persons is in danger of going that same way. The success of teams typically lie outside the ‘active’ or ‘front line’ team members. Trainers, mangers and coaches for the team are critical; and are in fact often an integral part of the team. The equivalent of these team integrators in the movie industry is the producer — the one who pulls everyone and puts everything together.  In the construction industry, it is the architect. (The term architect is often used to refer to a person of remarkable vision and ability to bring people and processes together for a good cause.)

It then becomes a bit of a no-brainer that the leader and integrator of teams needs to be especially well-rounded individuals; persons with “360” vision, strong conceptual abilities and drive, both ends and means driven, skilled, knowlegeable and well connected. They are persons of character, commitment, connections and capability. In that order, I believe.

T is for Teams. Led by well-rounded, universal, renaissance persons.

Design in Singapore’s Economic Strategies

In Creativity, Design, Policy, Strategy, Transformation, Vision on 2010/02/02 at 6:38 pm

The Singapore government yesterday (1 Feb 2010) accepted and released the report of the high-powered Economic Strategies Committee (ESC). The report called for a “High-Skilled People, Innovative Economy, Distinctive Global City” — nothing particularly earth-shaking at this level, to be sure. Go deeper into the report, beyond the strangely-familiar call for improved productivity (a current embarrassment despite years of nagging) and you will not miss “design”. It is directly and indirectly at practically every turn. Here is a quick guide:

First the overt references. In the fourth Strategy to “make innovation pervasive, and strengthen commercialisation of R&D” (p28) a specific call was made to “leverage on design” and to “emphasise design-driven innovation” through the following action: “instil design thinking“, “intensifying industry collaboration on design innovation“, and “establish an accreditation system to raise professional design standards“. These, taken as a coordinated set of action, is potentially game changing. The last one mentions a “Designed in Singapore” mark. The time has come to prepare for a post-industrial economy when goods and services are proudly designed in Singapore, made in outsourced locations such as China, and sold globally. To get to that point, a creative and sustainable design and innovation culture needs to be in place.

But the ESC report seems to have most of the angles covered on cultivating this new culture. In Para 23, it identified “product development and design” as one of the sectors for retaining more good jobs. In the Priority to “make Singapore a distinctive global city and endearing home” (p11), the report recognised that “we must develop thriving creative and arts clusters” (read: design), and that “we should also develop distinct eco-towns and residential precincts…” (read: through design). The report also recognises a “vibrant climate of innovation…through design…” (Para 40); the need to “step up efforts in the education system to inculcate a mindset for innovation among young Singaporeans”, mentioning the recent establishment of the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) (p30); the “design and production of “mission-critical” components such as those in medical devices” (p21); and even the need for “creative incubators” to “provide affordable spaces and incentives for the creative industries” (p37).

But the trump card for design in the ESC report must go to plans to develop “a whole new waterfront city at Tanjong Pagar” (read: by very creative design — architecture, urban planning, landscape design, etc.) as a key strategy to develop Singapore into a “leading global city” distinctive for its clusters of artistic and creative energy, and for the high quality life (para43, p15). The symbolic significance of Tanjong Pagar (Malay: cape of fishing-stakes) is its current function as the great shipping port of Singapore — the lifeline and symbol of Singapore’s economic success for decades — and the world’s busiest port for many years. Until more recently with a more diversified economy, Singapore used to be branded by Tanjong Pagar port. In future the venerable port will be eclipsed by a post-industrial city which will be as different as flying into Changi airport today compared to sailing into Collier Quay in the past. See URA Masterplan.

Tanjong Pagar port (south-west) from the Pinnicle at Duxton

Tanjong Pagar port (north-west) from the Pinnicle at Duxton

Coincidentally, two of the Design2050 Studios who presented at the Icsid World Design Congress (23-25 Nov 2009) included visions for the Tanjong Pagar area in their 2050 propositions: Fosters and Partners, London, on “the sustainable city 2050” and WOHA Architects, Singapore, on “architects save the world and bring joy to millions. Singapore 2050”. See also my “Singapore Plans for 2050“.

A copy of the ESC Report can be found here: