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Archive for the ‘Technology’ 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.

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Some things don’t change

In adaptability, Beating the Odds, Change, Design, Technology, Transformation, Vision on 2010/04/27 at 4:51 pm

Change can be extremely slow and surprisingly resilient. This of course can be a good or bad or indifferent thing. Apparently, the extinction of dinosaurs was due largely on their inability to change in time.

Take car design for instance. Consumer expectations on one hand and tough laws and regulations on the other have kept the car not that much different in the last 50-60 years. Practically all have ‘eyes’ (headlights) and ‘mouth’ (grille) even when new lighting and air intake technologies are available. They all have license plates, usually unceremoniously screwed into the bodywork. (I once saw the license plate of a Royce Royce fastened with a pair of rusting screws like those of everybody else!) . They all have wing mirrors and wind-shield wipers — the last frontier of innovation!  And they all have an assortment of disks and stickers on the wind-shield for road tax, club membership, season parking, etc.  All these are not about to change.  At the rate we are going, they may all be still around even when cars go air borne.

Some things don't change

Some things don't change

What about the house? When cars go air borne, the house will likely to be still brick-n-mortar, concrete-steel-glass.  Chairs will be chairs and tables will be tables. Why?

I was once on a construction site when the builders laughed at the oversized calculator that our Quantity Surveyor was using. “Surely you can afford a more compact calculator”, they said.  He replied, “but my fingers are not getting smaller!”

So, why is change so tough?  Perhaps because we are fundamentally conservative human; full of terrible as well as wonderful ‘flaws’.  For better or worse, get over it!

Virtual Meetings are Virtually Impossible

In Design, Technology, Vision on 2010/02/02 at 12:56 pm

I am what you’d call an Eternal Optimist. Most of the time. I was an “early adopter” of AI (artificial intelligence) in the 80s — I took Marvin Minsky’s “Society of Minds” class at MIT; self-taught myself LISP programming to write a search algorithm for emergent sub-shapes, ie to emulate the creative eye in picking out  implied (‘hidden’) shapes in drawings that did not pre-exist.

One area of technological advancement that I had been optimistic about is virtual meetings — the ability to meet up over distance and time without the need for physical travel (and all the pains and strains that goes with it, not forgetting its CO2 footprint). But, for me, the promise of the perfect virtual meeting took a few steps backwards last Wednesday (27 Jan 2010) when I was in the audience of a dialogue session with Singapore’s Minister Mentor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. This is only the third time I have had the privilege to be in his presence; the first was across the table in his Cabinet Room at the Istana!

MM Lee's 'charged' presence at the International Housing Conference

Last week’s occasion was the International Public Housing Conference in Singapore. The dialogue with members of the audience was moderated by Prof Tommy Koh, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large.  The atmosphere was ‘charged’ from the moment MM Lee entered the auditorium. His presence was gripping. In his usual style, he sketched out the history as well as the issues of the day and the future with great precision and “wow” clarity. At one heart-stopping point he emphatically stressed, “I totally disagree with you!” to a person who spoke up for rental housing as an alternative to costly home ownership. And, like a killer litigation lawyer, went on to demolish any comeback to that idea. He spoke decisively about the way to deal with racial tensions and foreigner enclaves as if he had been into the future and saw their problems first hand.

I pondered why the media reports in the evening news on TV, online and the next day’s newspapers did not capture anything close to the ‘charged’ atmosphere of the auditorium? I think they inherently could not. Here’s maybe why:

It’s not so much the “body language” which can be captured to a large extent by the video camera, especially in HD — the subtle hand and head gestures that syncronised in microseconds to the words spoken. Then there are the words themselves, spoken with clarity, warmth and artistry, and delivered in a way that enables us in the audience to sense the mind behind the man. AI’s long-fought frontier of natural language processing and gesture-based controls has made some progress over the decades, but this occasion with MM Lee shows how intractable this can be. Whilst I am still prepared to be the Eternal Optimist for breakthroughs in body language and natural language processing, the new thing I realised this time is not the body or the mouth, but rather the eyes. Virtual meetings need to replicate eye contact to do the job. I think this is so hard, to the extent that I have resigned to it as virtually impossible. You need to be actually there to see it to believe it.