Archive for the ‘No Readymade World’ Category

A Surprising Encounter with Globalisation

In Change, Globalisation, No Readymade World on 2010/10/14 at 12:51 pm

It was a regular sunny Saturday afternoon.  I drifted rather uneventfully to a cramped motor parts shop in Alexandra Village (Singapore) to look for replacement wiper-blades for my Honda CRV.  Not exactly something I look forward to, but one that can blow out of proportion by the upcoming annual vehicle inspection for all cars older than 3 years.  Based on a scenario that my Mandarin and dialects were undependable to ensure I leave with the right thing, I removed one of the blades to take with me as the sample to match.  I remember thinking that it was the smart thing to do since the folks in these shops were unlikely to have the capability of knowing all about makes and models — “first gen”? “pre 2001”? etc. What happened next caught me entirely flat footed.

The “towkay” (boss) of the shop took a quick look at the blade that I confidently presented to him, nodded, and sternly asked me for the other blade.  Still in a confident posture and tone, I questioned the need to.  He slowly lowered his chin, raised his eyes to glare at me over the brim of his oversized reading glasses, and said firmly (in Hokkien) that they are not always of the same length.  I felt my intelligence challenged.

Surely all wiper blades come as identical pairs, I thought to myself.  They always had been, and there was absolutely no reason in my mind why they would be otherwise.  The save-the-planet in me thought that the world might even be a better place if all wiper blades for all cars were identically mass produced.  Less material wastage.  And, no time wasting too in hunting and arguing about blade sizes…

Whilst I was still affixed there with my ‘high’ thoughts, the “boss” went into an even higher level of attack that I never saw coming. He gave me, and several of his workers who had by then gathered around, a long lecture on globalisation.  He spoke (in Hokkien, still) with gusto of why we can no longer continue with old assumptions, such as lengths and types of wiper blades, where they were made, distributed (globally), and sold (online).  He concluded by saying business is no longer the same and we all must be prepared for change.  A deep silence followed.

I wisely decided not to up the ante, and made the longish back-track in the hot sun to fetch the other wiper blade.  I grudgingly removed what looked like a pretty identical piece to the other I left with the “boss”, feeling it was a waste of time and hoped to be vindicated.  When I handed it to him, he proceeded to hold up a blade in each of his out-stretched hands, and, with some drama, brought the two together side-by-side.  And, boy, was he right! The outer blade was actually more than two inches longer!  I humbly conceded defeat and complimented his commitment to keep up with change.

Every time I reflect on this incident, I am reminded of the person in the encounter, and not so much the particulars of the case, such as the difference in lengths of the wiper blades.  What kind of a person lives on the edge of change?


Categorical Error as Creative Insight

In Concepts and Cateogies, Creativity, No Readymade World on 2010/08/30 at 8:11 pm

The Gelman Test: Which is the Correct Pair?

There are many psychological tests that attempt to measure our ability to categorise things for accuracy and speed.  One such test is shown above.  Out of curiosity, I decided to try it on my son when he was 3 years old.  He did not hesitate to say that the correct pair is 2 and 3, ie cat and wheel.  Since the “correct” pair by the majority of subjects is truck and wheel, I asked him why he thought otherwise.  I was expecting him to say he was just joking, but instead he surprised me by saying that both and cat and wheel were black!

The pairing of the black cat and the black wheel is technically a categorical error.  In other words you would have got it “wrong” in an examination.  But the categorical error is also a creative insight, albeit hidden from most.

“Errors” are often relative and can open up alternative lines of reasoning and creative thought.  On the contrary, an obsession to be “correct” can be stifling, and promotes a herd mentality.

Architect Charles Moore famously collected paraphernalia from all over the world and placed them in unusual juxtaposition in his home to stimulate new relationships, connections and ideas.  He was deliberately inducing categorical errors to turn them into creative insight.

Many Ways of Seeing

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Education, No Readymade World, Process on 2010/06/03 at 10:40 pm

In 2003, I introduced ManyWaysOfSeeing (MWOS), a pilot project on perception and design to three schools in Singapore. Since then, many schools have also participated in this project (through the Singapore Polytechnic) and one has a permanent MWOS base: St Andrews Secondary School.  Here is the original MWOS ‘blueprint’:

MWOS is a design appreciation project positioned in between the troublesome extremes of design “form” and “function”.  It uses hands-on exercises to reveal the exciting processes of enabling students to imagine possibilities and to gain insights into how form and function are negotiated and integrated into designs.  As an open exploration of design concepts, it does not primarily aim to make students into designers.  Instead, it aims to provide participants with a lasting experience that is scalable and transferable to other lifelong skills and attitudes whether or not the participants become practising designers.

Students collaborate with a teacher, a designer and a mentor in small project groups equipped with digital cameras and multimedia computers.  Groups prepare video clips and posters to express their observations and insights of the world around them. Their design collaborators then take these material and come back with sketch designs inspired by the many ways of seeing.

The ManyWaysOfSeeing (MWOS) project is inspired by the work of the late Nelson Goodman, the Harvard Philosopher who started Project Zero in 1967 “to understand and enhance learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts, as well as humanistic and scientific disciplines, at the individual and institutional levels”.  In one of his most famous writing, “Many Ways of Worldmaking”, Goodman argues that much of what we presume as the “real world” is made up in our minds through a complex process of perception, postulations and concept formations; the world as we know it is not ready-made or to be taken as given. Much of reality depends on how we decide, or are conditioned, to see.  Our future reality depends on the emergence of new insights — new ways of seeing.

Early modernist thinking from the early 20C debunks decoration and embellishments as “untruthful” to the purity of material and function in design.  “Form follows function” has been a compelling and dominant dictum that guided generations of designers.  An extreme interpretation of this view relegates human and cultural factors below those of technical and even economic functions.  Not surprisingly, this attracted some equally extreme reactions.  From the 70s a vibrant “Post Modern” movement attempts to reconnect contemporary culture to historical forms and symbols.  “More is more” is touted as the anti-minimalist slogan to “less is more”.  By ascribing totally new and sometimes conflicting uses for old forms, Post-modernism reopened the agenda of “function follows form”.

Rabbit-Duck Figure Revisited

In adaptability, Creative Culture, Creativity, Emergence, No Readymade World on 2010/05/22 at 11:09 pm

The Rabbit-Duck Ambiguous Figure (Jastrow, J. 1899)

This figure by Jastrow in 1899 has been in the centre of many discussions and inquiries in art, design, creativity, perception, psychology, and philosophy. The famous philosopher, Wittgenstein, referred to this figure in his discourse on why entities can have more than one identity, ie multiple existences. Many people even today expect a stable, cut-and-dry and verifiable world and are therefore uncomfortable with such ambiguities in life. The creatives however thrive on them.

Depending on which way you perceive the creature as looking, all the graphics of the figure ralliy around the form of a rabbit (looking to the right) or a duck (looking left). It is exclusively one or the other, and you can switch between the two at will. Why? The best and simplest explanation I have is the way we label parts of the figure. If we label the appendage “ears”, than we have a rabbit, but if we label it “beak”, then we have a duck. This labeling of objects and their parts is, I believe, at the heart of conceptual thinking and primal to the way our perception system works syntactically to make coherent worlds (eg of rabbits or ducks in the case in point).

The ability to label parts of a object and obtain a coherent whole is so powerful that we often do not need all the defining information to make and act on the incomplete.

The above two words has the same centre letter-figure, but it takes little to treat the second as an “A” rather than a “H” because it makes sense. This contextual labeling is the reason why machine reading, let alone language translation is so intractable. Below is a more complex and interesting example from Wired magazine’s (UK June 2010) article on patent litigation, “Apple vs Nokia vs Goole vs HTC vs RIM”:

"Apple vs Nokia vs Google vs HTC vs RIM" (Wired UK, June 2010)

But the really interesting issue is not so much that we get things correctly labelled (as with pre-school flash cards) but that we can imaginatively label things differently and chart the courses of different outcomes. This is seeing things differently and the critical stuff of creative thinking.

Emergent Subshapes

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Design, Emergence, No Readymade World, Strategy, Transformation on 2010/04/19 at 5:11 pm

Visual perception is a key to creative thinking. If there is a ‘correct’ way to see every thing, our world will be uninteresting. Gestalt Psychology tries to explain the perception of the “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form”. In creative thinking, this largely misses the point of discovering ‘hidden’ sub-shapes of the entity, many of which would be surprising and full of potential to develop new ideas.

Take the simple case of “two intersecting rectangles”. The interesting emergent subshapes do not come from a reductionist approach. My favourites are “four rotating chair”, and “four zig-zag paths”! (look for them in the selection of emergence below). There is nothing “correct” about discovering emergent subshapes, but they are hot houses of creativity.  The implications go beyond art and design. It is about profound thinking itself.

Emergent Subshapes

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.

Know your Minimum Asian History

In History, No Readymade World, Strategy on 2010/02/17 at 12:18 pm

I complied this recently (from various sources) for a strategic planning exercise:

1788 – British Navy captain Arthur Phillip founds a penal settlement at Sydney. He had arrived with a fleet of 11 vessels, carrying nearly 800 convicts. The Aboriginal population numbers several hundred thousand.

1819 – Sir Stamford Raffles of British East India Company establishes trading post on Singapore island.

1826 – British settlements of Malacca, Penang and Singapore combine to form the Colony of Straits Settlements, from where the British extend their influence by establishing protectorates over the Malay sultanates of the peninsula.

1826 – Singapore, Malacca and Penang become British colony of the Straits Settlements.

1832 – Singapore becomes capital of Straits Settlements. The port attracts thousands of migrants from China, India and other parts of Asia.

1850s – Australia: Gold is found at several locations leading to gold rushes throughout the decade. The population increases three-fold in 10 years to pass the million mark. An influx of Chinese leads to restrictions on their entry. Aborigines are treated very badly and their numbers collapse.

1856 – Australia becomes the first country to introduce the secret ballot – or ‘Australian ballot’ – for elections.

1858 – India comes under direct rule of the British crown after failed Indian mutiny.

1867 – Straits Settlements become crown colony of British Empire.

1869 – Suez Canal opens, trade in Asia booms.

1894 – Japan goes to war with China. Japan’s better equipped forces win victory in just nine months.

1895 – China cedes Taiwan to Japan and permits Japan to trade in China.

1901 – The country is unified. The Commonwealth of Australia comes into being on 1st January.

1904 – Japan goes to war with Russia. Japanese victory in 1905.

1910 – Japan annexes Korea after three years of fighting. Japan is now one of the world’s great powers.

1911 – Canberra is founded and designated as the capital.

1914 – Japan joins World War I on the side of Britain and her allies. Japan has limited participation.

1914 – Outbreak of World War I. Australia commits hundreds of thousands of troops to the British war effort. Their participation – alongside New Zealanders – in the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey in 1915 leads to heavy casualties. The Gallipoli landings help cement a sense of identity in the young nation.

1920s – Extreme nationalism begins to take hold in Japan. The emphasis is on a preservation of traditional Japanese values, and a rejection of “Western” influence.

1922 – Singapore becomes main British naval base in East Asia.

1923 – Earthquake in Tokyo region kills more than 100,000 people.

1929 – The Great Depression following the Wall Street Crash hits Australia hard. Recovery is uneven, and the Labor government is defeated in the election in 1931.

1931 – Japan invades Manchuria, renames it and installs a puppet regime.

1937 – Japan goes to war with China. By the end of the year, Japan has captured Shanghai, Beijing and Nanjing. Japanese forces commit atrocities, including the “Rape of Nanjing”, in which up to 300,000 Chinese civilians are said to have been killed.

1939 – Australia follows Britain’s lead and declares war on Nazi Germany.

1939 – Outbreak of World War II in Europe. With the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940, Japan moves to occupy French Indo-China.

1941 – Japan launches a surprise attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Twelve ships are sunk, with a further 9 damaged; nearly 2,500 people are killed. The US and its main allies declare war on Japan the following day.

1941 – The US declares war on Japan. Australia turns to the US for help in its defence after the Japanese take Singapore. Australia allows the US to base its supreme command for the Pacific war on its territory.

1941 – World War II. Japan bombs Singapore.

1942 – Japan occupies a succession of countries, including the Philippines, Dutch East Indies, Burma and Malaya. In June, US aircraft carriers defeat the Japanese at the Battle of Midway.

1942 – Singapore falls to Japan, which renames it Syonan (Light of the South).

1942-45 – Japanese occupation of Malaya.

1945 – Japan defeated. Singapore under British military administration.

1945 – US planes drop two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima (6 August), the second on Nagasaki (9 August). Emperor Hirohito surrenders and relinquishes his divine status. Japan is placed under US military government. All Japanese military and naval forces are disbanded.

1946 – Singapore becomes separate crown colony.

1947 – A new constitution comes into force. It establishes a parliamentary system, with all adults eligible to vote. Japan renounces war and pledges not to maintain land, sea or air forces for that purpose. The emperor is granted ceremonial status.

1947 – End of British rule and partition of sub-continent into mainly Hindu India and Muslim-majority state of Pakistan.

1948 – Australia begins a scheme for immigration from Europe. Over the next 30 years, more than two million people arrive, about one-third of them from Britain.

1948 – British-ruled Malayan territories unified under Federation of Malaya.

1948 – Mahatma Gandhi assassinated by Hindu extremist.

1949 – 1 October – Mao Zedong, having led the Communists to victory against the Nationalists after more than 20 years of civil war, proclaims the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The Nationalists retreat to the island of Taiwan and set up a government there.

1956 – Japan joins United Nations.

1956 – Olympic Games held in Melbourne.

1957 – Federation of Malaya becomes independent from Britain with Tunku Abdul Rahman as prime minister.

1958 – Mao launches the “Great Leap Forward”, a five-year economic plan. Farming is collectivised and labour-intensive industry is introduced. The drive produces economic breakdown and is abandoned after two years. Disruption to agriculture is blamed for the deaths by starvation of millions of people following poor harvests.

1959 – Self-government attained with Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister.

1963 – British colonies of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore join Federation of Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia.

1963 – Singapore joins the Federation of Malaya, Sabah (North Borneo), and Sarawak in the Federation of Malaysia.

1964 – Olympic Games held in Tokyo.

1965 – Singapore pulls out of the Federation of Malaysia, at Malaysia’s invitation, amid political and ethnic tensions. The territory becomes an independent republic and joins the United Nations.

1965 – Singapore withdraws from Malaysia, which is reduced to 13 states; communist insurgency begins in Sarawak.

1966-76 – Chinese “Cultural Revolution”, Mao’s 10-year political and ideological campaign aimed at

1967 – Singapore founder member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

1969 – Malaysia: Malays stage anti-Chinese riots in the context of increasing frustration over the economic success of the ethnic Chinese.

1975 – Australia introduces new immigration laws, restricting the number of unskilled workers allowed into the country.

1976 – Mao dies. “Gang of Four”, including Mao’s widow, jockey for power but are arrested and convicted of crimes against the state. From 1977 Deng Xiaoping emerges as the dominant figure among pragmatists in the leadership. Under him, China undertakes far-reaching economic reforms.

1979 – Chinese Government imposes one-child policy in effort to curb population growth.

1982 – Japanese car firm Honda opens its first plant in the US.

1984 December – Gas leak at Union Carbide pesticides plant in Bhopal, India. Thousands are killed immediately; many more subsequently die or are left disabled.

1989 – Stockmarkets open in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

1989 – Chinese Troops open fire on demonstrators who have camped for weeks in Tiananmen Square initially to demand the posthumous rehabilitation of former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was forced to resign in 1987. The official death toll is 200. International outrage leads to sanctions.

1992 – The Citizenship Act is amended to remove swearing an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Labor government pledges to make Australia a republic and to concentrate on links with Asia.

1992 – The International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranks China’s economy as third largest in the world after the US and Japan.

1995 January – An earthquake hits central Japan, killing thousands and causing widespread damage. The city of Kobe is hardest hit.

1997 – Asian financial crisis spells end of decade of impressive economic growth.

1997 – Hong Kong reverts from British to Chinese control.

1997 – The Japanese economy enters a severe recession.

1998 – Singapore slips into recession for the first time in 13 years during Asian financial crisis.

1999 – Macao reverts from Portuguese to Chinese rule.

2000 – Australia hosts the Olympic Games in Sydney, the most popular ever.

2000 May – India marks the birth of its billionth citizen.

2001 February – Malaysian Government decides to proceed with construction of huge Bakun hydroelectric power project on island of Borneo despite serious environmental concerns.

2001 January – A pipeline feeding gas to Singapore from Indonesia’s Natuna field in the South China Sea opens.

2001 January – Australia celebrates 100 years since its inauguration as the Commonwealth of Australia.

2001 January – Massive earthquakes hit the western state of Gujarat, India, leaving at least 30,000 dead.

2001 March – Dozens arrested during Malaysia’s worst ethnic clashes in decades between Malays and ethnic Indians.

2001 November – China joins the World Trade Organisation.

2001 September – Malaysia, Singapore resolve long-standing disputes, ranging from water supplies to air space. They also agree to build a new bridge and tunnel.

2002 January – Japan, Singapore sign free trade agreement.

2002 October – Australia mourns as 88 of its citizens are killed in a night club bombing in Bali, Indonesia, which some call Australia’s September 11.

2003 April – Outbreak of pneumonia-like Sars virus

2003 June – Hong Kong is declared free of Sars. Days later the World Health Organization lifts its Sars-related travel warning for Beijing.

2003 March-April – China and Hong Kong are hit by the pneumonia-like Sars virus, thought to have originated in Guangdong province in November 2002. Strict quarantine measures are enforced to stop the disease spreading.

2003 May – Singapore becomes first Asian nation to sign free-trade deal with US.

2003 October – Launch of China’s first manned spacecraft: Astronaut Yang Liwei is sent into space by a Long March 2F rocket.

2004 December – Scores of people in Malaysia are killed in the Asian tsunami disaster. Malaysia delays planned deportations of many thousands of illegal immigrants, most of them from Indonesia.

2004 December – Thousands are killed when tidal waves, caused by a powerful undersea earthquake off the Indonesian coast, devastate coastal communities in the south and in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

2004 November – China signs a landmark trade agreement with 10 south-east Asian countries; the accord could eventually unite 25% of the world’s population in a free-trade zone.

2005 October – China conducts its second manned space flight, with two astronauts circling Earth in the Shenzhou VI capsule.

2006 August – Official news agency says 18 million people are affected by what it describes as the country’s worst drought in 50 years.

2006 July – New China-Tibet railway line, the world’s highest train route, begins operating.

2006 May – Work on the structure of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower project, is completed.

2006 November – Government says pollution has degraded China’s environment to a critical level, threatening health and social stability.

2007 October – China launches its first moon orbiter.

2007 October – The world’s largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380, flies from Singapore to Sydney on its first commercial flight run by state-controlled Singapore Airlines.

2007 September – A new Roman Catholic bishop of Beijing is consecrated – the first for over 50 years to have the tacit approval of the Pope.

2008 August – Beijing hosts Olympic Games.

2008 May – A massive earthquake hits Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands.

2008 November – Nearly 200 people are killed and hundreds injured in a series of co-ordinated attacks by gunmen on the main tourist and business area of India’s financial capital Mumbai. India blames militants from Pakistan for the attacks and demands that Islamabad take strong action against those responsible.

2008 September – Astronaut Zhai Zhigang completes China’s first spacewalk during the country’s third manned space mission, Shenzhou VII.

2008 September – early 53,000 Chinese children fall ill after drinking tainted milk, leading Premier Wen Jiabao to apologise for the scandal.

2009 July – Leaders of China and Taiwan exchange direct messages for the first time in more than 60 years.

2009 March – China’s central bank calls for new global reserve currency run by International Monetary Fund to replace the US dollar.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
George Santayana
Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1, (1863-1952)

Best Progress

In adaptability, Awards, No Readymade World, Transformation on 2010/01/22 at 7:10 am

It’s a different world when recognition goes to progress rather than achievements.

Today marks the 9th Anniversary of a modest award I started in 2001 to encourage architecture students at the National University of Singapore (NUS).  The award, funded from my consultancy work, goes to 3-5 students each year who make the “best progress” in their respective course of study, ie biggest jump in grades or marks.  The rules of the award does not rule out the best students, but interestingly they have never won this award because they have not actually progressed!

The idea for the Best Progress Award came through my son. Ten years ago, he received a Best Progress award from his school for Mandarin, a subject he never passed. That year he made a massive improvement (a doubling of marks I recall) but still below passing grade. Nevertheless, he achieved ‘better’ than those top students who were all staurated at close to perfection. The teachers and students clapped for him at assembly and he was very happy and proud of his award.

I believe that it is more important to encourage and foster a spirit of making progress than of achieving pinnicle perfection. Don’t get me wrong — high achievers and top brains are priceless and must be handled with care. But their recognition and reward come more naturally and are often already built into the value they bring. But we need to understand that life for the rest of us is not measured in GPA (or CAP in NUS).

Moreover, the rules of the game do change. Those who survive are those who are most adaptable to change [Dawwin].  That is, those who can make progress. The best are not necessarily the most adaptable. I remember a very good architecture student of mine who refused to draw in ink because he was extremely good in pencil.  Peers and examiners would pour oos and ahhs over his beautiful pencil drawings. But I was afraid that unless he breaks out to something else as well — something he would not be immediately good at — he may go the way of dinosaurs.

Look to make good progress.

Read Straits Times report on Tuesday 26 Jan 2010: Awards for most improved

Best Progress Award 2009 receipients: (l to r) Loh Zixu, Fiona Tan and Aileen Koh