Archive for the ‘Transformation’ Category

Choosing to be Painfully Generous

In Beating the Odds, Change, Education, Transformation on 2010/07/14 at 7:37 pm

Real generosity demands costly sacrifice, but has the power to change lives.  The contrary default costs little and yields correspondingly low impact and may even stifle.  It is an intentional choice to be painfully generous.

Let’s look at the easy default first.  My son’s secondary school principal told us in a matter-of-fact way that it is ok to have a “normal” kid who will not make university. She said, “after all, Singapore needs menial workers”.  We refused to believe her, pulled him out of her school, and tightened our belts to send him to a private college instead.  He graduated from university ahead of his “express” peers, and has recently received performance bonus and early promotion in a Singapore Statutory Board.  Generosity is critical to enhance unlimited human potential.  There is no excuse for principals, teachers and parents to doubt this.

I was deeply touched by the generosity of a lady who lost her husband and four others in a horrific accident on the Malaysian North-South highway recently.  She unhesitatingly forgave the driver of the lorry that had crashed into their MPV.  I reflected long and hard on what I would have done in a similar tragedy.  The default would be to seek “justice”.  It seems obvious, logical, and expected; not unlike the need for menial workers.  But she chose instead to break the cycle of blame and escalating the tragedy.  She was painfully generous.

Most of us default to the rational and logical most of the time.  We even refer, consciously or otherwise, to precedence and “best practices” at work or in life choices.  To be sure, progress and transformations in life can only come if we are strong and courageous enough to be painfully generous to help open the pathways of change.


Leonardo’s Rap

In Creativity, Emergence, Process, Transformation on 2010/05/16 at 11:23 am
Leonardo da Vinci: Neptune

Leonardo da Vinci: Neptune (c. 1504)

Leonardo da Vinci had a thing or two to say to his contemporaries about their confusion between creative designing and drawing skills [Da Vinci 1956, fols. 61v-62r]:

“You who compose subject pictures, do not articulate the individual parts of those pictures with determinate outlines, or else there will happen to you what usually happens to many and different painters who want every, even the slightest trace of charcoal to remain valid; this sort of person may well earn a fortune but no praise with his art, for it frequently happens that the creature represented fails to move its limbs in accordance with the movements of the mind… So, painters, rough out the arrangement of the limbs of your fingers and first attend to the movements appropriate to the mental state of the creatures that make up your picture rather than to the beauty and perfection of their parts.”

Leonardo had used a simple but effective technique for working out compositions which deviated radically from the prevalent method then of the “unfailing line which needed no correction and no second thoughts”. The novelty of his method involves working literally on top of schematic sketches, using them as frame of reference to develop more detailed versions and variations (see figure).

Leonardo’s method can be considered the forerunner of the use of the tracing paper, now common among artists and designers to explore design alternatives by sketching on superimposed layers of translucent media. The tracing paper is both transparent enough for the preceding sketches to show through as guidelines or framework, but at the same time opaque enough to uphold the overlaid sketch.

This is perceptual emergence in practice (see also my blog on Emergent Subshapes). If indeed emergent thinking is the key to creativity, the tracing paper is the prime creative designing tool; not the drawing board, modeling (in all media), CAD (and all current computer graphics ‘special effects’), nor even the sketchbook per se.

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!

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

Another example of visual thinking

In Beauty, Creativity, Education, Process, Simplicity, Transformation on 2010/04/18 at 6:46 pm

Visual thinking can often simplify a problem to be solved. Take the case of the simple area calculation, below, by shape rearrangement and inversion. Jumping in with brute force math is for the ‘left-brainers’!

[Click here for alternative link to YouTube animation]

There are many exciting possibilities of being able to think visually. They are divergent, exploratory and do not attempt to be ‘correct’; pace Gestalt Psychology. Watch this space.

Visual Thinking in Practice

In Beauty, Creativity, Simplicity, Transformation on 2010/04/03 at 11:37 pm

Many know about visual thinking or “visual literacy” but consider it unreliable and ‘fuzzy’. It’s not.

Take Pyhtagoras Theorem (arguably the most useful) – given a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle), c, is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, b and a—that is, a²b²c².  Using it in everyday is one thing but try to prove it.

You actually need to know a few more theorems if you try the Eucliden way, and a lot of math if you go algebra.

So, how about this for a proof by visual arrangement and emergence:

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:

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