Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Innovation by Design in Scandinavia

Over spring break I visited two of the world's most design-centered cities - Copenhagen and Stockholm - with a group of 25 classmates. Aside from the usual spring break fun and shenanigans, we visited a handful of uniquely innovative companies, including large diabetes and healthcare company Novo Nordisk, the wave-making music start-up Spotify, the"IDEO of Europe", DesignIt, and the constantly-changing telecommunications company Ericcsson. We learned about innovations in sustainability, in healthcare service delivery, in social music, and so much more. I was impressed with these companies, and wondered why the region is particularly dense with successful innovations. After some thought, I boiled it down to three things:

1) Community: Denmark and Sweden are intensely community-driven places; they think of themselves as cohesive tribes. This communal attitude is evident in their social-centered governments, in their approach to public transportation, and in their approach to business innovation. When your perspective is first and foremost aligned to community, you can not only excel at collaborative work process (the birthplace of innovation, contrary to the single man innovator myth), but you can also better envision products and services that scale.

2) Environment: Over and over again, we heard about environment and sustainability - in Copenhagen many spoke of "blue and green" - the well-known (and well-marketed) goal of preserving both the oceans and landscape of their country. Scandinavians are particularly atuned to their physical surroundings, and how their actions and output affect it. This awareness of environment and context is a very important part of creation.

3) Anti-Authority: One nuance that I wasn't expecting is that in many ways, despite their heavily socialist government, Scandinavians are very anti-authority; the way they see it, if there is something that as a community they want to change about their society, they should rise together and do it. This is possible and works, particularly in Denmark, because the nation is very small and so change can be agreed upon and implemented relatively quickly. However the sentiment permeates not just politics but culture and worklife in general, and Scandinavians are definitely not afraid to challenge ideas and the critique the status quo. This is of course an essential part of creative destruction and innovation.

Overall, a very enlightening trip that left me and my classmates with much to ponder...

The group meeting with CEO and Founder of DesignIt (image courtesy of DesignIt)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Winter is Coming

Fall has made its departure from New York, and winter is moving in (Winter is coming...I'm absorbed in the world of Game of Thrones right now). Fall in New York is heaven - if only it wasn't so short. Below and above are photos of the fall leaves in Central Park, and the sketches they inspired. This will be my last winter season in New York (for now...) - I can't say I'll miss it, but there is something wondrous about snow falling on quiet streets.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Can we all be Curators?

Pinterest is a popular new online destination that allows users to snag images from any website they visit and post them to their own personal inspiration boards. A user might have one board with home furnishings, one for fashion, one for pictures of cute puppies, and so on.

Confession: I find Pinterest annoyingly addictive. As I fill my boards with images, I get an odd sense of pride. It’s almost as if I took the images with my own camera or painted with my own brush, instead of snagging them from across the web. When someone “likes” or “repins” my pin, I feel strangely satisfied, as if my sense of style has been corroborated.

Why am I – are we - doing this? I see the value of Pinterest for designers or artists (or even party planners) looking for a way to keep sources organized, but many users seem to be enjoying the service with no direct purpose in mind. Perhaps it all ties back to our developing human need to form our digital identities. We are spending so much of our lives in this new public space, we feel compelled to be constantly defining and redefining and articulating our point of view as it evolves. We do this in the non-digital world all the time, whenever we change our hair or our clothes, our friends, or the way we speak. It makes sense we would carry this over to our digital life. However just because we can create and curate a digital life to share with our online ‘audience’, does it mean we should? It is clear that social sharing is great for a lot of things – discovery, education, entertainment. Facebook thinks we need a social Timeline. But I’m still not convinced it is good for our true sense of self and creative development; the very fact that this type of digital curation is a public act robs it of the authenticity we get from private works of physical creative curation – in journals, or scrapbooks, on canvases, in writing. But perhaps this is all changing...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Art in Motion

This past week Frog Design posted a great collection of motion art videos demonstrating the unique beauty that can be derived from seeing graphics in motion. One piece in particular, a collection of motion graphics work done by the Umeric studio, is in my opinion as visually stimulating and artistic as any painting hanging in a museum:

There are a couple of things I find interesting about this kind of art. One is the fact that it uses motion not just as an additive element, but as the primary vehicle for its aesthetic message; the gliding and pulsing movements of the jelly-fish in the first sequence are the primary elements of the piece . It glows and changes colors and sparkles, adding an extra-terrestrial feel. Then suddenly, it releases a spasm of shiny egg-like balls that float and roll and disperse in gravity-defying direction. These movements connect well with the theme of the MTV brand it portrays – the MTV viewer as a cool, colorful, fish-out-of-water type. Motion (OK and sound a little bit too) communicates this message.

Using motion as a vehicle for artistic message is not new – kinetic art has been around since the 1910s. A few weeks ago I was in Basel, Switzerland (a fun phrase to casually throw in a blog post) and I saw a Jean Tinguely exhibit that featured some of his best kinetic art, including massive pieces like this one:

Jean Tinguely (B. 1925 in Fribourg, Switzerland) was a kinetic artist whose work was said to be a statement against the mass production of material goods. He uses basic industrial mechanics to deconstruct machines so they become creaking skeletons of their former selves – a carousel horse with no carousel, a car with no exterior, a series of jobless wheels and pulleys. The plodding rhythmic motion of the machine is a metaphor for the slow dismal march towards industrialization and standardization. Again, we see here that motion is the primary way the artist communicates his theme and message.

The work of Umeric Studios in some ways is a build on the work of Tinguely – both use motion and deconstructions of machines and objects to portray a message. Tinguely uses mechanical engineering technology; Umeric uses digital graphics technology. Tinguely was making a statement against commercialism; Umeric is a capitalist enterprise, using motion art techniques for branding purposes. Both have created beautiful imagery through motion, and I think demonstrate how some artistic trends can transcend both the high art world and the commercial art world.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Strategic Intuition

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This past week an ex-Amazon/current Google engineer, Steve Yegge, accidentally posted an internal memo he had written to his external blog. It has blown the socks off everyone in the tech industry, myself included (I am the mirror image of Yegge, an ex-Googler about to embark on a career at Amazon.)

In the blog post, Yegge extols how Google, a company that does an immense number of things incredibly well, has thus far really missed the boat on building a platform. Given that platforms are probably the holy grail in the technology world right now (Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are all fighting for dominance), this is a pretty big deal. Yegge writes insightfully about the engineering and culture challenges that have held Google back. But more interesting perhaps is how he describes a spark of strategic insight that Amazon’s fearless leader, Jeff Bezos, had that has helped the company pull ahead. Here is how he describes it:

Bezos realized long before the vast majority of Amazonians that Amazon needs to be a platform. You wouldn't really think that an online bookstore needs to be an extensible, programmable platform. Would you? Well, the first big thing Bezos realized is that the infrastructure they'd built for selling and shipping books and sundry could be transformed into an excellent repurposable computing platform. So now they have the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, and the Amazon Elastic MapReduce, and the Amazon Relational Database Service, and a whole passel' o' other services…I'm not really sure how Bezos came to this realization -- the insight that he can't build one product and have it be right for everyone. But it doesn't matter, because he gets it…”

Yegge writes that he doesn’t’ know how Bezos came to this insight – but if we use some of the tools that innovation theorists use to understand creative thinking, it begins to become clear. In his description, Yegge points out several things that Bezos did: He learned from his company’s history, made a connection between seemingly disparate businesses (online book sales and cloud computing) and was willing to completely change his strategic vision and viewpoint that he could build one product for everyone. Bingo! There’s a reason why he is being hailed as the next Steve Jobs.

Yegge also goes on to tell incredibly interesting and personal anecdotes about the daunting task of presenting ideas to Bezos, a man he describes as a “ hyper-intelligent alien with a tangential interest in human affairs.” While at Amazon this summer, I saw people literally shaking in their Tevas preparing to present to Bezos. His inscrutable strategic intuition, his laser-focused, take no prisoners, iterate until perfection leadership style permeates all of Amazon culture. And when I saw that, I knew I wanted to work there. It might not always be fun, but it is a hell of an education.

Yegge blogpost links:



image courtesy of cnn.com http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/27/tech/innovation/jeff-bezos-next-steve-jobs/index.html

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I’m back! This blog has been on a hiatus ever since I started business school. For the past year, life has been on hyper-speed: adjusting to life in New York City, figuring out how to survive accounting and corporate finance, recruiting for a summer internship, and meeting a few hundred new friends and classmates. Although this dear blog has suffered, the silver lining is that after a year of new experiences and new education, I’ve many new perspectives and thoughts to share here.

In this post I want to focus on a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – Serendipity.

Most creatives and designers know about serendipity – it is that moment in the creative process when you take a left turn instead of a right, randomly or due to circumstance, and along this new path discover something you wouldn’t have otherwise. Serendipity has been repeatedly cited as a key to innovation and creativity by a number of intellectuals and business leaders. Here are a few notable ones:

“If we’re going to encourage more innovation, it’s not enough for us to just dig in and work harder. We also need to encourage surprise and serendipity. We need to play each other’s instruments.” ~ Steven Johnson, Innovation Writer

“In order to have creativity, you have to allow for dead ends to happen” ~ Christoph Niemann, Illustrator

“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” ~ Steve Jobs

“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” ~ Susan Sontag, Author & Philosopher

Clearly, serendipity and a willingness to get a little lost are well recognized foundations for creativity and innovation. With today’s increasing complex and squeezed global economy, creativity and innovation skills are not ‘nice to haves’ – they are necessities. Just ask some our leading economists - the task-driven, standardized jobs of the past are gone from America, sent either to cheaper labor sources abroad, or to machines and robots. The economy is changing, and we need to change with it.

These trends are leading more and more people towards careers that focus on creativity, innovation, and complex or technical problem-solving. And as more and more workforce supply rushes to these areas, the desire to standardize it is strong. For example, one of the most popular movements right now in entrepreneurship is the “Lean Start-up” – a philosophy coined by entrepreneur Eric Ries that centers on applying lean manufacturing principles (rapid scientific experimentation, validated learning, etc.) to the creativity and innovation-driven entrepreneurship process. My own business school has a course entitled “Systematic Creativity” that teaches a similar doctrine.

All of this is in many ways fantastic – if innovation and creative process can be taught and therefore learned, capital can flow to high-value ventures more often and more efficiently, the world gets more marketable innovations, and therefore more prosperity.

But what are some of the consequences of the standardization of innovation? Where does this leave serendipity?

One of the great political economists, Joseph Schumpeter, foresaw this tension and articulated it well in his prose 'Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy':

“It is much easier now than it has been in the past to do things that lie outside familiar routine – innovation itself is being reduced to routine. Technological progress is increasingly becoming the business of teams of trained specialists who turn out what is required and make it work in predictable ways. The romance of earlier commercial adventure is rapidly wearing away, because so many more things can be strictly calculated that had of old to be visualized as a flash of genius”.

The truthfulness of this quote and its direct application to today’s reality struck me the first time I read it. Technological progress has indeed made it possible for teams of specialists to converge across disciplines and borders to innovate (for example, the IDEOs and Googles of the world). Technology, huge pools of customer data, and scholarly analysis have shown us how to create an environment and organizational structure conducive to the success of these teams of specialists. Thus, we reduce to routine what they do, eliminating the “magic” from entrepreneurship and innovation, and re-envisioning it as simply another enterprise functional area.

Thinking about the issue through this lens, I get worried. I worry that this approach underestimates the important role of serendipity and random connection. I worry that educational institutions and corporations, anxious to replicate this successful model of innovation, will focus on churning out specialists from an early age, and will rob students and workers of the ability to wander, to explore, to change course, to indulge in diversions outside of their specialty. And what a shame that would be, to lose our next generation of Johnsons, Niemanns, Jobs and Sontags because we were so focused on the standardization of innovation and on “the race to win the future”, as Obama has put it.

Perhaps the best way to really digest this idea is to turn inward. Our lives are riddled with serendipitous events – how often have you said to a friend, “had that unexpected event X not happened, I wouldn’t have had the fortuitous opportunity for Y!”. For me, a big pivot point happened senior year of college. As a political science major (which I chose rather randomly because of one particularly great high school history teacher), I felt sure I wanted to be a lawyer. But as chance would have it (or perhaps my tendency to focus less on studying and more on my friends and boyfriend at the time), I didn’t do so hot on the LSAT. So I didn’t apply to law school that year. But still bent on a career in policy, I applied to a prestigious government fellowship in Sacramento – I was the first runner-up, but didn’t get the position. Confused and aimless, I moved to San Francisco and applied for any job I could find. Randomly (serendipitously), a Google recruiter found my resume on Monster.com, and called me for an interview. And I can say with relative certainty that I would not be where I am today, here in New York City, at business school, thinking about innovation, and pursuing what I feel in my gut is my destined path, had it not been for that turn of events.

The power and possibility of serendipity is strong, and we’ve got to find a place for it in our schools, in our workplaces, and in our lives.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011