I just finished teaching a course on "digital innovation and design" at ISB. Like previous years, students worked on "re-imagining Hyderabad Public Transportation Experiences". What surprised me this time was how homogeneous their ideas were. They all went for a combination of smart card, a GPS-installed vehicles, cloud-based analytics, optimization of route balancing, and personalized route planning. With some twists here and there, the solutions that they suggested were remarkably similar to each other. As the focus of the course was innovation, I took this as a warning sign.
In the past, students avoided such a solution, because installing GPS for every bus was prohibitably expensive. Therefore, they had to find something less obvious. They had to work hard to look for ways to change rider's experiences without resorting to expensive technology infrastructure. Their ideas were authentic, ingenious, and fun.
Now, merely 16 months later, the cost of technology has come down enough to make such an idea more plausible. Technology resources now have become abundant. A solution with a smart card combined with cloud-based optimization together with a distributed GPS network on vehicles seems like an inevitable thing to happen in India. As a result, everyone went after "that" obvious solution. They did not have to work hard to find a solution for the problem.
The abundance of resources can inhibit creativity and innovation. While practical solutions can be easily discovered and implemented, unexpected and less-obvioius solutions become more elusive when design constraints are relaxed. This does not mean that technology advancements are bad. But with technology makes "innovations" accessible to everyone, real innovations become even more elusive, demanding us working even harder to find them. This seems apparent when we look at hundreds of thousands of apps that are essentially trying to do the same thing. How many different variants of Candy Crush, Flappy Bird or WhatsApp do we need? Probably not as many as we already have. One of my current studies on digital innovations suggests that what seems to be highly generative space of digital innovations can be in fact nothing but an illusion. Most of them are simple and minor mutations of other ideas. There were only handful real innovations that we could identify.
When we face such a problem of abundance, it might be necessary to create artificial constraints during the design process. Perhaps, I should have told the students that the integration of GPS, cloud-based analytics and smart card should be taken as a given starting point of their inquiry. Perhaps, I should have given them full access to all the reports from last two years, asking them to take those as the starting point. That might have created more stringent constraints so that they could not settle with obvious and seemingly inevitable solutions. Constraints are the best friends of designers.
I am currently in India teaching design at Indian School of Business. One of the reasons that I keep coming back here is the students. They are smart, driven, often technological sophisticated and passionate about their work. Each day, I have several students visiting my office pitching their ideas, seeking advice. Today, I met one student who wants to change the way public education is done in India. He was a former fellow for Teach for India, a kind of an Indian version of "Teach for America". He knew exactly what were broken in the system and had a great idea to work with. Another student I met today wanted to build a map of civic complaints for the entire India. Given how the government here operates, he did not believe that Indian government would do a system like 3-1-1, which is quite successful in many American cities. Instead, he would like to have a mobile app that would allow people to post problems in public infrastructure or government services. He wants to do it, not to report those to the government, but to collect and build a map to visualize those complaints. The map will show the intensity and diversity of the problems in public service in different parts of India. Brilliant! He believes that this might trigger a change in Indian government, out of shame.
I love this! I love this type of interactions with sharp, driven, and creative students who want to do something meaningful with their lives. I am glad to be help them and inspire them in any way I can. It is a blessing!
I started reading "The Artisan Soul" by Erwin McManus. It is a great book and I would recommend to anyone who is interested in creativity and design, whether you are a Christian or not. McManus sees us as "inherently creative beings" who live with "the fear that if we aspire to be more we will discover ourselves to be less." For him, to live is to create; and to create is to embrace risk. He notes, "[t]he past will be our future until we have the courage to create a new one." This is exactly the point of path creation and institutional entrepreneurship. And, for him, everyone should strive to be creative and the most important creative outcome should be our own lives. The quality that we strive for is not "great" but "good". He notes, "[g]reat is about execution and achievement; good is about essence and ethos." We all should aspire to do great work, he argues, without neglecting the importance of being inspired by all that is good and beautiful. In that sense, the Artisan Soul is a "good" book.
Design has emerged as an important function for business. The success of Apple, Nike, P&G and Samsung all points to the preeminent importance of design. They also point to a particular type of design approach, which is often referred to as design thinking. Design consulting firms like IDEO, Frog and Design Continuum are playing increasingly important roles in the business world. Traditional management consulting firms like McKinsey and Accenture are coming out with their own version of design approaches. Many business schools including Fox Business School, Weatherhead School, and Rottman School are making concerted and deliberate efforts to bring design into MBA curriculum. AACSB is offering design thinking curriculum workshops, which I have been a part of.
What I feel missing in all of this is the discussion at the management and organizational level about design as organizational capabilities. Much of the discussions I see are taking place at the individual level - skills, methods, tools, and processes. We are not seeing much discussion around how to organize design organizations and its relationship with other functions in organizations. How can we embedded design activities together with other organizational activities? What type of design tools should we use together with other tools? What is the idea relationship between design, marketing, engineering and operation? How do we make business cases for design investments? What are the proper relationship between CEO and design group? Should we have Chief Design Officer, if so, where does he/she belong? What is the proper form of governance structure of design functions when there are multiple design capabilities throughout an organizations. Perhaps, exploring these questions will help us bring design closer to management.
The rapid and pervasive development of digital technologies have brought unprecedented opportunities for innovations in our society. Tools like smart phones and social media are fundamentally changing the way we work and live. In many cases, these innovations have improved the quality of lives. Furthermore, these innovations have unleashed a new wave of entrepreneurial activities that define American spirit. However, unfortunately, the consequences of digital innovations are not being felt equally by every member of our society. While the digital technology helps companies produce record-breaking profits, many urban communities are left jobless as traditional jobs are being increasingly automated and outsourced through the use of technology. Furthermore, even though the "digital divide" for basic access to digital infrastructure might be shrinking, there is a widening gap between those who create and those who consume new digital innovations. Reducing the growing economic gap and the widening "digital creative divide" is a moral, economic and social imperative for our society.
Temple Unversity's Urban Apps & Maps program is our response to this grand challenge of our society. It aims at eliminating the digital creative divide by providing real-life learning opportunities to urban youth in North Philadelphia. They learn to identify innovation opportunities in urban America, and then transform them into viable solutions through design, technology and entrepreneurship. This booklet provides a sneak view of what our students were able to do in six weeks, when they were given tools, training, trust and opportunities to think on their own. They ideas are creative, real and practical. We are all inspired by the ingenuity, wit and grit of our students.
The overwhelming success of our summer program is another reaffirmation of the approach that Temple University has taken over the last decade to work with urban youth and neighboring community. This is an approach based on a shared belief and commitment: that our urban community is an incredible source of innovations; that our urban youth are ready to learn new skills for the 21st century; and, that when we invest on our youth, they are ready to build new tools that solves real-world problems.
At the turn of last century, Dr. Russell Conwell once said, “We must know what the world needs first, and then invest ourselves to supply that need, and success is almost certain.” With Urban Apps & Maps program, we are preparing our youth to become the next generation urban leaders who can supply the tools that world needs. With this anticipation, we are looking forward to continuing to work with our students in coming years.
(This is to be included in the report from Apps & Maps 2013 Summer Progrm).