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.