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Forget herding cats—try catnip

cat cafe_herding_pastels

Creative people naturally resist being herded, or following the herd. So why try harder to do something that is unnatural? Why get stuck “herding cats”?

The fundamental management question today should be, “Am I working with nature, or against nature?” Attracting works better than imposing. Why not use catnip as the natural approach to moving those “cats” where you want them to go?

What is catnip for humans? One way to get things done is to work toward a shared purpose and values. Values and purpose are attractive. Forget the herding.

Ethical design thinking

For example, most “design thinking” process models (aimed at developing products and services using empathy to uncover latent needs) define a creative problem-solving activity. This sounds very 21st century, but where in the process do we account for ethical values? How do we even know if we have defined the right problem? And is problem-solving really a motivating activity?

Are we missing something here?

Most design thinking diagrams could easily herd us toward producing the next electric knife, margarita-maker machine or mediocre building. In other words, are we pursuing market growth for growth’s sake while designing future landfill?values based design thinking

What if we attracted people to our shared purpose and values as the foundation for design thinking? What if we were guided toward doing the right thing with all-natural catnip (ethics) rather than being herded toward imposed business goals?

-Sharon VanderKaay

Thinking about design thinking

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Can anyone expect to understand “design thinking” in a 2-day course? Well, yes, if you are talking about an event, rather than a habitual way of seeing the world and its possibilities. And what about the global consequences of design thinking events? Not all stuff we didn’t know we need is good for the planet. Where’s the concern for values in the value proposition that typically comes out of design thinking events?

Design seeing, thinking and doing

Designers draw on a whole lifetime of observation, imagination, exploration, navigation and concern for regeneration. This way of seeing allows them to leap forward with a “what if?” approach to self-limiting “if only__” beliefs.    stuck“If only___” says we’re stuck. We can’t move until, or unless, something that is out of our control happens. This can be an excuse for inaction. But sometimes people are overwhelmed by complexity. Design seeing allows fresh answers to emerge.seeing possibilities 3Narrow-seeing industrial era thinking worked when the consequences of decisions were hidden. Pollution, bad management-labor relations, smoking, building ugly junk—the fallout from such practices is self-evident today. Design seeing exposes consequences as well as possibilities.

-Sharon VanderKaay

Let’s retire the gear metaphor

gears v humanIt’s easy to see why so many slide presentations feature images of interlocking gears to evoke maximum team efficiency. Gears convey a seductive sense of control; they appear reassuringly neat and predictable. These mechanical parts are perfect for representing machine age detachment; the opposite of “design thinking.”

But gear metaphors also communicate an anti-innovation world view. Knowledge (in contrast to information) gains value when humans develop what they know through reflection and interaction. The reality of this process is far from neat, predictable and mechanical.

Developing the wealth of knowledge that leads to innovation requires relationships built on trust. Gears do not evoke trust or thoughtful reflection. So let’s not misrepresent living, human activities such as collaboration with graphics that glorify interchangeable metal parts.

These slides expand on my contrast between mechanical and natural systems:

 

 

 

“Thinking partner” model

black box_smRoss Dawson coined the term “black-box consulting” to describe low value consultant-client transactions in his book, Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships.

When I first read Dawson’s contrast between isolation and co-creation consulting models over a decade ago, his views struck me as the way of the future for anyone who is in the business of offering advice—including doctors, designers, real estate agents and tech consultants.

Now I am even more convinced of how important it is for clients and consultants to wrestle with questions and options together.

Black-box consulting happens when neither client nor consultant emerges from the assignment any wiser. Essentially, the client receives an outcome without meaningful participation in the process. Dawson says that this opaque model turns the service into a commodity because there is no shared knowledge-creating experience which leads to better decisions. Moreover, the black-box yields no learning, no ah-ha moments, no growth and no transformation.

Which also means that black-box engagements prevent any chance to think through fresh possibilities together. Black-box relationships are about minimal interaction, avoidance of risk and low personal commitment–the opposite of what’s required for innovation.

So clients and consultants do themselves a disservice when they rely on third-party selection processes and impersonal working relationships, which limit their ability to create value together.

We need thinking partners to wrestle through complex challenges. Dawson’s book presents a framework for clearly seeing why transactional advice-dispensing models lead to competition driven by price rather than value, as well as doing things the same old way.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Well connected

Goldring_AC_expectations contrast

These two university athletic facilities demonstrate vastly difference attitudes toward connecting with the street and campus. The University of Toronto Athletic Centre (left) is an unwelcoming fortress with no indication that healthy activities might take place within. By contrast, the recently opened Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, designed by Patkau Architects and MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects (right), is visually connected with the street and conveys a message of energy, health and accessibility.

Buildings that don’t connect with the street come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to have the same dismal effect.

disconnected buildings copy

Design insight from the Panda Cam

Much of my work is focused on motivating people to ask themselves: how does this place make me feel and why?

The purpose of my question is to raise awareness for the impact of physical space on our state of mind. Most people tolerate places that are bad for their psyche without considering how it affects their mood, their physical health, and ultimately their neurological health. Conversely, they rarely consider the design elements that make them feel better.

_bad street_nobodys happy place

Judith Heerwagen has studied the evolution of zoo design over recent decades in relation to environmental design for humans. Tight cages in zoos have generally been replaced (though sadly, not for the dolphins) by more spacious natural habitats. As in nature, better habitat designs offer more options for playing, resting and retreating from public view. She explains the incentive for this change, “A key factor was concern over the animals’ psychological and social well-being. Zoos could keep animals alive, but they couldn’t make them flourish.”

Neurotic behavior due to unnatural design is more obvious in zoos than in human habitats. Animals pace back and forth, pick fights and exhibit obsessive behaviors when they must cope with deprivation design. Diagnosis of human depravation design is more complicated.

My recent quest has been to find simple “test” questions that anyone can use to analyze any human habitat. A flash of insight came to me while watching the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo Panda Cam, which generously gives the public a window into the world of giant panda mother Mei Xiang and her cub, Bei Bei.

The National Zoo’s giant panda habitat appears to be well designed in every way. But one morning when Bei Bei was suddenly placed in a big sterile box, the contrast with his naturalistic rock bowl (aka his “happy place”) sparked my reaction, “this big box is not his happy place.”

AHA! Now there’s a test question that cuts through all the fancy design terminology about qualities of streets, buildings, public spaces, and other locations where humans spend time. Which of these locations can be described as someone’s happy place?

Every place cannot be a happy place. Some places need to provoke or protect us. A universal, constant state of happiness with no contrasting emotions would be boring. But we all need to ask whether we are spending enough time in “our happy place” from a design perspective.

At nearly five months old, Bei Bei makes his public debut this month. You can see him in person and observe his design preferences…because Bei Bei votes with his feet (see photos below).

My video, “Diagnose Your Habitat” suggests five vital signs that contribute to healthy cities and workplaces, in case you want to see lots of examples of happy and unhappy places.

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photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

-Sharon VanderKaay

A walk with the white squirrel

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Elusive. Celebrated. Mythical?

The many rewards of pedestrian life include unexpected encounters – such as with the legendary white squirrel of Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park. Not only does the white squirrel have a street and coffee shops named after it, but the critter has taken on symbolic qualities. Some folks believe they bring good luck.

In any case, the white squirrel attracts celebrity-seeking paparazzi and adoring fans whose stories add to local history.

A much publicized accidental electrocution in 2014 further elevated this mammal’s mystique when questions arose as to whether we’d ever see a white squirrel again. But last week one came out to pose for my photo essay on animals that animate our streets. Then, like the White Rabbit and Garbo, it vanished out of sight.

Here’s a one-minute video about my white squirrel-themed walk:

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And here are some images from my upcoming series about animated streets:

animals on the street

The pedestrian experience: Is your street antiseptic or animated?

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-Sharon VanderKaay

Improving our visual diet

walkable assault on your psyche

How does this street make you feel? What effect does it have on your mental health?

There is more to walkability than providing safe, accessible walkways and removing obstacles. Walkability is also about visual qualities that feed our psyche by enriching our experience of every street. The slides below show thirty wide-ranging examples I’ve encountered during my recent travels.

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-Sharon VanderKaay

Expecting more than “pedestrian” design

Yorkville_Rock_1 composite copy

The lowly status of North American pedestrians has roots in the 18th century. Dismal walking conditions are enshrined in the dictionary definition of pedestrian: “dull, lacking in vitality and imagination.” Historically, pedestrians were too poor to ride a horse (equestrians). Then, during the 20th century, pedestrians were defined as people who had recently parked their cars.

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Streets need to be both walk-able and walk-worthy

For more than six decades, the design of our built environment rarely considered the mental health of pedestrians. Buildings were designed to be driven past at the highest speed possible, to be seen from a mile away and/or to be situated close to giant parking lots.

 

As the mental and physical health benefits of walking become more obvious, the desire will grow for places that are not just walk-able and safe but also walk-worthy. The question of how pedestrians feel is beginning to matter.

In essence, streets must become more than “pedestrian” to better serve pedestrians.

To accelerate the demand for walk-worthy streets and places, we must all become better critics. There can be no change without awareness, and no awareness unless we understand what we are looking at. How healthy is this place? How do I feel when I walk here?

Clearly we need a better visual diet. Only recently has public demand for healthier food changed what people expect from suppliers and restaurants. Higher food quality standards are shaking up the marketplace. Pedestrians have a comparable unmet need to feed their heads with something other than asphalt.

Higher standards for what can be achieved at the same cost can be more widely understood through the following approaches:

  1. DEMONSTRATE examples that embody higher aspirations
  2. ANALYZE elements that add up to uplifting, safe, built-to-last design
  3. COMPARE demand for quality design to concerns for healthier food and green standards
  4. EXPERIENCE places and the feelings they evoke through facilitated walks and tours
  5. ENGAGE clients and the public in a dialogue regarding these issues
  6. QUESTION marketing hype by asking, how does this place really make you feel?
  7. CONTRAST elements of health-causing and dis-ease causing design
  8. STATE a higher purpose and legacy for design than to simply contain programs and/or replace infrastructure

pedestrian__composite

DEMONSTRATE examples that embody higher aspirations

Janes Walk twitter promo 1A composite

ANALYZE elements of uplifting, safe, built-to-last design

Janes Walk_3May15 (28) composite

EXPERIENCE the feelings that various places evoke. Diagnose your habitat.

Every citizen can learn to be a better critic. In this video, I suggest a simple way to begin sharpening our awareness:

-Sharon VanderKaay

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